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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/12/01
Nottingham Forest
By Matt Rowson

I enjoy going to watch football matches. Watford matches in particular. This may come as no surprise to regular readers of BSaD, but it merits pointing out. Football matches are there to be enjoyed, not tolerated. Ideally. Going to football is one of the things that I like.

One of the things that I don't like is being late. For anything. To the regularly expressed bemusement and amusement of my wife, being late - and particularly the bit between realising that you're going to be late and ultimate arrival - I find intolerable. (Lingering memories of sitting in a traffic jam on the A12 during the play-off semi-final with Blackburn in 1989 may account for this). Being late is one of the things that I don't like.

Taking both of which into account, it's predictable enough that I tend to arrive at away destinations with breathing space to spare. This was the case for today's trip to Nottingham; by 1.20 we were safely parked and outside the away end, waiting for my brother and his friends to arrive so that we could buy tickets together and therefore ensure adjacent seats without having to risk the officiousness of the stewards.

At 2.15 we were still outside the away end. It was particularly cold, drizzle was blowing mischievously in every direction at once, and we were hungry. So when my brother and his cohorts arrived - delayed by the sort of unfortunate mishap that the obsessive amongst us build in three-hour cushions to account for - the excitement of a football match at 3pm on a Saturday had to compete with the need to be warm, the need for a toilet, and the need to eat quite a lot.

Which is not an unreasonable metaphor for affairs on the pitch, really. Buoyed by the gasping excitement of Tuesday night's cup-tie, a healthy Hornet contingent had made the trip up the M1 and was in reasonable voice (fueled further by a pleasingly simple new tune to the "Vialli Army" chant, another inheritance from Highbury where Thierry Henry is the beneficiary).

But this was never going to be another Charlton game. Different context, different opponents, and no opportunity for a ludicrously pumped-up left-back to go on a second-half rampage. But more of that later.

Watford started with Glass for Issa and Fisken for Gayle as the two changes from Tuesday, the former presumably enforced as the South African, so impressive in the Cup win, didn't even make the bench. Sufficiently recovered and refreshed by the time the game kicked off, we were able to enjoy a bright opening in which both sides showed attacking intent.

Intent doesn't always equal potency, however. Whilst the two teams committed men to attack and, with five men in each midfield for the first half hour, were able to sustain periods of pressure, the lack of confidence or imagination when the play reached either penalty area was evident.

This has been a feature of Watford play this season of course, despite our fairly healthy goalscoring record. Our earlier attacks in particular seemed to force themselves wide, like a river breaking around a large boulder, which was a shame; with Scimeca absent, Forest's core of Hjelde and Vaughan had plenty of brawn, but would have been susceptible to players running at them. Attacks tended to end either with a long-range shot, or a cross on the run from the effervescent Doyley which Forest's defence tended to deal with comfortably. Our best early effort came from Fisken who, having received the ball from Gifton, dummied inside his marker and curled an effort towards the far top corner from some distance, forcing a stretched palm-over from Ward.

At the other end, Forest were less inclined to dally with their attacks but no more successful for it. Crosses rained in from Nicky Summerbee, who so often seems to cause us more problems than his talent ought to, and the implausibly young captain Jenas. At eighteen, his armband indicated either his rapidly escalating stature or Forest's need to bolster his market value - a 4m bid from Leeds already rejected. Quite possibly both.

Forest's problem was that the target of these crosses was David Johnson, whose eagerness to appeal at non-existent foul play betrayed his lack of confidence. He's never been the biggest of strikers, but he seems much more slight than in his Ipswich days, when his strength running at goal seemed to cause so many problems.

So the majority of Forest's attempts in the first half hour came from set pieces, which invariably resulted in one of the huge Forest centrebacks throwing themselves at the ball which careered off at varying distances from the goal.

And on the odd occasion when a clear goalscoring chance looked possible, higher powers intervened. Some quick closing down by Smith - largely subdued at this stage by the effective Brennan - on the halfway line enabled the striker to dispossess Prutton and push the ball past him into an empty half. Smudger's burst of speed would, one suspects, have lead to something here had Prutton's hand not had its say, wedged as it was obstructively into his adversary's face. Inexplicably the decision went the other way, not the last cowardly decision the officials would make.

The other force intervening to obliterate any sight of the Watford goal was Neil Cox, once again enormous at the heart of the defence. When a Summerbee cross threatened to give Johnson a clear shot on goal, Cox swooped in majestically to rob the striker. For the remainder of the game he was exemplary, making a number of significant interruptions to Forest's build up and growing into the captain's role by bellowing organisation at his colleagues when defending set pieces.

On the half-hour Forest's shape was changed by the enforced replacement of Irish winger Andy Reid with Stern John, who has probably closer to legend status at Vicarage Road than any player never to play for us. This lead to Forest moving from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2. The home side now had more targets in the box, and almost took advantage when Summerbee's excellent near-post ball was met by Johnson whose snapshot met what, it turns out, was Alec's shoulder as he sprawled across to cover the goalmouth. In actual fact, Forest had a very decent shout for a penalty as Summerbee's cross hit Robinson's hand on its way into the area. The Forest support certainly noticed but seemed to forget in the excitement and disbelief of Chamberlain's save. The referee made use of the distraction to make his escape upfield; this wasn't the last decision he was to bottle either.

One of John's first contributions formed the talking point of the match. Paul Robinson, whilst never recapturing the terrifying aura of Tuesday night, had had a quietly effective game on the left of the back-three. What seemed like several minutes after an innocuous ball upfield on the halfway line, John steamed in on the defender with a two-footed stamping challenge. A clear sending off offence in any number of ways, but not to the referee's mind as the Trinidadian escaped with a booking and an hour of catcalls from the away end. Robinson, for the second time this season, left the field prone on a stretcher.

(I should point out that my view of the incident was not abetted by a crossbar that someone had inconsiderately left in my line of vision. Last season I might have been more conservative in my account for fear of TV pictures making me look foolish. This season, the highlights are on ITV Digital so I really don't need to worry about anyone seeing the incident later...).

The one criticism that can be levelled at the management with respect to this afternoon is the ongoing mystery of the selection of substitutes. With Robinson in the centre of the three rather than as wingback, there ought to be space on the bench for cover should any of the defenders pick up a knock - not least the apparently forgotten James Panayi, so impressive last term. Apparently not, however, so Heidar Helguson made his entrance as the Hornets were forced to revert to four at the back with Helguson and Smith playing wide either side of the pivotal Noel-Williams for the remainder of the match.

The half ended with Prutton forcing another smart save at Chamberlain's near post, and with plenty of aggression directed at John from the travelling support.

At half-time, somewhere in Watford, my co-editor was eating his lucky chocolate. (Which was shaped like a moose. No, really, it was. - Co-Ed.)

The second half was brighter and more purposeful all round, even if we still lacked a cutting edge. Notable improvements in particular from Glass, who had a quiet first half but dug in belligerently in a slightly unaccustomed left-back slot, and Noel-Williams, who had a sluggish first forty-five but was much better suited by having players running either side of him. At one point, he even dragged himself into one of his irrepressible runs at goal before thumping a low shot narrowly wide from the edge of the area.

Most encouragingly, we displayed an unusual eagerness to break quickly from defence - even if attacks tended to fizzle out before they reached their target. Fisken in particular was significant here, embarking on a couple of the surging charges that are becoming a trademark and swinging one astonishing ball wide to Smith, whose break won a corner from a Forest attack.

Watford were altogether the more impressive side after the interval, Forest looking far more a mid-table side than they did in their win at Vicarage Road, but that's not to say that they didn't have chances. Stern John in particular seemed intent on finding new and imaginative ways of missing the target, and on the odd occasion when a fine cross was met cleanly Alec was there with another reaction save.

The other source of threat in the second half was the left-back Brennan, who took it on himself to provide the directness in attack that both sides had been lacking. One bold charge towards goal resulted in a rare moment of real panic before Fisken seized the ball and cleared.

With around twenty minutes to go, Gayle came on for the tiring Noel-Williams and immediately provided a new focus to the attack with his aerial strength finally offering Vaughan and Hjelde some competition. One astonishing leap saw a knock-down heading towards the breaking Smith in a rare piece of movement inside the area before a Forest defender's shoulder unconsciously intervened. In another rare piece of action inside the box a cross from the left was met by Helguson, alertly running towards the dropping ball before nodding it between two defenders. Had it not been straight at the keeper it would have caused problems.

The final excitement came from a free kick. Glass had earlier curled a left foot effort over the wall but a foot wide of the post; this one he left for Gayle, who thumped the ball impossibly hard towards the top corner. It either hit the bar or Ward's hand; either way a goal kick resulted and that was pretty much that.

On Friday evening, I had celebrated my friend Howard's birthday at a Chinese restaurant in Soho. A group of his friends, marvelling at Howard's ability to pick out the dour nil-nil draws for his trips to Watford games, expressed an interest in forming a group outing to the next likely such event. Rotherham in January is penciled in.

But in truth, whilst this one never matched Tuesday's fervour as mentioned, it never threatened to plumb the depths of Gillingham either. Whilst some of that encounter's failings were still evident, they had to contend with a confidence and positiveness that was left over from Tuesday night.

Not sorted then. Not yet. But much better.