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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 29/03/03, 3.00pm
Sheffield Wednesday
Concentration...that's what you need
By Dave Messenger

I'm not going to beat about the bush, Hillsborough is still a fantastic stadium. Yes, the old place is looking its age these days, but the away end is among the more noise-inducing stands in the country. Who can forget the goal that "we", the fans, scored with the wall of noise during the Premiership campaign? Sadly, the recent run of poor results meant a smaller turnout than we might have expected and as a result, a somewhat subdued atmosphere. Add in the wide-open spaces in the home stands and the whole mood could be best described as eerie.

Still, the turnout in the Watford end was boosted by a gaggle of Geordies a couple of rows in front of us, who yelled their support for Michael Chopra as the on-loan Newcastle striker made his anticipated league debut. In a much shuffled Hornets starting eleven, Chopra was partnered by Tommy Smith, while a plethora of other changes, both positional and in personnel, meant that only Alec Chamberlain and Gavin Mahon started the game in the same positions as the Stoke game. A radical reshuffle from Ray Lewington who was clearly hoping to secure the three points that would ensure First Division football next season and allow Watford to concentrate on building up to the Southampton game.

Wednesday too have some pressing concerns to deal with. Having seen Stoke, Brighton and Grimsby string some results together, the picture is bleak for Chris Turner's men. They are a side that needs to win and win quickly if they are to avoid the trapdoor to the Second Division. It showed in the opening salvos as the frantic Owls threw the kitchen sink in Watford's direction. Michael Reddy almost drew first blood with a curling eleventh minute effort, which Chamberlain did well to save, then the same player flashed a cross through the box, the slightest of touches may have brought the opening goal. Though they were playing with little conviction, Wednesday had started the brighter of the sides. Once Watford's reshuffled side had settled, they made chances of their own. Stephen Glass had a couple of half decent efforts during the early exchanges.

The Owls continued to press, with the lively Reddy in particular giving Paul Robinson an uncomfortable afternoon. The normally irrepressible Robbo's drop in form is possibly one of the more worrying aspects of our recent bad run, and he picked up a deserved yellow card for an untidy challenge on the fleet-footed winger. From the resulting free-kick, Tony Crane failed to trouble Chamberlain with a tame header and shortly after that, a cross from home debutant Richard Evans was blocked by Neil Cox, which led to some outrageous penalty appeals from the desperate home crowd who felt that the Watford skipper had handled.

Wednesday never looked happy in defence though and with Smith and Chopra looking lively, Watford were causing problems of their own. First, Smith wriggled clear of his marker to fire into the side-netting, then Chopra showed his class with a sharp turn and fizzing effort which just cleared the bar. Having weathered the early storm, such as it was, Wayne Brown and Sean Dyche established their superiority over their men, with Brown making one timely block on Lee Bradbury just as the former Pompey man shaped to shoot.

It would take a hard heart to not feel slightly sorry for Wednesday when the opening goal came on thirty-three minutes, as it was the sort of goal you only concede when you're bottom of the table. A half-cleared corner fell to Paolo Vernazza patrolling the edge of the box. The midfielder's shot flew into a crowd of players and the ball took two ricochets, either of which could have gone anywhere. Instead, the ball fell right onto our Smith's right foot and by the time the nearest Wednesday defender reacted to the bounce of the ball, Smith had turned and finished smartly, slipping the ball past the rounder-than-ever Kevin Pressman in the Wednesday goal. The Owls' response was immediate, Ashley Westwood forced an excellent fingertip save from Chamberlain and Dyche cleared a dangerous cross from Reddy, but those two moments apart, Wednesday looked crushed by their misfortune and Watford played the half out comfortably.

If we anticipated a strong start to the second period from the home side, it never really materialised. Robinson succumbed to an injury and was replaced by Jamie Hand, with Mahon moving to left back. The bulky midfield man deserves much credit for a useful half in an unfamiliar role. Watford had the better chances early in the half, as Smith was denied by a super block from his namesake in the Wednesday back four and Cox might have done better when his header from an Neal Ardley knock-down was blocked. Watford continued to look in control and while a second goal wasn't exactly imminent, you certainly felt that the Owls had little left to give.

On sixty-six minutes, that quickly changed. Owls sub Lloyd Owusu chased a harmless looking lob forward, but Chamberlain suffered a rush of blood to the head and he sent the former Brentford striker sprawling with a needless challenge on the corner of the box. Bradbury duly swept the penalty home and memories of last season's spineless capitulation at the same venue came to the fore. Watford substituted Chopra shortly afterwards, the youngster had taken a heavy knock and had visibly tired in the second half, so he made way for Jason Norville having made a promising start to his loan spell, while his dedicated followers had seen enough and headed back to the Toon.

Understandably, the equaliser had brought Wednesday back to life and now Watford looked stretched as the home side piled on the pressure. Watford couldn't get out of their own half, but The Owls created little in the way of clear-cut chances. All of a sudden the normally ultra reliable Chamberlain seemed to totally lose the plot and Watford fans had their hearts in their mouths when he allowed a ball to slip through his hands, happily Mahon reacted quickly and stopped Reddy poking the ball into an empty net. Minutes later, a poor punch presented Bradbury with a golden opportunity, which he clumsily bludgeoned into the side netting. The travelling fans drew a deep breath and waited for Wednesday to grab the lead.

Only it didn't happen. With nine minutes to play, Norville lost out to their Smith, but didn't give up and he won the ball back with a good tackle some forty yards from Pressman's goal. He then ran to the edge of the box, shimmied away from Westwood and drilled a low effort past the lardy keeper's despairing dive and into the bottom corner, for probably one of the best first senior goals a player could wish to score. It certainly deserved to win this or most other game. Again, the crestfallen Wednesday side looked beaten and the home fans began to head for the exits en masse with the delighted songs of the Watford faithful ringing in their ears.

In the final ten minutes, it was Watford who looked more likely to score again, as Wednesday left massive gaps for Smith and Norville to explore and with a little more composure, a third goal was there for the taking. As they had earlier in the game, Wednesday seemed finished, but just as the points seemed safe and the magical fifty point mark secured, the home side forced a flurry of corners, all of which Evans seemed in no particular hurry to take. Despite the apparent disinterest, one of them flew onto Danny Maddix's head and his bullet header earned his side a point, there was barely enough time for Watford to kick off before referee Barry blew his whistle. Strangely the whole ground seemed subdued as the home fans knew a point was no good to them in their position while we felt that we'd been kicked in the teeth and, not for the first time at Hillsborough in recent seasons, we left the ground with spirits low.

As Watford went into this recent run of easy looking fixtures (on paper at least) the talk was of four wins at a minimum, which would see us well in contention for a play-off place. That all seems so long ago and the fixtures look tougher from here on in. It would seem that we're going to be looking over our shoulders if we're not careful. Make no mistake, this should have been the three points we needed and while we always feel the need to look for someone or something to blame, it would be churlish to criticise this Watford display too much. Some good things happened today, not least decent displays from the forward players for the first time in ages, while the re-jigged back four defended well on the whole. However, we were punished for two lapses in concentration and we're still searching for that elusive win. Hopefully, tougher opponents will focus our minds a little more so that we can finally put the league to bed and then we can reserve that concentration for the Cup....