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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 20/12/03, 3.00pm
Stoke City
Another world
By Ian Grant

It's another world, a parallel universe. And it's all yours to explore, to live in, to make your own. Which is nice, obviously.

Whereas sci-fi would have you believe that these things are only accessible by stumbling upon some kind of improbable time-lapse portal into another dimension, real life provides much more straightforward routes. Like germs. Two weeks of flu can take you to all kinds of new and extraordinary places.

It's like when you're on the train, rattling along loudly and happily on your way to wherever while gazing absent-mindedly at the scenery. And then, with no warning whatsoever, you hurtle into a tunnel and the outside world disappears completely, replaced by damp darkness and ear-popping white noise. It's like that, only with germs. After a while, when going to the kitchen to get a drink becomes an effort on a par with midweek trip to Plymouth, when you've barely set foot outside the front door for days, when the fullest extent of your intellectual powers is to follow the plot of "Doctors", it becomes hard to believe that there's anything beyond your four walls. Another world, indeed.

Note: this particularly applies if your television breaks down in the middle of these two weeks, offering only sound and no picture. When the highlight of your day is listening to "Doctors", you're really in trouble. I speak from bitter personal experience.

Really, stumbling into a parallel universe ain't that hard, then. It's coming back again that's the problem. For example, two weeks of flu creates the kind of work backlog that can't be shifted without sitting at a computer for eleven or twelve hours at a time for days on end...which is certainly a gateway into another world, one inhabited exclusively by people with blank stares, back problems and RSI. I'd send you a postcard, but my eyes won't focus for long enough.

While I'm here, and while I'm putting off writing about the match, I should spare a moment to mark the recent passing of another of these parallel universes. Some time ago, Channel Four's breakfast television show, RI:SE, slipped quietly into a world of laughable viewing figures, C-list celebrity guests, and waiting-for-the-axe inevitability. In the process, like the FA Cup underdog with nothing to lose, it became brilliant, essential, spectacularly care-free television, a daily holiday in what teachers would term "silly season" for the handful of people who'd actually noticed that it was still on. The axe finally fell on Friday. It will be missed, by those who knew.

You may have spotted the usual attempt at a lengthy, obtuse and absurdly extended metaphor that precedes an account of something overwhelmingly dreadful, to be postponed for as long as possible. You may have noticed the scoreline too. Well done, Sherlock. Around three o'clock on Saturday afternoon, thirteen thousand of us experienced pretty much what I've been describing above. In a rush of wind and noise and sudden blackness, we disappeared into a tunnel. As noted, it's easily done. And it's not so easily undone.

To avoid beating about the bush any longer, this was absolutely bloody ghastly. Good taste precludes me from attempting to compare it with the worst of this and other managers' reigns, but we can't have seen much worse for a while, especially given the importance of the fixture and, no offence, the quality of the opponents. As we've discovered in recent weeks, victories can turn into draws and draws can turn into defeats by the merest playful twist of fate. Results are fragile things, easily changed by accident as well as design. None of that applies here, though. Stoke didn't need a late goal. We were beaten, and by a margin that ought to embarrass us into a considerable and immediate improvement.

In the meantime, I can spend my Sunday afternoon picking through the debris...which is the kind of thing that's liable to make me nostalgic for the days of rampant germs and no telly, frankly. Because once we've dismissed the first five minutes, in which Paul Devlin's cross was met by Paolo Vernazza's far post header and Heidar Helguson reacted quickly to stab the ball home from six yards, we're into horribly barren territory, the kind of ugly, rutted wasteland that the Vicarage Road pitch is increasingly coming to resemble. Somehow, the bright start only seemed to fuel our complacency, and whereas we briefly hoped that it'd be the foundation for a comfortable, solid victory, it turned out to be exactly the reverse.

It's hard to know what to condemn first. The defence, which pretty much stood around while Ade Akinbiyi and Gifton Noel-Williams did an impression of a top-of-the-table strikeforce? Certainly, it's worth remembering that Peter Taylor wasn't being entirely idiotic when he signed the former for Leicester, merely very over-enthusiastic with someone else's chequebook. And the latter, welcomed warmly back to the Vic, continues to offer what he was so often and so unfairly criticised for in his post-injury days at Watford, sticking the attack together by retaining the ball with his back to goal without being particularly threatening when facing the other way. It's a good combination, sure...but, Jesus, it's not that good, is it? I mean, without wishing to ruin your Christmas or anything, we'll face rather better early in the New Year....

Or the midfield, which managed to provide neither protection for the defence nor effective supply to the frontline, yet somehow also contrived to lose its own battle too. In theory, it had to be somewhere on the pitch; in practice, it was hard to put your finger on it. We've seen more anonymous performances from Paolo Vernazza, and Jamie Hand has been more ragged and frustrating, and Neal Ardley has (just about) been more pedestrian and lacklustre...but the combination of all three was quite breathtakingly unbreathtaking. What's done is done, but Richard Johnson would've been justified in allowing himself a wry smile as he watched it all from the visitors' bench. It wasn't shocking, it wasn't disgraceful. It just wasn't, full stop.

Oh, and the attack too. It is, naturally, customary to excuse the front players from the general scorn and derision, on the basis that they try hard and, well, we like 'em. We'll do so again, but only up to a point. For they did indeed try hard, and Heidar Helguson wins the award for the try-hardest player on the pitch. But there's more to football than running around and there's more to being a striker than closing down the keeper, and, for all the huff and puff, we were utterly clueless in the final third. The only trickery came from Paul Devlin, whose repeated attempts at providing some invention just reminded us that most inventors spend their careers coming up with things like robotic squirrels, phones that work underwater, see-through toasters, and chocolate paperclips.

Lenny Pidgeley didn't have the finest game of his brief career either. Mind you, while his failure to claim the ball from Taggart's head as a free kick swirled in from the right did leave the defender with the easy task of finding an unguarded net from four yards, the keeper does have some cause for complaint, it seems to me. He should've made it, of course. It was his error. But would it have hurt any of his colleagues to do more than stand and watch? Would some kind of marking not have hindered Taggart just a little? Does a young keeper not deserve some protection? Only a thought, mind.

So, fifteen minutes in, and one-all after two noteworthy incidents. Which was roughly the same number of noteworthy incidents as we had to chew over during half-time. The remainder was random rubbish, and increasingly our random rubbish rather than Stoke's, for we dominated possession in spells that lasted exactly one pass. Anything resembling beautiful football was pretty much destroyed by the elements and the pitch, but, in truth, there was precious little to destroy. We hacked the ball around like amateur golfers, as if attempting to convince ourselves that it was impossible to play in the conditions. It was far from impossible, as our opponents were keen to demonstrate.

Indeed, they might've gone ahead. Well, it was a vague and remote possibility, anyway, which was more than we could claim for much of the ninety minutes. From Hoekstra's cross, Russell hopefully diverted a header ten yards wide, having presumably failed to notice that he was stationed ten yards wide of the near post. Nobody had bothered to pick him up, though, and nobody bothered to pick up Akinbiyi, whose threat was more and more ominous as the game progressed, as he headed tamely to Lenny Pidgeley after twenty-five minutes. The pace of the striker was becoming a feature, although our complete inability to counter it took a little longer to come to the fore, until the forty-third minute, when he coasted serenely past Neil Cox to bring the keeper from his line to block.

Us? Hmm. "41 - PD run + rw X, NC fp head at kp," say my notes. The excitement that you'll derive from decoding that information is rather more than the incident itself managed to generate. Still, an effort on target, and we were in no position to get sniffy about them....

If there's any crumb of comfort to be salvaged from the grubby kitchen floor of defeat, it's that we actually played rather well-ish for the five or so minutes that followed each kickoff. Then, we were fairly bright and sharp, something that quickly faded as the manager's words slipped from our minds and were replaced by thoughts of Christmas shopping and suchlike. So, we brought on Lee Cook at half-time in an attempt to liven it all up, and it worked. For five minutes. Nothing actually happened, of course, but it was a better class of nothing actually happening than the numbing, wretched first half.

You could say that Stoke then ruined it all by scoring. But they didn't, not really. After they'd tried to do it themselves - Noel-Williams and Eustace both striking ambitiously at the keeper - we ruined it all by letting them scoring. If you can't defend such a basic, simple situation - a ball clipped from the right wing into the penalty area, from deep, with little pace and no height - then, well, you get beaten heavily at home by a team that's supposed to be struggling. And you bloody deserve it too. While we stood around and looked blankly at the linesman, Akinbiyi hammered the ball underneath Lenny Pidgeley and headed off for the Stoke fans in the Vic Road end. We still stood around, shouting at the linesman. The blame lies rather closer to home, naturally.

Akinbiyi's second came nearly twenty minutes later. But the interval in between was distinguised only by the return of Richard Johnson to the Vic Road pitch, albeit for the wrong side. Some things just don't look right, if you know what I mean. Oh, and Scott Fitzgerald scuffed an effort at de Goey too. Which hardly promised a thrilling revival, for we were barely able to get the ball as far as the Stoke penalty area without losing it in the process, let alone muster an effective threat to the goal when we did so. Even when we did string some passes together, the result was only a pointless meandering around the pitch with no discernible objective. "Attack" implies direction.

And the third goal was all about direction, Akinbiyi roaring away into the space left by another of our hopeless moves, careering past pathetic non-challenges, and again hammering the ball underneath Lenny Pidgeley before continuing his run towards the jubilant side of the Vic Road end. Fine goal, but it would've been considerably finer if it had met some resistance along the way. Regardless, its sheer, confident purpose contrasted with absolutely everything that we did on this dismal afternoon.

Two goals down, and still no significant reaction. The introduction of Bruce Dyer did make a marginal difference, and a couple of his attempts drifted and looped just wide, closer to beating de Goey than anything else we'd managed since the fourth minute. Really, though, there was an almost total lack of anything that might interfere with Stoke's gameplan, even before we could get to putting our own plans into action. Almost nothing, from back to front. When Lenny Pidgeley pulled off a fine, flying save to deny Richard Johnson's dream, after the midfielder had broken into the penalty area with the kind of intent that ought to shame those in yellow, it was remarkable just for the fact that someone had actually offered some resistance. Even then, the rebound rattled around the six yard box for an age; even when we'd cleared, Akinbiyi was curling a hat-trick attempt wide within another minute.

Absurdly, injury time involved the kind of bad-tempered scrap that usually characterises performances of some passion and heart. Admittedly, passion and heart weren't lacking in Heidar Helguson's contribution, and it was his late tackle that initially deserved a booking. It would've fizzled out there, had Halls not arrived to confront Helguson and push him about in front of the referee, and the subsequent red card was probably justified for stupidity alone. Even then, not half as stupid as showing vacuous, lazy, pathetic disinterest for ninety minutes and then having a punch-up in the ninety-first....

When I look back at the Premiership season, I remember one particular fixture that determined our eventual fate. Having faced a series of vast, intimidating encounters with the top flight elite during September and October, we found that things were far from disastrous when more approachable fixtures came along. The first of those fixtures, at home against Middlesbrough, was where we had to push onwards and upwards, to get on with the rest of our season. We lost three-one, and deservedly so.

The parallel is obvious, albeit that we're now in December and that encounters with Forest aren't quite as vast and intimidating. You get the point, though. We've done well in recent weeks, picking up results in tough fixtures, setting things up for better times. And we've just done a bloody Middlesbrough, only more so.

Onwards and upwards. Urgently.