Further into the pale
By Matt Rowson
There are plenty of people who would look at you oddly if you mentioned that you were planning to watch any pre-season friendly. In fact, scrub that, there are plenty of people who don't understand the concept of watching football at all...these people are clearly idiots whose opinions are about as relevant as the Belgian indie chart, nonetheless a reserve team pre-season game was a step further into the pale than I'd ever been before.
And it proved in many respects to be completely unlike any "normal" football game, although not quite as unlike a football game as the entertainment on offer last time we visited Kingsmeadow. On that occasion, the impressive clubhouse was as near as we got to the waterlogged pitch as the game was called off; today, it proved merely a temporary distraction, affording us the unusual treat of being able to drink beer in relative comfort within sight of the turnstiles.
The second peculiarity came as we entered the ground via the clearly labelled "Away Supporters' Entrance". Perhaps it was naive to expect segregation at what was essentially a non-league pre-season game, but a bank of blue-adorned terracing wasn't what was anticipated. It was never a problem though, and we set up a yellow patch of terracing behind the goal that Gibbsy's side was to attack.
The third disconcerting aspect of the day was the staging of the game in the name of Milly's Fund, a charity set up to promote personal safety for children and young adults in the wake of the disappearance of Milly Dowler. Such charitable link-ups are not totally alien to the world of football, but the prominent attendance of Milly's parents and sister inevitably brought to mind their incomprehensible loss. Personally I suddenly found myself feeling rather silly, wasting a perfectly good afternoon in South London waiting to watch a football game, albeit a football game whose organisers and two thousand spectators between them contributed £12,000 to the fund.
As for the football...the central question as regards the game was really how the standard of the Combined Counties League compares with that of the FA Premier Reserve League, something that I had little feel for before the game started. Not terribly well, on the evidence of these proceedings, which reflects not a jot on the phenomenal achievements of all involved at AFCW for getting the whole thing going and surviving in such apparently rude health.
But it was clear from the outset that Watford's second team would have plenty of joy attacking their host's goal. Jamie Hand, probably the most experienced player in the Watford side at nineteen years of age, bossed the midfield throughout and both McNamee on the left and Fisken with the freedom of the right flank saw plenty of the ball in the opening period.
Warning bells should have rung in the home defence early on as Scott Fitzgerald got his head to an evil McNamee left-wing cross, deflecting it narrowly the wrong side of the far post. Within two minutes he had a second chance, however, and made no mistake... Bouazza pulled to the left and clipped an in-swinging ball into the box for Fitzgerald to meet strongly with his head with the exposed Dons keeper helpless.
Whilst McNamee had clearly warranted some forethought on his flank and was closely attended all afternoon, no such respect was apparently being paid to Gary Fisken on the right and he made good use of the space that he was afforded. His first attempt came after another attack down the centre broke down and the ball bounced to him on the corner of the penalty area. He killed the ball with his first touch and with his second dinked the ball over the keeper's head, an arched back and stretched fingertip both essential in preventing an audacious goal.
Fisken was soon in the action again, being fed into space by the lively Herd and this time homing in on goal before clouting a low shot too close to the keeper. The rebound fell kindly for Swonnell on the edge of the box, who fed the ball neatly into the bottom corner.
Within a couple of minutes, the game was over as a contest. Hamer Bouazza's name has cropped up increasingly often in the accounts of those who take in Academy and Reserve games on a regular basis... this was my first sight of the young Frenchman, but not the last on this evidence. His lack of discipline in wandering within the linesman's line of fire is a mild frustration, but he more than makes up for this with pace, immaculate control, and an elegance that makes his running style look more akin to ice skating.
There was an atypical brutality about the build-up to the third goal, however, as he scrapped his way past some criminally feeble challenges on the left-side of the box before sizzling a shot through the legs of the now thoroughly pissed off goalkeeper.
The early vim of the healthy home support was quashed, and one individual behind us let rip with his frustration in the direction the referee, former top flight official Ray Lewis. "You always were rubbish, Lewis" was the disdainful shout. "I try to maintain a consistent standard" came the offhand reply, to the mirth of the erstwhile aggressor and all others in earshot.
The Dons themselves had no shortage of possession in our half, but rarely looked like doing a lot with it... when the ball made it into the box it was almost invariably at altitude, which put it in the domain of the enormous Nathan Boothe; if he was beaten in the air this afternoon, I must have blinked and missed it. Watford's trialist goalkeeper didn't have a shot on target to deal with in the first period, although occasional indecision with crosses didn't inspire confidence.
There was still time for Fitzgerald to somehow fail to add to the tally as the ball span impossibly around the far post as he got on the end of a cross. Significant, though, that whilst this was not a game in which Fitzgerald was particularly prominent, he still managed to chase back, harry, get on the end of balls, pick up stray bounces and score two predatory goals. He'll be in the first team reckoning again before too long.
De La Soul did their thing over the tannoy as we performed the ritual half-time trudge around the pitch to the preferred vantage point behind the goal to be attacked. The other half-time development was that it began to rain... having spat at us half-heartedly for most of the afternoon, the build up now was gradual enough for the ongoing pondering over whether we should sacrifice a superior view for a place under cover became a non-issue before we'd stopped discussing it.
Jamie Hand, as might have been expected, thoroughly enjoyed the climatic turn of events, and sported an enormous grin for most of the second half whether casually flicking a right wing cross narrowly across the face of goal with his heel, or casually flicking an opponent face-down into the turf in a manner that would surely have earned him the traditional yellow card had this been anything but a friendly.
Half-time had also seen the introduction of a recent AFC Dons signing, former Wimbledon Premiership stalwart Roger Joseph, now thirty-seven, who briefly attempted to engage his old mucker Ray Lewis in some witty banter before resorting to bellowing at fellow defenders instead.
Lewis' colleague on the sidelines was having a far less affable time of it, being the subject of harsh scrutiny from a large, broad, bald gentleman who was not shy with his opinions. Particular ire was incurred when Fitzgerald tussled with the Dons' second goalkeeper of the afternoon in attempting to gain control of a loose ball as it headed away from goal along the touchline. A goal kick or a penalty would both have been defensible positions for Mr.Lewis to adopt, instead he diplomatically compromised with a corner, a decision that our bald friend laid squarely on the shoulders of the linesman, who accepted his barrage with a mildly bored expression.
Watford made a couple of substitutions to liven things up a bit... Godfrey came on for Bouazza, and the tiny Rob Martin moved into Fisken's space on the right as Fisken filled the gap vacated by the departing Swonnell in the centre. Martin was soon making a nuisance of himself, looking lively and positive, and his running was central to the fourth goal. Fitzgerald won possession in the middle of the Dons half, Godfrey picked up possession and fed the galloping Martin on the right flank. Martin fed the ball hard and low across towards the far post where Fitzgerald, having flown past his marker, gobbled it up on the half-volley. An appeal for offside from a rather lost looking defender sparked more aggressive chastisement of the linesman from the terraces... without the benefit of either replay or side-on view, it's not easy to judge, but mindful of Fitzgerald's frightening pace and Thierry Henry's "clearly offside" goal for Arsenal in the cup at the Vic a couple of years ago, I'd be inclined to go with the linesman.
The Dons had a fair chunk of possession in the second half, and were making a rather better job of using it, if never really threatening to get back into the game. The keeper was forced into a smart save, dropping to his left to keep out a cross shot, and the volume of the crowd increased as they sensed that their plugging might be rewarded. At the other end, Godfrey slung a shot wide of the left-hand post from outside the area, and McNamee, who had begun to annoy his marker with repeated steppy-overs, took a late challenge that required some treatment.
Finally, the Dons got their reward... Bolger being given too much space on the edge of the box and clouting the ball venomously into the roof of the net to vociferous joy from the majority of the crowd.
That was that, pretty much. It continued to drizzle in provocative fashion as we headed back to the station, and our mood plummeted for half an hour as rumours of the seriousness of Richard Lee's injury at Loftus Road ran riot and were finally calmed. But a good day, as it turned out. A reserve team pre-season game is no more surreal than a first team equivalent in reality, and not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, even a wet one. Although a certain linesman probably wouldn't agree.