On yer bikes
By Matt Rowson
They say you never forget how to ride a bike. Well, that's only partly true. I cycled frequently until I was sixteen, when I was knocked off by a van on the way home, spreading myself evenly and - I guess - mercifully all over the pavement. Since then I've not so much as adjusted a saddle. Perhaps I would remember how to cycle if I tried, but it wouldn't be natural, wouldn't be comfortable. Frankly, the idea scares me a bit.
More of this later.
Having lost our unbeaten league record in the week, we could probably have done without following that defeat with a trip to Prenton Park. The place is as cold and unforgiving as the numbing wind that seems to make an appearance whenever we go up there. More pointedly, our apathetic defending of crosses into the box against Sheffield didn't augur well for an encounter with this lot. Rovers are not a great football team, but they are combative and competitive and more than capable of upsetting any visitors that are tired, off-form, or misshapen.
And frankly we were all of those things. Although we started brightly and positively, a disturbing pattern soon became apparent. Watford played 4-4-2, with Smith wide on the right side of midfield and Easton on the left, with Mooney up front with Gifton. Easton, however, is no winger, and it rapidly became clear that in the absence of Mooney's marauding runs down the left we were desperately short of width.
Easton's position was made more untenable by an apparent lack of confidence in him from his teammates, particularly Robinson who not once gave Easton the ball when presented with an alternative. Easton responded in kind when, on one surge forward, he ignored Robinson overlapping in space in favour of a dink over the defence to Mooney; probably the closest we came to a breakthrough in the first half, although the linesman's flag halted the Moonster's advance. It says something that Robert Page was responsible for one of our two convincing efforts on goal, lurching inside a challenge and, as if as an afterthought, thumping a shot from outside the area that Murphy was comfortably behind. Even more implausibly, Easton threw twice his weight into a shot that Murphy could only block as the ball broke to him on the edge of the area.
At the other end, Rovers quickly recognised that they were more than capable of hurting us. Quite literally in some cases, with the notorious Clint Hill going over the ball to collapse Steve Palmer. Referee Alan Wiley's approach was even-handed throughout but undeniably lenient...any number of referees of our recent acquaintance would have shown Hill a red, rather than yellow card.
Slightly surprisingly, it wasn't the aerial bombardment that caused us the most problems, Page and Jobson scrapping and generally coping fairly well in the centre. Down the flanks, however, we were stretched, Robinson and Cox both being caught out as Rovers marauded at will, and Baardsen called into action more than once.
Eventually, the pressure was always going to tell. Page gave away an unnecessary free kick with a foul on Allison a third of the way into our half. Koumas sent a clever ball curling out to the left and over the head of Cox, who realised too late that Flynn was scurrying onto the ball outside him. A ball straight across the box, a prodded finish by Hill with Baardsen helpless. Simplicity itself, one-nil.
Back up the other end then, for some fairly directionless pressure. Given the start we've had it seems implausible that so many of our players seem lacking in confidence, but there was evidence of this all over the pitch. Easton, of course, carries more of a burden than most with a number of the, frankly, thicker of Watford's support bawling at every misplaced pass and ignoring the tidy and occasionally penetrating work in between. In addition, though, Cox seems to be at the wrong end of a dramatic fluctuation in form, slicing crosses and sending shots careering into random corners of the stand, quite unrecognisable from the irresistible force that won BSaD's player of the month award in October. Nielsen was still all over the pitch, but generally struggling to impose himself, his performance was that of a tired driver falling asleep at the wheel. Noel-Williams was always an outlet, awkward and battling, but he's only occasionally been as terrifying as he can be of late. Most disappointing of all, Mooney's monumental determination becomes blatantly ill-directed when his confidence deserts him.
The one ray of sunlight was Smith, too often isolated on the right touchline, but inducing panic in his marker every time he turned on the ball, gliding and swerving past challenges but generally too isolated to make an impact.
Half-time, and glum, despondent faces...but still a suspicion that we could grab something. Tranmere were committed but limited, and we still had plenty left to unleash with only a one-goal deficit, probably less than Rovers deserved, to claw back.
But the start of the second half was woeful. At least the travelling support woke up a bit, with some defiant chanting reminiscent of last season's lows. On the pitch, however, we were a mess. Everything was too deliberate going forward... having been knocked off the crest of our wave it was as if we'd forgotten how to do it, and were regressing to school teaching lessons desperately trying to recall how to break down an obstinate defence. At the back, Baardsen had his most involved and resolute period of the match, holding Rovers at bay as they attempted to cement their authority.
On the hour, the critical substitution came. Easton's contribution was nothing like as woeful as a number of vocal individuals in the away end seemed to believe, but Wooter's introduction would clearly solve a number of problems. We inhaled deeply, sat back and waited for the fireworks. So did our defence. Rovers wandered through us unchallenged, providing Taylor with the chance to thump decisively home before Wooter had reached his position on the far touchline.
The game changed completely. Rovers, two-goals to the good, no longer felt the need to attack. Critically, they suddenly had plenty to think about at the other end. Wooter and all his tantalising trickery down the right released Smith to play a more involved central role, with Mooney down the left and the side had a lot more balance to it. We were on top almost immediately, not ever to such an extent that we looked like turning over the scoreline, but in the sort of way that has characterised many of our home games, where the steady prodding and probing has always looked like breaking our opponents down eventually.
Wooter's influence was noticed, and he quickly attracted two markers, more than once leaving them both flailing as he headed for the penalty area. Robert Page, one of the few players who could really hold his head up after this performance, was desperately unlucky not to score with a near post header which hit the woodwork with the keeper beaten, then hit the other post with another header ten minutes later. Nielsen also became more involved, breaking through on the right side and bringing a fine save from Murphy with a shot from a narrow angle. It was still a bit too deliberate though; we were still wobbling on our bike, desperate for the stabilising influence of the much-missed confidence flowing through the side.
Rovers attacked only spasmodically and without much conviction, the introduction of Rideout for the more mobile Taylor betraying an intention to disrupt the flow of Watford's pressure rather than grab a third themselves. Murphy's insistence on trotting across his goalline to take each goal kick from the opposite side was tediously predictable. So too the throw in-antics with ball boys towelling the ball before each Rovers throw...Wiley added five minutes of time in response - much to the unjustified disgust of the home support - but they succeeded in their objective of breaking the game up. The whistle went, and two-nil was probably a fair reflection as Rovers were more than two goals better than us before our rally in the final half-hour.
Riding the crest of a wave isn't that difficult. This season was always going to stand or fall on how the team - and the support - responded to the inevitable dip in form. Fulham seem to have come through the other side. We have to do the same. As the travelling Hornets emerged from an unnecessary spat with the officious Rovers stewards, grateful for the fact that at least it wasn't raining, you couldn't help but suspect that the next few weeks will be very interesting indeed.