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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/04/04
Crewe Alexandra
Another Small Step
By Dave Messenger

And so, Watford arrive at the crunch. Having been in the States for the last two games, I was still on something of a Derby-induced high before the game. Watching The Rams labour away against West Ham on the big screen in the pub was not a pleasant experience though, not least willing David Connolly to score a goal for the first time in…oooh, ages. The whole pub groaned as Brian Deane headed a simple chance over the bar, then silence as Derby seemed to have secured a vital and unlikely win with a last minute goal. Happily, an over efficient linesman's flag (replays confirmed the unlucky Derby striker was onside) saved the day. The first sign that this was going to be a good day for Watford's chances for as long as Derby keep dropping points, our job will get a little easier.

Happily for us, none of our other rivals in the unseemly melee at the foot of the first division made the blindest bit of difference to their chances of survival during our two weeks of Millwall-induced inactivity. Crewe, who are very much still one of those clubs in trouble, arrived at The Vic for the first of three fixtures which given the all round closeness of the battle, are not so much "winner takes all" as "winner takes a small step away from trouble but still get to look over their shoulders anxiously". With mouth-watering trips to Burnley and Rotherham to follow, a win was not so much desired as down right essential to our prospects. Small steps maybe, but ones we have to take.

The early exchanges can best be described as combative, as neither side seemed capable of more than two passes, thanks in main to the rutted pitch. Even though Watford are more used to playing on it, there is still a need to come to terms with the grassless heap our once pristine playing surface has become and this certainly had an effect on the opening spell of play. The only real chance of the opening period came from an error as Alec Chamberlain failed to jump with the highly rated Dean Ashton, but the England Under 21 striker's header drifted wide, much to the relief of the veteran stopper, not to mention the Watford faithful.

Gradually, Watford found their stride. Led from the back by a robust display from the back four, Watford started to get control of possession. Cook and Devlin both started making some probing runs, while Micah Hyde showed he can still produce the sort of display that used to be commonplace from Watford's number 8. Alongside him in the centre of the park, Gavin Mahon is playing more and more like Richard Johnson circa 1999 with every game, and it was the midfield powerhouse who had Watford's first on target shot as he forced the impressive Ben Williams to tip a drive round the post.

On the half hour mark, Watford took the lead. A ball into the box was held up well by Heidar Helguson, who spent his day battling manfully for the team. The Icelandic forward rolled the ball into the path of Hyde. Wonders will never cease and rather than spray the ball to the wings, Hyde produced a shot on goal. He got to try another straight away as his first effort rebounded back to him, this time a swing with the left boot nestled into the bottom corner of the Crewe goal. Hyde's first for a year and what's the betting he scores again at Burnley.

The goal visibly lifted Watford's display, perhaps they were spurred on by the surprise of seeing Micah having a dig at goal. Devlin curled in a cute cross, which Helguson rose highest to head wide. Then Helguson himself fed Cook, whose turn, run and shot deserved a goal but skimmed the crossbar. Marcus Gayle then strode forward to have a go from a direct free-kick, but he only succeeded in giving those in the Vic Road end who'd taken advantage of the £5 ticket offer some catching practice.

Crewe finished the half by making a substitution. Unsportingly, they failed to introduce the star of the match at Gresty Road, Chris McCready. The hapless one remained on the bench but when he warmed up just in front of us by the corner flag, we were quick to remind him of his "performance" from October. Instead, leading scorer Steve Jones entered the fray and the nippy striker produced the visitors only shot on goal of the half just before the break, pulling a shot wide of Chamberlain's goal having outpaced the otherwise flawless Sean Dyche.

Watford started the second period in much the same vein. With the pairing of Mahon and Hyde dominating the centre of the park, Crewe were finding it difficult to get out of their own half. Chris Baird and Paul Mayo both impressed during this spell, both showing a willingness to overlap the wingers, giving the team a whole lot more width and making us a little less predictable. It's something we've seen precious little of this season and for my money, one of the reasons we don't create as much as we should. More of that, please. For all their domination though, Watford only created one real chance as Mahon blasted another powerful effort into the side netting having been teed up by Cook.

The visitors then started to find a little joy, as the impressive Jones made some forays into the home penalty area. One such run ended when Cook tripped Jones just inside the box and Ashton coolly despatched the resulting penalty. This was unlucky for Cook, as he worked hard to track the runs all day, just as he has been told to do. He got an immediate chance to make amends though, as Mahon made a barnstorming run through the middle of the park and slipped a glorious ball into Cook's path. His shot was blocked by Foster, but the Crewe centre half's clearance cannoned into his team-mate Wright and into the back of the net to put Watford back in front within seconds of losing their lead. Luck maybe, but we're long past the stage where we care how the ball goes in, just so long as it does. Besides, the run from Mahon alone deserved a goal..

Watford regained control and went in search of a third goal. Hameur Bouazza replaced a visibly out of sorts Scott Fitzgerald and injected some pace into Watford's attacks. It ought to be remembered that It's been a long season for the former Northwood striker and as well as he has done, maybe the time has come to rest him, as his performance in this game was as poor as he's produced. Like Fitzgerald, Bouazza is not out of place in the first team and he came closest to adding a third with a rasping shot, which Williams tipped over the bar.

As the clock ran down, Crewe exerted some pressure but didn't look like scoring. Indeed, during the last few minutes, Watford still had chances to add to their tally on the break as first the indomitable Mahon went close, then Bouazza forced another smart stop from Williams. Despite the nerves emanating from the home support, Watford held out for a very welcome three points and another small step towards safety taken. Of course, there are still battles ahead and nothing is settled yet, but the good thing about this Watford side in recent weeks is that when presented with a must win fixture, they've done the job and done it well. Another couple like this and we'll be laughing.