Giles Smith: It matters that it doesn't matter

So 2019/20 is finally over for Chelsea and it has been a strange season for the fans with Project Restart and VAR having changed the face of what we knew football to be, as Blues supporter and columnist Giles Smith explains...

This much, at least, we learned in Munich last weekend – or rather, in our sitting rooms, Munich being by and large out of bounds, as you will have noticed: if you’re playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and seeking to progress, it’s not in your best interests to give them a three-goal start.

I’m probably not courting controversy when I suggest that the score from the first leg rather changed, from the off, the tone of the long-delayed rematch and what we could reasonably hope from it. Indeed, if you had needed to explain the term ‘hiding to nothing’ to a non-English-speaker, turning on the telly at 8pm last Saturday would have been as good a shortcut as any.

In that depleted context then, it was truly uplifting to sense, for at least the first 10 minutes of the second half, that a highly respectable draw on the night was on.

This was an exhausted and depleted squad, no doubt longing for a break and yet, at precisely the moment they needed one, finding themselves herded onto a plane and despatched across Europe to fulfil what was realistically never going to be anything more than a contractual obligation. So the commitment to the cause and the energy of the performance, in those minutes and in many of the others, was heroic and a joy to witness. 

And, of course, the decision to strike off Callum Hudson-Odoi’s first-half goal was utterly tie-changing. It also fell into that special category of VAR intervention – crimes against art. When goals are that good, it shouldn’t really be possible to disallow them for any reason that only a software package can spot, let alone for a fiddly offside in the build-up so negligible and so far prior to the fact that it might as well have happened in the previous round.

A grim moment, then, and also a sad reflection on where we are with VAR right now, which isn’t just throttling the game’s fun but is also trampling in hobnail boots all over its occasional moments of beauty. When science rules out a goal bent from distance past Manuel Neuer, you know the killjoys have won.

It was interesting how, in the restart phase, which made football an exclusively televisual product and therefore might plausibly have favoured VAR, at least in the sense that it could go about its business in peace and without fans raising loud choruses of protest against it, VAR ended up looking notably weaker, its faults somehow laid even more bare, its impact rendered somehow even more sterilising.

Yet I’ve not picked out any anti-VAR chants in the canned soundtracks; it’s one of the ways in which the added crowd noise has seemed unrealistic. Oh well. I’m sure we’re all looking forward to getting back to the business of complaining about VAR in September – and hopefully, in due course, in person in the ground, where we can be heard. We need to be.

Much else to look forward to about the resumption, of course: a side stuffed with young talent, freshly bolstered by gifted new signings, taking its next steps under a thoughtful manager. Who wouldn’t want to be around to witness that?

And who wouldn’t have wanted to be around to say an appreciative farewell to Willian and Pedro, two players whose contributions to our pleasure in recent seasons merited something warmer than a virtual send-off. A great shame not to have had the chance. Remember going to games? Going to games was fun. And important. It would be nice if we could do it again at some point.

Anyway, thus ends the season of the asterisk, with Liverpool eventually crowned champions* and Arsenal eventually running out winners of the FA Cup*, and with somebody else about to win the Champions League* and the Europa League* if anyone is still watching by then.

Only Manchester City, with their narrow victory over Aston Villa in the EFL Cup, can claim to have won a trophy in regulation play in 2019-20, which is, I guess, another reason to continue loving and respecting the good old League Cup: it’s light enough on its feet to be done and dusted before a global pandemic kicks in and sprays asterisks all over the place.

The particular magic of the restart phase was that it mattered if you wanted it to, and not if you didn’t. But I think we all knew, deep down, that that meant it didn’t matter, because football in ordinary times never affords you the luxury of the choice. Here’s to the resumption of ordinary times, then, and less choice, as soon as is practically possible.

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