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Worthington Cup 3rd Round, 31/10/00
Manchester United
By Ian Grant

Well, what a complete waste of everyone's time....

Some of this was very predictable indeed. The excitement in Vicarage Road - buzzing crowds, United merchandise, people offering fifty quid for tickets, huge queues - didn't last beyond kickoff. To the disappointment of the thousands who considered this game more important than last week's vital clash with Bolton, the United side was light on first-teamers and heavy on youngsters. To the frustration of everyone, it was still able to beat us without breaking sweat.

Remarkably dull, then. Really, United and their Champions' (sic) League chums have effectively removed all the fun from the cup competitions - since they neither care about the competition nor about the result, they have nothing to lose. The whole point of giant-killing was that the giant died painfully, after all.

We, on the other hand, appear to be struggling to grasp the whole Worthington Cup concept. As Father Dougal might say, "'s like the Champions League, only with Cheltenham and Notts County and Manchester United reserves in it. Oh, right, yeah. So...erm, when do we play Barcelona?". Our three home performances in this wretched competition have been entirely bewildered and confused, so perhaps it's best that we've put an end to it now.

Indeed, there were long periods when this was indistinguishable from the utter boredom of the previous rounds. It took about fifteen or twenty minutes to get thoroughly fed up with the whole thing, for the memories of some of last season's more humiliating moments to filter back into the mind's eye, to start looking forward to playing Grimsby on Saturday. We were being beaten by a side that couldn't even be bothered to do it in an interesting, not-on-the-training-ground way. By half-time, I'd had quite enough and I certainly wasn't alone.

In fact, the opening exchanges promised something quite different. In the first two minutes, we went close twice - Tommy Mooney pounced on Brown's slip and drove a shot across goal, Allan Nielsen beat Van Der Gouw to Nordin Wooter's cross but could only flick the ball into the side netting. It was frantic, hyperactive stuff. Wallwork received a quickly taken free kick and thumped a shot wide, Ward and Mooney both failed to hit the target with headers from corners, Fortune's free kick curled over after Paul Robinson had, unsurprisingly, mis-timed a tackle on Yorke.

As time when by, however, our general bluster began to subside and the fatal flaw in our gameplan began to reveal itself. That flaw being that we didn't really seem to know what we were doing. Like someone trying to win a fight by pretending to be a martial arts expert, we were doing plenty of shouting and kicking and leaping about... but we were going to get found out sooner or later. Tommy Smith wandered around in midfield like a lost child looking for his mum, Paul Robinson was left with both Wallwork and the excellent Chadwick to deal with, Allan Nielsen and Steve Palmer were already starting to look swamped. After a while, it became noticeable that the ball wasn't leaving our half very often.

And, regardless of the line-up, a Manchester United side won't give you much time to sort things out. After eleven minutes, Wallwork thumped into a challenge with Robert Page and emerged with the ball. Chadwick took over, belting the ball towards the near post where it was blocked...but Solskjaer was on hand to tuck home the rebound. Ruthless, and a blow from which we were never likely to recover.

After that, we just looked scared. Only Nordin Wooter appeared able to channel his energies into something vaguely productive, while everyone else either shrunk back into their shell or became randomly ambitious. Frankly, I'm not going to use a fairly meaningless cup game as an indication of our prospects for next season, particularly since we can't make any assumptions about how this campaign will turn out. What we did see, however, was a team that's forgotten how to play after conceding an early goal.

While huge bangs from nearby distracted us - either fireworks or a gangland execution in the allotments - United came very close to putting the tie beyond our reach. Although some of the goal attempts were a bit wayward - Greening and Chadwick both shooting ambitiously over, Wooter doing the same at the other end - it wasn't long before our defensive failings started to show themselves again.

After nineteen minutes, Yorke's run at Page resulted in a bizarre kind of ballroom dance, as each step by the forward resulted in a retreat by the defender - all horribly reminiscent of last season, unfortunately. When Yorke reached the edge of the box, there was still no challenge...and his low shot brushed the post on its way past, with Alec Chamberlain well beaten. A minute later, Chadwick's deflected cross nearly fell to Fortune, who thrust his chest at the ball but couldn't bring it under control before Chamberlain pushed it away.

It all became incredibly dreary. There were moments of inspiration - a drive from Mooney and a side-footed curler from Cox, both of which were well-struck yet brought only routine saves from Van Der Gouw - but they were all too rare. One side was simply keener and sharper, first to every ball all over the pitch. The only sound came from the visitors in the Vic Road end. Our home support has been feeble this season. No noise, little encouragement and plenty of moaning - as supporters, we're in serious danger of turning into everything we ridiculed just a few months ago.

Another slip by Brown offered momentary hope with five minutes remaining, but Mooney lacks the pace to carry the ball closer to goal in such situations and wasted the chance with a hopeful attempt at catching the keeper off his line. Shortly afterwards, we should've been put out of our considerable misery - Solskjaer muscled Ward off the ball (which certainly shouldn't be possible), drew Chamberlain towards him and squared for Yorke to shoot at an open goal. The finish was careless - although Neil Cox's block on the goalline was brilliant and heroic, better placement from Yorke would've left him without a hope of preventing a second goal.

The solution to our problems was, apparently, to bring on Clint Easton to replace Nordin Wooter at half-time. Which baffles me, but perhaps I'm easily baffled. Sure, Easton was bright and neat, as he can be sometimes, but what little attacking threat we'd carried departed with the diminutive Dutchman. And we didn't seem any less tactically confused.

All of which was rendered irrelevant by the second United goal. Chadwick's cross from the right, a near post flick...and you don't give Dwight Yorke time to control and shoot inside the penalty area without regretting it. All over, shouting included.

The rest involved only sporadic action. We were labouring and leaden, United were cruising with a front pairing of international class to pull them out of any danger. For someone whose feelings towards the Worthington Cup are of general disinterest, regardless of the opponents, the whole thing really started to bore. It's not a matter of "concentrating on the league", just of knowing what's important and what's just pretending to be important for the benefit of ticket sales. Saturday's the former, this was most definitely the latter.

If you want to get depressed over what last night says about the state of English football, then you shouldn't concentrate on the ever-growing chasm between the two or three elite clubs and everyone else. That's quite depressing, sure...but not nearly as depressing as the realisation that things have changed so totally that playing the World Champions (or whatever they are now) at home in a cup competition is just dull. It has no dramatic context any more, no real meaning. Like a newly-opened shopping mall, it has everything you could possibly want...and yet, when it comes to it, not very much that you actually want.

By the end, we really hadn't done ourselves any favours. Following a self-inflicted (and apparently nasty) injury to Paul Robinson and a fairly unsavoury penalty incident that lost us any moral high ground, we couldn't claim to have got much that was positive out of the game. Although the defeat isn't of any long-term importance unless we make it so, it would've been so nice to have come out of it smelling of something other than poo.

After twelve minutes, Noel-Williams tried a shot from twenty yards that Van Der Gouw caught above his head. Decent effort, but not enough to disguise the striker's generally exhausted demeanour. The common consensus appears to be that he needs a rest. Well, I would've thought that it's fair to assume that GT is aware of the problem and is continuing to play him for a reason. That reason presumably being that Gifton needs match fitness, which is not something that you get when you're sitting around watching telly. Otherwise I'd be pretty damn match fit....

Some time later, Yorke turned this way and that way and then this way again, before firing in a shot that was blocked at the near post. The ball rebounded to Solskjaer, whose on-target attempt was kept out by Neil Cox's arse. Since United appeared capable of scoring any time that they felt like it, all sense of competition had been drained from the game.

When the third goal finally arrived, it was as basic as can be. "UNITED IN LONG BALL SHOCKER!" and all that. Van Der Gouw booted clear, Solskjaer took advantage of the fact that we hadn't remembered to leave anyone in our half of the pitch and sprinted through to beat Chamberlain with an emphatic finish. Yawn.

We still had our dignity, more or less. I'm not sure that we had it after the penalty, mind. To adapt from last week's endless ball-to-hand/hand-to-ball debate, this one was definitely striker-to-keeper rather than vice-versa. Having finally managed to suck United in so that we could hit them on the counter-attack, Allan Nielsen supplied Heidar Helguson, on as substitute for Noel-Williams. He pushed the ball past Van Der Gouw, waited for the keeper to slide out...and completely bloody flattened him. Van Der Gouw had no more say in the matter than someone being hit by a bus. That Helguson was also grounded by the non-accidental collision presumably swayed the referee in his favour...but, really, it was a laughable decision by an official who, I assumed at the time, didn't want to incur the wrath of the home fans at such a late stage. To blow that theory out of the water, he compounded the error by dismissing the keeper, whose protests were long and justified.

Tommy Mooney stepped up and put the penalty two yards over the bar. His fifty-fifty success rate indicates both his consistent bravery in taking the responsibility...and, sadly, his lack of technique. With a run-up that makes it completely obvious which side of the goal he's aiming for (always the keeper's left), he leaves himself no margin of error whatsoever. He's never going to be a side-footer, and the only other method available - giving it some welly - is terribly error-prone. Never mind - since he seems to alternate, he'll score the next one and it'll be in a more important context. And it'll have been deserved rather than cynically won, I hope.

At least that brief burst of controversy and excitement made us feel as if we'd been to a football match. With only a few minutes remaining, the rest was mundane - Chadwick shot weakly at Chamberlain, Easton's header gave the substitute keeper an easy save to make.

So, what lessons have we learnt? That we're not good enough for the Premiership? Nope, it means virtually nothing. For a start, Manchester United aren't even vaguely representative of the Premiership. Besides, cup form is no guide to league form over the course of a season and, to refer back to Saturday's report, we're still very much a First Division club right now anyway. That it's all starting to go wrong? Well, not unless you've got some kind of phobia about being top of the table. That we're rubbish in the Worthington Cup? Erm, yeah, probably. That the Worthington Cup is itself rubbish? Oh, absolutely.

In brief, this was not very good. At all. We'll get over it.