Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 22 Mar 2018
So there is to be another semi-final for Chelsea, and as season ticket holder Giles Smith makes plain in this week’s column, familiarity certainly does not breed lack of anticipation…
Once again it came down in the end to that oh-so-familiar sight for Chelsea fans: the ball arcing high across the penalty area and Pedro rising like a salmon at the far post to nod home the winner.
Okay, maybe not that familiar. But a player who isn’t really famous first and foremost for his work in the air has done it twice now against Leicester, who must be beginning to wonder if it’s personal. (Pedro’s other headed goal at the King Power Stadium, lest you need reminding came in the 71st minute of our 3-0 Premier League victory in the January of our title-winning 2016/17 season. It was from more of a standing position, true. But those still count as headers.)
Credit is due, too, for the martial arts-based goal celebration that Pedro felt driven to in the wake of Sunday’s achievement, pictures of which made most of the back pages and in which the corner flag took the brunt of the impact. Today’s ultra-flexible pitch-side signage really has changed the boundaries in this area. This was a celebration which would have been inadvisable, and perhaps even technically impossible, in the days when the corner flag was a white-painted wooden pole, and quite capable of standing up for itself, and even landing a blow or two of its own. But ours are different times, of course – and better in more ways than you can count.
Anyway, that goal, deep in extra-time on a bitterly cold afternoon, combined with the equally welcome, and actually quite awesome one from Alvaro Morata, sent us into an FA Cup semi-final – our 13th, incredibly, in the 24 years since we went all the way to the final in 1994, after a long period when our club had little to do with the sharp end of the bigger tournaments. Given that most of those 13 semi-finals have involved a trip to Wembley, and that a high percentage of them have brought a further trip back that way for the final, there’s a decent argument that Chelsea fans have spent as much time on the Metropolitan Line this century as people who regularly commute into central London from Pinner.
Either way, essentially, rounding the numbers up and down a bit, we have gone through the last quarter of a century proceeding at least as far as the semi-final of the world’s oldest club knockout competition at an average rate of every other year – an extraordinary feat of consistency, not least from the point of view of those of us who can recall the previous quarter of a century, during which semi-finals took on the far-flung, rarely-seen and at times frankly mystical aspect of unicorns. Thirteen times in 24 years: you would think it would get tiring, yet somehow (witness Sunday’s widely shared high-kicking delight) the novelty never seems to wear off.
The day didn’t get any worse when Petr Cech and Gianfranco Zola then reported for duty at the FA’s plastic salad-spinner of destiny and found it in their hearts to deliver (looked at purely on the basis of league positioning) a relatively favourable semi-final tie against Southampton, plus access to the Wembley home dressing room, which, though by no means essential, is always handy.
Inevitably, in our ultra-suspicious and conspiracy-ready times, some people looked on at this scene (two Chelsea people at the tub, Chelsea securing arguably the most desirable of the available outcomes, including the bigger space to get changed in) and found it all a little too convenient to be trusted. And true, having not one but two solid gold Chelsea legends conducting the draw, and no further representation from any of the other concerned parties, might have looked, at the very least, a little imbalanced. But it’s the kind of imbalance we like to see, and would welcome a lot more of in the future. It’s certainly better this way, surely, than getting members of Kasabian involved in these ceremonies on a regular basis, which seemed to be the FA’s ambition at one stage.
Nevertheless, as the Sun later reported, ‘Chelsea avoided the big guns of Man United and Man City in the FA Cup semi-final draw – and fans are convinced it was a conspiracy.’ Of course, if we had ended up playing Manchester City, of all teams, then the draw would certainly have been wide open to accusations of manipulation, and the post mortems would still be raging.
But as City went out to Wigan in the fifth round, we really didn’t need to have our own people on the inside pulling out the marbles in order to help us avoid them. We could simply sit back and leave our fate to the gods of chance in that respect.
We should probably remember, too, that, in a four-ball draw, the range of possible outcomes isn’t exactly vast and that the chance of Chelsea getting paired with Southampton was pretty high, whoever was grappling with the marbles - and even if it had been, say, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane with Sir Alex Ferguson acting as compere. And the draw shouldn’t be encouraging complacency in any case. It’s a Cup semi-final on a neutral ground (except in the case of Tottenham), and those can always go either way, as we know. Indeed, as we know extremely well.