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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 8/2/98
Watford 0(0)
Team: *Chamberlain 4*, Gibbs 4, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Millen 2, Mooney 2, Noel-Williams 2, Hyde 4, Lee 3, Johnson 2, Robinson 2
Subs: Palmer (for Noel-Williams) 3, Ward, Thomas (for Lee) 2
Gillingham 2(1)
Scorers: Akinbiyi (21, 90)
The luck runs out
Report by Ian Grant

Some days just suck. Some days getting to a game feels like wading through treacle - the Clapham to Watford service is cancelled (and no-one at Connex thinks that their customers might consider this to be useful information in planning their journeys); your train falters just outside Euston, stands stationary for ten minutes then trundles sheepishly back whence it came; you arrive at the Junction twenty minutes before kickoff to discover that today is the Taxi Drivers' Union National Day Of Rest. Some days watching your team being beaten seems like part of an on-going nightmare. Some days you feel just a little cursed.

The song from the Vic Road end went "Sh!t on the telly, we're always sh!t on the telly" and the song was right. The sooner the new board of directors can strike up a deal whereby Sky never ever cover Watford games, the better - in the meantime, a giant "Do Not Disturb" sign at Vicarage Road ought to convince everyone to leave us in peace.

Added to the team's traditional stage fright, my late arrival meant that I was unable to indulge any of my superstitions (except the superstition about it being generally more satisfying to arrive at a game before it's ended and that was touch-and-go for a while). I couldn't even buy a programme at all, let alone buy it from my lucky programme seller. All in all, quite clearly a recipe for utter disaster.

And so it proved. Mind you, it shouldn't come as that much of a shock - anyone who was at the Priestfield for September's away game ought to remember that, prior to the arrival of Stuart Slater, we were getting fairly well murdered. This was a repeat performance, Gillingham's pacy attacks scything through our hesitant defence and forcing Alec Chamberlain to keep the score respectable. We couldn't deal with it then - we salvaged a draw thanks to a dodgy penalty and a Johnno wonder-strike - and we can't deal with it now.

It wasn't that the away side dominated. Talking about possession is the last refuge of the dreary partisan - Gillingham were sharper, simple as that. In a sense, Watford's chances were carved out despite their football, yet Gillingham's goals were the pinnacle of a tactically smart performance.

They should've scored more. While Watford fans will rightly argue that the Hornets deserved a goal or two for a second half fightback that showed determination if nothing else, this was a game that could've been lost in the first twenty-five minutes. Chamberlain's stunning reflex save to deny Steve Butler, after the former Watford striker had controlled a cross, turned and shot like Rolf Harris turning his hand to Picasso, set the tone for the first half.

Smith broke through for Gillingham minutes later, only to see his slightly indecisive finish saved by the Watford keeper. But Chamberlain could do nothing about the opening goal - Richard Johnson mis-placed a pass and in an instant Akinbiyi was charging through to fire a shot across goal into the bottom corner. Our defensive problems didn't end there - just a minute after the goal, Southall was given a free shot from the edge of the box but scooped the ball over.

We paid a heavy price for that early bout of defensive frailty. Gillingham retreated, happy with the lead and even happier with the knowledge that we were looking very, very vulnerable to the quick counter-attack, and left us to huff and puff in front of their goal. Which we duly did. We won a few corners, we stuck a few dangerous crosses into the box but it was nearly half-time before Peter Kennedy had our first on-target effort, a drive straight at the keeper. To be fair, we did get closer than that as Johnson's flicked header from a corner was booted clear from the line.

The half-time changes did improve things. Steve Palmer came on for a below-par Gifton Noel-Williams, allowing Tommy Mooney to push forward and redeem himself for a quite appalling, error-strewn first half.

But the real problem is more fundamental, the real problem is lack of movement. In recent games, we've been too static and too obvious. Micah Hyde is leading the way, he's bounding about all over the field in search of new options, but no-one is following. Late in the second half, Hyde stumbled his way through the midfielder, went sideways around the penalty area and ended up surrounded by Gillingham defenders - throughout that wayward run, Watford fans were screaming at him to look up when the fact was that he had looked up but no-one was making themselves available. We shouldn't have to wait for Rosenthal, Hazan or Slater to provide that movement - it's pretty fundamental stuff.

Gillingham remained by far the more penetrating side and proved the point early on as Butler was again denied by Chamberlain, this time with a smothering block to stop a rather tame shot. Yeah, we had loads of the ball; yeah, we had corners; no, we didn't really look capable of turning things around. It took an eternity for the first Watford chance of the half to appear - again it was Kennedy with a well-struck half-volley at the keeper.

Eventually, however, we did get somewhere. To be precise, Mooney evaded a defender and hit the bar with a hooked shot after a corner was flicked on at the near post. It was as close as we were going to get - sure, there were a couple of gorgeous crosses from Nigel Gibbs that sent the Gillingham defence into a panic (without adequate movement, the potency of our attacks is directly linked to the quality of our crossing) but it wasn't enough and the Gillingham keeper was never really called into action.

Up at the Rookery, we were still being cut to ribbons. Not as frequently - the away side had no reason to over-commit - but still with alarming ease, Gillingham sped past the Watford defence and threatened to kill the game off with a second goal. Only yet more emergency measures from Chamberlain delayed that goal as he got a hand to a low cross and managed to push it away from a striker at the far post. But it was only a delay and, with injury time approaching, Akinbiyi struck once more - left in enough space to build a DIY store, he calmly stroked a shot into the bottom corner.

There was still enough time for Kennedy to force the Gills' keeper into his first exercise of the afternoon with a free kick from the edge of the box - but it would only have been a consolation.

We were well beaten.