Main Menu
What's New
01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 16/03/02
Coventry City
Lazy and shot-shy
By Ian Grant

Really, you can find most of what you need to know in one second half incident....

As Coventry attempted to build from their own half, Safri received the ball thirty yards from his team's goal. He looked up for a colleague to pass to, and saw only Gavin Mahon, hair flapping up and down, bearing down on him. He turned to the side, again looked for a colleague and saw none. Rather than be ridiculed for walloping the ball away or returning it to his keeper, he ran away towards the Rous with Mahon in pursuit. And he kept running. And Mahon overhauled him, won the ball cleanly and ended a Coventry attack before it had even begun.

By itself, that would neatly summarise our almost gleeful commitment throughout this excellent afternoon. Somehow, we've suddenly begun to relish the work and to savour the victories that it brings - a minute later, Neil Cox, supposedly playing at right back, was doing the same to Thompson in an identical position. An extra ten or twenty percent, far more than the far-too-familiar just about doing enough, and a flat refusal to be beaten.

There's more, though. For, rather than allowing himself an understandable moment of satisfaction upon stealing possession from Safri, Mahon barely hesitated before wrapping his right boot around the ball and sending it hurtling towards the top corner. Only an instinctive, strong save from Hedman, who was diving to his left while on-lookers were still applauding Mahon's earlier efforts, prevents me from describing the third Watford goal.

Yeah, same old Watford...lazy and shot-shy....

While winning every remaining game might be an interesting exercise in applying pressure on those above us, it would be an exercise. But, in a sense, that only makes this sudden, fantastic rush of ambition seem more impressive, as only a psychic few can have imagined that we could make these last few fixtures matter quite so much. The atmosphere at Vicarage Road was transformed yesterday, hardly intimidating for the opposition but hugely encouraging and supportive of the home team, and the Watford players - all of the Watford players - ploughed into a competitive, occasionally bad-tempered game as if a great deal rested upon the result.

Apart from yellow cards for Wayne Brown and Gifton Noel-Williams for tackles that over-stepped the mark, I can find nothing at all to criticise here. Even then, I'd rather that players over-stepped the mark than under-stepped it, as so often in the past. Apart from a natural wariness of football's cruelty, the only cloud on the horizon is that this astonishingly combative defence - the foundation of the recent performances, really - contains one player who still belongs to another club and one other who is likely to retire in the summer. Having taken so long to find such a successful pairing, we may see it only briefly.

Still, let's enjoy it. Sure, the scoreline gives little indication of what a hard-fought contest this was, nor that there were periods when Coventry were clearly on top. Until the third goal went in, we were never comfortable. That's a good thing, though. We need challenges right now, we need to be tested, we want to get into the habit of meeting opponents head-on rather than hiding away. Just as we'd imagined that we'd seen all that Luca Vialli's Watford had to offer - some gorgeous football, made mediocre by limp performances and stupid results - it has revealed a darker, more threatening side. A First Division mentality, if you like. A winning mentality, certainly.

As at Selhurst, the win was secured by goals that couldn't have been better timed if they'd been pre-booked during the week. After so much fannying about, we suddenly seem so decisive, so cruelly capable of punishing opponents when they drop their guard. Here, Coventry were never given the chance to start sluggishly, immediately and rudely shoved onto the back foot rather than allowed to decide for themselves. After three minutes, Marcus Gayle's arcing free kick brought a reasonably comfortable save from Hedman, tipping over in the middle of his goal. But the corner was returned to Lee Cook on the right wing, a fine cross found Wayne Brown lurking at the far post, and his header was steered deliberately and splendidly, with more than a hint of Mooney, past the keeper. The proverbial dream long as no-one from Ipswich was watching, that is....

It proved to be a very useful head-start, as the rest of the half was full of ferocious battle and relentless action. Anything but easy, this. We stole the goal, hid it somewhere safe, returned to the fight with fresh vigour. After twelve minutes, Tommy Smith ran onto a delightful curled pass down the left from the excellent Mahon, then crossed for Marcus Gayle to glance a header across and wide. Despite being relatively uncelebrated, Smith is getting through an extraordinary amount of work at the moment. So is everyone else, for that matter.

Although we weren't able to dominate for any length of time, we seem to have adopted an impressive, durable attitude, dealing with each situation in turn and leaving the bigger picture to the manager. So, as Thompson sped away onto a long ball after fourteen minutes, Neil Cox laboured in his wake. And he carried on labouring, enough to distract Thompson at the vital moment and cause him to slice the ball harmlessly to Alec Chamberlain. Again, Coventry missed fewer chances than were denied them by our strength and determination in defence.

Still, we - and Gavin Mahon in particular, as it was his lofted back-pass that'd caused Chamberlain to head weakly under challenge - were grateful to Bothroyd for scraping a shot across the six yard box when he should've done rather better. And we were very, very grateful to the ageless Chamberlain for somehow diving back to get a strong hand to Thompson's unexpected, brilliant dipping half-volley from fully thirty yards.

That was a fabulous save, the kind that draws extra applause when replayed on the big screen...yet, if anything, it was later surpassed as the keeper clawed Safri's pacy free kick away from the top corner. It had been whipped over the wall, to the opposite side from that covered by the keeper - he had no right to get there, let alone to prevent it from crossing the line. I can think of several who'd have stood still and watched it hit the back of the net with a despairing, helpless shrug of the shoulders. In its own way, Chamberlain's role in this mighty surge of form is as pro-active, determined and single-minded as the most heroic out-field player. A legend, more so with every week.

Briefly, our midfield was over-run, the defence under pressure. Things are different now, however. When we lose control, the reaction is extremely encouraging - a visible gritting of teeth on the pitch, a vital helping hand from the bench. It didn't last, this Coventry resurgence. We weren't in the mood. Tommy Smith allowed a heavy touch to give Hedman a chance to block as he dashed onto one of countless Gayle flicks, Allan Nielsen volleyed over after another sublime pass from Mahon to Smith on the left.

With half-time approaching, we'd beaten Coventry back and left them frustrated. Chippo, roundly booed after a shameful dive to win that earlier free kick, got into an irritable and entertainingly ill-fated battle with Paul Robinson and the referee. Brown, never one to let a clearance come back, managed to reach the roof of the Rous with one mighty wallop away from danger. The atmosphere lifted, cheers and laughter and enjoyment. Again, our opponents were momentarily distracted. Again, they were punished.

After forty-two minutes, Hedman twice stood in the way of a two-nil lead. The first save, as Gayle flicked on a corner at the near post, was purely reactive. The second, as Nielsen smacked in a fierce half-volley from the edge of the box, was about self-defence as much as anything else. But he could do nothing in injury time, as Cook's perceptive free kick from the right picked out Neil Cox at the far post and, as the header drifted across goal, Brown nodded in his second from close range. Another great roar, another all-encompassing celebration. And another reason to hope that Ipswich stay up....

Lucky half-time chocolate: Erm, a cheese and watercress sandwich.
Reason: I'd forgotten to eat it earlier.
Level of success: Satisfying.

Really, the second half - and the match itself - was settled by a five minute spell midway through, when three chances for a Coventry goal, and their hopes of a fight-back, came and went. With tempers calmed during the break, the game was quieter for a while, something that suited us rather more than it suited Coventry. And it gave us an opportunity to admire the concentration and thunderous determination of Wayne Brown and Filippo Galli, their efforts supported and echoed by the rest of the side. Thompson flashed a drive miles wide, Cox rumbled forward to send a shot skidding off-target from twenty-two yards, Mahon's afore-mentioned persistence robbed Safri and was repelled by Hedman.

Then, those three chances. One...Mills hooked the ball across goal, Robinson miscued his clearance, and Hughes' bouncing shot hit the outside of the post. Two...Mills drifted in unmarked at a corner, but headed the ball into the turf and wide from eight yards. Three...Thompson cut a cross back from the by-line, Hughes glanced a header at Chamberlain from the near post. For the first and only time, Coventry were allowed to find space in our area...and, as if surprised, they failed to take advantage. And, yeah, you know what happened next....

From a half-cleared corner, Micah Hyde knocked the ball out to Smith on the right wing. He beat a defender with ease, then pulled a cross back. Our eyes followed its trajectory, yet it seemed that the ball had smacked into the top corner even before we'd noticed Marcus Gayle's presence at the near post. Fine goal, and the ovation afforded to the scorer when he was substituted shortly afterwards demonstrated how massive the transformation of recent weeks has been.

And that was it, really. Except it wasn't. God, no. For Lee Cook - who, strangely, has slipped back into the first team squad almost unnoticed and yet had a vital impact here - was also replaced at the same time, by Anthony McNamee. Seventeen, looks about twelve. Tiny, with shorts pulled up to his nipples. Come back when you're old enough, son....

Bloody hell. First touch...dash onto a loose pass, rocket past a defender, slash a shot wide from the edge of the box. Second touch...beat two on the wing with a whoops-there-it-goes trick, clip in a perfect cross for Tommy Smith to head narrowly wide. Third touch...battle away for the ball against defenders, get muscled out, get it back, whoops-there-it-goes-again, dink in a cross that only gets cleared at full stretch. Fourth touch...whip in an evil cross from the right flank, watch it rip through the six yard box and force Hedman into a scrambling save. Not a bad little debut, then. He could do with being a bit more comfortable on the ball, though....

Whether or not the youngster fulfils what is obviously massive potential, there's something absolutely thrilling about watching an enthusiastic, stupendously skilful kid step onto the pitch for the first time. The flaws might appear over time, but the moment is always special in itself. Better - much better - than seeing your record signing make his debut, and a less expensive pleasure too, of course.

At the end of an immensely impressive ninety minutes, we were treated to one of those moments. A very Watford moment at the end of a very Watford performance, if you know what I mean.

It crowned the afternoon.