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Worthington Cup 2nd Round 2nd Leg, 26/9/00
Notts County
I am calm
By Ian Grant

For goodness sake, what's this?

Can we play any worse? No, scratch that - I don't want to find out.

Start again. Think of things to write. Try to be coherent. Ignore lack of sleep and staggeringly irritable mood. I'm doing a match report. I am calm and I am rational.

Except I'm not, obviously. To see this, I scrambled out of a meeting at half past four and legged it to the station, catching the last possible train with two minutes to spare. Still feeling angry and frustrated and depressed from the meeting, I sat and festered on the way up to Watford. I could have stayed at home. I should have stayed at home. I didn't stay at home, because being at Vicarage Road seemed like the only way to avoid a trip to the pet shop to buy a cat to kick. There's that old song that goes "you make me happy, when skies are grey". Yeah, exactly.

Even having been there to witness it, it seems barely possible that this can have been worse than the first leg against Cheltenham. But it was. Much worse. An absolute abomination, a performance that rotted away before your very eyes. Jesus.

It was worse for three reasons. Firstly, because it just was. (Sorry, I know I promised to be rational.) Secondly, because we had a lead to defend, a clear, unmistakeable job to do...and yet still managed to let that lead slip away and, ultimately, to come within an inch or so of elimination from the competition. Thirdly, because Notts County were nearly as bad - unlike Cheltenham, who were disciplined and well-organised, last night's opponents spent most of the game being as comically incompetent as us. Perhaps it'll suit the players to portray our visitors as gallant lower division heroes but the truth is rather different. They weren't up to much, we weren't up to anything at all.

To be honest, I rather enjoyed the first half. I mean, it was dreadful in a way that only Auto Windscreen Shield ties can be...but there was plenty of entertainment in the stand (Miles: "We're resting Clint Easton for Saturday", Julian: "Why, is he going shopping or something?") and, in a way, the bland meaninglessness of it all fitted my requirements. "Cheltenham without the anguish" was how I described it at the time and, as if to emphasise the comparison, a lone voice started wailing "OH, CHARLIE MILLER..." to our left, just as he had then.

For five minutes, we were actually pretty good. Nicky Wright was back, Heidar Helguson was back, Johann Gudmundsson was, erm, back and the evening promised much. Within two minutes, Gudmundsson had weaved his way in from the right wing and curled a decent effort wide - little did we know that it was going to be another forty-three minutes before we had another shot. About fifteen action-packed minutes later, Tommy Mooney blasted a cross towards the far post and Heidar Helguson's header just evaded Gudmundsson's lunge.

It was one of those matches that leave you looking at your watch and struggling to believe that so much time has gone already. Not because the game's moving so quickly, just because it seems incredible that so little has happened in the elapsed time. After half an hour, McDermott dragged a long-range shot wide. Five minutes later, Liburd had the best chance of the half - which isn't saying much, really - and volleyed over from a right wing cross. Hughes' shot was deflected into Alec Chamberlain's arms, Neil Cox wellied a free kick thirty yards over the bar.

That's all the first half incident that I have to describe, I'm afraid. It was shocking stuff. It was the kind of football that forces you to cling to the most trivial comforts - winning a throw, an opponent falling over, shouting at the referee when he awards a free kick (even if it's obviously a free kick), anything to relieve the boredom. Occasionally, a few chants would start up...but, without any response from the players, they died almost immediately. By halfway through, Matt - at his first game for two weeks - was quietly resting his forehead on the metal railing in front of him, in preference to looking at the pitch. It seemed like a reasonable response, really.

Having watched Harry the Hornet parade around the pitch to a standing ovation - please stop it now - we emerged for the second half. I set my sights high, wondering whether this would be a full forty-five minutes of football without a single noteworthy incident and therefore create some kind of record. We continued to play like idiots.

We had shots, I suppose. So, in a sense, we improved. Helguson went reasonably close with an effort from twenty yards, Wright was slightly unfortunate to be denied by a deflection after shooting from the same distance, Helguson actually forced the keeper to catch the ball after fifteen minutes.

In another sense, though, we only deteriorated further. We had at least controlled the game before the interval, doing an effective job of making County forget any hopes of a miraculous comeback. It might not have been pretty and it certainly wasn't entertaining...but it didn't involve any risk of serious embarrassment. Now, however, we seemed determined to locate the self-destruct button.

For once, our opponents' occasional attacking moments were more penetrating than our own. Perhaps you could say that County did to us what we've been doing to others...except that our away victories have all come against sides that have played considerably better than we did last night. When they scored, it was a bolt from the blue - the players had presumably assumed that it was impossible and yet, somehow, it had happened. Stallard crossed from the left, McDermott's fine, ambitious run into the box was rewarded with a goal as he slid in to finish.

To an extent, that did wake us up. But it was too late. Our play had become so fragmented and so completely devoid of inspiration, and the addition of pure desperation really didn't help any. For the first time this season, we didn't get a lucky break to dig us out of a hole and, as a consequence, we were reduced to a shambles.

I used the word "ambitious" to describe McDermott's run for the first County goal. The point being that it showed ambition with a purpose - he saw the opportunity and went for it. In contrast, our interpretation of the word was random and pointless - there's a thin line between ambition and plain folly. When Robert Page is trying to score from thirty-five yards, you know that you've probably crossed that line.

Paul Robinson bent a free kick round the wall and into Ward's arms, but it was County who went close once again. This time it was Chamberlain's turn to make a basic mistake - although he still wins the man of the match award, by virtue of having saved our skins as often as he endangered them. As a low cross came in, everything seemed under control. Stallard attempted to meet it, Chamberlain came out to collect it...and the striker reached it first, only failing to score because he failed to make contact with the ball.

Finally, the woeful Gudmundsson and painfully unfit Wright made way for Nordin Wooter and David Perpetuini. While the latter did little that was awful but equally little that might change the course of the game, wee Nordin did at least raise our flagging spirits for a few minutes. It was his cross that brought us closest to scoring, Darren Ward's header aimed towards the bottom corner until, erm, Darren Ward flung himself to save brilliantly.

The County keeper was injured shortly afterwards, making way for young Lindley who'd come along with his parents' special permission and had been loaned a goalkeeping jersey for the night. He got his hands warm within a couple of minutes, diving to catch Mooney's header from a Nielsen cross - not a difficult save but one that obviously gave him confidence after being thrown unexpectedly into the action.

On and on. And on and on. While pessimists predicted a late County goal to send the game into extra time and optimists vainly hoped for an equaliser, there was little sign that it wouldn't still be one-nil when Mr Alcock finally got around to putting us out of our misery. As endless diagonal balls searched out the head of Wooter - damn, our tactics are so sharp sometimes - we sighed deeply and waited for it to end.

Forty-five minutes, and Perpetuini's cross found the head of Nielsen, who wastefully headed straight at Lindley. Two minutes of added time. No, make it stop now. To be charitable, we'd been absolutely bloody atrocious...but we were going to go through. We could put it behind us. Then a through-ball slid through with the defence already in the dressing room, and Hughes slipped a shot under Chamberlain with the last kick of the ninety minutes.

Oh, you absolute bastards.

Thirty minutes more. Thirty minutes more to redeem ourselves or thirty minutes more to dig a deeper grave. Thirty minutes more, to extend the endurance test for the supporters. Thirty minutes more, to rob me of an hour and a half's valuable sleep. Thirty minutes more, to give County a chance of completing the task.

The first half of extra time plumbed new depths. It was awful beyond comprehension, let alone description. After Mooney had shinned a volley wide from Noel-Williams' cross, the remote chance of using the additional time to preserve our unbeaten record disappeared altogther. County players dropped like flies, seemingly requiring hours of treatment... although, mercifully, the referee didn't seem inclined to stop his watch. People fell over, passes went astray, we won corners and booted them at the nearest defender. It ended with Mooney trying a half-volley from thirty yards while the keeper was off his line, crossing the line between ambition and folly once more.

What happened next, my friends? Did it get better or worse? Well, what do you think....

Only Alec Chamberlain and pure luck kept us in the competition, as any sense of discipline deserted us altogether. Within a minute, Hughes was striding through the midfield and belting in a shot from twenty-two yards that dipped towards the top corner. Alec got there, just. He tipped it over at full stretch, to our relief. We weren't even started yet, though - the corner was cleared, a cross arced back in, everyone ran around in a blind panic as if it was a bomb dropping and it crashed against the crossbar. Hughes bashed the rebound across the face of goal and, more by accident than design, we were safe. Good grief.

The team stumbled towards the finishing line. The supporters prayed for some kind of relief. It nearly came with a well-struck shot from Nielsen, but Lindley was equal to it and did well to shove the ball round the post.

We still had one last party trick, though. Joseph rudely barged Robinson out of the way, and was able to do so with ridiculous ease. He advanced towards goal and, from a tight angle, beat Chamberlain with his shot - if suggestions that the keeper got his fingertips to the ball are correct, then it was a tie-winning save. It came back off the inside of the far post and bounced along the line, behind Darren Ward. Stallard reacted first and, from the same angle as Joseph, sent the ball whistling across the face of goal once more. Truly, that was luck that we didn't deserve.

We counted down the minutes like the last few days of a long prison sentence. We speculated on whether Worthington Cup rules had been changed to scrap the idea of away goals, in which case our feeble, cowardly attempts to retain possession would have caused us even greater embarrassment.

Much stick was dished out to Steve Palmer for a couple of backpasses from the halfway line...but, in all honesty, he was simply doing his job and had no viable alternative - if you don't want to see that, don't give it to someone who's facing their own goal with a striker at their back. Even more stick was dished out to Noel-Williams as he attempted to keep the ball at the corner flag in injury time. I've never felt like booing a Watford player quite so much in my entire life, quite frankly - when you've performed as badly as this, you have no right to do anything but try to compensate.

It ended. Some players ran for the tunnel, others offered us their applause as apology. They'll have to do better than that, starting on Sunday. Again, there was an ovation for the away side...but it was difficult to feel that it was especially deserved, since they'd certainly played their part in a completely appalling football match.

To quote from my first leg preview:

"Unlike previous banana skins - Cambridge, Wigan, Cheltenham - County aren't in any kind of form and, a fired-up Ramage aside, shouldn't have anything that we haven't dealt with before. Statistics prove that it is possible to emerge from these Worthington Cup ties without looking like complete idiots. Once, just once, it'd be fantastic to do away with so-called 'lesser' opponents in a vaguely professional manner. Please?"

Thanks, chaps.