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Nationwide Division One, 3/12/00
Bolton Wanderers
Black clouds
By Matt Rowson

Bloody hell.

To think it all started so well. The morning was crisp and fresh, anticipated hold-ups on the motorway failed to materialise. By the time we approached the Reebok Stadium, squatting like a large white toad on the edge of the M61, the mood was bordering dangerously on optimism.

The crowd outside the away turnstiles was in a fairly jolly mood as well, despite the inexplicable decision to open up a single gate for the seventeen fans who bought tickets in advance whilst the throng who didn't massed around locked doors. Grins and quips were shared and the atmosphere was more positive than apprehensive. Tsega's distracted observation that "we'd better get into the stadium soon, it's going to rain" turned out to be an omen for the rest of the afternoon.

"A game of two halves" was the fairly predictable quip employed by Sam Allardyce after the game, but that doesn't tell the whole story. A better analogy would be that of a slowly swinging pendulum, or of a slab of concrete leaning on its side and then dislodged, teetering, teetering....

Paul Warhurst added to the early cheery mood, not least with his latest hairdo that bore the mark of someone hoping to earn a place in the Portuguese national team on style alone. He backed up his claim with a defence-splitting pass - alas, his own defence, and Tommy Smith capitalised by drawing Jaaskelainen and slipping the ball professionally past him and into the net. Perfect.

And for most of the first half, Watford looked the better side. Bolton's defensive reliance on their offside trap looked increasingly precarious, not least when Wooter was sent scampering clear close to the break. The sight of the bedreadlocked Dutchman heading straight towards goal prompted a double take, and the lineman's flag - premature, as TV pictures later revealed - restored normality.

Heading in the other direction, Wanderers had plenty of possession but most of it in their own half, and rarely threatened to do much with it. Penetrative through balls tended to bounce out near the corner flag, whilst the off-colour Ricketts was more than adequately marshalled by Ward and Page, both looking composed. Neil Cox, brayed at at every opportunity by the home support, seemed to be motivated into a more concentrated performance than we've seen of late. It was only late in the half that Ricardo Gardner began to emerge, one neat move and curling shot prompting an outstanding tip-over from Baardsen.

It wasn't very pretty, granted, but Watford were harrying and closing down well. Referee Laws was incurring the wrath of the home support at this point, on one occasion prompting apoplexy as three Bolton players ended up on the floor after one midfield flurry. All too much for one Wanderers fan in the adjoining paddock, apparently, whence a gunshot emerged shortly afterwards. (The histrionics in the adjoining block were extreme enough to prompt the comment that explaining Bolton to a Martian would probably involve waving your arms around frantically and squealing like a stuck pig). So although Watford's attacks were ominous rather than truly threatening, Bolton's attacks were so blunt that the shape of the game seemed to augur well for the Hornets at the break.

Then the second half happened.

Ian Marshall's introduction was always going to be interesting - albeit forced by Ricketts' illness rather than a tactical masterstroke by Allardyce. But with a fully fit target man, Wanderers began to apply more meaningful pressure. With the first-half attempts at precision passing having failed so dismally, Wanderers' snipers reversed their rifles and began to bludgeon us with the handle-butts.

It's easy to focus on the errors that lead to the goals, but as Graham Taylor intimated afterwards, holding out would probably have constituted getting away with it. We were absolutely nowhere in the second half, and with a Palmerless midfield providing neither protection nor much of a pressure-release to an overstretched defence, the mistakes were almost inevitable.

Going forward the picture looked bleaker as the game went on. The officials had in the first half betrayed the fact that the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team on offsides just wasn't in their rule book, and we lacked the intelligence or confidence to vary our play accordingly. Every offside flag (and there were many) heralded another bout of pressure on the Watford goal, during which two players - the highly involved Farrelly and the defiant Baardsen - particularly excelled.

Defensively, we began to fray. Cox's first half composure disappeared completely, and the positional freedom that was such an asset six weeks ago became a very real problem, Gardner made good use of the freedom of the left side. Cox's two noticeable contributions were the blocking of an Allan Nielsen clearance as he scurried around the penalty area in panic, and a well-motivated but foolish attempt to break the offside trap by failing to charge through two challenges on the halfway line, leaving the left flank exposed.

The inevitability of proceedings was underlined when Wooter tumbled in the penalty area in a fashion that can only have been provoked by a tug on his dreadlocks by Robbie Elliott, to the disinterest of the officials who were turning as decidedly as the encounter itself.

The goals, then. The equaliser...Page attempted to shepherd out a ball that just didn't want to go, in alarmingly proximity to Baardsen's goal. Farrelly nipped in and flicked the ball back into the box past the frantically emerging Watford keeper. Gardner curled the ball into the net past a desperate Robinson.

Goal two. Page stumbled over the ball; Passi fed the impressive Hansen who charged past Robinson's attempted block. Baardsen was maybe unlucky...he came out well, blocked Hansen's shot, and Marshall turned in the rebound. The rest of the team, alas, got what it deserved.

The rest of the game was pure agony. Helguson - on with Smart to chase after what morsels came their way - was released down the left and for once the flag stayed down. He cut inside, headed for goal, drew back his boot...and then screwed the shot painfully wide. The baffling lack of confidence throughout the side at the moment is manifested most clearly in the form of the Icelander.

He was booked shortly afterwards after reacting in frustration to an unpunished shove in the back; so too Smart, whose failure to make contact in the challenge in question prompted a furious response from an equally frustrated Graham Taylor. Watford's final attack was as blusteringly aimless as so many of Bolton's in the first half.

I mentioned that the team got what it deserved; the support is very much part of that team. The travelling Hornets - who appeared far fewer in number inside the stadium than they had done outside - were glum and largely silent throughout, they played their part in the defeat.

Those who couldn't be bothered played their part too. They missed a thoroughly miserable day and the black fury onset by the final whistle would have seen me happily take issue with them, the team, Bolton, Bolton's entire away support, and anyone else who reared their head. As it was, I made do with my blue plastic seat.

On the way home there were traffic jams and it rained.

Bloody hell.