Main Menu
What's New
98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 22/8/98
Birmingham City 1(0)
Scorers: Holdsworth (87)
Watford 2(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 5, *Page 5*, *Palmer 5*, Robinson 5, Smart 5, Hazan 4, *Mooney 5*, Johnson 5, Daley 4
Subs: Hyde (for Hazan) 4, Bonnot (for Daley) 0, Ngonge
Scorers: Mooney (26), Daley (58)
Kicking ass
Report by Ian Grant

And we thought that we'd seen all the perfect days this season had to offer....

Damn it, this was brilliant. Arguably the best team performance of the season, rising to meet a daunting challenge full-on. One of those mammoth efforts, all gritted teeth and stubborn refusal to let the enemy pass and constant "COME ON!" clenched fist Mooney-isms, that culminate in a feeling of utter triumph at the final whistle.

And that was just the match against the Birmingham mailing list in the morning. A 1-1 draw, a superb result produced by some truly heroic efforts and an ever-strengthening team spirit, and the most that I've ever enjoyed myself on a football pitch.

We were playing as we'd want Proper Watford to play. With pride and with passion, but also with control and nous. We'd done our bit to make the day memorable...

...then they did theirs. Christ, this was an absolutely magnificent away victory, one of the truly great Watford performances of recent years. They took the intensity and aggression from the last twenty minutes of the Tranmere game as a starting point. Then they added discipline, intelligence, astonishingly astute tactics, finishing, bravery, patience, unbroken concentration, resolute confidence, ambition. After weeks of suffering from a chronic inferiority complex, we finally proved ourselves wrong.

The scoreline is probably an accurate reflection. But don't let that fool you into thinking this was a close contest. Although only one goal might've separated the sides, the unbreakable strength of the Watford rearguard made that seem like a massive margin of victory. After Daley's crucial second, you could look at Robert Page and Steve Palmer and know that they were never, never going to let us concede two goals. Even in the usually frantic last few minutes, Birmingham were banging their heads against a yellow brick wall.

From the outset, it felt like we were taking the initiative. Given the benefit of hindsight, the surprising tactical changes were overwhelmingly positive ones - born not of the desperate need to fix problems within our own team, but of the desire to cause trouble for the opposition. The new formation - a kind of mutant 4-3-3 with Alon Hazan and Peter Kennedy joining Richard Johnson ("the pride of the southern hemisphere", according to the programme - yep, he's the name on everyone's lips in the streets of Sao Paulo and Cape Town) in the midfield to the huge benefit of all concerned - was genius; the surprise return of Tony Daley to a ground where he was bound to take plenty of stick from the crowd was vintage Graham Taylor. Back on the offensive, back to what this team is really capable of.

We recaptured that exhilarating feeling of kicking the asses of the First Division elite. It's time we realised that the likes of Birmingham, Bolton and Wolves - all clubs that mistake expensive for classy - are there for the taking. As shown by the deathly quiet Birmingham crowd, their fans are no happier for watching a side that's been assembled with the aid of a hefty chequebook - spending millions makes you nervous of failure and daunted by expectation. They've got so much more to lose than us!

So we took the field with heads held high and more than matched them in absolutely every department from beginning to end. Sure, there were some early scares - Holdsworth and Bradbury wasting free headers, Chamberlain tipping over a long range Hyde drive - but it was hardly the kind of pressure we'd expected.

The players started to believe in themselves, more and more, minute by minute. You could see it in everything we did and, after suffering so many stuttering performances and appealing for patience amid so much disappointing mediocrity, it was genuinely moving to watch. Allan Smart was back to his battling best, and proved to be more than a match for the new look Birmingham defence - with each ball that was played up to Smart and laid off neatly, the green shoots of our attacking play grew. Smart volleyed wide, Hazan fired in a shot from the edge of the area that the keeper nearly spilled.

The first goal was not a surprise, then. But it was still a fabulous moment - Daley booed furiously by the home fans as he twisted and turned on the left wing, Mooney all alone on the end of his pinpoint cross to head neatly past Poole. We've made goalscoring look so difficult lately, this time it seemed so beautifully easy.

From then on, we had control. Apart from an Ndlovu shot at Chamberlain from the edge of the area, we were secure until half-time. The Birmingham supporters were silenced, becoming increasingly frustrated with each fruitless minute - we were doing to other teams what they've done to us and it felt fantastic.

Underneath the stand at the interval, the noise was incredible. Song after song echoed around the concrete. We took that noise upstairs for the second half as a chorus of "Elton John's Taylor-made Army" erupted and ensured that the team didn't falter for a second, suffocating City's efforts to start an early revival. Despite occasional attempts by the home fans to drown it out, we refused to shut up. We'd waited for this for too long to keep quiet.

Only one thing stopped the chant, and that was the second goal. It was all inspirational Tommy Mooney, picking up Kennedy's neat pass on the left wing, waiting for support to show itself, then beating an opponent to get to the byeline to fling in a brilliant cross. And Daley was there, rising above his marker to head decisively home. Mooney just stood there on the touchline, arms raised and triumphant, while his followers saluted him.

Back in a Brighton pub later that evening, two of us were trying to explain the power of football to a non-believer. More than slightly incoherent by that point, we probably didn't do a very good job of it. But it's like this. There are times, following a football team, when they flood your heart with so much pride that it feels like you're going to choke and when the only way to stop yourself from exploding or crying is to release the emotion by screaming songs so loudly that you can hardly speak afterwards. Find me other things that can do that and I'll gladly travel the length of the country for them too.

For the remaining thirty minutes, we were that good. Apart from a late Holdsworth header from close range and a deflected curler from Forinton, Birmingham were locked out completely. When they had the ball in defence, Smart and Mooney hurried them into misplaced passes; when they had it in midfield, Johnson, Hyde and Kennedy were all over the place in pursuit. And when they got as far as our defence, they found Page, Palmer, Bazeley and Robinson in monstrous form.

There was no way through. When you win away against one of the top sides, you expect some moments of panic, some close calls, some inspired saves, some help from the woodwork. My notebook reveals none of those things. The quality of our defending in that second half defies description - Page and Palmer (who, along with Mooney, receive the first ever shared 'man of the match' award) were gigantic, unpassable. In particular, their tackling in and around the penalty area was of a supreme standard. We were in control - it was an incredibly one-sided game, it's just that the one side happened to be doing a lot of defending....

For me, the final whistle was the most emotional moment of all. We gave those players one hell of a send-off, we made absolutely bloody sure that they knew how proud of them we felt. And they did know - Allan Smart, socks round ankles, stood there for ages like he'd only just remembered that being a footballer doesn't have to be miserable, the rest were barely able to stop themselves from doing a lap of honour. Simply beautiful.

One of the most wonderful days I've ever had following Watford. And who's to say that there aren't even better days still to come?

See also: Planet Blues