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99/00: Reports:

FA Carling Premiership, 4/12/99
Welcome to Selhurst
By Ian Grant

Selhurst bloody Park.

As a theatre of human misery, it has no equal. Like some vast medieval torture chamber, it could've been designed to maximise the agony of those unfortunate enough to be imprisoned within its walls.

None more bleak. The wind whistles through the deserted stands. The desolate silence is only broken by bizarre bugle calls at each corner and insufferable music at each goal, the PA echoing around to emphasise the lack of atmosphere. A day that was previously bright and crisp is smothered mercilessly by filthy black clouds and sweeping rain...and, inevitably, the game follows suit. The scoreboard clock counts slowly down towards zero, each dragged-out second bringing the moment of escape tantalisingly closer. It is a place utterly without joy, like something from the blackest places in Samuel Beckett's imagination. It is a stadium worthy of Crystal Palace.

Much of the purpose of these reports is to give those of you unable to attend an idea of what it was like to be there. So, here goes - The BSaD Wimbledon v Watford DIY Guide:

1. Remove forty quid from your wallet. Burn it.

2. Get two buckets. Fill both with ice. Place your feet in the buckets, leave until frozen.

3. Throw away your comfortable sofa. Replace with a plank of wood, splinters optional.

4. Invite a friend round. Get them to slap you repeatedly around the face. For two hours.

It still won't really come close. This was unspeakable.

How bad was the performance? Bad enough, essentially. So completely inferior in the crucial areas of the pitch that a generally scrappy and even contest deteriorated into an awful mauling.

The difference in the final third was vast. The five goal margin of victory tells the story - while the midfield was an unattractive and unresolved battleground, Wimbledon's utter dominance and our shameful inadequacies in both penalty areas dictated the course of the game.

It was embarrassing. In every department that matters, we were second best. It all came from the Dons' complete superiority in the aerial challenges, meaning that Kimble and Cunningham could create chaos by swinging in crosses from deep and absolute mayhem at set pieces - the first three goals were all about winning headers inside the box. Yet, even taking the lack of inches into account, we were an appalling shambles - as we ought to know from playing against Adebola back in April, if you can't win the headers then you must win the knock-downs. But Wimbledon were quicker to those too.

In attack, we had all the cutting edge of year-old rhubarb. Chances were created, chances were wasted. We looked like a side that'd have to conjure up a dozen openings for every goal. And at no point this season have we ever looked like a side that'll conjure up a dozen openings.

We can play better - we wouldn't be in the Premiership if that weren't the case - and we keep trying. Yet again, the start was bright and enthusiastic with both Michel Ngonge and Xavier Gravelaine showing well in the early stages. Mark Williams was flagged offside as he looked to pounce on a deflected Richard Johnson free kick in the first minute; Ngonge roared past Hreidarsson on the left but couldn't find a final ball to match his approach work. As I say, we keep trying.

But, with the defence so horrifyingly fragile, it's not enough. All the action in open play - Gayle and Johnson both trying their luck from outside the box - was ultimately incidental. It was the set pieces that mattered.

If you can't win anything in the air against the opposition strikers, then you're going to have trouble defending corners. Particularly when those corners are delivered to the near post with the quality of which Kimble is capable. For a moment it appeared that we were going to survive the first scare as Micah Hyde somehow blocked Hartson's header on the line. Yet the ball broke out to Cort, who was alert enough to control smartly, drill it back through the crowd and open the scoring.

Thus the pattern of the game was established. Lengthy periods of calm and tranquility as the midfielders scrapped for possession, then critical moments of blind panic as the Hornets' defence floundered and scrambled desperately and unsuccessfully whenever the general stalemate broke to allow the Dons' attack through.

But we did nothing to help ourselves. To emphasise the gap in quality, our attempts at near post corners didn't ever clear the first defender. Crucially, we were incapable of punishing defensive failings by our opponents. Wimbledon had no cause to be proud of their performance at half-time, just as we had no excuse for being behind. There were chances to pull goals back, yet our finishing was absolutely dire, criminally wasteful.

Michel Ngonge was the main culprit. Hard to recognise him as the player who lashed home that brilliant goal just a week ago as he flailed feebly at a succession of chances. At this level, even one miss matters, let alone three or four. So a free header went begging just a couple of minutes after the goal, the effort going wide and barely carrying enough power to reach the goal anyway, and worse followed. After Cort and Earle had both threatened with headers from more excellent service from Cunningham and Kimble, we had the golden opportunity to change our fate. Another Johnson cross from the right was misjudged by Sullivan as it was caught in the wind. The keeper's desperate flapping only served to drop the ball towards Ngonge, unmarked on the edge of the six yard box with an open goal at his mercy. The bounce was awkward and the angle was a little tight, but he had to score. He didn't score.

And Wimbledon made us pay. Every corner was a potential goal - Euell drove wide as one flag kick was only half-cleared to the edge of the area, then Earle reacted quickest to bundle the ball over the line from another Kimble delivery to the near post. Two-nil, two virtually identical situations defended with absolutely identical ineptitude.

It continued in the same vein. More hapless finishing from Ngonge, swiping at thin air from a rare Wooter cross. More poor defending, Euell allowed to run through and blast into the side netting. More hapless finishing from Ngonge, spinning brilliantly on a Johnson pass before squirting a pathetic shot at the near post when a pull-back to Gravelaine would surely have been a better option. More poor defending, Hartson heading over from a Cunningham cross to demonstrate his aerial superiority once again - he might be much abused by Watford fans, but we had no-one who could either challenge him in defence or match him in attack.

The second half was completely unforgiving for Watford fans, an agonising eternity. The fightback came and went with Wooter's first minute shot, which bounced awkwardly past the post as Sullivan dived across.

That was it. The rest was wretched beyond belief - crosses dumped into the box from too deep, nobody attacking the near post to prevent Sullivan from claiming with ease; Gravelaine and Ngonge disappearing altogether as the mistakes piled up and the confidence fell away. Whatever criticism can be made of some players - Johnson, Hyde, Wooter - they were still visible, still trying to make a miracle happen. But it was hopeless.

For a start, any comeback would have to involve shutting Wimbledon out for forty-five minutes. Never going to happen, really. The Dons had found our weakness and had no intention of letting us off the hook. Cort and Hartson both headed at Chamberlain early on, the latter chance coming from a corner again, before the third goal crushed the hopes of even the most optimistic Watford fans. It was farcical, Williams' misjudgement of Cunningham's hanging cross leaving Hartson unmarked to score his easiest goal of the season - enough time and space to chest it down, pick his spot and blast the ball past Chamberlain from six yards. We'd fallen apart.

As we became demoralised and heads dropped - Wooter's wildly ambitious shooting being the only surviving threat to the home side's clean sheet - Wimbledon inflicted yet more suffering. The fourth, from a Wimbledon point of view, was quite brilliant as Euell held off Williams on the edge of the box, left the Watford defender for dead with a sublime bit of skill and slotted the ball past Chamberlain before anyone could react and cover the danger. But it was all too easy, dribbling practice around traffic cones. Earlier in the season, Euell wouldn't have been able to score that goal against us, simply because we wouldn't have let him....

To prove the point, our defending continued to deteriorate. Five minutes later, Euell was again allowed a shot at goal as he broke from midfield. His run couldn't have been more obvious if it'd been announced in the programme, yet no Watford player bothered to supply cover as he strolled casually into the box, collected a pass and curled a shot at Chamberlain. That moment, more than any other, was truly shocking. I can forgive players for being out-jumped by the likes of Hartson, I can forgive them for making genuine mistakes...but that was disgraceful, an indication of a team feeling so sorry for itself that it forgot even the most basic training. Bottom line: we were all feeling sorry for ourselves, but some of us weren't getting paid for it.

Of course, Marcus Gayle's fifth was magnificent. Nothing that anyone could do about it, an instant half-volley from twenty-five yards that arced and dipped over Chamberlain's hand before nestling in the top corner. Brilliant, the final nail in our already well-sealed coffin.

The last fifteen minutes were just hellish. Nothing happened - Wimbledon satisfied, Watford impotent - as the cold bit deeper and the merciful release of the final whistle seemed to get no closer. A few spirited chants tried and failed to lift the gloom, the occasional bit of gallows humour brought brief smiles. Many understandably chose to leave early, while the rest of us stayed behind for reasons that we could never quite explain - habit, I suppose. Darkness descended, bringing a horrible sense of loneliness with it. The scoreboard clock finally reached the end of its murderous journey and Watford fans joined in, knowing that it was finally over: "FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! YESSSS!".

Two minutes of injury time. Bugger.

There's nowhere quite like Selhurst.