By Ian Grant
Nothing of any consequence happens on a Sunday evening. The invention of the wheel, the discovery of penicillin,
the abolition of slavery, the introduction of the backpass law...none of them happened while the people involved
were lounging around in front of "Monarch Of The Glen".
When you look back over your life, the vital, pivotal moments are all elsewhere, in the meat of the week, and
there are always pauses for breath in that one place. The nation's cultural activity changes to suit the
habit. Television, resolutely urban and fast-paced and issue-based through the week, allows us to escape into whimsical,
misty dreams of country life, where the only major sub-text is that nobody has to go to work on Monday morning. You can't
imagine "Last Of The Summer Wine" existing in any other place.
For precisely the same reason, there is no less flattering time for a football match. Over the years, the mind
and body becomes used to succumbing lazily to the embrace of the sofa on Sunday evening, to enjoying the warmth
of the central heating, to the need to be vacuous for just a few hours before the working week repeats itself again. Even on
the telly, football requires a certain amount of active participation if it is not to lose its purpose, to be a pantomime in an
empty theatre. "Some people are in their armchairs...they've fallen asleep...."
The amount of money being paid by television companies is no reason to allow them the freedom to rob the
beautiful game of its significance, any more than writing a cheque to the Tate Modern gives anyone the right to
wander round with a spraycan. As rumours of a breakaway league circulate once more, you wonder where exactly
it'll stop, where the line will be drawn. Or, if there is no line, whether anything that's worth more than
hard cash and brandname power will survive. Sacrifice, dependence, prostitution...the distinctions are
very blurred indeed.
Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I couldn't really tell if this was an exciting match or not. In
that it didn't excite me, it wasn't...but, as previously noted, the whole point of Sunday evenings is that
they're not exciting. In that it contained plenty of incident, some attractive football and was rather more
competitive than the scoreline suggests, it probably was...but we're into a circular argument there. In the
circumstances, that it was considerably better than the previous week's grimness is perhaps enough.
We were...well, not bad. Okay. Good, in some respects. In others, not so good. In between, as if by
prior arrangement, three defenders scored goals to make it all pleasantly irrelevant and therefore slightly
more Sunday-ish. Really, only Paul Robinson's fantastically furious post-match celebrations betrayed the fact
that this was football, something that people build their lives around.
Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps, as I say, it's merely that watching games at this time is like doing it
with a roaring cold, in that it places an immediate obstacle to potential involvement. Certainly, the opening
ten minutes were entertaining enough, and might've been more so had Micah Hyde taken the chance presented to him
by Tommy Smith's whirling skill and whipped cross. Instead, he headed against the face of the bar and watched
as the ball bounced far away behind him. Earlier, Pitt had slashed wide from twenty yards, given as much time
as he liked to consider his options when a Crouch knock-down came his way.
Equally, much might've been different had Crouch managed to beat Alec Chamberlain after horrendous, and not untypical, confusion between
Ramon Vega and Patrick Blondeau in attempting to shepherd the ball back to the keeper. Thankfully, the use
of the word "shepherd" is metaphorical, otherwise we'd have sheep wandering around all over the place. Crouch
took advantage of the confusion, but was denied by a quite superb stop from Chamberlain, spreading his body to
block as the striker attempted to clip the ball over him. Although it was the only really outstanding
save that he had to make in keeping another clean sheet, Chamberlain did tremendously well to prevent some of
his defenders from looking like fools, particularly in the early stages.
The rain became heavier, the temperature dropped, and the match appeared destined to disintegrate on cue from the
elements. Marcus Gayle headed firmly wide from a Blondeau cross, Tommy Smith wriggled into a shooting position
and was unable to cause Kawaguchi any problems. While neither side could claim to have the momentum, the game
had one of its own...but it was fading away, replaced by scrappy passing and slippy-slidey randomness.
A giant "hurrah!" for Robbo, then. He may not know the meaning of "efficiency" or "economy" or any of the
words that might be used to describe, say, Nigel Gibbs and that would adequately capture a superbly controlled
performance from Neil Cox alongside him. But he does know that if the ball falls your way when it's half-cleared
from a cross, then you bash it bloody hard back towards the goal. And if you've bashed it bloody hard enough in the
right direction and the keeper hasn't got anywhere near it and it's ended up in the bottom corner, it's your absolute
duty to act as if you were a ten year old who's just scored the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Premeditated
celebrations be damned. For countless reasons, and despite his faults, football can't do without players like Robbo,
and he lifted this encounter when it most needed it.
Granted, it didn't go anywhere much after that. From Stephen Glass' sideways free kick, Robinson sent a drive
swinging wide, then Hyde sent a shot looping over. Apart from admiring the hard work of certain players - most notably,
Glass on the left, whose contribution was both effective and determined in his own half, even if it allowed him little opportunity to
be creative - and hoping that it'd stop raining by quarter past eight, points of interest were relatively scarce. Until, that is,
we were treated to a gigantic mugshot of Doug Lawson on the big screen, which lingered for far longer than was
necessary with the presumed intention of lifting the crowd. The effect was rather different.
We continued in our somewhat basic way, doing enough to deny Portsmouth much of the game and too little to make a
significant impact ourselves. Then we scored again. Nobody deserved a goal more than Neil Cox, a point clearly agreed upon by the Portsmouth
defence, who generously stood around while he met Glass' corner and powered it into the net. As a summary of his
performance, it was just perfect. Nothing unnecessary, nothing flamboyant, nothing that you'd feel compelled to
watch again. Just getting the job done, never putting a foot wrong, absolutely exemplary throughout. Although
there are still defensive problems to sort out, we can be slightly reassured by the knowledge that there's
something for it all to form around.
Lucky half-time chocolate: Wispa Gold.
Reason: Lack of imagination.
Level of success: For the first time in a while, the lucky half-time chocolate was largely unnecessary. But still pleasant.
The second half was finely balanced, in that it hung between our inability to kill Portsmouth off and their inability
to get their comeback started. Although Micah Hyde missed a chance early on, sliding a shot wide when he might've
taken the ball further after receiving Paolo Vernazza's sublime through-ball, the visitors were perhaps the better
side after the interval, encouraged by their ever-noisy fans in the Vic Road end. But they never quite made the
breakthrough, creating half-chances rather than chances and only half-finishing them, as when Vincent's awkward
shot from another Crouch header hit an opponent on its way to causing Chamberlain problems. As a consequence, we
were always aware of the threat, yet never in sufficient peril for it to be distressing.
At the Rookery end, there was comparatively little to grab the attention. The occasional sharp turn from Tommy Smith aside, we were
starting to become too predictable...although, clearly, that's less important when your only real concern is to
avoid losing the game you've already won. Neil Cox flicked a cheeky free kick round the wall and a yard or so
wide, but Kawaguchi was otherwise untroubled.
Not so Alec Chamberlain, who saved easily enough from Bradbury's near post shot after we'd lost track of Harper
and allowed him to cut inside from the right wing into the penalty area, then watched Pitt's fierce cross fly
through his six yard box. And he could do nothing about Crouch's fine, elegant header, rising high
above his marker at the far post to meet another Pitt cross and nod back towards the opposite corner. It
brushed the woodwork on its way past.
The danger of surrendering the three points passed then, perhaps. Or perhaps it was when the referee turned
down the visitors' appeals for a penalty when Crouch appeared to be pulled back by Vega after reacting quicker
to Bradbury's flick. Shortly before, Chamberlain had produced a scrambling, eventually routine save from Crouch, who'd shown skill that would've surprised
those who've put him in a box (a very tall box, natch) marked "ABSURDLY LANKY CENTRE FORWARD" in flicking the ball
up and hooking it goalwards on the turn. For our part, we were attempting to settle, to assert ourselves...and, while never as
fluent or as lovely as we're capable of being, we were at least moderately solid and mostly combative. We've been here
before, of course, and your correspondent is wary of drawing conclusions when forthcoming opponents will provide
better opportunities to make judgements.
As befitted a game in which the goals were as incongruous as Christmas decorations on a cactus, we promptly finished
up by scoring again. Indeed, it should've been scoring again and again, as Gifton Noel-Williams somehow
managed to head over with only the keeper and the demonstrably annoyed Tommy Smith within five yards of him. But then
we won a free kick on the left side and Pierre Issa, who'd had a thoroughly Palmer-ish evening in an untidy but
effective way, stood around on the edge of the six yard box. Had he stood there for much longer, maps of the area
would've had to include him as a landmark...but that, it seemed, was of no interest to the Portsmouth defence, so
Glass curled a delightful cross onto his head and he scored from where he'd been standing all along. One from the
training ground, clearly.
So, back to mid-table. This was, well, all right. A result without a game to call its own, in a way. And, although
I'm perhaps under-selling the fact that we've finally managed to beat someone from the top half, there's a sense that games against Forest, Coventry, Palace and Wolves (and, to a lesser extent,
Charlton) will prove to be pretty pivotal for our season. After all, none of those fixtures will take place on a
Sunday evening, thus allowing for things of consequence to happen.
And, really, they need to start happening. A team can be average and it can be expensive...but it should
never be both.