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Nationwide Division One, 24/10/00
Bolton Wanderers
Good riddance
By Ian Grant

People keep coming up to me, offering congratulations and goodwill. They keep saying things like "God, you must be so happy!" and "I just pictured you when I saw the news". Clearly, my friends have started to associate me with particular things.

Well, I suppose that I did once come up with the idea of building a site at, purely to provide an outlet for my seething hatred of the nations's worst train company. So perhaps it's hardly surprising that, as newspaper headlines blared "MISERY TRAIN COMPANY SACKED", some people thought of me. They were right too - I punched the air in utter jubilation, bounced with joy all the way to the station...and found out that all the trains were cancelled. Inevitably, Connex were having the last laugh.

Thameslink to St Albans... blahblahblah... taxi costing fifteen quid... blahblahblah... more cancellations... blahblahblah... one o'clock in the morning... blahblahblah.... If this goes on much longer, I'll have to rename the site to "Public Transport News" and it'll probably be featured as one of the ultra-dull guest publications in the missing words round on "Have I Got News For You". So I'll stop.

Besides, we're top of the league. Properly top of the league, not just keeping it warm for Fulham. All the other stuff still matters, of course...but the crap that life throws at you seems to stick less easily when you've got a league table to gaze lovingly at. Bolton fans, on the other hand, may feel thoroughly crap-encrusted this morning.

In a sense, I'm almost reluctant to write about the details of last night, simply because it feels like I'm disclosing information that might help our enemies. As Fulham have obviously discovered, there comes a point when playing the same way every time and relying on being sexy and groovy and fab and great isn't quite enough. Opponents try different things and eventually stumble upon the right formula, and it's immediately copied by everyone else. The team that reacts and adapts quickly to the new challenge will prevail...but, on yesterday's evidence, neither of the leading pair has yet reacted and adapted. Currently, the advantage lies with the team that's still winning while it tries to come up with Plan B....

It's fairly basic, I guess. We've murdered teams that have given us space to play. We've struggled against teams that have crowded us. Forest stood and watched, Bolton scrapped and battled. So, for the benefit of exiles watching on Sky, it's worth pointing out that this wasn't the kind of performance that's been receiving so much praise on these pages in recent weeks. The flowing, potent football was nowhere to be seen...but we really have been playing flowing, potent football. Honest. It was a game of effectiveness and precious little beauty. Hence the "man of the match" award for Steve Palmer, easily the most effective Watford player on show.

So, despite the fireworks that greeted the teams as they emerged from the tunnel - ah, memories of Wembley - and shrouded the entire stadium in choking smoke for about five minutes, this wasn't much of a spectacle. Sky's attempt to introduce a bit of showbiz glam into a half-empty stadium backfired somewhat, making what followed seem even more tawdry and mediocre. If you're holding a car boot sale, you don't hire the Red Arrows to open it.

Somehow, my notes seem to present a game that was rather more interesting than I remember it. That's the way it works sometimes - attractive football doesn't always result in noteworthy incidents, clumpy nonsense sometimes leads to goalmouth action, even if it's largely inconsequential. On this occasion, an absurdly high free kick count meant that there were plenty of opportunities to chuck the ball into the penalty area or belt it towards the goal like a golfer driving down the fairway. Meanwhile, open play yielded next to nothing.

As so often before, an early Watford goal probably would've increased the entertainment value of the remaining ninety minutes. Bearing in mind that it took us a full twenty-five minutes to have a shot on goal, however, that quick breakthrough never seemed likely. Mercifully, both for us and the viewing public, Bolton didn't manage to score either, although they had opportunities to do so.

Alec Chamberlain saved well from Frandsen's viciously swerving free kick in the first couple of minutes - not too difficult to prevent the ball going past him, perhaps, but vital that he held onto it. Then Ricketts' near post flick from a corner drifted across goal and we were thankful for the lack of onrushing strikers as Allan Nielsen headed clear from the goalline. Neil Cox's low free kick dribbled harmlessly past the post, watched all the way by Jaaskelainen. There you go, twenty-five minutes' football in one paragraph.

The referee did as much as he could to liven things up, booking Darren Ward and Ricketts for the kind of playground dust-up that should've required no more than to suggest that they both act like adults. But, ultimately, his constant interventions for minor fouls destroyed any chance of establishing a tempo for the game. All part of the Bolton plan, no doubt, and executed with great efficiency. Not really a spectator sport, though.

The rare moments of clarity came from the Bolton midfield, Frandsen particularly. His piercing run through the defence, beating Robert Page to head for the wide open spaces beyond, was inspired. It would've been even more inspired if he'd scored, instead of over-elaborating and allowing Page and Palmer to get back to block. Even then, the ball squirted across to Nolan, who seemed certain to score but found Robinson in the way when he tried to do so. Bergsson headed wide from a corner shortly afterwards.

We were really struggling. After half an hour, we managed to force Jaaskelainen to make a save...but, although Cox's free kick was bent around the wall with power, it came from such a distance that the Bolton keeper had plenty of time to move across his line and let the ball thump into his chest. Actually, we hit the bar in the next attack. Sort of. The attempted clearance from Nielsen's driven cross was curious, to say the least - it looped up into the night sky, dropped on top of the crossbar and bounced behind for a corner. Unconventional, certainly.

It continued. The paltry crowd - our lowest league gate so far, despite the importance of the fixture - failed to generate any kind of atmosphere; the players failed to generate any kind of football. Already, the result was all. Chamberlain saved from Frandsen's well-struck half-volley with relative ease; Robinson fell over in the process of taking a shot from a free kick and clouted the ball into the empty seats in the Vic Road end. Yawn.

There was just one glimpse of our recent brilliance. Tommy Smith to Micah Hyde to Gifton Noel-Williams, a superb combination on the right wing that resulted in a cross that flew through the six yard box before being shoved behind for a corner. Really, that was the only time that Bolton's concentration lapsed for long enough that we were able to string a few passes together in the final third. From the corner, Cox appeared to find himself with a free header...but was so surprised that he nodded it tamely back to Jaaskelainen.

The most decisive action was reserved for injury time. First, an astonishing effort from Nolan that was countered by an equally astonishing save from Chamberlain. Policed by both Page and Palmer as he shuffled across from the right, Nolan barely appeared to be able to see the goal, let alone find room to shoot. Yet he suddenly unleashed a spectacular, dipping effort from twenty-five yards that threatened to catch Chamberlain off his line. As the ball dipped over and behind him, the Watford keeper got his fingertips to it and diverted it over the bar. Bergsson headed over from the corner.

Then, from absolutely nowhere, our best chance of the half. It must've been from absolutely nowhere - I wasn't even looking at the pitch until the crowd's roar brought me back from a daydream to find Helguson, with pretty much his first touch of the entire game, through on goal. His finish lacked conviction, though - it beat the keeper but not the defender who'd chased back.

Sensibly, we didn't bother to wait to make changes. At the start of the second half, Smith and Helguson - both willing but uninvolved - were replaced by Nordin Wooter and Tommy Mooney. The effect was dramatic, if brief. For fifteen minutes, we were treated to something vaguely resembling a game between two high-flying sides.

Robinson's mis-directed header back to Chamberlain let in Nolan, certainly Bolton's most noticeable player (Gardner's hair aside), almost immediately. Fortunately for us, he couldn't make proper contact on the volley and the ball bounced back to the keeper. Then Wooter's frantic dribbling won a corner and Mooney headed straight at Jaaskelainen. Ricketts curled a shot wide, Jaaskelainen saved from Robinson after a bounding run through the midfield. Wow, excitement and everything.

For the first time, we looked likely to score. Probably for the last time too, in all honesty. With the Bolton defence momentarily unsettled by Wooter - they quickly smothered him, as they smothered everything else - we began to attack with some kind of intent.

Even on these pages, others will claim that we should've had a penalty as Wooter tumbled in the box. Not me, though. There was something there - the beginning of the start of an inkling of an attempted foul, before the defender noticed where he was - but nothing more than that. Sure, there was contact...but, if you'll forgive me for climbing aboard my hobbyhorse for a moment, mere contact does not constitute a foul.

Things died down, but not before we'd gone very close indeed. An almighty scramble after Mooney had headed a corner back into the danger area, Ward finding the ball at his feet and shooting on the turn. It flew past the post. Heads in hands all round.

In that parallel universe that I'm always going on about, the penalty didn't happen and that was the last of the action. The rest of the game was grim stalemate, goalless and barren. We hit a huge diagonal pass, the Bolton defence headed it away. Undeterred, we tried again. Like a Christmas present that's been enthusiastically played with for a while and then discarded, Nordin stood unnoticed on the wing. Gifton looked knackered, Mooney charged about with typical determination but was unable to make anything of woeful service. The only thing we could do - and we did it well - was to ensure that we got at least a point out of the game, staying vigilant to take care of occasional Bolton breaks.

Nothing changed for twenty minutes. One goal attempt - Mooney heading over from a Nielsen cross - passed by. The Bolton fans generated more volume to encourage their team's industrious, if largely negative, efforts. It began to look as if the demise of Connex would be the day's only cause for celebration.

The penalty came from nothing. It was nothing, really - the ball bouncing around as Ward challenged, seeming to hit Barness' hand by accident. Without having seen a replay, it looked like a very, very harsh decision...especially since the referee had ignored two or three similarly innocuous offences elsewhere on the pitch. As always when a crucial penalty's awarded, there was a moment of riotous joy before realisation that nothing can be taken for granted. On this occasion, Mooney stepped bravely up and waited for an age while Nolan was booked for dissent. More and more tension, almost unbearable even for survivors of the Birmingham playoff. I've seen Tommy miss from the spot before. Hell, I've seen him strike penalties so badly that they've barely reached the goal. Not this time, surely? Please, not this time? He stepped up, belted it into the bottom corner and sent us to the top of the First Division.

Despite our victory celebrations, it wasn't yet quite over. Within thirty seconds of the re-start, the Bolton players were howling for a penalty of their own after the ball appeared to strike Ward's arm. There were scrambles and clearances and more scrambles and more clearances. As Bolton streamed forward and finally stopped worrying about us, we found that we had some room to manoeuvre on the counter-attack. It was as if the whole of the game had been squeezed into the final five minutes. We came through it, just about.

A taste of what's to come, then. You can't spend weeks taking teams apart and still expect them to turn up like lambs to the slaughter. While it's encouraging that Bolton's tactics were largely negative, in that they reacted to how we play rather than being confident enough to try something more ambitious, we're going to have to be sharper and wiser if we're not to avoid slip-ups at home in the future. As I said at the start, we'll see whether we can make the necessary adjustments before Fulham.

That's the sensible conclusion. Sod it, though. We're top of the league, Connex have been unceremoniously booted out, and this is no time for sensible conclusions.