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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 14/3/98
Watford 1(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, Easton 3, Page 3, Millen 2, Mooney 2, Bazeley 2, Hyde 3, Noel-Williams 1, *Johnson 4*, Palmer 3
Subs: Robinson (for Easton) 3, Lowndes (for Johnson) 4, Lee (for Bazeley) 4
Scorers: Hyde (45)
Southend United 1(0)
Scorers: Thomson (66)
Report by Ian Grant

Just mindless, senseless violence. I'd hoped we'd seen the last of scenes like this in English football grounds - so-called supporters, some barely out of nappies, raining missiles down onto the heads of the defenceless fans below. Sickening to watch.

Still, I guess it's our fault for giving out a thousand paper aeroplanes in the first place. But how were we to know that these innocuous adverts for BSaD's forthcoming "Luddite Edition" would be used to wage such vicious war? How could we have guessed that, as the first half crawled mercilessly onwards, plane after plane would ascend towards the roof of the Vic Road end before plummeting point-first onto some poor, unsuspecting punter's bonce? Look, we're sorry, okay?

All of which might give the impression that watching air-bound weaponry inflicting GBH on the hapless inhabitants of the front rows was considerably more interesting than paying attention to the football. And that impression would be pretty accurate, to be honest. This was a busy game, littered with half-chances, driven by work-rate, hard graft and other things that would get Don Howe licking his lips...but it revealed no style or beauty to hold the attention. Like trying to focus on an episode of Hollyoaks, you knew that stuff was happening, that some of it was quite possibly exciting and dramatic - yet that still didn't stop the mind from wandering...

There will be many who regard dropped points against Southend as a greater tragedy than I do. Personally, it doesn't seem so long since we were in an era when achieving any kind of result against the Shrimpers was a struggle akin to swimming through treacle. The result is not all.

The performance matters rather more. Unfortunately, the performance was largely abysmal, an in-depth study into how to be indistinguishable from the everyday porridge of the Second Division. Forget any of the usual 'it was difficult to tell which team was top and which bottom' clichés, more than anything this was a match that resembled your authentic dreary-but-desperate relegation six pointer.

It might've been more through luck than judgement, but the home side forced Simon Royce into at least four fine saves, while Alec Chamberlain was rarely extended. I may be clutching at straws here...but that would tend to indicate rather more on-target goal attempts than has been usual. Other good points? Well, erm, Barnsley won...

The Watford masterplan was simple enough - give the ball to Darren Bazeley at every opportunity. Sadly, it didn't work - too many Watford players were sucked into the midfield melée; too many passes out to the right wing went astray; too many of Bazeley's runs were smothered - and we spent the vast majority of Saturday afternoon waiting for another idea to present itself. The result was not pretty.

And, while we were scratching our heads, Southend got on with the job. Indeed, a little more composure in front of goal would've brought the early lead they so clearly craved. As it was, Chamberlain was able to watch a series of attempts wander harmlessly wide - only a half volley that dipped late and went close enough to have the home fans flinching really merits comment.

Our bombardment of the Southend goal rarely rose above the unimaginative. The usual howls of anguish that greeted mis-placed passes obscured the familiar problem - too little movement and too few options. The inevitable consequence of such static play is that passes from deep become either over-ambitious or over-optimistic. Much has been made of a perceived drop in Richard Johnson's form, yet the fact that he's been asked to thread the eye of a needle is a major factor.

Even so, Royce had already excelled three times before Watford went ahead. His first save, clawing out a sliced volley from Clint Easton under challenge, was negated by the referee's whistle - but Royce still managed to keep the ball out, despite being fouled. The second was quite magnificent - a full-stretch dive low to his left to keep out a header from Tommy Mooney. And Mooney was again denied late in the half, his forceful break down the left wing ending with a potent shot and an acrobatic save from the Southend keeper.

But this wasn't a re-run of the Shrimpers' last visit to the Vic, when Royce's heroics, particularly an absolutely breath-taking save from a Kevin Phillips header, stood in the way of a full-scale hammering. This time, we had to rely on a defensive howler to avoid the wrath of the fans at half-time. Late in first half injury time, a ridiculous square ball across the edge of the Southend area went straight to Gifton Noel-Williams. Though Gifton was thwarted by a defender, he managed to play a pass to Micah Hyde, unmarked and able to slot the ball into the far corner.

That goal papered over the cracks temporarily. But the second half was dreadful - asked to close out a game against hesitant opponents, Watford simply fell apart. The departure of Richard Johnson at half-time left huge, gaping holes in the midfield - not only were we failing to hold the ball in forward positions, we began to lose out in the centre of the pitch. Having Johnson sidelined for any length of time is something that's too dreadful to contemplate.

Sure, Nathan Lowndes buzzed busily around the frontline and Micah Hyde made the odd dart from deep to augment our largely woeful attacks but for much of the half we were just hanging grimly on. Every time the ball was cleared from our penalty area, it came straight back at us. Only the linesman's flag stopped Southend from equalising earlier - a sweetly-struck volley ruled out for offside early in the half.

But our luck couldn't and didn't last. A neat Southend move played Thomson through the middle, the Watford defence seemingly parting to let him through, and he poked the ball past the advancing Chamberlain. By that stage, having watched Watford surrender the initiative, it was difficult to begrudge Southend an equaliser.

From that point on, we did rally a little. But only a little. Gifton Noel-Williams was having a hellish afternoon, comprehensively out-fought by the Southend defence and unable to do much with some fairly pitiful service from his colleagues. With no real target man to work towards, our attacks were directionless and formless. Darren Bazeley drifted out of the game almost entirely, so there was no width to provide an outlet - far, far too often we tried to barge our way through the centre with a blindfold cavalry charge.

Of the attacking players, only Lowndes appeared to be using his brain - which is one of the reasons why I'd like to see him given more of a regular run-out. We've got few enough players who'll move about, look for space and generally be lively without leaving them in the reserves. He came closest, running clear after Royce had scuffed a clearance - he was unlucky enough to prod the ball past the Southend keeper then not have quite enough pace to catch it up before it ran out for a goal kick.

Otherwise, it was all long-range stuff. Nigel Gibbs went close with yet another powerful drive, someone else (Micah Hyde?) had a rising shot pushed away by that flippin' Southend keeper, goddamn him. But only when Jason Lee arrived with ten minutes remaining did we appear to have any strategy for winning the game.

With Lee on the pitch, we had a focus, a bit of presence, something to aim at. When we put crosses into the box, we didn't have players standing around and watching or being out-jumped by stronger and wiser defenders, we had a bloody big bloke attacking and winning the ball. We have to assume that there was a good reason for not playing him from the start, we have to have faith in Graham Taylor. Which is a polite way of saying that I really don't understand what Jason Lee was doing on the bench for eighty minutes. He nearly scored right at the end, his header from a corner bouncing agonisingly past the post - that was the first time that I could recall anything consequential happening from a cross into the box, something that reflects the weaknesses both of our chosen forward line and our wide players.

Dire, then. There seems little point in carrying out a detailed post mortem - let's not wallow, eh?

This is a make or break time. And it is a make or break time in the stands as well as on the pitch. Regardless of arguments about loan players or new signings, this is the time when the fans have to show their support. We have a squad that has been absolutely butchered by injuries, yet has still maintained some sort of lead over third place - it's up to us how we choose to react now, it's up to us whether we lend the team a helping hand.

It's like this: you can turn up for Carlisle on Tuesday and be ready to moan, to carp, to panic, to howl, to sulk in silence, to boo when things don't go right. And you'll be doing your bit for Grimsby Town....

Report by Matt Bunner

It was the old 'top v bottom' classic. You know the ones: it doesn't matter that you're fifty points clear at the top and they haven't scored a point all season; it's gonna end in a draw. We may have played them off the park in the first half, but at the end of the day, when all done and dusted and when push comes to shove (it's cliché Friday) it's goals that count and if we've got one and they've got one, it's a draw.

I suppose most fans looked at this as a three point home banker and possibly quite rightly considering that we whipped them 3-0 away thanks to PK, but if the fans are going to sit down and expect Sarfend to lie down and beg for mercy, then sorry sir, it ain't gonna happen. Make no mistake, Sarfend deserved their draw.

For the third game running we sat in the Vic road end and for the third game running I was impressed with the aerodynamics from the back, but despite the free materials dished out by the stewards, none reached the pitch. I blame the type of paper used for the questionnaire. I've noticed (another piece for 'I should be so lucky') that every time we've sat in the Vic end this season, we haven't won, so obviously the omens where not good... (LATEST: see Carlisle!!!!).

Right, footy. The first half was largely one way traffic, contrary to the murmurings from the Muppets behind me, as we pummelled the Sarfend goal. I counted three one-on-ones with their 'keeper and each time the 'keeper won. Bazeley had the first effort from wide on the right, opting for power rather than placement and Mooney had two efforts clawed out. I don't know whether I've ESP or some sort of psychic ability, but I didn't get out of my seat for either of the aforementioned events: I just knew that we weren't going to score.

The approach play for the first ten minutes was lively, using Bazeley wide on the right at EVERY conceivable opportunity. Unfortunately, Sarfend weren't stupid, realised that this was our main stay of attack and re-organised to shut Darren out of the rest of the half (apart from his shot of course!). Our play in the first half was more energetic than graceful and it did make for some exciting football, but the crowd had expected us to be at least 3-0 up by the half hour and with this frustration raining down from the stands, it's bound to affect the players.

Sarfend's attempts on goal were minimal at best. I think the closest they came was from a back pass from Mooney. Nil-nil at half-time then. Well, it was 3:50 and I was taking the top off a thermos and the crowd were sooooo quiet that you would have thought we were observing a minutes silence. But we were still playing. Sarfend had the ball in their half and had time to clear. Matey looked up and thought it funny if he gave it to GNW (after all GNW needed some help because he was about to play the worst game seen for long time...). Not surprisingly, GNW almost managed to cock it up, but the ball squirmed to Hyde and from ten yards he buried the ball in the corner. At least we got something out of the half that we had dominated.

The second half was crap. Yes, crap. From a Hornet point of view anyway. Johno and Easton were replaced by Lowndes and Robinson, but it didn't make a lot of difference, although Lowndes made the best of not a lot (GT - this boy is worth a couple of starts. Lee and Lowndes could be good together!). Watford were getting increasingly frustrated as the game wore on, resorting to the long ball game. Fine, except that GNW was jumping with lead boots. Surely, it was crying out for Lee?

The frustration was almost too much. Most people realised that Southend were going to score and were venting their anger continuously. Sarfend did have a goal scrubbed off for a clear offside, but that only inspired them to greater heights. Their football was cleaner, more precise and was rewarded with a finely crafted goal. A couple of one touches in the centre field allowed Thomson to receive the ball on the edge of the area and toe-poke the ball into Chamberlain's right corner.

After that we had a couple of chances, notably Lowndes racing onto a through ball and flicking around the 'keeper only for it to run agonisingly over the dead-ball line. Hyde had a good shot from the edge of the area tipped over by the impressive Sarfend 'keeper. It was when Lee came on that we started to look dangerous (was Lee injured??). High balls were being won and Sarfend had a problem. We hadn't done anything with corners until Lee met one and his bullet header shaved the post at the end of the game.

As I said, Sarfend deserved their draw because they played football. NEVER expect to win. It has to be earned.

The scenes at the end of the game were an embarrassment. Booing is just about acceptable, but when you're top of the league??? No wonder Mooney waved his fist and stormed off. But worse was to follow. Some of the players came to the Vic end to say thanks. But some of our 'fans' just booed and I heard one fan say, "Piss off back to the changing room. You ain't getting a clap here". Hmmm. Good message to send to the players - we're all behind the team right?