Point means surprises
By Ash Peters
"Dreading" is maybe too strong a word; I was not quite that fearful of this game, but certainly not anticipating it with any relish. So many factors combined to make it as unappealing an away trip as we've had for some time: the weather, the opponents, the distance to travel, the terrible display last season, the cost at this time of the season, the weakened team we'd been warned would be used. So when my car tried and decisively failed to start, it seemed like it was not to be. However, several phone calls and an unused set of jump leads later, it reversed its decision and spluttered into life, much to my embarrassment. As late as it now was, the decision was out of my hands, and fate and the M6 would decide whether I made this game. And how very gratified I was that I did.
Roughly a hundred and fifty Watford fans witnessed one of the most inspiring performances of recent seasons. The young side we put out gave everything, and more than matched a Wigan side deservedly challenging for promotion. This was far better than I'd dared hope; not a nicked point, a mighty and mighty promising display that left us believing if either side were hard done by, it was us.
We started quickly and Jackson, at the heart of the reinstated 4-4-2, was involved all over the pitch. Sharp interplay with Dyer and a hungry looking Webber earned us two quick corners, and keeper Filan was lucky to get away with some insecure handling. Another who has been booed by the Watford crowd perhaps quicker than deserved, the Spurs midfielder was towering, savouring his closer involvement with the midfield battle to destroy our impressions of him as an ineffectual winger. He chased down and won the ball, shirked no tackle, and sprayed the ball around with a surgically accurate left foot. No mini-Ardley, he.
Wigan were noticeably organised and fought back against our surging momentum with some success. Full-backs Baines and Eaden got forward willingly, the latter setting up McCulloch for a shot straight at Jones, the former earning a wasted corner with a decent cross. It was the away side who looked dominant in the early play, though. From the first of many Demerit headers, Chris Eagles, looking like Darren Bazeley with Nigel Rhodes' haircut, surged through the middle to earn a free-kick, struck well by Jackson but deflected over by the wall. Filan again fumbled the resultant corner, but Wigan could clear. Late into a tackle in his enthusiasm, Eagles in turn gave away a free-kick that, fortunately deflected over Doyley, nearly set up Roberts.
Just before the quarter hour, the game's best move by far saw Watford take a deserved lead. An exchange between Jackson and Webber took the ball across the Wigan defence, and Dyer neatly slid the ball between Baines and his centre back for Eagles to burst onto. Any player would have sensed a scoring chance, but after a heavy first touch the United loanee still got a toe to the ball to square for Dyer to blast home from eight yards. This was truly unexpected territory for the away fans, but the mad celebrations could not disguise that this was well in line with the run of play. Sparsely-spread, we could not generate as much noise as the team deserved for the rest of the game, but the goal celebrations were truly joyful.
The game grew a little frantic; Wigan were simply too good to be completely knocked off stride by the young invaders, and each side looked threatening. McCulloch had a decent header from Eaden's cross, and Demerit tackled Ellington inside the area; Jones was fortunate to see a poor goal kick bounce off Roberts before he could react. At the other end, Young, appearing to benefit from his layoff, was lively and tricky and might have got more freekicks had his slight frame not given the impression he was too easily knocked off the ball. He nearly set up Webber in the area, Filan coming to gather, and we were unlucky to see Dyer, in the centre but not interfering, called offside when a Mayo clearance sent Webber through again.
A poorer display would have seen even this Wigan performance put them two or three goals up; even in astonishingly good form, the young side could not keep them out. With twenty minutes of the half left, Doyley held up Robertson the right side of the area, but could not get the ball to safety, and from Eaden's cross, the consistently dangerous McCulloch headed well, across goal and in off the far post. A mere distraction, though: still we came forward, and almost immediately, from a clearance by Chambers, Dyer flicked the ball on to set Webber free. He looked offside from our perfect vantage point, but this wasn't the first or last thing the nearside linesman looked to have got wrong, just his most easily forgiveable. Like the striker of the start of the season, Webber burst through, dummied Filan and slotted the ball home with utter confidence. Thoughts of 7-4, 4-0, 4-3 and all the other great recent away wins flowed into our excited minds, and so far this was the equal of any of those performances.
A slight ease in the pace of the game towards half time looked to work to our advantage. Young shot powerfully but straight at the Athletic keeper when he might have crossed for either striker, and Webber, set up again by the unfailingly industrial Dyer, back to his charging best with the captain's armband on, produced a poor shot from a decent position. Both wingers contributed to further opportunities before half time, and in the final minute Young's cross just eluded the charging Eagles.
Feelings at the interval were almost too optimistic; this was far more than we had any right to expect, enough to have steamrollered half the sides we have played this season. Almost wasted on a game we'd all, apparently management included, written off. Anything more than a defeat here was a bonus, this performance could have turned any number of defeats into a win. But so far from home, and so unexpected, this was special for its timing as well as class.
Wigan had to come out strongly, and they did. To describe the first half as a poor performance by them seemed harsh of manager Jewell after the game, but here we realised how many levels they had to step up. Roberts immediately won a corner which Jones was lucky to see drift over the men at the far post, having come for it and missed. Chambers flicked on another corner agonisingly into his own penalty box, but it was scrambled clear. Roberts beat Demerit, worth mentioning simply as the American had looked so sturdy, to cross just over his strike partner.
Then came our big chance. From great interplay with Webber, Young swung over an awkward cross that in the muddle of what may well have been a home player's handball, fell to Dyer. Controlling the ball, the big striker set his sights for goal, only to be unceremoniously upended by Emerson Thome. The Brazilian defender, who had spent the majority of the game thus far moaning about the lack of an offside flag against our second goal, was perhaps lucky to escape a red card, certainly so that the referee failed to even give a penalty. Back came Wigan immediately, and Chambers unconvincingly sliced over a Roberts cross. Jewell brought on Alan Mahon for the stifled Flynn, and as if thus inspired, Gary Teale broke past Mayo on their right, the fullback's dive only deflecting the ball more perfectly onto the head of McCulloch for his second.
A text came from a friend not at the game: 'watch us lose this now'. Normally, maybe: Wigan grabbed some degree of control and attacked in well-organised and speedy waves. We were not to be denied, however. Even as both Eagles and the exemplary Jackson gave way to injury, and Young, switched to the right to accommodate substitute Bouazza, began to wilt, we had enough to repel the home side. Here, Jay Demerit came into his own. Jackson has taken most of the post-match accolades, but the American simply improved on his already high standards in the face of the onslaught. Responsibility for a recently non-league player cannot come much bigger than taking on the division's top strike force alongside an similarly inexperienced, slighter partner, but he took it all in his stride and was simply superb. Can there be many finer American central defenders?
It was Wigan who had the style, but largely shots were taken from out of the area. Bullard and McCulloch drove well wide. Blizzard, another injury victim, gave way to Gunnarsson, but nothing could weaken our resistance. Their Mahon drove over, and Roberts busied three defenders enough to earn a corner. We were not entirely comfortable, and rode what luck we needed, but the sharp and skilful Roberts, in particular, was handled with as much efficiency as it took to deny any more decent chances. Teale, who tortured Mayo all half with his runs but never got the fullback out of his hair, upset the away fans with a blatant dive as Bouazza came back to help on the left, getting Gunnarsson a booking for his protestation. Any shots that got through were dealt with by Jones whose safe handling, if not his command of crosses, was in welcome contrast to his opposite number.
What a game, what a performance, a true delight and a real reward for the journey made more in hope than expectation. The whole side deserve credit; maybe playing those whose minds would not be on playing on Tuesday was not the admission of inferiority it seemed like, but I doubt those retained for that game will do anything to let us down.
Leaving the ground, I truly felt the cold for the first time. My car started straight away though: job done! Now to dream of Cardiff....