Football League Division Two, 14/08/04, 3.00pm
By Ian Grant
A wonderful moment on last night's "Match of the Day", in a brief interview with a Portsmouth fan
prior to the highlights of their game against Birmingham....
"Where do you think you'll finish, then?"
"I think, top four."
"That's a bit optimistic, isn't it?"
(Smile, shrug.) "I'm a fan."
Somehow, it's reassuring to find that such innocence can survive in the modern era, when supporters are
bombarded with analysis and commentary and pearls of wisdom from all kinds of angles, and when circumstances often demand that
they be rather more level-headed and sensible than those whose involvement in their clubs is more
short-term. Fairly obviously, Portsmouth aren't going to finish in the top four this season. Equally
obviously, blindly pretending that they might, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, is a very big
part of the fun. Or was, before we knew far too much about transfer budgets, wage levels, contract
negotiations, tribunals, share issues, bridging loans, freeholds, and so forth.
Innocence. It's not a word that'll be used often in describing Steve Cotterill's new-ish look Burnley
side, which is essentially a Greece 2004 tribute band. Remember the hits? All your favourites, present
and correct - ten men behind the ball, defence deep in its own half, terrifyingly efficient organisation,
very occasional counter-attacks. The problem, of course, is that this isn't the European Championships,
Burnley aren't likeable underdogs and, for the benefit of those with poor eyesight, we ain't France or Portugal. The
annoyance is that we fell for it anyway.
Interestingly, there's something of a difference of opinion at Vicarage Road right now. Roles reversed,
unusually. Here, the expectations of the management team appear to be rather higher than those of many
in the stands...which means me, although I know that I'm not alone in thinking that the lack of depth
within the squad will cause us to struggle over the course of a nine month campaign. Judging by the
reaction to this defeat, however, there's a different agenda in the dressing room...which is very welcome
indeed, particularly for those who hate to hear excuses about under-performance. I might think
that this is all about survival, but that's not a word that's passed Ray Lewington's lips much in recent
For all the understandable frustration surrounding the result, I'm tempted to suggest that it's just one
of those things. Not a vintage performance, certainly, but there will always be times when a team that's
set out to smother and suffocate succeeds, and when their opponents look increasingly clueless and unimaginative
as a consequence. Again, I might think that, but Ray Lewington's barely disguised anger in his
post-match comments points at something else - that the manager believes that we have the means to meet
this particular challenge, and that this season ought to be different from those that have preceded it as
a consequence. While we probably share a long-term optimism, there's a very bullish confidence about this
season that I don't yet feel, for whatever reason. We'll see.
Regardless, we can all agree that we'd prefer to have as few of these things as possible. It's not
big, clever, fun, funny, witty, new, bright, smart, neat, cute, worthy, useful, valuable, pretty, nice,
cool, funky, nifty, hard, or anything else. It's just annoying, especially after such a glorious show-off
session as Monday night. We can all, apart from the few hundred hardy souls who brave Turf Moor in April, be
grateful that we've seen the last of Burnley and their profoundly tedious tactics for another year...but
there'll be others, especially if they had scouts at yesterday's game. There'll be others, and it'd be
thoroughly splendid if we were able to deal with them more effectively than we did here....
Because after a vaguely promising opening half hour, in which it rapidly became clear that this would be about
who, if anyone, scored the opening goal, we gradually ran out of steam. Even more than the heat, Burnley
sapped our strength and created a game that was drained of life, interest and, for us, reward. For a while,
we kept up the tempo, and occasionally suggested that we might have enough nous to solve the puzzle - Bruce
Dyer's cross was intercepted before it could reach Danny Webber's head after fifteen minutes, then Brynjar
Gunnarsson's drive was blocked. But the quicksand dragged us down, and it seemed that no Watford player
could receive the ball in the opposition half without immediately being surrounded by three claret shirts...
which meant that there must have been space somewhere else, in theory. Damned if we could find it,
And there was a crucial problem too. In these matches, you have to accept that a point is better than
nothing, that it'll do if you can't manage to break your opponents down over ninety minutes, that a clean
sheet is the starting point. To do that, though, you need to be secure at the back. And we weren't, at
any point. To a great extent, that's the first significant consequence of the shallow squad, for the back
four has already required radical surgery within the opening week...and playing James Chambers alongside
Neil Cox, with Jermaine Darlington making his debut at right back, could never really create the tight,
organised unit that the occasion required. It takes time, that.
As a result, for all their numbing lack of ambition, Burnley created better chances throughout. From the
eighteenth minute, when Blake escaped Neil Cox to meet Moore's cross from the right, and should've done much
better than to glance a header wide from six yards. He should've buried it, and the same applies to
Sinclair's free and wide header from a corner nearer to the interval. Really, those were the two key
moments of a grey, drab half, and they were the kind of openings that we just couldn't create at the other
end. Only one team had possession, only one team looked as if it was going to score...and they weren't the
Indeed, we managed only one shot that was worthy of the name, a chest trap and half-volley on the turn from
Bruce Dyer that bounced wide on twenty-five minutes. Otherwise, the crisp, speedy football of Monday night
was lost amid a forest of bodies, and Burnley negated the pace of our strikers by defending nearer to their
own goal. A bit of width would've helped, except that Paul Devlin seemed to be in one of his always-cutting-inside
moods, which meant that it might've made more sense if he'd have switched flanks with Neal Ardley. There
weren't many crosses, and even fewer decent ones.
By half-time - about fifteen minutes earlier, in fact - we'd lost our way entirely. But we hadn't conceded,
which gave rise to some hope that we might still work out of a way of weedling through the Burnley defence,
and, in the process, allow me to write one of those "the kind of game that we'd have lost last season" reports
that we all love so much. For a short while, that optimism seemed to be justified too, as we emerged from the
dressing room with fresher, clearer minds, and Coyne needed to scramble down to his left to save a well-executed
free kick that finished with a low drive from Paul Mayo. Almost instantly, Brynjar Gunnarsson headed over
from a corner, and we'd exceeded the first half tally of goal attempts within five minutes.
We didn't add to that tally for another twenty-five minutes, though. By then, Burnley, with the
generously-received Micah Hyde increasingly influential, were doing their thing again, stifling us completely
and creating inviting opportunities on the rare occasions that they broke forward. Giving them due credit,
they knew what they were doing, they did it, and it worked...and no amount of griping from me will change
the destination of the points. It's a team that's built upon a very solid, experienced foundation, and the
negative, spoiling tactics mean that Cotterill's much-publicised selection problems aren't so significant.
That said, only half of the games are played away from home....
After Richard Lee had collected a tame drive from Hyde, they began to explore the holes in our rearguard
again. Hyde's run and simple pass, a quick touch from Blake, and Chaplow was released into the left of
the penalty area, steering a wasteful finish wide of the target as the keeper advanced. Like I say, we just
needed to remain secure, for nil-nil wouldn't have been a disaster...and besides, we were just starting to look
through a very attack-minded substitutes' bench for fresh options. Couldn't do it, though. It was Neil
Cox's misjudgement, hesitating to let Blake break through towards goal, and while Richard Lee saved superbly
from his dipping half-volley, he could only palm the ball upwards and watch as it dropped onto Moore's head.
Empty net, six yards, one-nil. Game over, pretty much.
Because if it was difficult before, it was bloody impossible now. That isn't to say that we didn't make it
even more impossible, by lofting too many balls towards Heidar Helguson's head, by losing Danny Webber in a
hole (rather than the hole), by failing to pass and move as intelligently as we did on Monday night,
by making poor decisions when we did finally get into the penalty area. We would've struggled anyway, though. You just can't concede first against yer Burnleys, simple
There were moments in which you could see the faint ghost of an equaliser out of the corner of your
eye - Hameur Bouazza, raw and exciting but not always clear-headed, shot wide after a neat exchange with
Ashley Young; Paul Mayo headed narrowly over from a Gunnarsson cross; Heidar Helguson controlled a cross,
took aim and then sliced over from a tight angle. But, even though we managed to prevent desperation from
overwhelming us and tried to construct meaningful moves under enormous pressure, it never seemed particularly
likely that we'd pull it back.
On the contrary, in fact, for Burnley were still enjoying the open spaces in our half - spaces that they were creating
by stubbornly keeping so many bodies on the safe side of the halfway line - and were still looking capable
of adding a decisive, meaningless second. Richard Lee denied Blake with a spectacular, flying save after the
striker had bounded onto a pass from the left, broken through and headed goalwards when the ball reared up. Even
in injury time, Lee was in action again, as Blake careered around a paceless Neil Cox and let fly at the near
post. For a team with such limited ambition, they couldn't half have scored a lot of goals....
And for a team with so much possession, we couldn't really point to any occasions when we should've
scored ourselves. Which is deeply frustrating, having momentarily looked so fiery and dangerous and
thrilling just a few days ago.
Not fatal, by any means. But an opportunity missed, or an opportunity denied. Whichever, a few problems to be
addressed, yet again.