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FA Carling Premiership, 22/1/00
Bradford City
It's over
By Ian Grant

Sadly, the facts speak for themselves. Bottom of the league, nine points adrift of safety with fifteen matches to play. Even if we weren't conceding three goals per game, even if those remaining fixtures didn't include Manchester United, Arsenal, Leeds, Chelsea and others, it'd be a pretty tall order. Barring a miracle that'd make last season's late playoff charge look commonplace, we're going back to the Nationwide.

On a bitterly cold Yorkshire afternoon - the precarious position of Valley Parade, perched on a cliff-edge, contributing nicely to the wind-chill factor - we suffered a defeat that eloquently told the story of our season, whilst also effectively ending it.

The injuries, for a start. As one part of the side comes together, another falls apart. So Micah Hyde returns to strengthen the midfield...just as Richard Johnson departs to weaken it. The striking partnership of Xavier Gravelaine and Heidar Helguson looks potentially lethal...but our lack of physical presence in midfield leaves us unable to supply that partnership.

On and on and on it goes, an endless, frustrating cycle of "back to full training" and "midweek appearance in the reserves" and "expected to be on the bench" and "out for six to eight weeks". We will simply never know what a settled line-up might've achieved this season, just as we'll never know how Sunderland might've fared with Phillips and Quinn permanently sidelined. Perhaps less obviously, we will never know what an injury crisis like this (with a weaker squad) might've done to our position in the First Division if we'd not been promoted - to be honest, I find the oft-repeated suggestion that another season in the Nationwide would inevitably have resulted in "strengthening" somewhat simplistic.

The match itself was equally familiar, and thoroughly depressing with it. Three points that we needed to win, three points that we were capable of winning, three points that we didn't win. The same old additions to the "goals against" tally - a highly contentious penalty, an unchallenged shot, a header from a corner - to rub out any improvements elsewhere on the pitch and crush any hopes of snatching something undeserved.

Our defending may be on the feeble side of pathetic, but the soul-destroying ruthlessness of the Premiership gives us little chance to improve. It feels like being bullied - unfair, cruel, inescapable - and we've yet to find an effective way of fighting back. With the constant knowledge that more of the same would see us heading for oblivion, this was more of the same.

From the start, we were not in control. Unprotected by a lightweight midfield, the defence was tentative and awkward. Robert Page looked particularly ill at ease, but he was only the worst of a bad bunch - even against Bradford's less than free-scoring attack, there was no composure and no confidence in anything that we did at the back. As long as that continues, we cannot expect to get anything out of our encounters with Premiership opponents.

Somewhere along the line, our traditional strengths have become weaknesses. The number of fifty-fifty challenges that resulted in Bradford possession in the final third was especially distressing - the combative aggression that got us into this league has evaporated, the rearguard has visibly shrunk in stature.

The opening exchanges were scrappy, but dominated by a more assertive home side. Saunders shot wide from the edge of the area before Des Lyttle sent a long range drive whistling a couple of yards past the post. A distinctly dour encounter was not helped by a pitch that cut up rapidly, nor by a referee who irritatingly broke up what little flow there was with apparently random decisions.

But Bradford adapted better and began to create opportunities. Or, to be more accurate, we began to create opportunities for them. After ten minutes, clumsiness from Page and weakness from Perpetuini allowed Lawrence to bustle through and shoot, Chamberlain blocking well even if the effort was directly at him. A drab eternity later, it was Robinson's turn to fail to clear and find himself beaten by a sharper opponent, the end result being a Windass near-post snapshot from McCall's low cross. He might've scored, but it was thankfully wide. Robinson curled a tame free kick at Clarke shortly afterwards.

We just do not learn. We'll blame the referee for the opening goal in a moment...but, really, the ball should not have been anywhere near our penalty area. For heaven's sake, get it away! The culprit was Gravelaine this time, refusing the option of wellying clear from the left wing in favour of foolish trickery. If it had succeeded, his attempt at playing the ball between an opponent's legs would have been full of dashing, daring, sexy European flair; since it failed, it was instead crass, idiotic and irresponsible. Having looked set to clear our lines, it immediately put us under pressure again. We're not helping ourselves, we really aren't.

Even so, it was an absolute nonsense. The cross came in, Saunders touched it on, Windass lumbered towards the ball in slow motion...and keeled over. Mr Alcock, who was in no position to judge and didn't bother to consult his linesman, pointed to the penalty spot. The video proves what every Watford fan in the stand overlooking the incident knew - that contact with Robinson was minimal, that Windass only made contact with Page because he fell on top of him, that Alcock is an incompetent disgrace. Lyttle was booked for personally passing on a message on behalf of all Watford fans, Beagrie stroked the penalty home.

Although hardly Alcock's job, that certainly brought the game to life. There were further chances - Gravelaine nearly running onto a Lyttle flick, Lawrence shooting weakly on the turn - before a stunning equaliser. In its own way, it was both thrilling and disappointing. Thrilling, because the sublime interchange between Helguson and Gravelaine demonstrated the quality of which our new strikers are capable - this was splendid stuff, full of vision and movement and understanding and other things that we'd forgotten existed. Disappointing, because we just didn't give them the ball enough to enable them to show that quality more than a few times. The move ended with Hyde pouncing on Helguson's precise cross to slide the ball home from six yards.

The self-destruct button was still within reach, the sense of relief lasted only a couple of minutes. Nonsense again, as Whalley was allowed to saunter forward from midfield and pick his spot from long range. Unchallenged. The phrase "not good enough" is over-used... but leaving your opponents to take free shots at goal really isn't good enough. Chamberlain appeared to be beaten by an ugly bounce and might've done better, although ultimately he has every right to demand more effective protection from those in front of him.

The away end seemed to let out a deeply heartfelt collective sigh, spirits only lifted by brilliance from Gravelaine in turning to strike an instant half-volley after fine persistence from Helguson. It went a foot wide, spirits sank again.

That the interval was spent raising eyebrows and shaking heads was not surprising. Yet the subject of discussion was not the performance of the team, but of the referee. Escorted from the pitch by stewards, to protect him from an absolutely livid Steve Palmer (who'd been flattened by Sanders' stray elbow just before the half-time whistle - no foul, obviously) as much as anyone else, Mr Alcock demonstrated a staggering inability to control a football match.

That Bradford were worthy winners is not any excuse - he was way below the standard required at this level, seemingly incapable of making decisions with any kind of consistency and unwilling to do anything about a rash of fouls that clearly warranted bookings (the FA has rightly called for "restraint", not for absurd leniency). Although the home fans seemed happy enough with his decisions, perhaps they might not have been quite so complimentary if we'd managed to score while their keeper was lying injured inside the six yard box and clearly in need of attention. I rarely attack referees on these pages and I'm certainly not about to seek excuses for our demise...but the standard of officiating in the Premiership is absolutely shameful. I've seen worse than Alcock this season - Mike Riley's display against Southampton was jaw-dropping - but that's hardly a recommendation.

In between Alcock's interventions, there was some football. But not football that gave us much cause for optimism, sadly. We might've equalised early on, Lyttle's fine cross from the right finding Miller inside the box - he was stopped by Halle, but the ball looped up for Gravelaine to attempt a spectacular volley that flew across goal and wide. Another demonstration of our attacking potency....

...Followed immediately by another demonstration of our defensive confusion. Between them, Perpetuini and Robinson contrived to concede possession down by the corner flag - again, failure to clear when given the opportunity - and Windass' wicked cross just eluded Saunders before being turned behind by Cox. Fortunately, we've been reading our coaching manuals and the marking at the corner was pretty good - no less than three white shirts congregated around O'Brien at the near post. Unfortunately, we've yet to get to the page which explains that the whole point of marking is to make it more difficult for your opponent - not one of those white shirts put in a challenge to prevent the defender from climbing high, winning the ball and twisting to loop a header over Chamberlain. As previously noted, our customary strengths have now become weaknesses.

Horrible. Living up to the media stereotype of "plucky battlers", we kept going...but we looked a beaten side, particularly as Bradford's containing tactics allowed them to stifle our attacks and hit us on the break. Wetherall, towering above everyone, headed wide from a left wing cross; Saunders leapt upon indecision between Robinson and Page to fire just off-target. Slowly and painfully, it was all sliding away from us.

And it kept sliding and sliding. An earlier second goal might've changed the final result, but it was out of our reach. The midfield just couldn't impose itself - only an immensely likeable, industrious performance from Des Lyttle really offered much resistance to the thoroughly dominant McCall - and the supply to the forwards was therefore of insufficient quantity and quality. Our closest moment was also Alcock's worst, an absolute farce. Plucky battling from Robinson finally set up Tommy Smith, who turned and shot from the edge of the box, bringing a decent parry from Clarke. The ball fell towards Robinson and he appeared certain to score, yet rattled his shot against Clarke's body before colliding with the City keeper. From then on, mayhem.

It was immediately obvious that the injury was serious - indeed, Robinson was attempting to attract the attention of the officials as play continued. While not a head injury, the fact that we still had possession, and therefore that play was obviously going to return to that area of the pitch, meant that there was only one decision. Yet Alcock played on idiotically until Alex Bonnot attempted to cross the ball into the net from distance, Gravelaine was barged over as he attempted to reach it and someone headed it off the goalline. Technically, it should've been a penalty; realistically, the game should've been stopped long before; technically and realistically, Alcock is a buffoon.

For all the pressure, our chance had gone with Robinson's failure to score. Indeed, Bradford appeared likely to rub salt into our already agonising wounds as they executed their counter-attacks well. Saunders out-paced Palmer to get to a ball over the top and only Chamberlain's fingertips prevented a fourth goal, tipping the shot over. Wetherall headed at the keeper from the corner, and Windass also headed wide. We were losing a game that we couldn't afford to lose, and we were never allowed to forget it.

When the second goal did come, it was too late. Page returned the ball into the box after a corner had been cleared, Helguson - who looks exactly like you'd want a striker signed for a record fee to look - must've seen it late and did well to hook it goalwards. It had no power and substitute keeper Davison really ought to have kept it out, yet it trickled into the corner and gave us false hope. There was some desperation in Bradford's defending after that but it didn't stop them shutting us out, with Bonnot's half-volley being the only glimpse of goal for a Watford player. The final whistle was a cruel moment, the announcement of the other results was just savage.

We have not done ourselves justice this season, and we did not do ourselves justice on Saturday. That is why we cannot give up on the rest of the season. There are still famous victories to be had, still hopes of a miracle. There are still players of Xavier Gravelaine's class to be watched, still moments of magic that we can conjure up and remember. There are still ways of sweetening a bitter pill, and still ways of building confidence for next season.

At the very least, there are still smiles to be put back onto faces.