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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 26/10/02, 3pm
Sheffield Wednesday
Another victory
By Ian Grant

A good day. It's becoming a season of good days.

At some point during the second half, a familiar (but nameless, here at least) face and occasional BSaD contributor returned to his seat in the Rookery and proudly announced that he'd just been Harry Hornet for the afternoon. Which explains why Harry was looking distinctly trim and athletic as he ambled around the touchline, and why said familiar face had suddenly disappeared earlier on. "I had to do it just once," he said, and you could see the logic in that.

It was that kind of day. In the morning, at the Supporters Five-A-Side competition, I'd scored my first goal in any kind of football match for about five years while playing for the combined LatS/BSaD team against the Norfolk 'Orns. I don't play often, admittedly...but that's a goal return that even Gibbsy'd sneer at. The team also included a certain Martin Patching...and so somewhere, even if it's only in my head, there's a scoresheet that reads "2-0 (Patching, Grant)". A fleeting, memorable glimpse into a parallel universe.

In this universe, it seems as if we're seizing control of our future at last. It's impossible to ignore the seven figure sum that still needs to be raised to secure that future...but it's equally impossible to escape the new-found sense of purpose, enthusiasm and unity. Oh, I'm sure that someone was complaining loudly and bitterly about our failure to use Sheffield Wednesday as a punch-bag, and I'm sure that they'd have been joined by many more if the result hadn't been going our way...but, really, the atmosphere's changed totally. The cause? A combination of reduced expectation, financial adversity and very visible commitment from the team. The effect? Noise, encouragement, support. Fun.

This was a vital result too. Really, there was little that needed putting right after Gillingham, nothing to compensate or apologise for. We were simply caught cold by a very decent side, which happens. Instead, it was just essential that we didn't let it nag at us, that it had no knock-on effect. We can afford one defeat. Even now, though, you tend to think that it could all start going horribly wrong if one defeat turned into two or three. We're not that strong yet...but we continue to get stronger with each positive result and each assertive performance. Like I say, this was vital.

As against Brighton and Grimsby, it was a tight game. Similarly, we deserved to win it. We're not vastly superior, and any scouts from future opponents will probably be wondering how we managed to get ourselves into the top six...but we're simply that bit better in crucial areas, and we're still improving. Here, we were rugged in defence, energetic and eager in midfield, mobile and aggressive in the final third. These are the things that win matches, particularly when allied to the remorseless work ethic that Ray Lewington has instilled in the players.

For the first time in a fair while, you feel that the current Watford team would be a complete nightmare to play against. Competitive, organised, dangerous. Beatable, yes...but not without a fight. And, also for the first time in a fair while, you feel that the current Watford team is enjoying its football. It's no coincidence, clearly. The players appear comfortable with their roles, they seem to have confidence in their team-mates, they look like they've stopped worrying so much. There's an extra spring in every stride.

We'll be tested by better sides than Sheffield Wednesday, of course. But we're earning the right to be tested. Last season, Vialli's team simply never got that far - there are no "crunch" games when you're floating around in mid-table. We thought so much about winning the World Cup that we forgot to qualify for it. This time, we're concentrating on the job. It's working. It's really working.

Same again, then? Sure, why not? I'd be happy to watch Watford teams play like this from now until eternity, in all honesty. It's not just enough, it's all I want. It's ambitious, it's enthusiastic, it's passionate. It's a football team with a beating heart and pumping legs...and a switched-on brain as well. It's not perfect...but I don't want perfect, except in small doses. It can out-fight the likes of Sheffield Wednesday...and it can beat them with a single piece of stunning, precise attacking football too. It can re-claim our Saturday afternoons from tedium and disappointment.

No other word for it - the first half was excellent. Patient rather than complacent, we passed our way through the Wednesday defence with composure and purpose. At the other end, we defended stoutly, offering only one chance to our opponents...and that was from a direct free kick. Within five minutes, we'd created two opportunities with fine, fluent moves - Paul Robinson slashed wide from a typically dangerous Neal Ardley cross, then Allan Nielsen's probing pass released Danny Webber and Heidar Helguson diverted his low centre over at the near post. It's hard to believe that we were so bothered about the lack of a goal threat earlier in the season....

The visitors enjoyed ample possession, but were unable to do anything with it - in particular, they found Lloyd Doyley in fantastically bullish mood, bustling about in that quietly determined way of his to deny any kind of opening on the right side of our defence. Kuqi headed weakly goalwards from the edge of the box, but Alec Chamberlain was only extended in preventing the ball from going out for a goal-kick...and the only moment of significant concern came when Allan Nielsen felled Geary on the edge of the box and Sibon's pacy free kick flicked the top of the crossbar with the keeper beaten. Otherwise, we got on with the job - Sean Dyche and Neil Cox dealt with the aerial stuff admirably, while defensive support from midfield was always forthcoming. A real team effort.

You felt that we'd score, as long as we remained focused...and there was no hint that we wouldn't. From another marvellous Neal Ardley cross, Neil Cox climbed high and headed firmly downwards, denied only by an agile save from Pressman. A minute later, and Lloyd Doyley picked up possession as the last line of defence on halfway, bounded past two opponents and, to astonishment from all around, simply belted a drive from fully thirty yards that flew straight towards the bottom corner and again brought the best from the Wednesday keeper. He's becoming quite a player.

The pressure wasn't relentless, by any means. It was simply that we were able to create when we went forward, which is far more useful. Pressman saved more comfortably from Micah Hyde's skipping shot from twenty-five yards, then Sean Dyche hooked the ball over the bar when Stephen Glass' free kick from the left rebounded around the penalty area. We were playing intelligently, finding the spaces and moving quickly...and we were controlling the game without yet having won it.

There was one setback. After thirty-six minutes, Danny Webber was manhandled by Maddix, already on a yellow card after a vicious foul on Stephen Glass, and went down in agony. Play continued for a while...but it became clear the injury was serious, and the diagnosis of a dislocated shoulder didn't require ten years at medical college. Taken away on a stretcher to a standing ovation, Danny Webber's vastly improved second spell at Vicarage Road had ended abruptly. Prematurely too, as we would've hoped to extend his stay when the initial three months ended in a couple of weeks. It's a shame, and we can only wish him a speedy recovery and a possible return at some point. He's been a credit to himself, above all.

That might've left a black cloud hanging over the Vic. It didn't, and we again shrugged off something that would've played on our minds in previous, less assertive times. We had a ready-made excuse, we didn't take it. Within two minutes, and after Tommy Smith had arrived to remind us that we're not so reliant on Webber as a few weeks ago, Neil Cox had again met an Ardley cross and headed over. We were back, looking for that crucial goal.

We found it. And it was brilliant. Careful, neat passing on the right as Lloyd Doyley, Neal Ardley and Micah Hyde worked some space for Stephen Glass. He looked up, and threaded a perfect, measured pass into the path of Paul Robinson, rampaging forward on the left with arm aloft as if running for the last bus home. The cross was perfect and measured too, finding Heidar Helguson in what is once again his territory - six yards out, far post, climbing above a defender, header squeezed between keeper and post, one-nil. Fantastic goal, and a reminder that Ray Lewington and Terry Burton are doing more than ordering the players to run around a lot.

In comparison, the second half was a disappointment. We allowed Sheffield Wednesday to take the initiative, we were pushed back into our own half for long periods...and, while we defended superbly throughout, there was always a chance that a slip or a push or a deflection might undo all the good work. Even then, however, the better chances came and went in front of the Rookery, and the visitors could consider themselves extremely fortunate to be in contention until the final whistle.

Possession? Wednesday. Chances? Watford. Simple as that. Allan Nielsen chipped a neat ball into the box from the right, and Heidar Helguson stretched to prod wide from ten yards. After ten minutes, Neal Ardley sent a raking pass up the right to find Helguson again and, aided by a defender's slip, he was suddenly through on goal just seconds after Wednesday had been attacking. He delayed, Pressman held his ground...and the keeper won, blocking with his legs. But Stephen Glass was there to collect the rebound and send it bouncing back towards goal from the edge of the box. This time, Pressman's save, flicking the ball around the post with his left hand when his whole body was moving in the other direction, was truly breathtaking.

The contrast was marked. At the other end, everything was crowded and frantic. It suited us - defending in depth and then springing quickly into the spaces in the Wednesday half. We over-did it, perhaps...but my notebook still reports that sustained pressure resulted in no more than a mis-directed Kuqi header and an even more mis-directed Sibon half-volley. Efforts, not chances.

There was one notable exception. Thirty-three minutes, and one of numerous corners found Sibon lurking at the far post. He directed his header into a crowd of players inside the six yard box, where the ball got stuck and finally emerged as if someone had nudged the pinball machine. It fell to Kuqi, who smacked it a yard wide when he really ought to have equalised. That was Wednesday's chance, and the consequence of our rather over-cautious attitude to the second half. They didn't take it.

It was our game from that point on, even if we didn't yet know it. Still Wednesday pressed without reward, still the ball seemed rather likelier to find its way past Pressman than Chamberlain. Stephen Glass, who really sparkled here, nearly buried a rising drive in the top corner from twenty-five yards, then Soltvedt had to hook Micah Hyde's awkward, spinning shot away with Pressman scrambling.

It wouldn't go in. Thirty-nine minutes gone when Stephen Glass found himself on the end of a lobbed clearance. He controlled it beautifully - a sublime moment, cushioning the ball to push it gently forward when it dropped over his shoulder - and set off down the left. When he crossed, he struck the ball against the nearby Maddix, and it deflected off the defender's boot, over Pressman's head and against the underside of the crossbar. Instantly - and this typifies the attitude - Allan Nielsen and Heidar Helguson were competing for the rebound as it dropped barely two yards from the line. They were foiled by Pressman and a defender...but even then, Helguson emerged with the ball and his back to goal, worked some space, turned and whipped a shot around the post. The scoreline flatters Wednesday, in case you hadn't worked that out.

After that, tense moments. No comeback, though. So many things have been shoved into the past this season, a veritable loft-ful of unwanted rubbish. Alec Chamberlain fielded a firm drive from Sibon after forty minutes, and lively substitute Knight caused a few nervous heart-flutters with a run and bobbling shot, narrowly wide, in injury time. For all that, though, we just don't look like a team that's about to panic and concede. We don't have that sense of vulnerability about us at the moment. We're asking a lot of opponents, and most of them - Gillingham excepted - haven't come up with any kind of answer.

Another victory that won't live long in the memory, perhaps. This time next year, you won't be able to remember the score. It doesn't matter, though. The results, the points, the performances...they all add up to something much more memorable.

So, yeah...another victory for hard work, commitment, honest endeavour. Another victory for organisation, concentration, focused minds. Another victory for unity, togetherness, spirit. Another victory for pacy attacking football, for a high-tempo midfield, for a determined defence. Another victory for noisy, positive supporters.

Another victory for Ray Lewington. Another victory for Watford Football Club.