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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/01/03, 5.35pm
One year on...
By Ian Grant

A million miles from perfection. A million miles from last year. Very close to home.

The comparison's been made already...but only because it's so piercing, so unavoidable. Twelve months ago, we were destroyed by Millwall, perhaps the lowest point of a disappointing, thoroughly underwhelming season. It wasn't so much the defeat that hurt. It wasn't even the way that our promotion hopes were exposed as childish, naive, pathetic. It was the awful realisation that Millwall were everything that we'd once been so proud to be - they were organised, potent, committed, ambitious. Not only were we none of those things, we appeared to have given up on the idea that we could be.

A year later, and ninety minutes copied straight from the Watford textbook. From the brilliant, urgent opening to the frustrating loss of the initiative as the game settled down. From the inspired, thrilling surge to claim the lead to the cack-handed defending that surrendered it within ten minutes. From the stubborn refusal to concede defeat to the final, stirring attempts to win the game. It was all Watford, everything from greatness to incompetence and back again. We're still not there, we've still not reclaimed all those things that Millwall stole from us...but bloody hell, we're trying. Even the terrible away form isn't entirely out of place.

You can ask for more than this, if you like. But ask nicely. At the moment, we're doing all that we can to get back into the race for the top six...and you tend to feel that remaining in that race until the end of the season is the least that we deserve, a justified reward for our endeavour. That, and a decent Cup run to give us something to hang the memories from....

We look nothing like a team with just two wins in eleven games. You can see the flaws, of course. You don't have to look that hard to find the reasons for the recent poor form. But our heads are still up, we still stand tall. If this is it, it's more than good enough...and there'd be nothing wrong with another four months of prodding and poking at the top six to see if they'll give way. A top half finish would've been a tremendous achievement at the start of the campaign, and it'd be a tremendous achievement now. More than that, though, it's the style, the manner, the damn courage of it all. We've done it the right way. Our way.

We did it again here. A point against the leaders might see us drop a place in the league, but it's another undeniable demonstration of our defiance in this supposed slump. We will be back - there's just no way that we can keep playing with such purpose and fail to resurrect our fortunes. In a game splattered with mud and littered with clear-cut chances, it'd be hard to press a claim for more than a draw...but we deserved that, if only for sheer persistence. For much of the game, we matched Portsmouth. Even when we didn't, we refused to let it go.

That, Micah Hyde aside, we're all capable of playing better ought to be a source of further encouragement. There's so much to explore here, so much that we can look forward to. We might never get there, of course. We might never stop conceding stupid goals, we might always lack that little bit of penetration in the final third...but you can start to dream again, at least. It's all about that, really - somehow, we lost our sense of romance last season, burying it under an avalanche of expectation, bland theorising and unpleasant arrogance. It's back. It's definitely back.

So, yeah, we tore into Portsmouth. For ten minutes, particularly as de Zeeuw hobbled off with an early injury, they looked as if they'd have preferred the game to have been postponed due to the torrential rain, while we appeared eager to get it over with as quickly as possible. It was our most impressive, inspiring opening for some time, full of quick passing and sprightly movement...and it only lacked that final ball, yielding just two strikes at goal, a careful, easily fielded effort from Paolo Vernazza after four minutes and a wild free kick from Jermaine Pennant. Still, we were making light work of the heavy pitch, and appeared anything but mindful of the mauling at Fratton back in August. On the contrary, after the Leicester game, we seemed to relish the opportunity to play football without the threat of violent intervention from our opponents.

It just disappeared, though. We lost the tempo completely, dropping back as Portsmouth began to pass with greater accuracy and build their own rhythm. And it doesn't suit us at all, allowing the opposition to play the ball around in front of us. We're not that well-organised, we need to get among them more. The inevitable consequence was that the visitors ought to have been ahead by the break after - sometimes cleverly, sometimes fortunately - carving out a number of presentable chances. Having emerged from the dressing room with such purpose, we seemed to have forgotten what we were supposed to be doing.

So, Alec Chamberlain needed to pull off a solid block from the impressive, metronomic Quashie at his near post when O'Neil robbed Neal Ardley in midfield. Three minutes later, Harper smacked a low cross into the box and found Todorov, whose constant tumbling was one of the game's less appealing features, in space to turn and mis-hit a shot from the penalty spot. It bobbled towards the target with so little pace that you expected it to stop in the mud at any moment...but it didn't, and Alec Chamberlain was relieved to see it roll past the post. We were on the back foot, struggling to fill the gaps.

Although Heidar Helguson's looping header from a Neal Ardley centre gave Hislop something to do, the tide had turned against us. A neat move on the right, where Harper had the upper hand against Paul Robinson and Wayne Brown, ended with Quashie thumping a drive into Alec Chamberlain's midriff from the edge of the box. Then another Harper cross found its way through to Taylor at the far post, and he stabbed the ball wide in an attempt to catch the keeper off-guard. Closer still, as Todorov laid the ball back for Quashie to shoot from twenty yards again - this time, it was so cleanly and precisely struck that only the sound of the impact on the advertising hoardings betrayed the fact that it hadn't ripped into the bottom corner. Almost immediately, Harper drifted inside to collect possession, turn Marcus Gayle and fire a shot at the keeper.

After that, it improved. A little. We still needed to take refuge in the dressing room, to concentrate ourselves on what we were supposed to be doing rather than trying to keep up with what Portsmouth were up to. But we were a little unlucky when Micah Hyde, who seemed to be at the start and end of absolutely everything, drove a low cross into the six yard box and the attempted clearance merely sent the ball towards Gifton Noel-Williams, whose attempt to force it past Hislop was denied by a deflection into the side netting. From the corner, Neal Ardley retrieved a clearance, crossed towards Heidar Helguson and Neil Cox stretched to meet the flick and head at the keeper. A response, at least.

And what a response at the start of the second half. Incredibly, we might - should - have scored three times before Micah Hyde was presented with a truly unmissable chance after six minutes. Suddenly, there were gaping holes where a defence used to be, and Jermaine Pennant was streaking down the right wing to fire crosses into the danger area, where deflections and general panic left the ball rebounding about mere inches from the line.

Barely a minute in, and Pennant's fierce centre took a touch at the near post, rearing up for an unmarked Paul Robinson six yards out. His header lacked power, glancing further across towards Heidar Helguson. Grounded by the attempt to change direction, he slashed the ball towards an unguarded net...and it somehow drifted right across goal and wide. The striker watched in disbelief. More of the same within a couple of minutes, as another Pennant cross took another near post touch, from Micah Hyde this time, and Helguson was unable to react quickly enough to head home from close range. Again, the ball, which struck him on the ear, managed to find its way back across and wide.

From nothing - hopes of reconstructing our performance during the break, little more - we were absolutely flying. A Neal Ardley corner found Gifton Noel-Williams towering above all around to twist and head firmly and decisively past Hislop. It was hacked clear from the line...or, impossible to tell in a split second, perhaps from behind the line. The appeals from those nearest were full of conviction, certainly. You briefly wondered if we might never score, if we could possibly come closer.

We could, we did. Another minute or so, then Jermaine Pennant was at it again, tearing into the box on the right to smack the ball into the six yard box once more. There, Crowe made a total hash of his clearance, missing his kick and leaving the ball trickling towards the line. The ubiquitous Micah Hyde - at the start and end of everything, if you remember - pushed his way through the debris to prod home from barely a yard. A truly spectacular spell of pure, unadulterated attacking football. We'd blown Portsmouth away.

For a moment, we continued in the same vein. We were back on the offensive from the restart, returning to the Pompey area in search of that vital second goal. But then we seemed to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror, instantly crashing back to reality. Again, we dropped back; again, we allowed our opponents too much space to play. This time, we were punished. A ghastly goal from our point of view, really...although no more ghastly than the other three in this increasingly insane match. Allowing Harper to turn inside might've worked if he'd received closer attention when he reached the box...but, instead, we gave him enough room to slide a pass through to Burton. The rest was a complete mess, a weak cross that ended up in the net via a deflection, a glove and the close attentions of a striker.

Worse followed. While Neil Cox nearly found the top corner with a deflected drive, Portsmouth were ahead within five minutes. Bar Harper's fine finish, it was nearly all our own work. It began with Gifton Noel-Williams back-tracking on the touchline, then playing the ball back to Alec Chamberlain. The kick lacked distance and was quickly headed back to Harper, who, with the defence backing off, cut inside and curled a shot into the bottom corner from the eighteen yard line. We'd blown Portsmouth away...and now we'd blown it.

We were nearly finished. Neil Cox under-hit a pass in midfield, and another snappy, speedy Portsmouth move ended with Quashie thrashing a drive wide. Struggling to make an impact in the final third, we replaced a limping Paul Robinson with Anthony McNamee, then, somewhat controversially, removed Jermaine Pennant for Tommy unpopular and slightly curious decision, since Pennant had been our primary threat for most of the game. When another Harper cross took a series of ricochets, Pericard should've done better than to fire straight at the near post, where the ball was pushed wide by Todorov's attempt to get ahead of Alec Chamberlain. We were nearly finished. But not quite.

We'd created nothing since the opening goal. After thirty-three minutes, Gifton Noel-Williams did well to meet a hanging cross from Wayne Brown...but he was too far out to do more than bring a routine save from Hislop with his header. So the equaliser came from nothing at all, just a simple set piece and a moment of relaxation from the Portsmouth defence. Allan Nielsen's impressive hurl, Wayne Brown's neat flick, Neil Cox's well-timed run and stooping header past Hislop. We'd been seated and feeling the weight of our hangovers seconds earlier; we were on our feet and completely immersed in the game now....

In the remaining minutes, it could've gone either way. For Portsmouth, Taylor's swaying runs on the left became a source of encouragement; for Watford, well, we just kept exploring the options. Anthony McNamee sent a cross-shot whistling past diving bodies, but we were to come closer still - Wayne Brown's cross from the corner of the penalty area sought out Heidar Helguson at the far post and his header was directed back into the six yard box. There, Gifton Noel-Williams acrobatically attempted to hook the ball in with some kind of overhead backheel which cleared the target. Frustratingly, he obviously hadn't heard a call from Allan Nielsen, arriving behind him for a simple and surely match-winning header. Oh well.

A tremendous game, anyway. In the middle of it, we held the league leaders to a draw...but that seemed almost incidental, such was our battle with our defensive frailties and attacking misfortune. We overcame both, eventually. We're overcoming quite a lot at the moment.

So far removed from the catastrophe a year ago. So full of promise for 2003.