Main Menu
What's New
02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/09/02, 3pm
Crystal Palace
Poor old Luca
By Ian Grant

Poor old Luca.

Well, "poor" is probably the wrong word. You know what I mean, though.

Send him a video of this game, and he'd sit on his sofa and shake his head in utter bewilderment. Just a few weeks after his departure, he'd be hard pressed to recognise anything of his short-lived, doomed attempt to lift Watford out of First Division mediocrity. Like spending months attempting to coax an alcoholic towards recovery and then finding them propping up the bar at the local pub, he could only wonder whether we were truly sincere about changing, whether we really wanted to improve ourselves.

Here, everything was frenetic. A game played at a stupendous pace, littered with errors and mistakes and terrible defending. Particularly terrible defending. It was, in so many ways, vintage First Division fare, so far removed from the Premiership as to be almost unrecognisable. Whatever your feelings about him, it was what Luca Vialli was trying to raise us above.

Thing is, it was great. Incident everywhere, furious action, goals always threatened and frequently delivered at both ends. You could pick it to pieces so easily...and one rather hopes that Ray Lewington will be doing exactly that over the next week, working on the abundant flaws and worrying weaknesses. But the sheer energy of it all was thrilling, and the honesty and commitment was more than welcome. We threw ourselves into the game, our opponents did likewise. The result was frantic and chaotic and not at all pretty, the absolute antithesis of the pass-and-move elegance that Luca had in his mind's eye. Philistines that we are, we applauded them from the field.

Rightly so. Like I say, you could find fault with many things - the number of times that the strikers were caught offside, the sporadic defensive lapses, the failure to push on after equalising within a couple of minutes of the re-start, the failure to take advantage of the numerical advantage late on - but you couldn't fault the effort put in. From front to back, there was no shirking, no taking it easy. While it's tempting to keep adding to the list of games that we would've lost previously, we rarely managed to compete at such a high pace last season. Here, it didn't exactly suit us, but we clung on, we kept at it. No complaints, really.

The first ten minutes offered few clues, aside from a series of bookings from a fussy, erratic referee. Micah Hyde volleyed well over from a half-cleared free kick, but it wasn't until a spell of Palace pressure and an offside flag to halt a Heidar Helguson break after eleven minutes that the game came to life. Once it had, it simply refused to die down.

Thirteen minutes, and no particular danger as Helguson, looking particularly aggressive on his return from injury, received possession on the left side of the area. But he had no time to consider his options before Popovic came alongside and kept going, clattering into the striker and knocking him off the ball in the most unsubtle way. The referee pointed to the spot, quite rightly, and met with only subdued protests. And Danny Webber stepped up in front of the Rookery, giving the ball an almighty wallop and watching as it smacked against the face of the bar with a resounding clang. The resulting scrambles failed to yield a chance, and instantly Routledge was away on the break, darting at the defence and getting hauled back by Sean Dyche. Game on.

We had no time to dwell on the miss. Instead, the game accelerated into a blur. Palace were perhaps the better side, yet neither team had any time or space to work with...and, pleasing to see, we pressed as effectively as our opponents, harassing and frustrating all over the pitch. The corner count rose, Powell unfortunate to see his goal-bound drive deflected wide from one chaotic flag-kick, and the atmosphere lifted from the usual apathetic silence. It was breathless, exhausting...and rather enjoyable too.

A Palace goal had been a possibility for a while, with the speed and trickery of Routledge on the right especially prominent. When it arrived, however, it was a bit of a mess. Jamie Hand slipped at the wrong moment and presented possession to Routledge just outside the penalty area, and that left us overwhelmed as the ball was passed across, finally arriving at Freedman's feet. At that point, we were a little unfortunate - had the striker managed to get the ball on-target, it might well have been cleared by one of two covering defenders on the line. Instead, he sliced his effort as Alec Chamberlain advanced, and it fell kindly for Mullins to fire into the roof of the net from six yards.

After that, we were subjected to further pressure, in danger of being swamped. There's a bit of spirit about this lot, though...despite some serious, damaging setbacks, we've yet to fail to bounce back eventually. Here, Micah Hyde led the way, scrapping for the ball as Palace attempted to clear from defence and winning the tackle, before being sandwiched by two opponents and gaining a free kick. That typified the approach, in many ways. Neal Ardley's set piece was less typical, a thing of precision and quality...from twenty-five yards, it curled over the wall and drifted so perfectly into the top corner that you almost expected it to stay jammed in the angle of post and crossbar. Although Kolinko tried his best, he couldn't get near it.

The tide turned. Now it was Watford in the ascendant, Palace on the defensive. Really, if we should regret anything about yesterday, it should be the failure to take advantage of our opponents' insistence on pushing up towards the halfway line. We had the pace to do it, we just didn't quite have the patience. While the crowd howled as the linesman's flag was raised on countless occasions - and with such a number of marginal decisions, it's a fair bet that he got one or two wrong - we could've held our runs a little, still catching the defence flat-footed. We didn't manage it once, sadly.

We found other ways, though. Mind you, Routledge had nearly taken advantage of some hesitancy from Paul Robinson on halfway, running down the right, turning inside and curling a shot just wide after thirty-two minutes. But we took the lead, albeit briefly and slightly fortunately. Although Lloyd Doyley's cross from the right was somewhat over-hit, Allan Nielsen stretched to retrieve it with an attempt at an overhead volley at the far post. He miscued, but it dropped for Micah Hyde, beating a defender to the ball as it bounced and - amazing how much time Hyde seems to have in such confined spaces - taking a moment to look up before shuffling it past Kolinko from five yards. A deserving scorer, for Hyde provided so many moments of quality in a crowded, hyperactive midfield, while also playing with tenacity and determination when required.

Again, we had no time to consolidate. Within a minute, Granville was arriving at the far post to head a corner past Alec Chamberlain, and a ridiculous game was still swinging wildly from side to side. Scribbled notes, barely keeping up. In four minutes of injury time - a few breaks for treatment had provided the only respite - it might've swung either way again. Heidar Helguson's deft touch played Allan Nielsen through, advancing into the penalty area and slicing his shot wide of the near post with, crucially, his left foot. Then Freedman broke down the left, Johnson flicked the cross on, and the ball fell for Mullins to drive low into the bottom corner. Palace in the lead, somehow. Still, it was hard to despair, for a game with so many twists and turns surely had more surprises to come....

It took a couple of minutes. Then, Danny Webber was released down the left wing, sprinting away, briefly appearing to lose out to a couple of defenders, retrieving the ball and sprinting away again. His cross was perfect, finding Heidar Helguson flinging himself forward at the far post to head home the equaliser. A terrific goal, and a reminder of why Helguson's absence has been so keenly felt.

We couldn't go on from there, however. Instead, Palace took control, and we were to end up more than slightly grateful for the point, and for the referee's harshness in dismissing Routledge. In midfield, we fell away rather, and the pressure became more constant as time went on, punctuated by counter-attacks and, more often than not, offside flags.

So, Powell headed over from a right wing free kick; Alec Chamberlain instinctively pushed Butterfield's firm drive over the bar, flashing a hand upwards to flick it away; Johnson met Freedman's chipped cross at the far post, drifted his header over the keeper, and watched as it bounced gently against the bar. At the other end, Danny Webber burst onto Sean Dyche's pass and Neal Ardley glanced a header wide from the resulting cross. The pace of the game refused to subside, but Palace were just a little stronger, a little sharper. No shame in that, particularly as we still held on.

We were thankful to the referee, mind. After half an hour, Routledge was penalised as he tried to beat Paul Robinson on the wing, and struck his cross through the goalmouth despite the whistle. Really, it only needed a quiet word, and a second booking was a huge over-reaction, something that Neil Cox seemed to be pointing out when it became clear that Routledge was about to depart. It halted Palace's relentless advance, leaving them happy to defend the current scoreline...but, equally, it interfered unnecessarily with what had been an absorbing, engrossing game. It was a match with little malice, and the referee was an irritating distraction far too often.

Having hacked and thrashed and chased and rushed and chased some more for seventy-five minutes, we simply couldn't get our passing game going when we needed it. When we should've calmed things down and played the ball about with a bit more control, we continued to hurtle around, to the extent that it wasn't until ten minutes after the much-anticipated arrival of Anthony McNamee that he was given the ball. Indeed, there were great sighs of relief when Adebola burst past the otherwise excellent Lloyd Doyley, pulled the ball back to Thomson, and the curled chip from the edge of the box missed the post by mere inches.

We might've snatched it late on, Danny Webber finding some space to collect a long throw, turn and fire across the face of goal. But - in a game packed with apparently random incident, a game that both sides will feel might've been theirs and both sides will know might just as easily have slipped away - a draw seems about right.

Regardless, it was great entertainment. In short, I like this. The honesty is refreshing, above all. The desire to please is obvious. Faced with this team, it's easy to be frustrated, to find fault...but, at the same time, it's hard not to love them.

Sorry, Luca. It's what we know.