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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 23/02/02
Birmingham City
The hole truth
By Matt Rowson

My brother is a graduate in Philosophy. His undergraduate tutor had a colleague with a particular research interest. Quite who provides the funds for potty philosophy researchers to pursue such interests is another issue, but in any case this individual had clearly spent some time and effort identifying and obtaining these funds. As such, he is a recognised expert on the philosophy of holes. "How can we name or identify something which, by definition, doesn't consist of anything", that sort of thing.

People spend their lives pondering such issues without hope or expectation of making any great profit out of the exercise. This gentleman proved an exception as, at the time of the last US Presidential Election, being an expert in the very definition of what was or was not a hole became quite a profitable position. This professor was asked to advise the Democrats camp and spent some well-paid time holding ballot sheets up to the light for assessment.

This introduction is supposed to illustrate that even the most basic of issues can take a bit of balancing up. When it comes to making any sort of decision, your Mum always told you to write down the pros and the cons, and weigh the two up against each other. A slightly surprising number of Hornets came out in favour on this occasion, although had the option of a recount been available at around 2.45 with the vicious, icy wind finding its way through as many layers as you chose to challenge it with, it would have been well-employed.

For myself, revisiting the site of May 1999 was the big pro, and indeed before kickoff it was surprisingly easy to relive the experience from a similar seating position. When you stopped and thought about it the hairs on the back of your neck stood up. Or they would have done, had they not been hiding from the wind also.

However I'd managed to gloss over a couple of cons. Such as the completely uncharming Birmingham City support, bawling inane abuse across the wasteland of empty seats patrolled by well-marshalled stewards. Last year a Blues fan was evicted prior to this fixture for droning "You'll never be a Bluenose" during a minute's silence for the late Stan Cullis. Evidently he'd been readmitted for this one, and had brought some friends.

The teams are announced, and here's another one to weigh up... does Luca really know what he's doing. I mean, is there a masterplan, a direction that he's generally moving things in, or is the liquid nature of our first choice eleven merely tinkering ? I insinuate nothing here, I'm genuinely uncertain. In any case, Helguson (finally getting a game in his natural position) and the much-maligned Marcus Gayle started up front together for the first time, with Smith dropped to the bench and Gifton, one of the few to emerge from Tuesday's mess with a bit of credit, nowhere in evidence. Glass came in for Nielsen with Pennant switching back to the right flank, and with Robinson's injury from Tuesday keeping him out Galli came back in to partner Cox with Wayne Brown moving to left-back.

Birmingham, for their part, had a new captain in the absence of Steve Vickers and with Darren Purse still fidgeting over his contract. Shaven-headed, square-shoulders, eyes set with a determination that's oh so familiar, Tommy Mooney lead his new side out. Lumps in more than a few Hornet throats, which the Blues' support sensitively capitalised upon.

The opening exchanges didn't go too badly for the Hornets; indeed the first on-target attempt of the afternoon came from Gayle, whose sliced shot nonetheless forced a corner off Bennett's block. Glass soon made one of a number of tidy forays before finding that the gap opened in front of his weaker right foot, the shot spooning over the bar.

Gradually, however, the home side took control and were soon enjoying the lion's share of possession and chances. Many of these fell to their captain, who was endearingly doing his best to not quite get the right contact on a shot that screwed wide, and not quite time his jump to meet Devlin's far post cross. Clearest of the early chances came when Chamberlain was drawn out and the ball ricocheted agonisingly past him, bouncing towards the goal. Mooney roared in from the left and the away end took a breath... which was stolen by Wayne Brown, swooping across from left back to apply the crucial block.

The match became increasingly bad-tempered, fuelled both by Birmingham's competitiveness and frustration borne of the increasing ineffectiveness of our own attacks. Helguson and Purse were both booked for trading hacks in successive incidents before the Blues' centre-back sounded a warning by meeting a free-kick with a header that crashed off the crossbar.

Soon afterwards, the Blues took the lead. Laziridis' left wing cross dropped narrowly past the far post, provoking yet another intake of breath in the away end. The danger was not cleared however and as the ball rolled along the line it was met by Devlin, and the on-loan winger sent it back into the goalmouth where Purse crashed past Cox to head home. Oh, the joy of being a goal down at St.Andrews.

The Blues continued to push forwards and could have gone further ahead when Stern John capably demonstrated to all watching youngsters just why you don't lean back when you take a shot, the Trinidadian clearing the crossbar from a couple of yards out. Our own attacks were looking ever-more forlorn, with Pennant increasingly seeing no option but to attempt to beat the entire Birmingham side on his own. One particularly purposeful run, which began on the right flank deep in our own half following a City attack, was ended in decisive style by Bryan Hughes, whose brutal hack on the halfway line was the clearest yellow of the afternoon.

City extended their lead before the break; you didn't need a philosopher to identify the massive hole down City's left flank. Laziridis galloped into it following a long ball from defence, and when he squared the ball past Chamberlain's charge, Mooney found himself with an open goal. I'd like to think that he finished half-heartedly; in any case he took great care to ensure that his celebration was suitably restrained, although this didn't prevent the Neanderthal behind me from rising to his feet and aggressively berating the former Watford hero for having the temerity to do his job.

Lucky Half-Time Chocolate: None.
Reason: Because it's too bloody cold, and anyway chocolate is happy food and I'm not feeling terribly bloody happy.
Level of Success: Worth pursuing.

Half-time. Very cold, very fed up, very losing. Mood not enhanced when, on the restart, Birmingham bundle right back up field and force an unseemly goalmouth scramble - including, perhaps, a decent stop from Alec, lost in the melee - quicker than you could say "pregnant chad".

Birmingham were still completely in control, and not in need of any help from greater powers. They got it anyway, with referee Mr.Prosser, whose puns write themselves, awarding a penalty for a foul on Mooney that nobody in the stadium had appealed for. It seemed largely academic, in fact, as there was neither any prospect of us getting back into the game to the extent that it would matter, nor any arguing with the balance of a 3-0 scoreline, which Mooney achieved with a typical lack of fuss.

Cue activity on the Watford bench, and the warmly heralded preparation of Tommy Smith. In the end it was a double sub, with Allan Nielsen also introduced for the ineffective Hyde. Helguson and Gayle had been equally anonymous for a while, but that it was the Icelander chosen to make way seemed to tip the weight of evidence for many of the travelling Hornets. "You don't know what you're doing" came the verdict. "Vialli, Vialli" added the Brummies, helpfully.

This was probably the lowest point of the season, lower even than the Worthy Cup humiliation at Hillsborough. On the pitch heads were down on chests and a thorough walloping was on the cards at the hands of our most despised rivals. Off it the mood was plummeting towards mutiny. We needed either a massive stroke of luck or a stroke of individual genius, neither of which have been dropping in our laps this season. As it turned out, we got the latter.

There seemed to be little threat from a rare free kick on Watford's left flank, about twelve feet from the touchline and six feet from the edge of the pitch. The usual suspects lined up in the centre with another clearing header from the commanding Purse the most likely outcome. Except that Jermaine Pennant hadn't read the script, and sent an arcing, precise and quite deliberate shot over the massed ranks in the penalty box and into the far top corner past the astonished Bennett. Pennant's decision making has occasionally let him down during his loan spell, but if he's capable of such astonishing single mindedness in the face of such pressure, he may become a star at Highbury after all.

The game flipped on its head utterly. Whilst we've dominated games, or periods of games this season we've only rarely screamed into teams with wave after wave of ferocious attacks; such was the case for the next fifteen minutes. Pennant, as if determined that what seems certain to be his last performance in a Watford shirt wouldn't end in defeat, was at the heart of much, and incurred another booking when Devlin didn't take kindly to being made to look silly by the corner flag. Shortly afterwards Pennant went to ground late after another aggressive challenge near the halfway line, incurring the irritation of the home crowd for the remainder of the game - somewhat harshly, as this challenge was more of a foul than that which had lead to the penalty.

Tommy Smith, wonderfully positive since his introduction, was in the thick of things, slicing into the area to belt a shot desperately off of the inside of the far post with such venom that it cleared the area and the onrushing Nielsen. Glass was back in the game, and worked himself another opening... his right foot again, sadly, with similar result. Shortly afterwards he played a sharp pass into the path of a charging Wayne Brown, who broke through two challenges on the edge of the area only to have his shot blocked.

Smith broke through on the right and squared the ball mischievously inches from the goalline, Purse somehow managing to clear the bar after Bennett had been bypassed. Filippo Galli got a diving flick onto Glass's near post cross sending the ball across the face and narrowly wide. Gayle, for all his short-sighted but increasingly muted criticism from the away end, got his head to plenty, providing Smith with more than one knock-down and sending a far-post Pennant cross narrowly over under challenge.

In this breathless spell Birmingham were back on their heels. Whilst they can argue that they could have been protecting more than a three goal lead by the time the game swung, it was luck and inches that kept the Hornets to a single goal during this spell. Darren Purse was slightly lucky to stay on the pitch having launched the ball into the stand in response to another free kick - Galli had been booked for less in the first half. The real disappointment here was how easily City were rattled. This dynamism would have yielded points if applied earlier.

Gradually the furore abated, abetted in no small part by two defensive substitutions by Bruce. The closest Birmingham came to adding to their lead was when Mooney was again released into space, and lobbed the ball over the onrushing Chamberlain and also, narrowly, the crossbar.

The final ten minutes were largely uneventful with City happy to contain the game. There was still one comical twist in the tall, however... yet another cross came into the City box from the right; Michael Johnson, who had recently received treatment, tried to swing a leg at the ball to clear it. Instead, he found his turning circle obstructed by Darren Purse, and volleyed the ball expertly into the top corner from close to the penalty spot. Purse's bulk had been employed along the fine line between obstruction and strong defending for much of the game, so there was some poetic justice served here.

With five minutes of time added there was a slim possibility of an unlikely point; Pennant came close to signing off with a flourish by curling a free kick narrowly wide before the whistle went to no small relief amongst the City fans. Pennant was applauded off by the away end, and responded in kind, as did the captain of the opposition.

So did we play well or play badly ? Both, at times, I suppose, and neither on balance. But much as the man with his head in an oven and his feet in a deep freeze feels fine on average, a weighing up of pros and cons doesn't tell anything like the full story.

Yes, we were brilliant. For a bit. But we were also shocking. For a bit. Birmingham should maybe have scored more. And maybe conceded more. On balance, we stay in Division One. As do City.

And Birmingham is a hole. Obviously.