By Ian Grant
It's hard to believe that there are already so many what-ifs and might-have-beens so early in the season.
Of course, some of those what-ifs and might-have-beens continue to over-shadow events on the pitch, making our
last two results seem trivial by comparison...and yet it's also obvious that, while the shadows would still
remain, a win or two would add some valuable, vital sunshine to the picture.
We haven't been too far away. Change a few variables and we would've recorded positive results in these
opening league fixtures, and recorded them against two of the division's there-or-thereabouts sides too. It's
damn hard not to pick over these games in search of clues, to attempt to find out how exactly we won them
in that proverbial parallel universe. Because the gap between two one-nil defeats and two one-nil victories is
far narrower than instinctive, emotive reactions suggest. Because we have to work out how to bridge that
There were minor differences between this and the defeat at Selhurst a week ago. We didn't give the winning
goal away in quite such an inept way, for a start. And we were, it's worth remembering, coming up against
one of the promotion favourites, in much better shape than when they visited back in January. But these differences
are only minor, for the script varied little in most respects.
Again, we dominated for long periods; again, we neither created enough chances nor took those that we did
create during those spells; again, we lost to a goal that we might've prevented; again, the equaliser was
denied us by a fairly miraculous goalline clearance; again, the later stages of the game saw us lose our
way. Again, we have to hold onto the positives, to build on them. There's certainly no need to
return to the drawing board yet, for just a couple of goals would've turned this into an impressive, encouraging
opening to the season. Just a couple of goals....
Really, we've been more than a little unfortunate. In contrast to the kind of obstinate, organised resistance
that we've encountered so far, you suspect that more than a couple of First Division defences would've buckled
and collapsed under the kind of pressure that we've shown ourselves capable of exerting. But you also suspect
that we could do with coming up against one of those opponents sooner rather than later. The concern is
that much more of this goalless frustration will lead either to a complete loss of confidence or to the need
to formulate and implement some kind of Plan B. Which would be a terrible shame, for there has been a great deal about
these performances that has been very good indeed.
The first half certainly falls into that category. This fixture was a real test...and, after ten minutes
of slightly nervous preparation, we faced up to that test. During that ten minutes, a combination of Neil Cox and
a defender drove a header wide from a fine Neal Ardley free kick, but there were also difficult moments at the
other end - Alec Chamberlain struggling to clear a looping Johnson header from the danger area, then Gaardsoe
drifting away from everyone else at the far post to head over. We were still playing for serve, as it were...but we
were soon to dominate....
And dominate superbly too. For a while, the quantity of possession was pretty much irrelevant, a warehouse load of
stock that we hadn't yet taken to market. We passed it around well enough, keeping the ball moving at a
smart tempo and checking the West Brom defence for leaks...but that was it, essentially. Nevertheless, while
the ball rarely threatened the six yard box, it was still a significant time, a period in which we effectively
forced West Brom to think in terms of getting to half-time without conceding rather than anything more
ambitious. A moral victory, at the very least.
It was nearly more than that, though. With confidence growing, we needed something to set it all off, to
signal the charge. And it came from Gavin Mahon, with a fiercely competitive (and successful) challenge in
midfield that had people rising from their seats, passion rising from throats, heartbeats accelerating. Within
moments, that charge had begun, with Lloyd Doyley pushing the ball past his man and bursting down the right wing, Bruce
Dyer becoming actively involved for the first time, others following the example. Suddenly, we were beginning
to hurt West Brom rather than merely ensure that they didn't hurt us.
Ultimately, and in cruel contrast to the winning goal, the ball wouldn't fall in the right place at the right
time. In the end, despite sustained pressure and regular delivery, set pieces provided the greatest threat,
a chance to get yellow shirts into the box and supply them with the ball, something that wasn't always so
easy in open play. Late on, Neil Cox was terribly unlucky to be denied, thumping in a header from a Neal
Ardley corner and bringing a flying save from the West Brom keeper. Unlucky, as a foot to either side would've
made all the difference. A couple of minutes afterwards, Heidar Helguson glanced wide from another Ardley
So, half-time brought a familiar frustration, mixed with the optimism generated by another positive, strong-willed
forty-five minutes. We have to sustain it, for the rewards will surely come. And if they do come,
this will be a powerful side, capable of controlling games with consistency and authority. Oh,
to find those precious goals, wherever they're hiding....
For a while, the second half threatened to turn to our advantage. That is, things opened up somewhat, with
West Brom breaking out of their territory more regularly...and thereby affording us rather more space in which
to construct our attacks. It was a risky time, sure - something demonstrated by Koumas' clear run at goal
in the fifty-second minute, a run that was a little hesitant and foiled by Alec Chamberlain's fine intervention
at the midfielder's feet as he attempted to round the keeper - but it held much promise too. Having struggled
against two deep, heavily populated defences, we needed a bit of room to breathe...and immediately after
Koumas should've opened the scoring, Danny Webber was holding off an opponent to sprint into unusually broad
expanses at the Vic Road end.
Unfortunately, the visitors scored almost immediately. And it has to be said that chanting "ONE SEASON WONDER"
at Lee Hughes isn't terribly clever, firstly because it's not actually true and secondly because the consequences
are almost inevitable. Fate, having been tempted, duly obliged by providing the striker with an unmissable
chance via a series of absurd ricochets from a corner that began with Neal Ardley's near post slice and ended
with an unopposed Hughes header from three yards. It wasn't pretty, but it was exactly the kind of good fortune
that we'd give anything for right now.
With a lead to defend, West Brom did just that. Again, we found ourselves faced with so many bodies, so little room to
manoeuvre, so little time. Even when we felt brave and confident enough to run at opponents, success was
measured in corners rather than goal attempts...although Marcus Gayle did set an example by striding magnificently
forward from defence and smacking a rising drive just over. There was loads of effort and determination, yet
not quite enough guile to make the breakthrough.
And no luck either. As with last week's Helguson header, there was that one moment when the equaliser seemed
a certainty. Here, Micah Hyde's twisting run down the right side of the penalty area and hanging cross brought
an uncharacteristic handling error from Hoult, dropping the ball into the heart of the penalty area. Straight
to Danny Webber, who smashed it back whence it came, only to be denied by a block and then by a clearing
header from the line. Denied, again. But not forever, hopefully.
Just then, it was hard to avoid the feeling that it wouldn't be our day. Nothing that followed made the
feeling go away. Indeed, although various people - Micah Hyde, Jamie Hand, Paul Robinson and Gavin Mahon -
had a wallop at goal from outside the area, the more likely location for a second goal was always at the
other end. Except that Hughes had now departed and Dichio had arrived, the latter proving to be entertainingly
hapless, missing three decent chances in the last ten minutes as West Brom breaks tore into our sparsely
Which completed the carbon copy of last week's script, really. For we'd lost our sense of direction by injury
time, four minutes of which were filled with a pointless booking for dissent for Paul Robinson, a drive into the
Rookery by Clement, and another Dichio miss from a Koumas break. That the final whistle blew as Lloyd Doyley
and Gavin Mahon were getting themselves into a bit of a mess in their own half rather sums things up, and can
be the only excuse for the smattering of boos that greeted the end. In truth, we were much, much better than the
distinctly ragged finale suggested.
It deserved a rather happier ending.
And a goal.