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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 24/08/02, 3pm
Again, it didn't rain
By Chris Lawton

For forty minutes on Saturday, Watford held their own against their expensively assembled hosts. In every department, the team battled away and gave as good as they got. Sure, the chances carved out for Portsmouth by the excellent Merson were better than those for Watford, but there wasn't a lot to show between the sides.

Then it all changed, and for ten minutes Watford basically lost the plot. Gayle sent Crowe flying for a penalty (duly converted by Merson), a misdirected Gayle header fell into the path of Todorov on the stroke of half time, and two minutes into the second half, the inability to clear the ball on at least three occasions let Burton in to kill off the match.

Some will say, maybe not here but elsewhere, that it wasn't a penalty. From my view, Crowe knocked the ball past Gayle, Gayle stuck a leg out for the ball and left it there, contact was made and Crowe went flying over. The only cause for doubt in my mind was that Crowe made the most of it, but I still think contact was made. Merson stepped up and did what Merson does - hit a dead ball perfectly past Chamberlain.

Having suffered this undeserved setback, the Watford players started arguing amongst themselves and seemed to go to sleep. Portsmouth won a dubious free kick on the half way line. Given for shirt pulling by Hyde (who got booked for his troubles) when it seemed that the original foul had been the other way. As the ball drifted aimlessly into the penalty area, Gayle had two options - let the ball run out or head it into the crowd for a corner. Sadly, he did neither. Instead he headed it back toward the edge of the penalty area and the "D" and Todrov rifled it past the wrong-footed keeper.

Having been five minutes away from a good half, the boys in yellow had thrown it all away. To come from two down is an unlikely occurrence at the best of times - unless you are Man Utd or the like. At the moment for Watford playing away from home - impossible. And so it proved. Within two minutes of the restart, the game was finished. A free kick was played down towards the corner flag and Watford picked up possession. Three passes later (three chances to clear the ball properly) and Hand was under pressure. He still had a chance to kick it out, but instead was dispossessed as he looked for the pretty option. The ball ran to Burton and that was that.

The rest of the half was played at a reduced tempo. Both sides would have walked off the pitch there and then and accepted the score. Shame then that Nielsen managed to get himself sent off. Nielsen seems to be someone you love or hate. I think he is a great asset to the side. He covers a lot of ground; he cajoles and directs his teammates. He tries to make something happen. Stupid then that he got sent off.

A brief period of neat passes gave the ball to Nielsen a few yards out from the edge of the box. Nielsen turned and knocked the ball past his man. What happened next is not clear as I was watching where the ball was going, but it would appear that Nielsen and the defender hit each other and Nielsen threw himself into the penalty area. This distracted the referee, because as the ball fell to Hyde he was clearly pulled back by the last defender and he scuffed his shot wide. The ref, more of him later, booked Nielsen for the dive (yellow card) and five seconds later produced a straight red, presumably for foul and abusive language. It summed up our afternoon.

In the end, although Watford had plenty of possession, they never looked like doing anything and Pompey deserved their win. Once we had gone a goal down it seemed that the players didn't know what to do. Sure, Pompey are a very good side, but for my liking the players surrendered all too easily in the five minutes either side of half time. It almost looked like we came for a 0-0 and hoped to get one in the last five minutes.

The ref didn't help. He was fair in the awarding of free kicks, but not so in the distribution of cards. He had a habit of booking a Watford player for a foul and then two minutes later when a Portsmouth player repeated the foul he would ignore it. Some of the bookings were a little harsh. Having said that the Watford players didn't help themselves. For some reason, half the team insisted on wearing their shirts loose and not tucked into their shorts. Hint - it makes it virtually impossible for the referee to see shirt pulling in such circumstances.

It is very hard to judge the team and management on one performance. What worried me most about the performance was the failure to cross the ball effectively and put Hislop under pressure. Flapper Hislop is dodgy on crosses - so dodgy he makes David James look world class. In ninety minutes of football we put him under pressure twice - and on both occasions he flapped. On the first occasion he dropped the ball and was fortunate that it didn't roll to the feet of the two Watford players standing close by and on the second occasion he pushed a harmless cross out for a corner. I can't help but think what might have been had we put more crosses in.

For me though the main problem on Saturday was lack of movement. Too often players were caught in possession or the ball given away easily as their team mates stood still waiting for the ball to come to feet. I don't recall a single pass played in front of a player for him to move onto. Consequently it was hard to build momentum going forward. We also failed to exploit the open spaces on the pitch. They were several opportunities in the second half to play the ball into the corners, behind the full back, for a player to run onto and deliver a cross. Maybe it wasn't in the management script, but it looked obvious to me.

The other problem at Watford though is the legacy of the past couple of seasons. The club has no money. It is unlikely that we will be making any new signings so the club has to work with what there is. This means that the fans have to like it or lump it, because it isn't going to change in a hurry. There is no point in criticising the players out on the pitch, because there aren't any alternatives, there are no quick fix solutions out there at the moment.

The Watford fans were quiet on Saturday. I suspect it was a combination of reserved seating and low expectations from kick off. Having said that we were exceptionally quiet. Yes, the team screwed up on the pitch, but so did the fans. We didn't really play our part either.

As I said, at least it didn't rain.