Ah, the summer holidays. Happy days filled with peace, serenity, airport queues and rental cars on which you’ve opted not to pay the zero excess and so crap your pants as you reverse out of the parking space. Thank heavens they’re over and we can get back to the serious business of trekking down the Bridge and sky plussing Match of the Day.
So down to business: it’s been a bit scrappy so far, but then that’s to be expected frankly. We’re all a bit off the pace after a few weeks lounging on the beach, hoping that our sunglasses are dark enough not to betray which way our eyes are looking. On the plus side though, it’s nice to see managers admit their failings for a change, Normally they act like lippy teenagers blaming everything except themselves, but now, with the transfer window fast closing, they are panicking like holidayers in Duty Free as the Last Call light flashes. Shall we get the Baileys or the Whisky? But I don’t like Baileys. Oh, just bung it in, come on! Wait a second we got an adaptor plug last time. What do you mean you’re not sure if we packed it? What’s the point in having one if you don’t pack it? Oh all right. Luca Modric? Well I know we packed two central midfielders. What do you mean they might not work in Europe? Oh sod it, just get him, it says gate closing. And get some minstrels while you’re there. But even in these early days we can get a glimpse of what’s in store, and I’m delighted AVB has quickly picked up on one of our new weaknesses at Stamford Bridge. He noticed, in his first game at home, that as fans we have a nervy habit of looking for scapegoats when the chips are down. Crowd anxiety sets in far too early and gets transposed to the players, who panic and compound the problem. As AVB knows, at the top level, the difference between winning and losing comes not from a team’s ability, but from its psychological reaction to adversity: from its resilience. A clock that reads 85 minutes doesn’t mean the game’s over, it means there’s a good 10 minutes left to make a difference. If you’re a goal down, there’s plenty of time not only to equalise, but then to capitalise on the shift in momentum this brings and go ahead to win. To win the Premiership means playing every one of the 95 minutes of each game, not trying for 80 then throwing in the towel. Something which goes for the fans as much as for the players. These days they call it Fergie time since it’s so often the moment when Man U snaffle all three points. Of course it used to be called Arsenal time: I remember seeing a ‘what if’ league table showing how things would look if the matches were 80 minutes long, instead of played to the final whistle. Arsenal’s invincibles, who had been comfortably top, wallowed in fourth. It was as if the magazine was saying, hey, they don’t really deserve the title, they’ve fluked it. Every time.
Somehow, winning in the final few minutes is considered underhand. As if, like Dhoni, the victors should withdraw that appeal because you know, it’s not quite fair. Which is nice in principle but butters no parsnips when it comes to reality. Tell that to the Dutch who saw the World Cup nabbed from beneath their noses with four minutes to go.
The truth is, winning in the last minute is not what makes teams champions, but rather it’s a symptom of championship-winning teams. It reflects the unerring belief and commitment that exists within the team, the two qualities essential to winning the league. AVB understands this, which is why he was surprised by the fans’ reaction to going 1-0. He sensed the anxiety that we’ve let creep in, the anxiety that has developed after giving away the title. You only need to look at the plight of Liverpool last year, or Arsenal this, to see what damage such anxiety can do. So AVB is right to nip it in the bud. Let’s not us get nervous when the clock is running down and we’re looking for a goal, that’s precisely the time when the opposition is nervous, that’s when they’ve got everything to lose. That’s when we pounce. The new signing of Mata is just what we need for this sort of killer blow. Someone in the mould of Duff or Robben, who can take it down the wing and win a corner, or who can cut inside and have a pop. That’s the vital ingredient we need to win at the death, that’s what we need for AVB time.