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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 18/10/03, 3.00pm
Bradford City
Remembering to breathe
By Matt Rowson

It's a strange thing. Neither of us had had tennis lessons before...we've spent much of the summer hitting balls at each other in various parks across Watford, but no lessons (I say hit the ball at each other, incidentally, in a very approximate way. Remember Michel Ngonge's precision with headers...?).

Our first lesson this weekend, then, an eagerly awaited event by at least half of our household. And now I'm being advised how to stroke the forehand and how to position myself for the backhand and sensible as the advice sounds - is - I'm suddenly no longer certain that I could get the racket to the gentlest of serves, let alone place the return on the court.

It all comes from thinking about it too much, I suppose. Blissful in my ignorance of how I should be standing and where I should be making contact, I would trundle happily and haphazardly through a rally. Now, concentration is so intense that it's a wonder that I remember to breathe.

The analogy to some of Watford's recent performances will be painfully obvious to anyone who's attended any of them. This side is not going to rival the Brazilian World Cup side of 1970 any time soon, but we're not as desperate as our league position and results have suggested either. And there's been no shortage of effort, it's just been, well, maybe thinking about it all a little too much, everything a little bit too deliberate, too considered. Until we finally chanced upon another side having an off day, got riled and pumped by a refereeing decision and the corner it forced us into, stopped worrying and just got arsey.

And then it's a ten day build-up to three home games in a week, an inviting opportunity to rack up some points... before the train gets derailed by the Paul Robinson episode which wasn't quite settled at the time of writing, possibly delayed by frantic rabbit's-foot stroking, lucky chocolate-eating and various acts of prayer across Hertfordshire. Probably to no avail though. Bugger.

If there's a straw to be clutched at in the light of this recent deflating development, it's that there are a number of clubs around already well into emergency just-get-a-team-out mode... Bradford City not least, with around half the squad shifted in-and-out over the summer.

Which isn't to say that this makes everything all right. Indeed, some of the Bradford messageboards make grim reading... Nicky Law increasingly untrusted after aimless performances and idealess post-match commments, slightly desperate pleas for the iconic Stuart McCall to return and claim the reins, poor home form in front of the boo-boys, optimistic pleas to allow City's crop of kids to come through and turn things around, chronic injuries, one point from five games before Tuesday... so no, this is not great company to be in. But at least we're not negotiating shit creek on our own.

With Aidan Davison and Gary Walsh (finally) leaving City in the summer, there are three new keepers competing for the position between the posts. Alan Combe has the number one shirt, the Scot arriving from Dundee United after a successful loan spell last season, but he's out for a while with a lung problem. When he gets back he'll have to displace New Zealand international Mike Paston, who missed Saturday's defeat to Ipswich having played in Iran for his national side. Marlon Beresford, on a short-term contract, stood in - he played the incidental role in Stephen Glass's FA Cup strike last season.

At the back, injuries have really screwed things up for City with Laws reluctantly looking at bringing in a loan signing. Former Forest man Gareth Edds is likely to play on the right... the Australian described as hard-working but painfully slow, and struggling to meet the standard set by the First Division. On the left, the return from injury of stalwart Wayne Jacobs looks very welcome, with Paul Heckingbottom picking up a calf injury at the weekend.

It's in the centre that City have particular problems, however. David Wetherall and Jason Gavin have been the regular pairing, but Wetherall clashed heads with Shefki Kuqi, which must have hurt, at the weekend and was rated doubtful for Tuesday's trip to Crewe. Gavin, meanwhile, aggravated a long-standing shoulder injury, a problem that will require an operation and three months out to rectify. The former Boro stopper hadn't impressed overly this season in any case, but one assumes that any centreback is better than none.

The situation is exacerbated by injuries to Mark Bower (ankle) and possible stand-in Peter Atherton (ankle ligaments), neither of whom have played yet this season. With Heckingbottom, another utility-option, also out, a recall from the bench for versatile young prospect Simon Francis looks inevitable.

In midfield, Dean Windass has presented an ugly and determined obstacle, but misses Saturday with the third of a three-game ban following a dismissal against former club Sheffield United. This leaves a midfield of Nicky Summerbee, still hits a mean dead-ball, still provides as much defensive cover as a bowl of cabbage; Paul Evans, all action if not always focused action; anchorman Tom Kearney, who missed most of last season with a ligament injury, and Ben Muirhead, quick and effervescent but often isolated and very right-footed for a player playing on the left. Lewis Emanuel could come in and provide a more defensive option... other stand-bys include former Chelsea man Rob Wolleaston, disappointing thus far, and former Brighton man Michael Standing.

Up front, the archetypal next-big-thing-who-never-quite-has Michael Branch looks to be one of the more successful gambles thus far... City's leading scorer has been out with a bruised foot but may return for the weekend. If so he would replace Luke Cornwall, another summer signing from Fulham who had a successful loan at Grimsby a couple of years back but has been used sparingly by Laws so far. The other place up front goes to Scottish International Andy Gray, still not winning many votes as a striker despite his fifteen goals last season, right-midfield being seen as his best position. Danny Forrest is City's big hope in attack and often comes of the bench, youngster Kevin Sanasy is another who might break through - the eighteen year-old is prolific in the reserves and has made the bench a couple of times.

City have looked more convincing away from home but have never won at Vicarage Road (a record mirrored by our inability to record a win at their place). This is another winnable game. Either way, it will be followed by another tennis lesson on Sunday... and I should perhaps explain that, although tennis is a fairly rubbish sport, my incompetence at superior pursuits such as football forces me to consider it as an option.

I'd still be prepared to give left-back a go, mind.