I suppose, in the football community, this week marks the official end of Christmas. At any rate, we finally, for the first time in ages, find ourselves in the middle of a week without a game in it, and, over and above the timeless arguments about where Twelfth Night officially falls, that seems to me about as strong a signal as any that the festive season is finally over. Certainly if your tree isn’t down by now, it probably ought to be.
From the point of view of the coaching staff and the players, this quiet week will no doubt have meant a welcome return to something more like sensible arrangements in relation to rest, recuperation and preparation times. From the point of view of the supporter, perhaps a bit less positively, it has meant being in the unusual position of casting around to fill the void for midweek entertainment and finding only Blackburn’s FA Cup third round replay against Newcastle, and Southampton’s against Derby, which had their moments, I guess, but weren’t quite the same, really.
Still, we can probably agree that the broader needs of the club – and in particular the fitness of our squad - are the more important concern at this point, so let’s not complain too loudly. The last time our players had the luxury of an entire week between fixtures was when the international break inserted one in the build-up to the Premier League game away to Tottenham, deep in the mists of time, on 24th November, a phase of the season so long ago that I’m struggling to recall it.
What happened at Wembley that particular weekend? Nope. It’s completely gone.
Anyway, in the month and half since then, what with obligations to the Carabao Cup, the Europa League and the FA Cup as well as the Prem, we have played a startling 12 times, nine of those games falling in December alone, with breathing spaces of between three and five days becoming the basic rhythm.
Now, that’s a fairly serious workload for a top-flight side with ambitious targets and aspirations to absolute consistency. When you consider the amount of running that our midfielders, in particular, do as a matter of course in the duration of the average game, it’s a wonder some of them can still stand up at this moment in January, let alone pick out critical match-winning passes against Newcastle.
Anyway, some downtime will have been appreciated, not least for providing a convenient run-up to Arsenal away on Saturday evening. That said, after this regulation week, the schedule pretty quickly gets noisy again – and certainly gets odd. Next week’s Carabao Cup semi-final second leg at home to Tottenham takes place on a Thursday, which is unconventional for domestic cup football. (I’m banking on our greater recent experience of Thursday-night football to put us at an advantage in that one, creating, with any luck, an occasion when Tottenham, in a quite literal sense, don’t know what day it is.)
And then, on the following Sunday, our fourth round FA Cup tie at home to Sheffield Wednesday has been allotted a 6.00pm kick-off. Evensong at the Bridge? I’m fairly confident that I have never attended a match at that particular time on that particular day. Indeed, I’m probably socially conditioned to think of it as a more appropriate time for ‘Antiques Roadshow’ than football. But then flexibility is the watchword these days, and given that this is the season which has already brought us the 6.05pm Europa League kick-off, I guess we’re all as ready as we could be expected to be.
The game against Arsenal took on a little extra colour with the news that Petr Cech intends to retire from playing at the end of the season. Now, I suppose it would be fair to say that, for many of us, the most decorated goalkeeper in the history of this football club technically retired when he moved to north London. What’s certainly not open to dispute is that the most significant portion of his 20-year career also happened to be the most successful passage in our club’s history – and that this was no mere coincidence because Cech was one of the key reasons it WAS the most successful passage in our club’s history.
He was a great goalkeeper, it goes without saying, and a strikingly brave one, it even more goes without saying. But he had also mastered the very specific art of being a great goalkeeper in a great side, a job which requires enhanced levels of skill, concentration and physical readiness and may well sometimes leave you with little to do except get cold for large portions of a match, only to then call on you to stage a telling intervention out of nowhere in the 74th or even the 86th minute.
The obvious contrast would be the performance of David De Gea for Manchester United against Spurs last weekend, which was the classic performance of a great goalkeeper in a not so great side as ours back then. (De Gea was required to make 11 crucial interventions in the course of that match, and he did so brilliantly, although, clearly, with a better defence in front of him, he would never have been so wildly exposed. You just have to think of it as a different application of the goalkeeping art.)
Time and again, and most monumentally in Munich in 2012, Cech produced. We ritually remember Didier Drogba stroking away the definitive penalty – and quite rightly. But it wouldn’t have been there to stroke away without the ones that Cech had already got his hands to. And quite apart from all that he is, patently, an extremely nice person. If his retirement in the summer ultimately brought him back home to a job of some kind here, there isn’t a single fan who wouldn’t feel warmly comforted by it.