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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 09/03/02
Crystal Palace
The end of an era
By Ian Grant

Rich in symbolism, this marvellous afternoon....

At its start, a rather feeble turn-out of Watford fans - in either this season's away performances or our recent record at Selhurst Bloody Park, it'd be hard to find a logical reason to swap nineteen quid for a seat in the Arthur Wait Stand - was taunted and ridiculed by the ever-charming locals. "Why don't you all sit together?" they queried, looking at expanses of empty seats and occasional clumps of people. By the end, the same chants were being cheekily returned to the rapidly emptying home stands.

It was that kind of day. The Hornets seized an opportunity as they so rarely have, a bitter wind gave way to bright spring sunshine, and countless painful memories were buried. In the absence of Kenilworth Road, this place has taken on a significance beyond mere results, a kind of terrible and all-too-regular reminder of how miserable football can be...and how dismal Watford can be. In a small way, this was the end of an era.

It felt like a massive burden had been lifted. The walk back to the station, so often the stage for great out-pourings of despair or equally great sullen, silent sulks, was taken with an extra bounce in the stride and an occasional involuntary grin. On a personal level, this was a moment that I've waited a long, long time for, that I'd given up faith in. A moment of real, pure joy. For the first time, Luca Vialli's Watford did something here.

They gave something back, in other words. It was an absolutely brilliant performance, overflowing with commitment and passion and all those other things that cause fans to love their team rather than merely support it. They played for us, they played for each other. There were no dividing lines.

In the last ten days, they've set a standard. Even the frustration of the defeat to Crewe now seems like a useful test - whereas previous set-backs have sent confidence and form plummeting again, the reaction has been unexpected and stunning this time. Perfection is still some distance away, but this is a side that's making a case for itself and its manager, that no longer has need of apologies and excuses. Suddenly, the future looks so much brighter. Suddenly, you want to find out what's going to happen.

Really, this was a classic away victory. Not even the most confident Watford fan could claim that we "soaked up pressure" in the first half, as there were several instants in which your head began to fall in expectation of the net bulging behind Alec Chamberlain. Nevertheless, our defending was ferocious, repeatedly closing what appeared to be gaping openings. So often, Palace simply weren't allowed to convert their chances. Then, when they tired and their concentration wandered, we picked our moment and hit them very, very hard in surprise response.

The ludicrous complaints of Trevor Francis, utterly graceless as always, only add to the pleasure of the victory. He's quite right that the conditions were atrocious and excluded the possibility of quality football, of course...but he conveniently neglects to mention that they were arguably worse for the visitors, who spent the first half attempting to play into a fierce wind that subsided after the interval. As for the pitch...well, even if Trev's forgotten, Alec Chamberlain will certainly remember that the rutted surface was nearly responsible for an extraordinary goal in the second half, when the ball failed to bounce and ran through his legs.

We brushed debate aside here, paying no attention to anything that was beyond our influence. The first period was almost entirely dominated by Palace, even if Tommy Smith produced the game's first goal attempt by sprinting into the penalty area from the left and forcing a two-handed parry from Clarke with a well-struck half-volley. After that, however, we struggled to get the ball forward with any accuracy. The strikers worked hard, yet had little material to fashion anything from. Rapidly, the defence came under pressure. Its response was truly remarkable.

Of the chances that came and went with terrifying regularity, few were missed and many were rudely denied. Typically, and despite the award of a goal-kick, Morrison's curling shot was deflected wide by a decisive defensive boot after four minutes. So often, someone flung themselves in the way of a goal-bound effort, thinking of nothing but the common cause. Otherwise, the magnificent Chamberlain was the last defender in every sense, as when he blocked an angled shot from Gray shortly afterwards.

Although Tommy Smith fired over on the break after a defensive slip, we had little control over an untidy game. But the fight was there to compensate, preventing Palace from capitalising on their wind-assisted superiority. After twenty minutes, Gray's cross from the left fell to Morrison, who appeared certain to score from the edge of the six yard box...until Chamberlain flung himself bravely at his feet to block. Even then, the ball came out to Mullins and again the opening goal seemed imminent...until Chamberlain picked himself up and pulled off a brilliant save to keep out the shot. This was the essence of the performance, an unflinching facing of any situation, a refusal to accept anything as inevitable.

So, yes, we should've been behind by the interval. Equally, however, we did everything in our power to ensure that it didn't happen - luck only occasionally entered the equation. We survived everything, including a lengthy farce of a free kick from six yards after Chamberlain had collected what the referee saw as a backpass. That was blocked by Filippo Galli, who did the same to deny Black in heroic fashion after the Palace player had wriggled his way through the debris from a corner. Again, the rebound fell to Mullins, and this time it was Gavin Mahon's turn to hurl himself in the way. From the Italian veteran to the impressive new signing, everybody was attacking the game with the same full-blooded intensity.

By this point, anyone with a heart wouldn't have denied us a bit of good fortune. It came when Wayne Brown swiped air in attempting to clear a cross from the right after forty minutes. As the ball unexpectedly sped across goal, Freedman couldn't react quickly enough and, to a gasp of relief from the Watford fans, deflected it wide with his knee. That was a moment of luck, without doubt...but, despite the error, it gave the excellent Brown another opportunity to impress, as he left the mistake behind and was back to his efficient, functional best almost instantly. Increasingly, these players exhibit an admirable attitude.

At nil-nil, we would've given them a standing ovation at half-time. They would've deserved one. We would've admired the sheer determination of the display thus far, and hoped for a greater attacking impact with the wind at our backs in the second half. Yeah, we would've been very happy.

Instead, we were suddenly ecstatic. From nowhere, and from the left wing, Stephen Glass sent a cross flying into the box. It missed Tommy Smith at the near post, yet found Allan Nielsen bounding in at the far to belt the ball enthusiastically past Clarke from six yards. One chance, one goal. We've rarely been so astonishingly powerful in our own penalty area, and we've never pounced so eagerly and decisively on the chances that have come our way. There was something thrillingly ruthless about this, something fierce and predatory.

Delicious as the lucky chocolate was, there seems no purpose in breaking the report at the interval. The team took no notice, after all. Rather than waiting for a Palace surge, they simply savaged them from the off, ripping into them and doubling the lead almost instantly. Watching it, shielding our eyes from the sun as the storm subsided metaphorically and meteorologically, we could hardly take it in. It was splendid.

After two minutes, excellence from Gavin Mahon, who looks a very useful player indeed, to gain some space on the left and whip a cross into the near post. From our vantage point, it always appeared that Clarke was going to gather the ball comfortably...except that Marcus Gayle's boot got there first to stab it into the net. The entire team merged in celebration in front of the jubilant visiting fans. Just another meaningless game at the end of a dead season, then.

It should've been more. That's the only criticism, and a minor one. Tommy Smith blazed over from the penalty spot after a wonderful touch had taken him away from defenders and into a shooting position. Really, he should've passed to Stephen Glass in space...but the willingness to have a crack at goal is to be welcomed. When Paul Robinson's searching ball allowed Smith to cut into the box shortly afterwards, Clarke parried a thumping finish. And Robinson himself tried his luck a couple of times, belting wild half-volleys into the stand behind.

At the back, we were now more secure. Palace had been shoved aside, and managed only sporadic forays into the Watford half. The only concern was that our enthusiasm in piling forward and pulling the Eagles' defence apart might overcome us. That concern was unfounded, though. We were too focused, Palace were too beaten. Morrison dribbled a shot from the edge of the box, but the closest efforts came from the pitch (Chamberlain waiting for a harmless flick to bounce into his chest, staggered to find it rolling through his legs instead and relieved to see it go narrowly wide) and from Neil Cox (a looping back-header that forced his keeper to tip over at full stretch).

On top and on the way to victory. Marcus Gayle held off a couple of defenders, was rewarded by a kind bounce, and Clarke's fingertips diverted the instant shot wide of the post. Any Palace attacks, such as when Akinbiyi turned and clumsily scuffed an effort towards goal after thirty-five minutes, were met with an angry rebuttal from the Hornets. On that occasion, we went straight to the other end and brought Clarke into action again, requiring him to desperately push Smith's rising shot over the bar. From the resulting corner, Gayle volleyed across the face of goal and just beyond Smith's lunge. Having gritted our teeth in the first half, we were enjoying it now.

By the last five minutes, during which Chamberlain saved superbly from Freedman's snap-shot to crown a supreme individual performance, the home stands were half-empty. We did a job here, and we did it damn well. For so long, we've been left to wonder what exactly the management team is aiming for; for so long, we've had to wonder whether there's anything here beyond fair-weather frills and fancies. No more wondering.

There was no masterplan, of course. You don't aim to spend forty-five minutes being battered, then score in injury time. You do, however, aim to deal with difficult situations, then to take advantage of any opportunities to turn the tables. On Saturday, we did that in exemplary fashion. Palace didn't, whatever Trev might think.

At full-time, beaming with joy in beaming sunshine and applauding the players as they gathered in celebration, you wanted to breathe it all in as deeply as possible. This was a fantastic moment. A moment that this team, suddenly full of spirit and intent, worked for and deserved.

Anyone still want to sack the manager?