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Nationwide Division One, 26/12/00
By Ian Grant

Among other things, I was given a video of the third series of "Father Ted" for Christmas. It's sitting on my bookshelves, with six episodes still to watch.

Of course, the beautiful thing about "Father Ted" is its child-like love of life. Where other "anarchic" comedy is merely belligerent and occasionally repugnant, "Father Ted" finds amusement in everything that it comes across. It has a sense of innocent joy about it that's truly infectious, so that it's impossible to watch an episode without improving your general mood in the process. Life is better for its existence.

Sadly, however, I won't be watching my "Father Ted" video this evening. Or doing anything that will improve my general mood. I will be writing a match report about Fulham versus Watford. Please read it, if only out of sympathy.

This time, there will be no swearing. Not that it's unwarranted, merely that it's not how I feel. This was simply sad, an afternoon spent watching a still-talented side in absolute free-fall. Oblivion beckons, and we're just dejectedly searching for a way of avoiding it. In the circumstances, a game against the runaway leaders was the very last thing that we needed. They slaughtered us.

There were some good points. For a start, we lost to a team that might've still beaten us if we'd been in peak form. That's better than Saturday, when we lost to a team that barely knew what a football looked like. There were some half-decent performances too. Allan Nielsen, fetching and carrying to little effect but considerable purpose, was something vaguely resembling a controlling midfielder, while Paolo Vernazza continues to astonish just by being in form.

For thirty minutes or less, there was a sense of purpose about us, flickers of intelligent life that gave some hope. We began by knocking the ball around from kickoff, switching the play over to Paul Robinson on the left and then out to the other flank. At the end of it, Micah Hyde elegantly swung his right boot to send the ball drifting over the bar from twenty yards. In less than a minute, more constructive football than we'd seen during the whole of Saturday's appalling nightmare.

Indeed, we might've taken the lead. After twelve minutes, Robinson chucked a free kick into the box from the left wing. Throughout, Fulham's defence was far from assured and, on this occasion, they allowed Heidar Helguson to stand around unmarked at the far post. His header was accurate enough but, as he stooped to make contact, he couldn't get sufficient power on it to beat Taylor, whose scrambling save just about pushed the ball away from danger.

So far, so good. Although hardly bossing the game, we were starting to build some kind of confidence with which to give Fulham a proper contest. Our heads were no longer drooping so pathetically, our play was starting to show signs of assurance. It didn't last.

There's no secret to Fulham's success, on this evidence. Undoubtedly, they have some decent players in the rear and midfield...but, really, it adds up to nothing particularly special. When they pass the ball around at the back, it's all very correct and professional in a peak-period Liverpool kinda way, and it looks out of place in the general bludgeoning of a First Division game. It doesn't achieve much, though.

Unfortunately for us, they have front players of such searing pace and lethal finishing ability that the rest becomes largely irrelevant. When you have a bloody big gun, all you need to do is learn how to fire it. That, in a paragraph, is the whole thing in a nutshell.

Between them, Hayles and Saha were far too much for our flailing defence. Too damn speedy for both Palmers, too damn smart for the increasingly bewildered Ward. They made runs that we didn't quickly understand, their colleagues spotted and supplied them, and they were far away by the time we'd worked out what the hell was going on. Certainly, we could make a reasonable case for having a couple more in the "goals for" column after this match. Sadly, we can't escape the fact that we might've had another ten or so in the "goals against" column.

The warning signs were there from the moment that Hayles rampaged through and belted a shot towards goal, Espen Baardsen pulling off a fine, parrying save as the ball wobbled and dipped horribly. Warnings meant nothing, however, since we had no way of heeding them.

A while later, Hayles was denied by the linesman's flag after Carlton Palmer had managed to allow a through-ball to bounce between his legs and Ward's tackle had merely re-directed the ball into Clark's path. If Hayles had stood aside so that his teammate could convert the chance, there would've been no flag and the scoring would've begun earlier.

It didn't take long, unfortunately. Defensively, we just couldn't cope. We can't cope with much at the moment. As an innocuous cross came in from the right wing, Hayles pulled an old trick and allowed the ball to run on so that he could turn. Marking him, Darren Ward bought the whole thing and could only prevent him from scoring by yanking him back in full sight of the referee. From the spot, Saha coolly sent Baardsen the wrong way.

Everything came crashing down around our ears, all that remained was the debris. Having clung to the goalless stalemate tenaciously and sometimes fortuitously, we were now completely swept away. Our defending was inept, our opponents were ruthless. It was no longer a fair contest.

From Fernandes' cross, Saha's header was miraculously cleared off the line by Steve Palmer. Then Hayles charged past a feeble challenge from Carlton Palmer, leaving only Baardsen in the way of a second goal - his save, reflexively deflecting the shot over the bar, was exceptional. From the resulting corner, Saha was left unmarked to head against the bar and Hayles nodded the rebound home from a yard. Two-nil, and our resistance had completely evaporated - we were standing around, frightened and thoroughly beaten.

The process of reverse evolution continued after half-time. We had plenty of the play, yet that was of no consequence. All that mattered was that our defence could be punctured at any moment.

After ten minutes, during which we battled away pointlessly as the cold bit harder on the open terrace, Tommy Mooney was dispossessed and another Fulham attack was in motion. From the halfway line, they scored without so much as a tackle in their way. Clark received a cross-field pass and sprinted down the left, cutting in towards the area. Hayles had no competition as the ball arrived in the area, so he tucked a neat finish past Baardsen from close range. It was that simple, that awful.

Perhaps, in the period which followed, we might've scored. The hapless Hyde volleyed well wide, before Mooney wriggled through the defence to shoot at Taylor from just outside the area. Then Cox's simple pass somehow went right through to Nielsen who, with only the keeper to beat, managed to steer his shot wide with the kind of precise care that curiously suggested he was actually aiming for the advertising hoardings.

Fulham scored again, because there was nothing to stop them from doing so. It came from a free kick on the edge of the box, conceded by Carlton Palmer in a desperate attempt to prevent Boa Morte - new striker, same old problems - from careering past him. As the cross came in, Hayles beat Ward in the air - and there's surely no better symbol of our decline than that - to complete his hat-trick. The game kicked off, everyone ran around for a bit, Brevett clipped in a low cross from the left, and substitute Stolcers shuffled in the fifth. Oh, hell.

As previously noted, the scoreline doesn't reflect the number of clear-cut chances that the home side created. Nor does Hayles' trio of goals represent the best that he could've done. Within a couple of minutes of the latest re-start, he was again allowed to meet a cross, this time from Finnan, unchallenged. He was denied by a smothering save from Baardsen - while the result may not do the keeper's confidence any favours, he was nonetheless responsible for keeping the score in single figures.

The remainder was mundane. Or as mundane as can be, when you're frozen on a terrace and watching your team be thoroughly humiliated. As usual in these circumstances, there were meaningless attempts to record a consolation goal. Sometimes these do, with hindsight, bring genuine consolation - I recall seeing Kevin Phillips score his first league goal in the final minute of a stuffing at Reading, after half the away following had already left - but there was not even that to cling to here.

So, Tommy Smith - who, as a player showing some signs of confidence, must surely be in the starting eleven next time - dribbled a shot at Taylor after coming on as substitute. Steve Palmer's cross evaded Gifton Noel-Williams, also off the bench for the final twenty minutes, and Mooney before Helguson's attempt to squeeze it in at the far post was denied by a fine save from Taylor. Robinson's well-struck, if unthreatening, drive was pushed away by the keeper, then Nielsen shot over from the corner.

There was nothing left. In the chilly murk of a late December afternoon, Steve Palmer tried his luck from thirty yards, mis-hit his shot and wistfully watched as it sailed harmlessly into the dwindling number of Watford fans on the terrace behind the goal. Sensing that this was somehow appropriate, the referee blew his whistle.

Whatever anyone says, this is why we need Graham Taylor as manager, now as much as ever. Because I can think of nothing to say, because there are no obvious solutions. Tinkering with the team and tactics is entirely pointless if the defence is so unsure of itself, the midfield is flagging desperately, the attack has suddenly lost all cohesion, the team has absolutely fallen apart. In those circumstances, only faith in the greatest manager we'll ever have seems likely to get us anywhere. Although it may be blind faith, it's all I have to offer you as a conclusion.

It is an extraordinary challenge. Which is precisely why I feel for Graham so much - the sleepless nights that he must be having, the weight that he is bearing on his noble shoulders. And why, at the same time, I wouldn't want to have anyone else facing it.