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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 2/11/96
Watford 2(1)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 4, Easton 3, Penrice 4, Millen 5, *Page 5*, Bazeley 2, Andrews 2, Noel-Williams 4, Palmer 3, Mooney 3
Subs: Robinson (for Penrice) 0, Chamberlain, White (for Andrews) 0
Scorers: Gibbs (25), Mooney (60)
Brentford 0(0)
A good game
Report by Nick Grundy

All in all, Saturday went well. The day started badly - I missed my bus to Watford, and so the first ten minutes of the match - but after that things looked up. A lot. By the time I arrived, as I say, things were already underway, and this meant that I didn¹t know who was actually playing; this proved rather amusing when I praised a Devon White layoff aloud only to be told by the person next to me that it was actually a Gifton Noel-Williams layoff. He was very nice about it.

This horrible blunder aside, I settled down to enjoy a rather good performance. I'd had my doubts before the game; I was obviously hoping we'd win but sort of expecting (another) draw, and the first minutes of the game that I saw looked worryingly like following the recent pattern. This seems to involve us scoring first away from home, then conceding a crappy equaliser and failing to look like winning for the rest of the game, and doing the same at home only we let them score first and then equalise with minutes remaining. Or, apparently, seconds when we play Luton.

When one of the first things I saw in this game, then, was a Brentford forward played through on goal, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach, and this was only partially improved by - I think it was Millen's - perfectly-timed tackle. Really, that was it from Brentford, though. For the rest of the half they pumped long balls forward to their (supposedly) three-pronged attack, and Millen and Page just headed them all away. This defensive soundness was probably the most enjoyable part of the game; it's good to know that we can deal with the best long-ballers in the league.

The first goal was brilliant. Not technically, mind you, but just generally brilliant. Gibbs, playing at left back in spite of the programme's pretending otherwise, got the ball basically on the left touchline and level with the edge of the penalty area. Whether he was shooting or crossing - and the look of surprise on his face after it went in suggests the latter - the ball flew across the face of goal. From the North Stand it looked like a dangerous cross right up until the moment we saw Kevin Dearden dive to his left in an attempt to save it. The ball continued past him and nestled in the bottom right-hand corner. Gibbs went absolutely berserk (give him four new contracts, I say), and I waited for the inevitable nervous, jittery collapse that always seems to come with the prospect of actually beating someone.

It didn't happen. Brentford continued their sterile long-ball shite, and we continued to knock the ball around with some confidence. Our defence was solid as the burger I mistakenly tried to eat at half-time, the midfield (including someone who I thought - bloody programme - was Paul Robinson for the first ten minutes, but turns out to be Clint Easton. Whoever he may be.) was better than usual, and our attack, shorn of its experience and strength in big Devon, made up for this with willing running, hugely promising skill on the ball, and sheer bloody-minded persistence. I like Devon; I can't really bring myself to shout at him when he so obviously wants to do well, but he's really a bit of a relic from the 'bad old days' of having big, violent strikers. Come to think of it, if he were violent he might be more amusing to have in the side - look at Derek Payne - but anyway, I reckon Gifton's introduction into the attack was a Good Thing.

Second half was more of the same, really. Miller, having dropped one corner early on only to gather it again rather nervously, took every ball above knee height in the area comfortably, and looked to have rediscovered a bit of confidence. He also saved Brentford¹s best chance of the night, getting a hand to a bullet header from a corner and tipping it over the bar. We didn't have that many shots on goal the only one which sticks in my mind was when Noel-Williams fired narrowly over after a seemingly lazy dribble from the left-hand edge of the box. Then, we scored again. The ball was played in to Andrews, who was jostled by one of their centre-halves, and it broke to Tommy Mooney, who carried it into the box and smashed a shot past Dearden via a deflection from the boot of a defender. He strutted for the rest of the match - even his usually terrible through-balls worked - and Gifton should have had a third when some excellent individual skill and determination took him past everyone Brentford quite literally threw at him, and he shot straight at the keeper from just outside the six yard box. However, as he created it entirely on his own, I think we can forgive him.

This, then, was a good game - we got Gibbs' outrageous opener, the mass brawl after one of their players did something to Miller I couldn't see, and Steve Palmer got away with some delightfully late tackles due to the ref's bizarre interpretation of the advantage rule. Also, although there was an element of luck about both our goals, we did well enough overall to win the game more comfortably, and Brentford looked frankly bad. The attack was probably the main reason - although Andrews had an off-day, whether through tiredness, jadedness or whatever, he and Noel-Williams still held the ball up okay, moved around, gave the midfield easy passing options, and I reckon this was one of the main reasons we won. At the final whistle, Tommy Mooney came over to strut some more, as did everyone else, Man Utd had lost again, at Old Trafford, to Chelsea, and we're back up near the top. Roll on whoever we play next.

Great victory, nagging doubts
Report by Ian K Grant

After the draining experiences of Tuesday night, this game took on an added significance. Unfortunately, most of us seemed too knackered to work ourselves up to that kind of fervour twice in a week - despite another impressive attendance and a fine result against the leaders, the atmosphere was distinctly muted.

The team news didn't exactly inspire confidence either. Richard Johnson's suspension wasn't too worrying since it inevitably meant the return of Gary Penrice to a midfield role that he appears to be growing accustomed to. Dominic Ludden's Holmes-inflicted injury was a different matter. The decision to re-shuffle the side (Nigel Gibbs at left back, where he struggled purposefully in a wholly unnatural position; Darren Bazeley at right back; first year pro Clint Easton in midfield) in preference to giving Paul Robinson another chance seemed a strange one. But I won't carry on about that because I'll start shouting about the size of our squad again and, besides, the result vindicates Kenny's decisions...

It was, even by usual standards, an undistinguished affair. The fact that Brentford have been this season's pace-setters indicates that we might as well draw lots to decide the promotion places - either we played out of our skins or they're a very ordinary side.

It's going to be a bit of a struggle to find much to write about, I'm afraid. The most interesting aspect of the opening exchanges was the number of late challenges flying in - had the referee managed to get a grip early on, he might have avoided some of the later problems.

The only sign that the game wasn't going to end goalless was a good headed chance from a fine Bazeley cross - whoever got on the end of it (I thought it was Easton) didn't make decent contact and the opportunity was wasted. Other than that, a couple of hugely off-target efforts by Steve Palmer were as good as it got.

When it came, the goal was utterly bizarre. We were discussing Kate's supernatural powers - her ability, for instance, to injure Dominic Ludden without even touching him - and she had decided that she wanted us to score at that very moment. Just as the words "Wouldn't it be funny if we did?" were forming on her lips, Nigel Gibbs looked up and planted a curling cross into the box. It missed everyone, skidded across the six yard box and nestled in the bottom corner. On the pitch, Gibbs was mobbed by jubilant team-mates; in the stand, Holmes was claiming an assist. So Nigel Gibbs has added goalscoring to his repertoire - if that doesn't get him that bloody contract, nothing will. It was a total fluke, of course, but it does prove the theory that anything can happen if you put decent crosses into the box.

The rest of the half was dull as dishwater - if interesting things happened, then I can't remember any of them. As the time trickled slowly away, we occupied ourselves with a game of "Guess Ig's Middle Name" - it was more fun than watching the football, which was rapidly disintegrating into a particularly drab midfield battle. By the way, nobody did manage to guess my middle name - it starts with K, answers on a postcard please...

The second half was only marginally more exciting. Brentford made slightly more in-roads into our defence (you may have noticed that I hardly mentioned them at all during the first half - that's because they did absolutely sod all) but promptly wasted the one good chance they managed to create. It was a header at the far post - unmarked and well-placed, the striker managed to miss the target with a diving effort. Shortly afterwards, they went close with a low, well-struck free kick that curved round the wall and had Kevin Miller scrambling across his goal. What has to be worrying for Brentford fans, though, is that I can't remember a single save that Miller had to make.

We extended the lead after fifteen minutes of the second half and without, it has to be said, having ever looked much like scoring after the break. It was classic Tommy Mooney persistence - forced out towards the left in his attempts to beat a defender, he managed to get a shot in anyway. It struck the defender, which didn't change its direction but robbed the effort of all its pace. Somehow the keeper was beaten and it rolled quietly into the corner. You'd have to put it down to bad goalkeeping, really, but I'm not complaining.

With Brentford looking unlikely to break down our defence, that effectively finished the game as a contest. There was only one real footballing incident of note in the remaining half hour - an extraordinary run by Gifton Noel-Williams, combining strength and skill to beat a series of defenders. In the end, his determination brought him within sight of goal - sadly, though, he lost his cool a little and blasted a shot that was saved. His confidence appeared to take a gigantic boost after that and, having looked slightly out of his depth for much of the game, he finished with an excellent last few minutes.

Otherwise, it was only the running battles that offered any kind of interest. A huge ruck followed an aerial challenge on Miller and ended up involving almost every player on the field. The referee was content to book two Brentford players after that - one for the initial challenge and another for involvement in the punch-up (who was perhaps lucky to get away with just a yellow card from what I saw). Gary Penrice, though, offered the best entertainment. Having already been booked for a rather robust challenge earlier in the game, he clattered a Brentford player later, leaving Darren Bazeley on the deck in the process. Naturally, Penrice, fearing a second booking, attempted to make himself scarce while Bazeley received treatment - he needn't have worried, however, because the referee got confused and booked Bazeley instead.

If this report seems rather downbeat for a win over the league leaders, then that's got more to do with the state of the team than anything else. We just can't go on like this. We can't play Nigel Gibbs at left back until Ludden returns - it destroys our creativity down that side, since Gibbs' left-footed passing rarely finds Tommy Mooney (no criticism of Gibbs is intended here, he's just totally out of position - you wouldn't expect Mooney to play on the right wing). With Bazeley pulled back into a wing-back role, we lose a lot of our attacking impact on the other side as well.

The midfield always looks better when we have someone to cause trouble behind the front two - Gary Penrice lacks the vision of a Ramage (in top-form) or a Porter but he does have a certain bustling presence about him and he's been playing very well in that position of late. Clint Easton started brightly and then faded - exactly what you'd expect from a youngster in the middle of an intense midfield battle. However, freed of attacking responsibilities, Steve Palmer looks much more comfortable sitting in front of the defence, reading the game - it's what he's best at.

But there are more problems in attack. Wayne Andrews looks absolutely knackered - we cannot expect him to continue for much longer and he'll be risking a serious injury if he does (how many times has he been hobbling around the pitch so far this season?). And Gifton Noel-Williams is sixteen, for gawd's sake.

We do have things to be positive about, though. In this case, the central defensive partnership of Keith Millen and Robert Page was outstanding. Millen was playing against his old club and was clearly fired up (so nice to hear that the Brentford fans remember him - how can you chant 'Brentford reject' at a player who gave you ten years' service?). Page, for the first time this season, looked like a player on the fringes of an international squad - he had a majestic game, shutting down Brentford's attack with ruthless efficiency.

So I'm delighted that we won, obviously. I just can't escape the nagging doubts.

And, finally, I'd just like to give a mention to another team. A team that travelled north on Saturday, arrived as underdogs and left having pulled off a win against all the odds. Chelsea at Man Utd? Nah, Brighton at Hartlepool, ending a run of fifteen consecutive away defeats and finding the tiniest chink of light at the end of the tunnel in the process. ARCHER OUT!