Main Menu
What's New
00/01: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 28/8/00
Sheffield United
By Ian Grant

Four-one to the Golden Boys. Fond memories of similarly convincing scorelines against Swindon, Crewe and Stockport two years ago, back when life seemed so simple, the sun was always shining and Gifton was fit. Back when it was possible to be relaxed and happy as a game went into injury time, when it was conceivable that we might possess better individuals and score better goals than our opponents. With all due respect to Sheffield United, our first encounter with a recognisably run-of-the-mill First Division side was a singularly nostalgic experience.

Is there anything more you need to know? Are you content to admire the view? Do you want to be bothered by the details?

Okay, let's paint a picture with broad brush strokes, in keeping with a performance that was bold, confident and even flamboyant. For a start, we were absolutely terrific. If I've been less than generous with the five star ratings, then that's only because there's (touch wood) surely more to come from the likes of Gifton Noel-Williams, Heidar Helguson and Tommy Smith. There's match fitness to be worked upon, sharpness and pace to be regained...and then (touch wood) they'll be really bloody frightening. In the meantime, I think we can be reasonably content with this.

Curiously, it wasn't a game that was even vaguely comparable to Saturday's intense encounter with Wimbledon. On the BSaD Note-O-Meter, the match at Selhurst registered higher by one whole page. Yet that wasn't important - what mattered yesterday was that we were decisive and ruthless, killing our opponents off for the first time since we were promoted to the Premiership. We played some glorious football - already, Cheltenham is a fading memory - but we played it with a purpose, with a sense of real danger. Like I say, we were absolutely terrific.

From one to eleven - look, I know - the players deserve a mention. To leave anyone out would be to do them a disservice. Having slagged them all to kingdom come less than a week ago, it's a joy to be able to love them once again.

So, Espen Baardsen has barely made a save and already looks like a snip at £1.25m. It's in the way that he dominates the entire penalty area, coming out to intervene whenever necessary and without hesitation. You half expect him to put up a small picket fence, plant a few shrubs and display a neighbourhood watch sign to mark out his property.

On the flanks, Neil Cox and Paul Robinson are at the peak of their Watford form. With Cox, it appears that the adjustment to a new club and a new playing style has now been made. He looks tremendous, bustling up and down the touchline and suddenly making athletic bursts into the heart of the midfield when it takes his fancy. Whisper it, but Nigel Gibbs is currently being kept out of the side on merit. As for Robbo, well, it's a remarkable transformation and one that's easily explained. When he thinks - and it's fair to suppose that GT's been pointing this out - he's such a positive, competitive, boisterous influence on the side. When he stops thinking, he endangers his team's chances of victory as much as his opponents' chances of staying out of hospital. Cheltenham was Robbo at his most stupid and irresponsible, Sheffield United was Robbo at his very best.

Something extraordinary is happening in the centre of defence. Comparisons between Robert Page and David Holdsworth have been made before and still hold true. Both need someone else to take the lead and to dominate the strikers, relieving the pressure. With Holdsworth, it was Colin Foster - more experienced and more confident. With Page, it's Darren Ward - less experienced but so confident, strong and capable. The captain no longer seems to be permanently at full stretch because Ward, the 'lesser' partner, is showing an extraordinary ability to intimidate and command. He brings his physical presence into play from the start - wrestling and shoving opponents out of the way to stamp his authority on proceedings early on, the modern equivalent of the old-fashioned "let them know you're there" tackle from behind, and then never relaxing his grip. What a player he could be, what a combination this already is.

From there, into midfield. The whole point about Steve Palmer is that he shouldn't have to shoulder the creative burden. He's there to win possession and supply the ball to the people who want it. And, while those people are in enemy territory, he'll cover their backs. It's a vital role and one that he plays superbly. But it requires others to make themselves available.

So, Tommy Smith and Tommy Mooney on either wing. Two completely different players, yet equally effective. Smith, all twinkle-toed youth. Mooney, all gritted teeth and pumping limbs and unfashionable will-to-win. There's no question that Smith's ideal role does not involve patrolling the touchline...yet, equally, as a younger player he needs to learn different aspects of the game. And, on recent evidence, he's learning very fast. In contrast, learning different aspects of the game is not something that Mooney needs to worry about. Back to his ferocious best, it seems that the left side of midfield may well be his position for this season - in providing tenacious defensive support for Robinson as well as assistance for the strikers, it makes full use of one of the club's most valuable assets.

Up front, Heidar Helguson and Gifton Noel-Williams are still a little rusty. Nevertheless, you can see it all there - Helguson's eye for goal and Gifton's astounding ability as a target man, and the rest. Whether it becomes our definitive striking partnership remains to be seen, yet it's already proved that we have the firepower to do some serious damage in this division. Besides, anyone who doesn't feel a bit emotional about having Gifton (touch wood) back after so many months of doubts and fears is completely stone-hearted. Seeing him run to his family, who were having a carnival in the East Stand, at full-time was surely one of the moments of the season.

I've left someone out, obviously. He comes last not merely because he was the best player on the pitch. Mainly because the team formed around him, suddenly coming together with him at the centre. Oh, Micah Hyde. He's here, he's there, he's every-f***ing-where? Well, no. That's not true. He's not everywhere, he's exactly where we need him - somewhere between the two goals, ready to turn defence into penetrating attack, working to bridge the previously yawning gap between the back four and the strikers. He's picking up possession, darting past players, laying the ball off and making a run to receive it again. He's making the game look simple, he's bringing the whole thing to life. He's bloody fantastic.

To this, add all, some or none of Allan Smart, Nicky Wright, Nordin Wooter, Richard Johnson, Allan Nielsen and Peter Kennedy. Mouth-watering, right?

So it proved, more or less. For long periods, it was a game that was more attractive than eventful. The home side's cutting edge was evident from the first minute, when Helguson was caught fractionally offside in running onto a Mooney pass. Yet there were times when it seemed as if we'd grown rather too confident of our ability to score, taking it for granted that we had another couple of gears available if necessary. Actually, we only had two goal attempts in the whole of the first half.

The first was a gem, though. Mainly thanks to Robinson's ravishing pass down the left, which arced past a defender like a particularly fine in-swinger on its way to the stumps, and into Mooney's path. I doubt if I was alone in expecting him to try to beat Tracey at his near post...but he'd seen Helguson lurking and slipped the ball across for the striker to score from two yards.

In truth, we rather went to sleep after that. Certainly, we took United too lightly - hell, even typical Warnock fare demands some respect. It seems slightly mean-spirited to complain after scoring four goals for the first time in eighteen months, yet it's also worth bringing a note of realism to the general euphoria by pointing out that United's equaliser was far from undeserved.

The main threat was Bent, constantly on the prowl around the box and considerably more dangerous than his lanky frame suggests. He beat Page to set up Devlin after twenty minutes, the final effort disappearing into the Vic Road end, and then brought a competent save from Baardsen shortly afterwards. Despite some glorious approach work, Watford attacks tended to disappoint, although there might've been a carbon copy of the goal after twenty-five minutes if Mooney had not blasted his cross with so much power that poor Tommy Smith was nearly flattened in attempting to head it towards goal.

Twenty minutes later - like I say, some of the game wasn't packed with incident - United equalised. Although Ward inevitably won the ball when a cross came in from the right, it fell to Quinn and, after stepping neatly inside a challenge, he planted a shot into the top corner. Fine finish, and one that looked certain to spoil half-time for us.

Except that a couple of lengthy injuries, including one to Gifton that looked worrying until it became clear that it was only his head, meant that the half was extended for long enough for us to regain the lead. A simple goal, this time - Helguson returning a corner into the box, Mooney climbing with two defenders at the far post and a header, looking suspiciously as if it had come from a United player, floating in off the upright. It wasn't the prettiest goal of the match...but it was probably the most decisive.

Because the second half was murderous for the away team. It began with a moment for every Watford fan to savour, as Gifton marked only his second start in nearly two years with a goal. The free kick manoevre was familiar to those who'd been at the Barnsley game, but it caught United out - Cox lining up for a blast, then sliding a sly pass down the side of the area for Smith. Although Tracey managed to get his hands to the cross, he did no more than push the ball out to Noel-Williams, who slammed it home and ran around in delirious celebration. Gifton is (touch wood) back.

There were still goal attempts for United - Bent heading wide from a corner, then shooting wildly on the turn - but they had a rather forlorn quality about them. In contrast, we went forward with belief and considerable style, threatening to turn the game into an exercise in goal difference improvement.

When we got around to scoring it, the fourth was exquisite. Every part of it was quite perfect. Cox's chipped pass into Noel-Williams' feet started the whole thing. Hyde, as all afternoon, made himself available to receive the lay-off, looked up, picked out Smith's run down the right and then sprinted for the return. As the cross bounced into the six yard box, Hyde had made up the necessary ground, stretching out a boot and guiding the ball past Tracey. Not a goal of stunning skill or invention, perhaps, but a goal of extraordinarily refreshing clarity.

For a period, we were rampant. Robinson curled a free kick against the inside of the post, so unlucky not to see his performance rewarded by a rare appearance on the scoresheet. Another clever Cox set piece provided Palmer with the chance to have a crack at the coconut shy, and his rising drive from nearly thirty yards whistled barely a foot over the bar.

We were swarming all over them. Passing, movement, quality, ambition, everything that seemed unthinkable a week ago. Even if Ford went close with a shot from twenty yards, we went closer - a sublime through-ball from Hyde sending Helguson on his way, only to be denied by a desperate tackle as he shot. From the corner, Mooney stooped and headed wide when he ought, in all honesty, to have made it five.

Ford had another go in the last five minutes and went closer, his shot clipping the outside of the post, but it barely registered. As the sun came out after a brief shower, we were thoroughly and joyfully victorious.

It's been a while, hasn't it? It's been a while since we were able to show what we can do, rather than what we can stop our opponents from doing. Since we were this superior, this commanding. Since we were able to complain about not scoring six or seven.

Naturally, there will be many occasions when we're unable to reproduce this kind of form. We found that out last time. But the promise will always be there.

Watford are back. Back in the supporters' good books, that is.