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Nationwide Division One, 19/02/02
A needle in a haystack
By Ian Grant

I hate this place.

You know, I'd swear that it wasn't even raining before we got off the train at Norwood Junction and stumbled into what would generously be described as "difficult conditions". By the end of the evening, we'd been soaked, blown about, and bored. Bored, more than anything. Oh God, the boredom....

Much as I might complain, all that puts this around third in the list of "My Most Enjoyable Visits To Selhurst Park", somewhere behind last season's comparatively thrilling nil-nil draw and the time back in 1994 when we actually won. That's so far in the past that it's getting to the stage where we'll be feeling nostalgia for the time when we last scored here. 1998, if you're wondering.

Dreadful game, this. Certainly, the conditions - swirling wind, sweeping rain, pitch that's apparently grazed by cattle during the rest of the week - made it very difficult to play pretty football. That said, both teams stretched the point rather by failing to play any football at all.

Like kids in a winter PE lesson on the far corner of the school playing field, the participants reluctantly clumped the ball about to no particular purpose for ninety minutes and then retreated into the warmth of the dressing room. You felt like a complete idiot for paying money to watch it. The attendance might've been pitiful, but it was still far, far more than it deserved.

Not exactly what we dreamt of at the start of the season, then. We were anticipating an Italian masterpiece, perhaps a stunning portrait of a dashing aristocrat or a beautiful landscape painted with sweeping, elegant brushstrokes. Instead, we've got some grubby watercolours of a car park in Slough. It's not very good. With Jermaine Pennant, the only source of flamboyance and flair here until Lee Cook's very belated arrival, soon to be suspended and presumably to return whence he came, you do wonder what the future holds. It's hard to summon up much - well, any - enthusiasm for what remains of this increasingly shambolic campaign.

Perhaps the Football League might like to consider whether either team was deserving of a point, let alone both. True, Wimbledon ought to have won it, wasting decent chances in either half...but they'd be hard pushed to argue that they were the better side. In every sense, this was a match without a better side.

Again, the number of efforts at goal was far below that required to win a football match. The game's more complicated than that, of course...but you're not going to pick up many points with a couple of shots from distance and a couple of quickly-departed half-chances in ninety minutes. Our stumbling, faltering attacks appeared to have no particular method and produced no useful outcome, failing due to a tediously repetitive combination of poor passing, over-elaboration, and lack of movement. It was abysmal, the only consolation being that nothing much depended on the result.

The phrase "littered with errors" springs to mind...although this wasn't so much casual littering as rampant fly-tipping. Occasionally, either because or despite of these errors, the ball arrived somewhere near one of the goals and subsequently ended up in the stand behind. Or, as a slight variation, it bounced tamely to one of the goalkeepers. Perhaps the highlight of the half was Wayne Brown's inventive interpretation of the general theme, which involved a shot so wayward that it went out of a throw. Not just any old throw, mind...a throw that was level with the edge of the Wimbledon penalty area and, indeed, almost in line with where he'd taken the shot from. That we were still eager to see this recorded in our "shots (off-target)" column tells the story.

In the first half, the only chances of note fell to Wimbledon, and then, without exception, fell kindly to Alec Chamberlain. After eight minutes, Shipperley's wild mis-kick from Connolly's cross distracted everyone, and Ardley might've done better than to shoot weakly at the keeper. I say that he might've done better, but that hardly singles him out from the crowd. Some time later, Mild headed tamely in the vague direction of the goal from a free kick and then shot at Chamberlain from twenty-five yards. If I'm making this sound in any way exciting, please forgive me.

While there were times when we surged forward with some purpose, the final ball that would've turned one of those surges into a goal-scoring opportunity completely eluded us. Jermaine Pennant wasted a skipping run from the left wing by colliding with a crowd of defenders; Gifton Noel-Williams scuffed a pull-back with colleagues waiting; Micah Hyde had two attempts at supplying Tommy Smith on the right, hitting a defender with the first, then sending the second yards in front of the striker and out for a goal kick.

After enough of that kind of nonsense to last a lifetime, Noel-Williams appeared so startled when Paul Robinson's cross arrived at the near post that he jumped and knocked it wide. A minute later, Hyde required Davis to flop down to his left and collected a low shot, his only save of the entire match. In some ways, we were playing better at this point, making more use of the wings and moving with greater urgency, yet the lack of penetration is still painfully evident when we're dominating. Even at Hillsborough, where we were much the more positive, potent side and should've won comfortably, the failure to finish our opponents was not due to missed chances but the scarcity of them.

At the end, Cooper crossed and Shipperley sent a header drifting to Chamberlain from fifteen yards. And then, like break-time between double maths and double physics, we were free for a few precious minutes.

Lucky half-time chocolate: "Fine milk and white Belgian chocolates with a rich praline centre".
Reason: A high-brow evening demands high-brow chocolate.
Level of success: The highlight of the night...or the only bit of it that didn't leave a bad taste in the mouth, anyway.

Implausibly, the second half brought even fewer on-target shots at Davis' goal than the first. That's none, for the hard of counting. Indeed, there were no goal attempts of any kind until the lively Lee Cook replaced Allan Nielsen on sixty-seven minutes, a move that was long overdue in that it allowed Pennant to switch to his natural position on the right. At the other end, Wimbledon created chances and wasted them all. Ultimately, both keepers were extended further in the warm-up than during the game.

It was absolute rubbish, basically. Beyond admiring Wayne Brown's refreshing habit of absolutely bloody battering the ball away from danger when necessary, which was accompanied by Neil Cox's rather quieter but nonetheless effective performance, there was precious little to draw comfort from. After five minutes, Shipperley headed wide at the far post from an Ardley cross, before Cooper's centre skidded through to Connolly, who fired straight at Chamberlain from just inside the area. The rain swept down, the wind gusted about, the row behind attempted to lift spirits with the theme from the Muppets. As the local tourist board might say, "Welcome to Selhurst. What are you doing here?".

A goal for either side might've given the whole thing a sense of purpose, at least. The finishing would've had to be rather better, though...Mild let Ardley's cross bounce off the top of his head when given the chance to test Chamberlain, and Ardley failed to hit the target - or, indeed, to get anywhere near the target - with two unmarked headers in quick succession later on. God, it was poor. Typically, a lovely bit of skill - a brief glint as the needle in the haystack was caught by the sun - from Lee Cook was followed by a shot that barely managed to make it as far as the goalline.

And on, and on. A couple of corners, each greeted with a rousing cheer, a banging of seats as rows stood up, a chorus of "Come on you 'Orns"...and a depressed sigh at an easy clearance. "Get Poppins on!" shouted Rupe, lost in his own world. Better than being here, though. "It's a contact sport!" bellowed Loz in protest at a free kick for, erm, offside. Matt's pen, sitting on the concrete wall in front, was blown into the next row. It was too wet for tumbleweed, so the occasional carrier bag took on the job. The linesman on the near touchline had enough and asked the referee if he could go home. Agyemang headed at Chamberlain from a corner, Noel-Williams came closest for Watford as he diverted a Cook cross through the six yard box and wide.

At some point, around the time when we were starting to think that it would go on forever, it stopped. We all went home, hunched in protection against the gusts of wind and freezing rain. Only the most accepting of us wouldn't have thought for a moment about our reasons for doing this, for spending money and time to see such a completely ungratifying, abysmal spectacle.

Of course, the cliché has it that we keep coming back because we don't know what's going to happen, because we might miss something special. Selhurst, as ever, gives the lie to that.