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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 26/12/05, 12.00pm
By Martin Blanc

It’s quite exciting. The day after Christmas. What fantastic bargains will we get in the sales? What will the new year bring? Why did I get nervous when ig requested a proper match report, instead of my usual Boxing Day ramblings?

Nothing, no idea, and no need, would be my answers. Because this was simply the most fluent, confident, enjoyable display I’ve seen from a Hornets team in many a long year. Not just weeks, not even months. This season, we’ve been good. We’ve had a generous handful of moments of genuine exhilaration. We’ve been shocking too, and, even worse, chronically disappointing (deadly things, high expectations). But the nerves I’ve felt for the majority of my 27-year Watford experience (and all but constantly since rejoining the regulars in the stands about eight years ago), the terrors inherent in watching us, even when a scoreline might have indicated to the disinterested observer that the Golden Boys were in complete control, for the very first time fell away, as this performance began pretty well and improved from there.

All right, maybe the kick-off was some bizarre nod to Clive Woodward, as Gavin Mahon hoofed Spring’s first pass forward into touch just beyond the 22. And yes, Lloyd Doyley managed to play Theo Walcott onside during Southampton’s first attack after a minute and a half. But Mackay and Carlisle, who have certainly bonded, sorted that out as they would continue to do all game. In midfield, all the link-ups felt well oiled from the outset, with Macca pushing us smoothly forward in the first and sixth minutes with his runs and early through balls to King and Henderson – which also gave a first glimpse of the major lovely surprise we had to look forward to. Namely, Darius Henderson has come back if not a completely different player, then a deluxe version of the one we’ve noticed, admired and missed in all too quick succession since his arrival. He was much more than a target man today, although he did that perfectly well, blond highlights aiding his visibility. All of a sudden, though, he now has two very nifty feet, and some deft touches all the more useful for being so unexpected. It was as if Marlon and Macca had clubbed together to give him a very special Christmas gift so they all had something in common they could compare later.

The list of positives goes on. Macca was tracking back very well, the back four worked the offside trap very efficiently and effectively, Ben Foster was punching as well as he kicked, and nobody was exposed except maybe Paul Smith in the Southampton goal. Which was fine by us. Despite the opening ten minutes yielding too many Southampton corners, each of them seemed to be somehow less threatening than the last, as we drew a collective breath in defence, got some lucky bounces, and gradually moved the fulcrum of play up towards the Southampton half, where it pretty much stayed for the rest of the first half. Doyley covered for Mahon’s stray pass; Mahon closed down Walcott once or twice, when Mackay wasn't seeing to him; the forwards’ runs gave Devlin some nice options, and he fired in a few crosses for Darius and Marlon to have a go at. We were gelling, no doubt about it, outplaying a fairly civilised if somewhat uninspiring opposition.

The way we took the few minor setbacks in our stride spoke volumes as well. Matthew Spring was inexplicably penalised for getting his studs stuck in the muddy pitch after having got the ball in a tackle on Prutton. But we held things together in the box and within a minute had patiently built an elegant move upfield. Macca fed Marlon, who held possession on the edge of the box, squared to Spring, who sent it out wide to Devlin, and his looping cross was powered into the net courtesy of Darius’s blond streaks on twenty-seven minutes.

This is where the panic button usually gets bumped by someone’s arse on the way past. But somehow we’ve learnt to avoid doing that, and we took even tighter control, with Darius laying off passes like he was a short-ish asthmatic winger or thereabouts. Elsewhere – gasp – an authoritative team of professionals were going about their business in a slick, handsome manner. Any Walcott fireworks in my notes? Any defensive howlers? By my reckoning, Quashie’s long-range shot was the only effort worth the name. Malky Mackay was snuffing out young Theo’s candle on a regular basis. Marlon’s new deal obviously pays by the mile as well as per goal, since his running did not stop (for all 93 minutes). A second was highly likely, and when King was fouled about forty yards out, and Macca floated in a ball to the back post, Mackay and Carlisle, both thrown forward for the occasion with nothing like over-confidence, combined with Darius to let Clarke hammer the ball into the net whilst clearly staring at the whites of Paul Smith’s eyes. A very lovely thing. Happiness. A brief flutter of...what was that twinge? Worry that we’d concede before half time? Do you know what? Despite the longest minute of added time this side of Old Trafford, not for a second.

Lucky half-time fruit: A banana.
Effectiveness: Magnificent – didn’t even need to chuck the skin into the Saints’ box...

When your first touch sticks the ball past your own keeper, it’s possibly best that you don’t really speak the language of your teammates. Good old Tommy Hajto. You can’t buy that sort of luck. But with another hack at Spring, and another fine Macca free kick – this one more akin to Shane Warne’s slower arm ball – that sort of luck comes with the territory. From 3-0 with about forty-four and a half of the forty-five minutes still to play, the second half wasn’t ever going to be as incident-packed as the first. We had a number of further chances, the very next one being the most likely to have started us racking up a cricket score, but Marlon’s cross in the six-yard box was on its way behind Darius, and various pedestrian Saints got in the way in any case. We were even able to give them a whole chunk of possession for a little while, as if just to confirm that it was indeed meant to be our day. Finally, but still fleetingly, on fifty-eight minutes Walcott broke free, but was forced out wide, and Foster parried his rising shot with aplomb. Ben made sure it didn’t bounce the wrong way in its way down either (a touch I particularly appreciated, having failed to take similar care in a five-a-side game last week...). And then after Mackay again heroically bossed the argument by blocking Dyer’s first shot, Dyer’s follow-up bicycle kick smacked the crossbar with all the force of an Audley Harrison jab. Still, a let-off, but a well-earned one.

Aidy saw where this could be going, however, and decided Darius needed a rest from his multi-tasking, and a still lively Devlin could stand down too. Reinforcing the midfield with Bangura’s no-nonsense form of defence seemed like a jolly good idea, and Al’s double-figures Shredded Wheat consumption is now plain for all to see. Joel Grant – not quite ready for primetime, I think the phrase goes, but the only naysayer to anything Aidy felt like doing today would have been George Burley, who got into a right tizzy in the technical area over some perceived impediment to one of his players. That was the day in a nutshell – we played them off the park, and then, off the park, we still didn’t let them have anything. Grant had his chances, mainly a header from another Macca cross, and his day will probably come, but from here on in, it was all the boys could do not to showboat themselves to death. The Macca Show, well, I’d pay to see that. Twice, probably. The Macca Show starring Matthew Spring as Macca – unlikely to sell out. Springy had two great runs from his natural home all the way to the edge of the box. But visions of walking the ball into the net clearly distracted him from doing the right thing. Hence the score remained at a stubborn three up, and we were denied the sort of result to add to our famous League Cup hatfuls over the Saints.

The best of the rest? Probably the chants aimed at Sir Clive, one of which even got the away fans clapping. (Does George know what he’s got himself into?) Even Aidy broke with alleged tradition and gave us the wave we beseeched him for. It was altogether a very festive outing. Overall, in the grander scheme of things, if you must have your dose of perspective, it possibly isn’t something to dine out on, and hopefully this can soon be a week in, week out thing. It’s just really good football, and sure, your opponents must, to some extent, allow you to play it, which they won’t every week. But I can’t think of many other caveats, and that’s what makes today’s game something of a turning point, where glimpses of a less stressful life as a Hornets fan begin to feel like they might, just might, be turning into (whisper it) the norm. For a little while, at least. It’s still exciting. But the butterflies are gone.