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97/98: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 28/12/97
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 2, Kennedy 3, Page 3, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Noel-Williams 2, Hyde 3, Lee 2, *Johnson 4*, Robinson 3
Subs: Palmer, Lowndes (for Robinson) 4, Easton
Scorers: Mooney (90)
Plymouth Argyle 1(0)
Scorers: Saunders (86)
A-weepin' and a-wailin'
Report by Ian Grant

There's a saying round my way - "Failure is easier to take if you haven't got a porcupine down your trousers." Wise words, I think you'll agree.

To be honest, I could just copy and paste large chunks of my Wycombe report and save myself some work here. The same arguments apply - the lack of patience shown by Watford fans is deeply disturbing. At times it's as if cheering the team on or encouraging certain players is seen as an implicit endorsement of the poorer aspects of our performance.

This is depressing. If ever there was a case of a team suffering under the weight of expectation placed upon it, it's the Hornets right now. To expect to beat Plymouth is fine and natural, to allow that to be expressed in howls of anguish at the slightest mistake is absurd. No-one can perform at their best under those conditions.

It's not all that difficult to explain why we've slowed down in recent weeks. Our all-round play remains broadly unchanged, we're still creating enough chances to win games by considerable margins. What we're not doing is finding the net with any regularity. Earlier in the season we'd have buried two or three first half chances and gone in smiling at the interval - the difference really is that small.

We weren't within farting distance of 'great' in the first half. But 'dismal' was at least a bus ride away too. Mind you, I'd prefer it if we didn't have a repeat of the first minute, when Argyle's early attack bundled its way through some feeble Watford defending and a shot hit the outside of the post.

Beyond that and another break that threatened disaster before Tommy Mooney intervened with a fine defensive header, Plymouth offered little to bother us. Our approach play might've been a stuttering, error-prone affair but it still yielded some moments of real promise - a page of notes, at any rate.

Richard Johnson, one of a growing list of players in need of a goal or two, had our first effort, a curled shot that was saved without difficulty. Then, as if to prove that luck has temporarily packed its bags for west London, Paul Robinson fed Gifton Noel-Williams and his looping cross (I assume it was a cross, anyway) hit the inside of the post before the rebound was scrambled to safety.

There was more where that came from as Robinson, Mooney and Kennedy all went on runs that finished with strong attempts at goal. But the clearest opening went the way of Jason Lee, who sent an unmarked header way, way wide. Lee's role in our build-up work remains generally sound but his finishing is currently unspeakable.

I'll admit that I'm giving this something of a glossy finish in a vain attempt to prove a point. But you can get the dull, objective version of events somewhere else. We owe these players - the same players that have given us the best start to a season in, erm, goldfish's years - a little bit of patience and generosity. Who knows, there might even be some points in it for us...

So the second half was played to a soundtrack of virtual silence punctuated by much a-weeping and a-wailing from the home fans, something that surely accelerated our decline into a hesitant, nervous shambles. The fact that Plymouth, who'd been typically resolute before the break, grew in confidence with every minute hardly helped matters - they might've scored early on when Robert Page had to hook a goalbound header clear.

Despite gradually losing our way, there was still no question which side looked more likely to take the lead. Johnson sent a volley a foot wide with the Argyle keeper stranded; Lee inexplicably headed back across goal when he should've scored and surprised Noel-Williams so much that the youngster got in a complete tangle; Keith Millen fired over from the edge of the six yard box.

But, as time passed, our attacks became increasingly predictable. By the time Paul Robinson gave way to Nathan Lowndes, we were actually as devoid of ideas as the pessimists would have you believe we have been for weeks. Hurrah for Nathan, then, as he sped around, looked as eager as someone who's spent thirty-eight years in the reserves ought to be and generally put the wind up the Argyle defence. Indeed he could've scored within seconds of his arrival but couldn't get enough power on his header and saw it comfortably saved.

Unfortunately it was the Hornets' defence that gave way first as the game opened up in its final stages. We'd already had a scare - a shot into the side netting after a break down the right - and Plymouth eventually saw their positive approach rewarded. Another break ended with a header at the far post that gave Alec Chamberlain no chance.

If the mood was frustrated beforehand, it became even more frantic after the goal. But as defeat loomed large, up popped Mooney to win the ball from a Gibbs cross and fire a low shot across goal into the far corner. Even then we could've snatched an unlikely win as a defender wellied another clever Lowndes cross (for a Nathan Lowndes Fan Club membership pack, including ginger wig and tangerine candyfloss, send a blank cheque to the usual address) agonisingly close to his own goal.

So there you go. Half full or half empty? Three quarters full, if you ask me...

Report by Dave Perahia

I don't know about you lot, but as I get older the meaning of Christmas is changing. As a youngster, it was all about the sweet anticipation of opening those presents on Christmas morning, stuffing my face with biscuits, satsumas, chocolate, turkey and Christmas pudding to the extent that I had to fight against the urge to bring it all up again, and sitting in front of the box with the family watching enough T.V. to make me see double. As I got older, watching the Boxing Day movie was replaced by trips to see the Hornets with Dad and whichever non football-supporting relative we could tempt with the promise of atmosphere, excitement and an escape from turkey cold-cuts. Now I'm approaching the big three-zero, if I'm lucky enough to be off work at Christmas, the whole thing has come to mean a damn good rest, good food, see the folks and do sod all.

Christmas also means lots of footy, with a whole load of games packed into a two-week period. Unfortunately, this 'feast' of footy is rapidly becoming something I dread. Perhaps it's because we're a 'nice' family club and don't believe in pushing our poor players too hard during the festive period. Perhaps the players collectively eat too many biscuits, satsumas, chocolate, turkey and Christmas pudding to the extent that all they can think about is how sick they feel. Or perhaps it's just me, but watching Watford at Christmas has become dull, dull, dull. It's enough to make the Boxing Day movie seem alluring. Even if it is "The Sound of Music" (again). Gillingham and Notts County last year, Plymouth this - the Curse of Christmas comes to the Vic.

After the Wycombe non-event on Boxing Day, I confess I was looking forward to getting back on the winning trail against Plymouth. Shocking recent form including a 4-1 home reverse on Boxing Day to media darlings (and Ig's favourites) Fulham and only one away win all season. Lambs to the slaughter. Those around me at the Vic end were predicting we'd score 5 or 6 (and one nameless person predicted hat-tricks for Gifton and Jason Lee - you know who you are !). I reckoned on one or two-nil. I should have known better. No surprises when the team was announced, Kennedy continuing in the 'hole' behind the strikers as Ronny was still crocked and Robbo on the left in his place. A fair number of home fans in the ground. An air of expectation. And then the game began.

Any complacency in the Watford ranks should have been dispelled within the first minute. A mazy run forward by a Plymouth player led to Carlo Corazzin, Argyle's Canadian international, finding himself through and one on one with Alec Chamberlain. His toe-poked shot eluded Alec but struck the outside of our right hand post and went out for a goal kick. An early let off. Plymouth continued to belie their lowly league position with a number of useful looking early attacks, their number nine continually running at our defence and giving Gibbo in particular a torrid time. Our most noteworthy attempt of the first half was what looked like a cross from Gifton which curled over Jon Sheffield in the Plymouth goal and struck the inside of an upright before being scrambled clear. Jason Lee had a clear-cut chance from a superb left-wing cross by Tommy Mooney, but headed powerfully wide from an excellent position. We created little else of note, and as is becoming increasingly familiar at the Vic of late, the crowd became restless. Too many mistakes, too many misplaced passes and too little skill or imagination. The half finished without even a disallowed goal to cheer unlike against Bournemouth or Wycombe.

I was as usual relying on GT to give the boys a half-time rocket, but if he did, they didn't seem to pay any attention. The game continued in the same scrappy and unsatisfactory way, although more pressure was brought to bear on the Plymouth goal. A number of crosses were flung in, but most if not all seemed to be ably dealt with by the Plymouth defence. Johnno managed a cracking volley from the edge of the area which flew agonisingly wide, and Keith Millen scooped a driven cross over the crossbar. And yet, despite the Watford pressure, Sheffield in the Argyle goal hardly had a shot of note to save.

As the game drifted towards an unsatisfactory nil-all bore draw, Plymouth seemed to realise that we were really nothing to fear and exerted some pressure of their own, forcing a series of corners. And with four minutes to go, they got their reward. A cross from their right wing was met with a powerful header at the far post and Plymouth were in front. I was furious, but had to agree that we'd had it coming and it was hardly daylight robbery. The fans immediately began to stream out, and I sat head in hands contemplating the fact that for the second season in a row we were to be beaten at home by a Plymouth side who are likely relegation candidates. And then a small Christmas miracle. Tommy Mooney had clearly become as sick and tired of the lethargy of his Watford colleagues as the fans and strode forward. With seconds remaining, he skillfully controlled a knock-down and drilled a low left- foot shot into the far corner of the Plymouth net to equalise. My celebrations were muted somewhat by disbelief - I had honestly felt that the game could have continued for another 24 hours and we wouldn't have scored. There was still time for one last Watford attack, but the threat was cleared, and that was that.

I don't know much about tactics or team formations. I know nothing of the way managers motivate their players or of the transfer wheeling and dealing which occurs behind the scenes. But what I do know is that performances like this are not good enough. Our forward line is simply not doing the business, and we have lost the ability to play football, now seemingly recreating the pattern of last season by aimlessly hoofing the ball forward instead of passing. I've been criticised recently for complaining about poor performances when we've won games, and even GT stated in his programme notes that it's something to be pleased about when the team plays badly but still wins. But the writing has been on the wall for a while now - lacklustre performances, few chances created and fewer goals scored. We started the season playing exciting football and deservedly shot to the top of the table. Then the performances lost their sparkle, but we continued to grind out victories. Now we're grinding out draws, and we could quite frankly have easily lost the last two games. We seemed almost invincible a few months ago, now we flirt with defeat with regularity, pulling back from the brink later and later. No crisis, of course, as our rivals seem unable to get their act together, we are still miles clear of the pack. But still a cause for concern.

Let's hope it's just the Curse of Christmas and we'll be back all guns blazing in the New Year. Oh that life was so simple !