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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 07/08/04, 3.00pm
Preston North End
Solar power
By Ian Grant

It's hot. It's really bleedin' hot. Like the air has started to thicken and oppress your freedom of movement. Like the food that you consume to keep yourself from swooning dramatically has a use-by date of about ten minutes from purchase, before it becomes a ghastly and potentially hazardous lukewarm mush. My sandwiches have turned into a drink by the time that we return to the car. It's not a day for doing stuff, frankly.

Of course, the nature of the Internet is such that a number of people will be reading this report in far-flung and exotic places where yesterday's temperatures would be considered good cause for digging out scarves and mittens. Where your brain evaporates within thirty seconds of leaving the shade, and suchlike. But if we were used to that kind of thing in these parts, we would never have invented something as energetic, both for players and spectators, as football in the first place. We would've invented something that involved rather a lot of general lounging and loitering, with beer, tea and non-liquid sandwiches to refresh everyone when it all felt too much like hard work. Cricket, in other words.

It's a curious occasion, then. Here we are, eager to analyse and dissect and predict...and willing to base our opinions on something that takes place in conditions that are completely untypical of what will follow over the next nine months. Sitting in the shade of the stand, it's easy to forget the impact of the weather...until you emerge into the sunlight on your way out at the end, and you're physically beaten back by a wave of sheer, savage solar energy. Yeah, I know...they're well-paid professional athletes and everything. But Christ, this would be about physical survival, not about peak performance. Drawing conclusions on the basis of one game would be - and often is - absurd at any time. More so now than ever.

Let's not bother, then. Let's take this as it comes - that is, thoroughly entertaining, if completely frustrating, knock-about nonsense in ridiculous weather. When we look back in May, we'll be able to nod wisely and say that we saw the patterns emerging here...but such was the random, wonky nature of the contest that that'll be true whatever happens over the next nine months, from relegation to automatic promotion and all points in between. It'll make sense in hindsight. Not now, though. Not even if you squint really hard.

It's three points, of course, and it's always nice - just nice, not essential - to get things moving as early as possible. Worth remembering, though, that we had much more important concerns than a narrow defeat in a chaotic match at this time last year. Perspective, please. Besides, with cheerful, carefree talk of a top ten finish in some quarters, it'd do no harm at all to have expectations deflated early on, provided that the deflation doesn't get out of control. Whatever else we achieve this season, survival is the first, and only significant, requirement. Anything else is a considerable bonus.

And a win here - not such a remote possibility, in the end - would've been a bit of a bonus too, after such long periods of reliance on the defence to prevent Preston from taking complete control. It was a match that was book-ended by spells of fierce, exciting and damn nearly decisive Watford pressure, but that held more worrying detail in between...for there was much that was energetic and committed, but a great deal of it got us nowhere. In particular, the midfield scrapped and chased admirably throughout, especially given the conditions, but only seemed able to keep the ball and relieve the accumulating pressure when Preston withdrew to protect their lead late on.

In that respect, we made things hard for ourselves. Perhaps more significantly, we didn't make them difficult enough for Preston, whose defence looked seriously pedestrian in the opening minutes. Then, Danny Webber's persistence on the left wing won possession and, although Paul Devlin's inexact connection with the resulting cross merely sent the ball bouncing into the heart of the penalty area, Brynjar Gunnarsson, with his first touch as a proper Watford player, executed a fine overhead to bring an equally fine, low save from Lonergan. The perfect start, nearly. We looked bright, sharp, and confident, while Preston showed signs of nerves...and we didn't capitalise on it.

Why? Because we didn't get controlled possession to the front players, both of whom appeared to have ideas aplenty when they did get the ball at their feet, and the ability to create space to bring others into play too. It's the nature of the Second Division, of course. Should be used to it by now, I suppose. But it's still deeply frustrating sometimes, and the relative ease with which we created decent chances was offset by the difficulty of getting that far up the pitch in the first place. After Bruce Dyer, released by a splendid through-ball from Neal Ardley, had shot into the side netting on seven minutes, we were restricted to very occasional breaks as the initiative was rather squandered.

Which isn't to suggest that we didn't continue to battle bloody hard. On the contrary, for it was precisely that battling which prevented Preston from taking advantage of a number of promising situations as the game began to swing in their favour. Defensively, we weren't always tight or cohesive, and we struggled to cope with the direct, uncomplicated runs made by Cresswell and Fuller, particularly when they resulted from our own misplaced passes, often conceding the ball in dangerous, foolhardy positions. But we were certainly aggressive, an example set by Sean Dyche - the change of captaincy is one of the summer's more interesting, and least discussed, developments, I think - and followed by others throughout. Not pretty, but just about effective. And, given that conditions will be more forgiving of an energetic, pressing style of football in the coming months, quietly encouraging in some ways.

That said, good fortune played its part. The home side didn't create the chances that their domination of possession might've demanded, but we couldn't deny them entirely, nor could we prevent ourselves from making a couple of vital, ill-timed lapses. There had already been one or two sharp inhales around the away section before Fuller's swaying, magnetic run finished with a side-footed shot that ambled around the post in much the same casual, potentially devastating style as the run itself. Then, on nineteen minutes, we were again guilty of losing the ball cheaply and leaving ourselves dreadfully exposed, and Richard Lee shovelled Cresswell's curled shot around the post with two hands. Ten more minutes, and a well-worked free kick on the right ended with a Fuller overhead that drifted a couple of yards wide. Riding our luck, just a bit.

And so it proved. In the end, having defended pretty well in open play, we were undone by a very simple set piece. Just a lump forward from deep on the left, a flick inside the area, and then Cresswell taking a touch before bumbling a volley across and into the bottom corner. Disappointing, after so much hard work...and hopefully not something that we'll be repeating as often as last term. One down, and by half-time, we were terribly lucky not to be in a worse position, after another of those ambling dribbles from Fuller, a right slippery customer, had concluded with a rocket against the underside of the bar. The ball bounced down, and Lewis beat Jack Smith to turn it in...only to have his, and the PA's, celebrations curtailed by the award of a free kick for handball and a booking for his troubles. Even assuming that the referee called it correctly, we were still desperately close to being beaten by the interval....

In the end, it was a game of such moments. That one went for us, too many others went for Preston. As an example, Danny Webber's sudden burst of pace to reach a long ball after twenty-nine minutes, and good fortune when Davis' clearance hit his hand without attracting the referee's attention and fell back into his path. After that, however, he was away, and only the defender's grappling prevented him from speeding clear towards goal. He was honest, persisting with his run and scraping a shot well wide, rather than being "professional" and making sure that the referee saw the foul. For some, too honest; for me, commendably honest...but whichever, an incident that could've finished very differently. As it was, the first forty-five minutes of 2004/05 ended with a minor Watford revival in injury time, Neal Ardley's shot deflected wide after Paul Devlin's pull-back and Brynjar Gunnarsson, thoroughly involved throughout, heading over from a corner.

And the second forty-five of 2004/05 began with the first, quite splendid, Watford goal. Neat construction work on the left, proving that we didn't need to do anything much apart from get the ball under control in the final third, before Paul Mayo launched an evil, skidding cross through the danger area. There, it missed Bruce Dyer's near post lunge but not Paul Devlin's later slide, and his finish had the kind of decisive, roof-of-the-net impact that you just love when you're peering into the distance from the other end. Cross, smack, yessss.

Suddenly, it all looked completely different. From imminent defeat to potential victory, and we were reminded of how shaky Preston had looked at the start as Brynjar Gunnarsson took a tidy touch and launched a drive that swerved narrowly wide. Then the home side passed the ball to Paul Devlin, who took his time before releasing Danny Webber and watching despairingly as the forward rather selfishly shot wide with support arriving. Still, I tend to agree with Ray Lewington (for a change...) in his assessment of Danny Webber as a player who needs to elaborate less and shoot more to reach his full, massive potential. There's a balance to be struck, clearly...but in the meantime, I know which side I'd prefer him to err on.

Inevitably, fatigue was starting to become a factor, and the physical impossibility of covering all of the pitch meant that fresh space began to open up. Again, Preston probably enjoyed more possession, but we seemed to have found ways of shutting them down more effectively, and neither Cresswell nor Fuller were nearly as influential as earlier. We appeared much more secure, and it's bound to take a little while - even without a load of signings to integrate, there are still new understandings to be developed and partnerships that need to evolve in the pressure of competitive matches. The crucial thing, you suspect, is that injuries don't disrupt that process, and that we conjure up enough decent results to buy some time and patience for everyone to settle in to their roles.

In the meantime, you need yer Sean Dyches. His header to clear when Lewis broke on the left and Healy jumped clear of Paul Mayo to meet the cross was one of those vital things that are made to appear routine. Richard Lee might've got to it anyway, but you wouldn't have wanted to test that theory...and play continued as if nothing much had happened, as one of those pivotal moments was effectively nullified by the captain's diligence. A little while later, and a long throw led to another overhead, this time by Cresswell, that went just wide from eight yards. A quiet spell, and we were coping pretty well, even starting to think about when and how to launch a match-winning raid....

Or not thinking at all, at one vital moment. Nothing doing, really, as Jack Smith contested untidily with Fuller inside the penalty area, before the ball ran free towards Lewis on the left. Taking the ball away from goal in order to play it wide for a cross, he was rashly chopped down by a Paul Devlin challenge that was all impetuous temper and no brain. Just daft, not only completely unnecessary but highly unlikely to succeed anyway...and punished by an efficent spot-kick from Healy as Richard Lee dived the wrong way. Bugger.

Bizarrely, however, we were about to receive an identical gift from our opponents. After Ashley Young and Hameur Bouazza arrived to kick-start the comeback, a great, booming cross from Brynjar Gunnarsson, re-deployed at right back, was half-cleared by the Preston defence. On the corner of the penalty area, it was headed further away by Healy, leaping and barging Ashley Young out of the way in the process. Less clear-cut than the other decision, and only given by the well-placed linesman...but a second penalty for a foul on a player with their back to goal, which is a little unusual. The cliché has it that these things even themselves out over the course of a season, not over six minutes.

Here, though, it all went awfully wrong. As Danny Webber took and placed the ball, Neil Cox strode up to sweep him aside and take responsibility. Which is admirable and everything, but not sensible. For a start, he's not really in a position to pull rank any more...but more importantly, his standard penalty (struck hard enough, but at a comfortable height and on the most predictable side) has proved to be highly unreliable in the past. If the keeper guesses correctly, they'll probably save it...and he doesn't make it terribly difficult for them to guess correctly. Same again, sadly. Decent save, but....

Had that gone in, you'd have fancied that we might sneak the win...but despite the disappointment, it didn't end quite there. Which is pleasing in itself, for a saved penalty can often turn the tide in favour of the keeper's team. No such thing here, as the visitors mustered a fairly rousing finale that really deserved to be rewarded with a goal, and might've been if Gavin Mahon's low drive hadn't bobbled wide...and, in particular, if Heidar Helguson hadn't failed to make the right connection when faced with an open goal after Hameur Bouazza had barged and tricked his way brilliantly down the left wing. On that latter occasion, it appeared that the linesman's flag was raised anyway...for which the Icelander would probably have been grateful.

With Sean Dyche joining the forward line - which is an effective way of shaking things up, much like chucking a large boulder into a small pond - we were occasionally left exposed at the back, and Paul Mayo blocked superbly when Cresswell escaped down the left and cut into the box. Even then, Healy somehow managed to blaze the rebound over the bar, passing up the chance to finish the game before an implausibly short amount of injury time began. It didn't matter, in the end.

Like I say, a match of several pivotal moments...which is always the case, I suppose, but it seemed especially so here, perhaps because those moments, particularly the penalties, really might've gone either way. We left the pitch in obvious annoyance and frustration...and that's good, because we should be annoyed and frustrated about this one.

And conveniently, there's a chance to take it out on someone else in exactly twenty-four hours....