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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/02/03
Coventry City
Game on
By Matt Rowson

On Thursday evening, I drove home from work. This is not unusual. However, a journey that normally takes an irritating but tolerable one hour and fifteen minutes mutated on this occasion to a nine and a half hour epic, the snow and ice contributing to a 2am touchdown in Woodside. I have been seeing brake lights in my nightmares ever since.

So it was that on getting up on Saturday morning, seeing a fresh blanket of snow and grey, obstinate looking skies, a big part of me was tempted to write this one off as a non-starter. An hour extra in bed, however, and suddenly there was audible dripping from outside. The trains were running fine, and Paul sent a timely "Come on you 'Orns" text to my mobile. Game on.

And of course as soon as the train cleared Hemel Hempstead there was no evidence of snow, or of the pandemonium that had beset the M1 a matter of miles away. The sky was blue, and even if the smattering of icy rain caused a quickening of the heartbeat on the way to the pub, a pint of Guinness soon eased those concerns.

All of which isn't a bad analogy for the way this game went. The first, most basic detail to convey is that Coventry were bloody terrible. Slow, lethargic, uncoordinated, exactly the sort of side you'd half-expect to be stuffed by competitive Third Division opposition. Which, of course, they were but a week previously. And yet Watford, whilst superior in every department on the day, seemed to be held back by caution... caution at the spectre of our own away record, of Millwall, Derby and Norwich, perhaps wariness of a Coventry backlash from their Rochdale disaster. Ultimately, the generous amount of time our midfield were afforded in possession reassured us, and we secured the victory that we deserved.

One surprise came in the starting eleven, with Pennant, West Brom's tormentor in chief a week previously, dropped to the bench in favour of Jamie Hand. Lewington had stated the case for a more solid team selection away from home, and Hand for Pennant sends out a clear message in that respect. There is, it might be argued, a thin line between bold courageous decisions (Lewington) and incomprehensible idiocy (Vialli). What distinguishes the two in my eyes is that firstly when Lewington's experiments fail, you can see where he was coming from... and he at least acknowledges that something hasn't worked (cf. the Wayne Brown at left back experiment in contrast to every cock-up Vialli made last season). Secondly, Lewington's success rate is already immeasurably higher - compare the success of Marcus Gayle at centre back, another masterful performance here today, with Helguson at wing-back as we struggled for goals last season. Likewise Hand's introduction today in contrast with Vialli's inexplicable tinkering with successful formations.

The first break fell Coventry's way, Dean Gordon - one man who must have been delighted at Pennant's absence - breaking forward down the left and chipping a cross in for McSheffrey, alone and unmarked, to head tamely into Chamberlain's arms.

It was as good a chance as City were to get for a while, as the Hornets forced themselves into the game and were quickly completely dominant in midfield. Hand was the first to threaten, attacking Cox's flick on at the far post as if he'd been playing wide midfield all his life and snapping in a shot that forced Hyldgaard into a sprawling save. Five minutes later, a lobbed pass from Vernazza fell into the path of Helguson, whose dipping half-volley from the edge of the box beat the keeper but narrowly cleared the bar.

The immobile nature of City's defence may have contributed to a series of questionable decisions from the linesman at that end of the pitch which characterised the next fifteen minutes or so - "contributed" in that attackers moving from deep had time to run ten yards clear of defenders before their marker reacted, sometimes fooling the linesman as well as the crowd.

Hand put in a decent cross from the right, Helguson cushioned down a header and Vernazza got too far underneath it and sent his shot over the bar. Watford's quick and tidy maintenance of midfield possession and control led to a chorus of "OlÚs", almost surreal barely twenty minutes into the game and at 0-0 possibly premature, but City rarely threatened to make us regret our arrogance. Hand was busy and disciplined down the right - no booking, you'll notice - Vernazza again put in a performance that consigned his fey fumblings of last season to memory by combining snarl and style, Nielsen was quietly effective down the left before a more significant second half, and Hyde, as ever on his good days, was the metronome. The pass of the half from the number eight released Helguson impeccably down the right, his low driven centre briefly causing confusion, spinning up off Quinn's boot onto his hand. Not a penalty - no way on earth was that deliberate - but we were getting closer. Coventry's performance was summed up by my brother as "slow chaos", which was about the measure of it.

Gradually, City worked a foothold and you wondered whether we'd blown our chance. Partridge was released down the left, and had he not had to turn onto his right foot Chamberlain may not have had the opportunity to pull off a vital reaction stop. McSheffrey was first to the rebound but excitedly fired his effort over the bar.

Jay Bothroyd got himself involved for the first time, winning a couple of balls in the air to oil City's attacks. McAllister began to exert some influence also, and although City's performance was still laboured a more competitive second half was suggested. Tommy Smith had the last say, spinning on the edge of the area and firing low but without conviction straight at the keeper.

Lucky half-time Chocolate: Bounty, a piece of Yorkie and a couple of Maltesers.
Reason: Felt like the right thing to do.
Level of Success: Reasonable. Wonder if Youssef Chippo eats lucky Chocolate.

The best of the half-time entertainment coming from the growling deep voice of the tannoy announcer (prompting a chorus of "Barry, give us a song" which must be a stock effort amongst visiting fans), and there was a distinct lack of entertainment for the first ten minutes of the half, with Coventry's added impetus dragging the game into a messy stalemate. As one would hope, Jermaine Pennant began warming up on the far touchline. Game on. Except that one uniquely stupid intervention changed the pattern of proceedings once again.

Youssef Chippo, back in the team following a rib injury, had for the first twenty minutes looked like City's best chance of making something happen, displaying an urgency that was all too uncommon amongst his teammates. By the half-hour mark, that urgency had become frustration and the Moroccan was booked for a bad foul on Robinson.

Watford won a throw-in roughly level with the edge of the penalty area on our left and Allan Nielsen, now bullishly involved, backpedalled for a long throw into the box. Except that Chippo decided to push his luck - you could almost see the dilemma on his face as he wondered how much he could get away with - by standing on the touchline in Nielsen's path and jumping up and down, ultimately obstructing the throw.

Classic ungentlemanly conduct... a booking may have been harsh, certainly not every ref would have given it, but Chippo deserved the second yellow if only for utter idiocy. Had he stayed on the pitch you could have seen him tying his shoelaces together or impaling himself on a corner flag or something. For goodness sake, it's not complicated... you've already been booked, indeed you're the only member of your team to be booked, so you don't chance your arm unnecessarily. West Ham's wily rearguard of Ferdinand, Pearce and Stimac gave a masterclass of rotating aggro-duties to spread the booking-risk at Vicarage Road in the Premiership. This was the antithesis of that. The most Chippo could have achieved here was a deflection for another throw and the antagonism for his opponent. Instead, his side were down to ten and very much on the back foot.

The next five minutes were an absolute onslaught on the City goal. For the first time we generated pressure that demanded a breakthrough, rather than toying with lame opponents. Jamie Hand, appropriately, forced the issue, bundling through a challenge on the right and slamming a shot at the keeper. Helguson took the rebound and drove in another low effort, also blocked by Hyldgaard. The ball broke for Helguson again, and he laid the ball back perfectly for Hyde, prowling on the edge of the area, to power a precise and unstoppable drive into the roof of the net. Bingo.

Pennant sat down again. We had the breakthrough, and the timing was such that we still had the perfect midfield on show to guarantee that we held on to the lead. Micah Hyde, perhaps buoyed by the goal, accelerated his performance to almost virtuoso levels, one minute performing a double roll-back to leave his marker dead, the next spraying a ball wide, around a marker and into the path of Hand. Helguson was next to come close, getting his head to a near post corner, his on-target effort fielded safely. Then Hyde smacked in a volley from the left that echoed Silvinho's spectacular goal for Arsenal against Chelsea, replayed on Soccer AM that morning, except that he gave it slightly too much curl and bent it the wrong side of the near post.

Vernazza and Cox also tried their luck from distance with efforts that were high on ambition and power but low on accuracy, further tormenting the City fans behind the goal. McAllister looked desolate, at one point having closed down but ultimately been flummoxed by Hyde on the half way line, he turned to see his adversary advancing on goal unchallenged by the City manager's uninterested charges.

He reacted with a double substitution, one half of which, the burly Argentinian Juan Sara, injecting some urgency into City's frontline. Watford came close again, Hyldgaard getting himself into a mess on City's touchline and Ardley nearly capitalising with an effort along the line that went out off the outside of the post. Gradually, however, City forced themselves above water again and although our lead was thoroughly merited one goal is anything but safe. In particular, McAllister's ever-reliable delivery combined with the aerial threat in the box - augmented by subs Sara and Davenport - was a source of concern and we were nearly made to pay for earlier profligacy, one driven effort following chaos in the box narrowly clearing the bar amidst unassessable but half-hearted appeals for a City penalty. Indeed City's supporters spent a fair proportion of the second half castigating the referee Trevor Parkes... but whilst we undoubtedly had our fair share of the fifty-fifty decisions, the Sky Blues are grasping at straws. This performance merited nothing.

As City began to apply their first serious pressure of the game, Marcus Gayle came into his own, getting his head to practically everything that was thrown into the box. On the one occasion that the ball broke goalwards from the melee at the edge of the area, Micah Hyde, as the song would suggest, was there to volley clear.

In such a situation, sitting back and tentatively inviting pressure might have been fatal. One player, quietly doing his job until this point, predictably grabbed the bull by the horns to ensure that this didn't happen. With the game focused on the Watford area, City knocked the ball wide to the right in anticipation of a ball into the box. Except there was Robbo, snarling in aggressively on his surprised opponent, breaking clear with the ball as Helguson and Smith scurried away from him. He fed the former whose lame shot was fielded comfortably, but the pressure was off.

Noel-Williams was introduced for the tiring Smith, whose performance was full of willing but short of the bullishness of last weekend. Gifton was soon involved, leaping and craning his neck impossibly to get his head to another long clearance, deflecting the ball to his left where Robbo was once again rampaging upfield... again, his intervention didn't yield a goal but this was a marvellous cameo.

The whistle went, three points and our fifth successive win against City secured. When reporting on our 4-0 mauling here in 1999, I questioned whether Robbie Keane made himself space or whether we offered it to him... equally, here it's difficult to separate the total dominance of our midfield from the lack of competition for possession they faced in the middle of the park. At the very least, whilst this was a fine result and a valuable win, anything but three points against such an abject performance (and City's position in the league implies that we caught them on a bad day) would seriously question any play-off aspirations.

As it is, we're only separated from the play-off positions by our comical goal-difference. Seven of our sixteen remaining games are against the bottom seven sides in the table, and we have only one away trip to make to a side in the top ten. We're in with a shout.

Game on.