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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 12/03/05, 3.00pm
Queens Park Rangers
Drawn curtains
By Ian Grant

Minor chords, crestfallen words. We've all got 'em. Filed away somewhere, those favourite records for soothing emotional wounds, when there's nothing else to do but wallow in self-pity for a little while before picking yourself up and carrying on again. Some bands do it with a touch of class and style, some just clog up your ears with cloying sentimentality; whatever, take your pick and save it for a rainy day.

There are a few reliable heartbreak salves stuffed away in my own collection, and there's Codeine too. Utterly unique in spite of subsequent generations of slow-slow-slow copyists, Codeine are the last resort. The line that should never be crossed. Dangerous. They were a spectacular and magnificent band, and their last album - "The White Birch", a record so utterly devoid of colour that it feels like being lost in a snowstorm - is among my all-time top five. Top three, maybe. But I can't listen to it any more.

Because, as the name suggests, Codeine are an anaesthetic. There's no pain, no torment, no screaming anguish. They shared a label with Nirvana, but none of that band's catharsis. Instead, when you listen to Codeine, you close your curtains on the world. You hide under the duvet and shut it all out. You surrender. And that's the terrifying thing: with Codeine in the CD player, it's all right simply to give up, no need to carry on. Sometimes, as you walk out into that snowstorm, it doesn't seem to matter if you don't come back....

But it does matter, of course. The world keeps spinning, outside those closed curtains. You have to face it eventually. Otherwise, there's only an absence, a lack...and that's your theme for this afternoon's lecture. Because, much as the last two performances provoked dismay and anger and considerable debate, they nevertheless contained a sense of purpose, even if misplaced. Against Coventry, we were overwhelmed by inexperience, and unable to pull out a miracle to match the draw at Wigan; against Forest, despite a load of fuss about the chosen formation, we were positive and assertive for forty-four minutes, then chaotic and forlorn in our attempts to recover from an absurd goal. Here, though, there was only absence. A vast expanse of nothing.

That's the concern. Despite a certain amount of empty bluster directed towards Lee Cook and then Graham Poll, this was about feeble surrender, about shutting out the world. A performance that was utterly devoid of substance, and just about got what it deserved...and we're simply not in a position where we can afford to abdicate responsibility for our fate, not yet. We have to intervene.

Instead, we're slipping quietly away. There's an awful lot of huffery-puffery to distract from the central problem, which is that we've both lost the ability to defend as a coherent unit and lost the ability to supply the ball to the forwards around the penalty area in any kind of order. One finds it hard to believe that Queens Park Rangers will stumble across an easier three points, frankly: we neither challenged their goal nor protected ours, which is a recipe for shite pie. Predictably, and wrongly, the referee took an awful lot of stick for his decision to award an early penalty and dismiss Brynjar Gunnarsson; it's tempting to say, however, that he did us a considerable favour in providing some mitigating circumstances for a performance that was already courting disaster. In most of Pete Bradshaw's parallel universes, the ball whistled past Gunnarsson's arm and into the back of the net, and we lost four-one with eleven men.

In this world, some of that nothingness was obscured by the early disadvantage, and by Neal Ardley's lovely strike towards the end too. But if you peer a little more closely, you can see through all of the abject failure to defend the flanks against two out-and-out wingers, to the hesitancy in the heart of the penalty area when the inevitable crosses began to come flying in, to the comfort blanket of sideways passing in midfield with nobody breaking forward to support Heidar the inevitable end result, a heavy defeat that might've been still heavier. At the end, applause from the travelling fans, coupled with chants for the players currently in favour, and a further blurring of the picture to confuse matters even more. Somewhere, there's a truth that we have to face.

Among other things, that truth involves the fact that we might've been one or two goals down before the arrival of the so-called "pivotal" moment. For we were patently incapable of dealing with an impassioned Lee Cook from the very first minute, when he skipped goalwards and sent a drive bouncing a couple of yards wide; if he'd played like this for Watford every week, I could've understood both his adoption as a fans' favourite and the subsequent fury at his departure. He didn't, of course...but it was still painful to watch him orchestrate the victory while our own creative efforts were such a feeble fizzle. Two minutes, and Bircham just missed out on a connection with Rose's left wing cross, before Cook supplied Furlong for a turn and tame shot from the edge of the box. Hindsight isn't always such a wonderful thing.

While any kind of attack seemed to require an impossible effort from our players, Rangers were creating chances at will. Still inside the opening ten minutes, Neil Cox lost out to Gallen in an aerial challenge and the striker was able to continue unobstructed into the penalty area, where Furlong should've done better than to volley over from close range. Then, with only eight minutes gone, a corner taken short to Cook, given the time to pick out Furlong at the far post, and only a fantastic flailing save from Richard Lee managed to delay the inevitable. Thirteen minutes, and another Cook cross found Furlong loitering on the penalty spot to head wide, with time and space to score. Already, we were nowhere, lost and confused.

Except that, very briefly, we surfaced for air. A series of corners near the twenty minute mark, in which Bruce Dyer headed across goal and a defender diverted a low Johnnie Jackson centre over his own bar...and you sensed that there might well be joy to be had at set pieces, if we could find some kind of security at the other end. Momentary encouragement, a glimpse of the possibility that we might be able to sneak something...and then, self-destruction. A simple ball through, Furlong ahead of Jay Demerit, Richard Lee scrambling at their feet, Gallen's follow-up shot, Brynjar Gunnarsson's arm on the line. Penalty, red card...and, whatever insults might've been directed at the referee for the decision, there was no real argument about it. Not then, and definitely not now.

That might've been that. Except that Richard Lee's guesswork and agility enabled him to pull off a quite superb save to Gallen's spot-kick, diving low to his left to get a hand to the ball. It came bouncing out, back to Gallen, whose header drifted against the crossbar; back out again, to Rowlands, who allowed the celebrations to commence by heading over. More than we deserved, perhaps...but brilliant, thrilling goalkeeping from Lee that offered hope of a heroic, glorious afternoon.

That hope wasn't immediately extinguished, either. With a cause to rally around, we made an urgent substitution - removing Bruce Dyer from his right wing role to reinforce the depleted midfield with Neal Ardley - and began to assert ourselves a little more. Just a bit of bite in the tackles, a bit of nervous tension in the Rangers passing, a sense of direction and purpose. With, very nearly, a tangible reward as Hameur Bouazza sprayed the ball across to Neal Ardley, Heidar Helguson inevitably rising to meet the inevitable cross to the far post and looping his header over with Royce struggling. Only a half-chance, in normal circumstances; in these circumstances, our only chance.

The hope didn't last very much longer. As our revival subsided and Rangers adjusted to the new pattern, we were finally made to pay for allowing two wingers to dictate terms. First, it was Cook again, belting in a low cross from the left that missed Bircham's near post run but found Furlong further back, shuffling a neat finish into the bottom corner with defenders watching. Long overdue, really. And unavoidable, given our dismal defending. Then, with half-time upon us, an even worse example for the post-mortem to dissect: Jermaine Darlington dumped onto his arse by Ainsworth's turn, leaving the QPR attack with a training ground exercise that ended with Gallen's simple finish. Hopeless, in every sense.

That Jermaine Darlington was replaced by Lloyd Doyley at the break rather speaks for itself. But we had so many more problems than that, so much absence stretched across so much turf. At the start of the second half, there was the temptation of idle contemplation of a comeback, as Rangers lost their momentum and we began to find it rather easier to keep the ball. A goal at this point would've been an interesting intervention, testing whether the home side could fire themselves up again and, at the very least, lifting our spirits.

No sooner had I expressed this thought aloud, of course, than Rangers finished the contest with a third goal. On the break, Cook - again - denied once by a desperate Jay Demerit clearance, but not twice: the second cross landed neatly on Gallen's head, dispatched just as neatly beyond Richard Lee. When another sweeping move concluded with you-know-who crossing for Furlong to slide in at the far post and somehow miss the target from inside the six yard box, you began to feel that we'd do well to avoid complete humiliation in the remaining half hour. Wide open, any and every QPR attack seemed to end in an opportunity to score, and the introduction of Danny Webber only seemed to reduce the already sparse protection for our goal.

In which case, I suppose that I'm duty-bound to say that we did well to avoid complete humiliation. But let's not get carried away: Rangers relaxed, we showed some sparks of pride, but the result was never in any doubt at all. Besides, we shouldn't kid ourselves about any promises of improvement: for all the possession, and for all that we at long last managed to threaten Royce's goal, we still didn't create anything that you'd recognise as a chance. Of our half-dozen goal attempts during the ninety minutes, only Heidar Helguson's first half header wasn't a speculative effort from outside the penalty area. Having progressed so far during this campaign, we've once again lost command of the basics.

We got closer, gradually and irrelevantly. Neal Ardley - the only Watford player to show any genuine quality or form, and therefore impossible to drop for the Leicester game - sauntered in from the left to curl a shot over the crossbar, before Johnnie Jackson brought a decent save from Royce with a rising drive from twenty yards. And then, at last, Heidar Helguson rose imperiously to nod Jackson's long ball down to Ardley, who let it bounce while he considered his options and, with the outside of his right boot, casually and gracefully swept a dipping half-volley over Royce's desperate leap. Absolutely sublime...and yet that's rather the point, for while it added much to the style of the performance, there was still no substance. You win matches with the goals that Rangers scored, not by relying on miracles.

That said, we'd still be tremendously grateful if Neal Ardley were to return to the kind of form that lit up the earlier parts of the season, and his searching through-ball for Heidar Helguson late on was certainly reminiscent of happier times. The striker wasted it with a scuffed cross, finally ending even the most upbeat optimist's hopes of a memorable conclusion. The second half never reached the dark and terrifying corners that it had threatened to explore; instead, it floated aimlessly towards the final whistle, all the important decisions having been made before the interval. A half with nothing much at stake, and it suited us more than the important stuff.

And that's all. Just the absence, the lack, the nothingness of a team drifting towards crisis. A crisis that can still be avoided, clearly...but not without someone taking assertive, positive action. Not with the curtains drawn, hiding under the duvet. This is not a great time, it has to be said, for Sean Dyche to be missing. It is, however, a time for getting a bloody grip.

Come on.