By Ian Grant
There's a certain irony here.
When we blew the top half of the First Division apart back in '99, there were a few noses put out of joint. Thinking
back, there are memories of familiar criticisms levelled at Graham Taylor's style of play, its alleged reliance
on big strikers and set pieces. Not just Trevor Francis either.
We all know the truth, though. That our strikers, while dynamic and powerful, weren't at their best when
receiving long balls from deep, that the team functioned best when it played with width and a bit of poise.
That, aside from a couple of well-remembered goals in the playoffs, we weren't greatly successful at corners
and free kicks. That, deliberately or otherwise, people took our resilience for the kind of dourness that,
in reality, would've left us languishing in mid-table rather than dancing in ecstasy on Wembley Way.
Everything's different now, of course. With a new manager, a cavalcade of stylish signings, and an apparently
more attractive approach, those accusations are in the past. Especially at home, each Watford game has
offered plenty of pleasant viewing - passing that's neat and crisp, players moving for each other, possession
retained for long spells. Things have changed.
Back to that irony, though. For all of this, just one of the six goals scored by Vialli's Watford
so far has come from anything that could reasonably be described as "open play". While that solitary Tommy
Smith strike was absolutely glorious, the rest - two from free kicks, one from a penalty, one from a corner,
one from a gigantic defensive cock-up - seem to belong in that mistaken version of our past. Curiously, our
lack of attacking penetration, coupled with a general increase in height, has led to exactly the kind of reliance
on set pieces for which we were once roundly and wrongly condemned.
So, while memories of Monday's victory over Walsall will probably be of attractive football and sunny weather,
the reality was rather different. In fact, this was a game that was going nowhere, until both sides fell back
on dead ball situations as a way of doing something, anything, in the opposition's penalty area. Despite
our apparent devotion to aesthetically pleasing football, we emerged triumphant because we were better at thumping
the ball into the box from free kicks and corners.
Just an observation. Although the arrival of players like Marcus Gayle, Ramon Vega and Filippo Galli has
not yet produced a team of anything more than theoretical quality, it has had the potentially life-saving
side-effect of offering another source of scoring opportunities. Yesterday, having failed to destroy another
set of determined opponents with flair and pass-and-move and one-twos and all that fancy stuff, we might've
buried Walsall simply by using corners as a way of clattering the ball into the six yard box for big blokes to
jump at. It's not exactly what we were promised, granted. It'll get us out of a few holes, though.
In that respect, it was another extremely inconclusive afternoon. A great deal of moderately enjoyable football
to watch, all of it rendered irrelevant and made to seem slightly foolish by three basic, thoroughly
direct goals. Like elaborate cuisine smothered in salad cream or Low opening for Limp Bizkit, the sophisticated,
delicate subtleties of our flowing football were obliterated by something altogether more basic and familiar. We won,
so it doesn't really matter. It just makes report writing that bit more difficult.
Again, the final ball eluded us. Whether attempting to thread passes through crowds of players on the edge
of the Walsall box or trying to beat defenders with crosses, we found neither good fortune nor sufficient
accuracy. In terms of possession, we were utterly dominant and thoroughly impressive for long periods...yet
the assumption that we'd turn all that into goals began to appear ill-judged as time wore on, especially
once the visitors had gained the lead shortly after the interval.
Defensively, the partnership of Filippo Galli and Neil Cox - whose start in an unfamiliar position and
eager, confident performance indicates a possible rehabilitation - dealt well with occasional Walsall breaks. Indeed,
particularly after being felled and bloodied by a vicious elbow from Goodman in the first half, Galli was the very
epitome of control and composure, not only winning hard-fought aerial battles but repeatedly cushioning
the resulting headers to nearby colleagues. As before, only the understanding is lacking, as
immediately demonstrated by Goodman's diving header from a free kick, which skidded
across Espen Baardsen's goal and narrowly wide after just two minutes.
That was Walsall's only notable effort of the half, however. The rest was all about passes criss-crossing
the field, about neat one-touch triangles, and about trying to turn it into something decisive in the final third. Frequently,
the margin between success and failure was minute. In the fourth minute, Nordin Wooter and Micah Hyde combined
splendidly on the left, leading to a succession of crosses swinging into the box and frantic battles on its edge. Shortly
afterwards, Hyde's perceptive centre curled just beyond Allan Nielsen's mischievous near post run. At other
times, such as when Nielsen failed to find an accurate finish to Tommy Smith's pacy break and merely chipped
a frustratingly indecisive cross into the space behind Wooter, we simply didn't make the best of the opportunities
that came our way.
Perhaps appropriate, therefore, that the clearest opening of the half came from a random ricochet, as Paolo
Vernazza's attempted through-ball bounced off a defender and into the path of Tommy Smith. But, although he managed
to nip around Walker's dive, Barras was back to block the eventual shot on the line and deprive us of that
much-anticipated break-through. Immediately, the game reverted to its original pattern.
In some ways, I'm being unfair. Because there was a greater sense of urgency here, allied with the patience of
Tuesday night. Our moves were less predictable - short and long passing, getting the ball wide as well as
darting through the centre, picking up pace nearer goal - and our dominance was perhaps even more complete
than against Plymouth. But none of this applied to anything that happened inside the Walsall area, sadly. As the
half ended with Hyde's weak curler at Walker and Wooter whacked his umpteenth cross against a nearby defender, you
started to feel the first signs of frustration. We might've been frightening our visitors, but we really
weren't hurting them.
And, somewhere along the line, we seemed to forget that they might be able to hurt us. Three minutes into the second half, Keates'
free kick from the right, impressive substitute Leitao left unmarked in the six yard box, a glancing header
past Baardsen, one-nil. We stood around and wondered what had happened, perhaps expecting the referee to enforce a
new law to the effect that a goal can't be scored unless it's been touched by every member of the team at least
three times along the way. Walsall celebrated furiously. They also visibly grew in stature.
In a disturbing reversal of the first half, the away side began to gain the upper hand. Pushing us back and gaining
some control in the midfield, they started to look confident and capable where previously they had been somewhat
nervous and apprehensive. The success of their campaign will surely depend upon whether they can
build on such moments, something that ought to be familiar enough to Watford fans with memories longer than a
year. Thankfully, that building process didn't start at the Vic.
The comeback was laboured and painful, though. For the first time, angry, irritated voices demanded faster delivery
of the ball to the forwards...and, naturally, the same voices complained bitterly when it was occasionally belted upfield and
possession was lost. For the first time, the new manager found that one of his substitutions - the removal
of a subdued Tommy Smith - was not at all popular with the fans. At home, this was the most severe test yet,
our first chance to see the extent of the players' faith in Vialli's ideas, to see whether they'd crack under the strain.
During the twenty minutes after the goal, they just about kept going. As before, promising moments were allowed
to slip away and half-chances weren't pounced upon. Hyde's long pass towards Wooter found Smith via
a defender's head, and he failed to get sufficient power on his shot to give Walker problems. Then Nielsen's low
shot after a powerful burst from his own half by Vernazza also went straight at the keeper. Getting closer,
as we managed to find some width and put some decent balls into the box - Gifton Noel-Williams
was desperately close to making decisive contact with Marcus Gayle's fantastic cross, then Gayle was similarly near to
a Wooter centre. Not quite happening, impatience building, struggling to keep hold of the belief that we'd
score in the end.
We did score, mercifully. With the supply of crosses finally meeting the demand, we had too much
aerial power for the Walsall defence. When that defence was breached, Walker was equal to Gayle's mighty
header from Stephen Hughes' cross and tipped the ball acrobatically over the bar. But, from the second resulting
corner, no-one picked up Galli's dash from the edge of the box and the captain sent the ball steaming unstoppably into the
top corner. Such relief.
We'd mapped our escape route. For, although Leitao was again allowed to escape inside the area and Baardsen was
forced to make a scrambling save from his downward header, we were to repeat the corner routine and find that
it damn nearly worked again, as first Galli and then Gayle rose higher than their markers and glanced headers
As it turned out, the three points were won by a set piece of a different kind. As on Tuesday, Marcus Gayle
proved that hitting the ball really bloody hard is an excellent idea. As on Tuesday, the keeper will
feel that he should've done better...but that's in hindsight, without a pacy, accurate shot whistling in his
direction. On this occasion, Walker ought to have managed to divert the ball over the bar. Instead, he could only
push it onto the woodwork and was dismayed to find that Allan Nielsen had timed his run to perfection, scoring
with what looked like his knee on the rebound.
Pleasingly, we managed to preserve the lead with considerably less fuss and bother than twice previously. Why,
there was even time for a moment of comedy from the exuberant Paul Robinson, going down under Leitao's challenge,
grinning at the Rookery from the turf while the referee took the Walsall striker's name, then bouncing up to continue. Which
isn't the kind of thing that BSaD can possibly condone, of course. And, while Goodman skied an effort on the turn,
Noel-Williams came closer to completing the scoring, bringing a rather over-elaborate diving save from Walker
with a rising shot at the near post after Cox's surprise appearance in the final third.
Five games in, and a ten day break to reflect on it all. Actually, it feels as if we're still ploughing through
the pre-season friendlies, such is the inconclusive, vaguely suggestive nature of what we've seen so far. Predictions
are impossible, even now.
You'd settle for starting out with three wins already chalked up, I suppose...but there will come a time
when we'll no longer be able to avoid being judged on what we're actually doing rather than what
we're capable of doing. In particular, our passing football has to start yielding goals as
well as pleasure, it has to become effective as well as attractive. After all, there's always work
still to be done, always stuff to improve.
The season has to start somewhere. Might as well be here.