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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 16/10/04, 3.00pm
Derby County
Answering some Questions
By Dave Messenger

Most people would agree that the season so far has been a nice surprise. For me, it's been somewhat akin to finding a twenty pound note stuffed down the side of the sofa. But with the setback at Gresty Road fresh in the mind, most of those that travelled to Pride Park may well have had the same sort of questions as our car-full had on the journey north. Could Watford show some bounce-backability… was our early season form to be a soon forgotten thing… and most notably, was Crewe a one-off, as Ray Lewington had suggested. As was pointed out in the preview for this match within these hallowed pages, the performance was going to be more important than the result, and would help to answer these questions. Further confirmation came on meeting the Usual Suspects in the boozer, as the consensus was that we would take a draw.

On arrival at Pride Park, the first bit of good news was that Watford had gone with the blue kit, rather than the unpleasant red shorts and socks that we normally wear for this fixture (easy tiger - ed). With Paul Mayo injured, Jermaine Darlington came into the side while Sean Dyche, who has future cult hero written all over him, returned from injury to resume his attempt at getting into the Guinness book as the player with the most facial/head injuries in one season record. The scary one ended this match bandaged Terry Butcher style and wearing his third blood spattered shirt of the afternoon. At one point, the bandages began to untie, leading Dyche to an animated discussion of views with the officials, who wanted the dressing sorted. Brave men.

So, was Crewe a one-off? For those in any doubt that Watford had points to prove, the game began at a frantic pace and was as far removed from the lethargic dross served up two weeks earlier as it was possible to be. On just seven minutes, Darlington found Neal Ardley on the left, who produced a peach of a cross that just begged to be headed into the net by some sort of marauding Icelandic lunatic. Hellloooo Heidar, one-nil Watford. Derby flew straight back at Watford as the ball pinged from one end of Pride Park to the other. Marcus Tudgay could have levelled, but his shot cannoned off the post as the game showed little sign of settling down.

On 14 minutes, Gavin Mahon broke up another Derby attack with a typical juggernaut of a challenge. The ball broke to Darlington and the left back carried the thing fully 50 yards before slipping a pass to Ardley, who was giving the footballer formerly known as Jeff Kenna a torrid time. Just as we all expected a cross, Ardley was the only person in Derbyshire who had spotted Helguson unmarked just inside the top left hand corner of the box. Instead of crossing it, the best wide man in the Second Division fired a gem of a pass across the Derby penalty area, taking the entire home defence out of the game in the process. H took a touch and walloped the ball past the camp Camp in the Derby goal. Two-Nil, delirium in the away end and yes, Crewe was a one-off.

Watford were rampant now. The cobwebs were well and truly blown away by an effervescent display and we could, and probably should have scored more. Neil Cox took a swipe at a short Ardley free-kick and the ball fizzed wide, while on 21 minutes came the moment on which the game could have been settled. This time, Ardley popped up on the right hand side and plonked another fine cross onto Helguson's head inside the six yard box, and the Icelander buried the header for a superb hat-trick…. except somehow, he didn't. The header, Helguson's easiest chance of the afternoon if not the season, drifted wide and though we didn't know it at the time, we'd let Derby off the hook.

Oh yes, Neal Ardley. Indulge me for a moment, if you would. If there is a finer wide man in our division, I'm a Dutchman. It beggars belief that there are still those that choose to snipe at Ardley. Let's remember that he spent the whole of last season out of position in central midfield or at right back. Now back on the wing, albeit on the wrong side, he has regained his position as the team's chief creator of goals. If he carries on in this vein, he'll be the third player in a row to go from the target of the boo-boys to Player of the Season. At Derby, the home defenders simply couldn't get close to him and on another day, he would have had a hat-trick of impressive assists. Long may it continue.

Now I've got that off my chest, back to the game. The frenetic pace began to ease and Derby, sensing that we had let them off, ground their way back into the match. Polish striker Grzegorz Rasiak (and no, I can't pronounce his name either) came close, before a certain Mr T Smith got on the end of a Tudgay flick to prod home from six yards to give Derby a sniff. While on the subject of Tommy Smith, I'm going to climb back onto my soapbox. I don't think I'm alone in being a little bemused by certain sections of the crowd giving Smith the bird throughout. It's hard to think of a Watford player who provokes less of a response. He did nothing in his time with us to have earned either adoration like a Mooney, or the sort of vitriol reserved for a Connolly. Another example of the strange process we football fans use to decide who the pantomime villains are going to be.

The goal gave Derby a little renewed vigour with which to begin the second half. The first half sunshine had symbolically given way to a steady downpour of grimy northern rain, while the home side had clearly found a few dozen kitchen sinks in their dressing room, which they proceeded to chuck at Watford. Smith was to the fore, and gave one of the most convincing displays I've ever seen from him as he and Rasiak gave us plenty to think about. Watford were defending stoutly though. Richard Lee impressed, with his handling of a greasy ball catching the eye in particular, while Dyche and Cox stood up to the onslaught manfully and the midfield pairing of Mahon and Gunnarsson got stuck into the task at hand.

As far as chances went, Darlington did well to block a Tudgay effort, but it was Helguson who went closest as Watford almost finished the game off against the run of play. No blame attached to Heidar this time, as he was denied his hat-trick by a superb one handed stop by Camp. From the resulting corner, the Rams cleared straight up to Smith, whose jinking run culminated in a shot and stunning save from Lee. The pace of the game was frenetic once again, as Derby dominated possession and searched for the equalising goal they deserved. Watford started to misplace more passes and as quickly as we could clear the ball, which we managed to do on a number of occasions, it was on it's way back all too soon. Tudgay blazed wide when well placed, while Jamie Vincent smashed a shot over the bar as Derby came at Watford again and again.

In an attempt to get the ball to stick up front, Bruce Dyer replaced Ashley Young, but with Helguson pushed back into midfield and Danny Webber strangely subdued all afternoon, the change had little effect and still Derby came forward. Lee denied Rasiak, and Smith had a shot blocked by the battered but unbowed Dyche. Just as it seemed that Derby had blown themselves out and the threat of an equaliser had been repelled, a cross from Reich was met by the diving Rasiak, whose header finally breached the Watford defence.

The home faithful roared their side on but Watford held on for a point, the least they deserved for the excellent first half hour and the defensive efforts of the second half. With that in mind, anyone reading this match report expecting a wailing diatribe or a gnashing of teeth over losing a two goal lead is in the wrong place, and is very much missing the point about this season. All that matters is that we stay up. If we can stay in the rarefied atmosphere of the top half of the table then that's all well and good, but the very real issue is that a point at a ground on which we have always struggled is very much a point earned, and another point nearer to survival. It would be churlish to criticise too much when we got the very result we would have settled for at 3pm.

Maybe I'm selling this Watford squad short… This was a cracking game of football, far better than much of the dross served up in this division, against a much improved Derby outfit. The first thirty minutes of this game certainly hinted at just what this team can do. If that's the case and I'm proved wrong, then that's fine by me. I'd still rather be pleasantly surprised by good games, results and performances than expect too much from our paper-thin squad and end matches like this feeling disappointed. And after the mess we made at Crewe, a 2-2 draw at Derby and a few questions answered will do nicely.