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Nationwide League Division 1, 8/8/98
Portsmouth 1(1)
Scorers: Aloisi (30)
Watford 2(0)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Hazan 2, Kennedy 2, Page 3, Palmer 4, Mooney 3, Smart 3, *Hyde 4*, Lee 3, Easton 2, Rosenthal 3
Subs: Millen (for Palmer) 0, Bazeley (for Smart) 4, Noel-Williams
Scorers: Thomson (80 og), Lee (84)
Wish fulfilment
Report by Ian Grant

Somewhere in my head, there's a long list of things that I want to do before I pass away. Predictably, most of them are completely unattainable - I'll never write a novel, I'll never paint a whole train carriage, I'll never beat five defenders and drill a shot past the keeper. I can dream, though.

As of Saturday, there's one less ambition on that list. I've seen Watford win at Fratton Park, something that had previously seemed the stuff of outlandish fantasy. I'd never even seen us take the lead at Portsmouth, let alone look capable of victory.

So this really must be a new era. The result was every bit as bizarre and incongruous as you'd expect in the circumstances, a farcical smash 'n' grab in the middle of the Pompey party. Lucky? Well, given the choice, who wouldn't want to be lucky?

It was an afternoon that demonstrated the scale of the task that awaits us this season. The win cannot and should not hide the fact that there is a lot of work to be done. In many ways, it was a victory extracted in spite of the performance, rather than because of it.

It's difficult to believe that there won't be changes to the next starting line-up. The painful absence of effective width prior to Darren Bazeley's arrival is a particularly pressing problem - as wing backs, Alon Hazan and Peter Kennedy found themselves too busy in defence to support attacks. Perhaps it's time to consider abandoning that system.

Throughout, we spent far too much time playing with our backs to goal. The over-elaborate passing, as futile attempts were made to force an opening through the middle of the Pompey defence, recalled some of the worst days of Glenn Roeder's reign.

Even with Bazeley on the pitch, there was a reluctance to give him the ball - a symptom, perhaps, of how badly we missed Richard Johnson's play-spreading vision. Lord knows, I'm not Darren Bazeley's greatest fan but in twenty minutes he proved that there need be nothing complicated about creating chances against a First Division defence. The rest of the time, every Watford goal attempt was a potential end of season award winner. We made it so difficult for ourselves.

And, at the back, Portsmouth made it very difficult for us. If we needed a reminder of the quality gap between the First and Second Divisions, this was it. They passed, they moved, they zipped the ball around, they out-classed us. For at least twenty minutes, everyone but Steve Palmer looked thoroughly bewildered.

Crucially, however, there is also a quality gap between the First Division and the Premiership. In failing to punish us, Portsmouth also demonstrated that we can expect some generosity as we try to adjust to the higher level.

We could've been three goals down within ten minutes. First, Robert Page was caught out by a pass over the top, Aloisi heading wide from the resulting cross. Two minutes later, Kyzeridis sent a rising shot just past the post. Yet more danger followed as Simpson retrieved a stray pass from the touchline, weaved his way towards goal and powered in a drive that rattled the bar. We were being cut to ribbons, unable to cope with the incisive attacking of a First Division side in full flow.

At the other end, Ronny Rosenthal - a constant, if wayward, threat - gave us the first 'goal of the season' attempt, collecting a Jason Lee flick and charging into the area before firing over. In its place, such flamboyance is fine - but we ought to remember that Rosenthal's solo effort against Blackpool was just one goal in a whole season. We need to develop patterns, stock moves, things that can be relied upon - like getting it wide and putting in decent crosses, for instance.

Portsmouth hit the woodwork again, Hillier's shot from distance clipping the outside of Chamberlain's left post, before they finally got around to taking the lead. Durnin got away with a nudge on Tommy Mooney to win possession (not a criticism of the referee, incidentally - he was excellent), before cutting inside and through a panicking defence. He supplied Aloisi, who coolly gained a yard on his marker inside the box and curled a shot into the top corner.

Curiously, that was as bad as it got for the Hornets. Having put so much into its pursuit, Portsmouth seemed satisfied by the goal. The final fifteen minutes of the half were comparatively comfortable. True, we didn't do any better in attack - another Rosenthal run and shot, a similar attempt from Hyde, a sliced volley from Hazan, none of which troubled the Pompey keeper - but we were seeing the first signs that the result wasn't a foregone conclusion.

Of course, this is all retrospective. At the time, sitting and suffering in the blazing heat, listening to the Pompey fans belt out songs from their new stand (the atmosphere at the partially re-built Fratton Park, once the most miserable excuse for a football ground outside Bedfordshire, is fantastic), it was difficult to be quite so optimistic.

The second half saw the gradual change in the balance of play continue, as the home side failed to accelerate away and the visitors grew in confidence. Within two minutes, a useful attack down the left wing had produced a headed chance for Lee, although the linesman's flag would've ruled it out had the keeper not saved comfortably.

As the Portsmouth threat diminished (although Aloisi remained a constant danger), Watford began to find openings for the first time. Hazan's persistence on the edge of the box set up Rosenthal for the Hornets' first truly clear-cut chance of the match after six minutes of the half - unfortunately, Ronny declined the opportunity to take an early shot from a narrow angle and was crowded out by defenders.

The match was transformed by Darren Bazeley's arrival, replacing the lively but generally ineffective Allan Smart. It was a key substitution. At last, we had an outlet for our possession, a way of consistently getting behind the Portsmouth defence rather than playing in front of it. The winger's first contribution was telling, whipping his way past defenders to deliver a cross for Peter Kennedy to volley wide at the far post. Hazan, no longer so isolated or so burdened by defence, followed the example by delivering a cross for Lee to head over under challenge.

But, as the last ten minutes approached, it still seemed unlikely that we'd get so much as a draw. Our attacks remained laboured - persistent rather than intelligent - and it was difficult to see where a goal might come from. Then our luck turned. As a concerted spell of pressure ended, Micah Hyde sent a hopeful cross back into the Portsmouth area. The entire away end groaned in frazzled frustration as the ball curled its way into the keeper's arms without a yellow shirt in sight. Thomson, standing on the penalty spot and clearly oblivious to his surroundings, strained every muscle in his body to reach it. He did so. The ball flicked off his forehead, looping high in the air as the keeper scrambled back in desperation and the Watford fans left their seats as they realised what was about to happen. It bounced merrily into the net to the utter, silent disbelief of three quarters of Fratton Park.

Even then, a win looked like only a distant possibility. Within a couple of minutes, Hyde's over-elaboration on the edge of the Watford box had created a chance for Aloisi that forced Chamberlain to advance from his line and block. Their complacency banished, Portsmouth appeared the likelier side to snatch victory in the closing minutes.

But Darren Bazeley had other ideas. It was his skipping run down the right wing that created the opening, his accurate cross to the far post that took full advantage of the situation. Lee finished it off, powering his header down - the keeper got a hand to it, but could only push the ball onto the post and it rebounded over the line. Unbelievably, we were ahead.

Last-ditch tackles and desperate clearances preserved the lead for the remaining minutes - indeed, Lee might've sealed it when put through in injury time but wasted the chance with a tame shot.

A bizarre and rather fortunate winning start to the campaign, then. Saturday's performance threw up as many questions as it answered. While Bazeley would seem to have booked his place on the coach to Cambridge and perhaps instigated a change in formation, other issues are rather more complicated - what, for example, do we do to plug the midfield gap that Richard Johnson's injury has left? While Micah Hyde did all he could, Clint Easton struggled badly. Perhaps we should consider pushing Steve Palmer into the midfield for a while - he may lack imagination but, in reality, what we needed was someone to spread the play and that doesn't necessarily require imagination.

Such pondering aside, the points are more than welcome. I've seen Watford win at Portsmouth, there'll be no smug grins when the highlights are shown on South Today later and I'm certainly not complaining.

It didn't even rain!

Pleasant surprise
Report by Nick Grundy

Ladies and gentlemen, last Saturday witnessed possibly the most important turning point in Watford's history for several years. For the first time in living memory, the "Comedy Own Goal of the Season" award looks like it might not go to one of our own players.

Andy Thomson's inch-perfect looping header ten minutes from time gave the scoreline what was perhaps a fairer look on the balance of play in the game. Certainly, we took a little while to find our feet at the higher level, but it's worth pointing out that for four members of our side on Saturday - Hazan, Kennedy, Hyde and Smart - this was the highest level they've played at, and two more - Page and Easton - had made only a handful of appearances in the division. This perhaps explains the opening spell, in which our back three struggled against Portsmouth's three-man strikeforce, the wing-backs didn't seem to know if they were coming or going, the midfield looked lightweight, and the forwards were moving well but failing to hold the ball up once they got it.

From there, of course, things could only improve. Gradually, our defence began to function as more of a unit, with Hazan and Kennedy hanging back more than they had been, while in the midfield Hyde started picking some of the runs up front. In the early stages, though, Portsmouth were pretty much all over us: their number eight, a close-season signing from Greece whose name I'm not even going to attempt to spell (Coward! - Ed), caused perhaps the most problems with his trickery and ability to find space to make passes, while the movement of Durnin and Aloisi up front was exposing holes in our defence. These were almost exploited on two occasions: first, Fitzroy Simpson cut in unchallenged from the right flank and fired in a dipping cross-shot that mercifully came off the bar; then David Hillier, again advancing from deep, put in a shot that clipped the far post on its way for a goal-kick.

Our best chances came largely from the erratic Rosenthal. Throughout the game he looked out-of-sorts, and unkind comments were made about his resemblance to a barrel. Fitness aside, Ronny was involved in many of our best moves, first shooting over when he should perhaps have hit the target and later, in the second half, embarking on a powerful, jinking run which ended, disappointingly, in an aimless ball across the area when there was no one there to take it.

By then, of course, Portsmouth had taken the lead, Australian striker Aloisi bending a shot past the left hand of Alec Chamberlain and into the top corner. Slightly loose marking, perhaps, but a finish right out the top drawer. After that, however, Portsmouth were a lot quieter, and we reached half-time without any major worries.

Second half was much, much better. This was partly because Jason Lee stopped trying to play as a right winger, and partly because we seemed to have a much better idea of our organisation. Nonetheless, clean chances were few and far between until the introduction of Darren Bazeley, who replaced Smart with about half an hour left. I did find myself wondering whether the tannoy man's constant tendency to call Smart "Alec Stewart" was some sort of bizarre southern joke, but I really don't know. I felt Smart was a little unlucky in that he looked to have a lot more running in him than Ronny, but I think his debut gave quiet cause for optimism.

Bazeley was absolutely brilliant. For those of you who saw him against Man City in the FA Cup two years ago, that's the sort of form we're talking - he beat his man every time, and his crossing was (to my astonishment) pinpoint. Almost immediately his cross set up Kennedy for a disappointing left-foot volley at the back post, and further chances followed for Lee.

With ten minutes to go, someone other than Bazelli adopted the novel tactic of attempting to get the ball into the box rather than merely around it, and to general hilarity we scored as a result. Micah Hyde fired the ball in from deep, and - as the ball flew tamely towards the Portsmouth 'keeper - Andy Thomson just got his head to it. It looped up into the air, and dropped just outside Flahavan's reach and inside the back post. One-all.

Four minutes later we took what would prove a decisive lead. Another excellent piece of skill from Baze took him past his man, and his deep cross was met from ten yards by Jason Lee with a firm downward header that squeezed between keeper and post. The person behind me who'd spent much of the second half shouting "Get 'im off! 'E's s**t!" must have felt very stupid at this point. Granted, Lee then proceeded to miss a one-on-one with the keeper, but he had timed his run to perfection, and no one else in our squad would have scored that header. Leave him alone!

All in all, then, a very pleasant surprise - in place of the dour struggle I'd been expecting, we showed some skill, commitment and - perhaps most importantly - guts in the way we responded to being overrun early on and to going behind, and in our resolute defending after we'd gone ahead. We showed spirit on Saturday, and for me at least that very much justifies GT's decision largely to stand by the current squad. I think those qualities will be worth more than a few points to us this season.

Setting the tone
Report by Baz Barry

It's difficult to top the first game of the season (Fulham being the exception). The enforced three-month separation from our loved one is over. Excitement and expectations are high. There are new faces to check out, new heroes to be worshipped. It's always warm and sunny. There's always a good crowd, happy and positive. Hopefully no moaning'n'groaning, old sniping forgotten, new sniping yet to be formulated. (I know - I can dream about this one.) And a performance to set the tone for the rest of the season (!?). Who can forget the feeling of confidence initiated by the three debutants against Burnley, last year? And the way we played attractive, positive football (for some of that game, anyway)?

On Saturday, most of the same ingredients were in place but a meaningful conclusion will have to wait. Typical Watford, more questions than answers.

There was only one newcomer to judge but Smart looked okay. (The bloke next to me kept calling him "Smartie", which is a big NO.) He held the ball up well but seemed to play a lot of the time with his back to their goal, which I suspect isn't all of his game. Where was that player whose mobility and ball skills caused our defence so much problems at the end of last season? Would we have played a different game if N'gonge hadn't got his sore throat? Perhaps we'll know more at Cambridge?

The sizeable Watford turnout sweltered in the sun. The lack of a roof didn't help the atmosphere but we had the same circumstances at Fulham and still had a ball. We were out noised by the Pompey fans. Wouldn't it be great if we could do the same at Vicarage Road? Demolish the Rookery roof and we'd be half way there.

I was surprised and pleased that the conditions didn't affect the pace of the game. It could have been so easy to see a slow, dull encounter but both teams seemed to be up for it. Mind you, our performance was frustrating and disjointed. We looked rusty, as if they hadn't played with each other for some time. N'gonge's enforced absence may have been a factor, possibly the heat, but there's no excuse for our woeful shooting from open play and free kicks.

Don't get me wrong. We didn't look that out of place. Territorially and possession-wise we came out tops, even in the first half. The difference was they looked incisive and inventive, fast and dangerous going forward. Our attacking was laborious, unimaginative and lacked penetration. Does this sound familiar? The Rocket, who looked off the pace, tried a couple of times to get things going through the middle but we never worked their goalie, at any time. A shame really, judging by the hash he made of the winning header. And if the fluke own-goal hadn't happened I suspect we wouldn't have got anything, super-sub Baze or not.

Of the players, Hyde and Baze will get the plaudits. Micah looked as if he's grown in stature, both physically and mentally, over the summer. Mind you, the sun was shining! Dazzer did nothing wrong and most things right. He was positive and simplistically effective. I'm always happy about Chamberlain and Palmer (although he is slow). Sadly the moaners around us quickly focused on Easton and later Lee, neither of whom really deserved the criticism. Lee looked tired and off the pace before he scored the goal. And he spent a lot of the first half on the right wing, which is fine if the resultant hole is attacked but not if the midfield battle is yet to be concluded. Easton was okay, nothing spectacular (and nothing wrong). He could be our future, but is he too similar to Hyde to make an effective partnership? I reserve judgement on Hazan and Mooney. Alon seemed better when he moved further forward in the second half, the Moonster was as passionate as ever but I worry about his distribution. I'm also never sure about Page and Kennedy, and there was little in this game to change those feelings.

You can judge a good season by the number of times you win a match and not play well. We couldn't have started better.

Three points in dramatic opener
Report by Chris Lawton

So another season has started and what a way for it to begin. A dramatic conclusion to what, for a long time, looked like an afternoon of missed opportunities and woeful ineptness.

Fratton Park has changed somewhat since our last visit nearly three years ago. An impressive new stand instead of a home terrace, a new roof on one stand, and for the away fans - seats bolted onto the old terrace and no roof. So on a hot afternoon we were in for some serious sunbathing as well as trying to watch a football match.

The first half was played at a steady tempo throughout with neither side ever really dominating for more than ten minutes. Portsmouth clearly had the better of the early exchanges, being more used to the lack of time allowed on the ball. One problem immediately evident was the seeming inability for the players to recognise that in this divison the midfield can shoot. Too often in the early exchanges players stood off and watched as the ball fell invitingly for a number of players to have pot shots from twenty yards. One of these thumped against the bar as Hazan let Pompey get easy possesion whilst waiting for the ball to run out.

Watford eventually settled and made a number of half chances with Ronny in particular blasting over when it seemed easier to score. Despite this, Portsmouth looked dangerous on the break with our midfield seeming absent upfield. This allowed Hillier, I presume, to feed balls round the full back or through the middle with devastating efficiency. On a number of occasions, it was only a last ditch tackle that saved us.

The goal when it came was slightly dubious. Two players went up for a header and the Watford player came down half a yard away. Whilst the fans and half the players appealed for a foul, Portsmouth fed the ball to Aloisi who rifled in a shot from the edge of the box which left Chamberlain stranded.

The rest of the half was played out again with neither side really dominating. Whatever GT did at half time it worked. For twenty minutes at the start of the half we ran Portsmouth ragged yet failed to capitalise - something we must do if we are to survive in this league. Chance after chance went begging as players tried to be too clever and failed to deliver the correct final ball.

Our chance seemd to have gone as Portsmouth eventually steadied their ship and took some of the pressure off. Hyde, who had one of his best games for Watford, then clipped a hopeful ball forward - again looking for the head of Lee. Taking matters into his own hands, Thomoson decided it would be good to head the ball. Somehow I don't think he intended to loop his header over the advancing Flahaven and into the corner of the net. As always cue madness on the terraces - we were back in the game.

Portsmouth suddenly woke up and to our distinct advantage pushed forward. A clearance fell to Bazeley, who danced round Hillier, headed for the byline and pulled back the perfect cross. Big Jason for the first time in the afternoon timed his run to perfection and met the cross with an accurate and powerful header at the far post. As Flahaven dived across he could only palm the ball into the net. Cue even more jumping around on the terraces.

In the last few minuted Aloisi should have equalised but for a fine save from Chamberlain and Lee should have done better when clean through but scuffed his shot straight to the keeper.

So what can be said of Watford at the moment? Firstly, the fans were a cause for concern. We were treated last year to a rare season where we were a cut above just about everyone else in the league. We expected a win every time. Already on Saturday fans were complaining. Some of it was justified but some of it was based on the misguided idea that, with GT in charge, we are Premiership bound at the end of the season. Sure, we had dodgy moments but you have to expect that in this league. You will not see the one way procession that often occured last season.

Of greater concern is our inability to take our chances. Yes, it was a fluke that got us back into this game but a better team would have punished us for not scoring at the start of the second half when we had the chances to. In three years since we last came to Fratton, that has not changed and it needs to.

On a more positive note, Page was superb. He read the game well and covered a lot of ground. Yes, he was beaten on a couple of occasions but by and large he easily stood up to the challenge. Easton played well. In the second half, he sat a lot deeper in midfield and cut out a lot of the supply to Hillier and company that caused us so many problems in the first half. He tried to be too clever at times and was slow to track back on the odd occasion but I think he has great potential. Smart also looked good on his debut for the club, being prepared to run at people. My only concern was that his lack of physical strength made him easier than most to "push" off the ball. Hyde also had a great game, although at times his passing was wayward and he seemed unsure of what final pass to make. Still he got stuck in in the middle of the pitch, particularly in the second half.

The biggest point of issue will be the role played by Jason Lee. He scored but wasted several other good chances to score. He won almost everything in the air, yet couldn't pass or shoot. He is an enigma, as he has been for most of his career. I am not sure we can afford to carry him at the moment until his confidence returns. We need to score goals in this league and I think there are other players in the squad who are more capable of doing that at the moment. Time will tell what his ultimate fate will be but I think the fans' patience with him is already wearing thin.

As I suspected, we will survive in this divison because with GT we will get our tactics right more often than not so that we can get results when it matters. It will be a struggle for a few weeks, possibly months, and the fans must be patient with the players, many of whom are on a rapid learning curve which pre-season friendlies cannot prepare for. At the end of the day, we have three points in the bag and they are all useful one way or another come the end of the season.

See also: Pompey Web