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FA Carling Premiership, 11/3/00
Newcastle United
Next week
By Ian Grant

The alarm goes off at 5:52 am. Must be the weekend, then.

As the song goes, we'll follow them over land and sea. Although I've yet to do the sea bit, Brighton to Newcastle is a fair amount of land to trek across in the hope of an unlikely win. It had to be done, though. Our chances of survival may now be as near to non-existent as makes no difference, but that's not the point - we're equally unlikely to win the FA Cup, yet we still dream of famous victories.

It didn't happen this time. It might happen next week. It's that sort of season. So we left the north-east with a familiar blend of pride, disappointment and frustration.

Or maybe that was just the beer. The consolation in defeat was to be found in the generosity of our hosts both before and after the match, and the absurd bar prices at the social clubs we were taken to.

At one point, the conversation turned to the potential transfer of Tony Adams to Newcastle a few years ago, the general theory being that he could've escaped from his London habits of drinking and gambling by moving to a new part of the country. Having spent only a few hours in the city, I still believe that I'm qualified to observe that this is not somewhere you'd come to escape drinking and gambling.

In many ways, it's a curious place. All around the ground, the streets and pubs are full of black and white. There's an overwhelming sense of tradition and local pride, quite unlike any other Premiership ground. It's a club that still feels like a club, albeit on a vast scale. Even as an away fan, some of that rubs off. It is magnificent.

Yet all of that is left at the turnstiles. It's as if the supporters have quietly transplanted the club's heart back to those streets and pubs to keep it out of reach of the board. You'd expect this to be an intimidating experience, particularly bearing in mind the paltry away allocation, yet there's merely the expectant silence which we've become accustomed to on our travels. Like schoolkids suddenly behaving themselves when the teacher enters the classroom, the passionate Geordie support sits down and shuts up obediently. It's nothing to take the piss out of, it's genuinely depressing and disconcerting.

Of course, our part in the afternoon's entertainment was supposed to be minimal. In Premiership terms, we're no longer significant - to re-write the famous Millwall song, "No-one notices us, we don't care"....

Which makes it all the more frustrating that we've putting in performances like this and getting no reward. Whether we deserved a result at St James' Park or not, we've suffered enough and we deserve a break. Even the "plucky battlers" of media stereotype need a little morale boost now and again.

For an hour, we were once again persuasive in putting our case forward. Playing with anything like full intensity - discounting that diabolical first half against West Ham, in other words - we look a very decent outfit. Probably because we are a very decent outfit, and one that's held itself together remarkably well in the circumstances.

Obviously, the early skirmishes all took place in our half, Newcastle trying to lay memories of last week's defeat to rest. But there was nothing to make our pre-match fears become reality as Alec Chamberlain fielded efforts from Lee and Ferguson in the first ten minutes, nothing to suggest that we were about to be put to the sword. Pleasantly, Alec's sheet went unsoiled for longer than has become customary.

And that builds confidence, just as it frustrates supposedly superior opponents. We began to make our own mark on the match, Allan Smart and Nordin Wooter exploring the space on the right wing while Heidar Helguson waited to pounce. We visibly grew in stature as Wooter clipped a lovely pass into Smart's path and was only prevented from meeting the resulting cross by a desperate defensive block. Such moments are indicative of an increasingly purposeful Wooter - he often annoys, but he now does other things too....

There was more to come, although Gallacher's run and shot after Smart had been caught in possession reminded us not to get carried away. Chamberlain saved comfortably on that occasion, Given was at full stretch six minutes later. Again, Wooter showed off his new-found awareness, twisting down the right and whipping in a fine cross. When we saw Helguson diving to meet it, we were instantly on our feet...but the header was at the right height for Given, who was able to make an excellent stop. For the first time in his Watford career, Helguson might've done better.

There was much to find encouragement in at both ends. Despite consistently superb supply from Solano's set pieces, the aerial threat of Ferguson remained unrealised. For that alone, Robert Page and Steve Palmer deserve enormous credit. When the gigantic Scot did rise to meet a cross, he always did so under challenge, as when Palmer applied sufficient pressure to force him to head wide in the twenty-fifth minute. Given saved easily from Wooter shortly afterwards, then Barton's angled drive nearly punished a rare defensive misjudgement, Paul Robinson opting to duck underneath a through-ball with Solano unseen behind him, but missed by a yard.

Just after the half hour mark, we managed to puncture the Newcastle defence for the second time. Smart broke through without falling foul of the offside trap and, despite being driven wide, forced another save from Given with his shot. As the ball rebounded away from the keeper, Wooter arrived in support. The goal was unguarded, but the bounce was awkward and the attempt ballooned over the bar.

We held our own until half-time. We've seen it before many times and, as on this occasion, it's usually ended in defeat. That doesn't mean that the novelty of annoying the hell out of the Premiership elite will ever wear off, though. Mind you, the distraction of a full bladder from pre-match drinking made the uneventful minutes before the interval rather less comfortable in the stand than on the pitch.

It continued in the same fashion after the interval, bladder excepted. Newcastle improved with the introduction of Domi, while still lacking the inspiration to break down our determined rearguard. Gallacher shot from a Solano cutback, finding Neil Cox well-positioned on the post to boot clear. Then Dabizas headed over from a corner.

However, the first real chance of the half fell our way. That we didn't take it and were subsequently punished is just another example of the painfully small margin between success and failure in the Premiership. We've learnt the lesson, but we're not able to put it into practice.

It was a splendid piece of football. Smart received a clearance from defence and turned a first-time pass onto Wooter, the instant and astute assessment of the situation starting the attack in motion. The Dutchman showed his class in beating an opponent with a sublime bit of skill, flicking the ball past the challenge and collecting it again, before sending a cross towards the far post. It appeared to be going out of play, until Kennedy climbed high to intervene and head back into the six yard box. And there was Smart, the instigator, to score from a couple of yards. And there was Given, damn him, hurling himself across and somehow blocking. Home fans would've seen an astonishing save; away fans would've seen a glaring miss. In truth, it was both.

Smart wasn't the only guilty striker, though. After Chamberlain had saved with relative ease from Speed and Lee, it was Shearer's turn to watch disbelievingly as the ball rebounded away. The whole Watford defence waited for an offside flag which never came, even Shearer himself appearing somewhat surprised as play continued. He ambled towards goal, Chamberlain advanced in a way that seemed to accept the inevitable, he took aim and pulled the trigger. With the post still rattling, we took great pleasure in reminding everyone that there's a Premiership striker who doesn't miss chances like that...and he plays for Sunderland.

But our cheeky grins didn't last very long. Less than two minutes, in fact. Then Shearer was sliding the ball into the path of Domi's overlapping run and Gallagher was knocking the low cross home from close range.

Disappointingly, we appeared to accept defeat. Our heads dropped and only one side looked capable of scoring from that point on. Within five minutes, Speed's searing drive from distance was bringing the best from Chamberlain, who leapt across to tip over as the ball whistled towards the top corner. At least, we thought that was Chamberlain's best, until Dabizas met the resulting corner with a powerful header and the Watford keeper somehow, quite brilliantly, managed to divert it over the bar.

The rest was thoroughly depressing. Not because we were losing, but because we were looking incapable of doing anything about it. The home side remained frustrated, each misplaced pass greeted by groans from the stands, yet the points were safe. Shearer made another hash of a one-on-one, Chamberlain forcing him wide enough that the final attempt was more of a cross than a shot and ended up on the roof of the net. Ferguson at last found himself with a clear header from a Solano cross, but couldn't get the power to beat Chamberlain.

With an injury to Wooter, sustained in shooting wide after yet another adventurous and purposeful run, our hopes finally evaporated. Not only did it rob us of our most creative player, it also buggered up the imminent substitution - the point of bringing on Mark Williams presumably being to bring Wooter into a more central position behind the front two, a tactic that's worked well recently. When the change in formation happened anyway, it did us few favours - Kennedy looked particularly lost, a wing-back with a full-back behind him. Even so, some of the criticism from around us was absurd - surely GT has been at Watford for long enough for fans to know that he's not someone who'll ever be happy to bring on a defender in the hope of consolidating a 1-0 defeat. I mean, come on.

Speed shot weakly at Chamberlain from twenty yards. Domi charged inside from the left wing and drove just over. In injury time, Cox headed a Kennedy corner at Given. The match ended in a way which satisfied neither set of fans - no Watford comeback, no Newcastle goal spree - and we traipsed wearily back to the bar. Our hosts complained of finishing as runners-up in too many championship races, we complained of finishing as runners-up in too many games.

By the time we returned to Brighton, it was midnight and any depression had lifted. A long and expensive day, but there have been far worse for Watford fans this season. Far, far worse.

Next week, then. We'll win next week. It'll be fun next week. No, really. It'll be great next week.

We'll be there, just in case. As ever.