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Nationwide Division One, 7/11/00
Sheffield Wednesday
By Ian Grant

It had to happen sooner or later, obviously.

Did it have to happen last night, though? I mean, couldn't it have waited until Saturday?

Really, I've only occasionally been in a mood where victory has been such a high priority as it was last night. Brighton was an island yesterday, cut off by floods to the north, east, west and (clearly) south. A landslide on the line at Hassocks as a bonus. No trains. "Customers are advised not to attempt to travel unless it is absolutely necessary". That kind of thing.

I came so close to turning back. Taking the easy option, doing the sensible thing. Listening to the woman next to me, who'd taken four hours to get to Brighton from London earlier in the day, I worked out that it was theoretically possible to get to Watford by about 7:30. And that was enough to keep me heading north.

I don't regret going. Not at all. You can't regret going to see a football match, somehow. It's not something that enters the equation, and it feels as if it'd be the beginning of the end of the love affair with your team if it did.

I do regret not being rewarded with a win, though. Or a performance of moderate competence. Or even a free Mars bar. It would've been nice to feel that yesterday had some purpose to it, beyond the mere feeding of an addiction in ludicrously difficult circumstances. It would've made the return journey - which was so long and complicated that people who I was introduced to at Watford felt like lifelong friends by the time we reached Brighton - so much more bearable.

Really, this was Bolton all over again. With no points, less pretty football and some completely absurd defending. If Paul Jewell's been carrying out drastic surgery on this Wednesday team, then it sure as hell hasn't been with the aim of making them beautiful. They came, they bashed the ball about as if they train by using it to demolish buildings, they conquered. They appeared to be using some kind of sophisticated cloaking device at corners too, which should surely be the subject of an FA enquiry.

We can have no complaints at all. Once again, we showed ourselves to be lacking flexibility, to be a side that starts to struggle when it's not allowed to dictate play. For the first time, however, we also conceded very stupid goals, so that that struggle became about preserving our unbeaten run rather than trying to sneak a winner.

With a little good fortune, Wednesday would've won by a wider margin. Having swapped ends so that we were shooting towards the Rookery, they had nearly all of the chances in the first half. It's pointless to talk about possession - there really wasn't any possession, since that would imply that one side had the ball for more than ten seconds at a time. After Saturday's attractive niceties, this was crude, crass, shouty football.

Following Neil Cox's off-target shot from twenty yards, we had the game's first serious action after seven minutes. From out of nowhere, it was truly breathtaking action too. Crane's drive from distance was stunning, ripping through the air and swerving away from Espen Baardsen towards the top corner. The Watford keeper hurled himself to his left and made decent contact with the ball...even then, the power of the shot meant that he only just managed to divert it around the post.

There was little indication that we could be so potent in the final third. Sure, Gifton Noel-Williams set up Nordin Wooter for a run and wasteful shot...but we couldn't get the ball under control for long enough to do anything particularly constructive. If you like, you can moan about the very physical nature of some of Wednesday's play - hell, Andy Booth looks like a dwarf alongside some of his team-mates - but, to keep going at our current rate, we've got to learn to cope with these things.

Instead, we let the whole "lack of coping" theme spread throughout the side. In attack, we were being brushed aside and we lacked width. In midfield, we were dragged into something that probably resembled the free-form rugby-football chaos that Association Football eventually evolved from - whatever it was, you wouldn't want to pay to watch it. In defence, well....

Corners, right? The ball comes over, everyone tries to head it. All pretty basic, unless you try a new variation - the ball comes over, the opposition tries to head it, you pick your nose and watch. Granted, the late loan signing of Richard Jobson from Man City left us short on preparation time, but that's surely not an excuse for everyone else to go on holiday too. All this is leading up to the fact that, after fifteen minutes, Booth was left unmarked to crash a header against the crossbar at the near post. Certainly not the first time that opponents have struck the woodwork against us...but, on this occasion, we weren't going to capitalise on our luck.

For fifteen more minutes, the game rumbled around with no particular purpose. The Wednesday band bashed away...but, from the Rookery, the effect was rather like there was some heaving building work going on at the Vic Road end. Really not pleasant, and certainly not helped by the fact that, as soon as they stopped their infernal racket, we bellowed "CAN YOU HEAR THE WEDNESDAY SING?" at them so that they started again. Duh.

At this point, the action becomes rather vague. Mainly because the numbers on the Wednesday shirts are completely unreadable, so it was impossible to put names to incidents. Still, that should indicate that pretty much everything was happening in our penalty area. Someone met a left wing cross with a diving header, which fell nicely for Baardsen. Di Piedi, on early for the injured Sibon, tried a wild overhead kick from the edge of the box. Someone else shot well wide from distance. We managed to expose the frailties of the Wednesday defence only once, as crosses just evaded Mooney and Nielsen in quick succession.

The frailties of our own defence had already been exposed, of course. After thirty-seven minutes, another corner... and our luck ran out. Apparently, it was Richard Jobson who finally put the ball past Baardsen, although it was impossible to tell from the other end. A complete mess, regardless of who got the last touch. Unfortunate for Jobson, who looked considerably more competent than some on his return to Vicarage Road.

For the first time this season, we'd gone behind in a home league game. Wednesday had done what Grimsby had attempted to do. Although it had previously been a thoroughly ugly game, experience had reassured us that we needed to be patient, to wait for an opening. Now, in contrast, we were fighting against a rising sense of panic.

Pretty obviously, what we needed was a quick equaliser. It was equally clear that it would probably come from getting crosses into the box - after all, Pressman's too bulky to get off the ground properly and his defence looked unconvincing against Mooney and company. Three minutes after conceding, we were nearly level - Nielsen's cross from the right, Helguson's fine header down towards Wooter, who piled in with Pressman inside the six yard box but couldn't get a decisive touch and was eventually penalised.

For both Helguson and Wooter, it was the last action of the night. At half-time, they were replaced by Clint Easton and Tommy Smith. Easton, presumably because, having watched it bounce randomly around for forty-five minutes, GT wanted someone to re-acquaint the ball with the green stuff...and, despite some errors, he did exactly that. Smith, presumably because....

After three minutes, Baardsen's vast throw got a flick from Noel-Williams and another flick from Mooney, and young Tommy was on his way. The Wednesday defence chased a clean pair of heels, Pressman lumbered out and was quickly by-passed, and the ball was in the back of the net. Not so difficult after all, then.

Naturally, it looked as if we'd put the first half behind us. Heads started to drop among the visitors, their fans stopped all that banging (mercifully). Surely if we'd scythed through them once, then we could do it again in the remaining forty minutes, leaving me to face the public transport mayhem with a broad grin and lifted spirits.

For a while, it all went to plan. Cox headed over from a corner. Smith shot low at Pressman from twenty yards, then steered a skimming shot around the post from the edge of the box after a lovely link-up between Nielsen, Mooney and, yes, Easton. Hell, we were even treated to the sight of Tommy Smith, spindly and short, holding off and beating Andy bloody Booth in the air from a Wednesday corner...although the fact that he had to do so indicated that we still hadn't sorted our defending out. There was more lovely work from Easton, surging through midfield to set up a chance for himself via Mooney's cross and Cox's far post header - sadly, he couldn't stretch enough to keep his header down.

During this spell, Wednesday hardly threatened at all. Their single attempt on goal was bizarre - Di Piedi's volley looking half-hearted and harmless until Baardsen slipped over and needed to make a remarkably quick reflex save to stop the ball trundling pathetically past him. Had it done so, it probably would've summed up our night rather neatly, even if it would've been very hard on the excellent Watford keeper.

Instead, we found a different way of summing it all up. We left the gigantic Crane unmarked at a corner. We weren't expecting Tommy Smith to deal with him too, were we? Having been blocked initially, his header crept over the line via Nielsen's knees and Baardsen's backside. Perhaps it would be quite a good idea to work out what we're doing at set pieces. Like, a really good idea. I mean, we've got Tranmere and their brutal bombardment on Saturday, for heaven's sake....

After that, it all started to get a bit desperate. Neil Cox began to reverse the evolutionary process, gradually turning from accomplished footballer into wayward mentalist. As frustration increased, he violently belted a couple of shots at the Vic Road end...well, they certainly weren't at the goal, anyway. To be fair, he did manage to pick out a fine cross to the far post for Mooney after twenty-seven minutes - Pressman did well to save the header...well enough, in fact, to persuade Dermot Gallagher not to give us a corner.

Until the third goal, there was still hope. Not hope based on anything especially tangible, granted...but hope nonetheless. Then, after Baardsen had fielded a shot from outside the box and Mooney had volleyed over, Quinn raced down the left, bounded past Smith's weak challenge and scored from a tight angle. Again, you had to question the defending - just because he's obviously willing to help out in any area of the pitch, something's slightly wrong when a forward becomes the last line of defence.

So, half of Vicarage Road made for the exits, moaning all the while. Well, it's not like we're top of the league or anything, is it? Plenty to complain about, clearly. Sigh.

For the remaining minutes, some - Palmer, Easton - tried hard to salvage something, while others simply fell apart. In the Rookery, those of us who'd bothered to stay made attempts to make some noise, if only to drown out the din from the other end. Easton's rifled drive nearly brought some consolation in injury time, whistling inches wide of the post.

Frankly, there was much that was disappointing about last night's performance. Faced with a Sheffield Wednesday side that's combative in the extreme, we were sucked into a game that didn't play to any of our strengths. That's happened before, as we know.

From our point of view, with a grudging acknowledgement of our opponents' battling efforts, it comes down to defending. Scrapping for a result shouldn't be a problem - we've still got those kind of players, after all. But you can't sneak a one-nil win if you've already given away three stupid goals....

Not the most coherent report, probably. You can blame the trains for that.

Not the most coherent match either.