In the past 20 years, we’ve got so used to Chelsea being a power in English and European football that we’ve all but expunged their displays in the early Premier League years from memory.
There have still been some embarrassing defeats for the new guard, of course: finishing with nine men in a defeat by Neil Warnock’s QPR, for example, or the recent 4-0 reverse at Bournemouth. However, back in the 90s, these sort of results were simply consistent with the mid-table team they were.
It was meant to be different in the 1996-97 season, though. Ruud Gullit had taken over as manager, and the Blues had invested in the likes of Roberto di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli in an effort to improve on the previous season’s 11th-place finish.
Things were going to plan for the first six matches – three wins and three draws meant they sat third in the table, and if they could keep the run going then who knew what was possible.
Reader, they could not keep the run going.
It took just 15 minutes for Liverpool to take the lead in this mid-September clash at Anfield, and with five minutes to go before the break, Gullit would have been imploring his team to keep things tight.
Instead, though, it seemed they were intent on lulling Liverpool into such a false sense of security that their opponents wouldn’t even bother coming out for the second half.
If the generous defending for Patrik Berger’s strike wasn’t enough of a clue, the visitors laid it on very thick through Andy Myers’ contribution on the stroke of half-time. Indeed, it was less an own goal and more a piece of performance art.
Bizarrely, the goal bore some resemblance to Robbie Fowler’s opener, with Stig Inge Bjørnebye sending in an arcing cross from out on the left-hand side. Where things differed, of course, was the identity of the goalscorer.
Not that the finish seemed any less deliberate. As the left-back’s cross comes in, Myers couldn’t ask for a better view of everything around him, which makes it even more inexplicable that he stooped to send a perfectly-judged header beyond his own goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock, almost in slow motion.
He had an age to judge the flight of the ball, plus a few seconds to get his bearings and those of Hitchcock. With no opponents approaching, and with his teammates leaving him to make the simple header back to the keeper, his task couldn’t be more straightforward.
That’s what we thought, anyway, but he seemed to have other ideas. Defenders are famously taught to send backpasses slightly off-target so if worst comes to worst their goalkeeper doesn’t land them in trouble, but that ought not to have even been a consideration here. Just… don’t put it there.
He’s like an explorer surveying the lush landscape in front of him, setting out on the first part of his journey, and walking straight into a hole. As soon as he realises the error of his ways, he can’t figure out how he’s got it wrong. Everything was so deliberate, so controlled, that the end product just doesn’t compute.
We should probably add that Hitchcock doesn’t exactly make him look good here. The goalkeeper is a little flat-footed, and his for-the-cameras dive bizarre to the point of confusion.
Still, though, no keeper ought to be considering diving for a header from a teammate, especially when there is as little apparent danger as this. The 33-year-old could be forgiven for thinking he’d been able to gather the simple header back, hold on to the ball for a few seconds and wait for the half-time whistle to blow.
Indeed it’s thanks to Myers’ goal that we’ve been able to ignore the atrocious defending for the fourth goal, with Dennis Wise presenting the ball to Berger and letting the Czech stroll through and finish à la Demba Ba in the same fixture nearly 18 years later. Or, indeed, Frank Lebeouf sticking out a leg to send an ambitious John Barnes shot into his own net. If Hitchcock had felt like quitting football altogether after this game, it would have been hard to blame him.
As a nice little postscript, Myers would go on to coach at Chelsea and Vitesse, taking over as manager of the Blues’ under-18 side in the 2018-19 season. We hope if he shows his young charges footage of his playing days he leaves the Liverpool game out of the compilation.
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