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Nationwide League Division 1, 21/11/98
Watford 4(3)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 4, Page 3, Palmer 4, Mooney 3, Smart 4, *Hyde 4*, Noel-Williams 4, Johnson 4, Wright 4
Subs: Ngonge (for Smart) 0, Gudmundsson, Robinson
Scorers: Noel-Williams (39, 69), Bazeley (44), Wright (45)
Crewe Alexandra 2(0)
Scorers: Jack (66), Little (82)
Report by Ian Grant

In a parallel universe, things are very different. Graham Taylor's reign at Wolves continues, the Molineux fans having kept patience with their manager for long enough to allow him to end their quest for Premiership status. As his side challenges for a UEFA cup spot, rumours of promotion for Taylor to a job at a bigger club surface with each new vacancy...but no-one is loopy enough to mention a return to Watford.

Back at Vicarage Road, relegation to the Second Division did not prove to be any kind of turning point. The latest man to attempt to walk in Taylor's footsteps - Kenny Jackett - has seen his side struggle, finishing thirteenth first time around and losing to Grimsby in the playoff semi-finals the following year. By mid-November, signs of a change of fortune are hard to come by - Watford lie tenth and sections of the fans are calling for Jackett's departure, although no-one seems able to think of a suitable replacement.

Watford still played hosts Crewe on Saturday in this parallel universe. The Second Division fixture ended goalless, the Hornets' strikeforce once again unable to lift the pressure on their manager. The home fans, the vast majority of another sub-six thousand crowd rattling around Vicarage Road, gave full vent to their frustration long before the final whistle.

It's not that far-fetched, is it? Leaving aside board changes and the like (quite a large thing to leave aside, granted), the responsibility for the current ascent to dizzy heights lies only with one man. Graham Taylor may not have been physically present on Saturday, but his influence ran through the side like the letters in a stick of rock. It's not just that we're second (although, in all honesty, that'd be enough to be going on with), it's that we're second courtesy of rip-roaring, smiley football. We will never have a better manager.

We will never have a better manager. If you want a cloud for your horizon, then that's it. After ten years of fruitless searching for a successor to Graham Taylor's throne, we found the right man...and it was Graham Taylor again. With Kenny Jackett unfairly soiled by one impossible season, there is still no dynasty.

In greyer times, it used to be that any team coming to Vicarage Road burdened by some hideous statistic would be guaranteed an end to their misery. Not scored an away goal since The Beginning Of All Things? The Orns'll fix it!

But these aren't grey times. As Oxford, so Crewe - fragile sides primed and blown apart by this supremely entertaining Watford team. At the start of the season, several people noted that the priority would be results against clubs in the lower half of the table. Much has changed since then, of course....

As with that Oxford game, it took some time. The anticipated Watford onslaught didn't really materialise, the spotlight again seeming to exaggerate hesitancy and nervousness. Not enough movement, not enough width, not enough shooting on sight. There was a brief moment when visions of the season's first goalless draw sprang uninvited into my mind. I should've known better, obviously - a pessimist may never be disappointed but, during this astounding season, a pessimist is also likely to be laughably wrong.

Although Crewe's Wright shot wide following a bit of penalty area head tennis in the fourth minute, the opening half hour was mainly about Watford patiently looking for the breakthrough. Too patiently at times, as intricate passing patterns failed to translate into shots on goal.

Tellingly, any memorable attempts stemmed from spreading the play wide and getting into good crossing positions. Nothing new. Take, for example, our first genuinely incisive attack after fifteen minutes - Gifton Noel-Williams stretching the Crewe defence on the right and whipping in a fine cross for Allan Smart to glance a header goalward and extend Kearton. See, even at our muddled worst we seem capable of conjuring up moves of quite thrilling quality.

The battle plan might've been buggered had Jack shown more composure when presented with a short backpass by Tommy Mooney a minute later. Instead, he sent the ball harmlessly over the bar as Alec Chamberlain advanced. (Interestingly, Jack looks much the same zippy-but-erratic Ndlovu-a-like that he did in our recent cup encounters with Torquay. Crewe paid £650,000 for him, we paid £100,000 for Allan Smart. Jeez, we ought to treasure every moment of GT's second term, y'know....)

Speaking of Smart, his ever-excellent groundwork set up what really ought to have been the first goal. Nick Wright ran onto the perfectly weighted pass, Kearton scrambling from his line to smother the shot. The ball ran through to Peter Kennedy at the far post who, with an open goal gaping, proceeded to shoot wide. Oops.

With Kennedy having a temporary confidence crisis amid some distinctly over-elaborate Watford forward play, it seemed time to sit back and wait for the usual half-time reorganisation. But football teams have a life of their own, sometimes they suddenly and inexplicably lurch into life.

So it proved. Previous efforts having failed to turn the Crewe defence, Allan Smart led the way. He broke through on the left and accelerated to the byeline, cutting the ball back precisely for Noel-Williams to drum a powerful finish past Kearton. Simple and effective, that was the fatal blow to the visitors' very brittle confidence.

As only Graham Taylor sides can do, we set about slaughtering them. You know the kind of thing - the unified, roaring charge over the horizon, passing moves scything through flimsy defence, the enemy pulling everyone back to cope and still feeling hopelessly out-numbered. At such times, one almost expects to see Alec Chamberlain up there for a share of the spoils. If you want an illustration, try this - in scoring three goals and nearly scoring a fourth within seven minutes and in open play, no less than six Watford players were directly involved (Smart, Noel-Williams, Kennedy, Bazeley, Mooney, Wright) and two more were buzzing around in support (Johnson, Hyde). How the hell do you defend against that?

Two-nil to the Golden Boys with a certain inevitability, Kennedy's left wing cross bouncing all the way through to Darren Bazeley to hold off a defender and finish with a fine half-volley into the corner. Jack nearly pulled one back seconds after the re-start as Page hesitated and Chamberlain scrambled out to claim. Then Mooney picked the ball up on the left, cut inside past a defender and stormed into the area - he was brought down with the referee apparently playing advantage, which did us no favours as Noel-Williams scooped the ball wide.

Virtually on the stroke of half-time, it was three. Again, Kennedy was the provider (his detractors ought to take note), this time scampering down the left to drive a glorious low cross through the area. Nick Wright accepted the invitation, sliding in at the far post to score. Devastating.

Sod "long ball", there is only one label for such rampaging forward play - it is "the kind of football fans dream about". And usually we can only dream. Natural cynicism and realism can be thrown aside, this stuff makes my world go round.

The second half began as the first had ended, with Bazeley hurtling around on the right wing to set up Smart, whose shot from a tight angle was parried and gathered by Kearton. From then on, it was a toe-to-toe slugging match, albeit one with an outcome that'd already been determined. Cracking action throughout, though.

Jack remained Crewe's only serious threat to the Watford goal, forcing Chamberlain into a fine save to push over a rising drive. From the consequent corner, a close range header bounced uselessly wide. Then Bazeley's speed of thought saw him find Noel-Williams inside the area with a quick throw-in, Hyde managed to get in the striker's way as he attempted to turn and the ball dribbled across the area for Kennedy, whose blasted effort was blocked by the emergency intervention of a defender.

By the time Crewe pulled a goal back, we'd been treated to something of an exhibition, Watford's passing and movement just a pleasure to behold. In midfield, Johnson and Hyde were back to peak form - creativity by proxy, the former sending huge cross-field passes all over the place, the latter fetching and carrying for the troops in the front line. Rarely can forward players have been so well supplied. The opposition couldn't live with us, couldn't believe just how relentless we were.

Hyde shot at the keeper twice before a third effort was parried, only for Noel-Williams to be flagged offside as he pounced on the rebound. Gifton was later the victim of a more contentious offside, picking up on Richard Johnson's deflected drive and prodding the ball home as the flag went up. Then Crewe emerged to restore some pride as their Johnson crossed from the left for Jack to thump home a shot and get himself on the scoresheet long after he ought to have done.

But there was no thought of a comeback. Within three minutes, Hyde had weaved magic on the right to set up Bazeley. The winger, in sparkling form for much of the afternoon, dashed into the box on the byeline, looked up and thumped in a low cross to the near post. Noel-Williams slid in to bundle the ball home and restore the three goal cushion. A really gorgeous bit of football.

Hyde had a header disallowed - rightly, since he was pretty much standing on the defender's shoulders to reach the cross - and Kennedy forced another save from Kearton, before the home side took their collective foot off the gas. But even then, Crewe couldn't build up any pressure, Little's breakaway goal, blasted past Chamberlain into the roof of the net, was never going to be anything more than a consolation.

On such occasions, balanced reporting dictates that the strength of the opposition comes into consideration. And Crewe, despite their reputation as a hotbed of young talent, are in a right state - defensively, particularly in reacting to rebounds inside the penalty area, they were fairly amateurish. That gives me little pleasure, since there are plenty of other teams in this division I'd prefer to see in freefall.

Sod balanced reporting, anyway. It almost goes without saying that this is the finest Watford side since Graham Taylor left all those years ago. But it shouldn't go without saying. Once more, we're watching a Watford side that's almost bursting with pure childish excitement. No matter what happens off the pitch, GT has somehow recaptured that immense, heart-pumping, gut-wrenching feeling of get-the-hell-out-of-our-way purpose that served us so well before. If we'd splashed cash for this lot, it wouldn't be the same - but we haven't and they're ours right now, they could be doing this for love.

A team of no stars but many jewels. Rejoice.

A Tale Of Seven And A Half Minutes At The End Of The First Half
(A poor adaptation of "A Tale Of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens)
Report by Ben Williams

November 5th was over two weeks ago. (So why does some twit in a house nearby think it's okay for him/her to start setting off fireworks now ?) It's only another 35 days to Christmas. A time when you get to replace all those expensive gifts you bought for other people with the cheap ones they get you.

This game (or this date, to be more precise) falls in between these two events. By now I've got over the enjoyment of setting off lots of expensive fireworks, and annoying next door's kids like they annoy me the other 364 days of the year, and the only thing now is the black cloud hanging over me which is whispering that Christmas isn't that far away, and hadn't I better think about getting some presents. To which I reply "arse", and sink back down into my chair with another pint.

Oh yeah, the game. I knew I'd get round to it at some point. Incidentally, anyone who wants to know what happened, just talk amongst yourselves for the next paragraph or two.

Rodney Jack is a name which makes me laugh. I think of it, and I am reminded of those little plastic things you get inside a Christmas cracker, which you can spin around for about three seconds, and go "wow" at. And that is their sole purpose as far as I can make out. Consequently, all I could imagine was this odd little plastic thing in a Crewe kit running at the Watford defence. I reckon I telepathically sent this to Robert Page and Steve Palmer , who were too busy p*ss*ng themselves laughing to stop Jack getting into good shooting positions in the first half.

Mmmm. First half. Jack gets ball. Jack somehow gets ball past two Watford defenders (probably laughing, see earlier note). Jack whacks ball over bar. Jack makes himself look a right arse. For half an hour, Watford were as cold as I was. And they're being paid to be cold too, which must make them feel warmer than I did in the Vic Road end, freezing in that nice breeze which drifts through. Not that they didn't create anything. Kennedy contrived to miss an open goal, choosing to cleverly shoot across the face of goal in case someone else was sliding in. Someone missed another one too (I'm relying on Ig to remind me of who it was) (Don't look at me! - Ed). And that was the first thirty minutes. I went to the loo partly in a vain effort to warm up. And just after I returned the game changed. Ron Atkinson has often blathered on about how a goal can change a game (or something like that among the unadulterated crap he comes out with), but in this case it was three. First, Gifton hammered the ball into the roof of the net from close range, and then a couple of minutes later Bazeley got Watford's second when he shot across into the far corner. (This is probably wrong, but s*d it, he scored didn't he ?). That was a minute before half-time. And in injury time Wright slid in to put away a brilliant low, hard cross from Kennedy. Crewe must have felt like that South American bloke who fought Prince Naseem, knocked him down twice, and then got knocked out by the same opponent. To be more ruthless, Crewe just fell apart after the first goal. Still, it did warm us all up - that or we just forgot about the cold in the sheer enjoyment of it.

Third eye (Sky Sports) spot : Steve Anthrobus falling backwards over the advertising hoardings after going for the ball near the touchline.

Second half. Another Dickens parody. Great Expectations. No, nothing to do with an old woman who always wear the wedding dress she was wearing when her fiance failed to turn up, but the impending likelihood of more goals, preferably from Watford.

Watford were more interested in arsing around (which, I think, should soon become a bookable offence. People get booked for time wasting, and conduct unbecoming, so I think it'd only be fair), not scoring again. They had the match won after all. So why waste precious energy trying to score more goals, and in that heat too ?

Then Crewe scored. Jack found himself in the area, and finally managed to get the ball in the back of the net. After missing at least three chances already. The Andy Cole of St Kitts and Nevis. (I could rant on about Cole, and how Hoddle is right to say he's not world class, that he does require too many chances to score, and how he only looks good at Old Trafford because they make so many chances for him to miss, and how seven million is a waste of money, and how.....)

"B*gg*r", was the thought which went round, and after making more threatening advances than the soon-to-die opponent in a Van Damme movie, Watford managed to bundle the ball in the net. It was Gifton again, who had tormented the Crewe back line. And if Seth Johnson is deemed good enough to play twenty minutes for the England U21s, then Micah Hyde (assuming he's eligible) should be playing the entire ninety minutes.

Still more arsing around. And then Page and Palmer gave Crewe another early Christmas present, letting Little in to beat Chamberlain. Somewhere in there too was a fine save from Alec, diving away to his right to palm away an effort from Jack.

On the whole, too sloppy. Yes, I know they won 4-2. And had two goals disallowed for offside (Gifton on one of those occasions certainly, which would have given him a deserved hat-trick). And should have had a penalty when Mooney was unceremoniously brought down in the area, but the ball went to Hyde and the ref played a useless advantage, allowing Hyde to shoot over the bar, and gave a goal kick. The same ref who appeared to get awfully confused by the yellow ball, and along with his linesman seemed to have a lot of difficulty in giving Watford free kicks and throw-ins.

Smart is one of the hardest working strikers ever. Runs around, chases, and generally makes a nuisance of himself without the ball. If Ashley Ward is worth five million pounds, then GT stands to make substantial profit on the £100,000 he paid Carlisle for him.

Hyde and Johnson worked themselves silly in midfield, Bazeley and Mooney pushed up well from the back. But Man of the Match for me goes to Nick Wright, who was knackered with five minutes to go, unable to run any more, after running Mark Rivers ragged for the other eighty-five minutes, and being the main focus of play.

There on merit
Report by Matt Bunner

We are second in Nationwide Division 1 and, based on what I have seen in recent weeks, we are there on merit.

So what are the contributing factors to our rise up the league? First of all we can look at the squad of players at the moment. One could argue that this is the best set of Hornets we've EVER had in terms of strength in depth (although the early 80's first eleven was, as a unit, better). We have solid and reliable Mr. Chamberlain between the sticks, but that's only to be expected from a club that has produced quality 'keepers such as James, Miller and Coton. He may not be spectacular, but he is one of the safest keeper I've seen for a long time. He earned his keep on Saturday with two good saves for Jack, one diving at his feet and tipping away a strongly hit drive just after the break.

In the absence of Millen and Yates, Palmer has ably stepped into the back four to provide tremendous cover (except for the Little goal where he was caught embarrassingly out of position) and a surprising amount of body strength - he often forced Anthrobus off the ball. His partnership with Page is better now that we're playing a 4-4-2 formation. Bazeley has stepped into Gibbs' well worn, but beautifully kept, boots and returned a polished performance Saturday. He was Hansen-esque in his approach on Saturday, permanently coming forward and linking well with Nicky Wright. At left back we had Tommy Mooney, who was, is and will always be, Tommy Mooney.

In the centre of the park we have a mobile and talented duo. They seemed to have learned from each other, almost taking it in turns to see who's going to be the ball winner and who's going to spread the forty yard passes. On Saturday, Johno was doing the carrying and Hyde the fetching - I don't think I would have said that this time last year. On the left mid-flank, Kennedy had a reasonably quiet game, but was still effective on occasions. He provides the left side balance that this team desperately needs. His miss in the first half was, thankfully, not costly.

Nicky Wright on the right provides skill, awareness and determination - I was worn out for him at the end of the game! I remember Taylor saying a few months that Wright was one for the future - it seems that Taylor has perfected the art of time travel. The centre two are providing superb link play for the rest of the team. Gifton had talent, but it was never extracted from him - someone or something has knocked him on the head because at the moment he is playing his socks off. His game has improved immeasurably in the last few months. The control is there, the thought is there, the strength is there, the pace is there. I mean this kid is nineteen! He looks and plays as someone ten years older. If he could finish as well as the other wunder-kid then God knows where his talent could take him! Smarty had a quiet match, but again showed unbelievable commitment. He snapped around at the defenders' heels causing them untold problems and his link play was superb. That through-ball for Wright in the first half was worth the admission fee alone.

Also, think of the other squad members we have: Day, Gibbs, Ward, Millen, Yates, Robinson, Hazan, Rosenthal, Gudmundsson, Ngonge, Easton, Slater, Smith and others. If we keep playing football like this then we're in for a great season. We may be in the honeymoon period in Div 1, but the way things are going we're moving house to the Bahamas!

As for the game, well, it was a superb spectacle for all fans, full of enterprising football and occasional suspect defending. Mooney's woefully short back-pass left Jack with a golden chance to score, but with Chamberlain advancing at a rate of knots, he scooped the ball high and wide. Another Crewe player shot wide when well placed after some head tennis in the area. Smart had a first time header well saved by the Crewe 'keeper and Kennedy somehow managed to place the ball across the face of goal with net gaping (after Wright had failed to score when put through by a glorious through-ball from Smart).

Watford's play was intricate, much to some people's frustration, but the intention was there. All that was lacking was the piece of luck for the final ball. On 39 mins, the avalanche started. Another excellent one touch move from Smart and Mooney saw the ball cut back and GNW smashed the ball first time into the deck and ball bounced into the roof of the net. Four minutes later a Kennedy low cross diagonally across the area was missed by GNW and Smart, but found Bazeley right corner of the box and his first-time volley across the keeper found the opposite bottom corner. We were rampant and another beautiful move between GNW, Smart and Kennedy enabled Wright to slide in at the far post getting on the end of a powerful low cross from Kennedy.

The second half continued in much the same vein, Smart missing (or the keeper saving) an easy opportunity on 46 mins. The immediate Crewe break saw Jack bring a fine save from Chamberlain. Watford were not resting on their laurels, they were giving it everything. We were effectively playing 3-3-4, as Bazeley was pushing so far forward. But he was allowed to do this because we had Crewe on the rack and Wrighty was doing his fair share of tracking back. Majestic passes were being swept everywhere (hands up Johno) and interplay was a joy to behold (hands up Smart, Wright, Bazeley, GNW). Crewe should have used the Michael Caine quote from The Bees, "They're everywhere!", the onslaught so intense!

Their keeper made good saves from Hyde and Kennedy, the former's shot being deflected into the path of GNW but his finish was ruled out for offside. Crewe scored with an excellent goal themselves, with Jack side footing home after good work on the left (similar to Watford's first goal). Any thoughts of a Crewe comeback were dispelled after a quick throw sent Bazeley to the bye-line and his cut back was swept in by GNW. Hyde had a header (rightfully) disallowed for an outrageous climbing manoeuvre on the centre half's back. Crewe grabbed a second consolation when Little was left alone to surprisingly beat Chamberlain at the near post from fourteen yards, but the result was never in doubt.

Last year we were at the top of the league by a long way, but I can't remember teams being comprehensively outplayed as Oxford and now Crewe. When you consider that Oxford have now won their two subsequent matches and we've moved up a league, I think it's a testimony to GT and his squad that we can play 'high-brow' football that can worry the bigger fish.

Never worry about whether we can continue like this. Enjoy while it lasts. Remember, we're second on merit, not luck.

See also: The Crewe Alexandra Extravaganza