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FA Carling Premiership, 27/11/99
By Ian Grant

The dictaphone idea didn't really work. It was that kind of day.

In fear of missing something crucial while scribbling in my notebook, I'd decided to see if modern(ish) technology could come to my assistance. The answer being a resounding "NO", unfortunately.

I've got my own version of shorthand down to a fine art. So "8-NW rw x, MN fp head at kp" means something to me and nobody else needs to know. Recording such details onto a dictaphone is rather too public and not a little embarrassing, particularly when it's an opposition goal you're trying to describe and no-one around you really wants to be reminded. Granted, there is a certain pleasure in imitating Mike Vince - " Ngonge...ONE-NIL! Ohhh, yes...wonderful!" - but by the middle of the first half I was back to my trusty notebook.

Like I say, it was that kind of day. Problems to solve, problems remaining unsolved. Encouraging developments away from the pitch in midweek; no encouragement at all back on it on Saturday afternoon.

The distance between where we want to be - and Sunderland spent most of the game sending us "WISH YOU WERE HERE" postcards - and where we actually are is huge and getting no smaller. There's plenty of fight still, the need to overcome our limitations growing more urgent by the week. We've not going to give up, that much is clear. And, with things remaining tight as others continue to struggle just as badly, we've no reason to give up.

But, really, it's depressing stuff. The opportunities are there - taking an early lead again, then bombarding the Sunderland box in an invigorating second half fightback - yet there's no way to take advantage, no cutting edge. We scored twice...but we had only three shots on target, and one of those was a penalty.

Our attacking is all improvisation and speculation, no method. Which is where Sunderland excel. Comparisons with the Watford side that GT took to second place in the top flight have already been made and are spot on. They have a system, simple but highly effective, and they have the players to fit that system. They create chances because they have a method - get it wide, supply crosses for the forwards - and they repeat it until it works. Crucially, Quinn and Phillips rarely have to stray from the opposition box - the ball comes to them rather than vice versa, they're always in the places where they can do most damage. There's no mystery, no secret formula, it's simply that we don't currently have the personnel to follow the example.

We've scored some lovely goals this season and we scored another on Saturday. It seems perverse to use that as a criticism. But the point is that we need to start scoring some unlovely goals too - we're using a pair of tweezers to crack a nut and it'd be an idea to get the sledgehammer out from time to time. It's about percentages, it's about results, it's about doing things that hurt the opposition.

So Michel Ngonge's fourth minute opener, after Schwarz had driven an early free kick wide, was brilliant and devastating. It was also one of only three or four half-chances created in the entire ninety minutes, which tells its own story. Neil Cox's pass up the right wing was tidy and progressive, Xavier Gravelaine's ball into Ngonge was the mirror image of the one that set up the striker last week. The rest was all Ngonge, though, and it was stunning. For the briefest of moments, it seemed as if his control might fail him as he took the ball down under challenge...and then a crashing finish into the top corner ended all doubt. Where the hell did that come from, Michel?

The depression of defeat seemed very far away. We were buoyant, memories of last season's triumph starting to become clearer. But it was an illusion, Sunderland were only wounded and we weren't playing nearly as well as the goal suggested. Four minutes later, Quinn somehow diverted McCann's right wing cross wide from less than six yards - at no point did Paul Robinson manage to impose himself, something that the away side exploited relentlessly. Phillips sent an instinctive curler a yard wide, then was unable to divert a header on-target. The possession was evenly distributed, the chances all belonged to the visitors.

The equaliser was a fluke. Alec Chamberlain had Phillips' shot covered comfortably, before it took a gigantic deflection off Robert Page and trickled slowly and sheepishly into the opposite corner. Yet that's what can happen if you get shots on goal - to repeat, it's about percentages. Phillips' strength has always been his ability to stack the odds in his favour, continually getting into scoring positions and putting efforts on target. He can do that because he doesn't need to do anything else. As the saying goes, you make your own luck.

There was no luck involved in the second goal ten minutes later, just the ruthless exploitation of Sunderland's advantage down the right wing. Summerbee was the provider this time, forcing the hapless Robinson back towards goal until a crossing opportunity came along. Predatory as ever, Phillips sneaked into a gap at the far post to stretch and head into the top corner. Clinical.

At the other end, there was no final ball to unlock the Sunderland defence. Ngonge was still enormously menacing...but, unlike Quinn and Phillips, either he was menacing in areas far away from the goal or he was menacing without the ball. Both strikers retreated deep to compensate for the lack of supply, as the quality of Charlie Miller and Nordin Wooter never made itself apparent. We had only a Gravelaine shot from distance, saved comfortably, to show for our efforts. In contrast, Sunderland continued to look like scoring, Quinn just a foot or so away from turning in a Summerbee cross-shot and Phillips inches over with an instant, dipping half-volley.

What followed in the second half was so nearly an extraordinary, if slightly fortuitous, comeback. Nigel Gibbs replaced the invisible Miller, slotting in at left back to allow Robinson to pile forward and force Summerbee onto the defensive. It was a masterstroke. After Quinn had wastefully headed wide from McCann's cross, Watford were back in the game. To emphasise the change from the first half, it was Summerbee who was left trailing in Robinson's wake - the slightest of tugs as Cox's cross came in was enough for the linesman to flag and referee Rennie to point to the spot. I wouldn't have given it, since it takes more than mere contact to constitute a foul, but there you go. Richard Johnson, head bandaged from a first half collision, stepped up and swept it neatly home.

These are the chances that we must take if we're to survive. Roared on by the Rookery - the usually neglected consequence of having over five thousand away fans in the ground is that you get a real, dramatic atmosphere - we bombarded the Sunderland goal. Robinson rampaged forward, Gravelaine was suddenly everywhere, Ngonge snarled viciously, Johnson supplied the troops from deep. It was thrilling stuff.

Yet there were no opportunities to cash in on our absolute dominance. Sunderland were on the ropes, but we couldn't find a knockout punch. Instead, their defence dealt with our spirited but toothless assault. For the best part of twenty minutes, it was a totally one-sided contest...and all we had to show for it was a Johnson shot that cleared the Rookery.

Where we fail is in the ability to turn defences. In situations where the opposition is on its heels and there's no easy way to play through them, that means getting the ball wide and putting in quality crosses from as near to the byeline as possible. And lots of them. Like Sunderland. It changes the whole shape of the game.

Two words - "Peter Kennedy". Two more words - "obscenely underrated".

To emphasise the gap in attacking penetration, Sunderland emerged from their air-raid shelters unscathed and immediately scored. McCann was lurking in the box to collect Quinn's knockdown and fire decisively into the far corner, making it look so easy once again. It was the knockout punch that we'd been looking for.

There was some life remaining in the game...mainly, you won't be surprised to hear, because Sunderland continued to look capable of adding a fourth. Quinn was closest with a brilliant, unannounced curling lob from nearly thirty yards that had Chamberlain scrambling frantically across his goal but bounced a couple of feet wide. Proof that there's more to the Irishman than height and awkwardness - the partnership with Phillips is absolutely lethal, Sunderland's only concern must be that they're so reliant on it.

The events of the last minute just added salt into already painful wounds. Xavier Gravelaine won possession in midfield and bounced eagerly forward. He was stopped by a perfectly legal, ball-winning challenge by Sunderland's Williams, who was injured in the tackle. Rennie's red card for Gravelaine stunned most Watford fans, before the surprise rapidly turned to fury. The Frenchman, utterly distraught, eventually departed after receiving considerable sympathy from opponents.

Video reveals that Gravelaine went over the top of the ball with his left foot, his studs connecting with Williams' shin. Must've been painful, must've risked injury to the Sunderland player. That's not really the point.

There are so many things that have disappeared with the advent of microscopic media coverage and sky-high stakes. Common sense is one of them. Example: there is no apparent difference between legal and illegal contact any more. When analysts attempt to decide the validity of a penalty claim, they do so on the basis of contact - yet contact can be accidental, it can be insufficient to constitute an infringement of the law (as, I'd argue, with the Watford penalty), it can be incidental to a ball-winning challenge or it can be the fault of the striker (there was contact between Curcic and Bazeley at Palace last season, after all, and that was one of the most blatant dives I've ever seen). Television does not often provide the information to make common sense decisions on such issues...yet television is the primary sponsor of the Premiership, so football has changed to accomodate it. And football has not improved as a consequence - I'd argue that the diving and tumbling that has become increasingly evident in the English game has little to do with the influx of foreign players and a lot to do with changes in the interpretation of the law.

To return to Gravelaine, there is a significant difference between a dangerous tackle and a dangerous situation. And this was most definitely the latter. He was running with the ball, something that's quite difficult to do with both feet on the ground, and then stretching for a challenge as Williams' grounded slide went below his raised foot. It was an incident that might've caused serious injury and that certainly warranted a free kick, but the red card was simply a ludicrous over-reaction to the kind of accidental collision that's part and parcel of the game. Again, television will base its decision on hard facts - Gravelaine's studs connected with his opponent, therefore he must be sent off - and ignore common sense. Again, it seems that football has changed to fit in with that dull right-or-wrong view.

More than anything, I find it immensely tedious. There are too many free kicks in the Premiership. Too many cards thrown around for innocuous fouls, too many penalties and appeals for penalties, too many dives after minimal contact, too many over-reactions, too many players showing dissent.

And too little football.