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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 19/03/05, 3.00pm
Preston North End
This is not happening
By Ian Grant

There's a point, at about quarter to five on an otherwise sunny and bright and cheerful Saturday afternoon, when this becomes almost physically unbearable. While the rest of the country celebrates the arrival of spring, the effort required to maintain the connection between backside and plastic is virtually impossible, and the commitment to doing so utterly inexplicable. Only sheer paralysis causes eyes to remain focused on the pitch, rather than returning to concrete and feet, or being closed in torment or buried behind palms of hands.

This is not happening.

Except, of course, it is happening. We cannot stop it from happening, eyelids pinned back and staring in horror at unfolding disaster. We just stare, if we still care enough to see it through to the bitter end. Or we fade away, back to the warmth and comfort of everyday life, and leave our ghosts to watch what remains of a football team. Whatever, it happens the powerless and the meek and the careless and the cowardly and the lost and the young and the hopeless, and to this team that has unexpectedly and suddenly drifted so far from land than it cannot do anything but watch the waves as they take it still further away.

There's nothing here. Only resignation. Around us, teams are struggling for survival, united around a common cause and prepared to postpone the post-mortem until that cause is met. And Watford? No, just drifting and fading. A massive fixture, this, in the context of a season that promised to exceed expectations and yet has lurched towards catastrophe at the very last moment. A massive, vital fixture...and it saw a team that merely waited to be put out of its misery, in front of a crowd that waited, similarly, for the inevitable to happen and then walked out with heads bowed when it did. That's Watford, right now. Staring over the precipice, too tired and weary to keep its balance.

This is happening.

This will happen.

Others are fighting for their lives. We're writing lengthy, tedious, self-obsessed suicide notes. It doesn't achieve anything, not even to make us feel better. It passes the time, nothing else...and, on this evidence, we're no longer capable of anything more. As ever - and now more than usual - one seeks hints of optimism, possibilities, chances, things to cling to. One seeks, and finds none. None at all. There was nothing in this performance that suggested where salvation might come from, nor is there anything in the squad that points the way to an alternative approach. Anthony McNamee just got his legs in a tangle. That's not going to save us.

If we looked capable of scoring goals on a vaguely regular basis, then we could be confident of picking up a result or two somewhere between now and May; if we looked capable of preventing goals even for ten or fifteen minutes, then there'd be something to build upon. We don't. As a team, we've simply gone. Nothing there any longer, just a set of players that doesn't know what to do with itself except to hope that there's a cup of consolatory tea and a warm bath waiting in the dressing room when the final whistle blows. The will and the intent remains, I'm sure, but the strength and concentration required to put any of that into practice is utterly failing us.

On Tuesday, we were bright and positive for forty-five minutes, and our hapless defending might've undermined it all at any moment. As it happened, fate waited until after the break. Signs of life, swiftly extinguished. Here, we were awkward and listless for forty-five minutes, and our hapless defending might've given the scoreline a more realistic appearance at any moment. Again, fate waited. Particularly cruel on this afternoon, for it chose the very moment when we were showing some promise, some fresh vigour...but a defence is for ninety minutes, not just for special occasions. Playing like this, you don't win football matches.

This is happening.

This must not happen.

More than anything, though, it's about urgency...and not just on the pitch, but elsewhere too. It's about facing the reality, no matter how hideous. There's too much argument about the nature of the situation that we find ourselves in, too much waffle that seems to assume that relegation is something that can be discussed rather than confronted head-on; too much silence, too much muttering, too little positive action. At this rate, Watford Football Club will slip into the Third Division - because that's what it is - while still debating whether the season has been a broadly positive or negative experience. So many people have battled so bloody hard to get this far...and now we don't seem to understand fully what relegation would mean any more, as if the financial problems will disappear simply because we're a bit bored of hearing about them.

And that's the point, as I sit here with the sun shining outside and, for the second time in two days, an acute sense of wanting to be somewhere else. I can write about the game, of course. I have notes: not many, 'cause it wasn't a game that exactly fizzed with excitement, but enough to provide source material for the usual nonsense. You can read it all, on Sunday evening, Monday morning or whenever you usually plough through it all. And then you can forget about it, until you momentarily wonder whether to go to Burnley on the 2nd, dismiss the idea as utter lunacy and listen to our inevitable defeat on Three Counties.

What would that achieve, though? Nothing. A nothing as big and fat and round as our first half performance, which took forty-three minutes to produce anything that could really be considered to be a chance as Heidar Helguson volleyed over from Johnnie Jackson's cross. As at QPR, it was only a half-chance, but its importance was made completely disproportionate by its painfully laboured and lengthy conception. There weren't any others, and Day only needed his gloves for appearances. See, we can discuss all of that, if you wish, but it gets us no further forward, no nearer salvation. It just keeps the wheel turning, the cycle of previews and matches and reports that seems endless...until it ends in May, potentially with the dawning of the unthinkable.

There's nothing to be gained by pretending that things are all right, just as there's no profit in throwing tantrums or sulks. I could join everyone else in launching a volley of stinging criticism at the team in general, or at its most disappointing non-performers, and we'd probably all feel better for a bit of a rant. Except that feeling better is a worthless achievement, if nothing more fundamental changes. It's not about feeling better. It's about not feeling better. It's about realising just how pivotal the next few weeks could be. It's about surviving.

Right now, we can't even survive forty-five minutes. The first half clean sheet is draped cosmetically over the flea-ridden sofa of reality: Preston might've been three or four ahead by the break, failing to take advantage of a variety of situations that were caused by a variety of defensive mishaps. Lucketti wasted a free header at a corner; Cresswell was awake while everyone else slept at a free kick, and contrived to smack a shot against the bar from barely six yards; Lewis smashed a volley across the face of goal just seconds after that Helguson chance had temporarily lifted our spirits. As ever, we conceded clear, open, inviting chances at an average, if not entirely punctual, rate of one every fifteen minutes. That's no future for a football team.

But that is the future, and it cannot be ignored. Don't just read the match report, shrug your shoulders, walk away. This is Watford. Your Watford, still. It matters, otherwise you wouldn't be bothering to read this nonsense. Otherwise you wouldn't have felt that kick in the gut when, after a few minutes of genuinely positive and upbeat football at the start of the second half, we were undone by Neal Ardley's failure to extend Lloyd Doyley's enthusiastic forward break and Nugent had acres to wallop a half-volley past Richard Lee. Nor would you have buried your head in your hands when we neglected to pick up McKenna on the edge of the box at a free kick, allowing him to pick out the bottom corner before anyone had realised what was happening. That hurt. It hurt 'cause you care.

So, come on. If there's one reason to be optimistic - look, I'm trying here, I'm really bloody trying - it's that there are two weeks until the next fixture. That's not a solution, I know. I don't have a solution, and you don't either. But we do have two long, empty weeks, to take a deep breath and then attack what remains of the season. For the team to get out onto the training ground and work until its socks are worn out; for the manager to recapture the faith that, while still very evident on Tuesday, seemed to have evaporated entirely by yesterday; for the higher echelons of the club to show the kind of decisive, forceful, unifying leadership that saw us through last season's trials and tribulations; for the supporters to get motivated, get active, get loud again.

Two weeks, to sort out where we're going and where we're defiantly not going. To get our heads right, our hearts beating, our club surrounded with something other than self-pity, self-indulgence and rank complacency. Two weeks, then seven more games.

This is happening.

So, f***ing come on.