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97/98: Reports:

FA Cup 3rd Round, 3/1/98
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 4, *Gibbs 5*, Kennedy 4, Page 4, Millen 4, Mooney 3, Lowndes 4, Hyde 4, Lee 3, Johnson 5, Easton 5
Subs: Palmer, Day, Robinson, Thomas (for Lowndes) 0, Rooney
Scorers: Kennedy (65)
Sheffield Wednesday 1(0)
Scorers: Alexandersson (64)
Stubborn underdogs
Report by Ian Grant

Magnificent. If past Watford sides have provided a benchmark for cup performances, then this was well up to standard, only the previously noted lack of a killer touch in front of goal preventing an even better result. For once, we didn't let ourselves down with the cameras watching.

The three outstanding Hornets - Nigel Gibbs, Richard Johnson and Clint Easton - all played like men with a point to prove. For Easton, that's obvious - as with Nathan Lowndes, his first start of the season saw a busy, involved youngster putting in his best display in a Watford shirt to date.

Johnson spent ninety minutes demonstrating that his blend of energy and imagination flourishes in the less hustly-bustly Premiership-class midfield. On one occasion in the second half, Johnson received the ball while Peter Kennedy loitered in space on the left wing. The word 'wide!' had barely reached my throat as the pass arrived at Kennedy's feet - there's no better illustration of the Australian's current form.

Gibbs? Words fail me, frankly. He grabbed the chance to test himself against the skills of Paulo Di Canio with both hands, out-battling the Italian until he became a peripheral figure and switched flanks after the break. Gibbs was phenomenal, unbeatable.

That contest set the tone for the whole game. Wednesday kicked off, won a corner and for a couple of minutes it looked like we might struggle. Then Di Canio took on Gibbs and found himself foiled by a sliding tackle. And there it was, GT's "they're not from another planet" comment proved in an instant. We didn't look back. Indeed, Gibbs went on to provide one of the moments of the season, knocking the ball past a bewildered Di Canio and collecting his own pass to joyous applause from the home fans.

Of course, none of this ought to suggest that Wednesday were out-classed. Cup ties are about playing to the limits of your ability - even the very best Watford performance wasn't going to prevent the Premiership side creating chances. They did so and we got lucky, Booth scooping a Carbone cross over the bar from close range.

In many ways, it was a familiar story. Our approach play was industrious, particularly when it involved the lively Lowndes, but the end product always disappointed. The luck that would push the ball into a striker's stride rather than just behind him continues to elude us.

That pretty much sums up everything we did in the Wednesday half, particularly before the interval. Lowndes volleyed over from a left wing cross; Micah Hyde wasted a promising run with a wild shot. Such situations were producing goals earlier in the season and will do again.

In truth, all that expensive talent didn't yield a great deal more for the visitors. Alec Chamberlain was called into action just once in the first half, palming a corner away then picking himself up to block the follow-up shot. Otherwise, Newsome and Booth both sent free headers into the Vic Road end.

Down at the Rookery, Lowndes met a near post cross from Gibbs but his shot wandered wide. Then, as half-time approached, a scramble in the box provided the debutant with his clearest sight of goal - sadly, his instinctive prod drifted straight at Pressman.

The second half saw Watford gain in confidence as Johnson, Hyde and Easton took control of the midfield. But, for all the possession, it was hard to see where we were going to find a goal - our purposeful prompting meant relatively little without a real cutting edge.

So Wednesday's goal appeared catastrophic. It was the classic counter-attack, Alexandersson stealing in to meet Carbone's cross and head home while Kennedy was stranded upfield. At that stage, a reward for our valiant efforts appeared unlikely.

The reply, however, was so swift that it barely merits a paragraph break. As Wednesday sipped metaphorical champagne, we kicked off. Johnson marched forward, laid the ball off for Hyde to do the same. Micah's run ended with a touch to Kennedy, who dug the ball out from under his feet and sent a searing, gently rising drive past Pressman. Ten seconds after the re-start, with Wednesday not having touched the ball, we were level. The celebrations? Ecstatic is a good word.

For a short while, the utter madness of that minute meant we lost some of our composure and that could've easily resulted in another goal. But Di Canio's acrobatic volley was met by an equally inspired save from Chamberlain, tipping the shot over at full stretch. From that point on, though, the Hornets regained their rugged determination and dominated.

I can scarcely imagine what would've happened if Nigel Gibbs' potent shot had hit the back of the net - I suspect that this report would consist of little more than drunken, joyful dribblings (don't say a word...). Unfortunately, Pressman saw fit to spoil the fairytale by pushing the ball as it screamed towards the top corner. Then, moments before the final whistle, Johnson mis-hit a volley that rambled its way through a crowd of players and harmlessly wide.

So, yes, we were brilliant. Yes, we raised ourselves for a game against superior opposition. But the difference is in expectations - we were better than we were against Plymouth but, in objective isolation, not that much better. The lesson to be learnt is that beating stubborn underdogs ain't always significantly easier than competing with Italian internationals. Ask West Ham.

The same things were right against Plymouth and Wednesday. And the same things were wrong. Go figure...

Out of character
Report by Dan Exeter

Like all the best cup matches, the Wednesday game was one of those occasions very well attended by the locals. For me, this adds to the atmosphere and feeling of occasion that the FA Cup deservedly brings to all clubs, whether large or small. Matches like the Coca-Cola Cup win over Leeds all those years ago and the defeat against Blackburn more recently felt different, as the Vic when it's nearly full is an entirely different proposition from the usual 10,000 or whatever that normally turn up. On both of those above named matches, Watford produced a performance out of character with some league performances just before each tie. So it proved with this tie.

After what I felt was a relatively indifferent performance against Plymouth the previous Sunday I wasn't sure even if Wednesday would bother sending much of their first team out. They did however, and I'm sure Atkinson and their fans are grateful because we played superbly through the match.

The first portents were not, for me anyway, too encouraging, what with Gifton missing (we first noticed when we walked in front of the Vic Road end dressed not in shirt and shorts but trousers and snappy leather jacket) and Rocket Ronnie not risked. In came Nathan Lowndes up front and Clint Easton in midfield, while Peter Kennedy moved to his more habitual left wing back slot. For their part Wednesday had an attacking line up, with Di Canio, Booth and Carbone all starting.

At least as supporters Watford started one up over our Premier counterparts - they only brought about 3000 down (I'm sure other Premiership teams from cities smaller than Sheffield would have brought rather more) and that number got reduced before kick-off when their possibly most famous fan, the talismanic Tango (known as such because he's fat, bald and never ever wears any sort of top no matter what the weather) contrived to get himself thrown out of the ground. After the players had left the pitch after warming up, a loose ball was just outside the goal at the Rookery. He leapt over the wall, ran onto the pitch, and put the ball in the back of the net. Nothing harmless, more silly fun really, but he still got chucked out anyway, which I thought was quite funny.

Anyway the match; If it was hard to tell at the Plymouth game which team exactly was the one romping at the top of the league and which one had just been stuffed at home on Boxing Day so it was hard to tell between the team from the Premier League, with a total team value running well into the millions, from the lower division team whose total team value was mere loose change for larger clubs. Gibbs did a magnificent job against Di Canio, who apart from one shot brilliantly executed and just as brilliantly saved by Chamberlain in the second half did little of note. Booth too was relatively ineffectual against the might of Millen and Page in the air, and although Carbone's close ball control and turns were occasionally perplexing I think it's fair to say we contained him very well, certainly better than a number of Premier League defences have this season.

Allied to a defensive resilience was some imagination and wit up front. Before kick-off I thought Lowndes' lack of strength and pace would bring him little joy up against the likes of Walker (who's quick) and Newsome (who's strong). Yet he battled and toiled away, playing with a confidence not belied by the fact he's yet to start in the league. Jason Lee did very well too I thought, able to get into more positions to provide more of a threat. He had a number of headed chances, more than he's had recently that I can recall. Micah Hyde deserves a special mention for turning in a performance which hasn't been regularly seen since the long-gone days of summer and early autumn. I still think he backs off a bit much (horses for courses I know - I could easily be criticising him for diving in too much) and his positioning isn't always what it should be but he ran around everywhere, playing a lot of intelligent balls, providing options, making runs and crossing.

For all our defensive resilience though, it was quite a basic mistake that gave away the goal - Carbone was left free on our right, and he had time and space to deliver a very good cross for Alexandersson to head in from the right - Kennedy was lamentably many yards behind, although to be fair to Peter (this being especially clear on Match of the Day) when the attack started he was right near the half way line and had sprinted all the way back to catch up.

What's more, he scored a cracking equaliser right from the kick-off, when Hyde and Johno kept on running and moving, before Hyde passed it out to Peter on the edge of the penalty box and he hit it straight and true into Pressman's bottom left hand corner. The moment he hit it I thought it was in - I don't think much of Pressman but he did well to get as close as he did to the shot.

Just two more points; The pitch looked pretty awful, frankly, a couple of times the ball bobbling uncomfortably for players, but then I suppose that's what you get sharing the stadium with a rugby team. Secondly, the atmosphere at the Vic Rd end was one of the best I've experienced in recent years, I think in part because there were a lot of regulars who on other occasions might have been displaced by less common supporters - they in turn seemed all to have bought seats in advance in the Lower Rous. Although for purely personal reasons I would generally prefer to see tickets available in advance for the Vic Rd end (because I live a long way from Watford, ironically enough in Sheffield, so it makes my life easier if I know that even if I do get held up in the traffic or whatever I can still get in okay) credit where credit's due, on this occasion the ticketing system worked a treat.

Perserverance rewarded
Report by Matt Bunner

I deserve a bloody medal. Yes I do. My preparations for this game began after the draw with Plymouth based on the recommendations of the programme. It stated that the match, for some reason, was not all ticket but recommended that you purchase tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. Armed with this information, I spent Monday morning on the phone attempting to book tickets (for the first time I may add) by credit card. Should be no hassle I thought, but unfortunately, when I got through I was informed that bookings would only be taken from 9.00 am on Tuesday. Tuesday came, but the line was PERMANENTLY engaged and with it being a New Year week, I decided to rough it and pay on the day.

Friday came and I had just shaken off the after-effects of the New Year (I think Chard in Somerset know who George Borg* is now) when an invite was issued to me to attend a piss-up in St. Albans. "Great!!", I thought. Except that I have no wheels at present, so I would have to take the train there and then come back early in the morning to pick my Dad up and then drive to WFC to try and get in. No, too much hassle. Instead I would take the train, stay overnight and phone my Dad and meet him outside the ground.

Got up reasonably early Saturday morning and looked at the weather. Wind, rain, cold, sunny, hail, thunder, calm, stormy, etc. I phoned home and was informed that my Dad was definitely not going (more train travelling for me then) and that the match was subject to a 11 am pitch inspection. Luckily, the ref gave it the OK so I made my way to the ground via a lift from the lovely Caroline (thanks you life-saver; I owe you one!). When I arrived at the ground at around 2 pm I wandered around to the Vic Road/Rous stand entrance expecting to pay my £12 and wander in: but no! To my horror, they announced that the only cash entrance was at the Rookery end! Surely they hadn't sold all the Vic Road end tickets already!?

The queue to get in the Rookery end was up to the garage by the time I figured what was going on. There must have been around 2000+ trying to get in through just two turnstyles at about 2:10 - and the queue was growing. I thought I was stuffed: all this effort and not get in. No blooming chance!! There was no way I would get in the Rookery end and if I jumped the queue, my clothes would have been ripped off faster than Demi Moore's. Only one thing for it - get in the away end. This was accomplished surprisingly easily and took my place, for the first time ever, in the Rookery end. Five minutes later they announced that the Rookery end was closing - there must have been about 2000 very pissed off Hornet fans locked out. Surely if it was all-ticket, the bad atmosphere I experienced outside would not have occurred?

After a massive rain shower, I was rewarded for my perseverance when the great, the gorgeous Hels-Bells# turned up at sat three rows behind me! It would have been easy for me to turn around a stare at her for 90 minutes, but I only managed about 20! No idea why she was there again (she was there for the Torquay replay, being a Torquay fan), but I can only assume she is attached to the Sheff Weds band as they were directly behind her (oh, the Torquay band were better...). I made sure I got my autograph at half-time, I can tell you!

The game? A stalemate first half with a couple of incidents when Alexandersson blazed over from Chamberlain's deflection and Lowndes (are you Maurice Johnston in disguise?) shot straight at Porky Pressman. The second half was better, with more atmosphere being generated by the Owls than in the first half. In a move that was identical to Plymouth's goal a few days before, lazy (Owl fans' words, not mine) Di Canio set Carbone away to cross deeply for the woefully marked Alexandersson to easily nod in. The band struck up and the Owls were singing loudly - a few around were puzzled why I wasn't. At the restart, I saw Hyde wave frantically to the other boys to lift heads and get stuck in. "He's never done that before. Why now?", I pondered. About 4.56978 seconds later, Kennedy hit a tracer bullet into the net and it was 1-1. How I didn't shout, "F*ck you! F*ck you!" and then molest Hels-Bells in the process was due to extreme willpower. After that there was only one team in it (apart from a Mooney cock-up that allowed Carbone to cross for Di Canio to volley onto Chamber's fingers), with Lee, Gibbs and Johnson going close.

Considering the pitch, we played very well, using the width provided by Lowndes and Kennedy and the superb marshalling of the midfield by Johnson and the easy MotM Micah Hyde. The defence was very solid, but the left back (God though he is) was exposed in his defensive duties. Huge praise must go to Clint Easton and Nathan Lowndes who were tremendous - and I mean tremendous. Lee? He needs a goal and quickly - his work rate on Saturday was good and produced some neat lay-offs.

I hate the cliché that we "raised our game", but sorry, we have played better than this this season (although not by much) and we exposed Sheff Weds for what they were - highly paid individuals that were hustled out of the game. There was grudging praise from the Sheff Weds fans, but they now accept that they are through. Sorry, again; we are going to push hard and I fully expect that we'll score a couple at Hillsborough.

Oh yeah. I took the train home and got back at 7:45 pm. Normally, when driving, I'd get back to Guildford at 6:00 pm. I'm never taking the train again (I don't know why you do it Ed!)- unless Hels-Bells is going as well.

Happy New Year!

* George Borg is manager of Aldershot Town FC - my local club
# Helen Chamberlain from Soccer AM