GILES SMITH: EARNING IT

Posted on: Thu 14 Mar 2013

Replays and the rearing of future sports participants are occupying the thoughts of columnist Giles Smith, prior to taking his seat in the Matthew Harding Stand tonight…


Finally, a date has been found for our FA Cup replay against Manchester United. And the good news is, it's going to happen this season. The fixture list is looking so absurdly crowded in this most football-rich of seasons that, for a while there, it looked like the earliest anyone would be able to come up with would be 14 November 2015.

But no. A bit of Easter shuffling means that match away at Southampton comes forward from Easter Sunday to Saturday and the United replay goes in on the Easter Monday - with a possible Europa League quarter-final to follow on the Thursday, assuming everything goes according to plan tonight and the dream of Europa glory in Amsterdam in May stays alive.

Clearly, it's all very tight. My solution would have been far simpler. It would have been to replace the coming weekend's match against West Ham. You wouldn't need to find a day on which to reschedule it, because you could send it to the pools panel instead. Obvious home win.

Yet for some reason this suggestion has not be taken up by the people who matter. Odd. How will we ever rid the game of fixture congestion if there is no real will at the highest level to solve it?

Wayne Rooney had a terrible old time of it last week. He was dropped for the Champions League game against Real Madrid and awoke the next day to newspapers shouting that his time at Manchester United was effectively over.

And then he awoke the day after that to newspapers saying that, when United did get rid of him (as they most surely would), nobody else would want him either, being unable to afford his wages or just basically unimpressed.

All of which seemed a bit caustic and a bit sudden - from high-flying Premier League star and club poster-boy (in a manner of speaking) to lonely, unemployed, ginger-bearded bloke in a caravan in the blink of an eye, just like the old ad from the 2010 World Cup implied.

Eventually, of course, everyone settled down and realised that, likely as not, Rooney still did have a future at United, and that, even if he didn't, there would be someone somewhere who would take him in and make sure he was warm and had enough to eat for the next couple of years.

Nevertheless, I think it's worth bearing that whole storm in mind when one thinks back and tries to make sense of that puzzling goal he scored against us in the FA Cup tie on Sunday.

Initially, it was a goal which resisted all explanation. How did it come to happen? How did a ball hit so softly, and without menace, somehow manage to float past our entire defensive line, plus our goalkeeper, and end up in our goal? I think you could have turned Professor Brian Cox onto that one, with a full set of the tapes from every camera angle, and still not come up with a solution acceptable to conventional science.

Place the goal, though, in the context of Wayne's utterly miserable week - a week when the entire world seemed to have turned against him - and suddenly some light is shed.

You'll know, I'm sure, how grown-ups, playing football with kids in the garden, often allow the kids to score - pretend to go for the ball or the tackle, but, while looking like they're trying as hard as they can, allow the kid to go past them or the ball to go in. That just seems like the right thing to do, as a parent. The odds are stacked comprehensively against your children in that context, but you give them that little moment of glory to encourage them, to make them see that the world can be a good place in which good things happen to them.

And perhaps that was the case, in a way, with Rooney's soft free kick. Everything had turned so ridiculously and so unfairly against him in the build-up to the match. So we gave him a goal to get his chin off the ground and put him in a better mood in the back of the car on the journey home.

Good for us, if so.


Of course, there are other kinds of parent and other approaches to parenting. The great tennis player, Ivan Lendl (pictured below right), now Andy Murray's coach, once explained that he never used to let his kids win at anything - table tennis, Scrabble, Twister, you name it - until they were actually good enough to beat him. If you wanted the prize of victory over daddy Lendl, you had to earn it. He thought this taught his children to be competitive in an honest and realistic environment.

Which, I guess, looks a little cold written down like that. On the other hand, three of Lendl's daughters went on to be good enough at golf to qualify for a professional card on the US circuit (and to be able to whup Lendl from time to time, who is, apparently, no mean golfer himself), so it obviously to some extent worked.

Lendl

Now, call me an old softie, but something in me instinctively reacts against the Lendl way - and it's the same for our team, clearly, as evidenced on Sunday. No judgment is intended. You do what you think best.

That said, in the eventual replay, even if it means going against our natural, more kindly tendencies, maybe we should force ourselves to take the Lendl path to child-rearing and ensure that, this time, if Rooney wants a goal, he has to get it for himself.

Assuming he's picked, of course. And that he's still at the club.

Old Trafford has always been a place of unusual inspiration for songs - somewhere that seems to set the creative juices flowing among Chelsea fans like few others. What New Jersey is to Bruce Springsteen, you could argue, Old Trafford is to our travelling support.

I still fondly recall returning from Manchester in 1996 on a train ringing to renditions of 'When the ball hits the back of the Old Trafford net, that's Vialli.'

That remains my second favourite quickly improvised football song of all time, after one which is sadly unsuitable for complete reproduction here, but which followed a 5-0 victory over United at the Bridge in 1999. It was set to the tune of 'The Camptown Races' and began 'Who put the ball in the Man U net/ Half the, half the'.

Nevertheless, though it didn't quite reach those two pinnacles, I did feel that Sunday afternoon's joyful taunt of 'We'll race you back to London' was up there with the best. The so-called Theatre of Dreams still apparently works its old magic.

Just to be absolutely clear, that stuff in the first bit of this column about the West Ham game was a joke. I don't want the pools panel sitting at a distance and telling me that game is an obvious home win. I want to be there to see the obvious home win in person.