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Nationwide League Division 2, 27/1/97
Luton Town 0(0)
Watford 0(0)
Team: *Miller 5*, Gibbs 3, Bazeley 2, Palmer 4, Ward 4, Page 4, Slater 2, Connolly 0, White 4, Johnson 3, Armstrong 2
Subs: Easton, Andrews (for Connolly) 3, Noel-Williams
Opportunity slips away again
Report by Ian Grant

Back to earth with an almighty bump for the armchair millions - after Sunday's Chelsea v Liverpool extravaganza (football with bells on, one of the most impressive displays of quality attacking football I've seen in years), this was a reminder that the divide between the Premiership and the rest grows larger every day. This was an awful game. If you're the kind of person who likes Runrig, then it was probably right up your street; for the rest of us, this was an extra large helping of unsugared porridge. (Obscure metaphors? We got 'em...)

Round my way, a spade's a spade and I'd be lying if I claimed that we deserved more than a point out of this game. In fact, a point's probably pushing it a bit - only some heroic defending kept our clean sheet intact, the knowledge that one goal was likely to settle it making for some rather distressing moments in the away end during the second half. Bearing in mind that this wasn't a game we could afford to lose (seven points is a large but bridgeable gap, ten is a pretty tall order by anyone's standards), I'd say that we should be marginally happier with the result than our opponents.

If the second half had a certain gutsy thrill about it, that probably had a lot to do with the almost complete absence of meaningful action before the interval. As is usual with derby games, both sides started off at a ludicrous pace, as if proving to their fans that they were really trying - unfortunately, they didn't ever slow down, with the result that the game became a frantic bundle of tackles and misplaced passes and hoofed clearances and aerial tussles. Not very pretty to watch but, if we're being honest, not a million miles away from what we're used to seeing in the Second Division every week either.

There were just two moments in the first forty-five minutes worth recalling. Darren Ward, called in from the juniors to replace the suspended Keith Millen, got in a bit of a muddle inside the box and allowed a Luton striker a clear shot at goal. He hit his effort low and hard but straight at Kevin Miller, who saved with his legs. That was after about five minutes. Also early on, David Connolly appeared to be pulled down by a Luton defender when running through towards goal - from the away end, it was impossible to tell how close to goal he was but the referee gave nothing.

Luton had the upper hand but didn't make it count for very much - they probed and prodded around our defence without ever finding that killer pass. For our part, we attempted to hit them on the break, playing rather crude long balls up towards Devon White and David Connolly - far too often, though, we fell foul of their offside trap. I can only remember one worthwhile effort on the Luton goal before half-time - a Steve Palmer drive early on that went comfortably wide - and that says a great deal about the quality of service we were giving our front players. The arrival of Wayne Andrews for Connolly after 35 minutes (I can only assume that Connolly was injured - I didn't see him go off) briefly frightened the Luton defence but, again, we were hoping for a lucky break on a long ball rather than giving our strikers the advantage over their markers with decent passes.

The half-time whistle was greeted with moderately jubilant applause in the Watford end. Somehow it's as if we don't believe we can ever beat them so we'll accept a draw as the next best alternative. Or maybe we've just set our hearts on that consecutive League draws record...

For the handful of Sky viewers who'd managed to stay awake during the first half, the second period would've been rather more exciting viewing. Unfortunately for us, most of the excitement was at Kevin Miller's end of the pitch and, thanks to the low angle at which you view the pitch from the Kenilworth Road away end, every shot looked goal-bound. It was pretty nerve-wracking stuff.

If anyone was going to win the game, it was Luton. They had numerous chances as the game wore on - only a little good fortune, a bit of poor finishing and lot of resolute defending kept them out. Kevin Miller was outstanding, commanding his area and dealing superbly with the threat from crosses. He was also forced to make one fine save, getting a hand to a cross-shot after Luton had broken away and pushing it narrowly wide. If anyone's thinking of taking him off our hands, they won't find a better advert than last night's performance - I can't imagine we're going to be able to hang on to him for very much longer.

The rest of the time, the defence fought to deny Luton chances. Unfortunately, much of the work was done close to goal - rather than holding Luton outside the box, we were forced to make last-ditch tackles and desperate clearances. At no point did we ever look in control - as the game opened up, Luton strikers found more space and looked ever more dangerous. I'm sure I've forgotten some of the close calls but the ones I remember include a free kick that deflected off the Watford wall and bounced wide; an overhead kick that also went wide and a wayward cross that Miller needed to push over the bar. Closest of all was a driven shot from around the penalty spot that looked certain to hit the back of the net but was somehow deflected over the bar, presumably by a goal-line clearance.

Our attempts to move the play away from our penalty area met with mixed results. We did have periods of moderate pressure but simply never created the chances to win the game. There were moments when we could've scored the winning goal, yet they were few and far between and none of them offered our strikers a clear shot at goal. The urgency of many of our clearances from defence meant that our front pair were fighting for the ball rather than receiving it, causing too many moves to break down before they'd started. In midfield, neither Stuart Slater nor Craig Armstrong managed to impose themselves on the game, leaving us short of quality when the ball did break our way. Devon White led the line superbly in the circumstances, making himself awkward and holding the ball up whenever possible, but he was too isolated to make much impact.

Sadly, we didn't force the Luton keeper to make a serious save at any point in the match. Our efforts on goal were either off-target (a White volley that cleared the bar), blocked by covering defenders (Palmer's fierce drive during our best spell of the match) or comfortably saved (an Andrews shot that briefly looked as if a deflection was going to take it over the keeper's head but landed comfortably in his arms).

In the end, then, it was a draw that we fought hard for. The defence takes most credit for keeping Luton at bay even when they seemed certain to score. But the disappointment in the failure to beat our local rivals for the umpteenth time in the last ten years rather dwarfs any satisfaction from the result - a win against Luton would represent such a massive morale boost, yet once again the opportunity has slipped away.

Fortunately, not every game is going to be like this. The insane pace made controlled football virtually impossible (although, it has to be said, Luton adapted better to the tempo than we did, despite having played on Saturday) and we'll play better when our quality players are allowed a little more room to manoeuvre. What we have to do is make the other games, the games when we are capable of taking charge and playing measured football, count for something - we did it against Oxford and we have to do it more often in the League. That starts with Rotherham on Saturday, a match we must win.

Brilliant defence
Report by Ian Lay

Due to a lack of cash and a reluctance on the behalf of my other half to drive up to Bedfordshire I was forced to enjoy the fruits of this game from my local pub (I can't blame Heidi really. She is 13 weeks pregnant and suffering rather bad morning sickness).

To be honest we never really looked liked winning the game. But just like a lot of games recently we didn't look like losing either. It has to be said that our defence was brilliant. How a Luton player got the SKY man of the match is beyond me. Okay, they did play better than us, but the fact they didn't score was down to the excellent performances by our rearguard . In particular the two Darrens; Ward and Bazeley. The former being my man of the match. Bazeley in the first half was the man of the moment. His tackling was excellent and his passes out of defence were calm and accurate. He faded a little after the break but still his all round performance was superb.

What disappointed me was the fact that our attacking efforts were worse than usual. This was down to two reasons. One, Penrice was unavailable, and two, Slater had his worst game for us since signing. Where we had plenty of graft and determination , we didn't have any inspiration or imagination. This left the front two with very few options for most of the game. Saying that, big Dev had another good game. Putting himself about and creating a couple of half chances. And Andrews, even though he had a below par game, looked more dangerous than Connolly, who had to go off because of a hamstring injury.

For once Miller was involved in a game where he had to do a bit more than just catch crosses. He pulled off a couple of good saves to deny Luton. But even though he was more stretched than normal, he was never in a position where he had to pull off what I would call a world class save. Which says a lot for our defence at keeping Luton at bay.

As I end this report I must give great praise to the Watford fans who went to the game. For the majority of the game they were the only set of supporters who could be heard. Every one of you should feel proud for the amount of noise that you generated, and I only wish I could have been with you singing at the top of my voice.

Also a special thanks to all those balloons that defended so well in the first half.