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Nationwide League Division 2, 21/10/97
Watford 2(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 2, Robinson 5, Page 3, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 5, Hyde 4, Lee 3, Johnson 4, *Rosenthal 5*
Subs: Palmer, Easton, Smith
Scorers: Rosenthal (42), Robinson (88)
Fulham 0(0)
Ray flamin' Wilkins
Report by Ian Grant

And so Mohammed Al Fayed's weary band of third-rate commentators comes to town. It's not too difficult to understand the Fulham fans' anger at recent events - if seeing Mickey Adams booted out wasn't bad enough, finding that he's been replaced by Ray Flamin' Wilkins must feel like a severe boot in the privates. For the rest of the footballing world, however, the prospect of having to spend slightly less time in the company of Kevin Flippin' Keegan's shrill, earnest enthusiasm (once, just once, I'd love to hear him describe a player as 'crap') and Wilkins' dreary witticisms is something of an early Christmas present. One can only hope that there's a job for Mark Bloody Lawrenson too...

Of course, there are plenty of changes afoot at Vicarage Road too. On this occasion, we had Harry Hornet dancing in the centre circle (imagine Dipsy, only with less co-ordination) and a PA system that blasted out music every time we scored. I think it was music, anyway - after so long with a PA that consisted of little more than a hoarse bloke with a loudhailer, we now have a monstrosity so noisy that all you can make out is a thunderous rumbling underneath your feet. Perhaps it's not a PA at all, perhaps it's the latest in mole prevention technology.

Let's push on, shall we? This was a game of two Watfords. The Watford that insists on hoisting huge punts in the hope that Jason Lee might make something happen and the Watford that zips the ball around on the green stuff to leave the opposition chasing shadows. Although Fulham were more than able to deal with the former, the defeat reflects their failure to cope with the more mobile threat of Ronny Rosenthal and Gifton Noel-Williams, both of whom had outstanding matches.

The scoreline flatters Watford in the same way that Ray Wilkins is ever so slightly losing his hair. In truth, there was little to choose between the two sides - except in the final third, where Fulham created good chances and wasted them with over-eager, snatched attempts while Watford displayed a genuinely ruthless bite in attack (for once).

It was an absorbing game for Watford fans, a match that never settled into a predictable pattern and never answered all the questions it raised. Having started off on the defensive after early Fulham pressure, our natural instincts took hold - we wellied the ball onto Jason Lee's head, he flicked it on to the Fulham keeper. On Saturday, we were forced out of our passing rhythm by an excellent Millwall side; last night, we hit the long ball because we're a bit thick.

The midfield of Richard Johnson and Micah Hyde, usually the main supply route for passes to the creative players' feet, spent most of the half watching the ball fly over their heads from the central defenders towards Lee. The fact that Lee was having a stinker didn't help - more than anything, his positional sense seemed completely absent as he was consistently found in the wrong place at the right time. Without having seen them before, you'd have been hard pushed to identify Lee as a former Premiership striker and Noel-Williams as a seventeen year old novice. Not greatly surprising, then, that our first serious effort on goal came from a set piece, Paul Robinson curling a superb free kick against the bar.

At the Rookery end, our defending alternated between howling errors and utter heroism. For example, Tommy Mooney's appallingly misdirected header fell into the path of a grateful Fulham player and the driven cross was diverted away from an on-rushing forward by the boot of Keith Millen (at considerable risk of sending it into his own net). Later, Mooney was to return the favour...

When it arrived, the goal was indicative of just how much we waste our talents with long ball nonsense. Noel-Williams rounded off a brilliant half (he was quick, strong and mobile - and he caused just as many problems as the more flamboyant Rosenthal) with a sensational turn and pass to Micah Hyde. Hyde, ignoring the fans' pleas for a shot, played the ball into Rosenthal's run and, from a tight angle, Ronny buried his finish across the face of the goal and into the bottom corner. We all know we're capable of such moments and playing to our strengths might enable us to conjure them up a little more often.

Quite how Fulham failed to equalise within a couple of minutes of the re-start remains something of a mystery. What is clear is that Keith Millen should be hung, drawn and quartered for standing and protesting to allow Fulham to take a very quick free-kick, catching the entire Watford defence cold. From the resulting cross, a shot hit the underside of the bar and the rebound was somehow blocked on the line by (I'm guessing here) Tommy Mooney's body. You know the opposition's gone close when your fans celebrate the failure to score as if it were a goal of their own...

The second half, while hardly the stuff of dreams, was much better. For a start, we played different passes into Lee - mainly at his chest, enabling him to hold the ball up and lay it off, rather than at his head, forcing him to flick it on to no-one. Consequently, we brought other players into the attacking moves more often and more productively. Lee himself had a greatly improved second period, finding decent positions and using possession with more intelligence.

In addition, we appeared to push Paul Robinson forward - he spent much of the half appearing in positions that would make even Peter Kennedy seem a bit cautious, of which more later. We still didn't have a lot of width (and what we did have was too often wasted - welcome back, Mr Bazeley) but an additional runner from (very) deep did add to our threat.

And, finally, our defenders occasionally remembered who those two blokes in front of them were. Thus Hyde and Johnson were able to do what they do best, probing and poking passes around the pitch to open up possibilities. It wasn't just like watching Brazil but, fortunately, it was no longer just like watching f***ing Lincoln either.

Ironically, it was a fairly primitive move that lead to the first incident of the half - a swinging cross from virtually the half-way line onto the head of Lee which brought a massive header from the centre forward. It looked like it was going miles over, before it looped over the keeper, under the bar and into the net. Sadly, he was (harshly) penalised for a foul on the defender - it would've been an extraordinary goal.

We could've done with that cushion, as Fulham's attacks fluctuated between feeble, stagnant patient passing and genuinely dangerous counter-attacks. One of the latter efforts led to a great opening, a striker wasting the opportunity with a diving header into the side netting. Moments later, a shot flew inches wide of Alec Chamberlain's goal.

We possessed the greater quality, however. And, in particular, that quality belonged to Ronny Rosenthal. He nearly added a second with a storming charge into the area, aided by an astute, defender-distracting run by Noel-Williams, and a shot that beat the keeper but was cleared by a defender.

As the game entered its final minutes, we were still full of strange contradictions. The Watford midfield was doing its best to see the game out, Johnson and Hyde obsessively chasing the ball until a player under pressure would give it away - as soon as Fulham had managed to work themselves away from one of them, the other would pop up to prevent any white-shirted player from getting a moment's peace. The Watford defence, meanwhile, had become so determined not to resort to the long ball that they preferred risk disaster by farting around with one touch passing moves in their own penalty area.

The result of all this was that, while Fulham rarely managed to find a way past the constant harassment from our midfield, they created good chances when they did so. Moody found a goal-bound header blocked by Mooney, another striker threw away another clear opportunity with a laughably weak shot. And that's why we won - Fulham had no composure in front of goal and failed to make the most of some very dangerous positions. Even when they hit the bar at the end of the first half, the situation would've resulted in a certain goal had the cross been better - as it was, the striker had to hook the ball from an awkward angle.

As if to illustrate the point, we added a second just before the end. Again, it was Noel-Williams who set it up, running through before picking the right moment to slip the ball into Paul Robinson. The youngster beat the keeper with all the confidence of a striker for his first Watford goal. It was another neat goal and another example of what can be achieved with relatively simple passes and runs - we need to start learning that lesson. Maybe we are learning it - another smart move saw Micah Hyde come close to adding a third, slashing a shot over the bar, but 3-0 would've been a total injustice.

On balance of play, chances created, effort put in and pretty much everything else, we didn't deserve these three points. But the reality is that our additional quality in the final third, albeit sporadic and frustrating, needs to see us to victories like this. The difference between us and every other side in this division isn't necessarily massive - but last night there was a difference and it was that we won. We made the quality count.

Robbo is my hero...
Report by Nick Grundy

I knew I was going to enjoy this game before it started, and this was principally due to the presence in the starting line-up of Paul Robinson. For some reason, he's come to occupy a Very Important Place in my mind; due to his performances last season, and because I only ever saw him play averagely at worst and brilliantly at best, I decided then that he was absolutely wonderful and was going to be something that, in years to come, I could pluck from the dross of last season and hold up as an example of something good that came of it. Much of this was due to his murderous tackling, of course, and his never-give-it-up attitude; without a doubt my moment of last season was his tackle against Wycombe, about ten minutes in, on the right as you look from the Vic Road end, and right in front of me at the time, because it combined the two so well. Similarly, my second biggest regret is that he didn't attempt to cripple Steve Lomas against Man City. Anyway, on the basis of his performance last night, I was rather gratifyingly right.

However, more of him when I get bored of writing about how awful most of the first half was. The game began poorly - Fulham made us attack the Vic Road end first half, and then spent the first five minutes in our half. You know your report is going to be less than glowing, however, when your own team is incapable of dealing with Fulham's largely, well, uninteresting attacks. It's not that they were especially bad, merely devoid of anything even approaching flair, excitement or - well, interest. I suppose we should expect this of most forward lines containing Paul Moody, who remains the player most likely to cause damage to a small building with a moderate run up outside of the Bury team. Ian Selley, too - he was playing in midfield, obviously, but how Fulham can have paid half a million pounds for a player as average as him is beyond me (It's called having Ray Wilkins as manager - Ed). It occurred to me midway through the half, shortly after I realised that Darren Bazeley was still incapable of crossing (but more of that later...), that ¾500k would have bought two Micah Hydes, and for all his Pink Panther like qualities (vanishing?), he was significantly more exciting to watch than Selley.

He was responsible for our first goal, too, I think - some of the people I was with (thanks to Libby for driving, incidentally!) thought it was Jason, but I think it was Micah. This is principally because he seemed horribly goal-shy when he received the ball on the edge of the box in a bit of a space - instead of shooting, he allowed himself to get closed down...or so we thought until he slipped a lovely little ball through the inside right channel (I'm not sure what this is, but it sounds about right) for RR to run onto, control, and lash past Arendse in the Fulham goal from a tight angle.

Micah stayed in the game for long periods today - I just found that he was making his presence felt more than he has in midfield, tackling more, and generally putting himself about more. Also, despite finding space in midfield at almost as much of a premium as it was against Millwall, he dropped off and pushed up intelligently to give himself more time on the ball, and this almost produced a second goal when, picking up a pass on the edge of the box, he again declined to shoot and lofted a perfectly weighted chip back across and into the box for GNW to head narrowly over. The starburst free kick routine got another airing, too, this time with Paul Robinson hitting a ball from 25 yards that bent savagely before rebounding off the angle of post and bar. He even takes set pieces...

Those three efforts apart, our decent goalscoring chances were restricted by a Fulham midfield and defence who looked genuinely hungry for the ball - both were adept not just at snapping at the heels of Hyde and the ever-industrious Johnson, but also at cutting out through balls and passes out wide. And at winning free kicks from another truly atrocious ref whose request to a Vic Road Ender baying for his blood to "Sit down" was not only ill-advised but frankly stupid. Anyway, Fulham looked well-organised and a pretty tidy unit - they seemed reasonably happy to pass the ball in defence until someone could put a clearance, rather than a hoof, in, and although their play down the flanks was pretty terrible, their central midfield, notably Selley, very rarely gave away possession.

It was lucky their play down the flanks was so weak, though, because while Robbo on the left was so effective I can think of perhaps one decent cross they got in from that side all game, Darren Bazeley on the right was pathetic. Midway through the second half, Steve commented, as Baze shepherded the ball out for a throw, on how good he looked when he didn't have to touch the ball. Sadly, this was a pretty accurate summary of his performance. I'd be the first to admit that it looked very impressive when he surged upfield, or when he put his arms up to request the ball from a goal kick. When, however, he received the ball on one of these runs and he swung another cross to a point a metre beyond the back post remarkable only for its complete lack of any Watford players, or into the legs of the fullback he'd just skinned quite impressively, you have to ask some questions about what he's been doing with his training time since returning from injury. It's a sorry state of affairs when we can't complain about Darren crossing into the stand because he couldn't even get the ball past his fullback. Baze needs to sort his game out sharpish - "potential" is a word often used in connection with the guy, but his hair is now officially going grey...

So, offensively during the first half we were pretty feeble, bar a few moments of (largely individual) skill, and largely outfought. Defensively we looked a little shaky - SuperTom in particular with a couple of howlers - without looking like conceding more than the goal Fulham probably deserved just before half time. Continuing the disturbing trend we showed against Millwall of failing to clear the ball, we allowed a cross to reach Moody at the back post, and his header from about six yards out came back off the underside of the bar to a Fulham player (probably Conroy) about eight yards out, whose goalbound effort was brilliantly cleared off the line by someone who looked suspiciously like Robbo.

We were a little better second half, and certainly a lot more cohesive as a team. The defence sharpened up a little, although Page showed some uncharacteristic lapses in concentration, and we were lucky that first a woeful backpass and then some dreadful positioning which allowed a cross to be headed narrowly wide by Conroy from six yards, both by Baze, went unpunished. Even so the work of the midfield was complemented by some powerful running from Robbo and Ronny, and Gifton even began to read Jase's flicks for a while. Ronny and GNW both looked really hungry last night, and they both ran their proverbial socks off. Gifton's runs across the face of the Fulham defence really opened space up for Ronny to run into, and generally these two moving up front lessened the onus on Johnno and Hyde in midfield.

Having said this, it's to Fulham's credit that our win didn't look certain until Robbo scored a few minutes before the end. A ball from the left arrived at Gifton's feet, and he carried it into the box before spotting Robinson's surge forward, and laying it off for Robbo to slam past Arendse. He deserved it. And that was it, really - not the most memorable of games, but an enormous relief after Millwall. When you perform badly against the third-placed team in the division and are unlucky to lose, I think it's fair to say you're doing all right. Most important thing to emerge from this game, though, is the need for a chant for Paul Robinson, 'cos he's great.

Report by Matt Bunner

Last night was the defining moment that announced winter was here, but as my father aptly put it, "The football season starts here: if it ain't cold, it's not football". I don't mind the cold, it's the pesky wind that literally gets up my nose and when you're sporting a hard new hair style, the wind is not a welcome friend. I had just warmed up in the farcical scrum outside the turnstyles, forbidding us to see the first five minutes, when I took my seat in the extra upper, extra left part of the Rous. I was the furthest left supporter in the Rous stand, exposing me to the nippy wind. If any of you were wondering what the chattering was, it wasn't Wilkins biting his nails, it was my knees involuntarily knocking together. But I didn't care; I'm prepared to suffer the hardships if it means the boys win.

I assume that nothing interesting happened in the first five minutes, so the first piece of action I saw was a chance for GNW, who screwed his limp shot past the post. The rest of the half saw a continuation of Saturday's effort, whereby Watford were content to hoof the long ball to Lee and GNW and expect them to do miracles with it.

Here, I must stop and explain to the muppets surrounding me, both on Saturday and last night, that although Lee and GNW are big, slightly cumbersome, men, they cannot be expected to do everything. Lee's job, if we persist in hoofing it, is to win the header when surrounded (he does that) and to control the ball when there's time (he also does that). It is the job of the rest of the players to support the big men up front by picking up the knock downs. You can have all the skill in the world, but if you ain't got support, nothing will happen. Lee will never be like Rosenthal, so why do some supporters insist that he should beat his man? Although I'm not totally satisfied with Lee's input, you have to take him at face value and stop criticising him - it's our loss in the end. Oh, and as the for the bloke behind me who said that GNW's a waste of space...

Where was I? I know. The half was crying, almost blubbing, for a Watford man to stand on the ball on the centre spot and announce to his team mates to take a deep breath, calm down and play football. This kick and rush stuff was, I thought, consigned to the last season's bin, but it seems that someone's been down the tip and brought it back. Looking at Fulham, they weren't really as good as Millwall, so why the panic? It took a free-kick against the bar by Robinson to settle us down. After a few minor half chances (notably a Bazeley effort with his left foot - tee hee!), Hyde started to string some passes together - hurrah! He seemed to be living in the 'D' towards the end of the first half and it was his incisive pass to Ronnie that created the first goal: wide on the right, Ronnie hit/scuffed/placed the ball under the 'keeper's arm into the corner of the net. Cue relief. Immediately after that Fulham had their best chance when they hit the bar after a cock-up/give-away in the Watford defence and it was scrambled away, but the best move of the half saw GNW streaking down the left (Rous side) over the half-way line cutting inside and sending a ball to someone-I-can't-remember and he chipped a delightful ball to GNW who punched a header just wide. Quality. I think we deserved the lead at half-time.

The second half was slightly better, but I think that was due to Fulham's approach to the game. They came out wanting to score which left spaces in the midfield which we occasionally exploited. Fulham had their chances, mainly due to our defensive f*ck-ups (Page and Bazeley stand up) but couldn't score because of great covering by Mooney and defenders continually throwing themselves in the way. Our main source of danger was Ronnie who was outstanding and easily, by the proverbial country mile, man-of-the-match. He continually ran at the Fulham defence in a way they couldn't cope with, the best being a 40 yard ran that took him past three defenders only to see his shot booted off the line. Lee had a goal disallowed because he won the ball in the air too easily and Lee had a one-on-one with 'keeper, but his legs were tied in knots and so couldn't put it in.

It was a good, open half, but the doom merchants around me, instead of looking at the scoreboard and seeing we were 1-0 up, decided to cast a cloud over the chilly Vic by forecasting a Fulham goal and one even said, "They could win this!". Oh please! Have faith and confidence in your side! We are winning and they have to chase the game, so the gaps will appear and we're more likely to get a second (although I was worried when two Fulham players converged inside the area with just Chamberlain to beat 5 minutes from time but, praise the lord, they got in each other's way) and so it proved as Robinson was put through and tucked the ball in with 2 minutes to go. There was just enough time for Hyde to knock over some Fulham fans with a rasper that should have been bulging the net.

Although the team performance was not wonderful, it was enough against a Fulham side that caused some problems, but were fundamentally error prone. The three points was vital and was sweetened by the news that Northampton and Millwall both drew. Ronnie was easily MOTM; Hyde played well; Johnson was OK and Page had a poor game by his standards, but the worst performance (after the supporters behind me) was Bazeley. I know he's been injured and playing right back, but he was fundamentally crap. He couldn't cross, defend, shoot, head, position himself correctly, etc and he kept giving the ball away. Give me Gibbs any day.

Cold it may have been, but internally there was a little glow of contentment.