Pat Nevin: Derby days

One of the big matches of the season against a local rival is on the horizon, and that has columnist and former Blue Pat Nevin licking his lips in anticipation, as well as recalling some fond memories…

One of the games I look forward to more than most every season is Chelsea v Spurs, wherever it is played. For many seasons it has generally been a positive day for the Blues and the phrase Three Point Lane has passed into Chelsea folklore. For this season’s match the Lane is not available but our record at Wembley hasn’t been at all bad for us either. There have only been three defeats in the past 19 duels, so it is with some confidence that we prepare for the game at the weekend.

It will however be anything but easy and a quick look at the league table shows there isn’t a great deal separating the sides at the moment, just one measly point. It is another one of those significant games that gives us all a chance to gauge just where we are at the moment. Matches against others outside of the top six have generally been taken care of with aplomb so far but the ‘big six’ games have been more challenging. Arsenal were beaten at the Bridge but draws against Liverpool and Manchester United showed that the fight for a top-four spot is going to be anything but easy.

In times gone past the number of London derbies always presented a problem for all the capital sides. Whether it is Spurs, Arsenal or West Ham, and even games against Fulham and Palace have a certain edge that can make them difficult fixtures on occasion. Up north, Manchester United v Manchester City or United v Liverpool have the same pressures, but they have never had quite as many real derbies to contend with as the London sides. Yes, I know United v Liverpool isn’t a real derby, but it certainly has the feel of one. It is an inbuilt advantage they have but one that simply has to be dealt with.

I always liked these games for the atmosphere and the tension. No match against the likes of Arsenal or Spurs or West Ham is ever mundane. It is odd but I can’t remember all the goals I scored in my career but I do recall every single one I scored in a derby, whoever I was playing for.

Among them was a diving header against Arsenal at the old away end at the Bridge, never filmed much to my dismay right to this day. A back-post headed winner at Upton Park against West Ham was fun, when Kerry Dixon crossed for me. We must have got mixed up for a moment for that one! There was a curled free-kick at the Shed End against Spurs with Glenn Hoddle in the wall that can never be erased from the memory banks, however long ago it was.

Of course Glenn will be in everyone’s thoughts at the weekend, something both sets of fans will share, if just about nothing else. We of course wish him well in his recovery.

Every player I suspect will be the same. I bet Didier Drogba will always be able to immediately picture the fantastic lash from outside the box against Spurs at Wembley, whether that is this weekend or in 30 years’ time. I suspect any Chelsea fan who witnessed it either live or on TV will feel exactly the same about that one.

That is the thing about derby matches, they are somehow different even though most players try to treat them exactly like any other game in the season. That is the professional thing to do, but yet, it can’t be that simple however hard you try.

I know how painful it can be to score against a former club in normal circumstances, but how much more emotional must it be to score a goal against an old club in a derby? Yes, some may enjoy it even more, but I personally would have found it torture, probably because I never left a club disliking them throughout my career. Fortunately none of our team has to consider that at the weekend, but of course Cesc Fabregas and Olivier Giroud have that dilemma when we play Arsenal.

Derbies are never mundane, but this weekend’s fixture is a particularly tension-filled one. Not to the level of the 2-2 at the Bridge when Spurs lost their chance of the title that went to Leicester. Strangely I always like to mention that one when I get a chance. Nonetheless, with the sides so closely matched and with Arsenal breathing down our collective necks, Wembley will be buzzing as much as any time this season.

That moment when Marcos Alonso scored the 88th-minute winner in the league in 2017 is another that is seared in the memory and it underlines the importance when looking back in years to come. One of the oldest clichés in management is ‘go out there and make yourselves some memories to last a lifetime.’ Well that cliché is never more appropriate than in games like this one.

It may be still only in the first third of the season but it matters, and not just for the bragging rights, the points and the league position. For posterity too. Oh yes, and if you’re a fan it is quite nice to walk into work in the morning with your head held high instead of skulking around trying not to meet the eyes of opposition fans. Maybe that in some ways is the most important point of all in derbies.

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