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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 14/09/02, 3pm
Nottingham Forest
Miserable and whiney
By Matt Rowson

Oh boy, did we ever need this...

There's a proverb that suits here, but I can't quite remember it. Something to do with unsought guests, or something. Anyway, the point is this victory was all the sweeter for having seemed so utterly improbable as little as two and a half hours before kick-off. Portents for the game were discussed with darkened glances (that sunk still deeper on reflection of the week's events) in the splendid and increasingly traditional Larwood and Voce pub on the corner of Trent Bridge. Here we had arranged to meet Simon, a Forest fan to whom we were ultimately indebted for two reasons.

Firstly, Simon's religiously sported Forest tracksuit and club shop carrier bags prohibited his bluffing his way into the designated "Watford Bar". As such, we sat at benches outside to the sideshow of the Leicester-supporting bouncer grinningly directing red-shirted clients to the already-crowded Forest Bar whilst the Watford Bar remained comparatively empty.

Secondly, and more significantly, we owed to Simon the fact that we saw the game at all. Had it not been for the pre-arranged rendez-vous, our arrival in Nottingham would no doubt have been more casually timed... in which case we, like an estimated four hundred Watford fans, would have spent lunchtime, the afternoon and early evening stationary on the M1 near Leicester Forest East, where police spent the day trying to coax an attempted suicide off the motorway bridge. This development contributed to both the emptiness of Watford's Bar and the perplexed expression on the face of the bar manager who had expected the same packed house as last season.

News of the hold-up and the apparent decisiveness of the delay reached us outside the pub and only added to the air of resignation. No left-back, probably only one striker and now no supporters either. We hadn't scored away from home in three attempts, let alone picked up any points; our opponents meanwhile had only dropped two points and were looking increasingly convincing at the City Ground.

Simon grinned wryly at this point in the discussion. "Ah, but that's just the beauty of football you see. You say all these things and they're true, but it would be just typical if Watford pulled a result out the bag now".

We left for the ground, stopping just long enough for Simon to half-heartedly challenge the BSaD Preview's assessment of the City Ground clientele as "miserable and whiney" ("It's not always that bad").

Despite Simon's cautionary observations, the odds of 80-1 on a 5-0 Forest win extending our unenviable away sequence proved too tempting. As soon as we made our way into the seats and saw the players warming up, however, the mood brightened considerably as both Danny Webber and, less anticipated still, Heidar Helguson were amongst the party.

The opening twenty minutes to the game were extremely pleasing and free-flowing. Whilst Watford had no more than fifty percent of the play, Webber's astonishingly intelligent and relentless movement coupled with Smith's willingness meant that we had both a constant outlet and not inconsiderable threat up front. Indeed, our first two attempts at goal were both fashioned by the on-loan striker for Neal Ardley...the first a long-range effort that screwed wide, the second a howling volley from the edge of the area from Webber's left wing cross that narrowly bypassed Ward's left-hand post. You get the feeling that when Ardley eventually scores for the Hornets, it won't be a five-yard tap in.

At the other end, greatest source of concern at the outset was Stephen Glass at left-back. With Micah Hyde nominally on the left of midfield but constantly wandering into the centre, Mathieu Louis-Jean and the impressive German youngster Eugen Bopp doubled-up frequently on the out-of-position Scotsman. His previous outings in a defensive role had not been encouraging...but on this occasion he was quite a revelation. On a couple of occasions Forest attacks bore fruit down the right due to sheer weight of numbers, but by and large Glass was exemplary, coupling a hitherto unsuspected level of aggression with a willingness to carry the ball forwards. Glass crowned his first-half performance by swooping across the backline to cover his centrebacks, robbing a surprised David Johnson in the process. This was perhaps his best ninety minutes in a Watford shirt.

Despite which, Forest's share of play grew as the half wore on with the Hornets riding their luck on a couple of occasions. Much of their attacking play involved switching play from flank to flank with fullbacks in forward positions almost glued to the touchline, stretching the Watford defence. After one such move, David Prutton's neat near-post ball was met by Lester, who had slightly too much weight on his flicked header which cleared the bar. A narrower squeak came when Scimeca's cross from the right found Bopp attacking the far post. The German somehow managed to steer the ball around the post from no more than two yards out, claiming a corner to hide his embarrassment.

That Watford's goal remained unbreached during this period was thanks in no small part to the strikers whose motion and threat, buzzing around up front like, well, Hornets for want of a better description, prevented Forest from having the confidence to really commit numbers forward. On one break from the back, Nielsen's harrying challenge deprived Walker of the time he wanted, releasing Smith down the right. His accurate cross was met perfectly by Webber, heading the ball low towards the bottom corner... until Ward got down and pushed it round the post for a corner.

Forest had the better chances though, and although we defended well on the whole the chances were not all of the home side's creation... Dyche, on one memorable occasion, made the same elementary mistake that defines any attempt I ever make at playing football and took his eye off the ball as he attempted to trap it, let it roll under his boot and Bopp was away down the right. This move came to nothing, but the margin of error continued to narrow... Nielsen was able to clear comfortably off the line after Jess's prodded shot beat Chamberlain, then Forest had a goal disallowed as Michael Dawson charged the Watford keeper.

Instead, it was the Hornets that took the lead. Webber, somewhat inevitably, created the opening, winning a foul just to the left of the penalty-area following a challenge from Louis-Jean.

It should be pointed out at this juncture that our view of this particular incident was not ideal... quite low down behind the opposite goal. However, the only interpretation that could be offered from our standpoint was that Webber was quite absolutely taken out by a challenge that really should have earned a booking. This interpretation was, it transpired, wholly echoed by both Sky and 3CR but did not appear to win favour around the City Ground. Grumbling mutated quickly into apoplexy in the home stands, as Ardley's free kick was met by Dyche, who was perhaps unlucky to see his header come back off the post...only for the rebound to fall conveniently for Cox to finish with a highly cathartic wallop.

This incident changed not just the scoreline, but the whole pattern of the game and path that the afternoon was taking. For all that Watford had the lead and had made chances, Forest had been the better side in a decent first half from both teams and had the game continued in the same vein they would have stood a better than even chance of retrieving it.

Instead, the Forest crowd reacted to this one moment of controversy (for referee Webster had scarcely had a call to make prior to the free kick that made the goal) by allowing the air of indignation that always seems to permeate the City Ground to fully take control. Webster went off at half-time to howls of derision, a theme that was to dominate the rest of the game. At Norwich, Watford reacted badly to an unmerited piece of bad luck. Forest took that and raised it plenty.

The start of the second half saw a more urgent attempt by the home side to break through, and for a while the unfussy clearances of Cox and Dyche became a dominant feature. We were still a threat on the break, however, with Webber's ability to swing his body one way as he turns the ball another buying him space, and the team a breather, on a number of occasions. When midfielder Scimeca collided with a colleague and had to be stretchered off, he was replaced with a third striker, the popular and bullish Marlon Harewood, whose penchant for aggressive running on the ball briefly threatened to cause us problems. It didn't take too long for his head to drop however, one particularly pathetic swallow-dive failing even to stir the still livid Forest support.

It was in this period of the game, with Watford's midfield working overtime at denying Forest the space to move, that we really cemented the win to my mind. Nielsen in particular was everywhere, harrying, hassling and generally being a complete pain in the arse. Ardley, too, showed a degree of application that has sometimes been missing in his earlier in-and-out Watford performances, whilst Jamie Hand was just doing what he does best... chasing around like a dervish. He gained his obligatory booking for a late challenge in the centre-circle, and for a moment it looked as if Forest were beginning to gain the upper hand again. Then two things happened. Firstly, and inexplicably, Paul Hart withdrew Bopp for the anonymous Andy Reid. Secondly, everything went completely mental.

Whether Prutton had finally lost his rag with Nielsen's attentiveness or whether he was just pissed off at the ineffectiveness of Forest's attacks, or whether he cocked up his challenge and never intended to jump in three inches over the ball we'll never know. Either way, Allan Nielsen was flipped right over by the weight of the challenge and was rather fortunate to still have a two legs to stand on. Off went Prutton, as did a fair proportion of Forest's support who booed Nielsen inexplicably for the remainder of the game.

The now lunatic atmosphere was almost certainly responsible for the second red also... within a minute Neal Ardley was attacking down the right flank, and pushed the ball beyond Lester's challenge, heralded as it was by a two-minute warning that enabled Ardley to further withdraw his body to avoid contact. Lester was having none of that however, and made damn sure that Ardley was going nowhere near the ball by raising his boot into Ardley's midriff, taking him out like a clay pigeon on a rifle range. The tackle was so late that later Sky pictures revealed the camera following the ball as Ardley pushed it forwards, swinging back to the players and still having time to see Lester raise his boot. It was so late, in fact, that it almost made Forest's tie with Gillingham on Wednesday night... it was also petulant and utterly stupid. Despite which, the home fans were now beyond rational thought, with stewards and police showing up in force in Block A to our left.

The game changed irretrievably, and to their immense credit the Watford players handled both the poisonous air and their numerical advantage with a maturity and professionalism that might not have been suggested by the fractured nature of the first team squad at the moment. Almost immediately we swung into possession mode, the ball swinging up and down the wings and across the backline like a metronome as tired Forest legs did all the chasing. Luca would have been delighted, of course, but we were inevitably fashioning chances too as Forest had to commit numbers forward, particularly at the corners which were as near as Forest came to scoring.

Webber had the first attempts during this period, clouting a couple of efforts high and wide... a better chance was created when Hand's awesome through-ball - he looks more like a young Johnno every day - dropped over the last defender into Smith's path. The young striker, still too scared to have a shot but ever so eager to do everything else, laid the ball off to Hyde in the centre whose rising shot through the crowd went straight to the keeper.

It would, at this point, been quite nice to have seen Anthony McNamee against outnumbered opposition... but for the fact that you suspected that the general immaturity of so much Forest's performance would have seen the tiny winger end up spread across an advertising hoarding somewhere. Instead, we were able to employ our robust Icelandic lunatic, making his long awaited first showing of the season and very nearly to good profit, Ward producing the stop of the game to deny Helguson and later parrying Nielsen's fierce drive beyond the hovering centre forward.

The game ended and the Watford team saluted their decimated following... as the referee departed with a substantial guard to shrieks of frustration. At about this point, I checked my mobile to find a text message from Simon, sent with admirable clarity in the midst of the second half insanity...."MISERABLE AND WHINEY!".

This, in short, was a tonic that Watford badly needed to both flush out some of the sour memories of Tuesday and add some reasons to believe to our away form. That we are seventh in the table shouldn't disguise the fact that the side has some way to go, but nor should we fail to note the fact that we're definitely "going". A victory for the Smurfs here.

We took the A1 home, and avoided the chaos. The eagerly anticipated first breathless Forest fan got through to 606 after approximately sixteen minutes...