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FA Cup 3rd Round, 6/1/01
Being sensible
By Ian Grant

Memories, memories.

Those endless winter months, when defeat followed defeat and misery piled upon misery. When the followers of Premiership teams would invade the pubs of Watford to anticipate and celebrate victory, sometimes making friends and sometimes being as obnoxious as humanly possible. When their teams would put the finishing touches to our coffin, eschewing the hammer in favour of an industrial nailgun. When it seemed as if it would never end.

Nothing much has changed, on this evidence. In the pub afterwards, we can still reflect on the combination of bad luck, individual failure, tactical simplicity, and ruthless finishing that denied us another famous victory. We can look back at the turning points, knowing that none of them turned in our favour. We can drown our sorrows or we can get on the first train home to watch it all again on "Match of the Day".

In many ways, this was like an out-takes video from last season, and it was equally lacking in amusement value.

That isn't to say that we let ourselves down. Fairly obviously, we would've preferred to have followed Tuesday's fine demolition of Wimbledon with another league game...and, on this evidence, we would've won it. Even after completely surrendering the initiative during the second half, we nearly won the distracting cup game too.

Bearing in mind that we really don't want to join the long list of First Division clubs that spend so much time day-dreaming about the Premiership that they fail to reach it, we need to look at this in the context of our current position. Frankly, our chances of surviving in the Premiership are presently as irrelevant as our hopes of winning the LDV Vans Trophy. Concentrating on the league means concentrating on this league and, with the chance of a memorable triumph gone, all that matters is how yesterday impacts on next Saturday. In many ways, that's all that mattered anyway.

For forty-five minutes, we were superb. While Everton's recent frustrations manifested themselves as wildly ambitious shots and ugly tackles, we remained professional and level-headed throughout. The second half, however, was less impressive - a brief spell of Everton pressure seemed to result in a change of mentality, causing us to steel ourselves for a siege rather than aim for something more controlled. And, no matter how poor the Premiership side are, you can't afford to let them play for long periods in and around your penalty area. Ultimately, we paid the price for that.

But let's go back to the start. The first half offered little goalmouth incident, with both defences putting up stern resistance. The difference was, familiarly, in confidence...and, pleasingly, the recent victories meant that we had the edge in that respect, looking sharper in attack and more purposeful in midfield. Although Hughes shot at Alec Chamberlain from outside the area, the first goal attempt of note was from Tommy Mooney - a raking first-time drive from way out that flew across goal and wide, characteristically offering a rallying cry to the rest of the troops.

We proceeded to command the opening stages. Neil Cox's vast cross from deep was just missed by Allan Nielsen's desperate lunge, then ran onto Mooney for an angled shot that was blocked by a defender. Then an intricate free kick manoeuvre created a shooting chance for Cox and, although his low drive was always travelling wide, it wasn't far away from a decisively diverting touch from Mooney. Crucially, we'd established our authority and it would remain unchallenged until the interval.

While effective in making us work hard for opportunities, our opponents were visibly deflated by their recent run in every other respect. Service to the front players was basic at best, and those players lacked conviction when they did manage to get real possession. None of this is alien to Watford fans, of course. In response to our early splurge of activity, they managed just two mightily off-target efforts - a drifting half-volley from Alexandersson and a wayward hoof from Watson, both miles over the bar.

In contrast, we looked capable of creating something. There was certainly no repeat of Tuesday's rampaging entertainment - Tommy Smith found it much more difficult to get space for either crosses or runs, Peter Kennedy's quality supply was similarly curtailed - yet, encouragingly, we didn't let that bother us too much. Instead, we passed quickly when we could, then hit searching long balls when nothing else was available. Not always successful, yet not always unsuccessful either.

In the end, the more basic methods brought the breakthrough. After seventeen minutes, Nielsen's arcing long throw got a near-post knock-down and Cox mis-hit a volley at Myrhe. Even if the chance was an awkward one, that was our first clear sight of goal.

We scored with our second. It'll win no awards for its beauty, yet it was certainly a triumph of will-power. Gifton Noel-Williams really wasn't favourite to win the aerial challenges that resulted from Cox's long ball up the right. Yet he fought with greater persistence than his opponent, eventually climbing higher and perceptively heading down towards Mooney at the near post. The finish was delightful, a delicate touch that guided the ball beyond Myrhe so that it rolled gently against the post and slowly crossed the line.

It was followed by our best spell of the match. Not because we did anything dramatic - on the contrary, precisely because we didn't do anything dramatic. Evidently riled, Everton stepped up the physical confrontations, picking up three yellow cards for late tackles in quick succession. Our reaction was hugely impressive - stoical and strong, we simply stood our ground and refused to be drawn into what might've become an extremely bad-tempered affair. Indeed, we even managed to keep our passing game going when it would've been much easier to have lost our composure. Again, as with Tuesday, it's a greatly positive development - we're no longer being thrown out of our stride, we're not letting other teams dictate the game as they have in the past.

Sure, Everton had the better of the chances prior to half-time. But their attempts to equalise lacked conviction, unlike our thoroughly resolute defending, enhanced by the familiar competence of Alec Chamberlain. So when Alexandersson managed to get free on the right and whipped in a tremendous cross, there was the Watford keeper diving out to clear with a decisive punch. Although Naysmith was first to the loose ball, he dragged his shot harmlessly wide from the edge of the box. Similarly, when Hughes got ahead of Cox after an intricate interchange, he found no options available and also shot wide from a tight angle.

The half concluded with Cadamarteri turning and shooting at Chamberlain from twenty yards. A decent try, but also indicative of an Everton side that was trying and failing to conjure up what would not come naturally. Although never dominating for long periods, we had achieved a measure of careful control - no panic, no anxiety, just an impressively professional level of competence. Everton were going to play much, much better to beat us.

For the first ten minutes after the break, there seemed little chance of that happening. Even though Max-Moore replaced Cadamarteri, nothing changed. If anything, we became even more sure of ourselves than before as, urged on by the Rookery, we won a succession of corners and searched urgently for the second goal. The chances of an Everton fightback seemed ever more remote.

What went wrong? Well, it's hard to put your finger on it. In a sense, the very teamwork that had brought us so brilliantly to this point proved to be our undoing. Faced with a series of long throws that were hurled into the near post in search of Ferguson's head, we called back reinforcements and the likes of Paolo Vernazza, Allan Nielsen, Tommy Smith, Peter Kennedy and Tommy Mooney answered the call. Which was fine in itself, but left us painfully short of outlets when we did manage to clear the danger.

The midfield, which had previously been so commanding (particularly Vernazza, who'd managed to be both combative and creative in equal measure), began playing alongside the defence. We invited Everton into our half, fighting them on the edge of our box rather than on the halfway line. It was asking for trouble. We got trouble.

When Graham Taylor watches the video again, he may reconsider his opinion that he couldn't see Everton getting a goal before they finally equalised. In truth, they might've levelled the scores long before. For a start, Ferguson wasted a great opportunity after only nine minutes, stretching and shuffling the ball wide after Darren Ward's tackle had pushed it his way from one of those long throws.

And then, of course, we nearly equalised for them. Absurdly, as Ferguson's header from a right wing cross looped up into an area where there were no blue shirts, Neil Cox and Alec Chamberlain both went for the ball without calling to each other. The result was a goalbound header from Cox and, bearing in mind that he was about two yards away from his colleague, a quite extraordinary save from Chamberlain to deflect the ball wide. Disaster was averted, but only just.

Still, disaster kept knocking on the door, knowing that we were in and ignoring our attempts to hide behind the sofa. The meagre handful of attacks that we managed were definitely against the run of play, speedy counter-punches rather than sustained blows.

Curiously, having only required the Everton keeper to pick the ball out of his goal during that impressive first half, Myrhe was now forced to make a couple of saves. Although Paul Robinson's drive from twenty yards didn't trouble him, he had to push Noel-Williams' brilliant header over the bar - as a free kick came in from the right, the striker was in a crowd of opponents on the penalty spot and did tremendously well even to win the ball, let alone send it drifting towards goal. It's to be hoped that Noel-Williams' later replacement and ominous hobbling as he walked towards the tunnel isn't indicative of yet more injury problems, since he appears to be gaining form and confidence again.

These were just temporary respites, however. At the Vic Road end, the storm was getting wilder as the final fifteen minutes approached. For the first time, it was the Everton strikers that demanded excellence from Chamberlain...and he produced it several times. When Gravesen got ahead of Mooney down by the corner flag - and no matter how willing the Moonster is, the fact that he was there rather than further upfield demonstrates our problems - he crossed for Hughes to shoot at the near post. Chamberlain blocked and dived on the rebound.

Robert Page was booked, presumably for dissent, after Robinson had dived in on the edge of the box. The resulting free kick was blasted through the wall, which took most of the pace off it, and collected by the keeper. The pressure was becoming relentless now, with the Rookery descending into blind panic as the ball was dumped into our penalty area, bounced around for a terrifying eternity and was booted clear for the whole process to start again.

Sometimes, it seemed impossible that the ball wouldn't end up in the back of the net. The only thing that stood in its way was Alec Chamberlain, saving well from Alexandersson during a spell in which Everton seemed destined to score just by sheer weight of numbers, then picking himself up to punch the cross that followed, then picking himself up again to catch Alexandersson's attempt to volley the ball back throught the crowd. We might've been calm and composed before, but not now. Weir shot over after yet another long throw had left the ball rebounding around crazily.

In the end, something had to give. It was Robert Page, picking up a second booking for a late challenge on Tal five yards outside the area. The referee had been consistently showing yellow cards to others for similar tackles, so it was difficult to complain too vociferously. Obviously, that left us hanging on to our lead...and we hung on for about ten seconds. Then Hughes had the ball rolled to him from the free kick, took aim from twenty-five yards, and sent a spectacular shot ripping into the top corner. Straight and precise as an arrow, I doubt we'll see a better opposition goal at the Vic this season.

Given the pressure that we'd been under for the majority of the second half, it was difficult to see how we'd hold on for a replay with one less player on the pitch. Handily, Everton sympathised with our plight and, as the game rapidly descended into complete bedlam, half-time substitute Max-Moore also received a second yellow card for an act of pure petulance, booting the ball away after being caught offside. Previously, the match had demonstrated the potential for explosion. Now, it was showering us with debris.

Bearing in mind that no-one had told us the ending, what remained was undeniably thrilling. In the middle of the most intense atmosphere that the Vic has experienced for a while, the last few minutes saw little football and much excitement. For us, Heidar Helguson - who needs a goal like Darren Ward needs a mirror - came closest with another looping header that required another careful tip over from Myhre. For them, well....

It hurt. It really bloody hurt. Not that you couldn't argue that Everton had created far more scoring chances, that they'd done enough to win the game. Not that we hadn't been foolish in getting drawn into defending so deep, effectively climbing into our own coffin and waiting for the burial. Despite all those things, we were within a few seconds of a replay when Alexandersson found space for a cross from the right and, at the near post, Watson dived like a human cannonball to meet it with a glancing header. From the Rookery, we watched it creep inside the post, braced ourselves for the celebrations.

Within a minute, it was over. Another year, another FA Cup dream. We'll have about another forty or so attempts in my lifetime, so here's hoping.

Naturally, the league matters more. Sheffied United on Saturday is more important, of course. That's the sensible opinion, anyway. But, really, wouldn't it be nice to have a cup run at some point? Just once, to remind ourselves what it's like? For a bit of irresponsible fun?

More to the point, wouldn't it be nice to wipe the disgusting, vile smirks off the faces of those Everton fans - not all of them, granted - who choose to make us associate the name of their club with behaviour that everyone else has left behind in the seventies and eighties? Wouldn't it be tremendous to beat the bastards for once?

Being sensible again, we know what we have to do.