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Nationwide League Division 2, 29/11/97
Watford 2(2)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Palmer 3, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 4, Hyde 3, Thomas 4, *Johnson 4*, Rosenthal 3
Subs: Easton, Smith, Robinson
Scorers: Thomas (12), Mooney (45)
Wigan Athletic 1(0)
Scorers: Jones (11)
Misleading expectations
Report by Ian Grant

Quiz time. What was the score of last season's home game against Wrexham? How about the visit of Walsall? Bristol Rovers? Shrewsbury?

Don't ask me - I haven't got the faintest idea. Y'see, just as there are matches that stick in the memory for good or bad, personal or collective reasons, so there are those that slip into the past and leave barely a trace. They're not necessarily that boring - the eternal notoriety of that unspeakable cup tie at Scarborough proves that tedium can also earn itself a place in history - they're merely slightly inconclusive, slightly bland and generally forgettable.

This was one such occasion, a match that seemed so unresolved at the final whistle one almost expected half an hour of extra time to be played. Somehow the scoreline just doesn't seem right. Either Wigan should've seen their neat attacking play rewarded with an equaliser or Watford should've taken advantage of their numerous chances to repeat the slightly unfair Blackpool result.

Whatever, there's no question that our ability to find enough inspiration consistently to dredge up wins from close contests like this has left us in an extraordinary position. The gap of sixteen points - sixteen points! - to third place is all that really matters and looking to criticise the quality of some of our victories is just over-zealous perfectionism.

That particularly applies to the stick dished out to Gifton Noel-Williams, a seventeen year old who's come on dramatically since last season. He had a very good game and was frequently the only really unpredictable, inventive element in the Watford attack. To my mind, that's more important than how many times he's scored and how many chances he's missed - as it stands, we've got plenty of other people supplying the goals anyway. If we can't be patient with a young striker when we're at the top of the table and winning games, I'd worry a bit about how we're going to react to a few defeats next season.

Unlike most, Wigan arrived at Vicarage Road seemingly intent on taking the game to the home side. The wisdom of that tactic may be questionable but it caused a few problems for the Watford defence and enabled the Latics to take an early lead. Alec Chamberlain, who was just a whisker away from pipping Richard Johnson to the 'man of the match' award, had already needed to excel, tipping a cross over to divert it away from an oncoming striker. That corner was half-cleared but Robert Page was beaten to the second cross and Jones clipped the ball in from close range.

Fortunately, that appeared to slap us out of our drowsy start and the best Watford move of the afternoon created an equaliser just a minute later. A short free kick was followed by a sharp interchange of passes and Micah Hyde opened up the Wigan defence for Dai Thomas to score.

From that point on, our complacency disappeared. While we never achieved (or were never allowed to achieve) too much fluency in our play, we did carve out more than enough chances to have won the game by a considerable margin. In that respect, the case for a Watford win is pretty difficult to argue with.

Noel-Williams was the first to be denied, running onto a through-ball and finding the keeper out to smother before he'd had time to set himself. Moments later, the striker had another shot saved as he continued to look for that elusive goal - a goal, incidentally, that won't be long in coming if he plays like this. Indeed, he even had an effort disallowed for a foul on the keeper towards the end of the half.

Just as it seemed that we'd have to settle for being level at half-time, we won a corner. At first, it looked like a poor kick but it found Hyde unmarked outside the six yard box. He headed the ball back into the danger area and Tommy Mooney got a touch to divert it past the keeper.

The second half was infinitely more entertaining, offering action in both goalmouths as Watford dominated and Wigan played some penetrating football on the break. After the relatively dour first forty-five minutes had brought three goals, it was remarkable that there was no addition to the score after half-time.

Wigan demonstrated their threat almost immediately, wasting a free header with a tame effort straight at Chamberlain. The Hornets' defence never looked fully at ease and further opportunities followed - Chamberlain was forced to push a potent shot over the bar before an absolutely perfect opening was thrown away, the cross flying into the Rookery with unmarked strikers waiting.

As I've already suggested about forty-three times, the game could've gone either way. In some respects, this match mirrored the one at Northampton, both in defence and attack - the difference being that Watford fans expected a routine win on this occasion. While slightly vulnerable at the back, we continue to torment defences - second half efforts from Johnson, Kennedy, Noel-Williams, Thomas, Rosenthal and Mooney are a testament to the fact that our attacking play comes from all angles. While missing Jason Lee, our approach play has improved in his absence - it's to be hoped that we don't slip back into old habits when he returns.

Not for the first time, Johnson, who exerted a massive influence on the whole of the game, came closest to scoring. A superb strike from the traditional distance seemed to be curling out of reach of the keeper's hand before he got a touch with a fingertip to divert it onto the bar. Shortly afterwards, Peter Kennedy sent a shot inches wide.

A third goal might've opened the floodgates but it just wouldn't come. Noel-Williams turned his marker superbly and fired a cross through the six yard box; Ronny Rosenthal appeared to be felled inside the area with the referee just a yard away (I can only assume that the defender got a touch on the ball); Thomas ran through and was barged at the last moment (if he'd have gone down dishonestly, he'd probably have got a penalty); Kennedy smacked a volley that was heading for the corner before it took a deflection; Rosenthal rounded the keeper and saw his cross cleared.

Throughout, Wigan did little to suggest that they were a struggling side. They defended superbly, constantly at full stretch yet never unable to cope. It was a fascinating contest - the league leaders probing and poking, the visitors standing firm.

And, ultimately, that's the point I'd really like to make. A late miss from Rosenthal, taking a completely unnecessary extra touch when presented with a shooting opportunity, was the first time we'd really been guilty of wasting clear-cut chances. We did little wrong in attack, it's simply that Wigan were just about equal to our efforts. If it ain't broke (and on this evidence it certainly ain't), don't fix it.

Alec Chamberlain was required to pull off one more outstanding save before the end, an instinctive reaction to flip a firm shot past his post after another nifty Wigan move. Had it gone in, it wouldn't have flattered them - but, equally, it wouldn't have been a condemnation of our performance either.

On reflection, this was a good win against impressive, aggressive opponents. We shouldn't allow our expectations to colour our post-match judgement - there are many sides worse than Wigan in this division and, if we play like we did on Saturday, we'll beat most of them quite comfortably.