Main Menu
What's New
05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 06/08/05, 3.00pm
Preston North End
Growing pains
By Ian Grant

So, here it is. Squinting and blinking in the sunlight, exposed to the world for the first time. Aw. It's a football match.

Really, you have to feel just a little sorry for the poor ickle thing...for, although football matches happen (nearly) all of the time, this one is a bit special. Like the first discovered alien lifeform, this one is going to be prodded and poked, stared at and x-rayed, questioned and interrogated. Its every molecule will be examined, checked, recorded. By the time that we've finished with Watford versus Preston North End, there'll be nothing left but a small puddle of purple goo. It's not fair, in all honesty. It's not fair, and one suspects that the relative privacy of a Tuesday night in Plymouth may be a welcome thing.

But that's life. We've waited all summer for something definite and tangible...and so we'll take as read all of the usual sensible, rational, dull stuff about the team needing time to settle, about not drawing too many conclusions from one performance, about having to be patient with the youngsters. That's all true, sure. But we've waited months for this, and we're not just going to shrug our shoulders, mutter a few noncommittal platitudes and move straight on. We're going to do this properly, goddammit.

Because there's plenty to work with. Logic dictates that the first alien lifeform will be a primitive amoeba that can't even be seen by the human eye; thus, our attention spans being fairly limited, it'll be headline news for a day and thereafter be of interest only to men in white coats. While there was always likely to be loads to say about this game, a dull nil-nil draw would've been a considerable anticlimax in the circumstances; fortunately, in alien lifeform terms, this game was a twenty-foot green monster with one eye, thirty-four ears, retractable legs and an awful lot to say for itself. Friendly, too. No shortage of issues, ideas, conclusions; no need to wait for Tuesday.

Indeed, pleasingly and democratically, it had something for everyone. No-one need be left out of the discussion, for whether you believe that this season will be a thrilling romp with goals aplenty and an outside chance of a playoff spot or an unmitigated disaster that'll see us relegated by Christmas, there was something for you. For a short while, this threatened to be a quite extraordinary afternoon, one that might've won over the whole of Vicarage Road to the cause - if not some of the methods - in ninety spectacular minutes. In the end, there was no such shifting of loyalties, and no need for Peter Snow on the big screen; people left as they'd arrived, only with a bit more evidence to use in support of their views. And no points...which, even though this is the first time that it's been mentioned, is not completely irrelevant.

The line-up was, in itself, a noteworthy event. Not just for the plethora of new faces...something that was entirely to be expected, although it's nonetheless somewhat disconcerting to be asked for a "warm welcome" several times in a single minute. Also, though, for the plethora of new faces that were elsewhere, several new signings absent entirely and, if we're being harsh, suggesting that there may have been an element of just-in-case about some of Adrian Boothroyd's earlier transfer activity. Whatever, more recent developments - particularly the two late arrivals, Darius Henderson and Clarke Carlisle - have been reassuring and encouraging, players that can be relied upon to fill important roles.

And, finally, two very notable absentees: Richard Lee, the subject of persistent rumours and, one trusts, a sizeable fee that'll require us to offer further warm welcomes in the not-too-distant future. To get rid of a splendid keeper and replace him with a season-long loanee makes me acutely nervous, but not quite as nervous as other parts of the squad that might benefit as a consequence. Speaking of which, we were also without Gavin Mahon in the centre of midfield, a senior player whose pivotal, leading role in the new-look side has repeatedly been stressed by the manager...and, therefore, probably the last person that we'd want to be out with an injury, or short of fitness due to a disrupted pre-season. That's bad luck. What's not bad luck, of course, is the absence of alternatives.

So, this was it. Not Adrian Boothroyd's first Watford team...but yet, in many ways, very much Adrian Boothroyd's first Watford team. And for twenty minutes, it was everything that we'd been promised.

For Preston, too, it was all that they must've feared. Davison's crude foul on Ashley Young in the first couple of minutes suggested that they'd been told to make sure that our young upstarts weren't allowed to settle, but it didn't succeed. At all. On the contrary, the contest seemed to capture the collective imagination immediately, great roars from the Rookery as Anthony McNamee nipped in from the wing and sliced a fairly wild shot into the crowd. The ambition of the football was plain to see, full of youthful zest that infected even the summer's most hardened cynics; especially at Watford, especially in the summer sunshine, you can't resist the sight of a couple of frail, slight wingers running rings around lumpy defenders. Especially after a three month wait.

The goal could've waited for a little longer, given the extravagant quality of the football. But in the spirit of the unconventional, it came right away...and it was splendid too, Ashley Young dwelling on the ball while the defence's eye was caught by Lloyd Doyley's overlapping run, and we should pause to note that those two offered the afternoon's most compelling combination throughout. But the cross wasn't delayed for too long, lest the moment be lost; as befits the kind of side we're trying to become, the strikers were already waiting at the far post in anticipation, and Darius Henderson's debut goal was a simple, tidy affair, nodded past a helpless keeper from six yards. Here, at long last, politics was banished: when the football's this good, you save the arguments for another day.

There was plenty more too, even if we just failed to create the second goal that we perhaps deserved. By the fifteenth minute, there was simply too much to take in: Ashley Young bounding onto Lloyd Doyley's slide-rule pass and just getting closed off when it looked as if he might have a clear sight of goal; Marlon King thundering down the right wing past a flailing defender, then pulling the ball back into, and somehow through, the penalty area; Preston breaking swiftly on the counter-attack, a defender's block diverting a shot wide of the near post. Breathless, delirious football...utterly wonderful to watch, if slightly less wonderful to record in a notebook.

The problem, however, was already very evident. In attack, we were having the time of our lives, riotous and vivid as we repeatedly hurtled towards the Rookery. In defence, we were, erm, fragile. He said, politely. Much has already been written about the need for players to become accustomed to one another - which, reverting to cynicism for a moment, is surely the point of assembling your squad ahead of pre-season training rather than in the week leading up to the first game - and there's surely some truth in that. But there are also some fairly basic standards, things that really ought to transcend personal familiarity. Unless you want to concede an awful lot of goals, that is.

Thus, even while we were off on a mission, the confrontation between our frail, nervous defence and Preston's lively, powerful attack was an accident waiting to happen. Indeed, it did happen on at least one occasion, Ben Foster required to make a full-stretch save to keep out Lucketti's bouncing header from a corner. There was far too much space, far too little protection...and the pessimist on your shoulder, whispering in your ear as you ooh-ed and aah-ed at Ash and Macca and the rest, kept reminding you that while football is indeed a simple game, it's not quite that simple. You have to stop them from scoring too.

We didn't. Not even slightly. It has to be said that Nugent's equaliser was splendidly taken - struck early from twenty yards, skidding low past the static, unsighted Foster - but it also has to be said that our defending of the situation was hopeless. No, sorry, our defending of the situation was non-existent: we simply allowed white shirts to flood the midfield, then backed off without challenge as they advanced. That's not something that needs to gel, I'm afraid; it's something that needs to happen.

And the carefree, dizzy Watford that had briefly dazzled and enraptured Vicarage Road was gone, in that instant. In its place, a hesitant, edgy Watford, full of unforced errors and unwise decisions, immediately tormented by an impatient crowd. It's not that heads dropped, so much as heads were lost: things that had previously seemed so simple and obvious suddenly became confused, and we lost sight of the overall picture as a consequence.

That overall picture was now dominated by the visitors, sensing their opportunity and taking it, decisively and ruthlessly. On thirty-two minutes, after Foster had flapped unconvincingly at a corner, a combination of Etuhu and Lucketti rose clear above everyone else, and Jordan Stewart needed to head away from the line. Even then, we failed to get the ball away, and were grateful that Cresswell's finish was hurried and weak when offered time inside the penalty area. But there's only so much that you can get away with, and the defending for the winning goal was comfortably over the limit: another flood of white shirts with Etuhu at the forefront, brushing the stumbling Stewart aside with quite terrifying ease and smashing a casual shot past the keeper from the penalty spot. Again, the issue was not so much the quality of the defending as the complete absence, and after seeing it two or three times, I'm still not quite sure where Messrs. Carlisle and Demerit have got to. He might've fallen over, but Jordan Stewart was there, at least.

We didn't ever recover from that. By half-time, everything that we'd rejoiced in had become a memory; we still had the potential to be that same thrilling, forward-thinking side, but we'd completely forgotten how to make it happen. An extremely lengthy team-talk, continuing even while the Preston players and the match officials paced around impatiently outside, failed to make a significant difference. We created a half-chance early on, certainly, and were disappointed that Marlon King wasn't able to make slightly more of it, turning inside the box and blocked by a defender's boot. But those half-chances were to become increasingly rare, and the game increasingly dour.

In short, Preston worked us out. They had the lead and they didn't need to do anything outlandish...and so they took a firm grip of the central midfield, tightened up their defence of the flanks, and let us huff and puff. The inspiration that had so crackled and sparked earlier now just fizzled out; without any reliable way of getting the ball to the forwards, we resorted to basic methods that were all too easily countered, and both Marlon King and Darius Henderson were so detached from the rest of the game that they could've more pleasantly passed the time by having a cup of tea with the Preston fans in the Vic Road end. Others lost their tempers with a fussy referee: too much back-chat from Ashley Young, too many wild tackles from Al Bangura. The visitors didn't push it - they barely had a shot in the whole forty-five minutes - but they had no need to. They won comfortably, in the most literal sense.

And that's worrying, really. Because the defence might need time to sort itself out and the strikers might take a while to develop an understanding, but the bit in the middle seems barely to have registered on the manager's radar. Gavin Mahon will come back shortly, one hopes...but one also fervently prays that he isn't the only answer. In the meantime, Al Bangura can scrap away, but his attempts to compensate for his inexperience are often over-aggressive, and Dominic Blizzard can continue to grow into an excellent midfield workhorse, but never, you feel, into a real play-maker. And opponents can dominate that area all too easily, as Preston did...which makes all of our extravagant wing-play so much theory and so little practice, because the ball doesn't find its way into those areas of its own accord and because you can't mount pressure without keeping possession in their half. Like I say, this was much too easy.

There were occasional moments, of course, but they amounted to very little. Ashley Young dragged a shot wide after blocking a clearance, then did well to advance on the left before Darius Henderson scuffed a shot at the keeper. But we were increasingly flat - the problem with having Anthony McNamee in the starting line-up is that you can't bring him on as a substitute to lift the crowd - and the game drifted towards its conclusion with frustrated restlessness in the stands and on the pitch. Here, then, is the key concern, for me: where's the leadership on the pitch? Where are the voices? Where's the direction? Who takes responsibility and sorts things out when they start to go wrong? No-one, on this evidence. Absolutely no-one. Actually, that's slightly harsh: Marlon King is clearly eager to take on the role, but the paucity of supply meant that he was about as involved in the second half as Adrian Boothroyd himself.

So, yeah, you should certainly celebrate the brilliance of the first twenty minutes...but for the remaining seventy, we allowed the game to drift gradually away from us, taking our confidence with it. And everyone did their job, perfectly adequately. And just doing your job isn't quite enough sometimes.

We nearly got lucky, even then. In the last five minutes, one of Lloyd Doyley's monstrous long throws landed on the head of Hameur Bouazza, central and six yards out. And he put it over the bar. You would've been hard pushed to argue that we deserved a point, given the greater volume of chances that Preston enjoyed in the first half and the extent of their control throughout the second. But you wouldn't have needed to argue, of course. Just to chuckle on your way home, and hope that the good fortune holds for a while. No such luck, though.

There's an awful lot to take in, then. The twenty minute carnival...and the rather enticing possibility that it might be extended for a whole ninety minutes between now and May, in which case you really do have to be there. Remind me, when do Crewe come to visit? The hopeless defending, and the chances of correcting those problems in the urgent splutter of fixtures that begins the season. The midfield vacancies, too important to be filled by Gavin Mahon alone. Especially if he's injured. The seventy minute anticlimax, in which inspiration deserted us and leaders became invisible. All of that, and a load more.

The newest Vicarage Road cliché suggests that this season won't be dull, whatever happens. The irony is that, for that to be true, we need to be more than just entertaining. We need to grow up, fast.