Barclaycard Premiership Reserve League (South), 07/05/03, 7.30pm
West Ham United Reserves
Breaking the rules
By Dave Messenger
Back in my younger days I and several of my peers were regular reserve team watchers. We had a set of unwritten rules to which we strictly adhered at all times. This was reserve team football so no castigating of the players was allowed, as the team would undoubtedly be made up of young kids making their way in the game or injured first teamers building up to full fitness. No singing of any sort would be tolerated, after all nobody wanted to be the one who woke old Geoff from his slumbers, as the trail of dribble down his chin was a source of much amusement as he snored his way through the game. Last of all, no excitement was permitted and as for standing up from your chair, well, one could expect to be ejected for that sort of caper.
At Vicarage Road last night, I broke every rule in the book.
This was a good night. Having enjoyed an excellent run of just two defeats in twenty games, Watford were just the one win from the Barclaycard Premiership Reserve League (South) title, no mean feat in a division including the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and the opponents for this crucial tie, West Ham. Nigel Gibbs, in his first year as reserve team manager, stuck with the majority of the side that had got him this far. Injury to Jerel Ifil meant that Wayne Brown joined Lloyd Doyley at the heart of the defence, the two being easily Watford's most experienced players on show. Other notables in the side included Gary Fisken, injured for much of this season, Lee Cook got the nod ahead of Anthony McNamee and Jason Norville was up front, while recent debutants such as Godfrey, Lee, Swonnell and Jack Smith all started.
Though the visitors started brightly, Watford's young guns got stuck into the task with a hearty appetite for hard work shining through. When the night's only goal came, it was a peach. Fisken sent a great pass into Norville's path, and the young forward beat the Hammers keeper with a neat finish. Watford stayed on top for the rest of the half. Norville and Godfrey could have added to the lead, the thousands more used to watching the first team would testify to seeing much the same problems as on any given Saturday, as an out and out goalscorer could have put the result beyond doubt. Remembering my rules though, it's churlish to criticise the players on show, who were giving all they had to the cause by now.
As the second half went on, you felt Watford needed a second goal. Having survived an early scare, first Norville and then Fisken had good chances to put the result beyond doubt, which were not taken. The assembled fans began to sing and will the wilting Watford side to victory. Any big club fans watching may have scoffed at the crowd's desire for Watford to hold on, but that's not how I see it. Over four thousand Watford fans know that these boys represent the club's future and to see them turn on a gutsy display like this gives you great heart. They deserved our cheers and songs, even though it meant breaking those rules again for some of us. The Hammers almost spoilt the party late on, Brown was on hand to avert disaster and block a last minute shot, it would have been unjust and the referee's whistle crowned the team as Champions.
The whole team deserves the plaudits but special praise should go to captain Sam Swonnell, who led the side superbly with a combative display. The team was assured by another impressive display from the athletic Richard Lee, who makes up for his lack of height with his agility and by the central defensive pairing of Doyley and Brown, who both gave performances to make critics of their first team displays take note. Up front, they were spearheaded by the hard working front two of Godfrey and Norville. Most impressively though, the young right sided pair of Ben Herd and Ashley Young, both signed as senior professionals for next season, were probably the stars of the show. Young in particular, probably half the body weight of MacNamee and with legs like twigs, showed an excellent touch and willingness to take players on which should blossom further under Gibbs' tutelage next year.
Ah yes, Gibbsy. Yet another chapter written for the Watford legend as he capped a fine first year on the coaching staff by leading the team to glory. As you'd expect from someone like Nigel, he remained as calm and collected at the final whistle as he had been all night. Inside I'm sure he was bursting with pride for his team and having been dragged into the celebrations by Wayne Brown, he took the cheers of the gathered fans with his team. We've got a damn good manager at the moment in Ray Lewington, but surely Nigel is being groomed for the big chair at some stage. That's some way off yet I'd hope, but time is on Gibbsy's side as his second twenty years with the club (and what is surely going to be an attempt at the record for the longest time at a club ever) get underway.
While, in the greater scheme of things, winning a league that isn't really result orientated may not count for a lot, try telling that to these young players. It's given them an excellent start to their careers and it gave the fans who saw it hope for the future. As for the reserve game rules, well, some rules are there to be broken. The game served nicely to underline the season, giving the club a feel-good night that made you proud of what all of our players have achieved with their graft this year and proud of our special club. Singing, standing up and getting involved was a small price to pay. Here's to retaining the title next season!