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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 28/4/98
Watford 2(0)
Team: Palmer 4, *Bazeley 4*, Kennedy 3, Chamberlain 3, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 3, Hyde 4, Lee 4, Johnson 4, Hazan 4
Subs: Robinson (for Noel-Williams) 0, Andrews, Slater (for Hazan) 4
Scorers: Lee (47), Noel-Williams (69)
AFC Bournemouth 1(1)
Scorers: Stein (14)
Party night
Report by Ian Grant

At last. We've been waiting for this - something recognisable as a celebration, something that feels a bit like the "old Watford" many of us fell in love with. Hurrah!

Nobody wants to be sitting around in a sulk. At the end of our most successful season for donkey's years, we'd much rather be singing and shouting, wearing stupid hats and even more stupid grins, generally having a grand ol' time.

Last night saw arguments put to one side for a couple of hours, establishing a clear division - desperately absent on Saturday - between the club's activities on and off the pitch. The directors kept their distance, letting the fans, players and coaching staff enjoy their moment. There are battles still to be fought - but this was not the night for fighting them.

The atmosphere was tremendous throughout, combining encouragement as the team made strides towards the Championship and celebration of what has already achieved. Graham Taylor was indeed having a party and he laid on some fine entertainment - not least, the hilarious appearance of Steve Palmer in goal at kickoff. Palmer's bid to wear all fourteen shirt numbers in one season now looks unstoppable - he only needs to don the number nine at Fulham on Saturday - and he seemed to enjoy his new role as much as everyone else, grinning widely as the players lined up to take warm-up shots at him while the fans chanted "dodgy keeper". Richard Johnson belted the ball into touch immediately, allowing Palmer and Chamberlain to swap back to their more accustomed positions. It's reassuring to see that Graham Taylor hasn't lost his sense of fun over the years.

That this was a cracking game of football didn't do the occasion any harm. Aside from the compulsory last ten minutes of blind panic, the impression was of a team freed from responsibilities and able to play with far less inhibitions. Micah Hyde clearly benefitted from the return of Richard Johnson - as did Darren Bazeley, who found himself on the end of countless cross-field balls and came up with some end product worthy of the 'man of the match' award. With Gifton Noel-Williams adding unpredictability to the front-line, Peter Kennedy at last seeming sharper and Stuart Slater providing some second half impetus, this was the most lively Watford performance for some time.

Bournemouth played their part. I like 'em and I make no apologies for it. Aside from the obvious off-pitch reasons (see "Where The Sun Don't Shine" in "The Luddite Edition"), they play a style of football that appeals to me - neat passing, solid defence, a real sense of teamwork. That said, they should've been buried.

By the time the Cherries took the lead, Watford had already bombarded the Rookery end for fifteen minutes. Kennedy had shot over after an early scramble, while first Hazan and then Noel-Williams had been denied by desperate defending in an extraordinary goalmouth bundle after five minutes - Gifton was particularly unfortunate to see his effort blocked on the line.

Then Keith Millen gave away an unnecessary free kick on the edge of the box. Comments from Matt Rowson and company behind me suggested that our defensive wall lacked both defensive and wall-like qualities - so it proved, as Stein smacked his shot through and left Chamberlain groping desperately. For the first time in the evening, the atmosphere went a bit flat.

Lord knows what the few who decided to boo at half-time thought they were doing. Hello? Anyone home? Sure, we didn't equalise but, other than bribing the referee or tying the Bournemouth players' bootlaces together, it was difficult to see what more we could've done. There haven't been too many occasions recently when a Watford goal seemed absolutely, utterly and completely inevitable - but that was the case last night, as Watford peppered the opposition goal. Mooney headed at the keeper; Hazan shot over; Johnson sent a mis-hit drive wobbling wide; Kennedy was denied by a fantastic last-ditch tackle; Noel-Williams turned and shot, only to find a defender hurling himself in the way; Hazan curled another shot past the post. In reply, Bournemouth's attempts at counter-attacking proved mostly ill-fated, although one fine, fine passing move led to a cross that looked set for Stein's forehead until it whizzed through just out of his reach.

No, it wasn't quite as brilliant as I've made it sound. But if you allow for the fact that Bournemouth were getting men behind the ball to defend their lead and that our attack is hardly famed for its record-breaking goal-scoring, then this amounted to a fine effort.

What had been hinted at in the first half came to full fruition in the second. The introduction of Stuart Slater added more width to the equation and - praise the Lord - we had an attacking team with wingers. Prior to the late tension, Johnson and Hyde spent thirty-five happy minutes nicking the ball in midfield and threading it out to Bazeley, Kennedy or Slater - we actually made attacking football look simple....

The equaliser was the perfect example. Johnson won the ball, took it on, drew a defender or two and found Bazeley in space. Dazzlin' Darren's crossing didn't let him down this time - he curled the ball invitingly into the box for Jason Lee to dump a header into the back of the net. Lovely goal.

We proceeded to annihilate Bournemouth. At one stage, as we took a corner, every player apart from Alec Chamberlain was in the final third of the pitch. Kennedy thumped a drive wide; Gifton somehow contrived to head over from virtually underneath the crossbar, before flicking a more difficult chance past the near post.

Horrendous misses aside, we looked full of beans - the burden of expectation finally seemed to have lifted from our shoulders. Eventually, it all paid off as Gifton made amends. Lee headed a cross powerfully down and Slater nipped in to poke the ball past the goalkeeper. It rolled oh-so-slowly onto the post and bounced out - Gifton reacted quickest to put the chance away. As goal celebrations go, it wasn't really Bazeley against Luton - but the party really started to go with a swing after that, even though the team decided to give us ten minutes of clouted clearances and daft defending to finish things off.

Somehow, though, it seemed impossible that Bournemouth could equalise. This was our night - they wouldn't dare, surely? Well, they should've - their number eight managed to fire wastefully wide from inside the area - but they didn't.

The noise got noisier, the celebrations became more celebratory. By the final whistle, we were all on our feet, belting out songs with jubilant abandon. It was great stuff. What with it being my birthday, I'd seriously considered missing my only home game of the season in favour of getting royally drunk in Brighton. I made the right decision, though - this was an ace way to spend your birthday.

The players gave us a lap of honour, sending us joyously onto Saturday's showdown. It goes without saying that they deserve every possible ovation, all the acclaim. Anyone who thought it would be easy was kidding themselves. At times, this season has been a wonder; at times, it's been a hell of a struggle - but they've brought us through, done all we could've asked for. One more win, lads?

Oh "Wat" an atmosphere
Report by Matt Bunner

Make no mistake, this was a vital win in the context of the Division 2 championship, but in reality it was a celebration of Watford's achievement this season. The atmosphere in the ground for the last ten minutes was electric (so often the countdown to the final whistle is laced with anxiety and tetchiness, especially when the Golden Boys are leading 2-1), with constant chanting and singing. It did not appear to matter that Bournemouth were exerting some pressure on the Watford defence, we just kept on singing awaiting the inevitable final whistle. When it did come, there was a audible sense of relief, primarily because we had won to keep the pressure on Bristol City, but also a justifiable feeling that the season's work at home had come to a satisfactory conclusion. It would have been awful to end the home season with a draw or defeat when we consider the effort that has been produced in the previous months.

I read on a message board somewhere that Steve Palmer may be playing in goal against Bournemouth. When the team was read out, it was confirmed that SP was wearing the No. 1 shirt in recognition of his feat of wearing every other number during the season! In fact, he did start the game in goal (with Chamberlain at No. 4!) and I for one, was resigned to the fact that SP would be playing in goal all through the match. There were murmuring in the Vic end about this situation, but you got the feeling that if it had actually happened, no-one would have cared that much!

In a clearly pre-arranged plan, Watford kicked the ball into touch from the kick-off to allow Chamberlain and Palmer to swap shirts. As it turned out, I think Palmer would have been safe in goal as Chamberlain only had to bend over to pick the ball out of the net during the 90 minutes. Watford attacked with purpose from the off and inside 2 minutes Johnson had a goal bound effort deflected by Jason Lee. We were clearly intent on bombarding the Bournemouth. In a refreshing change, the attacking came from both channels, notably from Bazeley wide on the right and Hazan and Kennedy on the left. On 5 minutes a good move resulted a shot being deflected off the line and out to Hazan and he looked to have the simplest of tap-ins, but unluckily his shot was also knocked away from the gaping net. Watford then had a series of corners, but as we know this season, despite having Lee as the big man in the centre, our goals-from-corners ratio is dismal, so there was no surprise when we created nothing from these opportunities.

Until this point, Bournemouth were here just to make up the numbers. They were being pulled apart and seemed content in hoofing the ball away from their danger area. It was the result of one of these hoofs that Bournemouth scored. The ball was played forward on the left and the Cherry man played a bobbling ball towards Stein located on the left edge of the penalty 'D'. Millen came in with strong, maybe slightly clumsy challenge, but in essence won the ball. The referee called foul, much to the derision of the Vic. Stein then lined up a curler, which appeared to go through the wall and despite the presence of Chamberlain and goal-line defender, squirmed its way in. That was to be the last serious shot on target for Bournemouth.

Watford appeared to be a bit shocked, but they still continued in the same manner. We were passing well, but the old story of the final ball was clearly telling. GNW was getting into dangerous areas, but kept choosing the wrong option. The rest of the half saw about four Tom Mooney efforts that had the stewards working overtime behind the goal and Kennedy had a couple of efforts notably closer. Despite creating little, I was encouraged by the one-touch play between Johnson, Hyde and Hazan. I assume this was the brief from Taylor and it shows that we can play football on the deck rather than the aimless balls that have often been seen this season. One decent attack saw the ball cleared to Hazan on the left edge of the box and his intelligent Matt Le Tissier-style curler was inches over. Bournemouth only had two other effort in the half that saw a mis-kick inside the area when well placed and a hard shot collected by Chamberlain at the near post.

Despite the half-time score I felt content inside knowing that if we up the tempo in the second half, combined with the usual Taylor substitutions, we would come out on top. Hazan, presumably because of match fitness, was withdrawn at the interval to be replaced by Slater who occupied the space wide on the left. Again Watford gave their all from the kick-off, but the difference this time was the reward of a superb team goal. Fine work in the midfield released the excellent Bazeley wide on the right and his beautiful centre found Lee unmarked at the far post with the simplest of nod-ins. The next ten minutes were all Watford. Bazeley was being supplied at regular intervals and his delivery time and time again was superb. He was ably helped by Micah Hyde, having another storming game (he was even doing some Johnno style tackling!). After Kennedy had scorched the turf with a 30 yard screamer that whizzed past the far post (just like THE Sheff Wed goal, but faster, lower and longer!), Hyde delivered an inch perfect cross for GNW to simply nod in - except that he missed! Unbelievable! Missed from 2 yards and no-one around! Still, we continued to press for our deserved second. GNW had another free header from 8 yards out, but this was a harder effort to control.

Watford's patient play (I haven't said that many times this season) was finally rewarded on 69 minutes. Bazeley (?) sent in a low cross from the right and in a scramble, the ball was deflected on to the post by Slater and just as in the first half it was cleared off the line, but thankfully this time, GNW was there to ram home the rebound.

The last 20 minutes went fairly quickly, mainly because of the nature of the celebrations. Bournemouth tried in vain to claw something back for their travelling Cherries, but apart from one shot into the side netting, their attacks were limited to the air. We had chances to counter attack (I swear at one point I saw Lee beat 3 players, Maradona style!) but there weren't really any other clear cut chances.

Of course it would have been nice to score 5 and I suppose looking back we might have, but the priority was to win and enjoy the win. It was nice to see the players come out for a lap of honour, but I was a slightly miffed at the regimental attitude of the club towards pitch encroachment (not to mention price rises...). It was unnecessary of police dogs to be there and to have jubilant fans man-handled away and bunged into police custody. It's a shame that the fans can't celebrate this ONE time in a proper manner. It is after all OUR pitch and a pitch that is being relaid during the summer. I know about the arguments towards safety, but I can't see the harm in a little celebration.

Anyway, enough of my soapboxing. Let's hope we put the icing on the cake at Fulham!

P.S. It really wasn't a surprise that Alec Chamberlain received the Watford Observer Player of the Season, but I do find it ironic that in our promotion season our goalkeeper is the winner! Normally, a striker or midfielder would take the honours, but on this occasion, no. Still, it was a well deserved.