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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 8/4/97
Chesterfield 0(0)
Watford 0(0)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 3, Armstrong 3, Palmer 4, Millen 3, Page 3, Slater 4, Phillips 2, Ramage 2, *Johnson 4*, Mooney 2
Subs: Bazeley, Penrice, Andrews (for Phillips) 3
The missing ingredient
Report by Ian Grant

Recent matches have placed me in a difficult position. In arguing for the retention of the flat back four, with Steve Palmer and Richard Johnson in midfield, I've been forced to praise the tactics behind some fairly awful performances (Walsall, Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth) and criticise one of our better afternoons (Crewe). During moments of self-doubt, I have rather wondered whether I've been sticking stubbornly to my own particular views instead of facing the reality that we have to do something about our attacking shortcomings.

This match both confirmed and denied what I've been saying. Kenny Jackett, to his immense credit, chose to learn from the mistakes made against Crewe and revert to our more conventional formation, bringing Palmer back to partner Johnson in a more combative midfield. He was entirely right to do so, I think. What resulted was one of our more creative displays, proving that, contrary to some of my arguments, we don't have to be over-cautious with this system. The problem, unfortunately, is that there is no end result - we simply don't have a cutting edge.

In some ways, this was a deeply depressing evening. Why? Because it's reasonably obvious that Jackett can do little more to boost our goal tally - we did everything right outside the box, it's just that there are no strikers currently capable of sticking the ball in the onion bag. Never has the lack of a centre forward been more apparent - with Stuart Slater running tirelessly down the right wing and supplying quality crosses, the failure of our forwards to attack the ball in the penalty area was there for all to see. With our available strikers all attempting to regain match fitness after lengthy lay-offs, we look desperately short of sharpness up front. Virtually everything else about the side is right, but we're still waiting for that final piece of the jigsaw to slot into place.

Any thoughts that Chesterfield might have their minds on Sunday's semi final went out of the window fairly quickly. While some may have been wary of picking up injuries, that was entirely negated by the fact that they were playing for places in the most important match that most of them will ever take part in. There was no noticeable absence of commitment, something which was proved by the steady decline of the first half into a familiar, drab midfield battle.

There's little doubt in my mind that we can still turn the season's disappointments around. Indeed, and forgive me for going on about this, the sudden flourishing of the Palmer-Johnson pairing has given me renewed confidence - at last we look genuinely capable of holding our own in the physical confrontations of the average Second Division game. But we must take our chances - had we done so on Saturday and again last night, we'd have been looking at six points and a far more comfortable league position.

The first half was largely awful, enlivened only by an exchange of "Bryan Robson is a wanker" chants from both sets of fans (Hornets fans have long memories and Robson is, it seems, still on a par with Paul Peschisolido in the hit list stakes) and some entertaining banter with the mailing list crew and invited guests. The chances that did emerge from the midfield pinball all fell Watford's way. Early on, a fine cross from Kevin Phillips on the right wing set up Craig Ramage with a header at the near post - for an ecstatic moment, it looked as if it was going in but it whizzed narrowly wide. That was about it until Johnson intercepted a clearance and sent the ball through for Tommy Mooney to cut his way into the box but he was tackled as he was about to shoot.

At Kevin Miller's end of the pitch, all was quiet. His only save of the half was to push away a cross that was heading for a Chesterfield striker at the far post. Our defence looked rock-solid, more than it had against Crewe (I'm a little wary of that comparison and of drawing too many conclusions, simply because Crewe are quite obviously a far superior side to Chesterfield), and was well protected by our ferocious midfield.

Just one other moment of note, an attempt at a scorching volley from about forty yards out by Mooney - presumably, he had visions of it zooming into the top corner, turning to celebrate with his astonished team-mates and picking up 'goal of the season' in May. Instead, it ended up bouncing around on the roof of the terrace - a handy reminder that, to my knowledge, he remains the only player to clear the roof of the Rookery stand with a shot. He's nothing if not ambitious, is our Tom.

As with the Crewe game, things improved considerably after the interval. Unlike Saturday, however, we managed to find a balance between defence and attack, pushing forward for most of the half without leaving ourselves exposed to sudden counter-attacks (although, again, the Chesterfield-Crewe comparison is perhaps misleading). Whilst I drew little encouragement from our failure to find the back of the net, there was no question that the tactics employed enabled us to control the game and gain possession in dangerous areas.

Much of this is connected to the miraculous transformation of Richard Johnson, who's turned from a caterpillar into a butterfly in a matter of weeks. I'd attempted to convince Dan Exeter of Johnno's recent excellence before the game and received a slightly dubious look in response but the cries of astonishment from behind me whenever our man swept a pass across the field to set up another attack tended to indicate that even Dan was won over. For the benefit of those of you who haven't seen the last few games and still have a vision of Johnno as a midfield clogger - forget it, he was our most perceptive, creative player last night.

So we spent most of the second half giving Chesterfield a fair old battering, particularly on the right wing, and came away with nothing to show for it. For far too much of the time, Phillips was left looking lonely inside the box as Ramage wandered off to join the support play, with the result that when crosses did come in there was no-one to finish them off. It seems a complete waste to have a player of Stuart Slater's quality in the side, particularly when we've grown used to seeing such poor crossing from Watford wingers, and not have a centre forward to knock 'em in for us. Phillips was guilty of missing the most glaring opportunity - Slater fired a ball across the six yard box and Kev, who only had to stick a boot out to divert it in, failed to react quickly enough, something that is indicative of his lack of match fitness at the moment.

We finished with remarkably few shots and even less on-target ones. The Chesterfield keeper made his one and only save of the evening in tipping over a goal-bound Johnson curler but wasn't forced to do anything when Craig Armstrong wasted a great chance by shooting just wide after a scramble at a corner. It's pretty obvious what the problem is - lack of firepower - and, sadly, there's nothing much we can do about it. Persistence is the only way that we'll get into the playoff places this season - as I've said, we did everything right around the box last night, we just have to cling to the hope that we'll get a break inside the area every now and again.

Annoyingly, a couple of defensive lapses nearly allowed Chesterfield to snatch a win. About halfway through the second period, Miller had to react quickly to come out of his goal and block the path of an unmarked striker as he shaped to shoot. Then, in the last five minutes, we gave away the best chance of the entire game, allowing a completely free header at the far post - the ball bounced harmlessly wide from a poor effort, much to our relief.

Christ, this was so close to a perfect away performance that I feel like screaming in absolute frustration. Take Ramage off (not because he did anything particularly awful and I hate him or anything like that - he was merely ineffective), put in Mystery Centre Forward X and you've got the perfect recipe for promotion. Without that striker, we're just going to spend yet more time watching Stuart Slater whipping decent crosses onto the heads of six foot central defenders.

Report by Dan Exeter

I think the best word to describe this game is 'surreal'. Not that getting a 0-0 draw when we needed a win, or Miller and Page playing well, or Mooney and Phillips running their arses off to seemingly little effect is especially different from the norm, it's just that some of what was going on took a bit of believing.

In the first half, before the game really got going, both sets of fans delighted in abusing Bryan Robson. I'm not saying that's never happened before - it was just a little unexpected, that's all. Staying on matters off the pitch, their goalie had the misfortune of taking his goal kicks right in front of where myself and Ian Lay were standing. Getting bored of saying 'aaahhhh!!!' at every run-up, we started impersonating animals, including 'baaahhhh' for a sheep, 'moooo' for a cow and a rather tame 'woof!!' for a dog. At one goal kick I suddenly found myself at a loss for an appropriate animal, so I asked for suggestions. The reply came back, 'a fish'. Gee thanks.

The team on the pitch showed a few changes from Saturday. Not having been at Crewe I can't really comment on the formation, but last night we had Miller in goal and the usual 4 at the back, with Slater on wide right midfield, Mooney on the left and Johno and Palmer in the centre. Super Kev and Ramage were up front.

In terms of performance it wasn't a bad one. Ramage just failed to score in the first half from a near-post header after a superb cross from Super Kev, while Mooney wriggled his way into the box past what seemed like the entire Chesterfield team before the keeper stopped what passed for a shot. In fact in the first half I had the same feeling as at the Millwall game, the last time I'd seen the 'Orns - we were getting lots of chances and breaks of the ball without putting them away. Mooney was also guilty of one highly ambitious volley which very nearly cleared the ground.

Mind you, Chesterfield had a few chances in the first half too, including a cross shot that eluded everyone, Miller and their striker included, to whizz past the left-hand post while Miller did brilliantly to tip the ball away from 2 Chesterfield players waiting to head it in at the back post.

The game had been reasonably entertaining in the first half, and it continued in the second, although with rather more Chesterfield pressure. We too had a few chances, Armstrong curling a 25 yarder just over the bar and then missing a sitter from about six yards out after a goalmouth scramble, Johno being denied late on by a superb fingertip save from their 'keeper, and Super Kev could have scored from a tap-in virtually on the line except he didn't follow through from Slater's (I think) cross-shot. Super Kev came off for Wayne Andrews, who came on and had a little run and shot (just wide of the post) but then couldn't get much joy out of the Chesterfield defence.

Johno in midfield played really well - and I never thought I'd be writing that!! He played some superb passes, especially out to Slater on the right wing, and made some crucial tackles. I think Johno's got a much better appreciation of what he can and can't do, and he's now playing with much more confidence, which could even see him involved in the Australia national team setup, which I reckon can only be to his benefit. Ramage looked quite committed (by his standards anyway), doing a surprisingly good job of holding the ball up and playing it, normally to Slater. Of course, Ramage being Ramage he did have to go for a few dives, which was annoying simply because it handed possession to Chesterfield on a plate as we all knew he'd never get anything for it.

We kept attacking to the end, Page and Millen appearing in the box even in injury time, so criticism of negative tactics for this match would be a little unfair, yet it was annoying as we simply couldn't finish. A point simply isn't enough at this stage of the season, and, as has been pointed out, two out of twelve is relegation, not promotion, form. However, looking at the positives, if we can reproduce this performance again then we will score goals (no ifs or buts about it). It's just a question of reproducing the performance...