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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/09/02, 7.45pm
Preston North End
The Ritual
By Matt Rowson

At some point during the afternoon drive up to Lancashire Pete started to whistle through his teeth the tune that is fast becoming an anthem to inexplicable and near masochistic midweek away trips… "We're mentally ill, we're mentally ill, we're only here 'cos we're mentally ill…". By the time we were finally making for the Deepdale turnstiles, Mark was complaining more earnestly about the questionable nature of a 500-mile round trip on a Tuesday afternoon / evening to watch a First Division football match.

All of which might seem a little odd when taken at face value. After all, it's not as if the four of us in the car were novices at such away trips and unaware of what we were letting ourselves in for, or lacking the basic intelligence to weigh up considerations and make a decision. So why complain ?

The answer, of course, is that this complaining is an essential part of The Ritual… as essential a part as the gratuitous KFC break at Keele Services, the mobile phone conversations to exchange progress reports or barrack those too weak-willed to brave the trip as appropriate. As essential a part of the journey as the remorselessly inane motorway banter… started or at least fuelled by Rupert for the most part. "Would you spend a year in a Service Station for a million quid ? If the shop was closed and you could only buy food from 'Julie's Pantry' ? And play slot machines ?". A career devising programmes for Channel 5 surely awaits.

Preston is, all things considered, an ideal destination for such epic journeys. Pete would dispute this... proximity holds sway over aesthetic pleasures in his book, a view that was gaining more sympathy as I picked up my car and sat waiting for the windows to de-steam at Newport Pagnell at 1 in the morning.

But when you consider that proximity to Watford (or Portsmouth, Croydon, or wherever Watford fans happen to be travelling from) would have been an ambitious and unlikely criterion for those ultimately responsible for creating what became Preston however many hundred years ago to adopt, Preston does pretty well in the circumstances.

The Museum, of course, is an excellent waste of time. If you've already been you don't me to describe it, if you haven't I shan't spoil the thing for you. Don't miss the Interactive section though... a surreal experience as Pete and Rupe recorded their own expert punditry in a Match-of-the-Day mock-up. With Pete growling criticism and disdain and Rupe babbling profanities it was almost as if the pair had slipped subconsciously into match-watching mode.

From the museum to "Legends", the Preston club bar on the edge of the ground. Having experienced such witless confrontation at a football match only a week previously, the atmosphere here was a disarmingly relaxed contrast, as both sets of supporters ordered from the bar and supped pints in the car park outside. The temperature was mild, the beer took effect and the world was a fine place as we entered the ground and were able to sit unhassled by any officious stewards on the perimeter wall alongside the pitch taking in the build up to the game.

Encouragingly, the Hornets sustained the benevolent mood with a fine first half display. As was pointed out later, there is an encouraging likeability about this Watford side, in contrast to last season for example when so many new and unusual faces arrived at once and the whole thing began to feel so remote. Following Saturday's energetic win at Forest, there was never any doubt that we would do any worse than go down fighting.

The (at least temporarily) unsuspended Robinson in for the slightly unfortunate Glass was the only change to Saturday's starting lineup, but Nielsen, having applied himself so successfully on the left-hand-side of the midfield at the City Ground in the second half, began in the same role here.

The game was open from the off, with both sides committing men forward and finding big spaces to attack when the other's attacks broke down. Early Watford chances, somewhat inevitably, involved Webber... first a wicked cross from the left that Ardley did well to get a volley to but could only deflect lamely towards Moilanen, then fashioning a gap from an Ardley corner to test the keeper from 25 yards.

At the other end, Preston were able to break reasonably quickly with Etuhu snarling around the back of a midfield whose movement enabled them to move the ball around quite effectively. It tended to go wrong for them in the final third, however, with a dogged persistence in attempting to thread elegant throughballs that Cox and Dyche had evidently been primed to anticipate. On the odd occasion that the balls got through, Skora and Cresswell in particular had the pace and aggression to hurt us... the former being finally released by Fuller putting in a good far post cross only for Doyley to doggedly deny the oncoming Preston striker with a determined clearing header, not for the last time.

Particularly encouraging from the Hornets' point of view was Preston's lackadaisical attitude to getting men back after an attack... on one such occasion a precise throughball from Ardley found Smith bisecting Preston's two central defenders as effortlessly as if he was snapping apart the fingers of a KitKat. Unfortunately having controlled the ball immaculately, Smith betrayed his lack of confidence by insisting upon forcing the chance onto his right foot and couldn't generate the power or accuracy to trouble the keeper.

Back up the other end, and a Robinson slip let in Cresswell whose fierce shot was saved well by Chamberlain at his near post. Cresswell had been the most obvious threat of the PNE forward duo, his partner Ricardo Fuller, a summer signing from Jamaican side Tivoli Gardens following several loan spells in this country, never looked totally happy. A large, bulky man, you sort of got the feeling that he wished he'd been born a tricky winger, several stone lighter and with slightly shorter legs, such was his reluctance to employ his physical advantage and his penchant for trying to sway past tackles. His best attempt on goal in the first half was a clouted effort that almost reached the corner flag.

Some further Preston pressure produced a corner (at which point the cameraman on the near touchline made the mistake of throwing the ball to the keeper for a goal kick, thus inviting derision from Rupe and Pete on the front row for the next five minutes - "if it goes in the net it's a goal mate"). Chamberlain fielded the cross comfortably, and was immediately in a position to release the ball up field. No options presented themselves, but such was Preston's dreaminess at resuming position that Robinson, with customary gusto, seized the initiative and thundered off up the left wing with his arm in the air. Chamberlain obliged, and the fullback exchanged a tidy one-two with Nielsen before belting in what was probably intended as a low cross from around 30 yards. Webber, possibly anticipating Smith over his right shoulder, skipped over the ball leaving Moilanen and his marker both flummoxed and helpless as the ball trickled into the net. At this point it's worth noting that the last time our leading scorer was our left back, we were divisional champions...

The game upped a gear. Preston threw more men forwards but still looked vulnerable on the break, Nielsen snapping into a challenge and then charging at the Preston goal with defenders backpedalling nervously in his path. He was eventually felled by a clumsy tackle outside the area, Cox's freekick taking a crucial deflection to send it wide for a corner.

At half time, then, the mood was thoroughly optimistic, the Hornets having battled and scrapped and earned their lead without ever really dominating.

Unfortunately it didn't really continue into the second half. Preston built up a head of steam and began to apply more meaningful pressure to the Watford goal. Watford's midfield, so thoroughly effective for the previous game-and-a-half, went missing as Jamie Hand, who had had a fine, industrious first half, rediscovered his tendency to give the ball away under pressure (such is often a defensive midfielder's lot, incidentally, when opponents are flooding at him, and doesn't really merit the stick he gets to my mind. The consolation is that the single-mindedness exhibited at Pompey last season, for example, is unlikely to permit him to feel sorry for himself).

Watford's defence was dogged and determined in the light of the growing barrage, Lloyd Doyley in particular displaying a ferocious competitiveness that saw very little penetrating down the home side's left flank. The chances came though... Cresswell testing Chamberlain again with a fine curling effort that the keeper did well to stop. Watford's outlet became less effective... Webber still moved with purpose, but Smith had already faded badly, and eventually dropped back and vanished into a five-man midfield. Chamberlain's distribution, meanwhile, was unusually inconsistent, with several drop kicks coming straight back as PNE throw-ins.

Craig Brown brought on Healy for Keane as the home side went to 4-3-3. Almost immediately the Northern Ireland international sent in a cross which Robinson only half cleared. The stadium held it's breath as the ball dropped in front of Skora... who proved not to be as the ball flew over.

When the goal came, it was innocuous during a less frantic spell. Broomes' throw was allowed to bounce in the Watford area over the defence, for Cresswell to steal in and head home. Sloppy, but given the resilience previously exhibited it seemed slightly harsh to criticise. "Richard Cresswell's f***ing brilliant", celebrated the home fans.

Watford seemed to wake up again at this point, although the effects of two "pressing games" in four days were beginning to tell, and Lewington's continued reluctance to employ his substitutes was slightly surprising. A rare piece of tenacity from Smith ultimately embarrassed Alexander and released Webber through on goal... his curled effort, which all those who remember his goal against Coventry will be able to picture, was salvaged by Moilanen who must have strained every muscle in his left arm to push it high round the post.

Preston continued to press, and made a loud appeal for a penalty for a handball claim... didn't look likely from the other end of the pitch, and referee Parkes, perfectly positioned, waved play on. After some controversial refereeing performances recently, it's only fair to single out Parkes' flawless display for praise - even if Rupe didn't realise that he wasn't Uriah Rennie until 100 miles or so down the M6.

Preston's open defence again created an opening, made by Hyde for Webber whose immaculate control and confidence caused the crowd to rise to their feet as he ran at the Preston goal, before being cynically halted by Murdock who received the only booking of the evening.

Webber still had time to be denied again, a robust but inch-perfect saving challenge by Lucketti blocking the shot after Doyley's assertive run created the chance... the last drama came at the other end, however, where Cresswell latched onto Chamberlain's block to Fuller's shot only to find Micah Hyde flying in to deny him and protect the point we deserved.

"Good journey all" came the Lancastrian voice as we negotiated the busy route back to the car... which, given four points from two tricky away games, wasn't too difficult.

At Leicester Forest East we met a Cambridge fan, returning from his side's 4-3 defeat at Rochdale. "Can you imagine going all the way to Rochdale to watch Cambridge?" someone murmured. "Yeah, and did you see the way he limped?" came a reply. "Weirdo".