Main Menu
What's New
00/01: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 9/12/00
Crystal Palace
Obscure theories
By Ian Grant

I've got a theory. It's to do with the growing assortment of drum and bass twelve inches beside my stereo, the product of an on-going love for a music that seems so savagely disconnected from your everyday verse-chorus-verse-chorus nonsense that you sometimes wonder where the hell it came from.

Take Ed Rush and Optical, two of the scene's leading lights in partnership. Over the last couple of years, their mighty Virus label has been responsible for some of the most extraordinary sounds to emerge from the clubs. Granted, most of those sounds have been somewhere in the general "BBBBBBRRRRRRZZZPPPPPAAAAAPPPPP" area, but still. Highly recommended for anyone who still cares about ideas and possibilities and noise and pop music.

Being absolutely bloody hardcore and all, none of these releases bothers to specify which speed it should be played at. So you can make your own choice. We'll take "Watermelon", a personal favourite, as an example. At 45rpm, it's pure dancefloor genius - a barrage of thunderous breakbeats, a bassline that sounds as if they're excavating a new extension to the London Underground below your flat. Total future funk magnificence. At 33rpm, which is my preference, it's a whole different ballgame - bruising, malignant hip-hop, with a warthog feeding frenzy going on in the background. So, two records in one, and each utterly essential.

"Yes, ig. That's all really interesting. But what happened to your sodding theory?"

Ah, well. If we use Ed Rush and Optical as the template for First Division success, we discover two things. Firstly, it becomes obvious why nobody's prepared to give me a job as a football manager. Secondly, we see that, at Watford, we've only mastered one of the speeds. At 45rpm, we've got it all - pacy, incisive attacking football that scythes sexily through opposition defences. It's the other bit that's the problem - at 33rpm, when things start to get unpleasant and physical, we lose our rhythm entirely.

Of course, the trouble is that the Nationwide really is a warthog feeding frenzy. When winter sets in, the whole thing becomes a 33rpm grind. And, unlike our drum and bass heroes, we've yet to create anything pleasing from it.

You'll have noticed that I haven't begun this report with a great rant about incompetence, failure and defeat. The reason for that is simple - it wouldn't be appropriate. Much will be written about this result and most of it will miss the point completely, presumably on the assumption that we should be able to achieve automatic promotion in the most literal sense.

Yet, in truth, the performance that would've won this extremely hard-fought game wasn't so very different from the performance that lost it. While it was far from perfect, it was nonetheless considerably better than many previous attempts in similar conditions. Even during our unbeaten run, we would've struggled to play beautiful football on such a rutted surface against confident, combative opponents. To prove the point, I've just watched Parma and Juventus, two sides with world class line-ups, produce equally primitive football in the same circumstances.

Ugly stuff, then. But, at least in the first half, it was also encouraging and entertaining stuff. Since it's safe to assume that football purists don't make pilgrimages to Selhurst Park, the fact that the whole thing definitely wasn't just like watching Brazil didn't particularly matter.

In a stereotypically British way, the first forty-five minutes were thoroughly enjoyable. The balance of power swayed violently from side to side yet, with both defences looking robust, the opening goal remained elusive. It rapidly became obvious that a single score would probably settle it.

For a time, it seemed that we were the most likely scorers. After a wayward opening minute, in which we back-peddled furiously like a child on the beach that's stepped too close to the sea, we began to dominate. With Heidar Helguson replacing Gifton Noel-Williams, our attacking threat took a slightly different form and, although we were soon to discover that the lumbering Ruddock had sufficient cover in the shape of the excellent, pacy Fan Zhiyi, it seemed that we might have found the right formula.

Within three minutes, Kolinko had punched Allan Nielsen's cross off Tommy Mooney's forehead and then saved from Micah Hyde's well-struck shot. Although Black screwed an effort wide as Palace briefly came back into the game, the first clear-cut chance fell to the visitors. Miraculously, Tommy Smith managed to shake off Fan for long enough to receive Neil Cox's pass and get an unhurried look at the target from the edge of the box. Unfortunately, his shot was weak and didn't extend the keeper. We were to regret our failure to make more of those situations.

Pleasingly, we were able to produce moments of quality amid the general maelstrom. Even more pleasingly, we appeared capable of controlling a match that didn't particularly suit our style of play. That's what we're seeking, ultimately - you don't get out of the First Division by only winning the attractive games.

We continued to create good chances. From a corner, Mooney rose highest at the far post and watched as his header rolled just wide. Then, something of a rarity - a move containing three passes. Paul Robinson's gigantic cross-field ball found Heidar Helguson, who fed Mooney - his shot was fierce and, although it was unlikely to beat him, Kolinko did well to hold onto it as Smith threatened to pounce.

Somewhere along the line, however, we began to lose our grip. A game of such crash-thud-bash basics doesn't really allow one team to hold the upper hand for too long. There is, after all, a major difference between possession and frequent, hefty connections with the ball. Having survived a difficult fifteen minutes, Palace took their turn at trying to score that vital goal.

They came damn close. Although we were generally solid defensively - in particular, Robert Page seemed keen to shun anything that could even vaguely be considered to be "fannying about" - there were still occasional moments of indecision and mild panic. Steve Palmer was the guilty party on this occasion, slicing an awkward clearance back into his own area - it eventually fell for Mullins, whose bobbling shot from twenty yards scraped the outside of the post. That lifted Palace spirits, and Morrison sent an angled shot and then a glancing header wide in the following minutes.

We replied in dynamic fashion, Helguson just failing to make contact with Mooney's low, skidding cross. After an edgy Palace defence had conceded a corner, Mooney was again first to the ball but couldn't make the right connection, heading it into the ground so that it had lost all power by the time it reached Kolinko. Then Helguson received Cox's cross and showed his lack of confidence by heading tamely at the keeper from twelve yards, when he had sufficient time to control and find a more measured finish.

At this stage, it all looked rather promising. That is, as promising as a December day in Croydon with a head full of cold germs can be. Suddenly, we discovered the art of breaking down an offside trap, sending Tommy Smith flying through on three occasions. Unfortunately, we also discovered that Fan's speed enabled him to catch the young striker even with a head start - for those who weren't there, imagine the absolute opposite of Neil Ruddock and you're somewhere near. Sadly, even when he was out of Fan's reach, Smith demonstrated that his crossing ability isn't yet up to the standard of the rest of his game.

After half an hour of already furious activity, it only became more furious as half-time approached. Which meant that the football started to become slightly incidental. Although Neil Cox had a couple of attempts - one blocked, one curling over - after being supplied by Hyde, the chances had pretty much dried up by the interval. The last incident of the half couldn't have been more appropriate, Ruddock thumping a shot over from twenty yards like a gigantic cannon being fired to announce the end of some kind of ritualistic ceremony.

We were already out on the pitch and going through a light warm-up as the Palace players emerged from the tunnel at the end of half-time. Presumably, the intention was to prevent another second half slump. If so, it didn't really work.

For a spell, nothing much changed. The ball was frantically walloped around the pitch...and sometimes it went quite near to one of the goals. If this had been a game with little goalmouth incident, it would've been an absolute atrocity with nothing but toil and effort to redeem it. As it was, it remained thoroughly invigorating, in an unrefined sorta way.

Either side might've scored in the first ten minutes. After Neil Cox had wasted a free kick - deluded fool that I am, I'm certain that I remember a time when our set pieces showed some sign of pre-meditation - there was a flurry of excitement as Smith prodded the ball through for Nielsen and, despite being rapidly closed down by opponents, the midfielder managed to get his shot away. Kolinko saved well at his near post.

Four minutes later, Espen Baardsen was called into action for the first time. As Black surged inside from the left wing, nobody appeared particularly keen to close him down. So he kept going and unleashed a tremendous shot from twenty-five yards that looked set to dip into the top corner, until Baardsen's fingertips diverted it over the bar. Fine save....

...But also an indication that Palace were stepping things up. Having previously given the impression of being slightly goal-shy, they managed to change all that simply by creating a couple of chances for Clinton Morrison - he might be a bit awkward and untidy, but he's certainly not afraid to have a shot.

His first effort, after he'd got on the end of a swift break, was unfortunate, in that it was clearly bound for the bottom corner before it received enough of a deflection from Page's out-stretched leg to take it just past the post. But, three minutes later, he got a second sight of goal and there was no deflection to prevent him from winning the game. Defensively, it was horrible - lots of hopeless hacking and flailing as the ball bobbled around on the edge of the box following a corner. When it finally bounced through to Morrison, he put an end to all that nonsense by cleanly smacking a shot past Baardsen.

Sadly, there was no particular reason to change my opinion that one goal would decide the destination of the points. After going behind, we worked hard but lacked inspiration. It would be too simplistic to say that we deteriorated. Not a lot changed, in was simply that such a patternless, pinball-style game made our need for an equaliser appear even more desperate. The whole mood altered as Morrison's shot hit the back of the net, any support for the team giving way to grumbling and complaining. Our opponents, in contrast, gained an extra bit of pace and an extra inch in height.

Both sides made substitutions. For us, Gifton Noel-Williams arrived and tried his bloody heart out, finding the ball and adequate support very hard to come by. Still, he fared better than poor Stephen Armstrong, who spent his first ten minutes in the Watford first team standing on the touchline in front of the away section hoping for a touch of the ball, as much a spectator as us. For them, Dougie Freedman came on and, despite only being involved occasionally, was sufficiently lively to make us think twice about committing too many players to the attacking efforts.

The frantic, scrappy play still yielded some promising moments. There were optimistic shouts for a penalty as Mooney was bundled to the ground...but, having been very lenient throughout, the referee was at least consistent in ignoring the incident. As Nielsen was booked for continuing to protest, you rather felt that we'd do better to get on with the game. When we did so, we created one more chance as Nielsen broke through and cut into the area from the left. Having chosen to ignore the option of an early square pass to Mooney, he was forced to try his luck with another shot at the near post - he didn't really get hold of it and Kolinko saved comfortably.

At that stage, twenty minutes remained. But it was our last opening. We bashed away without great conviction, unable to string enough passes together to find a way through the middle or to find enough space on the flanks to get quality crosses into the box. Goals win games, and Morrison's had definitely won this.

Indeed, as injury time began, only Baardsen prevented Palace from adding to the oh-so-joyous list of Selhurst memories. Mentally, we were in the opposition box, trying to score a last-gasp equaliser. Unfortunately, the ball was in our box, at Freedman's feet. From ten yards, he picked his spot. Somehow, incredibly, Baardsen managed to deflect the shot over the bar. At the start of the season, we applauded Espen Baardsen for his complete domination of the penalty area and saw little of his shot-stopping ability. Now that times are harder, we're starting to see what he's really made of.

Five consecutive defeats is unnerving, at the very least. But you can react in one of two ways. You can look backwards, remembering how we played in some of the games that made up that astonishing unbeaten run. Only some of them, mind...because there were occasions when we received standing ovations for performances that were flimsy in comparison to Saturday's. And you can complain bitterly and ludicrously, simply because we haven't been able to transfer our best form to the mud of Selhurst in December.

Or you can look forwards. Forget about the performances against Sheffield United, Forest, Grimsby, whoever. We're going to need something different now. That's obvious, surely? Despite another defeat, there was evidence on Saturday that reality might be dawning on us.

The teams that get promoted win matches like this. Sparkling football doesn't often come into it. It's about going on the road, battling away, grabbing a goal from somewhere, hanging on, and taking the points home.

We didn't get there on this occasion. We weren't a million miles away, though.