By Matt Rowson
Another away gubbing. It's been going on too long now; there's no sharp pain with the shock any more. Just the dull ache of the impact and an ever-growing and possibly character-scarring trauma that will take a long, long time to ease away.
On the way out of Birmingham on Saturday, "A Clockwork Orange" popped into my head for some reason. I've never watched the film, of course, as that would almost certainly have been illegal. However, had I done, certain images would have been starkly imprinted on my memory. Not least...Alex's desensitisation. Arrested for horrendous crimes, his correction involves being forcibly exposed to the most horrific, nauseating scenes, his eyes pinned open in front of large cinema screens.
Sounds a bit like this season, doesn't it? Don't know what we've done, mind. Someone, somewhere is a Bolton fan.
We will go down, of course. But it will get better first; I've no doubt of that. The pressure will recede, the critical squad members will return. By the time we play United and Arsenal we'll be red-eyed and fighting again - relegated, but fighting. And the bizarre thing is... much as this season has been difficult and painful, much as we want it to be over, I'm still much happier supporting my team than I would be if we ever became the foul, stinking atrocity that is Manchester United, or even the preening nonsense that is Arsenal.
The dogged defiance that defines Leicester, however, is surely something to aspire to. A club that has upset the likes of Ken Bates and Arsène Wenger in the space of little under a fortnight must be doing something right. Even Steve Walsh's dismissal for assaulting Chris Sutton, disgraceful behaviour though it assuredly was, must be given the postscript "but we'd all have done it".
The source of much of Leicester's flak has been the stifling tactics O'Neill has employed in the face of an injury crisis which is the only one in the Premiership to rival our own. Watford are different, of course, because nobody's heard of the players so they must all be rubbish anyway. But when you consider that the only realistic alternative to Leicester's highly successful suffocating football was capitulation along the lines of our own, it's difficult to justify the criticism. We'd have taken the sour grapes, and gladly, if it meant a few more points.
The thing is, for all their cup heroics, City have been finding things tough in the league of late. The win over Boro on Saturday was their first since late November, and even then captain Matt Elliott was forced to concede that the three points were "slightly fortunate". The ever-graceful Bryan Robson was probably a bit stronger in his assessment.
Many of Leicester's problems result from an injury list that on Saturday featured Steve Guppy, Tony Cottee, Ian Marshall and the astonishingly over-rated Emile Heskey, whilst Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet both played, despite being far from match fit.
The limitations of City's forward cover have meant that, with Heskey, Cottee and Marshall out, Elliott and potential Turkish cap Izzet have formed an emergency front-line; that both City's goals on Saturday were scored by their opponents is probably not a coincidence. Stan Collymore's name has been widely mentioned, although O'Neill insists that his transfer doesn't represent a gamble. The validity of this sort of depends on how much Leicester are offering to pay, but should he arrive before Saturday we can take heart from the knowledge that he's never scored against the Hornets. Even when he was good.
Injuries aside, there have been several positives to City's season... the signing of Darren Eadie, improving with every game and looking far more robust than the fragile winger we remember at Norwich. Stefan Oakes, carving out a regular place in the midfield. Gerry Taggart, finally the brutal and effective centre half he always threatened to be. Tim Flowers, finally back to his old England form.
Nonetheless, City are in far from fine fettle as they approach Saturday. In addition to the lingering injuries, Frank Sinclair has left to join the Jamaican squad for the upcoming CONCACAF tournament, and Steve Walsh seems likely to face a suspension for the Sutton incident, which probably means that Elliott will be required to protect his own goal with Taggart and Gilchrist. With four players facing suspension for the Worthington Cup Final if they pick up a card on Saturday, our chances could be far worse.
Returning to "A Clockwork Orange" finally. The film revolves around the dishonesty of a mentality that boxes "criminals" distinctly from "decent people", the hypocrisy of a society that seeks to impose its definition of "right and wrong" by the same removal of free will that its criminals are punished for. This is good, this is bad, and you will accept it.
The late Stanley Kubrik probably wouldn't have enjoyed "Match of the Day", where the Ludovico treatment is increasingly applied in relation to Watford. Paul Merson good, Watford bad, Paul Merson good, Watford bad. Watford a bit hard done by with that first goal? Bleurgh, never!
Rest assured, Lineker. If the unthinkable happens on Saturday, we'll remember you're watching.