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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 09/04/05, 3.00pm
Leeds United
Where does one go...?
By Ian Grant

This is new. Ten years on, hundreds of match reports and hundreds of thousands of words later, and this is new.

Because over that time, I've had to resort to an awful lot of different things when seeking inspiration for these match reports: great acres of waffle that sweep towards the horizon and far beyond; metaphors that are stretched to their physical limits, sometimes further; complete irrelevancy, whether as a smokescreen or just a way to pass the time; ranting and wailing and dejected mumbling; hysterical babbling when the emotions are too much for words. All of that, plus some stuff about the football in between.

But I've never needed objectivity before. Never needed balance, nor perspective. Not until now.

Of course, we're sometimes accused of - or praised for - a lack of bias, but that's merely shared perception. If our bias is your bias, you can't see it as clearly; when you're inside the skyscraper, it's harder to judge its height. When fans of other clubs celebrate our broad-minded views, that's mainly because we're a bit biased in their favour for some reason, often obscure; it's no coincidence that BSaD is considerably more highly regarded by, say, Wimbledon fans than by followers of Burnley and Wolves.

And that's as it should be. Because, if you don't mind getting philosophical for a moment, objectivity is a merely an attempt to elevate a subjective opinion to the status of fact anyway; you can't be objective when you're looking out at the world from inside your own skull, and trying harder only makes it worse. Besides, objectivity is just dull. It uses phrases like "on the other hand" and "in my humble opinion", and that's just as tedious as the most blinkered, ill-educated subjectivity. It's not what BSaD is for. It's not what we are.

But I need it now. I need it, because it's the only way to reach towards any kind of common, shared consensus. Because you're here for a match report that I simply can't give you, unless I try to see it through other people's eyes. Many of this website's finest hours, I think, have been when its writing has captured and expressed moments that we've all shared; there have been other significant points when we've found coherence from amid blind rage at an opposing, disruptive consensus, fighting back for long-held, heartfelt principles. That's not now, though. That's not where we are.

I was there, obviously. But less so, much less so. That's not to suggest that I didn't fully appreciate that this was a vital match for Watford Football Club, nor that I didn't applaud a courageous, occasionally inspired, and much less deeply flawed team performance that rose to the occasion and deserved to take more from it than mere encouragement. I saw it all, with nose pressed up against the glass, conscious of everything and yet not part of it. When we scored, I heard myself saying "Yes!" and felt myself rising to my feet; the instincts that would've done those things in a reactive blur don't seem to be working properly. I saw it all, and felt only echoes, remote tremors.

Why? I don't know. This is new to me, all new. What I do know is that, like so many amazing things that happen in football stadia, the total support demanded by Graham Simpson requires the suspension of disbelief. It needs the conjuring up of an "us" from so much that has so little in common; an "us" that encompasses the stands, the dressing room and the directors' box to become a football club rather than just a PLC with employees and customers. But you can't put all of that on hold for three weeks - three weeks of exercising absolute power and authority, of claiming leadership, of seizing complete responsibility - then expect to resume where you left off. "Us" is for fifty-two weeks of the year, or not at all. And you can't generate genuine belief in a long-term plan for survival and eventual prosperity, then demand the same belief in a new approach when you suddenly change your mind.

There's the problem, in part. Perhaps the club has under-estimated the degree to which many of us subscribed to its plans, and the extent to which we were prepared to fight for those plans to succeed. Perhaps they sold it to us too efficiently; perhaps it had nothing to do with selling and everything to do with substance. Whatever, I have spent the last three years believing, absolutely emphatically, in Watford Football Club. And, sorry, I don't believe in it, not even slightly. Not in any of it. And I cannot suspend that disbelief for ninety minutes on a Saturday afternoon, because it haunts every other hour of my week.

I cannot, and yet I will not patronise or criticise anyone who can find the heart to provide the team with the backing that it needs and deserves. That's not the argument. And that's why I need objectivity, so desperately. Because it's not about me and it's not about you; it's about "us", whoever that might mean. While I could pen a downcast, beaten monologue about the trial separation - emotional, if not physical - between me and my football club (and I already have, by the looks of it), I'm not so blind as to have missed the fact that your experience of Watford versus Leeds United might've been very different from mine. That there are things which require documentation, regardless of how I feel about them. Somewhere amid all of this confusion, there's a football club that's only staying out of the bottom three by virtue of goal difference. Somewhere.

Where does one go, then...? Well, here, I suppose. With everyone trying really very hard indeed, from the supporters in the stands to the team on the pitch, to create something that's sufficiently positive and confident to forget about March and move on. Look closely, you can see the storm damage...but no-one wants to look too closely just now. There was a lot that was tremendously commendable about yesterday, a lot that far exceeded miserly expectations...and yet there were no points, again. You can blame the referee, if you like; you can blame fate and fortune; you know very well that it won't matter when May comes around. It'd be hypocritical to suggest that it's all about results, given that much of the justification for Ray Lewington's success came from the stories behind the scorelines, and yet it's transparently obvious that recent events haven't been motivated by long-term planning, even if Graham Simpson rapidly appears to be convincing himself that this was the intention all along.

But this was better. It was still absurd, to a degree: the purpose of playing Dominic Blizzard on the left of midfield is as elusive as hard fact in a club press release, and serves only to fill that particular space on the field while destroying any remaining shreds of confidence in one of our better youngsters. (Oh, you think he's rubbish. Sorry, my attempts at objectivity don't stretch that far....) Elsewhere, though, there was encouragement...particularly in defence, where we finally stopped the habit of gifting goals to the opposition and were unfortunate, at least prior to Jay Demerit's dismissal, to concede at all. That's the foundation for something, even if the construction work is somewhat behind schedule.

And we were bright and positive from the outset too, which is surely the only potential benefit from fresh faces in the dugout. If we lost our way gradually, there was at least a sense that we'd looked at the map in the first place. It was a start. Of what? I don't know. But it was a start, and it deserved the generous applause that it received.

If you want to study the details, then you can find the mistakes that led to our defeat...but you do actually have to study, for they weren't flung in your face as in recent weeks. Leeds - who have almost overnight become a tawdry, lumpy Second Division side, demonstrating the kind of realism and pragmatism that seem to have fallen out of favour at Vicarage Road - had to work very hard indeed for this, and you wouldn't say that of some other victorious visitors. Almost immediately, thoughts turn to Rotherham, who must be made to work just as hard next Saturday if this is to be more than another promise left unfulfilled. (Hmmm. Not going especially well, this objectivity thing. Sorry.) One does wonder whether this side, cobbled together from a squad that's been prepared for the battle ahead by even more savage reduction, can produce that kind of consistency when it's needed. We'll see.

Regardless, at this particular moment, opening night was a vast improvement on the rehearsals. From kickoff, there was a fresh urgency and vigour about our play, and it was damn nearly rewarded by a goal as Carlisle's wild air-kick allowed Chris Eagles' pass to arrive at Heidar Helguson's feet, and Sullivan was required to rush out to block with a sprawling save. Apart from a couple of predictably harmless shots from free kicks - the sad demise of Neil Cox's endlessly entertaining run-up-and-blast-it-into-the-wall routine is noted, in passing - that was all that we created in the bright opening spell and the slightly less bright continuation, yet, for once, the general defensive cohesion made that rather less of a concern.

Because that's the key area, for me. We need to start with some clean sheets, otherwise progress anywhere else is continually undermined. That it required the departure of a first choice striker is patently ludicrous, but the overdue arrival of Danny Cullip in the centre of our defence is welcome indeed. He made mistakes here, contributing to both goals. But he was thunderously aggressive too, repeatedly smacking Hulse into the turf with brute force that stopped just short of the savagery required to earn a booking; that's the type of attitude that we've lacked since Sean Dyche was injured, and it made a massive difference to our confidence. We looked as if we might stop Leeds from scoring. They looked as if they might steer well clear of the whole thing, thanks very much. It didn't happen, but....

And, curiously, it didn't happen because of some tentative defending from Cullip himself, allowing Hulse to get across him with relative ease to meet a cross from the right. Mind you, it still required a quite superb finish, stooping to head and sending the ball drifting over Richard Lee's waving arm into the top corner. Twenty-seven minutes, one Leeds goal attempt, one Leeds goal...and the mood darkened almost immediately, despite the upbeat introduction. Richard Lee dealt well with an awkward, bouncing drive from Moore shortly afterwards; the same striker shot tamely at the keeper after Jay Demerit's loose header had gifted possession; a Johnson free kick whistled around the wall and into Lee's midriff. We were still being brave like Adie had told us to be - and Chris Eagles nearly scored the goal to end them all with a sweeping run through tangles of tackles, roaming elegantly from inside his own half to the edge of the penalty area before Sullivan's instinctive hand denied his moment of glory - but the belief was starting to fade, dreams shifting warily away from harsh reality.

Instead, harsh reality was temporarily banished by a fine Watford goal. It was all about Brynjar Gunnarsson's forward run, something to change the established pattern. Picked out by Gavin Mahon's pass, he turned around his marker to blast a shot towards goal from twenty yards, and Sullivan's surprised parry only sent the ball up into the air, from where it was smacked into the top corner by a magnificently decisive movement of Heidar Helguson's forehead. We deserved that. More, we went out and grabbed it by getting players in and around the penalty area, then moving the ball sharply to create space. Splendid, even with your nose pressed against the window.

The second half promised much, then...and it started in the right manner, Dominic Blizzard digging out a shot that Sullivan dealt with comfortably. You felt that there was much still to come from the game, and that we might have a considerable say in what it all might amount to. And here's where I make myself even more unpopular, I imagine, for it strikes me that Jay Demerit's second booking was as entirely unnecessary as his first, no matter how harsh it might've been. If you want to make your physical presence felt, do it within certain boundaries. If you tackle from behind - and, yes, he did get the ball, but he caught the player too - when you've already been cautioned, you're running the risk of being sent off. Jay Demerit will be wiser for the experience, undoubtedly. But it's an expensive lesson.

Thereafter, a Leeds win became that much more likely. Not inevitable, for we fought intensely to prevent it. But more likely, as we were unable to fend off our opponents' attacks as we'd done so effectively in the first half. With Brynjar Gunnarsson dropping back to fill the gap in the defence initially before he swapped positions with the sprightly Lloyd Doyley, we came under sustained pressure for the first time in the match. And we weathered it, for a while...before Danny Cullip gave away a daft free kick by barging into the back of his man, and then crosses were suddenly swinging to and fro through our penalty area, eventually finding Carlisle at the far post for a simple headed finish. "Two-one to the referee," sang the Rookery in despair and frustration. Nah, sorry, it's nobody else's fault....

Even now, the prepared script was ignored. When you'd have expected our desperation to leave great gaping holes at the back for Leeds to exploit, we somehow managed to plug them sufficiently to survive. And when we didn't, there was Richard Lee, pulling off inspired saves to keep the scoreline tight enough to be recovered: his reaction when King was left unmarked on the left of the penalty area, flicking out a leg to divert the finish just around the post, was especially magnificent, and his later block at Johnson's feet was brave when you consider how recently he's returned from a broken cheekbone. In between, we were just plain lucky: Hulse should've buried a free header at a corner, but sent it over instead. We deserved that, though.

In the end, we deserved an equaliser too, and we'd struggle to get any closer to finding one. Seventy-three minutes, and Ashley Young, having replaced the fading Eagles, darted in from the wing to curl in a sublime effort from twenty-five yards, over Sullivan and against the underside of the crossbar. It bounced on the six yard line, where Heidar Helguson was foiled by a quite extraordinary reflex save from the grounded keeper...and by the linesman's flag too. So close. And so close again in the final minute, when Helguson set up an attack with a heroic leap to head across to Young out wide, then was at the far post to leap majestically to meet the resulting cross. But Sullivan wasn't going to be beaten, flying across to flip the ball over the bar as it arrowed towards the top corner. No reward. Much better, but no reward at all.

So, take what you can instead. What you want. Be encouraged, be inspired. Be worried. Be depressed...and this felt like an acutely depressing afternoon from my seat, wondering how it'd feel if we did score that last minute equaliser and the wild, frantic celebrations were all around rather than within. Sometimes, a bit of perspective does no harm at all when you're watching a football match. A lot of perspective, though....

Where does one go when there's no place left to go? Home, I guess. Via the pub. Some things never change, at least.