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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 12/10/96
Watford 1(0)
Team: Miller 2, Gibbs 4, Ludden 2, Johnson 3, Millen 3, Palmer 4, Bazeley 2, Andrews 4, White 2, *Penrice 4*, Mooney 3
Subs: R Page, Chamberlain, Noel-Williams (for Andrews) 2
Scorers: Mooney (59, pen)
Wrexham 1(1)
Scorers: Humes (32)
Report by Ian Grant

And so the disappointing home form continues. Bearing in mind that all the away games are only marginally nearer to Brighton than the North Pole, this is becoming rather tiresome - if I can't see the team play all that often, I would at least like to see them win.

It's pretty obvious why we struggle at Vicarage Road. Apart from the occasional blinding bit of vision (Gary Penrice was the culprit in this game - totally letting the side down by actually looking up before passing the ball), we lack the intelligence to break down a massed defence. Most sides are going to come to Vicarage Road and be well satisfied with a point - to stop them achieving their objective, we have to learn how to play to our strengths. And we do have strengths, it's just that we seem too bashful to admit it to ourselves.

Playing to our strengths. That means not running out of patience and resorting to hoofed clearances that endanger low-flying aircraft in the hope that Devon White might just win something in the air. It does mean getting Darren Bazeley in for extra training every week until he learns what constitutes a decent cross and, when he's finally got the hang of it, giving him the ball. It means always looking to get the ball wide because, despite the fact that we don't have any wingers, our wingers are still better than most Second Division teams' full backs. And so on...

So much of it is related to confidence. For half an hour of this match, we looked like a reasonably accomplished side. Certainly, we appeared to have the beating of Wrexham, who looked a little lost as we pushed forward with purpose and determination. The only problem was that we failed to score - something of a recurring theme, since we should have buried Preston long before that last minute winner. We did get extremely close - Darren Bazeley's run into the box was followed by an angled shot that appeared to head towards the corner flag from where I was sitting but I'm assured that it hit the post.

When we believe in ourselves, we do look like a totally different side. Not a great side by any stretch of the imagination but an infinitely better side than the hit-and-hope outfit that tends to appear whenever we go behind (it's not a coincidence that we've gone for nearly three years without winning a game after going behind). In this opening period, Darren Bazeley had the beating of his full back and appeared willing to run at him, while Richard Johnson mopped up all the messy business in midfield (all is fine and dandy with Johnno as long as he doesn't get carried away and try ambitious passes) and Gary Penrice supplied a few touches of genuine quality (one pass out to Tommy Mooney on the left was genuinely breathtaking, simply because he'd looked up and seen an option that no-one else on the field had spotted).

But we didn't score and we were punished for it. In the end, it has to go down as a goalkeeping error (although there are goalkeeping errors and there are goalkeeping errors - I'd rather have Kevin Miller's cockup than Mark Bosnich's). A Wrexham corner was lofted in towards the penalty spot and a looping header appeared to be going over the bar - it certainly looked like it was going to clear the target from where we were and Miller clearly thought so too because he took his hand away. Unfortunately, the ball dipped and went in. That was the only test of any note for Miller during the entire game.

Naturally, the goal made our task even more difficult - any attacking intentions that Wrexham might have entertained went out of the window and we were left trying to find a way past a very resolute defence. Our confidence drained away as the fans became a little restless and it all started to look rather grim. However, our frustration shouldn't have lasted too long - the referee somehow managed to miss a blatant foul on Wayne Andrews in the box. Andrews had pushed the ball too far in front of him but that didn't disguise the fact that the defender took him out as he turned. I find it incredible that Wayne gets so little protection from the officials - after all the talk when the new FIFA regulations were introduced about giving skill a chance to win over brute force, we're still allowing defenders to clatter into strikers without the slightest intention of winning the ball.

The second half was monumentally one-sided but, unlike against Preston, we didn't ever look like we were going to run away with the game. Our periods of pressure were few and far between - too often we became lost in the bustling action, forgetting our tactics and losing our shape. In that respect, and I know I've said this a thousand times but I'll keep on saying it, we need Steve Palmer back in midfield. Johnson's fine in that position when everyone else is playing well because it means all he has to do is win tackles and play simple passes. But when you need someone to steady the ship, to calm other players down and show a bit of leadership, you want Steve Palmer in there.

The equaliser was bizarre. A corner came in and someone, possibly Penrice, had a shot that was charged down by a defender. From the rebound, someone else, possibly Penrice again (sorry, I do get easily confused), headed the ball goalwards - it came out again (possibly after crossing the line) after hitting both the crossbar and a defender, at which point the referee blew his whistle and awarded us a penalty. No-one appeared to have the faintest idea what it was given for but, after the first half incident, it was entirely likely that the referee was evening things up a little. Mooney stepped up to take it, giving himself his usual minute margin of error (he makes it so obvious which way he's going to put it that he has to place the ball right in the corner to avoid the keeper's dive) and squeezed it in via the post.

After that bit of good fortune, we should have gone on to win the match. We had enough possession but appeared unable to remember exactly what to do with it. This was typified by Bazeley who got in some tremendous crossing positions and yet delivered too many disappointing final balls. Even so, Mooney was unlucky not to score with a powerful far post header that was cleared off the line by a combination of defender and keeper.

Mooney seems to be involved in most of our most dangerous attacking moments these days - the advantage of having him out on the left is that he's comfortable cutting inside or wandering into the box and is frequently not picked up when he does so. And he had our best chance right at the death. It was Gifton Noel-Williams who created it by dribbling past a couple of defenders and firing in a shot that the keeper smothered. Mooney followed up the rebound and, with the net unguarded, allowed the challenge of a defender to put him off enough that his shot sailed high and wide.

Whilst not exactly the worst result in the history of All Things, a draw's frustrating since it stops us from building up any kind of momentum at home yet again. In truth, when we remembered that we're not a dumb whack-and-chase side, we did enough to win the game - unfortunately, we didn't take the chances when they came our way. What we have to do is stay patient and that applies to the fans as well - we'll stand a far better chance of penetrating defensive teams if we play the ball around and look for openings than if we panic.

On the team side, we ought to get Robert Page back to full fitness soon and that'd put Steve Palmer back in midfield where he belongs. The attack is something we can't do much about - Wayne Andrews, apart from the occasional energetic burst, looked jaded but he'll have to hang on until David Connolly gets back. Gifton Noel-Williams has already done enough to show that he's a phenomenal prospect but I just don't believe he's ready for the first team yet. A clattering challenge by the keeper which left the youngster injured (the keeper got the ball but it was, at the very least, a dangerous tackle and should've been punished as such) showed the risks we are taking in fielding our juniors at first team level.

Finally, Gary Penrice. Good lord, has someone put something in his tea? This was, I seem to recall, the player I was writing off just a couple of weeks ago - he seemed re-born on Saturday, relishing the midfield battle. He even put in at least three truly superb ball-winning tackles. Perhaps he's been convinced by someone that the midfield role could suit him (with Ramage and Porter out, he's got the opportunity of an extended run). Whatever, we need to get the ball to him a bit more - he was the one attacking player with a brain in this game.