Some 25 years on from schooldays in Pimlico with Alan Hudson's niece, some six weeks on from a meal in a Thai restaurant near Bolton with Nicolas Anelka: there is a blue thread running around Frank Sinclair's life and career, one that forever draws him back to Chelsea no matter how far he travels from the club. Today he returns to Stamford Bridge. It is as a Huddersfield Town player in the fifth round of the FA Cup and if the gap separating the clubs is daunting, 55 places across two divisions, then Sinclair is unfazed. "It's not weird or anything going back," he says, "it's special, a special game for all the lads. Just a little bit extra-special for me."
The welcome Sinclair receives may fall into that category, too, for if there is a general memory of Sinclair as an everyday defender for Chelsea and an own-goal prone one for Leicester City thereafter, it fails to take into account two FA Cup finals for Chelsea (one won, one lost), a victorious Cup Winners' Cup medal, a League Cup winner's medal and a starting place at France '98 as part of Jamaica's World Cup squad. There was also a League Cup winner's medal with Leicester from 2000.
At Stamford Bridge they remember this, it's the rest of us who have forgotten what a strong career Sinclair has had. "Last season I was invited back for Chelsea's centenary year," he says. "I went to the Charlton game as a guest of honour and got a good reception as I went around. I've always kept in contact with people at the club, although there are not many left who are playing. Football-wise, obviously Steve Clarke's at the club – he's someone I played many years with. Then there's the likes of Eddie Newton behind the scenes, who's doing youth work at the Academy, but playing-wise there's only John Terry who was at the club when I was there and he was only a kid just breaking through himself then. It's changed a lot.
"I went to Chelsea as an 11-year-old, got picked up playing for my secondary school and playing district football. I went to Pimlico Comprehensive. Alan Hudson went to the school and I was constantly being reminded that I was following in his footsteps. I was in the same class as his niece, Clare Hudson, so I always knew I had a hard act to follow. Alan was some player.
"I went through all the ranks as a schoolboy and then eventually joined as an apprentice when I was 16. Gwyn Williams spotted me, he was youth development officer at the time, he's at Leeds with Ken Bates now. I grew up under Gwyn Williams, John Hollins was the manager then.
"My debut was under Bobby Campbell [April 1991], a home game against Luton. We were 3-0 down, Graeme Le Saux got sent off for punching someone, but we ended up drawing the game 3-3. We had a really young side, no one over 22 in the back four – Jason Cundy, me, David Lee and Gareth Hall. It was an eventful debut. I left when I was 26, so I was a pro for nine years there."
That is a quarter of Sinclair's life, half his professional career. He witnessed Chelsea change from a club employing himself and other local lads such as Newton and Michael Duberry to one that bought Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola. Sinclair left before Roman Abramovich arrived but he believes that Chelsea had achieved lift-off by then. "The highlight was winning the FA Cup, though we won other stuff while I was there, the League Cup – where I scored in the final – the Cup Winners' Cup as well. That was the beginning of the success at the club, the FA Cup was special because the fans had been starved for so long, I think it was almost thirty years – David Webb's goal in '70."
Sinclair's memory is evident. For him the 1997 FA Cup win over Middlesbrough mattered all the more because he had been part of the team beaten 4-0 by Manchester United three years earlier. His role in the defeat niggles still.
"United were already champions and the best side in the country but we were the only team to have done the double on them, so we quite fancied ourselves in the final. Maybe we got over-confident. We had a good first half and I remember Gavin Peacock hitting the crossbar.
"Then it just collapsed for us in the second half. Eddie Newton gave away a penalty, which was a penalty, and then I gave away a penalty that wasn't a penalty. It was [Andrei] Kanchelskis, just outside the box, I just nudged him off the ball and the referee gave a penalty. It wasn't a penalty. It was outside the box. And I doubt whether it was a foul anyway. Eric Cantona converted both and we lost 4-0. It was a bad day. That was the memory I took into the '97 final and to win the Cup in '97 was a turning point for the club. It's never looked back."
But in West Yorkshire, that was what Sinclair was doing. His affection was apparent, but he was not sentimental. "I was there when temporary stands were going up but most of the clubs in London were going through that. Look at London clubs' grounds today from 10 years ago. I don't live too far away from Chelsea's training ground – that's my London base – and compared to the old Harlington training ground near Heathrow, with the planes flying by so you couldn't hear the coach, it's a lot different.
"But it still felt a big club then; Chelsea was a fashionable club even before it had the money. Down the King's Road, West London, it had that aura from the days of Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood. It just didn't have the success or the money; now it has all three, which is why it's one of the top clubs in Europe."
Sinclair is frank about the moment he sensed a shift at Chelsea. "The turning point? When they got rid of me. I thought: 'This club is really turning around'. I'd just scored in a League Cup final, we'd done a double, winning in Europe, and we signed Marcel Desailly that summer and Albert Ferrer from Barcelona.
"They both played in the same positions as me. At the time I was thinking that's what the club has to do, unfortunately for me. Fortunately for me, Martin O'Neill came in with a lot of money to sign me for Leicester and Chelsea accepted it. I didn't particularly want to go because Chelsea was all I'd ever known, but before you knew it the young boys were out and international players were in."
Although neither Bates nor Abramovich knew it then, this was the beginning of the modern Chelsea. Yet Sinclair says: "I think Chelsea is still attached to its community. I know Scott Minto, who's doing Chelsea TV, and when they have phone-ins it's still local people ringing in talking about the club passionately."
Sinclair could be one of them even though his last Chelsea game was in 1998. Again it was at Wembley, this time in the League Cup final 2-0 win, again over Middlesbrough. Sinclair scored the opening goal in extra-time.
Zola was on one side that day, Paul Gascoigne on the other. Sinclair has mixed in some company, though he stressed he was not marking Gabriel Batistuta in Paris when the Argentine scored a 10-minute hat-trick against Jamaica. "I was playing on the right of a three-man defence, he was playing down the middle."
He thinks O'Neill, a commentator at France '98, saw enough to persuade him to buy Sinclair. Six years at Filbert Street were followed by three at Burnley and now one, so far, at Huddersfield. They, too, of course were Cup winners but it was in 1922 under Herbert Chapman.
"I'm aware of Huddersfield's history, I've read about it, it's there. It's a good family club and, for the town, it's a fair size club. I've played for both city and town clubs and this is big for a town and big for this division. This is not like a semi-pro team going to Chelsea, the hype can be exaggerated."
Avoiding the hype is what Sinclair and Anelka were doing in the restaurant in Bolton after Christmas. Anelka was still a Bolton player then and Huddersfield had not yet knocked out Birmingham or Oldham to land Chelsea, the Cup-holders.
"I played against Anelka when he was at Arsenal, I've played against him plenty of times. He's a good friend of mine actually. When he was at Bolton he didn't live too far away from me so I know him socially as well. I spoke to him a couple of weekends ago when we got the draw. He's sorting my tickets out – those in the Chelsea end anyway."
Blue was the colour Where Chelsea's 1997 Cup winners are now
By James Mariner
The FA Cup final, 17 May 1997
Chelsea 2 ( Di Matteo 1, Newton 83), Middlesbrough 0;
Chelsea: Grodas; Petrescu, Leboeuf, Sinclair, Minto, Clarke; Wise, Di Matteo, Newton; Hughes, Zola (Vialli)
* FRODE GRODAS Left club in 1998, since managed succession of Norwegian clubs.
* DAN PETRESCU Enjoyed spells at Bradford and Sheffield Wednesday. Returned to Romania to manage club sides.
* FRANK LEBOEUF Spent two years with Marseilles and now living in Los Angeles, appearing as midfielder for Hollywood Utd.
* SCOTT MINTO Working as pundit for Sky and Chelsea TV.
* STEVE CLARKE Retired in 1998, becoming assistant to Gullit at Newcastle. Employed in similar role at Chelsea under Mourinho and now Grant.
* DENNIS WISE Left for Leicester before leading Millwall to 2004 final as player-manager. Took charge at Leeds and now director at Newcastle United.
* ROBERTO DI MATTEO Retired through serious leg injury in 2002. Now the owner of several London restaurants.
* EDDIE NEWTON Left club in 1999. Now works as assistant manager for Blues' Under-16s.
* MARK HUGHES Moved to Southampton in 1998. Now successful manager, with Wales and, since 2004, Blackburn.
* GIANFRANCO ZOLA Stayed at the Bridge for six more years, joining Cagliari in 2003. Now joint coach of Italian Under-21s.
* GIANLUCA VIALLI Became manager in 1998 before an ill-fated spell at Watford. Now working on Italian television.Reuse content