The Dane’s strike against Liverpool on the final day of the 2002-03 Premier League season proved key to the Blues’ transformation into an elite club.
On May 11, 2003, Jesper Gronkjaer scored the most important goal in Chelsea’s history.
The Dane knew it was a crucial strike at the time. Champions League qualification was on the line for both Chelsea and Liverpool as they faced off at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the Premier League season, but the cash-strapped hosts were particularly desperate for victory.
Indeed, Chelsea’s then-chief executive Trevor Birch told the players in the dressing room before kick-off that they needed to win to help the club avoid financial ruin.
The future looked bleak when Liverpool captain Sami Hyypia opened the scoring after 11 minutes, only for Gronkjaer to take centre stage as he crossed for Marcel Desailly to quickly level matters before then netting himself after cutting into the Liverpool penalty box just before the half-hour mark and firing home left-footed to secure a fourth-placed finish for his side.
Six weeks later, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, with their presence in the Champions League having played a massive role in the Russian oligarch’s decision.
Abramovich would go on to invest more than £1 billion in the club over the next 15 years, as Chelsea became one of the biggest and most successful clubs in Europe, winning five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, two Europa Leagues and a Champions League.
Gronkjaer’s winner against Liverpool, then, did not just help save Chelsea from financial ruin; it also helped them become a member of Europe’s elite.
“All of the staff knew it was a massive game,” the former winger tells Goal. “But we didn’t know quite how important it would be.
“There were rumours at the time of big financial problems. There was even talk that there wouldn’t be enough money to pay our salaries at the end of the month.
“So, as a group of players, we knew qualifying for the Champions League was really important, money-wise. We didn’t know for sure what was going on but it was a feeling we had at the time.
“We spoke to (manager) Claudio Ranieri and (former chairman) Ken Bates and it was clear Chelsea were struggling, but we didn’t know they were for sale.
“We knew something was up, though, as we only signed Enrique de Lucas for free in the summer. So, we knew the club couldn’t match fees paid by other clubs.
“Nobody could have imagined what would happen with Abramovich but I remember that game against Liverpool so well because it was so big. There was just this feeling of relief afterwards that we had qualified.
“Later that summer, I was in my house when all of a sudden my dad asked me if I had seen the news: a Russian guy has bought the club.
“At that time, I had never experienced a change of owner before, so I didn’t expect anything big to happen. But we soon found out a lot of money would be put into the club.
Frank Lampard, John Terry, Roman Abramovich
“We were still training in the same place when we came back for pre-season, so it didn’t feel too different initially.
“But, suddenly, all of the world’s best players in every position were rumoured to be coming to Chelsea. I don’t think you would have been able to find a single Chelsea player who wasn’t worried about their future during that pre-season.
“We were in a training camp in Italy in a small town in the mountains. There was a cafe in the town that players could visit and you saw many of them sitting in corners, talking to their agents, asking what they should do because no one knew what was happening.
“Then, on our tour of Malaysia, I remember players walking in and out, being bought and sold. Overnight, we became a team who had to compete for the Premier League and try to win the Champions League. It was a big difference.
“It was unique at the time and I don’t think it would be possible today to repeat what happened. Even at Manchester City.
“They brought in Sergio Aguero and David Silva and these are great players but they were young at the time they were signed. They weren’t yet among the greatest players in the world.
“They are still signing players like Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Club or Kevin De Bruyne, who was very good but still coming through at Wolfsburg.
“But Chelsea back then were signing players from the elite, like Juan Sebastian Veron. From day one they were also adding the best of English football, like Joe Cole and Damien Duff.”
Indeed, in the summer of 2003 alone, Chelsea signed 10 new players, including Veron, Cole, Duff, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makelele, at a cost of £113 million ($140m) – a colossal outlay at the time.
Juan Sebastian Veron Chelsea
Gronkjaer survived the overhaul but departed the following year, after Jose Mourinho had replaced Claudio Ranieri as manager. The former Ajax star does not regret leaving Stamford Bridge, though he does regret choosing Birmingham City as his next destination.
“I remember meeting Mourinho a few times in the corridors at Stamford Bridge but I never really got to know him as I had a longer holiday than usual after Euro 2004 while my mother also died that summer,” the former Ajax star reveals.
“So I chose to transfer to Birmingham City, but that was a huge mistake. I thought because my mum died and I had a family that I would be better off in the UK but it was not a good experience at Birmingham.
“It wasn’t because of Birmingham but because I wanted to go to Spain, as I had good offers from Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Valencia.
“But my mental health was not okay when I was moving because of my mum. I should have gone to Spain for something new and, after just a few months at Birmingham, I knew it wasn’t the place I should be.
“It was my mistake and nothing to do with Birmingham, where we had good players and a good manager. It was one of those mistakes that I learned from but I am not proud of.
“Birmingham did all they could to go to the next level with Emile Heskey and me. But it was the wrong choice from me. My dream was to go to Spain.”
He realised that dream in 2005 when he joined Atletico Madrid, but Gronkjaer struggled to settle in the Spanish capital and so moved on to Stuttgart just six months later.
Gronkjaer would spend only a year in Germany before returning to his native Denmark to line out for FC Copenhagen, but he has no regrets about the way in which his career panned out.
“In the end, I took in a lot of countries, thankfully,” says Gronkjaer, who is now a pundit on TV3 Sport in Denmark, while he also works in a real estate business.
“I played in great clubs all over the world with great team-mates. So, I will always have that.”
He’ll also always have a special place in the hearts of Chelsea fans having scored the most important goal in the club’s history.