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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 28/12/04, 3.00pm
Cardiff City
The big circle
By Ian Grant

It only takes a second to score a goal. True, apparently. It takes an absolutely enormous number of seconds not to score a goal. Also true, from immediate personal experience.

There's that big circle thing again. "Watford O," it says, as if about to launch into some kind of soliloquy in tribute to our lovely team. Or perhaps it says "Watford Oh", a sighing lament to broken-hearted disappointment. It's there again, anyway. I do wish that it'd sod right off.

We return, then, to very familiar themes. Of all the things that are currently terrifying to behold, the chronic lack of fire-power is surely the most terrifying; we always knew that this squad had some threadbare patches, but it's still frightening to see the floorboards poking through and to snag your feet on splinters. Without pace in the forward line and, crucially, without the supplier of a very great number of our goals, it is undeniable that we look ponderous and cumbersome in attack...and, sadly, there is no obvious solution to that lack of inspiration, apart from spending funds that we simply don't have.

We've made ourselves into an impressively hard-working side this season...which is fortunate because it looks as if we're going to have to work damn hard for our goals from here on. Forget Fulham and Liverpool, this is not an attacking line-up that's capable of frightening a quite spectacularly dire Cardiff side, and it increasingly feels as if the recent cup victories might've been more than symbolic peaks. There's still some cause for hope - much more cause for hope than after that hapless defeat at Reading, for we were fighting and battling and scrapping here, even if so much else was lacking - but it's hope that's required, hope that's much more than a luxury.

Hope that's still no substitute for a bloody win, of course. But without funds and without a sudden return to form from currently injured strikers (because the present dependence on Danny Webber's return is desperate, if understandable), there's only one way to turn it around. As last season, it's up to the senior professionals to take full and proper responsibility...and in that respect, this was an infinite improvement, for there were several performances of stature, even if quality and composure was largely absent.

True, the defence hardly received a severe test, but it was nonetheless in an assertive mood, and some of Neil Cox's raking passes from deep promised to open up some space and create fresh options. And some of them just whistled powerfully into the stands. Meanwhile, Gavin Mahon spent ninety minutes untidily refusing to allow the tempo of the side to drop, and Paul Devlin, despite struggling for much of the match as a partner for Heidar Helguson, didn't allow his very welcome aggressive intent to spill over into frustrated petulance. None of these, clearly, were vintage displays and they certainly weren't replicated by all; they were, however, pleasing signs that the fire still burns, somewhere in the heart of this struggling side.

If we were being generous, we'd skip the first half entirely. We're not, but we'll attempt to rush through it as quickly as possible. Really, I struggle to recall such a descent into utter, shambolic farce amid a professional football match; by the end, some of the chaotic, error-strewn play was so literally laughable that it became impossible to maintain a sense of appropriate outrage. At one point, Jermaine Darlington's attempt at a throw along the left touchline slipped from his hands and looped straight up in the air towards the nearest Cardiff player; he mis-timed the header so completely that the ball was merely returned to Darlington, who sliced it unceremoniously into the Upper Rous. More than thirteen thousand people paid to see this happen. And I'm bringing it to a few more who might've missed it.

Wiping away the tears of laughter, the two teams were revealed before us. Bereft of confidence, woefully short on inspiration, neither seemed to be terribly interested in doing anything more than making the ball go away. Truly, you could get a video of this, unravel it, chop it up into minute pieces, and randomly stick it back together...and it wouldn't look any less coherent, any less like a piece of misconceived performance art or an extravagant practical joke. A ping-pong ball in a tumble dryer. A marble in a blender. Many things, possibly...but not football. Not even slightly.

As if to demonstrate, the referee dropped the ball after a stoppage, and both players simply looked at it blankly for a second or two, before one of them got rid of it again. Later, the same ritual would be performed, and Paul Devlin would halt proceedings and ask the official to inspect this dubious, alien object, before being assured that it'd be all right if he just kicked it somewhere else. The highlight of the half was a tackle - from Gavin Mahon, motoring majestically back to spare us the consequences of a dreadful short corner routine - and that says everything.

We created a chance, almost: Paul Devlin's cross from the right reached Johnnie Jackson at the far post, who cleared the ball to safety behind the goal to avoid further football. That was it, pretty much, and Cardiff were, impossibly, even worse, just a wild free kick from Inamoto and an even wilder half-volley from McAnuff, both in the last couple of minutes. Robert Page came on, rightly applauded. The bloke two rows in front, who has gathered something of a cult following for reacting to absolutely everything with one of two (go on, guess) disdainful hand gestures, appears to have found a new friend...which means that opponents' off-target shots will henceforth be greeted in stereo. He did, however, join in with the applause of our former captain, which is an unprecedented compliment.

It ended. People booed. No sense of humour, clearly.

It got better...which was a relief, because even the best jokes tire with repetition. We had to wait for a little while, and Brynjar Gunnarsson's uncharacteristic dalliance in midfield - waiting for the ball to arrive while thinking about what to do with it, to the extent that it just bounced past him to someone else - didn't exactly bode well. But then Jermaine Darlington, at last, was running at an opponent, beating him, and being brought down on the edge of the area...and, although Warner pushed Paul Devlin's free kick over with relative ease, we'd managed some proper football, something that the rest of the world might find vaguely familiar.

If that didn't quite become the pattern - we were still nervous and tentative, and the crowd's frayed tempers hardly helped - there was at least a very evident improvement, and a slightly nagging feeling that we might be capable of winning it. We were persistent - discouraged and forlorn with each failure, and then back soon enough to try again - and it wasn't good enough, and it desperately lacked that extra touch of quality, but it wasn't entirely hopeless either.

There were sustained appeals for handball as McAnuff cleared a quickly-taken corner, and the undisguised outrage of various Watford players convinces me in the absence of evidence from my own eyes. Amid the outrage, though, we created our first real opening, Heidar Helguson heading wastefully over from Lloyd Doyley's fine centre. In the later stages, Helguson was to misplace headers similarly from a couple of Devlin crosses, proof that we were at last getting into decent attacking positions, even if the final ball and the finishing touch remained extremely elusive.

Still, we were asserting our right to deserve something from the game, even if we were yet to claim that something...and Cardiff mustered little in reply, although a bouncing free kick from Gabbidon from twenty-five yards skidded narrowly past the post and Thorne might've done better than to fire at Paul Jones' near post from the left of the penalty area. It wasn't difficult, in all honesty, to see how we could've beaten them by three goals earlier in the season.

The problem is that it's much more difficult to see how we can return to that level of performance. And thus, either by popular demand or managerial desperation, we had the return of Anthony McNamee after several months in the reserves. Instantly, a rush of excitement through the crowd, that whirly-leg step-over, that trademark skidding, bouncing cross into the danger area. You can already guess that we didn't get the ball to him nearly often enough, nor did our strikers manage to anticipate his delivery, but he showed enough to suggest that he understands that fame costs and here's where he starts paying. In sweat, natch. And, like, tracking back and tucking in and stuff.

And, in the absence of you-know-who, he was also responsible for the set piece that damn nearly won it for us, a sweeping free kick from the right that found James Chambers lurking at the far post and getting an almost perfect glancing touch. Almost perfect. Perfect, obviously, would've resulted in the ball flicking the inside of the post on its way into the net, rather than the outside on its way behind. It didn't look like our day, at that point...but you have to say that we tried commendably hard to ignore that, and we nearly got our reward when Warner needlessly dropped a cross into the crowd in the six yard box. It ran loose, until Sean Dyche applied the most Dyche-ish of finishing touches, whacking the ball seventeen thousand yards over the bar and far, far into the darkening sky. Another day, Dychey. Another day.

There will be other days too. There's one almost immediately, and another straight after that. Here, it continued to slip away from us, further decline and depression...but there was some spirit, some fight, some resistance, and all is not yet lost. Every victorious team is unbeatable, every beaten team is beyond salvation, and yet it only takes a second to score a goal. And so on, and so forth.

Happy New Year.