Chelsea 1 (Drogba ’39) Tottenham 2 (Berbatov ’70, Woodgate ’94)
Wembley, 24th February 2008.
The 2008 League Cup final ended with an unexpected, poetic flourish, but it began with familar concerns about glass ceilings. Not so long ago, I met someone who explained away Tottenham’s last major trophy as the result of good timing. Chelsea, he insisted, were in one of their periodic slumps and, anyway, had fielded a second string side that day.
Not so. It’s true that Roman Abramovich had sacked Jose Mourinho five months previously and installed the less-than-spectacular Avram Grant in his place, but that was still a team who would finish second to Manchester United domestically and who would reach the final of the Champions League. The players who arrived at Wembley that day hadn’t lost a Premier League game since 16th December and, a curious 1-0 defeat to Barnsley in the FA Cup aside, they wouldn’t taste defeat again until that penalty competition in Moscow.
Petr Cech; Juliano Belleti, John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Wayne Bridge; John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien; Shaun Wright-Phillips, Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba.
His memory was suspect, then. Probably not through any ill-will, but because of some form of reputational bias: modern Tottenham were still the club who froze on the biggest stage, still are you might say, and so there had to be an asterisk. A squad-wide Chelsea sulk, perhaps, or a hapless back-up in goal. Surprisingly, no – this was a devil of a side, well resourced enough to start all their heaviest guns and still bring a fresh Michael Ballack on as a substitute purely for extra-time.
The other mistruth about that day is that Martin Jol was still the Spurs manager when, of course, it was Juande Ramos. Again, it’s a forgivable mistake. Ramos is associated with chaos at Tottenham. With “two points from eight games”, confused football and the sharp decline which forced Daniel Levy to throw the club’s technical structure in the fire.
It all seems so unlikely. Spurs were a good side, but a flawed one. They pivoted around the extravagantly gifted Dimitar Berbatov in attack, but their cup final team was a patchwork. Pascal Chimbonda started at left full-back, horrifying considering his limitations in his natural position, Paul Robinson lined up in goal (having already begun the steady decline which would change his career for club and country), and in midfield Didier Zokora was nobody’s Michael Carrick.
Paul Robinson; Alan Hutton, Ledley King, Jonathan Woodgate, Pascal Chimbonda; Aaron Lennon, Didier Zokora, Jermaine Jenas, Steed Malbranque; Robbie Keane, Dimitar Berbatov.
Given what we know now, it’s miraculous that Ramos was able to disguise those flaws well enough to compete, let alone win. Forgive anyone who believes that Jol was in the technical area that day, because the truth is just so bizarre. The Spaniard oversaw a thumping win over Arsenal in the semis, conquered Chelsea in the final, but was largely dreadful before and after that little burst of form. A week after Wembley, Ramos’ side would lose 4-1 to Birmingham. In fact, they would win only four more games before his departure.
A strange, strange time, then. There was no sense of destiny, nor any belief that if this team could just play to its potential then all would end well. No, Chelsea were better. They had a superior and larger squad, more talented players, and a proven record for winning exactly that type of game.
"...and Berbatov scores with such impudent ease." Peter Drury
There was a great power in that moment. After all, modern Tottenham fandom isn’t characterised by the misery of failure itself, but by the hint of success teased before the failure. There it was: the ball on the penalty spot, Berbatov standing over it and the Chelsea ribbons being taken off the trophy. Neutrals, presumably, assumed the Bulgarian would score. He was a player of such class and composure that, logically, he was never going to miss.
But logic had nothing to do with it. If Spurs had become a club of buckling knees, then this – surely – was when their legs would give. This little suggestion of hope would actually be the punch to the gut, the point of hilarity, the invitation to the outside world to giggle away in mockery.
Peter Drury’s narration of that goal will always be one of my favourite bits of commentary. Some people don’t like Drury and, yes, I can understand why he’s not to everyone’s tastes. Two things, though: he’s a charming person who genuinely loves the sport and, most importantly, when he gets its right he really get its right. Pitch, tone, language: Berbatov did score with impudent ease. It was swaggering, obnoxious and wonderful. It was also such a vivid display of confidence that the other players had to be affected by it.
In it went. Twice. Lashed in for a second time for emphasis, Berbatov’s languid cool replaced fleetingly by something far more visceral.
Cup final days, obviously, are not for reflection. They’re not for deep symbolism or greater meaning either, just winning and losing. As time has passed, though – ten years now – the more magical Jonathan Woodgate’s extra time winner has become. Not, of course, because it was a goal of any great beauty of craft – it’s just a hopeful free-kick, a brave header, and dismal goalkeeping – but because of who it was scored by, who it was scored for, and when and where it went in.
Woodgate was a fabulous player, still one of the most natural centre-halves England has produced in the last few decades. But, wounded physically be years of serious injury and scarred mentally by the traumas in Madrid, he’d already become a semi-tragic figure. Therefore, beyond the literal importance of that goal lies this enduring sense of right: it was the fragile player and the frail team, together, enjoying a collective moment of catharsis. In those days – albeit it for different reasons – nobody could rely on Tottenham Hotspur or Jonathan Woodgate. So arm-in-arm, trying to climb those narrow Wembley steps with all that karmic bagage?
Something had to go wrong there.
"...boy, Jonathan Woodgate is overdue a break in his career..." Peter Drury
2018 finds Tottenham in better shape. Upwardly mobile, heading towards a 65,000 seater stadium and an authentic, regular threat to any side in the country and in Europe. What does Woodgate’s goal mean in that context?
Really, nothing. Therein lies its magic, though. Today, Spurs are urged to pursue trophies for the sake of momentum. A league cup final, you suspect, would be as much about gathering up the intangibles as it would celebration – a “well done, but what next” kind of moment. How joyless, how dull, how modern. And how false, actually, because Premier League titles and European Cups are won by smart spending and tactical innovation, not just by acquiring a taste for champagne.
In 2008, that conversation didn’t exist. Instead, it was a day of ultimate victory. Winning was winning, no caveats. To watch that goal again is to remember exactly how you felt when it was scored. Cech flapping, Berbatov sliding clumsily into the net, and Woodgate – exhausted, cramping, riddled with dead cartilage – bouncing freely down the touchline.