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96/97: Reports:

FA Cup 1st Round, 17/11/96
Northampton Town 0(0)
Watford 1(0)
Team: Miller 4, *Gibbs 5*, Robinson 4, Easton 3, Millen 3, Page 3, Bazeley 3, Connolly 2, White 3, Palmer 3, Mooney 2
Subs: Johnson (for Page) 0, Noel-Williams, Andrews (for Connolly) 4
Scorers: Bazeley (71)
One moment of quality
Report by Ian Grant

If you sat this one out in the warmth of the local pub, supping a pint while putting your feet up by the fire like any sensible person would, you'll have to excuse me if this report doesn't match your version of events - it's quite difficult to write an account of a game when you know that many of those reading it will have had the benefit of Sky's fancy camera angles and action replays.

After yesterday's shenanigans, Sky are probably not my very favourite people in all the world. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who thinks that one o'clock on Sunday afternoon is a reasonable kickoff time deserves every misery the world has to offer (yes, even that bloody Kula Shaker single) heaped upon their shoulders for all eternity. Throw in a car breakdown on the way there (it took us about twenty minutes to get ten yards down the road) and some British Rail engineering works on the way back (including a 'special' coach service that bombarded this weary traveller's ears with Mercury FM playing Howard flippin' Jones) and you've got a truly splendid day out for the exiled Watford fan.

At least we won, though. Show me a Hornet who wouldn't have settled for 1-0 before the game and I'll show you a liar or someone who hasn't seen us play this season (hi Nyge - happy birthday!). With the Sixfields stadium packed to capacity (sounds impressive, until you remember what the capacity is), there was always the possibility of an upset and we avoided that, at least. Although, in fact, we didn't avoid it by very much...

The formation was changed again but this time we got it right. Moving Paul Robinson in at left back, where he had another confident and accomplished game, meant that Nigel Gibbs could return to his natural position and we could play a better midfield formation (Steve Palmer in the holding role, Darren Bazeley and Tommy Mooney on the flanks, Clint Easton further forward). The only setback to the grand masterplan was the disappearance of Gary Penrice. Devon White returned to partner David Connolly up front.

It was another poor game and I can't imagine it looked particularly pleasant on TV. The first twenty-five minutes passed with barely an incident of note - a clattering foul by White (their one, that is - not even Devon's that clumsy) on Robinson was the only thing that got us out of our seats. We prepared ourselves for the usual dismal midfield trench warfare and tried to stay awake.

And then, suddenly, the game sprang to life as the home side took control. First, White (their one) had a chance inside the box which he fired across goal - it went out for a throw in the end but it only needed a Northampton striker to get a touch. Just a couple of minutes later, the ball was played across the Watford six yard box and diverted with a toe-poke into the net by a striker - thankfully, it was disallowed for offside. The spell of pressure ended with a fairly weak effort that Kevin Miller gathered with relative ease.

So that's Northampton, what about us? To be honest, it's hard to remember anything we did in the first half. I do recall a long-range shot by Steve Palmer that went harmlessly wide and prompted a chorus of "We've had a shot, we've had a shot" from the Watford fans. And there was a Tommy Mooney cross that flew across the goalmouth but evaded everyone. That was it, I think. For the most part, the service to the front two was not good enough - too many hopeful long balls and too many occasions when Devon White won headers (he had his best game for Watford in a long time) but no-one was there to pick up the pieces. It wasn't pretty and, crucially, it wasn't effective either.

The second half showed a marked improvement but it took a while to happen. For another twenty minutes, the Cobblers looked the team more likely to score. You could say that Miller didn't have a serious save to make after the interval but that would be doing the Third Division side a serious disservice - they had our defence at full stretch on a number of occasions, forcing first Palmer and then Gibbs into vital last-ditch tackles to prevent goal-scoring opportunities. Even then, they probably had enough half-decent chances to have taken the lead by the time Wayne Andrews replaced the clearly unfit David Connolly.

For our part, we'd done little to suggest that we were likely to ease our way into the Second Round. Our best efforts - a Bazeley lob and a Palmer free kick - were about as threatening as a dead goldfish and we were continuing to fail our forwards by thumping the ball forward rather than looking for penetrating passes. Added to that, the execution of set pieces was hideous - Mooney, in particular, needs to be kept in after school to work on his corners until he gets the right.

That substitution made the difference. The injection of genuine pace into the front-line caused the Northampton defenders (one of whom was wearing particularly fetching green boots) problems for the first time in the match. It also lifted the supporters and, at last, we started to turn the tide. The goal wasn't long in coming and Andrews played a crucial role, winning the ball on the right wing and keeping it in play with an astounding turn of speed before laying it back to Bazeley. What followed proved to be the one moment of true quality that illuminated the afternoon and won the game. Bazeley moved inside, with Andrews confusing the defender, reached the edge of the box and swept a left-foot curler into the top corner. The keeper had no chance - it was an audacious attempt, perfectly executed and it deserved to grace a better game of football.

After that, we didn't ever look like surrendering the lead. We didn't ever look like extending it either - the closest efforts were a shot at the keeper by Andrews and a deflected drive from Richard Johnson (on for the injured Page) - but that wasn't important anymore. By the time the final whistle blew, we were in control.

In essence, we got away with it. It would be easy to say that this was a below par performance - it wasn't, it was about what we've come to expect. Confidence has an obvious part to play - as soon as we scored (in fact, as soon as Wayne Andrews, livewire that he is, came on) we looked a vastly superior side and put all our earlier discomfort behind us. What remains worrying, however, is the lack of quality in our service to the forwards - we have yet to learn how to rise above the hustle and bustle of a lower division game, something which won't be helped by a short-term injury to Robert Page since Steve Palmer will presumably have to move back into defence to be replaced by the less-than-visionary Richard Johnson. And we really must sort out some decent free kick and corner routines.

We'll face a sterner test in a more important game on Tuesday night. I'm not making any predictions...