Here comes the summer
By Ian Grant
At the Estcourt, the doors were flung wide open to allow a gentle breeze to cool those sitting inside and
watching Liverpool take on Leeds. Outside, those in the beer garden enjoyed warm, hazy sunshine and
discussed future prospects with cheerful smiles. Only the draw for the Fourth Round of the Worthington
Cup betrayed the fact that this was mid-October rather than early August, and that nearly a quarter of the
season had already passed.
Perhaps it's a little premature, but there's a sense that this is the start of something...and it doesn't
necessarily matter if it's not the start of a period of dazzling success. There are more fundamental things, really.
Many have felt isolated and alienated as the new era has jolted into motion, failing to identify with an
unfamiliar, anonymous team. As a fan, there's been little to hold onto. Now, with Gifton Noel-Williams and
Tommy Smith returning to stunning form, Micah Hyde running the midfield, Neil Cox back in favour, and the
emergence of distinctive, committed figures among the new signings (David Noble, Stephen Glass, and Filippo
Galli), it feels a whole lot less like watching a daytime soap opera.
For the first time, you can look at this side and actually like it. It has an emerging honesty about
it, making it easier to forgive mistakes and more pleasurable to find things to praise. Finally, it looks
like a Watford team rather than something assembled under a flag of convenience. The bridging of the gap between
supporters and players wouldn't have been possible without two fine wins in a week, of course...but, now that it's
happened, results might not be quite so overwhelmingly important for a short while. A brave, attacking performance
at Millwall on Tuesday, for example, would continue the process.
Although Luca Vialli has loudly cursed the luck that's left him without a whole set of supposedly key players,
he should really be doing the opposite. For this makeshift line-up has turned out to be far more resilient
and cohesive than those selected from a far wider range of options. Somehow, it just works. Naturally, there
are things that still need to be improved...but putting some shelving up in the spare bedroom is rather
different from re-building the entire house.
Again, the most pleasing thing was that so many of the elements that made up this comprehensive victory could
be reproduced. Genius, by nature, comes in fits and starts; form and confidence can be more easily taken into
the next match. Perhaps most impressive was that, after threatening to tear Wednesday to shreds in the opening
ten minutes, we recovered from a loss of control and a messy equaliser to win the game with considerable comfort. Not
far behind, however, was that we were strong and purposeful enough to play our football against direct, physical
opponents. As if trying to out-Warnock their local rivals, Wednesday are an unrefined lump of a team...yet that's
precisely the type of opposition that we've struggled and failed to beat in the last twelve months.
Obviously, it helped that the momentum from Tuesday night was maintained by such an early goal. But it was just
reward for a bright, lively opening that pushed the visitors onto the back foot immediately. Then David Noble's
arcing ball down the right was allowed to bounce and Micah Hyde, taking up a typically advanced position, firmly
held off the challenge of a defender. From the edge of the box, he shot low and early, finding Pressman unprepared and
unable to divert the ball from its path. One-nil after only three minutes.
The remainder of the opening ten minutes was played entirely in the Wednesday half. And it was exquisite stuff too. On
a couple of occasions, we retained possession for a minute or so without interruption...and, more importantly,
we prodded and probed and applied pressure, keeping a brisk tempo and exploring all areas in the final third.
It was adventurous and creative stuff. No tedious "across the back four" nonsense here.
Gradually, though, we lost our way. To begin with, the visitors gained a foothold through Bromby's long throws, hurled
in at pace and looking for the aptly-named Crane, who loomed over the Watford defence and acted as a decoy as
much as anything else. Maddix headed harmlessly towards Espen Baardsen, Soltvedt sent a half-volley bumbling
wide. While we were coping well enough, the sparkle had gone.
So, when various errors combined to produce a Wednesday equaliser, it appeared as if all this might've been another false dawn.
While Rob Harris took the blame at the time, for allowing play to continue while Neil Cox lay hurt in the penalty
area, we had ample opportunity to avert disaster. First, Paul Robinson gave Stephen Glass an extremely awkward pass
on the left, and the winger conceded possession under pressure. Cox was first to the resulting cross and was injured
in the process of clearing to a colleague. Instead of wellying the ball far from goal or sticking it into the stand
to allow the trainer to come on, Stephen Hughes gave it straight back to Wednesday. With Cox playing him onside, Johnson
had a clear run on goal and, although delayed by Baardsen's initial save, scored eventually.
Previously, such setbacks, particularly when self-inflicted, have sent us right back to square one. The crowd
has gone quiet or, worse, turned on the team; the performance has gone into an unstoppable slide towards
the shambolic. Here, we quickly and decisively shook off the slight sense of complacency that had allowed our
opponents to escape a thrashing. It wasn't easy - although breathtakingly unimaginative, Wednesday retained the
rude, ugly power that did for us in this fixture last season - but, as on Tuesday, we stuck to basics and
were rightly rewarded.
Chances came almost immediately. One of many pleasant changes, that. Supplied by the hugely impressive Micah Hyde,
Tommy Smith sent a low shot skidding narrowly wide. Demonstrating his astonishingly rapid return to greatness,
Gifton Noel-Williams went on a typically loping run and tried an audacious lob from twenty-five yards that drifted
over. Brilliantly, David Noble twisted and turned and followed his teammate's lead - his attempt to chip Pressman
from outside the box didn't miss by very much. Immediately, we'd cleared our heads of worry and were again taking
charge of the game.
In fact, the second goal came from a beautifully swift break rather than sustained attacking. Really, this was as
clinical as we've been for some time, just seconds elapsing from Patrick Blondeau's interception in his own half to
Gifton Noel-Williams' sublime, curling finish around the keeper. In between, Noble supplied Smith and the striker,
who worked so hard and so effectively in this match, held the ball until the perfect moment to lay
it across to his striking partner, loitering in space on the left of the area. In every respect, a lovely goal.
Once more, that relieved the pressure. Once more, we allowed ourselves a bit too much of a breather. Although Ramon
Vega appeared after half an hour to counter the threat of Crane (apparently, none of our scouts had bothered to tell
the manager that he was about three feet taller than either Filippo Galli or Neil Cox), those long throws continued
to cause problems. From one, Johnson's desperate leap was only enough to get slight contact as the ball bounced
through the far post and missed the post by mere inches. Later, Soltvedt was able to turn on Crane's knock-down
and sliced his shot wide when he should've scored. While it's pleasing to see that we're conceding less regularly,
there is some suggestion that the poor quality of the finishing has something to do with that.
Still, it was another positive, refreshing forty-five minutes. If we've yet to reach the point where our defensive
security is equal to our attacking threat, we do at least have one yardstick in place. Going forward, we look
quick, mobile and fluent. In particular, Stephen Glass' emergence has given us so much more width...but that's only
the means to an end, and his crossing has been the real revelation. And Gifton Noel-Williams' presence, always taking
up traditional centre forward positions, allows Tommy Smith the freedom that he craves and uses so well. There's much
still to be done, but there's much to admire and enjoy in the meantime. We'll lose games...but, at long last, we look
thoroughly capable of winning more than we lose.
Lucky half-time chocolate: Aero (plain).
Reason: No reason to change a winning formula.
Level of success: Excellent.
In most respects, the second half offered more of the same. Literally more of the same, in that the Sheffield
Wednesday attempt to get back into the game seemed to be mainly based upon bringing on some really tall
players. That said, apart from a short spell early on when McLaren's thunderous free kick slammed into the
advertising hoardings and Quinn's looping half-volley cleared the bar, we were generally sound and strong in defence. While
Galli was quietly effective and Cox got on with his job, Vega patrolled with swaying grace and perhaps had his
finest game in a Watford shirt.
We needed a third to guard against cock-ups, mind. Our attempts to get that goal were without any of
the desperation or over-elaboration that has previously haunted us. Our attacking now has a simplicity about
it. Each pass has its own merit - from those passes, the whole just happens and we
no longer feel the need to worry about it too much. After two minutes, Neil Cox clipped a free kick around the wall
and three yards wide. A joyful, unburdened Noel-Williams - the best news of the week, surely - collected a cross
on his chest and tried an ambitious overhead kick that cleared the bar by a foot or so. Stephen Hughes sent a shot
dribbling through a crowd and just past the post from a corner.
Ultimately, the pivotal moments came around fifteen minutes into the second half. Then, Stephen Glass was caught
dallying on the halfway line and, with defenders caught unawares, Johnson sprinted towards goal. His finish
was absolutely terrible, though - a weak stab wide with the outside of his right boot that brought relieved
jeers from the home stands.
A couple of minutes later, Glass redeemed himself. Honestly, the foul on Noel-Williams was a little
dubious on this occasion, if indicative of the fact that Mr Harris had finally decided to prevent the Wednesday
defenders from hanging round his neck. Still, it gave us a free kick on the edge of the box. For all the world,
it looked as if Glass was going to curl his shot over the wall...and, fatally, Pressman edged in that direction. Instead,
the shot was whipped towards the other side with real accuracy and ferocity. It hit the upright, rebounded across the
face of goal...and fell kindly for the newly-arrived Heidar Helguson to score. Another very welcome break
for a striker out of form.
The rest was impressively straightforward. None of the slightly annoying lapses of concentration that nearly
enabled Bradford to flatter themselves on Tuesday. Rather, we were thoroughly in charge for the remaining half
hour, able to show off our new-found composure against a side that had long since run out of ideas. Certainly,
Wednesday were atrocious...but no more atrocious than any number of sides we've dropped points against since
that winning run at the start of last season. Here, we won without any great fuss or drama. A
Indeed, we appeared eager to add a fourth, and well capable of doing so. From Tommy Smith's run, Helguson clubbed a
fairly awful shot over the bar. Then Smith, more deserving of a goal than anyone else, was inches away from
connecting with Cox's header in the six yard box. We even won a succession of corners, applying the kind of
pressure that we're more used to seeing at the Vic Road end towards the end of a match - Nordin Wooter had a shot
deflected wide, Noel-Williams couldn't get the right angle on a near post header.
The end was a bit of an anticlimax. Lengthy treatment to Maddix robbed the game of any momentum, although it
did provide some comedy at the expense of the stretcher-bearers after the recent incident with Pierre Issa. Having
used all of their substitutes, Wednesday were reduced to ten men for seven minutes of stoppage time...but attention
had wandered and there was no resumption of our energetic attacking. There was no need, really.
Obviously, the trip to Millwall in a couple of days is a more daunting prospect and will test our improvement. But
it won't change the fact that we have improved. We must continue to do so. Increasingly, though, the
team is winning supporters over. There is a new Watford emerging here, and I rather like the look of it.
For everyone else, the season started back in August. Maybe our summer just lasted a bit longer.