14 January 2007: A Nightmare On Edgar Street, And Other Sundry Tales
After all the alarums and excursions of Friday night, time for football of a different kind, the sort one finds in Division Two, the old Division Three, and in another nigh-on forgotten, pre-Premiership age, the basement of a four divisional League set-up, today?s footballing giants sitting at the apex of a pyramid that consisted of 92 clubs of varying abilities, purchasing power, standards, and, above all, status.
Hereford, for several very lean years cast into the darkness of non-League football, until their fully-deserved return to the fold come the end of last season, was our destination this morning. They were due to play Mansfield Town, sitting fourth from bottom in the table, prior to kick-off: a very unhappy club, as we shall see, shortly, but one that still retained the ability to pull from its top drawer one hell of a shock, in the form of a pretty unlikely sort of result, considering The Bulls stood this morning just a couple of points off the play-off places, and The Stags a defeat or so away from getting up close and personal with clubs whose Football League future was looking shakier with every heavy defeat racked up.
Before we get on to that game, and what went wrong for the Bulls, now is also a pretty good time to have a retrospective look at Friday night, what was good about it, what we considered mediocre - and, in some ways, far more pertinently, those aspects of our performance versus Luton that immediately called for the swift application of clothes-pegs to noses, and maybe prompting managerial moves to replace those considered underachievers and/or frankly-incompetent, with a transfusion of new blood, better able to perform to the higher standards we naturally expect to see at our level.
As I saw it, the main problem lay in our midfield, and our quite shocking inability to execute even the simplest of passes without completely stuffing the whole thing up. As a central defender, Clem leaves an awful lot to be desired: sure, he did the best he could in that position, but you never felt quite safe, irrespective of whatever he was doing with the ball, or what part of the pitch he was taking it to. Kamara? Oh, dear. Perhaps it might be kinder, in his case, to simply draw a line below last night?s game, and forget it ever happened. As I said at the time he was subbed, not his finest hour, really.
On to my thoughts about others, then. Not necessarily in strict order of merit, this, so don?t go moaning your bags off if I don?t sing the praises of your own particular favourite sufficiently early for your tastes. Houlty, I thought, had a competent sort of evening: handling of crosses, command of his box, all good. He even managed to pull off a couple of stops that might have ended in disaster, had the lad not been sufficiently acute to see the danger. I don?t think there was an awful lot he could do about that Luton equaliser: appalling defending in front set the scene for that one, more than anything else. Not quite as spectacular a performance as the one versus Leeds, that fraught second half, but he?ll still do OK by me.
Watson was a bit of a worry, defensively, and Robbo a bit below par. Curtis Davies we lost comparatively early in the game: much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Sky intimated that he?d gone off with a suspected broken foot. Certainly, once he was out of it, we looked considerably more porous at the back. At least the news about his foot is now good: he?s having another scan tomorrow, as a precautionary measure, presumably.
As I explained to ?Im Indoors earlier today, reading an X-ray correctly right after someone?s had a break can be the devil of a job to do. There?s always swelling and some degree of muscle/ligament tearing to be taken into account: as many a young Casualty doctor has discovered over the years, such things can sometimes mask an X-ray, make it really difficult to see any break, especially a small one. The problem is worse with small kids: that?s why you keep seeing reports in the tabloids about indignant mums threatening to sue the pants off some hospital or other because of so-called ?incompetents? leaving some Little Johnny or other in pain, after genuinely missing such a fracture.
A very similar thing happened to Ally Robertson, when he was a young player, back in the late sixties: unbeknown to anyone, he?d gone and broken his leg, but it was to be a good day or so later before anyone managed to pick up the fracture. Amazingly enough, he was still walking on his ?bad? leg: correct me if I?m wrong, all you anoraks out there ? yes, I mean YOU, Steve The Miser! - but I do believe he actually played a reserve game with his leg like that, before the problem was finally diagnosed. His pain-threshold levels must have been astonishingly high to do that.
Has replacement was Jared Hodgkiss, of course, a young man who performed to the best of his ability out there, but I was left, sometimes, with the gut feeling that the lad wasn?t quite up to that sort of thing. No real reflection on him: the only way you gain experience is by actually playing out there, taking your lumps, then learning from your mistakes. He will improve, and greatly, but right now, it?s very much a case of keeping the faith until he does. Bully-boy stuff like jeering won?t help one little bit.
Chaplow? In some ways, he reminds me of a young Staffordshire bull terrier: gutsy and courageous enough to really get stuck into the task in hand, be it seeing off burglars, or simply playing ?fetch? in the local park, but on other occasions, letting rampant over-enthusiasm, coupled with an acute desire to please, get the better of him. With hyperactive juvenile bull terriers, you hide all your decent crockery, ornaments, and just about everything chewable: with Richard Chaplow, you try to find an on-pitch calming influence. Some nice touches from him, though, gritty determination, too, which is also good to see, but there were other times when you seriously wondered whether he was fully in touch with every single aspect of his game. Needs, perhaps, a comprehensive Charles Atlas, or Bullworker course, even, to stop all those nasty men kicking the footballing equivalent of sand into his face?
Koumas? What can you say about the one Albion player that seems to have pretty much everything about his game, good, bad, and indifferent, well under control? The quality of last night?s opener, created and scored solely by him, stood out for me by a country mile. Oozed class from every single pore, it did. To watch the way he took the ball deep into their half, then put on an amazing spurt of acceleration to ghost past a couple of very startled Luton players with consummate ease, then score, was absolutely delightful.
Do I detect shades of Chippy Clark, our small-but-deadly goal-prolific left-winger, back in the sixties, out there? Prior to that timely intervention of his, the game was bumbling along at a pretty mediocre pace, nothing to write home about at all. It always takes a certain kind of magic to turn a game around in such dramatic fashion, and at the correct psychological moment, too, just on the break: from what we?ve seen on many previous occasions, it would seem the former Tranmere lad has it in heaps. Koumas was also instrumental in other important attacking moves, making last night an excellent showpiece for his many talents. Let?s hope that his forthcoming brief suspension, activated by a fifth yellow card accrued thus far this season, won?t put too much of a damper on his impressively-delivered skills by the time he returns to the fold.
Greening? Maddening, and to an infuriating degree, sometimes. On his day he can be devastating, along those flanks. At other times, he?s bordering on ?liability? status. Not quite as bad as all that last night, but his performance was certainly patchy, painfully slow to whip in crosses, sometimes. On the whole, more liable to lose the ball than keep it, along with an unnerving ability to lose possession in such a way as to set up the opposition nicely for a swift counter-attack.
When viewed in close proximity to the human midfield dynamo that was Jason Koumas, last night, Kev Phillips?s talents looked in grave danger of being hidden behind a bushel. In true showbiz style, our lad left the best bits until the last three minutes, capping it with that delightfully-productive coda to his performance, some three or so minutes into injury time. The way he managed to evade no less than FIVE Luton defenders ? I had thought at the time there were fewer than that trying to stop him, but subsequent viewing of a replay told me differently ? all of them jumping in with boots flailing, blood and snot everywhere, but still not arresting his motion sufficiently to prevent him from putting the equaliser away, was truly astonishing.
For sheer determination in the face of almost-insuperable odds, that goal ought to be required viewing for every single kids team in the country. As for his oppo, the follicularly-challenged Mister Hartson, he played to his main strength, that pristine pink dome of his, and was extremely unlucky not to get onto the score-sheet himself.
Once more, I left the ground very impressed with the comparatively brief time new boy Koren had to show us what he was all about. He looks very happy on the ball indeed, seems quite comfortable with the concept of knocking it around, and put himself about sufficiently enough to kick-start a few attacking ideas of his very own.
Zoltan Gera? Hmmm. Let?s put it this way: I wasn?t too surprised to hear, today, that Boro were in the hunt for his signature. Gera?s enthusiasm for all things Baggie seems to have waned considerably over the course of the last few months, so it would behove us well to just take the money and run, in my opinion. ?3 million is the reported asking price, but there is a sticking-point, and one that might just result in the scuppering of the entire deal, too. According to today?s Guardian, we are pushing for keeper Brad Jones as part-exchange, but Boro no talka-da-Eengleesh by way of response.
Still, a ?no? in football?s rarely the bum?s rush where transfers are concerned. Expect to see this one undergo several convoluted twists and turns before the matter?s finally resolved, one way or another. He?s no makeweight, is Jones, a former Aussie Under 23 international, six foot three in height, still very young for a keeper, 24, which is no age, really, and reported to be a highly-competent understudy to their preferred first team choice, Mark Schwartzer. Well, let?s face it, you could even play an octopus loaned from the nearby National Sea Life Centre between the sticks, and he?d still look tons better than bloody Zuberbuhler!
Onto other things, now, namely our regular trip into the countryside, to watch Hereford United do their League Two thing against lowly Mansfield, at Edgar Street. Not that I saw much of the countryside, as I was fast asleep for most of the journey, but I did resume consciousness sufficiently enough to take in the enormous lake that is the meadows bounding the banks of the Severn, these days. How genuinely big is it, I wonder? Must be one hell of a sight when viewed from the air. Certainly stretches for the best part of a mile in every direction, right now: quite a feeding frenzy going on when we passed, too, the main beneficiaries being the numerous seagulls feasting to repletion on numerous deceased small insects washed up in the wake of the flood.
Because of heavy traffic around the Worcester area ? caused, in part, by those floods, coupled with the sheer number of rubber-neckers slowing down to have a good look at the damage Mother Nature had wreaked on the landscape ? we were considerably later than planned arriving at the ground. We had intended to have a mosey into the town itself, but there was insufficient time to do that when we got there. But ?Im Indoors had a couple of essential purchases to make. Solution? Go there on his jacksi, leaving me in the car. My walking-speed not being that brilliant these days, it sounded a sensible compromise. Not that I was complaining, mind: all I wanted to do was get more zeds in, which I did with complete success.
My other half returning with around 25 minutes to go before the start ? plods everywhere in the town, he told me: what, for bloody Mansfield? - goodies safely stowed in car boot, we made to enter the ground. Our usual spot in the main stand, of course, in close proximity to Talking Bill, Nick Brade, his mum, and all their other devilish works. But his mum simply wasn?t there! The other lady, the one with the copious supply of half-time mints was, though: apparently, she wasn?t feeling all that good, so decided to give today?s game a miss. Probably the most sensible one in the entire ground, as it turned out!
Just moments later, up rolled Talking Bill, and with laryngeal muscles in fine fettle, it would seem. No sign of Nick, though: probably engaged in selling duties of one kind or another. With clubs at that level, there?s little or none of the sheer side, the snooty ?you are lesser than the dust beneath my feet?-type attitude to customer-care you tend to get at richer, more favourably-placed, outfits, because they just can?t afford it! Chairman, directors, manager, coaching and playing staff, backroom boys, supporters, they all have to pull together. None of this prima-donna stuff, either, about players not wanting to interact with what some more opulent outfits might unkindly term ?The Great Unwashed?.
It?s a basic fact of life at that level. You have to look after your supporting regulars, your fundraisers, your unsung heroes of the backroom, very often offering their services on a strictly voluntary basis and ending up out of pocket as a result, make them as happy as is reasonable, otherwise you?ll find yourself either completely stuffed, or looking for agency staff to perform similar duties, resulting in an outlay of money which clubs down there just ain?t got. Or, even worse still, the local footballing types deciding to vote with their feet by ignoring the place entirely. It has been known to happen. In fact, at Mansfield, it looked very much as though the club had managed to really upset their supporter-base: that was evidenced by the two or three enormous ?HASLAM OUT!? banners hung on the wall behind the away terrace.
But on with the show. Now Nick was there, we could start! Mansfield had a lad called Gary Jellyman playing for them, no less. What wonderful images that produced in my somewhat overheated imagination! A disappointment when he finally emerged from the tunnel: a less jelly-like player I?ve yet to see. And, Tucka Trewick aside (no Tam Mkandawire today, sadly), another Baggies connection, and one provided by the opposition ? or they would have, had the lad not been suspended for that game ? so take a bow, Simon Brown, wherever you were today!
They?d also got a brace of new signings on parade: a lad called Gritten, ex-Lincoln, apparently, and accompanied by what looked very much like a trainee-thug to me. His name was Conlon, he was a striker by trade, and, to my eyes, had ?something of the night about him? in true Anne Widdecombe fashion, an insult originally directed at Tory MP Michael Howard, ?tis true, but equally applicable to the Mansfield newcomer. That was his tenth club, apparently, very much one of football?s journeymen, then. Nick Brade?s snap-assessment was absolutely hilarious: ?He looks just like the Child Catcher in ?Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang!? Yes, he did have a point: you wouldn?t want him coming anywhere near YOUR kids, that?s for sure!
As for the Bulls, they?d been stringing some impressive results together recently, but right now, they had one almighty crisis, both attacking, and in the middle, and all brought about by an unfortunate combination of suspensions, injury, illness (As I told you before, one lad?s got glandular fever, which can be really debilitating in its effects, and not in all that much of a hurry to go away, either), and having a squad far too small for the purpose. A half-decent defender in there and mixing it wouldn?t have gone much amiss, either.
And didn?t Hereford?s deficiencies in the personnel department show? With just ten minutes on the clock, they went behind, courtesy of trainee-thug Conlon, bless his prison-style crop and five o?clock shadow. That?s what comes of mocking the guy, I suppose! The marking? Awful. Defending? Crap, if you want my honest opinion. They even had time to get two goes at the prize, the first one repelled by the Bulls keeper, the second whistling straight into an unguarded net.
As for their travelling contingent, they just couldn?t believe their luck. Within a fraction of a second of that ball crossing the line, total mayhem broke out in the away end ? well, among what few elected to make the long journey southwards, that is. In the meantime, the ref was letting an awful lot go, two fouls in particular, one Hereford, one Mansfield, that would have attracted at least a yellow in our neck of the woods, only resulted in an earhole-bashing for the offenders.
On 16 minutes, Hereford went on the attack. This time the Mansfield defence went into serious ?panic-mode?, and put it out for a Bulls throw. From that, the ball caromed into the box, then contrived to land right in front of a Herefordian pair of feet. An open goal gaped, invitingly so ? but typical of current form, the home side missed disastrously!
But still Mansfield kept nipping at their ankles, in much the same irritating manner as an obnoxious Jack Russell terrier would. After one such incursion, they were dead unlucky not to make it two: there, in front of them, lay a nailed-on scoring chance, created by a one-on-one with the keeper. Only he could stop Mansfield now, so he made himself as ?big? as he possibly could instead, that being just enough to put the Stags lad off his stroke.
During a lull in play, I was to hear what is a familiar sort of lament from those parts: the perennial problem of Hereford being classed a Welsh club by mistake ? and it rankled. Apparently, a commentator more ignorant than is usual at that level did it during their recent tryst with Boston, prompting Talking Bill to do a bit of ?homework? with a handy road atlas afterwards. It appears that both Merseyside monsters are about as distant from Wales as Hereford also, but they never get lumped in with the Taff persuasion, do they? And they?re not the only ones: other League clubs are nearer also.
With the break fast approaching, and Hereford lucky not to be at least three behind, they weren?t half taking some flak from the punters in the main stand. Not a new phenomenon at Edgar Street, by any means, but it does appear to me that their lot seem to be on a much shorter fuse than most, when it comes to player performances, and their definition of ?bloody awful?.
Nick Brade, thinking them hypercritical to a tedious degree, thought up a Stunning Idea. Just behind us was a bloke whose sundry matchday outbursts and rants made the Reverend Ian Paisley seem like the voice of sweet reason by comparison: it all came flavoured with language that would have shrivelled up any flowering plant on sight, too.
According to this bloke?s horribly flawed thought processes, no matter what the magnitude of the problem, director-cum-manager Graham Taylor was primarily responsible for each and every event that occurred during matchdays, both on and off the field of play! So, taking the argument a step further: ?World Peace? Sort it out, Taylor!....? ?War in Iraq? Sort it out, Taylor!?.? You can even derive much amusement playing that game for yourselves, and you don?t need to be a Bulls aficionado to do it, either: a little creativity, and you can apply the very same principle to our very own football club. I wish you well.
Come the interval, and the news coming in from the Championship looked pretty good for our hopes of retaining fourth place. Southampton, our main obstacle, were losing. One real shocker, though: Cardiff 0, Southend 1. Not just going backwards, going right through the floor, by all accounts.
Back to the matter in hand, then. Hereford did try their utmost to get back into the game after the break, but try as they might, they still couldn?t get the ball over that thin white line separating agony from ecstasy. Even a couple of subbings didn?t help all that much, either. Then, with around ten to go, Hereford completely shot their bolt. Bowden was the scorer, and a combination of wind and bad defending the root cause of the problem.
And, as the ref made for the centre-circle, off went The Bloke Behind Me, and in more than usually-vituperative fashion, too. One thing I have noticed about Bulls supporters over the years, is their hair-trigger tendency to get right on the backs of both players and coaching staff when something like this happens. ?What a load of rubbish!?, chanted ad lib was about the mildest of a series of hurled insults. And all accompanied by a whole range of boos, catcalls, the works. Then, old Faithful, his patience fully exhausted (not to mention the vile range of his entire vocabulary!) could only spit out the word ?CRAP!? by way of final insult. It?s being so cheerful, so positive, that keeps him going!
As for Sweet Reason, as represented by our very own chums, even their comments were barbed. ?No cohesion? said one, with ?Unacceptable performance!? Bill?s contribution to the learned debate going on in the main stand after the event. What they desperately lacked was a proven goalscorer, a tigerish midfielder also. And, with only five minutes remaining, finding then in the time was a bit of a non-starter.
Right at the death, it was only a tremendous save by the Stags keeper, Jim White, that stopped The Bulls getting one back. In fect, he?d had a good game all round ? but not good enough to prevent The Bulls from popping one in just before the end of normal time! Hope suddenly flowered, blossomed, bloomed, even: well, we?d had ample reason to know why late surges can be extraordinarily effective ? didn?t we, Kev Phillips?
Just like last night, the entire place was instantaneously consumed by an almighty roar, thousands of home supporters willing their favourites to put the ball into the net a second - and equalising - time. But there wasn?t to be a revival on the scale of last night?s events: with every Herefordian trying their best to regain parity, pushing up on the opposition, it only served to expose gaps elsewhere in the side.
One minute the ball was threatening their goal, the next, it was being booted upfield, and towards their right flank. A surging run from the player that controlled it, a swift cross, falling directly at the feet of the lad who?d been astute enough to follow the play properly, and it was all over. Bang. Wallop. 1-3, the final score, and very much out.
Still, look on the bright side. After the game, we heard that we?d retained our own hard-won fourth place, thanks to some awful results elsewhere. Oh good. Where better to celebrate than at a local Chinese buffet, once we?d got back: trust me on this, their sweet and sour veggie soup covers a multitude of sins and ailments, hypothermia being one!
And Finally?. Heard the one about the football director that nearly had a Test Cricket ground blown up by the Australian Army? It?s all down to Mansfield Town again, believe it or not. Remember the banners I told you about, the ones with HASLAM OUT! on them? Well, it appears that some Stags supporter or other, out there to admire the cricket, but keeping very much in touch with what was happening at Field Mill, decided to unfurl a banner that displayed precisely the same message to the world as the ones we?d seen today.
One small snag, though: for whatever reason (Illiteracy?) the local plods somehow interpreted the message as reading: ?ISLAM OUT!?, and fearing terrorist reprisals on a grand scale, they pushed the security panic button with a vengeance! The poor sod that chose to display it must have wondered what the hell he?d started! Once he?d talked his way out of the slammer, of course!
- Glynis Wright
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