The first time
By Matt Rowson
"You-are-Nationwide", they sang. Well, we'll see. But if the Hornets do return whence we came come May, there are some things that I for one won't miss. One of these is the hint of desperation with which clubs like Leicester (and Wednesday, two years ago) attempt to impress upon you that they are a big club, long-enough established in the top flight to call themselves "Premiership". Wednesday are currently finding out that this illusion is a veneer that doesn't take much scraping away; Leicester, too, is a club that will be all too easily sucked into the maelstrom should their current more than capable side break up.
Nonetheless, before the kick-off we were exposed to several of the nauseating features being imposed upon supporters in the name of progress. First : being informed that banners and flags across the front of the stand were unacceptable (Uncle Rupert and S*y don't approve, apparently). Then, the all too familiar cack-handed attempts to build atmposphere by pumping kickin' rhythms at us through the tannoy, thus stifling any fervour that might be building. Finally, an increasingly patronising tannoy announcer imploring a section of the home support to sit down, making a laughable list of threats (including, but not restricted to him lying on the floor screaming and getting very very cwoss). These appeals were met with their deserved response: derision from the visitors, complete indifference from the section of home support at which they were directed.
The first half started positively; whilst it became clear that Leicester's intimidating back line would deal comfortably with high balls into the box, it was equally clear that the tubby Taggart was no match for Ngonge on the deck, and this seemed our most likely means of hurting City. At the other end, Page and Williams continued their defiant form of Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the visiting support (of reasonable number considering that the match was televised) was making a racket in the cramped chicken-coop of an away stand.
Frank Sinclair in particular was the recipient of some attention thanks to his unwelcome record for critical own goals this season. What started with some fairly tame chants of "Sinclair, give us a goal", and escalated to cheers at his every touch culminated in a standing ovation when he glumly approached to take a throw-in. Predictable, unimaginative, maybe. But not nearly as tedious as the Turnip/rent-boy inspired rubbish that was to surface to our left in the second half. Sadly, this episode was also probably the high-point of the evening.
Watford dictated play for long periods without seriously threatening Arphexad in the City goal, who was looking confident. By contrast, Chris Day's first involvement was to fumble one of many decent crosses from Guppy on the left; as was pointed out at half-time, this was a critical point in the game as Day continued to look nervous.
As the half wore on, assaults on the City goal were increasingly ineffective; Elliott and Taggart, making unsparing use of their elbows, continued to deal with the high balls, and Lennon and Izzet buzzed around our midfield... the former rightly booked for a cynical hack on the escaping Mooney. The closest we came was when Ngonge lunged in on a Lyttle cross, more in hope than expectation, and when Palmer steamed in from midfield to drive a shot comfortably over.
As half-time approached, Leicester fired a warning. A deep cross from Sinclair was met by Heskey, unmarked, who should have done better than to find the post. Minutes later, Leicester had done better - another Sinclair cross flapped at by Day, fed back in by Guppy for Izzet to stab limply over the line. 1-0, just before the break. Not a good time to concede a goal....
The second half displayed the current eleven's strengths and limitations in equal measure. On the positive side, a bloody-minded refusal to concede, with much credit going to the enormous Mark Williams. On the minus... well, the lack of something clever, or unpredictable going forward. For whilst Leicester were rarely allowed to boss the game, our lack of options in the final third was painfully evident. Most heartbreaking of all was watching Micah Hyde tear forward into space, often having left some hapless Leicester midfielder in confusion at his footwork, only to find no options in front of him. Our substitiutions, which saw Bakalli make his debut up front in place Ngonge, who had faded badly, only served to emphasise our lack of choices.
Leicester, in all honesty, were the more likely to score, and came closest when Heskey twisted his neck impossibly to cannon a header off the bar. Much was made of his performace by the Radio 5 reporter to whom I listened on the way home. Certainly, his pace and aggression were there for all to see. Just as were the weaknesses in his character that have probably held back the big chequebooks so far.
First, following what was admittedly an awful challenge from Robinson (the type of which his more mature play this season had suggested might be a thing of the past), the red mist descended. For two minutes he was a headless chicken, until given the opportunity to exact revenge with a brutal two-footed assault, for which he was fortunate to escape with a yellow (albeit only as lucky as his victim, who wasn't even booked).
Second, his response to "failure", inflicted, of course, by Williams... thoroughly beaten by his adversary's strength and positioning, Heskey collapsed on the turf in self-pity, later to be "treated" and quickly recover from an unconvincing limp.
As the game drew to a close, we experienced the first truly depressing spell of play this season... with plenty of endeavour but no conviction up front, it was purely a matter of whether our dogged rearguard would keep City to the one goal. The whistle, when it came, was almost a relief.
The positives : well, the elements of the team that can be considered "first choice" given a fit squad looked more than the part. Plus... the suspicion that any one of the four injured attacking players (Johnson, Noel-Williams, Wright, Smart) might have introduced that crucial bit of cleverness.
The minuses... our "first-choice team" is a hypothetical entity, because players get injured. That's life. For the final twenty minutes Watford played with their heads down. For the first time this season, the support left the stadium in like fashion. For the first time this season, Watford deserved to lose.