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Nationwide League Division 1, 20/10/98
Bolton Wanderers 1(1)
Scorers: Gunlaugsson (25)
Watford 2(1)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Gibbs 4, Kennedy 5, *Page 5*, Palmer 4, Bazeley 4, Smart 4, Hyde 4, Noel-Williams 5, Johnson 4, Robinson 4
Subs: Mooney (for Smart) 0, Wright, Gudmundsson (for Gibbs) 3
Scorers: Noel-Williams (42), Kennedy (87)
Over the moon
Report by Ian Lay

There is an old cliche in football which goes "Over the moon, Brian". Over the moon? What does that mean? It doesn't explain anything. It doesn't for sure explain the feeling as the final whistle blew last night after one of the best games of football I have had the pleasure of witnessing whilst following Watford. Over the moon? More like over the moon, past Mars, through the asteroid belt, bypass Jupiter and Saturn, take a left at Uranus and zoom quickly past Neptune and Pluto then stop and shout at the top of my voice "YES!!!!"

For the neutral, this was wet yourself football, so you can imagine how drenched most Watford supporters were last night.

Some people may say that this was better than sex. And I would have to agree that when Peter Kennedy scored with three minutes to go I could fully understand how they feel.

For ninety minutes, everyone in the ground enjoyed end-to-end football at its best and, though under these circumstances it is a shame that there has to be a loser (and I feel a draw would have been a fair result), I really don't care as I have not enjoyed a game more for ages and cannot remember a trip home going so quickly as I wallowed in the memories of a truly great day out.

No two ways about it, this was a famous victory. Bolton are a good side, a very good side. Themselves and Sunderland are the two best sides in the division. So to beat them, and beat them at their ground when they haven't lost all season (home or away), cannot be emphasised enough.

Yes, we rode our luck, but so did they and if the game had finished 5-5 then I doubt either set of supporters would have complained.

But some must be asking themselves why the difference from Saturday's defeat at Tranmere? Well, very simply, it was a bit of Graham Taylor magic. With Millen injured, he had to make changes anyway, but what made the difference was to switch from the 3-5-2 wing back system to a more orthodox 4-4-2. And this was the master stroke. Not only did it allow both Kennedy and Bazeley to attack without worrying so much about defensive duties (they had Robbo and Gibbs covering them), but it allowed Robert Page to play in the formation I believe suits him best. He has never looked completely comfortable as part of three central defenders but in a flat back four he is brilliant.

It didn't start all that rosily, however, as the first five minutes were all Bolton and Chamberlain had to pull off two good saves, the best a brilliant reaction save to his right. But even in those opening exchanges we could have scored, both Noel-Williams and Hyde having efforts off target when they should have done better.

As they game progressed we came more into it and though Bolton were still creating chances we were also causing problems and getting more possession. But then disaster struck.

Frandsen got away from Gibbs and as Palmer came across to cover him he left a gap behind him. The ball was squared across the box and Gunlaugsson smashed the ball past the helpless Chamberlain. At this point the initial thoughts of a heavy defeat came back to many of us. Most people I spoke to before the game expected us to be beaten last night, and it looked like it was going to come true.

But we fought back. And during the fifteen minute period up to half time we really turned the screw. Hyde shot wide again when well placed and we forced a number of corners only to see Bolton clear their lines on each occasion.

But with half time approaching and wondering if GT would make any changes, we got back in the game. And really the pressure we had had in the previous fifteen minutes merited an equaliser.

Johno, midway into the Bolton half, looked to play a through ball into the path of Kennedy on the left flank. It looked as if he had misjudged the pace by about a yard and the defender would intercept. We were wrong. The ball was inch perfect and with the already committed defender missing his sliding interception, Kennedy was free on the left. He took the ball to the by-line and drove in a low hard cross. Gifton Noel-Williams stuck out a boot and the ball flew into the net. Cue wild celebrations and the feeling that we might get something out of this game. The rest of the play up until half time was all Watford and it really was a case of not wanting half time to come because we were on top. But come unfortunately it did.

The second half started much like the first, except we didn't get much of a look in. It was all Bolton for about fifteen minutes and several shots went just wide and Chamberlain had to gather a few routine shots. But as the half progressed we played more and more on the counter attack. Noel Williams wasted a good chance after a run down the right. He got close to the by-line then cut back into the box, but instead of shooting he tried to beat one player too many and the chance had gone. Noel-Williams again, and then Hyde, both had shots off target when they should have at least tested the keeper. But at least we were making Bolton fight and the best way to hold onto a draw is to counter attack and take the pressure off your defence for a while.

At the other end, we were at times living by the skin of out teeth. Palmer and Page were performing heroics in the centre of defence and both Robbo and Gibbs were getting in on the act with timely challenges when Bolton players were ready to shoot on goal. Even the crossbar was being our friend. Chamberlain seemed to flap at a cross from Johansen and the ball went over him to Gunlaugsson but his shot or header ( I couldn't quite see which) hit the underside of the cross bar, bounced down just in front of the line and then bounced clear before someone hoofed it to safety.

But even though most of the second half running was done by Bolton, you always felt that we could snatch another goal.

But as time was running out and everyone was looking at the clock on the scoreboard, the only thing that was being said was "If we can hold out for another few minutes we will have a very useful point".

Then the incredible happened.

Hyde and Gudmundsson (who'd come on for an injured Nigel Gibbs) combined from a throw on, but Hyde appeared to have nowhere to go close to the by-line. Somehow he managed to whip in a cross and Kennedy, stealing in late from beyond the far post, managed to wrap his left foot around the ball and squeeze the ball in from a very tight angle.

Cue even wilder celebrations. I have to admit I was in shock. I couldn't believe that this was happening. The feeling that myself and everyone must have had was pure joy.

It was then a matter of hanging on until the end, which included by my watch about five minutes of injury time (don't know where it came from). Even then we had our hearts in our mouths as Robbo cleared a ball off the line after a shot had deflected off Johno and wrong footed Chamberlain.

But eventually it was over and everyone was cheering and hugging each other, knowing that they had witnessed a great game of football and got the result no-one expected.

Each and every player out there last night was a hero. Everyone played well but none more so than Page, who was simply magnificent and was my man of the match. Gifton Noel-Williams, who held the ball up superbly all night, ran at people and of course scored the first goal. And also Kennedy who, released somewhat from his defensive duties, had his best game this season.

But no-one played badly. And even Steve Palmer who had had an uncomfortable first twenty minutes when he was up against the pace of Blake, came back to put in a great performance.

I'll leave you with a passage from a book I'm reading at the moment which I think sums up last night brilliantly. It's from a book called "Derby Days" and is written by two people I'm sure you've heard of; Dougie and Eddy Brimson:

"The beauty of Football is that it is always changing. No game is the same as the last one and no journey the same as the previous ones. Every time we pass through the turnstiles to gaze across the green expanse, we know that the game we are about to see could be the game, the one we've been waiting for and dreaming about when everything clicks and a football lesson is administered."

Last night was such a night.

Report by Dan Exeter

What a game, what a performance, perhaps most importantly, what a result. There we are, away, in the North West of all places, on a wet October Tuesday night, at the spanking new ground of a team just relegated and one of the favourites for the Championship this season, having lost to the bottom club the previous Saturday. Indeed, after the Tranmere game I'd heard fans saying that we'd be happy just to lose 4-1 or so at Bolton. Yet the boys pulled out a performance to be proud of, one that will linger in the memories of all the eight hundred or so privileged to see it for a long time, and which hopefully will be a springboard for a run of form that will let us all dream about the play-offs for that little bit longer.

The ground is fantastically easy to get to - just off one of the junctions of the M61 - and it looks more like some futuristic spaceship than a football stadium when you approach it, especially at night with the lights on. It's even got ample parking as part of the complex, although you have to pay a fiver for the privilege. Inside, the stadium is equally magnificent, with a large covered concourse with toilets which look like they might actually have enough room. The stands themselves are great too - the seats even have leg room!! You feel like you are in a dome, and all night we were sheltered effectively from the rain pouring down onto the pitch by the roof design despite being only a couple of rows from the front. Of course, all this luxury comes at a price - £14 if you sat in the lower tier, £17 if you chose to sit in the upper tier.

Perhaps the only potential downer of the stadium is that there's no easily identifiable home end. In fact, the atmosphere from the Bolton fans all night was truly dire. There was hardly any cheering, chanting, singing or indeed signs of life in the first half, while the second half was better but still poor.

Of course, now that we're in a stand with decent leg room the Watford fans present chose to stand. To give the stewards their due, they didn't stop us, and I think this contributed to the superb atmosphere the travelling Hornets were able to give the team.

The lads on the pitch were the eleven (more or less) who finished on Saturday. In a 4-4-2 formation we had Alec in goal with Gibbs, Page, Palmer (in for the injured Millen) and Robbo across the back. In midfield, Darren 'Basil' Bazeley was wide right, Johno and Micah in the middle and Kennedy wide left. Gifton and Smartie were up front. Bolton lined up similarly, notable players being the likes of Blake up front and Ricardo Gardiner (of Jamaican World Cup fame) in midfield.

As I mentioned above, we expected a tanking. The game began frantically, with Bolton generally proving faster and stronger. Yet for all their neat approach play, we contained them well and began to carve out openings of our own. If the ease with which they seemed to get the ball wide to their wingers who could then cross into our danger zone was a cause of concern for us, the 15,000 or so Bolton fans present must equally be concerned with the ease with which we too could get crosses in.

I don't know if it was because I was low down, near the pitch and right behind the goal, so I felt more involved, or whether it was simply the pace and the action of the game which means I have a lamentably poor memory of the exact course of events. I do remember feeling after about twenty odd minutes that we'd survived nearly a quarter of the match, and although Bolton had had a number of good chances (Alec had already pulled off a couple of great saves, to chants of 'Alec for England!!!') we too had created chances. I think we'd had more corners by then than in the whole of the game on Saturday, not that Bolton needed to have worried as we never score from corners.

Anyway, just as I was starting to feel a little less stressed, and as the cinema just outside was finally looking like the less attractive option after all, the bald Number 11 (I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to spell his name) finally converted one of the chances he was given, hammering the ball low and hard into the centre of the goal past Alec's left hand after beating Palmer in the box from a strong Bolton break.

'First of the many' I, and I'm sure others, thought. I half expected to see some heads drop - but in the same way the travelling contingent immediately began outsinging the home support, so the team on the pitch began to get right back into the game. Smart and Gifton up front were proving to be a handful, full of running and movement, and holding the ball and playing intelligent passes to our players. This made a pleasant change from the usual routine of finding unerringly the opposition's most lethal player.

For a while, we had Bolton pinned back in their half. We were producing some excellent approach play, we just could not find the right finish. Bolton broke occasionally, and with their 'shoot-on-sight' orders were able to rain shots down on the Watford goal. Luckily Alec proved able to the task, on one occasion tipping the ball over the bar without even conceding the corner!!

As half time approached and the consensus among the Watford ranks was that we could be worth a goal at some point, Kennedy suddenly found himself free on the left flank entering the area. This was at the far end of the pitch, and from where I was I wanted him to shoot. Instead of blasting the ball into the opposite corner, he played it low and hard to the near post. 'No!!' I screamed in frustration, wishing he could have seen what was so blatantly a better opportunity that I could see.

'Yeeeaaarrrrggghhhhh!!!' screamed the 799 or so other Hornets as we saw the ball ping its way round the Bolton goal. I'd seen Gifton in the box, yet it didn't click what had happened for what was probably a few milliseconds but felt like years.

Straight away after the goal, we continued attacking, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt that if the half had gone on for a few minutes longer we could have been 2-1 up then.

The second half was not as open as the first - indeed, virtually all the action took place at the other end of the pitch as Bolton put up a few tents and lit a couple of camp fires while they set about some shooting practice. It was a nerve wracking half. We were restricted to a few breaks. To even begin to list the number of chances Bolton had would use up all of Ig's webspace; we however had a couple of shots from Gifton - one created when he rounded a defender on the left and cut in, but didn't want to swing with his weaker left foot (why oh why didn't he do what he did at Chesterfield last season and dink it in with the outside of his right foot?). I think Micah had a shot saved too. Kennedy tried an immensely cheeky chip from a loose ball bouncing around at the edge of the area which the (immensely dodgy) keeper had to tip over.

We defended deep, barely a few yards out of the penalty area. With retrospect it was to deny Bolton the space to play the balls that the pacy Bolton attackers would thrive on. It was noticeable that Micah and Johno would chase players back only as far as the halfway line, before dropping off to regroup for the onslaught that was to follow.

At the time of course, we were screaming for the team to push up a bit more, to keep the ball as far away from the danger zone as possible. To their credit, we did push up a few times, even winning a couple of offsides (which is a rarity).

Notably, Smart and Gifton stayed up front, which if nothing else forced Bolton to keep some defenders back and meant we had the threat (if little else on occasion) of the break. They were great in the extremely difficult conditions of the second half, always running, always challenging, always trying to hold the ball, make it stick, and play it to the ever willing support.

Now, I'd have taken a 1-1 draw if you'd offered it to me at the start of the game. Hell, I'd have taken a 1-1 draw away at Bolton this time last year. I don't know whether GT wanted to win the game and thought he might as well go for it, or whether Gibbsy had a knock or was exceptionally knackered or something, but with about ten minutes to go he swapped Gibbs for Johann (inevitably pronounced Jo-ann by some) Gudmundsson. It was he and Micah who, very late on at the left hand (as we were looking) corner flag somehow wormed the ball to Micah running in on the area parallel with the goal line. Gifton and Smartie were huffing and puffing but lumbering only just entering the penalty area. Micah played the ball in hard and fast across the six yard line.

'Bollocks' I thought, wishing we had someone on the six yard line to kill Bolton off. 'Thank you very much' said Peter Kennedy, as he came steaming in on the left to sidefoot it sure and true into the back of the net. The keeper did well to get across from his near post so quickly but he could do no more than palm it into the onion bag.

Once again that explosion of delight, that ecstatic release of energy as we went ahead at the home ground of a team that had never lost and who were tipped to be Champions. One Hornet's over-exuberant celebrations got him an escort out of the stadium courtesy of the stewards, a large number of whom suddenly appeared to earn their night's wages.

It was fantastic. It was wonderful. It was superb. It was...oh I don't know, I've run out of superlatives. Bolton immediately and not surprisingly threw everything into getting that elusive equaliser. After the delight, the tension - it can't have been more than five or six minutes between Kennedy's shot and the ref's whistle, yet it felt like forever, especially as there was a goal line clearance from Johno and two penalty shouts from Bolton players through on goal. The first incident saw Palmer tackle wonderfully from behind; the second saw Robbo chop someone's legs off and happen to win the ball (always a bonus with a Robbo tackle). Magnificent.

Oh, how we leaped and cheered as the ref finally got bored and called it a day. It was great, wonderful (I'm running out of superlatives again). It made all those other away games, when we go a long way at great expense to witness a dire performance, suddenly worthwhile. I haven't enjoyed an away match so much in years (alas I missed the Fulham game). Hopefully I won't have to go so long before I enjoy one again, but you never know.

Man of the Match? Well I thought the whole team was great, as that's what this was, a team performance. People ran for each other, moved for each other, covered for each other, supported each other. They did their jobs and then some. Downers? Well, how can there be any?!! Ironically, the only player I would have had a go at would have been Kennedy, as I thought he lacked a bit of pace (still) and was consistently out of position, leaving Robbo with two opponents to deal with. Yet how can you criticise a man who set up one and scored the other? The whole team were great, and so were the fans, who kept on cheering, singing and supporting the team all the way through. The sorts of days when I can truly say that I'm proud to be a Hornet can be few and far between - yet after a performance like that both on and off the pitch I've got a whole week of gloating to enjoy!!

See also: Druid's Den