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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/02/02
Grimsby Town
A game of one half
By Ian Grant

Ah, this was better. Was it? Or not? Does it matter?

Maybe, maybe, hopefully.

As Matt has already noted, Grimsby Town are very relegated and that, in all honesty, is a bit of a shame. That we ought to be able to beat them and beat them handsomely isn't really a point of discussion, especially having seen them play...but, of course, they're no worse than the dismal sides that we spent the majority of last season dropping points against. Huddersfield. Shudder.

With our confidence dragging around our ankles and patience running out, anything might've happened here. Anything didn't happen here, which is a sign of...well, "progress" would be too strong a word. "Survival" would be a better one, perhaps.

Were it not for a strange kind of shrieking terror that visited us whenever we broke towards the Grimsby goal in the second half, causing us to play final balls with the care of a teenager discarding a beer can and waste chances as if they were free lottery tickets, this would've been a rousing, thumping victory. Still, at this point, any kind of victory is welcome, any brief respite from frustration is a much needed joy. It might be the start of something, it might be the start of nothing...but, hell, it was a day that wasn't ruined by football, which is nice enough. For now, that is - we expected better at the start of the season, just as we expect better in the future.

Comparisons with Grimsby are entirely pointless, obviously. Apart from the fact that a quick glance at the small group of Mariners fans in the Vic Road end offered a useful and timely insight into what real misery, rather than our pale, sorry imitation, looks like. We might be under-achieving terribly, but we'll still be around to give it another go next time. Conspired against and defeated, you rather fear that Grimsby's next visit to these parts might be a while away.

In essence, this was a game of forty-five minutes, of a first half that we dominated and eventually secured. The rest, while rather more entertaining and lively than what had preceded it, was completely stupid, comprising a bizarre second goal, a welcome bit of bad tempered shoving and slapping, and a very great deal of remarkably wayward attacking. And not much else, really. It was a million miles away from anything that might get us back into the playoff picture or anything that a channel that people actually watch might want to televise...but, hey, we were winning, and we were showing no signs of not winning, so few complaints here.

The first period, although tremendously dull, saw the sun peeking through the clouds at last. For the mood was quietly positive - warm applause for Marcus Gayle, in a "never mind, son" kinda way - and the players' start followed suit, with fine early crosses from Lee Cook, Jermaine Pennant and Patrick Blondeau. Somehow, we seemed to sense that this Grimsby side was even more forlorn and bedraggled, that we needed only to summon up a small measure of form and confidence to do away with them. Or, alternatively, just to give the ball to Jermaine Pennant and let him do it all.

Really, there might've been more goals. At this point, we attacked with more caution than later...but with a greater purpose, as if our sense of direction relied on easily spotted defensive landmarks that disappeared as Grimsby chased the game in its final stages. From a cleared corner, Pennant twisted about delightfully and sent a shot whistling over. The winger appears to be getting better with each game, the competitive practice sharpening his skills, and he was far too good for pedestrian opponents on this occasion - his wonderful run to the by-line set up Gifton Noel-Williams for a stooping near post header on eleven minutes, foiled by Coyne's instinctive block.

After eighteen minutes, Paul Robinson's lovely lofted pass down the left picked out Lee Cook, and Coyne fended off Noel-Williams' potent shot from the resulting cross. Attacks were sporadic, yet Grimsby offered little - a couple of corners midway through the half, artless attempts from distance by Campbell and Pouton, a tame free kick from Gallimore - and we could afford to be a bit patient. That said, it wasn't terribly exciting, and you rather hoped that someone might suggest an early start to the half-time penalty shoot-out at Alec's end to keep everyone entertained while they waited for a goal.

The charitable will give Marcus Gayle an assist, as it was his powerful turn and rifled shot that won the corner - the low, accurate finish, belted towards the bottom corner, betrayed no lack of confidence, and Coyne's one-handed save was quite brilliant. Still, it was time that we scored. From the flag-kick, nobody picked up Paul Robinson, who charged towards goal and just about managed to take the ball with him, first shoving it in the right direction with his chest and then lashing it enthusiastically into the roof of the net. As always with Robbo, anyone who hadn't identified the scorer could do so easily from the sheer vigour of the celebration.

While territorially even for the most part, a single goal lead probably didn't do justice to our superiority in the final third in the first half. A second might've come from an excellent move in the forty-first minute, Micah Hyde sliding the ball over to Pennant on the right, Noel-Williams' flying header sending the whipped cross just over. Improbably, however, Grimsby could've equalised in injury time, as Campbell stormed past Robinson and Alec Chamberlain somehow managed to palm the cross away from one striker and out of reach of another. A moment of relief, as a lapse in concentration has so often, and so recently, undone much good work.

The second half began with a lapse in, well, pretty much everything. We scored again, and that much is straightforward and simple. The manner in which we scored, however, will take some describing. It started with sublime trickery from Pennant on the right wing, drawing defenders to him and deftly flicking the ball through into the space they'd vacated. There, Patrick Blondeau was offside and Gifton Noel-Williams was onside. The linesman's flag went up, so we complained at him, on the grounds that the offside player had retreated and left the onside player to take the ball towards goal. And, in more polite terms, we complained at Gifton for risking a booking by sending the ball drifting past Coyne and into the net, despite play having been stopped yonks ago.

Except it hadn't. The referee, it seemed, had indicated that play should continue, and that the flag against Blondeau was in error. Which was quite true, although you'd have wanted to put a fair distance between you and the Grimsby players before pointing that out to them. Rather more like the distance between the middle of the Rookery and the halfway line, for example, than the distance between Pennant and Gallimore, who were both dismissed for a clumsy exchange of kicks and slaps shortly afterwards.

With the exception of a mountainous, authoritative performance from Wayne Brown - which, among many other, quieter things, included a near-successful attempt at shoulder-charging a forward into the lower Rous from about twenty yards away from the touchline - there wasn't all that much about the rest that was exceptional. Rather, we found that two dismissals had left us with great acres of space to play in, yet soon discovered that those dismissals included the only player capable of exploiting that space. Grimsby were very visibly annoyed, and forgot about their woes for a while.

Still, it's hard to believe that we didn't score in the remaining minutes. Even though the final ball often lacked conviction and the art of firm decision making in the last third seemed to desert us entirely, one of the chances should've been taken. Against a better team, it might've been fatal; against Grimsby, it proved to be merely annoying. Indeed, when Coyne had to make his only significant save of the half, it was from his own player, as Raven met Gayle's cross and was fortunate to head straight at his keeper from six yards. Jevons belted a half-volley over from Noel-Williams' miscued clearance, Stephen Glass curled a shot wide from the edge of the box, Boulding headed weakly at Chamberlain.

Before his departure, Gifton Noel-Williams, one of those whose confidence hasn't dipped recently, seemed the most likely scorer. From Robinson's glorious ball over the top, he was unable to shrug off the determined Raven and eventually shot well wide under challenge from the defender. Then, after Nielsen had driven tamely at Coyne, Glass broke down the left, cut the ball back to Noel-Williams and, having stepped neatly inside his marker, he smashed the ball wide while falling. All the while, Grimsby laboured in their attempts to respond, although Chamberlain was required to make a save from Boulding's awkward cross-shot and to collect Jevons' firmly struck free kick.

With Tommy Smith's arrival, our hopes of a third goal increased. In fact, he failed to make the most of three fine openings. Once, he managed to round Coyne after bursting through, yet took the ball too wide to do anything but win a corner. Then he somehow managed to smash Hyde's low cross over the bar from four yards. Finally, in injury time, he pounced on another lovely pass from Hyde and excitably sent a shot swerving high and wide. When Allan Nielsen bashed a shot into the Rookery when he ought to have tried a cross to waiting colleagues, you rather knew that we weren't going to add to the lead. Not a disaster, especially as Grimsby failed to make the most of a quickly-taken free kick that skidded through the six yard box late on, but still a disappointment.

Wins please crowds, though. Whether we performed as well as we had for most of the match against Burnley is debatable...and largely irrelevant. Perhaps this'll kick-start something. Perhaps it won't. Whatever, every Watford fan, whether pessimist, optimist or quiet observer, loves to see Robbo on his triumphant lap of honour. It seems to get longer each time - he was still bouncing across in front of the Rous after everyone else had gone down the tunnel. For all I know, he's still on the pitch now....

Daft, yes. But fun too...and, right now, fun is what we need.