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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 26/08/02, 1pm
Coventry City
Open play
By Ian Grant

Personally, I would've been quietly pleased with a point. A return to stability, to steady progress towards wherever-we're-hoping-to-end-up. A draw, especially if we'd managed to score in the process, would've been all right, really. Not too bad. We would've been slightly reassured after the savage defeat at Fratton, and could've looked forward with renewed semi-enthusiasm to a season of predictable results, mid-table comfort, steady improvement. For now, I'm content with looking to the long-term, always understating short-term hopes.

So, where the hell did this come from?

I mean, when did this become part of the plan? To slice through a defence with such precision, such poise; to attack from so many angles, and with such devastating pace; to score five and miss, not us, surely. Not us. I mean, the advertised strategy involved becoming hard to beat in a "pre-Rotherham Millwall" kinda style - working hard, closing down, systems, roles, tactics, and all that. Goals from long throws and corners, mainly. Which was - and still is - an admirable strategy, in its own way. But I heard no mention of being so superbly adventurous and entertaining, of producing so many delightful flourishes, of being expansive and elegant rather than compact and concentrated. Even if it proves to be something of a one-off for the time being, it's fair to say that the script was completely re-written yesterday. Come back, absent thousands!

My word, this was marvellous. From nowhere, just marvellous. One small change - Jamie Hand out, Stephen Glass in - and the side that'd struggled for forty-five minutes on Saturday to produce a single sad, tame shot from outside the penalty area was in danger of reaching double figures. Then, we celebrated ironically when Micah Hyde lobbed in our only goal attempt of the entire second period; now, we celebrated ironically as our opponents managed to pull one back with five minutes left. Somehow, in the meantime, we completely and utterly slaughtered one of the early pace-setters.

I say "somehow", as if luck played some part in this. Nonsense. No luck whatsoever. Indeed, each of these five goals, and the majority of the numerous clear-cut chances that filled the available space around them, came from open play, making a mockery of our supposed reliance on set pieces and our stuttering attacking play in previous matches. We made it look so simple, opening up huge spaces around the Coventry defence and darting through them to receive measured passes and slide neat finishes past poor Hydlgaard. Only Danny Webber's excellent third elaborated on the theme.

Each goal was beautifully conceived, constructed and completed, created by pace and movement, immensely easy on the eye. Allan Nielsen crossing from the left, Stephen Glass scoring from the right, Paul Robinson making a perfectly-timed run into the heart of the penalty area, Tommy Smith and Danny Webber darting this way and that, Micah Hyde starting it all again whenever we lost was altogether too much for Coventry's pedestrian defence. When Steve Walsh hobbled off after seventy minutes - "I think I'll retire now, thank you" - you sensed that several of his colleagues were looking on rather enviously. And we wondered if Ray Lewington was smirking slightly as he toyed with the idea of taking off one of his slow, cumbersome strikers and letting Anthony McNamee have a run at the them....

Quite simply, and forgetting the last five minutes, we did everything right. We were sharp and penetrative in attack, energetic and creative in midfield, combative and determined in defence. Truly excellent, throughout and as a whole. To say that we were unrecognisable from the shambles that just about managed to finish the game at Portsmouth would be a considerable understatement. We were not the same team. In truth, we had no idea that we were even capable of this.

Really, it would be hard to imagine a more comprehensive, convincing victory. Yet, for all its winning charm, it also retained a distinctly aggressive sub-text, a kind of steely determination underpinning everything else...particularly in defence, where Sean Dyche and Neil Cox appeared in especially belligerent mood and where Marcus Gayle demonstrated the simple, effective art of absolutely bloody wellying the ball away. Lovely football allied with a fierce, competitive energy. The perfect formula. So, while we will clearly need to continue to build and strengthen and better sides than Coventry will make us look ordinary once again, yesterday was an unexpected, thrilling glimpse of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In a sense, this was just reward for the hard work undertaken so far. More than that, though, it was an extremely powerful incentive for the future.

The transformation was astonishing. Bright and eager in the early stages, with Danny Webber driving over from distance after three minutes, we were rewarded with a terrific opening goal. Allan Nielsen's persistence down at the corner flag on the left wing typified the spirit, chasing and hooking a cross into the penalty area with his left foot. There, Danny Webber controlled tidily with his back to goal, and showed awareness in turning to slide the ball across to meet the run of Stephen Glass. The finish was as neat as everything else, tucked carefully past the keeper and into the bottom corner with his right - yes, right - foot. A goal of sublime simplicity, created by the free movement of players, particularly midfielders, as much as anything else. And we celebrated, thinking that such moments might be rare....

A quiet spell followed, in which Coventry attempted to get a foothold in the game, yet found our defence stubborn and well-organised. Thompson dragged a shot well wide after an interchange of passes on the left...but, by the twenty minute mark, we were hurtling at them again, a lovely through-ball from Stephen Glass releasing Tommy Smith, whose clumsy, nervous touch allowed the ball to run away for Hydlgaard to claim. Danny Webber showed strength as well as skill to control an immense clearance from Marcus Gayle and hold off a defender at the same time, before spinning away but finding himself crowded out as he tried to shoot. The striker, in scintillating form here, had an effort blocked from a Neal Ardley cross, and we were suddenly tearing them apart.

Better chances were still to come. Indeed, as Marcus Gayle slipped a pass through the defence to pick out another well-timed run from Tommy Smith, three-quarters of Vicarage Road roared in jubilation as the ball rolled towards the net. But - to very evident frustration, not least from Smith himself - the final finish had deserted him once more, and he'd side-footed the ball just wide of the post. Agonising then, easy to forgive and forget now.

The result remained undecided, and Coventry again produced a more assertive, if unconvincing, spell at the Rookery end. When Marcus Gayle unwisely disputed the award of a free kick - especially unwise as he hadn't committed the foul - the referee booked him and moved the ball to the very edge of the penalty area. Inevitably, McAllister stepped up and, equally inevitably, drifted the ball towards the top corner...but he found Neil Cox well-placed to head around the post. Five minutes later, Alec Chamberlain had to deal with a skidding drive from the lively Thompson from fully thirty-five yards, diving down at the last moment to shove it away with both hands.

But these moments flattered Coventry, in all honesty. They couldn't keep us out, and Paul Robinson's far post header from a chipped Tommy Smith cross forced Hydlgaard into a scrambling save. In particular, their attempts to compress the play into the middle third were doomed to failure, offering great expanses of green turf for the strikers to sprint across. If you leave Steve Walsh to mark Danny Webber on the halfway line, you're going to have problems. And so it proved, as Webber's balletic turn left Walsh trailing hopelessly. Instantly, he was away from his opponent; instantly, Tommy Smith was darting through the defence to his left. The ball was released at the perfect moment, no need for Smith to break his stride...and he didn't miss, chipping decisively past the advancing keeper and punching the air like someone who hasn't scored since January. And we were really flying now....

The third still came as a surprise, mainly because we've long since stopped thinking of ourselves as the kind of team that scores three in one half. In a sense, it was the finest of the bunch, a moment of individual brilliance from our on-loan hero. In another sense, it was the least impressive, as it owed comparatively little to our new-found pass-and-move fluency. In every sense, it really didn't matter either way. Forty minutes, and Danny Webber received a pass from Stephen Glass, left his marker flat-footed with another sparkling turn, and curled the ball around Hydlgaard from just inside the area. Danny Webber's been superb before now...but the team has never echoed and reinforced his performance as it did yesterday. Here, he fitted in, and that's a significant development. The result was quite something.

Half-time. Quite content with life, all in all. Coventry emerge for the second half fully five minutes before the required time, suggesting that the away dressing room might've been a fairly lively, and possibly dangerous, place to be. Watford emerge, looking tall and confident, an extra bounce in every player's stride. And they don't throw it away.

After five minutes, the Coventry comeback was already a mere memory. In that time, they'd shown some spirit, and Walsh had nodded wide from a McAllister free kick...but that underlying determination rose to the surface, and we were suddenly throwing ourselves into challenges and thumping the ball away. And, as soon as we had controlled possession, we were tearing away on the break....

Tommy Smith, full of life again, won possession on the halfway line and sprinted down the left touchline, delivering a cross to a very lonely Allan Nielsen on the edge of the box. Only an unfortunate stumble and a scuffed shot delayed the fourth goal...and, even then, Stephen Glass was chasing through in an attempt to claim the rebound. Strong battling from Danny Webber and Paul Robinson set up Micah Hyde, whose rising drive from twenty yards missed the top corner by a foot or so. So many opportunities, so long since we were last this rampant.

The fourth, when it came, was a joy too. Again, simple and economical...Allan Nielsen starting it off with an angled pass that met with Paul Robinson's unstoppable charge down the left. The cross was hit low, and Walsh just about managed to prevent Danny Webber from connecting with it at the near post. But it ran on to Nielsen, who had so much time that he could've conducted a phone-in poll to decide which corner to put the ball in. Bottom left, no problem.

"Are you Luton in disguise?".

Crest of a wave, wind in our hair...impossible to imagine that we'd been so utterly hopeless just two days earlier. Hmmm... crucified, then it Easter or something? Stephen Glass strikes a swerving half-volley at Hydlgaard from twenty-five yards, and the confidence is flooding through everything that we're doing. A throw, a flicked header, a convenient rebound from Tommy Smith's shin...and Paul Robinson is bouncing into the penalty area, smacking a low shot past Hydlgaard, somersaulting in celebration, hugging his manager on the way back to the re-start. Five-nil. Bloody hell.

Even then, we might've scored again. Oh, Coventry had a couple of goal attempts to add to their rather paltry list, Thompson attempting and failing to chip Alec Chamberlain before forcing a sharp save from the keeper by driving a shot at his near post. But, in the latter case, the save just set another ferocious break in motion, ending with Danny Webber speeding into the penalty area and pulling a cross back towards Tommy Smith at the near post. It was cut out by a defender's head...but it still fell back to Webber, who laid it off to Paul Robinson...and, tellingly, the wing-back showed as much frustration when he shot straight at Hydlgaard as if we'd been one-nil down.

That we got a bit carried away with ourselves is cause for minor annoyance, nothing more. Certainly, two more in the "goals against" column is hard on the defence and on Alec Chamberlain. But it gives the result a more Watford-ish appearance, really...and that's slightly comforting. Five-nil would've been almost incomprehensible, whereas five-two feels like something that's much easier to understand and enjoy. Or whatever.

Anyway, after Hughes had hooked an aimless shot across goal and well wide, Neil Cox was a little unfortunate when a long ball hit him on the back as he concentrated on tracking his opponent. The ball fell kindly to McSheffrey, who, with Alec Chamberlain already out of his goal to collect the through-ball, appeared certain to score into an empty net, only to be foiled by a flying save from the keeper. Still, it ran across to Hughes, and McSheffrey bounced a close-range header into the corner from the resulting cross. Really, though, the goal's only relevance was to bring the Rookery to its feet in mock celebration and to enable the Coventry fans to entertain us with some gallows humour for the final five minutes. The second was rather better, if even less relevant...a neat passing move ending with Eustace rounding Chamberlain and knocking the ball into an empty net with the game's last kick.

By that time, we were all preparing to acclaim one of the most comprehensive Watford victories of recent years, and certainly one of the most enjoyable. While we might've demanded to see a more assertive, committed Watford after the painful experience at Portsmouth, we had no right at all to expect such a total rout of (joint) table-topping opposition. It was simply wonderful, quite inspired...and it will live long in the memory.

Just enjoy it. For we can't expect to be given such space too often, nor will we take advantage quite so gleefully every time...but we know that it can happen. We know that the result of the re-building process needn't be dour and worthy, that it might ally hard work with blinding football. That it might be quite special.

The Ray Lewington era didn't start here.

It took off.