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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 26/12/98
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Palmer 3, Iroha 3, Smart 4, Hyde 4, Noel-Williams 4, *Johnson 4*, Gudmundsson 3
Subs: Robinson, Rosenthal, Mooney
Scorers: Smart (57)
Bristol City 0(0)
Report by Ian Grant

Oh, I dunno. It's just...well, there are some things that we all hold dear. Traditions. And they shouldn't be messed with so lightly, discarded like so much chewed chewing gum.

I mean, come on. Boxing Day brings many annual favourites - turkey (or nut roast) sandwiches, awkward family get-togethers, James Bond films, stomach ache, the January sales, a slight sense of disappointment. And that crucial ingredient, a buttock-clenchingly dull football match - you have to go back to Christmas 1994 for the last goal scored in a Watford game on Boxing Day.

So what the hell happened? Where was our seasonal selection of grim stalemate, feeble banality and general cackhandedness to send the once-a-year fans away swearing never to return? Oh, how I'll miss writing my Boxing Day report and being able to use the word "dismal" fifteen times. What next, winning on the telly???

We've seen more action-packed matches than this at the Vic recently, games with more style and more incident. But like previous encounters with City, this had real depth. A great symphonic masterpiece with developing themes, engrossing detail, sweeping drama - one that won't feature prominently on the end of season video but only because its grandiose magnificence wouldn't survive the editing. One goal doesn't do it justice.

One goal was enough, though, to secure an absolutely critical victory. You wanna know just how critical? Well, as I write this, Norwich on forty points are eighth. That's how close we were to having a miserable Christmas. Because it was not easy - on this evidence, it's difficult to understand what the hell Bristol City are doing farting about at the bottom of the table. There is rubbish knocking around the First Division and City ain't it.

Mind you, some of our defending would've given the St Luke's Girl Guides Under-Fives team a fighting chance. During a slow opening that saw the afternoon's main themes - Richard Johnson's authoritative excellence, Akinbiyi's roaring pace - emerging from the mayhem, the Hornets stabbed blindly for the self-destruct button. After just three minutes, Ben Iroha came so, so close to announcing his arrival with an own goal of Keith Dublin proportions. Bell's cross was drifting comfortably out of Akinbiyi's reach, yet Iroha stretched every muscle to get to it. His diving header went back across the face of goal, with Alec Chamberlain watching incredulous, and brushed the post on its way out for a corner.

Ten minutes later, another City corner caused absolute chaos. Palmer and Page went for the same aerial challenge and stopped each other from clearing, Hutchings nodded the ball over the stranded Chamberlain and Bazeley was on hand to head clear from the goal-line.

So the first quarter saw some constructive Watford play undone by the failure to find the final ball. It was already a good game, yet it was only warming up. Typically swift thought from Allan Smart carved out the first opening after twenty minutes, Gifton Noel-Williams latching onto the sneaky through-pass and Phillips diving to block the shot. The City keeper was called into similar action shortly afterwards, Kennedy getting on the end of a Bazeley cross to shoot from a tight angle. But those efforts were eclipsed by City's Andersen who, cutting inside from the left, sent in a shot from the edge of the box that appeared to be going safely over before getting caught by the blustery wind and crashing against the underside of the crossbar.

After Kennedy had blazed over from a free kick and Andersen's low shot had been comfortably gathered by Chamberlain, the Hornets created two chances with approach work of glorious quality and wasted them with finishes of amateurish inaccuracy. First, Kennedy headed Bazeley's deep cross back and Gudmundsson dived in to direct the ball wide when he really ought to have scored. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Johnson casually conjured up one of those passes, arcing elegantly through the City defence from forty yards to the feet of Smart...who tanked it artlessly into the Rookery.

While we're waiting for the second half to begin, a word about Richard Johnson. As ever, the word is "class". There are those moments when the play becomes frantic and condensed, when there's no control and no vision, when Johnson waits on the edge of the scuffles. Then the ball breaks to him and suddenly there's room to breathe and space to move. He doesn't dribble with it, he doesn't delay once the right option is spotted - the ball does the running, another attack is in motion. I remain absolutely mystified as to why he has not yet played international football.

The second half was simply enthralling. Fabulous entertainment, a perfect balance between furious physical contests and elegant passing. I repeat - what the hell are City doing in the relegation zone?

Smart headed straight at Phillips and Bell fired an ambitious free kick over before the decisive goal. Once more, we were left to gape at the potent beauty of our attacking play. Johnson advanced from midfield to supply Gudmundsson on the right, and the ball was snappily played on into Smart's path. City defender Edwards was also in Smart's path but that didn't greatly matter as the striker trampled over his opponent to slide his shot past Phillips. And it all happened in less time than it took for you to read about it - from here to here to here and GOAL. Wonderful football.

It ought to have been two moments later. Iroha, who is a defender much like Devon White was a winger, did well on the left to get in a cross. Smart had a go at the near post, Noel-Williams was blocked by a defender, the ball dropped to Gudmundsson who volleyed acrobatically over the bar from five yards.

Mmm, for how long did we daydream about this? For ten years. Sure, we've had moderately successful seasons since Graham Taylor's departure. But my vague memories of that Steve Harrison campaign are of ugly, sparse football. Whatever the result of all this, my memories will be so fond, of a young team playing with no fear and lashings of style.

So, although City's ferocious attack never gave up its threat, the home strikers operated with more brilliance. Some defences have managed to cope with Smart and Noel-Williams but, Christ, they've had to work like hell to do it. It was beyond City, who had the referee to thank for over-looking a clear penalty as Noel-Williams charged into the six yard box with a defender hanging round his waist. Gudmundsson helped out too, by getting in the way of Kennedy's goal-bound drive.

We've been more rampant but we've rarely looked so (forgive me) smart in opening up a defence. Gary Megson used the word "guile" in paying tribute after we'd beaten Stockport and that's it right there - our attack has neither blistering pace nor staggering skill, neither exceptional strength nor great aerial ability. But it has brains, it comes with cunning and that's the greatest weapon of all.

Anyway, Tistimetanu shot over after a speedy break - and it's worth pointing out that any rejoicing in our splendour was muted by the possibility of an equaliser. Then Smart forced Phillips into a two-handed save and Gudmundsson scooped foolishly wide from a Noel-Williams cross as the match accelerated towards its climax.

We'd wasted chances and that nagging feeling that we'd be punished just grew. For the final ten minutes, the nerves were shredded a little. Substitute Doherty shot wide, ever-popular Thorpe did the same from a good position and was then denied by a block as he pulled the trigger inside the area. Finally, however, we regained some composure. Kennedy sent a cross-shot skidding through the area before Phillips pulled off a superb save, down to his left with fingertips at full stretch, to keep out Noel-Williams' shot.

There was still one present left under the proverbial Christmas tree. Injury time began with a Watford corner, resulting from that Phillips save. Kennedy touched the ball to Noel-Williams, who shielded it at the corner flag. Doherty, dwarfed by the Watford centre forward, challenged and knocked it out for another corner. Repeat performance, another corner. Repeat performance, another corner. Repeat performance, Doherty man-handling Noel-Williams and conceding a free kick. Repeat performance, another free kick. By now, all tension had evaporated, replaced by riotous laughter as Doherty managed to get himself a yellow card for a combination of dissent and not retreating ten yards. Then, finally, the cherry atop an already ample cake - Thorpe arrived on the scene, gave the referee some abuse and talked his way into a booking. Comic genius. The final whistle followed.

Like I say, wherever the season ends we'll have memories of some classic football matches. This was one of them.

See also: Zyberreds, The Bristol City On-line Experience