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FA Cup 2nd Round, 7/12/96
Watford 5(0)
Team: Miller 4, Gibbs 3, Robinson 2, Palmer 3, Millen 3, Page 3, Bazeley 4, Mooney 2, Noel-Williams 4, *Penrice 5*, Slater 4
Subs: Johnson (for Slater) 3, Connolly (for Mooney) 4, Andrews
Scorers: Bazeley (50, 72), Connolly (76, 81, 89)
Ashford Town 0(0)
Quality tells in the end
Report by Ian Grant

To be honest, it's something of a pleasant novelty to be writing about Watford. Events down here in Brighton have tended to put everything else in the football world into a certain amount of perspective - the problems that the Albion fans face (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, read the web site) dwarf such minor distractions as football matches. My attempts to argue that Jack Petchey should be investing more money in the Watford squad seem utterly trivial in comparison.

The Brighton problem is, ultimately, a problem for football itself and I'd argue that it presents the game with one of the most important challenges it has ever faced. What we have is a football club being reduced (literally) to rubble by its owners - come the end of this season, if things stay as they are (and there's no sign that they won't), Brighton and Hove Albion will not only no longer be in existence, their presence in the town will have been erased as if they'd never been there at all. That requires strong, decisive, aggressive action from the Football Association. And yet the governing bodies have been shown to be powerless - there are, of course, limits to what they can do since Bill Archer is the legal owner of the Albion but that's no excuse for crossing their fingers and hoping that it all turns out okay in the end. They haven't even got the guts to do the decent thing and charge Bill Archer with bringing the game into disrepute (it seems that you'll get charged for slagging off a referee but not for destroying a football club).

If you get the chance, lend the Albion fans your support - it might happen to us one day...

I may be less than thrilled at the current ownership of Watford FC and less than confident in our ability to bounce back at the first attempt but we are at least moving in the right direction, however slowly. Whilst Kenny Jackett's earlier signings (Alec Chamberlain, Steve Talboys, Richard Flash) were distinctly uninspiring, the arrival of Stuart Slater indicates that Kenny does know how to spot a bargain. The result has been a nervous but noticeable increase in quality.

Of course, you'd expect to impose a bit of class on a game against part-time (and, if we're being honest, not even particularly good part-time) opposition. The point is, though, that you can see the players growing in confidence as this unbeaten run extends and sticking a few goals past a non-league side is going to do that progress no harm at all. We also had a tantalising glimpse of how potentially brilliant Gifton Noel-Williams is - with the gap in experience narrowed somewhat, he gave an exemplary centre forward's display, leading the line with strength, purpose and intelligence.

The renewed confidence is perhaps most noticeable in Gary Penrice. After being asked to fill the midfield play-maker's role a while back, he now looks the part and we can probably stop counting the days till the return of Gary Porter. His vision and ability were already becoming apparent a few weeks ago but, particularly against Wycombe, there were too few players on the same wavelength. With Slater floating around on the left and making runs around the midfield, Penrice has a soul-mate - after little more than a week, the understanding is already starting to become instinctive. If Penrice ran this game (which he did - he was everywhere), then Slater was his right-hand man (except he was on the left - oh, stop being so pedantic!). Having looked like a luxury player for most of the time since his return to Vicarage Road, Penrice now looks like a man worth building a team around.

In the end, it was a comfortable victory and it would be fair to say that, despite the lack of scoring for the first forty-five minutes, we were only worried on rare occasions. It says much about our general performance that we went into half-time goalless against Ashford Town and yet there wasn't any real hint of discontent from the fans.

We did the sensible thing right from the start - we went at them and took control of the game. That nearly resulted in early goals which would've killed off the Ashford challenge before it had really got going - in the first fifteen minutes, Steve Palmer had just missed with a powerful shot, Gary Penrice had nearly scored direct from a corner and Tommy Mooney (or it might've been the ubiquitous Penrice again) had seen a headed effort cleared from the line. And we should've had a penalty - somewhat fortunately, the ball ran through to Stuart Slater who only had to round the keeper and poke the ball into the net. He went down in the process - impossible to tell from the other end of the ground if the keeper made contact but it seems unlikely that Slater would've dived with an unmissable chance to score his first goal for his new club. Anyway, the man in black (Paul Alcock from Redhill in Surrey- the most soul-destroying railway station in the entire world, for reasons too complicated to go into now) made an appropriate start to a display of disgracefully incompetent refereeing by waving play-on.

That decision seemed to distract us for a while and we lost our momentum, providing Ashford with their best period of the match. We should've been warned by a couple of half-chances - two shooting opportunities from the edge of the box, both wasted with tame efforts - but our defence looked a little shaky and the best opening was still to come. A spell of sustained pressure ended with a cross to an unmarked striker around the penalty spot - he controlled the ball and smashed it goalwards, only to see it deflected to safety by a magnificent diving block from Robert Page.

The rest of the half was largely uneventful (or maybe I'm just forgetting all the exciting things that happened) as we began to assert ourselves again without ever really making the possession count for anything. Disappointingly, their keeper, who'd looked more than a little nervous in coming to collect crosses, wasn't really tested in the first half - the constant pressure didn't translate itself into shots on goal.

The difference between professionals and part-timers began to show in the second half. The accuracy of our passing forced the Ashford players to chase around and, eventually, they tired enough to make crucial mistakes. We started where we'd left off in the first half and it was only a matter of time before we made the breakthrough. Someone (probably Penrice) had a shot pushed wide by the keeper before Darren Bazeley opened the scoring after five minutes. Gifton Noel-Williams made a nuisance of himself in the box, the ball broke out to Bazeley and the low, curling shot skidded past the keeper who, for some reason, had started diving the other way.

The goal ought to have settled the game. In fact, it had the opposite effect - we relaxed a bit too much and Ashford came back with renewed vigour. As the game opened up, there were chances at both ends. Ashford striker Dent went closest for the away side, finding his near-post effort blocked by Kevin Miller shortly after Bazeley's goal and then hitting a fierce half-volley from miles out that had Miller at full stretch. For Watford, Keith Millen had a header cleared off the line and Gifton Noel-Williams got in the way of a cross that was heading for the feet of Penrice and a certain goal (not Gifton's fault - he had no way of knowing that Penrice was lurking behind him and so he had to go for the ball).

In the end, the Ashford defence fell to pieces and the scoreline probably does them a disservice. We scored four in the last twenty minutes, making a competent if unspectacular victory look more like a thrashing. First, Bazeley added to his FA Cup tally, picking the ball up after Ashford had failed to clear their lines, running through and stroking it past the keeper.

The second goal finished Ashford off completely. All the discipline of the previous seventy minutes disappeared and, with David Connolly on for Tommy Mooney, we had a player capable of punishing them. Connolly's first was a perfect example of the difference in quality - a defender got the ball stuck under his feet, Connolly nipped in to steal it and, before anyone else had moved a muscle, he'd turned to smash it into the roof of the net. Shortly afterwards, he sliced a half-volley high and wide when well-placed as if to prove that he's human after all.

The fourth was simple enough - a cross from Nigel Gibbs and Connolly, totally unmarked in the six yard box, with a stooping header into the corner - but Ashford were knackered, basically, and we were reaping the rewards of our patient, progressive football earlier in the game. The fifth came in the last minute, Richard Johnson hitting a long-distance drive that the keeper couldn't hold and Connolly reacting quickest to squeeze the ball into the net for his hat-trick. Other than the goals, Connolly contributed precisely nothing to the game during his appearance - but that's the sign of a quality goal-scorer.

A thoroughly satisfactory afternoon's work, in other words. Beating spirited non-league opposition is never easy (just ask Luton) and we applied ourselves to the task with commendable determination, never panicking when things weren't going our way and, ultimately, taking enough of the chances we created to run out comfortable victors. The scoreline won't do our confidence any harm at all as we approach a crucial stage of the season.

Some of the pieces are beginning to fall into place. With a bit of luck and a period of avoiding injuries, we might be about to see some more convincing performances from the Hornets.

Purpose and passion
Report by Ian Lay

Many would say that this performance is nothing to go by and that it was a game we were expected to win. Some would also say that we had everything to lose in this game and nothing to gain. But even though Ashford were treating this game as their cup final, we did have a lot to gain. I would say that, if we get Man United in the next round we've gained quite a lot. So it was nice to see the players go out with a sense of purpose and a lot of passion.

Ironically enough, even though all the goals came in the second half, I enjoyed the first half more. Probably because at that time the game was more of a contest. Ashford worked hard to not let us take control of the game, and when they went forward their play was smooth, exciting and nice to watch. The same could be said for the Horns. Slater back on the left wing after playing on the right in the Bristol game, terrorised the Ashford defence with his surging runs. And Bazeley on the other wing was causing them no end of problems. But Ashford stuck to their guns, defended well and even though we had the better first half chances, they must of gone in at half time thinking they had a chance.

That dream lasted all of five minutes. A delightful cross field ball from Slater was excellently controlled by Noel-Williams on the edge of the box. He tried to go past his man and looked to have lost out to him. But he recovered, twisted back away from goal and played the ball into the path of Bazeley who hit a smart side footed shot from just outside the area into the bottom right corner. The Ashford players looked devastated.

To be fair Ashford had done well to survive that long. But the expected flood of goals didn't come as Ashford kept plugging away looking for an equaliser. And Miller (who had generally had a quiet afternoon) was called into action to make a smart tip over from a long range effort.

But the second goal came at last, and killed Ashford off. A mistake by the Ashford defence allowed Bazeley to nip and pick the ball up from about 30 yards out. He took the ball forward and placed a low shot past Munden and that, as they say, is that. We were then treated to the Connolly show. He produced a hat-trick in 13 minutes after coming on as sub to replace Mooney. It was a good little run out for him, and the goals must have done his confidence no end of good.

Everyone had a reasonable game, except Robinson who after a good start to his career is looking a little lightweight. He needs a few games in the reserves. I think when Ludden is fit, he should have no problem getting back in the team. The rest of the back four played well, dealing with all the problems Ashford threw our way. In the middle field Palmer was his normal solid self, but it was Penrice, Slater and Bazeley who caught the eye. Penrice is going through a rich vein of form at present, and is holding the midfield together well. Slater continued his fine start at Watford with another exciting display. I particularly like the way he breaks forward with pace. We don't have many people who can do that. Bazeley had one of his best games of the season. He was dangerous down the flank, put in some good crosses ( and some bad ones as well !!) and scored two well taken goals.

Up front Mooney battled hard, but doesn't look 100% and the rest he will be taking following the operation he has this week may do him some good. Gifton had another good game and is looking very accomplished for a man of his age. He's still got a long way to go and I know you can't play him every week, but I'm sure we will be seeing a lot of him this season.

I read on teletext that the score flattered Watford a bit. And if you allow emotion to cloud your judgement, then maybe it did. Ashford played well for a non-league side who are not having the best of seasons in their league. But if we analyse this game without the emotion, and total up the chances we created and the possession we had, I don't think five goals is flattering.

So all in all a good days work. An exciting match (particularly the first half), five goals, a curry when I got home. What more can a guy ask for on a Saturday?? And before you say anything, the girlfriend (Heidi) had stomach cramps. So a few lagers had to suffice instead.

Roll on the next round....who do we want? Liverpool or Stevenage? Do you know... I'm not sure.