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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 14/09/04, 7.45pm
Cardiff City
versus
Watford
 
"It's bloody stupid"
By Matt Rowson

"Why do we f***ing do this?" asked my chauffeur (who shall remain nameless) on the way west along the M4. "It's bloody stupid!"

Stupid in a good way. There are far less enjoyable and rewarding wastes of time than travelling across the country for a football match. However such positive slants seemed rather remote when, having arrived early in the Welsh capital, we made a half-hearted attempt to find a friendly hostelry. This endeavour was doomed to failure, the peeling "Ninian Park" on Leckwith Road with each window forebodingly boarded up wins the prize of the season's least appealing pub so far (despite the enticement of a beer garden, like being offered a clapped-out banger with a sunroof but no wheels).

There was also time to drive past an enormous sports stadium further into the City which my chauffeur (who shall remain nameless) and co-passenger (also anonymous) insisted couldn't possibly be the Millennium Stadium. An expert in motorway junctions but not in national football stadia, it seems.

Last season's trip on a Tuesday night at a similar time of year was fresh in the memory for a number of reasons, but there were portents that this evening wouldn't follow a similar route. Sam Hammam has himself a new chauffeur for one thing, a small gentleman with a blue tint to his skin who looked strangely familiar as the Lord of the Manor was ferried past us on arrival. And as last year, ex top-flight referee Keith Cooper was loitering outside the ground, but rather than vivacious and congenial as previously, he was curt and surly.

Good omens or no, it appeared that a number of Hornets had considered the "this is stupid" line of argument rather more seriously than we had, with only two hundred and fifty travelling fans in the away end, a figure in part explained by the fact that this was the least accessible of three consecutive away trips within the next week. I can't help but feel that many Hornets have missed out over the last couple of seasons though... Ninian Park is hardly the most salubrious ground in the division, but it boasts an away terrace, a low roof and a bar area which combined to fuel a better atmosphere than has been achieved by many times as large a travelling support elsewhere in the recent past.

The Hornets, naming the same sixteen as Saturday, started positively forcing several inconsequential corners from the left. The real clarion call, however, came on five minutes; Neil Cox brought the ball out of defence and picked out Neal Ardley wide on the left with a humbling ball. Weston and Page approached to apply pressure, but had anticipated Ardley bringing the pass down; instead he charged onto the dropping ball, forcing it between his two flat-footed adversaries before crashing a low shot goalwards that Warner gathered at the second attempt.

A statement of intent, which the Hornets delivered on in breathtakingly clinical fashion five minutes later. John Robinson (who did a fairly good impression of grumbling, shouty Pauline Fowler throughout the evening) gave away a needless free kick on the right; Cox reacted quickly and sent a firm, low pass towards Helguson, with his back to goal on the edge of the area. His touch slipped the ball past Robert Page to find Danny Webber, already in full flight, latching onto it and clear on the right of the box.

Webber's goal on Saturday was a fine one, but this outstripped it, evidence of the priceless role that confidence plays in a striker's form. Warner wasn't badly positioned, no gaping chasm at his near post and one might have argued that the balance-of-probabilities move would have been to send the shot across his face in case of someone chasing scraps at the far post to knock in a blocked shot. Not a bit of it, Webber not only went for the narrow gap in the top corner, he found it with such force that Warner had no time to react as the ball thumped into the roof of the net. Celebrating a goal is invariably more fun on a terrace...

Watford opened their hosts up again shortly afterwards, an Ardley cross from the right finding Mahon charging in unchallenged at the far post - he got under the ball and sent his shot over but Cardiff were in disarray and badly needed a foothold.

They edged back into the game, gradually. Jobi McAnuff looked by far their most potent weapon, and when some bad decision making from Mayo saw him on the wrong side of the winger heading for goal, he compounded his error by sitting on him and picking up a yellow card, making him an obviously vulnerable target for the rest of the game. Two factors ultimately limited McAnuff's effectiveness... the puzzling decision of the side not to feed his twisting, pacy and often productive runs at every opportunity and the relentless protection afforded by Ardley to Mayo on the left.

Cardiff were awake now though. The hardworking Lee worked a shooting chance but fired straight at his namesake in the Watford goal, and then a rare elegant move by the home side found McAnuff twenty yards out whose fierce low shot forced an acrobatic tip-around by Lee low to his left.

For City, that was pretty much as good as the first half got. In contrast to last season, when Graham Kavanagh was so pivotal in the centre of the park, the Gav and Boris hit squad bossed the midfield completely whilst up front, City's Andy Campbell was completely anonymous save a rather feeble dive from the Leon Knight school of low-confidence forward play. The days when he was Middlesbrough's next big thing seem a long time ago. Watford's support mischievously fuelled the grumbling either side of it with some chants in favour of Lennie Lawrence's displacement, and when a Cardiff attack broke down with not a single Cardiff midfielder tracking back to cover Watford's break, it wasn't difficult to sympathise with the growing anger in the home stands - a saving tackle from Gabbidon saving the day on this occasion. One disappointing footnote in this spell was the departure of Paul Devlin with what appears to have been a hamstring strain, to be replaced by Ashley Young.

Cardiff enjoyed some possession, but only made one more chance with it in the first period, Tony Vidmar's shot from the left curling away from the far post. Meanwhile we looked sharp on the break... Danny Webber's belligerence drew a desperate foul on the edge of City's area (which it appears might have drawn more vociferous penalty appeals from the away end had we been in a position to see it clearly). Another break won a corner, and Warner stretched to keep out Cox's point-blank header.

Then, on half-time, it was two. Gavin Mahon won possession from Kavanagh in the midfield (again), sidestepped another challenge and slipped the ball to Ardley, who capped off his almost flawless first half performance with a low, precise drive from just outside the area which beat Warner - for some reason off his line, and thus with less time to react. There was still time for Ardley, buoyed by the goal, to cut inside again from the left, hold off a challenge and send a curling shot too close to the keeper before the referee's whistle drew a very satisfactory opening forty-five to a close.

Cardiff brought Peter Thorne on at the start of the second half; a symbolically significant gesture after a long injury absence. Greater intent was evident from the off, with Thorne finding the net early after converting a move that built down the right at the far post, only to be pulled up for offside. The first twenty minutes of the half followed in this vein, with Cardiff having most of the possession and eking out chances, predominantly through building down the flanks. A number of balls were fed into the box, all contested vigorously by the Watford defence and ultimately repelled; however, I was left with the suspicion that a side with a little more confidence and form might have taken advantage, and a break for City in one of these situations might have changed the outlook of the game considerably.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty to be pleased with here from a Watford point of view... Captain Dyche to the fore now, a hugely defiant object in the second half never allowing a City striker an easy chance and squeezing the space such that the half-chances that were created were screwed wide or ferried over as City's forwards tried to force a clear opportunity. As City's pressure built, Dyche was on the line to clear Thorne's goalbound effort and when a good deep ball was delivered from the right Doyley forced his head into the path of Thorne's goalbound header to deflect it wide.

The mini-resistance faded, as seemed inevitable in the face of continued defiance. Cardiff did not look a terrible side, but a side very low on belief against which Dyche and co were a more than discouraging obstacle. McAnuff continued to suggest - and deliver - the greatest threat, but although Jermaine Darlington spent much of the second half warming up in front of us, presumably with Mayo's earlier yellow still in mind, the City winger's threat abated as the game went on.

Pantomime figure John Robinson was booked for a petulant tackle, and Kavanagh followed suit for the second of two vicious hacks in the midfield. This was clear evidence of City's temporary resilience ebbing away and Watford were soon back in full charge, playing keep-ball down the flanks on a number of occasions like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse. One such instance saw the ball drift backwards and forwards across the edge of the area until Gavin Mahon got bored and clouted a shot over. Another move down the left found Heidar thundering in at the far post but getting underneath a not-straightforward chance. Then Mayo overlapped positively and, ignoring H pulling away at the far post again, sent a shot goalwards himself that was more about power than precision.

Through all of this, the role of the forwards shouldn't be understated. Webber, it goes without saying, is absolutely flying and was eager for the ball, tormenting City's defence whenever he gained possession and, like Helguson, holding the ball up successfully more than once. An arrogant twist and turn sent him clear towards the left hand touchline and his low, firm ball across the face of goal received a crucial touch from City sub Chris Barker, on for the injured but applauded Robert Page, to deny Ashley Young, reprising his party trick of scavenging at the far post.

And Helguson looked far more convincing than he had done previously this season. Never the quickest of players to come back from injury, mumbled reluctant questions had begun to be asked about the viability of Bruce Dyer staying on the bench but H was much more like his old self... positive, aggressive, and a complete pain in the arse to an exhausted City defence. His determination boiled over, as it is wont to do, late on and he can thank Rhys Weston for a generous reaction to an over-the-top challenge that was only punished with a yellow card.

Before that, though, the game had been sealed. Helguson's aggression and relentlessness got Gabbidon into a complete mess down the left leaving the Icelander with a free run to the touchline. From there he took the time to look up and pick out Danny Webber, who finished unfussily to put a convincing and not undeserved gloss on the scoreline. Up in the stands, Sam's new chauffeur was closing his eyes and concentrating furiously on his salary. The home stands were emptying quickly, those remaining orchestrating the "Lennie out" chants now. The away terrace, jubilant.

This is why trips like this aren't stupid. Because every now and again the side will pull out a performance so professional and rewarding (tactically na´ve, my arse) that the other ones, the disappointing ones, fade into irrelevance. Our three away games this season have yielded two wins (and clean sheets) and an eminently avoidable defeat... in comparison to only six away victories in each of the last three seasons. Long may this lunacy continue.