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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/01/02
Happy New Year
By Ian Grant

Nine o'clock in the first morning of a new year. At Aldrington Station just outside Brighton, the frost sparkles in winter sunshine. There's no-one here...the streets are empty and silent, the platform shows no sign of human life, the cold is lethal...and I wonder if I'm being fanciful in expecting a train to take me home for a shower and breakfast. It'd be very beautiful, if the sheer brightness of it all didn't make me wince after the previous night's fun.

A few hours later, wrapped up warm and trying to find sources of energy to draw upon, I arrive at a superficially closed Estcourt Tavern to join fellow Hornets in various states of disrepair. The pre-match atmosphere is notably less exuberant and lively than usual. Nobody's at their best on New Year's Day, after all. Still, things are relaxed, jovial and quietly optimistic.

Unfortunately, our football team is about to swamp this fragile, gentle beginning to 2002 with a shower of shite....

This was embarrassing. By five o'clock, the very idea that we might've kicked off with the aim of confirming our promotion aspirations had become utterly laughable, a source of high comedy for the victorious visiting fans and a source of equal despair for the majority. Naturally, this wasn't the ruin of our season...but, bloody hell, it felt like it.

One of these teams is indeed well-equipped for a Division One charge (if not, you feel, for Premiership survival). The other has its head in the clouds. One was hungry, sharp, well-organised, strongly bonded...and, crucially, aware of its limitations and prepared to work hard to overcome them. Not so very different from the Watford side that passed swiftly through the First Division under Graham Taylor, in fact. The other was lazy, sloppy, weak, fragmented, and entirely deserving of a stuffing.

This time, the total disintegration was prompted by a far better team than Sheffield Wednesday. Nevertheless, that Millwall are good at what they do is no comfort, for we cannot seriously expect to compete for a place in the top six without encountering competent, confident opponents. When we do, there's no shame in losing. There is, however, great shame in crumbling and collapsing and, ultimately, in allowing those opponents to stomp all over us. Especially in front of our own supporters, no matter how silent they are.

Aside from Heidar Helguson, there was no-one who appeared to relish the physical contest once Paul Robinson had succumbed to injury after half an hour. Sure, several others went about their business in an apparently purposeful manner...but when it mattered, when the ball was bouncing around and fifty-fifty challenges needed to be won, they were exposed. When considering this, you should bear in mind that Millwall's relentless pressing and harrying all over the pitch meant that this was a game almost entirely composed of bouncing balls and fifty-fifty challenges.

So much was dreadful, so much was plainly inadequate. The list is seemingly endless...Marcus Gayle in an ineffective forward position, leaving Helguson to battle away hopefully and pointlessly on the left wing...Neil Cox rested, Micah Hyde watching the midfield disappear into a black hole from the bench, Allan Nielsen watching the same thing from the right flank...Tommy Smith, the only player with tricks up his sleeve, removed to a cacophony of protest from the stands...Patrick Blondeau flapping and flopping as a left back after Robinson's injury...Ramon Vega getting himself dismissed in injury time after allowing Sadlier to turn him again...the inability to adapt to the knowledge that Claridge, who typifies this Millwall side as much as we wished that Robbo typified ours, will chase every lost cause and thereby turn controlled possession at the back into uncontrolled possession...the total absence of width, making everything hinge on moments of inspired creativity...the total lack of inspired creativity....

As others have rightly pointed out, the better side won. And the worse side lost. The manager, very much like a cook who's waiting for his jelly to set while blitzing it with an electric whisk, must take a large amount of responsibility for this humiliation. But, even so, you wonder whether there were many players who slept well last night, content in the knowledge that they gave their all for the cause. Yesterday, we looked at Millwall, unified and full of purpose, and knew that they have what we've lost...and I'm referring to more than three points.

The first few minutes, in which we showed vague and unfulfilled promise, seem a very long time ago. Then, the cold had yet to freeze our feet and misery had yet to claim our souls, and we squinted into the sunshine to watch a couple of nifty moves down the right come to nothing. Cahill sent a long-range shot bobbling wide, Gary Fisken tried his luck too. A snoozy silence descended on Vicarage Road as we settled in for the duration.

After quarter of an hour, things began to happen...and few of them were good. Our attacking efforts gradually petered out and left only moments of individual brilliance from Tommy Smith, whose ripping shot from twenty yards flicked the outside of the post with Warner beaten. In a typically whole-hearted tackle, Paul Robinson took a knock which was to cut his appearance short and force us to re-organise (or, more accurately, to dis-organise) at the back. And Millwall, who were to take an unbreakable grip on the game, started to create chances. First, Cahill mis-hit a half-volley at Alec Chamberlain from twelve yards, then Sadlier wasted a header from Livermore's free kick. Both were unmarked.

It got no better. The midfield was driven out of town, the attack was left totally isolated, the defence took a pounding. Our passing game came under severe pressure and, when it fell apart, we appeared to have no solid foundation to base a new strategy upon. Apart from a volley from Neil Cox, hit with such an almighty thwump that it would've demolished the goal if it hadn't been about twenty yards wide, we failed to muster an attempt in the remaining minutes. By half-time, our opponents were in complete control and might've been a little concerned that they were only narrowly ahead.

After twenty-eight minutes, Claridge's interception of Cox's touch back to Chamberlain led to all kinds of mayhem, Cahill having an effort blocked in the subsequent scrambles and Bircham rightly picking up a caution for falling under a negligible challenge. Then the mother of all wellies from the edge of the Millwall area quickly led to Sadlier turning down the chance of an early shot at the other end, Reid crossing from the right, and Cahill climbing higher than Nielsen to head home from eight yards. It was difficult to argue with the scoreline, and more difficult still when Chamberlain did well to push away Reid's firm header from a Livermore centre as it bounced towards the bottom corner. The half ended with Sadlier turning Pierre Issa with depressing ease and screwing a shot wide. It also ended with Millwall winning everything...every challenge, every header...and, of course, the game itself.

As if this was some kind of gameplan, there were no substitutions at the interval. Instead, we waited for fifteen minutes, during which time we plodded forward without imagination or aggression and Millwall sprang at us with both when the opportunity arose. Darkness fell, the cold left us shivering, and Sadlier doubled the Lions' lead and deepened our depression by shuffling the ball past Chamberlain after Bircham's shot had come to him via what Big Ron would describe as "a crowd scene". Millwall weren't making it look easy, they were just making it look possible...a less ambitious target, but one that was still far beyond us.

Aside from that bit of solo brilliance from Tommy Smith in the first half, we hadn't created a single opening. As Chamberlain rolled the ball out to a defender, Claridge arrived to snap and snarl and force the ball back to the keeper yet again, and frustration echoed around the ground and briefly drowned out the thousands of jubilant visiting fans. The inexplicable withdrawal of Smith moments later received the same chorus of disapproval. Even if fresh input from Nordin Wooter and Gifton Noel-Williams was long overdue, the decision to remove our only serious attacking threat to make way for them simply made no sense.

Predictably, it also made no substantial difference until Millwall had sealed the result with their third, Nielsen getting out-jumped on the halfway line and Reid leaving Blondeau huffing and puffing in his wake before beating Chamberlain with a low shot. Obviously, it is true that a side in search of a comeback leaves itself vulnerable to counter-attacks. That said, you have to suggest that it shouldn't be quite that vulnerable...and, of course, that the extra numbers ought to be making some small difference at the other end. Instead, we just seemed to move players around like damp sandbags in a flood.

The game won, Millwall relaxed and we were allowed a few precious moments of penalty area excitement. Marcus Gayle swung a shot at Warner from the edge of the box, Heidar Helguson struck a tame volley from a hanging ball. Then a long throw was allowed to bounce through towards Nordin Wooter, who leapt enthusiastically to reach it and was a bit unfortunate that his header looped onto the roof of the net via Warner's palms. And finally, after Chamberlain had smothered Cahill's header from a corner, Wooter popped up on the left to slide a delightful pass into Helguson, who slammed it past Warner without hesitation. Because he's a striker. Not a left winger.

At this point, I was going to suggest that the fool who decided to press the button marked "SMILE! SMILE! SMILE!" and deafen us with sickly sentiments while offering the Millwall fans further amusement at our misfortune ought to be sacked immediately. On second thoughts, I'll suggest that he ought to be sacked immediately and told loudly to "SMILE! SMILE! SMILE!" on his way out. Seriously, though, the club needs to look at itself here, for to drown out any spontaneous crowd noise with PA guff before, during and after the game and then to demand better vocal support at other times is, frankly, absurd.

After we'd explored the possibility of a dramatic comeback - a possibility in much the same way as intelligent life on Mars, S Club 7 collaborating with Slipknot or Pat Nevin winning "World's Strongest Man" - injury time was especially good. For, while no-one would begrudge Neil Harris a goal, our generosity in allowing him to run from the halfway line while Cox backed off like Robert Page in front of a stampeding rhino stretched the point rather. Still, the finish was sublime, curled into the far bottom corner from fully twenty-five yards as he cut inside. It was an appropriate crowning of a comprehensive victory, and the entire Millwall team swamped Harris in celebration. There was still time for Vega to receive his second yellow card for tugging back Sadlier, which crowned our own disgusting performance in rather less magnificent but equally appropriate fashion.

An absolute shambles, then. By neither playing with any fluency nor competing with any commitment, we allowed ourselves to be thoroughly embarrassed. If we fail to tighten up and toughen up, further such humiliations await, for we need look no further than Saturday for opponents who'll gladly put us even more firmly in our place.

Against Millwall, we were slapped down, made to look pathetic and ridiculous. Premiership, my arse. Time to stop gazing out of the classroom window, time to learn some lessons.