MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 2-1 Watford
IT would be nice to think that by the end of next May, we could look back on the final 30 minutes of this game and say it was the moment it all started going right for Owen Coyle and Wanderers .
Coasting at 2-0 going into the break, there was little explanation for why Watford were allowed to blunder their way back into the game and leave the outcome so finely balanced.
Nor was there much rhyme or reason for the sections of support who chose to jeer at the final whistle despite a second home win of the campaign.
It’s hard to assess exactly where Wanderers are on the scale at present. They are either a good side playing poorly in patches or an average team occasionally playing well.
But what is obvious is that confidence is an issue on and off the pitch, and that perhaps makes the fact that Wanderers held firm in that final half hour all the more encouraging for the future.
Had the defensive unit – so shaky at the KC Stadium a fortnight earlier – caved in and conceded a second goal, then the wolves at Coyle’s door might just have pounded it off its hinges.
In the end, this result, and indeed many of the performances, should ease some of the pressure heading into tomorrow night’s trip to Birmingham City.
Three points should never have been in doubt from the moment Matt Mills stooped to head home the opening goal after four minutes.
Kevin Davies had already been denied by Manuel Almunia and David Ngog refused a penalty by the time the former Leicester defender crashed home Chris Eagles’ corner for his first goal for the club, albeit with the help of a weak hand from the keeper.
All set pieces despatched by Eagles were causing panic in the Hornets’ box, with Gianfranco Zola’s side showing a familiar frailty at the back.
The chances started to tot up. Kevin Davies headed over the top from close range and Almunia made some amends by rushing out to stifle Ngog’s angled shot.
Even though the Frenchman eventually had to leave the field through fatigue midway through the second half, his return to the side was encouraging. His movement has been missed up front, and it should be interesting to see whether – when fully fit – he can be used in a front two with skipper Davies, as opposed to replacing him in the team.
Even though Wanderers would take a two-goal lead into the break, the visitors were not without their chances.
Nyron Nosworthy had a header scrambled off the line, by Ngog of all people, and moments after Kevin Davies had doubled his side’s lead, Mark Yeates crashed a right-footed shot against Adam Bogdan’s bar in a warning of what was to come in the second half.
By the break, Wanderers’ lead should have been an unassailable one. Again, it was Eagles who curled an angled free-kick into the danger area, and this time the captain was spot on with an impressive finish on the volley into the bottom corner.
Bets were being taken on how many the Whites could score in the second period against such an uninspiring back line, and yet it was Zola’s half-time team talk that proved a game-changer.
Watford upped the pace and though they halved the lead somewhat fortuitously, they deserved to be back in the contest.
Wanderers had settled for what they had got and retreated, which sparked a negative vibe in the crowd and by the time Lloyd Doyley’s cross had floated over Bogdan’s head and inside the post, some fans were ready to pop.
It was sink or swim time once again. How often have we been in this situation at the Reebok in recent years?
This time there was no second goal for the visitors and it is that fact, above all others, which will please Coyle as he looked at the league table to see his side in 10th position this morning.
There were opportunities, and with Bogdan looking more nervous the more direct Watford became, it didn’t make for pleasant viewing.
Ngog came off through fatigue and Keith Andrews was substituted for Darren Pratley in a move that seemed to act as kindling for the wave of frustration around the stadium at the time.
But Pratley dug in, as did Zat Knight, Mills and Tyrone Mears – who have all experienced their fair share of grumbles from the terraces already this season.
And Wanderers did have chances to ease the pressure completely, as Eagles saw a low blast blocked on the line by Neuton Piccoli and Kevin Davies spurned an excellent headed chance from Benik Afobe’s centre.
While there wasn’t enough ammunition for Coyle’s critics to launch into full attack mode, there was enough uncertainty around at the final whistle to temper the usual celebration. There were also some reports of cross words exchanged between pitch and stands as the players and staff went back down the tunnel.
It isn’t the happiest camp at present but only one thing will change all that, results.
This was a big one, given the vast disappointment still lingering from relegation and the defeats at Burnley and Hull.
It leaves Wanderers two points off the play-offs and four off leaders Blackburn Rovers, who are proof positive that results can continue to be churned out, even in the worst of atmospheres.
Two more testing games lie on the immediate horizon at St Andrews and Hillsborough, where the stubborn streak we saw on Saturday afternoon will almost certainly be examined more thoroughly.
Whether it stands up could yet be the making of Coyle and Wanderers’ future.