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Nationwide Division One, 06/02/02
No excuses
By Ian Grant

Ten o'clock pm. Final whistle. Swift exit for the train station, through the shouting, grumbling, miserable hordes. Except those who've stayed behind to abuse the team, that is. Stride quickly through the streets, checking my watch and wondering if, deep down, I ought to be feeling rather more angry and disillusioned. I'm unable to figure that out. Or maybe I don't want to try too hard.

If it were only about the results, then a point at Preston would be much, much better than a home defeat to Burnley. But, with the playoffs almost out of sight, it's clearly no longer only about the results. It's about the signs of improvement, the sparks that might set the whole thing alight. It's about the future. On that basis, this was much, much better than a very tedious draw at Preston.

Perhaps we've passed the point where that matters. Perhaps there are no shades of grey now, just black and white. Perhaps we're already into the endless cycle of managers, of brief hope upon a new appointment and ranting frustration after six or nine months. Perhaps this is the future.

If so, God help us. If each unsuccessful attempt at moving on from the current, thoroughly disappointing position is to be greeted with such mouth-foaming disgust and seething hatred, then this is a club in serious trouble. If every defeat is to end in such carefree trashing of anything that's positive and promising, only oblivion awaits us. And, frankly, we deserve it.

So, the great gales of boos, jeers and obscenities from the stands were for...well, who? For Jermaine Pennant and Lee Cook, both thrilling and extravagant as only young wingers can be? For Paul Okon and Micah Hyde, at last showing signs of building a midfield that does more than watch the world go by? For Wayne Brown, a very fine, accomplished acquisition? Perhaps for Filippo Galli and Ramon Vega, a defensive pairing that restricted Burnley to a mere handful of chances?

No, not them. For the usual whipping boys, then. For Gifton Noel-Williams, a centre forward of skill, power and variable commitment, except that there was nothing variable about the latter on this occasion? For Patrick Blondeau, vastly improved and impressively steady after a dismal, shabby display at Preston? Ah, for Marcus Gayle, for the unforgivable crime of missing a penalty in the middle of one of his more dedicated, concentrated performances for Watford? Yes, quite right. Nothing like foul-mouthed abuse to make a player feel like giving his all for the club, after all.

For Luca Vialli, then? For putting out a far more positive, far less tentative line-up that, were it not for a missed spot-kick, would've won the game and won it well? For taking a stride away from the over-complicated, shot-shy, inane guff that so entertained the viewing public at Preston? No, I wouldn't have thought so. Oh, for pulling off Gifton Noel-Williams, then? A mistake, as if no other manager, from Graham Taylor to Dave Bassett, has ever made a similarly baffling decision. And as if, ultimately, it had anything much to do with the final result.

Really, this ought to have been a turning point for the better. Granted, the players must take some responsibility for throwing the opportunity away in the last twenty minutes...or, at least, for allowing Burnley to wrestle it away with the help of some good fortune. That's no bloody excuse, though. Miserable as the conclusion to this match might've been, the response was grotesquely disproportionate. In the circumstances, I don't care how much they're paid or how long they've been and will be at the club, they deserve better than bored silence when things are going relatively well and open, vicious contempt when it goes wrong. This wasn't Millwall again.

Sure, I know where I'd like to go from here. That is, to start laying down some foundations for next season - giving further experience to some of the youngsters, working on some of the key partnerships within the side, sorting out a few problem areas, allowing the manager to make one or two errors of judgement on the way. Because, although this isn't where we wanted to be, it's where we are and we'd better make the most of it. It won't happen, of course. It won't be allowed to happen. In that respect, this was a turning point of sorts. Rather than demanding more commitment from the players, I find myself wondering why they'd bother at all.

They did bother, though. They were re-paid in obscenities, but they did bother. Oh, there'll be better matches and better performances and, definitely, better conclusions, I hope...but, in their absence, this'll do. Faced with a Burnley side that's changed markedly since last season - barely a hint of the industrial-strength bootering so typified by the infamous throw-in routine which catapulted the ball sixty yards before it touched the ground - they began with quiet determination. They saluted half-time with a series of chances that came as close to demanding the use of "rampant" as anything for some time.

At moments, the use of "thrilling" is entirely justified, however. For starters, we'll apply it to the first contribution from Marcus Gayle (sorry, should I be using asterisks or something?), who, upon receiving a composed pass from Wayne Brown on the left, turned in an instant and sent a ferocious drive dipping just over from half a mile out. A fine start, although Moore, Burnley's liveliest player throughout, came equally close with a deliberate, side-footed curling shot after he'd broken the offside trap after twenty minutes. Somewhere in between, Briscoe scuffed a volley wide from the edge of the box.

The game was rather dull, a bit of a shapeless scrap. Its first goal was exquisite, though. As often, Paul Okon did the dirty, unfashionable stuff in midfield. We need that, and Micah Hyde has always needed it more than most. As Jermaine Pennant darted inside from the wing into a huge gap inside the penalty area, Hyde's sublime pass rolled perfectly into his path, allowing him to retain his momentum, drift past another defender, and plant a splendid left-footed shot into the far corner. It was a joyous, fabulous goal, and it sent our confidence soaring.

By the interval, both wingers were simply flying at Burnley. Yeah, "thrilling" again. After a few faltering attempts at beating his opponent on the left, Lee Cook managed it once. And again. And again. The end product didn't always pass quality control, but the production process was a pure pleasure in itself. On the other side, Pennant was in a class of his own by now, and might've scored a majestic goal after half an hour, shooting too close to Beresford after winning a tackle in the centre circle and taking it from there. With Marcus Gayle and Gifton Noel-Williams combining well, we looked well capable of scoring again.

While claiming a fair share of possession, Burnley lacked chances to go with it. Aside from Moore's earlier opening, they found our defence in diligent mood. When Ramon Vega's concentration lapsed for a moment, Wayne Brown was on hand to muscle Moore out of the way and shepherd the ball back to Alec Chamberlain; when Moore did break through again, the linesman's flag denied him. Apart from eagerly-anticipated cameos from Cook and Pennant, there was little that was brilliant, yet much that was good.

Finally, a real burst of pressure, just like the good ol' days. After forty minutes, Marcus Gayle's free kick curled over the wall but caused no problems for Beresford. Shortly afterwards, Brown's hanging cross was headed back into the six yard box by Gayle and, with a defender at his back, Noel-Williams was unfortunate to direct an improvised overhead at the keeper. There was better still, as delightful touches from Cook and Pennant set up Noel-Williams for a stretching, off-target header and another lovely move led to the same striker turning to drive fiercely over from tight angle. This was potent, impressive stuff, and the applause that greeted the referee's whistle was entirely warranted.

Indeed, we were hardly in trouble after the re-start. Although we needed to fumble around a little in search of our earlier form, it didn't take that long to find it. After five minutes, Noel-Williams stooped to meet Pennant's cross at the near post, but was unable to divert it goalwards; later, Hyde sent a shot drifting over and Vega did the same with a header. No, it wasn't everything that has been demanded of this team, but it was something. We were providing decent entertainment, creating a few chances, getting stuck in when necessary, making the opposition look thoroughly ordinary. It was all right. Bored silence in the stands is clearly about as close as we're going to get to approval right now.

So, a couple of wriggling runs from Moore, taking on the challenge of Cook and Pennant, represented the only danger from Burnley, apart from a fairly vociferous penalty appeal that was far too distant to comment on. One of those runs ended with a poor finish from Blake, who should've forced a more complicated save from Chamberlain, and the other with an unrefined wallop into the Vic Road end by Little. Moore aside, they weren't up to much. At the other end, Noel-Williams might've made better contact with Pennant's superb cross from the by-line, but rather mis-hit his volley and allowed Beresford to make the save.

In some ways, the penalty incident rather summed up our performance until now. It came from a mis-placed pass by Vega, clubbed up-field and straight to a Burnley player. But, crucially, Brown's brave intervention, throwing himself in the way to flick a header on, turned it into something else altogether. Alert and strong, Noel-Williams took the ball into the box while being pulled with little subtlety by Gnohere. The referee's decision was slightly surprising - you don't often get 'em - but perfectly correct. It was to change the game, although not as we hoped.

While the least prominent of the attacking four, Marcus Gayle had made a solid contribution to a positive performance. With Stephen Glass still on the bench, he took the responsibility. In the present climate of bad-tempered scapegoating, you might suggest that it was an unwise decision. Equally, those of you who've not yet become completely heartless might take a moment to praise him for doing something other than attempting to melt into the shadows. That said, the spot-kick was poor, far too obvious and scuffed low to Beresford's left, and made for a straightforward save. With plenty of experience in this area, we know well enough that missed penalties change the pattern of games, that the initiative switches instantly.

Within six minutes, Burnley were level. During that time, Jamie Hand replaced Gifton Noel-Williams in an attempt to bolster the midfield and utilise Jermaine Pennant's pace in a more direct attacking role, a decision that back-fired on the management more than it affected the team. Then Hyde's crude foul brought him a booking and Burnley a well-positioned free kick, struck beautifully by Briscoe and touched onto the post by Chamberlain's fingertips. The ball rebounded back across goal, where Cox thumped it into the roof of the net. Moods turning sour, vitriol rising.

From here, either side might've won it. At one end, Pennant went on a brilliant run down the left and cut into the box, supplying Stephen Glass with a pass that just lacked sufficient pace to allow a clear shot before Gnohere dived in. Beresford still had to save well, mind you. At the other, Little was allowed to waltz through the defence - a rare moment of frailty, actually - and was terribly wasteful in somehow dragging his shot narrowly wide with only Chamberlain to beat. A rare moment of luck.

By now, injury time was approaching. With its arrival, Gayle was left unmarked at a corner and, from three yards, managed to head wide. To be fair to him - is that still allowed? - he was wide of the target rather than in front of it, and he would've had to beat Beresford from a slightly difficult angle. Of course, he ought to have got it on target. He doesn't need to be told, although approximately ten thousand people insisted on doing just that.

Burnley's last-gasp winner was avoidable, obviously. It wouldn't have happened if we hadn't been chasing the game, committing players forward in search of a goal. And, naturally, a more cautious approach to the final three minutes would've met with complete understanding and acceptance from the supporters. Instead, Maylett galloped away on the break and, via a Chamberlain-deceiving deflection from Brown, his cross allowed Weller to head into an empty net. And, really, that takes us back to the start of the report.

There needs to be a dramatic improvement on Sunday. Let's hope it's a good game too.