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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 25/09/04, 3.00pm
Vanishing elephants
By Ian Grant

There's a typically sublime short story by Haruki Murakami called The Elephant Vanishes, in which, as the title suggests, an elephant vanishes. A young man becomes obsessed with the incident and the surrounding news coverage, picking over the detail of how the elderly elephant disappeared along with its keeper, despite being shackled and fenced in and leaving no trace of escape. A physical impossibility, conflicting with established fact.

As ever, it leaves everything to the reader. There is powerful, emotive meaning in Murakami's finest work, but it's understood instinctively: no painstakingly constructed metaphors, no clumsy explanations, no maps to follow. It makes no sense, often...and yet it makes perfect sense at the same time. The elephant vanishes because, somehow, the natural balance of the world around it is disturbed: it becomes smaller and smaller until it can escape, or perhaps it merely becomes part of its keeper rather than a distinct entity. No, I can't explain it properly, and neither can the story's teller. But somewhere, somehow, I know what it means in here.

It's a common theme in Murakami's work, albeit that it's rarely so beautifully and succinctly expressed as in that story. That certainty is just an illusion: there's nothing that can't change, nothing that can't be disrupted by unforeseen forces. In several novels, women just vanish into thin air without warning or explanation, leaving chasmic gaps in their lovers' lives. Cats go wandering off, people are possessed by sheep, elephants vanish overnight. What you imagine to be solid, reliable, certain is just as fragile as your own existence, just as easily thrown out of sync.

Here we are, then. Twenty-four hours on, from a game of football in which two goals simply vanished as they were in the process of crossing the line. Not a disappearing elephant, sure...but disquieting and curious nonetheless, for the result that's printed in the newspapers is rather different from the one that's wandering around my brain. If we were somewhat flattered on Tuesday, we were plainly insulted on this occasion.

That happens, of course, and it'll happen again. But it's hard to remember when the margins between this particular reality, with a one-nil defeat and associated frustration, and something altogether better were quite so thin, almost invisible. Twice, the paltry assembly of Reading fans celebrated the ball's failure to roll over the line with as much vigour as a missed penalty; twice, we were already on our feet and leaping up and down, before we realised that the goal had disappeared. It existed, and we were certain of it. And then it didn't, leaving only an unsolvable mystery behind.

In that respect, we should be pleased with the afternoon, even as the result continues to annoy. With no quibbles about motivation, selections and suchlike, we faced and matched one of the division's in-form teams. They made life difficult for us and it was rarely pretty as a consequence, but we did the same in return, and a draw would've been a satisfactory and proper outcome for all concerned, really. In contrast to last May, when they were a shabby shower, Reading looked like a decent, efficient side with some fine individuals, well-equipped to remain in the top few. But, at the same time, they didn't look like anything that we couldn't beat on a more fortunate day, and that's something to take into Tuesday's game with Wigan. Not such a break with recent form after all, then.

Indeed, there were a number of fresh positives to pull out and examine in further detail. Of these, the most obvious is our newest signing: for all that James Chambers' displacement of Lloyd Doyley in the right back berth seems wrong and unfair, he looked absolutely superb yesterday, even more accomplished in defence and aggressive in attack than during his loan spell. As was noted on the journey home, West Brom must be very confident of their defensive options if they can afford to let him go for such a pittance. As was also noted, it'd be even better if he was left-footed. Still, you can't have everything.

Elsewhere, the considerable inconvenience of a first half injury to Sean Dyche was balanced by the ease and effectiveness with which Lloyd Doyley slotted into the role. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Lloyd Doyley is a cracking defender, and it's only the comparatively unglamorous nature of those skills that prevents him from being touted as one of the best prospects that the youth system has produced in years. Alongside both Dyche and Doyley, Neil Cox is showing signs of a return to form, hints of the player that we treasured only a couple of years ago.

The focus on defenders' performances tells much of the tale, in all honesty. While we continue to struggle for bright ideas when under the spotlight at Vicarage Road, the fact remains that we're much harder to beat than last season: you have to do more than just wait for a mistake, for imminent self-destruction. It's a better unit with better individuals...and Paul Mayo is included in that, for all that he's currently a slightly weaker link than the others.

No, it wasn't terribly interesting to watch. Reading struggled, we struggled...and the result was a fast-paced stalemate, each side taking it in turns to try and fail to hit the killer pass. We nearly did it once, as Heidar Helguson released Danny Webber on the right, but the ball got stuck under his feet a little as he broke clear and he reached the penalty area with a crowd around him, chipping a harmless cross to the keeper as Neal Ardley yelled for attention at the far post. For Reading, set pieces seemed to be the best bet, and a neat manoeuvre at a corner allowed Brooker to strike at Richard Lee's near post, bringing the first of a couple of smart saves from the Watford keeper after twenty minutes.

Attacking the Rookery, we repeatedly tried to hit early balls behind the Reading defence and we repeatedly failed, thwarted either by defenders' heads or by the linesman's flag. A decent idea, but we lacked that extra ounce of quality to dissect the Reading rearguard without straying offside at the same time, and it was frustrating to watch as a result. If we did have a plan in reserve, our passing was too poor and Reading's midfield too lively to put it into action. That said, we were just as effective in repelling our opponents, whose supporters were probably just as frustrated in the Vic Road end.

Gavin Mahon struck a harmless but vaguely encouraging rising drive at Hahnemann after thirty-four minutes, but Reading came closer almost immediately, as Murty's lofted cross from deep was met by a forceful downward header from the lanky Kitson. Fortunately, the ball bounced at a kind height for Richard Lee, who still excelled in flinging himself across and punching it to the side with a strong fist. Some moments of excitement at last, after so much dry porridge.

Implausibly, after wondering how we were going to score for the majority of the half, we spent the interval wondering how on earth we hadn't scored. That is, we found the net, but we didn't put the ball into it while we were there. It started when we finally managed to thread one of those passes through: Brynjar Gunnarsson's ball down the right and Heidar Helguson stepping aside to let it run through to James Chambers, bombing down the wing at an unstoppable speed. He kept going, steaming into the area, to the by-line, and driving the ball through the six yard box. At the far post, Danny Webber slid in, meeting the ball just a yard or so from the finishing line....

If the ball had gone forward at all, it would've crept in and we would've had a half-time lead: the whole width of the goal was available, free of defenders and keeper, and it only needed to travel a few inches. But incredibly, it went sideways instead: back across whence it came, under the shadow of the crossbar. Back to Hahnemann at the near post, surprised but grateful to grab it. The goal had existed, we'd not only seen it but had already started replaying it in our minds. It existed, then it vanished. The Reading fans celebrated our loss with considerable glee.

For some moments, we were stung and alive, and we could've done with the half lasting a little longer. That said, although half-time brought the withdrawal of Sean Dyche, who strained a hamstring in the process of some heroic defending to turn a threatening break into a blocked cross, we retained the momentum through the interval and looked the fresher team at the other side.

Adopting an innovative tactic - allowing Neal Ardley to drift into the centre of midfield - we almost succeeded in finding that ounce of quality: it restricted our width, but it increased our chances of hitting that defence-splitting pass. It's Ardley's awareness that counts here, as much as anything: in one early moment, he received possession, turned and carved out a through-ball to Danny Webber in a single elegant movement, denied only by that linesman's flag again. That kind of vision is precious in the hustle and bustle of the Second Division, and it might've held the key here.

Instead, the stalemate continued, even if it looked just a little more fragile than before. Paul Mayo and Forster both missed the target by acres, before Forster headed over at a stretch from Kitson's left wing cross and Neal Ardley dumped a dipping half-volley into Hahnemann's chest from distance. Still a bit of a muddle, all in all...but about to be resolved at long last.

And not in our favour, sadly. As Ashley Young tracked inside diligently, we appeared to have prevented another Reading attack from reaching fruition. But the ball was played back to Shorey, whose skidding cross found Sidwell barging in front of Paul Mayo at the far post to send a fine header drifting into the top corner. Nothing that wrong defensively, truly...but whereas Lloyd Doyley managed to hold off Kitson in the centre, Mayo couldn't quite prevent his opponent from getting ahead of him. Small margins, like I say.

And even smaller margins still to come. Because we did all right, as far as a comeback against the soon-to-be league leaders is concerned. At the back, we kept our concentration, even as Neal Ardley became a temporary left back upon Paul Mayo's departure and then moved up-field to leave what was often just a two-man defence behind. Hughes drove through the six yard box on the break, and Forster was denied by Richard Lee's sprawling body in the last couple of minutes...but in the main, we did well to avoid being caught on the break. And at the other end, we created enough openings to grab an equaliser, if not more.

So, Ashley Young - quiet, but working hard on the less eye-catching parts of his game - burst in from the right and sent a shot over from the corner of the box after sixty-nine minutes. And, after a change of referee and a single substitution from Ray Lewington, Hameur Bouazza lost his head completely when released by Young on the right, shooting wildly and inaccurately with other, better options available. But that's irrelevant. We scored another goal, and that goal disappeared to wherever the other one went to....

Corner. Neil Cox deep and unmarked, heading back across goal. In the crowd around the keeper, Heidar Helguson, also unmarked. The header was forceful, downwards from barely three yards. Hahnemann was on his line, in the middle of the goal. The ball hit the side of his ankle and, if it didn't come back out, then it simply had to go in. It had to. It didn't. Spinning maliciously, it rolled across half the width of the goal, then just a foot or so wide of the post. Not possible. Just not physically possible, like vanishing elephants. It happened, though.

So far, we've had some luck this season. But we've earned that luck and, as it's obviously just run out, we'll just have to earn some more. After a couple of frustrating results at Vicarage Road, this was a stronger performance against stronger opponents, even if it didn't yield any points. As the manager has repeatedly pointed out, it's about the basics: if those basics are right, everything else will succeed more often than it fails. It failed here, just about. But it'll succeed again, and soon.

"The elephant and keeper have vanished completely. They will never be coming back." Thus ends Murakami's story, poignant and perfect. Those two goals, though...well, I wouldn't forget about them just yet....