Giles Smith's Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 26 Jan 2017
Fortune telling tales are the principle subject of Chelsea fan Giles Smith’s column this week, although he starts back at last Sunday’s major incident…
You can tell the bad ones by the way the players on the pitch react. And even from the other end of the ground you knew that Sunday’s was a bad one.
It wasn’t really the coming-together of the heads, which you couldn’t much observe from that distance (one of those occasions when you are quietly grateful not to be watching in unsparing close-up on the television). But it was certainly the instant urgency of the other players after Ryan Mason and Gary Cahill fell, waving and gesturing to the benches for help.
Help which duly arrived very quickly. Cahill, clearly, got lucky. He was able to sit up, shake it off and play on. Later, incredibly, he would use his head to score the second and game-ending goal. Ryan Mason was not lucky. It took nine ominous minutes before he could be eased onto a stretcher and taken from the pitch, unaware that the whole ground had risen up in concern to clap him off.
It was a relief to hear that he is recovering and, indeed, making ‘excellent progress.' May he continue to do so, fast.
Up until then, the weekend had been working out perfectly – or almost. On the way to the ground we had celebrated Burnley’s deep-into-injury-time equaliser at Arsenal. Still on the way to the ground, and not all that much closer to it, actually (just across the road, in fact), we had heard about Arsenal’s even-deeper-into-injury-time winner. How quickly things turn around. I had barely had time to compose and send a short, and rather unpleasantly gloating text on the topic of Arsenal’s dropped points when Alexis Sanchez ensured that Arsenal picked those points up again. So much for the age of instant communication.
Of course, we later learned that the penalty by which Arsenal saved themselves should not have been awarded. But hey – such is football, especially these days and with the current crop of refs. The extraordinary point remains, though: which is that, had it not been for an official failing to notice that a fouled player was standing in an offside position at the time, all five of the pursuing teams behind us would have dropped points in one round of league fixtures last weekend, which probably hasn’t happened since the game turned professional, if then.
Liverpool somehow contrived to lose at home to Swansea, Manchester City and Spurs cancelled each other out and Man United wouldn’t have had any points at all if Wayne Rooney hadn’t pulled off a free-kick from distance in the 94th minute of their match at Stoke. As we added another three points with our 15th victory in 16 league games and moved eight points clear, the sense of people below us clinging on by their fingertips as their arms grew more and more tired was impossible to ignore.
Strangely, United’s stroke of last-gasp fortune didn’t dissuade Sir Alex Ferguson from claiming, in a rare interview this week with the BBC, that his old team have been ‘unlucky’ this season and that, were it not for the cold-hearted blows of fickle fate which have so callously rained down on that hapless organisation, for all the world as though the gods themselves had taken against them, they would currently be challenging Chelsea at the top of the table rather than anxiously wondering whether a Champions League place is still a remote possibility.
The particular focus of Ferguson’s aggrieved maths was the six 1-1 draws that United have amassed so far this term, games in which he claimed United had ‘battered’ the opposition. And maybe they did, although I notice that one of those 1-1 draws was against Everton, whom we actually did batter, 5-0, perhaps indicating that if you’re only scoring once in that particular fixture, you may well be performing somewhat below par for the course, however ‘unlucky' you might have been over the 90 minutes.
Nevertheless, it’s worth remarking that, however cruel fate has been to United over this current campaign, it doesn’t seem to have prevented them from scoring extremely late in games. They needed that Rooney kick, four minutes into time-added-on, to get a point at Stoke. They needed an 84th-minute goal from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to nick two points off Liverpool at the death. They needed goals in the 85th and 86th minutes in order to defeat Middlesbrough, who had led from the 67th minute at Old Trafford. They needed an 88th-minute winner against Crystal Palace and a goal two minutes into time-added-on to beat Hull away.
So, Ferguson is unarguably correct to say that if United had won all those games that they drew 1-1, they would currently have 12 more points than they do, and be our most direct challengers, just two points behind us. There’s no point quibbling with the retired manager-turned-business guru there.
But it would be no less fantastical to suggest that, had United not had the great good fortune of those late, late goals, they would have had eight points fewer than they currently have, and be in seventh place, just above West Brom, and 22 points off the pace. Which would effectively mean that their league season was already over. So, it all depends on your picture of fortune, really. And maybe some people are luckier than they know.
Time to leave the calculations behind for a while, though. It’s Brentford in the FA Cup next. I’ll be going along in the high hope of seeing Kurt Zouma, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, because I very much admired what they did last time, in the 4-1 defeat of Peterborough, which was, basically, to look pretty awesome and thereby indirectly call for a reappraisal of the whole idea of an ‘understrength’ or ‘reserve’ side.
And, if it doesn’t come off this time, let’s have no moaning from former managers – or even fans - about misfortune. We’re a far bigger club than that, surely.