Football League Division Two, 15/01/05, 3.00pm
By Dave Messenger
How often have we heard that same old story? Team goes on cup run, team matches Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) side, team comes down to earth with a painful bump the following weekend. Okay, maybe not that often, but you get the point. Crewe at home, despite our visitors losing Dean Ashton to Norwich, had "potential banana skin" written all over it. Much as everybody's attention is rightly focused on a certain game against a certain team, the need to build on the last home match (a 1-0 win over Millwall, in case you can't remember in a post-Anfield blur) with another three points was paramount. The Carling Cup Final would be nice, but a few home league wins in a row will keep the relegation battle wolf well and truly clear of our door.
And the importance was not lost on Ray Lewington. Cheered from the stands throughout, the boss man has stated that players will be rested in the near future, but his selection of the strongest possible eleven for this one spoke volumes, as did the appearance of five outfield players on the bench. Any one of the outfield starters could have been rested should the chance arise. As for the Railwaymen, never ones to take a negative approach to a game, they lined up without some of the more tiresome things we've come to take as read from teams visiting the Vic...you know, centre halves in midfield, ten man defences, that sort of thing. As a result, the early exchanges were encouragingly open.
Heidar Helguson almost headed Watford in front with the first opportunity of the match, a back post header from a Paul Devlin cross, which was bizarrely blocked on the line by Moses, who cleared by heading against his own crossbar. The ball broke loose to Jermaine Darlington, whose fizzing drive went just wide. Sensing that the Crewe rearguard, which included the legendary Chris McCready, was struggling to come to terms with Watford's wide options, the Hornets continued to keep their opponents on the back foot. Then, on nine minutes, Helguson lost his marker and Gavin Mahon picked the Icelander out with a super pass, which H had time to take on his chest, turn and dispatch the ball to the bottom corner in some style.
Buoyed by the early strike, Watford kept their foot on the pedal. Devlin, who looks a lot more comfortable in this formation, was busy throughout the opening spell and beat McCready regularly. From one Devlin cross, Neal Ardley almost got on the end of a Helguson knock down. Shortly afterwards, the visiting keeper Clayton Ince was down smartly to smother as Devlin almost made the most of an error from that man McCready. One wonders if the visiting left back had visions of the barrage of cat-calls he received at Gresty Road last season.
As the half wore on, the sense that Watford wanted this game put to bed early was to the fore, though the home crowd seemed strangely subdued. Much of the recent fayre at the Vic has been a struggle to watch, now Watford were biting into their tackles, and dominating their visitors, but still the crowd barely raised a peep. If the crowd had an Anfield hangover, the team certainly did not. Brynjar Gunnarsson was the next to have a poke, though an extra touch may have avoided the hard working midfield schemer blazing the ball into the Vicarage Road end. Crewe finally showed up and the Watford crossbar was rattled, though it was Watford's own Jay Demerit who headed David Vaughan's cross against the woodwork.
On twenty-nine minutes, Watford increased their lead, with another cracking strike from Helguson. Fed by James Chambers, who enjoyed his best league outing for a long while, H took the ball on the edge of the box, where he neatly side-stepped a desperate tackle from Moses and blasted it into the same spot as he put the first one. Much has been written about Heidar recently, but as he zeroes in on his first twenty goal season, it's worth reflecting that his recent efforts have been something special, even for him. His game has come on, though he can still be relied upon for the crash, bang, wallop approach, his touch has also improved, as has his finishing, and we now have the best striker in our division bar none. That transfer window cannot close quickly enough. Watford ended the half well on top, though Paul Jones made a smart block from Vaughan to end the goalscoring chances.
The talk in the bar was of the second half. After the mid-week heroics, tiredness was just around the corner, and we speculated that a quick third goal would secure the win so that much-needed rests could be given to key players. Not only that, but we had a tidy double bet looking good. Three-nil to Watford, with Heidar scoring the first, at a cool 66-1. As we re-took our seats, we were soon presented with a third goal. Jay Demerit picked up a clearance, and advanced on the area. With no challenge forthcoming, the American let loose with a fine strike that raced into the roof of the net to the obvious delight of Watford's find of the season. With another composed performance under his belt, Demerit has presented Ray Lewington with a very difficult choice when Sean Dyche is fit.
Watford were soon hunting number four. Chambers played a neat one-two with Helguson and stung Ince's fingers with a low drive. Not to be outdone by his fellow full back, Darlington was next to try his luck, but his clean strike flew straight at Ince. As Watford understandably began to tire after the hour mark, Crewe finally established a foothold in the game. A sustained period of pressure culminated in a sixty-ninth minute goal for Ashton's replacement Luke Varney, sodding up our bet in the process. Bastard. In order to try and wrestle back the initiative, Watford introduced Dominic Blizzard and Anthony McNamee, and the latter was soon pulling out his tricks down the left hand side, and he ended one typical, wriggling run with a scuffed shot at Ince.
The game was left to fizzle out. Though Crewe enjoyed some possession in the closing period, they didn't trouble Jones and the final whistle soon blew. Two home wins on the bounce in Division Two, and though the fans never really got too excited, this was a pretty good show from Watford, certainly for the first hour. There was a determination to get the result, and though Crewe played the sort of game we like to come up against, you've still got to beat them and this was job done. Bigger fish may be about to be fried but at least Watford showed that they should be good enough to climb the table once a Carling Cup Final berth as been assured....