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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 24/4/97
Watford 0(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 2, Armstrong 2, *Johnson 5*, Millen 2, Page 2, Slater 2, Mooney 3, Ramage 1, Penrice 2, Easton 2
Subs: Palmer (for Armstrong) 2, Noel-Williams, Phillips (for Slater) 3
Chesterfield 2(0)
Scorers: Davies (55), Page o.g. (66)
Turning draws into defeats
Report by Ian Grant

I suppose it had to happen. Having taken yesterday off work to indulge a couple of my other obsessions (I spent the morning out at Shoreham harbour photographing some of the most spectacular graffiti I've ever seen, then whiled away the afternoon around London's bookshops), I was exhausted but entirely content by the time I reached Watford in the early evening. I'd had a really satisfying, productive day. Unfortunately, between 7:45 and 9:30, it all went pear-shaped...

Everyone knows that this was a game we had to win. We still cling on to hopes, of course, but the reality of the situation is that we face two very difficult final matches at a time when our form is woeful. This wasn't an unlucky defeat - it was a comprehensive defeat, one that involved naive tactics and several clueless performances.

Bury, who only need a point from Saturday's game, must be rubbing their hands gleefully at the prospect of coming to Vicarage Road and hitting us on the break - it's a style of play that we seem unable to deal with. If anything, Chesterfield realised the strategy even better than Bournemouth and Crewe before them but that doesn't change the fact that we appear to have learnt nothing from previous experiences. The difference between now and earlier in the season is that, in searching for wins rather than draws, we're committing players forward in ever larger numbers and leaving ourselves exposed at the back - since we still can't score, we're just turning draws into defeats.

On this occasion, we started brightly and faded quickly. Aware of the importance of the game, we made all the running in the early stages and created a handful of chances - so much so that "We're gonna score in a minute" got another airing. The best of the opportunities fell to Craig Ramage, sent into the clear with a defender trailing in his wake - rather than shoot early, though, he chose to hold onto the ball and appeared to be looking for a penalty. Tommy Mooney came closest to opening the scoring with a fine header from a Craig Armstrong cross that forced the Chesterfield keeper into a low save.

Gradually we lost our way, however. The inability to find width - either because everybody ignores Stuart Slater or because we don't have any left-sided wide players while Mooney's playing as a forward - tends to force us into long balls or intricate passing, neither of which are particularly effective against Second Division defences. The chances began to dry up, our football deteriorated into predictable patterns, the fans became increasingly frustrated...

What I'm trying to say is that Ramage's dismissal didn't change the course of the match - it merely accelerated the process of decay that was already in place. Having previously been booked for using an elbow, Ramage lunged in late on a Chesterfield player and was rightly shown a second yellow card. I'm not sure quite what certain Watford fans thought they were doing by standing and applauding the player as he shambled off the pitch - he behaved like a tosser, he got what was coming to him.

A collective sigh of resignation went round Vicarage Road. Heads began to drop a little, both on the pitch and in the stands, while Chesterfield sensed the possibility of victory. The game had gone downhill towards dull stalemate by half-time, neither side able to make much of an impression in the danger areas - Chesterfield had one shot that whistled past the angle of post and bar, while we waited for the chance of a re-think at the interval.

A change was necessary at half-time and we got one. Sort of. The decision to replace Armstrong with Steve Palmer wasn't successful. It might've been well-intentioned, presumably aimed at pushing Gary Penrice further forward while retaining some level of midfield presence, but it resulted in a clueless mess and a disastrous goal. For a while, we took the bull by the horns and, with the Vic Road end making a huge racket, piled on the pressure. Unfortunately, once again, it didn't come to anything - a couple of low shots for the keeper to deal with but nothing that really threatened.

And all the time, Chesterfield were waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack. When it finally came, the effect was devastating. The ball was played forward, Davies comfortably out-paced the struggling Palmer and swept a shot into the top corner with arrogant ease. It was a terrible goal to give away (Palmer's injured, for crying out loud, so where's the sense in leaving him as the last defender?) but a finely-executed break.

That was that, really. Chesterfield settled back into their previous pattern, took note of their one man advantage and let us pathetically huff and puff in front of their defence. We had a few good moments - the closest being a Penrice free-kick that went into the side netting - but generally attacked without inspiration. In that respect, the decision to take off Stuart Slater, one of the few players capable of doing something magical, was absolutely mystifying. By replacing our lone wide player, we restricted ourselves to going through the middle too often and effectively made a sterile and predictable performance even more sterile and predictable. That doesn't justify 'Jackett Out' chants - he's been doing his job for nine months and he will continue to make mistakes until he has sufficient experience - but it does rather justify head-in-hands despair.

Chesterfield scored again. Or we scored for them, just to be sure. A cross from the right wing was hoofed clear by Nigel Gibbs, hit Robert Page and rebounded into the net. Throughout the season, we've been making teams do something special to score. We've suddenly lost that hard-to-beat look. Right now, in fact, I'd say we're pretty damn easy to beat - just stay patient, hit us on the break and collect three points.

Chesterfield failed to add to their total in the remaining twenty-five minutes but only because they didn't take the chances that came their way. To be fair, we were pushing forward in ever-larger numbers and the threat of a counter-attack was inevitable - yet that doesn't change the fact that, despite our attacking desperation, we didn't look even remotely like scoring. So Chamberlain made his one save of the evening, coming off his line to block a striker's effort; one chance was blazed over the bar; another, far better, chance was hit tamely at the keeper; and Johnson became a one-man defence in an attempt to stop a late break, finally clearing a weak attempt from the goal-line.

We were devoid of direction, vainly attempting to find some way through the Chesterfield defence but without any ideas as to how to achieve that aim. Passes were lumped around, crosses piled into the box for Mooney and Phillips, corners were completely wasted, blah blah blah. At this stage of the season, you rather hope that things are beginning to click - currently, the reverse is true. We're scratching around for ideas, frantically making changes to find a working method, passing the buck to other players. The classic example is Stuart Slater. Next time he makes a run, have a look at what every other Watford player is doing - they're standing and watching, hoping that he'll use his obvious talent to do something special.

It's not always a matter of effort or commitment. Frequently it's a matter of intelligence and leadership, of still wanting the responsibility of possession when things are going badly, of reading the game and trying new ideas. I'd expect a player of Gary Penrice's class to be able to supply those attributes - he doesn't, he's as guilty of disappearing as some of the lesser talents.

There was only one player truly worthy of our applause last night and that was Richard Johnson. Not just because of his unswerving commitment to the Watford cause, more because he was the one yellow-shirted player on that pitch using his brain. There's a moment that I recall that summed up Johnson's match. It was late in the game and we were passing the ball across the face of the Chesterfield defence, laboriously switching play from left to right. As Johnson received the ball, everyone expected him simply to funnel it out to Penrice on the right wing - instead, he changed the whole direction and focus of the attack and jabbed a pass into the box for Mooney. It was a simple, short pass and it came to nothing - but it could only have been made by someone who was thinking.

It's probably appropriate that we're likely to end the campaign on the fringes of the playoffs. That sums up the season better than anything I can say - we've always been nearly there but we've never fulfilled expectations. If this shabby performance is any guide, we can forget this season's ambitions - there's no hint that we're about to turn the corner.

I don't have the answers. I just know that last night was wretched, a glimpse of a future that I don't even want to contemplate. Either we find the investment to fund our ambitions, put money into the team and attempt to climb through an injection of hard cash or we ditch the primadonnas, put the limited resources at our disposal into an effective scouting network and build a community club with a squad of cheap, eager players. Both have hefty disadvantages but the present stagnation is, quite frankly, almost too much to bear.

Schoolboy errors
Report by Nick Grundy

Oh dear. This game means the only place we're likely to be going this season is in front of an FA disciplinary committee to explain our strikers' tendency to get sent off for stupid tackles. This game hinged on two things. The first was the aforementioned sending off of Craig Ramage for two bookable offences; how justified the first of these was I'm not convinced, but the second was straight from the big bumper book of schoolboy ways to get sent off, and was just about worthy of a red card in its own right.

Anyway, I'll come back to that later. No real surprises team-wise bar Alec Chamberlain starting in goal for Kevin Miller; presumably this was to get the team and the fans used to not having Kev there, as I can't see him staying for another season of this. The only other "surprise" was that Phillips was on the bench, but given our pitiful goalscoring record the Mooney/Ramage partnership was probably worth a go.

Or, at least, it would have been had it lasted more than half an hour. For this time, we played well; Chesterfield could barely get into our half, never mind muster a shot at goal, and we had a number of chances. More than that, we looked like a passing side; one move involved a kick from Chamberlain finding Slater on the right (wait! there's more than the fact that some of our 'keeper's kicks found a Watford player); he played it into Johnson in the middle, who carried it forward before playing it to Mooney on the left. He took it to the edge of the area, and then played it back across for Ramage, unmarked somewhere on the right hand side of the box, to lift a shot over the Chesterfield 'keeper and the bar. Other chances fell to Johnno, who had a couple of blasts cannon off legs in the area, Ramage again, where he dribbled his way into the area but lost it in the tackle for a corner, and Gary Penrice, who fired wastefully over from close in on the left when he should have played it across to the unmarked Mooney anyway.

Amid all this, Rams had been booked for what looked to me like protesting that a defender had climbed on him; certainly I didn't notice any elbows involved, and given the Chesterfield players propensity for lying on the ground for ages at the slightest contact, I feel sure none was involved here. His second card was very, very clearly a booking, however. Receiving the ball on the right wing, he was jostled (probably unfairly) by a defender, who came away with the ball. When Craig's outstretched arms to the ref, who was a good four feet away, came to nothing, he ran after the defender and lunged long after the ball had gone, leaving the player prostrate. Just about all that can be said in his defence is that it wasn't especially dangerous; it was one-footed and without studs showing, but it was also clearly retaliatory and spiteful and he deserved to go if only for his utter stupidity.

For the remainder of the half, we looked all right; Mooney ran around with his usual willingness and ferocity, and (frustratingly) won a lot of flick-ons which no one there to run onto in the absence of the increasingly aptly-named Rambo. Chesterfield only had one good chance that I can think of; a mistimed tackle by Page saw his man carry the ball past him to the edge of the area, where Millen and Gibbs' willingness to stand off and let him shoot saw him do just that; the ball cleared the bar by an inch or two.

Half time saw the first of two bizarre tactical changes; Armstrong came off for Steve Palmer, and we switched to a sort of 5-3-2 formation without a left wing-back. I'm pretty sure this was what happened because Gibbs kept popping up in the opponent's half, while Penrice moved up front and Palmer played at the back with Millen and Page. Given that Armstrong has looked at his best as a wing-back (as against Rotherham at home), taking him off was rather strange, as was the idea that we wouldn't need a left-back for the second half. Okay, so we needed two up front, but I'd have thought we could have done that simply by telling Penrice to play there, and without screwing up what had been an effective formation up to that point. In addition, even schoolboys are taught that your best way of playing when a man down is on the break (well, I was), and given that Chesterfield hadn't looked capable of scoring up to that point, I was expecting the team to let them come at us a little more and try to catch them out.

Basically, though, this tactical switch saw us fall apart. None of the players seemed to understand what it involved them doing, the defence was all over the place, the midfield lacked any sort of cohesion, and we barely had another chance all game. Amid all this, however, Richard Johnson was outstanding. In a game where passes to feet are hard to recall, I can't remember one single pass he made that didn't find its target, and that's something I confess I never thought I'd say about him. His tackling was up to its usual ferocious standard, his shooting was good, his heading was excellent, he showed some bewitching (yes, bewitching) footwork at times, and he did the work of two players. Possibly the best moment of the second half was when Chesterfield, catching us on the break for the one hundred and forty-second time, had two men on one at the half way line. As the first of them went one way and took our defender with him, Johnno raced back to cover, and by the time the ball had been switched for the other forward to shoot past Chamberlain, Johnson had got back in time to clear off the line. He was absolutely magnificent.

Other than that, though, there was little to be pleased about in the second half apart from one attacking spell which really saw the crowd get behind the team and in which I thought we were unlucky to score simply because we had so much pressure. It wasn't however, because we created chances, and this is exactly what Chesterfield did immediately after the last in a succession of corners. They broke quickly, Palmer was beaten for pace at the back and Kevin Davies fired past the hopelessly exposed Chamberlain.

The solution was, obviously, to bring on another striker so that, having soaked up our pressure, Chesterfield could score more easily on the break. In addition, Phillips came on for one of our two players who can break down a defence on their own (the other being, of course, Ramage). I'll freely admit that Slater hadn't had the best of days up to that point, but given that we weren't creating chances I don't see how bringing on a forward for a creative midfielder is going to help.

After this things went from bad to worse. They scored again, Robert Page putting the ball past his own 'keeper after a free-kick (conceded, predictably, on the break) deflected off Gibbs, and by the end the lack of passion and movement in the team was painful to watch. Two players, Johnson and Mooney, seemed willing to run and to try to create space; no one else did. There were a few tense moments in the crowd, too, with the "Jackett out" and "only one Kenny Jackett" factions squaring up to one another; the only positive thing to come out of that was a united chorus of "We want Petchey out". So, the playoffs have become a mathematical possibility. A month or so ago I left the New Den thinking that we could get automatic promotion with the sort of display we showed there and the situation in the table at the time; now we're all going to be looking forward to another season of second division mediocrity, and, what's worse we'll almost certainly be without Kevin Miller, who's been responsible for getting us more points this season than any five of our strikers you'd care to mention. It's not a pleasant thought.

Don't come back
Report by Ian Lay

Thank you Craig Ramage, thank you ever so bloody much. What a twat, what an absolute knob.

If you are wondering what I am going on about, I am talking about the "crowd's favourite" who after being booked for elbowing a player, stupidly took the legs away from a Chesterfield defender right in front of the ref after about 33 minutes. He had to go, he deserved to go and hopefully when walking off the pitch and into the tunnel he didn't stop there and went all the way back to Derby. A message for you Mr Ramage:



I'm sorry about the language but the guy has totally ruined our season. What lingering chance we still had dies a death when he was given his marching orders. Up until then we had the upper hand and had created a couple of half chances. But once he departed gaps started opening up in the defence as we pushed forward looking for a goal. When Chesterfield themselves scored in the second half, I knew that it was all over. There was very little passion in the side besides Johnson and Mooney and very little invention apart from... you guessed it Johnson and Mooney. How Johno gets no praise for the way he plays is incredible.

Well, I'm not going to go on about the game. I consider it an insult to my back side to have been put through what I saw last night. A clear-out of personel is needed. Ramage, Penrice and Armstrong can go for a start. So can Connolly for that matter. Millen can play in the reserves till he regains his form (if ever). Palmer is still suffering from an injury and therefore it is a little hard to judge him. I think he will be back to his best next season after an operation and a rest. The rest? Well, I don't know. But there are only about four or five players I can name that I would be sad to see go.

We need some new players, some players with a bit of bite. That midfield has got to be sorted out. For years now we have had good defences and good attacks, but never a good midfield.

But every cloud has a silver lining. With us still in this division, Mr. Petchy won't be able to raise his price for selling us. Thus whoever does buy us, should have more money available to give to us to buy players.

A small comfort, I know. But, hey, it's the only positive thought I could come up with. Besides, I've got to try and look a little positive to justify handing over two hundred pounds for a new season ticket on Saturday. I think I'll book in to see a psychiatrist because I must be mad.

I can't write anymore because I've got a headache and the monitor screen is hurting my eyes.