jump to navigation

Middlesbrough 1 Watford 1 (25/10/2014) 26/10/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- “Uncle Will, is this really the best trip you’ve ever been on?”

image1

It’s been a tough week, all told.  Tuesday night’s draw with Forest was sacrificed in favour of an open evening at one of daughter 1’s possible schools next year… by Thursday I needed something to get me through the challenges that Thursday and Friday were going to vomit into my path, and this was it.  Not just a trip to Boro, but a trip to Boro with daughters 1 and 2 (aged 8, 5), an epic and reckless gamble with their fledgling enthusiasm built up as an adventure, a road trip.

Two days and minimal coercion later we’re at the Riverside, whose empty stretches of seating tend to lend it an air of moribund discontent – even when, as today, the home fans make a fair amount of noise in response to a positive home performance.  Daughter 2 in particular is disconcerted by the unfamiliar imbalance in the stands, accustomed as she is to Watford’s support being dominant.

This is her first away trip, and daughter 1 has only ventured away from the Vic for the play-off final so there’s much at stake here, much that can go wrong.  On the pitch, too…  an away trip against strong opposition should really come under the heading of “grab what you can get” at this stage of the season, relatively low pressure and no hair to be torn out if the worst happens (see also Norwich), but that’s without the context of Nottingham Forest.  No, I didn’t see the game… but dispatches suggested that disappointment at a home draw was alleviated by the quality of the attacking play, the promise of what’s to come.  That’s fine and dandy, as long as it leads somewhere.  Today’s match might determine whether there’s momentum building or whether we stay in third gear, chugging along at a reasonable pace without really realising what we can do.

2- It’s a bright but cautious start. Two opponents sparring, getting the measure of each other without leaving themselves exposed.  Significant in the Hornets line-up are the two changes, one of which late and both enforced; Bond in goal for Gomes, injured in the warm-up, and Anya a slightly surprising choice in the midfield three for Abdi.  Surprising, only in the sense that in playing a three in midfield, particularly away from home, you kinda want physical presence… I love Ikechi to bits, but it always felt like a big ask this, much as injuries to Abdi and McGugan and the not-quite-fit-to-startness of Andrews limited our options. Murray, for all that he has struggled in this formation, would have brought a bit more grit;  my brother was all for swapping Fernando and Ikechi around.  Either way, Boro soon take control of the game and swamp us in the middle of the park.  Our attacking play is bright enough; Vydra, a skulking ninja, springing out from nowhere to fling a near-lethal shot low towards the bottom corner, Konstantopoulos diving to his left to push wide.  Increasingly however it’s Boro with the possession and the pressure, exposing the lack of width in our formation to isolate Paredes against the constant overlapping threat of George Friend.  The home side dominate the final half hour of the half;  for all that, Bond only has a couple of saves to make – one a fabulous reflex stop when Bamford should perhaps not have given him any chance at all – but we owe our clean sheet at the break to the foreheads of the excellent duo of Bassong and Ekstrand,, and the diving blocks of the likes of Munari and Tözsér.  It’s a successful rearguard action and owes a little to luck, but more to guts and determination in contrast to the slightly sullen atmosphere amongst the team… backs to free kicks, heads down, little communication for all of deputy deputy skipper Tözsér’s encouragement and cajoling. Nil nil at the break, and we’re grateful for it.

3- We look for a change at the start of the second period, frankly.  Something to tip the balance back in our direction… a change in formation perhaps if not personnel.  There’s no evidence of anything changing in our approach however, and Boro are keen to finish what they’d started by howling out of the blocks.  The goal when it comes isn’t particularly elegant, Kike seizing on a loose ball in the box to finish well but it’s been coming long since.  It is difficult to see any other outcome from this point than a Boro win, it’s so evident that what they’re doing is working and that our occasional rapier counter-attacks are a weapon, but aren’t adequate.  I begin to turn my mind to how to support my daughters through the realisation that a cross-country trek for a defeat, perhaps a heavy defeat, is a joyless pursuit but a rite of passage.  I’m wondering how much credence “days like this is what makes the wins good” will get from a five year-old, albeit a five year-old who has spent both pre-match and half-time engrossed in the Boro match programme.

4- Much credit has been given to Troy Deeney’s introduction in changing the game.  Certainly Daughter 2 is delighted… players being injured in general is a source of concern, having been at Bournemouth Gabriel Tamas’ knee is a frequent topic of discussion and she’s fully appraised of Deeney’s hamstring injury.  There’s no doubt that he gives the team a lift;  accounts from Forest suggested that he looked unfit and immobile but here, whilst he certainly looks heavy, he brings a bullishness and a physical presence and buckets of personality to our attack.  Odion Ighalo had done a very decent job as a target man in the first half before fading in the second, the ball had stuck to him and he provided an outlet… but he’s still not intimidating in the way that Troy is.

And much as Troy gets the goal and makes us more potent, the real accountability for the change in the game rests with the home side.  Whether intimidated by Deeney’s arrival, exhausted by their high-pressing game or simply the victims of a catastrophically bad tactical decision Boro, having had so much success (and been deserving of more) on the front foot suddenly step off and give us space.  The most immediate beneficiary of this is not Deeney, but Ikechi Anya…  once, at the end of the first half, he found enough space to do his thing and wriggle off with the ball like a hyperactive eel.  More generally he has been forced backwards by Boro’s midfield into an unnaturally contained role.  Now, suddenly, he’s unleashed and we’re very much in the ascendancy before the irrepressible Scottish international skips down the left and lays back for Deeney to knock in.  Both daughters go completely ballistic as the players head towards the away corner.  On the pitch its a remarkable turnaround, and we’re forcing our advantage home.  Andrews comes on and stiffens up that midfield, Anya is permanently unleashed.  Tözsér’s free kick finds Ekstrand, his brilliant reverse header back across the face of goal crashes off the post.  Boro are in danger of losing everything here.  It’s not the reverse of the first half… we’re never that dominant and Boro have chances themselves but it’s them  on the break now, on the back foot and Deeney, every inch the leader, is leading the charge.  Paredes, too, reminds us why he’s such an asset, having had a tough first half he is now a powerful, rampaging pain in the arse on Boro’s left flank.  Tözsér comes close with a low, ripping free kick that’s again pushed round… we’re unable to judge from side on along the goal-line quite how close that was, but we’re on our feet and finishing the game with positive energy.  The game ends with Boro fluffing a chance themselves, as if to remind us that we really shouldn’t lose perspective on what is a very good point.

5- We’re drawing a lot of games, you’ll have noticed.  Five of our last seven having not drawn in our opening nine fixtures.  Needs to be borne in mind of course that there are all manner of mitigating circumstances… rule number one of Statistical Process Control, as you’ll no doubt be aware, is that you don’t try to draw any conclusions about a system that isn’t stable and we’ve been far from stable in the context of which two league defeats so far isn’t such a bad thing.  One of those defeats was at Charlton, whose supporters harboured concerns as to whether their glut of draws would evolve into wins or defeats, concerns now looking well-founded, but in our case we continue to pick up results from difficult situations and difficult positions.  Middlesbrough were terrific, our own limitations exposed by this rather than the cause of it, and we still came away with a deserved point and looking forwards.  We got away with that first half, but played some part in that outcome too. I’m more optimistic than those Charlton fans were.

As for the girls, the journey home was interrupted by a prolonged stop at Wetherby services – you can’t hurry two young girls with fish fingers and chips.  We pulled in at home in Bedfordshire at 10pm to a tutting from the girls’ mother.  Daughter 1 had just about lasted the distance, Daughter 2 was roused from sleep to be carried inside.  Despite which, blinking and half-asleep, she responded to enquiry as to the best bit of her big adventure with a grin and a twinkle in her eye.  “Troy Deeney’s goal”, was the response.

A very decent result all round.

IMG_0581

Watford 1 Brighton and Hove Albion 1 (04/10/2014) 04/10/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- There’s something to be said for mundaneness every now and again.  You appreciate the good days more being one argument, a more rounded supporting experience to have sat through the full range of emotions that football can instil.  We get to claim that WE were there when we were shit, a badge of honour. If every game is a belter then life takes on a more hysterical edge… that’s the picture that Sky Sports would have you believe in, “this year is the best ever, it’s all terribly terribly gripping and exciting and important”.  No it isn’t.  Sometimes it’s not painted in primary colours, and today was one of those days.  The lunchtime rainstorm that paralysed the roads into Watford as we woke up to official End Of Summer washed them all away, leaving a grey-brown sludge.

2- Brighton started like a side who had just let in two goals in a bigger game against a more daunting opponent than this.  Just passing the ball around, keeping possession, trying to get a foothold for their fragile confidence that manifested itself most obviously when they got close enough to the goal to clout a ridiculously optimistic shot in vaguely the right direction, one in a million efforts that didn’t come off.  Decisions that screamed of a side that can’t score goals… less risk in taking on a long shot even if it doesn’t get you anywhere, less chance of looking stupid.  What they did have was defensive discipline, flooding the midfield and getting bodies behind the ball, and this bought them time against a Watford side that never quite got going, partly in consequence. Had we made the breakthrough earlier on, perversely, we might have stood a better chance of taking the three points; instead, Brighton’s confidence grew as the game progressed and we struggled to create much throughout a stodgy first half.

3- Another issue, as on Tuesday, was Heurelho Gomes’ reluctance to kick the ball out.  Brentford did a better job of haring down our possession at that end of the pitch to put Gomes under pressure to kick, but our need to break quickly when the keeper picked up possession to give ourselves half a chance of getting in behind before Albion got set up put extra emphasis on the need to find a quick throw.  Early on there was evidence of Lloyd – the original Lloyd, back in the side as we work through our stockpile of centre backs to general approval in our corner of the Rookery – and the splendidly functional Gianni Munari doing Gomes’ scanning, looking for a throw for him as he collected a low ball and directing him to save precious seconds.  A sound enough ruse on the odd occasion, but this limitation remained an issue and will do so until we can work opponents hard enough to get them running too far and for too long to persist in closing down space high up the pitch for the duration.

4- A word for the new Community Stand, part-opened for the first time.  Thank goodness.  Thank the Pozzos.  At long last after so many missed opportunities.  ig might miss the Main Stand, but once you’ve said goodbye to something, you know, you want it to go, you want it to be replaced.  I miss Luther and Richard Johnson and the green bucket I used to stand on on the North West terrace in 1981 but I wouldn’t want any of them back.  Not now.  Fantastic to see supporters in it, even if only part full.  Remember now why my Family Enclosure years featured a baseball cap tho…

5- We almost got away with it.  And had we done so there really would have been cause for optimism, to build upon Tuesday’s last thunk.  At the end of a chaotic few weeks we could look back on five games from which we had, in each case, harvested perhaps more than we deserved, or more than we easily could have done. Much as you’d rather be wiping the floor with teams, taking points when you’re not playing well in the absence of key players would have been a hell of a good marker.  Albion started the second half well;  it had been evident from the first half that their one attacking threat came from right-back Bruno against the uncomfortable looking Tommie Hoban out of position down the left, they hit the former with a screaming cross-field ball early on that came to nothing.  From there we got a foothold and enjoyed our best spell of the game, culminating in that free kick, a clinical exploitation of a flaw in Albion’s defensive wall.  At which point, I thought we had the match won… but Lualua had given them an attacking edge and they were well worth that equaliser in the end.  Our last, fine chance came when McGugan’s effervescent cameo saw him release Vydra on the left; the Czech beat the offside and crashed a violent shot goalwards that Stockdale reacted brilliantly to parry.  That was, from memory, the only non-trivial save made by either keeper all afternoon.  Which is an adequate footnote for the game really.  For the sake of our injury list, our head coach, our team’s shape, we really need this two week break.

Watford 2 Brentford 1 (30/09/2014) 01/10/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- Sometimes games fall in a helpful way, sometimes not. Sometimes you get the opponent at a low ebb, sometimes just after the new guy has come in and they’re on the bounce and you’re left thinking “why couldn’t we have played you a couple of weeks ago when you were rubbish?”. This one fell for us, for reasons that were nothing to do with our visitors. True, we could all perhaps have done with a day or two to get our collective heads around the events of the last week or so – Billy McKinlay not least. Given that there WAS a game though, what better than a rattling, high-speed local derby, just the thing to focus the attention and demand that most essential of qualities, simply getting on with it. Under the floodlights this was a non-stop adrenaline rush of a football match, one where it was essential – and not terribly difficult – to overlook shortcomings, hold on and enjoy the ride. Watford’s formation made a clear statement – Vydra playing slightly behind Ighalo, Fabbrini and Dyer hugging the touchlines, it wasn’t a formation that suggested containment. Brentford for their part were no less ambitious, the tone set when Watford’s first attack ended in the arms of David Button, who then sprang up to deliver a long throw to a posse of scampering, escaping forwards. I could almost hear my old PE/basketball teacher at school, Leon Green, bellowing “FAST BREEEEEEEAAAAK…..”. It was 15 minutes before anyone made what could have been construed as a conservative pass as both defences manned their last ditches from the off.

2- In the continued absence of Troy Deeney – who would have made hay amidst yesterday’s chaos one suspects – another chance for Odion Ighalo to show us what he could do. Word from Granada was that he was hugely popular despite not having the best goalscoring ratio, and it’s easy to see why on both counts. For all that he appeared reluctant to throw himself into aerial duels in the manner that’s a prerequisite in England, Ighalo is a trier, a scrapper… but not the most confident finisher. Nothing reluctant about the way he threw himself at Lloyd Dyer’s left wing cross midway through the first half, mind, as our attacks focused through the winger… I thought at the time that the fierce, angled header was blocked by the keeper who was certainly right behind (or underneath) it… consensus from reports is that it came back off the woodwork. Brentford’s rapid counterattacking was always a threat but Watford had the better of the first half and took the lead following a break from Vydra who released Ighalo on the left of the box. James Tarkowski offered a challenge, Ighalo went down, penalty. It was certainly soft, but whilst my co-editor would probably wish to remonstrate about contact not equalling a foul I’ve got no sympathy with Brentford’s protests on this one, much less with Warburton’s one-eyed assessment of the incident. Contrary to his assertion that the players were running side by side and no contact was made, Tarkowski approached from the side and stuck his leg half across Ighalo to disrupt the striker’s movement. No trip, no hack, but an attempt to obstruct the attack whilst making it difficult for the referee to call a penalty. Such was Brentford’s approach all night in fairness and I’m not knocking it… indeed, a gutsy and committed team that stays just the right side of the line is surely an easy thing to love. But you live by the sword, you die by the sword and sometimes those borderline calls are going to go against you. Imbalanced to whinge about it, it comes with the territory – much as Brendan Rodgers memorably refused to condemn Angel Rangel for giving a goal away by trying to play out when Swansea were first promoted. Ighalo summed up his Watford career to date succinctly with a thoroughly unconvincing penalty that Button should perhaps have not permitted to rebound to where, with instinct and desire now foremost above technique and confidence, the Nigerian bundled home. Tarkowski’s cheap claw in his face from the restart did little to endear Brentford further and reinforced the suggestion of brittle discipline in the visiting ranks.

3- Despite which the Bees look a thoroughly sprightly side with pace to burn and in Andre Gray a striker from the Mark Hughes school of using your arse as a potent weapon; more than enough about them to stay up comfortably in short. The second half started with the Hornets looking sluggish and the visitors as dominant as either team would be at any point in the contest. Juan Carlos Paredes continues to settle and looks an absolute beast going forward but does push up an awful long way; having the utterly forlorn and not-terribly-defensively-diligent-at-the-best-of-times Diego Fabbrini as his partner down the right left an awfully large hole in behind. As at the start of the first half much of the play was concentrated in the corner between the Rookery and the ever blossoming Community Stand as first Jota and then the excellent Bidwell threaded efforts precisely between onrushing forwards and the far post. Eventually they did get the goal, and it was a fine thing… I’ve read complaints that they cut us open as if that implies some failing on the part of our defenders but sometimes you just have to hold your hands up; the Bees speed and movement finally coincided in a move that saw Jonathan Douglas through on goal; Gomes got a good hand to the shot that was well aimed to be difficult to get down to, but could only palm it inside the far post. Things looked decidedly iffy at this point.

4- So all credit to the Hornets for first edging their way back into the game, and then finding a goal, and then asserting ourselves again comprehensively… even if the points weren’t secure until the whistle went. Indeed, there were some looking over their shoulders for a last Brentford counter-attack as we made our way up Occupation Road. Of a number of decent individual performances, including those of Ekstrand – again looking far more reliable in a back four – and the majestic Kaiser Tözsér, the stand out was Matej Vydra even before the game’s decisive moment. He’s looked nervous and pallid since his return, but recent games have seen his flame start to burn again and this evening’s performance was pure devilment… movement, confidence, aggression, technique and then an absolute rip-snorter of a finish,  dug out of nowhere on the half volley and worthy of the last Hornet to score a winning goal against the Bees. The overdue introduction of Anya for Fabbrini had already renewed our threat, but the appearance of Abdi for Ighalo poured oil over what had been a scratchy second half performance and our attacks purred from that point onwards.  Brentford’s slightly hysterical threat wasn’t quelled, and Odubajo got the wrong side of Pudil to force the Czech to take a second yellow card.  A professional foul in the truest sense but not denying a goalscoring opportunity and so a clear (second) booking.  Relief and exhilaration greeted the final whistle.

5- All told, then, we’re not in too bad a place.  The performances still leave something to be desired… but we’re as close to top as dammit despite having had four different senior coaches since the start of the season.  We won this one despite the absence of key senior players – our best centre-back and what has been up to now our first choice forward pairing for starters – and displayed no little resilience in the process (even if, as McKinlay acknowledged, you’d prefer that we’d managed the closing minutes rather more effectively).  Warburton complained that his side were worth a point, and certainly we couldn’t have complained at they come away with one.  As at Blackpool, however, it’s about having that little bit of quality to win these games, that thing that separates you – even if, in this one, enough goals could and perhaps should have gone in at either end to make that piledriver obsolete.  Brentford could have deprived us of the win.  But they didn’t, we got the three points.  Again.  Going to be fun when things settle down and we start to fully exploit our potential, isn’t it?

Watford 1 AFC Bournemouth 1 (20/09/2014) 20/09/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

1- Being live on the telly carries with it a few considerations. For one thing, it’s an awful lot easier to write about a midweek trip to Blackpool, for instance, internet streaming or otherwise. If nobody’s seen the game then it’s not difficult to add to their understanding of how it went down… and less likely that anyone’s going to pick me up on a sloppy detail. Consequence number two is that everyone’s performing a little bit, even now in the era of blanket coverage. This went for daughter number one and daughter number two, stopped by a Sky crew on Vicarage Road at 11.15 and eager to wave their yellow, red and black garlands around their heads for the cameras. It went for the referee as well, who was irritatingly assiduous about free kicks being taken in the right spot but missed a lot of rather more fundamental stuff, frustrating both sides into the process. The close attention of Bournemouth’s aggressive midfield wasn’t acknowledged, Ian Harte’s lethal, cynical hack on Forestieri should have been given a red card… all round, tiresome. His performance was at the forefront of the girls’ post-match account to their great-grandmother, delivered with the withering shakes of the head of seasoned veterans.

2- The referee wasn’t, in any case, central to the outcome of the game, a game that wasn’t in itself radically different to the same fixture early last season in many respects. The visitors, of whom more below, were competitive and impressive and potent then too, for the most part… the difference was that we got our noses in front and made hay as the Cherries chased the game with incorrigible optimism. In a match that had bursts of being similarly end to end we never had that luxury today. The other key difference was the absence of Troy Deeney, hat-trick hero of that game a year ago. For all that our squad has depth and options Deeney is the captain and talisman, and is fundamental to the way we play as the number of consecutive appearances he’d made before today demonstrated. The consequence of his absence was a predictably lightweight forward line that had plenty of zip and energy but asked a lot of a midfield that was being pressured for space at every opportunity. There were performances like this at the start of Zola’s season, before Troy’s return to the side. Pace and movement are great, but if that’s all you’ve got then you’re rather easy to defend against. The Cherries played their role too a tee… our midfield was hassled into overquick or long passes, or simply caught in possession; Abdi and Anya were both off the pace and we didn’t have Troy’s incredible strength to turn rushed balls into threatening positions. How we missed his presence… and I was surprised that Gianni Munari’s physicality remained on the bench. Bournemouth’s discipline wasn’t offering many gaps, we needed a mallet where rapiers were failing.

3- Bournemouth were terrific. As I’ve said, they weren’t 6-1 dreadful last year really… but more than earned the point they got here. A very easy side to support at the moment one suspects, with a combination of disciplined defenders, industrious and tidy midfielders typified by the excellent Harry Arter, and honest endeavour in attack. Aggressive and competitive but, with the possible exception of Harte’s execution of Forestieri, not cynical. Nothing that would leave a nasty taste in the mouth. I don’t quite hold with the Occupation Road consensus that we’d got out of jail… with a squad of this quality even a ragged performance has something about it and if there were far too many misplaced passes the fact is that even one of those passes being on target might have meant an extra goal against a side that didn’t create too much in the way of clear-cut chances themselves. Nonetheless, when Arter’s fine strike gave them the lead midway through the second half we didn’t have much to complain about.

4- Earlier on, Gabriel Tamas had put in a performance that was all but a parody of his eventful Watford career to date. With the ball… majestic, almost contemptuously dismissive of any challenge and capable of slinging raking passes across the pitch like a central midfielder. Without the ball… a clumsy, thuggish calamity. His one-on-one with Callum Wilson looked like a major issue as soon as it presented itself, the Romanian being caught on the wrong side of his charge and making a silly, unwinnable challenge anyway. Ian Harte’s wonky penalty a major let-off but Tamas continued to look befuddled and exploitable until appearing to twist his knee in a horrible looking fall on the half hour. On came Craig Cathcart for his second Watford debut and everything settled down almost instantaneously. His performance was composed and disciplined, verging on the elegant, and he sealed what was already comfortably a (Watford) man of the match display with a gorgeous volley to salvage a point in the final ten minutes.

5- So what, really. We’ve not learned an awful lot from this fixture, much as (being a home game) it’s one that we’d have expected three points from. Deeney leaves a great big hole. The team is a little rudderless and in need of some polishing. There’s an awful lot of quality anyway, and crazy depth in the squad (Craig Cathcart is only fourth? fifth? in line before today, right?). Some of it’s good. Some of it’s less good. None of this is news. Next…

Blackpool 0 Watford 1 (16/09/2014) 17/09/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- There’s something quite distinctive about Blackpool.  I hadn’t been here since Kenny Jackett’s season 17 (!) years ago but strolling down the seafront in the hazy late afternoon sunshine it was difficult to escape the suspicion that contact with the rest of the world has been scant for far longer.  There’s an air of melancholy neglect about the place, but defiance too.  “We’re an anachronism but that’s how we like it and if you don’t you know where the chuffing road is”.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t a thoroughly agreeable way to spend a couple of hours having taken the rather reckless decision to book the entire afternoon off work.  We’d arrived early enough, as it happened, to secure the best away supporters parking spot in the whole of Blackpool… in the Travelodge car park opposite the ground with our bonnet pointed straight down the exit back onto Seasiders Way and the route home.  By the time we arrived back at the stadium and noted that the placard accompanying Stan Mortensen’s statue neglected to acknowledge his one wartime appearance for Watford we were in a thoroughly relaxed and benevolent frame of mind.

The Blackpool team, of course, has the same patched-up, bedraggled feel as the town it represents, if for rather different reasons that the home support were very clear about.  The Oyston Estate Agents board, twice the size of any other advertising in the stadium, sneered smugly back from the rear wall of the stand opposite the away support, stretched down one side of the ground rather than behind a goal but no less noisy for it.

2- The Hornets, meanwhile, are somewhat treading water given the unfortunate and concerning health scare suffered by Oscar Garcia over the weekend (get well soon Oscar…). The starting eleven saw one change, the welcome return to the side of Juan Carlos Paredes in place of Tommie Hoban; given the Seasiders’ advertised susceptibility down the flanks an attacking full back seemed like A Good Idea.  Less convincing was the Hornets’ formation, described by Ruben Martinez as 4-2-3-1 but in effect indistinguishable from a 4-4-2 with McGugan sitting awkwardly on the right and Anya on the left of midfield.  The home side started particularly nervously;  we were applying pressure high up the pitch and it didn’t take a lot for the home side’s centre-backs to look vulnerable.  The very definition of “there to be got at”.  When in possession we tried to build up a rhythm, retaining possession and making the home side chase the ball.  Gradually we built up pressure and before the half was up the Seasiders were endebted to Joe Lewis for a string of fine saves including a clouted Deeney effort tipped wide and a lightning break to unlock Anya smothered by the keeper’s attentiveness – although the winger should have scored.  Nonetheless, as we failed to take advantage the home side settled down and grew in confidence and defiance, our efforts more laboured.  The half ended with Gomes denying a point-blank header and a suspicion that an alien free of prejudice would probably favour this Blackpool side, wobbly and patched-up but committed and demonstrably greater than the sum of its parts, over the visitors who were no less committed but rather less potent than might have been hoped.  Being entirely prejudiced we applauded the Hornets off anyway, albeit with a lingering concern borne of failing to take advantage of possession on Saturday, and a wish that Gianni Munari’s industry or Fernando Forestieri’s magic dust were available.

3- Highlights of the journey up had included the construction of a “Watford eleven who would get you into trouble in a nightclub” and “Watford eleven who would get you out of trouble in a nightclub”. Had Adrian Boothroyd’s attempts to recruit Ishmael Miller from Manchester City seven years ago been successful he would surely have been a contender for the latter;  as it is he has caused us no end of trouble since his decision to join West Brom instead of the Hornets and has scored for three different visiting sides at Vicarage Road.  The sort of opponent that might have seemed particularly likely to cause our defence problems, in fact, but as it turned out both Angella and Ekstrand looked vastly more comfortable in a back four than they have tended to do in a back three; Miller certainly looked like the Seasiders’ biggest threat but Ekstrand in particular coped admirably with the challenge, as impressive a performance as we’ve seen from the Swede in some time.

4- The second half proved to be more even, all round, but only in a roundabout sort of way.  Impatience in the away end was beginning to rear its graceless head, Matej Vydra too often on the receiving end.  This was inappropriate on any number of levels, the two most glaring being that barracking a striker low on confidence really isn’t likely to achieve the desired outcome and that, actually, this was a performance more assertive than many of those since his return.  For starters there was no shortage of effort and, yes yes,  “showing you’re bothered” as a meter of quality has its limitations but in Vydra’s energetic closing down there was at least evidence of something.  The pivotal change in the game was the introduction of Dyer for McGugan, which gave the side far better balance.  Within a minute Anya was screaming down the right, his clever ball inside to Vydra lashed hungrily into the side netting.  Then we got the goal and it was a far more elegant thing than a 68th minute penalty might sound, the sort of quality that can win a good side a game as the Premier League taught us all too well.  Pudil, a rival for Ekstrand as man of the match, sent an evil pass through for Dyer borne of the winger’s movement and Pudil’s awareness and leaving Tony McMahon with no option but to make a challenge that he was never going to execute successfully.  Deeney, one assumes, delegated penalty-taking responsibility to his strike partner and kudos to him for doing so as the Czech finished expertly… he needed a goal and acknowledged the travelling Hornets with a grin.  Within minutes Deeney was heading off the line as the home side came straight back out of the blocks, cementing a captain’s performance, but the pressure was all Blackpool’s.  Eventually it told, the home side got a penalty themselves after some hurlyburly in the box that was impossible to assess from our distance but the points were clearly destined to be ours as Ranger beat Gomes only to see his shot come back off the inside of the post.  Sean Murray came on for a positive and energetic cameo in place of the disappointing Abdi, Tamas came on for Vydra to shield the defence in a typically chaotic, brutal fashion and after the combined will of the away end (“Get OVER”) pushed a late header Blackpool header over the bar the points and a first win in Lancashire for five years were ours.

5- All good then, in the end, and another three points away from home that owed a little to luck but a lot more to a greater resolve than has always been evident.  Less pleasing all round were yet further signs of niggle within the squad.  Daniel Tözsér  and Troy Deeney having words at half time, Lloyd Dyer (him again) and the excitable Gomes having to be separated by Gabriele Angella at full time.  So too a hamstring injury sustained by Deeney in the game’s dying minutes leaving us to hold out with ten men throughout injury time.  This was particularly unfortunate in that the home side, whose approach in general hadn’t been overly physical, had on three occasions gone through the back of a skipper in what can only have been a deliberate strategy to limit the effectiveness of our biggest threat.  Deeney dodged those bullets and didn’t react, so unfortunate that he should injure himself by overstretching late on (in front of a gormlessly unsympathetic home end, one of whose delegates offered a mystifying “Italian cheats!” under his breath at us on our short step back to the car afterwards).  All in all, a fine away day (aren’t they all) a little bit of luck and a very welcome if not undeserved three points… but “as you were” in many respects. More to do.

image (19)

 

Watford 4 Huddersfield Town 2 (30/08/2014) 31/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- It’s half past eight in the evening.  Sofia, five, has made her “competitive debut” today.  Now, with Watford shirt pulled over her Princess Sophia top and left hand on hip she is swinging her yellow/red/black garland vigorously around her head with her right hand, marching around the living room and leading her sister in a rousing rendition of “Tro-oy Dee-ney, Watford’s number nine!” as their mother rolls her eyes from the sofa.  Three and a half hours or so earlier Sofia was gazing open mouthed in happy bewilderment at the jubilation in the Rookery in the wake of Almen Abdi’s glorious clincher.  There had been questions before the game, more were raised during the ninety-plus minutes and we’ll get to those, I suppose.  But for the moment revel again in that fabulous final half hour or so, which in the manner of a cup-tie blew away all concerns, quibbles, tactics, formations.  Primal, ferocious and utterly captivating entertainment.  Who could fail to be carried away by it?

2- The visitors took the game to Watford from the off, persistent and aggressive in attacking positions.  Whilst they had their own failings – often the same failings as ours and within the space of minutes as we’ll discuss – their application won’t have done caretaker Mark Lillis’ case for the permanent position any harm, irrespective of the result.  Debutant Jack Robinson briefly looked like a threat with a series of monstrous throw ins that reached the far post – time will tell whether he’s a Dave Challinor or a Leigh Bromby, the trajectory didn’t look flat enough to me whatever the power.  In any case when we broke, as we are wont to do, we looked capable of making hay with the Terriers defence being peeled apart relative easily.  Hardly a resilient rearguard then, much less so in the face of a perfect through ball from Daniel Töszér, a perfect run and touch from Troy and a cool finish to give the Hornets the lead.  Better defences than this would have been shredded by that, almost a waste of a brilliant goal – save them for tougher challenges to come.  The half was more open than the half-time scoreline suggests – each side had a goal ruled out for a marginal call – and if the bedlam of the second half was hardly heralded it never felt done and dusted.  The other detail worth mentioning is ref Neil Swarbrick making it clear that he wasn’t going to be afraid to issue cards, you rather felt that in a game that was frantic (if never dirty) we wouldn’t end with 11 v 11 and so it proved.  As it turned out, we finished the first half slightly the better off in this regard as Munari and Vaughan picked up similarly harsh bookings for aggressive aerial challenges.  Vaughan’s caution is always going to limit his physical impact… Munari, however, limped off before the break.  The Italian was terrific during the opening period in which the Hornets were ultimately the better side, his loss perhaps a factor in the turning of the tide thereafter.

3- A pause to mention Troy since before today each game has felt a bit like a bonus, to varying degrees.  Perhaps the last time we’ll see him in yellow, enjoy it while it lasts.  He was always going to be lauded from the rafters and rightly so, but it’s a landmark moment in so many ways.  I don’t remember a recent instance of a talisman, a key player attracting serious attention, being retained.  Arguably not since John Barnes was attracting enquiries in the mid-eighties has such interest in the main man not concluded with the player’s departure.  And yes, I know he went in the end and maybe Troy will too but not now.  A big statement, both from the club and the player, and demonstration of the Pozzos refusal to be pushed around, to give ground.  Since the announcement, just a few days, Troy has visibly taken on the mantle of captain with relish…  Beppe has suggested that he was always a leader, always a de facto captain in the dressing room but there have been periods, games, where we’ve needed Troy and he’s faded in the past.  His tremendous interview in the Watford Observer screams of attitude, a new skipper wanting to talk his charges into a robustness that wasn’t always evident last season.  All power to him.

4- The second half was crackers.  Sean Scannell – whose version of the current fashion for big beards makes him look like a drummer from an early nineties grebo band – sent in a wicked low cross which provoked the confusion between goalkeeper and defender that it was designed to, this capitalised upon by Bunn.  Building on the theme of the consecutive events reflecting each other at either end of the pitch Town conspired to present Almen Abdi, vivacious and mischievous, the opportunity to regain the lead within minutes.  Reports from Yorkshire complain of a foul on Bunn in the build-up but replays suggest that this is fanciful… a collision that would only have been awarded to conservatively protect the defending team and no excuse for the inept defending that followed.  Inability to mark from set pieces was the next theme, James Vaughan pulling clear for a free header at the far post about ten yards out completely unmarked. A textbook attempt back across the goal but without the power was the result, Gomes tipped it round expertly but shouldn’t have had a chance.  From the corner Wallace was similarly vaguely marked and took advantage.   Breathless stuff now, you couldn’t take your eyes off it and Sofia certainly didn’t even if the relentless questions kept coming.  After Munari’s depature (“will he be ok?  How do you know he’s ok?”) the subject of most fascination was Tamas’ departure (“why was he naughty?”).  I like Gabriel Tamas, but there’s something incorrigible about his brand of defending that doesn’t involve holding back on consideration of minor details like being in the penalty area, or having just been booked.  We then had our own go at implausible excuses by arguing that the ball was out of play before the Romanian clobbered Bunn, as if that made it OK, before Huddersfield generously did their own bit of leaving a man free at a set piece, Keith Andrews having time to perform his Ice Bucket challenge before Almen Abdi’s arcing corner reached his forehead at the far post.

5- The rest was all about attitude and very little to do with ability.  That’s encouraging in it’s own way, we know we’ve got the ability, that’s not news.  We know we can turn over opponents who give us space or make stupid decisions (hello, Leeds), that’s not news either, give us an inch we’ll take 1.609 kilometres and molte grazie.  But this was a backs-to-the-wall situation against an opponent who were very much more competent and threatening than their league position suggests, the very definition of The Sort Of Game We Would Have Lost Last Season and so to come through it with such flying colours is hugely positive.  The crowd played its part, a frantic, furious atmosphere that was part chicken and part egg but well done to the 1881 in any case for their part.  As for detail… significant that whilst we rode our luck on occasions Huddersfield’s screw only tended to get them as far as the edge of the penalty area, many of those shots on target optimistic long-range efforts perhaps aimed at assessing quite how safe Gomes’ handling was.  All three substitutes played big roles here;  Andrews a less mobile, less intimidating option than Munari but an organiser and leader, calling the shots as we faced the alamo.  Tommie Hoban, slightly harshly the fall guy as Joel Ekstrand came back in to the starting line-up, slotted in comfortably at first right back and then on the right of a three as we shuffled formation, one stunning interception a psychological body blow to the visitors as a rare clear chance was denied.  Finally, Juan Carlos Paredes came on at right-wing back and telegraphed the final goal before it happened, a warning for Huddersfield but as in our game at Loftus Road last season the visitors could do nothing but continue to chase a crucial goal and Paredes played a part in the move which Abdi finished expertly.  In terms of attitude, then, this couldn’t have presented a clearer contrast to Tuesday night.  Whether it’s a case of omitted players being “disgruntled” or merely the first team being too good, too professional to let their frustrations affect their performance this one goes on the shelf with Rotherham as a hugely valuable and unlikely three points. And, naturally, Sofia wants to come again.  I haven’t the heart to tell her that they’re not all like this…

Watford 1 Doncaster Rovers 2 (26/08/2014) 27/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1 – Ahhhh, the early rounds of the League Cup, eh?  That comfortable familiar dullness, the football season’s equivalent of a Sunday afternoon repeat of Last of the Summer Wine…   yes it’s fist-chewingly tedious but at least you know where you are.  Ian once suggested that there was only one early League Cup tie, that it went on continuously and endlessly and we just tuned into it for 90 or 120 minutes once a year.  At any rate the script is familiar… lower division team turns up, makes a decent fist of it, we field a weakened side and looked laboured and dull and magnolia and just about scramble a 1-0 win, probably through Scott Fitzgerald or Andy Ferrell.  Or something.  This was just another to add to the collection.

2- Except it wasn’t, not by a long chalk.  You’ll already have noted one critical detail that didn’t follow the usual script.  For another Rovers are hardly your plucky underdogs…  relegated on the last day of last season they were beating us at their place as recently as March.  Much has happened to both squads since, but nonetheless, hardly David and Goliath stuff.  And, as you’ll know if you had the misfortune of sitting through this, they were more than just game triers who benefited from a smash and grab – in their discipline, game-plan and commitment they were everything that we weren’t, and thoroughly deserved the victory.  I blame Felix, who opened the evening by eulogising how any match under floodlights was a good thing.  Tempting fate, that.

3- Because in case you were in any doubt, this was lamentable stuff.  Rovers started much the brighter and sounded warning calls before they took the lead, our fragile looking rearguard eventually succumbing when Bennett skipped through to be felled by Tamas.  It had been coming.  Nine changes from Saturday or otherwise there was plenty of quality in our starting line-up and it showed in glimpses… Lewis McGugan once or twice suggested that he might take hold of the midfield before giving up and leaving it to its own devices; Odion Ighalo had a shocking, clumsy start to the game before finding his feet and showcasing a reasonable repertoire of competing, holding the ball up, flicking and switching, one such trick releasing Lloyd Dyer to scamper through and restore parity.  At no point did we look like cantering to victory however, and when we hesitated in the face of a tidy Rovers move at the start of the second half we fell behind again and only rarely looked like retrieving it.  Diego Fabbrini, who the temporary visitor to my left had bestowed with mystical game-changing powers hitherto unsuggested, came on and did liven up proceedings giving us at least a way of scoring if not a potent threat – we didn’t make anything of the free kicks that he won – and the game ended not with us kitchen-sinking the Rovers goal but with the visitors playing keep-ball in our half.

4- I don’t really subscribe to the view that there’s too much talent, too many players expecting to play.  The bloke in Fry Days before the game cited Burnley as evidence that you don’t need a massive squad, that a good team ethic goes a long way and that’s certainly true, but the inverse doesn’t follow.  A implies B doesn’t equate to B implies A…  it’s possible to get promoted with a small squad, but a small squad doesn’t get you promotion.  Plenty of evidence of THAT – ask Blackpool for one.  Certainly keeping players happy in our situation is a challenge, but I don’t buy the argument that you can’t foster an environment where everyone’s pulling in the same direction, the team’s getting results with good players chomping at the bit for their opportunity.  One might argue that the renewed competition for places played a role in Fernando’s remarkable performance on Saturday for example.

What I don’t understand is the decision to try to accommodate a(nother) large intake of new talent and a large squad (and so regular line-up changes) with the level of tactical flexibility that Beppe is aspiring to. The desire to be able to switch formations and play in different ways is completely understandable as an ideal but there’s a reason that not many teams do it.  I’m reminded of ig’s Vialli-inspired suggestion that you’re going to wait a long time for things to “gel” if you keep stirring them with a great big stick, and we’re in the same position again… a new week, a new-line up, formation, strategy.  We’ll be rotating the language spoken on pitch next, a great big game of Twister (4-3-3, Vydra and Ighalo up front, in Italian.  3-5-2, Tozser sitting, in Danish. 4-4-2, Rene Gilmartin and Eddie Denton get a start, Swahili).  We’ve got the quality in the squad to get promoted without being so excessively ambitious.

5- Whether we’ve got the attitude to get promoted is another question altogether.  The stench of the performance against Huddersfield at the end of last season still permeates, a performance not born of sloppiness, tactical mistakes, bad luck or an unplayable opponent but of screaming bad feeling in the dressing room.  Again, last night, there was a complete absence of any life, movement, enthusiasm from a very large proportion of the side, substitutes disappearing straight down the tunnel (although not clear from the Rookery whether there was a repeat of Saturday’s failure by Forestieri to acknowledge Beppe’s hand).  Ikechi Anya has been a player characterised by positive attitude and effort, even on days when things haven’t been working for him but there was none of that last night in the most subdued 90 minutes I’ve ever seen from him (albeit in an uncomfortable full back position for the most part).  Matej Vydra is present in body but not in spirit… he worked, he showcased his ability, he nonetheless spent much of the game with his chin on his chest.  Almen Abdi is another whose influence has been limited in the games I’ve seen this season, albeit not involved yesterday.  Doyley, Murray and Andrews were all appallingly off the pace last night.

I left the stadium thinking that if rumours of dressing room unrest are justified (and the circumstantial evidence in favour is quite overwhelming) then what better way to put pressure on an unpopular manager than to turn in that sort of performance in a League Cup tie… less long term cost, arguably, than the same in a league fixture.  I’m sure that’s an unfounded thought, borne of the disappointment and the prospect of a trudge across Watford and drive home – in reality, Doncaster did as much to win the game as we did to lose it in the context of which it wouldn’t take a wholesale lack of focus to make the challenge insurmountable.  Nonetheless, it’s difficult to see the status quo prevailing.  If a manager’s under pressure due to results there’s an obvious remedy, however hard it is to achieve.  Difficult to see an obvious way out of this.  And as ig implied on Saturday, if Beppe does leave then you have to hope that whoever comes in is up to the challenge – including the requirement to bang some heads together.

Watford 4 Leeds United 1 (23/08/2014) 24/08/2014

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
10 comments

1. None of this is awfully surprising, is it? Oh, I don’t mean that. I mean this. Although, in a way, they’re part of the same thing: how, occasionally, football’s gory innards come tumbling out to everyone’s dismay and disgust. One of these people is, was and, who knows, might be again a deeply popular, widely respected and pretty successful player and manager, while the other is struggling to command respect in and out of the dressing room. A bit of ‘friendly banter’ goes a long way in that environment. It doesn’t excuse Mackay for a moment, but I wonder how many in football would survive a similar expose. I wonder, and yet I’m not sure I really want to know the answer. That first LMA statement spoke volumes, I fear.

2. As for the teetering Sannino, you can’t help but feel for him: the hand he’s been dealt appears to comprise the four of clubs, two jokers, an R2D2 Top Trump, and Mr Bun the Baker. As before, the summer has brought considerable activity; as before, it has brought in much talent and many options, especially if you fancy picking seven in midfield and eleven on the bench. As before, the challenge is to turn a lot of individuals into something sturdy enough to survive a Championship season without crumbling into pieces. There, inevitably, is where the season’s fate hangs.

Much, rightly, has been made of Gianfranco Zola’s ability to conjure a near-winning hand from a similar set of cards two seasons back, but there’s no John Eustace in that dressing room now, no-one with that level of earned authority. That includes the manager. And, indeed, you could argue – I would – that even Zola failed, falling at the final hurdle, that a fundamental lack of core discipline and concentration cost us promotion in the end. This is a hard, hard task, make no mistake. Those charged with it might have cause to envy the likes of Mackay and Dyche, whose dressing rooms were full of familiar faces and uncontested places; silk purses from sows’ ears are perhaps easier than silk purses from half a ton of off-cuts and fraying scraps emptied onto your desk in a great multi-coloured, sparkling heap with a reminder that you’re out on the street if you fail.

So, here we are, four games in, three wins and one defeat, and the manager’s job on the line. Notably, the pressure comes from inside rather than outside; these are questions being asked by the players rather than the fans. There’s no sense of mutiny around Vicarage Road, nothing more than a familiar impatient tetchiness, common to all modern football grounds. But you look at that squad – a winning squad, for pity’s sake – and you can’t see any structure at all. It’s just power vacuum and potential civil war. Perhaps the Pozzos will find the man who can command this rabble into a fighting unit; perhaps that man might yet be Beppe. Perhaps, as sometimes happens, success on the pitch will gradually quell the dissent and allow the manager to sideline the bad pennies, something that’s much easier when the chosen eleven is performing.

The owners seem like smart people, people who know and understand football. On that basis, I’d expect decisiveness, much as I expected it when Zola was running on air last season. And I’d expect some understanding of the task…which, above all, means a realisation that confidence is going to have to be placed in someone to piss a few players off in the cause of bringing the rest together. To wield the axe as the result of murmurs from the training ground seems an un-Pozzo-like approach: players have power in their model, sure, but it’s power held in strict balance. The coming weeks will tell us much about our club.

3. As I leave Hastings, it’s a beautiful day; the sea twinkles beyond the trees as I eat breakfast, the yellow shirts gleam and shine in my imagination. By Watford, it’s very much autumn again, gloomy cloud and chilly shade and a muttered threat of rain.

I expect our team selection to lose me completely. I pay little attention to close season activity even in a normal year and spend most of August and September catching up. The combination of a Pozzo transfer frenzy and an eight-month-old baby is surely too much for anyone’s brain to cope with.

I’m pleasantly surprised: the starting eleven contains four new faces, but each is instantly recognisable from the off. Of these, Gabriel Tamas has a fine game in the middle of the back three, copy book besmirched by slicing the ball into his own net for the Leeds equaliser but plenty that’s quietly, pleasantly capable otherwise, and a raking long pass or two for good measure. Don’t let the own goal fool you: he’s much less exciting than Joel Ekstrand, and that might turn out to be a good thing sometimes. Heurelho Gomes is exciting enough for two, obviously, but has little to do here.

On the right, Juan Carlos Paredes isn’t allowed to live up to billing either…but having been checked by the Leeds defence, he holds the line diligently, taking care of defensive duties without fuss. The most captivating figure, in many ways, is Gianni Munari, who takes up wonderful positions without seeing anything of the ball; it’s as if he’s a ghost from a game years ago, unseen by most of those present today. As someone who also spent most of his “career” playing in a separate, parallel game without the ball, I admire his work. He’s my new favourite. Which is odd, because he looks a lot like Diego Fabbrini, who isn’t my favourite.

4. There’s no Lloyd Dyer, tellingly. (See Thunk #2.)

5. The rest are a familiar bunch. True, missing the second half of last season means that I’ve seen little of Daniel Tozser, but he takes no time at all to get acquainted with: a brain constantly one thought ahead of everyone else, but feet sometimes loitering a yard behind. You could say that about each of the three midfielders, in truth, for these are people who like to let the ball do the work; these are cultured footballers of a kind that’s never before been the rule rather than the exception. At one point in the second half, a gravel-gargling voice from yesteryear urges our midfield to “break ‘is fakkin’ legs”…and you wonder who exactly he might think was capable of such a vulgar act. It’s all moved on. Keith Andrews might come in useful from time to time, you suspect.

6. Up top, Troy Deeney does a pretty terrific job of being a walking advert for himself, no agent required. On a couple of occasions in the first half, everyone just leaves him to it and has a bit of a breather while the whole of the Leeds defence tries to get the ball off him down by the corner flag. He is approximately 29.3 times the rather vague, clumsy player we bought from Walsall. This may turn out to be the last time I see him in a Watford shirt, but I very much hope not.

The star of the show, however, is the mischievous Fernando Forestieri, who is appromately 8.6 times the rather impetuous, silly kid we acquired a couple of years ago. He’s grown up in front of our eyes, not too much, just enough. This version has lost none of the impish charm, but now has a ruthlessness, a cut-throat glint. Leeds have simply no idea what to do with him, and the scoreline understates his contribution: in a game of relatively few openings, Forestieri scores twice, wins the decisive penalty (not a pretend one either), and has at least three other noteworthy shots on goal. His second goal, in which he foxtrots his way through the penalty area before picking his moment to wrong-foot the entire stadium, is a wonderful thing. He’s an absolute joy.

7. So, anyway, it turns out to be one of those games from which conclusions are hard to draw. I’m reminded a little of the 6-1 defeat of Bournemouth early last season, a game in which we were often uncomfortable and eventually grateful for our ability to knock a couple in from set pieces and polish them off on the break. Here, Leeds were matching us into the second half…and, indeed, missed a free header shortly after the interval, a moment almost as pivotal as Bellusci’s lapse and subsequent professional foul on Forestieri. That individual error changed the game; everything followed on from those ten seconds. In truth, this was a tight, dry game until then, two teams comfortable on the ball and patient without it.

In that respect, this doesn’t change much: we’re the same squad, with the same manager, as we were this morning. The flaws remain, the cracks can still appear. The margins are small. If that free header goes in, the atmosphere changes in an instant.

But it didn’t. Not this time.

Season Preview – Part 6 08/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

Final instalment… currently on my way AWAY from Watford on holiday…  the existence of Bolton reflections depends on whether the other bloke gets up from Hastings or not…

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

INS: Tom Lees (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Ryan Croasdale (Preston North End, Free), Sam Hutchinson (Chelsea, Free), Paul McElroy (Hull City, Free), Dejan Kelhar (Red Star Belgrade, Free), Keiren Westwood (Sunderland, Free)

OUTS: Michail Antonio (Nottingham Forest, £1,500,000), Danny Mayor (Bury, Undisclosed), Adam Davies (Barnsley, Free), Reda Johnson (Coventry City, Free), Miguel Llera (Scunthorpe United, Free), Taylor McKenzie (Notts County, Free), Anthony Gardner, Arron Jameson, Jermaine Johnson, David Prutton, Martin Taylor, Benik Afobe (Arsenal, End of Loan), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Damien Martinez (Arsenal, End of Loan), Adedeji Oshilaja (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Andelko Savic (Sampdoria, End of Loan)

OUR EX-OWLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-0 home defeat in December, Gianfranco’s last game in charge, and a 4-1 win for the second successive season at Hillsborough which featured that Deeney dink.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Westwood
Palmer           Loovens         Lees             Mattock
Lee              Hutchinson
Maghoma            Maguire             Helan
Nuhiu

VERDICT: Another club who have been hanging on for a mooted foreign takeover and have been somewhat in limbo for much of the summer.  I’m advised that there are plenty of exciting signings lined up for whenever Hafiz Mammadov does take the reins and releases a much vaunted transfer budget (and prompts an influx of players from his other club RC Lens).  If that does happen, and even if the signings ARE impressive, Wednesday will be late to the party and that’s difficult to claw back even if, as under Gianfranco two years ago, all the pieces fall into place as quickly as can be hoped for.  If it doesn’t, then despite the sharp recruitment of Westwood and Hutchinson, who should form a sound midfield pairing with Kieran Lee, the Owls are in a precarious position as it stands.  Too reliant on the slowly improving Nuhiu up front, far from watertight at the back, the midfield is more than adequate and Wednesday far from the worst side, or even the worst three sides in the division.  But not so far that injuries to the wrong players wouldn’t be a serious problem.  I think the safest thing to say here is that Wednesday won’t go up and probably won’t go down…  but if Mammedov’s takeover doesn’t come through, it could be a tight thing.

WIGAN ATHLETIC

INS: Oriol Riera (Osasuna, £2,000,000), James Tavernier (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Don Cowie (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor-Sinclair (Partick Thistle, Free), Emyr Hughes (Manchester City, Six Months Loan)

OUTS: Adam Buxton (Accrington Stanley, Free), Jean Beausejour (Colo Colo, Free), Stephen Crainey (Fleetwood Town, Free), Jordi Gomez (Sunderland, Free), Danny Redmond (Hamilton Academical, Free), Markus Holgersson, Jordan Mustoe, Jack Collison (End of Loan), Nicky Maynard (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Josh McEachran (Chelsea, End of Loan), Nick Powell (Manchester United, End of Loan), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Fulham, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LATICS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Don Cowie, Rob Kiernan, Andrew Taylor

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A slightly fortunate 1-0 win in September courtesy of a Cristian Battocchio strike and a 2-1 defeat in March

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Carson
Perch      Ramis         Boyce       Taylor
Watson
Cowie                  McArthut            Maloney
McManaman
Riera

VERDICT: Remarkable club, Wigan.  Eight largely solid years in the top flight and a remarkable cup win into the bargain and yet persistently under the radar.  Unsurprising in some ways, perhaps… Wigan is famously the smallest town to have hosted Premier League football, the Latics were a non-league club as recently as 1978 and hardly have the sort of fanbase that is going to focus a media broadcaster’s mind.  Nonetheless, they were more than just chancers passing through the top flight… eight years is a long time. Even last season, newly relegated, they slipped quietly into the play-offs on the back of a strong second half to the campaign, once again made the semi-finals of the Cup and enjoyed their first European campaign to boot.  Coming into the new campaign, Wigan are one of a number of clubs with strong, deep squads.  At the time of writing the eleven above can be backed up with a perfectly credible eleven of Al Habsi, Tavernier, Barnett, Rogne, Espinoza, McCann, Fyvie, Huws, McClean, Fortuné, Waghorn.  In defence and midfield they’re as strong as anyone… only up front are they perhaps more limited, although target man Oriol Riera has shown up well pre-season.  If Grant Holt can be shifted off the pay roll – a three year deal always looked a bit daft for a chunky then-32 year old – there may be strengthening in that department too.  But what sets the Latics apart from many of their rivals – perhaps ourselves included – is that they have a manager whose quality and knowledge of English football is beyond reasonable dispute, having shaped the Brentford side that was promoted last year and turned Wigan’s slow start to the season around.  Nothing is certain – the Latics already have a grotesque injury list to contend with for one thing – but they did OK in the top flight without ever having a striker top 12 goals for a season.  No stand-out contender for the title, but Wigan are my bet.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Connor Hunte (Chelsea, Free), Tommy Rowe (Peterborough United, Free), Rajiv van la Parra (Heerenveen, Free)

OUTS: Michael Ihiekwe (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Cieron Keane (Notts County, Free), Jordan Cranston, George Elokobi, Tim Jakobsson, Kristian Kostrna, David Moli, Robbie Parry, Jamie Reckord, Jamie Tank, Sam Whittall, Jake Cassidy (Notts County, Six Month Loan), Kortney Hause (Gillingham, Six Month Loan), Zeli Ismail (Notts County, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tony Daley (Head of First Team Athletic Performance), Joe Gallen (Assistant Head Coach), Kenny Jackett (Head Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 victory at the Vic featuring a Christophe Berra red card, and an expensive 1-1 draw at Molineux courtesy of a late Bakary Sako equaliser.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ikeme
Ricketts           Batth         Stearman       Golbourne
McDonald        Price
Henry                  Jacobs                  Sako
Dicko

VERDICT: Ironic, really, that after a turbulent few years that saw two relegations, countless bad signings and any number of managers, the man who steadied the ship at Molineux is Kenny Jackett, one-time protégé of the man hounded out of Wolves eighteen years ago to our ultimate benefit.  Perhaps time to let bygones be bygones on that score… I found myself feeling sorry for Wolves when the odious Dean Saunders took over as manager at the start of last year, so I think I must be getting there.  Anyway.  Always rather difficult to make judgements about teams coming up… how they’ll fare, what sort of side they are but no great surprise to see the stats behind Wolves’ promotion.  Scored more goals than anyone else in League One last season, racking up over 100 points and seventeen points clear of third place, but the stand-out stat for me is the 31 goals conceded in 46 games which is frankly silly, but entirely in keeping with what you’d expect from a Kenny Jackett side.  With that sort of momentum and confidence you’ve got to expect Wolves to start well, beyond which they’ll be trusting to luck to a certain extent… Kevin McDonald bosses the midfield but Wolves are heavily dependent on him, and for all of last season’s goals you’d be slightly worried about the striking options.  You wouldn’t bet against Jackett making a success of his first opportunity with this sort of platform though;  it takes some doing to sideline the number of senior players that Jackett has excluded (including Kevin Doyle, Jamie O’Hara, Roger Johnson and Stephen Ward) and to maintain the sort of success that he has. Certainly play-off contenders with a prevailing wind.

WATFORD

INS: Essaïd Belkalem (Granada, Free), Craig Cathcart (Blackpool, Free), Lloyd Dyer (Leicester City, Free), Heurelho Gomes (Tottenham Hotspur), Juan Carlos Paredes (Granada, Free), Gabriel Tamas (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Odion Ighalo (Udinese, Season Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, Season Loan), Daniel Tözsér (Parma, Two Season Loan), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Season Loan)

OUTS: Javier Acuña (Olimpia, Undisclosed), Reece Brown (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Bobson Bawling (Crawley Town, Free), Kurtis Cumberbatch (Charlton Athletic, Free), Marco Davide Faraoni (Udinese, Free), Albert Riera (Udinese, Free), Daniel Wilks (St Mirren, Free), Gary Woods (Leyton Orient, Free), Manuel Almunia, Marco Cassetti, Fitz Hall, Ross Jenkins, Lucas Neill, Nyron Nosworthy, Essaïd Belkalem (Trabzonspor, Season Loan), Samba Diakité (QPR, End of Loan), Alexander Merkel (Udinese, End of Loan), Park Chu-Young (Arsenal, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Angella          Tamas          Hoban
Paredes                          Tözsér                             Dyer
Abdi            McGugan
Deeney           Vydra

VERDICT: Well we’re not short of options, are we? We’re not the only team in the division where you can name a second eleven that would more or less hold it’s own… but my word.  In terms of depth and cover – if not necessarily the strongest eleven –  there’s probably never been a stronger Watford squad.  You get the impression that the Pozzos have decided that this is the year;   the options we have are outrageous and in the addition of pace (Dyer, Vydra, Ighalo), that sitting midfielder role (Tözsér, Andrews) and second tier experience (Dyer again, Andrews again, Cathcart, Tamas) some of last season’s key deficiencies have been addressed.  The Deeney saga feels far from over of course… you have to suspect that whatever current attitudes to our asking price are (and you can piss right off Redknapp with your “he’s a player we like….. no, nothing happening there” routine you cheap punk), two or three games without a goal before the end of August for any of the multitude of top flight clubs linked with Troy might alter their stance somewhat.  Either way, the Pozzos and the club have played a blinder… the auction for Deeney’s services has been going on all summer, Watford have maintained a firm stance whilst keeping Troy himself – and credit to him too – on side and positive.  If he goes – and I fear he probably will – it’ll be for a shedload of cash and good luck to him.  We’ll be left, as it stands, with Vydra, Ranégie, Ighalo, Forestieri and Fabbrini as attacking options with supporting roles, perhaps, for the likes of Jakubiak.  Even without a(nother) replacement for Deeney, that’s a hell of a forward line.  And if Deeney DOES stay… the mere possibility of a fit-again Abdi, Deeney and Vydra in tandem again is terrifying on it’s own.

The biggest question, perhaps, as with so many of the more fancied clubs in the division this year, is over the manager and his ability to cultivate a successful team out of these extraordinary riches.  Everyone at Watford would want him to do well, I think… he’s got us all on side, says the right things, commands trust and affection.   The end of last season still dawdles in the memory though, like a nasty stain on the carpet that still glares at you through whatever you position above or around it to conceal it.  Beppe said all the right things throughout, and particularly in the wake of our harsh defeat at Loftus Road.  The miserable performances that followed were not those of a side singing from the same hymn sheet and the Huddersfield performance on the final day reeked of deep chasms within the dressing room.  Not a team playing for their manager.  Not a team playing at all, really.

Faces have changed since, hopefully we’re better off for it but the nature of any season is that things won’t always run smoothly, and Sannino might need to convince the audience that he’ll be the one calling the shots and righting the ship if and when we have a wobble.  If he does so, it could be a hell of a season.  And either way, as ever, it won’t be dull.  You orns….

Season Preview – Part 5 07/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

Yeah, thanks Forest.  The evening before your preview bit goes up.  Nice.  What’s wrong with waiting a couple of days, honestly?  (That sell-on for Britt worked a treat tho, didn’t it?)

NORWICH CITY

INS: Lewis Grabban (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), Kyle Lafferty (Palermo, Free), Gary O’Neil (QPR, Free)

OUTS: Robert Snodgrass (Hull City, £7,000,000), Carlton Morris (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Ricky van Wolfswinkel (St.Etienne, Season Loan), Johan Elmander (Galatasaray, End of Loan), Jonas Gutierrez (Newcastle United, End of Loan), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Mark Robson (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: 15 of the last 17 games between the two sides have featured 3 or more goals, most recently the extra-time League Cup defeat last season.  Prior to that our most recent League encounters were a vibrant 2-2 at Vicarage Road in April 2011 and a televised 3-2 on the first day of the same season which saw Troy Deeney debut from the bench.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Ruddy
Martin     Turner      Bennett      Olsson
Bennett        Howson       Hoolahan      Redmond
Grabban     Hooper

VERDICT: Some clear parallels between here and Cardiff really…  a squad not strong enough for the top flight but looking plenty well equipped for the Championship, question marks about quite who they’ll be able to hang on to and who will get a more attractive offer from somewhere else and further question marks over the ability of a manager – the inexperienced Neil Adams in this case – to pull it all together and reverse the club’s downward momentum. Unlike Cardiff, the Canaries have been relatively restrained in the summer transfer market to date;  Grabban comes in for a reportedly large fee… City won’t have been the only takers for a striker who nearly went to Brighton this time last year, but a player with one albeit very successful season at this level is hardly a rock-solid bet.  Kyle Lafferty meanwhile returns to the Championship after six years spent with Rangers, Sion and Palermo.  Two forwards who won’t have come cheap, then, not to mention an awfully optimistic sniff at Troy Deeney… but hardly a statement of intent from a side who have lost arguably their most reliable creative spark over the summer.  Could go either way then…  a good start and the large Carrow Road crowd could propel City straight back up.  A wobbly opening and it could all unravel.  I’ll split the difference and say fourth.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Britt Assombalonga (Peterborough United, £5,500,000), Michail Antonio (Sheffield Wednesday, £1,500,000), Michael Mancienne (SV Hamburg, £1,000,000), Lars Veldwijk (Excelsior, Undisclosed), Danny Fox (Southampton, Undisclosed), Matty Fryatt (Hull City, Undisclosed), Louis Laing (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Roger Riera (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Chris Burke (Birmingham City, Free), David Vaughan (Sunderland, Free), Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Jack Hunt (Crystal Palace, Season Loan), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Matt Derbyshire (Rotherham United, Free), Darius Henderson (Leyton Orient, Free), Gonzalo Jara (Mainz 05, Free), Marcus Tudgay (Coventry City, Free), Rafik Djebbour, Simon Gillett, Jonathan Greening, Ishmael Miller, Guy Moussi, Radoslaw Majewski (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Kévin Gomis (Nice, End of Loan), Lee Peltier (Leeds United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOREST: Lewis McGugan

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Britt Assombalonga, Jimmy Gilligan (U21 Coach), Henri Lansbury

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-1 draw early last season featuring a Lewis McGugan free kick, and a collapse at the City Ground leading to a 4-2 defeat despite Gabriele Angella’s extraordinary Goal of the Season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Darlow
Lichaj      Lascelles       Hobbs         Fox
Burke       Lansbury          Vaughan          Paterson
Fryatt        Assombalonga

VERDICT: Will you miss Billy Davies?  Nope, me neither.  Enough already.  In comes Stuart Pearce, a figure as guaranteed to unite the Trent End behind him as is possible to conceive seventeen years after a thankless six-month spell in charge in which he presided over relegation from the top flight.  Meanwhile an odd winding-up order case over an unpaid tax bill – disputed by Forest – is plodding through the courts and may be resolved and dismissed to no further concern by the time you read this… but isn’t the only whisper of financial disquiet, with stories earlier in the summer suggesting that bonuses hadn’t been settled.  So it was odd to see the Lascelles/Darlow deal, two crown jewels around whom vultures had been circling, sold and then loaned back by Forest with the proceeds apparently reinvested in Britt (not that we should be complaining too much, “rising to £8m” would see our cut “rising to £3.4m”) and Antonio.  Echoes of Ian Holloway’s trick of selling Zaha to United, except that here there appears to be a straight line between the sales and the purchases.  Feels a bit shit-or-bust from Forest, but that’s not to say it won’t work.  Then there’s Pearce himself tho, and the lingering concern over to what extent his appointment is emotional and to what extent justified by his managerial ability.  Time will tell on all counts.  Finally there’s a chronic injury list to cope with – not really what you want going into a season…  the back four looks badly hit.  I’m going for a wobbly start and a strong finish but in any event, with so many unknowns a big margin of error needs slapping across any predictions.  Play-offs, but watch this space.

READING

INS: None

OUTS: Adam le Fondre (Cardiff City, £2,500,000), Daniel Carrico (Sevilla, £1,500,000), Jobi McAnuff (Leyton Orient, Free), Matt Partridge (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Stuart Taylor (Leeds United, Free), Kaspars Gorkss, Mikele Leigertwood, Wayne Bridge (retired)

OUR EX-RS: Uche Ikpeazu

THEIR EX-ORNS: Stephen Kelly

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw at the Madejski in August featuring a late equaliser – ours on this occasion – and a 1-0 defeat at the Vic in January that featured the only goal conceded in Beppe’s first nine home games.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  McCarthy
Gunter        Morrison        Pearce        Obita
Karacan            Williams
McCleary          Guthrie       Robson-Kanu
Pogrebnyak

VERDICT: There’s a rather telling feature of that little summary above as I write this.  Chances are, Nigel Adkins suggests, that this odd characteristic won’t have changed all that radically between now and you reading it in a week or so’s time.  You’d be forgiven for not having noticed… after all, nothing happening is by definition not as eye-catching as something happening, be it a painfully drawn-out transfer saga or the dismantling of an entire squad.  I hadn’t noticed either, and I’ve been keeping track of this stuff.  But that Reading haven’t signed anyone is no coincidence of timing with deals poised to go through, no indication of satisfaction with a squad that has lost considerable experience since May (including Adam Le Fondre, to pay off the tax man if the local paper is to be believed).  Reading have been in financial limbo due to an ominously protracted takeover that appears to have stalled at the stage of the assessment of whether the Thai billionaire concerned is a a “fit and proper” person.  That Reading’s first signing under him is claimed to be that of Anton Ferdinand from his Thai club calls that into question straight away. Until that situation is cleared up Adkins has no funds with which to build up a squad that fell short last time and look far from strong candidates this.  A test of the manager’s abilities for sure, not a gamble I’d be happy taking in all honesty…  he has been quoted as conceding that automatic promotion might be a bit optimistic as it stands, but frankly even without taking into account yet another chronic August injury list he’ll be doing well to get his side to a top half finish as it stands.  And to last the season, perhaps, unless those making the decisions have more faith in him than I have.  There are plenty of good kids coming through, by all accounts, and too much quality for the Royals to struggle, but it’ll be a rare dull season for the Berkshire side.  Fourteenth.

ROTHERHAM UNITED

INS: Jordan Bowery (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Ryan Hall (Franchise FC, Undisclosed), Richard Wood (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Febian Brandy (Sheffield United, Free), Kirk Broadfoot (Blackpool, Free), Matt Derbyshire (Nottingham Forest, Free), Paul Green (Leeds United, Free), Scott Loach (Ipswich Town, Free), Frazer Richardson (Middlesbrough, Free), Mat Sadler (Crawley Town, Free), John Swift (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Nicky Adams (Bury, Undisclosed), Lionel Ainsworth (Motherwell, Free), Danny Hylton (Oxford United, Free), Michael O’Connor (Port Vale, Free), Kayode Odejayi (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Scott Shearer (Crewe Alexandra, Free), Wes Thomas (Birmingham City, Free), David Worrall (Southend United, Free), Claude Davis, David Noble, Danny Schofield, Mitch Rose (Crawley Town, Three Month Loan), Dan Rowe (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Nicky Walker (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-MILLERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Scott Loach, Mat Sadler

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 0-0 draw at the Vic nearly ten years ago and a 1-0 victory at Millmoor later the same season courtesy of a Heidar Helguson goal against the already relegated Millers that proved vital in preserving our own divisional status.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Collin
Richardson   Wood          Arnason      Skarz
Agard            Green        Frecklington    Pringle
Revell        Derbyshire

VERDICT: After nine years outside the second tier the Millers are back with a new stadium, a different manager and a different ethos altogether.  Tempting to write them off altogether on the back of being the third team promoted behind Big Club Wolves and persistent door-knockers Brentford and sinking anchor after consecutive promotions is a big ask.  Nor has their prolific recruitment drive over the summer been entirely convincing… a lot of bodies, a lot of second tier experience but largely fringe players- a bunch of players previously short of the mark.  There are exceptions… Paul Green stands out as providing some grit and experience, record signing Bowery is about potential rather than know-how.  But it’s not an intimidating roster.  However many of these players are squad members;  the existing squad has the quality that got it promoted in Revell, Pringle and Arnason, and a bit of bloody-mindedness.  That bloody-mindedness is only enough if matched with quality… if you start losing games and go under that spirit disappears and you have nothing.  But if Rotherham get off to a good start they could stay up comfortably.  No more than that, but it’s a possibility.  Sixteenth.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,522 other followers