You’d struggle to find anyone other than misty-eyed Chelsea fans who’d count this as a classic. Nearly a quarter-century on, it’s only Di Matteo’s historic goal that lingers in our immediate memories. But the 1997 FA Cup Final was at a pivotal point in the English game. And through boyhood nostalgia and Zola versus Juninho, I’ll show you why.
The build-up to the 1997 FA Cup Final
The Littlewoods FA Cup Final took place at the iconic original Wembley stadium on 20th May. 79,160 fans sauntered through the sun-kissed twin towers: adorning the stands in Subbuteo-esque royal blue and poster red.
It was the tale of two 5’5” wizards from the outset. Chelsea’s Gianfranco Zola had been made Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year two days prior, with Middlesbrough’s Juninho as runner-up. Both had already appeared at Wembley in 1997. Zola’s winner against England dented hopes of automatic qualification for France ’98. And Juninho battled for a 1-1 draw in the Coca-Cola Cup Final which was eventually settled in a Hillsborough replay.
Amongst the starting line-ups were several players who are now known more familiarly as managers. Steve Clarke, Mark Hughes, and Roberto Di Matteo for the Blues. Nigel Pearson and Craig Hignett for Boro. Also, I noticed that only three substitutes were named on each side: a far cry from today’s amount.
Boro’s journey to the 1997 FA Cup Final
Middlesbrough had succumbed to relegation at Elland Road nine days earlier. Brian Deane’s 77th-minute goal gave Leeds United the lead, only to be cancelled out by Juninho two minutes later. The visitors battled until the end, but the Brazilian was reduced to tears within seconds of the final whistle. Two points adrift from Coventry City on the final day, they’d needed a win.
This, however, was uniquely controversial. Middlesbrough had been docked three points by the FA after cancelling a Christmas fixture against Blackburn Rovers at short notice. Their reasoning was a selection crisis, brought on by injuries and the flu. But in unchartered territory, the FA were unsympathetic, and the deduction ultimately cost Middlesbrough their top-flight status.
They also made bittersweet history, both in their own records and in the national ones. Middlesbrough had never reached a domestic cup final before this season. They’d soon become the first-ever team to finish runners-up in both cup competitions whilst also being relegated. Their Coca-Cola Cup Final replay at Hillsborough had resulted in a 1-0 defeat against Leicester City.
Bryan Robson’s side lined up in a 4-1-3-1-1 formation. Brazilian stars Emerson and Juninho were anchor-man and playmaker, respectively. Doubtful speculation had surrounded the fitness of top-scorer Fabrizio Ravanelli in the build-up to the final. Robson took a gamble by starting his silver-haired marksman over Mikkel Beck. Their supporters hoped that they’d see his iconic ‘shirt over the head’ celebration before he inevitably departed Teesside for Marseille.
There’s an amusing moment from one of the commentators following his comments on Ravanelli’s fitness. Without a second’s hesitancy, he says, “the other main foreigners, Gianluca Festa, as well as Brazilians Juninho and Emerson…” On the BBC, John Motson is taken aback that 13 out of 22 starting players are from overseas.
Chelsea’s journey to the 1997 FA Cup Final
On a similar note, Ruud Gullit made history by becoming the first foreign manager in an FA Cup Final. As I mentioned in my introduction, this was a pivotal point for the English game. International players were a huge novelty: treated with wonderment and suspicion in equal measures.
Gullit’s continental connections had revolutionised life at Stamford Bridge. Previous manager Glenn Hoddle had departed for the England role and Gullit wasted no time in recruiting world-class superstars. Players including Frank Leboeuf and Gianluca Villi joined his ranks as well of course as Di Matteo and Zola.
He guided Chelsea to sixth place in his first season in charge. The club had suffered a tragedy in October when director Matthew Harding died in a helicopter crash. That Harding was travelling home after a cup exit at Bolton made this day even more poignant.
Chelsea lined-up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Zola playing in the hole behind an experienced and in-form Mark Hughes.
Di Matteo’s historic strike
Every football fan of a certain age knows precisely how it started. Dennis Wise won the ball from Robbie Mustoe before squaring it to Di Matteo. Picking the ball up on the edge of Chelsea’s centre circle, he mounted their first attack. Driving down the centre of the pitch, he unleashed a right-footed rocket straight down the centre of the goal. Dipping viciously, it hit the underside of the crossbar and then the back of the net on just 42 seconds.
The Italian’s now-legendary goal became the fastest ever in a Wembley FA Cup Final. The strike broke Jackie Milburn’s 42-year record by three seconds and lasted a comparatively short 12 years. Funnily enough, Chelsea were playing when it was broken, in the 2009 FA Cup Final. Louis Saha gave Everton the lead after just 25 seconds, only for the Blues to run out eventual 2-1 winners.
Let’s be honest, though. Di Matteo’s goal was mind-blowing. Sure, there are better efforts in ‘greatest goals ever’ compilations. But such a blistering start to a Wembley cup final was the height of excitement for my eight-year-old eyes. It was my first ever cup final, and from that moment on, I was gripped by the competition’s magic.
Boro’s Wembley woes
Middlesbrough’s FA Cup Final went from bad to worse when Ravanelli was subbed after just 21 minutes. He signalled to the bench after colliding with the ‘keeper before limping off the field as play continued. In the meantime, a Dan Petrescu effort was cleared off the line by Nigel Pearson. And after clearing a corner, Middlesbrough’s players made to efforts whatsoever to advance up the pitch.
Ravanelli was subbed for Beck: the fourth officials using yellow cards with black numbers on, as opposed to anything electronic. Minutes later, Mustoe hobbled off to be replaced by Steve Vickers. This saw Festa move from centre-half to centre-mid, supposedly to free-up Emerson. Either way, that was two subs used after a quarter of the game, and Robson was looking troubled.
In first-half stoppage time, Robson leapt to his feet as Gianluca Festa nodded home. A floating right-footed cross by Phil Stamp was met with a towering header from six yards out. But alas: the linesman had flagged for offside, and Middlesbrough’s joy was only fleeting. They trudged off the pitch at the interval contemplating a second cup final defeat on top of a fresh relegation.
Lacklustre after half-time oranges
Truth be told, Chelsea never looked like being massively bothered about going all-out for a second. And Middlesbrough never looked like genuinely believing that Chelsea would even need one. The game did start to open up as legs tired and the sun beat down. But whenever Middlesbrough seemed to grind up a gear, Chelsea didn’t have to do much to match them.
Just after the hour mark, a rare moment of recklessness from Leboeuf nearly gave Festa a golden opportunity. But as with most of Middlesbrough’s chances, it felt both agonisingly close and dismally far away. Festa was the workhorse in Middlesbrough’s midfield: Emerson was largely anonymous.
It seemed like Emerson was only interested in creating chances for himself. For Middlesbrough to have overturned their deficit, they needed both Brazilians to be firing on all cylinders. And whilst Juninho gave his all for the cause and did show glimpses, Emerson looked sluggish and half-interested.
Around 70 minutes, Emerson raced forward in a promising position, only to be dispossessed by a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Juninho, whose diagonal pass to the advancing run of Stamp was slightly overhit. And that seemed to be Middlesbrough’s attacks in a nutshell: so near, and yet so far. Emerson lazily jinking about into a solid blue wall, and everything else a foot away from perfect.
Zola’s magic touch
Soon afterwards, a spectacular run from Zola nearly put the Teessiders out of their misery. Within a blink of taking possession in Chelsea’s half of the centre circle, he was bearing down on goal. He skipped between Vickers and Clayton Blackmore, darted through the penalty area, cut back from the byline, and pulled the trigger. But young ‘keeper Ben Roberts succeeded where Ian Walker had failed in February: saving the Italian’s shot at his near post.
It was a scintillating moment; worthy of matching his compatriot’s opener. The commentators were suitably in awe. “Zola’s box of tricks had opened again,” said Motson. “Juninho: maybe he can pull the rabbit out of the hat for Middlesbrough just yet.” And what’d been many people’s pre-match narrative for this FA Cup Final was ringing true. If either side were going to score, it was bound to stem from either Zola or Juninho.
An old score from the 1994 FA Cup Final was settled with seven minutes remaining. A marauding run down the centre of the pitch from full-back Eddie Newton capitalised on tiring legs. He played the ball diagonally to his right and then continued bounding forwards. Petrescu struck a sumptuous cross to the back post. Zola’s deft mid-air flick with the outside of his foot found the six-yard box, where Newton bundled it in.
Newton had conceded a penalty on the hour mark in the ’94 FA Cup Final, with the score-line at 0-0. Cantona dispatched the penalty with trademark swagger, and within 10 minutes, Manchester United were 3-0 up. So, for the Hammersmith-born player who’d joined Chelsea’s youth set-up in 1985, it was a particularly special moment.
The fall of the FA Cup Final since 1997
As I said, Gullit made history by being the first foreign manager in an FA Cup Final. And therefore, the first foreign manager to win the competition. In the 23 FA Cup Final matches since, 16 different managers have triumphed: 14 of them being foreign. The last British (and indeed English) manager to lift the famous trophy was Harry Redknapp with Portsmouth in 2008. So, it was certainly the dawn of a new global era in our domestic game.
On the flip side, however, homegrown managerial talent from minority backgrounds are being forced abroad to find work. Eddie Newton himself spoke of the professional glass ceiling upon taking the reins at Turkish side Trabzonspor.
It’s undeniable that the FA Cup Final – and the competition in general – has lost significant spark since 1997. Manchester United’s withdrawal from the competition as holders in 1999/00 certainly didn’t help. Perhaps the temporary move to Cardiff played its part: certainly, the loss of the original Wembley stadium in general.
You get an increasing sense of the fact that a chunk of the Wembley spectators are half-interested corporate guests. The semi-finals also now being at Wembley shatters the magical allure of the stadium. And finally, call me an ageing traditionalist, but The FA Cup Final simply needs to be a Saturday 3pm kick-off. It’s gone from being a highlight of the footballing calendar to a shrug-inducing afterthought for most neutrals.
There’s a lot more to this final than meets the eye. And through a nostalgic glimpse at its former pinnacle, you see the English game evolving faster than we could possibly begin to imagine.