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Nationwide Division One, 26/8/00
Don't be fooled
By Ian Grant

One week, two nil-nil draws. Don't be fooled.

Saturday at Selhurst Park was as far removed from Tuesday at Vicarage Road as you could possibly imagine. Having been nothing less than shambolic in drawing against Cheltenham in midweek, this was our first glimpse of the Watford that we've come to know and love. Determined, disciplined and thoroughly deserving of a point, there was no hiding the effects of what must've been some, erm, lively discussions in recent days. More, at last there were indications that we might be a side that's capable of dictating play rather than merely reacting to it, something that will be absolutely vital in the months to come. Yep, this was extremely encouraging - and entertaining - stuff. As visits to Selhurst go, it was nigh on heavenly.

Apart from the sodding injuries, of course. Honestly, what have we done to deserve this? We're a nice bunch of people, right? We love our mums and remember family birthdays, and all that. Do we have to instigate some kind of 'helping old ladies across the street' campaign to make up for some past misdemeanour for which we're being forever punished?

For half an hour on Saturday, everything clicked and, to ice the cake, Gifton Noel-Williams was on the bench. By half-time, Allan Nielsen had limped off. Within ten minutes of the restart, we'd also lost Nordin Wooter...and he wasn't able to limp off. After that, we were reduced to damage limitation - what began as the season's finest display was effectively wrecked by the elimination of our two most threatening and influential players. So frustrating.

But let's look at the positives. For a start, you suspect that an away draw against Wimbledon will look like a pretty useful result by the end of the season. The Dons are a curious proposition right now - although some of their fans will be happy for a (temporary) return to reality after so long in the surreal atmosphere of the Premiership, it also means that they blend into their surroundings as never before. Being a small club doesn't mark you out as anything special in the First Division. Like us, they did so much to show that the dreams of lower division supporters can be more than just dreams...and, also like us, they'll need to avoid a sense of anticlimax now that they've come home.

On this evidence, however, the prospects for both Wimbledon and Watford look pretty good. This was perhaps not a contest that would've graced the Premiership, yet it offered much to enjoy and, for us, helped to erase a few painful memories. Mind you, according to the scoreboard, our last visit to Selhurst saw us lose 5-0 to Palace, which really would have resulted in some painful memories.

It was hard to believe that a game of so many chances could remain goalless. We began as if we not only meant to win but also had some idea how to go about it, and the goalmouth action started from the first minute as Tommy Mooney and Heidar Helguson combined to set up Tommy Smith for a curled shot from twenty yards that just missed the target. That set the tone for what was to be a thoroughly engrossing contest.

For a short while, it was end-to-end stuff. Mark Williams (applauded generously by the Watford fans before kickoff) saw his header deflect off Hartson (not applauded generously by the Watford fans before kickoff) and end up in Espen Baardsen's arms. Francis shot well wide from distance and the action instantly transferred to the other end, where Paul Robinson's cross was headed clear to Allan Nielsen, whose fine volley was unfortunately straight at Davis. Hawkins brought a breathless five minutes to a close by darting in from the left wing to send a screaming drive a foot over the bar.

After that, however, we began to assert ourselves. As I said, it all clicked. Nielsen finally picked up the pace of a Nationwide game and looked precisely as impressive as we'd imagined; Mooney and Wooter made themselves available on the flanks, enabling us to pass the ball forward with accuracy and get in a seemingly endless barrage of crosses; Robinson and Cox took every opportunity to get forward, often to good effect; Helguson and Smith waited for the chances to come. It was a fine sight...although it would have been even finer if the net had bulged.

In the end, even if it wasn't our day to score a hatful, we've shown that it's not beyond us. Really, some of this was quite superb. The move down the left involving Mooney, Robinson and Helguson, for example, which ended with the full back taking a tumble in the penalty area as he sought to finish the attack. Not convinced about the penalty, certainly convinced about the football that led to it. Within a minute, we'd repeated the whole thing, this time getting Robinson to stay on his feet for a weak shot at Davis from an angle.

And so it continued. Mooney, back to his all-action, everywhere-at-once best, smacked a cross-shot through the six yard box and a couple of yards wide. Wooter, who seems to be improving with each game, teased his opponent and whisked in a fine cross, met by Smith's head at the near post and ultimately landing on the roof of the net. We were bossing things, looking strong and confident. Mind you, we were nearly made to pay for a momentary lapse of concentration as Darren Ward's slip left Francis with a clear run on goal, his shot missing Baardsen's near post by a few inches and crashing into the side netting.

Within a minute, Neil Cox had belted a free kick over the bar from twenty-five yards - not the last or the best of his attempts on goal, by any means - and we were on the offensive once again. For me, the encouraging thing was the intelligence with which we played. It was evident in the passing and the movement, finally doing more than merely lump the ball forward and hope for a lucky break. But it was also evident in other places too. There were at least two occasions, for instance, where a distracted Paul Robinson would've lunged into fifty-fifty tackles without thinking, risking both reprimand and another professional's career. Yesterday, in sharp contrast to Tuesday, he measured his challenges, pulled out where necessary or simply won the ball by bloody playing it. That he was booked on one of those occasions only demonstrates the referee's general idiocy.

We went on to create our best chances of the match. Ward headed a hanging Cox cross back towards goal and Helguson somehow managed to beat Davis in the air, jumping to challenge the keeper with his back to goal and heading over the bar. Although the supply to the forwards was excellent throughout the half, there was nothing better than Robinson's vicious cross after thirty-five minutes. Swinging between goalkeeper and defenders, it begged to be dumped into the back of the net...and Nielsen should've done just that, beating his marker to the ball but unable to steer it inside the post. He was injured and substituted shortly afterwards but, even though his appearance was cut short, we'd seen a near-perfect combination of energy and unmistakeable class. Allan Nielsen has arrived, it seems. That is, as long as he's not confined to the treatment room....

Unsurprisingly, the injury disturbed our rhythm. More significantly, it forced us to relax our stranglehold on midfield, and we were never again in such complete control of the game. Hawkins drove at Baardsen from twenty yards, before Gayle had a goal ruled out for offside. (When games end without scoring, it always seems more respectable if you've had a goal disallowed, even if that means that everyone else has been halted by the whistle and you've gone on to shoot past a stationary keeper.)

As injury time arrived, it seemed that Wimbledon would end the half as the stronger side. As injury time ended, they were thanking Davis for keeping the scoresheet blank. First, Robinson fed Helguson, whose attempt at a dive inside the penalty area was so feeble that it seemed to distract the Dons defence, leaving Mooney to pick up the ball and smack it towards goal. Davis was alert at his near post to block, but the attack wasn't over. Eventually, another cross came in from Robinson and was booted clear. The ball came down with Neil Cox underneath it and, bringing back memories of Johnno at Bristol City, he just clouted it with all his might. Goal of the season, right there. It was travelling some and Davis' save was as brave as it was extraordinary, diverting the shot over the bar and somehow avoiding breaking his wrist in the process. Tremendous action to conclude an equally tremendous half.

Inevitably, the second half wasn't the same. If we spent the interval struggling to understand how we'd failed to take the lead, then we were probably grateful for a point by full-time. Within two minutes, Wimbledon had wasted their clearest chance, substitute Euell crossing for Hartson to blast wide from only six yards. It was a let-off, and an indication that we weren't going to continue having things our own way. Even so, Helguson - still lacking sharpness - whipped a shot wide from twenty yards after five minutes and, from our angle, it looked in from the moment it left his boot.

We'd managed to overcome one injury, but two was beyond us. Having ripped past Hawkins on the right touchline and drilled in a low cross that only just evaded Helguson, Nordin Wooter collapsed in an agonised heap in the six yard box. After lengthy treatment, he was removed on a stretcher. So the much-anticipated arrival of Gifton Noel-Williams was soured by the potentially lengthy loss of Wooter, something that we really cannot afford. For the remainder of the game, we struggled to find our previous coherence, playing long passes and lacking width. Sure, Gifton was fantastic - holding the ball up while grappling with opponents, then turning and powering forward - but, with crucial creative players absent, he lacked service.

So, from that point on, it was really about survival. And we defended superbly, with Ward dominating Hartson and Page mopping up anything on ground-level. That Wimbledon had chances isn't the point - we'll never be the kind of side that can travel away to the division's top sides and shut them down completely, nor would we want to be. The main thing is that we gifted them nothing and made them work for everything. It was enough to earn a draw.

But only just. It seems that the woodwork is our friend right now - our opponents have hit it about half a dozen times this season without scoring. So, after Hartson's shot was deflected narrowly wide by Ward's saving challenge, Gayle crept in behind the defence to head goalwards, then watched as the ball bounced across goal, against the post and was wellied away. Our luck's still holding, then...apart from the injury situation.

The game was losing some of its momentum, becoming scrappier and less attack-minded as we hung onto a point and our hosts attempted to wrestle it from us. Realising that things were getting a bit dour, the referee contributed a bit of light entertainment of his own as Ward clearly brought down a striker on the edge of the box. The Watford defence retreated and began forming a wall, the Wimbledon strikers gathered to discuss the options. Except that the referee hadn't given a free kick and the ball, which had sat neglected by the corner flag for about thirty seconds, was still in play. The sight of both sets of players realising the situation and charging towards the corner was worthy of a silent movie.

Either side might've won it in the last five minutes. Foley and Easton both had weak attempts at goal, but Cox's final hurrah was anything but weak. A first time drive from absolutely bloody miles out, hit with minimum backlift and astounding power, this one roared a foot or so wide with Davis scrambling for cover. In a match that contained several fine performances, Cox stood out for not only taking care of his defensive duties but also finding time to come within inches of scoring goals that would've been talked about for months. He's taken time to adjust but, as with Nielsen, it seems that he's arrived.

As has Darren Ward, and he supplied the moment of the match with a couple of minutes remaining. When he and Hartson jumped into a fifty-fifty challenge, the defender threatened to commit himself fully and then, at the last moment, pulled away. Hartson had already flinched and pulled out. It's been a fair while since we've had a defender who could intimidate players like Hartson.

Even in injury time, the game could've been decided. This time, it would've gone Wimbledon's way as Gayle's shot somehow crept under Baardsen and went mercifully wide. That would've been cruel.

So, although the goalless scoreline offers a poor summary of a completely enthralling game, the draw seems about right. The performance is more important in many ways. It proves that we've got most of what it takes - the spirit, the organisation and, when they're fit, the players.

What we don't have is the consistency. Ultimately, one performance to appease a furious manager and comfort appalled fans isn't enough. We need more of this.