By Matt Rowson
Five'o'clock in the afternoon. On top of a cliff, lying on our backs in the sunshine looking up at a clear blue sky... insects are doing their thing, sheep in adjoining fields completely indifferent to our presence, a few sails dotted on the blue beneath us. Soon we will navigate the single track lanes to a nearby farm shop where my brother's detailed local knowledge has identified the best pastry in the area. We are calm, relaxed, at one with the world.
Ten'o'clock in the evening. A mere five hours later, during which we've been picked up by a tornado, pulled three ways at once, dumped on our heads, then dragged along behind a wheeling, somersaulting, stunt plane. We are left exhausted, exhilarated, bewildered. How on earth do I bolt this lot down into a match report?
Begin at the beginning, I suppose, with details. We're in red, first off, and for the first time in a while there's no ruefulness about the appearance of our away kit. There was nothing particularly wrong with the blue number last season, or the white one the season before that but... there was always an "oh well, we're in the away kit..." that greeted their appearance. And I wasn't sufficiently moved to buy either. But this all-red effort is vital and aggressive. Full marks from the Woodside jury...
There are small but significant changes to the line-up as compared to last weekend. James Chambers makes a return to the starting line-up in place of Jordan Stewart, who drops to the bench. Briefly I'm reminded of Betty's bullish aside at the Fans' Forum regarding his recruitment of two left-footed left-backs, but only briefly. And Gavin Mahon makes a most welcome return, if only to the bench in place of Toumani Diagouraga. Still no sign of Devaney, Griffiths or Junior, the latter absence in particular presumably of concern to the lad sitting three rows in front of us with the Brazilian's name already emblazened across his shoulders.
No Sietes either, although this doesn't deter a boisterous bunch up the back from devoting a fair part of their repartee of new songs to the absentee Spaniard. The same group, presumably, are responsible for the songsheets that get passed around... I'm cynically deterred by poor grammar in the opening blurb and only glance at the attempts at novel chants that follow. Full marks for effort though...
Which is more than can be said for the Hornets' start, which mercilessly dismisses the lingering summer-evening idyll. All we've seen from the Hornets is a McNamee scamper down the left during which he beats his man but drops his cross too close to Larrieu before the home side are running right through our midfield. A strong challenge in the area attracts vociferous protest from the home stands... the descending sun, focusing all of its dying energy on the away end, obliterates assessment of the validity of the appeal, the identity of the perpetrator and much first-half detail, but the referee points to the corner flag rather than the spot.
The first of several occasions on which the home support question the refereeing, but little matter in this case... a left-wing corner is scuffed back to the kicker, who arcs a cross into the box. Micky Evans, of all people, manages to wander in unattended but it should still be keeper's ball every time. It isn't though, and the striker heads home, one-nil. Clarke Carlisle is seen to pass comment to his goalkeeper.
The deflation of the away end and of the Hornets' attempts to attack the goal in front of it is temporary and brief, but it's not long before we're under pressure again. A free kick outside the Watford area is hit powerfully by Wotton, but deflects off an ankle in the wall and goes wide. A right-wing corner this time, deep to the far post but again Foster is all over the place, misjudging the ball, getting his feet in a knot and relying on his defenders to clear.
On twelve minutes, it was two-nil. Well taken, but again, soft defending... left-winger Tony Capaldi wanders infield to pick up a right-sided throw-on, isn't picked up and hits a low effort from some distance. His aim is true, but it should still never have beaten the keeper, who watches as the ball rolls past his outstretched fingertips into the bottom corner.
Briefly, and perhaps for the only spell in the match, we completely lose our composure. Doyley slices a routine clearance into the stand. Bangura is booked for another overly-aggressive challenge in the midfield. Blizzard, whose wilful harrying, fetching and carrying tend to go unnoticed, could have chosen a better place than to completely stuff up an attacking position with Young than right in front of the away support. The choir up the back have descended into gallows humour, and also seem to be having a moronic chant competition (all the classics are there.... "small town in Torquay", "Plymouth are going nowhere" etc etc - my brother's fingers leave imprints on his kneecaps...).
Gradually, however, we work a foothold. Ashley Young is at the front of a galloping break, King and Henderson spin off in different directions but Young's hesitation curtails the attack. Then Henderson, whose beaconlike head and phenomenal first touch occasionally seem to be let down by a lack of awareness, effortlessly cushions down a ball for Bangura to hit excitedly high and wide from outside the area.
On thirty-five minutes, we're back in it. McNamee has Barness in all sorts down the left, breaks into the area and, starved of an obvious alternative, spanks the ball at goal forcing Larrieu to parry to his left. The rebound falls kindly for King, who has snarled after every loose ball in a to-this-point fruitless first half, and he finishes tidily and simply, rolling the ball out of Larrieu's reach into the back of the net. A glimmer of hope, but King's reaction as much as the goal invigorates the crowd, directing Young to retrieve the ball from the net - unnecessarily, he's already moving - and shaking a defiant fist at the away support. Game on.
Lloyd Doyley, who had received treatment for a knock earlier in the half, departs to be replaced by Jordan Stewart, with James Chambers switching to the right. We're on the front foot now, Henderson brings down another bomb on the edge of the area, turns and strokes a firm left foot shot across the face of goal. Sadly, however, this half of defensive ineptitude has a corker still to throw at us...
There appears to be little danger as a relatively aimless Plymouth ball comes in high on the left side of the area. Foster is suddenly a long way out of his goal though, and indeed is barely inside the area when he catches the ball and a good six feet out of it when he lands and releases it. Howls of derision greet the yellow card that results, not without justification - there seems little consistency between this decision and the red card that greeted Alec Chamberlain's relatively borderline misjudgment at Crewe two seasons ago, for example.
The home crowd's frustration is again quickly abated however... the cross into the box from the resultant free kick is shinned clear to Paul Wotton, wide on the right near the touchline who cracks in an absolute bullet off the crossbar. Three-one right on half time, and whilst it's easy to be smart in hindsight, we were looking down the barrel of a long, gloomy drive back to Hertfordshire.
Instead, we're treated to one of the most vibrant forty-five minutes of football put in by a Watford side in some time. Gavin Mahon is both the talisman - his donning of a red shirt as the players troop out has the away end on their feet - and the catalyst, his heavyweight presence in midfield completely eradicating Plymouth's earlier superiority in this part of the pitch. He crashes into a challenge within the first minute of the half and we're punching the air.
Five minutes in, and Darius Henderson is felled, tumbling like a large oak about twenty five yards out and fairly central. Anthony McNamee is lining up to take the kick but is withdrawn in favour of Paul Devlin - an oddly-timed substitution, the five minutes that have passed since the break have neither afforded the young winger the time to up his game nor the opportunity to pick up an injury. We have little time to ponder this development, as Ashley Young sizes the position up and then hits an absolute pearler over the wall and into the top left hand corner. Larrieu, positioned to cover the other side of his goal, is helpless. Glorious stuff.
The flame is on now, and then some. Paul Devlin is soon involved down the right and giving Rufus Brevett a hell of a time. Rentathug Brevett's two contributions to the game worth mentioning are a nasty challenge on Young in the first half that sees him booked, and a pathetic tumble later in the second which earns the same reward for Paul Devlin - otherwise he's chasing heels. None of this prevents him later being named as sponsors' man of the match, a decision rivalling Sada N'Diaye's similar award at Roots Hall after Darren Bazeley's hat-trick ten years ago in its redundancy.
A Watford move that rolls like tumbling dominoes sees Devlin skip, delay, then release the overlapping Chambers, liberated by his switch to the right, who gallops goalwards at a tight angle before slamming a shot into the side netting.
When the equaliser comes, it's another absolute peach. Henderson angles yet another knockdown to Ashley Young who flicks the ball past one opponent, dances past another as he makes his way from left to right along the edge of the box, and when he finds a gap drills the ball hard and low back across the face of goal into the bottom left hand corner.
Someone ought to do a study of mass oxygen consumption in response to a goal like this being scored. It's less than ten minutes since the free kick, perhaps things are still evening themselves out - either way my attempts at euphoria are curtailed by giddiness, and my brother collapses completely back into his seat (he is ok, his recovery aided by a generously donated bottle of water from behind us, a stupid grin never leaves his face). On the pitch, the Watford bench has errupted like a party popper, Betty Boothroyd jumping highest of all.
And there's still half an hour of this lunacy to go. For the first fifteen of it, there's only one team in it. King roars onto a through-ball and beats the keeper, only to be pulled up by a much earlier linesman's flag. Darius Henderson responds to Dad's half-time wish that he throws his weight around a bit more by absolutely battering his way through a series of woebegone challenges, Gavin Mahon continues to crash around the midfield interrupting every suggestion of Plymouth possession.
Hearts are briefly in mouths as one of a growing number of Argyle long balls finds the muscular Evans wide on the right. Only Jordan Stewart between him and a clean run on goal, and in the second it takes for the situation to be sized up there's a collective intake of breath as the image of Dickson Etuhu passes through more than one mind in the away end. But Stewart stands up well to his adversary and Evans, unable to turn, rolls the ball backwards.
Plymouth are getting desperate, on and off the pitch, half-time hopes of going home with a big win now bitterly departed. Scott Taylor tumbles forlornly over a clean challenge, then rolls around on the floor in disgust at his lack of profit. The Watford offside trap now has some shape, and Argyle are caught more than once - the lino in front of us probably not doing himself any favours by responding to entreaties from the choir - now several hundred voices strong again - to give them a wave.
Another chance... this time from a right-wing corner, Blizzard snaps a shot at goal that's deflected over to the relief of the Plymouth defence that knew little about it. From this, Plymouth break forward though, and set off a ding-dong end to the match. Their first break down the left is curtailed majestically by Mahon, but he appears to let the adulation from behind him go to his head, loses his man as the play comes back at him and, not for the first or last time, it's an outstretched leg from Clarke Carlisle that precedes a string of Plymouth corners.
There's still time for Marlon to burn clear again wide on the left but drag his shot wide of goal, for Foster to again look nervous in dealing with a routine backpass, and for Plymouth to fail to capitalise on another few corners before the final whistle goes, we're drowned in a rainshower of songsheets and everyone can stop for a breather. On balance, this is as three-three a game as you're likely to see. Both sides will feel they could have won it, but I'll take a point and a warm glow from the oh-so-gutsy second half defiance.
Back down the M4 for Friday. Lots for Betty to think about. More of that second half, please.