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04/05: Reports:

League Cup Fourth Round, 09/11/04, 7.45pm
By Ian Grant



Where to start? I mean, just look at it. Where on earth to start?

Well, there's a long-standing and frequently-voiced theory about promotion to the Premiership for clubs like ours. Since the ITV Digital collapse, it's increasingly impossible to see how the gap can be bridged at the first time of asking, unless vast independent investment happens to become available at the right time. It's been done before, of course...but not often, and the shuffling, awkward queue of clubs in the top half of the Second Division contains a number, including ourselves, to whom you wouldn't give a hope.

So, the theory goes, you go up, you take the money, you come down, you start again. Implicit in this is an acceptance of harsh reality, sponsored by Sky: ideally, you'd rather have the cash and stick around in the Football League for another season, using it to build gradually, and not be promoted at all. You can't do that, though. Not yet, anyway. Instead, then, you endure that season in the top flight as best you can: when that fifth goal hits the net at somewhere godforsaken like Middlesbrough or Villa in late December, you'll seek and find solace in the knowledge that you're securing the club's financial future at the same time. It's not much fun, until you're near enough to May to see some light. It's sensible, though.

There's a problem, though. Because spending nine months being humiliated, frustrated, and generally defeated doesn't exactly do wonders for morale, and the yo-yo theory depends on retaining the essential core of the club through each cycle. We should know ourselves, well enough. For all that our recent history pivots around the appointment of Gianluca Vialli, it's easy to forget that he inherited a squad of players that had once, but no longer, formed a coherent, potent team. When did we truly recover from that murderous afternoon at Selhurst, I wonder?

Southampton, of course, have arrived here by a different route, as loudly and angrily proclaimed by their superb travelling fans at various points last night. In the Premiership, they're newly rubbish, not new rubbish. Whatever, though, the effect is much the same. You'd have needed to be particularly blinkered to avoid noticing that last night's cup glory contained another darker drama: the utter and complete disintegration of a football team that had, until then, just about been holding it together. Remember this, when you next claim that months without winning don't leave deep, horrific psychological scars. Amid the whooping celebration, a shudder of recognition.

Because you really shouldn't be fooled by the scoreline. Five-two suggests silly football: goals at either end, chaotic defending, missed chances, muddied woodwork, all that stuff. You know, the type of game that has the beaten side claiming that it might just as easily have won by the same margin. A random, if thrilling, event. Which adequately describes the last twenty minutes or so, when we relaxed somewhat and allowed Southampton to score a couple and miss a couple more. Then, the football was indeed riotous and ridiculous, cheered on wildly by fans who'd either given up hope or surrendered to delirium.

Beforehand, however, for the hour-and-a-bit that actually mattered, when both sides were competing head-to-head for a match that hadn't yet been completely decided, there was something entirely different. Something that five-two doesn't capture. Four-nil gets it, mind. Four-nil is final, unarguable, absolutely resounding. Four-nil is a crushing victory, a brutal result. Four-nil hurts like five-two doesn't, and this hurt. It was four-nil after sixty-six minutes. The rest was just an entertaining encore.

It was a very remarkable night, with so many remarkable things. But, when you looked closely enough, there was a fabulous mundanity at its core. For all that we scored two or three lovely goals, for all that our football eventually out-shone that of our opponents, these were ultimately just decorations. Rather, the essence of the performance was in the midfield, where Southampton were sucked in, crushed, and rudely spat out like a old banger in a scrap metal yard. Whatever they'd been trying to do, they were just overwhelmed by everything that surrounded them, a species left stranded by evolution. They didn't stand a chance.

So, yes, five-two looks spectacular. But it was much better than that, in many ways. At four-nil, Richard Lee had barely seen the ball, let alone been concerned about seeing it fly past him. Then, even though the defence had let its concentration wander on a couple of occasions in the first half, Southampton attacks were so utterly feeble, backing down apologetically in the face of a monumental, impassive defensive wall, that it was inconceivable that the visitors would ever score. The midfield's endless pressing and simple passing, so much background noise in normal circumstances, had been amplified to an deafening, insufferable crescendo, to the extent that you half-expected the Southampton players to flee screaming for the refuge of the dressing room. And we'd established that we could score at will too, so much space and time and possession, and so little opposition.

In those moments - from the sixtieth to the sixty-seventh minute, say - we saw something on a scale that hasn't been seen around these parts for years. It wasn't a matter of exploiting weaknesses, of taking advantage of the situation. Southampton were crushed, broken and smashed under our feet. A top flight side, whatever the details, reduced to mere debris. We did that. Afterwards, we chanted about wanting to score seven, and we celebrated their consolation goals, and we turned it into a bit of a party. But in those moments, as we held our opponents on the ropes and smashed the living hell out of them, we were as brutal and cruel and brilliant as we'll ever be. We cracked a few jokes to lighten the mood when the job was finished, but when it counted, this was a truly merciless performance.

And so much better as a result of needing to be constructed during the course of the contest. This didn't begin as it ended, by any means...and while Southampton's very earnest attempts at putting a brave face on things didn't really amount to much, they were nevertheless the brighter, crisper side from the outset. They were all smart tempo, neat passing and suchlike, even if it all seemed a little too positive to be strictly healthy.

Tellingly, the only shot of the opening fifteen minutes came from a Watford boot, as Bruce Dyer struck wide from a Heidar Helguson lay-off, the first example of a growing understanding between the pair. And while Ormerod's shot on the turn at the quarter-hour mark, although straight at Richard Lee, showed a bit of quality, we immediately replied with a move that allied "a bit of quality" with the strength and determination that'd eventually win us this mighty victory: Heidar Helguson's gigantic leap to win a ball on the left wing, then Bruce Dyer holding off an opponent to hurl a dipping drive over the bar from distance.

At this stage, there were few signs of what would follow. The initial exuberance of both sets of supporters had been dampened by an unexpectedly quiet start, as Southampton's fixed grins started to slip slightly and we began to take over slowly. We had, perhaps, thought that we'd see the Hornets pile into the visitors from kickoff; instead, we seemed intent on winning it properly, by seizing and keeping control in each area of play. Thorough. Thus, a little patience was called for, as a free kick skidded through the penalty area with the defence failing to cover all of the Saints at the far post, and Richard Lee claimed from Phillips' feet after we'd lost possession cheaply, and Nilsson sliced wildly when Lloyd Doyley lost his concentration and allowed him to meet a cross unchallenged. These were sporadic and hesitant attacks, yet much remained undecided at this point, even as we wrestled the initiative away from Southampton elsewhere on the pitch.

That said, for all that they'd tried to hide it, we were sensing the opposition's desperate lack of confidence, self-belief worn away over weeks and months since August's optimism. We were working so damn hard to ensure that key battles were won, in the heart of the midfield and elsewhere, and you could see the process of erosion progressing with each minute. A slow motion landslide, with Heidar Helguson battering away at anything that seemed to be stuck firm. We were starting to win free kicks and corners too, for Neal Ardley to fling raw meat to the vultures: Bruce Dyer nodded over at the far post, Brynjar Gunnarsson flicked a header through the six yard box, and the Saints' defence looked distinctly fearful.

It was all there, in hindsight. Elsewhere, Gavin Mahon's pass and Bruce Dyer's dummy run left James Chambers to drive at the keeper from the edge of the box, an example of his fiercely direct attacking play. And we were lifting the crowd with these statements of intent, bringing everyone back towards the edges of their seats, ready to leap to their feet. In the stands, we sensed something, and raised the noise levels accordingly with the half nearing its conclusion. Thus far, it had been a fairly ordinary game, but we'd worked incredibly hard for the right to win it. And we were about to win it in spectacular, memorable, breathtaking style.

For the first, it was all about Neal Ardley's delivery. From a free kick on the left, an in-swinging cross that removed the entire Southampton defence from the equation, leaving only an assortment of yellow-shirted players to apply the finishing touch. It was Bruce Dyer's stooping header, finely darted into the top corner from six yards, but two or three others would've been around to do the job in his absence. And we were ahead, crucially. Deservedly, just about. It was already over, yet it had hardly begun....

I would pause properly for half-time, noting the slightly curious, yet pleasant, inclusion of the Smiths' "This Charming Man" on the play-list...but I really shouldn't obstruct the momentum of the report for such trifles. For the second half followed perfectly from the first, from that gradual, thorough construction process that resulted in the opening goal. While the Southampton dressing room was presumably full of swearwords and spilt tea during the break, we just retained our focus and continued as before. For all its lung-bursting energy, there was a calmness and a clarity at the heart of this performance, an outright refusal to be dissuaded from our plans and aims.

For twenty minutes, Southampton might as well not have bothered. They were increasingly dreadful and forlorn, but they were given little choice in the matter, frog-marched towards their own goal with hands pinned behind backs. Team spirit evaporated, each player descended into their own private hell, every foothold and ledge on the way down haunted by a yellow-shirted ghoul. My God, you wouldn't have wanted to be inside their skulls, to deal with such demons and Gavin Mahon at the same time. Inescapable, the end result...they fell apart completely, cracking under our enormous, relentless pressure. We'd expected a bit of a match, like an old-fashioned cup tie. We got a murderous, bloody rout.

They stopped one, at the very start. Then, Heidar Helguson's absurd persistence won a corner, which was cleared and eventually chipped back across by Brynjar Gunnarsson. At the far post, Bruce Dyer stepped aside for Neil Cox to volley hard from close range, Blayney producing a fine save with his flying body. But the sandcastle was already succumbing to the tide, crumbling and collapsing...and we weren't to wait long, until James Chambers stabbed the ball beneath the keeper's body after Heidar Helguson had made a glancing contact with Neal Ardley's fine corner. Two-nil, and we were still only starting to understand what was happening....

The subsequent minutes will live for a long time. They were capped by a couple of tremendous goals, yet they contained so much more than that. Just the sheer power of our football, brushing Southampton players aside like the weedy kids in a playground kickabout. The greed of it, thirsting for more of this glorious glory. The joy of it, as Neal Ardley led a line of players towards the Rookery in celebration of the third. Reminiscent, slightly, of the last few minutes at Anfield in '99, when Liverpool had fallen apart and we were just completely rampant. This time, we took our chances; this time, we showed no mercy whatsoever.

Southampton are ponderous and immobile, lost in their own nightmare. We're streaking forwards, so many options as Jermaine Darlington breaks over the halfway line and feeds Brynjar Gunnarsson on the right. A touch back to Gavin Mahon, whose lofted cross picks out Bruce Dyer at the far post. Fabulous football, this...albeit largely unopposed. At last, a defender sticks a foot in, nearly preventing Dyer from beating him near the by-line...yet the striker's persistence won't be denied and he retains possession even as he stumbles, regaining enough control to pull the ball back into the heart of the penalty area. There, everybody in a striped shirt has been standing and watching, leaving Gunnarsson to step aside and James Chambers to bash the ball underneath Blayney's backside for the second time. In the stands, we're starting to get the idea.

The fourth is exquisite, perfect. So simple - just Brynjar Gunnarsson's cross from deep within a midfield that no longer appears to contain any Southampton players, and Heidar Helguson pulling away before lofting the most charming volley over Blayney with his right in-step - and so classy. The kind of goal that's scored by a team that's won the right to play and is intent on squeezing every last bit of pleasure from exercising that right. It's celebrated ecstatically, as a confirmation that this is one of those nights. Special, this. Dark and evil, but really very special.

The rest...well, it's an addendum, nothing more. We might've scored another couple or three, waltzing through what remained of the Southampton defence and denied only by a spirited display from Blayney, who flicked Ashley Young's rising drive over the bar and then had to be on his toes to turn Neal Ardley's brilliantly ambitious volley around his near post. But, understandably, our minds were starting to wander just a little, and the controlled fury of the performance was starting to subside.

For the first time since the break, Southampton were allowed a little freedom, and thus were able to create chances. Blackstock broke free to shoot at Richard Lee, then drove at the keeper again a few minutes later. To further entertain us, Van Damme managed an extraordinary miss, nearly getting the ball out for a throw from four yards with nobody around to challenge him, before an identical move saw Blackstock slide in to score a consolation. That goal was celebrated ironically in the Rookery, and the Southampton fans were to be given a chance to return the compliment instantly, as Sean Dyche's long clearance from kickoff bounced into the area, Lundekvam fell on his backside, and Hameur Bouazza lashed the ball home without hesitation. There was still time for Ormerod's header to bounce over the line from the underside of the bar, to give the scoreline that rather flattering appearance.

But nothing could suppress the childish grins all around. Nothing could erase the memory of those twenty minutes, when we were just on top of the world, without any fear. So far, it's been a tremendous season, and long may that continue. Who knows what may still happen, for good or bad. Whatever, though, this manager's reign has just got what it's long deserved....

A defining moment. A famous victory to rank alongside any other.