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
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
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
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.
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
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