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FA Carling Premiership, 25/3/00
Tottenham Hotspur
Getting the mixture right
By Ian Grant

There are less than ten minutes left. Robbo's receiving a pass and steaming down the left like an irate, stampeding wildebeest. He whacks a cross towards the penalty area, hitting a defender and winning a corner. His momentum takes him over the touchline and towards the Rookery, fists clenched and bellowing insanely to demand more support. Spurs are visibly rattled by our bruising assault, suddenly defending a draw rather than pursuing a victory.

In the stand that Robbo's glaring at, we're all on our feet. My vocal chords are taking more abuse, screaming encouragement. I'm bracing myself for the winner.

Take a freeze-frame of that moment. Think about it. We're supposed to have accepted relegation, to feel humbled by the Premiership experience. Yet it takes only the slightest encouragement to flip the script entirely, to bring us back to life as this roaring, snarling beast of a team.

That is an achievement in itself. Perhaps not one that will win us anything more than pride and respect, but still. Thanks to GT's careful management, we always knew that we could go down without fearing for our financial security. Increasingly, it appears that we can also go down with a side that still believes - the learning process, no matter how cruel it's been on occasions, has not robbed us of our enthusiasm or our innocence. This is surely not the end of the story.

We deserved this draw. We deserve to be able to believe that we can compete at this level, whether that means next week at Everton or upon our eventual return to the Premiership. It's not about quality alone, it's about a mixture of things. We're edging closer and closer to getting that mixture right.

The first half offered a little more entertainment than that awful scrap with Wednesday, but not much. Since we've generally been on the receiving end of what entertainment has been on offer this season, I can live with a bit of dreariness now and again. Watching us contain and manage Spurs was, in its own quiet way, pleasurable enough.

This was the Watford that would've survived. Our confident, belligerent, injury-free alter-ego. Nothing to match the lethal grace of a Ginola, of course, but enough to counter it. Somehow, even if our league position appears to prove otherwise, the pre-season hopes for a mid-table finish don't seem quite so far-fetched. We could've done it. We could do it in the future.

It wasn't spectacular. It doesn't need to be spectacular. You survive by doing this every week, by getting results as well as famous victories. The perfect example was provided by the thoroughly excellent Nordin Wooter, who spent more time battling away in his own half than running at opponents at the other end. That wins him as much credit as his part in the goal, to my mind...and it means that we're now a better team for his presence, rather than the same team with an expensive bit of decoration. That's typical of recent developments.

Enough of my waffling, anyway. For the opening half hour, there was little noteworthy incident and much fascinating detail. Managing Ginola's brilliance, for example, was always going to be crucial...and we did it, at least by being first to react when he did sweep in one of his extraordinary, swinging crosses. We'd prepared well, and the performance before the interval was robust and effective.

After Allan Smart had driven goalwards from twenty-five yards as part of an invigorating first five minutes, we settled into a rhythm. Micah Hyde and Richard Johnson worked tirelessly in midfield, not always finding the right pass but never allowing their opponents any measure of control. On the flanks, Paul Robinson and Neil Cox stood up to Ginola and were well supported in that battle by the wingers, particularly Wooter. Neither Armstrong nor Iversen were able to dominate against Robert Page and Steve Palmer, both of whom are finally looking unflustered and capable. We may not have been the better side - although the hype surrounding Anderton and Ginola is illustration of how ordinary the rest are - but we were working damn hard to ensure that the better side had no way of gaining an advantage.

The match gradually accelerated. After fifteen minutes, Armstrong stretched to reach an Iversen flick and headed wide - he should've done better with the chance, since it was a rare occasion when he was left alone. Micah Hyde intercepted in midfield to set up a break which ended with Heidar Helguson, generally anonymous again, heading over from Paul Robinson's accurate cross.

Having switched to the right following Leonhardsen's early departure, Ginola set up Anderton after twenty-nine minutes and we had the game's first real action. The shot was fiercely struck from the edge of the box, but Alec Chamberlain was covering his near post and able to parry. The Watford keeper saved more comfortably from an Anderton free kick shortly afterwards, although the presence of Spurs forwards meant that he could not afford to spill the shot as it bounced awkwardly towards him.

We're getting better, no question. The last three games have been goalless at half-time, and that's considerable progress. Not exciting progress, perhaps, but progress doesn't always come with a commemorative firework display. We're no longer giving ourselves mountains to climb. Indeed, we might even have taken the lead ourselves with a couple of minutes left, as Smart cleverly flicked on Cox's cross and Kennedy scooped his shot over from a decent position.

Happy at half-time, definitely. So happy, in fact, that I didn't feel the need to seek momentary and compensatory pleasure by munching the rest of my packet of Smarties Mini Eggs. Good news for Watford, good news for my teeth, everyone's a winner.

It didn't last, though. "Fortune favours the brave"? Nope, more a case of "FIFA favours the blatantly offside" on this occasion. Yes, Iversen was running back when the pass was played forward and therefore, thanks to the idiocy of current laws, was not deemed to be interfering with play. Yet, since he practically had to duck underneath the ball, our defence was probably justified in stopping and waiting for the flag to be raised. Perhaps the most laughable thing about the rule is the entirely theoretical concept of "interfering with play" - clearly, if your presence has caused the opposition defence to stand still while a striker runs through and scores, then you have interfered with play....

Anyway, Chamberlain came out of his area as Armstrong burst forward. The keeper got there fractionally earlier but could do nothing to prevent his attempted clearance hitting the striker, who was then able to walk the ball into the unguarded net.

Unsurprisingly given our situation, we're a side that reacts to the last goal. When we score, there's a gigantic surge in confidence. When we concede, there's a comparable slide into despair. So we spent the next fifteen minutes with heads hanging low, waiting for Spurs to put the game beyond our reach and re-confirm our inevitable relegation.

They probably should've done so. Ginola began to impose himself, shooting at Chamberlain from distance before setting up Iversen for a chance that he wasted by shinning the ball amateurishly wide. Armstrong out-paced Page to get to the by-line and slash in a cross that Chamberlain palmed up in the air in desperation, grateful to find that it dropped kindly for a defender to boot clear.

But the recurring theme is that we don't need much encouragement. One break on the twenty minute mark was all it took to change the pattern of the game. It was executed well by a combination of Smart and Helguson, and Wooter's wild, excitable finish was a let-down. Nonetheless, we suddenly stopped feeling sorry for ourselves and went at Tottenham with considerable aggression.

For a while, it appeared that the story would be a familiar one - pressure, no end product. Palmer volleyed wide from a half-cleared corner, but we were struggling to create chances. And then Wooter collected Johnson's pass on the right, darted inside past a couple of defenders, and - hurrah! - picked the perfect moment to release the ball. Smart was onto it in a flash, dinking it neatly over the advancing Walker and peeling away in celebration as it hit the post and bounced over the line. Lovely goal.

The next five minutes were exuberant and thrilling. Our hearts pounding with belief, we went on the rampage. Tommy Smith was suddenly everywhere, taking on defenders and drilling in low crosses. David Perpetuini, on for the lacklustre Kennedy, shot across goal and wide. Neil Cox blazed over from distance. Smart jumped over Smith's cross to allow it to pass through to Wooter, who was only denied by a late defensive block.

More than anything, you just wish that we could summon up such ferocious spirit more often and for longer...playing like this, we could crucify one or two of our forthcoming opponents. Even so, that we're capable of such incredible surges after all we've been through should be enough. We just won't let it lie, and that's what we demand from any GT-managed Watford side.

It didn't last, and Spurs spent the last five minutes coming alarmingly close to a winning goal of their own. Ferdinand headed over after Cox's error on the halfway line had set a Spurs break in motion. Ginola popped up on the left and crossed, Armstrong's near post diversion bringing a fine save from Chamberlain. In the last minute, Ginola's staggering, arcing, dipping half-volley appeared to be about to crash into the net and wreck our day, only to clear the target by a foot and allow us to breathe again.

So there you go. A day of many good things. Some obviously good things - Nordin Wooter, just a great bundle of stuff and thoroughly wonderful with it; Allan Smart, looking more and more like the Premiership-quality striker we've wanted all season. Some less obviously good things - the best performance for months from Paul Robinson, aside from an incredibly dumb booking for scything Ginola down; the youthful brilliance of Tommy Smith's cameo. We can be optimistic, I think. If not for the immediate future, although a win at Goodison would certainly put the wind up some of our rivals, then certainly for the longer term.

We've done this the right way. Perhaps it's finally starting to show.