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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 04/10/2003, 3:00pm
Crewe Alexandra
Keeping the faith
By Dave Messenger

Ever wondered what it is that keeps us going to watch this side of ours? As I waited for my lift to arrive, I pondered on this thought and put it down to blind loyalty. There's certainly been very little to cheer so far this season. The team's been struggling, the trains have made getting to away games a bit of a lottery, we're falling foul of every obscure rule in the book, and one of my regular away game companions has already decided that "we're going down". Supporting Watford has become a chore again, and I for one went to Cheshire looking for a reaffirmation of faith.

I got my first shot of optimism early on, as Watford Internet FC set the tone for the day with a resounding 6-1 win over our Crewe counterparts in the pouring rain. Another shot came on arrival at Gresty Road as news filtered through that Ray Lewington had gone for it and decided to keep the same eleven as impressed against Burnley. A third and final blast came courtesy of the weather, as the sun appeared for the first time. Having been soaked through as we left the pitch in the morning, the feel-good factor was in the air.

If you believe in omens, as noted in the preview for this game, good things happen to the Golden Boys on this day in history and things looked good early on, as Watford were as bright as a button. Their passing was neat and crisp, there was no shortage of determination as they set the standard for the game by getting stuck into their challenges and each man was lively off the ball. Neal Ardley forced Crewe keeper Clayton Ince into a smart stop as he capped a good passing move with a low, skidding shot from twenty-five yards and Danny Webber almost beat home defender Richard Walker to a Robbo cross as Watford settled down and got on top of the home side.

Crewe's only real chance of the opening period came when Chamberlain adjusted well to claw away a dipping overhead effort from Northern Ireland international Steve Jones, while Watford continued to impress with their football. A neat flick from the lively Bruce Dyer found Webber, who curled his effort wide of Ince's goal and Ardley again tested the Crewe defence from outside the box and saw a shot blocked by Walker. All good stuff and it seemed only a matter of time before Watford would take the lead.

One of the oldest so-called truths about football is that when you're down the bottom of the table, the luck goes against you. The nineteenth minute dismissal of Alec Chamberlain, on the face of it, seemed to sum that up as the veteran keeper slid through his area to deny the onrushing Jones. The ball spilled out to the edge of the area and Alec clutched at it, despite being just outside the box. Referee Stretton quickly awarded the free kick and after conferring with the lino, he brandished the red card. Quite why he needed to draw the situation out by asking his lino, no-one knows, but the law is the law and Stretton had little choice but to send Alec off. However, as Crewe lined up the resulting free kick on the very edge of the area, you couldn't help but feel hard done by. In this case, the law is most definitely an arse.

Watford made the substitution, with Bruce Dyer the unfortunate player who made way for debutant Lenny Pidgeley. Dyer has fallen foul of the Watford faithful after a disappointing start to his second spell, but there were signs of the old Bruce Dyer against Burnley and he had certainly started this match looking alert and working hard. As Watford readjusted, Crewe took a hold of midfield and for five or ten minutes, we feared the worst as Crewe poured forward. Clearly aggrieved by the latest harsh blow, both Neil Cox and Gavin Mahon were somewhat fortunate to escape further attention from Stretton for somewhat hefty challenges, while Pidgeley was called upon to make a decent stop from Foster and Neil Sorvel blazed a shot over the bar.

Gradually, Watford came to terms with the job at hand. Fitzgerald and Webber took it in turns to filter into midfield with the former Northwood player, whose eye for goal has already impressed, showing a particularly keen appetite for the hard work needed. Crewe still kept possession well but every attack foundered on those twin rocks, Cox and Marcus Gayle. Maybe the two felt they needed to protect the new keeper, maybe they drew the extra confidence from him, but what can't be denied is that this was a far better display from the pairing and while Cox's personal form has held up during the tough start to the campaign, it was reassuring to see Gayle back to his very best.

Sensing that Watford were dealing with the threat of Crewe quite nicely, the Watford support grew in confidence too, and we began to enjoy our close proximity to the pitch. Crewe full back Chris McCready was having a neat and tidy game until one wag decided to call his name with every touch. All part of the game, but when the audible shout of "Ignore them and get on with it!" came from his team-mate, it was a red rag to the assembled bulls in the away end. Every McCready touch was greeted with more and more cat-calls and his touch became more and more ragged as the half progressed. The half ended on a high as Webber rose to head another Robbo cross wide and McCready shanked a clearance into the back row of the away end. The laughter rang around for a good five minutes after the whistle blew....

Half-Time Psychic Conversation:

Dave Messenger - "I'd take a 0-0 right here"

Kyffin Jones - "Yes, but how about if we nick a goal and defend it...?"

Half-Time Crewe Dressing Room Conversation (perhaps):

Paul Baker (Crewe stand in Manager) "McCready, I'm moving you over to the right hand side, next to the Watford fans again. McCready? McCready? Come back..."

The second half began with a double change for the home side as Cochrane and the hapless McCready were replaced and Alex threw bodies forward, while Jamie Hand came on for the injured Gavin Mahon for the Golden Boys. The change seemed to have paid dividends three minutes into the half as Walker headed home a Kenny Lunt free kick (my mate Grino knows a song about him, another time perhaps) but the referee spotted a stray arm in Pidgeley's face and the goal was ruled out. That was about as good as it got for Crewe. No matter what was thrown at Watford, it was repelled with increasing authority, despite the numerical disadvantage. Attacks were either broken up in midfield by one of the three terriers, Vernazza, Hand and Ardley, or when Crewe threw it long, Cox, Gayle and the rest of the back four stood firm.

After sixty-one minutes, it got better. Much better. Another Alex attack was broken up in midfield, by Vernazza on this occasion, and the ball broke loose to Hand. How Danny Webber needed a goal and to score a goal like this must do wonders for the lad. He took the pass from Hand, wriggled away from Walker and drilled the ball past Ince. Cue delirium in the away end and on the pitch as every Watford player except Cox and Pidgeley made a beeline for Webber, who in turn had made a beeline for the fans, "Davis 11" vest proudly on show again. We'd nicked our goal, now it was time to defend.

As it turned out, Webber's shot was the last on-target effort of the match. Crewe huffed and puffed but if Watford had been well organised and determined at 0-0, they were twice as bullish with the lead. Biting tackles were made, Hand and Kelly, who played much better than the two previous games, both picked up yellow cards but so many more challenges were timed to perfection while anything that went near Lenny Pidgeley was gathered with an assurance not seen from our goalkeeper so far this season. While nobody can doubt Alec Chamberlain's immense contribution to Watford down the years, his forthcoming suspension should open the door for first Pidgeley, and then Richard Lee once he returns to fitness.

Crewe continued to create nothing more than a little pressure, but Watford were already thriving on that. While the home side's attacks were rebuffed and their support got more and more restless, Watford looked dangerous on the break. The hard working Hornets found yet more energy and with a little more conviction may have grabbed a second from a number of promising looking breaks out of defence. Ardley, who was the best player on the pitch, might have done better with a free kick, and one mammoth Pidgeley clearance almost caught out Ince, who had to scramble the ball out for a corner.

You couldn't help but feel how crucial the last few minutes were to the team and to our season going forward. Had Watford conceded after all that graft, you can only wonder how much of a dent that might have put into the confidence. It didn't happen and while the relief was evident, the looks on the faces of the players as they came to thank the fans for what was superb support said it all. Tell me this side has no character, tell me they're going down, tell me Lewington can't motivate them anymore and I'll tell you about a team who celebrated that win with so much gusto that you have expected them to jump into the crowd to celebrate with us. A team that worked so hard for ninety minutes that even the most blinkered Crewe fans would have to admit we deserved the win and a team that can now look forward to three home games in a row. If they play like that, we'll be safely mid table by November.

How's that for a reaffirmation of faith....