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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 05/03/05, 3.00pm
Coventry City
Somewhere else
By Ian Grant

Somewhere in the world, there's a beach with golden sands that stretch as far as eyesight can follow. Right now, it's thirty-five degrees, with a delightful cooling breeze that playfully tickles the back of your neck as you wander over for a glass of fresh mango juice in the shade of the nearby café. "It's on the house, sir."

Somewhere else, there's a bowl of steaming noodles with crisp vegetables and succulent tofu and lashings of savoury seaweed, just waiting for you to dig the chopsticks in and satisfy your appetite. Elsewhere, even as we speak, there's a relaxed, friendly bar with a warming fire and an inviting armchair, and there's a perfectly-poured pint of Guinness waiting to be brought over. These things all exist, somewhere.

Perhaps not so very far away, there's rich, leafy woodland where you can wander undisturbed for hours, and where you can let nature set the tempo for your life rather than telephone calls, e-mails, appointments, deadlines, clutter, stress. There's a silent room with a copy of Beckett's First Love, a well-charged glass of single malt and a "Do Not Disturb" sign. There's a deafening, blood-rushing club that's open for as long as you want it to be, plays all of your favourite tunes, doesn't charge thirty quid for a small bottle of beer, and has a door policy that actually excludes wankers. Somewhere.

Somewhere else, there's a band playing; if you're lucky, it might be Hood. Right now, in one of the planet's billions of living rooms, a television is on, and they're repeating the final episode of that series that you avidly followed for thirty-seven episodes before your video decided to tape the wrong channel.

And somewhere, there's a football pitch surrounded by a healthy crowd that's utterly engrossed in a contest that offers a delicate balance between the game's more artistic, creative elements and its infinite, interwoven strategies, with a few brutal tackles for those who like that kind of thing and a few bits of admirable defensive back-tracking for me.

Somewhere. But not bloody here.

Nobody is without imagination. We all have dreams, carried with us wherever we go in hope more than expectation...but with a little expectation nevertheless. And that, perhaps, explains the thoroughly half-hearted nature of yesterday's proceedings, for nobody can have been unaware that these were wasted hours, dribbled tediously away while others went in search of fulfilled dreams. Somewhere, someone spent the afternoon of Saturday 5th March 2005 doing something that they'll remember forever, that they'll take to the grave as a personal, irreplaceable treasure. And it wasn't me. And it wasn't you either.

Instead, we half-heartedly watched a half-hearted game of football that, somehow or other, managed to produce a whole-hearted scoreline. And the rather unfortunate side-effect of that scoreline is to make it all look quite interesting and worthwhile. Let me tell you, it wasn't. It was nonsense on toast. There were certainly mitigating circumstances, and we'll delve into those later on, but there was nothing that could mitigate either the utter tedium of it all or the evil cold that seemed to forego outward expression - a sharply gusting wind, perhaps, but no frost or ice or snow - in favour of total possession of the soul. Really, with all the world's infinite possibilities, it's worth spending a moment or two wondering how we ended up with this one.

Typically, the whole fiaso didn't even have the good grace to hit any particular extremities. As a match, it was rubbish...but we've all seen worse, even if we try hard not to recall what, when, how and why. As a performance, it lacked a great many things...but, again, we've all seen worse, and anyone who expresses genuine outrage ought to be asked to produce their Brighton ticket before being listened to. Instead, it was just poor, in a shambling, tawdry kind of way. It wasn't as if we left the house having forgotten to put any trousers on; rather, we just wandered about with our shoelaces and flies undone, having not bothered to brush our teeth. Nothing that'd get you arrested; nothing that'd win you any new friends either.

More than anything, though, it's a reminder of the cautionary messages of last summer, for a side so utterly lacking in experience cannot be expected to produce draws at Wigan on a weekly basis. Back in August, the midfield cover looked terribly thin and, having wondered what would happen if injuries struck down both Gavin Mahon and Brynjar Gunnarsson, we should be terribly grateful to fate that we haven't had to find out until now. The club has surely never fielded such a young midfield foursome as this unless through choice, and it was completely out of its depth here: each of these players has a future, each has taken a turn to impress in recent weeks, but they were flailing and floundering hopelessly, lost in private battles that they couldn't hope to win. This side would've been relegation fodder.

But that's another of those infinite possibilities, and one that we haven't had to explore. The frantic whistles of the Coventry fans during injury time reminded us that we haven't been to the desperate, nail-biting edge at any point during this season: there have been games that have mattered very much, of course, but none that've felt as if they've held the club's fortunes hostage. In other circumstances, this would be dreary mediocrity; in these, it's a very considerable achievement. The problem is that it doesn't inspire in quite the same way as peaks and troughs, and there's a certain complacency evident in some quarters: otherwise, it's hard to explain, for example, why the Rookery would choose to give more stick to a player (Gary McSheffrey) for their Luton connections than to another (Stephen Hughes) for their role in nearly bankrupting the club. In every respect, an uncertain and vague afternoon.

And "uncertain" and "vague" get you beat when you're playing against a team in a corner, especially in this division. It would be hard to claim that Coventry did anything much to deserve victory beyond taking a couple of their meagre ration of chances with astonishing, out-of-context aplomb. In the main, they were as bland as everything else, and they've certainly yet to acquire the obnoxious, bullying attitude that Micky Adams will surely require in the long-term; we should particularly regret our failure to exploit a defence that fell apart with the slightest nudge, backed by a keeper who flapped indistinctly whenever his intervention was required. We've let this bunch beat us twice, for heaven's sake. How did that happen?

It happened with a first half that seemed to last for about seventeen hours as far as I was concerned, and about twenty minutes from Matt's point of view. Either way, the action that took place during that elastic expanse of time could've been squeezed into thirty seconds without any editing; for notepad enthusiasts, I include the fact that my scribblings barely cover half a page, and even then include completely harmless attempts from Messrs. McSheffrey, Eagles and Young that warrant no further description. This was a goalless draw, at heart.

After fourteen barren minutes, the pristine scoresheet was ruined by our comprehensive failure to defend a free kick from deep, which left Benjamin leaping ahead of an uncharacteristically indecisive Richard Lee, with inevitable results. Nearly inevitable, anyway: there was a suggestion that an arm might've been used at the time, but only a suggestion, and the protests were as half-hearted as everything else. Having seen the replay, a deliberately swung elbow is clearly responsible for putting the ball into the net, and so we were a little unfortunate...although only a little, given that better defending - any defending - could've prevented the situation from arising in the first place.

Another seventeen minutes until the next noteworthy incident...and I hardly need to point out that those minutes weren't exactly packed with nearly noteworthy incidents either. So it's difficult to blame Matt for taking the opportunity for a toilet break, given that a goal looked about as likely as a Martian landing on the centre circle. As if waiting for the cue, we instantly produced one of less than half a dozen pieces of coherent and incisive football, as Dominic Blizzard held off an opponent in midfield to release Chris Eagles on the break, a move that concluded with Bruce Dyer's shot being blocked by a defender's leg. A bit of noise, forgetting the cold for a second, chuckling quietly at Matt's ill-timing....

But we hadn't finished. The ball didn't escape the Coventry half, allowing Jermaine Darlington to compensate marginally for a fairly atrocious afternoon's work by setting up another attack. Supplied to his feet for a change, Danny Webber was able to spin past the defender at his back and drive a low cross into the six yard box, where Bruce Dyer scored his eleventh goal of the campaign. Eleven. From, it seems without checking, about five starting appearances. Weird, but proof that he's fully recovered that goalscorer's knack, even if the second part of his Watford career has still yet to catch flame.

Whatever, the only aspect of the performance worth praising was the front pair's remarkable ability to pluck a couple of goals from thin air. Otherwise, there was nothing at all. The midfield dashed about with lots of eager intent but precisely no authority: more than anyone, we missed Gavin Mahon, a genuine heavyweight, an anchor for a drifting ship. The defence managed to look entirely unconvincing under negligible pressure: James Chambers seemed to base his display on Richard Short's failure to read out his name before kickoff, while it's rather telling that Ray Lewington managed to miss out Jermaine Darlington from the list of experienced players when summarising afterwards. Really, it was all about the midfield, about that desperate lack of control...but elsewhere, we applied a few other decorative touches for good measure.

Look, it's half-time.

Although the second half offered marginally more entertainment - about three-quarters of a page in all, with less filler - it was, generally speaking, entertainment that we could've lived without. That is, Coventry were a bit more decisive about implementing their game plan, and these slight measurements were enough to win a contest that was tight until, suddenly and unexpectedly, it wasn't.

They deserved the victory, if only for the sheer quality of the finishing. In truth, Jorgensen's goal was the afternoon's only memorable moment, and television doesn't do it justice at all: as the corner came out to him, his connection from the edge of the area was simply ferocious, and it tore away from his boot, rose from ground level as the engines fired, and crashed into the top corner.

The kerfuffle that followed, in which the linesman's flag curtailed the Coventry celebrations and briefly threatened to cause utter mayhem before the referee's intervention restored order, led to some extremely half-hearted abuse of the officials from the Rookery...but there was never any question that it was a legitimately spectacular goal. There may well have been Coventry players in the six yard box at the time. There could've been a moose, several picnic tables and a large camper van in the six yard box at the time...or, indeed, there could've been nobody else on the entire pitch bar the keeper and the scorer. Whatever, Richard Lee wasn't stopping that.

He was, however, able to stop a slightly more tame effort from Stern John within a couple of minutes, to keep it all half-interesting. But, even with the arrival of Brynjar Gunnarsson, there were just far too many blank spaces, vast passages of play that amounted to precisely nothing and, therefore, suited Coventry more than they suited us. I'd say that I'd forgotten them all, but I'm not sure that they ever penetrated my brain in the first place. As if to emphasise the frustration of it all, the strikers continued to threaten goals whenever the service offered them the slightest opportunity...which was about every twenty minutes or so, hence Bruce Dyer's tremendous header after seventy-one minutes, stretching to reach James Chambers' centre and looping the ball against the crossbar with Shearer beaten. That nearly saved us, the strikers on a rescue mission for the rest of the team.

And in the end, it might've gone either way. It came down to one minute, when we might've scrapped for an undeserved point and when the visitors put the seal on the right result. Then, Shearer's wayward punch at a corner sent the ball high above the six yard box, and Neil Cox's header sent it goalwards, and Jay Demerit's swipe from two yards was so nearly enough to equalise, denied only by a brilliant block from Staunton on the line. And I'll mention that we lost concentration entirely while not wishing to detract from the sheer quality of the Coventry break, which swept from one penalty area to the other before Doyle kept his composure to apply a fine finish, struck across Richard Lee and into the bottom corner from a tricky angle. A situation that we defended hopelessly, yet one that is rarely exploited so efficiently. Three-one, a scoreline that reflected the game without really belonging to it.

Then three-two, as Richard Lee's long punt took a flick and Danny Webber fought for scraps among the crowd of defenders, who obligingly left the ball unattended for long enough to be scuffed past Shearer. It's tempting to claim that this was too little, too late; not so, really, for lack of quality was the problem rather than lack of time, and the rousing finale, complete with Coventry players taking the ball to the corner flag and a free kick on the edge of the box defended by a ten-man wall, was always missing an ingredient. As throughout, we fussed about and created precisely nothing, hoping that the strikers might compensate.

So, a valuable reminder, perhaps, of what might've been, and of what we shouldn't take for granted. But bloody tiresome nonetheless: few home defeats against relegation candidates have been accompanied by less fuss and bother, yet that summed up the afternoon's lacklustre, listless air. It was cold and rubbish and pointless, and it achieved nothing but to waste a couple of hours that could've been spent exploring some of the world's countless possibilities. Or sleeping.

It's a depressing thought. So, instead, I leave you with the thought that somewhere in the world, right at this very moment, there's a man in a bowler hat playing a banjo. And everyone loves a man in a bowler hat playing a banjo, right?