A tale of two debuts
By Daniel Lester
In the twentieth minute, as the crowd chanted Jermaine Pennant's name, Paul Okon received the ball in the centre circle, and kicked the ball directly out for a goal kick. Even if Marcus Gayle hadn't been playing as if he were subject to twenty times the Earth's normal gravity, this would have been a moment for shaking one's head. Yet Okon, in the end, didn't have such a bad game. I don't suppose even Jonno, who is Okon's international understudy, would play well in the team at present. Without the authority or the off-the-ball movement to distribute effectively, Okon never had a chance at Rotherham.
Division One is a paradoxical division, as many have pointed out before. On the one hand, big name clubs seemingly unconcernedly accrue debts of improbable proportions and prate incessantly about the Brave New World of big money football. On the other, clubs like Rotherham attract pitiful crowds to Conference standard grounds and use bloody-minded determination and effort to offset the obvious incongruity of their impudent presence among the lords of the manor. The whole business has an air of absurdity, of a child's facetious mosaic - a hardware department in Kwik Save, fresh fruit on McDonald's menu, tapeworm Blind Date. Particularly, though, it has an air of something which can't possibly last - something waiting expectantly for the wind to blow down off the hills and sweep it all away, ushering in something altogether different, like a caterpillar metamorphosed. Division One is in a pupa, and it's almost impossible to guess what's going to emerge - fair or foul.
Completely erroneous team news on Ceefax and the net, and the hangover from the much-touted eight goals conceded in two games, no doubt deterred many who might have been enticed to this small town in Sheffield by the debut of two new players, meaning Watford brought no more than a few hundred up the M1. As at Hillsborough, the bench was a formidable five-a-side team, while the team selection was something of an enigma - Rotherham promisingly lined up without their only famous player Robins, or McIntosh, their midfielder recently so impressive.
Rotherham's game was a hundred percent formulaic. Our response to their completely predictable game was also a hundred percent predictable. As a result, I will produce some formulae in order to make this review less repetitive and thereby easier to read.
1. IF (Barker OR Sedgwick) AND Ball outside the corner of the box on our left WITH Back to goal THEN Vega clumsily jostle from behind THEN Free kick taken by Watson swung towards the head of Swailes at the back post THEN Unchallenged knock back across the face of goal THEN Chaos in the box leading to a sometimes fortunate let off.
2. IF (Monkhouse OR Barker OR Sedgwick) AND Ball on our left wing WITH Front to goal THEN Pass in neat triangles around hopelessly lost Blondeau THEN Pull Vega out of position to assist THEN (EITHER Vega blocks out for a corner OR Poor cross is put behind at near post by Cox or Vernazza) THEN Mullin corner towards Swailes at the back post THEN Rarely successfully challenged knock back across the face of goal THEN Chaos in the box leading to a sometimes fortunate let off.
3. IF Watford have ball on edge of own box THEN Pass directly to (Monkhouse OR Watson) THEN Through ball leaves static Watford offside trap chasing (Barker OR Warne) THEN (EITHER Cox OR Okon OR Vega) makes outstanding last ditch challenge OR Chamberlain makes outstanding parry with outstretched body part) THEN Rebound falls to Rotherham attacker and is wasted.
4. IF Rotherham receive throw in our half THEN Ball boys towel off ball THEN Scott throws ball long into our box THEN Chaos in the box leading to a sometimes fortunate let off.
5. IF Watford receive throw in our half THEN Throw ball directly to Rotherham attacker who pumps ball into box first time THEN Chaos in the box leading to a sometimes fortunate let off.
6. IF Rotherham attempt attack down right hand flank THEN Doyley deals with it relatively comfortably.
So here's the match report. A bastardised version of formula 1 left Branston roofing the ball in our net and the ref motioning for offside (ridiculous) but probably meaning to give the free kick for climbing. 4. 2. 3. At this point the Rotherham faithful were getting annoyed as the ref seemed to have Watford stars in his eyes. They felt a Chamberlain challenge on Warne outside the box was a foul (it wasn't); they felt a throw and a goal kick had gone the wrong way (they had). 6. 3.
For fifteen minutes, Watford's attacks consisted almost exclusively of overweighted through balls. Then, on the quarter hour, Pennant announced his arrival, with a different class fizzing run down the right wing, leaving Watson on his backside, and a crossfield ball with too much on it for Gayle. Two minutes later, Doyley laid the ball off to Pennant on the half way line, who made a modest incursion into Rotherham territory. From my viewpoint, it looked like he placed a beautiful curling cross on the head of Gifton, who powered it over Pollitt's head, but in hindsight, there was something altogether unprepared and shocked about Pollitt's despairing flail ballwards, so the Swailes og verdict is plausible. Er - we were in front.
Which didn't shock the Watford faithful, as, curiously, amid our garden shed chanting I don't think anyone had felt particularly convinced by the very evident danger Rotherham were posing in our box. 1. 4. Then Gifton created something out of nothing - holding off centre backs to get in a powerful, swinging twenty yarder too close to Pollitt. Although the people behind me remained unimpressed by his work rate, this game gave us a measure of the great Gifton of old. With his front to goal and his teeth gritted, time and again he was powerful, dedicated, at times terrifying. In general, nobody likes to see Smith on the bench and Helguson having a lie-in and a late lunch, but if it means Gifton doesn't have to play in the back-to-goal flick-ons and lay-offs role in which he is often so horribly misused, Vialli's 4-5-1 isn't all bad.
2. 3. 2. Then, in the 24th minute, Pennant was tackled for the first time. A good passing move ends with Blondeau shooting into the keeper's arms. Okon gets across well to dispossess Scott as his perception starts to improve. Then, a minute later, as if deliberately denying him the faintest sliver of match confidence, Okon completely misses his tackle, allowing Scott through for an uncontrolled shot from twenty-five yards. 2. Cox is lucky as he accidentally flicks the ball onto his arm and chest as he fields a ball inside the box. 4. Pennant involves the whole team, engineering a nice flowing move up the pitch which comes to nothing. 4. 6. A lull in the action sees Gifton challenging back on the half way line. His doubters rub their eyes in disbelief. A great tackle by Vega on the edge of the box prevents a 3, without any hint of a potential 1. Then a 2 leaves Branston with a free header he tamely presents to Chamberlain. 1.
Then, in the 40th minute, Vega is booked for attempting yet another full blooded two-footed 1, slightly further out than usual - if he'd connected, he'd have been off. The resulting free kick find Blondeau, Vega, Vernazza and Okon all required during the inevitable 2.
Then, a moment of comic relief. Gayle, who had been disastrously poor all half, under no pressure at all, but in a good position down the left, makes like Cape Canaveral and launches what my friend referred to tactfully as an angel raper. Clearly conscious of the comic potential of the whole situation, Pollitt, with plenty of time to respond, pointlessly pulled off a leaping backwards diving save just to the left of the penalty spot. 6. 3.
Monkhouse is very harshly booked for kicking the ball away. The Rotherham fans are upset. Pennant, trying to create something, is muscled off the ball, being triple marked now. Then the home fans are made even more upset by a fair but foul-looking last-ditch tackle by Vega on Warne during a 3.
In injury time, winning a throw in their half, Blondeau expressed a desire to get his ball towelled - a privilege so far reserved for Rob Scott. So Wilkins gets up and throws the ball to the toweller, who, mystified, obliges, and tosses the ball to Barker. All this is going on in front of what can only smirkingly be called Millmoor's main stand - and, riled now, the Rotherham support, pitifully few though they are, kick up rough. Barker, no doubt stirred up, throws the ball at Blondeau and jostles him. An eight man handbagging session ensues, only Vernazza keen to keep the peace, sanely isolating Blondeau. Barker is booked, Millmoor screams like an irked Nazgul. The referee then goes over to talk to our dugout, at which point - horror of horrors - a projectile is thrown from the crowd, fetching up theatrically at the feet of the ref and Vialli. Though I've no doubt the media would call it a "missile" if they could, there was little mistaking its former identity. It was...A MEAT PIE.
As we know, to throw a meat pie is consciously to abdicate your membership of the human race, and cause for a lifetime ban. Certainly, it's attempted murder. By poisoning, if it's a Beeton Rumford meat pie. Suffice to say, as the Watford fans collectively went "Oi!", it was immediately apparent the ref should blow for half time as Rotherham players were each doing their own imitation of an electric egg-whisk. In the end, it was Pennant who was fouled with brutal intent by Hurst, though the challenge wasn't as bad as some of the others could have been.
Lucky half time chocolate - Minstrels
Reason - Ian Grant does it, so why shouldn't I?
Half-time wish - Galli for Vega, Glass for Gayle
In the first seven or eight minutes of the second half, Watford were playing beautifully. The players had switched to 4-4-2, Gayle moving into a striker's role and Vernazza switching to the left. Vernazza was a giant, once doing a move normally the preserve of computer game midfields - misplace a pass to an opposition player, run right at them, tackle them, then run off with the ball. Okon's distribution bossed the centre of the park, Pennant weaved down the right, Nielsen prowled the edge of the box.
Suddenly, it was 2-0. Nielsen on the edge sprayed the ball out to Pennant who strafed the ball to Gifton waiting behind Pollitt two yards out, who sidefooted the ball... into Pollitt's safe palms, as the keeper had gone from vertical to horizontal in an instant. Still 1-0, somehow. Nielsen, behind Gifton, looked like a man who'd just had six peeled lemons shoved up his backside.
Then, Vialli did some shouting from the dugout, and we were back to 4-5-1 and under serious pressure again, as our left side was holier than Christ's hands. Vernazza and Okon were tripping over each other again, Gayle was stomping up and down like an Ed 209 with no guns, Pennant and Gifton each exchanged pleasantries with two markers, Blondeau did his Anna Pavlova impression, not so much being turned as pirouetted, Doyley was ignored as a pointlessly difficult option, Vega and Cox prayed for a trench, Chamberlain settled down for yet another day at the office. The only defiance was coming from Nielsen, suddenly irrepressible, and Smith, who, warming up, ran in front of Scott while he was winding up for yet another long throw. Right in front of the pie thrower, too.
Sorry, I'm forgetting myself. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 4. 2. 3. 6. 3. 4. 2. 5. Etc.
Then, the inevitable - Cox initiates yet another 3, passing to Monkhouse, who puts Barker through and Chamberlain - just this once, fails to pull off an outstanding save. One all. But the pressure didn't stop. Rotherham continued to pull us apart with their slick and predictable passing play.
2. 3. 4. 5. 6. While Blondeau jostled at a free kick up the pitch, the ball was slid into the position where a left back of ours might have been and we were fortunate as Sedgwick blazed over unmarked.
As the crowd chanted for Tommy Smith, light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Nielsen won a 30-70 he had no right to about thirty yards out, laid it off to Gifton who fired well over. But we were in and battling again, and when Micah came on he was literally everywhere - especially left back.
Gayle made his first and last useful contribution as he forwarded Nielsen's pass to Pennant who won us a corner. The corner was cut out, Mullin ran the length of the pitch, and we were under pressure yet again. 4, 4, 4, 4, 4.
Smith came on for Gayle, Robins replaced the dangerous but tired Sedgwick.
We switched to 4-4-2 for real now, but with Nielsen on the left. This was a stupid idea, as it left our dynamo Nielsen chiefly marginalised, and marooned Smith and Gifton. Hyde and Okon hadn't worked out which one was the playmaker and, as a result, neither of them made any plays.
After despairing of receving a comprehensible through ball, Smith seared down the left hand side with a ball from Cox, pausing only to rifle a shot into Pollitt's arms from a tight angle. Then, on eighty minutes, we disintegrated utterly. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2, 3, 4, 5. It's amazing we didn't concede. We were awful. Abysmal. No passes went straight, no throws went to yellow shirts, no Rotherham players were tackled. I'd rather not think about it.
Suddenly, Pennant had the ball, jinked and quite pointedly left both his markers behind, cut inside on the edge of the box, drawing Rotherham's defence flat, then played Nielsen in one-on-one at the penalty spot. Goal at his mercy, Nielsen wilfully discarded three points and his man of the match award as he dragged the shot wide, and sank to his knees in his best Willem Defoe in Platoon impression. In no way would 2-1 have been a fair result.
Cox was booked at the death. If you replaced a video of the last half hour of this game with the footage from Torquay - York played simultaneously, I really don't think you could have told the difference.
Watford are a paradoxical team, as many have pointed out before. Off the pitch, big name players seemingly unconcernedly pocket wages of improbable proportions and prate incessantly about how lucky they are to work with Luca and how the Brave New World of the big money Premiership is just around the corner. On the pitch, players like Rotherham's, who have far from illustrious careers at clubs who would replace them if they could, demonstrate the kind of bloody-minded determination and effort which highlights the unacceptable incongruity of the behaviour and attitudes of our effete aristocracy. The whole business has an air of absurdity, of a child's facetious mosaic - a hardware department in Kwik Save, fresh fruit on McDonald's menu, tapeworm Blind Date. Particularly, though, it has an an air of something which can't possibly last - something waiting expectantly for the wind to blow down off the hills and sweep everything away, ushering in something altogether different, like a caterpillar metamorphosed.
Watford FC is in a pupa, and it's almost impossible to guess what's going to emerge - fair or foul.