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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 18/03/03, 7.45pm
Terry's Chocolate Orange
By Ian Grant

Bloody Gillingham.

When a pigeon craps on your head as you walk down a crowded street, it's hard not to take it a little bit personally. When that pigeon follows you along as you walk, repeatedly crapping on your head while cooing loudly and contentedly...well, there is a point where rampant paranoia is revealed to be genuine persecution. There's also a point where an air rifle might come in handy.

And so it goes. Fairly obviously, there are reasons why our appalling recent record against Gillingham - one win in the last ten after last night - might be more than merely coincidental. Two reasons, really. One is obvious - Andy Hessenthaler, exactly the kind of competitive little sod that you don't want as a "former player with a point to prove". The second reason, when you think about it, is even more obvious - we've been rubbish against Teams Like Gillingham for about ten years....

Nothing much changes, then. Even our attempts to appeal to Mr Hessenthaler's better nature - including a presentation and (for once) a generous ovation to mark his 500th professional appearance before yesterday's game - have thus far had no effect. Predictably, he was still quicker to the ball than Anthony McNamee, twenty years his junior, on more than one occasion in the dying minutes. Don't you ever get tired, Andy?

Nothing much changes...except that this was a new variation on the theme. For sixty-four minutes, we were comfortably better than Gillingham, holding them at arm's length and creating enough chances to put the result beyond doubt. It wasn't a particularly one-sided game...but, in each of the individual contests, a Watford player had got the better of his opposition counterpart. Nor was it an especially entertaining spectacle...but it was considerably better than the restless, fidgety atmosphere, and the blank scoreline, suggested. Not that bad.

Yet, in many ways, that's extremely worrying in itself. For, having built the season upon a solid foundation of hard-fought victories in fixtures such as this, we appear to have lost the knack. Or just mislaid it, hopefully. Despite all the neat football and the penetrative attacking and the energetic pressing and the diligent defending, we were a soft touch here. You'd fancy your chances, really. For all of these things might've built towards an encouraging, enjoyable, confidence-building performance...but not without goals, something that we're finding increasingly hard to come by. Without goals, none of it amounts to very much...apart from an open invitation for opponents to nick one at the other end and scarper with the points.

Which is exactly what happened. You could read the script from the start, yet none of our efforts managed to change the course of events. Gillingham only emerged as potential winners once they'd scored, at which point their midfield woke up and their forwards began to relish the spaces left by our desperate attacks. And we only looked like losers then, falling apart like a Terry's Chocolate Orange given a hefty thwack. The goal transformed the entire game...but that's what happens. We failed, given countless opportunities to do so, to change it - permanently - in our favour.

Does it matter? Well, yes, it does. Very much. Leaving aside the Semi Final for now, there's still a great deal at stake here. For one thing, to conclude this pleasant surprise of a season with a series of squalid, frustrating defeats would be to do it a serious disservice. Everyone at the club - players, management, directors and, not least of all, supporters - deserves more than that. Even more importantly, psychology plays such a vital, pivotal role in everything, and we already know that finishing one season with shoulders slumped and heads down and crowd silent is poor preparation for the next. We have some credit stored up, of course...but now is not the best time to use it.

We need to turn it around, and soon. That this should've been the moment, and wasn't, only makes the need more urgent. Really, the first half should've yielded more than one goal, considering that we created many more chances than has been the norm. From the first couple of minutes, when Gavin Mahon burst enterprisingly from deep to strike a curling, arcing shot that beat Brown, hit the post and bounced down for Heidar Helguson to lose a scrap with a couple of defenders, we appeared intent on making possession count. From then on, the quantity of goal attempts was fairly admirable. The quality, however, let us down badly.

Despite receiving little encouragement from the stands - a hum of disinterested chatter doesn't count, I'm afraid - the initial signs were generally positive. After five minutes, Paul Robinson's ball into the space behind the Gills' defence allowed Heidar Helguson to power away and his finish, scraped across the face of goal with Brown scrambling, was decent given the tight angle. At the other end, Micah Hyde needed to hack Johnson's low shot from the line, after a Hessenthaler corner had found its way to the far post, to remind us that Gillingham would always be ready to take advantage of any lapses.

But, although Wallace completely mis-kicked after an Osborn break down the right, that was pretty much it from the visitors. As it turned out, our lapses would be of a different kind. And they weren't long in coming either. In a game that offered a surprising amount of attractive football, it was our fluent, mobile passing that brought the first real chance. A flowing move found Stephen Glass on the left corner of the penalty area and his cross found the head of Heidar Helguson, unmarked in a central position. That should've been that, and often has been. Instead, he nodded the ball down into the turf and Brown was relieved to make an easy save.

We did everything right, apart from the last and most essential bit. Another flowing move ten minutes later, and Paul Robinson dummied Stephen Glass' side-footed pass to let the ball run through to Heidar Helguson. From the left of the area, he drove the ball over the bar. Shortly afterwards, Neal Ardley thumped in a free kick from the left wing and it reached an unmarked Gavin Mahon, so surprised (and, presumably, unsighted) that he couldn't react quickly enough to prevent the ball striking his shins and bouncing back to the keeper. It was that kind of night.

And so it went on. Gillingham were in the game, certainly...but never in the game close enough to Alec Chamberlain's goal for it to matter terribly much. A couple of very wayward shots and a penalty appeal for handball against Marcus Gayle in injury time (ball to hand, without question...and the same applies to a similar appeal in the other direction later on), and that was about it. And yet, despite managing to sustain some kind of urgency in the lacklustre, low key atmosphere, we were still unable to capitalise on our evident superiority in everything except goal-scoring.

Honestly, I fail to see much validity in the idea that the players are distracted by the FA Cup. That might've been so before - and the Preston game was certainly an opportunity to build some momentum for the rest of the league season - but not now. Not really. There was no shortage of effort (nor, more importantly, no shortage of effective effort) and certain players (Heidar Helguson, inevitably...but also Tommy Smith, Micah Hyde, Gavin Mahon and others) threw themselves around with little thought for injury or suspension. It wasn't that at all. It was just...well, you know by now....

Further chances came and went in the remaining fifteen minutes of the first half. Stephen Glass drove a long range shot into the Vic Road end, before Micah Hyde's cross from the left came through to Gary Fisken, impressive in all but shooting, who sliced a half-volley into the side netting. And, finally, a fine Neal Ardley centre and a flick from someone in the crowd of forwards and defenders sent the ball through to Stephen Glass, and again a lack of decisive contact enabled Brown to collect easily when he might've been rummaging in the back of his net. I'm labouring the point, obviously...but the pain of repetition was even more acute at the time....

And so, after an unusual but delicious combination of pakoras (thanks, Fuzz!) and "lucky" (ahem) chocolate at half-time, we'll continue with the second half. Which was, at least for twenty minutes, much the same as the first. Albeit that the first goalmouth activity of any particular note, after Gary Fisken had skied a shot from distance, featured a Gillingham forward wasting an opportunity in much the same way as his opposition counterparts had earlier, as rebounds from a right wing cross sent the ball to an unmarked Shaw and he inadvertently knocked it safely to Alec Chamberlain. So we're not the only ones, at least.

Normal service was quickly resumed, however. And we should be fair to Heidar Helguson, for he alone created the game's clearest opening by closing down opposition defenders as they sought to pass the ball from the back. He does that constantly, tirelessly...and, just occasionally, something comes from it. This time, he got his boot to a clearance and it fell kindly, leaving an unopposed path to goal with defenders completely wrong-footed. But, as he approached the target, there was desperately little confidence in his finish. He struck it well enough, but Brown only needed to spread himself to parry on the edge of his area. The keeper did well. He shouldn't have been able to do anything.

The great groan from a suddenly awoken Vicarage Road did little for the striker's fragile confidence - for the first time this season, he looks as if he's burdened by his considerable responsibilities - yet there were still subsequent opportunities to make the miss irrelevant. A lofted pass from Paul Robinson, a stretching flick from Heidar Helguson, and Gary Fisken arrived at the far post to shoot rather excitedly over the bar. Another break, and Micah Hyde's stabbed shot went a few yards wide from twenty yards. And, even though you already knew how it was bound to end, it was still possible to believe that we'd score eventually. We just had to, surely....

Right first time, unfortunately. It followed the script...and you might not have noticed that Groves' winner for Grimsby came just a minute earlier than Shaw's for Gillingham. So it was the same bloody script. This time, when Hessenthaler's cross from the right was headed into the area by Osborn and struck Shaw on the knee, it didn't run kindly through to the keeper. Instead, the ball loitered in the six yard box, allowing Shaw to prod it in before Alec Chamberlain could intervene. One-nil. Goodnight.

You'd probably prefer to remain ignorant about the rest, I think. For we rapidly collapsed into a complete shambles, even allowing for the fact that we had a couple of decent stabs at an equaliser. Suddenly, this was a Gillingham game, in which their scurrying midfield could leave us with no passing options except one to the wrong colour shirt and their pacy attack could exploit spaces on the counter-attack. Except that it wasn't really counter-attack, since we were rarely able to get that far forward. It suited them, it made us look like a ragged, disorganised, error-prone mess of a team. The concern is, of course, that we will become exactly that if results don't improve quickly.

While the immediate arrival of Anthony McNamee caused a flurry of excitement, particularly when he picked up the ball and darted past a couple of tackles and drove a low shot at Brown from twenty yards, we quickly appeared in more danger of conceding a second. And it should've happened, as defensive disintegration allowed Johnson to break on the right and sweep the ball across to Wallace, inside the area and with only Alec Chamberlain for company. Inexplicably, he fouled it up completely, swiping an aimless, careless half-volley past the post while most of Vicarage Road held its breath. This was not a game of textbook finishing.

A draw would've been an awful result. A goal would've been a blessed relief, though. As time dragged on, our ambitions were scaled down - win, draw, have a bleedin' shot - until they were shattered altogether by the final whistle. By then, we had, at least, managed to get a couple of goal attempts in. First, a foul on the battling Helguson offered Stephen Glass a chance to repeat the trick, which, urged on by all around, he duly attempted to do. But it had neither the accuracy nor the element of surprise, and Brown beat the firm shot away at a comfortable height. And finally, in injury time, a long ball and a flick...and suddenly Gifton Noel-Williams was around the keeper and heading the ball towards an empty net...and Nosworthy was diving back to clear around the post....

And that, my friends, is probably much more than you needed to know. And plenty more than I wanted to write. For the positive aspects of this game were simply obliterated by our failure to score. And, whatever happens in the Cup, we need to be very concerned that the same might happen to our season.