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Watford 3 Ipswich Town 1 (19/04/2014) 20/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There are many excellent things about having a seven year old daughter. If it’s something you’re considering I can heartily recommend it.  The BEST thing changes by the day, but the ability to vicariously relive your childhood and indulge in pastimes that a middle-aged man wouldn’t otherwise get away with will always be fairly high on the list.  Re-reading “The Northern Lights” doesn’t strictly fall into that category…  I was already a middle-aged man when I first read it and no pretext should be necessary.  But sharing it with a seven year-old, who is frankly no less able to get her head around parallel universe theory than I am gives it a whole new lustre, just as much fun the second time around.

This was a game from a parallel universe.  A parallel universe in which this season panned out as we thought it might, in which we really did rip the division up, too good for whatever the Championship could throw at us.  In which a team turning up and haring after us, closing us down up the pitch and denying us space and waiting for us to make a mistake wasn’t anything like enough.  A parallel universe in which, perversely, Beppe Sannino had replaced Gianfranco anyway.  Go figure.  I never claimed to be an expert in this stuff.

2- Which isn’t to say that we had it all our own way…  indeed we started the game much the slower, the visitors getting the pick of the scraps from a congested midfield early on.  Johnny Williams was at the heart of the threat, then and throughout the first half… the Palace loan-man, significant at Wembley last May, echoing his compatriot Craig Bellamy in both his sense of devil and mischief and in being a gobby little irritant.  He would leave the game early, a running scrap with Daniel Tözsér culminating in a bad second-half challenge from the Hungarian for which he was lucky to escape censure.  Williams had the first effort on target, a firm shot that Manuel got something behind to block as the defence were caught on their heels in an ominous opening period.  Five minutes later Tommie Hoban, who had had an edgy start, got away with a lunge on Frank Nouble in the area… there weren’t many appeals but it looked a foul.

Gradually the tide turned, we began to enjoy possession of our own.  The opening goal, when it came, was a thing of beauty and worthy of separating the teams at the interval… Hoban, out of position, swept in with a majestic, immaculate challenge to curtail an Ipswich break on the left and immediately set in motion an attack down our own left  flank.  Riera, who we had been warned was going to need a few games to play himself back to fitness, showcased the quality that once had Liverpool paying £8m for him by cutting inside  and stroking a shot diffidently inside the far post with his weaker right foot.  In the context of a tight game, devastating – and an echo of a similar goal against Leeds under Sean Dyche, where Mariappa and Kightly played the Hoban/Riera roles.

3- Ipswich, in short, were more or less what you’d expect from a Big Mick side.  Tough, tight, competitive, fairly tidy.  And unremarkable.  Paul, an Ipswich fan and school friend of my brother’s from Essex where such things - Ipswich fans - are an occupational hazard, was keeping a low profile with me in the Rookery.  If you’ve done this sort of thing before you’ll know that the hardest bit is not reacting convincingly to goals at either end, but coping with your emotions when things get a little… fractious on the pitch.  As the visitors hit us hard at the start of the second half, pulling level when Wordsworth poked in Nouble’s cross, things did boil over as a referee whose control of the game was on the slack side throughout, nearly lost control altogether.  Cue  partisan bellowing at referee and miscreants in blue decorated with tractorcentric baubles and much swearing from those around us…  and whilst, heaven knows, I’m not one to urge vocal restraint when it comes to suggesting that Ipswich are a shambolic excuse for a football club with a rather overblown sense of their own significance, full marks to the interloper for not blowing his cover.

4- If something remarkable does transpire over the next fortnight – and we’ll get to that – then the pivotal period, the Tranmere moments, surely came just after the hour mark.  Luke Hyam met a left-wing cross with a thumping header for the visitors… from the far end it looked off the bar and in, for a second or so we were mentally adjusting to being behind.  Except… it didn’t go in, a brilliant Almunia push onto the bar indiscernible from our vantage point but critical.  Within a minute Troy Deeney drew a foul in Ipswich’s half… closer to the halfway line than the penalty box and central it should have been no threat to the visitors but they fell asleep, Töszér’s evil swinging delivery found Angella’s untracked bandaged forehead and we had the lead.  A good finish, but criminal defending. Two minutes later an extraordinary crossfield ball by the Hungarian found Faraoni wide on the right.  The Italian killed the ball with his astonishing first touch, waited long enough for the Kaiser to follow his pass across the pitch and then released him to drive home our advantage;  Ipswich, rocking, were not mentally ready to have him prising open the gap between two defenders in the box neither of whom were brave enough to take responsibility. He cut back from the byline, McGugan finished expertly.  Game over.

Most impressive, more impressive than the goals, was what happened next. Ipswich were shot, done, and in no physical or mental state to reprise their energetic chasing down of the first half but we’ve made late leads look more precarious than this in the past  with fist-chewingly awful consequences and against far less capable sides.  The visitors had some inconsequential possession, Hunt had a decent effort from long range, but every time possession turned over the yellow shirts flooded forward…   Angella, Deeney, Battocchio, Murray and Tözsér – from a violently struck free kick that he and McGugan lined up to opposite corners – all came close.  No nerves here, we ended the game well on top.

5- It should be evident to all onlookers that that sixth place is going to go to a side that has not covered itself in glory for the duration of the campaign.  On any number of occasions over the past weeks and months we’ve all mentally switched the season off and chucked the dust covers over it… Bolton?  Doncaster?  Blackburn?  Burnley?  Millwall?  And yet… nobody else is making a convincing job of it either, and despite our best efforts we’re still in there.  Not favourites, not in our control by a long chalk… and that mythical game in hand is only potentially worth three points.  We’d still have to win at Charlton, and at QPR and Derby too,  a big ask under any circumstances.  Except… well, if you’re going to go to QPR and Derby then a period in which each might be focused on the next bit, the play-offs, might not be a bad time to make those trips.

And, whisper it, we’re playing rather well all of a sudden.  No weak performances out there today, just different flavours and degrees of impressive…  Hoban, ultimately, imperious.  Ekstrand, bar one early misplaced pass, as commanding as he’s been for weeks – and visibly comfortable in that central role.  Tözsér, majestic.  Faraoni, an outlet, much needed given the absences of both Anya and Forestieri.  Riera, a class apart.  Deeney, unplayable, goal or no goal.  Ranégie… again, a slow start after a few games out but ultimately awkward, a presence, a threat.  Almunia.  Angella.  McGugan.  Abdi.  Murray.   Battocchio.  Pudil.  Not a frown or a black mark amongst them.  It’s still a long shot, but winning our last four games is less of an ask than winning our last five was.  We overcame and ultimately reduced a half-decent side to rubble today.  There are only so many times it’s reasonable to politely offer around that last vol-au-vent, in this universe or any other.

Watford 3 Leeds United 0 (08/04/2014) 09/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There was an “on the cardsness” about this one.  Those dropped points on Saturday, embers of resentment and regret at the outcome of this fixture last season, United’s not-even-a-little-bit funny plummet down the table with attention diverted and management precarious all pointed in one direction.  One of those emphatic and yet routine wins borne of a superiority that you really wish we could distribute a little more evenly across the season’s fixtures, but life doesn’t work like that.

Not that this victory was the result of our artistry alone by any means – Leeds were the architects, compères and comedy sideshow of their own downfall and we’ll get to them, we did what we had to do.  We were still well worth 3-0 though.  3-0 and then some.  From the moment the returning Abdi – his first start since August – burrowed towards the left side of the area, pivoted away from the goal and swung an arcing cross to the far post for the excellent Faraoni to fire an opening shot, blocked on this occasion, we were in charge. Shortly later Abdi released Anya on the left with a ridiculous lofted pass and then bombed into the area to get on the end of the winger-cum-striker’s cross, his first goal since his fine strike against the same opponents in May.  Game over, less than ten minutes in. The visitors weren’t in any position to make a fight of it.

2- I’ve been warned not to use the phrase, “spaghetti-eating surrender monkeys” with respect to our esteemed visitors, so I won’t do that.  But by God they were a lamentable shambles, offering little beyond some energetic closing down way up the pitch in the early stages of each half, a lazy under-rehearsed cover version of the tune that visitors were profiting from so readily earlier in the season.  In so many ways they were a parody of themselves – Michael Brown in the tried and tested role of cheap, gobby bruiser in the midfield, a sixth or seventh generation Gripper Stebson.  Noel Hunt, lumbering around after nothing much remembering a time when he was famous for being someone’s brother rather than just yet another journeyman second-division plodder, following through on Faraoni who had demonstrated his intention to put the ball out so that the grounded McCormack could receive treatment.  Hunt was lucky, the ref’s attention was diverted McCormack-wards by Faraoni’s signal, he had turned his ahead away from the incident and neither assistant was well-sighted.  He took the standard cop-out option of a yellow card.  It should have been red.  You have to be quite bad to be relegated from this division;  Leeds must hope that somewhere in the tightly-packed morass between them and the bottom there are three sufficiently pathetic alternatives, because on this evidence they ain’t getting out of this under their own efforts.

3- As on Saturday, we settled into a “come on then” formation which, unlike Burnley, Leeds never looked capable of penetrating.  They had two shots in the first half… the first from the corner of a crowded penalty area was a desperate blast needing a lot of luck and didn’t get it, cannoning off a white shirt for a goal kick.  The second, a well-judged but equally optimistic lob from McCormack on the half-way line.  The role of our defensive shape and robustness needs to be acknowledged here…  as we noted towards the end of Sean Dyche’s season, part of the reason that so many of our opponents here look so thoroughly dreadful is that we don’t give them much of a window to look anything else.  Defensively we were disciplined and utterly in charge  - including Ekstrand, who had his most convincing 45 for a while before seeming to lose focus again in the second half.

Most peculiar was our uncharacteristic tendency to try to hit Troy Deeney early with long, direct balls, an approach which rarely seemed to trouble the visitors particularly but with which we persisted throughout.  Far more of a problem for them were balls coming across the box… Anya was again involved on the left after half an hour, Riera fed the ball across to the right, Faraoni sent it back and Anya was simply readier for it than anyone else.  And then it quietened down again,  a pattern summed up by Julian as “dull, then we score”.  I guess that’s what limited teams doing nothing with a fair amount of possession, breaking themselves against an organised defence, looks like.

And in the second half, much as Leeds showed brief and very limited signs of life early on, it was more of the same, the Hornets far more threatening on the break than Leeds looked at any point… twice Butland, Leeds’ one positive, was required to deny Deeney – once, bravely, down to his left, the second a stunning reflex stop after Anya had shredded the flimsy backline and squared for his strike partner.  In between those two chances however we had the third, the least we deserved as Abdi (again) challenged some sloppy Leeds possession and released Deeney who tiptoed his way through three half-hearted challenges before belting past Butland.  Propelled towards the Rookery he used the half-second to mentally accept his forthcoming yellow card and made the most of the moment.

4- A brief digression to ponder the peculiarities of the crowd.  “Other people”, the bastards.  Barracking Attwell on Saturday was perhaps inevitable…  but to my mind there’s no comparison between a cock-up like the ghost goal, albeit a massive cock-up, and Dominic Poleon’s cowardly shove on Ikechi Anya in our last meeting here.  Not that I’m in favour of a young striker being given a hard time particularly, but there’s no balance – Attwell’s crime was perverse but driven by incompetence, not malice, and was far less consequential.  If anything, Attwell’s error and our reaction to it earned us a point against Reading which had never looked likely up to that point.  And yet… Attwell gets the bird whilst Poleon gets half-hearted jeers.  Such is the role of the pantomime villain, as Paul pointed out.  No less explicable were the chants of “sacked in the morning”, also greater in volume than any stick Poleon got. These were directed not only at Leeds’ manager, who you’re entitled to your own views on but has always come across as a reasonable bloke, but also at his assistant who has a rather long and proud association with our club worthy of a bit more respect than that, whether or not you were lucky enough to see him play.

(There was also a dizzy comment from somewhere behind me about the general state of refereeing, citing that 60% of major decisions are wrong (no citation), it’s getting worse (ditto) and that there should be three experts with buzzers in the stand making calls for the officials on the pitch.  Unclear as to whether Simon Cowell or Louie Walsh should be amongst these judges.)

5- An “ooooh” and an “aaaah” to conclude.  “Ooooooh” at the tantalising prospect of a season of Abdi, Töszér and the louche Riera in midfield… far from guaranteed for next time round, but such fun just to think about.  “Aaaaah” when you look at the League table, realise that even merely holding on to the lead on Saturday would now have seen us a mere five points off with that there game in hand, and realise that you don’t really need to be very good to finish sixth this season.  OK, but not great.  And we’re much better than that.  Given that not us then Bournemouth, obviously, in preference to any of the other cheap punks and chancers up there.  But given the strength in our squad – Bond, Belkalem, Hall, Hoban, Doyley, Merkel, McGugan, Battocchio, Pudil, Ranegie, Forestieri is a more than viable eleven that didn’t start – we should really have put in a more convincing challenge this season.  Shouldn’t we?

Watford 1 Burnley 1 (05/04/2014) 06/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- I was reckless with my routine today.  Trains instead of cars.  Mexican food with Dad instead of the pub.  When to experiment if not in such circumstances, with the season all but over.  And as the match kicked off, with the spring weather equally unsure what to make of itself things began to shake themselves out rather well.  With Lewis McGugan prominent – this was as effective and dynamic a 45 minutes as I’ve seen him put in in yellow – we looked bright and positive in the early exchanges… kicking towards the Rookery with Sean Dyche presumably having advised flipping the ends.  Ten minutes in we were ahead… the irrepressible Deeney latching onto Pudil’s pass and belting us into the lead.  We got a break… a deflection off Jason Shackell’s thigh looked critical in lifting the shot over Tom Heaton;  everything Troy strikes is going in at the moment.  Minutes later… another break, what looked like a tight offside call denied Burnley a decent equaliser, Barnes attacking the near post to convert Treacy’s cross.   A deflected goal and a tight offside within minutes – perhaps it was going to be our day?

2- Burnley’s disallowed goal was greeted with a rousing rendition of “One Stuart Attwell” from the Rookery.  Coming hot on the heels of the inevitable mock-celebration in response to the first shot drifting wide of the Clarets’ goal this briefly suggested that the much-discussed first return of Attwell since the ghost goal of 2008 would be commemorated with sarcasm and wit rather than ire and red-faced barracking.  That it didn’t prove that way was in no small part down to an erratic display from the official, albeit that the only decision that had the potential to directly impact the outcome was, if failure it was, down to Attwell’s assistant.  Which sounds familiar.  That call got the visitors on his back and he was never going to get much leeway from the home end… both sets of supporters were on his back as he left the pitch at the interval.  By that time Cristian Battocchio was off the pitch – stretchered off with what looked like a serious knee injury as he fell badly after a collision.  Nothing wrong with the challenge… but criticism perhaps for the failure to allow trainers on quickly for what always looked more than just another knock.

3- Battocchio was a big miss for the rest of the game. Faced with the absence of two prolific strikers Sean Dyche had selected his only available forward - target man Ashley Barnes, who remains as respectful of the rules of engagement as Beppe is of the boundaries of his technical area – in front of a five man midfield.  This begged the question… do Burnley score a lot of goals because of Ings and Vokes, or do the forwards score a lot of goals because of the players they’re playing in front of?  The truth appeared to be somewhere in between, for whilst Burnley on the day could be summed up as “a striker or two short of a very good side” and struggled to turn their possession into clear cut chances, they didn’t look blunt and, as one would expect from a Dyche side, were utterly single-minded and focused on their task.  The significance of Battocchio’s departure was that we lost that chasing-the-ball-down thing that was proving so helpful in disrupting a heavily loaded Clarets midfield before the break.  Abdi was selected to replace him, Murray perhaps the more obvious like-for-like choice.  Great to see Almen back on the pitch, and if this really is it then nobody’s going to object to giving him time to play himself back to fitness, to test his injury.  In the context of the game however, a midfield pairing of McGugan and Abdi in front of the Kaiser suggests domination of possession, and that was never the case here despite us creating vastly the better chances.

4- And create the better chances we undoubtedly did. McGugan had a half-volley pawed round the post, Deeney drove narrowly wide, Ranégie nearly got his head to a wicked cross in a first half during which we were much the better side.  At the start of the second Burnley got hold of the ball and had us chasing them as they switched possession across the midfield, visibly attacking the gaps behind the wing backs with Michael Kightly’s direct running and tendency to force a pressured decision out of a defender evident.  There wasn’t an awful lot to show for it though… the odd set piece, some borne of a genuine foul some not although as Paul was to point out afterwards decisions against the visitors were equally arbitrary – in this respect at least Attwell couldn’t be accused of not being consistent. The Hornets, however, still had a goal in them and threatened on the break… Daniel Tözsér strode around the midfield sweeping passes around with the flourish of an artist brandishing a paintbrush.  Abdi inevitably looked a little rusty but soon reminded us what we’d been missing, not least when he dispossessed an opponent and released Anya – switched up front to chase the spaces behind the pressing Clarets – with a perfect ball that demanded intervention from Tom Heaton.  The keeper came out  to deal, was beaten to it by the Scottish/Romanian/Nigerian winger/wingback/striker who prodded the ball past him and clipped goalwards… with just a smidgeon too little power, permitting a dramatic goalline clearance from former Hornet Chris Baird.

5- My younger daughter is four.  At storytime she delights in re-hearing one of a limited number of favourites, even if we read it the previous evening.  And the evening before. (In some cases – such as that of “Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy” – the scope for silly character voices make this tolerable; in others – “Evie and her bloody Magic Ponies”, this means you – less so).  Elder daughter – seven – rolls her eyes, demanding greater variety.  I can cope with the whimsical demands of a four year old, but am less able to respond calmly to this same old story being played out in front of us at Vicarage Road.

It should be acknowledged that the visitors did play a role.  They had turned up the pressure a little, inevitably, and threatened for the first time… Brian Stock’s free kick from wide on the right was whipping inside the post until Abdi’s forehead intervened.  From a corner, Ben Mee’s header was clawed out of the top corner by an astonishing Almunia. Worth noting, too, that it’s tempting to attribute every late goal to our inability to concentrate for the full ninety-plus-whatever.  Sometimes opponents do just score late goals.  In context, however, this was a complete pain in the arse… Scott Arfield, a fringe player at Huddersfield and an odd-looking recuit by Dyche in the summer, hit his eighth in the season, turning sharply in the box and driving low past Almunia, who got a hand to it but not enough.

And so are stamped out the dying embers of our season. Before the game, as for the last few months, the margin we needed to close – eight points behind sixth with a game in hand – was not beyond the realms of possibility.  What prohibited it was our continued inability to string a run together, our inability to see leading positions out.  So it proved again – although that final realisation aside it was a fine afternoon.  Excitement, drama, some fine performances in yellow and good portents for next season albeit there’s work to do and some bloody-mindedness to find.

But no promotion. Not this time.

Watford 3 Blackburn Rovers 3 (25/03/2014) 26/03/2014

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. So, this is all a bit weird. For the first time in twenty-odd years, I’m visiting – definitely feels like visiting – Vicarage Road with almost no context in which to place the game I’m about to see. Last time around, a little person’s lifetime ago, it was all George Thorne and Diego Fabbrini and getting stuffed at home by Yeovil; our habit of wandering around with immaculate hair and shoelaces undone had, inevitably, led to us plunging head-first towards the bottom of a steep flight of stairs. All of last season’s joie de vivre had gone, leaving only the witless confusion of that ridiculous, disastrous second half against Leeds, the pivotal moment of Gianfranco Zola’s reign. It wasn’t any fun.

I looked up briefly from a dirty nappy to note Zola’s departure, which felt inevitable and essential and regrettable all at once. He’d created the side which convinced us that this project was possible, that a very new-fangled squad could produce an old-fashioned team; never under-estimate how difficult that must’ve been and how easily it could’ve failed. But he gave no suggestion of an appetite for creating its successor, a team steely and streetwise enough to deal with an entire division’s worth of other managers’ carefully-devised game-plans. Different job, that, for a different manager. And, really, for some different players.

Since Christmas, I’ve lost touch almost completely. I can usually manage to catch the scores, grunt sagely at the clean sheets and disapprovingly at the away defeats. I can attempt to watch the goals on the Football League Show by fast-forwarding to them with Fred’s bottle wedged under my chin during his Sunday morning feed. I can read Matt’s reports in several inattentive, distracted instalments. Beyond that, the frantic noise surrounding modern football is overwhelming. Once upon a time, there would’ve been a definitive opinion, probably belonging to Oliver Phillips, and a similarly definitive source of news you actually needed to know with the guff stripped out. These days, it’s like trying to get a consensus from a hedge-full of sparrows.

So, forgive me, but I come to this game with about as much knowledge of what’s been going on as your mate who comes every five years when he’s at a bit of a loose end and it’s not too cold or raining or anything. I have often been proud to bring you what was hopefully a considered, intelligent, balanced, knowledgeable perspective on Watford Football Club. That was then. Now, my brain has been replaced by an empty space with a half-remembered version of “Nellie The Elephant” echoing around in it, my eyes tend to linger on an indistinct nothingness somewhere in the middle distance, everything aches, and I smell a bit of sour milk. You’re on your own, basically.

2. Back in December, the problem was entirely obvious: that whole thing of scoring one more than the other lot is tremendous fun up to a point, that point being where the other lot work out that they only need to defend well and the game is theirs. Then, it all looks a lot less like a fairground ride and a lot more like a village fete in the rain, damp bunting and runny icing. Everyone loves free-flowing football, but everyone loves winning even more.

The solution was no less obvious: tighten up at the back, dictate the terms on which the game would be played, do the basics properly. Focus, focus, focus. Obvious, but not necessarily easy: promising seasons, most notably Boothroyd’s post-Premiership campaign, have foundered hopelessly on an inability to correct an accident-prone defence. Not for the first time in the Pozzo era, all of this has been dealt with in a straightforward, businesslike way, without any of the usual faff and rancour. Get it sorted, move on.

3. For a short while here, between an early Blackburn flurry and their daft equaliser, it all looks extremely impressive. Gianfranco Zola’s Watford was characterised, for better and worse, by a certain relaxed arrogance. This is something very different, the result of several shots of espresso and a long hard look in the mirror. The defence and midfield fairly twitch with nervous energy, messages are passed to and fro via almost constant pointing and talking; spaces are roped off and confined; attacks are absorbed, smothered, buried. The whole tone is so different to what I saw back in December. It’s urgent and convincing. It’s excellent.

Our own forward forays are few and far between, but there’s a real threat from Anya’s pace, from Tozser’s vision, from Deeney’s strength. We appear to be concentrating so intensely on our shape and organisation that the ball is almost incidental at times; as Marco Cassetti lamps a clearance across the pitch and into the Lower Rous, I reflect that possession is no longer all. We’re better for it. We look like a Championship side, but in a good way. We look like we can handle ourselves.

We score early, require a couple of fine saves from Manuel Almunia , and build from there. After twenty minutes or so, the game looks won: we have Blackburn penned in like a woodlouse in a matchbox. It’s not even slightly pretty, not very entertaining either…but we’re that good, that tight, that secure. I’m sold. I love it.

4. Ah.

As if to prove quite how completely it all hinges on the lapses to which we became so prone under Zola, the game changes as Almunia’s miscued punch lands for Dunn to knock in from the edge of the area and level the scores out of nothing. That lapse, and we’re suddenly mortal again, worried by misplaced passes and poor decisions. Previously, we’d managed to turn our attacking deficiencies into something of a strength, a tightly clenched fist; now, you shift your attention to the disappointingly anonymous Merkel, to Anya’s tendency to drift into the wide areas he’s more familiar with, to the lack of anyone really threatening the penalty area with any intent, to a bench completely devoid of attacking options like a Scrabble hand with no vowels.

People start to grumble, understandably. If you’re going to play this way, especially at home, you have to accept that the lack of thrills doesn’t buy you much patience from the crowd. Blackburn grow in confidence, but are fortunate to be saved by the offside flag which rules out our second coherent attack shortly into the second half: one of those delightful dancing runs from Anya, a quick interchange with Merkel to get behind the defence, before squaring for Deeney to tuck home. Would’ve been a fine goal, that, and a reminder that not all here is industry.

5. Instead, we find that we are simply unable to cope with the physical presence of Rudy Gestede. Blackburn’s second comes from much the same  approach as their first: force Almunia into a slightly desperate punch by sticking the ball under the crossbar, react more quickly to whatever happens next. The three centre-backs, including Tommy Hoban, have fine, authoritative games in all respects other than the one which costs us three goals; we get bullied too easily by an old-fashioned centre forward’s game, all elbows and aggression.

You see less and less of that at this level: even the strugglers tend to want to play football these days. Even so, a team looking towards promotion is going to need to deal with it much better than we did. It comes as no great surprise when Blackburn’s injury time equaliser is a Helguson-esque header, in off both posts, from Gestede, flying in where others are merely jumping.

6. Hard to deny them that, really. It’s not been a game with very much quality and its six goals have come from not very many more chances (plus a rather soft penalty). The best of those goals ought to have won it, though: Deeney’s strength as a Blackburn corner is cleared, the threat of Anya’s pace terrifying the life out of those charged with stewarding him, and an absolutely superlative run and finish from Battocchio, hurtling through the centre circle as if emerging from the field to breast the tape in the ten thousand metres, blowing kisses as he crosses the line. It’s a joyous moment, worth the price of admission alone. Defence to attack in five blinding seconds.

7. I feel reasonably confident about booking a holiday in May this time around. There’s too much work-in-progress here for a last-ditch surge…and I’m encouraged by that, in many ways, for this is exactly the right time to re-build and re-think. We have games to do that. We have the manager to do it too, on this evidence. It’s up to the owners to make sure that we have the players – and, crucially, the continuity – to do it across the summer and into next season.

But I’m optimistic. Back in December, this was a club on the slide. I never felt that we were in any danger of getting into trouble at the bottom, but we were very definitely in danger of losing confidence in what we were doing, pulling ourselves apart with pointless squabbles about why we couldn’t recreate last season’s success.  It was a month or two from falling to pieces completely.

Now, we’re looking forward. We’ve got our heads up and we’re building again, literally and metaphorically. Sometimes, that’s all you should ask for.

Watford 3 Barnsley 0 (15/03/2014) 16/03/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- The sun shone.  I even had an ice lolly, in March, of all things.  Less literally, the sun was shining too… the new stand continues to take shape, investment being made into the training ground.  In a season that’s been relatively low on such moments we all had a spring in our step.  There was naturally a concern about our forward line in the absence of the suspended Ranégie and injured Forestieri and Park, but our visitors boasted the worst away record in the division and two newly hamstrung centre-backs to offset our forward problem.  The travelling Tykes boasted a flag-to-supporter ratio unmatched in living memory, a turnout that spoke volumes for their expectations…  few in the home end can have been in any greater doubt as to the likely outcome given our home form.  And so it proved.

2- Beppe made a pointed comment post-match implying a simmering level of frustration after Tuesday night’s events and this was evident in a focused and dominant first twenty minutes or so.  In all honesty however, it didn’t look as if we needed to bring our A-game…  from the moment that the colossal Jean-Yves M’Voto, who was to have a high profile afternoon of the sort a centre-back doesn’t really need, sliced out for a corner under zero pressure Barnsley looked horribly vulnerable.  Danny Wilson has claimed that our opener knocked their game plan into the waste basket, but unless their game plan was based around giving the ball away in suicidal positions and standing off Battocchio long enough for him to take a touch before driving home expertly from outside the area it was all going wrong for the Tykes before they went behind, albeit after only five minutes.  Nor was it any great surprise to see Troy turn in a position that a self-respecting defence would never have permitted to put us two-up on the quarter hour.  As in our last game here against Blackpool the game was over very quickly with Daniel Pudil, who has evolved from an energetic, functional cog to one of the cornerstones of the team under Sannino, making hay down all sorts of space on the left hand side.

3- Dave, having taken a bet that set a three-goal-plus victory against his grumpy and not entirely heartfelt nil-nil forecast, paid up at this point.  Disappointingly, we failed to put the visitors to the sword in what descended into probably the dullest of the now twelve three-plus-goal victories over the last couple of seasons.  Ikechi Anya, doing a game job of supporting Deeney as makeshift striker, betrayed his lack of experience at such things by getting caught offside on several occasions despite often having miles of space and being the fastest player on the pitch – new tricks to learn if he’s to fulfil this role again.  It wasn’t that it fizzled out exactly, although we certainly took our foot off the pedal somewhat… more that the game was kinda over and everyone knew it.  Lewis McGugan was trying overhead kicks before the end of the first half, ,which rather summed the situation up.  At the other end, the highlight of the rest of the half came when Jacob Mellis got past Marco Cassetti (worth acknowledging in passing that he’d have been taken out in other circumstances, but the Italian evaluated the situation in context), and laid back to Liam Lawrence who demonstrated why he’s not playing in the top flight any more by firing wide when it seemed scarcely possible so to do.

4- It was that sort of afternoon for the visitors but if they shared Blackpool’s hapless lack of belief they did at least perk up in the second half.  Not in a fashion that ever seriously threatened the outcome, but enough to suggest that our increasingly astonishing home defensive record ( 1 conceded in 9 under Beppe) might be spoiled by something careless and unnecessary.  Meanwhile we were still regularly threatening to add goals ourselves, Kaiser Tözsér, dominant once more, getting on the end of one cross from the left to head narrowly wide.  That one would have been popular.  Instead, Ikechi Anya, inevitably if a little disappointingly more effective when pulling wide from his central role, danced down the left before laying back for Merkel to wrap things up.  A great half hour from Merkel today, his ninety over two games this week far more convincing that what we’d seen up to now.  He was followed off the bench by two debutants at the opposite end of their careers in Lucas Neill and Luke O’Nien, the latter of whom put in an excitable five-minute cameo up front that suggested an exciting turn of pace .

5- Extraordinary how things have flipped around.  Under Gianfranco our away form was passable, regular points away from home from perhaps stronger performances than the results suggested… but at home we were a catastrophe, increasingly without an answer to the same sucker punch.  Now… our home form is extraordinary, today’s result never in doubt.  In Blackpool and Barnsley we’ve faced two poor sides at low points in their season but we’ve put them away in style.  Our away form has been iffier, and the obstacle to a more credible play-off challenge.  Up to now, the distance to the play-offs has not been insurmountable… it’s been the fact that we haven’t been putting  together a string of results to threaten to bridge that gap that’s been the problem.  Whilst we still await another away win, the strong performance at Doncaster suggests that that win will come sooner rather than later.  Unfortunately, we may be getting it together just as the games start to run out.

Doncaster Rovers 2 Watford 1 (11/03/2014) 12/03/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- We’d expected a dull draw, I think.  There was a certain curiosity in assessing to what degree Blackpool had been that bad versus us being rather good, of course, and a feeling that perhaps our away form was overdue a bit of a boost and that bodies slowly returning to the ranks might provide it (albeit, as it turned out, bodies arrive at roughly the same rate as others were leaving it – Murray the latest absentee).  But as soon as a pre-match acquaintance took his leave with a “let’s go and enjoy another really dull draw, then” the pattern of the evening was clear.  I’ve been to a few aways this season, not enough for the inevitability of a draw away from home to be at the front of my mind but enough to recognise the eminent plausibility of the suggestion; the bubble of excitement provoked by any midweek away match was rapidly deflated.

So thunk 1 should really be “It wasn’t dull”, but you probably know that already, and in any case it took a while for things to get going.  Nonetheless, this perhaps most easily overlooked period of what was to be an eventful evening was instructive in itself.  Playing in the growing-on-everyone combo of home shirt with yellow shorts so as not to clash with Donny’s black we settled into a rhythm and whilst we hardly had the home side under the cosh we were increasingly in control of possession and comfortable.  Ranégie again looked a capable target man, providing a focal point at the far post that we really haven’t had for a very long time and Alex Merkel, whose hair seemed to have calmed down a bit, a lower-key yellow, was prominent in what was to be his best performance in yellow to date.  Gradually, the battlefront was edging towards Rovers’ goal.

And then, of course, everything changed.  There’s really very little to say about this… what looked a physical but rather innocuous tussle between Husband and Ranégie on the right wing ended with the Swede taking a swing of the boot at his opponent.  Video replay suggests that no contact was made but no matter… it was an act of idiocy from Ranégie, and changed the landscape of the game irretrievably – comparable to Samba Diakité’s red against Boro in that regard, if not in its recklessness.  Within eight minutes Rovers were ahead, an excellent deep cross from Coppinger not defended well enough, Chris Brown quicker to it with a diagonal run.  Suddenly a long evening stretched in front of us.

2- Donny had their first little spell attempting to put the game to bed and we were rocking on our heels.  It took us a while to reshape, eventually switching to four at the back with Lloyd at right back and Anya more advanced in a supporting role to Deeney, horribly isolated for five or ten minutes after Ranégie’s departure.  The greatest victim of this was Merkel, withdrawn into a more disciplined role after a sparky opening and subsequently the only plausible sacrifice in introducing Forestieri’s mischief.  Nonetheless, settle we did and were soon making light of our numerical disadvantage making inroads against a nervous (and, in-fairness, seriously patched up) Donny backline.  Troy’s flame was fully on…  if you’re restricted to playing with one out-and-out striker, make it someone who will charge things down, hold the ball up, batter people and shoot from twenty five yards with every expectation of testing the goalkeeper.  In the second half he would charge down first a tentative opponent, then a pressurised goalkeeper whose attempted clearance rattled against the onrushing number 9 and out for a goal kick.  Futile, in everything other than a statement of not-bloody-lying-down-for-you-pal intent, the small but noisy away crowd on their feet, waving fists.

Here, he chased down again forcing nervous backpass after nervous backpass, the last a hospital ball from Meité to keeper Johnstone. Deeney got his toe to that first and collided with the goalkeeper who, replays revealed, dragged him down unceremoniously.  Less clear at the time from the opposite end, reactions of players is the best guide and this left no doubt – nor, indeed, the reaction of the official who proceeded to give us a sequence of 50/50 decisions in innocuous areas of the pitch.  I’m a firm believer that, with a few exceptions – players with “reputations”, big home crowds pressuring decisions – the vagaries of refereeing errors are a random variable on a par with the weather and the mythical “rub of the green”.  No point bitching about it, in other words, you roll with the punches just as you would if a shot came off the inside of a post.  Naturally, this incident will stick in our minds longer than it will occupy the thoughts of the home fans, a sense of injustice will prevail to a greater extent than the roll of a die ought to. It was, though, a breathtaking bottle-job, a decision of outstanding incompetence and another one which, with Donny having an untried young keeper on the bench (we’ve been there…) worked significantly to the home side’s advantage.

Keeper Johnstone got the bird for the rest of the game, particularly in the second half when located in front of the away end.  A bit harsh this, however much an entertaining distraction – he’d committed a clumsy, instinctive foul that was neither malicious nor violent. There were more justifiable targets for ire, not least the official who looked nonplussed by a volley of Italian that lasted from the centre-circle as the half ended.  So too left-back James Husband, an objectionable little turd whose role in Ranégie’s sending off looks far less innocuous on replay.  Before the end of the half he collapsed clutching his face after precisely zero contact from Deeney, who dragged him to his feet, hands in armpits, with the weary air of a parent trying to drag a tantrumming infant around a supermarket; in the second he collapsed and rolled around in a futile attempt to extract another yellow card from an official who, whilst losing all semblance of control by this stage, clearly had at least one number accurately marked.

3- The third quarter of the game was ours, despite the numerical disadvantage.  An awful lot must have been taken out of those legs, and we probably benefitted through not having had a game at the weekend… but special mentions for Anya, Pudil and Battocchio in particular, none of whom stopped moving throughout their time on the pitch and all of whom made significant contributions.  Alex Merkel was the first to come close after Keegan had brought down the onrushing Kaiser Tözsér on the edge of the box… much to the Hungarian’s frustration.  Keegan, later booked, somehow escaped censure… Merkel took a magnificently evil, curling, snarling free kick around the wall and off the woodwork; Johnstone dived much too late and was stranded and fortunate when the rebound crashed into the onrushing Deeney and over, the goal gaping.  Forestieri was introduced to loud acclaim…  my brother had cited his persistent dog-with-a-bone threat as just what a nervous Donny defence didn’t need and was proved right in the 68th minute, a pass of breathaking vision and ingenuity dinked teasingly over Donny’s befuddled defence for the onrushing Anya to latch onto, open his body up and finish tidily, his goal celebration a round of applause for the away end.  The equaliser no more than the visitors deserved, and had we gotten a point it would have been worth far more than any of the nine we’ve gained from previous draws on the road this season.

4- We didn’t get it, you’ll have noticed.  Doncaster kitchen-sinked us for much of the remaining game, seemingly freed of the previously imminent threat of blowing their advantage against ten men by us actually grabbing the equaliser.  I’ve since read accounts that questioned our defensive organisation, that cited Donny’s winner as inevitable… I think that’s rather harsh.  Certainly Bond looked nervous coming out to claim balls but redeemed himself with a couple of terrific full-length stops as the home side turned the screw.  Daniel Pudil, arguably our man of the match, made another of his increasingly trademark perfectly timed bullet challenges to deny a clear Donny chance in the area.  Troy, of all people, made a goalline clearance.  Frankly, with legs visibly giving way, we had to weather a storm, but I thought we’d done so.  Until we hadn’t… the game had finished, this wasn’t the culmination of a wave of pressure, rather a last throw of the dice. Fair play to the home side, who kept plugging away.  They’re not about to pull up any trees but they were disciplined and tidy enough for the most part and looked a far more coherent, convincing unit than a Blackpool side similarly precariously positioned in the table.  On this evidence, you’d back them to cobble together enough points to stay up.

5- We’d arrived in Doncaster commenting on the warmth of the welcome in the gentle evening sunshine.  It wasn’t quite as friendly afterwards as Doncaster’s finest ran amok in the car park, breaking car windows and probably leaving a few wondering whether those experiments in cross-breeding humans with coatstands and UHT milk cartons were quite such a great idea.  The route home proved equally awkward, seeing as we’d failed to account for National Motorway Closure day, a quite extraordinary conspiracy that blocked off three alternative routes back to Bedfordshire and gave my brother a three hour jaunt back to Bradford.

Despite which grumpiness and sourness, it’s not all bad news on the face of it.  The scoreline doesn’t tell the story of the game that we would have won, perhaps handsomely, but for two moments of rare idiocy and should have gotten something out of anyway, and whilst the play-offs drift away into irrelevance the team finally looks to be putting together some consistent form that would yield away results sooner rather than later.  To what end, though?  One drawback, one unavoidable side-effect of what remains a hugely beneficial Pozzo model is that there’s kinda a slate-wiping exercise every summer, so what good a run of form now if some key cogs – for last year’s Vydra and Chalobah read perhaps Tözser? Merkel?  Deeney? Angella?  ….might not be around come August.  You’ve gotta enjoy the journey of course.  But it would be nice to know that the journey might be progressing us somewhere before next season.

Watford 4 Blackpool 0 (01/03/2014) 02/03/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- I used to read Roy of the Rovers.  Seems odd, really, looking back…  we were doing things on the pitch in the early eighties that matched anything that the cartoon strips could throw up.  Anyway…  in retrospect, there were a limited number of storylines recycled through different guises.  A popular one was of a patchwork team, thrown together in the face of adversity.  It happened to Melchester Rovers once… they were supposed to be playing an exhibition match in an assiduously fictional Middle East state when their team bus was blown up by a terrorist bomb, killing half the squad.  Rovers rebuilt their side by botching together a combination of youth players, cast-offs and imports from other cartoon strips, eventually triumphing in the face of impossible odds.

Thing is, the reason that such a development is the stuff of a comic strip is that by and large, when a team is botched together out of odds and ends and held together with sellotape, it looks like Blackpool.  A who’s-who of players who were good once, players who were promising once, and others who have been passed around the division like members of an incomplete set in Happy Families.  Add an epic run without a win, chronic mismanagement, and you get a complete shambles devoid of spirit or shape, quite comfortably the worst side we’ve seen at the Vic in some considerable time.  There had been portents of what was to come within the first quarter hour, Troy Deeney effortlessly shrugging off attention in the area, his marker virtually wandering off and leaving him to drive narrowly wide with far more time than he realised.  On the quarter hour Kaiser Tözsér sent a monstrous, arcing corner onto Matthias Ranégie’s head, unattended at the far post; his bullet header gave us the lead.  This didn’t stop Richard Short crediting Troy Deeney, but then he’d twice welcomed Lucas Neill twice as a “loan signing” during the warm up so he’s obviously not a detail kinda guy.

2- Ranégie’s home debut was much anticipated, like a TV series plugged and trailed too far in advance.  Profiles, and word from Yeovil, had warned of a far defter instrument than the picture painted by a stern looking 6ft 5 centre-forward. Consequently his tidy control and neat lay-offs were no great surprise… but I for one hadn’t appreciated that he had the combative physical qualities that you’d hope of from a big centre-forward also.  Aggressive, powerful and extremely efficient with the ball he looks a real asset; his understanding with Deeney, monstrous again, already looks more developed than Troy has achieved with Nando and both of Ranégie’s finishes – the second a neat fooling of the rotund Gilks  following a flimsy Blackpool clearance – suggested a rich source of goals that we hadn’t perhaps anticipated.  Quite whether a Deeney/Ranégie partnership would work quite so well against a defence with the personnel and wit to defend a high line is questionable but the Swede’s presence – combined with Tözsér’s delivery – looks like a get-out-of-jail-free card at worst.  In reality as soon as Blackpool conceded the game was up; Troy scored a deflected second in between Ranégie’s two and we were an unflattering 3-0 up at the break.

3- I can cope with a huddle before kick-off, I get that.  But a huddle at the start of the second half is flimsy window-dressing…  not as if you need to re-focus after a warm up, nothing can have been said in Blackpool’s post-interval huddle that couldn’t have been aired in the dressing room at half time.  So this was purely for the benefit of the poor bastards in the away end, a far healthier number of Seasiders than the afternoon’s prospects could possibly have justified the sixteen years since our last Ronny-fuelled home win over Blackpool notwithstanding.  In fairness Blackpool did make a much better fist of it in the second half in that they resembled a limited football team rather than a bowl of blancmange that hadn’t quite set, prematurely poured onto the Vicarage Road pitch.  They made a couple of half-chances too, early in the half…  there wasn’t really any suggestion of a fightback but there was some fight, too little too late or otherwise, and in any event the prospect of a coconut shy and a cricket score were dispelled.  David Perkins was perhaps the one visitor to come out of the exercise with anything close to a balance in credit, a bleach-blond Battocchio-like whirligig in the second half fulfilling much the same disruptive role as he had done on recent visits to Oakwell before his move to the west coast.

4- But Watford’s key man in the second half, and arguably over the course of the ninety despite the goalscoring contributions of the front two, was the magnificent Kaiser Tözsér.  Too late in the day the Seasiders started closing down possession high up the pitch, pressurising as so many have done to greater effect before them and granted it’s far easier to respond to this pressure when there’s no great onus on you to get the ball forward by dint of an already comfortable scoreline.  But this was an absolute masterclass, the unflustered, undemonstrative ushering on of possession in complete indifference to apparent lack of space or options a joy to behold.  This wasn’t a perfect performance… he did overhit one pass in the second half…  but each of the right wing corners that he swung in from the corner of Rous and Rookery in the second half was preceded by a standing ovation from the 1881 and entreaties to “sign him up”.  Quite right, too.

(The game had been preceded by an aborted trip to the pub, incidentally, marginally too late to secure a table and therefore food;  instead a quick pint was followed by a voyage of discovery into Watford market.  Succour was taken at the Hungarian food stall where excited words were exchanged on the subject of Tözsér, including some animated explanation of his free-kick prowess which featured broken English, sweeping gestures with either arm to indicate two-footedness and lifting of spectacles to represent disbelief at power.  We have more to look forward to, perhaps.  The visit also featured a monstrous pile of very edible chicken, rice and peas, which will do no favours to my already ample wasteline if adopted as part of the ritual after today’s success).

5- We got a fourth, you’ll have noticed;  the best of the lot, requiring movement, teamwork and a quite bullish finish from Troy that spoke volumes for his resurgent form and thus self-belief.  Blackpool weren’t up to much but perhaps it’s a game that fell well for us after last weekend’s fiasco;  many benefitted from the space afforded them. Merkel made a second half cameo and nearly pulled off the pass of the game, a raking through ball having faked most of Blackpool’s defence with his eyes that was interrupted only on the stretch.  Murray had a combative, non-stop eighty-two minutes, Battocchio a fine second half after a patchier first during which he was nonetheless involved in the third goal.  Angella, Cassetti, splendid again.  The emerging skeleton of the new stand suggests a metaphor that’s too painfully obvious to state explicitly… but as far as it goes, we did what we needed to do, beat what was in front of us.  If we can build on this we might find ourselves more capable of tougher asks also.

And that’s one goal against in eight at home now, in case you’d lost count…

Watford 1 Middlesbrough 0 (15/02/2014) 16/02/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- By half time, comparisons were being drawn with the notorious Christmas of 1996.  This was a different flavour of tedium to Tuesday night… less hulking ineptitude, more of a stalemate, but the consequence was yawning, shifting position, wondering whether it would start raining again as we left the stadium and then letting your attention half-heartedly return to the game.  Gripping, interesting it really wasn’t. Those on the edge of their seats had fallen asleep and were slumped in their stupor.

Boro looked a decent side, for all that.  Given and Woodgate were excellent, every bit the players of their reputations.  Nathaniel Chalobah began the game dictating the pace from the back of the midfield, Leadbitter slinging the ball around, Adomah and Ledesma hugging the touchlines and causing problems (even if the latter twice appeared to blame rogue patches of the Vicarage Road surface for his misplaced efforts from the right).  We scarcely got a touch for twenty minutes, chasing shadows… but the visitors couldn’t capitalise.  Part of the credit for that has to go to our increasingly well-drilled rearguard, Cassetti and Angella terrific again, but there was no avoiding that Boro didn’t have much of a focal point… not hard to understand how they’ve not scored in five games.  Danny Graham is still clever, still works hard but lacked support… and there’s rather more of him than I remember.  Nimble and mobile he wasn’t… and most of Boro’s passing took place in front of the defence.

Irish Joe, having navigated the inevitable flight delays to make his first game of the season, had asked about Sannino.  How was he doing?  How were we looking?  More solid, was my response in summary.  More solid, but not as… exciting.  “Ah, but we’ve always got Fernando to pull something from nothing”, Joe suggested, prophetically.  So it proved; ‘nando bundled in on a surprised Gibson early in the second half, cut past him towards the byline and drew a silly challenge from the flustered defender.  Troy rolled in from the spot, and the game changed beyond recognition.

2- An emerging subplot to the first half had been a private competition in ineptitude – Muppet of the Match, Dickhead of the Day, invent your own monicker – between Samba Diakité and Boro centre-back Ben Gibson. Diakité, making his first start since arriving from QPR, looked every inch like a player who hadn’t played for a year.  Frequently caught in possession, seemingly unaware of the location or proximity of teammates and opponents alike he looked like someone who’d won a starting position through a competition in the programme.

Gibson, however, was putting up a good fight in this masterclass of arse.  Already booked for a stupid, unnecessary foul on Deeney, he took a huge risk late in the first half when diving in to interrupt a monumental surge upfield from Gabriele Angella.  The run needed stopping, the aggressive challenge was well-timed but risky nonetheless – inside the area and already on a card, no margin for error as he appeared to fly in from some distance away.  In conceding the critical penalty Gibson edged ahead.

But Diakité was about to play his trump card.  The game quickly settled into a new pattern with Boro now committing forward and the Hornets attacking exclusively on the break.  The first of these was repelled, barely, with a loose ball breaking clear from the edge of the area.  Diakité and Whitehead contested it head on, the latter the favourite but the Frenchman decided that he wasn’t to be denied. Two footed, studs raised… having recently gained an unlikely looking advantage in a tight game it was an act of monumental stupidity, all instinct and ego and no brain whatsoever.  Straight red the only viable outcome, the card followed within five seconds.

As Diakité left the arena, the only thing standing between him and his crown was Gibson’s continuing involvement and therefore opportunity.  It proved a critical detail.  Boro, now very much in the ascendancy, threw everything at us for five minutes and the remainder of the game stretched uninvitingly in front of us.  And then Mr Gibson had his own rush of enthusiasm and, as Jonathan Bond attempted a drop kick, chose to obstruct him. A moronic act at the best of times but with Gibson on a yellow and his team having just been handed a lifeline by an act of similar idiocy, it was quite breathtaking.  Kudos to Mr Gibson, then, even if Nathaniel Chalobah (with a peevish punch aimed at Forestieri) and the Kaiser’s compatriot Jozsef Varga at right back (with a series of increasingly stroppy challenges that earned a yellow and then a last warning and then the hook from the Boro bench) made worthy but patently inadequate pitches of their own.

3- The penalty and the two red cards took place within the first twelve minutes of the half.  They left whopping great craters all over whatever gameplans had been in place, and if we’d looked anything but impressive before going ahead what followed was an absolute masterclass in navigating the revised landscape.

I remember visiting Dortmund zoo late one evening many years ago, and watching in awe and fear as the hunting dogs faced us in formation.  You’d move a step to the left and the dogs, in their pen in the dwindling twilight, would all shift accordingly, well drilled and utterly attentive. Nine, ten of them.  The yellow shirts were equally disciplined in formation here… one or two envoys hurtling forward to support Deeney on the break, back in formation by the time the ball came back the other way.  Forestieri dropped back into a midfield role and a surprisingly effective defensive display before being replaced by the equally dynamic Battocchio.  We played exclusively on the break, abetted by Anya’s perhaps overdue introduction for Faraoni, and suddenly had a swagger, suddenly looked potent.  Boro continued to have more possession, but the better, clearer chances would come our way… George Friend, it transpired, had a better chance of matching Anya for pace than many adversaries but it wasn’t enough to prevent our best break which saw the winger beat Given and the far post.  Another break saw Anya release Deeney with a perfect throughball that bypassed Chalobah only for Given to emerge from his line and time his interjection to perfection.  Murray, like Forestieri largely irrelevant in the first half, suddenly had the game between his teeth, bringing the ball out and making good decisions, red shirts scuttling in his wake.  Daniel Pudil, less eyecatching but far more reliable as our wingbacks have placed more emphasis on defending, put in a tireless shift on the left flank.  And Captain Deeney was simply magnificent, every inch the leader… bullish, aggressive, holding the ball up, retaining possession, relieving pressure on the defence, this was by some distance his best 45 minutes of the season.

4- But perhaps the real highlight was at the other end of the pitch.  It was a good afternoon for those who like a bit of an ovation.  Sir Tom Finney got a fitting tribute before the kick-off, the heartfelt ones always distinguished from the dutiful ones by dint of the applause already being in full swing before the referee formally starts the minute’s appreciation.  Danny Graham and Nathaniel Chalobah were both welcomed (although the latter was to turn the crowd via his altercation with Fernando), and later the departing Forestieri and arriving Anya were both warmly recognised.  Tommie Hoban’s welcome, though, was the warmest. It’s testimony to his impact in four months in the first team last year that a year and a week since his last first team appearance, everyone is delighted to have him back… and again, this was more than dutiful appreciation of a youngster who’s had it rough, this was genuine excitement.

And trepidation, at least in my case.  Worst case scenario:  he limps off five minutes after his half-time introduction.  We’ve seen that before.  Or maybe he looks rusty, slower, less confident.  “Not the same player”.  You know, they’re never the same player, not after that long out. Perhaps he messes up, an unfortunate mistake that rattles his confidence and sets him back, pushed back in the queue behind Angella, Doyley, Ekstrand, Hall, Cassetti, Nosworthy, Belkalem. No margin for error.

There’s still time for things to go wrong, of course.  Early days. But my God this was magnificent, beyond our wildest expectations.  Every inch the combination of strength, pace, composure and just being too bloody good for this nonsense that we remember from last year.  Well done, Tommie, and welcome back.

5- If Tuesday’s final whistle was greeted with relief, relief at having navigated a harder-than-it-should-have-been scrap with modest opponents, the final whistle today was met with a fist-pumping roar.  We quoted this stat on Tuesday, but it only gets more impressive with time… that’s seven home games under Sannino, one goal conceded.  And having pointed out that it was unreasonable to put our repeated capitulations at home under Gianfranco down to mere bad luck, it’s not reasonable to credit luck with too much responsibility for our recent ability to defend a lead – at least at Vicarage Road.  It keeps happening.

And as we clamber back into the top half of the table we should pause once more to doff our cap to the presence of the play-offs.  Not that we’re on a charge, not yet anyway.  Let’s see.  But just to their existence, without which our season would already be over.  Six points off and with further winnable fixtures to come, there’s still scope to train our eye on Reading in sixth.  Oh sure, us and half the division, but we’re not fussed about them.  Let’s just worry about ourselves for the moment, and actually we’re looking pretty good.  If Tuesday was winning ugly, winning without looking convincing, here was a win grounded in defensive organisation, sure, but in guts and fight and spirit too.  I’ll take that.  Wherever it sees us ending up, guts and fight and spirit go an awfully long way.


Watford 1 Birmingham City 0 (12/02/2013) 12/02/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  Sometimes, football is a beautiful, breathtaking spectacle.  Artistic and elegant, bold and dramatic, capable of lifting the spirit and carrying it away from all of life’s concerns to a happier place.  This was definitively not one of those times.  If football at its best is a duel between musketeers, all cut, thrust and dexterity, this was the equivalent of two trolls knee-deep in treacle heaving clubs at each other.  And grunting.

Mark, Steve and Tom were with me, football fans but not Watford fans, colleagues of my brother’s from oop north accommodating his need for a fix on a business trip.  He was apologising to them midway through the first half as passes went into touch, runs were mis-read and the game descended gently from a low starting point to knuckle-chewing tedium.  We have become accustomed, of course, to the established successful recipe for playing Watford at Vicarage Road, which includes lots of closing down high up the pitch, harrying and waiting for us to make a mistake.  Here, we pre-empted City’s closing down (which did come) by starting the game exactly as if  we were being hounded in possession to a far greater degree than was happening, saving the visitors the bother.  The goal itself summed up the evening nicely…  Troy Deeney, rightly lauded by Sannino for a combative, bloody-minded performance, pirouetting an air kick, regaining his poise and having another go, this time driving home via a deflection of a defender’s leg.

2- It’s worth noting that, for all the continued use of the closing-down thing it’s not proving nearly as effective for visitors as it once was.  That’s four wins, a draw and a defeat at home under Sannino, five clean sheets and one goal conceded against visitors including 3 of the current top 7.  Lee Clark, who looks perpetually like a sulky schoolboy sitting outside the headteacher’s office, claimed that City were worth at least a point but his view was rather fanciful.  City could have equalised, certainly (see below) but that’s not the same thing; in a miserable chore of a game, you did kinda feel that there was unrealised quality in the Watford side which was having a duvet day, whereas Birmingham were offering what they had and it wasn’t much, even if the combination of obstructiveness and a goal threat in Burke and Macheda will probably be enough to keep them up.  In any event it’s a source of no small enjoyment, particularly amongst those who’ll remember the 1999 play-offs and trips to St Andrews around that time, that we’ve beaten City four times on the hop without conceding a goal.

3- Which shouldn’t oversugar the performance, and in particular a petulance that was perhaps symptomatic of a frustrating evening all round but aggravating nonetheless.  In particular, given the high turnover of players that the Pozzo model has provoked, such conduct makes it very difficult to warm to a side… the same behaviour from more established favourites might be more readily forgiven, but this Watford will be in a constant battle to win hearts and minds.  Andreas Merkel jumping in two footed on Burke for no reason at all doesn’t help that, nor does perpetually wandering away from the referee as he’s issuing admonishment (misguided or otherwise).  Most concerning of all in this regard was Fernando Forestieri… arguably the success story of last season in terms of his trajectory from aggravating, sulky maverick to focused, combative dynamo.  His recent performances have been excellent, despite which the whining and gesticulating is back with a vengeance.  He didn’t have the best relationship with the ref last night, who offered him little protection and provoked a curious incident by appearing to beckon Forestieri back on after treatment, change his mind on realising how close the Argentine was to the action and then make to penalise him for entering the field without permission.  In fairness the official acknowledged his own culpability, apologised and awarded a drop ball…  but Forestieri really didn’t do himself any favours either, ultimately risking a red card by first clawing a ball out of the air in an attempt to fashion a break (for which he was booked), playing on and “scoring” on the break after the whistle had gone and subsequently blatantly slowing the game down by standing six or seven yards from a late Birmingham free kick.  Much has been spoken of the need for leaders in the team.  A few of our lot needed a kick up the backside last night.

4- Another recent hobbyhorse has been our tendency to sit back on a late lead, whether strategically or through lack of energy in the closing minutes.  At Leicester we paid for it;  last night we didn’t.  Actually I thought the introduction of Hall for Forestieri and subsequent rearrangement of personnel leaving Anya – much missed last night – up front was a good call on Saturday, but good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Inviting pressure from a Birmingham side with scarcely the wit to fashion a clear chance but with enough about them to look a gift horse in the mouth and knock it’s teeth out was much less defensible; I’d have preferred us to take the game to them in the final minutes.  If that sitting back’s a strategy, it might get tiresome.

5- Which shouldn’t detract from the fact that we did win the game.  A game that, as the cliché goes, we would have almost certainly lost a month or two back.  And amongst the morass there were straws to cling to…  a tour de force from Lloyd Doyley, albeit that it speaks volumes that mere dogged competence stood out so brightly on a grey evening;  another masterful showing in the centre of the back three from Marco Cassetti, and once again “Kaiser” Tözsér.  Whilst the Hungarian was as sucked up into the humdrum as everyone else, he nonetheless did the Jonathan Hogg thing of receiving the ball under pressure and effortlessly moving it on, spreading the play, keeping things ticking.  And his set piece delivery is a joy… one wicked free kick should have been converted by Faraoni, a vicious corner very nearly was by Forestieri’s diagonal run and diving header  - but for the man on the far post.  Ugly progress, then.  But progress nonetheless.

Leicester City 2 Watford 2 (08/02/2014) 09/02/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1-  Walking to the ground, the wind howling around us much as it did prior to the same regular-season fixture last year, it was difficult to escape the thought that we could probably have done without this one at this stage.  I missed what was widely lauded as The Turning of The Corner last Sunday, but such positive steps as we have been taking are delicate, precarious things.  Like an addict walking away from their vice, one day, one game at a time.  It wouldn’t take much to take us back to square one, and our forthcoming run of more plausibly winnable-looking games would have seemed a lot more inviting without a trip to rampant Leicester in the meantime.  A Leicester who gave us a mauling at our place in November that had more subtext than Alice in Wonderland.

So, much as there was a sense of cup-tie nothing-to-looseness there was something more than a little ominous about the way that the bright blue sky was gradually blotted out by stormclouds as kick-off approached.

Bye Bye Sun

2- Having said all of which the impossible swirling wind, wind that was strong enough to make eating chips outside the ground a Krypton Factor level exercise in dexterity, was the classic leveller.  And there may have been something at the back of Leicester’s psyche, the knowledge that the winning run would end sometime, that this one would take that run into double figures, and that, you know, it was us.  History’n’that.  In any event, we didn’t start the game in the manner of a side that had rolled up either expecting to be scalped or hoping to park the bus.  Deeney slugged a shot narrowly over the bar…  then Tözsér’s curled free kick dropped to Faraoni flying in at the far post, his header into the side-netting.  And then we were ahead… Deeney curled the ball across from the left.  Cross?  Shot?  Either way ‘nando was alert and threw himself across the ball to power a header home.  One-nil, and suitably unrestrained acknowledgement in the low-roofed away end.  The game continued to hurtle around in the manner of the weather…  Manu came out for one of any number of City corners, the wind caught the ball and carried it goalwards and the keeper was forced to change direction and tip over, a fine stop.  Angella came close to outdoing his Forest effort, flicking up a corner to scissor a volley goalwards, Schmeichel responded with a stunning reaction save. And then two…  Forestieri, a dynamic box of tricks throughout, hounded down de Laet in the right-back position and laid back to Anya.  Anya squared to Murray who fashioned a space and then drove past Schmeichel.

3- So did we blow it?  If we did it was in the period of play that immediately followed our second goal.  We’d responded impeccably to going ahead, staying on the front foot, staying aggressive and retaining our discipline.  After Murray’s goal however City came at us down their right, de Laet squared and James tucked away tidily, our two goal lead halved straight away.  A decent move, but we repelled the many other decent moves that City threw at us throughout the rest of the game.  Here we seemed a little bit dazed, a little bit too pleased with ourselves and perhaps ready for the interval… whereas City got straight back at us and brought the deficit back to a single goal immediately.

But this was very, very far from the Nottingham Forest disaster ten days ago.  Leicester are a far more accomplished opponent and threw more at us than their Midlands neighbours had at the City Ground, particularly in a second half that was a classic kitchen sink job for the most part, City throw numbers forward, we put bodies on the line and try to catch them on the break.  And we did a bloody good job of it too… the home side didn’t eke out many chances for all their possession, and showed signs of not being used to being in this position – Kasper Schmeichel at one point flying out to deny an already offside Forestieri took a risk with a waist high attempted volley that was closer to connecting with the Argentine than the ball – fortunately for the Dane he missed both.

Yes, yes, they got the goal, and a fine strike too into roughly the same corner as Nathaniel Chalobah’s howitzer had flown nine months ago (yup).  Rather they hadn’t, naturally, but if it were to happen you’d rather it was that way… them earning the draw with a worldy rather than us messing up to throw it away.  Because, yes, Drinkwater could perhaps have been closed down, and, yes, we’d had chances to put it to bed… not least Forestieri, released by an astonishing reverse-pass from Ekstrand, who overhit a cross to Deeney on the break when a shot across the face looked like the better bet.  Such criticisms are churlish;  this was a massive performance that nearly yielded a massive result.  Three away games on the hop we’ve let two goal leads slip, true, but you’ve got to give high quality opposition some credit too.  Of the three games, only at Forest did we do any throwing away.

4- My first view of Daniel “Kaiser” Tözsér, and if this wasn’t the masterful performance that dispatches from Brighton reported, the Hungarian nonetheless looked a valuable addition to the side on any number of levels.  For the first time this season the team has a pendulum, someone setting the rhythm from the back of the midfield… and, do not scratch your eyes, someone shouting and cajoling and organising, bringing the defence out, directing.  I remember that… that’s a captain that is.  Add a suave set piece delivery and you’ve got a big tick on this outing, only a silly yellow for a needless foul blotting his copybook.

Elsewhere, other than Forestieri, highlights included the performances of Cassetti, a perhaps surprising call in the centre of the defence for Hall, and for the impeccable Angella.  So too the splendid Human League-inspired chant for Daniel Pudil (“Daniel Pudil Baby….”), which one can only hope will start a trend for early eighties adaptations before Park “Too Much” Chu Young comes back from his knock.

5- Leicester were giving it large at the end of the game, not unreasonably in context although to a greater extent than a home draw against a mid-table side to terminate a winning run probably merited.  They do have previous on this of course… the “we’re going to Wembley, you’re not” chants that followed their first leg play-off win in May weren’t quite on a par with Palace’s premature “Eagle Express” train to Cardiff in 2006 but they weren’t too clever nonetheless.  Beyond dispute though is that we’ve had some belting games against City over the past few years (and not just the play-offs…  the Danny Graham one?  The Chalobah one?  The Craig Forsyth one?  The Heidar one?) and it seems likely that this run will now take a pause of a season at least.  Difficult to dispute that they’ve merited it either… comfortably the best we’ve seen this season and a far stiffer test than the side we beat in the play-offs.  We gave them a(nother) hell of a game today though.  Progress.


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