Football: Unsworth undermines Watford

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Watford 1

Ngonge 60

Everton 3

Barmby 4, Hutchison 37 Unsworth pen 86

Half-time: 0-2 Attendance: 17,346

THE SLIDE has become a nosedive: 13 games without a win and Watford - and their supporters - have that hangdog look. Even a rousing second- half recovery could not disguise the fact that the Hornets are in dire danger of returning whence they came last season. Everton were competent in the first half, less so subsequently, but never looked like conceding the lead they took in the fifth minute.

At least Watford were spared the wrath of Graham Taylor. The manager was absent, stricken with influenza, but his anger permeated the match programme.

Taylor's problems did not take long to worsen, with a goal conceded to Nick Barmby, who exchanged passes with the excellent Don Hutchison to stride through the untenanted centre of Watford's defence to score what even the home team's acting manager Kenny Jackett had to concede was "a class effort".

However, the sickener for Watford came five minutes from the end when the intervention of a linesman was crucial in the award of a penalty after Mark Williams was adjudged to have fouled Barmby. David Unsworth put the kick away with his left foot to confirm the end of Everton's own dismal sequence of nine games without a win, but that was not the end of the drama.

With barely a minute to play, the red card was dramatically flourished by the referee Alan Wilkie over the head of Watford defender Neil Cox for "foul and abusive language" to the linesman involved in the penalty award. "I don't necessarily sympathise with Neil," said Jackett. "Whatever the decision, you can't be saying these things to officials."

With Francis Jeffers also absent because of influenza, Everton pushed Hutchison forward to keep Kevin Campbell company and he put Watford on the back foot in the first half with his ability to win every ball in the air. He also had a nose for goal when it mattered, knocking in Everton's second after 38 minutes after Richard Dunne's punt had been turned back to him by Campbell.

It could have been three, and game over, a minute before half-time when John Collins and Barmby linked to send Campbell through but Alec Chamberlain made a crucial, deflecting stop to keep Watford in with a hope.

Watford built a more impressive head of steam after the interval and Everton's early command evaporated in the face of some really determined pressure. The young striker Tommy Smith missed two chances in the space of just a minute, shooting straight at Paul Gerrard when the ball dropped to his feet from the head of Michel Ngonge, and then proving equally wasteful when he got clean through.

Soon afterwards Gerrard was penalised for carrying the ball too far, but the free-kick just inside the penalty area was blocked by a massed rush of blue shirts. However, Watford managed the goal that their spirit and combativeness merited when, with an hour gone, Micah Hyde threaded a fine ball through the centre and Ngonge held off Dunne's challenge with ease to strike a thunderous shot past Gerrard. It is an illustration of the extent of Watford's woes, however, that he is is top scorer with five.

As Watford stepped up the chase for an equaliser, Walter Smith took Dunne off and replaced him with the experienced Dave Watson. As the pace quickened, tempers also began to fray. Campbell and Richard Johnson were booked for a scuffle, then Charlie Miller followed for some over-robust play.

Watford almost paid the price of over-commitment when Barmby got away to bring Chamberlain to a sprawling save, one which was matched at the other end as Gerrard fell to his left to hold Steve Palmer's half-volley from outside the area. But the penalty killed off Watford's hopes of the result they had been hoping would mean better news for their supporters.

Instead, it was Everton fans who surged on to the pitch to celebrate as Unsworth netted the penalty. Walter Smith did not seem overly impressed with the manner of the win, only the fact of it. "We have played much better than that this season, only to be pulled back. The most important thing was to win."