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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 22/3/97
Millwall 0(0)
Watford 1(1)
Team: Miller 4, Gibbs 4, Armstrong 4, Palmer 4, Millen 4, Page 4, Bazeley 4, Mooney 4, Phillips 4, Johnson 4, Easton 4
Subs: Penrice, Slater, Noel-Williams (for Phillips) 4
Scorers: Mooney (28)
No passengers
Report by Ian Grant

That this was a vital game was beyond question. That it brought out one of the finest team performances from a Watford side for months ought to be a cause for immense celebration. If this season ends as we all hope it will, then this will be the game you read about in years to come.

There's no man of the match award. I've done that before on a couple of occasions but only because there's been no player worthy of the title. This time it's because it would be unfair to single someone out for special attention. No-one let the side down, there were no passengers, everyone contributed something of value to the team effort.

The margin of victory hints that perhaps we sneaked a goal on the break, that we were a little lucky along the way. Forget that. We trampled all over Millwall in an outstanding first half display - I was forced to take notes at the interval, such was the number of chances we created. If the second half was inevitably less adventurous, it provided a different kind of satisfaction - we took everything that Millwall could throw at us, yet Kevin Miller left the pitch at the final whistle having barely had to make a save.

But don't let's fall into the trap of divorcing this game from the two that preceded it. Against Walsall and Bristol Rovers, we were trying out something new - a more patient game, built on solid defence, a battling midfield and two nippy strikers. There was little difference in tactics on Saturday - we just made our possession count a bit more, hurting the opposition rather than playing in front of them. At last, it seems that we've found a successful formula.

The first half had most Watford fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief. I doubt whether we'll play better this season (if we do, I hope I'm there to see it) and I doubt whether Millwall have been dismantled to such a degree at the Den for quite a while. Chance after chance after chance - the only possible criticism was that we didn't have the match sewn up by the break, leaving ourselves open to a freak equaliser in the second half.

We didn't storm forward in huge numbers, we just used the practice of the previous games to let Millwall come at us and hit them on the counter-attack. (That might not have been particularly obvious, I admit, since the likes of Steve Palmer and Richard Johnson usually managed to dispossess the opposition around the halfway line. We weren't camped in their half, they just couldn't shake off our hard-tackling midfield for long enough to get out of it.) As we broke up the Millwall attacks, we started to gain in confidence and set up our own moves. It didn't take long to realise that the Millwall defence didn't greatly enjoy playing against two small strikers and it didn't take much longer before we began to dominate the game.

I counted eight significant Watford openings in the first forty-five minutes. I don't recall Millwall managing anything. The warning signs were there from the point when Richard Johnson mis-hit a shot and, after a scramble in the area (I've no idea what happened), the ball was cleared off the line by a defender. Shortly after that, Kevin Phillips got on the end of a right wing cross and volleyed just past the post.

The goal came during our most intense spell of pressure. A corner from the right was whipped in by Clint Easton and somehow ended up floating majestically into the top left corner with the goalkeeper standing rooted to the spot. At the time, I thought that Robert Page had got his head to it (and it was announced as Page's goal) but it's been credited to Tommy Mooney (again).

We didn't let up after taking the lead and should've added to the total. Johnson swept in a superb free kick from the edge of the area, forcing a diving goal-line clearance by a defender; Phillips ran through onto a bad backpass but failed to make the most of the opportunity; someone (Mooney, possibly) went in with the keeper from a left wing cross and was unfortunate not to find the net; Easton put a free header over the bar; Millen got on the end of a far post corner and headed down, only to see his attempt bounce over. Phew.

We should've expected to see a more lively Millwall at the start of the second half - presumably they'd had something of a kick up the backside from their manager. But, unlike at Gillingham, we responded with professionalism and calmly weathered the storm. Indeed, even when it appeared that our opponents were going to score at any moment, they only forced Miller into one save, stretching to get a hand to a cross that was going over his head (he dropped it in the six yard box and, much to the annoyance of the home fans, there was no blue shirt within yards).

Hard work eventually turned the tide, Mooney, Phillips and Bazeley all forming the first line of defence around the halfway line to stop Millwall from putting our defence under constant pressure. As time ticked by, we looked more and more secure.

In fact, the match began to return to the pattern of the first half. Although Millwall managed one more shot (a fiercely driven effort from distance that, fortunately, went straight at Miller), our attack looked considerably more potent. Steve Palmer lifted a lob from the edge of the box that hit the top of the bar; Mooney and Phillips just failed to combine as the former's pass was intercepted in a two-on-one situation; Mooney turned brilliantly inside the area and smacked a right foot shot across the face of goal.

We played as a unit and that counts for so much. In finding a way to incorporate Johnson and Palmer into the same midfield, we've conquered the problem of being out-fought in that area and are finding it considerably easier to control the flow of the game as a consequence. This was a very physical contest, as they usually are against Millwall, but we came out on top - that's a major change from a month ago. Sure, it leaves us lacking in creativity but, with two strikers capable of conjuring up something, that doesn't appear to be a great worry - right now, we only need to score a single goal anyway. As I've already said in previous match reports, we are playing to our strengths at long last.

You know me. I'm not a great one for giving reports too much of a yellow tint - if the game's been a close one, I'll say so. But, as 1-0 wins go, this was as comprehensive as you'll ever see. The celebrations at the end were not just because of the result, they were also hearty endorsements of the performance. Personally, I felt like running through the streets screaming jubilatory songs - this being Millwall, however, I settled for trying to look miserable and stay alive.

Amazing performance
Report by Dan Exeter

The stadium is lovely - four-sided all seater, plenty of room in the toilets and, behind the stand, bars serving beer (and the queue didn't seem too horrendously long), even TVs to show highlights. The fans however are still as moronic as ever, so obsessed with their own self-importance and convinced that they're the hardest people on earth. Wankers. The team are the same as I think Millwall have always been, ie they'd be quite good if they didn't go around trying to kick people. Having said that, they weren't too violent on Saturday, possibly a reflection of their youth and the trouble the club is in.

Watford, on the other hand, could almost be a totally different club to the one I saw struggle to a 1-0 win over Bristol Rovers on Tuesday. Although the team was the same (Miller in goal, Gibbs, Page, Milly and Armstrong across the back, Easton, Johno, Palmer and the Baze in midfield, Super Kev and Super Tom up front) the performance was amazing. The fans too seemed more lively (I don't know whether that was related to the beer on sale beforehand) and more willing to get behind the team and actually make some noise. We were also more willing to take the piss out of Millwall, with chants like 'Millwall's going bust' and '4p, you're only worth 4p'. I know we shouldn't laugh at other people's adversity, especially as it could so easily be us, but in my mind Millwall deserve it a bit more than most.

Although I don't think we could say anyone was outstanding as such, I think it was a day of good solid performances. Page was superb, and Milly settled down really well after another shaky start. Gibbs and Armstrong were competent, while Bazeley and Easton on the wings were outstanding. Baze had much more confidence, was much more willing to take players on and have a go, and his enthusiasm was heartening with his willingness and keenness. Easton was equally impressive, not bad considering he's right-footed but out on the left-wing and that he's only a young lad himself. Although I thought he dwelled on the ball too much when we were going forward, he tracked back superbly and helped take a lot of pressure off Armstrong.

Bazeley is the not the only one who'se improved a hell of a lot this season - Johno had one of his best performances that I think I've ever seen. He seemed to be everywhere, winning headers and tackles, making passes and providing options. Of course, Johno being Johno, he wasn't perfect and did make a few errors and in the first half - one spectacularly pointless volleyed backpass to Miller from the centre-circle. He and Palmer seem to be getting it together at last, taking it in turns to run from midfield or hold in front of the back four. My praise for the Australian One should not detract from Palmer's own performance, including an attempt at a 20-yard chip of their keeper right at the start of the second half which although the goalie always had it covered looked vicious enough to creep in. By then we were one up - a corner from the right (or the left I suppose) which Mooney (although at the time I thought it was Page and that's what the scoreboard said too) flicked on at the near post into the far corner. A very simple goal, but one which we've hardly scored all season and to be honest I think our work on set-pieces is going to have to improve if/when we go up.

Chances were few and far between in the second half, for the most part we had to defend stoutly, and this we did competently although I wouldn't say that I always felt totally safe. Indeed, we'd had quite a few chances in the first half (we could have been four up by half time, no joke) and I was worried we'd throw it all away in the second half. We held firm however, and late on the Gift came on for Super Kev, who'd run his socks off all day and deserves a goal soon simply for being so keen. So we ended the game without Slater, Penrice (both on the bench) or Super Kev, yet even so we didn't look clueless, like we have done on other occasions this season.

The game over, I had only to get home...a task I didn't relish and didn't really enjoy. We were kept behind for a bit after the game, but when we came out we still needed a police escort out. To be fair to the coppers they did a great job of keeping the rival sets of fans apart on the road to the station, however at the station itself there were only about four coppers that I saw and I stayed very quiet while waiting for the train to London Bridge, hoping that I'd successfully folded my shirt down enough under my jumper. (I had asked Kingsley if he could see my shirt under my jumper. He said 'No, but then I'm not a Millwall fan looking for a Watford fan to beat up' which was just what I wanted to hear.).

Fortuntately (for me anyway) I made it to Waterloo alive, and rang my dad to find out the other scores. The realisation that there were four clubs on 61 points (meaning that we're still in with a chance of winning this division) made the train journey home that little bit shorter.