By Pete Fincham
With the dreaded "Manager of the Month" award so deservedly won by Ray Lewington in October, the mythical curse seems to be the prominent feature of November. In a frenetic game that neither side dominated, a missed penalty from Neil Cox proved the key moment of the game for Watford, as a horribly deflected shot from a speculative Watson punt on the hour mark ensured Reading collected all three points, sending the large travelling Hornets contingent home very unhappy indeed.
The return of Jamie Hand in the centre of midfield raised a few eyebrows, as Stephen Glass dropped to the bench, while Anthony McNamee - who featured in a flattering article in Saturday's Times - returned from England Under-19 duty to reclaim his place on the bench. Marcus Gayle continued in place of Sean Dyche.
The game started with considerable purpose, as Helguson's aerial power created havoc from the kickoff. Hyde had a shot after a few seconds, which proved to be his sole attempt on goal, while Marcus Gayle's early attempts to deal with Martin Butler presented Jamie Cureton with a good chance to score the fastest goal of the day. Fortunately for Chamberlain and the several thousand Watford fans behind his goal, the ball from Butler was slightly in front of Cureton, and the score stayed 0-0.
Reading had the better of the play over the opening fifteen minutes, without forcing Chamberlain into any heroics, while the visitors started to stamp their mark on the game, as both Helguson and Nielsen went close to breaking the deadlock. However, the game came alive in quite bizarre circumstances on twenty minutes, when from the away end it seemed as though the referee had awarded a corner to Watford following a lob by Hand. Later information suggested Hand had actually scored, with the referee blowing for a handball by the lively James Harper. As with much of the November luck, Hahnemann superbly saved Cox's firm penalty, tipping the shot round the post. According to my somewhat unreliable statistical knowledge, the miss makes Cox the eleventh Watford player to miss a penalty in the last seven seasons.
After Chamberlain had saved well at the feet of Cureton, Helguson's header forced Hahnemann into a fine save, while from the follow-up corner, Cox really should have made his free header count. Gayle too was guilty of missing the target with a header when in space, but the half ended brightly as Robinson and Helguson combined to put in Nielsen to stroke home from two yards out. Unfortunately, the linesman, who had been busy all half with the continual encroachment of Pennant and Helguson into offside positions, raised his flag once more to rule out the opening goal.
One of the key features of the first half was the willingness of the Reading players to shoot. Most of the time, the only people bothered by the attempts on goal were those Watford fans twenty rows or more back. However, as the Wolves game proved three weeks ago, any shot, however poor, can go in and rescue a point or three for a team. The absence of shots from the Watford midfield has really been something that has concerned the faithful, and with the exception of Hyde's early effort, no player seemed to want to test the tall American in the difficult drizzle that engulfed the Madejski Stadium from the start.
The other point of interest was the apparent absence of any communication between the front pairing of Pennant and Helguson. Although Smith has had injuries, and has not got back to his best form of a year ago, the combination of Smith and Helguson in terms of statistical success, and entertainment, is the one combination up front that seems to work. Pennant looked disorientated and, as against Ipswich, failed to convincingly beat his man when the opportunity presented itself. I have no doubt that Pennant can be a good player, maybe even in the Premiership. But his role as striker in the current Watford team must be reviewed, as once again he went missing in action on too many occasions.
The absence of shots from the Hornets was polarised on the hour mark, when Kevin Watson fired a loose ball forwards from twenty-five yards out. I would say that the firing was a shot on goal, but it was a speculative punt that was going vaguely in the direction of the home end, before taking a horrible deflection into the net, leaving Chamberlain stranded.
Moments later, a fine cross from Ardley found Nielsen who had crept in at the back post. But the pressure from defender Murty did enough to put the Dane off, as his header was just inches wide from six yards out. Cureton hit the crossbar, before Smith came on for Nielsen - a strange decision seeing as Nielsen was the most offensive midfielder, especially as Ardley was not having his best game. Almost immediately, a forty-yard ball from Doyley found Smith, and instinctively Smith found Helguson. While the pass from Smith was telepathic, the finish from Helguson was not one to really test the keeper. McNamee joined the proceedings, replacing Hand; but immediately he was double-marked, and while the rest of the players could not make use of the spare man, McNamee's contribution never lived up to the hype surrounding the youngster.
Without any further clear openings, the attempts on goal were generally lame and messy, as the chances of getting a deserved point from the game slipped away. But as five minutes injury time were signalled, the frantic attempts became more frequent, as Gayle and Cox joined the attacks. At this point, Reading closed out the game by the professional methods (using a very effective offside trap against a na´ve Watford side) and the down-right cynical (time wasting and aggressive tactics were used to the anger of many, and the apparent indifference of the referee).
So while Watford deserved something from the game, they got nothing. However, although the game will be remembered for the penalty miss and the freakish goal, three things struck me throughout. Firstly, you may notice that there were few real chances in the game for either side. I would contend that the Smith / Helguson issue contributes largely to the Watford story, but for Reading, while they have two very good forwards in Butler and Cureton, it was Lloyd Doyley who once again showed his coming of age. He played with commitment and strength throughout the game, and in difficult conditions ensured that he totally controlled his defensive area, and the attacks that came through it.
The second, and more obvious, thing I took away from the Madejski Stadium was the fact that I really despise these new grounds. To stand in the rain at the old Elm Park is infinitely more appealing than reserved seating in this plastic world of non-smoking new stadia. While twenty of us went to the game together, we sat in small groups totally apart from each other. The monstrous carbuncles on these out of town Industrial Estates are not football grounds that give any pleasure to the people visiting them. They are horrible tools of the marketing machine that has caused so much anguish and rejection of tradition, leaving football in the right old mess it currently finds itself in.
Lastly, how can any group of English fans can moronically, gleefully and repetitively chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" at one of their players (even though that player suffers the misfortune of actually being an American)? It suggests that perhaps they are as plastic and superficial as the stadium in which they sit....