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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 07/09/02, 1pm
By Ian Grant

As much as anything, it was a sudden outbreak of enthusiasm.

It wasn't that we hadn't wanted to win before. It wasn't even that we didn't believe in the theoretical possibility. But we'd been floundering. Shambolic for half an hour, stagnant for a similar period. Whatever was in our heads, still rattling around from Ray Lewington's team-talk, had remained there, trapped with no escape. It was awful.

Then, with one substitution and a couple of moments of absolutely breathtaking skill, we found a way of expressing that desire, and it all came tumbling out in a great rush. Anthony McNamee led the break for freedom, and we were suddenly uninhibited, eager, victorious. Excitement bristled around previously static, silent stands...the midfield sprang into life...the strikers woke from hibernation. And we won a game that had, at best, promised goalless tedium.

The transformation was extraordinary. It shocked Walsall, who'd been dominant in the early stages and will feel that they ought to have been ahead. It shocked Darren Bazeley, who'd been having a fine time on his old territory and now found himself getting slaughtered by a diminutive teenager. It raised the tempo, the volume, the heart-rate. It wasn't all about Anthony McNamee...but he started it.

The rest was nonsense, really. In a sense, it offered some encouragement. Kind of. I mean, we began by veering dramatically off the road and ending up in a ditch...but we managed to pull ourselves out again, which is something. To an extent, we can be grateful to Walsall for the opportunity, as a better side and a more ruthless strikeforce would've punished some extremely chaotic defending and made the position irretrievable. Nevertheless, we stuck with it...and, while the period on either side of half-time was uninspired in the extreme, it had rather less of a sense of impending calamity.

Without the final thirty minutes, I'd be desperately clutching at straws, though. This would've done our confidence no good at all...and, with no strength in depth, no obvious source of goals and an atrocious away record, confidence is precious right now. We needed this. Badly. The match itself will be rapidly forgotten - no video on sale in the club shop this time, you suspect - but the effect of each result, whether positive or negative, is potentially vital. Each home win keeps the away results in some kind of perspective; each away defeat threatens to overwhelm to home performances. For now, it balances out...but it'll tip one way or the other eventually.

In that respect, a nervous, error-strewn opening didn't give much cause for optimism. Ray Lewington's comment that "I think it was probably the worst twenty-five minutes I've ever seen" proves that he wasn't at Scarborough in '95...but it's in the right area, and refreshingly honest too. Really, we were a ragged, confused mess.

In theory, we reverted to 4-4-2, with Marcus Gayle joining Tommy Smith up front; in practice, we merely invited Walsall into our half and then fell over ourselves in a completely disorganised attempt to prevent them from scoring. It was the worst that we've seen from Watford since the defeat to Sheffield United back in April, and we should be thankful that it didn't bring the same result.

Instead, Alec Chamberlain was rarely tested. Sean Dyche and Neil Cox left the ball to each other inside their own penalty area, then the former clubbed a weak clearance straight to Wrack...who shot tamely at the keeper from twenty yards. Leitao broke down the right wing, leaving Paul Robinson stranded without the cover usually provided by Marcus Gayle, and crossed for Corica to strike air instead of ball. Aranelde crossed from the left, Leitao headed across from the far post...and, when a decent contact would surely have opened the scoring, Sonner contrived to get the ball caught up between his legs and then fall on his backside inside the six yard box, allowing Chamberlain to dive back and grab it on the line.

That was all inside the first ten minutes. Otherwise, Walsall were often neat and tidy in their approach play, yet lacked sufficient poise at crucial moments. We were falling apart by ourselves, but our opponents were giving us the chance to recover. That said, we still required last-ditch interventions from Stephen Glass and Sean Dyche to prevent catastrophe on a couple of occasions as Walsall continued to dominate to an absurd extent.

My notes record that things were apparently "better" after fifteen or twenty minutes, when Micah Hyde sent a skidding half-volley into Walker's midriff. They also record that things were "worse" shortly afterwards. While Marcus Gayle continued his assertive start to the season in a forward position, it made little difference without effective support, particularly from the midfield. Although we pulled ourselves together as time went by, there were no chances, no moments of excitement to lift the crowd.

Gradually, we began to break up Walsall's passing, working harder and concentrating more. None of which improved the mood around the ground, but it did at least lessen the possibility of it deteriorating further. The result, in terms of the game as a whole, was the footballing equivalent of an explosion in a percussion shop, all crash and whack and blam and smash in all directions. It certainly wasn't pretty. A reasonable summary of proceedings was provided by an incident in the thirty-eighth minute, when Alec Chamberlain slipped onto his backside in attempting to boot a clearance upfield and presented the ball to Leitao...who also slipped onto his backside in attempting to cross into the penalty area.

Best forgotten, all in all. And best not repeated too. Marcus Gayle curled a harmless effort at Walker; Neil Cox glanced a header wide from a corner; Neil Ardley, given space to amble towards goal, unleashed a rising drive from twenty-five yards and brought a fine, two-handed save from Walker to divert the ball from its path towards the top corner. But, while the last brought the home fans onto their feet for the first time, these were minor details, in all honesty. We'd survived, just about...and we needed to get back into the dressing room.

Having done so, we continued as before. Which was quite disappointing, to put it mildly. Defensively, we were secure enough now, a more focused and determined unit. But everything else simply lacked inspiration. When Tommy Smith twisted and turned on the right after fifty minutes, turning one final time to send in a looping, curling chip that missed the target by less than a yard with Walker beaten, it was as if he was speaking a foreign language. It was brilliant, and deserved a goal...and, as such, it was rather a lonely moment in the context of the game.

At the Rookery end, Carbon headed over from a corner, before Leitao's flicked header from a left wing cross found Darren Bazeley in far too much space on the right of the penalty area. But he fired his shot at Alec Chamberlain's near post and was foiled by a smart parry, then flashed the rebound across the face of goal and out for a throw. As it turned out, it was Walsall's last chance to win the game...and it was also Bazeley's last adventure in the final third. He was about to be otherwise occupied.

The double substitution was welcomed like a rain shower after years of drought. Amid all the fuss over Anthony McNamee, we shouldn't neglect to mention Jamie Hand. Apart from the obligatory booking for a needless hack, he immediately gave the midfield some much-needed oomph, if nothing else...and it cannot have been coincidental that we began to see Micah Hyde again at around the same time.

In truth, though, that was a side-show. The whole team was visibly lifted from the moment when Anthony McNamee received an awkwardly bouncing ball in a crowd of players on the halfway line, chipped it up and over a stunned Roper, and set off down the wing to whip in a typically pacy, bouncing cross. Vicarage Road erupted, smiles broad and cheers heartfelt. A dreadful nil-nil draw had just become a memory.

Thing is, what really impresses about McNamee, especially for a player of his young age, is his decision-making, for he knocks simple, accurate passes when appropriate and rarely uses his skills unnecessarily. Nordin Wooter used to lift our spirits too...but he couldn't win games. Two minutes later, McNamee finished another dart down the left by laying the ball forward to meet Paul Robinson's overlapping run, and Tommy Smith came very close to connecting with the cross on the edge of the six yard box, denied only by a defender's boot sending the ball flying over his own crossbar.

Another couple of minutes, and McNamee was receiving possession on halfway and beating Bazeley in a single eye-deceiving movement. A true magician, you want to watch a slow-mo replay each time, to see where he put the ball while his opponent was distracted. On this occasion, I could've sworn that he back-heeled it through Bazeley's legs, before turning and out-pacing his bewildered opponent. Again, the cross was superb; again, Tommy Smith was close to converting it.

It was coming. It came. No trickery this time, no smoke and mirrors. Just one of the finest crosses you've ever seen, struck by Anthony McNamee from a standing position deep on the left wing. As it swung into the penalty area, Walker came and stopped and came and stopped, and Carbon hesitated as he faced his own goal. And it sailed between the two of them...and there was Tommy Smith, arriving at the far post and waiting for the ball to bounce and lashing it into the net from five yards. And everything had changed.

True, Walsall managed to find ways of controlling McNamee's threat after that, blocking a couple of crosses as they left his boot and surrounding him to force more conservative use of possession. It didn't matter, though... for we were a different team now, sharp and full of running. Walsall had missed their chance.

Any doubts were removed by the late dismissal of Sonner, losing the ball to Tommy Smith on the touchline, wrestling with him in an attempt to retrieve it and finally throwing him to the ground in a gesture of complete exasperation. Without having seen it again, I'm not convinced that it was anything more malicious than that, really...but the violence of the throw was probably enough to warrant dismissal, in all honesty. Having been shown the red card, Sonner directed some choice words at the grounded Smith on his way towards the tunnel, apparently feeling that the striker had made the most of the opportunity. He gave him the opportunity, though....

Walsall poured forward in one last attempt at salvaging a draw, and Roper hooked a dipping volley over the bar from the edge of the box. But they were caught out in the final minute, Tommy Smith receiving a clearance and turning to play the ball into an unpopulated Walsall half. Dominic Foley crossed halfway and looked up to see Walker's goal in the distance. He had an eternity to think about it, not exactly an advantage for a player lacking confidence...but he took it so well, waiting until Walker arrived and calmly stroking the ball past him. A fine finish, in every sense.

A happy ending, then. And you can't help feeling that something's changed. In the last couple of seasons, we would've lost this, and deserved to lose it. We would've conceded a couple in the first half and collapsed to a divisive, painful defeat. Here, we got away with it, and deserved to get away with it, just about.

We didn't make our own luck. But we did take advantage of the luck that came our way.

Good enough, for now.