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Shedding Tears As Stein Plunges Blades Into Division Two

It was Saturday May 7th, 1994. In seven days’ time, Chelsea would be playing Manchester United in their first FA Cup Final for 23 years. After a difficult League season which included being second bottom on Boxing Day, they were in fourteenth place, safe from relegation, and their last Premier League game of the season, a home match against Sheffield United, in theory mattered more from the ‘staying free of injury’ and fitness testing perspectives than for anything else.

For Dave Bassett’s Blades, however, it was a very different matter. Though they had been defeated just once in twelve games, they were in a complicated multi-team relegation dogfight, just a point above the drop zone. One thing was clear. Win and they were safe, but draw or lose and they were reliant on other teams slipping up.

Ironically, it was Chelsea who had relegated The Blades in the last game of the season in 1968, at Bramall Lane, overcoming a one-goal deficit to win 2-1 against an increasingly panicky home defence.

Striker Mark Stein, scorer of crucial Chelsea goals that season after arriving from Stoke City in the new year, had been out for 14 games, but was declared fit to play and was desperate to prove he was fit to play in the final. He replaced Robert Fleck. Chelsea lined up :- Kharin; Clarke, Kjeldberg, Johnsen, Sinclair; Burley, Newton, Wise; Peacock, Stein, Spencer. It was an open secret among journalists that, subject to fitness, this was the side player-manager Glenn Hoddle intended to start at Wembley. 

The crowd for a chastening 2-1 home defeat by Coventry City three days earlier was under 9,000 so it was probably a pleasant surprise when 21,782 supporters turned out in pouring rain, the biggest home League crowd at Stamford Bridge so far that year. This attendance included a large contingent of Blades, many seated in the East Upper, plenty wearing fancy dress and setting off balloons pre-match, presumably very confident they would be celebrating staying up in a couple of hours.

Brief match highlights can be seen here. 

United started on the front foot and it was a surprise it took 30 minutes for Jostein Flo to give them the lead. They held the lead until the 57th minute when Jakob Kjeldberg headed home a Dennis Wise free-kick, his first goal for the club.

Glyn Hodges restored the visitors lead just three minutes later, hitting home off his thigh. Hoddle then brought himself on, partly to try and prove his fitness for the cup final after missing nine games. The game seemed to meander, which suited the visitors just fine. Then things started to turn. Though not mentioned in press reports, I have a distinct memory of a bad United foul, possibly by the booked Hodges, enraging the home crowd which in turn fired up the players.

Chelsea stepped things and though Stein’s equaliser from Gavin Peacock’s pass with thirteen minutes to go meant that United were still safe, assuming results elsewhere stayed in their favour, it really ratcheted up the pressure on them.

Mark Stein Celebrates Scoring The Equaliser

Understandably United's play became increasingly fragmented and nervous but as injury time started it seemed as though a draw would be enough to avoid the drop. Then, as visiting supporters implored referee Keith Cooper to blow the whistle and put them out of their agony, there was one final cruel twist. Stein, proving beyond doubt he was match fit and ready for Wembley, drilled home a goal past keeper Simon Tracey's near post. It was created by a headed flick from Hoddle, who had also come through the game unscathed.

Hoddle, Stein and Newton joyously celebrate the oh-so-late winner

Chelsea’s players and supporters celebrated as Bassett’s players sank to the floor, their world having fallen apart unless something almost miraculous had happened elsewhere. The final whistle duly went. Everton had, improbably, come back from two down to beat Wimbledon 3-2 and so United, almost unbelievably, were down, unless Blackburn scored extremely late on against Ipswich. They didn’t, and Bassett’s side trudged back into the dressing room to find that they had indeed been relegated.

Facing, in Stein, a player scoring his thirteenth goal in eighteen League games for Chelsea and determined to prove he was match fit for the biggest game of his career, was an unlucky break for the visitors. The widely-shared assumption had been that the home players would be intent on not getting injured, with anything else a bonus, so Chelsea fighting back from behind to win was definitely not in the script.

In addition to sending the team off to Wembley with a win, the match marked a hugely symbolic moment for thousands of Chelsea supporters. It was the last game before The Shed, named by Clifford Webb in 1966 and matchday home to those who wished to sing, chant and sway for over a quarter of a century, was demolished as part of the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. There was little or no mention of this in the press, but it certainly mattered to those of us who had stood there. Many still miss it thirty years on.

I remember the home crowd were initially in relaxed mood, but that mood turning more intense when Hodges committed that foul and celebrating raucously when the winner went in. We normally stood near the West Stand in those days (we had gradually moved round that end over the past 15 years) but for that game joined those under The Shed roof, on the West Side. I am sure some supporters stayed longer and sang a sad, fond farewell to their spiritual home but all I remember is briefly mocking the crestfallen Blades supporters, whose fancy dress must have seemed desperately inappropriate at that point, and then heading for the tube to Wimbledon. Ludicrous, really, looking back from a distance of 30 years, that I did not mark the event. I have sat in the Matthew Harding Upper with my son since it opened in 1997 but have never felt the same affection for it as I did for The Shed, and I suspect this feeling is widely shared.

It took Sheffield United a quarter of a century to return to the top flight. Chelsea lost the FA Cup Final the following week 4-0 but still qualified for Europe, and in retrospect that season under Hoddle was the first stirrings of the resurrection of the club.

They come to us in the bottom three but with a new manager and, doubtless, a renewed fighting spirit. Were Chelsea to win, whether those would prove to be the lost points that relegated the Blades, only time will tell.

Tim Rolls

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