An encouraging opening game
Report by Ian Grant
Aside from covers for the managers' benches and Harry Hornet turning into a fat bee, not much has changed at the Vic while we've been away. The squad that starts the news season is pretty much the same as the one that finished the last one - still no centre forward but no major departures either.
To add to the disconcerting familiarity of it all, we get the dubious honour of opening the campaign against Sheffield United again. Another opportunity to put one over on Dave Bassett, former Watford boss, whose idea of what constitutes entertaining football is not the same as mine (he said tactfully).
The game as an attractive prospect was effectively over before the first kick with the news that Ramage and Hodges, arguably the two best creative midfielders in the division, would both be sidelined. Probably just as well for Rambo, who was kicked black and blue in the last encounter, but not for yer paying punter.
The fact that the Watford midfield consisted of Hessy, Payne and Johnson, three ferocious tacklers, should give some idea of the game. It wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, pretty to watch. As an early test of resolve it was valuable, the flowing football will have to wait. Sheffield United are relentless, they will never allow you room to knock the ball around and, in that context, this was a solid performance to kick things off.
Ironically for a generally scrappy match, the 'Orns scored two marvellous goals. The first, early in the game, rewarded a spell of promising pressure from a Watford team that was clearly fired up for the occasion. As Johnson broke and delayed his pass, it appeared that the momentum of the counter-attack had been lost. But the ball found its way to the right wing and a deep cross was nodded back by Beadle for Derek Payne to score his first Watford goal with a spectacular overhead kick. It was a fine move with a classy end, the kind of football that Roeder has made his trademark.
Unfortunately, it was also the turning point of the game, bringing Sheffield out of their shells. As Watford were pushed back, the defence appeared uneasy, lacking the crucial element of confidence in its organisation. An earlier mix-up between Holdsworth and Miller turned out to be an omen as, on half an hour, hesitation in the defence allowed United's Blake to steal in and score with a simple header.
I didn't like the look of it. Not one bit. Aside from a half-chance for Beadle and a Porter shot, we'd been penned back for too long and United's bludgeoning strength was beginning to tell. Luckily, and not for the first time, Johnno's boot came to the rescue. I have a lot to thank Johnno for, not least a week of saying 'Still, cracking goal, eh?' to Steve the Wolves fan, and this was another special moment, a perfectly placed curler from the edge of the box. So well placed it was practically a pass into the corner of the goal. Beauty!
The second half was bloody awful, by and large. No criticism of the boys intended there - when playing teams like Sheffield United you're forced to descend to their level to a certain extent. Scrap for all you're worth and forget about the fancy nonsense, that's the way to get a result against Bassett. Without Ramage's assure touch possession was too cheaply lost and the service to Phillips and Beadle was pretty poor. Beadle was buffetted out of the game and Phillips saw precious little of the ball but shone when he did - nearly scoring with a diving header and setting up Payne for a shot which went close. Good to see Dezza getting forward for a change.
Like I said, though, in this kind of game the result is everything and most of the half was spent keeping United out of our box. In this, Gibbs, playing as sweeper, was outstanding, clearing up the messy flicks and through-balls in much the same way as Millen did at Palace last season. Kevin Miller was rarely extended beyond claiming crosses.
Some more dodgy offsides and refereeing inconsistencies, some more aimless punts upfield by the United defence. I don't fancy Bassett's chances of lasting the season out if this is what he'll be serving up. Bizarrely, United look vaguely threatening when they forget about whacking the ball (and opponents) around the park and play the game like God intended. For a team with only one tactic, they're not very good at it - failing to create a single chance after half-time.
So we got the win. Hardly emphatic but an encouraging opening game nonetheless. Aside from Gibbs' new role, there were no revelations, just a committed approach to a potentially difficult game. The return of Ramage to supply the front men should lend a creative side to add to the intense tackly of Hessy and company, and then we'll be back to the side that did us proud last time. Wait and see, but it ain't looking too bad.
A storming start to the season
Report by Kate Holmes
So here we are, back again. It seems like only last week since I was at Vicarage Road. Okay, so it was only last week. It does seem like ages since the match against Derby, and a lot seems to have happened since. The transfer market has gone crazy, the pervert has left Scum, along with that little git Preece who has simply walked out on them.
I was a little doubtful about starting the season against Bassett, as we did last year and got slaughtered. That game was memorable for one thing - Derek Payne's one and only goal attempt in a proper first team match (I don't count friendlies). I remarked on this very point, and laughed at the odds for him to score the first goal - 16-1. No chance. More like 160-1.
It was nice to be able to hear the Rookery, and it was also good that most of our fans had remained loyal to the North Stand. Sheffield Utd brought a fair number down, wearing thier hideous new shirt with diamonds on. They looked like a deck of cards, full of jokers, but without an ace. Or cliches like that.
I think we were all surprised to learn of Craig Ramage's weight problem, and with Colin Foster injured as well, we had Gibbsy in defence and Johnno in midfield. This sort of match is always tough, as we all know the way Bassett likes to play - HOOF - and without the height of Fos I was a bit concerned. All their players seem to be well over six foot, and with Hessy being one of the taller players, we just hoped that we could keep the ball on the ground.
It was a storming start to the season. Derek Payne giving us the lead in the 14th minute, with an overhead kick. I still want to see the video evidence of Freddie's goal. For those of you who were not there, Glenn Roeder has likened it to Hugo Sanchez. For Freddie to have a shot is one thing. For it to be on target is another, but for it to have been a spectacular overhead kick was something out of a fairy tale. Gary Porter has been trying that ever since he could walk, and has yet to manage it. Freddie comes along and with his second goal attempt in his Watford career, scores one of the best goals ever. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but it was amazing.
It was fairly frantic stuff, and our attempts to get a chant of 'We are top of the League' started didn't quite come off. Needless to say, they equalised with a typical Bassett goal. Hoof, foul on Johnno, header goes in. Still, not to worry. Only half an hour gone. Five minutes later, Johnno proved his inclusion by side footing the ball into the back of the net from over 25 yards. He has got one of the hardest shots in the league, and his soft side footer is still an unbeatable shot.
After that it was just a case of hanging on. To be honest, it didn't look like we would score again but there was no way that they deserved anything from the game. Kevin Miller is back to good form already, and he had to make several sharp saves. The defence coped with the elbows of Nathan Blake quite well, with Gibbsy playing particularly well as sweeper. Hessy had a quiet first half, but came into it brilliantly in the second half. Peter Beadle played with aggression, and Johnno had one of his best games for ages.
The second half was all about keeping our noses in front, and not losing to this side aided totally by an inept referee. Now I know I always go on about bad refs, but this one was verging on the ridiculous. Put it this way, some of the decisions made me laugh. If we hadn't been winning it would not have been funny. David Holdsworth got booked for a fracas with Brian Gayle. I can't comment, as I didn't see what happened. Johnno got booked for kicking the ball away, while none of theirs were booked for the same, and Freddie was booked for a pretty non-descript foul.
For me the worst decision that the ref made was giving a free kick against Hessy over by the pretty new dug-outs. Hessy had taken the ball past a defender, who did his best to obstruct Hess as he would have been clean through. Hessy, being built like a tank, ran straight through him, and the ref gave the free kick to them. Unbelievable. Tommy Mooney, on as sub for Beadle, had a storming run into the penalty area. No-one was up with him, so he held the ball up. The defender had hold of his shirt, and couldn't get near the ball so he pulled him down. Tommy still kept the ball, and the ref would never give us a decision like that.
The linesman in front of the Rous Stand was influenced a little bit by the 2,000 United fans behind him. Some of the offside decision were debatable to say the least. Still, we managed to play quite well, and nearly went further ahead. Kevin Phillips had a diving header tipped on to the bar by the keeper and the rebound went their way.
This was a good result and a little unexpected. According to one national newspaper, this was the first victory against Bassett since he was our manager 15 years ago. 15 years? A little bit previous. Another good thing is that Scum lost, so we're above them in the league. Let's hope we can keep this going with 45 more victories in the league. Promotion by February, Champions by March. FA Cup winners. Then on to the Premier League, Cup Winners Cup, Charity Shield. I might be getting a little carried away here. So forget the Charity Shield.
Report by Dan Exeter
Oh it was good to be back. My first time at the Vic since Bristol City (I think) and my first game since Notts Co away (the less said about that the better), it was back to the familiar sights (mostly, except the benches now had roofs), sounds (although we couldn't hear the tannoy from where we were) and smells (unfortunately).
It took me quite a while to accept the season had started again, not helped by our wonder first goal. A decent Watford breakaway!! A well-placed Lavin cross!! A proper Beadle knock-back!! At the time we thought it was a Phillips header-it was only later we discovered (to much hilarity) that it was a Payne (what was he doing in the box?) overhead kick (since when has he had that kind of skill?). Mind you, we weren't complaining.
As usual, we gave away a silly goal, to Nathan Blake, and that brought the Sheffield Utd fans back to life. There was enough of them, a good 2000 or so, and worryingly they'd made more noise at the start of the game than we did. They soon shut up again as Johno curled a 25 yarder into the far corner (why do all the good goals occur at the Rookery end?).
Sheffield Utd pressed. We tried to play on the break, and didn't make too bad a job of it. Mooney came on for Beadle, and my he looked sharp. On one occasion he chased a lone ball, totally unsupported, yet he won it, held it on the goalline until some support finally turned up and then played it. I think our Tom is not too happy at the thought of losing his first team place to anyone.
We could have finished the game, Mooney had a couple of chances, Phillips had a header which brought off a magnificent save from Kelly, and I suppose they could have equalised but for some reason I never felt we were too threatened at the back, what with Gibbsy doing tremendously well as sweeper and with a midfield of Johno, Freddy and Hessy we may have lacked a creative spark (Ramage was unfit) but at least they battled. Of course you can't do that to every team, but for one day it worked. So I went home (actually I went up to my house in Sheffield - you should all try driving up the M1 at the same time as 2000 Sheffield Utd fans pissed off at having lost) happy and looking forward (strangely enough) to the Huddersfield game in a week's time. With Ramage fit we could surely do them some real damage...