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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 26/12/04, 11.00am
Perfect symmetry
By Ian Grant

Perfect symmetry. Except, of course, that football, particularly at this rather messy and complicated level, simply doesn't work like that.

Ten years ago, Neil Shipperley and Craig Ramage scored the goals as the Hornets celebrated Christmas by beating Portsmouth two-nil on the way to doing, well, nothing in particular...which was quite a welcome development at the time. It was the start of something, though, for this was the first game that I reported on when the fledgling BSaD site was born in the New Year. It was the start of something, but it most definitely wasn't the start of a marvellous run of Boxing Day results....

Since then, festive cheer has been spread throughout Hertfordshire and beyond by a sequence of results on the 26th December that (excluding today, but you can do your own maths) has seen us score just once in response to ten goals against. Because football doesn't work like that, there's a solitary win over Bristol City in 1998 - Gifton Noel-Williams by the corner flag, and all that - to confuse matters, but anyone looking for further highlights would have to make do with a couple of postponements. Or three nil-nil draws, including that one against Notts County and one at Wycombe twelve months later that has apparently (until now) been expunged from history in order to spare anyone from having to recall it.

It hasn't been a happy time, not least because it's such a significant moment in the calendar. It's the middle bit, when fates are decided...or when fates can no longer simply be ignored. You couldn't have been at, say, Craven Cottage (shudder) without realising something fundamental about our immediate future; you couldn't look away, no matter how much you wanted to. Football matches are won and lost every weekend, but there's something particularly haunting about Boxing Day, somehow.

So, really, what better way to begin BSaD's second decade than with another festive win, for old and new time's sake. Perfect symmetry. Full circle. Feng shui. Bollocks.

I have tried, because you know that we like things with a hint of rose, but it's virtually impossible to find anything positive to say about it all. Virtually impossible, from the utter, indefensible nonsense of the kickoff time onwards. If we may side-track for a short moment, nothing summarises the way that Sky has been allowed, with the tacit sponsorship of its subscribers, to turn sport into its own hapless, defenceless play-thing over the last decade better than a football match at eleven o'clock in the morning. Who gains, except Murdoch? And who's actually prepared to do something about it?

Somewhere behind one of the stands, the sun hangs around and emits pale warmth; it scatters a few patches of light on the frosty playing surface, but no tangible benefit at all. Whether on the pitch or in the stands, people stumble around, bleary-eyed and disbelieving. They should be serving breakfast in the concourse...but instead, you can get a burger, a pint of Guinness, or a quarter of a bottle of wine. A cup of tea keeps the cold outside for a few minutes, before it starts snarling and biting and burning around your ears and your fingertips and your every exposed part.

Having mumbled through the Watford line-up, sans Neal Ardley but plus the two loaned debutants, the PA announcer furiously and painfully barks out the Reading side like a headmaster addressing his disgraced flock after a seizure of crack cocaine...and you rapidly realise that this could've been played behind closed doors, for all that we're contributing to the event. We're an inconvenience and, while we're trying to adapt to this brave new world, we're merely enduring it, and we know that, deep down. And Sky merely would've turned up the crowd volume a little more if we'd done the sensible thing and stayed in bed for the morning.

Naturally, a small part of us holds out some hope that our instincts, which we've steadfastly ignored in order to get this far, might still be wrong. This small part survives until the third minute, when the free kick that results from Owusu's slow motion tumble is dumped past Paul Jones and into the back of the net by Sonko's unmarked header. And then, it's simply impossible to ignore the fact that you're sitting in the savage cold at eleven o'clock on Boxing Day morning, and that you'll continue to do so for another two hours, and that you'll then go home to write about it. That's the stark truth of the matter. And while we speculate on the earliest goal conceded by a keeper in their Watford career - probably this one, although neither Plumley nor Suckling hung around for long; Matt'd know, but he's unable to be here to tell us - that small part of us hastily grabs a few belongings and makes a dash for it. It's going to be a long afternoon. Sorry, morning.

To emphasise this, we spend the remainder of the half producing moves that seem to last for two or three minutes on end, going nowhere with quite agonising and exasperating slowness before finally succumbing to an accumulated weight of inertia. Lack of confidence first makes itself known in lack of movement, and we were a solid, immobile morass of grey awfulness here; we were knitting without a pattern, occupying time and producing more purely for the sake of more. At some points, we'd have a half-hearted shot or fling a cross into an empty penalty area because that's what you're supposed to do and some people would applaud and Reading, who were no less ordinary than back in September and would've been nagged incessantly by their fans without that early comfort, would kick it back to us and we'd go through the whole mind-numbing process again.

For once, we were harmless and pointless, a low-key distraction rather than the coherent, organised opposition of past months. If that weren't part of an emerging pattern, it'd be much easier to move on with a dismissive wave of the hand...but it is and it isn't, in that order. The cup has nothing much to do with it; this is a team that's finally being overhauled by injuries, by weight of fixtures, and by failing confidence. It's a team that needs a holiday, not four games in two days, or whatever the calendar has given us. You couldn't watch this, especially from the discomfort of your own bucket seat, and look forward to the New Year.

It wasn't all bad. Yet. Occasionally - very occasionally - we'd puncture our passing with a quick stab of attacking football that'd briefly threaten to pierce the Reading defence. When we played the ball forward speedily, or when someone showed just a touch of initiative, we were reminded that we were only recently within reach of the top six ourselves, and that they're far from invulnerable. These weren't chances, more flashes of remembered inspiration: Bruce Dyer controlled and slashed an ambitious volley wide; Paul Devlin' quick throw was hooked onwards by Heidar Helguson and Johnnie Jackson, a little brighter than most, was blocked at the far post; Bruce Dyer was neatly supplied by Helguson in injury time and the resulting cross was headed clear from, again, Jackson, taking up dangerous positions inside the penalty area.

These were good moments, instinctive moments. But they were out of keeping, sadly. Meanwhile, Reading merely retained their shape, aware that it'd take little more to preserve the lead: an effort from Little after much twisting and turning whirled narrowly wide after thirty-five minutes, yet even that appeared to be covered by Jones, whose only other alarm was in nearly being caught in possession by Owusu. The half-time whistle was a relief, the only consolation that Murdoch's vile empire will hardly prosper as a result of selling such dismal, dreary fare to half-asleep punters.

The second half presented a variation on the theme, for those still paying attention. That is, we were evidently intent on getting the ball forward rather more urgently, and thus perhaps creating something approaching a goal-scoring opportunity rather than merely racking up a vast share of possession. In a sense, this worked...and that's in the sense that we held onto the ball for a much shorter time whenever it arrived at our feet. You can guess the rest, I think.

That's slightly unfair, perhaps. After Forster's break had been halted by a quite superb saving tackle from James Chambers, Heidar Helguson's neat dummy opened everything up for Johnnie Jackson...except that the on-rushing Hahnemann swiftly closed it all down again, aided somewhat by the attacker pulling out of the potential collision. And there was further encouragement a little later, as Jackson scrapped inside the area when Helguson's attempted back-heel ran loose, and Bruce Dyer rather wastefully sliced an angled shot wide of the near post when a drive across goal might've ricocheted off friend or foe. When Helguson's attempt at recreating his fine volley against Southampton ended with the ball looping into the stand, his frustration illustrated our predicament: it was barely even a half-chance, but it seemed like we'd manage little better over the ninety minutes. This was it. In the circumstances, we could afford to waste nothing.

And the Icelander was right, too. When we created our next minor opening, the match was already beyond our reach. It has to be said that we helped ourselves little with the substitution of Bruce Dyer for Ashley Young, the latter moving to the right wing and allowing Paul Devlin to partner Helguson; as previously, it wasn't a switch that seemed to fit the pattern of the game, for we immediately lost purchase in the final third and thereby carried even less threat than before. That said, the chronic lack of effective width - I cannot recall a single instance of Helguson being supplied with a cross to attack - meant that something had to be changed. For the first time since last season, there are no longer enough suitable pegs for filling holes...and that's a situation that's unlikely to be helped by, at the least, a forthcoming suspension for Gavin Mahon and, at the most, an apparent strain that required his replacement.

Our rather sorry attempts at a revival were stumbling to a conclusion, and Reading woke up after a midday snooze. From Owusu's cross, Little's crashing volley was parried brilliantly by Paul Jones, who then needed to be alert to handle Sidwell's drive when we failed to clear effectively. Uncharacteristic haplessness from Brynjar Gunnarsson led to a mazy run from Forster, capped anticlimactically by a shot into the side netting... and then Owusu somehow sent Little's driven cross into the upper reaches of the stand from barely five yards, all alone and thoroughly embarrassed. And our concentration had apparently evaporated, replaced by windswept tundra for marauding striped shirts. Eventually, Forster ambled into one such space on the left of the penalty area, clipped in a low cross, and Sidwell finished it from no distance.

With the departure of even the most unrealistic hopes, the cold bit harder and deeper. It was difficult to see the point of putting Jay Demerit up front for the last five minutes, but, equally, it was difficult to see the point of not putting Jay Demerit up front for the last five minutes...and, as Owusu stuffed an easy header past Paul Jones on the verge of injury time, it was hard to resist the urge to seek warmth and comfort regardless of the remaining moments. We stayed, to see Dominic Blizzard smash a drive just over the bar and to try, vaguely and exhaustedly, to understand some kind of chaotic incident involving rush goalie, an empty net, and a loud penalty appeal at the other end. By then, it didn't matter. It was just cold and awful, and time to go home.

It has so often been thus: Boxing Day has been much worse, and the reports are still on the site if you want to seek proof. Nevertheless, the conclusions to be drawn from this particular horror are obvious and unavoidable, and almost unspeakable. There is, of course, nothing that's inevitable, nothing that's already written. For the first time, this particular Watford side looked like a question rather than an answer...and we can still respond in the affirmative, with conviction and resonance. But we can't afford to mumble and mutter, to be indecisive and tentative and shy, for the rest of the division won't wait.

It's urgent. Not disastrous, not beyond salvation. But urgent.