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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 13/4/98
Bristol City 1(0)
Scorers: Edwards (68)
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 3, Page 4, Millen 4, Mooney 5, Bazeley 3, Hyde 4, *Lee 5*, Palmer 4, Hazan 3
Subs: Robinson, Easton, Noel-Williams (for Hazan) 0
Scorers: Lee (64)
That'll do nicely
Report by Ian Grant

A classic away win. The noisy Watford minority striding confidently out of the ground with mile-wide smiles and marching happily back to their cars in the bitter sleet, talking and singing of victory. Then back up the motorway towards home in a mood of confidence and satisfaction, radios chattering, horns honking and scarves streaming out of windows. Man, you can't beat it.

(Erm, we didn't actually win - Ed.) Yes, I know we didn't actually win. The point is that, in all respects, this was a day that seemed almost stolen from our hopeful dreams for next season. That's obvious in some ways - from the size of the attendance to the clear quality of the opposition.

But there's more to it than that. As I've already said in my Wrexham report, we've thought about promotion for so long that much of the novelty value has worn off - we've been given a Christmas present and we already knew what was inside it. People have been talking about our chances in the First Division since the late summer - hardly surprising, then, that the achievement is seen more as a stepping stone than solid ground. We're getting drunk at a fantastic party...but we're already thinking about the next morning's hangover....

So this was a great day out...but it wasn't quite a promotion day. It was a day of broad grins and jubilant songs, not dips in the High Street pond or drunken debauchery.

None of which should detract from the team's achievements. The prize is the same, no matter how it's celebrated. I'm not going to witter on about it - the beauty of realised success is that it doesn't require explanation or justification. It's just there, undeniable, unerasable.

Fittingly, this was a right ol' cracker of a game. In an intense-yet-civil atmosphere that brought echoes of famous days, the two promoted teams served up end-to-end excitement with lashings of quality. This was, although nostalgia always distorts, how I remember the old First Division before the Premiership rendered it telly-friendly and sterile - great atmosphere, great football, crap food. The real deal, the single malt.

Enforced team changes did us few favours. The loss of Richard Johnson was keenly felt - Steve Palmer's a more than adequate substitute when it comes to destructive work but Johnno's ability to widen the breadth of the game is something that's rapidly become irreplaceable. With Nigel Gibbs switched to the left, presumably to deal with City's excellent Goodridge (a sensible decision, since I can't imagine that Paul Robinson would've relished that particular task), things had a slightly odd look at kick-off.

And, in truth, we were distinctly second best for much of the half. City are strong, pacy and smart, using the width that was once Graham Taylor's trademark. We were forced to defend and, perhaps using the experience of the second half against Wrexham, we did the job admirably. Tommy Mooney, all lunatic eyes and barked orders, ran the show; Jason Lee came back for set pieces and made astonishing, vital interventions.

City still went close - a weak shot rolled terrifyingly past a striker's boot and into Alec Chamberlain's thankful grasp; Goodridge left Gibbs trailing and crossed for a wasteful header over the bar. In return, Watford only managed an off-target Jason Lee shot.

Speaking of which, the first half criticism of Lee seems bizarre to me. With all hands to the pumps, he was frequently left totally isolated with long balls flying at his forehead. In such situations, all you can ask of your centre forward is that he wins the header and directs it somewhere sensible - which Lee did, almost without exception. What's he supposed to do? Score with a flick-on from the halfway line? Let the defender win the header so that he doesn't look stupid? Grow two feet so that he can trap it on his chest? Or direct the ball somewhere intelligent in the vain hope that a fellow Hornet might have made a run for him? When he was able to hold the ball up, he did - magnificently on several occasions. Jesus, how will we ever be satisfied with a centre forward if we insist on belittling their work?

But enough of such ranting. We arrived at half-time having had just one on-target effort - straight at the keeper by Alon Hazan from a Peter Kennedy cross (and I have a feeling that the referee had awarded either a free or goal kick anyway). Tommy Mooney's low shot past the post - which wasn't very popular, since a City player lay prone in our six yard box as we marched upfield - was the only other notable Watford attempt.

Mooney was more involved in the Watford area, particularly when, facing goal, he headed a cross out from underneath his own bar to prevent it from reaching an expectant City forward. Such heroism typified the team's display. The Watford fans understood, I think. This wasn't a trip to humiliate the Second Division riff-raff, this was an away game that was always going to demand some of our most resolute defending. Our first half attacking football left much to be desired - Kennedy and Hazan were shrunken shadows, for a start - but, as I was saying a couple of months ago, it's all about expectations.

The second half was simply breathless, feverish football. Yet - and this is a rarity - the furious pace only occasionally seemed to affect adversely the standard of play. Taylor's tinkering at the break made a considerable difference, particularly in bringing Kennedy into the play rather more, as Watford began to assert themselves in the opposition half.

Steve Palmer's played in most positions this season - I think 'left winger' might be a new job description, though. Whatever, it was his intelligent run into space and careful cross that created the first chance of the half, Kennedy smudging a shot towards goal when that was comfortably saved.

From then on, it was all action. Although we had more of the play, mainly because Lee was no longer so isolated, City's threat never diminished. Indeed, they hit the woodwork - a flicked header from a left wing cross beating Chamberlain and bouncing against the bar.

Just as the game needed a goal to finish this crescendo, it got one. In keeping with so much else, it was a lovely piece of direct, attacking football too. Bazeley fed Hazan with a splendidly simple pass, Hazan crossed for Kennedy, Kennedy turned to clip in a shot, it squirmed from the keeper's grasp and Lee followed in to score from about three inches. At that moment, all doubts, whether about this season or next, were erased. For perhaps the first time since the summer, it felt as if Watford were invincible. We went bonkers, we sang about being champions, we forgot about tomorrow and celebrated today.

Yeah, we were sent back down to earth by City's equaliser, just four minutes of jumping around later. Looking at it now, it doesn't seem like such a blow - it was certainly deserved, at least. A right wing free kick was headed down at the far post and the ball was stabbed in from close range. Suddenly, reality dawned on the away section and we sheepishly sat down.

The remaining twenty minutes weren't quite so dazzling but the pace never let up, even if there were fewer chances. For Watford, Mooney drove a free kick wide; City lofted a set piece over the bar and found Chamberlain well positioned on a couple of other occasions.

By injury time, neither side seemed to have enough energy left to produce the winning goal so we were left with a fair result and happy faces all round the ground. Both sides promoted, the Championship battle unresolved. That'll do nicely.