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FA Carling Premiership, 24/10/99
Letting ourselves down
By Ian Grant

"Disappointing" doesn't even come close....

For the first time since Wimbledon, we were cannon fodder. Beaten by our own mistakes as much as mediocre opponents, slipping to unnecessary and unaffordable defeat. The drop into the bottom three is not coincidental.

Don't get me wrong. While frequently over-elaborate, we played our best attacking football for some time. We were neat and purposeful and patient, a million miles away from the long ball stereotype. Such careful passing was undoubtedly a necessity with a diminutive strikeforce of Nordin Wooter and Tommy Smith...but it was still a pleasant change to see us venturing over the halfway line for long periods. Yeah, nice. The flaw in the masterplan? We were already two goals down, and "neat", "purposeful" and "patient" just don't cut it in that situation.

To me, and I find this acutely depressing to type, we looked like we belonged in the Nationwide. Not because we didn't dominate possession and certainly not because we didn't play some lovely football, just because we let ourselves down by making basic errors. Premiership football isn't about percentages, it's about being ruthless - hell, Arsenal managed to win championships just by keeping it tight, waiting and then punishing opponents' errors - and we should've learnt that by now. If we're going to survive then we have to be as hard on ourselves as others will be. So, no excuses. Well beaten.

The first twenty minutes were absolutely disastrous. Faced with a game that we knew we had to win, we spent a minute or so hurtling at our opponents in thrilling style, particularly when Wooter accelerated past a defender to smash a drive at Schwarzer. But it was almost as if we were so intent on making an impact in the final third, GT's instructions still ringing in our ears, that we stopped concentrating on everything else. Either that, or we just took our opponents too lightly.

Whatever, we defended poorly. We were competitive, never efficient - the one part of the side that's been reliable, not just this season but back to Kenny Jackett's tenure, let us down at a crucial moment. Sure, the defending for first goal wasn't that bad...but it still represented the kind of indecision and lack of concentration that allows players of Juninho's class to win matches. The corner only half-cleared, played wide to the tiny Brazilian in too much space, his cute little cross finding Deane and Williams competing to head past Chamberlain from six yards. No individual howlers to point the finger at, just defending that wasn't good enough to do the job.

And it continued in that way. Cooper dragged a shot wide from twenty-two yards a couple of minutes later; Ziege broke through but was pushed wide by a poor touch and finished tamely; Juninho was allowed to wander by Palmer and popped up in the penalty area, where he should've scored. All the play might've been in the Middlesbrough half, where Smith, Wooter and Miller were desperately trying and failing to get somewhere with their pass-and-move prettiness. All the action was around the Watford penalty area, where we were playing with our feet but not with our brains and looked constantly vulnerable.

So the second goal was hardly a surprise. But it was an especially stupid one to give away. It came immediately after Juninho had failed to score as Micah Hyde, for reasons best known to himself, attempted to dribble out of the box. Not clever - sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don't...but, at this level, it ain't worth the risk. You can reduce the chances of getting shot in the head tremendously if you don't play Russian Roulette; you can reduce the chances of looking like an idiot on national television tremendously if you don't try to be clever against a German international on the edge of your own area. Ziege robbed him and it was training ground stuff from then on, Juninho poking home from a couple of yards.

Even then, we didn't improve. Within three minutes, Ricard muscled Page out of the way and brought a decent save out of Chamberlain from the edge of the area. Whatever we might've expected from the Premiership, it didn't include other teams being stronger and more determined than us. With five minutes of the half remaining, Ziege's right wing free kick skidded through the area and was parried by Chamberlain, the defence again making a meal of clearing the subsequent danger. We have rarely looked so flustered at the back...and, bearing in mind the quality of opposition that we've faced in recent weeks, that's immensely disappointing.

I've barely mentioned our strikers so far. Considering that we enjoyed the bulk of possession, that tells its own story. They did all they could - Miller and Wooter were lively, Smith was outstanding - but they were let down by a lack of support. It was like watching rugby at times, forwards picking up the ball and going on a charge, only to be halted by tackles after ten yards and forced to pass the ball back. We found no space and no room to stretch our legs - or to stretch the Boro defence, for that matter, who played with their backs to goal throughout. Some of it was lovely to watch, granted, and I'm certainly not advocating a return to the hit-and-hope that we resort to at our worst...but, much of the time, our only hope of a sight of goal was through intricate one-twos or ambitious dribbling, the odds always stacked against success. It's generally easier to score without beating five defenders first.

We turned the Boro defence just once - and, not coincidentally, we nearly got a goal back. Johnson's ball through to Smith was perfect, much like it was for Ngonge in the first game of the season. Smith's attempt at going round the keeper was so close to success, only foiled by a desperate block, and Wooter was crowded out on the rebound. That was our best moment of the half, the first time that we'd managed to utilise the pace of our front line. Otherwise, we were relying on a moment of magic, such as that nearly supplied by Hyde on the stroke of half-time, his blistering drive from distance flicked over by Schwarzer as it flew towards the top corner.

The Watford dressing room must've been an interesting place at half-time.

We were transformed after the break - although we were also close to going three-nil down, as Deane glanced wide from Fleming's cross early on. But that moment of magic arrived and it came courtesy of man-of-the-match Tommy Smith, a truly brilliant bit of finishing. Picking up Miller's pass, he still had so much to do...and he did it all, beating the defenders around him to get into the box, holding off a tackle to curl the ball over the advancing Schwarzer and into the net. Pure ambition and the skill to fulfil it, a real gem of a goal.

Like some kind of message from GT, Tommy Smith spent yesterday afternoon proving that we need to explore all options before spending money on inflated transfer fees and wages. The squad needs strengthening, no-one is denying that, yet Smith's performance demonstrated that that strengthening process must not shut off opportunities for younger players to come through. As last season, it may yet be that the goalscorer we seek could come from within. He was brilliant, a sparking, electrified madness of ideas and fearlessness, the package completed by a quality strike. Time will tell, but it is surely the moment to give him that time.

And he was there again three minutes later, twisting and turning on the edge of the box and nearly getting his shot away, Wooter pouncing as the ball ran loose and smacking a shot against the outside of the post from a narrow angle. In between, there was a convincing shout for a penalty as a defender appeared to push a cross away from virtually underneath the bar with his hand. Boro looked decidedly wobbly as we threw men forward, the support from the Rookery that had been wholehearted throughout the first half suddenly doubling in volume and intensity. The comeback was not beyond us.

But containing Boro for forty-five minutes was beyond us. There had already been alarms - Page pulling off one of his miracles to rob Armstrong as he looked set to end a Juninho break with that decisive third goal, Fleming blasting a shot at Chamberlain - and we continued to take risks at the back. It's difficult to be too critical of that - the damage had already been done in the first half, we were forced to take those risks.

In the end, the second goal remained a tantalising mirage. We got no closer than Johnson's lovely pass towards Wooter, the striker just unable to get a touch as he slid in and Schwarzer having to adjust quickly to claim. The same problems beset us, the same lack of space and lack of width. Asking the strikers for two moments of magic is perhaps too much. Even at this level, there's much to be said for having stock moves to fall back on - it's what the likes of Wimbledon and Leicester rely on to bridge the gap - and there was none of that in evidence, merely constant attempts at elaborate passing that never found a way past a gigantic Boro rearguard. We played some lovely football yesterday, and we played most of it nearer the halfway line than the opposition goal.

The third goal was simply the result of over-committing and getting caught, as we continued to pay the price for those first half errors. The white shirts of our opponents streamed forward on the break and ended up fighting among themselves to get on the scoresheet. Ziege to Deane to Armstrong, it was so easy. Ince was the final recipient, stabbing the ball past Chamberlain and in off the post.

Depression took hold, the home fans' songs were muted for the first time. Sure, both Wooter and Miller brought saves from Schwarzer late on...but it was Boro who came closest to adding to their goal tally as Stamp stumbled through defensive chaos and shot wide with only Chamberlain in his way. We looked beaten, we were beaten.

It's a wound and it hurts, but it needn't be fatal. Past experience tells us that we are strong defensively, this experience tells us that we cannot afford to relax in any way. Treat all Premiership opponents with appropriate respect and concentrate for ninety minutes. This was an awful game to lose, but it'd be even worse if we didn't learn from it.

Like I say, the Premiership is a ruthless place. Get used to it.