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Pre-Season Friendly, 19/07/03
Aldershot Town 0(0)
Watford 3(2)
Team: Chamberlain, Mahon, Robinson, Ardley, Gayle, Dyche, Hand, Hyde, Davis, Dyer, Cook
Subs: Johnson (for Hand, 45), Vernazza (for Hyde, 45), Cox (for Dyche, 45), Norville (for Cook, 62), Fisken (for Ardley, 62), Herd (for Dyer, 79), Lee
Scorers: Davis (15), Dyer (28, 46)

Like Cricket, but not Rubbish
By Matt Rowson

Here's the essential distinction. "Proper" games, competitive games, are a mission. Pre-season friendlies are just something to do, albeit an occasionally agreeable something, and there was certainly little to complain about as we soaked up the Hampshire sunshine a couple of pints of lager to the good this afternoon.

The Recreation Ground is right next to the station... indeed, the train line passes virtually through the away terrace and you need to walk further from the station to find a pub that will serve you in a football shirt (Harry's England shirt, in case the image of half-chancing upon this pre-season fixture is beginning to tarnish). A half-empty Conference stadium, polite clapping from a dozy, sun-drenched and mildly curious rather than acutely bothered crowd, football couldn't really get any closer to cricket if it tried. Without being complete rubbish, of course.

The first pre-season match always feels like waking up from a dream, and in a dozy state gradually recognising the familiar things around you. And it's the familiar things that are in a way the most gratifying... Robbo quickly incurring an (albeit tame) chorus of boos from the Shots fans for some zealous early challenges, Marcus Gayle imperiously mopping up anything that Aldershot make the mistake of lobbing within range of his head, Don Fraser bawling lonely encouragement and Rupe rolling up at half-time looking as if he's just got up.

So this was the first chance for most to cast an eye over at least two of the three summer arrivals (or to renew acquaintance in the case of Bruce Dyer), and both impressed considerably in a thoroughly competent and largely untroubled display. Davis looks to be a treat indeed, scurrying this way and that on tiny, frantic legs, plenty of pace, plenty of tricks... but a healthy dose of grit in the mix too, as he revealed when holding off a robust challenge on the half way line.

His was the first breakthrough... Ardley played a fine ball through, and Davis scampered onto it, left the keeper on his backside and flicked the ball into an empty net. It will certainly be no hardship to see more of him.

As for Dyer, the most impressive aspect of a strong, robust display was his strength with his back to goal, not something that was over-employed in his previous guise as a right winger here almost a decade ago. Here, playing at the apex of a 4-3-3 formation with Davis and Cook hairing in from either side he looked made for the role, holding the ball up and distributing it tidily. The speed of his reactions was evident also... Barnsley fans, with what one suspects is a hint of sour grapes, have warned that he's not much good at anything but tap-ins, which doesn't sound too much of a problem at all really. His first goal this afternoon was less of a tap than a full-blooded wallop having seized onto a loose ball in the box and dispatched conclusively.

Aldershot's forays forward occasionally suggested a threat, but this didn't really materialise before half-time with Alec Chamberlain only required to make a couple of routine saves.

The substitutions began at half-time, both sides making a handful of changes. Aldershot began to replace triallists with more established players, which in part explains their more impressive second half performance. One of Watford's substitutes made a more immediate contribution, however, Vernazza the foil for Cook's crisp one-two on the left flank releasing the winger to slam in a ball from the by-line, an invitation that Dyer grabbed with encouraging instinct.

From this point, again, much of the play was up the far end of the pitch as Aldershot began to build, but the Watford goal was rarely directly threatened. The impressive McLean got underneath one chance to shovel over the bar on the volley, and a strong downward header brought a sprawling reaction save from Chamberlain, but the degree of control that Watford exercised on procedings shouldn't be understated. Richard Johnson was now the metronome as we kept possession effectively, slowing the game down and swinging the ball from left to right across the pitch. Luca would have been delighted, although my recollection is that we used to do this too often when behind that season...

Jason Norville was brought on for some extra energy up front, and his willingness was slightly let down by apparent excitability in front of goal... once, when brilliantly released by Dyer, he dragged the ball wide around the keeper, but snatched at the chance and cleared the bar with Dyer homing in on the far post.

The substitutions continued as the starting eleven flagged in the heat. Ben Herd, impressive at right-back in Nigel Gibbs' champion reserve side last season, replaced Dyer up front and scurried around wilfully. Jimmy Davis, barely moving by this point, opted out with ten minutes to go leaving the Hornets a man short, all subs bar Richard Lee having been (literally) exhausted. There were few signs of exhaustion on Robbo, though, as he battered his way through a couple of challenges on the left and fed Norville who turned tidily before being caught in indecision when a ball to the still-on-the-charge Robinson might have yielded another goalscoring chance.

The whistle blew, we rolled down towards Aldershot station as lazily as if we'd rolled out of the pub. The trick for the moment is not to get too carried away by all this, I guess. Yes, the squad looks good. Yes, we're beating sides comfortably - weaker sides, yes, but that's not always stopped us from looking awkward before. Yes it's all very encouraging. No, it doesn't matter yet.

If we win our opening league fixtures as comfortably as this... well, then maybe it'll be time to get carried away...