It’s 24 years since the only previous FA Cup semi-final meeting of Manchester United and Chelsea.
Back in the good old days when England’s premier knock-out competition staged it’s semi-finals at club grounds, not Wembley, I set off from Bangor in Northern Ireland the night before the game. Destination Villa Park.
I was working for Bombardier in Belfast and along with a Chelsea-supporting colleague managed to siphon a couple of tickets from a supplier in Wigan. Or so we thought!
Last minute method of transport in those days was the 2-hour hovercraft jaunt from Belfast to Stranraer in Scotland, then a drive down the picturesque, but horrible, A79 through Scotland and on to England’s M6, stretching from Gretna, which took us all the way to Birmingham.
The almost 6 hours by car was permeated by a Travel-Lodge stop for some sleep at Tebay services.
It was an early morning start on match-day, we had to meet our contact’s colleague a few hours before the game at a pre-determined location in Birmingham to collect the tickets.
All went swimmingly and according to plan, we even got a wave from BBC commentator Alan Green when we passed him on the motorway, until Gary opened the envelope containing the tickets.
They were for the Liverpool v Aston Villa semi-final taking place 90 miles north at Old Trafford!
Shocked, we clearly expressed our politest, “‘ere, hang on a minute, mate,” reaction (toned down since we weren’t actually paying) to our new ‘friend’. His surprise coupled with our astonishment, at least kicked him into action.
After a few phone calls he wasn’t able to get United-Chelsea, Villa Park tickets for us at such late notice, but told us to buy from a tout (scalper) and his company would see us right.
Even then we were lucky. The FA in their infinite wisdom (and to our good fortune) that season hiked up the prices for the FA Cup semis, the reason why only 38,421 attended the game. So tickets from the touts while not inexpensive, were plentiful enough.
It was a mighty relief for a couple of travel-weary Irish lads...
Usually Villa Park would be heaving for this occasion and tickets, well, they’d be like hen’s teeth.
To the match itself, Chelsea were buoyed by the arrival of Ruud Gullit in their ranks and were playing well enough to finish top ten for the first time in six seasons.
They were also boosted by United’s defensive problems, Steve Bruce falling injured in the warm-up, adding to first-choice defenders Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin, already sidelined. So without either recognized centre-back, United lined out with a back four of; Phil Neville, Gary Neville, David May and Lee Sharpe (I’d be prepared to wager for the only time ever).
My Chelsea-supporting friend was punching the air in delight with ten minutes of the first-half remaining when United’s former talisman, Mark Hughes stood a ball up to the back-post and Gullit’s bullet-like header done the rest. 1-0 Chelsea, but that was before a Man of the Match performance from the mercurial gallic genius that was Eric Cantona.
For United the semi-final fell against the backdrop of their title race with Newcastle, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s - then just Alex - side well on their way to clawing back a 12-point deficit to Kevin Keegan’s Magpies as they chased the Double, spurred on by losing the previous season’s title to Blackburn and FA Cup final to Everton.
Cantona almost had United level immediately, volleying from distance against Kevin Hitchcock’s post. It was a sign of things to come.
Ten minutes into the second period Cantona managed to get on the end of Phil Neville’s fine cross, heading the ball towards the far post where Andy Cole was quickest to react lifting his leg high to stab home from close range.
For Chelsea’s Scottish international midfielder Craig Burley the afternoon soon became one to forget.
With Chelsea boss Glenn Hoddle hoping the experience in his team would ensure calm heads, Burley produced a moment of madness, just four minutes after the equalizer.
After doing well to intercept Keane’s pass to Giggs on halfway, the ball popped up on the sticky surface. Burley could have found a team-mate close by, but opted for a half-volleyed back-pass to his ‘keeper. Cole and Beckham were alert and the 20-year-old raced on to slide the ball past the stranded Hitchcock. 2-1 United. It was as bad a back-pass as you’re ever like to see.
Chelsea’s, and Burley’s, response was a good one, the midfielder’s through-ball finding Gullit, who muscled past May but saw his effort saved by the on-rushing Schmeichel.
The ball then fell to Spencer 20 yards out, who did everything right, bringing it down in an instant and firing past the despairing dive of Schmeichel - but there was Cantona to save the day with his head.
Quite what the Frenchman was doing back there is unclear but it was as important as either of United’s goals.
There was no more scoring. United were on their way to Wembley once again!
Chelsea seeking their first trophy in 25 years, saw their league form nosedive recording just one win in their last 10 games meaning they missed out on the top half again, finishing 11th.
The FA had seen enough from Hoddle’s three years in charge at Stamford Bridge to give him the England job though, which he took after Euro 96 that summer.
The semi-final defeat and the 1995-96 season would represent a watershed moment for the Blues, as they won the FA Cup the following season with Gullit as player-manager to clinch their first major trophy since 1971.
There have only been 5 seasons out of 23 since when Chelsea have not won a major trophy, and they have not finished in the bottom half of the Premier League since either.
United would go on to win the Double, Cantona scoring the only goal in a final where Liverpool are more remembered for their white suits than anything they did on the pitch, and Cole’s goals proving crucial as they hunted down his former club Newcastle in the league.
The Red Devils cannot do the double this season, but a repeat of Villa Park’s thrills and spills on the last day of March 1996, would still go down a treat... empty or not!
Meantime, anyone out there interested in a pair of tickets for the Liverpool - Villa game at Old Trafford that afternoon?
I still have them!