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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/08/03, 3pm
Crime and punishment
By Ian Grant

"Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms. It's by talking nonsense that one gets to the truth! I talk nonsense, therefore I'm human."
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1865)

"And I talk a whole heap of madness, 'cause my life's a big whole heap of madness..."
- "Do It", Dizzee Rascal (2003)

We'll go with the theory, in the absence of a more comforting explanation. Because whether you're a character in a nineteenth century Russian masterpiece, a gobby teenage rapper from an East End council estate, or a First Division football club at the start of a new season, there's a whole load of nonsense to be worked through. And hidden somewhere in there is the truth. Somewhere.

Sometimes - as in the case of Dizzee Rascal, whose debut elpee is a quite extraordinary portrait of youthful bravado, bewilderment and frustration - the confused maelstrom is precisely the point. You just know that if that young man ever manages to figure it all out, he'll be a hundred times happier, but he'll never make a record as utterly essential again. You can have your cake and eat it, of course...but no-one wants to listen to someone eating cake.

At other times, all that nonsense is just nonsense, a swampy mess of stuff with no discernible value. And you can only flounder about, in the hope that one of your random, desperate movements will suddenly find dry land. Such is the case of the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment, for Raskolnikov's instinctive, driven actions merely send him further into mire, and the only truth that he gets closer to is the truth that he so wants to escape. A magnificent work of fiction, but one that you certainly wouldn't treat as a template for a happy existence.

And that First Division football club? Well, the nonsense is plain enough. The question is whether we can find the truth somewhere within it....

We discovered fragments here, not least in finding the net a couple of times...and, more importantly, coming up with methods and ideas that will surely help us to find it more regularly in the future. It took less than ten minutes for the restoration of Heidar Helguson to a forward role and the introduction of Lee Cook on the left wing to be thoroughly vindicated, in practice as well as in theory. And the latter set up the second too, enabling Danny Webber to score his first goal in a proper Watford shirt (and a "Davis - 11" vest).

Indeed, it has to be said that, while we would've settled for an own goal via a defender's backside, we got off the mark with two beautifully conceived and precisely executed pieces of football. Having too often played the ball around in front of the opposition defence at a leisurely pace, we found more fruitful routes to goal here, getting behind the Gillingham rearguard before it had a chance to get itself properly organised. It didn't exactly lead to a glut of opportunities, granted...but it was a significant, positive start.

The great mass of nonsense, then, was to be found in our failure to win the game. Somehow, it seemed that our overwhelming desire to attack positively and intelligently obscured the need to defend with concentration and diligence. True, we played with considerable imagination in all areas of the field...but you don't want imagination in your own final third, and our imaginative defending merely resulted in an afternoon of watching Gillingham strikers roar into the spaces between and behind what could only loosely be described as a backline. In that respect, while the decision to employ Neal Ardley at right back for his set piece prowess was understandable, one wonders whether we might've done better to retain Lloyd Doyley, thus having at least one player focused primarily on keeping the opposition out.

Or perhaps, in our anxiety at the big fat nought in the "goals for" column, we hadn't quite worked out what we'd do after we'd scored. As it was, we reached the promised land rather quicker than we'd dared to hope, then discovered that we'd left the guidebook at home and spent much of the rest of the time looking more than a little lost. All of which is, of course, better than another scoreless defeat. None of which, however, really provides the convincing cause for optimism that we'd love to cling on to right now.

Still, the first ten minutes were splendid. Very obviously intent on making a start to the season, we began attacking with much purpose and, crucially, intelligence. At first, the right wing seemed to offer the most interesting possibilities, and Heidar Helguson stretched to head wide from a fine Neal Ardley centre in the fourth minute. Within sixty seconds, Bruce Dyer had nodded over from another Ardley cross, a free kick on the left, and it was all looking rather more positive than before. And within another sixty seconds, we'd finally bloody done it.

It was a glorious moment, born of glorious football. Hemmed in by the left touchline on halfway, Lee Cook somehow managed to curl a pass into the space ahead of him with his right boot. There, Paul Robinson stampeded forward, took the ball in his stride and looked up, before whipping a fabulous cross into the penalty area. And, freed from his midfield shackles, Heidar Helguson waited alone on the penalty spot, stooping to guide a magnificent header beyond Brown's dive and just inside the post. A goal worthy of the joyous celebration that it received, a thing of beauty as well as a thing of sheer blessed relief....

And then...what? Having reached the summit, we stood about, scratched our heads, tried to decide whether to admire the view, pitch our tents or head home for tea. Although Gillingham took a while to find their rhythm - long range efforts from Hope and Southall threatened little - they found it quickly enough. By the twentieth minute, the match was characterised by repeated scares at the back as a defence that appeared determined to push up as far as possible, perhaps until it reached the advertising hoardings at the other end, was caught flat-footed.

In truth, the linesman was now our most effective defender, and even he couldn't prevent some of the breaks into the vast, open spaces. Paul Robinson produced a superbly-timed tackle to halt King's advance into the penalty area, Neil Cox threw himself in front of a fierce drive from Sidibe, and Robinson was again called into emergency action to prevent King from turning in a low cross from Perpetuini. It wasn't so much that we were being stretched, for things tighten when they're stretched...and this, in contrast, was loose, slack, careless. Nobody was directly at fault, mainly because no-one was getting close enough to be directly at fault....

And thus it continued, throughout. Sure, we began to assert our attacking intentions again, yet we were never able to pull ourselves together at the back...and even until the final minute, we were allowing Gillingham players to slip unnoticed into the penalty area. How many times did a white shirt get ahead of a yellow shirt in the final third here? How many times did we somehow avoid punishment? And how hollow were the protests at Neal Ardley's late dismissal, the umpteenth and final time that we were caught napping at the back? Really, much as I continue to admire Gillingham for their ability to scheme up ways of annoying us, we only have ourselves to blame on this occasion.

A second goal might - and I stress, might - have finished things off. Our attempts to get it had a little more bite than of late, promising a light sprinkling of clear opportunities rather than a deluge of remote possibilities. Marcus Gayle flicked on a long throw from the excellent, combative Gavin Mahon and Bruce Dyer headed wide at the far post, then Heidar Helguson's splendidly improvised shot-tackle from an absurd angle nearly looped into the far corner. Late on, we managed something else for the first time, Helguson's flick sending Danny Webber away on his own, only to finish relatively tamely with a scuffed shot. Mind you, just to maintain the general theme, Ian Cox really ought to have equalised with a free header from six yards that he glanced wide.

The second half brought more of the same, really. When we could've done with some of the measured control exerted in the games against Palace and West Brom, we found that composure elusive. The situation was summed up by the Gillingham equaliser after six minutes, scored directly from a Watford corner that might've extended the lead if Neal Ardley had made a clean contact with a header. Instead, the ball bounced down to be cleared, and instantly Gavin Mahon's mis-control and stumble was enough to leave Shaw bearing down on goal. Having done so well in a similar situation against Koumas last week, Alec Chamberlain went to ground rather too quickly, and Shaw was able to belt the ball between the post and Neil Cox's despairing lunge on the line. We'd been deported from the promised land.

Almost instantly, though, an unexpected reprieve. Amid the debris from another corner, Lee Cook drifted into space on the left of the area, found by a chipped pass and composed enough to deliver a driven cross into the danger area. There, Danny Webber reacted quickly, darting ahead of his marker to fire smartly past Brown and bound away, shirt swiftly removed to reveal his tribute to Jimmy Davis, in exuberant celebration. If we've needed a goal, then Danny Webber has simply wanted it with a near-obsessive passion, and this was a moment charged with raw emotion. And we should've enabled it to stand as a match-winning moment, something it thoroughly deserved.

Instead, the self-destruct button proved too tempting. While distance distorts perspective, it's hard to believe that Alec Chamberlain needed to come to compete with Sidibe for a cross from the left...although, in the keeper's defence, nobody else seemed willing to do the job on his behalf. Having failed to make decisive contact, however, Chamberlain was completely stranded...and nobody had picked up Spiller at the far post either, leaving him with the far-too-straightforward task of diving in to head the ball past Marcus Gayle. To return to the earlier theme, this was utter nonsense, nonsense of the very highest order, nonsense par excellence. Quite simply, if you concede goals like that, you can't expect to win football matches at this level.

From thereon in, our attempts to take the lead for the third time were unconvincing. The strain began to tell, and what had previously been quick and urgent became hurried and desperate, what had previously been moderately clever and thoughtful became wasteful and thoughtless. Which is far from the worst thing about this particular afternoon, especially as we still managed to create shooting opportunities for Micah Hyde, Gavin Mahon, and Lee Cook. But it wasn't enough to rub out the mistakes at the other end.

Indeed, despite the fact that Gillingham appeared increasingly content with a point, there was still time for one last howler. True, the referee's interpretation of Neal Ardley's foul on Sidibe, after the forward had yet again found himself ahead of the last defender, was harsh - the striker had run across the defender, inviting the contact that brough him down. But it was also quite correct. And, from our point of view, the foul and the subsequent red card ought to concern us less than their origins, yet another lapse. Yet another thing that we should've been able to prevent.

It happened too late to make much difference to the contest, though. Southall smacked the free kick into the Vic Road end, and Neil Cox curled an effort from a similar range into Brown's chest in injury time. The damage had already been done, the result - better, but still disappointing, frustrating and ultimately of little use - had already been decided. We should've been looking back upon this game rather differently, as a starting point of sorts. It may still be a starting point of sorts, I guess...but if so, it's well disguised in that big whole heap of madness.

I mean, perhaps I have been a little hard. For there were undoubtedly good things, positive things. The continued resurgence of Gavin Mahon, for all that his exposed position sometimes makes his mistakes seem more than just mistakes. The lively, potentially match-winning input of Lee Cook, who shone only sporadically, but brightly enough to have gained us three points. The return of Heidar Helguson to his rightful place. Two goals, for the team and for crucial attacking players. And so on, and so forth.

But football is hard. Which is why, despite all of those things, we'll have to spend the next two weeks contemplating other things.

Talking nonsense is all very well. But you have to arrive at something that's not nonsense eventually.