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Coca-Cola Cup 2nd Round 1st Leg, 16/9/97
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 4, *Page 5*, Palmer 3, Mooney 2, Noel-Williams 3, Hyde 4, Lee 3, Johnson 4, Rosenthal 3
Subs: Easton, Day, Andrews (for Noel-Williams) 3
Scorers: Kennedy (89)
Sheffield United 1(1)
Scorers: Scott (19)
Look and learn
Report by Ian Grant

There's a saying round my way - "If you can't catch a goose in a bucket, there's no point in trying to shove a cow into a carrier bag". Wise words, I think you'll agree.

The simple fact is that we should be in the Third Round of the Coca-Cola Cup by now. This wasn't merely a game that we should've won, it was a game that we should've won by a considerable margin. Against a Sheffield United side that had come to defend and counter-attack, we produced a persistent, bloody-minded performance that yielded at least three very clear goal-scoring chances. Yet we missed them all and ended up relying on a moment of magic to salvage a draw.

If all we take from this tie is the knowledge that you can't afford to waste chances, then that'd make it a worthwhile exercise. The further up the divisions you go, the more you get punished for every defensive error and the more, therefore, you have to punish others in the same way. Thus Sheffield United managed just one serious shot on goal in ninety minutes - and they scored with it.

But, if we have to learn lessons like that, let's do it now. Let's do it in a second-rate competition that none of the big clubs want to play in anymore (unless they can be sure of winning it), let's do it while the players concerned (Gifton Noel-Williams and Wayne Andrews - not Ronny Rosenthal, obviously) are still young. This might've been a missed opportunity - but, in truth, the prize at stake wasn't all that great anyway. (I'm writing as if the tie were over - it's not and, on this evidence, I see no reason at all why we shouldn't get a result up in Yorkshire.)

There's seems little point in describing the usual intricacies when faced with moments of such colossal significance in the context of the match. So, although I could tell you about a couple of utterly pointless free kicks from Richard Johnson (the backlash starts here!) or about Gifton Noel-Williams having a flicked effort from a corner saved by the United keeper, these are mere distractions.

So here we go. Kicking towards the Vic Road end in the first half, Alec Chamberlain launched a huge clearance that was flicked on by Noel-Williams into the path of Rosenthal. It should've been a routine finish (or, to be fair, as routine as these things ever get) with just the keeper to beat, yet he appeared to be caught in two minds and ended up neither dragging the ball away from the advancing goalie nor flicking it over him.

Minutes later, another break saw Peter Kennedy fling in a cross to Noel-Williams. The striker was alone, in so much space he could've sold off the land and built a DIY store - he could certainly have taken the ball down and steadied himself. Yet, curiously for a player who seems often to want an extra touch inside the box, he chose to head for goal first time and saw his effort wriggle its way past the post.

It's probably a little harsh, particularly on Gifton (who is doing tremendously well at such a young age), but you can't expect to win games if you miss chances like that. Sheffield United promptly went on to prove the point. As I said before, it's all about punishing errors. Peter Kennedy made the mistake, mis-placing a lazy pass towards Steve Palmer - in a flash, United were streaming past us and the ball was being dumped decisively into the roof of the net.

The threat had always been there as the game settled into a pattern. Content to sit and soak up pressure, United always suggested that they might inflict further damage. That they didn't (indeed, that Alec Chamberlain didn't have another shot of any note to save) was due to a number of factors. For their part, the away side lost most of what little ambition they had. As for us, we had a strangle-hold on the midfield and, whenever the opposition did manage to find a way through, we had the immaculate Robert Page patrolling the depths.

More poor decision-making had allowed another opportunity to slip by (Jason Lee opting to head back across goal when unmarked - he had more than enough time to take it down and steady himself) by half-time. We'd also had a moment of refereeing insanity, Mr Pierce of Portsmouth managing not only to turn down a vociferous penalty appeal after a Johnson shot struck a defender's hand but to turn it down in a dramatic enough fashion to distract all the players when we still had the ball.

If anything, the match was even more one-sided after the interval. Although United had marginally more possession, the relentless pressure applied by that belligerent Watford midfield meant that passes went astray and cohesive moves were rare. The pairing of Richard Johnson and Micah Hyde, which originally appeared to be chalk and cheese, is fascinating - with Hyde's unexpected energy and aggression alongside Johnson's thoughtful, probing creativity they're really not that dissimilar. That partnership is the foundation of our current success.

So we were left to figure out ways of sticking the ball in the back of the net. As against Chesterfield, there was more madness than method in our attempts - too little width, too many balls onto Jason Lee's head - but the drip-drip-drip perseverance has its own worth. We spent so much time battering away at the United defence that something was bound to give in the end.

But, unfortunately, when those cracks did appear we were again unable to take advantage. This time it was Wayne Andrews, on for the exhausted Noel-Williams (training for Gifton ought to involve nailing his shirt to a tree and demanding that he runs after the ball, such is the amount of tugging and holding he has to put up with), who wasted a free header. We waited for the net to bulge as the ball drifted towards the top corner but it never did...

Moments later, there was more action in the Sheffield goalmouth as a driven shot was blocked either by a defender or the keeper - that, frustratingly, was the first time we'd put one of our chances on-target.

Time was running out. The closest United had come to scoring was when Alec Chamberlain had completely mis-controlled a back-pass and, for one terrifying moment, turned around to see it trickling pathetically towards the goal-line before he booted it clear. Otherwise, it was all Robert Page - winning every header, every tackle, running the show.

The equaliser was magnificent. Peter Kennedy's free kick made amends both for his error in the first half and all those missed chances. It was worth the train fare from Brighton. A debatable foul was awarded for a tackle on Micah Hyde and, after a sighter earlier in the half which was saved with reasonable comfort, Kennedy stepped up to take it. The shot curled perfectly over the wall and, from our position right behind it in the Vic Road end, it was in all the way - the keeper stood helpless as the ball flew towards the top corner, flicked off the post and hit the back of the net. An absolute gem.

We didn't deserve a victory, frankly. It's not as if we were denied by bad luck as we have been recently. Virtually every one of those chances ended up with a finish off-target, so we've only got ourselves to blame for drawing a game we should've won.

That we played with such vigour and purpose is commendable, that we found holes in a strong defence is thoroughly encouraging, that we failed to exploit those holes is, ultimately, forgivable. To repeat myself, what we have to do is learn the lessons - sooner or later, we must find the killer instinct required to win games like this.