Snow joke for the Tractor Boys
By Dave Messenger
Picture the scene, if you will. It's 4.45 in a neat and tidy boardroom, in a corporately-coloured office somewhere in Rickmansworth. A young-ish, not unattractive bloke called Dave is sat, half-listening to the big cheese wittering on about corporate strategies and new appointments, while gazing out of the window and wondering when the snow would come bucketing down from the bright white sky and hammer the final nail into the coffin containing his plans for a late dash to Suffolk.
I almost called it quits there and then, and settled for 3CR. After all, I'm a veteran of the Sunderland debacle, and a trip to table topping Ipswich did not inspire confidence. But as the clock ticked past five, and I thought of the chance to see one of those against-all-odds wins passing me by, I stuck to the original plan. Having finally escaped at 5.15, and following a hair-raising, traffic jam busting, snow coated dash round the M25 and up the A12, we bowled up to the away end at Portman Road with a mere ten minutes to spare. First result of the night.
Having had the news of Ray Lewington's re-shuffle texted across somewhere around Colchester, we knew that the 4-5-1 formation that served us so well at Anfield was to be deployed. However, with the youthful look of the midfield, with old man Gavin Mahon looking over his young charges Blizzard, Jackson, Eagles and Bouazza, along with a distinct lack of Icelandic toughness up front to battle on alone, confidence was suddenly no higher than it had been back in the boardroom. James Chambers was restored to full-back in an otherwise unchanged back four.
The first twenty minutes or so did little to change the outlook. Ipswich charged at Watford, eager to see what the youthful Hornets were made of, and with the OBAG Jim Magilton pulling strings in midfield, it wasn't long before the lively Darren Bent had skipped in behind the defence and sent in a skidding cross that no blue shirt could quite reach. Watford were having difficulty in clearing the ball, and one half-clearance from Neil Cox picked out Blues midfielder Tommy Miller, but his shot was well held under pressure by Paul Jones in his farewell appearance. When Watford did get the ball to the halfway line, the monstrous Jason De Vos, bigger than King Kong's first dump of the day, simply muscled Webber out of the game and returned the ball whence it came.
It was starting to look like a long night. In desperate need of some entertainment, the less forgiving elements in the away end sought solace in abusing ex-Luton stopper Kelvin Davis. Quite why is beyond me. Davis had the good taste to get out of there long ago, and not before being comically exposed in that famous 4-0 win up the road, which is hardly in the Kerry Dixon/Steve Foster/Kirk Stephens league of Bedfordshire Bastardness. But that didn't stop the away end echoing to songs about a team in a different division to us, rather than the sounds of a support that had done Watford proud by getting to the game getting behind the beleaguered team in yellow when they needed them. Have a think, boys....
On the pitch, the blue tide continued to wash towards the Watford goal, but Ipswich couldn't turn their possession into clear-cut chances. Miller hilariously lashed so far wide that I swear I saw the corner flag ducked, and Bent blasted another shot straight into Jones' midriff. Throughout this period, the one saving grace was Bent's strike partner Jamie Scowcroft, back with the Tractor Boys on loan. Fat and slow in his youth, Scowcroft is nudging thirty and, frankly, time is doing him few favours. So while Bent tested Neil Cox's legs time and again, Scowcroft disappeared into Jay DeMerit's pocket, only briefly appearing to aim a few elbows, deliberately handball the odd long pass and foul the American defender from behind a few times, while avoiding attention from the evening's referee.
Gradually, Watford gained a foothold. Chris Eagles, looking bright in possession, supplied Jermaine Darlington, and though the left-back's cross was too deep, at least we'd looked at the other end of the pitch. From then, the Hornets started to grow in confidence, and the midfield unit started to deny Miller and Magilton the space they craved, while Bent drifted wide in order to try to run at Cox from a different angle, but the often maligned former captain stuck to the task, and out-sprinted his younger opponent more than once.
As the half drew to a close, we even figured out that giving the ball to Danny Webber's feet might help us to retain the ball, and one such pass from Darlington led to a one-two between Webber and Bouazza, a neat move that ended with Webber's flick towards goal being blocked for a corner by Richard Naylor. The corner was half cleared to Cox, who whipped a teasing cross into the Ipswich area, which Jay DeMerit headed past Davis into the bottom corner. While few would claim that Watford had done enough to be in front, a half in which we'd done well to hang on had suddenly turned into a very decent half indeed.
No doubt armed with a kitchen sink or two, Ipswich took to the field two minutes before Watford. Early in the half, Bent seized on a moment of indecision between DeMerit and Cox, but steered his shot wide as we braced ourselves for another long half of Ipswich possession and chances. But now, Watford had a lead to protect, and it showed. Every player visibly upped his game, and though the ball still came back too cheaply whenever cleared due to Webber's lack of inches, Watford restricted Ipswich to half chances with as tigerish a defensive display as this team has produced. Even when one Watford man was beaten, as happened a few times, one of his colleagues came to the rescue with a block or a tackle. It was inspiring stuff.
Amidst the work-rate, Johnnie Jackson started to stamp his influence in midfield, and a number of raking passes from his own half set up a few Watford moves on the break. Though most of these floundered, from one such pass to Webber saw the stiker tee up Dominic Blizzard, who might have done better with the chance. Ipswich still enjoyed half chances, mostly from Bent and Miller, but James Chambers, having the game of his season so far, made a number of telling blocks and summed up the effort by covering for Cox when he was finally left for dead by Bent, while the England Under-21 international really should have equalised when he was picked out by a pass from Darren Currie, but he blazed over the bar.
With Ipswich piling forward, Watford had a great chance to finish things off, as Jackson connected sweetly with a Bouazza pull-back, but his shot whistled wide as the snow started to fall. With Dyer finally introduced for Webber, Watford were able to hold the ball up at last. Under pressure from the sub, Naylor conceded a needless corner. Jackson delivered a delicious flag-kick and Dyer was afforded the freedom of the penalty area to head home the second Watford goal, and his tenth of a quietly effective season from the Bruce-ster. Get. Right. In. There.
Ipswich weren't done, and finally looked like scoring when then the luckless Bent lobbed a chance onto the crossbar. With the snow now falling hard, the goal finally came and when it did, it was harsh on Watford. Scowcroft appeared to deliberately handle the ball for the umpteenth time, a fact backed up by the Watford team who surrounded the referee to a man when he awarded a spot kick. Maybe the snow unsighted him. Jones now had the chance to finish on a real high, but Miller's penalty was too good. Ipswich found their kitchen sinks once more, and Jones then got his moment as he saved brilliantly from Currie, then held the resultant corner despite having Fatty Scowcroft's elbow in his rib-cage.
At the whistle, the jubilant Watford players sent Jones to take the plaudits, but this was truly a team effort. Once again, those that doubt Ray Lewington's ability to send out a committed and motivated outfit are proven to be wide of the mark, as the Hornets bounced back to bloody the league leaders' noses. While there's little doubt that on another night, Bent might well have had a hat-trick, if you don't take your chances you don't win games of football, and we were clinical when it mattered. With the fixture list easing for a while, this sort of effort will see us back in the top half of the table before long, and nobody in Ipswich will doubt we deserve that much. And as we travelled home through the snow showers, and pondered the last minute dash earlier in the evening, we can't be blamed for feeling we deserved to be treated to this performance as well!
To Wolves, my friends. Glenn Hoddle, beware....