With the decade anniversary fast approaching, it’s no surprise that authors are turning an eye towards Chelsea’s maiden Champions League triumph. If the 2021 victory was considered possible, but unlikely, 2012’s journey to the European summit was for all intent and purposes seemingly impossible. Today, we review one of these narratives: Out of the Blue: Chelsea’s Unlikely Champions League Glory.
Gary Thacker’s skilful retelling of what Martin Tyler calls ‘the greatest night in Chelsea’s history’ melds facts, opinions and critical contributions from other key protagonists to weave a superbly readable piece. We begin in 2008 with that fateful night in Moscow and end lapping up adulation on the fields in Munich.
The (Not So) Special One
What is most impressive about Gary’s book is the ability to remain omnipresent. Even when he is introducing us to Andre Villas-Boas – ‘Mourinho Mk. II’, we are left in no uncertain terms it is a gamble. Beneath his sweeping coat and excellent record in Portugal, it’s quite clear they are not the same.
As the Group Stage campaign unfolds, AVB’s battles with the old guard perforate every matchday. It’s clear by the Valencia home game this is a split dressing room. Thacker does not absolve AVB of blame. He unpicks his inability to make big calls and control egos.
At the same time, he does express sympathy for the Portuguese. It is clearly a bridge too far for the young man. This is most evident in the Napoli fixture. As the rain pours down, it signals the end of his tenure. A painful managerial slow death is critically explored via subsequent league and cup matches. By the time he is sacked, you feel nothing but pity for a clearly broken man.
Enter Di Matteo
Enter Di Matteo and a change. Or rather, as Gary explains well, a return to old terms. This was not a grand revolution. Rather a reversion to old ways. Particularly enlightening is his discussion of Di Matteo and John Terry pre-Napoli at home.
Di Matteo’s ability and charisma to rouse the senior players is evident. Stamford Bridge is the site of one of the great UCL comebacks. It’s at this point the author’s tone changes somewhat. It’s no longer a total impossibility. Of course, with the omniscient view we have, that’s easy to say. But Thacker successfully manages to delve us into the thoughts of columnists and pundits alike at the time to highlight shifting perceptions. This was no longer a mentally weak Chelsea as observed during the opening chapters.
Up for the Cup
Although the book in general focuses on the UCL, there is ample reference to Chelsea’s victorious FA Cup campaign too. In part, this serves as a timely reminder that the Blues did indeed do the Double. However, it also excellently highlights Di Matteo’s ability to rotate to keep people happy. Furthermore, Thacker demonstrates the dichotomy between AVB and Di Matteo. The former labours in ties against lowly Portsmouth, QPR and Birmingham. The latter sweeps aside Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur.
The Spurs fixture, in particular, is highlighted for the reliance on the old guard – something which comes into play in the final UCL rounds. The author expertly highlights the ability of the senior players a) to perform in big matches, and b) to rouse the younger less experienced names to perform.
The FA Cup Final demonstrates this perfectly as the author contends. The ‘new blood’ combines for the first goal- Mata releases Ramires to slot home. Then the old guard shine. Lampard plays in Drogba who adds one final notch to his Wembley legacy. Petr Cech, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole all play their parts at the other end. Thacker’s commentary on Cech’s unbelievable save from Andy Carroll is particularly memorable.
One Night in the Nou Camp
Thacker takes a unique perspective on the Barcelona fixture. Whilst he does not shy away from crediting Chelsea’s rearguard display, he is surprisingly critical of Barcelona. In part, this is justified. For a side many were calling the best in history, such a tie should have been a formality. But a combination of luck, imperious defending and profligate finishing ensures Chelsea take a lead to Spain.
It’s notable that Thacker points out the contribution of Ramires in the 1st leg. Whilst many remember his second leg goal, the author adroitly points out similar runs in the first leg. It was a clear tactical masterclass from Di Matteo to subdue Barcelona’s ability to push on wingbacks and again it pays dividends.
The second leg is retold with the same uncertainty that pervaded the Nou Camp that night. Blind hope turns to sheer desperation. Injuries decimate the squad. Thacker points out the suspension issues looming large over a number of players. When Chelsea are two down and reduced to 10 – captain John Terry sent off for a ridiculous challenge, the narrative seemingly shifts almost from fact to fiction.
It’s pure Roy of the Rovers as a truly unbelievable comeback plays out over the chapter. Ramires chips Valdes to give the Blues hope. Lionel Messi – all-conquering Argentinian superstar smashes a penalty against the bar. He hits the post. Alexis’s effort is disallowed. The sheer amount of detail and critique that Thacker packs into the pages make it seem as if the game is unfolding in front of you again.
There’s a real rush of emotion as Torres rounds Victor Valdes. My own emotions from that night come flooding back to me. It’s evident this is a sentiment echoed by the author.
Their City, Their Stadium, Our Trophy
As expected, the book climaxes in Munich. By this point, Thacker’s objectiveness does at points slip. However, I am not going to blame an author for being passionate! Even in the historical context, there is a bizarre nervousness that pervades the text. Somehow, there is almost a possibility for the result to change. Thacker skilfully dissects the team selection. His valid criticism contends this is a Chelsea side happy to roll with the punches and attempt a knock-out blow on the counter. There are apt points about the names that are missing, but also about the surprise factors too. Ryan Bertrand in particular gets the spotlight on him. It still to the day remains an excellent quiz question – ‘Which player made their UCL debut in the Final?’
The sheer detail packed into the final chapters make them well worth multiple examinations. On my initial reading, I was happy to just soak up the memories. Jose Bosingwa, David Luiz, Gary Cahill marshalled by Ashley Cole making up the unlikely rear guard. Lampard and John Obi Mikel – players who Thacker reminds us were sidelined by AVB – in the midfield axel. Kalou, Mata and Bertrand as the functional if not spectacular triumvirate behind the talismanic Didier Drogba. I don’t think I have the words that can suitably summarise how well the author balances the attack versus defence duel of the final.
One Chance, One Moment, One Goal
When Thomas Muller scores, all hope appears lost. There is a change of tone. So close yet so far. However, the grandiose moments of Chelsea’s single corner of final, and Drogba’s towering header defy description. I’ll again forgive the author for allowing his neutral mask to slip – you can tell pure elation and joy permeates this section.
Agony turns to ecstasy back to agony again as we relive extra time. The will-they-won’t-they tone reaches a peak. Robben’s penalty saved by Cech. Olic’s miss. Gomez’s sitter. The pace goes haywire in the writing to reflect the frantic nature of the game.
At last, we come to the penalties. Without wanting to spoil it, this was my favourite part of the text. It’s emotional, dramatic, passionate and critical all at the same time. It’s cruel irony that the Bavarian Bastian Schweinsteiger becomes the villain of the piece – something the author is well aware of. Equally, they are aware of the significance of Drogba stepping up.
As he rolls the penalty home, the credits of the film begin to roll. There is time taken to explore the celebrations, but the narrative of the text is underpinned by the impossible story. Chelsea’s triumph did come absolutely Out of the Blue.
I would thoroughly recommend Gary’s book, not only to Chelsea fans, but to football fans alike that want to be reminded of the most miraculous UEFA Champions League triumph in history. A tour-de-force of footballing history, that blends opinion, fact, analysis and critical interjections to bring to life a true sporting miracle.