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01/02: Friendlies:

Pre-season friendly, 21/7/01
Queens Park Rangers 0(0)
Team: Day, Hutchins, Bignot, Rose, Palmer, Bonnot, Price, Peacock, Koejoe, Connolly, Griffiths
Substitutes: Bull, Duncan, Walshe, Thomson, Murphy, Pacquette, Burgess
Watford 0(0)
Team: Baardsen, Blondeau, Robinson, Vernazza, Galli, Vega, Nielsen, Hyde, Noel-Williams, Helguson, Glass
Substitutes: Smart, Cox, Wooter, Chamberlain, Foley, Panayi, Ward, Swannell, Ifil, Fiskin
By Ian Grant

Ah, football. As ever, pre-season arrives with promises of thrills that it can never deliver. Even at their best, these friendlies are an elaborate, mouth-watering banquet made of plastic food - you can look, you can imagine what it would taste like, yet it's entirely artificial.

Of course, it can be better than this, an uneventful goalless draw between two sides in the midst of reconstruction. Beyond heartfelt farewells to close friends and fond acquaintances, the business of this July afternoon was typical of the first games of every new campaign - academic study of tactics, formations, and personnel, along with a resumption of jovial banter in the stands to keep boredom at bay.

The temptation to draw conclusions is overwhelming, naturally. But there have been relegation seasons heralded by satisfying thrashings of pre-season opponents, just as there have been promotions that began with grinding stalemates against non-league non-entities. Results don't matter, which is why each match fails to capture any of the excitement of competitive football.

This time, the main source of interest came from familiarity with certain players wearing hoops and unfamiliarity with others in yellow. Of the former, Alex Bonnot appears to have acquired the ruthless streak that was perhaps lacking during his stay at Watford, racking up a foul count worthy of a yer average Second Division mud-wrestling contest. Chris Day has changed less, and remains a decent keeper in need of regular football. On the bench, Kenny Jackett surely has the ability and the dedication to build a management career by himself, without needing to rely on the support of his Vicarage Road family.

And then, of course, there's Steve Palmer. Pleasingly, this became his day, his unofficial testimonial. From the moment when he ran out for the warm-up, a series of huge ovations from the travelling support left him grinning so broadly. And, wearing the captain's armband, he performed for his new club just as he has so many times for Watford - quietly, calmly, efficiently, and with twinkling good humour. Twice, Nordin Wooter was stopped in full flight by a well-timed Palmer intervention in the second half, demonstrating that he still has so much to offer to anyone fortunate enough to employ him. Good luck, sir.

Of the new faces in the Watford line-up, Ramon Vega stole the show. Alongside the quieter Galli and more combative Blondeau, he was strong, commanding, and aerially dominant. Apart, that is, from a back header after the break, straight to an opponent inside the area, that would've left any of last season's defensive howlers in the shade. Many things might change once the season starts, but the back four appeared to have a controlled, unflustered, seen-it-all look about it in its first game. For the most part, the occasional chances that fell QPR's way were down to lack of communication rather than anything that can't be corrected on the training ground.

Perhaps even "occasional chances" flatters the contest somewhat. Until Stephen Glass' weak effort after thirty-three minutes, neither side managed a shot on target. Peacock missed an early opportunity for a largely dominant QPR, flicking over from close range when a cross fell his way...but, as far as goalmouth action was concerned, that was it, until Espen Baardsen shoved Koejoe's low, curling shot round the post with a couple of minutes remaining.

From our point of view, it was an extremely mixed bag. While the midfield pairing of Micah Hyde and Paolo Vernazza offered plenty of neat passing, there was little bite and no final ball. Indeed, the best passes of the half came from two otherwise ineffective players, in Stephen Glass and Heidar Helguson. And, with Allan Nielsen more active on the right wing than Glass on the left, there was also a lack of attacking width. That said, possession was kept well on several occasions, even if it wasn't actually used to threaten the opposition goal. As Loz commented, it was "all very Serie A". A better class of tedium, in other words.

Predictably, endless substitutions changed the game - and the teams - completely in the second half. In one respect, that was annoying - in these circumstances, it's simply impossible to learn about anything apart from the form of individuals. At the same time, the disruption broke the stalemate and improved the entertainment value slightly. Only slightly, mind.

Until the twentieth minute, it seemed impossible that either side would find the back of the net. Finding the opposition penalty area was proving tricky too. While a few had their slumber disturbed by wild slashes from Allans Smart and Nielsen into the top tier housing the Watford fans, it took Vega's moment of madness to lift the game. Fortunately, although Thomson pounced on the ill-advised header, he lifted the ball over the bar as well as Baardsen. A couple of minutes later, the Watford keeper blocked Connolly's angled shot with his legs, before Day dealt well with a low free kick from Nielsen. Hardly breathless excitement... but something to watch, at least.

That burst of activity was brought to a halt by another series of substitutions, inevitably. Of the arriving players, James Panayi struggled in a greatly unflattering left back role, while Dominic Foley showed one or two neat touches to no particular purpose. Towards the end, the youngsters had bit-part appearances, with an industrious Gary Fisken catching the eye in that already over-subscribed midfield. But our tendency to over-play - unnecessarily taking the pace out of breaks and allowing that Palmer-organised defence to get into position - was starting to frustrate by then. It'll take a bit of getting used to, this patience thing.

So, it ended with well-struck shots at Day from Foley and Smart, the latter playing for his future in a rather forlorn fashion. And with a final blast wide from Murphy at the other end, after chaotic defending that would've been disturbing, were it not for the fact that none of the participants will be in the starting line-up at Maine Road. And with a few boos and jeers from disgruntled, dim-witted punters who'd apparently expected an afternoon of fiercely competitive football.

And with final farewells. Applause for Chris Day and Alex Bonnot, sure. But for Kenny Jackett and Steve Palmer, more than that. Eternal gratitude.