By Matt Rowson
As gap-filling wastes-of-time go, Pro-Evolution Soccer on the PS2 is pretty reasonable. Football simulation games continue to improve beyond recognition, of course...it's surely only a matter of time before we see a version which features the background trivia of supporters inanely swapping their own versions of the same chant, only to be interrupted by occasional sorties by groups of stewards and police entering a stand mob-handed to evict someone for smoking or falling over or something.
In some aspects, however, the games already need improving. Notable in the case of Pro-Evolution Soccer is the commentary, "provided" by a bloodcurdling combination of the hitherto unheralded Chris James and expert pundit Terry Butcher. Technology still hasn't found a way to make such programmed observations timely and unirritating (although FIFA 2002 gets around this by employing Mark Lawrenson, whose commentary sounds all the more realistic for its randomness).
After the game, as we returned to the car juggling watery cups of tea which made the transition from scaldingly hot to undrinkably tepid within an impossibly narrow timescale, I was suddenly struck by what Terry's observation at this juncture would have been. As with any three-plus goal reverse, Terry's analysis would have been: "I think they lost their concentration after that third goal". As with so many things, Terry would have been wrong.
Back to the start. In terms of scene-setting, there's one overriding concept that needs to be appreciated - that being an absolute lack of any warmth whatsoever. Writing now, nearly two hours after getting home and this after a good two hours in the car, I still can't feel my feet. A previously unnoticed drawback of the aesthetically pleasing wrap-around stadium is that there's nowhere for the cold to go except to whistle, trapped, around the upper echelons.
That we were positioned here was to an extent our own fault. The away end was plenty big enough for those requiring its use to be permitted free choice of position, although the "you must have come in a taxi" chant from the three Derby fans who were singing before Watford opted out of the contest was a little harsh. Unless they have big taxis in Derby. And at any rate, if the Watford turnout was poor, the aptly deluded £22 ticket price and the possibility of a goodly number the travelling 'Orns being blessed with great foresight and opting for the Harlequin instead should be factored into calculations.
Watford named the same sixteen that had seen off Burnley last week - the first time since March 2nd that our starting eleven and subs bench have been unchanged. Standing up in the Gods we were joined shortly before the kick-off by Dave, who snarled disapproval at the reappearance of red shorts and proceeded to read his own article in the match programme for the first ten minutes of the game.
During which time Derby demonstrated that they've been studying the "Division One guide to beating Watford" that's obviously been doing the rounds and gave us a brief but energetic battering. Christie and Morris, playing either side of target-man Burton, combined and Morris was through and around Chamberlain, a goalline clearance from Doyley preserving the scoreline.
But only for a minute. Burley's corner was headed on by Riggott and Morris turned it in with his head, unmarked at the far post. Not for the first time, and without wishing to impart any blame on Marcus Gayle in particular, one of the day's steadier performers, you kind of feel that Sean Dyche's rabid, intimidating presence might have dissuaded that one. Whoever's job Morris was might have thought twice, at any rate. "Shall we help you sing a song?" asked the three Derby fans, apparently without irony.
So a goal down, before any real pattern had been established. When the semblance of a game of football began to emerge from the midfield skullduggery you kind of felt that we'd missed a trick in going behind so early, as Derby's early bluster wasn't substantiated by their first-half performance.
Micah Hyde was the first to drag the side out of self-pity, picking up the ball on the left and swatting away challenges as he strode across the pitch before picking out Ardley. Ardley fed Helguson with his back to goal some twenty-five yards out before the second significant incident of the afternoon, as Riggott ploughed through the back of the Icelandic striker. Riggott had Helguson in his pocket for most of the next seventy minutes of play, but this move probably gave him an easier time of it than many opponents have had.
The price he paid was a free-kick, well-struck by Gayle although not quite as well-struck as those of us several miles above the goal initially suspected as the ball curled over the panicking Grant and skimmed the roof of the net.
Gayle again threatened Derby's goal shortly afterwards, one of several good deliveries from Ardley finding Gayle at the near post, his textbook downward header turned away athletically by Grant.
Derby's attacks, when they came, were based largely on the pace of their two wide strikers. Morris, however, was largely subdued by Doyley in the first forty-five who covered his man reasonably well. Christie, on the other side, was most effective in drawing a couple of significant bookings. No Spotters' Badges for guessing the culprits... Robinson first, for an unnecessary and costly hack, and The Jamie Hand Booking second, for a tug as the England U21 striker threatened to escape. Both of our aggressors' contributions were restricted from then on.
The dominant character of the second two thirds of the half, however, was Jermaine Pennant... increasingly assertive and causing Barton all sorts of problems down the Watford left. He drew two bookings of his own, a despairing lunge from his marker and a crude hack from Lee in a thirty minute spell which saw him curl a shot narrowly wide, and threaten to take control of the game as Derby's defence backpedalled in his wake. Arguably his most effective thirty minutes in a Watford shirt, although he'll need to pull a few more of these if he's to expect his teammates to make runs for him with any kind of expectancy.
Gregory boldly withdrew Barton after thirty-five minutes, the vanquished fullback feigning a limp on his way down the tunnel. Replacement Adam Bolder was far less embarrassed, although to what extent this was his own doing versus Pennant growing disillusioned with his artistry not quite bearing fruit is questionable. The half closed with Helguson beating Grant to a high ball, the resultant deflection dropping the wrong side of the post from our point of view. Those don't go in on days like this.
Lucky Half-time Chocolate: Yorkie.
Reason: It's not for girls.
Level of success: Strangely effeminate.
The first half had ended with the heavy-handed eviction of a Watford fan for either falling over and breaking his chair or for smoking, depending on who you believed. In any case, they "got him on camera", as a steward helpfully explained. So that's okay, then.
This left a simmering discontent in the away stand, a mood that wasn't improved by the start to the second half. If the first forty-five minutes was akin to reading magazines in a dentist's waiting room, half-time was akin to someone taking the magazines away...
Within five minutes Glass was on for the disappointing Hand, "bringing a bit of balance to the midfield", as Dave pointed out. Glass plugged away gamely for the rest of the match, but was swimming against the tide. His first contribution, a volley from twenty-five yards that didn't trouble Grant, already had an air of resentfulness about it.
Burley broke through for Derby, and curled a shot that was neither as close as Derby's "Oooooh"s or as far away as Watford's "Aaaaah"s might have suggested. Shortly after, a Burley cross was met by centreback Elliott, in as much space as he could have wanted, whose header was too close to Chamberlain. Derby broke again, and Burton's snapshot was deflected wide off Doyley. Finally, Derby's second goal came, a far-post corner taken from Derby's left and met by Riggott whose header really ought not to have got as far as it did. Two down, to two set-piece goals.
Derby woke up, both on and off the pitch. In all honesty it's tempting to draw something of a veil over what was the most insipid thirty minutes of Watford play that I've seen this season. Terry Butcher's error, you see, would have been purely arithmetical as the Hornets resigned from the game after the second goal, not the third. Several, including Pennant, Hyde and both the strikers, vanished completely at this point, never to return. A third goal arrived, somewhat inevitably, Burton clouting home after a flowing move... and that Derby's nervous play had been allowed to grow into this illustrates the degree to which our game had collapsed.
Morris was now winning his duel with Doyley, who was being made to look particularly uncomfortable, although the winger didn't endear himself by collapsing on the turf at the merest contact. Whether excessive frailty or gamesmanship was responsible wasn't entirely clear... on the final occasion, the writhing Morris found his leg picked up at the heel by Robinson. For a moment you could see the fullback snapping his opponent's limb clean off... he resisted, and satisfied himself with treating the cramp.
Derby's fans, meanwhile, were as aggravating as overexcited toddlers, asking each player, coach, official, mascot, ballboy and steward in turn what the score was in apparent indifference to Dave's frantic gestures towards the scoreboard. "When we win promotion..." caused yet more agitation before Will pointed out that they hadn't specified which season. "If they win promotion this season I'll give them each a tenner" scowled Dave, before sparing himself a little misery and heading for the pub. "Three-nil in your Cup Final!" came the final baffling chant. Perhaps delusion is caught from the Buxton springs or something. Whatever, it's obviously not just Forest that suffer in these parts.
Foley came on for Helguson but didn't seem to get a touch in what was apparently twenty minutes. McNamee came on for Pennant (who might as well have departed twenty minutes earlier) but had to begin his handful of mazy runs deep in his own half. Glass ended the faltering resistance by clouting another long-range shot off the top of the bar.
As with Pro-Evolution Soccer, I know that I shouldn't really complain. The season so far is so much better, so much more positive than we had any right to expect... and you know, logically, that if we aren't to get automatic promotion, as seems a sensible conclusion, we'll be losing a few games between now and the end of the season.
It doesn't make the frustration of days like this any less acute though. Or the desire for improvement any less genuine.
We'd have lost by more in black shorts, of course.
It's now one in the morning. My feet are still cold.