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Sparky takes a trip down the memory lane


abramovich
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MARK Hughes is determined to destroy Jose Mourinho's quadruple dream at Old Trafford on Sunday - even though he's a closet Chelsea supporter!

Blackburn Rovers' impressive manager was an impressionable schoolboy growing up in North Wales when he became enchanted by a flamboyant Chelsea side, containing Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood and Ian Hutchinson, that won the FA Cup in 1970 following a thrilling replay with Leeds United.

From that moment on, Hughes and many of his school friends became hooked on the Londoners, and he later went on to fulfil a childhood ambition by signing for the club when he left Manchester United in 1995.

Now fast-forward to the present day, and Hughes and his Blackburn players stand between Chelsea and a piece of football history as the sides prepare to meet in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

A victory for Blackburn would not only wreck Chelsea's dream of completing a clean sweep of the Carling Cup, the FA Cup, the Premier League title and the Champions League, it would also make Hughes hugely unpopular in the Welsh village of Ruabon, where blue is still the colour.

But Rovers' fiercely ambitious manager is ready to sacrifice a few long-standing friendships in his pursuit of glory with Blackburn.

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"It's true I was a Chelsea fan but I think you'll find there are a lot of 40-plus Chelsea fans out there," said the Welshman.

"At that age, you always latch onto the first club that is successful at that time.

"When I first realised there were football clubs to support, I was probably six or seven years of age and the club at that time was Chelsea, who had just won the FA Cup.

"A lot of my friends from school are still Chelsea fans so they were delighted when I eventually signed for them because that meant they had free tickets!"

Hughes' remarkable love affair with the FA Cup can be traced back to that final of 1970, his earliest football memory.

Chelsea, an expressive, glamorous and often self-destructive side, faced Leeds in the final and after they drew 2-2 in the first game, the Londoners came back from a goal down to win the replay 2-1, ironically at Old Trafford.

"That was the first FA Cup final I can remember and because Chelsea won, I picked them as my team and so did a lot of my friends as well," recalls Hughes.

"I remember we even used to practice Ian Hutchinson's long throws in the playground!"

It was from such humble beginnings that a football icon was born, Hughes going on to emulate his heroes of the Seventies by carving out a successful career of his own at the highest level.

In two trophy-laden spells with Manchester United, the Welsh gladiator left his own indelible mark on the Cup by winning it on three separate occasions, in 1985, 1990 and 1994.

Then when Sir Alex Ferguson surprisingly called time on Hughes' United career after they lost the title to Blackburn in 1995, one of English football's most decorated players moved on to Chelsea, where he enjoyed yet more Cup success.

"When I went there it was nothing like the club it is now," said Hughes, who arrived at Stamford Bridge on the same day as Ruud Gullit.

"There was one rusting stand, one brand new one, a hole in the ground at one end, and The Shed at the other.

"The training ground wasn't great either. We always used to get Wednesdays off, which was a good thing, because the training ground wasn't owned by the club, it was owned by a local college, so we had to get off for all the students.

"But I went there at the right time because that was an exciting period in the club's history. We were able to win trophies for the first time in a long time."

Hughes won three trophies in as many years at Chelsea, including another FA Cup - his fourth as a player - when Middlesbrough were beaten 2-0 at Wembley in 1997.

Middlesbrough's preparations for the final were ruined by a fight between Fabrizio Ravanelli, their tempremental Italian striker, and several of his team-mates on the morning prior to the game.

"One of my best mates in football, Clayton Blackmore, had just signed for Middlesbrough so he told me about that," recalls Hughes.

With Boro in total disarray, Chelsea midfielder Roberto Di Matteo scored after just 42 seconds - the fastest goal in Wembley's FA Cup history - and a second from Eddie Newton sealed a comfortable win.

That was the last time Hughes got his hands on the famous old trophy, but a decade on, and now a manager, the 43-year-old has the scent of Wembley in his nostrils once again.

"Semi-finals are only great occasions if you win them," said Hughes, looking ahead to Sunday's game.

"If you ask anyone who were the beaten FA Cup semi-finalists no-one knows.

"When you get an opportunity like this you've got to take it, and we intend to."

Chelsea had better beware!

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