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FA Carling Premiership, 31/9/99
Coventry City
By Matt Rowson

Doesn't May 31st seem a long time ago?

There'll be many to whom this sort of result isn't really a surprise. Watford were always supposed to struggle, of course. When you bear in mind that the vast majority of the squad, including the more recent arrivals, were playing Second Division football two seasons ago, and that this same squad has been decimated by injury and further mocked by cruelly coincidental suspensions, a scoreline like this is almost inevitable.

Doesn't make it any easier to take though. Even at Old Trafford we weren't this far outclassed... Watford had played well, United were merely better. It's a long time since we were as comprehensively thrashed as this; probably Burnley away at the end of Kenny Jackett's season. But that didn't matter nearly as much.

In the build-up to the game, knowledge of the enforced omission of three-quarters of the back four led to all sorts of horrible possibilities being contemplated. Just to remind us who's running this show, Watford came out at Highfield Road in defiantly effervescent form. Ha. Of course. GT would pull a rabbit out of his prodigious hat - how could we have doubted him.

Watford opened with an unusual 5-3-2 formation, with Gibbs pushed inwards, Palmer pushed backwards, and James Panayi unexpectedly given his debut to form the central three at the back. Lyttle and Easton were the wingbacks in an extremely makeshift looking backline.

Which seemed to matter not a jot for the first quarter of an hour, as the Hornets tore into their opponents. The first warning shot was fired when Easton's vicious corner curved inwards towards the goal, Paul Telfer heading against his own crossbar in confusion.

Smith and Wooter were lively, and the former sprung the City offside trap only to find himself slightly wide, his left foot letting him down as he shot tamely into the onrushing Hedman. This wasn't the last time that Watford would have cause to rue his weaker side.

After a couple of further attempts to spring the offside were stopped by questionable linesman's flags, Miller spurned perhaps the Hornets' clearest chance, thundering a header fractionally wide from a left wing cross. "We're going to regret these misses" pondered a voice behind me. Oh yes.

City scored. A cracking finish from the astonishing Robbie Keane, but too easy, too much time. Did he make that time himself or did we give it to him? No matter, the effect was the same. Our heads were down immediately. We were never in the game from then on.

City, on the other hand, were injected with confidence. Bearing in mind how we squirmed at the nation's deliberating at "what had happened to Chelsea" in indifference to the Hornets' contribution after our last league win, it would be churlish to focus too much on our own failings for the rest of the game. Our hosts were, frankly, awesome in attack... McAllister's composure, Froggatt's pace, Hadji's elegance, Roussel's strength and Keane's everything were a complete pain in the arse. If this had been Man United, unfairly, it wouldn't have hurt nearly so much.

City's second was also well taken, this time by Froggatt, but was even more than the first the result of ponderous defending, Palmer and the hapless Panayi the culprits on this occasion.

Half time. Despondency, and a search for sharp objects. Darren Ward started the second half with Gibbs moving onto the left-hand side of the back three. Ngonge also appeared, a predictable and popular introduction given the Hornets' impossible height disadvantage. However for all his effort Ngonge's impact was minimal, and the Scotsman Miller can think himself unfortunate to have been removed.

The half-time break seemed initially to rejuvenate the team, and it certainly brought the support back to life after a sombre end to the first forty-five. So when Coventry scored a goal which so completely echoed our defensive failings of the first half, it knocked the stuffing out of the team completely. A ball from the right dropped over Hadji and Ward, and the defender gave the Moroccan enough space to impudently hook the ball up into the roof of the net.

The impact on the support was also obvious. The volume of support was unrelenting, but rather than the brazen defiance of the din at Old Trafford, this was a desperate, almost tearful obstinacy. The manner of the defeat, and the way in which City seemed to cut us up at will, was completely choking. After two years of success, we've come to expect more.

The fourth goal came, Palmer handling under pressure and conceding a penalty that McAllister converted effortlessly. Watford's own attacks, in stark contrast to the start of the game, seemed almost completely toothless. This was a shame, since City's defence was actually far from solid, with the dominant Paul Williams, responsible for so much tidying up, reminiscent of Sol Campbell's one-man defiance at White Hart Lane in January.

The game finished. No boos, thankfully, but no rueful smiles either. Black looks all round. Only the unimpeachable Gibbs, Johnson and Chamberlain approached to offer their thanks. The abject Lyttle and ineffective Gudmundsson applauded tentatively from the centre circle, as if uncertain whether they had any right to offer thanks, or to receive praise.

Winning football games is important to any fan. Nobody enjoys seeing their team lose (however much some might claim to expect it). But everybody wants to be part of the team, to be involved. Even at the end of a gut-wrenchingly depressing game, this broad lack of acknowledgement, this refusal to grant us that involvement, was the blow that hurt most of all.