Report by Ian Grant
Stupendous. As stupendous as only the sixth straight win that takes us roaring
into a playoff place can be. Are you watching, Wanderers? Scratch that, we know they're
watching - the thought of Wolves and Bolton fans returning from the pub last night, bringing up
CEEFAX page 309, cursing loudly, then flicking over to 325 for a terrified glance at the league
table was one of the evening's many joys.
Immense. As immense as the noise generated by our amazing away following, standing throughout
under a tin roof and making the thing vibrate with deafening sound from before kickoff
until long after the final whistle. As immense as the chants of "MOONEY!MOONEY!MOONEY!" that saluted
the conquering hero while he stood and applauded back.
Insane. As insane as the car park afterwards, all Vale fans departed and leaving their stadium
to be engulfed by celebration. A cacophony of car horns and "YOOUUU 'ORRRRNSSS!" and beaming
grins to recognised faces and beaming grins to unrecognised faces and fists punching the
warm night air.
Magical. As Rupe would say, the magic was with us. Maybe it was just luck. Maybe you
make your own luck, maybe you don't. Maybe it's half past eight on a bright Wednesday
morning in Bedford, it's my birthday, it feels like my birthday and I don't care. Still
on one almighty high.
Your authentic battling away win, this. Amplified a hundred times over by context, such that the
flaws in the performance have no relevance - you can't argue with an earthquake, you can't
debate the merits of fifth position with two to play. When I concluded my Bury report
with the lines "They are capable of much, much more than dismal nil-nil draws against Oxford and
Bury. But I can only say it, it's up to them to prove it.", I wasn't even dreaming of this....
Let's face it, we enjoyed a healthy portion of good fortune. Not least in happening upon
a referee who appeared to have left his red card in the dressing room, and might easily have
reduced us to nine men in the first half. The moments of madness that scarred the match (and two
Vale players) before the interval really could've cost us. They didn't, but we won't be so
lucky next time.
That's the only blot on an otherwise spotless copybook. Whenever we were calm enough to dictate the
play, there was no question of mistaking which side was challenging for promotion and which
fighting the drop. Surviving the physical contest was a necessary part, the victory came
from more lethal attacking football.
The start was every bit as rip-roaring as we've come to expect. (I was going to say that it was
every bit as rip-roaring as we've become used to, but it's impossible to get used to this.) We should've
been ahead within five minutes as Tommy Mooney's superb first-time cross from the left found Michel Ngonge sneaking in
ahead of his marker. He beat Musselwhite to the ball, but side-footed it wide. Apart from that bit
of wastefulness, however, the striker was in gigantic form, his best Watford performance by some distance.
Two minutes later, Peter Kennedy's tidy cross found Paul Robinson venturing forward at the near post. He
was foiled by a defensive block, but the ball ran loose for Mooney to shoot across the face of
goal from an impossibly acute angle. After Richard Johnson had dragged a shot wide, Ngonge nearly set
up the Australian on the break but Musselwhite was out quickly to block.
Gradually, though, the game began to change. There's nothing left of John Rudge's lovely side but distant echoes,
Brian Horton having implemented the most simple "ugly-but-effective" survival strategy. We didn't want
to get involved in a slugging match with them. Yet we were sucked in, losing control in the process.
A smart turn and volley, just over, by the excellent Foyle was the first warning shot. Then a stray cross,
hooked in from the left, nearly crept in at the far post. Then Lee glanced a header wide from a
free kick, as prospects started to look a little less promising.
So the goal was marginally against the run of play. Still beautifully conceived and executed, though. Robert Page's
free kick from deep found Robinson on a foray forward again. His chest trap took him
past a defender, allowing enough time to pick out Mooney with a square ball - the comfortable,
shuffled finish was that of a striker in peak form.
That should've been the platform for a re-assertion of control. Instead, it all went
very pear-shaped very quickly, before we'd even thought about stopping celebrating. As a free kick
was cleared, some kind of off-the-ball incident between Palmer and Lee left the Vale striker on the ground inside
the area. After consulting his linesman, the referee booked Palmer and awarded a penalty, calmly
converted by Widdrington.
A bewildering incident. What followed within a couple of minutes was only bewildering
in terms of unbelievably lenient refereeing. As Watford broke, Mooney was tugged back by
Talbot on the halfway line. Innocuous enough, certainly no reason for Robinson to come
ploughing through the Vale player long after the whistle had gone. No excuses - it was a red card offence even if the ball had still been alive, that play had stopped only
made the decision more cut and dried. Talbot was left with a fractured leg.
For reasons best known to himself, the referee considered a booking sufficient punishment. If
the club were to further discipline Robinson, he could have absolutely no complaint - it was a horrible moment of
pure idiocy that left a fellow professional badly hurt and that ought to have left us
with ten men for the rest of this vital game. He must take responsibility for that.
As it was, we hung on until half-time. We'd lost all shape and cohesion, mentally we were
in tatters. We needed the interval so badly, to get our minds back on the job as much as
anything. Matt and I were both thinking the same thing, it later transpired - if the mayhem
of Tranmere had forged a new mental resolve and turned the season around, perhaps the mayhem
of Vale was about to reverse the process.
GT must've had his work cut out in the dressing room. Mercifully, we emerged fully focused. Although
the home side continued to make life difficult, the old resilience was back. Undistracted, we
went on to earn the points.
Fifteen minutes in, after Ngonge had been hauled down by Beesley (no booking, the referee having to
rule by his absurd precedent) and Rougier had shot wide when given an unusual amount of time to
pick his spot, Tommy Mooney added another chapter to Watford folklore. Chamberlain's clearance was flicked
on by Ngonge, towering by now, and the rest was pure Mooney determination. His first attempt was obscured from
view but it brought a fine save from Musselwhite. As the ball ran away, Mooney would not be denied -
a human cannonball, no stopping him, reaching it before it crossed the by-line and ramming it home. A solo
effort as thumpingly heroic as any mazy dribble or long-range screamer, a Hornet legend.
Endlessly encouraged by the fans, we held out for long enough to force Vale into
over-committing. Rougier had an effort ruled out for a foul on Darren Bazeley, Lee headed tamely
at Chamberlain, Brammer's break was ended by an awesome tackle by Page. We kept it tight,
then emerged to exploit the spaces in our opponents' half.
Especially on the left, where Kennedy and Robinson were frequently given total freedom to roam. The full back
was the first to go close, advancing unchallenged and shooting just wide from distance. Ten tense minutes
later, Kennedy was even nearer to that ecstatic third, collecting a Hazan pass and powering a drive that rebounded
with equal force from the inside of the post. As injury time began, Mooney was only denied an
astonishing hat-trick by Musselwhite's agility in palming away his curling shot.
Three minutes of added time didn't do the shattered nerves much good, especially when some
of our defending was as horribly fraught as the pleading whistles from the stand. We did enough, Lee's
weak shot the only sight of goal for the Vale strikers.
You know what this means. It doesn't need words. It's in the chants that are still
ringing in my ears, it's in the adrenalin rush that's still making my blood shiver through
my veins. It's all around, it'll be distracting me from everything I try and do until
Saturday. Rupe calls it "magic". He's got a point.
Five more wins. The chance of ultimate possibility.
See also: One Vale Fan In Bristol, Port Vale Online