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02/03: Review:
"Much at stake"
By Martin Patching
First published in the Hemel Hempstead Gazette, 13/02/03

Saturday's home defeat at the hands of Rotherham filled the message box with comments from my home town, some unprintable, others claiming The Millers are in with a shout at the play-offs.

The play-off hopefuls are separated by a mere seven points. Reading are presently in sixth place on 46 points, Gillingham way down in 17th position have 39 points. Sandwiched between, all teams stake a claim and remain hopeful. Let us take a look.

Portsmouth and Leicester look almost certain to gain automatic promotion. Unfancied, unfashionable Sheffield United are pursued by a strong looking Nottingham Forest in third and fourth place respectively. Both have shown the consistency required to achieve a play-off place.

My view is that we may go down as far as 9th position to find the other two candidates. This brings in Reading, Norwich City, Wolves, Watford and Ipswich Town. With a gun to my head, I would have to say that the East Anglian pair, Norwich and Ipswich Town have the best credentials. I am in no way writing off The Hornets' chances, they will keep interest going and have an easier run-in than their conterparts. I feel the slow, steady climb of Joe Royle's men and the experience gained from last season's play-off final may just be enough for The Canaries and The Tractor Boys.

The Division is very entertaining and with so much at stake, games are often frantic - similar to Cup ties almost. Which leads me on to this Saturday's trip to the Stadium of Light. Sunderland play hosts for the FA Cup 5th round tie. Bottom of The Premiership they may be, The Blackcats have the in-form Kevin Phillips up front. The former Hornet striker will be a threat on his home soil. Watford do, however, have a great chance as confidence is often low in relegation fights. The stark reality is that Sunderland are only 9 places above Watford in the pyramid, the clubs likely to be facing each other in league games next season. Therefore all to play for and the Quarter Finals for the brave.

Team news from Vicarage Road is that Jermaine Pennant has an ankle injury and is doubtful. Marcus Gayle, who missed the home defeat to Rotherham and has been in fine form of late, may be fit to return. Watford have a host of players out on loan, and Dominic Foley joined Southend this week. Richard Johnson is at Northampton Town, Lee Cook at QPR, Jerel Ifil is hoping to impress Swindon manager Andy King and under 19 midfielder Gary Cohen heads for a trial with Scarborough Town. Pennant returns to Arsenal and an incoming loan deal looks possible.

With some 19 senior players out of contract at the end of this season Watford manager Ray Lewington has major squad decisions to make in the coming weeks. I understand when the PLC have allocated a budjet, offers of new contracts will be made. Not to all, as along with other clubs, The Hornets will be seeking to trim numbers as well as salaries. For the players these are difficult times and they can only increase their chances with results on the pitch.

Good luck in the Cup.


In the charts:
Too Shy by Kajagoogoo

Football League Division One
Everton 1 Watford 0
Sherwood, Rice, Bolton, Sims, Rostron, Callaghan, Taylor, Jackett, Barnes, Blissett, Jenkins.
sub, Lohman.

Reproduced courtesy of Gazette Newspapers
Photographs by Malcolm Armstrong