Report by Ian Grant
Oh, I dunno. It's just...well, there are some things that we all hold dear. Traditions.
And they shouldn't be messed with so lightly, discarded like so much chewed chewing gum.
I mean, come on. Boxing Day brings many annual favourites - turkey (or nut roast) sandwiches,
awkward family get-togethers, James Bond films, stomach ache, the January sales, a slight sense
of disappointment. And that crucial ingredient, a buttock-clenchingly dull football match -
you have to go back to Christmas 1994 for the last goal scored in a Watford game on Boxing Day.
So what the hell happened? Where was our seasonal selection of grim stalemate, feeble
banality and general cackhandedness to send the once-a-year fans away swearing never
to return? Oh, how I'll miss writing my Boxing Day report and being able to use the
word "dismal" fifteen times. What next, winning on the telly???
We've seen more action-packed matches than this at the Vic recently, games with more
style and more incident. But like previous encounters with City, this had real
depth. A great symphonic masterpiece with developing themes, engrossing detail,
sweeping drama - one that won't feature prominently on the end of season video but only
because its grandiose magnificence wouldn't survive the editing. One goal doesn't
do it justice.
One goal was enough, though, to secure an absolutely critical victory. You wanna know
just how critical? Well, as I write this, Norwich on forty points are eighth.
That's how close we were to having a miserable Christmas. Because it was not easy -
on this evidence, it's difficult to understand what the hell Bristol City are doing farting about
at the bottom of the table. There is rubbish knocking around the First Division and
City ain't it.
Mind you, some of our defending would've given the St Luke's Girl Guides Under-Fives team a
fighting chance. During a slow opening that saw the afternoon's main themes - Richard Johnson's
authoritative excellence, Akinbiyi's roaring pace - emerging from the mayhem, the Hornets
stabbed blindly for the self-destruct button. After just three minutes, Ben Iroha came so, so
close to announcing his arrival with an own goal of Keith Dublin proportions. Bell's
cross was drifting comfortably out of Akinbiyi's reach, yet Iroha stretched every muscle
to get to it. His diving header went back across the face of goal, with Alec Chamberlain watching
incredulous, and brushed the post on its way out for a corner.
Ten minutes later, another City corner caused absolute chaos. Palmer and Page went for the
same aerial challenge and stopped each other from clearing, Hutchings nodded the ball over
the stranded Chamberlain and Bazeley was on hand to head clear from the goal-line.
So the first quarter saw some constructive Watford play undone by the failure to find the
final ball. It was already a good game, yet it was only warming up. Typically swift thought
from Allan Smart carved out the first opening after twenty minutes, Gifton Noel-Williams
latching onto the sneaky through-pass and Phillips diving to block the shot. The City keeper
was called into similar action shortly afterwards, Kennedy getting on the end of a Bazeley
cross to shoot from a tight angle. But those efforts were eclipsed by City's Andersen who, cutting
inside from the left, sent in a shot from the edge of the box that appeared to be going safely over before
getting caught by the blustery wind and crashing against the underside of the crossbar.
After Kennedy had blazed over from a free kick and Andersen's low shot had been comfortably
gathered by Chamberlain, the Hornets created two chances with approach work of glorious
quality and wasted them with finishes of amateurish inaccuracy. First, Kennedy headed Bazeley's
deep cross back and Gudmundsson dived in to direct the ball wide when he really ought to have
scored. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Johnson casually conjured up one of those
passes, arcing elegantly through the City defence from forty yards to the feet of Smart...who
tanked it artlessly into the Rookery.
While we're waiting for the second half to begin, a word about Richard Johnson. As ever,
the word is "class". There are those moments when the play becomes frantic and
condensed, when there's no control and no vision, when Johnson waits on the edge of the
scuffles. Then the ball breaks to him and suddenly there's room to breathe and space to
move. He doesn't dribble with it, he doesn't delay once the right option is spotted -
the ball does the running, another attack is in motion. I remain absolutely mystified as to why he has not yet
played international football.
The second half was simply enthralling. Fabulous entertainment, a perfect balance between
furious physical contests and elegant passing. I repeat - what the hell are City
doing in the relegation zone?
Smart headed straight at Phillips and Bell fired an ambitious free kick over before
the decisive goal. Once more, we were left to gape at the potent beauty of our attacking
play. Johnson advanced from midfield to supply Gudmundsson on the right, and the ball
was snappily played on into Smart's path. City defender Edwards was also in Smart's path but
that didn't greatly matter as the striker trampled over his opponent to slide his shot
past Phillips. And it all happened in less time than it took for you to read about it -
from here to here to here and GOAL. Wonderful football.
It ought to have been two moments later. Iroha, who is a defender much like Devon White was a
winger, did well on the left to get in a cross. Smart had a go at the near post, Noel-Williams
was blocked by a defender, the ball dropped to Gudmundsson who volleyed acrobatically
over the bar from five yards.
Mmm, for how long did we daydream about this? For ten years. Sure, we've had moderately
successful seasons since Graham Taylor's departure. But my vague memories of that Steve Harrison
campaign are of ugly, sparse football. Whatever the result of all this, my memories
will be so fond, of a young team playing with no fear and lashings of style.
So, although City's ferocious attack never gave up its threat, the home strikers operated
with more brilliance. Some defences have managed to cope with Smart and Noel-Williams but, Christ,
they've had to work like hell to do it. It was beyond City, who had the referee to
thank for over-looking a clear penalty as Noel-Williams charged into the six yard box
with a defender hanging round his waist. Gudmundsson helped out too, by getting in the way of
Kennedy's goal-bound drive.
We've been more rampant but we've rarely looked so (forgive me) smart in opening up a
defence. Gary Megson used the word "guile" in paying tribute after we'd beaten Stockport and
that's it right there - our attack has neither blistering pace nor staggering skill, neither
exceptional strength nor great aerial ability. But it has brains, it comes with cunning and that's
the greatest weapon of all.
Anyway, Tistimetanu shot over after a speedy break - and it's worth pointing out that
any rejoicing in our splendour was muted by the possibility of an equaliser. Then Smart
forced Phillips into a two-handed save and Gudmundsson scooped foolishly wide from a
Noel-Williams cross as the match accelerated towards its climax.
We'd wasted chances and that nagging feeling that we'd be punished just grew. For the
final ten minutes, the nerves were shredded a little. Substitute Doherty shot wide,
ever-popular Thorpe did the same from a good position and was then denied by a block as he
pulled the trigger inside the area. Finally, however, we regained some composure. Kennedy
sent a cross-shot skidding through the area before Phillips pulled off a superb save, down to
his left with fingertips at full stretch, to keep out Noel-Williams' shot.
There was still one present left under the proverbial Christmas tree. Injury time began
with a Watford corner, resulting from that Phillips save. Kennedy touched the ball to
Noel-Williams, who shielded it at the corner flag. Doherty, dwarfed by the Watford centre
forward, challenged and knocked it out for another corner. Repeat performance, another
corner. Repeat performance, another corner. Repeat performance, Doherty man-handling Noel-Williams
and conceding a free kick. Repeat performance, another free kick. By now, all tension
had evaporated, replaced by riotous laughter as Doherty managed to get himself a yellow card for a combination of
dissent and not retreating ten yards. Then, finally, the cherry atop an already ample cake -
Thorpe arrived on the scene, gave the referee some abuse and talked his way into a booking. Comic
genius. The final whistle followed.
Like I say, wherever the season ends we'll have memories of some classic football matches. This was
one of them.
See also: Zyberreds, The Bristol City On-line Experience