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96/97: Reports:

Auto Windscreen Shield 2nd Round, 7/1/97
Watford 2(1)
Team: Miller 3, Bazeley 3, Gibbs 4, Palmer 3, Millen 3, Page 4, *Slater 4*, Connolly 3, White 3, Penrice 3, Mooney 4
Subs: Andrews, Noel-Williams, Robinson
Scorers: Page (45), Connolly (57, pen)
Torquay United 1(0)
Scorers: Watson (88)
Impossible conditions
Report by Ian Grant

Think about that attendance for a moment or two. We're talking about a freezing cold Tuesday night for a match in a third-rate competition against Third Division opposition who brought no more than about fifty supporters (not a criticism - those that came deserve the everlasting gratitude of their club), with only one stand open. Two thousand people paid to watch this game. If you ask me, Watford Football Club needs to start capitalising on the loyalty of its fans before it's too late.

That aside, there are no conclusions to be drawn from this game. The pitch was probably bad enough to make things very difficult during the day but by kickoff Vicarage Road was being covered with powdery snow and the game rapidly descended into farce. In truth, it should never have been played - none of the players could keep their footing, meaning that elementary ball control became virtually impossible. With a rock-hard surface underneath the layer of snow, the risk of injury was quite severe. Harry Redknapp and Graeme Souness would've gone ballistic. We can just be thankful that we emerged from the game without picking up any obvious knocks - in many ways, that's more important than the result.

We got on with the task and I'm not going to criticise any of the players for their performances last night - the mere fact that they were out there for ninety minutes, freezing their privates off and risking broken limbs, means that they earnt their wages. Some adapted better than others but they all did their bit.

Devon White On Ice, anyone? This was a comprehensively terrible football match but, thankfully, for different reasons from the last two games witnessed at Vicarage Road. Only very occasionally did we see any glimpses of constructive football - they usually came from Stuart Slater, with his superior awareness and intelligent running - as the conditions made it pretty much impossible. It was a kick-the-ball-the-way-you're-facing kind of game. In the end, though, we coped with the weather considerably better than Torquay did and, in many ways, the scoreline flatters the visitors.

The first half, played in a surreal swirling mist of fine snow, was largely forgettable. Or perhaps I was just concentrating very hard on avoiding frostbite. The play was pretty evenly matched but Torquay appeared to run out of inspiration in the final third and Kevin Miller wasn't called into serious action at any point.

We created few chances, the best attempt being a long-distance Tommy Mooney free-kick that the keeper got his body behind without too much trouble. We did have a goal disallowed, Mooney volleying the ball into the net after being ruled offside (unfairly, really, since it wasn't him - David Connolly had strayed but wasn't, strictly speaking, interfering with play), but the whistle had gone before the shot went in.

It seemed as if we were heading for another goalless half. I was just praying for someone to win the bloody game in normal time - there does come a point where you have to draw the line and missing trains for extra time in an Auto Windscreen tie is pretty damn close. But we won a corner, Gary Penrice swung it in from the left and Robert Page met it at the near post with a powerful header into the corner for (I didn't realise this at the time) his first Watford goal.

It got colder during the second half (my feet had kissed goodbye to reality early in the first half, by full time even my knees were in danger of doing a disappearing act) and the football got more comical. The game probably improved as both sides tired but, to be honest, I was just too cold to care - all I wanted was a second goal to make sure that extra time wouldn't be needed.

In fact, we should have had more than a second goal. Chances fell to David Connolly and Devon White at various points and they should have scored - the appalling slippy-slidey pitch had as much to do with their misses as anything (you can't shoot properly when your feet are skidding away from under you) so I won't be too critical.

The second goal was always coming and it was Mooney, back in action after his operation and looking a bit unfit but very lively, who won the penalty, attempting to beat a defender in the box and being brought down in the process. The Torquay players protested half-heartedly. Connolly stepped up to take it and, although I had visions of him slipping and falling on his arse with the ball moving a yard then stopping in the snow, he calmly put it to the keeper's right.

Our goal was still looking pretty secure. Robert Page and Nigel Gibbs seemed unconcerned about the sub-zero temperatures and had opted for short-sleeved shirts - between the two of them, they dealt with everything Torquay had to offer with a minimum of fuss. The only serious threat came from Torquay's pacy number nine, Rodney Jack, but he was too often let down by his colleagues. Shame, then, that we conceded the late goal - it came from a good, in-swinging cross that got a flick-on at the far post and went in. It came too late to give any chance of a comeback, however.

In some ways, the victory is a mixed blessing - it adds yet another fixture onto the list and we could do without that. The chance to play at Wembley in the final isn't that big a deal - or, at least, it isn't in comparison to getting into one of those automatic promotion spots at the end of the season. Something's bound to give in the end and it's up to us to make sure that our league form doesn't suffer because of cup distractions - that doesn't mean deliberately losing games (winning always boosts confidence and that's nearly always a positive thing), it does mean using the full squad of players at our disposal.

Anyway, more Auto Windscreen larks in a few weeks time. Can hardly contain my excitement...