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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 09/11/02, 3pm
Rotherham United
Come back, lady luck
By Will Rowson

If last week's game against Wolves had represented a 'new challenge', then Saturday's visit to Millmoor represented a very old and familiar challenge. This would be the time-honoured traditional slog, no-one was under any illusions, we all knew what to expect. We'd have to be strong, determined, and bloody-minded to take points out of this one or my name's not David Sheepshanks.

And if it's antiquated ruggedness you're after, then you can't go far wrong with Millmoor. I am not ashamed to say that I love this ground. Upon first sighting its corrugated iron artistry, I noticed that it seemed to blend seamlessly into the scrap metal yard that it neighbours as if it had grown out of it and was now insisting 'I belong right here' and frankly there seemed little point in arguing. For this was a very large inanimate object without the capacity for rational thought and incapable of holding an argument anyway. Nevertheless if stadiums could talk, whilst Pride Park and the Walkers Crisp Bowl would be hob-nobbing over the role of jazzercise as a medium for social realignment, Millmoor would be steadily repeating 'I belong right here'.

The stubbornness of our surroundings, then, reinforced the belief that we were here for a battle and for the most part the Goalden Boys were indeed strong, determined and bloody-minded. But as it turned out, this wasn't enough - we needed luck as well and the lady of this particular manor was at home with her feet up watching the sodding rugby.

This is not to say that Rotherham were themselves particularly lucky, they were frankly excellent and ended up deserving their victory but things could have gone our way early on and possibly should have. The frustrated mantra of a gentleman sitting near me of 'how can we lose to a team like this?' may have belied a refusal to open his eyes but nevertheless embodied something playing on the minds of many come the final whistle. Recent years have infused Watford fans with a steely belief that hard work and commitment are the most valuable commodities in football, so having displayed these qualities in abundance on Saturday the result was a little difficult to digest.

We began purposefully. Dom Foley, keeping his place in the starting line up, spread the ball wide for Robinson to send in a first time cross which was met firmly by Helguson. Pollitt fielded the header comfortably but we were already up and running before the minute mark. Within seconds though we were reminded of the job in hand as Rob Scott sent a throw in straight into our six yard box to precipitate a string of Rotherham corners. The scene was set, the pattern laid down.

Helguson tried his luck a couple of times from tough positions demonstrating his recent confidence, and Glass sent a shot curling wide after good work from Foley. But whilst Watford enjoyed plenty of possession, Rotherham attacked quickly and with purpose. Irishman Alan Lee, excellent all afternoon, sent a shot into the side-netting, and his strike partner Richie Barker seemed close to connecting with a flick to the back post moments later.

Up front, Foley was having what must surely rank as his best performance for Watford to date. Taking a lot down on his chest, he looked very comfortable holding the ball up and spreading the play as well as accurately heading down when required. Of course, you only notice a player is doing this well, when his team mates are working hard to provide passing options and that they did, Glass and Robinson on the left and Ardley on the right tirelessly made space for themselves to make sure that Foley was never isolated.

Helguson for his part was working hard and not discouraged by a close offside call that denied him a scoring chance, wrestled possession from Swailes minutes later to set up the Hornets' best chance of the half. When the ball was squared back to Nielsen thirty yards out, Pollitt was nowhere near his goal. Alas Allan could have done with abandoning his famed composure and just chancing his arm. Instead of having a go straight away he tried to make the chance into an unmissable one by rounding two defenders in his path. This he did but in the time it took, Pollitt had found his way back home in time to welcome his spherical guest into his arms. This was a good chance and also strangely the last we saw all afternoon from Heidar who vanished thereafter.

We were having to work hard, as expected, and Cox and Robinson atoned well for errors by hurling themselves in the path of Rotherham forwards. Increasingly worrying, though, were the baffling decisions of referee Clattenburg; although having made no calamitous decisions, it seemed increasingly apparent that every fifty-fifty was going Rotherham's way. In such a finely balanced game, the refereeing performance was bafflingly one-sided and one sensed that the players were getting uneasy.

Either side could have taken the lead, it just happened to be Rotherham. Garner's in-swinging corner to the back post was headed down by McIntosh to Alec's right hand side and into the net to send us in one down at the break. It didn't seem unfair, Rotherham had created the better chances but with the amount of possession we'd had it was certainly frustrating.

Lucky half-time Chocolate: None
Reason: You can't have your Chunky Kit-Kat and eat it (I discovered)
Result: A profound sense of loss

The second half began with Alan Lee out-jumping Dyche at the far post and sending a header back across goal. Lee should have done better on this occasion but was a real handful for Dyche throughout. Fortunately we pulled it together and enjoyed our best spell of the game. From our first corner of the match it looked as though Captain Cox might make it three in three by replicating his Rotherham counterpart's first half goal. Somehow though his downward header did not find the net.

There was a danger that frustration would set in and when Foley was harshly booked for a lunge on Garner, we feared that it may all be about to turn sour. But it is a measure of Dom's new found spirit to add to his form that, whereas a booking for a clumsy challenge may have seen him avoid shy away a couple of months ago, he carried on in the same manner as before and went looking for the ball. He found it too, eight yards out from a Neal Ardley centre. Foley nodded in acknowledgement and looped the ball over Pollit to the far post. There was silence. Then the ball dropped and one of the best home defences in the league was pierced to a soundtrack of Goalden joy from the traveling fans.

The lift this gave the team seemed certain to carry them on to victory. There was nothing in our way surely. It had been a great goal and our spirits were now alight and burning brightly. Alas the game all turned on two minutes of unforeseeable misfortune. Robinson, hurtling angrily down the left, pulled up with what turned out to be a hamstring injury. This may prove to have further reaching consequences than its immediate impact of the game, but as he limped off our spirits were still came Johnno to replace him. Except here Johnno did not come. Inexplicably as Robinson limped off, Johnson did not replace him, despite appearing to be quite ready to do so. As we bellowed at the inexplicable 'oversight' from the stands, Rotherham epitomised their purposeful approach by mercilessly exploiting our weakness. Lee pulled left, taking Dyche with him, pulled the ball back and Barker had little to do from five yards out. And that was it, the balance of the game had been disrupted beyond our control for but a moment and Rotherham pounced.

Johnson's first duty was not to come to the rescue but to get booked for a poor challenge, again on Garner. This is not how it was meant to be.

Smith replaced Nielsen as we moved to 4-3-3 and for a while looked as though he may get us back on our feet. Johnson set him away down the right and his excellent cross ('Smith for right-wing' lobbyists take note) was clawed away from the head of Foley at the last moment. But this was to be the last of our chances. For the remainder of the game, although we continued to work hard, Rotherham continued to exploit our misshapen form. Monkhouse, who had given Doyley one of his most troubled games to date, met a cross form the left and volleyed toward goal. Chamberlain tipped over brilliantly and suddenly we realized that we were hanging on rather than chasing an equaliser. The Millers could have had a couple in the final moments, that would have flattered them and been tough for us to take. But the final whistle went and although we'd done the battling we had nothing to show for it.

So 'how did we lose to a team like this'? I suspect that it has something to do with them being quite a good side. But I also think that these words had been uttered more in disappointment than blind arrogance. We knew we'd have to work hard and in this respect the boys did us proud. This team always does. That it wasn't enough on this occasion needn't reflect on our prospects. The improvement on a very similar game at Gillingham was notable. It was just agonising to have our drive toward an inevitable victory ripped away from us by a stroke of very bad luck.

Still luck has deserted us pointedly in each of our last two games and there's still been plenty to be proud of. When she realises that rugby is not all it's cracked up to be she'll be back.