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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 23/1/99
Watford 0(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 2, Kennedy 2, *Page 4*, Palmer 3, Iroha 2, Smart 3, Hyde 3, Noel-Williams 3, Johnson 3, Daley 4
Subs: Wright, Mooney (for Daley) 0, Rosenthal (for Noel-Williams) 2
W.B.A. 2(1)
Scorers: Sneekes (15), Angel (90)
Report by Ian Grant

There have been more than a few incongruous sights on the Vicarage Road pitch in recent years. Harry and Harriet so-called Hornet, Devon White and rugby to name but three.

A traditional Nigerian dance of welcome for one of our players? Yeah, go on then. I'm not entirely sure that the accompanying representatives of the Nigerian regime ought to be received quite so warmly, but the Igbo tribe's honouring of Ben Iroha provided a genuinely touching pre-match spectacle. And one of the season's enduring images - Robert Page, an old-fashioned Welsh centre back, striding onto the pitch for his warm-up to a backdrop of African drums and full tribal regalia. Cool.

Downhill from there, though - particularly for Iroha, who spent the afternoon playing like a ten year old trying to impress his watching parents. Not as far downhill as you might imagine, mind - savage setback to our promotion hopes as this result is, the performance really doesn't merit comparison with the worst of previous disappointments.

Rewind to August and defeat against Wolves by the same scoreline. You'll recall that we barely had a shot that night. On Saturday, especially in a pulsating first half, we had shots aplenty, we gave as good as we got. The finishing, subject of much concern recently, only lacked absolute conviction - it allowed the opposition keeper to be outstanding when greater confidence in key situations might not have given him a chance. But that really is all.

Like spoilt children, some chose to boo the team off the pitch at half-time. Sometimes I despair, I really do. Because for forty-five minutes this was exactly the kind of full-blooded, end-to-end, fiercely competitive match that we want to see at Vicarage Road. Or perhaps we don't, perhaps we'd rather return to the Second Division where the risk of failure is smaller?

Disappointing, by all means. Distressing too, if you're that way inclined. Disgraceful only if we're setting absurdly high standards.

Our most dangerous attacking spells for some time came courtesy of a league debut for Tony Daley. Scintillating, basically. Showing all the attributes that first brought him into the spotlight, Daley was fabulous - beating defenders with runs inside and out, lurking on the right to provide another striking option or switching to the left to supplement Peter Kennedy's efforts. His skidding shot from Allan Smart's perceptive pass, just a couple of feet wide of the post, provided the game's first noteworthy moment after nine minutes.

That followed some intense Watford pressure, promising much for a game that we needed to win. But, establishing the absorbing pattern of the first half, West Brom responded in kind. And they scored, which was much less absorbing. De Freitas' progress inside the area was halted by a tackle from Page, but the ball ran free to Sneekes who thumped a low shot past Chamberlain.

We weren't thrown. After Peter Kennedy had sliced wide, a rare successful run from Iroha set up Smart with a clear shooting opportunity just inside the area. Whitehead's one-handed save was exceptional - although many have already blamed Smart for the miss, I'd be very surprised if any striker we could afford would've done much better. Michael Owen would've scored, Steve Claridge would've stubbed his toe. It wasn't that easy.

Another sizzling run from Daley ended with a blocked shot a minute later. Then back to West Brom, inevitably in such an end-to-end match. Chamberlain's poor clearance under pressure allowed Quinn to attempt an ambitious lob from the right wing but the Watford keeper got back to make an easy save. Then Iroha was caught in possession and De Freitas' low shot from a tight angle was gathered by Chamberlain at his near post. Our opponents' main threat, Lee Hughes, had been successfully shackled by the outstanding Page up to that point - Sneekes gave him his first sight of goal after thirty-four minutes but, despite being unmarked, his finish was harmless (see, it happens to the best of 'em!).

All in all, the Hornets deserved to be level at the interval. Richard Johnson's curled effort from the edge of the box was in all the way, Whitehead diving left but beaten, until it hit an unknowing Carbon and deflected wide. Finally, a fine cross-field move involving Kennedy and Noel-Williams resulted in a rising shot by Daley that was kept out by a flying Whitehead save as it headed for the top corner.

So, yeah, I'd say that we played well in the first half. Granted, if you were to remove Daley from the equation then this report might've been rather different but that doesn't excuse the exasperated, childish reaction of some parts of the crowd. A little patience, if you will.

The second half was frustrating, though. With Daley surrounded by a cluster of opponents whenever possession came his way and Noel-Williams withdrawn for the irretrievably ageing Ronny Rosenthal, our attacks were lengthy but ineffective. We passed the ball about in front of the West Brom defence until we lost it, they hit us on the break. Not exactly an unfamiliar scenario, unfortunately - we needed that first half equaliser.

For a while, the possession was all Watford's and the chances were all West Brom's. Hughes' attempt at a spectacular overhead kick went straight at Chamberlain; Kilbane blazed down the left wing but finished wildly when he ought to have squared it to the top scorer; Bazeley lost out to Kilbane and was rescued by a fine two-handed save by Chamberlain; Hughes produced a dazzling turn and volley that missed by a foot, before being denied a certain goal as he collected Quinn's cross by an astonishing last-ditch tackle from Robert Page.

Curiously, the vocal encouragement from the home fans was pretty good during this period. We may not have recreated the San Siro, we may not even have drowned out the noise from the Rookery, but we got behind the team. And then, almost exactly at the moment that the match surprisingly opened up and the chances for an equaliser started coming our way, all went quiet. If the team is lacking confidence at the moment, we're simply not doing enough to lift them.

Smart, in need of a lift more than anyone, was involved in two of the key moments. First, he ran onto a through-ball and managed to reach it before Whitehead. With the keeper utterly stranded, he crossed back into the box - in an instant, we regretted the early departure of Noel-Williams' extra inches as Rosenthal strained to win the header under pressure and flicked the ball wide of an open goal. Five minutes later, the roles were reversed - Rosenthal supplied the cross, Smart headed goalwards at the near post and Whitehead made an excellent one-handed save, gathering the ball just in time as Hyde looked set to pounce.

As we committed ourselves forward, the threat of a break was always there - we knew all about that from the away game. Page blocked a Kilbane shot before the same player laid on Hughes' best chance - fortunately for us, the ball sat up unkindly for him and his half-volley whistled just over the bar. At the other end, Smart's day got worse - patient passing in front of the West Brom defence finally opened things up but the striker could only shoot tamely at Whitehead from the edge of the box. A minute later, Palmer's right wing cross was met with a disappointingly weak header.

If you don't push players forward in such circumstances, everybody (rightly) complains about lack of ambition. If you do push players forward, you run the risk of getting caught short at the back. It's unavoidable and there's really no point in attaching blame to anyone for the second goal in injury time. Chamberlain's hurried goal kick returned possession to West Brom, Quinn went clear on the right wing and picked out Angel, who made space for himself and smacked in the decisive, painful second goal. Further disgruntled booing followed the final whistle.

The point to make is not about the Premiership per se, nor about the chase for promotion - every football fan, even those who seem to love wallowing in self-pity, wants success for their club. The point to make is that it's supposed to be fun.

There were many times during the last ten years when trying to have fun at Watford matches has been like setting off party poppers during a funeral. Watching Watford has frequently been awful. But now the team is up there challenging - struggling, yes, but still challenging - we seem unable to let old habits die. We should be enjoying this, we should be aware that for such an inexpensively assembled side to be fighting it out for a playoff place in its first season back in Division One is fairly remarkable. Although there's no doubt that the striking options need to be looked at - and there are those who advocate change for its own sake, which gets us nowhere but further into the red - that really doesn't mean that Allan Smart should have his confidence shaken still further in the meantime.

They will lose matches, of course. But if they get the full support they deserve and need, they may lose less matches - apart from the last ten seconds, there was never a period on Saturday when the game was beyond us. The players never gave up, the fans did - so who's the disgrace?

See also: Boing!