Why A Real Rivalry With Chelsea Is A Bridge Too Far For Liverpool
By Gareth Roberts
AMONG the troves of football treasure I’ve hoarded across four decades and more of loving Liverpool, there is a programme from May 3rd, 1986 – when The Reds, led by player-manager Kenny Dalglish, took on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge knowing victory would see them crowned Champions.
A 16th title for Liverpool was famously clinched by Kenny’s iconic chest and volley goal, quickly followed by Kenny’s iconic smile and an away end left in raptures.
Sadly for me, I was not there to witness the game. But the programme, a gift from my childhood next-door neighbour, Paddy, lit up my life then and now. It’s such a Roy Of The Rovers-type moment from a Liverpool superstar. The manager, in his first season in the job, scored the only goal, and what a goal, to win the league. It doesn’t get much better than that.
A glimpse at that programme brings all the memories flooding back. And none of them are any kind of ill feeling towards Chelsea. It’s all about Liverpool, what Liverpool achieved, and how Liverpool achieved it.
The Reds went on to win The Double that season, defeating Everton 3-1 at Wembley in the FA Cup final a week later.
Then, the FA Cup was massive – streets bedecked in red and blue, cups made out of foil, joint team photos in the windows.
Winning it was huge. I remember being overcome by joy, celebrating in the street, recreating the goals, and making sure every Evertonian I knew heard all about it. Bobby Mimms, ey? Buy that man a pint. Along with Ian Rush of course.
Which brings me to the point of all this. Chelsea Football Club. It’s not a rival for us. Not a real one. Not a proper one. Not in the truest sense of the word when applied to football. We still sing about hating Nottingham Forest after familiarity once bred contempt. Chelsea are in that very same category.
Rivalry, says the Collins Dictionary, is “competition or fighting between people, businesses, or organisations who are in the same area or want the same things”.
Back in 1986, Chelsea were none of our business. Kerry Dixon standing there in worryingly short shorts on that cover of that programme triggers no animosity here.
Geographically, the clubs are 220 miles apart. And then, in the table in 1986, The Reds were top and Chelsea were sixth.
Defending champions Everton, meanwhile, finished only five points behind Liverpool, but rewind only three months and The Toffees were eight clear at the top after winning 2-0 at Anfield.
The turnaround was glorious, a twinned joy of us winning it and them losing it. It’s a season I’ll never forget.
That is a rivalry. And how 10-year-old me celebrated. Evertonians were in my street. Evertonians were in my school. And everything was up for grabs, every day. We argued about everything. Scoreboards, stadiums, kits, players, songs, managers...you name it, it was discussed.
Teachers would get involved, old fellas in the paper shop would get involved, it was everywhere.
I’ll always remember a Bluenose teacher, Mr Burrows, telling me Kenny had resigned with a gleeful glint in his eye. I didn’t believe him. And I had no way of checking in those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days. Sadly, as the dinnertime news confirmed, he was right.
Much has changed since those days. Paddy, rest in peace, used to go to Goodison one week and Anfield the next in a tradition that has long since fell by the wayside on Merseyside.
Plenty more has shifted, too, including the strengths and fortunes of the two clubs. But the rivalry remains, and it always will. Sharing a city makes sure of that.
Back to Chelsea then. A rival? A rivalry? I don’t feel it. I understand why many say it’s there. Why it’s discussed. Why it’s documented. I understand. But I just don’t feel it.
It’s not like it is with Everton, and not like it is with Manchester United. There isn’t that edge. And there isn’t that history; a history, yes, a dislike, ok. But something with seeds in the industrial revolution? Something with tentacles in music, fashion, trade? Well, no.
There is something, I know. A bit of residual beef maybe.
There was another last match of the season showdown with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that was key to that bit of beef that exists between the clubs in the modern day.
On the final day of 2002-03, Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool took on Claudio Ranieri’s side in a winner-takes-all game for fourth place and a Champions League spot.
The Reds lost 2-1 and headed for the UEFA Cup. A month later Roman Abramovich completed his takeover of Chelsea.
“Had Liverpool won on that spring day, who knows what might have happened?” Mark Fleming wrote in The Independent in 2011.
“Abramovich would almost certainly have taken his roubles elsewhere, and Chelsea could have suffered a similar fate to Leeds, or possibly worse, as they were facing financial oblivion at the time.”
Instead, well we all know what happened. Jose Mourinho, perhaps riled that he was considered too brash for the Anfield job, decided to take on Rafa Benitez, and even us as fans, arrogantly shushing us in the 2005 League Cup Final.
Throw in The Ghost Goal, the courting of Steven Gerrard, the FA Cup semi final, another Champions League semi-final triumph, the FA Cup final, and plenty of meat has been added to the broth.
There was certainly animosity between the players, perhaps beginning with a high, hard and late challenge from Frank Lampard that broke Xabi Alonso’s ankle (the Spaniard got revenge of sorts when Liverpool were the side to end Chelsea’s 86-game unbeaten streak at Stamford Bridge thanks to Alonso’s winner in October 2008).
Years on, Lampard, speaking to Jamie Carragher, said: “We were the new kids on the block who had a few quid and signed a load of players. Jose puffed his chest out and then we kept playing each other. It was a clash of two ideals.”
And Carragher told Lampard: “I’ll be honest. I couldn’t stand you as a club. It surpassed Everton and Manchester United as our rivalry for a period.”
There was a five-year spell among all this when Liverpool and Chelsea met a mind-boggling 24 times. Gerrard faced them 40 times during his career – more than he played against any other club.
And who can forget Daniel Agger leaving Torres in a heap? Undoubtedly, there was extra fire in those games.
Chelsea have become a club known to us for plastic flags, for mistreating Rafa Benitez, for bad-mouthing Steven Gerrard, and for being everything that we aren’t. But, still, rivals? It still feels a little contrived, even if Frank Lampard is doing his best these days to keep it alive.
Once upon a time Liverpool visited Stamford Bridge on the last day of the season – what is it with that? – and the sun was shining. It was club record goalscorer Ian Rush’s last game before his move to Juventus.
Then Chelsea chairman Ken Bates came on to the field before the game, delivering a speech singing Rushie’s praises and presenting the Welshman with a load of celery (it’s a Chelsea thing, Google it) and a huge bottle of wine.
At the game that clinched the title the year before they even threw on We Are The Champions to keep the Liverpool fans entertained.
Such bonhomie is unlikely on Sunday. But I’m still saving the term ‘rivals’ for our actual rivals. As for Chelsea, well Bill Shankly had it right before the 1965 FA Cup semi final, ordering his men to “stuff those wee cocky southern buggers”.
Liverpool won 2-0 then. Same again at the weekend, Reds. The cocky southern buggers need putting in their place.
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