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Nationwide Division One, 20/1/01
Facing facts
By Ian Grant

There's no way of avoiding the facts.

Think back to the start of the season, when we could look at our forthcoming opponents without fear, when even our fellow Premiership casualties didn't appear to offer a serious challenge. Our squad was as strong as any in the division, more complete and more experienced than the one that had been promoted. All we needed were performances to match.

On Saturday morning, those thoughts were finally laid to rest. Fulham are better than us, better than everyone else. Of course, the league table already provides a fairly clear indication of that...but it's beyond doubt now.

Every club in the top six or seven - and a few outside that group - can claim to have some fine players on the pay-roll. Those players would arguably be comparable with the majority of the Fulham squad. But nobody has players that are the equivalent of Saha, Clark or, when he's fit, Collins. Not ex-Premiership, not aspiring to the Premiership. Actually, currently worthy of the top flight, and not too aware of it to disappear up their own backsides either.

A Bolton fan phoned "606" last week, talking up his team's chances of catching Fulham and winning the Championship. When asked to provide the evidence for this fanciful claim, he noted that they'd been beaten by Stockport. Which is true, obviously. The problem is that the list of slip-ups pretty much stops there. When you hear that a team is too good for the First Division, you usually have to raise an eyebrow. Fulham, unfortunately, are the exception. For years, their desperate attempts to buy a ticket for the Premiership gravy train were a source of great merriment. No longer.

So we were beaten here like we were beaten repeatedly last season. Played well, showed much that was greatly encouraging, got stuffed regardless. There's consolation in the knowledge that we won't have to face Fulham's front-line (or anything even vaguely similar) again during this campaign...although, clearly, that says much about our chances of survival should we achieve promotion.

We can reasonably claim to have made them work for it this time, at least. While the pattern of the game might've been similar to Boxing Day - our performance fell away dramatically once we'd conceded the first goal - we held out for twice as long, exorcising a few ghosts in the process. It would be easy to compare the scorelines and draw inaccurate conclusions, forgetting that Fulham might've scored ten at Craven Cottage. Certainly, the period of free-fall is over.

We continue to build. Much of this has to do with the arrival of Paolo Vernazza, quite a player and our most credible candidate for comparison with Fulham's stars. What we have here is someone with a biting tackle, extraordinary long-range vision, and sublime skill on the ball. An all-round midfielder of considerable class and evident commitment, with his best years still ahead of him. Quite what Arsenal were doing in letting him go for £300,000 is anyone's guess.

For Watford fans, he provided the highlight of the game after only three minutes. From the centre circle, he spotted Tommy Mooney's bustling run down the left and picked it out in breathtaking style. The pass, hit sweetly with the outside of his left foot, curled over thirty yards into its recipient's path and left his opponent completely stranded at the same time. Matt used the word "divine" to describe it, and I can't think of anything better. We've not seen anything like it from a Watford player since the days when Craig Ramage still cared. Unfortunately, Mooney couldn't take advantage, attempting a floating cross-shot that drifted harmlessly across the area.

It quickly developed into a fine game, one that was full of positive football and penalty area action throughout. Lee Clark, playing in a role that bridged the gap between midfield and attack quite brilliantly, hurtled through the centre to shoot at Alec Chamberlain from the edge of the box. Davis shot a couple of yards wide from distance, the Watford keeper watching it all the way. After ten minutes, we saw the threat of Saha for the first time as Darren Ward struggled to deal with a long pass into the space behind the defence (something of a problem in both encounters) and the striker drove the ball across the face of goal.

Plenty of incident, plenty of good football. From a corner, Melville headed weakly at Chamberlain under challenge. The keeper set a counter-attack in motion, Vernazza picking up possession and feeding Mooney who turned down the opportunity to try to out-pace the defence in favour of an ambitious and wayward drive from way out. We've been involved in a couple of recent games that have always been destined to be decided by a single goal, but this was certainly not following the pattern. Saha struck a shot into Chamberlain's chest from long range, Clark drove over too.

As yet, there had been no shortage of goal attempts. Equally, though, there hadn't been any clear-cut chances. That was about to change. It all came from Tommy Smith, who's added a tenacity to his game that's making him a far better all-round player than even his most enthusiastic admirers could've hoped. He caught an opponent in possession on the left, robbing him with a firm tackle. Instantly, he was away towards the by-line, pulling the ball back into the area. There, we found Tommy Mooney, unmarked in the six yard box. The scream of celebration escaped prematurely from my lungs as Mooney took aim to beat Taylor from close range. Yet he appeared to be so careful in ensuring that he kept the shot on target that he ended up hitting it straight at the Fulham keeper, who blocked and dived on the rebound. You wouldn't have put much money on our ability to hold onto a one-nil lead for the rest of the ninety minutes...but, equally, you can't afford to waste chances like that against quality opposition.

That said, the belief suddenly flowed through the entire side. For a spell, we won a series of free kicks and corners, Peter Kennedy's left foot delivering the ball into the penalty area and testing the Fulham defence - the continuation of Messrs. Cox and Robinson as set piece takers since Kennedy's return has been utterly baffling. Unsurprisingly, the best of the efforts came from Kennedy, in the form of a quick, sweetly-struck free kick that rose accurately towards the top corner before Taylor got across to catch it. Just before, Vernazza had dribbled sublimely through the midfield to shoot without power at the keeper.

Clearly, Mooney's miss was to be a crucial moment. The same applies to the weak, indecisive refereeing that allowed Boa Morte to end a period of mindless misbehaviour with only a yellow card to his name. He began by enraging Watford fans with a dive in the penalty area, running between two defenders and ensuring that he caught Steve Palmer's leg before tumbling. It deserved a booking, as did the dreadful, vengeful hack on Palmer at the other end of the pitch shortly afterwards. When he finally entered the referee's notebook, it was due to the most innocuous incident - a debatable handball that barely warranted a free kick. The standard of officiating was very, very low on Saturday, frankly.

Until now, we'd done extremely well. We'd restricted the number of chances falling to those lethal Fulham strikers, we'd had dominant spells of our own. It wasn't over, though. To destroy any sense of comfort or complacency that we might've had, Fulham ended the half with five minutes of scything, savage attacks as we momentarily relaxed.

Suddenly, it seemed that there was too much to deal with. Most of it came from Lee Clark - in truth, with so much of the play coming from that one source, we missed the deep patrolling of either Palmer in midfield to nullify the threat. After forty-three minutes, he broke and supplied Boa Morte, who slashed wide when he might've done rather better. Then Ward struggled to cope with a long ball, hooking an awkward half-clearance up in the air, facing embarrassment as Boa Morte flicked the ball over the advancing Chamberlain's head, then finally managing to intervene decisively before the striker could take advantage of the confusion. Defensively, we were more secure than at Craven Cottage, yet still fragile sometimes.

As injury time began, Fulham tried to press home their advantage. Their attacking football was too quick and sharp for us as, for once, James Panayi looked like a youngster playing out of position in trying to stop a break on the flank. Otherwise, Panayi had an assertive, confident game - not always error-free, but always back for more. The move ended, inevitably, at the feet of Boa Morte, whose angled shot was deflected away by Chamberlain's legs and span out over the goalline. To the utter disbelief of Clark, who'd followed in to watch the ball roll out and take the corner, the linesman awarded a goal kick. Relatively unimportant in the great scheme of things...but also perhaps the most fundamentally, comically incompetent decision I've ever seen in a professional football match.

Appropriately, it was Clark - the best player on the pitch until this point, albeit with close competition from Vernazza - who supplied the final attempt of the half. He attempted to curl a low shot into the bottom corner from twenty yards, yet hit it too straight so that it went harmlessly wide instead. With incident from beginning to end, it had been an excellent forty-five minutes. Competitive, well-matched, skilful, incisive, positive. Bravo.

Looking at the scoreline and the times of the goals, you'd tend to think that things fell apart after the break. In truth, the reverse was true. The fifteen minutes before Fulham took the lead were dominated by our most impressive spell of the match, during which we managed to push our opponents right back on their heels.

More than anything, this was achieved by relentless pressure from the forwards on the leaders' characteristic patient passing in their own half. On a number of occasions, defenders found themselves surrounded by yellow shirts, losing possession in terribly dangerous areas. It was tremendous to watch, and not only for the commitment and eagerness that it showed. Tactically, it was perfect - Fulham's slick passing game began to falter, the visitors started to panic.

They broke out just once, switching the ball around smartly to play in Saha for a low cross that found Goldbaek, whose shot from twelve yards was blocked by Chamberlain. At the other end, there was much more activity. Fine work from Mooney set up Allan Nielsen and his dipping drive flew just over. Then Neil Cox - full of purpose going forward, horribly nervous in defence - rambled forcefully towards the penalty area before belting a half-volley over the bar from twenty-five yards.

Then, another pivotal moment. Nielsen's long throw was flicked on by Ward towards the far post. There, Mooney was marked and virtually pinned down. As he battled, he appeared unlikely to win the aerial challenge, let alone do anything more than loop the ball up in the air. But this is Tommy Mooney, no mere mortal. He strained every muscle to reach it, strained them some more to direct the ball towards goal, and was terribly unfortunate to see it bounce against the crossbar. He should've scored earlier in the game, he could've done no more with this one. As he stood and demanded more support from the Rookery, you felt that the game's momentum was building to such an extent something had to give....

Unfortunately, that something immediately gave at the other end. The sight of Saha in full, elegant flight is enough to induce panic in any defence...and it certainly induced panic in ours. Actually, Cox did enough to stop the attack, following Panayi's earlier example with a perfectly timed slide to take the ball away from the striker's feet at the crucial moment. But the cry of "WELL IN!" died in my throat almost immediately as the ball ran straight to Boa Morte, who took advantage of Chamberlain's advanced position to finish efficiently.

Our resistance fell away quickly. Sure, we still managed some occasional attacks in the attempt to find the equaliser - Nielsen shot tamely wide, then Taylor made a two-handed save to keep out Kennedy's shot from the edge of the area - but the air had suddenly become even chillier and Boxing Day didn't seem so long ago. Off-target efforts from Davis and Boa Morte resulted from Fulham moves that now seemed to meet with less opposition. Coming so completely against the run of play, the goal had knocked us out of our stride entirely.

The second was simplicity itself, wonderful football if it's not your team on the receiving end. As in the away game, Clark broke up the left wing. With such pacy, lively strikers making runs in front of him, he had to do nothing but wait for the right moment to slide the ball through. He picked it perfectly, supplying Boa Morte with a second unmissable opportunity - he took it calmly, nipping past Chamberlain and slipping his finish into the bottom corner.

From there, you just hoped that we'd make a fight of it. If not for the three points that had already slipped from our grasp, then for the sake of next Saturday's fixture. As we've found out, losing the occasional game is bearable, if it doesn't have a long-term effect on morale and confidence. For that reason, the fact that Heidar Helguson's name appears on the scoresheet is hopefully significant. After replacing Gifton Noel-Williams at the interval, he didn't have a particularly distinguished half - as ever, he struggled to lead the line effectively - but that goal may make such a difference.

It was a complete mess, really. Another long throw from Nielsen did the damage - Mooney headed it on at the near post, then it was just a matter of whether anyone could find a way of forcing it over the line. Nordin Wooter, involved after only seconds on the pitch, needed to gain a few inches to reach it and ended up bouncing around manically like Tigger trying to catch a fly. A more practical solution came from Helguson, who bashed it in with his elbow from a yard. None of the officials saw it, so he got a goal rather than a booking. It's worth noting in passing that a post-match interview with Allan Nielsen reveals that, if the ball hadn't ended up in the back of the net, the referee would've given a penalty for earlier holding on Tommy Mooney. So that's all right, then.

The stage was set for the grand finale. It had been a thoroughly entertaining game, and it was about to get the roaring climax that it deserved. Well, nobody had told Fulham. Before we'd got around to laying plans for the equaliser, the two goal cushion had been restored. A neat interchange on the right left us totally bewildered, to the extent that we were still trying to work out what had happened to the ball as Goldbaek charged away into the penalty area. He crossed for Saha, who'd gained a yard or two on his marker. He doesn't miss those, although Chamberlain managed to get a hand to the shot and will probably feel that he might've kept it out.

So the finale was cancelled, the comeback celebrations forgotten. Indeed, Boa Morte probably should've completed his hat-trick after robbing Ward and finding himself with an unchallenged path to goal. When he got there, though, his composure deserted him and, in attempting to finish emphatically, he sliced his shot well wide. Really, that would've been extremely harsh on a Watford team that had only been beaten in the final thirty minutes. We didn't deserve to be humiliated again.

The rest was mundane, out of keeping with the majority of the game. It was enlivened only by wondering whether Nordin Wooter would actually touch the ball during his fifteen minutes on the pitch. He did, eventually. Twice. That's not twice as in two of his lengthy dribbling sessions, that's twice as in exactly two touches. And one of those was a header.

That aside, the applause was fully deserved. We didn't match Fulham. We did, however, have them in trouble for a time, even if their superior firepower rapidly got them out of it. We were beaten, not destroyed.

The lesson here is simple, really. We're not the side that we thought we were back in September. Fulham, on the other hand, are precisely the side that everyone thought they were. Slow down in the winter mud, will they? Get turned over by the commitment and desire of less fancied teams? Come over all complacent when it looks like they've got it won? I think not, sadly.

We're not the side that we thought we were back in December either, though. For Fulham, the story of this season is already written. For us, it could end in any number of ways.