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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 21/9/96
Watford 0(0)
Team: Miller 4, *Gibbs 5*, Ludden 2, Palmer 3, Millen 3, Page 2, Bazeley 3, Andrews 4, White 2, Porter 3, Mooney 3
Subs: R Johnson (for Ramage) 2, Penrice (for Andrews) 2, Ramage (for White) 0
Peterborough United 0(0)
Injuries pile up
Report by Ian Grant

Well, having entered Vicarage Road in the foulest of foul moods, I left in a more cheery frame of mind, so that's something. Nothing to do with the football, of course, just excellent banter with the mailing list crew. Among the topics of conversation: foetal cheerleading, pagan rituals, what to do when the Jehovah's Witnesses call, Being Ginger, chickens...

Let's face it, talking crap was infinitely more entertaining than watching the game. This was a goalless draw. I could end the report there, really. I won't, though, partly because I'm such a dedicated reporter and mainly because I'd have to find something interesting to watch on TV on a Sunday night (Heartbeat? I'd rather boil my own head).

The match report, then. I don't suppose I can put it off any longer.

As usual, we started brightly enough - the fans seemed a bit more fired up than normal for some reason and we won a couple of corners to get things rolling. Sadly, the early momentum just wasn't maintained and we lost our way.

The alarm bells started ringing as soon as Peterborough got hold of the ball and started pushing forward. The defence seemed slightly confused, with Dominic Ludden having a particularly strange game, and we didn't look at all secure. Tiredness is certainly playing a part in that - you can't expect players to come through 90 minutes of first class (ish) football every Saturday and Tuesday for months on end. Early on, Peterborough created what was to be the best opening of the game, Zeke Rowe put clear and foiled by a superb blocking save by Kevin Miller. Despite the excellent stop, the striker probably should've finished more decisively.

At the Rookery end, we were huffing and puffing but their house was not in any real danger of blowing down. Apart from a couple of headed opportunities for Tommy Mooney and Devon White, they dealt with our aerial threat pretty efficiently. We still tend towards over-reliance on the aerial side of the game (part of the problem with having Dev up there is that his height makes the long ball up to him seem like an easy and logical option, when there's frequently a better ball on).

The one exception to the predictability of our attacking play is Wayne Andrews. His ability to turn and run at defenders and then use his pace to accelerate away from them really scares the living daylights out of most of these Second Division centre backs. No surprise, then, that they try and take him out of the game. On this occasion, they succeeded. He was already hobbling a little after several dodgy challenges before a clattering tackle from behind as he attempted to turn finally finished him off. With only just over half an hour gone, we lost our most lively player - suffice to say that Andrews caused more problems on his own in half an hour than the rest of the team did in an entire game. To a certain extent, I wouldn't blame the defenders for doing what they did (it's their job to prevent goals and if that means taking an opponent out, they'll do it) but you have to question what exactly the referee was doing. Players deserve protection.

The only other noteworthy action in the first half was, again, down the Vic Road end. Ken Charlery's hooked volley from a narrow angle hit the intersection of post and bar - Kevin Miller acted as if he had it covered, but I wasn't particularly convinced. With Gary Penrice and Dev attempting to hit it off up front (I hate Penrice as a support striker, he just doesn't look the part at all), we failed to create anything significant.

The second half saw things go from bad to worse. The performance was a bit more convincing (not a lot, though) but the fact that we finished the game with ten men without having a player sent off says a lot about the kind of luck we were hit by. First, Craig Ramage replaced Dev up front, as Kenny Jackett attempted to spark something off in attack. I found that a bit strange, particularly since we continued to pump long balls up to our strikers, forgetting that they'd shrunk by about a foot and couldn't win the ball in the air. Anyway, Ramage wandered about, gave the ball away in his own half a few times and then blatantly dived for a free kick by the touchline. And injured himself in the process. He was carried away on a stretcher to a standing ovation (not quite sure what he'd done to deserve that) and a few stifled giggles. Richard Johnson came on.

Remarkably, bearing in mind that our forward line now consisted of midgets (Penrice, basically) in a strange let's-recreate-last-season sort of way, we began a moderately spirited attempt to win the game. It didn't work, of course, but it was much better. The closest we got was a Mooney shot that nearly squirmed under the keeper's body - the angle was poor, though, and Porter was well-placed after making a late run into the box but Tommy didn't see him. We also had a couple of fine crosses from the right - the first was punched away by the keeper at full stretch from Gary Porter's head and the other required an excellent defensive header to stop Steve Palmer getting a goal attempt.

Palmer was injured in the second of those incidents and was lying, clutching his head, in the penalty area as the referee played on. During the few seconds of play that the referee allowed before whistling for Palmer to get treatment, Porter was clobbered by a bad tackle. So we were in the situation of having used all three substitutes, with two players lying badly hurt on the pitch. Fortunately, Palmer recovered enough from the clash of heads to play on, although I was never particularly sure that he was too steady on his feet after that, but Porter could hardly walk and I'll be very surprised if we see him again soon.

And so we played the last ten minutes or so with ten men. I'm really not sure what the referee thought he was doing - if a player's down with a head injury then he's not going to get dramatically better in a few seconds so you have to stop play immediately. And, if you are stupid enough to allow play to continue, you have to pay attention so that if, for instance, a player is injured by a late tackle, you see what happens.

Peterborough could have won it at the end - a free header in the box was completely wasted and went way wide. In the end, though, the scoreline was right - even if Peterborough just shaded it, neither side did enough to win all the points. Our performance was disjointed at the best of times - in some ways, the injuries disguise the fact that we weren't playing very well anyway. Mind you, if Wayne Andrews had stayed on the pitch for the whole game I suspect we might be celebrating another win. A draw's not as good as a win, but not as bad as a defeat. He said, wisely.

The thing that disturbs me about all this is the size of our squad. I said it several times over the summer and nothing has changed - we do not have enough strength in depth. With Porter and Ramage injured, we don't have a creative midfielder. With Connolly and Phillips out, we've been forced to give Andrews an extended run - that's been hugely successful but should he really be playing two senior games a week at his age? Dominic Ludden and Robert Page look absolutely knackered but we've got no-one to replace them with so they'll just have to soldier on. The manager has no money to spend on new players, despite the very considerable positive balance on transfers in recent years - we're not talking about investing millions, just the odd hundred grand just to reinforce the squad in crucial areas. If we want promotion, it has to be done.

We could start by giving Nigel Gibbs a proper contract. Short of actually dying for the cause, it's difficult to see what else he has to do. On Saturday, he defended with confidence and assurance - he was the pick of the Watford players by a mile simply by virtue of knowing his job and doing it with a bit of class.

Oh, I dunno. The result's not a disaster, the injuries just might be. I blame the programme. It contained notes from Kenny Jackett ("I can't remember a time when we've gone so long without drawing a game" - good one, Ken) and a profile of the physio, who's going to be having a busy time after this game. Talk about tempting fate. In the next programme: How the club would cope in the event of a freak earthquake...