Too good for the Second Division
Report by Ian Grant
A big BSaD hello to Fulham fan Will Wright who was responsible for the funniest
thing I read last week, an e-mail sent to me after Tuesday's empty charade. Aside
from implausibly claiming that I'd have been full of praise for the Auto Windscreen Shield
had we beaten Fulham, he also left us with this thought - "Money makes the world go round, and
we've got plenty of it".
You've also got Ray Wilkins as your manager, mate. Fortunately, we've yet to reach
the point where you can buy a one-way ticket to the Premiership - Dave's "Factor X"
applies as much on the pitch as off it. Hence this match between the runaway
leaders of Division Two, miles away from the scrap for playoff places - we no longer
have to seek satisfaction from fourth-rate competitions.
Cracking match, this. Whereas the earlier clash with Millwall, which seemed
equally important at the time, proved to be a considerable anti-climax, this was an
occasion that was worthy of the hype. Ironically, neither keeper had to make a save
(apart from the goals, natch) - but that was only due to some outstanding
defending, a reminder that the best sides are often distinguished by their
Despite occasional passages of scrappy play, the quality displayed by both teams
was far in excess of anything we've seen from the rest of the division. At one stage,
for example, I watched Richard Johnson and Micah Hyde chasing their opponents with the
now customary aggression, hassling and harrying as each player received the ball. Yet
I realised that City's passing withstood that pressure, remaining accurate and
progressive until the final ball went astray. It's not difficult to see why they're
hard on our heels, nor do you have to look too closely to see Graham Taylor's
philosophies influencing John Ward's management.
To be honest, this is the kind of game that I dread writing a report about. The
usual currency of missed chances, great saves, penalty appeals was replaced by
a general buzz of activity, a constant intensity that never quite manifested itself in
definite events. While it was a thoroughly engrossing contest, it's unlikely to be
all that memorable.
To understand this, one only has to look at the main incidents at the Rookery end in the first half -
Tommy Mooney's driven cross being cleared by a defender; Ronny Rosenthal finding himself
foiled by a magnificent last-ditch tackle; Richard Johnson lining up a belter but having it
charged down; the City keeper grabbing a Peter Kennedy cross from Mooney's feet. No wasted
chances, no bad luck - just excellent defending.
That was less true at the other end, where City fashioned a couple of presentable
chances but wasted them with poor finishes - a weak shot at Alec Chamberlain early in the game
and a wild slash over the bar later on after some very nifty approach play.
Perhaps I'm not doing this justice. In truth, we appeared to be as fiercely
motivated and generally well-organised for this game as we were for that excellent
victory up at Northampton. The difference was in the opposition, who were equally
fiercely motivated and equally generally well-organised. It made for a hugely
competitive match, full of fascinating clashes between individuals - Page versus Goater,
Johnson versus Goodridge.
Amid the heading and chasing and tackling and shouting, there was some genuinely
lovely football being played. For our part, we appeared more intent than usual
on using Jason Lee not as a stationary target man but as someone capable of holding the ball
up - the consequence was greater attacking input from the midfield and the occasional
outbreak of rather sexy one-touch passing. Mind you, with neither Rosenthal nor Kennedy
living up to their reputations, we were over-reliant on Johnson's ability to hit
defence-splitting passes - he didn't let us down on that score, supplying some
exquisite through-balls, yet prior to the arrival of Gifton Noel-Williams our
strikers lacked either the pace or the anticipation to get on the end of them.
An air of satisfaction at half-time, then - although that was slightly tempered
by the feeling that we should've done more with the possession available, even against
such a strong Bristol defence. If anything, the second half was still more absorbing
as City took the lead and held out valiantly against our efforts to equalise.
Ironically, but perhaps not uniquely, the goal came at a time when we were
exerting real pressure on the opposition rearguard. While many will blame Robert Page
for the slip that allowed Goater an unchallenged run at goal, perhaps it's more
useful to question whether it's wise to leave such a lively centre forward marked by
just one defender in the first place. Anyway, Goater rampaged through and beat
the hesitant Chamberlain with a neat touch - whichever way you look at it, it was
both good finishing and sloppy defending. Good sides punish mistakes.
That left us with thirty minutes of increasingly desperate Watford pressure and frustratingly
stout City defending. While we were guilty of failing to make the most of our
occasional opportunities - Jason Lee hit a couple of shots over the bar and another of his efforts
went tamely at the keeper - it was much more a case of slightly predictable attacking
play failing to break down an organised, confident back line. At such times we
usually rely on Rosenthal to work his magic - but he wasn't on song before he picked
up a second half injury, let alone after.
The decision to play Tommy Mooney up front - unavoidable if we're to give Gifton
a rest - didn't really work. The midfielders appear to have become used to hitting
passes for pacy forwards to run onto - and Mooney isn't a pacy forward. As for Mooney's
work-rate, I'd argue that Lee puts in enough physical effort (something that's not
widely recognised since his gangly build counts against him) and needs someone
fast to make runs in support. Switching Mooney, the left footer in our back
three, to a forward role also has the effect of unbalancing the defence. I suspect
that no-one needs to tell GT this.
So it was that our best effort on goal before the arrival of Noel-Williams was a
long-range drive from Steve Palmer that the keeper (unnecessarily) tipped over. Our
attempts had become a little laboured. The
substitution ten minutes from time tipped the balance, introducing that vital
spark of spontaneity and exuberance into our attack. Ninety minutes of Gifton's
whirlwind style can become frustrating, ten minutes of it was enough to inspire
the Hornets to a comeback.
The goal wasn't a classic but it was a fine example of what can be achieved just
by running at people in the danger area and trying your luck. Lee's low cross found its way to Gifton inside
the box and he headed for goal before trying a shot that took a deflection off
a retreating defender. The ball squirted wonderfully past the helpless keeper to
spark off a mighty celebration in the Vic Road end.
After that, there was little to comment on - it was the right result, both for
the game itself and the two clubs, and the fans seemed happy to settle for it. Neither
side deserved to lose this one.
On this evidence, there's every chance that the positions of Bristol City and
Watford will be the same when the clubs meet at Ashton Gate in April. This match
was too good for the Second Division.