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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/05/04, 3.00pm
West Ham United
A bitter inevitability
By Pete Fincham

There are often similarities between end of season games. Since the frenetic end to the 1998-99 season, the last few weeks of each campaign have been rather pedestrian, indolent affairs. We are an opposition's dream if they need points, as since the grand Wembley finale of May 1999, we have failed to turn any of our seasons' ends into anything other than the formality safety or mid-table obscurity brings. To this end, the question was asked just why nearly two thousand season ticket holders stayed away from the Norwich game. The answer, as if it needs saying, is that the season is over, and these matches represent the bitter inevitability of one team being hungrier than the other.

One of my erstwhile friends, who many of you know for being hugely passionate but equally mad - as if that narrows it down, has to all intents and purposes boycotted the end of season matches for the last few years. As I write, he is no doubt in an Internet café somewhere in North America pretending he doesn't care because in his own words, "the matches are just friendlies" and totally meaningless. In which case, why are you reading this old chap!? But we go; we continue to pay the money and as a result I would hope that at some time in seasons to come, the performances might respect the fact that fans pay up to £27 to watch something that is hugely disappointing.

Take Brighton last season. The only difference a year ago was that the weather was tremendous, as myself and five other members of the Supporters Trust were about to walk a hundred miles back to Vicarage Road. The result, the performance and the whole non-event for the visiting teams supporters was totally replicated by events a year later in East London. If the club were not in such financial straits, I would expect that there would be queues of people justifiably asking for some sort of reimbursement. Then again, did anyone expect anything different from this appalling catastrophe of a performance?

Perhaps Alec Chamberlain was aware that there were paying fans in the away end, as he produced one of his most memorable performances as a Watford player, in what could be his last away game for the club. Despite conceding four goals, it is not unreasonable to say that had it not been for his heroics in goal, the score might have been one to challenge the record books, not for the first time in this very forgettable campaign.

Things started badly, as had it not been for the post whistle positioning of Neil Cox, Paul Mayo would have been starting next season in the stands after his goal-saving tackle on Bobby Zamora. Referees such as the odious Rob Styles would have no doubt sent Mayo off for the tackle a few yards outside the area. But this was a temporary reprieve for the lacklustre, beleaguered team. Four minutes later, Hyde got involved in the game for a brief minute, only to foul Lomas on the edge of the area. The free kick from Hutchison was powerful, but straight at Paul Devlin on the edge of the wall. However, Devlin took the peculiar decision to jump over the ball, gifting the Hammers a sixteenth minute lead.

Dyer tested Bywater at the other end with the first Watford shot on twenty-one minutes after good work from Chris Baird, as the Hornets briefly took advantage of a period of West Ham reluctance to exploit the end of season spliff frenzy the majority of the team appeared to have taken. Cook forced Bywater into another save shortly afterwards, and Baird looked lively in both attack and defence. After Chamberlain had done well to tip over under pressure from Hutchison, it was another dead ball situation that effectively ended the game. Etherington's corner was met by Christian Dailly, who outjumped Mahon to make it 2-0 just before the break. Why do we not have a player on the back post? A first half as bad as any since Palace in January, the game and the season could not end quickly enough.

The second period was about how many West Ham would score, or conversely, how many Alec Chamberlain would keep out. In what has been a memorable career with Watford since his debut in 1996, few fans should need reminding what a truly outstanding keeper Alec has been. But for those with hazy memories, the second half display from Alec was vintage. Had it not been for the "Performance of the Season" award being decided in January by Heidar's awesome search and destroy mission against Chelsea, there may well have been a demand to open up the voting twenty-four hours before the award was presented at The Grove on Sunday night.

Just after the break, Chamberlain saved well from a Harewood header following another West Ham set piece, before preventing Lomas from adding a third after the Northern Irish midfielder stole the ball from our own on-loan Northern Irish international Baird. Moments later the third should have arrived, but Chamberlain denied Hutchison, before a quick West Ham counter attack lead to Mayo bringing down Zamora inside the box. The offence could have lead to a second yellow for the young left back, but the referee's leniency in punishing the individual was not replicated in his adjudication on the laws of encroachment. After Chamberlain had appeared to save only his second normal time penalty in his seven seasons at the club, the referee gave Harewood a second opportunity to make it 3-0 after several Watford players clearly stopped thinking, trotting into the box far too early. Harewood duly obliged, placing the ball out of the reach of Alec who chose to dive the correct way.

Carrick and Zamora were both denied, before the final minutes saw a fourth goal conceded in a thoroughly depressing afternoons 'entertainment'. With so many away fans deciding that the queue for the tube would not be so horrific if they left early, only a small percentage of the two thousand travelling fans (NB: at £27 a time!) remained behind to see Harewood tap home after McAnuff had drawn another fine save from Chamberlain.

With Reading needing to win to even have a chance of the play-offs next week, the inevitability is that next Sunday will see another limp end to another season. Clearly players need to be blooded, but if those around them cannot lead by the example senior players should be leading by, what hope is there that these players will gain confidence? More importantly, as the club strives to bring in every pound of revenue it can, what hope is there that fans will pay to see a game that can be argued has a predetermined outcome?

As I will not be writing another BSaD review this season, I wish you a fantastic summer. While so many of our current playing staff will be looking for new clubs, it would be wrong of me not to say a special "Thank You" to one player who looks to be off, and who I will truly miss. He has been an honest player, one who has been a part of everything that has been good about the club since the mid-nineties and a chap who never suggests for a minute that he was taken in by the laziness that so many of his colleagues seem to find acceptable at the end of each season. I would love to think that next season I will still be crying out that "I have in my hand a piece of paper" and that his special wave still heads in the vague direction that I am sitting. But for the reserve games at Northwood, the Lithuania experience, the unforgettable rise to the Premiership and for just being our unquestionable Number One, I'd like to raise a glass to Alec Chamberlain. A true professional, who for me belongs in any Watford Hall of Fame. If this was to be his away finale in a Watford shirt, it was an unforgettable performance.

See you next season, and keep the faith.