Pat Nevin: When the going gets tough...
column Tue 14 Feb 2017
Some like it hot, but former Blue Pat Nevin is impressed by their ability to perform in all weathers, as he writes in this week’s column…
Sometimes the beautiful game can be the most perfectly formed, exquisite piece of art that can be enjoyed as much by connoisseurs as by the most rabid, unthinking fanatic who cares only about winning - with the odd bone-crunching tackle thrown in.
I recall watching Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, with all that colour and style, and thinking this is the way it should always be. I am sure the likes of Diego Costa, David Luiz and Willian can also recall many days growing up, playing in the warm sunshine and experiencing the sheer joy of football. Think also of Pedro and Cesc Fabregas as the sun shone on their backs on warm summer evenings in Barcelona, as they tried to turn the game of football into the art form imagined by the likes of that great master Johan Cruyff.
Then try to imagine how different that all feels to an absolutely freezing, wet, windy February day at Turf Moor, Burnley. With threatening leaden grey skies overhead and a gritty northern realism oppressively surrounding the entire occasion; from the local skyline, to the opposition manager’s voice and his team’s harsh unsentimental style of play.
If ever there was an afternoon to test Chelsea’s character and any apparent southern softness, Sunday was the day. It was only a point gained in the end and it probably should have been three on the balance of play, but there certainly wasn’t a lack of application and will by the Blues.
David Luiz, more than most, showed a willingness to grind it out in those conditions even though he was clearly carrying a fairly debilitating injury. It is also particularly hard to be creative when most of the elements are conspiring against you but the players rolled their sleeves up (metaphorically at least) and just got on with it. This was always going to be a tough fixture as Burnley’s home form underlined, but it had to be faced.
Before I leave the subject of Burnley, don’t get me wrong, I have every admiration for them and what they are doing. Sean Dyche is doing exactly what he should do to survive and everyone up there is on the same page. From the players and staff working themselves to exhaustion, to the fans rightly baying at the referee for every decision, all of them play their part in making it as unpleasant an experience as possible for the visitors for those 90 minutes. Can you tell I am going to the Burnley v Lincoln game on Saturday? Many have wilted in the face of this onslaught but Chelsea and the hard core fans that turned up in blue never faltered. It was two points dropped but a test that was passed which others have failed.
Being from even further north and an even less-forgiving climate, I can honestly say I was never affected by the cold or the rain or indeed the sleet or the snow, unless of course it started to lie on the ground and hampered the roll of the ball. No, if you grow up with that sort of climate it seems normal, unpleasant yes, but still normal and to be dealt with without complaint.
I will be straight with you, not every player I played with throughout my career was quite as hardy, especially at training in the winter but even sometimes when it came to some first team games. I now feel a little guilty (only a very little you understand) I was so unforgiving back then. I never gave much thought to what they were used to and now I actually admire those players from Brazil or parts of Africa, or anywhere that is generally hot most of the year, who seem to cope fairly effortlessly with the worst winter days in Blighty.
It is only a little sympathy of course as from here in my frozen basement in rural Scotland I can almost hear you scream: ‘They get paid damn well for it and I would accept being a little cold and wet for 90 minutes for that sort of money!’ Point taken but you also have to be able to play good football in the midst of all that and trust me, when you get a stud in the leg or on your foot on that sort of day it hurts all the more and it smarts for much longer too.
Anyway, sympathy over as I have just remembered we had to sometimes play on pitches that were frozen solid. They would not play on those now as it was far too dangerous; just ask our old centre-back Joe McLaughlin (pictured left) who dislocated a shoulder on those icy conditions in an away League Cup semi-final up north against Sunderland. Talking about those days, there has been a film made about Kerry Dixon’s life and times. I’ll get to see that quite soon and report back on it, there are a few screenings in London just now, so let me know if you have caught it and what you thought.
But I digress; some of the current Chelsea lads might even get a little break this week if the boss is feeling particularly generous. Who knows, maybe even a little jaunt to sunnier climes and suddenly the sympathy has totally evaporated again. It is however important to use this time wisely because of the amount of travelling and the number of games most of our rivals have to cope with right now compared to us. This morning I am off over to Munich to cover the Bayern v Arsenal game and know it will have at least some effect on Wenger’s men.
Freshness and fitness will be key over the next couple of months as well as the attitude of the players. The weather will soon change and I suspect that will suit us too. There are 13 league games left and a few of them will be a grind just like Sunday at Burnley’s tight Turf Moor, but if we show the same sort of attitude every week I suspect we will be okay.