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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/09/03, 12.30pm
Butter-side up
By Ian Grant

It does happen, then. The right thing, that is.

I mean, it's hard to believe that it's possible, sometimes. There are always too many of those weeks, when the headache of the morning after just seems like some distant echo of whatever monstrous bad karma you managed to build up in a previous existence. When certain things start to seem inevitable, from your computer blue-screening at a vital (and unsaved) moment to your foot hitting dog turd rather than clean pavement to Des Lynam uttering the soul-destroying words, "And your commentator is Peter Drury". When life ain't fair, in short.

Of course, the stress generated by all of this merely fuels the fire. Sod's law dictates that toast always lands butter-side down, but basic common sense suggests that you probably wouldn't have dropped the toast in the first place if you hadn't been tetchily shouting at the kettle to hurry up and boil, anxiously checking the clock to calculate your expected arrival time at work, and attempting to write some code for a project that should've been finished yesterday at the same time. Which is why, naturally, you should really take a quiet moment for some deep breaths, relax, chill...and, paradoxically, is also precisely why you never do take that moment.

The concern about our start to the season, therefore, was not so much that the results themselves might prove to be disastrous. And it certainly wasn't that the performances suggested that nine months of thankless struggle were inevitable. There was - is - nothing that can't be salvaged, apart from the still dreadful events of 9th August. Rather, it was that we might talk ourselves into something that could otherwise be avoided, that the mentality might change, that we might drop our piece of toast in the stress of the moment and then waste valuable time and energy protesting against fate when it landed on the buttered side.

In that respect, the two week break came at a perfect time. Deep breaths, relax, chill...and then work bloody hard to change your fortune. Sure, the unexpected arrival of Paul Devlin can only have boosted spirits, but there were plenty of signs that spirits were already fairly high before that. Even the injury to Heidar Helguson, which might've been cause for a good, satisfying bout of fate-bemoaning, seemed to have relatively little impact on our positive, determined approach to this vital game.

And, sometimes, life is fair. Sometimes, a defining moment for British pop music does win the Mercury Prize, and I suddenly find myself in the unusual and enjoyable position of enthusing about a record that people have actually heard of. Sometimes, the weather seems consciously and deliberately to brighten up for the weekend, rewarding all those who've battled through from Monday until Friday. Sometimes, you don't drop the toast at all. Sometimes, your football team actually wins, rather than merely deserving to.

This time, the flipped coin landed in our favour. Which isn't to suggest that we didn't work enormously hard to gain this result, that we weren't brave and strong. Nevertheless, before we get too carried away, the fact remains that if the coin had landed on its other side, the referee would've missed Muscat's stamp on Danny Webber entirely, and we would've gone in at the interval level with Millwall on goals and players. If it had been another of those weeks, we might've lost another striker too. It wouldn't have been fair, of course...but football is often about overcoming perceived or actual unfairness. Would we have been able to do that yesterday, I wonder?

We'll never know. We will, however, find out whether we're able to build upon that moment of good fortune or natural justice or whatever you want to call it, or whether it'll merely be something that happened and was then forgotten. Again, just as the fortnight's holiday helped us considerably, the arrival of two games in a week might well count in our favour.

For now, though, just enjoy the win. It's been a while, after all. And enjoy the countless positives to emerge from it, even if we still needed a moment of lunacy from the opposition to bring all those positives together into a three-point-shaped package.

There were loads of marvellous things here, all the way through the side. Our defending, while not always entirely composed, was sharp and active and energetic, a far cry from the dismal sky-gazing of two weeks ago. The central midfield again buzzed and hummed, factory machinery chugging away in highly productive fashion...and proving itself thoroughly capable of competing against experienced opposition. Paul Devlin's arrival has given us balance too, and the relative lack of creativity in the middle doesn't matter nearly so much when we have wide midfielders to receive and use the ball. Thereby stretching the opposing defence wider and thinner, the forwards found it far easier to gain a yard or two of space in the danger areas, starting to sense possibilities and opportunities rather than having to manufacture them.

In short, it all looked much more like what we'd hoped, perhaps expected, to see back in August. That many people will probably disagree with my "man of the match" choice is indicative of an impressive team performance, one that allowed individuals to shine instead of requiring miracles from them. There were several candidates...but the whole was most impressive.

It took a little while to get going, admittedly. The opening minutes were briefly illuminated by a fierce tackle on the touchline from Paul Devlin, looking somewhat rusty in the early stages but immediately compensating by applying himself to any task that came along, and characterised by some distinctly nervous defending on our part. Nervous, but not hopeless. Danny Webber scratched an awkward volley wide from a ricochet, but it still had the distinctive, sleepy feel of an early kickoff.

Not for long, though. After eight minutes, we discovered the value of Paul Devlin. Granted, his role in the first goal was minimal, shuffling the ball across to Gavin Mahon from a throw-in. But his presence had begun to drag the Millwall defence across its own area, creating space elsewhere. Splendidly, Mahon spotted and found that space, just as Lee Cook spotted and occupied it...and the first-time cross towards the far post from the corner of the area allowed Cook to nod the ball into an empty six yard box. Empty apart from Bruce Dyer and the goalkeeper, that is...and the former just about forced it past the latter. One-nil, anxiety forgotten.

As far as the first quarter of the match goes, that was about it...although, from our point of view, it was plenty. The Jamie Hand Booking arrived fairly promptly and was entirely justified, but much of the rest was dominated by a pompous referee and undermined by scrappy football. It was to turn out to be a rather better game than it initially suggested.

Indeed, there was plenty to discuss at half-time. By then, we'd come extremely close to extending the lead, as Neil Cox's goal-bound header from a corner was deflected over by an unwitting defender, then Danny Webber's sprint through the offside trap to meet Jamie Hand's measured pass was foiled by Warner's sprawling body and Lee Cook's chipped follow-up was cleared by a covering defender. The promise of a comfortable afternoon in the early autumn sunshine was short-lived, however, as the massive Peeters flicked on a long throw and Ifill, a mobile and quick-witted threat throughout the first period, somehow squeezed a touch inside the post to equalise.

That should've been all. Would've been all, were it not for Muscat's staggering irresponsibility. In contrast to the rest of the match, which was competitive within reason, our friend with the loose screws seemed to be intent on starting a war on one flank...and, for once, I have to praise Paul Robinson for his awareness and control in the circumstances. It can't have been easy.

There's aggression and there's thuggery, and the stamp on Danny Webber as he lay grounded after competing for a hanging Lee Cook pass definitely falls into the latter category. You can't do that kind of thing...and you certainly can't do it in your own penalty area. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the whole incident was that, when the whistle blew for half-time, Muscat's team-mates were clearly rather more eager to get into the dressing room to have a, erm, quiet word than to remain on the pitch to remonstrate with the officials.

From the other end, it was a somewhat surreal spectacle. There was minor interest in a penalty appeal as Danny Webber went to ground initially, then widespread assumption that the referee had decided to book the forward for diving when play was halted some seconds afterwards. The immediate red card brought fury from the away fans and bewildered jubilation from those of us too far away to have seen the incident properly, and the award of a penalty only served to widen the gap between those extremes. Thankfully, Neil Cox kept remarkably calm, finishing a bizarre sequence of events with one of his better spot-kicks, knocked neatly into the bottom corner after Warner had telegraphed his intentions. Cue some very welcome text messages from those watching at home and with the benefit of slow motion replays....

The second half might have been tricky. Not quite as tricky as forty-five minutes searching for a winning goal against eleven men, granted...but there were still traps to avoid and hurdles to jump before we could start to look forward to the effect of three points on our league position. But, while we weren't entirely convincing, this was nevertheless a very fine effort indeed. Faced with the choice, we clearly decided to seek a third, decisive goal, and even though it was a long time in coming, that positive attitude saw us safely through.

In fact, we were really rather unfortunate to be forced to wait so long. With Paul Devlin rapidly finding his rhythm on the right and Lee Cook looking sporadically dazzling on the left, our attacks gained a natural fluency that we've not seen before...and the forwards saw the kind of service that they must've been praying for. After four minutes, Danny Webber's stretching header from Devlin's drifting cross was blocked by a defender's ear, then Neil Cox ploughed his way up the right flank on the break, laid the ball across to Gavin Mahon on the edge of the area, and the resulting drive was struck so fiercely that Warner did tremendously well to shovel it over the bar without incurring injury.

We were threatening, and we'd also succeeded in subduing a Millwall attack that had previously caused considerable problems - Paul Robinson, in particular, managed to get to grips with Ifill to such a degree that it was hard to imagine that he'd looked so dangerous earlier on. Encouragingly, we continued in the same manner rather than worrying about our failure to finish things off. Darren Ward was lucky to escape with a booking after barging Bruce Dyer as they chased after Gavin Mahon's through-ball, the referee's leniency justified only by the fact that the ball was drifting wide of a direct route to goal, and Warner plucked Lee Cook's free kick from its path towards the top corner. Then Paul Robinson's fabulous cross from deep, perfectly measured to pierce the gap between a defender and his keeper, was volleyed over by the stretching Dyer.

Good stuff. Stuff that promised goals, that damn nearly delivered more than three of them. We were relaxing, in a good way...still concentrating, but no longer burdened by stress. With the (literal) threat of Muscat removed, we allowed ourselves the luxury of giving a first team debut to matchstick-thin Ashley Young on the left wing, whose immediate welcome to competitive action came in the form of a savage assault from Cahill - a deliberate test of character, and a test that the youngster passed with flying colours as he continued to demand and dwell on the ball for the remainder of the game, showing unexpected physical and mental strength despite that earlier shock.

True, Millwall did finally come close to snatching it from us. Livermore sent a screaming drive just over from twenty-five yards, then Cahill's acrobatic attempt was held well by a diving Alec Chamberlain. But, albeit with the advantage of an extra player, we seemed to have settled ourselves into a thoroughly positive, victorious mindset. We've worked hard before, but we worked hard with considerable belief here, and it made all the difference.

The reward came in the final moments of injury time. Still pressing forward, we forced a slip on the right and Paul Devlin was able to dart into space. From there, he flashed a low cross through the six yard box, deflected by a defender at the near post...and finished, easily and joyously, by Ashley Young from barely two yards. That, just in case we ever forget, is why we love supporting our club, the kind of club that still relies on bringing youngsters through into the first team. That can still give them a debut when they look barely strong enough to stand up in a light breeze, that can rejoice with them when they take that opportunity. A marvellous moment, and a thoroughly fitting end to the afternoon.

We must move on from here, of course. But the most wonderful thing about this particular game, even if it is hopefully remembered only as the means to an end, was that it reminded us that we're not in such a dreadful position. We can still enjoy this season, it can still be something other than a struggle. It'll take some work, naturally, but we appear to be prepared for that, even to relish that challenge.

It might be the start of something. It might not. Whichever, it was pretty good in its own right.