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GILES SMITH’S FRIDAY THOUGHTS

In his final column of 2018/19, Chelsea fan Giles Smith declares the football season formally over, but not before picking a fight over some views regarding the Europa League final venue and telling TV producers to have a word with themselves…


Were you there? That’s going to be the question, isn’t it? Did you go?

Famously, you could fill Ivanhoe’s nightclub in Huddersfield a thousand times over with the people who claim they were in the house on Christmas Day in 1977 for the last ever UK show by the Sex Pistols. My hunch is that, in due course, if you add up the number of Chelsea fans claiming to have been in the ground when Chelsea ploughed aside Arsenal to lift the Europa League on 29 May 2019, you will have enough to fill the Olympic Stadium in Baku… well, once would be a start.

Full disclosure: I wasn’t there. I confess I was defeated by the hurdles UEFA laid between all of us and the match in terms of cost, time and general willingness to fly to Tbilisi and get on a bus. (I once went to Tbilisi, as a journalist, with England. It was enough.) Plus it was Arsenal, and I can’t deny that the humdrum, domestic nature of the opposition, too, was a factor when everything was being weighed up. Bate Borisov I might have travelled for; Arsenal, not.

Others, though, were stronger in the face of those considerable obstacles, and the glory shall be theirs forever more. I can only admire them – and now, given the way it turned out, envy them. To have earned your Baku badge: respect.
 

There has been a lot of complaining, though, along the way, hasn’t there? And it seems to continue a bit. To complaints about the location of the stadium, we can now add complaints about the stadium itself. A ground fit for a European final? Some would argue that it wasn’t really a football ground. So great was the acreage of masked running track surrounding the pitch that some of the stands were in another postal district from their nearest goal. As Gary Lineker tweeted, it would be galling to travel all that way and then find you weren’t that much closer to the pitch than when you set out.

Still, I think we need to pick a fight here. It is clearly one thing for some people to dispute the choice of Azerbaijan as hosting nation on the grounds of its human rights record and its policies on entry as they relate to Armenians. But it is surely quite another to dispute it on the grounds that it was a long way away and a bit weird. It’s European competition. It’s meant to be a long way away and a bit weird. That’s the point.

People have also been hotly complaining that the final wasn’t organised with the convenience of the finalists in mind. But a) why should it be? And b) how could it be, when the location was picked in 2017 and when nobody knows until three weeks beforehand who the finalists are going to be in any case?

Also, the choice of Baku wasn’t exactly a secret. The Europa League slogan this year was ‘Together to Baku,’ and it’s been pinned to the tournament from the very beginning. Baku only seemed to become an issue when it was too late and when, by a quirk of fortune, both finalists would be obliged to travel there from the same country, and indeed, the same city. But the fault there lies in the format of the tournament, surely, not in the choice of the location for the final.
 

Shame, though, about all the empty seats and the perhaps less than electric atmosphere. On television, the ground was quiet enough that you could hear Maurizio Sarri continuing to bark instructions at the players, even at 4-1 with three minutes remaining. No let-up. The manager seemed to be in possession of a large cigar after the match but I’m not sure it’s what his throat needed.

A shout out in sympathy, though, to the young Arsenal fan picked up by the cameras, in tears near the end of the game. Typically at these moments, the distraught supporter catches sight of themselves on the big screen and then explodes with delight at their big moment in the pixels, rather defeating the point. Not so with this chap. By no means pausing to wave, grin, point or bounce at himself, he could be seen mournfully telling the adult beside him, ‘I’m on TV.’ So, a proper fan, clearly. (And he was there, so perhaps that goes without saying.)

However, not only did the sight of his discomfort being beamed, 40-feet tall, to all corners of the ground not bring him any relief, it actually appeared to compound his misery. Now, I’m as ready as anyone to be shown live pictures of Arsenal supporters in distress near the end of European finals against Chelsea – purely in a quest to understand the full complexity of the perennial human drama which is football, you understand. But lingering close-ups of kids in tears, that the kids themselves can see? The producers should have a word with themselves.

Great second-half performance, meanwhile. My Man of the Match was Mateo Kovacic, who (fact) is now only the second Croatian footballer ever to win both the Europa League and the Champions League, Ivan Rakitic being the other one. Not that you saw much fuss about this being made in the press (no pull-outs, no wrap-around specials), but then I think Kovacic has been crudely under-appreciated all season. True, he lost something for me when he went from long-sleeved to short-sleeved shirts, but I’ve found it harder than many to fault him for guts and in Baku he was simply immense.

Otherwise I’m not sure which of Olivier Giroud’s contributions was cleverer: the diving header at risk of decapitation for the opening goal or the scooped-out pass to Eden Hazard for the fourth. And, incidentally, if that really was Hazard’s last appearance, then who among us would begrudge him? Not after all these years of sometimes breath-taking excellence while getting routinely kicked to pieces, match after match. And yet, with the possible exception of Gianfranco Zola, has there ever been a more even-tempered player in a Chelsea shirt? Hazard appears to exist in a bubble all his own, both temperamentally and skill-wise. Wherever he chooses to take that bubble in the future (and I think we’re all in a position to make a guess), he’ll take our admiration and gratitude with him.
 

If the Hazard aspect added extra emotional weight to lifting of the trophy, it was stirring, too, that the best player with a runners-up medal was Petr Cech. Does he really need to retire? Those one-handed saves in the second-half, to left and to right, that kept the score from becoming completely unpresentable, didn’t straightforwardly suggest so, and even after Eden had put one past him and rendered the prospect unlikely, I wouldn’t have particularly fancied our chances in a penalty shoot-out against him, not given what we know about Cech and penalty shoot-outs in European finals. Anyway: what a goalkeeper and what a career. I’m glad he didn’t get to sign off in triumph, but had we lost, it would have been the one readily available consolation.

As it was, what a great way to bring the curtain down on a troubled season – a season so troubled, in fact, that we only finished third in the league, went to the Carabao Cup final and scored four goals to win the Europa League. May we have many more troubled seasons like it.

And now we can formally declare football over for the summer. There is nothing more to watch, and nothing more to do. All the prizes are allotted, all the reckonings are reckoned, and there is nothing ahead to occupy us now except maybe the prospect of a holiday and perhaps some light cricket, courtesy of the World Cup which has just begun.

Ah well. It all begins again soon enough. And we’ll always have Baku.
 

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