Football: Watford 2 Wimbledon 3 - Woeful slip costs Watford dear

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The Independent Online
AS THE sun set on last season's opening afternoon Graham Taylor, the Watford manager, stood on the touch line at Fratton Park, wearing shorts and a smile, after his freshly-promoted team had beaten Portsmouth with the help of an outrageous own goal. Newly promoted once more, Taylor was left content after his enthusiastic side contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of a draw with a similarly comical self-inflicted blow.

Taylor's opposite number, the former coach of Norway Egil Olsen, is clearly a shrewd man in his own right, but his tactics on Saturday owed much to Joe Kinnear and a policy of multiple substitutions proved every bit as effective as it was when employed by his predecessor. After Dean Blackwell's harsh dismissal for a challenge on Michel Ngonge - for which Watford were doubly compensated with a penalty - Olsen sacrificed Michael Hughes, Wimbledon's only consistently creative player last season.

Shortly after Watford equalised for the second time a final shuffle of the pack saw Jason Euell replace the inspired Marcus Gayle, whose Beckhamesque free-kick curtailed an early Watford revival. The winner followed hot on Euell's heels.

It is well known that Wimbledon are a team with a sense of humour. The crazy gang welcome new recruits by burning their clothes - Olsen's wellington boots went up in smoke after the game - their anarchic supporters wear blue and yellow Viking helmets and, funniest of all, they pay pounds 7.5m for John Hartson.

Watford showed that they, too, like a joke as they conceded a third slapstick goal as a dreadful mix up between their hapless goalkeeper, Chris Day, and the stand-in captain Richard Johnson led to Wimbledon's winner. Deconstructing the farce is not easy, but it involved a strong element of pantomime. Day called for the ball following a long throw by Alan Kimble, Johnson chested it down, unaware that his goalkeeper was standing behind him. Day fell over and Johnson, under pressure, kicked the ball enthusiastically into the roof of his own net.

While there is evidently work to be done in defence, Taylor has reasons to be cheerful in attack. "If you're not going to be 6ft 2in, you're going to be exceptionally quick or exceptionally talented," he noted afterwards as he explored Watford's alternatives to Wimbledon's gladiatorial front line. Ngonge appeared at times to be that man. His aggressive runs unsettled Wimbledon and he executed a splendidly unorthodox finish for Watford's second equaliser. Tommy Mooney, too, looked sharp, although a missed header cost Watford dear.

Olsen said afterwards that he would like his team to be even more direct in their approach as the season progresses, a sentiment which should make the Premiership's more sensitive flowers wilt in trepidation. Olsen knows a thing or two about upsetting the English and there will, after all, be tougher nuts to crack this season than Watford. A bigger sledgehammer may be just what is required.

Goals: Cort (10) 0-1; Kennedy (pen17) 1-1; Gayle (28) 1-2; Ngonge (71) 2-2; Johnson (78 og) 2-3.

Watford (4-4-2): Day; Easton, Page (Smith, h-t; Brooker, 85), Williams, Lyttle; Kennedy, Palmer, Johnson, Bonnot; Mooney, Ngonge. Substitutes not used: Gibbs, Perpetuini, Walker (gk).

Wimbledon (4-3-3): Sullivan; Kimble, Blackwell, Pederson, Cunningham; Hughes (Jupp, 21), Roberts, Earle; Cort, Hartson (Ardley, 66), Gayle (Euell, 75). Substitutes not used: Wilmott, Davis (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Wimbledon: Gale, Hartson. Sending off: Wimbledon: Blackwell.

Man of the match: Ngonge.

Attendance: 15,511.

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