Posted on: Thu 22 Aug 2013

A flustered Giles Smith, following a late dash, was inside Stamford Bridge to witness us record a second successive win, and while he may not be match fit at present, our columnist is back in action regardless...

I've got to hold up a hand and admit it: I'm not match fit.

This much was all too clearly apparent last night when, late for the match against Aston Villa, I ran through the streets from the car to the ground. My movement and positioning were OK but I was definitely lacking that first yard - that initial burst, that little bit of sharpness that only comes when you've got a few games under your belt and the season is properly underway.

I reckon I'd be looking to shave at least a minute and a half off my time for that kind of run come, say, early October. Indeed, I wouldn't even be late for kick-off in the first place.

However, my lack of match-fitness was even more painfully apparent in the last 10 minutes of the game, when I was conspicuously flagging, and probably ought to have been substituted, in fact, although that wasn't an option at the time.

You'll know what the situation was. We were defending a one-goal lead and being put under some fairly worrying pressure. Admittedly it was, as our manager carefully pointed out afterwards, 'direct' or, as one might say, 'long-ball' pressure. But it still felt worrying.

There were a couple of moments in that spell in the game when Petr Cech found himself doing things you would rather he didn't have to do, and, quite frankly, I wasn't ready for it. Not ready for it physically or mentally. Can any of us genuinely say we were? I've fallen completely out of the rhythm of those kinds of situation over what's been a long summer.

Could I have done more in pre-season? Possibly. But it's too late to worry about that now.

What I was struggling to acclimatise to at this stage was the old anxiety of waiting for a game to end, the feelings that buzz through you so wearingly during that experience. Of course, all the usual markers were there, the things you time it by: the appearance of the stewards round the edge of the pitch, marking 10-minutes-to-go; the announcement of the attendance a couple of minutes after that; and then, penultimately, the raising of the extra time board - which last night, agonisingly showed five gruelling minutes. (Where did those actually come from? I don't recall the trainers being on even once.)

And hanging over the whole thing was the knowledge that a draw would have been a disaster. Which, of course, thinking sensibly about it, it wouldn't. A draw in the second match of the season would have meant nothing more or less than the loss of two easily recoverable points. But you know how it would have been received, how the headlines would have gone up. Arsenal lost at home on Saturday, in faintly unfortunate circumstances and were directly plummeted into a vat of boiling controversy and handed instant 'crisis' status.

This after just one game. Well, OK, in Arsenal's case, you could argue that it was eight years and one game. But even so. Are these levels of hysteria sustainable over an entire season? I don't know. But I do know, nursing my battered nerve-ends this morning, that I need to be more match-fit.

So, top of the table, then. Although, let's be honest, there shouldn't really be a table. Not yet.

The production of a league table after one game of the season is a relatively recent innovation, and a barking mad one. When I was small, we would have said it was mathematically impossible. But then maths was less sophisticated in those days.

Now it's routine. Moreover, not long ago, people started publishing first-day tables with markers indicating the European and relegation slots - drawing the dotted line of doom across the bottom of the table, after one match.

Topping that for absurdity, the BBC website's league table on Saturday evening actually included arrows of movement - green for up, red for down. These showed that Liverpool, West Ham, Villa, us - in fact pretty much everyone until you got to where Newcastle were sitting, by dint of alphabetical order - were heading downwards. We hadn't even played at this point, of course, but already we were sinking. Manchester United had a green upwards arrow, because their victory in the last fixture of the day had sent them to the top of the table. Arsenal, too, were trending upwards, despite their 1-3 defeat at home to Arsenal, because Swansea, who had lost to Manchester United, had sunk beyond them. Liverpool had won, but the arrow indicated that it had been a bad day for them.

Is this helpful? I think we should ban the drawing of tables until mid-September when enough games have been played to warrant, er, a table.

Then again, if we're top of it, I don't know. Draw away, maybe.


Good to see Mario Stanic of Chelsea acclaimed with the top spot in The Times newspaper's list of 'the five best long-distance strikes' in the history of the Premier League, in honour of the 40-yard volley which the Croatian appended to a short burst of keep-uppy against West Ham in August 2000.

I was there in the crowd at Stamford Bridge that day, I'm proud to say - although I would be even prouder to say it if I didn't recall my exact reaction as Stanic turned and began juggling with the ball and as his intentions became mind-bogglingly clear. My reaction was to heave an aggravated sigh and complainingly mutter words to the effect of: 'Oh, for heaven's sake, Stanic, don't shoot from there.'

But football never was an easy game to call, of course. And it was August. I wasn't match fit.

Mario Stanic after scoring against West Ham

Was the roar that greeted the return of the manager on Sunday the loudest noise heard in the stadium at its present capacity? It caused the ears to ring and I'm struggling to remember anything quite so loud - or certainly so loud and so sustained. You'd have thought it meant a lot to us, or something.