Main Menu
What's New
01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 06/04/02
Sheffield United
Fan Dissuasion Day
By Ian Grant

Another week, another match report. Another sunny Sunday wasted trying to find words that don't require multiple asterisks, trying to make reasonable comment on patently unreasonable nonsense.

Two more weeks to go. Two more meaningless games to endure. Two more match reports to write, two more sunny Sundays to be wasted. At least pre-season friendlies are easy to ignore....

If the 21st of April, and the Gillingham match that will finally put us out of our apparently infinite misery, is designated "Fan Appreciation Day", then what on earth was this? "Fan Dissuasion Day"? "Fan Repulsion Day"? Whatever, it cleared the ground more efficiently than a fire alarm.

My word, the empty stands - in particular, both tiers of the Rous can have contained no more than half of their original occupants by the final whistle - spoke volumes here. A very British reaction, in a way...a kind of polite protest, like the people in a train carriage shuffling away from a raving lunatic without making eye contact. As Luca Vialli has been forced to discover, you can't expect people to offer vocal support for a team that doesn't supply anything tangible in return. And you can't force them to stay and watch while it falls apart either.

There was anger, of course, but the utter apathy was more striking. This was a sad, pathetic performance - the performance, indeed, of a side whose manager has made it quite clear that results are not a priority in the remaining games - and it deserved no passion from the stands in return. To be beaten three-nil at home by extremely average opponents is ultimately forgivable. It happens, although hopefully not often. But to let it happen with barely a murmur of objection or a gesture of resistance is to surrender your pride entirely, to leave your paying customers abandoned and lost. It happened, and the club ought to be very, very worried about the implications.

Beyond mere blind loyalty to something more than a team and its manager, and the need to find something to fill Saturday, why would anyone bother coming back after this? What was there to earn anyone's interest, let alone devotion, beyond the three or four individual performances that just about prevented complete disintegration? Of course, we all want this season to end and the next to begin...but, as long as money changes hands at the turnstiles, there is no excuse for this. No excuse at all. Although it would be quite pleasant to hear an attempt at an excuse from the management, in place of the usual dull platitudes.

Honest mistakes are made, noted, remembered...but, hopefully, forgiven. Managers have to make decisions, and they're not always right. You play Gavin Mahon in the centre of defence to have a look at him in that position when there's nothing much at stake, and he flounders appallingly. Fair enough. You put Gary Fisken out on the right flank to see if he can adapt to the role in the way that Allan Nielsen has, and he flounders slightly less appallingly. Fair enough too. And so on, and so on. That kind of stuff is comparatively trivial, easy to criticise but hardly cause for the return of capital punishment.

But, just as Luca Vialli must question whether the right message is being given to the team about these remaining games, so experienced players ought to have lost sleep last night. For Paul Robinson's display was an absolute, randomised mess; Patrick Blondeau was a vapid non-presence once again; Micah Hyde disappeared for long periods, popped up to mis-place a pass occasionally, and disappeared again. While Tommy Smith and Danny Webber darted around up front and were sometimes allowed to have the ball too, and Paul Okon anchored the midfield until others decided to cut the rope and drift out to open sea, and Neil Cox attempted to lead the side to somewhere more pleasant, the rest simply collapsed like a punctured hot air balloon.

The result was harsh. And deservedly so.

The tedium of the first half was punctuated by a couple of Sheffield United goals and occasional bursts of pacy skill from the excellent Danny Webber. That those around me were distractedly munching chocolate - not lucky, it's safe to assume - within fifteen minutes of kickoff tells you all that you need to know about the entertainment on offer. Once again, it was a bad game rather than an uneventful one. Once again, the distinction is meaningless.

In the early stages, Danny Webber flung himself at a Gary Fisken cross after a darting run from Tommy Smith and made no contact, before Lee Cook's shot was deflected wide by a defender. So far, so average...until Lovell beat the flailing Gavin Mahon in pursuit of a ball over the top, bided his time as he advanced into the penalty area and crossed low through a crowd of stationary defenders for Javary to score from four yards. The reaction, bizarrely, from the Rookery was a smattering of congratulatory applause rather than the traditional raging.

And so it continued. In a rare moment of genuine commitment, Patrick Blondeau raced forward to complete a smart move down the right with a half-volley at Devogt from twenty yards within a minute. But, otherwise, there was no reaction from the Hornets, no indignant surge towards an equaliser. Ndlovu crossed weakly to Alec Chamberlain when Fisken conceded possession and Blondeau offered little opposition; Lee Cook, whose confidence is suddenly in pieces, wellied the ball behind to waste fine work from Webber in holding off a defender to get on the end of a hopeful knock from Neil Cox. Jagielka headed wide from a free kick; Webber, the only serious threat, finished a jinking run at the rapidly retreating Page with a drive at Devogt. Fidgeting, sarcasm, unstifled yawns.

There was none of our previous strength and resilience here, none of that ferocious will to win, demonstrating that it owed much to the departed Wayne Brown and the injured Filippo Galli. To an extent, the competitive edge remained...but it was so lacking in focus and concentration as to be irrelevant. It was an absolute bloody mess, in short.

So, with Mahon struggling again, Ndlovu sliced a volley high and wide. Then Robinson, having a desperate afternoon, slipped in trying to control and turn at the same time, presenting the ball to D'Jaffo in the process. His attempt at a recovery involved hurling himself horizontally at his departing opponent, bringing him down by head-butting his knee and receiving lengthy treatment and a yellow card for his trouble. Idiotic, but hilariously so. Rather less hilarious, however, when Jagielka was allowed to meet the free kick and shuffle the ball into the bottom corner on the volley.

God, it seemed as if the interval would never come. Four minutes of injury time, during which Gavin Mahon was hurt in throwing himself into a tackle and stretchered off, meant that the first half didn't finish until nearly four o'clock. By that time, people were wandering around, stretching their legs and seeking refreshment like long-distance car passengers at a service station. Even the booing was bored and distracted, habitual rather than heart-felt. Fortunately, Alec Chamberlain managed to stay awake to field Tonge's surprise free kick from a position better suited to a cross.

If it matters, the second half was a bit better, in the way that a cup of cold tea is more palatable than a cup of cold sick. Although Anthony McNamee was kept under control and Heidar Helguson's aggression failed to achieve anything, they at least gave Sheffield United something to think about. That we hit the woodwork twice and wasted a couple of presentable chances indicates that the scoreline might've been more bearable...but that's not enough at this stage, really. A second half fightback would've erased much that desperately needed erasing, but the possibility barely seemed to arouse our interest....

The time dragged terribly. For the most part, we were seated, grumpy and bored. After five minutes, we were on our feet as McNamee had a cross blocked and tried again, Paul Okon played the ball to Micah Hyde when he might've tried a shot, Hyde's effort was stopped by a defender, Okon knocked the ball back in, Hyde headed on, Helguson was caught offside. This, in its entirety, was our attempt at attacking with a bit of stirring passion. Then we sat down again.

At the back, the replacement of Gavin Mahon with Lloyd Doyley added some energy but little direction, and Lovell ought to have scored when left unmarked to meet a cross from the right. Instead, he volleyed narrowly wide from eight yards. Mind you, Danny Webber will also feel that he should've done better when he neatly controlled a Cox cross and mis-kicked inside the six yard box. Still, his presence brought movement, direction and purpose to a side lacking these and countless other attributes, and he nearly made up for the miss with a firm, low shot after a sneaky run inside from the left. Devogt saved smartly, which was a novelty.

In a sense, the game was hanging in the balance. Nobody noticed, nobody cared. Tonge escaped on the right wing, and Javary diverted the driven cross into the side netting at the near post. Danny Webber showed determination in winning a bouncing ball, then sent in an accurate centre for Tommy Smith, who headed over from barely six yards. Immediately, a clearance was flicked on and Lovell out-paced Doyley before burying a dipping half-volley into the bottom corner. The noise of the away fans' celebrations was drowned out by the sound of seats emptying all around the rest of the ground. People had had enough. People have had enough.

The rest was much the same. If Danny Webber, as well as the supporters who'd remained to test the limits of their endurance, thoroughly deserved a consolation goal, it just wasn't that kind of afternoon. Webber was inches away from connecting with a low cross from Helguson, then sent an effort bobbling wide from the edge of the box. From a McNamee corner, Neil Cox stretched to reach the ball at the far post and headed firmly against the face of the bar. Two minutes later, Webber also struck the woodwork, running onto a Helguson flick and unlucky to see his shot deflected onto the outside of the post by Page's leg. An eternity later, the referee's whistle echoed around a near-empty Vicarage Road.

Yeah, the result doesn't really matter. Except that it's precisely that slack, careless, bring-on-next-season approach that has created a result so absolutely atrocious that it does bloody matter. Even if a promotion challenge can be sustained during the next campaign, it is entirely unreasonable to expect supporters to part with their hard-earned cash and waste their precious time for something so abysmal, so entirely devoid of purpose or pride in the meantime.

As long as fans pay for their tickets and players pick up their wage cheques, the season is not over. There are two games left.

You owe us.