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05/06: Reports:

Division One, 26/08/06, 3.00pm
Manchester United
By Ian Grant

So, here it is. It doesn't seem possible, really, but here it is. Just another day in front of the monitor, another afternoon spent bashing away at the keyboard, while the television burbles inanely behind me and the washing machine rumbles away in the kitchen. Another day, apparently as mundane as all of the others in the same vein...and yet, one that I know I'll never forget. The last match report. The day in which BSaD enters the past tense. There's no putting it off, not any more. Wish there was, but I know there isn't.

I've always hated moving house. I can take the stress and the inconvenience and the endless packing and unpacking, all means to a hopefully positive end. But I can't bear those final moments in the cold, empty spaces, that heartbreaking last look around before closing the front door for good, when the rooms that've been filled with your life contain only echoes, ghosts, history. Thinking back to all of the places where I've lived since childhood, I can recall, and feel, that last look at each of them, often more keenly than any other memory. The punctuation marks, I suppose. The turning points, how ever small. The moments when you come face-to-face with one of life's cruel truths: that there's no going back.

And so, you'll forgive me if I don't offer you a selection of my favourite BSaD highlights right now. If I start to have that last look round, then neither of us is going to make it until the end of this report. I'm hanging on as it is, don't know about you. And without trundling merrily through tales of derring-do and suchlike, it feels as if there's little left to say, so much that's best taken as read. If you've read enough of my match reports over the years, you'll know that I always was much better at beginnings than ends, anyway. It would be out of character if BSaD finished with a coherent, nicely-rounded conclusion, a firm full stop.

Besides, there's always next week. Or the week after next, to be more accurate. Perhaps it's only then that we'll really know what we've done, when the Bolton game arrives without a preview and disappears without a report. When the fixture list keeps ticking along without us, utterly oblivious, because football doesn't ever stop and the story of this season has only just begun to unfold. If we were anything but a minor distraction, a fly on a rhino, we would surely have had the most famous of victories to celebrate today, the most magnificent grand finale before the curtain fall. Mostly, football doesn't work like that. When it does, it's the best thing in the whole bloody world, and we've been privileged to describe some of those moments as we experienced them ourselves. Not this time, sadly.

Because if you want to kid yourself that we were somehow involved in an even-ish contest with Manchester United yesterday, you have enough material to be going on with. You would be kidding yourself, though. It's not merely that the scoreline doesn't tell the full story: the details of the match itself can easily obscure the reality too, for there was indeed a minute in which we might've taken the lead and they did take the lead. Young Adrian Boothroyd isn't taking much notice of that, and he's quite right: in truth, our opponents were simply in a different class altogether, largely unthreatened by our somewhat hesitant attempts at discomforting them. It is not so much that they didn't have to get out of first gear; they barely had to get out of bed.

Which is not what we'd hoped for, naturally. After that scintillating performance against West Ham, you felt that another ninety minutes of similarly frantic hurtling about might just bring about a miracle. If we continue playing as we have, there will surely be sides whose complacency is exposed, whose unwillingness to compete for absolutely everything will be punished. There's a very large "if" in that sentence, for we urgently need to start collecting some points if those performances aren't to fall away with declining confidence; we have not yet banished the memories of Last Time, despite taking a truly thrilling approach to the Premiership (one last time: not premier...) challenge. As we found out before, these fixtures - where the circus comes to town, in all its preposterous technicolour glory - aren't the ones that'll keep you out of the bottom three. They do provide a rallying point, however, as bold as any cup tie.

For much of the afternoon, the problem was a very simple and practical one: how to set the tempo. Against both Everton and West Ham, our football has been characterised by its lunatic pace, utterly breathless and frantic as if desperate to get finished before the last train home. Neither of our previous opponents could handle that, and both attempted to slow things down at every opportunity. The difference is that they didn't really succeed. Against Manchester United, we rarely had the ball for long enough to dictate anything, and no matter how much we improve, we'll never be good enough to beat them at their own game.

First, the nonsense. If there is a more absurd sight than two teams lined up, in the style of cup finalists awaiting royal inspection, in front of a decaying stand that no longer has a safety certificate, it's certainly well worth looking forward to. Football at this level has lost any grip on reality, almost slipping into unconscious self-parody. What next, "national" anthems for each team, sung by Michael Ball? A trophy presentation at the end of each match? Part of me already longs for trips to Grimsby. And then, amid a boisterous, hopeful atmosphere that almost demands a night sky and bright floodlights, the football....

We begin with the same urgency. Hameur Bouazza drives a cross through the danger area and just beyond Darius Henderson at the far post; Ashley Young wastes a crossing opportunity after Lloyd Doyley takes a free kick while United are sauntering around with their minds elsewhere; Henderson curls a decent effort at Van der Sar from twenty yards having collected a long boot from Richard Lee, whose temporary return is, for me, thoroughly welcome, if only for sentimental reasons. The crowd is with us, the game is heading towards the Vic Road end at a fair old pace...and Manchester United haven't really turned up just yet.

They arrive soon enough, though. And when they do, their passing and movement is so crisp and angular and balanced, cut glass football. It is not what we're used to, and we cannot learn fast enough to cope. As it happens, the first threat is from a set piece, Ronaldo heading wide at a corner. But that's followed by a gleaming, incisive goal that we appear powerless to prevent: it all comes from the space in midfield as Giggs receives possession and advances, not enough yellow shirts to patch things up from there. In to Saha, onto Silvestre via a delay-and-release of astonishing precision. Enough time to look up, to measure the angle, to find the far corner with an effortless finish. An exact diagram, nothing left to chance. The first of several sharp intakes of breath.

The crowd raises its collective voice again, but in the knowledge that we'll do very well indeed if we make it to half-time with only a single goal deficit. Within a minute, Fletcher is storming through our attempt at an offside trap via a one-two with Saha, and only his lack of pace saves us by forcing him to try an early, ambitious and wayward shot rather than carry the ball closer to goal. Our attacks are becoming more sporadic, less effective; Gavin Mahon drives into O'Shea's body at a corner, but it's nothing more than a quarter-chance, and the best that we can do. We can't get close enough, tight enough. We can't keep the ball when we finally retrieve it. We can't compete.

On the pitch, events have a certain inevitability, and the disappointed silence that starts to gather around Vicarage Road reflects the pattern of the game. In the middle of an apparently endless series of corners, Richard Lee makes a blinding stop to keep out Saha's stooping glanced header, flinging his fists at the ball to push it out from the goalline. We'll be lucky if there's still a scoreline to contest by the interval, lucky if the afternoon ends in anything but embarrassment. On the bench, the manager has seen enough: after half an hour, Matthew Spring arrives to reinforce a midfield that's simply being cut to ribbons, bypassed by speed of thought and movement as effectively as any long ball over the top. And you just pray for half-time, for a chance to take stock. We're getting stuffed.

The equaliser, then, is ever so slightly unexpected. As much as anything, it's the complete ease with which the ball finds the net that's the shock, for Ashley Young only needs to drop his shoulder and turn to make Silvestre look as mobile as a sack of turnips, and Damien Francis only needs to make an arrow-straight dash for the six yard box to confuse the United defence into leaving him all alone. The low cross finds its target, and the last Watford goal that BSaD will describe is so simple that there's no need for the usual string of adjectives, no opportunity to sign off with a flourish. Francis side-foots home from no distance, and the celebration is perhaps a little muted by the lack of warm-up, the absence of any warning. Suddenly, there's a game again.

To a point, anyway. For the mis-match is continued until the break, even if the scoreline no longer reflects reality. If anything, the visitors are jolted into life, and we spend the remaining minutes frantically attempting to plug holes in and around the penalty area. Some of those attempts betray the lack of experience: both Jay Demerit and Gavin Mahon are penalised for rash, unnecessary tackles and provide Giggs with a bit of free kick practice that he doesn't make the most of. Elsewhere, Ronaldo - with the grace, poise and conceit of a prima ballerina - dances through our nervous tackles on two occasions, shooting a couple of yards wide each time from positions where he probably expects to score. And, yeah, we had a Matthew Spring header into Van der Sar's gloves to show for our continued efforts...but it was far more appropriate that we ended the half with one final intake of breath as Saha carved a path from the left and whipped a curler just beyond the top corner. Too good, that. Much too good.

Of course, we shouldn't be too dismissive of our efforts: that we retained a foothold in the game wasn't entirely down to good fortune, for we'd defended doggedly and, in doing so, had prevented United from drawing another of those clinical diagrams. In particular, Chris Powell continues to look like a splendid addition to the squad, already in tune with the spirit of the venture but with a weight of experience to share out among those eager to learn. A very astute signing. If he can eliminate the occasional mistakes, usually born of over-eagerness, Jay Demerit will be one of those who doesn't return to the Football League, whatever happens. And Danny Shittu is a beast of a player. These people will see us through, surely. Surely.

But not this time. Not quite. In these matches, you need every pivotal moment to swing your way, nothing less. We know that already, only two matches in. And the pivotal moments in those other matches would seem more vital to me, simply because it felt as if our opponents wouldn't necessarily have a ready answer, wouldn't always be able to produce an instant response. Here, even if Darius Henderson had lifted the ball over Van der Sar and into the roof of the net from a couple of yards after a free kick had been deflected into his path, I'm not convinced that the destination of the points would've been any different, come the final whistle. It would've been rather fun to find out, of course. Instead, he somehow contrived to flick the ball across the face of goal, above and beyond yellow shirts dashing in, and in front of six thousand mouths open in gaping disbelief and aborted celebration. We looked up again just in time to see Matthew Spring caught in possession, scuffing a backpass into no man's land, and Giggs flashing away into the penalty area, too quick for Richard Lee and too accurate for the covering defenders. Harsh. Painfully harsh.

The rest...well, just an object lesson in controlling a football match. Our sporadic, fitful possession never appeared likely to stumble upon a goal, and we were often guilty of wasting precious opportunities at set pieces. United kept the ball and let us chase, occasionally puncturing our defence with a well-timed final pass, letting Giggs or Saha stretch their legs in the space ahead of Richard Lee. The goalkeeper denied each twice, and probably shouldn't have been allowed to do so.

In a slightly desperate shuffling of the pack, Jordan Stewart replaced the ineffective Darius Henderson and dropped into the left of midfield...and it might've worked, although you already know that it didn't. A bit more effective width, perhaps, and something a little different to concern our rather unconcerned opponents. Worth a try. That said, with Tamas Priskin appearing to be work-in-progress, you can't help feeling that a third striking option is absolutely essential if there's to be something between Plan A and, oh, Plan R. (Plan Z = "Fancy another go up front, Jay?") Otherwise, it can all go a bit flat, even with the vocal encouragement of the still-optimistic Rookery. Marlon can't do it on his own, much as he'll try.

Indeed, the four minutes of injury time were almost entirely anticlimactic: a great roar, as has become traditional, followed by unbroken passing between red shirts, not even a hint of that final, desperate surge. Until we punted the ball forward and won a throw, hurled by Lloyd Doyley into the heart of the area. And flicked on by Danny Shittu, and looped up as Marlon King climbed, and falling for for Damien Francis, who slashed wide before we'd had a chance to contemplate the moment. Only a half-chance, nothing more. A small prize in itself, given the hopelessly one-sided nature of the preceding minutes. We had, at least, managed to catch a glimmer of light. Just a glimmer.

And there it is. There it is. This is where our little story ends, where our small, quiet place in the history of Watford Football Club is left to itself. One last look around, never to be forgotten...then close the front door, once and for all. There's no going back.

At two o'clock this afternoon, there were 4,519 pages in the BSaD folder on my computer. Four and a half thousand pages, for heaven's sake. This is the very last one. 4,520, and out.

Keep the faith. Whatever happens, keep the faith.