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Nationwide League Division 1, 12/12/98
Watford 4(2)
Team: *Chamberlain 5*, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Palmer 3, Robinson 4, Smart 3, Hyde 4, Noel-Williams 4, Johnson 4, Wright 3
Subs: Ngonge (for Smart) 2, Gudmundsson, Mooney
Scorers: Johnson (8), Wright (17), Noel-Williams (65, 87)
Stockport County 2(0)
Scorers: Connelly (90), Angell (90)
Nobel Prize for Goalkeeping
Report by Ian Grant

Walking around Brighton this morning, I passed a small church with white-washed walls. Written on one of those walls in felt-tip are the words 'PLEASE SAVE QPR, LORD'.

It's not so long since Watford fans were offering up similarly desperate prayers. But it seems like another age. Graham Taylor, returning to the Vic after his illness with Elton John at his side, deserves every superlative in the dictionary. This is the one bit of the eighties revival worth salvaging.

That we won the match 4-0 (which we did, to all intents and purposes) without dominating speaks volumes. Our attacking play was only sporadic - indeed, the third goal was the first effort of any note in the second half - but sparkled with such quality that quantity became irrelevant. No coincidence that Allan Smart was back in the side, yet the unsung likes of Peter Kennedy and Darren Bazeley also deserve a virtual pat on the back.

Kicking toward the home fans in the first half, Watford began at an astonishing pace. Within thirty seconds, Bazeley had cut inside to supply Smart, Kennedy had collected his pass on the left to cross and Noel-Williams had failed to make contact when he might've scored. Smart sent a half-volley wide before the first minute was up.

It was a scintillating opening and the goal was on its way. Excellent work from Micah Hyde to engineer a crossing position on the right, Stockport defenders half-clearing the ball from inside the six yard box. Amazingly, there was no challenge as it dropped from the sky and Richard Johnson was able to judge his volley to perfection. It may well have found its way in anyway, but a hefty deflection as it hurtled through a crowd made certain.

After Smart's low cross-shot had been superbly pushed wide by Nash, it was two. As the corner was swung in by Kennedy, Smart connected at the near post to score with a flicked header from point blank range. Goal. Nash had no time to react so seemed as surprised as everyone else to see the ball hit his left hand and drop at his feet. No goal.

It really was two just six minutes later, though, courtesy of a goal that just glittered. Johnson with a staggering reverse pass, eyes in the back of his head spotting Kennedy on the corner of the penalty area. Robinson steaming forward on a distracting overlap, Kennedy gaining a yard on two opponents to whip in a cross. Wright ghosting into a crowd of taller players to glance his header past Nash. Any journos succeeding into turning that into 'long ball' crudity deserve medals.

But what followed spoilt the flow of the game - or, to be more accurate, the flow of Watford attacks. Beginning with a hack on Noel-Williams that deserved a booking and didn't get one, ending with a mis-timed tackle on Wright that didn't and did, we were treated to ten minutes of an atrocious referee losing control. Four bookings, two for each side, in such a short space of time is not an indication of firm officiating, it's the sign of an otherwise fair game allowed to run wild.

And it did us no favours. Stockport, not the most refined football team in the world (although hardly as clumsy as their reputation suggests), were simply better suited to a more physical contest and we never fully adapted. Apart from a penalty area melée in which Palmer, Noel-Williams and Smart all came close to forcing the ball home, the away side had the upper hand until the break. It all went rather flat.

Brett Angell, an ever-present if unappealing threat, lobbed over the bar after a rare defensive cock-up involving the otherwise splendid Johnson. He also headed wide later but the best chance fell to Connelly, who twice fired in shots from the right side of the box and was twice denied by blocking defenders.

So Alec Chamberlain drank his half-time cuppa without having had to do much to earn it. But the match had some surprises in store for the Watford keeper, who was to end it by walking off with the man of the match accolade and robbed of the clean sheet he surely deserved.

He was called into action within a minute, producing a save that was rather better than it appeared - Moore's long-range shot was curling and dipping viciously, threatening to catch Chamberlain off his line until he arched his back, stretched and pushed it over the bar. He was back to more routine duties shortly afterwards, gathering Cook's low drive down at his right post.

But he could do nothing except watch as Palmer intervened masterfully to cut out an attack, gave the ball away having done all the hard work and Angell's header from a right wing cross flicked off the top of the bar. Four minutes later, the centre forward should've done more with County's clearest opening up to that time but could only head straight at the keeper from eight yards.

Watford attacks? Well, nothing much. Neither Smart nor Noel-Williams are at their best when asked to compete for possession in the air - and that was especially true against some massive central defenders. Yet, with Watford players in full-on combative mode, thumped clearances was frequently all we could provide for the forwards.

Until an out-of-the-blue third goal, that is. Having given the strikers nothing to work with for the best part of an hour, the ball arrived at Smart's feet and we were suddenly devastating again. Noel-Williams was ushered goalwards by a typically unselfish and perceptive turn and lay-off - he didn't let Smart down, slotting his shot carefully across Nash and into the far corner.

Still Stockport's efforts went unrewarded. A minute later, Angell was first to a knockdown just outside the six yard box and smacked in a half-volleyed shot. As for what happened next, words fail me. Save of the season, or there's no justice. Chamberlain somehow got the ball over the bar when he had no obligation to do anything but pick it out of the net. As the Watford players formed a queue to shake his hand and the fans gave him the biggest ovation of the day, one almost expected the game to pause so that he could be awarded the Nobel Prize for Goalkeeping.

With the result all but settled, County's grip on the game slackened somewhat and the Hornets threatened further goals. Smart should've had one, running onto Robinson's clearance and passing the ball purposefully but inaccurately into the side netting - his all-round play continues to carry his finishing somewhat. Mind you, the same could be said of the infinitely (well, eight times) more expensive Moore, who did everything right in holding off Palmer and finding space for a clear shot, then scooped the ball feebly over the bar.

After Chamberlain had again excelled in claiming from the feet of Connelly and Kennedy's cross-stroke-shot had evaded Noel-Williams, the fourth arrived. Nick Wright, anonymous but hard-working, forced a good stop from Nash with a well-struck drive. After the rebound had been retrieved on the right wing, Bazeley darted decisively down the side of the box to cross. Noel-Williams again supplied a fitting finish to a fine move, sliding a header across goal for his second.

All a bit bizarre, frankly. The scoreline indicated a bit of a mauling and, apart from the opening quarter of an hour, this was nothing but a hard-fought, tight match. When you start getting four goal leads in games like this, you can only conclude that something rather special's happening. Stockport caused us problems, controlled long passages of play, did all the right things...and ended up on the wrong end of a thrashing. Are you watching, Tottenham?

But for one thing, the two Stockport consolation goals in injury time would've been no more than a comical irrelevancy. That one thing, of course, was Alec Chamberlain. After Connelly's diving header at the far post had beaten his defences (and he bloody nearly kept it out), he just sat disconsolately on his line and stared into space. He deserved the clean sheet as much as he wanted it, his team-mates had let him down.

The immediate second was an insult, then. As the Watford defence shambolically gave away possession and parted to allow Angell in for a simple finish, Chamberlain must've felt sick. One thing's for sure - when the players got to the bar after the game, it wasn't his round.

Those moments of madness took the shine off what was a fine victory. If I've under-played the quality of our performance, then that's only because it was that kind of game - we worked hard for the openings and took them, generally unable to turn on the style as we did in beating Crewe by the same scoreline.

That's the point, though. We can adapt. We can be flamboyant and gorgeous when allowed, we can get physical when necessary. As games go by, the bubble looks less and less like bursting. Hell, even last week's goalless draw with Barnsley is made to appear rather better by their win at Ipswich.


See also: Stockport unofficial