By Matt Rowson
September 18th 1999. Luca Vialli brought a Chelsea team to Vicarage Road that, whilst packed with talent, looked thoroughly disjointed and really didn't want to be there. They were deservedly beaten by a side that wanted the result far more.
Two years on, the echoes are deafening. True, beating Watford wasn't quite the coup for Norwich that beating Chelsea was for us. True also that Watford's failings in terms of attitude had more to do with lack of confidence than with Chelsea's perceived complacency. But in the utter lack of synergy, the total being so much less than the sum of the parts, the parallels are evident.
Having underestimated how long I'd need to get to Norwich and despite having pegged it from the packed but ever-reliable County Hall car park, by the time I took my seat Robbo was out cold on the ground, apparently after a clash of heads. He left the field prone on a stretcher, lack of consciousness the only condition in which you wouldn't expect the fullback to try to play on.
His replacement was Heidar Helguson, a little surprisingly. A centre forward on for a fullback in the eighth minute of a game either indicates that things are already going badly wrong or that some jiggery pokery with playing positions is afoot. The latter proved to be true here, with Helguson lining up on the left side of a five man midfield alongside Vernazza, back from suspension, and Fisken, recalled from the bench, with Glass dropping to fullback. Gayle was the lone striker, Smith having retreated to the bench alongside Galli, whose place at the back was taken by Issa. I can only imagine that my furrowed brow at trying to work all this out whilst catching my (long gone) breath mirrored those that filled the away end when the teams were initially announced.
The early signs were quite encouraging. The Hornets, sporting the black away top once again accompanied, inexplicably, by red shorts, enjoyed comfortable possession with the play largely confined to the City half. The encouraging signs lasted as long as it took for City to generate their first attack, however, Holt being released down the right in yards of space. There were vociferous, angry calls for offside from the Watford support along the near touchline, but a lone defender had broken the line on the far side of the pitch playing the midfielder on. A good spot from the linesman for which he was harshly persecuted for the rest of the half.
With City's second attack, after some extended but increasingly directionless possession at the opposite end of the pitch, they scored. A breaking goal, the impressive Libbra's cushioned header falling for Roberts whose powerful shot was nonetheless at a comfortable height for Baardsen to save. He didn't. Instead, it squirmed painfully through his hands, dropping softly inside the post, Hornet heads immediately in hands. "Dodgy Keeper" responded the gleeful City fans eventually, before returning to their repertoire of Elton John-inspired taunts. Carrow Road is one of few grounds in the country where such depths of wit are still an annual event. Imaginatively, we responded with songs about farming.
Five minutes later it was two, and the "one-of-those games" feelings were confirmed. McVeigh's floated cross from the left moving slowly, frame by frame, to the extent that the conclusion of the move was evident long before it happened. For some reason, despite having two hulking centrebacks to cover this sort of eventuality, it was Glass covering Nedergaard's attack on the far post, the Dane effortlessly outjumping him and looping a header back across goal past the confused Baardsen.
Slump. For the remainder of the half the Hornets continued to enjoy possession without ever seriously threatening to do anything with it. Marcus Gayle, in his lone role, struggled badly (frustratingly vindicating the bigot behind me), but wasn't helped by a midfield that continually failed to support him in the box. Wooter tripped and scurried but City's defence, having been humiliated by the winger last season, weren't about to afford him running space again and he had a largely ineffective evening. The closest we had come to a goal was an effort from Cox, mysteriously restored to free-kicking duties despite Gayle's recent successes, whose low drive through the wall was smothered by Green at the foot of a post.
With the half threatening to peter out we finally did grab a goal, out of nothing. Glass had a quiet game in his withdrawn role, but like Peter Kennedy the quality of his deliveries is such that he can be uninvolved for 89 minutes and still turn a game. His ball into the box yet again found nobody backing up the smothered Gayle, but on this occasion Norwich's defence failed to clear and Green fumbled. The cavalry arrived, not from midfield, but from the bullish Ramon Vega who stabbed home.
The crowd ignited, and for the only spell of the game City were back on their heels as Watford flew at them with renewed vigour. Until, with our one piece of bad luck on the evening, the half came to an end five minutes later.
The second half started and the original, staid pattern of the game was resumed, City looking far more potent with their occasional possession than we did with the lion's share we were able to claim. When chances did come they were not from intricate passing moves, which were snuffed by a solid City defence before they began to look anything like dangerous, but from capitalising on mistakes. Green's charge from his line was almost punished by an accurate lob from Helguson which the retreating keeper clawed out from beneath his crossbar.
With Gayle still isolated up front, the sight of Tommy Smith stripping off on the bench was the source of some encouragement. Until the management team defied the most basic law of substitutions by bringing him on as we defended a set piece. The next Watford player to touch the ball was Baardsen, picking the ball out of the net. Game over.
Smith's introduction improved matters, but only marginally. Like many others, his head is down, a shadow of the livewire we know he can be. Still, his intelligent running did open up a few holes in City's defence, Wooter taking advantage of a gap created by one such run to make a rare burrow into the City area before being foiled by an immaculate tackle from Mackay.
The one man playing with confidence and determination throughout was, somewhat surprisingly, Paolo Vernazza. This perhaps most gifted of Watford's midfield options is too often the first to disappear from a game; on this occasion he came closer than anyone to picking up the Watford performance by the scruff and shaking it about a bit, taking responsibility and providing most hope with some aggressive passing and several long-range shots. One such shot was hit with such ferocity that Green's instinctive parry rebounded to the edge of the penalty area to be met acrobatically by Helguson. The striker was always underneath the ball, however, and his volley cleared the bar.
Watford's lack of penetration remains our greatest flaw; if we were able to turn a fraction of our possession into goalscoring chances we would swamp teams to an extent that would make our occasional defensive calamities obsolete. Murmurs of talks with Di Canio are exciting from a certain point of view, but I can't help but feel that Luca is missing the point a little. He has taken over at Watford with the admirable stated intention of proving his managerial worth, but there's more to management than calling in your mates. There are plenty of rough diamonds in attacking positions at Vicarage Road who, whilst they would surely learn from the flamboyant Italian's presence, should be closer to the finished article than a job-shadowing role.
Smith's dip in confidence, when we expected a surge of form, is alarming. Helguson, possibly the best case in point, showed in the Premiership that he has the ability to be a very dangerous striker. His head is so low it's almost between his knees, and that he's stuck out on the flank - the wrong flank - when his bread and butter is the hurly-burly of the penalty area, is guaranteed to help about as much as the occasional moronic caterwauling from the stands. Gifton has clearly lost a lot since his injury, but showed in the first half of last season that he can be a more than capable striker at this level. Foley, too, has undoubted talent, though perhaps Luca would be best advised to start by coaxing some form out of more dependable sources.
The game ended with Vega, a largely positive influence throughout, joining the forays including another single-minded charge down the right flank. City always looked the more likely though, Roberts heading over from a good right-wing cross. The game ended in fittingly depressing fashion with City jockeying in the corner, taking the mickey just like Gifton used to.
This report is not intended as an outright condemnation of our new management team. The players signed look, largely, excellent, some of the football has been exhilarating and in any case nine games or so isn't a fair basis for judgement in the face of such upheaval. Nonetheless, I wasn't truly angered by the performance, or by the glum drive back in the rain. Rather by the astonishing comments attributed to Vialli by Clubcall, absorbed from the Mailing List at one in the morning, where he claimed that a strong performance should have been rewarded by points.
No, Luca. It has to get much, much better than this.