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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 05/10/02, 3pm
Brighton and Hove Albion
Divided loyalties
By Ian Grant

Thing is, I don't merely live in Brighton.

It's my home town (still difficult to think of such a small, intimate place as a "City"), it's where I'm from. It's where I choose to be, it's where I want to be. So, yeah, I'm a Watford fan and I grew up within walking distance of the Vic...but I'm not an exile. I left voluntarily.

All of which had left me with slightly mixed feelings about this, the first encounter with the Albion since I bought a season ticket and began making the trip up from the South Coast on a regular basis. Were the Seagulls to be found nestling comfortably in mid-table, confidently adjusting to life back in Division One, I'd have no qualms at all about wishing for their total humilation at our hands. But ten straight defeats? God, that's harsh. A bit too harsh.

Obviously, I want Brighton to stay up. More - much, much more - I want success for Watford...but the two things aren't necessarily exclusive. It might've been a complicated afternoon.

It wasn't. I spent the last ten minutes in the same state of nervous hyperactivity that had also taken hold of Ray Lewington, ceaselessly pacing the touchline, shouting encouragement, pointing and directing. At any moment, you expected to see him surrendering to his instincts and hurtling across the pitch with arm raised to join an attack. For me, the one with supposedly divided loyalties here, there was a moment of choking emotion when the referee's whistle finally blew, a roar of relief, a quiet clenching of fists. No second thoughts.

We'd beaten the bottom side by a single goal. Big deal. The result and, while it was thoroughly entertaining, the game itself won't live long in the memory. But there was more to it than that. So much more. Whatever else we lacked - and we know that we can play a great deal better - it's hard to imagine a more committed, determined, bloody-minded Watford performance than this. It was absolutely monumental, a great surge of stubborn, blinkered effort that simply swamped everything else - we approached the game like a fifty mile route-march, ploughing onwards regardless of hills and valleys, pain and fatigue. It was brilliant.

True, you could argue that we won the game as a result of being just that little bit better, sharper in midfield and more clinical in front of goal on one crucial occasion. A bit of luck too. But we're winning another battle right now. It's hard to remember when there was last such a rousing, positive atmosphere inside the ground...and, while the current off-field problems surely played a part in that, it had much to do with a team that is simply demanding our backing. There was so much heart here, such a potent contrast with the numerous occasions when we were overcome by lethargy and complacency against struggling sides last season. They demanded support, they got that support.

It wasn't perfect. I don't care, I don't need "perfect". But we might've made things rather easier for ourselves, as Allan Nielsen wasted a glorious opportunity in the first five minutes, latching onto Heidar Helguson's far post knock-down from a marvellous Neal Ardley centre, taking a touch inside the six yard box and then prodding improbably around the post as Kuipers sprawled at his feet.

Had that gone in, we could've settled. Instead, we began to look a little nervous, losing our way and allowing Brighton to assert themselves. Carpenter belted a volley over the bar after Alec Chamberlain had punched a cross away; Barrett sent a shot sailing wide from distance. With more composure in the final third - notably when Allan Nielsen's interception to prevent Zamora racing clear fell to Brooker, who miscontrolled and allowed the ball to run away as he advanced into the area - the visitors could've taken the lead. Ten minutes later, Zamora played in Barrett on the left of the box, but his finish, curled tamely at Alec Chamberlain's near post, lacked conviction.

As I said, these peaks and troughs never seemed to affect our unflagging commitment. For a while, Brighton were the better side. But only for a while. It was a disappointing half hour...but that'll happen, and our response to it was telling. Previously, we might've dwelt on it; now, we simply forced our way back into the match. Typically, it was a combination of Micah Hyde and Heidar Helguson that led the way, the former playing a neat through-ball and the latter charging onto it, winning the ball fractionally ahead of Kuipers outside of the area...and getting unceremoniously flattened by the keeper. The action continued without the referee's whistle, controversially...and Neal Ardley's lob on the follow-up was headed clear from the line.

It was enough. We still weren't playing with any fluency...but we were doing it in a forward direction, at least. Two minutes on, and Stephen Glass - on for the unfortunate Marcus Gayle, a change that resulted in a switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 - whacked in a low cross for Danny Webber to be foiled by Kuipers' legs from close range.

Whatever else still needs to be worked on, we're now a side that threatens the opposition defence, a side with a menacing, mobile forward line supported by a positive, potent midfield. Much of that is the result of the much-anticipated return of Heidar Helguson...still far from fit but utterly heroic here, hurling his aching, knackered body at anything and everything. He scored the winner too. Predatory like no other Watford striker since Kevin Phillips, he followed up Allan Nielsen's rather hopeful drive from long range, just in case. And he was rewarded. The ball swerved, Kuipers was indecisive and pushed it down and out, and Heidar Helguson was already there to head neatly past the startled keeper.

It wasn't much of a goal, really...but it was exactly what we'd been hoping for from Helguson, who has turned the responsibility placed on his shoulders into something of a badge of honour rather than a confidence-sapping burden. I had my doubts, I must admit. In the main, I shared Luca Vialli's opinion of Helguson as a target man, and wasn't convinced that his return would match up to rampant expectation. He's proving me wrong.

So, had half-time not been taken up with an epic trek to the far corner of the lower Rous and back again to hand out further application forms, we would've been able to reflect on an even, well-balanced half that had been tipped in our favour by one instinctive, ruthless moment in the six yard box. No time to reflection, though...which was somehow fitting, for this wasn't an afternoon in which the players appeared interested in reflection. Rather, we held our heads up, eyes fixed ahead, one step at a time.

For a time, nothing much happened. Barrett curled a shot at Alec Chamberlain from twenty-five yards; Carpenter whacked a free kick into the Vic Road end; Helguson sliced a half-volley well wide. And then, after ten minutes, it all happened. Sean Dyche tried and failed to hook clear, leaving Zamora to break into the box from the right, sway past a challenge, and thrash a shot at the near post. Alec Chamberlain, untroubled until then, parried strongly. Immediately, Albion twice contrived to lose possession near their own goal, Micah Hyde and then Neal Ardley both setting up Danny Webber, who was twice crowded out before he could get a clean strike away. At the other end, a neat interchange, and Chamberlain fielded a shot from Carpenter with relative ease.

Exciting stuff, and it lifted the atmosphere immediately. The all-too-familiar bored, slightly irritable silence was dispelled. Clapping, chanting, supporting. Willing the team on, rather than merely finding fault. I mean, you can argue over whether it has any tangible effect on the team...but it's just so much more fun, surely? On the pitch, the effort was sustained, extended...and there's no doubt that we were much the better side in the last twenty minutes, never allowing Albion to build up any pressure and frequently threatening a decisive second goal.

Mind you, there was one final scare. After Cullip had escaped with using an arm to (unnecessarily) turn a cross behind and Stephen Glass had sent a skidding volley narrowly wide, Brighton created their one, only clear-cut opening. And it fell to Zamora too, pouncing on a rebound from a left wing free Allan Nielsen earlier, he was alone inside the six yard box; like Nielsen, he failed to hit the target, swiping his effort high and wide as he fell. I've praised us highly here...but I'm happy to admit that we had a few moments of good fortune.

After that, however, it was one-way traffic. Brighton used substitutions to increase their attacking options, and just found that they were over-run. They were terribly sloppy at the back too, or perhaps we were just so sharp and eager in snapping into challenges. Both, really. It should've been more - Allan Nielsen grabbed possession on the left, charged into the penalty area, and was foiled by a tremendous parry from Kuipers at the near post. Danny Webber will wonder how he left the pitch without having added to his tally, and will particularly regret not making firmer and more accurate contact with a free header from a Neal Ardley corner. A minute later, his sublime flick over an opponent's challenge and rather hasty finish, bashing a shot at Kuipers when he might've taken it on, perhaps summed up his afternoon.

Time trickled away from Brighton, who were simply overwhelmed. They broke occasionally, made it through the busy, aggressive midfield even more occasionally...and were promptly shoved away by the immense Sean Dyche and the quietly authoritative Neil Cox. By now, we were on our feet, roaring them on, doing our bit. The team responded, Ray Lewington urged them on...and it was all so together that it felt like a bit of a watershed. When Richard Johnson emerged to a vast ovation, it completed the picture...and, even then, it was splendid to find that the Rookery still remembered to pay tribute to the departing Allan Nielsen.

You could've been forgiven for thinking that this was a cup tie, such was the urgency with which we pushed Albion back into the own half and sought to finish the game. We did it superbly too, apart from failing to score the second goal...and only a Brighton free kick in the final minute of injury time suggested the possibility of a late equaliser. It flew across the area, harmlessly wide...the referee blew his whistle... and, bloody hell, we celebrated this win like it was the most valuable thing in the world....

It matters. Much has been made of the team's contribution in agreeing to defer a percentage of their wages, and rightly so. But, in many ways, this is a far bigger contribution. For we need to save Watford Football Club, to secure its long-term future. And, in the last couple of weeks, the current representatives of Watford Football Club have reminded us why we'd want to save it.

A brilliant day.

Here's to many more, and a few at Withdean too.