By Tim Down
A little background to set this report in context (after all, a BSaD match report is nothing if not subjective): this was my first game of the season. I don't want to dwell on this, but like I suspect many other Watford fans, the chasm that opened up between club and supporter when Ray Lewington was sacked, widened still further with every spin-laden missive and finally reached its widest when Nigel Gibbs was sacked, is far from closed for this fan. Add to this the effect of the culmination of the amazing but emotionally draining Ashes series on a long-standing cricket fan and you might understand that I turned up to this game with a curious sense of disconnection: everything looked the same but nothing felt the same.
Nothing that happened in the first half did much to alleviate that feeling. Sure, I saw the Cardiff game on TV and was impressed: full of goals but fragile was my impression of Aidy's New Watford. But it really hadn't prepared me for this: after the post-Ashes-obligatory huddle and the initial few minutes of canine bottom-sniffing overtures, we grabbed control of the game like a jealous child with a new toy and refused to let go until the half-time whistle. We scored two goals; it really could've been more. I would say should've but that would do injustice to the two we did score, neither of which had any right to be scored. And as we all know, coulda, woulda, shoulda are the last words of a fool.
Marlon King was the first to catch the eye: big, strong, lively, skilful and in this form, irresistible. I had resolved to watch Dominic Blizzard closely to make up my mind as to his much-debated merits (or lack of), but found myself instead more often watching Matthew Spring, calmly picking up the ball in midfield, moving it forwards, then bombing on to get involved in the attack. Ashley Young looked assured and less lightweight than I remembered. Clarke Carlisle and Malky Mackay were just like you'd hope a central defensive partnership would be: big, strong and unflappable. In the first half, at least.
We were just settling into a nice dominant groove when the first goal arrived in the twelfth minute. It was simplicity itself in conception: a long ball from Carlisle that King controlled superbly on the left hand side of the Norwich area before bounding towards the goal line and thumping the ball in from a tight angle. In truth, the Norwich defender gave him far too much space for the shot, but that's Mr Worthington's concern.
Our tails up, we continued to dominate and eight minutes later, a Paul Devlin cross from the right found Matthew Spring charging in all alone at the back post with all the time in the world, only to skew his free header wide of the post. However, we didn't have to wait more than five minutes for our next goal: King broke forward and with Norwich defenders backing off he slipped the ball out right to Ashley Young, who cut inside before surprising me at least by unleashing a thunderbolt from a left foot I wasn't aware possessed such power. Robert Green in the Norwich goal appeared to be close to it and perhaps got fingers to it; whatever, it was in and three quarters of the ground was very happy. It was not a dissimilar type of goal to the first one: the shooting opportunity only came about because of Norwich's willingness to back off from Watford's attackers.
We continued to dominate and a touch of arrogance entered our play. A sustained but ultimately fruitless sequence of passes around the halfway line drew olÚs from the crowd. Mackay and Foster exchanged about six passes before clearing the ball upfield. A minute or two before half time, a ball over the top from Mackay bounced over the head of a Norwich defender into the path of King, whose instant shot rebounded off the post and straight back to Green, who did well to get up from his despairing dive and collect the ball cleanly. King had done that "taking a chance" thing that commentators seem to like talking about: he'd nipped round behind the Norwich defender in case he fluffed his clearance, which he duly did. Having "taken a chance", we could really have done with him taking the chance that resulted so as to avoid the nerviness of the half that followed. A reminder of the fragility of our position came immediately after King's opportunity: Norwich broke upfield and chaos broke out in our penalty area, leaving Andy Hughes with a free shot from around twelve yards which he scuffed wide when he really should have scored.
Half-time arrived, and all around me (except to my left, where sat my rather subdued Norwich-supporting girlfriend) were happy Watford fans with not a moan to be heard all half - certainly not the case half an hour later. This wasn't the Watford I knew. Still, it all looked rather fun.
The second half got under way with two Norwich substitutions and presumably some strong words said by Nigel Worthington, since Norwich immediately looked a different team. After a flat start to the half it became apparent that Norwich were starting to control the midfield and, crucially, had tightened up at the back. No more chaos when balls were pumped forward from our defence, and nothing much was happening up front for us. Gradually Norwich assumed control of the match but had yet to apply any serious pressure when they scored. Dean Marney struck a good shot from all of 36.5 yards that Foster saved comfortably but unfortunately he parried it straight into the path of Lisbie, who finished neatly. Cue a smug grin and a few excited nudges in the ribs from my left. Definitely some blame on the keeper there.
At this point, it was no surprise when Aidy Boothroyd brought on Doyley and Bangura for Devlin and Blizzard just after the hour mark in an attempt to shore things up. On the subject of Blizzard, I didn't think he contributed much in this game, and I was paying particular attention to him, but neither did I think he was as hopeless as has been suggested. One thing I am sure of: I'm glad we've got Carl Fletcher now, if only temporarily.
Despite this encouragement for Norwich, it was Watford who made the running for a brief period after the goal. However, our attacks lacked the cohesion and incision of the first half as King, Young and particularly McNamee faded, and the best we got during this period was a penalty appeal when King seemed to be wrestled to the ground. For the last twenty minutes it was pretty much all Norwich. Hameur Bouazza emerged from the bench, all quickness and Frenchness, and replaced McNamee, to not much effect. There were seemingly countless Norwich crosses and nervy clearances. Conflicting and increasingly peevish advice to players that couldn't hear it was emanating from mouths all over the Rookery, my own included. Aaah, I thought, that's more like it - this is how I remember it feeling to support Watford.
But we clung on. It took a couple of excellent saves by Foster from Norwich headers to atone for his earlier errors (in addition to his contribution to the goal my notes record four times he put the ball directly into touch from goal kicks; distance is clearly no problem but the direction could use some work) and an unexpectedly colossal performance from the Rookery to see us home. For the last few minutes a constant and deafening chant of "Yellow Army" went up with more intensity than I can remember for a long while at a "regular" game, possibly in a collective effort to drown out our anxiety with positive action. Perhaps something of our new manager is beginning to rub off on us.
It was a classic game of two halves against struggling yet recently-successful opposition. The first half was something to savour. In the second half we were pushed back and lost our way slightly but hung on. We're winning, and playing some fantastic football. I think I'll come again.