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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 7/9/96
Watford 1(0)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 3, Ludden 4, Palmer 3, Millen 3, Page 3, *Bazeley 4*, Andrews 3, White 3, Porter 3, Mooney 3
Subs: R Johnson, Chamberlain, Lowndes (for Andrews) 3
Scorers: Mooney (50, pen)
Stockport County 0(0)
An average performance
Report by Ian Grant

After the positive signs of the Walsall victory, this was, I suppose, yet another reminder that the Second Division is not easy to get out of. Walsall were ragged and ill-disciplined, giving us plenty of opportunities to put our revamped tactics into practice; Stockport are an altogether different prospect, well-organised and capable of dealing with our more predictable attacking ideas. The side was unchanged yet we struggled to win this game.

But we did win it, albeit with a rather fortunate penalty. And that's what we have to learn to do - grind out results against sides who will come to Vicarage Road and be happy to leave with a point (not that Stockport were overtly defensive but some teams certainly will be). That's the only way we'll get out of this division and promotion has to be the sole criterion on which this season is judged - a handful of games in and I've already had more than enough of football at this level, thanks very much.

The first half was quite monstrously dull, so much so that I was reduced to reading the newspaper confetti underneath my seat. Very very VERY tedious. There was no lack of effort on the part of the players, merely an absence of constructive and incisive passing. In truth, Stockport had rather the better of the play - they never really threatened our goal and Kevin Miller didn't have a testing save to make but they certainly enjoyed the majority of the possession, particularly at the start of the half.

The fact is that you'll break a team like Stockport down by out-thinking them - they know all about the predictable stuff, they can defend against that all afternoon, they're infinitely better at it than we are. To our credit, we didn't do what we did against Plymouth and resort to wellying long-balls up to Devon White and we did try to out-smart them. However, our attempts at passing on the deck were distinctly tentative and consistently met with failure - we're still lacking a certain amount of confidence. While I'd much rather see us attempting to stick with the style of play that we know is right, it doesn't make for great entertainment when it's not working. Neither goal was seriously threatened at any point - in fact, the half was summed up by a moment in which about half a dozen of us jumped up in anticipation of a goal at the Rookery end and then realised, to our everlasting shame, that the ball was travelling in the other direction.

I assume that there was some reorganisation during the break - whatever happened, we came out in a more positive mood and proceeded to put the Stockport goal under a great deal of pressure for an impressive twenty minute spell. Essentially, as against Walsall, we did the damage on the flanks, providing Tommy Mooney and Darren Bazeley with enough possession to give the County full-backs a seriously hard time. That made all the difference. We pushed them back and began to create a few chances.

We took the lead five minutes into the half and I have to say that we were extremely lucky. Nigel Gibbs floated a hopeful ball into the box, aiming it in the general vicinity of Devon White. It seemed as if the situation was under control - the ball was fairly wide and Dev's hardly the quickest to react - but the defence had a nervous breakdown for some reason. Dev just kind of stood there bemusedly watching as the keeper came hurtling out in a futile attempt to help out and the defender decided to resolve the problem by punching the ball out of the way. Quality defending all the way. To his eternal credit, Tommy Mooney had the guts to step up and take the penalty after his miss on Tuesday - he even put it the same side but made it rather less obvious this time and looked pretty pleased with himself when the ball hit the net.

We weren't finished - in fact, we should have made the game safe long before the end. In a period of monumental pressure, we won a succession of corners (the delivery remains disappointing) and spent most of our time looking threatening around the Stockport box. Unfortunately, all the aggressive attacking didn't translate into chances - the closest we got was a Palmer volley over the bar from the edge of the box and a Mooney near-post flick-on from a corner that was brilliantly cleared off the line. Otherwise it was all mouth and no trousers.

In some ways, it was to our benefit when Stockport decided to open up the game in search of an equaliser. Our defence looked pretty capable of dealing with most things and it gave us far more space in which to attack. Darren Bazeley, in particular, came into his own - his confidence seems to have risen with every game so far this season and he was giving the County defence a rough afternoon. Having spent most of the game attempting to beat defenders on the outside, he started to cut inside and run at them - this caused havoc and nearly created a couple of goals, most notably when a last-ditch tackle prevented the ball from going through to Wayne Andrews.

I may be doing Stockport a disservice here - they were attacking the Rookery end so I couldn't see what was happening up there too well - but it seemed to me that we were the better side as the game wore on. Stockport had more of the ball but we were the ones creating chances - for instance, Andrews had been unfortunate when he skipped around a defender and nearly poked the ball past the keeper (he was injured in the collision and replaced by Nathan Lowndes with fifteen minutes left).

However, that superiority ought to have been translated into goals - we had enough chances to have been 2-0 up by the time it got to the inevitable injury-time panic attack. So we've only got ourselves to blame, really - that said, we did defend with determination, if not with great organisation, and we kept Stockport out. There were numerous corners and shots but our goal survived and I don't recall Miller having to make a save - one superb defensive header by Palmer springs to mind, though. Bearing in mind that referees tend to get a fair bit of stick in BSD, I should point out that this one got it right - he played a total of eleven minutes of injury time (five in the first half, six in the second) for a game that included at least four fairly serious injuries and five(ish) bookings.

Speaking of bookings, the current disciplinary situation is ludicrous. Apart from some fairly stupid individual decisions, Mr B Knight of Orpington did the right things - he showed the yellow card for every bad tackle in the game. But the problem is that the proliferation of bookings is devaluing the punishment - a player can be booked for kicking the ball away (a minor show of dissent or time-wasting - both of which the referee ought to be able to deal with easily enough), yet a Stockport defender was booked for a thigh-high tackle on Tommy Mooney which was specifically designed to stop a promising attack. A bit of petulance compared to a genuinely dangerous foul. Are the two offences really worthy of the same punishment?

So, an average performance. To be honest, Stockport were a little unlucky - one moment of defensive madness cost them a point they probably deserved. We didn't make enough of our superiority early in the second half and that could have cost us - we have to learn to finish teams off when we've got them on the ropes. Still, it's a learning process and we seem to be getting marginally better at playing against Second Division teams - I suspect that Notts County might be a difference proposition on Tuesday night, though.

Report by Dan Exeter

It was with renewed optimism following beating Walsall the previous Tuesday that we returned for our weekly dose of high-quality footballing action (at half-time during the shoot-out anyway). To be honest, I didn't know much about Stockport. In fact, I still take a lamentably poor interest in Division Two. Whereas last season I had a pretty good idea what most clubs in Division One were doing, who they had signed and so on, I still don't keep up with my own division. All I did know was that their number nine, Andy Mutch, always scored against us with Wolves (git).

Certainly Stockport looked very poor - no secret as to why they were looking for their first win of the season. At least today, unlike Tuesday against Walsall, we didn't try and look equally poor. We didn't totally dominate, but the team (the same as against Walsall, still in 4-4-2) went about our business competently. The game had a very end-of-season feel about it, probably something to do with the summery sun and the awards for last season being presented before the match. We attacked the Vic Road end second half, and Mooney converted the penalty that won the game for us. He put his shot in the same place as the one he'd had saved on Tuesday but luckily Paul Jones dived the other way. That took guts on Mooney's part, although who in his absence would've taken it I don't know. Porter perhaps? Possibly Page or Ludden, who both seem to have the temperament to deal with these things? Anyway, it doesn't matter, it went in.

Play inevitably shifted to the other end of the pitch as Stockport pressed for an equaliser. Clearly all this hanging-on-at-the-end-for-wins has had its effect on the lads, as I thought we did a much better job this time, even if we did sportingly let Stockport close a few times. There had been quite a bit of injury time (Darren Bazeley being particularly badly crocked in the first half and Wayne Andrews was injured in the second challenging Jones for a loose ball) which perhaps made proceedings a little more anxious than they need have been. With all the play far away, Jones kindly kept us entertained, waving at us, giving us dirty looks when we tried to put him off his goal kicks, even agreeing with us (well, a bit) when we informed him that Stockport would be accompanying a certain team from Bedfordshire into the Nationwide League Division Three next season.

So, with three wins on the trot, even if this one wasn't as comfortable as it should have been (if only Connolly and Phillips had been fit...), things are looking up again. If we can continue to grind out results now, hopefully when the likes of Ramage, Connolly, Phillips and Holdsworth are available we can really show our class.

Not that I'm being unduly optimistic or anything.