Football League Division Two, 28/09/05, 7.45pm
"Who's number eight?"
By Philip Vaughan-Smith
The position of being an "occasional supporter" is a strange one. How ever often you look at BSaD, how ever enthusiastically you reminisce about being at Wembley in 1999, how ever many "personal" e-mails you get from Betty, and how ever deeply you groan inwardly at the spin machine of his New Order...if you don't go to the games, that's what you are. That's what I am. Living in Gloucestershire and working in Wales, Vicarage Road is a (former) lifetime away. I know the "true supporter" would get there for every game, but I'm not a "true supporter". Instead, deep in egg-chasing rugby territory, I am sustained by the camaraderie of fellow football fans, one a follower of Coventry, and the odd game there we go to together. Don't doubt it - Coventry is an odd game.
Being an "occasional supporter", particularly sitting with the rival fans, does offer the benefit of a different perspective from the week-by-week attendee. I get to see snapshots of the development of the team and to overhear the observations of other clubs' fans on the Horns. The last game I went to was at Highfield Road two seasons ago, as the stadium was passing into the Sky Blue yonder and the future of the club was Ricoh. Coventry sit uncomfortably in their new out-of-town stadium, too vast to have an atmosphere properly even with over sixteen thousand fans inside. So little about the stadium was right. Appalling parking facilities, the absence of a scoreboard, an inaudible PA, no little red binoculars on the seat in front to allow you to see the game from fifty rows back, intermittently working floodlights and a bloke who apologised for not having white coffee before giving you a white coffee, all seemed like teething problems which should have been ironed out by now. Who builds a new stadium without a scoreboard? Who issues match tickets with the words "Vomitory 21" inexplicably printed on them? Who tells you to "Foxtrot 4" during the game? Who makes it feel like you are indoors and yet frozen to the bone in September? Who "plans" the parking so that the Watford team bus leaves before the first of the fans? The Ricoh Arena, just off Junction 3 of the M6, does.
The pattern of the game was set early. Before kick-off, the floodlights failed during the cheerleaders' routine. They carried on like the band on the Titanic, as enough water fell from the heavens to make for an Atlantic disaster. One hoped that they were dimming the cabin lights for take-off but, when the plug was put back in, things didn't take off for the Golden Boys. From a first minute free kick, the ball was up in the Watford box. Foster came, got stuck in a puddle up to his middle and was fouled in dropping the ball. After some penalty area pinball, Adebola stuck home the first Coventry goal amid controversy about the referee's decision not to offer Foster the courtesy of a free kick. So it continued for the lad. Watford had showed little before Flood (a night for meteorological names?) crossed the ball so badly in the twentieth minute that it went in at Foster's near post. 0-2. Murmurs of "dodgy 'keeper" echoed amongst the Cov fans around me. The Floodgates open, the floodlights failed. There was a school canteen reaction - you know, the one when the kid drops their tray, there's a pause then tables are banged and a cheer rises. Strange at a football match, when only abandonment beckoned.
The lights came up to illuminate one player who epitomises the traditions of Watford. Battling, resolute and committed, Robert Page dominated the back line and held off all-comers. Macca's crosses were calmly countered. It was gratifying to see that he had escaped Vialli's scrapheap to maintain the best traditions of Division Two football but a shame that it was for Coventry rather than Watford. His contribution wasn't to be so positive throughout the whole of the game, but in the first half he represented a well-organised and "well-in" Coventry performance. Whilst Watford played it around prettily at the back to no effect, the Sky Blues were incisive, direct and forward moving. The occasional long-range Watford effort looked good from square of the goal where I sat, but it was clear from the body-language of the players that good they weren't. Dominic Blizzard looked a bundle of explosive, gangly energy in comparison to his rather effete teammates but this was more a product of poor positioning than dominating the game. Little surprise he wasn't to survive the first half - the Blizzard must have turned to slush in the dressing room.
The second half was a better spectacle and more hopeful for Watford. Eerily, the rain stopped for five minutes, during which Ashley Young struck a thunderbolt straight from a goal kick into the top corner. My glee leaked out, uncontained despite the Cov fans around me. They probably thought I was just demented by the sheer brilliance of the strike. For the next fifteen minutes, the atmosphere around was uneasy as the play tilted towards the likelihood of a Watford equaliser. It was Coventry who scored on the break despite Watford's much vaunted counter-punching style. A laugh was suppressed as it was disallowed for offside six inches inside our half. There was a fourth goal before the end - not an equaliser but a goal for the opposition as McSheffrey made Foster look foolish once again, this time in a one-on-one situation. 1-3: final score.
The only incident deemed worthy of comment on 6-0-6 on the way home was the two-footed challenge by Page on Young on the hour. To be honest, at the time it degenerated into a nineteen man brawl so quickly that I wasn't fully aware of who had originally done what to whom. Foster was rightly booked for rushing seventy yards to join in the scrum, though unlucky perhaps that his green shirt and white gloves on a huge frame made him particularly obvious in the melee. For a few moments, the atmosphere was more like the Colosseum, as fans metaphorically stuck their thumbs down and chanted "OFF! OFF! OFF!". The referee choked: yellow cards all round, but no red for Page. It meant he was there at the end to clap the Watford fans and be clapped by them. Remarkably deep affection, given what had happened half-an-hour earlier. We don't all have short-term memories.
About ten minutes from the end, one of my companions asked: "Who's number eight?" "Why do you ask?", I replied, knowing the answer. "He's a class above the other players on the pitch, that's all." When the Blizzard had blown out at half-time, he was replaced by the returning Gavin Mahon. Each side had their Mitchell brother now. Whilst Robert Page was losing it like a Mitchell, Mahon was exuding his quiet, unfussy class. For behind the boasted pomp of Ashley Young - Betty-era incarnate - the real reason for our better performance was the solidity of a Lewington-era player; an object lesson in reading the game so well as to be able to walk the pitch, trap the ball, hold the ball, release the ball. Easy. Pass of the day was his fifty yarder into the corner, passing three covering defenders. "Now, I have to admit that was a good ball," one Cov fan grumbled to another behind me. There's always some consolation in defeat, isn't there?