By Ian Grant
The omens were not good. Last week wasn't one that I'll be remembering with any fondness - a right Wimbledon away
of a week, if you know what I mean (and you surely do).
It began with a reluctant return to the single life, it ended with being reduced to a quivering shambles by some
mischievous virus. In between, the Brighton Evening Argus decided to run a story about my other website ("Tatty Seaside Town"), including
condemnatory comments from councillors and police, which was then followed by a similar piece on the BBC's regional
news. Just what I needed. The journey up to Watford on Saturday morning took more than three hours and involved no less
than seven trains.
Seven bloody trains. Each one representing a day from this absolute git of a week. Or something.
So, record signing or not, my mood was not positive and my expectations were not high. In truth, I was right. Not
that this wasn't a thrilling contest, not that our performance wasn't full of pride, just that my exhausted, germ-riddled
state left me unable to get involved. At the end of any other week, this would've got me onto my feet, shouting and
screaming; at the end of this week, I was huddled silently over my notebook and craving the warmth of my duvet.
I'll do my best to capture the excitement, though, because there was plenty of it. From the start, the game was played
at a ludicrous pace, all tangles and fouls and random passes and terrific, stereotypical Britishness to announce the
full commitment of both sides. It wasn't pretty...but we can't afford to be too pretty against sides of Liverpool's
Indeed, after Camara had blazed high and wide, we carved out the first chance of the match as Heidar Helguson met Charlie
Miller's free kick at the far post and headed into the side netting. A couple of minutes later, Richard Johnson
drove two yards wide from distance. The chances of recording an unlikely double over one of the world's most
famous clubs suddenly didn't seem quite so slim.
But, as so often, the defence just wasn't resilient enough to enable us to build on a positive, competitive opening. Eleven
minutes in, and repeated attempts to end the mayhem inside the Watford box met with failure. Enough defenders against
just two or three strikers, yet no effective clearance as Robert Page and Steve Palmer got in each other's way. Finally,
Owen arrived to supply some class and by-pass all the clutter, looking up and passing across to Berger, who drove low and hard
past Alec Chamberlain. Seen it all before, I'm afraid.
That destroyed us, and Liverpool were far superior for the remainder of the half. Berger - unrecognisable from the player
who looked so thoroughly soggy and sad at Anfield - should've scored his second ten minutes later but, released by a straight-forward Hamann
through-ball, he watched as his finish arced wide of the post. Then Owen took over, turning Page and curling a shot at Chamberlain
before bursting through onto a pass from Berger and looping an effort against the bar.
For all our hard work, for all our running and tackling, for all the energy of the front pairing, we were getting
murdered. Liverpool were creating clear-cut chances at will, and it was difficult to believe that their finishing
would remain charitable for long. Although Xavier Gravelaine nearly capitalised on Westerveld's error in collecting
a cross, that was only a hint of an equaliser...and it was as good as it got.
So the second goal appeared decisive. Hamann's free kick was well-struck from a fair range but it was heading
straight for Chamberlain's midriff...until Thompson stuck out a boot and deflected it, the pace of the original shot combining
with the late re-direction to beat the keeper. Liverpool celebrations, game over.
Except not. For once, and hopefully not for the last time, we fought back with more than mere bravado. As a very gloomy
half-time approached, Gravelaine collected a cross-field ball from Robinson and waited for support, the whole thing started
by a terrific challenge from Helguson back on the halfway line. The excellent, uninhibited Frenchman held off defenders to turn
away from goal and lay the ball back to Johnson, whose side-footed finish from fully twenty-five yards was exquisite.
That was the last action of the first half. Incredibly, we were level within seconds of the start of the second
half. The free kick was again for a foul on Helguson, who took a battering throughout and yet never gave any hint of
complaint. The goal was all in the quality of delivery from Perpetuini's cultured left foot and in the perceptive timing of the
run from Helguson. When the two coincided at the near post with Westerveld stranded, the rest was simple - a flicked
header, a jubilant Icelander, a ground in celebration, a game to be won.
Really, a game to be won. For all their class - and, in more than just the line-up, this was definitely not the same side that fell apart under pressure at
Anfield - Liverpool were rocking. Crucially, it wasn't inconceivable that we might have enough of a cutting edge to take
advantage. If we are relegated, it will not be because we've been thrashed on a few occasions...it will be because, particularly
in too many home games, we've taken the initiative and failed to convert it into points.
And so it proved, as you know. The defence was simply unable to cope for long enough to allow us to carry the
revival through to its logical, glorious conclusion. Johnson drove wide from twenty yards...but Owen did better at the other
end, cutting across the penalty area and then turning to shoot. Between them Palmer and Miller managed to clear from the
goalline. Two minutes later, Gerrard found himself the recipient of our now-customary free header from a corner -
a kind of welcoming gift we like to bestow on all visitors to our home - but was only able to direct it weakly at
From a game that was briefly dominated by our resurgence to one that either side might've snatched. We still had our
chances. Johnson, fed by the persistent Helguson, inexplicably passed to Perpetuini when given the opportunity to
shoot from the edge of the box. The youngster could do no more than scrape an effort at Westerveld from a difficult angle.
It was all go, a fine game of football. Thompson drove across goal from distance, a cleanly-struck shot that went
rather too close to the post for comfort. Helguson, clearly an out-and-out striker with optional extras and therefore
a potentially vital signing, ambitiously volleyed wide on the turn from twenty yards. Camara fired at Chamberlain
from a tight angle; Johnson nearly cleared the Rookery with a free kick.
Painfully but deservedly, it was the side with that dash of extra quality which did snatch the goal. And that was
Liverpool, as any honest fan would admit. Not that they didn't need a bit of luck too, Smicer's low shot taking the
slightest of deflections off Page's ankle to take it away from Chamberlain's dive and into the corner of the goal. Too
tame to win a match like this, really, but there you go.
There was still plenty left, even if our hopes of another victory had gone. This was not a match that died easily. Lyttle's
thumping volley from Gravelaine's quickly-taken free kick screamed over the bar almost immediately, announcing that we weren't
quite beaten yet. Berger shot wide after going on a run; Murphy drove at Chamberlain.
Desperation began to take hold, and desperation damn nearly worked. Miller's long throw found Page climbing high to head on, the vastly
improved Johnson charging in to gain possession at the far post. With great awareness, he instantly back-heeled towards
Perpetuini. It was a moment that most Watford fans will have replayed in their minds at some point on Saturday night as, faced
with a choice between the afore-mentioned cultured left foot and the never-mentioned not-cultured right foot, he
opted for the former. Unfortunately, since he was to the right of the goal, that was never going to work and he succeeded in doing no more than shuffling the ball neatly
past the post. Bugger.
Five minutes left, and enough time for Thompson to drive over from distance and Berger to volley at Chamberlain. There was
only one moment in this match when it didn't look like there'd be more goals, and that was when the final whistle blew.
Graham Taylor has not criticised the players, and he's right. As always, there were flaws in our performance - hell, there were flaws in our
performance against Bolton at Wembley - but the approach was right, the strength of character was there. And, crucially,
there was enough evidence of goal-scoring potential to boost confidence.
Many observers will claim that the scoreline flattered us. To a certain extent, that's true...but it misses the point. It's
been a very long time since we've fought hard enough and smart enough to deny classier opponents a comfortable victory. Although Liverpool
may have deserved a bigger winning margin, we didn't let them have it. That's the Watford I support.
The simple fact is that we will win more games if we play like this. It may or may not be enough to keep
us in the Premiership. It ought to be enough to keep pride intact, and that's not to be sneered at.
Another week begins, another Saturday starts to draw closer. No turning back.