Di Matteo recalls that Wembley goal and the magic of the FA Cup

In a week of anniversaries for Roberto Di Matteo and Chelsea, the Blues legend remembers his record-breaking Wembley strike in our 1997 FA Cup final victory over Middlesbrough.

On Thursday we are marking 10 years since the club’s first Champions League triumph, which the Italian led us to during his spell as manager – and, incidentally, he also won the FA Cup that season by beating Liverpool in the final – but before that, on Tuesday, it is 25 years since he first wrote his name in Chelsea folklore with a Wembley worldie in a famous win over Middlesbrough.

After receiving the ball from Dennis Wise, the Italian midfield maestro was allowed to run unchallenged from his own half into Middlesbrough territory and when he was 30 yards out, with the defenders still backing off, there was only one thing to do – pull the trigger. The ball exploded off his foot and over Ben Roberts, leading to a pumped up Di Matteo racing along the touchline in celebration, leaving his team-mates in his wake.

Only 43 seconds had elapsed and, at the time, it was the fastest goal scored in an FA Cup final at Wembley – a record since surpassed by Louis Saha, who netted against the Blues for Everton in 2009 after 25 seconds – but Di Matteo took it all in his stride.

‘I thought to myself, “Maybe I will shoot,” and so I did,’ was his typically cool post-match response to the strike. ‘Maybe the Middlesbrough players didn’t think I would. But I was very lucky because when I hit the ball it went first up and then down behind the goalkeeper.’

Twenty years after his cup-clinching strike for the Blues, the Italian was one of the players interviewed for the book Blue Day, which told the story of that day and an incredible decade for Chelsea Football Club through the players who started in the final at Wembley.

Along with Peter Osgood and Didier Drogba, Di Matteo can be considered one of Chelsea’s cup final kings. As well as his 1997 strike against Boro, there was a goal against the same opposition in the following year’s League Cup final, before he brought up his Wembley hat-trick against Aston Villa in 2000.

Throw in his two cup final wins as manager of the Blues, the most famous of which was undoubtedly in Munich, and you’ve got the seemingly unanswerable question: what is the defining image of Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea?

‘I think it's probably the FA Cup final in 1997,’ was how the man himself called it. ‘Actually, I'm not 100 per cent sure. What I noticed is that a lot of people would know the Champions League, but the true, loyal Chelsea fans would probably say 1997. For the general public it's probably 2012.’

Di Matteo was a regular on the scoresheet with the Blues, thanks in no small part to his accurate, yet powerful, striking from distance. Never was the result more spectacular than in his first FA Cup final, an occasion he had witnessed many a time growing up in Switzerland without quite grasping its significance.

‘In Switzerland they didn't show many English matches, but the final was always the one they showed live. I always used to watch it. What I also remember was that there was always nice weather and nine times out of 10 it was a sunny day.

‘When you were talking about English weather, a bit like Switzerland, you say it's always raining, but I always saw a nice and sunny day for the FA Cup final, a beautiful ground and a great atmosphere. The only thing I didn't quite realise was the importance of it until I got here.’

The whole journey to Wembley that season was a rollercoaster of emotions; from the astonishing comeback against Liverpool to the back-and-forth with Leicester, followed by the relief of reaching the final against a Wimbledon side that had previously revelled in giving the foreign legion a black eye. Every step of the way the fans were saying the same thing: ‘Is this going to be our year?’

The sea of blue and the wall of noise which greeted the players before kick-off in the final let them know in no uncertain terms that there was no margin for error. But you already know what happened next.

‘To score so early was unexpected, I must say! Very unexpected. I was well happy to put us ahead, I felt over the moon. I shortly lost total connection with what the moment was, I just started running. I didn't even know where to run.

‘Everyone was chasing me. It was just a fantastic feeling, I had goose pimples. The rest, as they say, is history. It was obviously an important game for us as a club after 26 years without a trophy.’

That figure was not fed to him; he knows the numbers behind the club which has been a part of him for the past couple of decades and a half. He also seems uneasy with the idea of basking in the glory of his record-setting strike, preferring to remember his career through the shared experiences with a group of people he formed a tight bond with.

‘Wembley was a good pitch for me and 1997 was fantastic, a wonderful experience. Certainly one of the best times I had in my career. But if I can say that it is because football is a team sport. It takes the effort of everybody involved, even those who maybe played less and those who didn't play: the kitman, the physio, all the masseurs. Without everybody being together and working towards an objective, you will not achieve anything.

‘I managed to score the goal, which helped us massively, but it is a team effort. Defenders have to defend, strikers have to try to score the goals, midfielders have to do both. Everybody tries to do their job to achieve what you set out to achieve. And we had a great party together afterwards.’

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