Paying the price for wasted chances
Report by Ian Grant
Our first visit to St Andrews since That Furlong Incident brings a couple of surprises - the fact that Birmingham now offer the opportunity to sponsor Karren Brady's briefcase (you WHAT?!?) and that the ground has been half-transformed into a Premiership quality all-seater. I say "half-transformed" because one side and one end have been rebuilt, the rest is as archaic as ever.
Spirits were high after the Millwall triumph and that was reflected by the turnout - we took more fans to the Midlands than we did to south London. In many ways, we carried on where we left off at the Den - this was a very committed performance that really should have earnt us some points.
The first half was poor in entertainment terms but good for Watford. Miller had to react well to claim a couple of crosses but was otherwise untroubled. The hard-working midfield broke up City's passing, frequently forcing errors that enraged the home supporters. Colin Foster won everything in the air against their huge centre forward, Kevin Francis, and the only threat seemed to come from Steve Claridge (sorry, but, forgetting the "Luton reject" tag for a moment, Claridge is one of the most effective strikers in this division).
We created little at the other end for Phillips and Wilkinson - Palmer had a long range drive that Ian Bennett saved well and Phillips had an effort cleared off the line after Bennett had rushed from his goal and missed the ball. Our attacks were mainly contained by the City defence and their offside trap caught You Know Who stranded too many times.
An entirely satisfactory first half for 'Orns fans, although that was merely a distraction from the fact that I'd lost all feeling in my toes after about ten minutes. Christ, it was cold! Unbelievably, there was a woman at the game in sandals - I think there has to come a point when fashion gives way to self-preservation, doesn't there?
Whatever Barry Fry said at half-time (something along the lines of "We was crap, me old china", I'd imagine) had an immediate effect. For fifteen minutes, Birmingham steamrollered us as their fans woke up and made one hell of a racket. Claridge broke through and was foiled by Miller's legs, the shot deflecting just wide for a corner. We defended desperately, hoofing the ball clear to relieve the pressure. Tommy Mooney appeared to be under the delusion that Birmingham had stolen one of our balls and was attempting to return it to Vicarage Road via the moon.
Inevitably, the goal came. Preece cut inside and fired in a shot which Miller, unsighted, saved brilliantly but the ball rebounded to Francis who headed it in. After that the pressure on our goal continued but we survived unscathed and eventually turned the tide to go in search of an equaliser.
We so nearly got it. As Wilkinson started to win the aerial challenges, we found ways through the City defence and created two glorious chances. The first fell to Wilkinson - Phillips found himself in space and whipped in a cross for Wilko. Unmarked, a couple of yards out, in the centre of the goal, he attempted a flash glancing header but hardly made contact. A criminal miss for an experienced goalscorer.
City looked dangerous on the break and Miller was forced into more heroics, somehow getting in the way of a close range header to keep us in the game. As injury time started, we created the best chance of all when Hessenthaler collected a cross in the six yard box without a City defender in sight. All he had to do was poke it past the keeper but the touch eluded him and the opportunity was lost. We held our heads in our hands in disbelief.
Those missed chances cost us points. It's tempting to say that had either of them fallen to Phillips, we would have come away with a deserved draw - I guess that's a tribute to Super Kev as much as anything else. We did well here, against a team that looks better than Millwall, and if we continue to fight as hard, the results will pick up. They have to - this defeat leaves us in the relegation zone.
The trip home was looking grim until I got talking to a Blackburn fan (who knew who I was - frightening!) who'd just seen his team get thrashed by Coventry. Apart from the pleasure in others' misfortune, it goes to show that away defeats are relative - I've seen some woeful losses on my travels. This wasn't one of them.