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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 26/9/01
Birmingham City
Throwing it away
By Matt Rowson

Here's a question. What has sharp teeth, four legs, sits on top of mountains at night howling at the moon and is made of cement? Answer: A coyote. The cement? I just threw that in to make it hard....

Speaking of which; to say we're going through a building period at the moment would be something of an understatement. Not just a new team but an entirely new ethos, as GT might put it. During this period, results might not always go the way we want, and the support bites its tongue instinctively. These things take time, after all, and it's not as if Luca's been hanging around stuffing up play-off semi-finals for years, is it ?

But given that things will take time to gel, given that we're not yet the all-conquering Vialli Army that many clearly anticipate, why do we feel the need to make life so bloody hard for ourselves?

The pointlessness of endless periods of possession was a frustration last week. This evening we played a team with a far less defensive stance, the lack of eight men behind the ball obstructing each attack rendering the frequent absence of a killer pass less crucial.

Instead, we gifted City goals, not once but twice at the start of each half. We're used to starting slowly by now, but on this occasion the earliest exchanges were bright and encouraging with the Hornets moving the ball quickly and taking the game to their visitors. That is...until City won the ball, which they played effortlessly past the defence and the dozing Vega to Hughes, who finished clinically. With the game less than five minutes old we were a goal down, the City players celebrating with customary grace in front of the Rookery.

Watford pushed forward immediately, Gayle having the first threatening attempt on target, punching a header across the face and narrowly wide. Watford's pressure began to mount, abetted in no small part by our visitors' evident nervousness and lack of cohesion which invited pressure and offered possession. It wasn't long, thankfully, before the scores were level, Smith adding that so-often-missing last touch to a flowing move by making a bold run into the box to invite the final pass from Robinson before finishing comfortably. Relief all round.

But before being able to build upon the goal, the Hornets were forced into a complete rethink with two players leaving the field injured. Pierre Issa, who lay prone on the turf clutching his shoulder following an uncomfortable fall, became the third Watford player to be stretchered off in consecutive games, although he barely made it to the touchline before his bulk proved too much for one stretcher-bearer, who dropped him comically but no doubt uncomfortably onto the turf.

Amongst this disruption, Micah Hyde also left the field, if a little less conspicuously, presumably also with a knock. The appointed replacements were debutant Lloyd Doyley, who formed a three man back line with Vega and Robbo, and the ever-popular Wooter in an unaccustomed central midfield role.

After this, spurred on by the goal and by City's evident discomfort, the screw was turned, with Cox and Glass in particular using the space they found in wide positions. Cox it was who gave Watford the lead for the first time, a trademark thumping header from a left wing corner and the second season running in which the former Villa man has scored in this fixture. Splendid.

Watford continued to enjoy possession for the remainder of the half without generating more than a couple of optimistic long-range shots on goal; Birmingham, meanwhile, had failed to muster a single on-target attempt since their early lead. They made two changes at half-time, including one that was dreaded for a number of reasons; the sight of the Moonster in a Birmingham shirt of all things, not to mention the potential for him to make his trademark at-the-death incursion.

As it turned out, Mooney's contribution to events didn't stretch much beyond receiving his ovation and returning in kind at the end of the game. Instead, the waves parted again early in the second half to shepherd in Geoff Horsfield. Bang, there goes the other foot.

And the second period continued in ludicrous fashion, frankly. Whilst Birmingham never looked as thoroughly wretched as they had in the first half, we created any number of chances to seal the points but were denied by a combination of resolute goalkeeping, poor finishing and, particularly on this occasion, plain bad luck.

Vega was the first to go close; Marcus Gayle, who is still unconvincing as a target man but looks decent whenever he breaks wide, swivelled on the by-line and belted a cross to the far post where the Swiss centre back's header was agonisingly close to the top corner.

More enjoyable still would have been a cute lob from Fisken, who continues to impress with fearless midfield displays; Vaesen was perhaps not far enough out, but the dropping chip from the teenager was close enough for heads to be clasped behind the goal in the Rookery.

Cox came close on two occasions, one ferocious cross shot which was heading goalwards but was deflected over following a break inside, and a second at a free kick later on when the deliberate step of not have a wall allowed Vaesen a clear view of the shot screaming inches over the crossbar.

Glass was again finding plenty of space wide also, and using it to good effect sent another low, evil ball across the face of Birmigham's goal, the Watford forwards not up with play and unable to capitalise.

The best chance came to Smith who, having beaten the linesman's unpredictable flag, homed in on goal but took a step too many on his way round the keeper and was forced too far wide. Vaesen did well to make life difficult for the striker; many other forwards would have sought a penalty from such a situation so it's to Smith's credit that he stayed on his feet. I guess.

Smith was foiled a second time by Vaesen, on this occasion a shot perhaps too close to the keeper on the near side when a shot across the face might have been more successful. This may, in fact, have been an earlier incident; it says something for the chaos of the second half that the goalmouth action has blended into a timeless mush.

Meanwhile, City were looking far more dangerous on the counter, and applying some pressure with a number of forced corners. Doyley, with his excitable demeanour, long throw and attacking instincts needs only the propensity to make a bee-line for goal whenever he gains possession to be the spit of Ben Iroha. His often vital support to the attacking play was tampered with a defensive nervousness which gifted some openings to City.

The introduction of Helguson for Wooter, earlier flattened by a clumsy challenge from Holdsworth, was christened "no.47 in a series of bizarre substitutions" by ig. Three seasons ago, Steve Palmer played in every shirt number, this season seems set to see Heidar fill in in every outfield position. Except centre-forward, natch. This time his involvement from midfield was telling as his aggressive run was picked out exquisitely by Smith on the right flank, Helguson's measured cross finding Glass diviing in on the far post to head into an empty net. The goal of the game, and quite exhilarating.

There were grumbles on the way out of the ground regarding the justification (or lack of) for the free kick from which Grainger, so completely out of sorts until that point, scored the equaliser. These miss the point a little, as the hanging of blame for a result around an official's neck so often does. The fact is, random incursions from referees, unlucky bounces, isolated moments of inspiration even are part and parcel of the game. The third goal wasn't really anyone's fault (although one wonders if, in the absence of a wall, Espen might have seen Grainger's excellent dipping effort earlier). But it shouldn't have mattered. We were much better than City on the night, and should have capitalised on our chances making such a turn of events obsolete.

It would have been nice if the tedious timewasting that characterised much of City's play during any period of parity during the game came back to bite Francis during this spell, but the officials weren't generous with added time. Indeed it was City who came closest to grabbing a winner, hearts in mouths as the ball bounced torturously around the Watford penalty area.

So a vastly improved performance, albeit against a team readier to allow us to play, but points carelessly dropped like the change from a late bar round. There's clearly plenty of ability in this squad, but we could do without chucking in the cement at every opportunity. We could have been going home with three points and more pressure on Tricky Trev. Instead, the howling revolution will have to start on Sunday.