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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 19/4/97
Wrexham 3(2)
Scorers: Connolly (36 pen, 44), Skinner (79)
Watford 1(1)
Team: Miller 2, Gibbs 3, Armstrong 2, Palmer 4, Millen 2, Page 3, Slater 4, Phillips 2, *Ramage 4*, Johnson 4, Easton 3
Subs: Bazeley, Penrice, Mooney (for Palmer) 3
Scorers: Ramage (45)
Only ourselves to blame
Report by Ian Grant

An alarm call at half past five on Saturday morning. Eleven hours on trains (via London, Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Chester and Crewe at various times). An hour of walking from here to there to here again. All for ninety minutes of thoroughly depressing football. Still, it's a larf, innit?

Attempts at martyrdom by clinically insane web site editors aside, there's little to say about this game that doesn't involve gratuitous swearing. This was, to put it mildly, a bit of a disaster. It'd be difficult to put a larger dent in our promotion aspirations without the aid of a mentally-unstable rhino.

People can and will blame the referee for this defeat. I could and did at the time, I must admit. But, when it comes down to it, you cannot ignore the fact that we could've come out of the game with at least a point had we not conceded two appalling goals. With our scoring record, we cannot afford to gift goals to the opposition. Despite the penalty and the sending off, we ought to have travelled south with some sort of result - we didn't because we let ourselves down on two crucial occasions.

The first half hour was shin-bashingly tedious, full of the midfield trench warfare that we've grown used to. Neither side did much that could be considered worthy of a match report, although we appeared to be gaining the upper hand at various moments. In fact, the most exciting thing that happened was Kevin Miller slicing a clearance over the hoarding down one side of the pitch - as Pete Goddard spotted, the ball flew perfectly over the word 'Miller' on an advertisement.

And then, suddenly, everything happened. None of it was good, either. The penalty came first - Keith Millen failed to deal adequately with a through-ball, forcing Kevin Miller to come off his line as the Wrexham striker came forward. A three-man collision resulted and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. I remain to be convinced about the decision - I'm not going to condemn it out-right without seeing a TV replay first and if that sounds like a cowardly cop-out then you're probably right. Anyway, the spot-kick was calmly chipped to Miller's right as the keeper went the other way.

If the goal was a major setback, then what followed a few minutes later was nothing short of catastrophic for the Watford cause. Kevin Phillips and a Wrexham player went in for a tackle. From my view, it appeared that Phillips was the victim of a two-footed tackle and that the Watford players were piling into the resulting brawl to remonstrate with the culprit. But, once again, I can't pass judgement without seeing it from a better angle. Once tempers had calmed, Phillips was called over and shown the red card, presumably for his part in the original incident. It was one of those heart-sinking moments and the sight of Phillips, precisely the last Watford player you'd imagine getting sent off for a bad foul, forlornly wandering across the pitch like a small child who's had his favourite toy broken by the school bully was genuinely distressing.

As I say, I can't really comment on the referee's decision - he had a far better view of it than I did and Kenny Jackett wasn't complaining after the game. But I can argue that there's no consistency being applied here. In the last minute, Stuart Slater was the victim of a vicious two-footed tackle from behind, long after the ball had departed - presumably as some sort of retribution for giving his full-back the run-around all afternoon. Free kick, not even a yellow card.

Things were looking distinctly bleak and they got a little bleaker just before half-time. The second goal had nothing to do with the referee, nothing to do with being down to ten men - it was simply atrocious defending. A harmless cross bounced through the six yard box, with both Keith Millen and Robert Page standing back to watch it on its way to Connolly at the far post - he had no trouble in tucking the ball under Miller. We were two goals down, a player down and a very long way from home.

The life-line arrived within moments of the re-start. Stuart Slater found some space on the right wing, scampered down to the bye-line and pulled the ball back for Craig Ramage to finish at the near post. It was what we needed, setting things up nicely for the second half.

Whether through a sense of injustice or a 'nothing to lose' mentality (it's been rare for us to be underdogs this season and, when that situation has occurred, we've tended to play better), we emerged from the interval as a far more potent side. The failure to make a substitution was baffling, however. While Craig Ramage did magnificently in holding the ball up, he frequently had no-one to lay it off to. Similarly, Slater's runs down the wing were held up by lack of support, with Clint Easton being the only Watford player in the box on numerous occasions.

So, although we had a great deal of possession and tried to use it constructively, there was no end product. Our only really promising moment came as a result of individual brilliance - Ramage finishing a marvellous, swaying run with a pass to Easton for a shot that was blocked. Even when Tommy Mooney did belatedly arrive, he spent too much time as a support player (his first five minutes were wasted inside his own half) and too little in the opposition box. I suppose that the criticism is harsh - the re-organisation after a sending off is never easy - but watching us lose a game that we were dominating was hugely frustrating.

We created one real chance and it came from the best Watford move of the match. Richard Johnson, acting more in his 'agent of chaos' role in this game, swept a sublime pass out to Slater. The winger found time to look up and slid a pass into Ramage, who took it first time and mis-hit it when he should have hit the target. Even then, Mooney had a half-chance at the far post as the shot rolled wide but scooped it over the bar. Incidentally, it's no coincidence that both of our best moments came when Slater was given the ball deep inside opposition territory - too often he was forced to retreat into his own half to receive it and required to beat about nine red shirts before he could put in a cross.

We threw away any prospects of a come-back with ten minutes remaining. Wrexham had been looking increasingly dangerous as the effort of playing in a ten-man team began to take its toll on Watford - they'd carved open one opportunity, with a shot at Miller from the edge of the area before the third goal wrapped up the points. With a bit of luck the Newcastle scouts were watching as Miller, perhaps distracted by the attentions of a couple of forwards, fumbled a fairly harmless shot from the right wing and it ended up in the net.

After that, we ran out of steam completely and were a little fortunate to keep the score at three. A couple of shots missed the target and a header was glanced wide before the final whistle put us out of our misery.

If the result is bad, then losing Phillips is even worse. With David Connolly and Wayne Andrews as our only available strikers, the prospects don't look particularly good - both Ramage and Mooney tend to end up playing support roles rather than leading the line. The old striker problem is returning to haunt us yet again.

Ultimately, errors cost us this game. The refereeing decisions certainly made matters worse but we'd do better to look at our own mistakes if we're to progress from here - you can't do anything about officials, you can rectify poor defending. It may be that this is a one-off, that our usually resolute back four will regain their composure for the visit of Chesterfield on Thursday - let's hope so because we can't rely on scoring many goals to get the points we need.


Having frantically hedged my bets when writing my Wrexham report yesterday, I'd better jump off the fence and, after seeing a TV replay, offer my opinions of the two key refereeing decisions.

I have to say that I think the referee got it right in both cases. I certainly didn't see it that way at the time but general despair and tiredness might've got the better of me as I stood on that terrace watching our playoff hopes fading away.

Gary Bennett's over-reaction to Kevin Miller's challenge doesn't alter the fact that it was a clear penalty. Bennett flicked the ball out towards the corner flag just milliseconds before being up-ended by the advancing keeper and my only argument would be with the decision to book Miller for the foul.

As for the sending off, we can't feel too aggrieved about that either. While I don't think the Wrexham player is entirely free of blame, Kevin Phillips jumped in two-footed and went over the top of the ball. It's all very well for Watford fans to go on about Phillips being an angel but, if that had been a tackle on one of our players, we'd have been screaming for his blood. It might not have been intentional but it doesn't have to be intentional to end someone's career. Anyway, Phillips wasn't involved in the subsequent kerfuffle so there's no doubt that he was dismissed for the challenge.

That's an honest assessment of the two incidents. Having criticised the defence for two of the goals, I wouldn't exactly be full of praise for the penalty fiasco either - Keith Millen made a hash of dealing with a through-ball, Kevin Miller was foolish to steam out of his goal like that - so we really ought to forget about the referee and look at ourselves a little more.

Looking ominous
Report by John Hargreaves

I turned up at the game along with some list members expecting a tight fought draw. No such chance. The first half was a pretty dire affair with neither side really getting hold of the game. Late on in the first half, Bennett got the ball and ran into the penalty area. Miller came out and Bennett went down under the challenge. My initial view was that it wasn't a penalty and, when I watched the incident again on Welsh TV, even the Welsh commentators thought it was a harsh decision! Karl Connolly stepped up and chipped the ball into the centre of the goal. 1-0. Great!

Slack defending lead to the second goal. The ball was played across the area, the ball was left and Connolly just had to tap it in. Barely had I time to breathe and Slater got the ball played to him on the right, he skilfully weaved his way through 3 defenders, slotted the ball across to Ramage who calmly stroked the ball home. 2-1 at half-time. Hope at last!

We dominated most of the second-half without really creating that many chances. Ramage had a great opportunity to score but he fluffed his shot and Mooney stretched to reach the ball and hit it over the bar. Wrexham didn't manage to create anything until the 79th minute. From about 18 yards, a Wrexham player hit a shot which should have been easy for Miller, but he diverted it into the corner of the net. After that we weren't going to come back and Wrexham had the best of the remaining exchanges.

There were two amusing notes in the second-half. One was when the linesman signalled for a Wrexham throw and dropped his flag, and the second was the announcement of the attendance, a paltry 3,400. The turn-out from Watford fans was good though.

We deserved at least a point. However, it was sloppy defending that let us down. Realistically, we must win our two home games and draw against Burnley, yet looking at Bristol City's games we might have to beat Burnley. And now Wrexham are back in the hunt too.

It all looks a bit ominous to me.