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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/04/04, 3.00pm
Rotherham United
By Ian Grant

I don't like cats, really. It's nothing personal.

I've never been terribly keen on dogs either. But they seem to have adapted to deal with such rejection, instinctively preferring the company of friends rather than bothering too much about everyone else. Cats, on the other hand, seem to have got it mixed up somewhere along the line, treating affection with arch aloofness and indifference with mewling desperation. It's not an endearing trait, as far as I'm concerned.

To be honest, I'm fairly suspicious of any animal that's had its natural evolution messed around by being involuntarily incorporated into everyday human life...because if most of us struggle to work out what it's all about, they've got no bloody chance. And besides, cats are a flippin' nuisance.

After all, it requires some interesting logic to justify the introduction of a voracious and efficient recreational predator into your back garden as being the act of an "animal lover". Why not go the whole way and shoot the birds from your window with an air rifle? To hear cat lovers talk of their pets dragging all manner of prey home, you'd imagine that this was some kind of unfortunate and unforeseeable accident, as if the landmine didn't know what it was doing and the person who put it there was merely trying to liven up the landscape. I've lived in my flat for nearly five years (where did that go?) and the only wildlife larger than a bumble bee that's ever set foot on my patio has been a juvenile blackbird last summer...which was chased there, and then into my kitchen and bathroom, by the cat from upstairs and sat shivering with terror in a corner for a night and a day before finally plucking up enough strength and courage to escape.

"That's nature," according to a cat-owning work colleague. Thing is, you don't buy "nature" from a pet shop. If I acquired a large moose to stand on my patio and kick/butt your cat into kingdom come whenever it tried to crap in my plant pots, would that be "nature" too? Probably not. Although it would be fun, unquestionably.

The problem, presumably, is that actual nature isn't grateful enough. That it's too damn independent for its own good, preferring to stay at a safe distance (or thumb its nose from just out of reach, in the case of squirrels) rather than submit obediently and contentedly to its master and curl up on their lap to watch Coronation Street. That'll be its downfall, in the end.

There's something thoroughly natural about Rotherham too. This is not a club that's defined by its marketing department, you feel...and for all that the stadium is a rusty shambles (featuring, to the immediate right of the away end, the most ineffective roof ever constructed, which must just about keep the middle row of supporters dry, as long as the rain is coming down exactly vertically), it's not somewhere that's been worrying too much about fitting in with the modern game. And, albeit that they appear to be on course for survival on this occasion, there's something slightly doomed about Rotherham too, something that just isn't grateful enough.

Which we know only too well, of course, having been on the receiving end of their undomesticated ingratitude on several recent occasions. Indeed, their rather feeble acceptance of a one-nil defeat at Vicarage Road earlier in the season came as something of a shock, for, much like Gillingham, that's simply not what Rotherham are for. It just wasn't right, it wasn't natural...although we were still happy to take the three points, just as we're happy to see the Gills stumbling into the relegation zone right now.

This was much more like it, though. A proper game of football, even if it wasn't one that troubled the notebook too often. We've already played considerably worse and won comfortably (goodbye, Franchise!)...and it's tempting, especially when recalling a quite superb first half performance, to regret the failure to turn a draw into a win. But you have to recall other things too, namely that we were barely able (and, once, completely unable) to contain the Rotherham attack on the handful of occasions that it did break forward before the interval. And we were thoroughly battered afterwards. Not last season's fine, potent side, perhaps...but this was still very much the Rotherham that we know and lose to.

Really, we've rarely played better than in the first forty-five minutes. Had it not been for an absurd early lapse, which allowed Butler to saunter into the penalty area unobstructed to collect a flick-on and poke the ball past Alec Chamberlain, it would've been pretty much flawless. (This is a somewhat absurd observation, I know, as "pretty much flawless" is different from "actually flawless" in one crucial, pivotal detail. Even so, we very nearly managed to turn that early goal into a complete irrelevance, to wipe it from history. And besides, I'm writing about Watford, not Arsenal, and any flavour of flawless is worth celebrating.) Everything else was superb, a complete team display, locked together, tight and confident. On this evidence, we have nothing to fear, not even ourselves.

Dominant in midfield, where Micah Hyde worked his socks off and Gavin Mahon rumbled around ominously, we were able to supply the flanks and the forwards with quality possession. On occasions, our decision-making let us down - Paul Devlin was fortunate to win a free kick after turning down an opportunity for an early cross in favour of beating and re-beating his opponent, for instance - but, on other occasions, it very much didn't let us down, and Rotherham became increasingly wary of the pace and invention of Lee Cook and Hameur Bouazza, and, tellingly, of the presence of Bruce Dyer.

The equaliser should've come sooner. From Paul Devlin's left-wing free kick, Hameur Bouazza's fine far post header forced Pollitt to a full-stretch save, only the convenient height enabling the keeper to push the ball around the post. The resulting corner saw Pollitt in action again, as Bruce Dyer pulled away around the back and the keeper flipped his header away from the top corner. Encouragingly, and perhaps to give some indication of what has gone wrong for Rotherham this season, we were troubling the home side at set pieces, despite the lack of height and Heidar.

And we continued to do so. Here, the raw pace of Hameur Bouazza gave Bruce Dyer something to work with, and he emerged into the game as it progressed. On twenty-four minutes, a chest, turn and run in midfield reminded us why we bothered in the first place, and he sent his strike partner away into the right of the penalty area with a precise pass. When Paul Devlin continued the move with a cross, it was Dyer who lurked at the far post, darting a firm header past Pollitt to level the scores, before turning away to celebrate with undisguised relief. It was to be his day, ultimately...and, given that his performance, while thoroughly encouraging, would've grabbed no headlines without the goal, it proved just how quickly things can turn for strikers.

He was to be unlucky, ultimately. As were we. Although Proctor thumped a free kick into the terracing behind the goal (and the reflexive chant of "Sit down, shut up!", directed from the away end at the occupants of that same terracing when they later appealed for a penalty, was surely an indication of how much times, and football grounds, have changed) and Chris Baird made a fabulous interception to prevent the same player from shooting after lifting the ball over Marcus Gayle, we were enjoying a surprising amount of control, especially in the final third. A glimpse of our positive potential, after so many months of contemplating the reverse.

Rotherham couldn't settle, Pollitt least of all. He saved reasonably comfortably from a Lee Cook half-volley after a fine combination that began with a quick, alert throw from Chris Baird and continued with contributions from Bruce Dyer, Micah Hyde and Paul Devlin. At the other end, Alec Chamberlain did the same when Monkhouse struck as we failed to clear a cross convincingly.

Really, though, the three points came and went in the last five minutes of the half, as Lee Cook - who, regardless of the accusations of victimisation levelled at the management after the Ipswich game, simply looks a better player in every respect for taking on board the demands made of him - picked up a cross-field ball and scampered directly at goal, whipping in a vicious, swirling shot that hit the outside of the post via Pollitt's fingertips. A superb save, neglected by the referee's award of a goal kick but acknowledged by the keeper's wry shrug of the shoulders in response to the protesting clamour behind him.

There was to be plenty more protesting clamour too. The linesman had already interfered with our attacks on a few occasions, not least when sparing Gavin Mahon's embarrassment in directing a close-range chance straight into Pollitt's chest. That he was allowed to continue frustrating us in the second half seemed more than a little unfair. And, really, I have no idea whether Bruce Dyer was offside when Lee Cook took a quick free kick, crossed, and found the striker flying across the six yard box to sweep the ball past Pollitt. But I do know that it must've been close. And I also know that the run, the finish, the celebration were all the hallmarks of the player that we signed in the summer.

It deserved the standing ovation. It had been positive, fluent and bright, but never - well, once - lacking in concentration, focus, determination. A bit of a benchmark, especially for future away games. It wasn't to be repeated for another forty-five minutes, which would surely have seen us safely home, in the match and for the season. And yet, in a very different way, the second half was no less deserving of an ovation. This was what we'd expected, plus a bit - a great surge of Rotherham attacking, pouring down the slope towards our goal for the vast majority of the second half. And we survived with a point.

Our defending was simply tremendous, more than compensating for the fourth minute lapse. The ball spent nearly all of its time in our half - even when we did clear, the forwards found themselves completely isolated, and occasions when we could actually claim to have had possession up there were very few indeed - and yet there were hardly any openings of significance. In fact, by virtue of an early Gavin Mahon drive at Pollitt, we can actually claim to have had only one less shot on target than our hosts during the second half, despite the complete imbalance in other respects. A really fine effort, that. And a potentially valuable point, even if we did hope for more at the interval.

It's hard to pick anything out, for this was about organisation and concentration rather than desperation. We kept Rotherham out not only because we put players behind the ball and battled, but because those players put themselves in the right places and did the right things, a performance from the heart and head. If you want an example, try this - after forty minutes, a combination of a slip from Marcus Gayle and a sliced clearance from Gavin Mahon allowed Morris to shoot from the edge of the area. And Chris Baird was not only in position to head away from the line, but had the presence of mind to call to Alec Chamberlain, preventing the keeper's dive from interfering with a comfortable clearing header. If we weren't always quite that composed, we nonetheless appeared to be much more cohesive, solid defensive unit than for some time.

Thus, there is comparatively little to report from what was often a frantic, nerve-wracking half. Indeed, for all the anxiety, it was rare for there to be genuine danger. When Butler found space to collect the ball from Proctor's run after nine minutes, for example, it was unusual to see that he'd been allowed a clear sight of the target...and, perhaps through surprise, he got the ball caught under his feet before he could take advantage and Monkhouse could only shoot weakly when the loose ball ran his way. Until the half hour mark, when Alec Chamberlain emerged smartly from his line to smother as Butler sought to apply the finishing touch to a lofted pass, that was as close as Rotherham came. Or were allowed to come, more accurately.

Time passed, too slowly. With it, the referee's tendency to lean towards the home side became more irritating, as did the flag of that linesman; the Rotherham attacks became more sustained and more threatening, as ours became even more sporadic; the point began to look like a more appealing prospect. Scott Fitzgerald replaced Bruce Dyer, to little effect as neither striker could do more than chase around after the ball; Paolo Vernazza replaced Lee Cook to lock up the left side, to some understandable grumbling from those who'd still not given up on snatching something on the break.

But we held firm. Alec Chamberlain withstood something of a battering as he attempted to claim crosses under the kind of physical pressure that was being instantly punished by a fussy referee everywhere else on the pitch. And his defenders battled to protect him, requiring only that brave dive to deny Butler and a comfortable collect from an injury time scuff by Morris. Much of this was not at all fun to watch, endlessly feeling that disaster was imminent. It's hard to have faith, just yet. A few more performances like this, however, and the belief will surely start to grow. The last four games represent a stern test, to be sure, but also an opportunity to finish the season with some promise for the next, even if the squad will be reduced further during the summer.

Another point closer to another season of First Division football, then. More optimistically, this was a point gained in a manner that opened up the possibility of further positive results, of something better than a desperate, last-ditch scrap for survival. In short, this is not a team that looks like relegation fodder right now. And there are others, already below us, who look exactly like that.

It's not over just yet. But it's well within our power.