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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/11/03, 3.00pm
Rotherham United
The chosen three
By Ian Grant

The voice spoke. The earth shook. The mountains trembled, the ground shuddered. Trees swayed in terror, rocks rumbled with the echo of that awful, monstrous sound.

The voice spoke. The earth shook. And so forth. And it addressed Harry the Hornet, struck still with heart-stopping fright. Harry the Hornet, so little, so tiny, so powerless in comparison with that mighty presence. He stared skyward...part of him attempting to catch a glimpse of the source of the sound, much more of him scared of what he might see, terrified to the very core of his soul.

The voice spoke. "Hornet," it said, a mighty tremor of bass. "Hornet, thou art but a speck of dust in my presence. Fear me, and hear my words, for fate has dealt the cards thus. Seek far and wide, the answer lies scattered. Choose three, only three, and choose wisely. Choose wisely, little Hornet, for thy freedom and thy life depends on thy choice. Now go, seek. And return only with the courage of the wise."

Thus addressed, Harry the Hornet trembled, turned and fled from the voice and its infinite power. Thus instructed, Harry the Hornet sought, his quest taking him from the vast plains of Erhhighstone to the peaks of Dnignflop, from the impenetrable forest of Yyipyyip to the famous maze at Rdelpinge, from the barren hostility of Pdingquid to the fertile beauty of Brrringzit. Oh, and Swindon too. Many days, many weeks, many months passed before he returned to the starting point of his fantastic journey, fearful and shaking, to face the voice again. To give his answer. To discover his fate.

"Well, little Hornet," roared the voice. "Thy journey has ended. Thy choice is made. But is it wise, I wonder? So, the chosen three. Tell me the chosen three."

Harry cleared his throat, afraid that his voice, just a feeble squeak, might desert him altogether. And he spoke, quivering and nervous.

"My, erm, lordship, I come here with my, er, chosen, erm. Thou art, erm, oh. I am, ah. My lordship, hear me for I, er, have searched from the vast plains of...."

It wasn't going well. The voice was impatient.


"Yes, my...erm, your lordship. The chosen three. Franchise FC and Bradford and Rotherham. And, just in case, erm...for insurance, y', Stoke. And Walsall. Yes."

"And your reason, Hornet?"

"Well, your, erm, honour...they're all a load of old bollocks, innit."

"You have chosen wisely, Hornet," boomed the voice, to Harry's immense relief. "Now, go forth. Go forth and pootle around in mid-table for a while, until I call you again. You know, a bit like Norwich always used to do."

And so it came to pass.


It's not quite that simple, obviously. Nevertheless, it's rather satisfying to be able to look at the league table, glance around the teams at the bottom, and identify three that are comfortably, considerably, and tangibly worse than us. Franchise, Bradford, Rotherham. Not us. That'll do.

You'd rather hope that our ambitions might stretch a little further than that, of course. Being a bit better than Bradford isn't exactly a towering achievement, after all. But it'll do for now, I guess. For all that the season started with fairly high expectations, not being in the bottom three seems like a useful point from which to begin again. It could be worse. And it might get better.

From all that, you'll have gathered that Rotherham were complete tosh, dreadful nonsense. The side that visited, and won, back in February was akin to an Islay malt - an acquired taste, sure, but a potent and compelling one for all that. This, on the other hand, was Happy Shopper Budget Blend, mixed with lukewarm tap water. They were, perhaps, ever so slightly more impressive than the two sides currently below them in the table, although you wouldn't want to get too close to carry out a proper examination. Whatever, they're not the team that they were barely six months ago. Hell, we very nearly scored from a lofted set piece, something the old, dogged, massive Rotherham would never have allowed....

Which made this another in the sequence of odd, curious, and thoroughly forgettable matches. No complaint about the result, certainly, but it's hard to imagine that any of the occasional visitors, tempted in by budget prices and inflating the crowd to over eighteen thousand, will be eagerly saving up for a season ticket as we speak. We won, we played well in patches, and so forth. But the most exciting aspect of the afternoon was the introduction of the vegetable balti pie to Vicarage Road, an entirely unexpected and completely marvellous experience that pretty much guarantees the club an extra 1.60 from my pocket every other week. From small, erm, things are great, er, freeholds repurchased.

The first half, then.

And moving swiftly on....

Oh, all right. More detail. It was an absolutely rotten forty-five minutes of football. Will that do?

It wasn't so much that nothing happened. For the most part, nothing at all happened, of course...but it was more the manner in which it didn't happen. A slouchy, careless, insolent sort of half, that refused to surrender to the norms of professional football like a gobby teenager at the back of the class. The ball flew around randomly as if it was merely getting in the way of something else, kicked aside like a stray balloon whenever it coincided with a crowd of people. And throughout, I couldn't help thinking of the whole Milton Keynes fiasco again. And of the fact that, supermarkets aside, it was all for this. Funny old world sometimes.

We finished without a shot on target, unless you count a drive from Paul Devlin, comfortably the most inventive and intelligent footballer on show, that was blocked within a yard of leaving his right boot. Or you could count a snap-shot from Scott Fitzgerald that briefly seemed, from the Rookery end, to have hit the back of the net, but had actually missed the near post and ended up behind the goal. Or you could point out that Montgomery did have to make a save, albeit only to push away a looping Fitzgerald cross...and without a significant challenge from any of the other forwards too. That's all getting a bit desperate, though.

Really, the half was neatly encapsulated by two moments. First, a problem with gravity that seemed to spread like an epidemic and then disappeared just as swiftly, having sent the referee, Paolo Vernazza and a Rotherham player tumbling to the ground in quick succession, to great cheers from the thoroughly bored masses. Second, a shot from Sedgwick that, by the time it went out for a throw by the corner flag, was actually going backwards. Just rubbish.

After forty-one interminable minutes, Richard Barker came close to scoring, hitting the outside of the post with a slightly deflected shot after we'd made a bit of a mess of clearing a right wing cross, and it didn't really make any sense. A half as dreadful as this has to end goalless. It did, normal service resumed as Baudet thundered a free kick into the sky in the remaining minutes, missing the target by a quite epic, heroic distance. The end. Thank heavens.

A game of one half, then. Whatever happened during the interval, it quickly became clear that we were intent on making a bright, positive start to the second half. Or, more precisely, Danny Webber was intent on making a bright, positive start, and was equally determined to drag everyone else along with him. It should've happened much earlier, of course, but we should probably be thankful that it happened at all. By the final whistle, we were wondering how we'd managed to avoid burying Rotherham, but that was greatly preferable to wondering how we'd failed to beat them.

It took just a couple of minutes. Bright and positive, that's all. It took some adventurous thinking from Danny Webber, holding his runs and waiting impatiently for the ball over the top. It took some vision from those further back to pick out those runs. That's all. Within a minute, Wayne Brown, who had a very encouraging afternoon, drove a magnificent pass from deep, releasing Danny Webber into the space behind the defence for the first time. Left foot half-volley, Montgomery parry, heads in hands. No matter. The ball was cleared, but the striker merely returned to the same starting position, hanging on the shoulder of the last defender as the next attack began. This time, it was Neal Ardley's chipped pass; this time, crucially, it was the right foot. Bottom corner, one-nil. After forty-five minutes of making everything seem absolutely impossible, it suddenly looked terribly easy.

There should've been a load more. Rotherham simply forgot about defending, and the only complication was our failure to take full advantage. It'll be a while before we have chances like these again, and even longer before we can afford to waste them. Forty-nine minutes, and Scott Fitzgerald's tackle on the left wing was no different from countless other workmanlike interventions all over the pitch. Except that, having won possession, he was allowed to run from his own half into the penalty area, without meeting a significant challenge. He blazed over when he got there, with Danny Webber well-placed...but it's hard to complain about strikers shooting too hastily at the moment.

And plenty more. A slightly elaborate tumble from Paul Devlin - who, unfortunately, makes rather a habit of such things - set up Neal Ardley with a free kick opportunity, flipped precisely over the wall and finger-tipped away by Montgomery before it could nestle in the top corner. From there, Neal Ardley's corner, Marcus Gayle's near post flick, Neil Cox's diving header...and, somehow, Sedgwick's forehead managed to deflect the ball over the bar from the goalline, miraculous defending that defied geometry. A splendid through-ball from Neil Cox, setting Danny Webber free again, unable to bring the ball fully under control, prodding weakly to the keeper. A Neal Ardley cross from the right, finding Scott Fitzgerald all on his own at the near post...six yards out, clean contact, and a foot wide. Not exactly relentless pressure. Very productive pressure, though.

Two would've been pleasant. Even with one, however, things weren't exactly fraught...and the whole rigmarole of keeping the ball in the corner in injury time seemed more than a little unnecessary, if easy enough to understand. The Rotherham revival singularly failed to hold anyone's attention, comprising little more than a few half-chances - Richard Barker struck a volley at Lenny Pidgeley, Warne dragged a shot wide, Mullin came closest with a low drive that missed by a couple of feet in the eighty-first minute. Really, though, the security of a second goal wasn't particularly necessary, in the end. Just would've been nice, that's all.

Rotherham were rubbish to begin with. They were even worse by the end, disorganised and shambolic. Which, again, is a reason to take your optimism with a pinch of salt, for, as against Bradford, we came a bit closer to failing to beat them than we should've. It wasn't that comfortable. Still, the anxiety of injury time was rather dissipated by one final moment of absurdity, a lazy and hopelessly inaccurate pass in-field from a Rotherham defender that was completely ignored by everyone apart from Danny Webber, who ought to have scored his fourth of the afternoon. He didn't...although it took him about a minute to not do so, which was fine....

To emphasise the previous point, however, Wayne Brown concluded proceedings by being cautioned for a quite extravagantly savage foul to halt a Rotherham break as it crossed halfway. Well worth a booking, in every sense...and a reminder that we'd still left a few things to chance. A Rotherham equaliser would've been absurd, naturally. And it's highly unlikely that that break would've resulted in such a thing. But much of this season has been absurd and unlikely, in a variety of ways.

One-nil is perfect, when the whistle's blown. But not before.

Seventeenth, comfortably above the chosen three, will be fine too, in May.

But not before.