By Matt Rowson
There's a school of thought that proposes that routine, if not in itself a bad thing, can be negative if taken to extremes. The same school of thought that advocates doing something every day that one has never done before. This could be something relatively large, like a parachute jump, or just trying a different route to work, a different type of sandwich filling, something.
The strong implication here is that most people are instinctively averse to surprises, to something out of the norm, unless they are either temporarily or more commitedly in some sort of conscious pursuit of new experiences. Therefore broadening one's perspective is not generally something that happens without some deliberate effort.
So one has to wonder at the response of some to Trevor Benjamin's first contribution in a yellow shirt. There is no mystery with big Trev, no surprises. We've come up against him a number of times playing for different opposition... Cambridge, Norwich, Leicester, Coventry. And you know what you're going to get... the Devon White comparison is a little lazy but not entirely inaccurate. Immense, awkward bulk, yes. Decent at shielding the ball, holding up play, yes. Elegance, pace and movement? No. Tricks and turns and fancy stuff? Forget it. Pretty much the best you'll get in grabbing a target man on loan at short notice, in other words. So why one particular red-faced Mister Angry saw fit to vent his spleen barely half an hour into this encounter ("Show some pride in the shirt Benjamin, move!") is quite beyond me. Perhaps he was expecting Rudolph Nureyev.
The motorway had already yielded a number of unpleasant surprises that stretched our journey to Crewe to three and a half hours. The first of these, before we'd even passed Bedfordshire, necessitated a detour through Dunstable that later permitted us to absorb the pleasures of Crewe's Nantwich Road in a much more positive light than might otherwise have been the case. Crewe may be unglamourous and grey, but it has none of Dunstable's defiant unpleasantness and none of the eating establishments that we passed in search of chips and gravy after the game instilled quite the same sense of trepidation as Dunstable's Black Cat Cafe, which we'd crawled past in awe some six hours earlier.
We arrived at Gresty Road somewhat wearied but in plenty of time for kick off, and in time to absorb Betty's latest surprise which saw Jordan Stewart demoted to the bench, James Chambers lining up at left back and seventeen year old Junior Osborne awarded his first start after a positive run-out against Wolves in the League Cup in midweek. Otherwise, with Lloyd Doyley partnering Carlisle at the back and Trev taking the attacking role vacated by the injuries to both King and Henderson in last week's costly defeat to Sheffield United, it was the line up that was widely anticipated. The subs bench made more interesting reading, with the much-missed Gavin Mahon, our other new loanee Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joel Grant, also impressive in the week, alongside Stewart and the Veteran.
The game's opening suggested anything but a nil nil draw, with both sides demonstrating attacking intent and neither defence looking entirely robust. Junior Osborne temporarily defused fears that he might be intimidated by the occasion by flattening David Vaughan with an early challenge, but for the most part looked willing but fallible; in Vaughan, arguably Crewe's most impressive performer, he'd been given a big ask and much of Crewe's first half threat came down their left side.
It was Watford who threatened first, though; the lively Chambers released Benjamin down the left flank, his lay off found McNamee whose cross found Benjamin's head but his flick-on, as too often, seemed arbitrarily directed. Minutes later McNamee and Young combined on the left, Young's inswinging cross inviting both Spring and the better-placed Benjamin to go for the same header which went over off one or both heads.
Ben Foster demonstrated some of the strongest and weakest elements to his game within seconds, dropping and recovering a simple catch before a monster throw released Chambers (again) galloping down the left. From our angle, low down and fairly central along the side of the pitch, our perspective on proceedings was entirely different to that enjoyed from a third of the way up the Rookery. Chambers is fast, isn't he...? He released McNamee, who cut in on his right foot clipping a cross onto Benjamin's head but the flick went wide of the right-hand post.
This wasn't the last, or the most spectacular, of Foster's lapses... as he stooped to pick up an overhit throughball my vision was already a step further on, looking for the fullbacks bursting into space for him to reach when sudden consternation snapped focus back on the keeper... having let the ball run through his legs, he was gratefully recovering it. That neither of these errors was punished owes a lot to the attitude and limitations of our opponents; a side with alert strikers would have put more pressure on the keeper, and he can't count on getting away with many more of these mistakes. It was also evident that as soon as Foster gained (or appeared to gain) possession, Crewe were increasingly dropping back to cut off any quick breakaway, thus slowing the whole game down. Although comfortable and tidy in possession throughout, as one might expect from a Crewe side, there wasn't a great deal of goal threat, and of the sides down the bottom those struggling to find the net are the ones you fear for in the longer term... although Crewe still have Ugarte and Rodgers to pin hopes on when fit.
Crewe's first chance came when Osborne was dispossessed by Vaughan, whose shot went across the face of goal from left to right and wide. Five minutes later came our best chance of the half - a tidy cushion down by Trev to Devlin on the right, and his quick cross found McNamee arriving at the far post; he volleyed narrowly wide of the top corner. The tidy Fletcher - less of a bully than Mahon, but nonetheless effective throughout - won possession in the centre, sprayed left for Chambers who found Young in a central position. He was tripped on the edge of the D, and although the positioning of Benjamin and Carlisle in the Crewe wall prior to Young's free kick suggested comic potential, all that resulted was a lame "Coxy into the wall" tribute.
From midway through the half, the home side grew in conviction and were ultimately unfortunate to be level at the interval. We got a lucky break when a foul by Doyley on Jones in the area was preceded by an offside flag. Then, from a right wing corner, Clarke Carlisle arrived at pace and ahead of a crucial Crewe touch to head clear. More Crewe pressure, and again it was the monstrous Carlisle applying a critical block to a shot from the edge of the area... the deflection span twenty feet upwards but came down a comfortable catch for Foster until he dropped it behind him and again was able to salvage his mistake, preventing the ball from crossing the line.
Vaughan again got the better of Osborne and sent a cross across the face of goal which Jones can't have been more than inches from turning in. Then, as the referee tried to play an advantage over an offside flag, Devlin was caught in possession by Roberts who snapped a shot in that hit the post and was cleared. Having earlier got stick from the home support for a similar but less consequential attempt to give Crewe an advantage that they spurned, referee Fletcher was now getting it in the neck from elements of both sets of supporters, a little unfairly.
We were certainly the more grateful for the whistle. There were (another unpleasant surprise) boos from the away end, although gratifyingly they were drowned out by applause from the majority who hadn't undergone a lobotomy that morning. Whilst the first half had been disappointing, one can only wonder at the standards by which some judge performances. Does a magnificent start to the season, particularly away from home, mean that anything less is derisible failure? Even with three key players unavailable? Half the team twenty-two or younger? What are we, Chelsea fans? Or worse, Tottenham?
The subs were out warming up before the team came out, and two changes were made. Osborne was replaced by Stewart, not altogether surprisingly, whilst Mahon came in for Spring; in consequence we looked a whole lot more solid throughout in the second period and were never put under any sort of pressure at our end of the pitch. It's worth noting, as an aside, that we've rarely failed to improve thus far following some half time tinkering from the new management team.
Stewart was a big factor in the second half improvement; whilst his Watford showings thus far have rarely risen above the inconspicuous, here he was aggressive and positive and our defence looked a whole lot more solid... even if Lloyd Doyley, perhaps under "don't piss about with it" instruction, remained intent on lamping the ball a safe distance but arbitrary direction from the goal whenever it entered his range.
We started with vigour and purpose, evidently trying to impose our own agenda. Gavin Mahon sent a bobbling shot wide before Benjamin, whose contribution had waned before the break, battered and bludgeoned his way through several challenges on the right hand side of the box before driving in a low shot under pressure - Turnbull did well to get down to it low to his right.
Five minutes later Benjamin was involved again... McNamee's left wing cross was met with a diving header narrowly wide; brief excitement was provoked in the away end when the ref appeared to point to the spot, but he was pointing for a goal kick. Significantly, there had been no appeal on the pitch.
Quarter of an hour into the half McNamee and Young worked a short corner routine which resulted in McNamee sending a far post cross onto Carlisle's head. It looked a goal all the way but Turnbull got his fingers to it to keep it out; the scrambling that ensued probably only lasted half a second but it seemed like an eternity as we willed a deflection over the line before a Crewe defender put their laces through it. A minute later another McNamee cross found Benjamin on a diagonal run, he again headed narrowly over and wide.
Crewe's threat was limited and unconvincing, but Jordan Stewart spent his second booking in consecutive away matches, as at Stoke, on curtailing an ominous breakaway. Kenny Lunt flicked the kick onto Billy Jones' head, but the midfielder, half of a central pairing that were five years younger than our substitute keeper in combined years, sent a tame effort too close to Foster.
Up the other end, another burst by the irrepressible Chambers released Fletcher, who appeared to be held back as he lost possession but didn't get the decision. A minute later and Chambers again stormed down the right chasing a lost cause, and battered aside a feeble defensive challenge with his shoulder to improbably win possession before being felled by the same opponent on the edge of the box. The free kick was cleared for a corner, which signalled another spell of sustained pressure; from the first, Clarke Carlisle's snap shot went wide, presumably taking a deflection invisible from our viewpoint. From the second, the ball broke out of the box to Stewart, who cracked in a wicked, dipping effort that Turnbull did well again to turn over the bar. From the third, Fletcher flicked wide.
Paul Devlin was taken off, but it was Joel Grant rather than Agbonlahor that came on, a little surprisingly, as one imagines that David O'Leary had expected to loan his striker out to get some action. Grant, however, once again put in an impressive showing off the bench, displaying confidence, pace, good feet and no small degree of intelligence. He was alert enough when Mahon gained possession in the middle of the park to peel away on the right and was in acres of space when the ball found him. He homed in on goal with the away stand on its feet but perhaps hesitated and his shot was deflected for a corner, a slightly disappointing return on the opening. From the corner, Carlisle headed down and Grant snapped onto the chance, his quick shot saved well by Turnbull.
A minute later, Grant popped up on the left and McNamee's raking crossfield ball found him in space. He clipped in a clever cross-shot from the edge of the area, but Benjamin and Turnbull collided in attempting to connect with it and it curled around the post. Benjamin initially went off for treatment, but ig's initial judgment that it was difficult to see anyone coming off better in a collision with the big striker was given credence when Turnbull trotted off clutching his wrist five minutes later. Another aside; you know what you're going to get at Crewe and for all sorts of reasons they're a side that's good to have around. However I'm continually disappointed (surprised?) in my expectation that Crewe's standing for all that is virtuous - youth, passing, honesty, etc - be replicated in the attitude of the Gresty Road crowd. A bunch of peevish whingers if ever there was one... quite what, beyond the failings of their own team, managed to stir them up into a tizzy at the referee is beyond me.
The game died a death before the end... the last half-chance came to Benjamin after some neat triangles from Grant, Young and Chambers, but he skewed wide. Herein the most significant feature of the afternoon... a consistent characteristic of our early away successes is that we haven't needed to create too many chances to win by comfortable margins. Here we created plenty without converting, and whereas a draw was probably just about fair enough on the balance of the ninety there's credence in the suggestion that with Henderson, or particularly King, in the fold we'd have taken two more points from Cheshire.
There were still boos at the final whistle, quite incredibly given the second half upping of tempo. In reality, whilst there were disappointing aspects of the performance, we are two games through a spell of (at least) four games without our first choice forward line (not to mention Malky Mackay's leadership) and have thus far recorded a win and an away draw. Not the most exciting away trip of the season so far, but not too bad to be going on with either.