Football: Cort quick to open new era

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The Independent Online
Watford 2 Wimbledon 3

Kennedy pen 17, Ngonge 71 Cort 10, Gayle 28,

Ardley 78

Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 15,511

THE WATFORD manager, Graham Taylor, appeared to be spot-on when he forecast in his programme notes that his newly promoted club "may get our bottoms smacked now and again". He probably was not expecting the spanking to be administered on the season's opening day but the manner of it is a grim warning of struggles to come, with the match cast away by a goal caused by a foolish mix-up in defence.

Taylor called that shambles "a comedy of errors, a complete lack of communication, the sort of thing you can't afford to do on a Sunday park." He insisted that the defeat was "more annoying than dispiriting" and one of the most annoying things was the fact that Wimbledon had been reduced to 10 men after only 16 minutes when Dean Blackwell conceded a penalty for which he was, harshly, shown the red card by the referee Steve Lodge.

Taylor spent most of the second half on the touchline offering loud and increasingly anguished instructions that his players should move the ball much quicker against short-handed opponents who were tiring. "We helped Wimbledon win it more than they actually won it," he admitted. Taylor refused to blame Chris Day, a replacement for his injured number one goalkeeper, Alec Chamberlain. "At a club this size you can't start picking individuals out and saying they are at fault."

It was an excellent first outing for Wimbledon's new manager, Egil Olsen. When in charge of Norway he had inflicted the defeat which put Taylor's England out of the 1994 World Cup but those days are long gone, he pointed out. "I wished Graham good luck for the season and told him I hope he wins every match except the two against Wimbledon."

That one of those two matches is already lost has to be put down to Watford's naivety in the big-time. "It isn't just about technique and pace, it is about power. They are bigger animals in all respects when you come into the Premiership," Taylor pointed out. The lesson was learned the hard way yesterday.

Watford received a rapturous welcome back into the big-time and, with five first-team regulars missing, they certainly needed it. Among the absentees were the two men, Nick Wright and Allan Smart, who had scored the goals which won the play-off against Bolton and got Watford into the Premiership.

They were embarrassed clearly and early by the way John Hartson put himself about in their penalty area and it cost them a goal in the 10th minute.

Neil Sullivan had, seconds earlier, denied Watford with a stunning reflex stop from Tommy Mooney's close-range header. The ball was cleared out to Marcus Gayle, who sent over a cross for which Hartson and Watford's captain Robert Page tussled. The ball rolled loose to Carl Cort who struck an instant low shot inches inside the post.

Watford's sprightliest operator was the 32-year-old Belgian, Michel Ngonge, who frequently had even Wimbledon struggling for pace and it was this which brought the equaliser as he surged past Blackwell and was brought down. The award of a penalty was instant and deserved, but the dismissal was rough indeed.

Olsen called the rule, and implicitly, the decision "ridiculous" adding: "A penalty was good enough for that. I can't criticise the referee but the rules are wrong. He was a fraction of a second late and it was a penalty, OK. But Dean should not have been sent off."

Wimbledon surprisingly took off their midfield organiser Michael Hughes and brought on defender Duncan Jupp, prepared to offer resistance. Instead, they scored again in the 27th minute. Hartson won a free-kick some 22 yards out, Gayle took it and bent a marvellous shot over the wall and into the top left-hand corner. For the remainder of the first half Wimbledon were in control and Gayle could have added to the score, but hit the side netting.

So severely had Hartson dealt with Page that the Watford captain was withdrawn at half-time ("he was being battered a bit", said Taylor) but in the 65th minutes, having had two reprimands, Hartson got a yellow card and was immediately withdrawn, being replaced by Neil Ardley. If Wimbledon were thus strengthened in defence it did not show when Watford equalised five minutes later. Ngonge got between two defenders as Sullivan moved out and his knee-high volley bounced into the net.

Then, with 13 minutes left, came disaster for Watford. A long throw was flicked on and Richard Johnson chested it down towards where he thought his goalkeeper was. Unfortunately Day had moved out behind him and the ball trickled over the line, helped on its way by Ardley's smash into the roof of the net.

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