Break me gently
By Dave Messenger
It's at times like these that writing about the football club you love becomes the hardest thing to do, and yet, that difficulty also makes it strangely enjoyable. There's a million and one things going round in my head right now. A lot of them don't involve Watford FC, even though today's events have been interesting in the extreme. Some involve my girlfriend, currently having a whale of a time working across South East Asia for ten days. Some involve whether to have pickle in the cheese sandwich I've just knocked up. Others involve wondering why Blackburn and Liverpool seem unable to muster anything even mildly entertaining. But mostly I'm wondering, some twenty-four hours after the latest episode in the soap opera this season has become, when Watford will get out of their current predicament.
After the game I was reminded of comments I made in a now infamous article, about our threadbare squad of players. Ray Lewington shuffled his depleted deck of cards, still missing its ace of spades as far as the current situation goes in Sean Dyche, and also without the suspended Bryjar Gunnarsson, and came up with a 4-4-2 formation with four changes in personnel from the QPR game. Jack Smith came in for the hapless Jermaine Darlington. Lloyd Doyley returned to the fray, along with Danny Webber and Neal Ardley and we settled down to see what Watford were made of.
And for the first half, it seemed like the right sort of minerals were on display. Watford got amongst their opponents with a gusto not seen for a good while. Tackles flew and space was found on a regular basis, especially by Doyley and James Chambers who seemed to have the freedom of the right flank at times...one peach of a cross from Doyley found Heidar Helguson, who should have scored with a header. Chambers' bobbling shot drew a decent save from Ian Walker and at the other end, David Connolly wasted a great chance when he nipped in ahead of Neil Cox and Jay Demerit, but the ever popular former "Watford's fourth best striker" skewed his shot wide.
It continued in much the same vein. Passes found their yellow-shirted targets, headers were won and half chances came and went. Danny Webber jinked past two markers and curled in a delectable effort, but it smashed against the post instead of nestling in the back of the net. It was still some way short of the early season highs, but it was considerably better than the last two home games. Strike one tick in the box right there for Ray Lewington and his motivational abilities. Still battling on against the odds, still trying to encourage and cajole his players to greater heights, and still very much the man for the job.
And, lo and behold, two goals followed this solid start to the game, but not before a first prolonged bout of pressure from Leicester. Inspired by Dion Dublin's move from Centre Half to Centre Forward, the spell culminated in Stefan Moore missing a sitter. When the first goal came, it was from a familiar supply line. Ardley's sweeping free-kick was met in the area by Demerit, and the American headed home the opener. It got better minutes later, as Helguson was felled by Gareth Williams. Up stepped Webber, who calmly slotted home the resulting spot-kick. Just what the doctor ordered.
The second half started in the same vein. Firstly, Helguson beat Walker to a cross but only managed to hook a header over the bar. That was followed by a barnstorming run from the Icelandic striker, which was unceremoniously ended by the charming Danny Tiatto, but Cox hammered the resultant free kick into the Rookery. Despite that, so far, so good. Then came the moment that changed the game and, while I really do hope not, maybe the season as well. A fairly nondescript ball forward from Darren Kenton, an extremely nondescript attempt at a clearance from Cox, and Connolly galloped towards goal and slotted the ball past Richard Lee.
From coping at 2-0, one crass error saw Watford became a shadow of their first half selves, and the home crowds howls of desperation did not help matters. When confidence is low, mistakes like these are the things that bite and when your squad already lacks depth and experience, you just cannot afford such errors from one of the established names in the side.
The aftermath of the goal said all you needed to know about the rest of the game. A time for senior players to stand up and be counted, and while Watford stared at their feet, Dion Dublin stood among his team-mates driving them on. For Watford, with Cox having already having abdicated his responsibility, Mahon clearly labouring, Ardley puffing and Helguson dead on his feet, the search for someone to take the bull by the horns was not successful. Only Demerit, with a few claps to his team-mates, showed any outward signs of spirit, while Johnnie Jackson tried to stem the tide and always put a foot in, even if he didn't win too many of his challenges.
Leicester switched the ineffective Moore for the ebullient Keith Gillespie, and laid siege to the Watford half. Having seen precious little of the ball at the Rookery end, we willed the defenders to get the ball clear, and Watford did manage one break which ended with Webber scuffing a shot wide. From the goal kick, Leicester piled forward once more and after a lovely move involving Kenton and Connolly, Stephen Hughes netted the equaliser. After the goal, the visitors continued to make their pre-match attempts to get the game called off because of its proximity to their FA Cup match at Blackburn look as ridiculous as it was. It was Watford who looked tired, and like a team waiting to be beaten, as first Connolly forced a fine save from Lee, then Dublin couldn't land the Coup de Gras from the rebound.
Positives, then. We played very well until their first goal. Ray Lewington has proved there is still some life to be extracted from this squad, but so brittle is their confidence that one mistake saw all the good work undone. Watford's players ended this match with most of the players on their knees, or their haunches. They simply must get up, dust themselves down, and get on with it. Remember the first fifty-five minutes of this one and that we have eight games to secure our Second Division status and wouldn't it be great if we could go into the international break with the first, all important win. It's in our hands, let's get the job done.