Spurs, Wolves… it’s fair to say these are not the kind of teams to whom we would be hoping to lose at this particular point in 2018. And losing consecutive away games… well, it’s probably equally fair to say we wouldn’t be hoping to do that either, in an ideal world.
Certainly if your ambitions for the season run, at the minimum, to a secure place in the top four, you make life a little difficult for yourself by losing inconveniently scheduled midweek games at Molineux while pretty much everyone around you with the exception of Arsenal is winning comfortably.
However, the fact is that, even after these slips, we are still in the top four and with a home game to follow on Saturday. Okay, that home game happens to be against undefeated Manchester City, when many of us might have preferred it if we could have, say, Fulham back again. But let’s face it, at some point this season somebody is going to have to take three points off City, and it might as well be us and it might as well be now, bouncing back from an embarrassment at Wolves.
Actually, I say ‘embarrassment’ - but is it entirely out of order to lose by the odd goal, an ungiven penalty and a small catalogue of fluffed chances, to Wolves? In the build-up, much was made of the fact that Wolves had only won one point from their last six games – were the only side, in fact, on a run of form worse than Fulham’s. But that was always going to be a dangerously narrow view.
It’s not as though the beginning of the season was another lifetime, after all, and let’s not forget that, during that phase, Manchester City dropped two points against Wolves. Arsenal dropped two points against them at home. And Manchester United also dropped two points against them, but that doesn’t really tell us much because Manchester United seem to be dropping two points against most teams this season.
Anyway, what’s clear is that we are now at that phase in the campaign where we discover that there is a first time for everything. At Wembley the other weekend, it was a first time for losing. Last night it was a first time for taking the lead and then allowing that lead to be reversed. (Nobody had turned a lead around on us this season before Wolves did so. And let’s hope nobody is permitted to do so again.) And on Saturday, if the pattern continues, it will be a first time for City to be defeated in the league. Omens, clearly.
The main disappointment is that last night’s result slightly squanders the small amount of momentum gathered by the two victories since Wembley, in the Europa League and against Fulham, a game which, courtesy of its 12.00 kick-off, became, among many other things, a test-case for how you feel about synchronised fireworks before midday – or, for that matter, any kind of fireworks before midday.
You’ll have your own rules on that kind of thing, I’m sure, but, for me, I guess, going in, it was a bit like kids and ice cream. The responsible parent in me would have said, absolutely no way before lunch. Actually, though, in practice, when the teams eventually came out, and the fireworks were actually going up, it felt more or less fine. I ought to be a more relaxed parent, clearly.
Meanwhile, at least the FA Cup third round draw worked out well enough. Ruud Gullit had one job. He simply had to ensure that ball number 12 came out on his watch, in his hand, on the home side. And, of course, being the player he is, he managed it. I think we always knew he would.
On the other hand, Paul Ince, who also had one job, fastened on to Nottingham Forest at a relatively early stage in the draw when other, far less dangerous options were available. All things considered, he could certainly have done better by us. At the end of the day, the loyalty and the passion for the project weren’t there from the former Manchester United midfielder, and I suppose we couldn’t really expect them to be. But that’s okay. Again, it could have been far worse.
However, the over-riding pleasure of Monday night was to see the ceremony broadcast live from the home of the holders at Stamford Bridge. It was about time something like that happened. Recent years have seen BT Sport drag FA Cup draws all the way up the BT Tower in central London – an iconic destination, no doubt, in its own way, but a venue associated about as strongly with football as the pier at Southsea or Cheddar Gorge. And taking the draw to a glass-backed window at Wembley Stadium, even when there is nobody there except the caretaker, has almost become a default move, without exactly adding to the occasion’s grandeur.
How excellent, then, to see the draw come home for once to Stamford Bridge - a proper football location, thoroughly imbued with the history and spirit of the national game and inextricably bound up in the public imagination with the oldest knock-out competition in the sport’s history. Good work all round.