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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/10/02
Stoke City
By Matt Rowson

In common, I suspect, with most football fans of any denomination it's not often that I find myself not being "up for it" on the day of a game. Football is an enjoyable pastime on a good day and an oasis of sanity on a bad day, now as ever.

On this occasion, however, circumstances conspired. I've been feeling crap all week for starters, not in an easily diagnosable sort of way, just muggy and tired and disorientated. And the weather was grey and ugly. And it's Stoke, never the most inviting of venues, new stadium of otherwise. Motorways in the rain and a frustratingly long-winded circuit of the environs of the Britannia Stadium in search of parking didn't help my mood particularly.

Watching Watford has a rare invigorating quality at the moment, however, as it hasn't really had since the ridiculous charge into the Premiership in 1999. This manifests itself beyond the performance of the team into the attitude in the stands and this, combined with a low corrugated iron roof and a welcome unreserved seating policy, served to provoke a rapid upturn in outlook.

Stoke's new ground looks much the same as all the others, which isn't intended as quite as much of a criticism as it probably sounds...there's something to be said, after all, for relatively spacious facilities and an unobstructed view. The Britannia also benefits from the low roof previously mentioned and two mascots who look like George from Rainbow and his blue cousin, a feature which didn't go unnoticed by the evening's hyperactive source of experimental chanting.

The only change to the Hornets' line-up was that imposed by the injury to and subsequent departure of Danny Webber (albeit only to a vote-winning seat in the away end); Smith made his first start since Preston six weeks ago and Foley took his place on the bench.

In what's becoming a regular feature, Watford were attacked from the kick-off with the home side attempting to force us onto the back foot. As is now equally frequent a pattern, our opponents' bluster and possession in the opening spell didn't by and large translate into goalscoring opportunities. The one exception arose when Robinson and Dyche made heavy weather of releasing an attack down the left, enabling Andy Cooke to interrupt proceedings before being tugged back by Dyche. This prompted the first booking of the game and appeared to limit Dyche's options as regarded handling his robust opponent for the rest of the evening.

It didn't take long for the conviction to dissipate from Stoke's early flurry. This appears to be a side badly in need of direction and motivation, as the first half in particular saw lost challenges met with a bit of a shrug as Watford gradually took control.

One notable exception, as might have been expected, was Tommy Mooney, who showed no little conviction in holding off Doyley to fire in the first on-target attempt which Chamberlain fielded comfortably. Even he, however, appears to have had his bullish self-confidence eroded by recent events... a particularly desperate dive for a penalty later in the half, attracting scarcely a murmur from the home stands, was not the Moonster we once knew.

The sway of the game was with Watford for the majority of the half. Nielsen had the first attempt on target, but his header under challenge from Doyley's cross lacked the power to trouble Cutler. Nonetheless, Nielsen spent much of this game in unbridled pain-in-the-arse mode, one minute breaking up Stoke's play in the middle of the park, the next being the first midfielder up in support of his forwards.

When Watford took the lead it hadn't been portented by any flood of attempts at goal, but the speed and confidence of our build-up had set a tone. Dyche, less gracefully, instigated a series of corners by chipping a pass over the head of Stoke's retreating right-back to where a left winger might have been on the overlap but wasn't. The disorientated defender played safe by heading behind for a corner as the ball dropped over his head, and the only kind interpretation of Dyche's pass was that it was a psychological masterstroke designed to provoke just such a mistake.

Whatever. Ardley's first two corners were repelled by defenders at the near post but he persisted, and Helguson met the third corner at the same juncture with a flick that sent it into the back of the net. It was observed, once we had withstood City's second half fightback, that such a win would not have resulted from the same circumstances over the last couple of years. In fact, the same circumstance could not have arisen at all last season, given that Helguson would have been kept back to guard against a Stoke breakaway. He has now scored in five of his last six games.

Stoke rallied briefly, and again Mooney was the focal point, bullying himself space to shoot in the area, his left footed clout being kept out of the top corner by Chamberlain. Doyley, not keen to be ousted off his current pedestal, advised Mooney of the new lay of the land shortly afterwards with a challenge that left him on his backside.

Watford's forwards worked hard... Helguson was a threat throughout and Smith was twisting and turning encouragingly before being up-ended by a challenge that should have warranted a booking. Cox sent the resultant free kick over, but Stoke were looking desperate and forlorn by this point and the Hornets in the away end, with the help of the low roof, were making quite a racket, the new manager's name now firmly embedded in the repertoire.

The second goal came, and did not flatter the visiting side; Ardley sent in a ball from the right and found Cox with the freedom of the City penalty box to clip his shot into the bottom corner. Two-nil, and disproportionate celebration in the away end. The rest of the half saw us pass the ball around comfortably (Luca would have been thrilled) and Stoke waiting for the whistle, affording us the most comfortable half-time interval we've enjoyed away from home this season.

Lucky half-time Chocolate : A Ham Sandwich.
Reason : Didn't have any chocolate, complacency impeded a thorough search.
Level of Success : As suspect as the chocolate...

...having said which, the second half started with Watford still on the front foot, even if the upping a notch of the chanting distracted from events on the pitch for a few minutes. Ardley, again involved in many good things, wasn't too far away with a free kick after Glass had been brought down on the edge of the box, and Helguson was performing a masterclass in inviting clumsy challenges to win a succession of free kicks in dangerous positions, one of which earning centreback Shtaniuk a card. On another occasion, Helguson gained possession on the left corner of the penalty area and swayed through challenges before squaring to Hyde, whose low, uncertain shot lacked power.

Hyde had a strange game, involved in our better things without quite dominating as he has recently. Much was made before the start of the first appearance of his gloves this winter heralding his mythical loss of form; certainly as Stoke hit back at us later in the half he was rather carried away on the tide, and more than once gave possession away in inadvisable positions.

Stoke's resurgence was heralded by a double substitution which saw Chris Iwulemo adding his height to the forward line and Gudjonsson adding some guile to the home side's midfield. They announced their intentions early, as Gudjonsson crossed for the striker whose header was again confidently claimed by Chamberlain.

Watford broke still, twice coming close through Smith who on one occasion took the ball round the keeper before being unable to negotiate the number of defenders in the box and overhitting a ball across the face of goal. Increasingly, however, our attacks broke on the back of a tightening offside trap. Smith departed with an injury to be replaced by Foley, whose arrival met with encouragement from the stands and who proved a willing release from Stoke's pressure.

Mooney had issued warning midway through the half of what was to come, his fierce header blocked en route to goal. When he did get the ball in the net, a trademark far post header from another Gudjonsson cross from concerningly deep, it signalled a call to arms for the home side. There had been simmering unrest in the stands, manifested in a round of boos as the sides had left at half time, but now the home fans had the sniff of a comeback to aim at. Stoke threw men forward and our midfield virtually disappeared as an endless stream of balls were thrown into the box. Two players to impress in this spell were Chamberlain, whose consistently secure handling inspired confidence, and Robinson, who suggested a few lessons hard learned by refusing to be drawn into diving challenges on the busy Gudjonsson.

Nonetheless, Stoke had chances, none better then when an attacker (Thomas?) headed over when in space. We were on the back foot now; the home fans took advantage of the acoustics with a rousing chorus of "Delilah", Mooney was alive again, waving his clenched fist at the home stands. Sigh.

Two events signalled the end of Stoke's charge. Their momentum was killed somewhat when a collision between Gunnarsson and Foley, which left the latter poleaxed for several minutes, interrupted play. The decision to book Gunnarsson was a peculiar one... you can't book someone for an accidental collision, but if it wasn't an accident it was an elbow, so how does a yellow work ?

The second brake applied to the Potters was the arrival of Johnson for Glass. For ten minutes or so, Johnson gave the most convincing suggestion yet that a return to his previous heights may not be a fanciful notion, pulling the midfield up by its laces and giving us forward momentum again. At one point, a romantic epilogue was suggested as Stoke's defence appeared to back off on the edge of the area offering a shot... but the chance went and Johnson spread an immaculate ball wide instead. Helguson finally killed off any glowing Stoke embers, furiously charging down possession in the 93rd minute just as he had in the first. An almost flawless performance from the Icelander.

The whistle went. Big grins all round, and much acknowledgment of the support from the team and staff. Mooney, too, was keen to hang around, making a point of embracing old colleagues and taking some applause before, perhaps reluctantly, heading for the dressing room. He's been an important part of this sort of Watford side before, of course.

It almost doesn't matter what happens next. This run, and particularly the manner of it, has reconfirmed the faith of many in the wake of what was for many an alienating year last time round. Nor is it too concerning that the four wins that have propelled us to within a point of an automatic promotion place for the first time in two years have come against what are currently the Division's weakest sides. We only got one win (and four defeats) off the relegated sides last season. Wins is wins.

On the way home, the weather was kind and the road was clear. Bring on the Wolves.