Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Nineties nostalgia, pt. 4 – It takes a small man to beat a small team

I really can’t cope with the tension of the Championship promotion battle any more, and the idea of having to wait nearly a fortnight for the next instalment of the story is agonising. So let’s go back in time to an altogether simpler age. An age when Watford sometimes got easy FA Cup draws – that’s how long ago it was.

It’s December 1996, and Watford’s reward for struggling past Northampton Town in the 1st Round of the FA Cup is a home tie against Ashford Town of the Dr Marten’s Premier League. Who of the what? You may well ask. Ashford went bust in 2010, though the town now has a new club (Ashford United) which plays in what is basically the Kent county league. As for the shoemakers, they were sponsoring the Southern League at the time. All in all, a fairly straightforward tie for Kenny Jackett’s team, then sitting 8th in Division Two (that’s League One in old money).

A cursory glance at the back page of the programme reinforces the impression. That day the Hornets had Miller in goal; Gibbs and Robinson at full-back; a classic central defence pairing of Millen and Page; Bazeley and Slater on the wings; and Mooney, Noel-Williams and Penrice forming what was presumably an attacking trio, with only Palmer left to hold down the centre of midfield. That’s pretty much a classic mid- to late 90s line-up, and not that different from the one GT would take all the way to the Premier League a couple of seasons later.

Appearances can be deceptive, though. It turns out this was only Robbo’s 6th first-team game and Gifton’s 11th, while Slater had only made his Watford debut the previous week. Still, there should have been enough skill and experience to see off Ashford. Yet at half-time it was 0-0 and the atmosphere was starting to get a bit twitchy.

Enter a new hero (or so it seemed at the time). Say what you like about David Connolly (and plenty have), he’s scored goals wherever he’s played: brought on for Mooney, he scored a second-half hat-trick. Two goals for Bazeley against the tiring non-leaguers made for a slightly flattering 5-0 scoreline.

The programme is in the same garish, PC-inspired style as the one from 1997 I looked at a while ago. On the cover is Gary Porter, currently sidelined with a broken leg, while Steve Palmer gets the centre spread interview, in which he talks positively about having to play in defence, despite being a midfielder by trade. How little he knew of what lay ahead.

Also in the future lay the extensive career of Ade Akinbiyi, highlighted for scoring the winner for Norwich against Watford’s reserves in a recent game. Altogether less extensive would be the career of Richard Flash, a player so elusive that many Watford fans still refuse to believe he actually existed. Yet he’s listed here in the reserve team line-ups, so at least a few must actually have got to see him play.

As for Watford’s FA Cup run, it was ended in the 4th Round by Manchester City. Some things never change.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Telling tales

I haven’t checked, but I imagine BBC Sport’s summation of yesterday’s game was along the lines of ‘Promotion-chasing Watford thrash depleted Reading’. Every football match is a story that can be reduced to a one-line summary, of course – triumph for one side, disaster for the other, etc – but there’s always more to it than that, and this one was particularly rich in sub-plots.

The most unusual story (and thank goodness for that) was the one that led to the emotional shows of support for Nic Cruwys before and during the game; the players’ T-shirts, a giant banner, a moving round of applause during the 44th minute, more during the half-time interview with Ollie Floyd. Little that occurred during the match roused the crowd to such levels of passion.

That’s because of another odd story that probably had more bearing on the final result than any of the others; the scheduling of Reading’s FA Cup replay with Bradford on Monday evening, giving them a fixture sequence of Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Monday. In the circumstances, it wasn’t much of a surprise that, with only a couple of exceptions, the Reading line-up elicited a reaction of “Who?” from all but the most knowledgeable Hornets fans. Nor that they were no match for a Watford team coming into the game on a run of 6 wins from the past 8 games.

In that team, the big story last weekend was Fernando Forestieri’s altercation with Bakary Sako – like many Hornets, I’ve spent the week fending off the jeers of fans of other teams. So, given a rare chance to play pretty much an entire game, the big question was whether he would take it. And boy, did he. After his two exquisite assists, it felt like the whole crowd was willing him to score one for himself, and when he did, the catharsis was there for all to see. Fessi is back, and that can only be a good thing.

There are more stories, of course. Troy Deeney’s relentless progress towards becoming the first Watford player to score 20 goals three seasons running. Matty Vydra’s unerring touch when put through on goal. Heurelho Gomes’s alarming distribution. Daniel Tozser’s irritating habit of hitting simple passes approximately three times as hard as they need to be, creating problems out of nothing.

But the biggest one of all is the one we don’t know the ending to yet. Are Watford writing the story of a promotion-winning season? I have to say, it feels increasingly like they are. Slav has built a machine for winning football matches by any means necessary, using different formations and styles, showboating or slogging it out toe-to-toe with the opposition, with the end results ranging from extravagant tonkings to slim victories. It’s a real page-turner, that’s for sure.