Watford in widescreen
Report by Ian Grant
After umpteen years of spectating in the Vic Road end, a brief holiday in the
Main Stand, courtesy of a loaned season ticket. For a start, rather like watching your
favourite film in widescreen, it comes as something of a disorientating shock to be
seeing a home game from the side. Hearing the fans roar in anticipation as a pass
rolls harmlessly ten yards in front of Gifton Noel-Williams at the Rookery end is just
one reminder of how perspective distorts a football match.
There are those who'd reduce the ground's only pre-Taylor stand to a pile of rubble
at the earliest opportunity. I'm not so sure. There's a certain charm about the place,
its rabbit warren of tunnels and walkways. Wandering around before kickoff, there's a
delightful feeling that one wrong turn will lead to the dressing rooms and an unscheduled
Watford debut. It is not, quite clearly, a lovely stand. It is, I think, a lovely
place, something that the other three sides can only aspire to.
But I won't be going back in a hurry. Although the view may be glorious and there
may be no half-time queue for the toilets, it just ain't the same. If the Vic Road end
is hardly a carnival of noise and colour, the atmosphere on the sides is so thin it's hardly
like being at a football match at all.
And, in several ways, this was hardly like a football match. Oxford's preparation was
less than ideal - debts, unpaid wages, threats of strikes and administration. Sometimes
that can be a catalyst, forcing players to focus on the one thing they still have some
control over; sometimes the whole exercise of playing football is an unwelcome extra burden. No
prizes for guessing which is true at Oxford. This was no contest.
That the away side turned up with their usual yellow shirts and were forced to borrow
their host's change strip is indicative of the whole shambles. I guess when
your house is burning down, you don't worry too much about putting your underpants on
the right way round.
No matter how little you can take for granted on a football pitch, there was only ever
one destination for these three points. Hence the distinctly low key first half, nothing
more than a sleepy wait for the inevitable. Interesting, though, to watch a Watford
side that's grown used to fighting for every scrap being forced to take centre stage.
For a very inexperienced forward line, this match offered new challenges and yielded mixed,
but thrilling, results.
From the first minute, the domination was so absolute as to be embarrassing. As Nick
Wright picked up on Gifton Noel-Williams' flick to turn and drive in a shot from the edge
of the box within ninety seconds of kickoff, it was apparent that the game would only
be about one thing - the Hornets' ability to convert chances. Whitehead in the Oxford goal
was equal to that one, diving down to his right to push the ball away - just the first
of several good saves that saw the keeper fully earn his 'I owe you' note.
Whitehead was out smartly to deny Noel-Williams in the eighth minute, the teenage having
been played in by adventurous work from Darren Bazeley. Five minutes later, a lovely,
measured pass by Wright set up Micah Hyde for a disappointingly weak shot at the keeper.
Ironic, bearing in mind the almost monotonous Watford possession and the frequent flashes
of quality in our approach play, that the breakthrough should be the result of an
innocuous set piece. Peter Kennedy's in-swinging corner was nothing special and should've
been cleared. Instead, it was allowed to bounce right through and arrive at the
far post, where Steve Palmer overcame his surprise to sidefoot the ball through a melée of
Game over. With the United attack so muted as to be inaudible, Watford continued to
wander half-heartedly forward in search of a more convincing win. Wright hooked a
Gudmundsson free kick over at the near post; Noel-Williams fired wide after Bazeley's
switch inside had ended with a blocked shot; Noel-Williams mis-timed his header following
more good work by Bazeley on the right wing.
It wasn't terrifically convincing. The quality of the final ball, particularly from
Gudmundsson, was generally woeful, a succession of crosses cut out at the near post or wandering
aimlessly out of play. Like a cat killing a pigeon that it can't be bothered to eat,
our quick, mobile strikeforce dragged the Oxford defence into all kinds of weird shapes and
then lost interest. No complaints at half-time, of course, but no jumping for joy either.
The second half began with Oxford's only entertaining contribution to the afternoon, a
completely bizarre kickoff manoevre that involved four players gathering on the left
touchline and charging forward to get underneath a hoisted ball. Hey, if it works in rugby...then, erm,
it doesn't work in football....
No change in the pattern, except that Oxford's attempts to strike back left even more
room for the forwards to exploit. Which they duly did, in all conceivable ways apart from sticking
the ball in the back of the net. Early on, Richard Johnson's through ball released Noel-Williams
on the right. With Gudmundsson and Wright screaming for a pass to his left, Gifton
went alone and saw his low shot into the far corner turned wide by Whitehead. A couple of
minutes later, it was Wright's turn for target practice, the youngster shooting wide when
clear with enough time to pick his spot - the first of several hideous misses.
The pace was still pedestrian, though. In such circumstances, it takes something a bit
special to raise proceedings above the ordinary. And that's what we got, in the shape of
a refereeing decision so balanced in its absurdity that there wasn't a person in the ground who
didn't feel aggrieved. As an Oxford corner was cleared, there were appeals for a penalty
against Micah Hyde. It clearly wasn't, but that didn't stop Gray getting into a
row with Johnson while Watford turned defence into attack. With Noel-Williams and colleagues
out-numbering opponents, the referee hauled play back to book Gray. Cue outrage on
all sides of the stadium.
The match was instantly transformed. Grudges, unwise tackles (including one effort from Kennedy that
appeared to be a judo throw), more refereeing madness, all the stuff
that lends football a sense of drama. After nearly an hour of watching, we had something
to be involved in.
What followed was thirty-five glorious minutes of vintage Taylor-made Watford. Oxford
were left floundering. Using the full width of the pitch, sliding passes this way and
that, making a mockery of the media's stereotype, the Hornets turned on the style. But, as ever,
the style was only a means to an end, each pass linking like 'join the dots' to form
a giant arrow pointing to the opponents' goal. Yeah, this is what I remember from my childhood.
Only feeble finishing prevented us from winning by seven or eight goals. So, deep breath. Hyde returned an Oxford goalkick to find Wright running through as other Watford
players returned from offside positions. He drove a shot across goal, Whitehead pulling
off his best save of the match to touch the ball round the post. A minute later,
Noel-Williams combined with Wright to set up Gudmundsson, who shot over from inside the box. Hyde
and Kennedy linked up well on the left before crossing for Wright, who was tackled as he was about
to make the decisive contact. Johnson shot wide from distance.
That was all in a ten minute spell. But - fanfare, please - it wasn't all one-way traffic. Oxford
did manage their only on-target effort of the match, a free kick so tame it wouldn't have
merited a mention under normal circumstances.
Then, finally, the goal. And what a goal. Gudmundsson swerved elegantly in from the right
wing, exchanging one-twos with anyone who'd join in, before slipping the ball into the path of Noel-Williams'
run. All the hard work was done - Gifton took it in his stride and clipped it past the keeper
with the outside of his boot. Now that's direct football.
Oxford might've pulled one back immediately afterwards, as Beauchamp's run to the byline set up
Thomson for a shot that was blocked by Palmer. But that was just a temporary loss of
concentration and the resumption of normal service wasn't long delayed. Noel-Williams
supplied Wright, who beat Whitehead to the bouncing ball and flicked it over the keeper's head, only
for a defender to chase back and clear on the line. Wright headed over from a corner a
minute later, then Kennedy skied a half-volley.
Johnson's genius, a flick of the heel that wrong-footed the whole stadium, gave Noel-Williams
a chance of further glory - through on goal yet again, he placed his shot carefully past
the post. Finally, Kennedy's interception of a loose pass provided Gifton with another
clear shooting opportunity, his effort deflected just wide by a defender.
The attackers get the plaudits - and rightly so, since their passing and movement was thrilling and exceptional,
even if the final touch was too often lacking. Gifton Noel-Williams, the subject of praise in
Tuesday's report, was just monstrous. The Oxford defenders simply
couldn't handle him - the sight of a Watford centre forward receiving the ball with his back to
goal, taking all kinds of stick from his marker, then wheeling around and roaring forward
will be my abiding memory of this match. No comparison with predecessors will do. There was a time when Gifton was all mayhem
and no refinement. That time was about five weeks ago. He's suddenly arrived.
That Oxford were barely noticeable had much to do with some quieter, less flamboyant
performances elsewhere. Neither Johnson nor Hyde had the kind of matches that win much acclaim,
yet their presence denied the opposition any hope of success. By the time United's
occasional attacks had made it through the midfield cross-fire, they were shot to pieces. Any
attempts to bypass the midfield with the long ball was ended abruptly by the domination
of Page and Palmer. Truly, this was as comprehensive a victory as you will see.
Report by Steve Harris
Mr. Logic, that's me. Steve "PROVE IT TO ME" Harris. No religion for me I'm afraid. You see, religion is all about faith and I need solid facts. Besides, there's far too many unanswered questions - how did the Universe get here, what is my purpose in life, and the big one of course, why would anyone pay £500,000 for Gerard Lavin?
I'm not given to wild flights of optimism, nor pessimism. You can keep your happy-happy paradise, unfortunately I need pragmatic and sensible, cold reality. So when Oxford United came to town on Saturday, I carefully got out my jeweler's eyepiece, looked at all the facts, studied the details, read the small print and, yes, there really can no longer be any doubt about it....
THIS IS ONE OF THE FINEST WATFORD SIDES I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!!!
This was magnificent, this was extraordinary, this was...very sexy indeed actually.
Let's examine Saturday's evidence, shall we?
Firstly we need to go to my Book of Memories and find "The Most One Sided Game Of Football I've Ever Seen".... Ah, here it is. Watford 8 Sunderland 0 (and, yes, I am THAT OLD - cheeky!). Now if we hold it up to the light, alongside Saturday's game....hmmmmm. Non-stop waves of attacking football from the Hornets, everybody firing on all cylinders, breathtaking skill, total humiliation of opposition...certainly the finishing was much better back then, but otherwise pretty much identical.
It's hard to know where to start with the details of the game itself - it was just so action packed that if I start listing all the incidents, we'll run out of memory on display.co.uk's webserver and crash the bloomin' thing. Then Ig will be in big troub' and we don't want that, do we? So forgive me if I generalise a bit.
From the very first kick, we were always going to win this one. Within a minute, Whitehead (Inspired Opposing Keeper #2 this week) had to move smartly across his goal to keep out a shot from Nick Wright from the edge of the box. Soon after, GNW was put through on goal but Whitehead saved at his feet.
It carried on like this for a while until I pointed out to my mate "Can't remember the last time we scored from a corner". Up pops Steve Palmer on the back stick, 1-0. (PK's definitely whipping in some wicked corners at the moment - I can't understand why he doesn't take them from both sides.)
The Hornets continued to dominate with a hell of a lot of flair and ideas up to the break. I don't recall a single noteworthy attack from Oxford throughout the entire half (playing in our away strip as their kit manager only brought yellow shirts - HOW THICK IS THAT?!!). I like this 4-4-2 formation and so does Robert Page. He don't really get this new-fangled, three centre-half and two wing back stuff (bless 'im), in fact he flaps about like a fish out of water. But stick him in a good ol' flat back four and suddenly he becomes...well, like a fish IN water. Graceful, effortless, quick and very much at home. This week he has looked back to his very best (with Stevie Palmer not far behind him). There's a lot to be said for moulding the side around your better players and Page is definitely one of those.
If Watford were excellent in the first half, they were very, very, VERY excellent in the second. The other thing that's working well with the current formation is the over-lapping full backs that swap roles with the wide midfielders almost invisibly. This confuses the opposition, opens up the play and gives the impression that a goal could come from any direction at any time and from any player - AND I BLOODY LOVE IT!
Oxford brought on three second half subs but they were unable to do anything to stop the Hornet steamroller. The only thing threatening to do that was some refereeing straight out of the twilight zone. When Oxford screamed for a penalty (no effing way!) , Watford broke at the speed of light and Gifton again ended up with only the keeper to beat. The ref then blew up for a foul on Jonno back in our own half. Cheers mate!
The sense of injustice over the non-penalty made United raise their game...not very much. The Hornets soon bullied them back down on to the playground tarmac and they never really got a look in after that.
In midfield, Mr. Hyde continued his recent excellent form. Jonno never really reached Tuesday's Stallone-esque heroic standards, though still influential. He did however provide us with one flash of pure genius that will be forever etched upon my retina. He ran with the ball to the center-edge of the Oxford box and as he moved to his right (dragging two defenders with him) he produced the best back-heeler I think I've EVER seen (I mean, forget Gazza at The Dell...) to release Noel-Williams clear on goal. Goal of the season then - except that Gifton missed it, of course (Doah!).
It was one of the chastening moments for all of us sad gits who have the occasional delusion that, yes, we too could have been a pro footballer. The hat-trick you once scored, that Sunday you beat three defenders and set up the winner? It's the likes of Jonno that wreck all of that and a little voice inside your head says "Yeah, but you couldn't do THAT though, could you matey?!!". If that had been a Brazilian in the World Cup, the TV companies would have worn out the videotape by now.
After numerous missed chances and flying saves, Watford finally got goal number two and when it came it was a beaut. The stylish Gudmundsson (another of GT's little gems) brought the ball down and played a 1 - 2 with Hyde followed by another with Gifton, setting the striker through for his 10th (ish) chance on goal. This time no mistake and he very nicely chipped the ball into the net with the outside of his boot. Lovely!
Many more "ooh!"s and "aahh!"s followed before the final whistle, but 2-0 it sadly remained. Truly another classic game for the memory banks.
Up front GNW and Nick Wright were both magnificent - on another day they'd both have ended up with a match ball to keep. Young Gifton played like the multi-million pound footballer he will no doubt one day become - didn't stop some bloke behind me slagging him off every five minutes though. Okay, okay, I know we all pay our money and we are all entitled to our opinion, but COME ON! On the planet I come from, the teenager had what's called "An Outstanding Game" and if you can't enjoy a performance like that, pal, then I feel truly sorry for you.
So GNW as Man-Of-The-Match, no question.... Or maybe it was Nick Wright? No, definitely Gifton.... Or Wright. Oh, to hell with it - let them share the damn thing (Gifton, you can have it 'till Wednesday. Wrighty, you can have it the rest of the week - okay?).
Conclusion: This week has seen the emergence of a Watford team that, for the sake of argument, we shall call "Formula B", due the fact that "Formula A" currently has its collective leg in plaster on the treatment room table. But - OH NO! - to me, "B" looks rather better than "A". I bet even Mr Taylor (Sir) didn't expect that! Could it be that when some of the walking wounded return in a couple of weeks they will find their places well and truly snaffled-up by their eager replacements?
Me, I can't wait to find out.
Report by Matt Bunner
"Roll up, roll up!!", bellows the burly games-keeper. "Knock 'em down,
to win a prize!"
"What do we have to do?", asks Graham Taylor.
"Well, you have thirty shots at the Oxford coconuts and each time you knock
one out you get a prize!! It's as easy that you know!"
"I've never heard of Oxford coconuts before", replies Mr. Taylor. "Do
they grow them there or are they imported?"
The games-keeper pauses. "Well, son. It's a sad state of affairs. Oxford
coconuts used to be the pride of the M40. They were wholesome, tasty,
lovely looking and regularly attracted attention around the country.
Hell, they even made it to Wembley! Then the production line suffered
some losses and an appeal was launched to 'Save Our Oxford Coconuts'.
Along came this supposed saviour, Mr Maxwell and ploughed some money
into the coconut plant, but he interfered too much in the genetics of
the coconuts and they came out too hairy with not enough taste. The
locals objected, howling 'you're ruining our nuts!' and so Maxwell left.
The lack of investment has led to low morale within the factory -
nobody's being paid!! Can you believe that!? But credit to them, they're
still churning out the famous coconuts."
"Why have you got all eleven coconuts grouped together? That makes it too
easy for us, surely?", inquired Taylor.
"I know. Like I said, the quality ain't what it used to be, so I need to
shift stock quickly so that I can move to a different supplier", answers
"Fair enough; this should be quite easy then.....", beams Taylor.
By this time you will know how well and how badly both teams played on
Saturday from reading the other BSaD reports and from the national press,
so I won't repeat what has already been written. We had several injuries
to our squad but that is just a butterfly flapping its wings compared to
the hurricane that is blowing through Oxford at the moment. All this
week Oxford have been hitting the headlines with how they are struggling
to survive. They can't afford to pay the staff and the players,
effectively giving their services for free - some of you may take the
hard line that they can survive because "they're footballers", but
you try and work for a couple of weeks without being paid
and see how you get on. Remember, this is Oxford Utd and NOT Manchester
I'm not surprised the morale is low at the club. On Saturday the Oxford
fans were in jovial mood before the kick-off but once they realised that
their team had turned up as whipping boys in Watford's away kit, the
mood turned to deep depression. I genuinely felt sorry for them. All
that way for nothing, not even a shot worthy of a mention. Frustrated
shouts of "You've been paid now, so show some fight" were
understandable but carried less weight than a paper tissue.
You could almost sense the charity on the pitch from Watford as they
contrived to miss chance after chance. The first half was so one-sided it
was embarrassing and I think the feeling of "kicking a man while he's down"
got to Watford as they became casual before the break. They deserved
their 1-0 half-time lead, but in true Watford style you could sense they
could always give the opposition a chance.
The second half was even more embarrassingly one-sided - the referee
should have instructed Chamberlain and the ground staff to move the goal
onto the half way line. Wright missed, Gudmundsson missed, GNW missed,
Wright missed again, Kennedy missed, GNW missed again, Johnson missed,
Wright missed again - frankly, who didn't miss? Certainly not the referee
who amazingly called play back a full seventy yards with Watford about to
score - I hope the assessor caught that one.
Fair enough, they did miss, but the play to create the chances was full of
marvellous one-touch stuff. If people still think we hoof the ball
up front, get a copy of this game and send it to them. You may argue that
Oxford were down-hearted, but you can only beat what's put in front of
you and the score was only 1-0: to emphasis the point, Palmer did
brilliantly to block a goal bound shot.
Oxford were finished off with a goal that contained more one-twos than an
episode of 'Come Dancing". Gudmundsson, Wright and GNW conspired to produce
a goal of epic proportions that slammed the coffin door shut on Oxford -
let's hope it wasn't permanently. That typified the performance turned
in by Wright and Gifton - I wonder if anyone noticed that Smart wasn't
Watford did their job professionally, but in a totally one-sided game we
should have won 6-0. Taylor may have a few words to say about that. As
for Oxford, they may have to start busking in Watford High Street in
order that they can pay the kitman so that he can turn up with the right
outfit. There are some very, very dark clouds hanging over Oxford and,
for the foreseeable future, it's gonna rain hard.
"Well done, sir! You've knocked two down, but I'm sure you'll agree that
you should have had more?!", said the games-keeper.
"Yes, I should have had more. I was so close many times, but I just
couldn't hit them !", Graham said.
"Couldn't or wouldn't, Sir?", countered the shy-keeper.
See also: Ox Tales