Jesper Gronkjaer breaks into a lop-sided smile as he recalls the goal, that £1bn goal. The final game of the 2003-04 season was a straight knockout between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, with the winner gaining the final place in the next season's Champions League. It was dubbed the £20m match, but that was a drop in the ocean compared with what it proved to be worth to Chelsea as within weeks Roman Abramovich had swept in on his white charger to buy the club for £140m. Eight years on, and his outlay is close to £1bn.
Gronkjaer's winner was a curling shot from the edge of the area to make it 2-1 to Chelsea. But had Liverpool won on that spring day, who knows what might have happened? 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.
The £1bn strike is apparently a vivid memory for Gronkjaer, almost eight years on. "I remember the goal very well. I was on the right wing when we got a throw-in, but instead of passing I cut in from the right and beat three or four defenders before sticking it in the other corner. It was a nice feeling, and a good reward for a great season," he said, speaking after training with FC Copenhagen in preparation for tomorrow's Champions League tie with Chelsea, a competition the club are once more struggling to qualify for through the league.
The goal has gone down in legend as the most important in the club's history, as it paved the way for the Russian revolution. However, as is so often the case, the truth is a little less romantic than the myth. Chelsea only needed to avoid defeat against Liverpool to guarantee Champions League football, so in fact it was Marcel Desailly's header to equalise Sami Hyypia's opener rather than Gronkjaer's winner which should really be feted as the key moment.
That has not stopped it becoming fixed in the collective memory of supporters, though – and it was a great goal, worthy of its legendary status. The winger, who flitted between being brilliant or useless during his time at Stamford Bridge, skips past John Arne Riise and fires low past Jerzy Dudek in the 26th minute of the match; weeks later Abramovich buys the club. The simplicity of the chain of events is too good to resist.
Chelsea were certainly looking at financial ruin. The club's chief executive Trevor Birch had addressed the team before kick-off to warn them that if they failed to claim the Champions League berth, the club was facing a future of drastic cost-cutting and an end to fat salaries. Gronkjaer remembers: "It was a massive game for Chelsea. We all knew what we were playing for. I remember the stories about our financial situation."
Beating Liverpool put catastrophe on hold, and on 1 July Abramovich slapped his £140m down. Gronkjaer's contribution was lost in a frenzy of spending as a whole new team was bought before the transfer window closed – a chaotic situation that he recalls was very unsettling for the players who were already at the club.
"I was on holiday in Denmark in my summer house when I heard about the takeover. I didn't imagine he (Abramovich) would have so much money and everything would change. No one did," Gronkjaer said.
"I remember on the second day of pre-season Abramovich turned up at the training ground and spoke to us in Russian, with someone translating. There were rumours about everything – new coach, new players, new training ground, new stadium. He wanted us all to calm down. It was a stressful period for everyone, and the players had mixed feelings. Most of the players were worrying about their own situations, would they stay or go?
"We went on pre-season tour and new players were arriving all the time, which was funny. One day Wayne Bridge would arrive and someone would leave, the next day Damien Duff turned up, then Geremi, Joe Cole, Veron. He bought a whole new team in a few weeks."
To add to the surreal nature of that season, Abramovich took to sitting in the dressing room after games, saying nothing, just taking it all in. "I don't know if he could understand but he would just sit there, like one of the boys," Gronkjaer said.
That season ended with Chelsea second in the Premier League, going out in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and the manager Claudio Ranieri getting the sack. Abramovich would probably settle for that right now, with Chelsea languishing in fifth and out of the FA Cup after Saturday's loss to Everton, but then it was deemed a failure, and Jose Mourinho came in in mid-2004.
"It was a difficult season. The manager was under pressure straight away as there were rumours about him leaving. He did very well in keeping it away from the players and keeping the pressure off us," Gronkjaer said. "For Chelsea at that time it was a fantastic season as we finished second in the League, got 80-odd points and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. It was a fantastic season, but we did not win anything."
Gronkjaer left in the summer of 2004, just before Chelsea started winning trophies under Mourinho, but has no regrets at missing out on the glory years. He moved to Birmingham, then Atletico Madrid and Stuttgart before returning to Denmark and FC Copenhagen five years ago, where he has won the Superliga title for the past two seasons.
At 33 he is not as pacy as he was, but he still has enough in his legs to test Ashley Cole tomorrow night in the Parken Stadium, where the Danes secured a 1-1 draw with Barcelona during the group stages.
"I had a bad injury a few years ago and since then I am not as quick. But I am quick and I still try and do the same, score one against one," Gronkjaer said. "Cole is probably the best left-back in the world right now. Obviously his attacking skill catches the eye but defensively he's top class."
FC Copenhagen tackle Chelsea in the middle of their winter break, which runs from the early December to mid-March, so they are likely to be undercooked tomorrow. Gronkjaer fears the worst, particularly with Chelsea having recently signed Fernando Torres, a return to the days of 2003 when throwing money around was the norm in SW6. "It's a disadvantage. Definitely," Gronkjaer said.
"We will not be as ready as Chelsea because we have not played a crucial game since December. We can play very good football but we also know we have to have so much respect for Chelsea because they have so many players who can do just one piece of skill and it finishes off the game."
Much as Gronkjaer's piece of individual skill finished off that "£1bn" game? Well, up to a point. He didn't quite beat "three or four defenders" as he remembers – he beat Riise in fact. But it was still an important strike. Just ask the Chelsea fans.
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