Birmingham City 1
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 8,144
AFTER 11 matches without a win, Graham Taylor issued a rallying cry to the Watford faithful in his programme notes: "Keep smiling, keep believing, and never never give in."
When this Cup exit to an injury-stricken Birmingham extended that dismal sequence to a dozen, the manager contradicted that exhortation by briskly blaming his players - "They aren't giving me any sign they are able to bring themselves out of this rut" - then pronounced the result "bloody disappointing" and said "I'm going home".
As Taylor pointed out, it was not as if Birmingham had failed to give notice of the way they proposed to pull off victory. Only five minutes had passed when central defender Gary Rowett headed Martin Grain-ger's inswinging corner from the right against the bar. Their winning goal in the 66th minute was a replica, with the difference that this time Rowett, a pounds 1m buy from Derby last season, stole in unmarked to direct his header emphatically past Alec Chamberlain.
Birmingham have suffered so grievously, and so bizarrely, from injuries this season that Trevor Francis says he can muster only 13 fit professionals at the moment. Those who turned out for him yesterday did a marvellous, dogged job, especially in the second half when Watford put behind them a woeful first 45 minutes to briefly rouse a sparse crowd.
"They were big in heart," said Francis, quite correctly, of his makeshift side. "Rowett was the best player on the field. He defended with intelligence, obviously enjoyed wearing the captain's armband for the first time and was our biggest threat at the other end. Did he win the toss at the kick- off as well?"
Without a win since beating Chelsea in mid-September, Watford set about extending that run with a dire showing in the first half. Three bookings, not a shot on goal, no wonder they were booed off at the interval.
They had lost their Dutchman, Nordin Wooter, with an ankle injury after 18 minutes but looked no better before that blow than they did after it.
Apart from Rowett's header against the bar, Chamberlain did well to keep out Chris Holland's near-post drive and allow Taylor to send out his troops with a gentle ear-bashing and new resolve. "I was a bit concerned they might melt if I went in too strongly," he explained. Far from melting, Watford were brimming with resolve after the interval. Michel Ngonge had a shot deflected over the top and Micah Hyde produced Kevin Poole's first save of the match.
Watford's best effort came from Nicky Wright, back after a six-match absence following a hernia operation. He executed a brisk one-two with Neil Cox and let fly from just inside the penalty area, only for Poole to turn it aside brilliantly. Then, out of the blue so to speak, the Blues won it. Grainger bent in the corner and the inspirational Rowett did the rest.
There was time for Poole to pull off another exceptional save from Wooter's replacement, the Icelander Johan Gudmundsson, and Watford's desperation was shown by the introduction of an 18-year-old striker, Stephen Brooker, and the veteran Nigel Gibbs, his 474th appearance in a Watford shirt. Despite some injury-time scrambling, Birm-ingham held out safely enough.
Their strategy was to keep their goal intact and, as they did not possess a recognised striker in the side, to profit from the set pieces. This they duly managed. "What this team lack in ability they make up for in sheer endeavour," Francis said. "We have a good dressing-room spirit and that's what is seeing us through at the moment."
As for Taylor, he departed with this chilling verdict: "I'm not certain too many of my players have been able to see beyond getting into the Premiership."Reuse content