Chelsea v Tottenham, 1996. A special London Derby

Chelsea v Tottenham, 1996. A special London Derby Monday was always the day of the week when Premier League referees were notified of their next appointments, so you can imagine how excited I was when appointed to the London ‘derby’ at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, way back on 26th October,1996. Immediately my attention turned to the game, planning how I would travel, hotel accommodation on the Friday evening, travel from hotel to ground, as it was a lunchtime kick off, possible team selection, recent results, my mind was in a whirl at such a prestigious game. I loved ‘derbies’ having refereed many in my career and irrespective of League position there was always the bragging rights for the winning team fans. One thing was certain, nothing would be left on the pitch by either team, so I needed to be at my best. My week continued as normal with a Tuesday evening training session, putting in some extra sprints as I thought the game would be an ‘end to end’ affair. Both teams were playing in the League Cup that week, so it gave both Managers an opportunity to rest some key players ready for the weekend. Perhaps I could learn something from the match reports the next day, every little bit of information helps. I woke up on the Wednesday morning early for work and watched the news whilst having breakfast, only to hear that a helicopter had crashed near Middlewich in Cheshire the night before, 22nd October, killing the pilot and all the passengers. At that stage, I was unaware that one of the passengers was Matthew Harding, the Chelsea Vice Chairman. What a shock when I heard this sad news later that morning.  The helicopter was taking a small party of people back to London after Chelsea had beaten Bolton Wanderers earlier in the evening. Immediately, my mindset turned to Saturday, given this tragic event, so I contacted the Premier League office for advice regarding the game, although I did appreciate that it was too early for them to make a decision at that stage, but three days out from the game, my plans had to accommodate every eventuality. My training went well on Wednesday and Thursday evening and it was decided that I should travel to London on Friday afternoon so that I was available, if the game went ahead. On the train down, I worked out my game plan and to try to put into perspective how a tragedy like this could change the mental approach of the players, managers and the fans. Would it be like a practice match, would Chelsea want to win at all costs, would Tottenham employ spoiling tactics, what would the discipline of players be like, this was probably the most difficult one to read. I received a phone call from the Chelsea secretary to say that the game was to go ahead, as the family had confirmed that ‘this is what Matthew would have wanted’ After a good night’s sleep, surprisingly, I awoke early, had a light breakfast and travelled to the ground in my pre-booked taxi arriving for 9.00 am as arranged. The secretary met me and after a short welcoming chat in his office, he went through with me the club plans for the day. This was most welcome, but it brought with it extra duties that added pressure to an already highly pressurised event. Nonetheless, all was clear, and it was very necessary to ensure that my colleagues and I did not become over emotional in the lead up to kick off or depart from our well-practiced pre match routines. At the exchange of team sheets, an hour before kick-off, I took the opportunity to have a talk to Rudd Gullit and Gerry Francis, the respective Managers, about the approach prior to kick off and asked for their support. They were both exemplary in their respect towards me and my colleagues, something that continued throughout the day. Both picked probably their strongest teams, as I thought would happen, so some big challenges for us to deal with as the pressure mounted. We went out for our warmup and the ‘Bridge’ although undergoing building work behind one goal, was buzzing. 28,000+ fans were inside the ground early and they were making their presence felt. An electric atmosphere which you needed to witness to understand how it can get you motivated for such a game. Great warmup with my colleagues and then back for our final checks before bringing the teams together to enter the field of play. We gave ourselves a little longer than normal to deal with the pre-match respects to Matthew Harding, not only the Vice Chairman but also a fan from an early age. I thought our team conducted itself very well, but prior to the minutes silence a pint of Guinness was brought out and placed in front of us and I have to say that this was quite an emotional moment to deal with. Evidently, this was Matthew’s tipple and one he used to enjoy with the fans in the local hostelry opposite the ground. Shortly afterwards, we commenced play and the game turned out to be quite a feisty encounter with tackles flying in and no prisoners taken. My game plan was coming together, as I had decided to let them get on with it and only to get involved when really necessary. Chelsea went one up through Gullit, who had decided to play himself, only for Armstrong to equalise just before half time. The first half had gone well, but another 45 + minutes to go, let’s not get complacent. The second half was very competitive and after awarding a penalty to Chelsea, Lee scored to make it 2-1. Although Tottenham never gave up, it was going to be Chelsea’s day and Di Matteo made it 3-1 for an unassailable lead. Wise and Petrescu from Chelsea and Edinburgh from Tottenham were cautioned late on as the temperature of the game started to rise, so I just had to keep tight control until the final whistle. What an emotional day, what a game, what pressure and what an experience. We left the ground drained mentally. I booked a taxi back to Euston for my train north arriving home in the early evening for a meal with my family to catch up with their news. Later that evening, I watched Match of the Day and the game was featured with the legendary Barry Davies commentating. Today’s referee is Roger Dilkes from Mossley. I was proud and pleased to have been given a mention on such a momentous occasion, one I shall never forget. A stand is now named at Stamford Bridge after Matthew Harding. I never met him but I almost feel as though I know him. ‘MATTHEW HARDING REST IN PEACE.’ Thanks for reading this blog from Roger Dilkes