Pat Nevin: Leaving it ajar

Former Blue Pat Nevin notes a recurring theme as he writes this week’s column, and he also adds his to the many tributes paid to Ray Wilkins…

 

I am beginning to get a feeling of Groundhog Day about saying Groundhog Day about the Blues’ performances. Having watched Chelsea dominate a large part of a game yet again and still not woken up the next morning with three points in the bag; it is now feeling a bit like a bad dream. At 1-0 up against West Ham, there were quite a few chances and of course there were goals scored that were just marginally offside, but it was the utter dominance of the game for the first 70-odd minutes without then winning that makes it feel nightmarish.

Well nightmarish is pushing it in this week of all weeks as we mourn the loss of Ray Wilkins. It is devastating trying to come to terms with the fact that we will never see him again walking around at Stamford Bridge. Many fine words have been written and spoken about him over the past few days and if you never met the man, trust me they are all true. He was a perfect gentleman, a caring human being and as honest and fair as you could ever want a guy to be.

Everybody who spent even a short time with him felt he was their friend, because he made you feel like the most important and interesting person on the planet when he was talking to you, always giving his undivided attention. That could be a clever affected act with some people, but the fact that he somehow managed to remember the names of so many of those he met, underlined that he actually was listening and actually he did care.

It is worth saying right now, well done to everyone at the game against West Ham who showed the right level of respect that a great man deserved, that was almost as classy as Ray was himself! I haven’t said a word yet about his playing career, but that is because there is no need. You do not get to play with the clubs he played for, for as long as he did, without being right out of the top drawer in this profession. You do not get that number of caps for England in a very good midfield unless you are a truly international class footballer. You do not get hired as a manager, coach and pundit at the level he did unless you know the game. And you do not get the reaction of the last few days in the world game, in the media and in the country as a whole unless you are truly loved and hugely respected. We all miss you Ray.

So my hesitation in calling a 1-1 draw against West Ham a nightmare is down to this perspective, but for the most part we did control the game in a way that Ray Wilkins himself would have enjoyed. He was forever saying ‘take care of the ball’, with the emphasis on the first two words. Great players have always known this, hence they generally don’t lump it aimlessly up the park, which was anathema to Ray. So we did keep the ball very well and the aforementioned chances were stymied brilliantly by Joe Hart who decided to show his international qualities just when we least wanted him to. We have all had that bad dream when you just can’t get away from something, or just can’t do something however hard you try. While footballers slumber that is usually trying to score a goal in an ever-decreasing-in-size net.

This is how it felt, we were pre-destined not to get the second goal and of course it is not the first time this season that this frustration has haunted us. Antonio Conte was not living in dreamland afterwards however and he was quick to pinpoint the lack of ruthlessness and he was right of course. At one goal up the play was pretty and we created those chances but you have to finish teams off in those situations. The best sides ‘put the game to bed’(another Ray-ism) when the opportunities are there and you do not let up for a second until that is the case.

For example, try to recall our tempo after Hernandez equalised and just before. We increased the pace noticeably but maybe that level of energy and intensity was needed before then. If you go a couple ahead against West Ham at home in the first half, you are almost certainly home and dry. With the best will in the world and having been impressed when I went to see them last week against Southampton, they are unlikely to do to us what Man United did to Man City at the weekend.

As I have said, there have been a lot of games like this. To some degree Spurs last week could have been won in the first half with more clinical finishing. Even against Barcelona, a little luck for us and Willian in particular with the woodwork in the first leg might have changed the entire outlook of the season, although I can hear Ray Wilkins in my ear now with another one of his favourite lines, used quietly but intensely when players hit the woodwork - ‘The goalposts are only there to hold the nets up.’

Willian rues a chance that did not go in against West Ham

It is another little dose of reality and a kind honesty which maybe sums up much of our season so far. There have been ifs, buts, maybes and a few so-near-yet-so-fars and at this level you need a certain ruthlessness that doesn’t allow for those small opportunities. We allowed a little opening for a chance against West Ham and to David Moyes’ delight they stole in and took it. You can’t blame them; on these occasions we can sadly only blame ourselves.