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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 20/11/04, 3.00pm
Rotherham United
By Ian Grant

Bloody Rotherham. Bastards.

It's nothing personal, honestly. On the contrary, in fact: Rotherham have been a cause worth championing, in that vague and slightly fickle way of ours, since they came and bashed us about on the way to a deserved win here a couple of seasons back. Then, they played football at a quite ludicrous pace, yet had somehow evolved the ability to produce deceptive quality in such inhospitable conditions, and I would've paid to watch them, if I were the kind of person who travelled the length of the country to pay to watch other people's teams.

Added to that, Millmoor is a fine away trip too, in a strange and confusing way. It's not somewhere that you'd want to visit often, and certainly not for very long, but it has a refreshing lack of the poncey southern nonsense that most of us take for granted in our lives, without becoming Burnley in the process. All in all, there's something about Rotherham that money can't buy, and that's meant as a compliment.

Still, bastards. You see, I have a bit of a competition going with a friend of mine, now in its second season. It's simple enough, really: we both predict the final league table and points are determined by the difference between our predictions and the reality, with appropriate sneering and tutting whenever the matter is discussed over a pint. Having won last season, it's not looking so good this time. In fact, it's looking absolutely bloody appalling.

There are a number of reasons for that. If anyone can provide an explanation, preferably in less than ten thousand words, for Forest's appalling league position, I'd be grateful. Fourth didn't seem so ridiculous in August, honestly. And Paul's faith in his own team - Ipswich - is being rewarded too. Nevertheless, those are mere trifles in comparison to one particular prediction. In my version of the league table, Rotherham United are fourteenth. In Paul's, they're bottom. Game over.

In recent weeks, this had developed into a slightly unhealthy obsession. Clearly, even the most dramatic of revivals isn't going to leave Rotherham anywhere near fourteenth place in May, yet it's been hard to avoid slight twinges of expectation whenever they've taken the lead and brief moments of acute despair whenever they've managed to blow it. This, I imagine, is nothing to compare with the Millers' fans' own traumas...but still, I share their pain in some small and patronising way. They'll never make it to my predicted finishing position, but it'd nevertheless be a minor, momentary and yet surprisingly satisfying victory if they were to climb off the bottom, thus proving Paul wrong too. Slightly less wrong than me, it's true...but wrong is wrong, and that's that.

That process should've started here, by rights. That's not a reflection on the game - we'll get there, promise - but it hardly takes a genius to work out what'll happen when a team that's unbeaten in nine matches meets a team that hasn't won since the Ice Age ended. Away win. Every time. We've been here plenty of times before, ending other people's calamitous losing sequences with a cack-handed, erm, helping hand. It's nothing new, and we're undoubtedly overdue some really stinky, disgusting performances this season, after so much earnest, admirable endeavour. Seriously, did anyone, whether native or visitor, come to Vicarage Road expecting victory?

In which case, we'll look at it as a point gained. We could've lost. We didn't. It's not our greatest achievement of 2004/05 by any stretch of the imagination, but it shouldn't be dismissed entirely. Flippancy aside, we were actually rather more convincing in our attempts to break down determined and largely crap opposition than we have been on previous occasions; it's easy to let frustration overwhelm everything and we held it back until the final minute of injury time, when Heidar Helguson literally jumped up and down in fury-spitting annoyance at a poorly chosen pass from Gavin Mahon. And it's easy to concede a distracted, off-hand goal at the other end too, then spend the remaining minutes deeply regretting that lapse while people shout "FOR F***'S SAKE!" very loudly in your ear. Whatever else, our afternoon didn't have that as a punchline.

Pretty obviously, it wasn't much of a game. You know that already, even if no-one's actually told you before. One and a half notebook pages, and some of those notes are the kind that you only take in case it turns out to be a game that fills less than one page, when every single goal attempt becomes precious: "NC fk com. over", "2 l-r drive h+w", and so forth. Not a match that was graced with greatness, then. It wasn't really bad. It wasn't much good either. It was just there, like the drizzle. Like Paolo Vernazza.

We really ought to have won it, obviously, yet never quite did enough to turn theory into fact. Not the first time and probably not the last either, and it says much about the division that we can make a habit of such indecision while comfortably maintaining a position just below the playoffs. When we take our chances, we're capable of being a frightening side; much more often, we're poised on the brink, unable to make the leap. That's all right, mind: such potential, even unrealised, is a great and unexpected improvement after recent struggles. People booed this, but they're the people who'd do the same even if we'd hit the woodwork seventeen times, had nine realistic penalty appeals refused, three perfectly good goals disallowed, forced the keeper into an endless series of miracles, and had a shot cleared from a yard over the line. With nine men. In this instance, we were some way short of that, clearly. Some way short of previous seasons' atrocities too, though.

In other words, it was a fairly reasonable attempt. Much of the first half was spent trying to find the mythical final ball, for some of our approach play flowed and flexed delightfully before getting into a bit of a muddle in the last third. Neal Ardley wasn't quite at his best: ninety-nine percent of the way, perhaps, but his delivery depends on that extra one percent; Gavin Mahon seemed to play the ball with his shins more often than is technically advisable, and Brynjar Gunnarsson's long, elegant strides seemed a little more prone to the odd stumble. Occasionally, we'd conjure up something sweeping and glorious from nowhere in particular, then quickly return to the comfortable containment that led to a fairly tedious stalemate. From the front of the Rookery, echoes of the old Ben Iroha song about World Cups and bunions, never the sign of an exciting match.

The point, fairly obviously, is that you have to score at some stage. (And, to be honest, I find the failure to do so much easier to forgive than the alternative scenario that we explored against Brighton, scoring and then throwing it away again.) Here, you always felt that we might, if we landed one of our set pieces in the right place or hit a pass just perfectly. Heidar Helguson was released, then lost the ball in an attempt to cut back onto his preferred foot; Gavin Mahon had a shot blocked by a defender after fine work on the right wing from Bruce Dyer and Jack Smith; Pollitt saved well from Heidar Helguson at his near post and, it appeared, from a Gavin Mahon drive just before the break; other shots were sliced and lifted when, if it's not clutching at straws too much, they might not have been sliced and lifted. Unsurprisingly, we were much the better side - Rotherham hadn't managed a proper attempt since Butler had shot over on the turn in the third minute, and were clearly content to take whatever they might be offered - but we'd not yet expressed that superiority coherently.

Really, let's stop messing about. The first half, for all its honest and energetic to-ing and fro-ing, was about two moments. Two missed chances. For our part, it came from a familiar ploy: Neil Cox's raking free kick from deep to pick out James Chambers on the right of the penalty area; Bruce Dyer getting a slight touch on the header as it came across, Heidar Helguson sliding in at the far post. He should've scored. He didn't score, making an awkward contact that sent the ball wide from four yards. For them, it came later on, as our minds started to drift towards the dressing room: a rare moment of productivity from the hapless Junior, skating into the box and striking a cross that deflected up from Neil Cox's leg, finding Butler at the far post. He should've scored. He didn't score, comically mis-timing his jump so that the ball landed on his head and bounced straight upwards. This, in a match that already had that one-goal-will-do look about it, was the real story of the first half.

The second half, in contrast, was thrilling. For at least five or six minutes, at any rate. Then, galvanised by the half-time cuppa, we lifted the tempo and threw players forward to take part in some increasingly determined attacks. Again, it never quite dropped in the right place, never quite beat the last defender...and yet you still didn't have the sense that this wouldn't be our day, as we pressed impressively for a short spell that might easily have decided the contest. Bruce Dyer screwed a shot wide of the near post after Heidar Helguson had flicked on; James Chambers had a shot blocked, then Pollitt clutched Brynjar Gunnarsson's header from the looping rebound. Immediately, a Rotherham cross fizzed through our own six yard box to remind us that these opponents retained some spirit, regardless of their hopeless league position. But we had the initiative, and we were always solid enough defensively to avoid throwing away the consolation point.

Thus it continued, for a short while. A great flurry of stuff around the fifty-first minute formed the climax of our attacking efforts, begun by Neal Ardley's surprisingly pacy charge into the centre of the penalty area from deep, denied only by a fine last-ditch tackle as he sought to apply the final touch. The resulting corner was cleared, but instantly Ardley's deflection let in Bruce Dyer, prevented from finishing by the scrambling hands of Pollitt at his feet. Another corner, met by Brynjar Gunnarsson's boot on the six yard line, sent over the crossbar by a combination of a defender and the keeper. Real pressure, which quickly and unfortunately subsided as the half progressed.

In one respect, we were genuinely unlucky. The arrival of Hameur Bouazza for Bruce Dyer was a little harsh on the departing player, yet meant that we could add a bit of pace to the existing shape, keeping Scott Fitzgerald in reserve for a more daring change later on. That the Frenchman was injured while falling within five minutes was just as damaging in the short-term as it may be in the long-term, for we were consequently unable to make that more daring change as the match rather drifted in its final stages. For the last twenty minutes or so, you no longer truly believed that a goal would come, merely hoping and wishing instead as Rotherham began to establish themselves in midfield and lift the pressure on their goal.

We might've won it even then, for Heidar Helguson failed to make the most of a couple of fine chances to settle things. The first - an Ashley Young cross after seventy minutes, met in typical fashion with a far post header that went straight to Pollitt - was rather less of a head-in-hands moment than the second, when he found himself alone and onside in meeting Jermaine Darlington's perfectly flighted cross. He threw himself at it dramatically, met it with a potent contact, yet drilled the header inches wide of the post. We've missed a few of those this season. Only because we've created a few of those to miss, mind.

By now, the visitors could see the finishing line. They're a poor side, especially compared to recent predecessors, but not yet so utterly forlorn as to embody their league position. Indeed, as their sprinkling of followers cheered them on from the Vic Road end, they might've sneaked that impossible victory, had Richard Lee not been equal to Barker's soaring half-volley from twenty-five yards with a couple of minutes remaining. A decent save, more spectacular than difficult...but the kind of thing that'd send you back up the motorway with dreams of what might've been. What will be, at some point. But not against us, thankfully.

The grumbling at the final whistle was only to be expected, I suppose. If you let a team with only seven points in mid-November get its eighth, you'll have to field a few complaints. Especially at home, in front of a crowd inflated by bargain prices. This won't bring many of the casual spectators back for more in a desperate hurry, you suspect. That's a shame, though, for this was neither typical of a season that has often been inspiring and rarely less than encouraging, nor of the kind of dismal, vapid football that has sometimes haunted Vicarage Road in the past.

A non-event, then. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.