That one really hurt, didn’t it? I mean, obviously not the winning 2-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate and thereby putting ourselves into a Champions League final again. And not the scenes of squad-wide joy on the pitch at the end, repeated, no doubt, in our homes. None of that hurt, not even a little bit. On the contrary. That was an absolute pleasure.
But the not being at the Bridge to see it all happen – that did hurt. Or rather it brought the general low-level hurt that we’ve been living with over the past year, and making our accommodations with as best we can, into a whole new, fresh and sharper focus. This was the night the whole ‘not being at the Bridge’ thing came home to roost, exactly as Pat Nevin predicted it would on this website a couple of days ago.
Not being at the Bridge when you would otherwise be lucky enough to have the opportunity to go is, of course, always a pain. But there are degrees. Not being at the Bridge to see a relatively routine but still admirable and reassuring victory over Fulham during a tighter-than-usual end-phase to a campaign for top four places – that was a pain. Not being there to see us get oddly trampled on by practically relegated West Brom – that also was a pain, mostly because I continue to believe that none of what went on that afternoon would have happened in the presence of fans.
(My argument being: it would have been simply impossible, because it was itself the product of the derangement that was bound to arise from time to time as a direct consequence of the circumstances that we’re talking about; it was a lockdown-only experience, and unrepeatable except in the event of another lockdown, which we’re all cautiously optimistic at this point, with the vaccination roll-out going well and the virus seemingly in abeyance, won’t be happening.)
But not being at the Bridge when Chelsea are forcing their way past Real Madrid for a place in the biggest game in club football – that hurts. Not being at the Bridge to watch the ball hang for an eternity in the air before Timo Werner gets to head in Kai Havertz’s rebounding golf-chip, or while Edouard Mendy is making himself elastic to keep out Karim Benzema – that’s a real pain. Not being at the Bridge when your players are forming a human pile after Mason Mount has just scored the goal which seals the game – that’s a proper pang.
And not being at the Bridge for the return of Eden Hazard – that was a pang, too. (I will confess to having been reduced to a moment of emotional nonsense by the sight of Cesar Azpilicueta and Hazard together at the end of the game, and I will not have been the only one.)
The pang is about the fact that under an excellent manager, an excellent squad is starting to do things of excellence which could possibly be talked about for years to come – and we’re not witnessing it, except in our sitting rooms which, it goes without saying, is a different order of witnessing things from witnessing them at the Bridge.
Don’t get me wrong, I like my sitting room as much as anyone likes their sitting room. It has carpets. It has seating. There is a kettle nearby and last night the cat even deigned to join me, recognising, I guess, the historic nature of what was going down. But, on those big Champions League occasions, my sitting room is not the Bridge, and it never will be. Last night made that clear.
I’m so achingly keen to be in the ground. I’m so achingly keen to spend these glittering nights in the company of someone other than Darren Fletcher and Steve McManaman. Sorry, Darren, sorry, Steve. It’s not you, it’s me. Although it might also be you a bit, too, now I come to think of it. All those stats, Darren. Really? I mean, everyone loves a stat. But does anyone love 5000 stats, one after another? And, Steve, that stuff at the beginning about how it would be a good idea for our players to avoid red cards last night; you know, with all respect, I think they might have known that, and I think we might have been able to work it out, too.
Extraordinary times, though, in every single way. And all we can do is adapt and be grateful for what we have. If you had told me back at the start of last year that in a little over 16 months my team would be sealing a Champions League semi-final victory over Real Madrid at the Bridge, and I wouldn’t be going because in the meantime an unprecedented global pandemic would have ravaged the country and its economy, sending the nation into a government-ordered lockdown for whole months at a time and converting football into a fully-televised entertainment phenomenon played in empty stadiums in accordance with strictly adhered-to Covid-19 protocols… well, frankly, I’m not sure I would have believed you.
Yet it came to pass. And accordingly, here we all are, thrillingly, on the verge of a Champions League final, adding Istanbul to Moscow and Munich - not that we can go, except possibly 5000 of us, depending on a complicated set of announcements regarding the lifting of travel restrictions, yet to be made.
But I’ll take it. Even stuck at home, I’ll happily take it. Even with Darren, even with Steve, I’ll happily, happily take it.