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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 08/11/03
Nottingham Forest
A good feeling
By Matt Rowson

Sometimes you just get a feeling. It's not something that's easily described, not something you could predict, or fit a mathematical model to. It's something that has roots in and is related to the way the team is playing, certainly, but it's not purely defined by the last few games. It's something intangible, perhaps something you subconsciously glean from the atmosphere in the pub before the game, something you need to tune in to. Something that explains the more-frequent-than-chance consensus beforehand.

"I've got a good feeling about today."

It was cold. For the first time this season, really. The kind of cold when you're conscious of the wind and wonder why different locations on your face numb at different speeds. The chill didn't seem to overly disrupt Forest's team selection, however, with the majority of those supposedly doubtful for the game through flu or injury - notably midfielder Andy Reid and 'keeper Darren Ward - lining up and Michael Dawson making an unheralded return to the side having shaken off his hamstring injury. For the Hornets, the first change to the starting eleven in four games as Micah Hyde made a welcome return with Jamie Hand dropping to the bench.

Forest opened brightly, passing the ball quickly and neatly as is their wont. From the first sign of resistance, however - an unequivocal challenge from Kelly that left Bopp seeing stars - it was evident that Forest were going to have problems converting possession into chances. Instrumental in this, again, was Marcus Gayle who suffocated the life out of many a Forest attack with another colossal display. After his successful containment of Gareth Taylor during last season's F.A.Cup Quarter Final it was something if a surprise to see Gayle pair off with Marlon Harewood during this game, leaving Taylor to Neil Cox, but Forest's leading goalscorer was thoroughly subdued.

The first noteworthy attempt on goal came at the other end, as Watford too swept forward brightly. Fitzgerald received a firmly struck pass about twenty yards out (or so you'd guess - from directly behind the play it's hard to tell...), killed its pace and flicked it up in front of him with his first touch and swiped it out of the air with his second. The shot looked to be heading narrowly wide, perhaps shaving the post on its way out, but such was the pace and swerve on the shot that Darren Ward couldn't be certain and pushed it away for a corner.

Danny Webber, who was presumably under particular scrutiny, was next to threaten, running boldly at Forest's defence before sending a shot wide. At the other end, Forest were adept at moving the ball around but only rarely did they threaten to carve an opening by this means... Watford's defence shuffled slightly out of shape by the time the ball reached McPhail on the edge of the area, his low shot span mercifully wide of Pidgeley's right-hand post.

As Watford's defence failed to yield Forest resorted to a more direct approach; there will certainly be occasions on which Gareth Taylor receives more generous treatment from the officials, although there was little disputing the decision to disallow his "goal" when he illegally subdued Pidgeley in nodding the ball home.

And so the half continued, both sides displaying attacking intent but ultimately pawing at each other rather unthreateningly. Webber received the ball wide on the left, span and completely lost his marker before sending over a low cross that evaded everyone in the area and drifted harmlessly wide. The sides traded narrow misses from corners... Gareth Taylor getting his head to a left-wing corner near post and sending it narrowly wide, Scott Fitzgerald coming even closer, meeting Ardley's corner at the far post, sending his header back across the face and inches wide. Paul Devlin cutting inside before shovelling a shot well wide of the right-hand post.

Hugely encouraging throughout all of this was the involvement of Micah Hyde. Not only did he last the ninety minutes - cause for celebration in itself - but his display was tidy, even aggressive, and occasionally inspired. Not outstanding, not back to his best yet, but finally very much getting there.

There was a minor distraction in the Main Stand to our left (like our own, no longer appropriately titled) where an unprompted confrontation flared between the Forest support and the stewards. This is the second season running that we've witnessed such an event, and one can only speculate as to the cause... perhaps the stewards are carrying Forest supporters off to feed to Brian Clough, skulking in some darkened room underneath the stadium. Who knows.

Forest's attacks were increasingly prompted by Andy Reid, who scurried about all over the field in a lively display that bore no evidence of the groin strain that he was supposed to be carrying. He looks an excellent footballer - small, but stocky and quick in thought and movement. He carved one half-decent opening with an attack down the right which saw him lose the again uncomfortable-looking Brown before drilling into the side-netting. Then he popped up on the left, doubling up with Marlon Harewood to bypass Stephen Kelly before sending over a firm cross which Pidgeley blocked but could only claw over his head to where Brown put the ball behind for a corner in the last meaningful exchange of the half.

As on Tuesday we'd held our own in the first forty-five and had cause for optimism going into the break. As on Tuesday, we went behind within ten minutes of the restart out of nothing... Eugen Bopp finding a gap in the penalty area and rolling what looked like a weak shot in off the post. Bopp, incidentally, has a fine name which the Forest support is really rather wasting at the moment. "Eugen Bopp Bopp Bopp" is uncomplicated but does display a lack of imagination given the material available to work with. A more creative ditty ought to be achievable, even without venturing onto Hanson territory.

The game changed. Whether this was instigated by Forest's increased trepidation or our own bullish refusal to lose the game wasn't clear, but the two certainly fed off each other. Forest were quickly on the back foot, and we boiled ourselves up into something potent and dangerous.

Neal Ardley, who had another very fine game prompting from deep before running out of steam late on, was first to threaten. He received the ball outside the area and slightly to the left following some good work on the flank by Brown and Fitzgerald, lined up on his right foot and arrowed a ball to the far top corner which Ward was at full stretch to finger over.

The tone of the rest of the game had been set. From the corner, Brown went up to win the ball which fell to Hyde on the edge of the box. With Forest's defence in disarray he drove a low hard shot in which was deflected and broke to Fitzgerald who clipped the ball home... unfortunately, from several yards beyond the last defender.

Fitzgerald had had a relatively quiet game but... again, with echoes of Tuesday... he seemed to notice Bruce Dyer warming up in preparation on the touchline and ramped his performance up several notches.

Hyde danced through the centre and dinked a ball into space for Webber. He was muscled out for a corner, from which Cox again went close. Then Fitzgerald interrupted Thompson and Ward as the defender was attempting to ferry the ball back to his keeper... it's easy to be critical of the Forest defenders but after a dozen first team starts I'm still astonished by Fitzgerald's pace so perhaps one shouldn't be too harsh. In any case, with an impossible burst of speed Fitz was between them, had stuck a leg out and the stadium held its breath as the ball squeezed round the post.

Forest were now wholly reliant on the counterattack. Andy Reid, still the man most likely, set off on a rampage upfield before being squeezed out; Marlon Harewood followed suit, running diagonally left-to-right into our half before dragging a shot across the face of goal and wide. Really, these were just footnotes though... there was only one team in this.

Another good move saw us scatter Forest's defence... Devlin's hard, low shot from the edge of the area just needed a deflection from one of several candidate unwitting legs; instead the two deflections it took cancelled each other out and took the steam from the shot which rolled comfortably into Ward's arms.

Cook came on for Ardley, giving us options down the left. Vernazza moved more central, and his performance elevated from the impressive to the almost balletic. His fabulous deep ball released Webber, whose first touch was poor and shot was blocked, but the ball broke kindly for Cook cutting in from the left, and he arrowed a daisy cutter across the face of goal and beyond Ward into the bottom corner to ecstatic celebration.

Immensely pleasingly, we didn't let up and there only looked like being one possible winner as the action continued to the final whistle. Webber was released again before being halted on the edge of the area by a clumsy challenge from the unimpressive Dawson - who somehow managed to avoid a booking. Cook's left-footed free kick beat the wall and was reasonably well placed, but lacked the power to trouble the keeper. Moments later, Cook had his third on-target attempt - not a bad return for less than fifteen minutes on the pitch - a left footed curler from just outside the area which was too close to the keeper.

Forest gave us a fright at the death, as Gunnarsson juggled the ball through one challenge before striking it out of the air from the edge of the area, but his powerful shot was too close to Pidgeley. The whistle went, and again Watford left the pitch to an ovation from the considerable away following.

Having parked in one place, then headed to the pub and approached the stadium from a completely different direction, I was thoroughly disorientated on my way out and ended up being carried by the crowds and doing a wide circumference of the City Ground before locating my car. I had no more luck trying to find my way out of Nottingham, doing a tour of a number of housing estates and negotiating several queues that were all pointing in the wrong direction, all the while keeping an eye on my dangerously empty petrol tank (Nottingham - millions of cars and no petrol stations, how does that work?).

Fortunately, Watford's route out of relegation trouble now seems a lot clearer. Our last two away fixtures may have only yielded a point, but we've created plenty of chances, been bright and vivacious and, frankly, deserved more. The rest of the season is keenly awaited.

And I've still got that good feeling...