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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/10/03, 7.45pm
Coventry City
By Ian Grant

Heavens. Another one...? What, already...?

It's a dead glamourous life, this. It's half past seven in the morning, not yet eight hours since I went to bed and lay awake writing a mental match report that I've now completely forgotten. It was really good, though. Honestly. Much better than this one. And here I am, obeying the early alarm to return to the computer, sipping that all-important first cup of tea, and fitting in a bit of time before I have to head into Brighton to visit a client. Then I'll be back in six or seven hours to carry on, to the finish.

Which would be all right, really. I mean, it's a long old day, but I quite like the time pressure that comes with attempting to squeeze a match report around sleep, work and everything else. A bit different from the usual Sunday routine, when the report, and the waffle therein, seems to expand to fill the infinitely available time. Now, I have to get on with it.

Right, so. Let's get on with it, then....


As I say, it'd be all right. If I had much to say. But I haven't, as you may already have guessed. And there's the problem.

Specifically, it's hard not to feel the sense of weariness that you tend to get after, say, fifty-five minutes of the average hip-hop CD. It being absolute bloody gospel that No Rap CD Shall Last Less Than Seventy-Five Minutes, you know that you're going to reach the point when everything that needs to be said has already been said several times over, and yet there are still another seven tracks to plough through.

Which makes me feel old, frankly. Pining for the days of vinyl, when brevity was enforced by economic necessity, and value for money had nothing to do with it. All hail the Strokes and their ridiculously compact back catalogue, in that respect. Records that you can actually fit into your life without rearranging your diary to accommodate them. Revolutionary.

Oh. Sorry. Yeah, that kind of weariness, anyway. Because this, to all intents and purposes, is a transitional period in the season. That is, we're attempting to go from down there to up there, as quickly as possible. And never to return. Which is, in itself, plenty interesting enough, even if the football has yet to hit any particularly dizzy heights, and plenty nerve-wracking too, as we wait to find out whether we'll make it through or merely return whence we came.

The problem is that, for as long as we're in that betwixt-and-between phase, there's not all that much to say about it, beyond offering passing observations on the likelihood of success. After last Tuesday: poor. After Saturday: fair to middling. After last night: a little less. And so on. Perhaps it's just as well that we'll be ignoring Saturday's illegitimate fixture in Milton Keynes, for we're probably nearing the point where the match report will write itself anyway. Maybe I'll write something about Wimbledon (there's only one) versus Chipstead instead, just for the change of scenery....

It was a curious match too, not easy to sum up...and, as a consequence, both entirely dependent on the result and strangely detached from it. Had we won, the end would've thoroughly justified the means, increasing the chances of a successful transition, yet without inspiring any great confidence. When we didn't win, it just seemed that there was neither end nor means, just rather a lot of stuff that happened. And then stuff that stopped happening. A startlingly vivid description, I'm sure you'll agree.

True, some of the stuff that happened was moderately extraordinary, even if it was surrounded by a whole lot that was very ordinary indeed. We needed the points, badly needed the points...but it was hard not to be struck by the brilliance of the Coventry equaliser, a beautifully and perfectly placed full stop on the end of a muddled, confused and grammatically suspect sentence. For me, it actually seemed less painful than an earlier goal, for we were at least able to avoid the inevitable consequences of conceding, given that the match finished before much else could happen. Small mercies, I guess.

That said, as they pressed forward in the last few minutes, it felt as if Coventry had missed the boat. Which isn't to say that they'd have deserved the victory any more than us...but, having repeatedly exposed our weaknesses, especially in wide positions, they ought to have scored long before. It did seem as if it was going to be our night, even if would quickly be forgotten in favour of gazing at the league table and working out where the next win might take us. And it hadn't always seemed that way....

Indeed, the first twenty or so minutes were pretty painful. A reminder, if we needed it, that beating a team as appalling as Bradford is nothing much in itself, merely something to build upon. And we weren't building upon it. Instead, Coventry were so much more lively, quickly over-running a midfield that suddenly seemed too lightweight, attacking a defence that suddenly looked rather vulnerable. Jack Smith was in for one of those games in which you gain experience rather than confidence, often out-numbered without sufficient protection from those in front of him; Sean Dyche was to be tested too, albeit that he looked rather more like his old self than on several recent occasions. We were already looking towards half-time.

Except that Coventry, with the game firmly in their grasp, didn't seem to have much idea what to do with it, apart from staring at it for a while and randomly pressing a few buttons, like a two-year-old with a mobile phone. Their closest was our closest too, as a mix-up between Sean Dyche and Lenny Pidgeley on the edge of the box left the ball bouncing towards goal. Probably going wide, but Neil Cox belted into the Rookery to be sure. Thus goes a goalkeeper's life, for Alec Chamberlain's current run of bad luck might well have continued at that moment, whereas his substitute's reputation remained untarnished. Otherwise, Suffo and Barrett both missed the target by several light years, then Safri bounced a harmless half-volley at the keeper from twenty-five yards. Not much, considering the level of dominance in these early spells.

And, although we shouldn't get too carried away, it was pleasing to see that we managed to haul ourselves back into the contest without requiring fifteen minutes of intensive counselling. Indeed, our first noteworthy attack was damn nearly more than that, as Sean Dyche flicked on Neal Ardley's corner after twenty-five minutes, and Neil Cox just couldn't get enough of his head on the ball to guide it inside the post. A matter of millimetres...and, perhaps, a well-timed nudge from the defender behind him. As we began to assert ourselves, still lacking any kind of cohesion but compensating a little with plain old determination, Scott Fitzgerald's looping header from a deep Paolo Vernazza cross almost caught out Arphexad, who retreated to combine his fingertips with the crossbar and prevent disaster. Jamie Hand sent a volley sailing over, and we were starting to make a go of it at last.

It was an utterly terrible game aesthetically, to be sure, but it was starting to have its moments of drama, grown men resolving a fierce, heartfelt dispute with a game of mouldy conkers. By the break, it might've gone either way. It would've gone one way - and not our way - had it not been for a quite breathtaking save from Lenny Pidgeley, flying upwards and stretching magnificently to graze his fingertips against the ball as it careered towards the top corner from Warnock's boot after Neal Ardley, not for the first or last time, had given the ball away in midfield. One of those saves, when you've already braced yourself for the sound of leather on string, when you can't quite believe that anything has been able to prevent it.

And, as I say, it might've gone our way too, as Coventry took on the general theme of misplaced passes and offered Paul Devlin the opportunity to stretch his legs. When he played in Scott Fitzgerald on the right of the area, it all looked terribly promising. But the finish didn't even vaguely trouble Arphexad, which rather summed up the majority of the forty-five minutes. Competitive, perhaps. But horribly messy, full of mistakes and one-touch clearances and frantic chasing and pretty much everything that you'd want in your stereotypical First Division game. But not, possibly, in your Tuesday night out.

The second half wasn't much prettier, to be honest...although its gradual winding up towards a dramatic ending did provide some distraction from the largely appalling football. It couldn't, however, hide the fairly obvious fact that Coventry were repeatedly catching us on the break as we attempted to push forward. When I say "catching us on the break", what I mean is that we'd throw a few men forward in hope and expectation, then manage to give the ball away while crossing the halfway line. Which isn't good for the nerves, frankly. Not at all.

In this, pretty much everyone was culpable, both inexperienced (Jack Smith rather telegraphed his intentions on a number of occasions) and experienced (take your pick, really...but Neal Ardley had a far from happy game in the centre). Thankfully, Coventry simply weren't good enough to take advantage, and the terror that spread whenever they, and particularly Suffo, picked up the ball and ran proved to be largely ill-founded. Indeed, Lenny Pidgeley's smartest save came from Warnock's stray cross early on, as he reacted quickly to block at his near post.

Other saves were more routine, true. But there were too many of them - a ferocious drive from Suffo after one of those intercepted passes from Jack Smith on halfway, a somewhat acrobatic catch from a floating Konjic header at a corner, a glanced Suffo header. Too many of these, and too many moments that should've yielded shots too. We didn't look secure, mainly because we were unable to retain possession for long enough to give our opponents much to worry about. Paolo Vernazza had an effort deflected over after tremendous work from Scott Fitzgerald...but, really, the chances were all falling to Coventry, even if the possession remained relatively even. Indeed, Morrell really ought to have scored when hesitation between Sean Dyche and Neil Cox allowed Suffo to set him up. Instead, he fired wide of the near post with only Lenny Pidgeley in his way.

So, while you always retain hope in a game of no goals and much messiness, there wasn't too much that was tangible to cling to, until a refreshing, invigorating flurry of attacks around the seventieth minute. Romantics would claim that this was due to the arrival of Lee Cook - and, indeed, his chipped cross was just headed away from Danny Webber during this brief storm - but, really, it was more a case of everything falling into place, suddenly and unexpectedly. Although it didn't last, and we were back to the error-strewn norm soon enough, it might've been some kind of turning point. Paul Devlin drove over after some determination and twisty-turny dribbling, Paolo Vernazza also found the Rookery at the end of a Lee Cook break. We still had a chance.

In matches like this, a bit of skill goes an awfully long way. And so does a bit of random good fortune. Which isn't to say that our goal was lucky, merely that we'd spent the previous eighty minutes doing very similar things without much success, that something fell right at that moment. It fell right, kind of, when the referee ignored a blatant hack from behind on Danny Webber, when the loose ball came to Paolo Vernazza, when Arphexad parried his clean, firm half-volley, when a defender headed behind to prevent Scott Fitzgerald from getting to the rebound. And when Sean Dyche met Neal Ardley's corner with a powerful header, miraculously stopped by an instinctive arm from Arphexad. And when the ball dropped down for Scott Fitzgerald, goal-hanging again....

If you don't buy a ticket, and all that. Even if much of the game, being a chaotic mess, wasn't really to our credit, the desire to cling on, to keep trying, to sneak something when the opportunity presented itself was promising enough. As we celebrated in the Rookery, it felt like plenty...another faltering stride forward, further from down there. Sod the performance, for now. Take the result, gladly. Except that we might've been more greedy here, taking better advantage of late opportunities to break into a largely deserted Coventry half as the visitors poured forward. Paolo Vernazza, in particular, was guilty of wasting a couple of chances, once with an absurdly ambitious lob and once with a faltering pass that didn't quite reach Lee Cook. It didn't seem to matter at the time....

But it did matter. That said, it's difficult to be too harsh. For, having struggled earlier while stretching forward, we did precious little wrong in defending the lead. When a cross comes into the edge of the box, someone who's well-marked reaches behind them to hook in a volley, and that volley arcs and dips into the top corner, it's not a blame thing. It's just a head-in-hands thing...although, for such a magnificent strike, the temptation to watch the replay on the big screen proved too much, even given the pain of losing two points. As I say, we didn't do much wrong. And an earlier goal might've been much worse, all things considered.

Half past five. Several hours since I started this report, and I haven't thought of anything particularly wise to say. Transitional, that's the thing. And transitional only reveals its true meaning when it's finished, when the outcome is determined. For us, for now, it could still go either way....

But you knew that already.