Report by Ian Grant
It has been noted that I'm a bit of a miserable sod, never more content than when hammering
on about some kind of grievance. All true, really - I'm not easily pleased. Most of my happiest
moments occur far from civilisation - standing in the middle of a deserted bit of derelict
land, gazing at some spraycan masterpiece, or hidden away with a pair of headphones, dissecting
the latest bombshell from New York. That's the way I like it.
Saturday was different. By eleven o'clock at night, I was happy enough that
not even Northampton's equaliser could provide much of a cloud for my silver lining. The launch
of BSaD's "Luddite Edition" had gone better than we'd dared hope - nine hundred copies
successfully flogged to the people of Watford. I'd been presented with a "WML Hero Supreme"
award at the mailing list bash - something, incidentally, that means a quite ridiculously
huge amount to me. And there I was - standing (or swaying), getting increasingly
inebriated in good company while still clearly able to make out, through the windows of the lower
Rous bar, the exact spot where Johnno's peach of a goal hit the net. Life doesn't get
Tradition has it that the annual mailing list bash must coincide with an absolute
ponky turd of a performance. Any overseas visitors must be made to feel that they've spent
hundreds of pounds and days of travelling to see something that they could've watched for nowt at their local recreation
ground, while those of us closer to the Vic must drink ourselves into a stupor to wipe
away the painful memories.
So, what went wrong? Saturday's result might've been a bit wonky but, by and large,
the performance was full of unheard of things like poise and elegance and style and even
class. It was actually really quite good, like.
It's been a while since Alec Chamberlain has been quite such a spectator. It took
Northampton fifty-six minutes to manage a shot on goal - prior to that, I can't even
remember the Watford keeper having to catch a cross, let alone make a save. It was all
Watford, an inevitable three points. Only our bizarre knack of getting a collective Gibbsy-style
nosebleed whenever we take the lead stopped us from striding further towards the championship -
as it stands, the only way we're going to win a game is by scoring in the last second
of injury time.
There seems little point in attempting to describe the cut-and-thrust of the first half
action. There wasn't any cut-and-thrust. Watford attacked, Northampton survived; Watford
attacked, Northampton survived; Watford...oh, you get the picture. From the first minute,
when Micah Hyde ran forward to smack a rising shot that forced a full-stretch save from the Northampton
keeper, it was one-way traffic.
Of course, in such situations the test of a side is whether or not they make
the advantage count. We didn't. We played oodles of attractive, constructive football
without ever quite discovering the perfect path through a massed Northampton defence. That
the Cobblers were resorting to quite blatant time-wasting within half an hour of kickoff
says much about both their approach to the game and our absolute dominance.
The chances came, the chances went. Peter Kennedy floated a header inches wide from an
excellent Jason Lee cross; Micah Hyde went on another run and finished with a shot just over;
Darren Bazeley got on the end of a Nigel Gibbs cross but could only flick the ball at the keeper;
Steve Palmer thumped in a shot that took a deflection into the goalkeeper's welcoming arms;
Jason Lee couldn't find the direction on several headers.
What mattered more than the inability to create a really clear-cut opening, however, was
the approach. And the approach was right. Gone, more or less, were the aimless hoofs
towards Lee; gone, almost entirely, were the static strikers lazily allowing themselves to
be marked out of the game. Back, hallelujah, was the Richard Johnson who started the season, playing a
pivotal role in the midfield to allow Micah Hyde more freedom. Better, yee-haw, was Hyde
himself, all virtuosity and direct running and nifty footwork and utter brilliance.
We've played better this season. We haven't played better this year, though. Perhaps, as I was
arguing a couple of weeks ago, the results matter rather more than the performances at this
stage - but if the performances can aid Watford fans in enjoying themselves and celebrating
our league position, that counts for a lot. The half-time applause was well justified.
The second half wasn't nearly so one-sided. Northampton, presumably, had been on the end
of some harsh words in the dressing room and woke up. The almost immediate withdrawal of Nigel Gibbs, to be replaced by
the clearly talented but extremely wayward Alon Hazan, didn't really help us to assert ourselves in the early
stages. Within the first five minutes of the
half, they managed to get inside the Watford area twice - I'm not sure if they even managed
that in the first half. Robert Page was guilty on the first occasion, failing to clear then
being out-paced by the lumbering Northampton number nine - the forward fell over, looking for a
penalty, and was booked for his trouble. I'm not sure it was quite that clear-cut, to be honest. The
second attacking expedition was so mundane that to reward it with a description would be like
giving Devon White a knighthood for services to football.
Eventually, the Watford pressure paid off. Just as frustration was starting to set in, just after
Lee had sent another header into the keeper's hands, Richard Johnson popped up with yet
another candidate for 'goal of the season'. While some Johnno goals, that belted equaliser at
Gillingham for instance, are all raw power, others are more delicate than he's ever given
credit for. As he received Hyde's lay-off, he picked his spot with a calmness that was almost
serene. It was a training ground shot, a no-pressure-I'll-just-stick-this-in-the-top-corner
kinda goal. It was wondrous, the ball curving over the helpless keeper and planting itself in
the net like it belonged nowhere else. Finally, we had the lead we deserved.
It took less than a minute for our lack of concentration to be exposed. Northampton went
up the other end and Alec Chamberlain had to exert himself for the first time, saving a potent shot
at his near post. Game on.
Any question marks about the result should've been removed on sixty-five minutes. This time, Johnson's shot
was hopelessly mis-hit, sliced wildly and heading out for a throw-in - but it ended up going to Lee who,
with an unmarked diving header, sent the ball wide when he really ought to have scored. Lee was
magnificent for much of this match - his work on the ground was particularly perceptive
and praise-worthy - yet he continues to fail to add the icing on the cake.
To prove the point about Lee's all-round game, it was he who set up Darren Bazeley for Watford's
best chance of the match. A perfectly measured through-ball from the Watford number nine
sent Bazeley charging through - he didn't make the most of the opportunity, getting dragged
wide by his first touch then sending a near-post shot into the side netting.
We paid for those two misses. In direct contrast, Northampton scored with only their
second opening of the game as a low shot was coolly slammed past Chamberlain on eighty-four minutes. A
killer blow that we didn't deserve or another punishment for our failure to kill off matches?
That was that, really. Northampton sensed a winner but couldn't do enough to get it; Watford
seemed to be confused by the injustice of it all. Mind you, Johnson might've snatched an extraordinary
last minute winner with a thirty-yard drive that swerved this way and that before being
saved with much relief by the Cobblers' goalie.
A fine, engrossing game of football; a fine, stylish performance (apart from the few, costly
bits of undignified panic); a right git of a result that still keeps us ahead as time
ticks away. We are going up, we're just not going up just yet....