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Watford v Tranmere, 3/4/99
A turn of fortunes...
By Matt Rowson

Maybe it was just stubborn defiance, peculiar to my "stuff yer Premiership" pigheadedness... but I really WANTED to believe that the chasm between the Prem and the Nationwide wasn't all it was cracked up to be. After all, it wasn't long ago that Derby were spawning points off us at the Baseball Ground (and lest we forget, a dive by Dean Yates lost us two potentially priceless points up there three years ago). Look at them now. Added to that, one of last season's promoted sides might actually stay up this time (despite Bryan Robson's best efforts). And surely, the chief consequence of the massive influx of foreign stars and also-rans to the top flight can only ensure that Nationwide clubs get to hang onto their starlets for longer...?

Whatever. The fact is, there are currently half-a-dozen clubs milling around the edge of the Division 1 play-off zone, each vying to be the least inept of the bunch and to end up in sixth place by default. The fact that this might as well be Watford, even in our current form, as Wolves or Sheffield United who we KNOW are rubbish is of little consolation.

Another measure of the league's boggy indistinctness is the fact that until a recent run of defeats halted their progress, Rovers were coming up on the rails with half-an-eye on the play-offs themselves. Don't get me wrong... I think the play-offs are completely fab, and have nothing against Rovers, but in a sensible division it shouldn't be possible for a side to be eyeing both promotion and relegation this late on. (As an aside : it at least shows that Rovers have the intelligence to realise that Wolves are rubbish as well).

Now, however, that flickering flame has been extinguished and Rovers have little to dwell on but the continuing backroom nonsense plaguing so many Nationwide clubs. Rovers, who have had to sell players to balance the books already this season, are still owned by Peter Jackson, who also maintains his majority shareholding in Everton. The Football League appear to be completely unable to enforce their own rules on club ownership, a fact which Hornets fans will be forgiven for being concerned about in the current circumstances.

In goal is Dutchman John Achterberg, keeping out Welshman Danny Coyne who has recently returned from injury. Coyne's Vicarage Road debut in 1995 featured an hilariously inept attempt to save Kevin Phillips' opener, prompting a chorus of "Dodgy Keeper" from the Vic Road stand which has yet to be matched.

Fullbacks are Andy Thompson and Graham Allen, who signed from the uncomfortably neighbourly Everton as part of the deal taking Steve Simonsen to Goodison Park.

Centre-halves are John McGreal and Dave Challinor, whose extraordinarily long throw is a key part of Rovers' attacking armoury. Other options are resident psycho Clint Hill, closing on his umpteenth suspension of the season, and youngster Ian Sharps.

In midfield, the star is Irish U21 man Alan Mahon, who recently missed out on a U21 trip to Macedonia despite UEFA trying to convince the sceptical Irish FA that being surrounded by NATO troops in Skopje is really as safe as it gets.

Long-serving beer-monster Kenny Irons is in fine form this season, and was the Hornets' undoing at Prenton Park in October. Irish veteran Liam O'Brien seems to have been playing forever, whilst versatile Frenchman Georges Santos can also play at the back, and is rivalling Hill in the disciplinary stakes. Another option is Welsh U21 man Neil Gibson, with Aldridge having suggested he will use the rest of the season to try out some of his youngsters. Jason Koumas, of whom much is also expected, is recovering from a thigh strain.

Up front, the chief threat is the much travelled David Kelly, who hasn't looked totally happy with any of his 47 clubs since he emerged with a Limahl haircut at Walsall in the eighties. Alongside him is Scott Taylor, a signing from Bolton once linked with the Hornets. Other options are former Liverpool reserve Lee Jones, and another youngster Ryan Williams, a signing from Mansfield drawing Peter Beardsley comparisons (through being short and nippy rather than looking like a baboon's armpit, one hopes).

Tranmere, in truth, have little to play for, which means that anything could happen on Saturday. Watford... well, on recent performances we'd be happy just to score. But there's a thought that I can't shake... a nagging voice which says that it won't take much, just a ball to bounce our way in the box, to turn things around. A turn of fortunes... and then sixth place is there for the taking.

Wolves are, after all, rubbish.