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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 25/2/97
Watford 2(1)
Team: Miller 4, Gibbs 3, Ludden 4, Easton 4, Millen 3, Ward 3, *Bazeley 5*, Scott 4, Phillips 5, Johnson 3, Penrice 3
Subs: Andrews, Robinson (for Johnson) 4, Noel-Williams (for Phillips) 0
Scorers: Phillips (6), Bazeley (68)
Shrewsbury Town 0(0)
A huge improvement
Report by Ian Grant

Since it is still possible that there are bacteria existing on Jupiter's moons that have yet to find out, I'd better start off by saying that I've got flu and I'm not very happy about it. My less-than-charitable report on the Wycombe match was partly born from a Sunday spent shivering under the duvet, trying to pretend that my body didn't feel like it was being pulled apart on a rack. The miracles of modern medical science had me up and about enough by Tuesday to convince myself that travelling up to Watford for a football match was an entirely sensible thing to do. By the end of the evening, exhausted by coughing my lungs inside out, I was rather less convinced about the wisdom of the trip. Still, I can't really expect much sympathy, can I?

Having travelled up on a train full of gits with mobile phones (BSaD Handy Hint: To avoid having your legs broken by angry bespectacled fanzine editors who'd like some peace and quiet, turn yer bloomin' mobile off), I was in a less than bright 'n' breezy mood on arrival in Watford. The fact that it then decided to start raining didn't cheer me up much either. So, everything was perfectly set up for an evening of wallowing in my own misery...made complete, on recent evidence, by another Watford performance of stupefying ineptitude.

Amazingly, it didn't happen. After Saturday's shambles, you'd have got pretty good odds on the likelihood of two Watford players ever managing to pass the ball to each other, yet we chalked up a competent, calm victory last night. A huge improvement, basically, and something that not even I could find reason to grumble about.

The shaky starts that have characterised the last few matches, with nerves causing us to defend so deep we're practically sitting in the front row of the stand, continued. Keith Millen unnecessarily gave away a corner within about fifteen seconds of the kickoff, we descended into a few minutes of rather undignified panic and Shrewsbury were a little unfortunate not to take an early lead. Dominic Ludden was forced to clear a goal-bound header from the line, then appeared rather shocked to see his clearance rebound back at him and did well to divert the ball past the post.

So the opening goal came completely against the run of play. In many ways, though, that's how we'd like things to be - we're a much better attacking side when hitting the opposition on the break. Unfortunately, so many sides have come to Vicarage Road to defend this season that we've been forced to try and pass our way through massed defences, often looking incredibly ponderous and predictable in the process. On this occasion, Shrewsbury were hit with a classic counter-attack. Kevin Miller claimed the ball, rolled it out to Darren Bazeley and, within seconds, Bazeley was ripping down the right wing to whip in a cross. It was a good move up until that point but the finish was something else - Kevin Phillips, fighting with a defender, did well to get a header in at all, let alone a forceful effort on target. I couldn't honestly see how he could score...until the ball crept into the bottom corner beyond the keeper's despairing dive. Yes, ladies 'n' gentlemen, Super Kev is back!

That was six minutes in and proved to be the game's most distinguished moment. The rest of the first half was nondescript, the muted atmosphere of the season's smallest League crowd doing nothing to lift the proceedings above the mundane. Phillips had a goal disallowed - the offside flag was up long before the ball hit the net but the emphatic finish was one of many reminders of what we've been missing while he's been away. Otherwise, honours were fairly even with both sides occasionally summoning up the ability to play some neat football.

Kevin Miller was arguably the busier of the two keepers, the defence's reluctance to close down Shrewsbury players outside the box leading to some awkward shots that came skidding off the wet turf and required a safe pair of hands. At the Rookery end, we had a few attempts on goal without demanding any great exertion from the Shrewsbury keeper.

That was also the pattern of the second half - we gradually took control of the game, yet still looked vulnerable to opposition breakaways, particularly when Shrewsbury used some of their pace to run at our slightly tentative central defenders. For the most part, however, we dominated the midfield, probing for weaknesses in the Shrewsbury back-line - Clint Easton was especially unlucky, nearly threading excellent passes through to the strikers on a number of occasions.

It took a while but we remained patient, refused to resort to thumping hopeful balls forward and eventually got our reward. The second goal, like its predecessor, was created by the excellent Bazeley. Played into space inside the Shrewsbury half, he showed admirable awareness in drawing a defender into a tackle and laying the ball off into the path of Keith Scott for a clear run on goal. Driven slightly wide, Scott was denied by the Shrewsbury keeper's blocking save but the ball bounced up kindly for Bazeley to nod into the unguarded net. Slightly lucky at the end but another fine goal nonetheless.

That pretty much killed the game off. We were unlucky not to have a third late on, Bazeley nearly conjuring up a goal of the season contender by beating several members of a mesmerised Shrewsbury defence before wasting his brilliant work by shooting wide. Wycombe aside (and the blame for that one has to be shared among several people), Bazeley has shown some stunning form of late - maybe some of Stuart Slater's influence is rubbing off on him, maybe he's just more confident in his ability at the moment. It's great to see, anyway.

Plenty of smiles at the final whistle. In many ways, this reminded me of some of the games in the second half of the 94/95 season when we climbed the table towards the First Division playoffs under Glenn Roeder. It wasn't a spectacular victory, it was just that the little bit of extra quality made all the difference. It's no coincidence that the player who won us several games in that season was the first scorer last night - to be honest, I'd forgotten just how good a player Kevin Phillips really is. His scoring record speaks for itself (and his knack of getting an effort on target no matter what the situation remains intact), but it's more than that - it's his movement, always making little runs across the last line of opposition defenders; it's his willingness to adapt to the demands of each situation, running with or passing the ball where necessary; it's his undeniable enthusiasm for the whole escapade. Aw, bless 'im...

Much better, then. But one swallow doesn't spoil the broth for a bird in the bush, and we're going to have to put in a lot more performances like this if promotion is to become a serious possibility again. There have been far too many occasions (and this applies equally to last season) when we've put together a decent performance, only to let it fall apart in the next fixture. It sounds stupid bearing in mind the unbeaten run but we really haven't been particularly consistent - too many scratchy, half-arsed performances; too few controlled games like this one.

And, finally, a quick word about what can only be described as a triumphant display of paper aeroplanes from the Vic Road End. An honourable second place goes to the one that embedded itself in the mud near the penalty spot, only to be mercilessly scrunched up by the Shrewsbury keeper. But a standing ovation would not be out of place for the plane that soared immaculately over the crossbar as the players were waiting for a corner and hit Darren Ward on the arse. Good work, people!