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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 18/3/97
Watford 1(1)
Team: Miller 4, Gibbs 3, *Armstrong 4*, Palmer 3, Millen 3, Page 4, Bazeley 2, Mooney 4, Phillips 3, Johnson 4, Easton 2
Subs: Penrice (for Johnson) 2, Ward, Noel-Williams (for Mooney) 4
Scorers: Mooney (6)
Bristol Rovers 0(0)
Report by Ian Grant

People Who Do Not Understand Football will often point to the absurdity of paying good money to watch twenty-two adult men chasing a lump of leather around a pitch. Most of the time, of course, they're completely wrong and I hate them for their snobbery. Sometimes, though, they do have a case. There were several such moments during this match, moments of shudder-inducing realisation. The start of the second half, for example, comprehensively shattered any hopes of an improvement in the level of entertainment by offering us what amounted to little more than a particularly ludicrous Dave Bassett training session - the ball didn't connect with grass for minutes on end, the players swarmed around it as if 'moving into space' was something yet to be invented, the paying public began to wonder whether calling this free-form mess 'the beautiful game' was really so very appropriate.

Gary Lineker once famously commented that a Wimbledon game would be better viewed on Teletext. He was talking out of his rear, natch. As anyone who's ever watched a game on Teletext will know, it's an impossibly horrible experience - aware of the sheer, life-threatening sadness of waiting for a goal that may never come, you still can't stop yourself looking as the pages tick round. You can't do anything other than wait and hope. It's like waiting for an engineer to come and fix your fridge. So, anyway, on a scale of Things That Are Bad, this match was better than Teletext but marginally worse than severe toothache.

To a great extent, the end justifies the means. The means might have been knee-chewingly dull but they were generally effective; the end takes us up to joint second (or sixth, in the real world). The people who decided to boo at the final whistle might like to recall the number of times in recent seasons that we've played well and not come away with a win.

Bristol Rovers, gawd bless 'em, appear to be cack on a scale that only people who bought the St Winifred's School Choir single can really comprehend. On one occasion in the first half, one of their players attempted to take a throw-in and contrived to throw the ball the wrong way, so it ended up bouncing around behind him. That's cack beyond the call of duty, if you ask me.

The problem is that, faced with such completely rank (but still moderately well-organised) opposition, football fans have a tendency to expect a handsome victory. Sometimes it just doesn't happen like that, sometimes you have to beat poor opponents by killing the game stone dead and suffocating their confidence in the process. Which is, basically, what we did.

Once again, the early goal helped us a huge amount. We'd already threatened a little bit - Clint Easton breaking through and feeding Kevin Phillips, with the move ended by a Tommy Mooney cross-shot that needed a third striker to add a finishing touch - and we opened (and closed) the scoring after just six minutes. Good build up play (which is a euphemism for 'I was talking to Kate and Dan at the time and saw nothing of it') saw another Phillips run rewarded with the ball. Kev drew a defender's tackle and slipped the ball across to Mooney who hit a low shot under the keeper.

There's been a great deal of talk about why we shouldn't sit back on a one goal lead. Well, call me George Graham, but I think most of it's wrong. There's nothing wrong with defending a lead, particularly if you've got a side like ours that's considerably better at hitting teams on the break than pressing forward in great numbers. As I said about Saturday, we must learn to play to our strengths - and there's no doubting that defence is one of those strengths. The point about the Gillingham game was not that we sat back on our half-time lead but that we did it extraordinarily badly.

Between the sixth minute and the eighty-fifth minute, there was little to do other than watch the grass grow. Both sides engaged in a midfield battle of staggeringly tedious proportions (the ball spent so much time being aimlessly punted over the halfway line, I rather expected someone to put a net up and suggest a game of volleyball instead). We generally won that battle, thanks to Richard Johnson who spent the game charging around up-rooting opposition players and disrupting anything that even vaguely resembled constructive football.

It suited us down to the ground. It might've been dreadful viewing, it might've been technically abysmal but it prevented Bristol Rovers from getting anywhere near our goal for the vast majority of the match - and, being a goal ahead, that was enough. They had one shot wide in the first half (it was close but Kevin Miller had it covered and pulled his hand away) and never showed any signs of managing better. We didn't do a lot more - Phillips had a goal ruled out for offside (rightly, I think), that was about it.

The second half was probably even worse - dreary, industrious football played with a minimum of skill and quality. I don't recall a single significant incident prior to the last five minutes. But, as I said, that suited us and it was a major surprise when Richard Johnson was pulled off for Gary Penrice, since Johnson had been instrumental in engineering the dour stalemate that was leading us towards three points. It didn't work, either - Penrice did little more than scurry around in his usual fashion, while Rovers finally managed to step up a gear and cause us a few problems in the late stages.

Indeed, the game entered its most exciting phase (apart from the half-time shoot-out, of course) and both sides could've scored before the end. A Keith Millen error, allowing the ball to bounce with a defender breathing down his neck, let Rovers in for a shot that curled just over the angle of post and bar. Then two chances fell to Gifton Noel-Williams. The first saw him run onto a through-ball and slash a shot over; the second was an instant volley from the edge of the box that fizzed towards the goal and brought a fine save from the keeper. And then, right at the end, Rovers had their chance to grab a point - we failed to clear, the ball came out to an unmarked player and he drove a shot inches wide. That would've been more than they deserved but it's a reminder that, if we're going to play a cautious game, we have to concentrate until the very end.

So, basically, unmitigated drivel. Most of Saturday's noble intentions went flying out of the window (I fear I may have over-praised the Walsall performance in my excitement at seeing a Watford side that had an obvious and intelligent game-plan), enough of them remained to see us safely through to the final whistle. We need to get the passing back into the equation if we're to progress.

Not pretty
Report by Ian Lay

Put simply, this wasn't pretty. In fact, it was unattractive as you can get. Think of a cross between Nora Batty and Maggie Thatcher and you have an idea of how ugly this was. But at this stage of the season that really doesn't matter as long as you get three points.

I think a lot of the fans at Watford are now starting to realise that as long as we get the points at the moment then we should be happy and not moan too much. I didn't hear a great deal of barracking of the players last night and it shows that an element of patience and understanding is creeping in. The other reason is that though this wasn't a game of football with wonderful flowing moves and thunderous shots from 30 yards, most of the players had good games. Only Easton and Bazeley were a little disappointing IMHO.

We started brightly enough. Knocking the ball about with confidence and getting an early breakthrough which you so really need against bottom of the table sides. A clearance by Miller looked like it was going out for a throw in but Bazeley managed to out jump his opposite number and head the ball back in play. Darren then managed to toe poke the ball into the path of Phillips who brought the ball down superbly on the right hand side of the box. He cut inside and passed the ball to his left which Mooney latched onto and drove the ball firmly home.

The expected opening of the floodgates didn't happen though. Bristol Rovers seemed to become more negative and instead of pushing forward to get back in the game, they tightened things up, closing us down at every opportunity and not giving us any space to pass the ball around. This resulted in neither side producing much in the way of shots for the rest of the half. Rovers had a chance which went a yard wide of Miller's right hand post and Phillips had a goal disallowed after some good work from Mooney cutting in front the left hand side of the box. But that was about it.

The second half was not much better in the way of entertainment, but just like against Walsall I really didn't think Bristol were going to score. But then neither did we. In the end KJ decided to shake things up a bit and he brought on Penrice and Noel-Williams for Johnson and Mooney. This had too effects. Firstly it did make as little more attacking. Gifton had two chances, one a shot just over the bar after a good run down the inside right and the second a snap shot from about 18 yards which just went wide. But it also made us a little more vulnerable at the back. Johnson, along with Palmer, had been doing a great job in shutting Rovers down and not letting them have much space. With Johno gone we let them back in the game a bit and even though there wasn't really any heart stopping moments like against Walsall, they did have a couple of half chances before the end. The last one on about 89 minutes being the closest. A 20 yard drive which curled away from and just past Miller's left hand post. If it had held up Kevin may not have got to it in time. But we survived and with it three points.

As for the individual performances, everyone did their bit to contribute to the win. However, Miller for the second successive home game was largely not needed. He didn't have to make a save of any consequence the whole game. The defence coped well with whatever Rovers threw at them. Page and Armstrong in particular looking the best, the latter having a much better game than on Saturday.

In midfield Johnson was the pick of the bunch, chasing, closing down players, putting in timely tackles and not doing too many wild passes. When you realise what Richard is, and that's a defensive midfielder, you can appreciate that he does his job well. It's when he tries to be too creative too often that he comes unstuck.

Bazeley was a bit disappointing - however, I think he may have been carrying a bit of a knock. He did make some good runs and crosses but could have done more. Easton also didn't perform like he could. He played too deep for much of the game and even though he tackled well, we've already got Palmer and Johnson to do that.

Up front Phillips ran and ran and ran and never gave up the chase for another goal. The good thing about Kev is that when he's not scoring he's normally setting other people up for goal. The trait of a good striker.

And last but by no means least, my man of the match Tommy Mooney. He didn't play the full game, but still did enough to earn the top mark. He battled and ran, never gave up. Scored one goal and set up another for Phillips only for it to be disallowed, and generally oozed life. He's still not 100% fit. But even a 80% fit Tommy Mooney is worth his weight in gold.

So we're 6th place and with a bunch of teams all on 58 points, including the team in second. And only three points behind Brentford at the top. It's getting very interesting. Slater and Connolly back on Saturday. Porter back very soon. Could still justify the bookies faith in us. Let's hope so.