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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 26/4/97
Watford 0(0)
Team: *Chamberlain 4*, Gibbs 3, Armstrong 2, Johnson 4, Palmer 3, Page 3, Bazeley 4, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 1, Penrice 3, Easton 2
Subs: Phillips (for Noel-Williams) 4, Flash, Andrews
Bury 0(0)
Cheer up, Tommy Mooney
Report by Ian Grant

The end of a best-forgotten era. If the announcement of the takeover of Watford Football Club before the game brings new hope to supporters, then the match itself was a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done. Elton's return, along with the presentation of the 'player of the season' award to Kevin Miller just seconds before kick-off and the obvious need for three points, gave the pre-match atmosphere a distinctly surreal air of expectation and celebration. By the end of the first half, it was flat as a steam-rollered hedgehog - such are the sedative powers of our brand of football...

Some might say that this result condemns us to another season in the Second Division. It doesn't - in reality, we blew this one over the course of a season - and I trust that Kenny Jackett reminded a tearful Tommy Mooney of that fact in the dressing room afterwards. This game represented a spirited attempt to regain the lost ground - dropped points that date back to Plymouth at home, through those God-forsaken Christmas draws against Gillingham and Notts County, right up to Thursday's feeble surrender to Chesterfield. It was too little, too late.

On this occasion, you can't fault them for effort. The desire to win, to make amends for past failures, was apparent in every tackle, every pass and every shot. Unfortunately, and this has been something of a theme throughout the season, there was little focus for that desire - we were gutsy and determined but, in our rush to look committed, we forgot to think about what we were doing.

As on Thursday, we had the better of the opening exchanges without managing more than one serious effort on goal. Fine work by Darren Bazeley, back and more sprightly for his lay-off, gave Nigel Gibbs the chance to put in a cross from the bye-line. It was met at the near post by (put your hands together for...) Richard Johnson, who guided a header just a foot past the post. I'm convinced that we had further attempts in the early stages but, to be frank, I've completely forgotten them.

Gradually, Bury's obstinate defending turned the game around. They'd had a pretty good opportunity while we were still dominating, their centre forward failing to make a proper connection with a chance in the six yard box and slicing it well wide. In the end, however, they proved that their position is no fluke and were unfortunate not to be ahead by half-time. We can thank Alec Chamberlain for an outstanding save, tipping over a close range header with a flick of the arm that was so quick it seemed impossible. We can also thank Steve Palmer for clearing a goal-bound free-kick from the line.

At the interval, we were relatively happy to be level and still clinging to remote hopes of a miracle. Except that, personally, I'd rather not pin my hopes on anything that involves winning at Burnley, but there you go.

The second half offered improved entertainment but, sadly, no goals. We've seen many, many goalless draws over the course of the season - this was vastly superior to most of them, thank heavens. We did at least go out with all our guns blazing. With our strike-force, "all pea-shooters blazing" might be more appropriate...

There were chances at both ends, yet the best ones continued to fall to the away side. Chamberlain had to make further saves, tipping another header over the bar and grabbing the ball from a striker's feet as a goal on the break appeared certain, while Bazeley had to head off the line as we failed to defend effectively at a corner.

At the Vic Road end, Bazeley was doing his best to make up for the absence of Stuart Slater and, although we continued to attack with an air of desperation about us, there were occasions when we looked dangerous. The Bury keeper had to pull of a good save to push a rising drive from (oh look, it's...) Richard Johnson past the post and his defenders did well to block a goal-bound header by (surprise!) Johnson after a cross had been fumbled.

The replacement of Gifton Noel-Williams, who'd looked badly in need of a summer's rest after his momentous season, by Kevin Phillips gave us added sharpness, something that we tended to waste by pumping long balls up towards the strikers. Even then, though, Phillips managed to wriggle his way through the defence and fire in a shot that skimmed narrowly wide.

There was one talking point prior to the penalty, although 'talking point' might be the wrong phrase since no-one else, including the referee, appeared to see it. It involved Richard Johnson, as most things do at present, and the Bury number eight. They got in a bit of tangle after a challenge and, while the ball was played out onto the right wing, the Bury player took a hefty kick at Johnson's ankles. Being the only one to spot the incident, this left me in the slightly unusual position of standing up in the middle of the Vic Road end, screaming abuse at the referee while everyone around me wondered what I was getting so annoyed about. Bearing in mind that we've had two players (rightly) sent off in the last week, it would be nice to see such justice applied when we're the victims. Especially since Johnno had already been booked and therefore couldn't exact revenge...

If anything summed up this season's games, it was the sight of Bury players taking the ball to the corner flag in order to preserve a goalless scoreline. After the number of sides that have come to Vicarage Road in search of a point (and have frequently left with all three), that seems rather appropriate.

Even the gift of a penalty right at the death couldn't bring us the win we needed. Phillips looked up and played the ball in to pick up a fine forward run by (yep, you've guessed it...) Richard Johnson and he was tripped while attempting to get into a shooting position. Tommy Mooney took the responsibility and hit a low shot to the keeper's left - it wasn't a great penalty, far too close to the middle of the goal, and it was blocked by the keeper's body.

Ultimately, the win probably wouldn't have made much difference at 4:45 next Saturday and Mooney mustn't feel responsible for our failure to secure promotion. His tears were touching but mis-placed - as our top scorer, it's undeniable that he's done more than his fair share this season.

At the start of the campaign, we all said that the coming months would be judged on the ability to get back into the First Division. Nothing else mattered. In that case, the 96/97 season has been a failure. And, for anyone who's been to the games, it's been a bloody dreary failure. For now, we have to sit and watch others rejoice in the fulfilment of their dreams - Barnsley's rise to the Premiership and, fingers-crossed-touch-wood-oh-god-let-it-happen, Brighton's survival as a Football League club.

But the takeover announcement pre-empts any post-mortem that I might carry out here. The last disappointment of the Petchey reign is now behind us. A new chapter in the history of Watford Football Club starts next season...

Episode IV: A New Hope
Report by Nick Grundy

Sod the game; we all know what the important thing to come out of this one was - Elton John's return to the club (and Uncle Jack's departure). Having said that, this result did put paid to our final playoff hopes; unless all the other teams involved lose all their games and we beat Burnley by 24 goals (or more) we'll be heading off to exotic Carlisle and Grimsby next season.

But we played okay. I freely admit that we didn't create many chances blah blah blah, but we did create enough to have won this game by a goal or (unusually) two. The first half was relatively uneventful; I for one was far too busy rejoicing in the departure of the odious Petchey to pay too much attention to what was going on on the field, but I do recall Alec Chamberlain making a great reflex save from a (shockingly badly defended) header from six yards out, and Johnno and Penrice producing one of the best displays from a Watford central midfield pairing this season - Johnson wasn't quite on the same form as against Chesterfield, but he caught the eye nonetheless, while Porno played a lot deeper than he has done, and "pulled the strings in midfield" - or rather, passed forward quite well and got a number of telling passes in.

Bazeley and Easton, too, looked on form on the flanks; Clint in particular had some lovely little flicks and touches, especially second half, while Baze looked hungry for his place, possibly because he needs to be! I do think the takeover had a markedly positive effect on the players - now that they know what's going on they know that they have more financial security and the chance to play in a strengthened side, but also that they're playing for their places.

Elsewhere, Steve Palmer had an inspired game at the back; he made two vital goal line clearances, one from a free kick first half which he then had to clear again when it was fired back in from an acute angle, and a second half one following a corner. Both centre backs looked a lot more willing to pass the ball around, too, and Chamberlain tended to play the ball short to them when he could. The only real disappointment was Gifton, who had a bloody awful game - his first touch especially was shocking and he couldn't hold the ball up at all.

Anyway, the first half saw chances at both ends, the best of which fell to Bury. Second half, though, we took the game to them a lot more, and had the chances to win it. What was most pleasing about this game was that we seemed to stick to tactics a lot more than we have done; for example against Wycombe at home, we were passing really well for the first ten minutes or so and then fell apart: on Saturday we stuck at it and for long spells looked a good passing team.

The real catalyst for our second half improvement was the introduction of SuperKev for Gifton; he looked very sharp indeed, and provided an excellent chance when he headed a ball down straight into Mooney's path shortly after coming on. It didn't look like he got the best of connections on it, though, and it went a foot or so wide. Then, carrying the ball forward himself, Phillips had a go from the left hand side of the box, but the shot again went inches wide with Kiely beaten.

Bury's unbelievably fat strikers didn't get many chances second half, and quite how tub o'lard Jepson has scored so many goals is beyond me, unless perhaps he normally eats one of the opposition defence at half time to make things easier. Oh, where was I - about time for the penalty, really. I can't remember who won it, but it was a clear-cut decision - I was at most five metres away - and Tommy Mooney stepped up to take it. Before I go on I should mention that Gary Penrice looked keen to hit it, but I don't think we should blame Mooney for missing; he obviously had a bit of a rush of blood to the head and, instead of hammering it left, tried to blast it; it went low and slightly to Kiely's right, but he blocked it well. It's a measure of how hard Tommy hit it that it rebounded out of the area off the 'keeper's body.

It was, at the time, enormously disappointing - it would have been very fitting to have beaten the champions to mark Elton's return, but all in all Saturday was a success. I couldn't help feeling, though, as the Bury fans celebrated at the other end, that it should have been us. Oh well. Look on the bright side. Bye bye, Petchey, bye bye, Petchey...

Mixed emotions
Report by Ian Lay

A mixture of emotions were experienced at the Vic on Saturday afternoon. The joy of knowing that Elton John has bought back the club with his consortium, that he is to be the new chairman, rather overshadowed a game which finally put paid to our slim play-off hopes.

As we look back on the last seven months or so, I keep feeling that if some of those "if only" situations had come out differently we might be looking at Division One football next season.

If only we had signed Keith Scott. Certainly our cause would have benefited from a striker with his experience. But, unfortunately, no money available from Mr. Petchey.

If only Stuart Slater hadn't been out so long with tendonitis.

If only Craig Ramage had been allowed to go to Grimsby. (I know the Piemaster's fan club is bound to get on my back for this, but hey, who gives a smeg. As Holly once said "I'm sharp, I'm kicking bottom")

There are plenty more, but I won't bore you with the list.

In a season there are many turning factors and many moments which you look at and say "that could have changed our season" but in the end it is all hypothetical. Because it didn't happen and never will. Unless someone happens to have a time machine at the club!

But with the return of Elton John to join up again with Graham Taylor are we not seeing a kind of time machine in action? It certainly looks that way. But whether past glories can be re-visited is a question I don't think anyone can answer. I do hope that everybody doesn't get to excited. There is no magic wand that can be waved to make things great again. We will still have to be patient. But now we hopefully have some money, and with that I have a better feeling inside me than I did at the beginning of this season.

As for the game, we should have won, but probably over the ninety minutes Bury deserved the draw. They had a couple of chances cleared off the line but we had more of the play.

I can't remember too much I'm afraid. The excitement of Elton's return and too much alcohol during the evening have clouded the mind but, for what it's worth, I remember Johnson having a header just wide in the first half after good work from Gibbs and Bazeley on the right. Mooney forcing a good save from the keeper. Phillips and Mooney having shots just past the post in the second half. The former's was very unlucky since he had gone past three defenders to create the chance.

There was more than this obviously, but I'll leave the Editor to fill in the blanks in his report.

Alec Chamberlain deputising for the injured Miller pulled of a wonderful one handed reflex save in the first half. It would have been a certain goal and it was this and a few other telling saves that made me think he was 'man of the match'.

The rest generally had good games, apart from Gifton who didn't look up for it. His control was lacking and the close marking he was getting was obviously unsettling him.

The only other one who was a cut above the rest was Johnson. He continued his excellent run of performances with guts, determination and vision. It is very nice to see a player playing the ball inside to feet on the edge of the box than continually sending out to the wing with the wide man's only option is to pass it back to the person who passed it to him.

So, no play-offs this year unless we can score 25 goals in one game!

But a re-newed sense of optimism is certainly there. Let's hope we can return to those wonderful days which we hold with fond memory. However, let's not hold our breath. Even though now people will expect, even more so than this season, that we get promoted, there is nothing certain in this world. Money doesn't guarantee you success. But it does help.