In a special two-part interview ahead of the FA Cup final, we catch up with our former defender Frank Sinclair who played for both Chelsea and Leicester City in Wembley showpiece occasions and has quite a tale to tell…
While Chelsea have become so used to playing cup finals at Wembley in recent times that it almost feels like a second home (with no club able to match the amount of occasions we have featured in neutral venue games at the new stadium), this Saturday our opponents Leicester City will be appearing in the final of a major cup competition there for the first time since 2000.
They beat Tranmere that day to lift the League Cup and in their ranks 21 years ago was a defender named Frank Sinclair, the same Frank Sinclair who previously helped Chelsea end a wait of over 20 years to play in a major Wembley cup final, and then three years further on win a trophy at the famous venue.
Sinclair made his Chelsea debut aged 19 and went on to have a very lengthy career and list of clubs and was still playing into his 40s, but it was with the Blues and the Foxes he played the most often so ahead of a major FA Cup meeting between the two clubs this weekend, we caught up with our popular former defender to look back at his significant story in cup finals and to look ahead to Saturday’s showpiece occasion.
There are echoes now of Sinclair’s generation at Chelsea three decades ago, in that he was part of a host of young homegrown players of similar age who made it into the first team in a short period of time, but for that group back then, success in cup competitions was initially elusive. The Blues side of that era were more known for being the victims of giant-killings than reaching semi-finals and finals.
However in 1992 we did embark on a rare run in the FA Cup and were the favourites to go through to the last-four after being paired with Division Two Sunderland. The game went to a replay after a draw at the Bridge and 20-year-old Sinclair was called into the side for that game on windy Wearside, only to experience being knocked out by an 88th-minute winner two minutes after Chelsea had equalised.
‘That is my furthest back memory of playing in the FA Cup,’ Sinclair says all these years later. ‘I was a very young player who wasn't in the team at that moment but got thrown in the deep end because Chelsea weren't playing so well at the time. We were unfortunate on the night but Sunderland were terrific to be honest and deserved to win that game.
‘Did we take them lightly? Maybe we were a little bit over-confident and thought all we had to do was turn up and win but looking back, certainly that was a major disappointment and then we had the final of ‘94 which was for me a massive learning curve.’
By 1994, Sinclair was well-established. He was quick, athletic, determined to make the most of his ability and was versatile as he could play anywhere in defence, and he played with personality. The year before, despite still being young, he was voted Chelsea’s Player of the Year.
Two years after that Sunderland game, the Blues were playing better football under Glenn Hoddle and optimism was rising as we deservedly made the FA Cup final for the first time in 24 years, where we faced the best team in the land at the time - Manchester United. Nowadays, that final is most remembered by Chelsea fans as the rainy one, when despite a good first half in which we hit the bar and went in at the interval 0-0, we lost harshly by four goals to nil. It is almost remembered for the first two goals coming from the penalty spot, the second when Sinclair was penalised.
He picks up the theme of the steep learning curve.
‘It made me realise that just getting to a Cup final is not when the celebration should be held. Going forward, Chelsea Football Club and the players and staff involved remembered that day, that it isn't enough just to get to a Cup final. To be fair, with the squad we had we were probably punching above our weight, and we had beaten that Man United side home and away in the league so went into that game with a lot of confidence.
‘Gavin Peacock was inches away from scoring when his shot hit the crossbar. We could have gone in at half-time and regrouped and the outcome could well have been different, but it wasn't to be that day and it was painful. I was fortunate enough never lose at Wembley again in a cup final. I think that was off the back of how painful that day was.’
The referee on the day, David Elleray, now the technical director of the International Football Association Board which is in charge of the laws of the game, correctly awarded Man United a penalty for a foul by Eddie Newton for the first goal, but then pacy Sinclair went shoulder-to-shoulder in a chase with Man United’s flying winger Andrei Kanchelskis. The outcome was a second penalty for our opponents.
‘It's something that will live with me forever because I knew it was a mistake at the time and didn’t even think it was a foul,’ Sinclair laments.
‘It was a fair block on his run, I got in front of him and just stopped him from getting ahead of me again. It's a thing that you see in football all the time and how he [Elleray] came up with that decision was incredible to me, and then for him to actually give a penalty as well, it was just mind-blowing because for me it was outside the box where the initial contact was anyway.
‘It was backs up against the wall after that and it took me a while to get over it to be honest because instantly I made another mistake that cost another goal, when my head was probably all over the place. It took me three years to get over it and that was by winning the FA Cup in ‘97.’
Elleray did later admit the decision that cost Sinclair and Chelsea was the worst mistake of his refereeing career.
‘It doesn't help to be honest!’ laughs the victim, ‘but it is what it is, and now we've got VAR and referees are still making mistakes so you've got to appreciate just how difficult a referee’s job is.’
There is one other thing that still irks Sinclair about the whole 1994 Wembley experience – the suits Chelsea wore on Cup final day!
‘When we saw the suits we thought lilac! What has lilac got to do with Chelsea?
‘Glenn Hoddle saw himself as a bit of a fashion-monger at the time, a little bit of a Top of the Pops artist with his Diamond Lights song and all that business in the past, and I think that went a little bit to his head.
‘I wasn't happy with the ties. They were black and white zebra pattern, and I remember the blazers were horrific. I honestly thought to myself when I put that suit on that morning that I didn't feel good going to the game, and I think that there was an effect on the result on the day as well, because the feelgood factor for a game is about looking good and feeling good in preparation to play well. I just didn't think it did us any favours whatsoever!’
Whether he is totally serious or not when he puts some blame on the suits, redemption for Sinclair came at Wembley three years later when an ever-improving Chelsea side, but with some of those homegrowns still in it, beat Middlesbrough to lift the FA Cup for the first time in a generation.
‘The players we had in our team by then, you couldn't help but be confident with the likes of Zola, Di Matteo, Dan Petrescu - we had some real top-class players in that side. Frank Leboeuf who became a World Cup winner. It was a really strong side and my first thought going back to that game was just making sure I got in the team. That was hard enough over the weeks building up to that game.
‘I was fortunate enough to get the nod to start that game and I just felt we were going to win. We were favourites going into it but were playing against a good side with the likes of Juninho and Ravanelli. Middlesbrough were definitely underperforming that season but we knew they could beat anybody on their day but the start we had just settled us right down with Di Matteo scoring the quickest goal at the time in an FA Cup final.
‘I just remember enjoying every minute of that game, and there's not many games that you go back to and can’t remember being tired. I felt like I had energy to burn and enjoyed being on the ball. My best mate Eddie scoring the second goal to see Middlesbrough off was fitting for him because he gave a penalty away in ‘94 as well so to go back to score that goal was fantastic for him.
‘After the final whistle I thought we would never come off the pitch. It was incredible because you know supporters would normally stay behind for 20 minutes, half-an-hour at max, because more often than not they've got trains to catch, they've got to get home or whatever but this time no one cared. Everybody wanted to stay at Wembley for as long as possible. You could tell it had been close to 30 years since we'd won the cup because the celebrations were incredible afterwards. I didn't want to go in the changing rooms, I just wanted to stay out there all night so fantastic memories, fantastic memories!’
The suits were better too, as was Chelsea’s cup final song – Blue Day – still played regularly to this day, especially at our Wembley appearances.
‘We did a video with that as well,’ recalls Sinclair. ‘We had to be at this place at this time on a Sunday, I don't know if everybody really wanted to be there. Then I remember someone bringing in a crate of beers and all the lads just started piling into these beers and having a game of pool in the place where we recorded it, and then the spirit started getting going between the group and we got right into the song.
‘The singer, Suggs, is a legend, a massive Chelsea fan as well, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, but with cup final songs, after making one, the thing you go away thinking to yourself is we have to win now! You can’t make a song and then get beat, and that was definitely the opinion of the group.’
Victory duly came and at the celebration later that night, Sinclair was able meet an all-time hero of his, Pele, and the next day he communed with 100,000 fans as an open-top bus toured the streets around Stamford Bridge further reinforcing to him how much it meant to the silverware-starved supporters.
The team were now on the scent of success and they were back at Wembley less than a year later.
In the second part of the interview tomorrow, Frank Sinclair recalls his greatest ever game which captured another trophy, he looks forward to the Chelsea vs Leicester FA Cup final, revealing which players are currently catching his eye.
He will also be part of the Matchday Live video Cup final broadcasting on the Chelsea website, the 5th Stand app, Facebook Live and our official YouTube channel, which begins at 4pm ahead of the game.