Nationwide Division One, 24/10/00
It was an accident
By Martin Blanc
It was clearly a penalty. And thus we deserved to win the game. The fact that it wasn't given just meant we needed a later stroke of luck and, lo and behold, another penalty appeal at the death, and finally, from one of the Men in Black you wouldn't have minded the aliens gunking to death, a decision we could accept in good grace, and three points that lift us up where we may or may not belong.
It's not as simple as that, of course, but in the afterglow of toppling Fulham for a few days at least, simplicity has its attractions.
Watford in recent times have contrived to play not only games of two halves, but games of four quarters, three-fifths, some over-elaborate ten-ninths - vulgar fractions of what we're capable of. Against Bolton, it was two halves, and without being unduly harsh, the changes at half-time seemed to be more a matter of mental approach rather than tactics. Smith and Helguson did too little in the first half, but Smith's still learning about scraps and games like this will have helped in the longer run. Helguson, though, couldn't really get in the game from the wing, or be incisive when he got in the centre. His best chance, running onto a through ball and toe-poking it past the keeper, needed more muscle to reach the line before it was hooked away. You can't psychoanalyze a guy from one move (and he was perfectly up for the scrap, bringing their keeper to ground from a full-on challenge) but he needs a goal, or something, to get back the mad gleam in his eye. Of course, last night he needed better service from the midfield, too....
Whereas Wooter and Mooney, who replaced them at half-time, have a lot in common: they're both battlers, blessed with different innate abilities, but happy scrappers, counterpunchers, troublemakers. And what trouble. It mostly came from little Nordin, as ever: searing runs down the right and into the box, which is the only place he needs to get to for trouble to ensue. And on only his second foray, he was absolutely flattened. But apparently you don't get them given if you go down like a starfish, so we were waved away, all furious. Palmer jogged beside the ref and kept pointing to his eyes, Wooter scraped himself up and carried on.
And whilst GT is never likely to respond well to media-aired threats such as claims of Nordin being ready to pack his bags if he doesn't get in the team, the little fella might well be worth a run now. Of course, who do you leave out? He's many things, many wonderful things, but he's not a goalscorer, and if Smith's firing on all cylinders.... Arguments for another day. Today we sing, coz we love our team. They kept out a hard-working bunch of bastards who'd got an inexplicable grudge against us and interrupted our every attempt at complicated passing, which made us look like we either couldn't get in the game or weren't trying hard enough to do so. We could have done with more simplicity, with controlling the game, but we seemed prepared to stay back and soak it up, on the basis that we could hit them on the break, like we hit most people.
So right from the start, Alec was making a succession of fine stops from all angles and distances, the back four were inventive and relentless in their blocking and clearing, but in the first half at least, it all broke down when we pushed up. Hyde was having an ineffective spell, Nielsen and Smith were falling over one another, and Gifton was slipping a lot, whether due to the pitch or the opposition's attentions. Our dead balls were being wasted, though Cox came reasonably close. It didn't qualify as attritional, more...well, messy.
But somehow Tommy M. and Nordin encouraged the back four to at least search them out on the touchlines, and we suddenly looked more likely to take the extra two points. Cox was so encouraged that he went on a belter of an eighty-yard run which very nearly won more than a corner. Finally, when Smart came on for a tired and fading Noel-Williams, last season's front three had a chance to exorcise the past, and they co-ordinated with serious energy and better effectiveness than our starting trio. The fact that, not for the first time, it was Darren Ward in the box who was 'on hand' to claim the penalty with two minutes left reminded us all that as an attacking unit we have plenty else in the tank when the obvious ammo seems spent. It was an accident, the Bolton defender pleaded, flapping his shirt at the ref. Wallop, Mooney sent the keeper the wrong way and we were singing again, but with a rueful smile on our faces. Then, a minute later, the fact that it was Darren Ward 'on hand' in our box, conspicuously not pleading any accidental contact whatsoever, broadened our smiles. And we were in the clear.
Our luck is holding. Our talent is plentiful, but is it an accident that we're top of the league? Maybe in part. (It won't be if we're still there in May.) But mostly, we've earned our good fortune. Although it's quite scary to contemplate: what are the gods going to demand as payback for their outrageous benevolence?