The hollow men

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

8 February 2004

A bright, semi-breezy wintery afternoon in Partyland, with a full house, people begging for "spares", latecomers walking around the pitch to empty seats, men in kilts, balloons, and mascots waggling their backsides in the faces of bald men. What more could one ask for on a February afternoon? It's what makes Britain great.

Most of the Town seats were taken, so perhaps around 1,300 were gathered together in the Slumberland Dunlopillo stand. How nice of them to make us feel at home by naming it in honour of Simon Ford. Ominously the Town support brought along a small ball to bounce around the stand. We always lose when they bring that. Ominously the team turned up. We always lose when the club bring that.

Town warmed up in the now usual half-hearted, "I'd rather be under the sea in an octopus's garden" way, while Oldham purposefully clipped, chipped, jogged and did team-like things enthusiastically. Out there, on the pitch, the party continued, with a parade of stars, singing, dancing, jokes old and new (Iffy and Thorpe) and as the teams ran out the Town fans tore up their tickets and gave a splendid, roaring ticker tape welcome. Or perhaps they were taunting those lazy Oldhamites who had arrived too late, the "spares" fluttering out of the stand, over the turnstiles and past their noses. Oh, and the teams ran out down a corridor of kilted men blowing bagpipes. Fortunately the wind didn't pick up and lift up their skirts.

The black and whites lined up in a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Davison, Crowe, Edwards, Crane, Barnard, Campbell, Daws, Groves, Jevons, Boulding and Thorpe. The substitutes were Hamilton, Anderson, Ford, Rowan and the man with more flair in his pen than feet, Percy Bysshe Onuora. Crowe was at right-back and everyone else where you'd expect them to be.

The Oldham players huddled together in a great big group hug while the Town players stood around staring at the sky. It may look a bit daft, but the hugging did symbolise their togetherness, to be contrasted with the Town players. Eleven men connected by a common coloured polyester, hardly talking to each other, or looking at each other. Like strangers passing in the street, only by chance two separate glances meet. Hello, you must be Mr Campbell.

First half
Town kicked off away from the massed Mariners and didn't welly it out of play. Barnard carefully curled a chipped pass up the inside left channel, the ball dropping on Thorpe's boot and being delicately laid off, first time, to Boulding, just outside the penalty area. He fell over when a defender whispered "Hello Dolly" in his right ear. Well, wouldn't you?

Not a bad start: a bit of movement, some passing and a nice little touch by Thorpe. Thirty seconds later the wobbles started. Crowe tackled Groves, passing the ball back down the touchline towards the Town goal straight to an Oldham player and something happened: can't remember exactly what, but it involved a lot off flapping of arms and jumping about.

The right side of Town's defence was conspicuous by its absence, with farmer Jethro Campbell determinedly ploughing a single strip of land ten yards either side of the halfway line, and Crowe loving the attacking possibilities of being a wing-back, but without the back bit. Pity he was supposed to be a full-back then. Three times in the first ten minutes Crowe zoomed down the right wing, dribbling past one, two, three O'Leary defenders. Exciting for a few microseconds, but when possession was lost there was nothing behind, and no sense of urgency in filling that void.

But let's leave that for a few moments. You want to hear about Town attacking, right? There was some, for the opening ten minutes were relatively even, by Town standards. A Crowe surge and some passing saw Campbell (I think it was Campbell; I may have imagined his presence on the pitch) loft a loopy cross to the far post, where Jevons (I know that, but I still might have imagined his presence on the pitch) headed straight at Spaghetti Pogliacomi. Boulding va-voomed away a couple of times, dribbling uninteresting shots goalwards. Big Les had to wake up once and move most of his limbs to smother a soft shot.

In the seventh minute we had our first "sort it Grovesie" of the afternoon when Crowe did something rubbish again.

So there we are for the first 10 minutes. Town had two or three efforts on goal, while Oldham hadn't, though the holes in the Town team were already apparent: players far too far apart, massive areas of Boundary Park unpopulated by monochrome strollers. Crane was particularly wayward in everything he did, wandering out of position, ball watching, ball missing, falling over... a full range of ineptness on show.

In about the 10th minute Town attacked again, down the right. Campbell played an awful pass to Groves, who appeared to miscue near the halfway line because, I think, he had been tackled by Crane. Crowe was way upfield, having initiated the attack, and there was thus no-one on the right. Boshell received the ball in the middle of the pitch, just inside his own half, advanced and clipped the ball to the right.

Vernon, unmarked of course, with Crane perhaps a dozen yards away, ran on towards goal. No-one came across, so he kept on going, into the area, about a dozen yards out. He looked around, saw a vast hinterland spread before him, a huge palette on to which he could paint anything he wished. Vernon decided to create beauty, by curling a shot high above and around Davison into the top left corner. A superb finish. Yet another superb finish against Town. But he had plenty of time to (almost) replicate his goal on Boxing Day.

So here we are again, history repeating itself for the umpteenth time. An evenish start, Town having slightly more chances, looking OK, but nothing outstanding. A catalogue of individual errors, a great finish. Then Town collapse. The heads, which were hardly up in the first place, dived into the Oldham mud. There was very little reaction to the goal, hands on hips, rueful looks, no talking. The innocent rabbit had just been clipped on its way across the road. Further squishing imminent.

Around this time Davison made a good save. It may have been before the goal; it may have been after; who knows, who cares, so what. It happened sometime.

Oldham had won a corner down the Town right. It was played short while Town players lumbered back towards goal and an Oldham player curled a low shot through the penalty area. Davison plunged to his left and just managed to palm the ball around the post for another corner. Excellent save. He's still alive then.

After about a quarter of an hour Oldham dumped the ball forward. A bit of weak, scared defending followed, as Town players stood away from both ball and opposition. The ball bounced up about 25 yards out in the centre and Boshell, unmarked, headed the ball past Edwards. Vernon slipped by, dragging the ball left, right, swishing his hips, and from about 15 yards curling the ball around Davison into the bottom right corner. Again a superb finish. Again time to do as he wished.

A-ha, who's this? The Town fans turned around and stood up to cheer a latecomer, for it was he, the once and future king, Mr Alan Pouton. How they pined for the return of their magnificent seven, who had to stepover a bag to get to his seat. Ah, those old magic tricks. Not just Big Al, but the full Pouton Posse arrived en masse, tied by an umbilical cord. He scratched his nose, they scratched their noses. He sneezed, they sneezed.

Davison made a couple of routine saves, as Oldham looked into the Town eyes and saw straw. Why should they look a gift horse in the mouth? Any more clichés? The Town support had drifted past the silent stage through to outright rebellion. A rolling head was wanted, and wanted now, as Oldham poured forward, unimpeded by a non-existent midfield, barely troubled by a ramshackle defence.

Defence? Defence? Why use that word for a collective? There was one defender, Edwards, who three times kept out the blue hordes with marvellous blocks and tackles. At least he was trying.

Ten minutes of non-scoring were ended with another great/freak goal. Oldham punted the ball from right to left. Crane, dreadful Crane, at no point marked a man, nor approached the ball. No, I fib: he did spend three seconds closely marking Edwards. Crowe stood near, but not close to an Oldham player, perhaps 20 yards out near the edge of the penalty area.

The ball was curled and looped to beyond the far post. Don't worry, it's going out for a goal kick. Worry. Griffin, near the bye-line, just inside the six-yard box, leapt, twisted, hooked and levered the ball over Davison, the ball dropping into the goal from an unfeasibly acute angle. Magnificent or lucky? Whatever. A goal, another flippin' freaky goal, another triple treat for opposition fans.

Ah, yes, but this is the week of the three goal comeback, isn't it. Now is the hour. Now is the time. A free kick to Town, 20 yards out, on the centre right. Barnard to curl, Jevons to twirl, who, which, now. A goal? Jevons caressed the ball around the wall and the Pogman flew to his left and brilliantly tipped it from the foot of the left post for a corner.

Barnard passed the corner to the unmarked Daws, 25 yards out, right in the centre, who steered a right-footed shot goalwards. The ball drifted past Poggy and rippled along the net. Up went a couple of dozen Town fans – a goal! No, a goal kick; the ball had curled around the post and hit the pole at the back of the net. I'll let you into a little secret: all the Town fans thought it'd gone in, but not many were interested in celebrating.

Where are we? Oh yes – Town in the ascendancy. Sorry, you need a few one-liners to keep you going, don't you. Campbell had a long shot, weakly rolling to the Pogster, and Daws, again, smacked a terrific 25-yard drive which Aussie Les uncomfortably parried aside, straight to a fellow Oldhamite.

With about 10 minutes to go to half-time Jevons used all his Premiership cunning to fashion a fourth goal. A bit of head tennis by Town inside their own half ended with Jevons nodding the ball through a gap between Edwards and Crane. Johnson glided through, sidestepped Edwards and, from about 15 yards out on their right, hit a low shot across Davison. The ball wasn't hit venomously and it rolled underneath Davison and in. Ooooooh dear.

Could it get any worse? Of course it could, of course it will. Oldham missed a few sitters, with a ping-pong match on the Town goal-line the highlight of this never-ending series of offal defending. All down the right, mind, all down the right.

And then, in the last minute of the half, the referee decided to get out his silver hammer, like Town needed assistance in burying themselves. The ball was played over Edwards on the left, with Johnson about to sprint clear outside the box. Edwards put his hand across Johnson, who fell. The ball skipped through to Davison, with Crane covering. For once, for once in his life, Crane was covering. So the referee decided to send Edwards off, after some helpful advice from the residents in the Lookers Stand. I suppose they asked nicely. From our angle it looked like there was cover, so it should have been a yellow card, but, hey, Town are the Streetcar Named Disaster. Do not expect kindness from strangers.

In the added time Town's right-hand side was shredded again, with Crowe being slow to react as the Oldham wall game was played around him. Into the area, to the bye-line, panic. Vernon took a couple of steps back as Groves and Crane defended conventionally, guarding the six-yard line. The ball was passed to Vernon, who shuffled to his left, then right, as Groves threw himself across, drilling a low shot from around the penalty spot that seemed to go through Davison's legs.

Torture suspended for 15 minutes.

Comment? Analysis? Redundant really, though that scoreline only tells you half the story. Individuals made very basic errors, and were not bothered enough to stop doing them. The two 'full-backs' had no interest in defending, while Crane played like a gibbering idiot. There was no midfield, apart from Daws during a 20-minute period in the middle of the half, but he's nowhere near the man he was in October. Town were constructed out of feathers and held together with delicate silk thread. The players played like they expected to lose, and some like they didn't care if we did. There did not seem a collective desire to keep Paul Groves in his job.

Town were stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw.

Hey, it's only half-time. Anything could happen in the second half. Couldn't it?

Stu's half-time toilet talk
"I'm so depressed I can't eat my apple."
"I passed a sign saying Stalybridge twenty miles. Twenty months more like."
"I think Boulding needs to visit the psychic hairdresser."
"What a mysterious mauve sky. Is that Town's next away kit?"
"Don't you feel embarrassed watching them?"

Second half
Anderson and Ford replaced Groves and Jevons, with Town trying to play in a 3-4-2 formation. Crowe played in the centre of the back three, with Ford on the left. Barnard was supposed to be a left-sided wing-back-type creature, though he seemed to spend most of his time not near the ball, somewhere closer to Ford than Boulding. And, guess what, Crowe man-marked Johnson really well.

Oldham turned up for the party in the second half, showboating, grandstanding, showing off their little tricks and flicks. The game over, the points secure, they lacked the killer instinct after 4 o'clock, thank goodness. Half-paced, half-hearted, Town competed at last. Well, almost. Town were only overrun, not overwhelmed, so there's at least one positive to come out of the game.

A couple of minutes or so into this tepid torture Oldham should have scored again. A zip and a zing down their right, a cross to the near post and Johnson glanced a firm header down across Davison, who parried the ball away into the centre of goal. There was a minor scramblette, with Davison appearing to flap the ball away from some blue-stockinged raider, with Crane walking the ball out of the six-yard box and hoofing upfield.

The second half. Nope, a period of all our lives that will be lost in the haze of alcohol-soft middle age. A waste of everyone's time, for the most part. Oh sure, Anderson scampered around, tried his little heart out, even sending in some crosses that weren't caught by Poggie.

Thorpe? Lee Thorpe: something of Neil Woods about him, according to reports on Monday. So long ago, was it all a dream. What more can I say? He's not our dream number nine, or dream number 33. He hasn't even got something of the night about him. Ambles around, with a couple of decent flicks, but what else? More like a young Livvonuora, a cumbersome beast roaming in the gloaming, he soon caught the apathy bug. He did perform one good knock-down in the box, which would probably have resulted in a goal in the third division, but Boulding doesn't do that sort of thing. And we aren't in the third division. I can hear you shout back "yet", even from here.

The Town fans travelled further along that psychological road to perdition, stopping off at irony, with some gentle taunting of the quiet, distant Oldhamites, but only after a moment of clarity, when all Town's hopelessness was admitted to the world. We know what we are, no need for anyone else to tell us.

So for 23 seconds Town toyed with Oldham, passing, moving the ball to the left, to the right, to the centre. "Olé, olé, olé" rang out from the Town fans with every completed pass. Daws and Anderson teasing, not really pleasing, but clipping the ball to Thorpe inside the penalty area. He turned delicately, precisely, fooling the defenders into thinking the ball cannoned off his knee. In space, a dozen yards out, unmarked, the goal a-gaping, the ball a-blazing out towards Rochdale. It'd be cruel to contrast with Vernon. Go on, do so.

Oldham blazed away wildly too, all sorts of little scufflers letting rip from outside the area. Eyre sent a long-range dipper onto the roof of the net; Davison parried another low skimmer around the post. Oldham tapped a free kick about 25 yards out near the right corner of the penalty area. The referee, in between striker and goal, fell over, the shot zoomed over the falling fool, with Crowe glancing the ball towards the top right-hand corner. Davison hopped across and tapped the ball away from underneath the crossbar. Good save, but what difference does it make? It makes none.

More Oldham raids, with Crowe outstanding in repelling the blanket of blue enveloping the area. Offside, indulgent passing and wild, wild shooting saved further humiliation. For the moment. Oops, hang on, here it comes. Pass, tap, flick, a player free inside the Town area on the right. Crossed, Murray unmarked seven yards out beyond the far post, half volleying over the stand. Are they embarrassed too?

With about 25 minutes left the Pouton Posse walked out to their waiting cavalcade with police outriders, following a steady drip, drip, drip of Town fans out of the stand, out of the ground, out of their minds with rage. Like an egg timer, the grains inexorably emptied, time running out, in the game, in the season, for the leader.

Leadership? None apparent, the players silent (save for Crane's regular rant at the referee), no-one visibly in charge, the bench was not animated. Characterless, rudderless, soulless, a bland shape without form, shade without colour, a paralysed force.

Ooh, a Town shot; oh, the ironic cheers. "You're supposed to be at home." Barnard got all his wobbling mass behind a low shot from 25 yards out, which Pogliacomi scurried aside from the left post using his chest and biceps. Barnard curled the corner toward goal, the Pogmeister general clutching the ball on the line, under the bar at the near post. No Town player challenged. More Oldham raids, lost in music.

At some point Oldham took off Sheridan and Vernon, bringing on Eyres and Calvin Zola. About five minutes from the end they got a corner on their right. The ball swung into the middle of the six-yard box and Davison punched clear. From the centre-left edge of the box Boshell (probably) headed the ball back into the middle of the penalty area. Zola controlled the ball with his back to goal, spun and swung his tripods around, the ball zipping into the bottom right corner. Crane behind, Crane not defending.

The remaining Town support demanded a seventh. It was like Walsall away in the dog days of Lawrence, the team unwilling to save him, the crowd demanding a quick death. Short-term pain for long-term gain. Or should that be a different kind of pain delayed?

The last few minutes were as interesting as the previous 40. Town had another couple of attacks, with Thorpe chasing down a defender, robbing him of the ball and curling a cross straight into the goalkeeper's arms as Daws and Boulding shrugged their shoulders.

And finally the moment that summed Town up. Barnard crossed, Daws sneaked around the back, heading across the face of goal. Boulding, six yards out, unmarked, an open goal, allowed the ball to flick off his shins and away for a goal kick. Town can't even muster the will to give us some fleeting moment of false hope.

Barnard and Murray had a kicking and scratching fest as they competed for a loose ball. Barney in a barney, eh? How mature, and just what Town need, their only left-back sent off for violent conduct. The referee gave both yellow cards. Weak.

The end, game over, perhaps something else over. An era ended? The team has no personality. There are no Town players any more, just people who play for Town. They put on the shirt, for that's who pays them. It is just a pay cheque. They don't live in the town, haven't played for the Town, it's just another job for the itinerant footballer. But they will be the Town players for another few months. How to inspire? Who to inspire? There was more ego than ergo on display today. That moment of catharsis is near.

The Town players know a little song. They were singing it for us today. It goes like this. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, I'm.. half.... crra... zy..... allll.... f... or.... the... l.... o...... v...... e....

Stop. Stop Paul. Stop.

So this is how Paul Groves' Mariners World ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.

Nicko's man of the match
If he been allowed to stay on the pitch it would have been Edwards, our only defender. However, for once the sponsors are right: Alan Pouton, the only Town player to cheer the hearts of the miserable Mariners, performing one last stepover for the lads.

Markie's un-man of the match
So many candidates. Crowe redeemed himself in the second half, but Tony Crane most definitely didn't. He was a walking, talking, stumbling, fumbling disaster. Embarrassing in the extreme, he does get joined in the hell hole by Stuart Campbell, in a world first. Campbell was so invisible that he has to be singled out, for it took 20 minutes to realise that it was Jevons who'd been substituted at half time, and not him. Captain Calamity.

Official warning
A man ready to kick a fan when he's down with a weedy sending off. What was the point? Town were already four down, and he decided to send off the only defender. Out of sheer spite Mr A Leake gets 3.763. Not that there was much else to complain about, though he probably should have sent Barnard off. Yeah, the ref was useless and cost Town the game... by allowing it to go ahead in such atrocious weather conditions. I mean you could see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles. The Blackpool Tower and the Taj Mahal restaurant were clear in the distance. How are we expected to enjoy football if we can actually see it? These people – they just don't understand the game, do they.