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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 29/3/97
Watford 0(0)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 2, Armstrong 3, Palmer 3, Millen 3, Ward 3, Bazeley 1, Mooney 3, Phillips 2, *Johnson 4*, Easton 2
Subs: Penrice (for Ward) 2, Slater (for Easton) 3, Noel-Williams (for Mooney) 2
AFC Bournemouth 1(1)
Scorers: Cox (25)
Long live the system!
Report by Ian Grant

Stick to your guns, Kenny. Despite the defeat, despite the setback to our promotion aspirations, despite the poor performance, I remain convinced that we're attempting to do the right thing.

If you've got a solid defence, and we undoubtedly have, then it makes sense to build on that - far better to rely on the parts of the squad that are functioning well than offer up a prayer and go all out to attack. The problem is that the margin of error is fairly small, particularly when you come up against a side that's virtually identical. It doesn't require a great leap of imagination to see the game going the other way - indeed, had Kevin Phillips' effort not been disallowed, I'd have staked my reputation (not much, I admit) on us shutting up shop and taking all three points. A good system doesn't become a bad system just because of one defeat. The current formation, while unlikely to send talk of free-flowing football buzzing excitedly around Hertfordshire, continues to represent our best chance of promotion.

Besides, the occasionally patronising attitude of some of our fans towards a small South coast club that's been to hell and (touch wood) back in the last few months disguises the fact that they've hit a fine run of form recently. If there's one club in the Second Division against whom you don't want to concede an early goal, it's probably Bournemouth. They came with a gameplan, they stuck to it and it paid off. And I have to say, despite my obvious disappointment at the result, it gladdens my heart just a little to see that the Cherries are in increasingly good health.

To all intents and purposes, whichever side scored first was almost certain to win. As a spectacle, the game was effectively over after Bournemouth's opening goal - although an equaliser was occasionally possible, it was never probable.

As you'd expect, it was a game of few chances, many tackles and limited entertainment. The fact that Richard Johnson wins 'man of the match' by a country mile ought to give a reasonable idea of the kind of fare we're talking about - although that's a little harsh on Johnno, who's hardly put a foot wrong in recent weeks. It was tough and gritty, little else.

There were a couple of chances at either end before the match's main turning point. Early on, a Bournemouth player managed to waste a free header, putting it wide of Kevin Miller's goal when he seemed odds-on to score. A few minutes later, fine tackling from Johnson (the phrase of the day was unquestionably 'Well in, Johnno!' and he's been out-Palmering Palmer of late) set up Darren Bazeley for a cross and Kevin Phillips hit a volley straight at the keeper.

Then, the game's main talking point. Phillips got in a tangle with a Bournemouth player on the edge of their area, the player went down before Kev rifled the ball into the net. I have to say that I didn't even get out of my seat - as soon as the Bournemouth player fell over, I looked to the referee and saw him blow his whistle. Whether it was a foul or not is open to question - personally, I didn't think it was but I'm hardly unbiased!

Bournemouth scored shortly afterwards. A free kick on the right wing was whipped into the box and, with Miller advancing, the ball was flicked on into the unguarded net. It was a slightly soft goal to give away (and the absence of Robert Page gives us something of an excuse) but it has to be said that if we'd spent all season putting in set pieces of that quality, we'd have scored considerably more than we have. It was exactly the right height and angle, plus it was hit with pace - Darren Bazeley ought to be forced to watch the video until he gets the message.

After that, the inevitable happened. Bournemouth withdrew and our defensively-minded formation was ill-equipped to mount any kind of serious challenge to their goal. Nothing of any consequence happened in the remaining twenty minutes before half-time.

We needed to reorganise. Thankfully, Kenny Jackett saw it that way and added extra attacking options at the interval in the form of Stuart Slater and Gary Penrice. For a few minutes, that change of emphasis appeared likely to bring results as Slater nipped around on the left wing, causing their defence a few problems. A combination with Phillips provided the best chance of the match for Bazeley - a far post header that somehow looped over the bar (I'll be kind to Baze on that one - he's not exactly famous for his heading ability).

Gradually, though, the pattern of the game returned to its state prior to half-time, with Bournemouth dictating the play, wasting time and generally frustrating us. They were doing to us what we've been doing to other sides - scoring early and suffocating the game. Our only chances came from distance - Johnson hit a screamer from a mile out which flew just over (it would've been a truly spectacular goal) and Penrice made his only significant contribution by hitting a low drive that forced the keeper into a sharp catch.

Otherwise, we were rarely a threat. Slater started to tire, Penrice had little impact, the arrival of Gifton Noel-Williams made a minimal difference. When we have to attack against a side that's intent on preserving a lead, we don't often look like promotion candidates - which is precisely why we should concentrate on nicking wins with the odd goal. Bournemouth could have added another by the end, poor marking at a corner allowing a free shot on goal that was wasted by a weak effort.

Where do we go from here? Nowhere, as far as I'm concerned. We're lacking in quality (too many of these games are played at a frantic pace, which really doesn't do us any favours) and there are numerous details that need to be sorted out but the system is right and the system must stay. I have little doubt that we were a referee's whistle away from winning this game. That doesn't change the fact that we were shabby or that Bournemouth were superior - but that's my point, that we have finally found a way to get results.