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Nationwide Division One, 13/3/01
March 2001
By Ian Grant

At the moment, I'm re-reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914", a gigantic account of the opening weeks of the Russian advance into Prussia at the start of the First World War. It's my first return to the author's work since my teenage years - the sheer scale of his novels makes them daunting, to be attempted only when my appetite for reading is insatiable.

It is, however, an extraordinary, magical experience to read a writer of such talent. Simultaneously, "August 1914" is a work of such scope that it needs to include maps for reference and a novel of such wonderful detail that it paints every scene in your mind's eye within just a paragraph.

As regiments of the Russian and German armies fight for Rotfliess railway station and the surrounding territory, coming to an uneasy, hushed pause as night falls, you can see the breath condensing in the moonlight, hear the whispered voices, feel the tension. At the same time, you're aware of the wider picture - the chaos that reigns in the Russian forces, the orders that have been muddled and ill-informed, the overwhelming sense of imminent disaster. Sometimes, you can forget just how magnificent writing can be.

So, if Solzhenitsyn were writing about Watford versus Burnley, I've no doubt that you'd be enthralled. The scene would be set, the protaganists drawn with loving care. The events would be described as if you were in the thick of them, not merely observing.

Unfortunately for you lot, he's not and I am. For reasons that are too Connex-related to go into, I was stranded alone at Balcombe station - serving a village of only a few dozen houses, twenty-five miles north of Brighton - in the early hours of this morning. I have resolved never to slag off mobile phones again, since I was at least able to put out a desperate cry for help and get Loz to arrange a taxi home at vast expense. Nevertheless, I'm tired and angry and unlikely to be the source of superlative prose. Complain at your peril.

Naturally, even before being stuck in the middle of nowhere, I wasn't in the most upbeat of moods. Defeat against Burnley was annoying and frustrating rather than depressing and awful, but these are only different shades of miserable. In truth, against yet another thumpingly robust side, this was a rather better attempt than we've become used to. Compared with the defeats against, say, Huddersfield or Sheffield Wednesday, we looked an altogether more confident, decent side.

Obviously, those with some kind of agenda and those who regard any defeat as a disgrace will offer a different opinion. Discounting the inevitable - and, on this occasion, entirely inaccurate - accusations of lack of commitment that go and come with each victory and each loss, the criticism will presumably be concentrated on our inability to break down an extremely stubborn, physical Burnley defence.

Well, that would also seem unfair to me. Aside from a lack of width, with Tommy Smith marked out of the game for long periods and unable to get past his man when he did receive possession, it struck me that we tried a great variety of ways to solve the problem. There were spells, particularly in the first half, when we zipped the ball about quite neatly in the final third. There were spells, especially late on, when we hit it long and tried to win the second ball. There were chances from set pieces, despite the height disadvantage. There were ambitious long range blasts. The only thing missing was the one that didn't go straight at the keeper, that didn't get intercepted by a defender, that crept through.

In those circumstances, as GT has quite rightly noted, you keep everything under control in defence and, if necessary, accept a goalless draw as a consolation prize. A goalless draw that, while unsatisfactory, would've lifted us back up to sixth. You don't lose concentration, concede a daft goal, and drop more points than necessary. That, really, is the where the criticism should fall.

For the most part, this was a sterile, ugly game. While certainly willing to come forward for spells - as they did to threatening effect during the opening twenty minutes - Burnley were hardly over-adventurous in their approach. It didn't make for particularly enjoyable viewing. Their throw-in routine - bloke chucks ball to other bloke, who lumps it as far forward as possible without waiting for it to bounce - seemed to capture their essence, even if much of the rest of their play was more tactically astute than it appeared on the surface.

There were chances, sure. They sparked briefly like a match in a hurricane, then died just as quickly. After three minutes, Mullin wandered past Neil Cox's disappointing challenge to cross, Moore flung himself at the near post, and deflected the ball just wide of the post.

After another ten minutes of free kicks and sundry nonsense, Paul Robinson's cross flicked through to Tommy Mooney, who brought it down and found Michopoulos in the way of his shot. To sum things up, Taylor drifted into space around the penalty spot to meet yet another free kick and succeeded only in heading the ball ten yards into the air when a touch of any subtlety might've given Espen Baardsen problems. He trod on the ball when offered a similarly presentable opportunity shortly afterwards.

Patience is a virtue, of course. Until this point, Burnley had been unquestionably superior - if not in terms of technique, then certainly in terms of territorial dominance. Gradually, however, we began to assert ourselves, Robinson's cross-field passes setting up shooting opportunities for Smith and Mooney, both of which were rather hurried and off-target.

In these games, nothing less than an outstanding performance will give you a comfortable win. That possibility excepted, you stick to your guns, keep doing what you believe you should be doing. We did that, to my mind. Contrary to the opinion of our more arrogant fans, Burnley really weren't appalling. They were disciplined, strong, difficult to play against. We showed many of the qualities that we'll need to turn around our dismal record against similar sides. We must play better, naturally...but, equally, we mustn't chuck the baby out with the bathwater.

Oh, look. Half-time.

After the break, impatience began to get the better of us. As usual, frustration makes people want to get the ball forward quickly. And getting the ball forward quickly plays into the hands of a team like Burnley. The exception throughout was Clint Easton, whose performance shone out as an example to the rest. Put your foot on the ball. Look for ways of creating space, angles, options. Pass the ball. It's a remarkable thing, the sudden transformation of a previously reviled player. The point is that, although Easton was always a talented player, he has never been an influential player. That's changed.

It continued. After eight minutes, Robinson was somewhat generously judged to have been guilty of obstruction inside the area by the referee. It was fairly robust obstruction, at any rate. From the presumably indirect free kick, Baardsen made a neat diving catch from Briscoe's drive.

A Neil Cox cross from deep, a Heidar Helguson header wide, another moment that might've been and wasn't. Cook's control and volley from twenty-five yards, fielded comfortably by Baardsen, was a rare moment of class. A Neil Cox free kick, a Heidar Helguson header at the keeper, another moment blah blah blah. If this report is rapidly becoming incoherent, that's because I'm employing extremely inventive literary techniques to convey the disintegrating quality of the match itself. And not because I'm growing tired of writing this. At all.

There were a couple of penalty shouts. Appropriately, neither Helguson's tumble nor Mooney's fling warranted any particular attention from the referee, yet were still greeted with howls of disgruntled protest. That said, the former resulted in the ball falling for Allan Nielsen, who was constantly industrious if nothing else, and Michopoulos at least dirtied his knees in saving the shot. At the other end, we were fortunate that Taylor's sharp turn and shot, after lots of that ball-bouncing-around-pointlessly stuff, sent the ball straight at Baardsen. More of those moments coming and going.

Then one of those moments came and stayed. Unfortunately, it went their way. From our point of view, an entirely awful goal to give away - Easton's lapse of concentration at a throw allowing a claret shirt to sneak into space behind him, the cross bouncing all the way past Darren Ward, Taylor forcing it in at the far post. You don't get points from matches like this by giving away goals like that. As we ought to know by now, really.

Inevitably, the rest was pretty desperate. After Cook's in-swinging cross had just missed Mullin's lunge and also just missed the far corner, a succession of Watford players took turns at shooting from outside the box, with variable quality and identical results. Allan Nielsen tried a couple, Tommy Mooney headed well wide, Paul Robinson smacked an effort at the keeper from a mile away, Paolo Vernazza couldn't get his efforts on target. We'd tried many things, we'd finally run out of ideas.

There it is, then. If we win on Saturday, we could still get sixth place back. If we lose on Saturday, we could start getting out of touch again. The playoffs are our target now, whether we like it or not. On that basis, it would presumably make sense to build upon what was good here - the strength in the challenge, the evident spirit, the performances of Clint Easton and the superb James Panayi - rather than to tear it all down and start again.

You underestimate the likes of Burnley at your peril. For a start, any team that you can't help referring to as "the likes of..." has trouble written all over it. We didn't underestimate them, nor did we surrender to them. We just lost to them.

There is a difference.