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Worthington Cup 1st Round 2nd Leg, 18/8/98
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Daley 3, Kennedy 3, *Palmer 4*, Millen 3, Yates 2, Rosenthal 2, Hyde 3, Ngonge 3, Easton 2, Robinson 3
Subs: Page, Day, Bazeley (for Daley) 0, Hazan (for Kennedy) 0, Smart (for Rosenthal) 0
Scorers: Ngonge (48)
Cambridge United 1(0)
Scorers: Butler (80 pen)
A game of ninety minutes
Report by Ian Grant

A bit of inaudible mumbling from the PA, an unmistakable rattle of drums and it's back. "Z Cars" returns to Vicarage Road, unheralded but still welcomed with open arms. It might well be a godforsaken wailing mess of a tune, so old and dusty and dated that no amount of revamping will ever save it, but it's our godforsaken wailing mess of a tune. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty good metaphor for what supporting a football club ought to be about.

For whatever reason, there has been a pleasant return to matchday tradition at Watford in the first two games of this season. Gone are the ego-massaging directors on their lap of honour; gone, at least for now, is Harry the Hornet doing the twist; gone is the alarming feeling that you've wandered into Butlins by mistake. Which is to be applauded, I think. Much of what is currently happening at Watford Football Club makes me feel quite ill...but at least such nonsense is no longer intruding quite so rudely upon Saturday afternoons.

So that leaves us free of distractions to concentrate on the football.

Oh, bugger.

So far this season, our tactics seem to have glossed over one rather fundamental element of the game. It lasts ninety minutes. We have, at our very best, performed for half an hour; against Cambridge yesterday, we managed no more than ten minutes.

When we do hit our stride, as in that short spell last night, we look thoroughly awesome. The rest of the time we appear clueless. Like an over-excited labrador stumbling across a bone, we chew merrily for a while then get all distracted and forget where the hell we left it. Frustrating doesn't even begin to describe it.

There's no begrudging Cambridge the result. Including the pre-season friendly, they've been noticeably superior over three games and last night was no exception. As a unit, they were simply stronger and tighter, better equipped. That needn't mean that we must return to the drawing board, merely that there's a great deal of work to be done before we can look confidently forward to the rest of the season.

For forty-five minutes, we were appalling. Graham Taylor must be tearing his hair out, trying to understand how we can so consistently fail to play before half-time. Somehow we seem to be leaving our thoughts in the dressing room, arriving on the pitch in a daydream and allowing the opposition to take complete control from kickoff. With matches against Bristol City, Sunderland and Wolves forthcoming, it's difficult to believe that someone's not going to take advantage before too long and trot into the break three or four goals to the good.

To be fair to the defence, Cambridge weren't able to translate their absolute dominance into clear-cut chances. As the visitors attacked the Rookery, the ball cannoned perpetually around inside the Watford penalty area. The back four maintained some measure of control, with Steve Palmer showing particular composure against the threat of Benjamin, but we seemed incapable of stopping such attacks at source.

Once more, we'd lost the midfield battle. As a consequence, everything we did was hurried and instinctive. The game was played at Cambridge's pace - which isn't to imply some kind of lower division kick-and-rush ethic, incidentally - and we were reduced to prodding nervously mis-placed passes, many of which gained no advantage and several of which rolled aimlessly over the touchline. It was wretched stuff.

Aside from a header that flashed wide from a Cambridge corner after fifteen minutes and a quite awesome saving tackle by Paul Robinson, it was nearly half-time before the game saw its first noteworthy incident. Unsurprisingly, it came in front of the Rookery, as a pass back into the penalty area caught the Watford defence appealing for offside and Benjamin smacked his shot against the legs of Alec Chamberlain. It was a tremendous save...but the striker still should've scored.

Perhaps the thought of facing an irate Graham Taylor at half-time was a motivating factor in a late surge of Watford pressure as the interval approached. Peter Kennedy returned from his summer holidays, we finally got the ball out wide and started putting in some crosses, Tony Daley creeping into the box to meet one of them but seeing his volley blocked by a defender. Clint Easton also sent a shot sailing over the bar, meaning that we finished the half without a single on-target goal attempt.

Half-time was not a happy time, then. But, to emphasise our current bizarre schizophrenia, we emerged from the dressing room and spent ten minutes absolutely murdering Cambridge. As if in a trance, we shed all fear to go on the rampage. The goal came first, an innocuous-looking Kennedy free kick from half a mile out that was made special by Michel Ngonge, who did enough to shake off his markers and rocket in a diving header.

What followed was an astonishing transformation. Ronny Rosenthal looked interested for the first time; Tony Daley was involved the game, after previously standing forlornly out on the wing with his arm in the air like a schoolkid asking to go wee-wee; Michel Ngonge gave a live demonstration of what was on the video that persuaded Graham Taylor to bring him to the Vic. Cambridge, for the only time, looked seriously out of their depth.

Micah Hyde thumped in a shot that took a deflection, Ngonge reacting instantly but firing the ball just over. Rosenthal squirmed his way past defenders inside the area, only to find the Cambridge keeper out smartly to parry. Rosenthal fed Ngonge, who showed off all his pace and power in running at defenders from deep before shooting excitedly wide. We were so full of intelligent movement, purpose, self-belief that it was difficult to believe that the same players had put us through forty-five minutes of bone-melting tedium such a short time previously.

And then, like a violent thunderstorm passing over to leave silence and calm, the inspiration left us just as suddenly as it came. We were back to sterility and incompetence, while Cambridge composed themselves and continued as in the first half.

Gradually, and without ever looking as dangerous as earlier, Cambridge began to cause us problems again. Hence, by the time the penalty incident came around, there'd already been a couple of moments of panic, signs that things were about to get worse. Then Benjamin decided to have a run at Keith Millen and the Watford defender backed off and backed off and backed off. As Benjamin cut inside and thought about shooting, Dean Yates took emergency action and ploughed into him. Yeah, the ball was in there somewhere; yeah, Benjamin made a meal of it; yeah, I stood up and abused the referee at the time; yeah, it was a definite penalty. Butler took the spot-kick, calmly sending Chamberlain the wrong way.

Although substitutes arrived - first Allan Smart and Darren Bazeley, then Alon Hazan so late that it was more effective in wasting time than anything else - we really didn't play any better as a result. As late cup-tie pressure goes, the last ten minutes were pretty mild. An injury time lob from Smart, picking up on Ngonge's flick inside the area, which hit the top of the bar was as close as we got. The rest was largely predictable.

It's hard to be heart-broken. There will be more important games this season, matches that we really can't afford to lose. But that's not an excuse, nor does it devalue Cambridge's performance.

We've had many famous nights in this competition. Last night wasn't one of them.

Worthington bitter for Watford!
Report by Paul Goldsmith

Graham Taylor's substitution policy has always been questionable. His failure last season to utilise his substitutes, particularly Gifton Noel-Williams, to help restore leads, or keep leads by using attack as a form of defence, led to some very dodgy moments. However, it never lost Watford a match, or a tie. Yesterday, it did.

It's pretty simple really. Having taken a lead through a good Ngonge goal, and then seen the same man miss having been worked clean through by the only good thing Ronnie Rosenthal did all game, Graham Taylor should have pressed home the advantage by sending on some fresh legs. With Tony Daley not at full fitness, and Rosenthal looking like he'd rather be talking on his mobile phone at the nearest restaurant, Taylor should have sent on Darren Bazeley and Allan Smart. Doing this would have given Cambridge much more food for thought, not doing it enabled them to romp upfield and score the "winning" equalizer. I only hope the great man learns from this particularly chastening experience.

All credit to Cambridge though, they came to Vicarage Road and attacked from the start, instead of sitting back and protecting their lead. Of course, it helped that they had so much of the ball, due to the Hornets' misguided policy of launching high balls to a forward pair dwarfed by their markers. Whither Jason Lee when you need him?

Like Saturday, it was difficult to see where the goal would come from, such was the paucity of Watford's attacking play. The question one must ask is, if you are playing two wingers, against a team as physically imposing as Cambridge, why play comparative midgets up front. It would have been a far better idea to play 5-3-2, with Ronnie as the third midfielder. He for one is more comfortable there, and the ball would have been more suitably used and played along the ground. Tony Daley looks useful, but why are long balls hit to him in the air? Peter Kennedy has a glorious left foot, but same question as for Daley. Steve Palmer is not a right back.

Having been lucky to go in at half-time still level, Watford took the lead on 47 minutes. As Peter Kennedy lined up a free kick 40 yards out, I watched Michel Ngonge begin to prowl around the penalty box. He walked towards the left side of the area, unmarked, then began to make his way over to the right side as Kennedy chipped the ball over the defence. Keith Millen flicked on, and there was the Ngonge to head the ball powerfully into the net. He was completely unmarked. This is what you get when you buy experience.

Then, a ball was played up to Ngonge, who passed to Rosenthal and kept running. Ronnie played the ball back and Ngonge was through. As the goalkeeper approached, the Zairean decided to have a pop. He went for the corner, but missed, horribly.

Watford had further chances, including a clever Rosenthal run in the area, ending with a tame shot at the keeper. But there was always a sneaky feeling that Cambridge were more dangerous than they looked. Particularly Trevor Benjamin. He's 19, 6'3", and clumsy. But Benjamin worries people, and when they get worried, they make mistakes (hmmmm, wouldn't it have been nice to have Gifton on the bench?). Anyway, Benjamin had taken some practice dives in innocuous areas of the pitch. He had noticed that the referee seemed to think he'd been fouled every time. So, having perfected his technique, he ran into the area, with the ball, obligingly shown the way by the furiously back-pedalling Keith Millen. As he shaped to shoot, in slid Dean Yates. Ironically, this was actually a foul, quite tame, but Benjamin still went down like a deer shot with a bazooka.

Up stepped the impressive Martin Butler, to take the penalty. Alec dived left, the ball went right. Watford needed two goals in three minutes.

On came the subs. Immediately, Bazeley played a cross in, the ball was flicked by Ngonge into the path of the onrushing Allan Smart. The Scot lifted the ball over the goalkeeper, but also over the bar. The match was over.

So, all in all the Hornets can't complain. I hope they learn from this, because there are so many lessons:

1. Don't play with two wingers unless they have a target to aim for.
2. Use a proper right back, nothing against Steve Palmer but he's a central midfielder.
3. Yates and Millen may have height and experience, but they are slow, and will be caught out too often.
4. Ronnie Rosenthal is at the end of his road. I can't be accused of bias, because I go to Watford matches in my Israel shirt. But he is unfit, slow, and lacking completely in ideas. His wages take up five hundred entrance fees a week, and they are being wasted. He must shape up, or ship out.
5. Substitutions can be made for positive reasons, like pressing home an advantage. If this had been done, we'd still be in the cup.

Well, at least Watford can concentrate on the league now!

What is going on?
Report by Laurence Boyd

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I left England in March to travel the world and returned in June this year, consequently missing out on the first meaningful Watford trophy (Evening Standard five-a sides - pah!) in my football watching career. My first game for five months, five horribly long and anxious months, including jubilant celebrations in Vietnam and a fine rendition of "We are the Champions" in Malaysia, was Portsmouth away. I tried to be positive, it was the first game of the season and for once luck was on our side. We won. My second game was Bradford at home. We were mediocre, average, at times poor. I tried to be positive, we won.

Yesterday I watched Watford play Cambridge (WFC 1st Div., Cam FC 3rd Div.) I think they were better than us. They beat us over all, they scored four goals in three games against our defence. We were terrible. Awful. Atrocious. I usually hate criticism of Watford, I understand that we are lucky to have such a successful team in such a small town. But seriously, this was terrible.

What is going on? When I left, Peter Kennedy was the most talented wing back in the league. Now, he could not make an impact in a cub scouts five-a-side. Alon Hazan was a new precocious talent to scare Premiership defences. I'm sorry but I'm more impressed by a display of Barbie dolls in a dusty toy shop. Dean Yates - Premiership defender? I think he left a considerable amount of pace and judgement, not to mention touch in Derby.

Ronnie Rosenthal used to be so quick, you could look down into your bag of sweets for a fruit gum and find that when you looked up he had taken the ball the length of the field, beaten three defenders, been brought down and scored a penalty. Now, he's slower than an army of asthmatic ants carrying heavy shopping (apologies to Richard Curtis).

What is going on, lack of ambition, fitness or talent? There is no way a team of six foot donkeys should cause a First Division team any trouble at all. Maybe I've become too used to watching the World Cup and Premiership games I saw on TV in the East, but I don't believe that is true. We do not deserve to be unbeaten in the league and Cambridge were easily a better side than us. I don't understand. I feel betrayed and upset. I was really looking forward to watching Watford again and now I feel like making excuses to miss away games - and £14 for that? Well, that's another story.

I am astonished by the number of chances other First Division teams have managed to miss against us, most notably the £2.3 million strike force of Rankin and Mills. I thought that such profligacy was a Second Division trait. There are now clearly more talented players around in our league than last season and I'm sure that there are more able teams than Pompey and Bradford. If we do not sort our ideas out and start playing the ball in front of the likes of Daley and Ngonge, who both have the ability to run at players, we will lose a lot of games. It is so frustrating to see the ball continually humped up the middle of the pitch towards our number nine, who subsequently flicks it to the opposition defence.

Despite this criticism I would like to point out a couple of brighter points (at last!). Paul Robinson is a top class player. At nineteen I am willing to put money on him playing for England within three years. His tackling has been as strong as ever and he has made some last gasp challenges in the previous two games which Sol Campbell would have been proud of. Moreover, his attitude and distribution, two aspects of his play which I would have questioned last year, seem to have improved considerably. In my mind he was the "Man of the Match" in both the Bradford and Cambridge games.

Alec Chamberlain, Micah Hyde and Clint Easton, as well as in patches Ngonge, have also looked up to the pace of the First Division. I would also include Bazeley for his display at Portsmouth if it were not for the reports that I heard of his display at Cambridge.

Hopefully, this criticism is unfounded and the return of R Johnson esq. will sort out the distribution problems at the root of our poor performances. Oh, for the quick return of Slater and the signing of one more midfielder to introduce a little more competition. Come on Watford, see you all at Bristol.

See also: U's Net