By Pete Fincham
Having flown up to Newcastle early on Sunday morning, I doubt that any of the five weary souls who took the metro into Newcastle city centre could predict how such a wonderful trip away could turn so sour by Monday afternoon. After taking the hundredth back slap from yet another "toon army" fanatic, with the wishes that we should "Make sure ya beet tha Makems, like", and having won three free rounds of six Double Vodka Red Bulls in the bar owned by Ant and Dec, visions of last February, and three thousand away followers cheering the magnificent Golden Boys to a FA Cup victory came flooding back.
Buoyed up by this vision, my long time friend and surrogate brother Michael had persuaded his girlfriend Hannah to ditch her life-long ambivalence towards football, and join us on the short trip to Sunderland the following day. I tried to warn him that it was not all wine, roses and balloons, and that the turn out would be desperate, the football would be dreadful and we would probably lose. Unperturbed, we arrived at the ground with both of them sporting newly purchased Watford badges, and allowed the hell to begin. By the end of the day, Hannah had received more than the odd apology.
If this is a place where football is a raison d'etre, or the meaning of life, I seems that precious few of Sunderland's thirty-five thousand "die hards" currently have lives! The empty stands failed to conceal the fact that £23 in any locality is a ludicrous price to pay for First Division football, and if you add the chaotic ticketing entry system which actively encourages people to give up trying to get into the ground, then you have a stadium as intimidating as a small bag of jelly beans, but considerably less intoxicating.
It is well documented that both teams had been relegated from the Premiership with record low points scores, and the spectacle that was put on show summed this statistic up. The parade of players rejected from the Premiership 'club' showed exactly why the Stadium of Light and Vicarage Road will be hosting Crewe and Burnley rather than Chelsea and Arsenal. The match was played like a reserve game, with players not good enough for first team football, fumbling around in an eerie silence like extras in some torturous black comedy.
Two players who highlighted this were Sean Thornton of Sunderland, and Micah Hyde. I would say Micah Hyde of Watford, but had it not been for the yellow shirt adorning his body, you would not have known which side he was on. Both players made every attempt to class themselves as jesters at a feast. Thornton has ludicrous blonde hair in addition to an inability to do anything other than get in the way of his own team mates. He is to Sunderland what Stephen Hughes was to Watford; a player who inspires promising reports in the media, but completes games leaving the fans wondering in disbelief how he gained any professional football contract at any level. Hyde though, statistically the most experienced player in Watford's midfield, trotted around to his own agenda, waiting for the payday he can no doubt expect from the Bosman he will inevitably take at the end of the season. Tom Watt on BBC London suggested after the QPR pre-season friendly that while Hyde was a good player, he needs another club to give him the incentive to perform to his best. Well, if getting paid, and seeing five hundred odd away fans travel five hundred miles on a Bank Holiday Monday where travel chaos was predicted weeks ago is not incentive enough for him to play, then I don't know what is. Hyde's performance was an abomination. Looking back at his match stats awarded by this site since last Christmas, only in great team performances such as WBA (h) and Burnley (a) has Micah been anything like the player we know he can be. Having seen our attacking midfielders Glass and Nielsen shipped out, with Hand and Vernazza not renowned for their attacking success, with Johnson desperately short of form when played and Swonnell not ready if the Brighton fiasco is anything to go by, Hyde really is our only midfielder who has any attacking pedigree. But what a pedigree! Having scored only four goals last season - five less than defender Neil Cox - and four goals the season before - only one more than short term loanee Wayne Brown - why we still expect Hyde to be the answer is beyond me. If he wants his payday then fair play. But in the meantime, he should either play to his potential as the club pays him to do, or play in the reserves as his performances and all round demeanour deserve.
Against Palace and WBA, there were extended periods of play when we dominated the game. There were more than a few voices who could be justified in their exclamations that we deserved something, if not everything, from both games. But nothing is what we gained in points and goals, but yet the formation was the same, the personnel were fundamentally the same, and the only real surprise was the presence of Cook and McNamee on the five man subs bench, when surely both cannot be accommodated in the same side!
For the first time this season, Watford were second best from the start. Although gangly and fairly useless, Kevin Kyle caused a few nervous moments in the Watford defence with several tame efforts and knock downs that were at least tame efforts and knock downs. The game settled into a pattern where Chamberlain took a goal kick out to the left touchline, Helguson won the header which went in field, Watford lost the ball by being out fought in the middle of the park, before Sunderland put some lame effort behind Chamberlain's goal to kick start the whole process yet again.
Kyle forced Chamberlain into a quick reaction save just before the half hour, but the game was effectively over shortly after, when an atrocious ten yard back pass from Hyde to Gayle left the Watford defender struggling to get to the ball as it was still eight yards away from him, and as Thirwell touched the ball past Gayle on the edge of the box, the inevitable happened and Gayle committed the foul. Inside or outside arguments took hold, Robinson pointing to the divot outside the box, but it was academic. 1-0, as despite going the right way, Chamberlain had no chance with Stewart's well-taken penalty. Having not scored a goal all season, the feelings were that the game was over.
It took until the fifty-third minute for Watford to claim that they had indeed had a shot. Webber did well to control the ball on the edge of the area, but was forced left of Poom's goal, and the former Derby keeper saved the fierce shot low down.
At the other end, Doyley magnificently headed clear under immense pressure from Kyle, while the sparse gathering of Watford fans saw Helguson at his aggressive best winning two tackles that he had no right to win, right in front of the away end. I mention this as it was the best moment of the game from the Watford standpoint.
Having seen his team been devoid of ideas for an hour, Lewington replaced Hand with McNamee. Quite why Hand was singled out at the expense of the lacklustre and ineffective Hyde perplexed many, not least Jamie Hand who stormed off the pitch, kicked his training top to the floor and sat motionless for the remaining thirty minutes. Dyer moved to right midfield, Helguson returned to his natural (and only true) position of centre forward alongside Webber, while McNamee took to the field as a left midfielder who had a left foot. Complicated stuff.
Shortly afterwards, the game was truly over. A McNamee free kick was cleared thirty yards to Robinson, who was easily dispossessed to send Stewart clear down the left. Doyley tracked back well, but appearing out of nowhere was Stephen Wright who buried Stewart's cross first-time to score his first ever league goal.
Mahon had a good effort on goal near the end, and not even the energy and enthusiasm of Fitzgerald could undo a Sunderland defence not renowned for their clean sheets or gritty determination. I apologised to Hannah once more.
Lewington has surely by now realised that the midfield is where the problem lies, as despite the team having scored nil, the strikers can only score when they get the ball. The middle of the park remains an unbalanced mess, with no one willing or able to take on players; and while Mahon does impress in his holding roll, those around him are either being played in positions they are clearly uncomfortable with, or simply not turning up at the races. Other events have ensured that the striking partnership of Dyer and Webber is under pressure, however after four games it is no nearer to converting one of the few chances on offer, and the return of Helguson to his natural role can only be a matter of time.
It is too early in the season to start losing your will to live or calling for wholesale changes, but it is not too early to see that the experiments have failed. With Roeder's sacking at West Ham, one suspects Tommy Smith's chances of a contract there have gone. Maybe it is time to seriously consider him as an option, with the hatchet buried in all quarters. We certainly could not have looked any more incapable of scoring with him playing, but either way, I just hope that things sort themselves out both on and off the field sooner rather than later.
With Hannah undecided as to whether she will visit Sunderland to watch Watford again, she found the fact that so many of us became quite agitated amusing and has promised a trip to the Vic later on in the season. Unlike at the Stadium of Light, I don't think she will have to queue too long to get in.