Main Menu
What's New
01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/9/01
Preston North End
Primary colours
By Ian Grant

A founding member of the De Stijl movement, Piet Mondrian rejected the long-held idea that art should be a representation of the world. Instead, his paintings were constructions in their own right, comprised of strong black lines, precise right angles, and flat expanses of primary colour. Seeking the perfect composition from these most basic elements, Mondrian moved the blocks around the canvas until a balance was struck and the work was finished.

It's an illusion, of course...but, gazing at a Mondrian painting, there's a sense that he's answered all questions, that he's found some kind of universal solution. Although the harsh lines and bold colours suggest cold, modern logic, the effect is very different. From the elegant balance of the elements and the underlying clarity of purpose is derived an enormously satisfying and immensely uplifting experience.

If there was an equivalent of Piet Mondrian's perfect vision on a football pitch over the weekend, it was probably to be found during the second half at White Hart Lane on Saturday. At Vicarage Road, there were no lovely straight lines, no strident expanses of colour...just smudged grey and indistinct shapes. Not even any yellow, since we were wearing our black away kit for show.

On Wednesday, we failed to beat an exceptionally poor Birmingham side, conceding stupid goals to cancel out some unusually effective attacking play. Here, then, was our chance to gauge just how much of the optimism gained from that performance was down to City's ramshackle defence rather than sudden inspiration on our part. The results were painfully conclusive.

Having apparently stopped squabbling, Preston were the same well-drilled, purposeful side that beat us twice last season, although notably less ambitious. We, on the other hand, were apparently intent on demonstrating how little has changed since the low points of that failed campaign. Viewed as individuals, there was comparatively little to complain about. Indeed, in the slightly over-enthusiastic commitment of Lloyd Doyley, the work-rate of Neil Cox, the battling of Stephen Glass, the old-fashioned competence of Filippo Galli, the unrewarded efforts of Tommy Smith, it was even possible to find things to praise. But it's impossible to pass comment on the team...because it barely existed.

Really, that's even more worrying. You can scream and shout and vent frustration when players have bad days, safe in the knowledge that this isn't the real Watford. But we simply don't know what this set of players and this new management team is capable of. We don't know what the whole amounts to. Is this it? Christ, I sincerely hope not....

It's difficult to imagine a more ragged, wretched, fundamentally clueless performance. I'd prefer not to try, anyway. For ninety grim minutes, we laboured to find any kind of inspiration against opponents who, apart from scoring an equaliser on our behalf, were thoroughly in control. Depressingly, we acquired great acres of possession and turned them into barren wastelands. As before, and like West Brom, Preston are an extremely good side at this level. We, quite clearly, are not. Despite the draw, the distinction was straightforward enough - only one of these teams appeared to have the faintest idea what it was supposed to be doing.

We seem to have taken some suggestions on board. As against Birmingham, we began by passing the ball around, attempting to establish some kind of rhythm. Sure, this mostly involved going sideways...but that's better than going backwards. This time, we even created an opening for ourselves, as Heidar Helguson met Neil Cox's free kick but mistimed the contact and headed well over.

Again, though, this was all immediately undone by cretinous defending at the other end. Three minutes...confusion between Espen Baardsen and Paul Robinson...general confusion...confusion between Espen Baardsen and Stephen Glass...GET IT AWAY!...cross...more confusion...another cross...more confusion...possible penalty appeal...confusionconfusionconfusion..... If anyone was actually watching on telly, they wouldn't have been greatly puzzled by the size of our "goals against" tally. Like confidently delivering the start of a speech with flies undone, we'd instantly lost our composure.

The rest was drivel. The midfield disintegrated rapidly (I'd have tended to remove the invisible Paolo Vernazza at half-time rather than Gary Fisken, who at least showed for the ball), the wide players were far removed from the play, and the forwards battled to get on the end of hopeful punts from defence. Happy in their work, Preston simply rushed about and broke up any passing moves at source. This was West Brom all over again - better technically, we were being dictated to by a stronger, sharper, hungrier side. Frankly, we looked feeble.

For a while, nothing much happened. The atmosphere faded to silence, the game deteriorated into a shabby mess. Helguson made no contact on a cross, then was copied by Nordin Wooter, looking lost in a role that was more "vague" than "floating". Moilanen muddied his jersey to save Wooter's low shot from twenty yards, but was otherwise untroubled. Pretty bad, and about to get worse....

After twenty-two minutes, Jackson rose highest at the far post to meet a corner and headed downwards. His attempt was blocked by a combination of Baardsen's hand and a defender's shin, but rebounded back to him. He tried again, and squeezed a shot under Baardsen's body, leaving Macken to slide in and score from two yards. Again, we were reminded that we're really not very good at this defending business.

Everything else needs some work too, on this evidence. Apart from one slick move down the right, which ended with Helguson releasing Wooter on the right and the Dutchman turning down the opportunity to shoot in favour of a pass to Smith, there was little sign of the much-vaunted passing football. Except, that is, in our own half, where we shuffled the ball around pointlessly for a bit, before sending it forward to fend for itself.

While never exactly streaming forward, Preston still managed to create the better of the chances. After thirty-one minutes, Macken should've done better with a stooping header at the near post from Edwards' unopposed cross. In injury time, Alexander was also unopposed as he collected a clearance from a corner and belted a shot five yards wide. By that time, we were looking utterly forlorn. As the play fragmented still further, there were great eruptions of discontent from the stands, caused more by our utter failure to make a meaningful impression on the game than by the scoreline. Only Helguson's attempted curler, fielded comfortably by Moilanen, offered any threat to the Preston lead.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Toffee Crisp.
Reason: A satisfying fusion of various distinct elements, echoing the need for similar cohesion on the pitch.
Level of success: Disappointing.

Implausibly, the second half was worse, both as a spectacle and as a performance. Perhaps the desperation of three substitutions - Marcus Gayle, Gifton Noel-Williams, and Stephen Hughes replacing Nordin Wooter, Heidar Helguson and Gary Fisken - was understandable...but there were more fundamental things wrong here. We needed a plan. We didn't have one. As curtains of rain drifted across Vicarage Road on this miserable Sunday evening, we carried on much as before....

Until Preston, aware of our plight, gave us a goal. Literally. Apart from Stephen Glass, who took the corner that had been needlessly conceded by Gregan, there was no contribution from a Watford player here. When the ball came in, two Preston players rose to meet it at the far post and Jackson made the decisive contact, heading firmly past Rankine on the line. We checked to make sure that it wasn't still the first half, then celebrated half-heartedly.

But the expectation of a dramatic surge towards victory faded extraordinarily quickly. Although Gifton Noel-Williams belted a half-volley five yards wide from outside the box, Preston soon pulled themselves together, went back to what they'd been doing so well...and, by the time I'd woken up with a start, half an hour had drifted by without incident. We were battling away, making more of an impact on the left, where Hughes, Glass, Gayle and Robinson ganged up to try to batter their way through, and enjoying plenty of possession in all areas except those that mattered. But there was no class, no poise, no style to any of it. Rather, we were treated to a reprise of the desperate, awful bludgeoning that caused many of last season's most despondent moments. Sure, the ball generally remained on the ground. The effect was much the same, though.

The effort deserved some applause. Here, Neil Cox as the last line of attack, closing the keeper down as he cleared and then turning away to resume his more traditional position. There, Stephen Glass lending a hand to Paul Robinson and intervening superbly to stop a threatening break. There, Stephen Hughes clattering into a fifty-fifty in midfield. If there is a positive to be taken from last night, it's that we prevented a truly wretched evening from ending in defeat. In that, there were signs of spirit and cohesion. It's no real consolation, but it might've been worse.

When the match finally emerged from its thoroughly depressing, stagnant state, both sides had identical chances to claim the points. At the Vic Road end, Macken pulled the ball back for Healy, who swung his right boot and sent the ball sailing over the bar from ten yards. Almost immediately, Glass' persistence, Rennie's rare lenience and Hughes' subsequent cross presented the same sight of goal to Gayle, who swung his left boot and sliced the ball wide. In a game of precious few chances, two had been wasted in little more than a minute.

Still the rain swept across, still our attacking was drearily predictable. Cox headed well over from a corner, Noel-Williams and Gayle both stretched and failed to make contact with crosses. It was a bloody terrible game...and, worse, it was a bloody terrible game that we weren't going to win. The announcement that there would be three minutes of injury time caused inexplicable excitement in the home stands...and, to sum things up, was the cue for one last surge from the visitors, with the ball bouncing around inside the area until Baardsen claimed.

Utter bollocks, then. Currently, this team isn't so much less than the sum of its is its parts, nothing more. Simply, there's no sense of collective purpose, no clue that there might be something other than eleven players. No movement, no width, no precision, no inspiration, no subtlety, no brute force...just this cloudy, nondescript stuff that happens somewhere around the halfway line. It's an absolute bloody mess.

Recent pronouncements from the club have offered two encouraging hints for the future. First, that the board will not make decisions based upon short-term results. Second, that Vialli realises that he must do something with the squad that he has assembled before he enters the transfer market again. Well, good, on both counts. Nevertheless, when you think of sitting through more of this diabolical crap, such rationality tends to go out of the window. It isn't about results or league positions or share prices. It's about sanity. We must improve, or many of us will require straitjackets to see us through to full-time.

To return to Mondrian, the balance of the elements in his paintings is something that requires little analysis. It's just there. They just work, beautifully. Shift one colour out of position, move a line to a different place, and it all falls apart. Somehow, he's achieved a unique perfection. Look long enough, and one message emerges.

It is possible.