By Dave Messenger
Following a week of major decisions off the pitch, Watford travelled to Hillsborough with two aims in mind. Not only were they hoping to avenge the heavy beating in the Worthington Cup, but also trying to deflect attention from the culling of the five players placed on the list by gaining a much needed three points.
That one of the quintet made the starting line-up came as a surprise. That Allan Nilelsen was asked to play at right back instead of Doyley or Blondeau should have added to the shock but as it was the latest in a bewildering list of selections during the course of this season, nobody much noticed.
Watford started the game brightly, with Jermaine Pennant heavily involved in much good work, as he proceeded to lead former Hornets loanee Craig Armstrong on a merry dance. Within the first couple of minutes Paul Heald, sent off at the Vic in a Wimbledon jersey earlier in the campaign, had to save smartly from the marauding Pennant. On five minutes, the returning Stephen Glass tested Heald with a low drive and then blazed over the bar shortly after, following more good play from Pennant.
With Paul Okon dominating the centre of the park, Watford were able to keep applying the pressure to an increasingly beleaguered Wednesday backline. Pennant again tested Heald with a drive and Noel-Williams might have done better when presented with a good chance following some smart work by Nielsen and Micah Hyde.
The Owls rarely threatened, but when David Johnson, on loan from Forest and already a scorer against Watford this season, fashioned a chance, Alec Chamberlain was equal to it. Though you can feel some sympathy for Espen Baardsen's plight, there can be little doubt that the unfaltering veteran is still the better goalkeeper.
The visitors continued to grasp the nettle as the half drew on. First Okon, then Tommy Smith both blasted shots high wide and handsome when well placed to further extend the home keeper. Watford played the better football while the Owls continued to huff and puff. When they did venture into the Watford half, Galli and the impressive Wayne Brown repelled their efforts with some style. The Ipswich man gave another competent display and on two occasions he robbed Ekoku with last ditch tackles he had no right to reach.
Gifton Noel-Williams was in typically robust mood up front as he took the game to the home defence throughout the first half. He almost capped his performance with a goal on thirty-five minutes as he acrobatically hooked the ball onto the roof of the net. Nine minutes later, he did. Pennant swept a glorious sixty-yard pass to Tommy Smith on the edge of the Wednesday box. When Tommy's cross was too long for the Hornet players assembled in the box, Pennant had made up the length of his pass and more to cross back into the path of Noel-Williams, who volleyed home crisply. The goal was no more than the Golden Boys deserved for a competent first half display against a frankly abysmal Wednesday outfit.
Half-time lucky chocolate: Didn't partake.
Reason: Health issues that are far too long and complicated to go into here.
Verdict: I bloody well will next time....
I've managed to get halfway through the report without mentioning the horrendous journey which saw plenty of travelling fans arrive late. Many of the bedraggled latecomers had only managed to make the ground in time for the start of the second period, having struggled through the chaos caused by the closure of part of the M1. As the events of the second half unfolded, I can't help but wonder if any of them wished they had not battled on and had stayed on the concrete car park.
Terry Yorath had obviously read his players the riot act during the break and he made an attacking double change. Donnelly and Hamshaw, our tormentor in the Worthington Cup debacle, entered the fray as Wednesday threw players forward. The hulking Sibon joined them within five minutes, with Johnson moving to an unaccustomed position on the wing.
The changes brought the Owls into the game as an attacking force for the first time. There still seemed to be little danger though, as Ekoku headed miles wide from a corner and Hamshaw, having robbed the dawdling Nielsen, shot tamely at Chamberlain. Between these efforts, Watford enjoyed spells of posession without creating many chances but it all seemed to be going along nicely.
On fifty-eight minutes came the moment that changed the game. Johnson cut in from the left and was clumsily body checked by Nielsen. From our vantage point there was little doubt about the check but it seemed to be well outside the area. Strangely, Nielsen took his shirt off at this point and appeared to be heading off the pitch. It was a curious day's work from the transfer-listed Dane. In his defence he was being played horribly out of position, but his heart clearly didn't seem to be in it. Ekoku stepped up and hit an atrocious penalty straight at Alec but just as we began to celebrate, the ball had squirmed under his body and into the net.
The equaliser raised the tempo of the game considerably as the home side scented blood. Suddenly, Watford's first half composure and dominance was gone. Okon and Hyde began to lose the midfield skirmishes and all too frequently, our players were being caught out on the ball or simply giving it away. A better side than Sheffield Wednesday would have punished us there and then. A number of attacks in which they had found gaps in the Hornets defence were squandered as the home side were wasteful with the gifted possession. The lumbering Shefki Kuqi wasted their best chance, blazing an effort over the bar and into the Kop, when presented with the ball by Galli.
The forward players, when they did get the ball, still caused the Sheffield defence problems. Glass and Pennant found plenty of space on their respective wings but too often, the final ball was rushed and decent spells of pressure were wasted. On sixty-nine, Pennant curled a free kick just over and minutes later, Gifton should have done better from Smith's cute headed lay-off from another Glass cross. But it was all too sporadic and the Watford front men began to fade from the picture.
On seventy-three minutes came a strong penalty claim for the Hornets as Pennant tangled with a Wednesday defender who appeared to handle. The ball was cleared and a swift break from the home side almost resulted in a goal, but once again, Alec was equal to Kuqi's close range effort. Shortly afterwards, the increasingly effective Finn was finally on target following an unseemly melee in which Watford had at least three chances to clear the ball. The lack of conviction in the attempted clearances summed up Watford's second half performance.
Luca Vialli threw Cook, Gayle and Hand into the action in a vain effort to gain a point from the afternoon, but despite Soltvedt almost diverting a Cook cross past his own keeper and a Hand shot which was charged down by a dogged Wednesday defender, there was little to suggest that an equaliser would come and as the final whistle blew, there were more than a couple of dissenting voices in the sparsely populated away end.
Once again, in the face of adversity and a bad break like the penalty, Watford have crumbled and to lose to such an obviously inferior opposition is tough to take. Despite the promising nature of the first half efforts, it seems pretty clear that the team has no backbone and no stomach for a battle when things go against them. Given the uncertainty surrounding the futures of the players that have been listed, it's difficult to see when things will start to improve. We are a team in turmoil and while Luca may yet make a success of managing Watford, it's getting more and more difficult to remain positive.
The real fear is that things will get worse before they get better....