By Jon Marks
New Year, new start. How many of us approached Vicarage Road on Saturday with those thoughts, either still with us from the celebrations of the night before or with hopes for a change in recent League fortunes in the coming months? In reality, we needed a change in fortunes right now, today, right here at home where Cup successes aside, we haven't won since August last year...which sounds a long time ago, and it actually is a bloody long time ago. Far too long for any team hoping to keep clear of a relegation battle, let alone harbour thoughts of a top half finish.
To most of us, though, if we are being really honest with ourselves, the current run of results and form is what we expected and feared before a ball was kicked this season. The fact that we started the season so well helped to disguise the small squad, the problems we would encounter when injuries and suspensions kicked in, and that the perceived lack of creativity would so dent confidence in front of goal that we would be at the front of the queue at Tesco's trying to buy one for the New Year. That we have two strikers near the top of the division's goal scoring charts is a remarkable and highly commendable achievement. But we are now in the business of winning matches at home and it really doesn't matter who puts the ball in the net or how, we just need it in there a few more times than our visitors and our home record will begin to look a little healthier. We are actually only a few wins short of visiting teams looking at Vicarage Road being a place where you rarely get anything.
However, after Tuesday's failure to break down Cardiff's rearguard, it looked as if our best chance for our overdue home success had gone as here we were welcoming a Millwall side that arrived on the back of a win over the current League leaders on Boxing Day and an equally impressive win at Derby two days later. The hope that they would come and attempt to win was going to open the game up was one thing but would we have the confidence, guile and luck to do something about it? The answer, which in fairness to this current squad was not a surprise, was a resounding "yes" for the majority of a match played in absolutely foul weather conditions. That we wobbled when in sight of the finishing line was hardly a surprise given the run we have been on and the luck we had in holding on to the precious three points at the end will hopefully boost confidence levels to push us on again in the coming months. The fear of losing a hard earned lead threatened to punish us as unforced errors littered the closing stages but fortunately Millwall had already pressed the self-destruct button and their biggest striking asset had departed the scene to leave us with one less obstacle to overcome.
Once again our determination, spirit and team ethic came to the fore and saw us home. The conditions played their part in making this a nerve racking yet entertaining afternoon as players had to overcome their own shortcomings as well as contend with a strong, swirling wind that brought torrential rain with it. The spine of our team stood up to be counted as Cox, Mahon, Gunnarsson and Helguson slugged it out toe to toe with the Lions to gain the upper hand, before battling manfully to hold on to the precious advantage we had earned. True, we had to rely on the woodwork to keep our points safe but over the last few months we have earned a little fortune and Millwall were the unfortunate ones to be on the receiving end when it could have been any of Reading, Wigan, Rotherham, Stoke and Cardiff.
Our first stroke of good fortune came with confirmation of the team news as Millwall were missing four influential players in Darren Ward, Paul Ifill, Scott Dobie and Dennis Wise (only on the bench). Eyebrows were raised towards our bench as we filled it with forwards plus Alec Chamberlain. Welcome though it was to see Webber and Bouazza back in action, it certainly represented a gamble. Perhaps it was meant to send a positive message to players and fans alike that we still mean business. The message was well delivered and received in keeping with the festive season and perhaps with fears amongst the faithful that we were in for a tough afternoon, there was support for the side from the first whistle and the jeers for misplaced passes were forgotten and consigned to last year.
After the perfectly respected period of silence in remembrance of the victims of the terrible disaster in Southern Asia, Watford began brightly and Helguson nearly latched on to strike partner Devlin's through ball but Marshall came out to clear at the edge of his area. Gunnarsson then curled a shot well wide after some pleasing approach work. This was already more positive and cohesive than the first half display against Cardiff. Millwall looked towards the aerial threat of Danny Dichio and every free-kick was served up towards to his head, searching for a knock-down or flick-on. That he positioned himself in a central position surrounded by a number of team-mates suggested that goalmouth scrambles would be the order of the day. Dyche, Cox and Helguson had other ideas and won almost everything that was thrown into our box. Gunnarsson was meticulous in picking up the loose balls in front of our back line. It was a little disappointing that we were unable to break from these positions with a little more effect as Chambers and Jackson were once again on the periphery of the action.
Millwall's best effort of the half came early on when Marvin Elliott struck a fierce shot from distance that was going wide until it struck Dyche and arrowed dangerously close to Paul Jones' right hand post. The forever snarling Jody Morris wasted a couple of corners and managed to attract the referee's attention after the home crowd in the south-east corner complained that he was not placing the ball in the corner quadrant. Other than a flurry of corners just before the half-time break Millwall didn't threaten as one-time Watford target Barry Hayles struggled to make an impression. Even the much-vaunted long throws from Canadian Adrian Serioux failed to cause danger to our goal. Frustration was beginning to show its teeth for Millwall and decisions were contested at will - Morris leading the discussions with the referee at every opportunity.
It would be unfair to say we looked like scoring in the first half but we looked more likely and we were prepared to try and score, which in recent weeks we have looked and been accused of being afraid to do. A free-kick was half-cleared to the edge of the Millwall box and Gavin Mahon swung a left-footed volley narrowly over the top. Shortly after, a Cox free kick from deep was flicked on and Helguson's head beat Marshall to the catch six yards out but his header landed on top of the net. Just before half-time Marshall was forced to tip another Helguson header over the bar. In between, James Chambers latched onto Cox's fine long ball and lobbed a first time volley over the advancing keeper but just wide of the far post. Just before the break a loose ball fell to Johnnie Jackson twelve yards out and he lashed it in right footed. Well, that is what it looked like from the Rookery but our eyes had deceived us as he had made less than perfect contact and the ball had in fact travelled just a couple of yards in the air towards the unguarded half of Marshall's net.
After half an hour, the Dyche-Dichio battle was well underway and was probably about even in headers won and fouls conceded. Dyche then won another header just inside the Millwall half and clattered Dichio for good measure. Inexplicably, as Dyche got up Dichio swung a leg to trip him up and earnt himself a needless booking. You could argue he was perhaps a shade fortunate not to have been sent off - in the media hyped world of the League above us, he would surely have been hung, drawn, quartered and up in front of the FA on a violent conduct charge, quicker than you can think of a New Year's resolution. Soon after, Millwall skipper (what a fine role model!) Kevin Muscat earned his obligatory booking for a trip on Devlin.
Millwall began the second-half a little brighter and enjoyed a period of sustained pressure in and around our box. But all that resulted was a Muscat shot well over from twenty yards. Seven minutes into the half, the moment that swung the match our way. Dichio and Dyche went to contest another high ball, Dichio's arms were up, Dyche fell clutching his face. We can argue all day whether he meant to catch him, whether if he did it was worth a booking, but the straight fact is that referee Penton, under no pressure from Watford players who did not react to the challenge but under plenty of protest from Millwall players who did, felt it necessary to issue another yellow card to Dichio and therefore consign him to the dressing room. Dichio has remarkably earnt four yellow cards against us this season, surely some kind of record. You could sense the belief that this was going to be our day spread around the ground, and to capitalise on that Danny Webber was immediately brought on to replace Dyche, no longer required to police Dichio, although he did appear to have a problem with his groin. Lloyd Doyley moved alongside Cox in the centre of the back four, Chambers went to right-back, Devlin slotted back onto the right-side of midfield to allow Webber to partner Helguson. Webber was welcomed enthusiastically by the home crowd, as if all our problems were over. No pressure then, Dan!
Straight away, Jermaine Darlington went as close as he has to a Watford goal when his goalbound effort was deflected over. However, we then went close to hitting our own self-destruct button as Cox and Jones combined to needlessly concede a corner. Midway through the half, Anthony McNamee was introduced at the expense of Jackson and expectancy levels again went up a level. Muscat gave him a slap to welcome him to the game but Macker was undeterred and attacked him whenever he could. Marshall was forced to excel moments later as Gunnarsson stooped to send a near-post header goalwards and when Chambers returned the ball into the box, McNamee's shot was charged down by Muscat.
Livermore was booked for a crude challenge on Chambers and McNamee's free-kick from the right was once again deflected over to safety off a stray Millwall head. Then, with sixteen minutes left, we made the breakthrough. McNamee had remained on the right hand-side following the previous free-kick and he picked up the ball with space in front of him. He cut inside and curled the ball towards the centre of the six yard box. It looked as if it may drift through harmlessly to Marshall but that would be to reckon without the sheer bloody-mindedness of Heidar Helguson. He has chased many more forlorn causes than this ball over his Watford career and here was a ball that was heading towards goal in the six yard box and a keeper that was waiting to claim it. He thundered in behind the covering defender and with no little skill poked the ball over Marshall's shoulder into the roof of the net. Cue our very own New Year celebrations.
Then we stopped playing. All those weeks nearly winning but not quite flashed before us. Missed chances, late equalisers, penalty shouts. We looked as if we were terrified of it all happening again. Suddenly passes were mis-placed and mis-controlled. Free-kicks were needlessly conceded and clearances rushed, slashed and the initiative handed back to the ten men. Livermore nearly caught Jones out with a free-kick from wide but the on-loan stopper recovered to make a fine save. Then Cox misjudged the wind and missed a clearing header but Hayles snatched at the opportunity and found the stand with his shot. Much racing round to protect the lead the followed and we reached ninety minutes. Three minutes of injury time to negotiate. We did, somehow. From a throw deep in our half, Livermore swung over a cross to the far post where substitute Dunne outjumped Darlington and powered a magnificent header over Jones. However, the bar kept it out but the ball fell on the volley to Simpson, six yards out and the goal gaping. He managed to volley the ball against the inside of the post and it rebounded out for Cox to head clear. It really was going to be our day.
A home win to start the new year. It certainly was a new start for a new year - lady luck paid us a long overdue visit and let's hope she enjoyed it enough to hang around a bit longer. And as she arrived, a former Vicarage Road favourite is making departure plans for his own new year, new start. The sunshine of his homeland beckons in a few weeks time - all the best Johnno, thanks for all the memories!