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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/04/02
Something old, something new...
By Ian Grant

Another home defeat, then. Another disappointment, another failure. And so it ends.

Kind of. For, while the irrelevance of the result undoubtedly cushioned the blow somewhat, you can't help thinking that there'd have been rather less gnashing of teeth and howling of abuse over the last nine months if more of our Saturday afternoons (and Sunday evenings and Thursday evenings and Wednesday mornings and so on) had been like this. After stumbling blindly into so many scrappy, dismal defeats, this felt as pleasant and refreshing as bright, warm spring sunshine.

True, there was nothing at stake, and the scoreline might've been a source of anguish and depression in different circumstances. In these circumstances, however, a richly entertaining match, packed with dynamic attacking play from both sides and crowned by an absolutely breathtaking goal from Anthony McNamee on his full home debut, was exactly what the doctor would've prescribed. It cured none of the problems, of course...but it did allow us to forget about them for a little while.

For Gillingham, a highest ever league finish is a tremendous achievement, for it was widely predicted that they'd struggle as the momentum from promotion faded. They were rewarded with wild celebrations from several thousand visiting fans, and a generous ovation from the home stands. They've adapted quickly, taking full advantage of pacy, potent strikers and a competitive midfield to become the kind of well-drilled side that looks thoroughly comfortable at this level. Certainly, this was a far cry from the understandably cautious team that was so delighted by a goalless draw towards the start of last season.

Much has changed on this side of the fence since then, obviously. That said, the final game of a thoroughly mediocre season offered some small recompense in a generation-spanning kinda way. One player at the end of a long, magnificent career. One player at the start.

One final first team outing for Nigel Gibbs - applauded on arrival by everyone in the ground, including the Gillingham players - was worth the price of admission alone, even if he was required to spend ten minutes looking awkwardly out of place at left back. A broad grin on hitting a pass so firmly that even Anthony McNamee couldn't catch up with it betrayed his enjoyment of the occasion, and it was an enjoyment widely shared. Nigel Gibbs has been a great player for Watford Football Club for twenty years. There need be no further explanation.

And a full ninety minutes for Anthony McNamee, so young and apparently so fragile...and so utterly, utterly magical. Periodically, Gillingham managed to surpress him, only to find that he'd quickly pop up somewhere else and cause further mayhem. By the second half, two and sometimes three opponents went to surround him each time he received the ball...and still he found new ways of beating them when it appeared impossible to do so without crossing the touchline, losing possession or being fouled. Astonished gasps were the order of the day. It was more than a little bit special.

He might've had a hat-trick. Which is the kind of comment that you throw away in passing, so it's worth emphasising that it would've been some bloody hat-trick. God, we would've been talking about it for decades. After only two minutes, following Osborn's tame half-volley at Alec Chamberlain, we found McNamee for the first time. He took a touch in midfield, turned in a flash, and whipped in a dipping, curling shot from fully twenty-five yards. Astonishing. Top corner all the way, until an equally astonishing response from Brown, somehow clawing the ball out from underneath the crossbar. Even then, a defender had to block from, yes, McNamee on the rebound.

A buzz of rare excitement filled the stadium. Late arrivals were informed that they'd already missed what would've been a last gasp contender for "goal of the season". No matter, for he scored an even better one ten minutes later. Controlling the ball on the left, he had no hesitation in running at the defender in close attendance. From the other end, what followed was a mystery solved only by the big screen replay, for it appeared that a cross rather than a shot had left McNamee's boot and ended up in the far corner of the net via a forward's flicked header. In reality, McNamee had gained the slightest sight of goal as he approached the area and his marker retreated, and had instantly sent a piercing, straight-as-a-sniper's-bullet drive whistling past Brown. It was a truly sensational strike, the kind that leaves you incoherently raving for minutes afterwards. It will, presumably, be replayed on the Nationwide highlights tonight. For heaven's sake, do remember to set your video.

Even if nothing else could match such a jaw-dropping moment, it set the tone. Within a minute, fine work by Danny Webber on the left flank provided an opportunity for Marcus Gayle to do rather better than swipe a shot into the back rows of the Vic Road end. Shaw was similarly inaccurate with a volley from a corner at the other end; Webber was sent on a run by a neat pass from McNamee and was just crowded out as he reached the penalty area, something that summed up his slightly unfortunate afternoon; Onuora was flagged offside as he beat Chamberlain to stab home. An excellent match, all flowing, uninhibited football and frantic note-scribbling.

Really, either side might've scored at any moment. It was that kind of game...although, with both sides employing using pace and movement rather than mere height in attack, it also offered plenty for the purist. After twenty-four minutes, McNamee span sublimely again and sent a vicious drive dipping just over the crossbar from distance. Shortly afterwards, Shaw was released and also cleared the target with an angled shot. Hope bent a free kick around the wall but straight at Chamberlain; Micah Hyde volleyed across and narrowly wide after a fine Gayle cross was only half-cleared. Meaningless match, of course...but not one that you could safely take your eyes off for more than a few seconds.

Thirty-four minutes, and Osborn's neatly chipped pass found its way to the feet of Shaw via the head of Onuora. The half-volleyed shot from ten yards appeared to surprise Chamberlain, who seemed to have it covered until the last moment and then had to re-adjust rapidly to get his left hand to the ball. Thirty-four minutes and twenty-five seconds, and Webber was speeding away onto Gayle's through-ball, rounding the keeper, and being denied by a desperate sliding block from Butters. Breathless stuff and, although something of a nightmare for anyone attempting to remember it all, a very pleasant surprise for those of us who were expecting yet more end-of-season tedium.

In the end, the visitors broke what can hardly be described as a deadlock. King went close after a swift turn inside the box, smashing a low shot across the face of goal and a yard wide. Then Onuora crossed from the left as the Hornets momentarily lost concentration at a throw-in, and Hope stooped at the near post to send a header bouncing slowly beyond Chamberlain's reach. But it was hard to feel the required frustration and annoyance when the football was so thoroughly enjoyable. The game just re-started with barely a pause for reflection, let alone a change of heart, and there was still time for Jamie Hand to run adventurously onto a McNamee pass and thump a shot into Brown's considerable midriff.

The second half was no less splendid, really. The high, yet rarely frantic, pace of the game was summed up by the late introduction of Nigel Gibbs, who spent fully five minutes standing on the touchline and waiting for his big moment. The ball went dead more than once, yet play began again before the substitution could be made. We've lost some thoroughly drab, dismal football matches this season...and, mercifully, this wasn't one of them....

As before, either side could've scored. It took around two minutes for the previous pattern to be restored, Onuora's long run from the right wing ending with a chipped effort from twenty yards that a combination of a back-peddling Chamberlain and the crossbar dealt with rather awkwardly. Inevitably, the action moved almost immediately to the other end, where a wonderful cross from McNamee was wasted by Gayle, who shuffled it wide from an unmarked position at the near post.

For a while, Gillingham had something resembling superiority. It really wasn't that kind of game, though, and the brief spell of relative domination ended with Marcus Gayle forcing his way past defenders to the by-line on the right of the penalty area, then drilling a low cross into the six yard box with the outside of his left boot. It flew past a crowd of players at the near post, enabling Allan Nielsen, otherwise anonymous in an undefined midfield role, to slide in and score from a yard.

The result might've been secured five minutes later. It really wasn't that kind of game either. Lloyd Doyley's lofted ball from deep appeared to be reasonably easy to deal with, but it skimmed off the head of a defender and into the path of McNamee. As the keeper advanced, the ball bounced awkwardly for him and he could only hook his shot over the bar from twelve yards. So, after all, he is of this world.

Another five minutes flew past. God, how many minutes have crawled and scraped and ground their way along this season? Why can't it have been like this a bit more often? Then Brown cleared, and Onuora broke away, and Shaw arrived to support and swing an accurate finish into the far corner...and, yes, I still wished that it had been like this a bit more often. If you're going to finish in the lower-middle of the First Division, you can at least do it with some style.

Besides, Anthony McNamee wasn't finished yet, resisting the call of the bench with thrilling interventions just as you began to wonder whether he'd begun to tire. On the half-hour mark, his cheeky attempt to catch Brown napping with a free kick struck at the near post while everyone lined up for a cross resulted in the keeper attempting to fake confidence as the ball smacked against the bar. Like I say, that hat-trick would've been quite something. It'll happen, though.

Up the other end, of course. A long ball touched on, substitute Ipoua racing away after a quick check for the linesman's flag, round a stranded goalkeeper...and foiled by a stupendous block from Neil Cox on the line. From Hessenthaler's corner, Onuora stabbed home when the ball fell his way at the far post. Which was rather harsh on a more cohesive, genuinely enthusiastic Watford...but, despite a few isolated jeers at the final whistle, they may have learnt that the crowd will be rather more forgiving of enterprising failure. That's not a bad memory to take into next season, all things considered.

Not that the game was finished yet. A quite brilliantly comedic foul on Hessenthaler by Paul Robinson, jumping on the Gillingham manager like Superman attempting to smother an imminently-exploding bomb, led to a bout of pushing and shoving that was seemed rather out of context in an otherwise good-natured contest. At the end of it all, Robinson and Cox were booked, and Hope shot tamely at Chamberlain. In a parallel, and much more romantic, universe, the match was drawn by Nigel Gibbs' long range drive in the last minute, which steamed past Brown and led to celebrations that may well have been ever-so-slightly emotional. In this universe, it skidded comfortably wide of the post.

Still, no complaints. A cracking match, an eager performance. If we'd played like this more often, we probably wouldn't have finished any nearer to promotion...but we'd have had a much better time along the way. A brief appearance from a club legend, a lengthy dose of pure enchantment from an immensely talented youngster. A "player of the season" award for Alec Chamberlain, who seems no nearer to retirement than when he joined us. A "young player of the season" award for the afore-mentioned immensely talented youngster. A lap of honour that wasn't entirely without warmth. Not a bad afternoon, really. Not a bad afternoon at all.

If that's not exactly a high note on which to conclude the campaign, it's not a minor chord either.