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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 02/03/02
Crewe Alexandra
Around and around
By Ian Grant

And so it goes....

"Bloody hell, though, eh? Even if you were still outraged by the penalty decision, didn't you feel just a little thrill of anticipation at the end? That sense that it might not be over after all, that Norwich might be in for a sound thrashing? With others to follow? Oh, come on."
- BSaD report, QPR 1 Watford 1, 07/03/01

"As Graham Taylor kept the players on the pitch for a moment longer than usual at the end, it felt like an emotional watershed. It felt like my whole body had been lightened and lifted. It felt familiar, but no less wonderful for that. Sometimes, watching football is a bloody miserable experience. Sometimes - quite often, if you've been a Watford fan while GT's been in charge - your team plays their socks off for your benefit and watching football is the most joyous pastime in the world. So bloody happy. So bloody happy. Burnley, then. Come on."
- BSaD report, Watford 4 Norwich 1, 10/03/01

"Defeat against Burnley was annoying and frustrating rather than depressing and awful, but these are only different shades of miserable."
- BSaD report, Watford 0 Burnley 1, 13/03/01

...around and around....

"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. The real disappointment here was how easily City were rattled. This dynamism would have yielded points if applied earlier."
- BSaD report, Birmingham 3 Watford 2, 23/02/02

"At this late stage, it's hard to believe that we could suddenly get it so right. Not in a relaxed, end-of-season way either. No, this was a hard, punishing game of full-blooded commitment that the weak, tentative, tiresome Watford would've backed away from and lost badly. This time, we were so hungry for it, so eager in the approach and so powerful and so determined in the execution. Norwich, who needed the result more, were simply out-fought over the ninety minutes."
- BSaD report, Watford 2 Norwich 1, 26/02/02

"As for the game itself...well, a deep and very heartfelt sigh would probably say more than a couple of thousand words."
- BSaD report, Watford 0 Crewe 1, 02/03/02

...and back to where we started.

Beyond the tediously obvious - that we began brightly enough against visitors with a clear game-plan, that we faded away as time went on, and that Crewe's goal sent us spiralling away into oblivion - it's hard to know what to say. This was as frustrating as watching your pint of Guinness trickle away after you've toppled it as the bell for time rings. It was painful. Gutting, frankly.

Somehow, another opportunity has slipped from our grasp. While this performance fell far short of Tuesday's, neither capturing its furious intensity nor matching the elegance of some of the football, it still should've been enough to produce a single goal victory. But, as with that defeat against Burnley at a crucial moment in last season's ill-fated promotion challenge, the result obliterates all of that. Again, back to square one.

As for the game itself...well, a deep and very heartfelt sigh would probably say more than a couple of thousand words. Prior to Ashton's winner, I could see no other result than a home victory via an eventual and inevitable breakthrough. After it, I could see no other result than a deeply agonising loss. It was that kind of match, familiar enough to those who've watched regularly over the last couple of seasons and yet no less hurtful for it.

As before, we paid for the failure to turn possession into chances and chances into goals. With the passing of each minute, our case for three points became less and less convincing, the confidence gained on Tuesday drained away, and old habits (both those of players and supporters) returned. Even then, we had ample time and plenty of opportunities to score the all-important goal, to make the details unimportant. It didn't happen. Again.

The start was purposeful, if perhaps slightly too patient. For Crewe, sitting deep, soaking up pressure and taking anything that fell their way at the other end was the intention, and a predictable pattern was established almost from the first kick. Really, we tried pretty much everything, from intricate passing to slinging crosses into the box from both flanks. Nothing quite worked, nothing quite fell our way. Our fault? Partly. Bad luck? Partly. Desperate? Not yet, not until later.

If we needed inspiration, Micah Hyde provided it early on. The most positive and expressive Watford player on the afternoon, his darting run to collect a quick throw-in was followed by a delightful flick to take the ball past a defender and a low, curling shot from fifteen yards. It was aimed for the bottom corner and, with Ince scrambling across, it missed by less than a yard.

After ten minutes, Paul Okon was replaced by Jamie Hand, a forced substitution that was to prove significant as we chased the game without a natural holding player in midfield and the insurance cover that player can provide. Still, as Neil Cox met a corner with a bouncing header that required a fine clearance from a defender on the goalline, it was hard to believe that the afternoon's opening goal wasn't on its way, probably with several others queued up behind it.

Even as the initial impetus subsided, the pattern remained the same. It took forty-two minutes for Crewe to have a shot...and even then, Wright's deflected half-volley from all of thirty yards finished nearer to the Town Hall than Alec Chamberlain's goal. Really, we were under no threat, and this was an entirely one-dimensional game.

Would it happen after twenty-five minutes, as Hyde's trickery in the centre circle took him away from opponents and towards the penalty area, before a sly ball out to the right to set up Hand? The chance was wasted by a poor first touch and a sliced finish from a consequently tight angle. Would it be after thirty-two minutes, as Marcus Gayle bustled onto a long clearance and launched a dipping half-volley from twenty-five yards? The ball never quite rose high enough or long enough to clear the enormous Ince, and he parried it with both hands.

So, the question remained unanswered until half-time. Even then, however, you felt that our complete dominance of the game would bring some reward eventually. That one cross would beat the defenders and find its way to an unmarked striker, that one moment of brilliance from Tommy Smith would erase the rest of his fumbling performance, that one shot from distance would scream into the top corner rather than thumping into Ince's midriff. Sure, we weren't exactly bombarding the Crewe goal...but the game was nonetheless entirely one-sided. In contrast to last term, and regardless of everything else that's been wrong, we haven't often been tripped up by visitors from the relegation zone under Luca Vialli.

That's exactly what happened, though. Well, yeah, you knew that already. Perhaps you even saw it coming at the time. As our attacks slumped further towards predictable mediocrity and error-strewn frustration, Crewe became less fearful, then quietly crept forward and snatched victory from under our noses. It was a classic, perfect manoeuvre. And, much as I don't begrudge them the points that their discipline and efficiency thoroughly deserved, it was also really bloody annoying.

In hindsight, there were enough warning signs. After two minutes that'd seen Allan Nielsen send a deflected shot thumping into Ince's midriff from twenty yards (see above), we were fortunate to be saved by the linesman's flag as defenders swarmed around Ashton and left Hulse unattended for what would've been a clear run on goal. Sorvel struck a volley at Chamberlain shortly afterwards, following some neat, one-touch play around the edge of the area that, in all honesty, made a nonsense of Crewe's league position.

At the other end, goal attempts of varying quality came Ince's way. An in-swinging cross from Tommy Smith, wandering out to the left flank in search of some form, missed a touch from Marcus Gayle by a couple of feet and went on to skid wide of the far post by a similar distance. Stephen Glass smacked a drive over the bar, Allan Nielsen finished wildly after showing persistence to reach the corner of the area and hit another effort at Ince a minute later. Time dragged and silence reigned, Lee Cook and Heidar Helguson arrived to add some fresh impetus. After Tuesday's mighty display, it wasn't what I'd hoped for. But, even when Chamberlain was required to make a lively save to keep out Hulse's flicked header from a long throw, I still thought we'd win it.

As we pushed forward and left acres of green grass and cut-up mud behind us, we were taking a necessary risk. Looking back, I have a vision of the vital, terrible moment as it might've been filmed for an episode of "Casualty"...a hideous accident in slow-motion, dramatically blurred for full effect. Less blood and screaming, obviously. Still, as I replay it in my mind, Ashton rumbling in from deep, exchanging passes with Little, and rumbling onwards, I'm convinced that someone's going to stop him. A clattering and legally dubious tackle from Paul Robinson, maybe, or a decisive intervention from Wayne Brown.

Nobody does. Rather than bother with all that rounding-the-keeper nonsense, he fairly belts it into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

Instantly, faith in victory turned to certainty in defeat. If there's one thing that we're not good at, it's desperation...and things were suddenly very desperate. Crewe didn't have another shot and had no need of one; we had a few and failed to trouble the keeper. As the crowd's patience evaporated, Lee Cook drove at Ince from distance and Neil Cox's fine attempted chip drifted just wide of the post. Marcus Gayle, looking a little forlorn by now, got in Nielsen's way as Helguson's header fell in front of goal and lifted the ball over the target on the volley.

Even an equaliser might've lifted the spirits and preserved some confidence...which, with the league table nothing but a statistical triviality, is all that really matters. But it couldn't be found, and Ince's midriff fielded another long-range shot from Hyde. In the final minute, Cook's free kick from the left whistled past Cox and went as far as Brown...but, yet again, his half-volley was within easy reach of the keeper. By the end, you felt like howling in sheer, miserable frustration.

One of those days. Another of those days, more accurately. A false dawn is better than no dawn at all, of course...but it appears that's all the game against Norwich was. Even if there was nothing particularly appalling about this performance, the effect, as with the equally agonising defeat to Burnley last March, is to send us tumbling again.