Main Menu
What's New
02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/08/02, 7.45pm
Nothing so crass as a goal
By Ian Grant

For me, there are only two perfect sports. The rest are, more or less, an absolute load of drivel. Oh, and there's darts, which is cool too.

Which two? Well, the first is football, of course. And the second is - I imagine that my co-editor's spirits are sinking rapidly at this moment, probably coinciding with the exclamation of the phrase "BLOODY CRICKET! JESUS!" - cricket. That's proper cricket, of the slow, endless, lasts-for-three-weeks variety, not the cheap, cheerful, bash-crash, over-in-a-few-hours imitation. Test cricket, in other words. Really, really marvellous.

It comes from being unemployed once, I'd guess. When you're struggling to find cost-free things with which to fill up your wasted time, there is nothing better than a sporting event that lasts for five whole days, starting at a snooze-friendly eleven o'clock and ending just in time for an evening meal, with convenient breaks for lunch and tea. In the circumstances, that the sporting event in question might not be packed with incident is mere quibbling.

Besides, it's also untrue. It's the depth of detail within test cricket that fascinates...the tactical intricacies, the individual contests, the uncontrollable factors. It's full of minor incident, any bit of which might turn out to be decisive at the end of the (fifth) day. A change of weather, of the field, of the bowling, a decisive wicket, a vital stand...all might prove to be pivotal, all might equally be utterly irrelevant. The pace is slow, but it's a game that needs space to breathe, to spread out...and the supposedly more entertaining one-day, limited overs version is just small in comparison.

Such an approach might be helpful here, on the basis that it might be some time before we see something so crass as a goal. Just as cricket lovers often admire the dour tenacity of a Boycott or an Atherton, perhaps even above the gung-ho heroism of a Botham or, given time, a Flintoff, so it may come to pass that we rather sneer at those who lower themselves to the base act of goal-scoring, so easy and so obvious. And just as the most patient batsman waits for a bad ball to clobber to the boundary, so we'll probably spend the entire season drawing nil-nil, satisfied with solid forward defensives, and beat Grimsby by six or seven. It'll become an art in itself, you wait and see.

The point (yes, I'm quite sure that there is one) is that, while there would have been little here for the mythical "neutral" and even less for whichever company buys the rights to show Nationwide highlights, this was an engrossing evening nonetheless. Low on pure excitement, perhaps, but a fascinating battle, high on tension. A complex, detailed football match. The equivalent, if you like, of the second day at the test, one day's play gone and three more to follow - no conclusion, perhaps, but vital moments in a wider context.

Personally, I feel involved again. Apart from anything else, we worked really, really hard last night, and it was nigh on impossible to feel detached when faced with the possibility that all that effort might not be rewarded in some small way. An imperfect performance, perhaps. An almost embarrassingly honest and willing one too, however, and you felt that a Millwall winner and consequent fury from the stands might be too much for a open, slightly vulnerable, increasingly hearts-on-sleeves team to cope with. In short, it mattered quite a lot, more than it has for a while.

As at Leicester, a number of things were extremely encouraging. This time, we didn't blow it...although we do have to acknowledge that we rode our luck a little bit in the second half, when Millwall created a number of chances and yet extended Alec Chamberlain just once. Still, we worked for that good fortune, rather than merely waiting for it to drop into our laps. Indeed, we worked for everything else too, trying extremely hard to make things happen. And, yes, failing a fair amount of the time. Rather trying and failing, though, than not trying and making excuses.

There were fine performances too. Alec, obviously. Again. And Neal Ardley, a player who crosses like he means it...and can only hope that the returning Heidar Helguson is in the mood to attack them like he means it, in the absence of any other predatory forwards. And Stephen Glass, far more assertive and aggressive in a central role than as a sometimes peripheral figure on the left. And, above all, Marcus Gayle, who is unrecognisable from the slumped, crestfallen figure of last season, and spent the entire evening winning everything in the air, clattering the ball into the stands as if showing Sean Dyche how it should be done, and looking as if he was having the time of his life.

But, while other performances were more variable, no-one shirked and no-one stood apart. Even Tommy Smith, desperately low on confidence at the moment. Even the much-maligned Dominic Foley. Having spent about seventeen years waiting and waiting for the previous Watford side to "gel", they're just doing it rather than worrying about it. It looked like a team. Not a brilliant team, but that's still much, much better than "not a brilliant set of individuals".

Of course, the concern is the lack of goals. And yet, especially in the first half, you didn't feel that we were so very far away. There were perhaps three or four crosses, mostly from the right and mostly from Neal Ardley, that were simply begging for someone to bomb into the near post area and do the necessary. Instead, they were watched into the keeper's hands, and we began to believe that we weren't creating chances. In fact, we were doing fine...and, in many ways, the disappointment of the second half was simply that we stopped thinking that we were doing fine, and resorted to more desperate, less successful methods as a consequence.

True, the Millwall defence was mostly in control - it'll take more than one freak result to turn them into an undisciplined rabble - but in the first half, it was rarely allowed to be comfortable. There's a big difference...and if you don't believe me, dig out that much-treasured video of the game at Gillingham last season. An enterprising run from Allan Nielsen was eventually crowded out when he reached the penalty area, and a fine interchange between Dominic Foley and Tommy Smith led to a stifled shooting opportunity for Stephen Glass. Tommy Smith looped a header to Warner, and we were lively, bright, eager.

In the main, we were reasonably secure at the back too. We were perhaps a little fortunate when Sean Dyche headed a free kick out to Nethercott, who fired goalwards from the penalty spot and saw his effort swerve around the post via a deflection from Neal Ardley's arse. We were equally fortunate when leaving Cahill unmarked at a corner, as he headed over with Alec Chamberlain covering. And Cahill's flicked back-header from six yards, attempting to divert a lofted free kick from deep, might've gone anywhere but straight at the keeper. Nevertheless, we were strong and purposeful, if not always entirely coordinated. As with everything else, we'll be grateful for a bit of luck, a bit more time to get it absolutely right.

And we did come closest, albeit from distance, as Stephen Glass let fly from thirty yards and forced Warner to stretch across and palm the ball around the post. It was a lovely moment in two respects - firstly, the quality of the strike; secondly, that we had possession because Allan Nielsen and Neal Ardley had applied some intense pressure to the left of Millwall's defence and won the ball in the opposition half. We're doing good things, you know. From the corner, Sean Dyche won the contest at the near post, but failed to direct his header on target. In injury time, Bull headed Ifill's cross into the side netting from an impossible angle.

Oh, for a goal! And a win! Then I could spare you all the tedium of repetition, the endless chant of "WE'RE DOING ALL RIGHT, REALLY!". But we are doing all right, and it's desperately important that we realise it, that we don't succumb to the temptation to rip it up and start afresh. The new manager has begun confidently and well, and the players are very obviously keen to follow his instructions. They need support. They need some reward too...but that'll surely come. In the meantime, this was another fine, if goalless, forty-five minutes.

The second half was less fine. But, in the main, you felt that the cause was a certain anxiety and a resulting sense of over-urgency. If we'd just remained patient and controlled, and kept at it in the same purposeful way, we might not have lost the thread of the performance. As it was, the home supporters became frustrated and a little critical, the team began to hurry unduly, and it all became slightly messy. Amid all this, Millwall might've won. Thankfully, they didn't.

After six minutes, Harris directed a free header weakly at Alec Chamberlain from Bull's left wing cross. While rarely forced into acrobatics, the Watford keeper was often required to be alert and to handle securely, as when Harris sent a dipping half-volley at his near post and when Ifill wriggled past Stephen Glass to shoot from the edge of the area. Later, substitute May beat Marcus Gayle on the wing and Harris turned smartly upon receipt of the cross, before blazing a drive a few inches over the bar.

Although there were a few gaps between these scares, and Millwall could make no claim to dominance of an increasingly scrappy game, we no longer looked quite so secure. Additionally, we were conceding possession too cheaply, working just as hard as before to retrieve it, and then losing it once more. The piercing crosses that had represented our best hopes in the first half had disappeared entirely, and we were in a terrible rush to replace them with long balls and misplaced passes. From the stands, the familiar cry of "COME ON, GET IT FORWARD! FORWARD! SEND IT! NO, THAT'S RUBBISH! WHAT'S HAPPENED TO OUR PASSING?!".

Twenty-eight minutes in, and Tuttle's free kick from the left bounced around inside the area, before falling to Ifill. From the eighteen yard line, he thrashed a half-volley that rose towards the roof of the net, before Alec Chamberlain's fingertips rescued us, for the umpteenth time. But we lost concentration at the subsequent corner, as Harris lurked unmarked at the far post and somehow managed to head wide from about five yards. A bit of luck. We needed it, as a goal at such a late stage would surely have had more far-reaching, damaging consequences than the loss of a point. Tommy Smith managed our first on-target effort of the half with a rising shot that gave Warner little trouble, Livermore headed at Chamberlain from a right wing cross.

We weren't exactly hanging on. But, despite a couple of huge roars in anticipation of (wasted) set pieces, you couldn't really see where we might get a goal from. Millwall, in contrast, had rattled in a fair few shots, and wasted a couple of fine openings. So the reaction to Livermore's blatant tug on Allan Nielsen, in full flight on the break, and the resulting second booking was one of relief as much as anything else. It changed the game. More than anything, it changed Millwall's attitude to the game.

And we damn nearly won it. Note to Ray: "Neal Ardley's quite good at corners. This may come in handy, especially if we let him take them sometimes." And so it was that Stephen Glass was about to be removed in favour of Anthony McNamee, thus leading to some uncertainty over who should take a corner from the right. Neal Ardley, being nearest, took it. And planted it on the head of Neil Cox, who sent it hard and low towards goal, and was desperately unlucky to see it scrambled away by Bull on the line. And Neal Ardley took another corner immediately afterwards, and again planted it on the head of Neil Cox, who sent it hard and low...and about twenty yards wide. Bugger. Still, it might be worth remembering.

It all ended with Watford trying various ways of breaking down the Millwall defence, from long punts in the direction of nobody in particular to more patient, Luca-ish passing. None of them worked, although Danny Webber beat his man with a swift swivel and then, frustratingly, turned down the opportunity to shoot in favour of trying, and failing, to get past another opponent. The rest was equally frustrating, only further from the goal. But you have to give some credit to the Millwall defence, which showed no signs of having been demolished a few days ago, and you also have to say that we stuck at it, even if it didn't happen. Oh, and a draw against Millwall isn't such an awful result.

Besides, I enjoyed it. Which is, more or less, the idea. It was an urgent, intense performance, even if it lacked many other things. As such, it drew me in, it made me want it to succeed and, even more, it made me want it not to fail.

A goal would be fun, though.