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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 17/4/99
Crewe Alexandra 0(0)
Watford 1(1)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 4, Page 4, Palmer 5, Robinson 4, Whittingham 2, *Hyde 5*, Mooney 4, Bonnot 4, Wright 5
Subs: Smith, Hazan (for Wright) 0, Ngonge (for Whittingham) 0
Scorers: Mooney (24)
Report by Matt Rowson

I don't often go to games on my own. At most, it's a short trip down the motorway before meeting people in the pub. However on this occasion, Crewe being Crewe, I felt obliged to catch the train and despite my route taking me via Watford Junction I arrived at Gresty Road in the trance-like state that only four hours without conversation can induce.

Crewe's is a peculiar ground... four short, unobtrusive stands that seem to have been cut from the same strip, dwarfed by the first chunk of a large new stand rising from behind the current stadium. Currently the structure extends barely a quarter down one side of the pitch. When completed (presumably with the help of Seth Johnson's inevitable summer departure) it will look more out of place in comparison with the more modest stands on the other three sides than the main stand does at Elland Road.

My seat was directly behind the goal. Given that I was barely above pitch level it wasn't terribly easy to make out events at the opposite end, but in a stand with eight rows of seats we were all in the same boat. Surrounding me was the wonderful variety that makes up a football club's support, at the same time a pleasant change and a reminder of why reserved seating at the Vicarage Road end is such a bad idea. A grandfather with his grandson's wide-eyed birthday entourage, a sombre youth with walkman phone in one ear, a gang of lads whose beeriness was betrayed by the volume of their conversation, an elderly couple and a smirking, leery bunch making hand gestures at the ambivalent Crewe support.

Watford started with the same line-up that faced Bolton, bar the two changes enforced by suspension. Bonnot, making his first start, was a popular choice to replace Johnson, whilst Whittingham came in for Smart. Crewe, as expected, came out attacking Watford and an early move down the right resulted in a cross which the unmarked Jack volleyed over.

Rivers, who supplied the cross, was looking dangerous but Robinson wasn't going to allow him as much space again, and theirs became the most interesting duel of the afternoon. Robinson gained revenge for his early exposure by fooling Rivers later with a sudden change of direction that sent the winger skidding and sprawling on the slippery surface.

Much of the early play was quite frantic, an impression exacerbated by the acute angle from which we regarded play. Bonnot in particular seemed to be scampering around chasing the game rather than dictating it. Eventually, however, the Hornets began to impose themselves. Nick Wright was at his impossible best, scurrying down the wing, turning Shaun Smith inside out on several occasions with audacious changes of direction, and burrowing underneath opponents to come away with the ball.

Watford's best early chance came from a sublime piece of skill from Wright that left the bedraggled Smith standing in confusion. Wright's cross from the right was a little too high for Mooney but was met on the drop with a cracking shot from Kennedy, blocked by Crewe's giant defender Dave Walton.

As the half went on, Watford were turning the screw with Bazeley in particular, revelling in the absence of any attacking threat down the left, pushing forward. The goal came... a turn and shot from Mooney greeted with delirium in the away end. Further detail was lost in the confusion... it didn't seem to matter, the game was so open that further goals seemed inevitable.

Crewe, for their part, were far from out of it but two incidents in particular summed them up... the first, a goalmouth scramble at the Watford end during which Seth Johnson picked up the ball. Rather than blast it through the field of legs, Johnson kept the ball in the air with delicious skill, flicking it from side to side in search of an opening that never came.

The second: a sweeping move down the right, an arrogant lay-off (by Rivers ?) to Murphy who blasted the ball over the bar. Crewe, it appears, are unwilling to compromise their approach. Their attacks combined sexy football with lower division flat-footedness in equal measure. Before the game I'd have said that they won't go down... there are plenty of eminently more useless teams at the foot of this division. However, for all their enterprise Alec Chamberlain didn't have to save an on-target effort all game, and his most meaningful contribution (beyond taking a few crosses) was the speed with which his giant throws released the marauding Bazeley.

After a few half chances from both sides half-time came. The birthday party had been overcome with excitement by getting Luther's autograph before kick-off (despite being in nappies the last time he played for the Hornets) and now disappeared in search of sweets. The sombre youth glumly relayed the half-times from Bolton and Birmingham. Meanwhile, Crewe's mascot ("Grrrrresty the Lion") had materialised to throw Lion bars into the crowd. An overeager member of the smirking, leery bunch stretched over backwards to grab a bar, gracelessly flattening the old man on top of his wife in the process. The woman disappeared to first aid, reappearing rejuvenated midway through the second half. The lad's apologies might have been more convincing if he'd stopped grinning whilst making them.

Second half, and although it's not one-way traffic there's only one team threatening to score. Kicking towards us now, and with the front of the stand only inches from the goal line, the involvement of the team with their support was huge, and there was plenty of fist waving and gesturing as they lined up for a succession of corner kicks.

Our midfield was magnificent... Hyde was every-f***ng-where, one minute surging out of defence leaving Crewe trembling in his wake, the next minute skipping and gliding around Crewe's perplexed defence with the ball glued to his foot.

However after the three points, the most pleasing aspect of the afternoon was the performance of Alexandre Bonnot. In a recent episode of Red Dwarf, the team finds a gadget that enables them to slow down or speed up time around them to suit their needs. It would appear that GT has found just such a gadget. For a while we've seen Steve Palmer continue the John McClelland trick of lumbering faster than most players can run (he outpaced Rodney Jack, fer christ's sake). Now, Bonnot seems to have the ability to kill the ball and send outrageously pinpoint passes cutting through a defence at leisure whilst pandemonium rages around him.

The greatest concern is perhaps that we didn't add to our tally in the second half, resulting in a scoreline that didn't reflect our superiority. Wright was an early, unfortunate culprit, haring in on goal and turning his defender twice before curling a shot wide.

As time went on, we came closer... Whittingham had a free header saved, Kennedy cut inside from the right and looped in a shot which was headed off the line. Right at the end, a succession of passes resulted in the incomparable Tommy Mooney thundering in a shot which beat the stranded keeper and seemed destined for the top corner before crashing spitefully off the underside of the crossbar and clear.

Crewe, meanwhile, had attacking possession but never seemed likely to score... a header from a corner went wide, whilst their best chance was wasted by the ever-popular Mike Newell. GT replaced Whittingham with the eager but ineffective Ngonge, and then the exhausted Wright went off to an ovation. He had earned the disapproval of the home support by injudiciously going in late on Johnson, but had plenty of admirers in the Watford ranks. After the game, he returned onto the pitch to pay homage to the travelling fans and was the last one off, bowing his arms in recognition of his support.

Perhaps strangely, it seems fitting to close this report by focusing on Watford's least effective performance. On the evidence of performances so far, Guy Whittingham's stay at Watford is unlikely to go down as a success. Indeed, if you'd believe the purple-faced wrath of one of the beer monsters behind me, Whittingham is probably responsible for everything from the state of Britain's manufacturing industry to the Charge of the Light Brigade.

However, whilst Whittingham looks cumbersome, and is not displaying the passion infecting the rest of the side, two incidents provide food for thought. Firstly, after Wright's bad second half miss, Whittingham was straight there with a word and an arm around the shoulders, encouraging the younger striker. Second: after the game Whittingham was straight back on the pitch and right up to the travelling Hornets offering his thanks. In the past our unsuccessful loanees have included Mick Quinn, Steve Morrow and Nigel Jemson. If this is what a current failure looks like, we really are making progress.

See also: The Crewe Alexandra Extravaganza