Following the late denial of a Chelsea victory at the weekend, Blues legend Pat Nevin writes this week about the eye-catching skills that were on display but were ultimately thwarted, and why he was delighted by one player even though that star did not play…
I managed to do plenty of jobs in football, from domestic and international professional player to chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association in England, and then chief executive of a Scottish Premier League club.
There have been plenty of other gigs around the game too, from journalist to TV and radio pundit, but one job is conspicuous by its absence from my CV, first team manager.
I had opportunities. Two offers were made without me even asking, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept for a number of reasons. It is unbelievably hard work being a manager, with ridiculous hours if you are going to be serious about it. If you are a manager, you also know that it isn’t always about being the best technical coach, you need lots of other things to fall into place as well, such as timing, support from the club and at least some good fortune.
At the weekend, Everton had three attempts at goal, and scored with two of them. I reckon for a good hour or so we played some of the best football we have this season. 0-0 at half time was incredibly harsh on Graham Potter but I guess he must have been fairly happy even so, because the performance was fine.
We had control of the game, we were getting into good positions and with Joao Felix, we were also being treated to a masterclass of skills that mesmerised the Everton defence, as well as most of us in the ground watching.
When Joao Felix did score, it was nothing more than justice being done. It would have been another travesty had he hit the post yet again and the ball stayed out once more. This time it went in the net and for all the world it looked like having finally broken through, we would soon get another one and cruise to the end with three points in the bag.
That isn’t how it works with Chelsea or in the Premier League generally this season. Just ask Spurs. What we got instead was another rollercoaster ride until the very last minute.
This might be the main reason why I never fancied being a manager. That feeling that you have done everything possible, the team has played well and the positive narrative is already written online about the performance. The copy for the next day’s newspapers is ready to go about how well you played and highlights shows are preparing to gush about the continuing revival, and of course the fans are about to roar their approval.
Then in the dying seconds that final breakaway radically changes the way the entire day is viewed by everyone. It must be crushing to see the entire week’s work flipped on its head like that. I find it difficult enough to cope as a fan. As a manager, it must be desperately disappointing.
Had Simms not scored that late goal, the statistic most used would have been, ‘Chelsea win four in a row’. Instead it was, ‘Chelsea have only one win in the last four home league matches.’ I don’t have a complaint regarding this ‘about turn’ in the narrative, because that is life and that is football, even if it is maddening.
Above all that, there is another difficulty I would have encountered following that sort of afternoon/evening. If I was a manager and my team had played that well, even if it wasn’t for the entirety of the match, just most of it, then I couldn’t pretend to be too fed up afterwards for too long. Have a listen to Pep Guardiola when his team loses but he feels his charges played well, he looks and sounds perfectly happy, because they were the better team, they entertained and did what he asked them to do.
Even when they lose, he is upbeat in these moments. It isn’t an act; he really does have that ‘pure’ attitude to the game, knowing that in time these sorts of performances will eventually start paying off with points.
Many football folk hate that outlook. For most people in the moments after the final whistle it is about winning, over and above everything else. I, however, always want to be entertained and even if I don’t get the win, very soon after the initial disappointment fades, I can’t help but smile if I have enjoyed some special skills.
So maybe that above everything else is the reason I knew I could never be a top-level manager. The morning after the Everton game I was still looking at slow-motion replays of the scissor turn that Enzo did in the first half that led to a free-kick outside the box. It also left me open-mouthed and the defender with twisted blood. Enzo had plenty of other good moments but that was bordering on unstoppable as a trick. The more I watched it the more complicated and impressive it was.
There were also moments from Joao Felix that have kept me smiling over the past few days. The goal was great but that half-turn take, when he drops into the ‘hole’ between the opposition midfield and defence, is exceptional.
Using his spatial awareness and skill he develops space when there simply shouldn’t be any. I think he sort of creates a momentary black hole in the space-time continuum, or something like that. In simpler terms, he knows how to receive the ball in an area and in a way that is almost impossible to tackle him, without giving a foul away in a dangerous area.
For much of the game he played through the middle, then as a false nine. It is a complex position to master. No more astrophysical theories here I promise you but the fact he was the best player on the field suggests he has figured out the role pretty damned well.
Other positives were Kai scoring yet again and Reece James showing glimpses of the unstoppable player he was before his injuries, especially in the second half. Winning the penalty that Kai converted was an example of exactly what we have missed down that right-hand side.
On the subject of unstoppable players, what a joy it was to see N’Golo Kante’s name once again on the team sheet. He didn’t get on but his presence on the bench was enough to bring a smile to countless faces. I think I can speak not just for Chelsea fans but for lovers of football everywhere - the game is a better thing when N’Golo and his smile are there to be enjoyed.
We now have a little break for the internationals and by the time we are back for the Aston Villa match, Thiago Silva will be a little closer to fitness, N’Golo likewise, and Reece James will almost certainly be his fully fit self again.
Wouldn’t it be great if, by the time the Champions League quarter-final came around, Graham Potter had a full squad to choose from and we were still the underdogs with nothing to lose and as such under less pressure. If I was manager I would love to be in that situation, except of course I wouldn’t like it at all because I never wanted to be a manager.