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Nationwide Division One, 3/4/01
Nottingham Forest
We rule
By Ian Grant

You see?

When you win, you're fantastic. The manager is a tactical genius - he knows exactly what to do in every situation, bringing the best from his assortment of astute bargain buys and trusting ex-youth teamers. The players themselves are athletic, finely honed demi-gods, each heroic in the pursuit of the victory. The fans are united, re-affirming their identity and confirming their support from cradle to grave.

When you lose, you're rubbish. The manager is an absolute arse - he knows sod all about anything, failing to shape his assortment of cheap, "not good enough" lower division cast-offs and plainly inadequate kids into anything more than a complete rabble. The players themselves are lazy, uncommitted wasters, each shirking responsibility at every turn. The fans are fighting among themselves, calling each other names and worrying themselves toward an early grave.

On Saturday, a 3-0 thumping - the latter. Last night, a 3-0 thumping - the former. The difference between victory and defeat, poles apart.

Not really, obviously. What changed in three days? Well, just the boldness of our approach, something that we lost entirely as the second half at the Hawthorns dragged on. It was regained with a classic GT team selection, opening the entire game up by playing with four recognised strikers and going on the offensive. Oh, how we'll miss him....

That boldness was rewarded by three priceless points against one of our less odious rivals. It was also rewarded by good fortune, in that the swanky striking partnership of the previously mythical Stern John and the more familiar David Johnson proved itself to be rather less than clinical in front of goal. That's the point, though - we did our job, we didn't get too worried about whether the opposition would do theirs. That's the way.

Despite the headline-making thrills of Tommy Smith and Nordin Wooter, who spent the entire first half running at the Forest defence from all angles, the result came from more basic means. The obstinacy of Tommy Mooney, whose second goal disturbed and scattered a whole host of memories. The sheer work-rate of Allan Nielsen, whose phenomenal performance was comparable to vintage Hessenthaler, and Steve Palmer, who appeared in unusually aggressive mood and, bizarrely, nearly ended up clean through on goal twice in the early stages. We were really, really competitive here... which, psychologically, is probably more important than being good right now. We were good too, just for the hell of it.

While Forest fans are forgiven for not looking forward to playing us again, both games have been thoroughly entertaining. There are times, watching the likes of Burnley, when you forget that football can be like this. From the off, as John, Prutton and Johnson all tried moderately ambitious (and unsuccessful) shots and Tommy Smith made in-roads on the left, this was never dull. Perhaps a breakaway league - involving ourselves, Forest, Grimsby and anyone else who doesn't mind making themselves beatable by playing football against us - might be an idea.

Quickly, it became clear that the pace and skill of our attacks down the wings would cause the visitors all kinds of trouble. Really, though, it was the tremendous midfield of Nielsen and Palmer that stoked our fires and stole the show. Notably, the only period of Forest dominance, at the start of the second half, was ended as soon as Micah Hyde arrived to lend a hand in the centre.

As usual, the excitement levels rose with Nordin Wooter's involvement. From his superb cross, Gifton Noel-Williams headed wide under pressure after ten minutes. Shortly afterwards, he cut in from the right, dreadlocks flying and roared on by the Rookery end, and carved his way through the defensive shield in thrilling style - only Prutton's desperate clearance from the resulting cross denied him a brilliant assist. Prutton, the best of the Forest youngsters on show, brought a confidence-building, safe save from Espen Baardsen; Noel-Williams headed weakly at Beasant from Palmer's cross; Smith shot at the keeper from twenty yards.

Bubbling under, as they used to say about records that hadn't quite made the top forty. After twenty minutes, that all changed. It began with Neil Cox's towering ball over the top of the Forest defence, leaving Smith with enough time to check for the linesman's flag before advancing on the right. He also had time to look up, take the coordinates of the waiting Watford strikers, and deliver a perfect cross to Noel-Williams at the far post. Stooping to get the right contact, the centre forward headed the Hornets into the lead. A goal that was just reward for a pivotal performance from the youngster.

From then on, occasional Forest breaks were countered by vigilant defending. The rest belonged to Watford and the several-pronged attack. Wooter slashed wide from a Noel-Williams knock-down, then the same players switched possession across the face of the area to find Tommy Mooney, whose driven shot missed the far post by no more than a yard. Oh, we weren't trashing them as we did Norwich...but, bearing in mind the importance of the fixture and the relative league positions, we couldn't have expected any better.

The missing ingredient? A bit of bad temper. Cue Francis Benali. As one unsuccessful penalty appeal from Smith was followed swiftly by another, the temperature began to rise rather nicely. For what it's worth, the first, which saw Smith having his run blocked off by the aforementioned full back as he set off to challenge the keeper, was a better shout than the second, when he simply fell over. However, since recognition of the first offence would probably have involved giving an indirect free kick inside the six yard box, you can understand the referee's reluctance to intervene.

We kept our heads, though. With every fifty-fifty challenge, you braced yourself...but we didn't over-step the mark. Crucially, and as at QPR, we allowed the aggressive atmosphere to fuel our performance rather than become an end in itself. Hell, we even saw Nordin Wooter make an immaculate saving tackle inside his own area, something that must be indicative of the reforming of a team from the set of individuals that finished the West Brom game.

Hjelde's diligence underneath his own crossbar prevented Noel-Williams from adding a second from Nielsen's low cross, after the pace of Smith and the movement of Nielsen had undone the Forest defence again. Then it was Wooter's turn, hurtling down the right and nipping inside to fire a drive just wide. Sometimes, you watch us and wonder just how we've managed to be so rubbish on so many occasions.

Really, we'd played very well indeed.

The most significant moment of the second half arrived within a couple of minutes, as Cox's unconvincing free kick took a touch from a defender and ended up at Mooney's feet. He buried it. Significant, because what followed would've made us very nervous indeed if we'd only been defending a slender lead.

For the most part, you can't fault our rearguard. Indeed, even if it enjoyed a hearty helping of luck, there were performances that deserved the first clean sheet at home since early November. Darren Ward was extremely combative, suggesting that missing Saturday's game wasn't an experience he'd care to repeat too often. Neil Cox followed suit, appearing to win vital headers inside the six yard area on more than one occasion, something that we can't always praise him for. Robert Page became rather quiet in comparison.

Nevertheless, they missed some chances. Boy, did they miss some chances....

For a player with a reputation, Johnson's sliced shot, after he'd been set up so well by Prutton's run and pass, was lazy and inadequate. The angle was tight, sure...but that's precisely why you make the effort to do something other than swinging your leg in the vague direction of the ball. He recovered some dignity a minute later, with a dipping half-volley from distance that was probably closer to the target than the earlier, easier shot.

Suddenly, we were getting overrun. The battling midfield that had previously provided adequate cover for the defence could no longer stem the tide. Darren Ward got in the way of John's audacious backheel after crosses had whistled to and fro like stray bullets. Then Benali whipped in a fine cross, the defence lost its concentration for an instant, John rose unmarked...and directed his header past the post. It's fair to say that the wound made by the failure to procure his services healed during the ninety minutes. I'm being polite.

Our only goal attempt during this somewhat fraught quarter of an hour came from Paul Robinson, barging his way through the midfield and thumping a drive at Beasant from twenty-five yards. At the other end, John turned on the edge of the box and his shot was struck with such venom that Baardsen took the option of punching it away from danger with both fists. A break down the left found Johnson in a worrying amount of space - not for the first or last time, the finish didn't match the approach work and he could only find the side netting as Page closed in. Then Prutton's long-range attempt took a deflection from the Watford captain's leg, leading to momentary panic before it became clear that Baardsen would be able to recover his ground and make the save.

So, no, this wasn't a comfortable victory. In the end, two things meant that we weren't forced to hang on grimly until the final whistle. First, Micah Hyde replaced Nordin Wooter, instantly changing the balance of power in midfield. Second, Tommy Mooney scored one of those goals.

At this stage, we weren't exactly attacking in numbers. The Moonster, however, always attacks in numbers, even when he's on his own. As a long ball dropped over his shoulder, he had no right to win it. No right to be able to hold off the defender as he took it on his chest. No right to get a shot in, let alone one hit with such power and precision that it fairly ripped through the gap between Beasant and his near post. As every Watford fan knows, Tommy Mooney does stuff that he has no right to do.

Naturally, things became rather easier from that point. Indeed, Noel-Williams was only a whisker away from scoring a virtually identical goal just three minutes later, taking a long ball, shrugging off the attentions of a defender, and belting a half-volley across the face of goal. Gifton was wonderful here, every bit as selfless in his work-rate as the midfielders behind him, yet also carrying a real threat. Superficially, he might've appeared the least dangerous of the four attacking players. Really, he was the pick of the bunch.

The remainder was largely uneventful, at least in comparison to the rousing entertainment that had preceded it. Mooney embarked on a crusade, yet never got the chance to complete his hat-trick. The Forest strikers' frustration increased, as Johnson fired at Baardsen from a tight angle and John thrashed a shot wide after turning Page. Encouragingly, we refused to relax until the final whistle, remaining as thoroughly determined as ever. That determination will be the abiding memory of this encounter. The abiding memory of Forest will be their willingness to get involved in a football match, which is to their credit, if not to the benefit of their points total.

So, the context of this match is next Saturday's result. This can be another tantalising, temporary glimpse of what we could achieve. Or it can be the foundation for a run of results. After so many suggestions and chances and revived hopes, all of which have ended in disappointment, there won't be another "next time".