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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 02/04/03, 3.00pm
What might've been
By Matt Rowson

Since Mick McCarthy notoriously advised David Connolly that he had "nothing left to prove at that level" after less than twenty league starts with the Hornets, the world's most famous Barnsley-born Irishman has not ranked high on many Watford fans' Christmas Card lists.

But on Monday February 17th, and albeit inadvertently, he did us one big favour by pulling us out of the F.A. Cup Quarter-Final draw at home to Burnley. Whilst it would be unfair and inaccurate to assume that home advantage was the only deciding factor in our victory, it certainly helped big time.

In the week prior to the Quarter-Final, Ray Lewington opted to rest a number of senior players for our league game with Preston North End, a move which contributed to us losing to as feeble an opposition as we've faced all season. The decision was a contentious one which provoked much debate at the time. Was the possibility of cup progression worth perhaps writing off our play-off chances for? (And lest we forget, a win over Preston would have taken us to within five points of the play-off places).

The rights and wrongs of that decision are academic now, and in all honesty events since neither justify nor condemn it. Both our League status and Cup dreams have their roots far deeper than one Tuesday night at Vicarage Road.

But we don't have to look very far for a glimpse of how tortuous our season might have become had we not beaten Burnley on March 9th. The Clarets' league form since the Quarter Final has been every bit as miserable as our own...with the crucial distinction that they don't have travel arrangements to Villa Park, collections to fund 4,200 appropriately coloured balloons and daydreams of UEFA Cup ties with Neftchi Baku (shit, looking forward to that preview...) to distract or (arguably) excuse them.

The knife has been turned in the wound with the offloading of chief entertainer Glen Little to play-off chasing Reading on loan, ostensibly to save 100,000 on his wages for the rest of the season. Assurances that this is a temporary measure are being met with a scepticism that is probably healthy - it's hard to see him coming back if the Royals make it to the Premiership. With Robbie Blake also rumoured to have been close to joining Wigan on a similar basis, players and fans alike have gloomily written off the season with some particularly lacklustre displays contributing to the recent poor run. Stan Ternent, as one might expect, is not impressed and having conceded that he is "getting nothing from the players", his future in east Lancashire looks far from certain.

Goalkeeper Marlon Beresford has particularly suffered in this recent run and his performances have looked very nervous of late. Greek Nik Michopoulos is still seen very much as the number two though.

Dean West and Graham Branch should be in the full-back positions, but there's some uncertainty in the centre of defence. Ian Cox, who gave away the Stephen Glass free-kick at Vicarage Road, has an achilles injury and in any case has been in patchy form. Captain Steve Davis, it is suggested, was brought back too early from injury to feature in the Semi-Final and has been uncharacteristically error-prone since. Drissa Diallo has been flawless since his arrival in January but was injured in a collision with a team-mate during Burnley's last game against Bradford and may not make it. Incidentally, a highlight of watching the Cup tie replayed on video was Diallo being spread all over the advertising hoardings at the foot of the Rookery by Heidar Helguson, and the microphone being perfectly positioned to hear the Icelandic loony disparagingly tell his adversary to "GET UP....". Arthur Gnohere is another possibility, albeit he has put on pounds and dropped in standards since last season - he serves a suspension after Saturday, having been sent off in the Bradford game. Finally Mark McGregor, sent off at Vicarage Road earlier in the season, could come in from the bench if injuries are an issue.

Stan Ternent's biggest problems are in midfield, where injuries and loans conspire to reduce his options to virtually nil. Alan Moore has a hamstring injury and is out for the season, Paul Cook also will miss the rest of the campaign. Lee Briscoe also got a knock against Bradford and is doubtful, whilst in addition to Little, long-time fringe player Brad Maylett is impressing but unrecallable for a month at Swansea.

This leaves Paul Weller, particularly lackadaisical of late, and the ballplaying but uncompetitive Tony Grant as the only definite starters, although Steve Davis and Robbie Blake could both be played out of position in midfield if required.

Up front, Gareth Taylor continues to be a focal point - he recently returned from a two match ban resultant from too many bookings. Ian Moore outstripped his manager's earlier wittering by referring to how the Cup tie "left a bad taste in the mouth" in a website interview. The Clarets "should have been in the Semi-Final", apparently. Such a bugger when you get outplayed and outfought, isn't it? Should be banned, really. Might have helped if he hadn't had a stinker, mind. In addition to Blake, eternal substitute Dimitri Papadopoulos could feature on the back of a hat-trick for Greece's Under-21s in the week.

Burnley is never a favourite away destination at the best of times, but with an away game during the week, some abominable recent performances to look back on and some game or other next weekend to look forward to, not to mention the customary warm welcome from Lancashire's missing link, it'll be a select few making the journey to Lancashire where a rare win would secure our Division One status.

Leaving us free to concentrate on the Cup.

Tee hee.