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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 20/3/99
Watford 0(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 2, Page 4, *Palmer 4*, Perpetuini 3, Smith 2, Hyde 2, Whittingham 3, Johnson 2, Gudmundsson 2
Subs: Hazan (for Hyde) 2, Wright (for Smith) 3, Mooney (for Perpetuini) 3
Bury 0(0)
A cup of cold sick
Report by Ian Grant

Some things you could do with fourteen quid: drink six pints of Guinness; buy a ticket for the mailing list bash and still have enough change for a couple of beers; buy a CD; try your luck with fourteen lottery tickets; go to the cinema three times; eat enough jelly beans to make yourself ill; put it in the bank and wait for the interest to pile up; watch Watford and Bury grind out a spirit-crumpling nil-nil draw. Life is full of difficult choices.

If you want an indication of the loyalty of the Watford fans, it is that nine thousand people did actually choose to spend their money on this, a football match that had absolutely nothing to recommend it. That's the club's core support right there - after all, roughly the same number turned up to see us against Crewe and Stockport, back when we were a good bet for some breezy Saturday afternoon entertainment.

Earlier in the season, it was all about making converts. Trying to convince the town that the football team was worth seeing, getting new faces into the ground and tempting them back for more. That seems quite a long time ago. Right now, we should be doing all we can to keep the curious passers-by away - Vicarage Road is not a place for the faint-hearted, Watford games are not a pretty sight.

You pays your money, you gets a cup of cold sick in return. Cheers. Football is often a way of escaping the everyday grind, but it does still have an annoying habit of creating an inescapable, monotonous grind all of its own. This was terrible.

The result wasn't altogether unexpected. Following last week's insufferable shambles at Oxford, the challenge of finding a way past Bury's defence wasn't what we really needed. To say the least, it had a very unappetising look about it. Until we signed Guy Whittingham, that is. Goal scoring problem solved, we suddenly had no reason not to look forward to ending the dodgy run with a decisive victory over a lowly side. Right?

Wrong. I still believe that it'll be a significant signing, just as I still believe that we'll make it into the playoffs. But such optimism doesn't allow for performances as hell-awful as this, I'm afraid.

For Whittingham to perform the goal scoring antics of which he is undoubtedly capable, we'll have to give him the ball. For anyone to score any goals at all, we'll have to re-acquaint ourselves with some of the basics - decent crossing and passing that turns defenders, to name but two. We'll get nowhere with this kind of desperate, artless bludgeoning.

So much of what we did played into Bury's hands. The service to the forwards was barely worthy of the name, for a start. There is no bleedin' point in whacking high balls and hanging crosses towards Guy Whittingham because he ain't gonna win any of them. (Getting the ball forward is not necessarily the same thing as attacking.) Yet the frantic buck-passing of nervous players saw us do exactly that, with the expected results. We were trying to kick the door in when we should've been looking for the key.

To be fair (if I must), our initial attempts did show some promise. Darren Bazeley and Richard Johnson both drove early shots at Kiely, before Johann Gudmundsson's pacy cross - a rare moment of creative wing-play - was headed carelessly wide by Peter Kennedy after five minutes. As at Oxford, there were signs that we'd been given a bit of a pep talk by GT and that we were trying to assert ourselves. Also as at Oxford, unfortunately, it wasn't long before our confidence started to fall away - Christ, how we need an early goal....

Bury, on the other hand, appeared to be enjoying the lack of pressure. They were doing a pretty good job of, as Ron Atko would probably say, "killing the crowd early doors" - by the time ten minutes had elapsed, any pre-match excitement was a very distant memory as our attacks petered out to nothing. Indeed, the away side might've made things worse by taking the lead, as Lucketti's header from a corner was pushed over by Alec Chamberlain.

For the best part of half an hour, nothing happened. It deteriorated into the kind of game that you expect to see on a rutted, frozen pitch - all poor control, aimless passing, and frantic pinball - except that the Vicarage Road turf offers no such excuses. Nobody managed better than long-range attempts, although Gudmundsson went close with a fierce drive from the right, as everything was dragged into a midfield black hole. Up front, Whittingham and Smith watched all this with, I would imagine, considerable dismay.

A couple of chances came and went before half-time, although "goalmouth action" would probably be an over-generous description. Kennedy blazed over from the edge of the area after Bazeley's cross had found its way through a ruck, Bullock did much the same with an ambitious attempt from the right of the Watford box. Then, on forty minutes, we finally gave our new signing a glimpse of goal as another Bazeley cross skidded past defenders to Whittingham, who snatched at it on the half-volley and forced Kiely to muddy his shirt for the first time. Even in that moment, nothing more than a sharp half-chance, you couldn't fail to see the striker's instinct in front of goal.

As has become traditional, GT made a couple of half-time changes - the kind of hopeful pack-shuffling that may eventually chance upon the right combination. Depressingly, however, this is not really a matter of personnel but of confidence. Micah Hyde and Tommy Smith, both pretty much lost in the muddle, were the unfortunate ones to make way for Alon Hazan and Nick Wright - but there were any number of candidates for the chop. We really are in the doldrums right now. To illustrate the point, our all-round play actually deteriorated after the break.

In truth, only Darren Bazeley found any kind of method amid the madness. His crossing may have been pretty abysmal, his refusal to go outside defenders remains galling, but the speedy charges towards goal from the right wing that punctuated the second half showed exactly the ambition that we need. I'd usually criticise a wide player for always cutting inside but not now, not when any attacking poise is something to cling on to. That his solo efforts didn't come to anything is almost irrelevant - they showed the way, no-one else followed.

So Bazeley shot at Kiely after a couple of minutes. A quarter of an hour later, something else happened. Yes, it was that bad. The 'something else' was Bury nearly scoring again, Barnes on the break smashing in a shot from the right that Chamberlain parried at his near post.

Finally we began to show some urgency. Johann Gudmundsson, whose Kennedy-esque contribution was both generally anonymous and occasionally distinctive, twisted and turned endlessly inside the area before clipping in a surprise shot. It curled towards the far post, but Kiely scrambled across his line to deflect it away with his fingertips - inspired attempt, fine save, shame about the lack of a corner.

A few minutes later, a flurry of action left Vicarage Road almost overcome with excitement. Kennedy wasn't far away from connecting with a Nick Wright flick at the far post, then Richard Johnson was a foot over with a shot. We still weren't having it all our own way, though, and a rare error by Robert Page in dealing with a long clearance let Littlejohn in - his shot beat Chamberlain but was booted clear by Palmer. Within a minute, Bazeley's shot was easily fielded by Kiely.

Bury were weathering the storm. Or, to be more accurate, they were weathering the light shower. Tommy Mooney replaced David Perpetuini, who'd had a thoroughly competent debut, but that merely added more determination to an attack that was screaming for a bit of finesse. With Johnson having an almost entirely hopeless game, we persisted with the pointless tactic of lobbing balls towards Kennedy's head - he won a few, sure, but that's hardly the way to get controlled possession in the final third. Any crosses that did go in were from so deep and with so little pace that they were never likely to trouble Bury's bruising defenders. There was nothing inspired, nothing unpredictable, no hint that we had anything more to offer. At no point in the entire ninety minutes did we get behind the Bury defence. In summary, we were absolutely f***ing clueless.

So that left set pieces. And we nearly got ourselves an unlikely win. Kennedy's late corner landed on Mooney's head six yards out and he met it firmly enough, but it clattered against the face of the bar and away. That was it. The final seven or eight minutes were intolerable, the pattern of our aimless attacks continuing to the bitter end. Just as last week, the whistle was a relief.

We're still good enough to make the playoffs, I think. Drivel like this does not represent the players' "natural level". They are capable of much, much more than dismal nil-nil draws against Oxford and Bury. But I can only say it, it's up to them to prove it.

See also: Bury unofficial