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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 29/11/03
Asking for it
By Matt Rowson

In future, when year-upon-year of irritating defeats at the Madejski Stadium have blended into one (much as those at Bradford have), this will be distinguished as "the one when it was pissing it down with rain". Pickups around Watford and subsequent manoeuvring onto the M25 were laborious, interrupted by red lights to the soundtrack of water rapping on the windscreen and the hum of the hot-air blower at full pelt. As for the motorways, the volume of standing water made the journey more akin to a flume ride at a Theme Park.

By the time we got into the ground we'd established the lack of entertainment options in the immediate vicinity (beyond a "Carpet Mile" to rival Manchester's "Curry Mile") and been stood for half an hour outside the ground in a drizzle that was as persistent and nagging as a bored child. The backdrop to a memorable win this was not.

Watford named the same sixteen that had impressed in drawing with West Ham last weekend; Reading, meanwhile had made some significant changes to the side that lost 3-0 at Burnley in mid-week with transfer-listed Kevin Watson a popular face in midfield, the Devon White-esque colossus Bas Savage battering his way down the right and John Mackie back from injury in the middle of defence.

The game started encouragingly, with both sides displaying attacking intent. Reading threatened first... Andy Hughes winning a corner on the Reading right, and then pressurising Neal Ardley into an injudicious diving header to Kevin Watson's corner which forced Lennie Pidgeley into a full-length save to palm the ball around the post.

From the second corner on the Reading left, however, Watford won possession and broke rapidly. A ball upfield was met by Webber, whose delicious lay-off gave Vernazza possession in space advancing into Reading's half. He released the scampering Devlin, who fed Fitzgerald into the Reading area. Fitz's space was smothered and the chance disappeared, but this move had flowed as quickly and as effortlessly down the pitch as the rainwaters were flooding around the M25 and promised much.

Which our attacking play for the rest of the half didn't really live up to, in all fairness. True, we had more half-chances... Fitzgerald first meeting a near post corner with a header that floated narrowly wide, then using his pace to prise open a shooting opportunity which he excitedly clouted into the stand and straight down a tunnel from twenty yards out. But the game settled into a steady pattern. Reading had more men, more options and more fight in the midfield and began to dominate possession; however their forays tended to make little impression on what was a more impressive defensive display than the scoreline - and particularly the nature of the goals conceded - might suggest.

Jack Smith, first of all, looks an awful lot happier on his natural right hand side than he did on the left... whereas he'd looked competent at left-back, he now looks bright and positive and crucially doesn't look like a kid playing his first few games for the first team. Wayne Brown battled away gamely against a very physical opponent, snuffing out assaults down his flank in unflashy fashion.

But the basis of the defensive display was again an absolutely monumental display by the two centre-backs, Marcus Gayle and particularly Neil Cox. Of all the impressive signings in the summer - Danny Webber, the tragic Jimmy Davis, Bruce Dyer, the re-signed Helguson - the easiest overlooked was perhaps the most crucial. What a captain Neil Cox has become, almost unrecognisable from the slightly immobile right-back that arrived during the Premiership season. Today again he was every inch the leader, winning possession aggressively on the edge of the area and then, rather than clearing his lines aimlessly, advancing with the ball through a surprised Reading midfield to turn the direction of play on its head. His final ball, in this case, was overhit and dropped for a Reading throw near to their corner flag but a defender who thinks is a rare and precious thing at this level.

So it was that for all their possession, Reading only really fashioned two further chances in the first half. Both fell to the effervescent Forster... first cutting himself a gap and slinging a low shot across the face of goal and narrowly wide, then taking advantage of space offered to him in the middle of the park by sending a low, skidding shot towards the bottom corner which Pidgeley again sprawled to push past his right-hand post.

Otherwise, Reading's best chance of a breakthrough appeared to be from set-pieces... twice John Mackie got his head to a far post corner, on one occasion he should have done an awful lot better than head well wide.

The atmosphere was grave and silent, with neither set of supporters agitating themselves overly. Reading's isolated efforts, when they came, were typically "Can you hear the Watford sing, no-o", apparently without irony. Whatever the causes for the lack of effort put in by the away support, intimidation by the wall of Reading noise was not one of them.

The half ended with another Watford break, Webber improbably controlling a rather wild ball dumped in his general direction and feeding Hyde who scuffed horribly wide under challenge. For the fifth time in six Watford games, the first half ended goalless.

The half-time interval's key development was an intensive warm-up undertaken by Lee Cook. He was introduced at the start of the second half for Danny Webber, presumably still suffering the effects of an illness which laid him low during the week. Also noteworthy was Alec Chamberlain going through his paces... Lennie Pidgeley had ceded goal-kicking duties to Marcus Gayle towards the end of the half, but Alec wasn't called into action on this occasion.

The other development at the interval was the revelation that Paul had left his lucky half-time chocolate in the car...

As so often recently, Watford came out with flames burning after the break and attacked from the off. Lee Cook, predictably enough, wanted the ball immediately and embarked on a statement-of-intent that took him from the left wing towards and across the face of goal before dragging a shot wide with his right foot. Shortly afterwards, Fitzgerald galloped free on the right and slammed a low cross across the face of goal... Murty's intervention had to be both timely and precise to deny the waiting Cook.

Reading broke, invariably employing Forster. He picked up the ball on the left and cut ominously across to the right side of the box challenging Cox for pace. The pair were heading towards the right-wing corner flag chasing the ball that was probably level-ish with Pidgeley's left hand-post when, before Forster could wrap his right foot around it, Cox flew in with a terrifying, brutal, perfect challenge, arguably our tackle of the season so far.

Irritatingly, the next confrontation between the pair lead to the opening goal. This was no thing of beauty... a long ball from deep was flicked on, Forster was haring goalwards after the bouncing ball. Cox, stretching under pressure, nodded the ball goalwards past its helpless intended target and into the back of the net.

The afternoon could have spiralled downwards from here... fortunately our response was clinical and immediate. Hyde was involved in a challenge to the right of the penalty area which saw the ball spiral into the path of Paul Devlin haring in from the right. He killed its pace with a flick of the shoulder and knocked it past the hapless Shorey before popping a perfect cross to the far post where Lee Cook arrived to gleefully volley home.

The crowd was noisy now, and we were perhaps in the ascendancy as a result of hitting back so quickly, but the exchange of goals left us two steps further back from where we had been before. Prior to Reading's opener we had looked bright and purposeful, you would have fancied us to grab the lead had play continued unabated. Reading's goal was a random event, not a result of building pressure or of a moment's inspiration but something that could have happened at any time. Thus, even though we equalised immediately we were now perhaps slightly too pleased with ourselves at restoring parity whereas previously we'd been hunting the lead. We should have pushed on at 1-1, and failed to do so.

Much of our failings were in midfield. With a three-man midfield there can be no passengers, nobody off their game if the thing's going to work. Today there was really too little all round. Micah Hyde in particular had looked a little off the pace in the first half and in the second contributed almost nothing... it was surprising that he lasted until the 89th minute.

We were still making chances, if never quite demanding to score... Fitzgerald was played through into acres of space by a sharp passing move, but displayed a disconcerting lack of confidence when faced with an advancing goalkeeper. A late and questionable linesman's flag pulled play up in any case, but the wag behind me who suggested that twelve yards out was too far for Scottie may not have been too far from the truth.

At the other end, Reading frittered one chance when the otherwise impressive Sidwell inexplicably placed a free header acres wide of the post... and had another beaten from them when a diving Cox header deflected a shot around the post. "Goalkeeping with his head" was ig's appraisal.

Referee Walton had made some incidental but irritating errors, largely revolving around bookings; the first half had seen Sidwell escape without a caution after giving away a free kick for going through the back of Ardley on the edge of the area, only for Walton to book Savage for an innocuous challenge on Brown on the right five minutes later. More aggravating still was Fitzgerald's second half caution... the challenge was late and the yellow was warranted, as it happens, but having missed the incident the referee's attention was drawn back by his assistant's flag. So how Walton could have booked Fitzgerald without even consulting the other official beggars belief. His finest moment was still to come, however...

As the game drew to a close, our infuriating tendency to get all tentative in the face of a close scoreline and the final whistle reared its head. Warning of what was to come arrived when Fitzgerald, who'd turned lost causes into half-chances all afternoon with his persistence and pace, closed down Hahneman in the Reading goal who had the ball at his feet. Hahneman squared to his full-back, and Fitz turned to see all of his team-mates some distance behind him awaiting Reading's next attack with no evidence whatsoever of a chase-down to the fullback's possession. The young striker let his frustration be known, as did members of the crowd.

Two points can be made in mitigation of the catastrophic final goal. The first is that both sides had actually indulged in a fair bit of ballwatching in the closing minutes... the centre of Reading's defence fell apart like the segments of a chocolate orange as Hyde played a ball through for Cook, who couldn't quite connect cleanly moments earlier. This balls-up could have been theirs. The second is that Reading's attack, as it built down the left, twice took the ball out of play, once by over a foot as revealed later by Sky's pictures but hidden from the away end at the time, perhaps thankfully.

This might in part explain the apparent and uncharacteristic doziness of the defence in allowing the ball to reach Sidwell, who rifled into the top corner. The fact was, however, that rank officiating or otherwise this was a defeat that we brought on ourselves. The last thing you do in the closing seconds of a sparring match is offer your opponent a free punch. We'd done the hard work, our defending deserved a point and we could have grabbed more. Instead we went back with nothing.

Bruce Dyer came on for Hyde and Marcus Gayle joined the attack for the final, desperate moments. Instantly our attack had a physical presence and the pair bundled a half chance for Cook to again level instantly, but the ball didn't fall as kindly this time and the winger ran out of time. Finally, Brown pushed forward down the left and send a wicked, deep cross beyond the far post... Devlin took it on the half-volley, but could only find the side netting. Game over.

Navigating the busy thoroughfares around the stadium back towards the car-park, I stepped aside from the pavement and slightly up a grass bank to ease congestion on the pathway. I can only assume that the vindictive, low-ish lying arm of bramble blended itself in behind the upper rim of my specs in the dark. In any case, I didn't see it and it came close to scalping me, settling instead for a couple of scratches and the claiming of my woolly hat, which on extricating myself was left dangling, mockingly in mid-air. Few brambles have been sworn at as profusely.

It was that kind of day.