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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 19/11/05, 3.00pm
Sheffield Wednesday
The comfort zone
By Ian Grant

This may not be what you want to hear. Still, no matter: I enjoyed this. No, really. Honestly.

I mean, I wouldn't come over all unnecessary about it. I didn't stumble back to the pub in a delirious daze, buy a bottle of bubbly, and celebrate the three points with popping corks and frothy fizz. Nor did I feel the need to greet friends with a babble of incoherent excitement, a verbal spew of who-did-what-and-oh-my-word-how-on-earth. No, of course not. I just enjoyed it. Because it was comforting and familiar, and it left a residual feeling of jaded contentment in place of vivid memories.

Thing is, this is where I belong. As an adult, I've spent most of my Saturday afternoons amid the aimless clatter and whump of the average Second Division fixture, and those sounds have rarely been obscured by what passes for atmosphere at Vicarage Road. It's what I've grown used to; it's the constant noise of the factory next door. While even I won't attempt to elevate it into some kind of artform, there's nonetheless a fundamental honesty about such relentlessly energetic to-ing and fro-ing that I can't help but embrace, and that leads me to distrust anything more extravagant. I loved Nordin Wooter...but it was more about the endless, joyful activity than the product. Which was fortunate. I've said all of this before. Several times, probably. In many ways, that's the point.

So, much as I enjoyed watching our highly impressive, rousing start to the campaign, this, for me, is Adrian Boothroyd's first landmark of genuine note. The nature of the man, it appears, is such that he wouldn't greet it with more than a passing shrug and a sharp quip, but it is an achievement nevertheless. Because the consolidation is much more significant than the initial conquest: we might very easily have slipped back into mid-table by now, looking back upon those late summer days as a glorious, short-lived memory. Instead, we're still here, claiming the right to consider ourselves contenders. That's a bloody triumph, to my mind.

The last five matches - the last five wins, the last fifteen points added to our tally - haven't been especially beautiful to behold. We're no longer decorating each game with goals fit for the end-of-season awards, nor are opponents cowering in fear of our free-flowing football. We have, in short, grown up. We no longer exist in a fairytale world, parallel to the everyday ugliness of the Second Division; instead, we are learning to make a very reasonable living by getting on with it, whatever it happens to be. What was this? It wasn't brilliant, that's for sure. It wasn't memorable, beautiful, or even particularly efficient.

I'll tell you what it was: it was good enough.

That'll do, I reckon. We conjured up some wonderful surprises earlier in the season. Now, it feels like we're actually building something, labouring and toiling and securing our position with hard work. Here, there were no stars: the best work was done in the engine room, shovelling and stoking out of view; sure, there were occasional flashes of glorious skill elsewhere, but they had much less to do with the eventual outcome. Bar an absurd and near-disastrous couple of minutes in injury time, we were always just about in control, always with more in reserve...and, yes, less shambolic opponents might've tested us more severely, but you play against practice, not theory. As a performance, it lacked a great many things, and you can have a good grumble about that, if you like. It never lacked the basic ingredients required for a pretty straightforward victory, though.

If there's a measure of our considerable progress, that's it. You can discard the cliché about winning when you're playing badly; that might've been the case against Wolves, but not here. This wasn't lucky, wasn't a fluke. Throughout, we suggested the potential to be several goals better than the opposition, and briefly threatened to dish out a beating in the first half. If we failed to realise that threat, we didn't fail to be at least one goal better than Wednesday, from first to (nearly) last. That's why we won: because we were better than they were. Because we snuffed out their attack almost entirely, because we didn't concede any ground to their midfield, because we sneaked a couple of rubbish goals by being a fraction sharper when it mattered. Not that much better, then...but still better, undeniably and crucially.

And so, while the rest of the ground settles into its accustomed unimpressed silence after being frightfully raucous back in August and September, I'm entirely chuffed. Quite content, thank you. Although I'd be grateful if we defended slightly better than in the first five minutes, when our lack of concentration nearly caused me to be writing an altogether less charitable report: after Clarke Carlisle had been required to make a fine, smothering tackle to end a much-too-fluent and much-too-easy move, the corner found Graham unmarked on the six yard line, only his hopeless mistiming of the header preventing the opening goal. You can't head the ball with your ear. It just doesn't work.

Very much A Wolves Moment, and typical of what followed only in the sense that Wednesday really didn't do themselves any favours. Never again were they allowed to be so wasteful - their next clear-cut chance was a full half hour away, and they never again received such an open invitation - but their earnest endeavour, characteristic of a struggling side attempting to revive its fortunes, gradually gave way to a richly comic disintegration. Our pitch is an unforgiving beast, and it had its fair share of fun here. When you're two-nil up, you can afford to laugh at Matthew Spring hammering a bobble-assisted drive thirty-seven yards wide of the intended target. When you're two-nil down, it's not quite so hilarious. Which only goes to make it more hilarious, obviously.

For fifteen minutes, we went nowhere very much. We waited for something to happen, while Wednesday tried to adjust to the early departure of right back Bullen to injury. I'll point out that it wasn't especially lovely to watch, but for the last time; hereafter, we'll take that as read. Then, something happened: Anthony McNamee crossed for Marlon King, whose glancing contact sent the ball quite considerably wide. A half-chance, though. Then, something else: Paul Devlin, not terribly popular with the (tremendous, as usual) visiting fans, appeared to be brought down on the edge of the box, and everyone got terribly cross when the referee didn't agree...and then everyone remembered that it was Paul Devlin.

Then, something actually worth writing about. If I'd seen it. Which I didn't. Ashley Young's smartly-taken free kick from the right caught a number of people by surprise, including the Wednesday defence. And including me. And including the officials, who weren't alone in failing to notice that the ball went into the net via Clarke Carlisle's arm rather than his head as he dived in to meet the cross. This, I will accept, does slightly argue against all the guff that I've written above about being better than our opponents and not being lucky and suchlike, but there appeared to be nothing controversial at the time, and conclusions are drawn on the walk home, in the pub afterwards, on the train back to Brighton, not on the sofa in front of ITV on a Sunday morning. The verdict stands.

It was the first rock in the landslide. Almost immediately, Anthony McNamee was tricking his way past opponents with that exquisite sleight of foot which reaches the eye as a mysterious, teasing blur, before curling a shot at Weaver's near post from twenty yards. And everyone was suddenly interested, hunching moving forward to pay proper attention. Our attacking play, for the first and only time, achieved the expansive heights of our early season heyday, and Marlon King's wonderful backheeled flick released McNamee on the left wing to set up another highly promising attack after twenty-three minutes. The cross was hopelessly weak, though; right into Weaver's hands, at a comfortable catching height. Right into those hands...and, farcically, right through them, into the path of King at the far post. He couldn't miss. We were strolling.

Briefly, an utter rout suggested itself. Moments later, Ashley Young's free kick was diverted into touch by a flick from the top of the wall, a poor effort by Neil Cox's considerable standards. A few more moments, and Lloyd Doyley's pass found Marlon King, who turned and played a low cross into Matthew Spring; the midfielder stepped inside a challenge to open up a view of the goal, only to find Weaver out to deflect the finish wide with his leg and atone, just slightly, for his very considerable error. We were still short of our best, yet not short enough to prevent an increasingly shabby Wednesday side from looking way out of its depth.

The remainder of the half meandered happily towards a warming cuppa, and you half-expected the two managers to reach a negotiated settlement at the break to spare everyone another hour in the November cold. True, Wednesday hadn't entirely given up: they did require our assistance in creating a late opening, James Chambers left isolated as Jay Demerit's Haircut wandered off, but Chris Eagles - who, like Devlin, tried very hard without ever quite getting it right - slashed a very presentable opportunity wide. Signs of life, and Graham's fine, curling effort from twenty yards drifted just over the crossbar right at the end. Signs of life, but they still looked well beaten.

Lucky Half-Time Chocolate: Dairy Milk Mint.
Reason: Because Martin's, curse their killjoy souls, have run out of Dairy Milk Turkish Delight, which is quite simply a taste sensation and has been my highlight of the season so far, pretty much. Dairy Milk Mint, in contrast, tastes like chocolate with bits of toilet cleaner in it, possibly because that's what it is.
Level of Success: I really don't care. Bring back Turkish Delight and bring it back now.

Yes, anyway. It's tempting to get slightly heated about the second half, what with it not being very good 'n' all. It's also tempting to accept Adrian Boothroyd's open invitation and criticise his substitutions; much as I continue to shift uncomfortably in my seat when reading some of the manager's bluster, it's always refreshing to see mistakes admitted, frankly and honestly. But, really, must we get into a tizz about it all? I mean, must we?

Because it seems to me that whatever the misgivings, we still did enough, just about. That's no cause for complacency, of course, but it's still three points, safe and sound. While Wednesday were certainly revived by the break, and made a pretty decent fist of their comeback attempt, it was only in injury time that the result was in any kind of doubt. Otherwise, the crowd's anxiety drew its strength from our utter failure to string more than a couple of passes together and the consequent tendency for the ball to spend rather a lot of time in our half; rarely, however, did it threaten to spend any time in our net.

Indeed, hindsight suggests that the visitors' chances came and went fairly early on, before we'd even made any changes. Ben Foster needed to get down smartly to turn Brunt's well-struck free kick around his post, then got a crucial touch to Peacock's rather scuffed finish after Eagles had skipped elegantly past challenges to send the striker clear. As is traditional, the side on the wrong end of the two-goal deficit was giving it a bit of a go, aided by plenty of noise from their supporters. But tradition ended there, for we didn't appear likely to return to old habits and let the lead slip: those two chances aside, only a mistimed volley from Gabriel Agbonlahor - whose swift return to Vicarage Road was greeted, appropriately, by a collective shrug - really represented a noteworthy opening.

Without doubt, our football lacked any kind of creative coherence: the comprehensive rout was no longer on the agenda. Instead, we concentrated on the most basic things - a goalless second half would've been absolutely fine, after all - and still, very occasionally, suggested that we might sneak a decisive third. We might've done it early on, when a Marlon King break eventually resulted in all manner of chaos in the Wednesday box, and either Matthew Spring or King himself might've scored. We might've done it later too, as Darius Henderson's persistence and vision in midfield released Ashley Young, who was uncharacteristically hesitant in selecting his finish and forced himself too wide, allowing Weaver to block.

And that's how it should've ended. An efficient, undistinguished first half, followed by a total non-event. The mark of a team that's getting the fundamentals right; one of those results that you won't be able to remember when May comes around, but the points still count.

Except that there are still some bugs in the system. Really, Wednesday were going through the motions by injury time, fully aware that their best efforts hadn't yielded anything significant. And then Ben Foster drops a simple cross onto Peacock's toe, and, even though he manages to retrieve it again, you remember that one of the aforementioned fundamentals is concentration. For the entire game. We've conceded too many daft goals when matches have already been won, simple as that. We've conceded another one, just to make the point: Whelan afforded loads of time and space to have a smash at goal, Foster failing to make a routine save, the ball squirming through his hands and into the net. As you know, I'm a man of many words, but that only requires one: poor.

Adrian Boothroyd is right to point out that goal difference can be vitally important when everything's tallied up at the end of the season. Points matter quite a lot too, though, and we very nearly threw these away as Wednesday, with renewed belief in the expiring seconds, surged forward in search of an implausible equaliser. They came damn close to getting it: Agbonlahor finding it surprisingly easy to get past Lloyd Doyley, Peacock climbing above Clarke Carlisle to meet his cross with a thumping header that slammed into the hoardings to gasps of relief around three sides of Vicarage Road. The whistle went immediately.

A curious note to end on, and the celebrations were distinctly muted as a consequence. But we shouldn't confuse what happened in injury time with what happened elsewhere: much of this match was rubbish, but there's a difference between winning rubbish and losing rubbish. For a few terrifying seconds, we toyed with the latter. For the much greater part, though, we held sway with the former.

There's plenty of work to be done, we know that. (Don't we?) Five games, five wins, fifteen points; it ain't bad for a work-in-progress, you know. It really ain't bad, and "laborious" doesn't always have to be a condemnation.