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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 27/03/04, 3.00pm
Wigan Athletic
Pressing matters
By Ian Grant

Seven games, then. Come on.

Yeah, I know. BSaD match report...introductory waffle, irrelevant metaphor, general nonsense. Stuff. Another time, though. Or you can make it up yourself, if you prefer.

Because there are much more pressing matters right now, and a few that are absolutely bloody unavoidable. Like the fact that there are seven games left. And that we're perched very marginally above the relegation zone. And that the drop to Division Two would be a complete disaster for a club in our financial situation, potentially much more of a complete disaster than for those who've gone before us. And besides, I don't want to have to play those Franchise bastards again next season.

As I say, much more pressing. Much more pressing than my introduction - which would've been something to do with general disgust at belonging to the generation that has wandered down the cultural cul-de-sac belonging to Dido, Katie Melua, Norah flamin' Jones and that bloke whose name I don't want to remember, assuming that there had been a way to tie that in with Watford v Wigan, and, as you'll have noticed, there's always a will and there's nearly always a way. Much more pressing than who plays where and in what formation, or your love/hate obsession with Lee Cook/Neal Ardley, or your desire to see the manager replaced by someone who we can't possibly afford. None of that debate - rather elegantly summarised by Ray Lewington's programme notes as the pressure to pick "all the fans' favourites in a 4-4-2" - is relevant any more. It just doesn't matter.

That's for the summer. Before then, seven games. On this rather stirring evidence, they're not games that we need to fear at all, even if the league table will look more terrifying still in a week's time. But neither are they games that we can coast through, as players, managers or fans. They're not games to be wasted with petty argument, idle frustration, whatever. We got what we wanted here, with a performance that was more than up to the standards that we'd expect. And now we have to back it up.

Standards. That's what this was all about, really. For all that the team selection did indeed include most of the fans' favourites in a 4-4-2, that wasn't the difference between this week and last week. It helped, but that's all. Here, individuals matched up to the standards that we demand of them, and that they ought to demand of themselves. It was an afternoon of taking responsibility, of playing with resolve and determination, of many of the things that the season has so lacked. And all of this against opponents who did absolutely nothing to help us along on our way.

If we'd played in such a manner even slightly more often, we probably wouldn't be in this mess. But - for as long as we have opportunities to put that right, and repeats of this battling, dogged bravery against weaker teams would surely do just that - the responsibility for that is not something to be debated now. Save it for a sunny day. Right now, while you can still affect the outcome, get on your feet and urge them on. Whatever you might think of them, the fate of your football club is in their hands, and folding your arms in disgust or voicing your protest in foamy-mouthed abuse isn't going to achieve anything at all. It won't even make you feel better, not in the end.

Get on your feet, because this was exactly what you've demanded all along. A mighty, gutsy, passionate performance against a team that, unlike some others, looked every bit as powerful, strong and quick as its league position would suggest. And a performance comparatively free of cock-ups too, mercifully. Here, we saw players attempting to take control, to seize the initiative...and I include everyone in that, from the often hapless Micah Hyde, who kept seeking the ball (and, yes, kept losing it), to Marcus Gayle, whose determination to stop what initially appeared to be unstoppable characterised the afternoon. A team performance, contributed to by all in different ways. It's what you wanted. It's what we need, desperately and urgently.

All the more impressive, I think, because we were so clearly in awful trouble for the first twenty minutes or so. There's no secret about Wigan, no cunning plan...but they're big, they're physical, and they're quick, none of which are challenges that we've particularly relished in recent years. For a while, we were struggling dreadfully, only just holding things together in open play and then, when we cleared to the safety of the stands, finding ourselves utterly dwarfed at set pieces. Marcus Gayle looked like a player who'd only had sixty minutes of reserve action to gain the bare minimum of fitness; Sean Dyche looked like a player who'd much prefer not to be marking Jason Roberts. All of it looked ominous.

They took advantage quickly too. Although the referee's whistle - heard far too often in general, but very welcome on a couple of occasions - ruled out Alec Chamberlain's scrambling save from Bullard's in-swinging cross, it couldn't disguise the frantic chaos in front of the keeper. Even as De Vos rose to meet a corner four minutes later, there was precious little wrong with the marking - Marcus Gayle was right there, just two feet underneath - and it still took a touch from Jason Roberts at the last moment to beat Alec Chamberlain. But that was the concern. We weren't being slack, making daft mistakes. We just couldn't cope. We just didn't seem equipped to cope.

But we no longer have the luxury of waiting for easier fixtures to come along. It has to happen now, regardless of who we're playing. While we needed some luck here - the referee's whistle again, after De Vos had lost Marcus Gayle in a crowd at a free kick and levered Heidar Helguson out of the way to volley in from an angle - we needed considerably more than just that. We needed the kind of steel and grit that enabled Sean Dyche and Marcus Gayle to restrict Roberts and Ellington to just one meaningful shot on goal - a fierce effort from the former that was blocked well by Alec Chamberlain at his near post - without ever having those quick, potent strikers under any kind of control. We needed real spirit and resolve, from back to front. We needed not to buckle, for once.

The goal summed it up, in many ways. A corner, cleared and returned, and Micah Hyde cutting across the edge of the box to try a speculative shot. The defensive block sent it spiralling up into the air, of interest only to Filan and the on-rushing Heidar Helguson. One of them kept his eye on the ball as it dropped and ignored the imminent collision; one of them wavered just a little. One of them won it cleanly, sent the ball flying into the net via the underside of the bar, and left the keeper splattered on the deck; the other was on the receiving end, in every respect. That's the stuff, really. An unpretty goal in an unpretty football match, but typical of the afternoon's very considerable efforts.

Apart from a wild slice into the Vic Road end from Scott Fitzgerald, it was our only first half goal attempt. But we were doing well just to stay involved in an increasingly physical contest, against a side far more accustomed to such things. As the game progressed, we seemed to grow in stature, initially appealing to the referee for each possible offence but eventually learning to fight our own battles...and the contributions of Lee Cook and Scott Fitzgerald, neither particularly suited to this kind of battle but both working damn hard to ensure that it didn't matter, again typified the overall performance. By half-time, this was a relatively even match, although you wouldn't have wanted to say that too loudly. A fragile stalemate, but a considerable achievement.

Improbably, it got better. Fired up and full of energy, we took the initiative immediately. And we began to find weaknesses, as when Heidar Helguson barged in front of substitute Breckin to control Micah Hyde's high ball, then turned sharply to rip in a volley that dipped just over the target. A header from the Icelander went tamely through to Filan shortly afterwards, and this was suddenly a tremendous surge from a team that had previously seemed capable only of surviving the ninety minutes. Again, there were moments that absolutely summed up the effort and determination, as when Gavin Mahon drove a shot at Filan's near post and then tore back sixty yards through the midfield to break up the subsequent Wigan attack. Again, it's worth pointing out that some of the quieter contributions were no less valuable.

And we damn nearly did it too. In the end, it came down to the width of a post, as Gavin Mahon thundered into a tackle to win possession for Micah Hyde, who skipped across the face of the box before whipping a low shot inches wide of the target with Filan beaten. And the width of a ball, as Sean Dyche's thumping header from a corner was ruled out by the linesman's flag, on the grounds that it had curled out of play on its way into the box. Either moment might've rewarded a thoroughly inspiring and immensely positive spell, half an hour of pure bloody-minded fight that simply must be captured, kept, re-used. Seven games, and a similar approach would surely see us through.

Crucially, there were no disasters at the other end. True, there were moments of uncertainty - Chris Baird, otherwise exemplary, sliced a clearance towards his own goal and forced Alec Chamberlain into a smart reaction; Marcus Gayle dallied on the ball and was dispossessed in the final third; Micah Hyde left his teammates stranded upfield with a poor pass and was grateful that Gavin Mahon's stumbling challenge was enough to bring Ellington's subsequent break to an end. Really, though, this was so much better. On the rare occasions when we did give something to Wigan, it was jealously snatched away before they'd been able to explore the opportunity, and the strikeforce that had so threatened us in the first half was made to look increasingly tame. To match our own first half tally, there was just one noteworthy goal attempt from the visitors in the second half...although McCulloch's late curler from twenty-five yards did also bring the best (only) save of the match from Alec Chamberlain, diving down to his left to flick out a vital palm and push the ball away from the bottom corner.

By then, our chance had gone. It went with the double substitution on seventy-three minutes...for, while Hameur Bouazza refreshed the attack by replacing an exhausted Scott Fitzgerald, all of our momentum disappeared with Gavin Mahon, withdrawn after feeling his hamstring tighten. A landmark moment in several respects, for the sustained complaint at the manager's decision from some parts of the Rookery presumably represents the conclusion of Mahon's year-long journey from villain to hero. It represents something else too, though - these, remember, are the people who'll insist that Ray Lewington can't see what everyone else in the ground can see, yet apparently can't spot an injured player or a forced substitution. These are also the people who'll question the manager's motivational skills, before conspiring to demoralise Neal Ardley so completely that he leaves the pitch without staying to applaud the supporters for the first time in his Vicarage Road career. Bravo, cretins.

Which brings us back to the start. And the concluding waffle is as pointless as the introductory nonsense, really. Seven games. One bloody great big effort. Get on your feet, get behind them, make your presence count for something positive.

Come on.