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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 19/03/05, 3.00pm
Preston North End
By Stephen Marshall

An important home match in front of a sell-out crowd before two tricky, long distance away games, Watford had to win this. It was made even more vital by stupidly throwing away a two-nil lead against Leicester on Tuesday night. However, the ninety minutes which we witnessed were very bleak, and gave us little confidence in the now forthcoming relegation fight. A team lacking our star performer of recent weeks in Jay Demerit saw an unconvincing defence line up of Smith, Cox, Doyley and Chambers. Lewington played an unadventurous midfield line-up of Ardley, Mahon, Gunnarsson and Jackson. Webber partnered Helguson up front.

Watford started off well; we won a flurry of corners, and set pieces in dangerous positions, but ultimately could not make use of them. Our lack of height was obvious against a well-built Preston defence. The continuous long balls played to an unfit Helguson and an obviously out of sorts Webber were bearing no gifts, and constantly saw Preston retrieve the ball, as Watford failed to retain long spells of possession throughout the game. Preston then had the first real chance of the match on twenty minutes, when a corner was flung into the box. Watford made no real attempt to attack the ball and Preston's centre back Lucketti connected with it, but it flew high into the Rookery. It was one of many examples of Watford's defensive insecurities and indecision. Ardley then made progress down the right wing, delivered a good ball into the box, Webber had got free of his marker, but he timidly attacked the ball and it just bobbled across goal to safety.

Watford's defensive frailties were again exposed when a free-kick from about twenty-five yards out was taken quickly, Watford just watched as Cresswell ran through on goal, but fortunately he blasted against the crossbar, we failed to clear the ball properly but the second attempt was not enough to trouble Lee. Watford were finding more space down the right hand side and Webber this time delivered a good cross, which Preston's defence just about dealt with. Still, Watford were yet to have a decent effort on goal. Neil Cox, who put in another poor display, saw Cresswell take the ball past him, but his shot lacked conviction, and Lee gathered. Watford's defence continued to haphazardly fluff the clearances. Preston nearly took advantage when Chambers miscued, but we threw enough players at the shot to deflect it wide and for a corner, which Preston failed to make use of. This was due to the terrible condition of the turf by the corner flag, which made it nigh on impossible to deliver beyond the front post (although Ardley managed it in the second half with a terrible cross to the far post which managed to clear everyone). Heidar Helguson then wasted Watford's best chance of the game, right before half time. Johnnie Jackson whipped in an excellent in swinging ball, which found Helguson at the back stick, but he skewed horribly wide from the edge of the six-yard box. However, in his defence he was under pressure and it was a difficult chance to take, despite being so close to goal. Preston then had their an chance of their own to go one-nil up into half-time, the cross was deep from Preston's right side, fell to the unmarked American, Eddie Lewis, but he volleyed wide across goal with Lee helpless if it had been on target, which it probably should have been. Both of the best chances had fallen to Preston in the first half, and if truth be told, we probably deserved to be behind. We were left hoping Ray could inspire the boys with a half-time motivational speech to bring life into a limp performance.

The second half began, and it was much more open, Watford began to throw more men to support Helguson and Webber, leaving our defence that bit more exposed. Watford had the first chance of the second forty-five, Helguson made headway down the left hand side of the penalty area, however he brushed against the Preston defender in a feint hope of getting a penalty as the ball ran away from him, thus ending an attack in a promising position. Ardley began to be more aggressive in his play and he attacked down Watford's right, he got to the byline, but just failed to pick out a yellow shirt. The second cross in was no better as Watford were beginning to create half-chances, but not yet anything concrete. We were now attacking with more determination, creating chances down the right-hand side, but the crosses put in by Ardley and Chambers were yet to be taken advantage of.

It proved costly too. Neal Ardley was too easily dispossessed as Watford looked to counter-attack, Preston lobbed the ball over a static defence, which had left nineteen year-old Nugent unmarked, who fired into the corner of the net. A goal so typical of Watford to concede. We had failed to make our pressure count, and we paid the price on the hour-mark.

Lewington made decisive action to try and bring us back into the game. Introducing Christopher Eagles and Anthony McNamee five minutes after the goal, replacing a tiring Ardley and the defender Smith. But these attacking substitutions proved to be in vain, as Preston made it two-nil. A free-kick position down Preston's right side was played to the edge of the area, where Paul McKenna struck the ball sweetly passed Lee. Watford had failed to pick the player up or close him down. A very weak goal to concede.

An embarrassing moment for the lacklustre Neil Cox, typical of his and Watford's day, as his attempted cross-field pass went very wayward of his target. It was sarcastically cheered as an increasingly disgruntled crowd were getting agitated with the performance of this Watford side. Bruce Dyer was brought on for the ineffective Webber, when maybe a knackered Helguson would have been better to be substituted. He has clearly still not recovered from his injury; leaving doubts whether he should be playing at the moment considering his fitness. Dyer nearly made an immediate impact latching onto Helguson's flick, but his shot-cum-cross failed to find the net or the touch of a Watford player and trickled out for a goal-kick. Eagles then clipped in a free kick, but frustratingly no one could make any contact and the ball just ran out. It could have been three towards the end, as Preston came close when Davidson headed wide. The game panned out with Preston holding onto the ball and Watford making weak attempts to win the ball back, and when we did, all we saw was the ball pumped high in the air towards the forwards, nine times out of ten it saw us concede possession.

A chorus of boos greeted the end of the match. However, the players could see themselves as lucky as more than half of the crowd had left early. With a tough finish to the season pending Watford need to end this barren run. It will obviously be helped by the return of the inspirational Sean Dyche, whose presence and leadership has been so sorely missed, and the tenacious Jay Demerit. The need to play one of McNamee or Eagles is achingly obvious, we lack a winger to beat players and get to the byline and deliver crosses. This is what Lee Cook added to the team last season, and maybe it is him we miss most and as gloomy as this sounds, maybe he was the difference between relegation and survival last season. This is the time we need to see the players come into their own, as maybe previously thought this season isn't just going to dwindle out, we have a relegation dog fight on our hands. We need Lewington, his players and the fans to unite, and together we can starve off relegation. Come on you Horns.