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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 28/09/04, 7.45pm
Wigan Athletic
By Ian Grant

As you might've noticed, it's a bit mental in Brighton at the moment. If you've ever spent any time in the town, you might also have noticed that it's often a bit mental in Brighton: it's a place that seems to keep something unusual, inexplicable or just plain bizarre up its sleeve at all times, saving it for the very moment when you conclude that you've seen it all. In Brighton, you've never quite seen it all.

But a week's worth of having the Labour Party holed up in the conference centre on the seafront is enough to test anyone's patience. There's the sheer level of security, for a start: this is normally a fairly relaxed, chilled town, but its soundtrack is now the constant throb of helicopters and the scream of sirens, and its air is tight with paranoia. Right now, you don't step out of line; you don't walk around the block or loiter somewhere without being able to justify your presence; you don't make yourself too visible to the clusters of luminous police. You probably don't write about it all on a website either, so please contact my next of kin on my behalf if this match report doesn't reach its conclusion....

It has to be said that most Brighton folk would probably have a little more confidence in the effectiveness of such immensely expensive and intrusive security if it had managed to prevent pro-hunt protesters from driving into the centre of town and dumping a dead horse into the middle of the street from the back of a van yesterday. More than anything, the impression left by this week is of rude, arrogant intrusion, of a perfectly happy town becoming a venue for anyone and everyone who happens to have a grievance to air.

Whatever the cause, whatever the injustice, it's perfectly all right to bring the town to a standstill to ensure that everyone knows exactly what your problem is. It's a gigantic, elongated episode of Trisha, humanity in all its opinionated, self-centred, tedious glory. It is, I suppose, democracy in action. Which is lovely and everything, but much, much lovelier if it's somewhere else. Like a small, uninhabited island in the Pacific, or something.

That said, if anyone's up for a march to protest against this particular injustice, then you can count me in. We can make "FAIR PAY FOR HORNETS" placards and "WE DEMAND PERFORMANCE-RELATED POINTS" banners and I can shout "WHADIDWEWANT? THREE POINTS! WHENDIDWEWANNIT? LAST BLOODY NIGHT!" and so on, until we damn well get our way. Or our arses kicked by mounted police. Whatever.

Alternatively, we could just sit back, forget about our rightful rewards, and bask in rare glory. Because the whole point of going rather than merely seeing the score flick up on Teletext and shrugging your shoulders at another home stalemate - and, of course, I do know that a great many of you are simply unable to go, no matter how much you'd like to - is that results and goals and stuff are just the end product of performances. If you were there last night, you know already; if not, I'm here to tell you: the nil-nil scoreline has about as much bearing on this particular football match as it has to do with cheese and chutney sandwiches.

An irrelevance, to be brushed aside and quickly forgotten. Instead, remember the performance, arguably our best at Vicarage Road since Wolves somehow pinched a point with a late deflection back in November 2002. We drew then, we drew now...but it's everything else that lingers, just the sheer momentum that a unified, organised team can build over ninety minutes. We could've scored, we should've scored, and we didn't. But the rest was simply magnificent, and anything near that standard on a regular basis will see those two points become insignificant very quickly.

Beforehand, so much of the talk had been about countering the threat of Ellington and Roberts, and doing so without the considerable presence of Sean Dyche. Afterwards, so much of the talk should be about Neil Cox and Lloyd Doyley, who bossed that much-vaunted partnership about for the duration. For Cox, it was an evening of timely interventions, confident decisions, and minimal mistakes; the player that we appointed captain many months ago has not yet left the club. For the masterful Doyley, it was all about basic defending amplified to eleven: always tight, always disciplined, always quick, always concentrating, never beaten. Between them, and with plenty of help from elsewhere, they kept potent, strong, pacy strikers very quiet indeed.

And from that foundation, a great juggernaut of an attacking performance. So much variety, something that we've lacked at home thus far: from Ashley Young's flighty energy to Neal Ardley's creative class, with an determined midfield engine room and two aggressive, impressive strikers. At times, sweeping brushstrokes produced lovely, elegant passing movements; at times, it was more intricate and detailed, one-twos in and around the penalty area. And yeah, we lumped it long sometimes too, towards Heidar Helguson's magnetic head. Throughout, because Wigan are a really good side at this level and did nothing to gift us victory, we did things that worked and things that didn't work. It wasn't easy, not by any means. That only serves to increase the sense of achievement, though: we did this ourselves. We can do it again too.

So, there are two stories here. This being a match report, and a match report being about particular incidents, I'll have to tell the story of missed chances and eventual frustration. But the other story, always present in the background, is of an absolutely immense effort, of eleven players who all contributed positively in different, vital ways. Of a team that inspired and lifted the often miserable and indifferent Vicarage Road crowd. I can describe the waves crashing on the shore, but I'll have to leave the powerful, mighty sea that spat out those waves to your imagination....

Six minutes, and the first of those waves smashed into the Wigan goal. An early glimpse of one of the most prominent themes - the sharp, positive interplay between James Chambers and Ashley Young on the right - with Danny Webber joining in too, Filan making a comfortable save from Chambers' angled shot. A minute later, and Webber had drifted over towards the left, to tuck a perfect pass into Gavin Mahon's path; the midfielder steamed towards goal, just about got an awkward shot away under challenge and was desperately unlucky to hit the inside of the post after beating Filan's dive. One that got away, to be followed by several more.

Already, we were playing some startlingly clear, concise football, full of movement and purpose. Brynjar Gunnarsson, a quieter figure amid all of this aggression but an essential component nonetheless, sent a wild shot into the Vic Road end after more superb work from Ashley Young and James Chambers, the former prompting the latter to storm to the by-line and swing in a cross. It has to be said that James Chambers doesn't appear to need much prompting to get forward - really forward, not just somewhere over the halfway line - while simultaneously performing the impressive trick of hardly ever being caught out of position. It's as if opponents read his scribbled "BACK IN FIVE MINS - JC" note and just go away again without bothering to see if the door's locked.

Plenty more. Loads of it. Another gloriously simple move, Neal Ardley sweeping a ball forward for Ashley Young, and the cross just beyond Heidar Helguson's near-post fling. On the other side, Danny Webber's lofted clearance releasing Ashley Young again, picking out Heidar Helguson's well-timed run, and only the speedy appearance of Filan prevented the striker from applying the finish. We weren't rampant, and it almost belittles the performance to pretend that we were: there's nothing fragile or naive about Wigan, nothing that'd let us have our own way for long periods. We had to work for everything, physically and mentally. And we did, time and again.

As if to prove the point, Wigan began to find weaknesses in our defence and had no hesitation in trying to exploit them. The pace of Teale on the right had Paul Mayo struggling, and we were suddenly vulnerable to crosses that whizzed across the face of goal: from one of these, Neil Cox slammed the ball over his own crossbar, necessary but with a fairly small error margin; from another, the ball skimmed through the six yard box and struck Ellington at the far post, looping back into the goalmouth for Richard Lee to claim from Neil Cox's feet. Dicey moments, these, and Lee also saved very well from an Ellington drive that bounced in front of him.

We'd expected this, though. We'd expected it, and we continued to defend robustly even when it appeared that the back four had sprung a leak. You can ask for no more of young, developing players like Paul Mayo than to stick to the task, to weather the storm...and he fought back damn hard, standing up to force his opponent to make a decision rather than making it easy with an early attempt at intervention. He had a torrid time for ten minutes, but remained unbowed.

Elsewhere, there were similar stories. Typically, there was one occasion when Lloyd Doyley appeared lost as he slipped in a sudden downpour and let Ellington gain a yard, a rare moment of freedom for a Wigan striker. But he was on his feet so quickly to snap back at his opponents' heels that the expected opportunity had disappeared before Ellington had crossed the eighteen yard line, and he could only swing a shot miles wide of the near post from a hopeless angle. But it wasn't just about recovery. More often, it was about not needing to recover, and the sight of Lloyd Doyley giving the experienced, muscular Roberts a well-timed, subtle nudge in the back as a through-ball arrived, then calmly collecting and knocking it away will live long in my memory. This wasn't just tenacious. This was controlled.

Breckin flicked over at a corner and Alan Mahon headed at Richard Lee, but we really should've been ahead by the interval. Another cutting move, with Neal Ardley advancing on the right and, all awareness, sliding a low cross-pass into the penalty area without hesitation. There, Danny Webber lurked at the near post, and he should've buried it; instead, his slightly tentative finish allowed Filan to make a blocking save, although he still required assistance to scramble the ball clear from Webber and then Helguson. Not quite as impossible as a vanishing elephant, really, but one of those moments nonetheless....

It was hard to imagine a better forty-five minutes, in all honesty. We'd been so damn strong in defence, so full of fight in midfield, so creative and potent in attack. It lacked finishing touches, perhaps, but it had so much else to commend it. Fortunately, we didn't have to imagine a better forty-five minutes, for it was already on its way.

My word, this was superb. The game ebbed and flowed with a new intensity: Wigan attempted to make a stronger impact on proceedings, but they were obstructed at every possible turn. For a while, it was end-to-end, and thrillingly so. But gradually, there was more happening at their end than our end, and we'd set ourselves up for a truly mighty win. The example was set by Heidar Helguson, just immense at the heart of our attacks, whose implausible leap to meet a drifting cross from James Chambers and cleanly beat the flailing Filan by a matter of inches deserved better than a header that cleared the bar.

Still, we were at it again. A flick from Neal Ardley, and Helguson driving at Filan's near post from the right of the penalty area. An Ardley free kick from wide on the left, and Neil Cox's header almost grazing the post with Filan completely beaten, to heads in hands all around the Rookery. More lovely play between Ashley Young and Ardley again, before Helguson stepped inside a defender and drove inches wide from the edge of the box. A couple of wasted free kicks from Cox and Ardley. And always, a sense of invention and purpose around our attacking play, as if our work-rate had reached such a level that it was leaving our minds clear to concentrate, to think.

And then, late on, an Ardley corner from the left, and Ashley Young popping up completely unmarked in the centre of goal. Surprised, like we were...and he'd already lifted the ball over the bar on the volley before everyone had realised that this was surely the moment, the crowning moment of the evening. Oh well, soddit. Goals win games, obviously, and they make or break most performances too. But not this one, not really.

That said, a goal could've ruined it all: the compromise of a goalless draw is just about acceptable, but a defeat would've been very hard to take. In the second half, Wigan were a little more fierce and impressive in attack, even if they were still unable to make much headway against the endlessly determined Cox and Doyley in open play. We couldn't quite shut them out completely, and we'd do well to bear in mind that plenty of teams won't be able to shut them out at all....

Like I say, every player contributed here, and Richard Lee was no exception. He scrambled down to save well from Ellington's shot after a rare moment of Wigan fluency down the right, although he was a little fortunate that Roberts was denied by the linesman's flag as he pounced on the rebound. He stuck it over the bar anyway, mind you. And in the late stages, he saved acrobatically from Ellington's whipped free kick, swinging towards the top corner with the threat of a ghastly end to a terrific evening.

Really, though, it's about one save. One astonishing save. And while it seems a bit of a shame for the one instant in which we came desperately close to defeat to be the last action in this match report, it's somehow appropriate too. Because this was a near-complete performance, not restricted to particular areas or limited to short spells. When we left Ellington unmarked at a corner after fifty-four minutes, it could've undermined everything else. He headed forcefully from no distance at all at the far post, with Richard Lee hurtling back across his line towards the danger, his momentum taking him beyond where the ball was heading. The video replay confirmed what we all thought that we'd seen, but not really believed: that he'd instinctively jabbed out a hand as he went the wrong way, stopping the ball with his stretched fingertips.

In that moment, he rescued us. And we were well worth rescuing last night. A deeply memorable, stirring evening, filled to overflowing by a magnificent performance that was at the heart of a furiously entertaining football match.

If my comparison with that Wolves game two years ago means anything, then it's that we can't let it slide from here: we lost our next three games after that one, and began to slip down the table. This time, no slacking, and then we'll remember much more than just the result. That's the sensible outlook, anyway. The rest of me is quite happy just to pull incidents out at random and replay them until another game comes along. Too bloody good not to savour it for a while....