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Nationwide Division One, 28/4/01
Tranmere Rovers
Tearing up the script
By Ian Grant

Long ago, the script was written for Graham Taylor's last match at Vicarage Road. One final wave of galloping attacks to see off already-relegated opponents. One last thumping victory, in the thrilling style of so many before it. Hat-tricks for Tommys Mooney and Smith to celebrate their end-of-season awards for best player and young player respectively. And, in the final minute of injury time, the seventh goal to crown it all, an astonishing, crashing-off-the-crossbar blast from thirty yards by the returning Richard Johnson.

Most of the time, football isn't like that. It wasn't like that yesterday. But, as Graham Taylor waved goodbye and sixteen thousand fans choked back tears, we were able to remember that the football he's been responsible for has often been exactly like that. In presenting us with this deeply forgettable match, the team merely enabled us to remember more clearly all those that've preceded it.

That's not much of an excuse, of course. Faced with an occasion that was charged with emotion from the very start, the team responded with a dreadful performance and an equally dreadful result, putting the club outside the country's top thirty for the first time since the early weeks of the 1998/99 season. They're not big on winning friends, obviously. Not big on winning matches either.

As a spectacle, it barely merited a match report. Certainly, it was entirely unworthy of such a momentous day, as if someone had accidentally mixed up the video tapes and replaced the ninety minutes of Taylor-made glory-hunting with an old recording from the Perryman years. The consequence was a depressing deflation of the atmosphere, a delaying of warmth and adoration until five o'clock.

Neither side deserved to win, both sides had chances. It was a random, scrappy waste of everyone's time. After two minutes, Mellon's shot from way out was deflected towards Alec Chamberlain by Robert Page's leg. Shortly afterwards, Neil Cox's free kick found Tommy Mooney sneaking in at the far post to head goalwards athletically, but he was too far out to trouble Murphy.

As so often, a blow-by-blow account exaggerates the levels of excitement. If you want the full picture, just go and stare at the wall for five minutes after reading every sentence. That's how it really was.

From twenty-five yards, the powerful N'Diaye whacked in a swerving shot that, even though it went straight at the keeper, was blocked by Chamberlain's legs. There were a couple of attempts from Gifton Noel-Williams, who stood out simply by fighting so hard for the meagre scraps that came his way. The first rattled across the face of goal and just wide from a tight angle; the second bounced up awkwardly from a deflected cross, requiring a difficult volley that cleared the target.

Although there was a fair amount of animation about the opening periods, the batteries began to run flat from around the twenty minute mark. From then, the sheer sterility of the football became almost oppressive, the Hornets' inability to deal with the Tranmere offside trap incredibly frustrating. While there were players with ideas - for Watford, Paolo Vernazza; for Rovers, N'Diaye - they were too rarely involved, mostly giving way to the grim thrashing of two clueless sides.

After thirty minutes, Rideout's thumping header from a right wing cross bounced wide. After forty-one, N'Diaye's surging run through the barren wastelands of the midfield ended with a weak shot at Chamberlain. You don't want to know about what happened in between. Well, actually, that makes it sound too interesting. Nothing happened in between.

Mind you, something nearly happened in first half injury time. It came from Tommy Smith, surprisingly ineffective despite switching positions in search of success. His run from the left was typically adventurous, reminiscent of previous brilliance. On this occasion, however, it concluded with a sly ball into the area to pick up Paul Robinson's run. Only Murphy's speed in advancing from his line and agility in blocking the shot prevented the home side from taking an undeserved lead.

The half-time whistle. A step nearer to Graham Taylor's retirement, a step further away from the glittering brilliance that we'll remember him for.

Thankfully, the resumption presented us with a couple of positive points. To begin, there was the return of Richard Johnson to first team action, almost a year to the day since he was injured. And, although clearly rusty, you could see how much we've missed him. Just the way that he can run the midfield rather than merely playing in it; the way that he sits in the centre circle, demands possession, and looks to use it so purposefully. It'll take time - one glorious pass arced out to the right wing, gift-wrapped for a Nicky Wright or a Nordin Wooter to sprint onto, and ran out for a goal kick - but it's so good to sing his name again.

Then, ten minutes later, there was the arrival of Lee Cook. Erratic and raw, but vastly enthusiastic and bursting with ideas. Man of the match, simply by being so goddamn full of it in the midst of a side that's running on empty.

Despite this, it was Tranmere who eventually disturbed the stifling tedium. It took a while, and they might've fallen behind as Smith's shot from the edge of the box missed by little more than a yard. Equally, though, they'd continued to have moments of promise in attack, particularly when Kenna skinned Robinson and Rideout allowed the resulting cross to bounce away from him at the far post.

Typically, the goal was an utter mess. As Page tackled Morgan on the corner of the penalty area, he succeeded in hooking the ball sideways towards Neil Cox. No danger at all, until Cox slipped and N'Diaye was left to collect the ball, advance calmly, and slam a shot past Chamberlain. Not pretty and, not for the first time, a horribly soft goal to concede, even if the individuals involved couldn't be heavily criticised.

You can imagine the rest, I think. Sporadic raids from the opposition that looked rather more dangerous than the endless, ponderous attacks from the supposed promotion contenders. Some players disappearing entirely ("staff call for Mr Vernazza..."), others bashing away wearily and without inspiration. General grumbling and frustration, a miserable silence around Vicarage Road. Blah blah blah. Not pleasant, regardless of the circumstances.

N'Diaye nearly scored again within a couple of minutes, as his shot from the right looped up from a deflection and span narrowly wide. Briefly, we glimpsed ecstasy as Johnson's arrowing drive headed for the bottom corner, before Murphy dived down to cut the fairytale short. The gigantic Hill blocked Allan Nielsen's curling effort with a superb flying header. After a grim eternity, the fourth official indicated that there would be just one minute of injury time.

Suddenly, there was some urgency. For all the criticism that comes his way, the fact that Robert Page was winning and taking a corner shows some appreciation of the miserable let-down that his team was writing into the club's history. From that corner, a crowd of Watford players rose above the penalty spot to score. Allan Nielsen headed the queue, sending his header drifting into the top corner. Irrelevant...and, at the same time, rather important.

What remained was all about welling tears and lumps in throats. It was about extending thanks to the Tranmere fans who stayed behind to applaud Graham Taylor as he strolled around the Vicarage Road pitch with his last Watford team. It was about trying to find ways to let him know everything in one final rush of garbled words and completely failing and, as I've said elsewhere, finding consolation in the knowledge that he understands.

It's what has made him so unique. When Graham Taylor's career as a club manager is over in seven days' time, professional football will be a little further removed from its audience, from ordinary people, from normal life. He has brought absolute joy to us all. And he knows what that means to us, because it means the same to him. There's no explanation necessary, just the most sincere thanks.

He's always understood. Treasure that.