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PL25: Opening day magic as big-spending Chelsea were bested by lowly Coventry City

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week at Football FanCast, we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. We kick off with an opening day thriller that offered up a hat-trick for a daytime TV presenter and put one of that year’s title favourites in disarray.

For opening day highlights we were spoiled for choice. A leading contender was Jurgen Klinsmann’s celebratory dive against Sheffield Wednesday that turned a nation’s jibes on their head. Really though, as iconic as it was, that was a moment – and we’re not doing moments per se.

Or what about Fabrizio Ravanelli’s debut hat-trick that felled Liverpool and beckoned in an exciting era for Middlesbrough. That was right up there demanding attention on our shortlist.

A third choice was Manchester United’s 3-1 loss to Aston Villa in 1995 that prompted the infamous misnomer that you don’t win anything with kids: in truth though, United are amply represented elsewhere in this series, as too are the Villans.

Whereas Coventry City are not, and they thoroughly deserve to be as proud founding members of the glitzy revamped league that Sky insisted was a ‘whole new ball game’. The Sky Blues may now be sadly languishing in the bottom tier courtesy of their abhorrent owners SISU, but in 1997 – five years after the Premier League’s formation – they were celebrating 30 years of being a top flight club. A feat made all the more remarkable by their great escape from the clutches of relegation on the final day of the previous campaign. That minor miracle was achieved under the gruff stewardship of Gordon Strachan who had taken over mid-season from a failing Ron Atkinson and was fast learning the managerial ropes.

Determined to not endure another tortuous relegation slog Strachan bought shrewdly that summer under the restraints of a limited budget, concentrating his search on the bargain baskets of Scandinavia and Holland and returning with steals such as George Boateng and the reliably excellent Roland Nilsson. These soon-to-be Premier League mainstays slotted in alongside established names who read like a roll-call of pub quiz answers – keeper Steve ‘Oggy’ Ogrizovic (who was released by his first club for being too tall); David ‘Bugsy’ Burrows; Gary Breen – in a side that was otherwise garnished with class from the midfield scheming of Gary McAllister. Really though Coventry’s threat – and realistically their best hope for survival that year – was all found up front with a strike partnership in Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby that offered up aerial presence and searing pace. Between them the little and large duo scored 32 goals in 1997/98. Between them they continued the club’s impressive attendance record in the top division.

As opening day opponents go it didn’t get much more challenging than Chelsea even with the Sky Blues having home advantage. Ruud Gullit’s expensively furnished team had lifted the FA Cup just three months earlier and despite the fact we were still six years away from Abramovich’s billions the London giants wasted little time over the summer further adding to their intimidating arsenal. Just 24 hours before kick-off the Blues finalised the transfer of Graeme le Saux meaning that for the second year running they had committed to spending upwards of eleven million pounds. Theirs was a cosmopolitan array of talent that many had tipped for the title, an unsurprising assessment given that their forward options alone astounded: Vialli, Hughes, Zola and Flo all competing for the two available spots and equally capable of devastation.

On a glorious August afternoon, Chelsea soon got into their imperious stride with Zola pulling off little flicks for fun and even Frank Sinclair getting in on the act by cutting inside and putting the visitors ahead with an incongruous individual effort. Moments later however, and with half-time approaching, the away fans were ironically calling their own side ‘boring’ in chant when Dion Dublin stretched his neck muscles to prod home an unexpected equaliser. Against the odds and the possession, Coventry were all square at the break.

The Chelsea dominance continued in the second period and Tore Andre Flo restored their lead with an agile header with twenty minutes remaining. This would be where lesser teams wilted; concede to fate and superiority. There would be others days, against Barnsley, Derby or Leicester, to pick up priceless points. This was the natural order.

Yet going behind for the second time only spurred Coventry into life. It may have been three months ago since they went to Spurs needing a win to stay up but that was still technically their last competitive game and the spirit was still there, still thriving. With the match well into the final quarter, Dion Dublin once again rose uncontested to head home bringing euphoria to Highfield Road.

That Friday, Gullit had set aside time in training to negate the expected aerial threat from the striker who now somewhat surreally hosts Homes Under The Hammer on BBC1. Whatever it was they worked on proved to be utterly futile.

The same goes too for Chelsea’s best efforts in cutting out the long balls that Coventry were always going to resort to in such a fixture. With just a minute left on the clock Paul Telfer fired up a 40 yarder that landed at the feet of Dublin by virtue of a defender’s head. The forward fired it home with aplomb sealing a quite incredible turn-around.

What happened next

With a title challenge failing to materialise Gullit was sacked in February with Vialli taking the hot-seat. The Blues ultimately finished fourth.

Coventry ended the campaign a very respectable 11th, Strachan achieving his objective of steering his side far away from the stresses and misfortunes of a relegation fight.

Article title: PL25: Opening day magic as big-spending Chelsea were bested by lowly Coventry City

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