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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 15/12/01
Crystal Palace
By Ian Grant

Time for a progress report, then.

For, at long last, we can ignore the temptation to draw conclusions from convincing victories over teams that'll be battling relegation for the rest of the season. In the last two matches, we've given ourselves more weighty matters to consider and more significant targets to aim for.

We might easily have lost yesterday's match. Two months ago, we would've lost it. We would've been beaten at Coventry too. Really, those aren't speculative comments. Back then, our results were altogether predictable, easily determined not only by looking at our opponents' league positions, but by taking account of the style of the contest. When everything went as planned, we looked lovely, fluent, and potent. When anything - superior opposition, physical confrontation, plain old misfortune - disrupted our flow, we looked weak, vapid and easy to overcome.

It's very different now. Watching us yesterday, you felt an inner strength, a sense of genuine purpose, a full stop being added to the end of the "it'll take time for the team to gel" cliché and a new sentence being started. It was an ugly, intense match, traditional Nationwide fare for a bitterly cold December afternoon. Before, we would be muscled out of midfield, punished for defensive errors, and unable to find an alternative for pretty passing to make an impression in the final third; now, we're both more cohesive and more versatile. Before, we would prompt a debate over whether we deserved to win, lose or draw; now, we're just winning, making arguments irrelevant.

It'd be easy to concentrate on the change in the defence. There, we find a new determination, with the still-present lapses recovered by flying blocks and last-ditch challenges...and, when necessary, outstanding saves from the goalkeeper. As at Coventry, there were spells here when we seemed certain to concede. As at Coventry, we simply refused to concede. That's vital. Honestly, we're not yet of sufficient stature that we can expect to play for ninety minutes against the better teams in the division without coming under pressure, particularly away from home. That we're reacting to those pivotal moments in such bullish, defiant fashion is enormously encouraging.

But, in truth, this revolution has affected everything else too. On this occasion, the three points weren't won or lost in midfield...and that was because the likes of Paolo Vernazza, Micah Hyde and Stephen Glass, all essentially creative players, were fighting to maintain the stalemate with more physical Palace opponents. Sometimes, you have to claim the right to play attractive football; sometimes, you have to accept that it's not that kind of game and bloody well get stuck in.

The same applies to the strikers, naturally. Here, we found Gifton Noel-Williams in mighty form...offering himself as a target man, battling for everything, creating openings for others with flicks and touches, and eagerly pouncing on half-chances. Because, when it's all rather scrappy and messy, you need your centre forward to work his socks off for the cause, and you need him to be as strong and powerful and sharp as Gifton can be.

In many ways, the approach is best summed up by one of the side's bit-part players. For, when Lloyd Doyley replaced Patrick Blondeau early on, we saw all of the recent improvement in a nutshell. As a young player, Doyley has so much to commend. He makes mistakes, yet the mistakes are always positive, attacking ones. Nothing tentative, nothing half-hearted. That old saying about making your own luck applies so well to Doyley and many others, and the results of its application are deservedly pushing us into promotion contention.

The opening fifteen minutes gave us a glimpse of a game that rapidly disappeared from view. For we began brightly, with a sweeping move involving Heidar Helguson bursting away on the right and crossing towards Tommy Smith, with Kolinko saving comfortably from Gifton Noel-Williams' eventual shot. Three minutes later, a lovely touch from the centre forward led to Stephen Glass sliding a pass through for Smith, just too strong and allowing the keeper to claim from the striker's feet.

Then Smith absolutely slaughtered Mullins with a spinning turn on halfway, sprinted away into the penalty area and finished with a weak cross. Being harsh for a moment, that was slightly typical of Smith's afternoon, as his last touch too rarely matched the quality of his first. At the other end, Freedman nipped in behind Neil Cox and managed to lose the ball to Ramon Vega as he set himself up for a shot. And it looked like a terrific match.

That didn't last long, though. Having spent exciting moments in both boxes, the ball then took on the role of an innocent party caught up in a robust midfield confrontation, clouted about randomly and hit long too often. Three bookings in about ten minutes, none of them debatable, tells its own story. It wasn't terribly pretty, then...but, on the positive side, it provided us with a serious test of our new-found resilience. We need that, since you feel that our first set-back will come when we take on a belief in our own invincibility.

Half an hour had passed before either keeper was tested, although Noel-Williams was a little unlucky that his instinctive deflection of Vega's header from Robinson's free kick didn't hit the target. Then, a superb in-swinging cross from Glass, still out on the right after taking a corner, found Smith unmarked at the far post. The opportunity to score a rare headed goal beckoned and was only denied by an excellent, agile save from Kolinko, diving low to his left to push the ball wide. Further heroics from both keepers were to much so that, by the end of the ninety minutes, there was a feeling that anything but a goalless draw was something of an injustice. A feeling that was easily banished by the victory celebrations, mind.

By now, both attacks were feeding on shrapnel. While Morrison whined about repeatedly being caught offside and moaned at his colleagues for the lack of service, Palace offered little more than a theoretical threat. When he got back to concentrating on his football and tried to connect with the mobile, tidy Freedman, the threat was more fully realised. Indeed, when Freedman's cross was deflected into Morrison's path and he volleyed goalwards after controlling on his chest, it took a forceful block from Cox to prevent calamity. That, though, was as close as Palace came before their half-time reorganisation.

As thoughts wandered and the interval approached, Neil Cox launched another ambitious long pass in search of a forward run from Micah Hyde. It found its target, but we were to be disappointed by Hyde's decision to turn and head back to Noel-Williams from the edge of the box rather than take the ball on towards goal. We were to be elated, however, by the result of this curious manoeuvre. For Noel-Williams applied a glorious finish, turning inside and sweeping an accurate low shot past Kolinko from twenty-two yards. As with Stephen Glass' second at Coventry, this was a study in taking chances, in being prepared to score even when the game doesn't seem likely to yield a goal.

And a study in the essential art of winning football matches by less than three clear goals.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Mint Wispa.
Reason: Back in stock at the Vic Road newsagents.
Level of success: It tasted like victory. Or something.

The cold, increasingly ferocious as the sun disappeared, was forgotten as the second half began with explosive, insane drama. Two Palace substitutions, and whatever guff Trev had to share in the dressing room, seemed to give the visitors the impetus that they'd previous lacked, and we were torn apart. Again, comparisons with the game at Coventry stand, as Alec Chamberlain rescued us when the defence was finally broken and beaten.

You think back to the draw at home to West Brom last season, when the visitors over-turned our two-goal lead in fifteen brutal minutes at the start of the second half. The same thing might've happened here. The pressure was as intense, the defence was unable to cope, the goalkeeper momentarily stood alone. And the goalkeeper produced a hat-trick of breathtaking saves.

The first was bloody astonishing. Morrison's cross, hit strongly from the left of the area, was met instantly and firmly by Freedman's left boot at the near post. That Chamberlain even saw it is miraculous enough, that he was able to dive and parry left you rubbing your eyes in disbelief. It rebounded away with such force that I initially suspected that it had hit the woodwork. Three minutes later, Morrison got the better of Vega as they battled for a loose ball on the edge of the six yard box, and was denied by Chamberlain's legs after he'd stabbed the ball goalwards. And, to complete a supreme individual display, Symons' header from a right wing free kick was acrobatically shoved over the bar as it rocketed towards the top element of contemptuous showmanship in this last save, having refused to be beaten from closer range.

Alec Chamberlain's contract expires at the end of this season. Sentiment has nothing to do with it - we could not sign a better goalkeeper.

Improbably, Chamberlain's saves were then trumped by Kolinko. As Robinson's cross swung into the box, and Noel-Williams battled with a defender at the near post, the Palace keeper edged across his line in the expectation that it'd skid right across. Instead, Noel-Williams strained to get his head to the ball and, from a stooping position, sent it floating into the top corner. In changing his direction and climbing to claw the ball out with his right hand, Kolinko simply defied gravity. The video replay brought spontaneous and deserved applause from the Rookery. That Robinson directed a free header wide from the corner was perhaps a justifiable act of mercy...or maybe he was so aware that he'd have to place it far out of reach of the keeper that he forgot to hit the target.

After that, things settled down. Defensively, we asserted ourselves again, with Ramon Vega in especially dominant mood. And, while Palace spent long periods in possession and Freedman's looping cross bounced on top of the bar, the Watford breaks that resulted when they lost the ball were far more threatening. From one of these, a surging run from the industrious Gary Fisken, Smith hit a disappointing shot at Kolinko's near post. From another, Noel-Williams tried an ambitious and unsuccessful chip from wide, indicative of his growing confidence when facing goal.

Indeed, we were unfortunate that we didn't finish it before a rather panic-stricken conclusion. Again, it was Noel-Williams who provided that hungry, muscular edge to our forward play, doing so well to meet Marcus Gayle's fine cross and send it smacking against the face of the crossbar. On another day, he would've taken the match ball home...but, on this evidence, there will be other days. On forty-two minutes, a lovely shimmy took him past a defender in the box, although the execution of the shot didn't live up to its creation.

We'd been tremendous. Not pretty, not elegant, not even dominant...just tremendous. In a tight, difficult game, we'd demanded the points. We'd worked so hard and so effectively, and fought toe-to-toe with apparently more powerful opponents. Teams like Crystal Palace have previously relished the opportunity to play against us...not now. We look strong, we look good, we mean business.

Having survived that angry ten minutes at the start of the half, a late equaliser would've been very cruel. Since then, Palace had made few chances, only Morrison's sliding volley from the edge of the box forcing Chamberlain into action...and then only to collect the ball as it rolled towards him. We threw ourselves into challenges, survived scrambles by smacking the ball hard until it went away (on one occasion, this seemed to require about three or four mighty hoofs from Lloyd Doyley), kept our concentration when it would've been easy to lose it. And we earnt the luck that saw Freedman's last-gasp free kick, for which we seemed to wait an agonising eternity, curl well wide of the post.

And there it is. Not a memorable victory, with the exception of the saves at the start of the second half. A hugely significant one, though. We no longer need to feel afraid of anyone in this division, and we can no longer predict defeats with such certainty. We will lose, of course...but we shouldn't feel discouraged when it happens, for there's every sign that we'll win more often.

You suspect that this isn't the team that Gianluca Vialli expected to produce. If so, he's learning with us. And, on this evidence, we're learning quickly.

Progress report: excellent.