Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 21 Dec 2017
Leaving it late is not necessarily something to regret, as Chelsea season ticket holder Giles Smith explains in this week’s column…
Football (and we have had cause to mention this before in this particular space on the website) offers few delights like a last-minute winner.
Yes, the 64th-minute winner has its place – as, indeed, does the 45+3-minute winner, as modelled by Marcos Alonso in last Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Southampton. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for winners in general, whatever portion of the game they come in.
The winner scored right at the death, though, has a special place in the football supporter’s catalogue of joy. The creators of Roy of the Rovers knew this very well and intimately understood the intense and dramatic impact that the last-minute winner has on the emotions. The legendary comic-book hero scored a surprisingly high proportion of his critical goals for Melchester Rovers with the very last kick of the game, and it’s that feature of his career, at least as much as the number of kidnappings he survived, that guarantees him his place in football’s pantheon of legends.
If a higher percentage of Roy’s match-winning goals had come in the 64th minute (and if he hadn’t been kidnapped quite so many times), it would have been an altogether different story, drama-wise. Indeed, history would remember him as a dedicated professional with a decent eye for goal, and not much more than that. That’s the special nature of last-minute winners for you.
However, as we were lucky enough to discover last night, in our Carabao Cup quarter-final against Bournemouth, there is a pleasure even greater than the last-minute winner. And that’s the pleasure of the last-minute winner scored straight after the opposition has scored a last-minute equaliser.
Now, that’s a narrative device you don’t often witness - a last-gasp too far, even for Roy of the Rovers strips, who would most likely have labelled that kind of outcome too implausible. Bournemouth’s goal (which nobody could claim they hadn’t been pressing for) came just as the fourth official was holding up the time-added-on board, and seemed to make a period of extra-time inevitable – a prospect which, not to put too fine a point on it, didn’t exactly cause the heart to dance for joy.
Nothing against watching a bit more football, of course. But, you know, it was quite cold and we hadn’t been keeping the ball very well in the second half, and we had used all our subs, and Bournemouth would definitely have had some wind behind them after that equaliser…
Unnecessary concerns, as it happened. Confronted by the potentially exhausting possibility of a further 30 minutes on the pitch, plus, perhaps, penalties after that (and maybe quietly sympathising with those of us in the crowd who had work to do in the morning), Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata decided that they had better go straight up the other end and score. Which they duly did, prompting the loudest explosion of elation heard in the stadium so far this season.
We’ve known the pleasure of the last-minute winner already this year, of course – most notably away to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. But that goal came, basketball-style, at the culmination of an uncannily-calm, patiently worked move as the seconds ticked away, to the point where there was no time for a re-start.
Last night, by contrast, the players seemed to be in a bit more of a hurry - for understandable reasons, this being a knock-out game and everything. Davide Zappacosta struck a long ball to Hazard, who somehow managed to pull the entire Bournemouth defence to the right, as if they were on a rubber band wrapped around his foot, before back-heeling the ball across the area for Morata to scramble up to and hit first time.
As a result of this directness Bournemouth were left with a couple of spare minutes in which to hurl in, not one, but two more long-throws from the West Stand side, in a pair of slightly scary parallels to the situation that led to their goal. In common, I felt, with a number of people in the Matthew Harding Stand at that point, I would have been crouching behind the sofa, had a sofa been available to crouch behind.
But no. It turns out you can only fit so many last-minute goals into the last minutes of a Carabao Cup quarter-final, and we went through to the next round. Where it seems we will meet Arsenal. Shades of 2004 and the quarter finals of the Champions League, back in those hazy days when Arsenal still played at Highbury. That encounter, too, one recalls, was settled by a very late goal. Again, you can only reflect: there’s nothing like them.