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FA Carling Premiership, 15/4/00
A short report
By Ian Grant

The mind wanders during an impeccably observed silence in memory of the Hillsborough victims, bringing back nightmare images of crushed innocents and helpless onlookers. Yet again, you wonder how long people will continue to die for choosing to attend a football match. No matter how miserable Saturday afternoon was, we all got home safely.

As fans, our relationship with the media concentrates too much on perceived injustices - sarcastic comments about our defending on "Match Of The Day", dismissive reports in the newspapers - and too little on the real issues. Mark Lawrenson might think your football team's a bit rubbish. Gary Lineker might still be smarting because your manager substituted him for playing like a git four hundred million years ago. But, as anyone who remembers the press reaction to Hillsborough will know, The Sun thinks you're scum. Not your team, not your manager, but you.

Let's get our priorities right. Let's not forget who our true enemies are.

An off-topic introduction, perhaps. But, as with the recent David Irving trial, some things cannot be allowed to fade away.

Understandably, there's been a lot of talk about putting football into perspective in the last week or so. Football is only a game...and yet, as something that's of huge importance to millions worldwide, I'm not sure that putting it into perspective is quite right. Finding pleasure and occasional ecstasy in something is not a luxury, surely? Having fun is not less worthwhile than being serious, right? The point is not that football is more or less important than life or death, but that it is unarguably a part of so many lives (and therefore deaths).

Of course, the natural consequence of creating a game that's so interwoven with the fabric of human existence is that it's frequently bloody awful. Just as there are days when you forget to take your umbrella to work and get soaked on the way home, there are also days when you pay twenty-one quid to watch a ghastly non-spectacle like this. Literally, c'est la vie.

We actually played rather well here. For four minutes. The problem being that our defence is once again so fragile that we give ourselves the smallest chance. The seconds tick by before the inevitable self-destruction and consequent confidence crash, the only hope being that we can score in the meantime. So you can blame Micah Hyde for his first minute miss, slashing wide after a fine move down the left involving Tommy Smith and David Perpetuini. Or you can blame the later errors which made that miss so crucial.

We just cannot afford to concede first. After countless defeats, we're not strong enough. Everything we were trying to achieve was blown away by Kevin Davies' early goal, so avoidable in all respects. The finish was precise, drilled into the bottom corner after a couple of steps into the area, but it was only possible because the entire defence, particularly Robert Page, stood and watched. That's not defending, that's spectating...and it gets punished in this league, in case no-one had noticed yet.

The collapse was slow, granted. Allan Smart might've equalised six minutes later with a clear header at the far post from a corner. But he didn't, nodding wide instead as the ball came to him unexpectedly. We thought Smart had equalised shortly afterwards, until someone noticed the linesman's flag cancelling out his crisp finish on the turn - the video shows the decision to be marginal, to say the least. Darren Ward had a chance from another corner after Neil Cox's header came his way...but, again, our luck was out and he couldn't steer the ball on target.

If it sounds as if I'm describing a flurry of chances, then that's wrong. Nonetheless, the chances were there. Having failed to take them, we slumped into the most dismal and directionless relegation-bound stereotype.

It was not a very good game. Understatement. Without any purchase in midfield or attacking width (once again, injuries to Kennedy, Wooter and Wright hit us hard), we were reduced to basic, uncontrolled scrapping. Neither pretty nor effective - the same goes for Southampton, except that they had the lead and therefore cared considerably less. "You're shit and you're going down!" chorused the Saints fans in the stand next to us. "You're shit and you're staying up!" we replied. A fair summary of the situation, really.

The rest of the half was abysmal, nothing to look at but two teams pointlessly clattering about. Thank God for the ever-risible Stuart Ripley, who at least has the good grace to earn his wages by being utter rubbish but entertainingly so. Beattie had a goal disallowed for a foul on Page; Johnson drove over from distance; Le Tissier - a fat, graceless parody of the player he once was - clouted a free kick into the wall. Nothing else happened in twenty minutes.

Unfortunately, such fast-forwarding takes us quickly to the second half. Which was even more appalling. As last week, the arrival of Heidar Helguson for the disappointing Smart gave our attack more of an edge...yet, without any recognisable midfield strategy, that edge was almost irrelevant. There were brief moments of promise, such as when Hyde broke from the halfway line and supplied Smith for a cross that was cleared behind at full stretch, but they were very, very rare.

The game should've been out of our reach within five minutes. Alec Chamberlain rescued us with a miraculous block from Beattie's point-blank volley after a left wing cross had been headed down...but, really, the chance was too good to miss and the Southampton striker was unconvincing. There were further chances too - twice, Richards climbed highest to head goalwards from set pieces but couldn't direct the ball out of the keeper's reach.

As the home fans provided tremendous support - whatever anyone says about The Dell, it is at least a football ground with people in it rather than an entertainment and shopping complex with silent customers - their team stumbled towards the finishing line. Our attempts to equalise were still limited and confused by our utter inability to extricate ourselves from the midfield melée and, despite the single goal deficit, there seemed little hope.

It took us twenty minutes to create a chance...and then we were a bit unfortunate as Cox slipped a pass down the right wing for Smith, who rounded Moss outside the area but couldn't prevent the ball running over the goalline. It took us twenty-five minutes to string some passes together, ending with Helguson volleying over on the turn from the edge of the box.

If any of that suggested that there might be a late twist to send us home slightly happier, such insane optimism didn't last very long. As Ripley galloped down the right wing on the break, we were safe in the knowledge that his crossing is as reliable as Connex's Gatwick to Watford train service. And so it proved, as he didn't bother to look up and simply whacked the ball in the general direction of the penalty area. Unfortunately, Tessem was waiting to pick up the pieces on the other flank and was rather more careful with his delivery, finding substitute Pahars unmarked to force Chamberlain into a decent save with a header. It was Pahars again from the resulting corner, finding a yard of space among a crowd of taller players to double the lead from six yards.

If the game was on a life support machine before, that finally killed it off. Both sides went through the motions - the main motions being aimless punting and equally aimless charging about - for another fifteen minutes before the referee brought a merciful end to proceedings. Le Tissier and Lundekvam both went close with efforts from long range, the ball skidding past the post on each occasion. Clint Easton, who had a bad game but wasn't exactly alone, curled in a free kick that Moss pushed over with relative ease, before Ward headed over from the corner. Tommy Smith went on a couple of alarmingly Wooter-esque runs, completely ignoring better-placed colleagues. It was grim.

It's a bit of a short report, this. So sue me. Somehow, a lengthy post-mortem doesn't seem appropriate here. Whatever anyone says about the limited potential of our squad, this was nowhere near what we're capable of. Whatever our standard really is, this was obscenely sub-standard. We may not be "good enough"...but we're way better than this.

Same old story, boring and repetitive...but closer to home this time, at least.