League Cup Second Round, 20/09/05, 7.45pm
By Dave Messenger
And then we score again. Again, Henderson is involved, he mashes his marker again before laying off comfortably to Mahon who finds King, his shot deflecting off Loovens past the keeper. Tremendous stuff. When he returns from the other side of the terrace where his celebration has taken him, Dave's face is all grin. "I'm in," he says. "If this is what we're about, I'm in."
- M. Rowson, Cardiff Away
Truth be told, I've tempered my enthusiasm somewhat since then, and I blame the cider for the over-reaction in South Wales that Friday night. Results have been great, performances too, but I've meandered through the first chunk of this season feeling pretty much unaffected by the hullabaloo that currently surrounds our better than expected start to the campaign. Even Mr Kozluk's admittedly deplorable actions last Saturday failed to rattle my cage too much, and big Ernie in the pub said he'd never seen me take a Watford defeat, and a controversial one at that, so well. Watford are off to a flier, but I still need another few shots in the arm to fire my enthusiasm for the months ahead. So while more than one person has suggested I tuck into some humble pie, as yet I've seen no need to break out the HP sauce.
For all our good wins through late August and September, I've had the same feeling. Let's wait till we get a few injuries so we can test out the depth in this squad, and really test the character of our new manager. You've not tuned in to read what I think, though. You're looking for a match report and why wouldn't you. If I'm perfectly honest, as we strode down Vicarage Road before this one, the talk in our group was more about the make-up of the team for Saturday's trip to Crewe than the Carling Cup business at hand. This competition, Semi Finals at Liverpool not withstanding, never really gets the juices flowing. Rupe was kind enough to share his own theory about the fare on offer. "It's like just after you've taken a dump," mused the strange one. "You know you don't really want to, but you can't stop yourself from having a look at it."
One look at the teamsheet told you everything you needed to know about the depth of our squad and with a pretty much full strength Wolves side taking the field, the test had come. With injuries and suspensions seemingly ready to take a first meaty bite out of our squad, Boothroyd wisely chose to rest Foster, Devlin, Young and Blizzard, while Fletcher was cup-tied meaning first starts for Toumani Diagouraga and Francino Francis. There was also a return for the veteran shot-stopper and all round good egg Alec Chamberlain and further chances for Al Bangura and Hameur Bouazza to shine, while James Chambers returned at right back with Lloyd Doyley slotting in at centre half to replace the banned Malky Mackay. Five subs with only one first team start among them, and a second year academy player among the five hammered home the point. It was almost as if the first sixteen through the door with their boots were in, and yet still there was no room for Sietes....
The game got underway and worst fears were confirmed. Watford were regularly brushed off the ball right across the park and it was little surprise when Wolves took the lead on twelve minutes. Scottish International Kenny Miller got in front of Matty Spring to turn Lee Naylor's skiddy free-kick past Chamberlain and a long night seemed in store. It wasn't the most exciting of games and as Watford struggled to gain a foothold, Wolves dominated possession but did precious little with it. We were there for the taking but the best Wolves could manage were half chances for Miller and Ki-Hyun Seol. Much of the credit for that goes to the one experienced part of Watford's team as the defence, marshalled brilliantly throughout by Clarke Carlisle and Lloyd Doyley, excelled, though the clearances just kept coming back due to our lack of, well, anything up front.
My mobile phone trilled away in my pocket, a text message from Lavender. "Managed to get in for a fiver," she began. "At this rate I wouldn't have even paid 5p... it's rubbish." Having returned a message of general agreement, I turned back to the pitch to see a nice move between Bangura and Francis end with a cross to Spring, who headed over. This was the turning point, and Sophie would later claim the credit thanks to that text. Suddenly you sensed Watford's young tyros realised they could get back into the game and they started winning a few challenges in midfield. Another nice touch from Francis and a cross that bounced invitingly across the area to an unmarked Bouazza, but hesitation from the out-of-sorts French striker allowed a Wolves defender to block the resulting shot.
As half-time approached, Watford got back on terms. A corner, taken by Anthony MacNamee and swung invitingly into the heart of the penalty area, was met by Carlisle, whose header flew past Stefan Postma into the bottom corner. Another assist for Macca, whose game has come on in leaps and bounds under the new manager. He can still be a little one-dimensional when running with the ball but his crossing, once he gets into position, is second to none and he's currently generating the majority of our goalscoring chances. Long may it continue.
The second half was a far more even affair, though chances were very much at a premium. Wolves introduced the excellent Joleon Lescott, which pretty much snuffed out any hope of Francis having an impact, but the midfield battle became much more competitve with Bangura snapping around and Spring always looking to create something for Watford. For Wolves, Miller almost got on the end of a Seol through ball and Colin Cameron smacked a shot straight at an excellently positioned Chamberlain while at the other end, MacNamee almost wriggled past the visitors' defence to get a shot away. Not much goalmouth action then, but plenty of effort from Watford and at least we were in the game.
With fifteen minutes to go, a significant change as Watford introduced Junior Osbourne and Joel Grant for the visibly wilted Francis and Diagouraga. There were some unkind but isolated cat-calls for Francis from just behind us as he went off the field. While it's fair to say he was largely ineffective, the youngster clearly put his heart and soul into what may well turn out to be his one and only first team game and for that, he deserved some applause. Diagouraga, on the other hand, will come again and can be satisfied with his debut efforts. Watford also changed shape and pushed Chambers into midfield and the move almost paid instant dividends as the childhood Wolves fan got a shot away, though it trickled wide.
Watford looked a far better side after the changes. Osbourne impressed with a couple of robust challenges early on, and really looks a decent player on this evidence. However, on seventy-seven minutes, hearts went into mouths as George Ndah fluffed a golden chance having been set up by the lively Miller. But with Grant full of running, Watford suddenly had an outlet upfront and with a little more experience, the third year academy striker might not have wasted the chance presented on eighty minutes as he blasted into the side netting instead of squaring the ball to Bouazza. Grant almost made up for it when he forced Postma into a smart stop at his near post after a sublime through ball from Carlisle. As the game moved into injury time, Chamberlain reminded everyone of just how good a goalkeeper he is as he saved at the feet of Cameron to ensure the game went into the extra half-hour.
As the game had ended, so extra time began with another brilliant Chamberlain save, this time tipping an Ndah header over the bar. Shortly afterwards, Ndah's wild challenge ended Bangura's night and on another, his own would have been finished early with a red card. Ben Gill was brought into the fray and he acquitted himself well, though he needs to deal with the eighties style Ivan Drago haircut fairly swiftly. Right at the end of the first period of extra time came the winner. It was Carlisle again to the fore, atoning for his own goal on Saturday with his second header of the night, this time converting Spring's cross. This was imperious stuff from Carlisle. Amid the goal celebrations, he still had a few words for his younger team-mates as they steeled themselves for one last throw of the dice from Glenn Hoddle's team. He showed something we've lacked for the last two seasons, namely on-field leadership, and he was by far the best player on the park in this game.
The full gun never really came from Wolves. They had some good possession in the last fifteen but the only real chance fell to Bouazza, whose snapshot from a Grant pull-back flew just over the bar. There was still time for MacNamee to indulge in a little showboating by the corner flag. Evoking memories of Gifton Noel-Williams holding off three Bristol City players some years back, Macca stood over the ball and lollipoped away like a very small version of Cristiano Ronaldo, to the delight of the Watford faithful. Shortly afterwards, the whistle blew. Watford's defence and youngsters had held out and secured a satisfying win. There wasn't much of our fabled attacking football on show, but it hardly mattered. This was a different Watford to the King-inspired swashbucklers that have got the season off to a flier. This was a Watford who worked for one another and ground out a win. That we only looked like scoring from set-plays matters not when you think about the sort of attacking a full strength team can produce. This was very much the second string that were put to the test, and though there are undoubtedly more challenges to come for some of these lads, they passed this one with flying colours.
Chalk one up for Boothroyd, then. Having sent out a weakened team, and seen them overcome that poor first thirty minutes and a strong Wolves outfit, he must be delighted. While there is much ground still to cover, it's clear that the Watford faithful have bought into the new regime. And me? This match could well be my turning point. I felt something at the end, for the first time this season. Something like I used to feel at Vicarage Road, before the clowns that still prevail in the boardroom gambled with our future. I felt pride in the younger lads, for sure. Osbourne, Bangura, Grant, the new improved MacNamee all played very well and look the part. I felt respect for the awesome displays from the older players, Doyley and Carlisle in particular.
And the manager. I finally felt like I can put my trust in this manager, after all. Tonight's win was all about the belief and the confidence that he has obviously instilled in these players. He stood on the touchline throughout, cajoling, advising and encouraging his charges. They responded by running themselves into the ground for their manager and pulling off a win that seemed pretty unlikely half an hour in. That speaks volumes. If we go places or not, I'm happier about Watford's prospects now than I've been at any time since March. I've never needed Premiership football, promotion challenges or the summer hyperbole that emitted from the club. I just need Watford FC to compete at this level. Last night they proved that there is some strength in depth after all and that's the biggest positive so far. So Aidy, show me where I sign up. This time, I'm in.