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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/04/02
A turning point?
By Chris Lawton

Having not seen Watford this season, it was with eager anticipation that I headed to Pompey to seek the truth about the current Watford team. Well, maybe not eager anticipation, more a case of "it's close and I can get there".

The match, on whole, largely reflected the afternoon's weather. Moments of great promise briefly punctuating an otherwise dull afternoon.

Of the two sides, Pompey seemed more up for it from the kick-off. Maybe they had something to prove to the new manager? Glass made an early departure from the proceedings have strained his toe or something. That led to the introduction of Panayi - who was clearly pacing himself. He also looked like he would have been at home playing for Saracens as the Hornets sported their black away kit. This early change of personnel led to a couple of scares, including an excellent save from Chamberlain to deny Harper after he had run half the length of the pitch. Watford, to their credit, were never totally overrun and gradually worked their way into the match simply by playing keep ball.

For a newcomer to Vialli's influence, one thing is very clear - the players pass the ball around at the back with a high degree of confidence and are continually moving for each other. Problems only arise as soon as they cross the halfway line.

As the half wore on, the game had 0-0 written all over it, neither side able to create anything more imaginative than a long pass. The only beacons of hope were Webber, whose movement and vision shone throughout, and McNamee. For those of you yet to see McNamee, imagine John Barnes' skill in Rod Thomas' body and you won't be far wrong. He is an amazing talent - comfortable kicking on both feet, balanced, sharp and very hard to shake off the ball.

Towards the end of the half, the mood started to change. As Watford passed the ball around, so the fans began to cheer each completion. In a few seconds an amazing transformation took place - the players developed confidence. Instead of getting to five passes and giving the ball away, they kept passing it and worked an opening for Webber, whose shot was deflected for a corner. From the resulting corner, the ball fell to Robinson whose low diving header beat Beasant only for the ball to strike the post.

Having gained the psychological upper hand, Watford came out after the break and ran the show for five minutes. It was no surprise when the ball fell kindly for Webber that he beat his man and drilled a low shot past Beasant into the corner. His reaction suggested that he liked scoring, and also that he liked doing it for Watford.

The rest of the half was edged by Watford. Pompey seemed incapable of breaking us down and we seemed content to hit them on the break. Two more golden chances came, and sadly went. A low Helguson shot with his first touch was foiled by the outstretched leg of Beasant, and the old timer showed he still has it as he got down low to keep out another Webber effort.

As the half wore on, the only concern was injuries and red cards. The referee was gradually losing control. Several incidents had been allowed to spiral out of control with only one yellow card issued. There also appeared to be a plot by the Pompey players to get Hand sent off. As soon as he came near them, they fell about all over the place.

In the closing minutes, it all came to a head as Harper and Hand clashed in the penalty area. From a distant vantage-point it looked like Hand had tackled Harper and the ball gone out for a corner. Both players ended up on the floor. Words might have been said, it also seems like hands were raised in the ensuing scuffle (maybe the Watford team does have some fight?) and the referee sent Harper off. That was it for Pompey. Despite a late charge up field from Beasant, it was all too late for a very disappointing home team.

In all, Watford were not as bad as critics have suggested, although I realise that it is impossible to make great judgement on one performance. What I did notice, however, was that once the team got in front they were desperate to defend their lead and never really looked like giving it away. Of greater significance, for me anyway, was the way the players responded to the cheers on completing a pass. It was almost like the players believed in themselves at last.

Perhaps a corner has been turned.