Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

Matthew Harding Upper season ticket holder Giles Smith was present for the final home win of the season and a momentous final appearance at the stadium too. He shares his thoughts in this week’s column…

 

Funny, isn’t it, how you can experience something in the stadium, and have a certain set of feelings about what you have seen; and then you get outside and head home and discover that elsewhere people are talking about it in a completely different way – like they’ve witnessed another event altogether.

It was like that for me last weekend with the John Terry send-off. I stood with everybody else to applaud him when he was subbed off, and listened to, and was touched by, his speech when he took the mic after the game, and left the ground thinking, ‘As goodbyes go, that was pretty much perfect.’ Then I turned on the radio in the car and people were already shouting in variously scalding tones about how the whole scene had been ‘inappropriate.’

Really? Inappropriate? 22 years, 717 appearances, 15 major trophies, possibly 16 if things work out well on Saturday - this has been service at unprecedented and probably never-to-be-repeated levels. So perhaps the first thing to say is, what actually would have been an appropriate way to say goodbye at the end of all that?

I can only speak personally but over these past two decades I have watched John Terry put his head dangerously close to too many flying boots in the interest of my continuing happiness to begrudge him any kind of send-off whatsoever that he might have chosen. Frankly, had he so desired, he could have brought his Stamford Bridge playing days to an end by blasting himself over the roof of the West Stand on a jet pack, in the manner of Michael Jackson at Wembley Stadium in 1992, and I would still have felt a nagging sense that, taking everything into account and given the significance of the moment in the club’s history, he had slightly undercooked it. 

Incidentally, I don’t want to spoil the magic for anybody, but I think the late, great Michael J used a body double for that startling stunt, an illusion that was, to be fair, probably easier to pull off amid the smoke and lasers of a night-time pop show than during a Premier League football match in broad sunlight. But then again, if Sunderland had been on board and if Neil Swarbrick, the referee, had been up for it… well, I’ll just leave that thought there, ready for the next time someone says goodbye to our club after 22 years, 717 appearances and 15, or possibly 16, major trophies, which I fully expect to see happen, oooh, round about never.

But of course, that 26th-minute departure has become something of a debating point this week among the game’s more anxious guardians. By which I mean that a number of people at whom the ceremony wasn’t particularly aimed, and to whom it wasn’t particularly meant to appeal, duly noted that they hadn’t been aimed at or appealed to and got into a bit of a tizzy about it. ‘Why did he have to make it all about him?’ was one of the complaints.

Yet who among us in the ground really felt that the 26th-minute substitution and the scenes after the whistle made the afternoon ‘all about’ anyone? Terry’s final appearance was always going to be ‘about him’ to some extent, necessarily, but that’s importantly different from being ‘all about him’, and it didn’t stop the day from being about a number of other crucial things at the same time. Indeed, for supporters inside Stamford Bridge, the grand farewell was one rich and important item on a whole, glitteringly golden agenda of achievements that were being lovingly marked in the streamer-showered, flame-grilled carnival on the pitch after Sunday’s final home game - just as JT was only one of three people who took the microphone to make speeches after the match, and just as JT was only one of an entire squad of players who toured the pitch with the trophy and the medals they had all earned at the end of the afternoon. 

Also, nobody seems to be mentioning it, but 26 minutes? What a humble cameo that was. After less than half an hour, and with absolutely everything still to play for, the captain retreated, passing on the armband at the touchline, and left the team to get on with it (which it duly did). Less instinctively modest players would have insisted on playing for an hour at least, or even on a ceremonial 88th-minute substitution, properly milking it.

And while we’re in that area, I’ve never heard anybody becoming flustered about ‘the integrity of the game’ on those countless occasions when a manager has made an entirely needless late change solely for the purposes of securing an outstanding player a solo ovation. On the contrary, people rather seem to approve of that and label it ‘fitting.’

Furthermore, in his genuinely gobsmacking autobiography, Jeff Winter, the former elite list referee, confesses that, in his last season as an official, on what he knew would be his final appearance at Anfield, he allowed the game to run on beyond its allotted portion of time-added-on, just so the ball could be up at the Kop End when he blew the final whistle, thereby enabling Winter to experience a proper blast of noise befitting, as he felt, the occasion.

Winter then goes on to wonder whether some of that wild applause was a farewell for him, personally, rather than an expression of delight and relief at the fact that Liverpool had just beaten Newcastle 4-0 in a season in which Champions League places were still excitingly up for grabs. You will have your own thoughts on that, possibly. But it's irrelevant to our concerns here. The key point is, in the light of a mere ref using additional time as his own private dramatic device, a one-club legend of 22 years’ standing gently engineering a 26th-minute removal from the last league game of a season ought barely to cause a raised eyebrow, let alone a full-blown, media deconstruction.

Instead, let the record state that after 26 minutes JT departed, explicitly entrusting the lion’s share of the match and the ultimate destiny of the points on the day to the rest of the team. What a great, symbolic, and indeed selfless, way to go about it. Quite apart from anything else, imagine if he had stayed on for the duration – fighting, battling, helping secure the win, putting his head in the way of boots again, possibly even scoring. We would then have been obliged to go home tormented by the thought that he might have been retiring from Chelsea too soon, when all of us know, deep down (and we have been slowly and sadly acclimatising ourselves to this thought as the season has elapsed), that he isn’t and that the time has, indeed, finally come.

Again, then, I look at the moment and manner of his departure through an honour-guard of his team mates, and see, not ‘Hollywood’, as Garth Crooks described it on the BBC, but realism – just as I looked at John Terry turning through 360 degrees on the pitch on Sunday to acknowledge for one last time the applause coming at him from all four sides, and saw, not grand-standing but fundamental humility. No other departure could have so efficiently or movingly imparted the essential message: my time here is over and my work here is done.

And the response to that gesture, in the stadium and in Chelsea quarters everywhere, was, I would imagine, unanimous: thank you for that time, and thank you for that work, and come back and see us always.