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FA Carling Premiership, 4/3/00
West Ham United
They let us down
By Ian Grant

Full of optimism for the day ahead, I strolled into Brighton station to catch the fast train up to Watford. Instead, three quarters of an hour later, I was sitting on a ramshackle bus as it carefully and slowly negotiated the leafy lanes of Sussex. And, via missed connections and excess ticket fares and all the rest, downhill from there.

Yes, Connex might be incapable of running anything recognisable as a train service...but they do at least provide a plentiful supply of metaphors for these match reports.

For once, Watford fans had more than blind faith to cling to as kickoff approached. Not only the encouragement of two vastly improved performances, especially that mighty effort at Chelsea, but also the knowledge that we'd be able to field an unchanged side. This was it, this was our first win of the new year. No doubts.

And no excuses either. This was the kind of afternoon which makes managers go prematurely grey. As abysmal as it was inexplicable and unexpected, the flipside of what I was saying about football being a game played by humans.

We can discuss tactics and personnel for all eternity. They make no difference if the majority of the selected eleven doesn't start playing until half the match has gone. Sometimes the responsibility for a defeat must be shouldered by the manager, sometimes it all lands on the players. This was was most definitely the latter.

They let us down. At the very least, many of this season's numerous defeats have left me feeling some sympathy for the disappointed, struggling participants. This one was more difficult to take. It was about lack of care, not lack of quality.

Of course, I'm forgetting to make allowances for the second half fightback. Except I'm not, I just feel that we're well beyond the stage where such things are inherently worthy of praise. The improvement after the interval was welcome, natch...but, with the chance of a vital win long gone, it was no compensation and no reason to refrain from criticism. We lost on Saturday because we were grossly unprofessional, that we weren't grossly unprofessional for the entire ninety minutes hardly matters.

We kicked off, we went behind. It took a little longer this time, mind - almost three whole minutes before Wanchope left Nigel Gibbs trailing in his wake, casually knocked a pass across to Lampard, and Lomas arrived to swipe the ball past Alec Chamberlain. Not the worst goal we've conceded, but symptomatic of the first half capitulation - there was no challenge as West Ham advanced, no-one prepared to throw themselves in the way, no resistance. We stood around and watched.

As at Chelsea, the reaction was swift. Frustratingly, it also involved the woodwork again as Nordin Wooter scampered eagerly to the byeline to cross and Peter Kennedy's firm header smacked off the face of the bar.

That was it, though. The rest was absolutely woeful, allowing West Ham to take complete control of a game we needed to win. In every contest, we came a poor second. We seemed to lose every tackle, every header, every battle for a loose ball. Physically, we were running around on the pitch; mentally, we had not turned up.

There were exceptions, but only three. Nordin Wooter was typically positive and energetic, yet also appeared more willing to release the ball when the opportunity arose. Allan Smart, always the one who has to pick up the pieces when the midfield's not doing its job, battled away gamely. Heidar Helguson was bought as a goalscorer, full stop.

The rest were atrocious. We have rarely played worse this season. There was no sign of the confidence that was returning. There was no composure, with or without the ball. There was no strength, no aggression, no desire to stop West Ham from playing. No concentration, no teamwork, no sense of organisation. Nothing. We took no pride in our own performance. We may not be "good enough" for the Premiership but, at this late stage, we should still be trying to set and live up to our own standards.

With Sinclair and Wanchope constantly threatening, and neither our defence nor our midfield offering a great deal of opposition, West Ham were embarrassingly superior for most of the first half. Curious, then, that they were unable to put the game beyond our reach by half-time. As at Upton Park, they dominated without showing a ruthless streak and were nearly made to pay.

For Watford fans, it was horrible to watch. We'd come with hope, and we were sitting around while our own players carelessly discarded that hope. The game was dreary and uneventful, our performance was squalid and shameful, only the visitors in the Vic Road end seemed to be enjoying their afternoon.

Fifteen godforsaken minutes after Kennedy had hit the bar, neat approach play by Gibbs and Helguson set up Wooter inside the box. As the ball dropped, he volleyed awkwardly and the shot trickled so slowly towards goal that Forrest barely had to make a save. Fifteen equally godforsaken minutes after that, Lomas clouted the ball towards Wanchope. He took no notice of Robert Page's chaotic, ineffective challenge and, while the Watford captain was grounded, took his time in smacking a half-volley past Chamberlain. Farcical, frankly.

The remaining time before the interval saw us create a couple of half-chances - Wooter looping an effort over from a tight angle, courtesy of another Helguson assist; Foe clearing Williams' goal-bound header from a corner - but it was never going to be enough to save the players from GT's wrath. We're in no position to play as casually as this, we've no need of more holes to pull ourselves out of. Honest failure is always forgivable, but this was thoroughly dishonest failure.

We did improve after the break. We could hardly have got worse. The triple substitution had some impact, mainly because Richard Johnson's return gave us some presence in midfield. The switch in formation, playing with four at the back for the first time in several games, seemed to give us something to think about. The tongue-lashing that we'd all have given them in GT's place must also have played a part.

We shouldn't get carried away, though. While undoubtedly more positive and purposeful than before, we were still prone to extraordinary errors and still way short of the required standard. Similarly, West Ham should not feel too elated by this victory, since it was one they should've completed with far more ease.

The real frustration is caused by the knowledge that, even with a two goal deficit to recover, our occasional moments of cohesion were nearly enough to snatch a point. Had we not been so slapdash in the first half, this was a game that we could've won. In attack, we continue to play with a potency that has been lacking for most of the season, and the simple truth is that the strikers were let down by the rest of the side.

So our revival gradually gained some momentum. After ten minutes, Smart shaved the bar with a volley after Cox's header from a corner had looped up, then shot at Forrest from the edge of the box. But even then, our inability to defend with any competence nearly extended the West Ham lead, as Chamberlain failed to claim a hanging cross and Wanchope headed over.

The goal, however, was splendid. Fine midfield play from Johnson, driving forward and clipping a pass to pick out Wooter's run. The last-ditch tackle only knocked the ball to Helguson who took a difficult chance as if it were a training session tap-in, calmly side-footing into the far corner of the net from a tight angle. Record signing or not, his finishing so far makes him look like a bargain.

The light at the end of the tunnel was faint...but at least there was some light. Bizarrely, West Ham appeared to prefer to concentrate their efforts on following "The A-Z Of Time-Wasting" rather than scoring further goals - with Minto giving Cox all kinds of trouble, that seemed a curious tactic. It certainly made them no friends - by the time Ferdinand was tying his bootlaces instead of bothering to take a free kick, most of us were screaming for Mike Reid to take more decisive action to speed the game up.

Gradually, the match neared its rather feeble climax. Minto darted in from the wing and sent a shot dipping just over. Lampard broke down the right and supplied Sinclair, Chamberlain making a straightforward save. At the Rookery end, Kennedy popped up from nowhere to put an overhead into the side netting after West Ham had failed to deal with a cross. We were plugging away but, having played all our cards at the start of the second half, the game was slipping away from us again.

In the final fifteen minutes, West Ham seemed likelier to score. Wanchope's slide was close to connecting with a low cross from Minto, who also drove wide from distance. They were back in control, still not capitalising on their superiority and still annoying the hell out of us by running the clock down at every opportunity but certainly destined to leave with the three points. As at Upton Park, we might've grabbed a draw with an injury time equaliser, Page's header from a Johnson free kick forcing Forrest to tip over. As at Upton Park, we didn't.

There's no need for a detailed post-mortem. The players will, I hope, know and acknowledge what went wrong. If not, GT's comments on "Match Of The Day" indicate that he'll not be shy about telling them.

They will also have to try and put it right next Saturday. It's a long way to Newcastle, especially from the South Coast, and anyone making the journey deserves far better than this.