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FA Cup 2nd Round Replay, 16/12/97
Watford 2(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 2, Page 3, Millen 3, Mooney 2, *Noel-Williams 4*, Hyde 1, Lee 1, Johnson 3, Palmer 2
Subs: Easton, Day, Robinson (for Smith) 2, Smith (for Page) 3, Lowndes
Scorers: Noel-Williams (91, 108)
Torquay United 1(0)
Scorers: Clayton (103)
Thank you, Silverlink!
Report by Ian Grant

I tried to think of a witty introduction to all this. I just can't. I went to bed about six hours ago (fans of my rail transport tales have a real cracker to look forward to at the end of this report), I walked through a blizzard to get into work this morning, I'm really not in the mood. Put it his way: in the pub before the game, I'd been attempting to describe the winter rain in Brighton and the way it gets as far as the South Downs before dropping everything in a giant mess of wetness - the best I could do was to sweep my arms wide and blow a raspberry. Which would be equally appropriate for this apocalyptically appalling football match.

When you need them, they let you down. In bitterly cold weather conditions, with a biting wind that seemed to penetrate every layer of clothing, it would have been very nice to have been able to concentrate on something other than the onset of frostbite. Instead, we were bored and frozen rigid by a game that then proceeded to extend its intolerable tedium for another thirty minutes while my train pulled out of Watford Junction.

By ten o'clock, all that remained of a relatively lively start were a few fond memories. Torquay arrived full of life, eager to upset the odds - but that's no excuse for what followed. In the first twenty minutes, we got away with murder. Twice Alec Chamberlain was called in to rescue the Watford defence (first blocking a fierce drive and later getting his fingertips to a long-range shot to touch it wide). From the corner that resulted from the first of those saves, Nigel Gibbs had to head another shot clear from the goal-line.

Having pulled themselves together just a little bit, the Hornets went on the offensive in front of the home fans. Heaven only knows quite how Jason Lee failed to put Watford into the lead. Richard Johnson picked up the rebound from a poor corner, took the ball along the byeline and hit a cross that was somehow deflected onto the near post. The ball span across the six yard box to Lee who, with the goal at his mercy and time to pick his spot, sliced a half-volley wide.

Speaking as someone who rates Jason Lee quite highly on the evidence of the season so far, he had a bad, bad, bad night. Despite nearly making amends for that miss a couple of minutes later with a low, skimming shot across goal that forced a fine save, he had a dreadful game - even his usual aerial supremacy seemed to be woefully absent. Sadly, he wasn't alone.

Imagine a whole new ball game. One with no goals, where each team gets points for kicking the ball so high in the air that it shows up as a UFO on air traffic control's radar. Where each team also gets points for hitting specific static objects on the edge of the playing area - the upper tier of the Rous stand, the roof of the manager's dug-out, Clint Easton. Where, like billiards, you can accrue points with a combination of the two - a welly two hundred feet into the air that also lands on the roof of the dug-out. You've just visualised the remainder of the match.

Sure, we should give Torquay a bit of credit for their determined hassling. But it's not as if we don't come up against similarly-minded sides every week. Quite what possessed us to imagine that simply whacking the ball as hard as possible in all directions might win us the game is an absolute mystery. Not since Plymouth at home last season have I seen a Watford side so completely neglect its strengths in favour of its weaknesses.

The League position of our opponents is irrelevant. I'm not going to patronise Torquay by claiming that we'd expect to stuff them - football doesn't work like that (fortunately). I can live with the goalless ninety minutes, I can live with the narrow win in extra time. It's the way we played that really matters - whether we were playing Torquay or Juventus last night, we were diabolical.

The impatient wait for half-time in the hope of some kind of positive re-think wasn't rewarded. Despite the switch of Tommy Smith for Robert Page, with Tommy Mooney reverting to defence, we continued to play in exactly the same fashion after the interval. It says much about the random nature of the whole thing that the only vaguely goal-bound effort in thirty or forty minutes of play was a mis-hit cross by Nigel Gibbs.

Yes, we generated a bit of pressure as the final whistle approached, and Peter Kennedy brought an excellent save from the Torquay keeper with a close range header, but we were rarely anything more than dreadful. With Richard Johnson in hard-as-nails industrious mode and Micah Hyde seemingly unable to get any kind of grip on his passing, it was crude and ugly stuff. Perhaps we should be slightly forgiving - this was the first real stinker of a performance that I've seen this season - but the cold and the knowledge that I stood no chance of getting home at a civilised hour didn't make me feel very forgiving.

You can't even say that the fans didn't get behind the team. A lengthy, rousing rendition of "Elton John's Taylor-made Army" might've had more to do with keeping warm than anything else but it certainly should've let the team know that we were hoping for better things.

Ultimately, the players have to look at themselves and analyse their own performances - only Gifton Noel-Williams can do that and have the right to feel genuinely positive. Indeed, Gifton had sewn up the 'man of the match' award long before extra time, harnessing his enthusiasm to produce some of the few moments of considered, intelligent football. His confidence restored, he was a class above nearly everyone and everything else.

And you certainly can't blame him for not scoring earlier - we just hadn't given him anything to work with. But, in the first minute of extra time, he got his first chance of the night and took it with some aplomb. Running onto a long ball over the top, he muscled his way past a defender and buried a half-volley. None of the hesitancy of a few weeks ago, just raw, powerful goalscoring instinct.

Any thoughts that the goal might finish off the game were dashed within seconds as the play reverted to its previous aimless state. Again, the Torquay equaliser was typical of our sloppy attitude. An absolutely appalling backpass that ended up nearer the halfway line than Alec Chamberlain resulted in Steve Palmer chasing a Torquay striker as he ran towards goal. Palmer pulled off a strong, if untidy, tackle but was penalised for it - the free kick caught Chamberlain dozing and he scrambled across his line too late as the ball curled over the defensive wall.

In the second half of extra time, Torquay eventually tired and the extra bit of fitness began to show. Noel-Williams completed a fine evening's work with the winner, collecting a pass from Kennedy and slashing a shot past the keeper from inside the area - he deserved the fans' applause at the end. Less deserving was Lee, who managed to waste another chance moments later - played through, he finished indecisively and saw the keeper block his shot, the ball looping up and spinning just wide. But at least he hit the target - Micah Hyde, in a similar position just before the end, sliced his shot well wide.

You can blame the pitch, which has suffered two games of football and one game of rugby in four days and is cutting up quite badly. You can blame Torquay, who were full of fight and showed some early flair. You can blame the referee for the award of the free kick that became Torquay's equaliser. You can blame the weather, the swirling, evil wind making conditions difficult. You can blame it on the boogie. But those are all excuses for a performance that was truly dire, a resounding reminder that we've achieved nothing yet. In some ways, it's a bit of a shame that we ended up winning - the players could clearly do with understanding that victory isn't automatic, that it isn't someone else's responsibility.

So I left the ground and charged to Watford Junction to catch the 22:37 into Euston. As I arrived, it was displayed on the screens - but after five minutes of waiting, it disappeared. Gone. Nowhere. Despite phoning up Silverlink (that's Silverlink), I still don't know what happened to it and neither, it appears, do they. To make matters worse, the one remaining staff member on the station - the bloke in the ticket office - decided that he didn't really want to deal with a load of irate Watford fans. So he directed us onto platform six to see someone else (there was nobody there) while he closed his window to avoid further confrontation and left us to fend for ourselves - now that's customer service for you! I finally arrived in Brighton at 1:30 this morning.

Was it worth it? Was it arse!

Report by Dave Perahia

Sequels, so they tell us, are never as good as the original film. Anyone who saw the original 'Lethal Weapon', 'Back to the Future' or even 'Police Academy' films would probably confirm this. As one of those strange people who felt the compulsion to journey to Torquay for the original F.A. Cup tie, I feel qualified to compare it to tonight's sequel. And yes, the sequel was awful. Tonight's replay was the footballing equivalent of "Police Academy 6" or "Nightmare on Elm Street 7". It was the crap second single released by the sad novelty band who fortuitously got to number one in the chart with a "fun" song and then sunk without trace, never to be heard of again. This game, my friends, was shite.

Those fortunates not at Vicarage Road tonight and hearing the score on the radio or reading it in a newspaper may have had some fantasies about this game. Perhaps along the lines of "Plucky Third Division outfit hang on desperately in the face of a constant bombardment by highly fancied table toppers before being finally but inevitably broken down in extra time".

If any such people are reading this, let me dispel the above misconception forthwith. Watford were dire. There was no bombardment, and Torquay's defeat was far from inevitable for most of the game.

And yet I felt quite optimistic beforehand. I wasn't overly concerned about the absence of Ronny Rosenthal, whose recent performances have been little to write home about. Torquay had fought hard in the first game but had nevertheless been outclassed for long periods - we should really have sewn the tie up first time round. I was pretty confident.

I was in for a shock. The early exchanges revealed that Torquay had not come to just make up the numbers. Two or three stinging early shots tested Alec Chamberlain and signalled Torquay's intent to pick up where they had left off in the first tie and try to make us as uncomfortable as possible. Such an early opposition flurry would normally be the signal for the Horns to step up a gear, but not today. I watched with mounting irritation and frustration as Torquay threw what few resources they had at the Watford goal and we seemed unable to do anything in response.

Our defence was barely adequate, repelling most high crosses but being regularly roasted on the flanks and not closing players down, allowing too many shots to rain in on Alec's goal. The midfield was poor, Micah Hyde misplacing passes so regularly that I find it difficult to recall one single one which reached its intended target. Our forward line lacked ideas and intelligence.

Only one first half attack by Watford springs to mind - Jonno somehow hitting the post from an incredibly tight angle after a courageous run through the box. The ball rebounded to Jason Lee about 4 yards from goal, who somehow contrived to miss where even Devon White would have scored. With his eyes closed. Oh, hang on - we had another shot as well - Lee cutting in from the right to hit a cross shot which the keeper got a finger to. Don't know if it was going in, though. Doubt it.

Nil-all at half-time. An appalling first half, but I didn't mind too much. Graham Taylor would give them an almighty bollocking in the dressing room, and they'd come out mean, keen and ready to rumble. Would they heck ! The introduction of Tommy Smith for Robert Page, with Mooney moving into defence, gave us a different option on the right flank, but the two crosses he directed into the Torquay box trickled along the floor and were booted clear. With Mooney at the back, we had a more solid look about us, but the rest of the team simply didn't function at all.

I don't recall us creating one single second half goalscoring opportunity, and the poor quality of the passing and football in general was an insult to the freezing fans unfortunate enough to be witnessing it. With about twenty minutes to go, we started singing. And we carried on singing without a break until full-time. Admittedly all we sang was "Elton John's Taylor-made Army", but at least it helped us keep warm and passed the time. You think singing the same song for twenty minutes is boring ? Correct, but it was more interesting than the game.

And so to extra time. The unfortunate Tommy Smith was substituted, Robbo coming on in his place. Robbo moved to left back, Tommy Mooney moved back up front. Within a minute, the deadlock was broken, Gifton lashing home in front of the Rookery End. The relief was palpable - penalties had looked a distinct likelihood up until then, and with our penalty record over the last few seasons, I'd give the Junior Hornets a good chance of beating us in a shootout, let alone a league side.

I was just beginning to look forward to our third round tie with Sheffield Wednesday when tragedy struck. The unimpressive Gerald Ashby awarded Torquay a highly dubious free-kick on the edge of our area. The ball was floated over the defensive wall and Alec Chamberlain, obviously infected with the same sluggishness afflicting his teammates, was slow getting across his goal and could only palm the shot into the net. One-all, and penalties were looming like the proverbial black cloud.

So into the second period of extra time. For the first time, Watford started to string a few passes together, with the previously anonymous Kennedy popping up in more advanced positions. We took the lead again with the move of the game, Kennedy slipping the ball into the path of the onrushing Gifton, who buried an unstoppable shot from the edge of the area. An absolute beauty.

After the goal, we finally woke up, creating two or three good chances in the few minutes that remained. The truly woeful Hyde, having for me by far his worst ever game in a Watford shirt, missed the first. Jason Lee missed the next chance when clean through. He had enough time to make a cup of tea before dispatching the ball into the goal, but allowed the Torquay 'keeper to clear. Jason would have had difficulty hitting a barn door from five yards on tonight's form (unless he got down on his knees and nudged the ball along with his head !). Perhaps the rumours about his imminent departure are true.

The final whistle eventually blew, sparing us penalties and setting up a mouth-watering third round tie at home to Sheffield Wednesday. I rarely single out players for criticism, preferring to praise the most impressive instead. On this occasion, however, I will make an exception. Our passing, almost to a man, was diabolical, but the worse culprit was Micah Hyde, whose place in the side must surely be under threat when Alon Hazan gets his work permit, so unimpressive has he been recently.

Our forward play was poor, Jason Lee once again out of sorts and frankly not contributing enough. Gifton Noel-Williams confounded his critics, however, with a hardworking and impressive performance capped with two excellent goals. His form has, for me, been one of the few plus points in a number of recent below-par team performances, and he has his place on merit, not by default.

Too many players are off-form at present - Peter Kennedy, Ronny Rosenthal as well as the aforementioned Micah Hyde and Jason Lee - and we have few obvious replacements. Now is the time to enter the transfer market if we are serious about keeping up our momentum. Over to you, Graham.