Noel-Williams embellishes gift to Taylor

Watford flourish at lower level while Francis' improved team exorcise pain of play-off defeat
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It was a case of Dr Jekyll and Micah Hyde at Vicarage Road yesterday.

It was a case of Dr Jekyll and Micah Hyde at Vicarage Road yesterday.

Watford, whose previous match there, against Cheltenham, had left their manager, Graham Taylor, cringing with "embarrassment and shame", were excellent, Hyde and Gifton Noel-Williams scoring fine goals on their return to an injury-stricken side. In contrast, Sheffield United, having given their best performance under Neil Warnock while beating Tranmere two days earlier, were made to look poor for much of the time by the home side's direct running on and off the ball.

So Watford, outclassed following their premature elevation to the Premiership and left seven points clear at the bottom in May, have three wins and a draw to their name from four games at the lower level. With so many players - including the club's most expensive acquisition, Allan Nielsen from Tottenham, still to come back, they ought to be strong enough to remain in contention all season.

"I'm very pleased, because seven days ago, we were quite awful," Taylor said. He took equal pleasure - as did the crowd - from Noel-Williams' return to the colours for only a second game in 20 months. An arthritic knee condition first put the young striker out of the team in January 1999 and allowed him only one Premiership appearance in the whole of last season as well as threatening his career.

United's contingent were able to enjoy only three minutes of their afternoon, from the time of Wayne Quinn's well-struck equaliser just before the interval until Tommy Mooney regained the lead for Watford in first-half stoppage time. It had taken them almost a quarter of the game to test another former Spurs man, Espen Baardsen, in the Watford goal, by which time they were already behind to a neatly worked goal, scored in the eighth minute. Paul Robinson clipped a pass down the left for Mooney, whose cut-back left the Icelandic striker Heidar Helguson with a tap-in.

The only dull period of play ended with Quinn's rising drive past Baardsen in the 42nd minute after a right-wing cross had been nudged out to him. The visitors could not even get as far as half-time on level terms, however, succumbing again as Helguson steadied himself and crossed for Mooney to head in under pressure from two defenders. The match was effectively settled only two minutes into the second half, before United's deployment of an extra attacker had any chance to take effect. A clever free-kick routine left the impressive Tommy Smith clear to shoot at Simon Tracey, and Noel-Williams joyously knocked in the rebound.

"If we can't defend, we won't win any games," said Warnock, although the move that brought Watford's fourth goal would have unhinged almost any back-line: Hyde, set up by Noel-Williams, swept the ball out to Smith and darted forward to sweep in the resulting cross.

There might have been more, Robinson thudding a free-kick against a post and Helguson having a header scraped off the line, but Taylor is long enough in the tooth not to want anyone to get carried away at this time of year.

Watford (4-4-2): Baardsen; Cox, Ward, Page, Robinson; Smith, Hyde, Palmer, Mooney; Helguson, Noel-Williams. Substitutes not used: Gibbs, Easton, Gudmundsson, Foley, Chamberlain (gk).

Sheffield United (4-4-2): Tracey; Uhlenbeek (Kozluk, 52), Murphy, Sandford, Webber; Ford, Brown (Newby, h-t), Woodhouse, Quinn; Bent, Devlin. Substitutes not used: Santos, Ribeiro, Kelly (gk).

Referee: L Cable (Woking).