Monday, January 10, 2005

The discomfort zone

Not so much a banana skin as a patch of sheet black ice, but one on which we narrowly avoided slipping up.

The draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup, that great leveller, had pitted our overpaid, underenthusiastic, prancing big-time charlies against Yeading, a bunch of hardworking amateurs sitting pretty at the top of their league, coming into the game on an eight game winning streak and with an impressive defensive record to contrast with our own. Add into the mix Fat Freddy’s unforgivable comments about lower league sides, which no doubt made the opposition all the more intent to bloody our pampered Premiership noses, and there was a distinctly uncomfortable Sunday afternoon in prospect.

It was a classic no-win situation. Even if we had thrashed them, everyone would have said “It was only Yeading” and it would have unjustifiably raised expectations of a marked improvement in our league form. The possibility of defeat didn’t bear thinking about – though given our track record in the Cup against non-league opposition and some of the improbable results the previous day, it was hard to avoid fearing the worst, amidst the knowledge that the whole country was willing us to fail.

Perhaps in the circumstances, then, the 2-0 final scoreline in our favour was the best possible outcome, signalling a professional job on our part whilst also leaving us under no illusions as to how poorly we played.

Souness hardly compromised when it came to team selection, affording Yeading the respect of putting out a near full-strength side (take note Fish-Eyed Ferguson). Bellamy returned up front for Dyer, whilst new signings Boumsong and Babayaro took the places of Hughes and Bernard at the back. Of the side which disappointed at West Brom, only Given was rested, replaced by Harper.

Certainly the goal feast we’d been hoping for failed to materialise, and in a goalless first half we were desperately poor, matched in nearly every department by the Ryman League outfit. We could even be regarded as rather fortunate to be on level terms at the break.

We had several gilt-edged chances, the first as early as the 90th second, when Robert sneaked in behind the Yeading defence and should have given us the lead from Ameobi’s flick-on – as it was, his tame close-range shot dribbled into the grateful hands of keeper Preddie.

Other chances followed, with Bowyer just unable to get a foot to Ameobi’s low cross, Jenas’s shot turned over and, closest of all, Bellamy striking the bar when he really should have done better. It’s been wastefulness in front of goal rather than the defence that has been our downfall of late, and we lived in fear of it costing us dearly.

Yeading had chances of their own, wing-back Protain outjumping his marker to send a header over the bar from a set-piece, and a powerful low free-kick from Clarke excellently tipped round the post by a full-stretch Harper. Most disturbing was the way Yeading were holding their own in midfield, despite coming up against captain JJ and the normally combative Bowyer – quite what the watching Eriksson made of it is anyone’s guess.

Mercifully the second half was only six minutes old when Bowyer settled the nerves with the much-needed first goal. Ameobi embarked upon a powerful run, slipping the ball to Bellamy down the right channel and his cross was tapped in from two yards by the onrushing midfielder.

The goal marked a significant change in the pattern of the game, as we suddenly started to exert our superiority, creating countless chances primarily by releasing Bellamy into dangerous positions in and around the penalty area. It was only a matter of time before we took another opportunity, and Ameobi it was who got in front of his marker from an Ambrose free-kick to head in.

From then until the final whistle we were relatively comfortable, easily containing Yeading’s forwards whilst showboating at the other end - which was not only arrogant but also unjustifiable, given that the players should really have been going for another two or three goals to make amends for their lame first-half display. Bellamy was wasteful with his shooting, but Taylor was unlucky not to notch his first senior goal with one of three fine efforts.

Even then, there was a late scare when Harper was forced to push a scorching Yeading shot wide, though it might have been hitting the post anyway. I don't want to lapse into a patronising gush here - there's been too much of that elsewhere. Suffice to say that Yeading made a mockery of the supposed gulf in class and ability, emerging from the encounter with pride and dignity intact without having ever really suggested they had the firepower to threaten an upset.

New signings Boumsong and Babayaro both looked fairly solid, the latter showing some nice touches coming forwards and the former allowing Telemaque and the lively DJ Campbell no sight of goal. It’s far too early to gauge their qualities, though – whether they will prove to be prudent signings will only become clear once they’ve been pitted against Premiership attacks.

So, we’re through, and thankfully at minimal cost – N’Zogbia and Robert were both withdrawn having picked up knocks, and Bramble, also substituted, received a booking for one clumsy challenge too many. Realistically, this is our only chance of a trophy this season, and so we have to hope for a favourable draw for the Fourth Round. The Mackems at home, anyone?

Other reports:, Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian, Hobo Tread


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