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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 04/03/03, 7.45pm
Preston North End
Not with a bang...
By Ian Grant

Dear Ray
Preston r rubbish. They r useless. Reeely reeely bad. Yeh, like Stockport. But not like Scotland, no. U will beat them by hudreds of goals, it wll be a record. Even yr Under-12s team culd beat Preston, who r rubbish. All yr best players will be just bored, so u should give them a holidy. U no it make sense.
Crag Broon
Your New Northern Scout (onest)

Dear Mr Lewington
With regard to the forthcoming fixture at Vicarage Road against Preston North End on 4th March 2003, please find enclosed a book of raffle tickets. I have sent the same to Mr Craig Brown at Deepdale. Please be notified that we will be using aforesaid tickets to conduct a pre-match draw to determine my decisions throughout the game. Good luck.
Mr J Ross

Dear Gaffer
Please can I be captain? Please please please please please. I promise not to start any fights, or owt. Please please please please please.


Well, it was a plan. Just not a terribly good one....

Somehow, we managed to get ourselves in almighty mess here. The intentions were reasonable enough, perhaps - rest a few tired legs ahead of Sunday's cup tie, give some of the less experienced squad members an opportunity, beat an absolutely abysmal Preston side in the process. The problem was that we ran the considerable risk of throwing away any remaining chances of even competing in the race for the playoffs in the process. In many ways, you can't help thinking that we probably got what was coming to us.

The end result was exactly the opposite of what was required. Sure, we came through without injuries...but the demoralising effect of such a squalid defeat in a vital, potentially pivotal fixture is surely far more important. Confidence is always a massive factor, and we wilfully ignored an opportunity to build some last night. It is, of course, highly presumptuous to say that we would've beaten Preston with a full-strength side...but, my word, we would've had to be pretty appalling not to have beaten them....

It was an awful waste, then. Whatever the intentions, all we achieved was to pile further pressure onto Sunday's game. Even if we beat Burnley, it would be quite nice if the remaining league games weren't merely an exercise in voucher collecting. And if we don't beat Burnley...well, we can hardly expect the good folk of Watford (or, indeed, the players themselves) to be bursting with enthusiasm for the rest of the campaign when the priorities have been made so clear. "Remember, the league's just as important as the cup!" yelled Richard Short in the run-up to kick-off, desperately ignoring the fact that everything around him openly contradicted that view. Even before it had started, it was a rather bizarre spectacle.

Whether we could, would or should have made it into the top six in May is almost entirely irrelevant. It's been an excellent and enjoyable season, and a top half finish would still represent a considerable achievement. The point is that it would be such a shame if it were allowed to fizzle out, to tail off into a series of half-hearted, drearily meaningless fixtures. The players deserve more than that, more than matches in front of disinterested, sparse crowds. Hell, we all deserve more than that. Three points, and we would've been back in the race...and being in the race, with its hustle and bustle and excitement and anticipation and expectation, is a reward in itself. Instead, we just ducked out, almost unnoticed.

It all seemed so unnecessary. It was that kind of evening, that kind of game. Beyond some reasonably determined defending, Preston had no particular influence on the result. They turned up, stood awkwardly for a couple of hours while everyone argued around them, and were presented with the points on their way out. At times, it was almost possible to forget that they were there. Only almost, mind...because their football was simply too ghastly to be ignored entirely.

It wasn't much of a game, really. Actually, that's over-selling it already. Played in an eerily quiet atmosphere (the constant hum of idle chatter, punctuated by occasional growling complaint and even more occasional attempts at chanted encouragement), even the abuse hurled at a patently incompetent referee lacked real enthusiasm. It was pretty hard to convince yourself that this was a crucial league fixture rather than the Worthington Cup First Round.

Of the stuff that happened, most came and went in the first half an hour or so...and, by the end of it, we'd dug ourselves a bloody enormous hole. The early incident was barely worthy of note, although Gary Fisken's attempted chip from twenty yards in the first minute, which drifted a yard or so over the bar, was a decent start to proceedings. That, and an Alexander free kick that rolled tamely underneath the jumping wall and half a mile wide, was about it, however.

Until a Preston corner sailed over, travelling well beyond the far post to be met by a tussle between Sean Dyche and Lucketti. The latter managed to win the aerial challenge, succeeding only in sending the ball looping up into the air. Inexplicably - there being no immediate danger, just the possibility that Lucketti might win another aimless header - Dyche felt it necessary to hold his opponent off. From the other end of the pitch, it appeared to be a minor offence; according to those with a rather better view, the shirt-pulling was blatant. Not something that we can complain about too much, considering the circumstances surrounding our last penalty...although that didn't stop Dyche, who compounded the stupidity of it all by picking up a yellow card for dissent.

Richard Lee deserved a clean sheet last night. Although clearly nervous, he was positive and decisive and alert throughout. He made the right decisions, he made his presence felt around the penalty area, he produced one extremely fine save and several more that demanded careful handling. On a night of few positives, he stood out. Like I say, he deserved a clean sheet. And he wasn't that far away, unfortunate to dive over the top of Alexander's low, central penalty. That would've made him a hero. You suspect that he will be, in time.

We were already digging fast, and the dawning realisation that Preston were unadulterated drivel didn't particularly help matters. The stress levels were beginning to rise. When Jamie Hand's enormous punt sailed into the penalty area and bounced high, then Gifton Noel-Williams successfully challenged an entirely unconvincing Gould, the ball fell for Jason Norville on the edge of the six yard box. But he was slow to react, able only to toe-poke weakly as a defender slid in to block. At the other end of the pitch, Sean Dyche had seen the keeper's frailties and was having An Idea.

In keeping with everything else, it wasn't A Terribly Good Idea. If you're going to rough up the opposition keeper, it's probably best to do it without having been booked for dissent first. You're the captain, so delegate. And it's definitely best to make it look as if you couldn't have avoided the collision, which perhaps rules out charging from a standing start and hitting him about five minutes after he's safely gathered the ball. In fact, thinking about it, it's probably just A Stupid Idea, full stop. And we'll pause it there for a moment, to point out that the referee had every reason to show a second yellow card to the Watford captain, even if his subsequent actions were, to my mind, extraordinary and inexplicable.

Press play, and all hell breaks loose. Inevitably, Preston players pile in to defend their keeper, followed immediately by Jamie Hand, Gifton Noel-Williams and countless others - the former is definitely not destined for a future career as a UN peacekeeper, and was particularly fortunate to remain on the pitch. The entire bundle of punching, kicking and shoving ends up in the back of the net, with Sean Dyche grounded in the middle of the melée and taking a bit of a beating. And where were the officials? Erm, they were standing to one side and watching with the rest of us. Indeed, amazingly, the referee had already begun to consult with his linesman while Dyche was still being booted about by the crowd. Which might, perhaps, have been justifiable...except that, for all their careful, detached observation, they didn't see anything. Good grief.

Thus, any shreds of the referee's credibility were thrown to the wind. Thereafter, he contributed enthusiastically to a total mess of a football match by randomly chucking decisions around. A free kick for minimal contact here, no free kick for a blatant tug there, a flipped-coin in a fifty-fifty tussle there. All the exasperating, disruptive inconsistency that's the inevitable consequence of a zero tolerance policy. His application of the advantage rule was especially appalling, and one second half decision - a free kick awarded for the most insignificant contact on Neal Ardley, who'd already escaped the challenge to run into a promising position on the right wing - was quite breathtaking. I've had more relaxing evenings....

Let's move on, shall we? Actually, there's not very much to move on to, as the rest of the half was a dreadful shambles - Watford's attempts at reorganisation combined with Preston's attempts at impersonating a First Division team, added to general bad temper, irritation and sweeping rain. It wasn't pretty. Somewhere amid all this, the home side covered their captain's absence by switching to a defensive line of three - Neal Ardley, Wayne Brown, and Paul Robinson - which continued to leave the midfield dreadfully bereft of pace, skill and subtlety, with even Stephen Glass contributing more in tackles than in passes.

Still, we managed to make it through to the interval, and a chance to sort it all out. For Preston, O'Neil thumped a long range drive into the Vic Road end, before McKenna's fairly routine shot brought an edgy save from Richard Lee, gathering the ball at the second attempt after nearly allowing it to elude him. For Watford, Gifton Noel-Williams' powerful header from one of umpteen free kicks skidded through the six yard box, just evading Jason Norville's out-stretched boot. But it was wretched stuff, really. Really.

As the second half began, you wondered optimistically whether this might be just what certain players needed. You know, a bit of a corner to fight our way out of. A much-needed boost for Wayne Brown, say, or a lift for Gifton Noel-Williams, or a chance for one of the young midfielders to stake a claim. With one exception - for Gifton Noel-Williams spent a tremendous ninety minutes battling and grafting and leading by example - it didn't happen. Had we equalised...well, who knows? But for much of the half, a second Preston goal appeared rather more likely.

Indeed, it could've come in the first minute. Then, a low cross from the right found Broomes in space on the edge of the box, and he fairly belted his shot. It tore at Richard Lee, swerving and wobbling in the air...and although it was close to the keeper, he did tremendously well to get two strong hands behind the ball and turn it over the crossbar. Fine save, that. Other, more routine saves followed - a weak Koumantarakis header from a Cresswell cross, a side-footed volley by Lewis from another Cresswell centre - and the youngster continued to impress, visibly growing in confidence in the process. Not a completely pointless evening, then.

At the other end, early pressure resulted in some frantic moments inside the Preston penalty area...but the visitors' lead meant that they were able to crowd bodies into the box, blocking countless attempted shots at source. For all the huffing and puffing, we managed to get just one effort as far as the goal itself...and that, a flicked header by Gifton Noel-Williams from a quickly-taken Neal Ardley free kick, never threatened to beat Gould. As the burst of attacks began to fade, it became increasingly difficult to see where a goal might come from. We were workmanlike, certainly. But there was little or no imagination, creativity or variation.

It was a complete chore. The time dragged by. Preston, comfortably the worst side to visit the Vic this season, got no better. Each of their mistakes - in particular, fifty-seven varieties of accidentally allowing the ball to go out of play underneath the Rous - was greeted by a brief cheer, then a groan with the horrible realisation that we couldn't beat them. The referee got no better. And we got no better, although the addition of Anthony McNamee did provide us with one fabulous moment of whirly-legged skill before he too was sucked under.

Had Preston been any good, they probably would've won more comfortably. In particular, their failure to take advantage of a late break was quite staggering. After another shot had been prevented from reaching its target, Cresswell was able to collect the rebound and run unopposed from his own half into the Watford penalty area. He might as well have saved himself the effort, since he merely lifted the ball hopelessly over the bar from twelve yards...although, again, you have to give some credit to Richard Lee for staying on his feet to make the chance slightly more difficult.

It's nearly over. In injury time, Jamie Hand belts a volley from distance that never seriously threatens Gould's goal. It still doubles our number of attempts for the half, though. And the Preston fans start singing "There's only one referee...", sensibly acknowledging that their team hasn't really had much input into the victory. And then it is over. Thank heavens.

So much for the plan, then. It has to be said that I've very rarely disagreed with Ray Lewington this season. Quite the reverse, in fact. He's consistently made astute and sensible decisions, has been particularly clear and honest in his explanations, and has readily admitted to his infrequent mistakes. But he got it wrong here, I think. If you want to win a football match - and we should've really wanted to win this one - then you need to base your team selection on that aim.

We were asking for trouble.