The End Of The Season (Part Two)
By Dave Messenger
From an unseasonably cold Valley Parade to a sunny Vicarage Road in a matter of forty-eight hours, the other side of the end of season coin was very much in evidence before the kick-off. On paper, the fixture was just as meaningless as the encounter at Bradford. However, Watford's end of season run-in does have a little more meaning than a glance at the league table would have you believe. Our current position doesn't do justice to the effort this team has put into the season and three home games in the last four allow Watford the chance to rectify that. Furthermore, there are the ghosts of Villa Park that need exorcising. A good Watford win would do much to restore the feel-good factor that's prevailed for much of this campaign.
Having rested several players at Bradford, Ray Lewington opted to make ten changes to the team. It wasn't only familiar faces returning to duty though, as there was a debut for Jerel Ifil in defence and a few untried substitutes in Jack Smith, Sam Swonnell and Scott Fitzgerald. The changes certainly gave Watford fans something to talk about before the action got underway, as did the Derby line-up which included such famous names as Ravanelli, Burley and Kinkladze. The one opponent Watford fans would have liked to have seen was one Thomas J Mooney, now with his third temporary employers of the season, but the bench was the best that the former Watford hero could manage.
Ray Lewington's gone on record as saying that a top ten finish would be deserved and his players certainly seem to feel that way too, judging by the way they got into their opponents right from the start. The first real chance fell to the soon-to-depart Stephen Glass, who saw his shot parried by former CYHSYF FC keeper Lee Grant in the Derby goal after some good work from Jamie Hand. Shortly afterwards, Jason Norville tested Grant from just outside the box as Watford took a grip on the game. For Derby's part, 'a series of misplaced passes' is the well-worn footballing cliché that best sums up their offerings.
On seventeen minutes, Watford took the lead. Paolo Vernazza sent Glass clear on the left, his searching cross found Michael Chopra who smashed a quite wonderful, Shearer-esque volley past the despairing Grant. Playing at Vicarage Road for the first and last time, the talented young Geordie showed the home faithful a taste of his talents, just as the away fans had seen at Burnley. This finish trumped those sublime efforts at Turf Moor and he returns to Newcastle with five goals from his five games, a good return in anybody's book. The goal was no less than Watford deserved for an enterprising early period and now boosted by the lead, they took a grip of the game.
It was almost two on twenty-three minutes, as Glass' shot was parried and the otherwise woeful Warren Barton did well to block Chopra's stab at the rebound. Norville's pace unsettled the visiting defence throughout the afternoon and the young striker was hauled down while on the run more than once. One such foul led to a free kick, which Glass curled just wide. At the other end, the much maligned Fabrizio Ravanelli was the only Derby player to turn up and he twice went close to equalising. Firstly, he saw a dipping header strike the bar; a minute later, he forced a fine diving save from Richard Lee. The young keeper gave another mature performance in goal, suggesting that Alec Chamberlain may well have some stiff competition for his place when battle is resumed in August. Those two chances apart, Watford's defence, superbly marshalled by captain for the day and "Player of the Season" apparent Marcus Gayle, kept the Italian veteran and his less effective teammates at bay.
Watford ended the half in the ascendancy. Hand intercepted yet another loose Derby pass and moved into space despite being pulled back. His eventual chipped effort was comfortably fielded by Grant, much to our young midfielder's annoyance. When he does net his first goal for the club, I hope I'm there to see him 'go off pop' as he surely will do when he celebrates it. This was easily his most impressive game so far and there is much to suggest that with a little more experience, he could become a real asset to the club. The last chance of the half fell to Chopra, who curled the ball over the bar having been set clear by Norville.
Lucky Half-Time Hilarity: Irregular contributor to BsaD, Rupert Licht, getting his flash jeans muddy doing 'dizzy kicks' on the pitch.
Reason: Laughing at Rupert is a regular, not to mention popular, pastime.
Level of Success: Somehow, he scored four. His finishing was not quite in Chopra's league, mind.
At half time, the Rams introduced Mooney to a generous ovation from the home fans. It was good to hear the vast majority treating the Watford legend to the welcome he still richly deserves. Despite Tommy's arrival, the second half saw Watford pick up where they had left off. Neal Ardley had a volley blocked and Chopra should have buried a header from a delightful cross from Mooney's replacement as Terrace Cult Hero, Paul Robinson, now back on form after a quiet spell by his standards. From an Ardley corner, Adam Bolder almost scored a contender for own goal of the season as his attempted clearance cannoned off the post. Watford continued to press and only a baffling offside decision denied Glass a goal. Having been gifted the ball by an abysmal Derby free kick, the Scot finished neatly only to be denied by the linesman's flag.
Derby were living a charmed life, but while the wily Ravanelli was around they always had a chance of an equaliser and he came close with a dipping shot on sixty-one minutes. Derby made a further pair of substitutions to a disinterested murmur from the away end as their team, Ravanelli apart, simply faded from view. Ardley went close after being set up by a good move involving Doyley and Vernazza, while Norville's display of hard running almost got its deserved reward as he tested Grant again with a rising drive as Watford searched for the killer blow.
Ravanelli might have done better with Derby's last real chance on seventy-seven minutes as he blasted straight at Lee with Mooney better placed but as the game drew on, Watford looked stronger and far more likely to score. Ifil, quietly impressive throughout his debut, sent a through ball to Norville whose shot was always rising. Then Chopra slid in at the far post and very nearly connected with a skidding Glass cross. It was to be the last contribution from both, as they made way for McNamee and Fitzgerald.
With six minutes left, Watford finally got the long overdue second goal. Fitzgerald showed a Helguson-esque appetite for a challenge in winning the ball from Mills, with whom he'd already tangled once. The ball broke to McNamee, who out-paced Jackson and sent over an inch perfect pass for the onrushing Ardley, who despatched the second from the edge of the six yard box. A deserved goal for player as well as team, this was a just reward after another good display of wing play from the former Wimbledon man. Game over, and just time for Watford to introduce their third debutant, Sam Swonnell, who showed some neat touches as well as adding to Mills' woe by subjecting him to another crunching tackle, just as Fitzgerald had done in the build up to the goal. Mills summed up Derby's day rather nicely as he lay in a heap and prayed for the final whistle.
In all, this was as pleasing a display as you could wish to see from a fixture like this. While the opposition, Ravanelli apart, floundered badly, Watford played with gusto, composure and no little skill and could easily have won by more. The smiles on the faces of the punters as they left the ground spoke volumes. This was a day to enjoy, rather than endure. There were good performances throughout the team and while the remaining opponents this season still have something to play for, it's good to see the team is still fighting to achieve a final standing that's in keeping with this enjoyable season.