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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 22/11/97
Northampton Town 0(0)
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 4, *Gibbs 5*, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Palmer 4, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 3, Hyde 2, Thomas 3, Johnson 4, Robinson 3
Subs: Easton, Smith, Talboys
Scorers: Kennedy (57)
Report by Ian Grant

My lightning-quick tour of the nation began with a five o'clock alarm call at my mum's house in Watford. From there it was an early morning charge up to Nottingham for a game against the Forest mailing list at ten. Nursing the wounds from a 5-0 defeat, we trundled back down the M1 to Sixfields before the final part of the round-trip took me back to rain-soaked Brighton. Michael Palin, eat yer heart out.

I returned home exhausted but happy. All the talk before this vital match had been about injuries, particularly to Jason Lee and Ronny Rosenthal. The general consensus seemed to be that we'd be content with a point - after all, Northampton away had the look of a potential banana skin even without a weakened side.

Oh, we of little faith. We'd been guilty of under-rating both the available players and the manager. The players, because there's far more to this Watford side than match-winning moments from Rosenthal. The manager, because if Graham Taylor excels at anything, it's making people believe in themselves - he did, after all, twice guide relatively modest squads to the runners-up spot in the old First Division.

So, with Peter Kennedy not unexpectedly pushed forward into Rosenthal's floating role and Paul Robinson filling it at left wing-back, we set about the task with real relish. Settling for a draw didn't appear to enter the equation.

For the first twenty minutes, Watford controlled the game, dealing effectively with Northampton's rather basic tactics and silencing the home crowd in the process. Like a child daring to look under the bed and discovering nothing but dust, our confidence grew with the realisation that the Cobblers are little more than crass long ball merchants.

In truth, our copious amounts of possession yielded relatively little in terms of chances - Paul Robinson missed the best opening, volleying wide at the far post from a Nigel Gibbs cross. But we were in charge and full of promise, mainly thanks to that elusive quality - width.

Looking at the Watford line-up prior to kick-off, it was easy to see how the Kennedy switch would work. It wasn't so easy to see how we'd find a way of getting crosses into the box - and, as we're all painfully aware, this Watford side tends to stagnate when restricted to playing through the middle. That we found that width was both a credit to the players - Robinson, Kennedy, Gibbs, Noel-Williams - involved and the key to this victory.

Despite all this, we were more than a little fortunate to go in level at half-time. Somewhere along the line, we stopped coping with the aerial threat from Northampton. The first example was also the closest that the home side came to scoring in the match - a long throw was flicked on and a powerful header from inside the six yard box was heading for the top corner until Alec Chamberlain somehow clawed it out.

That remarkable save aside, Northampton's forwards failed to make the most of some rather promising positions - indeed, one even chose to take a dive when he could've scored as the ball trickled away with Chamberlain floored. Equally wasteful was a weak shot from a tight angle when a slightly more imaginative pull-back to unmarked colleagues would've resulted in a certain goal. Finally, just before half-time, another quick, penetrating break ended with another poor finish - a shot straight at Chamberlain from a really dangerous, unchallenged position.

Half-time was heralded by the arrival of smog-like black cloud to blot out what had been a rather lovely afternoon and some kids violating the sanctity of the pitch with a giant ball (if I tried to explain the full details, this report would double in length). Why does raising money for charity always involve such drearily inane arsing about? I hereby volunteer for a twenty-four hour sponsored 'doing nothing bizarre'...

Anyway, the second half was a real stormer, aided by lots of slipping around on the newly-wet surface. For our part, we defended more sensibly - Tommy Mooney and Robert Page had previously been more occupied with retrieving situations rather than preventing them - and didn't allow any more unchallenged shots on goal. There were a fair few moments of anxiety but the defending was pretty much beyond criticism, a ceaseless parade of heroic blocks and tackles.

Within a few minutes, we'd created our best chance of the game so far, Richard Johnson surging through the midfield and playing a defence-splitting pass to set Dai Thomas free. Only a poor first touch prevented the striker making more of the opportunity.

That was the only really worthwhile Watford move that didn't come down the right wing - in fact, the man who was most influential in the Hornets' attacking play was none other than Nigel Gibbs. You might like to re-read that last sentence, just to be sure. Gibbs' BSaD profile claims that he "will never be one of these new-fangled wing-back wotsits". Time for a public retraction, then, because this was a hugely impressive display of all-round wing-backery. I'm not alone in having to eat my words, mind - foolish people have been announcing the end of his career all season.

From completely shutting down the right flank (along with the superb Steve Palmer) to supplying Gifton Noel-Williams with perceptive passes to swinging in some really glorious crosses, Gibbs was immaculate. That he created at least three of our best openings, including the goal, speaks for itself. That I swear I saw him take on and dribble past a couple of defenders during the second half is simply a revelation.

The goal came from a wonderful Gibbs cross, sent with pace into the gap between goalkeeper and defenders, absolutely begging to be buried in the back of the net. Peter Kennedy was on hand to do just that with a firm header.

After that, Northampton committed men forward. But a combination of fine defending from all three centre backs, augmented by the battling Johnson, and some more dire shooting (one effort from inside the area towards the end cleared the roof of the stand) kept them out. While I find their style of football pretty unpalatable, it's not difficult to see why they've enjoyed such a good start to the season - with better finishing, they could've easily grabbed at least a point from this match.

At the other end, we came desperately close to easing the nerves with a second goal. A succession of corners midway through the half saw Tommy Mooney head powerfully towards the bottom corner, only to see his effort scrambled around the post by a defender. From the following corner, Robert Page's attempt to play the ball back into the six yard box was clearly blocked by a defender's hands - the referee gave nothing.

A little later, another tremendous Gibbs cross, this time hanging invitingly for Thomas at the far post, was knocked down to Robinson who volleyed just wide. And finally, Kennedy popped up on the right wing to supply Robinson for a close-range shot that was only denied by a desperate defensive block.

This was a mighty victory and ought to scare the hell out of the rest of the division. This was the game that everyone, even Watford fans, expected to end with dropped points. Yet we emerged still stronger than before, showing a new resolve, a new confidence in our abilities.

The classic away win, in many ways. I remember Barnsley coming to the Vic a couple of seasons ago and doing much the same thing - standing toe-to-toe and slugging it out, confident in the knowledge that they were superior both tactically and physically. My match report on that game commented that "If we'd gone away from home and put in a thunderous, committed performance like the Yorkshire side did today, I'd be chuffed to bits."

Well, yes, I am.