The End Of The Season
By Matt Rowson
A Saturday afternoon in April. A meagrely populated away stand. Discarded confetti convulses listlessly on the pitch below us, stirred by the icy wind. There's a football match going on, and we're in it. And it doesn't seem to matter terribly. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The End Of The Season.
There are mitigating circumstances to explain the low crowd, of course... the last in a sequence of what has effectively been five away games on the hop is one, Easter weekend another, the financial and emotional expense of last Sunday (less than a week ago?) yet another. As far as getting over the Semi-Final is concerned, only perhaps a rain-drenched trip to Blundell Park ranks above Valley Parade in the bangs-back-down-to-earth that Division One has to offer. Once again, a biting wind that had seemed improbable as recently as the day before (when West Yorkshire was as sun-drenched as everywhere else) pillaged the away end mercilessly. Once again I burned my tongue on the culinary offerings from that bizarre little refreshment hut that stands where you feel a corner flag ought to be. And once again, of course, we lost, just like the previous five visits here.
We've never won at Bradford, which ought to contribute to Valley Parade ranking alongside Turf Moor and Selhurst as a venue to be avoided. The quirkiness of the Sentinel Stand, which suspends the visiting support pointlessly above an empty rack of seats, close enough to the players' heads to pick out dandruff, does a lot to compensate.
Watford's heralded line-up took to the field in the rather uncomfortable looking garb of black shirts, presumably aired for the last time, and red shorts. Had common sense prevailed and red shorts remained as the first-choice option we would have retained the rather suave all-black away combination, but that's a can of worms for another day.
Two key partnerships were perhaps the most significant features of the eleven. Sean Dyche, again captain, and Wayne Brown lined up in a second-string central defensive pairing that has previously been rattled by all but the thoroughly soggy Crystal Palace side of a couple of weeks ago. Further upfield, the monumental central midfield partnership of Hyde and Johnson, on which so much of the success of GT's second spell was built, started a game together for the first time in a while... Southampton, incidentally, the opponents on that occasion, three years ago last Tuesday.
Confidence in the first of these pairings was not enhanced by the first few minutes of play, which saw Heidar Helguson set the tone for a wonderfully in-yer-face performance by dropping back and using his aerial prowess to good effect conceding two corners in the process, the second by clearing Alec Chamberlain's bar. On the second occasion his stretching, twisted header was met with polite applause by the onlooking Dyche and Brown who you rather felt ought to have made his discomfort unnecessary. If you want to watch on and clap, boys, come and join us up here in the stand....
Stuff happened, most of it rather untidy and uncohesive, often overly physical on our hosts' part and garnished by occasional and unpredictable intervention on the part of Mr.Laws, dressed in the same green as both goalkeepers to my brother's disgust.
City took the lead through a suitably messy passage of play. Alongside Andy Gray up front was the large and lumpy Laurens Ten Heuvel, who had previously made three starts during three years in English football with four different clubs. On loan from Sheffield United, where his position as sixth burly striker in line is possibly explained by his playing as if his shoelaces were tied together, he nonetheless got himself in a position to cause Chamberlain problems in what can only very loosely be termed a "build-up", a mess which also included a swiped clearance, a weak header from Johnson, a lot of scuffling and ultimately a chipped cross from Francis on the by-line and a decisive header from the unmarked and increasingly dependable Jørgensen.
The wind blew a little colder. It quickly became evident that, just as at Grimsby and at home to Preston and a number of other occasions recently, we were behind to a tearfully poor side. Our hurried and untidy build-up began to make inroads... Cook positive and spiky down the left, Nielsen full of running down the right, Heidar generally knocking things out of the way in the middle. Johnson started to crunch things up, the "well in, Johnno" mantra murmured involuntarily more than once.
Micah Hyde was the first to come close, pinging a left-foot shot out off the crossbar from outside the area after Cook's cross broke to him. Shortly afterwards, as close as it was possible to come... a measured cross from Smith, Helguson contrived to head the ball wide from roughly two yards out.
This remained his only (if sizeable) blot of the afternoon, but it's some measure of the progress he's made this season that he recovered his composure and single-mindedness quickly enough to score an audacious equaliser. The Heidar of last season (and even the season before that) was notoriously susceptible to allowing bad misses to weigh heavily on his shoulders. If the same was true here, he didn't show it. Instead, as Johnno stamped on yet another fledgling City attack and Hyde's chipped pass held up in the impossible wind, Heidar stole a march on his disorientated marker and lobbed the keeper from twenty-five yards. You really had to blink and check with the bloke next to you that the ball was in the back of the net up the other end of the field, Heidar had seen an opportunity that half of us hadn't noticed from the elevation of the stand. And we have him for another three years, you say? Marvellous.
Satisfied with the restoration of parity, I made an early dash for what earlier reconnaissance had established were very limited facilities. Dropping down the steps to the eerie no-man's land behind the goal, I was giving directions to the refreshment hut ("I think it's marking Gavin Mahon") when furore a disconcertingly small distance away implied the award of a penalty to the home side.
Not having seen the incident, therefore, I'm having to relate other eye-witness accounts. My Dad swore blind that it wasn't a penalty, but then such tends to be his position on these occasions, you do to feel that if our centre-back were to take out their striker's knees with a sledgehammer he'd only concede the possibility of an indirect free-kick for obstruction.
The weary look in my brother's eye told a different story... Jørgensen broke through down the left but had lost control of the ball which was heading irretrievably into touch. Helpfully for the Dane, Sean Dyche had telegraphed his intention to dive into the tackle some ten minutes previously and was not about to be waylaid by a detail as small as the fact that the ball was heading out of play. Will's one concession to conspiracy theory was the suggestion that the ball had already gone out, but Dyche's stupidity merited a penalty in any case. Not for the first time this season. Around thirty seconds had elapsed since Helguson's equaliser.
I found myself in the unusual position of being alone behind the goal as the penalty lined up, and discovered that jumping up and down to put off the taker isn't something that feels nearly as natural when you're not one of dozens doing the same thing. Neither I nor the Hornets rattling the advertising hoardings above me had any more effect on the outcome than Alec Chamberlain, who really needn't think that the beauty of his one penalty save in Watford colours would be diminished by getting anywhere near a spot kick again. Two-one at half-time.
The second half breezed by without anyone really noticing. Bradford continued to justify their position as early runners for the "Worst team in Division One" Clap Award of 2002-03... a horrible mess between defender and goalkeeper allowing the hurtling Helguson to stick out a limb and curl a ball around his opponents and the wrong side of the post.
Then Molenaar sliced an attempted clearance spectacularly wide for a Watford throw on the half-way line... the Dutchman evidently lacking the finesse of Sean Dyche, epitome of a no-nonsense centreback, who remorselessly clouted anything that bounced across his path for much of the game. It would have been handy if he'd toned down the bootering on occasions, particularly when thumping an impossible ball at Mahon from short range who, rather than sprinting towards the touchline as intended, was forced to concentrate on staying on his feet.
Helguson hadn't given up... as Wetherall curtailed one Watford attack with a fine tackle twenty-five yards out, Helguson trumped him with a thunderous challenge which shrieked "what do you mean, meaningless fixture?" loud enough for everyone east of the Pennines to hear. Perturbed and surprised by this, Wetherall kicked out at his conqueror, giving away a free kick. Cook got it on target, our only on-target attempt of the half, but Davison was comfortably behind the underhit shot.
At the other end, Chamberlain was out smartly to deny the onrushing Emanuel, but otherwise was scarcely employed in the second period.
"Bring on some more players, Lewington!" wailed the woman at the front of the stand, perhaps oblivious to the eleven-a-side regulation. Her single-minded protests continued unabated until - and never let it be said that Lewington pays no thought to the concern of travelling Hornets - he put her out of her misery and gave the rest of us a break by introducing Chopra for the fading Nielsen and McNamee for the much-clobbered Cook with ten minutes remaining. Smith's willing ineffectiveness was pushed out to the right, where a couple of willful incursions were brought to an end by impressive blocks by Bower. Chopra may have touched the ball, if he did I don't remember it. McNamee was comprehensively smothered by the close attentions of Uhlenbeek, something that's happening to the youngster worryingly often, although in fairness to him we might not be doing him any favours by only introducing him into games after we've resorted to thumping the ball at the penalty area. Which, in Sean Dyche's case, is most of the time anyway. Hand followed these two on for the tiring Hyde and almost managed to get himself booked for getting frustrated at Bradford's time-wasting away in the far corner.
And that was pretty much that. Except for one thing, the game's big saving grace. Because throughout the second half, and even with much of the life drifting out of our game, Johnno was still doing his thing. One minute stamping the life out of a Bradford attack ("Well in, Johnno"), the next swooping onto loose balls in the midfield and snapping them out to the wings, particularly the left where Robbo looked assertive. Not a vintage Johnno performance by a long chalk, but closer to what remains in the mind's eye than anything else we've seen for the last couple of years.
Thought for the summer number one. That number ten shirt might be returning to its rightful owner after all...