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What the Fans Say

By Ian Grant

For a game that's essentially fairly simple - you score, they don't, everyone goes home happy - football generates an awful lot of opinions. Each manager, each player, each game; each is surrounded by a swarm of commentary from countless sources, words that buzz around with no particular place to go. I should know, I suppose; quite a number of those words come from this keyboard, after all.

There's a great deal to be said, however, for knowing when to shut up. Silence isn't always golden, but it is sometimes wise. It's always wise, I'd suggest, if you're the manager of a football team with an opinion or two about an opposition player on the eve of an important game. And it's especially wise, really, if that player happens to live in the same town and will therefore be reading the local paper in which your forthright opinions appear.

Then again, Ian Atkins has never suggested that wisdom is terribly high on his curriculum vitae. Not that sort of manager, not that sort of bloke. Thus it was that, as the Hornets prepared to play his Northampton side in November 1997, he decided to share his somewhat disparaging views on the Watford goalkeeper, Alec Chamberlain. You know, that Alec Chamberlain. The one who lives in Northampton.

It was a potentially pivotal game. Northampton had made a strong start to the campaign, already nestling into the playoff position in which they'd eventually finish. Watford, of course, were flying towards the Championship, having been rejuvenated by Graham Taylor's return, investment from a new board and a clutch of impressive new signings. But Northampton hadn't been beaten at home since the season's opening day and had rattled four past Brentford without reply in midweek; this was the moment when the early leaders were expected to drop points.

It didn't happen. Instead, we witnessed one of the most determined, disciplined Watford performances for many years, revealing the reinforced foundations beneath the decorative, expansive football that had characterised the season until that point. The winning goal was scored by Peter Kennedy, popping up at the far post to meet a Nigel Gibbs cross after an hour. But the victory was demanded by a defence - Robert Page, Steve Palmer, Tommy Mooney, with others pitching in - that refused to be intimidated by an aerial bombardment from a functional, physical side.

And by a keeper with a point to prove. Not the first to suggest that Alec Chamberlain might be vulnerable on crosses - an urban myth that's never had cause to take root around Vicarage Road - Ian Atkins' mistake was to say it within earshot. The response was unequivocal: that afternoon, Alec was calmly, quietly flawless. He pulled off one marvellous save in the first half, clawing out a header when the defence momentarily dropped its guard; more often, though, he was part of a concentrated team effort that made marvellous saves unnecessary. Those rock-solid foundations began with him.and we'd only just begun to build on them..

I remember that Northampton game as a small, important lesson in life. Alec Chamberlain has no shortage of character references, no end of people to compliment him on his nature. But when you sign up to being a thoroughly lovely bloke and a model professional, there's no clause to say that you can't also have an inner steel and a strong personal pride, that you can't be a really fierce competitor. At Sixfields, there was no flamboyant heroism, no individual agenda; there was just the focused, resolute determination that we've always seen when Alec Chamberlain has been faced with a challenge.

Football generates an awful lot of words.

Actions speak louder.

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