Nationwide Division One, 17/01/04, 3.00pm
By Tim Down
Where to start, really. This was an absolute horror, make no mistake. The repercussions could be catastrophic. That there are positives to be drawn from the performance, that we have played worse, significantly worse, this season perhaps makes it all the more horrific. We were undone here by some moments of woeful defending and equally woeful finishing. In between, we were arguably the better side. That we lost 5-1 suggests the rest of the season could be a real struggle for survival.
The reading of the teams brought the welcome news of Heidar Helgusonís return and the anticipated return to 4-4-2 with Cook and Devlin on the wings. With Palace faring no better than ourselves and a full-strength squad to pick from, our chances seemed good to this optimistic writer. "The Golden Girls" arrived and did their little dancing thing, presumably freezing their little bits off and looking nothing like the Golden Girls I remember. And then the game kicked off, bringing early promise with a few Watford corners, in the aftermath of one of which Paul Devlin curled in a cross from the left that appeared to hit the frame of the goal. Advantage Watford, for eight minutes, until our first defensive lapse, in this case a collective one, gave Palace the lead. A break down their left, a cross picking out the ginger figure of Ben Watson in acres of space on the right of the penalty area, his unhurried cross nodded back across goal by Shipperley for Andy Johnson to head home. 1-0 to Palace, all too easy.
Still, back we came with increased purpose and worked our way into the game. There was some enterprising play too, carving out some clear chances against a Palace defence that at this stage looked as brittle as our own. Had we converted, say, two of these chances then everything could've been very different. Ifs, buts... the essence of being a football fan. As it was, Cox was the first guilty of spurning an excellent chance to equalise barely a minute after going behind. From a corner resulting from a scramble in the Palace box, Cox found himself with the ball at his feet but sliced high and wide. Five minutes later, Devlin narrowly missed from twelve yards when he should've at least got it on target after a fine header across the box by Marcus Gayle. Ten minutes later Lee Cook blasted over from the left hand side of the penalty area after some good interplay with Heidar Helguson; two minutes later still, Scott Fitzgerald showed his non-league pedigree by wasting two great chances from six yards out. The first he failed to control and bounced harmlessly away. The second he prodded at tamely in a strange sideways fashion straight at the keeper.
Throughout this period we looked threatening and the chances were coming. Ardley and Devlin linked well intermittently down the right while Cook was less busy but threatened occasionally with his trickery. Jack Smith strode forward with purpose, looked comfortable on the ball and delivered some fine long passes. As we spurned one chance after another, the worry was that we were going to let Palace off the hook, and so of course it proved. Gradually our momentum slipped away towards the end of the half as Palace began to apply some pressure. Pidgeley saved well from a Riihilahti header before Palace doubled their lead when Jack Smith made a hideous hash of a clearance, slicing it into the path of two Palace players waiting in the box. Routledge had time to steady himself before volleying in off Pidgeley. A sinking feeling set in.
Hearteningly, back we came again, and almost immediately Mahon missed a golden opportunity from a Lee Cook free kick. Unmarked and with the ball under control, he shot narrowly wide from around twelve yards. You felt that a Watford goal before half time would set up an interesting second half, and it looked like it might happen until the disaster that put the game beyond reach. Gayle's mishit clearance hit Johnson, whose first touch looked somewhat handballish. Handball or not, he was through on goal, only for Cox to lunge in from behind. The line between hero and villain is a fine one - six inches further with his right boot and I would now be saluting a potentially match-saving tackle. As it was, he missed the ball, upended Johnson and there was only one possible outcome. Off he went. Watford, especially Pidgeley, argued vociferously that the offence was outside the box. Referee Howard Webb thought otherwise, and Johnson converted the penalty to end the half on the worst possible note.
Is there any chocolate in the world lucky enough to retrieve this situation? If so, no-one had any. Ray did what he could at half time, bringing on Doyley and Hyde for the largely anonymous Hand and Cook, with Doyley slotting in at centre back and Hyde coming in to complete a midfield three. And almost predictably, until the last fifteen minutes you'd barely have known we were a man down. We set about Palace with some purpose though little penetration until Scott Fitzgerald earned a penalty with a typical piece of determined play, bursting across the box in pursuit of a wayward cross and throwing himself headlong at it. Quite what the offence was was I couldn't say - it appeared that Fitzgerald went for the ball with his head at the same time as the defender went for it with his foot, with the predictable result that he got kicked in the head. Still, penalty it was and 'H' immediately picked up the ball, leaving no-one in any doubt as to who was taking it, and despite my misgivings calmly rolled the ball into an unguarded net after Myrhe obligingly dived out of the way.
There followed a period of Watford pressure, and hope was briefly rekindled. There was a lovely moment that typified the kind of players our front two are when Helguson chased after and dispossessed a Palace player from a position he had no right to, and Fitzgerald ran forty yards or so after the resulting loose ball as it drifted into space down towards the corner flag, forcing the Palace defender into a hasty clearance. Two lost causes chased down in succession, from which we got a throw in a dangerous position and from that a corner. Shortly afterwards Fitzgerald was down again in the box, but this time no penalty. A good shout though.
Once again our threat waned and once again a combination of sharp finishing and poor defending let Palace in to snuff out any remaining hope. Gray broke free down the Palace left and tormented Doyley before finishing expertly. The young defender did seem to make it easier for him than it should've been. Thereafter, though we pushed forward, we looked sluggish and our efforts were increasingly lame and unimaginative. A fifth Palace goal was always on the cards and it arrived in injury time when a ball over the top caught us upfield and Pidgeley came charging out before realising he wasn't going to make it, leaving Freedman with the simplest of tap-ins. In between Bruce Dyer had come on for a tiring Fitzgerald and run around a bit, to little effect.
While the result is appalling, and without wishing to excuse the sloppiness on show, I would argue that it's not quite as bad as it first appears. Firstly, most mistakes we made were fully punished, which is certainly not going to happen every week. Secondly, it really couldn't have been much worse. It wasn't a 5-1 like our own 5-2 victory against Coventry last season where one team outclassed another, scoring almost at will. Every setback, and there were several, was met with defiance and renewed effort, and it would've have taken only a couple of things to go for us for the result to have been very different. Thirdly, the reason why the scoreline was so large was because we played Ray's way, always trying to save the game rather than meekly surrendering and trying to keep the score down. Finally, and less rationally, let's hope this means everyone's got their howlers out of the way in one go. Up to a point, individual errors cannot be legislated for, and replacing the individuals in question is not an option. We have to chalk this one up to experience and try to focus on the positives of the performance. But for pity's sake, if we are to survive in this division we absolutely must start taking our chances, and soon.