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Worthington Cup 1st Round 1st Leg, 22/8/00
Cheltenham Town
The moon is made of pants
By Ian Grant

Ah, back to reality.

There's something about the Worthington Cup First Round. Like farting under the duvet, you know it's going to stink...but you can't resist finding out how much. Season after season, we turn up to witness this kind of utter drivel, wondering how long a competition that is rapidly becoming the Auto Windscreen Shield for non-Champions League participants can possibly last. And it's still there the next year, seemingly existing only to bring those who've grown too romantic about football during the summer months down to earth with a hefty thump.

The point is, of course, that it's still a competitive game and the players are still professionals. Well, anyway, that's the general idea. It seems extraordinary that, year upon year, we fail to notice that simply approaching the task in a vaguely focused way would make the whole exercise so much easier for everyone concerned. As others have proved, you can have the tie sewn up by the end of the first leg. Instead, we seem intent on finding out what it feels like to be utterly humiliated.

Some people will look at the result and say that, after two fortunate wins in our first two fixtures, our luck ran out last night. They'll be completely wrong. In many ways, this was perhaps the luckiest yet - proud as they should be, every Cheltenham fan will know that they should've walked out of Vicarage Road with a famous, crushing victory. It really might've been anything. One-nil, two-nil, three-nil, four-nil...perhaps five-nil is a little far-fetched, but you get the point. The facts speak for themselves - one side created about half a dozen clear scoring opportunities, the other created precisely none.

It doesn't matter who we were playing. As it happens, Cheltenham proved themselves to be disciplined and determined, and looked a tidy, useful side. Whatever, to be prepared to risk any opponents coming to Vicarage Road and stuffing us by three or four goals shows no respect for Watford Football Club. While poor but honest performances can always be forgiven, it's more difficult to find anything that isn't unprintable to say about the players whose lapses and general lack of basic care might've embarrassed us even further. It would be easy to focus on Paul Robinson, since he was the most atrocious of an atrocious bunch, yet I'd like to think that none of the defence had a clear conscience as they tucked into their cornflakes this morning. They were gambling with our pride.

From beginning to end, we were second best. Enormous credit to Cheltenham, naturally - they rose to the occasion, we made up the numbers. As always in these situations, if the favourites set about the task in the right way, it'll all go as planned. Fairly obviously, we didn't set about the task in anything like the right way.

After five minutes, Darren Ward decided that Alsop, despite being about seventeen feet tall, wasn't really worth marking and so left him to head a cross against the top of the bar. As it turned out, we were fortunate - in a Devon White-ish kinda way, Alsop's height didn't seem to make any difference to his heading ability and so, mercifully, he continued to miss chances like that for the rest of the evening. A more efficient centre forward would've put Cheltenham ahead right then, and put the tie well beyond our reach by full-time.

Quarter of an hour had crawled by when Victory slaughtered Neil Cox on the wing, cut into the area and pulled the ball back for Duff to finish with a tame shot at Espen Baardsen. Again, we were asking for trouble and lucky not to get it. You know the type of defending that you always get in park kickabouts, where everyone really wants to be in attack and anyone who's not in attack is therefore wandering about in the most bored, distracted and ultimately pointless fashion, deserting their post at the first opportunity? Yeah, well.

Incredibly, it got worse. The impressive McAuley bombed down the left wing, looked up and probably couldn't believe his eyes. My notes simply say "WHERE'S ROBBO?!" and highlight the fact that Duff was all alone at the far post, waiting for the cross that McAuley placed at his feet. He hit the side netting when, again, he really ought to have scored.

Perhaps some of this managed to shock us into action, since the rest of the half was just ludicrously dull. But Worthington Cup First Round games are always ludicrously dull and, since we came of our own free will, I'm not sure that complaining is quite fair. Hell, if you don't like being bored, then you don't go to the Annual Minnesota Paint Drying and Grass Growing Carnival, do you?

Gradually, signs of life began to appear - one or two neat link-ups between Dominic Foley and Tommy Smith on the right, a bit of proper determination from Ward which resulted in a running battle with Alsop, and so on. Don't misunderstand me - we were still a grotesque parody of a football team, barely able to string two passes together much of the time and completely by-passing the midfield far too often...but we were at least showing signs of being able to protect our goal. Which is fundamental to the game, in my humble opinion.

We had a shot after thirty-five minutes. I know, because I noted it down as dutifully as ever. Behind me, Miles and others were singing the theme tune from "The Flumps", which was probably a far more appropriate and logical reaction to the proceedings. Anyway, it was Neil Cox with one of his free kicks. To say any more would be to give it an importance that it doesn't deserve. David Perpetuini nearly scored with an in-swinging cross three minutes later - it was, to all intents and purposes, the only time he touched the ball in the entire half and I find it baffling that people would prefer him to Clint Easton on current form. Oh, get well soon, Peter Kennedy....

And, before you knew it (but only because you were fast asleep), it was half-time. Having legged it down to the refreshment kiosks in search of comfort food, I waited as the queue inched slowly forwards. And all the time, I could see the solitary remaining vegetable pasty, frantically prayed for it to stay there and expected it to disappear at any moment, probably just as I finally reached the front of the queue. But luck was on my side and, while everyone else bought beer and crisps and meat pasties and cups of tea, my pasty was still there when I got served. I tell you this because it was the highlight of my evening.

The second half was better, worse and the same. All at once. But not in an exciting way. Better, because Heidar Helguson returned and, although he looked extremely rusty, much depends upon his long-term fitness. The game also improved marginally. Worse, because we managed to be even more cack-handed in defence than before, which seemed impossible. And the same, because, like Oasis records, Worthington Cup First Round games always seem to go on for several weeks without any change of tempo.

Miles had now moved on to the theme from "Bod". We'd moved on to trying to provide Helguson with a chance...which was a bit beyond us, frankly, but at least kept us out of trouble for a while. Only a while, mind - after twelve minutes, Cheltenham won a corner and, as our defenders had once again decided that marking was beneath them, Alsop was allowed a free header at the far post. As Loz later pointed out, it wasn't even as if he'd had to make a run to find the space - he just stood there, seventeen feet tall and as obvious as a lighthouse, and waited for the ball to arrive. Again, his header wasn't greatly convincing and Easton managed to block it on the line, clearing only as far as the edge of the six yard box. From there, someone obligingly thumped it over the bar.

Really, this could've been so much worse. Alsop headed into the side netting from a right wing cross, Baardsen made a comfortable save from Walker. In between, Robinson, who apparently sold his braincells to pay for his summer holiday, lunged in on Banks and, despite gouging his studs into the Cheltenham player's chest, managed to stay on the field. If the referee had had the same view as those in the Rookery, the colour of the card would undoubtedly have been red. Idiot.

Brace yourselves, because the best Watford chance of the game is coming up and you wouldn't want to miss it. Pass from Easton, Helguson holding off a defender and shooting at the keeper from the edge of the box. Worth the wait, eh? Five minutes later, a neat free kick routine from Foley and Cox betrayed the fact that we do actually practise playing football, something that would've been impossible to deduce from the rest of the unholy mess. Mooney headed wide from an Easton cross.

True to form, we followed that short spell of pressure by nearly allowing Cheltenham to score. Actually, to be fair to our opponents, they did it without our help this time, McAuley driving in an awkward shot from the corner of the area that forced Baardsen into a fine, two-handed save. Howarth headed wide from the corner, then McAuley tried his luck again and only just missed with a tremendous curled shot from distance.

All Cheltenham needed was a goal. They deserved it. Don't fall for the trap of assuming that our complete inability to break them down meant that they'd come to play defensively. Far from it, they'd just come to play - they defended when necessary, they attacked when possible. They knew what they were doing. Remember how annoyed we were when we turned Chelsea over last season, only to find that everyone concentrated on our beaten opponents' failings rather than our achievements? Well, for that reason, it was enormously gratifying to see the Cheltenham players applauded off the pitch at the end, even coming over towards the Rookery to take a bow. If only their finishing had been better, particularly when a simple lob into the space behind the defence completely exposed our laughable offside trap and left Duff charging through. He panicked and took it too early, shooting straight at Baardsen. Christ, Cheltenham had some chances last night....

There was a final flurry of Watford pressure as the fans who'd earlier tried to lift the team became increasingly vocal in their frustration and disgust. Foley, one of the few Watford players with something about him, fed Mooney for an ambitious juggle-and-volley that dipped just too late to get under the crossbar. In injury time, Helguson (or perhaps it was Foley...if you were there, you could forgive me for not caring) attempted a spectacular volley which didn't really come off and rambled a couple of yards past the post. Far too little, far too late.

There it is, then. I have no constructive points to make at the end of this report - as a performance, this was so absolutely, inexcusably abysmal that there's really no basis for being constructive. Funnily enough, two of the players that have been most furiously criticised - a striker and a midfielder, and I think you can guess the rest - are among the handful that didn't completely disgrace themselves, to my mind. But, in many ways, that's irrelevant - Watford stands or falls on the team and the team was shameful.

Last season, we often didn't get what we deserved. Last night, we didn't get what we deserved either. In an entirely different sense.