By Matt Rowson
On the last day of the season, the result itself is more often than not largely irrelevant. The last time that the last game of the regular season might have been remotely important was during the game against Grimsby in 1999. We won and made the play-offs... as it turned out, had we lost we'd have made them anyway. In 1998, famously, Jason Lee's scuffed shot won us the title, but we were already promoted some time earlier. The last time that the final game of the regular season had a direct bearing upon which division we operated in during the following campaign was 1994, when we'd have needed to have lost by two goals to Palace at Selhurst Park to have been relegated.
No. Since then, the last day of the season has had a very different focus. From singing "we're going to Stockport, you're not" to Coventry fans in 2000 (they were to wait another year) to the present day, and ig's decision to stop at a half-pint of diet coke notwithstanding, the final day of the season has been about beer.
At this point, I should perhaps point out that I can see two screens at this moment in time, the two paragraphs to date have warranted, almost certainly, a reasonable amount of editing. I have recently returned home from the public house having spent a considerable amount of time in offering congratulation to a Crewe fan in a pub in Staffordshire, into whose vicinity a proportion of the Crewe squad had recently entered. Chris McCready was, I hope and expect, purchased a pint on behalf of "everyone at Watford". I hope that you find this acceptable.
Earlier on there was a football match. I can vaguely remember entering the stadium a number of hours ago to...
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It's now Monday. I do not feel chipper and I do not feel happy. Yes, the above did require considerable editorial attention; no, you're not going to be treated to a match report loaded with glittering prose. I'm not in a very glittering mood. Here's a tip... having been away for a week to recharge your batteries, don't enter a public house with Loz the afternoon before you're due back at work....
The other thing about the last day of the season is that it's all a bit disorientating. Funny kick-off times on the wrong day of the week disrupt the usual routine on their own... then you've got the lurking prospect of the summer, welcomed or otherwise, and the knowledge that one's weekends are due for an overhaul. Stumbling into the ground on Sunday and blinking stupidly at the teamsheet which boasted a midfield averaging less than twenty years (McNamee, at twenty-one, the veteran) and a subs' bench on which the newly transfer-listed Paul Mayo, at twenty-three, provided all of the first team experience, couldn't have felt less real.
The Hammers had arrived in force, of course, for a match that was critical to their play-off chances - filling the Rookery and, suspicions were later confirmed, infiltrating the home stands also. The day was bright and blustery and the game started in similar vein, with both sides positive. Zamora sliced an early chance into the Rookery, to cheers. Ig and I discussed whether the rash on the back of my hands brought back from Cyprus might plausibly be Graham Simpson's fault.
The most apprehensive premonitions of this game, of course, featured a disinterested Watford side being steamrollered by a superior West Ham team with everything to play for. It's not as if we ever beat the Hammers in the normal way as it is. Instead, whilst the gap in quality and experience was occasionally evident, the gap in motivation was not.
West Ham's keen interest in the game was evident from the off, but by and large we were equal to it even if we didn't create an awful lot ourselves. Doyley's typically attentive defending smothered Etherington's overlap down the left at the cost of a corner; the languid Harewood broke through and beat Chamberlain, but had been caught by an offside flag. Our back five boasted almost all of the experience in the side and it showed... when we were caught out, Alec Chamberlain carrying the ball out of the area, Andy D'Urso correctly penalised Zamora's shove.
Danny Cullip did his thing, booting Harewood up the backside on more than one occasion, and when Etherington escaped down the left again, Chambers used his strength to hold off Harewood's assault on the cross. West Ham had the pressure and the possession, but our defending was solid; Harewood was soon waving his arms around at perceived injustices, and Hayden Mullins was booked for a petulant foul in the middle of the park.
So far, so good, and finally we made some inroads of our own... Jay Demerit clattered into Ashley Young's right wing free kick in his endearingly uncomplicated way, sending his header wide of the left-hand post. Helguson capitalised on an error by Powell to skip through on the right before running the ball out of play.
Al Bangura, perhaps the boldest of Betty's selection decisions, was catching the eye in the middle of the park. Whilst his long-range passing was a little erratic, the seventeen year old belied his years with some destructive play that was both ferociously aggressive and painstakingly accurate. No clumsy, inexperienced ill-timed challenges here... Etherington was left blinking at the sky by an absolute cannonball of a tackle that nonetheless robbed the visitors' chief architect meticulously. Doyley followed suit with a thunderous challenge on the same player, an appreciative encore.
Etherington was increasingly the focal point of West Ham's play, though, and finally won a free kick on the left from Ashley Young's late, nervous trip. A cleverly worked set piece released Etherington on the left hand side of the box; an illogically well-manned Watford wall had left the Hammers with numbers unmarked in the area and was now bypassed. Etherington's cutback somehow found Bangura amongst the claret shirts, who scrambled the ball clear to howls of laughter from the Rookery.
It was coming, though. Harewood turned Demerit for the first time to hare into the area and fire an awkward, bouncing shot to Chamberlain's left, the veteran pushing the ball around the post expertly. The resultant corner led to the goal and, disappointingly given what had gone before, it asked far less of the Watford defence than earlier moves that had been successfully repelled. Ward's ball in from the right wasn't dealt with and Ferdinand's bouncing volley somehow bypassed Cullip to find the bottom corner. After a brief, pointless interlude during which much of the Rookery squared its shoulders at West Ham interlopers in its midst, it was half-time.
Wigan's predictable lead against Reading had long since filtered through, which may have tempered West Ham's urgency. Indisputably, however, what had been an encouraging but largely punchless first-half performance from the Hornets was much more potent after the interval.
Helguson, captaining the side and every inch the leader throughout, set the tone, bringing the ball forward and releasing Young on the right. Young's vicious cross found Bouazza in front of goal, who perhaps ought have done better than glance the ball wide across the face. The crowd were up though, battle was joined.
A profoundly unpopular offside flag pulled up Bangura after the young midfielder had galloped clear. Young caused more problems on the right, Elliott Ward putting his fiercely struck cross behind for a corner, from which Demerit forced Walker into a comfortable save down to his left.
West Ham continued to suggest a threat... Etherington, again, attacked down the left and fired in a low shot that Chamberlain fielded assuredly. Some hesitant defending then allowed Zamora an opening to shoot wide.
But as an aside, it's worth considering West Ham's status as play-off contenders. Whilst it's difficult to dispute that they merited their eventual victory in this game, they really are a shoddy bunch for supposed candidates for promotion. That they've made it to the play-offs, and have probably deserved to given the competition for sixth place (Reading have earned the same number of points as us since Boxing Day for goodness' sake) is a damning indictment of the division. Betty's chirpy predictions for next season can't be judged fairly until a later date... but the Hammers are proving that you don't need to be that good to go up.
Andy D'Urso had kept a relatively low profile up to this point, but infuriated Nigel Reo-Coker by neglecting to play an advantage in the centre of the park. The young midfielder, one of the oases of quality in the visitors' ranks, made his dissatisfaction abundantly clear, eventually throwing the ball away like a toddler chucking his food off the table to demand a reaction. Inevitably, he got a yellow one.
Elliott Ward followed him into the book within minutes, and was lucky only to see yellow for a nasty hack on McNamee on the halfway line. Play resumed with Helguson, at stages now resembling an adult guesting in a game of toddlers, soaring through the centre and again releasing Young whose cross was put out by Ward. McNamee attempted to dart between two markers on the left only for Repka to manouevre his bulk in the way and shepherd the ball out. Unfortunately for the Czech pantomime villain, his had been the last touch - Walker snatched Young's corner off Helguson's head.
Bangura won more fans by executing the little trap-the-ball-under-your-studs-then-roll-it-into-space-whilst-surveying-options trick, more suited to World Cup Finals than Vicarage Road and the footballing equivalent of holding the marker during a brainstorming meeting.
Repka became the fourth Hammers' booking for a petulant shove on Helguson (his finest moment yet to come, however) before West Ham got a second. They got a bit lucky here - Chambers had no time to formulate an opinion about whether to handle Harewood's shot, let alone act upon a decision, but the shot crashed into his arm and Harewood placed the spot-kick beyond Chamberlain's dive.
Frustration, for the first time of the afternoon really, given our positive endeavours. Ig yawned next to me of a "creeping boredom", a situation not abetted by D'Urso's increasing fussiness, or by an odd-looking reorganisation necessitated by an injury to Bouazza. On came the right-sided Junior Osbourne... at left-back, with Chambers pushing into midfield and a questionable repeat of the "Ashley Young up front" experiment. With striker Joel Grant and left-back Paul Mayo on the bench, there were less optimistic options available.
The game was fizzling out, with solace being sought in Zamora's inability to keep a ball in play, or by Harewood's wild slug into the Rookery when Chamberlain's rushed clearance found him in space.
Enter Tomas Repka. He cost £5.5m, you know. Little threat as H chased a through ball with the impressive Walker apparently in total control. Until Repka, in the absence of necessity and, apparently, brain, shoved Helguson sideways as he crossed the area. A comically stupid decision.
Ashley Young briefly looked as if he was going to stake a claim for his first goal of the season but, Young Player of the Year or no, Claude Makelele he ain't, and our main man was after goal number twenty. A game of wink murder with Jimmy Walker before he stumbled and prodded a low shot underneath the keeper's dive.
Bravado recharged, Watford flew at their visitors for the last few minutes. Dom Blizzard, a positive influence throughout, took issue with Marlon Harewood in the West Ham wall and niggled open a gap for Ashley Young to bend a shot through. It was going top-corner, but Walker was equal to it and conceded a corner. Young's near post delivery was met by Blizzard's diagonal run (a new stock move to replace "Coxy into the wall", perhaps?), his glancing header again repelled by Walker, his second outstanding stop within minutes.
Chris Powell tried to slow things down by wandering into the corner. That's experience, that is. Except you normally execute this in the opposition half so that if you are dispossessed, as Powell was here, you're not suddenly exposed. Chambers and Young worked the ball to Bangura, whose curled left foot shot bent around the post. And then the whistle went, and the season finished.
I'm knackered, frankly. And I don't think it's just the hangover. Bright and positive as this performance was, it was only bright and positive in context. One can only imagine that the squad will be added to significantly over the summer as the Kidz can only be expected to do so much - part of the benefit of blooding youngsters is their playing with senior pros after all, and even with a fully fit squad, we ain't going to be left with many as it stands. Either way, I'm looking forward to the summer break for the first time that I can remember. The sum total of events since March have taken their toll on this miserable bastard, I'm going to need some time to work up an appetite for next season.
At least a week, anyway.
Enjoy the summer.