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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division Two, 21/12/96
Watford 0(0)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 3, Ludden 3, Palmer 2, *Millen 4*, Page 4, Penrice 2, Connolly 2, Noel-Williams 3, Johnson 2, Slater 2
Subs: Andrews (for Slater) 2, Chamberlain, Bazeley (for Johnson) 2
Gillingham 0(0)
Pathetic gimcrackery
Report by Ian Grant

When the media goes on about fans using the game as a way of escaping the mundanity of ordinary working life, what they're really talking about is the Premiership - that's pretty much the only place you'll find sport worth escaping into. Watching Ginola, Bergkamp or Zola in the flesh must be a joyful way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Watching Darren Bazeley send a cross into the keeper's arms for the 250th time this season is merely a painful reminder that life is frequently full of disappointments.

I can't explain why I'm still going to Watford matches. I wish I could rationalise it - it might make all the frustration a little easier to deal with. But there's no reason to be at Vicarage Road, sitting week after week watching an average side grind out yet another draw and slide a little further away from the all-important automatic promotion places. It's just blind loyalty, nothing more. I'm there because I've always been there. The club would do well to capitalise on that loyalty before it turns into utter indifference.

You can't polish a turd. This was a crap football match. Very crap indeed. The worst I've seen this season by a significant margin, which is saying something bearing in mind the primitive nature of most Second Division football. Gawd only knows what heinous crimes Watford supporters have committed in previous lives to deserve this.

Two things of note happened in the first half. Nothing that involved action around the goalmouth, though, so don't get too excited. To start off with, Andy Hessenthaler (a player I like and have always liked and would still like if he'd had the guts to be honest about his move to Gillingham) went in very late on Steve Palmer. It was a tackle that he'd had time to pull out of but he lunged in anyway, suggesting that the two players weren't exactly the best of friends during their time as Watford team-mates. Unfortunately, the referee didn't consider a late, two-footed tackle to be worthy of anything more than a slapped wrist.

You may have noticed that I've just devoted an entire paragraph to a bad tackle. That ought to indicate the difficult nature of the task in front of me - to write a match report about a game that was almost entirely devoid of incident. The closest we came to scoring in the first half was when Gary Penrice sent a long-distance free kick sailing over the bar - our set pieces remain as devastating as ever, you'll be delighted to know.

Gillingham came to do a job and they did it well, getting players behind the ball and putting us under enough physical pressure to force errors. As with the visit of Wycombe, however, you did have to wonder exactly what they were so frightened of - we were always vulnerable on the break and rarely did anything to suggest that we were likely to score at the other end. A braver, more confident side could have returned home with all the points, I suspect.

The second half was marginally better, although I'd still rather spend a week camping in a one-man tent on a Welsh mountain-side in the middle of winter, with only snow to eat and nature for company, than be forced to sit through that kind of pathetic gimcrackery again. The half-time arrival of Darren Bazeley in place of Richard Johnson, who'd had a complete nightmare as a makeshift right winger, briefly lifted the fans' spirits until we remembered that, although he gets in some fine positions, Bazeley's crossing is hopelessly wayward.

As the game became more shapeless, the bitterly cold Easterly wind seemed to penetrate that little bit deeper. This was a match with just one meaningful shot on target - Dominic Ludden taking advantage of a dummy by David Connolly to break inside the area and hit a tame shot from a narrow angle straight at the keeper. That was it - the only serious save that either keeper had to make. Whoopee.

There were a couple of chances, though. Just once, the players in yellow shirts managed to show a bit of class - excellent link-up play involving Connolly resulted in a cross to Bazeley at the far post and he turned to fire the ball over the bar. At the other end, Steve Butler wasted the best opening of the game for Gillingham, leaning back and letting fly when unmarked and well-placed.

The rest was pitifully poor. Suffice to say that our greatest attacking threat came from Keith 'Goal Machine' Millen who, as well as having a commendably solid game in defence, presented some kind of physical threat at corners. He also had one of our few shots on goal - a long-range drive that was going wide before it got a deflection (the referee gave a goal-kick, we shouted abuse at him and then remembered that we're about as likely to score from a corner as we are from an alien invasion landing at Vicarage Road and distracting the goalkeeper at a crucial moment).

Wayne Andrews came on for Stuart Slater - something of a controversial substitution at the time but Slater had had a nondescript sort of game, too often static when he should have been providing his colleagues with some movement to aim for. As with Gary Penrice, we have a right to expect something from Slater that transcends the hit-and-hope nature of a typical Second Division game - we didn't get it from either of them, sadly. We woke up again when Wayne started to take on the Gillingham defence but he showed his inexperience a few times by attempting to take on every opposition player rather than passing to a better-placed team-mate.

The second half dragged on with Watford attacking most of the time and Gillingham attempting to score on the break. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. To be honest, the half-time shoot-out had ten times more drama than the game itself.

At the end, there were many boos mixed in with the applause for the players. I can't say I'm surprised about that - this kind of drab, unimaginative battling won't win us promotion and nothing less than promotion will do at the end of the season. The fact that we remain seventh, just six points behind the leaders, is not an endorsement of the current state of Watford Football Club, it's a damning reflection on the rest of the Second Division.

It's not too late. But we can't carry on like this. You can't win promotion with a sixteen year old as your only centre forward - and, no, Craig Ramage is not going to save the day by arriving back and taking over that role (he was a useless centre forward when he could actually be bothered, as anyone who was at Scarborough will know, so he's certainly not going to do the business in that position now). Equally, you can't win promotion with two centre backs in the squad - especially when one of them is likely to be called up for international duty at inconvenient moments throughout the season and the other is a minor transgression away from suspension.

Investment, investment, investment. Football is a squad game and our squad is neither good enough nor big enough. There's no competition for places, there's no cover in critical positions, there's no options to try when things aren't working. Kenny Jackett is a manager who's doing his job with his hands tied behind his back. If Jack Petchey wants us to wait for the youth team to mature into a squad that's capable of success (and therefore worth selling, presumably), then he should say as much and we can all save ourselves the trouble of turning up for the next couple of years. Because I've had enough of this stagnation and I'm damn sure that I'm not the only one.

Sing your hearts out!
Report by Ian Lay

Because of late Christmas shopping, I am writing this report on Christmas Eve. Normally this would mean I would forget some important details from a match which was three days before. But in the case of the Gillingham game there was little to remember in the first place. Let's face it, this was a fairly dour affair. We didn't play well. There were too many players below par. Add to this the starting line-up which had Palmer and Johnson playing in the midfield (I keep telling people you can't play both these players in the same side. They don't mix) and then the substitution of Slater to introduce Andrews. Surely Connolly would have been a better player to go off. Connolly is a good player and will score lots of goals, but when he is not scoring he is fairly non-existent. Okay, I know Bazeley wasn't completely fit, and that was why he was on the bench and Palmer and Johnson started in the midfield. But what about starting with Andrews on the right wing instead. He has shown from previous games that he can put in a good cross, and can also battle back to defend.

The first half was instantly forgettable. Gillingham were negative and had clearly come for the draw. They were happy to defend deep and try and catch us on the break. Unfortunately we are not good at breaking down sides that have just come to defend. We soon run out of ideas, get frustrated and end up boring everybody senseless with long hopeful hoofs up to Noel-Williams (who had his worst game for Watford so far, mainly due to the man marking job that was done on him). Connolly wasn't much better. Being pushed off the ball far too easily, and for once his control was not up to what it usually is. I know I keep saying this, but we really need Phillips back quick. He has the scoring ability of Connolly, but more so he doesn't get pushed off the ball so easily, therefore keeping attacks going that may break down with Connolly. Johnson was virtually non-existent, and it was no surprise when he was substituted at half time for the far more resourceful Bazeley.

The second half was better (it couldn't be much worse!) but we still only carved out one clear cut chance, Ludden sliding in late on the far post (to what I think was a Bazeley cross) forced their keeper into a smart block at the base of the post. Early Bazeley himself had sent one of those "Northampton" curlers just over the upright. But apart from that, we didn't really test the goalkeeper. Gillingham also didn't create that much, but they did carve open two openings which could be classed clear cut. The first Miller had to make a smart block at the feet of their attacker, and the other Butler (I think) blasted over when it seemed easier to score. But generally neither side deserved to win.

The defence performed well. Page in particular matures more and more as the season goes by. Millen was his steady self again so was Gibbs and Ludden (nice to see Dom back). In the midfield..... well I have already mentioned the young Aussie. Palmer was below par as well. He seems to have lost a bit of confidence recently. I hope he regains his form soon because he is vital link in the midfield, and a massive fail-safe for the defence. Slater was busy as usual, but I do think we need to be playing him for the full 90 minutes. However, in Jackett's defence, he probably wanted to rest him a little with the intense Christmas programme. Also, even though he has played a few games for us now, he probably still isn't 100 percent match fit. And then we come to the instigator of this terrible crime James Tiberius Kirk.... oops sorry I'm watching Star Trek 6 The Undiscovered Country my mind must have wandered I was saying.... then we come to Gary Penrice. In my opinion he is the player of the season already. Even when things are not going as they should he finds options. His control is an example to everyone in the team and his passes most of the time are perfectly executed. He was the centre of all our play, and if we are going to go up this season we have to hope and pray he stays injury free.

Before this game, I thought to myself that if we get eight out of the twelve points over the Christmas period then that will be work well done. Two wins and two draws...eight points. I really did think, however, that Gillingham would have been 3 points rather than 1. While we don't really look like losing to anyone, we really don't look like winning either and that is worrying. Drawing the rest of games is not going to get us up. And with injuries to four key players (Ramage, Porter, Mooney and Phillips) we have to hope the squad as it is, is capable of keeping us in the frame till they get back. I think they can, and I know most people who go to Vicarage Road (if they are talking from the heart) believe they can. We must remember that the players want to win and if things aren't going well that's when they most need our vocal support. It's amazing what a roaring Vicarage Road Stand can do for your confidence. So at the games you see during the rest of the season make sure you sing your hearts out for the Lads.