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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 24/8/96
Watford 0(0)
Team: *Miller 4*, Bazeley 4, Ludden 4, Palmer 2, Millen 3, Page 2, Talboys 2, Connolly 0, White 3, Ramage 3, R Johnson 4
Subs: Gibbs (for Talboys) 0, Mooney (for Ludden) 2, Penrice (for Connolly) 3
Millwall 2(1)
Scorers: Marle (45), Crawford (49)
A timely reminder
Report by Ian Grant

There are some matches for which you just can't wait to write a match report - maybe a player's done so well that you feel the need to tell everyone who wasn't at the game, maybe there was a fantastic goal that you have to describe, or maybe the team simply won in a confident, competent fashion. You ought to have guessed by now that this is not one of those matches. No sir/madam, this is one of those matches for which doing the report becomes a complete pain in the backside. I believe Kate summed it up last season with the line, "The game? They didn't bother so neither will I." But, rest assured dear reader that I shall soldier dutifully on with a full and, as always, painstakingly accurate report on this glum debacle.

Sometimes you lose and you can take encouragement from the performance, whether it be individuals who've made an impression or a team effort. To be quite honest, I struggle to find a single crumb of comfort from this defeat.

Actually, we started quite brightly. Steve Talboys managed to commit a foul within two seconds of the kickoff, just as he'd done at Bournemouth so I think that could become an entertaining tradition, and we controlled the game for the opening twenty minutes. Talboys was responsible for our closest effort, a potent long-range drive that just missed the target, and the midfield seemed to settle down better than Millwall's. With Dominic Ludden replacing Tommy Mooney as left wing-back, we appeared to have more conventional ability on both wings - Darren Bazeley seems to be rapidly recovering his form against lower division defenders (given more time to get crosses in, he's producing better final balls - more whipped across the six-yard box than floated to the far post).

It would be wrong to say that we had Millwall under siege but we certainly had the better of the opening exchanges. Indeed, throughout the first half, we were unfortunate not to make a breakthrough - many of the crosses were cleared at full stretch by defenders under pressure. To give Millwall some credit (which I don't really feel like doing but what the hell...), their defence made very few lapses.

And then it all went disastrously wrong. David Connolly ran for a pass and pulled up sharply with some sort of hamstring problem - it was immediately clear that there was no way he could continue and so he was replaced by Gary Penrice after about twenty minutes. Connolly would have been absent for the next two games anyway due to international duties (and he's now likely to miss Ireland's game) - we have to hope and pray that it's not serious enough to keep him out for any longer, especially since Kevin Phillips is unlikely to be back to fitness in less than a month.

As if that injury wasn't bad enough, Ludden was hurt in a collision in the opposition box and, after trying to carry on, he was replaced by Mooney with half an hour gone- whilst I'm a big fan of Tommy, we simply didn't carry the same threat on the left after Ludden had departed. By the time Penrice had received a wound to the head later in the half that poured out a fair bit of blood during the remainder of the game, we were resembling a team of walking wounded. We simply never recovered from the two first half substitutions - but that's not an excuse for the shambles that followed.

With our confidence dented, Millwall began to get back into the game. The defence had a shaky afternoon at the best of times - Steve Palmer seemed increasingly uneasy in his sweeper role, Robert Page was out of sorts and Keith Millen found himself filling in for Mooney on the left wing (hardly Millen's natural position). The alarm bells should have been ringing as soon as Millwall created a fine opportunity about midway through the half - fortunately for us, Kevin Miller clawed the header out from by the post superbly (it looked like it was going in all the way) and we survived.

As the half went on, we found ourselves pushed back. Millwall mostly failed to penetrate our defences, though - apart from one occasion when, with Miller committed, Johnson cleared a driven cross from the goalline with an attacker breathing down his neck. Despite Millwall's increasing dominance, however, we still posed a threat on the occasions we went forward - the most notable incident was an almighty scramble in the box during which Talboys and White appeared to have good chances.

Just as it appeared that we'd end the half goalless and have the chance to reorganise during the break, we conceded a goal in first half injury time (of which there was five minutes due to the injuries to Connolly, Ludden and Penrice). It was a clumsy kind of goal - a few tussles out on the wing before the ball was cut back into the box and the low shot was driven in just out of Miller's reach. Very much a killer blow and one we simply didn't recover from.

The second half was absolutely awful. Any realistic chances we had of getting back into the game ended with the second goal. It was a personal crisis for Talboys, who gave the ball away on the edge of the Millwall area then chased the Millwall player all over the pitch without winning it back - had it been Johnno, he would've clattered the guy to stop his progress (cynical, I know, but pretty damn effective). The ball eventually found its way to a striker who despatched it past Miller with a low finish - all in all, a truly wretched goal to concede. In fact, I thought Talboys had a reasonable afternoon apart from that horrendous lapse - somehow, though, it's difficult to escape the similarity with Richard Johnson and, on current form, Johnno's by far the superior player.

After that, it was pretty much over. Millwall didn't have much reason to come out looking for more goals and only occasionally threatened during the rest of the game. For our part, we began to look disturbingly clueless. The lack of movement up front without Connolly's lively presence was particularly frightening - it's unreasonable to expect darting runs from Devon White but Penrice ought to be able to do some damage. But there were problems all over the field - the midfield struggled to string passes together (and, for once, I'm not going to blame Ramage - he was looking for the ball most of the time and he didn't get a lot of help); the defence looked as unsure of itself as it had in the first half and Millen was still finding himself out on the left wing. Far from promotion favourites, we were doing a pretty good impression of shambolic no-hopers.

We did hit the woodwork, though. It would have been an extraordinary goal - a defender's thumped clearance went straight at Bazeley and rebounded towards the goal. The keeper got touch with his despairing save (despite that, the referee gave a goal kick - cheers, Mr Wilkes) and it was enough to tip it onto the bar. By that time, it would have been more than we deserved, especially bearing in mind the freakish nature of the chance. Beyond that, I struggle to think of many chances created - Ramage had a header late on that the keeper dealt with easily enough, Penrice dwelt too long on the ball inside the box, I can't remember much else. After the first twenty minutes, Millwall were better than us - simple as that, sadly.

There's a depressing familiarity to all this. We spent most of last season losing at Vicarage Road in much the same fashion - a promising start, followed by a fairly convincing away victory. Not that one result need be disastrous - in some ways, this was a timely reminder that we're not going to run away with the division, that any points we win are going to have to be earned, that there's still a hell of a lot of work to be done at Watford Football Club. This was little worse than a mediocre performance (you'll notice in the team ratings that no-one gets lower than a 2) - however, we have to learn that Second Division mediocrity is not going to get us promoted. Somewhere along the line, we have to start imposing the undoubted quality that we have on matches - maybe not against Millwall but certainly against some of the more workmanlike teams in this division.

As for Millwall, I'd say they have every reason to be optimistic. Shorn of their more pretentious (and less committed) signings, they're stripped down to a pretty mean-looking outfit. In truth, they were never a bad enough side to get relegated last season - they were simply a complacent side that let results slip and then couldn't stop the slide when it became critical. They've certainly got the physical presence to compete at this level - I began to wonder what Bowry and Witter had to do to get in the referee's book (Ramage came in for some particularly harsh treatment - one foul from behind by Bowry in the first half was especially vicious and should have been punished) - and, on this evidence, they're not lacking in passion either. I'll be very surprised if they don't go straight back up - we have to take a long hard look at ourselves and then make sure that we get promoted with them.

Questions have got to be asked
Report by Kate Holmes

Having witnessed the delights of Walsall on Tuesday, I was hoping for a big improvement against Millwall, who have lost three of their supposed good players. I was more confident taking them on, as we know a lot about Millwall. Mind you, the last time we played them they were top of Division 1. It still makes me smile knowing that they signed Lavin and slumped to relegation.

I have a feeling that Millwall are going to change their name to Raith Rovers, as their side had about 4 players signed from Raith in the close season. For us, we put in Dominic Ludden at left back and Talboys in midfield, dropping Gibbs and Mooney to the subs bench. Other than that, the line up was pretty much the same.

I suppose we should have known what to expect when we saw that the ref was a certain Clive Wilkes - him that gave the penalty at Derby which proved extremely costly, and I've got a feeling he was the one who sent of Brucie Dyer at home to Barnsley. All I know is that every time he referees a game we're involved in, decisions tend to go badly against us. Still, there's a first time for everything.

We started quite well, with Connolly looking a class above everyone else, and Ludden making a good start down the left wing. Things started to go wrong when Ludden took a very nasty knock on his knee, and ended up being subbed, Mooney coming on to replace him. Disaster struck with Connolly pulling up with a pulled hamstring, one of those that you know is serious instantly. He has been withdrawn from the Eire squad, but no-one has said how badly he is hurt.

As soon as Connolly went off, we seemed to lose spirit. Penrice came on and threw himself around a lot, resulting in one nasty looking head wound, with blood all down his shirt. Millwall always looked more threatening than we did, and Kev pulled off an incredible save from a header, somehow clawing the ball back before it crossed the line, then clearing it with his legs.

We were not being helped by a completely dopey linesman in front of the family enclosure, who failed to make any decision. There were several occasions when a Millwall player looked to be yards offside, the worst being their first goal. I also have the benefit of having seen this on TV, and I can honestly say the decisions were as bad as I thought at the time. Firstly their player handled the ball, probably on the blind side of the ref, but the lino should have noticed. Then when the guy came to shoot, there was a player standing in an offside position directly in front of Kev. I am beginning to think that there is a different rule in play in this division, as for me that has to be interfering with play. Had he been on the edge of the area, that would have been acceptable, but obstructing the view of the keeper has got to go down as interference.

Half time came seconds later, and for the first time I think it really hit me about having been relegated. Listening to the Division 2 half time scores, with the likes of Preston and Chesterfield, and realising that this is where we are, on the same par as them. And Scum were winning. Depressing time.

The second half did not cheer me up at all, in fact it made me feel ten times worse. We had a pretty good shout for a penalty, or at least an indirect free kick for obstruction. Rams, playing one of his better games of recent times, lobbed the ball forward for Penrice to chase against the keeper. It looked to be 50-50, with Penrice possibly having the edge until Witter totally blocked him out of the way. Needless to say from this they go and score. Talboys lost the ball on the edge of their area, and then chased the Millwall player the length of the pitch with us lot screaming for him to bring him down. He didn't, and they scored from it.

Talboys was brought off not long after that, and replaced by Gibbs, but we were never in this game. The closest we came to scoring was when Bazeley chased a back pass to the keeper, who blasted it straight at Baze. The ball looked goalbound until the keeper pulled off a miraculous save to tip it onto the bar, although the ref saw fit to give a goal kick. Probably just as well, as the majority of our corners, rather like the Walsall game, were poor.

Towards the end of the game, the lino in front of the main stand made his one and only decision. The Millwall skipper had the ball kicked against his legs and it went out for a corner, although Stevens tried to kid the lino into thinking it was a goal kick. Obviously not a hard thing to do, and he succeeded. The ref overruled him, but as our corners were so bad, we probably would have done better from the goal kick.

The ref also added on a lot of injury time, with all the Watford fans calling for the whistle just to put us out of our misery. This was a diabolical performance, there was very little passion to witness out there and it made the Walsall game seem almost good by comparison. I felt totally let down by those players. After all, it was them that got us into this mess, and it will have to be them that get us out of it. I just don't think enough of our players are prepared to fight to get us out of this division. I felt it pre-season, and I really feel it now. There are not many players we can bring in to this squad, except for our Juniors, and I don't think that would be fair on them. If we can't beat Plymouth on Tuesday, then serious questions have got to be asked about the commitment of our team.