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Nationwide Division One, 17/11/02
Ipswich Town
By Matt Rowson

Rituals are very important to the superstitious football fan, a cornerstone of the build-up to any game. Having a match put back to a Sunday to accommodate your opponents' holiday plans may threaten to scupper these routines, but they're still pursued if more by dint of habit than in honest belief that they will influence a game's outcome.

So it's still a Jacket with Tuna in the pub before the game. The match programme is still bought from the same place (inside the ground). The line-ups have to be detailed on the programme's back page in full before the game starts (and before you mock, the last time this rule wasn't adhered to was when Trust duties entailed a late arrival pre-Wolves, and Kevin Cooper's presence wasn't acknowledged...). The bottle of Diet Coke has to be downed before kick off, and of course Lucky Chocolate for half-time is mandatory, a tradition that provoked no little strategic discussion in the newsagents' before the game.

So the interjection of a slice of homemade Pumpkin Pie in the pub following consumption of the Jacket with Tuna was a random element that had not been accounted for. Kathryn from Ohio, over on a two-week visit that incorporated Millmoor as well as this game, was responsible... and much as the treat was a very pleasant and welcome surprise, it also disrupted the routine...

Pre-match rituals should be robust to selfless acts of generosity such as being offered a slice of homemade Pumpkin Pie, of course. Much as it would never have occurred to me to eat Pumpkin Pie in the normal way, such are the issues that life throws at you and they need to be worked around. This is supposed to be a metaphor, by the way.

The football. Watford started with Marcus Gayle in the centre of defence in place of the injured Dyche and Jermaine Pennant, slightly surprisingly back on a three month loan from Highbury, up front in place of the unfortunate Foley.

Pennant's initial spell at Vicarage Road last season was not entirely successful, with the precocious winger not being able to apply his obvious talent in a way that contributed to the team's success. Indeed, the only game of the nine in which he featured last season that we managed to win was the home game against Grimsby, during which he received a red card.

Nonetheless, Pennant has long been on the list of next-big-things in this country, and having seen him at close-ish hand last season Ray Lewington must be confident that he can iron some of the limitations out of his game. On the evidence so far, we can only trust Lewington's judgment - and at the very least it's encouraging that Pennant, like Danny Webber before him, wanted to come back.

Having said all of which, the most obvious cause for concern reared its head early on. An attack down the left saw Pennant receive the ball by the byline under attention from Makin. Rather than play the simple ball to the supporting Robinson, Pennant spun around and took on his marker, losing possession in the process. In any other nineteen year old, such boldness would be read as encouraging. Unfortunately, we've seen this all before.

The other man introduced to the team, Gayle, wasn't having a particularly comfortable time of it either. With the surface particularly slippery following recent rain, players were losing their footing all over the pitch. However, whereas Ipswich's militarily organised defence presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to any progress on our part, Watford's backline often looked vulnerable tentative in possession and Gayle more than most.

After an early Ipswich flurry which saw first blood drawn by Alun Armstrong, forced wide by Cox before firing into the side-netting, the first-half settled into a pattern. The Hornets tended to enjoy (and be permitted) a reasonable amount of possession up until the final third, where a blue wall was erected that didn't want to be punctured. Our attempts to build something looked increasingly laboured, made as we were to work for every pass.

When Ipswich broke, however, they invariably looked mobile and potent with the movement and pace of Darren Bent and (more surprisingly perhaps) Armstrong causing all sorts of problems. A rare free-kick on the right in the final third was charged down, and Town's break was swift and nearly decisive, Wilnis shooting over after good work from Clapham.

And when Ipswich broke, their backline, marshalled by the flawless Gaardsøe, operated an offside trap that it was beyond the wit of our forwards to out-time...albeit we weren't helped by a linesman who tended to err on the side of caution. One movement in particular, late in the half, saw Robinson bullishly take up possession and release Pennant into inviting space, only to be pulled up for at least the third time. This occasion provoked particular wrath amongst the judges in the Lower Rous, with whom Pennant concurred as he angrily confronted the linesman.

As the half wore on, Watford's increasingly laboured performance degenerated towards last season's less inspiring displays. Plenty of swinging the ball from side to side across the penalty area whilst the opposing defence chased and harried and made sure that we didn't threaten to break through, plenty of Pennant dropping ever deeper to retrieve possession before trying to do rather too much on his own...and plenty of occasions when our defence backpedalled away from dangerous, swift attacks.

Lucky Half Time Chocolate: Snickers (me), White-chocolate Chunky Kit Kat (ig), Ronny the (Rosenthal) Reindeer novelty chocolate (Sarah and ig).
Reason: A cocktail of something solid, something a bit flash, and something unpredictable. A winning combination.
Result: A sickly mess.

Within five minutes of the restart, Ipswich had the lead. Pennant lost possession in midfield, trying and failing to thread a ball between two opponents when more sensible options had presented themselves. Doyley tracked Bent well down the left, but then allowed the young striker space to square to Armstrong. The centre of our defence parted, allowing the big striker a sight of goal to which he helped himself with some gusto, taking one touch before fairly clouting the ball past Chamberlain from nearly twenty yards.

Given that we hadn't created an opening within the entirety of the first half, a one-goal deficit already looked like a major obstacle. Within five minutes, then, the match was virtually over. Some good work from Hreidarsson down the left found Clapham, who rounded the hapless Gayle before clipping the ball home.

Our play following the second goal was a dazed mess, with the ball repeatedly given away cheaply in the middle of the park. The crowd began to complain for the first time - albeit one fan in particular chose to loudly vent his frustration in the direction of the still absent and still expensive Stephen Hughes, rather than chastising the team on the pitch.

Ipswich chose to slow the game down...not an unreasonable tactic in the circumstances, but a frustrating one, particularly when indulged by a rather self-important referee. The balance of the game was too conclusive for any officiating to exert major influence, but Barry still managed to aggravate. One particular incident raised hackles...Robinson, on a rare rampage down the left, was taken out near the corner flag by a lethal challenge from McGreal. The referee missed the tackle, largely due to it transpiring around ten minutes after Robinson had released the ball, but awarded the free kick on seeing the linesman's flag. Then, without consulting his assistant, he booked the the circumstances, probably the right decision (although the forethought of the challenge perhaps warranted more), but a strange trusting to instinct by someone who'd missed the original foul.

Robinson, still wound up, exacted retribution on an escaping Town midfielder shortly afterwards, taking him out of the air as if he were swatting a fly to a pained "Robbooooo!" from half the Rookery. Somehow, he avoided a yellow card.

Lewington shook things up by introducing Smith for the anonymous Glass and switching to three up front. This seemed a slightly strange decision; Ipswich were sitting back now and not leaving any space to run into, whilst we were still having trouble making the ball stick in the final third... Foley might have been a more reasonable option.

Nonetheless, Smith's introduction certainly prised a crack of light open for us, if not one that we were ever able to capitalise upon. The young striker's pace and belligerence gave width to our attack and began to force some corners... from one of these, Gayle connected decisively but his goalbound header was instantaneously blocked by the still impeccable Gaardsøe.

For all his willing running, Smith's nervousness in front of goal was still an issue...for an instant he had a clear view of the target as a ball was played over the top, but his slight hesitation led to the chance disappearing, and Smith giving away possession for a foul on Gaardsøe. Later, a deep left-wing cross was salvaged at the far post by the ever-willing Helguson, who cushioned a header back to give Smith a clear shot. The striker snatched at the chance, sending it firmly over the bar.

The end of the game saw us camped out at the Rookery end, but not with any conviction that a goal was coming. Doyley tried to take responsibility, cutting inside from the right and sending opponents scurrying before running out of options. Helguson still looked like a good outlet, hurling himself defiantly at anything that came his way. Another corner was deflected across the face of goal... it just needed a touch but wasn't going to get one on a day like today. The final chance was a free kick from Pennant, curled precisely but with insufficient power low to Gerrard's right.

Final whistle, end of game, end of our undefeated home record. We knew that our form was unlikely to hold up... not because we don't deserve to be where we are, more because the squad isn't comprehensive enough to hold out over the length of a season. It's still a downer when it happens though... even against opponents who deserved the win.

And of course, had it not been for the pre-match meal, programme purchase, lucky chocolate and the rest the defeat would have been yet more conclusive...