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Nationwide Division One, 1/5/01
By Ian Grant


When we get it right, we hit the spot like a pint of well-poured Guinness at the end of a hard day. This much we know already, of course...but it does no harm to be reminded every now and again.

Those who made the journey for this essentially meaningless fixture, wedged awkwardly between two deeply emotional occasions and prior to the mind-scrambling managerial announcement, were rewarded for their efforts. Eventually. It was worth the wait.

More than anything, we saw the re-emergence of the thrusting, powerful, opposition-eclipsing midfield that won two promotions in two seasons not so very long ago. We saw a rock-solid foundation for a team, something that's been missing for months. On Saturday, Richard Johnson's arrival at half-time was cause for joy but not for an improvement in performance. Last night, it seemed to change everything.

Really, it's quite simple. During a particularly dire first half, three busy, mobile midfielders - Allan Nielsen, Micah Hyde, and Paolo Vernazza - were indeed busy and mobile. After the interval, two of them - Hyde and Vernazza - continued in the same vein. But the addition of Johnson - a player with positional sense, a player who constantly drops into space, a player who looks at the wider picture - enabled the others to do their thing for a purpose. For the buzz of random activity to become the industrial hum of productivity, you need managers as well as workers.

On this evidence, nobody has missed Richard Johnson more than Micah Hyde. A peripheral, erratic non-presence in the opening forty-five minutes, Hyde could easily have been the one chosen to give way at the break. Yet he was an entirely different player in the second half, growing and blossoming with each touch, like a plant given a good watering in the middle of a drought. Perhaps this was mere coincidence. For anyone who remembers just how bloody mighty that Johnson-Hyde axis once was, however, perhaps it was more than mere coincidence.

Like I say, at least half of this was thoroughly dreadful. After the extremely warm gesture of a presentation to Graham Taylor by Paul Scally and Andy Hessenthaler, and the slightly less warm gesture of applause for Scally's lawyers for their settlement of disputes with Tony Pulis, we maintained perfect continuity with Saturday. That is, we participated fully in a load of old nonsense.

As in the game against Tranmere, there were moments when the action happened closer to one end of the pitch than the centre circle. Journalistic convention dictates that I'm duty-bound to describe this as "goalmouth incident", a term that, like "free buffet", "bonus tracks" or "feature-length episode", implies rather more thrills than the reality. Really, this was pretty hideous.

We'll fast-forward, shall we? After all, you're only reading this because you can't get the video of the Vialli press conference on the Sky site to work, aren't you?

So, Paul Robinson managed to block Saunders' effort after a typically bustling run down the left by Onuora. That was after two minutes, and Southall volleyed wildly over from the edge of the area shortly afterwards. The first Watford attack came from Tommy Smith, whose endless, circular run took him past some opponents twice, in the style of my imaginary memories of Stewart Scullion. When he finally got too dizzy to continue, he crossed for Heidar Helguson to beat Allan Nielsen at the near post and miss the target.

Something else happened thirteen minutes later. You get the picture, I think. That something was Browning meeting Southall's cross from the right corner and heading it into Alec Chamberlain's chest. Another ten minutes passed before Paul Smith belted a bouncing drive from thirty yards, requiring Chamberlain to muddy his jersey in getting down to the bottom corner to collect. Stifle a yawn, wonder what's happened in "Eastenders", sing "One Graham Taylor" while he's still in the dugout to hear it.

Then, a brief flurry of activity. Lee Cook's ball into the space behind the Gills' defence appeared utterly aimless, until we spotted Helguson charging in a goalwards direction. This brought emergency action from Bartram, whose desperate charge from his line did more to endanger his colleagues than the intended target. Unfortunately, when he finally left the chaos behind, Helguson found that he was unable to squeeze the ball past a back-tracking defender's sliding block. At the other end, Chamberlain dealt competently with Onuora's bouncing half-volley. Two incidents in two minutes. Whatever next. Well, there was Helguson's low shot from twenty yards after a sharp turn, which scraped past the post. Not much else, though.

Perhaps there was one last rabble-rousing speech from GT in the dressing room at half-time. Perhaps Richard Johnson's appearance really did make all the difference. Perhaps we just pulled our sagging socks up for no particular reason. Regardless, we were a changed side after the break and Gillingham were buried within twenty minutes.

The first came from an incisive, defence-splitting pass. It came from the right boot of Richard Johnson, in other words. As ever, he gave himself the luxury of a little space to work in. He looked up, he spotted Helguson's run, and he steered the pass from the centre circle into the penalty area, taking out defenders by curling the ball around and over them. One of those defenders stretched out a desperate leg and got a touch, yet it still bounced through. Initially wrong-footed by the deflection, Helguson adjusted quickly to hook a half-volley towards goal, an awkward attempt that was parried at close range by Bartram. As the rebound came his way, Helguson re-adjusted again and scored.

Almost immediately, we doubled the lead. In many ways, the circumstances were similar - this time, it was Robinson's searching long pass that was intercepted by a defender on its way towards Helguson, the touch only handing possession to Tommy Smith. From a tight angle, he somehow managed to squeeze a shot past Bartram. The blocked view of the goal from the away terrace prevents me from offering more precise details.

What remained was thoroughly entertaining. It was all about the Gills' comical inability to hit the target, with King missing a chance to cast doubt over the result by slashing a volley wide. It was about Micah Hyde, who was once again here, there, every-f***ing-where. It was about lifted spirits, since even the most meaningless victory can be something to restore smiles to faces.

And it was about Paolo Vernazza's utterly magical third goal. Picking up possession deep in the Gillingham half, he swayed elegantly past a couple of opponents. As he neared the penalty area, a quick shimmy took him around another blue shirt, before it seemed that the ball might just've run away from him. He wrapped his right foot around it and, with nonchalant grace, dumped it in the top corner before Bartram had so much as twitched. A quite beautiful thing.

There was still plenty of time for Paul Smith, otherwise impressive, to whack a shot over from close range, and for King to head wide from six yards after a series of ricochets inside the Watford box. For Helguson to volley well over after neat control, and for Southall to shuffle a shot wide at the end of a darting run. For referee Danson to contribute to our good mood by awarding a free kick against Onuora as he appeared to be hauled down by Robinson on his way towards goal. And for that positive impression to be undone by the waving away of protests and the linesman's flag after Helguson was unceremoniously hacked by Hope. The tedium of the first half was only a distant memory.

So, no matter how insignificant the result, this was just much more cheerful. A breezy, thoroughly fun win at the start of May, almost entirely divorced from the heavy-duty goings-on behind the scenes and the disappointments of previous months. Whatever else happens, you rather hope that someone at Vicarage Road remembers what Graham Taylor has never forgotten - that this is supposed to be enjoyable, that the general idea is to bring happiness to people.

Forget that, and any victory is a hollow one. Remember it, and you never really lose.