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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/11/01
Stockport County
By Ian Grant

This time, there's no debate.

Previously, on these and other pages, the management team has been heavily criticised for gaining encouragement from matches that have left everyone else in the depths of despair. After Crewe and Norwich, it was difficult to find anyone apart from Luca and Ray who felt that we'd deserved anything more than we'd got. After a home draw against the worst side in the division, you'd expect that pattern to continue.

This was a freak result, though. It happens sometimes. When it does, you shake your head in disbelief, you move on, you make sure that your next opponents get the thrashing that the last ones escaped. And there's certainly nothing wrong with claiming that you deserved a comfortable victory.

It'd be hard to imagine a more one-sided match. By my reckoning, Stockport managed one shot in the entire ninety minutes - absurdly, bearing in mind the scoreline, it didn't result in a goal. Oh, there was one other attempt, which hit a defender before it had even crossed the eighteen yard line and ballooned into the stand behind. They created two chances worthy of note, one in either half and both ended by the majestic Neil Cox before the ball could be struck towards goal.

There were periods - not moments, but ten or fifteen minutes on end, long before the desperate and frantic attempts to score an equaliser - when the game consisted of nothing more than endless Watford attacks, with the ball only crossing the halfway line when it was whacked clear by a County defender. Sure, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that we were lacking in some respects - the quality of the crosses in the second half tended to disappoint, as did the finishing on occasions. Nevertheless, we did enough to have beaten Stockport several times over. If these things really do even themselves out over the course of the season, we're owed three points.

It would've been better to get them here, of course. That said, this utterly ludicrous match offered the most thrilling moments of the season so far. At five o'clock on Saturday, you left the ground feeling as you should, completely drained after shouting and howling and singing and yelling and losing yourself wholly in the game. The result was as frustrating as it was bewildering, but the experience was thoroughly exhilarating.

Preparing to write about it, you wonder how to avoid monotony. From the start, County set out to defend and to take success in that respect as a vital improvement upon their dismal recent form. Such was their stubborn concentration on keeping a clean sheet, they barely managed to maintain an interest in hitting us on the break and ended the half without having had a single shot on goal.

Apart a superb and brave intervention from Neil Cox to prevent Hurst from advancing towards Alec Chamberlain after Ramon Vega had lost possession, there is virtually nothing to report that didn't happen at the other end of the pitch. From Cox's blocking tackle, which caused him to collide painfully with his own keeper, the ball trickled a couple of yards wide of the post. It was the closest that the visitors came until the eightieth minute.

Their complete lack of ambition makes you feel rather reluctant to applaud their defending. But they did make things extraordinarily difficult for us, crowding the penalty area with blue-shirted bodies and offering no space to the all-important Tommy Smith. When they did push out, we fell foul of the linesman's flag, with none of a number of apparently close decisions going our way. Increasingly, it seemed that a set piece would be the most likely way to change things, particularly when Flowers was replaced by his young deputy in the Stockport goal.

Although it never quite happened, this was perhaps our most purposeful and determined forty-five minutes of the many that we've had in similar circumstances. While rarely allowed to be fluent, we still dominated midfield by being quicker to the ball and stronger in the tackle, which hasn't always been the case in the past. In defence, apart from Vega's slip-up, there were no dips in concentration. We just needed a goal, something to change the suffocating County gameplan.

And, in all honesty, we were unfortunate not to get it. Sure, there were long gaps between chances...but those gaps were generally filled with searching examinations of the County defence. Crosses were headed behind at full stretch, balls wouldn't quite fall to strikers, tackles came in at vital moments, that kind of thing. Early on, a terrific move down the left wing ended with Tommy Smith pouncing on Stephen Glass' half-cleared cross and shooting low at Flowers from the edge of the box. Then Paul Robinson met a corner at the near post, headed firmly downwards, and was denied by a defender on the line. Another corner, and Paolo Vernazza sent a half-volley bouncing through a crowd of players and narrowly wide.

The lack of grumbling from the stands tended to indicate that we were playing pretty well. Which we were. At this stage, there was no sense that the one way traffic wouldn't eventually reach its destination...and, after Flowers had been replaced, it was Hyde's turn to be denied by a block on the line as he seemed certain to score with a low shot from yet another corner. Chaotic scrambles followed, then Vernazza's cross skidded through to Heidar Helguson, who stepped neatly past a challenge and drove goalwards, only to see his shot deflected over by the keeper's fingertips and be further frustrated by the referee awarding a goal-kick.

So the half ended with Turner fielding Glass' arcing free kick from the right comfortably enough, and the encouraging feeling that Stockport were about to go the same way as Barnsley. They'd held out somehow, surviving in a game that they were barely participating in. They couldn't do it for another forty-five minutes, surely.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Wispa (plain).
Reason: Shock! Horror! Disaster! No Mint Wispas in the Vic Road newsagent!
Level of success: Erm, no. Not good. This will not be remembered as one of our luckier days.

Little did we know that we'd already seen Stockport at their most carefree and wildly entertaining. Clearly, Carlton Palmer is going against the accepted wisdom that winning games involves kicking the ball at the other team's goal. Quickly, anticipation of a breakthrough turned to annoyance, belief began to desert us. Heidar Helguson mis-hit an effort into the Rookery, Stephen Hughes followed suit from distance, Paolo Vernazza struck a shot at Turner, Stephen Glass sliced over after a poor punch from the keeper.

But we were losing our way as time passed too rapidly, and County were increasingly resolute. While hardly impressive, our opponents were obviously keen to please the new manager, who'd obviously decided to start with the absolute basics. To avoid relegation, they might need to work out what the other end of the pitch is for, though. When they did eventually conjure up another opening, Hurst was again foiled by an astonishing saving tackle by Neil Cox as he raced through a gap in the defence. Shortly afterwards, Clark's free kick, struck well but straight at Chamberlain, was Stockport's one and only shot of the entire ninety minutes. These were nervous moments, however, because it was all too apparent that a goal at the other end wasn't as inevitable as we'd thought.

It's worth going back to Neil Cox, though. For this was a true captain's innings, playing through the order in quite magnificent and occasionally heroic fashion. Throughout, it was Cox who dealt firmly with anything that came within his reach. It was Cox who continually demanded the ball, trundling over the halfway line time and again before attempting to supply the creative players with controlled possession. His head never dropped, his legs never tired, his heart never doubted. We've found our captain, people.

Until now, Cox had been the most consistent and solid part of the side, and had looked like the kind of defender you'd spend serious money to sign. As the situation became more urgent, he pushed further forward. After Hughes had driven a swerving shot wide from the edge of the box, we nearly had one of the goals of the season. As before, Cox strode into the opposition half and drifted a pass into his forwards' feet. This time, he received it back, played it again, received it back...and ended up in the six yard box, holding off challenges to chip the ball across. Sadly, he found a defender waiting where a colleague should've been. Seconds later, he was attacking a cross with his head, despite the fact that the ball was barely a yard off the ground and an opponent's boot was about to connect with either it or his skull. Bloody hell.

Briefly, this insanity inspired another surge from the home side. On for the disappointing Helguson, Marcus Gayle slammed in a rising drive that brought a spectacular parry from Turner, one of fewer saves than he should've had to make. Immediately, Tommy Smith twisted past one defender and then another, the second opponent tripping him on the edge of the box - Smith fell inside, the free kick was placed outside and wasted, Hyde was booked for his protests. Like sitting in a busy restaurant and waiting for someone to take your order, you could taste and smell what you wanted...the roaring celebration that'd erupt if, somehow, the ball did cross the line.

Implausibly, it crossed the other line instead. Since it did so with only two Stockport players in the opposition half and no addition to the "goal attempts" total, the whole thing was entirely fitting...and completely flippin' awful. Everything was under control until Vega fell over, leaving Hurst to ramble down the left wing on his own. Even then, with only one blue shirt in the area, there was little cause for alarm, and even less when Hurst's cross went nowhere near its intended recipient, who stood watching as Alec came out...and Robbo chested the ball...and Alec stopped...and Robbo started...and Robbo tried to get it away...and...oh, jesus....

It wasn't as if the pattern of the game changed, at least. Even in the process of scoring, Stockport had left the vast majority of their players deep in their own half. Now, though, they were hanging onto more than a point, which left us with even more stubborn resistance to break down. God, it was desperate stuff too, an endless procession attacks that fell away and came again and fell away.

Each surging assault brought its own frustrations, never more so than when Hyde blazed over the bar from six yards after Turner had palmed away Gayle's header from Vega's knock-down. Vernazza shot wide after a surging run from David Noble, then Robinson hurled himself at a mighty Cox cross but couldn't direct it inside the post. Roars of encouragement mixed with howls of anguish and groans of disappointment. Nordin Wooter, who'd already kicked air twice, completed his forlorn afternoon by wellying the ball artlessly over the bar after a Glass cross had been headed out to the edge of the box.

When it came, it was just as farcical as County's opener, and appropriately so. As before, Tommy Smith flitted youthfully between defenders, curling in a low, in-swinging cross from the left wing. It beat everyone and slowly... crept into the bottom corner. A moment of silence as everyone watched and hoped and blinked quickly to check, then a great surge of renewed hope. Four minutes of injury time offered no great variation on the preceding ninety, including our failure to beat Turner. In the fading seconds, Cox headed over from a corner, but that was all.

As always, there were some who chose to show their disapproval by booing at the end. You rather feel that this will be a permanent fixture at Vicarage Road from now on, whatever the result. Clearly, some Watford fans have such an inflated sense of their club's importance that anything less than complete world domination will be cause for open displays of childish annoyance. Well, whatever. If you want to win at football all the time, go and play on your sodding Playstation. Personally, I'd take the real thing - messy and thrilling and annoying and bewildering and stupid - any time.

This was a crap draw against a team that'll probably be relegated. I enjoyed it enormously.