BY BEN PINKNEY
We know it as ‘the billion-pound goal’; the goal that assured Chelsea of Champions League football and seduced Roman Abramovich; the goal that changed Chelsea Football Club forever. But it wasn’t.
Romanticism is something football does extremely well, especially since the dawn of the Premier League era in 1992. Constantly increasing commercial demand and TV viewing figures require an ever-attractive narrative and somewhere along the line, just occasionally, romanticism takes centre stage at the expense of factual accuracy.
The day Liverpool came to Chelsea on the final day of the 2002/2003 season competing head-to-head for the final Champions League place was indeed theatrical, dramatic and ultimately invaluable. It changed football forever.
Prior to kick off, then Chelsea Chief Executive, Trevor Birch, addressed an anxious squad in the changing room at Stamford Bridge, confirming the club to be on the brink of financial ruin. Lose and players would be sold, cut backs enforced throughout the club and ambitions radically downsized. Interest from Roman Abramovich, the little know Russian oligarch, was recognised by that stage. A Champions League club the target.
It was the absolute of extremes. It was administration or absolution.
Jesper Grønkjær became the hero, scoring a 26th minute goal that proved the winner. Cutting in from the right wing, beating John Arne Riise and curling a left-footed shot beyond the closing Djimi Traore and around Jerzy Dudek, all while his supporting foot slips from beneath him for added theatrical effect. Within six weeks of the 2-1 win, Chelsea were in Russian hands and English football saw a spending spree like never before, the landscape changed forever. And all because of one goal – the billion-pound goal.
Time and hyperbole, however, has served the moment well, adorning it with lavish and perhaps distorted significance to create a myth that serves the illusion of importance.
On May 11th, Chelsea started the day in 4th place, even on points with Liverpool and nine ahead on goal difference. Blackburn Rovers assumed 6th place and weren’t a threat to the Champions League spot. Thus, Chelsea only required a draw with Liverpool to secure the coveted European spot. Given that it was Marcel Desailly’s brilliant header, quickly cancelling out the early opener from Sami Hyypia, that served as the key moment of the game, which secured the necessary point at Liverpool’s expense.
Before stripping the Dane of all notoriety for Chelsea’s current fortune, it was in fact he who supplied the cross for the all-important equaliser. He’ll have to settle for being the provider of the club’s most important assist. Some personal glory restored.
Ultimately, it was William Gallas, Emmanuel Petit (MotM) and Marcel Desailly, playing through back pain and was refused permission to come off, who were the heroes that day. The impenetrable wall that continually rebutted the partnership of Michael Owen and Milan Baroš who were muted in front of an imposing defence.
Liverpool’s desperation left them vulnerable at the back for much of the second half and two quick counter attacks were thwarted by an alert Traore, before Liverpool themselves were correctly denied a 77th minute equaliser after a Baroš handball. Chelsea too came close to another on 84 minutes when Dudek pushed Melchiot’s shot on to the post, and finally Steven Gerrard, who was shown a red card after a reckless challenge on Graeme Le Saux, personified Liverpool’s collective frustration.
The enormity of the result has been priceless. It was a result that not only saved the club from financial meltdown but seduced Roman Abramovich and his money-no-object attitude to buy the club. It was instrumental in changing the West London club forever. £113million was spent on 10 new recruits during the close season of 2003, with Hernán Crespo, Juan Sebastián Veron, Adrian Mutu and Claude Makélélé some of the marquee names that would come in – it would prove a taster for the coming years.
May 11th, 2003 was an irreversible catalyst toward a barely recognisable club and landscape. The protagonist of the story isn’t, however, the one we’ve come to know. The austere grandeur lies with Marcel Desailly.
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