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Nationwide League Division 2, 22/11/97
Watford 2(1)
Team: *Chamberlain 4*, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Palmer 4, Mooney 4, Noel-Williams 2, Hyde 3, Thomas 3, Johnson 3, Rosenthal 2
Subs: Robinson (for Noel-Williams) 0, Easton, Smith (for Rosenthal) 3
Scorers: Thomas (5), Mooney (83)
Oldham Athletic 1(0)
Scorers: Duxbury (58)
A game of four teams
Report by Ian Grant

It was all going so well. Bang on schedule after leaving the ground at a leisurely pace, catching the train for East Croydon and trundling contentedly through West London, we arrived on the outskirts of Croydon with time to spare. Time to spare, that is, for everything but sitting stationary for twenty minutes as the line ahead was cleared (somebody had just parked a train there, apparently, while popping into the newsagents for a paper or something).

So I sat in that flamin' train carriage as the departure time of my Brighton-bound train from East Croydon came and went, cursing all and sundry and all once more. And, when we eventually got moving, I psyched myself up for a row with any officials I could find at Croydon on the basis that I wasn't going to crawl into bed at 1:30 am without having negotiated a refund on my ticket.

And yet luck was with me. My train had just been the first in the queue - behind it were all the others as the south-bound routes out of London ground to a temporary, shambolic halt. The Brighton service was also delayed. I was saved. Gawd bless our national railways.

There's an analogy in there somewhere, if you can be arsed to find it.

Last night Watford used their "Get out of jail free" card, stealing a win in an entirely bewildering game of football. I'm as unsure about how we failed to put the game beyond Oldham's reach in the first half as I am about how the hell we avoided defeat in the second. This was both a game that we should've won by miles and a game that we should've lost humiliatingly. If that makes any sense at all.

Let's start at the beginning. For forty-four minutes, Watford were sublime. Without Jason Lee's height to use as a cop-out, we appeared absolutely, pain-stakingly intent on passing the ball around on the ground. The result was some of the finest pass-and-move football we've seen our team play for ages, all running off the ball and crisp supply.

You'll find no finer illustration of this than Dai Thomas' early goal. It was over in a couple of seconds, executed with a calm precision that rarely surfaces in the Second Division. Micah Hyde, of whom more later, picked the ball up in midfield, waited for Thomas' cross-field run and slipped a pass through. As the keeper came flying out, Thomas slid his finish under his body with his first touch. I'm actually making it sound more complicated than the reality - it was a goal of wonderful simplicity.

With Oldham's frustrate-and-survive theory shot to pieces in the first five minutes, the stage was set for a tremendously enjoyable first half. It would be easy to be over-critical here, to make too much of our failure to find the final ball - in truth, we came very close indeed to getting it right on numerous occasions. Most importantly, we played the style of football that we all know is the way forward for this team - fast, attacking, mobile, on the floor. The more we play like that, the better we're going to get at it.

On previous occasions when we've played as beautifully as this, it's been Ronny Rosenthal who's set it all off. This time, however, Rosenthal was extremely quiet (his early substitution presumably holding the key to that) and others took centre stage, particularly Micah Hyde. A very frustrating player at times, Hyde zipped around in the space behind Thomas, connecting each move with sharp, penetrating passes, or dropped deeper to receive the ball from defenders, thus providing the impetus for our quality play further upfield. Sometimes he over-elaborated, sometimes he came unstuck with the final ball - but he had much to do with our first half excellence.

Aesthetics don't win matches, though. Throughout the first period there was an overwhelming feeling that we needed to capitalise on our obvious superiority by scoring at least once more. Richard Johnson saw a thumping free kick deflected wide by a defender, then had another effort fumbled by the keeper with Noel-Williams hitting the post under challenge from the rebound. Rosenthal went round the keeper, only to find himself forced too wide to get a shot in.

As if to emphasise the point, Oldham came so close to snatching an equaliser just before the interval. Steve Palmer, absolutely excellent until that point, was caught backing off as Oldham launched a rare attack down their left wing. As the resulting cross came into the six yard box, Robert Page was beaten to the ball and the striker's firm effort brought an absolutely outstanding, point blank save from Alec Chamberlain. Although the Watford keeper basically threw his body desperately in the way, the ball was stopped by an instinctive reaction that stuck out a hand - deserved applause rang round the ground.

At that stage, an Oldham equaliser would've been a travesty. Yet, after the second half, anything less than a draw for the away side seems like an equally large injustice. In many ways, the situation after half-time was predictable - all Graham Taylor could say in the dressing room at the break was "Well done, keep it up" whereas Neil Warnock would've been compelled to use some naughty words and make tactical changes.

Even so, our second half capitulation remains disturbing. From the start, we were in trouble with Oldham finding greater width and far more urgency in midfield. The consequence was (and, as I said on Saturday, this is getting rather repetitive) that the midfield disappeared to help out the defence and we resorted to hefty clearances to isolated strikers rather than measured passes to nearby, supporting colleagues.

Oldham might've scored long before their goal finally came. They attacked with real purpose, finding space down the right behind Peter Kennedy, and caused us a lot of problems at the back. Chamberlain was required to excel again with an acrobatic save at his near post, which was followed by a fairly mental scramble in the six yard box. So when the goal did arrive, it wasn't any surprise. Another break down the right ended with a looping cross to the far post, a header back down and a bundled finish.

But in many ways the goal changed the pattern of the game once more. At the moment it went in, the match had 'OLDHAM AWAY WIN' written on it in very large purple letters. Yet it was as if the Oldham players heard their manager's pre-match instructions (presumably "We'll be happy with a draw") ringing in their ears. They relaxed, they started wasting time, they let us back into a game they should've been thinking about winning.

We remained hopeless. There was no better example of our problems than seeing Dai Thomas spraying monstrously inaccurate cross-field passes in the direction of debutant Tommy Smith - Thomas shouldn't have to do that, there should be midfielders and wing backs offering themselves as support for an easy lay-off. More than anything, and not for the first time, we forgot what we've good at and resorted to what we're bad at instead.

While the praise will naturally go to Graham Taylor for his second substitution, withdrawing the below-par Noel-Williams, bringing on Paul Robinson and shoving Tommy Mooney up front, the tide had begun to turn just a little before that. Mooney was the inspiration, surging forward out of his own half on one occasion and actually playing a pass along the ground to set up one of our few effective attacks. At that moment you could almost see the light bulbs appearing above the players' heads - "Aha! We remember!".

If Mooney was inspirational, then the tactical switch was simply inspired. Within a couple of minutes, we'd won a corner thanks to his efforts and he marched around the Oldham penalty area bellowing at anyone who'd listen - if he hadn't scored, he'd probably have ended up either exploding or chinning someone. The corner was cleared to Johnson, he played it inside to Mooney on the edge of the area. Like an oil tanker negotiating a three-point turn, Mooney brought the ball under control and, with his right foot (of all things), belted it. For an instant, it appeared that the keeper had it within reach but it whistled past him - Mooney was buried under a mass of Watford players before emerging to bellow some more. Mad as a balloon and a total hero with it.

Even then, Oldham came close to grabbing a late equaliser - a curiously-awarded free kick right on the edge of the box was curling into the corner until a Watford defender managed to get his body in the way and deflect it over the bar.

Scenes of astonishment as much as joy at the final whistle - it seemed unbelievable that we'd got away with a win. For forty-five minutes of this match, it appeared that Watford were likely to score at any moment. For forty-five minutes of this match, it appeared that Watford wouldn't score if the game lasted until Christmas.

It made for a fascinating encounter. I'm just not sure that we need to go through all that again, thanks very much.

It's so bleedin' obvious
Report by Matt Bunner

This was perhaps the strangest match I've been to for a long time and yet it is easy to explain why things went the way they did. It is obvious why we played so badly after scoring, obvious why Oldham came back into it and obvious why we won it.

The start was magnificent. We had people running all over the place, Hyde running things in midfield, Gibbs pumping in crosses and the defence did not see the ball for the first five minutes. It was at the end of this spell that Hyde found himself in acres of space and flicked the ball around the defender to put in Dai Thomas who finished clinically from just inside the right-hand-side of the box. There was a momentary silence as we had expected Dai to miss it, but that soon turned into joy as he wheeled away clutching the Watford crest on his shirt.

After that, it was exhibition stuff. By that, I mean Watford seemed to relax, believing that they could cut through at will. This is Obvious Point Number One. If the opposition are sitting back and aren't playing well, take advantage while you can: as the old cliché would have it, don't let the fighter off the ropes - finish him there and then.

Oldham had one chance in the first half when Chamberlain brought a standing ovation from the Vic with a quite stunning save from point-blank after a good cross from the left. I think the Watford players had looked at Oldham's away record and assumed that a win was inevitable whatever they did.

It should have been at least 4-0 at half-time as a host of chances and half-chances when astray - Thomas should have added a second when he took advantage of a foul on Rosenthal and GNW had a couple of shooting chances, had he brought his left foot with him. There was also a scramble after the 'keeper made a hash of Johnno's 40 yarder (seems almost inevitable nowadays). I would also like to mention Johnno's free-kick about 10 minutes earlier. Much has been said about the speed of Roberto Carlos' free-kick in Le Tournoi this summer: can somebody measure the speed of the ball just before it hit the wall because I don't think I've ever seen a ball travel faster! Even when it deflected wide, I still thought I heard a sonic boom!

After hoping that GT had given the boys a rocket for strolling the first half, I expected the onslaught to Vic end to occur, but the only onslaught was towards the other end. Watford just simply stopped playing and the reason was blindingly obvious: they missed Lee, an effective Rosenthal (he was withdrawn, presumably for an injury, after playing anonymously on the right hand side) and faith in the two up front. GNW looked hopelessly lost without Lee: he was doing the job tailor-made for Lee in trying to out-jump a huge central defender who was a good four inches taller; consequently he saw less and less of the ball. Thomas had a couple of nice turns, but, and I'll try to by nice here, he has limited pace, is slow in thinking and his distribution was on par with Bazeley at his worst. New boy Smithy did well and shows promise. So, Obvious Point Number Two: we had no decent, reliable outlet.

Obvious Point Number Three: everybody knew Oldham, crap though they were, would score. Our defence became extremely hesitant and not surprisingly Kennedy was slow to receive a ball and was caught by the right back who flung a cross to the far post, where it was headed back for Duxbury to nod it in from one yard.

Would this wake us up? No. We were waiting for the Golden Boys to cut loose, but it never came. Then another inevitable happened (this game was more obvious than an Eastenders script). GNW was rightly withdrawn and predictably Mooney was thrown up front with Robinson tucking in at left back. With Mooney, he will always give 100,000% and gestured to the Vic end to give some back after 20 minutes of near silence (apart from the moaners). The Vic responded and Mooney's industrial nature worried the pants off Oldham. A clearance found our player-maker Page (!) 30 yards out and he delivered a short pass to Mooney, just inside the penalty area. He had three Oldham defenders around him blocking his path to goal, but strangely they stood there, not willing to challenge in case they give the ref. another chance to conjure up a bizarre decision. Mooney flicked the ball to his right and sent a curling shot into the 'keepers top right hand side. A marvellous goal and it must have looked good from the Vic end!

Obvious Point Number Four: it was going to take a moment's inspiration win the game and who better than Tommy Mooney? Well done GT and TM.

There was an inevitable late siege by Oldham on the Watford goal. A free-kick, presumably given for hand ball judging by the vociferous protests from Oldham demanding a penalty, was headed away from the goal by Robinson and in the 97th minute an Oldham player blazed over from the edge of the box when well placed. The referee finally decided that he couldn't give any more time to the Oldham cause and blew up.

Blimey! Take these points, stuff them in your bag and run, because in all honesty, we were so bad in the second half, we just about deserved a draw. A better side than Oldham would have realised how crap we were and scored a few. But at least the reasons for the poor performance were obvious:

  • Never sit back on the lead and expect things to work out: strike while the iron's hot
  • We badly missed Lee: GNW was lost without him
  • We badly missed a fit, left-sided Ronny
  • Thomas hasn't enough pace and touch
  • Our passing was terrible

On the positive side:

  • Oldham were crap
  • GT has a tactical brain
  • Mooney is God
  • We were lucky
  • We won

My friend, who travelled with me because he wanted to assess Watford being a Bristol City fan, left with the feeling that Bristol could come here and get a result. Maybe, but if we can still play that badly and win, it's obvious what going to happen!