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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 28/12/03, 1.00pm
Cardiff City
By Ian Grant

"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport."
- King Lear

There is a moment, as Heidar Helguson's header hits the most inside bit of this side of the inside of the post from barely two yards out and the ball drifts across the goalline to be pawed desperately away by Margetson's right hand as he scrambles around on his arse in the dirt and bounces limply back into the six yard box for Lee Cook to pile in with a diving header and that same right hand somehow hooks it away from the line again and everyone looks at the referee and the referee looks at the linesman and it comes out for Gavin Mahon to see if he can blast it through the crowd, when it becomes fairly clear that someone up there is having a damn good laugh at our expense. Someone is toying with us. Perhaps it's just ourselves.

A last-ditch winner wasn't quite enough, evidently. A last-ditch winner via the woodwork, the keeper, and the linesman's flag is so much more satisfying, even if it does mean that the celebrations are tempered by repeated nervous checks that it has been allowed to stand, that we haven't found a way to further complicate matters. "Drama" is generally held to be a good thing in football circles. There are bloody limits, though.

Still, this was splendid, in the end. The difference - making things happen - was there, emphatically, when we desperately, desperately needed it, and, for all its flaws, this was a performance more in keeping with those that had previously suggested that we ought to be in other half of the table. If you take that goal, you can see the difference, for not only did each rebound fall back to a yellow shirt, but, even though Lee Cook's header was ruled to have crossed the line, Gavin Mahon put an end to it all by smashing the ball powerfully and decisively into the roof of the net when he could've been appealing to the referee or howling at the heavens in frustration. That's the way forward, right there. We'll save the first goal, perhaps the most spectacular example of making things happen that we've seen since Tommy Mooney departed, until later, for it's always good to have some presents left to look forward to.

The truly essential thing is that not only were there sparks and flashes of a more positive, confident Watford here, but that they were fully rewarded. At times, after Cardiff had nicked the lead and again when things had gone a little flat after the euphoria of the equaliser, we were staring blankly at another awful, horrible result. The margin of error was really much too small, especially given that this was a match in which we created plenty of chances, and plenty more than our opponents. Still, the point is that we overcame these obstacles, no matter how tentatively and awkwardly. We got there, somehow. We did more than deserve the result, at last.

It's not enough, by itself. But by God, it felt absolutely marvellous, and it ought to be the catalyst for something...even if it's only keeping Chelsea in single figures....

It didn't start well, and any late arrivals only missed a few minutes of fairly aimless Cardiff pressure. We crossed the halfway line in the third minute, which was something to build upon, at least. But we did build upon it, gradually...and the most impressive aspect of the afternoon was the performance of Gavin Mahon, running a new-look four-man midfield with precious little assistance from Micah Hyde alongside him.

Much has been written about going back to a 4-4-2 formation, about starting with Lee Cook, about using the wingers to best effect, all of which happened yesterday...but, before anyone gets too self-righteous, it really ought to be pointed out that Gavin Mahon, industrious and heavyweight, was the reason why it actually worked. One can only conclude that those who continue to boo him would still do so if our other ten players were sent off against Chelsea next Saturday and he scored the winning goal in injury time....

This was not initially a match of great drama. But it's fair to say that we would've preferred to have by-passed all of those shenanigans by scoring early, scoring again, and playing out the rest in reasonable comfort...and we set about that task with considerably more composure than of late. When, after eleven minutes, Marcus Gayle smashed a superb volley just over the bar after a dangerous Lee Cook free kick had been headed up in the air, it was a sign that we were keen to try our luck a little bit. Have a go, see what happens. Sometimes, just contesting a few high balls leads to two defenders crashing into each other and one of them - Gabbidon, a key loss for the visitors - departing injured early on. At long last, it was that kind of afternoon.

For those with a little patience left, it was reasonably enjoyable fare, particularly in comparison to Boxing Day. Twenty-five minutes, and the Rookery's nervous yelps as Alec Chamberlain came to the very edge of his penalty area to collect a stray through-ball led to a highly amusing theatrical glare from the keeper, who has every right to point out that a) he's been doing this for about twenty-five years more than any of us and b) despite that, his eyesight's not going just yet. He rolled the ball out to Neal Ardley, who set a break in motion that concluded with a skidding Paul Devlin cross, a well-struck Lee Cook half-volley and a fine, sprawling save from Margetson.

Promising, then. For once, we seemed able to combine a bit of direct, physical battling with some neat football, despite the poor pitch. One of the slightly hidden advantages of 4-4-2 is that it spreads the play into wide areas, where there's more grass amid the molehills, and one interchange involving Jack Smith, Gavin Mahon and Lee Cook on the left was quite lovely. More relevantly, it was also productive, and the latter's well-judged through-ball sent Heidar Helguson away, only to be denied by a deflection from Margetson's legs. The Icelander found the net with a free header from the resulting corner, only for the linesman to rule that the ball had curled out of play on its way into the penalty area. Far from perfect, but much better.

As has happened extraordinarily often, the interval arrived with the score goalless. But it was much less goalless for us than for Cardiff, who only managed a couple of tame free kick efforts from Kavanagh that were comfortably dealt with by the evergreen Chamberlain. It had been a decent half, a good effort. But we still needed to win the game....

You know what's coming, of course. It's not coming quite yet, though. For we actually began the second half with real purpose, as if ready and willing to convert the positives into points. Within a couple of minutes, Heidar Helguson had hassled defenders into conceding possession, only to give it back with a rather hasty punt over the bar from twenty yards. A couple more, and Gavin Mahon's thumping drive beat Margetson by a mile and the post by not very much. A couple more, and Lee Cook was released to dart brilliantly into the left of the penalty area and shoot less-than-brilliantly at the near post with a crowd waiting for a cross into the six yard box. But this was bright, lively stuff, and Cardiff weren't really in it.

Which is when they scored, naturally. For all that Kavanagh takes a decent free kick, it was remarkably easy - just a flick on a ball that was drifted into the penalty area, then Thorne getting ahead of Neil Cox to blast into the roof of the net. We defend well, much of the time. And then we don't, some of the time.

With wonderful hindsight, all of this merely provided us with a corner to fight our way out of, making the final result much more significant...but we weren't to know that this wasn't to be a repeat of recent defeats. These were grim, testing moments, perhaps even more so because of what one lapse had undermined so completely. There was much anticipation as Neal Ardley lined up a free kick from twenty-five yards, then blind frustration as he hacked it well wide...and it might've been even worse, as the lively Langley sprinted away in pursuit of a long ball, only denied by a stunning stop by Alec Chamberlain and the diligence of Jack Smith in following back to clear the ball as it looped and span towards the goal. This was our season, hanging by a remember that save, next time you decide that it's time for Alec Chamberlain to retire....

It wasn't happening, though. Faced with another mountain, we were stuck at the bottom again, tired and weary and depressed. We had half an hour to score twice...and, although that was plenty of time in theory, you could imagine it ticking away so quickly, another five minutes gone whenever you glanced at your watch. Sometimes, you just have to make it happen. Even if you're Scott Fitzgerald, and you really are having a bit of a 'mare....

Just a triumph of persistence, really. As Heidar Helguson headed a clearance into the air and it dropped on the edge of the box, there were two Cardiff defenders very much with the ball and one Watford striker equally much without it. Somehow, Scott Fitzgerald managed to reverse that situation entirely within a few seconds; somehow, he ended up very much with the ball, on the edge of the six yard box and with only Margetson to beat, and they ended up behind him, equally much without it. The bit in the middle involved some fairly weak defending, sure...but it was Fitzgerald's barrage of insistent-yet-subtle nudges, pushes and barges, none of which were quite enough to attract the referee's attention, that really engineered the goal. He forced the issue, essentially. He had no right to do so, and he did it by pushing his luck with the officials. He did it, though...and there's the lesson. In its own strange way, a truly fabulous goal.

It lifted everything. Instantly, Micah Hyde, who'd been thoroughly anonymous thus far, had his interest in proceedings revived, and he spent the remaining period snapping into tackles, demanding possession, and generally being the midfield partner that Gavin Mahon had deserved all along. It was his shot that rebounded to Paul Devlin just after the goal, and only a strong hand from Margetson prevented the dipping half-volley from sending the Hornets stampeding jubilantly into the lead. Suddenly, there was excitement, noise, expectation, a sense of the gloom being lifted. Suddenly, we didn't look like a half-bad little side. Mainly because we're not, when we put our minds to it.

We couldn't keep that up for long, mind you. But there was a feeling that the match wasn't finished, that it had still to tip one way or the other, finally and decisively. As it settled back into a less frenetic pattern, it felt as if this was a prelude for the finale, a moment of calm before the dramatic ending. It just wasn't at all clear which dramatic ending it would get, especially as Alec Chamberlain was again called into action to field free kick attempts from Kavanagh and Langley, then watched as Vidmar's header from a right wing cross floated just wide. Still hanging by that thread, just about.

So, Danny Webber for Scott Fitzgerald. One final throw of the dice. One last attempt to make it happen, to take the points that we deserved and so desperately needed. And it was Danny Webber's movement, control and then sublime cross that led to the events described in the first paragraph. Impossibly, Heidar Helguson found the woodwork rather than the net with his free header; impossibly, Margetson hooked the ball out from the line with his hand; impossibly, he did so again to keep out Lee Cook's diving header. But that was one impossibility too many, and the ball had crossed the line before it was pushed out...and besides, Gavin Mahon returned it emphatically to end any argument. A great wreck of a goal, ridiculous and marvellous.

A ridiculous and marvellous victory too, bearing in mind that there was enough here to make a very straightforward home win. There's still enough here to make the kind of straightforward, enjoyable season that we'd all hoped for too, you long as we approach things as we did on this occasions.

It'll take considerably more than just three points, of course. But, whether it's an illusion or not, three points don't 'alf make the New Year look brighter already.