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Nationwide League Division 2, 3/3/98
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 2, Gibbs 3, Easton 4, Page 4, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 3, Palmer 4, Foley 2, Johnson 3, Rosenthal 3
Subs: Slater (for Easton) 4, *Bazeley (for Foley) 4*, Thomas (for Noel-Williams) 2
Scorers: Noel-Williams (57)
Walsall 2(1)
Scorers: Tholot (9), Blake (73)
Now we know what it feels like
Report by Ian Grant

Well, I don't suppose we can really complain. For Watford fans to start whining on about the unfairness of it all would be rather like Ronnie and Reggie delivering a lecture on the immorality of minor parking offences - Walsall came, got murdered and went home with three points, just like we did at Grimsby and Brentford. Now we know what it feels like.

It's not even as if we weren't warned. In last week's grand, Churchillian announcement following the York shambles, Graham Taylor explicitly said that we'd be risking losing games in order to win them. Since then, we've seen a marginal increase in the points-per-game return, a noticeable improvement in the quality of our football and a staggering return to all-action entertainment. Once again, we looked like promotion material last night - promotion material that gave away two dumb goals, perhaps, but promotion material nonetheless.

The minute's silence for Roy Clare was impeccably observed, Vicarage Road so quiet that the only sound was the eery clanking of the turnstiles letting in late arrivals. Particular credit goes to the handful of travelling Walsall fans for their respectful participation.

The game itself began badly and quickly deteriorated. For whatever reason, we were very slow out of the blocks - Walsall, with two new signings on parade, weren't hanging around to wait for us. Even before they took the lead, Tholot had had a driven free kick pushed over the bar by Alec Chamberlain.

That said, the goal was pitifully poor from our point of view. A long ball over the top, of the kind that you get numerous times in any football match, confused Chamberlain, leaving him caught between staying on his line and coming out to claim - in fact, with Robert Page getting back to cover, the former would've probably been the correct option. With the Watford keeper hopelessly out of position, Tholot's first-time half volley took full advantage - Chamberlain got a hand to it but couldn't pull off a save to redeem himself.

It's not as if Alec Chamberlain owes us anything. It was certainly disappointing - but, wracking my brains for the last time Chamberlain gifted the opposition a goal, he really hasn't made too many costly mistakes this season. Certainly, the wonder saves far, far outweigh the howlers.

Giving the visiting side a goal start is never the best way to go about winning a game, especially not if you're the league leaders and that visiting side is likely to be content to retreat into defence. Walsall barely had another attack during the whole of the first half.

And, for fifteen minutes after the goal, we looked rather lost. Only Clint Easton, bursting through on the left flank on a couple of occasions, looked likely to produce the moment of unexpected class to unlock the Walsall defence. We didn't even come close to scoring, though - the side we had out simply wasn't the right one for the job.

So in many ways the early substitutions, Stuart Slater replacing the unfortunate Easton and Dominic Foley making way for Darren Bazeley after just twenty-five minutes, weren't brave at all, just sensible. What's the point of waiting when it's obvious that there's nothing to be gained by doing so?

It was the right decision. Walsall, who'd comfortably got the hang of dealing with our forward line up until that point, were suddenly exposed. It took just a few minutes for the Watford players to find a tactic that'd work - Darren Bazeley hanging out wide on the right wing, Steve Palmer or Richard Johnson playing passes between the Walsall defenders for Bazeley to run onto - and, since Walsall didn't seem to mind, we used it continuously.

Or nearly continuously, at least - the best chance of the half actually came from a left wing cross as Stuart Slater combined with Tommy Mooney to supply Gifton Noel-Williams with the first really dangerous cross of the evening. Sadly, Gifton's header didn't finish the job and the ball looped kindly into the keeper's hands.

For a while, it seemed as if the good folk of Watford were going to play along. In all respects apart from the final pass, we were slaughtering Walsall. Ronny Rosenthal shot over (after an absolute peach of a foul by Johnson that the referee saw fit to ignore), Steve Palmer volleyed wide. Time and again, we gave the ball to Bazeley and he led the charge - it's been an eternity since I've seen Darren Bazeley so prepared to run at defenders, to think on his feet rather than going for the safe option. Initially, the fans seemed appreciative - after all, the manager had identified our problems, made significant changes to rectify those problems and we appeared to be back on the right track.

It didn't last, though. For crying out loud, is the lack of a final ball sufficient reason to jeer the team off the pitch at half time? Or are we so dumb that any performance that has resulted in us losing must be a bad enough performance for shouts of "This is sh!t, Taylor!" and general discontent? Apparently, 'yes' to both of those.

It seemed obvious that if we kept playing as we had in that fifteen minute spell, we'd score. We came out after half-time and proved the point. Noel-Williams hit the top of the bar with a header from a right wing cross early on before a really well-worked equaliser.

Bazeley - yep, him again - was instrumental in the whole thing, from initially making an inspired run into the box which was temporarily denied to supplying the final cross. In between, Rosenthal and Slater combined to set up the space for Bazeley to measure his centre - Noel-Williams crept a yard away from his marker at the near post and flicked his header across goal and into the corner to give the keeper no chance. Above all else, a textbook example of what you can do with a decent cross from a decent crossing position.

At that stage, it seemed unthinkable that we'd lose. Some of our approach play was simply sumptuous, Slater became increasingly involved on the left as the Walsall defence finally started to close down Bazeley. We were utterly, utterly dominant. Walsall still posed a threat, sure - our commitment to attack frequently left either Page or Millen alone at the back to deal with the pacy Saddlers forward line. That didn't seem to be too much of a problem, however, with Page in particular making some outstanding tackles.

As the minutes ticked by, Watford fans were looking at the clock to see how long we had to score the winner. It seemed inevitable. Rosenthal had a shot pushed round the post, Noel-Williams headed wide when well-placed. No matter how stout the Walsall defence, it was surely impossible that a gap wouldn't appear sooner or later.

And then, disaster. It would've been forgivable if we'd been caught on the break - that was a possibility that we'd lived with throughout as we threw men forward while Walsall defended in depth. On many occasions, we were living dangerously at the back in order to be more dangerous at the front. But the goal didn't come from one of those situations, it came from a position in which we had all our defenders back, with support from the midfield. And it was a shambles. A long throw was cleared then the ball was played back into the box and flicked on to allow a clear shot at goal. Chamberlain advanced and was clattered, the ball rebounded off the Walsall striker and trickled towards the line. Millen got back but was unable to clear convincingly and, after considerably mayhem, the ball was forced in.

I've got no problem with most of our defending at the moment. If we're going to push the likes of Mooney forward to make a contribution to our attacking efforts, we are inevitably going to look a little threadbare at the back sometimes. It not only makes for excellent entertainment, it has brought us far closer to a winning formula than we have been for at least a couple of months. What is slightly worrying, however, is that we seem to have developed a habit of conceding goals after half clearances from our penalty area. Against Luton, against Bristol Rovers and again last night, we didn't clear decisively from corners or long throws, we conceded possession around the edge of the penalty area and we gave away silly goals. That's something that we need to work on.

From then on, Walsall were in the driving seat. Time was running out and the more stylish approach of earlier in the game gave way to desperation. It was entirely understandable but it didn't do us any favours. Dai Thomas came on for Gifton Noel-Williams but made little impact as our approach play became more primitive. Again, we missed Jason Lee.

Corners were won and cleared; Palmer had a venomous shot charged down; Page had a late effort deflected wide. Throughout, Walsall threatened a third as we became more exposed at the back - Blake wasted a particularly glorious opportunity by finishing with a wildly inappropriate right foot shot when his left would've surely been the better option. Tholot also tried to score from the halfway line, which seemed remarkably stupid bearing in mind that his side were trying to run the clock down.

Wobbly defending aside, the manner of this defeat should immediately deflect any serious criticism. At times, Watford were sublime, a throw-back to a previous era when the Vicarage Road turf would regularly play host to two wingers hurtling at opposition defenders. Some will rightly argue that the final ball was missing...yet we were so, so close on occasions that even that seems harsh. Fine passing and excellent movement led to Bazeley and Noel-Williams being flagged offside by a matter of inches as they sped towards goal.

The truth is that we gave away two ridiculous goals and paid the price. Any visiting side that takes an early lead is going to sit back and defend, making themselves difficult to break down. You do have to give considerable credit to the Walsall defence - despite being run ragged for several spells, they never threw in the towel. Having recovered the situation once, to allow the opposition to get in front again was suicidal. That's the only really valid criticism.

The rest, particularly Darren Bazeley's contribution, was fine, sometimes damn fine. If the result had been different, we'd have been absolutely buzzing this morning...

Report by Matt Bunner

In the damp and musty conditions, it's difficult to know whether you should go fast and risk a slight degree of uncontrollability or stick steadfastly to the inside lane and plod along at a constant 60. On the A3, I played it safe and stuck to the inside lane, but when I reached the M25 I thought I would pick up the pace. However, I couldn't because I was stuck in the inside lane by huge articulated lorries. I was like a trapped tiger with and itchy foot, but despite my efforts I couldn't get out. We had to trundle along for 20 mins watching the world go by thinking we could move a lot quicker if we could get out. Then, at last an opportunity arose. I nipped out and freedom - I felt like Nelson Mandela. Suddenly I was over and undertaking, weaving in and out (poetic license here!) and loving every minute of it until we hit noticed the overhead speed limiters - 40 mph, it was saying. That only means one thing and that is slow moving traffic all the way to Watford, but at least we had left in plenty of time so we weren't too concerned (even though I was flipping tired!). We would get there in the end.

You might be wondering was the hell I'm blabbering on about: the above has nothing to do with the football match. Well, unfortunately, it was exactly how it was. For the first 25 minutes we were conservative, plodding along, expecting things to happen instead of forcing the issue. Then Taylor did the inevitable and brought Bazeley and Slates on, in place of the probably-never-him-again-Foley and the unfortunate Easton. This was the moment that we "broke free from the inside lane". Suddenly, we were weaving in and out of the Walsall defence, creating opportunities left right and centre, but the final ball was proving to be crucial. Then we scored and we hit the 'speed limiters' - maybe we took the attitude that we were going to get there in the end?

Walsall's goal didn't really come against the run of play as, let's face it, there wasn't much of it in the first nine minutes: we managed to cross into the opposition's half once in that duration and Walsall had a decent freekick comfortably saved by Chamberlain. A long ball was played up the new boy Tholot (sounds like Brian Blessed character) about 30 yards from goal in a surprising amount of space. Chamberlain for some reason came off his line, so Tholot did the necessary and volleyed first time over Chamberlain, despite the 'keeper getting a hand to it. Even when the ball was in and the 10 Walsall fans celebrated, the Watford fans just assumed that was Walsall's consolation goal had been scored after 9 minutes and that we were about to steamroller them. Sorry, but for the next 20 minutes we were tedious - I think that is the best way to describe it - lacking in creativity and dare I say desire? It was not a surprise therefore to find that a double substitution of Bazeley and Slater was made. It was now all set up for a Watford party because we had Bazeley, Slater, Rosenthal and GNW on the field of play.

Walsall were utterly confused at our change of formation and were pulled apart for the rest of the half. Bazeley on the right was left in acres of room several times but unfortunately the quality of the final ball was lacking. The first decent Watford chance came from good work between Slater and Mooney and the cross met GNW in the centre of the goal but his header was tame by any standards and the 'keeper yawned as it looped into his hands. Ronnie had a curling shot just wide of the angle created by a blatant foul by Johnson just behind the ref's back. Despite forcing about 8 corners in the first half we couldn't muster a header or shot on goal - I don't think that would have happened if Lee was playing. Sadly, we couldn't penetrate but it wasn't for the lack of trying. I can only assume that the boos at half-time were born out of frustration rather than our play. More on that later.

The second half we hit Walsall with preverbal sledgehammer as we forced corner after corner and shot after shot. GNW glanced the bar with a looping header soon after the interval. From one of the many desperate clearances, Rosenthal and Bazeley cleverly combined to give Bazeley the opportunity to deliver and inch perfect cross for the Gift to glance into the net across the 'keeper. Now surely all we had to do was keeping playing the way we had and 3 points would ensue. For the next ten minutes we were Juventus at their prime; Brazil in 1970; Leeds in 1972; Real Madrid in the early 60's - we were fantastic. Rosenthal had a goal bound shot deflected, the same man had a shot tipped around the post and GNW headed lamely wide when ideally placed. GNW and Bazeley were flagged offside when the goal beckoned. Slater was in his element on the left as Walsall tried to close down Bazeley. He had one run from the half-line going past two, but unfortunately he doesn't have the pace of Michael Owen with the ball, and lost the ball on the edge of the area.

Unfortunately the goal didn't materialise and the frustration from the terraces reached the pitch. We became increasingly desperate and Walsall could sense this. They started to counter-attack well but apart from a token shot from the half-way line, they managed nothing. Except on 79 minutes. Walsall had about two players in the box with at least 4 Watford players. From a throw on the right, the ball somehow bounced unguarded into the path of Walsall player who probably was as surprised as Chamberlain when he made the point blank save. Panic over? No. In the ensuing scrambled that last as long as a Costner film, somebody somewhere poked the ball in. Disaster and that is when the moaning started, "That's how to play attacking football Taylor" was one of many I heard. More later.

Anyway, we battered the goal again but the desperation was all too clear. Apart from a Slater shot charged down (it was goal bound as I was directly behind it!) and Page effort deflected wide, the night ended on a low.

We murdered Walsall, but as we know from our visits to Grimsby and Brentford, that ain't enough. It's goals that count. We've played a lot worse that this and won. Tonight it didn't happen. That's football, but it doesn't excuse the moaning and whinging I heard. There's usually a bit from the Upper Rous where I usually sit, but tonight I was in the Vic end and the stuff raining down from the minority of the fans was inexcusable and made me extremely angry. Are they real supporters or are they just 'fair-weather' supporters prepared to take the glory and say nothing when we do well, but SO quick to criticise. Imagine if we were bottom of the league - what the hell would they be saying?

Unfortunately, success breeds contempt and that is the society of today. I'm always of the opinion that if you have nothing useful to say, then say nothing at all. Comments I heard were, "Go on Walsall, get another", "We're going straight down next year" and incredibly "We'll be lucky to make the play-offs at this rate...". These people are detrimental to a club, which is still top of the league and ahead of third place by 15 points with only 11 games to go!!!!! I suppose looking at it from their point of view, at least we've enough points not to get relegated!

Right, that's that off my chest. One thing I learnt today is that football can be like a motorway: slow, fast and a scattering of knobheads!