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03/04: Reports:

Carling Cup First Round, 12/08/03, 8pm
AFC Bournemouth
By Ian Grant

There isn't an introduction, by the way. I've tried, and it just won't work. Not at this time in the morning, probably not at any time. Some things can be introduced, ushered onto the stage with a few carefully-chosen words to invite the audience's welcome and with a polite bow to acknowledge the applause. And some things can't.

For all that last night represented some kind of small, significant re-start, it was still a haunting evening. Sure, football did assert itself here, and we were slowly drawn back into attempting to follow the ebb-and-flow of a match, the noise, the laughter, the arguments, the idle chit-chat...and, this being the League Cup First Round, the endless wait for the game to bloody finish. For the players too, much hurtling around, much desire and intent, much celebration when the breakthrough came and when the game did finally bloody finish. But you didn't have to look too far beneath the surface.

You only had to look at Danny Webber, really. Wearing a white vest underneath his yellow shirt, a large number eleven drawn on it in black felt-tip, he tried hard enough for two. And, despite lack of match fitness, he tried hard enough for two for ninety minutes and then another thirty, well beyond the point where sheer force of will was all that was fuelling his efforts. He was there...and yet, somehow, he wasn't there at the same time. And he wasn't alone, not by any means.

There are numerous images that are similarly poignant. Often, spontaneous actions say much more than those that have been rehearsed, and the absolute silence that descended upon Vicarage Road as Richard Short read the touching, affectionate, funny story behind the players' choice of Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" to honour Jimmy Davis and to herald their arrival on the pitch was something that I'll never forget. Football grounds don't become silent of their own accord. Not ever, in my experience. Nine and a half thousand people shut up and listened, and the lengthy applause that broke out only seemed to cover, rather than break, that respectful silence. Silence as a complete stillness of sound rather than an absence of sound, I guess.

Even with Coolio booming out, the silence in the stands remained unbroken. People stood, listened, thought. Again, the ovation as the team emerged from the tunnel did nothing to disturb the silence, nothing to interfere with anyone's moments of reflection. And so the official minute's silence was merely a culmination, a confirmation...and a deeply moving one, as both sets of players linked arms around the centre circle, both sets of staff and substitutes did the same on the touchline, and church bells rang somewhere in the distance. Only when the referee blew his whistle for the second time was that silence finally swept aside by the traditional pre-match roar. But a clearly emotional huddle of players, coaches and substitutes, with Ray Lewington gesticulating in the middle, illustrated the obvious fact that nothing will be mended so easily.

And then the season kicked off, at last. Except that the silence continued for another minute or so, which was long enough for Richard Johnson to escape with a quite blatant foul on Browning inside the penalty area, an infringement that was greeted by only the most muted appeals and ignored entirely by the referee. A curious beginning, especially given that Bournemouth players and fans absolutely howled for a penalty for a much less clear-cut offence by Gavin Mahon later in the half....

As a football match, it meandered somewhat, as if unsure of which script it should follow. At times, we appeared to be trying too hard, forcing issues that probably would've resolved themselves anyway. At other times, we seemed understandably distracted. At still other times, we settled into the familiar, pedestrian rhythm that always - last year's aberration aside - characterises this round of this competition. It wasn't terrible, it wasn't great...and while you generally felt that we were marginally the better side, you also felt that the noisy scattering of Bournemouth fans in the Vic Road end would probably argue the same thing from their perspective.

Both teams showed themselves capable of playing some crisp, precise passing football when the opportunity arose. Both also showed themselves capable of doing the exact opposite on more than a few occasions. And neither looked especially likely to break the deadlock, creating only a handful of half-chances and turning precisely none into situations that required the intervention of a goalkeeper. For the home side, nobody came closer than Danny Webber, whose goal-bound shot from the edge of the box after a typically slippery run was deflected wide by a defender's chest. Mind you, Heidar Helguson ought to have done better than to glance a header across and wide when presented with a bit of space at the near post as Neal Ardley ended a fine move down the right flank with an equally fine cross.

Such moments were few, though. For the most part, the approach play approached and then came over all shy at the vital moment, and our regular attempts at hitting the ball into the space behind the Bournemouth defence to allow the strikers to stretch their legs fell foul of a fresh, skidding pitch. Our opponents fared no better, their efforts rather summed up by a corner routine late in the half that offered Purches an opportunity for a shot from distance. He struck it cleanly with the outside of his right boot and, in his mind, it swerved viciously and ripped into the top corner while Alec Chamberlain flailed desperately. In reality, however, it damn nearly went wide of the Rookery.

Thankfully, the second half proved to be altogether more eventful. Often messy and incoherent, but the sheer desire of Danny Webber and the insatiable insanity of Heidar Helguson became increasingly infectious, dragging the rest of the team towards the Bournemouth goal until the yellow shirts were refusing to allow the ball to leave the final third. Indeed, there were too many strikers at times - Webber and Helguson contrived to prevent each other from meeting a Bruce Dyer cross in the first minute, and a Gavin Mahon header was blocked by Micah Hyde's backside later on. Still, it's impossible to fault such heart-and-soul football, in these or any other circumstances.

True, Bournemouth did come close once, before they were swamped. After a couple of minutes, a corner from the left found Carl Fletcher at the far post, climbing above his marker to send in a downward header that bounced against the upright with Alec Chamberlain scrambling. The rebound returned the ball to the same player, but he could only hack awkwardly wide. In truth, for all that I've grabbed on to any available positives and for all that we deserved our eventual victory, Bournemouth might have good reason to feel disappointed that they didn't pinch the match from us when we weren't looking....

That said, the remainder of the ninety minutes was almost totally dominated by the Hornets. That we struggled to convert vast amounts of possession and frequent penalty area scrambles into clear-cut openings is slightly worrying, perhaps...but it's also encouraging that we were able to whip up a bit of a storm, for we all need some of that right now. Besides, Bournemouth deserve considerable credit for defending so stoutly, for denying what lesser sides might've collapsed under.

Although Moss did well to thrust out an arm and punch away a well-struck Neal Ardley free kick, the most frantic pressure came after the double substitution. It was a bold, attacking move, and it instantly gave us more mobility...especially in freeing Heidar Helguson from the shackles of (by design or otherwise) a left midfield role and adding the pure wing-play of Lee Cook, as well as replacing an out-of-sorts Richard Johnson with a full-of-sorts Jamie Hand. Suddenly, the ball was finding its way to the flanks and then on into the box more quickly and more regularly, and we were unfortunate that none of this yielded the all-important goal in normal time. Still, it was thoroughly stirring to watch and to encourage, even if it yielded no more than a relatively tame Micah Hyde shot from twenty yards and a stretching header over the bar from Heidar Helguson, well-positioned in the six yard box to meet one of those Cook crosses.

By injury time, we'd begun to fade...understandably, given the heat, the lack of previous competitive action, and the full-blooded exertions of the last half-hour. We'd won it on points, if not goals. And, although there'll be some very tired legs today, the winner-takes-all nature of the League Cup was probably what we needed, psychologically if not physically. A nil-nil draw would've been a perfectly tolerable result, but not quite the thing for this particular Tuesday night. In several players, you could still see the gnawing, nervous hunger for a victory, even through the utter exhaustion.

For the first fifteen minutes of extra time, the exhaustion won. And Bournemouth would've won too, had the mountainous Steve Fletcher been able to guide one of three headers away from Alec Chamberlain. The first of these three, when he arrived ahead of his markers at the far post to meet a right-wing cross, was the one that really got away, and even then Chamberlain needed to react quickly to grab the ball as it arrived at his feet. In the middle of these, O'Connor's inventive (or, given that he fell over as he made contact, possibly unintentional) strike at a free kick, whipping the ball low around the wall towards the near post from the corner of the penalty area, brought an excellent, sprawling save from the Watford keeper. His only significant involvement of the night, perhaps, but mighty significant nonetheless.

We'd lost our focus, though. Mind you, Bournemouth might've lost more than that, had the referee taken a sterner view - or any view at all - of Browning's elbow into the throat of Heidar Helguson as the two squabbled at a throw-in. I can only assume that the official didn't see it...which is no excuse whatsoever, given that he'd just spoken to both of them and ought to have been keeping a stern eye on what happened next. True, Browning neither aimed nor swung, instead levering his arm into his opponent's neck...but he was still extremely lucky to escape without any punishment. Not that we should complain too much, for the sense of injustice sent the Icelander into one of those thrilling frenzies, in which the body is merely something to be hurled at the ball and anything in its way. Limping heavily and utterly spent, he was substituted at the break. Which brings us to...

Scott Fitzgerald. And, ultimately, what we'd been missing until now. For the goal was beautifully conceived - Danny Webber twisting and spinning on the edge of the box, before eventually losing possession; Micah Hyde chipping the loose ball out to the left wing; Lee Cook with a first-time volleyed cross that skidded through the six yard box; Bruce Dyer falling under challenge as he stretched. But we'd done other beautifully conceived things earlier too. This time, somebody - somebody who hadn't yet touched the ball - anticipated what would happen, made the right run at the right time, and slid in at the far post to score neatly from a tight angle. That somebody was Scott Fitzgerald...and not, you suspect, for the last time....

An immense relief. Nearly a temporary immense relief, as Elliott's diversion of a left-wing cross in the last minute sent hearts towards mouths as it looped towards the top corner and only narrowly over the bar. That really wouldn't have been good. As it was, though, fortune favoured the brave, and we were pretty damn brave last night.

Naturally, the result changes nothing. Football is hugely important to lots and lots of people, including Jimmy Davis...but its miracles are only metaphorical. The mere fact that we managed to get through this, let alone win it, is clearly a positive sign. But it's only a sign, and it's not all that matters.

Hold onto that patience and understanding, that shared emotion. It'll be needed yet.