Football: Watford close the gap

Watford 2 Wright 19, Noel-Williams 53 Sunderland 1 Quinn 36 Half- time: 1-1 Attendance: 20,188
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The Independent Online
IT WAS the natural end to a "home truths" week for Sunderland. Every nut and screw of the club shine like the Premiership; their points tally promises the Premiership; but, having lost successive cup ties to two bona fide members of the elite, their third defeat in a week - to a chasing, chivvying Watford side - warned sternly against presumptuousness.

Not that within the club it exists anyway. The manager, Peter Reid, was more concerned with the anxiety he perceived once his team were behind, and preferred to extol the virtues of a "smashing football match". Anxiety and complacency cannot exist together; Reid's philosophy forbids the latter and Sunderland, once recovered from these January jitters, are probably too good not to go up. On this energetic evidence, Watford might be good enough, too. Playing in front of a 20,000 strong gallery for the first time in three years, they shook up their visitors with a snappiness of pass and tackle from which their manager, Graham Taylor, derives much satisfaction.

"My players have always been in this position [the top eight], because they've given their best," Taylor said. "Sometimes they lose despite that; but not today."

Watford's goals came in the first and third quarters of a match which was never motionless. The first - a well judged header from stand-in striker Nicky Wright - was the product of a run and cross from the rejuvenated Tony Daley.

But the winner, eight minutes into the second half, did most to illuminate the afternoon. Gifton Noel-Williams, gathering in Ben Iroha's throw-in with a deft piece of chest control, swivelled gracefully and volleyed viciously into the top corner.

Sunderland's equaliser, bundled in by Niall Quinn shortly before half- time, followed the parrying of a fierce shot from Kevin Phillips. Returning for the first time to the club where he came to prominence, Phillips suffered a "nearly" afternoon during which his stealth of movement and wealth of talent showed that for his current club the immediate future remains rosy.