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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 16/08/03, 3pm
Crystal Palace
By Ian Grant

Like the advert says, it's all in the blend....

Of course, the advert for Bell's scotch, in which Jools Holland attempts to compare the parts of his famed rhythm-'n'-snooze orchestra to the different ingredients in a blended whisky, is utter cobblers. The idea that various single malts, each distinctive and unique and full of local character, might actually be improved by being mixed together to produce something indistinctive and drab and devoid of individuality is patently ludicrous. You might as well say that your three daily meals would be improved by sticking the lot - breakfast, lunch, dinner, from cereal and toast to sandwich to main course and pudding - into a food processor and blending it all into a sloppy, mud-coloured purée.*

But it's a reasonable enough principle, in the right place and at the right time. Football, to pick an example not entirely at random, and the aim of producing a side that retains the flavours of its ingredients while adding up to a coherent, potent whole. Which is where we are at the moment, albeit that we haven't quite got the recipe right....

Right now, it's all a bit slidey puzzle, if you know what I mean. Shuffling the pieces of the picture around, some are falling into place while others are on the move from where they should be. So, Gavin Mahon returns to midfield with hugely encouraging results, at the same time as Micah Hyde has something of an off-day. Lee Cook makes a startlingly effective substitute appearance on Tuesday, then hardly touches the ball when the same change is made just a few days later. And Heidar Helguson is still in midfield. You can see what the picture is supposed to be, but you suspect that there's still a bit of lateral thinking required before it all fits together.

For all that this was an absorbing game, albeit one without too many thrills, it ended up being remarkably simple in most respects. Three things, really. That we fell asleep once, allowing Shipperley a free header for the game's decisive goal. That we failed to score when Palace afforded us a similar opportunity in the second half. And that sustained periods of complete domination, especially before the interval, yielded few openings and even fewer accurate goal attempts. All in all, we had good reason to be acutely disappointed by the result...yet much less reason to complain about it.

The third of those things is probably what should concern us most, given that the other two are fairly straightforward. Including the second half against Bournemouth, and allowing for a slight wobble in the five minutes after the Palace goal yesterday, we've been thoroughly in control of ninety minutes of football so far this season...and we haven't scored during that time. Indeed, those ninety minutes have produced barely more than half a dozen moments when it appeared as if we might score. It's nothing that can't be fixed, but it's clearly something that does need to be fixed.

The flipside, the good news...well, we have dominated for that long. If the cutting edge can be found and added, there's every reason to suggest that we might be a more solid, consistent force than last season, especially on the road. Here, the first half was enormously impressive in many respects - we were patient and neat in our passing, yet absolutely tenacious in retrieving possession whenever it was lost. The consequence was that we laid the foundations for a very thorough examination of the Palace defence, even if that examination ultimately lacked the variety and inspiration to be successful.

In all this, Gavin Mahon - yes, the much-maligned Gavin Mahon - was utterly instrumental. Restored to a central midfield berth in place of Richard Johnson, he did simple things well, repeatedly. Economical, metronomic passing that set the tempo, kept the ball moving, gave the team a regular heartbeat. And when Palace had the ball, which wasn't terribly often, some really fierce tackling to put an end to that situation as quickly as possible. Oh, and a couple of more than decent goal attempts too, in a performance that contained too few of them. Sure, he was slightly fortunate that two late errors went unpunished...but, really, the positives far, far outweigh the negatives. The rehabilitation starts here, hopefully....

As described, the notebook contains only sparse scribbles. Which is a real shame, as the strength, purpose and all-round discipline of our first half performance deserves rather more to celebrate. Had it yielded a goal, and had the defence not allowed Palace to find the net, this could've been one of those momentous, heroic afternoons in which a team is forged. Instead, it merely falls to me to record our efforts, to suggest that there was much more to this defeat than meets the eye at first glance.

For the vast majority of the opening forty-five minutes, we switched the ball about cleverly and accurately, from side to side, from back to front. Yet while Paul Robinson and Heidar Helguson took advantage of the gaps on the left and Lloyd Doyley and Neal Ardley moved well down the more crowded right, few of the numerous resulting crosses and corners caused any significant problems for the Palace defence. And Plan B, to pass the ball into the danger area, proved to be too elaborate in the main. Although the front players were able to control and bring others into play, they did so with their backs to goal, and we forced the Palace defenders to face their goal much too rarely.

If this all sounds like a bit of grumble, that's not the intention. On the contrary, removing hindsight from the equation reveals this to be an incredibly bright and assertive period, shoving one of the division's stronger sides back into their own half on their own turf. It's just that we weren't quite able to follow up the promise of the first minute, when a lovely move involving Heidar Helguson and Danny Webber found Gavin Mahon bursting into the box to shoot at Clarke. That was a sign of intent, and the intent remained throughout...but it was never truly realised....

It wasn't what we'd expected, really. There were times when Palace attacks threatened - Alec Chamberlain needed to come out of his area to clear from Shipperley, Paul Robinson ended one sweeping move with a tremendous tackle at the crucial moment - but they were remarkably few. Instead, the theme of the match was the constant probing and prodding from the visitors, punctuated by an occasional half-chance.

And they were only occasional. Danny Webber headed wide at the near post after Micah Hyde, Paul Robinson and Heidar Helguson had moved beautifully to reach an advanced crossing position. Much later, Webber was foiled by Clarke's sprawling body as he pounced on Helguson's knock-down. And, right at the end, another fine piece of football - Neil Cox's raking cross-field, Heidar Helguson's cushioned header into the path of Paul Robinson - finished with a mis-hit volley from Bruce Dyer that bobbled awkwardly wide. Not enough for such sustained pressure, in truth.

Still, we would've been thoroughly happy at half-time, had the scoreline been goalless. It wasn't, of course. And we had only ourselves to blame for that, for allowing Butterfield to cross without challenge from the right...and, in particular, for allowing Shipperley to ghost into space at the far post and calmly guide a header past Alec Chamberlain from six yards. A shocking goal to concede, especially as it reduced so much excellent work to nothing.

Far from unhappy at the interval, even so. And that interval brought us the incomparable joy of the Thames Fiat challenge, brought to you by Thames Fiat, in which a Thames Fiat player has to kick the Thames Fiat ball into the Thames Fiat goal past the Thames Fiat sign to win money donated by Thames Fiat to charity. Brilliant entertainment...although the identity of the sponsor could've been made clearer, frankly. It also brought us a significant Palace substitution, Routledge replacing Johnson to provide something to occupy our left flank.

That proved to be a successful ploy, and we weren't able to dominate to the same degree thereafter. Indeed, having managed only a single goal attempt in the first half, Palace produced a relative flurry of them at the start of the second period. From a free kick, Freedman turned in the penalty area and blazed excitedly over the bar in the opening minute. Shortly afterwards, Routledge's twisty-turny control against a great crowd of yellow shirts allowed him to gain a yard and curl an effort just beyond the angle of post and crossbar. Watson blasted a free kick into the wall, then was unfortunate in seeing his angled cross-shot from the right of the box turned away by Alec Chamberlain's fingertips.

By then, though, that wasn't the first save of note. After twenty minutes, and after we'd managed to weather that mild storm, the second turning point. The action was almost identical to the earlier goal, as Neal Ardley trundled down the right, curled in an accurate cross, and found Heidar Helguson attacking the far post, that particular tactic working for the first time. He met it firmly and forcefully, but was denied by Clarke's feet from close range. Although Gavin Mahon's drive five minutes later caused the Palace keeper problems, forcing him to grab the rebound from Bruce Dyer's feet, that Helguson header was really the moment when a deserved point escaped our clutches.

Indeed, the three substitutions, which weren't so very different from those that worked so well on Tuesday night, only seemed to disturb the flow somewhat. Go figure. And the late dismissal of Hughes, for two rather harsh bookings in as many minutes, did us few favours. By that time, it had all become a bit stale, with Bruce Dyer making little headway on the right, Lee Cook isolated on the left, and Heidar Helguson and Scott Fitzgerald ploughing determined but haphazard furrows down the middle. Playing against ten men made little difference, apart from reinforcing the home side's determination to defend their lead. After all that had gone before, so much of it positive and aggressive, the match ended in comparative anticlimax.

As I say, more simple than it might've seemed at the time. You don't score, you let the opposition score, and so on. No great mystery, really.

But it's apparent that there are firm foundations here, albeit that they need to be built upon with some urgency. To begin with, the mere fact that we're talking about a one-nil defeat after conceding a relatively early goal is a sign of progress, for we might well have been reflecting upon a much more comprehensive scoreline last season. This time, heads stayed up, strong and focused. That, added to the performance of Gavin Mahon and the consequent large measure of control exerted over long periods, is surely cause for optimism.

The rest? Well, that's for the training ground....


* Patent pending.