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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 18/8/01
Rotherham United
Pick a scoreline
By Ian Grant

"Goalless, then, and predictably so. Anyone with a modicum of sense could've seen that our lightweight midfield would struggle to penetrate a determined, heavily populated Rotherham defence. And so it proved - ninety minutes of patient probing to no great effect, frustration increasing in the home stands as the visitors' confidence grew. Simply, we never looked like scoring. Again. Dreadful, and you could see it coming from a full week away...."

That was how it happened in a parallel universe. An altogether more logical, sensible universe, where stuff happens for a reason, referees don't give bizarre penalties in the first minute, and defenders don't collide with goalkeepers like "It's A Knockout" contestants. Where you don't get football matches as ludicrous as this appearing from nowhere without proper warning.

Pick a scoreline. Any scoreline, apart from nil-nil. Say, 3-1 to Rotherham. Or 5-2 to Watford. Or 4-4. Or whatever you like. All well within the expansive boundaries of this contest, in which neither defence bothered the opposition attack enough to prevent great skip-loads of goal-scoring chances and general mayhem. Complete nonsense, then...but, mercifully, complete nonsense from which we gained three time-buying points as well as an afternoon of splendidly unhinged entertainment.

It began with operatic bellowing from a Pavarotti impersonator, as well as dancing girls and a new, apparently divorced Harry Hornet. It continued with the inflated and thoroughly laughable pomp of the "Superman" theme, replacing our cherished "Z Cars" as the team's entrance music. While we have yet to reach the depths of the immediately post-Petchey months, when it felt like the emphasis on having fun before the match would result in stewards forcibly ejecting anyone without a beaming, ear-to-ear grin, you do tend to wonder whether football will ever again be graceful, charming and loveable rather than just blaringly loud.

Then the match kicked off, and things continued in much the same vein. While the match statistics might claim that Tommy Smith opened the scoring after three minutes, they don't tell the full story. In fact, those minutes were comprised entirely of the run-up to the goal. To start, we went straight up to the Vic Road end and forced a corner. From Paolo Vernazza's centre, Ramon Vega rose completely alone and thumped a header against the top of the crossbar.

In itself, that caused enough of a kerfuffle for it to take some time before anyone realised that the referee had pointed to the penalty spot, apparently for a tug on Vega's shirt as he moved to reach the cross. Bearing in mind that the defender should've buried the chance regardless, that still seems like a very curious decision. When the Rotherham protests had finally subsided, Tommy Smith plonked the ball on the spot and attempted to become the first Watford scorer of the season. He did so, albeit fortunately. His kick was at knee height to the keeper's left - only its moderate power saved him, forcing Pollitt to parry rather than catch and enabling the striker to score on the rebound.

In many ways, the whole passage was so curious that it had no impact whatsoever on the play that followed, as if it were some kind of best-forgotten aberration. The exception to that, of course, was that an early goal removed some of the pressure from the midfield and attack, allowing both more time to settle into the game. The first goal will decide a lot this season, you suspect.

Really, much of the first half was turgid, with the notable exception of a rampaging, bounding performance from Paul Robinson on the left. Surprisingly, the full back appears to have responded to the new playing style rather better than some of his colleagues, taking a cue from the forward-thinking, steely Patrick Blondeau on the other side. While you'd never encourage Robbo to stop using his brain - Stewart Talbot would testify to that - he seems to have taken on the challenge of filling the emotional gaps left by the departing players, offering full-blooded commitment to his local team. For a time in the second half, his "man of the match" award was jeopardised by doubts about whether he'd stay on the pitch for the duration, indicating that he still needs to find that balance between aggression and discipline...but, hey, excellent nonetheless.

What wasn't excellent was that we failed to consolidate. For fifteen minutes, we weren't up to much, neither forcing home the early advantage nor shutting down the game, and we allowed Rotherham to find their feet. A half-volley from the adventurous Blondeau, well-struck from outside the area and bouncing comfortably wide, was the only noteworthy effort before the visitors equalised. When they did so, it offered clues that all was not right defensively - no challenge as Bryan ambled into the box and Robins collected the pass to smack an angled shot into the bottom corner.

The remainder was low key. Less anguish and howling frustration in the stands than at similar moments last season, and some promising attempts at restoring the lead. Particularly, the added width offered by both Marcus Gayle and Dominic Foley solved some of the problems that we saw at Maine Road, indicating that the new manager is moving towards a line-up that'll do more than look good on paper. After twenty-two minutes, it was Gayle's superb cross - boot wrapped around the ball, hit with massive pace - that found Vernazza lurking at the far post to slice wide on the bounce.

The new centre forward was unlucky not to get his name on the scoresheet too. Having already seen our new-found threat at set pieces demonstrated, the point was underlined by Gayle's towering header from a corner after thirty-one minutes - it flew across the goalmouth, evaded Vega's boot and hit the post. Within a minute, Smith had neatly supplied Vernazza on the edge of the box, but Pollitt advanced smartly to block an unconvincing finish. Finally, we were starting to create some chances....

...Although the goal that gave us the lead at half-time had nothing to do with any of that fancy stuff. Just a long ball into nowhere, leaving Hurst chasing back to tidy up with Allan Nielsen in fairly disinterested pursuit. Pollitt came out to help, Hurst continued on his way, Pollitt came out some more, Hurst kept going. Like roller-blading hippos, both players were apparently powerless to change course. When the inevitable happened, Nielsen was able to resist desperate challenges to shuffle the ball into the empty net. As with the penalty, a good upbringing prevented the celebrations from being too exuberant and immodest.

Really, that set the tone for a thoroughly ridiculous, end-to-end second half. Within a minute, Rotherham had so nearly equalised again, as the ball was hooked goalwards from a corner and blocked on the line by a crowd of defenders. Appeals that it'd crossed the line were still going when Talbot fired a shot at Espen Baardsen's near post. The keeper's throw set a break in motion, ending with Gayle shooting wide from twenty yards. And your correspondent spent the next ten minutes trying to catch up with it all.

With the visitors revising their gameplan and opening the play up, we found some space to show off a bit of class. More of that later, but I'll still highlight Gayle's delightful backheel to set a move in motion, passes across the face of the penalty area leading to Foley firing high into the side netting. Also worth noting that Foley provided welcome creativity and width to the left of the midfield. Until now, he's yet to find a place to call his own. He may just have done so at last.

Six minutes in, and a poor defensive header dropped to Barker, whose slashed shot missed the target by mere inches and induced a great, anguished roar from the Rotherham fans behind the goal. Immediately, Pollitt was called to the edge of his area to clear from Nielsen - Vernazza picked up the loose ball, aimed a lob towards goal, and forced an awkward, scrambling save from the retreating keeper. Then Nielsen's intelligent header from a half-cleared cross set up Smith, who wriggled inside and squeezed a shot through a crowd of defenders that rolled just wide. Truly, the season had started at last.

When it ends, it's unlikely that we'll have created a goal as beautiful as our third. While question marks remain over our ability to score often enough, those doubts were blown away by the sheer, breathtaking quality of the football. In a deep position, Vernazza's sublime turn to escape an opponent. A simple touch to Micah Hyde, arguably the best of the midfielders here. Hyde's superb curling pass out to the left to pick up Foley's run. A couple of steps and a perceptive chipped cross to the far post, where Gayle stood alone. A precise header back into the danger area, where Smith volleyed acrobatically into the top corner. Even while celebrating, the occupants of three stands began calculating when they'd last seen a Watford goal of such combined perfection.

Not so long since they'd last seen a Watford team chucking a lead away, of course. Everyone was probably still lost in admiration as the defence parted to allow Talbot to play in Robins, nipping ahead of Vega to slide a shot past Baardsen. Although Robinson's sliding clearance from marginally behind the line momentarily put the goal in doubt, we'd let Rotherham back into the game within five minutes of our apparently match-winning masterpiece.

After another five minutes, we'd damn nearly thrown it away entirely. Making up for his earlier error, Hurst began his run by beating Nielsen on the touchline and ended it by getting chopped by Vega as he darted towards the six yard box. Some of these decisions can be marginal, some of them can be blindingly obvious from the other end of the ground. This was definitely the latter. But Robins declined the opportunity to complete his hat-trick, shuffling a poor penalty to Baardsen's right and allowing the keeper to make a pretty comfortable stop.

You'd have hoped that would've been the end of it, really. Enough madness for now, ta. But there was plenty more, too much of it at the wrong end. Mind you, it all would've been more pleasant if Nielsen's thumping volley had beaten Swailes on the line after Pollitt had palmed a Foley header into his path at a corner. It didn't, though...and, with only a single goal margin, our defence simply wasn't secure enough to allow any relaxation.

In the remaining minutes, Barker had his hair ruffled by a blasted cross as he dived in to meet it at the far post, all alone and five yards out. Then a free kick from the right found substitute Monkhouse freeing himself from markers, glancing a header wide, and holding his head in his hands as he realised that he should've scored. While Gifton Noel-Williams screwed a shot wide in injury time, there was undiluted panic for the most part. Clouted clearances replaced the much-trumpeted passing football, utter terror shone through the cool, continental sheen of our new rearguard. We made it. Just.

Three points, then. Hurrah. Great heaps of entertainment too, and a truly lovely goal. Hurrah. This was a whole lot less rubbish than last week. Double hurrah.

For now, that'll do. Quite simply, it's impossible to draw serious conclusions from a frequently farcical match... but there were hopeful signs here. Attacking width, greater penetration, that kind of thing.

Some concerns remain, naturally. Again, leaving aside that it needs time to build better understanding, you wonder whether our defence would've been quite such a mess if it'd had better protection from the midfield at crucial moments. But the immediate addressing of one problem by the inspired inclusion of Dominic Foley gives me renewed confidence in the management, restores some lost belief.

Last week was miserable, wretched. This was fun. More of the same, and "Z Cars" back, and I'll be happy enough for now.