Football League Division Two, 13/11/04, 3.00pm
It's our club again...
By Ash Peters
I felt optimistic. I've noticed I do before nearly every game this season; I know we've played very poorly on occasions but I've never felt let down, and I've never seen the team appear to give up, even when the enthusiasm of the fans has long drained away. I didn't here either.
United started well, forcing a corner which Lee had to come and claim. Shaw was lively, and with the threat of Bromby's long throws down the right and a great interplay and understanding between Geary and Quinn on the left, they carried the greater momentum. Shaw forced a decent save from an offside position, Cadamarteri also flagged when on a promising run. We were just a little slow to the ball, slightly sluggish to start with. Our attacks were similarly curtailed but made further from goal - Ardley constantly probing for the perfect through ball but space was at a premium with the Sheffield centre backs relatively untroubled. Bouazza ran constantly, straining for better possession but perhaps not quite on the same wavelength as the combative but ill-fed Dyer. Lewington was the manager pacing the perimeter of his coaching area, whilst Warnock, perhaps mindful of his harsh sending off against us in the League Cup, had a more satisfied air.
The mood in the stands became indifferent. Maybe being so unexpectedly clear of the relegation battle has taken the edge off our enthusiasm for games like this, but the silence was at times eerie. With the United fans similarly waiting to be entertained, it was easy to be distracted from the game itself. From my lofty position in the stands, I looked around the top of the ground; how many flagpoles do they need? They don't have normal floodlights: if you are lost in Sheffield, look for the flagpoles.
Gradually United came down to our frustrating level. Attacks stopped further and further from goal, and a dull battle seemed inevitable. Again Gunnarsson was to the fore, those heart in mouth stretching tackles as accurate as ever. Catching a long through ball, Lee was knocked out of the area by Shaw, but even this could not stir the stands for long, and the booing soon subsided. The moments of interest were those you'd normally feel didn't warrant a mention: Liddell's free kicks, accurate enough but even with Lee a little less sure than usual, not truly fearsome; some decent overlapping runs from Geary, keeping Smith on his toes but never quite having the room for the cross he needed; Dyer tirelessly working to hold the ball up but always crowded out before he could turn or find a team-mate in space. Bouazza drove a shot across goal from the left, Gunnarsson from the right. I supposed we'd been spoiled enough this season.
When United took the lead it was as unwelcome and unexpected a surprise as Sant's car engine finally giving up the ghost halfway back down the M1. Seizing the initiative, Quinn played a one two through the middle of our midfield and from over twenty-five yards drove the ball over Lee and into the underside of the crossbar with such force it went up and down several times, and the keeper had time to rush back and attempt a last desperate, and ultimately hopeless, clearance. It was in a different league to the quality of play we had seen so far and must have been immensely satisfying to hit; being honest, I'd have celebrated a goal like that playing in the park with no goalkeeper, let alone on a stage like this.
Even such excellence shocked no one else into action - not our players, not theirs, and least of all those people watching. When Ray thanks us for our support, this game will be our little secret. The remaining fifteen minutes saw the game revert to type, Shaw testing us again from a corner, Cox driving wide as he tends to when set up from a thirty yard free kick, with about a thirty yard run up. Half-time, ho-hum.
As I corrected the spelling on my handwritten team-sheet, with the aid of Blades TV, (three pounds for a programme? I thought it was Wednesday Ken Bates was trying to invest in!) I felt this might be the time for us fans to try and inspire the team ourselves.
It seemed others agreed, and we roared the team out and began to go through our standard repertoire of songs. For all of about two minutes. Again United started quickly, Shaw blundering through to set up a chance for Liddell whose low drive hit the inside of the post and returned, fortunately, to safety. Cadamarteri glanced a header goal-ward. They were once more in the ascendancy. Up in row Z, the cold really began to bite. Quinn's diagonal run from left to right left him too tired for another thunderbolt. At the other end, our efforts were more forlorn - a Chambers header from a corner hit Dyer, who, in the area, again could not turn for bodies. Young, who will surely emerge as a consistent winger of quality, but as yet still show just flashes, replaced Chambers, to be immediately booked. I felt their head of steam would again run out but we did not have the ideas to take advantage, it seemed. Scott Fitzgerald, merely for getting changed in preparation for his entrance, made his way into my notes. Lee dropped a corner, giving Shaw a decent chance that the young keeper had to do well to recover and save from. Then, Gunnarsson decided he'd had enough.
So many games like this, in the past, would have petered out into a home win. Even in the very last games of the Taylor years, and certainly under any other recent manager you care to mention, we've allowed ourselves to be a soft touch away from home at times. Who could blame the United fans for sitting back contently in anticipation of the three points? Under Lewington this year, however, we are a different side. I could say it came from nothing, but it came from tenacity, aggression, and generally caring. Taking down a looping ball on the outside corner of the home penalty area, back to goal, the Icelander hooked a brilliant volley over his shoulder and over Kenny. It was simply superb, in the crowd we had no choice but to make the maximum noise possible, banging the corrugated iron at the back of the stands, singing and clapping for all we were worth. Again, for all of two minutes. I never really wanted to find out, but we now know the players can get results like this with little or no support. Maybe Lewington should have a word with Pete Winkleman and the Franchise bosses.
There was slightly more action in the final half hour, it has to be said. Fitzgerald came on, although a little less sharp than his best. Ardley flicked a header wide from an offside position. Smith was nutmegged by Geary, but Thirlwell could only shoot over from the resultant Quinn cross. Gunnarsson tried to repeat his earlier feat, with predictably less success. Warnock, always less negative in his tactics than his whingeing press conferences, threw on Lester - 'Super Jack Lester!', yelled the bored PA man - and later, winger Jonathon Forte.
We began to be a little slower about what we did; Smith took his time over a throw-in, Lee was hurried up by the referee over a goal-kick. In play, however we were as committed as ever. With five minutes left, Dyer scored, but having clearly impeded his marker. Fitzgerald as usual chased everything, but with little joy. Smith, having understandably struggled against Geary and Quinn, now found Forte a tricky opponent, but several step-overs later the young player messed up his cross. Later, Darlington, again willing to get forward but reliable at the back, slipped but headed out the resultant corner. The home side were now playing three up front with the introduction of Billy Sharp, but got only booing from their fans. They had to have one more chance, but fortunately, from a scramble, it fell to Forte, who slashed wildly wide from the left corner of the six yard box. Another point, hard earned.
We waved to the team coach, standing on the grass verge of the M1 as they sped past our stricken Fiesta, more to keep warm than anything. To be honest, though, I couldn't feel more affection for the club right now if they'd stopped, furnished us with as many rub-downs and isotonic sports drinks as we could handle, and towed us home. This Watford team works hard, has the right attitude, carries no one, features no mercenaries or over paid former superstars, and even has cup runs. Call me unambitious, but that's pretty much all I wanted from the club.