Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 9 Feb 2017
Enduring moments from a momentous match. Some were witnessed live and some were not by columnist and Chelsea fan Giles Smith from his vantage point high in the ground…
My favourite image from last Saturday? Probably the one of our manager lying face down in the lower tier of the East Stand after Eden Hazard’s wonder goal. On the basis of an approximate arm-count, Antonio Conte appears to be in the huddled embrace of at least seven jubilant spectators at that happy moment in the proceedings. And none of them seems to be anything other than absolutely delighted to have the full weight of the manager joining them in person.
I’ve got to confess, I didn’t notice any of this going on at the time, but that’s because I was some way away from the scene, in the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Stand, above the corner flag, which, incidentally, has the disadvantage of being mostly inaccessible to members of the coaching staff on ecstatic crowd-surfing missions - unless they really put some effort into it, that is.
On the positive side, though, it’s a part of the stadium that witnesses more than its share of goal celebrations by our players, being conveniently situated on the main commuter line for people who have just stuck one away. Indeed, the sight of a gurning David Luiz heaving into view over a human bundle consisting of most of the rest of the team (the image on the front of the programme for the Arsenal match, coincidentally enough) is very familiar to us, over in that particular area of the ground. And it was exactly replicated in those heady moments after Hazard had come sliding towards us on his knees.
What a goal that was - number two in the collection of title-challenge-finishing strikes that Hazard started last year at home to Tottenham. And as good a solo goal as we have seen in our ground, surely. It had it all: the strength, the skill, the nerve, the massive bamboozling of Laurent Koscielny... Memories of Julian Dicks getting twisted into a big lump of candy floss by Gianfranco Zola, back in the day. Of course, Dicks’s career never really recovered from that moment. But Koscielny is (no disrespect to Dicks) a different grade of player and hopefully he will know better fortune when the dizziness eventually subsides and the feeling fully returns to his calves.
And like all the truly great goals, it produced an extra measure of elation. Indeed, it was exactly the kind of moment to make you want to throw yourself face-first onto the nearest available bystanders - though, again, this is not recommended in the upper tiers on safety grounds. But joy was intense and widespread and it’s not just the people who were under Signor Conte who will remember exactly where they were the day Eden Hazard beat an entire Arsenal defence.
The visiting manager was also in the crowd that afternoon, albeit it in a slightly less exuberant sense. Arsene Wenger, as you will probably be aware, is currently serving a touchline ban as a consequence of shoving a fourth official up the tunnel. (That sentence came out sounding a bit more Frankie Howerd than it was meant to; but you know what I mean.) Accordingly, the distinguished Frenchman was obliged to watch our encounter (a critical one in the narrative of his season) from the East Stand - albeit too far back to join in the crowd-surfing fun after the Hazard goal, which is a pity because, with his somewhat surprising fondness for a ruck, he might have enjoyed being a part of it.
Nevertheless, as we left the ground, we were inevitably wondering whether that would prove to be Wenger’s last visit to the Bridge as the man in charge of Arsenal. Of course, there’s a remote possibility that we might be drawn together here in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup – one last dance, perhaps. That aside, though, this could have been farewell if, as many Arsenal fans seem to be suggesting, and even hoping, the Wenger era is about to end.
Well, Arsenal supporters are obviously entitled to take their own view, but we would miss him round these parts, wouldn’t we? I think it’s fair to say that we struggled to embrace Wenger in those early years, when the titles and the trophies flooded in. Over the last decade, though, it has grown so much easier for us to appreciate the man and what he brings. Accordingly, as so many made clear to him in song, and so warmly, on the day, whether in the visitors’ technical area or in the stand, he can rely on a welcome here.
Anyway, with that momentous match accounted for and out of the way, nine points now separate us from Tottenham, 10 from Manchester City and 12 from Arsenal. And Liverpool, who banished any lingering frustrations we might have been feeling about that Diego Costa penalty at Anfield by promptly losing to Hull, have managed to shrink back to fifth place, 13-points away. These numbers have caused pretty much all the pundits to hand us the title already. Of course, pundits are free to say that kind of thing. Fans, having more invested emotionally in the outcome, will tend to be more circumspect, well aware of the million colourful ways in which football, just when you think you’ve got it tamed, can turn around and bite you on the face.
So you’ll understand if we don’t join in with any of that ‘tie the ribbons on now’ stuff here. We’ll leave that to Stan Collymore in The Mirror, among many others. Instead, we’ll just marvel again at that goal and at our crowd-surfing manager, if that’s okay. Happy days.