Watford 3 Leicester City 1 (12/05/2013) 12/05/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- If you’ve come for a calm, balanced perspective on things you’ve come to the wrong place. Surely nobody with a vested interest is capable of anything approaching objectivity this evening, in the context of the quite extraordinary last eight days… your best qualified candidate for this is in Cornwall, of all places, so you’re stuck with me. And just a few hours ago I was shuffling up a dazed Occupation Road with a bouncing six year old proclaiming that we were “definitely going to win the final. For certain. If they score a hundred goals, we’ll score a thousand….”. That result, for one, is no longer in doubt, but don’t expect cold analysis here. We’re far too far gone for that.
The most impressive thing, the most impressive of all the impressive things, is that the team didn’t fall for that. The emotional thing. I mean they did, obviously they celebrated, we’ve all seen the pictures, we all saw the bedlam at the end of the game. But during the game, and particularly after David Nugent’s obligatory goal, an equaliser as effortlessly straightforward as our opener had been extraordinary, we didn’t waver. To be fair the Rookery, on another unusually boisterous afternoon, only simmered down relatively briefly… but all of us were surely thinking “this isn’t meant to be. So close last weekend, so much better than Leicester and yet… and yet…”.
None of that on the pitch. Not one inch, not one wobble. We’re used to the extravagant flamboyance of this Watford team, of this remarkable, improbable group of players, but focus, conviction, discipline like this in combination with that flamboyance is truly terrifying. If the heads dropped momentarily they were up again as soon as we kicked off, and we concentrated on moving City around, keeping possession, knowing that the chances would come. By the start of the second half, Christian Battocchio was delicately stepping around two challenges in the area patiently weighing up his angles, like a golfer on a putting green. His shot was pushed wide, brilliantly, by Schmeichel but there was no doubt which side were bossing the game in every respect.
2- For which so much credit has to go to the manager. Thinking back to the start of the afternoon, about six months ago, eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of Vydra. It’s to the crowd’s credit that disquiet at the young Czech’s form hasn’t stretched any further than chanting Fernando Forestieri’s name whenever he warms up… admittedly there are bigger asks than keeping faith with a 20-goal-Championship player of the season, but nonetheless it’s all to the good that his name has been chanted with every nervous failure to score since February. I don’t think anyone expected anything other than Deeney/Forestieri up front today, nonetheless… Vydra’s role is on the counter away from home, here is a big physical opponent who are surely guaranteed to sit back and smother space, a job for Fernando’s lock-picking skills.
Not a bit of it. And if it took one false start, a razor-sharp break that concluded with a shot firmly across the face of goal, then Vydra’s opener was a thing of beauty and wonder worthy of ending any lean streak. It’s in danger of being buried in the avalanche that was to come, but it shouldn’t be for it was exquisite, from Cassetti’s casually brilliant chipped pass to the Marco Van Basten finish. Bang. Pick that out.
Those defending Vydra’s continued inclusion had been arguing that such a talent needed to be played back into form, that he was going to flame on with a vengeance at some point. It was still an incredibly brave decision to pick him, brave and devastatingly effective.
Equally bold was the second half replacement of Lloyd Doyley with Forestieri, albeit we were at 1-1 at that stage and needing a goal. No dawdling, no indecision, a necessary gamble made with enough time left to give it a chance of working. As it turned out we levelled the tie within a minute, a brutally delicate one-two between Vydra and Deeney that exposed the extent to which Leicester’s generally competent defending was being eroded by constant movement. This didn’t render the substitution a mistake though – good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes – and worth noting that Forestieri put the graft in in his left-sided attacking role, both attacking and defending. This was definitively not characteristic of his play earlier in the season.
3- Let’s be clear, in case this point isn’t crystal enough already. Leicester City’s support has done them credit in every game this season; they made for an intimidating, boisterous but never negative atmosphere in each game, always focusing more on supporting their own team than goading our lot. As a club, there’s lots to like… the facilities are good, the staff were courteous and friendly.
But the team is unspectacular. City are a typical fair-to-middling Championship side… some excellent individuals, including the monstrous Morgan and blameless Schmeichel, but lacking options, lacking imagination and probably less than the sum of its parts. We have been the better side in each of the four encounters this season and here, as in each of the two most recent games, we reduced City’s play to rubble in the second half. That there was a different ending to the game on Thursday here was nothing to do with “luck” (and as far as that goes, we’re still owed it in spades given last weekend’s events). No, we were simply much the better side, and thoroughly deserved the victory.
4- So. What to talk about next. Oh yes…
It wasn’t a penalty for starters, the slippery Knockaert delivering on the unlikable impression he’d cast by tumbling at the merest hint of Marco Cassetti’s challenge. But it has to be said that this didn’t register at the time, we had our heads in our hands in the Rookery. I would certainly have been grateful for a quiet, dark room to lie down in and not to have watched any more.
It seems extraordinary that the player with the most Premiership experience in the squad qualifies as an “unsung hero”, but then “extraordinary” is a word that’s already been used several times in this article simply because no others will do. Manuel Almunia has made mistakes this season. There, you can count them on your thumbs. But this double save guarantees his overdue cult status. And if the overriding emotion in reviewing the chaotic end to the game is “how the bloody hell did that happen?” or “wow” or a variation on the theme, then the sheer quality of the breakaway shouldn’t be overlooked.
In the first half, Leicester to their credit bombed at us in the wake of our “equaliser” and we were rocking straight away, no chance to settle into the new reality, on the ropes. We had around thirty seconds to drive at City’s psychologically vulnerable spot in the same way in the wake of the penalty save and needed only twenty of them. If Cassetti’s clearance necessarily prioritised absoluteness over accuracy, then the incredible Ikechi Anya’s chest down and turn spoke volumes for both his ability and his fitness. Good god, this was in the ninety seventh minute of a game in which he’d played at wing back for the third time in a week, and been the focal point of our attack for much of it as we sought to put as much pressure on the hapless Schlupp at left back as possible. And yet he’s off…
…and then it’s Nando, marauding with space on the right. ”Great tricks but variable end product, luxury player”. Ha. WHAT a cross at full pace, in the dying seconds. What if that had gone into the Rookery? Into Schmeichel’s arms?
Jonathan Hogg, back stick. For goodness’ sake don’t shoot, good lad… and Deeney. Obviously Deeney. An absolute colossus again, and the biggest single difference between our attacking cohesiveness now vs the first leg.
And you know the rest. The pitch invasion could have gone badly wrong, but it’s still up there with the greatest goal celebrations any of us will ever enjoy. Off the top of my head, only Wembley and Lloydy come close.
5- The aftermath was just tremendous. As ecstatic as last week’s lap of honour was subdued. Zola, punching the air… no performance this, no playing to the gallery, this was raw. Nyron Nosworthy, limping along on crutches at the back of the party with his video phone trained awkwardly on the Rookery. Irrepressible Fernando at the centre of everything. As others have said, no real heart or feel for this club, these foreign types.
Overconfidence? A danger that we might think the job’s already done, rather than half-done?
I don’t think so. Rachie, my six year old daughter, was right. This side has demonstrated that not only do we have the players, we’ve got the discipline, we’ve got the spirit, we’ve got the tactics, we’ve got the team.
We’re going to Wembley. And it doesn’t matter if the other lot score a hundred goals. If they do, we’ll score a thousand.
Bring it on.
Leicester City 1 Watford 0 (09/05/2013) 10/05/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Less than a fortnight after the last time, we’re back at the KP stadium and it’s an odd experience. In so many ways, and despite our refusal to get all obsessive about replicating the components of the previous encounter in the name of fortune it’s like stepping back into a story that hadn’t stopped, walking back into a room where the same album had been playing on loop for a fortnight. From the way the wind howls around the ground to the impressive and imposing noise to the frantic edginess of the occasion. If there’s a change in mood it’s a subtle one in the away end… we’re no longer the nothing-to-lose, let’s give this a go chancers; we had a go, we almost made it despite extraordinary obstacles, but not quite. We are battle hardened and slightly circumspect as a result… it’s intangible, but it’s real enough. If the welcome presence of Luther Blissett in the away end provides a fillip, there’s a something that veers between determination and fear which wasn’t here two weeks ago.
2- The home side fly at us from the off. This isn’t entirely unexpected but is no more enjoyable for it. It’s an attacking looking line-up that City have out there with two out-and-out strikers, an attacking player in Schlupp at left back, two wingers and the attack-minded King in the centre of midfield; we have both Manuel and Jonathan Bond in the 18, mercifully, with Vydra and Geijo the anticipated pairing up front (as oddly telegraphed by training pictures on social media earlier in the week). We weathered the storm, just about, but it was a far from comfortable thing even if, as two weeks ago, Leicester’s pressure yielded a lot of huffing and puffing without many attempts on target, albeit we were grateful that Almunia was behind De Laet’s header. A theme of the evening first reared its head here… that of “getting a bit previous”, since for all Leicester’s dominance and the bravado of the support, they hadn’t actually scored a goal. The first indication that we might be able to catch a breath came on around 15 minutes when my two-minutely checking of the clock panned out to three minutes. Shortly afterwards we broke for the first time following some slack Leicester defending and Anya, one of those who has improved throughout the season and now looks like a defender and can head the ball, burst through. As two weeks ago, our less frequent attacks felt much more potent, and only a double save from Schmeichel to deny first Anya and then Abdi preserved parity. It felt like a chapter-ending exchange, and the home side held back on the kitchen-sink chucking thereafter, albeit they still made chances.
3- And as the evening progressed, we looked increasingly comfortable and confident. Alex Geijo had started particularly slowly but grew into the game, linking up well and displaying some clever touches that left a grin on the face even if he rarely looked like, you know, scoring himself. Jonathan Hogg put in a superhuman 60 minutes or so, closing things down, backheeling for overlaps, involved in everything. At the back, the Leicester threat was subdued and eventually clubbed to death altogether; it reminded me of a teenage obsession with Planetoid on the BBC Micro when even at high levels with pixelated aliens firing white hyphens at me from all angles I could phase in and manoeuvre my way out of the tightest corners. Such was the mastery of our defending… Leicester asked questions, we provided answers and none more eagerly or adroitly than the impeccable Doyley who might even have gone to ground on one occasion (yes, really) but racked up an impressive tally of blocks, clearances, dispossessions and general gettingintheways. By the middle of the second half Leicester’s attacking threat was limited to long punts forward from Schmeichel which we coped with relatively easily and then came again.
And here the theme of the evening rears its head again, since I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought we had it won at this point. Leicester’s threat was non-existent and if they were still doing a much better job of subduing our midfield than they had two weeks ago we were cutting through and making chances, none better than when Vydra was put through by an extraordinary, arrogant ball from the outside of Cassetti’s right boot and criminally, inexplicably, betrayed his frayed confidence with a tame finish. For all our strutting and superiority, we hadn’t scored either.
4- And then of course Leicester did. A free kick borne of the home side finally getting it down again, a ball into the box and Nugent got The Goal He Always Scores Against Us, a header into the top corner that provoked a quite ridiculous noise. Fitz Hall was brought on for Lloyd shortly after, but the horse had already bolted… this substitution could have been made earlier but in fairness the defence had coped well enough without Hall’s aerial dominance up until that point. It was a punch in the guts and gives City a narrow lead going into Sunday, one that hadn’t looked likely in the second half. But then two weeks ago we thought that our win set us up to go up in second and killed Leicester’s chances, so it doesn’t pay to get carried away…
5- …a point completely missed by City’s support, whose understandably jubilant celebration, buoyed as it was by the goal being as unheralded as Chalobah’s strike two weeks ago and by City’s unexpected presence in the play-offs at all, spilled over into a “we’re going to Wembley, you’re not” celebration that lasted long and noisily after the final whistle and was the very definition of tempting fate. Only half time, as Nigel Pearson was quick to point out afterwards, and despite our traditionally greater effectiveness away from home this season the return of Deeney (and, one assumes, Forestieri) to the starting line up makes us a lot more potent against a side whose limitations have been cast in stark relief over the past fortnight, irrespective of results.
Bring it on.
Now then. 08/05/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
Henry Grover. Charlie Peacock. John Goodall. Billy Biggar. Charlie White. Fred Gregory. Eddie Edmonds. Skilly Williams. Frank Hoddinott. Harry Kent. Fred Pagnam. Neil McBain. Arthur Woodward. Tommy Barnett. Taffy Davies. Billy Lane. Pat Molloy. Jimmy Bowie. Frank Mitchell. Dave Bewley. Maurice Cook. George Catleugh. Ron Rollitt. Cliff Holton. Dennis Uphill. Les Simmons. Duncan Welbourne. Ken Furphy. Stewart Scullion. Keith Eddy. Terry Garbett. Tom Walley. Barry Endean. Andy Rankin. Ross Jenkins. Alan Garner. Roger Joslyn. Luther Blissett. Steve Sherwood. Graham Taylor. Ian Bolton. Steve Sims. Nigel Callaghan. Kenny Jackett. Wilf Rostron. Les Taylor. John Barnes. Nigel Gibbs. Gary Porter. Tony Coton. John McClelland. Glyn Hodges. Paul Wilkinson. Keith Dublin. Andy Hessenthaler. Richard Johnson. Paul Furlong. Colin Foster. Tommy Mooney. Craig Ramage. Kevin Miller. Robert Page. Steve Palmer. Alec Chamberlain. Gifton Noel-Williams. Paul Robinson. Micah Hyde. Peter Kennedy. Ronnie Rosenthal. Tommy Smith. Allan Smart. Nicky Wright. Neil Cox. Heidar Helguson. Marcus Gayle. Gavin Mahon. Ray Lewington. Sean Dyche. Ashley Young. Jay DeMerit. Clarke Carlisle. Ben Foster. Darius Henderson. Marlon King. Malky Mackay. Adrian Mariappa. Tom Cleverley. Danny Graham. Martin Taylor.
The Watford Observer. Oliver Phillips. Anthony Matthews. Frank Smith. Terry Challis. Trefor Jones. Vicarage Road. The Estcourt Tavern. The Nascot Arms. The West Herts. The Wellington. Druids. The Red (and Yellow) Lion. The Horns. From the Rookery End. Blind, Stupid and Desperate. Look at the Stars. Clap Your Hands, Stamp your Feet. Gladys Protheroe. Ann Swanson. BBC 3CR. Jon Marks. Fry Days. Martins. Critellis. Harry’s 50/50. WIFC. Watford Junction. The Rookery. The Football Cafe. Alan Cozzi. The High Street. The Rous Stand. Market Street. The Parade. Watford General. Occupation Road. Pie City. The Main Stand. The Harlequin. Elton John. The Scoreboard. Mike Vince. The Vic Road End. The Observer Clock. Z-Cars. Benskins. Iveco. Solvite. Eagle Express. Herald & Post. RCI. Blaupunkt. CTX. Phones4U. Toshiba. Total. Beko. Burrda. The Happy Egg Co. Football Manager. Wembley 84. Kaiserslautern 83. Liverpool 70. Anfield 99. Old Trafford 79. Leeds 92. Wembley 99. St Andrews 99. Cardiff 06. Fulham 98. We’re out of your league. Where’s your banner gone? Red Shorts. Black Shorts. Yellow everything.
Marco Cassetti. Almen Abdi. Jonathan Hogg. Matěj Vydra. Fernando Forestieri. Manuel Almunia. Lloyd Doyley. Joel Ekstrand. Christian Battocchio. Jonathan Bond. Fitz Hall. Sean Murray. Ikechi Anya. Troy Deeney. Matthew Briggs. Jack Bonham. Adam Thompson. Steve Beleck. John Eustace. Connor Smith. Daniel Pudil. Lee Hodson. Tommie Hoban. Nathaniel Chalobah. Britt Assombalonga. Nyron Nosworthy. Mark Yeates. Prince Buaben. Craig Forsyth. Neuton. Geoffrey Mujangi Bia. Alex Geijo. Carl Dickinson. Ross Jenkins. Piero Mingoia. Gianfranco Zola. Dodo Sormani. Giancarlo Corradini. Marco Cesarini. David Hughes. Will Jones. Filippo Giraldi. Luke Warrington. David Stephens. Ben Dixon. Ade Mafe. GianLuca Nani. Scott Duxbury. Giampaolo Pozzo. Raffaele Riva. David Fransen. Stuart Timperley. Rob Smith. Alan McTavish. Glyn Evans. Katie Wareham. Richard Walker. Michelle Ives. Gino Pozzo. Giorgio Gasparini. Kevin Powell. Jack Baxter. Mike Spanou. Montoniri Watanabe. Josh Andall. Richard Line. Craig Charles. Linda Finill. Chris McGuane. Barry Quin. Lesley Watts. Will Davies. Mark Jones. Mark Timmington. Dave Godley. Dominic Hayne. Peter Sharp. Robert Sharps. Elizabeth Sabri. Adam Carter. Derek Moon. Jackie Sheppard. Stephen Crabtree. Graham Lynch. Nicola Rees. Joe Bennett. Tom O’Connor. Roger Down. Paul Tait. Jack Tubbitt. Alex Ashby. Mark Jamieson. Liam McGarry. Steve Scott. Paul Clarke. Clive Hibbert. Ben Swift. Joanne Simonds. Cleveland Brandy. Gillian Winfield. Martine Capitelli. Jane Phillips. Karen Daly. Gayle Clarke. Neil Hart. Steve Williams. Helen Taunt. Chris Andrews. Robert Clarke. John Salomon. Paul King. Dave Byrne. Danielle Rutter. Matthew Harrington. Andrea Viglieno. Jack Denham. Gareth Jones. Greg Willerton. Huma Yousaf. Ann Watt. Anne-Marie Burn. Danika O’Riordan. Tracy Hamilton. Sam Perrinn. Ryan McGillivary. Jack Barber. Alex Kaufman. Natasha Hiscock. Harry the Hornet. The Bloke who sits behind you. His mates. Their mates. Your mates. Their mates. You. Me.
Come. On. You. Horns.
Watford 1 Leeds United 2 (04/05/2013) 05/05/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1a. Oh God. Oh God. OhhhhhhhhHHHHHHH. AaaaarrrrgggHHHHHHHH. Bloody hell. Bloody f***ing hell. Bloody f***ing sodding hell.
1b. And so on.
1c. And some more.
1d. Look, we’re all grown-ups here, right? We like to think of you, dear reader, as someone who’s a bit brighter than the phone-in knee-jerkers who can only see things in the purest black and white, no shades in between. So we can take it as read, can’t we, that we’ve had a great season and have no cause for complaint? We can all agree that there’s nothing to moan about, especially not in the context of the last five years? And we all know that whoever the hell keeps offering playoff places around like sweeties to children would’ve had their hand bitten off. Yes, yes, yes.
1e. But you should be allowed a moment or two – a day or two – before perspective dulls the pain. This ought to hurt. When you turn away and distract yourself with other things, it ought to be staring you straight in the face whenever you look back. It ought to make you want to punch the wall and throw things and find some really destructive gardening to do. If I take solace in anything – and I’m struggling – then it’s in the reaction of Jonathan Hogg, whose post-match lap of honour was so reluctant and desultory that it barely took him beyond the centre circle and never, not for a moment, involved looking at anything other than his own feet. Lap of honour? Bollocks to that.
1f. It ought to hurt. It ought to hurt because we failed, how ever much you might try to dress it up. And because we have a second chance.
2. Pre-match, it felt like one of those special days. One of those surreal days, when strange and wonderful and memorable things happen. There’s a group of Leeds fans dressed as nuns at the end of Vicarage Road, wishing us success on the basis of hating ‘Ull. We pass Derek Payne, who’s carrying a large bag of socks down the road, away from the ground. (Is the punditry thing just a cover, I wonder, for a slow, methodical asset-stripping exercise?) A thunderstorm disturbs the spring calm. Richard Johnson, as near to my favourite Watford player ever as makes no difference, is on the pitch for the first time in a decade or more; applause for him, applause for Ron Rollitt, noise and colour everywhere.
This is Vicarage Road as it never is: passionate, optimistic, celebratory. Loud. There’s a flood of joyous tears building up behind a facade of quiet anticipation and gnawing eagerness. It’s a great day to be a Watford fan.
3. The rest is hard to make sense of, even now. And yet, in many ways, it’s quite simple. We were wracked by misfortune from the start: if Manuel Almunia’s warm-up injury seemed like a bad omen, then Jonathan Bond’s collision with Iketchi Anya went beyond mere portent, genuinely horrific even without the season-finale context. (For what it’s worth, there wasn’t a player out there, on either side, who wouldn’t have given the defender a nudge in that position, just to see whether anything happened. Standard practice, no particular malice. A booking, no more, was quite right.) We were left with our substitute-substitute keeper, a pool of blood on the pitch and enough injury time to wonder whether we ought to be consuming half-time lucky chocolate during our interval or Hull’s.
We were surprisingly bright and lively before all of that, Hogg denied an obvious penalty by an unsighted referee. That would’ve settled the nerves, and put some pressure on Hull. You wanted us to play with some freedom, not be too burdened by the occasion and too distracted by other matters…and we did all of that, until our flow was broken by the injury and our concentration interrupted by a goal that never was for Cardiff. Even then, we were back in it quickly: Almen Abdi’s superb equaliser setting off celebrations that, no matter how exuberant, felt like an aperitif for what might follow. And then Cardiff went ahead during our interval…
4a. And then Hull pulled it back and went ahead. And this, for me, is where the real regret lies, where we ought to be kicking ourselves hard enough to raise egg-shaped bruises. Because surely, surely, we spent the week stressing the need to take care of our own business before we worried about whatever Hull were doing. I’ve had one phrase rattling around in my head for days: just win the game. There’d be nothing worse than having other results go our way and failing to have done our own bit. And lo, there isn’t anything bloody worse.
4b. Really, we pissed away the most crucial half hour (so far) of the entire campaign. The atmosphere went flat, the team visibly deflated, the frustration grew until Troy Deeney (the first person you’d want in a last-ditch quest for a winner, the first person you’d want on the teamsheet at Leicester) was dismissed for an absurd, idiotic lunge that was only necessary in the sense that, presumably, his head would’ve exploded otherwise.
What we were doing? Collectively, we admitted defeat. We played a third of the match in dismal silence, no tempo and no urgency; it was as if the final score had come in from the Hull-Cardiff game, leaving us with nothing to play for. Whatever else happens, just win the game.
5. And that would’ve been enough. We were starting to rally as the half dragged on, Paddy Kenny denying us with one superb stop to a deflected shot that appeared to have wrong-footed him. But we’d wasted so much time: when news of Cardiff’s improbable equaliser came through, we had fifteen minutes to find the goal that’d send us up. We had fifteen minutes, potentially some of the most memorable and heart-stopping moments of our football-supporting lives.
We collapsed under the weight. Jack Bonham’s desperate fumble took most of the attention, but in truth, we were over-committed in a way that only a Zola team chasing a winner in the last five minutes can be. A great stampede towards water without thought of safety. It’s the kind of goal that you concede when you’ve gone for broke. Sometimes you just get broke.
I question whether we needed to be in that position. I wonder how different things might’ve been if we’d played for the whole second half rather than just a bit of it. I wonder…and I’ll never know. Bugger.
6. At some point afterwards, on the outside of a couple of much-needed beers, the smiles start to return. The conversation gradually turns away from regret and despair, the banter starts to free itself from the gallows. And Pat from Dublin, whose boundless, irrepressible optimism has been on life support for the last couple of hours, turns with bright eyes and says decisively:
“But there’s no way we’ll lose the away leg, is there? Right?”
And the earth starts spinning again…
Saturday 01/05/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
Common Man: I’m breathing … Are you breathing too? …It’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends – just don’t make trouble – or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected. Well, I don’t need to tell you that. Good night. If we should bump into one another, recognise me.
“A Man for All Seasons”, Robert Bolt
Don’t cause trouble. Don’t take risks. Don’t stick your head above the parapet.
Quite apart from anything else, it’s safer. Ask the Common Man, he’ll tell you. Mid-table, that’s what you want. ”The sort of trouble that’s expected”. A decent cup run. The occasional result against one of the more fancied sides, the odd bloodied nose. Everyone likes that…. we like it, “football” likes it, whatever that is. The plucky underdog.
This? This is different. This is the possibility of automatic promotion from a team made up of loans, mercenaries, someone else’s players. Conspicuous, and condemned. ”Yes, ‘Franco’s put a great team together, love the way they play, but…. and I know they’ve not broken any rules, fair play to them, they found a loophole and exploited it. But it’s not really in the spirit of the rules is it? I mean, what happens when all the loans go back?”.
That’s hardly going to get any better if we do go up, if more journalists desperate for a story but with neither the time nor the attention span to evaluate the situation take notice. Who needs it?
Not as if it’s in our hands anyway. Hull may be on a stinking run, a right stinking run. Three games against the current bottom three, no goals, one point. One win in four at home, and that courtesy of a deflected free kick and a goalkeeping howler. And yes, of course, they’re playing Cardiff… league leaders, best defence in the division and so forth. And, yes, there are one or two on the Cardiff books with links to Watford… 731 appearances in yellow, 159 goals, 3 Watford Player of the Season awards between them, yes, yes, what of it? Hull will go up if they win, it’s theirs to f*** up ultimately, no getting away from that. And they’ll know it. They’ll know. The knowledge of how completely they’ll have screwed this up if they go into the play-offs has to be a motivator.
Nor can our game be taken for granted, far from it. Sure, Leeds might not have won away in the League since December 1st and only once since September but they’re a tough side and a big club, don’t be fooled. They’ll have a big support with them and despite being mid-table, won’t be on the beach at all. Nor should we read too much into the suspensions being served by El-Hadji Diouf and Rodolph Austin. A club like Leeds will inevitably have players of equal calibre ready to step in. An irrelevance.
And OK, we may have a bit of side. Fernando, looking, playing, sounding more like his manager every day. Troy, a leader, unplayable. Anya, Pudil, all energy,tricks and power. Almen Abdi, the professor, most assists in the division. Chalobah, the conductor, the metronome. Jonathan Hogg, breaking it up, keeping it moving, keeping it honest. Marco Cassetti… seen this shit before, composed an opera about it, give me a man to mark. Ekstrand, solid and elegant and one day he’s going to break the net. Lloyd. Just… Lloyd. And Manuel… experience, reliability, a voice. A captain. Yes, OK, we’re decent. So we should be, we’re going for second. No reason to take anything for granted.
Laughably, people have been quoting this vaguely superstitious, coincidental claptrap. The thing about us having been promoted every seven years since the inception of the Premier League in 1992. The thing about every promotion we’ve enjoyed to the top flight concluding against a team in white. What a load of cobblers. As if any of this has any bearing on Saturday’s game.
It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends. Just don’t cause any trouble. Don’t stick your head above the parapet. Don’t go expecting anything, it’s not in our hands, there’s less emotional risk in just letting it wash over you.
Come Saturday, be proud. Be yellow. Be loud.
Bring it on.
Leicester City 1 Watford 2 (26/04/2013) 27/04/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Leicester City is an increasingly pleasant place to visit; the very necessary shelter from the bitter wind rampaging around the outside of the ground wasn’t the only welcome as we pushed our way into the concourse. The stewards and the serving staff were equally hospitable, as has been the case in each of the last couple of seasons. Unlike then, we took the points as well as the courtesy this time.
The one change from the demolition of Blackburn saw Matej Vydra trade places with Fernando Forestieri; whilst not justified by current form there’s no denying that these are slightly different tools. Forestieri is the man to pick an awkward lock, more valuable in front of an obstinate defence at Vicarage Road. Vydra is the man to exploit gaps behind an advancing defence, or to make a team think twice about throwing men forward.
And throw men forward Leicester did from the off. Indeed neither side could be faulted for attacking intent as the opening half hour rolled from end to end like a schoolboy basketball game, but what quality there was largely came from the defenders… Cassetti as arrogantly above all this nonsense as ever, Ekstrand magnificent alongside him. At the other end Troy Deeney quickly resorted to backing into the monstrous Wes Morgan in search of a generous free kick, such was his lack of progress – there have been few games this season in which he’s had such limited impact. It felt as if we were under pressure, but as was pointed out at half time, Almunia got to the break without making a save, even if one shot skimmed the outside of his right hand upright and two balls bobbled across the area needing a touch. Nonetheless although the home side had the possession their attacks were clumsy swipes with a caveman’s club, our rapier thrusts were less frequent but felt more likely to cause damage.
So it proved as with five minutes to go before the break Joel Ekstrand was free in the area from a corner and nodded down to Deeney to swipe home. Relief and euphoria in the away end.
2- Nathaniel Chalobah’s strike merits a thunk all to itself, obviously. At least a thunk. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a piledriver that’s still rising as it hits the roof of the net. Perhaps smacking it in off the underside of the crossbar constitutes a marginal improvement – work to do there, Nathaniel – but this minor failing was offset by the fact that nobody saw this coming, least of all Kasper Schmeichel. The cannonball wasn’t preceded by a telegraphed lay-off, nobody was rising in anticipation as the ball was struck – indeed we were still in the post-celebration jubilant singing bit following Deeney’s goal two minutes earlier. We were flattened as comprehensively as if the shot had caught us in the midriff, stunned… and then ecstatic with disbelief. Even at half-time in a boisterous, giddy concourse strangers were grinning at each other and shaking their heads. Last word, as on so many things, goes to Alan Partridge.
3- A word here for the home support. City had visibly been building this one up throughout the week, and understandably so; in the wake of an appalling run of form (by any standards, let alone those of a side trying to make a case for being worthy of taking on the top flight) you want to generate a do-or-die, cup-tie kind of situation, “nothing before this matters, it’s all about this one game”. If the team ended up falling short, no such criticism can reasonably be leveled at the blue sides of the stadium… they might not quite have matched this epic lunacy but outstripped anything I’ve heard since for relentless intensity. Only in the wake of the second goal (when we so nearly put the game to bed as Leicester rocked), the opening fifteen of the second half and in the dying embers of the game were we able to make ourselves heard.
4- That fifteen minute spell after half time was a joy. The Hornets strutted around the pitch in our sudden supremacy as the Foxes tried to find a foothold and Nigel Pearson fiddled with his personnel and formation. A five minute rolling rendition of “hoist up the Watford flag” was the highlight (and incidentally if there’s something slightly unsatisfying about revelling in an identikit conversion of a song that every other bugger sings too then it certainly beats the hell out of the moronic “we’re the RIGHT side….”). And then Harry Kane scored and this celebration was betrayed as mere hiatus, a breather between slabs of sapping, nervous uncertainty.
In reality it was never that close a thing. City had chances, none better than when Marshall forced a magnificent save out of Almunia after Wood was felled by a suspiciously conclusive Hogg tackle. But for all that the crowd was raised and that City enjoyed possession again we were never really under the cosh, you never felt that a goal was coming – a possibility, not a probability. Meanwhile we were doing quite a good job of running off with the ball, killing time without resorting to gamesmanship, keeping possession, keeping Leicester chasing. You’d have preferred another goal of course; Deeney was still getting absolutely nothing out of Morgan and Keane, Vydra looking anything but convincing and lasting the 90 largely by virtue of worrying knocks to Chalobah and Abdi forcing midfield substitutions. But we made it, and the celebrations shared between team and fans were as jubilant as at Hull (NB Steve Bruce, celebrating an away win isn’t a crime, live with it. Not that you were watching, natch). The vast majority of the shirts went into the stand and it was good to see Matthew Briggs, after his perhaps ill-advised goal celebration last weekend, at the vanguard with fists pumping.
5- We’ve won a lot of games this season, and however it plays out it’s been a complete joy; that this memorable evening is just one of a catalogue of fine evenings and afternoons since August speaks volumes. Some of the wins have been achieved by virtue of being comprehensively better than the opposition, outplaying them in every department. This wasn’t one of those. Others have been achieved through simply wanting it more, having more fire in our belly. This wasn’t one of those either, there was no questioning City’s application. Some have been lucky, but we weren’t lucky tonight. This one was a Premier League win, a win achieved by telling moments of quality – one moment where theirs failed, another where ours told. Thank you, and good night. That’s what playing in the top flight is like, one slip, one moment of quality, game over.
This is a Premier League team in all but name. There are strong grounds for claiming that ours is the best side in the division; of the various factors that have contributed to us not already having fixed a place in the top two the greatest remains the slow start to the season, and there are reasons for that. Nobody has gained more points that us since the start of November – we have 61 from those 32 games, four more than Cardiff and five more than Hull from a game more. If we’ve slipped up again in the meantime, it’s no more than others have done and over the last week we’ve turned a virtually done deal into something that might be tantalisingly precarious going into next weekend. The rest is out of our hands.
We’re all Barnsley fans this afternoon.
Watford 4 Blackburn Rovers 0 (20/04/2013) 21/04/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- The scoreline tells one story. The narrative of the match itself, however, is not (merely) one of us putting inadequate opponents to the sword. In fact it followed the template of several of our big wins this season; against Huddersfield in the snow in January we laboured for a bit against a side hellbent on stopping us from playing – and once we had gotten that first goal we were gone, galloping off into the sunset with the points and never looking back.
This was the same only more so, the effect amplified by both our recent tentativeness in front of goal and the immediacy of the need for points. Blackburn proved to be of limited threat when they had the ball (of which more below), but without the ball they were doing a reasonable enough job of chasing us down, closing down the space during the opening forty-five minutes. We were probably ahead on points at the interval, we’d had the better of such chances as there were and had again dominated possession, but the sense of urgency and conviction was even more muted than at Millwall – where we were genuinely unlucky, but nonetheless undone by the fact that putting the ball in the net suddenly looks so very difficult. Five minutes into the second half, with no end to the stalemate in sight, the words “nil nil written all over it” may have been uttered by one of your co-editors.
2- We pause here to consider Blackburn Rovers. The tragic Venkys soap opera has been well documented, the rapid turnover of managers bizarre and short-sighted… as far as the possibility of being without a seat when the music stops goes there’s a big part of me that thinks that whatever the failings of the club owners, this bunch of supporters have suffered quite enough. There are clubs who have achieved less down there whose supporters display a sense of entitlement that far outstrips that of Rovers fans (and Dean Saunders is a nasty little so and so too).
But there’s no doubt that whatever the management upheaval and background instability, this bunch of players ought to be capable of a lot more than they’ve delivered. Of yesterday’s squad, Dunn, Pedersen, Dann, Olsson, Givet have decent top level experience, and looked competent at worst at the highest level. Best, Rhodes, Jones, Orr, Williamson are at the very least decent Championship players. Add to that the experience of Nuno Gomes and the absent Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Kazim-Richards, DJ Campbell, Hanley… there’s no way on earth that this squad of players should be where they are.
It might be argued that we were lucky to come up against them at this point. Frankly, it might have been nice to have played them a week or two ago, for if this win does provide the fillip we need to rediscover our form then with such a boost a couple of weeks earlier we would now be talking about automatic promotion as a probability rather than a mere possibility.
3- But the extraordinary second half was only down to Rovers’ failings in part. To pretend otherwise would be to deny the huge amount of credit due to the quality of our finishing. If Rovers lost the game, rather than us winning it, it was by providing such little threat themselves – there was little suggestion of counterattack, not really, but little to blame Rovers for in either of the opening two goals, and arguably the third.
After a campaign in which there are so many strong candidates for Player of the Season it seems odd to be able to single someone out, but for me nobody has put in the consistent high levels that Troy Deeney has delivered. Cassetti, Abdi, Vydra, Forestieri, Chalobah have all been fabulous, others have been merely very good, but each have had iffy spells – either stretches of wobblier form or periods within games where they’ve simply disappeared. Troy started from a low base, but his focus and leadership have paid back the faith shown in his character, as much as his ability, in spades. If the irrepressible Forestieri was the spark that ignited the first goal, Troy Deeney’s strength, his confidence to wait for the gap and the irresistible accuracy of his shot were worthy of turning any game.
And we’re not half a good side when we’re in the lead. There’s been precious little opportunity to demonstrate that in recent weeks, but my god we showed it here as the things that have been proving so difficult suddenly came flooding back, like lyrics to a song that we hadn’t realised we’d forgotten but came to us as soon as someone played us the intro. They Juggernaut was briefly in danger of being derailed as Rovers broke on us quickly and Rhodes sent a header over, but that was it as far as Rovers were concerned. The game was gone, and it was a matter of how many we would score.
This was our sixth (sixth!) four-goal plus haul of the season, and the twelfth time we’ve scored at least three; if there’s a frustration it’s that the points we’ve let slip in between have left promotion anything other than the racing certainty that football like this ought to have long guaranteed. It would be wrong to say that this win outstripped the others in terms of aplomb… there have been so many good goals, so many well-executed dismantlings. But few have been greeted with such relief. The second goal was arguably the highlight, Forestieri with the devil in his eyes again now, with the confidence to ignore the easy, conservative ball to Pudil and delay and delay and then thread an impossible pass through to Troy Deeney, who dispatched his nineteenth of the season with now roaring confidence. If anything was missing it was the long-awaited goal for Vydra, but nonetheless the Czech continued his more energetic display from Millwall and was hurtling after everything in the closing minutes. On this evidence, it won’t be long.
4- Actually the other thing we could have done with is a marksman in the Upper Rous with an elephant gun and a tranquiliser dart. One of several violent, petulant challenges by the thoroughly indisciplined rabble that Rovers became in the wake of our twenty minute goal blitz saw Troy Deeney lose his rag altogether. Having been apparently felled by an elbow he raised himself and charged after the ball in a manner that suggested a degree of disappointment at the lack of intervention from the official. He ultimately committed the least surprising foul of the afternoon, but fortunately that was all there was to it. The last time I saw someone lose it like that was in Austria in 1997, when TSV 19860 Munich’s Ulf Bodden ran two thirds of the length of the pitch to kick the perceived Rapid Vienna miscreant up the arse. He saw red, to hilarity in the stands. Troy losing it in the same way would not have been as funny.
The nastiness came to a head in the closing minutes, when Marco Cassetti, having been similarly felled by a Leon Best elbow moments earlier, showed his Serie A pedigree by provoking a furious reaction from Best, a reaction that earned him the red he’d earlier deserved. Tut tut, and so forth.
5- Whilst Hull are still in the driving seat there’s no denying that the fixture list has been kind to us this week. City’s listless failure to beat relegated Bristol City on Friday left us with two games to play before they next take to the field, and the possibility of closing that seven point margin down to one. As far as that goes, it’s all within our control; we’ve delivered on half of the deal, and if we manage to continue the flowing irresistible stuff on into Friday Hull will go into their final two games – at backs-to-the-wall Barnsley and hosting champions Cardiff – knowing that they probably NEED to win one of them. In the meantime, we need to do our bit… which suddenly seems less daunting than it did.
Bring on the Leicester.
Millwall 1 Watford 0 (16/04/2013) 17/04/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. There are many irritating things about modern football. Among them may well be the frequency with which I use phrases like “there are many irritating things about modern football”. But they’re ever-increasing, as illustrated yesterday by the announcement of a 5.15pm kickoff for an FA Cup Final between two teams from the distant north-west, defended by the FA by describing its flagship occasion as “content”. Go and ruin someone else’s sport, you effing parasites. Um, yeah, where were we? Yes, of the many irritating things about modern football, high on the list is the competition among those with opinions on the game to be first with the definitive statement, the most black and white declaration of final and irrevocable fact.
Were it to happen again, the World Cup would be won not to “they think it’s all over…” but to Alan Green bellowing “IT’S ALL OVER!” at a volume audible on nearby planets. For once in his bloody life, Mark Lawrenson wouldn’t be able to add “NOT!” to the end of the sentence in a humourless, bored monotone, but I’m sure he’d find something tediously facetious to say anyway: “About time (sigh)” or similar. Football has lost its shades of grey, its room for uncertainty…and they were always the most interesting bits, for there’s no tension if you’ve already declared the outcome certain. Without doubt and hope and other grey areas, we might as well all stay at home, everything done and decided before it’s started.
Thus, our season was declared over and done with as vociferously as possible by a load of very clever people following Saturday’s defeat, our slide back toward the playoff pack as inevitable as our failure to win the May lottery. But, of course, that was nonsense: nobody would write us off if we were three points behind on the last day, and there was always a significant chance of Hull dropping points before then. Far from hopeless, when you look at it without rushing to judgment. Even less hopeless as the evening unfolded.
2. But for all that I’ve just said, it’s pretty difficult not to rush to judgment in the aftermath of this defeat. It’s pretty difficult not to conclude that this might’ve been the last opportunity.
We spent the evening pressing our noses against the toy shop window and staring at the lights inside until our eyes started to water. We had Millwall on the ropes and wilting under pressure, in front of a sparse home crowd comprised of the few thousand people who hadn’t spent all of their money on semi-final tickets and beer. Then news came through that Wolves had taken the lead over Hull…and it was suddenly all laid out before us, opening up in a great surge of hope and optimism and excitement.
The noise echoed around the away section, renewed belief and expectation. Here was not only the chance to narrow the gap back to a single win, but to re-gain some of our form into the bargain, for the home side afforded us significant space in midfield and struggled to contain the runs of Deeney and Vydra from the off. A goal for the latter, in particular, seemed within our grasp and might prove so vital; there were glimpses of the unplayable Vydra here, just below the nervous, anxious surface. The alternative story of this game, close enough to touch, is one that puts an extra spring into tired strides, one that picks up momentum at the perfect moment, one that puts us right back in the race. Come on and all that.
3. To lose, then, feels absolutely crushing. You’d almost prefer Hull to have won comfortably, in order to spend less time staring at what slipped through our fingers and shattered on the floor. At least there’d have been some consolation in seeing Wolves fall further towards the drop, some greater good emerging from the evening’s events. We left with absolutely nothing.
4. And it almost seems worse that there’s little comparatively to criticise. This was the performance of a team on its last legs, perhaps, but it was spirited and positive and deserving of much more. In truth, there were countless moments which we’d have expected to make more of earlier in the season, back when it all came a little easier than it does now. There were early chances for Deeney, surging into the defensive gaps left by an obviously tired Millwall side; there were shooting opportunities for the fits-and-starts Anya, cutting in from the right; there were scrambles and muddles and bits where we got in each others’ way and bits where defenders just about got in our way; there were chances that Vydra would’ve casually buried before but now, it seems, need a lucky deflection or a goalkeeping cockup to help him on his way again; there was a penalty shout for a flailing arm from Shittu that even I, with my dogmatic hatred of handball appeals, would’ve given.
We didn’t miss a load of clear-cut chances, but we’re not a side that really creates loads of those. That’s not our thing, although it’d make life easier right now. We simply didn’t score in positions and situations where we were scoring freely earlier in the campaign.
In other words, Plan A was perfectly fine. There’s no need for an extravagant tactical post-mortem: we won the game comfortably on points. Which is, I know, meaningless, particularly in the circumstances. For a side that’s scored a billion goals this season, we suddenly look frustrated and a bit frantic in that department, as if the spell has been broken and our magic boots no longer work. At times like these, you need some stock goals to fall back on: somebody who can be relied upon to thump in a header from a corner every so often, somebody who can tuck home a loose end from six yards. The Oliver Bierhoff Solution. We’ve concentrated on loftier things, admirably so. But we seem lost now, unable to force what isn’t coming naturally.
5. And inevitably, our defensive chickens are coming home to roost at the same time. For all that we were dominant here, our tendency to switch off when we sense no immediate danger meant that we afforded Millwall three clear chances to win the match. Twice, once in the first half and again in the second, we let forwards drift in to meet crosses unchallenged, and first Keogh and then Woolford wasted those opportunities. But you can’t get away with that forever. You can’t get away with that if the goals are harder to come by at the other end.
We are perhaps learning what the Championship is all about. And if this season is to end without promotion, there are lessons to take with us into the next attempt: there’s a hard edge to the most successful sides in this division, a certain amount of industrial grit to go along with the style. There are too many careless moments that’ve cost us second place, things that we should be kicking ourselves over when we look back at it all. There are moments when we’ve been daydreaming.
We should’ve saved that for the summer.
Peterborough United 3 Watford 2 (13/04/2013) 14/04/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- There is something to be said for reserved seating, admittedly. There are advantages. Knowing where you’re going to sit, for example, the security of knowing your place is where you left it whether you choose to rock up at 2:15 or 2:59.
But things being what they are, the opportunity to stand on a terrace is a rare thing and to be cherished. The Cherry Tree had been boisterous an hour earlier; cheerfully busy and dominated by yellow, the queue at the bar moving quickly enough not to be irritating whilst still permitting a few seconds of solitude amongst the hubbub. Those of us without an innate aversion to Other People enjoyed it hugely.
By 3pm, the Moys Terrace was heaving and verging on raucous. It wasn’t just the fact that it was a terrace… a big game, again, and an agreeable journey had attracted over 4000 travelling supporters. But there’s nothing quite like an agitated terrace under a low roof and whatever happens as the season closes there’s a part of me that would be perfectly happy in a lower division with terraces – is that wrong? Hell, there was even an element of nostalgic bravado in revisiting the cramped, inadequate toilet blocks of yesteryear although admittedly that attraction might wane with time… I faced the queues before kick-off for fear of having to revisit squalor and depravity on a par with Fellows Park, Walsall in 1987 as conditions worsened later on.
2- And so the football started, almost an afterthought. Bright and bubbly as anticipated, this was never going to be a game where either side was particularly fussed about keeping it tight. This ought to suit us, we had told ourselves. However, if the home side didn’t play defensively they managed the game masterfully, inviting us onto them and affording us possession, allowing them to counterattack as the away side. Simultaneously they smothered Nathaniel Chalobah in the midfield, robbing the conductor of his baton and repeatedly smacking him around the shins with it… working out exactly referee David Webb drew his line and nudging up against it as aggressively as possible.
Where Webb drew his line, as it turned out, was wherever he thought he might attract least attention and cause least offence – and so inevitably he created problems for himself. His decisions largely favoured the defending side; the Hornets were denied two penalty claims, one of which looked particularly strong and led to Troy Deeney, no longer wearing the armband but still ostensibly the leader of the side, being booked for his frustration. In front of us, Ekstrand benefited from Webb’s lenience; having been rightly booked for an unnecessary foul on Gayle early in the half he was extremely lucky to escape without further censure having felled the same player later in the half; a straight red there would have been harsh but not beyond the realms of possibility.
Gayle’s skip beyond the defensive line was only one of several such incidents in the opening 45 where Posh’s movement and pace saw us caught flat footed. From one of these Swanson had scored an excellent opener after Gayle had unpeeled us… we had the lions’ share of possession but were ever more deliberate, careful, cautious, and such chances as we were creating had fallen to Jonathan Hogg, who however hard he works to break his duck doesn’t look any more like doing so.
3- The decision to bring on Matej Vydra at the break wasn’t a huge surprise; we hadn’t looked like getting on top of the game and something needed to change. Off came the precarious Ekstrand as we switched to 4-3-3… bold, positive, unsuccessful. The flat four proved no more able to cope with Peterborough’s breaks, and when a hospital ball from Doyley put the miserable Chalobah under pressure the home side pounced and Gayle skittered away to score the second. Five minutes later Gayle was past the defence again and Cassetti committed a rare error, tangling with the escaping striker and giving the referee little alternative but to produce a red card. Tomlin converted the free kick to apparently drive the nail into the coffin. On the stunned away terrace a few sloped off towards the pub… there was only one Angry Man, but he’d been bawling and cussing at every perceived failing since kick off – otherwise it was baffled silence.
4- The mood on the pitch was as flat as it was off it. Posh decided they had the game won and felt comfortable enough to take off two key protagonists, Tomlin and Gayle, with fifteen minutes plus stoppage time still on the clock, a damning indictment. Inspiration arrived, though, and from a not entirely anticipated quarter.
Half time had seen Posh introduce ex-players in the fashion that has become part of the ritual at Vicarage Road, and here were three ex-Posh who had also spent time at the Vic. David Johnson and Alan Paris’ first team careers at Watford were brief and non-existent respectively, but Worrell Sterling got an appreciative smattering of applause from the away end. My recollection of Worrell is that he was always the best player in our worst performances, unphased by chaos around him but relatively rarely a part of a memorable success. Step forward Mark Yeates, who in a midfield perhaps a little more relaxed by this point found the time and space to start pinging balls around and oiling our attacking play.
It was his free kick that got us on the scoresheet, although inevitably the context meant that the celebration underneath the corrugated roof was nothing like as noisy as it might have been. A heavy deflection, admittedly, but deserved on Yeates’ part for simply refusing to lie down – indeed, he stood out simply by virtue of making a statement of grabbing the ball and taking responsibility. Our attacking play had been ever more careful, our breaks such as they were slowing down as a lay back invariably allowed Peterborough to organise. Give the home side some credit for this of course, but there was precious little responsibility being taken and once again Vydra, fiddling around on the edge of the game, was culpable.
Yeates’ goal, of course, woke us up altogether and cast the preceding fifteen minutes of non-event as the criminal waste of time that it was. Suddenly we were on the front foot, desperate for extra minutes. As Darren Ferguson’s post-match comments reflected, the final scoreline might have flattered us a little but we really weren’t very far from getting something out of this in the end as Posh were back on their heels for the last ten minutes. Instead we only had one more goal to show for it, a decent drive from Forestieri, who in fairness had been positive and aggressive throughout.
5- Pretty glum stuff, nonetheless, and Cassetti’s suspension is particularly unhelpful with half-an-eye on Tuesday. Injury to Briggs in the warm up had lead to his late withdrawal also (and explained why Prince Buaben was out there warming up) but if Fitz isn’t back in contention then we’re probably looking at a start for Adam Thompson (or a change of formation) at the New Den. Automatic promotion is now out of our hands of course but not completely beyond consideration… Millwall are without a home win in seven and are off the back of a semi-final defeat, whilst Hull travel to Wolves who have their backs to the wall. If those results go our way it’s game on again… and I rather hope that happens. Nobody doubts the ability or the spirit in our squad. Whether we’ve got the legs for an extra three games is open to question.
Watford 0 Cardiff City 0 (06/04/2013) 07/04/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. Before kickoff, there’s more than a whiff of the glory days, back when Matt had all his teeth and I had all my hearing. He’s been to the dentist in the morning and every word comes with a wince; I’ve been to two colossal Swans gigs in the space of a week; neither of us, if we’re being entirely honest, are the physical specimens we once were.
Anyway, the long overdue warmth of spring sunshine, the away half-end rowdily full, the rest of the ground buzzing with anticipation (for now, but sadly not forever, falling just the right side of turning into expectation). It’s a wonderful spectacle, all of that hard work in the winter bearing fruit. There’s a lot at stake, but that can be (should be) thrilling rather than daunting…and we perhaps gain in youthful joie de vivre what we lose in having been there and bought t-shirts. Following on from Tuesday night, and despite three points for Hull during the afternoon, this felt like an opportunity to make a decisive move, to lay a firm claim to that second spot. It felt like a game you needed to see.
2. And you probably did see it, whether in person or via the gogglebox, which means that you no more need to read about it than I need to write about it. Because, in truth, there ain’t an awful lot to say: some goalless draws are so tedious that they become perversely inspiring, and it can be quite fun to attempt to capture the full ghastliness of some frozen, barren midweek encounter with, say, Barnsley in which nothing at all happens and nobody at all cares and you wonder whether anyone will notice if you use that line from “Waiting for Godot” again.
But much as this encounter began, continued and ended in stalemate, it was nevertheless only a single winning goal, a single moment of brilliance or good fortune for either side, away from being a significant part of this season’s story. It was as if everyone held their breath at kickoff…and held it…and held it…and nothing happened. Nothing. No storm, no flood. The weather forecast was wrong. And we all went home, put it to one side almost instantly, and started thinking about next weekend instead. It’s already old news.
3. It’s a point which very evidently suited Cardiff, whose ambition knew bounds. In stark contrast to Sean Dyche’s Burnley, with only a single ex-Watford name alongside the manager’s, Malky Mackay seems to have assembled some kind of touring tribute act and must spend his evenings scouring eBay for a second-hand Henri Lansbury or a nearly-new Danny Graham to add to his collection. It’s actually quite a challenge to follow the correct sequence of booing, applauding and ignoring as the Cardiff team is read out; you’re almost in need of sheet music to follow….
Sod it, though…I’ve always liked Mackay a great deal. He built two seasons’ worth of teams with genuine style and energy and spirit, at a time when the club’s future was very uncertain indeed and when, frankly, we would’ve accepted survival by any means. There was the single-minded determination of a top class manager in those campaigns, a willingness to keep on the chosen path even when it seemed like time to consult the map. That stubborn streak was very apparent in a Cardiff performance which stressed discipline over flair and gave us no space whatsoever in the areas where we’re most effective. Not the performance of a side worried about putting on a show or thinking about how it might adapt to life in the top flight; a job done, nothing more and nothing less. It was dour but impressive.
4. The ninety minutes are neatly summed up by the fact that it’s fairly easy to recall moments when we nearly created chances but didn’t quite. The chances themselves are far fewer and therefore even easier to remember: two for Troy Deeney, slicing somewhat carelessly over the bar late in the first half and then denied by Marshall’s only noteworthy save after the interval, and none of consequence for anyone else in a yellow shirt. For Cardiff, in blue, Almunia blocked Mason’s low shot on the one occasion when our defensive concentration failed. (Cue a load of comments about the ones I’ve forgotten.)
A little frustrating, perhaps. The slow-slow-quick-quick-slow passing game was successfully disrupted by our opponents, and it seemed as if a hard, slightly bumpy surface wasn’t doing us any favours either, perhaps requiring a moment’s thought when we’ve previously gone on instinct alone. But we were a bit cautious and hesitant too, and, for me, we fell back on looking for a distant Deeney too much. Cardiff were pretty comfortable with our left-side of Doyley and Briggs, perhaps the one area where there was space to exploit: for all Daniel Pudil’s faults, we miss a left-sided player who’s content to bomb up and down the touchline rather than do a safe sixty-five in the middle lane.
We might regret the nearly moments – an out-of-sorts Vydra clumsily over-hitting a through-ball, Anya failing to find exactly the right cross – and we might point to a sense that we had more of those moments than Cardiff, but it’s hard to escape the overall nil-nil-ness of the occasion.
5. In which case, the main positive to take away is that one of those nils belongs to Cardiff, and another one belonged to Hull on Tuesday night. Two clean sheets against the top two perhaps – hopefully – reflects a new determination to get what we deserve from games when things are tight…and, spear-headed by the superb Ekstrand, this was a defensive performance we could be genuinely proud of.
These are tight, taut games. Small margins. No room for the sloppy, low-slung cockiness that we’ve sometimes been guilty of showing; less room for throwing caution to the wind too. Not a great game, sure, but a very good game not to have lost. And Peterborough next, which is just the thing when you’re a bit fed up of opponents who’ve spent all week on the training ground and in the video suite working out how to stop you from playing…