Report by Ian Grant
Renowned literary academic AC Bradley once wrote of Shakespeare's "King Lear"
that it is "too huge for the stage". In other words, attempting to squeeze
such an absolutely immense, overwhelming spectacle - storms, insanity, rage,
evil, revenge, forgiveness, redemption - into a theatre is like trying to trap a
hurricane in a matchbox.
You could say much the same of the concluding twenty minutes of Watford versus
Tranmere. "Too huge for a football pitch" - lawless carnage that refused to recognise
the touchline as any kind of barrier, spilling over into the dugouts, the dressing rooms, and
the stands. There was simply too much to take in, too
many incidents happening at once for anything to make any sense. Some mutant,
futuristic, ultra-violent descendant of the game we all love, unrecognisable
but unbearably thrilling. It was bedlam.
At the Mailing List bash afterwards, people were swapping information like
this was some kind of observation test. Some saw the incidents that resulted in two red cards for
Watford players, some saw the penalty offence, some saw the undisciplined
mayhem around the dugouts, some probably saw other things that I haven't even
heard about yet. But no-one - and I mean absolutely no-one, particularly
not the officials - saw it all.
And, whatever you can say about an idiotic referee who lost any semblance of control
and allowed minor disagreements to disintegrate into full-scale brawls, it
was exactly what we needed. For seventy minutes, we were on the way to another
dreary, scoreless home defeat with all the bitterness and recrimination that always involves. It
had all the makings of a thoroughly depressing afternoon. For the final
twenty minutes, we were hardly playing any better but the fans were as one and
the team had some burning fire back in their bellies. Perhaps all we really needed was a corner
to fight our way out of.
So let's return to the start, on the understanding that none of what happened in
the first half matters any more than a light rain storm before Armageddon.
Many will say differently, but I thought we were showing signs of minor improvement. The
welcome return of Allan Smart to the attack brought a little cohesion, his knack
of bringing others into the game making our forward play look rather less
random than of late. Which isn't to suggest that we looked like scoring, it's just that
those of us who've stayed loyal to this set of players are grateful for
any straws to clutch at right now.
We approached the opposition goal like a mountaineer climbing Everest - carefully,
safely, and without any real confidence that we were going to make it to the top.
It was watchable enough by recent standards...but the days of cheering on
a defence-shredding Watford attack seem depressingly distant. We've become too
aware of ourselves, too nervously self-conscious, we need some way of forgetting the
Worryingly, Tranmere's counter-attacks were infinitely more dangerous. After Alec
Chamberlain had made a comfortable save from a near post bundle at one of Challinor's stupendous
long throws, they created the first of three very presentable chances. Santos
beat Paul Robinson in midfield to give Taylor a clear run at goal - to the vast
amusement of the home fans, who were grimly waiting for the net to bulge, he stubbed
his toe, fell over and watched the ball trickle out for a goal kick.
Six minutes later, one of Richard Johnson's sporadic errors ended with Kelly
sauntering forward on the left and unleashing a fierce drive. Chamberlain responded
magnificently, diving away to tip the ball over the bar...but failed to impress the
match officials, who gave a goal kick to the disbelief and annoyance of various Tranmere
So more than half an hour had passed before we managed a goal attempt of any
worth. Peter Kennedy reacted first to a loose ball and headed on for Smart, whose
half-volley from a tight angle was easily gathered by Achterberg. The Tranmere
keeper actually had to make a reasonable save five minutes afterwards, Kennedy's driven
shot from a Bazeley cross foiled by an acrobatic stop. But that was it, the complete
end product from so much incessant poking and probing. A goal seemed as remote
Tranmere had another couple of raids before the interval, Taylor prodding wide
from an Allen pass and Kelly shooting over on the turn, but it was sterile stuff. We've
become so used to goalless draws in recent weeks that we're now comparing
the merits of them and re-defining what it means to play well. If this was better
than Bury, it was still brain-rottingly dull.
It was to get worse. For fifteen minutes at the start of the second half, our
ponderous attacks withered and finally died. Meanwhile, Tranmere took advantage
and took the lead. They'd already come very close - Challinor's incredible throw
from the left touchline flew right through the area and hit the far post before
being hacked clear, no way of telling whether it got that crucial touch on the way.
Then, just a minute later, Robinson - who'd had a fine, aggressive game up until that point - looked for Page with a simple, unhurried
header as Watford tried to put some passes together. But he missed, Kelly
pounced and steered a finish past Chamberlain. Things looked very, very bleak.
Curiously, though, we woke up a little. None more so than Robbo, who embarked
on a heroic one-man mission to redeem himself and was a left back only in theory
for the remainder of the game. The goal rattled us, no question. For a
while, we looked as exasperated and thoroughly irritated as most of the
fans in the stands. Unable to see a way of putting any pressure on the Tranmere
goal, our frustration was expressed in bad temper. The tussles that had been
going on all game - Johnson with Irons (both booked for a playground squabble
over a free kick), Smart with everyone - simply got nastier, the
seeds of what was to follow were sown.
The triple substitution - bringing on Alexandre Bonnot, Michel Ngonge and Tommy Mooney
for the largely woeful trio of Micah Hyde, Johann Gudmundsson and Guy Whittingham -
gave us new hope. That's happened before, though, and we've been almost
Not this time, however. We scored, and it was a beautiful thing. Mooney did the work on the left
wing, flinging in a cross to the far post. Kennedy was there, ten yards out
and all alone, to send a sweetly struck half-volley skimming past Achterberg. Suffice
to say that the celebrations were rather more delirious than you'd expect for
an equaliser at home to Tranmere.
They were up for it now. Looking no more likely to score, in all honesty, but definitely
up for it, taking on the challenge with some conviction. For fifteen
minutes, the players hurled themselves towards the Tranmere goal and found a defence
holding firm. But at least we were up on our feet, roaring them on, going out
with a bang not a whimper.
Then the midfield battles boiled over again. I was too busy looking at Hill
writhing around on the floor, intent on drawing attention to an off-the-ball
encounter with Smart, to see Johnson's challenge on Irons. One of the two incidents brought
Tranmere manager John Aldridge onto the pitch in protest, as everything began
to disintegrate into complete chaos. The referee saw nothing of the tackle either
and had to consult a soon-to-be-infamous referee's assistant. The
verdict, a second yellow card, brought hellish abuse of the linesman from the
Watford midfielder as he left the field - presumably, from what I've been told by
those who did see it, on the grounds that he'd won the ball. Graham Taylor pushed
his player away, then turned on the official himself with furious indignation. For a
further two or three minutes, the linesman was subject to the full wrath of
GT. Meanwhile, Aldridge was getting himself involved in altercations with supporters in the
And that was just the start. Five extremely nasty minutes later, it all went
off. From a Watford corner, Mooney rose to head and Achterberg tipped over. But that
linesman was waving his flag again.
After consultation with the referee, the award of a penalty was confirmed. Again,
I can't claim to have seen anything. The general consensus is that there was some
holding on Ngonge as the cross came over - but let's be honest, if you're going to
give penalties for minor, off-the-ball offences like that then you have to give them
all, not just one. In which case you'll have about fifty-seven penalties in every match. Not
that I'm complaining too much on this occasion, natch.
The Tranmere players went berserk, surrounding both referee and linesman in protest, while
we celebrated. For a couple of minutes, there was nothing but the strewn debris of a
football match - players in groups, officials fending off angry remonstrations, stewards and police
nervously pacing about, no indication that the football would ever re-start. The referee
had lost his authority, and the result was anarchy.
Finally, Peter Kennedy stepped up to take the kick. And it was awful, low to Achterberg's
left but well within his reach. Mercifully, the rebound came out to Ngonge who, via a deflection,
found the net.
The referee, in one of the most stupid moments of his life, decided to turn his back on
the penalty area and run to the halfway line to curtail Ngonge's celebrations. So, once again,
that linesman was left to take notes on the bar-room brawl that erupted in the six yard
box. When I looked down, Allan Smart and David Kelly were going at it like nobody's business. None of your
usual push and shove, this - Kelly's shirt had somehow been removed and both were throwing, and landing,
punches. Various others were clearly involved - not least Acterberg, who'd lost his rag completely and was
also making gestures to the home supporters for which he was later reported. Meanwhile, other
Tranmere players were continuing their protests over the penalty decision to the linesman. One can only
wonder what the away fans down at the other end of the pitch were making of this distant
For a moment, it looked as if Smart had got away with murder. But the linesman called the
referee's attention to the fighting, and an instant red card was the result. Quite how
not one single Tranmere player was so much as spoken to remains a mystery - it's difficult for
a player to have a punch-up on his own, I'd have thought.
The end result was that we had nine men left on the field, and three minutes plus injury time
to hang on to the lead. We did it, bringing bodies back in a terrific rearguard action that
shut Tranmere out. Particular mention must go to Alexandre Bonnot - only his second first team
appearance and at a time when the world was ending around him, yet he provided an admirably
calm influence in midfield just when we needed it.
The scenes at the final whistle were disproportionate to the performance. We hadn't played
particularly well, and Tranmere fans have every right to feel rather aggrieved at the result.
Which is why the red cards acted so much in our favour, banishing the feeling that this was a
game we should "expect" to win, removing the pressure from the players. A "scrappy" win became a "gutsy" win.
Like I said earlier, all we needed was a corner to fight our way out of.
See also: The Deadly Submarine