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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 11/01/03, 3pm
By Ian Grant

"We'll be in tomorrow, we'll be talking, and I'll want some answers"
- Ray Lewington

It is, perhaps, a slightly unusual time to praise the manager. Still, what the hell...this is BSaD, home of "slightly unusual". And, as I begin to waste my Sunday afternoon by trawling through the wreckage of this incomparably dreadful performance, I am rather boosted by the knowledge that the players are doing much the same....

And so they bloody should be. They let a number of people down yesterday, not least the few hundred supporters who'd paid to watch them. More than anything, however, they let down the management. There is an unmistakable sense of hurt and personal offence in the manager's post-match words, and the use of "humiliating" is perhaps most telling. The response, in strong contrast to last season, appears to be swift, decisive and not a little furious. Good on yer, Ray.

Because this was beyond the pale. Of course, our away form has been largely disappointing throughout the campaign, propped up by a strong record at Vicarage Road. We have been beaten heavily on our travels on several occasions, often finishing games in some disarray. But we have never sunk this low, playing with such a complete absence of conviction for ninety minutes and embarrassing ourselves to such a degree against distinctly mediocre opponents. Really, this was utterly shameful, a jarring, unnerving shock in the middle of a season that has been characterised by re-discovered pride and determination. It cannot be repeated.

The players, quite rightly, have been praised for their commitment and dedication on so many occasions, even during the current run of results and even when matches have ended in defeat. They have a manager who has backed them up throughout, offering an honest, practical appraisal of each performance and always ensuring that the level of effort does not go unnoticed. But the opposite must also be true. So they cannot expect that such a totally inadequate, utterly diabolical showing will pass without condemnation. They've shown us what they can do. Whatever else has been wrong, they've demonstrated that they're capable of putting an enormous amount into their football. They're better than this, and they've spent most of the season proving it. They need to do so again.

From A (for "Absent-mindedness") right through to Z (for, erm, "Zuizidal Defending"), we ploughed through the Encyclopaedia of Things Not To Do. All over the pitch, players were far, far below par and seemingly incapable of doing anything to lift themselves. Really, there ought not be one, but Jermaine Pennant wins the "Man of the Match" award simply for being average rather than atrocious. Apart from the suggestion that Paul Robinson might've been brought on to halt the on-going catastrophe on the left side - and that horse had long since bolted, it could be argued - it is hard to see what the management could do, beyond warming up their vocal chords while waiting for the final whistle. Ray Lewington and Terry Burton have every right to be livid. The players have nowhere to hide.

Defensively, we were an utter shambles. Of the four goals, only two were met with any kind of resistance - the customary appeals for offside against Claridge's opener and the hand from Alec Chamberlain that nearly turned Ryan's second around the post. Beyond that, we were spectators. Four-nil is a ridiculous scoreline when you consider that Millwall looked thoroughly ordinary...but it might've been worse. In midfield, we ran around in various directions to no particular purpose, and it wasn't until the late addition of Gavin Mahon that we appeared to have any weight to throw around. Up front, we missed chances like it didn't matter.

We began slowly. We continued slowly. We might've been behind earlier, had Ifill not been disorientated when Wayne Brown, who had an absolute stinker and was not alone, cleared the ball into his chest as they contested a long ball. Had he realised where the ball had gone sooner, Ifill would've had a clear run on goal...but Marcus Gayle was able to intervene just in time. Reid sent a long-range effort skipping wide, then Braniff was a little unfortunate to miss the target with a flicked header from a Ward cross. We'd barely arrived, just drifting aimlessly around the pitch as if waiting for the game to begin.

We waited too long. After ten minutes, a kind rebound fell to Ifill on the right corner of the penalty area and he was allowed to turn inside to fire a cross-shot into the danger area. It would've gone wide, but for the toe of Claridge, diverting the ball into the bottom corner. The appeals for offside were based on the suggestion that the linesman hadn't noticed the deflection, causing the referee to consult his colleague before confirming the goal...but, really, we had no cause for complaint. We hadn't defended the situation effectively, and a flag to spare our blushes would've been fortuitous in the extreme.

So we kicked off, playing with a little more purpose. If anything, though, our attempts to equalise merely made matters worse, as the ease with which we created and wasted opportunities merely served to remind us that this was a game that should never have resulted in such a wretched scoreline. Millwall pretty much matched us in defensive incompetence, yet we were totally incapable of taking advantage.

Within five minutes, some fine approach work from Jermaine Pennant in the centre had supplied Gifton Noel-Williams with the chance of a clear shot, yet he finished rather indecisively and Warner was able to claw the ball away. And we began to build up some pressure, ending with an even better chance - Micah Hyde's perceptive, chipped cross to find Neil Cox at the far post, Allan Nielsen blazing over from close range as the ball came back across. We were to regret those misses. We were to regret rather a lot.

It didn't get any better. For a while, play ambled around with nowhere to go - Claridge lobbed over the bar from the edge of the box, Reid clouted a free kick into the stand - and the lack of atmosphere at the members-only Den became apparent. It's a curious place now, noticeably less threatening - the baseball-capped mob occupying the nearest point to the away supporters for last season's fixture was reduced to a mere handful yesterday - and yet rather flat too. It's as if Millwall have wiped the slate clean entirely in the effort to find a less troublesome identity. You still wouldn't want to come here on holiday, mind...but it feels less as if you need to check your life insurance before you come for a football match.

Anyway, the match picked up again. Again, we stumbled upon openings. Again, we stumbled away from them just as quickly. Jermaine Pennant drove a shot wide of the near post after a nippy run from the right, then Allan Nielsen picked up Paolo Vernazza's through-ball and tumbled as he attempted to take the ball around the advancing Warner. At the other end, we appealed for a penalty...but the referee's award of a corner presumably meant that the keeper had got a hand to the ball to push it away before making contact with the player. From the flag-kick, Micah Hyde flashed a half-volley narrowly wide of the top corner from twenty yards.

But we were falling apart at the back. Or, more accurately, we'd already fallen apart. After thirty-four minutes, our failure to clear a corner presented a shooting opportunity to Robinson, who probably had time to do better than fire a volley straight at Alec Chamberlain's chest from sixteen yards. Still, we weren't exactly being miserly, and a very similar situation presented Millwall with a second goal before half-time. Another cross, from Reid on the left this time. Another complete failure to deal with a straightforward clearance. Another opponent left unmarked inside the penalty area. A better finish, though - Ryan cracking a shot from an angle that found the far corner via the keeper's fingertips. Another away defeat, but of a completely different magnitude to those that preceded it.

I mean, mistakes are forgivable. Misses are forgivable. Not desirable, but forgivable. We had all of that, again. But what irked so much here was that there was such a lack of desire to rectify matters. So little response, so little pride. We were pathetic, frankly...and as the game went on, we seemed to allow our general lethargy to turn into abject self-pity. By the end, Millwall were almost able to walk the ball into the net. It's an over-used, over-dramatic phrase...but it's not good enough. Not good enough at all.

The second half was ghastly. Worse and worse and worse, until there was nothing but a bit of fresh energy from the substitutes, a bit of belligerence from Neil Cox, and a manager bellowing furiously from the touchline. Appalling, diabolical, dismal. And other words. The captain looped a header onto the crossbar from Neal Ardley's free kick in the first minute, but it was downhill on rollerskates from then on. A minute later, and Reid thumped a drive at Alec Chamberlain's near post. Another, and Braniff escaped Neil Cox's ragged tackle and hastily skied his finish as Marcus Gayle came across to cover. Three more, and Heidar Helguson was extremely lucky to escape with a yellow card for a brutal, two-footed lunge that was probably clearer from our position than from the referee's. More, and Livermore's shot was kindly deflected to the keeper. So much for the comeback.

There were still chances, as if to taunt us. But our finishing was as hesitant and tentative as everything else...which was very hesitant and tentative, just to be clear. So when Heidar Helguson's low, driven cross from the right of the area was blocked and came out to Gifton Noel-Williams, his finish from the penalty spot was so deliberate and careful that it didn't even make it to the goal, blocked by a defender on the way. To make matters worse, the result was a swift break involving Reid and Braniff that ended with Alec Chamberlain denying the latter's low shot.

Somehow, we continued to cling on, which rather illustrates the state of the game as a whole. Paolo Vernazza headed over from a Wayne Brown cross; Jermaine Pennant trod on the ball to set up Ifill for a bouncing shot at Alec Chamberlain; Tommy Smith, lively if nothing else, took an extra touch when played in by Gifton Noel-Williams and was tackled before he could shoot; Neil Cox curled in a free kick from twenty-five yards which found its way over the bar via the defensive wall. And so on, and so on. You'll forgive me for fast-forwarding a little bit, I hope. You're not missing anything, honestly.

So, finally, it all collapsed completely. Another break, moments after we'd smashed another cross through the six yard box without getting a decisive touch. Yet more unspeakable defending, a classy finish, three-nil. Ifill's rambling run, a quick exchange of passes, no real opposition. Back in his childhood, Ifill probably flicked a football around the washing line in his garden, sprayed a shot past the wheelbarrow into the top corner of an imaginary net and ran to celebrate in front of the vegetable patch. Wayne Brown was that washing line, Alec Chamberlain was that wheelbarrow. Our defending has been more convincing.

We were running around in circles. Gifton Noel-Williams headed weakly at the under-employed Warner, but Millwall should've added the fourth when a low free kick, awarded for Wayne Brown's retribution on Ifill, was allowed to travel right through to the far post, where Robinson drove over under challenge. It was inevitable, though. It was all we deserved. Nobody bothered to prevent substitute Sweeney from cutting in from the left and curling the ball into the far corner from the edge of the box. Nobody bothered. A bloody shambles.

Conclusions? Oh, don't.

Suffice to say that Norwich is now crucial. It can only get better. It must get better.

For heaven's sake. And Ray's.