By Pete Fincham
I have been working in Manchester for a couple of days. On Monday morning, I had a taxi driver who was a Red. Tuesday morning, I had one who was a Blue. It all gets very confusing! On Monday night, I headed out for a meal with an Italian friend of mine, Ricardo, along with a mate of his who was visiting from Southern Italy for a few days. It was about 8pm and Ric pointed out to his friend some road maintenance workers who were obviously doing an evening job, or perhaps a bit of overtime. The friend, Chris, was amazed, and went onto explain that in Italy, working late or unsociable hours is just not the done thing. People like to have their "fun time" and that was worth more than money. As I was driving back down the M27 on the final leg home, I remembered this observation as something that perhaps made this evening something more than just another mundane midweek away trip. Surprisingly, I had a really good time this evening. Even more surprisingly, in fact, it was quite a good game. But after the absolutely disgraceful exhibition against Crewe display on Saturday, most surprising of all was that Watford played really well. Maybe, just maybe, it was about time that, instead of suffering recent performances, Watford's fans wanted to take back their own "fun time".
The fact that, out of the twenty or so guys I normally sit with at football, only one other turned up tonight, sums up so much of what has been missing for much of this season. It is not about loyalty to the cause, or being a part-time supporter. The reason so many fans, who in previous seasons would go to a fixture like WBA away without question, are not now going to away games, is quite simply that the football has been unpalatably bad far too often. With that comes some of the most depressing atmospheres at away games, and for weeks it has been widely predicted felt that one more defeat would lead to a similar situation to "that" match at Southend situation in April '96, where Hornets stood toe to toe fighting over Dixon. Fortunately, this has not happened yet, and one hopes that everyone has grown up a little bit in the last six years. But anyone who has been going to the recent away matches knows that the atmosphere is far from that which we have become used to over the last half decade.
So, this was it. About four hundred die hards - mentally ill, if you must - all with different opinions, but drawn to this peculiar part of the Midlands by a fundamental love for their team. Whatever happened on the pitch, at least it was predetermined that there would be an atmosphere. And so the chants of "Vialli Army" and "W-A-T-F-O-R-D" filled the night air for the first time in many, many weeks.
The first thirty minutes was not pretty. Defensive errors seemed to provide the only chances for WBA, as Galli and Chamberlain (thirty-eight and thirty-seven years old respectively) appear to have hearing difficulties with age, as two cock-ups in quick succession passed without the home side taking advantage. The defensive moment of the opening encounters came from a magnificent challenge from Jamie Hand, who stormed into the area to block a shot from Dobie who was only five yards from goal. As a result of the decision to award a corner, Brown was booked for dissent, and it was a tribute to the on-loan defender's composure that not only did he survive the game, but he excelled.
After a first thirty minutes in which neither side managed to make significant moves to command the game, Nielsen's attempted acrobatics led to Gilchrist getting one in the head after an unsuccessful overhead kick. Clement had a free kick straight at the wall, but the resurgent Watford broke clear through Nielsen. The attack was swift, as a cross-field ball found Smith who engaged Cox who crossed for Nielsen who stabbed the ball just over from eight yards.
Moments later, a Glass ball found Gayle opening up in space down the left. The transfer listed 'striker' fed Tommy Smith who was homing in on goal, but the block from Gilchrist ensured that Smith's personal goal drought was not to end there.
As half time approached, superb work from Chamberlain, alert to Dobie's run, kept the score blank. The former Carlisle striker had got goal-side of Galli before the aged stopper spread himself at Dobie's feet.
Unfortunately for Watford, Robinson was booked for persistent fouling by referee Rob Harris, who despite booking only three players all night did himself no favours with either set of fans. In short, all the bookings were chronic over-reactions, enabling him to appear important.
Half-time saw the first incident of note with the WBA Stewards. Having gone to speak to Don, who as usual at The Hawthorns was consigned to the very vacant front of stand space, myself and Rob Sterry wandered back into the stand to get a drink. Within seconds, I was surrounded by the "Snatch Squad", asking if I had come from the home end into the away end. Evidently a person walking from the front to the middle of a stand, in a coat with a Watford badge on, could be confused for someone who has invaded the away end from the confines of the new East Stand. Fortunately after a brief conversation, I convinced them that I had only been visiting my friend who was confined to the front step and the matter was closed. We will come back to the "Snatch Squad" later.
The second half began with vigour from Watford. Several drilled, but inaccurate shots, were not well cleared by the home defence, as Watford kept up the pressure on the home rear guard. Within ten minutes, however, the goal arrived. Following a foul by Adam Chambers, which earned the WBA player another yellow card somewhat harshly dealt out, Glass delivered the resulting free kick into the box. Galli got a leg to the ball inside the area, but it was Brown who hammered home the lose ball from eight yards. While the goal was well deserved, it was the first WBA had conceded in seven games. The on-loan defender celebrated in style, convincing any remaining doubters that he has all the qualities that we need at the club, and shows a welcome dedication to the cause unlike so many of the limp signings that pre-season delivered.
A somewhat poor attempt at the "Knees up, Wayne Brown" ditty was soon aborted, while Rob Harris falling over was one of the best things he did all night.
On the hour, Tommy Smith was foiled by Holt after a Gilchrist error, but once more the striker will feel that perhaps he should have done better in front of goal.
As the substitution of Hand for Fisken took place, however, something a little more worrying was taking place in the stands. The "Snatch Squad" had re-appeared determined to find a sacrificial fan to feed their hunger. Unfortunately, they picked on the person everyone knew they would. After much singing between different areas of the away end, the only person who was not standing in a group, and instead standing pretty much on his own, was singled out, man handled, latterly assaulted and carried away shoulder high. Ordinarily this sort of treatment is either deserved or a serious mistake. This was plainly predictable, very well planned, and totally unwarranted.
In an age where the police appear at every game in some capacity, whether fifteen bus loads at Sunderland, or two local bobbies at Havant and Waterlooville, I find it amazing that any event attended by nineteen thousand people manages to take place without the presence of a couple of police present even to act as witnesses to proceedings. My feelings towards certain sections of the Police Force are well documented. But an abuse of Police powers at least has some form of legal redress attached. A ground full of club-employed stewards who decide to over-extend their sphere of influence appears still to be unregulated, and more certainly is still illegal.
It is the third time in four visits that the stewards have started some sort of trouble with the away fans. Back in 1996 (during the quite ludicrous 4-4 draw) the stewards kicked off a huge amount of trouble with a whole host of people (see BSaD report). Afterwards, the club denied that the "stewards" were official and claimed they were fans who had infiltrated the ranks - in full uniform! Then in 1998 (when the Hornets struggled to a 4-1 defeat), the same group of animals kicked it off at half-time against a couple of kids who had done literally nothing. And tonight, on one of the proliferation of football message boards, a WBA 'fan' states:
"Noticed our stewards ejecting fans from your end - any particular reason? Have to say they don't usually need one but thought I'd ask anyway."
This is not a co-incidence. It is a total abuse of power, and yet nothing will happen, ever!
Fortunately, the atmosphere did not diminish. Amazingly that is where the ejections ended, as those who were left carried on as before. Isn't it amazing how all things repugnant seem to appear in orange?
Unfortunately, for the away following, moments after the "Snatch Squad" had re-enacted a scene from an SAS training movie - albeit with fat men in orange rather than athletic men dressed in black carrying ropes - WBA equalised. From the left side, the substitute Ruel Fox laid the ball off to the ever-impressive Neil Clement, who crossed for Dichio to head home, after the languid striker had stolen some space from Wayne Brown.
With time running out, Helguson replaced Gayle, and instantly the Icelandic International won near-side ball to put in Smith. Moments later Heider was charging after a long ball, only for Smith to be flagged offside. But with just seven minutes to go at this point, Helguson had so little time to prove that his partnership with Smith is the best front line at the club. The statistics speak for themselves in as much as that in terms of goals per game, Smith and Heidar score more when together than when apart. But for the final few minutes, Watford's attacking looked far more aggressive than at any time in the previous 173 minutes of action. I fear that, come Saturday, this will not be reflected in the starting line-up.
A Robinson header was way off target, but the hunger was clearly there. Just six minutes to go and a defender in the opposing box! This was not the Watford who limped out of the season in January. This was not the Watford who struggled to even breathe properly against a relatively impotent Crewe only four days before.
WBA had a shout for a penalty as Dichio shot against Brown's shoulder, and in injury time Bob Taylor forced Chamberlain into a magnificent save while under pressure from Brown. In the very last minutes, though, it was Watford who had two chances to win it. Firstly, a Stephen Glass free kick was squeezed out for a corner when there were three yellow shirts just waiting to turn it in on the line. Moments later, Hyde and Fisken managed to set Smith free into space, and from the low, left wing cross, he just could not find Helguson in the box.
But solid defending from both sides at the death ensured that Watford left the Hawthorns with a point for the first time in six years.
Verdict. Much improved. But then again so was Norwich. One only hopes that we can move the atmosphere and performance swiftly onto Saturday, and then just maybe we will score for the first time at Selhurst Park for the first time since 1998! Because despite the performance being much improved, the atmosphere convinced me that all is not as desperate as it may seem. There are still a lot of people who care. There are still a lot of people who want to be a part of it. Maybe the sooner we remember about our own "fun time", the sooner things may start to take on a perspective that is less hellish.