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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 20/01/02
Manchester City
By Nick Grundy

Well, I had my amusing introduction for this game all worked out. It was going to run something like, "The joys of being on telly, eh? We had fireworks before the game yesterday - great smoking things which fired little coloured balls up over the roof of the stand where they presumably exploded for the benefit of the viewers at home. Personally, I was hoping we could have produced fireworks after kick-off, not just before it." Unfortunately, I can no longer use this as the side Watford put out were actually significantly better than the fireworks...

We started with a strange-looking selection once again. Initially, I assumed we were playing wingbacks, with Galli, Vega and Cox across the middle, Doyley and Glass up the flanks, Nielsen, Hyde, and Okon across the middle, and Pennant and Smith up front. Given that we were rockier than AC/DC for most of the first half (excuse crap musical pun), it's perhaps good in the short term that it was stymied by Cox injuring himself. When it happened, I prepared another line to do with "Our defence shorn of Robbo and now Cox too doesn't bear thinking about", but enough players stood up and were counted today that I can't use that either. At this point, anyway, Luca brought Helguson on, and I assume we went to four in defence, with Glass dropping back and Helguson, inexplicably, playing wide right. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and there's no denying Pennant's usefulness up front, but isn't he supposed to be a right winger and Helguson a striker? But more on this later.

Anyway, as already mentioned, we looked distinctly uncomfortable in the first half. City seemed to have picked Doyley out as a weak link, and constantly attempted to find the vicious-looking Tiatto. To his credit, Lloyd put in a performance of genuine quality both defensively, going forward, and in his distribution - he was as near flawless, in a defence of which that absolutely is not an applicable adjective, as damn it. However, while the right side wasn't a problem, the left side and the centre both were. It wasn't that Vega, Galli, or Glass were particularly bad - City just swarmed all over us. Wright-Phillips looked especially impressive, Berkovic and Benarbia floated around threateningly, and only a few poor readings of through balls by the enormous Goater-Wanchope pairing denied City a couple of goals.

Really that was the pattern for most of the first half. City would come forward, cut through our defence as if they were attempting a sort of giant footballing origami (opportunity for second awful pun of report, on "doyley", belatedly realised), but somehow contrived not to score. Most obvious of these chances was when Goater contrived to spoon the ball over the bar from all of three yards after a corner had been headed on. Alec made one outstanding stop, beating a savage low drive from Horlock away low to his left, and apart from that City had a few corners which were either headed just over, half-cleared to City players unmarked on the edge of the box for them to miss narrowly, or were put behind for additional corners. It's games like this that make you realise the value of Dan Lester's match-reports-by-numbers.

That said, Watford weren't lying down and dying. At times, with the defence holding firm and the forwards, especially Pennant, showing wonderful movement, control,and invention, we looked like the sort of side who could soak up pressure indefinitely and score a couple on the break. Not like the sort of side who were yet comfortable doing it, but Christ it was an improvement on some of the ghastly, pretentious, moronic football we've seen recently, and it's exactly the sort of side we should be.

So it was that a beautiful run from Helguson through the middle (NB - middle) was picked out by Micah. Heidar flicked it up, baffling the defender and briefly himself, before squaring it across a retreating City defence for Tommy Smith to smash into the bottom corner via Carlo Nash's fingertips. Delirium. Stuart Pearce looked murderous, and Richard Dunne continued to look as if he'd eaten several members of Manchester City's reserve team. It's a point worth making here that, for all Man City's fancy football and extravagant skills, the heart of their team is essentially a pack of vicious, nasty, deeply competitive choppers, albeit ones with footballing ability. Even Wright-Phillips put some crunching challenges in, and once they cottoned on to the fact we were hitting them on the break, they were quick to adapt and begin bringing players down to stop it - one savage hench by Horlock on Smith, which left him down for a couple of minutes, went unpunished despite a far less vicious tackle by Glass having produced a card earlier. Anyway, point being that I'm not censuring the City players - it's an effective tactic - and perhaps we could do with learning how to "foul responsibly", i.e. without getting booked and sent off.

Anyway, after the goal City continued to swarm at us, and, shortly afterwards, they equalised. A ball came across from the left hand side, the two defenders had inexplicably rushed back all the way into the goalmouth, and Wanchope, unmarked eight yards out, hit a curving half-volley back across Alec Chamberlain and into the corner. One-one.

At this point, we began to toughen up a bit. Vega, who'd clumsily bundled someone over early in the half, grew visibly in stature, Galli was quietly efficient, Okon started tidying up the loose balls, and Heidar, bless him, was constantly tracking back when Doyley went forward and vice-versa. We reached half-time shaken but still in one piece.

After the break, we were really extremely good - we applied pressure early, kept it on, and didn't give them a look-in - I can't think of a single noteworthy chance City had in the second half, and Galli and Vega were sufficiently good in the centre that Wanchope and Goater were reduced to chasing diagonal balls into the corner. Okon, in particular, was extremely impressive, reminding me of a less spectacular but marginally tidier Johnno. In addition, he knows when to carry the ball and when to release it, and that added a dimension to our defensive play that hasn't been there before. Doyley also led the way in providing quality ball forward where appropriate, and lamping the ball into the stands where not. One moment, when he chased after Goater onto a low, fast cross, and put it behind from the six yard box, stands out.

Elsewhere, we created a flurry of chances. Glass fired a beautiful free kick in which Nash desperately palmed away, a clinical drive from Okon was again beaten clear, Vega was narrowly wide after he brought down a corner and fired in a half-volley, Vega again headed a good chance wide of the post, and Hyde, after excellent work from Pennant down the right, took a touch and allowed Nash to claim when he should perhaps have hit it first time. The cream of the crop was when Nielsen played Pennant in down the right. He advanced, was pushed wide by the lumbering Dunne, who at this point in the game looked like he might at any moment cough up a couple of extra players from deep in his expanse of gut, and fired a stinging shot across goal which Nash deflected across the face, where Tiatto, attempting to run it clear, was inches away from being embarrassed by Tommy Smith's lunge. Those are just the good chances.

So it continued, with the defence prone to stupid errors (as when Galli passed to Berkovic thirty yards out) but firm overall, Helguson tracking back to armlock Wanchope or Goater into touch with the ball when needed, and Hyde finding time and space even amid the ferocity of City's midfield. Pennant, although he faded slightly in the second half, deserves a mention just for the sheer quality of his close control - an absolute joy to behold.

Then, disaster. Benarbia clumped a hopeful diagonal ball in from the left flank, but Helguson read it well and chested it down inside the box. As Chamberlain advanced to claim, he showed the clinical touch of a goalscorer by rapping it back towards Alec just firmly enough that, desperately twisting back on himself, he couldn't quite reach it in time to stop it settling in the far corner. Heidar looked devastated, and there was an air of stunned silence around the ground until the City fans realised what had happened. Now, I know hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I did find myself wondering again why we had a right winger playing up front and a striker playing right midfield, because no midfielder on God's good earth would have played the backpass the way Heidar did, and any striker with instinct would have done.

From then on, Heidar looked gutted. His head was right down, he showed flashes of impending violence, and left the field in tears. I wanted to go over and say, hey, don't worry, there have been games this season when you've been the only player on the pitch who's let this observer retain a modicum of pride in his team precisely because you have looked like you care about the club rather than just your wage packet. Most of that was unfair on everyone on display yesterday, despite the fact that we got precisely no points from the encounter when I'd have begrudged City a draw. That said, doubts remain over the hunger of these players, over their genuine desire to achieve rather than merely earn. Of the honourable exceptions, I'd put Heidar very close to the top.

"Doubts remain", in fact, would make a suitable refrain for the whole game. I didn't want to go yesterday - I had to force myself to - but at the end, despite the result, I was glad I did. However, you can only take heart from playing well and losing so many times before it becomes difficult to stomach, and, with this calibre of team and with this level of outlay, if we play well we should be winning. Doubts persist over Vialli's persistent playing people out of position, and his seemingly inexplicable squad rotation, too. However, this game deserved better than to end on that note, so - we were good yesterday. Let's start winning some games with that sort of performance.