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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 25/11/01
Active participation
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.