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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 06/11/04, 3.00pm
Derby County
Shirt/Ball Co-ordination
By Howard Reed

Matt (who invited me to write this match report) tells me that we have now entered the season of yellow balls. For the winter. There was one in the Premiership match on TV in the pub before the game, where Villa were stomping Portsmouth 3-0. And there was one at Vicarage Road. It was a near-exact match for the colour of the Watford home shirts. But, because the ball moves like a ball, and not like a player's torso (most of the time), confusion on the pitch was minimal... although the colour clash may well have explained the occasional sliced clearances which peppered the game.

Gaffes like that stood out as this was for the most part skilful, well-organised stuff... a tactical battle between two sides who were both tight and well-drilled. (For those who are already thinking, 'was he at the same game we were?', just to save you the bother of reading the rest of this ramble, it doesn't get any better, folks. What can you expect when you commission a match report from a man who hasn't been to a Watford game in over two years, whose last eyeball of League football was at Colchester, down in "Division Two", this year renamed "League One", and next year, I suggest, to be called "Slaughterhouse Five". That would be as rational as the current naming policy... but I digress.)

For the record, the first half was a killer Watford performance. Derby were simply reeled in on a hook... the early signs were strong, with good runs from Lloyd Doyley and Bruce Dyer. Unfortunately as the action stepped up, my inexperience betrayed itself. I'd bought a cheap A6 notepad to make a note of important events, but the shorthand I used came out something like Aphex Twin track listings. A sample from the first page of notes: "Great early tackle w8. Free kick - why? They cack [sic]. W f/kick fired in 2. Dyer up left fast from D kick ... vicious challenge on w6 -> insult to 4: 1/2 almost." I will be able to sell this to Thom Yorke for the next Radiohead album, but it sure as hell ain't gonna tell you what actually happened out on the pitch.

Fortunately, from the twentieth minute onwards, I stopped trying to take notes on every ball, and just noted key events, underlined. Thus I know that two corners - one for Watford, one for Derby - followed in quick succession, but with no payoff for either side. Dyer had been effective all the way through, and by the 32nd minute he found himself with the ball in front of goal after a miskick from a Derby defender, but couldn't control it.

At this point, drifting once again, I became obsessed with the very odd white boots-and-socks combination of the Derby keeper, Camp. Together with his sky blue top and navy blue leggings, he resembled a (warning: American football reference) running-back for the long-defunct Houston Oilers, minus helmet and some of the body padding. Even his number - 24 - is in line with NFL regulations for the offensive backfield. Fortunately, my search for ever-more-ludicrous comparison was ended when Heidar Helguson, who played the match like his adrenalin supply was an out-of-date food item that he had to use up that same day or throw away for good, collided with Derby's Michael Johnson, who was out cold and had to be stretchered off. His forced replacement by Pablo Mills may have thrown Derby out of joint, because we weren't waiting long after that for a goal... bizarrely, during the pause in the game when Johnson was being taken off, Matt and myself had been discussing Helguson. "He's like Les Ferdinand," Matt had told me, "in that you can't believe, looking at him, that he's any good in the air - he's like five feet ten? But he gets up there and hangs in the air and then powers it in like he's Boba Fett or something." (OK, Matt didn't say that last bit, but it was in the spirit of the moment.) And then five minutes later, a great cross deep into the Derby penalty area from the right, up pops Heidar and it's 1-0. Would that it were always this easy... just describing a situation and then it actually happens? And Watford were rampant now, no doubt about it... the trademark dodgy corner for the opposition came just before half time and was duly weathered.

My lucky half-time chocolate was Dairy Milk 'bubbly'. It was good, but essentially Aero for people with small pockets.

Those first forty-five minutes had been excellent, but as any sports fan knows, saying that will just set you up for things going downhill in the second half... and to a large extent they did. Between the forty-fifth and sixtieth minute or so, the play from both teams got rather scrappy, and it spilled over into a near-punch up on the fiftieth minute with Helguson and Derby's Ian Taylor both booked. At this stage, growing complaints were being raised by good and honest supporters in the Watford stands regarding the ref's sanity, and it must be admitted he wasn't the most consistent of arbiters, often blowing up for no good reason, or conversely, playing on when vicious hacks had been committed, mostly by Derby players.

Unfortunately, my battle to scribble notes in a straight line in the rapidly failing light meant that I was looking down at my pad when Derby scored the equaliser, so I can't tell you how it happened, except that it was, I think, Ian Taylor, from a rebound. At this point, my notes reveal the one coherent sentence I managed to write in a hour and a half... '[Watford] knuckling down for 30 minutes of hard fight'. They lasted about ten. Just after Paul Peschisolido had been brought on by the Rams to replace Marco Reich, he picked up a pass on the left edge of the penalty area in a bit of space and drilled it in for the lead. At this point I started thinking about the cheap getaway fares to the Peak District currently being advertised on the London tube by Midland Mainline. But a come-from-behind win was still possible and I think the Watford guys sensed that. It was getting scrappier and more brutal at this stage... the temperature, while not truly cold, was nipping round the edges. Both sides had that 'been in the bath too long' wrinkly feeling about them... passing combos were continually breaking down at the last pass. But then Watford used basic building blocks to put an unstoppable move together and it was a glorious event that seemed to happen almost in slow motion. A great sweeping run and shot from Hameur Bouazza, who'd come on as a sub with fifteen minutes to go, was parried by Camp, with the ball taking a defensive deflection into the path of Brynjar Gunnarsson, who just guided it into the net. 2-2.

The last ten minutes were the most gripping. Bouazza had another great chance, shooting into a nest of Derby players in the six yard box. A couple more Watford near misses, with Helguson virtually headbutting the goalpost in frustration after his shot went a fraction wide. Watford's urgency was growing in proportion to their fluency. Derby by contrast were stuck in a desperate holding action by this stage, stacking in front of the ball in twos and threes like bad flyers clutching their sick bags on a bumpy descent into Heathrow. With about two minutes of stoppage time to go, Derby seemed to realise they were still on a football field and not queueing up to use the toilet... the final exchanges were ferocious and either side could have stolen it with a lucky break, but it wrapped up at 2-2.

From the point of view of pure entertainment, this was a great match, and all credit to Watford for a deft performance with touches of real fire. It was frustrating not to have got the final breakthrough, but it could have been worse... a close race can easily tip into crushing defeat, as fifty-five million Democrat voters in the US will tell you. Great stuff guys, I'll be along to Vicarage Road again soon, and better luck next time.