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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 15/01/02
Old enemies
By Ian Grant

"All I would say is that some referees try very hard to keep all the players on the pitch, but others don't."
Graham Taylor on Rob Styles, 06/01/01

"I've been a manager in four games where Mr Styles has refereed and I have had four players sent off. I am so frustrated. Can somebody please do something about this? I'm sure you can ask for a referee not to officiate us again. I think the FA would be ill-advised to send him to Vicarage Road again."
Graham Taylor on Rob Styles, 23/02/01

We'll wind ourselves up for another assault on Rob Styles, then. God knows, six dismissals in three games - Robert Page twice, Heidar Helguson twice, Stephen Glass, plus Joe Max-Moore of Everton as an after-thought - is quite a bloody record. You'd have to be trying really hard, surely?

This time, though, we made it easy for him. Enough players remain from last season that the referee's name ought to have raised eyebrows in the dressing room, and some measure of caution would've been advisable. It's difficult to blame Stephen Glass for an involuntary handball on the line - let's face it, if he managed to stop Nethercott's point blank header deliberately, Alec ought to be worried about keeping his place. But it's equally hard to be forgiving of Heidar Helguson's obscene and entirely unnecessary dive at Green in injury time, which so abruptly ended our attempts to score a dramatic, deserved equaliser. Of all people, Helguson ought to know better.

So, Rob Styles might be - well, is - a truly atrocious referee. The contempt with which Graham Taylor spoke of him last season would be enough to convince me, even without witnessing his acts of wanton vandalism first hand. But we were the beneficiaries of his chaotic rule on at least two occasions here - once, when Micah Hyde was given a lecture rather than a booking for a particularly crude challenge from behind; later, when Reid was booked for diving after clearly being felled by Blondeau as he dashed into the box. In truth, while Styles provided a choking smokescreen, we ought to be both encouraged by our resilient performance and somewhat frustrated that it didn't yield a better result.

Because, although they can point to that second penalty appeal, Millwall failed to create a chance of any worth after they'd opened the scoring and we'd been reduced in number. Fairly dominant until then, they rapidly became stuck in a quandry, never quite deciding whether to pacify the crowd by pushing forward in search of more goals or keep the manager happy by efficiently defending the lead. We countered well, staying remarkably secure at the back and belting forward when given the opportunity. A couple of presentable openings came and went, and serious pressure was building on the home goal before Helguson's idiotic intervention.

In other words, we controlled our own destiny here. Unfortunately, our steering went wonky at vital moments.

Curiously, Millwall were rather better against eleven men than ten. After we'd begun with a few sparkly moments from the recalled Micah Hyde and Tommy Smith, the home side moved through the gears in fairly ominous fashion. Once again, our delicate artistes found their opponents less than accomodating, the hunger and desire of those in blue shirts often ripping the ball from our possession before it could be used to create anything of beauty. In particular, Jermaine Pennant appeared wary of attracting too much attention.

After a couple of minutes, Kinet sent a fine, drifting header narrowly wide from Sadlier's right wing cross. Then Sadlier beat Neil Cox on the other flank, and Reid came crashing in at the far post to head wide from ten yards. Still, there were positive moments from Watford too, as when a lovely turn and threaded pass from Smith played in Glass for a cross that was made easier for Warner by a slight deflection in his direction. Or when Pennant was allowed to run at a rapidly retreating Millwall defence, until he dragged a disappointing shot wide from the edge of the box. These moments were few, but we'd yet to be reminded of Millwall's utter superiority on New Year's Day.

And so it continued. A moment of brilliance from Sadlier, taking a pass on his chest with Filippo Galli at his back and turning to drive over from eighteen yards; a moment of Robbo-esque ambition from Lloyd Doyley, crowded out as he sought to charge onto Hyde's elegant pass; a bit of dreaming from Kinet, attempting and failing to find the top corner with a sweeping shot from distance. If we weren't having the better of these exchanges, we were at least having some say in them.

So, when Millwall did shove us back far enough to produce the first spell of real pressure, there was a sense that brighter weather might follow the storm. Keep it tight, keep it together, wait for the bluster to subside. When lack of support as he broke from a cleared corner allowed Pennant to be dispossessed in his own half, Chamberlain saved well at the near post from Sadlier's angled shot. Later, as Bull surged into the area from the left and thrashed the ball low and hard through the six yard box, Chamberlain was at his staggering, amazing best to divert it around the post without allowing the circling vultures to pounce.

From that, a corner. From the corner, a free header for Nethercott from no distance at all. From then on, complete confusion. Anyone who could see the ball hit Stephen Glass' arm from the other end of the pitch must have considerably better eyesight than me, clearly. A rough guide, though: appeals, mainly from the stands; whistle and instant red card, shown with a typically dramatic flourish by Mr Styles; fairly restrained protests, during which the yellow card was raised to no-one and everyone; penalty from Claridge, smacked firmly and decisively to Chamberlain's left. One-nil, eleven-ten, plan royally buggered.

The reaction was rather better than might've been expected, however. The need to reorganise was matched - indeed, exceeded - by the need to show a bit of old-fashioned gumption, something that's been conspicuously absent on too many occasions. We did that, and it deserves praise. And, within a couple of minutes, we'd also showed some very new-fashioned gumption in shuffling the ball urgently yet accurately around in midfield, then releasing Patrick Blondeau down the left. The cross was met by Gifton Noel-Williams, slamming it into the advertising hoardings on the volley from around the penalty spot. Nearly a tremendous, powerful response to the nonsense at the other end.

By half-time, we'd stabilised things remarkably successfully. At the time, the departure of Tommy Smith - injured, presumably, since no other explanation would make any kind of sense - seemed like a serious blow, yet young Jamie Hand grew in stature as the game progressed and contributed impressively to our late surges. As with several others, he looks a useful, well-equipped player. Although Claridge pounced on a Bircham flick with typical enthusiasm and smacked a volley over, Millwall were already starting to fade somewhat.

Then, the majority of the second half was rather unrewarding, a procession of Millwall attacks that were efficiently and impressively repelled by Blondeau, Galli and Cox, punctuated by occasional, doomed breakaways by Pennant. Looking back, however, you feel that we really must take something from this, that we must build on it. A couple of weeks ago, these strikers embarrassed us; now, they were barely given a sight of goal. Sure, we were cautious...but we weren't that cautious. More than anything, it seemed that the pressure of playing with a man down had focused our minds on the job.

From Alec Chamberlain's goal, down below us as we sat in the top tier of the away end, there's virtually nothing to report. There's not all that much at Warner's end, of course...but, in the circumstances, that's understandable. This was never going to be a game that we could dominate, even before the thirty-second minute. Besides, when we did manage to get that far, we seemed capable of producing something, as when Noel-Williams sent a shot drifting over or when Hand's strong tackle set Pennant in motion for Noel-Williams to drive at Warner from distance.

At the other end, it took twenty-five minutes for a goal attempt worthy of the name, a wayward attempted curler from Harris - given a vast ovation - that left Chamberlain undisturbed. By now, there was very audible frustration in the home stands, and the numerical advantage really didn't seem to be an advantage for Millwall. With that frustration, our own confidence grew. We defended better, fought harder, reached further. Football cliché states that it must've been heroic stuff. It wasn't. Simply, it was what we should be doing more regularly.

After twenty-seven minutes, the chance to equalise. It came, with Hand's splendid run down the right, ending up in the area via Hyde and Nielsen. It went, with Marcus Gayle's surprise as the ball reached him unmarked in the area and squirted wide off his right boot. Even then, there were moments - Pennant's shot from long range curled wide, then Warner had to sprint out to clear from Gayle after Bull had missed Hand's through ball - and we refused to give it up, pressing Millwall into errors and building more cohesive attacks.

Finally, the home side were able to sit back a little and hit us on the break, which suited them rather more...even if it didn't suit their agitated fans. A rare mistake from Galli nearly let in Harris, whose heavy touch as he turned allowed Lloyd Doyley to intervene. Then, a bit of luck that we'd arguably deserved, as Harris showed lovely awareness to lay the ball into Reid's path and Blondeau's sliding challenge clearly took his opponent's legs. The tumble was perhaps a little over-elaborate. Whatever, Mr Styles was jeered by one set of fans and angrily abused by the other as he gave a free kick and took Reid's name.

The pressure mounted, the noise became more intense and more nervous. Cox crossed from deep, Gayle sent a towering header goalwards from fully twenty yards, Warner scampered back to tip over. Even with the minutes departing rapidly, you sensed that an equaliser was far from impossible. Even as three minutes of injury time began, our cause seemed far from lost. It began with further attacks from the Hornets. It effectively ended with Helguson's reckless challenge on Green on the touchline, the instant dismissal, the scuffles, the booking of Warner and almost immediately of Blondeau. Millwall didn't need to waste time. We'd already wasted it for them.

Still, aside from frustration at the result and the coming suspensions, there were things to grasp here. Really, it shouldn't take a dismissal to galvanise the side...and, besides, we're still capable of far better...but something, sometime has to bring it all together.

This wasn't it, this wasn't another Tranmere. But it was stronger, more determined, a result that might've been and might be in the future.