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99/00: Reports:

FA Carling Premiership, 5/2/00
Aston Villa
By Ian Grant

"Being an artist doesn't take much, just everything you got."
Hubert Selby, Jr.

So this is where the lessons that the Premiership has to teach us get really tough. Remorselessly, the country's best sides force defeat down our throats, and we are seemingly powerless. There is nowhere to hide. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger...but, much as we know that it's not going to kill us, it certainly doesn't feel like it's making us stronger either.

Any sign of flagging confidence, anything other than a full fuel tank (our squad included four players - Allan Smart, Peter Kennedy, Clint Easton, Nordin Wooter - returning from lengthy injuries), any mistakes. They all get punished at this level. On Saturday, we were not bad, and we got trampled on regardless.

Despite the irritation of those around me, there was little to be ashamed of here. We will be relegated because we have made it easy for too many opponents, but Villa were at least forced to work for the points. There were no free headers from corners and no unchallenged shots from around the box - this was a match that Villa won, not one that we lost. For a change.

So what? We lost 4-0 anyway, right? Well, most of us are already thinking of next season.

For forty-five minutes, the radically changed line-up - three at the back, Chris Day replacing Alec Chamberlain in goal - kept Villa at arm's length. In a game utterly dominated by the home side, our defending was vastly improved. Unable to achieve any fluency of our own, we concentrated on refusing Villa anything more than glimpses of goal and succeeded. A minor milestone, perhaps, but a milestone nonetheless.

When it needed to be, the denial of opportunities was truly brilliant. There was Clint Easton's flying block as Wright lined up a drive from outside the area, the Watford player appearing from nowhere as a Superman blur and stopping the ball with his legs with an almightly smack. Better still, there was Nigel Gibbs' clearing header as Stone's cross drifted through the six yard box towards the waiting Carbone. It was not merely that he managed to get the ball away but that, despite facing his own goal, he was diligent enough to sneak a quick outward glance and ensure that his diving header was directed towards colleagues. Now that's defending.

More often, however, it was simply that we had some of our old resilience back. Sure, Villa weren't at their best...but teams haven't often needed to be at their best against us. With one exception - Steve Palmer's clumsy handball after he'd misjudged an aerial challenge with Merson, the officials mercifully unsighted as the away section momentarily held its breath - there were no cock-ups this time. Instead, there was concentration and determination, a back-to-basics performance.

From the start, it was all Villa and a succession of half-chances that seemed like it'd never end. Carbone scuffed a shot wide from twenty yards; Day caught a Delaney header under challenge from Joachim; Wright thumped in a half-volley that was deflected away by Page's face; Ehiogu headed wide from a corner.

But the flair players that we feared were effectively kept under control for the time being. Gradually, the attacks became more sporadic and there were signs of hope, especially after Palmer's howler had gone unnoticed. (Credit to Merson, incidentally, for leaving the decision (or lack of it) to the officials and getting straight on with the game.) After half an hour, we even managed a shot as Micah Hyde's effort on the turn at least required James to muddy his jersey.

And so it went on. Though it was neither pretty nor entertaining, the novelty value of not losing was more than adequate compensation. After giving a fine ovation to Graham Taylor before kickoff, both sets of fans had lapsed into silence - although Villa Park remains a magnificent, glorious ground, it's a ground in search of an atmosphere - and the match did nothing to encourage participation from the stands. Carbone shot weakly at Day from a Stone pull-back, then diverted Merson's low cross into the side netting after a swift break down the right. The only threatening moment from the Hornets came via Easton's beautifully measured pass to Smith on the left, but there was no-one to take advantage of the youngster's fine cross. Calderwood brought the half to an end by heading wide from a corner.

Not much optimism at the interval, perhaps. Still, definitely less pessimism. We'd done well in restricting Villa. One step at a time. There was hope that further frustration for the home side might change the pattern of the game in our favour.

Thoughts like that survived less than two minutes of the second half. To my mind, the controversy surrounding the opening goal was more simple than other descriptions might suggest. After Wright cleared under pressure from Allan Smart, the throw appeared to be Watford's and Neil Cox advanced into the final third to take it. Except that it turned out to be Villa's throw, presumably because the ball had taken a small deflection from Smart's boot as he challenged.

Forget all that, though. The point is that the only reason why Boateng's quick throw was able to leave Carbone scampering down the wing was that he took it five yards ahead of Cox and fifteen yards ahead of the linesman. By doing so, he was not only able to hurl the ball deep into our half, but he was able to do so without challenge from Cox and others. After Stone had stretched and superbly volleyed Carbone's cross into the bottom corner, the referee was surrounded by protesting players.

As tempers began to fray, our resistance lasted for a short while longer. We did not yet look like a beaten side. Specifically, the chance to equalise came and went with Barry's short backpass and Heidar Helguson's lob over James which also, unfortunately, cleared the bar. Five minutes later, we were buried.

I'm not Paul Merson's greatest fan. He's too often a fringe player. While not for a moment wishing to down-play his considerable achievements, he has the talent to have totally transcended his personal story, to be so much more than a recovering addict in the eyes of fans and media.

Perhaps it'll happen now, because this was sensational. Sometimes you just have to applaud class. Sometimes there's no point in looking for scapegoats. The first was the best - a perfect floating lob into the top corner from outside the box, just as it seemed that Page had driven him wide enough to prevent real danger. It drifted gently over Day like a carrier bag caught in the breeze to give Villa an unassailable lead. The second wasn't bad either - close control on the chest from Wright's knock-down followed by an athletic swivel and fine volleyed finish. Two goals that illuminated an otherwise mediocre afternoon.

Not that we felt particularly illuminated. We've been here too many times before, and even the attempts at gallows humour are now losing their appeal. A bit of reorganisation on the right gave us more options, with both Wooter and Gibbs seeing plenty of the ball in a twenty minute spell...but the horse had long since bolted.

We had our stint in the spotlight while Villa sat back, although Merson turned supplier to create a chance for Joachim that was wasted with a weak shot. Helguson drove over from a Smart assist, then a lovely interchange between Gibbs and Wooter led to the veteran blasting a cross through the six yard box with no-one able to get a decisive touch. There was even some rare end product from Wooter in the shape of a mazy run from deep to feed Helguson, but the Icelander wasted the opening by falling over in search of a penalty.

It was no great surprise that, when Villa finally got around to wandering up to the other end, they added a fourth. For once, the defending was questionable as Wright crossed for the unmarked Walker to glance a header in off the post. Kennedy's long-range drive at James was the last action of an afternoon that will be quickly forgotten by Watford fans.

The players staggered slowly towards the tunnel. Heads down, utterly crestfallen. Well beaten but ultimately blameless.

These reports are a grim exercise, payback for the joyful outpourings of April and May. But my feelings remain much the same. No matter how badly we're struggling, this is indisputably the best Watford side for more than a decade. It remains a privilege to be able to write about them, if not a pleasure to have to document their defeats.