London – Winding the clock back to 2002, the last time Arsenal and Chelsea contested the FA Cup final, one of the telling moments took place at the end. Tony Adams, in what would be his final appearance before retirement, sought out a young John Terry, who had come on as a substitute, to offer some words of consolation. He recalls the exchange in his new book, Sober, as “saying that his time would come but this was ours”. He was right on both counts.
It is only with hindsight that the dividing line around that time in terms of these London rivals makes sense. The 2002 final marks the midpoint of three decades of football that had Arsenal as the dominant force from the capital in part one and Chelsea taking over in part two. In the 15 years leading up to that FA Cup showdown Arsenal had the silverware, with a little more to come, from successes under George Graham and Arsène Wenger. They were days away from clinching their fourth league title across that period in addition to a cluster of cups. At the time Chelsea had not won a title since the 1950s and the occasional cup was cherished but did not give the impression they were in position to become a leading force.
It seems strange to think Arsenal were for so long a hoodoo team for Chelsea. Victory in the 2002 FA Cup final, delivered by wonderstrikes from Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg, came during an era where Chelsea spent the best part of a decade without a serious win of any sort in this fixture. There were a couple of moments of light relief in the League Cup but otherwise it was a fruitless slog until Roman Abramovich appeared in the summer of 2003 to transform everything.
Meanwhile Arsenal prepared to leave Highbury for the Emirates and impose a model of financial restraint, and the shift began. In the 15 years since 2002 Chelsea have won five titles and nine cups including the biggest one of them all in Europe. Arsenal had their Invincible season in 2003-04 but since then three FA Cup triumphs have not been enough to quell grumbling about underachievement or lack of ambition.
Football’s changing face in London, is intriguingly represented by the most powerful men who have a seat waiting for them in the Royal Box at Wembley on Saturday. Abramovich in the blue corner, with Stan Kroenke expected for a visit in the red. In 2002 Chelsea were run by the bullish, born in a west-London council flat, never short of an opinion character of Ken Bates, while Arsenal’s Old Etonian Peter Hill-Wood was the figurehead for a board that invariably tried to run the ship with an old-fashioned touch of class.
When Abramovich took over at Chelsea his financial muscle was regarded at Highbury as some kind of ideological enemy and yet now Arsenal are tied up with an American billionaire whose safe stewardship has upset supporters enough to come round to the idea that a Russian oligarch may not be as bad they thought.
That 2002 final seems a world away. Parlour, who opened the scoring in a manner he will never forget, had always been in love with the FA Cup. He remembers it being a family occasion during his boyhood, watching it as a kid in Essex with his two brothers, mum making sandwiches and orange juice, and dad with his can of beer. “Cup final always seemed to be boiling hot, curtains drawn, pitch-black, crowded around the TV and we loved every minute of it,” he says. He described his goal as “probably the greatest moment of my life” and always remembers asking the stewardess on the plane home from Cardiff for a beer and Wenger threatening him with a fine of a week’s wages if he dared to take a sip as Arsenal had the chance to win the Double at Old Trafford four days later.
Parlour decided it was not worth £30,000, although that did not stop him from a wild weekend of celebration once he got home. After a man-of-the-match display in the 1-0 win at Old Trafford, with the prizes won, Wenger tapped him on the shoulder and asked for a word. Parlour panicked. Had the manager got wind of his excess? Would this cost him a week’s wages? Wenger congratulated Parlour for his performance and looked delighted to tell him why things had gone so well. “I stopped you drinking that beer on the plane,” Wenger smiled. Different times all right.
By the time one team are cavorting and the other slumped on the Wembley turf on Saturday evening, between them Arsenal and Chelsea will have won more than half of the FA Cups contested over the past 25 years. This will be win No14 collectively across that timespan – Arsenal have hoisted the trophy seven times to Chelsea’s six. (If you add Manchester United’s five over the same period that is 19 out of 25 wins shared by three clubs.)
The desire to add another will be keenly felt in both camps – even if Arsenal need it more than Chelsea in a last attempt to salvage some happiness from a troubled season while Antonio Conte’s men are enjoying the glow of champions.
As Adams consoled Terry all those years ago, perhaps now the Chelsea veteran coming to the end of his time will take a moment from his own post-match emotions to look out for, say, Rob Holding. Or perhaps, the words of consolation will go in the other direction. It is the FA Cup after all.
The Guardian Sport