Let me take you back to the years of 1999/2000 when I was 8/9 years old. Britney Spears and Steps were riding high in the charts and we were all fearing the millennium bug at the turn of the century! Chelsea Football Club had just finished 3rd in the Premier league after an incredible 1998/1999 campaign to qualify for that most prestigious of competitions, the Champions League. I say qualify but back then, finishing 3rd in the Premier League only got you to the non-automatic qualifying stage, however the mighty Skonto Riga were soon brushed aside and our dreams would begin. It would be the club’s first time entering the tournament since its revamp from the European Cup and after tasting recent successes in Europe with the Cup Winners Cup and Super Cup wins against top opposition such as Stuttgart and Real Madrid respectively, the club were hungry to get on to the most elite level of European football.
From memory, the tournament itself was setup extremely different to what it is these days and the group stages seemed to go on forever, but this was not a problem as it was the first time for many Chelsea fans (Including myself) to experience some of the most magical nights ever witnessed at the Bridge and around Europe’s elite stadia. Even as I type this, the echoing of “O Dennis Wise” fills my brain and a little flutter of butterflies hits my stomach.
The draw for the first group stage games was shown on Eurosport which me and my dad watched live. Chelsea were drawn against, Hertha Berlin, Galatasaray and Italian powerhouse’s AC Milan!
My dad immediately went up to the Bridge to purchase tickets for the games which back then I seem to recall you purchased the whole block of tickets and this gave you access to each home game. I was in junior school around this time and with European games being played on weekdays and mums being mums, I unfortunately did not go along to the first group stage home games, however I watched every single minute at home on the television and had a match day programme waiting for me on my bed when I awoke the morning after.
Chelsea rampaged through the 1st group stage only losing 1 game and drawing twice with the mighty AC Milan, thus putting them in 4th place and out of the competition all together! We were in dreamland.
The second group stage games were drawn and again my dad and I would tune in to Eurosport as the names were drawn. Feyenoord, Marseille and……..Lazio! This Italian giant was probably one of the best teams around at the latter end of the 90’s, and their squad bolstered such names as Alessandro Nesta, Simone Inzaghi and Pavel Nedved to name a few, therefore the excitement which would come with the announcement of these ties was so intense I can still remember struggling to sleep! This became even more of a struggle as I soon realised that my dad had gone against my mums wishes of not taking me to midweek games and purchased me and him the whole block of tickets for every home game! I was ecstatic as you could imagine as no one I knew of my age group had ever been to such events. Let the games begin.
The first game up was Feyenoord at home, they were a bit of an unknown force to me at the time, but even back then I realised that every team who we would be playing against in this amazing competition would be a massive challenge, as they were all greats within there own countries.
I can remember it was an extremely tight first half against Feyenoord and the tensions were running high in the Shed End which is where I would be seating for the first of the 2nd group games. Then, of all people, Celestine Babayaro came up with a goal right on half time! The crowd went wild and I can remember being so small at the time I needed to get on my seat to see the madness unfold around me! This was my first taste of a Champions League goal live and I will never forget that feeling, even if I had taken and accidental hit to my eye from one of my dad’s friends at the time which was now severely bloodshot and needed medical attention for the next few months…….So worth it!
We would go on to win the game in style 3-1 with our Norwegian legend Tore Andre Flo grabbing a brace and a late goal from Julio Cruz for them. Every fan stayed a little while after the game and celebrated with the players. The walk down the famous Shed End steps to join the Fulham Road was one of the best feelings I had ever felt, and this feeling did not go away, especially as I knew more of these special nights were on the near horizon for me and Chelsea.
The rest of the group games were full of ups and downs starting with a draw away in Rome against an amazing Lazio side followed by a 1-0 loss in Marseille who we would then beat 1-0 on the return leg with an incredible goal from our legendary captain at the time Dennis Wise.
After the win against Marseille, we would travel to the Netherlands to play Feyenoord knowing a win would basically secure a spot in the next round of the Champions League which was the Quarter Final Stages. The game started off well for Chelsea with Zola breaking the deadlock late on in the second half and we would go in at half time 1 nil up.
The second half began, and Chelsea were still holding strong when suddenly, Feyenoord would get one back to level the game with none other than Bonaventure Kalou (Spoiler alert! Big Brother of Saloman Kalou who we would get to know very well in the upcoming decade) scoring for the home team. This was a disaster goal to concede as this could hinder our chances of that all-important qualification. But this Chelsea team was special, and heads did not go down and within 5 minutes of the conceded goal, Dennis Wise would put us ahead once more. The game was then sealed when within another 5 minutes, Tore Andre Flo had put us 3-1 up and cruising. The game was won! Next up Lazio at home to finish the 2nd round of group stage games.
This was the game that ultimately would decipher the winner of the group, with Chelsea being in 1st place and Lazio 2nd. Me, my dad and a group of his friends would travel up to the game early to take in the atmosphere of what was setup to be another incredible night at the Bridge. The game began and the noise of our home crowd on this day was deafening, especially in the Harding Lower where we were sat. Our home crowd did not stop singing and you could see the players were also well up for the occasion. Then, from out of nowhere, on the stroke of half time, Gustavo Poyet stuck a thunderbolt past the Lazio goalkeeper! The crowd went ballistic and Poyet who was the captain for the game, whipped the captains band off his arm and put it around his head to celebrate with the fans. It was soon half time and we were all stunned at what we had just witnessed.
After the half time break, we looked a little shaky and you could see our inexperience of the competition would soon show and we feared the worst. The fears soon come to fruition as the visitors would go on to score 2 goals in the next 20 minutes and take the game 2-1. We were all extremely disappointed to not top the group, however we were all so proud of what a campaign it had been so far and to finish second to Lazio was a massive achievement. Everyone stayed behind to clap our beloved Blues off the field.
We soon learned our fate of who we would face in the competition for finishing the group in 2nd place and this would be none other than Spanish giants Barcelona! There squad was jam packed with extraordinary talent and future legends of the game such as Rivaldo, Luis Figo and a young Xavi to name a few. We were going to need miracles to see off one of the world’s best.
My dad would again purchase me and him tickets to this game and we would go up with a whole train carriage of Chelsea fans.
We arrived at Fulham Broadway and the singing had already begun on the tube. Everyone participated in the anthems as we walked on down the Fulham Road all the way to the stadium. The singing did not stop until we heard that humming of the Champions League anthem where everyone had a chance to catch their breath and their nerves!
We were in the West lower (Pre Roof Build) for this one and both teams lined up to face the East stand while the Champions League anthem finished. The roar after its conclusion is one, I will never forget and is still imprinted in my mind to this day.
The game kicked off and Chelsea bolted out of the stocks with a no fear approach, then, from a smart move, Chelsea won a dangerous free kick on the edge of Barca’s box. The tensions of the fans ran high as Zola, who was the coolest man in the stadium lined up to take it. The magic man himself was barely a step from the ball. He stepped forward and with a whip I can only describe as the Zola curl, he had put us one nil up on 30 mins with an incredibly effortless placement into the net! Just Incredible!
Barca were in shock and this only became worse for them as shortly after the game had resumed, Zola ran towards the shed with the ball sticking to his foot like glue. He then put in a beautiful pass for none other than Tore Andre Flo to tuck away for 2-0 on 34 mins! The crowd was stunned! We simply could not comprehend being 2-0 up against a Barca team like this!
The game kicked off again and Chelsea continued to show no fear or respect for Barca whatsoever, then, Didier Deschamps sent over an incredible lofted volleyed pass for the strikers to run onto and the crowd arose again! It was Flo! The keeper closed the angle and Flo with the most insane chip, delicately looped the ball over the keeper and into the back of the net! The stands were literally shaking, and I thought they were due to collapse at any point as this goal had put us 3-0 up in 38 mins and sent the stands into pandemonium!
We would go in at half time and the crowd had a chance to breath and try and piece together what had just happened in the half! Surely, we were all part of a dream! The only way I knew this was not a dream was due to the fact I was jumping so much I had some rather nasty bruises up my legs from hitting the seats in front of me in jubilation! Not one care given!
The second half kicked off and Chelsea were still showing no fear as Barca’s press was raised, but then from out of nowhere, Rivaldo slipped in none other than Luis Figo who placed it calmly under De Goey for the away goal.
This did not hamper the atmosphere at the Bridge one bit and Chelsea would see the game out 3-1 victors of the mighty Barcelona.
This game still resonates with me as one of the greatest games I have ever witnessed live and to this day I have flashbacks to it and will never ever forget it.
We all know the second leg of this tie did not go so well for Chelsea, therefore I do not want to finish on a low and am just going to relay my feelings of this amazing competition.
The ups and down I experienced on this first encounter with trying to win old big ears herself are memories that will forever be part of my DNA and to see the team I follow competing at the most elite level of football and giving everything for the badge has given me a long love for this incredible competition. Here’s to hoping we are never divorced!
I must also end on a massive thank you to my dad as without him taking me to such events, I would never have got to witness such incredible moments of Chelsea’s history. Thank you Adrian.