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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 29/10/96
Watford 1(0)
Team: Miller 4, Gibbs 4, Ludden 0, Johnson 3, Millen 4, Page 4, Bazeley 2, Andrews 3, White 2, Palmer 4, Mooney 3
Subs: *Robinson (for Ludden) 4*, Penrice (for Andrews) 2, Noel-Williams (for White) 2
Scorers: Bazeley (90)
Luton Town 1(0)
Scorers: Showler (75)
Nothing changes...
Report by Ian Grant

There's a busker just along the road from my flat. Now, it takes a lot for a busker to get noticed in Brighton (there's about five of 'em to every paving slab) but this guy is either a musical genius, experimenting bravely with form and style, or he wants locking up. Aside from the utter futility inherent in attempting to bring the accordion back into fashion, he has yet to be put off by the fact that he obviously hasn't learnt to play the bloody thing and can do little more than make a noise like an asthmatic cat being badly mauled by a constipated alsatian. Listen closely enough and you might just be able work out which popular tune he's trying to massacre (I did, at first, think he was having a go at some sort of free-form jazz). His continued presence on the streets is something of a puzzle but can probably be explained by the fact that he often plays in front of Boots and, presumably, they're enjoying boosted profits on the back of increased demand for earplugs.

Our football's been much the same of late - vaguely recognisable if you concentrate hard enough, just with all the notes out of order and distinctly flat (How's that for a link? Eh? EH?). The lack of creativity in midfield is worrying - playing two defensive players alongside each other is far from ideal - and goals are proving hard to come by. Some of that may be solved on Saturday - with Richard Johnson suspended, we have no choice but to play someone like Gary Penrice in the 'Ramage' role, returning to the diamond formation that had begun to look promising before Penrice got injured. Whatever happens, we have to find ways of hurting teams more, especially when we're at home.

It makes a change for us to play Luton when they're on a roll - it's usually us enjoying a good run which, inevitably, comes to a sticky end against our local rivals. But nothing much changes - April 1987 was the last time we beat them in a proper match (the Anglo-Italian cup, in which you were allowed to name everyone in the ground as a substitute and play rush goalie, doesn't count and we know it). We haven't actually lost to them for a few games now (although we came perilously close last night) so, who knows, in a few years' time we might have progressed onto beating the buggers.

With the Vic packed and passionate (the home end was full, the away end wasn't far off), it had the makings of an epic local derby. It wasn't quite that good but there's no question that this was our best performance in a home derby game for a long time (casting my mind back - 0-0, 2-2, 2-4, 1-1, all games I'd rather forget, thanks). What we lacked in technique and quality, we made up for in bloody-minded commitment - that counts for something, bearing in mind some of the dreadfully lacklustre performances we've had to suffer in the past.

It started disastrously. Entirely Kate's fault (hell, I've taken the blame for enough defeats in the past - time for revenge!), since she'd wanted Paul Robinson (the hard man of the yoof team) to play in this game and kick some Luton players. Since he's a left-back, that would have to mean Dominic Ludden getting injured - nothing serious, just enough to rule him out of the game. What happens? Two minutes in, Ludden is hurt (looked like a twisted ankle or something) and has to be stretchered off. It could have been the end - it wasn't, fortunately, because Robinson acquitted himself amazingly well after a slightly nervous start. True to expectations, he seemed to grow in confidence as soon as he'd put in a crunching tackle on an advancing Luton player and, from that point on, he did extremely well.

We had a bit of pressure to start the game - it didn't amount to much, though, and Luton began to dominate the game. It's the difference between a side that's on a winning streak and one that's struggling to find its form - the passing's more confident, the movement's better, the strikers are sharper. That said, we had a couple of the better openings in a fairly tight first half - both of them were created by Wayne Andrews, twisting and turning to get himself into shooting positions and then firing in good shots that went straight at the keeper. That's the problem, though - we're relying on moments of individual brilliance to create chances, rather than ever looking particularly convincing with our general build-up play. For their part, Luton did manage to hit the woodwork, or rather we hit it for them - from a useful cross, the ball deflected up from a defender's lunge and bounced on top of the bar. Sounds more dramatic than it was, to be honest - it never really looked like it was going in.

Goalless and reasonably happy at half-time. If the first half didn't really live up to expectations, the second was a real emotional rollercoaster. Again we struggled to create any real chances - there were a few moderately desperate scrambles in the area but nothing much else. That shouldn't have mattered on this occasion, however, because we were denied two blatant penalties for handball when the game was still goalless. The second incident was perhaps less obvious and most of the people I spoke to afterwards hadn't seen it - basically, a defender jumped for the ball with his arm in the air, the ball hit his hand (which was a fair way away from his head) and went out of play. The referee, who had a perfect view, saw enough to award a corner but not enough, apparently, to give a penalty. The first offence was outrageous, though. A cross from our right hit a Luton defender on the hand - he was clearly standing about a foot inside the area when the ball hit him. The referee blew his whistle and we all jumped up to celebrate the penalty award before realising that, incredibly, he'd given a free kick on the edge of the box. Not even the angry protests of most of the Watford players or Tommy Mooney's attempts to take the kick from where the offence had really occurred managed to change the referee's mind. One of the worst decisions I've seen in a while.

Refereeing calamities aside (and I've seen enough missed penalties in local derbies to last a lifetime), we just didn't create enough. The closest we got was from the Mooney free kick that was the result of that penalty incident - a defender made contact with the cross and touched it just wide of the post. Luton, on the other hand, looked threatening for most of the half. Kevin Miller was exposed on a couple of occasions, pulling off fine stops to deny well-struck shots, and they also managed to hit the woodwork twice more. The first was a low shot to Miller's left that had the keeper well beaten and looked like a certain goal until it hit the post and rebounded across the goal to safety. Later on, a powerful header flicked off the top of the bar and out.

With Devon White failing to make any particular impact (apart from one moment of genuine comedy genius - an attempted overhead kick that resulted in him landing on his arse with his huge long legs waving hopelessly in the air) and Andrews beginning to tire, we brought on Gary Penrice and Gifton Noel-Williams as a new front-line. Luton scored about thirty seconds later. The ball broke loose on the left and eventually found its way to a striker who hit a crashing shot that bounced off the underside of the bar and then went in. As the Rookery erupted in celebration, all we could do was stare in disbelief - it was happening again.

For fifteen horrible, depressing minutes, we did nothing much to suggest that we were likely to equalise. Penrice and Noel-Williams need more time to build any kind of understanding and neither made their presence felt around the box to any great effect. In fact, as throughout the match, the team that seemed more likely to score was wearing white shirts.

And, then, the miracle. As time ticked by and we looked set for yet another humiliation at the hands of our rivals, as people started to drift away in disappointment, as the Luton fans begged the referee for full-time, we did it. A deep cross from the left found Darren Bazeley at the far post - his effort (I can't remember whether it came off his head or foot) was relatively weak but, somehow, it beat the keeper. A defender attempted to clear it off the line but merely booted it into the roof of the net. Vicarage Road went absolutely bonkers. The players were swamped by fans, those of us left in the stands just lost it completely. There was barely enough time for Luton to kick off.

In the cold light of day, with bags under my eyes and a hell of a sore throat, it doesn't really seem like such a magnificent triumph. It's a draw. With Luton. AGAIN. The point doesn't do us a lot of good, dropping us down to seventh (although at least nearly everyone else up the top did poorly as well and we did deny Luton some points), and that makes it five points from five games which isn't promotion form. Brentford on Saturday is a massive, massive game.

For once, we played with a bit of pride against Luton at Vicarage Road. But nothing changes, we still didn't win. Anyway, all the concerns about the way the season's going disappeared into the background when that equaliser went in...a moment to savour, and no mistake.