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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division Two, 8/3/97
Gillingham 3(0)
Scorers: Hessenthaler (49), Onura (51 pen), Butler (90)
Watford 1(1)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 2, Easton 1, Palmer 3, Millen 2, Ward 2, Bazeley 1, Scott 3, Phillips 3, Penrice 1, Mooney 2
Subs: Robinson, Johnson, Noel-Williams (for Mooney) 0
Scorers: Scott (17)
Second best in every department
Report by Ian Grant

This Second Division business doesn't have many saving graces but the absence of Portsmouth, and the resultant need to visit the hellhole that is Fratton Park, is a considerable compensation for our current lowly status. Trouble is, it appears that every division must have its Fratton Park, a ground with no redeeming features whatsoever, and I think we've just found a new one. Standing on a grotty open terrace in the corner of a long-neglected stadium, watching the skies darken overhead, screaming forlorn encouragement at a team seemingly intent on throwing away three points...yep, it's all terribly familiar. The only difference is that I've never even seen us take the lead at Portsmouth...

According to some quick calculations, the word 'dismal' has been used four times in this season's match reports so far. Well, brace yourselves, here comes number five...DISMAL! Yes, I'd love to say that I could find things to be optimistic about, I'd give my right arm to believe that this was just a minor glitch in our promotion masterplan but, no matter how hard I try, I can't find any redeeming features about Saturday afternoon. We can take the piss out of Gillingham's crumbling ground, we can abuse Andy Hessenthaler for walking out on Watford, we can't disguise the fact that we were second best in every department in this game.

And all this after a relatively bright start. Although the first half was mostly drab and patternless, we held the advantage going in at the interval and it looked a good bet that we'd grind out a valuable away win. Prior to Keith Scott's opener, there hadn't been a serious effort on target so it was appropriate that the goal should come not from a shot but a wayward cross. Scott picked the ball up on the right corner of the box and aimed a low ball in the general direction of Kevin Phillips - it evaded both keeper and striker to end up creeping just inside the post. Depending on your view of his Brentford goal, Scott has now scored two goals with crosses and none with shots.

The goal did little to inject any more urgency into the game and it wasn't until the half-time oranges beckoned that things started to liven up. Gillingham had a shot from the edge of the area that curled just past the angle of post and bar (it was impossible to tell how close it was but the home supporters behind the goal got pretty excited about it - mind you, they also got pretty excited about a second half shot that skewed off the striker's boot and swerved harmlessly into the terrace so perhaps it's just that thrills are hard to come by in Kent), then we broke to set up our best chances of the game. First, Steve Palmer won the ball in midfield, released it to Tommy Mooney (?) on the left and a long pass put Kevin Phillips in the clear - as usual, he found the target but he also found the Gillingham keeper in the way. From the resulting corner, the keeper did his best to ruin his previous good work, dropping the cross under pressure before Phillips failed to make contact with an overhead kick.

Cause for optimism at the break, then. Despite Robert Page's absence, we'd looked reasonably solid at the back, clearing the ball effectively from a number of dangerous crosses and generally coping with the physical presence of the Gillingham strikers. In midfield, Steve Palmer was doing a good job in the battle with Andy Hessenthaler, successfully tracking his runs and restricting his influence (the same was presumably true of Gary Penrice's blue-shirted counterpart since we didn't see any trace of the Watford player all afternoon). And we'd scored early to force the opposition to come forward - we really ought to take advantage of such situations, having spent most of the season complaining about playing defensive-minded teams.

I trust that the events of the second half will be the subject of a week-long post mortem at Vicarage Road. Such breathtaking unprofessionalism really can't be tolerated. Presumably Kenny Jackett had warned the players that Gillingham were likely to come out with all guns blazing for the restart, presumably he'd said all the Big Ron-type things that managers say ("Keep it tight early doors"), presumably he was reduced to a teeth-grinding, mouth-foaming wreck by the casual, naive attitude that saw us throw away the lead within four minutes.

The first goal was a shambles. From a Gillingham corner, our defenders decided that they'd rather play head tennis in the six yard box than take the safe option and concede another flag kick. Eventually, the ball broke out to Andy Hessenthaler on the right side of the area and his low shot found the bottom corner. As if that wasn't bad enough, we were behind just two minutes later. Pushing forward to make amends for the goal, we were badly caught on the break and, after the initial danger had been averted, the ball was crossed into the area, hitting a Watford defender and leading to a penalty for handball. I can't give you any kind of opinion on the decision - it was at the other end of the pitch and I haven't seen the goals on TV - but the players didn't complain very much. Kevin Miller dived to his right but saw the spot-kick calmly slotted into the other corner.

The rest was really quite excruciating. With Gillingham content to play on the break, we had truckloads of possession without ever looking likely to score. It's amazing sometimes how a beautifully simple game can be made to look so damnably difficult.

We flung crosses into the box, mainly through Nigel Gibbs since Darren Bazeley spent most of the half standing vacantly out on the right touchline rather than making runs to receive the ball, and lost out in the air (Phillips managed one harmless header, our only on-target goal attempt of the half). The front pair were dragged out into the support play because of our failure to provide any width. We threw hopeful balls forward for the strikers to chase, leaving them with no reasonable chance of creating anything. It was a pattern that, sadly, we've seen all too often this season.

Most of the time, however, we've been secure enough at the back to come away with a point. Not this time, my friends - our back four looked as shaky as an hour-long game of Jenga. We were second to every ball that broke on the edge of the Gillingham area, allowing them to break forward and cause us all manner of problems. Clint Easton was nowhere to be seen; Keith Millen and Darren Ward looked slow and cumbersome; Steve Palmer was left to try and plug the leaks. Gillingham looked like scoring every time they attacked, using pace and perceptive passing to exploit the gaps in our rearguard. They'd come close a number of times before they finally wrapped it up in the last minute - from a long clearance, Millen dithered and his header back to Miller fell short, allowing Steve Butler in to lob the keeper.

If there's been a pattern to this season, it's been like this. Any side that's given us room to play, we've beaten and looked pretty impressive in the process - most recently, think back to Bristol City. But when we've come up against a team that puts us under pressure in midfield, all our constructive football has gone out of the window. That applies to Saturday when we surrendered control of the game in the second half (we had possession but we were playing on Gillingham's terms), it also applies to numerous other occasions. It's something we have to come to terms with - the simple fact is that about three quarters of teams in the Second Division play that way.

On Saturday, it was painfully obvious what we're missing. Contrast the roles of Gary Penrice and Andy Hessenthaler in the match - the former was completely invisible and made no impact on the course of the game; the latter ran the show in the second half, orchestrating the home side's attacks and lending a helping hand all over the field. He won the midfield, basically, and dictated the game (we talk about his tackling usually but his distribution was first class). We don't have anyone who can do that and we end up playing too many matches at the opposition's pace as a result.

I don't have any solutions. But, for a side with players of obvious class, we're playing some truly wretched football. Until we can learn to impose ourselves on other sides, I don't realistically see how we can expect to put a run of results together and climb the table. During the week, in private e-mail, I was rather critical of my Bristol City report, feeling that it copped out of praising a fine win by ending with an outbreak of over-cautious Trevor Brooking-isms ("It's up to us to continue the good work until the end of the season - there's still a long way to go yet"). Well, I guess it wasn't quite so over-cautious after all...