History in the making
By Dave Lewy
History was made at Highfield Road on Saturday. Not beating Coventry: that seems a certainty given our 'double double'. What made history was that I saw Watford win away for the first time...ever. Wembley excluded, I've never seen the Golden Boys win away from the Vic: this includes 4-4 thrillers, (Leicester), 0-0s (Forest) and 5-0 humiliations (Fulham). But never three points. So Saturday was special. I'm not a regular away supporter: both the finances and logistics of being a student in Leeds dictate that. But my shocking away record includes a sizable amount of games, and was beginning to prompt thinly veiled threats from my fellow travellers about going to away games.
Given my apparent jinx and our 'patchy at best' away from, it was with a sense of trepidation that I entered Highfield Road. The lowered admission prices enticed a large number of families - an hour before kick-off it felt like we were in the Family Enclosure - it's heartening to see we're still very much a family club.
It's always interesting to observe our players during the warm up: from the strange stretching routines of Nielsen to Pennant's incredible ball skills and Hyde's isolated jogs across the pitch, it makes fascinating viewing. More bemusing is Kevin Hitchcock's habit of blasting the ball at Richard Lee from twenty yards. Pennant joined him and attempted a master-class in free-kicks: these were to be his last kicks all afternoon.
To the game: the announcement of the teams was greeted with surprise when Hand replaced Pennant. Personally, although I could guess at the reasons for this decision, I felt this was mistake: in retrospect, Hand had a fine game, and added stability and defensive commitment to our midfield. That said, it seemed strange to leave a player of Pennant's ability on the bench: a brave decision from Lewington. The inclusion of Shaw and Gordon in the home team gave cause for optimism, especially considering the roasting Macca gave Shaw last year.
There was a surreal start to the game: Hand missed a decent chance down the right side, and the mumbles about him started to emerge. McSheffrey missed a good chance, but the dominating feature was how much time and space we had on the ball. By fifteen minutes in, the players and supporters realised we had control of he game, and as we strung ten passes together at a time, the "Olés" from the away end revealed how Messrs. Hyde Vernazza and Nielsen were dictating the match.
Indeed, Hyde produced the complete midfield performance. When playing like he did on Saturday, he is unstoppable: he had McAllister in his pocket for the whole game. He tackled hard, passed brilliantly, and scored the winner. Truly stunning. A number of moments stood out; a sublime drag back and dummy that left Pead grasping at thin air; a beautiful chipped pass to release Hand worthy of Beckham; the precise finish for the goal, shooting powerfully and accurately from twenty yards; volleying clear as the last man when Coventry mounted a last minute attack. On a day when all players were committed, he was outstanding. Thank our lucky stars the Premiership teams can't get at him for a while.
Our defence has appeared brittle away form home recently: on Saturday they were untouchable. Gayle gave a towering performance: he was aerially dominant and even brought the ball out from the back, using his sumptuous left foot to great use. Worthy of his near-£1m price tag, he deserved the tongue-in-cheek 'Rio' chants from the away support.
1-0 was kind to the home side: Helguson and Robinson both had chances to extend our lead, and although Coventry hit the (top of) the bar, we were in from control. Nielsen's first touches eased the pressure of clearances as set-up counter attacks, Hand worked hard down the right and avoided the rash tackles that have become his trademark: Vernazza collected his inevitable booking, but tackled well all game and might have done better with a few long range shots. Coventry will moan about Chippo's red card but the first yellow was for chopping Robbo, and the second was nothing short of stupid. The home fans sang "1-0 to the referee" but the truth is their team were shocking all match.
The result should give the players and manager great confidence going into the end of the season. A glance at the fixtures shows we have few tougher away games than this left. Importantly, we've shown we can dominate games away from the Vic. Although Coventry were poor, we controlled a game against a (then) top six club. Credit to Lewington's bravery for dropping Pennant: he certainly is his own man. If we can produce more performances like Saturday, and instil belief in the squad, this could turn into a remarkable season.