By Pete Bradshaw
"It makes my back itch." This is a favourite saying of my mother's. It describes the feeling you get when something inevitable, and usually unpleasant or unfortunate, is about to happen. It is most often used when watching formulaic sit-coms featuring the likes of Frank Spencer or Mr Bean. It also applies to disaster movies such as "Titanic" or "Towering Inferno". Quite why her back should itch, I don't know but I know what she means. In these situations I would rather not watch. When your back itches, you can be sure that inevitable disaster will just be round the corner. The solution? Avoid watching things that have a script featuring inevitable disaster.
I suppose that this disaster was inevitable from the moment I was asked to write the match report. I seem to get a lot of such games either for this website or the Free Observer. A home banker on paper, I just got that back-itching feeling (in my legs).
The pre-match rituals suggested a comfortable win. The journey down the motorway was not too bad. Signs near Luton presaged the commencement of roadworks between junctions 10 and 6A. As the motorway was being patched up and made into a shiny new road, I wondered if the 'Delays for 32 months' signs were some sort of metaphor for Ray Lewington's valiant tenure, which ultimately saved us the precipice of extinction. 'Sorry for any delay' came the message as we passed into Lord Ashcroft's new domain. Not quite Belize, but at least it wasn't raining (yet).
A good turn-out at the West Herts' Sports Club with its own shiny new management, the only downside wondering why you have to pay for the bread with the chilli if you swap it for chips. New corporate rules, I guess. Maximising profit. Simplifying the customer experience. Oh well, the company was good and the beer very drinkable.
And so to the game. A largish crowd and very noisy. A good atmosphere with scarcely a thought given to the opposition. Carl Asaba's presence got my back itching again and I haven't really ever got over the fact that we chased Barry Hayles' signature. Their presence made me wonder if we'd be able to keep a clean sheet. Surely though with Young, Henderson and King starting, this one would be a formality?
We started at a furious pace, pinning Millwall back into the Vicarage Road end. Corner after corner came and went without finding the telling head or the man in space. When we met at The Den in December, their three man central defence had snuffed us out. That formation was still there and it made for a crowded penalty box. We needed to get the ball out to the wings and let Young and Eagles work a way round. This they did but the final pass just wasn't there and Marshall in the Lions' goal was largely untroubled.
My notes (written in unlucky blue ink on orange and white paper) record a fair amount of possession and attacking play as we moved quickly through the half. Henderson dominant they say, Doyley defending well (although wearing gloves on a mildish day). On five minutes, Henderson latched onto a backpass but could not get the shot away; on six, the same player was beaten to a header by a defender from an Eagles cross. Another corner.
The game barely paused for breath until the eighth minute when Doyley fouled Hayles in the first real Millwall attack. I noted that they were playing with the two strikers, and I hoped this might leave a bit more space in midfield for Mahon, Spring and the wide men to exploit. My back itched.
Demerit headed over a Young freekick, and another dodgy backpass was awkward for Marshall. Hayles then took some revenge by clattering the American. Next it was Asaba in attack with Stewart clearing the threat, only for the ball to find Vincent who brought a save from Foster.
Fourteen minutes gone, and King was hobbling badly; I didn't see what caused it but it looked like our talismanic striker might have to be replaced. My back itched. I wondered if we should have brought some in someone on loan. With no strikers on the bench, the plan B seemed to be to use Carlisle. King ran about a bit and then played his part in a move starting with Young and involving Mahon that finished with a fine effort from Young saved by Marshall.
Henderson went on a bulldozing run across the defensive line and was fouled. We are getting a lot of dead balls but not making much of them, without them being totally useless. This one was one of the ones that was wasted, though, as Stewart hit it too high. King was continuing to struggle and in the next attack he uncharacteristically lost control of the ball under his feet.
The game was slowing down and the pattern was established. We had most of the ball, in open play and from free kicks. We didn't do anything much with it but I suspected it might just be a matter of time. My back had stopped itching, a bit.
On twenty-five minutes, Foster came out well and started another attack. Yet another freekick was narrowly missed by Henderson and we got a throw. Mahon launched this into the box and the referee blew for a penalty. We couldn't see what had happened, of course, as it was at the other end and the big screen doesn't show anything controversial! Handball, apparently, but not universally accepted by our friends from South London. An inevitable delay during which Mahon himself stood with the ball. Surely not. Of all the players who are a) confident in front of goal b) regular hitters of dead balls, Mahon must be at the back of the queue. Captain's prerogative, I know, but...please can we have a proper penalty kicker? Someone used to hitting a dead ball, perhaps? My back itched to the point of bleeding. Mahon walked up nervously and hit the ball to the keeper's right for a comfortable save. Heck, Frank Spencer could have saved that! Our friends celebrated by crowding into a little mob at the foot of the steps. Anyone would have thought they'd won three points. What? Oh.
The half continued and we pressed on. Slightly less assuredly but consistently nevertheless: corners continued to arrive, and to be snuffed out by the three central defenders. Our defence held firm whenever threatened, with Stewart making one particular crucial saving tackle.
About ten minutes from the halftime whistle, I noted that Eagles had started to over-elaborate. It was as if he had decided to win the game on his own. First, he went on a jinking run and threw himself to the ground without being touched, then he lost the ball over the touchline through trying too hard. This was not a good sign and it was the start of a fairly indifferent spell from the 'team', who had stopped playing like a team.
Attacks still came, though: Mackay went close, Young had a shot blocked, and Stewart crossed out when in a promising position. Marshall then made his one mistake of the game, kicking straight to Young who took his eye off the ball. A minute later, he did exactly the same. A good one-two between Mahon and Henderson saw the midfielder have a shot from twenty-five yards that was well saved. The same player then released King who was unfortunate in the ball bobbled very high just as he was about to shoot.
Millwall attacked quickly down our left and despite Eagles' pace, he was unable to cover back and the chance was missed. This should have been a warning to us not to take anything for granted. My back itched and the soundtrack in my head hit a minor key.
Lucky half-time chocolate? No, it's Lent.
Effect: Starved of sugar, I wondered if we could keep our minds on the game and our energy levels up. We couldn't.
The second half started much as the first had. We pressed forward, Young, Mahon and Henderson all had good chances in the first four minutes and Spring was denied twice by good interceptions.
From the fiftieth minute, though, the game became decidedly scrappy. Millwall were getting as much possession as us. When we had the ball we tended to waste it. Stewart and Spring playing out a particularly gruesome cameo of how to mess things up without the opposition intervening. Demerit was penalised for handball and Millwall had a freekick about twenty-five yards out. It was well hit by Livermore but the wall stood firm to deflect it for a corner - Millwall's first - which resulted in a shot well saved by Foster. This inspired them to be more positive and the game opened up. We couldn't do much with the ball, though, and various efforts came to little before a desperate mêlée in our box resulted in a corner which was well cleared by Stewart. The left back got forward well to follow up but his cross after a one-two with Eagles was weak.
Another Watford free kick was wasted by Young and then Livermore was given another chance from twenty-five yards, this time hitting over Foster's bar. Back up the other end, Young hit a better free kick just round the post, and King was beaten to the ball by Marshall. An open game but not a good one.
On sixty-six minutes, I was finally able to scratch my back. Millwall broke down the right, beat the offside trap, and the cross dropped somewhere between Demerit and Asaba. The Millwall player was quicker to the ball and made no mistake from around the penalty spot. This was not how most people's script had it, but I guessed I should have known. Still, we always score, don't we? More corners followed and the crowd were magnificent in cheering the team on. Bangura was thrown on to...erm...not sure, really. To shore up the midfield? To allow the crowd to vent its spleen at the undeserving Stewart? To allow Mahon to briefly reprise his comedy full-back routine so beloved by Brighton fans? To hope that he'd repeat his point-saving goal against Derby?
Bangura did have one snap-shot but really didn't feature much in the fifteen minutes he was on. We moved to play three at the back and came closest when one of those, Mackay, scooped the ball over his shoulder and past the post.
Passes were going astray now and we looked lost. Mahon and Spring, never having a good game, were not supplying anything of use. Eagles was a spectator and King had simply not recovered from the first half injury. Belatedly, McNamee was sent on to try and provide something different but was immediately smothered by two markers and the game petered to a close with us playing with two at the back.
Inevitably, this led to gaps at the back but nothing seemed to come of it and I put my notes away as I waited for the final whistle. Young had a good chance from close range and then, inevitably, a break upfield led to Millwall getting a second, as substitute May wandered through the vast open spaces to pick his spot with Foster beaten in his sweeper role.
A frustrating afternoon. No-one else at the top won, apart from Sheffield United. No-one else at the bottom lost. So Millwall's relegation plight is hardly helped by this win and our promotion charge hardly dented by it.
The air of inevitability was slightly confounded by the rapturous
reception for our team of Frank Spencers and the manager. We could
always see what was going to happen, though, couldn't we, Betty?