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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 26/12/03, 3.00pm
Good reasons
By Ian Grant

Straight to the point, I think.

There's a time and a place for wandering metaphor, and it's not now. For a start, when you've watched such an utterly appalling game of football from atop some temporary scaffolding - which, mercifully, feels rather more solid than it looks from underneath - and been exposed to the elements from every possible angle, you don't need metaphor. You need practical things. A hot drink. A swift journey home. Some extensive counselling.

Besides, it would be hard to find further variations on an already tiresome theme. We've been here before, and yesterday's only novelty was the combination of two of our very favourite jinxes - Boxing Day and Gillingham - into one handy, time-saving package. Really, we knew what the result would be before we even bought our tickets...and, since we decided to buy them anyway, it would be difficult to blame anyone but ourselves. Basically, it did exactly what it said on the tin, with extra weather.

But more than anything, we should get to the point for more serious reasons. Because it would've been hard to watch this without realising one essential fact. That we're in a whole load of trouble right now.

True, there are probably a few causes for optimism to be found, if you're prepared to look hard enough. I'm not prepared, though. Not this time. For once, we have to face the reality. And the reality is that we're fourth from bottom and playing quite dreadfully. While the Stoke defeat, abysmal as it was, could be tolerated as a one-off lapse in concentration, there was something more fundamentally depressing about this, a washed-out greyness that seemed impossible as we fought back against Sheffield United barely two weeks ago. No, there's absolutely no reason why we can't get out of trouble. But we need to start thinking of some good reasons why we should....

The conditions were atrocious, certainly. A wind that swirled and gusted and swept the ball off-course whenever it was played above head-height, occasionally accompanied by unpleasant drizzle. It wasn't a particularly lovely day, and it has to be said that Gillingham were hardly more successful in adapting, despite having the general advantage at set pieces, courtesy of the extraordinary Mamady Sidibe and the mountainous Ian Cox. From the moment when Nosworthy's cross from deep on the left was caught by a gust and nearly sailed into the top corner in the first minute, it was clear that this wasn't going to be easy.

Nevertheless, we seemed determined to make it difficult. I mean, the frantic cut-and-thrust of any encounter with Gillingham will inevitably mean that play is untidy, that the ball is sometimes clouted about rather hurriedly. That's all right. But why, especially when the majority of the wind was behind us in the second half, and given countless - well, some - free kicks and corners, did we persist on floating the ball high rather than smacking it low? As yet another promising position ended in the front of the stand in the ninety-first minute, after we'd launched the ball into the air for the wind to take where it wished, it was hard to believe that we'd not learnt anything from the afternoon.

Yet that was indeed the pattern, if "pattern" is the right word. For while each pass was intended well, each tackle was not without determination, each moment was contested doggedly, each was also entirely isolated. We had played the game in unconnected moments, a kind of existentialist confusion. When we did suddenly thread a few things together - a lovely move involving a Lee Cook run, a Heidar Helguson turn, a Bruce Dyer shuffle and the linesman's flag deep into the second half - it stood out like a tune on an Autechre record, entirely at odds with everything else. And it was quickly buried back in the heap of stuff, lest it embarrass all of our other efforts.

The frustration and the deep concern is that, even allowing for all of this nonsense, we really didn't need to lose. Not necessary at all, given that we actually coped reasonably well with the most obvious and potent Gillingham threats. For all that Lenny Pidgeley was often at full stretch to punch clear at set pieces, and for all that his confidence was tested after the error against Stoke, he did clear, repeatedly. There were more than a few nervous moments, then, but they'd long given way to utter, numbing tedium when the home side suddenly made the breakthrough. In other words, we should've had a point. And, in still other words, we ought not to be satisfied with "should've" any longer.

If there was any coherent football, nearly all of it took place in the first half. Indeed, much of it took place in the first five minutes, when Gillingham damn nearly pulled off the same kind of ambush that had done for us so convincingly last season. We were still dozing as Lenny Pidgeley scrambled down to his right to save James' awkward volley, then had to do the same to keep out a Perpetuini cross that deflected dangerously towards the near post from Neal Ardley's thigh. It wasn't until Jamie Hand blasted a ferocious drive into the cozy-looking Rainham End that we were in the game at all, goalkeeper excepted. Not, all things considered, the best way to return from a performance as completely appalling as last Saturday's....

Having survived the early lapses, however, we found that there wasn't too much to be afraid of. While allowing Andy Hessenthaler to get in a far post header from a hanging cross wasn't exactly the finest example of defending that we'll ever see, we coped well enough with the more traditional problems. Indeed, apart from a firm drive from distance by Hills, which Lenny Pidgeley briefly spilled and then retrieved, the Watford goal was pretty much untroubled after that initial spell. This might've been considered encouraging, except that the scrappy chaos of the game really didn't allow such patterns to emerge until after the event.

A goal, of course, would've been considerably more than encouraging. But the chances came and then disappeared in the same random rush as everything else, regretted only once they'd already gone. That said, when Heidar Helguson stretched and held off a strong challenge to reach Neal Ardley's free kick in the eighth minute, then glanced his header against the inside of the post, we were dreadfully unlucky. Given the events of the Stoke game, it would be easy to over-state the importance of an early goal...but....

And there were further opportunities too, especially when Danny Webber's ball into right of the penalty area found Heidar Helguson lurking behind the defence. Here, the on-loan Vaesen proved himself, hurtling from his line to block with his legs. One of only two significant saves in the game, but a vital one. A minute later, he really ought to have been called into action again, as Danny Webber beat his man with a superb flick, then threw the opening away by shooting early and finding only the side netting. That's what we can't afford, sadly...but you'd still rather have that, eager and exciting and a little wasteful, because we need to make things happen right now, because we're too often just waiting for something.

If the first half had a highlight, it was probably a tackle by - who else - Heidar Helguson in midfield shortly before the interval. Since nearly being dismissed on Saturday, the Icelander has perhaps been given a rulebook by Santa, and has noticed that if you win the ball cleanly first, you're legally entitled to carry out all manner of atrocities thereafter. The result was spectacular mayhem, leaving poor Sidibe thoroughly bulldozed and causing an early exit for a bloodied Helguson. It's tempting to say that similar commitment from everyone else would be desirable, but I'm not sure that's so. Similar, but better directed, commitment might be the thing for all concerned.

Which brings us to the second half, inevitably and regrettably. As we sat in our uncovered and very temporary stand, a position akin to standing on an extremely exposed hill overlooking the ground along with other ticketless souls, and the drizzle began to sweep around in the descending gloom, it was increasingly hard to focus on the game, such as it was. Indeed, it was even possible to feel some nostalgia for the open terrace that used to occupy this end of the Priestfield Stadium, and from which it was only possible to see about half of the pitch. A blessing, given what was unfolding beneath us.

All of that midfield scrapping had a certain earnest, honest charm about it, perhaps, but it would've been nice if the ball had been released from the tangle rather more often...and if it hadn't just been blown straight off the pitch whenever it did emerge. It was a dreadful game, frankly, and only of any worth to the victors. For them, Andy Hessenthaler was as industrious and tireless as ever - one exchange, in which he lost out in two strong, aggressive challenges on halfway and then bit back decisively to win a third, was typical of the man. For us, Gavin Mahon was in an assertive mood, bruising his way around the centre without sufficient support from elsewhere to avoid the ball returning to the mixer each time he set it free. None of this, however, was anything that you'd pay to watch, except that several thousand of us had indeed paid to watch it.

Eventually, something happened. It wasn't good. A few moments after James had wasted a decent position with a rash shot, he was played in on the left of the penalty area, on the wrong side of Neal Ardley, whose barge was enough for player to fall and referee to whistle. Many curses, few protests. Just from general demeanour, you'd imagine that Lenny Pidgeley might be quite decent at keeping out penalties...but we'll have to wait for another time to find out, as Hills' effort hit the roof of the net with the keeper grounded. We nearly put it right immediately, as Jamie Hand's biting tackle on the edge of the area sent the ball towards the bottom corner for Vaesen to save well. Having failed to hit back straight away, however, desperation set in remarkably quickly.

And this was real desperation. In truth, if James' superb free kick, which dipped and swerved and skimmed the top of the crossbar from thirty yards with Lenny Pidgeley lost, had been a few inches lower, it probably would've been kinder than this awful, false hope. One goal. One goal that was never going to come, even after the introduction of Lee Cook and Bruce Dyer had livened things up a little. While there has been much comment about the former's absence from the starting line-up, I would suggest that the latter might be an option for the Cardiff game too, on the evidence of constructive, positive cameos in the last couple of games.

These were tame and predictable attacks, though, producing nothing more than one or two wayward efforts and precisely nothing for Vaesen to worry about. The things that hadn't worked continued not to work, and it was extremely painful to watch an essentially decent side reduced to such a shabby, dismal wreck by...well, by what, exactly? We were a proud, confident team less than two weeks ago, and it's hard to avoid the feeling that we've talked ourselves into this, that we've created our own crisis for reasons that are just unfathomable. It doesn't much matter, I guess. For all the world, we looked like a side that was destined only for struggle and, perhaps, relegation here...and, unless we decide otherwise, that's exactly what we'll be.

At some point, Gillingham stopped worrying about conceding an equaliser and concentrated on grabbing a second instead...which, sadly, is where we've erred too often. But then, an Andy Hessenthaler in your midfield, even at nearly forty, is always going to demand that the tempo mustn't drop even in the last moments of injury time...and we don't have that kind of leadership in that key area. Indeed, after Spiller's near post touch from a right wing cross had brought a very fine save from Lenny Pidgeley, the Gillingham player-manager nearly completed the job in injury time, calling the Watford keeper, and Gavin Mahon on the goal-line, into action again with an angled shot. Like I say, we don't have that kind of leadership, that kind of driving force. To go back to an earlier point, it's not just energy. It's well-directed energy.

Every game is important, sure. Each three points would make a massive difference. But you sense that this bit - these two or three weeks, coming through Christmas and into the New Year - are where we'll decide the course of the season. Or where we'll merely surrender to the pull of the relegation fight, to feeling sorry for ourselves and worrying about the future.

Nothing's inevitable, as ever. But a few more of these shabby, dreary, thoroughly beatable performances will surely see us settled into the bottom few for the duration, fighting to remain outside of the bottom three when the music stops. Without a stock of points from a good run earlier on, you can't play like this and avoid it. Nothing - not optimism, not good reasons why we're better than our league position, not annoyance at points that we shouldn't have dropped, not good or bad luck - changes that.

We change that.