Smith on Chelsea

Wednesday 25 September 2002

At the end of the match against Chelsea, I was exhausted - wrung out both by the tension of the occasion, and in the last 15-20 minutes of the match, by the dreadful fear that despite our clear superiority, Chelsea might nick a goal and deny us the point which was the least we deserved.

And if I was shattered, how must the players have felt? Their commitment was total, their endeavour impressive, their desire to put right that ancient wrong unmistakable. The front two just about ran themselves into the ground chasing down every quarter-chance of getting the ball - and many a time they won it, too.

Somehow the final little touch wasn't quite there. But it was still a performance of which we can be proud, against a team 3rd in the table and unbeaten this season. The defence was steady and the covering excellent. Zat, I thought, had a superb match, and this in turn allowed Alain to relax a little and also put in a first-class performance.

Right through the game, the midfield was a battleground where nobody dominated. It says much for us that we were able to bottle up the little magician Zola - although his first-half turn and shot was masterful, it was happily just a touch too high.

It was our third successive clean sheet, and we have not conceded a goal for 5 1/4 hours. We have the 4th best defence in the Premiership - and by a neat coincidence, the 4th best attack as well. We will go to Everton on Saturday with confidence high. Incidentally, we were the first team this season to stop Chelsea scoring.
It is wonderful to see Fulham in the top 6 in the table - and with a game in hand! I see no reason, from the performances I've watched so far this season, why we can't stay there. My one slight query is whether our squad is big enough and strong enough as the season wears on. That was our 15th competitive match of the season, twice as many as most Prem clubs have had.

This is bound to take its toll, as is the enormous amount of travelling that internationals have to do these days. In the week before we play Man United at home next month, both Barry and Ina have to go to Japan and back - hardly the best preparation for one of our most important matches of the season. But then many of United's players will also be away on international duty, so I suppose it evens itself out.

The atmosphere at Loftus Road sounded terrific, even on TV, and I am greatly looking forward to my first visit next week for the Hajduk Split match. It can help having a tight ground, thought the downside is that the slightly narrow pitch inhibits our play a little.

I had two special ambitions for the Premiership this season - to take a point off Man United and to beat Chelsea. Not yet, but very nearly. Summariser Alan Smith on Sky said that if it had been a boxing match, we would have won on points. It will be tough at Stamford Bridge but maybe we'll get the break we need there.

And United? Well, just look at the table. We are justifiably above them, so of course we'll take at least a point when they come calling!

One other point on the Chelsea game - a tick for ref Paul Durkin. I thought he handled what could have been an explosive match well, with a smile on his face, and the players responded.

More on my last piece, I referred to the first match I reported on, a rain-soaked victory at Bristol Rovers. There was another resonance of that game this week with the news that Wendy Toms, the league's only female official, has been downgraded for not being fit enough. Wendy was on the line that evening at Rovers, and got more than her fair share of stick from us. She has led the way for women match officials, and I hope she can make the step up again.

And still more....apparently one of the linesmen at the Leeds-Man United match a week or so back was a police officer who is currently off work with stress. Just as well fans don't take time off for that complaint, or there would be precious few of us left!

Undaunted, and with high hopes, I look forward to another 90 minutes of nervous tension on Saturday. Last time, Everton took the lead (in David Moyes' first match in charge) in under a minute. A similar strike for Fulham would settle the stress level very nicely!