By Ian Grant
Saturday morning. A blur of furious weather and hangover. Shivering on the platform at East Croydon as the staff
try to prevent flooding. Waiting for my train as countless others come and go - the peculiarly British ritual of ensuring that you've got at least
four hours in hand at every connection in your journey, just in case it all goes pear-shaped. A grim sense of duty
and obligation, of having nothing particular to look forward to in the afternoon except another disheartening defeat.
You know how it feels, you know how difficult it's been to find any enjoyment in all this...and, like me, you turn up
Saturday evening. In the pub, reminiscing about last May and Wilf and Luther and best and worst elevens and all that stuff, and feeling
that football isn't such a curse after all. Been to a match rather than a public execution, and it feels more like the weekend
than the end of the world. That'll do. That'll do.
It's all relative, of course. This was not a classic, just a well-matched contest with plenty of incident. A healthy
serving of good, wholesome footie. And we didn't lose either.
We can play better - and the fact that Leicester, fearful of Worthington Cup suspensions, refused the option of
playing with a midfield certainly helped our cause - but let's not demand too much. Entertainment is sufficient, and there
was plenty of it here. No complaints.
If Leicester's recent (and necessary) defensive tendencies didn't exactly whet the appetite, it wasn't long
before the unexpectedly adventurous nature of their line-up became apparent. With three strikers - Collymore, Heskey
and Cottee - competing for typically excellent service from the wingers, they were anything but dull. The focus was
on Collymore, naturally, and he returned to action slowly but impressively - he always was a fine player, just a fine
player who could never leave his life in the dressing room. Two early efforts - a tame shot at Chris Day, then a wild
attempt from long range that sailed over the bar - showed both the old instincts and the lack of match practice.
From then on, it never stopped. End to end, incidents piling up on top of each other as I scribbled frantic notes. Not
a match that ever elevated itself to the level of heart-pounding drama...but not one you could afford to take
your eyes off either. It'll be difficult to avoid just writing a long list of everything that happened, it was that kind
It was a while before Leicester's midfield vacuum became apparent. By then, they'd already managed to create one
genuine opening and should've been ahead. Not that it was easy - as the ball dropped to Cottee on the volley after a free
kick had been flicked on, he was eight yards out and off-balance - but, at this level, it was the kind of chance that usually ends
up in the back of net rather than in the keeper's hands.
That was after nine minutes. We spent the next five establishing some control. We did so, mainly thanks to the
most outstanding display by a Watford player for several months. While the return of several players - Peter Kennedy,
Allan Smart, Nordin Wooter and, surprisingly, Mark Williams - stole the spotlight, Micah Hyde pulled the strings. We've
already noted that he wasn't met with a great deal of opposition. Nevertheless, he was a sensation, dancing and
twisting and diving and hacking around the midfield to exert his influence in so many ways. Wonderful, brilliant, everything
that we know he can be.
For some time, the possession didn't result in very much. Indeed, our first shot - a blistering drive from Steve Palmer
that hurtled just over - was the frustrated end to a lengthy, going-nowhere passing session. But it got better. Hyde
supplied Helguson for a wayward curler that he hit first time when he might've taken an extra touch; Wooter smacked
in a swerving shot that Flowers couldn't hold. Game on.
There are still too many weaknesses in defence, like the errors which let in Cottee after nineteen minutes - again, his finish
wasn't decisive enough to beat Day. Generally, we managed to subdue Heskey, although his far post header from a searching Impey
cross forced Page to shin the ball over the crossbar from a yard out, but Leicester are far from one dimensional. When their
sheer, awesome height wasn't causing us problems (Walsh headed into the side netting from Zagorakis' lob as we failed to deal
with a corner), then we discovered that they're capable of real quality when the mood takes them (superb passing
ended with Cottee flicking another Zagorakis cross through the six yard box and wide).
But, if we didn't quite give as good as we got, then we certainly returned fire. Peter Kennedy's return is highly significant, particularly
since he now has the fitness to play for nearly ninety minutes - for all his faults, he's a player who deals in end product and we've
missed that terribly. His shot at Flowers after twenty-two minutes was a decent effort, although there were question marks
over the late challenge on Hyde that preceded it - outside the penalty area, such a tackle would surely have resulted
in a free kick. Allan Smart was also getting involved, whacking an effort at Flowers on the turn and then sending a half-volley
dipping over the bar after typically neat control on the chest.
As a thoroughly absorbing half neared its conclusion, we were taking the game to Leicester. A corner was half-cleared to
Hyde and, although his volley was blocked, the ball ran for Smart, who was unable to beat Flowers at his near-post. Within a
minute, Wooter poked a pass down the right to send Gibbs on a chase - he not only won the fifty-fifty challenge but supplied a neat
cross in the process, and Smart looped the ball just over with his near post flick. Our confidence was visibly growing.
And then, with a certain inevitability, we conceded a daft goal to bring us right down to earth. As the free kick
came in, there seemed to be more than enough yellow shirts to deal with the danger, yet Palmer's attempt at a clearing header
was a disaster. On a good day, it would've drifted just over the bar. On a bad day, it would've drifted into the top
corner. This being an in-betweeny sort of day, it hit the woodwork. As it bounced gently, Cottee was waiting - although
he couldn't get enough power or direction on his header to score himself, he did manage to force the ball across to Elliott who,
with his back to goal, hooked it in from a yard.
Once again, half-time was all about sinking spirits and dashed hopes. Fifteen minutes to reflect on our inability
to avoid the snakes and find the ladders. And then two minutes to equalise.
It was all in the delivery. Welcome back, Mr Kennedy. The free kick, not lifted but side-footed with tremendous pace right
into the danger area, was just what we've been missing. That someone as diminutive as Nordin Wooter managed to score with a
header against Leicester's giants shows how good the cross was - in the tangle of bodies at the near post, the merest of touches
deflected the ball past Flowers. It had probably already gone in before Walsh booted it into the net in a desperate attempt
to clear. For once, entirely thanks to Kennedy, we actually looked as dangerous at set pieces as media mythology would have you believe.
All square, and both sides spent the next half hour going full pelt for the three points. It may not have been
especially attractive, but the breathless action compensated for that. Bonnot, playing effectively in Hyde's shadow,
advanced from the midfield and shot wide from twenty yards. Smart did the same, but sliced his effort well wide. Eadie collected
the ball on the left, scampered past Page brilliantly and, having done all the hard work, drove straight at Day from
distance. Heskey headed at Day from an Eadie cross.
It was one of those games which refuses to give any clue as to the destination of the points. Everything was
up for grabs. Despite all that's happened so far, three key moments are still ahead of us. For Leicester, both involved Collymore -
he was going to grab the headlines regardless, but he was inches away from deserving to do so. After eighteen minutes,
Impey's cross sailed high into the box and brought Day on a rare excursion from his line. Collymore jumped with the keeper and won
the contest, watching as his header hit the bar and was cleared.
After another evil Kennedy free kick had so nearly given Watford the lead - as before, it span viciously into the six yard box, begging
for a deflection to wrong-foot the keeper - Collymore was close once again. To satisfy his critics, I'll record that
it was Kennedy's carelessly misplaced pass which began the break. Leicester need no second invitation to charging down the flanks - on this
occasion, Eadie popped up on the right to cross for Collymore to head powerfully down, Day making a fine save to his
left to push the ball away.
With fifteen minutes remaining, there was just one more opportunity to grab the points. It fell to Allan Smart from yet
another Kennedy free kick. After a near post flick, the ball looped across and he waited, four yards out with the goal at his
mercy. It dropped, he waited, we waited, he volleyed, we waited, it flew over the bar, 'nuff said.
Finally, the game ran out of steam. It was almost a relief, although the respite would've been more enjoyable
if Smart had scored. The lack of match fitness began to show itself in some of the newly-recalled players, while Leicester
appeared relatively content with a point. Things calmed down, the late substitutions made little difference. Although Gibbs crossed
for Bonnot to volley acrobatically over in injury time, the game had effectively finished quarter of an hour
previously. Helluva seventy-five minutes, though.
Your response to the whole thing will depend on whether you've been through the trauma of accepting relegation or
not...and, therefore, whether you regard the two dropped points as being critical or not. Personally, the inevitability of it all hit me
on the long journey back from Bradford and, while I'd love to see us put up a fight, my priorities and demands have changed. I
enjoyed Saturday afternoon, simple as that.
But, even if you're optimistic enough to believe that escape is still possible, the situation is the same. Whether
the deadline is May or August, the task is unavoidable. It's about re-building. It's about looking forward, finding that confidence
and spirit again. It's about discipline and organisation. Above all, it's about entertainment and empowerment - please, give us something to be
involved in, not something to despair at.
So, it doesn't matter if you're looking at May or August. Whatever, this was a step forward.