FA Carling Premiership, 20/11/99
Better players and a worse team
By Ben Weinrabe
A cold, grey winter and a freezing day. Solemnly, past graffiti hoardings advertising 'Wray Out: Football First at Vicarage Rd' (possibly a new fanzine, but then again no) I took my first fan's march for Watford in the Premiership. Odd to pile into the Rookery Stand and see the Vicarage Road end peppered with black and white shirts, odd to see people again in the family enclosure. Odd, later, to finally see Watford able to put out a decent attacking force, albeit they proved fairly ineffective on the day. Strangest thing of all, naturally, was sitting for the first half among strangers, under the Club's new seat allocation system. So, I admit here and now that I am not in the same class of supporter as my cousin Jason, who turned out to the game in his shorts and replica team shirt, with only a thin t-shirt underneath. This display of solidarity with the players from a highly-committed football fan is beyond the comprehension of this occasional Vicarage Road attendee, and, as my report will show, I find it hard to share his unbreachable optimism over the team.
I can't say it was surreal to see Watford in the Premiership. It's sunk in all right, somewhat depressingly. Injuries, defeats - at first by the odd goal, and recently by more than the odd goal. I never could understand the logic of 'we lost, but it was only by a goal'. "Elton John's Taylor-made Army" is still as popular as ever among the fans, but are things being left too late? Do two draws stabilise things? When will a victory stop being a thing of amazement, even disbelief?
I live in Brussels. How do you explain to a Belgian, a Spaniard or any other of the myriad nationalities living here, that last time, the FIRST time, we made it to the top flight we finished runners-up behind the all-mighty Liverpool? How do you explain that it is NOT all right to be second from bottom now, when GT's in control? But this is the Premiership where, when you face the highly skilled, highly fit athletes of today (who would demolish the Liverpool of yesteryear) and you don't have a squad and the injuries have hit you, then a GT in charge is no longer the same thing as GT in control of Watford's destiny. That's something a Watford fan can't quite take in. But it's true. Our new reality is that we've already lost a huge number of games, and two draws against struggling sides - when we failed even to show much passion - isn't enough.
Bobby Robson's on our case, and the press is bemused. The Watford fans, offspring of The Family Club, gave Alan Shearer (our national hero!) a less than adoring welcome. Is it any surprise, when you saw what a miserable git he was? Petulent, never a smile. Every fair challenge bitterly contested before the referee. And, except for the odd moment (and there were only two) when he showed his true thoroughbred's class, his own performance made it all too understandable why the fans were asking him where he was on Wednesday night. I'll admit that calling him a w***** didn't show a lot of class on our part, but if any other player had behaved as Shearer did, wouldn't they expect the same?
Make no mistake, this was not a bright game. Its mood was that of the weather - passionless, grey, determined and unadventurous. Newcastle were generally competent and their man-marking kept our three strikers under restraint for almost the entire game. Playing three up front hurt our midfield, of course. Miller held the centre competently at times, and Micah went off on his jigging runs - often releasing the ball perfectly into space for a Hornet to run onto, but, naturally, there was rarely a Watford player near. Simply, we were out-gunned in midfield (Clint Easton was as anonymous as Shearer at Wembley) and we weren't picking up Newcastle's wingers - who all too often overlapped our defence. Our passing out of midfield was poor, indeed it was generally inefficient as a player peeled off in one direction only to have the ball fed against the grain of his run.
It wasn't just depressing that our passing was often woeful and that the players weren't reading each other. When you looked at Newcastle you saw organisation and disciplined positioning; when you looked at Watford you saw clumps of players and little running off the ball. So, it was to be expected that Watford can only ever claim to have been on top of the game for periods of the last twenty minutes or so of the match. When Shearer's header hit the post earlyish in the first half you thought it was going in and, if you were being objective, you saw that a goal then would have fitted the run of play. When Watford's goal went in, it was certainly against that same run of play. Ketsbaia was often allowed to threaten on the right, and Newcastle's crosses into the box were frequent and nominally effective. Page and Robinson coped, but only just. We saw some frightening defending at the beginning: our defenders playing the ball across our own goal mouth (I learnt you couldn't do that when I was seven years old), and Robbo's poor head-back one time was almost intercepted in front of a hapless Chamberlain.
Don't get me wrong, our players individually appear to have skill or competence. In the team on the pitch we were only carrying one player, and that was Clint Easton. Gravelaine showed that he isn't just here to pick up his pay-packet and go home in the evening - he clearly wanted to play. But Gravelaine and the team just didn't co-ordinate, and Gravelaine's jinking run in the first minute to make a break up the other end (after some pretty ball-control on the line) found an absence of support or luck. Furthermore, his one real scoring opportunity saw him skyrocket the ball above the opposition goal. He appears to like taking on players, and I thought that we could have used him more effectively if he dropped back a little and left GNW as our main target man. Gravelaine's one inexcusable (new boy's) fault was to try kissing the Vicarage Road turf at every opportunity - but referee Steve Dunn was having none of it, and to Gravelaine's credit he learnt his lesson quickly. Let it not be forgotten, also, that the one time we did manage to RELEASE our attackers onto goal in the second half, it was Gravelaine's beautifully placed through-ball that started the movement which ended with Ngonge's (offside?) goal. I think Gravelaine has promise, and GT's outstanding opportunity at the moment is to build him into the team - even, possibly, build the midfield-attack line around him.
A few more words on our attacking play: we had a few early corners, but it was generally a Newcastle head or their keeper's hands which found the ball whenever we played it high into their half. I'd say we should play the ball along the ground more often, but, having seen our passing, that mightn't be such a good idea either. It's true that we have a lot of injuries which, alongside our new signings, have shaken up the structure (and therefore the co-ordination) of the team. It follows that a bad run hurts morale, too. Still, GT, now you've got the players who are fit and able enough to constitute a decent Premiership team, you've got to organise them and reinstil that passion which could only get us so far until the likes of Wooter, Miller and Gravelaine came along.
I should say that my worries about Wooter's reported second thoughts regarding the club didn't prevent him playing his guts out when he came on, and he provided some of the movement and passion that pretty much every other player had left at home on the day. Why GNW got the Man of the Match award instead, I couldn't tell you - he really didn't catch my eye at all, but no surprise given the service he got. All the same, I should mention that Gifton has a certain air of arrogance about him (what a surprise - the fans have given him golden boy status) which means that maybe he isn't giving quite the respect to Wooter and Gravelaine that their skill and superior experience merit. In other words, GNW should be held partly responsible for not bringing his fellow strikers into the game.
Meanwhile, Palmer, Cox and Ngonge gave solid performances that can't really be faulted. Micah might have earnt the Man of the Match if he hadn't been on auto-pilot at times: feeding the ball to where players should have been rather than where they were. I hope Gravelaine doesn't get frustrated, and I hope Johnno is back soon. My favourite performance, though, came from Nordin - if our players followed his example we mightn't have looked second best to a drab, albeit okay, Newcastle team.
Finally, I didn't see it, although apparently there SHOULD have been a late penalty: but we didn't get it and we didn't deserve to. Consider the referee's decision that time as a cancellation of Ngonge's almost certainly off-side goal (he was practically on the goal line). In any case, Steve Dunn limited the number of bookings and generally had a good day as ref. On this performance we shouldn't have won, and maybe we shouldn't have drawn - but for the fact that Newcastle didn't particularly want to win. Before I go, draw your attention to the fact that you could see Newcastle's goal-in-reply coming. Why? Because after our goal we immediately lost our shape and attention, while Newcastle finally stepped up a gear and did what they should have done earlier. Scored.