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Nationwide Division One, 16/12/00
West Bromwich Albion
By Ian Grant

One of those games, basically.

As the two sets of fans passed each other on Occupation Road afterwards, they summed up the whole thing far better than I ever could. Watford supporters looked back upon the events of the last five minutes, threw hands up in demonstrative frustration, and wailed "Oh, if only Mooney had buried that header...". Their West Brom counterparts also reflected on the same five minutes, looked to the sky in disbelief, and howled "Oh, if only Sneekes had taken that chance in injury time...".

Ninety minutes that can't be described without regularly resorting to the "if" word, then. A belting, incomprehensible match that seemed to be tossed and thrown by random (mis)fortune like a boat in a particularly furious storm.

Perhaps this is what it feels like to be a spectator in one of the plastic stands that surround a Subbuteo pitch. What you're watching is at the mercy of a greater force - huge hands that reach down from nowhere, flick the players around and determine the result. Certainly, there were things going on here that just weren't normal.

That was in keeping with the rest of the week, I suppose. Two players out, one unexpectedly transfer-listed, two players in. Clearly, Graham Taylor isn't prepared to sit back and watch this slump continue, even if he no longer paces the touchline with the same nervous energy. In fact, any predictions of sweeping changes to the team were unfounded - Carlton Palmer began in midfield, with Steve Palmer moving back into defence to take the place of the injured Robert Page; Gifton Noel-Williams returned at Heidar Helguson's expense. Sensible, not revolutionary.

Despite that, the start seemed revolutionary. The first thirty seconds of the game were taken up by confusion over a foul throw by Allan Nielsen. Once the referee had managed to clear all that up, the next thirty seconds were taken up by midfield battling.

Then Carlton Palmer won possession, stepped back towards his own goal and, using those elastic limbs, twisted to play a wonderful reverse pass to Tommy Smith. The youngster sprinted into the open space in front of him on the right wing, resisted the temptation to cut inside and, at the perfect moment, smacked a low cross into the box. With Tommy Mooney breathing down his neck, Butler clumsily clouted the ball into his own net from four yards. The defensive error shouldn't detract from the quality of the approach play.

In truth, however, what followed contained many errors and comparatively little quality. Without wishing to repeat myself indefinitely, such is First Division football and such is the task ahead of us this season. Pleasingly, amid the generally directionless activity, we occasionally found some space to play and thereby discovered ways of hurting the opposition defence. In a tight game, that's all you need.

In contrast to last week's match at Selhurst, there was never any serious likelihood that there wouldn't be more goals. No shortage of chances here. After ten minutes, Smith collected Mooney's vast cross-field pass and stepped past a challenge to fire a shot at Jensen. From the keeper's clearance, Roberts barged past Ward to feed Hughes, whose instant shot took a slight deflection on the way wide.

Following the corner, Carlton Palmer masterfully intercepted a cross into the box and, rather less masterfully, turned down the opportunity to clear decisively in favour of wandering out to the left, presumably to seek a more constructive option. There, he was caught in possession by Roberts, who again fed Hughes. This time, Espen Baardsen's fingertips diverted the shot into the side netting...although the officials thought otherwise and the striker was booked for his excessive protests.

The fifteen minutes that followed formed, in hindsight, the only period of the entire contest without noteworthy incident. Naturally, we were happy enough with that state of affairs, even if the lack of real action was rapidly echoed by a disappointingly flat atmosphere. Plenty of commitment from the team, relatively little from its supporters. It works both ways, y'know.

The dreary spell ended eventually. That much was inevitable. What definitely wasn't inevitable was the manner of its ending. With our passing seemingly going nowhere, we switched play from right to left in search of ideas. We found Tommy Mooney, a man with ideas.

Those ideas aren't always good ones...but this was absolute goddamn genius, flicking the ball towards goal and delicately dinking it with the outside of his left foot from twenty-five yards. Due to their slow speed, attempted lobs always create a moment of perfect anticipation and complete possibility. Will it clear the bar? Will it drift pathetically into the keeper's arms? Will it find that small space between the two? In this instance, Jensen was beaten completely and could only scramble backwards in a desperate and hopeless attempt to keep it out. It's said often, but there really is only one Tommy Mooney.

For the remaining minutes of the half, West Brom attempted to convince us that our two goal lead was assailable. But, despite some decent half-chances, they appeared increasingly frustrated. As a corner bounced around, Van Blerk attempted to hook the ball towards goal, but couldn't direct it on target. Clement stretched to head over from a Fox free kick, then Sneekes mis-hit a shot following good work from Roberts on the left.

In my memory, these passages of play are bathed in weak winter sunshine. This was the calm before the storm - with the exception of Mooney's fabulous goal, all that had happened until this point had been pleasantly logical and satisfactory. While the result was not yet decided, there was no real sign of the insanity that was to follow the interval.

To conclude the first half action, Baardsen saved firmly with both fists from Hughes' well-struck shot. In spite of a minor deflection on the way through, it came at a comfortable height for the keeper and therefore enabled him to push the ball well away from the danger zone. There was no real complacency here, merely a sense that West Brom were a good side that had nothing else to offer.

How wrong that proved to be. In seventeen minutes after the break, the Baggies scored three and should've added another, leaving our fragile optimism in tatters. Defensively, we were absolutely shocking. Pulled all over the place by the sharp passing and movement of our opponents, we contributed spectacularly to our downfall with some howling errors. We should've expected some kind of reaction - hell, how many times have teams made significant half-time changes to counter us? - but we didn't appear to have prepared ourselves at all. It was hideous. My memory suggests that all the following events took place in floodlit darkness and bitter December cold.

In the first minute, Fox's cross appeared to have fallen on stony ground as it bounced through to Neil Cox at the far post. His attempt at a clearance announced our dramatic nosedive towards utter madness. Aiming for the halfway line, Cox succeeded only in shinning the ball wildly back into the six yard box, where Hughes lurked unmarked. Perhaps he was as surprised as everyone else, since he belted it over the bar. Cue disbelief all around the ground...and some very meaningful looks at the Watford right back from his defensive colleagues.

For a moment, we were allowed to believe that that incident represented West Brom's chance of a comeback going up in smoke. It was only a moment, though. When it was over, Hughes was beating Steve Palmer and Baardsen to Fox's chipped cross and bouncing a header into top corner of the net. The game was back on.

It was quickly forgotten but, for five minutes, the fear that rapidly became evident in our play had a positive effect. Jensen saved awkwardly from Noel-Williams' bobbling shot, letting the ball bounce off his legs and relying on defenders to clear. From the corner, we saw all of Mooney's extraordinary determination again - he fought for the far post header, saw it blocked, pounced on the loose ball and smacked the half-volley with astonishing venom. In deflecting it over the bar, Jensen was protecting his face as much as anything else.

So the tables hadn't quite been turned yet. With the full-on drama still held in check, the match was finely balanced and threatened a goal at either end. Nielsen released Mooney, who chose to shoot early with a defender pursuing and drove his effort wide. In front of the vociferous Baggies fans, Sneekes turned and shot at Baardsen from the edge of the box. The frantic pace brought the crucial next score hurtling towards us.

As with Mooney's masterpiece, any sense of inevitability was blown apart by the nature of the goal. Down by the corner flag, Sneekes found that he had very little support. So, as the ball bounced in front of him, he just decided to thump a cross towards the penalty area. As it looped up and threatened to land on his head, Baardsen was taken completely by surprise and, in attempting to push it over, managed only to punch it into his own net. In fairness, I wouldn't have wanted to deal with a ball like that. Also in fairness, I'm not a goalkeeper.

That really put the arsenic among the pigeons. Despite the efforts of some players - Carlton Palmer, forever demanding more from those around him; Tommy Mooney, belting in an ambitious, and wayward, volley; Tommy Smith, fighting to get onto a pass and angling a shot across goal - we were disintegrating. Every West Brom attack left us chasing shadows. Every time the ball was at the Vic Road End, a third goal seemed certain. Thus it was no surprise at all when it arrived, Cox trailing in the wake of Sneekes' swift break and, with no serious challenge, Roberts sliding a shot through Darren Ward's legs and into the bottom corner.

You can imagine what it was like. Deafening celebrations from the visiting fans, howling anger from everywhere else. Every sideways pass was greeted by screams of "GET IT FORWARD!", every hoof was met by furious yells of "PLAY SOME FOOTBALL!". Every spell of passing merely emphasised the desperate impatience of the spectators, every failed attempt at an incisive ball just increased the frustration. When you're losing badly, everything's complete rubbish except the thing that works and makes the pain stop. It was a "no win" situation...appropriately enough, since we weren't winning.

The return of Peter Kennedy lifted the spirits briefly. Among other things, we're a team in need of quality supply - Kennedy's past record speaks for itself and, even in half an hour, he demonstrated that he's not lost that knack of intervening decisively. Unfortunately, all the attention that was focused on our attacking efforts ignored the fact that we were still wildly disorganised at the back. When Des bloody Lyttle is scything through your rearguard, darting into the box from the wing and whacking in a shot that misses by inches, then you've got trouble.

The team looked forlorn, the fans were unforgiving. We tried many things, occasionally stumbling across something that looked vaguely promising - Noel-Williams moving out to the right and bending in a decent cross, Smith stretching to head over from Nielsen's centre - but we lost it almost immediately. To our right, Graham Taylor prepared to use his remaining two substitutes. In front of us, there was only chaos and misery.

Yet, even as the substitutes waited for the ball to go out of play, the giant hand controlling the Subbuteo game reached down and randomly rearranged things again. Somehow, with no Watford player in sight, Jensen and Butler managed to misunderstand each other thirty yards from goal. Mooney, that legendary chaser of lost causes, was on the scene immediately and charging past the West Brom keeper to collect Butler's stray pass. Sure, the goal was unguarded...but it would be wrong to make the rest sound simple, since there was still much to do. Yet, with a clarity that isn't always his trademark, Mooney stepped inside Chambers' challenge to get the ball back onto his left foot and curled it high into the net. The chance was a gift, but the finish was quite brilliant.

That was the last of the scoring. But, Christ, it was not the last of the breathless second half action. With both sets of fans screaming at a contest that had become almost gladiatorial in its clashing, ruthless aggression, there was still one chance for each side to win it. Further substitutions were made, but were like throwing stones to stop a hurricane. Fittingly for a game that grew more intense with time, the best opportunities of the entire match arrived in the final two minutes.

It was our turn first. As so often in the past, the cross came from Peter Kennedy's left foot. It was superb - fast, low and accurate. Ironically, it was probably a little too good - Tommy Mooney was entirely on his own at the far post, so a slightly more delicate supply would still have reached him and might perhaps have enabled him to take more time over his finish. Still, he dived in to meet it with a typically firm header from five yards. With half an eye on the linesman, we held our celebrations in check for long enough to make sure that it rolled inside the post. It didn't.

The stakes were now so high that these moments were quite astonishing. With all that had gone before, it was impossible to predict anything. Each of these chances might represent another gigantic twist of fate, each might leave us jubilant or heartbroken. Perhaps we had a small glimpse of what it might be like to be a supporter at one of those playoff finals, rather than our relatively straightforward affair.

As injury time began, West Brom had their turn. Fox crossed from the left and Taylor, on as a late substitute, nodded down at the far post. Had the ball fallen to someone like Hughes, we would've been reflecting on our sixth consecutive defeat. Instead, it fell to Sneekes. Desperately, Baardsen spread himself in anticipation of a shot that never came. Caught between belting it spectacularly into the top corner and dragging it around the keeper to milk the celebrations, Sneekes did neither - when he opened his eyes, Baardsen found the ball in front of him and gratefully picked it up.

Two days on, I can look back, shrug my shoulders and smile. When winning becomes so important that you can't appreciate an essentially staggering game of football, something's very wrong. We needed the points, obviously...but there were many worse ways of failing to get them. This had everything.

A tale of six goals - including one that was quite sublime and three that were utterly ridiculous - and three missed chances. Whether it was Mooney's personal crusade, the nightmares of Baardsen and Butler, or any of the other on-going themes, none of it made much sense.

Not all great stories are easy to understand, though. They don't all have happy endings either.