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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
96/97: Reports:

FA Cup 3rd Round, 21/1/97
Watford 2(0)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 3, Bazeley 3, *Palmer 5*, Millen 4, Page 5, Slater 5, Connolly 4, White 4, Johnson 4, Mooney 3
Subs: *Robinson (for Ludden) 4*, Penrice (for Andrews) 2, Noel-Williams (for White) 2
Scorers: Easton (for Mooney) 4, Chamberlain, Noel-Williams
Oxford United 0(0)
 
Worth the wait
Report by Ian Grant

Hell, YEAH! Let's face it, if you're going to have to wait around until half past eight for kick-off (see news), see a game that lasts until about twenty past ten, catch a train back from Watford Junction at quarter past eleven, sprint through the Underground to make the five past midnight back to Brighton and finally return to East Sussex at nearly HALF PAST ONE IN THE MORNING, then it might as well be for a game like this.

Performance of the season. By a bloody mile. The quality of the opposition, more than an entire league above us, doesn't matter - this was the best we've played against anyone in this campaign. Oxford were rubbish, of course, but the point is that we made them look rubbish.

As two-nil victories go, this was about as comprehensive as it gets. Another couple of goals wouldn't have flattered us. That's not to say that we laid siege to the Oxford goal for long periods - we simply controlled the game, stifling the opposition and creating enough chances to have won the tie long before White's opener.

Oxford created just one chance worthy of the name. It happened in the early stages, a defensive mix-up allowing Aldridge a clear run on goal. He wasted the opportunity - with Kevin Miller committed, he opted to round the keeper and dived for a penalty (the referee really should've booked him). He ought to have scored - David Connolly showed him how it should be done for his goal late in the second half.

That was it. Other than a few fairly wayward long-range efforts and a handful of corners, Oxford were almost entirely stifled by the magnificent defensive pairing of Keith Millen and Robert Page. They dominated in the air and on the ground, restricting top scorer Jemson to a handful of ineffective touches. But this victory was really won in the midfield. Having Steve Palmer and Richard Johnson in the same midfield has never worked before - on this occasion, however, it all came together. The Oxford players rarely had more than a moment to think about passing before they had a Watford man snapping at their heels - it forced numerous mistakes and caused virtually every attacking move to break up. On occasions, our passing was little better - Johnson, in particular, giving the ball away too cheaply - but we made up for any errors by retrieving possession as quickly as possible, giving Oxford no chance to take advantage of misplaced passes.

As the first half progressed, we got a stranglehold on the game. We were also unlucky not to score. The best opportunity came early on, Devon White flicking on a cross to an unmarked David Connolly who saw his potent shot acrobatically tipped over by the Oxford keeper. Apart from that, we were mainly restricted to shots from distance but they came mighty close - Johnson sent a curler just wide from the edge of the box and someone else (possibly Stuart Slater) saw a low shot hit the outside of the post.

The half ended with Oxford fighting their way back into the game - we had to defend but we did it with the confidence that comes from a nineteen game unbeaten run. Perhaps the only depressing aspect of the match came just before the interval as Tommy Mooney attempted to take the ball past a defender on the edge of the box, only to be unceremoniously hacked down. He stayed on the ground and was taken off on a stretcher. We have to hope that the injury isn't serious since we're perilously short of left-sided players as it is - unfortunately, the signs didn't look at all good.

The half-time arrival of Clint Easton as a replacement for Mooney could've upset our rhythm. It didn't, though, mainly because Easton had by far his best game in a Watford shirt, working hard, supporting his team-mates and using the ball intelligently. Having endured a slightly dodgy period before the break, we came out for the second half with all guns blazing and dominated the rest of the match.

We should've scored several times before the 71st minute. The quality of Slater's crossing from the right wing made all the difference - he whipped in balls from good positions, finding the heads of his colleagues rather than hoping for the best. He set up the first of several chances early in the half, crossing for Johnson to win the ball - it was a good header under pressure, directed downwards into the corner, and it only missed the post by inches. A similar situation led to Easton hitting a defender with his headed attempt.

Slater was also responsible for setting up the best opening of the match. A well-worked corner routine with Easton gave him space to look up and find Connolly unmarked in the six yard box. The striker attempted a diving header with the goal at his mercy - we waited for the top corner of the net to bulge but somehow he missed the target. At that moment, I started to worry that, after missing our chances, we'd be made to pay for our failings in front of goal - it's the classic thing that usually happens to the underdogs in a cup tie.

But I shouldn't have worried. For all Oxford's attempts to push out of defence and get their attack moving, they got precisely nowhere. Even more than in the first half, our midfield was running the game. Richard Johnson and Clint Easton were making themselves a nuisance, Stuart Slater was making himself available as a link to the attack. As for Steve Palmer, he was doing the work of two players - winning the ball all over the place and distributing it with stupifying vision. Oxford couldn't get going and that's because we wouldn't let them.

Up front, we always looked dangerous. People were still abusing Devon White, despite the fact that he did as much as anyone to earn this win - if we can't buy another striker, then we're going to need Devon to be on form and giving him stick isn't going to do any good at all. Ironically, the goal came just as he'd been jeered for mis-controlling a promising pass from Easton and the fans were demanding a substitution. The ball found its way back into midfield, we won it (as usual) and pumped it forward to find Devon completely unmarked in the box. He chested it down and poked it past the advancing keeper - we all held our breath, waiting for an offside flag or the referee's whistle, and neither came. One-nil to the Golden Boys.

White also played a crucial role in the all-important second goal. Again, the ball was hit long (there's nothing wrong with that - as long as you vary the play to keep the defence guessing), Devon rose magnificently to flick the ball on and it arrived at the feet of Connolly. With only the keeper to beat, the striker did what Aldridge should've done earlier - he waited for the right moment and just dinked it over the keeper into the goal.

That was pretty much it. Oxford hadn't really looked like scoring earlier so two goals was clearly beyond them. For our part, we came close to a third when Miller's long punt upfield confused the defence, allowing Connolly to get a shot on goal which was blocked by the keeper's legs. The match ended with what amounted to a training session for the Watford players as Slater, Easton, Connolly and Bazeley engaged in a bit of 'keep-ball', forcing the Oxford players to chase around like idiots. Wonderful stuff.

Not a spectacular win, not a 'Famous Victories' win. Just a very, very satisfying performance. For perhaps the first time this season, I've been able to come into work, say 'We were bloody good last night' and really mean it. If we could transfer that kind of performance to the league (and, most importantly, to the Luton game on Monday) then we'd be in a much better position - it's a matter of confidence but also of commitment. It's easy to raise your game against opponents from a higher division (even if it is only Oxford), not so easy when it's Rotherham or Shrewsbury. This game set a standard, it demonstrated the kind of performance level that we are capable of achieving - we have to look to do it more often than once in six months.

Best home performance
Report by Ian Lay

I thought long and hard on how to start this report. I wanted to capture my feelings in one short snappy comment. But as I went through the events of last night in my head I found it difficult to put the words "farcical, hilarious, exciting, exhilarating, gripping" all into the same sentence and make it make sense. Oh maybe I just have!

Put simply, this was the best performance I have seen from Watford at home this season. Everybody performed well, we controlled the game from start to finish. It reminded me a little of a lot of the home games we played in the 94/95 season. Calm, controlled football throughout, nil-nil at half time, and then two second half goals to kill off the opposition. I thought Iíd jumped back in time!

Amazingly enough, though, it could never have happened at all. I got into the ground at about 7:15pm and had just taken my seat when all the floodlights went out! I couldnít believe it. I couldnít believe that for second week running we might have the game called off once everyone was in the ground. Luckily enough power was restored about twenty five minutes later. Unfortunately though it was un-restored again two minutes later as the three floodlights that had come on decided that it wasnít worth their while blazing away if the fourth one wasnít going to pull its weight and illuminate its part of the ground. So they turned themselves off. Happily enough all was fine about 10 minutes later. We had power, we had lights, the last floodlight obviously seeing the error of its ways and agreed to pull its weight. What we didnít have any chance of getting was a hot cup of tea, supposedly. Apparently, plugging in the tea urn would take the floodlights out! The fourth floodlight wouldnít stand for it....... so a compromise was struck.

During all this we had a series of announcements telling us what was or wasnít happening. The best one was when we were told the electricity people were on their way and we should stay calm. Calm! Did the announcer think we were on a bloody Boeing 747 flying over the ocean and he had to tell us that we had just lost all the engines in an electrical fire!!

Anyway, at 8.30pm the game kicked off. We started well, passing the ball about with confidence. Big Dev putting himself about, winning balls in the air. And we had a referee who didnít blow his whistle everytime someone brushed up against another player!

The first opening we created was about five minutes into the game. Some good work by Slater on the right allowed him to cut inside from the wing and whip in a cross which White flicked on to Connolly. He struck the ball first time on the volley and forced the keeper into a smart save to his left. Johnson then had a long range effort saved by the Oxford keeper at the base of his left hand post. From the way he dived so late, it makes me think he didnít see it to the last moment.

The best moment of the half was a great bit of individual skill from Stuart Slater. Picking the ball up on the right wing, he cut inside beat a couple of defenders and sent a brilliant curling shot in which eluded the keeper only to brush the outside of the post.

The second half started in a similar way. Johnson headed just wide after some good work by Easton and Slater. Connolly missed a clear cut chance after Easton and Slater conjured up a new corner routine. Easton tapped the ball to Slater who trapped the ball and peeled off to the edge of the box, Easton this time didnít cross the ball but played it to Slater after the defender had committed himself to concentrating on Easton. Slater, unmarked, whipped in a delightfully flighted cross and Connolly, who had lost his marker, connected but unfortunately his header just went past the top right hand corner of the goal. At that point I thought we had lost our chance of winning and that it was going to end 0-0. But no. When the goal come it ironically came from one of the few bits of bad control big Dev had done all night. The ball was played into him just outside the area. His first touch wasnít good and the ball was cleared, but went straight to Easton. He played the ball back into White who this time controlled the ball excellently and slipped the ball past their defender and then under the keeperís body. I was really pleased for White. He has had a lot of stick recently. I am as guilty as most for giving a bit of stick when things arenít going well. But let's be honest here for a minute. There is no point in booing the guy when heís not playing well because it does his confidence no good. Believe it or not, we are going to need Dev if we are going to go up because however good Noel-Williams is, he is only 17 years old. We canít expect him to perform at this level week in week out yet.

So 1-0 and all going well. The goal seemed to wake Oxford up who, though had been playing some nice passing football, hadnít really troubled Miller at all. In fact he didnít have to make a save of note in the entire game. We absorbed about 10 minutes of pressure from them before scoring our second and the decisive goal of the game. The ball was played forward and White jumped to flick the ball straight into the path of Connolly who calmly held off the defender to plant the ball wide of their goalie and into the waiting net. From them on we toyed with them and probably could have added to our tally. Oxford never looked like they were going to get back into the game. They seemed like a team that thought they could come here, go through the motions, get a draw and take us back to their ground. Always a dangerous policy against any team and they paid the penalty.

The final whistle was eventually blown at about 10:20pm and brought the end to this farcical saga. This must be the most delayed kick off all time. 17 days late!!

The whole team played well. Miller didnít have much to do, but what he had to do was done professionally. He punched well and commanded his box as usual. The defence was sound with Millen and Page particularly impressive. In the midfield Palmer had his best game for quite a while. He totally dominated the middle of the park. Breaking down Oxford attacks. Being the catalyst for many of our own. Quite simply he was the best person on the park. Johnson , apart from a couple of lapses, was more impressive than normal. Mooney played well before being taken off at half time for what I hope is not a reoccurrence of his knee injury. His replacement, Easton, had his best for Watford to date. He held the ball up well, played some nice passes and generally looked a lot more confident than he has been before. Slater was excellent as usual and the new corner routines involving him certainly are an improvement on what we have been used to in the past. Up front Connolly had his best game for weeks. He read most of Whiteís flicks very well. He looked full of energy and took his goal very well. And then we come to big Dev. He had his best game of the season in my opinion. He scored one goal and made another. But it was the way he lead the line which impressed me. He put himself about. Won most of the fifty-fifty balls in the air and his control for once was generally spot on. On a normal day he would have been my man of the match, but Palmer and Slaterís performances were just that bit better. But it was nice to hear the big man getting cheered rather than jeered.

So into the fourth round. We still donít know who we are going to play but I think we are capable of beating either of them. Roll on the fifth round!!

Routine?
Report by Nick Grundy

Well, well, well. Just when you thought you were being plagued by some sort of jinx in your efforts to watch a seemingly innocent cup-tie, the game not only goes ahead under rather unlikely circumstances, but we actually win as well. I'll tell you what, though, at 7-30 last night I was quite close to being moved to violence; I turn up at the ground only to discover that there are about a million people outside and no lights on inside. I assumed immediately that the game had been called off yet again, and that these people were waiting outside in order to lynch the unfortunate Mr. P.Richards, who had unwisely been assigned to ref the replay. The prospect of yet another four hour return journey on the bus for absolutely no reason was looming large in my mind, and it was not a pleasant one.

I soon discovered that it was actually a floodllight failure, clearly designed to terrify those who had travelled long distances in order to watch the game, and that, in essence, no one had a clue what was going on, whether the game would be played and more importantly whether I'd miss my last bus back to Cambridge or not.

It was actually quite amusing waiting for the game to start, though; the PA announcements were entertaining ("Please stay calm!"), and I heard a rather witty chant of "come on you lights" (geddit?). The game kicked off (finally) at half eight, although the PA continued to scare us with announcements about how the game probably wouldn't be played etc etc.

This was a good, solid performance. Most pleasingly, our defence wasn't troubled more than a couple of times by a first division strikeforce; I can't actually remember Oxford having a shot on target.

Watford, however, had several. In spite of a slow start, during which Oxford kept the ball for quite a long period of time, we gradually started to create chances, and continued to do so on a fairly regular basis throughout the game. The first came from a cross into the box which was flicked on by White to Connolly at the back post. I have to say that I didn't think he'd make contact with it at all - it was up about shoulder height for him and fell at a very awkward angle - but he did a sort of bicycle kick and sent it goalwards, but the keeper somehow kept it out. The resulting corner was the best I've seen all season; it seems we've finally realised that kicking the ball straight on to the head of the defender six yards short of the near post is unlikely to result in a goal,and this corner involved Mooney playing it short to Slater and then whipping it in himself; the cross shot along the six yard-box and was put behind by one of their defenders; it could really have gone anywhere. Then Tommy decided to remind us of how we usually take corners, and the defender duly nodded clear.

This set the tone for the rest of the first half; our defence was unworried by the long-ball bollocks Oxford threw at us, while Slater, Johnson, Palmer and Connolly were all outstanding, using the ball well and creating chances. Johnson had a shot from distance either hit the post or get saved by the keeper; I thought it was the latter but the ref gave a goal kick; Slater, after a lovely piece of play involving Bazeley, himself and Connolly, hit the post with a sweetly-struck shot; and generally we looked a lot better than they did.

Best of all, I enjoyed one of the more satisfying moments of the season so far. Their left-back (and captain, incidentally) had been given a throw a few yards from their end of the pitch; this had resulted in howls of rage from all those who had decided the queue for the North Stand was just too long, and who'd gone for the Rous option, as he had clearly touched the ball last. So, having yelled the usual abuse at the linesman, we noticed that the no. 3 was wandering up the pitch at an alarming rate, and a cry of "Where's he f***ing going with that, lino?" provoked a quite impressive amount of crowd noise about it (all the more impressive when you consider that the Rous stand, at least nearest the Rookery end, is in fact a giant wind tunnel. Probably.) and eventually the linesman waved his flag. Hilariously enough, the ref then saw fit to book the no.3, and I have to say I felt quite good about having contributed to the home advantage idea.

Second half is when we made our superiority count, however. This was at least in part due to an injury sustained by Tommy Mooney just before half time, when he was hacked down on the edge of the box, and which saw Clint Easton come in.

He looked up for it - I can't think of a single time he gave the ball away, his touch was assured and his vision was excellent. At one point, played through on the right, he realised he couldn't reach the ball and control it, so he slid in and diverted it right into the path of Slater, who carried it on and won a corner. His tactical play was also good: he slotted into the middle of midfield when necessary and so on; having said all this, he is still a yard or so off the pace of first-team football.

Anyway, as I say, second half was good. The first fifteen minutes or so I can't remember much about, however, and the first real memory is of Connolly putting an acrobatic diving header from (Shock! Horror!) another well-worked corner move inches wide of the post. In this period, and indeed for most of the game, Connolly was very good. There were moments he didn't chase balls he could have done, or when he looked disgusted with the service he was getting, but overall he looked like he cared about this game, and that has to be encouraging.

Even Devon White was looking okay. Of course, he won his usual number of headers (a couple. Well, one anyway), and looked as comfortable on the ground as ever (no, it's not worth it), but he was a threat. Just when he'd missed a fairly good opening and I'd thrown my head into my hands saying "If you were any good at all.." I looked up to see him played in behind the defence by someone and watched in disbelief as he slid it neatly past the Oxford keeper. White scores (Shock! Horror!) good goal.

From here on in we were comfortable; Bazeley and Slater were combining very well down the right and Baze (Shock! Horror!) even put in some good crosses. For the first time that I've seen, Palmer and Johnson looked like a workable midfield pairing. Of course, they still got in each others way (at one point Palmer hit a clearance which bounced off the back of Johnno's head about a yard away), Johnno was still incapable of passing to any target more than three metres away and Palmer still only made it into the box once all game (for a good shot, actually, which their keeper did well to save). However, they kept possession very well, defended sensibly and generally looked as if they could create as well as stifle.

Our second came from David Connolly. Again, I can't remember who was the provider (I'm just not used to all this excitement), but his finish was good - he took it into the box and neatly put it over the keeper and into the corner. After this, we even started cheering passes designed purely to keep the ball - surely a first this season?

My reservation about this result is simple. I thought we made this game look, if not easy, then at least routine; I actually had the feeling that we could up the tempo and passion if we needed too (even without Tommy Mooney!), and I suspect many of the Oxford fans will be wondering how on earth we aren't top of the second division by some margin (so am I, as it happens, but hey...). It's no use saying "Oh, but Oxford are total shite" because they simply aren't; they're higher in the first division than we are in the second, and the fact that we can beat them comfortably is encouraging. However, if we don't start producing this sort of form in the league then we can win the FA cup and we'll still be completely f***ed next season. We have to go up this year, and let's not lose sight of that because we're beating higher division sides in the cup.