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Nationwide League Division 2, 17/1/98
Watford 3(2)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Gibbs 4, Kennedy 5, Page 4, Millen 3, Mooney 3, Hazan 4, Hyde 4, *Lee 5*, Johnson 3, Robinson 3
Subs: Palmer (for Hazan) 3, Ward, Thomas
Scorers: Kennedy (17, 61), Hyde (28)
Preston North End 1(0)
Scorers: Parkinson (56)
Report by Ian Grant

Bing-bong. "Would Mr Ian Grant, currently occupying seat G109, please stop frowning and start enjoying himself. Thankyou."

Having briefly berated Sheffield Wednesday for their mascot-strewn pre-match bombast, it seems only fair that Watford aren't let off the hook. On Saturday afternoon we were treated to the following, in no particular order: the theme from Star Wars in its tortuous entirety; the directors parading themselves for their weekly ego massage; Fincham banging his drum; Harry Hornet shaking his thang; the usual kids' shoot-out and a load of burly Saracens players. Oh yeah, and a football match.

Some of this certainly gains the BSaD seal of approval - there's been a marked and welcome increase in atmosphere since the drums appeared - but too much of it reeks of wedding receptions and Gladiators, if you know what I mean. The Vicarage Road Experience was once pleasantly and quietly idiosyncratic, now it's simply too close to the tasteless showbiz-ness of the Premiership for comfort. The feeling of taking part in an hour-long promotional video for prospective corporate sponsors is difficult to shake off.

Star Wars is just the final straw. The rebel forces versus Darth Vader's evil empire for control of the universe? Watford versus Preston North End? It sounds laughable. We're replacing community with cacophony, a sense of belonging with a feeling of alienation. Bring back Z-Cars, bring it back now and give us our Saturday afternoons back while you're at it...

But, apart from that and a scabby knee, this was a fine day. The mailing list team beat off dog turds and park keepers to win 3-2 against Southampton in the morning, and the first team later followed that lead to produce their most encouraging win for a long time.

This was very much a return to the form of October and November, when Watford's ability to win without dazzling meant that, Bristol City aside, the rest of the division really started to feel the pace. We were sporadically brilliant, frequently average, occasionally awful - but we created half a dozen clear openings and buried three of them, something that we've built our season on and failed to do in recent weeks. Although there was greater quality in our build-up play, courtesy of Alon Hazan and Micah Hyde in particular, that quality was rewarded with a bit of ruthlessness in front of goal to turn a useful performance into a very valuable win. In that respect, the decision to play Peter Kennedy, the one Watford player whose goalscoring form has never dipped, up with Jason Lee was yet another GT masterstroke.

For half an hour at the start of the match, we re-visited our early season form to leave Preston, who managed just a couple of wild efforts over the bar, shell-shocked and two goals down. Whatever caused it all suddenly to click when it's been slightly out of sync for a while, we at last looked formidable and confident.

The first goal should've come sooner, with Tommy Mooney missing a far-post header after Jason Lee had flicked on a corner. But we didn't have too long to wait. After seventeen minutes, Robert Page lofted a free kick into the box, Lee attacked the ball and headed it down for Peter Kennedy to hook a shot into the net from close range.

Preston's inability to deal with a fired-up Jason Lee was to cost them this match. Page's free kick had little worth - it was just a high, hanging ball into the area - but Lee won virtually every aerial contest on Saturday, leaving Kennedy to pick up the knock-downs and flicks. He was magnificent - if your centre forward isn't going to hit the back of the net, you can only ask that he plays a strong, pivotal role in attacks and so becomes a creative force.

Lee did all that and more. His part in the second goal had nothing to do with height or strength and everything to do with quality and vision. It was a glorious, sweeping move - Richard Johnson did the ball-winning, Kennedy played it out to the right wing, Lee smacked in a beautiful low cross to the far post and Hyde managed to steal in, stick out a boot and score his first goal since early September. You couldn't have asked for a more deserving goalscorer - Hyde's penalty miss at Hillsborough obscured another fine performance. His confidence in and around the box was visibly boosted by the goal, so much so that he was unfortunate not to get another in the second half.

Sadly, the purple patch didn't last very much longer. Kennedy came within a whisker of scoring a third, beating defenders before drilling a shot inches wide, but we relaxed and lost our way while Preston rallied. The away side really should've pulled a goal back by the interval as both of their strikers missed good chances - the best being an unmarked header that was glanced feebly wide. Kurt Nogan wasted another opening by over-elaborating, allowing Robert Page to tackle back, and was later denied by Alec Chamberlain as the Watford keeper punched clear after dropping a shot.

The pattern continued after the break as Preston threatened the Watford goal for long periods. Despite that pressure, they failed to carve out any more clear-cut opportunities as our defence, with Page looking particularly strong, stood firm. It's fitting, then, that their goal was an astonishing, out-of-the-blue strike. The free kick was at least thirty-five yards out and yet the shot simply rocketed into the top corner to a spontaneous round of applause from the home fans. Word has it that there was a deflection involved - if there was, the person unfortunate enough to get in the way is probably still feeling the effects. The best opposition goal we'll see this season, no question.

Preston continued to roar at us, winning another corner just seconds after the goal had gone in. So our third goal was very much against the run of play and all the more welcome for that. Once again it was Lee who set it up, flicking a header into the danger area for Kennedy to control the ball with one touch and volley it home with the next - another lovely bit of predatory finishing to remind us of what we've been missing.

With the two goal cushion restored, we were never in danger again. The game opened up and it was Watford who enjoyed the best chances in the latter stages. Hyde tricked his way into the box and found his firm shot blocked by the keeper, with Kennedy's shot from the rebound being headed off the line. Alon Hazan set up Nigel Gibbs with a gorgeous pass and only a desperate tackle denied the right back his first goal of the season - Gibbs will score before May, however, and this time it won't be with a wayward cross.

I may be doing Preston a disservice - but I honestly can't remember any occasions when we looked in trouble after Kennedy's goal. Sure, there were times when Page and Millen had to be at their best and times when Johnson, Hyde or Lee came back to help out in defence - that's all part of the game, though, and is as important in earning a win as goal-scoring.

So on balance of play, this was an even game - Preston might even have shaded it. But the presence of a real cutting edge, from Lee's massive presence to Kennedy's finishing to Hyde's nippy forward play to Hazan's classy touches, turned this into a comfortable home win. Of course, it might be a one-off and we might revert to sterility and missed chances at Brentford - but the boost to the confidence of certain key players, especially Hyde and Lee, ought to ensure that the improvement lasts longer than ninety minutes.

I've hardly mentioned Alon Hazan in all this, mainly because he clearly found the pace and aggression of his first English game a little difficult to adjust to. It took him ten minutes to get his first touch of the ball in a Watford shirt - he mis-controlled the ball and gave possession away. But his next touch was a lovely backheel to set up a Watford break and he never really looked back from there. His occasional interventions simply oozed quality - as mentioned before, the pass to Gibbs in the second half was just perfect. The test will be whether he disappears from more physical games or whether, like Rosenthal, he's prepared to go and win the ball rather than waiting for it to arrive.

The same could be said of the team - we either wait for promotion or we go out and win it. On Saturday, we began to do the latter.

Sporadic quality
Report by Matt Bunner

I've never been on the Pepsi Big One at Blackpool, but I doubt if I would experience as much variation in emotion as on Saturday. Occasionally during the game we played like European champions with beautiful one-touch and surgical precision passing, but at other times it was as if we were playing Aussie Rules, the ball spent so much time in the air. But don't get me wrong - I'd much rather spend my money being entertained this way than watching the drab episode that occurred against Plymouth a couple of weeks ago.

The surprising aspect of today's game was again Taylor's ability to tinker with the tactics. He's realised that over the past month we have become a bit sterile and was not afraid to adjust them in order to put us back on track. It has been said in the past that Taylor changes his mind too much, but in my eyes he has got it right more times than he has got it wrong. There have been occasions this season when losses have turned to draws and draws to wins: all because he has the belief in his players to give him what he wants. On Saturday he gave Alon Hazan, as expected, his debut and decided to play a 3-4-3 formation: in retrospect, perhaps a little adventurous, but no-one can argue at the entertainment it provided for all fans. It was obvious that playing this way, we would be a considerable force going forward but would always be susceptible to counter-attacks.

It was a lively start by Watford and perhaps Preston were slightly confused by the formation. Confidence grew throughout the team during the early stages because of our ability to probe the Preston defence and the realisation that they were being a little more generous in their approach than others have been this season. Liking it to a game of 'Risk' we bided our time, building our strategy knowing that we were one throw away from striking. There were delightful interchanges in the centre of the park, fine support play from the flanks and the general availability of players was something that hasn't been seen for weeks. We forced a few corners in quick succession and alarmingly for the Preston fans was the ability of Lee to win EVERYTHING in the air - not just occasionally - and so it was not a surprise when the first goal was delivered from a set-piece. Wide on the right, about a third of the way into the Preston half, Page delivered an innocuous free-kick into the danger area, but Lee won it handsomely and left an unmarked Kennedy to hook into the net from 8 yards. You could see the relief on Lee's face, probably thinking, "At last someone can read a flick-on...". A few minutes after, another corner was gloriously flicked on by Lee and the resulting header from someone-I-can't-remember was clearly goal bound, but was deflected wide by an unintentional Preston sock - but the referee missed it and gave a goal-kick.

As you've probably guessed this action took place in the middle of one of our peaks. Just before the half hour mark, the finest team Watford goal I can remember was created. A combination of the quiet Johnson and the lively Hyde (usually it's the reverse) stole the ball in the centre circle and it was then laid to Hazan. Hazan stroked it to Kennedy, in turn placing a wonderful through ball to Lee on the right. Meanwhile, hurtling towards the Preston area were two defenders and Hyde about 2 yards behind. Lee sent a hard low half-volley to the penalty spot and Hyde managed to get in where he had no right to and poke the ball into the net. A brilliant team goal usually reserved for FIFA '98 - I'm sure I saw some of the Preston fans mouth "Quality" as their heads hit the ground.

I suppose it's systematic that we (by that I mean the fans) become all cocky and confident when we are 2-0 up with 30 minutes on the board. There were shouts (mostly from an cringingly unfunny cockney scummer) that, "Preston are crap; awful - we gonna win 7-0". You know the ones, but unfortunately in this division, once we're drawn into a scrap, there's isn't a lot of difference between the sides. Preston, impressively, pulled their proverbial socks up and played good football and soon the boot was on the other foot. They had a couple of opportunities to level, but couldn't take advantage of the generous space afforded by the Watford defence. Half-time was a bit of a let-down as in-form Wigan were 2-0 down at home to in-form Bristol City.

Preston did most of the attacking the second half, but didn't really penetrate. There were times, especially towards the end of the game, when we were hanging on with gritty defending and panicky hoofing - I would expect that if we were 1-0 up, but really not when 3-1 to the good. This, though, is credit to Preston, who battled on gamely and gave as much to an entertaining game as Watford. In particular there was the free-kick from which they scored - an absolute stunner from 35 yards rifling into the top corner, rivalling Johnson's effort at Carlisle. Here, I must blame the defence, but most importantly the 'keeper for failing to arrange a wall of any description - deflected or not. It was plainly obvious that the Preston player was going to shoot and we did nothing about it - no wonder Chamberlain looked embarrassed as he fell on his arse. Thankfully, that woke us up a bit, promoting a bit of fight that had deserted us at half-time.

In a repeat of the first goal, Lee easily won the header and Kennedy hooked his second goal to silence the vociferous Preston followers. After that, the game became more open as Preston searched for scraps. A delightful reverse pass from Hazan gave Gibbs the opportunity to score, but was foiled by the 'keeper at close range - the rebound was hit goalward by Kennedy and kicked off the line. Another swift move saw Hyde with a chance, but was stopped by a good save from the 'keeper. The last ten minutes were spent mainly in Watford's half, but good scrapping and a luck saw us home to a fair result.

In essence, this was a good, if not consistent, team performance. Hyde and Lee had belters, but Johnson was quiet, perhaps content to live in the shadows and graft for the team - he certainly did that. Kennedy is a delight and has shown that he can play wherever and whenever. He has the footballing brain to listen to Taylor and gets his reward time after time. Unfortunately, this means that Premiership clubs will be sniffing around and believe you me he is more than capable of holding his own in the company of the higher divisions, especially with the left foot he possesses. Lastly, I'll mention big and strong Hazan. Although a little lost with the frenetic activity surrounding him, he played with the air of someone who has international quality - he had time (if not, he made it) and although he didn't see the ball often, the quality that came from him was superb. He looks like he could graft, but that's not the reason why Taylor bought him. Others can graft and then give him the ball. He will be the pivotal figure in many of Watford's goals in the coming weeks. I was disappointed that he was brought off as that eliminated the creativity from the field (apart from Hyde) and pointedly, maybe that sparked the mini Preston revival.

I liked what I saw today and credit must go to the players and the manager for tactical awareness that brought the right result. We know we have the quality to stand out from the rest and today we saw flashes of that. In the coming weeks, we should see more of the same, but on a consistent basis.