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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 6/3/99
Sheffield United 3(2)
Scorers: Devlin (38), Morris (44), Hamilton (50)
Watford 0(0)
Team: Chamberlain 2, Bazeley 3, Kennedy 3, Ward 3, Palmer 3, Robinson 3, Smart 3, Hyde 3, Mooney 3, Hazan 3, Wright 1
Subs: Smith (for Smart) 3, *Gibbs (for Wright) 4*, Iroha (for Hazan) 2
Report by Matt Rowson

It defies logic really. Your side are completely outclassed... you have little imagination or penetration up front, are losing out in midfield, and are struggling at the back. Then you score twice just before half-time, and Bobís yer uncle. United, it must be said, will have had unluckier days....

Watford started the game quite clearly building on the confidence borne from the last ten minutes on Tuesday. Whilst hardly devastating, we were very much on top for the first half hour. The travelling support who had made the journey despite (or in ignorance of) the morning pitch inspections and ominous weather reports reacted to a side visibly regaining its confidence.

Unlike the opening spell at Ipswich, where plenty of possession was translated into precious few openings, we created plenty in the first half hour. Closest was an effort from Mooney which impossibly came back off the underside of the bar, another a fierce shot from the freed Wright on the right hand side of the box which Kelly did well to save. Indeed, Kelly was central to Unitedís defiance in this period, as the Hornets forced a series of corners including further efforts from Mooney and Ward. In midfield, Hyde was fierce in the tackle and Hazan probed the United rearguard.

Most heart-wrenching of all was when Smart, again involved but who so badly needs a goal, was freed into the United half and hared goalwards with Unitedís defence stranded, only to be pulled back for offside. From our position low behind the other goal it was impossible to judge the call, but it looked a close thing and Smart was certainly in no doubt, reacting angrily. The whole game, and indeed Watfordís season, may have turned on that incident.

United had been attacking as well, but without much conviction or invention, Chamberlain having been forced into one routine save. Marcelo, the big Brazilian, attacked with less guile than aggression with elbows prevalent (although to be fair, sexy football was impossible on a bog of a pitch). One loose elbow appeared to catch Paul Robinson... that Marcelo later required treatment himself after a rare United corner may or may not have been a coincidence....

Then United scored. Having benefited from the optimistic "letís have a go" approach by our first goal last Tuesday, itís hardly fair to be churlish about United profiting from the same thing. Nonetheless, it was an extremely frustrating one to concede... Morrisí perseverance created a shooting opportunity for Devlin on the corner of the area. His shot looked bound for the back of the stand, but two deflections sent it past the helpless Chamberlain.

For the second match in succession Watford fans had to endure the taunts of opposing players after scoring, as the charming Marcelo chose to celebrate the goal with us rather than his team-mates. The furious reaction of the visiting support resulted in three ejections... I wasnít close enough to see precisely what happened, but the incident certainly added to the overall aura of injustice.

So for United to score again was just taking the piss. Morris was central again, turning Ward inside out before placing a crisp shot past Chamberlain, who might have done better. Plenty of stunned faces at half time.

There wasnít much enthusiasm evident from the laboured reappearance of the Hornets for the second half. We had early possession but the conviction seemed to have gone. Within five minutes United were three up, a cross from the left palmed away unconvincingly by Chamberlain to the grateful Ian Hamilton, who put it away. At about this time we heard the home fans sing for the first time.

The closing half hour was perhaps the strangest period of football Iíve seen this season, perhaps more peculiar even than the improbable thrashing of Swindon. This was triggered on the pitch by a double substitution which saw Smith replace Smart, and Gibbs on for Wright. Wright was next to anonymous for most of the first half and all of the second... the contrast to his normal level of involvement suggests that his injury has not healed, in which case his 1 out of 5 rating is harsh.

With Gibbs now at right-back, Bazeley was free to exploit the space in front of him without worrying about defending. Suddenly, he was our most potent attacking threat, one minute overlapping with Gibbs to fire in a cross, the next cutting inside and slicing through Unitedís static midfield.

One such foray resulted in a Smith being released on the right, his ball across the face of the chasing back being slammed out for a corner. Then, a Bazeley cross found Mooney free in the box but his header dropped agonisingly the wrong side of the post.

Watfordís chances of grabbing at least a goal back had been abetted by the half-time replacement of Alan Kelly, who had been doubtful before the game, with reserve keeper Simon Tracey. His nervousness was first exposed by Gibbs who, released by Bazeley, was almost on the goal line when he cracked a shot towards goal that improbably found its way into the net at the near post, off the flailing keeper. This "goal" was disallowed for offside, a completely baffling decision which must have resulted from Gibbs first being freed. Spying the linesmanís flag immediately, Gibbs turned and ran back into position without as much as raising an eyebrow at the officials.

Then, Bazeley was free on the right and a wonderful ball to the near post was met by Smith whose flicked header would have gone in were it us that were 3-0 up. Instead it grazed the top of the post on its way out.

Off the pitch, the Hornetsí renaissance had been sparked by a most peculiar incident. Tango-kid, in time-honoured fashion, stripped to the waist and began spinning his top around his head, urging the Horns back into song. He probably wouldnít have succeeded but for the overzealousness of a police officer who asked the youngster to refrain from this. Given that the six rows behind him were empty, the officer can only have been concerned for the kidís health... but, how ever well-intentioned, his actions resulted in abject defiance, and the scorn of the travelling support. Suddenly, the whole Watford end was on its feet and making a racket. The United fans, 3-0 up but silent as the grave, watched on in bemusement.

Iroha refused an invitation on his right foot, Kennedy screwed an effort wide, and the final whistle went. The players went off to a bit of an ovation, which is probably more than theyíve come to expect from the home support. On the whole, though, a frustrating afternoon... United, with a nervous wreck in goal for 45 minutes, had kept their third clean sheet of the season.

Theyíre not an awful side, but theyíre certainly not a very good one... a few individuals impressed, not least the England Under 18 duo of Lee Morris and fiery midfielder Curtis Woodhouse. Most entertaining was the sight of Dave Holdsworth with his arm in the air... a sight bringing back all sorts of memories, security not being one of them.

On the way away from the ground a United fan behind me demanded of the populace whether anyone could explain to him how we were sixth and they, a "Premiership Club", were tenth. The answer is, of course, that if this is as good as it gets for United, it just isnít that impressive. We had lost our "spine", our strongest individuals in each department... and whatever your view of the strengths and weaknesses of the side thereís no denying that right now things really arenít going for us.

See also: Sheffield Utd unofficial