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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 15/10/05, 3.00pm
Leicester City
A bit rubbish
By Ian Grant

Ah, thank heavens. Thank heavens.

"Shoddy" isn't generally used as a term of endearment, and normal service will undoubtedly be resumed in that regard once this introduction is out of the way. But if you had to define the week-to-week bustle of the English Second Division, you wouldn't get very far without commenting upon a certain earnest, hard-working shoddiness that reliably stuffs up any uneventful gap at this level. Those passages of play when everyone runs around very fast and kicks the ball very hard in the direction that they're facing, whether that's their goal, our goal, the dugouts, or some poor sod munching a hot dog and wondering whether Bolton are still winning at Chelsea.

This, of course, is the grey stodge that always provides critics of the incumbent manager with much of their ammunition. "The football's rubbish!" they'll chorus, presumably on the basis that its default state is to be gloriously balletic and unutterably thrilling, and only the berk in the suit on the touchline is preventing it from being so. Years of experience should teach us otherwise, naturally; we should know only too well by now that relentless, pointless activity is what we pay to watch when we buy our season tickets, and anything more magical has simply fallen off the back of a lorry on its way to somewhere else. Most often, we spend our Saturday afternoons watching football that is, in essence, a bit rubbish.

Is there anything wrong with that, though? Not really, I'd suggest. If the pleasure gained from your Saturdays hinges upon seeing things that are truly worthy of the time, money and effort required to get to the match, then you'll experience a great deal of disappointment. If, on the other hand, it's about the background to the game - the people, the places, the whole day out - then spending ninety minutes staring thoughtlessly at grown men in pursuit of a runaway football isn't nearly so absurd. Occasionally, it will all become a bit too rubbish, at which point there'll be lots of hand-wringing, brow-furrowing and hair-tearing; much more often, though, its rubbishness is an accustomed part of the scenery, like living next to a provincial railway line.

And after That Bloody Week, the very human failures on very public display are something of a pleasure. In the fight against The Man, the fact that football is often a bit rubbish is, really, one of the best weapons that we have. A reminder that, much as the industry that surrounds the game tries to insist otherwise, there remains something heartily irrational about the whole palaver. Something that can't be licensed and sold, not just yet. Something that doesn't insist upon making you feel as if you're some kind of steam-powered Victorian relic merely for failing to wring every last penny out of every single opportunity. Football's big business now, apparently. Except that it's not, not essentially. Football's still a game, and the business needs the game more than the game needs the business. Never let that be forgotten.

Henceforth, "shoddy" is no longer a term of endearment. This wasn't very good. On any level, by any measurement, it wasn't very good. Implicit in that statement is the fact that it wasn't entirely devoid of merit either - although you'd have to search fairly hard to find anything to place in that category without Ashley Young's name attached - but anything positive was remorselessly stalked and ultimately undermined by shabby, careless mistakes. Two weeks ago, we looked hopelessly lightweight in attack, yet the rest of the side appeared to be in thoroughly decent working order. Here, we were only marginally more successful going forward, and everything else had simply disintegrated.

Don't let me paint this as a crisis. It isn't, and it doesn't need to be. But it shouldn't be taken lightly either, just because the start to the campaign was so exuberant and so refreshing. For the second time, we dropped points at home in a tight game, leaving a striker on the bench with a substitution to spare. Last time, it was Trevor Benjamin, now nowhere to be seen; this time, it was Gabriel Agbonlahor. Obviously, there's no obligation to use all of your subs, but it does speak volumes when you end up throwing both of your central defenders into the attack in preference to introducing a recognised striker.

But that's the situation that we find ourselves in. The much-anticipated return of Marlon King turned out to be a dreadful anticlimax: he remains a class act, no doubt, but he clearly needs more match fitness to draw upon if he's to frighten defences as he did before his injury. Added to which, the paucity of creativity elsewhere often led him to drift wide in search of the ball, leaving the opposition penalty area entirely untroubled by yellow shirts. Thank goodness, then, for the irrepressible Ashley Young, who decorated this largely dreary match with bright flashes of utter brilliance. Even so, you rather wonder where our stock goals are going to come from, the ones that don't end up in the end-of-season award nominations. The ones that'll win games when we're not playing well.

The problem - and it's nothing new - is that losing one part of a side inevitably has an impact on its other elements. Now, the midfield comes under pressure to supply a creative impetus that was previously unnecessary, and the combination of Matthew Spring and Gavin Mahon was generally confused by the responsibility during these ninety minutes. The defence comes under pressure to keep a clean sheet, for goals become more precious by virtue of scarcity. Mistakes get amplified, tactics get easier for the opposition to counter, and so on. Suddenly, we're not particularly frightening any more.

Leicester weren't frightened, certainly. They stepped back a few yards, as Leeds had done, and thereby nullified the pace of our forward line for much of the game, especially from Ben Foster's walloping mile-long drives. The speed with which we're capable of turning defence into attack has been a potent weapon, but if it's effectively dealt with, it can be turned against us, and we end up turning defence into attack into defence before everyone's had a chance to get reorganised. We had our moments, unquestionably. But those moments were too infrequent, too short-lived. And almost invariably followed by a defensive cock-up to turn the momentum against us once more.

The pattern was established early on, as some lively forward play was nearly undone by ropey old rhubarb further back. Incredibly nearly, really: after Anthony McNamee had been dispossesed, we were too easily brushed aside as Leicester played De Vries into the space behind our ponderous line. Had that been all, it's doubtful that his pace would've been sufficient to enable him to escape, but Ben Foster had wandered into an awkward neither-here-nor-there position that enabled the striker to waft a lob over his head from twenty-five yards. The keeper's heart must've been sinking, along with all of ours, as he chased back towards his goal with no real hope of intervening; then it must've leapt with pure relief as the ball bounced one final time, appeared ready to find a home in the top corner, and instead cleared the bar by a matter of inches. It would've been a soft goal. No matter, though: we had plenty more soft goals in stock.

Otherwise, there was more than a little promise, reaching a mini-peak around the ninth minute when the Leicester defence cleared at a stretch from Marlon King's knock-down to Paul Devlin's cross, and Devlin snapped urgently into a tackle in midfield to retrieve possession and send Anthony McNamee scampering after a perceptive pass into the left corner. Aggressive football, in the best sense. A short while later, McNamee's over-hit cross from the right - no, I'm not giving him the benefit of the doubt - forced Douglas into a rare save to push the ball away from the top corner, and another flurry ended with Matthew Spring prodding wide from a Jordan Stewart centre. Signs of life, without question.

The best and the worst was to come before the half hour mark, in the space of a minute. The best, inevitably, was a moment of pure individual flair from Ashley Young, picking the ball up well within his own half and simply scorching past anything that stood in his way. Not a feat of skill, just sheer lightning pace, and that took him easily past Douglas too when he arrived in the penalty area. He just couldn't quite find the finish that it deserved, scuffing the ball slightly as he steered it towards goal and thereby enabling a defender to scramble back to hook clear from the line. Still, sensational. Absolutely sensational, and much too good for the surroundings.

But the anticlimax was upon us almost before we'd watched the replays on the big screen. Dozy and dim-witted, we stood around while Sylla swept in an unchallenged cross, stood around to allow Hughes a free header that he fluffed, stood around to permit De Vries to sneak in at the far post and score amid the debris. Not the sort of goal that'll feature on the next installment of "Stuart Ripley's Hootsome Howlers" on Channel Five, admittedly; merely the sort that'll lose matches, repeatedly. As if to prove the point, our minds were drifting aimlessly again as a long ball landed in our penalty area shortly afterwards, and De Vries inexplicably decided to cushion the ball into a crowd of players when looping a header over Ben Foster appeared to be a rather simpler task.

These things have yet to become cause for unfettered venting from the stands. This is, after all, still a honeymoon period for the manager and his team, and they've saved up for hard times. Instead, the atmosphere, so much a part of the early season optimism, starts to sag and flatten, and the approach of halftime is cause for much of the Rookery to head off for one last pint in Harry's Bar. Somewhere amid the restless, unvoiced frustration, we produce our most incisive, coherent passing of the first half: Matthew Spring through to Anthony McNamee and onwards to Marlon King, whose turn and low shot is saved with relative ease by Douglas. Some of the football has been really quite decent. Nevertheless, the impression left is of shoddiness, of poor quality in vital areas. The scoreboard confirms that Leicester lead without having needed to extend themselves unduly.

And that's the concern. Leicester are functional, nothing much more. They'll beat teams as they beat us: by making fewer mistakes. They're not high on the list of sides that you want to go one-nil down to, especially at home. Especially when you don't have any striking options of note. The interval replacement of Jordan Stewart (hardly how he'd hoped that his first encounter with his former employers would pan out) with Lloyd Doyley (extremely unlucky to lose out in the first place, I would suggest) and of Paul Devlin with Joel Grant said much of Adrian Boothroyd's dissatisfaction with proceedings. It also said plenty about his squad, for the urgency with which the changes were made was rather greater than their potential impact.

Thus, we continued to struggle. But not before a quick exchange of goals, changing nothing. The ingredients for our equaliser were obvious: we required a defensive lapse and we needed the chance to fall to Ashley Young. Both came together nicely as Dublin, distracted by Marlon King running back from an offside position, allowed a long ball to bounce through, only to discover that he'd failed to notice Young at his back. The finish was so free of fuss and bother, taken on just far enough and then smacked past Douglas, that it had a slightly surreal quality amid the usual Second Division kerfuffle. But no matter: Kisnorbo stuffed in a header from a well-delivered, badly-defended corner within a couple of minutes, and everything was back as before.

We tried hard, as Watford sides have generally done since Luca Vialli's mercenaries departed. We tried hard enough to prevent Leicester from simply seeing out the rest of the ninety minutes, as they no doubt wished to do. Throughout, even as the visitors repeatedly threatened to add a third on the counter-attack, it didn't feel as if a fortunate draw was beyond us. Because it never was beyond us. It just wasn't very close either.

We created chances - not many, but some - and we wasted them. It wasn't always down to us: the corner routine, involving a Clarke Carlisle flick across to Gavin Mahon at the far post, that set up Joel Grant after fifty-five minutes was very neat, and the close-range blast was only denied by a brave block. But, more often, our finishing wasn't quite up to scratch. Anthony McNamee's uncharacteristically poor touch enabled a defender to intervene, just as it appeared that Grant's carefully measured pass had set up the equaliser; Matthew Spring sent an unmarked header drifting over the bar from a Lloyd Doyley cross; even as late as injury time, Marlon King swooped upon a loose ball and then failed to keep his angled half-volley under control.

Mind you, we cannot pretend that we would've deserved a point. As our attacking efforts became ever more desperate, so our defending became ever more hopeless, and the back line had fallen apart long before its two main protaganists deserted it for the opposition half. Really, Clarke Carlisle and Malky Mackay were exposed here, and the offside trap was exposed along with them; we were repeatedly caught by runs into the space beyond the last man, and rarely helped our cause by preventing opponents from turning into that space. Thus, much as we might regret the failure to grab an equaliser, so we should also be thankful for getting off lightly at the other end. And hopeful that much better is to come in the flurry of games over the next couple of weeks.

We didn't make it difficult enough. Not when De Vries got the better of Malky Mackay, who struggled throughout, and fired very narrowly wide of the post with Ben Foster beaten. Not when Hume broke on the left, passed across to De Vries, and the forward rather rushed his finish, dragging it wide when he had time and space to force the issue. Especially not when Hume's pace absolutely slaughtered Mackay, who trailed in his wake, huffing and puffing; his finish beat Ben Foster, struck the inside of the post, and he even had time to put the rebound into the crowd before anyone in a yellow shirt could get near. We shouldn't make too much of these things, perhaps, for they're very much the result of chasing the game in its closing stages; still, it does nobody's confidence any good to see these previously composed, competent and sometimes inspiring defenders looking so totally flustered.

We're still on honeymoon, so the reaction remains broadly favourable, plenty of applause to go with the grumbles. The support is still supportive, and the positive start means that there's plenty of time to turn it around. But this is now, you feel, something that does need to be turned around rather than just shrugged off with a cheerful nod towards the league table. A shoddy, awkward, loose performance, this was nothing that would cause future visitors to Vicarage Road to lose sleep. Worse, the weaknesses in the squad are becoming evident and problematic, meaning that more than mere motivation is almost certainly required.

This, then, is Adrian Boothroyd's moment. Because this - the football that's a bit rubbish, with a squad that's stuck together with Elastoplast, on a pitch that's already deteriorating rapidly - is the job that he got back in March. With his assistance, it might become something entirely different over the coming years...but, for now, this is Watford Football Club.