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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 20/03/06, 7.45pm
Off the back of a lorry
By Matt Rowson

I have a friend who supports Manchester United. Properly, as it turns out, going to games and stuff although that's largely incidental to this train of thought. I don't see him much any more, but he always takes a polite interest in Watford's progress, knows how we're going, much as a distant aunt might. Very occasionally conversation will expand to cover the Football League in general. And he'll invariably ask how Barnsley are getting on, and marvel at how far they are from a return to the Premiership (not Premier, etc). "I thought they were really good in 1997".

This seems to be an attitude common to many supporters of top flight clubs. The "lower divisions" are a homogeneous, grimy underworld of football being sold off the back of a lorry. Any side that betrays any suggestion of being able to kick straight will surely rise irresistably towards the promised land ("Doncaster must be top of League One, no?" from my Arsenal-supporting car-pool colleague earlier in the season), the standard of most individual players barely removed from what you might find in the local park on a Sunday morning.

In fairness, that was our perspective of Division Three when we were relegated ten years ago also. And we were just as surprised as the likes of Southampton, Coventry, Leeds, any number of others who'd been away a while on their relegation to this level. Not by the quality of the division - it really was shit. But by how thin had been the veneer that had separated us in our previous, superior status from this piffle. And so we finished thirteenth. And so Coventry, stripped of their classier players and higher earners, find that there was nothing less superficial than money making them a top flight club for all those years. And they have become the same grey, irrelevant nonsense in this division that they were in the top flight to the extent that their current and probably temporary perch of ninth seems quite an achievement.

Our own berth in the play-off places is probably contributing to matters, but a subtext on Southampton messageboards is how, much as things have gone a bit pear-shaped on the south coast over the last couple of years, and much as they currently languish in eighteenth place they would surely be up in the top six themselves had Peter Crouch not left / Grzegorz Rasiak been signed in the summer / the wind blown in the other direction / Mick Channon not retired. Who knows, maybe they're right. In the meantime, they've only picked up three league wins since the end of October.

Eleven players have left St.Mary's (plus another three on loan) since our Boxing Day encounter - only seven of the sixteen named that day are still at the club, and four of those are injured and at least doubtful for Monday. George Burley has been able to make four permanent signings plus another five on loan - but it's hardly surprising that the team has been struggling for form.

One of the new arrivals was eighteen year old goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski, signed from Gornik Zabrze for a nominal fee and put in the first team within three weeks following the departure of Antti Niemi to Fulham. However, Bialkowski has subsequently damaged his knee ligaments and is out for the season. Consequently Paul Smith, custodian at Vicarage Road, is back in the side, although being passed over for an eighteen year old can hardly be construed as a vote of confidence. Smith is a good shot stopper but doesn't command his box, isn't great on crosses and can't kick for toffee. On the bench will be a very familiar face, one-time Watford hero Kevin Miller, thirty-seven this week and having been rescued from a career in corporate hospitality to provide cover. I wonder if he owns a wine bar? We can at least be confident that he won't be able to teach Smith much about kicking between now and Monday...

At the back, the inexperienced pairing of Mills and Crainie that Darius Henderson destroyed on Boxing Day has been replaced by Claus Lundekvam and Danny Higginbotham. Whilst you'd still fancy Doris in the air against either of them, this is a central defence with a lot more savvy and has protected a clean sheet four times in the last five home games. Higginbotham reportedly injured a wrist in training this week but there has been no suggestion that he'll miss out - which is handy for Southampton, since obvious stand-in Darren Powell has also reportedly picked up a knock, Martin Crainie is recovering from a hamstring injury and Matthias Svensson is still struggling to shake the knee problem that has ruined his last two years. Bill Beaumont might be another option.

At right back the bearded Alexander Ostlund has recovered from an achilles injury that kept him out of last weekend's trip to Crewe, but may have to settle for a place on the bench as former Hornet Chris Baird impressed in his absence. Baird has failed to establish himself in the first team several years on, and has more starts for Northern Ireland than for any of the three clubs he has represented. His agent provided a comedy distraction during January by planting stories linking a series of Championship sides with his charge (including the Hornets), each in turn met with a bored denial by the manager concerned within a day or two. With Darren Kenton still hanging around wondering what happened to his career, cover on the right is relatively comprehensive; another new recruit, Canadian Jim Brennan, holds sway on the left.

The Saints midfield has been completely revamped since our last encounter. Loan signings Richard Chaplow and Jermaine Wright should pair up in the centre; Chaplow, hugely impressive at Burnley, has failed to make much of an impact at West Brom whilst Wright has been less than well thought of since being one of Leeds' random swathe of signings on their relegation. Both have reasonable reports from their month on the south coast. Local boy Andrew Surman has been playing wide on the left... a tidy, enthusiastic player, he's perhaps not quick enough to play on the wing, but currently too lightweight for his more natural central role. Peter Madsen, on loan from Cologne, has been playing wide on the right. Kamil Kosowski, another loanee from the Bundesliga, has played the flaky winger card to a tee from the bench, whilst youngster Nathan Dyer, who played against us in consecutive games in December, has faded from the first team picture and was expected to feature in the Saints' Youth Cup semi on Friday. Another loanee, Liverpool's Darren Potter, has been on the bench, but he too is a major doubt for Monday having picked up an achilles injury in training. Matt Oakley and Djamel Belmadi might also come into consideration should they shake off ankle and achilles injuries respectively, but David Prutton (ankle) is definitely out.

Up front Grzegorz Rasiak, on loan from Spurs with a view to a permanent move, looks like the man to watch and was very much the focal point of the Saints' attack at the weekend. He was partnered by Dexter Blackstock, with four goals the joint leading scorer in the surviving squad but unimpressive at Crewe. Kenwyne Jones might come into consideration if he recovers from a foot injury, whilst Marian Pahars announced his return from his latest injury with two goals for the reserves this week, before reportedly going home from training feeling ill on Thursday. Ricardo Fuller, once such an effective striker in this division, is on loan to Ipswich.

Southampton are likely to be far less flimsy than the side we destroyed on Boxing Day, but are nonetheless on wobbly enough form to fall into the category of "Opponents We Ought To Beat If We're Serious About This Promotion Lark". Our record on the telly, on the road this season hasn't been half bad.

Bring it on.