By Dave Messenger
I've never really liked Carling. I'm more of a Stella man myself. Carling is, generally speaking, not kept very well in the majority of pubs, and on those occasions when I have been forced to drink it, I've been left feeling very unimpressed. Carling's sponsorship of this most spirit sapping of football tournaments is never likely to get me to drink the stuff and twenty minutes into this match, I felt much the same about the Carling Cup contribution to football...one of those evenings where you just hope that a Stella moment will come along.
Of course, I didn't expect it to be any different. For one, whenever I volunteer to write the BSaD match report for a home game, I always get some sort of turgid affair to deal with. Witness my thoughts on last season's home game with Nottingham Forest for further proof. Coupled with the memory of other painful games in this competition over the years (pick from Cambridge again in 1998, Wigan 1999, Notts County 2000, Plymouth 2001, and so on, and so on), you'll forgive me for feeling less than enthusiastic as I walked down Occupation Road.
And this was largely a downright stinker. Two forced changes from Saturday's fabulous win at Leicester saw a first start of the season for Ashley Young, while Jay DeMerit, the recent signing from Northwood and my American girlfriend's new favourite player, started at centre half. In fact, DeMerit's unfussy and calm display alongside Coxy was a relative highlight of a mind-numbingly boring first half, while Young failed to shine until the closing stages of the game when he moved to the right-hand side. One in the eye for those who believe Ashley is ready for a full run in the team, we'll get far more from him as a late sub, for now.
As I may have hinted, not an awful lot happened for long spells. Cambridge passed the ball nicely and the Gallic influence on their game was plain to see. Seldom have a Fourth Division team knocked the ball around so nicely. Didn't get them very far though, as Watford's defence dealt with the U's sporadic attempts at attacking with the minimum of effort. Sadly, Cambridge had similar ease in dealing with anything we could throw at them. The midfield never seemed to get going, while Helguson and Webber seemed a bit off the pace after their efforts at the Crisp Bowl.
As far as chances go, I've been generous and counted Neal Ardley sweeping a free-kick well wide of the post, and Ashley Young's weak effort into the arms of Ruddy as sort of quarter chances-ish. The best sight of goal for either team came from the left boot of Paul Mayo, as his free kick took a deflection, hit a post and rolled along the goal-line. The excitement of it all was too much for one of our group, who chose that moment to defect to Harold's Alcoholic Emporium a good deal earlier than is recommended. Your reporter would like to be able to claim that he manfully sat out the half before retiring for a cheeky scoop, but Helguson's tame header from a floaty Cox cross on thirty-eight minutes was the last of the half that the remainder of our merry band saw. It was one of those nights....
The second half yielded little more entertainment, at first. Cambridge actually looked the more lively, as Luke Guttridge, a twentieth minute sub for the U's, caused one or two anxious moments for the new look defence. Firstly, he was on the spot to have a go at a ball which bounced around the area menacingly, but Jermaine Darlington was on hand with a slide block. Guttridge then blasted a free-kick wide and to finish his trio of chances, the youngster who had been dropped by Cambridge for fighting with a team-mate, showcased his promise with a neat lob over Richard Lee that also cleared the crossbar.
Watford wasted little time in making changes. Bruce Dyer and Hameur Bouazza brought a bit of life to our limp attack on sixty-three minutes, replacing Helguson and Webber. Shortly afterwards, Neil Cox had Watford's best chance so far as a set piece move ended with the former Watford skipper stabbing a shot into the arms of the Fenlands side's impressive young keeper John Ruddy. On seventy-seven minutes, Watford made their final change and introduced young Andy Ferrell for his debut in place of Paul Devlin, just as the debate began about whether it would be better for Cambridge to grab a late winner than to have to endure thirty more minutes of intense tedium.
Ferrell's first touch saw him link nicely on the left with Paul Mayo and it was the Geordie newcomer who then lit the blue touch paper as suddenly, and from nowhere, Watford sparked into life. Dyer flicked a long Lee launch into Ferrell's path. His first touch killed the ball in an instant, his second saw a fizzing drive from the edge of the box fly past Ruddy and into the bottom corner to give Watford the lead. The goal was reminiscent of Peter Beardsley in his heyday, an early indication that the youngster can produce moments of sheer class, just like his mentor could. Helloooooo, Andy.
Ferrell also impressed for his spirit, as a clumping challenge earned him a booking. He followed that little gem with a long chase into the corner for a ball, which seemed to be going out of play. The sprint ended with a slide to keep it in, and a peach of a cross, which Bouazza caught with a sweet volley that fully extended Ruddy, who saved dramatically. Watford were finally well in the ascendancy and Dyer could have made it two in the last minute, Ruddy again excelled to stop with his legs.
Having waited eighty-two minutes for that Stella moment from Ferrell, we left the Vic feeling happy enough, despite the long periods of blandness. These games are never classics and never will be, but if we get a decent, money-spinning draw from the Second Round out of it, then so much the better. In the greater scheme of things, a win is a win, and winning is a good habit. Another clean sheet for Richard Lee is not to be scoffed at either...that's three in five starts so far and evidence that we are a lot more solid as a team so far this season. Ferrell also gave notice that he is ready for a chance at bringing a touch of much needed creativity to the midfield. It'll be interesting to see what Ray does with the team come Saturday....