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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 5/4/97
Watford 0(0)
Team: Miller 4, Gibbs 4, Armstrong 3, *Johnson 5*, Millen 1, Page 3, Bazeley 3, Phillips 2, Connolly 3, Penrice 2, Ramage 2
Subs: Palmer, Slater 2, Mooney 2
Crewe Alexandra 1(0)
Scorers: Whalley (68)
Crowd-pleasing and match-losing
Report by Ian Grant

Kenny Jackett's current position is a difficult one. Under fire for recent, less-than-thrilling performances from people, including Oliver Phillips, who appear to have forgotten that promotion is all that counts, it seems that he's been forced into a re-think. The goalposts have been moved and I'd argue that this further dent in our aspirations is a result of that.

The formation, designed with a far greater emphasis on attacking creativity, was closer to the one demanded by many fans. It wasn't, however, closer to the one that plays to our strengths. Using three at the back suits some players more than others (Nigel Gibbs, employed in a sweeper role, had his most effective game for months; Keith Millen appeared ill at ease with the whole thing) but involves tampering with the one part of the side that has achieved a level of consistency throughout this season.

We played better, recording our highest number of goal attempts for ages, but we didn't win. The result is all, I'm afraid, and I genuinely believe that we should've stuck with the old system. By all means experiment with the front players but the defence, including the recent midfield partnership of Steve Palmer and Richard Johnson, has become the foundation of the side and should be left intact. Better to win a tedious game by a single goal than get caught on the break and lose an entertainment extravaganza by the same scoreline.

Despite the changes, the first half was only marginally less mind-numbing than the home matches that preceded it. And the warning signs were all there - despite spending huge amounts of time camped in Crewe's half, we created just one real chance while the opposition broke quickly and looked dangerous. Indeed, if I may be excessively harsh for one moment, our tactics tended to play into Crewe's hands - they were more than happy to soak up pressure and counter-attack.

Goalmouth action was minimal before the break. Our attempts to play balls behind the Crewe defence for David Connolly and Kevin Phillips to run on to were largely unsuccessful, lacking the necessary accuracy and giving the Crewe keeper some simple catching practice. The keeper was slightly troubled by a Johnson 'lob' (or an attempt to play the ball back into the area that turned into a lob) in the first few minutes, otherwise he'd had a relatively easy time before making a superb blocking save to foil Craig Ramage at close range late in the half. That move was one of the few occasions when we managed to turn the opposition defence, fine work from Phillips on the right wing setting up the chance for Ramage at the near post.

Crewe, like so many visitors to Vicarage Road, had come with a gameplan and were sticking to it resolutely. And, unfortunately for us, their gameplan happened to be spot on. Despite having very little possession in the first half, they'd managed to work at least two good openings by half-time, the best of which saw a striker out-pace Robert Page and fire in a shot that Kevin Miller did well to save. The pattern of the game was summed up by one incident when a moment of magic from Connolly sent Ramage away on the right wing. His cross was blocked by a defender (with more than a suspicion of handball - but the cross was poor in a highly promising position) and within seconds Crewe had counter-attacked for a shot on the Watford goal - the speed and penetration of that attack makes you wonder why their away form isn't better.

Ultimately, an average forty five minutes was enlivened by one player - Richard Johnson. If there's been a better individual performance by a Watford midfielder this season, then I've obviously got a short memory because this was astounding stuff. I suspect that the Crewe players will be looking over the shoulders for the rest of the week, expecting to see a whirling dervish hurtle up behind them and kick them up in the air - he was absolutely everywhere. Andy Hessenthaler at his best would've been proud of that display - tackling, defending, attacking, distribution, the whole f***ing lot. On current evidence, I'm going to have to make a large sign reading 'Well in, Johnno!' so that I don't have to spend the whole game shouting it. I just hope that Kenny Jackett took him to one side afterwards and gave him a hefty pat on the back.

The interval saw further attacking impetus provided by the arrival of Tommy Mooney, on for Craig Armstrong. The result was five minutes of fierce pressure on the Crewe goal, during which the opposition keeper started to hint that he wasn't about to make us happy. The chant of 'Someone kill the keeper' late in the second half just about summed it up. His first save was pretty good, diving high to his left to push away a swerving drive from Nigel Gibbs (of all people), his second was unnecessary (Connolly's half-volley from the edge of the box was going wide) but still impressive.

It's been some time since we've looked really likely to score in a match. I can't remember the last time I heard "We're gonna score in a minute" at the Vic, put it that way. But we didn't make the breakthrough. Some of the finishing was rather wasteful - Phillips should've made more of a magnificent Johnson through ball that left him with the rapidly advancing keeper to beat but he saw his effort blocked. Even when the keeper made mistakes, he redeemed himself - despite dropping a high, hanging cross at the feet of no less than three Watford strikers, he blocked the shot that resulted.

Gradually we were sucked into committing men forward and the goal, unfortunately, came as a consequence. We'd won yet another corner and the ball had been cleared from the Crewe area. We lost possession, mainly thanks to a poor pass by Millen, and suddenly found ourselves being torn to shreds by one of those swift counter-attacks. It took only a handful of seconds for the ball to find its way to an unmarked striker, who finished with a low shot past Miller. It was the classic goal against the run of play.

We increased our efforts to get an equaliser but there was no way back. The keeper continued to excel himself, pulling off an extraordinary save to deny a Phillips header (Kev had done everything right - he'd got power on it, directed it downwards into the corner - but somehow it was clawed out) and following that with a diving punch to keep out a Millen header from a corner. When Ramage failed to capitalise on a golden opportunity, hooking the ball over after a scramble that involved the ball bouncing on top of the bar, it was pretty obviously not going to be our day.

This was undeniably more entertaining. It was also a better overall performance. I don't think that either of those things are as important as many seem to think they are, though. If you want my honest opinion, we were closer to winning the Bournemouth game - that match hinged on a referee's decision, this one was almost entirely down to the quality of our opponents (it's not bad luck when a goalkeeper pulls off great saves).

Solutions to the lack of goals are difficult to come by. Perhaps the return to fitness of various players (Slater, Porter, Mooney, Phillips, Connolly, even Ramage) may help. Throwing players at the problem does us few favours, though - our slightly gung-ho attitude as the game progressed might've been thrilling but it wasn't particularly sensible, especially against a side that had come to play on the break.

If we really want promotion, we may have to accept that it isn't going to be the glorious rollercoaster ride we'd all hoped for. Perhaps we're going to have to grind out foot-suckingly tedious one goal wins at the likes of Stockport and Chesterfield rather than going there to show off our classy pass-and-move football to the lower division riff-raff. If that's true, and I rather think it is, then so be it - promotion is what counts, after all.

Bowing to pressure
Report by Ian Lay

In general this season Watford's performances have been far from exciting. They have tended to be defensive, negative and uninspiring. But most of the time they have produced results and therefore points. On Saturday, with the return of several players, the Horns had their most attacking lineup of the season. I'm afraid to say that though we played with style, verve and imagination we failed to do the one thing which is so important. That is coming away with three points when the final whistle was blown. In an effort to move away from our defensive looking side, KJ played Connolly up front with Phillips with Ramage supporting. He also employed Gibbs as a sweeper with Armstrong and Bazeley playing as wing backs, the latter playing more of the right wing role we have come accustomed to seeing him in this season.

Bowing to the pressure from supporters? Maybe. Trying to find an answer to our lack of goals? Certainly. Playing to our strengths? Definitely not. Like it or not our squad's assets come in the defensive area. We have the best defence in the division (second best in the whole country), and it is to them we owe the fact that we are still in a position to push for promotion. So why change what has been a successful, if uninspiring, formation. Very simply, pressure from fans. We are all guilty of it in some way. Crying out for more attacking options. But KJ seemed to go too far on Saturday in is pursuit of good football. We are entering a crucial time of the season and we were playing an important match and yet he completely changed the outlook of the side from what has been seen over the course of the last seven months.

The sweeper system is a good one to play, but you have to have the right defenders to do it and they must be comfortable with it. Which means you have to have two quick centre backs and a guy who is going to switch from the left to the right side of the field all afternoon and not get tired. In Robert Page and Nigel Gibbs these qualities are there, but Keith Millen is not up to the task. He looks fine in a normal flat back four. But against Crewe he lacked pace and got himself caught in possession when pushing forward. Keith even popped up once on the left wing level within the opposition's penalty area!!! This is taking attack to its extremes. He was also directly responsible for Crewe's goal which proved to be decisive.

Having said that the game was excellent and would have provided the neutral with much entertainment. The first half was the quieter of the two but the football was pleasing to the eyes with Watford having most of the possession though fewer chances. Crewe created four reasonable opportunities, one of which produced an excellent save from Miller.

Watford had two chances in the half. The first started from a cross from Bazeley on the right which was half cleared to Johnson on the edge of the box. His attempted chip just cleared the bar with the goalkeeper unlikely to have been able to reach it. The second was the best opportunity of the first half. A superb through ball by Johnson sent Phillips racing down the right wing. He took the ball to the byline and crossed the ball low to where Ramage was making a run to the near post. Craig got there first but the Crewe keeper made an excellent blocking save to deny him.

At half time I felt that if we kept our discipline that we could win the game but was slightly worried that sometimes Crewe caught us a little short at the back when they broke. My worry was to turn into reality.

The second half started very well for us. We created a number of chances in the opening minutes and really deserved to score. The first chance came when Phillips was put clean through by Johnson. Despite the goalkeeper coming out quickly it looked like that Kev would reach the ball just in time to be able to lift the ball over him. Somehow he didn't and his attempted shot bounced of the keeper's legs and safely away. Next Gibbs unleashed a 30 yard curler with the outside of his right foot which looked like it was going to sail into the top corner only for the Crewe goalie to get his left hand to the ball and tip it over for a corner.

And then came what I had been fearing all along. Millen, who was about 10 yards inside the Crewe half, played a terrible ball to Johnson which was intercepted. Crewe broke quickly and with only Page and Gibbs left back managed to get enough men forward to out number us. The ball was played square across the egde of the box and Whalley drove the ball under Miller. Unless we scored first this was always likely to happen. And just like the game against Bournemouth I felt that one goal could well settle it.

However to our credit we didn't give up and pushed forward again to create further chances.

The Crewe keeper had to excel again, with the save of the match, low to his right from a Phillips header which looked like it was going in all the way. Millen also had a shot from just out side the area when a corner was cleared to him just outside the area. The keeper this time punching the effort away. Millen also had a header which had he put either side of the keeper would surely have been a goal.

But the best chance of the second half again fell to Ramage. Whereas the first half effort was unlucky this one was just plain careless. After a bit of a scramble in the Crewe box the ball popped up and hit the upright. It bounced back out to Ramage and as the ball was rising, and with the goal at his mercy, he managed to somehow blast the thing over the bar. I knew then that we were not going to get anything out of the game.

Despite the reality now that the play-offs are our only likely way of getting promoted this season, there were some encouraging displays.

It's good to see that even though Miller goes through some games without anything to do that when he is called up to save us, he doesn't let us down. A excellent performance, but didn't have any chance with the goal.

In the defense, Millen had a nightmare. He really doesn't look happy in a side playing a sweeper. Page in contrast was cool, calm and collected. Giving another steady show. The pick of the defenders was Gibbs. He plays the sweeper role so well. And for once, given the freedom to roam left and right, he made some good surging runs forward.

Bazeley and Armstrong, acting as wing backs, had reasonable games. The former getting forward and taking his man on more in the second half after a quiet first half. The latter was unlucky to be substituted at half time to make way for Mooney because Tommy didn't really influence things very much.

The pick of the attackers was Connolly. He ran and hustled and chased everything up front. Had a couple of shots which were blocked and generally made the Crewe defence wary, and his control was much better than it has been. In contrast Phillips looked tired, his control was off and generally looks like a man who needs a break. Having said that he did set up the best chance of the first half and had a good chance himself in the seocnd. But by his high standards, he was below par. So was Ramage. Yes, he did show a few signs of his flare and skill, but for a man who can control games himself he was not at his best. He was also guilty of missing one the best, if not the best, chance of the match.

Penrice also didn't contribute a great deal. He worked hard yes, but compared again to his performances early in the season, this was not the Gary Penrice we know. And he hasn't been right for a few weeks.

The man of the match by a mile was the ever improving Johnson. He simply controlled the midfield on his own. And restricted Crewe only to attacks on the break. At the moment he's out-Palmering Palmer in his ability to shut opposition midfields out. But what was most pleasing again today was that his distribution continues to get better. He played more incisive and important passes than anyone on the field and also was unlucky to have two or three long range shots blocked. One of which certainly had a very good chance of ending up in the back of the net. On this form Palmer is going to find it very hard to get back in the side.

Our biggest problem at the moment is that, even though we have our creative players back in the side, most of them our still not match fit, or are suffering the affect of playing too much football since coming back from injury. Mooney, Phillips, Ramage, Slater and Penrice are still not at 100%. With only Connolly looking like he's thrown off his injury problems.

With automatic promotion now very unlikely we need to consolidate our position and make sure we don't have to go to Burnley needing points to make the play-offs. With three games in the next seven days we are going to be tested to the full. But six or seven points from these games should see us back on track. We are running out of games, and even though we have matches in hand against the people below and immediately above us we need to take advantage of this if we are going to avoid having a nerving racking end to the season.