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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 13/12/97
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 2, Page 3, Millen 4, Palmer 3, Mooney 2, Hyde 3, Lee 4, *Johnson 4*, Rosenthal 3
Subs: Robinson, Easton, Noel-Williams (for Rosenthal) 4
Scorers: Noel-Williams (85)
Bristol City 1(0)
Scorers: Goater (54)
Too good for the Second Division
Report by Ian Grant

A big BSaD hello to Fulham fan Will Wright who was responsible for the funniest thing I read last week, an e-mail sent to me after Tuesday's empty charade. Aside from implausibly claiming that I'd have been full of praise for the Auto Windscreen Shield had we beaten Fulham, he also left us with this thought - "Money makes the world go round, and we've got plenty of it".

You've also got Ray Wilkins as your manager, mate. Fortunately, we've yet to reach the point where you can buy a one-way ticket to the Premiership - Dave's "Factor X" applies as much on the pitch as off it. Hence this match between the runaway leaders of Division Two, miles away from the scrap for playoff places - we no longer have to seek satisfaction from fourth-rate competitions.

Cracking match, this. Whereas the earlier clash with Millwall, which seemed equally important at the time, proved to be a considerable anti-climax, this was an occasion that was worthy of the hype. Ironically, neither keeper had to make a save (apart from the goals, natch) - but that was only due to some outstanding defending, a reminder that the best sides are often distinguished by their resilience.

Despite occasional passages of scrappy play, the quality displayed by both teams was far in excess of anything we've seen from the rest of the division. At one stage, for example, I watched Richard Johnson and Micah Hyde chasing their opponents with the now customary aggression, hassling and harrying as each player received the ball. Yet I realised that City's passing withstood that pressure, remaining accurate and progressive until the final ball went astray. It's not difficult to see why they're hard on our heels, nor do you have to look too closely to see Graham Taylor's philosophies influencing John Ward's management.

To be honest, this is the kind of game that I dread writing a report about. The usual currency of missed chances, great saves, penalty appeals was replaced by a general buzz of activity, a constant intensity that never quite manifested itself in definite events. While it was a thoroughly engrossing contest, it's unlikely to be all that memorable.

To understand this, one only has to look at the main incidents at the Rookery end in the first half - Tommy Mooney's driven cross being cleared by a defender; Ronny Rosenthal finding himself foiled by a magnificent last-ditch tackle; Richard Johnson lining up a belter but having it charged down; the City keeper grabbing a Peter Kennedy cross from Mooney's feet. No wasted chances, no bad luck - just excellent defending.

That was less true at the other end, where City fashioned a couple of presentable chances but wasted them with poor finishes - a weak shot at Alec Chamberlain early in the game and a wild slash over the bar later on after some very nifty approach play.

Perhaps I'm not doing this justice. In truth, we appeared to be as fiercely motivated and generally well-organised for this game as we were for that excellent victory up at Northampton. The difference was in the opposition, who were equally fiercely motivated and equally generally well-organised. It made for a hugely competitive match, full of fascinating clashes between individuals - Page versus Goater, Johnson versus Goodridge.

Amid the heading and chasing and tackling and shouting, there was some genuinely lovely football being played. For our part, we appeared more intent than usual on using Jason Lee not as a stationary target man but as someone capable of holding the ball up - the consequence was greater attacking input from the midfield and the occasional outbreak of rather sexy one-touch passing. Mind you, with neither Rosenthal nor Kennedy living up to their reputations, we were over-reliant on Johnson's ability to hit defence-splitting passes - he didn't let us down on that score, supplying some exquisite through-balls, yet prior to the arrival of Gifton Noel-Williams our strikers lacked either the pace or the anticipation to get on the end of them.

An air of satisfaction at half-time, then - although that was slightly tempered by the feeling that we should've done more with the possession available, even against such a strong Bristol defence. If anything, the second half was still more absorbing as City took the lead and held out valiantly against our efforts to equalise.

Ironically, but perhaps not uniquely, the goal came at a time when we were exerting real pressure on the opposition rearguard. While many will blame Robert Page for the slip that allowed Goater an unchallenged run at goal, perhaps it's more useful to question whether it's wise to leave such a lively centre forward marked by just one defender in the first place. Anyway, Goater rampaged through and beat the hesitant Chamberlain with a neat touch - whichever way you look at it, it was both good finishing and sloppy defending. Good sides punish mistakes.

That left us with thirty minutes of increasingly desperate Watford pressure and frustratingly stout City defending. While we were guilty of failing to make the most of our occasional opportunities - Jason Lee hit a couple of shots over the bar and another of his efforts went tamely at the keeper - it was much more a case of slightly predictable attacking play failing to break down an organised, confident back line. At such times we usually rely on Rosenthal to work his magic - but he wasn't on song before he picked up a second half injury, let alone after.

The decision to play Tommy Mooney up front - unavoidable if we're to give Gifton a rest - didn't really work. The midfielders appear to have become used to hitting passes for pacy forwards to run onto - and Mooney isn't a pacy forward. As for Mooney's work-rate, I'd argue that Lee puts in enough physical effort (something that's not widely recognised since his gangly build counts against him) and needs someone fast to make runs in support. Switching Mooney, the left footer in our back three, to a forward role also has the effect of unbalancing the defence. I suspect that no-one needs to tell GT this.

So it was that our best effort on goal before the arrival of Noel-Williams was a long-range drive from Steve Palmer that the keeper (unnecessarily) tipped over. Our attempts had become a little laboured. The substitution ten minutes from time tipped the balance, introducing that vital spark of spontaneity and exuberance into our attack. Ninety minutes of Gifton's whirlwind style can become frustrating, ten minutes of it was enough to inspire the Hornets to a comeback.

The goal wasn't a classic but it was a fine example of what can be achieved just by running at people in the danger area and trying your luck. Lee's low cross found its way to Gifton inside the box and he headed for goal before trying a shot that took a deflection off a retreating defender. The ball squirted wonderfully past the helpless keeper to spark off a mighty celebration in the Vic Road end.

After that, there was little to comment on - it was the right result, both for the game itself and the two clubs, and the fans seemed happy to settle for it. Neither side deserved to lose this one.

On this evidence, there's every chance that the positions of Bristol City and Watford will be the same when the clubs meet at Ashton Gate in April. This match was too good for the Second Division.