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Nationwide Division One, 4/11/00
Grimsby Town
By Ian Grant

Three cheers for Lennie Lawrence. Hip-hip hoo....

What? Some kind of problem? Feeling that you ought to continue to abuse an essentially decent and honest man simply because he once managed our local rivals?

Well, sod it. It would've been far more appropriate to have given him a standing ovation at the end of this match, frankly. Because, whatever the scoreline might suggest, Grimsby were the most attractive and enterprising visitors to Vicarage Road so far, prepared to risk the possibility of receiving a thumping by taking us on in an open, flowing game of football. They played with the courage of their convictions, and that's something that we haven't seen from some of the First Division's more illustrious names.

Bloody good luck to 'em, I say. And the same goes for their immensely likeable manager. They'll not have any relegation worries at all in May.

Of course, I could highlight a certain amount of naivety in Grimsby's approach. You don't have to be a qualified statistician to work out that, with the exception of the World Champions on Tuesday, the sides who've come to the Vic to play football have all been well beaten. So far, the only way to get a result against us has been through a packed midfield and a packed defence.

Yet that just highlights Grimsby's bravery, I think. It should be something that Watford fans can identify with. It sounds ridiculous...but they could have got something out of this, if one of their early chances had been converted. We've looked a little nervous and tentative recently, something that would surely have started to become noticeable if we'd gone behind. You get nothing for the number of times I use the word "if" in a paragraph, obviously...but the point is that they were willing to take the gamble, to give it a go with heads held high. For that, they deserve real praise.

For a few minutes, there was only one team doing anything. And it wasn't us. Groves' flicked header from a corner was just beyond striped shirts at the far post after two minutes. Then David Nielsen, a hugely impressive figure throughout, hurled himself at a bouncing cross but couldn't make any contact. They hadn't come to play for a draw, and we appeared to be slightly taken aback.

I've barely mentioned our performance at all yet. When we finally got going, however, we showed the urgency and intensity that you'd expect from a high-flying team with four recognised strikers. There was simply too much for the Grimsby defence to deal with, too many players who might suddenly arrive in the penalty area or drift wide to pick up possession. Too much movement, too much threat.

As soon as we began to get hold of the ball and pass it, the chances started to come. From Heidar Helguson's right wing cross and Tommy Mooney's knock-down, Gifton Noel-Williams sliced wide from twelve yards. Five minutes later, Nordin Wooter's trickery opened up a crossing opportunity and Noel-Williams made no contact with an ambitious overhead.

So the main features of what was to be a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable game had already become visible. We'd seen the strength and skill of David Nielsen, leading the Grimsby attack in positive, confident fashion. At the other end, we'd seen Mooney's complete aerial dominance, Noel-Williams' knack of finding space inside the box, Wooter's relentless tormenting of his marker. Everything in place for the rest of the afternoon.

Really, the main surprise was that it remained goalless for half an hour. There was plenty going on at both ends, with neither defence able to stifle the opposition forwards. Having stopped United scoring with his arse on Tuesday, Neil Cox found a more painful alternative by deflecting David Nielsen's fierce half-volley back to Espen Baardsen with his face. Then Tommy Mooney sent a shot skidding wide from thirty yards, Coyne scrambling across and just about covering it.

It was pretty clear that the game would only settle into a pattern when the first goal arrived, hence my assertion that Grimsby might easily have come away with an entirely different result. In the end, it came down to five frantic minutes. At the Rookery end, David Nielsen rose to meet a corner at the near post and his glancing header was blocked and cleared on the goalline by David Perpetuini - he was behind the line when the ball hit his chest, so we had to rely on the officials' judgement to preserve our clean sheet. Precarious, to say the least.

A minute later, Perpetuini's cross from the left was met by a forceful header from Noel-Williams and Allan Nielsen arrived to ram the ball home from close range. The linesman's flag ruled it out. If that was a warning for Grimsby - that they'd need to pay attention to more than the four strikers - then it wasn't one they heeded.

Shortly afterwards, Noel-Williams trapped a pass on his chest in characteristic fashion...with a defender wrapped around him, also in characteristic fashion. To his immense credit, the referee waited to see what would happen before giving the free kick, and we were immediately grateful for the advantage as Gifton turned brilliantly and strode away. Perhaps there was an element of luck in the way that the low cross was deflected rather than blocked at the near post, but the youngster's sheer determination had earned it. Grimsby had forgotten about Nielsen again - this time, there was no flag as he scored unchallenged from three yards.

Suddenly, the confidence flooded back. In little more than a minute, Coyne was fully extended to keep out Darren Ward's firm header from a Nielsen cross as it arrowed towards the top corner. But we were chucking everything at Grimsby and they simply couldn't hold out - if one thing's changed this season, it's that we only rarely fail to turn pressure into scoring. And we don't generally stop after just one....

The second goal was monstrous in its power. Nordin Wooter's timely spurt down the right produced a superb deep cross. There was a defender there, but it didn't make any difference at all - when Tommy Mooney really wants to win the ball, an entire army isn't going to stop him. Without thinking, he just hurled himself at it...mind, body, soul, everything. His marker did the sensible thing and got out of the way, the ball did as it was told and ended up in the back of the net.

His fiftieth goal for the Hornets, and another Tommy Mooney classic. Apart from The Bristol Rovers Moment - if you don't know what I'm talking about, then you need to buy the Second Division Championship video now; if you do know, then a great shudder will probably have just gone down your spine - there will be few goals that sum up Mooney better. Nothing tentative or half-hearted about it, nothing premeditated, nothing clever...just the most frightening, staggering commitment. He missed a penalty on Tuesday. These things only seem to add fuel to his fire.

Truly, his performance deserved to be rewarded with the match ball. After Helguson, whose contribution is always about quality rather than quantity, had tried a curler from twenty-five yards that Coyne fielded without difficulty, Mooney was mere inches away from adding a third. Again, it was Helguson who supplied a fine cross. Again, it was Mooney whose sheer desire barged all challengers aside...this time, his downward header brushed the outside of the post and went into the side netting.

Campbell wasted a promising break by ignoring options on either side and shooting weakly at Baardsen, Coyne saved comfortably from Wooter. With a gallant challenge from the visitors and a brutal riposte from the hosts, it had been a very fine half of football. Proper, competitive football...which is precisely why some of us were looking forward to this while Manchester United's kids strutted around on Tuesday night.

The second half didn't disappoint either. Grimsby remained eager and keen, ignoring the scoreline and refusing to lie down. Once again, we struggled against the temptations of relaxation. All of which added up to more wholesome entertainment, even if we'd have preferred to see a little less action in our penalty area.

With ten minutes gone, Coyne was called out of his area to head clear from Noel-Williams. The ball fell to Wooter, who turned down the opportunity of a first-time shot and, having worked a satisfactory opening, sliced wide. He's desperate for a goal, wee Nordin....

At the other end, Espen Baardsen was about to be busy. For once, our midfield failed to provide sufficient cover as McDermott ambled towards goal. When he finally got around to lining up a shot, there was still no-one in his way, and Baardsen had to get down sharply to his right to push the ball away. Then, after Mooney had shot well wide and Noel-Williams had been unfortunate to find defenders in his way after he'd beaten Coyne to Helguson's flick, a neat Grimsby move involving McDermott and Nielsen left Coldicott in the clear. But Baardsen was out quickly to parry and preserve our two goal lead.

Darren Ward was withdrawn after injuring himself in the process of clearing with an overhead kick, requiring a reshuffle that involved putting Clint Easton into midfield and moving Steve Palmer back into defence. To the credit of both players, there was little noticeable difference.

As in the first half, we gradually revealed our savage cutting edge. Noel-Williams, far too much of a handful for his markers, tried to recreate his sensational goal against QPR by hitting the top corner while toppling over under challenge...but, on this occasion, missed the target by a considerable margin. Cox thumped a half-volley at Coyne from twenty yards, Mooney sliced a volley from the edge of the box.

And so we return to Tommy Mooney. The two goals will take the headlines...but, really, the assist for the third was of a similar standard. When he emerged from a tackle in midfield, the ball ran away from him towards the touchline and there seemed little chance of doing more than whacking it against an opponent to win a throw. That's not his style, though. Suddenly, he was urging colleagues to get down the wing, twisting his entire body to curl a pass down towards the corner, and watching as it evaded everyone to set Noel-Williams free. The finish was somewhat selfish, squeezed under Coyne's body from a tight angle while the better-placed Helguson screamed for a pass...but that doesn't matter if you score, does it?

With only fifteen minutes remaining, the game was finished. Although Grimsby continued their attempts at getting the ball past Baardsen, they started to look a bit forlorn. Donovan blasted wastefully over from Smith's cross, Livingstone shot at the keeper after a galloping run. They deserved a goal, surely.

Instead, Tommy Mooney had the final word. There was a certain inevitability about that. Nordin Wooter had again betrayed his frantic desire to get onto the scoresheet by trying to force the ball past a defender and the goalkeeper from an impossible angle, while Gifton Noel-Williams waited to receive a simple pass that would present him with an open goal. From the corner, Mooney rose majestically among a crowd of lesser mortals to thump a superb header past Coyne. Fifty-one, and counting....

Not a game that possessed great drama or intensity, then. Not particularly physical or aggressive, nothing to give the referee any trouble. It was anything but boring, though. It had a very pleasing flow to it, as if neither team was thinking too hard about what the other was doing, thus keeping disruption to a minimum. After recent weeks, it was all rather healthy and refreshing.

It's probably only a brief respite. You suspect that we'll be plunged back into the swampy chaos of the average First Division game when Sheffield Wednesday visit tomorrow. So don't read too much into the result. In every way, this match was unrelated to our recent struggles against Bolton and Wolves.

We've thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the First Division. At last, we've seen a team prepared to pick it up, stare us in the eye, and do battle as equals. So, three cheers for Grimsby, and anyone else who's brave enough to try....