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Nationwide Division One, 20/2/01
Blackburn Rovers
By Ian Grant


It's not as friendly, as outright matey, as Bob. Somehow, you imagine that people named Bob are never, ever miserable. Nor as formal as Robert, which is rather schoolmasterly. It's somewhere between the two, neatly hedging its bets.

Rob, then. The players' friend, yet only at an appropriate distance. The referee who likes to keep order with a smile on his face, combining the key assets of Bob-ness and Robert-ness in one convenient package. The man for the job, no matter what the job is.


Very formal, as we've said. Particularly for a footballer, whose names usually follow trends more rapidly than their clothes. For a player still to be known by a two syllable name is remarkable in this day and age.

You know where you are with Robert, really. Upstanding, solid, fundamentally fair. Not one to shirk duties, nor one to claim undue credit. Villains aren't called Robert.

So, Rob and Robert. Rob Styles and Robert Page. Referee and player. Two meetings, two red cards, two defeats. Go figure. Because, frankly, it's beyond me.

This was one of those games, where discussing the football without first discussing the officials is impossible, where the man in black dominates proceedings to such an extent that the other twenty-four participants might as well have stayed at home, where seasons are turned on decisions made by arseholes. Hence, presumably, the fact that we've not yet had any comment from Graham Taylor.

In all honesty, there is nothing to say about the vast majority of the ninety minutes. Does it matter, really? Did the opening spell of fierce Blackburn pressure have any impact on the final result? Did our gradual revival, which peaked as we forced a couple of fine saves from Friedel, make any difference? Was there anything that strayed from the inevitable in the second half, during which we barely touched the ball? In all cases, no. Short of deciding the destination of the three points as part of the half-time draw, it's difficult to see how actual football could be made any more irrelevant.

You can play with nine men sometimes. Just about. Against teams like Tranmere, who'd be bewildered by having the opportunity to pass the ball about, you stand some kind of chance and a heroic rearguard action might just win the day against all the odds.

Against Blackburn? Yeah, right. Dream on. Only risible finishing and astonishing goalkeeping prevented the second half score from being as ridiculous as the decision that had created the situation. Once they'd taken the lead, everyone might as well have buggered off home, leaving the Blackburn defenders to pass the ball among themselves for the remaining minutes.

Sixteen thousand people paid to watch it. Fifteen thousand of them hate your guts this morning, Rob. May the milk turn sour on your cornflakes, may your toast be burnt to inedible ashes, may the tea spill all over your morning newspaper. May the hot water have run out when you try to take a shower, may the toothbrush that you normally use be switched for the one that your wife uses to scrub behind the taps. May you forget to pick up your keys as you leave, may the front door have an automatic lock, may there be some vital papers that you cannot now retrieve because you have locked yourself out. May the world conspire against you, so you know how it bloody feels.

Oh, all right. Let's discuss the football too. It is a tradition of match reports, after all.

Like a trailer for a film that never gets released, the first half created a sense of anticipation that remained unfulfilled. Never dull, merely messy and sketchy, it was a match that threatened to grow into a contest worthy of the league positions. It was never given the chance, of course.

In truth, our defending might've ruined it long before the referee intervened. For ten minutes, we were an accident waiting to happen. It took Bent all of fifteen seconds to step past Neil Cox's blundering, only to be denied by the linesman's flag. Worse followed as Cox stood and watched the ball roll out for a goal kick, to the astonishment, and later anger, of his colleagues who'd spotted Bent creeping up on the outside. When the cross came in, Jansen diverted his header wastefully wide from six yards.

Further defensive flaws were revealed a minute later, as Robert Page's indecision inside the box let Jansen in again. This time, he prodded the ball goalwards as he fell and despaired as it hit the post before bouncing back into Espen Baardsen's hands.

A game with goals in it, then. At the other end, Blackburn hadn't looked particularly secure in allowing Allan Nielsen to win the ball in the final third and then run onto Heidar Helguson's flick. Only a poor first touch, taking him sideways rather than forwards, prevented him from going clear and his eventual shot was as desperate as it was inaccurate. From an indirect free kick inside the area, awarded for a dangerously high boot that caught Darren Ward, Tommy Mooney drove a shot wide.

The subsequent respite was caused by a shift in emphasis, an assertion of property rights from the Watford midfield. From now until the dismissals, the game fell into a more predictable pattern - Watford pressing, Rovers breaking. Even if the idle chatter around Vicarage Road betrayed the fact that we'd yet to capture the audience's imagination, it promised to be fascinating.

It proved to be so. Our period of confidence-building yielded results remarkably quickly and, by the half-hour mark, we were beginning to create some very presentable chances. Having pushed Rovers back into their own half, we were also finding it easier to cope defensively, with only a tremendous saving tackle from Page on Bent and a Mahon drive at Baardsen offering any glimpses of the earlier panic. The atmosphere began to build, the sense of post-Crewe fatalism began to lift.

If only we'd scored. You might be able to defend a one-nil lead with nine men. The best opportunity fell to Tommy Mooney, who did the hardest work by charging in to get on the end of Cox's hanging cross but then thumped his header narrowly wide. The forwards were beginning to make an impression, the midfield was starting to impose itself enough to provide support. Tommy Smith went on a thrilling run from the halfway line, scooting enthusiastically past opponents before drilling in a low shot that, although initially goal-bound, was saved with disappointing comfort by Friedel.

The Blackburn keeper wasn't going to be comfortable for long, however. After thirty-six minutes, he made a phenomenal save to prevent Mooney's awkwardly deflected free kick from creeping in to the bottom corner of his net. A minute later, Nielsen found space within the box and was picked out by Robinson's pass, Friedel pushing the fiercely-struck shot away acrobatically. Sometimes, we remember that we're actually quite a good side.

But, as previously noted, this is all mere flim-flam. To be a good side, you have to have vaguely the same number of players as the opposition. It just helps, basically. So, there was Robinson's poor attempt at a pass to Page, there was Bent sneaking in to take possession, there was Bent falling over Page's negligible challenge. There was Rob, either unable to see the incident or unable to see anything wrong with it, looking over to his linesman. There was Page protesting his innocence, pointing out that Robinson was in close attendance. There was yours truly, dutifully and prematurely noting the Watford captain as the recipient of the evening's first yellow card.

The colour of the card was red, the stadium exploded, the three points sneaked quietly away towards Lancashire while everyone was distracted. The grand idiocy of the decision makes it difficult to know where to start. With the fact that Page barely obstructed Bent? With the fact that other defenders were getting back? Or - my personal preference - with the fact that sending someone off for an offence that you haven't seen without speaking to the person who saw it is ludicrous on an unheard of scale? Sod an appeal to the FA, you rather feel that we'd be better off going to the European Court of Human Rights.

Oh, make no mistake - everything that followed, including the result, came from this moment. Having made his bed, Rob was not going to miss out on a chance to lie in it. He did so, booking Helguson for furious protests and further inflaming an already adequately flamed situation by moving the free kick ten yards forward. (Do you have no human characteristics? Is Rob - approachable, sensible name - merely a cover?) Blackburn didn't score from it, which is probably fortunate for all concerned.

In the stands, bellowing, red faces, and shaking of fists. On the pitch, aggression, flying tackles, and mayhem. Someone was going to end up in the notebook. Stupidly, that someone was Helguson, whose high, two-footed assault on Curtis was probably worthy of a red card in itself. That he wouldn't have been so reckless in calmer circumstances certainly doesn't excuse him.

What remained of the half was unsurprisingly chaotic. The noteworthy bits involved Short volleying over from a Gillespie cross, then heading wide from a corner. Such things had begun to be incidental, however.

Our second half effort was utterly heroic, if doomed to failure. Blackburn are a very capable passing side at the best of times, so they simply kept the ball moving and made us chase them till our lungs burned and cramp set in. The pressure was ceaseless, the shots rained in. Any Watford attacks involved one player on his own, trying to do it alone before being swamped by opponents. The handful of goal attempts came from distance - Vernazza, Mooney, and Cox all missing the target from outside the area. We gave everything. Everything wasn't enough.

It was only a matter of time, really. Mahon sent in a shot which was deflected to Baardsen. Jansen raced onto a through-ball, bided his time, and somehow managed to poke his finish over the bar from eight yards. Mahon made space for himself, then arced a shot around the post from the edge of the box. Gillespie drilled a drive through the six yard area and wide. Jansen smashed a half-volley into the advertising hoardings from a right wing cross. It never stopped.

We've let ourselves down recently, failing to prevent problems that have been within our control. Now, with no control whatsoever, we were fierce, obstinate, fabulous. You expect it from a depleted team, yet it's still a joyous reminder of how we can play when something motivates us sufficiently. The result was, ultimately, in Blackburn's hands - we couldn't prevent them from creating chances, just hope that they wouldn't take them - but, bloody hell, we fought for the right to claim a bit of luck.

So, Jansen's header after twenty minutes was the first on-target effort of any note. Diving in to meet the cross at the near post, he connected perfectly and sent the ball shooting goalwards. But Baardsen was equal to it, instinctively flinging an arm out to divert it around the post. From the corner, Short thumped a shot wide.

The winner wasn't exactly against the run of play, then. That said, it did come on the break - in attempting to mount any kind of attack, we left ourselves desperately short of numbers in our own half. From Gillespie's low cross, Bent scored with a shuffled finish and ended our remote hopes.

From that point, it only became more farcical. Freed from the need to push forward to get the winning goal, Blackburn were able to keep the ball almost indefinitely, rolling it around in their own half while Tommy Smith and then Nordin Wooter pursued gamely. We played for pride and won, I suppose. There's no particular enjoyment in football that's so one-sided, though...and that appeared to hold true for the silent Blackburn fans too.

Further scoring was prevented by Baardsen, saving brilliantly from Jansen's blistering drive with fifteen minutes remaining. Our flagging cause was also aided by yet more generosity from the Blackburn forwards, with Hignett firing into the side netting as injury time began. The scoreline reflects our gargantuan efforts, at least.

As I say, one of those games. The problem is that it's also one of those results in one of those fixtures. Whatever the circumstances, we lost a match that was vital, pivotal. The response against Stockport will be very telling.

Watching all of this from the main stand was Nicholas Ralph, no less than a BSaD legend. Living in Canada, his visits to Vicarage Road are few and far between, yet always extremely welcome. He doesn't get to see much of us. He didn't get to see much of us last night either. On the other hand, he got to see four different Watford captains in action....

Thanks, Rob.