Why we go
By Dave Messenger
Last weekend, as the Golden Boys worked hard for a point at the City Ground, I was among a capacity ninety thousand crowd at the Ben Hill Griffin stadium in Gainesville watching the Florida Gators, one of the USA's finest college football teams. My first experience of this very American obsession went rather well. The Gators brushed aside the dogged resistance of the fantastically named Vanderbilt Commodores much to the delight of Gina, my personal "tour guide" for my first trip to the States.
Sitting to our right throughout the action was a character straight from Bill Bryson's 'Lost Continent'. We quickly nicknamed her 'The Lege' (pronounced ledge, short for legendary, I digress) and I marvelled at her fanatical devotion to the Gators. Picture, if you will, a middle-aged woman with a beetroot red face. She was fully kitted out in Gator socks and shoes, Gator shorts, Gator shirt, sunglasses with a little Gator on the side and a Gator hat, complete with a big, foam, homemade Gator stuck to the top. She even had her ample arse perched on a Gator cushion (happily, I managed to resist the temptation to whip the cushion away each time she stood to enthusiastically applaud another play).
She was on her own, and during the half-time break we speculated that The Gators were the one thing that made her very existence tolerable. She sparked (though sadly she didn't join in) a conversation about "Why we go to our respective versions of football". For The Lege, it would seem it's her life, further evidenced by her plastic bag-covered Gator newspaper which she was reading. For me...I couldn't easily explain there and then but I managed to give Gina the general idea. As the third quarter got underway and I turned my thoughts back to the game, I felt I needed a further example when I got home, to confirm my thoughts.
The question came up again during the train journey to Norwich. Not for the first time this season, our poxy rail system caused matchday havoc and a mad dash to catch the train from Liverpool Street. Not an auspicious start to the day. As the train pulled off, the usual suspects discussed our chances. With the influential Paul Devlin and Micah Hyde away representing their countries with varying degrees of importance, Watford struggling on their travels and Norwich's impressive eight game winning streak at Carrow Road, the portents were not good. Why do we go indeed?
Arrival at the ground only added further reason for pre-match concern. Due to ground rebuilding, the small band of visiting fans were stuffed into two rows of seats, stretching the full length of one touchline. The resulting lack of atmosphere in the away end must be a contributory factor to Norwich's home form, a fact not lost on the steward I collared to discuss our lack of room. On the pitch, Jamie Hand and Lee Cook were the two chosen to replace the absent international pair in an otherwise unchanged line-up from the previous week, while Norwich sportingly included Clint Easton in central midfield. Still as spindly-legged as ever he was, it seemed likely that Jamie Hand's attempts to snap the former Watford midfielder might just provide the most entertaining aspect of the game.
The game started in worrying fashion. If any football match can have a turning point in the first minute, this one had it as the excellent Lenny Pidgeley produced a stunning reflex save from Craig Fleming's free header. Had that gone in, you suspect we may well have had the torrid afternoon we'd anticipated. With Darren Huckerby looking lively and Iwan Roberts looking toothy and ugly as ever, Watford had their hands full early on. Neil Cox was on his toes to deflect a dangerous Paul McVeigh cross away for a corner, Huckerby might have done better from a Roberts pull back and Easton shot tamely into Pidgeley's midriff having been set up by the energetic Ian Henderson.
Watford's first foray into home territory brought referee Steve Bennett into play for the first time, in what became a busy afternoon for the Premiership official. Home centre-half Malky Mackay upended Danny Webber and was fortunate to escape without a yellow card for the offence, but the Hornets failed to trouble home keeper Robert Green from the resulting free-kick. Marcus Gayle sent a header over the bar from a Cook cross while at the other end, Henderson's attempt at an audacious lob caused no concern for Pidgeley. However, the on-loan Chelsea keeper was caused a great deal of concern a few minutes later, as a stray elbow from Mackay left him prostrate for a few minutes and went unpunished.
The breakthrough came on twenty-three minutes. Lee Cook caused the Norwich defence problems for much of the afternoon and on this occasion he took a raking Paolo Vernazza pass, beat his man, sent a low, hard cross into the danger area where Scott Fitzgerald slid in and got the final touch from inside the six yard box for his seventh goal of the season. It was a simple goal, but a goal which is fast becoming a trademark Fitzgerald strike. The former Northwood man is certainly still a rough diamond, but the edges are starting to buff up rather nicely and for my money, this was his best all-round performance for the team so far.
The Canaries had been stung and their response was not slow in coming. First, Huckerby ran across the top of the box, where he comically fell under a heavy breath from Wayne Brown. Happily, referee Bennett did not buy the dive, and he duly administered the yellow card to the pouting on-loan striker, much to the consternation of the home fans. The pattern was set and minutes later McVeigh went down under a challenge from Neal Ardley, again a major influence on the game in central midfield. Though there was more of a case for a penalty than there had been for Huckerby's theatrics, the referee again decided not to award a kick.
To complete the hat-trick, Stephen Kelly's perfectly timed challenge on McVeigh brought further loud appeals from the home side, again the appeals were to no avail. Despite, or because of the distraction caused by the appeals, Watford held firm until the break. Norwich's best chance of the closing period of the first half fell to Damien Francis, who might have done better with his shot having been teed up by Huckerby. The whistle blew to the howls of the home fans, who might have remembered Mackay's lucky escapes before chastising the official. Then again, as they didn't seem to be watching the game too closely anyway, we'll excuse them for now.
The second half began with Watford very much in the ascendancy and within five minutes they had two great chances to extend their lead. First Webber wriggled away from his marker but his shot didn't trouble Green. Then Fitzgerald caught the lumbering Mackay in possession and raced clear, but Green was equal to the shot and Mackay redeemed himself by blocking Webber's attempt at the rebound. Following that miss, Norwich took control and while the first half had seen them trying to con the referee, the second saw them play some bright football as they threatened an equaliser. Huckerby curled one effort wide and Pidgeley was extended to full stretch to save a Henderson header in spectacular fashion.
The pressure seemed to be starting to take a hold. For a five minute spell around the sixty minute mark, some of Watford's clearances were more akin to the last minutes of the match rather than an hour through, but Cox and Gayle steadied the ship well and Watford regained their defensive composure. In fact, the central defensive pairing were enjoying their best outing of the season so far, with Cox inparticular making some desperate challenges look easy. Chances did come though and Adam Drury should really have hit the target with a shot from inside the Watford area, McVeigh curled an effort wide of the post and Pidgeley made another great diving stop from Huckerby.
Watford needed a pressure release and with ten minutes to go, they got it. A sublime back heel from Webber set Cook away. The young wingers pass behind the defence was perfectly weighted for Fitzgerald, who took the ball round Green, only for the Canaries custodian to clatter into Watford's leading scorer. This time, Mr Bennett showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot. As with the pressure penalty at Sheffield United last year, you felt the level of booing from the home fans only made the Watford skipper more determined to score. Neil Cox played the captain's role to perfection and drilled the penalty home to the delight of the travelling band of fans. The look on his face as he ran to the fans said it all and I truly hope that the minority of Watford fans who felt that Ray Lewington could no longer motivate his players are enjoying another slice of humble pie.
That seemed to be it. Watford continued to break with menace and might have added a third when Cook just failed to get to a Fitzgerald cross, However, City set up a grandstand finish as youngster Ryan Jarvis converted a Huckerby cross and the home side prepared to launch the kitchen sink at Watford. The away support, all two rows of us, held our breath, bit our nails and spent four minutes of added time on tenterhooks as Green added himself to the attack, but despite one or two hairy moments, Watford held out to the relief of all concerned.
As we congratulated each other at the final whistle, my thoughts turned to the earlier conversations from Gainesville and the train. This is "Why we go". Since the start of October, this Watford side has buckled down, worked hard and pulled the season out of the doldrums. To go to Carrow Road under the circumstances of Saturday and grind out a win like this was truly awesome. We watch them when they stink, we watch them when they play well, but is there anything better than going away from home and pulling off the unexpected? This Watford side may be some way short of challenging for a play-off place but while they're capable of results like this, they'll do for me.