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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 18/11/01
The magic of television
By Ian Grant

As time passes, you tend to find that your opinions fall into the patterns defined by previous generations. The moment comes when a great deal of what you say or think is informed and coloured by the fact that you're no longer able to pretend to be eighteen. With a jolt, you catch yourself expressing sincere views that place you firmly into an age group that you've always tried to rebel against.

After all, there was a time when Christmas didn't begin at the start of November and last for a sixth of the year, wasn't there? And there was a time when clubs worried about their managers being tempted away to take charge of England, rather than the other way around. And the Strokes' new single does sound a bit like Bogshed, only less modern. And Bad Company is an extremely poor choice of name for an industrial drum and bass outfit. And it was once possible to catch a train on a Sunday without it turning into a knackered old bus halfway through the journey. But you can't say so. Not really. Not if you have your pride, not if you still want to be able to buy Slipknot records without being politely re-directed towards the easy listening section.

Watching this breathtakingly gutless display, you wondered whether something else might be about to divide the generations. Because there was a time when Watford teams used to play with both passion and panache, even away from home. There was a time when opponents used to be scared of us, and with good reason. There was a time when we used to look at pretentious, bigger-than-the-First-Division clubs like Wolves, Birmingham and Palace with righteous contempt. Really, though, there's no harm in remembering that. Sure, it's a burden for the current players...but, as recently as three or four years ago, another Watford side managed to shed the same burden and stand tall.

It wasn't so much that this was poor...although, in far too many respects, it was very poor indeed. The real frustration was that it all seemed so utterly, crushingly pointless. One wonders whether Luca Vialli has an executive toy on his desk and spends happy hours watching the perpetual motion of the metal balls as they swing and click-click-click from one side to the other and back again, just as we keep possession by slowly passing in a neat arc from one wing to the other and back again.



Much of the time, it was hard to decide which was more excruciating, the eternal sideways trundling around the halfway line or the largely cack-handed attempts to do something a bit more progressive. While Bartram made a number of decent saves, it's difficult to recall the creation of more than a couple of clear openings inside the penalty area during the ninety minutes. Following Onuora's dismissal, Gillingham defended well and in depth...but they did so against a side that was almost single-minded in its complete preditability. It must require great concentration to be so absolutely devoid of imagination. Even then, sticking resolutely to a formula is one thing, implementing it with such a visible lack of enthusiasm is quite another.

You could argue that the sending off just before the interval ultimately made things more difficult for us, as it clearly limited the home side's ambitions to holding onto a point. You could. I wouldn't. Rather, I would suggest that Gillingham, while hardly dazzling, had the better of the first half and that we ought to be grateful that Onuora's stupidity deprived them of the opportunity to have the better of the second too.

Granted, their forwards may not have been able to hit the proverbial barn door. Nevertheless, they had a pretty good idea where the barn was by half-time. The football was scrappy and unattractive, something that was not assisted by a fussy referee. But, with the energetic Simon Osborn dominating the midfield and their powerful strikers causing our defence to look extremely ill-at-ease, Gillingham at least appeared to have some kind of masterplan, even if it wasn't a greatly elaborate one. We, on the other hand, gave the distinct impression that we were looking forward to getting back onto the training ground on Monday for a good-natured five-a-side.

Perhaps Sunday evening lethargy robbed the first half of any sense of drama - whether from an armchair or an open terrace, this is a ludicrous time to be watching football. Perhaps it just wasn't very good. There were early moments of excitement, such as when a lovely Stephen Glass pass down the left wing released Marcus Gayle and his driven shot was blocked by Bartram at the near post. There were moments of controversy, as when Alec Chamberlain was obviously fouled by Onuora as they jumped for a hanging cross and we were grateful to the defenders around for reacting first and thumping clear in the absence of the referee's whistle.

In between those moments, though, we found nothing but countless misplaced passes and numerous unnecessary free kicks. And half-arsed ideas that were equally half-arsed in their execution. And fifty-fifty challenges that always seemed to result in the ball being at the feet of a blue-shirted player. And laughable attempts to take Gillingham on at their own game, sending the ball vaguely and hopefully towards Gifton Noel-Williams and Marcus Gayle. And other rubbish things that I couldn't be bothered to note down then and can't be bothered to recall now. Still, on the bright side, you could imagine the ITV Digital viewing figures dropping by the minute. By full-time, you suspect that even Al and Monkey had probably had enough....

Aha, but what's this? A spell of Watford pressure? Why, hurrah! Look, there's Patrick Blondeau's looping cross being knocked behind by a defender at serious risk of own goal embarrassment. And there's a bit of a scramble at the resulting corner, seen from that excitingly indistinct, can't-tell-what-really-happened perspective that you get from the away enclosure at the Priesfield. And there's Paolo Vernazza rising to meet Glass' cross at the far post and head at Bartram....

And there's the end of that paragraph. Our attacks ended just as suddenly. They were replaced by Gillingham activity at the other end, more penetrating and dynamic. After twenty-four minutes, Osborn's rising drive from twenty yards appeared destined for the top corner, bringing an anticipatory gasp from the home fans in line with its trajectory, but didn't carry sufficient power to force Chamberlain into anything but a routine catch. Moments later, we were caught on the break and extremely fortunate that King's deflected shot span wide of the post after clearing the keeper.

Again, we began to lose possession cheaply; now, we found that the Gills, while erratic in front of goal, were damn quick on the counter when we gave them the ball. On the edge of the area, Onuora shuffled his feet neatly and clipped the ball forward to King, who rather snatched at the chance and sent the ball curling wide with only Chamberlain to beat. Ipoua headed through a crowd from a corner, and the unsighted Chamberlain dived down to his left to claim before a striker got a decisive touch. It was a bad game, all rough edges and crap touches, but it was beginning to come to life.

Even so, the dramatic conclusion to the first half still had the same effect as dozing off in front of "Eastenders" and waking up with a start to see the final cliff-hanger. It began with Paul Robinson thundering into a challenge in midfield, winning the ball for what seemed like the first time since kickoff. When it rebounded to Onuora, Robbo - true to form - picked himself up and steamed in again, taking ball and opponent with one mighty clatter. The referee didn't see anything wrong with that, which was perhaps debatable...although, to my mind, it was a fierce but legal tackle.

He did, however, see much wrong with Onuora's angry reaction (which I didn't see, but I'm reliably informed that it involved a clear stamp on Robbo). Instantly, the red card was shown, followed shortly by a yellow as Ashby's protests went too far. Perhaps what enraged the home fans more than anything was that, after receiving treatment, Robinson picked himself up, had a quick word with the referee, and took the free kick. Well, and that, when the half-time whistle blew, he bounded gleefully away to the tunnel, appearing to hold his nose in a "YOU SMELL!" gesture to the home fans and then giving the Watford fans the thumbs-up with a broad grin. Robbo, it seems, continues to enjoy his football. A rare moment of shameless entertainment, anyway.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Mint Wispas for me, Matt, and Howard.
Reason: Three times the luck.
Level of success: Well, the chocolate was very enjoyable...but that's the point of chocolate, really, so it probably doesn't count as "luck"....

The second half was bloody appalling. As clichéd as it may be, at no point would you have known that one of the sides was missing a player. Perhaps the absence of Onuora reduced the Gillingham threat somewhat...but, even so, we still did a fairly shoddy job of looking after the remaining forwards and continued to be caught out by counter-attacks that should've been relatively easy to deal with. It speaks volumes that Andy Hessenthaler didn't feel the need to make a substitution until the seventy-first minute, and then made no more. Quite simply, we weren't stretching them at all.

Even when we drew them out of their own half and had the opportunity to attack speedily, we appeared to prefer the safety of click-click-click passing across midfield. At times, it was almost as if we considered it unfair not to wait until every defender was in position. Then, we did nothing to pull a determined and effective Gillingham rearguard out of position, to turn them around, to take them fact, to do anything much except send the ball rolling slowly sideways, occasionally providing a bit of variety by swinging in a disappointing cross for Ashby to head away or thread a through-ball carefully into the middle of nowhere. Dreadful.

Our achievements were insignificant. Actually, Gillingham didn't set out to defend from the start and, bizarrely, remained the better side for the first few minutes of the half. Indeed, King might've scored as he did well to bring a long ball down and saw his shot blocked by a defender. That we gradually pushed them back and managed to dominate possession is hardly cause for celebration on our part, and certainly wasn't a reason for them to panic either. It suited them, it frustrated us. Even now, even after the departure of a key player, only one of these teams really seemed to have much of an idea what it was supposed to be doing. Later on, Browning's dipping shot after a swift break reminded us that we couldn't even be sure of a point. It cleared the crossbar by mere inches.

Apart from Micah Hyde's awkward hook towards goal from a Noel-Williams knock-down, every shot came from outside the area. Sure, it counts the same wherever you score from...but you won't win often if you rely solely on someone sending a screamer into the top corner from twenty yards. Heavens, we missed Tommy Smith here - until Heidar Helguson's arrival, there was simply no-one with a bit of a spring in their step, no-one with any confidence, no-one with anything. No-one.

Click-click-click. Watching us play in front of them, the Gillingham defence tried to stifle their yawns.

Occasionally, we came close. Stephen Glass' shot from twenty yards (natch) swerved away from the goal and missed by a couple of yards. Showing rare dynamism, Paolo Vernazza reacted first to a cleared cross, chested the ball down and lifted a floating half-volley over the bar. Indeed, we had a passable claim for a penalty when Glass picked out Helguson's purposeful run - movement! from a forward! yes! - and the Icelander appeared to be bundled over and sent sprawling after he'd shoved the ball awkwardly past Bartram.

Along with David Noble, Heidar Helguson did make a noticeable difference. Even if neither managed to lift a team that had slumped so badly, they did provide some kind of mobility and imagination, as well as a bit of old-fashioned determination. After thirty-seven minutes, Helguson's splendid curling shot brought a diving, two-handed save from Bartram; after forty, Glass struck the corner of the woodwork with an arcing free kick that didn't quite drop quickly enough.

Either of these moments, and a low shot later on from Nordin Wooter that Bartram did well to push away from the bottom corner, might've brought a win. But, until we solve the fundamental problems with this hugely under-achieving side, there's a real sense that it doesn't mean anything. Oh, we would've been much happier if one of those shots from outside the area had beaten the keeper...but, watching us still shuffling the ball across the pitch in pedestrian fashion for what seemed like hours on end, you were struck by the knowledge that we're doing the same in the First Division itself. We'd hoped that we'd be this season's Fulham. Instead, we're currently this season's Norwich, going nowhere in no particular hurry.

Click-click-click. Peep-peep-peep. Time to go home, via a journey lasting three and a half sodding hours. Yeah, absolutely heavenly.

Back at the start, the teams ran out through the usual tacky ITV Digital archway, made of cardboard. With no tunnel to attach it to, it was held up a couple of yards onto the pitch by ballboys until the players had passed through. A truly pitiful, laughable sight. And a thoroughly apt metaphor for absolutely everything that this evening in Kent had to offer.

Al and Monkey might want to make other plans for next Sunday.