Beforehand, so much of the talk had been about countering the threat of Ellington and Roberts, and doing so without the considerable presence of Sean Dyche. Afterwards, so much of the talk should be about Neil Cox and Lloyd Doyley, who bossed that much-vaunted partnership about for the duration. For Cox, it was an evening of timely interventions, confident decisions, and minimal mistakes; the player that we appointed captain many months ago has not yet left the club. For the masterful Doyley, it was all about basic defending amplified to eleven: always tight, always disciplined, always quick, always concentrating, never beaten. Between them, and with plenty of help from elsewhere, they kept potent, strong, pacy strikers very quiet indeed.
The weather was strange. It didn’t know whether it wanted to rain or not. On fourteen minutes, Mr Webber didn’t know whether he wanted to score or not, and throughout the match we never seemed to grasp whether we were playing at home or not.
Irrespective of the detail of what follows below, we visited a side with a hundred percent home record, a place where our own record is less than outstanding. We rested arguably our five most effective players, three of whose replacements had eight senior starts between them. And we won three-nil. Reading rested players themselves but in lesser numbers. What was close to a first choice eleven had their applecart upset, with Danny, Gav, H, Dyche and Ards (but for a thirty-second cameo) with their feet up ready for Saturday. So much for damage limitation.
The last match we could sing the ‘Terry and Ray’ chant. After the game Ray Lewington’s assistant Terry Burton agreed to take up the same position with the Bluebirds.
BSAD report: Good omens or no, it appeared that a number of Hornets had considered the “this is stupid” line of argument rather more seriously than we had, with only two hundred and fifty travelling fans in the away end, a figure in part explained by the fact that this was the least accessible of three consecutive away trips within the next week. I can’t help but feel that many Hornets have missed out over the last couple of seasons though… Ninian Park is hardly the most salubrious ground in the division, but it boasts an away terrace, a low roof and a bar area which combined to fuel a better atmosphere than has been achieved by many times as large a travelling support elsewhere in the recent past.
BSAD report: At various points, it was a game that we wanted to win, were winning, and should’ve won. Apart from the second, these states were more theoretical than anything else, however, as we were never good enough to overcome determined and organised opponents: we should be frustrated by our failure to preserve the lead for five more minutes, but that lead would’ve been the result of evading justice and heading out on the highway with our ill-gotten gains. Which would’ve been fun, clearly, and a reward for sitting through such a monotonous, mundane football match. A point is hardly a disastrous alternative, though.
At one o’clock I arrived in Watford, and one could smell the whiff of optimism around the area, predictions that it was three points in the bag for the Hornets due to the fact that Brighton had been labelled “relegation candidates” this year. Almost fifteen thousand tickets had been sold, ensuring the game would have an electric atmosphere. And both sets of fans were in good voice, obviously keyed up for the day’s game.