By Ian Grant
In truth, the off-pitch politics of the First Division has proved to be rather more fascinating than much of
the football, so far. It's been hard to focus, somehow...and hard to regard the early season jostling as
particularly important when it's patently obvious that several of those involved might be bust by Christmas.
Bizarrely, and yet tellingly, I have absolutely no idea what league positions some clubs - Walsall, Rotherham,
Sheffield United, for example - currently occupy. And yet I know rather more about their latest accounts....
So, this is a season over-shadowed. Division One clubs are walking a tightrope, perched precariously
between the tempting riches of the Premiership and the barren wastelands of the lower divisions...and, yes,
it's always been so, but never quite so much so. We're treading a very fine line indeed.
Once upon a time, clubs at this level could make some basic preparations for the possibility of promotion. No
longer. And they could spend for survival in the top flight, on the basis that parachute payments would buy
time for re-adjustment in the event of relegation. No longer. When three clubs join the elite in May, can
any of them seriously expect not to be returning to the Nationwide fold twelve months later? More to the
point, will they dare to put any money on it?
For those left behind, the safest option is simply treading water for a while. Keep things steady, don't
do anything daft, take any opportunity to sell. There isn't a player in the league who's not for sale at the
right price, there isn't a club in the league that would plough that money straight back into the squad. Apart
from Portsmouth, apparently. And yet, much as stability is desirable, the fact remains that three clubs
will disappear into Division Two at the end of the season...and that's the same Division Two that has been
increasingly marginalised by the power-grabbing instincts of First Division chairman. You wouldn't give much
for the survival chances of the relegated clubs, frankly.
Walking a tightrope, like I say. We've no choice but to tread it, though. No choice but to concentrate on the
next step, on keeping our balance, on clinging on when we slip. And this, perhaps, was the first significant
Perhaps. It's tempting to draw some depressing conclusions here. Honestly, we were absolutely out-classed by
Portsmouth, made to look shoddy, ragged and hopeless. For a while, the performance was hard-working and
earnest, even if it was never able to disguise the difference in quality between the two teams...but, after
the home side had taken the lead, it disintegrated entirely. By the end, we were utterly forlorn, labouring
for the final half an hour to produce one solitary shot on goal. The sun was shining, and that was as good
as it got.
Really, we were just found out. The lack of match fitness of Neal Ardley and Micah Hyde, both hugely
disappointing; the lack of experience of Jamie Hand and, in his new position, Marcus Gayle, both guilty of
key mistakes; the lack of fire-power in attack with the desperately off-form Tommy Smith and the
lively-but-lonely Danny Webber. We're a fragile side right now - quite simply, and despite the pleasing
comeback against Wimblescum, we cannot afford to go behind in matches. As at Leicester, we were forced to
chase the game against superior opponents...and it made us look completely bloody dreadful.
We shouldn't under-estimate those opponents, though. For the drama queens who'll claim that it gets no
worse than this, it's not so very long since we contrived to lose three-nil at home to Warnock's bunch of
seal-clubbers. While it'll be interesting to see if they can maintain this kind of form over the course
of the season - and even more interesting to see what happens if they fail to do so - Portsmouth looked
highly impressive here, fluent and potent. And they've got Paul Merson, which is cheating.
You can take it as a sign of how far we've fallen. Or you can take it as an example of what we're up
against. Whichever, there's no other solution but more hard work, more preparation, more of that Lewington
stuff. And, if we want a bit of encouragement, we can be relatively pleased with the first forty minutes
or so, in which we kept Portsmouth out, albeit with the aid of some good fortune. While nil-nil at half-time
would've flattered us somewhat, it wouldn't have been a total fluke. As at Leicester, there were moments
when you began to wonder if we might nick something.
And, although we'll concentrate on the brilliance of Paul Merson, it's worth remembering that he played no
significant part in any of the goals, beyond sending the penalty past Alec Chamberlain. Which isn't to say
that we coped with his threat, for he penetrated our defences with some sublime passing in the first half and
then absolutely ripped us to shreds after the break...but just to suggest that we were responsible for our
own downfall to an extent and, therefore, that there's no need to accept our fate quite yet. Yes, we were
thrashed here. No, it's not the end.
For a time, we were merely clinging on. After three minutes, one of those wonderfully perceptive passes
from Merson, curled into an apparently empty space to wait for the run of a colleague, found Taylor advancing
into the penalty area...and Alec Chamberlain, despite a moment's hesitation, just did enough to block the
ball as Taylor prodded it goalwards from eight yards. Taylor nutmegged Neal Ardley on the left and
his cross was just too high for Crowe at the far post, and Portsmouth were utterly dominant in the early stages.
But, as before, we worked hard. For example, Sean Dyche was caught in possession in an extremely dangerous
position after twelve minutes, yet sheer weight of numbers managed to keep the ball out of the penalty area in
the resulting Portsmouth attack. Similarly, when Taylor out-paced Jamie Hand on the break and crossed to the
unmarked Merson and he lobbed the ball over the advancing Alec Chamberlain, the first goal was a
certainty...until Paul Robinson hurtled across to head away from the line. We did many things wrong,
obviously. We did a few things right too.
Indeed, we even built up some pressure for a spell. The only spell, as it turned out. Jamie Hand drove
over the bar from twenty yards, and Micah Hyde had a shot blocked from one of Allan Nielsen's long throws. As is
becoming customary, our best chance appeared to be from a set piece...and we had a few, including a couple of
free kicks that Marcus Gayle curled over the wall and away from the target. And, although Jamie Hand was
fortunate to find the referee in lenient mood when he hacked and handled in short succession without receiving
a caution, we were competing willingly, and Portsmouth were beginning to fall away just a little.
It didn't last. Really, they should've gone ahead after twenty-eight minutes. Again, Merson was the architect,
deftly sliding a through-ball into the path of Burton, who shuffled his shot around Alec Chamberlain and around
the post. Various heads held in various hands. Todorov clouted a volley into the away end, and half-time began
to approach with promise of respite. It would've been an achievement of sorts, even if I very much doubt that
the final result would've been much different.
We didn't make it. No doubt whatsoever about the penalty, as Crowe's darting run into the box from the
right failed to evade Marcus Gayle's challenge. No real protests, from players or supporters. And
no doubt about Merson's finish either, precisely swinging the ball inside the post to Alec Chamberlain's
left and sauntering off in celebration. And, despite one of those Gayle free kicks shortly afterwards, no
doubt about the sudden inevitability of the result....
Particularly when Marcus Gayle made his first howler of his defensive career, climbing to meet a cross
that would've gone out quite harmlessly without his intervention and then heading weakly straight to
Todorov on the edge of the box. With Chamberlain unsighted, the shot had hit the back of the net before Gayle had even begun to curse his error. And he just stood there, hands
on hips, for an age, while the rest of the team stumbled back towards the halfway line. Although a
consoling word from a colleague would've been welcome, the Marcus Gayle of last season would've been roundly
abused for such a crass mistake...and the Marcus Gayle of last season would've been hopeless for the remainder
of the match. Pleasingly, neither happened.
In fact, that was the only pleasing thing about the second half, apart from an objective appreciation of Paul
Merson's artistry. We collapsed, and we might easily have been beaten by several more. Add an idiotic
dismissal, and you've got a recipe for a thoroughly miserable afternoon.
Within two minutes, Jamie Hand had been caught fannying about in his own half and Neil Cox had failed to
win a vital tackle. And Todorov had slid a pass through to Burton, and he'd drilled an angled shot into the
bottom corner. And we were faced with a very long second half. Almost immediately, Merson bounced enthusiastically
forward without meeting a challenge and swept in a tremendous low, curling shot, bringing an equally tremendous
save from Alec Chamberlain. We were falling apart, losing concentration and leaving ridiculous gaps all
over the pitch.
We failed to mount an effective attack during the remaining, painful minutes. In contrast, Portsmouth appeared
able to do whatever they liked in the final third. Taylor ran from within his own half to our penalty
area without encountering opposition, and thumped a shot across the face of goal and just wide. We lost possession
cheaply, and Merson's attempt to chip Alec Chamberlain from twenty-five yards was only foiled by another
fine save. Twenty-two minutes, and Merson was allowed to run from deep again, his arcing shot smacking
against the crossbar. By this time, much of the away support was applauding him too. There was nothing else
for us to applaud, really.
The entertainment value faded along with everything else, though. For the remainder, Portsmouth showed little
interest in pursuing further goals, and our attempts at getting back into the game were entirely laughable. We failed
to create anything even vaguely resembling a chance, and it took forty-two minutes for Micah Hyde to send a
harmless half-volley bouncing through to Hislop, to ironic cheers from the away end. Abysmal. We have to
perservere; of course, we have to perservere. But we can do better than this, surely?
And to cap it all, a moment of absolute arsewittery from Allan Nielsen. Honestly, I didn't think that he had a
case in the first place, tumbling as if obstructed as he advanced on the edge of the box. The referee was far
from convincing...but he got that one right, I think. To continue his protests to the point of being booked
for dissent was daft, if reasonably easy to understand. But to earn what appeared to be a straight red card by
carrying on screaming abuse as his name was being taken was just stupid, indisciplined, unprofessional. As usual,
the departing player was roundly applauded by his team's supporters; this time, he really didn't deserve it. The
only benefit is that the resulting fine ought to save the club some money.
The crucial point lies somewhere in there, I think. And it lies in the well-spoken charmer two rows back, who spent most of the
game loudly referring to Tommy Smith as "a c***" and then left with half an hour to go. Because frustration
is understandable...but, unless it provides motivation to improve matters, it's no use whatsoever. We can have
players sent off for venting their inner anger, we can have supporters abusing anyone within hearing distance,
we can give up and go home.
But we'll still have to play Coventry tomorrow.
Get on with it.