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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 09/05/04, 1.00pm
To be continued
By Ian Grant

It'll be a very strange summer. But then, it's already been a fairly strange year.

Things are a bit different in the post-Bosman era. Once, you might lose your best and most loved players overnight, victims of an unexpected pounce by a predator with a larger bank account and a fuller trophy cabinet. Sometimes - John Barnes, for instance - there was enough transparency about the negotiations for proper goodbyes to be said long before the event; more often, they'd just disappear in a flash. That still happens occasionally - and it happened to us not very long ago - but more typical, much more typical, are end-of-season farewells to those whose contracts are about to expire.

Of course, some just slip away quietly, some have effectively left before they've actually left...and one remembers the gaggle of mercenaries who trailed round at the back of Luca Vialli's end-of-season parade, hands in pockets of very expensive overcoats. For others, there's genuine emotion on both sides...and it's still possible to picture Tommy Mooney with his children by his side, looking back at the Rookery for the last time as a Watford player. You don't have to be a diehard Hornet or a selfless servant to feel some kind of attachment to the club, and a sense of regret at leaving it behind. It's become a yearly ritual - names sung, applause exchanged, a pause to turn and wave for one last time, and then back down the tunnel - but certainly not an empty one.

By the time that pre-season comes along, each time - yes, even in the summer of 2001 - our natural interest and enthusiasm for the comings distracts from some of the sadness at the goings, and the absence of certain familiar figures is slightly obscured by the presence of new ones. Each time, but not this time. It'll be a very strange summer, because it'll be a summer in which much - how much, we don't yet know - will be taken away and nothing - or as near to nothing as we can possibly manage - will be added. It won't be the same, because it never is the same. But this time, we already know that it won't be better.

That's a little unfair on the here and now, perhaps. We have a right to feel something - relief, satisfaction, even some small pleasure - at having achieved what rapidly became the season's objective, survival. There have been plenty of occasions in the last nine months when we'd have settled for this, and more than one or two times when we'd have grasped it as if it were a winning lottery ticket. And we have a right to a holiday as well...because, whether we've earned it or not, we could all do with one. And it was pretty splendid to see Gavin Mahon facing the Rookery with that flippin' big trophy in his hands, forever recorded as the best player of this exhausting campaign. The club is not without loyal, dependable servants, even though we've sometimes seemed determined to chase some of them out. Nevertheless, it's hard to escape the knowledge that next season will be tougher still, especially having had a sneak preview of what a few injuries can do to our defence. Job done? Not yet, no. Not yet.

But if you want some cause for optimism, it's still here, tucked away. Because Reading were bloody rubbish yesterday...and I really don't recall that they were anything terribly special in the return fixture either. And yet they were still in with a theoretical chance of reaching the playoffs on the last day of the season, even if their own vapid, lacklustre performance rapidly put paid to even that remote possibility. You see, it's so easy to be obsessed with your own problems that you imagine that everyone else is having a fabulous time, that any team in the top half is closely modelled on Brazil in 1970. It ain't so. After a certain point - the top two, say, although even that's debatable - the First Division is measured in degrees of rubbishness, and a good season is merely slightly less rubbish than a bad one. A bit harsh, I know, but you get the point. For all that any improvement will be a serious challenge to a depleted squad, we don't have to improve that much.

As here, for example. There's a certain irony in the fact that Alec Chamberlain managed to keep the clean sheet that he must've desperately desired without needing to make a single save, after performing heroically in the process of conceding four last week. That's football. We shouldn't get too excited - we were faced with neither a Zamora nor a Harewood, mercifully - but we shouldn't entirely dismiss the defensive improvement either, for it was mainly a matter of avoiding daft mistakes, and that would've gone a very long way throughout the campaign. In truth, we won by stepping into a space that Reading, rather curiously, seemed to vacate. And by scoring a very odd winner, when we had ample opportunities to score one, two or even more proper goals. But it'll do very nicely, ta. If it won't exactly spark wild expectation for next season, it at least gave us nothing more to worry about....

The first half was dreadful, mind. Within ten minutes, the pre-match enthusiasm of the visiting fans had already been snuffed out by scorelines elsewhere, and any momentum that might've built up had been destroyed by the referee. At one point, we were reduced to nine men - Lee Cook receiving treatment on the after-effects of a brutal hack in front of the Rous Stand, Heidar Helguson having his head heavily bandaged on the other side - and a livid, seething Neil Cox was reduced to what nearly amounted to a shoving match with the man in black over his delayed reaction to our attempts to return to full strength. Sadly, Lee Cook was unable to continue, becoming the first to receive our applause on what may or may not be his last appearance in the yellow shirt as he was replaced by Ashley Young.

There wasn't much football, and even less of consequence. Murty blazed over, Williams wasted a header at a corner, nothing else. Even following the ball became something of a chore, and I spent rather more time concentrating on Lloyd Doyley, whose endless pointing and shouting towards Neil Cox and Neal Ardley, accompanied by glances this way and that to check that nothing slipped by unnoticed, was marvellous to behold, and managed to make feet and inches irrelevant. You couldn't hope to see a more switched on, confident performance from someone effectively making their debut in that position...and he deserved a little luck when he got mixed up with Alec Chamberlain in the second half, just as he deserved an ovation for managing to recover when his only lapse in concentration allowed Owusu to get ahead of him. If he was a foot taller, he'd be a serious prospect. Perhaps we should be thinking in those kind of terms anyway.

Otherwise, a neat summary was provided by a passage of aimless Watford passing after half an hour, some impatient urging for someone to have a bloody shot from the stands...and Micah Hyde deciding to have a bloody shot that was closer to the corner flag than the presumed target. Fortunately, Ashley Young had other, better ideas, and his sudden dart in from the left wing and equally sudden curler from the corner of the penalty area brought the game to life at last. Ashdown dealt with it, but not convincingly. Perhaps he was just surprised.

By now, Reading had faded into the background. We got on with it in their absence. Five minutes later, Paul Mayo's cross received a powerful and accurate redirection from Bruce Dyer's head, and, even though the effort came from some distance, Ashdown needed to scramble down to push it away from the bottom corner. He produced an even better save shortly afterwards, instinctively blocking a forceful header from Heidar Helguson when the Icelander drifted unnoticed to the near post to meet Neal Ardley's corner. Suddenly, we weren't meeting with very much resistance, and there were real, up-close chances to score.

The game wasn't decided by one of those, though. Instead, Ashley Young's winner began life as a shot and ended life as a shot, but went through a bit of a mid-life crisis along the way. Football does have a way of emphasising its own clichés...and just plucking up the courage to have a bloody shot made the difference here. It was weak and scuffed from twenty yards...and it slowly bobbled through a defender's legs, past Bruce Dyer's desperate slide, past a distracted goalkeeper, against the far post and into the net. A complete nonsense of a goal, and no complaint.

It's safe to assume that some fruity words were said in the Reading dressing room at half-time, presumably to the effect that it'd be a complete travesty if, by some chance, this happened to be the only result that didn't go in their favour. It's also fair to assume that they were hoping for a better reaction than they got, for the Reading comeback lasted for five frantic minutes and then fizzled out forever. Mind you, they did come frighteningly close in those five minutes, when Sidwell sneaked ahead of a napping Paul Mayo, Neal Ardley failed to clear the cross, and Brooker's curler received a crucial deflection away from the top corner from Lloyd Doyley. Further defensive chaos at the corner, and another close call within minutes as Harper volleyed narrowly wide from a cleared cross. We lost our composure momentarily, and we were fortunate that we weren't punished.

But the luck went both ways, for these frantic minutes also included our best opportunity of the half, as Bruce Dyer met Micah Hyde's cross on the edge of the six yard box, headed firmly down and was foiled by Ashdown's right hand, only the height of the bouncing ball making the save possible. Dyer - an increasingly imposing presence - then shot at Ashdown from just outside the penalty area, and we were quickly able to regain our dominance as Reading faded again.

Indeed, we really ought to have extended the lead at some stage during a much brighter, happier second half. We were wasteful on several occasions - after being released by a superb cross-field pass from Ashley Young, Paul Devlin slashed an effort wide of the near post while Heidar Helguson and Bruce Dyer looked on; Dyer sent another free header into Ashdown's clutches; Gavin Mahon slightly dragged a low shot from a Dyer pull-back to allow the keeper to make a decent save; Devlin volleyed spectacularly wide from a Scott Fitzgerald cross when he perhaps had time and space to do more - but that's refreshing in itself, given that we've so often failed to create anything to waste.

A late equaliser would've been an appropriate ending to the season, I suppose. But not to the match, for the defence had shown how much can be achieved simply by communicating, concentrating and working hard as a unit. And certainly not, potentially, to Alec Chamberlain's Watford career...and so Williams' late and completely rubbish free kick, drifted half a mile over the bar in injury time after we'd bitten our nails on Alec's behalf, was perhaps the highlight of the afternoon. A clean sheet seems entirely inadequate, really. But it's a proper, solid full stop, if this is to be the end of the sentence.

It seems impossible that there can be an end to that sentence, though. That Alec Chamberlain has finished another season as our first choice keeper is something that we've almost come to expect; that he won't be around to defend his title next term is entirely beyond comprehension. It's impossible, and I will remain in denial until it happens. No, it's just impossible.

And so the season ends...and yet, with all of this uncertainty remaining, it doesn't quite end. Not with so much to be resolved, not with the epilogue still to be written. And a tribute or two, as well.