On the horizon
By Ian Grant
That penalty shoot-out was absolute genius, you know....
As preparation for such an eventuality in early May, it had questionable value. Some value, true: taking a penalty in front of a large
crowd is bound to be different from taking a penalty in front of a row of expensive four-by-fours at the training ground. But, really, the
pressure of the shoot-out comes from what's at stake as much as it does from idiots gurning and waving behind the goal; Graham Taylor's meticulous
rehearsal, turning the kick into a habitual, ingrained process removed from context, still seems like the best approach to me. Hell, if you can get Pagey to step up
and plant the ball in the top corner from twelve yards, you've surely done as much as you can possibly do.
But as a morale-building exercise, simply fantastic. A perfect way of bringing everyone together for fifteen minutes of frivolity, just outside
the weekly grind of the fixture list. 'Scuse the comparison, but Graham Taylor would've loved it. Even this grumpy misfit left Vicarage Road
with a beaming smile and an extra spring in his stride. And, crucially, a feeling that something special is on the horizon, approaching
Because the take-each-game-as-it-comes stuff is all very well, all very practical and sensible...but if you don't look up and see what's
coming, you have no sense of the adventure ahead. My cherished memories of '99 aren't just about achievement and celebration, about what
happened when we got there; they're about the bristling, twitching sense of anticipation that dominated my life - and your life too, I
imagine - for weeks beforehand. They're about the dream itself, just as much as the way that the dream came true. It's not just another three games. It's not just a
one-in-four chance of promotion, a means to an end. It's so much more than that.
This time, having been in the playoff places for so long, it's not quite as easy to conjure up that feeling. Countless times, we remind ourselves
of what an outstanding achievement it is to be in this position...and each time, we're absolutely right. It's extraordinary. But we've
settled in over several months, we've got used to these surroundings...and it doesn't quite feel extraordinary, not yet. Not quite.
That shoot-out nonsense was the start, though. From there, to the diary dates and ticket details and travel arrangements, to the "good luck" banner,
to some preposterous ideas involving (surprise!) large quantities of balloons, to all of the thrilling kerfuffle that surrounds massive games
To the playoffs. (And beyond?)
So, the sun's out in West London. It feels like the end of the season...and yet there's that special something on the horizon, and you can
sense the slight distraction around the packed two-tier stand in this charmingly cramped stadium. The chants have an edge to them, the pre-match
chatter has just a hint of nervous energy, the team's been re-jigged ahead of more important fixtures. It's not the end of the
season, not for us.
Still, this - a largely inconsequential game against local-ish rivals-ish - isn't where our minds keep wandering to. It's not the main feature,
and we're already gathering up the ticket stubs for more important uses before kickoff. For thirty-odd minutes, that air of slight distraction
is transferred to the pitch, where a football match that nobody really wants to risk life and limb for flows to and fro without any
particular points of interest. My notes occupy barely half a page, even with the inclusion of a large bee (twelve minutes) and a daddy long-legs (thirty-five
minutes) for the benefit of anyone interested in such matters.
It's not dreadful. Not at all. It's just a bit bland, that's all. A couple of minutes in, and Clarke Carlisle skies what appears to be a
decent opportunity from an Ashley Young free kick; the distance, coupled with a strange perspective from above a corner flag, makes it difficult
to be entirely sure what's happening at the other end, and we spend a brief moment celebrating a Carlisle header from a corner later on, only
to realise from the jeers of the home fans that it's gone the other side of the post. Paul Furlong - who looks much the same player as he
did fifty-seven years ago when he played for us - volleys an ambitious effort wide from twenty-five yards; Steve Lomas - where did it all go
wrong, eh? - drives a harmless shot at Ben Foster.
In the absence of anything more interesting, I work on the hypothesis that our team selection has a little more behind it than the desire to
rest weary limbs. It seems to me that going into a potentially fiery away leg with a choice of Anthony McNamee, Ashley Young and Chris Eagles
as wide midfielders might not be entirely wise; a bit like walking through no man's land in a sharp suit and silk tie: stylish, but not
altogether practical. Thus, we have Jordan Stewart - who'd probably drive me nuts if his status as Official Club Scapegoat didn't cause me
to seek out his good points - and James Chambers in the wide positions. Intriguingly, too, they're faced with dangerous opponents in the
shape of the shabbily fantastic Gareth Ainsworth and the much-abused Lee Cook, whose status as Official Club Solution To Absolutely Everything That
Might Possibly Go Wrong - a role now capably performed by Anthony McNamee - did drive me nuts until he left.
Unfortunately, these contests are just warming up when we're forced to abandon the experiment. One very much hopes that Clarke Carlisle's
withdrawal, having collapsed in a heap after launching a clearance, was merely precautionary. Much as I still prefer the Mackay-Demerit
partnership in the centre, the latter's sojourn at left back has proved to be an implausible success; meanwhile, Carlisle has been improving
with each game, returning to something like the colossus that dominated our defence way back in August. Not what we need. Not right now.
And then, amid all of these daydreams, a thoroughly rumbustious and really rather corking local derby suddenly breaks out. Hurrah. Well,
"hurrah" in a little while, anyway: first, we have a penalty for Rangers, won by - who else? - Lee Cook after Ainsworth had surged past a
sleepy Matthew Spring and pulled a low cross into the box. At the time, I lost sight of the crucial moment, obscured by people coming and
going in front of me; on telly, it's rather more inconclusive than I'd expected. The moment before and the moment after suggested a perfect
opportunity for a dive...but I'm not sure that Cook wasn't blocked by Lloyd Doyley as he attempted to turn. Regardless, Nygaard sauntered up
and rolled the ball into the Foster-less side of the goal to put the home side ahead....
...And, very cleverly, he removed his shirt to strut about in celebration. Andy D'Urso was dipping into his back pocket for the yellow
card even before he'd managed to untangle himself from the stripey polyester; there was a distinct arrogance about the willingness to take an
entirely inevitable booking just for the sake of showing off a bit. You can kinda forgive - share, even - displays of helpless, dizzy passion
in which shirts become flags to be whirled and hurled. After knocking a penalty in, though? In a meaningless end-of-season fixture? Can you
guess how it ends, reader? Can you?
First, though, we have a truly bonkers less-than-a-minute, in which the game lurched about so violently that it was hard to keep it in focus. For
Rangers appeared to have doubled their lead on forty-one minutes, as Lloyd Doyley's slip let in Furlong and Ben Foster's advance was beaten by
the striker's cool, accurate finish, lobbing the ball over the keeper before wheeling away to begin the celebration. Even from our angle, it
was always a goal...until the final bounce hit an especially firm piece of turf and lifted the ball against the underside of the bar, just at the
right angle to drop it back into the six yard box. Furlong watched on in utter disbelief; Foster raced back to retrieve.
And to set an attack in motion, amid relieved and aborted celebrations in various parts of the ground. Attention wandering all over the place
as the game suddenly roused the stands, we looked back at the pitch to find Ashley Young with the ball at his feet...and followed that ball as
it arced gloriously into the top corner, piling celebration upon celebration. What a fabulous moment.
The game now had a life of its own, flaring up without warning. Really, you didn't want half-time: there was too much happening, no time for
an advert break. Except that we probably needed to calm down, none more so than Darius Henderson, whose apparent flailing arm - much too far
away to be more precise - left Santos in a writhing heap and sparked a confrontation involving most of the outfield players. Including, of
course, Mr Nygaard, who discovered that the earlier booking wasn't quite as irrelevant as he'd imagined and departed to the dressing room.
Truthfully, though, we were more thankful that Henderson escaped the same fate, even as we cursed him for his idiotic indiscretion. The first half ended
amid general bad temper and discord, and the suggestion of further hostilities in the tunnel; the second half, tellingly, began with a first appearance for
young Theo Robinson...and no Darius Henderson.
Happily - if not for the spectacle, then for our chances of fielding a full-strength side in a game that actually matters - it all settled down
after the re-start, and the referee's notebook was only employed in booking Jay Demerit for being an innocent witness to a fairly spectacular
hack by Al Bangura. Easy to get those two confused, I guess; they do look so alike. The game lost most of its former impetus, waiting
for another spark as Robinson, eager but raw, volleyed wide and Furlong got the ball caught under his feet as he threatened to escape. Pleasingly,
our defensive reorganisation didn't appear to unsettle us: Rangers goal attempts became fewer as time rambled on, and we went about the process
of finding a winner with increasing confidence.
Confidence, but not too much else. There were occasional flashes: Anthony McNamee, whose recent appearances have suggested a welcome return to form,
whipped in a fine cross for Theo Robinson to head wide, then drifted a curling shot onto the roof of the net after switching to the right
wing. More often, though, there was lots of scrapping and battling, and the commitment was epitomised by the ridiculously grown-up Al Bangura,
who'd very probably order Roy Keane about if he had the opportunity. Captain, eventually. Not that eventually, though.
The problem, however, was that the product of lots of scrapping and battling is rarely easy for forwards to work with. Instead, it's ugly and
chaotic; it's stuff to fight for. In Ashley Young and Theo Robinson, we had a lithe, pacey strikeforce with barely any physical presence; despite
the considerable efforts of Young - another who might be coming back into form at the right moment - we expended increasing amounts of effort in order to bounce
high balls off the foreheads of the mammoth Rangers centre-backs. It wasn't really happening. Aerial stuff simply wasn't going to
work without Darius Henderson. Lloyd Doyley brilliantly smothered a dangerous break with one of his elastic limbs, then an Ainsworth drive
whistled a yard or so over the bar. Drifting again, minds wandering away to other things.
Those high balls weren't going to work. Not without some help, anyway. Thus, when Jordan Stewart lifted a clearance into the clouds and it
dropped inside the QPR penalty area, we barely paid attention. Paul Jones ambled out while Santos trotted back to deal with it, and Ashley
Young stifled a yawn as he made a token effort at disrupting proceedings. And then, it all went horribly, hilariously wrong: Santos' blind back-header
was a few degrees off-target, Young tried and failed to get a touch, Jones turned out to be a helpless bystander. The ball missed them all,
bounced thoughtfully inside the six yard box, and decided to spin playfully inside the post. With luck like that, we cannot possibly fail.
Thus, we continue to rediscover the winning touch. It really doesn't matter how, although Al Bangura's well-struck drive might've provided a
more decisive victory if it'd been another yard to Jones' right. Few chances for an equaliser, bar Bailey's late dart inside from the wing
and shot at Ben Foster from the edge of the box; we'd been secure since the interval and, given how we've tended to let ourselves down with
slapdash defending, that's greatly encouraging. That injury to Clarke Carlisle aside, the whole thing is greatly encouraging, in truth: two
enjoyable, entertaining wins have lifted spirits enormously.
Something special is on the horizon. Fill out that application form, send your message to the team, warm up your vocal chords. Start to
savour it. It's on its way.