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01/02: Friendlies:

Pre-season friendly, 14/7/01
Aylesbury United 1(0)
Watford 2(1)
First Half : Baardsen, Panayi, Robinson, Ward, Vega, Nielsen, Vernazza, Hughes, Wooter, Smith, Helguson
Second Half : Chamberlain, Ifil, Cox, Page, Langston, Forde, Hyde, Swonnell, Matthews, Foley, Smart
Scorers: Helguson, Foley
Bastille Day
By Matt Rowson

Aylesbury may be the town of my birth, but even I would be forced to concede that any list of revolutions to have ignited there would be a short one. One native of Buckinghamshire's county town, John Hampden, was heavily involved in the English Civil War, apparently. And Roald Dahl comes from Aylesbury, although good as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was, "revolutionary" may be stretching the boundaries of credibility a little.

So the first match played by Watford under the guidance of Gianluca Vialli - on Bastille Day, appropriately enough - could possibly have been located in a venue more... experienced in events of such magnitude.

As it was, a couple of thousand onlookers were packed into Aylesbury's Buckingham Road ground - a decent enough stadium by the standards of Ryman League Division One, but possibly not the grandest arena that Luca has visited in his time. The sun shone half-heartedly, the flies and bugs persecuted the expectant masses. Queues formed at the refreshment stalls which, despite being dotted generously around the perimeter of the ground, seemed incapable of serving anybody. An ice cream salesman with either some previous experience or a morning brainwave (and quite possibly both) pulled his van up outside the ground to a low point on the perimeter fence and provided for the many inside.

Then, there he was. Looking as unlike any previous Watford manager as it's possible to look within the usual constraints of one head, only four limbs and so on. Striding across the pitch in a smart cream suit, surrounded by the press and photographers who probably exited the ground before the game kicked off, Luca is more Tom Cruise than he is Mike Keen.

Kick-off, finally. Watford were in the much-discussed and still sponsorless new home kit, which looked smarter than one dare have expected. Vialli's first team selection was announced over the tannoy beforehand, as were the eleven substitutions planned for half time.

A four-four-two formation, Panayi at right-back, Wooter wide on the left, Allan Nielsen wide on the right. And one change, already implemented, was immediately obvious.

Aylesbury hurtled enthusiastically after the ball from the kick-off, harrying and hurrying and chasing Watford down as one might have anticipated. But the ball stayed resolutely on the floor, even when pressure was being applied on the edge of our own penalty area. Watford's priority was keeping possession, which we did pretty effectively, even if Paolo Vernazza twice exposed his defence and his summer rustiness by giving the ball away on the edge of the box.

Throughout the first half, in fact, Watford enjoyed maybe 75% of the possession, forever passing, passing, passing. Whether the likes of Lee Hughes and John Hartson will permit such an approach in our own half when the real stuff starts is a key question, of course, as is the potential effectiveness of passing the ball indefinitely across the face of Burnley's defence. As it was, we gradually created chances against our hosts, if more by stealing yardage than anything else.

Of the new boys, with Filippo Galli and Patrick Blondeau awaiting international clearance and Stephen Glass and David Noble also absent, it was left to Stephen Hughes to grab our attention. In as much as it's possible to name a man of the match on the basis of 45-minute performances in our opening pre-season friendly, Hughes was it. We knew he could pass the ball, of course, as we knew about his close control. Most exciting for me was that this was combined with a willingness to battle for the ball. John Southern commented that the mark of a hard player is being able to take it as well as dish it out... only time will tell on that score. But this was a more than satisfying appetiser.

As for Ramon Vega, Watford's territorial dominance meant that he was rarely tested during his 45 minutes, but his isolated moments of involvement were handled with a decisiveness befitting of someone of his physical stature. On the downside, ex-Luton striker Dwight Marshall managed to skin him once amongst a spray of flying turf and soil, but given the length of the grass and the stage of pre-season we'll let him have one...

After a cagey opening twenty minutes, Watford began to create chances. Tommy Smith, hard-working if also slightly hampered by lack of sharpness, had the first, snapping a shot off the post from inside the area. Heidar was first to the follow-up, but was unable to convert.

Nordin, in an unaccustomed left-wing slot, was gliding past players as effortlessly as ever, but remained largely more entertaining than effective, a couple of corners and a tame shot dug out of the turf the sum product of his efforts.

When the goal came it was from Wooter's usual home on the right... a sublime ball from Hughes found Nielsen, whose equally satisfying arcing cross was met by a trademark thumping header from Heidar Helguson.

A further chance was spurned when Vega met a left-wing corner and the ball found itself at the feet of Hughes, who leant back a little too far and saw his shot clear the bar, the fence and the ice-cream van, still doing a decent trade behind the terrace.

And then, without any real warning, we eased up. Aylesbury began to create openings, Baardsen saving one tame shot from ex-Watford youth teamer Stuart Maynard, and then thanking the absence of a Russian linesman as Ceri Marshman's thumping drive hit the underside of the bar, bounced off the line and re-emerged. Marshman had spent much of the first half moaning at his team-mates' inadequacies, this time he had nowhere to lay blame but the heavens, where he stared in desparate disappointment.

Half-time. Off come the "first-team", on come the kids and the reserves, including a few with a point to prove. Of these, Allan Smart made his most defiantly. With a short haircut, aggressive sideburns, and looking a lot stockier than we've seen him before, Smart was the most single-minded player on the pitch. Hitting the post with one bullish early effort, he came close again when one of a number of weak clearances by the United keeper landed at his feet 30 yards out, his curling shot forcing a palming away for a corner. A clipped shot found the net off the post later in the half, an offside call depriving him of the goal his application deserved. If he does leave, our loss will very much be someone else's gain.

Of the other displaced members of last season's first team, Micah, sporting the armband, was tidy and involved if not dominating the game as we know he can. Cox became the first player to play 45 minutes at left back without using his left foot once... nonetheless his distribution was, as ever, effective, and his defensive shortcomings weren't exposed on this occasion. Page, dealt another snub by missing the armband, had a less confident game. This is a man who needs to sort his head out quickly.

Whether it was the increasing tiredness of our opponents or the extra motivation of the newly-labelled second string, or a combination of the two, our second half display seemed a lot more purposeful than that before the break. This was underlined when early in the half Jerel Ifil, the most impressive of the youngsters on view, stole possession and made the first of several aggressive forays up the right flank. Swonnell and Matthews, making their first appearances in what was nominally a first team fixture, both displayed plenty of ability as well as a couple of suggestions that they're not quite ready for the big time yet.

Just as Pete Fincham, calling from Worldnet, was diplomatically asking why we were only one-nil up against "a bunch of farmers", our hosts equalised, Chris Bangura forcing the ball home.

It was left to Dom Foley to rescue the scoreline. Foley's display summed up his enigma. The weak points of his game, such as attempting ambitious cross-field passes instead of the simpler lay-off, the attempts to dispossess an opponent by running into the back of them. And the sublime bits... a gorgeous left footed strike that slid gracefully across the face of goal and narrowly wide. And the winner... a fine ball from Hyde, he controlled effortlessly on his chest, drew the keeper and expertly, flawlessly flicked the ball over him with his outstep. Nice one our Dominic.

And so the game finished. Football is back, one way or another, which in itself just has to be a good thing. Whether Luca's revolution proves a success will inevitably prove a matter of opinion as much as a matter of wait-and-see. Luther Blissett for one, still criminally unemployed and quietly watching on at Buckingham Road, will have his own views.

It won't be dull, anyway...