Pre-Season Friendly, 26/07/03
Queens Park Rangers 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain, Doyley, Cox, Gayle, Mahon, Hyde, Ardley, Johnson, Davis, Dyer, Helguson
Subs: Lee (for Chamberlain), Cook (for Davis), J Smith (for Ardley), Dyche, Young
Scorers: Ardley, Dyer
Who throws a shoe?
By Dave Messenger
This was so close to being a league fixture. On my last visit to Loftus Road, as a neutral observer to their play-off semi final against Oldham, the whole ground rocked to its very foundations as Rangers secured their place in the final. Pre-season friendlies are never, ever going to match the blood and thunder ferocity of a play-off semi-final, but the sense of hangover from the events of May is certainly in the air down in that particular part of West London.
Contrast this with the excitement in our camp just now. We have three new additions to the squad when we thought one was all we would manage. We've made a decent start to the pre-season games, which has provided a glimpse of what might be, and the support is still revelling in the glow of the cup run last season. It's a good time to be a Watford fan and the numbers congregated in the away end show that the buzz is back. While the new signings are exciting for sure, there was a stage at the end of last season when you wondered if the partnership between Neil Cox and Marcus Gayle would be renewed. It should not be lost amid the excitement that re-signing the likes of these two players, as well as Alec Chamberlain and Heidar Helguson, is every bit as important as the arrival of Messrs Dyer, Webber and Davis. It was also good to see another returning player in the starting line-up. Though he was strangely wearing the number 7 shirt, Richard Johnson's return to full fitness is as welcome as it is overdue.
Watford lined up in the new-look 4-3-3 formation and got on top of a lacklustre Rangers side right from the word go. Johnno was first to signal his intentions with a twenty yard drive which whistled past the post, evoking memories of the many howitzers we've seen fly from the Australian's nuclear-powered boots over the years. This was my first look at the new shape and, generally, it impressed. Neal Ardley slotted into his holding midfield role with his customary skill and steady-eddie calmness. This reporter makes no secret of his admiration for Ardley and should he continue in this vein, a good season lies ahead for the ex-Wimbledon man.
It was Ardley who opened the scoring. After being fed by Johnson, he let fly with a precise and powerful shot, which was always ending up in the back of the net. Almost immediately it could have been two as Bruce Dyer, a constant menace to the West Londoners' defence, beat two defenders before over-hitting his cross to the back post, to the frustration of the unmarked and perfectly placed Helguson. All good stuff as Watford ended the half in the ascendancy. Defensively, Watford restricted the home side to one half chance as the back four looked solid and resolute. Gavin Mahon impressed at left back, despite the potent threat of one of our number's desire to throw shoes at him.
The second half started in the same manner with Watford, who replaced Chamberlain with Richard Lee at the break, on top, though the first half chance fell to the embarrassingly named Shittu, his acrobatic effort cleared the bar by some distance. Moments later, Dyer made the score two-nil with a sweet finish from a Helguson flick. Though Heidar was in and out of the game, it can only be a good sign to see two of Watford's strikers linking so well. A third goal should have followed when Dyer beat his marker for the umpteenth time and set up Helguson, who mis-kicked, to the relief of the Rangers defence.
The game now entered a quiet spell, which was entertainingly punctuated with a good amount of cat-calling to the Rangers players. Second choice keeper Culkin was regailed with cries of "You're not Chris Day!" whenever the chance arose, while midfield man Marc Bircham, owner of football's most ridiculous haircut, was advised to "take his head out of that badger's arse" on more than one occasion by various wags in the away end.
As the rain began to teem down, Rangers came back into the game and almost forced a goal, Lloyd Doyley was on hand to clear former Watford hero Paul Furlong's goalbound effort from the line. In fact, Furlong, Day and Steve Palmer were all warmly applauded by the visiting fans and the Rangers faithful reciprocated by giving their former loanee Lee Cook a great reception, when he replaced the visibly tiring Jimmy Davis.
QPR got their reward for a better spell when Bircham was felled in the box and Richard Langley stroked the penalty home, but Watford held on, despite a few uncharacteristic mistakes from Gayle and a head injury to Ardley, which saw Jack Smith introduced to the action. As the final whistle approached, Watford almost killed off any hope of a Rangers equaliser as Cook fizzed a drive wide and Helguson slid in to divert another Dyer cross into the side netting.
The action was brought to a disturbing close as Richard Lee suffered a nasty clash of heads with Furlong in mid-air, which a QPR supporting colleague described as one of the worst collisions he had ever seen. The young keeper spent nearly ten minutes on the ground surrounded by medics, as we later found out he had been knocked out cold in the collision. Fortunately, it appears there are no broken bones but the Watford faithful were worried enough to stay in the ground long after the whistle, waiting to catch a glimpse of Lee and the players showed their concern by waiting on the pitch.
So, in all, a good display and result if slightly tarnished by Lee's injury. However, I'm going to finish on a precautionary. Back in the drier surroundings of the Bush Ranger pub on Goldhawk Road, we reflected on the pre-season game against QPR of two years ago when, on a balmy summer's day, we took on QPR amid the ballyhoo and excitement of the appointment of a certain Italian gentleman. In the pub after that game of pass, pass, pass, pass and precious little else, a local commented to one of our number that we ought to be worried about the ease in which Ramon Vega had been turned by one of the QPR players. Excitement being as it was, the Rangers fan was dismissed easily.
The QPR fan was, as we well know, proved right and there's a valuable lesson here, a fact not lost among those of us in the pub after Saturday's game. We may be excited about the coming season and things are looking good, but expectations must remain in check. There's a long season ahead.