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FA Cup 3rd Round, 11/12/99
Birmingham City
The magic of the FA Cup
By Ian Grant

To follow the example of Matt's preview....

(adj.) wretch´ed (-id) very miserable: unfortunate, pitiable: distressingly bad: despicable: worthless.

dismal dizmðl (adj.) gloomy: dreary: sorrowful: depressing. -n unlucky days (obs.): a swamp (U.S.): a dismal person: (in pl.) the dumps: (in pl.) mournings (obs.)

All of the above and more.

Having struggled to find words damning enough for last week's humiliation, I was hoping to be able to write about this one without needing to resort to the dictionary for inspiration. Not to be, not to be.

The attendance says it all, in so many ways. How quickly the glory-hunters and thrill-seekers melt away along with the glory and the thrills. How obvious it is that the club's core support remains exactly the same as before the two promotions, only with morale and trust damaged by insensitive, short-termist ticket pricing and distribution policies.

Seven thousand loyal supporters, clinging to memories of success and vain hopes of improvement. This is the real Watford Football Club, the Watford Football Club that many of us grew up with, and the reason why we cried when Allan Smart scored on May 31st. That moment, as with the four-nil at Kenilworth Road, felt like the end of a era. It could still be the end of an era...but not if we're going to capitulate like this.

Please God, let this be the low point. Faced by a Birmingham side without any recognised strikers (I'll ignore the obvious smart-arse comment) and with further selection problems elsewhere, we were so utterly without conviction that awful and shameful defeat turned from nightmare into reality. We got what we deserved. Having witnessed two of the finest Watford performances of the decade so far this season, this was unquestionably one of the worst. If you'll excuse the necessarily industrial language, it was a f***ing disgrace.

The point being that a slump in confidence is understandable. We're struggling, it happens. Just as we felt invincible earlier in the year, so we feel vulnerable now. Now matter how much most of us knew that there'd be moments of despair and that our fate would depend on our reaction to them, it's easier to stay positive in theory than in practice. As long as footballers are human beings, then all these clichés will be true.

As many had noted, here was an opportunity to start re-building some of that confidence. For twenty minutes after half-time on Saturday, we were slowly and tentatively edging in the right direction. It was painful to watch, a side that was once so great learning to walk again, but the signs were that our slow progress would result in a winning goal sooner or later.

And then, just as last week, we lost our concentration at a set piece. If we don't somehow recover our ability to defend with some resilience, then all the attacking reconstruction in the world is not going to do us the slightest bit of good. One step forward...on a downwards escalator.

The first half was just an absolute f***ing abortion, the tangled wreckage of what might've been a football match. So much effort, so little composure. There was no repeat of our recent bright starts, just a depressed, chilled silence in the half-empty stands that was echoed by grim, grey stalemate on the pitch. It was unspeakable.

Of course, this makeshift Birmingham side was always going to be reliant on set pieces. If you've got no strikers, then you need to make the most of the opportunities for your tallest players to rumble forward and win some headers. As the opposition, you just need to keep your marking tight, defend with some care and earn praise for the clean sheet.

To repeat, that's "keep your marking tight, defend with some care and earn praise for the clean sheet". Not "ignore marking, defend with gay abandon and let Alec worry about the clean sheet". Our desperate failings were exposed within five minutes - the corner was nothing particularly special, yet nobody reacted quickly enough to Rowett's near post run and his header flicked off the top of the bar. It was a wasted chance, it was also a warning.

We just couldn't kick into gear. Our opponents did the expected - they closed us down and kept their shape, all purpose, determination and discipline - and even that most basic organisation proved to be too much for us. After Nordin Wooter had departed early on, endless hopeful punts upfield played into the hands of the Birmingham rearguard - any flick-ons that Michel Ngonge did win were beyond the half-fit and labouring Nick Wright. No intelligence, no patience, no imagination, no composure, no width, no quality. Only once was the Birmingham goal seriously threatened, Charlie Miller's ambitious but brilliant half-volley from distance dipping just over after eighteen minutes. The rest was utter garbage - no gap in quality because there was no quality.

Indeed, Birmingham might've dealt the killer blow rather earlier than they did. Holland beat Neil Cox in the twenty-eighth minute and drove his shot at the near post, bringing a decent parry from Alec Chamberlain. Fifteen grotesquely uneventful minutes later, our inability to defend set pieces again reared its ugly head as Hughes headed over from a left wing free kick. We were a shambles.

The three first half bookings spoke volumes. All completely avoidable, the consequence of players desperately trying to make an impact and ending up hacking randomly at anything that moved. Richard Johnson and Robert Page both received cards for unnecessary late tackles before Paul Robinson claimed the dunce's cap, losing his head so spectacularly that he ended up piling in two-footed on Johann Gudmundsson in a left wing melée and then doing the same to an opponent to complete the madness.

So we finished the half without a shot on target, without creating a single half-chance and somewhat fortunate to be level. The jeers were fully justified. It was an appalling display.

What followed was better. Stuttering and faltering, perhaps, but it was better. For twenty minutes, there was only one side in the game as the Hornets finally applied some pressure. Ngonge's snap-shot was deflected over in the third minute, and Poole made his first save from Micah Hyde's awkward shot through a crowd after the resulting corner was half-cleared. Robinson drove wide as, to our credit, we persistently tried to overcome the general lack of cohesion.

The finest move of the match created the first clear-cut chance. Nick Wright's battling on the right wing ended with him forcing the ball through to Neil Cox and sprinting into the area. Cox's cut-back was accurate and intelligent, leaving Wright with a clear sight of goal from ten yards - he chose to blast it when a more measured finish might've been the better option, and Poole pulled off a brilliant save. Five minutes later, Robinson loitered unmarked on the right wing after delivering a corner and, supplied by Palmer, advanced towards the area before scraping a cross-shot towards goal. Wright pounced at the near post, but diverted the ball wide when a more accurate finish would surely have given Watford the lead.

There was cause for optimism for the first time. Beating this patchwork Birmingham side might not have been the greatest of achievements...but, at this stage and with this level of despondency, we'll cling to anything that gives us hope. Our finishing remained erratic...yet with Nick Wright suddenly rejuvenated and, of all people, Johann Gudmundsson looking sprightly on the left, the win that we all craved was conceivable. Slowly and nervously, we were putting the first half behind us and facing up to the challenge.

But our fragile recovery was shattered by the Birmingham goal. It was a carbon copy of the first half corner, except that Rowett buried the header this time. We'd been warned, we'd not heeded the warning. It is shocking how far we've fallen.

The rest was as predictable as it was awful. Our confidence fell back to zero, the home crowd was silenced apart from occasional squeals of anguish. It became a ghoulish, ghastly spectacle - nobody wanted the ball and, as our passing disintegrated, nobody received the ball. Birmingham retreated and shut us out. Gudmundsson's curled shot was tipped over by Poole, a routine save for the City keeper, and Page headed over from a Robinson free kick...but there was no stopping the slide towards defeat, no recovering the situation. An uphill struggle is one thing, an uphill struggle when you've just shot yourself in the foot is quite another.

The replacement of Nick Wright with Nigel Gibbs was met with further disquiet in the stands, something that ignored the obvious fact that Wright, most dangerous player or not, was utterly exhausted. And it was Gibbs, still the best crosser of a ball at the club, who supplied Ngonge with a headed opportunity with three minutes remaining - as if to sum up the afternoon, it hit him on the ear and bounced fifteen yards wide. It wasn't until the final minute that Watford managed to induce any sort of panic within the Birmingham defence, as Palmer's hopeful lob into the box got Poole flapping and prompted a bit of a scramble during which the ball just wouldn't fall kindly.

The final whistle was, inevitably, greeted with wild celebration in the Vic Road end and righteous fury everywhere else. It was one of those moments when there's nothing to say, everything communicated by deep sighs and facial expressions as friends and acquaintances say farewell for another week.

If this is hardly the greatest match report I've ever written, then you'll just have to forgive me. Rarely have I felt less like writing about a game. This one was a complete stinker.

That'll be the magic of the FA Cup done with for another season, then....