Late in the match last Saturday lunchtime – very late, as it happens – I realised that I was on the verge of having two experiences that I haven’t had in a very long time: for such a long time, in fact, that I only dimly remembered what it would feel like to have them.
Those experiences were 1) the experience of watching Chelsea lose, and 2) the experience of watching Chelsea lose to Manchester United. Both of these experiences, it seemed to me, had the exotic rarity of unicorns about them, and both of them appeared to be on the cards as the sixth minute of time-added-on wound to its increasingly worrying-looking conclusion.
And so I braced myself, while, at the same time, casting my mind back and taking stock. Watching Chelsea lose? Well, unless you count the FA Community Shield (and, personally, I don’t, unless, of course, we happen to win it, in which case I can more or less be persuaded to, although it’s touch-and-go even then), you had to go all the way back to last season and 13 May to recall what Chelsea losing felt like. And to recall the feeling of Chelsea losing at home, you had to go back even further than that, to 1 April. In other words, more than half a year had elapsed since any of us had known that feeling. And it certainly hadn’t happened so far this season, in any competition, or anywhere.
As for watching Chelsea lose to Manchester United, the last time this had happened at Stamford Bridge was fully six years ago, in 2012 – all the way back in the era of Sir Alex Ferguson. (Note for younger readers: he was the one before David Moyes.) Indeed, in the 17 league and FA Cup fixtures between the two clubs since that day, including the ones at Old Trafford, we have only lost to United twice. A loss at home to United has become one of those things that simply doesn’t come along very often, like a solar eclipse or a train on Southern Rail.
So, all of this was going round in my mind as the referee checked his watch. But then, of course, David Luiz hit the post with that header, and Antonio Rudiger hit David De Gea with his follow up shot and then Ross Barkley hit the back of the net with his follow-up to Rudiger’s follow-up, and from chaos was born the exquisite beauty of a 96th-minute equaliser against United, causing the entire ground, unsurprisingly, to explode colourfully, including the benches, who may have taken their exploding a little too far, but that’s another issue.
So I didn’t end up having either of those experiences, as it happened, but I did get to understand, in a new and extremely visceral way, how there are two kinds of last-gasp equaliser and, accordingly, two kinds of draw. There’s the kind of last-gasp equaliser that Daniel Sturridge scores from distance for Liverpool, which is the draw which feels an awful lot like a defeat. And there’s the kind of last-gasp equaliser that Ross Barkley scores from inside the penalty area for us, which is the kind of draw which feels an awful lot like a victory. Let nobody say that draws are uninteresting. They may, in fact, be football’s most emotionally flexible scoreline.
And, of course, the joy of Saturday’s last-gasp equaliser was intensified because the gasp was so extremely late, deep into a large portion of time added-on, or what used to be known as ‘Fergie Time.’ (Younger readers: you can look this up online.) Except that it would be wrong to apply that label in this instance, because by the term ‘Fergie Time’ people generally meant a mysterious elongation of the game’s time-frame which didn’t necessarily bear any relation to the delays that had been incurred in the standard 90 minutes.
‘Fergie Time’ normally meant additional minutes that had been magicked onto the clock from nowhere, courtesy simply of an unexplained rift in the time-space continuum that was only known at Old Trafford, Ferguson often appearing in those days to have the enviable talent to bend time from the touchline, just by being extremely angry.
Whereas last Saturday there could be no arguing that six additional minutes represented a perfectly reasonable assessment of the time that was owed to us all in compensation at that point in the entertainment, and was, if anything, a bit on the shy side. Why, that down-period in the second half, when Marcus Rashford was either lying down, or going off or being substituted, or, in fact, none of those things, or certainly not immediately, seemed to me to warrant three minutes on the board, all on its own.
Indeed, there was a point where that particular little drama involving Rashford and his future in the match seemed to be pushing for its own series. Will he go, or will he stay? Tune in again next week. Certainly I’ve never known a dead portion in a game quite like it that wasn’t actually the half-time interval and I began to wish, somewhere around two-thirds of the way through it, that I had taken along some work to catch up on or some magazines to read.
On top of that, there was the extra time you could plausibly have added for the stoppages that accrued as a consequence of the fouls on Eden Hazard, including the one that could possibly have merited a penalty and a second yellow card for Ashley Young, had Eden not managed to shoot in the wake of the tackle, sparing the referee both those decisions. That potentially controversial moment was just before United equalised, although I haven’t seen a lot of debate around it, perhaps because subsequent events on the touchline rather consumed people’s attention.
Anyway, six minutes seemed wholly appropriate in the circumstances – and just enough, as it turned out, although another couple on top of that wouldn’t have been entirely outrageous and might have enabled us to push for a winner. Ah well. The fact is, Chelsea are still unbeaten. And Manchester United still haven’t beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the years PF, or Post Fergie. And, on reflection, I can live without both those experiences for as long as you like.