For a generation, the Champions League was how they fell in love with football – who couldn’t when their first memory was a late winner over an arch rival?
When I was growing up, we didn’t have Sky Sports at home. Much of my introduction to televised football came in the form of free-to-air matches via the FA Cup, international tournaments and in particular the Champions League.
Those games on ITV offered much more allure than having to get up early on a Sunday morning to watch Match of the Day. The teams were European, and therefore exotic. The qualification structure made it elite. And if it went to extra time, I got to stay up late on a school night.
The first season I followed Chelsea in the Champions League was during the 2003/04 season. It was only the second time the team had ever qualified for the competition – not that I really understood that given that as a child, I kind of assumed all football started and ended with me following it. Chelsea progressed comfortably top of a group of Lazio, Besiktas and Sparta Prague, then squeezed past Stuttgart in the round of 16 to set up a quarter-final match with Arsenal.
This game was particularly exciting because my dad is an Arsenal fan – our paths diverged considerably when it came to supporting a team. Just two years earlier, he had gloated so much about Arsenal beating Chelsea in the FA Cup Final that he drove his seven-year-old to tears. For our two teams to come up against each other in the Champions League felt like serendipity.
The first leg at Stamford Bridge was drawn 1-1, with goals from Eidur Gudjohnson and Robert Pires, whilst Marcel Desailly was sent off ten minutes from the end. Advantage Arsenal.
For the second leg, my dad and I went to Highbury. It was a ground that held many positive memories for me including getting to see David Beckham warm up as a substitute once and being thrown into the air so excitedly by my dad when Arsenal scored that I was promptly sick. This quarter-final would somehow eclipse both of these moments.
I was dressed in an oversized Arsenal shirt of my dad’s as we were going to be sitting in the Arsenal end, but I made sure I had a Chelsea shirt underneath. It was that season’s home kit, a shirt that you could turn inside out into a training top, a genius and much underrated piece of design.
“We were a fabulous team that year,” my dad told me this week when I asked what he remembered of the game. “And of course we went on to win the league. But we’d lost to Manchester United in the FA Cup semis the Saturday before, and it felt like the wheels were coming off that night.”
Arsenal went ahead right before half time thanks to a goal from Jose Antonio Reyes, only for Frank Lampard to equalise within six minutes of the second half starting.
“Then that Bridge goal,” commented my dad.
With Chelsea pressing for a winner, Ashley Cole cleared off the line from Gudjohnsen but two minutes later Wayne Bridge fired in a winner for Chelsea in the 87th minute. It was the only goal he ever scored for the club.
I remember being internally elated as I sat surrounded by devastated Arsenal fans. After the game, as we walked back to the tube, two Chelsea fans commiserated me before promptly cheering with me after I quickly took off the Arsenal shirt to reveal my true colours underneath. It was one of the first moments in football where I remember feeling part of a collective that went beyond any actual logical relation.
In hindsight that game feels like two clubs heading off in different directions. Whilst Arsenal would go on to complete their Invincible season, Chelsea would lose to Monaco in the semi-finals of the Champions League and sack Claudio Ranieri. Ranieri would be replaced with the winner of the 03/04 Champions League, Jose Mourinho, who would oversee back to back league titles for the club, as Roman Abramovich’s ownership poured hundreds of millions of pounds into the club. Arsenal, meanwhile, won the FA Cup in 04/05 but had to wait nine years for another trophy after that.
I would wait eight more years for Chelsea to win the Champions League. It would break my heart many times as I watched us crash out of the competition to Liverpool, Barcelona, Paris St Germain. For the club, the story had a satisfying arc, as they were managed by Roberto di Matteo who had played in Chelsea’s original 98/99 Champions League campaign. But for me, the narrative had always begun back in 03/04 at Highbury with Wayne Bridge. And who couldn’t fall in love with a competition where their first memory of it was a late winner against their arch rivals?
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