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03/04: Reports:

Carling Cup Second Round, 27/09/03
Bristol City
Feed the Dyche
By Matt Rowson

It was observed on the way along the M4 that wildly differing interpretations of most games of football will result from different viewpoints in the stadium. Whatever your perspective, however, the side is in a grim old state of confidence at the moment. The squad's limitations have been exposed through vindictively selective misfortune with injuries and the rub of the green is not so much going against us as sticking a leg out and tripping us up as we pass.

The pessimism that's all too evident in the gait of many of the players on the pitch is evident in the stands also. "This has got a one-nil defeat in extra time written all over it" proclaimed Rupe helpfully as he arrived, before traipsing gloomily back into the stand.

The visiting support officially numbered just over 500, but felt like far less on this cold evening. We were treated to Ashton Gate's splendid away accommodation... seat frames banged into terracing are never conducive to a decent view, and whilst the absence of row-blocking backs on the flipping stools was helpful, the large pillar that obstructed much of the near penalty area from most of the away end was not.

And then there's the pitch-level perspective. Not so difficult from the side of the pitch perhaps, but from behind the goal the far half becomes a purely hypothetical entity.

The Lord of the Rings exhibition at the Science Museum kicks off imminently... this features one of Peter Jackson's now famous distorted sets, which create the illusion of diminutive stature by abnormally scaling the environs to fool the camera. It's not inconceivable that Jackson came upon this idea on a visit to the away end at Ashton Gate, from where it was impossible to assess the geography of play in the opposite half by any other means than a rough inferral from player sizes. Even this method wasn't foolproof... "so was that Bruce Dyer on the edge of the box, or Ashley Young on the halfway line...?"

If you're suspecting that I'm trying to put off discussing the first half, you're absolutely right. This was thoroughly depressing stuff... no lack of effort, but a collective lack of form and confidence... and of the tools that might make something happen.

The opening period was really a story of City chances and half-chances. Watford defended stoutly enough for the most part, but there was virtually nothing on offer from the midfield and little beyond clumps and scraps for Webber and Dyer to feed on. Twice Dyer did exceedingly well to as much as bring down bombs from the air and control them... on the second occasion yielding a free kick from which Devlin's shot yielded a wasted corner.

Gavin Mahon, a source of optimism amongst the gloom for much of the season, was not on his game, and Gary Fisken alongside him was bypassed completely. Last season's injury problems seem to have cost Fisken, who looked a decent prospect under Vialli but hasn't shown much since - albeit this was the obvious platform on which to give him a go.

Ashley Young on the left looked thoroughly forlorn... sucked far too far back down the pitch to do any damage and seeing precious little of the ball. His one telling contribution in 45 minutes was a booking for a waist-high tackle that was awkward rather than violent, and rather resembled a loose sheet of a discarded tabloid being blown around a lamp-post by the wind.

Not that City were enormously impressive themselves, but they did at least create chances, most frequently through Aaron Brown on the left who gave Lloyd Doyley a busy first half. One early cross found the head of Millar at the near post, his header curled across the face of goal and wide. Cox did well to tidy up subsequent balls into the box, and when Wilkshire seemed fated to meet another Brown cross, an heroic, desperate dive by Dyche across the ball's intended passage blocked the header as soon as it left the Australian's head.

Millar's strike partner was the leggy Christian Roberts, more attitude than ability as both Paul Robinson and the linesman discovered early on. Arguably City's best chance of the half came when he dispossessed a paperweight Fisken in midfield and hared goalwards, criminally opting to shoot past the awaiting Cox and harmlessly wide rather than release Wilkshire for a one-on-one.

Attention, as it tends to in such situations, began to wander, and didn't need to wander far. A steady source of alternative entertainment was at hand in the shape of one of our younger followers of the evening, seated directly in front of us. It's a while since I had a relative of comparable age, but I'd guess at about seven or eight, and with an unquenchable enthusiasm both for the game, in the face of all discouragement on the pitch, and for audience participation.

An interesting psychological study might be pursued by monitoring the progress of this youngster into the ranks of hardcore fandom for which he is surely destined. For whilst his perspective was resolutely positive and innovative ("Kick the ball very hard Chamberlain", "Hit it in the goal quickly Watford"), his peculiar obsession with Lloyd Doyley suggests an obsessive personality which seasons of disappointment might, conceivably, mutate into the Foley-Gifton-Mahon-(etc) booboydom later in life. One can only hope otherwise.

Half-time wasn't as glum as it might have been, largely due to the welcome sight of Micah Hyde and Lee Cook trotting onto the pitch to warm up. The second half, as has often been the case following a disappointing opening spell, started much more strongly for Watford. Micah Hyde's presence in the centre made an evident impact, as did Lee Cook's aggressiveness with possession on the left. For the first time, we looked a division better than our (admittedly limited) opponents.

Webber fashioned the first half chance, spiralling to the left hand edge of the penalty area, sending across a low cross which keeper Phillips stole from the feet of the prowling Dyer. Then Devlin got bolshy for the first time and burst through on the right to flash a shot across the face of goal. More excitement in ten minutes than in the previous forty five, where would it all end?

The answer was provided when Jamie Hand's inexplicable donning of shirt on the bench pre-empted Micah Hyde limping back out of the action with a recurrence of his hamstring problem. Another kick in the guts... and twofold, as now not only were we deprived of our best chance of a bit of creativity in midfield (for the next few weeks, one assumes), but also the option of spicing up the forward line with Scott Fitzgerald.

Hand got stuck in, characteristically, however, and whilst we didn't go on to boss the half as completely as we'd threatened to we still had City on the back foot. Central to much of this change of tack was Lee Cook, who had his marker Carey in all sorts. One piece of positive running saw Cook on the byline slinging in a ball that Carey appeared to block, instinctively, with his hand... the ball was deflected for a corner which Cook dropped onto Cox's head at the far post, the skipper not quite getting high enough to propel the ball below the crossbar.

Another quite dizzying run from Cook resulted in comic-book perplexedness from three City defenders all looking in different directions before a fourth stabbed out for another corner, which came to nothing.

But our forward play was limited by the chronic lack of belief of both of our attackers. There was no shortage of effort here... Webber hared after every loose ball and idling defender, whilst Dyer did a better job than he has done of holding the ball up and linking up the attack. When it came to sticking the ball in the onion bag, however, no joy... and consistently bad decisions betraying their perpetrators' uncertainty. One minute Webber was advancing, defence at his mercy, but opting for an optimistic curl from the edge of the area rather than slipping Dyer in for an easy chance, the next looking for a passing option when a run at goal offered itself. Dyer, too, in his eagerness to make his mark snatched at chances that a confident striker not thinking so much about it might have done much better with.

And whilst City were now on the back foot, they still had enough going forward to be a cause of concern. One quick break resulted in Wilkshire being played in on the right hand side of the penalty area and crashing in a shot that Alec was at full stretch to save. On another occasion the mother of all goalmouth scrambles seemed to result in the ball trapped underneath a thigh on the goalline. Or maybe the edge of the area. Or even the halfway line for all we could tell. No, Alec involved, must have been the goal line...

As the half dwindled and our increased vim looked unlikely to break the deadlock, a fatalism gripped the away end. "Toss a coin, toss a coin..." came the chant, but to no avail. The whistle went, extra time and an even later return home loomed.

The onset of the added period was greeted by a faltering "Cooooome on you Reds, Coooome on you Reds" down the tannoy from a grimly resolute announcer. My brother recalled the intense atmosphere in this ground of the two encounters in 1998, and pondered on the state of Bristol City if this was all that was left of that electricity, one lone voice echoing around a three-quarters empty ground.

Sadly, there were other relics of those encounters on the pitch and one of them, left-back Mickey Bell, got forward to dump a fine cross to the far post where Millar rose above the leaden-footed Dyche to steer the ball into the net.

Watford's attacks persisted, but there was a gloomy inevitability about proceedings now. Dyer, who'd badly miscued one shot at the start of extra time, went slightly closer with a slightly more awkward one. Robbo, on hand and evidently distraught at the goal, went on a rampage after the ball which had us wincing in anticipation, our worst fears thankfully not realised.

In the second half of extra time Sean Dyche's bulk and snarl was added to the forward line... the move didn't work, but was pretty much the best card Lewington could play in the circumstances. Dyche achieved largely what you'd expect... lumbered around knocking people over, fighting for possession and executing a brutal challenge on one poor bastard who'll have trouble going up and down stairs for the next few days.

"Feed the Dyche and he will score!" piped up our young friend with undiminished optimism. "Doyley, Doyley, Lloyd-de Lloyd Doyley! He gets the ball he kicks it up in the air..." soon followed. A bit harsh, Lloyd had stuck to his job manfully and Brown had disappeared from the game in the second half but his distribution was still the endpoint of several attacking moves.

Our last chance came with a Devlin cross that Mahon flicked on with his head, and the goalkeeper collected as Dyche thought about lunging in. For half a second you saw Phillips propelled through the net and into the hoardings behind the goal but Dyche resisted, lessons learned from Preston last season perhaps. City had the last comment, Roberts hitting the post after another quick break, but this would have added insult to injury.

There's no great mystery about our current form. Confidence is on the floor, the team is lacking in some crucial areas, principally a physical presence up front (get well soon, H) and some zip in the middle (a few more stretches next time, Micah?). Saturday and a similarly forlorn looking and injury-ravaged Ipswich may be that opportunity, maybe not. I don't know what the answer is, there's not an awful lot that you could do with Ray's current options, but we need something.

On the way out, I avoided Rupe's gaze...