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1, 2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 5-0! And even Sutton scored…

In terms of Chelsea home League games, and excluding days when promotion was achieved or a title won, there are a few encounters that stick in the mind over the decades as very, very special and are talked about almost in hushed tones. It could certainly be argued that one of the most special was the time the European Champions were spectacularly put to the sword.

October 3rd, 1999. Manchester United were treble-holders, having won the European Cup in dramatic fashion against Bayern Munich. (Sound familiar?). They were top of the League. Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were fifth, and his strikers were not scoring, neither Gianfranco Zola nor £10 million summer signing Chris Sutton having yet netted in the League. United, unbeaten in the Premier League for 29 games, had not lost in their last seven trips to Stamford Bridge and were favourites for the title, so their visit was keenly anticipated, certainly, but also viewed with some trepidation by the home support. This has always been one of the biggest games of the season, going right back to the 1950s, and this was certainly no exception. The match was live on Sky TV and the main focus of newspaper previews that weekend.

Chelsea, missing Marcel Desailly and Roberto Di Matteo, lined up :- De Goey; Petrescu, Hogh, Leboeuf, Babayaro; Ferrer, Deschamps, Poyet, Wise; Zola, Sutton.

United were missing Gary Neville, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs but still fielded a very strong side :- Taibi; Irwin, Berg, Stam, Silvestre, Philip Neville; Beckham, Butt; Scholes; Cole, Yorke.

United had signed a new Italian goalkeeper, Massimo Taibi, who had made a couple of errors in previous games, but manager Alex Ferguson had expressed faith in him. It was to be a misplaced, costly and short-lived faith.

The game was a sell-out, though the crowd was only 34,909 as the 1990s version of the Stamford Bridge redevelopment was not yet completed.

The crowd had just settled into their seats when the vast majority were out of them and punching the air in delight. Chelsea went ahead after just 28 seconds, a superb Dan Petrescu cross allowing Gus Poyet to bravely head home as Taibi rushed out and flapped helplessly.

I think everyone expected United to respond forcefully but they failed to. Even better, fifteen minutes later the home side's advantage doubled. United's defence again caved in as Sutton imperiously headed home an Albert Ferrer cross with no challenge from a defender and Taibi rooted to his line. This was the first goal a Chelsea striker had scored since Skonto Riga in Chelsea’s first-ever Champions League game eleven games earlier. The sheer delight on the player’s faces was a joy to behold.

Chris Sutton celebrates his solitary Premier League goal for Chelsea

In a highly controversial incident, Nicky Butt was sent off after kicking Dennis Wise following a high Wise challenge. It later transpired that Wise had supposedly also pinched him, an unedifying episode that reflected little credit on either player. Those who argued that the game turned on Butt’s sending off rather missed the point, however, given that Chelsea were already 2-0 up at that stage and in dominant control.

Nicky Butt lashes out at Dennis Wise, directly next to referee Dermot Gallagher

2-0 up at half-time, an inventive and persistent Chelsea kept up the pressure after the interval and were rewarded with further goals by Poyet (after Taibi dropped Frank Lebouef’s shot)), a Henning Berg own-goal and substitute Jody Morris (through Taibi’s legs). United’s defence was severely rattled, and Chelsea could have scored more.

Gus Poyet nets his second

Even at 3-0, I remember thinking Chelsea could still throw it away, a sort of Bolton 1978 in reverse, but, gloriously, the high quality performance just rolled on. A routed United had just one shot on target in the 90 minutes. Chelsea were utterly, ruthlessly dominant in their biggest ever victory over United, outclassing them from 1-11 and, impressively, keeping their tenth clean sheet in thirteen games in the process. As The Guardian headline exclaimed ‘Rampant Chelsea Humble United.’ David Beckham, arguably near the peak of his celebrity, was humiliatingly taken off after 65 minutes, impotent in the face of Chelsea’s quality and determination.

The atmosphere in the ground was electric, as shock turned to euphoria. ‘Can we play you every week’ echoed round the ground. As did this classic (and thanks to Stuart Deabill for remembering it was sung that day) :-

'Who put the ball in the Man U net?

Arthur, Arthur

Who put the ball in the Man U net?

Arthur ******* Chelsea'

The crowd celebrated inside Stamford Bridge and then I remember Fulham Road being completely rammed after the game, with thousands not wishing to leave the area but ecstatically chanting ‘1,2,1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 5-0’. Long and loud. Very long and very loud. It was one of the most spontaneous outbreaks of sheer joy I have experienced in the 1100+ games I have seen at Stamford Bridge, title/trophy wins apart. My then seven-year-old son had been to a few games but had experienced nothing like the atmosphere inside and outside the ground. He, and I, rarely have since. Spine-tingling.

The press was full of words like ‘humiliated,’ ‘appalling,’ ‘abject’, ‘alarming deficiencies’ and ‘embarrassing ineptitude’ to describe the treble trophy holders, and the Evening Standard, rightly, called it an ‘almost unfathomable result’. Chelsea, on the other hand, were the subject of fulsome praise, both for Vialli’s tactics and the individual performances of the entire side. Two-goal Gus Poyet, in particular, was picked out for a stunning display of ‘grace and presence.’ Chelsea coach Ray Wilkins happily observed to the Daily Telegraph ‘Gus has a wonderful football brain. He passes the ball well, taking only as many touches as he needs.’

Harry Harris got carried away in the Daily Mirror, talking about ‘hopes that the first League title since 1955 could finally become a reality’ and United boss Alex Ferguson admitted that Chelsea were serious challengers. Given that Chelsea were now fourth, two points behind United with two games in hand and the only 100% home record in the Premier League, it would be nice to be able to say that Chelsea used that thrashing of United as a springboard for a sustained title bid. Sadly, that was not the case. Being Chelsea, they followed up that momentous win with a turgid 1-0 home defeat by Huddersfield Town of the Nationwide First Division in the League Cup, conceding their first home goal in 707 minutes, and managed to win just one of their next seven games. In the event Chelsea finished fifth, 26 points behind runaway winners (yes, you guessed it…) Manchester United, which made their performance that Sunday afternoon in October even more remarkable.

Sutton sadly never worked out at Chelsea, only started 21 League games, did not score again in the League and left for Celtic for £6 million the following summer. The hapless Taibi was dropped by Ferguson after that match, never played for United again and left for Reggina on loan in January.

Chelsea v United games are usually special and hopefully Saturday's game will be no exception. It will have to go some, though, to match the 1999 encounter for sheer quality of performance, surprise and euphoria.

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