Football League Division Two, 25/02/06, 3.00pm
By Martin Blanc
What do you look for in a partner? Looks? Charm? Patience and tolerance? Vital signs?
Whatever that special ingredient is, if and when you find the One, who complements your talents with different gifts of their own, surely you're entitled to feel a bit bereft when they're away. You'll make do, sure, and you won't let your head drop, but there's an unquantifiable something missing. So it was that Marlon King seemed, well, just a little...lonely up front today, partnered by Ashley Young and The Hammer ("The Hamster" doesn't quite have the same ring...). He scampered onto right-wing link-ups faster than Nick Griffin (now there's a rodent), but he, and to be fair a lot of others, were knocking balls into space where...there was just space, and not Darius Henderson. If Doris had been there, no way would we have had to wait until the 69th minute for a goal, and thus we would all have been spared the frustration of the last fifteen minutes, when firstly we worried that we'd been unfairly pegged back to a 1-1 draw, and latterly had to sweat through injury time that an equally nonsensical 2-2 might be on the cards.
We started smartly and very positively, no punting to the touchline this week, just some neat simple passes which reaped almost instant rewards – though not from Eagles' first touch forty-five yards out, despite this being greeted with cries of "Shoot!" Our first attack won a corner and led to the Hammer's best effort of the whole match, which whistled past the far post after less than a minute's play. But almost for the next eighty-nine, it seemed, the ball avoided the muddy pitch as much as possible, and was thus at the wind's mercy. Despite spending most of the first half in the Cardiff penalty area, it also avoided the net, despite us forcing corner after corner, and some great crosses coming in from Eagles on the right. Cardiff's defending was frantic early on, the ball even winding up near my old seat in the Upper Rous, which is more than it ever managed when I sat there week after week a few years ago. Where Darius would normally be alongside Marlon, up stepped Malky Mackay, and his was the eleventh minute header that first looked like breaking the deadlock. It beat Cardiff keeper Alexander, unlike many later efforts, but rebounded off the bar and Demerit couldn't get his own header past Alexander's impressive reach.
We had numerous further attempts, almost too many to list. We were as fluid as the conditions allowed, and were moving the ball about well, albeit mostly off the ground. Mackay and, to a lesser extent Demerit, stood in at set pieces as the large centre-forward, Lloyd Doyley was providing great support on the right flank, and only our link-up play on the left side was some way from perfect, with Bouazza's anticipation rarely matching his pace, and Jordan Stewart's radar clearly switched to 'off', so that he had to rely on actually looking before passing – something he forgot to do one more than one occasion. Balls knocked straight down the middle, where the midfield have programmed themselves to find DH, found confident Cardiff defenders - yes, even Coxy - but then Mahon and Spring would mop it up again in midfield and start the process over. Mackay had a great near post effort deflected over, then another very well saved ten minutes later. Ashley Young put a good free kick into the six-yard box and Bouazza forced another save from Alexander. The ball was poked goalwards by Mackay, only for Cox to clear off the line.
It was round about this point when memories loomed of last week's Villa-Man City FA Cup game, wherein the dominant team fails to score and are punished by the weaker side's ability to take their solitary chance when it comes, as it must. When they did have possession, though, Cardiff seemed only to be looking to slow the game down to the pace of their coach trip home, so perhaps they weren't interested in getting anywhere near our box, although Demerit dealt with the alleged threat of Cameron Jerome without breaking a sweat. They didn't win a corner until the thirty-fourth minute, and then it was seen off with minimal fuss. Doyley launched a great counter-attack, sending King off and running down the right, but again in the centre of the box there were critical gaps where Hornets should have been. Bouazza seemed reluctant to leave the security of the left touchline. Eagles was getting about as much as possible, but Mahon and Spring weren't pushing up as they often do, and Malky, the old Iron Giant, couldn't really be expected to cover the length of the pitch endlessly. Probably the best thing about the rest of the half was a fantastic, confidence-building length-of-the-pitch run by Bouazza, but this broke down once he saw his options in the centre were less obvious than they may have been some other weeks.
Lucky half-time chocolate: Green & Black's Organic Dark.
Reason: Found it in my mother's cupboard on the way to the game. (This may well become my preferred route to the Vic. Thanks, Mum.)
Level of success: As a chocolate, second to none. As a barometer of second-half triumph, well, it took its time, but came through in spades.
The second half was considerably less incident-packed and thrilling than the first. After a much more messy opening, it settled into a typical Division Two scrap, complete with the obligatory mentalist centre-forward – Cardiff's Thompson having a physical go at a stunned (though smug) Ben Foster after being defeated by the goalie in an effort to keep the ball in play. It brought only a yellow card from the generally acceptable ref, but maybe that was the one on which he'd written the phone number of an anger management counsellor.
It took twenty minutes for us to manage a shot, and then Matthew Spring's long-range effort jetted over the bar and into the Vicarage Road end (towards which we were playing in the second half, for a change). Notable events had dried up, really, until Ashley Young got onto a bobbling ball in the area about ten yards out. He couldn't get his shot past Alexander – no change there, then – but the rebound went to King, who gave Bouazza a nice pass which he could knock back across goal for Darius Henderson...oh no, that's old Malky creaking into view yet again...for Malky to head home with decisive power. About bloody time, we were thinking. Aloud.
The report should of course end here, all smiles, or possibly with a triumphant "we scored twice more just to make sure" sort of thing. But it doesn't, and whilst Aidy Boothroyd not unreasonably commented afterwards that he was unimpressed with what he heard of the fans' reaction to a score-draw scenario, we rather failed in our duty to protect a lead in the first place, given that a girl guide brandishing a paper fork would have demonstrated more of a threat than Cardiff had, up to the point where a Koumas hoof down the middle found Whitley and Demerit racing towards Ben Foster, somewhat late out of his goal, and Whitley beating the pair of them to it. Maybe the wind lifted the sound away, but rarely in my experience has an opposition goal been greeted with quite such silence by the Rookery. It spoke volumes – it said, "How can this be?" very eloquently. On the other hand, it may have been occasioned by coming almost immediately after chants of "Ardley, what's the score?" – and, frankly, if his messy exit is all we can remember about Neal Ardley's contribution to Ray Lewington's team and that phase of the club's history, then I for one am kind of glad Cardiff scored when they did.
No matter, we purposefully resumed our battling approach in the middle of the park, and tried to find a way back to where we belonged – in front. Sadly, either we were tiring, or Cardiff had their tails up – another ten minutes of more error-filled effort was brightened up by attempted genius from Macca, whose arrival had brought Hammer-time to an end for the day, and still more running from Mackay. Would we have won without help? A somewhat irrelevant question, because we got the help, from Scimeca's laughable backpass – almost the perfect layoff to Marlon, in fact. He helped himself, went with it, took it round Alexander, and brought time to a standstill as he teed up a sidefoot into the empty net. At long last he struck the ball, and it hit the spot. Agonising, that last second, but all the more cathartic when it was done. It was the one moment when he seemed to be set free, had the centre of the park to himself, and did what he does so well.
Boothroyd wasn't alone in switching from exhilaration at this point to an if-looks-could-kill glare two minutes later when we gave away a free kick twenty-five yards out in injury time. That the post, not Foster, saved us twice, first from Koumas' kick, and then from Purse's follow-up, only goes to show that you make your own luck (although ig suggested Koumas' failure was divine retribution for depriving us all of one final reprise of the famous, much-loved Coxy-into-the-wall routine...!) – but for Cardiff to have come away with a point, and deprive us of two, would have been beyond harsh. In seasons past, it would have happened. This time around, we've earned the rub of the green, and we have to keep helping ourselves to slices of good fortune. And the only way to do that is to keep doing what we're doing. Having Darius back wouldn't half make it easier, though.