Who are these people?
By Matt Rowson
Is this strictly necessary? I'm sure you don't really want to read this report and I sure as hell don't want to write it. Awful lot of more pleasurable things that I could be doing, like picking fluff out of my navel, falling asleep in front of the telly, or shoving my arm into a food processor.
Yes? Fine. Bastards.
To make one thing clear from the outset, those anticipating or requiring some profound analysis and explanation of what happened today had better bugger off and find an account by someone who has the faintest idea. I don't. This was, for the most part, ghastly, and as quite unlike the Watford performances that have been the norm thus far this season as is possible to imagine.
A sense of other-worldliness persisted throughout the game... and indeed, had characterised the day up to that point. Rather than waking up in front of the banal Saturday morning fodder that is Soccer AM, I watched a PJ Harvey gig recorded off BBC4 last night. Pretty much diametrically opposite on any scale you choose to specify in terms of Saturday morning viewing.
On arriving in Crewe we took residence in a bar on the Nantwich Road. We had a pre-arranged rendez-vous here with one of the opposition; our lack of colours got us past the door staff, the absence of any visible Hornets and previous years' attempts at entry suggesting this as a pre-requisite. Very pleasant it was, though... bright but airy decor, football on the television (albeit with Arabic punditry for some reason), pork sarnies on sale from behind the bar, decent local company in the form of both our contact and a charming, venerable gentleman who politely asked if a stool was free and then regaled us with details of the pros and cons of the town's drinking establishments.
But this was someone else's routine, not mine. This isn't my pub, these aren't the people that I spend time with before the game, there are no familiar faces here. And this isn't my team either, running out in blue of all colours and then putting in a thoroughly insipid forty-five minutes. My team doesn't do that, not any more...
We named the same sixteen that had put on such an inspiring, impressive show against Wigan midweek, whilst Crewe welcomed back Foster at centreback and Tonkin at left back from injury with Otsemobor on loan from Liverpool debuting at right back, revising the back four from Alex's midweek win at Rotherham. The opening exchanges were largely satisfactory... if our passing wasn't quite as crisp as recently, and the shove forwards not quite as aggressive as in previous games, at least it was mostly undertaken in the Alex half.
Chances weren't forthcoming, however, and fifteen minutes of something amounting to pressure only yielded one tame Gavin Mahon shot. Meanwhile reports of the Alex's demise (including, it must be said, no small degree of resignation to defeat from our contact in the pub, putting us off our guard - nice one, Kev...) were already looking premature; from Mahon's shot, Crewe broke upfield and Tonkin galloped down the left, Crewe's favoured avenue of attack all afternoon, and slipped in Vaughan who scuffed a shot under pressure when a clean contact could have broken the deadlock. Five minutes later, Steve Jones raced through onto a ball over the top but was pulled up by a questionable linesman's flag.
When the goal came, it was again following the breakdown of a Watford attack. Webber's industry was unflinching all afternoon, but when he dragged his marker wide before slipping a ball inside, Helguson's absence saw Alex regain possession and change the direction of play in an instant. Jones was quickly released and charged through Watford's reeling defence. Richard Lee, as is becoming traditional, hared out of goal to meet his adversary but unlike at Reading, his luck was out. Jones touched the ball past him and then seized onto it to finish under challenge. The ball sat spinning in the back of the net and we blinked at it in disbelief, the first away goal conceded since the opening day sauna at Preston.
Watford's defence were still blinking two minutes later. The first goal, sharply executed, had caught us cold but frankly could have done so at any time during any of the recent away victories. The second was a farce. Again it came on the break, with Jones' pace exposing our right hand side where James Chambers had pushed forward in support of another attack. His pace has previously been adequate to cover for any attacking excesses but not here, as he matched Jones' pace but couldn't outstrip it to make up the shortfall. Jones' shot was well stopped by Lee but the ball was limply cleared out to the left where Vaughan, outstanding throughout, sent it back into the mix. Pandemonium reigned before Mayo's flustered clearance rebounded off Sorvel and, as one might imagine of a Mayo clearance, failed or otherwise, had more than enough on it to end up in the back of the net.
We looked shellshocked. Our attacking for the rest of the half was extremely laboured... Webber chased and span and twisted but was followed around by Billy Jones who was as close to him as Lloyd Doyley was to Jason Roberts throughout Tuesday's encounter. Helguson was irrelevant, uncharacteristically uninvolved and unhurried for the most part. Young, too, was ineffective... both in attack and defensively, where he really needed to be on his game with Vaughan in the mood down Crewe's left. Captain Ardley came across to dig in for him on more than one occasion. Meanwhile in midfield Boris and Gav, so often our driving force this season were, if not completely bypassed, passed through by Crewe's breaks far more often than on any previous occasion in the campaign.
Crewe scored again. As you'll know. Again, it was a shocker... some haphazard defending saw the ball bounce, half discarded, out of the penalty area for Sorvel to send a bobbling shot back through the crowd. Lee's vision may have been obscured by both the number of bodies in front of him and the low sun straight in his eyes over the low stand at the opposite end... but the depth of six markers in the penalty box, Jones' pace or otherwise, wasn't justified. Whatever, the ball found the back corner with Ardley and Cox protesting vociferously about an earlier, unseen infringement.
Game over. Except not, actually... because even though our second half performance, though an improvement on the first, never attained any great heights, we still created plenty of chances. We never found out what a sliver of hope and a seed of doubt respectively might have done to our attack and Crewe's defence.
Our first chance came as the half closed. After Tonkin had sent a fierce shot crashing off the corner of bar and post from a difficult angle, Helguson broke into a sprint to meet Webber's cross after our number nine had spun and swivelled to carve open a crossing opportunity on the right. He met the low ball at the near post and a convinced connection would surely have reduced the deficit but he scuffed the shot limply to the grateful Williams.
Half-time saw the introduction of Bruce Dyer for Mayo, with Ardley dropping back to left back and Helguson and Dyer playing either side of Webber. Dyer's involvement gave us considerably more in attack, not least the aerial presence that we'd been lacking in the first half, and we had much of the second half possession. Crewe, it should be conceded, had little need of it.
Our start to the second half was quite ferocious, promising much, but after we lost possession Crewe broke with greater composure, Ashton firing low at Lee, who collected the loose ball at the feet of the scavenging Jones.
Jones was taken off with an injury shortly afterwards following an innocuous challenge, and although his replacement Rivers also looked bright, we never looked quite as exposed as we had before the break. Dyer, meanwhile, was quickly making his presence felt and Helguson should perhaps have done better when meeting his deep cross from the right and heading wide.
As our attempts to break back faltered, so the tiredness of the team was accentuated. This two week break may not be a bad thing after all. Boozer came off the bench midway through the half for Ashley Young, who had earlier been flattened by Tonkin, fooled after a sharp turn. We played the young Frenchman through the middle with Webber and he reinvigorated our attack, however when Webber again carved a crossing opportunity from the left and Bouazza and Dyer collided in attempting to propel the ball into opposite corners of the goal with Williams at their mercy, Dad leaned over and finally conceded "we're not going to win this...".
There were still chances, though. None better than when some tidy play from Gunnarsson in the box freed Bouazza on the left touchline, and his low fierce ball across the face found Webber in front of goal, his tame prod at Williams leaving us wondering again about the longer-term consequences of his impossible miss against Reading. That was only last weekend, suddenly it seems months ago.
Bouazza came close again when Ardley's excellent cross from the left found him at the far post... he headed down, but Williams was well positioned. Meanwhile Crewe's threat had been reduced still further by an injury to Dean Ashton, stretchered off after appearing to twist his knee. A very sour footnote for the Railwaymen... Kev's earlier assertion that his side were "buggered" if either of the front two got injured will now be put to the test.
We sloped off at the final whistle. A modicum of booing, a smattering of applause, but mostly stunned silence. The hope is, of course, that our team shows up again at Derby in a fortnight's time after a bit of a rest.
And Crewe didn't even need to call on McCready...