Football: Phillips' return is costly for Watford

Watford 2 Ngonge 4, Johnson pen 49 Sunderland 3 Page og 24, Phillips 33, McCann 70 Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 21,590
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KEVIN PHILLIPS came back to taunt Watford at Vicarage Road yesterday. The player Graham Taylor was relieved to sell to Sunderland for a small fee came off the pitch shortly before the end, shook his former manager's hand and knew that his two goals had further damaged Watford's future and helped raise Sunderland to third place.

It was a measure of Sunderland's comparatively rich pool of talent and greater resources that, in spite of an undeserved 2-0 defeat by Liverpool the previous weekend, they could still meet Watford - their partners in promotion last season - hard on the backs of the Premiership's top three. So there was a strong feeling yesterday that although Watford sometimes come up with surprises, their path back down to the First Division was already plotted, while Sunderland were on the high road to something better than Premier League survival.

They had faced Liverpool with a suspension list of five, which yesterday came down to three, but that included the sturdy Steve Bould, who had he been in the centre of defence, would probably have made a better job of marking Michel Ngonge.

In the fifth minute Ngonge controlled a long pass from Xavier Gravelaine on his chest and almost instantly forced the shot well beyond Thomas Sorensen to give Watford unexpected early hope.

Phillips, clearly intent on reminding Watford that they had let him go to Sunderland for an almost personally insulting pounds 350,000, had already shown the value of his link with Niall Quinn, and it was obvious that Watford's lead would be hard to defend. The fact was that Phillips and Quinn were playing against three central defenders yet still found plenty of usable space.

Responsibility for Sunderland's equalising goal after 24 minutes had to be taken by Watford's Robert Page, but only because he attempted to get in the way of an indifferent shot by Phillips that diverted wildly past Alec Chamberlain.

If Phillips had some fortune for that first goal, his second in the 33rd minute was indisputably of his own making. He met Nicky Summerbee's cross, that dropped perfectly to his head, with power and direction, though quite how the bigger Watford defenders let him get such a positive header in it was difficult to know.

The value of Phillips' talent for discovering goalscoring possibilities has now risen from that original small fee, which Watford were grateful to receive for a player who had suffered badly from injuries, to an estimated pounds 10m. His value to Sunderland yesterday could not be underestimated. Taylor attempted to sort out his team's difficulties by bringing on Nigel Gibbs for Charlie Miller and ordering a four-man defensive line. Not that Watford could claim any tactical changes for their recovery to 2-2.

They had pressed forward in the early stages of the first half but were not threatening sufficiently for Sunderland to be panicked into giving away a penalty. Nevertheless, after discussion with his assistant, the referee, Uriah Rennie, decided that Darren Williams had pulled back Paul Robinson. Watford appealed in force for the penalty and were satisfied. Richard Johnson confidently and successfully took the kick. And no one can accuse their fans of failing to support a revival when they see one. Suddenly Sunderland were looking frail in midfield and unable to get Quinn and Phillips into the dangerous situations they had previously enjoyed.

To their credit, Sunderland coped well with the prospect of losing their grip on a game that at times had seemed theirs for the easy taking. Their slackness passed, and when Ngonge was off the field being treated for an injury they took advantage of the slight confusion. Jody Craddock set up Quinn for one of those familiar productive headers and Gavin McCann calmly controlled the ball before drawing out Chamberlain and beating him with a careful eight-yard shot inside the far post.

In no way was the referee's decision to send off Gravelaine for a late, hasty though not malicious tackle on Williams a reflection of a game played comp- etitively and fairly. Sadly, it will only increase Watford's long- term problems.