By Rory Jiwani
At times like these, football seems utterly trivial. Many would argue that it is anyway but since the weekend's events, even the most ardent supporter would have bowed to that opinion at some point. Death is always sad but the loss of such a young, talented and, by all accounts, likeable individual is even harder to bear and our condolences go to Jimmy Davis's family, friends and team-mates at Watford, Swindon and Manchester United.
With this backdrop, Vicarage Road was as subdued as it has ever been. As a tribute to Jimmy, the players came out to Coolio's 'Gangsta's Paradise' (as they will for the rest of the season) and this was followed by an impeccably observed minute silence. Then at just past 8pm on Tuesday August 12th, the match kicked off.
Given the circumstances, it was unsurprising that the first half was a poor, disjointed affair. Standing out were Webber, clearly intent on giving his former United youth strike partner an appropriate send-off, and Helguson, who was his usual bundle of energy despite being played out of position on the left-side of midfield. He played there against Chelsea last week and it seems Lewington has earmarked him for that role but I would much prefer him upfront. Bournemouth perhaps looked slightly sharper having played ninety minutes on Saturday but there was very little to choose between the two sides.
Chances were few and far between. Johnson beat Helguson to Hyde's clever chip over the Bournemouth defence only to see his effort blocked. Then came the best move of the half which was prompted by a searching forward run from Doyley. The ball was worked wide to Ardley whose first time cross was headed wide by the onrushing Helguson. The visitors with Thomas (imagine McNamee but not as good) on the left and Elliott on the right asked early questions but their threat faded as the half progressed.
One obvious fact from the first half was that the Bruce Dyer we've signed is a very different animal from the one we sold to Palace nearly a decade ago. He now reminds me of his former Hornets strike partner Paul Furlong but without looking half as frightening with the ball and I'm yet to be convinced that he offers more than Helguson. It is early days so patience is required, although he should have done better than kicking thin air from the edge of the six-yard box in the second half.
The second period saw a much-improved performance and our dominance should have been rewarded with at least two goals. Right at the start of the half, Hyde's cross looked set to be headed home by either Helguson or Webber but they collided and the ball ran tamely through to Moss in the Cherries goal. Then Hyde, who had an infuriatingly inconsistent night, dallied on the ball in midfield allowing Thomas to run and shoot. The ball was deflected away but from the resulting corner a downward header came off Helguson and hit the post. This proved to be the wake-up call Watford needed and the rest of the half was one-way traffic.
With Helguson preferring to move inside and Mahon (unfairly castigated by the crowd as usual) favouring his right foot, Watford's main threat came down the right. Ardley caused problems with his crossing and passing and came close to putting the Horns in front when his free-kick was tipped over the bar by Moss. He and Johnno were replaced by Hand and Cook on sixty-three minutes and, although this gave the side better balance, we missed Ardley's accuracy from setpieces. Both substitutes excelled with Hand laying a claim for a start in central midfield and Cook offering real threat down the left.
Having been outplayed by Watford for the majority of the second half, Bournemouth brought on Feeney for Thomas and adopted Route One with three big men up and around the front. But they still could not see the ball with Webber and Cook rampant. More concerted pressure led to a left foot skidding shot from Hyde which was gathered at the second attempt by Moss but the goal just would not come. The final whistle sounded with the game still scoreless.
Having come so close to winning in normal time, Watford nearly threw it away in the first period of extra time. Twice, Steve Fletcher had free headers from close range and, thankfully, both times he headed them straight at Chamberlain. In between those two chances, there had been an unsightly incident between Helguson and Browning. After some jostling had been broken up by the referee, the two resumed battle and then Helguson hit the deck. I have to use the Wenger line and say I didn't see it but everyone else in the Rookery claimed elbow use. However, Browning got a ticking off instead of the expected red card.
The Bournemouth midfielder did himself no favours with the home fans when he crumbled weakly under a Mahon challenge. From the resulting free-kick, Purches cleverly curled the ball low around the outside of the wall but Chamberlain was alert at his near post. The defence was caught napping again when a punt nearly put Feeney through. Gayle tracked back well but the striker should have forced a save rather than hitting the ball high into the stand. The referee, who had an indifferent night, then realised he had not yet used his notebook so booked Webber for an innocuous challenge.
The second half of extra-time saw a greater effort from the Horns and Fitzgerald replaced a justifiably knackered Helguson. With Dyer moving to the right, the substitution paid immediate dividends. Webber laid the ball to Hyde whose dinked cross looked set to fall short of Cook at the far edge of the area. However, the winger managed to hit a vicious low cross-shot which beat Moss and was arrowing wide when Fitzgerald slid in to poke the ball in from an acute angle. And although the match had kicked off over two hours earlier, this was the moment the season actually began. The crowd went wild and when Webber revealed his vest with 'Davis 11' on it the crowd applauded and cheered some more.
How fitting it would have been if Webber had scored but for all his and the crowd's efforts he just could not chisel out a clear-cut chance for himself. Fitzgerald looked more potent than Dyer had previously and came close to a second but delayed his shot for a split-second too long. It will be interesting to see when Fitzgerald gets a first team start this season as he looks to be a gem of a player. His goal was well taken and he closes down defenders very quickly, forcing them to make mistakes. Maybe Lewington sees him more as a 'super-sub' but there is no doubt we now have a wealth of attacking options.
So a deserved win in the end but, more importantly, a huge psychological barrier overcome by the team. The emotions following the weekend will still be running high but the relief of getting the first game out of the way will be massive. They are good professionals and can achieve great things this season. Hopefully, the memory of Jimmy Davis will inspire them to take that one step further.