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FA Carling Premiership, 6/11/99
Sheffield Wednesday
Playing like Watford
By Ian Grant

Billy Blooddrop.

Some poor student dressed up in the now customary padded foam outfit and paid to bounce around the pitch in an entertaining and child-friendly fashion. All in the good cause of promoting blood donorship, or something similar. Taking straight-faced literalism to new and absurd heights like a lost sketch from Big Train, the costume in question is a red blob, a drop of blood in cuddly form. With a cute smiley face, natch.

Next week: Sammy Snotcake promotes cold prevention.

Hillsborough has a habit of hosting such absurdity. Our last encounter with Wednesday was preceded by the antics of a veritable army of cute mascots (well, three) and enlivened by the antics of the considerably less cute Paulo Di Canio. Clearly, it is a place where comedy has a home, and you can't help but love it for that.

I love it anyway. Anyone taking pleasure in Wednesday's current plight ought to come here. History duly noted, it's such a wonderful place to watch football. Its stands retain a grand beauty that has long been replaced by identikit concrete and bucket seats elsewhere. It has a warmth, an aura. And it deserves better than this.

Those who wish to proclaim that our relegation is an inevitability ought to come here too. Because the gloom that hangs over Hillsborough like a shroud is what follows when you stop fighting. Occasional spasms aside - the burst of passionate support at the start of the second half, De Bilde's one-man army - the patient is showing no signs of recovery. This is a club that knows its fate, and it's not a pretty sight.

So, in the grand scheme of stuff, the frustration of two dropped points doesn't matter as much as the knowledge that we're still battling, that our heads haven't dropped. The margin of error remains tiny, the awareness that deserving to win counts for little remains acute...but this was the Watford we've fallen in love with. Committed, intense, ferocious, yet also organised, disciplined and intelligent.

If you want a battleplan for the rest of the season, this was it. We rolled our sleeves up and got on with it, concentrating only on the here and now. We were poor for periods and we made some costly mistakes...but, far more importantly, we were never distracted, never frustrated and never downhearted. That approach, if it can be sustained, is what will keep us up. We've got nothing to lose this season, so let others worry about relegation.

The first goal was always going to be crucial. Understandably, both sides were almost over-deliberate to begin with, taking extra care with the stakes so high. Booth curled a shot at Chamberlain early on, then Ngonge failed to control a lovely Easton pass after five minutes.

But this was not to be the dull, awkward stalemate that these fixtures often produce. Neither defence ever managed to look particularly secure, both attacks had enough potency to threaten goals. Wednesday were the first to come really close as Jonk's corner was met powerfully by Thome, Hyde's presence on the line enough to block the effort before Chamberlain saved the follow-up. Edgy moments.

They say that supporters can be worth a goal start. On Saturday, it was literally so. With nothing happening on the pitch, the away fans tried to lift their team. The chant - "Elton John's Taylor-made Army", as ever - grew slowly at first before snowballing until it echoed around the whole ground. The crescendo, amplified to deafening volume by the iron roof of the stand, was unbelievable - all words and rhythm lost in the noise as we rose to our feet. As it reached its staggering peak, the team were swept forward on the crest of a wave. We scored - a lovely interchange between Wooter, Miller and Ngonge setting up the Zairean to slot the ball past Pressman - and anything else would've been a massive anticlimax. One of the moments of the season.

It would be an understatement to say that Wednesday's heads dropped. Their chins were getting muddy. For the rest of the half, they were a shambles, albeit a shambles that dominated play as we sat back rather too much. The collective nervous breakdown was perfectly illustrated ten minutes after the goal as De Bilde and Booth contrived to waste an opportunity by dallying indecisively and then passing the ball straight to Chamberlain in their confusion. Atherton drove wide a minute later, but howls of frustration greeted each failed attack - there was no disguising the disintegration of a team without confidence, no escaping the contrast with an increasingly determined Watford side.

Either side of half-time, the opportunity was there to plunge Wednesday deeper into their own misery. We didn't do it. Indeed, it was the home side that looked likelier before the interval, mainly thanks to the determination of De Bilde. It was his cross that found Sonner arriving unmarked after forty minutes - again, the finish was too careful, on target but near enough to Chamberlain for the keeper to make a flying save.

At the other end, Ngonge blazed wide from the edge of the area, finally as dangerous as someone so big and strong and quick ought to be. De Bilde was again in the thick of the action, flicking the ball over Chamberlain from Rudi's cross but finding Page in position to head to safety. Sonner shot over on the turn from the resulting corner.

But all this was eclipsed by the return of Gifton Noel-Williams. It'd be easy to put too much weight on those still-young shoulders...but, jeez, is it good to have him back. He was received rapturously and didn't disappoint, adding an entirely new dimension to our forward play. Where Wooter continues to frustrate by dribbling excitedly down dead-ends, Gifton provided so much of what we've been missing. Like Smart at his best, he simply brought the whole offensive line into play and we had movement, cohesion, real menace for the first time in what seems like years. Miller and Ngonge were transformed, Wednesday were rattled, we looked like we could score goals. Give him time, though, he'll need to build his stamina slowly.

Wednesday were booed off at half-time, Hillsborough was a depressed and desolate place...apart from the away section.

So we set about the task of getting that all-important second while Wednesday were still down in the dumps. Should've got it too, as the otherwise excellent Ngonge took the ball wide when played in by a sublime touch from Noel-Williams. What followed was comical, the defence overwhelmed by buck-passing strikers until Johnson drove wildly from distance.

We were to regret moments like that as the home side finally flickered into life, bringing their fans into full voice at last. Yet again it was De Bilde, dancing brilliantly past Panayi and only foiled by Chamberlain's legs after stabbing the ball goalwards.

We couldn't hold on for long. For the second time in as many games, Chamberlain was beaten from the penalty spot after an unnecessary handball. Three players - Miller, Panayi and Page - competed with Booth as a long throw arrived in the box and the ball caught an arm in the confusion, referee Winter pointing to the spot without hesitation. De Bilde took the responsibility and scored neatly, sending Chamberlain the wrong way.

It would've been easy to have allowed Wednesday to take control, as the home support sensed victory and turned up the volume. But this was a different kind of Watford performance to those that we've seen in recent weeks, altogether more focused, and we surged forward to regain the lead within two minutes. The free kick against Thome for a foul on Miller was debatable (he appeared to win the ball) but there was no argument about Hyde's exquisite delivery to the far post, where Page ignored Ngonge's mis-timed jump and nodded home. He celebrated like someone who'd scored their first league goal after roughly thirty-seven years of trying.

Game on. The remaining half hour was frantic and breathless, thrilling for the committed and probably bemusing for the neutral. The home side sent everything down the left flank and we were unable to stem the stream of crosses from Hinchcliffe - Wednesday were relying on Booth's physical presence, we were relying on him being rubbish...which, fortunately, he is. Twice he wasted chances to grab an immediate equaliser, scuffing weakly at a near post cross and then heading over two minutes later. Sonner deepened the misery by heading over from a corner as the sheer obstinacy of our defending saw us through a difficult period.

Ultimately, we were to carve out clear-cut openings in the final fifteen minutes and yet fail to score a third, the only truly disappointing aspect of an otherwise vastly improved performance. A goal from Noel-Williams would've brought the house down and Miller nearly created it for him, twisting and turning on the left to beat defenders and dart into the box - his pull-back found the striker unmarked but his side-footed finish just didn't carry enough weight to beat Pressman as he re-adjusted.

Johnson drove straight at Pressman two minutes later, but it was Wednesday who struck next. Page allowed De Bilde to turn in the box and it proved to be a fatal lapse as the Belgian nipped past him to drill a shot into the bottom corner. A brutally efficient bit of finishing.

But we weren't about to give up. The final five minutes were a lunatic rush for the winning goal, two clearances off the line coming between us and three points. First it was Tommy Smith, latching onto an appalling Thome backpass, rounding Pressman, ignoring Miller's calls for a pull-back and going for goal from an impossible angle. He got it on target, but Hinchcliffe had tracked back to boot clear.

That was just the start. Two minutes from time, the moment that we were to be mentally replaying throughout the long trek home. Easton's fabulous corner, Pressman flapping again, Miller on the far post, everyone up in celebration. He hit it well enough and Jonk knew little about his clearance, the ball smacking into his chest (claims for handball at the time were disproved on video) and evading Noel-Williams' attempts to force it over the line. So very, very close.

There was still time for Booth to head over Chamberlain as the keeper advanced to claim another Hinchcliffe cross. We waited for the sickening noise of Wednesday fans celebrating the winner...but, mercifully, it also cleared the bar. Fittingly, De Bilde ended proceedings, shooting wide from twenty yards after another determined run.

With a two week break coming, it's time for reflection. The season so far is easily summarised - we've played with enormous pride against some of the country's biggest (and richest) names, what we haven't yet done is to transfer that form into results against our lower-half competitors. We haven't been ruthless enough.

We weren't ruthless enough on Saturday either, but we took a step towards meeting that challenge. There was a confidence and an intensity about us that our opponents couldn't match, and it was echoed by tremendous support.

That's the real Watford. It may or may not be good enough to keep us in the Premiership. Whatever, it's plenty good enough for me.