Same as it ever was...?
By Dave Messenger
General wisdom has it that if you don't enjoy something, you're not very likely to go back. For example, a nice meal in a decent restaurant will mean that you want to visit the establishment again at some point. By the same token, if your food is cold when it turns up, the service is poor or the staff has all the personal hygiene of a tramp, then that's another place struck off the list. My first visit to Upton Park, back in March '87, was the footballing equivalent of the waiter spilling wine down your shirt, then trying to chat up your girlfriend while you're cleaning up in the toilet. Watford outplayed The Hammers, Leroy Rosenior popped up with a late winner, and a wholly unappetizing precedent was set.
The list of hard luck stories, not to mention the odd-goal defeats at the hands of East London's finest, goes on. Sticking out like a sore thumb in the memory are a 1-2 in 1992 when a rampant Paul Furlong gave us the lead, only for the home side to grab two late goals. Then there was the FA Cup 3rd round in 1994 when Lee Nogan should have had a hat-trick, another 1-2 reverse. Yet another 0-1 during the horror of the not Premier, not a ship season and of course, last May's tanking. Yet more poor meals at the Boleyn Bistro.
And so, when Bruce Dyer skilfully lobbed the advancing Stephen Bywater to put Watford two up after twenty minutes, what happened next had certain predictability about it, regardless of the fact that we've made something of a habit of throwing leads away. But that's getting ahead of ourselves, there was so much more to this game than just another odd-goal defeat at Upton Park. Following the exciting draw at Leeds, one change was made with Lloyd Doyley making a welcome return to the starting eleven at the expense of Jack Smith, while Paul Devlin returned to the bench after his recent injury troubles.
The game started at a frenetic pace. West Ham, on the back of three defeats and with Alan Pardew under pressure, should have done better with early chances for Bobby Zamora and Steve Lomas, neither of which troubled Richard Lee though a proper striker may have made better of the chances. In fact, for that five minutes The Hammers looked sprightly in midfield and it looked like we might be in for a torrid afternoon. All of which made it all the more surprising and sweet when Heidar Helguson laid the ball off to Brynjar Gunnarsson, who smashed the ball in from the edge of the box after just six minutes. Get right in there.
Stung by the goal, West Ham flew back at Watford and Lee excelled in making a one handed from a Darren Powell header, then going one better with a good smothering stop from Nigel Reo-Coker. The Hornets were well in the game at this stage and also attacked with no little verve. Watford doubled their lead through Dyer's exquisite lob after some horrendous defending from Tomas Repka allowed the rejuvenated striker to grab his third goal in two games. Take a large pinch of Delirium, and mix that with a too good to be true feeling and you've got the general mood of the way end. This was all going to plan, two up and the home crowd turning on their own players, we just needed to keep it tight.
It didn't happen though, and that's the most unpalatable aspect of this game. For one of the first times this season, Boris and Gavin Mahon were second best, as the irritating but on song Lomas pulled strings in midfield, while Sergei Rebrov chose this game to remember that he had once been one of Europe's most feared strikers. The Ukrainian dropped deep, ran at Watford and generally created mayhem, while Etherington and Chadwick caused problems for Doyley and Jermaine Darlington throughout. In the centre of defence, though untroubled by the hapless Zamora, Cox and Dyche struggled to clear their lines on several occasions as the home side turned the screw.
Rebrov was involved in the goal that got West Ham back into the game as Lee failed to hold the former Spurs forward's free kick, and Reo-Coker was on hand to poke home from close range. A minute later, it got worse as the unmarked Darren Powell headed Etherington's teasing corner into the net for 2-2. With their tails well and truly up, the attacking continued as the Hammers cooked up a storm and Watford couldn't stem the claret and blue tide. On 39 minutes, Rebrov almost capped his performance with a fine goal as he left Chambers and Doyley for dead and curled a shot just around the post. Watford then lost Gunnarsson to injury, replaced by Ashley Young with Chambers moving into central midfield. Half time came with Watford glad of the respite, while the Hammers faithful were in fine voice, when just twenty minutes earlier they'd been berating their players.
The second half started at a much slower pace. Watford almost drew first blood as Dyer shrugged off his marker and shot just over the bar on 48 minutes, but it was a false dawn for Watford as West Ham resumed their assault when Chadwick beat Darlington once again and crossed for Lomas, who put his shot wide when well placed. Rebrov then curled a dubious free-kick wide. The kick had been awarded against Chambers, despite his having clearly won the ball, one of a series of mystifying decisions by the referee, who was so much of a Homer, his surname should have been Simpson (Ithankyou. I'm here for three more nights…..)
It got worse still. On 57 minutes, Rebrov finally got his just desserts and his first Division Two goal when he was awarded the freedom of the Watford penalty area and enough time to recount the vote in the Ukrainian election to finish off Etherington's cross, and cap as good an individual display as we're likely to see against us all season. It could have got even worse than worse still, but thankfully Bobby Zamora is about as dangerous in front of goal as my Nan and he wasted two glorious chances to extend the home side's lead. With the game slipping away, Ray Lewington threw Devlin into the fray. Encouragingly, Devlin showed a willingness to get at the fullback and managed a few dangerous crosses, and also cut inside to blast an effort over the bar with ten minutes left. A decent cameo from the winger, who will hopefully be back to his best after his enforced lay-off.
Marcus Gayle also returned to action as an extra striker for the last few minutes, but the change to a 4-3-3 gave Chadwick more space to exploit, and he had two good chances. Lee was equal to both the former Watford youth-teamer's attempts and kept Watford alive. There was one last chance of an equaliser as Helguson's header from a Young corner clipped the post with Bywater well beaten. Had it gone in, that would have been a point stolen, and as mentioned earlier, that sort of fortune just doesn't happen to Watford at Upton Park. Another defeat that sticks in the throat… I just hope I'm there when we finally serve up an à la carte dish…