Ahead of what should have been the final Premier League game of the season this coming weekend, and with maybe more campaign finales to come, Chelsea fan and columnist Giles Smith spots a consolation in the current hold-up, and wonders about suggested changes to the rules…
In an alternative universe – the one in which we were all innocently pottering around before March 23rd or thereabouts – we would currently be looking forward to the last league game of the season, this coming Sunday, at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, kick off at 3.00pm.Blimey, the emotions, just writing that. Remember ‘league games’? Remember ‘kick-off at 3.00’? Remember ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers’? These days, just to find oneself using those quaint old terms is to summon a whole lost world and get crushed under a surging wave of longing and nostalgia. It’s like (for those of us of a certain generation) hearing the theme from ‘The Banana Splits’.It’s where we would be, though, if none of this had happened: getting ready for the wrap-up game and maybe (talk about ironic) already chafing slightly at the prospect of football coming to an end.
Assuming, of course, that we weren’t also looking forward to an FA Cup final appearance, still just over a week away, which none of us would have been completely ruling out after the draw for the quarter-finals. And let’s be honest: in recent years, with a frequency that borders on the plain greedy, we’ve tended to have an FA Cup final to look forward to. That’s just the nature of our club.And assuming, again, that we weren’t getting ready to go to Istanbul for the Champions League final (30 May), which, okay, might have been a bit more of a stretch given the situation where we left it at half-time against Bayern Munich, but never rule it out.Indeed, some small part of me will always believe that the Miracle of Munich was all set to happen. Didn’t we witness the stirrings of that miracle in the performance against Everton? Wasn’t Billy Gilmour – at that point extending the narrative thread that had begun with the FA Cup game defeat of Liverpool – clearly in the process of shaping the season’s greatest story even as the pandemic was getting the numbers together to stop him?And in any case, what does football teach us to expect if not the unexpected? Who would have foreseen (for instance) that Spurs, in this same competition, would have come back against Ajax in the manner in which they did in that second leg away from home a year ago? Who would have foreseen Spurs being in the Champions League in the first place? Really, in a sport in which Spurs can somehow come within 90 minutes of being declared the best team in Europe, who would ever rule out anything? So no one can tell me that it wasn’t up for grabs in the Allianz Arena on 18 March, and anyone who suggests otherwise clearly hasn’t been concentrating.
Still, as things stand, with that tie left on a knife-edge in the record books, we have at least further cemented our extremely impressive record in the Champions League by once again remaining in the competition all the way through until May. It’s a consolation.On the other hand, no Wembley, no Istanbul, no carnival season-ender against Wolves followed by the traditional lap of appreciation by the players... We’ll miss all that, and it’s a lot to miss. But perhaps, on the bright side, no yawningly empty summer months, either.On the contrary, perhaps a summer of football. Or a summer of something, at any rate. The proposals one reads about for Project Restart (strict quarantine arrangements; players driving to grounds on their own in masks; sanitary travel corridors; rigorous testing regimes; specially fumigated grass) sound less like football to me and more like the pitch for an eight-part Netflix drama about the only town left alive after an asteroid strike on a nuclear power station. But I guess, in a way, that’s pretty much where we are at the moment.At least the ‘neutral grounds’ concept seems to have bitten the dust. That proposal always seemed to represent such a radical alteration to the accepted terms of the competition that it would effectively mean you were staging another competition altogether.It might seem pedantic to imply that the same is true of belatedly bringing in a ‘five substitutes’ regulation to ease the players’ legs, but it’s possible, in my experience, to feel uneasy about the prospect of that happening, too. You want to change the rules, now? What if we’d had access to five subs when we were trying to batter down West Ham’s parked bus in search of an equaliser at the Bridge back in November? Or while looking for a winner at Bournemouth in February? Could have been a whole different story, with a whole different points tally.
Will there be a lap of appreciation after our final closed-door home fixture? I suppose it would be simpler, in a sense. No danger of anybody going on the pitch at the final whistle and getting it cancelled. And the players and their families would only have to pass in front of a camera, rather than walk all the way around the stadium.I don’t think it would be the same, though. Football without fans never is.