Hard Work and Endeavour
By Dave Messenger
As is regularly mentioned on these very pages, the First Division of the Nationwide Football League is a very strange place. There are games that delight you, the recent trip to Norwich being one. There are games of free-flowing football with goal scoring chances aplenty and excitement beyond compare. There are also wars of attrition, games high on honest toil and endeavour, but low on skill, thrills and entertainment. Frankly, they are best described as dull. The fact that this is a third (or fourth, I lost count) attempt at writing this report flings this game into the final, instantly forgettable category.
Watford had two changes forced upon them from the disappointing defeat at Reading. Marcus Gayle and Micah Hyde both failed fitness tests, which led to recalls for Jamie Hand and Sean Dyche, while the substitutes bench saw the very welcome return of Heidar Helguson. More of him later.
To the game. The beautiful game. As I said earlier, there was no shortage of hard work and endeavour. In fact, there was so much hard work and endeavour that there was very little time for anything else. Early on, Paul Devlin managed to find some space on the right hand side and he sent over some decent crosses. Other than that, the notebook might be depressingly bare were it not for the fact that I'd started noting the movements of my matchday companions. So, for completeness, six minutes in, Paul arrived late and unusually sober. Twelve minutes, Matt Ainsley went for a slash. Fifteen minutes, my brother stood and berated nobody in particular. It was that sort of half.
Twenty minutes, a goalscoring chance at last. I'd love to be able to wax lyrical about a slick, passing move involving over half of our yellow shirted heroes, which culminated in a crashing drive from someone which the Forest keeper managed to get a despairing fingertip to. I can't, though. Instead, I'll tell of a misplaced backpass by one of the Forest defenders which Scott Fitzgerald commendably chased like a demented gazelle escaping from a rampaging predator, hurrying Ward into one of those clearances which could easily have crashed off Fitzgerald's knee (or something) and flown into the back of the net... except it didn't. Gripping stuff.
Relatively speaking, the game opened up after that. First, we got a corner. Ainsley helpfully suggested I scrawl 'Watford force corner, and don't score' before Neal Ardley had even got across to take it. Annoyingly, he was right. Danny Webber blasted a chance over the bar after twenty-two minutes, former Burnley lunk Gareth Taylor headed over for Forest after thirty-four minutes, Pat disappeared to get the half time beers in after thirty-eight minutes and two minutes before the warmth of Harry's Bar could consume the rest of us, Ardley sent Devlin away but he succeeded only in providing catching practice for the visiting fans gathered in the Vicarage Road end. Turgid stuff.
With my enthusiasm for the game refreshed by the Carlsberg interlude, I felt that things had to get better. I really wish you were about to read the following phrase in earnest: "the second half got underway with a renewed purpose as both teams decided to up the tempo and really give it a go". Alas, you can't. Instead, the game settled into a steady pattern of, you guessed it, hard work and no little endeavour. My only notes for the first thirteen minutes of the half tell me that Reid smashed a free kick just over the bar for Forest and I got a text message from America asking me how Watford were getting on. It won't surprise any of you that are still persevering with this report, that my response was utterly inevitable.
Thankfully, mercifully, the game eventually woke up. Though it remained in a semi-comatose state (kind of like waking up with a hangover), it was awake at least. The talisman was, once again, Paul Devlin. If the Player of the Season award were being dished out now, surely the only possible winner would be the Scottish International. Having established the beating of the Forest left-back, Devlin gave Watford an attacking outlet all day, but now he was finally getting the ball to feet and a chance to create something. The hard work and endeavour suddenly translated into a period of pressure but it says much about Watford's day that the only clear chances in this spell fell to Sean Dyche, who just failed to connect to a goal-kick bound Neil Cox header from an Ardley cross, and Cox himself was denied by a last ditch clearance from Eugen Bopp.
The best piece of football of the whole match came on seventy-two minutes. That man Devlin turned two Forest players inside out and slung a juicy cross into the six-yard box, otherwise known as Scott Fitzgerald's hunting ground. The former Northwood man dispatched a diving header with Helguson-esque aplomb and the way the game had gone, you felt that would be enough. As the game drew to its close, the Icelandic lunatic returned to the fray, replacing a visibly tired Webber, and threw himself into the action almost straight away. One typically robust Helguson challenge had the Forest bench hoping around like cats on a hot, tin roof. Welcome back, Heidar.
Alarmingly, Watford are making a habit of conceding late goals and despite Forest's lack of threat to this point, they went close through the unpleasant Danny Sonner. Sent off at the Vic last year for Walsall, Sonner fizzed a shot wide. Forest grew in confidence as quickly as Watford retreated into their shells and it came as no surprise on eighty-seven minutes when Reid rose to meet a Bopp cross and head home the equaliser. Poxy bastards. There was still time for Devlin to try and win a corner, but the ball didn't bounce kindly, not that Watford really deserved a winner anyway. One each, two more points down the toilet.
I'm probably doing Watford a disservice. There were plus points after all. Nobody played badly, we didn't lose the match, Sean Dyche gave his most commanding performance since injury interrupted his season last November and Paul Devlin shone like an airport navigational beacon in a soupy fog. But it just wasn't enough. We have to start looking like we're going to score more than one goal in a game, we're becoming over reliant on Devlin, and worse still, we're looking over our shoulders at the drop zone again. This Watford side is far from a relegation team, but a return to winning ways can't come quickly enough.