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FA Carling Premiership, 18/12/99
Tranmere revisited
By Ian Grant

Some dodgy defending. Some very dodgy defending, and another uphill struggle. A goal drought ended by a wonderfully precise strike. A second half revival. A lunatic linesman, responsible for a decisive (and extremely controversial) penalty and a red card. A match that let its fury spread over the touchline and into the stands, until the whole stadium was lunacy and mayhem. Post-mortems to determine what the hell happened.

Hang on, haven't we been here before?

We've been waiting for another Tranmere. Obviously. Those of us who've not either given up all hope or lost all desire have been praying for another Tranmere. This was it.

The same ingredients but a different recipe, the same formula with the wrong result. This was not to be Tranmere revisited - the penalty went the other way, putting our reviving hopes through the shredder and leaving us with another week to dwell on another defeat. When a little bit of luck would've gone a very long way indeed, we had none at all. Bastard.

Failure comes in many flavours. In some ways, it's difficult to decide what's worse, games like the last two that've simply crushed the spirit or games like this one that've left only fist-clenching frustration. I was coping and recovering until the penalty was replayed on "Match Of The Day", and that just sent me spiralling again...pure anger and resentment.

The fact that I'm sickened and saddened by what goes on in this Faustian pact of a division only makes me more determined that we're not beaten by it. This match re-awakened a sense of rebellion that has been missing for too long. At last, there was a reaction from the players. It's too lazy to say that it was not enough, that the points were lost in the first half - even if lack of quality makes relegation an inevitability (and I still refuse to believe that), then it is crucial that we do not lose our pride in the process. Whatever division we're in, next season depends upon it.

What happens now? Simple, really. Enough wallowing in self-pity - losing doesn't have to mean that you become a loser. If we continue to play with as much fire in our bellies as we did during Saturday's second half, then the Premiership will never destroy us like it's been threatening to. So let's do it. Come on. I'm itching for a scrap here, really itching. I'm not ready to accept defeat, to give any number of enemies the satisfaction of being right. No f***ing way.

You? No? Well, move out of the road....

I'm not pretending that we weren't thoroughly inept in the first half. Continuing to believe is not the same as making excuses or ignoring facts. Nothing changes, and the defence currently appears incapable of doing more than mildly inconveniencing the opposition forwards. Our rearguard was once as majestic and monstrous as a conflict-scarred battleship, now it's as pitiful as a punctured dinghy. Seeing Mark Williams prod and stumble hopelessly like a free transfer from Chesterfield is truly painful. How the hell did it come to this?

There was more intensity at kickoff, both on and off the pitch. It lasted less than five minutes. Then Barmby brushed Paul Robinson aside to run onto an innocuous Hutchison pass and poke the ball past Alec Chamberlain. There is no longer any sense of resistance in our defending, "THEY SHALL NOT PASS" now reads "THEY SHALL PASS IF THEY ASK NICELY". The familiar thud of depression, another uphill struggle to face.

In truth, we made a better impression than we have for some time. That was mainly courtesy of midfield style from Charlie Miller and Micah Hyde, both providing some much-needed creativity and purpose on the flanks. Our play was still littered with errors, yet it occasionally threw up real possibilities. Quality crosses, for example, such as the ones from Hyde and Johnson that Michel Ngonge headed wide after eight and fifteen minutes.

After writing about last week's atrocity, I make no apologies for not resorting to the dictionary for further damning adjectives. I'll condemn when it's appropriate, and our forward play was no worse than during more optimistic times earlier in the season. Indeed, there were moments when it was considerably better. If I can't at least try to sort the gold from the grit, then there is no point to these match reports.

In a different context, some of this would've been lovely. Micah Hyde instigated a break on the right, Tommy Smith returned his pass and Charlie Miller failed to finish decisively with a shot that allowed Gerrard to make a comfortable save. There has been little of that quality at Vicarage Road lately. Just seconds later, Robinson and Miller joined forces to slalom their way down the left wing and supply Ngonge with a fine cross that he wasted with an awful header into the ground. Finishing aside, this was no disgrace.

But, like a record covered with fingerprints, the tune was nice enough until it was periodically obscured by static. They happened again and again, these inexplicable aberrations. Everton were simply allowed to create chances, watching and waiting while defenders committed appalling errors and then pouncing. So the two moves that I've just described were immediately erased by more lunacy, Williams miskicking wildly in attempting to clear a cross and all hell breaking loose - a ricochet off Hutchison, a Pembridge overhead after Chamberlain had fumbled under challenge, a Hutchison miscue back to the keeper with the goal gaping. Chaos, absolute chaos.

Our defending is plainly inadequate. Beating Premiership opponents was always going to be tough, but we're making it look impossible. Xavier drove wide from the edge of the box before another woeful mess ended with Cleland eight yards out and unmarked - just to prove that we're not alone, his shot was so bad that it went out for a throw. Barmy sent an instinctive lob over, as Everton took advantage of our sloppy marking - or, more accurately, our sloppy everything - to threaten further goals. At the other end, Miller dragged a half-volley across the face of goal after running onto a Palmer clearance.

The second goal was dreadful. No individual errors to criticise, merely Watford players finding themselves second best in every contest. Campbell ran down the right side of the penalty area to collect a high ball. He was policed by Robert Page, yet was still allowed to hook in a cross. Hutchison reacted quicker than Williams, met the ball at the near post and guided it into the net. Like I say, there's no resistance any more....

The remaining minutes of the half were horrendous. Somebody had had enough, hurling their season ticket into the six yard box before being bundled out by stewards. A chant of "Taylor, get your chequebook out!" (because, clearly, if we're going to be relegated then we might as well bankrupt ourselves in the process) emerged from the back of the Rookery and was quickly shouted down. The atmosphere turned nasty, not helped by yet more atrocious defending to let Campbell in for a shot that was only denied by a fine one-handed save from Chamberlain. There were more scrambles from the corner, until Collins' shot hit one of his colleagues and was hacked to safety.

Half-time. I want to go home.

Something had snapped. For me, there seemed nothing left to do but shout as loudly and as much as possible...a desperate and seemingly futile display of defiance, but probably better than weeping in public. Others clearly felt the same, as the support in the second half was magnificent and courageous.

And there was a response on the pitch. We've never stopped trying...but now we were fighting, chasing lost causes and ignoring the odds. The mistakes remained, yet we seemed able to forget about them. It was evidence that we've yet to reach the point of no return.

Within two minutes, there was Hyde on the right wing for a cross and Ngonge in the centre for a flick and Smith at the far post for a volley at Gerrard. In kicking clear, Gerrard hit Ngonge and suddenly Smith was racing towards goal, taking the ball too wide with a clumsy touch and shooting weakly at the keeper with Ngonge waiting for a square ball. Missed chances, sure, but that's no longer the issue - the most important thing at this stage is that we give it a bloody go, rather than meakly accepting our limitations. And we were certainly giving it a go.

The goal was a fine example of what can happen. A little bit of class from Hyde, with a darting through-ball which seemed to swerve past a defender's boot as if by remote control. A lot of sheer persistence from Ngonge, receiving the pass, losing out and then battling away with two defenders until the ball somehow arrived at his feet once more. The finish was instant, curled past Gerrard from the edge of the box. Most of us just celebrated by shouting even louder - "COME ON! COME ON!", less encouragement than a demand. I'd lost it by this point, frankly.

It became vital. As tempers flared and challenges got wilder (five bookings and a dismissal in the final half hour), so we grew in stature. The comeback would've been such a morale boost, it would've sent us hurtling into the next game. There was always an Everton threat, such as when Chamberlain pushed Barmby's twenty-five yarder round the post and then gathered an awkward shot from Unsworth, but our defending had gained a tenacity that had previously been so lacking. The game had changed completely, and anyone who claims that they didn't believe we could get at least a draw is far too cynical to be going to football matches.

Swarming around the Everton box, there were moments when it seemed that we could get the equaliser by will-power alone. As Robinson rampaged down the left to get onto the end of a Page free kick, there was a roar of excitement and a thrilling expectation. Palmer sent in a half-volley from twenty yards, Smith ready to pounce as Gerrard saved. Miller volleyed over from a corner. Cox crossed, Ngonge nodded back and Johnson's volley bumbled a couple of inches past the post with Gerrard scrambling. Robinson curled a free kick a couple of yards wide.

Giving it a go, like I say. An equaliser would've brought bedlam (and would've made the bloke with the season ticket feel mighty stupid as a bonus), and it was close enough to taste. Time was running out and we needed something to break for us, that helpful bounce or deflection to send Vicarage Road into pandemonium. It would've been one of the best celebrations the Rookery has ever known.

And then an aimless pass sent Barmby on a chase, pursued by Williams. And, with the ball nowhere near, there was a collision and the Everton player went sprawling. And the referee waved away the appeal. And I made a mental note to praise him for doing so, since too many ridiculous, unintentional contact decisions are given in the Premiership (see Sunderland report). And then the bloody linesman intervened.

What happened from that moment onwards is obscured by red mist. Our hopes shattered, we lost all control. Unsworth scored from the spot and seeing Everton fans on the pitch only added insult to considerable injury. Neil Cox was dismissed for abusing the linesman, something that was hardly professional but was only what any one of us would've done in the same situation. At the final whistle, a distraught Richard Johnson went to the referee, took the ball and booted it into the Rous stand, only avoiding a red card through protection from Palmer, Page and, to his credit, Barmby.

I found myself speechless and trembling afterwards, like I'd woken from a nightmare.

Just as I've hoped that the players were feeling as disappointed as I was after the last two performances, so I hope that they're feeling as bitter and twisted as I am about this one. Because, as I said earlier, I will not be beaten by this godforsaken division and its parody of football. I will not be ruled over and then defeated by something that so clearly stinks. I will not accept the inevitable.

Even if we can't fight our way out of this corner, we can still bloody a few noses. Anyone with me?