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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/04/02
Stockport County
The end is near
By Pete Fincham

This was a horrible April Fools Day joke. For the first hour this was terribly inept, and I am afraid to say that I felt ashamed at the end when certain fans started moronically chanting "Vialli Army", as quite simply it was largely the ineptitude of the management that cost us this game against the worst side in Division One.

To put this fixture into perspective, you should be aware that the goalkeeper was a sixteen year old debutant with one reserve appearance to his name. The fourteen home players used featured seven teenagers, and this was a team who, of those they'd played twice, had been beaten at least once by all but two sides this season.

Unfortunately, limply, Watford became the third side that could not beat the relegated Hatters over two games.

And for much of this encounter it was terribly, terribly limp. Until, that is, Watford made the weekly substitution of Anthony McNamee for Stephen Glass. Then the game changed.

But we will come to that later....

With the continued persistence with Blondeau at right back, the main surprises were the return of David Noble and Tommy Smith, while on loan striker Webber started against the team that had conceded ninety-seven league goals this term. Ninety-seven goals! That is a large amount of goals to concede in forty-two games. It probably means that the team is not very good. In fact, having seen Stockport play three times this season, that is exactly what it means. Stockport are not a very good team.

The opening exchanges were inept. Many wasteful, aimless balls from midfield followed a few pointless sorties into the defences of both sides. The first sign that either side realised knew there was a game on came in the shape of a goal. After Beckett was controversially ruled onside, Watford had the chance to clear the danger from two separate set pieces, before Fraser McLachlan scored his first goal for the club in only his eighth appearance; a shot from outside the box darting past Chamberlain.

After a solid block from Blondeau from the lively Welsh after fifteen minutes, Webber and Glass both briefly threatened the debutant keeper James Spencer, but not enough to force the sixteen year old into making an actual save. Meanwhile, Mclachlan had obviously developed a taste for the big time in front of goal, and after the ball broke in the Watford area, the seventeen year old shot tamely at Chamberlain, who for the record was equally as untested as his counterpart at the other end.

Quite what a tame effort the game developed into is hard to put into words. Behind me, Trevor Champ tried to put it into some degree of sense, bellowing "Oh Blondeau, you are CRAP", which seemed to draw the Frenchman from his languid pacificism, as he and former Watford loanee Carlton Palmer drew handbags at six paces, earning each of them a booking.

One of the few bright players of the opening half was Filippo Galli who continued to defy his own years, and the youthful enthusiasm of Stockport. But the veteran Italian seemed to come off worse from an innocuous clash with Paul Okon at the end of the half, and limped off clutching his left shoulder, evidently in some agony.

Cue Lloyd Doyley warming up during the interval, and the belated arrival of the McNamee family. "Don't worry, you have not missed anything. Anthony has not been introduced yet."

From the re-start, a long hopeful ball seemed to put Smith through on goal, but Spencer was quick onto the threat and Smith remained goalless.

There was a marginal improvement at the start of the half, as Mahon closed down Spencer to no avail, Glass shot wide from thirty yards and Webber was booked for "kicking the ball away" when clearly attempting a shot on goal barely a second after the play had been halted. At the other end Stockport were useless, as neither Beckett nor Palmer caused any problems for the visitors. But with few of the pitifully small number of away fans in attendance believing for a minute that they would add to their early goal, Stockport did just that! As Robinson went down under a seemingly fair challenge thirty-five yards out, a cross came in from Ali Gibb which Beckett headed into the net while marked by Mahon, Cox and Doyley! Enough said.

Moments later, the goal scorer McLachlan should have been sent off. A booking moments before the second goal for holding the woefully ineffective Noble should have been followed by a booking for deliberate handball, but referee Mr. R.J.Beeley set a precedent for the final half hour. He was to be controversial and inept, but not blatant enough to directly affect the game.

Two-nil down and changes had to be made. Perhaps these were the changes that should have been made before kick off. The McNamee family adjusted in their seats, and we all knew what was coming. Helguson replaced the ineffective Noble, while McNamee replaced the quite dreadful Stephen Glass yet again to change the game.

The effect was instant. McNamee picked up the ball on the left, crossed low, and Webber pounced from three yards out to halve the areas. Stockport were rattled, and the blatant assault on Doyley by substitute Ellison earned the Stockport teenager yet another of Beeby's yellow cards.

The crosses rained in on Spencer's goal, but to little effect. Most came from McNamee, as the little left-winger carried on doing to Stockport what he had done to Bradford, Barnsley and Coventry in his previous three games.

Chamberlain was booked for an apparent foul, which would have been pure comedy if it did not mess with my life! The alleged foul was twenty-five yards out from goal, the Stockport striker would have been virtually clear on goal, and after the "foul" was committed the striker took many, many seconds to go down. A professional foul deserves a red card. A dive deserves a yellow card. The referee got it, not for the first time, hopelessly wrong. I make this observation because in the dying moments Watford had two blatant penalty appeals turned down. From a McNamee right wing cross, a Stockport hand clearly diverted the ball away to safety. And on eighty-eight minutes, great work from Mahon and Smith put Helguson clear in the box. The Icelandic International was unceremoniously flattened by a combination of defenders, and yet this time referee Beeby gave a yellow card to Helguson, and effectively handed the win to Stockport.

A fine save from Spencer denied Helguson a certain equalizer, before the home team launched the matches final salvos, with two point blank saves from Chamberlain, and a desperate shot against the bar from Gibb's follow up proving to be the final action of the game.

From the sound of it, Watford were unlucky not to win. And indeed few who were there would deny that there were chances for Watford to come away with their first win this season from the North West. But a defeat against a side with four previous wins all year is what they got. And quite why the manager made such a catastrophic set of decisions in this game beggars belief.

The most glaring of which involved the inclusion, yet again, of the out-of-sorts Glass. It has taken McNamee's involvement to put anything like the required zest into the team in the last three games. McNamee is quite simply a wonderful player, and does more in a few minutes than Glass manages in a month. While he may not be able to manage a full ninety minutes, surely it is better to start well and build from that start, than play catch-up from the first ten minutes.

Helguson being continually excluded from the starting eleven makes no sense when a loan striker is preferred in his place. Twenty-six appearances from the bench this season do not do the striker justice, and his introduction against the weak Stockport defence should have been from the start and not once the team were two-nil down.

Noble, an on-loan player who has not figured for most of the previous few months, surely cannot be playing at his optimum when sporadically introduced into a different side, in a different role each time. It seems a long time since the chants of "Sign up Noble, Noble Sign up" echoed out of the Watford stands, and I for one fail to see how the inclusion of the gifted Arsenal midfielder, at the expense of either Hand or Fisken, can possibly benefit the team at this late stage in the season.

Okon is another player who has obvious class, but surely will not be figuring next season. Opinion varies on quite how much money the Australian captain is earning each week, but it is definitely too much for even a pre-ITV-Digital-collapse Division One! As he is only contracted until the end of this season, midfield planning for next season is of primary importance, and with two of the three central midfielders likely to not be at Watford in August, this does not seem to be happening. More worryingly, while Okon has been in the side, Watford have managed just two victories. In the same way that Pennant is a wonderful player, teams sometimes do not respond to certain players, and the Australian international's frustration at times is evident for all to see. One goal in the last three games suggests that all is not well in the creativity department.

Yet again the away fans had to witness, for a large part of the game, a totally inadequate performance. Unlike the start of the season, it was hard to pick out players who were not trying; but it was easy to see from the off where changes need to be made. The away attendances are getting very low indeed, and if the aim of the run-down to the summer was supposed to be positive performances, then they have not materialised. This Bank Holiday weekend has yielded one point, one goal, and two horrible performances against lowly placed sides who Watford have managed two points out of twelve against. This is not the return of a good side. This is not the return of an adequate side. This is simply the return of a side that is continually chopped and changed. A side that shows little in the way of attacking ideas. A side that lacks confidence. A side that worries about opposition teams more than it worries about how to make the opposition fear it. This is a side that lacks everything that makes a successful team. This is a side that is going nowhere. Wrong players and wrong tactics. More than ever, this match was symptomatic of everything that has been wrong with this season.

Thank God it is ending soon so we can start again in August.