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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 31/08/02, 3pm
Norwich City
"We are Watford"?
By Matt Rowson

Having missed both the debacle at Fratton Park and the astonishing demolition of Coventry over the bank holiday weekend, my perspective going into this game was very much one of a man who'd just had a blindfold removed having been spun on the spot several times in total darkness. The sense of disorientation was furthered when Danny Webber, source of so much of Monday's excitement, was significant by his absence from the squad warming up in front of us in the sunshine. The sense of disappointment in the away end when the line-ups were confirmed by the tannoy announcer (with what is becoming an obligatory exaggeration of excitement for such individuals) was almost palpable - Foley in up front with Jamie Hand re-appearing on the bench. Webber, it transpired, had picked up a knock in training.

Despite this development, and despite both sides skidding and slipping a little on a surface that had been watered with military diligence by a complex system of waterjets before kick-off, the opening to the game was quite intriguing. Whilst chances were few and far between - a pattern that lasted the whole of the first half - both sides were playing confidently. City are a tough proposition at Carrow Road at the best of times, notwithstanding our particularly poor record here and our hosts' strong start to the season. Buoyed no doubt by Monday's savage victory, we were also looking purposeful and linking passes together crisply. In the opening half hour the two sides conducted themselves like two big cats circling each other, watching unblinkingly for a weakness or a lapse of concentration, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

The game swayed gently from end to end. The transformation in the tempo of Watford's game since Wimblestein was unmissable, and the sight of Tommy Smith playing - for the opening spell at least - with his head up was highly encouraging. One particularly neat build up ended with Nielsen finding Smith in space just outside the box; his firm low shot was fielded carefully by Green low to his right. On another occasion, Smith's alertness nearly created an opening when Kenton's lack of inches were exposed by a bouncing ball. Smith nipped around the defender and appeared to be through... until Kenton aggressively reimposed control over his territory, something that he never really relinquished from then on.

Another player whose contribution was significant in this period was Micah Hyde. Hyde has been at his most imperious at Watford when Richard Johnson has been employed behind him, the henchman doing all the dirty work and releasing Hyde to be the superb attacking midfielder that he can be. With Johnson continuing on the path to full fitness and with Gavin Mahon still missing, Hyde has spent the last two games in the lynchpin role, with some success. His first telling contribution here was in receiving a tidy lay-back from Foley, spotting and executing a precise swinging ball to release Ardley galloping down the right. His trademark swooping cross to the far post was salvaged by Kenton under the nose of the onrushing Foley.

Norwich were enjoying similar spells of possession, but if anything suggested less penetration than their visitors early on. Watford's three centrebacks contributed in no small part here, mercilessly clouting the ball upfield whenever it came within range. Marcus Gayle in particular seems to have been carefully read and re-read the chapter of the defender's code on not fannying around with it on the edge of your own box. He most decisively did not.

City's best early chance came when Iwan Roberts managed to reach a deep ball from the right and head it back across goal. Steen Nedergaard's painfully simple goal from last season's fixture loomed back into view, before Sean Dyche came smashing through it with a snarl to head the ball clear under challenge.

City's favourite attacking tool appeared to be Mark Rivers down the right; his bleached hair, whilst slightly less redundant than Allan Nielsen's recent effort, made a statement as to how he perceived his own star quality. Paul Robinson was less impressed, and spent twenty minutes making Rivers look a bit of an idiot, frequently dispossessing him before thundering off upfield to launch an attack, before Rivers made the most of an untidy challenge to earn Robinson a booking. For five minutes Robbo appeared to have retreated before deciding that keeping Rivers in his place was worth risking a second booking for. Rivers was pocketed again, before departing with what looked like a pulled hamstring to little sympathy from the away end.

Robinson's booking was one of two rather arbitrarily awarded in the first half by referee Paul Danson; the other, to Dominic Foley for a thoroughly innocuous and irrelevant shirt-tug in the centre-circle, was to prove more consequential. I use the word "arbitrarily" with due consideration... in what was never a dirty game, equally niggly fouls were committed but not punished by members of both sides.

When City scored, it was almost out of nothing. Watford were tidying up another City attack when Stephen Glass lazily laid a short pass in the direction of Micah Hyde deep inside the Watford half, not noticing Paul McVeigh lurking. The effervescent forward made the most of his opportunity by surging into the box and shooting, the ball deflecting irretrievably off Sean Dyche's thigh and leaving Alec Chamberlain stranded. One-nil.

The half ended with Marcus Gayle swaying upfield and working a shooting space before sending a rising drive wide of the mark. Norwich had their tails up, but in all honesty we had more than matched them for the most part, one defensive cock-up being the sum of the difference between the two sides. There was every reason to hope that the Hornets would push on in the second half...

Lucky Half-time Chocolate: Proxy chocolate, purchased by ig in Brighton.
Reason: He was already on his way to the newsagents and I couldn't be bothered to queue.
Level of success: Bloody appalling. No copping out in future.

Watford rearranged the shape of the side after the break, abandoning the three at the back and reverting to 4-4-2 with Cox at right-back, Ardley and Glass wide for the first time this season. Justification for this could either have been that the strikers needed more support, or (not inaccurately) that City's defence hadn't coped terribly well with high balls and that two wide midfielders might expose this more than wingbacks. Whatever the logic, the move failed utterly.

We had hoped for and anticipated a Watford assault at the start of the second half; instead, the home side came out with all guns blazing. Clint Easton was the first to threaten, working a space down the left and scraping a ball across the face of goal narrowly enough to have the away end wincing. Shortly afterwards, sub Alex Notman was allowed the space to drive in a shot from the edge of the area... fortunately Chamberlain was directly behind it.

The second goal came, however, and in slightly controversial circumstances. Iwan Roberts contested for a bouncing through ball with Sean Dyche and Neil Cox, somehow holding sway to beat the onrushing Chamberlain... the two Watford centre-backs appealed strongly for handball against the big striker, their pleas falling on deaf ears.

From our location it was impossible to make a call on the validity of the goal... indeed, it was virtually impossible to discern which part of Roberts' anatomy was used to propel the ball into the net. What is indisputable is that the home side generally had the benefit of the most eccentric refereeing display I've seen at a Watford game since Rob Styles' unforgivable charade against Blackburn two years ago.

Thing is, these things happen. To all teams. And much as Paul Danson's farcically pompous posturing served only to aggravate the away support, you know that some time this season we'll be the beneficiaries of equally dubious decisions and performances - albeit they're perhaps less prominent when you're not on the receiving end. The onus really is on everybody to make the best of the situation... both the goal we'd given away, the goal that our defenders thought shouldn't have been given, and the astonishing number of decisions being given against us. We should, in short, have quit worrying and got on with it. We completely failed to do so.

In fairness, Norwich were flying now and didn't seem to be in a particularly generous mood. Rather than consolidating, boss Worthington introduced David Nielsen, a fast, aggressive striker, in favour of the subtler promptings of Paul McVeigh. Nielsen it was who hared in on goal and was upended in a challenge with Robinson, the consequence of which, given the earlier booking, was obvious to all as soon as it happened. Robinson, in one of the frustratingly irascible seizures that we'd hoped he'd grown out of, just had to make absolutely sure. Evidently he felt that Nielsen had been eager to tumble under his challenge - the Dane, in fairness, does have form for this sort of thing. Shoving the striker over by the back of his head, however, displayed a level of stupidity that even some laughable histrionics by Nielsen couldn't cloud. Danson had no choice on this occasion - Robinson couldn't really have complained were he red-carded twice. The Watford support applauded him off, regardless. Mulryne rubbed salt into the wound by curling in the free kick to end the contest, Chamberlain not getting anywhere near the shot.

Watford's own attacking endeavours were increasingly forlorn. Ardley was looking purposeful on the right, on one occasion slipping in between two markers on his way towards the penalty area before being cynically upended (a lesser crime, according to Danson, than a shirt-pull on the halfway line). Our newest signing, however, seems to lack the pace to be an effective winger and didn't deliver much from his more advanced location. Watford's closest attempt of the half was a header from a corner, resentfully thumped over the bar by Dyche. Even so, there was a perplexing lack of movement from the substitutes bench - the away support made it clear who they wanted, and it's difficult to understand why McNamee wasn't given a run, particularly given Lewington's recent comments re. how quickly the games are coming.

In the event, Norwich grabbed the last goal, Nielsen's belted effort parried athletically by Chamberlain low to his left. As if to reaffirm that this really wasn't our day, the ball span up and dropped under, rather than over, the bar. Alex Notman hit the woodwork late on to draw a line under proceedings.

Really, we learned very little from this afternoon's game. We showed early on that we can move the ball around quite brightly, which we already knew. We also demonstrated that we have very few options up front at the moment (check) and that the side is not comfortable and confident enough yet to pull through when the chips are really down (double-check). We were playing a side who are playing the way we'd like to play - aggressive and competitive, harrying their opponents then moving the ball and causing damage quickly when the opportunities arrive. Norwich had the breaks, took full advantage and thoroughly deserved their win. Big deal.

Far more significant was the game's epilogue. Dominic Foley had had a particularly sorry time in the second half... Tommy Smith having disappeared from the game completely, Watford's attack boiled down to the ball being clouted towards Foley by the centre backs... he won 90% aerial balls, but his knock-downs, in the absence of any midfield or attacking support, inevitably went to yellow shirts.

The volume of complaint in the away end increased throughout the half, Foley's chief crime, it appeared, being that he wasn't Danny Webber. That he was the only player making any sort of effort in the opposing half was quite incidental... on one occasion he charged down the City keeper, the hurried clearance deflecting off him but spinning wide to safety. Any other player would have had their determination applauded, even at this fruitless stage; not Foley, who so many in the crowd no longer seem prepared to offer an open mind.

With ten ultimately pointless minutes remaining, Foley lunged for a ball in the City area - ironically displaying a degree of determination that his blinkered detractors would have you believe is one of his faults. In lunging late he caught Steen Nedergaard... a clear foul, but nothing more serious given that the challenge was tired and the game was dead. As if to cap off his own performance, Danson produced a second yellow and Foley was joining Robinson on the sidelines. A ludicrous decision, but the ire of the moment was deflected by the implausibly crass reaction of a significant proportion of the Watford "support", who cheered and celebrated the dismissal as if it represented some kind of victory. I felt stunned and cold. On the pitch, Neil Cox and Sean Dyche were staring at the away end shaking their heads in disbelief.

The arguments here are painfully facile, but I'll go through them slowly and carefully in the hope that some of the utter fuckwits responsible know how to read.

Barracking your own players, however poor they are or aren't, is not going to serve any purpose. No player is going to respond positively to barracking from their own support. In addition, our current circumstances dictated that Foley was the only option. Helguson, Noel-Williams, Webber, Norville, Patterson all injured. There was nobody else. What exactly were you trying to achieve?

It has been noted elsewhere that Foley is far from the best or the worst player to have featured in a Watford shirt, and that it's astonishing that such an unremarkable player attracts such remarkable strength of feeling. The fact is, however, that this has nothing to do with Dominic Foley (whose merits I'd happily defend, but are irrelevant to this argument). It has to do with the utterly childish way that many respond to a defeat. In some ways it's the school bully-syndrome... overcome those social or professional insecurities by making someone else feel bad; cope with the fact that nineteen-odd thousand Norwich fans are ripping the piss by pulling someone else down even lower. Most ironically of all, two key players in the City side, a side that has looked by some distance more convincing than our own for maybe two years now, are players who were barracked during their time at Vicarage Road, presumably by the same people who cheered Foley's dismissal. What does that say for your judgment ?

I am obsessed by football in general and Watford Football Club in particular to an extent that my wife and work colleagues would probably suggest is unhealthy. Yet at 4.30 this afternoon I felt like completely jacking the whole thing in. Normally you go to a game, sit in the Watford end and even if your best mate is sitting with the other lot you feel more in common with those around you than with those wearing different colours sitting opposite. For the tail end of today's game I felt nothing but hostility to those sitting around me. "We are Watford"? Are we bollocks.

At the end of the game, Cox and Dyche left the pitch quickly, without saluting the away support. On this occasion, it was difficult not to concur.