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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/09/03, 7.45pm
A marvellous game
By Pete Bradshaw

Football. Marvellous, isn't it? Transporting you from the ordinary day-to-day to some higher plane. Hard to imagine that Watford fans would be experiencing such feelings and such an absorbing ninety minutes given the season to date. Hard to imagine a standing ovation for a team that comes off the pitch with only a draw, firmly rooted next-to-bottom (or bottom if you only count real clubs), down to ten men, four players booked, and with their opponents spurning a penalty and having a shot come back off the post, defying Newtonian mechanics (or is it Euclidean geometry?). But that's what they had, a standing ovation - and thoroughly deserved.

The day broke with a dappled sunrise over Weymouth bay and the cycle along the prom certainly blew away the cobwebs as I started to get my head into gear to finish writing reports for work, in time to pick up a hire car to drive up to the game. The M3 and the M25 were clear and I arrived in good time to take my seat ready to write this, my first main report. I'd remembered to bring the spare pen, but probably should have had a spare notebook, such was the quantity of notes generated by the constant action on the pitch.

And so to the game. I decided to sit slightly to the left so I could see the clock, just in case I didn't have time to check my watch. Just as well! We lost the toss and kicked off 'the wrong way', attacking the Rookery. And attacking, and attacking. Wave after wave.

Reporters often, erm, report that they know little about football really. But here was something obvious. A successful pre-season playing 4-3-3 followed by a poor start playing 4-4-2, just because we got torn apart by Chelsea Harbour Hotel and Conference Centre Invitation All-Stars XI. Tonight we revert to 4-3-3 and we play incisive, positive football. Obvious, really - guess Ray and Terry went back to the drawing board and found the pre-season plan still on it, albeit with Damien Duff's bootprints all over it, rendering it difficult to read.

Vernazza prompting, wanting the ball, demanding the ball, spraying it left and right and most importantly forward, feeding Dyer. Dyer, holding the ball up, knocking balls to Webber, or to Fitzgerald. The front three tormenting Todd (doesn't he look like his dad?). Mahon and Ardley supporting in midfield. A fulcrum. Each supporting the others, winning the second ball. Running the game. Against them just Chadwick holding the line for Burnley, one against three, moving out into the wide open space on the right, testing our defence as we surged forward, leaving those gaps at the back. One or two near things, defence nervous? Kelly winning things on the right, Cox leading by example, Gayle uncompromising but not showing the finesse or confidence of last season, Robinson tackling back, covering across.

The first half an hour was a blur. My notebook filled up. From the first minute, when Webber knocked down to Dyer, just offside but bullish and 'up'. Then the first instalment of Facey v Gayle, a good contest in the first half. Burnley force a corner, menacing. But back come Watford, Alec feeding Vernazza, to Webber, beats two or three but then runs into nowhere - how's your confidence, Danny. Come on, son! Head up! Then Gayle to Dyer to Vernazza to Webber to Dyer, flowing football. Vernazza is making the difference. Just five minutes in and already three penetrating moves. And so it went on: Webber to Fitzgerald to Vernazza (who else), back to Webber - corner. Whipped in by Ardley, Cox wins out over Todd (no contest), Vernazza (who else) unleashes a dipping shot. Then Webber beats Todd in the air, wins a throw - back into Gayle onto Fitzgerald. Pulsating football, at this rate I'll never finish the tea that John Clayton somehow had time to buy despite still being in Leicestershire at 6.15.

Burnley defence is rocking, a long ball finds Webber - surely the breakthrough will come soon. Nearly at the wrong end, though, as Chadwick is brought down and Farrelly fires a free kick into the wall and over for a corner. Farrelly again with the dead ball, but Alec claims - he seems to be much more on song tonight than recently. Lewington has really got the whole team going for this one.

Back come the Hornets, Webber beats West to the ball and fires in a shot that West does well to block for a corner. Ardley again delivers accurately, back out to Robinson to Ardley again. Watford fighting to win everything - first, second and third balls. Burnley challenging too, but being beaten by the incision of the passing.

Now Fitzgerald turns supplier, feeds Dyer, onto Webber to Robinson, a stinging cross shot. Now it's the turn of the defence - attacking from the back I guess Ron Atkinson would say - as Cox and Gayle combine to release Fitzgerald who loses his footing.

Blimey! Pause for breath. Only 14 (FOURTEEN!) minutes gone and enough action for a whole game. No wonder Burnley have been involved in 138 shots on target at both ends....

Super Danny Webber goes the he is released by Ardley, causing the Clarets' defence to panic. And what a chant.

On entering the ground, two things had struck me - the number of empty seats and Tom Jones and the Art of Noise on the tannoy. Ah, Tom Jones. The favourite of Robert Page. At the time (about 7.25) I wondered how much we could do with his arm pumping to raise some noise from the crowd. But by 8.05 it was clearly not needed. We had found our voices, our belief. Roaring (in so far as we ever roar) the team on. Even those who, infuriatingly, booed the announcement of Mahon's name - even they were now cheering.

Webber again, and now Dyer making space to shoot. Fast and furious indeed, but with no shortage of creativity - it's on the plan Ray, on the plan...4-3-3. Totally absorbing...well, so I thought until I heard the people behind discussing the lack of broadband availability in Great Brickhill (threshold 150, only 95 signed up so far, come on!).

Cox slips, but the team is playing for each other and Kelly recovers the ball, releases Fitzgerald, cross is too high and sails over the bar - maybe Dyer would be better out right of the three and Scott in the centre, a target man? Now Kelly joins the attack and shoots wide. Back come Burnley after being pressed for some considerable time (well, it seemed a considerable time). Mahon is block-tackled and loses possession. Blake is brought down. Dangerous free kick, twenty-five yards out. Blake takes and it's deflected. Looking dangerous from set pieces though, Burnley.

Twenty minutes gone. Webber tries the difficult, a sublime backheel, confidence surging through the team. It comes off and he finds Fitzgerald who has an eye for goal and forces a save from Jensen. Easy save but we're making chances and shooting on target. Robinson tries the difficult. He isn't Webber though and it doesn't come off. Good to see us believing we can do these things, but let's not give the ball away lads!

Stan Ternent and Sam 'troublesome knees' Ellis are wearing shorts. Scout masters or prison officers? They remind us of something. Very austere, I'm sure. It's bleak up Burnley. Ah, we're looking at the attire of the coaching staff now. Yes, twenty minutes in, we've battered the door but haven't got in and now the game has entered a quiet phase, and we're distracted. I say a phase...well, a few minutes anyway.

Now Fitzgerald appears at the back helping out, Webber too. We're simply demanding the ball, denying Burnley time and space. Gayle is hoofing, but who cares, it is better than not clearing it (see later). And onto the attack again - Dyer to Webber to Fitzgerald to Mahon - great move, shot off target - will he ever score? Ardley and Vernazza (who else) running the midfield, Gayle joins the attack, forces the keeper to punch - dodgy! Vernazza (who else) puts it back in. Now Ardley feeds Mahon - great cross, testing the keeper who claims off Fitzgerald's head. Robinson to Webber, corner. Ardley delivers, Webber, Cox, Dyer - come on! Mahon gets booked, not necessary surely (see later).

Two teams going at it. Watford in the ascendancy, Burnley defending, looking to counter. But what of the twenty-third man? The referee? He's been quiet so far.

Kelly tackles Blake. Yellow card. Deserved? Maybe. Harsh? Maybe. Free kick anyway, twenty-five yards out (again). Smashed into the wall. A hand? Maybe. Penalty. Unbelievable. What have we done to deserve this? Half an hour of positive football and now we'll go one down to a penalty - we never fail to concede penalties*. But wait! It's missed! Alec is mobbed - hang on...he went the wrong way and the ball missed the post! Who cares, though? (Blake, probably).

Burnley more confident? Moore confident anyway. Beats Gayle. Alec saves - great distribution tonight from Watford's number one. Finds Kelly and then Dyer, onto Webber and then Fitzgerald. Poor cross. Shouldn't Dyer and Fitzgerald be swopped?

Alec saves again from Blake. Fitzgerald mishits a cross (wouldn't Dyer be better there?). But Dyer is doing so well in the centre, who'd be a manager? He holds the ball, releases Kelly, now Ardley and then Webber. Danny beats three. Sublime. Back to Kelly, loses out, Fitzgerald recovers the ball. Attack breaks down, great cover by Robinson, feeds Webber. But the Burnley defence is working it out now, and we're not getting the front three through despite good approach play. So the others have to disrupt the game plan and Kelly, clearly settling in, fires another shot over.

Chadwick is quieter now, Farrelly is the key for 'them' but he is outnumbered. He sets up an attack though - Robinson mishits, Gayle misdirects a header. No silly mistakes please (see later). Now Dyer is battling back, fighting for the ball, releasing Webber. The referee lectures him long and hard. But a card for Todd for dissent - the referee is not letting anything go and cards are flying (see later).

Vernazza (who else) crosses the ball, Dyer and Fitzgerald challenge the keeper who has to juggle. Now Dyer and Vernazza (who else) play a delightful one two. Surely we must score? But it's nearly half time. Cox, to Fitzgerald to Dyer. Last chance probably? Lights come on in the stands. That's it then, lads. Cup of tea and a pie? Hang on, free kick. Ardley, power, precision; Cox, header; Fitzgerald powerful, brave. Yes! Get in! The lad knows where the goal is all right.

Half time. Hey, Stan, tell them to play to the whistle not the lights. Tee hee.

Lucky half time chocolate: I had spurned the joint-editor's routine lucky chocolate from the lucky chocolate shop, but we did find that he is not we left the shop a woman was heard to say, with some consternation, "Wait...are we not getting lucky chocolate from the lucky chocolate shop?". Maybe I could have had some lucky chocolate, but decided to stick with my lucky chicken balti pies (one before the game, one at half time - yes, I eat all the pies...). The joint-editor's lucky chocolate was Smarties Bar. Impact: are you sure it was Smarties and not red and yellow M & Ms?

*Half time gossip: At the tea bar queue it is alleged that we have conceded twenty-four consecutive penalties before this evening...even if not true, it certainly felt like it.

Second half. So what now? Can we do more than hold on and push on? Will Burnley reorganise like Ipswich? (What, only four substitutes on the bench, Stan?)

Off we go again. This is great. Ardley to Vernazza (who else) to Dyer to Fitzgerald, back to Dyer (he's having a good game, and is now out wide, with Fitz in the centre), back to Ardley. Offside, but only just and not as inevitably as in previous games. Gayle beats Moore. Gosh, it's noisy tonight. Cox beats Moore. Facey has almost disappeared now.

Gayle blocks a shot, but we hesitate at the back, Robbo doesn't shut down. Narrow escape. Now here comes Blake, beats Cox, finds Moore - over the that panic in our captain's eyes? Or relief? Camara is joining in on the left and making a difference for them. Pushing Kelly back. Burnley enjoying possession. Cross comes in. An easy header for Gayle to clear (see earlier). He doesn't. Drops for Chadwick. Poor shot, straight to Chamberlain...erm, not quite as it hits Robbo's heel and loops in. For goodness sake, what have done to deserve all these soft goals? Can I hear Dyche scratching his head on the bench? Or maybe he's chewing it (the bench, that is)?

Heads are still up though. Dyer goes sprawling in the box. Did he dive? Well, he wasn't booked. Was it a foul? Well, the referee waved play on. Hmm. Now there's some handbags. Ardley and May booked. The referee is losing the plot we think (we being the collective Rookery - we can see the other end clearly, of course, it's a gift of football supporters - perfect vision over a hundred yards).

Back we come, Vernazza (who else) to Webber who shoots over from thirty yards. Vernazza (who else) and Dyer, one-two - corner. Ball cleared. Free kick to Burnley. Really? What for then? Vernazza (who else) shows his disgust. Booked. Steady, Paolo, that's not what we need. Still half an hour to go, and the way the referee is performing, someone will be sent off soon. Keep your heads lads....

Back to the game, Kelly heads just over, Ardley's corner knocked onto the bar by Burnley. Great pressure from Watford. This is looking better and better and...

Worse! Vernazza, fifty-fifty ball. Studs up, says the ref. We say something else (we can see clearly, of course). Inevitable - red card. Two bookings in four minutes. The referee clearly had remembered our number four. Our best player by miles. What have we done to deserve this?

Webber into midfield (4-3-2). Fitzgerald is everywhere. Gets chopped down. Play on. Play on? Play on! Good grief. Heads still seem to be up though, but we're out of shape although we have another chance - Dyer to Fitzgerald to Mahon, saved. Time to reorganise. Hand on, Dyer off. Webber up front with Fitzgerald. Hand in the middle with Mahon, Ardley on the right surely? No. Ardley given the creative role in the middle, Hand out right. Very odd. Hand all at sea.

Now Moore goes in the book. Foul on Robinson. Good to see that our Paul has dismissed the red mist from his game as all around see cards. Webber now wide left (4-4-1). Very, very odd. Danny looks devoid of ideas there. Cook will come on. Surely. Erm. No.

Crowd screams at the referee, clock ticks down. Adrenalin still pumping but now from fear of defeat rather than expectation of victory. Football...marvellous, isn't it?

I don't really know what's happening now. Come on, clock...Burnley pass the ball around. We rely on, well, instinct mainly. Now Fitzgerald is in midfield - that's better but Cook would surely be better. Erm. No, apparently. Heads are down. Kelly still showing attacking instincts but it's all getting messy. The crowd sings a new chant in unison - against the referee. Even the Great Brickhillites. Most un-Watford like.

Cox misdirects a header. Gayle shows what he should have done earlier and heads clear. Back come Burnley. Long throw, West (yes, he is playing) shoots over. Fitzgerald is offside as we lose shape. Ball up to Chadwick. Great shot. Inside of the post, must go in. Erm. No. What happened there then? Maybe we have got some luck at last. Backs to the wall, claret waves. Repelled. Three agonising extra minutes. Whistle. Relief. Ovation for the team. Boos for the referee. Phew....

And so onto Crewe with the world (well, the tiny bit of it that is WD18 0ER) looking so much better than on Saturday. Football...marvellous, isn't it?

Endnote: Can a man-of-the-match be someone who is sent off after an hour? Especially when the first booking was for dissent? I don't really think so. Not generally. But tonight the man-of-the-match had to be Vernazza (who else) for after he went, there was no match. His was a five-star performance that only got a four due to its curtailment. Pity.