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Worthington Cup 3rd Round, 13/10/99
A half-remembered dream
By Matt Rowson

Having been picked up from Newport Pagnell services at 2.30, a one-hour wait in a twelve-mile jam on the M1 was not what was required. Radio 5 was found, the depth of our plight soon revealed. As we finally emerged at the other end of the frustration the radio broadcast was lost beneath the sound of the engine. Occasionally, it would crackle back into earshot offering snippets that we'd heard four times during the course of the jam.... "England will play Scotland...", "The boyfriend of Joy Fernando has been found guilty of...", "A coup has taken place in Pakistan..." and so on, like snippets from a half-remembered dream.

The first half of this cup-tie was a bit like that. Neither their Hornets nor their hosts were able to exert much control over the game, and the listless atmosphere generated by a small crowd in a large stadium made the whole spectacle somewhat unreal. Occasionally, snippets of what we remembered as a football match flickered into life to remind us why we'd travelled the length of the country - the occasional shot on goal, now and again a sliding tackle - but it all seemed a bit half-hearted.

Middlesbrough started the stronger, their best attempt coming from a vicious volley from Armstrong that Chamberlain did well to push over. Gradually, however, the bluntness of their forward line began to tell, and the game slumped into a midfield mess. During this period, all our suspicions about Paul Ince - playing against Watford for the first time since his West Ham days - were confirmed; drive and power in abundance, tarnished with the sulky petulance of a schoolgirl. Never was this better illustrated than when, Robert Page having been fouled, Ince crashed into him as he arose out of sight of the referee. (Richard Johnson was later seen to correct his misapprehension of who the guv'nor really was.)

We were never out of it though, however sloppily both sides were playing. This was illustrated by Robinson who, having lost us the ball in Middlesbrough's half, tracked back and recovered his error with a biting tackle on Maddison. As the half wore on the white-shirted Hornets begun to take control, albeit only creating a couple of half-chances which Ngonge couldn't convert.

Throughout all of this, the two-hundred odd travelling support - whom the Middlesbrough tannoy had admirably attempted to individually namecheck before the game - were making a racket worthy enough to be mentioned by Radio 5's half-time summary. All too much for the Boro stewards, apparently, who moved swiftly to crush the insubordination of a bunch of lads daring to stand up at the very back of the stand. That this provoked more widespread defiance was hardly surprising. The whole incident illustrated that however wide your experience, there's always scope to be surprised by creatively cack-handed stewarding.

The second half... and Boro continued in the inept way they'd played most of the first half, but GT appeared to have had a word during the break, and Watford began to cut into their opponents. Miller's touch and vision were instrumental in much of this, and overall his was a most impressive first start for the Hornets. One through ball, perfectly curled in front of Ngonge, was a joy. Ngonge, unfortunately, pulled out of the challenge with Schwarzer for the ball to run through them both into touch. Being gracious, Ngonge might have been cautious not to hurt his adversary. Not many of us were feeling as gracious at this point.

Further threat was provided down the right, with Gibbs and Wooter combining to good effect... Nordin Wooter began to supply a range of delicious, pinged crosses from the right, a number of which were just pleading for the absent Tommy Mooney. Meanwhile in the centre, Johnson and Hyde, both of whom had shaky first periods, were controlling the game with grit and guile respectively. For arguably the first time this season, Watford were completely dominating their opponents.

Then, of course, Boro scored. A break down the right found Armstrong, Armstrong released Juninho, and he's the last person you want one-on-one with the keeper. Goal. Bugger.

The Watford fans were immediately back on their feet singing and the team responded in kind, again taking the game to their opponents. Yet another cross from the right found Kennedy at the far post, and his goalbound shot was blocked by the obstinate Cooper.

Then a through ball released Ngonge whose pace, not for the first time, caused problems for Pallister who felled his opponent in the box. This provoked an outraged confrontation of the referee that Robson himself would have been proud of, with Schwarzer going as far as shoving Ngonge over. Delirious, we celebrated. Then we remembered.

This wasn't a bad penalty by Kennedy's standards, bringing a fine save out of Schwarzer, but a goalkeeper shouldn't really be given a chance from the spot, and Kennedy has now converted one (fortunate) penalty in his last four. Time for a switch perhaps?

Finally we were subdued, and Middlesbrough begun to catch us on the break. Juninho was typically involved, and even if his presence in this team is akin to icing sugar on a cowpat, he's a joy to watch, one goalbound shot being headed off the line by Robinson.

Altogether less impressive was the comical Keith O'Neill, who ran the ball out of play on countless occasions and was lucky to stay on the pitch following a head-high kick at Wooter. He was replaced by Ziege, whose chief contribution was to stay grounded just long enough to get Gibbs booked, before springing deftly to his feet.

For the Hornets Tommy Smith made a brief but tidy appearance in place of the tiring Miller, but the game was up with the penalty. "Always look on the bright side of life" sung a steward through a loudhailer as we exited. Well, quite.

Getting back to Newport Pagnell at 1 a.m. I paused to answer a call of nature. The gents at these services are smart and new, so it was peculiarly a surprise to see the inside of a cubicle daubed in NF slogans. A good metaphor for Middlesbrough, really... how ever much of a glaze you put on things - fine stadium, big club mentality, "high profile" manager - a bunch of cloggers is a bunch of cloggers. On this evidence there's nothing to fear a week Sunday.

Now... who are we playing on Saturday?