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Nationwide Division One, 7/3/01
Queens Park Rangers
The comeback trail
By Ian Grant

There was a spring in my step as I walked to work this morning. Despite torrential rain and ankle-deep puddles, despite having got out of bed about five hours earlier than my body desired, despite one of those refereeing decisions, there was a spring in my step.

Football's never black and white, of course. But, this season, we've tried pretty damn hard to make it so. As a team, we've been either terrific or horrific for months on end, hence the fact that we were second in the table in November and are second from bottom on the basis of results since then. We depend so heavily on confidence that a single defeat can become a full-blown crisis and, potentially, a solitary victory can make us unbeatable again.

All of which leads me to a fairly simple conclusion. The two points that we missed out on here aren't likely to be particularly important when May comes around. Assuming that recent patterns continue, we'll either be feeling very sorry for ourselves down in tenth or winding up for an assault on the playoffs in fifth. Anything else, anything mediocre or half-baked, would be completely out of character.

In which case, the performances count for a lot. That surge won't happen on its own. For three months, we've explored the options offered by the old cliché about winning when you're playing badly. It hasn't worked. It's about time that we experimented with winning when we're playing well.

Last night, the spirit returned to the body after the recent near-death experience. For twenty-five wonderful minutes, we were right back at it, playing with that irresistible competitive edge and urgent intent. We won every loose ball, rose highest in every aerial challenge, played every pass with a purpose, hit every cross with an extra bit of pace. We forgot about our league position, we forgot about our expectations, we forgot about wallowing in our own misery. We just bloody played.

It was great. If repeated regularly, it was exactly what would see us finish fifth. In those circumstances, I have no interest in talking about the referee and nor, I think, should Graham Taylor. We should be marking our position on the map, doing everything to ensure that we continue against Norwich where we left off last night. The rest of the season starts here. Bring it on.

In truth, although our performance failed to reach any notable heights before the equaliser, there were signs of life from the start. Paul Robinson played like someone with a point to prove, Allan Nielsen bustled purposefully around the midfield. And Nordin Wooter? Well, he finally got around to handing in his homework, a lengthy essay entitled "One Hundred And One Reasons Why I Should Be In The Team Every Week". In a state of perpetual motion, the little fella hurtled about for the full ninety minutes, coming to find the ball rather than waiting for it to arrive, slaughtering opponents, providing perceptive service, offering back-up in our own half. Wonderful.

A frenetic, chance-filled opening spell left the defensive frailties of both sides in no doubt. Within a minute, Scully darted in from the right wing and, meeting with no challenge, tried his luck from outside the area. Espen Baardsen was equal to it, although he required a second chance to hold the shot. Crouch's towering header was blocked from a free kick, then Wooter hit his stride for the first time before shooting weakly wide from the edge of the box.

It seemed unlikely that we'd reach the five minute mark still goalless, let alone half-time. When Nielsen's sly through-ball sent Tommy Smith away into the space behind the Rangers defence, it seemed even less likely. Yet, as Smith attempted to round Harper, the keeper stuck out an instinctive hand to push the ball away, brilliantly preventing the opening goal. Plummer headed tamely at Baardsen from Crouch's knock-down before we were allowed to catch our breath at last.

If the goalmouth action was spaced out a little after this point, it still obscured everything else. This was not a contest fought on the halfway line. After a brief respite, Scully looped a half-volley over the bar from distance. The play switched immediately to the other end, where an exciting flurry of Watford attacks included Ready blocking Wooter's goalbound shot with his backside after the ball had bounced randomly around the penalty area. Then back towards Baardsen's end of the pitch, where Crouch headed wide. All very tight and tense, then.

Really, one of these teams should've been ahead by the interval. Given that the general pattern of the game was more akin to basketball, somebody should've done something. That something ought to have come from a Rangers player, in all honesty. Perhaps from Peacock, whose mis-timed header caused a moment of indecision from Baardsen as it looped up into the air and dropped for an unchallenged volley from eight yards. He missed. Or from Crouch, who pounced on the ball as it ran free from James Panayi's challenge on Ngonge and tried to steer it towards the bottom corner, only to be denied by a deflecting boot from Nigel Gibbs. If we were more combative and less prone to cock-ups, we were still hardly shutting the opposition out.

That applied equally to the home side, who presumably hadn't prepared themselves for facing an in-form Wooter. His typically burrowing run, sniffing for openings like a mouse in a maze, across the face of the area set up Peter Kennedy for an angled drive at Harper. As Scully's thumping free kick was flicked over the bar by a Watford head and Harper grabbed Tommy Mooney's battling attempt from a hanging Gibbs cross, the ludicrous idea that the first half might actually end without the ball hitting the back of the net became reality.

There was still time enough for a chance apiece, though. This was the kind of game in which there was always time enough for a chance apiece. For us, it fell to Paolo Vernazza after a fine bit of interchange play between Robinson and Kennedy on the left. When Robinson's cross came in, Vernazza rose unmarked at the near post but glanced his header across goal. For them, the supplier was Michel Ngonge - another with a point to prove - who crossed for Peacock to steal in and drift a header just wide.

Nil-nil, then. Yawn.

The second half saw the madness amplified to new levels. Within two minutes, Nielsen's long throw caused chaos in the Rangers area, resulting in Harper making a fine one-handed reaction save from Smith's snapshot.

Inevitably, the action switched immediately to the other end, where Crouch's long stride took him into the box. There, Gibbs and Ward both dived into tackle at his feet, colliding with each other and the ball. Crouch fell over the pile of bodies. This, according to Mr D'Urso, constituted a foul. Bearing in mind that he wouldn't have been able to see the ball from where he was standing, it's hard to tell what evidence he used to come to this decision.

After a dissent-filled age, Peacock stepped up to take the spot-kick and hit it weakly to Baardsen's left, allowing the keeper to fall happily on the ball. This, according to Mr D'Urso, was a penalty of insufficient quality and required a more acceptable re-take. So, Ngonge planted the ball into the bottom corner and, to his credit, resisted the temptation to celebrate in front of the Watford fans. This, according to Mr D'Urso, is a perfectly reasonable way to settle a football match that people have paid to see.

Things began to look very bleak indeed. In a game between two sides without confidence, the first goal is absolutely vital. Rangers were visibly lifted, Watford were sinking into depression again. As Darlington suddenly began an assault on Nigel Gibbs' side of the defence, initially rushing past him on the inside to smash a shot towards the near post and force a fine parry from Baardsen and later turning him inside and out before crossing for Crouch to shin an effort wide, the game was dominated by one side for the first time.

Recent form being what it is, it would've been no surprise if Rangers had sealed our miserable fate. Had Scully done better than to find Baardsen with his shot from the edge of the box or if Crouch had been more composed in finishing when supplied by Ngonge, this report would be a rather more downbeat affair. For fifteen minutes after conceding, we were a thoroughly wretched sight. Again. Only Wooter's continued ambition brought a shot on goal, and that was from thirty yards. We're quite familiar with defeat now, so it beckoned us in for a cup of tea and a chat.

What changed? Well, two things. The arrival of our new signing - a young lad named Clint Easton - gave us a keener edge in midfield and refreshed our flagging confidence. When we had the ball, he was full of simple touches and positive running. When they had the ball, he headed for the heart of it all and put an end to it. On this evidence, he need not worry about the unfortunate coincidence of having the same name as that useless waster who left a few months ago. The boy could be a star.

The other thing was, of course, that we scored. From nothing, really. That's the advantage of having Tommy Smith in the side. His run towards the left corner flag appeared destined to end with nothing better than a corner, until he wrapped his boot around the ball and sent in a wonderful cross. Allan Nielsen appeared at the right moment, guided a header into the corner of the net, and we were level.

With the exception of a shot from Scully that Baardsen flicked over the bar with almost disdainful ease, the remainder of the game was dominated by a rejuvenated, pumped-up Watford. We murdered them, frankly. Wherever the ball went, we were first to it and quick to use it. We played with real aggression, without allowing it to distract us from what we needed to do. As the pressure on Rangers grew, so did our confidence...and, by the end, we were absolutely tearing into them.

Here it was, all that we'd been waiting for. Nordin Wooter, hurtling in from the touchline and smacking in a drive, acclaimed by Matt as the best shot of his Watford career, that was fielded by Harper before it could reach its destination. Neil Cox, replacing Gibbs and chucking himself headfirst into the game from the very start. When he miskicked and fell on his arse to jeers from the home fans, he picked himself up and won the ball back, typifying the attitude transformation. As Mooney gained a yard to meet his booming cross, glory beckoned but the striker couldn't keep his header from spinning wide.

All that we'd been waiting for, except a winning goal. It would've been a spectacular moment, a victory that we'd fought for and could've celebrated as our own achievement. It didn't happen, which is precisely why we have to grab hold of the countless plus points from this twenty minute spell and keep a tight grip until Saturday. Oh, we came close - Nielsen charging onto a flick and blazing wide when the moment begged for a more controlled finish, the inspiring Easton sending in a shot that appeared destined for the top corner but carried insufficient power to beat Harper. And a free kick from Cox that beggared belief, delivered like an artillery shell and crashing against the bar via Harper's hand.

In injury time, it became desperate and ridiculous. There were so many yellow shirts inside the Rangers area that, viewed from the other end, our frantic attempts to score resembled a rugby forward line attempting to force the ball over by sheer power and weight of numbers. It wouldn't go in.

Bloody hell, though, eh? Even if you were still outraged by the penalty decision, didn't you feel just a little thrill of anticipation at the end? That sense that it might not be over after all, that Norwich might be in for a sound thrashing? With others to follow? Oh, come on.

Whatever Graham Taylor's secret ingredient is, it was here. As we bombarded the Rangers goal in the final minutes, remaining disciplined enough to use possession well and avoid getting caught on the break, you could feel it as clearly as you could see it. Hungry, urgent, powerful, we looked potentially devastating. That our opponents were less than impressive is not the point at all - this is about our mental strength, our inner confidence, our will to win. When we play like this, the opposition is irrelevant.

So, Saturday is the most important game of the season. Having blamed referees, opponents and ourselves for the recent downturn in fortunes, we wiped the slate clean last night. The only things that are worth taking from the game are those that will help us to stuff Norwich, and there were plenty of them. Forget everything else.

Can't wait.