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Nationwide League Division 1, 29/9/98
Watford 1(1)
Team: Chamberlain 4, *Gibbs 4*, Kennedy 4, Yates 4, Millen 4, Mooney 4, Smart 4, Hyde 2, Noel-Williams 3, Johnson 3, Wright 4
Subs: Palmer (for Wright) 3, Bazeley, Gudmundsson
Scorers: Noel-Williams (45)
Sheffield United 1(0)
Scorers: Marker (84)
Two dropped points
Report by Ian Grant

Ten games. Fourth place. Nineteen points. Six wins.

Two 4-1 wins away from home. Three new signings settling in nicely. Two very accomplished defensive performances in a row. Six minutes away from being top of the table.

If, as the cliché goes, we'd been offered all that at the start of the season, we wouldn't just have settled for it - we'd have willingly mugged old ladies for it.

This time last year, we were also drawing 1-1. At home to York City. So, no reason for frowning faces, no reason to dwell for too long on why Sheffield United didn't become our seventh victims of the season. What we've achieved so far isn't going to be undone by one hideous miss and two dropped points.

Any disappointment from last night will fade. Hopefully, what won't die away so quickly is the new-found sense of resilience within this Watford side, the knowledge that opponents are having to work very hard to break us down. We're no longer playing like a promoted team. We're looking increasingly at home in our new surroundings.

For forty-five minutes, we contained Sheffield United without difficulty. That's not something that we should be too quick to dismiss - United may not exactly be firing on all cylinders right now, but they still possess an attacking threat worthy of this level. As on Saturday, we defended with common sense, preventing problems before they arose. Dean Yates looks as simultaneously comfortable and inspirational as Colin Foster once did; Keith Millen has a new lease of life; Tommy Mooney is making it impossible to remember why he was dropped just a few weeks ago; Nigel Gibbs is, even after all these years, a constant revelation.

So, during a fairly flat first half, we were in control. If we're not going to annihilate anyone at Vicarage Road - and it's surely not coincidence that we've scored twice as many goals on our travels - then we need to remain calm, collected, patient. Both on and off the pitch.

There was no devil-may-care assault on the United goal, then. There was, however, a quietly constructive and thoughtful approach that, while not always succeeding, was proof of our steady progress. Just looking at the number of attempted cross-field passes was demonstration enough. Several of them whistled speedily into the stands...but too often in the past, only Richard Johnson has looked to spread the play like that or we've simply not had wide players to aim for. There is no Rolf Harris-style 'can you guess what it is yet?' confusion with Watford at the moment - you can see what we're trying to do, just as clearly as you can see that it's beginning to work.

In Allan Smart, GT has unearthed yet another gem. His running would make Andy Hessenthaler look work-shy, his ability to keep the ball and use it wisely whenever it's played into his feet is simply astonishing. While I still feel that we'll need an aerial ball-winner on occasions, it's genuinely lovely to see a striker whose presence encourages and rewards intelligent play. Smart is the focal point of our best attacks, not the saviour of our worst.

The long introduction may indicate that there wasn't too much to write about in the opening period. Which is true. Like (obscure telly reference alert) "The Royle Family" is engaging rather than funny, this was intriguing rather than exciting.

It took fifteen minutes for the game to produce a goal attempt, Smart's long-range half-volley taking a deflection and looping over the bar. Almost immediately, Dean Saunders twisted and turned on the edge of the box to fire in a shot that took an equally dramatic deflection from Micah Hyde's boot. The first truly top quality entertainment of the evening came from the resulting corner, which was booted fiercely towards the near post, only to hit a United player standing ten yards away on the arse and roll out ridiculously for a goal kick.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the half was Peter Kennedy's involvement. While his execution of set pieces remains extremely unreliable (see below), he finally shook off weeks of being an almost ghostly non-presence to put in a splendidly lively forty-five minutes. Nick Wright, excellent once more, appeared crucial in bringing Kennedy into the game and on more than one occasion they combined superbly. Kennedy's long range shot after twenty-five minutes brought the first save from Simon Tracy in the United goal. Same again for ninety minutes on Sunday, please.

After Borbokis' free kick had been comfortably saved by Alec Chamberlain, Watford finished the half with a flourish and a goal. To begin with, Smart found himself on the end of a couple of chances, failing to make any real contact with a lovely left wing cross from Gifton Noel-Williams and then flicking a header wide from a Nick Wright centre.

But then, as injury time began, we made the break-through. Kennedy (see above) took a free kick, deep on the right wing, and produced an absolute beauty. He's put in similar crosses from similar positions in earlier games - this time he got the deserved reward. As the ball belted through the penalty area with 'THIS IS A GOAL' written all over it in blue biro, Smart got a near post flick-on and Noel-Williams followed in to score with his head from close range. Lovely.

Although United emerged from the dressing room in extremely determined mood, yet more encouragement can be drawn from the fact that we continued to stand up to them during a sudden burst of very intense pressure immediately after half-time. As with the Ipswich match, it's probable that an early equaliser might've shaken our confidence somewhat and altered the game beyond recognition...but we did all we could to prevent that equaliser.

Alec Chamberlain, pretty much a spectator thus far, was suddenly required to excel. He did. After only three minutes, Hyde's mis-cued pass allowed Marcello to break forward and supply Stuart. As his shot ran across the face of the goal, it seemed absolutely certain to roll inside the post. It didn't, though - it bounced just wide, courtesy of a touch from the Watford keeper. In the scramble that resulted from the corner, Chamberlain was again called into action, advancing smartly and brilliantly from his line to block a close-range shot.

But, that short spell aside, all United's attacking just seemed to provide us with bigger gaps to exploit at the other end. Offensively, we're learning fast - better crossing, better passing, better movement, all of which add up to better chances which need better finishing. But, hey, four out of five ain't bad.

Noel-Williams' knock-down from a Dean Yates free kick demonstrated that the United defence was starting to slacken - on that occasion, Allan Smart dived in with the keeper and injured himself in the process of trying to poke the ball goalwards. While Smart was off the pitch and watching the action like a small child locked out of the playground, Nick Wright went on an inspired charge down the left wing and set up Noel-Williams for an ambitious (but understandable, since he had no support) half-volley that span wide.

After Micah Hyde's cross had narrowly failed to bring a goal for Wright, who couldn't control such a difficult ball and saw his first touch roll through to the keeper, and United's gigantic number thirteen had skied a shot into the Rookery, came the decisive moment of the match. It was set up by tremendous passing and movement by Watford around the right wing, showing great patience without ever losing sight of the attack's purpose. When the ball found Nigel Gibbs in a bit of space, he'd already done his research and crossed instantly to find Noel-Williams unmarked. Gifton's cushioned header landed at the feet of Hyde, four yards out with only the keeper for company. Yet somehow, unbelievably, he managed to miss the target.

Hyde's had a couple of poor games, sure. Beyond that, I can't really see that he's a problem. To reduce a ninety minute performance down to one miss is ridiculous. In truth, he made positive, valuable contributions on several occasions during this match - I've only just described how his cross nearly created something for Wright - and I fail to understand how dropping him would help either the player or the team. A good player doesn't turn into cack overnight...and you lot (rightly) voted him 'Player of the Month' four weeks ago....

Anyway, Hyde's miss cost us dear. Four minutes later, a right wing corner was swung in and bounced around in the area for long enough for Marker to smash the equaliser into the roof of the net. Pretty sickening.

Even then, we might've grabbed the win we probably deserved. As injury time ticked by and frustration took hold, Richard Johnson was suddenly surging down the right wing to whip in a cross. It missed Noel-Williams and landed at Smart's feet. He took the sensible option, bearing in mind the difficult angle, and absolutely smashed his shot in. It hit the outside of the post so hard that it went out for a throw. When the final whistle went a minute or so later, Smart still had his head in his hands.

The post-mortems suggest that we're taking all this a bit too seriously. Does anyone out there really believe that this is a promotion campaign? Or that we ought to be considering jettisoning players because they've been ever-present in a side that's only made it to third in the division? Oh, come on, get a grip.

Two dropped points. That's all.

Lofty heights
Report by Baz Barry

Seventy five minutes on the clock and after some inspired, lengthy and impressive possession play down our right involving, among others, my hero Gibbs and Yates, of all people, a cross came over to an unmarked Gift. Unexpectedly, instead of going for goal, he headed back along the six-yard line to Micah Hyde, rapidly arriving unannounced. To the astonishment of the Vicarge Road faithful in front of him, he somehow ballooned his finish over and wide of the open goal. That was Significant Miss Number One and we should have been two-nil up and coasting to the top of the league. Within ten minutes Sheffield equalised from a corner-inspired scramble.

Significant Miss Number Two came in the last minute of injury time with Watford still pushing for a winner. Somehow Johno breaks down our right, whipping in a low and pacey cross that The Gift misses but reaches Smart, alone at the back post. In a flash he controls and thwacks the ball against wood, rebounding out for a throw-in. Moments later the game's over and, pleasingly, any moans and groans are drowned out by a hearty round of applause.

After the game the consensus was that we did well to get four points from two "difficult" games, a draw is more than we can have expected from an evening game, luck was claiming a payback, and the lofty heights of fourth after ten games is just dandy. It's almost as if the fans don't know how to react to our current circumstances, our senses are being bamboozled by vertigo. Normally when you have a difference between expectation and reality there's difficulties, when it's the other way round there should be joy. After the dizzy heights of last season and, let's face it, some bizarre games this season, no one knows how to respond. "Going straight up again will be too soon" we're told and "we should expect no more than a top ten team". But in reality, whether you like it not, we could and should be top.

Make no mistake, we should have won this game. It wasn't by any means a classic encounter, more huff and puff than silky skill. But again we didn't look out of place and United seem to be a shadow of their former selves, who we played in the Cup last year. The first half was only memorable for the way our centre halves superbly marshalled their front two. Millen was solid and Yates was a revelation, even having time to shimmy over the ball. Add a wondrous Gibbs and a dependable Mooney and you have a very solid rearguard. I'm not sure Alec had a save to make. Long may it continue.

We played with Wright on the left wing and The Gift on the right. I presume this is to occupy and nullify their marauding wing-backs, which appeared to work. However this meant an active Smart appeared isolated at times and any working of their goalie from open play was kept to a minimum. (The exception came midway through the half when Kennedy sent it a stunning shot, which produced a wonder save from Tracey.) A right winger Gifton is not. He looked out of place, out of touch and out of confidence, so it was pleasing he should get the goal. Kennedy was the focal point of the first half, getting a lot of ball in a lot of space on the left. So much so that both dugout teams were soon on their feet making adjustments, one to try and capitalise on the imbalance, the other to correct it. The (injured?) Sheffield right back was eventually replaced by a man mountain of a midfielder. He was huge. A jumping Micah Hyde would have just been able to lick his nipples, and proceeded to try for the rest of the game. Kennedy had countless practise at corners and free kicks, the last of which reaped dividends.

Immediately after the break Stuart burst through for Alec to make his wonder save. Stuart then seemed to be the focal point of the game eventually necessitating a Watford substitution, Palmer (replacing a tiring Wright) on to man mark him (out of the game?). There was excitement both ends, their Giant blazed over an easy chance, Smart had a chance smothered, Wright galloped down the left on his own and later had a half chance at the back post. And then on to those Misses.

At last the team seems to have settled down. Ignore the Cup exploits and GT got it right again when he said he needed ten games. The defence has found themselves, and a rich vein of form. The midfield duo were busy, perhaps too eager after the bruising they got from Ipswich. Kennedy is getting better, Wright looks the part with good feet and a good eye, likewise Smart. He has a unique slouched way of running as if he was dashing across Snipper Alley in Sarajevo. But he never gives up and holds the ball up well. Perhaps we've yet to find the right one to play with him but we've time, points and money (?) to sort that one out.

The biggest summer investment also looks impressive. The pitch. Very green and clean. BUT I have a theory. Is it taking its toll on the players? Before the first Big Miss a lot of our lot looked knackered. I didn't see the Ipswich game and can't judge the efforts made then but I wonder if this artificial stuff is heavier than normal.

Report by Matt Bunner

Miss: vt. 1. fail to hit, reach, find, catch, or notice 2. not be in time for 3. omit 4. notice or regret absence of 5. avoid

Well, that's the definition according to my dictionary, tucking lovingly away in my locker. I'm struggling to write this because I'm still shaking my head at what happened on seventy-eight minutes - in fact I'm surprised I wasn't pulled over on the M25 for lane weaving, my head was turning so much.

Normally I never chastise players for missing because at the end of the day I'm in the stand and they're on the pitch, but once in while, rather like Comet Halle-Bop recently, one gem stands out from all the rest and makes an impact that bears its mark for days to come. I saw one last night.

We were just about value for money for the 1-0 lead with three quarters of the game gone when Watford embarked on a series of passing movements, reminiscent of vintage Liverpool. From centre midfield to the wings; wings to the front; front to the midfield; midfield to other wing - call it football chess if you like, we were like a doctor examining a patient - poking, probing, touching, seeing how they would respond. These passes went on for a good minute more, perhaps setting a WFC record for the number of completed passes, when, as if someone had told Sheff Utd to stop chasing and preserve their energy, a delicate ball was floated to an unmarked Gifton Noel-Williams. The ball was perfect. GNW didn't have to move. He nodded the ball, not towards to the goal was we expected, but to two (yes, TWO) unmarked Golden Boys on the six yard line - Hyde and another (Smart?). The ball landed perfectly at Hyde's feet and a simple control left a tap-in. A simple tap-in. Just poke the ball forward another five yards past the 'keeper who looked embarrassed to be THAT alone and we're 2-0 up and, dare I say, top of Division One. BUT.....

The first half was really a non-event, about as jam-packed with action as the near-empty Rookery stand. It wasn't hard to remember the talking points, Sheff Utd had very few and we had slightly more, only slightly. However, it wasn't that boring. Sheff Utd were lively to an extent, but merely brushed the ball about a few times before wasting a pass. Saunders was lively and turned a few times, but Chamberlain had more action watching a couple of deflected shots go past him for corners. In other words they were restricted to long shots (only one was on target and that was a free-kick that I could have saved), typical of a team that hasn't had a decent away result for eleven months. They did provide a unique comedy moment from one their corners though! The corner taker and team mate were trying to confuse a home defender by coming short and then sprinting back to the near post. However, this failed miserably as the corner was blasted low directly at his team mate who turned his back and the ball went for a goal kick. Even their players found it funny!

Watford didn't really penetrate the Sheff Utd defence either with slick passing or with the aerial stuff. This wasn't helped by the poor delivery of corners and free-kicks into the penalty area - easy for a large defence. The most notable move of the first period was started with a throw from Gibbs on the right and Wright, who had a decent game and was most impressive in his covering back (and unlucky to be subbed), took it to the by-line and whipped in a cross that Smart flicked over the cross-bar. This upped the tempo towards the end of the half and the mode of optimism was continued with a scorching half-volley from Kennedy that the 'keeper parried away - I'll tell you what, I doubt there's a better kicker of ball the league that our Pete. Right on the forty-five, Watford took the lead. A free-kick from Kennedy on the right was curled in hard and low, Smart stooped to flick on and GNW was there to nod the ball home. The joy carried on through the half-time round up as it transpired that we were top of league! Premiership here we come, ahem.

The first ten minutes of the next period showed we're in for tough times ahead if we think it's going to be as easy as the first half. Wave after wave of Sheff Utd attacks brought desperate saves, hacks, blocking, tackling and you name it, it was thrown in if it meant them not scoring. They should have equalised in this period. The corners caused havoc - a point blank shot was saved on the line, the rebound was blocked again, that rebound rebounded and that was rush-blocked by Chamberlain. Another corner saw the ball ricochet into Chamberlain's hands and their number thirteen had the goal at his mercy but found Row Z of the Rookery with a shot that wasn't out of place at Twickenham. Their best chance however came to Graham Stuart. He collected a through ball on the edge of the D and sprinted forward and I assumed 1-1, but Chamberlain brought off a tremendous left handed save to push it around the post.

We escaped from this barrage with our goal intact. As the editor described in the Ipswich Town report, we emerged from our Anderson shelters to start our reposte. Leading the way was the largely ineffective (he didn't win a header all night despite being taller than his marker!) GNW, powering a volley past the near post when put through. Wright had two opportunities when wide on the left, but both times his final touch before shooting was disappointing, allowing the ball to squirm away on each occasion. Hyde shot tamely wide when ideally placed on the edge of area, but that was nothing compared to his gem later in the game....

Palmer curiously replaced Nick Wright. Wright was having a decent game and was keeping their right back pinned in his own half, but as soon as Palmer came on to shore up the midfield, it gave him license to exploit the right wing. Now Sheff Utd were looking dangerous, although our defence was still looking assured. Palmer then reverted to left midfield to cover for Kennedy who was pushing further forward. On eight-four minutes another dangerous corner wasn't cleared and Marker volleyed into the roof of the net from fourteen yards. I supposed a deserved equaliser on the balance of the second half play, but it should have been academic as we missed a easy chance to go 2-0 up....

Yes, he missed. Hyde missed from five yards with the goal GAPING. Not only did he miss, he missed by a country mile. The ball sliced off the edge of his boot and missed the post by a good five yards. Quite the worst miss I have EVER seen (remember Steve Stone's miss against QPR? The one where rounds the 'keeper but slices the ball wide of a gaping net - take that and put the ball closer and more central to the goal and have Hyde stand still whilst shooting). No excuses, no-one to put him off, no divot or bobble, no challenge, no rain, just a complete cock-up. At least Taylor knows that Hyde won't be used as an emergency striker! We paid for that miss. Let's hope that Hyde buries a thirty yarder against WBA.

But we nearly won it! There was only one team in it for the injury time five mins. Yates did a 'Hansen' and took the ball past three players and was crudely brought down by their no six in a bookable challenge. The resultant kick taken by Kennedy was curled to the back post and an excellent header hit the bar - however, the ref had blown for a foul. In the ninety-fourth minute a beautiful cross found Smart at the back post. He controlled it well and wound his foot back for a shot. The crowd went silent. We're going to win it after all!!! Smart struck the volley so sweetly that the 'keeper didn't move and we expected to see the net bulge - except by the time we heard the 'thwack!' of the ball meeting post, the ball had already flown out for a throw! No wonder Smart was holding his hands - he couldn't have hit that any better and was unlucky. The same can't be said of Hyde.

A draw, on a reflection was a fairish result. However, we've had enough escapes in the last few games to know that we can get punished for not taking chances. We didn't escape here.

See also: Sheffield Utd Unofficial