What a momentous week this has been. No sooner was the government announcing plans to readmit fans – actual fans, meaning people like us - in some measure to football matches in the not too distant future, than our team was responding by finishing first in the Champions League.
Celebrations all round, and especially when that Olivier Giroud header hit the roof of the Rennes net and made us officially the first team to qualify for the round of 16 in club football’s elite contest. We were, at that point, literally out there on our own, with the whole of the European continent trailing in our fleet-footed wake.
Okay, it was mostly because we were made to kick off in the slightly lower-grade tea-time slot, and because our final whistle blew a couple of minutes before the one in the Krasnodar v. Sevilla game, the result of which confirmed that Sevilla, too, would be joining us, followed by Manchester City, devaluing our currency somewhat. Nevertheless, at the highest levels of the game it’s all about those fine margins, and there was no reason not to enjoy and applaud the spectacle of our supremely well-organised players catapulting themselves into the knockout stages before anybody else had done so and with two whole games to spare.
And, given those exciting parallel developments in Parliament, by the time those knockout stages come around next year, some of us might actually be in the ground to see it. There is unquestionably light at the end of the tunnel, and for once, in this most damnable of all periods, it may not be an oncoming juggernaut.
Now we just have to wait to find out which tier London ends up in when the lockdown lifts. Naturally, the tier I’m holding out for is the Matthew Harding Upper, but frankly, with no disrespect to Jake Humphrey, Michael Owen and the rest, after all these months of sitting-room football, I’d settle for the West Lower right now, or the East Middle or anywhere at all that’s in the ground and offers a view of the game unmediated by Jake Humphrey, Michael Owen and the rest.
Alas, these heady governmental developments all come too late for the visit of Tottenham this weekend. Some games are more painful to be excluded by a global pandemic from than others, and this one would probably be in most people’s Category A fixtures in that regard - and not least with our north London friends seeming, in this most random of all seasons, to be on a bit of a run at the moment.
Of course, there’s frequently an unlikely ‘league leader’ in the early stages of a season, before things shake down and something more like the normal order reasserts itself. Very often it’s a newly promoted side, and this season it’s Tottenham. Yes, it looks a bit odd when you see the table, and it encourages all sorts of false perspectives among the fans and neutrals alike, but my feeling, on the whole, is that it’s a nice and ultimately harmless little quirk of the game. When you get an unlikely contender briefly showing well for a while, early doors, before the pack swallows them up, it shakes things up for a while, makes the competition fresh and interesting, and keeps the bigger clubs on their toes.
We go into the game, not only as the first team to qualify for the Champions League knock-out stages, but also as the proud current holders of a 100 per cent record in games using the Premier League Hi Vis Flight winter ball, which came into action for the first time in our 2-0 win at Newcastle last Saturday.
People question the need for a brighter ball these days, now that the world has invented floodlights and largely un-invented snow, but I’m not among them. That Newcastle game was a 12.30 kick-off, which is roughly when it starts getting dark in the UK at the moment, and anything which adds a vital splash of mood-enhancing colour to the general winter drabness is surely to be encouraged, not least of all during a national lockdown in the middle of a global pandemic.
Frankly, I’ve even started to feel that way about our candy-coloured change strip – especially given that, after its slightly troubled debut at West Bromwich Albion, it seems to be settling into a decently reliable rhythm. Indeed, Newcastle was another outing for that kit and it would be fair to describe the performance as ‘dominant’. In order to defend that judgement one would only need to produce what was my favourite stat from the game, and, indeed, perhaps my favourite stat of the season so far: which is that, in the first half at St James’ Park, Kurt Zouma alone made 67 passes, which was two more than the entire Newcastle team made in the same period.
More than dominant, that actually seems to me to border on being mean – unsporting, even. But this, too, is football. A similar dominance in blue against happy-streak Tottenham on Sunday afternoon would be something to see and is surely not beyond the bounds of possibility right now.