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Worthington Cup 2nd Round 1st Leg, 14/9/99
Wigan Athletic
Nostalgia Night
By Ian Grant

Welcome to "Nostalgia Night" at Vicarage Road....

In the midst of this Premiership maelstrom, it's easy and forgivable to start casting the occasional sad glance at the disappearing memories of yesteryear. Back when you could get to see the 'Orns without seeking an emergency meeting with your bank manager first, when the support was down to its bare bones and everyone knew each other, when the football was free of insufferable hype and anonymous foreigners, when it was all fields. Those were the days, my friends....

....We thought they'd never end. But they did, thank heavens. Because they were frequently absolutely terrible, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or has never been to Wycombe.

For all the occasional moments of utter glory, documented elsewhere, this was what the last ten years of lower division football were usually like. Abysmal football in front of less than seven thousand fidgety fans in the sweeping rain. Dreadful League Cup and Auto Windscreen ties with the likes of Southend and Torquay in an empty stadium foolishly built for bigger things. Roger Willis, Derek Payne, Geoff bloody Pitcher. Awful.

No disrespect towards Wigan intended, of course. This isn't about snobbery (the regular assertion by vested interests that the Premiership is "the only place to be" is completely detestable), just about reality. Glamourising the Second Division and its inhabitants is merely another way of patronising it, the footballing version of well-to-do left-wingers worshipping the honest toil of the workers. Plenty of honest toil in the first half last night, and I dare say it was as grindingly, insufferably tedious to watch for the Wigan fans as it was for us.

The competition doesn't help, it has to be said. Much like the AWS has "a trip to Wembley", the Worthington Cup has a "UEFA Cup place" (nothing to write home about, really - you only have to collect twelve Coca-Cola ringpulls to claim your free UEFA Cup place at the moment) and nobody appears to give a toss about winning the actual trophy any more.

It's just a matter of time before it dies completely. The only clubs it benefits are those in the lower half of the Premiership, who get to enter a competition that they have half a chance of winning. So, we should be well up for it. With reserve teams and byes becoming commonplace, it doesn't offer anything to the lower divisions at all - only a draw against someone like Spurs or Everton, big enough to draw a crowd and yet hopeless enough to want to field a strong side, will bring in any serious gate receipts. It's a sad, empty shell of a once slightly-famous trophy.

Right, enough waffling. Deep breath, face the first half.

Jeez, it was awful. Punctuated by hopelessly ambitious and wayward goal attempts that barely warrant a mention (so I won't), it was indigestible stodge. As the away side, Wigan would've been happier with the general stalemate - for Watford fans, there was simply no sign of any gap in class and little hint that we were about to put an end to the goal drought. Long balls whistled aimlessly forward like dud shells, players ran about with no particular sense of purpose (for all the criticism that's come Des Lyttle's way, he was at least making endless and increasingly forlorn runs up and down the right wing, trying to make a difference), nothing happened.

In the Wigan goal, Carroll had nothing to do. To be fair, Alec Chamberlain didn't have to make a save either...but that was only thanks to a laughable miss by O'Neill. After a vacuous half an hour, Barlow skipped around Paul Robinson's ludicrous lunge (minimal change of getting the ball compared to a very high chance of getting sent off) and picked out the Wigan midfielder, unmarked on the edge of the six yard box. He had nothing to do but guide the ball into the net with his header, yet somehow he contrived to rattle the bar with such force that the ball rebounded towards the halfway line.

It took us forty-five minutes to piece together a passing move of any quality, such was our inability to impose ourselves on the game and find a way past Wigan's busy rearguard. When it finally came, we nearly scored on the stroke of half-time as a swift break saw Peter Kennedy supply Robinson for a cross, Michel Ngonge unable to get enough contact on the ball at the near post to guide it in.

So, that's the first half in three paragraphs. Which is probably dwelling on it for longer than it deserves, frankly. But here is where "Nostalgia Night" mercifully ended. In olden times, Watford would've emerged for the second half with the same line-up and delivered much the same performance. Graham Taylor, on the other hand, had seen more than enough - Lyttle and Ngonge were removed, Clint Easton and Allan Smart arrived, the formation was subject to fullscale re-shuffling (Steve Palmer back into defence, Robert Page out to right back), and the game was unrecognisable. Hurrah.

Let's not flatter ourselves too much, though. Sharp though some of our passing and movement undoubtedly was - so much better than the first half, with Easton all bustle and purpose around the midfield to force the likes of Kennedy and Wright into play and force himself back into GT's thoughts - it rarely went as far as threatening to put the tie beyond Wigan's reach. Indeed, but for a couple of absolutely stunning Chamberlain saves towards the end, the story might've been very different and the post-match discussions rather less positive. Nothing more than a low-key cup tie, an unspectacular victory.

Lovely first goal, mind. Having shown some signs of life, Kennedy firing in a free kick and Wright nearly getting on the end of a deflected Smart effort, it still took a moment of real quality to give us the confidence to go on and win the game. Hyde's dreadful corner was headed clear, Kennedy laid the ball across into Easton's path and the low strike from twenty-five yards was just so sweet, curling gently away from Carroll's dive. Beautiful...although, in true Bazeley style, Clint later went on to attempt to recreate his masterpiece with somewhat embarrassing and spectator-endangering results.

For some time, we were well in control. Sure, Barlow went close with a half-volley and Sheridan's blasted free kick nearly ended its pinball journey in the net, but our first half nervousness had disappeared. With Page proving himself to be an absolutely stonking right back (too good to lose in central defence, I suspect, so some kind of cloning experiment might be an idea) and the midfield at last cohesive, more goals appeared likely. Mooney and Wright both found themselves unable to make the best of decent chances, before a virtual carbon copy of the first goal saw Micah Hyde neatly arrow a shot past Carroll from twenty yards. Two-nil, first leg in the bag.

But not quite. The substitution of Lee for Barlow immediately after Hyde's goal unsettled us sufficiently for Wigan to create chances in the last fifteen minutes, and only Chamberlain's brilliance preserved our lead. The first stop, sharply to his right to push away Kilford's hammered volley, was at least at a comfortable height. But there was absolutely nothing comfortable about the second, low down to his left to scoop out an acrobatic volley from the impressive Liddell with five minutes remaining. Wigan fans can count themselves a little unfortunate, Watford fans can only gasp at the miracles that Chamberlain produces.

To my mind, therefore, the scoreline lies a little. Unable to create any clear-cut chances inside the box, we saved ourselves with a couple of well-executed moves and neat finishes outside. No problem with that, of course, and some of our passing play in the second half did manage to erase some of the memories of the first. But, apart from a late and wasted Mooney free header, it was Wigan who found the little bits of space in and around the penalty area...and they nearly made us pay for that. Two goals doesn't hide our attacking failings and the clean sheet shouldn't save Robinson's blushes.

For forty-five minutes, we were excruciatingly appalling. For forty-five minutes, we were okay. Neither will be good enough on Saturday, but that's a whole different kettle of stuff.