End of term
By Ian Grant
It's an unmistakable feeling, and it's not just too much lager. The late afternoon sun shines on the Estcourt Tavern
beer garden, the scene of so much celebration twelve months ago. We're putting off the end of the season with repeated
trips to the bar and timetable checks for later trains - our Premiership holiday may not have been all that the brochure
promised but we still want to prolong it. It's that end of term feeling, you know what it's like.
Now more than ever, following Watford is not only about ninety minutes of football. It's about all the surrounding
nonsense, it's about people as much as players. We'll go our separate ways until August and then we'll all be back, enthusiasm and optimism
renewed. Until then, we bid farewell.
Don't get me wrong - I love the summer holidays. Nine months of early Saturday mornings and scrambled train
journeys and expensive days out and frantic note-taking and rambling match reports are quite enough for me. I'm looking forward to free weekends, doing
the things that the rest of the world does - ambling around the shops, lounging on Brighton beach, pottering in the
garden. Nothing to do...and I can't wait to get on with not doing it.
I'll get bored in the end, by which time next season will have arrived and the cycle will start again. Forget all the
post-"Fever Pitch" emotional cripple stuff, it's a fine life to lead.
In many ways, I suppose it's as if next season has already arrived. With relegation accepted and spoken of in the past tense, Sunday's
game had the definite feel of a pre-season friendly. Albeit an unusually exciting pre-season friendly with a lap of honour at the end.
Like us, Coventry came to enjoy themselves. Their last chance for an away win brought their fans out in force and they
contributed fully to a tremendous pre-match atmosphere. Robert Page received his "Player of the Season" trophy to a
huge ovation, and both he and Haig Oundjian paid tribute to the supporters who have done the club proud in recent months. Following
a earth-shaking, immense "ELTON JOHN'S TAYLOR-MADE ARMY" session, the team emerged from the tunnel into bright May
sunshine for its final Premiership appearance....
...And proceeded to sign off with a considerable flourish. This was an excellent performance, not a single member of the side failing to contribute
to a victory that was more convincing than the scoreline suggests. Only a combination of poor finishing, outstanding
goalkeeping and an outrageous non-penalty prevented us from winning by more than a single goal at long last. In comparison with
the events at Valley Parade and The Dell, it might've been utterly meaningless...but it still felt damn fine.
From the start, we found the Coventry defence generous. Neil Cox had a particularly enjoyable time, trundling around on the right wing and
thumping crosses into the box, while the strikers seemed to be able to gain an extra yard or two in the danger areas. Within
two minutes, Heidar Helguson had headed wide from a Cox centre and we were away. Tommy Mooney, roared on as always,
also went close after pouncing on a stray pass and driving just wide from twenty-five yards.
We were simply more purposeful and, thanks to City's wretched away form, more confident. Tommy Smith broke clear, played the ball
back to Cox and Helguson went close with a near post header from the whipped cross. Ten minutes gone, and already
should've been ahead. After a free kick had been half-cleared, Steve Palmer smacked a shot wide from distance. Then finally, after quarter
of an hour, we stopped having it all our own way as Zuniga broke from the halfway line and, despite pressure from Alex Bonnot,
managed to find the unmarked Whelan. We watched him scoop artlessly over from eight yards, and found it difficult to believe that he was
such hot property a while back.
It was an open, entertaining match that got better and better. Commanding in midfield and creative in the final third,
we continued to create chances. More positive work from Cox set up Helguson again, Hedman saving the angled shot with
relative ease at his near post. We even managed to snuff out Keane, our tormentor at Highfield Road back in October, and saw
just one glimpse of his undoubted brilliance - having wriggled past Page and Bonnot, he shot a yard wide from the edge of
the box after twenty-six minutes.
Palmer drove wide from distance, Bonnot headed over from a corner, Helguson sliced wide from a delightful Smith flick. But, as
half-time approached, it appeared that we weren't going to get any reward for our considerable efforts. Indeed, Chippo's
mis-hit effort from a Whelan cross very nearly provided the umpteenth moment of heart-break this season.
There was one final surge before the interval, and it proved to be decisive. We were twice denied by wonderful
goalkeeping from Hedman, saving Smith's low shot with his fingertips and then pulling off a quite extraordinary reflex
stop to keep out Helguson's close range header from the resulting corner. But he couldn't deny us a third time, as Helguson
latched onto Ward's looping header and acrobatically thumped the ball home with an overhead kick. At last, we had the lead and
even the most partisan Coventry fan could surely not have begrudged us that.
As various supporters wandered onto the pitch to win prizes as part of "Fan Appreciation Day", Vicarage Road felt like a good place to be. There's
no doubt that a certain amount of nostalgia makes me forget that childhood visits weren't always accompanied by sunshine
and laughter and great games...but nonetheless there were many echoes of the past here. Increasingly, it seems that the "old" Watford
values are returning in the form of small, notable gestures. I returned from Sunday's game with a free scarf and a free
water bottle. Neither will enrich my life greatly...but, over the last ten years, there have been long periods
when everything Watford-related has had an inflated price tag on it and when the idea of giving something back has been completely
alien. The "old" Watford values are my values too, and it feels bloody good to welcome them back.
We welcomed the players back and were treated to a real belter of a second half. It began with Coventry, presumably
stung by Strachan's words in the dressing room, pressing for an equaliser. Whelan headed tamely at Chris Day before the Watford
keeper was extended for the first time, leaping to shove Hadji's curling free kick over the bar. Then Chippo fired across
the face of goal and wide after bursting onto a Whelan pass.
It didn't last, though. We simply didn't allow our performance to dip at any point, continually exploiting Coventry's
faltering confidence. The first penalty claim was dubious - although Breen was standing ten yards away from Bonnot and
the shot appeared to strike his hands, the ball was travelling so fast that he had little chance to get out of the way and
Uriah Rennie made the sensible decision by waving appeals away. Ten minutes later, the dynamic, driving force of Bonnot set another
attack in motion and Hedman again kept us out, saving Smith's awkward shot through great positioning as much as anything.
The second penalty claim was, to these eyes, utterly beyond question. Smith's sublime pass, Helguson darting through and
round the advancing keeper. Although the Icelander has a distasteful tendency to make the most of challenges, the ball was running slowly through and he would've reached it to score had he not been dumped flat
on his face by Hedman's raised arm taking his ankles away. Referee Rennie's only excuse is that he was unsighted and that's backed up by his deliberate
glance towards the linesman, who kept his flag by his side. It's a good job for all concerned that it wasn't especially important.
For a time following that incident, we lost our rhythm as the game became more aggressive. We were temporarily distracted, allowing Normann and
Telfer to get a sight of goal that neither took advantage of. But, to our credit, we regained our composure and again went
on the offensive.
A Mooney goal would've brought the house down and he twice came so close after half an hour. The first opening
came courtesy of a superb, arcing pass down the left wing from Perpetuini and, not for the first or last time, Hedman's
save to divert the low shot past the post with his fingernails was remarkable. From the corner, Bonnot nodded the ball
back in and Mooney damn nearly out-did Helguson, walloping an overhead from seven yards that screamed a couple of inches above
the bar. That would've been quite something.
As would a Nigel Gibbs goal, and he too came extremely close. It all opened up for him and he obliged, driving a fierce
shot from distance that arrowed towards the bottom corner. But Hedman was spoiling our fun and once more managed to
push the ball round the post. Helguson failed to direct his far post header from the corner.
We were in an exuberant mood, combative and ambitious. You just feared that a single goal might not be enough, that we might
have a deserved victory snatched away from us by one of City's stars. We've taken enough knocks for now. Thankfully, it
didn't happen. For that, we should be grateful to Darren Ward and Chris Day. To Ward for an astonishing saving tackle
just as Hadji looked set to fire in an equaliser, to Day for equally astonishing injury time acrobatics to tip over Breen's searing
drive. In between, Quinn's deflected shot also came close to plunging us back into despair.
We were already on our feet by the final whistle, urging them on with as much passion and desire as ever - when you've won
as infrequently as we have, no victory is meaningless. It sounds strange to talk about a lap of honour after finishing with the lowest
ever Premiership points total...but it felt right. And, unlike at Middlesbrough last week, the home crowd stayed behind
to give their team an almighty and emotional send-off, chants of the manager's name again bringing a lump to the throat and a tear
to the eye. Many thanks to the Coventry fans for their applause too.
So we slowly made our way out of the ground for the last time, strolling back to the pub in high spirits and joining that tremendous
band of people for one last beer. And another. And another.
We'll be back as Champions? Well, maybe. We'll be back in August, more importantly.
Enjoy the summer.