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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 20/2/99
Queens Park Rangers 1(1)
Scorers: Peacock (45)
Watford 2(1)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Bazeley 3, Kennedy 3, *Page 5*, Palmer 5, Robinson 3, Wright 4, Hazan 3, Smart 3, Johnson 4, Easton 4
Subs: Mooney, Smith (for Hazan) 4, Gibbs
Scorers: Wright (16), Smith (70)
Bits and pieces
Report by Ian Grant

There is indeed only one Graham Taylor. Faced with such a saggy, stagnant performance as Tuesday's, the best club manager in the country responded with his traditional brilliance.

The shake-up saw changes everywhere - Smart, Hazan, Easton, Robinson all coming in, with Mooney, Daley, Hyde and the suspended Iroha making way. The formation, something akin to "the Christmas tree" or "the bell bottom" or "the toothless hag" or whatever Don Howe's calling it this week, was even less familiar.

But anyone can shuffle a pack of cards. The point is that, plunged into a right old scrap, they played like a team. One man's "patched-up team" is GT's "revised line-up". Showing as much fight as Mike Tyson after ten cans of Red Bull is one thing, using the occasional lulls to play some bright, snappy football is quite another. But for an absurd penalty, this would've been a decisive away win.

Mind you, it might've been different. Those who've been ranting on about Micah Hyde giving the ball away in crucial areas must've been horrified to see Alon Hazan committing the same crime within the first minute. Having looped the ball aimlessly up in the air, he compounded the error by heading it straight to a Rangers player. Rose was played through immediately and only decisive action from Alec Chamberlain, out in an instant to block the shot, rescued us from a disastrous start.

Although Nick Wright latched onto a Hazan pass to shoot wildly after three minutes, the tentative opening continued. Both Hazan and Easton took time to adjust to the pace of the game and, not for the last time, we relied on the strength of the defence to keep us out of trouble.

But we did settle. Beyond the ten minute mark, we saw a more impressive Watford. With a narrower formation than is traditional, we were reliant on the movement of the midfielders and forwards. And they obliged - Johnson occupying the centre, Smart leading the line, the rest buzzing around purposefully. For a while, we were actually rather good. Sorry if I sound surprised.

Ironic that, for all our tidy passing, the first goal should come via a more direct method. You could almost hear the gleeful gurgles from the press box as Chamberlain claimed a Rangers cross and smacked a drop-kick deep into their half. But don't let that fool you - whatever the supply route, this was a strike of blazing brilliance. The clearance by-passed Smart, got a touch on from Maddix and bounced on to Wright on the right corner of the box. He allowed it to drop and hit it on the half-volley, dipping evilly across Miklosko's goal and into the bottom corner, before sauntering back to the halfway line to dedicate his masterpiece to the away fans. Bloody fantastic.

From then on, the whole thing became distinctly irritable and tetchy, not helped by a dreadful referee who dished out cards with no consistency whatsoever. The battle of the day between Iain Dowie and Robert Page became particularly heated - in between the bouts of wrestling, the Rangers striker momentarily had the upper hand and Peacock mis-kicked from one of his knock-downs when he should've done better.

Otherwise, although there were regular alarms, Rangers were kept at arm's length. Murray went close from distance; Peacock went closer, forcing Chamberlain to parry his drive. But despite occasional lapses and the struggle to stop Dowie winning everything in the air, the Watford defence looked solid enough for those watching to feel confident about having a half-time lead. That feeling intensified as Peacock blew another chance, bumbling his way into the six yard box without ever bringing the ball under control and then falling over rather desperately.

Even if we'd not especially threatened the Rangers goal since Wright's opener, our general sense of purpose remained. A protracted pass 'n' move session on the left wing, instigated by the emerging Easton and involving at least three others, presumably fell on blind eyes in the press box. Or maybe they'd all gone to the bar. Anyway, it ended with a splendid dummy by Smart to allow the ball through to Kennedy. His turn was quick enough to afford a shooting opportunity - unfortunately, it flashed across goal and just the wrong side of the far post.

Had justice not ultimately been done, the next paragraph or so would've been somewhat less calm. The penalty, right on the stroke of half-time, was ludicrous - all the more so because it cancelled out such a wonderful goal. As a high ball came into the Watford area, it appeared to hit a Rangers player on the hand, prompting a loud appeal from the away end. It was then cleared, by which time I was unsighted, everything was chaos and the referee was pointing to the spot. Watch it back on video and you'll see Steve Palmer actually applauding immediately after the whistle, before the horror of what's really happened dawns on him. I mean, short of arm amputation, it's extremely difficult to see what anyone's supposed to do when the ball's rebounding around like that - your hand's got to be somewhere. But no amount of protesting by Palmer - and he was in conversation with the official for a considerable time - could change the decision.

Peacock's penalty was poor, Chamberlain guessed correctly and got his hand to the ball low to his left. But if anything he got too much onto it, only pushing it back to the edge of the six yard box, and Peacock was able to redeem himself on the follow-up.

That changed the whole game. At a stage when Watford were tightening their grip on the match, the home side were suddenly and inexplicably back in it. Unsurprisingly, they came steaming at us after the break.

For twenty minutes, we were unable to do anything but defend like lunatics and welly the ball in the general direction of Allan Smart. Wave after wave of Rangers attacks eroded our hopes of three points. Yet the trusty notebook reveals that those twenty worrying minutes produced nothing more than a Dowie header and a Gallen shot, both straight at Chamberlain. The back four, particularly Page and Palmer, were simply magnificent; QPR were trying to bash their way through a brick wall.

So Tommy Smith replaced Alon Hazan and you know the rest. His first touch was good, winning the ball on the edge of the area and holding off a defender to allow Johnson to take characteristic control. Johnno rolled one of his prompting passes - the ones that not only find a colleague but implicitly tell him what to do - for Wright on the wing. He did as instructed, rolling a cross into the near post where Smith was lurking unmarked - his second touch was that of a true goalscorer, completely mis-hitting his finish...but perfectly so to elude the keeper's dive. He'll remember that moment for the rest of his life - and one suspects that over the years to come Watford fans will be talking about seeing Tommy Smith's first goal too.

Two minutes later, QPR came very, very close to grabbing another equaliser. Given a bit of time to pick his spot, Gallen lashed in a curling shot from outside the box and Chamberlain had to be at his very best, hurling himself acrobatically to tip it away from the top corner.

With the number of yellow cards being thrown around by the referee, it was inevitable that someone would be taking an early bath. Rangers defender Maddix can count himself a little unfortunate, in all honesty. His late lunge on Smart was certainly worth a second booking yet others, including Johnson and Smart, were walking on very thin ice with similar offences after earlier cautions. With the match naturally opening up as the home side pushed forward, the numerical advantage told - Nick Wright in particular was able to operate in acres of space whenever Watford broke.

Again, the Rangers pressure was pretty incessant but equally ineffective. Substitute Jeanne cut inside to send a rising shot just wide while Dowie remained an irritation, but we were always dangerous on the counter-attack. Wright fired a shot straight at Miklosko and also failed to provide Smith with a clear run on goal during a later break. And, in the last minute, Johnson released Kennedy (who spent the final moments of the match popping up absolutely everywhere) but his fiercely driven effort was pushed away by the Rangers keeper. For once, injury time was spent happily watching Watford retaining possession in the opposition half, making full use not only of the extra player but of superior control.

Not an easy game to draw conclusions from, really. All bits and pieces, few clear patterns and even fewer match-long constants. Which is fine, because I don't much feel like worrying about what the future holds.

Y'see, this is what I want. One mighty blast from a young star, one memorable moment from an emerging youth team product. A team of small-scale signings, home-grown talent and experienced pros playing like they were enjoying it. An away win which, despite the league positions of the two sides, still felt like a poke in the eye for natural order. I ask for nothing more from my football team, I'm happy for the chequebook to stay shut.

To put it another way, if you dump seventeen tons of fertiliser onto your flower beds, then your roses might grow. Or you might just have an expensive garden that stinks of poo.

See also: QPR Unofficial