By Pete Fincham
A Thursday night in Preston! What an attractive prospect! Amazingly, 313 Watford fans braved the distance and the fact that recent form had decreed that this was a banker of a home win.
By the end of the night, what was more amazing was the fact that Watford had recorded a second point of the year in a game that was, if the truth were told, pretty poor. But an away point is an away point, and with Watford's position in mid-table virtually secured for the next few months, it is now almost a certainty that Watford will not be challenging at either end of the table this term. What a shame that by the end of January, the inevitability of the next three months is there for all to see.
The ongoing blooding of the youth team graduates continued with Jamie Hand making his full debut. A surprising absentee from the starting line up was Wayne Brown, who along with Gayle and Cook, found himself on the bench, while the entire starting team evidently had not a left foot between them!
In truth, the first half was terrible. Watford mustered just two attempts on goal, with neither on target. From a right wing cross, GNW headed harmlessly over, and from a cleared corner, Okon's sliced shot nearly troubled the corner flag. The rest of the half was pointless fanny football, going nowhere slowly, lacking anything like a finish, and more worryingly it was a horrible example of early season Watford. The only consolation was the strength shown by the back two, as Vega and Galli continue finally to deliver something approximating the sort of standard that we should have been witnessing since August. Blondeau looked once more a worrying shadow of a competent full back, while Doyley looked troubled when the Preston attack chose to run at him. However, the real problems remained with the creativity in the side and the ultimate result. Playing 4-5-1 away from home does seem to make sense, providing you are playing a team that deserves respect. But this was a game where 4-5-1 just did not make sense, as Preston just waited for Watford to come at them. The advance simply did not come!
After Chamberlain had saved magnificently from Healy, Preston took the lead just after the half hour from a wonderful long-range strike from Alexander - who incidentally scored the first goal against us at Deepdale last season. As the ball broke thirty yards out, Alexander ran into the space and shot first time firmly into the back of Chamberlain's goal. A lesson for all full backs about anticipation and commitment.
The half petered out into a bit of a nonsense, as neither side looked likely to add to the score, or even really test the goalkeepers.
Half-time saw an interesting meeting with former Hornet Allan Smart, who was given a rousing welcome by the travelling Hornets when his attempts at watching the game in peace were foiled. Whatever issues Smart had with Taylor and latterly Vialli, it is impossible to forget the truly magnificent contribution he made to the cause, and the goal at Wembley was the last time I cried! I am sure I was not the only one who wished that, instead of watching from the stands, Smarty had not been sold and was instead chasing down the Preston defence with vigour.
The second half began as the first had ended, with very little happening. Until, that is, GNW appeared to be pulled back in the area much to the derision of the home fans, and the confused gasps of the away following, at the wrong end of the ground to make an accurate judgement. The substitutions of Doyley and the ineffective Nielsen introduced two left-footed players, and immediately Watford equalised. With his first touch in a Watford shirt, Brown played a through ball that deceived the Preston skipper Gregan and GNW rounded the keeper to slot home. The agonising wait for the ball to cross the line cannot be under-estimated, as for the first four minutes of the ball trickling towards goal, most people believed it was going to be cleared. But for the first time in some considerable while, a good old-fashioned bundle was the reward for a Watford goal. Unfortunately, while the impetus of a goal put some hope into the away following, much of the team seemed to see this as a job done, and the momentum seemed to disappear for both sides and the game went back into the peculiar dormancy of the first half.
Michael Keane will think that he should have put Preston back into the lead as his header from six yards was well saved by Chamberlain, but in truth the youngster should have done better. Gayle's late introduction did little to make an impact in the opposing area, and despite picking up a booking each, the left-sided play of Cook and Brown was certainly more encouraging than the lacklustre rubbish witnessed for the first hour from Nielsen and Blondeau.
All in all, the game was a procession rather than an occasion. As an aside, this was the first time this season that Watford had come from a goal down to get anything from an away game. But a victory still has not been achieved this season away from home when the hosts have scored. The necessary bottle to go on and get a victory is still absent, and after travelling via a plane, two trains and an automobile to make the match, I would have hoped that something more than a token moment of applause from the players would have been forthcoming at the end of the game. But perhaps this is still symptomatic of the overwhelming problems within the side. There does seem to be an absence of genuine passion for the club from the current crop, hence the chanting of Allan Smart's name from the away end seemed to be far more passionate than anything for most of those who actually get paid to play for Watford. Perhaps the gaping chasm between those who support and those who are supposed to do has now become so large that it is irrecoverable with the current crop of players. Food for thought.