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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 28/12/02, 3pm
Leicester City
Barbed wire for breakfast
By Ian Grant


As a bit of a traditionalist, part of me welcomes the return to normality. Enjoyable as their ill-mannered rampage through the Premiership under Martin O'Neill might've been, greeting Leicester victories with a smile felt like looking forward to a trip to Burnley or having a bit of a soft spot for Palace. Just not quite right, not as it should be. And now things are definitely as they should be - Leicester are thoroughly detestable again. That's the traditionalist in me. The rest of me wants them to sod off as soon as possible.

In a similar way, this represents a completion of Micky Adams' rehabilitation. For, deserved as the sympathy for his disgraceful dismissal from Fulham undoubtedly was, his brief stint as everyone's favourite campaigning cause did his progress within football no favours. Quite simply, you don't employ Micky Adams because he's a lovely bloke. You employ Micky Adams because you think that Neil Warnock is a bit soft. For Micky Adams creates teams that'd rob the local orphanage if it'd get them three points; Micky Adams creates teams that eat barbed wire for breakfast; Micky Adams creates teams that it's very, very hard to love.

Thing is, he's extremely good at it. And so we have Leicester, whose current league position is no fluke, who will almost certainly return to the top flight in May...and who will be troubling Premiership referees a very great deal next season. Ally and Big Ron had better start practising the severe looks and disappointed head-shaking right now.

I'll be more direct about it, as it seems entirely appropriate in the circumstances. Leicester are f***ing brutal. They are a near-perfect cross-breed of today's Sheffield United, yesterday's Wimbledon...and a bunch of Sunday League brawlers. They are death metal, turned up to eleven. They are merciless, cynical, and deeply unpleasant. Disappointingly, they're only near-perfect, lacking a truly worthy midfield hate-figure, someone of the calibre of Robbie Savage or Dennis Wise, to complete the picture...but, judging by Muzzy Izzet's booking for a professionally-executed contract killing on Anthony McNamee, they're working on it.

They're not pretty, then. While something contrary in me admires their nihilistic, end-of-the-world approach to the beautiful game, you wouldn't want to watch them very often. If at all. Which, I suppose, brings us back to some of the arguments about Boxing Day - in particular, at what point your personal convictions override your loyalty to the team. Would you want to watch Watford playing like this, even if it did win us promotion? It also, I suppose, leaves me open to accusations of peddling sour grapes...which is nonsense, as I'd have written much the same if the result had been different. Really, I can't imagine that Leicester get any nicer in defeat....

The frustration here was that after a distinctly tentative opening ten minutes in which we might've shot ourselves in the foot before Leicester had the chance to do the job themselves, we turned to face our opponents and return their sneers and snarls with interest. We didn't lose the battle, we just lost the game...and, perhaps, the result reflected the league positions fairly accurately in that respect. Somehow, Leicester have a ruthless, guiltless edge that we lack. Somehow, I'm not sure that I regret that at all.

Ray Lewington has referred to the recent run as "disastrous"...but it doesn't feel disastrous. There have been times when it's impossible to see where the next victory could possible come from, times when morale has sunk so low that the team is beaten even as the dressing room door opens at five to three. This is not one of those times. On the contrary, we're holding up remarkably well - as each game comes along, you feel that we can win it, that we have a chance. Even as the results go against us, few of them linger for long. They're dismissed quickly, left behind. It's not hard to see how the current performances might be turned into another table-climbing run. Not hard at all.

Had we drawn here, we would've been unbeaten for three games. Nothing to write headlines about...but the start of something, perhaps. And we should've drawn here, matching Leicester for the majority of an extremely feisty, if rarely attractive, contest. We should feel disappointed, but not down-hearted.

Mind you, had Leicester taken advantage of our sloppy, distracted play in the opening spell, it would've been rather different. Wayne Brown was the main culprit, somewhat ill-advisedly attempting subtlety when the more familiar boot into the stands might've been more appropriate and effective. Twice, he read situations well - following a long ball back towards his goal with Dickov in pursuit, then positioning himself to intercept a pass on the left. Twice, after doing most of the hard work, he presented the ball to the opposition around the penalty area - heading weakly back to Alec Chamberlain to allow Dickov to nip in, then selling Paul Robinson short to leave Scowcroft with an unobstructed path to goal. Twice, we were grateful to see the ball skid through the six yard box and roll wide.

Gradually, we regained our composure. If "composure" is the right word for a game that was more "boot and chase" than "pass and move". On the ten minute mark, Paolo Vernazza - much more prominent than recently, in a match that shouldn't have suited him - glanced a header wide from a Paul Robinson cross, and we were beginning to find the width that would bypass the central battlefield.

But it took a while. For fifteen minutes, the match went nowhere slowly and fairly violently. We'd improved, enough to force Leicester back and to compete for some measure of control...but the game was being played almost entirely in the middle third, neither side able to get the ball to stick nearer the goal. And then, without warning, a great surge of attacks and chances for the Hornets, a surge that would end with a fine goal. After twenty-six minutes, Heidar Helguson sent Neal Ardley's cross drifting wide with a near-post header. Twenty-seven, and Helguson flicked Alec Chamberlain's kick on towards Tommy Smith, who darted inside and smacked a decent effort over the bar from twenty yards. Twenty-eight, and Smith allowed Paul Robinson's pass to run through to Helguson, received the return ball on his chest, and lifted his finish over the target as Walker scrambled from his line....

Twenty-nine, and we were ahead. A splendid move too, beginning with Paolo Vernazza's sweeping pass to release Jermaine Pennant on the right. Increasingly, and provided that he's given enough of the ball, Pennant's performances are characterised by pacy, accurate low crosses into the danger area...and he didn't disappoint here, reaching the by-line and driving the ball into the six yard box. There, Heidar Helguson slid in to score from close range in typically predatory fashion. The striker's celebration rather defies description, I won't even try. Oh, okay...erm, rodeo horse on a trampoline?

Unfortunately, we were unable to hang on to the lead for more than five minutes. Immediately, Leicester came back at us in predictably robust, aggressive fashion, and Deane headed over from Izzet's free kick as the referee ignored an extremely obvious attempt to send Alec Chamberlain into the front row of the Rookery. The equaliser was scrappier still, Paolo Vernazza unable to hook the ball clear from a corner and a rebound finding Elliott all alone to rifle a shot past the keeper from ten yards. Everyone looked at the referee, the referee looked at the linesman, the linesman held his flag down, everyone shouted at the linesman. The video replay only went to prove that you can't judge offside decisions from fifty yards upfield, and the suggestion is that the scorer was onside while others in more central positions were considered to be "inactive". As at Ipswich, you tend to think that more efficient defending would remove the need to rely on officials.

We were still in a strong position, however. And we still might've been ahead at the break, as Neal Ardley's free kick from deep on the left was headed on by Neil Cox. Almost on the goalline, Heidar Helguson climbed with Walker and won the ball cleanly...but he was unfortunate that his header hit the crossbar and bounced onto the roof of the net. Again, we'd made up for some of our failings with sheer enterprise and determination, characteristics that might not win promotion but will certainly win many hearts. We deserved the applause.

We found it difficult to move the game on again, though. Instead, we were sucked back into the hack and scrap of midfield after half-time, leaving that brief flurry of penetrating attacks as a fond memory rather than a reliable template for the second half. Leicester dragged us into a fight...we held our own, just about, but it didn't suit us. We were pulled under and struggling for air, unable to think of the bigger picture, and twenty minutes passed with the ball aimed skywards rather more often than goalwards. Then, even as the visitors were beginning to slow the game to a painful, deathly crawl, Deane rose at a corner and headed powerfully into the top corner via the turf...and we were left with a desperately difficult task.

It might've been finished right then. Within a few minutes, a mis-cued header from a right wing cross had presented Dickov with an apparently open goal, only for Alec Chamberlain to throw himself across to fill the space and somehow scramble the shot from the line with his sprawling body. A stupendous save, and one that kept us in the game until the final whistle. For even if the equaliser never came, we were at least able to end the match with our heads up and our opponents nervous. Indeed, we were still rather unlucky not to come away with a point.

We battered away, substitutes adding to the attacking options without quite providing method to go with the general huff and puff. Even so, there were chances. From a low Anthony McNamee cross, Micah Hyde pounced on a ricochet from Gifton Noel-Williams, delayed for a second as he sized up the narrow angle, and thumped the ball through the six yard box. It hit a defender on the line...and rebounded straight into the chest of the grounded goalkeeper. Jermaine Pennant sent a shot screaming into the Rookery, exposing a lack of options in the penalty area. And, most desperately, an injury time corner dropped for Neil Cox on the six yard line...and, as we held our breath, he turned in a crowd of players and fired goalwards before anyone could take the ball from his toe. It must've removed a coat of paint on its way past the post.

There it is, then. A chaotic, bad-tempered afternoon, and another victory for The Leicester Way. A defeat for The Watford Way, though? Nah, not really. As we enter 2003, we've sorted out so much that needed sorting out. There's more, of course. There's always more. But it feels right again...and, for me, that's more important than anything else. Better than butchering your way to promotion, at any rate.

We're all right.

Happy New Year.