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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/11/01
Stockport County
Where are my drugs?
By Martin Blanc

You don't want to read a report about this game. Really, you don't. So (for those of you who don't take me at my word and insist on reading on) here's a little story instead.

I'm in the back seat of my parents' Chrysler Horizon, T-reg, that late '70s luminous green you nowadays only find in Early Learning Centre under-twos children's toys. We're in France, it's 1982, mille-neuf soixante-something or other, on a driving holiday. My younger sister is beside me, and we're slowly cruising along a quiet main road through a very flat plain - lost.

My father, a cautious man, slows down in order to view the map which my mother, a French speaker, is poring over in the passenger seat, and shoving in front of his eyes. He gives it a good go, but finally, unwilling to be fined by a foreign copper yet again (he was done in Massachusetts for driving at 71mph, and sent a bill for $15; didn't fancy another driving holiday until this one), he stops the car for a proper look.

I am bored with the view from the side windows. On one side are endless fields, stretching off to a hazy nothingness; on the other, endless fields, stretching off to a hazy hill range. My sister is bored too, but she's only ten, so she's diverting herself with a colouring book. I'm into seeing the sights, so now we've pulled up, I decide to check out the rear view while my parents' heads are buried in the map. I turn in my seat, wonder if there'll be any variation in the panorama of where we've just come from, and my eyes behold, a matter of inches from my face, a moustachioed man, spread-eagled flat against the back window of our little green car. And now I hear the squelching thud his face and motorcycle helmet make hitting the glass, and I watch, mesmerised and then shrieking, as he slides down like they do in cartoons, leaving a thin red-and-brown trail behind him, some of which we found back home wouldn't wash off the rear bumper.

The few times in my later years I 'dabbled with substances', I always measured anything freaky I saw (or thought I saw) against this first and worst eye-popping encounter.

And sadly, that brings me to the game, because there were a succession of incidents and events that could only be compared in my mind to this teenage shock. If you've read this far, you probably want a report anyway, despite the repeated warnings, so duty demands that you get one.

The first half seemed to be a full ninety minutes of Watford pressure, punctuated only by ex-England goalie Tim Flowers apparently hoping to use up the rest of his loan period to Stockport by standing in the penalty area nursing an eye injury picked up in the first quarter of an hour. One hopes his condition prevented him watching the rest of the game after he'd gone off, otherwise there could well be more damage. Injuries and suspensions meant we expected a new back line comprising Robbo, Vega and Lloyd Doyley. But Doyley was given the right wing-back position, so Captain Cox stood guard behind him.

Tommy Smith created one of the best, and most on-target, chances out of very little, mazing along the edge of the box and teeing up a shot whilst almost being mown down by Hyde coming in the other direction. Just a minor hint there (and this isn't hindsight, believe me) of the uncertainty of a team being tinkered with too frequently. There were a few other efforts, notably a trio of near-post corners taken by Glass, getting ever closer to crossing the line without a Watford player in sight. Twice defenders looked intent on nudging the ball into their own net, and once Glass hit the crossbar direct. A superb free kick from Vernazza that nearly reached Vega at the back post and was only intercepted by a defender at the last instant. And a nice downward header from Robbo early on, that bounced up and maybe did and then again maybe didn't cross the line before being headed away.

Still to be goalless at half-time naturally planted the mundanely paranoid notion that today wasn't our day. But then it was the same last week, with far inferior football being played, and look what came of the second half. We were playing lovely one-touch football, and if we hadn't had the luck to break down the nine-man Stockport defence, it was a matter of time, that was all. After all, Preston put six past the buggers. The travelling fans sang out "County, County", and it sounded for all the world like "Guilty, Guilty".

The second half, though, began in the strangest way. It was almost like the team didn't trust themselves to break the deadlock, as if there were only seconds to go, right from the kick-off. They obviously knew that one goal would shatter the blue wall in front of them, and give them three vital points. They obviously knew they had the talent to do it. They didn't, though, and you could practically hear them sweating as they were getting out of position, making a mess of simple things. It only took ten minutes for GV to pull off Doyley and Helguson, both of whom had neither shone nor been shite, and bring on Wooter and a supposedly rejuvenated Gayle.

Your correspondent has stated his opinion many times before, but here goes one more time: Nordin Wooter was simply not put on this earth to score goals. To torment opponents - sure. To be the living embodiment of that mobile handset Snake game character - sure. Wooter the shooter? Unsure. This unavoidable destiny, however, is much loathed by little Nord, and he tries to challenge it at every opportunity, to prove the gods wrong...much to the bemusement of his teammates who have accepted his destiny along with their own and who can't understand why he isn't just a little less King Canute about it. At least I think that's what they yell.

What I'm saying is that things did not in any shape or form improve following the substitutions. Nordin got some crosses in, but made an almighty twat of himself trying a volley that he sliced better than a Henman back-hand into the Lower Rous. Yes, the Lower Rous. The omens were building; my jaw was dropping. Do these people learn nothing about themselves from experience?

Player by player this was proving to be depressingly true. And it went for a good many spectators too. The mood of the Vic was slipping back to what the world was feeling in mid-September. We're nothing but a species of former fish who walk upright; and now we're walking upright all we can do is destroy everything our womenfolk and our egos convinced us to build for future generations. And will there even be any more future generations? Not something a hard-pressed father of two really wants to dwell on when all he's nipped out for is a diverting Saturday afternoon's footie. I'd been to one game since September 11th, the Preston encounter when we sat in the front row of the East Stand and got pissed on from both a great height and a short distance. This second half, full of bad refereeing and stilted gamesmanship, was further convincing me that there really were far better things to do with what is left of one's life than spend money that should have gone on my children's happiness on a baffling assortment of millionaires and also-rans performing to about fifty percent capacity.

The train wreck, the 2001 entry for "Watford's Hall of What Happened Next? Infamy", began with another spectacular mistiming from Wooter. Close control he has in spades, but his legs are short, his power limited, and his attention easily distracted. So when another ball came down from the stratosphere, and he made to hammer it into the top corner (of the Rookery) instead of laying it off to a badly-positioned but at least available teammate, it's little wonder that his missing the ball completely froze us all to the bone. Without wanting to make him - or any of them - the scapegoat (and I do love watching the guy and wish him well), it's a moment when possibility becomes certainty. The ball is hoofed into the Watford half, needs a map while it's there, it's such a rare occurrence, and we wait for Vega to clear. Do we? Do we really? Don't we wait for Vega to fall over like a steroidal oaf, a Swiss Frank Bruno? We do if we've learnt from experience, and that is precisely what he does. Still, we're playing the worst team in the division, relegation bankers - we can escape from this. There isn't a blue shirt in sight in the area as the ball is banged across by the beneficiary of Vega's slip. So Robbo has all the time in the world to chest the ball down to Alec, then chest it again when his first attempt misses Alec, just so he can hoof it away from the goalline, because we're a bit close now, boys, maybe you want to turn around now, Robbo, the ball's got to the net. Along with Robbo.

I couldn't look. I couldn't not look. Gayle had his head in his hands. Alec stood there dumbstruck. Others' knees buckled. Robbo just clung to the back of the net with both hands, waiting for the ground to swallow him up. The blue shirts danced and clapped, eighty yards away - since none of them had left their own half. I couldn't see much else, tears welling up in my eyes. I'm never going to make anything of myself, I thought, I'm not much of a wage-earner, I won't be able to provide for my kids, my wife'll go grey (greyer) having to put food on the table, and in a hundred years we'll all be dead and everything won't matter anyway.

God, I was depressed.

Carlton Palmer, his shoe buckles as dazzling as the floodlights, punched the air and mouthed "Come on" at his new gang. A few submorons somewhere behind me started booing Robbo. The Hornets stumbled about for the next nine minutes, albeit very professionally, unable to accept that a self-inflicted wound like that could finish them off. As often as not (and this team ought to be sectioned for the harm it's done itself) they have escaped from similar situations, and after many easier chances going begging, a speculative curler from Smithy, which could have started life as a pass, bent itself around Vega and into the far corner as the fourth official was announcing another four minutes in which to redeem matters. I couldn't cheer. It wouldn't have been appropriate. I stayed at least. We got scrappier, but you'd never have noticed the difference.

"It's hard having to attack for ninety minutes," I heard GV say afterwards, as I was trying to explain to Mrs Blanc with the aid of a beaker (Alec), a bottle (Vega), a teat (Robbo) and a scrunched up Kit-Kat wrapper (the ball) exactly what had happened in the eighty-first minute. Once again, I was rendered catatonic by this game and its aftermath. Where are my drugs? Am I actually so far gone that I took them already, and all this was just a bad dream?

Come off it. Ah well, Luca, my friend, seems to me there's yet another lesson to draw from the ugly theatre of war: you have to make sure the first bombs you drop are enough to do the damage, or else prepare yourself and your ground troops for a long and relentlessly hard and frequently tragic campaign.