It is a day of significant Chelsea anniversaries and here we recall a showdown for Champions League football 17 years ago that had huge consequences for the Blues. We also highlight what result was needed that day...
A decade before Frank Lampard's record-breaking goals at Aston Villa, the anniversary of which we are also marking today, Liverpool’s visit to the Bridge on 11 May 2003 was dubbed the ‘£20m knockout bout’ as the riches of possible Champions League entry were at stake in the last league action of the season.
It had been an anxious run-in as we fought with Liverpool for that precious fourth place. A draw at home to neighbours Fulham on the last weekend of April 2003 was followed a week later by defeat at West Ham. That looked bad for Claudio Ranieri’s Blues but on the same day and having been in the lead, Liverpool surprisingly lost at home to Manchester City with their former striker and future Chelsea player Nicolas Anelka doing the damage.That meant the Blues, a point ahead of the Reds, needed only a draw to secure fourth place and a ticket to the final qualifying round for the 2003/04 Champions League. There were external pressures at play behind the scenes at Chelsea, however.
At the Royal Lancaster Hotel the night before the squad were ushered into a room to hear a talk by a US veteran of the Vietnam War, who stunned his audience with the traumatic story of how one of his platoon had sacrificed himself so his trapped comrades could escape. He ended by urging the players to die for their team-mates the following day.
The players were then addressed rather differently by chief executive Trevor Birch, who explained that recent cutbacks they had noticed were the thin end of the wedge, and that a financial crisis could engulf the club should they not secure Champions League football. Players would have to be sold and it would be players on the bigger contracts the club would try to unload. It later emerged that Lampard was one.
It is unclear which of the speakers proved more motivational, or whether it was the boisterous encouragement of a 42,000 crowd – completely oblivious to those behind-the-scenes events – but after an early setback the Blues duly did the job against Liverpool.
Their defender Sami Hyypia drew first blood with a header against the run of play, but three minutes later Chelsea winger Jesper Gronkjaer crossed superbly and Marcel Desailly equalised with his head.
A point would have been enough, so Desailly’s ended up the ‘knockout’ goal, but just past the midpoint of the first half Gronkjaer increased his impact by scoring what would prove the winner with a curling drive. By that stage Chelsea were well on top and deserving of a win.
Steven Gerrard’s late red card confirmed the inevitable, and after the final whistle the jubilant Chelsea players, knowing the secret part of their mission had also been achieved, performed a lap of honour, exhausted and relieved.
Under two months later Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, now a Champions League club, adding to the significance of that result against Liverpool.Over time, another amount of money has been attached to that afternoon. From what was the £20 million game, what happened at Stamford Bridge has since led to the description of the ‘£1 billion pound goal’.Regularly that label is given to the Gronkjaer strike but while not undervaluing the importance of a goal that gave breathing space in a tense encounter, had it not been scored and the game ended 1-1, we would have still finished fourth, made the Champions League qualifiers and the course of Blues history would not have been altered.It does however remain an iconic image of a major day in the Chelsea story, and here is another one from that game, by a legend making his final appearance for the club…
If you would like to watch the full game it is available now on The 5th Stand