By Matt Rowson
According to Mick, I've been doing Warnock a bit of a disservice, and in fairness, he is well positioned to comment. A Blade of a number of years standing, he also was hospitable enough to send us directions to a splendid parking spot, and trusting enough to wait for us there before escorting to a suitable hostelry.
There we learned that the stereotype of dour football and brutal competitiveness is an unfair one, brought on as it is by Warnock's history of managing relatively limited clubs with limited options. Indeed, the Dutch side of 74 is in there waiting to get out. Well, almost. But it's facing a few obstacles at the moment....
The first half was rubbish. That's about all you need to know really; Mick's prognosis later was that it took forty-five minutes for Watford to establish quite how clueless United were; from our end of the ground, it just looked like a bad game of football between two sides low on confidence.
Watford started with Alec in for Baardsen, relegated to the bench for the first time this season. Vega came in on the left side of the three at the back and, despite looking occasionally uncomfortable switching feet, had a solid enough game. Paolo Vernazza brought some much-needed vitality back to our midfield whilst David Noble, somewhat inexplicably, reappeared only on the bench. Still no Micah, still no Gifton.
United had more possession in the first half, but it would be inaccurate to claim that they had "better" possession; indeed, United never looked less dangerous than when they tried to play the expansive passing football that Mick had warned us of. It wasn't so much the odd pass going astray as the ball being lumped in the general direction required, but invariably too long, too short (mostly long), or too quickly, as if controlled by a novice on a games console.
The initial threat came from Peschisolido, who twisted and turned his way through our defence on more than one occasion before his evident lack of fitness came into force and he faded, being substituted before the hour. Ndlovu, too, had the beating of Blondeau, but his propensity to go to ground only helped him once, winning a free kick that Ben Doane put a foot over.
Indeed by the end of the half it was evident that a set piece would present United's best opportunity, the hulking Laurent D'Jaffo sending one far post header from a corner narrowly over. Despite the number of openings presented, United failed to get a shot on target all evening and Alec's return to the first team was significant only in the composure his competent footwork always brings to our defence.
At the other end, Watford had fewer chances but did at least look more likely to do something with them. Glass was the first to come close, unleashing the latest in what looks like a particularly evil armoury of free kicks with a wicked curler that couldn't quite bend inside the left hand post.
Heidar was the next to threaten with a looping overhead effort that dropped over the bar. The workrate of both Helguson and Smith was, in fact, the main source of optimism at half time. Additionally, both console controllers appeared to have their trick buttons well and truly sorted, with the number of twists and flicks in evidence at the far end of the pitch suggesting welcome recipients of anything resembling service.
A thumped low shot from Robinson was our only on-target effort of the half, collected comfortably enough by Tracey. The best opening, however, came from yet another wide break by Smith, his belted cross met uncomfortably and ineffectively at the far post by the head of the advancing Blondeau when a good connection should have yielded a goal.
At half time, the mood was sombre and somewhat resigned. Loz had confidently warned that we hadn't been anywhere near a 0-0 all season, which seemed like tempting fate at the time and more so now. The half had ended with Watford's self-proclaimed cheerleaders haughtily deriding their fellow travellers in a manner that never quite encourages participation in my mind.
The second half was an improvement before it had even kicked off as Robert Page acknowledged a warm reception from the Hornets behind him, and Simon Tracey also lined up in front of us. For the second year running the prospect of mocking the hapless stopper looked like providing some welcome relief from a dour encounter.
Instead, the match fairly exploded back into life. Paolo Vernazza, whose quiet first half had suggested that our midfield problems had prompted an earlier than ideal return, was suddenly very involved, orchestrating the first assault. As this broke down, United hared upfield, suggesting something approaching a contest as both sets of supporters woke up.
In the event it was the Hornets that drew first blood from perhaps the most heartening incident of the game from our point of view. Robinson fed Helguson who received the ball with his back to goal and his marker. As recently as a fortnight ago, it would have been difficult to envisage a positive outcome from such a circumstance but such is the Icelander's rejuvenation in confidence that now anything seems possible. He teased his marker deliciously, feinting one way and then the other before making his trademark pirouette into space and slamming the ball low into the corner.
Pandemonium behind the goal, disintegration on the pitch as United rapidly lost their cool. Brown went into the book for one crude challenge, before perhaps the most controversial incident of the game. Helguson moved to close down Tracey, and was caught in the face by Murphy's elbow as he passed, completely floored. In all honesty he passed by Murphy's blind side and the elbow could well have been accidental. On the other hand Helguson had (not inaccurately) been identified as the shortest fuse in the side, perhaps by an ex-insider, and had been constantly niggled by the Australian, at least for the second half when we were close to the action.
Referee Frankland, no friend of the Hornets in the past, took the lenient view, but this was more like the Warnock side that we are used to. The match threatened to boil over altogether when a brutal hack on Helguson from the same individual provoked an angry reaction and an altercation involving a number of players. Murphy escaped with a yellow, but Helguson exacted retribution later on with another ferocious challenge that perhaps merited more than a caution.
There was obviously a danger that this incident would stir up the home side - we've seen that before - and Pierre Issa didn't help the cause with some wayward passing that is becoming a bit too frequent. "Bring back Dublin" shouted Pete after one near-calamitous mistake. "Bring back hanging!" countered Rupe, less sympathetically. Once again we were left thanking the fact that United were truly clueless in front of goal.
Instead it was Watford that scored again and took the heat out of proceedings. Robinson had been supporting the attack well and seems to be developing a good understanding with Glass, who dropped back and tidied up for the wing-back after one failed foray. On this occasion, though, Robinson dispossessed the lackadaisical Devlin midway into the United half. His perceptive ball picked out Smith, who took a couple of steps towards Page (who backed away, natch) before curling an exquisite shot into the top corner out of reach of Tracey.
And that was that, really. Devlin, whose recent claims for an improved contract have seemingly not gone down well at Bramall Lane, was booed off as Nick Montgomery came on shortly after. Adrian Littlejohn, improbably, added some late impetus to United's attack, coming close with a rising shot that he got too far underneath, and a screamer from thirty-five yards that went just the wrong side of the post.
"F***ing Hell" was Mick's prognosis of his side's performance, not inaccurately, before graciously guiding us back to our car. Any away win, let alone at a place where we've only triumphed once before, is a good result, but let's not get too carried away. United are on an awful run, and at least four of their starting line up last night should not have been playing due to injury.
In truth, this wasn't a significant improvement on Bradford, the main difference being that we were playing an awful side instead of a fairly awful side. A team with a fit striker might have taken one of those first half chances, and the game would have ended completely differently.
We have, on paper, what looks like a relatively comfortable League schedule in November, starting with the two bottom sides at home. We will, however, need to significantly improve on this showing in the meantime to get many points out of December. If the season is to end successfully, it really ought to start now.