Columnist

Giles Smith: The season of the asterisk

With his team having withdrawn its support network for struggling strikers in the most recent game, Chelsea fan and columnist Giles Smith finds himself looking forward to one of those famous Wembley big days at home...


Points are the only thing that really matters at this stage, and on Tuesday night against Norwich, we got three of them. Job done, then. One newspaper accused our players of lacking ‘swagger’, but do you get any extra points for that? I’m not sure you do, and, if I’m right, then this is no time to be worrying about swagger – not with a global pandemic on, a strange tournament-within-a-tournament underway, and a Champions League place at stake.

And yes, just the one goal, which perhaps looks a bit skimpy, but let’s be honest, it could easily have been seven. Would that have been swaggering enough? Had those chances which fell to Olivier Giroud’s shin fallen to his foot instead, he would have had at least a hat-trick. Even as it is, he has six goals in his last eight Premier League starts and showed enough swagger to receive Alan Smith’s Man of the Match Award on Sky.

Meanwhile, at the other end… well, Kepa had so little to occupy him for the length of the night that he might as well have brought along a jigsaw. Result: a clean sheet. We’ve not seen too many of those recently. Not that you get an extra points for them, mind you, so who really cares?

It’s also important to be as grateful for things that didn’t happen as for things that did. In recent games it has occasionally appeared as though we were running a drop-in centre for strikers from other teams who were struggling during the lockdown – and, indeed, had been struggling for quite a long time before it.

David McGoldrick hadn’t scored at all in the Premier League until he did so against us on Saturday. And before the 72nd minute last Tuesday, Christian Benteke hadn’t scored in the Premier League since it was known as League Division One, more or less.

It was beginning to look as though any poor soul who had been stumbling around goalless for a miserably long while would find tea and sympathy round these parts. Now, though I heartily approved of that instinct at the human level, I was never sure it was an altogether sensible approach to this Restart phase and I was pleased to see it firmly resisted against Norwich, even when Teemu Pukki (nothing in the league since he put one past Spurs in the dim and distant month of January) came on quite near the end and, no doubt, set us all wondering.

The great mystery of this extraordinary period (we might also say its great blessing) is that we started out in fourth place, but then, while losing to West Ham and Sheffield United, somehow rose to third. But then, of course, in the season of the asterisk, nothing is quite consistent with life as we normally know it. Forced on us all by unprecedented circumstances, this is a peculiar, arbitrary time in the game’s history, and it would be more surprising if peculiar and arbitrary things didn’t happen during it than if they did. Crazy things like Leicester getting turned over by Bournemouth, say, or Liverpool clinching the league one minute and getting pummelled back to medieval times the next, or Spurs scoring twice in one game as they did against Arsenal on Sunday. All we can reasonably do is cling on until the end of this mad ride and see where we are when the dust settles.

Next up, though, the semi-finals of the FA Cup, one of the two knock-out trophies for which we remain in contention, here in mid-July. No doubt the age-old debate will once again be dusted down, as it always is when this time rolls around: should the behind-closed-doors semi-finals be held at Wembley? Shouldn’t Wembley be preserved for the really big behind-closed-doors occasions, such as the final, postponed NFL games and cancelled Taylor Swift shows?

Now, I take the point of those who say, ‘Well, it’s a big day at home for the fans.’ At the same time, thinking about it neutrally, I wonder whether it’s entirely considerate from a logistics point of view. After all, Wembley is a lot further for Manchester United fans not to travel than it is for us not to travel. For some of them, anyway. A neutral venue in the Midlands, such as Villa Park, as in the old days, might have evened out the distances that none of us will be travelling, which would arguably have been a fairer arrangement.

Also, consider this: our game kicks off at 6pm on Sunday. 6pm! Yet the last direct train from Euston to Manchester departs at 21.51. If you were a United fan, and you were there in the first place, and the game went to extra-time, you’d be looking at leaving before the end to be sure of making that train. And the trains from Waterloo to Guildford aren’t that much better last thing on a Sunday night. Sometimes the people who organise these things act as if the fans don’t exist. Which, at the moment, we don’t.

On the other hand, Wembley is a premium, high-cost facility which needs to be used for something. If it can’t sit there empty during the FA Cup semi-finals, then it’s just going to sit there empty.

There are arguments on both sides here, clearly. Let’s just consider ourselves lucky to be involved and try and enjoy the occasion.
 

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