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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 28/3/98
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 4, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Bazeley 2, *Hyde 5*, Lee 4, Johnson 4, Palmer 4
Subs: Noel-Williams, Foley (for Kennedy) 0, Hazan (for Gibbs) 3
Scorers: Johnson (57)
Northampton Town 1(0)
Scorers: Peer (84)
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 much better....

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....