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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 26/12/97
Wycombe Wanderers 0(0)
Watford 0(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, *Gibbs 4*, Kennedy 4, Page 3, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 3, Hyde 3, Lee 3, Johnson 3, Robinson 3
Subs: Palmer, Lowndes, Easton
Are we top of the league?
Report by Ian Grant

Strange business, this top of the table lark. Despite being so far away from Oldham in third place that they're unlikely to catch us up with the aid of rocket-powered, erm, rockets, Watford fans appear to be on a mission to find something to have a bloody good moan about.

What other reason could there be for the extremely lukewarm reception given to the side as they came over to the fans after the final whistle? Or for the continual griping about Micah Hyde and Jason Lee, both of whom had more than adequate games? Hyde was particularly badly treated on this occasion as Watford fans chose to dwell on his rare mistakes (the worst of which was entirely down to a horrendous bounce from a divot) and ignore his more frequent positive contributions.

The difference between this match and those at Northampton and Bournemouth was minimal. Had we scored - and we came pretty damn close in the second half - we'd all have gone home happy, discussing another positive performance and looking forward to Plymouth. God, we're a fickle bunch, we really are...

Surely we're looking for problems here? I spent most of last season tearing my hair out at our inability to score, yet I really can't see too much cause for concern at present. The time to worry is when you're not creating chances, when the supply dries up or your strikers lose the knack of popping up in the right place at the right time. None of that is happening. The potential to score goals is there.

I've seen toothless teams, I've seen Craig Ramage and Darren Caskey passing the ball sideways for ninety minutes - this is far, far removed from all that. Indeed, I'd argue that the last two performances (the memory of Torquay is fading, thankfully, and looks increasingly like a one-off) have demonstrated an increasing and encouraging consistency in our play. We are supplying the strikers with more helpful service, we are getting the ball into better wide positions, we are doing the things that we do best.

Apart from some defensive lapses, this wasn't crap. It wasn't brilliant either - virtually every player had their moments, yet Nigel Gibbs was the only one who played really well from start to finish - but that's not what I'm trying to say. Those with longish memories might care to compare Boxing Day's Watford display with the same fixture last season.

Lecture over. Sorry.

The game? Well, the only thing that stopped it from being a rather gripping local derby was the lack of an atmosphere - everything else, from crunching tackles to frayed tempers to goalmouth action at both ends, was present and correct. But it took place in a largely silent ground and we all know that football relies on context.

We helped the whole excitement rollercoaster on its merry up-and-down way with some extremely horrendous defending, particularly in the first half. Within the opening five minutes, Tommy Mooney had spread his arms wide to secure a safe passage for the ball on its way through to Keith Scott in the area - fortunately, Scott appeared every bit as surprised as Mooney (and the dopey linesman) and allowed the chance to pass him by.

For a while, we made a bit of headway - enough at least to earn a chant of "We're gonna score in a minute" (always the kiss of death, that). Most moves of promise came down the right, with Nigel Gibbs and Gifton Noel-Williams combining extremely well. That was the source of our best chance of the half - Gibbs won a tackle, Noel-Williams crossed and Jason Lee headed just over the bar.

But we couldn't keep it going and the last half hour before the interval was fairly shaky. Wycombe's Stallard contrived to miss his first sitter of the afternoon, swinging wildly at a near post cross and completely missing the ball. Scott, caught by surprise once more, managed to get his head to the cross but could only manage a weak effort at Alec Chamberlain.

By half-time, Wycombe ought to have been ahead - it's obvious where their problems lie. McGavin wasted another opening, firing wildly over when put through, but also supplied a moment of real quality, finishing a run with a lovely chip that missed by inches.

The team-talk at the break reversed the fortunes somewhat. While we did allow Wycombe one more sight of goal, it was the away side that promised most in the second half. And, unlike our opponents, we did force saves from the goalkeeper.

That had much to do with the emergence of Peter Kennedy from his first half anonymity. He spent far less time 'floating in the hole' (whatever that means) and far more time augmenting our attacking forces in the penalty area. Mind you, he wasn't always entirely worthy of praise once he'd got there - a header over in the first few minutes of the half was fairly wasteful. The move that led up to that chance, however, was a fine example of the simplicity of our best forward play - Lee sliding a neat pass into Gibbs who'd taken up (not for the first or last time) a fine crossing position.

That one Wycombe chance that I mentioned a moment ago proved to be the most memorable incident of the match. The ball was volleyed across the face of goal from a far post cross. Stallard, unmarked in the six yard box, had enough time to pick his spot, rehearse his celebration and write his speech for the post-match interview. The Wycombe fans were already punching the air, the euphoric exclamations had already left their throats. Yet somehow he managed to mis-kick so completely that the ball just trickled sheepishly into Chamberlain's hands as the Watford keeper scrambled across his line. I think you owe your teammates an apology, Mr Stallard.

Although that was the last meaningful action in the Watford penalty area, there was still plenty more to get hot and bothered about at the other end. Kennedy got a little closer as he was set up by Noel-Williams and saw his goalbound shot deflected over. Then closer still as he thumped in a low shot that brought a fine save from the Wycombe keeper, his defenders helping out to clear the rebound. Then really close as his header from yet another Gibbs cross was tipped over. Noel-Williams went closest of all, however, as he got a touch to a shot from Paul Robinson and forced the keeper to push the ball past the post at full stretch.

By the end, the final score had both an inevitability and a fairness about it. Nigel Gibbs, who is defying all accepted wisdom by adding new tricks to his repertoire at a stage in his career when he's supposed to settle for being a 'reliable pro' and 'management material', came nearest to snatching a late winner by smacking a vicious drive that only just failed to dip under the bar.

Without wishing to repeat myself, the simple fact is that if you take away a few bits of uncharacteristically slack defending, this was a Watford performance that was only marginally less pleasing than the one at Bournemouth. Whether it deserved three points is arguable - what is not up for debate is that it deserved a more generous response from the (majority of) travelling fans.

If we go away from home and play like this, we will win more games than we lose or draw and we will be promoted by May. I'll settle for that.

(The Editor would like to apologise for the lack of derogatory remarks about Kevin Keegan, Ray Wilkins and the Kraven Kottage Krazy Komedy Karnival in this report. Normal service will be resumed shortly.)

The right result
Report by Chris Lawton

For the first time in ages I had the opportunity to see the Horns twice in a week. After Saturday's competent performance I was quietly confident that we would gain another three points at Wycombe. Having dined at the club beforehand it was somewhat strange to take my place in the stand just as the players came onto the pitch. The biggest crowd of the season at Wycombe was in relaxed if not particularly vocal mood. For those of you who couldn't get a ticket, the police would not let Wycombe fill the ground to capacity.

The game kicked off and as on Saturday Watford controlled the first ten or so minutes with our best chance coming from a Millen header at a corner. After that the first half ebbed and flowed with neither side being able to put their foot on the ball in the middle of the park. A problem made worse by Johnno's seeming absence and Hyde's inability to make two successive good touches or passes.

Both sides came close in the the first with a Lee header going just over and a mazy run by Hyde being the best chances although Johnno tried his best to score from an impossible angle. Wycombe were equal to us and surging runs from the middle exposed the defence on a number of occasions. In fact the damge would have been greater were it not for another outstanding performance by Robert Page. He read the game superbly throughout and apart form one moment of stupidity in the second half didn't put a foot wrong all afternoon. Quite clearly man of the match (again). Wycombe had a purple patch of five minutes when they wasted three good chances but somehow a combination of poor finishing and good covering defence saw us hold off the attack.

At half time I was expecting a Bournemouth-like surge from the Horns. That 20 minutes at the start of the half where we seem to create much and start to show just why we are top of the table. Alas it was Wycombe who came out fired up and again it looked like they would score. Keith Scott missed from a yard when it seemed easier to score and another forward missed the ball altogether from twelve yards out after Millen had slipped. This all happened on the hour mark and it woke Watford up. As the pace of the game took effect the superior fitness of Watford came to the fore.

Kennedy missed a succession of chances when again it seemed easier to score and Lee's shots on the turn were just too central. With three minutes to go Nigel Gibbs nearly stole it. From 30 yards out he hit a measured dipping shot that was a few inches from going in. It would have been harsh on Wycombe had we taken the points. They played well and many of the Wycombe fans and officials I spoke with afterwards said it was the best they had played in a long time. Some people will view this as a bad performance and in some ways it was - because we didn't win. A year ago we would have lost this match because we wouldn't have stuck it out and battled hard in midfield. If nothing else we have become a more drilled and organised team than last season.

After the game I spoke briefly with Gibbsy who was disappointed not to have scored and thought it was a good effort. The whole team vanished fairly quickly and so I was left to talk with Keith Scott. He was disappointed not to have stayed with Watford. He really wanted to get involved with the youngsters. He rated Gifton and reckons he could go a long way. He could see improvements in Gifton compared to when he was at the Vic but said he should focus on the game and not the physical side of the match. He is a genuinely good and friendly bloke who I think would have been a good addition to the squad. Still perhaps that's why GT is the boss and not me.