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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 02/11/02, 3pm
Wolverhampton Wanderers
Ten out of ten
By Ian Grant

15.00 - 16.52

They did us proud. They did themselves proud. But there was more to it than that.

Here, everything that we've achieved so far was to be tested. For the first time since our unbeaten start to the 2000/01 season, we were defending a place in the top six against one of the First Division heavyweights, in form and ready to take us down a peg or three. This was something different, a new challenge.

To look through the Wolves side, and the substitutes' bench in particular, was to remind yourself just how extraordinary and unlikely the story of this season has been. Our dug-out sheltered some talented players too, of course...but they were almost exclusively talented and half-fit players. Somehow, we've got where we are despite the effect of injuries and suspensions on our threadbare squad, yet you wondered whether this fixture might expose our weaknesses.

If anything, it exposed our strengths instead. This was a fantastic performance, an absolute triumph. We might've surrendered meekly, coming out with our arms aloft to give our hard-won territory over without a fight, but we did the exact opposite. It was stirring stuff - so strong, so powerful, so damn organised, we pushed Wolves so far back during the first twenty-five minutes of the second half that they were pretty much in the front rows of the Rookery. We did much more than hold our ground here. We sent Wolves packing.

It was an emphatic answer, then. And no matter how surprising our current league position is, it was a reminder that we shouldn't sell ourselves short. While you still feel that there'll be a spell when confidence begins to fall away and the points start to dry up, when we can no longer keep papering over the cracks in the squad, we're in third place because we're a bloody brilliant First Division team right now. Given the opportunity and seizing it with breathtaking desire, we proved it here. We proved it, and it was one of the great Watford moments of recent times.

Playing like this, we can beat anyone. That's "can", not "will"...but with an positive, determined attitude that's remained consistent and unshakeable over more than ten games, there's not much difference between the two. It's been a season of turning "can" into "will" into "did", and I'm still struggling to comprehend the transformation after a miserable year of turning "can" into "will" into "oh, bugger!".

The whole thing is simply flabbergasting. Not just because we're third either. Mainly because we're so flippin' great right now, a gigantic assemblage of everything that's essential in a football team. They make you want to punch the air, to shout and sing and cheer, to tell all your friends, to write long and waffling lists of wonderful things in long and waffling match reports. They make you look forward to Saturdays again. It's a total revitalisation of Watford Football Club.

To that end, the appearance of Graham Simpson on the pitch before kickoff merits comment and praise. Clearly, the situation remains extremely precarious, and the forthcoming share issue will be a potentially pivotal moment. The new chairman needs to be visible, courageous, vocal and passionate...and he was all of those things, receiving a fine ovation as a result. The football team may have won the supporters over...but that's only one battle in a far wider campaign.

In fact - and it seems a long time ago now - we began this particular contest slowly, appearing slightly nervous against a bright, confident Wolves team. In the opening minutes, Alec Chamberlain caught a looping Ndah header on the goalline, then did well to watch and hold a low, driven free kick from Cooper. Our opponents were moving the ball around crisply and neatly in our half, and we were yet to emerge into the game.

We did it, though. By the ten minute mark, we were chasing and harrying and breaking up the play, reducing the match to a scrappy mess in the process, with the assistance of an absurdly fussy, inconsistent referee...but we were staking our claim, taking up the challenge. While Lescott hooked the ball over the bar from Irwin's left wing free kick and Miller dragged a shot wide from the edge of the box, we were starting to gain control, particularly in midfield. There, we found Allan Nielsen...and then found him again...and then found him again...winning tackles, applying pressure, playing simple passes, always available in support, everywhere at once. "All action" doesn't do it justice, really. It was, to my eyes, his finest ninety minutes in a Watford shirt by a considerable margin.

Having fought our way into the game, we created its first clear opening. It came from a corner, and set pieces will clearly be crucial in the absence of the pace of Danny Webber and Tommy Smith. It was cleared back to Neal Ardley, who stepped around an opponent and whipped in a fine cross towards the near post. There, inevitably, was Heidar Helguson, hurling himself at the ball and bringing a smart save from Murray to push the powerful header over the bar. It was our first goal attempt. It certainly wasn't our last.

It was an even contest by now...although Matt was right in pointing out that it was an even contest in the Wolves half, mainly. That said, we were still a little fragile, and Miller might've taken advantage of a misplaced pass by Neal Ardley that allowed him to gallop into the space behind the defence. He reached the left edge of the box, but found Alec Chamberlain equal to his shot, diving across to push the ball away at a comfortable height. After half an hour, the visitors came even closer as a tidy interchange ended with Ince advancing and sending a skidding, curling volley inches past the post from twenty yards.

That was a bit fortunate, really. But so much has changed this season, and we seem to capitalise on any luck that comes our way. Here, we reacted positively and aggressively. The half ended with a thoroughly impressive, effective fifteen minutes, in which the Wolves threat was almost entirely extinguished and replaced by thoughtful, varied attacking from the home side. It wasn't always cohesive and it didn't result in many opportunities - a couple of attempts from Stephen Glass, one bobbling wide and the other claimed by Murray - but it laid the foundations for the second half. In short, we gave Ray Lewington and Terry Burton plenty to work with in the dressing room.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Honeycomb Aero
Analysis: A milk chocolate Aero, with a twist.
Result: Could've done without the twist, really....

The result was simply immense. True, Neil Cox courted disaster in attempting to shepherd the ball back to his keeper and slipping in the process, just about managing to whack it clear while on his backside. The ball was crossed back in from the left, and Blake swung a shot wide at the near post. That, however, was a complete red herring. For the first time in an age, we were about to take on supposedly superior opponents and completely batter them.

Inspired by the creative, energetic midfield and supported by the hard-working strikers, the pressure just built and built and built, until it was relentless and undeniable. Wolves were forced deeper and deeper and deeper, until there was nowhere for the ball to go except over their goalline...and once, crucially, over their goalline and between the posts. For the neutral, it was impressive stuff. For the home fans, it was just bloody thrilling, everything that we could wish for.

Somehow, Wolves clung on in the face of this incredible barrage. Murray saved brilliantly from Heidar Helguson, parrying his low drive after he'd been released by a superb, arcing Micah Hyde pass. The keeper was less confident in dealing with a hanging cross from Allan Nielsen, dropping it under challenge from Helguson and grateful when Hyde's follow-up was struck into the turf rather than the top corner. We were completely dominant, tumbling forward as if someone had tipped the pitch towards the Rookery. In the stands, we roared them on, all doubts and quibbles and criticisms blown away.

Like I say, so much has changed. When did we last sing "We're gonna score in a minute!" and then score in less than a minute, Neil Cox heading Neal Ardley's corner past Murray from six yards? And when did we last celebrate a goal like this, the captain wheeling away towards the corner flag with arms aloft and mouth open, pursued, caught and submerged by the other nine outfield players? In the Rookery, I looked up to see all eleven Wolves players lined up, ready to kick off...and only Alec Chamberlain facing them from his goalline. That says all that you need to know about our team spirit, just as the twenty minute build-up to the goal says all that you need to know about the depth of our desire and ambition. Savour it.

Inevitably, the goal broke our momentum. We conceded ground, but conceded little else...particularly Neil Cox and Sean Dyche, who repelled Wolves attacks with the kind of muscular, decisive defending that we've lacked for so long. When the former departed with an ankle problem - something that will test us again in future weeks, sadly - others willingly filled the space.

Wolves pushed forward, but returned with only a handful of half-chances to show for their efforts. Lescott glanced a header wide, Edworthy clubbed a shot twenty yards away from its intended destination, Blake drifted a header over from an Irwin cross, Alec Chamberlain caught a Sturridge effort. As we kept the ball in the corner in the second minute of injury time, they were beaten.

We were triumphant, and we deserved every moment of celebration and congratulation. Heaven knows, I'd hoped for something like this, day-dreaming about the game on the way home from work on Friday afternoon...but I hadn't expected it. For us, this was unchartered territory...and we'd just stomped right through it, claiming it as our own.

Watford in the top six. With each game, it seems less and less ridiculous.

16.52 - 16.53

This is a mere post-script.

After all, that's the report that I would've written, and nothing that happened in the last minute ought to change it. Our luck deserted us, that's all. On another day, Rae's incredibly risky pass, played across his own area from the corner flag, would've gone straight to Heidar Helguson rather than just beyond him, and we would've won two-nil. On another day, the resulting attack would've come to nothing, and we would've won one-nil. On this day, it ended with Cooper whacking a shot into Sean Dyche's back from twenty yards, and Alec Chamberlain joining the majority of Vicarage Road in watching helplessly as it ballooned into the bottom corner. No blame attached, nothing to take away from the performance.

When you're defending a single goal lead, it happens from time to time. When we play like this, however, it won't happen nearly often enough to save the vast majority of our opponents. That's what we should take away from this match. That's why I've attached it to this report as an after-thought.

This was a mighty Watford performance. Ten out of ten, whatever the result.