Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

Comic book stuff or coolness and craft personified? With last night’s victory still very fresh in the memory, supporter Giles Smith discusses the joy of the late winner in this week’s column…


It was a bit like basketball, right at the end there – that thing you see in the NBA where the shot-clock is on, the seconds are ticking down and the players are calmly working the ball around, advancing up the court, apparently not experiencing any particular pressure or urgency because that interval of time is drilled into them, drilled so hard that it’s in their bones, and they know exactly how long they have got and how long they need. No scope for panic, accordingly, because this is simply what they do.

Same scene in Madrid – our players serenely working the ball around in the centre of the pitch just outside the Atletico penalty area while the third minute of the three added-on drained away. Mind you, I have to say, the players’ serenity was not shared in the sitting room where I was watching the game, and where the general gist of the audible remarks was: ‘Have a pop, someone, for God’s sake – he’s going to blow in a second.’

But our players, of course, know better and had other ideas. Hold the ball, pass, hold the ball, pass, across and through the centre, into the box, out wide again to Alonso, back into the box – boom, Batshyuahi, 1-2. Three points, top place maintained in the group and one of the best teams in Europe outplayed and defeated in their own ground. With the last kick of the match, too – although that makes it sound rushed and scrappy, in some way, when it was anything but.

Football has few pleasures to compare with the last-minute winner. It’s in a category of its own. Actually, let’s go further: life in total has few pleasures to compare with the last-minute winner. Indeed, it’s one of those occasions where you feel a little bit sorry for people who don’t much care for football and who will never know the pure, molten release of seeing the net ripple in the 94th-minute in a Champions League group game away at Atletico Madrid - and then seeing the players pile on top of each other over by the corner flag while the officials line up in the centre circle because there’s no time even for the re-start.

If you watch enough football, you’ll see a last-minute goal from time to time, but nearly all of them have a gung-ho, what-the-hell, what-do-we-have-to-lose feeling about them. They’ll arise because somebody has done something last-ditch and gutsy, scrambled it over the line, maybe, or gambled – taken a hack from 25 yards and got lucky, or alternatively ‘loaded it into the mixer’ to see what might happen in the ensuing defensive panic.

Which is why the phrase frequently used on these occasions - ‘last-gasp’ - isn’t right for the winner scored on Wednesday night. There was no gasping going on. Not on the pitch, at any rate. On the contrary, this was the work of people breathing calmly and evenly. How cool was that? To bide your time when time has all but run out – to bide your time when there is no time - takes a certain kind of ice in the veins: or, perhaps more like it, a certain kind of confidence, a certain kind of belief in yourself and what you can do.

Roy of the Rovers stuff, you might also be tempted to say – but that wouldn’t be quite right, either. Yes, the last-minute clincher was repeatedly the stuff of Roy Race’s greatest comic-book escapades, and the means by which he landed a surprising number of the club’s trophies. Indeed, scientists calculate that if every Melchester Rovers game had ended after 88 minutes, the club would have been relegated from the football league in about 1963 and never heard of again, while Roy himself would have gone down in the history of the game as one of those marginal figures who showed promise but was never quite able to capitalise on it when it mattered. 

 Roy Race catches the eye of England's World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey

However, the last-minute, story-saving transformations of the score-line that kept the Rovers afloat and in the public eye, and simultaneously cemented the Roy Race cartoon legend, were rarely, if ever, about smoothly executed team-work. They weren’t the product of nerveless interplay between high-functioning, imaginatively managed players who fully understand what they’re about and what they are capable of. On the contrary, a last-minute goal for the Rovers normally arrived by virtue of some kind of lung-busting, high-blood-pressure solo effort from Roy himself.

Totally different from Wednesday night, then. No lungs were bust in the making of that goal. No blood pressures were unduly raised. And there was certainly nothing solo about it. That was a team goal, if ever Chelsea have scored one – which, again, explains why it felt like the right kind of conclusion on the night. Something else people tend to say about a last-minute winner: that ‘they nicked it.’ Interestingly, though, you won’t find anyone using the word ‘nicked’ in relation to this one. You can’t steal something you already own. In Madrid, the last-minute winner felt like the natural and reasonable outcome, given the performance we had just witnessed - a fitting culmination and a wholly appropriate ending to the match that had just taken place. A rare treat indeed, then, and a privilege to have been around to see it.