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02/03: Review:
"The Academy's hard work"
By Martin Patching
First published in the Hemel Hempstead Gazette, 15/05/03

In front of a 4,428 strong crowd, Watford reserves were crowned Premiership Reserve League (South) Champions following a solid and characteristic 1-0 win over West Ham at Vicarage Road. The team went into the game trailing Fulham by one point so, with an inferior goal difference, only a victory would do.

Understandably, the youngsters started slightly nervously but settled down to produce a performance of some merit after Jason Norville slotted in the all important and eventual winning goal. Jason calmly finished off a superb cross from Gary Fisken as Watford took contol of the game. The Hammers second string, playing their second game in as many days, looked dangerous early on but faded.

I caught up with manager Nigel Gibbs the following morning, as he celebrated with a round of golf, Nigel told me, "It's been a great year. The supporters really turned out for us. The lads played really well and it's quite apt we won 1-0 because that's been the story of the season really."

It most certainly has and after losing four of their first five games, the team bounced back to lose only two of their next 21. Nigel has instilled a wonderful team spirit, good work ethic and the success is built on a solid defence. Pretty much the managers profile in his playing days. Nigel went on to say, "It's the first time the club has won this title, so it's a great honour, I am delighted, obviously for myself, the players and the club."

Local defender Jack Smith has been almost ever-present this season and along with the likes of Jerel Ifil and Sam Swonnell, Ashley Young showed why he has also been offered a professional contract. The 17-year-old caused havoc down the right flank with his pace, dribbling skills and crossing ability. Ashley harnessed a willingness to track back and make some telling tackles and interceptions in defence, to produce a man of the match display.

In goal, the promising Richard Lee made an important save in the early exchanges and such form has seen Richard called up for the England U-20 squad.

Back with the first team and I am pleased to have the news that Watford's club captain Neil Cox has signed a contract. The centre-back has been in fine form again this season and also weighed in more than his fair share of goals. Neil's influence on and of the pitch cannot be underestimated and throughout his career standards of consistency have been remarkably high. Tommy Smith, as yet, has not reached a decision, watch this space.

Season ticket sales are going well, as the club aim for a 10,000 target. So it is the second string who put some icing on the cake at the end of a difficult season off the pitch. An FA Cup semi-final warmed the heart and earned vital revenue and although away form in the league was disappointing in the main, home form was solid with several thrilling games. There is a solid base to build on and the emerging youngsters are the highlight for me and just reward for all the Academy's hard work.

Reproduced courtesy of Gazette Newspapers