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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 14/12/02, 3pm
Ipswich Town
By Ian Grant

It's not going very well.

Three hours from home and fifty quid lighter than this morning, you retreat a little deeper into your over-priced seat as half-time approaches. Stare unfocused into the middle distance as play continues, mind slowly trawling through happier and/or more useful ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. Occasionally lurch back from semi-consciousness, bring the detail on the pitch back into focus, immediately wish that you hadn't. It's not going very well.

You wince as someone in the rows behind you punctures the dispirited silence in the away section by barking in anger and frustration at Tommy Smith as he takes on defenders and loses possession again. You wince even more a few moments later when Smith leads a three-man break into the Ipswich half against minimal opposition, Allan Nielsen sprinting into space on his left, Jermaine Pennant doing the same on his right...and he delays making the choice between two defence-splitting passes for too long, over-runs the ball at a crucial moment and concludes by inadvertently back-heeling it to grateful blue shirt. It's all falling apart, again.

You gaze miserably at the automated advertising hoardings on the front of the Greene King stand, occasionally rolling over to reveal new slogans. It happened so quickly, again. Just the time for a throw-in to find Tommy Miller after twenty-three minutes, for him to pick his spot while everyone in a yellow shirt stood and watched, and send the ball swerving past Alec Chamberlain and into the top corner from twenty-five yards. A team of spectators, you half-expected the players to join the applause for a spectacular, but unopposed, strike. Even as we kicked off, our confidence, which had been building with each passing minute in a competitive and energetic match, was collapsing and disintegrating.

Suddenly, we were beaten, forlorn. Suddenly, the hope that'd vibrated through your vocal chords just minutes earlier had evaporated. We might've been plunged further into self-pity within a minute, when Hreidarsson was denied by Alec Chamberlain's legs as he stretched to meet a through-ball inside the area. True, there were still moments when downcast contemplation gave way to keen, immediate interest, and you needed to turn your head to the right to peer over at the action in front of the Ipswich goal, and Neal Ardley drifted a free kick wide, and Neil Cox nearly managed to get a clean header on a free kick, and Heidar Helguson belted an overhead effort into the North Stand. But the belief had gone, and Miller had the best chance of all to add to the scoring, firing low from Counago's cross to bring a decent save from Alec Chamberlain.

As we dragged our egos around our ankles, the inevitable happened soon enough. Such a wretched goal from our point of view, though. Such a waste of so much hard work. No blame attached to Neal Ardley, really...for although he was dispossessed by a determined Counago tackle as he attempted to negotiate a crossing position, he was eighty yards from goal at the time. And you had a grandstand view of everything that happened next: Counago's vast cross-field pass towards Naylor on the left wing, Neil Cox's indecision allowing the ball to find its target without interruption; the run, the failure to intervene, the precise finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. The heads dropping, the shoulders slumping, the feet starting to drag.

Which brought you here, eyes wide open and avoiding the issue. It's not going very well. You've never been the type to stand and scream to vent frustration, apart from rare moments when refereeing decisions gnaw their way through to raw nerves...and Uriah Rennie's not living up, or down, to his reputation today. So you just sit and think and look. You shift your gaze to your right again, looking at the fancy electronic scoreboard to see how many minutes remain before you can attempt to shift the afternoon's course by eating enough lucky chocolate to bring an entire army out in spots. And you wonder how the hell you're going to come up with some ratings for this....

Because, even now, you're aware that much of the annoyance and despair is at a missed opportunity rather than a disgraceful non-performance. Of all the admirable features of Ray Lewington's reign thus far, the ability to send the team out with their minds fixed on the task has been among the most prominent - so often, we appeared ill-prepared and easily surprised last season; so rarely, this. Here, we were clearly wary of Ipswich for five minutes, and understandably so. For another ten, we asserted ourselves boldly, beginning to break up their passing movements and build towards positive moments in the other half, and Allan Nielsen and Stephen Glass both tried the luck from decent shooting positions. Having been convinced of Ipswich's invulnerability by their startlingly effective display at Vicarage Road, we were beginning to make them look nervous.

And we should've scored. You think of that moment as the scoreboard clock reaches zero and a minute of injury time begins. Should've, should've, should've. You can picture it, superimposing the image on the depressing scenes now in front of you. A fine, simple move - Heidar Helguson knocking the ball wide to Jermaine Pennant, the set-up for Neal Ardley's typically penetrating cross, the sudden realisation that Allan Nielsen had ghosted into the far post area without attracting attention. His header lacked a little conviction and Marshall's save was still tremendous...and, just like that, it was gone. Back in the present, you reflect that missed chances plus defensive lapses equal an away day hammering. As the referee blows his whistle, and the more uncharitable among the travelling fans express their disappointment, it's hard to see beyond that away day hammering. You brace yourself for it. Nothing else to do.

You'll still be there in an hour's time, of course. No question about that. Even if the home side's lead has been extended into double figures by then - and that appears only marginally less likely than a Watford comeback, really - you'll still be there. For the umpteenth time, you remember seeing Kevin Phillips' first league goal, a small reward for the minority of supporters who'd stayed to the end of a humiliating defeat at Reading in the mid-nineties. You'll still be there at the end...although the choice of the Housemartins' "Happy Hour" to soundtrack half-time is testing that resolve to its limits....

As the match re-starts, you don't expect much. Perhaps a general stalemate until the scoreboard clock has counted down far enough to eliminate any remaining hopes of a revival, then a victorious salvo from the hosts to lend the scoreline a suitably humiliating appearance. And so it appears. When you look at the clock again, three minutes have already flicked past without incident. The game settles into a pattern, the silence descends over the away section again....

You don't expect much. But watching football isn't about thought. All this idle contemplation, all this staring at nothing in particular, all this all evaporates as soon as Heidar Helguson wins an extremely brave header, typical of his afternoon, and is bundled over as he appears to be breaking through. You glance at the referee, expecting to hear his whistle...except that he's seen Tommy Smith darting onto the loose ball, bursting into the area, curling a perfect finish over Marshall. All perspective is gone. Instantly, you're thrust back into the moment, into the cheering, shouting, fist-clenching moment.

And we're roaring forward now. For twenty minutes, Ipswich are barely able to cross halfway, shoved back by a great surge that threatens to overwhelm them entirely. Come on. They're suddenly frantic, tense, prone to errors...and we're stumbling upon ways to exploit those weaknesses, hitting the ball long towards Heidar Helguson and pouncing on the scraps from his battles with defenders. Eagerly, we're darting about, this way and that...and it's surely only a matter of time. Come on. Allan Nielsen strikes a volley towards goal, finds Heidar Helguson in the way, and he turns to shoot wide of Marshall's near post. COME ON.

Three points here, if we can wrestle them away. Three precious points. Come on. And then the game loses you again...Clapham's low drive from the left corner of the penalty area, Alec Chamberlain's sprawling save to push the ball away...but only into the path of Counago, presented with the simplest goal of his season. As the players protest against the lack of an offside flag - no way of telling from our viewpoint - the whirlwind has already deposited you back in your seat, perspective restored once more. For twenty minutes, you were entirely at one with a game of football, lost in it and buffeted by it. Now, you're just watching your team lose.

The team loses in rather more glorious fashion that you'd expected, mind. For we continue to dominate, pressing forward with less hope but no less conviction. There will be no hammering, no humiliation, at least. From a Neal Ardley corner, Neil Cox arrives to head over from twelve yards - a trial run, as it turns out. Jermaine Pennant collects a loose ball, dances past a defender and fires a disappointing finish at Marshall. Both Marshall and Micah Hyde appear to hesitate, surprised as a Stephen Glass corner drops at the far post, and the keeper just about manages to divert the resulting prodded shot from the goal. It's not particularly convincing, perhaps, and it's certainly not stylish...but it's bold, assertive, faith-restoring.

And it's not over. The same corner routine as before, with a different result. Neal Ardley hangs the ball up at the near post, Neil Cox arrives and sends it crashing into the roof of the net via a faint touch from Marshall's fingertips. And you're back there again, immersed, lost in the present, close enough to feel the celebration that'd greet an equaliser. Bloody come on.

Fifteen minutes left, and the substitutions come in a torrent. By the final whistle - assuming that we put Neal Ardley, Marcus Gayle and Gavin Mahon in their usual categories (although Ardley played at right back throughout, Gayle finished in the forward line and Mahon took up a central defensive position on arrival) - our team comprises one goalkeeper, one defender, five midfielders and four strikers. And we're at it again, pumping the ball up to the final third, competing for everything, fighting for a point that we surely deserve. Right now, it's a great game.

Then it's dreadful again. A long, long punt upfield, with Neil Cox and Marcus Bent following the dropping ball back towards Alec Chamberlain. The Watford captain is the favourite all the way, just unable to head the ball back as it drops and still confident of dealing with the situation as it bounces. He tries to shield the ball from the striker. It bounces again. Any time you like, Coxy. It drops and bounces one final time, before Bent, presumably bored of waiting, sweeps a clinical volley into the bottom corner. Really, we don't have to look very far to explain this defeat.

There's still time for Alec Chamberlain to produce a fine parry to prevent Wilnis adding a fifth. But you're restless now, eager to begin the journey home. Like most, you stand and applaud the players as they leave the field, feeling a confusing mixture of regret, frustration, annoyance, and no little pride. For you know that we deserved more here, having dominated large parts of the game and reduced Ipswich to a nervous, frantic shambles at times. And yet you also know that we were responsible for our own downfall, regardless of the quality of the finishing that exploited our weaknesses.

Our performances are being obscured by results. Frustrating, and a bit worrying too.