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Nationwide Division One, 12/8/00
Huddersfield Town
Spinach is nice*
By Ian Grant

It takes a little while to get into gear. Pre-season friendlies always strike me as being a warm-up for supporters as much as players and, having missed them all, I feel a bit lacking in match fitness. My mind still wanders back to work as we pile up the M1, thoughts of last week and next week rather than now. I'm distracted, somehow.

So there's no real feeling of excitement until the players emerge, the two goalkeepers followed by the rest of the squad and greeted by a huge ovation from an eager travelling support. Things are still relaxed, mind you - the McAlpine is far removed from the hype and general insanity of the Premiership, particularly in the way that the PA announcer rattles through the two teams in a dreary monotone, barely pausing to allow the two sets of fans to cheer their heroes. We provide our own pre-match build-up instead, rattling the roof with a rendition of "Elton John's Taylor-made Army" that begins rustily, gathers pace and ends at full pelt.

When three o'clock arrives, I'm ready and starting to share some of the anticipation of my travelling companions. Notebook poised, teams lined up, roars of encouragement, referee's whistle...

...Horrible anticlimax.

While the rest of the country kicked off at the traditional time, we waited for another forty minutes. Like waking up on a Monday morning with your body aching for more sleep and hitting the snooze button...and we were definitely late for work.

In the Premiership, it would've cost us. We would've been two or three goals down by the time we'd been jolted out of our dreamy slumber, and the result would've been very different. But there was more to this than the inability of our opponents to take advantage of complete dominance - while the First Division may not be as ruthless as the top flight, we simply can't rely on such generous helpings of luck in the future. It's to be hoped that the result will set us on the way...but the concern is that it will merely disguise our failings. There's no room for complacency.

Our attempts to take the game to Huddersfield lasted less than five minutes. Then our nerves started to show, and the home side began to give both our defence and our summer optimism a bit of a hammering. It began with Neil Cox making an almighty mess of dealing with a cross, bizarrely attempting to head the ball back to Espen Baardsen despite two strikers standing in the way. We got away with that and with leaving Tommy Smith to deal with a purposeful run from Jenkins, whose shot flew wide of the target. But we were testing our luck and the occasional moments of effective defending, such as Paul Robinson's immense block to stop Gallen's fierce volley, didn't hide the truth. We were very, very poor. Very.

After fifteen minutes, we got what we deserved. It might've been a freak goal - Smith's cross from the left flying through a crowd of bodies at the near post and Steve Palmer's attempt to clear ending with an awkward, stooping header into the roof of his own net - but we had no cause for complaint.

Any hopes that the goal would shake us up didn't last long either. Huddersfield were flying, we were ghastly. Five minutes later, it should've been two as Jenkins' right wing cross found Wijnhard completely unmarked, just ten yards out. Although he powered his header towards goal, it was straight at Baardsen and the keeper was able to block with his legs.

That was fortunate. What followed a few minutes later was fortunate to the power of a hundred. There was absolutely no defensive cover as Gallen lumbered inside from the right and found himself on the edge of the box. He mis-hit his shot but it still beat Baardsen, before bobbling towards the goal while the Huddersfield fans rose in celebration. The ball hit the inside of the post but that hardly seemed to matter as it looped and span into the net...except that it kept looping and spinning, right across the face of goal and eventually over the touchline. So it was the away end that celebrated and, although the home fans immediately reminded us of the score, everyone seemed to sense a turning point.

Even then, we continued in the same vein. Often, we didn't even need any assistance from Huddersfield in making a horrible mess of things. For instance, Page, who looked edgy throughout, and Baardsen managed to get all confused in dealing with a simple cross and were thankful that the captain's header looped up high enough to allow the keeper to get back onto his line to claim Wijnhard's effort. The lively, if erratic, Huddersfield striker sent a volley over a couple of minutes later.

I've yet to describe a Watford attack. Really, there weren't any. It took us twenty-five minutes to put together a move worthy of note - Tommy Mooney to Tommy Smith, who sauntered forward and slipped a ball into the path of Nordin Wooter's overlapping run. It took another ten for a sniff of goal - Baardsen's emergency clearance from a short back-pass proving rather better than the efforts of his out-field colleagues and leaving Smith racing away with, ultimately, too much to do. Our first shot arrived shortly afterwards, as Cox blasted in a free kick from distance that was blocked by the wall.

Perhaps nine months of reactive football - damage limitation, siege mentality, whatever - have taken their toll. Perhaps we've forgotten how to dictate the pace and structure of a game, since there's no point in trying against most Premiership opponents. Perhaps we were simply having a bad day. Perhaps we were complacent. Whatever the reason, we were undeniably atrocious.

To my mind, there were only two exceptions. There was the feverish battling of Nordin Wooter who, although lacking touch, was alone in always wanting the ball when we had possession and always trying to retrieve it when, more commonly, we didn't. Mind you, after an early booking, he risked dismissal on several occasions. And there was the resolute, flash-free defending of the excellent Darren Ward, who I haven't mentioned yet simply because he did nothing wrong. But even they were playing as individuals - there was no sense of teamwork or cohesion, either in defence or attack.

As half-time approached, the Huddersfield onslaught relented somewhat and we were able to push out a little, albeit unconvincingly. Allan Nielsen, who showed momentary glimpses of utter class but was too often invisible, had a drive blocked after a Wooter cross was only half-cleared. Then Tommy Mooney smacked in an instinctive shot and, finally, Vaesen actually had to make a save - he did it but only just, spilling the ball out towards Wooter who incredibly managed to blast it over the bar from what seemed, from the other end, like point blank range.

Some wailed at Wooter for his lack of composure - in fact, the bloke next to me had pretty much resigned himself to relegation by this point - but, quite frankly, you can't expect the little Dutchman to do everything. Thankfully, though, the half-time interval was full of bewildered smiles and shrugging shoulders rather than cursing and despair. Some of the press have described Cox's injury time free kick as a moment of perceptive opportunism...but I'm not so charitable. This had nothing in common with Di Canio's genius match-winner at West Ham last season - rather, it was just a slightly awkward low cross into the near post that miraculously eluded everyone. Still, we were in no position to be fussy.

Tellingly, the Huddersfield players were made to wait for the start of the second half, presumably as Graham Taylor kicked some collective arse back in the dressing room. When the Hornets did finally emerge, it was without the ineffective David Perpetuini. His replacement, Michel Ngonge, was to win the match for us.

Substitutions are rarely so decisive. With barely a minute of the half gone, Ngonge was collecting the ball on the left, getting it out from under his feet and just surging. For the first time, a Watford player got into his stride. He stormed powerfully forwards and, as the Huddersfield defence parted before him, released Tommy Smith at the perfect moment, leaving him with a chance that was probably not as easy as he made it look. Vaesen was beaten with a neat finish, Smith ran to the fans as the players ran to Ngonge.

In truth, apart from nearly setting up Smith for his second five minutes later (the striker's shot was blocked), Ngonge did little for the rest of the game. But, in a sense, that's why he'll be missed when he finally goes. Like Mooney, although in an entirely different way, he has tried so very hard to be whatever we've needed him to be, particularly last season when injuries placed a hefty burden on his shoulders. And, as on Saturday, he has often succeeded.

For a short while, we showed our teeth. The whole side pushed up, Cox often occupying a midfield position, and went at Huddersfield. To immense encouragement from the stand, this was what we'd been hoping for. Wooter received the ball and, thrillingly, took on his man on the outside to create crossing opportunities; Nielsen paced around to pick up anything loose and set things in motion again; Smith darted about inside the box, waiting for another chance.

There was no third goal, though. A lengthy injury to a Huddersfield player seemed to break our concentration and, after ten heart-pumping minutes, the game settled back into its previous pattern. While we were never as disorganised as in the first half, our attacking efforts became just as faltering. Gradually, it became a matter of hanging onto the lead.

So, Wijnhard slashed wide after a run down the right, then Armstrong (it seems like about seventeen years since he wore a Watford shirt, such is the quantity of water under the bridge since then) shot wildly from the edge of the box. Vincent volleyed just over from a Wijnhard cross and Gallen drove at Baardsen from twenty-five yards. We were surviving without impressing.

While Huddersfield never came as close to equalising as they had to taking an unassailable lead, there were still plenty of occasions when a speculative effort might've ruined our day. As before the break, we needed to do more to gain constructive possession and stop the endless stream of attacks. That old theory about defending from the front isn't only about getting your strikers to do their share of the work, it's about getting hold of the ball and keeping it away from your goal. Although the tension was far from unbearable this time - the home side never had as much conviction or confidence after falling behind - you can rest assured that, if we continue to play like this, most of us won't have any fingernails left by the end of the season.

Fifteen minutes left, and a neat move ended with someone (details are slightly vague, thanks to the unreadable Huddersfield shirt numbers) shooting from an angle and watching as it took a potentially lethal deflection and looped over the bar. Fourteen minutes left, and a left wing cross was headed down into the heart of the penalty area for someone else to take aim and volley goalwards, only to be denied by a superb last-ditch block from Ward. Eleven minutes left, and a half-volley screamed across the face of goal and went wide to great groans from the home fans.

But the last ten minutes weren't so tense. The Huddersfield attacks went on but, like a thunderstorm moving slowly away, they became fainter and fainter. The game was won by the time Wooter frustrated Thornley nearly to the point of violence by keeping the ball around the corner flag. Baardsen had one more save to make but it was an easy one, gathering a weak volley from outside the box.

Undoubtedly, the most important thing is the three points. As we found out two seasons ago, making a good start buys you time to get things right. The comparison between this victory and the one at Fratton Park back in 1998 is as appropriate as it is obvious. Although that famous season is distorted by our fairytale ascent into the playoffs and beyond, that doesn't change the fact that our start left us in the top half of the table for the rest of the season. At this stage, it's about setting the tone.

The difference between now and then is that we know that we can do better. In the sweltering heat of that afternoon in Hampshire, we were trying to work out how well the players could compete in the First Division. Right now, we know the answer to that question. So, while we can't afford to play like this for the rest of the season, something will have gone horribly wrong if we do.

At Huddersfield, we played for five or so minutes either side of the interval. Manchester United did that when we played them at Old Trafford last season and ended up beating us 4-1. Lesson one: we're not Manchester United.

*Well, it is.