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Nationwide League Division 2, 23/8/97
Watford 3(2)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Melvang 4, Kennedy 5, Page 4, Millen 4, Mooney 4, Rosenthal 5, Hyde 4, Thomas 3, *Johnson 5*, Slater 4
Subs: Palmer (for Melvang) 4, Talboys, Andrews (for Thomas) 4
Scorers: Millen (4), Melvang (11), Johnson (90)
Brentford 1(0)
Report by Ian Grant

Y'know, there was a time not so very long ago when writing one of these reports involved little more that topping and tailing the handful of noteworthy incidents with a few bits of my usual waffle. It seems that those days are gone - you could write a book about this game, such was the richness and potency of football on offer.

When Chris Salter, Puerto Rican Hornet, visited these shores last season, he appeared surprised at the praise that greeted a performance against Preston that was merely marginally better than average. Our standards have fallen in recent times. But some of our football in this match was simply sensational, the finest seen at Vicarage Road since Graham Taylor's heyday. The transformation is extraordinary. Even someone like me, someone who spends most of his time sounding notes of caution, is forced to rummage around for superlatives when faced with such quality. The only possible quibble is that we still lack that ruthless, murderous streak that would have produced a scoreline that didn't flatter Brentford.

The pre-match atmosphere was confident, yet no-one could have anticipated a breath-taking first half. Early Watford pressure, including corners and long throws, presumably explained the presence of Keith Millen in the penalty area as Tommy Mooney's cross was headed back across goal for the defender to volley home after just four minutes.

Yet that riotous start didn't dampen our enthusiasm. We continued to hurtle forward, using the full width of the pitch to attack with truly incisive purpose, and the second goal arrived after another seven minutes. Richard Johnson hurled a flat, long throw into the box (a remarkable skill, actually - most long throws are wobbly, loopy things, whereas this had the same pace and trajectory as a decent cross) and it was flicked on by Ronny Rosenthal for Lars Melvang to bounce a header into the top corner. An awesome start - on so many occasions, our anticipation has been disappointed by the team; this time, kickoff was like pulling the pin from a hand grenade.

The stage was set for the rest of the half, punctuated by occasional lapses into over-confidence, dominated entirely by Watford, made memorable by frequent moments of astounding brilliance. Brentford were falling apart as the match threatened to turn into a rout. David Thomas wasted a chance, slashing wide when unmarked; Micah Hyde saw a fierce effort saved by the keeper at his near post. All Brentford could manage was a poor free kick over the bar.

If all of this sounds like the kind of intense bombardment that saw us put six past Grimsby a couple of seasons back, then that's misleading. This is direct football but only in the sense that every pass is forward-thinking - there's little of the aerial hit-and-hope that outsiders would love to hold against us. Indeed, some of this was total pass-and-move genius. Hence the most pleasurable moment of the season so far, a through ball from Peter Kennedy that glided like an ice skater past the foot of a helpless defender and into the path of Rosenthal.

And hence the move that led to Rosenthal winning a penalty late in the half. To sighs of ecstasy from the assembled ten thousand, Watford conjured up the kind of magic that we've spent the last decade day-dreaming about. Stuart Slater stepped in front of a Brentford player to win possession, made progress across the field, exchanged passes with Rosenthal then sent the striker through on goal. Reduced to mere dynamics, it sounds so simple - yet in that simplicity was measured, controlled perfection. After Rosenthal was brought down (to be honest, having seen it on TV, I'm not particularly convinced that the defender didn't win the ball), Slater missed the spotkick as if to restore some sort of continuity with Old Watford.

The second half was more frantic, offering less in the way of elegance and more in the way of blind panic as Brentford recovered to play a more threatening role in the proceedings. The early signs - a header and a shot, both narrowly wide of Alec Chamberlain's goal - suggested that our failure to kill off the game might come back to haunt us.

However, with Richard Johnson growing in stature after a first half spent midfield minesweeping, we continued to look dangerous. A succession of quite wondrous passes out to Kennedy on the left were yet another reminder that the Australian deserves far more than the meagre amount of recognition he currently receives. How often has a Watford winger stood alone and unnoticed on the touchline? How often have we prayed for a midfielder capable of rising above the hustle and bustle to find that winger and open up the play? How long until people stop saying that Richard Johnson can't pass?

Anyway, one of our many forays down the left saw Kennedy supply a fine cross into the six yard box to be diverted past the keeper from close range by Micah Hyde. But the linesman's flag cut the celebrations short and prolonged our wait for that decisive goal.

The nerves were starting to jangle, at least partly thanks to our new style of play. One suspects that they'll be issuing tranquilisers at the turnstiles before the end of the season - our response to Brentford's increasingly frantic attacks was to raise the tempo still further. Thus the final half an hour was played at an insane end-to-end pace - things sure as hell ain't dull round our way these days...

The award of a penalty to Brentford - and I'd be fascinated to know what offence was committed as the corner came over - really put the cat among the pigeons. Chamberlain was coolly sent the wrong way and Brentford, unbelievably, were back in the game. Shortly afterwards a striker sent an overhead kick inches wide as visions of all our first half work going to waste started to loom large.

Fortunately, the double substitution of Steve Palmer and Wayne Andrews for Melvang and Thomas seemed to settle everyone down a little bit. In particular, it gave us another way of hurting the already shell-shocked Brentford defence - within a few minutes of coming on, Andrews had roared past two opponents and forced a save at full stretch from the keeper.

Still that goal wouldn't come. A Johnson 'cross' (if you've ever wondered, Johnno crosses like he shoots) was sent wide by Slater's instinctive reaction; Mooney deflected a corner onto the outside of the post. And all the time there was the threat of a Brentford breakaway...

As injury time approached, the third goal finally arrived. Clearly the Brentford players hadn't been paying attention when shown the video of our trip to Carlisle, since they were perfectly happy to allow Johnson plenty of time and space to pick his spot from twenty-five yards out. His shot, struck sweetly and accurately, bounced in front of the keeper and hit the back of the net to seal our victory.

Our failure to win this game by a more convincing margin shouldn't be allowed to disguise the fact that Brentford spent much of the afternoon being comprehensively out-played. This is a Watford squad of extraordinary quality for the Second Division - and, perhaps more importantly, the class acts it contains appear to want to perform at this level. The mid-winter mud may change their minds, of course...

Personally, I can forget the league position and the winning run and all that. This wasn't a match that needed a context; this was just joyous, radiant football. I left Vicarage Road with a smile on my face and, after last week, that's really quite something...

Top scorer
Report by Nick Grundy

Who, trivia fans, is Watford Football Club's top scorer this season? One of our crop of fantastic new strikers? One of our youth internationals? Nope. Richard bloody Johnson, that's who, and on Saturday, yet again, he was a total hero. Not merely for another cracking goal from distance which secured the win for us when we were struggling a bit, or for his "battling" qualities which are nonetheless looking more refined game by game, but also for an attacking display which was thoughtful, penetrating and above all controlled.

My man-of-the-match, then? Yup. And I'm sorry to go on and on about how wonderful he is (am I bollocks!) but I reckon he won us the game on Saturday. Yes, we should have won about 8-0; yes, the ref denied us a couple of goals through his total ineptitude; and yes, he also gifted them a penalty, but the fact is at 2-1 up we started to look shaky in defence and more than a little wasteful in attack. After they had scored, we (quite rightly) tried to carry on playing as we had first half. The trouble was, we kept giving the ball away. One spell late in the game comes to mind, when we broke into their half and a beautiful twenty-yard pass from Johnno found Kennedy breaking down the left. His cross was cleared - to Johnno, who then put it out right for Slater. He got the ball another four or five times in this one attacking period, and each time he found a teammate with it and initiated another attack. Then, when they lost the ball, it just seemed to come back to him, sometimes because he physically won it from a Brentford player and sometimes just because he was very well placed.

His goal is another example of this. He picked the ball up 25 or so yards out, and when the Brentford players hung off him a little, he took it forward a pace or two, and smashed a shot low and hard right into the bottom corner of Dearden's net. I have to admit, I didn't think it was going in, but I bet you any money you like Kevin Dearden thought it was, and it was going so bloody fast he couldn't get down to it in time. I don't reckon it bobbled, or that he was particularly at fault for the goal - it just looked very well struck indeed. Having said that, I'll probably get home tonight, watch the video of the Nationwide Highlights thingy and see I'm totally wrong, but hey!

Anyway, I'll go back to the start now. We lined up with what looked like (and eventually played like) 4-4-2 - Tommy Mooney was pushed out to left back, and Kennedy up to an ordinary attacking midfield/winger role, and the same with Melvang and Slater on the right. And it worked like a dream. We scored twice in the first twelve minutes, both from crosses. The first was flicked on from the left by Dai Thomas and volleyed home by Keith "Forward" Millen, and the second flicked on from the right by Ronny Rosenthal for Lars "Forward" Melvang to head in. One of them may have been from a corner - I can't honestly remember - but the facts that a) we've got a system flexible enough for our defenders to get into the box from open play and b) we're scoring from corners are Good Signs.

Other good signs are the quality of our passing and attacking play. There was a long-ball game on display at Vicarage Road on Saturday, but it sure as hell wasn't from us (Chris Waddle please note). Our play from defence through midfield to the wings was, given last season's efforts, little short of astonishing. On the left, especially, Kennedy was on song. Move of the match has to go Mooney winning the ball in defence and passing up to Rosenthal. He then makes to take the ball infield (taking the full back with him), and backheels it for Kennedy to pick up and go down the line. Absolutely bloody wonderful.

Less wonderful was the referee. I thought he had quite a good first half, one absolutely horrendous late two-footed, studs-showing, from behind challenge on Johnson excepted, but second half he was woeful. He rapidly lost control of the game - Millen in particular seemed to get hacked or hit every time the ball came into our box and he did nothing about it. Ijah Anderson, at left back for Brentford, was either bodychecking Slater or trying to undress him every time he got near him, and should have been booked for three or four hideously dangerous tackles. And, I'm afraid, Micah Hyde should probably have been sent off for punching as well. Of course he was provoked, and of course if the ref had done anything at all about the level of violence beforehand he probably wouldn't have lashed out, but he did take a swing at someone, and was very fortunate to stay on the field.

Encouragingly, though, we didn't let Brentford's crass thuggery and footballing ineptitude hamper our play. We had more chances in that game than in any three I can think of from last season (any 40 if you take Gillingham or Notts County at home). Rosenthal, having surged through the middle, squared it when better placed himself; Dai Thomas, having shown typical disregard for his own personal safety in challenging for another hospital ball, set up chances for Slater and Hyde which they could have done better with; a Johnson blast across the face of goal was turned just wide by Slater; Mooney and Johnson attempted to take various Brentford players heads off with long range efforts; Slater missed a penalty; Andrews came on for Thomas and created three or four good chances for himself; and Micah Hyde saw a goal disallowed thanks to some linesmanning which was on a par with the refereeing.

And then he gave Brentford a penalty for no reason I can fathom. I'm suspicious of it although it was at the Rookery end (and so a long way away) principally because a) I didn't see any Brentford players appeal and b) Melvang was the player who went down in the box, not the Brentford guy he was tussling with. Anyway, Robert Taylor scored it and Brentford had their best spell of the match.

But Johnno brought us through relatively unscathed, and I left thinking about how different the game was last season, when it took a Nigel Gibbs cross to secure the three points and the game, while exciting in the context of the season, was not a patch on this one. So, the same margin of victory as last year, but a team which looks an awful lot better and an awful lot more able. We're going to score a lot of goals this season, and if we play as we did on Saturday I can't imagine many teams will score more against us than we do against them.

There is some bad news, though - we won't be breaking any league records for consecutive draws this year. Never mind, eh?