By Matt Rowson
Ah. We lost. Again.
We score two goals in a game for the twenty-fourth time this season, Preston become the twenty-fifth opponents to do the same to us. Scoreline tells the story, right? We score lots; the other lot score more, same old story?
Well, sort of. But not really....
The match was preceded by a visit to the National Football Museum, which adjoins the stadium, a must for any trip to Deepdale. Some of its displays are predictable, but most are wittily put together and all are engaging.
Two points of note. Firstly that Arsenal's unmatched tenure in the top flight of English football began in dubious circumstances. They finished fifth in the old Second Division in 1919, but the financial persuasiveness of their then chairman saw them promoted above third-placed Barnsley and (laughably) fourth-placed Wolves, not quite good enough even then. Honesty may be the "best" policy in some sense, but it is not always the most profitable.
Secondly, the prominence of Preston North End in the history of the national game making Deepdale a thoroughly appropriate venue for such an exhibition. Equally fittingly, we were able to view the day's proceedings from an open terrace (how quaint). This always feels altogether more traditional, more right than a plastic seat - even when you're freezing your bits off at Craven Cottage. Less welcome were the equally traditional toilet facilities, a portacabin that merited a six-month quarantine on entry and exit.
With David Lucas having injured himself in his warm-up and Tepi Moilanen already out injured, Preston were forced to field seventeen-year-old Andrew Lonergan in goal. With an encouraging decisiveness, Watford flew forwards to put the youngster under immediate pressure.
Mooney was the first to test him.. Having been put clear on the left by Vernazza's controlled ball, the Moonster slammed the ball across the face of the goal, Lonergan blocking the shot. The ball was cleared for the first of a series of three corners in which Lonergan looked hesitant and nervous, but the relieved cheer that greeted Preston finally clearing their lines was appropriate. They had weathered the early storm.
The game began to fizz from one end to the other, the pace and competitiveness of the game and the burrowing wind sometimes limiting the composure of the football, if doing nothing to allay the mutual tension. Mooney made the gameplan abundantly clear by bombing after a pass back towards Lonergan from a ridiculous distance away, but the youngster's kicking was impressive throughout, and after the early forays he rarely betrayed his inexperience. By the time Mooney cushioned down for Gifton Noel-Williams to fire in a crisp, adventurous shot from twenty-five yards which Lonergan fielded comfortably, the potential for exposing the youngster seemed to have passed.
So what we were left with was a tumultuous game of football with both sides playing to their strengths... Watford bombing forward at every opportunity, Preston soaking up pressure and hitting the visitors on the break with crisp passing and good movement. Macken was the first of the home side to get an effort on target, turning on the corner of the area and shooting low to provoke a typically uncomplicated save from Chamberlain. Up the other end, and Robinson broke well down the left to provide a cross which Mooney headed over under challenge. Preston came forward again, Anderson screwing a shot wide from a good position on the left.
Increasingly, the game was played in Preston's half... Smith was giving Ryan Kidd uncomfortable flashbacks to his humiliation at Vicarage Road with some direct running whilst Gifton, in a very physical tussle with Murdock, managed to get a leg or his head to any ball that was flung in his direction. However, the home side always looked capable of unsettling our defence. A warning was offered when some sloppy defending from Page gave the ball away only for Macken to be caught several yards offside.
The next Preston break was ultimately more decisive. There appeared to be little danger as Macken chased a ball into the area. Palmer, who had successfully bullied his opponent out of the game to that point, moved to cover, but was unaware of Robinson hurtling in from the left to clear the danger. Robinson made a contact that would normally have sent the ball back out towards the M6, but instead met the surprised Palmer. Macken followed the rebound goalwards, and pirouetted over Chamberlain's blocking dive. If there was any contact, it occurred with Macken already in mid-swallow towards the deck...the striker has obviously been studying the museum's exhibits carefully. This was a similar incident to that which won Graham Branch a penalty at Stockport two seasons ago, except that Macken's dive was even more laughable. The ref wasn't entertained, however, and Alexander converted the spot-kick decisively.
Preston were understandably rejuvenated, and a good move down the left led to Healy curling a shot around the outside of the right-hand post. Gradually, the Hornets reasserted themselves and pushed the game back into their opponents half, a chorus of boos from the travelling Hornets greeting any incursion by Macken.
The second goal, however, owed nothing to gamesmanship and quite a lot to the sort of ponderous defending that has been such a millstone throughout the last two seasons. Preston slung the ball around until McKenna's ball from the right found Anderson on the left. The Scot had previously sneaked up on Cox's shoulder on a number of occasions to little effect, but this time he headed back across goal for Macken to execute a simple finish. Watford were left forlornly appealing for a non-existent offside. If there's to be any consolation, should we fail to go up, it's the thought of what Giggs, Henry et al would do to this sort of defending. Again.
Fortunately, there are far more goals in this team than there were last season. Had we not bitten back quickly the game could have died a death; as it was, another fine ball in from Cox was met by Noel-Williams on the edge of - no, outside the area. All rippling neck-muscles, his astonishing, well-directed header looped over the unfortunate Lonergan - far closer to his line, as it turned out, than Gifton made him look.
Shortly afterwards, with Cox and Smith again causing problems down the right, Macken again had the benefit of a questionable penalty decision as he appeared to control the ball with his arm on the way out of the box. Referee Jones was behind the play, not for the first or last time, but seeing as the game was exhausting enough to follow from the sidelines, it's difficult to be too critical.
The half ended with a frenzied pinball around Preston's penalty area and the knowledge that this was far from over. The stadium took a few deep breaths and oiled its throat for a resumption of the onslaught...
...which began immediately. The Watford terrace launched into a boisterous and defiant "Taylor-Made Army" - sing it while we can folks - at the start of the second half. The chicken-and-egg argument of whether vocal support provokes a cranking up of performances or vice versa is unlikely to be resolved... in any case, singing is more fun than staring at one's shoelaces and on this occasion it had the required effect.
If the Hornets had dominated possession in the first half whilst sharing the chances with their hosts, the second half saw us take control of the game. Cox again sounded a clarion call with a vicious free kick from thirty-five yards that hammered into the crossbar and away again. Smith continued to harass the left side of Preston's defence, and Vernazza's prompting from midfield became increasingly significant.
When the goal came, it was almost through weight of pressure (like a booking for persistent fouling), Page meeting a corner to force the ball over the line. The Hornets went absolutely ballistic in the freedom of the spacious terrace, complete pandemonium...
...but cheers froze in throats as we watched the ball dropping over Palmer's head - his only real error of the afternoon - to the unmarked Macken. Chamberlain got a hand to the shot, but our heads were already in our hands. Having begun a triumphant mobile-phone celebration with ig and Loz in Brighton, I swore into the phone and hung up as the goal went in. It seemed the only fitting reaction.
The atmosphere in the away end died, and never really recovered. On the pitch, however, the Hornets took less time to resume the conflict, throwing themselves vigorously back into the game. Kennedy arrived on the left edge of the penalty area to meet a flowing move from the right... his well-struck first-time shot would have found the gap at the near post had Lonergan not reacted superbly.
Most painful of all was the hair's breadth by which we were denied yet another Mooney moment. We all know the drill... Tommy's on the left of the penalty area, he forces himself onto a dropping through ball, holds off his marker(s) through sheer power of will and slams the ball across the keeper and into the net. We've seen it on a hundred occasions, but it just gets better and better every time.
Except this time. This time he assaulted the ball, held off the defender, slammed the shot past the keeper... and like all of us must have screamed in agony as the ball, curving inwards, impossibly rebounded off the inside of the post - the inside of the post - and into the keeper's arms. Groundsman of the year? I should bloody think so, if he can get his woodwork to do that!
Nordin Wooter came on to briefly thrill and terrify Watford and their hosts respectively, one break into the area resulting in a fierce shot that Lonergan beat away, but the game ended with Preston very competently playing keep-ball in the middle of the park.
This was a huge game, but if we fail to make the play-offs it won't be as a result of what happened today. We were unlucky this time, plain and simple. We defended badly on a couple of occasions, but generally handled Preston's counterattacks well - unlike those of Portsmouth, Stockport, Huddersfield, and so on, and so on. The scoreline is a disappointment because we murdered Preston, particularly in the second half. However, Preston did what we've been utterly unable to do for most of the season - withstood an onslaught and took their chances. Only at Sheffield United and, possibly, at home to Forest can we claim to have ground out a result.
The fat lady isn't singing yet. But she's clearing her throat....