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Nationwide Division One, 23/9/00
Stockport County
We don't really mean it
By Ian Grant

The word's out, evidently. Faced with a visit from a rampant Watford, most sides will respond by attempting to shut down the game. Stockport, however, chose a more comprehensive strategy - attempting to shut down the entire town.

For a start, the station was closed, with the hourly trains from Manchester covered up by a campaign of misinformation by national rail enquiries. To stop the cars and coaches, there were roadblocks - monstrous traffic jams on the motorway and, closer to town, road closures that required twenty mile diversions. As the hours crawled by in the stifling, insufferable heat of the coach, the chances of reaching our destination without first living through some kind of "Lord of the Flies" scenario on our stranded, sealed vehicle seemed slim.

When we were finally released from our torment, the relief was almost overwhelming. Fresh air, cool breeze, open spaces, water. The outside world. We'd made it - the terrace, open to bright sunshine as summer made its last stand, seemed virtually heavenly by way of reward.

The match certainly wasn't heavenly...but, of course, that won't matter too much when May comes round. The celebrations at the end didn't really disguise the fact that we made rather a hash of this, particularly after having established an apparently unassailable two-nil lead early in the second half. Perhaps it seems churlish to criticise a winning side - and a winning side on an amazing goal-scoring spree at that - but, equally, showering them with praise seems inappropriate in this instance. There was a comfortable victory to be had here - we stumbled upon it and, in the process, trod on it and squashed it. In the end, it was far from comfortable.

The difference between confidence and over-confidence was particularly evident in the first half. Confidence gives you the ability to judge situations, over-confidence gives you the ability to mis-judge situations...and there were far too many mis-judgements here. Basic mistakes, really...and, with due respect to an energetic Stockport team, they would've been punished by a better side.

We found ourselves ahead at half-time, despite having done little to dominate a messy, scrappy game. Stockport began at sprint pace, tearing down the flanks and whipping in a succession of evil crosses that often just evaded strikers. Yet their impressive start yielded just one shot, a weak effort from Moore that caused no problems for Alec Chamberlain. The side that finally ends our unbeaten run will take its chances, knowing that we're certainly going to take some of ours.

It took a while for our passing game to get going, with the absence of Micah Hyde's sharp link-up play being keenly felt. After seven minutes, we finally managed to put a coherent move together and it ended with Paul Robinson, eager and powerful throughout, bringing a comfortable save from Jones with a right-footed half-volley from distance.

Pretty obviously, it's the potency of our attack that's winning us these games. There's too much for opponents to deal with, too many options and too many potential scorers. As Allan Nielsen begins to get the measure of the Nationwide, another is added to a list that already includes Tommy Moony, Gifton Noel-Williams, Tommy Smith, Micah Hyde, Heidar Helguson. And it was Nielsen who first suggested that the three goal run might be continued, latching onto Mooney's deflected cross and bending in a shot that brought a very fine, full-stretch, two-handed save from Jones after ten minutes.

Yet there really wasn't enough where that came from. Indeed, we allowed the game to slump into an untidy stalemate with Stockport tending to have the sporadic goal attempts. Add a hefty helping of defensive frailty into the equation, and it wasn't especially impressive stuff.

Having praised Darren Ward's elegance and regal class in my Crewe report, it was difficult to believe that this was the same player. He had a bit of a 'mare, basically. Although constantly appearing to lose sight of the ball in the bright sunlight constitutes some kind of excuse, he was nevertheless a mess of bad judgement and bad execution. For example, had Moore been sharper when running onto a long ball that Ward had allowed to bounce and then missed completely, he would certainly have put County ahead rather than scuffing a shot at Chamberlain.

As a spectacle, it got worse. For nearly half an hour, we had nothing to look at but honest toil and industry. No craft and no guile from either side. There were shots - Chamberlain pushed Gibb's free kick over, Moore and Maxwell shot off-target, Chamberlain let Connelly's drive whistle past the post - but there was no incident or interest to make them memorable. To sum things up, we executed a new and novel corner routine, which involved Neil Cox passing the ball straight to a defender...the element of surprise, presumably.

As if both sides wanted to avoid a dressing room barrage from their respective managers, the final five minutes offered a sudden, unexpected improvement. First, Maxwell should've scored, rising above the defence to meet an in-swinging corner and head over from six yards. Then, awful hesitation from Robinson allowed the same striker to collect a loose ball and sprint past the full back into the space behind the defence - only Robinson's miraculous saving tackle, just getting a toe to the ball as he slid in, prevented Maxwell from running through on goal. The home fans howled for a foul and a red card...but they hadn't seen it from our angle.

The players checked their watches, waited for the injury time board to go up and, as if to order, scored. It was a lovely goal too, a brief glimpse of the sweeping football of which we're capable. When the ball arrived for Mooney to cross from the left, Nielsen had crept into the box and seemed favourite to score until a defender's head diverted the ball away from his head. It fell to Tommy Smith at the far post and, with wonderful composure, he took it down, stepped inside a challenge and slammed a shot past Jones. As with the end of that coach journey, the sense of relief was quite something.

So we took a lead back down the tunnel. Only thanks to Alec Chamberlain, though. Deep into added time, Ward was again hesitant, standing still in an attempt to play Moore offside and leaving the striker to run through once more. Page charged back, Chamberlain charged out, Moore concentrated on finding a rather better finish than the previous one. He did so, only to see Chamberlain's fingertips brushing against the ball as it headed towards goal and diverting it wide. To illustrate the difference between himself and Espen Baardsen, Chamberlain failed to take command of the penalty area at key moments...but saves like that are a reminder of his shot-stopping excellence.

Essentially, it appeared to be a game that would be decided by three key moments. Tommy Smith's opener, Alec Chamberlain's save...and, shortly after the re-start, Gifton Noel-Williams' second. Mooney had already shot just wide from twenty-five yards before we went on the attack again almost immediately. Gifton picked up the ball, sauntered forward and tried his luck from the same distance as Mooney. Jones dived across and got a hand to the shot - it appeared as if he'd saved it and our celebrations were cut short...until the ball dropped down and bounced over the line.

That should've been that. Two-nil up after fifty minutes, the difficult part had been done. Not efficiently, perhaps, but done nonetheless. From there, it ought to have been a matter of taking control in midfield and relying on that razor-sharp attack to keep the scoring record going. The home crowd was silent, the away terrace was jubilant, the sun was shining, it was all over. But, like in a park kick-about, we felt obliged to make a decent game of it. If we didn't quite stop for a discussion, shout "Okay, you can have Tommy!", and let Mooney swap sides to even things up, then we did the next best thing.

You have to be critical, really. Because we had a very, very hard time before the referee blew the final whistle and needed some good fortune to deny a furious Stockport fightback. All of that was avoidable. It all began with Mooney's dismissal, immediately shown the red card after giving Clark a thump on the way down from an aerial challenge. Those of us who didn't see it had our minds made up by the lack of complaint, by Mooney himself as well as the other players. Watching the whole thing unfold was almost surreal, particularly since it involved Mooney, someone whose aggression has always found a positive outlet.

Losing a player doesn't necessarily change the pattern of a game. But it always changes the mentality of both sides, and that was what really made the difference. The match was dead...but, in that moment, it came back to life. Suddenly, Stockport realised that they'd given up too early and, conscious of our numerical disadvantage, we began to retreat.

For a while, things were still reasonably even. Maxwell tried an acrobatic volley that flew miles wide; Jones made a simple save from Noel-Williams. But, after twenty minutes, it all started to go a bit pear-shaped. Steve Palmer's defensive header looped up and Chamberlain, presumably expecting it to go over the bar, made a complete mess of dealing with it. After the ball had bounced inside the six yard box and left the keeper flailing, a crowd of players piled in to get to it and it ended up in the back of the net. The County fans roared encouragement as their team ran back towards the halfway line, while the Watford players surrounded the referee. Most of them seemed to be claiming that there was a handling offence...whether that was the case or not, it eventually became clear that it had been disallowed. Fortunate, not least for Chamberlain.

Again, though, our mistakes - whether disciplinary or defensive - had added fuel to the Stockport fire. They weren't happy, not least with the referee, and we were about to be on the receiving end.

Penned in our half and reliant on occasional breaks to relieve the pressure, we'd lost our composure completely and were in danger of losing the three points with it. Within a minute of the disallowed goal, a goal-bound header from a corner was blocked by a County player on the line. Then Wilbraham's glancing header from a right wing cross - an identical move to the eventual goal, as it happened - went straight at Chamberlain. Although Robinson's well-struck free kick was deflected wide, the ball was bouncing around at the other end all too quickly and Chamberlain had to make a smart save from Moore's angled shot.

It's become pretty normal for spells of opposition pressure to end in a Watford goal. Not this time, unfortunately. After Noel-Williams' rising drive whistled over the bar, Wilbraham had another go at a right wing cross and this time managed to flick his header into the bottom corner. The victory that had seemed so wonderfully certain was slipping from our grasp.

We kicked off. Perhaps that was it, actually. Perhaps it was being able to take the ball, plonk it on the centre spot, and pass it to someone in a yellow shirt rather than wellying it towards the corner flag. Perhaps it was being able to get our defenders out of the six yard box for the first time in about fifteen minutes. Or perhaps Stockport just got a bit over-excited.

Whatever, a game that had now become utterly gripping still had some surprises in store. In a sense, we got what we expected - Stockport laid siege to our goal. Yet, in doing so, they forgot that they had a goal of their own to protect - now, when we managed to clear the ball up to Gifton, we had wide open spaces to exploit. That's the beauty of having such in-form strikers - they score goals, the opposition chases the game, they score even more goals.

Once more, the opportunity to put the game beyond Stockport presented itself. With Nielsen somehow managing to get from our penalty area into the opposition half in a matter of seconds whenever we attacked - with the aid of some kind of teleport device, presumably - there were goals to be had and it looked as if it'd be Gifton who'd be having them. Quite how he managed to make such an almighty, Devon White-ish mess of the chance that Nielsen dished up on a plate after thirty-seven minutes is unclear. It was such a lovely break too - Noel-Williams on the end of a clearance; Nielsen instantly in support, intelligent enough to hit his cross early to by-pass the isolated defender. It arrived at Gifton's feet and, instead of controlling it and taking as much time as he liked to beat Jones, he took a huge swing and fell over in a double-jointed tangle of legs and arms. The ball span harmlessly away. We can laugh about it now, of course....

When the roles were reversed five minutes later, however, there was no doubt about the finish. For a while, Gifton seemed content to amble down the wing and waste some time. Then a defender made the mistake of lunging in with a challenge, allowing him to slide the ball past and stride away. He looked up, picked out Nielsen on the edge of the box and the rest was pure class - the midfielder steadied himself, studied the situation, and smacked a shot into the top corner. He didn't quite raise an eyebrow in Gifton's direction, as if to say "Not so difficult, is it?". He didn't have to, really.

In a parallel universe, we played the remaining minutes at walking pace and every touch from a Watford player was greeted with great cheers from the away terrace. In this universe, we managed to cock it up again. Within a minute, Moore found himself on the end of a sharp interchange and, for the first time, found a decisive finish - his angled shot beat Chamberlain and bounced in off the post. Neat goal, but we'd been caught cold.

That left us with three minutes, plus an eternity of injury time, to hang on to the points that should've been safely stashed away long before. We did it. Just. As Stockport charged forward, there were some really frightening moments - a huge scramble from a long throw that finally ended with Neil Cox blocking and booting clear, a shot that beat Chamberlain and headed for the net...until we realised that it had gone behind the goal rather than into it. Selfish, perhaps, but the prospect of six or seven hours of Brighton-bound misery if we conceded an equaliser made this late drama virtually unbearable. Like I say, we held on but only just.

It's a great result, obviously, and annoyance at certain aspects of the performance doesn't change that. They might've been tipped for relegation by Mr Rowson and their league position might back that theory up...but Stockport looked much better than that. The home fans who were virtually unanimous in blaming the defeat on the referee really ought to look closer to home - their team did enough to have got something out of the game without the help of the officials. We did enough to help them, too.

Message to the players: when we complained about being a bit bored when you were strolling to victory against Crewe, we didn't really mean it.