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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/12/02, 3pm
Bradford City
Muddling through
By Ian Grant

It's always like this.

The same chaotic, ever-changing list of things to do...and the complete, abject failure to do most of them until the very last minute. The shopping delayed until the desperate, present-seeking crowds are such that it's almost physically impossible to get into town, let alone do anything worthwhile when you get there. The foggy, exhausted hangovers from Christmas parties that make productive activity so impossible. It's the same every year, whining included. The flat's in a state, there's no food in the fridge, Matt wrote a new profile of Heidar Helguson three days ago that I haven't even read yet...and we've still not got around to wishing our readers a happy Christmas.

It'll all get done, of course. Somehow, it'll happen. It always does. You stick with it, muddle through, get a bit stressed...and then celebrate the birth of Christ by collapsing in an exhausted, over-fed heap for a couple of days. And so another laboured metaphor ends.

For this was the perfect pre-Christmas fixture, thoroughly in keeping with the above. We began with a clear, uncluttered list of stuff to do and a firm set of plans and priorities...and then, somewhere along the line, we lost the list down the back of the fridge, re-wrote it, forgot a few things, remembered them, sent a couple of cards to the wrong addresses, bought socks for people who'd asked for the latest Playstation games and then thought better of it, made a complete dog's dinner of the wrapping...and rescued it all at the end, just about. And what was very nearly a bitterly disappointing and frustrating afternoon turned out well enough in the end.

More by luck than judgement, perhaps. But it doesn't matter. We needed to win this, a need made so much greater by the full realisation of how impossibly poor Bradford currently are...and we did win it, eventually. That the three points came courtesy of an extremely dubious penalty in the last minute of normal time indicates that we have, perhaps, used up most of the good luck owed to us after the deflected goals against Wolves and Reading. But it doesn't change the fact that we were deserving of that luck - this match should've been over long before, and we weren't entirely responsible for it not being so.

True, we didn't make the most of an enormous number of opportunities here. Vicarage Road hasn't seen a half as one-sided as the first for a long while - not since the visit of the heroically awful Stockport last season, probably - and yet the total domination resulted in relatively few clear-cut chances. As Jermaine Pennant's whipped crosses flew through the penalty area, were deflected wide, blocked and, on one occasion, unintentionally clouted over the crossbar by a defender, it seemed that it was only a matter of time before we broke the deadlock. It was just that, of course...but rather more time than we'd expected.

For the sake of tidiness, we'll get the Bradford shot out of the way first, even though it came in the final minute of the opening period. Standing running (erm...) through midfield before launching a long range effort that wobbled its way over Alec Chamberlain's goal and into the middle of the Rookery. Whoop-de-doo. It's safe, if somewhat understated, to say that Bradford weren't much of an attacking force. In theory, Andys Gray and Tod formed a makeshift forward line in the absence of injured strikers; in practice, they merely extended the City team a little further into opposition territory, like a pier extends land by a few hundred yards. Except without the candyfloss and arcades. It gave our defenders some company, but not much more.

And so the ball spent the vast majority of its time at the Vic Road end, without finding its way into the Bradford net. We were totally in charge, and not just by default. As so often this season, we emerged from the dressing room apparently clear and confident about our strategy - with the exception of the Gillingham ambush, we've lost that annoying habit of wasting the first forty-five minutes waiting for a chance to ask the manager to explain again what we're supposed to be doing - and eager to put it into practice. We moved the ball about quickly and smartly...and immediately discovered that nobody wanted to tackle Jermaine Pennant.

An early goal would surely have given us the opportunity to do some work on our goal difference. After six minutes, Marcus Gayle's pass released Heidar Helguson via a helpful mis-kick by a defender, but the striker's touch took him a little too wide and he was unable to beat Davison from a tight angle. And that was typical, really. Somehow, despite fine delivery from Pennant throughout, the ball wouldn't drop in the right place; somehow, we couldn't quite get a clear sight of goal when we needed it. And somehow, the referee missed what was, according to those with a better view than mine, a blatant handball when Pennant's cross skidded through to the far post with Allan Nielsen and Micah Hyde in close attendance.

We plugged away, playing some clever, if not totally effective, football. Micah Hyde slashed a shot at Davison from the edge of the box, then Neil Cox headed over from an Allan Nielsen corner. Heidar Helguson bustled his way past a defender to set up Jermaine Pennant, who continued his record of failing to finish convincingly by curling the ball over the bar from twenty yards. We were going to score, we just hadn't quite managed it yet. After forty minutes, a move begun by a strong tackle and perceptive pass from Hyde rather summed things up - when Pennant's cross came in, Hyde was at the near post to meet it...but his goal-bound volley hit his marker and deflected wide for a corner.

No cause for alarm, then. For all their battling in defence, Bradford looked as if they'd barely raise an eyebrow when a Watford goal finally hit the back of the net. Despondent and thoroughly miserable, they put our recent poor run into perspective. We've lost a few games of late, but we remain remarkably buoyant despite that, the spirit in the dressing room and the obvious faith of the players in the management team offsetting any loss of confidence. It's depressing when we lose, of course...but we seem to be able to begin again afresh a week later, to live by the "each game as it comes" cliché. It has, in many ways, been a tremendous campaign. If it continued in the same vein until May, we'd have very few complaints and even fewer regrets.

That said, the second half saw our performance fade deeper and deeper into the December mist. It's not entirely coincidental that Bradford decided, rather belatedly, to double-mark Jermaine Pennant, pretty much extinguishing his threat. Or extinguishing it until the last two minutes, at any rate. But we seemed unable to locate the space that must've been created elsewhere, and our attacks increasingly lacked inspiration as we continued to dominate.

Even so, there were chances. The first arrived after three minutes when Micah Hyde won another challenge and set up Dominic Foley, on for a bruised Helguson before the break. Again, he was driven a little wide; again, Davison blocked well at his near post. This time, however, the striker really ought to have looked up and pulled the ball across goal. Three minutes later, Foley's excellent cross-field pass found Paul Robinson advancing and his drive failed to find the target. Two more, and Foley was involved again, flicking the ball over Molenaar and falling as the bulky defender blocked his path. For me, the fall was fractionally later than the contact, a slightly delayed reaction...but it was still a decent shout for a penalty, and shout we damn well did.

Hold onto your keyboards, there's another Bradford shot on its way. A rather better one this time, though... and it might've given the scoreline an entirely unrealistic appearance, had Alec Chamberlain not been on his toes. On the end of a clearance from a free kick, Jorgensen flicked the ball up and sent a dipping volley towards the top corner. A fantastic effort, matched by an equally fantastic save as Chamberlain clawed the ball away at full stretch. His only meaningful involvement in the game, but absolutely crucial. We might as well deal with the other two Bradford shots - a tame free kick from Emanuel and a wayward volley by Standing - while we're here, for that was the pitiful extent of their attacking efforts.

As the afternoon began to drift, a gigantic lift came from the bench in the lanky, ambling shape of Gifton Noel-Williams. Back to fitness and instantly back to his best, Gifton's return was greeted by an enormous ovation and justifiably so - much as Heidar Helguson has tried his bloody heart out for us in his absence, nobody is as strong, awkward and creative with their back to goal as Gifton. He's not bad when he's facing the other way either. With Anthony McNamee brought on to explore the space on the left wing, we began to try some new ideas.

But the pattern continued, more or less. From McNamee's low cross, Noel-Williams and Nielsen competed for the ball around the penalty spot, and the former dug out a shot on the turn that floated a couple of yards wide. Neal Ardley crashed a half-volley into the Rookery...and, just to amplify our increasing frustration, Mr Butler turned down two further penalty appeals. The first, as Noel-Williams tumbled under challenge having done superbly to turn a defender, was unlikely; the second, when Lawrence hauled Pennant to the turf, appeared to take place at least a yard inside the box rather than, as judged by the referee, a yard outside. As time ran out, Paul Robinson's cross again found Noel-Williams and Nielsen so close that the ball ricocheted between them, before the former again stabbed the ball wide.

A draw would've been an awful result. You have to win games like this, you have to beat opponents like this. It looked pretty inevitable, though. And then Jermaine Pennant set off on a run from deep on the right wing. Cutting inside, he darted through the midfield past stationary opponents. Reaching the penalty area, he burst between two defenders and invited a challenge that never came. Still he had the ball, until Emanuel stepped across to block his path and see it out for a goal-kick. Except that he just couldn't resist the temptation of a hefty shoulder-charge to send Pennant, who'd probably given up on the idea of being fouled by that point, bowling away over the touchline. Nonsense in all respects, including the referee's decision to point to the spot.

Half an hour later, after Gray had been booked and Bradford's particularly graceless attempts to disrupt the taking of the penalty (Molenaar barging Noel-Williams on the edge of the box, Davison taking the ball off the spot while the referee's back was turned) had finally ended, Neil Cox took the responsibility. Every inch a captain, he's grown so much since his transfer-listing eighteen months ago, becoming such a significant, positive force within the club. And he struck it cleanly and emphatically, belting it past Davison to a great eruption of relief around Vicarage Road. Just so vital.

We deserved it, just as we've deserved so much that has come our way this season. Whatever 2003 brings, we're ending 2002 with a team that hangs together, fights together, plays together. It wins together and it loses together. Prior to this victory, we had the same number of points as at the same stage of last season...but it's so much better, this. It's not perfect, sure. But it's determined, confident, full of spirit. Very Watford. Enjoy it.

And enjoy your Christmas too.