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FA Carling Premiership, 7/8/99
By Ian Grant

The buzz is unmistakeable. Finally, after months of summery unreality, it all sinks in with Football Focus on Saturday morning. This is really happening.

At Vicarage Road, excitement crackles in the air like static. For a spine-shivering moment loitering in Occupation Road, I can vividly recall the mood before our First Division debut against Everton all those years ago. This feels the same, and it's impossible to believe that we're anything other than invincible. I hadn't been aware of waiting for the Premiership kickoff - life seems full to overflowing right now, summer seemed too short - but suddenly impatience overwhelms everything.

The time whistles by. That curious atmosphere which always comes with the first game of the season, made even more curious by the switch to the Rookery. Songs given their first airings, friendships renewed after the break, expectations left unshattered for the moment.

And then it's on. Thirty seconds of sprightly Watford passing, followed by a killjoy torrent of about fifty-eight consecutive Wimbledon corners. Welcome to the Premiership.

On this evidence, it's certainly not going to be dull. For forty-five minutes, we were treated to a vintage confrontation between a full-on assault from the home side and devastating counter-attacks from the visitors. And, for the same forty-five minutes, Watford were every bit as brilliant as at any time in that charge to the playoffs and beyond. We still went back to the dressing room trailing....

The opening quarter of an hour was as instructive as it was thrilling, a microcosm of what we can expect this season. The blur of wildly enthusiastic Watford attacking, pouring down the flanks to supply an insanely pumped-up Mooney and Ngonge partnership, brought the Rookery end to the boil. A goal would've brought the house down.

And a goal was what we so nearly got. After he'd already failed to get any power on a header from a Gayle error, the best chance of the entire match fell to Mooney after nine minutes. Lyttle's quickly-taken short corner to Kennedy, the perfect hanging cross for the unmarked striker. Sullivan's point blank save was extraordinary...but Mooney will know that he shouldn't have been able to get anywhere near it, let alone keep it out.

Within seconds, Wimbledon had drummed the point home with a breakaway goal of awesome power. After leaving Lyttle and Palmer trailing in his wake with a rampaging break down the left wing, Gayle delivered a cross towards Hartson. He got enough of a touch to divert the ball into Cort's path, and the finish was emphatic. Lesson One: "Teams take their chances in this division".

We just kept going as before. Made of sterner stuff, us. Two minutes later, Johnson's sizzling low cross from the left eluded Mooney's lunge by mere millimetres. Six minutes later, we were deservedly level. The creation of the opening was utterly delightful, one in the eye for those who'd stereotype us. Johnson scavaging in midfield and supplying tidy service into Mooney's feet, Ngonge sent racing clear into the box by the deftest of flicks. It would've been a goal to savour, had Blackwell not unfairly intervened. The Wimbledon defender was dismissed (Lesson Two: "Premiership referees don't do leniency") and Kennedy kept his head to smack the penalty down the middle, although a deflection from Sullivan's trailing leg gave momentary cause for alarm.

In truth, playing against ten men proved to be something of a curse as Wimbledon concentrated on reorganising at the back and left their strikers to fend for themselves. We've never found it easy to break opponents down in recent years and this wasn't an exception. As you'd expect from a line-up with monstrous engine room of Johnson, Bonnot and Palmer, lots of purposeful industry yet key absences, particularly Hyde, Wright and Bazeley, were felt in the lack of end product in the final third. For a while, our football remained superficially scintillating and it appeared as if we were about to put Wimbledon to the sword...but frustration began to set in as the pressure yielded no chances.

So the Dons' second was a real blow. Forget any criticism of Chris Day, who'd have had to pull off an astonishing save to prevent the goal, and concentrate on Lesson Three: "If you give unnecessary free kicks away around the box, then there are plenty of Premiership players who'll relish scoring from them". Following Page's foul on Hartson as the two competed for a header, Gayle clipped his deadly-accurate shot over the wall and into the top corner.

It was never quite the same after that. Some heads went dropped a little, and it was left to the usual suspects to keep the Watford cause alive. Or, more precisely, the usual suspects plus one - on just his fifth first team appearance, the magnificently rugged Alexandre Bonnot was managing to out-Johnno Johnno in midfield, getting his claim for a permanent place in early on.

But Wimbledon had made their adjustments and it was they who looked the likelier. Gayle might've had his second on thirty-four minutes, rounding Day after collecting Hartson's pass but only finding the side netting from a tight angle. Pro-celebrity player Robbie Earle (but at least he's not Gary bloody Lineker) also went close with a potent rising drive. The final action of the half saw Mooney head wide from a Johnson free kick.

GT was hardly reticent about making half-time changes. Robert Page was replaced by Tommy Smith, with Steve Palmer dropping back into defence (where, after a somewhat flustered first half, he was immediately transformed into the player we know).

It didn't really work. Sure, Smith took up some good positions out on the right wing, but the support from the thoroughly disappointing Lyttle was never really forthcoming and our play became increasingly restricted. With Wimbledon content to defend their lead, we rapidly ran out of ideas. Those who'd like us to conform to their preconceptions might like to note that when we do resort to aimlessly punting the ball forward, as we did on far too many occasions during the second half, we achieve precisely nothing.

There were only occasional blasts of individual ambition to hint at an equaliser. Ngonge's surging run from the halfway line and strong drive into Sullivan's midriff, the nervy but improving Easton following his example twenty minutes later. Only when we spread play wide, particularly to Kennedy on the left, did we look genuinely capable of creating openings...and we didn't do that nearly often enough.

The picture wasn't entirely bleak, however. Having let Bonnot run the show in the first half, it was Richard Johnson's turn to show us that the Premiership is nothing that Watford players need be frightened of. Proudly wearing the captain's armband in Page's absence, he was at his magnificent, ubiquitous best. You could almost hear the eulogies on "Match Of The Day" as he stifled the Wimbledon midfield and directed the troops. What a player he could be.

I've heard various descriptions of the pass that created Ngonge's equaliser. Otherwise complimentary about our performance (albeit in a slightly surprised way) the BBC dismissed it as "a ball over the top", and the newspapers appeared to think along similar lines. Well, rubbish. Watching from the Rookery, there was nothing on as Johnson received a square pass from Kennedy, another attack was rapidly losing its momentum. Then Ngonge showed for the ball and the delivery was instant and exquisite, Johnson picking his spot like a golfer chipping onto the green, bringing Sullivan from his line in desperation and allowing the striker to flick it over and into the unguarded net. As long as everyone continues to believe that Johnson plays "balls over the top" rather than defence-splitting passes, then we have a chance in this division.

For another five minutes, we worshipped our Australian hero. And he was everywhere, absolutely everywhere, all over the place...and in one place too many. Disaster. A harmless cross from the left, Johnson clearing up in the six yard box and chesting it back to Day ... no ... NO ... NNNOOOO! It hardly needs a post-mortem, really* - both players take the blame, Johnson for not decisively wellying it clear, Day for not coming out and claiming like a goalkeeper. Whatever, it left everyone deflated and it handed Wimbledon the three points after we'd fought so hard to deny them. Lesson Four: "It's going to be difficult enough without shooting ourselves in the foot".

If this season is about how we react to defeats, then here's our first test. The lessons to be learnt are almost incidental, complete common sense. The ins and outs of team selection are best left to the manager. What matters is that we're up for it again when we travel to Sunderland, and again at Liverpool, and again against Bradford, and again and again until next May. If we are, we'll stay up; if we're not, we're going down. It is that simple.

* The editor would like to point out that, although some of the opinions expressed in this report are rather charitable, this is due to him being in a good mood. Which, as many will testify, doesn't happen very often.