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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 05/02/05, 3.00pm
By Ian Grant

The world is a confusing place. Muddlesome is a good, and under-used, word. Clearly, you don't need a philosophy degree to realise this, nor do you need to have read BSaD for very long to appreciate that much of what we write is concerned rather more with muddlesome matters than with football. Still, it remains true.

It's hard enough to maintain some kind of order. I mean, everyone eventually tries to explain and justify their existence in some way, and one of the oft-repeated mistakes of atheism is to treat religion as an illogical fantasy rather than a product of basic human nature. But before you can explain anything, you have to get it into some kind of sensible order. At which point, the world tends to become rather like one of those incredibly irritating puzzles that always turn up at Christmas, with miniature silver balls that can't possibly all be in the right place at the same time. Things keep moving. You can't turn your back for a second.

To pick an example, let's talk about Japanese soup. (Look, there's a report on the game on the official site, if that's what you're after; here, however, we're going to talk about Japanese soup. It's your choice.) It's confusing, is Japanese soup. Wonderful, but confusing. On the one hand, you have the dashi stock that forms a fabulously tasty base for noodles if you mix in a bit of soy...and yet when you get to the point where only the liquid remains, it turns out that this fabulously tasty base isn't actually especially pleasant to drink. On the other hand, you have the same dashi stock that forms the base for miso soup...and while miso soup is, as far as I'm concerned, one of mankind's greatest achievements, it doesn't work at all if you try to put noodles into it. What's that all about, eh?

Thus, the variations are minor, almost negligible, often inexplicable...and yet they're crucial in context. When you weren't looking, for instance, Gillingham decided to become something else and another silver ball slipped anchor to join the general chaos. With Gillingham, we always knew where we were, and there was a certain comfort to be found in that: as recently as November, any annoyance at our remarkable failure to gain three points at their place was mixed with amusement at the way that we'd been tricked into getting our hopes up. They were a right pain in the backside, but admirably so, always.

And now, this. Andy Hessenthaler, the architect of so many downfalls, has headed north; Stan Ternent has come south, bringing his unique brand of charm and elegance. Or something. The result - and I say this after some consideration - is the ugliest football that I've had the misfortune to witness since the worst excesses of Wimbledon in the eighties. That's ugly, not violent, not useless, not shambolic, and certainly not easy to beat. Just ugly. Brian Clough once made a famous comment about putting grass in the sky, but, to be honest, if God had meant football to be played like this, he wouldn't have given us eyes to watch it with....

It's a subtle shift, for Gillingham have never been purveyors of silky sophistication and have been well-served by some of the characteristics that this side retains. But, Jesus, there are bloody limits. Here, taking a second touch or kicking the ball less than twenty yards (upwards, preferably) would be considered over-elaborate fannying about, probably resulting in some kind of fine. Here, Neil Warnock is "a bit progressive". For years, I've had a bit of a soft spot for the Gills, partly through affection for their player-manager and yet also partly through admiration for their style: you don't have to go back far to find Gills' sides that have been potent and passionate in equal measure, contrasting sharply with some of our more lacklustre afternoons. No longer, though: this lot are a f***ing abomination. If were a Gillingham fan, I'd skip the weekends and go straight back to work.

The point, of course, is that it's a means to an end. Which makes this victory terribly sweet, especially given that it was so ill-deserved. The jinx is over, and in the most splendid style. We will rarely play worse and still win, which is merely proof that it's impossible to guarantee that your plans will succeed and, therefore, that you might as well at least try to enjoy the process as well as the product. Gillingham made their own luck, as the saying goes, and it turned out all burnt from too long in the oven. Shame. We owe them, naturally, and I'm sure that the club is preparing a DVD of past encounters for anyone who felt even a slight twinge of embarrassment as Chris Eagles flicked the second into the bottom corner in the last minute. They'd have done it to us, so it qualifies as self-defence.

Besides, we did rather well for forty-five minutes, and we ought to make sure that we don't discard that along with everything else. The first half was memorable only for a fine individual goal, sure...but it represented a marked improvement against a side that had made its intentions clear from the start, the referee getting irritated by time-wasting after only seven minutes. You can't blame 'em, really: we've struggled so badly on so many occasions that you don't need to be a tactical genius to work out a masterplan for playing at Vicarage Road. We've not yet got the balance right, between being hard-to-beat and hard-to-stop, but there were some encouraging signs here.

You had to stare quite hard to see them, obviously. To the casual glance, there was nothing but random bash and crash, and an instinctive look away again. But in the midfield, we were fighting and fighting damn hard, as you have to do in these matches, and Gavin Mahon had a heavyweight forty-five minutes with the genuinely unrecognisable Johnnie Jackson in support. A willowy, wishy-washy non-presence on the left, Jackson has somehow been transformed into a wonderfully aggressive, snappy little ratter in the centre...and you have already been told this, and you will be told this again, and you will not believe it until you see it.

Elsewhere, we were a little jumpy in defence on occasions, but secure enough. Although Southall sent a weak header drifting over the bar in the second minute and Henderson later out-jumped Lloyd Doyley to give Paul Jones an easy catch, there was no sense of danger here, no inkling of what would follow the interval. We just had to battle for every ball, look for a couple of yards of space, and try to make the momentary openings count for something. Nothing's changed since Burnley bored us to a standstill months ago: you have patience, you work hard, you make sure that they don't score first. No fun to watch, but we were sensible and steadfast, and we were duly rewarded.

As the minutes crawled slowly by, we began to show promise. There was much grumbling at Lloyd Doyley for conceding a daft corner with a lazy back-pass, but that corner was delivered straight to the nearest defender and, with Burnley - sorry, Gillingham - enjoying a rare moment of adventure, we were able to break forward in numbers and into space, until Danny Webber rather wasted the opportunity with a cross-shot into keeper's chest.

But a minute later, we were in front, and stylishly: Danny Webber will score few better goals, and none that he didn't actually score, if you see what I mean. The run was inspired, from deep, via a one-two with Johnnie Jackson, and then onwards for as long as the ball was at his feet, flicking it over a defender on the edge of the box, touching it past another as the goal came into view. In truth, he rather scuffed the shot, but he got enough on it to beat Brown's dive, and would've got the personal reward if Ashby hadn't applied the finishing touch on the goalline with Heidar Helguson in close attendance. Shame, for it was a brilliant, illuminating moment that turned the game; when the next Trefor Jones book appears, pencil in "+1" next to Danny Webber's goal tally for this season....

It opened up the match for us. Suddenly, we were full of ideas and confidence, while Gillingham were showing vulnerabilities that they'd covered up previously. Paul Devlin struck a shot at Brown from a corner, then Neal Ardley was denied only by a superb late tackle as he dashed onto a Helguson flick. As the visitors forgot themselves, we were proving the importance of scoring first, and looking very likely to score second too: Neil Cox and Neal Ardley both had efforts fielded by Brown, while Johnnie Jackson's slashed half-volley might've crept in but kept curling away. All the while, we kept the motor running, digging the ball out of that frantic midfield to supply more productive areas, and you really felt that we'd cracked it, at last.

Naturally, then, we nearly cocked it up before half-time, in that indistinct period of injury time that's become something of a problem area. But Gillingham simply didn't have enough to capitalise on our moments of indecision, and while Henderson did well to out-pace both Jermaine Darlington and Jay Demerit in pursuit of a through-ball, his prodded finish never looked like to beat Paul Jones and, if the keeper hadn't intervened, probably wouldn't have beaten the post either. From the resulting corner, the striker found himself with a clear heading opportunity, and did nothing with it but return the ball to the keeper. You could see, watching them callously murder the beautiful game, how Gillingham might be extremely difficult to beat. But not from one-nil up.

And definitely not from two-nil up...which, were it not for a quite superb save from Brown, would've been the situation after barely a minute of the second half. Lloyd Doyley's cross from the right started it, Johnnie Jackson continued it by picking up the ball on the edge of the area, advancing purposefully, and driving low through the six yard box, and Neal Ardley would've finished it, had the keeper's body not blocked the shot as he scrambled across the line. Brilliant goalkeeping, but surely only preventing the inevitable....

Except that, as it turned out, the inevitable had to wait for another forty-five minutes. In between, we did a quite stupendously inefficient job of holding onto our lead, for reasons that remain largely inexplicable. Clearly, Gillingham were a different, superior side after the break - Ray Lewington's observation that Stan Ternent's half-time team, erm, shout could be heard through the dressing room walls is quite telling - but that's an inadequate excuse, given that we've shut out much better opponents in league as well as cup. Somehow, we managed to avoid the attention of the awful, grotesque defeat that loomed over us throughout the second period, but quite how and why and what and who and suchlike is a complete mystery.

We had one more chance to extend the lead before everything went completely pear-shaped. Then, Jay Demerit met a corner with a low, skidding volley and Brown, whose view was blocked by Danny Webber, was fortunate to find the ball hitting his knee, then quick to grab it on the line. But Gillingham had already struck the bar once by then, and it really appeared as if Smith's ferocious drive from twenty yards was destined for the roof of the net, before it rebounded out with such force that it could only have hit wood rather than string. Then, it seemed that we just needed to remain alert, for the visitors had shown no other signs that they might be about to mount a revival. Later, we'd look back and wonder how we'd contrived to allow them to turn that situation into a ceaseless, remorseless bombardment of our goal.

Once it had started, we seemed powerless to act. Sure, the midfield kept scrapping, but it was scrambling for footholds as the whole side got dragged backwards; in that respect, the arrival of Bruce Dyer, someone capable of keeping the ball in the opposition half for longer than five seconds, seemed to take an awfully long time. The central defensive pair fought valiantly, and Lloyd Doyley stemmed the supply on one flank effectively enough, but the crosses rained in from the other side with Neal Ardley and Jermaine Darlington chasing shadows. From a position of comparative comfort, everything had gone horribly, horribly wrong, and the mounting pressure seemed certain to open cracks eventually.

It did. But the ball wouldn't go in. That's just luck, pure and simple, and we did little to help ourselves beyond frantically throwing ourselves at the ball as it bounced around inside our penalty area, belting it clear, then waiting for the next onslaught. Frankly, we were sloppy and careless too: at a free kick after sixty-two minutes, we simply fell asleep to allow Henderson to float a header over Paul Jones and against the bar, Ian Cox belting the rebound wide while we came to our senses. We waited for it to end, for some kind of resolution...and instead, we got a bouncing cross from Nosworthy that Byfield spooned over from six yards with nobody close. And, within five minutes, a long throw, a straightforward flick-on, and a forlorn slide from Byfield at the far post that failed to turn the ball into an empty net.

Even then, you couldn't believe that we'd survive. Not this much pressure, not when the defence is treading on the keeper's toes, and there's still fifteen minutes on the clock. How ever we'd got here, we simply couldn't find a way out. Instead, we were grateful to Paul Jones, who'd been pretty much helpless otherwise, for pulling off a fine save to stop Byfield's angled shot after the striker had skipped all too easily past Jermaine Darlington. We were lucky even then, as the rebound evaded other forwards, but we'd done something to earn that bit of luck, for once. Only once, though.

With that, the storm finally passed. We checked everything, discovered ourselves intact. We found a little space and time as Gillingham pressed forward, and began to contemplate the possibility of doing more than just hanging grimly on. We brought Bruce Dyer on, at last. And, into added time, we became confident enough to add insult to injury, as Chris Eagles loitered behind Dyer's advance, waited for the defence to sort itself out, and sauntered casually and calmly past everyone to flip-reverse an accurate finish past the wrong-footed Brown. Two-nil. Safe as houses.

While Ray Lewington's suggestion that there haven't been other lucky wins in recent months rather forgets the last couple of minutes against Millwall, it's nonetheless true that more good fortune is overdue. We got this far by ourselves, with little assistance. So, this was one of the least convincing victories you'll ever see, but that'll only matter if the performance is repeated...and that's up to us, really. The potential is there, I think, for this to be the start of something, even if it's only a pleasant trot towards the top ten....

In the meantime, better shove that clean sheet back into the washing machine....