Like it matters...
By Ian Grant
It doesn't take much for it to matter again.
At seven o'clock, debate is raging in the Estcourt. Whatever his mistakes, I can't help feeling a little
sorry for Luca Vialli, who has so far failed to create a team that can speak on his behalf and is therefore in
the position of having every word in every sentence in every interview picked apart. Personally, I'm thoroughly
bored by it all...so many opinions, so many personalities, so much guff (and I include this guff, of course)
where there should be football.
At seven o'clock, I'd have shrugged my shoulders at the thought of a two-one win. Another three points to
lift us up to eleventh before an inevitable defeat takes us back to fourteenth, which isn't exactly what we had
in mind when Graham Taylor said that we might become a "yo-yo" club. Write about it, forget it, report back
At a quarter to nine, Allan Nielsen darted in from the right wing to collect Tommy Smith's neat pass and steer
the ball past Green, doubling the Watford lead and crowning a very fine first half display. Get in.
And there, in the Rookery, my fist was clenched hard in celebration and the roar was ripping my throat. And
it mattered again.
From nowhere in particular and for no apparent reason, here appeared arguably our most impressive, most
effective league performance of the season. It didn't quite match up to that monstrous encounter with Charlton
in the Worthington Cup, perhaps...but it was made of the same stuff. In the first half, we were urgent and
penetrative; in the second, we were fiercely competitive and stubborn in the face of an attempted Norwich
revival. It mattered, because anything less than a victory - our victory, not something distant and
vague and impersonal - would've been a complete bloody travesty.
At this late stage, it's hard to believe that we could suddenly get it so right. Not in a relaxed,
end-of-season way either. No, this was a hard, punishing game of full-blooded commitment that the weak,
tentative, tiresome Watford would've backed away from and lost badly. This time, we were so hungry for it,
so eager in the approach and so powerful and so determined in the execution. Norwich, who needed the result
more, were simply out-fought over the ninety minutes. Oh, and we played some classy football when the
Basically, we rose to the challenge as never before. That's both a criticism of previous performances, as
even those that've impressed were mostly made to look lightweight last night, and a source of encouragement
for the future. Yes, it needs to be repeated more often. Everyone knows that. The point is, however, that
regular repetition would turn us into a serious force in the First Division. In short, teams that play like
this every week get promoted, without requiring any of the luck that the manager feels has deserted us.
Whatever we might've thought, it seems that it's not beyond us.
From the start, we were visibly positive. Any nerves began to fade as Wayne Brown, whose nonsense-free
defending has been just as refreshing as the return to form of Neil Cox earlier in the season, muscled his
way out of a couple of tight situations with David Nielsen. Notably, Marcus Gayle's prowling presence had an
edge about it, while Tommy Smith darted hither and thither in his shadow. Gradually, we began to play
football too and found a perfect balance between aggression and finesse, a balance that was to give us a
decisive lead by the interval.
After eight minutes, Stephen Glass drifted the ball into the box from deep on the left, looking for the head
of Gayle. He found it. The leap was immense, the header cushioned over the flailing arms of the advancing
Green. All that remained was for Micah Hyde to tuck the ball into the empty net. By no means the prettiest
goal that we've scored this season, yet, in many ways, the differences between the two goals - one basic and
direct, the other elaborate and crafted - summed up the variation in our play. For a change, we had more than
Although Nedergaard floated a free kick over the wall and over the bar shortly afterwards, we went on to
dominate almost entirely. In the quality of the crossing, especially from Neil Cox, and the readiness to
shoot, our growing confidence found realisation. The marauding Allan Nielsen slashed a shot across goal
and wide after a defensive slip; Tommy Smith's header from a fine Gayle cross didn't carry enough power to
beat the keeper. And here we were, frightening the opposition sufficiently that the ball nearly ended up
in the net from a goalmouth scramble at a corner that didn't seem to involve any yellow shirts at all.
The improvement continued. A couple of snap-shots from Smith - one high and wide, the other at a comfortable
height for Green to save - and we'd already far, far exceeded the number of goal attempts from a week before. As
a lovely move developed down the right, with one-touch passing finished by a sensational flick from Smith to
release Gayle, the more familiar groaning and wailing was replaced by sounds of joyful appreciation. Even when
Gayle sent his cross sailing into the Rookery at the end of it all, he was greeted by a disappointed sigh rather
than a torrent of abuse.
Amid all this, Norwich had seen plenty of the ball and been able to do virtually nothing with it. Even if various
defenders were unable to out-jump Roberts, their diligence in ensuring that the second ball was dispatched to the
half-way line without a moment's dallying was commendable. By and large, our opponents got nowhere, hustled
out of midfield and bustled away from our penalty area. This time, we weren't messing around. We showed the kind of commitment to the cause that
quickly bridges gaps between players and supporters. For me, it took a little less than half an hour.
Around that time, David Nielsen met Fleming's cross from the right and sent a header looping onto the
goal stanchion with Alec Chamberlain back-peddling in a slight panic. The luck held long enough for Roberts
to be flagged offside after Nielsen had cut in from the left and run dangerously across the face of the
defence. A tight decision, I'd guess, but the referee's whistle had already gone when the striker put the
ball into the net. Nervous moments.
These were also rare moments, though. Throughout, when the tide threatened to turn against us, our reaction
was swift and decisive. This time, the response involved mighty crosses that came crashing into the Norwich
penalty area from Neil Cox on the right and then Tommy Smith on the left, and offered Marcus Gayle a headed
opportunity that he rather wasted. Still, this was so much better, so much more spirited. Rather than
turning up out of habit, you'd spend your week looking forward to seeing us play like this.
The second goal was perfect in all respects. In its conception, splendid passing around the right of midfield
with Norwich in forlorn pursuit. In its delivery, a firm header in-field from the increasingly powerful Marcus
Gayle, followed by a neat pass through by Tommy Smith. In its finish, Allan Nielsen driving into the area
and arcing the ball over and around Green with the outside of his right boot. In its scorer, as Nielsen had
been the most outstanding performer of these forty-five minutes, full of energy, intensity and intelligence.
And in its timing, obviously. After Roberts had clouted a half-volley over the bar, the whistle blew. The
ovation was richly deserved.
Although the hype will centre around the first half performance, what followed was every bit as good. For,
as you'd expect, Norwich came out on a bit of a mission...albeit a mission that depended on Clint Easton, given
a rather warmer reception than on most of his appearances for Watford. Rather than buckling as so often, the
reaction was bullish and belligerent, shutting the visitors out even more effectively than before. The game
might've degenerated into a chaotic scrap, full of hacking and wellying and very little football, but we
refused to cave in.
Really, there was relatively little goalmouth action. Nevertheless, it was an absorbing contest between those
in front and those chasing to catch up. Early on, after Stephen Glass had cut in from the wing and scuffed
a shot at Green's near post, three incidents summed up the excellence of the display rather nicely. Each took
place in the opposition half, each offered a massive contrast to recent disappointments. There was Tommy Smith
thundering into a challenge, and playing the ball off his opponent for a Watford throw to applause from the
bench. There was Marcus Gayle, battling so hard to retain possession against a whole heap of challenges and
then sweeping a pass across the field to a colleague to applause from every corner of the ground. Finally,
Gayle again, turning on the right wing and pushing the ball past his marker to charge onto, unlucky not to
catch it before it crossed the goalline. This was stirring stuff. This was what we want.
Norwich did score. Don't be fooled, though. Such was our stubborn refusal to let them pass, it was their
only chance of the half. It came from Paul Okon, industrious throughout, losing possession in the centre circle,
starting a break that finished with Nedergaard running free on the right and crossing for Nielsen to get ahead of his
marker to volley goalwards at the near post. Even then, he was foiled by an outstanding save from Chamberlain, diving
to his left to stop the ball with one hand. Unfortunately, it dropped for Roberts, who scored from close
How many times have we seen this? How many times have we crumbled under such pressure? Not here, not now. Rather,
the response was even more intense, and the tension as the match reached its conclusion was due to the possibility of
terrible injustice rather than a sense of impending doom. Defensively, we were absolutely superb, battering
the Norwich forwards out of the way whenever the ball came close to the danger area, chasing and hassling
all over the pitch. The work-rate was quite phenomenal. Although there was little style, it was a mighty show of strength from a side that
has only occasionally suggested that it's capable of such things.
Perhaps we might've sealed it. Twice, substitute Crichton saved from Tommy Smith - once comfortably enough, when
Smith had darted in from the wing and shot low; once with rather more desperation, diving down to flick an effort
from the edge of the box around the post. Even in injury time, when we ought to have been clinging on,
Jamie Hand's wobbling drive woke Crichton up. In the end, it didn't matter. We were so secure, such a brick
wall at the back, that Norwich were frustrated and impotent long before the final whistle.
A massive win, then. Not because it has any bearing on the outcome of the season, obviously. Just
because it was massive, a performance of intimidating stature and vast presence. Commanding is
probably the word that I'm searching for. Norwich are a decent side at this level and they played well
enough. They weren't stuffed so much as trampled.
It felt great, a source of pride and passion. It felt like it mattered.
Let this be the start of something. Please.