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Nationwide League Division 2, 30/11/96
Watford 2(0)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 2, Robinson 3, Johnson 3, Millen 2, Palmer 1, Bazeley 2, Connolly 3, White 2, Penrice 4, *Slater 4*
Subs: Noel-Williams (for White) 3, Easton, Mooney (for Connolly) 3
Scorers: Millen (62), Noel-Williams (69)
Blackpool 2(1)
Scorers: Malkin (11), Brabin (73)
An enjoyable game
Report by Ian Lay

I think having to travel some distance to watch football matches makes you rather more of a cynic than those who crawl out bed at two in the afternoon, have a quick shower and a bite to eat, and then slip off down to the ground to see the game. You have all that time to think about formations, team selection etc. You often end up playing a full ninety minutes in your head even before you get off the train at Watford Junction. And then going back you do it all again, but this time with the benefit of hindsight. However, I didn't need hindsight on Saturday. I could have told you that Devon White would play like a prat, and I was right.

When Devon first came to the club I was pleased that we had found a tall forward to lead the line. And at first it seem to work, he scored some goals, linked up well with Connolly. But you always had that nagging feeling that as soon as defenders realised he had no skill whatsoever, he would quickly be found out.

He has struggled with confidence this season, and the fans have got on his back a bit, but I'm afraid it's his own doing. For a person of his size he doesn't win as many balls in the air as he should. If it weren't for White on saturday, we would probably have won. He wasted two clear cut chances that centre forwards of any note should take. In the first half he rose at the far post to get a header in before their keeper could scramble across, headed it down well only to see the ball bounce over the crossbar. He should have scored, but there was a slight element of bad fortune about that one. But there was no element of bad fortune about his second clear cut chance in the second half. A ball was played into the box, into the middle of a swirl of bodies. The ball finally broke clear to White just inside the area. There was a virtually open goal. All the defenders were in a bunch with the Watford players. The goalkeeper was on the wrong side of the goal. All White had to do was hit a firmish straight shot and he would score. So what does he do, he blasts the ball into the pack of Blackpool and Watford players!! He was shortly after that taken off, to be replaced by the far better Gifton Noel-Williams.

Now I have got that off my chest, I will proceed to write about something not concerning Devon White......

I'll admit, I really enjoyed the game. We should have won. We would have won if Page had been in the defence, and Palmer was allowed to play his normal role in the midfield instead of the inept Johnson. We started lively, passed the ball about well. Stuart Slater, making his debut, particularly impressed early on. He faded a little bit in the second half, but that is to be expected as he's not match fit yet. But then we comitted the normal suicide we are accustomed to. It was a simple goal. A cross from the left from Tony Ellis, and Chris Malkin got in front of Millen and Palmer to head pass Miller. Miller had a good game and couldn't be faulted really for either goal. After that we continued to press, Slater making some good runs and opening up the Blackpool defence, and but for some better finishing we may have been level at half time. But I felt confident we could get back in the game. The second half started off with the Horns pressing again, but as we have seen so much this season, the attacks quite often breaking down when the ball reaches the last third of the field. Kenny soon decided to change things and took Connolly and White off, and brought Gifton Noel-Williams and Tommy Monney on. I heard many supporter around me expressing their anger at Connolly being taken off. Things like "Get your head examined Jackett" etc. But just stop for a moment and think. Apart from White, Connolly was the most ineffective player on the pitch on Saturday, even more than Johnson and that is saying something. Don't get me wrong I am a Connolly fan, I think he is a cracking player. But, he is not fully fit yet, and he was getting brushed off the ball far too easily. This unfortunately is one of his failings which he needs to sort out. You would never see Phillips getting pushed off the ball as easily as Connolly was on Saturday.

Virtually as soon as the subs had come on, our fortunes started to change.

Penrice, who had played brilliantly all afternoon, worked his way to the by-line and whipped over a perfectly flighted cross for Millen to head into and empty net from all of nine inches out. Seven minutes later and we were ahead. The ball was payed into the Blackpool area where Noel-Williams, with his back to goal, turned his defender and blasted the ball past their keeper to become the youngest player to score for Watford. Well done Gifton, you thoroughly deserved that goal, and you showed some more experienced forwards how it should be done.

At this point I thought the flood gates would open. But it wasn't to be and Blackpool leveled after Gary Brabin centered for Micky Mellon to head past Miller. There was still 17 minutes to go and both sides had chances to win the game. Miller had to make a smart save at the far post to deny Blackpool what looked like a certain goal. And Mooney lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper and the goal after being put in the clear from a nice touch from Slater. Mooney's miss was as bad as either of Devon's earlier blunders. All he had to do was slot the ball either side of the goalkeeper. He didn't have to try to lob the guy.

We deserved to win, we should have. But we retain our position in the league and keep the pressure on the ones above us. And besides, if we go to Bristol City and win then everything will be fine.

I'll leave you with my thoughts on Stuart Slater, who I briefly touched on before. I only gave him three in my ratings beacuse I thought he faded a bit during the second half. But there was enough good work to see in the first half to know that we have got a bloody bargain. He's got good control, breaks forward with pace, and passes intelligently. With a few games under his belt I'm sure he will be an asset.

To conclude.... an enjoyable game. We should have won, but we didn't lose and the scum did! So not a bad Saturady after all. Roll on Tuesday. I'm looking forward to visiting Ashton Gate for the first time.

Mixed blessings
Report by Ian Grant

Once again, I don't know what to make of this. The optimist in me (he's taken a bit of a battering in recent times) would say that we created more chances than we have done for a while; the pessimist would note that we defended with a level of incompetence that Newcastle fans would find familiar. I would imagine that Blackpool fans, although happy with the point, felt much the same way on the journey home. All in all, it made for an entertaining afternoon but I've still yet to shake off the feeling that we're dropping too many points at home to sustain a serious promotion challenge.

You have to give Blackpool some credit. We'd expected to beat them (Phrase of the Season: "If we're going to get promoted, we really have to beat teams like...") but they didn't come to defend. That's perhaps fortunate or sensible or both - their defence was utterly hopeless. At one point in the second half, I could have sworn that a Blackpool defender actually crossed the ball into his own box.

Anyway, they came to attack (until they scored, natch) and we didn't like that very much. Or perhaps it was the white-with-bits- of-orange-and-blue kit that was putting us off - we thought we were playing That Lot From Up The Road and realised that we couldn't possibly win. And so it was that Blackpool made brighter start and we looked like a team that hadn't had a game for ten days. Despite that, we could have scored in the opening ten minutes. The first real action involving Stuart Slater was pure dynamite - an exquisite exchange of passes with David Connolly to let the youngster in for a shot on goal that the keeper saved with reasonable ease.

But we were caught on the break and we only have our own naivety to blame. Two tackles were missed in defence, Richard Johnson and Gary Penrice (I think) guilty of lunging in for the ball when they might have done more to help the defence by staying on their feet; the ball was fed out onto the left wing and the near post cross was met by Malkin's head, beating Steve Palmer to the ball and just squeezing it inside the post. It wasn't really a surprise - we'd looked vulnerable down that side from the start, with Nigel Gibbs out of sorts and out of position for much of the game. Steve Palmer was just having a good, old-fashioned, total bloody nightmare.

While Blackpool celebrated, we nearly equalised. It was Slater again, breaking down the left, cutting inside and curling a shot that appeared destined for the bottom corner before one of the squealing kids in the Rookery threw a toy which hit the ball and diverted it past the post. (Okay, I admit it, I can't remember what happened - I guess the keeper saved it. Probably.)

Having gone behind, the problem was a familiar one. Blackpool, understandably, saw no real need to rush forward in search of more goals, leaving us to work out a way of breaking them down. For our part, we attempted to stick to a passing game, recognising that the big hoof up to Devon was not likely to bring great success. Unfortunately, we have yet to get the kind of off-the-ball movement that is required to play such a style. The lack of running was typified by a moment when Darren Bazeley simply stood on the right touchline, ten yards away from Nigel Gibbs - while he bellowed at Gibbs for not passing, we bellowed at him for not making a run that would've enabled Gibbs to play a more penetrating pass.

Again we were reliant on Gary Penrice. Trouble is, there's only one of him. As against Wycombe, he was dropping deep to receive the ball from the defence (which is a tactic I like, incidentally, and which would fit Gary Porter rather nicely, I'd have thought), looking up and seeing static forwards standing next to their markers. We need another Penrice to make the runs and get on the end of the passes - that was proven by a perfectly-timed run from deep to accept a lovely pass from Richard Johnson.

In the end, however, it was brute force that got us closest. Two very tricky chances fell to Devon White - one, a looping far-post cross, was going out of play as he attempted to win it against the keeper; the other was an over-hit cross and he did well to stretch out a leg and get any kind of shot on target. Other than that, it was Slater again, rifling a low drive into a crowd after it had rebounded out from a corner, then leaning back and sending the second rebound high over the bar. All Blackpool had to offer was another header, this time into the side netting (arguably an easier chance than the goal, actually).

The second half followed much the same pattern, only with increased entertainment value. Again, Blackpool started strongly and might have added a second within the first couple of minutes as our defence struggled. But we only had ourselves to blame for not levelling the scores early on. It wasn't pretty - a long, hopeful cross into the box that the keeper failed to claim - but Devon White was briefly left with an open goal as the ball dropped around the penalty spot. His last contribution to the game was to scuff his shot which bobbled harmlessly in the general direction of the net and was comfortably cleared by a defender.

The double substitution (Tommy Mooney for Connolly, Gifton Noel-Williams for White) after 52 minutes did not go down well with the supporters, most of whom wanted White taken off and Connolly left on. I'll freely admit that I felt that replacing both strikers in the middle of the game wasn't a very wise move. So, hearty portions of humble pie all round because the substitution turned the game.

Tommy Mooney had a particulary strange match. It would be fair to say that nothing he did came off, some of his decisions were extraordinarily selfish and he wasted some of our best chances. However, he was the catalyst for our best spell of the match and I don't believe we would have scored two goals without him. Almost instantly, he started rampaging through the Blackpool defence and we had them really worried for the first time. The chances started appearing as well - two headers for Gifton Noel-Williams, neither of which he made proper contact with. The latter of those opportunities ran out to the left wing and was picked up by Slater who whipped in a superb cross to provide Mooney with another header and cause a goal-mouth scramble that nearly resulted in a goal.

The pressure counted in the end and the equaliser was well worth the wait. We won a free kick and, for once, we didn't waste it, choosing to find Bazeley on the right wing rather than opt for the usual sky-high shot. The ball was played into Penrice on the corner of the six yard box. He turned one way then back again, leaving his marker completely confused, before dinking the most glorious little cross over the keeper's head. Keith Millen had the easiest task to nod the ball in from no more than a yard out - Penrice had done all the work for him.

Blackpool had started to panic, we sensed victory. If the first goal was an outside candidate for goal of the season (just once, can we vote for something that isn't a screamer from thirty yards?), the second was a moment of history. Much like Penrice, Gifton Noel-Williams received the ball with his back to goal, about five yards out. Despite the attentions of a defender, he turned in a flash and crashed a shot into the roof of the net, becoming the youngest ever Watford goal-scorer in the process. Regardless of his age, it was a fantastic piece of finishing.

We were looking good, confident of winning a game after going behind for the first time since a 3-2 victory against Port Vale many moons ago. But it wasn't to be as our defence let us down once more. Blackpool had a corner, swung it in towards the penalty spot and a powerful header beat Kevin Miller to bounce into the roof of the net. If our execution of attacking set pieces has frequently been abysmal (it was little better in this game - Bazeley, Robinson and Mooney all had a go at taking corners, none of them managed to deliver a decent cross), our defence of opposition ploys has usually been sound enough - not so on this occasion, unfortunately.

Either side might have won it in the final seventeen minutes. For us, Tommy Mooney wasted two great opportunities. The first was pure selfishness on his part - put through on the left, he had all the time in the world to look up and square the ball to Noel-Williams who was unmarked in the middle of the area, yet he opted for a shot from a tight angle and it went harmlessly into the side netting. The second, right at the death, was an even better chance - sent into the clear by Slater's perceptive pass, Mooney attempted an ambitious left-foot lob which landed on top of the net. He would have done much better by using his right foot and simply slipping the ball into the corner - easy to say, I know.

Blackpool weren't entirely finished either and Miller had to make his one save of the game late on, denying a striker from close range - even then, we were fortunate that the rebound went across the goal rather than into it.

A bucketload of mixed blessings, then. Certainly we were more penetrating in attack than we have been for some time. In Gary Penrice and Stuart Slater we have two players of undoubted class who will have a serious role to play if we're to get promoted this season - either of them is clearly capable of producing a moment of match-winning quality. Slater flitted in and out of the game (partly, I suspect, because he didn't get the service - much as I like Paul Robinson, distribution isn't his strong point) but virtually everything he did shouted 'I have played in the Premiership'. If we can get him fully fit and keep his attitude right, he'll be a major asset.

That said, we were playing against a defence that clearly didn't have a clue what it was doing half the time - that does tend to make attacking play look rather better than it is on occasions. And there's no disguising the fact that our defence was all over the place whenever it was put under any kind of pressure - after four consecutive clean sheets, that's both surprising and worrying.

With nearly everyone else at the top messing up, it has to be looked upon as an opportunity that's been wasted - we should have won this game, even if Blackpool did play well. Let's hope we don't look back over the season and reflect that games like this have cost us promotion...