By Matt Rowson
"I remember when all this were fields," quips the driver.
We're on a detour. An early departure provoked by holiday-traffic concerns has been justified by the M4 deciding to close near Bristol; we meander past Gloucester, Cirencester, Chepstow, initial traffic-induced stress departing to be replaced by, well, fields. And pub cricket, which is a marginal improvement on the real thing given that it doesn't actually involve any cricket. Dave, the game's most enthusiastic proponent, is out for a duck in a small village on the A48, whatever that means. It's clearly not good, anyway.
As we roll into Cardiff, Chas'n'Dave are blaring out of the stereo. The driver's personal selection, not doing wonders for local stereotypes of "Londoners", one suspects. The driver has been at the crease for a while, but we don't pass a public house - although we do roll past a suitably scruffy Steve Claridge trying to make his way to the ground inconspicuously. No runs for him, though. Loitering in the car park outside the ground, we spot another football "personality" arriving, Chris Kamara. "My Nan knows more about football than you," mutters Dave as he passes. He appears not to notice.
A visit to Ninian Park, "midweek" or otherwise, will remain a must for as long as there's a terrace behind the goal but by kick off, it's still extremely sparsely populated, roughly two hundred and fifty Hornets spread between it and the bank of seating beneath. Two long trips in a week might help explain this, but for the fact that a good number of these faces were at Plymouth on Tuesday... Sky's coverage and the M4 nonsense more plausible factors.
It's difficult to know what to expect from this evening. The starting line-up is the eleven that finished at Plymouth, and the ferocity of the second half performance in Devon leaves me trying to contain my hopes for more of the same. Apart from anything else, our hosts are themselves coming off the back of an impressive win over Leeds just three days ago, and the paddock along the stand from us is busy and boisterous.
Improbably, more of the same is exactly what we get. The start of the game is scruffy, but the tone is set when the towering Henderson cushions down for King and Jermaine Darlington is fortunate to find the fall at his feet to clear. Within two minutes, however, the same combination fashions the first goal... Henderson's knock-down again, King's control is exquisite, Darren Purse is all over the place and King has somehow managed to lash and curl a shot past Alexander from twenty yards. There's nothing like an empty terrace for going potty on. One gentleman's excitement gets the better of him and his twisted ankle provokes a vast incursion of stewards and police roughly doubling the terrace's population.
When our attention returns to the pitch the game is underway again and all the play is flooding towards us. Ashley Young shows good feet and puts a cross too close to keeper Alexander. Jordan Stewart, ever more impressive going forward but still not quite strong enough in the challenge, drops a tremendous deep through ball onto Henderson's head; the big striker flicks impeccably back to Devlin, he drops a cross into the far post where King crashes through Purse to head narrowly wide.
It's not altogether clear what's happened to Darren Purse... perhaps not a Premiership defender but still expected to be a fearsome adversary. He looks every bit a lummox on this performance, and Neil Cox isn't having a great time either - although he is at least largely being spared the tiresome and rather ill-conceived hostility being afforded to Neal Ardley from the Watford terrace. Cox does have one detractor, standing in front of us, who asks of the captain that saw us through the wage deferral three years ago what the score is and gets a rather impolite retort from behind him. He relocates within five minutes.
After a pause during which the game meanders a little, but never anywhere near Ben Foster's goal, Dom Blizzard turns sharply and crashes down the right flank, shakes off a foul by Chris Barker (another who looks quite unlike a footballer on tonight's evidence) and takes advantage of a good advantage played by a low-profile Uriah Rennie to slide a ball in to Henderson who is foiled by a swift charge from the Cardiff keeper. Some fine Watford passing with the play stretched the full width of the pitch concludes with Young breaking through on the right and finishing disappointingly, high and wide.
Cardiff look feeble, and one is forced to wonder how they managed to beat an experienced-looking Leeds side. One tentative attack down the right ends with gentle catching practice for Ben Foster. A second, slightly more convincing, sees the leggy but eager Jerome laying back for Mulryne who scuffs a weak finish that doesn't trouble the Watford keeper.
Watford's attacks continue to look the more convincing. The magnificent, imperious Marlon King, so unlike the lazy wastrel that Nottingham Forest so berated last season, controls a long pass effortlessly and spreads across the pitch to Devlin, galloping into acres of space whose low, deliberate finish is well fielded by Alexander. Gavin Mahon, plugging away in the centre, slides a through ball to Henderson who is narrowly foiled. And still, Cardiff's unconvincing attempts to build an attack are repelled, first by Ashley Young whose surprising defensive diligence is on this occasion the highlight of his performance, then by Jay DeMerit, whose bloody-minded, unforgiving defending throughout is that of a man expecting competition for his place. Half-time, the red shirts are walking tall, the blue a dishevelled shambles.
Neil Cox doesn't come out for the second half - a hamstring, we later discover, and certainly on merit whilst neither of City's centrebacks have had a great first half, Purse can consider himself lucky to still be around. Cox's replacement is Dutchman Gerard Loovens, whose grappling with Darius Henderson at the start of the half suggests a more determined attempt to contain the big front man.
The suggestion is illusory. Neal Ardley's first unpopular contribution in front of the away paddock is to find the listless, uncomfortable looking Parry in the box, whose attack is quickly repelled. A few minutes later, Watford are attacking down the right where Paul Devlin is reprising his irrepressible second half at Home Park, Chris Barker no more successful at containing him than Rufus Brevett on Tuesday. He drops a far post cross on Henderson's head, there's nobody near him but, perhaps due to his surprise at lack of challenge, his well directed header lacks power and is comfortable for Alexander.
A minute later, Devlin's in a crossing position again. James Chambers gallops past on the overlap, Chris Barker knows that whichever option he chooses will be the wrong one and is dragged after the fullback, Devlin looks for Henderson again and once again he's in far too much space, no mistake this time crashing a header past the keeper. A slight deflection, TV viewers tell us, but watch us not care... we're well worth the lead.
Gavin Mahon goes down and requires treatment, the concern that this provokes despite our superiority drawing attention back to the fragility of our squad, but Gav's okay this time. Instead, we have to cope with the introduction of Jason Koumas, greeted with wild adulation by the still noisy City fans to our right, and Alan Lee, both of whom are effective in lending City's attack a menacing air for the first time.
Darlington squares to Jerome, whose shot from a way out is comfortably fielded by Foster. Ardley squares for the aimlessly energetic Whitley to club a left footed shot several feet over the bar. Koumas' every touch is greeted with excitement, even if the best he delivers is a bit of composure to glue the attack together and a free-kick over the wall that goes right down Foster's throat. A shaven-headed Carlisle makes his presence felt, every move brutally decisive. Foster's increasing assuredness is evident, a battering from Jerome doesn't deter him from gobbling up another couple of Ardley crosses.
And then we score again. Again, Henderson is involved, he mashes his marker again before laying off comfortably to Mahon who finds King, his shot deflecting off Loovens past the keeper. Tremendous stuff. When he returns from the other side of the terrace where his celebration has taken him, Dave's face is all grin. "I'm in," he says. "If this is what we're about, I'm in."
Cardiff's suggestion of a revival is over as soon as it has begun. The crowd begins to dissipate; McNamee comes on for the Hornets, and whilst our midfield is noticeably flimsier without Young on the left (yes, really...), the game is over.
Cardiff do get one back, as you'll have noticed, but it's an afterthought, more significant in reigniting concerns about our young goalkeeper than in suggesting a fightback that never looks like materialising. Watford's defence messes up an offside on the halfway line, unusually, and Foster comes charging out of the area only to be bypassed by Jerome. Stewart manfully attempts to batter the young striker off his shot but fails, Jerome stroking the ball past Chambers and into the net. Foster's confidence appears to crumble again, and his involvement for the rest of the game is never assured.
In fact, it's Watford who come closest to scoring the fifth goal of the game to secure a margin which wouldn't have flattered the gap between the evening performances. McNamee sends a deep cross past the far post, King does well to get his head to it but Blizzard has to stretch to a low shot which is saved. And that's that.
The trip back to Watford is considerably noisier than the journey earlier in the day. "This is the dawning of the age of the Darius..." gets a few outings, but not as many as "Maaaarrrrr-lon Mar-lon, Marlon Mar-lon, Marlon Mar-lon Mar-lon.... HA-ZAN", which gets bawled down the phone by the carload at several patient individuals. As we arrive back in Hertfordshire at 1.30, the mood is still sprightly enough for the driver to take a detour around Woodside to take in the Swan rather than the Hammer in Hand, prolonging his interminable spell at the crease...
You can only beat the team in front of you, who were dreadful. But we didn't half look convincing in doing so. In Henderson and King in particular, we have a forward line that looks more fearsome with every game. Bring on the rest of the season.