|Nationwide League Division Two, 20/9/97|
|Butters 36, Butler 58|
|Rosenthal (pen) 50, Johnson 72|
|Team: *Chamberlain 5*, Melvang 2, Kennedy 2, Page 3, Palmer 3, Pluck 3, Noel-Williams 4, Hyde 3, Lee 3, Johnson 4, Rosenthal 4|
|Subs: Slater (for Melvang) 4, Gibbs (for Pluck) 4, Easton|
In a season crammed full of joyful moments, one more for the list of fond memories. Anyone who's visited these pages regularly over recent months will know of my boundless admiration for Richard Johnson, a player who's sweated blood and oozed class for Watford since the end of last season. So there will be few more heart-warming scenes than this - a terrace of fans belting out "Johnno, there's only one Johnno" as our hero, wearing a smile so wide he's probably done himself an injury, is hugged by his team-mates. At f***ing last.
A wonderful end to an afternoon that frequently threatened to collapse into dreadful defeat. In the context of the game - twice behind, reduced to ten men for the final half hour, opponents capable of shredding our defence with swift counter-attacks - the draw feels every bit as satisfying as a victory.
We would've lost this match last season. In fact, we did lose this match last season - in comparison with that execrable surrender, the pattern of play was remarkably similar, with the home side soaking up ineffective Watford pressure and doing great damage on the break. But the changes since March were apparent in a rousing last twenty minutes that saw the Hornets come back from behind with some attacking of quite devastating quality.
Aside from a shot at the keeper from Peter Kennedy, it took twenty-five minutes for any action worth wasting words on to arrive. Prior to that first flurry of goalmouth action, the football had been toothless - Watford were particularly guilty of wasting possession with dreadful crossing and set pieces (hence Kennedy's low mark - if I'm going to slag off Darren Bazeley for crossing like an arse, I don't really see why anyone else should be exempt from similar criticism).
Then, without warning, the game woke up, rubbed the sleep out of its eyes, ate its Coco Pops and opened the front door to greet the world. What followed was invigorating, nerve-wracking and thoroughly entertaining. Gillingham worked out that they could out-pace our midfield and broke through twice in quick succession, firing wide of Alec Chamberlain's goal on both occasions. At the other end, Peter Kennedy drove a goal-bound shot into Jason Lee's midriff and Ronny Rosenthal dived to direct a header narrowly past the post.
Gillingham managed to miss another good chance - the ball being poked past the post from a corner - before opening the scoring. A free kick was swung into the box and an unmarked player headed past Chamberlain. With Steve Butler foiled by the Watford keeper when running through just before half-time, there was little cause for optimism at half-time. We'd managed to work our way into some good positions but wasted them with poor final balls - a lack of intelligence was undermining our attacking, since Jason Lee and Gifton Noel-Williams were finding little success in aerial battles with the big Gillingham central defenders and our high, hanging crosses just played into the home side's hands. Equally, it seemed unlikely that we'd survive another forty-five minutes without Gillingham scoring again.
The second half was a riotous affair, begun by a Watford equaliser created entirely by Rosenthal's willingness to take on defenders. He beat his man on the left wing and was tripped as he ran into the box - from our angle, it was impossible to tell that he'd gone down inside the area and it took some time to work out that the referee had awarded a penalty. In true clichéd fashion, he picked himself up to score from the spot.
But we still couldn't contain Gillingham. Within seconds of the re-start, Chamberlain had pulled off a miraculous block to deny a close-range shot and he had to tip over a powerful drive not long afterwards. The goal had a certain inevitability about it - a pacy break down the right wing after a Watford move had broken down, with a cross into Butler for a simple finish.
Jason Lee's dismissal, a second booking for using an elbow in an aerial challenge appeared likely to send us to a fairly depressing defeat. To be honest, it's fairly irrelevant whether there was any malicious intent as Lee jumped - if your elbow hits another player in the face, you're always going to get booked. That's worrying, since this is a player who tends to go for headers with limbs flailing.
For another five minutes, we were absolutely slaughtered. Gillingham seemed able to carve their way at will through our increasingly flimsy defence - only a magnificent saving tackle from Steve Palmer stopped another break resulting in a goal. With a depleted attack, there seemed little prospect of a Watford equaliser.
The arrival of Stuart Slater changed all that. Brought on with Nigel Gibbs, who was equally praiseworthy in plugging the defensive leaks, Slater spent twenty minutes running Gillingham ragged on the right wing. For the first time in the match, we looked genuinely dangerous - hopeless, floated crosses were replaced by the dynamic skills of a winger in full flight - and Gillingham looked genuinely worried.
The chances started coming. Richard Johnson slammed in a low drive from the edge of the box that was superbly saved by the keeper; Slater cut in from the wing and curled a stunning shot that smacked against the bar. And then, the most memorable moment of the match. Johnson received the ball in his traditional shooting position (central, a few yards outside the area) and let fly. From what I saw of it (which wasn't a lot, admittedly), it was a goal that would've graced 'Roy of the Rovers', hit with monstrous power and swinging away from the helpless keeper into the top corner. At this rate, the list of 'goal of the season' candidates is going to be very long indeed...
Just as we were no longer hanging on at the back, so we were full of ideas and invention up front. In that respect, Lee's red card was a bizarre turning point - in robbing us of a target man, it forced us to try our luck on the ground with far more productive results. And we should've snatched all the points at the end as Rosenthal weaved his way brilliantly through the entire Gillingham defence before slicing his shot over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
A fabulous comeback, then. Equally, an indication that we have to use a bit of tactical nous - the Slater substitution was absolutely inspired (as was Slater himself) and the resulting play, all neat passes and running at petrified defenders (on one occasion, Gifton Noel-Williams went on a run down the wing while attempting to put his boot back on - nobody challenged him), brought us back into the game when we were being well beaten. There are times when when we have to impose our quality, just as there are times when we have to roll our sleeves up - we've just got to make sure that we know which is which.
Well, in the end both sides were robbed, Gillingham by the scoreline, and Watford by the ref. Any 50:50 ball, and anything up to 80:20 in favour of Watford was given as a foul to Gillingham. I lost count of how many undeserved free kicks Gillingham had, particularly in the first half.
Watford did not have a good first half. Gillingham chased the ball hard, not allowing the Watford players any time to settle. Several times one of their centre forwards just ran away from the covering Watford defenders. With this amount of possession Gillingham should really have taken the lead before they did. Slack marking at a corner left one of their centre backs free to power a header into the net. Shortly after their number 9 should have put them 2-0 up when through one-on-one with the 'keeper, but Chamberlain saved very well. Watford were still all over the place in midfield, and must have been glad when the half-time whistle went.
Taylor must have said something at half time because the second half started really well. Watford had a chance almost from the restart, Rosenthal going through about four Gillingham players and shooting wide. Rosenthal was clearly up for it now, and Watford were awarded a penalty when the Israeli was brought down just inside the area. Rosenthal stepped up and hit the ball high into the net for the equaliser (and no, I don't mean Edward Woodward).
The Watford midfield had started to chase now, but still the threat came from Gillingham's very fast centre forward. Several times again he got through. Eventually the pressure told and Gillingham got their second, a tap-in at the far post after another powerful run by the number 11.
Then my hero Jason Lee (old Forest boy, what do you expect?) was sent off for his second "bookable" offence. Elbowing. If you ever see Jason Lee jump you know he is completely ungainly and his arms and legs flail around like Faustino Asprilla's. No way was it intentional.
As often happens with being down to ten men, those ten men start to chase and play better. Off came Melvang (who looked a bit out of touch) and Pluck and on came Slater and Gibbs. Slater's immediate impression questioned the wisdom of having him on the bench. He began darting past defenders, and hit the bar with a beauty. Then Johnson began to find his range, and had an effort tipped over the bar. Then after a corner the ball fell to the same man, and from about 20 yards he let go with one of his specials. The keeper never saw it before it nestled in the top right hand corner.
The last 20 minutes flew by, and in the dying seconds Rosenthal should perhaps have snatched the winner after a run took him through to the goalie, but he hit his shot over the bar.
Chamberlain - produced some stunning saves, kept Watford in the game, especially in the first half. 8/10.
Pluck - looked as though he had an assured touch, but not yet ready for football at this level. A good debut nevertheless. 6/10.
Page - One outstanding tackle on their answer to Marc Overmars to deny him, plus much covering back. 7/10.
Palmer - Solid, but without anything outstanding to remember. 6/10.
Melvang - Out jumped all the time, and beaten all too often in the tackle. I think he plays better with Slater in front of him. 5/10.
Kennedy - A good attacking display from the wing-back. Does need to work on his corners, because time after time they were overhit. 7/10.
Hyde - First half, where was he? Second half much tighter. 6/10.
Johnson - Again, rather a shadow in the first half. Made up for that with his stunning equaliser. 7/10.
Rosenthal - Ran about lots, made several chances for himself and for others. Looks a great asset to the club in this division. 7/10.
Lee - Not a great display from Pineapple Head. Did his best to get on the end of crosses, but was penalised too often by the fussy ref and linesman. Harsh sending off. 6/10.
Noel-Williams - Tried hard, and looked quite tired near the end. Hadn't had much luck all game. 6/10.
Ref - Needs glasses and a read of the laws of football. 4/10.
Crowd - Gillingham fans are obviously deaf. Singing "Can you hear the Watford sing" when Watford hadn't stopped since before kick off was pretty stupid. Nor do they have any songs of their own. All the passion of last season's Leeds side (And about as pretty to look at - Ed).
Well, there are a number of words that you could use to describe this game, but none of them is boring. You could call it "ill-tempered" (hackspeak for "violent"), "scrappy" (generally "terribly refereed" or "both sides deficient in skill"), "end-to-end stuff" (both defences were crap) or even "thrilling". But dull it certainly wasn't, and given that I was one of the unfortunates who attended our home game against them last season (yes, I'm sure the away game was worse, but at least something happened in that one), I think it's fair to say that for this We Must Be Thankful.
We started with two changes from Tuesday's team: Mooney was (presumably) rested, which allowed our former youth skipper Colin Pluck to make his first team debut in his place, and Lars Melvang came back in for Nigel Gibbs. Interestingly, Pluck looked the more competent of the two, as Melvang had a defensive nightmare. This was largely due to Gillingham's - ahem - enterprising approach to the game, which involved a large amount of skulduggery in defense and midfield, and a three man attack. Of course, they were never going to kick a midfield containing R. Johnson out of the game, but their three forwards did cause us problems, largely because two of them played as wide as they could. This meant that our centre halves were pulled all over the place, and Gillingham had a host of chances in the first half because of this. They only scored once, after Guy Butters had clambered onto Pluck's shoulders (probably) to head home a corner, but Chamberlain was forced to make a superb stop after Butler had been given a clear run on goal. They also had two or three excellent chances wasted by - I think Akinbiyi, but it could have been Ndah - who twice broke down the conspicuously Melvang-free right and outpaced the defence. Each time he fired a couple of feet wide.
At half time, then, although we had had chances ourselves, we were fortunate to be just one goal behind, and it was only Chamberlain's excellence which had prevented two or three going in. We did, however, have the comfort of being able to sing "2-0, to the Wrexham" midway through the half after some bloke with a radio in front of me told us the score there. There were some smashin' chants being used on the pack of dribbling inbreeds who presumably constituted the Gillingham faithful next to us; while I did meet a couple of normal (and even pleasant) fans at the station afterwards, there was a lot of aggro pre- and during the match. The stuff during the game was largely due to the frankly pathetic segregation of home and away fans - between us and them there were two fences about six feet high, a covered mesh walkway, and not enough distance to stop the Gillingham fans being able to throw large pieces of terracing at us. Fortunately, we had far better songs, most of which involved questioning the legality of their family tree, and Cameron to pull monkey faces at them, which didn't best please them. A couple of them even got thrown out second half, which was good.
Anyway, the second half. We started well enough, although doubts over the back line continued, but our forwards began to cause the Gills defence some problems of their own. These culminated in a trip on Ronny Rosenthal somewhere towards the edge of the box - I've no idea where exactly it was, but the (pathetic) referee gave it as a penalty, and Ronny despatched it into the top right hand corner. This upset the Gillingham fans enormously, and irritatingly their team equalised shortly afterwards when Akinbiyi outpaced Pluck down the left and crossed for the unmarked Butler to tap home. Then Jason Lee was sent off.
Having roundly abused the Gillingham support, I now feel obliged to do the same to the referee, who was the sort of miserable, ineffectual, megalomaniac arsehole who gave out cards like yellow was going out of fashion (as if...) Two of these bookings were dished out to Jase, both (as far as I could tell) because he was big and black, and therefore incapable of winning the ball in the air without fouling someone. Lee got booked for two utterly innocuous challenges: in, I think, the second instance the linesman, who was right next to the challenge, didn't even twitch his flag. Then, when the ref blew, the linesman showed enormous courage in completely failing to offer his point of view, which had after all been at least three times closer than the ref's: all GT's protestations and our screaming to him were to no avail.
At this juncture, things looked decidedly shaky - in defence we were struggling at best, two of the best performers of the first half (Kennedy and Rosenthal) were struggling, and we were down to ten men. GT obviously decided that the best thing to do under the circumstances was to bring on an extra defender and try to sneak a goal on the break. No, only kidding. He actually replaced Melvang with Gibbs and Pluck with Slater, clearly reasoning that we were looking so bad in defence that one fewer player there wouldn't hurt, and that we might as well try to go out in style.
And did it paid off beautifully. Slater was electrifying - minutes after he came on he was cutting inside two or three defenders and sending a wonderful curling drive off the crossbar, and, simply by staying in space and offering the defenders someone to clear towards, he helped enormously there too. His crossing was intelligent - figuring that without Lee we were going to struggle in the air he tried a few low crosses, and his general awareness of the situation helped more than anything. I think it was his pass that Johnno picked up just outside the box and smashed towards goal: he was enormously unlucky to see it deflect off a defender and from there off the chest of the comprehensively beaten goalkeeper to loop over the bar. Shortly after that, though, his excellent display paid off.
It was actually quite symbolic that, in a game like that, Richard Johnson should score the equaliser. He was constantly covering for people in defence, constantly shuttling from box to box and using the ball well, and he was one of the main reasons Hessenthaler had relatively little influence. The goal, though, wasn't about tackling or workrate, it was about heart. Not just Johnson's, but the whole side's - with ten men at 2-1 down away from home you had to expect to lose, but the grit and determination they showed was epitomised in Johnno's reaction after he'd picked up a half-cleared corner just outside the box and lashed it into the top right hand corner of the goal. Normally when he scores he celebrates with the players; this time he ran towards the fans, arms outstretched and fists clenched. And once we'd stopped jumping up and down and jeering at the Gillingham fans, someone found A Song For Johnno, which we all bellowed out at him. To be honest, it's long overdue.
We could have won, too, although I'm not sure if we deserved to over the ninety minutes. Slater, turning his fullback beautifully, carried the ball into the box, played it in behind the defender and was floored by a tackle which arrived with the ball a good metre away. The ref, inexplicably close by and inexcusably weak-willed, gave a corner. Then Rosenthal, who seemed to enjoy playing up front with Gifton, dribbled through four defenders only to blast his shot over. I, for one, didn't mind that much: with the sheer determination and heart that the players had showed, when they look like they care so much for our club, they can miss a few chances. As long as Luton keep losing, anyway...