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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 28/12/03, 1.00pm
Cardiff City
It's Over. Official.
By Matt Rowson

It's a brave man (or woman) that takes on a Supermarket on Christmas Eve. A brave man, or a man short of a roll or two of wrapping paper to cater for the gifts to be wrapped for his wife's three hundred and twenty six siblings in front of a "Trainspotting" DVD this afternoon.

I'm not very good at crowds and shopping at the best of times, but this is a new level of agony altogether... shopping trolley gridlock; a particular propensity for people to drift aimlessly across aisles, moving slowly in one direction across one's path whilst looking in a completely different one oblivious to how close to death they are; an inexplicable increase in the number of overladen cages being dragged ruthlessly through the shop floor by psychotic-looking warehouse staff; just for good measure, a greater-than-average number of sixth-form employees loitering in conversation in the gap you're hoping to wedge yourself through.

It's difficult to believe that any conscious move on the part of the supermarket could make this experience any less tolerable than it already is. Except perhaps Cliff Richard through the tannoy. Actually, a colleague of mine during the two year nadir of my CV (and life, come to think of it) behind the tills at a Chelmsford Tesco once formally suggested early Pink Floyd through the tannoy as a means of improving the atmosphere in the store... sadly, never adopted.

Back to today, though... and mercifully no Cliff Richard either, although that would only have marginally exceeded the point of this narrative in terms of aggravation. Because whereas Supermarkets and other retailers famously shove the festive period firmly in your face far earlier in the year than you want to know or think about it, the other side of the coin hadn't been evident to me before. It's Christmas Eve... I was at work yesterday, many are still working today, the festive period has barely really started. And yet Sainsbury's Seasonal aisle is already stripped of Christmas fare and ready, presumably, for Easter Eggs.


Cardiff, then, next Sunday at 1pm boys and girls. Which seems an awfully long way away at the moment, with Christmas stuffing and Gillingham between now and then... unlike our game at Ninian Park, which international postponement left only two months prior to this one. A lot seems to have happened to Cardiff since that evening in which we rather let them help themselves to a 3-0 win.

One significant change appears to be a loss in form and confidence affecting Scottish keeper Ian Alexander, who made some significant errors in last weekend's defeat at home to Millwall, particularly when faced with an aerial ball and a physical challenge. Hellooooo, Heidar. Speculation suggests that Alexander could lose his place for the Boxing Day visit of Walsall to Welshman Martyn Margetson.

At the back, Welsh International Rhys Weston and former Grimsby and Ipswich man Gary Croft continue to dispute the right-back slot with Weston the current incumbent. In the centre, Danny Gabbidon is the main man but his form has dipped a little recently amid speculation of a move to one of the top Premiership sides next month. Gabbidon at his best is comfortably a Premiership player, but one of the disadvantages of having a languid playing style is that you don't half look a tosser when you're playing badly. Speculation in Cardiff suggests that Spencer Prior might be brought in on Boxing Day, either to replace the waning Gabbidon, or to partner Gabbidon and allow Australian Tony Vidmar to move to left back in place of ex-Barnsley Chris Barker.

In midfield the key figure is captain and playmaker Graham Kavanagh. He's recently come back from a long spell out with an ankle injury, and with former Welsh international John Robinson also out at the moment the City midfield is particularly pedestrian without him. He was comfortably the man of the match during our game at Ninian Park. Even with Kavanagh, the City midfield suffers from a chronic lack of width, prompting discussion of January moves for flavour-of-the-moment Keith Downing from Middlesbrough, or Hereford starlet Paul Perry. A move for former loan signing Julian Gray from Palace seems to have stalled with Palace's 500,000 asking price which Lennie "4-0" Lawrence is unwilling to pay.

At the moment, former QPR man Richard Langley and Gareth Whalley, who scored against us at Bradford in the Premiership, are occupying the wide positions but both are more comfortable in the centre. Willie Boland does Kavanagh's fetching and carrying in the middle, with Mark Bonner an alternative headless chicken on the bench. Jason Bowen's return from injury might ultimately provide some width, but he's been out a while and won't be fit for Sunday.

Up front, the frightening pace of Rob Earnshaw is City's main threat; he too is being idly linked with a January move with Villa supposedly sniffing around, consensus is that he's less likely to leave. He's not scored in four games, however, with goalscoring responsibility falling to Peter Thorne who has hit seven in the last five. Thorne owes his place in the side to a knee injury to Alan Lee; any Watford fan who witnessed his visit with Rotherham last season won't be sorry that he's not available.

On the bench is likely to be former Boro nearly-man Andy Campbell, who still has a tendency to let his head drop and doesn't seem to be the most popular player with the City support, whilst options in the reserves include battering ram Gavin Gordon and youngster James Collins, who can also play at centre-back.

The Cardiff game is also significant in the anticipated return to the Watford of Alec Chamberlain, in for the suspended Lennie Pidgeley. Alec losing his place, combined with the erratic form and fitness of Micah Hyde, meant that for the first time since May 1999, Watford's starting eleven against Coventry included none of the players who won the play-off Final four-and-a-half years ago. Come the match against Chelsea we could plausibly see a Watford eleven including nobody who was involved on the day... Coxy, who will be suspended, was in the Bolton side in 1999.

Whether you're heading to Gillingham on Boxing Day or not, there's no excuse not to come along with vocal chords at the ready on Sunday. After all, Christmas has already finished. Ask Sainsburys.