By Matt Rowson
It's the middle of the night. I'm sitting in my seat in the Rookery holding my two month old daughter and there's nobody else in view, the lights are out, the stadium is pitch black. It ought to be cold but it isn't. Suddenly my boss appears next to me. "What are you doing here? You should be at work" .
Except, not, obviously. That was a dream, and I woke up in a cold sweat uncertain whether to dress for work, rummage around in the duvet for the suddenly missing Rahelle (until she makes a noise like a horse and reminds me that she's in her moses basket...), or go looking for a Chicken Balti pie.
But Tuesday evening at Vicarage Road was scarcely less dream like. I'd managed to secure my regular Rookery vantage point, but when I turned to my left as the teams were read out to ask ig for a pen he wasn't there. Nor were at least half of the familiar faces, replaced instead with complete strangers. To my right, my brother has ventured down from the Upper Rous. That really isn't right, much as it's welcome. Most disorientating of all, however, Inter Milan appear to have trotted out onto the Vicarage Road turf...
They've brought a tidy side, too, even if the four World Cup semi-finallists (Grosso, Vieira, Figo and pantomime villain Materazzi) are missing. My brother's body seems to contort with every international name that's announced; even the bench boasts familiar names. Pre-season or not, this will be a test.
The value of such a test is clearly not lost on Betty, who fields what looks plausibly like a first-choice starting eleven given available personnel. And whilst the level of intensity rarely strays into truly competitive territory - Darius Henderson, for instance, refrains from piling Inter keeper Julio Cesar and ball into the net when the opportunity presents itself - it's still not half bad for a friendly.
If the crowd are intimidated by the opposition on the pitch, the team really don't seem to give a toss. Within five minutes Lloyd Doyley has chucked his blanket over Santiago Solari, cut off several twists and turns and forced him to lay back. Jay Demerit sets a tone for the half by booting Adriano up in the air ("He probably bullies his cup of tea in the morning" suggests my brother).
Adriano, whilst we're there, is an impressively big bloke, strong and bullish with enormous shoulders. But he's a Barbie doll compared to Dan Shittu, who soaks up all available space with his colossal frame. When dealing with an aerial assault his exaggerated "f***ing mine" -ness is very similar to that of his defensive partner, but on the floor he's a lot tidier than his bulk might suggest. We've still time to be disappointed by his passing, of course, and this is one weakness that QPR fans have warned about... but no signs of a problem here, as a Quarterback's hoist curls around Maicon narrowly fails to release wide receiver Young on the left.
First blood is ours though a minute later, when a free kick on the edge of the box sees a reprise of the Norwich (A) routine, with a ball laid off for Marlon to smash goalwards, Julio Cesar flying to his left to palm wide. As the half progresses we continue to give at least as good as we get... the tidy-looking Chris Powell getting up in support of Young, and one such interchange providing a crossing opportunity which sees Walter Samuel get a crucial head to Young's delivery to deny Henderson, who has a quite excellent opening forty-five minutes.
Young's match-up with Maicon is getting increasingly fractious, and the Brazilian inflames matters by taking the piss a little bit to wind up his adversary still further. Young manages to focus his energies on this occasion, but will surely have his temper tested again as the season progresses. So too Big Doris, whose altercation in the far corner with Cordoba seems innocuous enough, but sees the Colombian on the ground and gingerly rubbing his jaw for several minutes.
When Inter do break forward convincingly, they flow like water... Demerit has Adriano in his pocket for the most part, but loses him once and Lee gets down smartly to deny the Brazilian's header from Solari's cross. The forgotten man in goal, incidentally, seems to have prudently been working on his kicking, which is pretty flawless this evening in common with the rest of his performance. He's called into action again when Obafemi Martins' raw energy splits Demerit and Shittu, Lee charging out to quell the danger. The half ends respectably goalless.
We make a change at half time; Dan Shittu appeared to have been struggling with cramp as the first period drew to a close, and Adrian Mariappa makes an entrance. He is another to do himself no harm at all with a thoroughly composed forty five minutes. Inter, meanwhile, make three changes, introducing Francesco Toldo in goal, scorer of "that" goal Esteban Cambiasso in midfield, and Cesar for Adriano up front. Ho hum.
Obafemi Martins, who had tumbled rather pathetically over a Shittu challenge in the first half, has a more convincing penalty appeal at the far end in front of the empty Vicarage Road stand, but Dermot Gallagher is unmoved.
Instead, it's Watford who break the deadlock. Darius Henderson's flick on is marvelously delicate; Marlon, who has been well shackled for much of the evening, has suddenly spun past Cordoba and bought himself a yard of space. A wonderful, warming certainty engulfs the Rookery. He slips the ball past Toldo, and we are one-up on Inter Milan.
Such ruthlessness with chances may prove priceless in the games ahead; for now we go absolutely potty in a fashion that is rather wasted on a pre-season friendly.
We deserve the lead, too. Damien Francis has been pushing further forward this half, and is following every attack into the box, waiting for a blocked shot or deflected cross - he's arguably the most impressive of the new boys. Inter gradually dribble substitutes into the fray throughout the half - only Stankovic survives the ninety - but it's after Watford's last two changes, with Bangura and McNamee replacing Chambers and Henderson that the visitors level.
4-5-1 may be a more flexible option now, not necessarily a defensive blanket with an option like Francis able to support the striker, but there's no legislating for not picking up people at set pieces. McNamee seems to get the flak of his team mates, but from our position he was left with two men to cover, and Pizarro made the byline before sending a cross into a confused box which sub Andreolli forced in.
Not that the fun ends there. Obafemi Martins demonstrates that he has all the necessary credentials for a career with Newcastle by failing to get anywhere near the target despite having several opportunities to do so. "A rich man's Bouazza", says someone, not inaccurately. McNamee drags three Inter players, Zanetti, Pizarro and Andreolli, into the corner and makes them look rather silly to cheers from the crowd. He doesn't quite crown the piece by getting a cross in, naturally, but Zanetti has clearly had enough and slouches off soon after.
Ashley Young pops up on the right, slips the ball past Marino and darts around him to further cheers before setting up Marlon to take on a shot with his left that Toldo fields easily. Bangura crashes into a startled Cambiasso who is comically and demonstrably affronted ("I think he's showing them too much respect Bruv...").
And then, just as Mariappa is about to wind up another colossal throw, it's over. It wasn't a dream... we played Inter, we lead for fifteen minutes, we could have won. We could have lost also mind, a draw feels about right.
There are a few learnings here. Firstly, the new boys all look the part. Secondly, much as our visitors were clearly shorter on match sharpness than we were, we were completely indifferent to their reputations, quite scornfully so in some cases (Jay Demerit, Al Bangura). Finally, we have a striker who on presented with a chance, one chance, will take it unfussily and unflinchingly.
Relegation favourites? Yeah, OK, whatever. Bring it on.