The great train robbery
Report by Dave Perahia
York, as anyone with a modicum of nous will be aware, is famed for its railway history. Thus it was that I chose to travel to this tricky away fixture on our much maligned rail network, forsaking a car full of intelligent fellow Hornets and instead travelling on a train full of nasty small children (most wearing Manchester United or Newcastle shirts) and the infamous Rupe.
Arriving in York an impressive one hour and fifty eight minutes after departing Kings Cross, there was ample time to sample the delights of the local hostelries, and then it was off to Bootham Crescent to watch our heroes battling against the might of York City.
On entering the ground, it once again became clear why opposing sides often raise their game when playing at the Vic. For all our complaints about our grotty old Main Stand (I prefer to call it 'quaint' myself.....), it must be said that our ground must seem like Wembley to teams like York. Like so many other stadia I've seen this season, Bootham Crescent is, well, sad to be honest. Small, grubby, lacking in atmosphere and with that old fan's favourite - the uncovered away terrace. Still, their pitch was in considerably better nick than ours, and Julian reckoned the meat and potato pies were top, so I shouldn't be too critical I guess.
The Watford starting line-up gave some hope for optimism. Both Slater and Rosenthal in the side for the first time in a long time (or perhaps ever). Gifton Noel-Williams was a somewhat surprising omission from team or bench. York fielded their customary roster of unknowns (by me at least) but with one notable exception.
We all have our own personal list of hated players. It is easy to see why some of them are so unpopular (Andy Gray, anybody ?). Others, however, are not so easy to explain. One of my more inexplicable choices is Marco Gabbiadini. I have ALWAYS hated him. Perhaps it's because he has a good scoring record against us (although I suspect he doesn't). Perhaps it's because he once played for Palace (at least I think he did). Or perhaps it's because he's a git who has spent the majority of his career throwing himself to the ground at the hint of contact with an opposition player and winning far more than his fair share of penalties and free-kicks. Whatever the reason, when I heard he'd signed on loan for York and would be in the side against us, my heart sank. Seeing his nasty bouffante hairdo bouncing around the York pitch prior to kick-off further aggravated me - my nemesis had returned to haunt me. At that moment, I would have bet a month's salary that he would make a telling contribution to the game, and that that contribution would be unlikely to make me happy. I should have made the bet.
Following kick-off, it soon became clear that York would not be easy to beat. They closed us down fast, worked hard and looked to hit us on the break. Most forward balls were directed towards Gabbiadini, who looked lively but was pretty well marshalled by Page in the Watford defence. True to form, Gabbiadini picked up where he had left off in previous games against us, throwing himself dramatically to the floor at the hint of a challenge and incurring the inevitable wrath of the travelling faithful. Watford played some reasonable football at times, knocking the ball about in the middle of the field and switching play from one side of the pitch to the other, but there wasn't even the semblance of a final ball into the box of any note. York looked far livelier up front, attacking with pace and looking the likeliest scorers. The deadlock was broken on 26 minutes. York played the ball into the left side of the Watford area and Robinson appeared to clip the chasing Gabbiadini as the two crossed. The predictable dramatic dive followed, and referee Cain pointed to the spot. I had little doubt that contact had been made, but Gabbiadini would not have reached the ball and there was certainly no intent on the part of the Watford player. The reaction of the Watford players to the penalty award left us in no doubt that we were not alone in questioning the decision. Barras, the York captain, strode up and blasted the penalty into the centre of the goal as Chamberlain dived to his left and it was 1-0 to the Minstermen. Our concern at this setback was compounded by the observation the Rupe was lying face-down and motionless on the terracing behind the goal. On rolling him over, it appeared that his face was covered in blood but realisation quickly dawned that the substance plastered over his face was in fact curry sauce. A worried steward came to his assistance and was motioning for a stretcher, at which point Rupe admitted that he was fine and was in fact lying face down on the concrete covered in curry as he was "Disappointed". It was the highlight of the half.
The remainder of the first period followed a similar pattern to what had gone before, Watford labouring unconvincingly in the final third after some quite useful approach play while York looked to hit us quickly on the break, bringing a couple of useful diving saves from Chamberlain. Lee toiled manfully upfront, but appeared woefully isolated. I find criticism of the Watford number nine absolutely mystifying - the big man did all that he could with the poor service he got including getting his head to almost every high ball. Those that abuse him might like to consider that there's no point knocking high balls up to a big centre forward if there's nobody to pick up his lay-offs or flick-ons. Half time came without my being able to recall a single on-target goal attempt or even cross by our boys, and there were more than a few boos as the Hornets left the field.
Half time lasted an eternity (or twenty minutes at any rate), and when the lads returned to the field of play it was with Steve Palmer on for Slater. Stuart had done little of note in the first half, but I was still disappointed not to see him take the field. York had shown themselves to be a solid, resilient outfit and it appeared that brain and not brawn would be required to break them down. Rumour had it that Slates had limped off at half time. I just hoped the rumours were wrong. The second half was much the same as the first. Watford continued to enjoy more than their fair share of possession, but no chances were created. Our relative goal drought appears to be affecting the players - some, notably Hyde and Rosenthal, appeared more than just a little reluctant to shoot, instead over-elaborating on the edge of the York box and losing possession. Our continued inability to fashion a goal attempt led to a rousing rendition of "We'll shoot again, don't know where. don't know when". It could not be doubted that Watford were increasingly dominating possession, and Rosenthal in particular was becoming increasingly influential, prompting and making runs around the York box. Despite this, there was never a sense that we would score. Lee got his head to a couple of high crosses, and his reaction to not scoring from the best of these left me in little doubt of his commitment to the cause. York meanwhile were continuing to scare us on the break, and were unfortunate not to go further ahead when a free-kick hit the underside of our crossbar and was scrambled away.
Time was running out, and the Watford faithful began to drift away. Robbo sustained what looked like a serious leg injury, being stretchered off and replaced by Easton. The unimpressive Hyde was also substitued, Lowndes coming on in his place. Samways dived to his right to field our first on-target goal attempt, a shot from the edge of the area, as we moved into injury time. We awaited the final whistle with a mixture of anger, frustration and frank longing. But it just didn't come. The York fans became increasingly agitated as the game moved further into time added on, baying for the final whistle. I wondered why they we getting so worked up, to be honest. We still looked as likely to score as Doncaster Rovers playing at night with the floodlights switched off. And then it happened. In the sixth minute of injury time, yet another ball played towards the edge of the York box was controlled by a Watford player, but instead of laying it off wide or losing it, Steve Palmer controlled the ball and inexplicably decided to take some responsibility. He strode forward and sweetly struck the ball hard and low from just outside the area. Stood behind the goal, I could see it was going in from the moment it left Palmer's boot. Samways dived despairingly to his right but was beaten by the accuracy of the shot as the ball whizzed past him and nestled comfortably in the bottom right hand corner of the net. York were stunned, we were ecstatic and the game was over. The celebrations on the open terrace were sheer joy. Kevin Birdseye somehow covered the distance from the back of the terrace to the front in a matter of milliseconds, grabbing me and screaming into my face. It sounded like complete gibberish, but I got the point nevertheless and hurled myself onto the fencing to celebrate. Everyone on that terrace was laughing at the injustice of it, huge beaming smiles and incredulous head-shaking abounding after the chaos had subsided. The final whistle followed almost immediately, and referee Cain needed a Police escort off the field. Fans have short memories, in this case those of York City - we wouldn't have even needed a jammy injury time equaliser if the dubious first half penalty hadn't been given.
So there you go. A useful point against a useful side on their own ground. I'd have settled for it beforehand. As I left the ground, a sneering local confronted me with the words "Top o' the league ? You must be joking !". He had a point. Our attack is woefully sterile and our ability to carve out goalscoring opportunities has seemingly been lost. It could be argued that we created not one goalscoring chance in 96 minutes, Palmer's goal being a superb piece of opportunisitic finishing. Sure, I worry about being caught, but if we can get away with being this bad for so many games recently and still retain such a lead over the chasing pack, promotion will surely follow. For what it's worth, however, I'd rather we got our act together and played some decent football again. Any chance, Graham ?
A lucky point?
Report by Dan Exeter
Bootham Crescent is yet another one of these 'quaint' little Division
Two grounds that we won't be missing next season. Seemingly dwarfed
by a TA barracks next door, it took us about five minutes of driving
around the area to realise we were in fact barely yards from the
ground, and the 4 sticks with torches on top were in fact the
floodlights. At least street parking for free less than five minutes
from the ground was a bonus, as was the entrance fee, a mere £7-50.
Our starting line up showed a few changes from the Gents game. Mooney
returned to central defence with Millen and Page, with Palmer
dropping to the bench. Robbo and Gibbs were the wing backs, with
Slates, Micah and Johno in midfield. Up front was Jason Lee and,
best of all, Rocket Ronny Rosenthal. Easton and Lowndes joined
Palmer on the bench. Pre-match supporter speculation had Ronny on
the bench, to come on for twenty minutes at the end or something like
that. I thought he'd be lucky to last the whole match, having only
played one half of reserve football in the past two months or so, so
it was a bit of a concern to seem him starting.
York proved to be quite a mobile team - nothing like the bunch of
no-hopers who got stuffed 4-0 at the Vic the last time I saw them. I
don't really know much about the York team, other than Paul
Stephenson on the left wing is supposed to be quite good, and that
they had Marco Gabbiadini on loan. Their game plan seemed to be to
soak up our pressure and hit us on the break - Gabbiadonkey proved
surprisingly mobile, while Gary Bull was a hard willing worker.
Support from Stephenson and the Number 7 was always forthcoming and
York had the better of the early exchanges, with Chamberlain having
to pull off an excellent save off a shot hit low and hard from the
left hand edge of the box.
We, on the other hand, didn't seem to settle at all - I wonder if the
chemistry of the team is quite there, what with both Slates and
Rocket Ronnie having only recently returned. Especially as both are
creative sorts of players they'd need time to gel back in with the
rest of the set up.
York won the penalty when the ref finally fell for one of
Gabbiadini's dives in the box and pointed to the spot. The decision
was ridiculous - Gabbiadini went down like he'd been shot, while the
lino who had a superb view of the incident didn't award anything,
the decision coming from the ref who was behind the play on the other
side of the box. Certainly for the rest of the match he refused to
give anything else to Gabbiadini, even when he was genuinely fouled.
Tony Barras took the penalty, one of those annoying ones which went
straight down the middle while Chamberlain was diving to one side.
As is so often the case, the penalty seemed to waken up the team and
we started finally gelling and exerting some pressure. Jason Lee was
winning everything in the air, Johno and Micah seemed to have a grip
on the midfield, the only thing we lacked was a quality delivery and
a finish. York looked like they'd hit us on the break, and
Chamberlain had to produce another diving save low and to the right
before the half was over.
Half time saw a tactical switch to 4-4-2, with Palmer coming on for
Slates with Hyde wide right, Mooney wide left and a flat back four
of Gibbs, Page, Millen and Robbo. This switch took a while to
settle in - York continued to create further chances and find space,
and had a free kick come off the underside of the cross bar. Once we
settled, we again began to play with a bit of composure and began to
exert some pressure. Unfortunately, a lot of good approach play was
ruined when the ball reached Micah Hyde. I don't mean to be overly
harsh or to stop him for trying but all too often he took the wrong
option - playing the ball wide when a little pass to Ronnie was on,
shooting when he should have put it wide, trying his little jinking
runs when he should have just hit it. Ronnie tried and tried,
always moving and trying to shake his marker. On one occasion he ran
all the way through the defence, wrong-footing the York players and
finding himself in front of the York goal with only the keeper to
beat. Unfortunately, he'd left the ball a good three yards behind,
from where it was promptly cleared.
Gabbiadini continued diving around all over the place, yet there
wasn't too much of an attacking York threat for much of the last twenty
minutes or so - rather, for all our approach play, we could not get
efforts on target.
Robbo injured himself, and judging by the way he went down without
moving and the speed with which players around responded it might be
very serious, which is bad for both Robbo personally and the club,
as we're a bit short of cover on that side of the pitch. Clint
Easton came on and filled in at left back. With only a couple of
minutes to go Hyde at last was taken off to be replaced by Nathan
Lowndes. At this stage of the game there was no point in trying
complicated tactical arrangements, and he just ran around up front
with Jason Lee. He did have one moment of glory when a superb piece
of skill meant he skipped past two York defenders and was through on
goal, only for the ball to have run on too fast into the keeper's
hands. ( I concede that an alternative explanation would be that he
was lucky the ball bounced off his shin in the way that it did).
With time running out we gave up being pretty and just hoofed it.
Just when it seemed that we'd given up, Steve Palmer took the ball
and advanced towards goal. There was no one moving for him, no
options for him to pass to. In these circumstances, he did what all
players do and just twatted it in the general direction of the goal.
I don't know if the keeper was unsighted or whatever, as the shot
didn't seemed to have too much power, yet it nestled beautifully
in the bottom right hand corner and the Watford terrace fairly
exploded with joy. A point had been looking extremely unlikely even
up until Palmer hit it, so to have got something out of this game
has to be seen as a bonus.
Overrall, the circumstances in which we got a point will lead many
to think we were lucky. In that case, we are no more lucky than the
hopeless Gents side that somehow got a point at our place despite
looking very second best after we'd taken the lead. Perhaps if other
results had not gone our way like they did I'd be more concerned -
however, it was good to see Ronny back, and although losing Robbo
is a blow, I think we can be cautiously optimistic that we can
approach the run in with confidence with Hazan, Kennedy and the Gift
all to return too.