It's a horse!
By Mike Smart
The Grand National. Crowds gather in elaborate garments, newspapers offer 'sweepstake kits' for days in advance, pundits discuss the possibilities for days in advance. On the day itself, Radio Five Live interrupt an intriguing battle between Portsmouth and Blackburn, not just to bring live coverage of the race, but to bring live coverage of people talking about the race for fully twenty minutes before it starts. BBC1, perhaps overcome by having two sporting events in the space of one weekend that actually feature people who are famous, devote half an hour to watching the protagonists performing their pre-race rituals.
Erm...is anyone else seeing a load of horses walking around?
Five Live, in their excitement, discuss how the favourite, Hedgehunter (one of the more sensibly named horses), might be feeling. It's a horse! As long as it's had its morning hay, followed by a good poo, my guess is it's feeling fine. (Although, it's probably wondering why it's got a silly coloured piece of cloth on its back. And why there's a little man wearing similar colours. And what the score is between Portsmouth and Blackburn.) Almost enough to make me switch over to Talk Sport (sic). Almost.
I just don't get it. Golf is, in my opinion, rubbish. But I understand it; it's man against man, performing very tricky skills. I just don't get horse racing. Why? Why?
That's sort of how I felt about this game of football. For all the hype, I was looking forward to the game against Wolves much more.
For a start, I knew full well we weren't going to win. If we were ever going to win at home to Luton again, it would have been in 1998, when we were far superior (throughout the season, if not on the afternoon). Beresford's save from Marlon King's injury time run and shot was merely confirmation.
The whole rivalry thing is really a bit silly too. Oh sure, if two sets of fans are capable of friendly banter, of a bit of an extra edge to a fixture without any nastiness, then fair enough. Why not? The trouble is, we're not. There's nothing friendly about the banter. It ain't banter; it's hatred. Put your hand up if you know a Luton fan personally. I mean, really know them, and a real Luton fan too. Less than half of you, I bet.
I just don't get it.
It is with relieved surprise, then, that I note that I have yet to hear of any incidents between the sets of supporters. Still, there's always next time, eh?
I know that there is history here, and in a world where we are taught football began in 1992, that's to be welcomed. But no good can come from a Watford versus Luton game at Vicarage Road.
Well, not much, anyway. The point needed to guarantee a play-off place and Marlon's twentieth goal of the season are crumbs of comfort to take from a disappointing afternoon's work. Compare and contrast with 1999; that day at home to Grimsby, the last time we achieved what we achieved today. That time, we stormed across the finishing line. This time, we limped.
The bonus is that we are still four games from the end of the league season. We need to use those four games to build up some momentum, some belief. Because that was what made the 1999 squad unbeatable. That was what made Michel Ngonge, a distinctly average striker, a colossus; the Bazeley-Page-Palmer-Robinson back line, rarely the most reliable defence, virtually impregnable. That was what made Tommy Mooney...well, Tommy Mooney.
My somewhat negative tone so far is not to diminish the remarkable achievements by Aidy and his squad. We are in the play-offs! We are one of five teams with a chance of joining Reading in the top flight! It's incredible. But it's been built on belief and energy, two vital components that are not firing on all cylinders at the moment. Neither are Ashley Young, Chris Eagles and Darius Henderson, but we'll get to that.
Apologies here. If you are a Hatter tuning in to quickly glance at an opposition opinion of the game, I'm sorry. I'll get to it, but we've got rather more going on at the moment than just today's game.
I wouldn't necessarily agree with Adrian Boothroyd's analysis of the match. His assertion, in particular, that we did well in the first half but rather let ourselves down in the second is at odds with my own interpretation. Our half-time lead was fortunate; our superior first half possession rarely threatened to translate into goals, and on the break, Luton were sharp and incisive. In the second minute, for example, a good Chris Eagles run was followed by a tame shot straight at Beresford. A minute later, and Mahon dallied on the ball, which quickly found itself hurtling down the right at the feet of Carlos Edwards. A poor cross saved us on this occasion, and Jordan Stewart cleared. But a tone had been set.
A splendid moment on four minutes, as Matthew Spring smacked the ball at point-blank range into Showunmi's boat race. Disappointingly, the referee did the right thing and stopped the play. It was the last time for a while that any of our midfielders would get near the Luton man. From the restart, Steve Howard demonstrated what is so detestable about footballers (even Mike Newell's honest ones), as he attempted to put the ball out for a goal kick, rather than just play it back to Ben Foster. For goodness' sake, let's just go back to having a drop-ball.
In a moment that was fairly representative of the half, Marlon King found himself breaking away down the right in the ninth minute. He lost the ball, and within seconds, Howard was charging in on goal, the Hornets rescued by the speed (of thought, as much as anything else) of Malky Mackay. A minute later, and a Demerit block to a Brkovic shot led to all sorts of confusion, as numerous Watford defenders declined the opportunity to supply the requisite hoof. The ball found its way back to Brkovic on the left, but he could only find the blind alley they call 'Doyley', Lloyd shielding the ball to safety. This time, Watford broke quickly, and a neat exchange between our three top scorers released Young, who shot high and wide under pressure.
Brkovic was a threat around the Watford penalty area, and better finishing from the Croat might have brought him a hat-trick. A Showunmi run and cross found him on the edge of the area, but he could only fire tamely at Foster.
A good tackle on King a moment later brought a promising run to an end; from my vantage point (more on that to come), Marlon's tumble into the penalty area seemed a little unnecessary, and more the sort of thing for which Young is known. As the ball came back in, it was Young who met it at the far post, heading high and wide.
A routine backpass to Foster caused mild panic after fifteen minutes; Showunmi shouldn't really have got near it, and Foster was grateful to Jordan Stewart, enjoying a solid if unspectacular time, for bailing him out. This was the start of a curious sub-plot to the first half.
I hadn't noticed Sol Davis picking up an injury. What little I know of Luton tells me that Davis is meant to be quite good, and his replacement, gangly Leon Barnett, is not. I concluded, therefore, that this was helpful. An on-song Chris Eagles rampaging down the right for the rest of the afternoon would have been nice.
Just after the substitution, Malky Mackay was pulled up for a foul on Howard. Y'know, the sort of foul where the two jump together, and the defender always gets the benefit of the doubt. It occurred to me that one of our strikers - say, Darius Henderson - would never get such a decision in a challenge with, say, Russell Perrett. Two minutes later, Darius Henderson won a free kick as he jumped for the ball with Russell Perrett. So, not for the last time in the match, well done referee. From the free kick, Spring flicked the ball to Henderson at the far post, who headed across goal. Really, that was the right thing to do, and it was either unfortunate, or disappointing from an attacking point of view, that Barnett was able to clear without challenge.
A great chance followed for Luton to open the scoring. A throw-in came across the goal unchallenged (not for the last time), and Howard found himself with room to shoot. A deflection took the ball to Warren Feeney on the corner of the six-yard box, completely unmarked, and he shot wide. A let-off.
Referee Mike Dean did well again on twenty-six minutes, as Marlon King was caught by Barnett. With Ashley Young running with the ball, Dean allowed play to continue. It came to nothing, but it was some time before the ball went out of play. I suspected Dean would book Barnett, because when referees want people to think they're good, a classic move is to play an advantage before going back to book the offender. In this case, he opted for a chat with the Luton youngster, which was the correct decision.
Ben Foster Part Two, then. Another back pass, another unnecessary touch and Howard was suddenly a lot closer than you would want him to be. Fortunately (again), the ball bounced off Howard's ample arse and back into the arms of Foster. He got away with it. It was a wake-up call, and you could be sure there would be no repeat. Hmm.
Soon the ball was back in our area, as Showunmi, playing a sort of central midfield-but-joining-the-attack-at-frequent-intervals kind of role that unfortunately I wasn't the only one having problems getting to grips with, released Edwards down the right. The cross found its way to Steve Robinson, Demerit deflecting his cross out for a corner. The flag-kick found Howard, who headed wide. Demerit was again on hand as a Showunmi run and cross on the left found Brkovic on the edge of the penalty area. Brkovic attempted to turn and shoot, the American blocking the ball to safety.
Two minutes later, good work from Eagles and Young on the right led to the latter sending in a cross which Henderson mis-controlled. A quick break found the unlikely figure of Kevin Foley in the sort of position Luton would probably rather have had Howard or Brkovic in, a feeble shot wide being the predictable outcome. Watford pressed forwards again, and out of nothing, Ashley Young played a terrific pass to Marlon King in the penalty area. A super finish from Marlon, flicking the ball over the advancing Beresford, and the ball nestled in the back of the net. Number twenty. Magic. I say magic, but I didn't really start celebrating until I'd had a good look at the linesman. From K175 in the Rookery, it was hard to believe King wasn't offside. A TV replay confirmed the linesman's view that he was nothing of the sort. Brilliant. Against the run of play, but brilliant.
Boothroyd, perhaps concerned about Showunmi's frequent breaks from midfield, decided that an extra body in midfield was required. Up to the break, we played a sort of 4-5-1, with Young in the middle and King on the left. Marlon King, quite simply the best striker we've had since Luther (and there have been some good ones: Wilko, Fuzzy, Phillips, H, Butler...), showed for a few minutes that he ain't a bad left winger either! It worked, sort of, as following the goal, it was Watford in the ascendancy up to the break. Showunmi's afternoon effectively ended at this point. As if to make this clear to him, he was booked for a fairly cynical challenge on the escaping Ashley Young. A moment later, and it looked from K175 as though Henderson had a great chance, as a bouncing ball just eluded him in the six yard box. Re-establishing the pattern of Luton breakaways, Mackay was the calmest man in the stadium as he headed the ball back to Foster, who was coming under close attention from Feeney. As Foster cleared, Howard got uncomfortably close once more. Howard followed this up by collecting a booking, presumably for dissent after a foul on Demerit.
Ben Foster 3: The Final Heartstopper soon followed. A difficult, but not that difficult, bouncing ball came to him. He paused, smacked it against Edwards, and then won the race to collect the ball as it rolled purposefully towards the goal. I am a Ben Foster convert, it's true. Today's antics would have been useful ammunition in my arguments on this topic last autumn, however. Once is an accident, twice careless. But three times? Oh yes, and a moment later, from a fairly routine throw-in back to the keeper, Foster sliced the ball Miller-style into the Rous stand.
Something of a mini-onslaught preceded the half-time whistle, with Watford well on top after the goal. King cut in from the left, Foley helpfully fell over, and Marlon's well-struck shot was tipped over the bar by Beresford. The corner caused a scramble in the Luton box, from which Eagles shot wide from seemingly two centimetres out. A big screen replay showed that he was, in fact, a few yards out, and that a certain goal was prevented by a deflection rather than a poor shot. I was not alone in missing the deflection, the referee deciding that the half would end with a Luton goal kick.
Lucky half-time chocolate: Cadbury's Creme Egg.
Reason: There were lots left after the Easter Parade at the school I work at. Fear not, it's in Birmingham, so it's the Brummie tax-payer who has footed the bill for my lucky half-time chocolate.
Level of success: Hmm, tricky. I suppose you could say that the second half display appeared quite solid. Delve a little deeper, however, and there was something that left you feeling a bit sick.
So, what did Ben Foster have in store for us in the second half? Well, a couple of fine saves, as it happens, but there was one more nervy moment to endure first. An attempted Luton through-ball on forty-eight minutes was met on the edge of the box by Foster. And I mean the edge of the box. Warren Feeney's appeals for handball were dismissed by referee and linesman alike, which is good enough for me. Not at all good enough for me was the extent to which Honest Luton were grabbing a handful of yellow shirt at frequent intervals, an Ashley Young free kick failing to meet Mackay, whose progress was impeded. The sooner they start making football shirts out of a patchwork of Velcro patches, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Seriously, you heard it here first.
The first of Foster's more positive contributions came on fifty minutes. A Luton corner found Barnett in space, and a firm drive was parried by Foster. A slice of luck, perhaps, that the ball fell to a yellow shirt, and the obligatory hoof followed. It was the same sort of luck that followed King's late effort, as Beresford's parry could just as easily have found Darius. Anyway, Watford quickly attacked again, and an Eagles run was unceremoniously brought to an end by Heikkinen, who accepted that the yellow card was not a difficult decision for Dean. Ashley Young tamely surrendered the free kick to the wall. Neil Cox would be horrified; if you're going to hit the wall, at least hurt somebody!
Jay Demerit, whose weakness in his otherwise exemplary game is an unfortunate tendency to charge forward at inopportune moments, found a very opportune moment to charge forward, and executed a superb tackle to halt the worrying progress of Showunmi. A very competent display from Demerit and Mackay today; it's difficult to see Carlisle finding a way back in, which is another sign of how far we've come. Indeed, I very much hope, whatever the outcome of the current campaign, that Malky's stay will be at least twice as long as the one he enjoyed at West Ham.
Jordan Stewart stood firm to cut out a Carlos Edwards cross. There was not a lot happening at either end in the opening minutes of the half, and while Aidy Boothroyd was clearly unhappy about this judging by his post-match comments, I myself was not. At one-nil, a boring nothing of a second half would do nicely. Sorry, but against this opposition, the league situation being as it is, that has to be the case. Soon, Chris Eagles produced a boring nothing of a cross that drew a few "oohs" from the crowd, but had way too much on it to interest the advancing Marlon King.
On the hour, as Carlos Edwards, coming into the game a bit more, escaped down the right, Ashley Young gave pursuit. Edwards appeared to wrestle Young to the ground, but with the linesman two yards away, and Young's propensity for hitting the deck, I'm prepared to give the officials the benefit of the doubt. From the cross, the impressive Mackay headed the ball away for a corner. Which was headed clear by Mackay, naturally.
Two minutes later, the Hornets appeared to have a very good shout for a penalty. From a Lloyd Doyley centre, the officials were not ideally placed to see Malky Mackay being wrestled to the ground. The players and supporters appealed as one; Mike Dean was not interested.
On sixty-five minutes, Lloyd Doyley failed to deal with a ball across goal. It came to Robinson, who drew a superb save from Foster, this time holding onto the ball. The officials interrupted a competent afternoon a moment later, as it appeared Watford were set to make a double substitution. The referee stopped the play, Aidy called Mahon over for a chat and then, without any substitutions being made, the ref beckoned play to continue. So it did, with Gavin stood at the side, enjoying a drink and a chat with Aidy. Hmm. The substitution did follow, and Al Bangura replaced the largely ineffective Eagles. The Manchester United youngster received warm applause, but speaking for myself, patience is wearing a bit thin, and I wonder if it might be time to give Macca another go. Or perhaps Chambers, who also came on at the expense of Stewart, Doyley moving to the left to counter the increasing involvement of Edwards. A Luton change followed, with Rowan Vine replacing the ineffective Feeney. Feeney's not the worst striker I've seen recently; heck, you'd have to go some to match Kevin Braniff. But his talent seems to fall way behind his enthusiasm.
Ashley Young has bags of talent and bags of enthusiasm. He does not, however, have bags of form, so it was encouraging to see him running at - and past - Luton defenders. His run was always going to end with a shot, which was always going to be blocked, but it was good to see him in full flight anyway. He took a corner on seventy-one minutes, which fell to Bangura, who shot over, unable to add derby heroics to his Derby heroics.
Enoch Showunmi had switched to the right. Both teams could claim a tactical victory over Showunmi; Luton had sprung a surprise that we took some time getting to grips with. But get to grips with it we had, and from the moment we took the lead, he was ineffective.
It was from the right that a throw-in came across the Watford penalty area. Crucially, Henderson lost an aerial challenge, and Chambers couldn't deal with the second ball. The ball found Brkovic in an inexplicable amount of space, and a made no mistake from close range. Of course, some fifty species of pond life were unable to settle for celebrating at their seats. Disappointingly, the police opted to herd them back to their places, rather than instantly exterminate them.
Watford came forwards, and a Jay Demerit near-post header from an Ashley Young corner was blocked by Showunmi. At the other end, Lloyd Doyley picked up only his second yellow card of the season for committing a foul that could only have been inches away from the penalty area. Ashley Young then had a good chance, as a Chambers throw bounced across the Luton box to him. It arrived at that awkward height - too high to kick, too low to head - and he tamely kneed the ball to Beresford. A minute later, he hit a free kick straight to Beresford.
Four minutes from time, and it appeared we might have thrown it away, as Brkovic took the ball clear on the right. Good job, then, that Lloyd Doyley had been moved to left back; there is no-one since Colin Foster at his best that I would rather see in that situation than Lloyd. And so it proved, as Doyley dumped Brkovic on his arse, and the ball rolled to safety.
We won a free kick on the right with three minutes to go. Young's set pieces had been questionable all afternoon, and it seems clear that, without writing Young off, we need to look at other options for dead ball situations. Anyway, Malky Mackay was lingering at the far post, and I observed that he seemed to be slightly offside. As the ball came over, I looked at the linesman, whose flag stayed down. Switch eyes back to Malky, and he planted a bullet header into the far corner. Brilliant. Quick glance back to the linesman, and...
My seat was quite a good one here, although folk in the Upper Rous have since claimed that Malky was emphatically onside. For what it's worth, it looked the right call to me. Anyway, the sooner the powers that be at BSaD Towers negotiate a place in the press box, the better.
All that remained was for Marlon King to be booked, presumably for dissent after Henderson was fouled. Luton made another substitution, Morgan replacing Foley, and the free kick was taken. It broke to Marlon, who would probably have shrugged defenders off had any been able to get near him. With King's shot and Beresford's save, the game came to a close.
The right result? Probably. Watford finished the stronger side, but both teams could point to periods of superiority. My view is contrary to that of Boothroyd; I felt the Hatters shaded the first half, us the second.
Frankly, I hope this is the last time the clubs meet for a long, long time. We win the play-offs, and by the time we are relegated again, Luton have disappeared. It seems a little unlikely, though; Luton are a good side, and on this showing, Watford are some way short. Two more encounters next season, and for a few seasons to come, seem likely. That said, Leeds and Crystal Palace are hardly setting the world alight at the moment. As has been said previously, we don't need to be great. We just need to be better than these two and Preston. Which I suspect means we need to be a fair bit better than we were in this match.