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Nationwide League Division 2, 17/3/98
Watford 2(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Robinson 2, Page 3, Millen 3, Mooney 4, Bazeley 4, Hyde 3, Lee 4, *Palmer 4*, Easton 3
Subs: Noel-Williams, Foley (for Bazeley) 0, Rooney
Scorers: Palmer (5), Bazeley (59)
Carlisle United 1(0)
Scorers: Stevens (66)
Report by Ian Grant

Strange old business, football. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, life could be better this morning - I'm busier than a bee on speed, I'm tired enough that I could've quite happily stayed under the duvet for another three or four days, my shower's leaking all over the bathroom floor again, there was no milk left for my breakfast cereal. And yet the Hornets won last night so it's all a bit fine and dandy....

Well, sort of, anyway. Nothing makes me happier on a weekday morning than stomping around being grumpy...and I'll be damned if Watford are going to stand in the way of that. Besides, there's no real fun in a hundred and sixty mile round trip for an evening kickoff if you can't have a good moan about how knackered you are the next day, right?

I should be celebrating, though. It's impossible to make grand predictions from last night's match - this was a game that could've gone either way - but every win takes us further away from Grimsby's clutches and closer to automatic promotion. With eight games left, we don't have to put together a swashbuckling run of wins, full of gallant showmanship and nonchalant style - we just need to win a few matches.

That realisation finally seems to have dawned on many Watford supporters. The mood at the Vic last night, at least until the last twenty-five minutes, was altogether more positive about the future and more understanding about the present.

Sure, we scored early and that always helps. But, even then, there's been a tendency to assume that we should be able to beat the ignorant Second Division oiks ("Well, you can't educate those frightful ruffians from Wigan, my dear - they actually like playing the long ball game, you know") by at least ten goals and that anything less is worthy of dissatisfied tutting from the otherwise silent stands. On this occasion, there was rather more appreciation of the good things in our performance and rather less growling and howling at the bad. Long may it continue.

That positive conscious effort seemed to apply to the players as well. Heaven only knows what hell would've broken loose if Carlisle had scored first - but, fortunately, it was the home side that took the early advantage instead. A right wing cross was flicked on and half-cleared to Micah Hyde on the edge of the box. He had the option of smacking the ball back in through a crowd of players but chose, wisely, to skirt around to the left side before hitting an angled shot. The Carlisle keeper saved it with relative comfort but couldn't hold it and Steve Palmer was loitering to stab it home.

It was a vital goal, not least because Carlisle proceeded to dominate the subsequent twenty minutes. Defensively, they look extremely suspect - yet, in terms of attacking play, their style rather makes a mockery of their lowly position. Clearly, Michael Knighton does have some idea of what he's doing after all.

That said, their failure to hit the target during their most potent spell of the first half did signpost some of their problems and I'm fairly certain that, in their position, I'd rather be dour and resolute than entertaining and fragile. Carlisle, like so many teams at this level (including ourselves, most of the time), created chances and wasted them. One shot went tamely at Alec Chamberlain, another flew harmlessly into the side netting, another was charged down by Clint Easton.

Gradually, the tide turned. It wasn't that we were playing badly - more that things weren't quite coming off for our forward players in a match that was extremely open throughout. Jason Lee, towering once again, was the first to get an effort on target - a fine header that briefly looked to be travelling towards the top corner before being collected with relative ease by the Carlisle keeper.

Then Palmer and Hyde combined brilliantly for the former to whack in a drive from the left corner of the box that, unfortunately, found the keeper well positioned. A scramble inside the area brought a better save - a reflex stop to deny a close range effort as two Watford players queued up.

Even so, Carlisle really should've been level at the interval. The best chance of the half - a striker with time and space inside the Watford box - went begging thanks to a wild shot that sailed over the bar before the away side finally forced Chamberlain to excel. Keith Millen's clearing header was returned with a first-time volley that seemed destined to dip over Chamberlain, yet the Watford keeper somehow managed to get a hand to the ball and push it over the bar.

That final ten minute spell of mischief and mayhem set the tone for the second half - forty-five minutes of football that was rarely less than exhilarating, even if such excitement did come at the expense of shattered sanity and shredded nerves. Watford began it at a furious pace, shoving Carlisle onto the back foot and trampling all over them for a cracking twenty minute spell.

The only surprise was that the goal took fifteen minutes to arrive. Up until that point, the quality of the final ball had let us down - just too near to the keeper, just within reach of a defender - and we'd failed to realise our threat. But when it came it was pure class. Steve Palmer played the ball into Jason Lee; Lee turned and beat off the attentions two defenders to advance down the right touchline. He gained just enough space to whip in a cross to the far post, finding Bazeley unmarked to head back past the keeper. Absolute class from Lee.

That should've been that, especially bearing in mind the chances that came our way immediately afterwards as Carlisle threw caution to the wind. First it was Lee, sent through only to be let down by his first touch - eventually, the keeper came out to block and clear. Then it was Bazeley, wasting an opportunity with a wild shot at goal.

Then the real moment of controversy - Bazeley breaking through, a defender taking a tumble and the referee's whistle disallowing the Watford player's strike. The way I saw it, the referee had it right. There was contact between the players - no-one is going to take a dive when he's the last line of defence. We'd have been howling about injustice and incompetence if a goal like that had been allowed to stand against us.

Suddenly, it all changed once more. Carlisle scored, hitting us on the break as our success in the final third encouraged us to over-commit. We've seen it before - the opposition steaming down the right wing on the counter-attack, the striker loitering in the area, avoiding markers and grabbing a simple goal with Chamberlain unprotected.

From then on, we disintegrated. Like a cartoon character having run off a cliff, we looked down and dropped like a stone. It all disappeared - all that confidence, all that neat football, all the movement, all the midfield's smart passing - to be replaced with desperate wellied clearances from our area and frantic long balls in the vague direction of our forwards. Panic, panic, panic.

Carlisle sensed their opponents' sudden bout of rabbit-in-headlights syndrome and went in for the kill. They should've scored too. Numerous scrambles in and around the area ended either with poor goal attempts or booted clearances. Two free kicks around the edge of the box, both of which went about a foot off target, induced particularly manic scenes in the Vic Road end. Much as I tried to stay with the honourable intention of getting behind the team, I fear that what was intended as vocal support may have emerged from my throat as "AAAARRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!" instead.

If you were a neutral, it was probably cracking entertainment. If you were a Carlisle fan, you were probably roaring your boys on towards a sensational comeback. Watford fans? If Vicarage Road was so furnished, we would've been hiding behind the sofa.

Even as our constructive football fell apart, there were still chances to put the match beyond Carlisle's reach. Dominic Foley, on for the excellent-but-shattered Bazeley, might (and probably should) have scored with his very first touch - a long ball over the top left him clear inside the area but his attempt at a lob over the keeper also cleared the bar. And, deep into injury time, Clint Easton had a shot parried and Paul Robinson fired hastily wide from the rebound.

Phew. Well, we did ask for more entertainment - and this was undeniably entertaining. If you're the kind of person who finds being dangled by your hair from an eighty-storey skyscraper entertaining, that is. I enjoyed last night very much, thanks...but I'm off for a lie-down in a darkened room now.

Easy pickings?
Report by Paul Goldsmith

It was a night after which fingers were left as stumps, nerves were left as frazzled, and Watford's lead was thankfully raised by three points.

One could easily say that the Hornets should be walking over these relegation threatened teams, but one would be quite remarkably ignoring the context of the past two games. Both Carlisle and Southend are fighting for survival, they are battling like cornered tigers. And with the team that Watford were forced to put out last night, the leaders are easier meat than normal.

Sitting in the Vicarage Road end, you could feel the tension pervading the faithful, as they welcomed the Golden Boys onto the pitch. Thankfully, GT had restored Tommy Mooney to his now rightful place on the left side of defence, from where his "never say die" attributes can be more constructively utilised. The midfield consisted of Micah Hyde as the workhorse, Stevie Palmer as the shirehorse, and Clint Easton as the Shetland Pony (cute, creative, but not overly useful). Up front, Darren Bazeley was placed alongside Jason Lee, presumably to utilise his pace while ignoring his featherlike presence.

Basically, it was again difficult to see where a goal was to come from. There was little creative prospect in the team. So Watford needed to rely on Lee having one of his effective games, dominating in the air, putting in effort on the ground. As you can probably see, hopes were not high.

So thank the Lord the Hornets got an early goal. A long throw to the right was cleared out to Micah Hyde, who skinned one defender, and then whipped in a shot, which the Carlisle keeper could only push out towards the advancing Steve Palmer, who gleefully deposited the ball in the net. Cue unrestricted joy all over the ground. Cue rather prematurely cocky chants in the Vicarage Road end, calling for all parts of the stand to contribute a song. Cue Carlisle to wake up and hurl themselves towards Alec Chamberlain's goal.

United possessed three very useful strikers. Ian Stevens at number 9 has scored 17 goals this season, and it was easy to see why. Nick Wright and Alan Smart are all pretty useful as well. They were aided in their attempts to equalize by the increasingly alarming lask of cohesiveness in the Watford defence. This unit cannot claim unfamiliarity with each other, as they've played together frequently. But surely they should be able to get the basics right, such as marking for example. Too often Stevens and Smart found themselves unmarked around the penalty area, and they should really have scored. Except that Tommy Mooney was having one of those nights, when he met every cross, made every tackle, and buckled every swash. This continued for the whole evening, and had he not been so dependable, I would have preferred to be a Grimbsy fan this morning.

Up front, Jason Lee was in fact doing exactly what he should have been. He was not only winning headers, but distributing them astutely. His control was good, and his passing and general awareness competant. It was a shame he had no-one to play with. Because where Darren Bazeley was in the first half , I have no idea. To say that he just wasn't at the races would be misleading, because he probably was at the races, but he should have been playing football instead. Bazeley really does have something to offer this team, but needs to be deployed correctly. Against Southend, in the first half, he was deployed correctly, on the right wing, although he had nothing to aim at. On his day, no right sided player has better ball delivery.

As we approached halftime, Lee had a powerful 20 yard header saved, and Chamberlain tipped over an astounding volley from the Carlisle right back. Added to this was a great moment when Paul Robinson ran after a lost cause, chasing a United defender, and polaxed the poor sod while cleanly but pointlessly winning the ball. Even though Carlisle had a goal kick, Robinson had carefully deposited the right back off the pitch, so the game carried on as the Vicarage Road end chuckled. Although Watford were in the lead, it looked shaky, and the Hornets know now that a one-nil lead at halftime no longer translates to a win, like it frequently had at the beginning of the season.

The second half was a reflection of the first half, in that Carlisle constantly looked dangerous without being actually that threatening, and Watford worked hard. Micah Hyde buzzed around the midfield, deserving the song sung about him. Palmer became noticeably more withdrawn, which had the effect of reducing the space into which Carlisle could attack. Robinson moved more forward, but never really could deliver the telling ball. The problem was that Watford seemed to lack width, and were trying to break through the middle. With Lee in the team, good crosses will often be rewarded, so it was ironic that it was Jason himself who provided the definitive telling cross.

It was a rather surreal moment. He chested the ball down adeptly, and then turned towards the right touchline. Soon, he was surrounded by Carlisle defenders. No-one held their breath, he was plainly going to be tackled as usual. But no, somehow, he made it to the by-line. Still, no-one thought anything of it, his cross was surely going to land in Row Z. Now, having been at Watford during the time of Barnes and Callaghan, I've seen many a cross. But this was simply top drawer. Curling his foot around the ball, Lee sent over a ball that swerved across the goal area, just too high for the goalkeeper, but not too high for the arriving Darren Bazeley, who wouldn't have missed if he'd tried, it was 2-0. I was sitting next to one of those bandwagonesque Lee haters , the kind that wouldn't budge on their opinion of him whatever he does, and even he was chanting the big man's name. Great moment, and didn't Jase know it!

Then, five minutes later, he was clean through. The ball was at his feet, and the timing of his run was such that he had a 5 yard head start on the other defenders. Unfortunately that wasn't enough. By the time he got to the penalty area, they had caught him up. You couldn't help thinking that had he attacked the goal more positively, both in his running, or perhaps via an early shot, he would have scored. And there were 7000 people in the stadium who would have been absolutely delighted for him if he had, for his performance had been so deserving of a goal. If you look at this missed chance positively, it was a good run, and he was unlucky. If you look at it negatively, as most people probably will, he was too slow, and too lacking in skill to finish the job. I think it was the first, with a little bit of the second.

After another 5 minutes, we had another goal. Darren Bazeley set off down the left wing, tired to cut inside, and was blocked by a defender. They tussled. Of the two, the defender fell over, on went Bazeley, into the net went the ball. If Darren had fallen over, we may have had a penalty. Because the defender fell over, I assume the referee must have assumed he was fouled. Personally, I disagree, but then, I'm not the referee.

As frequently happens when goals are disallowed, the rejected team lost their concentration. Within a few minutes, Carlisle had pulled one back. For the umpteenth time, the Watford defence was pulled apart by excellent off-the-ball running. For the umpteenth time, a man was left totally unmarked around the penalty area. For the first time, they did something with it. Ian Stevens simply received the ball in space 20 yards out, bounded into the area, and smashed the ball past Chamberlain.

There then followed twenty minutes of almost unbearable tension. Carlisle threw everything at Watford, Watford just about dealt with everything thrown at them. Chamberlain had to make saves, the defence had to make tackles. One was grateful for the aerial presence of Lee in the defending of the countless set pieces hurled into the Watford penalty area.

For not the first time this season, Graham Taylor's substitution policies were baffling. When a team are 2-1 ahead, and the opposition are camping out in their half, trying to get the equalizer, a very viable option would be to give their defence something to think about. Attack is one of the best forms of defence. If you want to give a defence something to worry about, that something could well be Gifton Noel-Williams, who could have substituted the tiring Darren Bazeley. If he had done this immediately Carlisle had scored, the Carlisle defence certainly wouldn't have thrown themselves so willingly into the Watford half. But, GT is GT, and GT knows what he's doing. I have no fingernails left, and I think it could have been avoided.

Eventually, Dominic Foley came on. Almost scored, produced an excellent diagonal ball to Hyde when surrounded by defenders, and looked a lot better than he has done. Made a difference, hopefully, our dear manager will have learnt a lesson.

So there you are. A very, very, very hard earned three points, Watford are back on top of the league. 14 points ahead of 3rd place, who have now 3 games in hand. Points in the bag? Yes. Easy Pickings? No, not at all.

Report by Matt Bunner

Tuesday night football: you can't beat it! Travelled up in my new car with a couple of mates (Bristol City and Aldershot Town fans) and had a Pukka Pie from a take-away. Does it get much better?! This time my Dad didn't come, so if we sat in the Vic end would the curse be broken and Watford actually win whilst I'm in the Vic end (YES!)? I thought long and hard outside the ground: Rous or Vic? Vic it was.

We have the Liverpool syndrome at Watford now. If we don't score in the first 25 minutes, everyone panics. Well, thank God for Stevie Palmer and his Cambridge degree. Following up a solid drive from the inspired Hyde, the 'keeper was unable to hold and SP drilled in the rebound from four yards - or as I heard from my 'running commentary' man behind - "cor, that's was a good finish, wonnit?". We were 1-0 up and only four minutes on the clock! Yippee!

Unfortunately, Carlisle played the better football for next twenty minutes. Their defending was suspect, but the movement upfront was as good as I've seen all year. Watford were being pulled apart, but there wasn't any end product to Carlisle's effort. They had some chances, but these were either wasted or blocked.

From a Watford point of view, Lee and Hyde were playing their socks off. Lee was charging around, clearly wanting to prove a point, winning most things in the air and holding the ball up intelligently. If Lee was brawn, then Hyde was brain. He had that extra yard about him and I'm talking mentally. Funnily enough he played a bit like Ray Wilkins in hardly giving the ball away, but keeping it incredibly simple. He also threw in a couple of forward passes! Bazeley was doing okay as makeshift centre forward (where was Lowndes?) but ultimately looked a bit lost.

It was the combination of the goal-scorer and Hyde that allowed Palmer to hit a shot at light speed that the 'keeper did very well to see let alone save. Minutes later, the 'keeper scrambled a header away as three Watford players were queuing up to stab the ball home.

Carlisle though were still causing problems on the break. They had a golden opportunity to strike when good work on the right found the Perry Groves clone on the edge of the area, but his shot was hoofed into the stadium. A defensive clearance header from Millen found the right boot of a Carlisle player and his rocket, dipping volley was every ounce a goal until Chamberlain flicked up a paw and touched it over.

This set the tone for the second half. It was like the last round of a split decision fight: Watford and Carlisle trading blows, but without seriously hurting each other. Watford had the upper hand and when close a couple of times, but a moment of pure class created the second Watford goal. Lee received the ball wide on the left and was promptly harried by two Carlisle defenders. We all assumed that Jase would get a throw at best, but just as I thought he had lost it, he won it back and created a yard of space down the touchline. His half volleyed cross was carved out of marble as it flew majestically over the 'keeper and defender and straight onto Bazeley's head and into the corner of the net. No wonder Lee received more credit than Bazeley.

We then should have buried Carlisle. Lee was straight through for a one-on-one but the ball got stuck under his feet and the defender cleared. Later, Bazeley cut down the right and played a ball across the area where Hyde just didn't have enough pace to poke the ball in (credit to the defender though). However, despite being 2-0 up we went into our shell and camped on our own area. Carlisle, somehow, were all over us. They were almost picking us off a will. Their goal came from Page thrusting his hand up in the air appealing for offside and not getting it (is their a change in the offside law, where, as in cricket, you only get offside if you appeal?!). The space was then created for a square ball to played into the centre and a simple finish made the score an interesting 2-1. It was Bristol Rovers again: from being in a dominant position at 2-0, we were hanging on.

Just to add to the tension, Carlisle had two free-kicks around the area. Both just went wide (cue commentary man, "I'll tell you what, a foot to the right and that's in!"). Bazeley was withdrawn looking absolutely knackered and Foley trotted onto the pitch. In continuing his jog on the pitch, without changing pace or direction, Foley immediately latched onto a ball and lobbed the 'keeper but also the net. In the final minute of injury time Easton had a shot parried and Robinson craned himself into position to hit it with his only foot, but scuffed it wide.

And that, my friends was that. Thankfully three points towards promotion. I'm glad we picked them up because we've still to play Northampton, Grimsby, Bristol City, Fulham, Bournemouth and Oldham. Tough by anybody's standards, but we've a team that's got most of our best players injured and, don't forget, we're pretty good too!