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Nationwide League Division 1, 3/4/99
Watford 2(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 3, Page 4, Palmer 3, *Robinson 4*, Smart 3, Hyde 2, Whittingham 2, Johnson 3, Gudmundsson 2
Subs: Mooney (for Whittingham) 3, Bonnot (for Hyde) 4, Ngonge (for Gudmundsson) 3
Scorers: Kennedy (67), Ngonge (87)
Tranmere Rovers 1(0)
Scorers: Kelly (53)
Report by Ian Grant

Renowned literary academic AC Bradley once wrote of Shakespeare's "King Lear" that it is "too huge for the stage". In other words, attempting to squeeze such an absolutely immense, overwhelming spectacle - storms, insanity, rage, evil, revenge, forgiveness, redemption - into a theatre is like trying to trap a hurricane in a matchbox.

You could say much the same of the concluding twenty minutes of Watford versus Tranmere. "Too huge for a football pitch" - lawless carnage that refused to recognise the touchline as any kind of barrier, spilling over into the dugouts, the dressing rooms, and the stands. There was simply too much to take in, too many incidents happening at once for anything to make any sense. Some mutant, futuristic, ultra-violent descendant of the game we all love, unrecognisable but unbearably thrilling. It was bedlam.

At the Mailing List bash afterwards, people were swapping information like this was some kind of observation test. Some saw the incidents that resulted in two red cards for Watford players, some saw the penalty offence, some saw the undisciplined mayhem around the dugouts, some probably saw other things that I haven't even heard about yet. But no-one - and I mean absolutely no-one, particularly not the officials - saw it all.

And, whatever you can say about an idiotic referee who lost any semblance of control and allowed minor disagreements to disintegrate into full-scale brawls, it was exactly what we needed. For seventy minutes, we were on the way to another dreary, scoreless home defeat with all the bitterness and recrimination that always involves. It had all the makings of a thoroughly depressing afternoon. For the final twenty minutes, we were hardly playing any better but the fans were as one and the team had some burning fire back in their bellies. Perhaps all we really needed was a corner to fight our way out of.

So let's return to the start, on the understanding that none of what happened in the first half matters any more than a light rain storm before Armageddon.

Many will say differently, but I thought we were showing signs of minor improvement. The welcome return of Allan Smart to the attack brought a little cohesion, his knack of bringing others into the game making our forward play look rather less random than of late. Which isn't to suggest that we looked like scoring, it's just that those of us who've stayed loyal to this set of players are grateful for any straws to clutch at right now.

We approached the opposition goal like a mountaineer climbing Everest - carefully, safely, and without any real confidence that we were going to make it to the top. It was watchable enough by recent standards...but the days of cheering on a defence-shredding Watford attack seem depressingly distant. We've become too aware of ourselves, too nervously self-conscious, we need some way of forgetting the pressure.

Worryingly, Tranmere's counter-attacks were infinitely more dangerous. After Alec Chamberlain had made a comfortable save from a near post bundle at one of Challinor's stupendous long throws, they created the first of three very presentable chances. Santos beat Paul Robinson in midfield to give Taylor a clear run at goal - to the vast amusement of the home fans, who were grimly waiting for the net to bulge, he stubbed his toe, fell over and watched the ball trickle out for a goal kick.

Six minutes later, one of Richard Johnson's sporadic errors ended with Kelly sauntering forward on the left and unleashing a fierce drive. Chamberlain responded magnificently, diving away to tip the ball over the bar...but failed to impress the match officials, who gave a goal kick to the disbelief and annoyance of various Tranmere players.

So more than half an hour had passed before we managed a goal attempt of any worth. Peter Kennedy reacted first to a loose ball and headed on for Smart, whose half-volley from a tight angle was easily gathered by Achterberg. The Tranmere keeper actually had to make a reasonable save five minutes afterwards, Kennedy's driven shot from a Bazeley cross foiled by an acrobatic stop. But that was it, the complete end product from so much incessant poking and probing. A goal seemed as remote as ever.

Tranmere had another couple of raids before the interval, Taylor prodding wide from an Allen pass and Kelly shooting over on the turn, but it was sterile stuff. We've become so used to goalless draws in recent weeks that we're now comparing the merits of them and re-defining what it means to play well. If this was better than Bury, it was still brain-rottingly dull.

It was to get worse. For fifteen minutes at the start of the second half, our ponderous attacks withered and finally died. Meanwhile, Tranmere took advantage and took the lead. They'd already come very close - Challinor's incredible throw from the left touchline flew right through the area and hit the far post before being hacked clear, no way of telling whether it got that crucial touch on the way. Then, just a minute later, Robinson - who'd had a fine, aggressive game up until that point - looked for Page with a simple, unhurried header as Watford tried to put some passes together. But he missed, Kelly pounced and steered a finish past Chamberlain. Things looked very, very bleak.

Curiously, though, we woke up a little. None more so than Robbo, who embarked on a heroic one-man mission to redeem himself and was a left back only in theory for the remainder of the game. The goal rattled us, no question. For a while, we looked as exasperated and thoroughly irritated as most of the fans in the stands. Unable to see a way of putting any pressure on the Tranmere goal, our frustration was expressed in bad temper. The tussles that had been going on all game - Johnson with Irons (both booked for a playground squabble over a free kick), Smart with everyone - simply got nastier, the seeds of what was to follow were sown.

The triple substitution - bringing on Alexandre Bonnot, Michel Ngonge and Tommy Mooney for the largely woeful trio of Micah Hyde, Johann Gudmundsson and Guy Whittingham - gave us new hope. That's happened before, though, and we've been almost immediately disappointed.

Not this time, however. We scored, and it was a beautiful thing. Mooney did the work on the left wing, flinging in a cross to the far post. Kennedy was there, ten yards out and all alone, to send a sweetly struck half-volley skimming past Achterberg. Suffice to say that the celebrations were rather more delirious than you'd expect for an equaliser at home to Tranmere.

They were up for it now. Looking no more likely to score, in all honesty, but definitely up for it, taking on the challenge with some conviction. For fifteen minutes, the players hurled themselves towards the Tranmere goal and found a defence holding firm. But at least we were up on our feet, roaring them on, going out with a bang not a whimper.

Then the midfield battles boiled over again. I was too busy looking at Hill writhing around on the floor, intent on drawing attention to an off-the-ball encounter with Smart, to see Johnson's challenge on Irons. One of the two incidents brought Tranmere manager John Aldridge onto the pitch in protest, as everything began to disintegrate into complete chaos. The referee saw nothing of the tackle either and had to consult a soon-to-be-infamous referee's assistant. The verdict, a second yellow card, brought hellish abuse of the linesman from the Watford midfielder as he left the field - presumably, from what I've been told by those who did see it, on the grounds that he'd won the ball. Graham Taylor pushed his player away, then turned on the official himself with furious indignation. For a further two or three minutes, the linesman was subject to the full wrath of GT. Meanwhile, Aldridge was getting himself involved in altercations with supporters in the Main Stand.

And that was just the start. Five extremely nasty minutes later, it all went off. From a Watford corner, Mooney rose to head and Achterberg tipped over. But that linesman was waving his flag again.

After consultation with the referee, the award of a penalty was confirmed. Again, I can't claim to have seen anything. The general consensus is that there was some holding on Ngonge as the cross came over - but let's be honest, if you're going to give penalties for minor, off-the-ball offences like that then you have to give them all, not just one. In which case you'll have about fifty-seven penalties in every match. Not that I'm complaining too much on this occasion, natch.

The Tranmere players went berserk, surrounding both referee and linesman in protest, while we celebrated. For a couple of minutes, there was nothing but the strewn debris of a football match - players in groups, officials fending off angry remonstrations, stewards and police nervously pacing about, no indication that the football would ever re-start. The referee had lost his authority, and the result was anarchy.

Finally, Peter Kennedy stepped up to take the kick. And it was awful, low to Achterberg's left but well within his reach. Mercifully, the rebound came out to Ngonge who, via a deflection, found the net.

The referee, in one of the most stupid moments of his life, decided to turn his back on the penalty area and run to the halfway line to curtail Ngonge's celebrations. So, once again, that linesman was left to take notes on the bar-room brawl that erupted in the six yard box. When I looked down, Allan Smart and David Kelly were going at it like nobody's business. None of your usual push and shove, this - Kelly's shirt had somehow been removed and both were throwing, and landing, punches. Various others were clearly involved - not least Acterberg, who'd lost his rag completely and was also making gestures to the home supporters for which he was later reported. Meanwhile, other Tranmere players were continuing their protests over the penalty decision to the linesman. One can only wonder what the away fans down at the other end of the pitch were making of this distant chaos.

For a moment, it looked as if Smart had got away with murder. But the linesman called the referee's attention to the fighting, and an instant red card was the result. Quite how not one single Tranmere player was so much as spoken to remains a mystery - it's difficult for a player to have a punch-up on his own, I'd have thought.

The end result was that we had nine men left on the field, and three minutes plus injury time to hang on to the lead. We did it, bringing bodies back in a terrific rearguard action that shut Tranmere out. Particular mention must go to Alexandre Bonnot - only his second first team appearance and at a time when the world was ending around him, yet he provided an admirably calm influence in midfield just when we needed it.

The scenes at the final whistle were disproportionate to the performance. We hadn't played particularly well, and Tranmere fans have every right to feel rather aggrieved at the result. Which is why the red cards acted so much in our favour, banishing the feeling that this was a game we should "expect" to win, removing the pressure from the players. A "scrappy" win became a "gutsy" win.

Like I said earlier, all we needed was a corner to fight our way out of.

See also: The Deadly Submarine