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Nationwide Division One, 7/4/01
Crystal Palace
Patterns of behaviour
By Ian Grant

As you'll know, there's only one channel worth watching on Saturday morning. It's ITV, where Ant and Dec's wonderfully entertaining "SM:TV" manages to be clever, childish and amusing, without slipping into the irritating smugness that spoils the vast majority of yoof TV. That said, anyone who didn't do a bit of channel-flicking during the cartoons yesterday would've missed a classic Graham Taylor moment on the BBC's (irritatingly smug) "Live & Kicking"....

A football quiz. Two youngsters - one, a fan of Arsenal; the other, a fan of Watford. It being the semi-final of whatever this thing is, there are messages for the contestants. For the Arsenal fan, David Seaman drones his way through a couple of sentences, looking as if someone's holding a gun to his back. For the Watford fan, GT appears, animated and full of encouragement, with fist clenched and pumping - "Go on, Andrew! You can do it! Go on!". He gives it some welly, in short.

Why? Because you know that he understands what the message will mean to its recipient. Because it might've taken five minutes from his busy schedule...but it'll be remembered forever by that young lad and, therefore, it should be something that's worth remembering. Because he's Graham Taylor. And, more than anything else, you wonder how anyone ever found it in their heart to abuse and be so bloody rude to such a wonderful man.

Inevitably, the Watford fan wins by a country mile. Unfortunately, this isn't an omen.

We played Crystal Palace in December. Back then, at the end of an obscure metaphor involving drum 'n' bass records, I wrote that:

"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."

At the start of April, not much has changed. Still we have a complete mental block whenever we come up against the division's more robust sides. Look at the results since November and the pattern is painfully obvious. We don't like it up us.

We have a way of making league positions seem irrelevant. We're still in playoff contention. This result sent Crystal Palace into the relegation zone. They only managed a goalless draw at home to Huddersfield in midweek...which, while risible, is still better than our result in the same fixture. And they were much the better side for the majority of these ninety minutes - dangerous on the break, sharper and stronger in midfield, solid in defence. Really, if we don't make it back into the top six, we won't have to look very far for the reason.

You can impose your own style of play on the game or you can compete on your opponents' terms. This season, even at the start, we've not been particularly good at either. Only when the opposition fits in with our plans by playing attractive, attacking football - hello, Grimsby! - do we really show what we're capable of.

We've been here before, then. In many ways, I hardly need to write a match report at all. Still, what the hell....

For seventy-five minutes, we were laboured and almost entirely ineffective. Unable to handle the pacy strikeforce of Morrison and Fuller, the defence allowed Palace enough chances to have put the game beyond us by the time we spectacularly conjured two goals in two minutes. Once again, the momentum generated by a vital victory was allowed to evaporate.

In the opening spell, we barely managed to get the ball into the Palace half. Indeed, we were somewhat fortunate not to go behind after just six minutes, when Morrison collected a lay-off from Riihilahti inside the area and mis-hit his shot as he bundled his way towards goal. Even then, he might've got another, more decisive touch as the ball bounced to Espen Baardsen. From the off, we'd conceded the initiative.

The first glimpse of passing football arrived after twelve minutes, as Tommy Smith and Gifton Noel-Williams combined to play the former through - he was tackled as he attempted to shoot and the ball ran harmlessly through to Kolinko. That brought the fans to life...but it proved to be an entirely false dawn, perhaps our only truly incisive break of the entire half.

The visitors went ahead with their next attack. It came from Fuller's winning challenge with Darren Ward, thirty-five yards from goal. Instantly, he was racing away from Robert Page and into the penalty area. The challenge from the Watford captain was from behind and, if it did win the ball, it didn't do so cleanly. The referee called it correctly, to my mind, and the same applies to the colour of the card. From the spot, Austin sent Baardsen the wrong way. All terribly familiar.

Predictably, the rest was dreadful. Five minutes later, Hopkins' free kick from the left corner flag found Morrison unmarked at the far post. He should've scored, but volleyed over. Regardless, the defending was awful. It didn't get a great deal better as Riihilahti headed at Baardsen from a corner and Morrison tried an ambitious, and hopeless, overhead from Austin's cross.

There was nothing happening for us. The ultra-attacking formation might've worked against Forest, where our two-man midfield bossed the game. Here, it left us woefully short of numbers in the crucial area. When we did manage to channel possession out to Nordin Wooter, his reluctance to play an early pass meant that he became sucked in to runs down cul-de-sacs. The rest seemed to involve an inordinate amount of watching Noel-Williams battle for scraps. In truth, and in condemnation of too many Watford players, Paul Robinson was the only real presence in the opposition half, with his rampaging, galloping runs over the halfway line.

Very not fun, then. Just two shots, both from Neil Cox and both from free kicks. The first, hit low, wouldn't have greatly troubled the keeper even if it hadn't been deflected over the bar. The second didn't require a deflection.

In circumstances like these, you just want half-time to come. You just want the chance to change something, to roll the dice again. I've always felt that the only real interest in snooker comes from the fact that, uniquely, one player has to sit and watch their defeat happen, completely unable to intervene. Well, this had that feel about it.

Naturally, and even if it goes against my natural inclinations, you have to give Palace a certain amount of credit here. Unlike Stockport, Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley and other suppliers of setbacks, they were far from stereotypical. It was their bite in the tackle, their competitive edge, that caused us so many problems, not a crude aerial bombardment and a destruction of everything constructive. Indeed, when Fan attempted to recreate that grotesque Burnley throw-in routine in the second half, his foot rebelled on principle and he succeeded only in slicing the ball over the touchline. You certainly don't need to be a tactical genius to think of a gameplan to defeat us...but they put that gameplan into action with great discipline.

By the interval, the drabness of it all was really taking its toll. Particularly on Miles, who went home. Fan's free kick from twenty-five yards had taken a deflection, requiring Baardsen to scramble back across his line and grab the ball down at the foot of the post. As injury time began, Tommy Mooney - who was barely present until the equaliser aroused his interest - was robbed on the halfway line, giving Riihilahti the chance to burst forward and supply Fuller. Having got past Robinson, he lost his composure when finishing and the shot span wide.

So, new half. New beginning. New plan, with Micah Hyde replacing Nordin Wooter. Here we go. Or not.

In less than a minute, a long throw brought Baardsen from his line to claim. Or not. He collided with an opponent, the ball bounced free to Morrison. Only Ward's presence on the line, along with the refusal of the referee to listen to the handball appeals, prevented a second Palace goal.

There was no improvement. After ten minutes, Hopkin's tremendous half-volley from twenty-five yards dipped narrowly wide of Baardsen's goal. Slack marking from Page then gave Morrison the time to bring a long ball under control, turn and hammer a low shot from the edge of the box. Again, it didn't miss the post by very much.

Prior to the equaliser, we'd created just a solitary chance. It came from Noel-Williams' sheer desire to win and hang onto the ball, something that didn't exactly characterise the rest of our performance. On the six yard line, he wrestled with defenders to keep possession from Allan Nielsen's long throw. When it ran to Tommy Smith, he turned sharply and battered the ball goalwards, only to see it deflected wide. Again, the referee waved handball appeals away - undoubtedly, it did strike the defender's arm...but, equally undoubtedly, he was less than a yard away and couldn't have done anything about it.

So far, so grim. To say that our equaliser came from nowhere would be something of an understatement. Previous corners - hell, previous everything - had created a big load of nothing. Then, Ward finally managed to get a flick-on at the near post and Nielsen climbed above his marker to guide a header into the top corner. And you thought, "Right, perhaps now we can go on and win this?". And that thought was eloquently expressed in much punching of air and throat-shredding screaming....

And, by that time, Hyde was fighting for a loose ball around the edge of the box. It fell to Mooney, who attacked it as it bounced, hitting a first-time effort from twenty-five yards that whipped sensationally into the net before Kolinko had moved a muscle. Utter madness took hold. Instantly, Mooney was buried under a heap of yellow shirts on the penalty spot, as the considerable frustration of seventy-five minutes was released by six thousand people in the Rookery. The twentieth goal of Mooney's remarkable season, from his first active involvement in this particular football match.

After that, however, he was involved at every turn. Most notably, as Smith beat an opponent on the right wing and drifted a cross towards the far post. There, Mooney did so well to get above his marker but couldn't quite keep the header underneath the bar. Suddenly, the misery of the majority was forgotten, left behind. That's how it works. Three points, sixth place, Palace going down. Perfect.

Oh. Damn.

Prior to the equaliser, we'd probably have been grateful for a draw. By the end of injury time, a draw felt like a kick in the painful bits. No less agonising for the knowledge that, on this occasion, it wasn't self-inflicted - Black's powerful drive from a corner fairly ripped through the area and past Robinson on the line. We continue to go through the list of things that a promotion-bound side doesn't do. And we're nothing if not thorough.

Even then, we might've rescued ourselves. Yet more rampaging from Robinson, Mooney picking up possession on the left... and a cross-shot that went through the six yard box without a touch, mainly because Smith was being held back as he tried to reach it. You never get those, though. It finished with Noel-Williams shooting tamely at Kolinko from the edge of the area. It finished with a whole mess of disappointment and annoyance, and only one point.

The frightening thing? Well, that you'd feel pretty confident about predicting our results between now and the end of the season, purely based on the style of play of our opponents. And, on that basis, you wouldn't particularly want to be playing Tranmere, Gillingham and Burnley in the last three games.

The pattern is very well established. Someone or something has to break it. Now.