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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 08/04/03, 8.00pm
Crystal Palace
"A great victory"
By Ian Grant

"My word, this was a great victory. Ha ha, it was something like you have never seen before. We beat them five - no, six, six - we beat them six-nil, and they were lucky to get nil. We thrashed their fat arses. My men are heroes, my enemies are woodlice. We scored some great goals, great goals. Many great goals. We scored four goals with headers, two goals with our feet, and seven goals with the power of our minds. And our opponents, they tremble at our awesome might and they get themselves sent off for two bookable offences rather than face that might. We are top of the league; say, we are top of the league. Ha, victory is ours!"

"Sir, if I might get your thoughts on one or two details. You lost one-nil with an own goal..."

"These are lies..."

Trevor needs to buck his ideas up. I mean, it's all very well ploughing the same tedious furrow, droning endlessly on in defence of your own miserable, godforsaken worldview. But you have to keep up with the latest trends, otherwise nobody'll listen. Nobody's listening, Trev.

Hell, even Sir Alex, the old master, has seemed a little jaded this week. His red-faced ranting in Madrid might've been thoroughly amusing - and UEFA's entirely straight-faced defence of the "integrity" of the Champions (sic) League is equally impossible to take seriously - but it's already yesterday's news. That's old school, Sir Alex. There's a new kid on the block.

Clearly, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf is shortly to be unemployed, if not considerably worse. What an opportunity, then. If ever someone was destined to be a Premiership manager, to fill our Saturday evenings with the kind of joy, confusion and outright rage that not even Ally McCoist and Ron Atkinson can manage, it's surely yer man. A complete lunatic. A born entertainer.

The agenda's changed. Pay attention, Trev and Alex. I mean, why complain and whinge and whine when you can simply deny outright? For that matter, why deny outright when you can just cut loose and make stuff up? Why accept that squalid defeat at, say, Bolton when you can put a brave, defiant face on it and celebrate a magnificent four-nil victory instead? Why concern yourself with a mediocre league position when first place is so much more exciting and available with the merest of white lies? Why be limited by trivial specifics, by other people's reality?

The new Fulham manager, ladies 'n' gentlemen. Oh, go on.

If I could be bothered to register for the official Palace site, I could pass comment on Trev's latest attempt to keep up with the Information Minister's fine and ground-breaking example. As you'll have gathered, I can't be bothered...but the headline for his post-match comments says most of what you don't need to know: "FRANCIS UNABLE TO HIDE DISAPPOINTMENT". Oh, and he's usually so good at hiding disappointment too....

He does, of course, have every right to be disappointed. Palace were utter rubbish, which is indeed disappointing for all concerned...although, as a Brighton-based Watford fan, I'm bearing up reasonably well in the circumstances. Really, it would be rather harsh on the chosen Watford team to call it a "reserve" side merely to accentuate the entirely dismal nature of our opponents' performance...but I'm sure that they'll understand.

For the second season in a row, after so many gruelling trips to this neck of the woods, we had a thoroughly splendid time at Selhurst Park. Jokes, laughter, comedy booing, a fine own goal, raspberry jaffa cakes, and a team including Cookie, Brownie and Doyley in a tea-at-the-vicarage kinda way. Even if it was damn cold and much of the game was quite extraordinarily dull, it didn't really matter very much. There was plenty of amusement to be found, if you looked for it in the right places.

A few weeks ago, this was how we'd hoped that the end-of-season fixtures would turn out. Relaxed, daft, and strangely satisfying. While the Semi-Final means that there's still a competitive edge to the season, there's also a sense that, with the fifty point mark now behind us, we can afford to sit back and admire our accomplishments a little more. This was an extremely hard-working performance, to be sure, but it had a pleasant feeling of comfort about it too. Much of the anxiety's gone.

This time, the policy of resting players ahead of a massive Cup fixture was given much greater credibility. This was, presumably, what was supposed to happen against Preston and, rather than the immense irritation and frustration of that evening, it was all rather encouraging. Richard Lee again looked like a nimble yet aggressive keeper; Richard Johnson grew as the game progressed, suggesting that a full pre-season might still see him back at something approaching his best; Wayne Brown and Sean Dyche were more solid than a Watford defence has been for a little while; Paul Robinson exuded enthusiasm; Lloyd Doyley and Gavin Mahon, at right midfield and right back respectively (and that's not a typing mistake...), were typically purposeful; Jason Norville was quick and lively as a second half substitute. And Lee Cook was terrific, full of attacking ideas and surprising defensive tenacity. Hell, for a weakened team, it really wasn't bad. It wasn't bad at all.

And we didn't shoot ourselves in the foot either. Aside from an unnecessary booking for Richard Johnson, something that might've applied equally to Paul Robinson and Jamie Hand if the referee had been less lenient, this was an altogether more disciplined display. No stupid penalties, no idiotic dismissals, plenty of level-headed organisation. We forced Palace to experience the same ghastly sense of powerlessness that we've become familiar with on our travels and, lately, at Vicarage Road. When you're one-nil down with no reliable way of finding an equaliser, it ain't much fun.

Mind you, the opening thirty minutes weren't exactly thrilling for anyone. The first action of the game - Butterfield collecting a loose header from Gavin Mahon and driving in a dipping half-volley from thirty yards that beat Richard Lee and shaved the post as most of us were still settling into our seats - was something of a red herring, for precious little of interest followed. While Palace enjoyed greater possession, they didn't really know what it was for and discarded it carelessly as a result. Only Richard Lee's (somewhat unnecessary) dramatic dash from his penalty area to boot clear and a neat pass from Watson that just eluded Freedman kept the senses alert.

We've lost a lot of games like this, establishing a foundation and then failing to build upon it. But we're persistent, if nothing else. After the tedium of the initial shadow boxing, it got better. Much better. After twenty-eight minutes, a corner was cleared and Richard Johnson sent a stooping header drifting wide from the edge of the box. Not much, but it was a start. Then a well-structured move created space for Lee Cook to cross from the left, and Michael Chopra headed at Kolinko when he had space to do a little better. And we were beginning to emerge, to test a creaky Palace defence.

With that, a bit of much-needed confidence. Our football became more progressive, while still retaining sufficient muscle to prevent the home side from taking advantage of a more open game. And we created chances...although, as so often, we failed to take them. Another splendid attack - a Richard Johnson interception, followed by a darting run from Lee Cook via a one-two with Jamie Hand - concluded with Gifton Noel-Williams stretching to drive over from ten yards. A couple of minutes later, Michael Chopra lifted an awkwardly bouncing ball over the bar as Palace again failed to clear their lines from a corner.

Suddenly, we were enjoying ourselves...and never more so than when Paul Robinson won the ball in his own area and went on a bounding run that slalomed past four opponents to great cheers from the away section. He'd covered nearly two thirds of the field when Butterfield crassly intervened to gain himself a booking. Still, that's the kind of thing to send the grey clouds scuttling away. We nearly blew it, of course - Adebola had a shot that was kindly deflected to Richard Lee, before Freedman wasted a glorious opening by casually side-footing Hunt's cross wide - but that's Watford for you. And this was much more Watford-ish altogether.

As the half concluded, we knew that we should've been ahead. And we had one final opportunity to make it happen, as Symons fell over his own feet and Michael Chopra raced away. But his finish wasn't terribly convincing, struck at a comfortable height for Kolinko to parry, and a defender put the ball behind. To safety. Or not. For what we couldn't do ourselves was done for us. Very kind, thank you. Lee Cook's corner, swung into the near post from the right, was dangerous...but probably not so dangerous that it required Hunt to glance a header past his own keeper. Still, no complaints from our bit of the ground. Not so the rest of it, naturally.

If you were to judge by the incessant groaning and booing and general disgruntlement pouring forth from three sides of Selhurst Park, you'd have to conclude that the second half was pretty awful. But it seemed entirely marvellous from where we were sitting, so I'd have to beg to differ. But, out of politeness to our hosts, we joined in with the groaning and booing and suchlike as countless passes went astray, attacks disintegrated and everything fell apart rather spectacularly...and, well, groaning and booing and everything turned out to be quite fun after all. Sadly, our calls for Trevor Francis' head didn't quite catch on, so there are possibly some rules of Selhurst etiquette that we haven't quite mastered yet.

As before, we did the simple stuff well and let everything else take care of itself. Which it did, by and large. With a lead to defend, we were never as much of an attacking threat as towards the end of the first half...but, equally, we were rarely guilty of allowing our opponents to push forward incessantly. Really, Palace were so poor that our makeshift side merely had to maintain concentration for the remainder of the game. There were moments of discomfort, but that's wooden seats for you.

Indeed, we came as close to extending the lead as the home side did to cancelling it out. Which wasn't very close, although Jason Norville was slightly unfortunate when he fired an instinctive snap-shot into the side netting after a couple of minutes. With Tommy Smith, Michael Chopra and Heidar Helguson available, there might not be room on the Villa Park bench for Norville...which would be a shame, for there's something about him that's a little different from everyone else. You can't quite pin him down...and neither, on this evidence, can opposition defences.

The game meandered towards its inevitable conclusion. Mind you, we still required some excellent, alert goalkeeping from Richard Lee, particularly in bravely pushing away a dangerous cross from Routledge on the right. It would've fallen for an unmarked striker...and, even though it still fell for Adebola, the clarity of the chance had been denied and Sean Dyche was able to block. The rest was relatively routine - a weak header from Adebola, a long range effort from Butterfield, an acrobatic but ultimately harmless attempt from Adebola in stoppage time. But there's a sharpness about Richard Lee that's enormously encouraging - for a young and inexperienced keeper, he seems remarkably confident. We'll be seeing him again before the season's out, you suspect.

At the other end, not very much. But still enough to keep Palace from pushing too many players forward. Heidar Helguson, complete with bright bleached hair, arrived after a while to charge about, nearly get himself booked twice, and lift a half-chance over Kolinko and just wide. Lee Cook, whose performance is perhaps best described as Nicky Wright-ish in its willingness (if not always in its productiveness), curled a free kick into the stand. We didn't look like scoring, in all honesty. But neither did Palace, so there was no great cause for concern.

For once, there was no need to look at that bloody clock, counting down slowly and painfully. We weren't even particularly worried by the amount of injury time, since our opponents were so thoroughly demoralised by that point that they barely seemed interested in an equaliser. When the referee finally ended it all, we forgot ourselves for a moment and cheered loudly, neglecting to jeer and boo as is apparently customary in these parts. Strange bunch. A smile doesn't cost anything, you know.

And I would've imagined that my mind would already be moving onto Sunday, my heart leaping as the anticipation starts to build. This should've been a mere service station on the motorway of, erm, stuff. I had imagined that this might've been a tricky report to write, a match immediately forgotten. But it's not quite like that, somehow. Nobody'll remember the result before the Semi-Final, of course. But it was still enormously satisfying in its own, slightly unimportant way.

Bigger things await. But small things are what Watford Football Club is all about. We're getting it right, again.