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Nationwide League Division 1, 24/10/98
Watford 2(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gudmundsson 4, Kennedy 4, Page 3, Palmer 3, Bazeley 3, *Smart 4*, Hyde 3, Noel-Williams 3, Johnson 3, Robinson 3
Subs: Mooney (for Noel-Williams) 0, Wright (for Gudmundsson) 0, Pluck
Scorers: Gudmundsson (27, 53)
Port Vale 2(1)
Scorers: Foyle (12), Tankard (82)
Don't believe the hype
Report by Ian Grant

"F***in' shit!" was the verdict of Statler and Waldorf behind me - on the grounds, presumably, that anything less than wiping Port Vale off the face of the planet is unacceptable.

Don't believe the hype. The visit of Stoke's premier club may never break box office records but I can think of few teams I'd rather watch at Vicarage Road. They've now scored six goals and conceded ten in their last three trips to Watford. But there's more to it than mad goal-rushes. Although John Rudge's approach remains resolutely unchanged - forward-thinking passing football with authentic wingers - familiarity doesn't always breed contempt. They're a lovely, intelligent outfit (with a fragile defence) and the recent attempted coup at Vale Park was the most stupid idea since Mohammed Al Fayed got a wrong number trying to phone Chelsea.

So, Vale are a good side and, on the back of four consecutive wins, a confident side. They are not necessarily "the kind of side we need to be beating".

Sit back, relax, enjoy the ride. Despite conditions that wouldn't have shamed the Apocalypse (and that comprehensively scuppered the club's hopes of boosting the attendance with reduced prices), this was an absorbing, attractive football match. Not exciting per se... but, then again, the chocolate rum truffle fudge currently smothering my taste buds isn't exciting per se either. All that's gold doesn't glitter.

Like waiting for an orchestra to finish tuning up, the first ten minutes were worthlessly uneventful. Then, just as I was ready to put the notebook away, Port Vale took the lead with an eerie decisiveness. The shabby, excellent Ainsworth crossed from the right wing, Foyle ghosted into the space between Steve Palmer and Robert Page to direct a firm header past Alec Chamberlain.

That was a painful reminder not to take any strikeforce, even one containing the mystifyingly popular Peter Beadle, too lightly. We spent the rest of the half attempting to overcome the effects of that momentary lapse. Within reason, the Watford goal wasn't endangered again, but once was enough and too much.

Peter Kennedy, looking increasingly like the player who was so full of beans upon his arrival at Vicarage Road, sent a blistering free kick narrowly wide as the Hornets began to assert themselves. It speaks volumes that Kennedy, so often shyly operating on the fringes during a lengthy run of poor form, was decisively involved in all our noteworthy first half attacks. Welcome back, kiddo.

Allan Smart's tremendous strength on the ball set up Kennedy for a shot three minutes later, Musselwhite fumbling insanely like the circus act he is. Then, the merciful equaliser. Smart showed remarkable awareness to flick Bazeley's cross towards the lurking Kennedy. The ball was hooked back to Smart, who held off a defender to play in Johann Gudmundsson. The Icelander, completely unmarked, smashed the ball home with glee.

Kennedy's rising drive following a surging run from Richard Johnson was only inches away from giving Watford the lead just two minutes later. A lull followed, the home side's attacks petering out somewhat. Moments before half time, Kennedy was the provider yet again, driving a low cross into the path of Gudmundsson, who was denied by the desperate intervention of a defender.

The weather decided to take centre stage in injury time as the heavens opened, a thick fog of solid water making it difficult to see the other end of the field. Those of us who had deluded childhood daydreams of footballing stardom probably didn't have days like this in mind. It's good to report, however, that the pitch remained as lawn-like as the day it was laid.

If the first half was rather low-key, the second offered some fine entertainment. There are worse things in life than watching two well-matched teams playing to win. Eating liver, for example, is a great deal worse.

So, within a minute of the re-start, a run from Tankard had set up Foyle for a curler that didn't miss by much. That was matched by Watford almost immediately, Micah Hyde slipping a through-ball towards Gifton Noel-Williams, who collided painfully with Musselwhite in an attempt to get a goal-bound touch.

As Watford pressure built once more, Kennedy's presence again proved vital. In combination with Hyde on the left wing, he engineered a crossing opportunity near the byline. The ball went over the head of the straining Smart, finding Gudmundsson unexpectedly arriving to add his presence to the aerial battle. His header was one any centre forward would've been proud of, firmly directed down and away from Musselwhite's despairing dive - although the Vale keeper got a hand to the ball, he couldn't keep it out.

The debutant's two goals will grab the headlines, and rightly so. But, in truth, he had a curious match. Ironically, his strength also proved to be his weakness. Like Nick Wright, he appears to have a knack of appearing in the penalty area unnoticed at the right moment, something that will certainly guarantee him goals. Unlike Wright, he also appears to be well versed in the art of finishing such opportunities. The problem, therefore, was not in his performance but in his position - as a right winger, he wasn't available enough in our approach play. That was frustrating, particularly when his moments on the ball were artful and aggressive. Our attacks leaned heavily to the left as a consequence.

So there are some interesting selection problems looming. In Wright, Gudmundsson and Hazan, we have three players who appear best suited to playing behind the two strikers. And yet, within the 4-4-2 system that clearly brings the best from the side as a whole, that position doesn't really exist. The answer? Over to you, Graham....

Three minutes later, Foyle's diving header from another accurate Ainsworth cross should've recreated Vale's opener - instead, it rocketed over the bar. If you hadn't already guessed from the number of times his name's been mentioned compared to that of his striking partner, the balding veteran was their main threat. It was his low shot that brought Chamberlain's first save of the afternoon, diving down to his left to push the ball past the post.

What followed was rather impressive, Vale spending a good couple of minutes passing and moving and probing around the Watford penalty area. Impressive, not only in the sense that such manoevres would gain great, envious plaudits if seen from a more fashionable side, but that the Hornets remained completely unmoved, kept the door firmly shut and waited for an error. The mistake eventually came, enabling a break to the other end which ended with Noel-Williams scuffing a shot wide in a position from which he might have done rather better.

Chamberlain was forced to excel once more with fifteen minutes remaining as substitute McGill rampaged down the left wing and drove in a long range shot that the Watford keeper pushed over with both hands. But the resistance didn't last. From a corner to the far post, Ainsworth and Tankard combined to prevent Chamberlain from gathering and Tankard headed in the equaliser. It didn't look like a foul to me, I must confess, but in all the discussions one question hasn't yet been asked - where the hell were the defenders?

The arrival of Nick Wright and Tommy Mooney made a discernible difference to a Watford attack that had started to look a little jaded, only the seemingly tireless Smart previously keeping hopes of a late winner alive. Mooney appeared to be playing the game at a different speed, such was his desire - within moments of arriving, he'd demanded the ball on the right, stepped inside and thumped in a shot that was blocked by a defender, all in much the same way as a sergeant taking the assault course to show the new recruits how it ought to be done. But despite that, it was Vale who came closest to that dramatic goal, Beesley heading over when unmarked following a perfectly executed short corner.

There are things that do need sorting out, no question. For instance, entertaining though it is, the defence is a tad too leaky for my liking. But, bearing in mind the number of players currently cluttering up the treatment rooms, it doesn't seem to me that we need to look outside the squad for the solutions just yet. The finished article is still some way away...but there is plenty to enjoy in watching that final product being fashioned by expert hands.

I remarked earlier that Port Vale were a team I'd be happy to watch every week. The same is true of this Watford side. That hasn't always been so.

So, all in all, definitely not "f***ing shit". No, sir. I've seen "f***ing shit", rather too often in all honesty, and this wasn't even in the same postal district.

See also: Port Vale Unofficial