By Dan Porter
Watford recorded their first victory of 2004 with a convincing performance over Preston. Having conceded fourteen goals in their previous four games, a clean sheet was a huge boost in confidence to a Watford defence missing Marcus Gayle through a hamstring injury and having had no proper left-back since the departure of Paul Robinson. Jack Smith once again had a storming game out of place at left-back and Jerel Ifil went from strength to strength alongside captain Neil Cox. Eighteen year old striker Hameur Bouazza was drafted in for his starting debut as injury to Danny Webber and suspension for Heidar Helguson left Watford short of strikers and Lewington's gamble on the teenager paid off after thirty-six minutes. A half-cleared Neal Ardley corner came to Jack Smith on the edge of the box and his shot through the crowd was perhaps the worst connection with a ball since Steve McManaman's shot in the Champions League last season which was sliced so badly it actually went backwards. However, Bouazza saw the opportunity to slide in and convert the ball goalwards and Lonergan was beaten.
The lead did not come easily for Watford though, some hard defensive efforts were needed to prevent an effervescent Preston side scoring first. Eighteen minutes in, Lenny Pidgeley was forced into a fantastic low save after Ricardo Fuller tore the Watford defence apart before crossing for American midfielder Eddie Lewis. Jamaican international Fuller, who missed the clash at Deepdale through suspension, created another opportunity just two minutes later, this time for ex-Sheffield Wednesday striker Richard Cresswell, but his effort was blocked by the outstanding Neil Cox.
Watford's best effort of the first half before the goal came in the opening ten minutes. Bouazza's strike partner, the ever-improving Scott Fitzgerald, was on hand to lash a volley at goal after good build up play involving most of the Watford midfield - however, it was saved well. Fitzgerald then had a further chance ten minutes before the goal as Neal Ardley created space for a cross before finding the unmarked Fitzgerald who could only head wide. It was Fitzgerald whose tireless work in closing down defenders won the corner from which the goal came. He chased down former Blackburn defender Marlon Broomes when all seemed lost and managed to win a corner. Ardley's resulting corner was only half cleared and when Smith's effort on goal looked to fly harmlessly wide, the French youngster slid in from the right to score his first professional goal. He removed his shirt and wheeled away in delight having given Watford the lead. He was promptly joined by Captain Neil Cox and even manager Ray Lewington got in on the celebrations. With the first half drawing to a close, Bouazza almost made a dream debut an unforgettable one. Micah Hyde's defence splitting pass found Fitzgerald who was instantly supported by Bouazza. Fitzgerald laid it off for the debutant who fired just wide.
The first half ended after fifty-one minutes, with head injuries to three out of four Preston defenders resulting in large stoppages in play. But Watford were relieved to go in with the lead and the second half would all be about maintaining their good play.
The second half started slowly, another injury to a Preston player resulting in a lengthy stoppage, but when it did finally start flowing it was all Watford. A fantastic passing move shortly after the hour mark culminated in a Paul Devlin cross being half-cleared to Neil Cox who laid off the ball for Hyde whose shot was just turned around the post by Lonergan. Bouazza's debut came to an end on the sixty-seventh minute when he was substituted after picking up a slight muscle injury, but the equally promising Lee Cook was introduced into the game in an attempt to seal things up. Fitzgerald was presented with a golden chance to wrap the game up with twenty minutes to go when Ardley's quick free-kick picked out Fitzgerald perfectly but his header from ten yards out went wide.
Watford's defence was rarely troubled in the second half but with just over ten minutes to go they were given a scare when the ball was mis-cleared on several occasions but Preston substitute Edwards was unable to take advantage before Gavin Mahon hoofed the ball to safety. A controversial decision by the referee almost cost Watford another goal, however seconds after Paul Devlin was bundled over inside the penalty area he was on his feet and chased twenty-five yards back to the edge of the Preston area where indecision between Broomes and Lonergan allowed the pint-size Scot to place a careful lob which dipped under the crossbar ten minutes from time to seal Watford the win. Watford never looked like giving up the three points and two late chances in the form of a Fitzgerald overhead kick and a Mahon long shot resulted in corners.
All in all, a thoroughly convincing performance from Watford saw them move further ahead of Nottingham Forest and away from the relegation zone. More of the same will be required as Watford go on to face Walsall, Franchise FC and Bradford in matches which really must end in victory if Watford are to ensure survival for another season.