By Matt Rowson
There's something sort of comforting about revisiting old haunts. That walk down the street where you lived when you were a kid, the visit to a pub that you frequented in a previous job, the calling in at a once-local newsagent.
It's come to something that standing on a terrace is a bit like that. It no longer feels "normal"; it's almost a special treat, a novelty that nobody is quite used to any more. And the freedom that comes with it is obviously magnificent...the flexibility to stand with whoever, wherever, to move away from the bloke with the know-it-all annoyingness should the need arise. Most of all the ability to STAND UP whilst watching a game of football. Tremendous.
It's a measure of how much has happened to Watford in recent times that it feels much longer than two years or so since we were enjoying this liberty regularly. The opportunities won't come back, of course...not without an unanticipated and decisive turnaround in the club's fortunes. Standing at a football match goes right against the current undertow of antiseptic, packaged, don't-kick-off-until-Sky-say-so "entertainment" that prevails. Trips like this, then, are to be cherished.
The harking back to Division Two days shouldn't imply that Whaddon Road is of comparable standard to the grounds we were visiting then. Cheltenham's rapid progress on the pitch, which has seen them advance from the Southern League two years ago to top of Division Three last weekend, has evidently not been mirrored by developments in the stadium, which is very definitely non-league. The catering facilities in the away end were a local van, the toilets a combination of portakabin and one of the horrific blue boxes that bring back the more unhygienic memories of a Reading festival many years ago. The away terrace consists of a shallow open structure and a completely incompatible covered area separated by the turnstiles. A free standing area in front of the terrace allowed those with a mind to to position themselves directly behind the goal within stretching distance of the net and goal-line. More out-of-water than us, however, were the Sky cameramen perched precariously on recent-looking wooden platforms that the ground clearly wasn't constructed to accommodate.
It was all very welcoming and affable though. The banter was lively, the burgers reassuringly toxic, the PA pumping a diet of eighties pop. With Cheltenham's programme and officials at pains to replicate the welcome they evidently received at the Vic a fortnight earlier, our biggest fear was that the performance on the pitch would be equally consistent. We needn't have worried.
Watford started with Nigel Gibbs in for tendonitis victim Paul Robinson and Allan Nielsen returning in place of Gifton Noel-Williams, reported to have failed a fitness test on an ankle problem, with Mooney pushing up from midfield. The visitors started the match very positively, but rather than a torrent of attacks this appeared to be a very deliberate and controlled turning of the screw from the outset.
I should perhaps, at this point, explain that an eye problem and a vantage point at barely pitch level behind one goal are not really conducive to an in-depth relaying of detail...(even if I had written anything down). So if you saw it on Sky and I got details wrong (e.g. the score), feel free to contact ig.
Early pressure resulted in an effort by the ubiquitous Cox, which was one of many early incidents to see a ball depart the stadium. "How high do you want the goal?" mocked the home fans. "How small do you want the ground?" came the reply.
On eight minutes, the breakthrough. Nielsen set up Hyde for a tremendous cross, met as decisively as ever by the head of Tommy Mooney. Book parried, Smith followed up, one-nil.
We never, realistically, looked troubled from then on. Even during long spells of Cheltenham possession later in the game, the knowledge that one goal from the home side might open the game up again was a nagging thought at the back of the mind unsubstantiated by events on the pitch. For the time being, however, the Hornets were well on top. The most dramatic moment of the game came from Cox, and a free-kick which looked about forty yards out. Cox's efforts have never looked like lacking legs from any distance and this effort bombed, turning and curling towards the top corner before rebounding some distance upwards off the bar and being cleared on its return to earth. "F***ing hell", said everyone in the stadium.
Before quarter of an hour was up the lead was extended...Cox again involved sending in a cross from the right met unchallenged by Ward who powered a header into the bottom of the net. "You might as well go home", we mocked, only feeling slightly silly at the knowledge that we'd come an awful lot further than they had for a tie that was already over.
For the first twenty minutes or so, and in complete contrast to the first leg, we looked a good two divisions better than our opponents, whose attacks were desperate rather than focused for the first time in the tie. Inevitably, the foot came off the gas and the Robins came back into it. Their possession around the box failed to generate much in the way of shooting chances, although they should have had a penalty when Robert Page clearly handled inside the box.
At the other end, however, goals always looked possible. Helguson found a lot of space wide on the right, causing problems and winning corners with his single-minded bee-line cuts inside. Smith turned and span, embarking on one dizzying run that ended with a weak shot, and Mooney was just Mooney. Cox, again, was a threat, another ferocious shot from distance bringing a fine save from Book.
The second half continued in much the same vein, and interest began to wane as the inevitability of the scoreline appeared to register with both sides and the support. Cheltenham had more possession, but Watford looked far more threatening on the break, with Mooney twice charging onto the end of breakaway crosses with headers that cleared the bar and Hyde, having recovered from a knock that at one point looked like enforcing his withdrawal, imperiously surging from midfield. The killer goal finally came, Mooney yet again on the end of a right-wing cross and cushioning the ball down to the unmarked Helguson, who volleyed home.
The game dawdled to a close, and Taylor brought on three subs including a keeper change, worryingly necessitated by Espen Baardsen appearing to pull something and, having played on for around ten minutes, being unable to see out the last five. Freeman was booked for obstructing a goalbound Michel Ngonge, another move meandered carelessly to nothing as Nielsen attempted to caress the ball in from the edge of the box having been teed up by Ngonge. Some other stuff might have happened up the other end too, but we couldn't see it and weren't too inclined to care, preferring to share banter with the compliant Cheltenham keeper.
Cheltenham can point to the penalty decision not given in the first half and another loud shout in the second that we weren't near enough to assess as being critical points in the match. Whilst this doesn't constitute missing the point by as much as the Sheffield United fans who complained at Watford's third goal being offside on Bank Holiday Monday, the fact is that this was a comfortable victory, a professional job well done.
That Nigel Gibbs got two strikes in on goal in the closing period is evidence enough of that.