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Nationwide League Division 1, 10/10/98
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 3, Page 2, Millen 4, Mooney 3, Smart 3, *Hyde 4*, Noel-Williams 4, Johnson 3, Wright 4
Subs: Palmer, Hazan, Bazeley (for Wright) 3
Scorers: Rowett (68 og)
Birmingham City 1(1)
Scorers: Adebola (22)
Bouncing back
Report by Ian Grant

Strange times in Hertfordshire. The local paper blares bizarre headlines concerning mutilated sheep carcasses from satanic rituals on Chipperfield Common. The scoreboard at Vicarage Road proudly displays advertising for "Dianetics" by L. Ron Hubbard. The programme promises that future pre-match entertainment will include exploding water buffalo. Only one of the above is a lie.

Meanwhile, the weirdness also infects Watford fans, many of whom seem to be hallucinating violently. Rumour has it that we're not really adjusting well to a higher level, stock-piling points at a healthy rate to fend off any possibility of a return whence we came. Nope, apparently last Saturday's encounter with West Brom was the single most important game we'll ever play - kind of like God v Satan for the Destiny Of The Universe Challenge Cup (sponsored by Littlewoods) - and defeat means that we're condemned to damnation for the rest of eternity.

Of course, there remains one great irony in the First Division's teenage crush on the Premiership. Which is that higher expectations, increased pressure, unjustified condemnation of perceived failure and general angst only conspire to make it more difficult for footballers to perform to their potential.

At Watford, our most effective and enjoyable displays have been the product of stress-free, fearless abandonment. At Watford, we've just spent a week getting absurdly wound up over a single set-back. We're our own worst enemies, we really are.

The stats speak for themselves. Saturday's draw leaves us with a solitary defeat in six matches. During that period, we've met four credible playoff challengers and more than matched three of them. The question is not whether the cup is half empty or half full; the question is what to do when it overflows.

Against Birmingham, we once again proved the strength of our foundations. The crucial factor this season will not be the defeats themselves as much as our reaction to them, something that makes the week's pathetic hand-wringing even more irritating. Everyone gets beaten; winners bounce back. Tentatively, slowly, we bounced back.

And it did take a while. Neither side can be especially proud of a first half that only rarely rose above the mundane, leaving most of us to slip quietly back into a Saturday morning stupor.

The emphasis was on the home side to take the initiative, something that the Hornets singularly failed to do. As early as the first match of the season at Portsmouth, it became clear that the use of wing-backs fails to provide sufficient width in attacking areas. Nothing's changed. The difference between the left, where Peter Kennedy was always too deep and too isolated, and the right, where Nigel Gibbs and Nick Wright linked up to good effect, was very obvious. We created three openings in the first forty-five minutes, all of them through that combination - the earliest of them saw Allan Smart head wide at the near post from a Gibbs cross.

At the back, the return of Robert Page did little to steady the ship. Indeed, the Welshman had a torrid time, unable to find his feet against the powerful, pacy Adebola. That contest aside, we did well defensively - returning hero Paul Furlong, received warmly by the home fans and still very much a player who's never been replaced, hardly had a kick. But that one weak spot was enough to allow Birmingham to take the lead after twenty minutes, Adebola roaring into the box with Page trailing in his wake and precisely drilling a shot across Alec Chamberlain into the corner.

The same player was inches away from adding a second just three minutes later. Again picking Page as his victim, Adebola cut through to the byline and found a combination of Chamberlain and Kennedy in the way of his shot. Even then, the ball teased its way along the line, only revealing its destiny at the very final moment.

But that was the last Birmingham goal attempt worth recording for the rest of the first half and almost the whole of the second, so let's not exaggerate our defensive frailty. And, despite generally disjointed attacking, better finishing would've seen us level at the interval.

With Jason Lee departed and Michel Ngonge injured, we currently have no-one who can be considered a scorer of headed goals. Both Allan Smart and Gifton Noel-Williams will fling themselves at crosses, but it's hardly their specialised subject. So it was that, despite Nick Wright delivering two fine centres in the last ten minutes of the half, neither resulted in the Birmingham keeper having to make a save. Smart had the first go, drifting his header over at the far post; Noel-Williams followed in injury time by failing to get sufficient contact as the ball whizzed through the area.

A change of formation for the second half, Nick Wright making way for Darren Bazeley to allow a switch to 4-4-2, had the desired effect. As Birmingham appeared inexplicably content to sit on the lead, the Hornets were able to push forward with far greater urgency and fluency. The additional wide players simply allow that little bit of extra commitment in finding good crossing positions - the knowledge that back-up is on hand if the ball is lost, the ability to link passes to work around obstacles. For a team that only really thrives when spreading play to the extremities of both flanks, 4-4-2 is clearly the way to go.

To say that we dominated the second period would be something of an understatement. By the end, it was Trevor Francis who was reduced to flinging on endless substitutes in an effort to organise his charges against almost incessant Watford pressure. That said, the possession just wasn't translated into penetration often enough to claim the win - in a game that's become compressed into a third of the field, it's sometimes difficult to find gaps.

Again - and I'm getting as bored of emphasising this as you are of reading it - the most devastating attacks were those that resulted in players getting to the byline and flicking in crosses. Darren Bazeley, usually frustratingly reluctant to indulge in such dare-devil antics, was the first to do so after ten minutes - Gifton Noel-Williams met his cross at the near post and the header forced the first save from Poole in the Birmingham goal, with no striker on hand in the six yard box to pounce on the rebound.

As the pressure built, so the spent chances piled up. Noel-Williams looped a header a yard wide; Bazeley sent an in-swinging cross hurtling through the six yard box, missing the far post by mere inches; Johnson's intelligent free kick into Millen on the penalty spot resulted in an almighty scramble with Noel-Williams stretching this way and that in a bid to make contact before Bazeley sliced a shot wastefully wide.

On such occasions, when the players have their heads down, concentrated, thoughtful and focused, it's impossible not to love them. There's Allan Smart, receiving the ball to his feet, turning and carefully laying it off to a colleague like a delivery boy with a fragile package. There's Gifton, still as awkward as ever, battling away to win to win aerial contests or bamboozling a defender with his giraffe-on-stilts skills. There's Micah, exemplifying the whole ethos by refusing to submit to his own recent poor form, appearing everywhere to dive in with challenges, set up others and make his contribution. For now, it's about these players and what they can do, not about others and what they would cost.

That the equaliser was absurd shouldn't obscure some fine build-up play on the right wing, Noel-Williams drifting out to play in Gibbs who, for the umpteenth time since his return, delivered glorious service into the box. Hyde was unmarked, five yards out in the centre of the goal; the chance was perfect. And he missed, criminally, letting the header skim off his forehead and fly wide. Except that City defender Rowett was standing in the way - it hit him on the knee and deflected into the corner of the net. Cue much joy, not least from a very relieved Mr Hyde....

After that, the exchanges calmed down rather, although the home side still commanded. The threat remained, not least from Noel-Williams, whose ball-juggling skill on the left with three minutes remaining enabled him to take out two defenders, charge to the byline and send in a cross that only just evaded Allan Smart.

Then, in injury time as the Hornets pressed forward for a winner, one of those god-awful, oh-jeezus-no-please-aargh moments as O'Connor won the ball in midfield with virtually every yellow shirt in the Birmingham half. He ran and ran, leaving defenders struggling to catch up, and shot from the left edge of the box. It looked in all the way as it flashed across Chamberlain, we waited for the Rookery to erupt, and it missed by millimetres. Phew.

So, like I said, we bounced back. For me, there are no other criteria to evaluate this result. There is no disappointment, no regret.

We're doing well. Full stop.

See also: Planet Blues