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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/11/02, 3pm
Clearing the air
By Ian Grant

It was a truly hellish morning. Just ghastly. Sometimes, life throws stuff at you until you can do nothing but topple, like you've been reincarnated as a coconut on the shy at a school fair. Sometimes, you want to sit down right where you are, put your head between your knees and wait for the world to return to some kind of sanity. Or stand, open your face to the metaphorical storm and howl at the elements, like King Lear on the heath.

Sometimes, you really need football.

It's all right now. That's got nothing to do with this vital win, really...but the perspective gained from sitting and standing and shouting and singing and applauding and jumping about for two hours certainly helps to dispel stress and gloom. That's true in a wider context too - this season, the Hornets have responded so magnificently to the need to shift the black clouds hanging over the football club, and this was no exception.

You could pick holes, as always. For much of the game, the defence was less an accident waiting to happen than a catastrophe in progress - the individual performances were generally sound, but the unit was a haphazardly-assembled flat-pack - and various other parts only functioned in fits and starts too. Really, though, you can't escape the fact that, for a side without a win in four games, this was an extraordinarily eager, aggressive and whole-hearted performance.

Just as we haven't deserved to lose all of our last three, so we were somewhat fortunate to win here - the chances fell evenly and were more numerous and more clear-cut than the scoreline suggests. Our luck returned, in other words...but the ability to capitalise on such things has characterised the campaign. The results balance out, but the attitude is still spot on. Wherever we end up in May, we've given so much more to this season and we'll regret so much less.

For every negative, there was a positive. A fine, assertive performance from Jamie Hand in midfield, perhaps his most complete slightly-less-than-ninety-minutes for the Hornets. The return of Tommy Smith, full of energy and ideas, causing all kinds of problems. The arrival of Jermaine Pennant after two disappointing performances, providing end product of a far higher quality from a roaming, prowling position behind the strikers. The continued excellence of Lloyd Doyley - one moment of inexperience eclipsed by dozens more of typical old-head-on-young-shoulders assurance. And the sheer heroism of Neil Cox, captaining the side and filling the gaps in the defence with total, bloody-minded determination. It's a team, this...but it needs individuals to lift it sometimes.

The win is crucial, obviously. It's reassuring, above all - it's only natural to begin to doubt when the results start to go against you, and confidence is so important. In the opening stages, a certain tension was evident - less noise in the stands, louder groans and complaints when passes went astray - and, as at the start of the season, you became aware of how easily it could all go wrong. Above all, you knew that we needed to score the first goal.

We did, eventually. But not before a whole skipload of chances in a game that briefly threatened to be dour and muddy, then realised that neither defence was secure enough for that. Pick a scoreline and I'll tell you how it might've happened. Anything except nil-nil, that is.

Although Jamie Hand dragged an early shot well wide, it all began after thirteen minutes. Then, a lovely pass from Jermaine Pennant sent Tommy Smith away, twisting and jinking with a crowd of defenders in front of him and finally playing a simple pass to Micah Hyde. The midfielder, more prominent inside the penalty area than recently, cut inside and was unlucky to fire his shot against a defender's arse from fifteen yards. Two minutes later, Ian Moore managed to sneak ahead of Neil Cox as a ball down the right wing was flicked on and struck a half-volley at Alec Chamberlain's near post. Another couple of minutes, and Alan Moore smashed a low cross through the six yard box and beyond a stretching striker. The other end, and Neal Ardley's cross cleared Heidar Helguson's leap and Jermaine Pennant, somewhat surprised, headed the ball into the ground when he probably should've scored. A few seconds more, and Lloyd Doyley's ill-advised attempt to beat Alan Moore on halfway resulted in another cross whistling through the danger area....

Phew. Now, what was I feeling so stressed about?

It carried on, and you could only try to keep up...and hope that the opening goal would fall our way. McGregor should've crushed those hopes after twenty-five minutes, glancing a free header across goal and wide from a corner. To sum the game up, Heidar Helguson came just as close with an almost identical effort five minutes afterwards. It was that kind of afternoon - little to separate the sides and, it often seemed, little to prevent them from scoring too.

A ragged, chaotic match, the picture of perfect First Division fare only needed a few random interventions by the referee to be complete. Cue Mr Olivier. With thirty-two minutes gone, Heidar Helguson beat Gnohere in the contest for a lofted ball from the Watford half. As it dropped, Gnohere lost his feet first, leaving Helguson with nobody but Beresford to beat...except that he also tumbled over, the sequence of events completed by the referee's whistle. And, after much messing about, a yellow card for Helguson, to fury from the stands.

Thing is, it wasn't a foul. There was no intent, just a combination of collision, tangling and slipping that resulted in both players hitting the deck. Sadly, while the laws might leave room for compromise, professional football doesn't - if it's not a foul, it's a dive and a yellow card; if it's not a dive, it's a foul and a red card. On this occasion, it was neither. It left Heidar Helguson bursting with rage, something not greatly helped by the referee's repetition of the dive-or-foul decision when the striker was clearly hacked down a few minutes later. For a while, it was hard to believe that he'd complete the game.

Fortunately, it didn't happen that way. Instead, after Micah Hyde had shot at Beresford at the end of an elegant run from the left wing, Heidar Helguson scored that all-important opener. It was extremely timely, and it was a lovely goal too. A quick free kick found Jermaine Pennant lurking on the left, in space near the corner flag. He turned and, at last, delivered - a perfect cross into a penalty area full of yellow shirts, leaving Helguson, who'd lost his marker with a run to the near-post, with the task of directing a header into the bottom corner. A simple combination, a joyous result.

In truth, we rather complicated things after that point. In the second half, attacking the Vic Road end, we had enough early chances to put the game beyond Burnley's reach. Indeed, Marcus Gayle powered a header over from Neal Ardley's free kick after just two minutes, and a second goal so soon after the re-start would surely have sealed the result.

On the plus side, however, we were producing some lovely football in brief spells of pressure. One move, started by a Tommy Smith interception and continued by good work from Jermaine Pennant, concluded with Micah Hyde's shot being blocked and the same player's header drifting wide from Paul Robinson's subsequent cross. Another ended with the linesman's flag curtailing Heidar Helguson's celebrations after he'd tucked the ball home from close range. Ray Lewington had promised a greater emphasis on attacking...and we're starting to realise that he's a man of his word.

Of course, Burnley had opportunities too. Alan Moore thumped a drive narrowly wide from twenty-two yards, Alec Chamberlain appearing more confident of its trajectory than I was. Then substitute Papadopoulos, who arrived with Taylor to add physical presence to the previously rather wishy-washy Burnley attack, skied an attempt on the turn inside the box. We were already starting to regret those missed chances....

And we came very, very close to regretting them far more. With our defence pulled out of shape, West managed to reach the by-line on the right, driving a low cross into the heart of the penalty area. There, Taylor was unmarked, sweeping a shot goalwards from ten yards. Really, he should've scored...but, even though the shot went straight at Alec Chamberlain, he still nearly did so. As the ball veered up from the goalkeeper's hands, perhaps (we'll be kind) courtesy of an unfortunate bounce, it miraculously found the chest of Neil Cox, standing on the goalline. Then, total panic. With the ball dropping towards his feet, Cox saw Burnley strikers descending upon him...and somehow, risking an own goal that would've been replayed for centuries, he hooked it over his own crossbar. A remarkable - and utterly bonkers - moment. Three minutes later, the captain's perfectly-timed tackle to prevent Papadopoulos from running clear sealed the "man of the match" award, albeit in more conventional fashion.

The Burnley equaliser appeared inevitable. But this Watford team doesn't do inevitable. Instead, Tommy Smith led a series of attacks, our most penetrating of the afternoon. He might've scored after twenty minutes, at the end of another excellent move - Paul Robinson's pass down the left, Smith chesting the ball across to Jermaine Pennant, receiving a return pass and curling a shot narrowly beyond the far corner. And he might've won a penalty too - the foul by Gnohere to prevent him escaping with a view of goal seemed clear enough from the other end of the pitch.

His reward came, though. And while the dart in front of McGregor to collect a long ball from the right was characteristic, the strength to hold the defender off as Beresford advanced was surprising. Holding his ground, Tommy Smith waited for his moment...and it never came, as McGregor's attempts to retrieve the situation finally ended in desperation, hauling the striker down from behind. Even Mr Olivier couldn't ignore that. McGregor departed for an early bath, while Watford fans held a sweepstake to decide the next penalty-taker and Him Upstairs flipped a coin to decide the destiny of the spot-kick. The coin fell our way - Tommy Smith stepped up, smacked the ball down the middle, and we were coasting.

Coasting a little too much, as it happened. For we relaxed quickly and lost our concentration, allowing Burnley to pull themselves back into a game that, admittedly, they shouldn't have been losing by two goals in the first place. Really, they ought to be kicking themselves - in particular, Papadopoulos missed an extraordinary chance shortly after the penalty, finding the ball at his feet in inexplicable acres of space in front of goal, turning to shoot rather hastily and dragging his effort past the post.

We were contributing generously to our own near-downfall, and a clean sheet would've flattered us considerably...although it would've meant that Neil Cox didn't need to buy a round for a while. After half an hour, and as we defended with considerably less assurance than you'd expect from a side with a comfortable lead and an extra player, Alec Chamberlain came out to compete for a cross and failed to win it. Papadopoulos' header looped towards goal...and Neil Cox was again back to clear from the line. Unfortunately, he could do nothing except head the ball out into the six yard box, and Taylor was the first to react, diving in to score from four yards.

Thankfully, we put a stop to it there. The Burnley comeback stuttered and eventually came to a halt, even if the announcement that there would be five minutes of injury time did little to calm the nerves. We held on. Granted, we shouldn't have had to hold on...but we held on, at least. Just about.

A scrappy, random win in a scrappy, random game, then. But it doesn't matter. We needed it, I needed it...and it sent me home with a clear, refreshed head. The First Division is a ludicrous league in so many ways - such pretension and such ambition, with so little coherence or consistency to back it all up - but, on days like this, you have to love it.

A pretty daft game of football, all in all. Splendid.