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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 27/09/03, 3pm
Ipswich Town
By Ian Grant

There are always metaphors. Writing these reports, the need for inspiration leads you to cling to anything that might usefully be recycled for an allegorical introduction, continuing the proud BSaD tradition of wandering away from familiar ground in the vague hope of shedding a little fresh light upon the matter in hand. Or just passing the time, whatever.

Sometimes, it requires a bit of brute force. Dragging, kicking and screaming, a reference to a book, a record, a film into the spotlight. Sometimes, life just chucks these metaphors at you, whether you want them or not.

So, yeah, my hard drive failed last week. On Monday, to be precise. Having suffered occasional strokes in the past few weeks, a multiple heart attack rather put an end to any lingering hopes that the problem might just disappear of its own accord. And left me with many forlorn, frustrating hours of attempting to salvage and copy data, reconstruct a new drive based upon the old one, reinstall software, and so on. Things are - touch plastic - back to normal now, only considerably faster and smoother than before. But it's been a long journey.

You don't exactly need to be Poet Laureate to see the potential for poignant metaphor in all that. I mean, the comparison between the current difficulties at Watford Football Club and a knackered hard disk isn't one that requires enormous imagination. Make it up yourselves, if you feel so inclined. The problem is that, for all the poetic possibilities, the perilous state of the club is just too damn real, too bloody close, to be hidden behind a screen of metaphorical waffle. If you're up to your neck in a swamp and sinking rapidly, you gain little by daydreaming artistic interpretations of your situation. You'd better start saving yourself, and quickly.

Here we are, then. Up to our necks in a swamp and sinking rapidly. You don't need me to tell you want this result means, a ghastly defeat in a must-win fixture. And you don't need me to tell you how it felt either, how the last thirty minutes were like watching your home being destroyed by a wrecking ball. And you certainly don't need me to attempt to lift spirits with some kind of faux-chirpy, it's-only-a-game, chin-up-son philosophy. No, you don't need that.

You do, possibly, need some righteous ire, some finger-pointing and blame-allocating. But I'm not sure that I can provide even that, really. For I saw little here that I couldn't readily forgive, and nothing that wouldn't be made a hundred times worse by the kind of terrace management that attempts to build confidence by bellowing abuse. Truly, there was plenty of commitment here, plenty that demonstrated a deep-rooted desire to turn things around, and plenty that indicated that the management team has yet to lose its ability to organise and motivate. The problem was that none of it could hope to survive the sickening plummet into a despairing, nihilistic hell that was triggered by the Ipswich equaliser.

Which is so much worse, in so many ways. So much more frightening. If this was just a case of lack of motivation, then that would be something to be addressed, and urgently. Something tangible, something possible. But how on earth do you attempt to address such an absolute absence of belief, of self-confidence? You can prepare for these moments, you can apply all the positive psychology in the world, but all of it will be swept aside by that sudden rush of panic and terror as the ball hits the back of the net and the earth opens up beneath our feet. There is nothing to this but psychology. It's all in our heads...but the effect is all too real.

If there's any hope to be salvaged, it's in the performance prior to the Ipswich equaliser. A performance that was utterly and spectacularly obliterated thereafter, yet was nevertheless something that we must return to on Tuesday, and Saturday, and every subsequent kickoff. Must, or all will be lost. Must, but that's much easier said than done when each setback further erodes what little confidence remains.

Really, for all that the temptation is to wail and howl about what happened afterwards, we cannot afford to lose sight of what happened before. True, there was nothing especially dazzling about the first half, yet the mere fact that we'd steered a fairly steady course through its choppy waters was cause for some optimism. We might even have argued the case for deserving to be ahead at the interval, although we would've been wise to argue it quietly. And certainly, when Scott Fitzgerald opened the scoring, it was a thoroughly warranted reward for a bullish, aggressive opening to the second half. What happened afterwards was horrifying. But what happened before didn't cause what happened afterwards, and we have to cling to that. It's just about all we have right now.

By the end, we had nothing. At the start, however, we had more than a little determination about us, whether in an opening flurry of slightly unfortunate attacks or in some full-blooded and, crucially, rather more coordinated defending. Within a couple of minutes, a Neal Ardley corner had been diverted goalwards by a defender at the near post, requiring a header away from the line...and, in the same attack, Paul Devlin cut inside and saw his well-struck shot deflected wide. Even if it didn't last, it was a promising beginning, a sign that all has not yet turned to self-pity.

After Wright's piercing half-volley from twenty yards had smacked into the side netting, barely a foot away from the top corner, things settled down rather. A distinctly ordinary game, albeit one that suggested that we might slowly be building and working towards something better...assuming that we were ever to persuade the linesman to keep his flag down. And we were working too, from Paul Robinson's heroic lunge to get a boot on Armstrong's goal-bound shot and deflect it over the bar, to Danny Webber's appetite for possession despite his all-too-evident sagging confidence, rather demonstrated by a dreadfully dragged shot that bumbled across the penalty area and out for a throw. It wasn't pretty, and the helicopter that repeatedly circled the skies overhead would've run out of fuel while waiting for something eventful to happen, but it was far from disastrous. Or forty-five minutes from disastrous, if you prefer.

Indeed, there were one or two half-chances to prevent your attention from wandering entirely. After twenty-seven minutes, Paul Devlin's looping header fell for Scott Fitzgerald, loitering on the edge of the penalty area. And we saw the essence of the player in an instant, as he turned and shot without hesitation, bringing a smart parry from Davis at his near post and requiring some fairly frantic defending to prevent Danny Webber from netting on the rebound. In an afternoon of almost unbearable gloom, Scott Fitzgerald provided the only sustained ray of light, more than justifying his selection with a focused, upbeat performance that was increasingly at odds with all that surrounded it.

Although the central period of the half was dominated by Ipswich, retaining possession without ever really threatening to do anything with it, the home side began to push forward towards the interval. This was better, much better...and Danny Webber really ought to have done better when Lee Cook's hanging cross fell for him, volleying rather wildly into the Vic Road end from eighteen yards. Still, we were beginning to give ourselves a chance, to play with a little more fluency and a little less worry. Thankfully, all of this wasn't undone when we allowed Naylor to gain a yard of space at a free kick in the final couple of minutes - courtesy of an inaccurate header, the lapse went unpunished, a moment of good fortune that we'd probably deserved.

So far, so okay. And it was about to be more than okay. The visitors began the second half with a clear agenda, refreshing their forward line with a double substitution and with the obvious intention of making the decisive move to break the stalemate. Surprisingly, the opposite occurred. Spurred on by whatever had been said in the dressing room, we suddenly roared at our opponents, forcing two or three corners, a couple of short-lived penalty appeals, and creating a half-chance for Scott Fitzgerald within the first minute. It was unexpectedly thrilling stuff, and it continued as Naylor knocked over Fitzgerald as the pair chased a through-ball, the yellow card perhaps an acknowledgement from the referee that the striker had rather made the most of minimal contact. Davis saved well from Lee Cook's whipped free kick, diving low to his right to turn the ball around the post, and we'd instantly managed to banish doubts, worries and frailties.

And we were rewarded too. The corner was cleared to Lee Cook, whose attempt at a spectacular volley bobbled kindly to Scott Fitzgerald, lurking in the kind of place that strikers ought to lurk. He turned, he fell, he made an awkward half-connection with studs rather than boot leather, and the overall effect was to wrong-foot the keeper completely, leaving the ball to roll into an unguarded net. A goalscorer's goal, a Dennis Bailey kinda goal, and an exuberant, marvellous moment. Right then, we truly believed. For the last time.

By the time that the Ipswich equaliser had rolled across the line, we'd already spent three fretful minutes pulling back further and further into our own half as if frightened by the dizzy heights to which we'd just ascended. By the time that Magilton's arcing cross had eluded Paul Robinson, tempted Alec Chamberlain to emerge (unwisely) from his goal, and enabled Kuqi to shuffle the ball in from a tight angle, we'd already begun to fall prey to our inner demons. We'd already lost the game, and we played - in the loosest possible sense - as if it was lost, irretrievably. In short, we fell to pieces.

The rest was chaos. Awful, hopeless chaos. The defence, which had done a pretty decent and disciplined job of holding Ipswich at arm's length, disintegrated entirely, leaving vast acres of green turf for blue shirts to dart through unopposed. The midfield lost the battle too, abandoning its territory and becoming sucked into the defensive maelstrom, where it seemed only to add to the confusion. The strikers, gawd pity them, must've needed to strain their eyes to catch sight of the nearest yellow shirt and of the ball, which so often came flying in their general direction from several miles away and disappeared just as quickly. We were forty minutes from safety, without a hope.

Somehow, it took Ipswich most of those minutes to conjure up a winner, despite being able to wander through our desperate, woeful rearguard at will. Alec Chamberlain partially redeemed himself with a fine save from a fierce Bent drive, after our attempts to push out from the edge of our area had backfired completely. Magilton fired wide after an attack down the left, then a superb move through the wastelands of midfield, in which our players were only so much tumbleweed, ended with Kuqi heading wide at the far post. When Paul Robinson's indecision left an entire flank unguarded, Kuqi rampaged into the space and blazed across the face of goal...and we were just shattered fragments of a team, pitiful wreckage.

Really, I can ask no more of Ray Lewington than what we got during these terrible moments. The introduction of Jamie Hand for Lee Cook attracted much criticism, but the departing player had barely touched the ball since the equaliser, while the midfield was simply screaming for reinforcements. In the circumstances, adding an extra striker would've just wasted another player, added another spectator. On the touchline, the manager did everything except remove his tracksuit and enter the field of play, at one point simply screaming at his players to push out of their self-imposed exile from the Ipswich half. It was all to no avail, of course...but, having prepared his team well on the evidence of the first forty-eight minutes and then seen that preparation blown to smithereens, his influence was horribly limited. If it was dreadful to watch from the stands, it must've been virtually impossible to bear from the touchline.

In the end, the goal that won it was utterly sublime, deserving of settling a better match and beating far better opposition. Yet again, Ipswich moved the ball around in the final third with yellow shirts following breathlessly and hopelessly, until it reached Magilton, stationed just outside the right-hand side of the penalty area. The expected cross turned into something else entirely, a wonderful, terrible curling lob that took an age to float precisely over the stranded Alec Chamberlain and nestle into the far bottom corner. We'd been beaten long before, of course...but the confirmation, even in such beautiful style, was still agonising.

Scott Fitzgerald's goal was our last shot of the match. We had no belief in an equaliser, just as we'd had no belief in our ability to prevent Ipswich from seizing the three points. In the final, head-in-hands moments, Alec Chamberlain fielded a couple of long-range attempts, and those of us in the Rookery were merely grateful that our abject misery was only extended by two minutes.

Misery, not anger. If we weren't bothering to try, if we were merely shrugging our shoulders at the current crisis, then that would be extremely difficult to forgive. There's very little of that, though. And that, ultimately, is why this is such a desperate situation. For if the merest setback is enough to send us tumbling into absolute oblivion, then it is difficult to maintain any belief in our ability to turn things around. It remains in our own hands, in our own heads...and we just need a break, a minor restorative, a chink of light...and all of that seems so far away when you can see nothing but chaos, failure, defeat....

It's a decent squad. With flaws, to be sure...but no more flaws than the vast majority of squads in this division. Its current position is anything but inevitable. But it is whirling around in a vicious circle, unable to escape...and I have no wisdom to offer. You can make tactical changes, add or subtract players, make substitutions...but if confidence continues to spiral downwards, none of it matters. None of it is anything but pathetic tinkering.

As Ray Lewington says, you just have to work, you have to keep starting all over again. And you have to hope. Just hope.