By Ian Grant
Experimentation is a necessary thing, of course. Without it, humanity would never have got over the starting line
of the evolutionary race. Unless you try and fail, try and fail, try and eventually succeed, nothing gets
achieved. Really, though, it belongs behind closed doors. While it's certainly valid to argue that the innovators deserve
great recognition for their efforts, few of us would particularly want to be stuck in a lift with them.
Take literature, for example. James Joyce's vastly experimental novels may have shaped and influenced
everything that followed, extending the horizons of the form to a quite extraordinary degree...but, for mere
mortals, they're progressively more impenetrable and unreadable. For the reader rather than the literary
historian, some of the derivative works that trailed in their wake are actually far more rewarding.
Music too. Take Wire - three arty types and an organic farmer, who've contributed vastly to the development
of post-punk music over the last twenty-five years. As individuals, their experimental credentials are impeccable - constant
innovation, from avant garde installations to white noise to abstract modern dance music. But it's only when
they come together, when their extra-curricular activities inform the band itself, when pop starts to enter
the equation, that the products of their experiments become vital.
Match reports, likewise. Some idiot reporter writing pretentious, pseudo-intellectual drivel by way of an
introduction, when you really want to read about the game.
So, whatever they were trying to create in the second half, we should applaud Watford and Portsmouth. Sure, it was
incredibly ugly...but, as I've explained, prototypes often are. No, we should encourage their attempts to
create a new sport with the rucking and mauling of rugby, the sparse incident of snooker, and trace elements of
football. However, we should also request that they don't trouble us again until it's been fully
tried, tested and perfected.
In the first half, we stuck with football. And we murdered Pompey. Annihilated them, slaughtered them, sent them running for the hills in fear for
their lives. Yes, indeed. That lasted for ten minutes. After that, like relics of empire days, we sat back and
drank tea while our newly-conquered enemies waited on us with servile politeness. And then we woke up....
It was all terribly confusing, really. Those ten minutes demonstrated that we've lost none of our attacking
verve, while the remaining eighty countered the positive vibes by pointing out that we're also capable of
being bullied by our supposed inferiors. Portsmouth - for all their selection problems, poor form and general
mid-tableness - were the better of two not-very-good sides for long periods. Although we knew that we had a
higher gear to shift into, we'd forgotten how to work the bloody clutch.
From the start, Portsmouth leapt eagerly into the game. We, on the other hand, were distinctly tentative, caught
by surprise and struggling to impose ourselves. Encouragingly, we countered the early pressure efficiently - only
Bradbury's awkward volley from a Sharpe cross entered the list of goal attempts, the rest added up to little.
Nevertheless, it wasn't a particularly positive opening.
When it came, however, the response was hugely impressive. In particular, Peter Kennedy and Tommy Smith began to
combine down the left to fine effect, swift breaks that challenged the Portsmouth defence for the first time and
found it less than secure. The atmosphere, previously only apparent at the other end, lifted noticeably.
It lifted further almost immediately. Taking advantage of an assist from the referee, Paolo Vernazza strode
confidently through the midfield, then picked his moment to supply Heidar Helguson as he pulled away to the left.
The shot, curled in from the edge of the area, wasn't fierce enough to beat Flahavan...but the keeper's scrambling
save only pushed the ball towards Smith, who prodded it home without hesitation.
During the subsequent minutes, we rammed home the advantage with a furious purpose that's been lacking for
some time. Finally, we looked like a winning side. Vernazza slashed a shot wide from twenty-two yards, before
Smith found himself on the end of a Darren Ward's header from an Allan Nielsen throw. He flicked
the ball past Flahavan delightfully, and with such nonchalance that it took more than a moment for the
goal to register.
Portsmouth were penned back. For a thrilling spell, they weren't even able to clear the ball beyond the
halfway line, let alone gain controlled possession of it. Corners, crosses, free kicks, scrambles, the full works.
What we didn't come up with was a clear-cut chance to put the game beyond Pompey's reach, to seal the victory.
It appeared that we might go on to score four or five. It didn't happen, obviously.
Indeed, we'd faded away completely long before the first Portsmouth goal went in. Sure, there were still some
fine individual performances to be seen - Kennedy darting around all over, Vernazza showing his tenacious side,
Robinson bossing opponents about - but the overall picture looked rather less pretty.
In many ways, though, taking a quick breather after our intense exertions shouldn't have had any effect on the result at all. You shouldn't
have to pound the opposition into oblivion for the entire ninety minutes to ensure victory. You have a defence for a
Our defence is letting us down. Too many mistakes, too many slips (literally) that strikers can take advantage of, too many
leads that are surrendered without a fight. Sure, Portsmouth pulled themselves off the ropes and regained
their composure...but a good spell for the opposition shouldn't automatically result in goals for the opposition. The
fightback was barely worthy of the term, hardly more than an assertion of pride. It still yielded two goals.
In truth, it might've yielded more. Thankfully, Lee Bradbury was having a particularly bad day at the knacker's yard.
When Sharpe crossed for him and he attempted to recreate Smith's subtle flick, the ball bounced off his knee and dribbled three yards wide. When
he tried an overhead kick from a corner, he made no contact at all and landed on his ample arse. So he became
a looming, lumbering decoy for the other forward players...which would've been amusing, if we hadn't fallen for it.
For James Panayi, this was a lesson in proper football against proper players. Lee Sharpe was frequently too
quick and too mobile for the young defender, who struggled to predict his opponent's movements and lacked
the pace to compensate. That said, he stuck to the task with a determination that's already becoming a
trademark - while Sharpe may have got the better of him in key battles, Panayi had yet to lose the war when
injury forced his withdrawal at half-time.
The first of those key battles came just after the half-hour mark. Bradbury's cross from the right shouldn't have
caused too many problems, yet Sharpe stole in ahead of Panayi to meet it with a powerful diving header. Thankfully,
Alec Chamberlain was equal to it, diverting it onto the bar with his fingertips and relying on his defenders to clear
the danger after the ball had rebounded from the woodwork with a thud.
Sometimes, such incidents merely confirm the result. When you're two-nil down and you start hitting the
woodwork, there's that sinking feeling, that gloom descending. When you're two-nil up, you can start to see defeat
in your opponents' eyes, so you concentrate and you wait for their depression to consume them. Or you give them
the two goals that they want. 'Sup to you, like.
Somehow, our defence has lost the ability to spot danger, to anticipate situations. Whatever problems are caused
by lack of pace, many more are caused by the failure to read the game and nip things in the bud. There's only one
Steve Palmer, and that's a bit of a shame in the current circumstances.
With six minutes of the half remaining, Palmer rescued Robinson, who'll never be described as "flawless" but still
had a fine game, from embarrassment by tracking back to thump Bradbury's cross-shot into the advertising hoardings
and prevent it from reaching strikers at the far post. The corner drifted into the six yard box, Chamberlain moved
out to claim and slipped, Quashie headed into empty net. All very unfortunate. Particularly the lack of marking.
Even now, Portsmouth were hardly charging over the horizon in their thousands. Rather, this had the subdued, repetitive
air of so many Premiership encounters - nothing much happens, opposition score, nothing much happens, opposition score. The point
is, of course, that we were facing Lee Bradbury and Steve Claridge, not Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. This is our level,
Even with only one minute of injury time to survive, we still managed to throw away the lead before the interval. Appropriately,
it was a messy, awful goal. Another cross from the right, another aerial challenge for Panayi. He won it this time,
yet succeeded in doing no more than heading the ball back into the danger area. There, Claridge lurked and poached. Having
received some stick from the home fans, partly for his Luton connections and partly because he's just one of those
players, he gave a bit back in return. This is not a reason for him to be publicly beheaded.
And so, because we must, to the second half. Micah Hyde replaced the injured Panayi, Palmer moved over to the
right. These are facts. The rest is nonsense.
Really, we didn't play at all. Faced with a Portsmouth side that, naturally, attacked the game with renewed confidence,
we ploughed our way through forty-five minutes without any sense of direction. For a while, the away side dominated -
Bradbury headed over, Chamberlain saved comfortably from Claridge, Page did well to block from a deflected free
kick. Then, stalemate. Grinding, grotesque stalemate.
It wasn't even particularly dull. As the swirling rain gathered in misty clouds over the pitch, the physical battles
retained the attention. You half-expected to see Derek Payne appear from history, caked in mud, flattening opponents and
departing for an early bath. Certainly, the midfielders that we did have out there could've done with some assistance - with
Palmer occupied elsewhere, neither Vernazza nor Nielsen saw the ball for more than fleeting, tantalising instants.
Ideally, a team is filled with players who excel at everything. In the real world, however, there are ball-winners
and there are ball-users, there are goal-scorers and there are target men. You win games because you match players
with tasks. You don't want Paolo Vernazza to be up to his neck in mud, you don't want Steve Palmer to be the man most
in possession of the ball, you don't want Heidar Helguson to be trying to win headers on the halfway line, you don't want
Peter Kennedy to be shooting with his right foot, you don't want Tommy Smith to be on the end of floating crosses. More than
anything, you don't want a big heap of you-don't-wants piled up on top of each other.
In the circumstances, the absence of further substitutions was entirely baffling. We lacked width, we lacked possession
in midfield, we lacked someone to hold the ball up, we lacked pretty much everything that's something to do with
football. Only Tommy Smith, shining so brighly amid the general murk, offered a creative spark. Really, it shouldn't
all be down to one player.
It was, though. And he damn nearly won us the game, setting up two perfect opportunities in the closing stages. First,
he burst through the defence from deep, carefully retaining possession until support arrived. It came in the form
of Kennedy, who received a pass that left him nothing to do except beat Flahavan from twelve yards. With his right
foot. He shuffled the ball past the post.
That, however, was only a minor miss compared to what was to follow from Helguson. Again, Smith created the opening
single-handedly. Faced with two defenders on the edge of the area, he accepted the challenge, pushing the ball through
and darting between them. Having made the difficult bit look easy, he had no problem with the easy bit - the cross
was guided accurately onto Helguson's forehead as he lurked on the six yard line, completely unmarked. It was unmissable. He
referred to the right page in the coaching manual, headed it forcefully downwards...and watched in utter disbelief as the
ball reared up off the turf and cleared the bar. Damn our fancy new pitch and its efficient drainage system....
Bloody Portsmouth, eh? We may have banished the Fratton Park voodoo in recent visits, but their insistence on annoying
the hell out of us whenever they visit Vicarage Road remains. Admiration for them is tempered by the knowledge that
they contributed relatively little to the result. Sure, they played with considerable spirit, enough to throw us out of our
stride...but the goals and the misses were our responsibility.
"Can we play you every week?" Christ, let's hope not.