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Nationwide Division One, 24/2/01
Stockport County
Facing the firing squad
By Ian Grant

Well, it was certainly a workmanlike performance.

That is, we didn't turn up until several hours after the appointed time. Even then, there was no particular urgency - instead, we sat around, drinking tea and reading the paper, until some sense of duty pricked our conscience. When we finally got down to work, our assessment of the task was brief and sketchy, our execution of the work was laughably amateurish. Grumpily announcing that we'd finished, we demanded an extortionate fee (payment in cash, naturally), didn't bother to clear up the mess, and buggered off without a further word.

Yes, perfectly workmanlike. Careers as plumbers, electricians and builders surely await our players. On this evidence, they're not terribly well suited to football.

In many ways, the details are completely irrelevant. Sometimes - Tuesday night being a prime example - a quick glance at the result will tell you little about what really happened, sometimes it's all you really need to know. We drew at home to a very, very poor Stockport side. We trailed for the vast majority of the game, then contrived to discard a miraculous and precious victory. What else is there to say? Judging by the air of silent, miserable contemplation in the pub afterwards, not a great deal.

This, my friends, was woeful.

Oh, full credit to Stockport. They battled, fought, applied themselves. For long periods, a dozen boisterous fans at the back of the Vic Road end made the only noise within the ground. They'll feel rightly proud of what they achieved. But, really, they didn't have to do anything, did they? In gaining an away point against a top six side, they were never thrown from their gameplan, never forced to do more than the usual. They were as bad as us, we were as bad as them. They deserved the draw, then...but they can hardly claim to have lifted themselves above the level of their league position in the process.

What's gone wrong? Well, it's simple...but the solution's damn complicated. Somewhere along the line, we've lost any cohesion. What was once a team, made up of unbreakable units, has now become a set of individuals. In defence and in midfield, we have nothing to compare with the partnerships - Page and Palmer, Hyde and Johnson - that propelled us towards the Premiership two seasons ago. Even up front, where we appear to have fewest problems, players are isolated and left to their own devices. There's no leadership in the team, there's no team to lead.

So, Graham Taylor's quite right to talk about making signings. Equally, he's entirely correct to say that it's not as easy as it sounds. If you add individuals to individuals, you get a bigger set of individuals. The galvanising effect, albeit delayed until after Christmas, of Carlton Palmer's brief presence shows what we're missing and what we're looking for. Those players don't grow on trees, though.

Elegance isn't the issue here. We're kidding ourselves if we believe that our competitors are treating their fans to displays of sparkling, fluent football. At this stage, what counts is resilience, a quality that appears to have deserted us completely. Find some of that, and you buy time to fix the rest of the problems with the side.

Until then, you fear that more of the same is in store. A dreadful first half told the story. We played extremely poorly, failing to hit any kind of rhythm with our passing and allowing Stockport to settle into the game from the start. Yet we still created a couple of fine chances, demonstrating a continued ability to make an impact in the final third. If the score had been blank at half-time, you'd have expected us to go on to win the game eventually.

The score wasn't blank, though. Playing badly with a strong defence is a million miles away from playing badly with a hopelessly fragile defence. For twenty minutes, this was just a sterile, awful football match. After that, it was a sterile, awful football match that we were losing. Bloody hell.

The opening period was almost entirely barren. Wilbraham headed weakly at Espen Baardsen from a corner, Allan Nielsen was denied by a challenge as he attempted to bring Steve Palmer's cross down to shoot. Any thoughts that we'd see an immediate reaction to Tuesday's infuriating events were quickly dispelled. Instead, we were again found lacking by mediocre opponents - second to virtually everything in midfield, nothing to work with in attack.

Still, the whole thing might've been illuminated by the goal of the season. As Neil Cox's low cross took a diversion on its way into the danger area and bounced up awkwardly, Heidar Helguson found that he'd over-shot the ball. In response, he executed what can only be described as an "overhead backheel". Tumbling acrobatically forward, he flicked out a bent leg and connected with his ankle to send an extraordinary effort towards goal. Only the agility of Jones in tipping the ball over the bar prevented him from giving the Hornets an astonishing lead. And only by watching the replay could on-lookers be certain that their eyes hadn't deceived them.

The rest was altogether more mundane. Indeed, Stockport's opener had a bizarre, sleepy quality about - Paul Robinson mis-placing a pass in the centre circle, Wilbraham receiving Fradin's centre and, with Darren Ward doing no more than watching, firing a shot into the bottom corner. A couple of hundred County fans went berserk, everyone else tried hard to retain some kind of faith in the abilities of the home team. Scoring against us has become a matter of routine, a tedious inevitability.

Labouring and, Tommys Smith and Mooney excepted, entirely devoid of imagination, we were a miserable sight for the remainder of the half. Put simply, our response to going behind was to burrow still deeper into our own self-pity. Only the forwards offered a sense that there might be some kind of plan, something more than waiting to close our ears to the impending boos and dressing room fury...but they didn't have the ball. More than fifteen minutes elapsed before we managed a goal attempt....

And even that attempt came from within our own half, Neil Cox's first-time welly bouncing wide when Jones was caught in no man's land after clearing unconvincingly. Grayson shot at Baardsen from the edge of the area too. End-to-end stuff, then.

An equaliser would've given us something to cheer, at least. There were only two likely sources. There was Tommy Mooney, always charging about with his head held high which, in the circumstances, was an outstanding contribution. And Tommy Smith, whose fabulous progress is thrown into ever-stronger contrast. As injury time began, it was Mooney who nearly rescued us, pulling Cox's cross down at the far post in typical fashion and smashing a low shot across. It scraped the outside of the post, and you felt that Mooney deserved better luck. The team, on the other hand, deserved exactly what it was getting.

The start of the second half saw some kind of revival, following the replacement of Steve Palmer and Heidar Helguson by Peter Kennedy and Nordin Wooter. For the first time, the County defence found itself unable to prevent us from creating openings inside the penalty area. While our approach play remained extraordinarily untidy, things were starting to happen for us. Tommy Mooney was involved, unsurprisingly.

After five minutes, Mooney's optimistic volley from eighteen yards flew over the bar. Frankly, there's been too much talk about the striker's selfishness in recent weeks - in current circumstances, having a forward player who's prepared to shoot when given the opportunity is not high on the list of things that need Graham Taylor's attention. The same player looped a header harmlessly wide from Robinson's free kick, then hooked a bouncing ball across the face of goal from a corner. To end the spell, he was mere inches away from connecting with Smith's drilled cross as he lunged in at the near post. He's a winner, is Mooney. We need him more than ever.

Having failed to level the scores in that early spell, we fell away again. The encouragement from the stands gave way to justified scorn. There are only so many words that will adequately describe our general malaise, and I'm thoroughly bored of wasting my precious Sunday afternoon trying to find new ones.

We did nothing to halt the countdown to defeat. Indeed, with Carrigan, Hurst and Kuqi shooting wide for Stockport, the visitors began to look the likelier scorers. In the stands, derision and frustration was replaced by absolute outrage as Nielsen was robbed on the halfway line and Kuqi was allowed to advance to the edge of our penalty area without meeting a single challenge. He shot swerved viciously and cleared Baardsen's crossbar by little more than a yard. It would've been no more than our total lack of commitment deserved.

Amazingly, and from absolutely nowhere, we equalised within a minute. It was a superb goal too, quite out of keeping with everything else. Robert Page's long pass found Nordin Wooter on the right wing, allowing the winger to open his stride for almost the first time. Showing an awareness for which he's not always known, Wooter smacked the ball across on the bounce without hesitation. And you just know that Tommy Mooney's not going to let a challenge from a defender stop him - it was a brilliant finish, a thumping volley that gave Jones no chance at all. It was our first goal attempt for more than twenty minutes.

Our second arrived within two minutes. Much scrapper this time, not that anyone cared. It was Peter Kennedy's only notable contribution, a free kick from the right that arced into the box and took a flick from a defender on the way through to the far post. There, Allan Nielsen stood all alone and, from a standing position, managed to get enough power on his header to beat the players on the line. Forget getting out of jail, this was the footballing equivalent of being missed by the firing squad....

And then inviting them back for another try....

Even before the undignified chaos of injury time, we'd been riding our luck somewhat. We'd been fortunate that David Smith's firm strike was directed towards Baardsen's midriff rather than the top corner, even more fortunate that Cox managed to turn Kuqi's free header from a corner around the post as he stood on the line. We simply cannot rely on our defence right now.

Avert your eyes now, please. Four minutes of injury time, three of which have already elapsed. From just inside his own half, Paul Robinson hits a back-pass towards Baardsen. Or, to be more accurate, mis-hits a back-pass towards the middle of nowhere. After Grayson picks up possession, some semblance of order appears to be restored as Robert Page manages to get goal-side and push his opponent wide. That semblance of order lasts until Page slips comically in the process of making a quite unnecessary challenge, leaving Grayson with time to pick out Wilbraham for an unchallenged shot and an equaliser born of unbelievable ineptitude.

Well, I need tell you nothing about the rest. Imagine Bishop Brennan's face after Father Ted has kicked him up the arse, and you'll have some idea of the stunned expressions of those trooping out of Vicarage Road. Just disbelief, completely bloody disbelief. No explanation necessary, no explanation possible. Wherever we've been and wherever we're heading, we've ended up here. It's not very nice.

Birmingham on Friday, then. Christ. On this evidence, any friends or relatives may be well advised to avoid me on Saturday morning.