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02/03: Reports:

FA Cup Third Round, 04/01/03, 3pm
Macclesfield Town
What happened?
By Ian Grant


Erm...are we in the right place...?

Are you sure...? We heard there was a cup tie somewhere around here...? We've come a long way to see it, so....


It's the FA Cup Third Round, but you really wouldn't know it. Only the rapidly dropping temperature once the sun descends behind the houses at the other end of the ground betrays the fact that it's not a particularly limp and low-key pre-season friendly. You don't need thousands of fans, a thunderous PA and "Match of the Day" cameras to create a sense of occasion...but you do need more than this....

I mean, what happened to the pitch? Leaving Brighton in the hours of darkness, great clumps of snow drifted through the bitter air to dress the town in beautiful white. Arriving in Macclesfield, the weak winter sunshine propped the temperature up, but everything had retained its thin coat of ice. Everything, that is, except the Moss Rose pitch. We'd expected a frozen field, an open invitation to the local fracture unit. We got a flat, lush, green pasture. Barely a divot at three o'clock, barely a divot two hours later.

And what about the atmosphere? Just silence, for the most part. Apart for some completely unjustified referee abuse by the home fans at half-time, based upon a patently laughable penalty appeal for a well-timed, clean tackle by Gavin Mahon, Moss Rose was eerily quiet and strangely passive. You could even pick up the referee's shouted instructions for the Watford wall to retreat further as they lined up for a late Macclesfield free kick, prompting the comment of the day - "They can't hear you, they're ten yards away!".

And the home team? The under-dogs? The plucky Third Division chancers? The potential banana skin? Er, where? We'd prepared ourselves for a lower division onslaught, a classic cup battle, a real test. We got none of that, just opponents who were so meek and mild that they seemed almost to apologise for daring to challenge us. Macclesfield were neat and tidy, sure...but neat and tidy ain't enough in this context, and it merely allowed us to dictate proceedings almost entirely. They did nothing to upset us (a cup clash with no bookings?!), to surprise us, to hurt us. In the end, the battle was with our own complacency and lethargy, perhaps understandable as it's hard to maintain urgency when you've nothing to react against. Like a solo trans-Atlantic rower, we were all on our own for much of this.

Of course, we had something to do with it too. We began in positive and assertive fashion, with Paolo Vernazza at his lively best and Gavin Mahon weighing the midfield down in impressive fashion, and we dominated the first fifteen minutes. And the next fifteen minutes. And the next. Apart from a brief and worrying spell at the start of the second half, Macclesfield were simply never allowed to build up any momentum, as they were forced to concentrate entirely on preventing further goals against. It wasn't exactly an object lesson in overcoming a tricky away tie, but it did the job well enough.

For the most part, though, there were no real conclusions. It was just too weird, too surreal. I mean, I have two pages of notes for the first half...and only three of them involve anything at Alec Chamberlain's end. Which was a bit of a bonus, as the low sun made it virtually impossible to pick out details at the far end without permanently damaging your vision. But, really, it's hard to recall forty-five minutes of football so utterly one-sided...especially considering that the one side wasn't doing anything particularly special, just passing the ball around and moving into the available space. Quite how we'd only scored once by the interval remains a complete mystery.

You couldn't even describe it as "relentless pressure" or similar. It wasn't that at all, nothing so hurried or frantic. Rather, the ball simply kept returning to the Macclesfield penalty area, as if the pitch had been tilted in our favour. The game ambled along at a ridiculously slow tempo, something that suited us much more than it suited Macclesfield...who seemed unable or unwilling to intervene. And by about halfway through the first period, we were having a shot at goal every minute.

I'll try to avoid making this read like a list. But it might be quite difficult. It took fifteen minutes for the ball to spend any length of time in our half and we'd already had a couple of efforts by then, Heidar Helguson looping a header wide from a Wayne Brown cross and Gifton Noel-Williams finishing an interchange with Allan Nielsen by slashing a shot into the away fans. We'd established our superiority, though.

The rest was about putting the game beyond the home side's reach as quickly as possible. After sixteen minutes - yes, that sustained Macclesfield pressure didn't last long - Gifton Noel-Williams flicked a corner towards the far post, where Wayne Brown's stumbling touch was blocked and grabbed by Wilson. Paolo Vernazza, perhaps surprised to be playing in a game that suited him so much, took a Brown cross on his chest and lobbed wide from twenty yards. Noel-Williams had another crack, driving into the hoardings from outside the area. And Wilson saved comfortably from Vernazza, biting into a midfield challenge and striding forward to fire a shot from the edge of the penalty area. Sorry, it's already become a list.

The quality of the chances began to improve, however. Again, Paolo Vernazza was the instigator, darting through midfield and sliding a lovely pass into Heidar Helguson on the penalty spot. He betrayed a slight lack of confidence in these situations, going for power when precision might've been a better option and Wilson produced a fine, sprawling save to push the ball away as he flung himself towards the striker. But he had no chance a minute later, when Gifton Noel-Williams directed Alec Chamberlain's clearance into Helguson's path. This time, he took the ball past a defender using the unusual method of flicking it up against his own chin, then slipped his finish underneath the keeper to give the Hornets a deserved, if overdue, lead.

That might've been expected to wake the hosts up. It didn't. If anything, it merely reminded us that one goal might not be enough. Within a few seconds, Gifton Noel-Williams was leading a break, spreading play out to Heidar Helguson on the left...and when the ball was pulled across, Paolo Vernazza probably should've done better than to slice wide from twelve yards. Still, you have to give credit to the midfielder for getting into so many potential scoring positions. Clearly, his manager expects him to win his place, and he's doing just that. Less than a minute later, a clever, well-constructed move finished with Helguson hooking the ball across for Noel-Williams to slash another half-volley off-target.

And on, and on. No complaints, of course...but Macclesfield were a terrible disappointment. Twenty-eight minutes, and a corner from the right found Noel-Williams with time to control and fire in a low cross. Neil Cox slid in at the near post, and was only denied by a desperate block on the line. A bit of a pause, and a Neal Ardley's over-hit cross from the right found Gavin Mahon, less visible than Vernazza but no less effective, lurking at the far post to collect. Allan Nielsen ghosted in from nowhere to meet Mahon's measured, chipped cross...and somehow, ten yards out and all alone, he managed to head it wide. We weren't the better side, we were the only side.

But hang on, what's this? A Macclesfield shot? Can it be? Well, yes...but let's not get too excited, as Munroe's drive from distance was well-struck, but it hit a defender almost as soon as it'd left his boot. And Tipton's looping header a little later counts only because it was in the general direction of the goal - Alec Chamberlain has had more testing saves to make. Mind you, we can definitely count Munroe's second attempt at a long range spectacular, which actually made it as far as its target...and, indeed, a little further. Cor, end-to-end stuff....

Normal service was quickly resumed, even if we had marginally less control than before. Gifton Noel-Williams guided a header over the bar from a corner, then Heidar Helguson was on the receiving end of a blocked clearance but unable to force the ball past Wilson from a tight angle. Even then, the ball found its way across goal, where both Jermaine Pennant and Paolo Vernazza failed to make the most of shooting opportunities. (I've not mentioned Jermaine Pennant yet, it seems...which perhaps betrays a lack of end product from his numerous and frequently dazzling runs. Yet the firework display on the right undoubtedly contributed to some distraction elsewhere, allowing the rest of the forwards even more time and space than they were already enjoying.) And the half concluded with Gavin Mahon thumping a drive narrowly wide from twenty-five yards.

It hadn't been much of a contest. Well, any of a contest. That said, there was some natural concern at half-time, and not only as a result of Matt leaving his lucky Dime Bar in the car (which, incidentally, will now become a regular ritual). For it was hard to believe that Macclesfield could be so completely vapid for the entire ninety minutes, nor was it easy to escape the feeling that we might regret not making more of such complete domination. I mean, it's the FA Cup, for heaven's sake. They could at least give it a bit of a go.

They did something, for a while. Prior to the decisive second goal, we were beginning to get a little anxious, as passes went astray, confidence slipped slightly and the attempts at Alec Chamberlain's goal started to add up. Had an equaliser found its way through, it might've been a very different, and much colder, afternoon...and it damn nearly did, as our failure to stand in Whitaker's way when he ambled in from the right after three minutes allowed him to size up a chip from twenty yards. A superb effort, it arced over the keeper's up-stretched glove, smacked against the crossbar and rebounded to Tipton, who got a bit excited. That was about as close as Macclesfield got. But it was too bloody close.

Everything else was more straightforward. True, Macclesfield enjoyed rather more of the play and a much greater number of efforts on goal resulted. They did their bit. But those efforts were almost exclusively from outside the penalty area - Tipton driving at Alec Chamberlain, Lightbourne blazing a couple of efforts into the street, Abbey sending a late, bobbling drive through to the keeper. When they were from closer, they were too tame to be of any consequence - weak headers from Lightbourne and Tipton that might not have made it over the line, even had Alec Chamberlain tested the theory. In the main, the determination of the Watford rearguard, and Neil Cox in particular, halted the home team's advance before any serious damage could be done.

There were one or two complicated moments. But only one or two. Of the shots from outside the box, one troubled Alec Chamberlain - Tipton turning against Marcus Gayle to get a sight of goal, then scraping a low attempt just wide of the post. The keeper might've had it covered...but he didn't seem too sure. Then, after twenty-eight minutes, a lofted cross from the by-line that Chamberlain appeared to collect and lose under challenge at the near post, requiring Neal Ardley to end the resulting scrambles by prodding the ball out. Really, apart from a late challenge on Wayne Brown that went unpunished as the referee played advantage, that was the only time that we felt the physical presence of Macclesfield. The home supporters spent most of the afternoon jeering the most skillful player on the pitch...but their team seemed remarkably unwilling to do more to prevent us from playing.

That player eventually had the last laugh. He'd already gone fairly close, ending a mazy run from left to right by shooting narrowly wide from the edge of the box, and he'd also crossed for Marcus Gayle to head at Wilson. But he got his chance, collecting a long ball between his feet, turning to evade a naive challenge and sprinting clear. For once, his finish, drilled into the bottom corner as Wilson advanced, matched the immaculate approach work. True, the game should've been safe long, long before...but we did at least get around to making it so in the end.

What remained was pedestrian in the extreme. We passed the ball around. A lot. And then some more. Macclesfield managed a few fairly forlorn goal attempts - not least, a Lightbourne free kick which, as it sailed into someone's back garden, left Whitaker staring at the sky in despair, for he'd planned to plant it into the top corner before the lanky striker had taken charge. We weren't greatly interested in adding more, although Gavin Mahon managed to dig out a shot at Wilson after a much-cheered passing move that had seemed to last for about half an hour. It was over. Very over. Heidar Helguson's attempts to take the ball to the corner flag in injury time belonged to another game entirely. The next round, perhaps.

A long way to go for a half-arsed practice match, really. Still, mustn't grumble. After all, this felt much like that ghastly Scarborough game in many respects - the endless journey, the sub-zero temperatures, the snow-covered hills in the distance, the suburban estate around the ground, the struggling Third Division opponents, the potential for abject failure. And the comparisons end there. For which, despite any appearances to the contrary, I am extremely grateful.

Job done. Next round, proper football.