Delaney delivers for Vill

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The Independent Online

IT IS the fairy-tale factor, the prospects of dreams being realised, which keeps football bubbling, and there are few places more acquainted with such fantasy than Vicarage Road. For the second time in two decades Watford have risen from the lower reaches of the professional game to rub shoulders with the elite and, once again, they are making a decent fist of it.

IT IS the fairy-tale factor, the prospects of dreams being realised, which keeps football bubbling, and there are few places more acquainted with such fantasy than Vicarage Road. For the second time in two decades Watford have risen from the lower reaches of the professional game to rub shoulders with the elite and, once again, they are making a decent fist of it.

On this occasion, however, they had to stand back and applaud a man whose ascent has been even more rapid than theirs. Little more than 15 months ago, while Watford were beginning their latest rise by winning promotion from the Nationwide League Second Division, Mark Delaney was packing textiles in a warehouse and playing part-time for Carmarthen in the League of Wales. Last night he lined up against them in the Premiership and emerged the matchwinner after a superb goal 66 minutes into an otherwise unremarkable match.

Delaney's 25-yard strike, his first goal in the league at any level, lifted Villa to second place, behind Manchester United on goal difference, and capped a remarkable month which has also seen him called up to the Welsh squad. It was just enough to defeat a Watford side who produced a spirited display but were unable to beat the rejuvenated David James in the Villa goal. Tommy Mooney, who was released by Graham Taylor when both were at Villa, went closest but was brilliantly denied an equaliser by the former Watford keeper in the closing minutes. Taylor, now managing Watford, said: "We know we have got to get better but so far we've had five games and we've not been embarrassed at all."

John Gregory, the Villa manager, was understandably upbeat after his first win at Vicarage Road as a player or manager. "This has been a graveyard for me so victory is sweet. The boys showed great character. Delaney's still learning, sometimes he looks around stadiums like an autograph hunter, but he is a good kid. James has worked really hard since he joined us [from Liverpool in the summer]. He is very keen to get back in the England squad."

The return of big-time football to Watford also brought the reappearance of big-time traffic to the town centre with the result that many people missed the opening minutes. The latecomers did not miss any significant action with the first save taking 25 minutes to arrive. It came from James, who clawed Michel Ngonge's effort away.

Villa's response was delayed but nearly effective. Ten minutes before the interval Alan Wright steered a clever pass into Lee Hendrie who turned his marker and shot from close-range, only to find Clint Easton throwing his body in front of goal.

With both sides seeking the win the tempo increased after the break, but was accompanied by a reduction in quality. On the sidelines Taylor alternately waved his players forward then beseeched them to calm down.

Unfortunately he did not get through to Paul Robinson. After 65 minutes a goalmouth scramble ended with the ball coming to him in front of an untenanted goal. It was at a difficult height but he rushed his shot and it flew wide. If he felt bad then that was nothing to his mood a minute later as Delaney bent a first-time shot inside the far post.

Taylor made a triple substitution in an attempt to force an equaliser but, though Mooney impressively spearheaded the assault, it was not enough.

Watford (3-5-2): Day; Williams, Page, Palmer; Lyttle, Hyde (Foley, 77), Easton (Bonnot, 77), Kennedy, Robinson; Mooney, Ngonge (Gudmundsson, 77). Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Gibbs.

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): James; Ehiogu, Southgate, Calderwood; Delaney, Taylor, Hendrie, Wright; Merson (Boateng, 78); Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Watson, Bassell, Ghrayib.

Referee: S Bennett (Orpington)

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