Sour grape, anyone?
Report by Ian Grant
I had it all planned. Following a comfortable, relaxing win over Peterborough to put us within
two matches of Wembley, I was going to take the opportunity to lay into the Auto Windscreen Shield.
I was going to take issue with Oliver Phillips' analysis of last week's Bristol City game (he claimed it
was one of the best matches of the season), on the grounds that a game of football loses everything when
it's stripped of a meaningful context (ie passionate fans, committed players, something at stake). This is
football, not ice-skating. I was planning on asking whether anyone's ever heard a manager talk about
actually winning the competition, rather than merely earning the chance to play at our oh-so-wonderful
national stadium. I was hoping to pour scorn on a competition whose only function is to provide a
winnable trophy for lower division clubs by disqualifying everyone else (why not go one step further, then,
and elevate the Herts Senior Cup to a first team fixture?).
Now that we've lost, of course, it'll sound like sour grapes. But I'd be lying if I said last night's game mattered
much to me; I'd be lying if I said that, when we were looking for a late equaliser, a large part of me didn't want us to
score just so that I could get back to Brighton at a reasonable hour. Yeah, it's selfish, I know.
The point is, of course, that the players owe the supporters quite a lot at the moment. Having entered the
competition (providing yet another opportunity to clog up supporters' lives and empty their wallets with meaningless fixtures) and
made rather a lot of noise about treating it as a full first team occasion, the club can't expect to gain very much
goodwill from a performance like this. Personally, despite my extreme lack of passion for this competition, I
think I've got every right to criticise - I've wasted over fifty quid, three half-day holidays and about eighteen
hours of travelling on said poxy competition. The players, in stark contrast, got paid.
So, after the Bristol City game, we all thought we were going to Wembley, right? Well, surprise surprise,
so did the players, judging by a first half display that bordered on the fraudulent and relied heavily on Peterborough's ineptitude in front of goal. We came
out thinking we were going to win (despite never looked like beating Peterborough in the League game at
the Vic), the opposition came out wanting to win.
In a half dominated by the away side, particularly in the early exchanges (it took us ten minutes to string
a series of passes together), our defence was constantly in trouble. Steve Palmer and Robert Page don't look
like a good combination at the back - sadly, with Keith Millen out, we don't have any alternative - while Nigel
Gibbs spent the evening being run ragged by Ricky Otto. I can't remember the last time I saw Gibbs have such
They should've had it sewn up before the break. Indeed, had their attack not consisted of Ken Charlery and
Harry Willis, two of the most catastrophically awful purchases in recent Watford history, they probably
would've scored earlier. Charlery wasted a free header, glancing the ball arrogantly wide with the goal
at his mercy, but the best moment of the match, the one that was worth six quid on its own, belonged to
Willis. Put through on goal with a defender struggling to get back and cover, he set himself up to shoot and allowed
his left foot to get a small, accidental touch on the ball before taking a gigantic swing with his right, missing the
ball completely and falling in a heap. Best of all, he had the bare-faced cheek to ask the referee for a penalty!
We did gradually work ourselves back into the game as the half went on. I'll get some stick from various
people for this but, contrary to popular opinion, I thought Richard Johnson had a good game - not because he didn't
give the ball away (he did, he always does) but simply because he was battling when others were watching. That combative
presence enabled us to push out of defence a little, giving the defenders more time to build attacks constructively rather than
merely clear their lines.
Even so, we created just one passing move of any worth in the first half. Clint Easton picked the ball up in midfield and
swept a majestic pass through to Keith Scott. Despite being forced wide by a combination of goalkeeper
and defender, Scott managed to get a shot in and was unlucky to see the keeper get a hand to it.
Really, though, our attacking threat was in spite, rather than because, of the service to the forwards. Anything we created
came from sheer determination on the part of Scott and Andrews. Scott, in particular, had an excellent game, looking strong
in tussles with defenders, winning a good number of balls in the air and looking especially dangerous with the
ball at his feet. The "Don't Sell Ramage" banner being hung from the upper tier of the Rous (look, let's get this straight, we offered him
a contract, he turned us down) should've read "Sell Ramage, buy Scott".
Perhaps the most frustrating thing was the failure to supply Darren Bazeley, who had the beating of his full back all night and wasn't
afraid to take him on, with decent possession. In that respect, once again, Nigel Gibbs must hold his hand up - but he's not alone, there
were too many lazy, thoughtless long balls out of defence last night.
We did come close with long-range efforts on a couple of other occasions, most notably when Johnson (?) fired in a low
free kick that took a wicked deflection and required a good save by the keeper. Otherwise, Easton took
too long to take advantage of a situation that had left the keeper stranded in no man's land and, by the time the
shot came in, the opportunity had passed him by.
Whatever was said in the dressing room at half-time appeared to have little effect, as Peterborough emerged early from the
break and once again looked hungrier for the victory. The goal came early and it wasn't much of a surprise. Again, the
defence failed to clear effectively, allowing Peterborough to work their way across the box from left to right, with the ball
finally ending up at the feet of Otto, who'd temporarily switched wings. With no defender near enough to put in any kind of challenge,
the winger had plenty of time to pick his spot and fire a low shot past Kevin Miller.
Even the goal didn't change things. For about another twenty minutes we allowed Peterborough to control proceedings -
they'd begun to settle for the single goal victory, with their keeper involved in some particularly outrageous time-wasting for which
he was eventually booked, but that didn't stop them from winning the midfield battle with relative ease. It's true that they didn't
create too much - they didn't need to, though, and they were still the more dangerous side.
Kenny Jackett, clearly frustrated by the lack of impetus, tried changing things, bringing on Kevin Phillips for Andrews (which wasn't
really going to work - the lack of potency up front was a symptom of our failures further back) then replacing Robinson with Gary Penrice.
But nothing much changed - Penrice didn't get involved at all, he just got drawn into the on-going midfield
mess; Phillips had to cope with lamentable service.
In the end, it took a massive chorus of boos from the home support as yet another disjointed move broke down
to spur the side into action. Richard Johnson was the first to react, driving in a shot from distance that the
keeper had to parry. As the ball broke out to the right, Bazeley whipped in a far post cross and Scott
missed the target with a header by a matter of inches. From that point on, there was only one side in the game, something
which made the preceding seventy minutes even harder to take. Easton had a couple of shots from outside the box (although he
should've crossed for well-positioned strikers on both occasions); Phillips had a claim for a penalty when he collided with a
defender (for what it's worth, and despite the explosion of outrage from those around me, I didn't think it was a penalty); Bazeley
sliced a shot past the post when well-placed; Phillips attempted a volley on the turn and got it on target, with the keeper making
a comfortable catch. And, closest of all, Johnson rampaged through and hit a shot that took a deflection of a tackling defender -
it beat the keeper, hit the underside of the bar, bounced on the line and somehow came out.
You could argue that we did enough in the final quarter of the game to win it. That might be true, it doesn't
excuse the farcical lack of cohesion and commitment in the three quarters that came first. Too many of last night's mistakes were
elementary - two Watford players challenging for the same ball, for example - and that's not good enough, not even for a side
that's been re-organised to cover injuries. There's a time and a place for over-confidence - it sure as
hell isn't when you're twelfth in the Second Division...
We can live without the Auto Windscreen Shield. We can hope that we're not still around to have another
go at it next season. In the meantime, we ought to turn our attention to the only thing that matters and the only thing
that ever did matter - promotion.