By Matt Rowson
It's remarkable how a single game can change your entire perspective. After the galling late defeat at Norwich and the unpleasantness that followed the crucial goal, many Watford fans can be excused a slight clouding of mood. Personally I've been having shameful visions of myself all week, bawling abuse and aggression at the final whistle despite the presence of a number of very young apprentice Hornets in the vicinity. Last Saturday will not be fondly remembered by many of us.
Stormclouds were banished at Hillsborough, however, on a day characterised by pleasant surprises. To start with, the ground itself... famously difficult to locate on previous experience. Not this time. For future reference, just drive to Sheffield and there it is. Marvellous.
Then parking. An open area across the road from the ground, apparently reserved for police vehicles. We hadn't seen the sign. "But don't worry, mate - leave it there," said the officer in the police van. "It'll be fine". Blimey. Ten minutes later, having been similarly stunned by an intelligent conversation with an amiable steward, and taken aback by Pepsi Max being sold bottled at the refreshment kiosk we were sitting, slightly dazed, in our seats.
Hillsborough is magnificent. Full stop. The cavernous away stand is perhaps a little too shallow, and, yes, two pillars can slightly obstruct your view of the action. But the low roof is of corrugated iron, of a fashion that should be made compulsory in all league grounds, and striking up an atmosphere isn't difficult. As kick-off approached, the Watford end began to look, sound and feel slightly busier. A very young Hornet took up a seat next to Tsega, accompanied by his father. Dressed and ready for the occasion, he was clearly not a young man who needed any persuading to travel up to Sheffield on a Saturday. To our left, a gentleman on his stag outing, resplendent in a full Hornet costume.
To say the whole stadium was filling up, however, would be inaccurate. Sixteen thousand may look like a decent crowd at Vicarage Road, but it considerably less than half-fills Hillsborough. These are grim days on the blue side of Sheffield... and of all the groups filling "606" with protests at the state of their club, Wednesday fans are amongst the easier to sympathise with.
The game didn't start as much as detonate, and for the first forty-five minutes we were carried away by a torrent of action. Only two sides playing inventive attacking football and defending like goons can generate excitement like this.
Wednesday attacked straight from the kick-off, moving down the right and leaving Robinson tripping over his own feet before winning a corner. Less than thirty seconds into the game, heads were already in hands. Straight up the other end, however, and Des Walker missed a header to leave Tommy Smith with a free run on goal. Uncharacteristically, he appeared to hesitate on the ball, giving Lescott the opportunity to make a saving tackle.
Wednesday's second attack came via the effervescent Quinn, who made good progress down the left before putting in a cross which Ekoku, loosely marked, headed wide. He should have done better... much of the Nigerian's forward play was effective and purposeful, but overlaid with a sullenness that betrayed a bad lack of confidence. This was further underlined barely a minute later when he scraped a shot across the face of Alec's gaping goalmouth from a good position.
It was Watford who took first blood, however, and in fairness the goal owed more to Watford's attacking play than to any fallibility in the defending. Smith popped up on the left to receive Page's ball and did well to get a good cross in to the far post. Heidar Helguson seemed to hang in the air for half an hour, and managed to cushion the ball to the edge of the area where Nielsen teed up Vernazza. The young midfielder took the ball out of the air to thump decisively past Beresford. So there's nothing he can't do, after all.
Barely ten minutes into the game, the Watford end was alive and flying. Our young friend to our right was aglow with excitement; feverishly joining in with all the clapping and air-punching, but his and our joy was short-lived. Propelled forward by the goal, Watford attacked again. The move culminated in Tommy Mooney charging in on an understandably apprehensive Marlon Beresford. The keeper reacted in the only sensible way by kicking the object of Mooney's determination as far away and as quickly as he possibly could.
Fortunately for Beresford and for Wednesday, his kick was directed perfectly down the centre of the pitch and over Watford's gazing back four, standing in a row somewhere just short of the halfway line. They awoke and turned almost in slow motion, and by the time Robert Page was in full speed pursuit it was Gerald Sibon, and not just the ball, that he was chasing. Sibon had already been involved in much of Wednesday's penetrating attacking play and was to go on to have a quite dazzling forty-five minutes... on this occasion, he stayed ahead of Page and hit the ball at full pelt, arcing it flawlessly over the advancing, helpless Chamberlain.
A quarter of an hour into the game, a frantic pattern was already evident, and the outcome appeared to be a matter of which side could engineer the most possession around their opponents' chaotically protected penalty area.
The remainder of the half yielded only two goals, however - the first arriving ten minutes later. Des Walker was the outstanding name in the Wednesday back-line, but he has never been the most commanding of defenders. He did all that could really have been expected of him as an individual, more than once haring half the width of the pitch to snuff out a Watford advance, but during spells of sustained pressure the home side's defensive organisation was almost non-existent. So it was that when another attack formed down the left and the ball bobbled to Helguson with his back to goal, he was given a free man to lay off to. Darren Ward was the man, and he displayed his encouraging composure in the opposing penalty area by sidefooting the ball past Beresford.
You might have expected the pace of the game to settle at this point, with Watford keen not to give away their lead again and Wednesday subdued by this second blow. Not a bit of it. The action continued relentlessly... Quinn worked another fine opening for Lescott who was foiled confidently by Chamberlain's bravery, and shortly after Bromby came close, sending an effort narrowly wide. At the other end, much of Watford's incisiveness came from the irrepressible Smith, enjoying one of his most effective games in a Watford shirt to date. But once again, Wednesday broke through when Watford's defence was caught a long way upfield. We badly need some pace at the back, and also some leadership. One wonders what the onlooking Carlton Palmer made of this second calamity.
This time it was Sibon who played the killer ball, releasing Ekoku with Page again following in his wake. Having initially appeared to overrun it, Ekoku regained control to take the ball around Chamberlain and slide it into an empty net. The half ended as breathlessly as it had started.
The half-time interval provided another pleasant surprise, with some genuinely engaging half-time entertainment. Although the away support were not privy to the details of the "action" at the other end of the pitch, we were more than capable of enjoying its descent into farce. This resulted in the Hornet-clad individual, an invited participant, rampaging rebelliously around the far end of the pitch, kicking any available ball in the most immediately appealing direction whilst being hotly pursued by a number of Wednesday's Owls. Watch your back, Harry.
The second half, and more of the same. Almost. Certainly the game once again opted out of a settling-in period, bursting back into life with Watford attacking from the off. Within five minutes, Watford had the ball out on the right for Smith, Nielsen and Vernazza to engage in a crisp game of triangles that had Wednesday's hapless defence all at sea. The game culminated in Vernazza releasing Smith to run clean in on goal and finish with precision and power. An almost perfect goal.
I said the second half was almost the same; certainly the action was still unrelenting, however a few words had clearly been said in the dressing room. We were no longer defending ponderously on the halfway line, and Steve Palmer became the game's most important player, patrolling the back of the midfield imperiously.
Consequently, although Wednesday's attacks still had us looking nervous at the back (and notably Cox, who continues to look more comfortable attacking than defending), they far less frequent.
The goalmouth below us, however, was increasingly peppered with Watford attacks. Helguson, finally back to something like his exhausting best, was the next to break through, only denied a clear shooting chance by some rare decisive defensive work. Smith, inevitably, was at the heart of much, achieving the rare feat of channelling the tricks and showmanship of a Ginola with some devastating end product. Unsurprisingly, his quick feet drew the first yellow card of a game that was sensibly refereed by Mr.Olivier - a welcome relief after last week's nonsense. Blatsis was on the receiving end of the card having cynically quelled a promising attack. From the free kick, a planned move resulted in Cox thundering towards the centre of the edge of the area before carelessly putting the ball over the bar.
Tommy Mooney came close with a trademark unmuddled header which went just wide, before another flowing move found Nielsen on the edge of the area whose violent first-time shot brought a splendid save out of Beresford, pushing the ball around the post.
The longer this spell went on without us capitalising, however, the more the suspicion that we may regret our profligacy grew. Wednesday came back into it, and began to force the game back upfield. Vernazza was rightly booked for a bad challenge in the middle of the park, and could have faced a red card for a mistimed tackle in a similar position shortly afterwards. Sensibly, the referee just told him to calm it, but not every official of our recent acquaintance would have been as tolerant. Noticeably Micah Hyde began to warm up, although in the event neither he nor his colleagues on the bench were used.
This was somewhat surprising, as exhaustion was clearly taking its toll out on the pitch. A divine piece of trickery from Smith engineered another run in on goal but a tame finish betrayed his tiredness. Palmer found the ball at his feet on the corner of the area, but sent his shot wildly well over.
And Wednesday pushed forward, inevitably. The last real talking point came when de Bilde, whose introduction off the bench had brought boos from the sparse home stands, went down in the area under challenge from Page. From our distance it was impossible to judge whether Mr.Olivier had blotted his copybook or not by dismissing the vociferous claims; either way, as Paul Jewell was to later concede, this incident wasn't what cost Wednesday the game.
To lose a point in these flailing final moments would have been a travesty. Both sides had attacked well, but we had done so more purposefully and for longer periods. Both sides defended atrociously, but we were the slightly less atrocious, and remedied many of our problems in the second half.
The final pleasant surprise of the day was that we held on to claim a deserved win. More, please.