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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 25/2/98
Millwall 1(1)
Scorers: Shaw (26)
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Palmer 3, Page 3, Millen 3, *Mooney 4*, Noel-Williams 2, Hyde 2, Lee 4, Johnson 2, Rosenthal 2
Subs: Foley (for Lee) 2, Easton, Slater
Scorers: Mooney (49)
Mr N. E. Perkin
Report by Ian Grant

Perhaps it's just that we want this to be perfect. If we accept that First Division life is going to be tough, we want promotion to be a thrilling carnival of gorgeous football to remember next season. We want to lord it over the riff-raff - "ra, ra, ra, we're going to thrash the oiks", to quote 'The Young Ones'.

It's one thing to be getting the jitters as that lead is gradually eroded - we're all looking over our shoulders a little more than we were two or three months ago. It's another thing altogether to be talking about 'doing it with style' and worrying about what other teams' fans think. When we were relegated, the priority was to win promotion. The words "by any means necessary" weren't explicitly used - near enough, though.

The barrage of moaning isn't nearly as bad as that which afflicted Kenny Jackett as we ground out tedious results against Walsall and Bristol Rovers towards the end of last season - when the goalposts weren't just moved but taken down, carted away and replaced with a twenty foot high bronze statue of Robin Cook. But it's there nonetheless and it's really not doing us any good. Aesthetics are strictly secondary to points, especially at this stage of the season. It'd be lovely to be running rings around the Second Division village idiots...but we're not, partly because we're not that great, partly because the rest aren't that bad. Ultimately, promotion is as enjoyable as you make it.

Besides, there's always the misfortune of others to distract us from our own discomfort. Quite what Millwall are doing sinking towards the relegation zone is anyone's guess. They have, presumably, been vastly under-achieving since the side that I've seen twice this season looks strong, aggressive and well capable of making an impact at the right end of the table. In that context, a win-that-should-have-been is perhaps a fair improvement on Saturday's how-do-they-do-that draw at York.

And it really was a win that should have been. While no-one would deny that Millwall had a fair share of the play and looked consistently dangerous, we did enough to take the three points...including that all-important 'scoring more goals than the opposition' bit, of which more later.

It took a good twenty minutes to get a shot on goal from either side, Nigel Gibbs trying his luck with a half-volley that sailed over the bar. But the tedium didn't last and Millwall took the lead shortly afterwards, as the hugely impressive Shaw barged his way past defenders to fire a shot past Alec Chamberlain.

That advantage shouldn't have lasted very long. Ronny Rosenthal should've scored as he was played through and delayed, waiting for the ball to drop rather than opting for a header and allowing a defender to hook the ball away from, literally, under his nose. The resulting corner was cleared back to Richard Johnson, his cross found Tommy Mooney and, from around the penalty spot, the Watford player clipped a low shot past Crossley in the Millwall goal. 1-1.

Except it wasn't 1-1. The linesman's flag was raised. Mooney had half of the home side's players between himself and the goal, there was no Watford player in front of the keeper, there was no Watford player distracting the keeper in any way. No Millwall defenders appealed or even looked in the linesman's direction. Yet the flag was raised for offside.

Now, I'm not a great supporter of criticising officials. If you don't believe me, have a trawl back through this season's reports - I think you'll find they're pretty low on referee-bashing. I can live with mistakes, with things that have gone unseen, with different interpretations of incidents, even with players conning referees into giving ridiculous penalties (mentioning no names). That's human error. It might be frustrating and bewildering at times - it is, however, the nature of the beast.

But there are certain parameters that you expect the officials to work within. For example, knowing the ins and outs of the offside law would seem to be a fairly basic requirement for a linesman. Yet knowledge of the rules doesn't seem to be Mr N. E. Perkin's strong point - in the second half, just to prove his point, he also flagged for offside against a Watford player who was running away from the goal to get back into an onside position. That's just absurd - it makes a mockery of the whole match.

Not that Watford fans should be too hasty in claiming that we would've won had the goal stood. In truth, our best passage of play was entirely inspired by that offside decision - it put our noses out of joint, it gave us a reason for rolling our sleeves up and getting stuck in. Mooney embarked on a solo mission to score and nearly did so just a few minutes later, meeting a far post cross and seeing his close range effort denied by a fine Crossley save.

By the half-time whistle, we'd put together an attacking spell that, while still lacking fluency, had a real sense of purpose about it. Mooney had been foiled once more, this time by a defensive block, as we threw bodies forward. Even so, Millwall had continued to look dangerous on the break, exposing our defence on at least one occasion without finding the final ball to make it count.

We got the goal we deserved just after half-time. Richard Johnson's long throw was flicked on twice at the near post and, after a scramble that seemed to involve Gifton Noel-Williams hitting the post, Mooney fired home from a tight angle.

That should've set the stage for a riotous final forty minutes. It didn't - in fact, the rest of the game was something of an anti-climax. For a while, Watford continued their domination and the officials were once more the centre of attention as Keith Millen was felled in the box (it looked like a penalty, the Watford players surrounded the referee to express their outrage - however, I genuinely couldn't see if the Millwall defender got a toe to the ball or not).

But a period of extremely ill-tempered, physical play with about twenty minutes left brought the home side, who aren't exactly afraid of a bit of rough stuff, back into the game. After that, Steve Palmer was caught in possession and Robert Page saved the day with a very brave block. Then Shaw fired a shot at Chamberlain as Millwall ended the game marginally the stronger team. Another Mooney effort, a rising drive from outside the area, was the only thing to trouble Crossley in the final fifteen minutes.

Beyond the minutiae of the game itself, there's so much to talk about. Defensively, we seem a curious mixture of excellence, typified last night by a flying Gibbs tackle to cut a Millwall break short early in the first half, and chaos. Most of the time we remain extremely solid and very difficult to break down, particularly with the midfield buzzing around in support, but there are occasional moments when it all falls apart. That has much to do with switching Mooney away from central defence - the understanding that has been built up over dozens of games is suddenly missing. Individually, Palmer, Millen and Page are fine; collectively, they've yet to gel, just as Mooney has yet to work out exactly what his defensive duties are in the wing-back role.

But it's the midfield that's coming in for most criticism. If we wanted proof of Richard Johnson's role in our early season success, we can find it in the fact that our downturn in form has run parallel to his. Yet I'd argue that there's far more to it than that. While Johnson has gone off the boil, and Hyde's had an iffy couple of games too, the responsibility of that has to be spread.

Question: What's Johnson's favourite pass? Answer: The one where he receives the ball in the centre of midfield, turns and dumps it out to someone on either wing. Question: Why isn't that working any more? Answer: Because we've got no width any more. The narrower our play becomes and the less movement there is from the forward players, the more difficult it is for our midfielders to perform.

Which brings us neatly on to the forward line. Jason Lee remains exemplary - he wins most of the aerial challenges, he uses the ball with considerable wisdom on the ground, he does everything you'd want a centre forward to do. He won't score, of course, but that's hardly his fault - we didn't create any situations where he might've scored last night.

So, apart from his imminent suspension, there's no real worries on that front. The rest, however, is less encouraging. Ronny Rosenthal looked a shadow of his former self yesterday. He didn't get the ball too often, admittedly, but he made poor decisions when he did get it. Gifton Noel-Williams will have better days. And, without wishing to judge him on the basis of twenty minutes, Dominic Foley looked lightweight at best. I still say that we should give Nathan Lowndes a crack of the whip.

We managed about five or six decent attempts on goal in this game - and all of them were by Tommy Mooney. Sure, that's a comment on Mooney's desire - it also says much about the rest of our attacking play.

I'm not sure that any of this is just cause for all-out panic. We may not be playing like champions but I don't really think we're playing like a side that's about to blow a thirteen point lead either. The only reason that'd happen would be if the fans got all nervous and restless, started getting tetchy with the players when they should've been encouraging them, the players lost all confidence and we ended up in a vicious circle. But that's not going to happen, right?

It's just like watching Forest...
Report by Ben Williams

Referees are inept. We accept it. They admit it. But last night's man in black took the word to new depths, or at least ones as yet unseen by me. He was poor, no doubt about it. Crass, if you will. Although I imagine his defence to have been that he was trying to let the game flow. Bollards.

It had all started as a struggle trying to get Sarah's suitcase from Liverpool Street to Millwall. Now, without being offensive to any females, I for one am convinced they don't understand the concept of "travelling light". Believe me, after lugging a case which must have weighed about 35 kilos, and watching Pete trying to do his back in by carrying it, they don't. Just as well the police outside the ground were accomodating enough to allow it to be stored in their room at the ground, 'cos we'd never have smuggled it in. "Anything to declare sir ?" "Just a suitcase full of women's clothes". "Mind if we take a look inside ?" "Not at all." . "Thought you said it only had women's clothes in it ?" "I lied".

From the outside the New Den looks like quite an impressive ground. Then you go in to this soulless travesty of a football ground. Kind of like the Moon Under Water, but worse. If you looked hard enough there were some Millwall supporters in the far end, but they weren't exactly making it intimidating.

Five minutes after kick-off you could see it was going to be "one of those games". A cold midweek night in a non-atmospheric ground doesn't greatly inspire players or supporters. Not that Watford were going to play champagne football to try and warm their supporters' hearts. Neither side were showing much endeavour, although Watford were slightly the better side. And then came the moment we'd dreaded. Millwall scored. And I use the word "scored" in a loose sense. Paul Shaw who, I was reliably informed by Doctor Dave (sitting next to me, and spluttering about how much he hated Millwall) was their best player in the fixture at Vicarage Road earlier in the season, got the ball about 40 yards from goal, with 2 defenders to beat. A timely shove on the first one (Oi Ref, where's your whistle gone ? That was a foul!), thereby leaving the second one too frightened to tackle Shaw in case he either missed or Shaw dived and got a penalty, that he allowed Shaw to run on and score. The kind of goal that leaves a nastier taste in the mouth than a load of avocado pears. Undeserved, and downright unfair.

At this point one or two Watford players woke up. Not all of them, you understand, just one or two, Tommy Mooney in particular. Richard Johnson was a major culprit here. Anyway, Watford began to exert some pressure. After a succession of poor corners (Johnno again!), the ball came out to Mooney. Now, all the Watford attackers were moving out, with Millwall defenders goal side of them. Mooney hit a shot, Crossley dived, and the ball went under him into the back of the net. A perfectly good goal. But no, the assistant ref was flagging for an offside. Quite where he had seen it was a mystery to us all. The ref certainly hadn't, and he was closer. Sick as a parrot ? Sick as a whole flippin' menagerie of the things.

By the end of the first half Watford had had three shots on target. One by Gibbs, the "goal", and a very smart reflex save from Crossley at his near post after a shot by Mooney.

Half time, still a goal down, and thoughts began to drift towards a possible substitution. People all around were asking for Slater, but when the teams came out for the second half no changes. Still, Watford started brightly. After some sustained pressure the goal finally came. After a goalmouth scramble that man Mooney again thumped a left foot cross shot into the net. What a relief.

Thereafter the match capitulated into the obvious settling-for-a-draw scenario. Helped greatly by Taylor's bemusing decision to remove Lee, who had been the brightest attacking star, rather than Rosenthal who was knackered, or Gifton who had done precious little all game, and replace him with new signing Foley. The former Wolves player hardly set the game alight. Did nothing of note for the 25 minutes he was on. If Slater had come on Watford had every chance of going away with three points, but it wasn't to be. Which became more worrying late in the game as Millwall began spraying the ball around a bit.

Still, 1-1 it was, and I think the only other highlight was watching one bloke (a well known troublemaker I was reliably informed) being thrown out by the police and stewards.

Millwall are a bunch of dirty cloggers. Shaw for them was the one bright spark in an otherwise dull lot. Several of their players should have been booked, certainly the ones who were pulling Lee and Gifton's shirts all game. In the end the only name in the book was Micah Hyde's, I think (Keith Millen, actually - Pedantic Ed), and that was only after finally giving back what he'd been getting off their midfield.

Will I be going to the New Den again ? Not if I can help it. I hate Selhurst Park and Loftus Road, and it ranks right up there with them.