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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 02/10/04, 3.00pm
Crewe Alexandra
Transcending loyalties
By Matt Rowson

Every now and again, an opponent attains a level of performance that transcends club loyalties, the sort of performance that you just have to acknowledge and respect. Jürgen Klinsmann's hat-trick in the 6-3 cup defeat to Spurs ten years ago last week (erk) is the obvious example. Alan Shearer's ruthless hat-trick at Blackburn in the same competition two years earlier. Actually I'm struggling to add to that list, other great opposition performances don't quite reach those heights and taint them by association.

But in this fixture last season, a new name entered into legend. The Hornets who travelled to Cheshire almost exactly a year ago, perhaps limited in number after one league win in the first two months of the campaign, were rewarded and can count themselves privileged to have witnessed a defensive masterclass from Chris McCready. Such poise, such composure. Recognising that they were in the presence of greatness, the Watford support began chanting his name; by the end of the half, every delicate slice into the back of the stand was greeted with howls of ecstasy. He didn't reappear after the break, and one can only assume that the Crewe management team wanted to make an even fight of it... surely no coincidence that we scored the crucial winning goal after McCready's departure. It will have escaped none of the Hornets present on that occasion that McCready returned to contention after a thigh injury with ninety minutes for the Alex's reserve side on Wednesday. With Crewe's defence sorely weakened by injuries, a place on the bench on Saturday is surely not out of the question. We can but hope.

Having lost (and not replaced) two key players over the summer, Crewe have started awkwardly this season. A less than glorious victory at winless Rotherham on Tuesday combined with Forest losing at Brighton (stop smirking at the back...) are all that keeps them out of the relegation zone - on goals scored - going into Saturday's game. Alex also have comfortably the worst defensive record in the division, thanks in no small part to the shortage of defensive numbers mentioned earlier.

Ben Williams will be in goal, having done a bit of a Wayne Brown on Crewe by impressing hugely during a loan spell from Manchester United last season, less so now that he's signed permanently. An inability to command his area and refusal to venture from his line seem to be the chief problems, and probably have a lot to do with what is becoming a critical susceptibility to set pieces. Clayton Ince is confined to the bench, with Dario Gradi reputedly having written him off as a Division Two keeper.

At the back, Stephen Foster is the main man but he's been suffering with a knee injury that kept him out at Millmoor and is doubtful for Saturday. With the injury-prone Adie Moses out with a calf injury and McCready presumably (regrettably) short of match fitness, the central partnership in Foster's absence will pair Richard Walker, prone to the odd lapse in concentration, with impressive seventeen year-old Billy Jones, now reportedly definitely a centreback having also played at right back and in midfield.

With unreliable Cornishman Anthony Tonkin also doubtful with a dead leg that kept him out during the week, Mark Roberts could continue at left back. New loan signing from Liverpool Jon Otsemobor will probably come in at right back although at twenty-one he doesn't add much experience to the defence - Walker, only recently twenty-four, is the senior member of the back five. Paul Bignot played at right back on Tuesday, the eighteen year old brother of former Crewe full back Marcus, he is likely to revert to the bench.

The situation is not much better in midfield, where Crewe have desperately missed "a player that will just kick someone" according to BSaD's man on the inside, although the return to favour of former Hayes man Justin Cochrane has helped in this respect. Captain Kenny Lunt is the playmaker (but only, reputedly, when he fancies it)... the fact that he recently made his three hundredth start for Crewe at the age of twenty-four speaks volumes about Dario Gradi's ethos.

Neil Sorvel should also appear in the midfield, a fetcher-and-carrier whose value has been widely questioned on Alex messageboards, whilst Welsh international David Vaughan on the left is probably the most reliable member of the midfield. With Lee Bell and wingers Ben Rix and Luke Varney all out the alternatives to these four are inexperienced... James Robinson is likely to be on the bench with occasional striker Michael Higdon.

Crewe's trump card in the relegation battle may well be their forward line, which looks capable of grabbing goals even when the team isn't performing, a valuable commodity. How long Alex can hang on to Dean Ashton - now level with Danny Webber on nine league goals - is open to question, Everton the latest to be linked with the twenty year old who already has more than sixty senior goals to his credit. His partner is the lightning quick Northern Ireland international Steve Jones. Mark Rivers, back from a three year sabbatical at Norwich, has looked rather underwhelmed with his return and has been largely confined to the bench.

Matching our performance of midweek, given Crewe's shaky form, ought to be enough to extend the fine run that has seen us win our last four away games without conceding. For arguably the first time in that run, complacency becomes a potential issue... although that hardly seems believable of this utterly likeable, trustable Watford side. With a two week break followed by a tough schedule for the rest of the month, we need three points here.