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Nationwide Division One, 21/10/00
Nottingham Forest
A bit special
By Ian Grant

I was in the Nottingham area on Thursday, actually....

And Brighton, London, Watford, Rugby, Stoke, Stafford, Wigan, Preston, Lancaster, Carlisle, Motherwell, Glasgow. And all of them again on Friday, with the bonus addition of Milton Keynes. Signal failures, flooding, speed restrictions, derailments, broken-down trains, total confusion. In less than two days, a grand total of twenty hours on a railway system that's finally fallen apart.

I'll save the details for another time. Suffice to say that the endurance test of a return trip to Glasgow left me with precious little sleep - the outward journey finally ended at half past three in the morning and it was another hour before the hotel bed finally received my aching body - and the general feeling that I never wanted to get on a train again.

So, obviously, when the alarm went off at seven o'clock on Saturday morning, I was thrilled. Had it not been for the responsibility of having possession of other people's train and match tickets, the temptation of a long, long, loooonnng sleep under a warm duvet might've proved too much. And I would've missed out.

Bless 'em, they must have known that I needed something a bit special to lift my flagging spirits. In my mind, I'd pictured this as a disappointing weekend. After Tuesday's frustration, it had that look about it. The inevitable Fulham win, Bolton beating Stockport, Birmingham continuing Wednesday's dismal run and a tricky away fixture...the leaders moving over the horizon, the chasing pack closing in, confidence starting to falter.

Instead, we were looking at a mirror image. All around us, our competitors dropped points. Every bloody one of them. We took no notice until five o'clock, after the gleaming, glinting class of this performance had made that tricky away fixture look almost routine. Then we took it all in, worked out how the top of the table would look and went home with an extra bounce in our step.

Last time we were here, Forest were a gigantic, temporary presence in the First Division. In contrast, we were desperately fighting against relegation and, although we managed to cling on (thanks to Mooney, Bailey, Foster, Millen and company), we weren't able to resist gravity's pull for very long. Once again, we can reflect on the changes that have occurred since Graham Taylor's return. While our chants of "YOU'RE NOT FAMOUS ANY MORE!" cruelly highlighted the home club's fall from grace, the simple fact is that our history could've been very different too. Without GT, we could probably only dream of playing at the City Ground....

Let alone winning with such panache. Like I say, this was a bit special. Perhaps as close as a Watford side has ever got to the "total football" ideal. Two fine goals from a midfielder, wide players switching flanks at will and frequently coming back to help out in defence, full backs hurtling into the penalty area to get onto the end of flowing attacking moves, central defenders striding over the halfway line. Had we tried to play like this a few years ago, we would've seen the kind of chaos that would ensue if everyone ignored the highway code at a busy roundabout...but now it makes sense, it works so well, and there's great joy in the knowledge that we can still improve.

It wasn't all great. There were lapses, periods when we allowed Forest too much possession in the final third and gave them hope. But, really, this was a consummate away performance, full of control and style and devastating purpose.

Paul Robinson was everything that you could possibly want a full back to be, Neil Cox wasn't far behind. In defence, Robert Page has grown in stature to such an extent that he now, finally, looks confident and comfortable with the ball at his feet, something that surely owes much to the intelligence and movement of the players in front of him - constructive passing's simply not as difficult as it used to be. Up front, Tommy Smith was all dashing, youthful flair and, while he's yet to exploit the goalscoring potential of his wider role (as demonstrated by Nick Wright and Peter Kennedy), Heidar Helguson worked tirelessly and effectively.

That said, it was the midfield that stole the show here. I've been at pains to point out the importance of Steve Palmer - again it was evident, since you can't have players switching roles freely without others watching carefully and making sure that everything's covered. Palmer's a brilliant midfielder, purely because he allows others to shine. And, boy, did they shine.

Micah Hyde's two goals, both taken with beautiful precision, gave us this victory and he was a scintillating presence throughout. Having such a player, with the skill of a winger, the finishing ability of a striker and the vision of a pivotal midfielder, is giving us a vital edge in this promotion race. Actually, Forest did a pretty good job of preventing our front three from doing too much damage...but they hadn't prepared for Hyde's lethal surges into the penalty area.

For me, though, Allan Nielsen shone brightest of all. He was everywhere and everything. Never over-elaborate and never tentative, he just ran the whole game. In the past, encounters with Andy Hessenthaler have left us looking at our midfield and wishing that we had someone who could bear the burden of an entire match on his shoulders. Well, Nielsen had the energy of a Hessenthaler and it was allied to the quality of a Ramage. In short, a completely luxurious non-luxury player. If you see what I mean.

Perhaps it might've been different if Forest had taken an early lead. So we shouldn't forget Alec Chamberlain in all this. In keeping a clean sheet against Gillingham on Tuesday, he didn't have to make a single save. On Saturday, while we were dominant and secure for long periods, he needed to be at his best at crucial moments. He began in the first minute, blocking with his legs after the familiar figure of Blake had twisted and turned past Darren Ward and fired in a low shot.

We settled into the game. We scored with our first notable attack. It was that kind of display - quality over quantity. It was a lovely goal too - Smith's pacy run onto Robinson's long ball and acceleration towards the by-line, Hyde waiting for the pull-back and steering a shot into the bottom corner. Precision and simplicity, fantastic football from a team at ease with itself. From that moment, it was clear that the Gillingham frustration was already filed away in the past.

There was further defensive trouble in the fourteenth minute, as a quick throw released Lester and Chamberlain had to charge from his line to block his shot. After the ball had only been half-cleared, the Watford keeper got to his feet and saved comfortably from Bart-Williams' attempted lob. If you like, it's an indication that Forest's atrocious home form doesn't mean that they're a poor side. They're merely a decent side in search of the solution to a problem. We didn't let them find it.

Gradually, we took control. There was nothing so graceless as intense pressure, nothing as inelegant as belting the ball forward. Instead, we passed it around and looked for gaps. When we found them, we took full advantage. Nielsen broke swiftly, supplied Smith on the left and, from the low cross, Cox smashed a half-volley over from twenty-five yards. Hyde shuffled a shot just wide from outside the box.

For all our delightful play, we got a helping hand with the second goal. Scimeca's misplaced pass left the Forest defence in disarray, with Nielsen advancing purposefully and Hyde offering a supporting run. To sum up his role in the victory, Nielsen released the ball at the perfect moment, leaving Hyde with the relatively straightforward task of sliding a shot past Beasant. Ruthless punishment of a mistake, essentially.

The rest of the half was just heavenly. On the train back, Miles offered us Swiss chocolate from Marks & Spencers and it melted in the mouth, leaving a taste of absolute perfection. At times, we were that good. There were at least two occasions when we could've scored a goal that would've ranked with the all-time Watford greats.

Robinson shot wide from distance, before we conjured up a passing move that was touched by genius. It was sublime, Helguson, Noel-Williams and Smith combining on the right and moving the ball around as if they'd put a spell on it. When Smith crossed, we found that Robinson had decided to join in - again, the total football thing - and he headed the ball back through the six yard box. Sadly, it ended there...but, my word, that was enough.

There was plenty more, thanks to extended injury time after an earlier injury to Doig. Smith switched back to the left and gave Noel-Williams a glimpse of goal - he didn't quite get the curled shot right and Beasant saved without difficulty.

Then we broke from a corner, showing swift thought as well as swift feet, and once more came so close to scoring a goal that would've been replayed again and again. We've seen much of Smith's finishing and close control but, on this occasion, it was his passing that caught the eye - from the right, he launched the ball and we followed its trajectory, finding that Robinson had hurtled forward to get on the end of it. His low shot was saved by Beasant's legs, denying us something that we would've talked about for months.

You didn't really need words at half-time. Just a broad smile was enough to say it all.

If the second half was an anticlimax, nobody at our end of the ground particularly cared. Certainly, we were sometimes a little too relaxed - on several occasions, Forest weren't all that far away from scoring the goal that would've re-ignited the contest and you could argue that it would have been better to kill the game off than keep so much in reserve. Still, we did the job.

Indeed, we had the chance to put the result beyond doubt early on. Another misplaced pass, this time from Foy, gave Smith the opportunity to hurtle down the right and his low cross found Noel-Williams at the near post. His attempt was wonderful, allowing the ball to run between his legs and back-heeling it, but Beasant got his body in the way. That might've opened the floodgates.

As it was, Platt's half-time adjustments managed to tighten things up, so that we couldn't quite maintain the same grip on the midfield and Forest were allowed more possession. We were pushed back towards our own penalty area and, although there were only sporadic threats to our goal, we were never again able to produce the flowing football of the first half. In some ways, it turned into the tight, slightly scrappy game that many of us had been expecting from the start.

Openings were few. Rogers shot wide after Blake's break; Johnson produced a superb tackle to deny Hyde a hat-trick as he ran onto Noel-Williams' flick; Helguson finished weakly after a neat interchance with Hyde; Harewood miscued from the edge of the box. It wasn't a great game any more. We didn't mind.

Just occasionally, we allowed Forest to do enough to get their fans going. There were some uncomfortable moments - previous experiences, at Portsmouth and Stockport, have taught us that concentration is important, even with a two goal cushion. So Alec Chamberlain still had one more outstanding save to make, diving to his right to push away Foy's bending free kick from twenty-five yards. Robinson's head got in the way of Louis-Jean's follow-up volley, which momentarily appeared destined for the top corner.

As five o'clock approached, the Forest fans headed for the exits and we began to wonder whether the other results were still going our way. Nielsen, who thoroughly deserved a goal to crown his best performance in a Watford shirt, shot just wide from inside the area. Johnson hit an effort over on the turn from a right wing cross.

Finally, an unexpected bonus. The return of Allan Smart to the first team after another painfully long absence is more than welcome. Now that Tommy Mooney's served his suspension, we have more strikers than we can fit into the starting eleven...but, for me, an in-form Smart and a match-fit Noel-Williams has an irresistible feel about it. Whatever, he played for just a few minutes and showed that he's lost none of his competitive edge during his time in the treatment room. Indeed, he, along with the other two substitutes, was nearly involved in a third goal in injury time, bursting forward to set up Nordin Wooter, whose whipped cross somehow missed all of Dominic Foley's flailing limbs and passed right through the six yard box.

So, this was a comprehensive victory. A confident confirmation of our promotion credentials. After the usual celebrations - although, after last season, giving the team an ovation after an away win still has novelty value - one or two players stayed to wait for the other results to come through. And, somehow, Fulham's draw at Wolves was just meant to be. It had to happen sooner or later...

Really, though, it felt as if it had to happen right then. It was that kind of day - no clouds on our horizon.