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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 23/10/01
Nottingham Forest
By Ian Grant

Here we are, watching the First Division firework display. A few sizzling, ripping rockets, shooting high into the night sky and sometimes disappearing from view altogether. Teams on the way up - Wolves, West Brom, Forest. Back on the ground, we follow their arcing trajectories, with an occasional "ooh" and "aah" reserved for something really spectacular, like Jon Macken's stupendous half-volley from the edge of the centre circle for PNE at the weekend.

At the same time, the fading sparks and embers and remains of yesterday's rockets, some of which reached impressive heights and some of which barely scraped the tree tops, fall back down. Teams that have had their moments of glory - Bradford, Grimsby. They're forgotten already.

Oh, and Sheffield Wednesday. A damp catherine wheel that failed to go off last year, still nailed forlornly to a wonky post.

If we learnt anything from yesterday, it was that our league position doesn't lie. As our recent victories have demonstrated, we're much, much better than the teams who'll be struggling against relegation in May. As last night showed rather starkly, we're still some way behind the division's best sides.

We shouldn't be too distraught, really. Disappointed, yes. Frustrated, slightly. Distraught, no. For, although we now know that we've not come as far as we'd hoped, we have still made progress. In truth, we weren't that far below our recent peak here. We just need to adapt quicker, to be more flexible, to counter better sides, to keep our confidence when things aren't going perfectly. As everyone's rightly been saying, there's more work to be done. This was it, right here.

Inevitably, there's a temptation to exaggerate the brilliance of our opponents, thus disguising our own deficiencies. Nonetheless, Forest were excellent. In essence, they stuck to a plan that played to their strengths and denied all of ours. The defence was tall, strong and well-populated...and, crucially, it was also composed and competent, offering only rare opportunities to the hard-working Watford strikers. And, when the moment was right, the attack broke with real pace, letting itself down only with finishing that wasn't always of the highest quality. Against this, we struggled with decreasing confidence...and, eventually, we were overwhelmed.

Before I begin, I feel obliged to point out that I forgot my notebook and was forced to write my usual scribbles into various pages of my diary instead. I'd like to apologise in advance for any confusion this may cause.

Despite all that's been said, we began like a side that'd won three matches by decisive scorelines. As before, nifty movement throughout the team allowed us to move the ball about smartly and positively, spreading play around with great, imaginative flourishes. From a Patrick Blondeau centre, Tommy Smith headed at Ward; Neil Cox drove a ferocious cross through the six yard box after a delightful interchange on the right.

Tellingly, we weren't able to get behind the Forest defence. While utterly dominant in midfield, giving the forwards plenty of chances to run with the ball and setting the wide players up in good crossing positions, our opponents were refusing to play along. Where others have pushed up to play a risky offside game, Forest stayed deep and watched us draw pretty patterns in front of them. When the ball came close enough, it was played away without significant discomfort. At times, we still looked glorious...but the breakthrough was further away than it appeared.

After quarter of an hour, shortly after an appointment at the dentist for a couple of fillings and Gifton Noel-Williams' stretching header from a Stephen Glass cross had unluckily directed the ball wide, we managed to create our first, and only, clear-cut chance of the first half. Tommy Smith turned supplier once more, superbly blasting the ball across from the right to find Glass sneaking in at the far post...but Ward spread himself well to parry the well-struck volley and turn it behind.

Until now, we'd dealt with Forest efficiently, and they hadn't managed a single shot. But the feeling of security, with everyone waiting patiently for us to grab the goal to set us on our way again, didn't last. Gradually, the pace of John and Johnson began to threaten, the breaks no longer faltering around the halfway line. True, twenty-five minutes might've elapsed before Johnson got goal-side of Paul Robinson in receiving Jenas' pass, leaving the defender tip-toeing behind him to avoid bringing him down and sending an angled shot skidding narrowly wide. From that point on, however, they looked the more potent side, capable of turning limited possession into not-so-limited goals.

So, Jenas was on the end of some neat passing on the edge of the box, chesting the ball past an opponent and sending a low shot bouncing a foot past Espen Baardsen's left-hand post. Five minutes later, another swift break ended with Johnson's curling shot from twenty yards, again missing the target by feet rather than yards. Johnson turned Cox, then speedily dribbled into the area and drove over via a deflection from Robinson's shin. In injury time, Brennan's adventurous burst into the final third was robbed of glory by a weak finish, just as it seemed that he might escape the final defender.

And, while all of this was happening, we were losing that sense of headstrong purpose. Occasionally, individuals produced moments of sparkle...but, as a team, there was so much less of the crisp passing and darting movement that we rely on. Instead, we became hesitant and self-conscious, too aware that we'd failed to score during our earlier spell of superiority and too vulnerable to the decisive attacks of the opposition. For the last fifteen minutes, during which nothing much went anywhere near to the Forest goal, we yearned for half-time. Still, at least we had Steve's birthday to celebrate while we waited.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Aero (plain).
Reason: Continuity.
Level of success: On reflection, I feel that something with a bit extra - caramel, perhaps, or some nuts - might've been required on this occasion.

Whatever else was wrong, we stuck at it here. Despite being repeatedly punctured at the back (and Espen Baardsen was called into action almost immediately, poking the ball away from the feet of Stern John as he broke through), we kept plugging away, with Noel-Williams working particularly hard in the somewhat laborious link-up play. The fluency had long gone, and with it the overlapping, attacking use of width. But we were persistent, at least.

In the end, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the goal came from one of the rare occasions when there weren't Forest defenders standing shoulder-to-shoulder with every Watford forward. Five minutes after Stephen Hughes' trundling shot had been allowed to go wide by Ward, Stephen Hughes hurtled forward from the centre circle, uniquely catching Forest with too many men committed forward. With a tidy pass, he picked out Noel-Williams to his right. The first-time shot was struck reasonably cleanly...but it went at a nice height for Ward to dive and block, bringing a great groan of disappointment from the Rookery at the casual waste of our best chance of the match. Gifton, however, wasn't listening and had already reacted first to retrieve the ball and prod it back towards goal. This time, it got past Ward, albeit rather timidly, and nestled in the bottom corner. At last.

Having struggled so hard to establish that lead, it lasted just a few minutes. The equaliser came not from one of those scything counter-attacks, but from a moment of defensive misfortune. To lay the blame for this one at Neil Cox's door would be harsh, in all honesty. As he went to clear on the right, John hurled himself in to block. Usually, that would've resulted in the ball clattering into the Lower Rous, a round of applause for the Forest player's efforts, and nothing more. This time, the rebound went in the other direction, straight to Johnson on the edge of the six yard box - he overcame his momentary surprise to smash a shot past the helpless Baardsen.

After another visit to the dentist, things continued much as before. Still we were unable to penetrate that solid, determined Forest rearguard; still John and Johnson prowled around in our half, looking for any opening. Tommy Smith hooked the ball at Ward from six yards after Noel-Williams had done well to retrieve Blondeau's mis-hit cross, and instantly realised that the chance was better than it had first appeared. At the other end, Baardsen pulled off a brilliant reflex save when Johnson's mazy run ended with Prutton driving furiously goalwards from inside the area. John netted on the rebound, but was flagged offside. Smith's low curler didn't carry enough power to beat Ward, who saved comfortably down to his right.

We would've settled for a point, I think. To a great extent, we'd been out-played by our opponents, staying in the game through tenacity and commitment rather than any great poise or elegance. A draw would've been fine, really. But then John received a cross from the right, holding the ball at the near post. Whether Cox or Galli was behind him was impossible to tell from so far away, but he was given enough room to turn, after which the outcome was inevitable. Although Baardsen got a touch, the ball ended up in the bottom corner.

Did we blow it? No, not really. There was no collapse here, merely a constant vulnerability from the latter stages of the first half onwards. Having taken the lead, we were no better or worse than before - it just happened that the goals that had been threatened by Forest for so long came once they'd gone behind. It made the defeat much harder to accept, certainly. But, bar the opening twenty minutes, it would be difficult to argue that we were the better side and deserving of victory. In truth, the visitors created enough decent openings for our evening to have been much worse.

That said, there's really no cause for anguish. Having emerged from the depths of despair, and found a system which at least enables us to stuff some of the teams in this division, it would be ridiculous to suffer another loss of confidence, fuelled by angst and animosity in the stands.

We lost to a very good team. We must learn to beat very good teams. Neither of these facts is particularly horrific.