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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 22/03/03, 3.00pm
Stoke City
Spring clean
By Ian Grant

Oh, good grief. Must we?

It's two o'clock on Sunday afternoon. A beautiful, perfect Sunday afternoon. Outside, the sun is sizzling away merrily, offset by a gentle sea breeze. The daffodils in the flower bed at the front of my flat are swaying happily, as if inviting me out to share a bit of spring with them. It's a day for flinging doors and windows open, then for closing them all again and strolling down to the beach. It's a day for letting all the murk of winter be blown away, a spring clean without any of the effort. It's a day when it's very, very hard to be fed up with anything.

Unless, that is, you're stuck in front of a computer monitor with a match report to write. About a home defeat. Against bloody Stoke. For heaven's sake.

It could be worse, I suppose. Apart from the obvious, I could be a football manager. And I could be our football manager. Not a thankless task, for he's received plenty of justified gratitude since August, but a fairly unenviable one at this particular moment in time. I dare say that his Sunday afternoon isn't as pleasant as, weather considering, it ought to be either. I mean, what would you do?

It's difficult. Very, very difficult. Bearing in mind that I entirely agree with the management's view that, apart from the Preston game, the Semi-Final has nothing at all to do with our recent League results, there are limited options. We need to score more goals. Easily said, much less easily done. We also need to get a few more points, just to be sure. Easily said, much less easily done without scoring goals. And so on, and so on. If this season has been about bridging the gap between the team and its supporters, then the natural consequence is that the pain is shared and felt more widely and acutely.

In many ways, it would be pleasant to be able to berate the players for lack of effort, commitment, determination, concentration, focus, and everything else. That'd be easy, a simple solution. But the problems are more fundamental, albeit that they're problems that we've overcome until now. To an extent, this was a more encouraging ninety minutes than Gillingham - for one thing, the result wasn't just down to our own failings; for another, there was a definite, strong (and, yes, faltering) reaction to the possibility of defeat. However, the result makes that largely irrelevant...and, with a series of away games to come, the revival must now be sudden and decisive rather than patient and hopeful. It has to happen. And we have to make it happen.

The difference between this and several previous home victories was simple. Then, we had moments of good fortune and seized them enthusiastically. When the luck went against us, we resisted its effects. Now, we're being battered and buffeted by fate, and we seem powerless to intervene. Here, we were beaten by a daft penalty and a stunning solo effort...and, in that sense, the defeat was largely beyond our control. But we simply can't allow ourselves to think like that. We have to be stronger. The concern, of course, is that it's hard to be stronger when the outlet for a passionate, pig-headed revival - scoring goals - is so elusive.

Really, the first half was as poor as any we've seen this season, Preston and Burnley included. For half an hour, it was almost completely barren. Stoke occasionally pottered (look, I have to amuse myself somehow...) out of their half for a spell of half-hearted attacking, without daring to commit enough bodies forward to compromise their very obvious we'll-take-a-point strategy. And, predictably, we were flustered and bewildered by the number of striped shirts obstructing our path to goal, reduced to sideways passing and occasional clouting. It was neither pretty nor effective and, apart from when Neal Ardley's punt released Gifton Noel-Williams on the left and Crossley pulled off a smart parry at his near post to a well-struck shot, it lacked any goal attempts at all.

For a long, long while, it looked as if the opening forty-five minutes would set a new record for minimal note-taking. The incident just described took up three lines, and that was it. Until the thirty-second minute, when Wilson's corner from the left gained a slight flick at the near post and hit Micah Hyde immediately behind. Or, more particularly, hit Micah Hyde's arm. He knew it, the Stoke players knew it, everyone watching knew it...and, unfortunately, the referee knew it too. It was a harsh decision, for Hyde was barely a yard away when the ball was flicked on and would've struggled to handle deliberately even if he'd wanted to. Harsh, but fair. There were few complaints.

When Hoekstra stepped up and smacked the penalty into the bottom corner, beating Alec Chamberlain despite the keeper's dive in the right direction, we were faced with yet another deficit. Yet another desperate, forlorn attempt to recover. It's getting repetitive, and still we haven't found an answer. Within a couple of minutes, Lee Cook's chipped cross had nearly brought an equaliser, as a defender rose above Micah Hyde to head towards his own goal and rely on a colleague to hook clear. But it was going to be a frustrating afternoon.

That frustration increased almost immediately. After thirty-seven minutes, Micah Hyde stepped inside a challenge and made for goal. From twenty-five yards, he curled a superb shot that had Crossley beaten from the moment that it left his boot. It sped past the keeper, struck the foot of the post, and defied physics by spinning back out when it should surely have crossed the line. As the big screen replayed our misfortune, fists were clenched and heads held in desperation. Immediately, Neal Ardley sent a tame header at Crossley from twelve yards. The rest, including three minutes of injury time as a result of a knock to Marcus Gayle that would cause his replacement at the interval, was just huff and puff. A familiar story, and not one that gets any more bearable.

Lucky half-time cheque presentation: 5,780.61 to the Supporters Trust.
Reason: Sales of "You Are My Watford".
Level of success: Well, we didn't fall over or anything. Which is better than several of the players, hur-hur....

In many respects, the second half was an improvement. In an objective sense, in that Hoekstra opened proceedings with a quite stunning goal - picking up a loose ball with his back to goal, he hit a speculative half-volley with his left foot as he turned and, from thirty yards, it simply soared into the top corner - that brought wild celebrations in the Vic Road end and spontaneous applause elsewhere. The best that we'll see this season, I'll wager. And in a subjective sense too, for our attempt at recovery was slightly more convincing, perhaps as a result of having nothing at all to lose. Only slightly, mind.

Stoke seemed to grow taller as the game continued, and I'm not being metaphorical. Nevertheless, when we did manage to find some effective width - and it came more from the full-backs, Stephen Glass and Neal Ardley, than those further forward - we looked much more threatening. It just didn't happen often enough. Not nearly enough...which, again, has more to do with the limitations of the squad than anything else.

After eight minutes, Neal Ardley's free kick was headed across by Neil Cox and Heidar Helguson, again betraying his lack of confidence, turned down the opportunity to throw himself at the ball when it arrived at the far post. Instead, he chested it down, attempted to turn and his shot was blocked. Not good. Not his fault, for nobody has earned more credit this season than our brave Icelander, but not good. And we were being caught at the other end too, Hoekstra whipping in a cross for Williams to glance a header through the six yard box and narrowly wide. Stephen Glass sent a drive bouncing through to Crossley, Helguson stretched to head over from an Ardley centre.

It wasn't great. But it was something, and it deserved some reward. Finally, mercifully, we got a break. Seventeen minutes, a terrific, driven cross from Stephen Glass was met by the newly-arrived Tommy Smith at the near post and, perhaps unnecessarily, Crossley acrobatically tipped the header over. From the corner, Neil Cox's close-range finish was ruled out (and rightly so) for holding on the keeper. But we were encouraged, starting to lose that air of gloom and despondency. And then another fabulous cross from Stephen Glass was met by a charging Heidar Helguson at the far post, the header skidding past Crossley before he could move. And it was a goal, and it was marvellous, and it was gone far too quickly. And we wanted another.

But we couldn't find it. For all our endeavour, we found that Stoke had grown again, sorted themselves out, shut the door firmly. In the time remaining - including six minutes of injury time as a result of some extravagant time-wasting by the visitors - we managed just two more goal attempts. Both from corners, both difficult headers for Heidar Helguson and then Neil Cox, both over the target. It wasn't going to happen. As in previous games, it was pretty clear that it wasn't going to happen, long before the referee put a seal on it.

Despite the efforts of Wayne Brown - finally looking something like his old self as part of a back four - the lack of defensive cover meant that Stoke seemed more likely to seal the victory with a third goal. They - and substitute Goodfellow - came close twice on the break. First, a drive from the left of the area that skipped across the face of goal after thirty-five minutes, beating the keeper by a fair bit and the far post by rather less. And, at some point during the eternity of added time, another break that took Goodfellow clear of the sparse defence, across the penalty area, and into the path of Alec Chamberlain, who produced a strong, decisive save to block the finish.

On Tuesday, you rather felt that we wouldn't have scored if we'd played until December. Yesterday, it was a bit different. We chased the game with some conviction and we would certainly have found the net in the end. The problem, and it's the nature of the beast, was that Stoke would probably have maintained their lead regardless. Scoring goals is such a struggle, and we simply can't afford to go behind.

It's twenty to four. It's still Sunday afternoon. But the sun's now descended behind the houses on the other side of the street, and the breeze is a little chilly. The best part of the day has gone, and I'll have to look at tomorrow through the office window.

You can draw your own conclusions, I think.