FA Cup Third Round, 08/12/05, 3.00pm*****
The ol' double act
By Ian Grant
"MATEY! MATEY-BOY! IT'S...NAH, WAIT, DON'T TELL ME...I KNOW IT...IT'S...WITFART, RIGHT? WITFART, OL' PAL! HOW YOU
"Actually, it's Wat..."
"YOU REMEMBER...FLUM, YEAH? FLUM AND WITFART, THE OL' DOUBLE ACT! TOP TWO, BATTLING IT OUT, BACK IN THE
DAY...BEFORE YOU FACKED OFF SOMEWHERE..."
"Yes, but it's Wat..."
"HOW YOU DOIN', WITFART? MATEY! AIN'T SEEN YOU FOR BLADDY YEARS! GOOD TIMES, THOUGH! GOOD TIMES! WE HAD SOME
FACKIN' GOOD TIMES, DIDN'T WE?"
"FACKIN' BLINDIN' TIMES, THEY WAS! BLINDIN'! WHATCHOO BEEN UP TO, THEN, WITFART?"
"BEEN IN THAT PREMIERSHIP, Y'KNOW! THAT PREMIERSHIP, WITH MANYOO AND THEM GOONERS AND ALL THAT! THAT
PREMIERSHIP OFF THE TELLY, INNIT! WITH THAT GARY LINEKER! YOU SEEN US ON THE TELLY, WITFART?"
"Er, yes, I..."
"ON THE TELLY ALL THE TIME, US! YOU BEEN ON THE TELLY, WITFART?"
"YOU WANNA GO ON THE TELLY! GO ON THE TELLY, WITFART! OR YOU NOT INTO THAT SORT OF THING, LIKE?"
"WHATCHOO BEEN DOIN', WITFART? BET YOU GOT SOME STORIES TO TELL, YOU OLD SCAHNDREL! GO ON, WHATCHOO BEEN
UP TO, YOU CHEEK FACKIN' MANKEY?"
It's not what you need, really. There you are, having a quiet drink and minding your own business, until a
particularly loud and obnoxious acquaintance spots you before you spot him...and within a couple of minutes,
you feel about that big. Your cosy little existence, bumbling along with a squalid defeat at
Brighton here and a slightly-less-squalid victory over Millwall here, is exposed for all of its lack of
ambition, glamour, street cred. It means nothing, and your so-called mate is going to make damn sure that
you know it....
Odd, really. Because there was little sense of renewed acquaintance with Portsmouth or Southampton, even
though we've had more recent meetings with them. Not the same, though: as with Bristol City, our encounters with Fulham were pivotal,
momentous and, for a variety of reasons, unforgettable. They meant something, then and with
hindsight. Of course, Fulham left us with the suggestion, before Russian billionaires raised the stakes, that
Al Fayed's money would buy more than a superior type of mediocrity; nevertheless, it's hard to remember to be smart
when we're asked what we've been doing since we were neck-and-neck with them at the top of the Second
Division back in 2000. In short, not as planned.
Did we really need this, then? An opportunity to have our noses rubbed in our well-documented failures and
subsequent problems. "WHATCHOO BEEN DOIN', WITFART?" Oh, y'know, this and that: pursuing delusions
of grandeur, nearly going bust, trying to avoid drifting into the Third Division, that kind of thing. Not
exactly what we suggested when we last met, when we were supposed to be rivals for the title and
for semi-permanent yo-yoing. Not exactly, nor vaguely either. Much has happened since we parted, and it's
a considerable achievement that we're still here at all; we don't need reminding that it might've turned
out very differently, though.
And yet, now that we know the result, we really did need this. An opportunity to escape from the stifling
tactics of our week-to-week opponents, pretty much all of whom have worked out that we don't much like playing
against a packed midfield and defence, and to remind ourselves that we are capable of coherent, positive
football. That we're not quite as shabby and desperate as recent performances might indicate. Of course,
top flight opponents have the power to punish errors with a ruthlessness that simply doesn't exist at our
level, yet they also play with a certain disrespect, offering a little more space and time to
think and feel. No Premiership side is going to put two markers onto Paul Devlin, nor stick a central
defender in front of the back four. Mercifully.
We shouldn't get too carried away, mind. Fulham hit the post and bar three times, after all, and a harsher
adjudication from the woodwork would've done our confidence no favours at all. That's not a criticism,
particularly: in the main, we defended remarkably well, with Jay Demerit's immensely strong, decisive performance grabbing
attention ahead of a quieter, but much more assured and focused, ninety minutes from Neil Cox; we were a little
more vulnerable on the flanks, with Jermaine Darlington struggling to contain the lively pace of Collins John.
You don't earn these results without some assistance from fortune; even in defeat, we would still have played well, so
much better than in recent fixtures, without reward or recognition. A bit of luck, deserved and gratefully
For the change in formation - to 4-5-1, with Heidar Helguson as a lone striker, Hameur Bouazza on the left
and Neal Ardley given comparatively free rein - is not just an adjustment for our opponents' benefit. We need
to try things now, after too much of a drift towards the bottom three; something has to change, if only to
present other teams with something other than a crossword that's already been filled in. To that end, the
return of Ardley is clearly essential: his set pieces provide a handy store of "Get out of jail free" cards,
obviously, but his vision and realisation within open play is no less valuable, and we were reminded of what
we might lose by the flecks of genuine class that lightly speckled the match until his departure. For once,
in contrast to the use of Paul Devlin as a striker, some of our experiments yielded encouraging
results and suggestions that this hard-working side might yet re-invent itself as something more.
Naturally, I would be writing none of this if the pattern of the early stages had been continued. Then, both
sides played tidy, neat football, in spite of the gusting wind that had earlier grabbed and swept the streamers
and confetti from our tenth birthday party poppers. Both sides played good football, but only one had a cutting
edge...and only five minutes had gone when John took advantage of Jermaine Darlington's slip to dart into the
penalty area and drive an angled finish against the inside of the far post. A couple of inches away from
And about ten minutes away too. In that time, we started to assert ourselves, to remind the watching thousands
that this was a proper cup tie rather than a warm-up for Tuesday night. Van der Sar saved smartly from Paul
Devlin - a belligerent presence, whatever else - at his near post, and was grateful when Heidar Helguson's
agile thigh trap, turn, and bouncing shot missed the target by a couple of feet. Better, and all undone when
Pembridge's free kick found the monstrous Knight rising above a crowd to nod in from six yards; a simple
set piece goal that instantly brought chill and hush to the Rookery, with the realisation that this might be
a long, difficult afternoon.
Fortunately, the players weren't so easily dissuaded, although we took a few moments to compose ourselves
and were grateful to Alec Chamberlain for an alert stop to John's firm drive from the edge of the box. When we
found our feet again, though, the response was more than mere show, and we were to begin producing our most
incisive football for some time. Enjoying the breathing space, we found width and ways of exploiting it: Hameur
Bouazza's fine through-ball, Heidar Helguson's run into the left of the area, and the instigator of the move
making only a glancing contact to the resulting cross when well-placed; Neal Ardley's persistence rescuing
a long ball from Jay Demerit, Helguson's touch back, Paul Devlin's blast through the six yard box. Really
good football, lively and creative, free from current cares and woes.
Thus, the pattern was set. Not a match that ever quite got beyond a vigorous simmer, and one that
lacked a truly memorable climax, but enthralling and uplifting nevertheless. Too many matches at Vicarage
Road have seen a side that's not bothered about scoring thwarting a side that doesn't look like scoring, but
there were goals here, at either end. After thirty-six minutes, Neil Cox's miscue allowed John to beat
Jermaine Darlington with an acute turn, before blazing over the bar from ten yards when a second goal
appeared certain. That kind of game, really: not a frantic, free-scoring scramble, but countless possibilities.
In truth, you'd have settled for a single goal deficit at half-time. Instead, we used one of those cards and
got out of jail free. A Neal Ardley corner - it seems a dreadfully long time since we were notable for our
continual failure to score from set pieces - picking out Jay Demerit's near post run, and his stooping header
hacked away from the line by a defender and falling for Hameur Bouazza, untidily fouled before he could stick
the chance away. It fell, therefore, to Heidar Helguson instead, from the penalty spot after he'd claimed
the opportunity from Neil Cox; for a pleasant change, the kick was convincing and decisive, popped into the
corner after a lengthy shuffle to force Van der Sar into making his move. Level before half-time, and it
might've been more if D'Urso had agreed with a sustained penalty shout for an immediate foul on Paul Devlin...who
is not, it has to be said, the most reliable complainant.
The second half was equally enjoyable, a fascinating contest in and around the midfield that was peppered with lively
incident and evaded prediction until the final minute. It could've gone either way, although Fulham
can rightly claim that their nearly dids were rather closer than our really should'ves; we've seen
far too many draws at Vicarage Road since August, but there can be little to moan about on this occasion.
We started wobbling again, just a bit. Within five minutes, Cole was tearing through a static defence
and into the area, smashing a finish against the foot of the post with Alec Chamberlain only a minor
obstacle. Then Malbranque's whipped and dipping shot from twenty-five yards missed the target by just a
little, and John took advantage of a moment of carelessness from Neal Ardley to break into the area and
fire at the near post, and Pembridge whacked in a swerving drive that just swerved too much. In general, we
were still competitive and eager, yet the half-chances were too numerous, and we were trusting too much to luck;
sooner or later, a Premiership side sticks one of those in the top corner and you spend the journey home
contemplating the gap in class.
Or, alternatively, you take preventative action. Get a little tighter, a little closer, and work damn hard
to eliminate those small, significant mistakes. Here, in contrast to our last match, we had leadership,
from Gavin Mahon in midfield and, tellingly, from Neil Cox in defence; it was supported from the bench, by a
series of positive substitutions that ensured that we took and held the initiative. The result was that the
balance of power began to shift, slowly but definitely, in our favour. You began to sense that there might
be a dramatic conclusion, and Anfield was forgotten for the first time.
It didn't quite happen, obviously. There's rarely been a want of trying his season, but there was no want
of ideas on this occasion either, and we looked particularly useful when the ball found its way to the wings
and became the subject of interchanges between the various wide players. On sixty-five, a perceptive touch
from Neal Ardley to release James Chambers towards the corner flag...and as his marker lost his bearings, you
could see that the cross was going to reach Heidar Helguson, yet you couldn't have expected that he'd be
quite so wasteful with his finish, nodding well over the bar with time to pick his spot. And then there was a
quick free kick from Paul Devlin to find Danny Webber, the low cross reaching Hameur Bouazza at the far post,
whose first touch was just sufficiently scruffy to allow a defender to block his second.
We looked a very different side, infinitely brighter and sharper. Some lovely football - simple passing
across the face of the penalty area from Heidar Helguson to Danny Webber to Paul Devlin - led to some much
less lovely defending, with Van der Sar flapping and defenders panicking, until the keeper made a fine stop
with his right boot to keep out Gavin Mahon's turn and shot. Really fine stuff, but nothing as fine as
Anthony McNamee's control of a hanging pass with a defender at his back, followed by a wonderful cross without
a moment's hesitation; the undisputed highlight of the match, deserving more than a glance across goal from
Heidar Helguson's forehead. A moment of sublime inspiration, but not entirely alone.
Mind you, we still needed our luck to stick around. After eighty-one minutes, and some time after Fulham
had last suggested that they might pierce our rearguard, Cole did well to win a far post header and knock down
for the arriving Malbranque. Not an easy chance as the ball reared up, yet the acrobatic half-volley rose
to smack against the face of the crossbar and provide us with the afternoon's third reprieve. Tellingly,
we were positive and upbeat enough to take advantage of such good fortune, whereas weaker performances have tended
just to regard these moments as premonitions. We took control of our football. For that, we deserved a draw, even if football,
especially against top flight opponents, is rarely so generous.
Whatever, it erases the memory of that shocking second half against Brighton and leaves us to head up to
Anfield in buoyant mood. A lovely, open cup tie, we blew away some cobwebs here, and it's to be hoped that the
fresh air lifts our league form too. We looked like a proper football team, again. A relief, certainly;
a pleasure, too.
"WHATCHOO BEEN DOIN', WITFART? EH? EH?"
"Oh, piss off."