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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 25/02/03
Wolverhampton Wanderers
"You loid to may Daddoi!"
By Matt Rowson

"I told yow", a Wolves fan was overheard protesting to his companion on the way back through the underpass after the game. "Didn't oi say they'd drag oos down to thair level?"

Which is a peculiar take on proceedings really, given that the middle of Division One (or Two, in old money) has been Wolves' domain since the late eighties. Nonetheless, Wolves continue to provide entertainment by so desperately desperately wanting to be a Premiership club. Like the young schoolboy who aspires to be part of the older lads' gang, nods them an "olroit mait" in the corridor and uses the bravado gained to fuel bullying smaller classmates. When these classmates are bold enough to hit back (West Brom), Wolves move on to more accommodating opposition (Rochdale).

This general impression was reinforced before kick-off by a confused medley of bog-standard "here come the gladiators" numbers that spilled through the loudspeaker in a "yes, we really really mean it" kinda way. This culminated in a choreographed audience-participation rendition of "Hi Ho Wol-ver-hampton" that provoked the usual amusement in the away end.

In the opening stages of the game, Wolves came close to inflicting a bite to match the build-up, launching into an immediate offensive that resulted in Cameron slamming a low shot from inside the area that Chamberlain sprawled to turn around the post. This did nothing to dispel the apprehension amongst the travelling Hornets, several of who had put money on comfortable home victories before kick-off.

Following the exposure of a now less familiar 5-3-2 at Walsall, we had reverted to 4-4-2 here with Gavin Mahon reprising his unlikely role as the Division's hardest winger. Wolves' early assault had a bit of mileage however, and it was disconcerting to see Mahon bullied off the ball on the left flank by Lescott, up for the corner, but his ball back into the box was cleared.

Miller found a gap and fired in another shot low, hard and again fielded well by Alec low to his right... deflected back into the area this time though. Ardley and Cameron homed in on the ball, loose on the right hand side of the penalty area and the Watford number 2, looking an increasingly competent full-back, didn't flinch and cleared both ball and player in a fashion of which Robbo would have been proud. He earned a standing ovation and - to my recollection - his first dedicated chant from the away support, once again behind the goal rather than dissipated along the side of the pitch.

Watford started to venture tentatively forward in a manner that is becoming familiar on away trips - Gifton dropping falling bombs on his chest and holding play up for the distant midfield to arrive in support, Heidar hurling himself at ball and opponent alike. Joleon Lescott nearly became the Icelander's third victim in four days but proved to be made of tougher stuff than Danny Hay or Matt Carbon, staggering back to his feet after treatment.

Allan Nielsen created Watford's first chance as the territorial balance began to even out somewhat, cutting in along the left hand touchline, flicking the ball over challenges as he went before driving a fierce shot inside Matt Murray's near post, the shot well blocked by Wolves' England U21 keeper.

With the Hornets defending from the front, all life was gradually suffocated out of our opponents for the best part of half an hour. There was still the odd threat on the break - such as when Ndah held off the not inconsiderable attention of Cox to bring another fantastic save from Chamberlain as we were hit on the break.

Increasingly, the game was being played in the Wolves half, albeit we weren't really creating a lot with our possession. Glass, whose performances at left back have been arguably his most convincing, was more ambitious on the overlap than he often has been in a wide midfield role, and a bold run created a half-chance for Vernazza, who finished weakly with his left foot. Wolves' forays upfield were becoming a little more desperate - Kennedy protesting in frustration as he was shovelled off the ball and held off by Ardley - and the eagerly anticipated murmurs of discontent began to permeate the home stands, to much joy from the Watford end. "You loid to may Daddoi," came one gleeful observation, "You said we'd win. You said we were a big cloob Daddoi."

Helguson came close to really setting the cat amongst the pigeons with an ambitious and ever-so-nearly brilliant 35-yard volleyed lob that dropped over the stranded Murray and onto the roof of the net. Instead, Wolves upped the tempo again and came back at us with a little more vim if no great penetration for the final five or ten minutes of the half. Our luck held as a Wolves cross appeared to strike the raised arm of Mahon as he jumped with Cox and Ndah in the box - no shout from the referee.

Lucky Half-time Chocolate: A haphazard mixture of confectionary from various sources.
Reason: Everyone in the stand appeared to have taken precautions.
Level of success: Better than the haphazard mixture of intro music.

The second half proceeded in much the same vein. Wolves still fashioned the better chances - and none better than on the hour, when a flawless Kennedy pass curled around the helpless Gayle into the path of Miller...who belied his recent hot streak by clubbing his shot over with the goal at his mercy.

But Watford's competitiveness was undiminished, indeed possibly accelerated by having reached the interval unbreached. Vernazza pushed his luck on occasions, with a number of clattering challenges a matter of luck away from the sort of contact that earned him a red card in this fixture last season. Helguson, having once again demonstrated the art and value of a human pinball in the opposition's half, was perplexingly booked for a clean challenge having previously got away with several that had looked slightly soiled.

We began to fashion chances of our own though, helped in no small part by occasional lapses by the Wolves goalkeeper who first came for and completely missed an arcing Mahon cross that was begging to be attacked at the far post, then sky-kicked in Iroha fashion as a backpass rolled past him for a corner.

Our best chance came when a rare scythe into the Wolves defence scattered the opposition and found Vernazza on his own on the left of the box with space for a first-time shot. Murray did exceptionally well to block, and the deflection did not fall kindly for Watford's attackers.

Kennedy spluttered into life again, finally getting the better of Ardley by cutting inside across him and holding off his marker long enough to scrape a right-footed shot curling around Alec's left-hand post.

Which was pretty much it from Wolves, whose supporters characteristically took out their frustration on Gavin Mahon after he received treatment following a late tackle from the apologetic Naylor. It was all getting a bit much for the home support... "What time - does the booing start?" asked one particularly energetic Hornet in a moment of simmering silence. "Woi down't yew joost shoot oop you f***ing f*****," came the reply, to much glee.

Watford's performance might have been described as unambitious by any onlooking neutral, but the onlooking neutrals probably didn't sit through the heavy drubbings we've taken this season at Portsmouth, Norwich, Gillingham, Millwall, Derby and so on and so on resulting in a goal difference of minus twelve at the time of writing. This was a performance high on effort, drive and pragmatism and a fully deserved point... there's nothing lucky about good defending.

A win would have been nicer, of course - and hugely funny, as was widely recognised in the away end as we lined up for a corner in the closing moments before Helguson's header cleared the bar. We'll take a point though, and are still in with a shout going into a run of home games.

Wolves, without a defeat in four, were booed off.