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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 15/9/01
West Bromwich Albion
A tale of two penalties
By Ian Grant

Just a few days ago, a new, terrifying world arrived without warning. For many, tragically, that was it. For everyone else, to varying degrees, the adjustment has barely begun.

A football match and the accompanying report. Always insignificant and miniscule in the grand scheme of things, and so much more so now. But even here, things have changed forever. Language has changed forever. There are words that I would've used to describe this dramatic, idiotic game that I simply cannot use, that would seem so utterly inappropriate and tasteless in this context. There are words that I can't imagine ever using again on these pages.

For ninety minutes, Vicarage Road was able to pretend that this was somehow all-important, somehow worth getting furiously angry and thoroughly depressed about. If football has a role right now, then it's as a distraction, a way of harmlessly absorbing excess thought and emotion. At the time, Watford versus West Bromwich Albion really mattered. Now, it just seems trivial.

I'll still write about it, but in the knowledge that the potent energy of such a bad-tempered, chaotic game faded as soon as the final whistle blew and cannot be recaptured. In many senses, this match took place in another world.

At heart, it was a pretty dismal affair. Like a soap opera with one dimensional characters and a flimsy script, it seemed to throw in random incident and unconnected drama in a desperate - and, it has to be said, fairly successful - attempt to distract its audience. The quality fell steadily as, for the first time, we saw Vialli's Watford drawn in to pointless whacking and wellying by a big, strong, occasionally nasty and rather impressive West Brom side. It was certainly exciting. It wasn't actually very good, though.

As before, the problems were largely in midfield. In Pierre Issa, we have clearly acquired an accomplished, quietly capable central defender. However, we have equally clearly not acquired a midfielder of the same stature. From the start - booked within three minutes after weakly giving the ball away to set a West Brom break in motion - he looked completely lost. By the ten minute mark, the centre of the pitch was swamped by buzzing, hyperactive Baggies and Micah Hyde's ability to be "here, there, every-f***ing-where" was tested to its very limit.

By that time, the visitors might already have taken the lead. From the floated free kick that came from Issa's early foul, Gilchrist escaped his marker to head goalwards, and was only denied by a combination of Espen Baardsen's fingertips and the crossbar. The resulting corner caused even greater problems, with the ball ending up in the back of the net from a far post header and referee's whistle, presumably for a foul on Baardsen, curtailing the celebrations. Again, not a terrifically composed start.

While others have allowed us to regain our composure, West Brom proved to be an altogether more determined and robust outfit. They didn't let us settle. Squeezed out of the midfield altogether (with the exception of the commendable, if doomed, efforts of Micah Hyde), we were forced to resort to a more direct game that proved to be entirely unsuitable. Even Marcus Gayle's hard work in competing for countless aerial challenges couldn't win us much in the way of controlled possession, as we were sucked into a physical contest that didn't play to any of our strengths.

Amid all the thrashing about, we did occasionally manage to get the ball wide. Then, and only then, we created some chances. The best fell to Tommy Smith, arriving to meet Nordin Wooter's cross after nine minutes and heading over the bar from eight yards. Some time later, Stephen Glass sent in a ball from the left and Gayle went close with a flicked header that drifted over Hoult and briefly promised to creep underneath the crossbar.

Generally, though, the lack of quality service for the forwards left them scrapping forlornly. There was precious little of the attractive passing that we're becoming used to...yet the result was more familiar, a painful absence of penetration. Just once, we did manage to produce a final ball worthy of the name, Paul Robinson curling a superb pass down the left wing for Smith - the striker managed to get a touch to beat the keeper but, having done so, was unable to retrieve the ball before it ran over the goalline.

So far, the West Brom gameplan had been implemented perfectly. Its second phase would've involved taking the lead with a swift, well-executed break before half-time. This too was put into practice with little fuss. For a change, there was nothing much wrong with the defending, as Cummings' cross from the left was knocked back into the danger area by Taylor. Dobie's finish, hit cleanly on the half-volley despite Ramon Vega's presence and beating Baardsen to nestle into the bottom corner, was quite superb.

The rest of the half was notable only for a further loss of control from the home side, as the visitors' superior strength and discipline allowed them to dominate the game. It wasn't going terribly well...although, as Robinson carelessly gave the ball to Dobie on the halfway line and managed to make up for his error only by crudely ploughing into the forward at the expense of a booking, it might've been worse. After so many years of hoping that GT would deliver "one of those" team-talks, we've yet to gauge the miracle-working properties of new boss' interval lectures. Nevertheless, we clung to that hope.

Pleasingly, the manager's response was decisive. After his error and subsequent caution, Paul Robinson was replaced by Gary Fisken at half-time. Ending his short and unhappy career as a midfielder, Pierre Issa dropped back to become part of a three man defence with Filippo Galli and Ramon Vega, while Neil Cox and Stephen Glass took on wing-back roles. It didn't work. However, that was hardly Vialli's fault.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to find out how successful the new formation might've been. By the time that the game had settled down after a tempestuous quarter of an hour, there were two more goals and one less player. It was entirely unrecognisable, and the reasons for the manager's tactical changes had been forgotten. Suddenly, we barely had need of one defender, let alone three.

I'd better rewind a bit, though. It took five minutes for the second half to get going, and then there was no stopping it. It began with Glass sweeping a shot over the bar after a loose ball had run his way...but, although a fine opportunity to equalise, it was quickly brushed aside by a torrent of controversy and incident....

Within a minute, well-timed tackles appeared to have robbed Taylor of the ball inside the penalty area, only for mis-cued clearances to return it to him and for Hyde's negligible challenge to knock him over again. This farcical series of events led Clive Wilkes to point to the penalty spot with a dramatic flourish, while fury erupted around him. This was only the beginning, though.

Without wishing to be unfair, you could argue that Espen Baardsen might've made a better save to stop Dobie's low spot-kick - while the keeper blocked it successfully, the ball rebounded out into the six yard box and the penalty taker forced it across the line. As he turned to celebrate, Dobie was rudely barged over by an irate Hyde. The display of bad temper quickly spread, resulting in an entirely undignified load of playground pushing and shoving. Well, most of it was pushing and shoving, anyway - the referee and his assistants might've missed Hyde throwing and landing a punch in the middle of the scuffles, but most of the Rookery didn't. In the end, cautions for Galli and Taylor did little to calm things down.

For a while, the game became little more than a race to see who could be first back into the dressing room. It could've been Chambers, booked for catching Wooter with a stray elbow as the winger attempted to go past him. Instead, the punishment proved to be more satisfactory, as Gayle guided Glass' free kick into the bottom corner with a splendidly precise header at the near post. Two minutes later, Butler's brutal foul on Smith in the centre circle resulted in another fracas, Hyde to the fore again, and a second booking. Immediately afterwards, with nobody - least of all the referee - able to take their eyes away from the play for a moment, there were howls of protest as Smith went down in the area in attempting to reach Wooter's pass.

After that, relative and welcome calm. With West Brom protecting their lead by putting virtually everyone behind the ball, Watford attacks were endless, determined...and, sadly, entirely predictable. There was no final ball, no perfect delivery to beat the wall of defenders and a confident keeper. By repeatedly thumping crosses from deep, we played into the visitors' hands, making it comparatively easy for them win the aerial challenges and for Hoult to claim everything that came within reach. Having been starved of controlled possession for so long, we didn't really know what to do with it when it finally arrived. When we needed imagination and creativity, we found that we'd already traded them in for blunt instruments - commitment and aggression.

It took twenty minutes to create an opening. Then, Gifton Noel-Williams, on to replace one of the defenders that had now become unnecessary, went agonisingly close with a glancing header from a corner. Five minutes later, Gary Fisken, who bustled around the edge of the West Brom area with more purpose than most, drove a shot over from twenty yards. But, frustratingly, a single Baggies break brought them nearer than any of our repetitive attacks, as Quinn brushed Galli aside to reach a long ball and lashed a superb dipping half-volley just wide from an apparently impossible angle.

With the announcement that there would be five minutes of injury time, a great roar went up from the home fans. And you quietly wondered why this might be significant, bearing in mind our general failure to threaten an equaliser in the twenty-five minutes since Butler's dismissal. And you were shown to be wrong.

You did, however, wonder about Mr Wilkes' sense of theatre. For, when Hoult allowed Fisken's well-struck drive to creep away from him and Heidar Helguson tumbled spectacularly as he tried to turn the ball back in, you tended to think back to Tommy Smith's earlier penalty claims and contrast the honesty of the two players. Nevertheless, the referee was more convinced by Helguson's appeals than your correspondent, and the final twist in the tale was upon us.

While Miles hid behind me, Gayle took responsibility...and the result was decided by two penalties, two saves, and two rebounds. Actually, this kick was struck with more power than Dobie's effort...but that counted against it, since Hoult's excellent parry pushed the ball further away from the goal. To the dismay of the home fans, a defender deflected Helguson's follow-up over the bar.


So, not for the first time, an extremely weird and confusing match to analyse. Take away the controversy, the penalty decisions, the shower of cards, the squabbling, the punches, and all the rest...and you've got a fairly ordinary game and a sub-standard performance. Even the result, so dependent on the run of the ball on two occasions, was seemingly disconnected from everything else.

Perhaps, bearing in mind that West Brom are clearly contenders on this evidence, we should be mildly encouraged by the slim margin of defeat and its fairly random origin. Or perhaps, bearing in mind that we completely failed to get to grips with our opponents' robust style, we should merely be grateful. Whatever, the logical conclusion is that the victors were simply the better team - more focused, more organised, more disciplined, more comfortable with their system.

We may be capable of playing beautiful, incisive football. But we're too easily distracted from that lofty purpose.