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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 12/04/04
"Small turnout from Watford again"
By Matt Rowson

No, actually, not all that small - five hundred or so. You just can't see us, shoved as we have been into the uppermost reaches of Turf Moor's away end... "safety regulations" are cited, although whether seats within half a mile of the pitch would be deemed "unsafe" in all circumstances isn't made clear. The implicit suggestion is that the ease with which the stewards, patrolling the walkways a long way below, can keep an eye on us is a far greater priority than the ability of paying customers to see the pitch. Ho hum.

Not that the good folk of Hertfordshire could be blamed for opting out of another long shlep to this dreadful hole of a place on an Easter Monday in any case, particularly in the light of two upcoming away fixtures. Even Millwall is a preferred destination to Burnley... it may be similarly inhospitable, but it's a hell of a lot closer to home.

The source of the sneering observation is parading around the pitch with a microphone, creating a disturbing spectacle dressed as he is in a long black overcoat in close proximity to a parade of pre-pubescent cheerleaders. His final run-through of the day's line-ups is restricted to the home side only, each of whom is awarded an imaginative sobriquet... "Ian Moore Moore Moore" being one example, perhaps more of a plea than a nickname as Moore contributes next to nothing throughout the afternoon. It is later suggested that our compere is the same gurning idiot who irregularly appears in between channels on lower-budget television stations trying to sell double glazing with similarly boorish "charisma". Richard Short, all is forgiven.

In any event, it had already been established that our only team change would see Hameur Bouazza make his first away start in place of the ailing Scott Fitzgerald, with Lloyd Doyley earning a place on the bench.

Perhaps significant was Ray's rare reliance on 4-4-2 away from home... Burnley's achilles heel is no secret, this is a game in which putting the home side's defence under as much pressure as possible was always going to be our best bet. It didn't take us long either, despite a slow opening... we won the first of a ridiculous number of free kicks in attacking positions wide on the left, Mahon sent a vicious cross arcing towards the far post where Bouazza got his head to it forcing Jensen into a fine, leaping stop, clawing the ball out of the top corner.

Cook then popped up on the right and fed Mahon who cut inside but could only work a gap on his weak foot, a simple enough stop for Jensen. Then Bouazza used his body strength extremely well in receiving Mahon's feed, and turning to release Devlin on the right; his ball found Hyde but he scuffed his shot and again Jensen wasn't troubled.

Burnley's early forays were relatively easily repelled, with Marcus Gayle and Paul Mayo participating in a private contest to see which of the two could clobber the ball the furthest. Such balls out of the back should hardly have troubled a respectable back four, but this was very far from a respectable back four. The Burnley rearguard was reminiscent of a flimsy child's mobile*, blown out of shape and into nervous, spiraling chaos by the merest breeze. As soon as the quarter hour mark, Jensen was trying to slow the game down by trotting across the penalty area to change the location of his goal kicks, and also opted for a change of boots at one point, slowing the game down further.

Burnley's defence aside, no small entertainment was gleaned from goings-on on the Burnley bench. On sixteen minutes a Clarets sub appeared on the touchline... no great surprise, as midfielder Neil Wood had clearly hurt his knee and had collapsed to the floor on several occasions within the opening spell. To the surprise of all, Paul Weller was the party to be replaced by veteran Lenny Johnrose... Weller had not appeared to break into a jog at any point in the opening spell, but wasn't exactly alone in this regard, Glen "bothered" Little having a particularly leisurely game on the Burnley right. Wood limped on for a further five minutes before he too was replaced by former Watford schoolboy Luke Chadwick.

By this time Burnley had started playing themselves. A slack piece of play by Watford allowed Moore to break and release Blake, whose shot was deflected wide. Then a right-wing corner caused an undue mess in the Watford backline, an ineffective clearance was headed back into the box by Chadwick and McGregor nodded home to give the home side an improbable lead.

Briefly, Burnley were roused and started to play with a bit of vigour, however the glum cloud that tends to hover in waiting to envelop the away end at such moments during so many of our trips was never allowed to settle. Apart from anything else, the Clarets' defence was too porous to cause all but the most pitiful attack to give up hope at such an early stage (and one has to wonder at Walsall's inability to find the net on Saturday, incidentally). Graeme Branch in particular seemed determined to barge Heidar Helguson in the back at every opportunity. When Hameur Bouazza decided to take on responsibility and trick himself into some space five yards outside the box Branch committed a Corporal Jones of a tackle, to much hilarity from (a long, long way) behind the goal. Devlin cheekily arced a quick free kick past the top right hand corner before referee Boyeson, not for the first or last time, incurred angry grunting from the home stands by instructing a re-take, which Cook failed to capitalise on.

Had we not equalised before the break perhaps the game would have had a different result. But only perhaps, as quite how we weren't ahead at the break was a question not easily answered. Anyway, the goal was Paul Devlin's, both in creation and execution. Receiving the ball on the right, he motored past a feeble challenge from Camara before inviting a challenge from Branch. Briefly I was reminded of the same player's aggravating triple-salvo-with-pike to win Stockport a penalty at Edgeley Park in 1998... some justice would have been served if Devlin, arch-master at capitalising on the slightest contact if we're being brutally honest, had been able to make the most of the situation. No danger of Devlin needing to emphasise anything though, as Branch flew in with a challenge so late that it was almost in the second half. Similar to Cook's foul on Saturday in that Devlin, like Steve Jones, really wasn't going anywhere. Different, in that Branch is at least nominally a defender... Cook's occasional rash decisions in such situations can be forgiven in that he's at least being there to make those mistakes. Whereas a centreback who can't tackle is, well...

Branch got a yellow, Devlin put the penalty beyond Jensen's dive, the only slight disappointment being that we still haven't seen quite how hard Paul Mayo can kick a spot kick. One-one at the break.

Watford started the second half ferociously. Burnley didn't start the second half at all, at least not for a fair while... Mahon again burrowed forward and drove a shot too close to Jensen. Dyche beat the flapping Jensen to a high ball and provoked several minutes of mayhem in the Burnley box, culminating in Cook turning sharply on the right hand side and drilling a shot narrowly over. Then Chris Baird overlapped on the right and belted in a low shot which Jensen did well to hold. A fine performance all round by the right-back, incidentally, and as if any further reason to dislike Wolves were needed, the "tackle" that ended Jason Dodd's season is unlikely to work in our favour if we try to extend Baird's loan until the end of the season.

Burnley's bench played its last card, and a hefty jack of clubs it was... Dele Adebola on for the ineffectual Luke Chadwick, whose contribution had lasted thirty-four minutes. Whither now, Luke Chadwick... back to Old Trafford, heir apparent to David Beckham? Perhaps not.

All of this was highly entertaining from our elevated viewpoint, with the slight rider that however encouragingly awful Burnley looked at the back, we were still on level terms.

Not for long though. Burnley began to push their defence up the pitch, but paid for it when a long ball dropped over their line on the left hand side for Heidar to pop up from behind a blade of grass and hare towards goal. He was attended to by two Burnley defenders (sic), of whom Branch, mindful that he'd already been booked perhaps, opted not to make much of a challenge at all, and Roche made a challenge akin to a dormouse riding the back of a rampaging rhinoceros.

Which left us with that most unwelcome of scenarios, Heidar in a one-on-one with the keeper. Perhaps our saving grace in retaining Heidar's services is his relative ineffectiveness when he hasn't got a wall of bodies to propel himself through, however something remarkable happened here... Jensen came trundling out, Heidar slipped the ball calmly past him and Watford had the lead.

The game changed again at this point; Adebola looked about as mobile as a wardrobe full of cabbages but he was getting his head to things and providing a much-needed focus for Burnley's attack. On one occasion he even kicked the ball... receiving the ball wide on the right just inside our half as Burnley broke and releasing Moore into space. Moore appeared to be briefly dragged back by Sean Dyche as he approached the area, referee Boyeson enraged the locals still further by waving away appeals. They had a point this time, but are kidding themselves if they think that the referee's cameo did anything other than deflect flak from elsewhere. Burnley were flattered in the extreme by the eventual outcome of this one.

So Burnley started building pressure of sorts, but the more convincing threat still came from the Hornets. Hameur Bouazza, bullish and terrifying throughout, was making Burnley's high line look a very silly idea indeed... one divine through-ball from Hyde released him, fine ball control brought the ball down and he took the ball round the grounded Jensen before firing over, off balance, with two defenders on the line.

Burnley's pressure mounted... a corner from the Burnley right found Camara's outstretched boot; I'm not sure he knew much about it, else he might not have sent it straight at Chamberlain. Alec's quick throw, however, found its way to the irrepressible Cook, who both fizzed around our attack and dug in defensively throughout the game. Cook powered towards the terrified Roche, pulled the ball outside his opponent on the edge of the area and slapped the ball contemptuously across the face of goal and past Jensen. Were so many votes not already in, this would come into contention for goal of the season (albeit without much serious competition).

Joy unrefined in the away end, a comfortable two-goal cushion and the 50 point safety mark in sight. Wrong on two counts, of course, but we weren't to know this at the time. Nerves were resharpened just two minutes later as Adebola got his head to a ball in the box to force Burnley back into the game. They could have grabbed a point too, Little's right-wing cross avoiding the synchronised ballet formation of Adebola, Johnrose and Camara who all failed to capitalise on Watford's only truly ghastly piece of defending of the game by not connecting with his cross.

But three-two it finished, and three points pillaged from deepest Royston Vasey for the second season running. The shine was taken off slightly by both a parting shot of a hack that appears to have put H out of the next few games at least, and also by the less than helpful results elsewhere.

In truth, though, these results only make this win all the more precious. Two defeats over Easter would have seen us in the drop zone now... instead we're very much in control of our own destiny, and on this aggressive, purposeful, likeable evidence we aren't about to relinquish Division One status.

The same might not be said of Burnley. Shame.

* That's the kind of mobile that hangs suspended over a child's cot, not a bloody cellphone. Sigh.