I am grudgingly accepting that the Nations League, though almost completely incomprehensible unless you are card-carrying geek, which I thought I was, is actually not that bad an idea in the end.
It has got rid of a mass of friendlies which were really annoying people, because of the number of call-offs alongside the training ground feel to some of the games, and that was even before lockdown-lockout of the fans.
At least there is something at stake in this competition, even if it isn’t always precisely clear what that actually is. There were some quite exciting games, or to be more exact, there were some very exciting penalty shoot-outs last week. England dodged it as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland faced up to the pressure. Only the Republic blinked against Slovakia.
I was in attendance at the Scotland vs Slovakia game a few days later, and it was an entertaining if freezing night in the cavernous empty Hampden Park Stadium. There were a variety of problems, not least that us Scots are just as impatient as Chelsea fans for Billy Gilmour gets his fitness back as soon as possible. We need him in that midfield!
What struck home personally was that yet again I was lucky enough to be in the ground, where tens of thousands of others would love to have been. I would warn you however that although it is special and I feel deeply grateful for my ‘job’, if you were a single fan in there on your own, you would realise it is not nearly as much fun as you remember it.
Yes the football is great but there is no chance to turn round and celebrate with your friends, or sing for your team. Unless you are a talented soloist you would just sound like a deranged person that the players would be trying to ignore at all costs. Also, try organising a decent Mexican wave in the stadium when you are on your own, it is not exactly a spectacle. So, you would just have to sit there alone, better than not being there I admit, but nowhere near the real-fan experience that we are all missing.
But yes I know, I am still very fortunate to be getting to the games and there were a few positives for Chelsea too. Players like Jorginho, Toni Rudiger, Kai Havertz, Reece James and Mason Mount among others got much needed game time. That was much more useful than a friendly match cruise around the field for 90 minutes.
Maybe it was most important for the two English lads however. For Mason, that second goal on his ninth appearance will have made him feel like a central part of the set up. A winner against the top-ranked team in the world is never to be sniffed at, but following on from him not starting against Crystal Palace in the last league game, it will certainly have given him a much-needed and timely boost. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, any player of a good standard, never mind international standard such as Mason, is always disappointed when he doesn’t start a game for his club.
Similarly, Reece James didn’t start against Palace either in the 4-0 win but by the time he gets back into training at Cobham he will be an international with at least two caps to his name. It is hard enough getting a cap, especially for a nation like England and specifically at right-back/wing-back, the most hotly contested position in the squad. That is very impressive. Like Mason, it will be a huge lift for a young player who thoroughly deserves it considering the improvement he has made in a very short time.
You have to enjoy these moments because it can all change very quickly, no matter how high you are flying at any time. Callum Hudson-Odoi looked like a stick-on for a place in that team, as did Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but if things do not go your way there are plenty of players ready, willing and very able to show they are hungry enough to grab it themselves. What about Tammy Abraham as well, he looked like he was nudging Harry Kane out of the way for that number nine shirt with the three lions on the front, but suddenly Dominic Calvert-Lewin hits an incredible run of form and the pecking order moves again.
You do not get a chance to rest on your laurels and oddly enough this will not be seen as a bad thing by Frank Lampard. If you are going to survive at the top clubs you can almost never drop your guard. You have to be at, or at least very near, your best almost all of the time. It is a lesson that Lamps will nod along with sagely because mollycoddling doesn’t cut it at this rarefied level. Just think about Frank Lampard himself, the man’s scoring record was somewhere just above astonishing yet with Gerrard, Beckham, Scholes and the like around, even he wasn’t guaranteed an England starting shirt every single time. I reckon he should have been right enough, but even he had to learn about, accept and live with that uncertainty and yes, even that feeling of rejection now and again. His 106 caps were however a fair-to-middling total I am sure you will all agree!
If the international teams were just playing out and out friendlies, these tensions simply would not be there to anywhere near the same level. That’s why the ups and downs our youngsters have faced, particularly in the England squad, will have our manager more contented underneath it all than you might think. It is a learning process and everyone of them is being fast-tracked not only at the club but also at St George’s Park and Wembley.
Had Reece James and Mason Mount not got those caps over the past week, they might have come back to training at Cobham far from bubbly. As it is they will be buzzing, happy and confident, the perfect recipe for players to produce their best football. Because of this Frank has a very tough task picking the team for Southampton on Saturday with those two up for it as much as they have ever been. The favourite problem any manager ever has.