Events on and off the pitch caused Chelsea supporter Giles Smith alarm this festive period, but our columnist has dusted himself down now and is eagerly anticipating a better year ahead...
So, good Christmas? Or did a global pandemic, fuelled by a freshly mutated virus, prevent you from mixing with anyone at all apart from Arsenal, who, thanks to the blessings of virtual technology, came over on Boxing Day and metaphorically stuffed your tree up the chimney?
And yes: Arsenal. I thought they had been relegated, but apparently not. They were still lurking down there somewhere all this time, just waiting for the festive season to come around before they played us and scored three goals in the same game for the first time since approximately 1953.
And true, I suppose there were mildly extenuating circumstances, in the sense that the opening goal was from a penalty which was softer than a tub of Heroes which has been left by a fire for four hours, and one of the other goals was an utterly freakish, mishit cross. But these are scant consolations, in the circumstances, and after practically every excitable pundit had led us to believe that even a 1-1 draw would have been a wildly unimpressive score for us to be carding for this particular course.
And then there was the mid-match emergency. One of our national newspapers has taken to accompanying its match reports with a little pull-out box nominating the game’s ‘Jump Off the Sofa Moment’ - a somewhat infantile gimmick for a nominally grown-up publication, you’d have to say, and I’ve tended to turn my nose up haughtily at it. Yet I would have no problem identifying my ‘Jump Off the Sofa Moment’ from Boxing Day. It came after 72 minutes, with us 3-0 down, when my wife, in a slippery sock incident, in no way improved the direction the afternoon was clearly taking by falling down the stairs and dislodging a large vase at the bottom.
At the sound of the thumps and the smash, I did, indeed, jump off the sofa - and let me state immediately that she was entirely and miraculously unharmed in this slip. But needless to say, Michael Oliver waved play on and VAR didn’t even bother to look at it. Typical. It summed up the whole day really. I’ve known one or two Christmas lows, as I’m sure we all have, but to be kneeling on the floor in the hall and sweeping broken glass into a dustpan while Chelsea were in the adjacent sitting room getting royally turned over by Arsenal’s reserves plumbed some new depths.
My wife wanted to know later what I would have preferred if it had been in my power to choose: her only a tiny bit shaken, but a Chelsea defeat; or a Christmas trip to A&E and a Chelsea victory. Obviously, I didn’t want to sound like I was stating the obvious, but I had to point out that it was Arsenal.
Still, isn’t that so often the way with football on Boxing Day? It’s an occasion that frequently dawns so brightly and promises so much, only for fate gleefully to pull a cracker in your face. We’ve come off pretty lightly in this respect in recent years, by and large, yet I can still sometimes be haunted by an Ashley Cole clearance hitting Michael Essien to give Reading an 85th-minute equaliser on the so-called Boxing Day of 2006, not to mention the almost satirical catastrophe of a 4-4 draw at home to Aston Villa the following year. The utterly unexpected and the strangely deflating at ‘this special time of year’ are nothing new.
Even so, comforting though it always is to seek the steadying hand of historic precedent, I’ll admit that neither of those two unseasonal setbacks carried quite the tinsel-burning sting of utterly flopping against an Arsenal side laid low by a combination of Covid-19 and season-long incompetence. It would have been a low blow at any time of the year, but it was especially low at this time.
And so much for the possibility of instant redemption against Aston Villa a ridiculously brief 48 hours later, when a team of officials, armed with video referral capabilities, nevertheless somehow decided that Jack Grealish should be allowed to trample over one of our centre-backs on his way to our penalty area, leaving that centre-back face down and 50 yards away when the cross eventually came in that he would otherwise have been in a position to defend.
Still, like it or lump it, that’s the joy, or certainly the risk, of this particular unnaturally hectic period, which this year has upped the ante on randomness in a football season when there is quite enough randomness already, to be honest. Consider events elsewhere this week. West Brom, under new management, have contrived the unlikely and presumably enormously encouraging feat of drawing at Liverpool, only to follow up by losing 5-0 at home to Leeds. That’s the Leeds, by the way, who had just narrowly scraped past Burnley by the only goal of the game, subsequent to taking a 6-2 stuffing from Manchester United.
Or take Wolves - so vibrant against us just recently, but practically asleep for the full 90 minutes against United the other evening, while United themselves were only marginally more awake. And then, just last night, Liverpool, of all teams, failed to score against Newcastle, of all teams. Liverpool have taken only one more point from their relatively soft-looking Christmas games than we have from ours.
Yet what does all of this tell us about the next round of fixtures, now approaching far too quickly and bringing a conveniently well-rested Manchester City our way on Sunday? Nothing at all. It’s just Christmas, doing its Christmassy thing. And all we can do in response is gather ourselves, set our chins firmly in the direction of the new and better year, and move forward.