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95/96: Reports:

Endsleigh League Division 1, 23/4/96
Watford 6(4)
Grimsby Town 3(1)
Team: Miller 3, Bazeley 3, Ludden 3, Hessenthaler 4, Page 4, White 5, Porter 4, Palmer 3, Ramage 5, Mooney 5, *Connolly 5*
Subs: Payne, Rooney, Moralee
Scorers: Connolly 3, Ramage 3
A bit disappointing
Report by Ian Grant

I don't know what exactly made us follow the dour, hard-working performance at Luton with this almighty goal-feast, but it should be encouraged. With the fans expecting us to do little more than play out the season, we refused to give up - survival is, once again, a possibility, albeit a very unlikely one. Regardless of the wider issues, though, the quality of the attacking football we saw last night was hugely encouraging for next season.

It says a lot about a performance when you come away from a game in which you've scored six goals feeling a bit disappointed. Grimsby were there for the taking and we could have made it towards double figures with a bit more luck and confidence. It was that kind of game - not unlike that staggering Spurs cup tie last season (but not quite THAT good) - and it was, apart from the usual hideous oh-my-god-we're-going-to-throw-away-a-seven-goal-lead bit at the start of the second half, superb to watch.

I'll admit that I had second thoughts about going to this one. There's a point where you have to question exactly what the bloody hell you're doing spending time and money travelling from Brighton to see an already-relegated team play Grimsby. And then, of course, they play like this and you thank your lucky stars that you made the effort. The players, who looked utterly distraught at the end of the Luton game, had picked themselves up off the floor for this one and they deserve a huge amount of credit for that. We've rather forgotten what it's like to stick six past some poor unsuspecting team (if someone wants to remind me whether I've ever seen two Watford players score hat-tricks in the same match before, please do, but I doubt I have). The fact that Kate was up in the exec boxes and not bellowing in my ear all game (I kind of missed it, really - peace and quiet is overrated) only added to the air of unreality.

Anyway, we were ahead after just a minute (in virtually every way, this game repeated the pattern of Port Vale and Reading). Tommy Mooney, life and soul of the party as always, booted the ball up to Devon White who produced a lovely weighted pass (yes, you did hear that right) to send Craig Ramage clear. Rams took his time as the keeper advanced and slotted it through his legs - at the time, I thought he'd given the keeper a backpass and was about to hurl abuse at the lazy git, but sometimes he knows what he's doing.

Any hope that Grimsby fans might have had for a result evaporated in the next twenty minutes. By the end of an exhilerating spell, we were four goals to the good and rather unlucky not to have scored more. It was extraordinary stuff. First, Connolly jinked his way into the box and cut a low shot into the corner - a marvellously single-minded bit of finishing to put us two up after thirteen minutes. Just a couple of minutes later he broke through again, beating defenders as if they weren't there, and smashed a shot against the post - that goal would have been even better than the first. But Connolly didn't have to wait too long for his second to arrive - a firm header into the ground on nineteen minutes that bounced over the keeper (bit of a flukey one, but, as a striker, if you hit the target then you never know what might happen). The fourth came two minutes later when Ramage's shot was fumbled by the shell-shocked Grimsby keeper and ended up in the back of the net.

Grimsby didn't know how to deal with us - we were hitting them from all angles (Mooney's dogged desire, White's height and power, Connolly's pace and finishing, Ramage's awareness of space) and it really looked as if we'd end up getting seven or eight by the end of the night. The wealth of attacking options made a mockery of our league position - we were all over them.

But, inevitably, we relaxed. Understandable but hugely frustrating. Grimsby weren't exactly brimming with confidence by this stage of the game, but they didn't need any encouragement to come forward and a lengthy spell of slightly anxious pressure resulted in Groves pulling a goal back with a volley after Robert Page had completely mis-judged a header.

The goal gave us the kick up the arse we needed and, for the remaining ten minutes, we were up at the Rookery end looking for more goals. We nearly got them too. Ramage provided the inspiration, rampaging down the wing before cutting inside and curling a shot inches past the post. Once again, Grimsby were unable to deal with our attack - Mooney had a free header from a corner that he should have scored with but put just wide; Connolly tried a near-post flicked header that flew narrowly off-target with the keeper stranded and someone else (Mooney possibly) had a header that the keeper stopped with his body (don't think he knew too much about it). By my calculations, we created no less than nine quality chances in the first half (and, more importantly, we scored from four of them) - it was so frenetic that I was forced to resort to taking notes at half-time to make sure I remembered it all (see my devotion to duty, readers? Eh?).

Truly, we are the Labour party of First Division football - in our hands, even the biggest of leads can disappear overnight. We did our best to chuck away a four goal lead, as Grimsby forced us back in the early stages of the second half and put our defence under pressure. They got another back four minutes after the break, with a shot that Miller couldn't stop (he appeared to be unsighted). It was extremely anxious for a while after that. True, they only had long-range efforts which were mostly miles off-target but we should know from the experience at Wolves that letting midfielders have pot-shots at goal can have disastrous consequences. Our visits to the Vic Road end were becoming more and more infrequent as our confidence fell away - we looked a shadow of the side that had run away with the game just an hour previously, mainly because our passing wasn't good enough to relieve the defence and set up the forwards with decent possession. More than anything, it just shows what a crucial part confidence plays in matches - when we're in the mood, we look capable of beating anyone in the division; when things aren't going our way, we look scared.

We knew that it was just a case of stringing a couple of moves together and putting the ball in the Grimsby box - we were always going to score more goals if we could get forward in numbers. In one of our rare forays into opposition territory earlier in the half, Gary Porter had hit the bar with a precise half-volley from the edge of the box - proving that we were creating chances with every attack. In the end, it was Connolly who got us back in charge, running onto a through-ball to flick the ball over the keeper and claim his second hat-trick. If anything, this one was even more impressive than the first - and, as against Port Vale, he was unfortunate not to get more. He just looks so sharp whenever the goal is in sight - on a night when there were several great performances, his was the pick of the bunch.

Ramage claimed his hat-trick a couple of minutes later, with a header from a corner that evaded Mooney's attempt to backheel it into the net and the combined efforts of keeper and defender to clear it. Scrappy goal (and I didn't think Mooney got a touch) but Ramage's all-round play was about the best we've seen from him this season and, when he's in this sort of mood, even I won't deny that he's a brilliant, brilliant player.

With fifteen minutes left, we were looking for more goals and very nearly got them. Mooney, who along with White really deserved a goal for his tireless persistence, saw a shot deflected over by a defender's body; White had a goal-bound shot blocked; the keeper flapped at a Porter free-kick which flew across the goalmouth and just wide (although, as Simon rightly pointed out, it was an indirect free kick anyway so it wouldn't have counted) and, finally, Connolly had a close-range header disallowed for a foul by White. With both defences looking completely knackered and disorganised, Grimsby got another before the end - a low shot past Miller after a neat interchange of passes that left our defenders in a complete mess.

So, an entertainment extravanganza, no less. And we go to Norwich STILL with an outside chance of survival - we just won't let it lie. On Saturday, defences were on top to a ridiculous degree; last night, our strikers (and Grimsby's to a lesser extent - to their credit, they came to play football which is more than you can say for many teams) showed us what the game is really all about. At the moment, we're so emotionally unstable it's unbelievable - one moment, we're on top and charging around having a great time; the next we're suffering a huge panic attack - and we'll have to calm it down a bit over the summer, but it's fabulous to watch while it lasts.

Tommy, Dev, Rams, Paddy - we salute you.