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Nationwide Division One, 2/1/01
Lost at sea
By Ian Grant

The radio crackled and hissed in the darkened room as Taylor leaned back in his chair and sipped his muddy, bitter coffee. Lack of sleep had left his eyes bloodshot and he rubbed them sleepily. He sighed deeply once and then again, taking a break from scanning the frequencies for signs of life.

The patrol boat had gone out in fair weather, only the slightest hint of trouble from the long-range forecasts. For a while, as his friends and colleagues sped over calm and friendly waters, they'd even joked and laughed over the airwaves.

And then, nothing. Gone. No trace, even on the radar. A call to the weather centre shed no light either. His friends had disappeared somewhere out there. Two days ago. They weren't coming back.

Taylor's quiet thoughts were shattered as Captain Perkins stormed into the room in characteristic fashion, slamming the door after him.

"BLAST IT, TAYLOR!" he bellowed through a shower of spittle, "Those men were lost two days ago, yet still you insist on sitting here and feeling sorry for yourself, against my orders." He continued at full pelt, as if pressed for time, "I demand that you return to your duties immediately. SORT IT OUT, TAYLOR!"

After Captain Perkins had stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him, Taylor took one last look around. Everyone else had given up on his friends. They were gone. He sighed once more and began slowly turning the dial on the radio for the last time, just to make sure before he packed it away.

Suddenly, he heard something, a faint signal growing stronger amid the static and interference....

Yeah, we're back. With a vengeance.

At first glance, you could reasonably say that we've waited for two miserable months for a performance like this. Personally, I'd argue that we've been waiting for it all season.

You see, this was the Watford that I believe in. This was the Watford that triumphed at Anfield and Wembley, that rudely barged rivals aside to get into the playoffs, that did enough to hang onto the Second Division Championship. This was the Watford that wins things. Forget fluency and flamboyance for now, if you will. What you had here was a Watford side that, for perhaps the first time in more than a year, just looked so damn strong.

While most people will concentrate on an action-packed first half, my broad smile came from what happened after the interval. We've been two goals ahead on plenty of occasions before...yet, even against strikeforces far less potent than Gayle, Euell and Agyemang, we've never looked comfortable in those circumstances. Even when we haven't thrown away leads, we've had plenty of unnecessarily nervous, panicky moments.

Here, we were entirely in control, competent and robust, focused and disciplined. We made it look easy, without ever allowing ourselves to think that it was easy. For weeks, I've been boring you by saying that we need to start understanding and playing First Division football to achieve the success that we all want. Well, this was exactly what has been in my mind's eye.

What's really been in my mind's eye has been that staggering performance at St Andrews on Easter Monday two years ago, when we flattened Birmingham with all the terrible grace of a Sherman tank. We've played more aesthetically pleasing football on several occasions during both that and this season, yet we've never been so completely commanding. Back then, we knew that we'd found the right formula. Now, despite all those who've talked about Graham Taylor losing the trust of his players, we may have found it again.

Suddenly, a shapeless side has real definition. Everyone knows what's required of them, everyone knows what's not required of them. The hard-working, buzzing midfield of Carlton Palmer, who was simply astonishing last night, and Allan Nielsen finds itself with available options on either side in the shape of Peter Kennedy and Tommy Smith. They supply quality crosses...and nobody needs to ask Tommy Mooney twice. At the back, the calamities at Bolton have woken Robert Page from his slumber, returning him to his finest, no-fannying-about form. Darren Ward daren't do anything but follow suit.

For ten minutes, we looked for signs of post-Barnsley confidence. We found them. Plenty of them. There was a glorious, sweeping cross from Kennedy's left boot, which didn't come to anything but promised much. Equally, there was a splendid move from deep on the left to way forward on the right, ending with a cross from Allan Nielsen that Davis fielded comfortably. As Davis saved from Kennedy's awkward half-volley after six minutes, it all looked rather good.

But, at least away from home, Wimbledon are full of purpose. They made their point, winning a series of corners and building some steady pressure. When the goal came, it was against the run of play...but, especially bearing in mind recent disasters, it wasn't entirely unexpected. Fine goal, too. As the visitors broke quickly, Neil Cox was pulled into the centre to provide cover - one of those split second decisions that players have to make - and left Gayle free on the flank. When he received the ball, the striker still had much to do...but he did it all, blitzing a shot past Alec Chamberlain and into the roof of the net.

You know where it might've gone from there. If you don't, pick a recent match report at random and feel the pain. We were fortunate that our immediate response to the goal yielded an equaliser, before despair began to descend. Inevitably, our rescuer was Tommy Mooney, ducking bravely into a crowd of bodies to guide a floating header into the net after a corner had bounced around.

From that point, we took it on home. The second goal was a classic of its type, and one that Wimbledon fans should've found familiar. With his left foot, Cox belted a cross into the area and found Mooney steaming determinedly between two defenders to thump an unstoppable header past Davis. For the remainder of the game, Mooney's desire to score a hat-trick almost turned him into a caricature of himself - hurtling around, smacking anything that came his way towards goal, fetching the ball ahead of the ballboys. And, watching him, you suddenly realised that he wasn't alone, that he was no longer the only player with that kind of hunger.

For ten minutes, we were rampant. We got the ball, fed it out to Tommy Smith on the right, and he ran at the unfortunate Hawkins. He went outside and beat him, he went inside and beat him. He sent crosses flying towards the far post, where Mooney always lurked. It was everything we've missed. Not only did we have a winger able and willing to hurtle at his opponent and provide unfussy supply, we had a midfield with enough control to make sure that he saw plenty of the ball.

With both defences looking slightly vulnerable and both attacks looking pretty sharp, we won the right to play most of the game in the opposition half. We did it by out-fighting all-comers in the middle of the pitch. While neither Palmer nor Nielsen will be remembered for creative contributions, they looked a truly formidable pairing.

After Roberts had scraped a shot wide from twenty-two yards and Euell had failed to make contact with an acrobatic attempt to get on the end of a chipped cross, we added a curious third. Curious, because Gifton Noel-Williams was taking absolutely no part in the game in the minute or so before he scored. First, he was crouching down by the touchline, feeling a bit sorry for himself until the trainer came over and, presumably, told him to get on with it. Then, still feeling a bit sorry for himself, he wandered forward and stood around watching Tommy Smith torment Hawkins again. When he finally received the ball, it sat untouched at his feet while he contemplated his navel. Then he shrugged his shoulders, slid elegantly into the area, stepped past a challenge, and beat Davis with an extraordinarily precise finish into the bottom corner. Class.

At the end of a half that was filled with incident, there's just one significant moment left to describe. It involved Tommy Smith, as most things did. Another belting run down the right wing took him beyond the entire Wimbledon defence, bringing Davis sprinting out from his line. Unfortunately, the keeper had completely misjudged the situation, since the youngster was closer to the corner flag than the goal when they met. That didn't deter him from a scything, knee-high tackle that flattened Smith and left him requiring lengthy treatment.

With Vicarage Road baying for blood, the referee showed the yellow card. It was an understandable decision - because of the position of the incident, the tackle itself would've needed to be bad enough to warrant a dismissal. Even then, you could make a reasonable argument.

It was a shame, in many ways. The subsequent abuse of Davis was inevitable and occasionally entertaining...but you tended to feel that, on this occasion, we should've been concentrating on praising our own players. They'd put huge smiles back on our faces, after all - I haven't been so many beaming grins since The First Half At Forest.

As Wimbledon ditched Roberts in favour of Agyemang - a move that left no room for doubt about their attacking intentions - at the start of the second half, it seemed highly unlikely that there weren't further twists and turns to come. But, no. At last, we emerged from the dressing room without forgetting to bring our brains with us.

Certainly, there were a couple of uncomfortable moments early on. Alec Chamberlain did well to hold Euell's stinging shot, then Ardley was inches away from getting on the end of a belting cross from Gayle after Cox had unwisely committed himself. But this was not to be a repeat viewing of previous nightmares. You could feel the confidence building as each situation was successfully dealt with, you could see the defenders growing in stature.

Simple things, but wonderful. Robert Page muscling Euell away from the ball on the goalline, taking aim, and crashing a clearance into the lower Rous. Yeah, he's learnt from Bolton. Darren Ward getting the hang of it all again, striding around like the accomplice of the school bully. Carlton Palmer and Allan Nielsen relentlessly harassing the Dons midfield, forcing them to hurry everything and succeed with nothing. Everybody helping out, nobody passing responsibility onto anyone else. We're a team again, folks.

There was no sense of an impending crisis. Even when Ardley's accurate free kick - after Robinson had been booked for a daft and unnecessary challenge on Gayle - appeared to be heading towards the top corner, the wall stood tall and deflected it over the bar. Gayle shot weakly at Chamberlain through a crowd of players fifteen minutes later, and the rest was repelled with efficient, decisive force.

Wimbledon dominated possession, having made enough changes to protect against the most immediate threats. They'd managed to sort out some of the problems - in particular, Hawkins was now assisted by colleagues whenever Smith received the ball, while Mooney was marked by two at every set piece. You could say that we didn't play as well in the second half, you could say that our opponents improved. Crucially, we made such arguments academic by concentrating on getting the job done - this time, and arguably for the first time, we played as well without the ball as with it.

Indeed, we might've snatched a fourth on the counter-attack. Robinson mis-hit a shot from twenty yards that bumbled wide; Noel-Williams sliced a half-volley to Davis after a fine break involving Mooney and Robinson; Smith shot narrowly wide on the turn from Noel-Williams' extremely astute knock-down. Even with Kennedy visibly tiring, our front players had enough about them to ensure that Wimbledon didn't over-commit.

You could say that the game petered out, with just one goal attempt in the final quarter of an hour - a smart, skidding shot from Noel-Williams on the edge of the box that went a yard wide. You could say that, but it'd be very uncharitable to do so. We killed the game off, in truth...and our diligent, professional efforts deserved rather more recognition than the bored silence that descended over Vicarage Road. Even if there wasn't much goalmouth action, there was plenty to appreciate.

So, Graham Taylor has, to quote a favourite phrase, sorted it aht. Forget the league position - what we saw last night was more than we had before the start of this losing run. It was a team that was equipped to deal with opponents, rather than merely a team that could deal with certain kinds of opponents.

Think back. We haven't beaten a team like Wimbledon with any kind of comfort or composure this season. Way back, when we went top after beating Bolton, I wrote that "We've murdered teams that have given us space to play, we've struggled against teams that have crowded us". The problems that surfaced during the losing streak weren't new, merely exaggerated - they've needed to be solved all along.

Last night, we - GT and the players - got it right.

Bravo, chaps. Welcome back.