Chelsea all but owned the FA Cup between April 2006, when Liverpool beat them in the semi-finals, and February 2011, when Everton knocked them out on penalties in round four. In four seasons they played 20 ties and won 19, raising the trophy on three occasions, and then they did it again in 2012 for good measure. Through all this they faltered once, not so much a stumble as a full-blown pratfall, and on Thursday they return to the scene of that debacle desperate not to experience a repeat.
In 2008, even more than now, Barnsley were unlikely giantkillers. Chelsea travelled to Oakwell having won 14 and lost one – the League Cup final, to Tottenham after extra time – of their previous 19 matches. Since producing the shock of the previous round by beating Liverpool at Anfield Barnsley had scored once in four games, not winning any of them.
“If we’re hungrier than them and want it as much as them, hopefully the quality will come through,” said John Terry. “We have to go there and win, it’s as simple as that.”
Three days before the match Simon Davey, Barnsley’s manager, went on a scouting mission to Stamford Bridge where Chelsea beat Olympiakos 3-0. “I did have a plan but then I went to watch them, and now I’m not sure,” he said. “Their movement and pace at which they pass the ball is on a different planet. I have to admit it caught me by surprise. Every decision they make is the right one.”
Luckily, the same was not true of their manager, Avram Grant, who left Frank Lampard at home and chose not to risk Didier Drogba’s knee injury. But the team was still full of household names, including Terry, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole and Nicolas Anelka.
“I went to watch them and it frightened me to death,” Davey says now. “But we felt we could perhaps exploit spaces down the side if we countered quickly and created overloads. Plus Premier League teams didn’t like a direct side and we played Kayode Odejayi up front, who was powerful and strong. If you look at the goal, we countered, created an overload down the right, put in a fantastic cross and that’s how we won.”
“We did a lot of work out of possession, on trying to force Chelsea round us, not through us,” says Bobby Hassell, normally a right-back, who played in central midfield that night. “We had a gameplan to make it difficult for them to play through us and try to hit them on the counterattack. Two banks of four, force them out wide. We knew if crosses came into the box we’d be able to deal with them and it wasn’t the greatest of pitches back then, which probably helped.”
Barnsley had the better of the first half, Istvan Ferenczi hitting the post and Carlo Cudicini saving from Odejayi, and after the break Cole and Anelka failed to convert opportunities before Odejayi headed in Martin Devaney’s cross, his second goal of the season and his first for six months.
For the remaining 25 minutes Chelsea laid siege to the Barnsley penalty area, but the defence held firm and the Oakwell crowd – one thing Chelsea will not have to deal with this time – roared their side to victory before spilling on to the pitch.
“It was one of the most enjoyable games I played in,” says Hassell, who remains at Barnsley as academy director. “I was a defender, I loved a battle. It was a tactical game, which was one of my strengths, and the atmosphere was the best I’ve seen at Barnsley in my 16-year association with the club.
“I dropped into central midfield; a lot of crosses came into the box and I swept up a hell of a lot and I remember blocking a lot of shots. Me and Brian Howard managed to stifle their central midfielders and give us a platform to play off.”
After the game, as the team celebrated in the dressing room, there was a knock on the door. “John Terry came in and congratulated everybody,” says Davey. “He was England captain at the time and that meant more to a lot of the lads than anything. Very rarely do you get that and it was testament to the way we performed. We didn’t steal the win, we had spells when we were on top and we defended for our lives. It was one of those nights you’ll never forget.”
Barnsley’s poor league form continued in the buildup to the semi-final, where they were to play another Championship side in Cardiff. On the weekend they headed to Wembley they dropped into the bottom three for the first time. “The questions being asked were: ‘Would you rather play in a Cup final or stay in the division?’” says Davey. “A lot of the players were: ‘FA Cup, FA Cup.’ My feeling was stability.” Cardiff won 1-0, Barnsley finished 18th.
In Hassell and Devaney, now the under-23 coach, there are two members of the 2008 team still at the club. “Nobody’s really asked me about it,” Hassell says, “but it’s good to draw on the experience and use it to help the players, especially in terms of big games.
“Football’s changed in the past 10 years, but we’ve got a chance. The fans have missed a hell of a lot in the last year: miraculously staying up last season, scoring a winner with 30 seconds left on the last day.
“It would have been a sellout again on Thursday – maybe we can win it for them.”