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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/04/02
Nobody shabby boy's shaky hoax
By Ian Grant

Faced with finding an introduction, I had thought of a few things. First, find something utterly meaningless, write about it, use it as a metaphor. Second, write about Dark Days, an astonishing (and true) documentary film about the inhabitants of a shanty town in a rat-infested, pitch-black subway tunnel underneath Manhattan. That would've been useless as a metaphor, but a more worthwhile use of time than attempting to find interesting stuff to say about a match that raised so little enthusiasm that nobody bothered to announce the score on WML.

Third, and my chosen option, was to compare Luca Vialli's selections to the results of an anagram generator, as it has often seemed that the team appearing in yellow shirts has been a not-so-amusing re-arrangement of the real thing. An anagram of the squad, if you like. To that end, I'd planned to provide a selection of highly entertaining anagrams of the combined surnames of yesterday's starting eleven to pass the time until the need to write about the game could be ignored no longer.

Sadly, the resulting options were so numerous that it would've taken from now until the FA Cup Final to sort through them all. To make matters worse, the first couple of billion combinations began with "creme-de-la-creme", which hardly seems appropriate in the circumstances...although I do like the phrase "nobody shabby boy's shaky hoax". So we'll have to save that for a time when we pick a team of players whose surnames only contain two or three letters, I suppose.

Besides, I'm being slightly unfair. For, while the line-up might've looked like the product of a random number generator (and, as James Panayi replaced Stephen Glass after barely five minutes, it appeared that the substitutions were being decided by a similar method), the afternoon wasn't only an exercise in passing the time before the final whistle against Gillingham. No, there were things here, even if they weren't always wonderful...or, indeed, particularly thrilling for anyone who doesn't collect playing formations like some spot trains.

The experimental back three of Paul Robinson, Neil Cox and Lloyd Doyley showed increasing promise after a nervous early spell. On the right, Jamie Hand's largely tidy football was augmented by a previously unseen lunatic aggression of Robbo-esque proportions, resulting in general lack of popularity with the referee, the home fans and, latterly, Kevin Harper. On the left, a distinctly bulky James Panayi spent a while huffing and puffing terribly, before settling in rather better in the second half. And, of course, a future that involves Anthony McNamee could never be entirely bleak, just as a present that contains Danny Webber cannot be completely dismal.

The result owed something to luck and much, much more to Webber, whose utter brilliance when given the chance to make strong, targeted runs at the Pompey defence made it all the more frustrating that he hardly saw the ball during an abysmal opening forty minutes. There is, of course, an argument which says that we ought to be giving experience to our own young strikers, rather than one who cannot possibly be a long-term prospect. There is, however, a valid counter-argument which says that the confidence gained from a Webber-inspired victory, no matter how scrappy, is more valuable at the moment. I tend to go along with that, really.

Because we were in no position to turn our back on someone, something, anything that could breathe life into a match that was ready for the last rites by half-time. Honestly, the highlight of the first half was Pompey's enormously amusing awards ceremony, which twice honoured the already-departed Peter Crouch and was rewarded by a note of thanks, read out in a deadpan monotone, from the lanky forward. Looking good for next season, then.

Still, we're in no position to gloat. It took twenty-three minutes for the visitors to manage an attempt on goal - and even then, Paul Robinson's swiped shot was sliced so badly that it almost ended up behind him - and another twenty before a long-range drive from Micah Hyde cleared the bar. The total failure to provide Anthony McNamee, roaming from wing-to-wing and eventually getting most joy in the centre, and Danny Webber with anything resembling controlled possession was highlighted by the damage done later on. Generally, it was difficult to imagine that we'd ever create a chance, let alone force Beasant into a save.

As for the home side, an initial flurry of impressively fluent attacking in the first ten minutes began with Pitt dragging a shot across goal. It effectively ended with a fine save from Alec Chamberlain, diving high to his right to push the ball wide after Harper had out-paced James Panayi and struck a fierce, slightly deflected shot towards the top corner. While Panayi struggled to adjust the pace of the first team, Portsmouth had their best chance...but, although Harper headed over after O'Neil had beaten his stumbling opponent and O'Neil himself couldn't get enough elevation on an attempted lob, the momentum was already fading rapidly.

The rest was appalling. Granted, Portsmouth remained the likelier scorers, but only in the most dustily academic kinda way. After thirty-two minutes, the merest hint of a chance fell Marcus Gayle's way, supplied (unsurprisingly) by the left boot of McNamee...but he couldn't get a proper connection on the cross as it arrived from the right wing and the opportunity drifted back into the all-obscuring fog of a truly wretched football match. Vine shot tamely at Chamberlain after a central run; Harper was denied by a determined tackle from the marginally-more-impressive-than-the-rest Hyde after Vine had taken advantage of a slip by Robinson.

As always, the inclusion of incident and the exclusion of the vast expanses of utter tedium makes it seem as if stuff happened, as if the attention wasn't wandering throughout. It is utterly impossible to do justice to such a match without punctuating the report with acres of blank, white - or grey, perhaps - space.

Two minutes of injury time. Groans and complaints from the spectators, who'd had quite enough by around quarter-past-three. And yet, almost inexplicably, the Hornets suddenly sprung into life in those two minutes. Actually, "almost inexplicably" is perhaps the wrong expression to use, as the whole thing stemmed from the introduction of Danny Webber...who, it turned out, had been playing all along. If only we'd realised sooner, eh?

Anyway, when we delivered the ball to Webber's feet for the first time, he burst inside from the left, showing his increasingly impressive combination of pace, strength and natural skill. The resulting shot looped over the crossbar via the leg of a defender. From the corner, Paul Robinson headed firmly goalwards at the far post and was unfortunate to find Beasant's old bones equal to the challenge, hurtling across his line to push the ball away from the bottom corner. In the scrambles that followed, and the final seconds of the half, Jamie Hand's foul challenge brought an extended lecture from the referee rather than the feared second yellow card.

All rather livelier than before, then. And, pleasingly, that set the tone for the start of the second half. Although Harper headed well over in the first minute, the Hornets quickly gained the upper hand. When Micah Hyde's pressure blocked a clearance and a kind rebound fell to Webber, there was still much to do. He made it look easy, barging past an opponent into the penalty area and driving an angled finish into the far corner. Quite clearly, this is a player with a very bright future indeed.

There were no further Watford goals, but the improved quality of the attacking play made it a distinct possibility and raised the entertainment level considerably. A beautiful piece of spinning skill from McNamee in the centre circle was followed by a lovely pass into Webber's path, summing up the youngster's sublime use of trickery as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and only Primus' desperate deflection prevented the ball running for the striker. Then Marcus Gayle muscled his way onto the end of a low cross from Jamie Hand, and was unfortunate that the ball rebounded wide rather than falling more kindly. Good stuff. Determined stuff.

At the other end, a forlorn and frustrated Portsmouth strikeforce was repeatedly unable to hit the target. When the ball fell for Harper after Paul Okon appeared to have been hacked down in midfield, he drove across goal and just a foot wide of the post. O'Neil sent a free kick into the stand behind; substitute Brady bent a shot around the post after a move down the left; Buxton's wobbling drive from distance had Chamberlain worried but also missed by a small margin.

By that time, however, Beasant had twice come to his team's rescue. Typically, both moments were centred around the dynamic, inspiring Webber. While he was criticised for being slightly selfish against Sheffield United, his pass to set up Heidar Helguson after twenty-seven minutes was of the highest calibre, hit with barely a moment's hesitation and perfectly measured. With his first touch after arriving from the bench, Helguson smacked in a low, early shot and was denied by Beasant's legs.

That was a fine save. The one that followed within a minute or so was even better. When Marcus Gayle's looping ball up the right wing released Webber, a glance across to the other touchline revealed that the linesman's flag was still by his side. That strength again, holding off a defender's challenge, and a fine finish, prodded with no warning towards the near post as the ball bounced awkwardly. The keeper was in position, sure...but only alert reflexes enabled him to get a firm hand down to stop the ball before it rolled past.

With the game won, for a pretty dreadful Portsmouth side seemed to run out of ideas long before the final whistle, the remaining minutes still offered some unlikely entertainment. First, a challenge between Hand and Harper on the by-line left the Watford player in a heap and caused the usual pushing-and-shoving among a crowd of players. I'd be delighted to offer an insight into what happened, and precisely why Harper was given his marching orders, but it was simply impossible to see anything from the other end. Then, as the seconds drifted away, Beasant charged upfield for a corner, stayed to take a throw-in, and Wilson was booked for chopping down Tommy Smith as Watford attempted to score into an unguarded net on the break.

And it was all rather fun. The celebrations were more exuberant than you might've expected for an end-of-season win...but this was a pressure-relieving result, vital in its own way. Confidence plays such a part in football that no fixture can be entirely meaningless. We needed this.

We all needed this.