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Nationwide Division One, 16/9/00
Crewe Alexandra
By Ian Grant

Erm, wow.

In a sense, the least interesting of our victories so far. Not a remarkable game, not a spectacular performance and, aside from Micah Hyde's brilliant strike, not a lot that will live long in the memory. By my calculations, this was one of only two matches involving the Hornets in which the woodwork has remained untouched...and, although that's a trivial statistic, it says something about the subdued nature of the afternoon.

In which case, routine wins really ain't what they used to be. It's been a very long time since a Watford side possessed so much firepower that it could record a three-nil scoreline while barely appearing to break sweat. No doubt there were many who expected and predicted it...but Crewe aren't that bad, particularly defensively. Ten goals in a week tell its own story, I guess.

The difference between the sides was simple, then. It can be summed up by the fact that both lost key strikers before the game. Crewe were without the lively, inventive Rodney Jack; we were without Heidar Helguson, our top scorer. Yet equivalent injuries didn't result in equivalent forward lines. Without Jack, Crewe carried little threat, struggling for confidence in front of goal even when they did manage to create chances. Without Helguson, we were still able to field an array of in-form strikers - Gifton Noel-Williams, Tommy Smith, Tommy Mooney, plus a midfield containing regular scorers in the shape of Micah Hyde and Allan Nielsen. If you can put the result down to one thing, it's that.

Truthfully, we were perhaps not as comfortable as we liked to think. Playing the entire game in second gear is all very well, but there were enough occasions when Crewe forced good saves from both Espen Baardsen and Alec Chamberlain that you tended to think that it might be better if we stepped it up for twenty minutes and put the whole thing beyond doubt.

So there were elements of complacency here. While the midweek triumph undoubtedly fuelled our growing confidence, it also allowed us to imagine that conceding an early goal wouldn't be a problem. We began too slowly, allowing Crewe, who, as ever, indulged their penchant for slick passing, to get at us in the first few minutes. Sooner or later, that kind of thing will cost us. Not every opponent in this division will refuse or squander a head start.

It should've cost us on Saturday, really. Espen Baardsen hasn't made that many saves since his arrival at Vicarage Road, so we've had to judge him on his penalty area presence and not his shot-stopping ability. After five minutes, he showed us that ability. Wright was unmarked to meet Lumsdon's cross with a perfect downward header, forcing Baardsen to hurl himself to his left and get a hand to the ball. Incredibly, he managed not only that - he also shoved the ball up and away from the six yard box, preventing any possibility of a follow-up. The best save by a Watford keeper since Alec's heroics at St Andrews.

Frankly, we were fannying about. All's well that ends well, of course...but it'd be sensible to remember that, if we want to find something that will ultimately separate us from Fulham and Bolton (and Blackburn), it'll be commitment and application. Although other sides might have comparable talent, they can't match our other qualities. We must stay focused.

It was a full quarter of an hour before we managed a goal attempt. It came from Allan Nielsen, picking up a pass from Paul Robinson and darting into the area before curling an ambitious shot over. Finally, we settled down and started to match Crewe by being neat and tidy and patient, if not especially incisive.

Such is our firepower, however, that any quantity of possession seems to result in chances and goals before too long. Even though we'd hardly woken up, it was all too much for Crewe. Kearton was grateful to find Darren Ward's header from a Nielsen throw end up in his arms, and suddenly we were right on top. A minute later, and while I was still scribbling in my notebook, the Crewe keeper needed to make a fine save to deny Noel-Williams' header, after Neil Cox's free kick had been headed back by Tommy Mooney. The corner wasn't effectively cleared, Mooney collected the ball and burrowed his way to the by-line, before whacking a low cross into the six yard box for Tommy Smith to prod home at the near post. One-nil, and an almost frightening demonstration of how confidence in the final third can make the rest of the game virtually irrelevant.

The rest of the half was ridiculously routine, a succession of long-range attempts on the Crewe goal and only occasional, ineffective breaks to worry the home fans. Perhaps my decision to name Darren Ward as the man of the match will raise an eyebrow or two since the strikers won us the game, but he was as immaculate and imperious as any central defender we've seen since Colin Foster. Though he's demonstrated many of his more physical qualities so far, this performance showed us a whole new dimension. Delightful touch, shimmering elegance, eagle-eyed vision...absolute, unmistakeable class. My word, that boy is some player.

Anyway, we sat back and watched a few shots whistle towards Kearton, the Crewe keeper looking competent throughout. Good player, and Crewe have plenty of those without having much of a team right now. He saved easily from Hyde's low shot, then watched a typical Mooney half-volley dip over his crossbar and crash into the seats behind. Noel-Williams attempted an overhead, unable to beat Kearton at his near post; Mooney drove at the keeper after a sharp interchange in the midfield. We were coasting, even if Peter Smith should've made rather more of a purposeful break by choosing to cross for the unmarked Shaun Smith rather than try a shot.

To refer back to my Portsmouth report, the Crewe defence managed to deal with Noel-Williams and Mooney fairly well. Yet deploying resources to subdue two thirds of the Watford attack only gives more room for somebody else - Tommy Smith, in this case. He was a constant threat, both as an out-and-out winger on the right and, as with the first goal, as an extra striker. While you suspect that Nordin Wooter would've had a field day against nervous opponents, that shouldn't detract from the youngster's performance - after initial reservations about shoving him into that wide position, he's continuing to grow and impress as a player rather than just a striker.

That said, he should've made it two after being released by a Hyde through-ball and played onside by defensive hesitancy. Instead, Kearton advanced and managed to block the shot before bouncing to his feet and claiming the ball as it looped up. Kearton was in action yet again as the half ended, saving comfortably from Hyde.

More of the same in the second half, basically. There used to be a time when I'd write something like that in a match report and it'd mean that we'd had to endure another stuffing or stalemate. But we were more than equal to anything that Crewe could throw at us, even though Alec Chamberlain had to replace Espen Baardsen after a collision in claiming a cross. There was always a feeling that we'd score more...and it was a feeling that proved to be correct.

To their credit, Crewe stuck to their guns. Lumsdon, who always seemed to be in possession and repeatedly tried his luck from distance, kept the whole thing going...yet there really wasn't enough support to disrupt the thoroughly efficient defending of Darren Ward and Robert Page. Ten minutes of boredom ended with Lumsdon smacking a snap-shot at Baardsen. To sum up the afternoon, the attemped equaliser was followed immediately by a second Watford goal.

More than an element of luck and poor defending in this one...but, after last season, they're all beautiful in their own way. The assist went to Smith, whose dribbling on the right of the area was briefly disrupted by a tackle. Mooney retrieved the ball and Smith tried again, this time making it to the by-line to pull back a cross. In the middle, Sodje had a brainstorm and, despite being in the middle of a crowd, attempted to chest the ball back to Kearton - he succeeded only in giving Noel-Williams an unmissable chance from three yards.

The stroll continued. Wright drove over from distance but it was desperate stuff, in contrast to the clear-cut chances being created at the other end. The best of them fell to Mooney, who found himself on the end of Ward's flick from a Nielsen throw and, despite being unmarked, couldn't direct the header away from Kearton. Then Hyde didn't get a clean strike after a corner had been cleared out to the edge of the box - as it turned out, he got it right next time. As Crewe heads went down, Noel-Williams latched onto a loose pass, dashed towards goal and tried to square the ball for Mooney - only Kearton's instinctive interception of the cross prevented a certain goal.

Gradually, we relaxed enough for the visitors to get back into the game a little. Without Jack, however, they had absolutely no confidence in front of goal. Again, the contrast between the sides was acute - Mooney tried to shoot on the turn from twenty-five yards, as optimistic as ever, before Street got on the end of a Peter Smith cross and mis-kicked hopelessly. Oh dear. As always, I wish Crewe well...but, since they're not ugly enough to play defensively (and probably wouldn't want to be), they badly need some kind of cutting edge if this season isn't going to involve another desperate struggle.

Twenty-seven minutes in, and Paul Robinson whipped in a gorgeous cross for Noel-Williams. The striker stretched to reach the ball and, in doing so, could only send it towards the corner flag. The roles were reversed a minute later as Noel-Williams held onto possession, released Robinson for another fine cross and Mooney's header appeared destined for the top corner until it drifted just over. Hell, if this is what we can do when we're cruising in second gear, it's almost scary....

Three shots from Lumsdon - one over, one requiring a firm save from Chamberlain, one straight at the keeper - ended our spell of dominance. But, hey, that only meant that we went back to the Rookery end and scored again. For a few moments, it was an exact repeat of the earlier incident as the corner was cleared to Hyde and he brought the ball under control. This time, however, he really got hold of it, sending a rocket past the helpless Street on the line and into the top corner. Hyde's goals have previously been noted for their precision rather than their power - this one had both.

There was still time for a tremendous save from Chamberlain, leaping up to his right to tip over Sorvel's explosive drive, and for Robinson to spoon a shot over with his right foot. Then it was all over - a few cheers of celebration and a quick exchange of applause between players and fans, then back under the Rookery, up Occupation Road and to the pub.

Satisfaction rather than joy, really. Last season, a three-nil win would've been an oasis in the middle of the desert - it would've resulted in some serious Sunday morning hangovers, that's for sure. Right now, it represents another three points, another challenge completed.

As GT and others have already noted, that's got much to do with the difference between the two divisions. You don't have to play particularly badly to get beaten in the Premiership, just as you don't have to play particularly well to win in the Nationwide.

There's more to it than that, though. In strolling to victory on Saturday, we demonstrated that we've banished the tension and pressure of that season in the top flight.

We allowed ourselves to relax. It felt quite nice. And slightly dull.