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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 13/3/99
Oxford United 0(0)
Watford 0(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 2, Kennedy 2, Page 4, Palmer 3, Robinson 4, Smith 4, *Hyde 4*, Mooney 2, Johnson 3, Wright 1
Subs: Ngonge (for Mooney) 1, Gudmundsson (for Wright) 2, Hazan
Report by Ian Grant

As you read this, the Virgin Trains aptly-named "Cross Country" service will be somewhere en route from Brighton to Edinburgh. It might just be pulling into one of its innumerable stops - Croydon, say, or Preston. Maybe Oxford, Carlisle, Birmingham, Reading or Haymarket. Could be Bristol, Norwich or York if the driver fancies a scenic detour - it's that kind of journey.

It leaves Brighton at a quarter past nine in the morning. It eventually reaches its destination more than eleven hours later. You imagine that its carriages are full of cobwebs, dust and skeletons by that time, a privatised ghost train. Not even the end of the world could stop it trundling mercilessly onward. Absolutely interminable.

But still not quite as interminable as this bloody football match.

It is impossible to be completely bored at the Manor Ground, a wonderfully bizarre creation of the "pin the tail on the donkey" school of architecture. It's a Tommy Cooper kinda stadium, if you know what I mean, and I have an inexplicable fondness for it (although possibly not eleven quid's worth of fondness). Perhaps I like the place because there's clearly no room for it in modern football, or perhaps it's just that it can provide momentary distraction from a soggy, tasteless pudding of a game.

It wasn't that this thoroughly wretched goalless draw was without chances. Far from it - both sides had enough openings to have scored, and some of them were even pre-meditated. Rather, it was that the opportunities were wasted with such cackhandedness that they offered no respite from the general tedium. Watching someone scuff a shot at the keeper is hardly more exciting that watching someone mis-place a pass in midfield. Chances came and went like bubbles rising to the surface and bursting, of no consequence.

Only two of the assembled forward players stood out as being dangerous rather than just being there - Tommy Smith for Watford, Joey Beauchamp for Oxford. Even then, neither did more than provide occasional, fleeting chinks of light amid the gloom. The rest ranged from ordinary to downright dreadful, unable to do anything to lift the game from its bumbling monotony. The right result, then.

How different it might've been had Tommy Smith taken the chance that came his way in the second minute. Released by Paul Robinson after an Oxford free kick had been cleared, he sped away towards goal with defenders at his heels. At that point, we had no idea that the afternoon was not going to be fun and raised our hopes accordingly. Sadly, he scraped the shot across goal as Gerrard advanced, and the best opening of the entire match was lost. (It has to be said that we'd have crucified Allan Smart for a miss like that.)

Twenty minutes of ear-flappingly dire football later, Smith was through again. Supplied by Richard Johnson this time, he scrambled past Gerrard, who'd come hurtling out of his goal, but found defenders back to clear as he tried to re-gain possession to score. Tommy Mooney was the next beneficiary of a short-lived spell of coherence, picking up on some neat right wing passing and sending an intelligent lob just wide.

You're getting the edited highlights here, of course. I really ought to paint a truer picture, devoting paragraphs to the plague of offsides that seemed to result in an Oxford free kick every time we crossed the halfway line. Or describing how Nick Wright was having one of those days when everything turns to pants, the ball bouncing randomly off him like he was set in concrete. Or trying to find explanations for some completely baffling refereeing decisions that had both sets of fans joining in a chorus of "If you think the ref's a wanker, clap your hands...". But I'd rather get this over with, thanks.

Oxford came into it rather more before the interval, although without showing much conviction. Thomson was unlucky with a curling shot that went a foot over the bar; Chamberlain saved well down at his right hand post from a Powell drive; Cook volleyed over from inside the area after a bout of head tennis at a corner; both Powell and Thomson snatched at chances and sent them weakly into Chamberlain's hands. At the other end, only the traditional Darren Bazeley surging run threatened the Oxford goal - but on this occasion his shot wasn't up to the job.

Half-time arrived with an eerie, pleasant silence. Clearly Oxford have yet to learn that fans demand value for money, and value for money includes being deafened by the PA system at all times. Perhaps the tannoy doesn't reach the away terrace, perhaps the local record shop hadn't delivered its fortnightly shipment of Lightning Seeds records, perhaps the compere just couldn't be arsed. It was that sort of day. Not a bad day, not a good day, just a day.

The second half was no better. Still lumpy and inconsequential, a kind of visual porridge. It seemed to go on for hours. Gray drove over from long range; Cook found himself on the end of a long ball and Chamberlain saved his weak attempt with his legs; Hyde headed straight at the keeper. I'm telling you this stuff because it's in my notebook, not because it really matters.

If you haven't already picked up on the main motif, both sides were incapable of scoring. That does tend to lessen the entertainment value somewhat. Had the referee given us what looked to be a clear penalty on seventeen minutes, Mooney getting a shove in the back as he rose to meet Smith's cross, it might at least have enabled us to extract three points from the whole shambles. But he didn't, and we didn't.

The fans chanted for Michel Ngonge and Johann Gudmundsson, and eventually got what they wanted. Predictably, it didn't take long to realise that neither substitution was going to turn the game - Gudmundsson was lazy and indecisive, Ngonge was absolutely hopeless - and things continued much in the same vein as before. The arrival of Oxford's gigantic Kevin Francis did change things, if only in providing some light relief - Francis is a clown, pure and simple, and he didn't disappoint.

Only once was the Oxford goal seriously threatened. A quick - and, hallelujah!, controlled - break saw Tommy Smith hold up play to wait for support from Peter Kennedy. The angle was tight but Kennedy's shot was fierce and heading for the top corner, until Gerrard's hand pushed it away. Good attempt, fine save, a unique moment.

That still left fifteen minutes, unbelievably. Still enough time for Thomson to have a goal-bound effort deflected wide by a defender, and for Gudmundsson to waste a clear run at goal by dawdling dismally and allowing himself to be tackled. Still enough time for plenty more porridge too. At least injury time was mercifully brief.

Not a game that anyone will want to dwell on, then. The scorn that's been poured upon certain strikers has previously been mis-placed, since we've barely provided them with a glimpse of the target. This time, however, we muddled through the opposition defence on several occasions, only to be completely unconvincing in our finishing. Kennedy's shot aside, everything was so suffocatingly deliberate, the hallmark of a total lack of confidence. There was literally nothing to separate the sides, no moment of decisiveness to settle things - in truth, a goal of any kind would've been "against the run of play".

Oh, for a Dennis Bailey, someone with that knack of finding the net via a divot, three deflections and both posts....

See also: Ox Tales