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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 08/02/03, 3pm
Rotherham United
By Ian Grant

I should've worked it out by now. I clearly haven't worked it out at all.

There have been a few more daydreams than usual this week. Since that magnificent victory over West Brom and that vital win at Coventry, it's been easy to let the imagination wander a little. You can piece together a run of results to leave us in the playoff places, then toy with the possibilities from there onwards. You can plan a famous cup success at the Stadium of Light, then a kind draw in the quarter final...and then, well, who knows? And, implicitly, you can use all of the above to conjure up emotive, powerful images from yesteryear, both recent and beyond.

Of course, that's worth celebrating in itself, considering the level of expectation back in August. This should've been a season of worthy, workmanlike struggle...but it still holds opportunities - plural! - for this supposedly transitional team to write itself into the club's history. That's valuable enough on its own.

But football doesn't reward daydreamers. The First Division even less so. There's always a Rotherham lurking around the corner, a team that'll take enormous pleasure in ramming a spanner into the works. It happens so many times, yet I still fall for it. We still fall for it. It'd be easy to say that this wasn't in the script, but the truth is that the script just hasn't been finished yet. The happy ending is only in the planning stage.

So, this was a tiring, rather irritating afternoon. It was hard work, for players and spectators alike. In Rotherham, we came across opponents whose ceaseless pressing and harrying from front to back quickly reduced our passing football to ragged scraps, leaving us fighting to retain just enough control to mount recognisable attacks. It didn't suit us at all.

Worse, Rotherham, like animals that've evolved to eke out a precarious, day-to-day existence on a sheer cliff-face, have refined the ability to play half-decent football at this insane, breakneck pace. Ray Lewington's post-match suggestion that they "con" you into playing in a hit-and-hope style is absolutely spot on, for the general disintegration of the game into a ghastly mess has much more to do with the collapse of the supposedly "better" side than anything else. While the opposition struggle to come to terms with the hostile conditions, Rotherham's game is much more "cross-and-score" than "hit-and-hope". It's something that Vicarage Road ought to be quite familiar with, really.

Nonetheless, we would've been encouraged by our ability to wrestle a winning goal from the general melée. It would've said little for our quality, yet a great deal for our resourcefulness. We could've paid gracious tribute to our visitors, who'd made it so damned difficult and, in the process, had underlined their status as an unexpected force in this division. It would've been all right, just about. The problem, and the acute frustration, was that having finally made it to where we needed to be, we managed to get lost on the way home....

The first hour was pretty misleading, then. Throughout, it appeared as if the first goal would be decisive...which later turned out to be completely wrong. Ho hum. While we began with obvious confidence, shunting the ball around quickly and beginning the process of whipping crosses into the six yard box from either flank, this was merely a sunny break in otherwise relentless cloud cover. Before long, Rotherham's sheer determination meant that we were beginning to lose out in the midfield battles. We were starting to realise that a moment's hesitation would result in a red shirt darting in front and stealing the ball, that the slightest lack of commitment in a tackle would lose the ball...and that this wasn't the ideal game for Marcus Gayle to be missing....

In these early stages, both sides had half-chances. For the visitors, Lee stretched to head over at the far post from a Sedgwick cross, then Sedgwick himself turned smartly to curl a gentle shot into Alec Chamberlain's chest from twenty yards. For Watford, no luck as Heidar Helguson diverted Paul Robinson's cross just behind the on-rushing Micah Hyde. But there was one clear-cut opening too, and it came at the Rookery end - another Sedgwick cross, swung in from the left corner of the penalty area, and Garner arriving unmarked to glance his header wide from barely six yards. He should've scored, would've scored with any firm contact...and there was the reminder that Rotherham are more than merely combative. They're useful, this lot.

The rest was a dour, frantic bore. As against Ipswich, we furrowed our brows at the sheer difficulty of moving the ball from one end of the pitch to the other without misplacing a pass, inviting an interception, losing out in a fifty-fifty tussle, or any number of variations on the theme. And we came up with an answer, which was to send it forward fifty or sixty yards at a time. In doing so, we sacrificed most of the things that've made us successful, particularly effective width...and even the decision to switch Jermaine Pennant to the left and Allan Nielsen to the right was rather lost in the overall shapelessness. This is the con to which Ray Lewington refers, for Rotherham attempt to lure their opponents into a murky, treacherous bog, knowing that they're rather more familiar with the route back to solid ground....

They tempted us into the festering mire once, and we spend most of the first half attempting to extricate ourselves. True, they weren't able to take advantage of the situation, finding goal-scoring opportunities just as difficult to come by...but we were using up valuable energy on struggling to pull free. It took ages, until the thirty-seventh minute when a sudden, surprising lurch sent us tumbling forward with rare freedom, and Sean Dyche's near post header from a Neal Ardley corner just cleared the crossbar. Three minutes later, Jermaine Pennant's chipped cross was headed down by a defender, and Allan Nielsen's attempted overhead bounced tamely back to Pollitt.

And that, folks, was the first half. Let the bidding for the movie rights begin....

We could be satisfied with our start to the second period, however. We seemed to relax somewhat during the interval, loosen up a little...and it suited us, for the fluency of movement began to pull the Rotherham defence around rather more than before. The results were immediate too. After three minutes, Jermaine Pennant wiggled his way to the corner of the penalty area, then set up Micah Hyde for a first-time drive from twenty-five yards. It was beautifully struck, whooshing towards the bottom corner just a yard above the turf...and only an extremely fine save from Pollitt, suddenly ducking down to his right to flick the ball around the post, denied us the opening goal.

We had to wait a little longer. But it was better, for Rotherham were starting to be tempted forward in greater numbers and spaces were opening up invitingly. And, inevitably, the goal came from one of those spaces. Rather less inevitably, it came directly from one of those spaces - Heidar Helguson hooked the ball across to release Tommy Smith on the left, then burst into the box. When Smith thumped the low cross in on the half-volley, Helguson seemed certain to score at the near post...except that he failed to make any contact, deceiving the keeper entirely and allowing the ball to find its way into the far corner. Fortunate, certainly...but the least that Tommy Smith deserved for an especially energetic, creative performance.

That should've been decisive. And it might've been, had Jermaine Pennant escaped Bryan's brutal lunge to run clear onto Micah Hyde's through-ball. Or had the referee taken a more severe view of the foul. It was, perhaps, a goal-scoring opportunity once removed - Pennant was attempting to turn away from the tackle to break away, rather than already being on his way towards goal - and so the booking was probably sufficient punishment. Nevertheless, it was a pivotal moment.

Within two minutes of that incident and a minute of a double substitution from Rotherham, the visitors had levelled. Typically, a header from a set piece - Woodhouse's corner from the left, the impressive McIntosh stooping to steer the ball past Alec Chamberlain at the near post. And suddenly the game was racing away from us at a quite frightening pace....

If you want to sum up the remaining fifteen minutes, you only have to look at the bookings. Neil Cox, for an untidy, slightly desperate tangle with the escaping Lee on the right wing - it might've been worse than a booking, had the incident not taken place in a wide position. That emphasised one of the key points - that the Rotherham forwards, and Lee in particular, are more than mere lumbering giants. They're pretty snappy on the deck too, and the physical punishment dished out to Lee ought to be taken as a compliment - we've rarely looked this desperate, this stretched.

Two more bookings, and it should've been three. Paul Robinson went into the notebook for an entirely idiotic assault on Lee after he'd crossed from the right. Nothing to gain - the referee would've played advantage if anything had resulted from the attack, but awarded the free kick as soon as the ball was cleared. Then Robinson followed with another hack at Lee to halt a Rotherham break, and was extremely fortunate to receive a lecture rather than a second booking. And Heidar Helguson joined in too, scything down someone other than Lee (for a change) as Rotherham began another attack. This wasn't tactical, premeditated fouling. This was total bloody panic.

We'd lost our concentration when Tommy Smith scored. Rotherham refused to give it back. Amid the increasing bad temper and the referee's rapid loss of control, substitute Warne got the better of Neil Cox and clipped a shot wide of the near post. The pressure on the defence built, and we couldn't find a way to relieve it - the open spaces in the Rotherham half looked inviting, yet beyond us. Then Sedgwick, another to impress, swung a cross in from the right wing, Swailes towered above everyone in the six yard box, the ball smacked against the underside of the bar and over the line. And we were back in that treacherous bog again....

And there we stayed, struggling forlornly. Another break, and Warne dived in to meet Lee's cross and glance the ball to Alec Chamberlain. Another free kick, and Lee guided a header wide from the crowd around the penalty spot. Gifton Noel-Williams and Anthony McNamee arrived, barely managing half a dozen touches between them. The referee - absurdly, bearing in mind the number of bookings, lectures, injuries and substitutions - signalled three minutes of injury time, during which we continued to battle against the inevitable. And we did battle. But Rotherham battled harder. And smarter.

It's not a disaster. It doesn't need to be, anyway. In many ways, Rotherham might've been sent by a higher power, such was the pertinence of the warning against complacency. We know how we've got into this position, with the playoffs in sight and the FA Cup Fifth Round less than a week away. And we also know how Rotherham have unexpectedly forced their way into the top half of the table. We know all of this...and we know that as soon as we fail to put it into practice, it'll cost us.

Next week, there won't be so many daydreams....