By Matt Rowson
I spent much of yesterday in A&E in Watford General. Being prodded, poked, measured, stabbed, bled, X-rayed... and derided by hospital staff for contemplating travelling all the way up to Yorkshire on a Tuesday night in March for a football game.
They had a point. Well, several points, quite sharp points, but more of that later. Only when arriving at Valley Parade and assuming familiar position at the front of the peculiar upper tier of the away end, scene of so much misery for Watford fans over recent years, did the futility of the exercise hit me. As a friend observed as we kicked off, "If we were offered a point now it'd be... 'right, start the car...!'".
At least repeated exposure to the specific microclimate of Bradford's away end had provided us with enough foresight to don plenty of layers of protection against a bitterly cold evening. An evening that felt all the colder from the kick-off as Jerel Ifil sliced a routine clearance sideways from Bradford's first incursion into the Watford half.
By that point, we'd already been presented with one conundrum... seeing Neil Cox warming up and his name being read out across the tannoy was something of a surprise given portents of his missing the game. More surprising still was Neal Ardley leading the team out wearing the armband. Confusion reigned, until Lloyd Doyley was spotted lining up in the back four. Cox, evidently, injured in the warm up. Or just not as ready as hoped.
At which point, it's probably worth making a point in mitigation in the defence of our defence (!). Four of the five kids, one making his debut, another with only a handful of starts, another his first start in five months. What followed was pretty ghastly, but in context has to be pardonable.
And to be honest - just as at Stoke - we looked bright and bubbly in the opening spell. Not in a way that directly threatened Bradford's goal, admittedly, but bright enough for the same friend to admit to "actually feeling a bit more optimistic" as we forced a couple of corners. Good movement and some particularly encouraging and aggressive incursions from Bruce Dyer, who put in a decent forty-five minutes all round. Not, you might not be surprised to read, that this was noted by or of any interest to one clown behind us who was sneering disdain and chanting Scott Fitzgerald's name in the first half in apparent indifference to what was happening in front of him.
It felt like more than nine minutes, I must confess. But it's not as if we were caught completely unawares... another horrific gaffe by Ifil had let in Windass, whose progress was eventually blocked by Dyche. Lewington had on several occasions warned of Ifil's propensity to make a bad mistake... this isn't really a problem in itself, it's hardly as if many of our defenders have been thoroughly dependable. More of an issue is if, as appears to be the case, his confidence is brittle enough to be shattered by being exposed, as has happened over the last few games. Alex Ferguson famously used to defend Andy Cole by asserting that he didn't give a stuff about missing... he'd be back in position, unflustered, to try again the next time. Jerel has looked like he's waiting for the ground to swallow him up for much of the last two fixtures.
So anyway, the goal. A free kick given away to the right of centre some twenty yards out. What looked like the most irrelevant wall in history... appallingly lined up such that the shot, low and hard, didn't even need to bend. Certainly it was well struck by Evans, but didn't look to be right in the corner and yet Pidgeley got nowhere near it. Dreadful stuff all round by the young keeper.
We fell apart, you may not be surprised to read, and never really looked like getting back into it. Atherton had another pop from the edge of the box, his first shot blocked by Dyche, his second from the rebound clouted high over the bar. The second goal came around ten minutes later... a low firm corner from Evans met on the near side of the area by Windass who finished clinically. Training ground stuff, our defence was asleep.
We continued to defend appallingly for the rest of the half, Ifil a disaster waiting to happen, Dyche lumbering aggression, Pidgeley refusing to venture off his line for anything. Bradford shouldn't get too carried away with this result... as we're realising a brief spurt of wins probably isn't enough, and City have more ground to make up. They really ought to have made more of this, but only really threatened to once... a left wing corner met by an unmarked Windass who headed hard and low forcing Pidgeley into a fine, athletic stop down to his left.
At the other end, we huffed and puffed but never put City under concerted pressure. The home side probably ought to take some credit for this... Simon Francis looked outstanding at right-back, it will be a complete pain in the arse if we have to try to get past him again on Saturday should his move to Bramall Lane go through. And Wetherall didn't allow us much space in the centre, getting his head to too many crosses and diving in for a fine block to thwart Dyer's fierce and instinctive snap-shot.
If there was a positive to take from the half, and indeed the evening, it was the debut of Paul Mayo. Not spectacular, and would have been unremarkable and inconspicuous in a better team performance, but he didn't let much get past him and refused to be flustered by the nervousness prevalent elsewhere in the defence. There were genuine causes for encouragement too... one through ball down the left wing to Helguson was divine, a rare clear note in the cacophony of white noise. Helguson got a shove in the back from Gavin, but still managed to lay off to Devlin who bundled through and fired narrowly over.
And the throw. Wow. You'll have read about it by now, I expect, but words struggle to justify it. This isn't Allan Nielsen, taking a large run up, grimacing and straining every sinew to get decent length. This is a small, wiry guy taking a couple of steps and then flinging the thing, hard and fairly low, further than I can kick it. Hurrah. Welcome to Watford, bloke.
The half ended with Helguson finally getting a clear header to an Ardley cross, but connecting disappointingly, heading down into the ground taking the pace off the thing, and straight into the grateful Vaesen's arms. Too late in the half, incidentally, was the comic potential in the size of the keeper's hooter noted. Limited comic potential, admittedly, but we were grasping at straws by now and got an involuntary grin out of the Belgian stopper before the sides disappeared at the break.
The second half was turgid. Bradford threatened little, but didn't really need to. We had possession, but as at Stoke never looked like scoring. The tediously familiar mentality which says that anything on the bench has to be better than what's on show started calls for Cook and Fitzgerald, irrespective of Cook's anonymous performance at Stoke and the lack of scraps for Fitz to feed off, or controlled Bradford possession for him to disrupt.
Cook came on just past the hour for Dyer... harshly, as Dyer had looked the man most likely to... and contributed little beyond getting himself stupidly booked for throwing himself repeatedly at hopeless high balls. Helguson continued to have an unusually insignificant evening, exhibiting a rare touch of the "toblerone head" problem and appearing strangely restrained... although one late frustrated lunge briefly threatened to make the evening even more costly. He was replaced by Fitzgerald who, to my memory, touched the ball once in twelve minutes.
Bradford's attacks were erratic... one rare foray was thwarted by a monster tackle in the box by Mahon, who plugged away and got around the pitch with a positiveness that was only really matched by the ever-willing and excitable Doyley. Bradford introduced Ben Muirhead for the injured Cadamarteri, he took the ball around Pidgeley before running out of space and we retrieved the ball in panic. Muirhead also provided the comedy highlight of the second half... having been trailed on a Bradford site as a "tricky winger who runs away from big blokes", it was entertaining to see a charge down the right halted by Dyche, who thundered out of the centre, shouted "Boo", and then turned and stomped back as Muirhead kicked the ball straight out for a goal kick in terror with a "please don't hurt me...".
We never looked like scoring, not really. Our final ball was lacking all evening... Micah in particular never got his passing right. In calm, composed reflection this wasn't perhaps the worst of Micah's extremely variable showings... he never disappeared, always wanted the ball. But then, almost without exception, always gave it away again.
We did come close once... a rare Cook run was halted illegally on the left hand side of the area, Ardley struck it right footed and as if to underline that we really shouldn't expect anything at Bradford ever, it hit the underside of the bar, almost right in the corner, and bounced out with Vaesen rooted to the spot. Fitzgerald put the rebound over.
And that was pretty much that. A word about the crowd... Robson comments on the Bradford site about the wonderful atmosphere and support. If this really was an improvement then one shudders at what Bradford must be used to... not since the Premiership season have we seen so many people make so little noise. Fortunately, as is often the case when a long away trip very rapidly descends into impossibility, the small number of groaners in the away end were drowned out by an increasingly cacophonous racket beneath the conducive low roof, maybe the best atmosphere of the season. Frankly if we're playing rubbish then this sort of tomfoolery has to be a lot more fun than moaning...
As for Watford, perhaps the most depressing facet of our current situation is that the manager appears to see the problems very clearly but is powerless to rectify them. Every one of his comments on the official site rings true...we don't have a leader, we defended abysmally, we're short on quality. But he knows that he's not in a position to change it (and nor would anyone else be).
As for the hospital, well, I'm okay. I think. The problems I'm having appear to be symptoms of a malady that just won't go away, but will in time. I have bruises on my right arm as a result of having a needle stuck in me and taped down for removal of some things and insertion of others, they too will clear. I have also knackered my left hand by repeatedly trying the beat the tune of the chanting on the metal advertising hoardings hanging in front of us. For the second time this season - at least I could blame my stupidity on alcohol the first time. But this too will heal.
As for the pain induced by performances like this, well, I can put up with it if better is to come and we're to escape relegation. But we will probably need to play better than this, or else we're dependent on the rubbishness of everyone else. Which is not a bet at prohibitive odds, but I'd like to be a bit surer than that.