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FA Carling Premiership, 21/8/99
Bradford City
Not pretty
By Ian Grant

Familiar ground, then.

In reality, the whole "WE ARE PREMIER LEAGUE!" celebration extended no further than awkward greetings between two people who used to be at the same school but never really had anything in common. Initial pleasantries followed by edgy silences, not a memorable occasion.

Perhaps that shouldn't be so surprising. Premiership survival is about self-absorption and total concentration, shutting out the rest of this lunacy and getting on with it. On the pitch, with forthcoming opponents littered with the stars of a million bedroom wall posters, it's about working hard and closing down and breaking up and general denial. Not negative, just realistic.

So, effectively and unspectacularly, we did to Bradford what we did to Liverpool. And they responded in kind. Two hedgehogs having a punch-up. Not pretty.

The three points count the same, though. Hard earned and ultimately deserved, they go further towards erasing any fear of humiliation this season - even with a savagely depleted squad (you listening, Ruud?), we're off to exactly the kind of start we all know we need. Both sets of fans have every right to sneer at the suggestion that this was an early relegation six pointer...but it does no harm to win it just in case.

Home games are not going to be easy. With the club having dug a hole for itself and seemingly intent on further excavation, it seems pretty clear that we're not going to have a full Vic for anything but the headline fixtures. The atmosphere is, of course, electric at key moments...but it's eerily flat otherwise. The core support that generates such volume on our travels is scattered and silent, the passion needed to sustain the team's efforts sadly absent. The hidden cost of profiteering or a natural consequence of heightened expectation?

Whatever, we needed a lift during a thoroughly dreary first half. It's easy to be overly harsh - after all, we were twice out-played by Bradford last season, and with stronger line-ups than the one available on Saturday - but the industry of both sides simply crushed any creativity. As the home team, the emphasis was on us to take the initiative, yet we were unable to find inspiration.

Apart, that is, from Micah Hyde who was inspiration personified. With Clint Easton and Steve Palmer clearing away the debris from the battlefield around him, Hyde offered his admirers a series of dazzling solo improvisations. Ball control like the cocky kid in the playground, dancing around desperate challenges like no-one in a yellow shirt has since John Barnes. An oasis of pure talent in a desert of honest workmanship.

Twenty-five minutes in, with only ambitious volleys from Tommy Mooney and Peter Kennedy occupying my notebook, Hyde was a couple of feet away from the goal of the season award. Evading a cartoon gang robbery by three opponents with magical skill that seemed to bring a collective gasp from his audience, he advanced and blitzed a drive towards the top corner from twenty yards. Walsh was beaten, it didn't miss by much. Truly brilliant.

Nothing else even vaguely lived up to that moment, defences reigned supreme. Even the increasingly threatening Michel Ngonge appeared unable to do anything but charge down blind alleys. Unsurprising, then, that our closest effort should come from a set piece, Hyde's left wing free kick finding Robert Page sliding in at the far post and the ball bouncing on the crossbar before being pushed awkwardly behind by Walsh.

Bradford didn't wake up until just prior to the interval, after a particularly lengthy spell of meaningless battling. A fine interchange between Windass and Jacobs resulted in Lawrence heading wide when he might've done better. Within a minute, Beagrie had turned Des Lyttle to force a smart parry from Chris Day at his near post.

Thankfully, the second half, although never hitting great heights, had rather more to recommend it. Not least a Watford winner.

Ironic, though, that Mooney's goal came long after the Hornets' initial pressure had faded to memory. We emerged from the dressing room in especially determined mood, hurling ourselves at Bradford with real conviction for the first time. Damn nearly paid off too.

Walsh was ready. Pretty much a spectator until this point, his save to deny Ngonge's powerful close range header in the third minute was absolutely outstanding. Almost immediately, he was off his line as Lyttle roared onto Page's glorious cross-field pass and was halted by the City keeper's feet. Not so calm but still effective, finally, in keeping out Mooney's rising shot as it headed for the top corner.

But, without a goal to lift the spirits, we were unable to keep it going. The Watford purple patch was followed by a Bradford purple patch of comparable ferocity as, at long last, the game let some entertainment slip from its grasp. Windass fired over from Mills' far post knock-down, Dreyer beat Day with a header but couldn't beat Mark Williams on the goalline, Mills and Wetherall both failed to hit the target from corners.

Ultimately, however, the result hinged on two moments and everything up to this point has been so much preamble. The first moment turned out to be the only goal of the game, and it was total Mooney. He didn't just score it, he orchestrated it - a brilliant flick back to Kennedy from Hyde's cross and then unmistakeable, undeniable demanding of a return ball as he charged into the six yard box. Kennedy, knowing what was good for him, delivered the cross; Mooney crashed the header past Walsh; Vicarage Road got another reminder of why this player will be talked about in the same breath as the Watford greats.

A bit of fast forwarding - past Ngonge hitting the bar from two yards and having his embarrassment spared by the linesman's flag, past the unpleasant exposure of the lack of options available on the bench, past some slightly confused attempts to waste time by keeping possession in the Bradford half - takes us to the second key moment. Rarely can a team be found guilty of over-committing in an attempt to protect a one-goal lead, yet we did exactly that. As our game of injury time keep-ball around the opposition penalty area finally broke down, Bradford were suddenly streaming forward on the break, the offside trap was broken and substitute Grant was away. Chris Day's attempt at intervention failed as Grant rounded his desperate dive and advanced into the penalty area. He jerked his foot back to guide the ball into the empty net, hearts sank all around Vicarage Road, Robert Page hurled himself at the ball from yards away and pulled off just the most almighty, match-winning tackle to save the day. The man has grown into a great captain.

In years to come, no-one will remember Watford 1 Bradford City 0. The thing is that it's easy to have a Premiership season of spectacular highlights - winning at Anfield and one or two more famous victories, trips to Highbury and Old Trafford - and still get relegated. Ask a Charlton fan.

Keep picking up points, the history books will take care of themselves.