Endsleigh League Division 1, 16/4/96
Team: Miller 4, Bazeley 3, Barnes 4, Hessenthaler 4, Page 5, *White 5*, Porter 3, Palmer 5, Ramage 4, Mooney 4, Connolly 4
Subs: Ludden (for Barnes) 0, Payne, Moralee (for Connolly) 4
Scorers: D White 2, Connolly, Ramage
Report by Ian Grant
I don't know where to start, to be honest. As Kate said in her Southend report, there are some games where you go home wondering why the bloody hell you bother travelling the length and breadth of the country to watch over-paid footballers under-achieving. Then, only occasionally, they come up with something like this and you're jumping around like a nutter, screaming and shouting in utter jubilation and thinking that maybe it is all worthwhile after all.
God knows what's come over us. The most frustrating thing about all this is that if we'd started playing with this amount of conviction a couple of weeks ago, we would have stood a very good chance of getting out of trouble. Now we're simply playing for pride. That shouldn't take anything away from this mighty win, though. Not only was this game unquestionably the best game we've seen at the Vic this season, it also had an atmosphere to match the football - a special night, hopefully the first of many. The fact that only eight thousand people could be arsed to turn up to see it is disappointing to say the least - presumably when we play Grimsby and admission is just a fiver, they'll be treated to a dour 0-0 draw. Serves 'em right.
The unexpected absence of Keith Millen, added to longer-term injuries to Colin Foster and David Holdsworth, was a cause for serious concern before kick-off - not least because Robert Page is suspended on Saturday. Come back Milly! Please! In the end, Steve Palmer played alongside Page - not a role he's played for us before, but one that he's used to from Ipswich - and played an absolute blinder. There might have been occasional organisational lapses, which is inevitable with any new defensive partnership, but the level of determination was unbelievable - as the game went on and Reading pressed forward, Palmer and Page came into their own. I've said before that Palmer's a bargain buy (yawn - Ed) and this just proves it even more - he just gets better and better.
Anyway, we made a bit of a tentative start - as if waiting to see what Reading's attitude to the game was going to be. That said, we had the first meaningful attack of the match and it resulted in the opening goal after eight minutes. Craig Ramage, who had a blinding first half, cut into the box on the left and squared the ball for Devon White, who was completely unmarked. White attempted an acrobatic volley - had he connected properly, it probably would have gone into orbit, but he completely mis-hit it and the Reading keeper, scrambling back across goal in anticipation of a firm strike on goal, saw the ball bounce back to where he'd just been standing and end up in the corner of the net. Farcical but they all count.
The goal settled the nerves a bit and, as on Saturday, we started playing some very decent football. It seems that some of the players have been told exactly what we want from them - thus we had the unusual sights of Andy Hessenthaler running forwards and Darren Bazeley getting the corner and whipping in a quality cross. Whatever next - Big Dev doing fancy back-heels? Well, yes, actually. He scored two on Saturday but was never really involved in anything else - this time he put in an exemplary centre forward's display. I struggle to think of a single ball in the air that he didn't win - David Connolly and Super Kev will score a lot of goals if they ever learn to read flick-ons properly - and, perhaps more importantly, he kept possession by laying the ball off without fuss. As I said on the mailing list this week, I've criticised him for not being a good player but that doesn't mean I don't want him to do well. He'll get the praise for the goals that won this match, he deserves it for the performance as well.
Reading are almost totally useless but still capable of presenting some threat up front - Williams had their best effort of the half, with a volley on the turn that missed the post by inches. However, we were in no mood for defending a 1-0 lead and continued to stream forward at every opportunity. The reward came after another half an hour. Tommy Mooney lined up a free kick, thought briefly of sending a screamer into the top corner but decided instead to scuff a weak shot into the wall. The rebound ended up at Ramage's feet and he crossed for Connolly in acres of space - the youngster kept his head and slotted it beautifully past the keeper. After White's unorthodox finishing, this strike had quality written all over it.
The second goal finished Reading. For the next ten minutes, we absolutely annihilated them - I don't remember having seen us in such a ruthless, furious mood for ages. It was as if we wanted to take all the season's misery out on Reading. The third goal would, I suspect, have resulted in another two or three by the end of the game but the far post header from a corner was disallowed for some reason - I didn't see many complaints but, then again, it did take us about a minute to notice that we hadn't scored and stop celebrating. By the break, we'd begun to relax, perhaps exhausted by the intensity of our attacking (I was absolutely knackered, so I can forgive the players), and we needed the break to get ourselves going again.
It didn't happen. Reading reorganised themselves and came out looking for goals - they bloody nearly got them too. It took fifteen minutes of fierce Reading pressure, during which everyone bar White was called back to defensive duties and every clearance was straight to a Reading player, to bring the lifeline - Caskey's header found the net after a break down the right. If things were tense before that, they were totally unbearable after - just a minute later, Reading won a corner, Miller came for the cross and missed it and first Bazeley then Hessenthaler had to clear off the line as Reading scrambled for the equaliser. We were in serious trouble - somehow we managed to keep hanging on and as the minutes ticked away we survived thanks to last-ditch tackles, superb defending and a bit of luck.
At the other end, we hadn't seen much action - Ramage had tried to get a penalty no less than three times and failed on each occasion. The first time his ankles were definitely clipped but he made the most of it, the second and third times he was pulled back and, rather than attempt to reach the ball, he simply gave up and looked at the referee. I'll forgive him, though, because he has been involved far more in recent games - laying on the passes for others to score, which is what he's paid for.
To say the third goal brought a bit of relief would be a bit of an understatement. With seven minutes left, White chased a long ball and got to it before the keeper, evaded his challenge and slid the ball into the goal from an impossibly tight angle. A true striker's goal - you have to have an instinct for where the goal is to get that kind of thing. After providing incredible support for the team when things weren't going well, the fans' volume increased again in celebration of the three points.
Even then it wasn't finished. Miller made a stupendous save with his legs to stop a close-range effort as Reading threw caution to the winds. Ramage's goal, with three minutes left, was the best of the lot, an unstoppable counter-attack. Palmer won the ball in defence and sent a pin-point long pass up to White. Mooney came steaming down the wing to take over, looked up and crossed for Ramage at the far post - Rams headed it back across the keeper into the corner. That sent Vicarage Road into a frenzy of delight. Quinn headed a consolation from a corner for Reading in injury time but it barely registered with most Hornets - we were far too busy revelling in the fact that we aren't bottom of the league anymore. It might seem meaningless to outsiders but this meant a lot to us.
Porter came close to adding a fifth with a volley just past the post in the 112th minute of injury time (it makes a pleasant change to be complaining about the referee's added time in fear of missing my train, rather than losing the game) - had that gone in, I think I might have done myself an injury celebrating. It was one of those nights - the ones when you walk back to the station with a big, smug grin on your face. You wait all season for a bit of joy, then it all comes at once.
Confidence is the key. When we were panicking at 2-1, it was perfectly obvious why we're in such trouble; when we were in charge at 2-0 and 4-2, we were so good it was frightening. Sooner or later, we'll go 3-0 up and absolutely slaughter somebody. But this is enough for now, we couldn't have asked for better - if we can keep this going at Luton, it's going to be one hell of a game.