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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 20/12/97
AFC Bournemouth 0(0)
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Gibbs 3, Kennedy 3, *Page 4*, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 4, Hyde 4, Lee 3, Johnson 4, Robinson 3
Subs: Lowndes, Easton, Palmer
Scorers: Kennedy (57)
No excuses
Report by Ian Grant

As someone with a rather sizeable soft spot for AFC Bournemouth - emotional attachment aside, I'd argue that the future of lower division football can only lie in returning clubs to their fans - I'm pleased to report that the Cherries appear to be in fine health, both on and off the pitch. It's early days, of course, but Trevor Watkins' programme notes have a positive, dynamic air to them - how many chairmen would let the word 'community' pass their lips without reaching for the mouthwash?

Meanwhile, we seem unstoppable. If the measure of a successful side is surviving the difficult periods then we're shaping up very nicely. You can quibble about some of the performances (or you can just foam at the mouth and rant incoherently, as I did on Tuesday), you can't argue with the results. We'd have settled for draws against Wrexham and Bristol City, we eventually got it right against Torquay, the sole defeat at Fulham neatly avoided having to waste any more energy than absolutely necessary on the AWS.

And now we're back to winning ways. Gifton Noel-Williams' dramatic return to form removes the need to experiment with playing Tommy Mooney up front, while shifting Peter Kennedy into the floating role behind the strikers means we have no reason to look for excuses while Ronny Rosenthal's absent. For me, this game represented Watford settling down to business once more. I hope it's a sign of what's to come after Christmas.

From the start, there seemed to be a clear statement of intent. Whether it had anything to do with making amends for Tuesday or whether Graham Taylor just came up with a particularly potent team-talk, we went at Bournemouth with the controlled aggression that has marked all our best performances. Within the opening minutes, Noel-Williams had gone close and Mooney had smacked a long-range drive into the keeper's hands.

That set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Compared to the dross that the Second Division usually serves up, this was a fine, fine game. While the pace never relented, the quality of the football didn't seem to suffer and the action swung from end to end with frequently alarming rapidity.

Twice there were mad scrambles in the Bournemouth penalty area as the excitement levels refused to drop after that storming opening. First, the Cherries' keeper dropped the ball when collecting a cross, then a lovely series of Watford passes opened up the defence and created another good opening.

But it was Bournemouth who went closest in the first half. The referee, who ruined a generally sound game with one or two moments of insanity, awarded a dubious free kick on the edge of the Watford box. He then forced the home side to take the kick at least five yards away from the place where the offence had been committed - they could've had a shot from the original position, instead they could only play in a cross. Keith Millen's slip gave a striker a clear sight of goal but his shot was pushed wide by a tremendous Alec Chamberlain save. From the resulting corner, Chamberlain was again called into action, getting down low to stop another goalbound effort.

The referee's real moment of lunacy came a few minutes later. Watford broke down the right and the cross was eventually forced home by Richard Johnson - yet the referee, offering a rather unique interpretation of the advantage rule, pulled play back for a foul on a Watford player. It wasn't even as if everyone else had stopped for the free kick - he could've quite easily played on and allowed the goal to stand.

The half ended with Watford fading and Bournemouth beginning to get a grip on the game. Ironically, the troubles at Dean Court seemed to have galvanised the team in recent months. It's remarkable what you can achieve with a bit of young talent and a lot of togetherness - someone should tell Kev 'n' Ray.... So only some robust tackling from the likes of Robert Page (at his powerful, unbeatable best) prevented a Bournemouth opener in the last fifteen minutes of the first half.

The stage was set for a real belter of a second half. Only the absence of more goals prevented this from becoming one of the most memorable matches of the season - and, in truth, it's difficult to work out exactly how there weren't more goals. Such was the riotous nature of the entertainment on offer that either side could make a reasonable case for deserving the win - but we've emerged victorious from such games so consistently this season that luck can only have a minor part to play.

I'm going to have to be unfair to Bournemouth from here on. As the December gloom descended on Dean Court, it became increasingly difficult to work out what the hell was going on at the other end of the pitch - something that was probably of benefit to Hornets of a nervous disposition. So I can tell you that a Bournemouth striker sent a looping header straight at Chamberlain early in the half. But I can't really tell you what the hell happened when another striker managed to prod a left-footed shot wide of the post when it seemed easier to score - mind you, I'm not sure that he'd be able to tell you what happened either....

But it was Watford who took the lead. We won a free kick on the edge of the box and, as the away fans chanted his name, Peter Kennedy stepped up to curl a shot around the wall and into the net. Not his best, but the keeper moved across too late and the sheer pace of the cleanly-struck shot took it past him.

That prompted several minutes of worrying Bournemouth pressure as the home side attacked with real purpose, using width to fine effect. Again, I'm struggling to pick details out of the distant murk but I know that they came closest when a corner was flicked onto the top of the crossbar.

At the other end, Richard Johnson missed the best chance of the afternoon, shooting wide after making a determined run into the box as the ball ran loose. We also had another goal disallowed, this time for offside against Jason Lee as he planted a diving header into the net.

Thrills 'n' spills came thick 'n' fast as full time approached. Paul Robinson was booked for clattering a Bournemouth player in full flight, Micah Hyde went on a strong run and saw his final shot blocked by the keeper, Noel-Williams fired across the face of goal. It was excellent, invigorating stuff.

There were many positive things for Watford fans to think about on the journey home. Aside from the greater confidence gained through a more familiar tactical approach - the formation of the side enabled each player to fulfil a natural role - and fine performances from the usual suspects (Johnson, Noel-Williams, Chamberlain, Page), there was the return of Micah Hyde to his industrious best. While Johnson did the grafting, Hyde was always present to link up our approach play, full of lively passes and intelligent runs. Aided by an awesome second half display from Noel-Williams (worthy of Bruce Dyer at his best - and that's a real compliment), Hyde provided much of our attacking impetus.

The similarities with the win at Northampton are unavoidable. Just as at Sixfields, we responded to a formidable test by refusing to look for excuses. It would've been easy to have slipped to a defeat and blamed the absence of Rosenthal, tiredness after Tuesday's extra time, the general downturn in some players' form. But this Watford side is stronger than that.

Watford are back...

A hard earned victory
Report by Chris Lawton

There is something strange about going to Bournemouth. Like most grounds it is stuck in the middle of a suburbia and yet instead of the endless rows of terraced houses there are little mansions and tree lined roads. It is strange with so much local wealth that they nearly went to the wall last season. Enough musing on the character of Bournemouth and on with the match.

It was not a classic but at the same time there was non-stop action. The fact that I only looked at my watch twice in each half is good testimony to this. The lads battled from the outset and although Kennedy faded a bit towards the end the players did not seem to have been adversely effected by Tuesday night's encounter.

The first half ebbed and flowed with Watford having the first 15 minutes then Bournemouth and then a strong Watford finish to the half. We could have scored as early as the first minute when a low hard shot was sent whizzing past the post and had several other close chances notably a well parried shot the rebound from which Gifton tried to volley in whilst the ball was 6ft in the air.

Bournemouth gradually worked their way into the game and could have taken the lead when Watford failed to properly clear a free kick. Some would say it wasn't a free kick in the first place but as the ball came back in Chamberlain made a great diving save to push the ball away for a corner. Two minutes later an almost identical shot had the same result.

Bournemouth seemed content to run at Watford and this seemed to unsettle some of our players. Page and Gibbs were, however, magnificent. Both out in crunching last ditch tackles with great perfection to clear the ball as the home fans howled for a penalty.

Watford were forced to hit on the counter attack but this had the desired effect of pushing Bounemouth back as Gifton was proving a handful. From one such break the ball was knocked in low by Gibbs (I think - it was a long way off) and as the ball was half cleared Johnno smashed it home only for the referee to disallow the goal and give us a free kick for a foul on Gibbs as he crossed the ball. It was a strange decision and did nothing to endear the referee to the fans.

Half time came and more and I was reminded of the game down at Plymouth earlier in the season. The team were playing within themselves and yet were struggling to break down a solid well organised defensive unit who could hit on the break.

The second half start with a concerted effort by Watford to break the deadlock. The height and strength of Gifton meant he was able to hold the ball up well and several swift interchanges had resulted in a couple of Johnno efforts and a couple of corners. The breakthrough came on 57 minutes in a manner remarkably similar to Plymouth. A free kick was awarded on the left edge of the D (as we saw it) for a nothing sort of a challenge on Jason Lee. Kennedy stepped up curled the ball up and over the wall and goalward. The keeper suddenly realised what was going on and dived across but alas could only help the ball into the back of the net. Cue madness on the terrace. It is a shame terraces are virtually gone now because for 30 seconds or so the place went crazy as people leapt around in sheer delight. The lads had got their deserved reward.

The rest of the half was spent battling out the remaining time. Bournemouth hit the crossbar with a looping header from a corner but Jason had a great headed goal disallowed for offside and Gifton seemed to turn a defenders goalbound deflection wide of the post. In a tense few final few minutes Bournemouth might have scored but that would have been unfair on Watford who fought solidly for 90 minutes.

Recent criticisms may have been justified but today I though ths lads played within themselves at times. We may not have the killer instinct that was evident at the start of the season but we are creating chances. Chamberlain was sound and made a couple of fine blocks and marshalled the defence well. Page was sheer quality and my man of the match. He read the game superbly all afternoon, didn't make a single error and hardly a bad pass. I wonder how much longer we can keep him for. Gifton also played well. His ball control is great and he has the strength and confidence again. All I would say is that he lacks pace. Jason Lee played about average. He has the talent but clearly is lacking confidence. He could learn from Gifton who ran hard all afternoon trying to make things happen rather than to wait for it.

18 points clear of 3rd - 15 if Millwall win their game in hand. The battle is not for promotion but can we hold off Bristol City to win the league. It will be a close run thing but if the team plays with the passion of today then the championship is ours to lose.

Have a good Christmas everyone and roll on 1998.