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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 9/9/01
What we're aiming for
By Ian Grant

There were grand themes here. The introduction to this report was supposed to be based around those themes. Around the ludicrous kickoff time and those responsible for it. Gits. Around the Dons' on-going search for a stadium in Merton and resistance to Koppel's attempts to move to Milton Keynes. Git. Around irritation at the large - if, thankfully, not overwhelming - proportion of Watford fans whose interest in football is so narrow and blinkered that a threat to another club's existence is "not our problem". Gits.

But I hope that anyone reading this report, whether from Watford or Wimbledon, will know where BSaD stands on these things by now and forgive me if, in the circumstances, further reiteration seems inappropriate. Because, although there were loads of other things to discuss from a furiously entertaining match, 9th September 2001 will become part of Hornet folklore for one reason. This was the day that Robbo scored with a tackle.

It was just one of those moments. The unlikely and thoroughly deserving winner of the first BSaD "Player of the Month" award of this new era, Paul Robinson couldn't have chosen a better time to score a very rare goal. But if he'd done it by normal means, perhaps by shooting from distance or by arriving to meet a cross with a header, it wouldn't quite have captured the essence of his recent performances. Instead, he scored by defending. Except that, turning the "attack is the best form of defence" maxim on its head, Robbo was defending eight yards from the opposition goal, thundering into a tackle and sending the ball rebounding into the net like a well-aimed shot. Bloody marvellous.

And there were many marvellous things here, even if the most flamboyant had to wait until the nonsensical dismissal of the Wimbledon keeper on the verge of half-time. Until then, we were shrugging off a foggy lethargy, beginning to build upon the performances of certain key players. After that, we were rampant and raging, no trace of the sterility that has blighted previous performances. That we were doing it against ten men is a cautionary note for the future, yet it does nothing to dull the shining brilliance of some of last night's football. At last, we saw and recognised what we're aiming for.

It did take a while, though. Badgered by the Wimbledon midfield, we began by going sideways and were swiftly forced into outright retreat, leaving the ball behind in our haste. In the opening ten minutes, before the game had settled into any kind of pattern, the visitors were notably sharper and quicker, and might've taken an early lead. While Espen Baardsen was able to watch Cooper's long range drive bounce wide, he was less comfortable as McAnuff's run on the right wing brought him into the penalty area and grateful that the resulting shot went straight at him. A minute later, a neat interchange of passes from a short corner provided Cooper with a sight of goal, albeit from a tight angle, and he dragged the ball wide of the target.

So far, so familiar. We lacked composure in defence, and had failed to gain any kind of foothold in midfield. A three-nil win was looking like a rather remote possibility. Consequently, the remainder of the half was spent attempting to...well, if not regain the initiative, then at least wrest it from Wimbledon's grasp and throw it into next door's garden.

In itself, that was a worthwhile challenge. Thus far, the various combinations of midfielders have shown that they can pass the ball in endless pretty patterns, but have not yet demonstrated a great deal else. Here, Micah Hyde and Gary Fisken, looking a little nervous on his full debut, needed to be destructive before they could be creative. While attention will rightly be focused on the second half performance, it would be unfair to ignore the fact that, when it was called upon, this Watford midfield had some fight about it. Indeed, while Hyde hurtled about in pursuit of everything and everyone, Fisken visibly grew in stature as time went on, providing a strong, mature influence in the midst of some fairly frantic exchanges.

With the exception of occasional attacking bursts from Nordin Wooter and Tommy Smith, it wasn't greatly attractive, then. But, in that respect, it was instructive and pleasing. It's good to know that this side can do something other than attractive. And we weren't so very far away from scoring either, that set piece thing again as Ramon Vega glanced on Wooter's free kick and Marcus Gayle's out-stretched leg made no contact at the far post. Connolly, roundly abused throughout, shot at Baardsen; Fisken demonstrated his growing confidence with a couple of thumping and inaccurate drives from distance, and Neil Cox followed his example. Tommy Smith twisted and turned and twisted again to find a way from the left wing into the penalty area, then hit his eventual shot at Heald.

So, as a plane trailed an anti-Koppel banner overhead, a goalless first half seemed likely. But the last ten minutes were the most dramatic, eventually and irreversibly turning the game in our favour. The first of three pivotal moments was perhaps forgotten in the subsequent mayhem, yet was still hugely significant. Given a perfect opportunity by poor marking at Ardley's free kick, Roberts stood as the ball brushed across his eyebrows and bounced away for a goal kick. Instantly, he knew he should've buried it.

Shortly afterwards, a long ball over Gayle's head skidded towards the Wimbledon penalty area. In the stands, people checked their watches, inflated black balloons, headed for the front of the refreshment queue. Back on the pitch, Heald advanced to the side of his area to collect, crossed the white line in the process, and dropped the ball too late. This, apparently, was a sufficiently heinous crime to warrant dismissal from the field of play, despite there being defenders in attendance, no serious challenge from a Watford player, and no great element of pre-meditation. The decision was made all the more laughable by Mr Pike's refusal to use his cards again - having harshly punished such a minor offence, he showed extreme leniency in dealing with a series of frustrated, crude hacks from Dons defenders during the second half. Git.

The third pivotal moment arrived in the dying seconds of injury time. Really, it was a superb goal, the product of pacy, precise, potent attacking. Nordin Wooter scored it...but he started it too, crunching into a tackle in his own half and winning possession. From there, Fisken delivered a vast, sweeping pass that summed up his hugely impressive contribution and landed at Smith's feet on the left. The young striker held things up for long enough to allow Wooter to arrive and finish the move he'd started, shuffling the ball neatly past Feuer. Fabulous.

Judging by the volume of black balloons released as the half-time whistle went, the Dons fans had apparently been constructing the world's first inflatable stand during this time. And, while the chants were drowned out by the PA, the point was clear enough. If the attempted joint demonstration fell short of our ultimate hopes, the leaflets being waved in the Rookery were at least a sign that there is genuine support and understanding among those Watford fans who don't regard shows of goodwill towards other clubs to be a betrayal of loyalty. To any Wimbledon fans reading this...good luck, friends.

As sweeping rain gave way to a glorious sunset over the Rous Stand, the Wimbledon players waited in clusters for their opponents to return to the pitch. And they were promptly blown away. Within a minute, Stephen Glass' superb cross from the left caused chaos at the far post and required emergency action from the visitors' defence. Having failed to impress during pre-season, Glass showed his quality here, delivering fabulous, tantalising balls into the box as a quieter reflection of Wooter's trickery on the other wing. The resulting corner was cleared to the ubiquitous Hyde, who smacked a half-volley at Feuer from twenty yards.

We didn't have to wait long. Two minutes later, Neil Cox - who is surely increasing in value by the minute, even if he is still on the transfer-list - drifted a sublime pass down the right wing, floating a couple of inches over Kimble's head and into the path of Wooter. This time, the Dutchman's game was all about end product, the fancy skills just a means to an end, and he floated a cross onto Gayle's head. Having climbed way above his marker, he couldn't miss.

Finally, we were attacking with width, fluency, economy. No over-elaboration here, no sense of frustration. When we wanted to keep the ball, we kept the ball; when we wanted to go forward, we pierced the Wimbledon rearguard with breathtaking ease. Granted, we were playing against ten men and against a defence depleted by injury. We've failed to do this against worse sides, though. Here, there was a real depth to our play. Plenty of skill and poise, of course...but a physical presence too, and vision, and width, and speed. So much of this came from the superb midfield pairing, dominating the game and allowing others to grab headlines.

After Connolly's free kick had done nothing to threaten Baardsen, Robbo's moment of glory. Again, it was Glass who caused the initial problems, cutting through a crowd of defenders to pull the ball back into the box. A defender got his foot in the way, sending it bobbling back towards a colleague...who, eight yards from goal, was promptly on the receiving end of a clattering Robinson challenge. And everyone watched as the ball rebounded away, skipping happily across Feuer's goal, nudging the post and rolling over the line. Just as with Page and Williams' assault on Matteo to set up Mooney's goal at Anfield, it wasn't a thing of beauty...but it spoke volumes about the level of commitment.

As if to restore a sense of reality to proceedings, to remind us that we were still watching Watford, we promptly went to sleep. Connolly went on a mazy run down the left, prodded the ball across to Cooper and, after side-stepping a challenge, he clipped his shot past Baardsen and against the foot of the post. Make no mistake, and don't be completely distracted by the wonderful antics at the other end...the clean sheet still had a few grubby bits. Within two minutes, Cooper was again on the end of a pass from Connolly, shooting wide while falling from twelve yards. Briefly, we'd lost our concentration.

We did get it back, fortunately. Now, with a pleasantly large margin of victory, the long spells of patient passing were a joy to watch. But we continued to punctuate the midfield ball-keeping with sudden, unannounced changes of pace, and Fisken was unfortunate to fall foul of a marginal offside decision as he sprinted forward and crowned his mighty debut with a cool finish. Cox headed over from a Wooter free kick too. By now, the winger was in extraordinary form, repeatedly shredding Kimble and doing the same to any reinforcements that were summoned to block his path. Simply fantastic entertainment. More than that, however, because there was no lapse into familiar bad habits - each pass, each cross, each trick was timed to perfection.

It could've been more. Only Feuer's stretching, one-handed save prevented Tommy Smith from adding his name to the list of scorers, beating challenges inside the box and curling a shot towards the far corner. On this occasion, the ball fell to Glass, whose blasted cross was intercepted by a sliding defender before it fell to the lurking Wooter. The red card might've been the catalyst for all this...but, by now, the numbers could've been reversed and you'd wouldn't have imagined that it'd make any difference. Too good. To emphasise, Heidar Helguson, newly arrived, smacked an extraordinary, improvised (and, yes, possibly mis-directed) volley into the side netting from deep on the left wing.

That was about it. That was more than enough, though. Smith shot weakly at Feuer, Roberts walloped a drive into Baardsen's midriff. We were happy. This was bloody great. And, for the first time, I get to end a match report with more than bland platitudes.

For me, there was something below the surface last night. Sure, there was an ecstatic, exuberant sense of adventure in so much of what we did after those three pivotal moments, as if The Robbo Effect had rubbed off on the whole team. But, crucially, this was a side with an engine room, with a driving energy at its heart. In that respect, the first half was perhaps just as telling as the second and may be more significant. That's what we've really lacked.

Very, very exciting.