How lucky we are...
By Matt Rowson
"Jeez boys, you don't know how lucky you are !" accused Pat with eyes that were glazed by a combination of wonderment and a serious hangover. Over on a rare visit from Dublin, his enthusiasm is unabated by the obvious obstacles to regular attendance... now he's on the first stage of a world tour that will prohibit another game this season. He wants to enjoy himself.
The irony is that this week of all weeks we're actually beginning to realise our good fortune. Within the last seven days the severity of Watford's financial mess has been dramatically highlighted, the club's staff both on and off the pitch have volunteered an unsecured 12% deferment of wages, and administration has been spoken of as a serious possibility for the first time. One of the most distressing weeks supporting the football club that many of us can remember.
And yet within barely more than the same period the Supporters' Trust, so long in the foundation, has been hoisted up the mast and is building momentum. Pat pressed £15 into my hand before kick-off urging me to "sort him out", membership is swelling, ex-players are signing up and volunteering active support... and if Jim Davidson's putting £2500 into the pot, things must certainly be going OK. This week of all weeks the true value, the importance, the beauty of Watford Football Club has been appreciated by many. At the end of today's game, as we rejoiced in the rejuvenated derdly-der song so synonymous with our more successful recent seasons and sadly on the wane over the last couple, it felt like more than just celebrating an away win. We were celebrating existence.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This was an important and significant fixture as far as our on-the-pitch fortunes are concerned... indeed, as far as the whole club's future is concerned, as surely the attractiveness of investment from any quarter can only be enhanced by a healthy league position. Our three League defeats this season were away to the sides currently lying first, second and third, so an away tie against the Blades, also having started strongly including four wins on the hop prior to this one, always looked like a decent barometer of our recent progress.
We started the game positively, as has become expected, moving well and pushing the ball forward. United also looked confident however, and despite having perhaps less of the ball in the early exchanges looked far more dangerous in the final third. United stretched the play very effectively, a policy which might have borne Nottingham Forest fruit two weeks ago. Here we looked most susceptible to attacks down United's right; Allan Nielsen has had a couple of decent games wide on the left recently but has looked uncomfortable when faced with a tricky opponent. Wayne Routledge caused problems last week, and here Celtic loanee Jon-Paul McGovern looked like a substantial threat, particularly when Peter Ndlovu broke wide in support. From one such exchange United took the lead, Ndlovu's deep cross finding Allison who managed to deflect the ball past Chamberlain.
United's attacking threat was compounded by our early creakiness at the back... the prospect of Gayle in a back four is not conceptually a terribly relaxing one, and whilst his distribution and strength in the air are unquestionable assets his positioning and defensive awareness were more than once called into question as United turned us early on.
We did have chances of our own, however... one break from deep saw Neal Ardley pull one of those astonishing pin-point balls into the path of Helguson on the shoulder of the last defender... his shot was fielded by Kenny. Hyde found a gap and clouted a shot over from outside the area with his left foot, then Danny Webber found a space to surge into before spinning a shot wide.
At the other end United still looked more dangerous, Tonge forcing a sharp save from Chamberlain and the right-wing still looking like a fruitful avenue, but the home side should probably look at their inability to fully capitalise on this period as a key factor in their defeat.
As the half wore on the Hornets prised their way back into the game, Micah Hyde, at his imperious best, forcing United onto the back foot. His perfect throughball it was, following a neat exchange with Webber, that released Helguson into the box. With the goal at his mercy Helguson went down under challenge from Phil Jagielka. Referee Chris Foy awarded a penalty and dismissed the United defender for a professional foul.
From our position it looked like a clear-cut decision; United's support, many of whom with a better view if no less blinkered than ourselves, vociferously disagreed and given that Heidar does have a tendency to go down easily in such situations one should perhaps keep an open mind on the subject. It's not implausible that he exaggerated what contact was made, although given the bullishness of his recent performances its hard to see him willingly sacrifice a clean shot on target. Certainly, having awarded the foul, it would have been inconsistent of the referee (in the truest sense of the word) not to dismiss the defender. Captain Cox remained oblivious to the catcalls and lashed the ball to the keeper's left... a finish low on precision and high on bloody-mindedness.
Within a minute all arguments over the penalty call should really have been obsolete as Nielsen was taken out by a bone-jarring charge from the robust Shaun Murphy, a far clearer penalty than the one which was awarded. United's support didn't see things that way and nor did the referee.
For the second time in a fortnight we faced an away support outraged at the perceived injustice of a refereeing decision. One hopes, probably naÔvely, that we're not quite as pitiful in the face of such circumstances... at the very least it's safe to assume that Ray would retain slightly more dignity that Neil Warnock in the same circumstances. As has been pointed out before, shit happens... what matters is how you deal with it. Like Forest, United dealt with it appallingly badly, at least for the rest of the half.
Warnock took a break from bellowing at the referee to introduce Robert Page, to universal acclaim, to plug the gap at the back. Slightly surprisingly he chose to sacrifice McGovern, thus in one fell swoop removing United's greatest threat and releasing our most potent linking midfielder, Nielsen, as the spare man.
Within a minute Watford were ahead, and this time there were no arguments. Robinson was released into acres of space down the left with United in disarray. He sent in a low cross, Helguson got in front of his man and ran across the box to flick the ball past Kenny at the near post. Exquisite, but by now Helguson wasn't the most popular man in Bramall Lane.
Watford threatened to run riot for the rest of the half. United disintegrated in midfield where the aging McCall was now more exposed, twice being distractedly brushed away by Hyde in a manner to which one suspects he is not accustomed, as the Hornets squeezed in on the home goalmouth. Helguson went down in the box again, this time perhaps judiciously springing straight back up as the United barrels loaded with abuse to snap in a crisp low shot which Kenny did well to push around his near post. Half-time, 2-1 and Helguson and Foy considerately leave the field together to provide one target for the home abuse. United fans, meanwhile, spend some of the break fighting amongst themselves.
Lucky Half-time Chocolate: King-size Chunky KitKat.
Reason: I like Chunky KitKat. Seemed to fit the need for a robust second-half performance.
Level of Success: Solid.
At the break Warnock played his last card, having earlier replaced the injured right-back Kozluk, by withdrawing the struggling McCall and introducing Michael Boulding, newly signed on loan from Villa. As such United made light of their numerical disadvantage by going to 4-2-3 with Boulding and Ndlovu scampering around either side of Wayne Allison, abandoning the midfield and reverting to Warnock-type.
To paraphrase the second half, we were battered. End of. For Marcus Gayle, however, this was much more the sort of defending he is up for with Allison rarely benefitting from the absence of Sean Dyche, perhaps his most natural adversary. Boulding's pace briefly threatened to cause problems with one run carving up the defence before yielding a corner. Shortly after this a concerted spell of United pressure saw Tonge drive a fierce shot through the melee in the area. Chamberlain could only block the ball into the path of Boulding who, when faced with virtually an open goal, shovelled the ball into the Shoreham Street Kop. He was less involved from then on.
At the other end, Watford's lively forwards were again an outlet. Helguson, persistently on the end of attention both from the crowd and his opponents, ran himself into the ground whilst, to his huge credit, keeping his composure. On one occasion, his persistence out on the left made space for a fierce cross that Webber's outstretched boot missed by a whisker. At the other end, Peter Ndlovu neatly summed up his career by screaming past Doyley on the left and then screwing his left-foot shot harmlessly wide.
Watford gained control during the middle of the half, and had some success in knocking the ball around and quietening down both their opponents and their supporters. During this spell a couple of corners reinforced the impression made in the first half that a degree of work has been applied here, with Neil Cox twice meeting the ball at the same near-post juncture, on one occasion his strong header being cleared off the line.
United's frustration began to simmer again... Montgomery's eagerness to take a free kick saw him bowl Nielsen over in an attempt to reach the dead ball, a misdemeanour which somehow went unpunished but gave the thoroughly dislikeable Murphy an excuse to renew last season's confrontation with Helguson. Neil Warnock meanwhile was energetically attempting to get a Watford player dismissed, a desire that Jamie Hand seemed likely to indulge. Instead, Micah Hyde got the red, slightly unfortunately... his first yellow barely seemed to be a challenge at all, his second, whilst a clear foul on Tonge, was no more serious than countless others either side that went unpunished. The referee's second half performance, contrary to United assistant Kevin Blackwell's outraged post-match prognosis, had been increasingly steered by the home fans. The pleas of two United players, one of them Page, for clemency to Hyde fell on deaf ears as the game's outstanding player departed.
The treatment of Hand by Lewington is worthy of comment... again in this game, Hand had a second half brainstorm which saw him give the ball away cheaply and clatter imprudently into a couple of challenges. Rather than withdraw him, however, once again singling him out as a weak link and stripping him of much of the pride that this valuable victory will have bestowed, Lewington left the eighteen-year-old on, choosing instead to withdraw the tiring Webber.
Hand, on the positive side, has been perfecting the Johnno trick of the precise Ngonge-goal-against-Wimbledon clipped pass with the outside of the boot. Now he got to play alongside the man himself, as Johnson made his long-awaited entrance. We've not seen a fully-fit Johnno for nearly two-and-a-half years, it goes without saying that a full return to form would be a priceless boost to the squad. The cherry on the icing on the top of this very rewarding day was the murmur of "WELL IN Johnno" that rumbled almost instinctively - like lyrics to a half-remembered tune - around the away end as the Australian doggedly won possession, relieving pressure on the edge of our box.
And pressure there was, as United reasserted themselves for a closing barrage launching aerial assault after aerial assault on the Watford area and forcing an endless stream of corners. Injury time was prolonged with further stoppages, most nails in the away end got a good trimming before the final whistle went and the ludicrous red-faced Warnock pursued the referee down the tunnel.
The celebrating and singing had been in-full swing for several minutes already, launched in response to a decisive clearing of the lines. United kept us in for ten minutes, but of course we're old hands at this sort of thing now and it matters far less after such a fine victory. The party began with the players' salute... Robbo in air-punching vein-pumping overdrive, Johnno grinning widely at the centre of the throng and Alec Chamberlain offering us his upturned cap in a plea for small change. The Ronnie-Ronnie-Rosenthal chant was randomly launched off to our right. By the time we were released, United's players had made the mistake of coming out for a warm-down in an otherwise deserted stadium to a predictable response. Pat left to another night on the beers in Leeds (and tomorrow, the world) with a spring in his step. Well grinning, anyway.
Our third win at Bramall Lane on the hop was an enormous victory in the context of our League season. Six of our eleven games have been against teams above us in the table, our only defeats having come away to the top three. We now have consecutive home games against the bottom three sides, interrupted by a trip to off-form and injury-hit Gillingham. Game on.
In the wider context, this sort of invigorating, exciting, agitating, marvellous chaos is exactly why this club won't be allowed to die. Game on here, too.