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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 9/8/97
Watford 1(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 3, *Kennedy 5*, Page 4, Millen 4, Mooney 4, Noel-Williams 4, Hyde 5, Lee 5, Johnson 3, Slater 4
Subs: Palmer, Talboys, Thomas
Scorers: Lee (30)
Burnley 0(0)
Raw materials
Report by Ian Grant

You'll have to forgive me if I continue to sound a little cynical. That's simply because I doubt very much whether there's been a year during the last decade during which we haven't been told that "there's a real buzz at this club" - too many false dawns lend a certain tired perspective to each season's fresh hopes. And Saturday's return of Glenn Roeder, architect of the last false dawn, to Vicarage Road provided an uncomfortable reminder of previously wasted opportunities.

As it stands, what we have at Watford is one great big mess of activity, in itself a more than welcome change after ten years of stagnation. We don't yet know what form the club is going to take in the future - it's all just guesswork and, as a result, I'm wary of drawing too many conclusions from current events.

Off the pitch, Saturday's entertainment extravaganza was a little too close to Butlin's for comfort. There's a thin line between encouraging people to have fun and grabbing them by the throats screaming "ENJOY YOURSELF, FOR GOD'S SAKE" in their faces. Oh, and you can't have a Mexican wave in a half-empty stadium. But let's be forgiving - it makes a pleasant enough change for a football club to notice that the fans exist, after all.

Much the same applies to the game of football - a great deal of hectic activity, even in ridiculous temperatures, without any particular sense of direction. This was a match of many good (and a few excellent) individual performances, not a game that offered vital insights into our future - chaotic but fun, essentially. If we play like that all season, most of our fans will have been reduced to dribbling lunatics by May - but, with so many new players and a 'new' manager, it's only to be expected that we'll take some time bringing everything together into a cohesive whole.

The season began at a ludicrous pace, with Mooney making an error within the first ten seconds that put us on the back foot from the start. Burnley pressed forward for several minutes but had little to show for their efforts - a sublime pass by Chris Waddle, hit with the outside of his boot so that it rolled into a striker's feet like an obedient labrador, was their finest moment.

Gradually we recovered some of our composure, with Gifton Noel-Williams twisting and turning to fire in our first shot on target. Stuart Slater fired wide after a typically incisive run before the game settled down into a pattern more suited to the stifling heat. Referee Paul Danson was doing us few favours, appearing to penalise any bodily contact between players to the point where the game deteriorated into a succession of free kicks.

Surprising, then, that there was no whistle as Burnley whipped in a corner, Alec Chamberlain was flattened and Keith Millen was forced into a desperate header to clear the ball away from a forward who seemed certain to score. Perhaps less surprising that, after abuse from the crowd and various Watford players, a free kick was awarded at the subsequent corner, despite there being no offence committed...

The Watford goal came from nowhere, a sudden explosion of frantic attacking after a period of fairly non-descript play. Micah Hyde, hugely impressive both as an attacking force and a physical presence in the midfield, was responsible for starting it - he ran at the Burnley defence, broke into the area and hit a low shot that was saved at full stretch by the Burnley keeper. A second attempt from the rebound was blocked before the ball found its way out to Tommy Mooney on the left wing. His cross found Jason Lee stealing in at the far post to bury a header.

We were unfortunate not to add a second before half-time - this time it was Peter Kennedy who supplied the cross and Lee, again unmarked after running from deep, dived to head powerfully towards goal. The keeper pulled off a fine save and Noel-Williams' attempt at an overhead kick was blocked.

The second half was no less eventful. Our eagerness to seal victory with a second goal led to some fairly suicidal attacking - Kennedy, in particular, was playing so far forward he was far more of an out-and-out winger than a wing-back - and Burnley enjoyed some good chances.

A couple of shots at Chamberlain early on provided a warning before Robert Page was involved the most controversial incident of the match. Stuart Slater went on one of his joyous runs, skipping past defenders on the way to the penalty area, before he was tripped. The referee waved play on, to howls of anguish from the Vic Road end. Burnley broke, putting one of their strikers in the clear with Page in pursuit - the Welshman clearly pulled the forward back before robbing him of the ball. Since free kicks were awarded for the most puny tussles, it seems fairly apparent that Mr Danson bottled it when presented with a red card offence. Hell, I'm not complaining.

At the home end, we were still full of attacking. Tommy Mooney saw a header brilliantly saved (one moment, there was nothing between the ball and the roof of the net; the next, there was a hand in the way); Slater had a shot after yet another dribbling session that was blocked by a defender's hand (no penalty, obviously); Lee produced a superb bit of skill to beat the last defender before the ball was smothered by the advancing keeper; Richard Johnson blasted in a shot that was deflected wide when it seemed destined to take the keeper's head off. Phew.

By half past four, it appeared that we'd run out of steam. The midfield of Hyde and Johnson, which had worked so hard to win the ball back and use it wisely, seemed unable to prevent Burnley from gaining the upper hand. Chamberlain had to make a good save at his near post, before dithering on his line as a corner was floated in and headed wide. In the end, we did the only sensible thing - someone flattened a couple of Burnley players and we re-organised while they were receiving treatment. It worked - anxious though the last few minutes were, we didn't lose control.

As in the first half, we should've scored a second goal at the end. Again it was Hyde, bursting through the defence and thumping an effort against the bar with only the keeper to beat. Noel-Williams controlled the rebound and intelligently went across goal with his effort as all and sundry scrambled in the other direction. The ball was going in but ended up at Hyde's feet - from less than a yard out, he scored but was obviously offside. To be honest, I'd be more than slightly distrustful of any professional footballer who'd pass up the opportunity of scoring his debut goal in front of the home fans. And I'd be very distrustful of a player whose instinctive reaction in the six yard box was to let the ball roll by.

It's abundantly clear that we're not going to be a defensive side this season, even if that means heart-attacks all round to replace last term's collective coma. It'll take a little while to get used to (and we ought to improve with time - presumably, Robert Page and Keith Millen have yet to overcome the shock of playing alongside Tommy "I'll be in goal next" Mooney) but we all know that watching a side that charges forward with enthusiastic abandon is likely to be a whole lot of fun.

Even without a discernable team performance, there's so much to be positive about. At last we have real competition for places (just draw up a list of the players left out for this match), at last we have some players to fill the gaping holes in the squad.

Impressive though Hyde and Kennedy were, I should point out that I bowed to public pressure over the 'man of the match' award. There was only one player in it for me - Jason Lee. Over the last two or three seasons, we've seen several great performances by creative midfielders and left wingers. But it's been years since we've seen a centre forward display of such magnitude. He showed more than strength and enthusiasm - there was genuine skill, real talent that instantly proved his potential at Watford Football Club. Moreover, his presence gave Gifton Noel-Williams a chance to shine by freeing him of responsibility and letting him be himself. Jason Lee was not merely great on Saturday, Jason Lee was class.

So there you go. No finished product yet, just a lot of good-looking raw materials to work with. Exciting, innit!

Something missing
Report by Nick Grundy

Believe it or not, there was something missing from Saturday's game. It started worrying me midway through the first half, after we went a goal up, and it took until quite a long way into the second for me to realise what it was.

I wasn't spending every second of the game worrying about how and when Burnley were going to equalise. This was rather strange - I kept wondering when we were going to stop playing football and go into "all-out retreat, see how much pressure we can soak up before we concede a goal due to having no attacking options" mode as we did last season, but we seem to have had a slight change of policy. Having scored, we carried on playing as we had been up to that point. Revolutionary, I know.

The way we'd been playing up to that point was pretty impressive, too. Burnley started brightly if unthreateningly - they were in our half for the first few minutes - but after that we - well, I suppose we controlled the game to a certain extent. (I know, I'm still coming to terms with it myself) It wasn't perfect - not by a long shot: we looked prone to being caught on the break a couple of times, and now and again Kennedy got caught a little too far forward for his wing-back role, but most of these problems looked like the sort that will get ironed out as the players get used to the system.

"The system" was, I think, 5-3-2: Chamberlain in goal, Gibbs and Kennedy as wing-backs, Mooney, Page and Millen across the middle of defence, Hyde, Johnson and Slater in midfield and Lee and Noel-Williams up front. I was, I confess, a little apprehensive about two areas of this team: Mooney at centre half and Gibbs at wing-back. I was, and still am a member of the "Mooney can play left back" camp, but after Saturday's game I was forced to join the "Mooney can play absolutely bloody anywhere" camp. No, he wasn't perfect defensively, but his passing out of defence was at times little short of astonishing. Every time he got the ball he'd whack it upfield, often switching play in the process, and pick out Lee, GNW or Slater, and this created our first real chance of the game, when Tommy dispossessed one of the Burnley players about ten yards into our half, and unleashed a massive ball over the top which Slater ran onto. Alas, as he brought it down a defender got across to block his shot, but it was an example of the long pass working extremely well. Of course, he may have been just hoofing it clear and got lucky, but if this was the case he did an awful lot of times.

So Mooney was good as a centre back. Gibbs was okay at right back too. Yes, we all know he's not the most creative of players, but he's as defensively sound as you'll find in this division, and his lack of creativity was offset by his willingness to push up a little way and provide a passing option for the midfield, and by Slater's positioning on the right of the midfield.

Anyway, the game. First half, Micah Hyde was very, very good. He showed very good touch - a first-time flick to Johnno off a high clearance a few yards outside the Burnley box sticks in the mind - quick feet and strong running with the ball. And he set up our first goal. The phrase I'm looking for (I'd sit down, those of you who watched too many games last season) is "creative central midfielder". The goal came from his picking up the ball in the middle of the field, taking it forward and into the Burnley area, and unleashing a low left-footed shot which Beresford (their 'keeper) could only block. It fell to Stuart Slater, whose effort was cleared off the line, and then that clearance fell to someone I thought was Kennedy, but who may have been Mooney, who put in an excellent cross to the back post for Jason Lee to plant a firm header past Beresford for a debut goal. Cue delirium in the stands.

I don't really see the point in rambling on for too much longer - Burnley were quite crap (and, as someone on the mailing list pointed out, quite like us last season), and we were quite good. The new signings all played well: Lee is quite clearly "Striker A" ('nuff said), Hyde, while he drifted out of the game a bit in a creative sense in the second half, made up for it with an excellent workrate and an ability to win the ball in the tackle rather than merely spoil it for the opposition, and Kennedy, once he sorted out when to go forward and when to stay back, looked strong, skillful and a great crosser of the ball.

However, this win was as much down to the players we already had as the new ones: Johnno looked every bit as good as he did last season, and was desperately unlucky not to score when Lee headed a GNW cross back across goal, and also about three inches over a completely unmarked Johnno's head. Gifton was excellent: he looks about three times as strong as last season, he held the ball up, and generally looked dangerous. He was even more unlucky than Johnno not to score: another Hyde run second half ended in a shot which came back off the bar to Gifton about eight yards out. He brought it down and coolly fired it past Beresford, but Hyde, who'd followed his own chip in, stopped it about a yard out and tapped it in himself. He was, obviously, a long way offside. Gifton looked very (and justifiably) pissed off.

Anyway, I said I wasn't going to ramble. This was without a doubt as good as anything I saw last season at the Vic (except Bury at home, and that's different!), and we played well for longer than 20 minutes a game. It wasn't perfect - there are a number of problems defensively - but they look like the sort that a bit of tinkering from GT and some match practice can sort out, and it looks like we now have got a formation that works going forward as well as back and the players to win with it.

Here's hoping!