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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 07/02/04, 3.00pm
By Ian Grant

Some things are impossible.

A friend and I have a very long-standing - some years already, and probably many more - agreement relating to our mutual desire to read Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, his mighty and comprehensive definition of existentialist philosophy. Just in case you don't have a copy to hand - or it's propping a door open, perhaps - we're talking about six hundred-plus pages of this kind of thing (he says, opening it at random):

'Thus this relation which I call "being-seen-by-another," far from being merely one of the relations signified by the word man, represents an irreducible fact which cannot be deduced either from the essence of the Other-as-object, or from my being-as-subject. On the contrary, if the concept of the Other-as-object is to have any meaning, this can be only as the result of the conversion and degradation of that original relation.'

So that's all clear enough, then.

The agreement being that if either of us ever manages to read the thing, the other has to eat it. The flaw being that eating it would undoubtedly be very much quicker and easier, and would probably involve fewer and less severe long-term side effects too. A later addition states that if either of us ever manages to read it in the original French, the other gets to claim ownership of their flat.

In short, it really ain't going to happen. Which isn't to say that it's technically impossible, for it would take nothing more than a vast amount of time and effort. Rather, it's actually impossible, given that neither of us will ever be able or willing to sacrifice that vast amount of time and effort. And sanity. We live with these impossibilities all of the time, of course. Some things are impossible, some things are possible...and we weigh them up, pursue the latter, get on with life.

Which is what yesterday was all about, in essence. Because there's nothing impossible about survival here, nothing that can't be achieved. But there's nothing easy about it either, which is perhaps where some of the current confusion comes from. Confusion that yesterday did nothing to clear up, really...for the failure to hang on to a two-goal lead can only have increased the sense of impossibility, while the way in which we established that lead, controversy aside, can only have done the reverse. To be continued.

Still, the bottom line is that it can't be entirely hopeless just yet, if we're capable of this. And that's something in itself, given recent, traumatic events. Nor can the manager have lost the ability to motivate his players, for whatever might've been lacking, it certainly wasn't determination. That we weren't able to stumble over the finishing line, while deeply frustrating and depressing, is no reason to ignore what went before...and, indeed, it's every reason to go back and start in the same way again, next Saturday and onwards. There are still things to build on.

Really, much of this was very good indeed. Not in a tidy, graceful, stylish way, for we can hardly expect to see much that's glorious and elegant at the moment. Nor in an organised, solid, nerveless way either, for we courted disaster on a few occasions, even before the late Sunderland fightback. But in a battling, struggling, fighting way, it was pretty much beyond criticism. As we know only too well, there are barely three or four players in the entire squad who can reasonably be considered to be in good form at the moment, yet there were many more here who were giving it absolutely everything in an attempt to get through the sticky patch. That's more than half the battle, right there. And it's a battle that we seem ready to fight, at long last.

In which case, bring it on. It's what we've been impatiently waiting for, what we've needed to see. For all the imperfections, and for all the wreckage at the end, it's a first step. A sign that some people are willing to take responsibility, to stand up tall. Long overdue, I think, but not too late. Not too late, even now.

We started uncertainly, inviting Sunderland to dominate the early possession...but even then, there was a doggedness about our defending that promised much more than we'd expected. Even as our rearguard occasionally fell apart into disorganised chaos, with Neil Cox hurtling across from his right back berth to help out Sean Dyche and Jerel Ifil in the middle, it did so in a frantically committed way. Whatever mistakes we were to make, and there were plenty, we seemed anxious to ensure that they were positive, aggressive, active mistakes.

Even so, the early goal was a completely unexpected bonus. And a fine one too, swept into the bottom corner by the typically industrious Gavin Mahon after Scott Fitzgerald had done tremendously well to hold off a defender and pick out a pull-back. Not on the agenda at all, that...and the afternoon suddenly took on a rather different tone, especially as the subsequent minutes were occupied by some fantastically resolute defending to secure the unexpected lead, battling away to counter every Sunderland threat at every turn. While some howled at each booted clearance, this was tremendous, spirited stuff from a team that appeared to have slammed a full stop onto the end of a long and very wearisome sentence.

And when we did break out, we did it quickly and effectively. After six minutes of listening to Sunderland banging on the front door, we sneaked out the back way and damn nearly caught them out, as Neal Ardley's clearance and Paul Devlin's aggressive run and Scott Fitzgerald's fine cross set up Gavin Mahon again, only for him to steer his far post header into Poom's chest. There were chances here, moments that might've eliminated the possibility of what happened later...and another, later break saw Poom fail to hold a low drive from Scott Fitzgerald, before Sean Dyche's far post header from the resulting corner was hacked away from the line. Positive football, for all that we spent a fair amount of time protecting our own goal.

Despite a few nervous moments, we did that pretty well too. While a whipped, skidding McAteer free kick nearly snuck in at the far post after eighteen minutes, it was only when Arca finished a speedy right-to-left attack by slicing well over from ten yards that Lenny Pidgeley had any real cause for concern. That was a decent opening...and, although McAteer headed comfortably wide in the last couple of minutes, it was the only one that we permitted our opponents. In complete contrast to that match, they were made to work for everything, and given nothing. That includes Tommy Smith, shut out by the defence and shouted at, disgracefully, by the Rookery. Save it for Connolly, for heaven's sake.

But they were given a reprieve, perhaps. For we really ought to have added a second before the break, as Neal Ardley's smartly-taken dead ball from the right found Neil Cox drifting in the near post area, completely unchallenged. Not for the first time in recent weeks, he didn't hit the target, let alone the net. And, again, not for the first time, the problem wasn't that we hadn't created chances, but that we'd failed to take them. Thankfully, our single goal was still enough to divide the teams at half-time, on this occasion. For all these quibbles, the sustained applause was very well deserved.

And the same was true when we finally stretched that lead, even if the details of the happy event owed much to good fortune and atrocious officiating. For twenty minutes, we settled into the second half as we'd settled into the first, aggressive and combative in every area of the field, forcing each issue and forgetting each mistake. An untidy but absorbing game, slightly typified by a single minute in which both goalkeepers (and Poom twice) narrowly avoided calamity with ill-judged dribbling and out-of-the-box excursions...and yet really typified by the relish with which Micah Hyde snapped into tackles and darted around the midfield throughout. Not back to his best by any means, but eager to be so, which is nearly as good. We seemed set on winning this, truly determined.

We needed some luck, though. After Poom had dived full-length to push away a Neal Ardley curler, completing a neat move involving a Micah Hyde pass and a Scott Fitzgerald dummy, and Gavin Mahon had thumped a drive into the Rookery, we got just that. And more besides. For anyone with a half-decent view, there was no need of a replay - when it came to the award of a penalty, Babb's tackle on Heidar Helguson as the latter tried to beat him on the outside very clearly failed to meet two crucial criteria. That is, it was comfortably outside the box...and even if it hadn't been, it was a clean, well-timed tackle anyway. We knew it, the players knew it, the linesman flagged dramatically, the referee pointed to the spot after some consultation.

A complete and utter nonsense...but Sunderland fans will forgive us if, in the current circumstances, we're just happy to have something to celebrate. And, for all the stupidity that surrounded it, Neil Cox's penalty was remarkably decisive, dumped into the top corner in a way that made Poom's movements seem completely irrelevant and our catalogue of past misses look rather daft. Two-nil to the Golden Boys....

And you know the rest already, I guess. Except that you don't, perhaps. Not entirely. For the ten minutes that preceded the first Sunderland goal were certainly not occupied by a tactical withdrawal into our own half, whatever you might have heard. On the contrary, despite much raging and ranting from the indignant visitors, we were calm and controlled and apparently more likely to score, as the confidence began to flow more freely and the reward for our efforts came into view. There was no Sunderland comeback, not yet; there was no Watford retreat either. Only when we lapsed at a corner, allowing a near-post flick to send the ball across towards Stewart for a close range header, did the course of the game change.

Then, with fifteen minutes remaining, we were suddenly in trouble. Although some of what followed was indeed self-inflicted, it's hard to believe that repelling an in-form team in the last minutes can be achieved without at least some frantic, last-ditch defending. In an ideal world, perhaps. But, as we well know, our world is far from ideal right now. In the circumstances, the withdrawl of Scott Fitzgerald and the reinforcement of the midfield with Paolo Vernazza seemed, and still seems, entirely the sensible move. Far too much fuss is made about "sending signals" to players, when the very worst signal to send would be that the manager would rather worry about sending signals than solving problems. Besides, while much has been made of our tendency to put nine men behind the ball in such situations, I'd rather have them behind it than in front of it....

Whatever, the result remains the same. We held on with considerable tenacity, but Sunderland proved too good to be resisted for long enough, and Byfield's turn and drifting shot into the far corner brought the scores level with five minutes still remaining. Dashed hopes, truly desperate moments. We seemed rather slow to react, eventually bringing on Lee Cook as added time began and giving young Hameur Bouazza his debut later still, in a belated attempt to salvage more than a token point from the afternoon's very considerable efforts.

Dramatic, certainly. But we hadn't really wanted drama. In three minutes of injury time, the result might've swung either way, inflicting still more torture or permitting one final, extraordinary explosion of relief and joy. First, McAteer's dinked finish cleared Lenny Pidgeley's leap and seemed destined to trickle into the bottom corner until it hit the inside of the post...and even then, it was only cleared by the same via-woodwork route that it had arrived. Almost immediately, we managed to set Lee Cook free with only one defender ahead of him and Paul Devlin screaming for a pass to his right...and he made a total hash of it, retaining possession for too long, before hacking a clumsy pass straight to that single defender. Even then, in the last frantic seconds, flicks from Sean Dyche and Heidar Helguson to a long throw sent the ball bouncing through the six yard box with no-one to get a touch. Still fighting, then.

But you can imagine the mood at the final whistle. If you were there, you don't need to imagine it, of course...but you probably don't want to be reminded either. Damn hard to escape the impression that these were our last hopes of a recovery, that the damage inflicted by that comeback will mean that there's no repeat of the positive, determined approach that so characterised the previous seventy-five minutes. In a season of far too many "if only..." moments, there's one more left....

If only we can repeat it, taking on the Preston game in the same way that we took on this one, then there is still much to play for. We got it right here. We got it right, even if it didn't work out as we'd hoped. We can - must - do that again.

Not impossible. But not easy.