GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS
With fewer games to fill the week for once, columnist and supporter Giles Smith finds he has time to think about time…
Funny period, this. Everything is going right, except for the bits that are going wrong. And, unfortunately, the bits that are going wrong tend to be the bits that everyone ends up talking about.
Last Saturday, for example, we fought ourselves into a powerfully dominant position at Newcastle, which is rarely entirely easy - and then lost. Prior to that, we had utterly thrashed Reading - and drawn. In recent weeks, we have played QPR right off the pitch - and gone under. And we have made Swansea appear to be a League One side who were down to nine men - and been soundly beaten.
Alas, what everyone remembers and dwells on about these blazingly contradictory events, is the losing, the drawing, the losing again and the going out, as opposed to the dominating, the thrashing, the playing off the pitch and the humiliating.
Of course, it would help if games ended after 90 minutes, like they're supposed to.
90 minutes, that is, without the now obligatory, man-size extra helping of 'time added on', which has done us very few favours in recent weeks. Indeed, 'time added on' has pretty much done for us every time.
If games ended after 90 minutes, we would have got three points at Reading and a draw at Newcastle and would currently be just three points behind Manchester City, five points clear of Tottenham in fourth, and eight points clear of the dreaded and technically disastrous (from a long-term planning point of view) fifth place.
And if games ended after 90 minutes we would have only taken a 1-0 deficit to Swansea for the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final, where the 0-0 draw would have been enough to… well, it would have been enough to put us out, in fact. However, it would have looked and felt slightly better. Possibly.
It's probably news to younger fans, but there didn't used to be this thing called 'time added on'. It's a relatively new-fangled invention. In its place there used to be something called 'injury time' and it only accrued if there had been an injury. No illuminated boards in those days, and no fourth official doing a sum on a piece of paper. After an hour and a half, the ref would take a view on how much time had been spent scraping wounded players off the pitch, then add a minute or two, entirely at his own discretion and depending how cold or bored he was.
Nowadays, by contrast, time added on is an industry employing hundreds of people. There's 30 seconds for each substitution, allegedly. Then there'll be a kind of 'guesstimate' on minutes lost to throw-ins and goal kicks and other more flagrant pieces of time-wasting. Then there'll be two extra minutes on top of that if Manchester United are deemed to require them.
It's a mess. And a mess that's seemingly subject to inflation. Very rarely now do you see a board go up on 90 minutes with a smaller number than 3 on it. Most often it's 4. Sometimes it's 5. And at Old Trafford it's 7. Didn't it used to be 2? What happened to 2? And what happened to 1, for that matter? You'll see 1s and 2s after 45 minutes, but almost never after 90. I'd blame television, because television is to blame for everything else - except that even television hates time added on. It delays commercial breaks, creates scheduling chaos and is altogether a random pain.
Similarly for us. Time added on has been our ruination of late. But the positive aspect of this, if you think about it, and looking at those performances against Reading and Newcastle in particular, is that we're only four minutes away from being a really solid side. Or whatever figure the fourth assistant holds up on 90 minutes. Let's say we're three or four minutes away from greatness on average - plus a couple more at Old Trafford. Three or four minutes is nothing, relatively speaking. Surely we can turn it around.
Last night was the first Wednesday in 2013 that we haven't had a match. I rather enjoyed it. Nothing good has happened to us on any single one of those Wednesdays. Five Wednesdays, five pokes in the eye with a pencil.
So, much as one generally loves a midweek game (loves them even more than a weekend game, normally speaking), it was quite nice, on this occasion, to be able to settle back and not to have to wince at dropping points to Reading/Southampton/QPR etc. - but instead just, you know, live a normal, unmolested life for a while.
This week was also the first with no midweek game of any kind for us since the one beginning 12 November, just under three months ago. The team has played 23 matches in that short space of time - or roughly what most Scottish teams would regard as an entire season. And all compressed into the worst part of the year for weather.
So, obviously, with no midweek match, our players had a desperately needed opportunity to kick back a bit, use the week to heal and train properly, and focus on the objective of taking three points off Wigan at home on Saturday afternoon.
But what happens? Internationals happen. Half our first team ends up at Wembley, running their legs off in honour of the FA's 150th birthday. Others disappear off to even more remote corners of the universe for equally tiring and, frankly, equally unnecessary duties.
I don't know why the individual national football associations concerned couldn't have looked at the three months those players have just had and granted a special dispensation for Chelsea players to sit this international week out - or even forbidden them to be involved.Too much to hope for FIFA to take the sensible, long view with the game's best interests at heart, though.