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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 1/3/97
Watford 3(2)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 2, Robinson 2, Easton 4, Millen 4, Page 5, Bazeley 4, Scott 5, *Phillips 5*, Johnson 4, Penrice 4
Subs: Andrews, Ward, Noel-Williams (for Scott) 4
Scorers: Phillips (9, 26, 77)
Bristol City 0(0)
Super Kevin Phillips
Report by Ian Grant

Tremendous. On Saturday, a mere week after playing like a disorganised rabble at Wycombe, we humbled a high-flying Bristol City side, giving our own promotion aspirations a well-needed shot in the arm in the process. Following on from the improvement of the Shrewsbury game, this was a confident and cohesive Watford, one that looked capable of winning the points from the start and had sealed the victory long before the final whistle.

The talk will all be of Kevin Phillips' sensational return - rightly so, since his performance (even discounting the goals) was of the highest standard - but it's about more than that. Phillips hasn't changed that much in a week - at Wycombe, he and Keith Scott were isolated and ignored by a team that struggled to get out of its own half, let alone mount a serious attack; on Saturday, he scored three and missed another four or five half-decent chances. The difference? Support from midfield, simple as that. All three of Saturday's goals came as a direct result of the presence in the box of a supporting midfielder - Clint Easton for the first goal, Richard Johnson for the second, Gary Penrice for the third - and at least four of Phillips' chances were provided by Darren Bazeley. We didn't ever throw caution to the winds but we did get forward in sufficient numbers when the opportunity arose.

We were dangerous from the start. Attacking the Vic Road end in the first half, we chose to concentrate on making an impact on the right wing, something which made the absence of a left winger rather less of a handicap than in recent games. With Darren Bazeley quickly getting the measure of his full-back and the service to the forwards becoming more constructive than the hit-and-hope nonsense of Wycombe, we began playing like a useful attacking unit and the opening goal came after a short period of intelligent probing from the Hornets. Unsurprisingly, it began on the right wing with Bazeley flighting a cross to the far post - there he found Easton lending a helping hand to the front-line. As Phillips ran in to challenge for the header back across goal, a defender attempted to clout the ball away but succeeded only into smacking it straight against the oncoming striker - it rebounded past the helpless keeper into the corner of the goal. It was a bit of a lucky break - but it's the kind of lucky break you get when strikers are attacking the ball inside the six yard box, something we've seen far too little of this season.

The goal settled us down and, although the game was fairly even territorially, we played some of our most confident football of the season in a ten minute spell. By playing the ball into Keith Scott's feet and chest, as opposed to wellying it at his forehead, we achieved a level of control in our attacks that has been missing - we were playing to our strengths, keeping the ball on the floor and using the full width of the pitch. Kenny Jackett ought to be preparing himself for a bank robbery or two to raise the money to buy Scott - it might just make the difference to our season on this evidence. Unfortunately, an injury forced him to withdraw after about twenty minutes and, despite the commendable efforts of Gifton Noel-Williams, our attacking potency gradually slipped away from that point on...

...But not before we'd scored again. Bristol City had wasted one golden opportunity to equalise - a free header from a corner that went straight at Kevin Miller - and they were made to pay. The move started with Phillips holding off a defender to lay the ball wide for Bazeley; it ended with Richard Johnson firing the ball against the post in a penalty area melee and Phillips following up to volley it into the back of the net.

After that, the two goal cushion appeared to encourage fifteen minutes of relaxation before half-time and we waited a little anxiously for the interval to arrive as Bristol City did their best to get back into the game. They came very close - just before the break, the ball broke loose from a corner and a fierce shot beat Miller only for Gary Penrice to divert it over the bar miraculously. That was City's last meaningful goal attempt, however.

The second half was dominated by Bristol City, as we contentedly sat back and let them play in front of us. With the midfield trio snapping round their heels, they spent a great deal of time mis-placing passes; when they did succeed in getting the ball anywhere near our penalty area, Robert Page and Keith Millen won telling tackles to clear the ball. At no point did it look as if City would score - having spent much of the season watching teams frustrate Watford with containing tactics, it was satisfying to turn the tables for a change.

If we didn't possess quite the same attacking threat after half-time, we were still a more potent force than our opponents. I can recall four opportunities of varying difficulty that fell to Kevin Phillips before he finally completed his hat-trick. Three of those chances were free headers - two from the right that he had to stretch for, missing the target in the process; one from an Easton cross on the left that went weakly at the keeper - which tends to indicate that the City defence had given up. It began to look as if the third goal would never come when Phillips raced onto a through-ball, controlled it beautifully and then blazed over the bar with the goal at his mercy. But it did come in the end - City failed to clear a corner, Penrice played the ball back in twice and, on the second occasion, Phillips stole in to beat the offside trap and flick the ball past the keeper. Having checked that there was no flag from the linesman, he ran away to celebrate a superb, opportunist's hat-trick.

That was about it - City were a spent force long before the third goal, when it went in their heads really dropped. We were content to play out the remaining time - our presence up-front was severly diminished by the fact that Super Kev was pretty much dead on his feet by the end, presumably saving the rest of his energy to grab that match ball.

A fine and deserved win. Suddenly things aren't looking quite so bleak for Hornets fans - the win takes us up to sixth and closes the gap on second place to an attainable four points. But it's up to us to continue the good work until the end of the season - there's still a long way to go yet.