Watford 4 Blackpool 0 (01/03/2014) 02/03/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- I used to read Roy of the Rovers. Seems odd, really, looking back… we were doing things on the pitch in the early eighties that matched anything that the cartoon strips could throw up. Anyway… in retrospect, there were a limited number of storylines recycled through different guises. A popular one was of a patchwork team, thrown together in the face of adversity. It happened to Melchester Rovers once… they were supposed to be playing an exhibition match in an assiduously fictional Middle East state when their team bus was blown up by a terrorist bomb, killing half the squad. Rovers rebuilt their side by botching together a combination of youth players, cast-offs and imports from other cartoon strips, eventually triumphing in the face of impossible odds.
Thing is, the reason that such a development is the stuff of a comic strip is that by and large, when a team is botched together out of odds and ends and held together with sellotape, it looks like Blackpool. A who’s-who of players who were good once, players who were promising once, and others who have been passed around the division like members of an incomplete set in Happy Families. Add an epic run without a win, chronic mismanagement, and you get a complete shambles devoid of spirit or shape, quite comfortably the worst side we’ve seen at the Vic in some considerable time. There had been portents of what was to come within the first quarter hour, Troy Deeney effortlessly shrugging off attention in the area, his marker virtually wandering off and leaving him to drive narrowly wide with far more time than he realised. On the quarter hour Kaiser Tözsér sent a monstrous, arcing corner onto Matthias Ranégie’s head, unattended at the far post; his bullet header gave us the lead. This didn’t stop Richard Short crediting Troy Deeney, but then he’d twice welcomed Lucas Neill twice as a “loan signing” during the warm up so he’s obviously not a detail kinda guy.
2- Ranégie’s home debut was much anticipated, like a TV series plugged and trailed too far in advance. Profiles, and word from Yeovil, had warned of a far defter instrument than the picture painted by a stern looking 6ft 5 centre-forward. Consequently his tidy control and neat lay-offs were no great surprise… but I for one hadn’t appreciated that he had the combative physical qualities that you’d hope of from a big centre-forward also. Aggressive, powerful and extremely efficient with the ball he looks a real asset; his understanding with Deeney, monstrous again, already looks more developed than Troy has achieved with Nando and both of Ranégie’s finishes – the second a neat fooling of the rotund Gilks following a flimsy Blackpool clearance – suggested a rich source of goals that we hadn’t perhaps anticipated. Quite whether a Deeney/Ranégie partnership would work quite so well against a defence with the personnel and wit to defend a high line is questionable but the Swede’s presence – combined with Tözsér’s delivery – looks like a get-out-of-jail-free card at worst. In reality as soon as Blackpool conceded the game was up; Troy scored a deflected second in between Ranégie’s two and we were an unflattering 3-0 up at the break.
3- I can cope with a huddle before kick-off, I get that. But a huddle at the start of the second half is flimsy window-dressing… not as if you need to re-focus after a warm up, nothing can have been said in Blackpool’s post-interval huddle that couldn’t have been aired in the dressing room at half time. So this was purely for the benefit of the poor bastards in the away end, a far healthier number of Seasiders than the afternoon’s prospects could possibly have justified the sixteen years since our last Ronny-fuelled home win over Blackpool notwithstanding. In fairness Blackpool did make a much better fist of it in the second half in that they resembled a limited football team rather than a bowl of blancmange that hadn’t quite set, prematurely poured onto the Vicarage Road pitch. They made a couple of half-chances too, early in the half… there wasn’t really any suggestion of a fightback but there was some fight, too little too late or otherwise, and in any event the prospect of a coconut shy and a cricket score were dispelled. David Perkins was perhaps the one visitor to come out of the exercise with anything close to a balance in credit, a bleach-blond Battocchio-like whirligig in the second half fulfilling much the same disruptive role as he had done on recent visits to Oakwell before his move to the west coast.
4- But Watford’s key man in the second half, and arguably over the course of the ninety despite the goalscoring contributions of the front two, was the magnificent Kaiser Tözsér. Too late in the day the Seasiders started closing down possession high up the pitch, pressurising as so many have done to greater effect before them and granted it’s far easier to respond to this pressure when there’s no great onus on you to get the ball forward by dint of an already comfortable scoreline. But this was an absolute masterclass, the unflustered, undemonstrative ushering on of possession in complete indifference to apparent lack of space or options a joy to behold. This wasn’t a perfect performance… he did overhit one pass in the second half… but each of the right wing corners that he swung in from the corner of Rous and Rookery in the second half was preceded by a standing ovation from the 1881 and entreaties to “sign him up”. Quite right, too.
(The game had been preceded by an aborted trip to the pub, incidentally, marginally too late to secure a table and therefore food; instead a quick pint was followed by a voyage of discovery into Watford market. Succour was taken at the Hungarian food stall where excited words were exchanged on the subject of Tözsér, including some animated explanation of his free-kick prowess which featured broken English, sweeping gestures with either arm to indicate two-footedness and lifting of spectacles to represent disbelief at power. We have more to look forward to, perhaps. The visit also featured a monstrous pile of very edible chicken, rice and peas, which will do no favours to my already ample wasteline if adopted as part of the ritual after today’s success).
5- We got a fourth, you’ll have noticed; the best of the lot, requiring movement, teamwork and a quite bullish finish from Troy that spoke volumes for his resurgent form and thus self-belief. Blackpool weren’t up to much but perhaps it’s a game that fell well for us after last weekend’s fiasco; many benefitted from the space afforded them. Merkel made a second half cameo and nearly pulled off the pass of the game, a raking through ball having faked most of Blackpool’s defence with his eyes that was interrupted only on the stretch. Murray had a combative, non-stop eighty-two minutes, Battocchio a fine second half after a patchier first during which he was nonetheless involved in the third goal. Angella, Cassetti, splendid again. The emerging skeleton of the new stand suggests a metaphor that’s too painfully obvious to state explicitly… but as far as it goes, we did what we needed to do, beat what was in front of us. If we can build on this we might find ourselves more capable of tougher asks also.
And that’s one goal against in eight at home now, in case you’d lost count…
Watford 1 Middlesbrough 0 (15/02/2014) 16/02/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- By half time, comparisons were being drawn with the notorious Christmas of 1996. This was a different flavour of tedium to Tuesday night… less hulking ineptitude, more of a stalemate, but the consequence was yawning, shifting position, wondering whether it would start raining again as we left the stadium and then letting your attention half-heartedly return to the game. Gripping, interesting it really wasn’t. Those on the edge of their seats had fallen asleep and were slumped in their stupor.
Boro looked a decent side, for all that. Given and Woodgate were excellent, every bit the players of their reputations. Nathaniel Chalobah began the game dictating the pace from the back of the midfield, Leadbitter slinging the ball around, Adomah and Ledesma hugging the touchlines and causing problems (even if the latter twice appeared to blame rogue patches of the Vicarage Road surface for his misplaced efforts from the right). We scarcely got a touch for twenty minutes, chasing shadows… but the visitors couldn’t capitalise. Part of the credit for that has to go to our increasingly well-drilled rearguard, Cassetti and Angella terrific again, but there was no avoiding that Boro didn’t have much of a focal point… not hard to understand how they’ve not scored in five games. Danny Graham is still clever, still works hard but lacked support… and there’s rather more of him than I remember. Nimble and mobile he wasn’t… and most of Boro’s passing took place in front of the defence.
Irish Joe, having navigated the inevitable flight delays to make his first game of the season, had asked about Sannino. How was he doing? How were we looking? More solid, was my response in summary. More solid, but not as… exciting. ”Ah, but we’ve always got Fernando to pull something from nothing”, Joe suggested, prophetically. So it proved; ‘nando bundled in on a surprised Gibson early in the second half, cut past him towards the byline and drew a silly challenge from the flustered defender. Troy rolled in from the spot, and the game changed beyond recognition.
2- An emerging subplot to the first half had been a private competition in ineptitude – Muppet of the Match, Dickhead of the Day, invent your own monicker – between Samba Diakité and Boro centre-back Ben Gibson. Diakité, making his first start since arriving from QPR, looked every inch like a player who hadn’t played for a year. Frequently caught in possession, seemingly unaware of the location or proximity of teammates and opponents alike he looked like someone who’d won a starting position through a competition in the programme.
Gibson, however, was putting up a good fight in this masterclass of arse. Already booked for a stupid, unnecessary foul on Deeney, he took a huge risk late in the first half when diving in to interrupt a monumental surge upfield from Gabriele Angella. The run needed stopping, the aggressive challenge was well-timed but risky nonetheless – inside the area and already on a card, no margin for error as he appeared to fly in from some distance away. In conceding the critical penalty Gibson edged ahead.
But Diakité was about to play his trump card. The game quickly settled into a new pattern with Boro now committing forward and the Hornets attacking exclusively on the break. The first of these was repelled, barely, with a loose ball breaking clear from the edge of the area. Diakité and Whitehead contested it head on, the latter the favourite but the Frenchman decided that he wasn’t to be denied. Two footed, studs raised… having recently gained an unlikely looking advantage in a tight game it was an act of monumental stupidity, all instinct and ego and no brain whatsoever. Straight red the only viable outcome, the card followed within five seconds.
As Diakité left the arena, the only thing standing between him and his crown was Gibson’s continuing involvement and therefore opportunity. It proved a critical detail. Boro, now very much in the ascendancy, threw everything at us for five minutes and the remainder of the game stretched uninvitingly in front of us. And then Mr Gibson had his own rush of enthusiasm and, as Jonathan Bond attempted a drop kick, chose to obstruct him. A moronic act at the best of times but with Gibson on a yellow and his team having just been handed a lifeline by an act of similar idiocy, it was quite breathtaking. Kudos to Mr Gibson, then, even if Nathaniel Chalobah (with a peevish punch aimed at Forestieri) and the Kaiser’s compatriot Jozsef Varga at right back (with a series of increasingly stroppy challenges that earned a yellow and then a last warning and then the hook from the Boro bench) made worthy but patently inadequate pitches of their own.
3- The penalty and the two red cards took place within the first twelve minutes of the half. They left whopping great craters all over whatever gameplans had been in place, and if we’d looked anything but impressive before going ahead what followed was an absolute masterclass in navigating the revised landscape.
I remember visiting Dortmund zoo late one evening many years ago, and watching in awe and fear as the hunting dogs faced us in formation. You’d move a step to the left and the dogs, in their pen in the dwindling twilight, would all shift accordingly, well drilled and utterly attentive. Nine, ten of them. The yellow shirts were equally disciplined in formation here… one or two envoys hurtling forward to support Deeney on the break, back in formation by the time the ball came back the other way. Forestieri dropped back into a midfield role and a surprisingly effective defensive display before being replaced by the equally dynamic Battocchio. We played exclusively on the break, abetted by Anya’s perhaps overdue introduction for Faraoni, and suddenly had a swagger, suddenly looked potent. Boro continued to have more possession, but the better, clearer chances would come our way… George Friend, it transpired, had a better chance of matching Anya for pace than many adversaries but it wasn’t enough to prevent our best break which saw the winger beat Given and the far post. Another break saw Anya release Deeney with a perfect throughball that bypassed Chalobah only for Given to emerge from his line and time his interjection to perfection. Murray, like Forestieri largely irrelevant in the first half, suddenly had the game between his teeth, bringing the ball out and making good decisions, red shirts scuttling in his wake. Daniel Pudil, less eyecatching but far more reliable as our wingbacks have placed more emphasis on defending, put in a tireless shift on the left flank. And Captain Deeney was simply magnificent, every inch the leader… bullish, aggressive, holding the ball up, retaining possession, relieving pressure on the defence, this was by some distance his best 45 minutes of the season.
4- But perhaps the real highlight was at the other end of the pitch. It was a good afternoon for those who like a bit of an ovation. Sir Tom Finney got a fitting tribute before the kick-off, the heartfelt ones always distinguished from the dutiful ones by dint of the applause already being in full swing before the referee formally starts the minute’s appreciation. Danny Graham and Nathaniel Chalobah were both welcomed (although the latter was to turn the crowd via his altercation with Fernando), and later the departing Forestieri and arriving Anya were both warmly recognised. Tommie Hoban’s welcome, though, was the warmest. It’s testimony to his impact in four months in the first team last year that a year and a week since his last first team appearance, everyone is delighted to have him back… and again, this was more than dutiful appreciation of a youngster who’s had it rough, this was genuine excitement.
And trepidation, at least in my case. Worst case scenario: he limps off five minutes after his half-time introduction. We’ve seen that before. Or maybe he looks rusty, slower, less confident. ”Not the same player”. You know, they’re never the same player, not after that long out. Perhaps he messes up, an unfortunate mistake that rattles his confidence and sets him back, pushed back in the queue behind Angella, Doyley, Ekstrand, Hall, Cassetti, Nosworthy, Belkalem. No margin for error.
There’s still time for things to go wrong, of course. Early days. But my God this was magnificent, beyond our wildest expectations. Every inch the combination of strength, pace, composure and just being too bloody good for this nonsense that we remember from last year. Well done, Tommie, and welcome back.
5- If Tuesday’s final whistle was greeted with relief, relief at having navigated a harder-than-it-should-have-been scrap with modest opponents, the final whistle today was met with a fist-pumping roar. We quoted this stat on Tuesday, but it only gets more impressive with time… that’s seven home games under Sannino, one goal conceded. And having pointed out that it was unreasonable to put our repeated capitulations at home under Gianfranco down to mere bad luck, it’s not reasonable to credit luck with too much responsibility for our recent ability to defend a lead – at least at Vicarage Road. It keeps happening.
And as we clamber back into the top half of the table we should pause once more to doff our cap to the presence of the play-offs. Not that we’re on a charge, not yet anyway. Let’s see. But just to their existence, without which our season would already be over. Six points off and with further winnable fixtures to come, there’s still scope to train our eye on Reading in sixth. Oh sure, us and half the division, but we’re not fussed about them. Let’s just worry about ourselves for the moment, and actually we’re looking pretty good. If Tuesday was winning ugly, winning without looking convincing, here was a win grounded in defensive organisation, sure, but in guts and fight and spirit too. I’ll take that. Wherever it sees us ending up, guts and fight and spirit go an awfully long way.
Watford 1 Birmingham City 0 (12/02/2013) 12/02/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Sometimes, football is a beautiful, breathtaking spectacle. Artistic and elegant, bold and dramatic, capable of lifting the spirit and carrying it away from all of life’s concerns to a happier place. This was definitively not one of those times. If football at its best is a duel between musketeers, all cut, thrust and dexterity, this was the equivalent of two trolls knee-deep in treacle heaving clubs at each other. And grunting.
Mark, Steve and Tom were with me, football fans but not Watford fans, colleagues of my brother’s from oop north accommodating his need for a fix on a business trip. He was apologising to them midway through the first half as passes went into touch, runs were mis-read and the game descended gently from a low starting point to knuckle-chewing tedium. We have become accustomed, of course, to the established successful recipe for playing Watford at Vicarage Road, which includes lots of closing down high up the pitch, harrying and waiting for us to make a mistake. Here, we pre-empted City’s closing down (which did come) by starting the game exactly as if we were being hounded in possession to a far greater degree than was happening, saving the visitors the bother. The goal itself summed up the evening nicely… Troy Deeney, rightly lauded by Sannino for a combative, bloody-minded performance, pirouetting an air kick, regaining his poise and having another go, this time driving home via a deflection of a defender’s leg.
2- It’s worth noting that, for all the continued use of the closing-down thing it’s not proving nearly as effective for visitors as it once was. That’s four wins, a draw and a defeat at home under Sannino, five clean sheets and one goal conceded against visitors including 3 of the current top 7. Lee Clark, who looks perpetually like a sulky schoolboy sitting outside the headteacher’s office, claimed that City were worth at least a point but his view was rather fanciful. City could have equalised, certainly (see below) but that’s not the same thing; in a miserable chore of a game, you did kinda feel that there was unrealised quality in the Watford side which was having a duvet day, whereas Birmingham were offering what they had and it wasn’t much, even if the combination of obstructiveness and a goal threat in Burke and Macheda will probably be enough to keep them up. In any event it’s a source of no small enjoyment, particularly amongst those who’ll remember the 1999 play-offs and trips to St Andrews around that time, that we’ve beaten City four times on the hop without conceding a goal.
3- Which shouldn’t oversugar the performance, and in particular a petulance that was perhaps symptomatic of a frustrating evening all round but aggravating nonetheless. In particular, given the high turnover of players that the Pozzo model has provoked, such conduct makes it very difficult to warm to a side… the same behaviour from more established favourites might be more readily forgiven, but this Watford will be in a constant battle to win hearts and minds. Andreas Merkel jumping in two footed on Burke for no reason at all doesn’t help that, nor does perpetually wandering away from the referee as he’s issuing admonishment (misguided or otherwise). Most concerning of all in this regard was Fernando Forestieri… arguably the success story of last season in terms of his trajectory from aggravating, sulky maverick to focused, combative dynamo. His recent performances have been excellent, despite which the whining and gesticulating is back with a vengeance. He didn’t have the best relationship with the ref last night, who offered him little protection and provoked a curious incident by appearing to beckon Forestieri back on after treatment, change his mind on realising how close the Argentine was to the action and then make to penalise him for entering the field without permission. In fairness the official acknowledged his own culpability, apologised and awarded a drop ball… but Forestieri really didn’t do himself any favours either, ultimately risking a red card by first clawing a ball out of the air in an attempt to fashion a break (for which he was booked), playing on and “scoring” on the break after the whistle had gone and subsequently blatantly slowing the game down by standing six or seven yards from a late Birmingham free kick. Much has been spoken of the need for leaders in the team. A few of our lot needed a kick up the backside last night.
4- Another recent hobbyhorse has been our tendency to sit back on a late lead, whether strategically or through lack of energy in the closing minutes. At Leicester we paid for it; last night we didn’t. Actually I thought the introduction of Hall for Forestieri and subsequent rearrangement of personnel leaving Anya – much missed last night – up front was a good call on Saturday, but good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes. Inviting pressure from a Birmingham side with scarcely the wit to fashion a clear chance but with enough about them to look a gift horse in the mouth and knock it’s teeth out was much less defensible; I’d have preferred us to take the game to them in the final minutes. If that sitting back’s a strategy, it might get tiresome.
5- Which shouldn’t detract from the fact that we did win the game. A game that, as the cliché goes, we would have almost certainly lost a month or two back. And amongst the morass there were straws to cling to… a tour de force from Lloyd Doyley, albeit that it speaks volumes that mere dogged competence stood out so brightly on a grey evening; another masterful showing in the centre of the back three from Marco Cassetti, and once again “Kaiser” Tözsér. Whilst the Hungarian was as sucked up into the humdrum as everyone else, he nonetheless did the Jonathan Hogg thing of receiving the ball under pressure and effortlessly moving it on, spreading the play, keeping things ticking. And his set piece delivery is a joy… one wicked free kick should have been converted by Faraoni, a vicious corner very nearly was by Forestieri’s diagonal run and diving header - but for the man on the far post. Ugly progress, then. But progress nonetheless.
Leicester City 2 Watford 2 (08/02/2014) 09/02/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Walking to the ground, the wind howling around us much as it did prior to the same regular-season fixture last year, it was difficult to escape the thought that we could probably have done without this one at this stage. I missed what was widely lauded as The Turning of The Corner last Sunday, but such positive steps as we have been taking are delicate, precarious things. Like an addict walking away from their vice, one day, one game at a time. It wouldn’t take much to take us back to square one, and our forthcoming run of more plausibly winnable-looking games would have seemed a lot more inviting without a trip to rampant Leicester in the meantime. A Leicester who gave us a mauling at our place in November that had more subtext than Alice in Wonderland.
So, much as there was a sense of cup-tie nothing-to-looseness there was something more than a little ominous about the way that the bright blue sky was gradually blotted out by stormclouds as kick-off approached.
2- Having said all of which the impossible swirling wind, wind that was strong enough to make eating chips outside the ground a Krypton Factor level exercise in dexterity, was the classic leveller. And there may have been something at the back of Leicester’s psyche, the knowledge that the winning run would end sometime, that this one would take that run into double figures, and that, you know, it was us. History’n'that. In any event, we didn’t start the game in the manner of a side that had rolled up either expecting to be scalped or hoping to park the bus. Deeney slugged a shot narrowly over the bar… then Tözsér’s curled free kick dropped to Faraoni flying in at the far post, his header into the side-netting. And then we were ahead… Deeney curled the ball across from the left. Cross? Shot? Either way ‘nando was alert and threw himself across the ball to power a header home. One-nil, and suitably unrestrained acknowledgement in the low-roofed away end. The game continued to hurtle around in the manner of the weather… Manu came out for one of any number of City corners, the wind caught the ball and carried it goalwards and the keeper was forced to change direction and tip over, a fine stop. Angella came close to outdoing his Forest effort, flicking up a corner to scissor a volley goalwards, Schmeichel responded with a stunning reaction save. And then two… Forestieri, a dynamic box of tricks throughout, hounded down de Laet in the right-back position and laid back to Anya. Anya squared to Murray who fashioned a space and then drove past Schmeichel.
3- So did we blow it? If we did it was in the period of play that immediately followed our second goal. We’d responded impeccably to going ahead, staying on the front foot, staying aggressive and retaining our discipline. After Murray’s goal however City came at us down their right, de Laet squared and James tucked away tidily, our two goal lead halved straight away. A decent move, but we repelled the many other decent moves that City threw at us throughout the rest of the game. Here we seemed a little bit dazed, a little bit too pleased with ourselves and perhaps ready for the interval… whereas City got straight back at us and brought the deficit back to a single goal immediately.
But this was very, very far from the Nottingham Forest disaster ten days ago. Leicester are a far more accomplished opponent and threw more at us than their Midlands neighbours had at the City Ground, particularly in a second half that was a classic kitchen sink job for the most part, City throw numbers forward, we put bodies on the line and try to catch them on the break. And we did a bloody good job of it too… the home side didn’t eke out many chances for all their possession, and showed signs of not being used to being in this position – Kasper Schmeichel at one point flying out to deny an already offside Forestieri took a risk with a waist high attempted volley that was closer to connecting with the Argentine than the ball – fortunately for the Dane he missed both.
Yes, yes, they got the goal, and a fine strike too into roughly the same corner as Nathaniel Chalobah’s howitzer had flown nine months ago (yup). Rather they hadn’t, naturally, but if it were to happen you’d rather it was that way… them earning the draw with a worldy rather than us messing up to throw it away. Because, yes, Drinkwater could perhaps have been closed down, and, yes, we’d had chances to put it to bed… not least Forestieri, released by an astonishing reverse-pass from Ekstrand, who overhit a cross to Deeney on the break when a shot across the face looked like the better bet. Such criticisms are churlish; this was a massive performance that nearly yielded a massive result. Three away games on the hop we’ve let two goal leads slip, true, but you’ve got to give high quality opposition some credit too. Of the three games, only at Forest did we do any throwing away.
4- My first view of Daniel “Kaiser” Tözsér, and if this wasn’t the masterful performance that dispatches from Brighton reported, the Hungarian nonetheless looked a valuable addition to the side on any number of levels. For the first time this season the team has a pendulum, someone setting the rhythm from the back of the midfield… and, do not scratch your eyes, someone shouting and cajoling and organising, bringing the defence out, directing. I remember that… that’s a captain that is. Add a suave set piece delivery and you’ve got a big tick on this outing, only a silly yellow for a needless foul blotting his copybook.
Elsewhere, other than Forestieri, highlights included the performances of Cassetti, a perhaps surprising call in the centre of the defence for Hall, and for the impeccable Angella. So too the splendid Human League-inspired chant for Daniel Pudil (“Daniel Pudil Baby….”), which one can only hope will start a trend for early eighties adaptations before Park “Too Much” Chu Young comes back from his knock.
5- Leicester were giving it large at the end of the game, not unreasonably in context although to a greater extent than a home draw against a mid-table side to terminate a winning run probably merited. They do have previous on this of course… the “we’re going to Wembley, you’re not” chants that followed their first leg play-off win in May weren’t quite on a par with Palace’s premature “Eagle Express” train to Cardiff in 2006 but they weren’t too clever nonetheless. Beyond dispute though is that we’ve had some belting games against City over the past few years (and not just the play-offs… the Danny Graham one? The Chalobah one? The Craig Forsyth one? The Heidar one?) and it seems likely that this run will now take a pause of a season at least. Difficult to dispute that they’ve merited it either… comfortably the best we’ve seen this season and a far stiffer test than the side we beat in the play-offs. We gave them a(nother) hell of a game today though. Progress.
Nottingham Forest 4 Watford 2 (30/01/2014) 31/01/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- It feels a long time ago… but at the start of the evening there were grounds for optimism. The Manchester cup tie was always going to be an anomaly, but whilst City’s second half comeback turned the game from a miracle to a curio in the eyes of the national press – coo, look at what plucky little Watford managed, bless them – it nonetheless constituted something significantly more positive than what we’d expected, let alone feared. If Sannino’s plan is to be effective then a stabilising, sort-the defence-out period is to be expected – even if not very exciting to watch. A corner would be turned at some point. Perhaps this was it.
And there was nothing in the first half that seriously challenged that optimism. Forest started aggressively, but we looked solid and disciplined and largely kept them at bay. The home side’s clearest chance was a Collins header that smashed against the bar after a soft free kick, one of several borderline decisions that would topple the home side’s way, but this represented a decent return for the Watford rearguard away to a strong opponent. They were getting the ball in wide positions but Paterson would try to beat one man too many as he cut in from the right and Abdoun wasted the space he found on the left. When Angella scored, an extraordinarily elaborate flick to a Murray corner, we looked in control and confident. The second half started as the first, but again we drew blood… Deeney was felled as he attempted to release Anya on the break and Murray’s near-post free kick was met by an unchallenged diagonal run from Angella. His celebration in front of the away end, the only one of twelve goals in the last week that travelling Hornets would have a close-up view of, was heartfelt.
2- We were cruising, and the home crowd began to turn. They’re getting better at the City Ground in this regard… ten or fifteen years ago they’d have been on the grumble before the end of the first half… nonetheless, the audible discontent had started and there was precious little sign of what was to come despite Billy Davies’ half-time switch in of Simon Cox for the less mobile Halford. So… perhaps a shame that the goal came when it did, but either way it was a portentous. The ball game from deep, the impressive Moussi lost his man at the far post and headed across to where Cox was far more alert than whoever should have been marking him. After so long making life difficult for Forest, this was far too easy.
With the benefit of hindsight, you have to wonder what sort of difference having Onesize in there might have made. A big lump to get his bloody head on the end of things; Forest’s first three goals all involved sloppy marking and lack of a decisive intervention as a ball came in from Forest’s left. So too the flexibility within the squad to have introduced a plug at the back of the midfield, a role that Al Bangura fulfilled for a season or so, just to block the midfield up. Or equally the much-vaunted quick striker, who might have given Forest cause to look over their shoulders once or twice when pushing forward… instead, the hardworking but isolated Deeney was dropping deep in search of the ball. Forest smelled blood, and in the absence of any of those things the tide of the game turned irreversibly.
3- There’s an awful lot of quality in the squad. A squad which is certainly lopsided… lack of pace or variety in attack, lack of a ballwinner in midfield… but quality nonetheless. You do have to wonder about fitness though. The parallels with Saturday are of course startling and remarkable, and you can read too much into the strength of the weekend opposition. Twice in a week we’ve been two up away from home with half an hour to go and conceded four… but not since Cristian Battocchio’s late winner against Wigan in September have we improved upon a half-time result and last night’s utter capitulation saw more than one set of weary legs far too early in proceedings. If this is a problem then it’s hardly something that Beppe Sannino can be held accountable for – the seeds are sown in pre-season, and he’s had a relentless fixture list to accommodate. But it will continue to be an issue, particularly in the light of new signings coming in from the cold and pressure on key positions. By all accounts the tiring of Murray and Battocchio (and the withdrawal of the former) was a factor in Saturday’s developments; asking two young players – both of whom are lightweight, cogs not engines, to play the same role was optimistic.
4- More than anything, we’re in a funk. The lack of belief is evident, the brittle lack of resilience astonishing. My co-editor warned at the beginning of the campaign that every season in Watford’s recent history that has been preceded by expectation – principally in the summers of 2000, 2001 and 2007 – has been followed by abject misery. His words have proven prophetic (and he’s not even having to bloody sit through any of it) as yesterday’s match finds us in a trough every bit as low as the lowest points of those seasons. The context, the expectation, doesn’t help off the pitch or on it. This isn’t a side set up for a scrap. We need to find a win from somewhere rather urgently, some bit of flotsam to build on.
5- And in the light of everything, naturally the Pozzo model has been questioned. This model that has seen such a high turnover of players and a now disjointed and rudderless team, devoid of the fighting spirit that has characterised even the most limited Watford teams of recent memory. For all of this though, for all of the problems, such criticism is unwarranted. The model can be sound, but if the execution is flawed you’ll still end up in shtuck… the scouting network, the buy-low-sell-high approach don’t guarantee success, they merely facilitate it and can’t mitigate for lack of fitness or failure to replace key cogs of the team. So let’s keep our criticism balanced, and limited to the messageboards. The last thing this team needs at the moment is further disunity.
Watford 2 Bristol City 0 (14/01/2014) 15/01/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- It does come to something when the prospect of playing a top side in the next round really doesn’t provoke any excitement at all. I don’t remember ever feeling this before in such a circumstance… we’ve gone into ties as massive underdogs of course, but always with a puncher’s chance and a nothing-to-lose skip in our step. And yet here… if we beat Bristol and if Man City overcome Blackburn… well. Ho hum. Last season’s tie doesn’t help, of course. We were pretty good then, City beat us comfortably without getting out of second gear anyway. We’re not playing particularly well now, if you’ve not noticed. We could probably do without this…
Such seems to be the prevailing mood, based on an attendance of 7300 which includes a respectable 1500 or so from Bristol. The mood is damp, unexpectant; one comment recalls similar sized crowds in the early nineties, an impression that we build upon by “switching ends” at half time – after half-hearted objections from a steward – and sitting in the Vic Road end for the first time, in my case, in 15 years. The Rookery looks even emptier from here than it did when we were sat in the centre of it. Whatever cup fever is, there doesn’t seem to be much of it on offer at Vicarage Road.
2- City started brightly, and created the first clear chance of the game when Emmanuel-Thomas played in Baldock who was thwarted one-on-one by Bond. Hearts in mouths time – instinctive that, a subconscious reaction. I’m not sure defeat would have been met with much more than a shrug. But as it was, a good stop from the young keeper, alert early in the game… and that was pretty much as good as it got for City, who gave a much more passable impression of side in the relegation zone in the third tier than they had done at Ashton Gate.
Which isn’t to say that we were terribly impressive, at least not for the first half. Attacking, certainly, it was all a bit ragged… too deliberate, but like a dance routine conducted out of time. No rhythm section to guide everyone along… passes sent to where teammates had been half a beat earlier, or where they might have been if they’d been thinking the same way. Increasing amounts of possession, but not a lot in the way of end product until Lewis McGugan’s long corner found Davide Faraoni at the far post, a combination of Faraoni and Karleigh Osbourne seeing the ball tucked into the net. Deliberate, that delivery, and not the last time the trick was tried… Faraoni was lurking at the far post for a deep corner in the second half too, thwarted on that occasion. Defensively we looked quite tight though… Onesize back in the defence and joyfully bootering anything or anyone that got within range. We’ve said it before, but if you could be confident about his fitness there’d be no decision to make. This releases Angella onto the right hand side of the three with ostensibly more freedom to swagger upfield with the ball; joining in the early nineties retro feel he’s a sort of Colin Foster tribute act. Once more, he’s our most impressive performer. We end the half on top, but unconvincingly so.
3- As the second half progressed, our superiority became evident. You wouldn’t go as far as to say we bossed it, but we were clearly too strong for City and finally making it show. City’s back three – including the suitably named Adam Flint – had coped well enough with high balls and physical confrontation, but as at Ashton Gate didn’t like the ball moving around them on the floor, not a bit of it. Lewis McGugan, more assertive and industrious than of late, began to enjoy himself; our passing began to work openings although the finishing-off betrayed a forward line short of confidence – particularly in the Forestieri, whose relentless energy closing down a defence that didn’t want to be closed down helped us stay on the front foot even if the occasions when he was on the end of a move were best forgotten. Troy Deeney, too, although his best chance was denied him by an astonishing save from Parrish which the striker was quick to acknowledge. In the end it was McGugan who made the game safe, sauntering into the box to finish decisively. We could have had more, but could probably also have done with a 1-0 win with something off Deeney’s backside, say, to get our strikers going again in preference to this,but beggars can’t be choosers.
The highlight of the half undoubtedly came with the introduction of Almen Abdi, verdicts on whose prolonged absence have veered between “he’s almost back” to “he’ll never play again”. Actually seeing him enter the fray was rather odd, then, like Lord Lucan showing up or something, but suitably every touch was cheered however insignificant; appropriately he played one luscious through ball before playing a wild pass into touch, presumably as an attempt to be “part of the team”.
4- Increasingly difficult not to see Marco Cassetti as the Godfather of the squad. Been there, done that of course. Bought the t-shirt, chucked it out in favour of a Versace suit. Not involved today through injury, the last time we saw him was an uncomfortable wing back at Ashton Gate… uncomfortable both due to the injury he’d picked up, further limiting his mobility, and the harum scarum relentless pestering of City wing-back Joe Bryan. A wing back who, in unrelated developments, saw himself executed twice in this game, on each occasion by one of Cassetti’s compatriots… first by Davide Faraoni in the first half , who somehow escaped a booking, and then late in the second by Gabrielle Angella, who didn’t. You mess with Marco, and we have to have a conversation. Or kick you into the stand.
5- A win. Full stop. And we did need that. City weren’t great, didn’t do that terribly annoying “haring around closing us down” thing that we’re really going to have to come to terms with at some point. But we won the game, our first win against eleven men since early October. That’ll do, for the timebeing.
Watford 0 Reading 1 (14/01/2014) 12/01/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- There’s an extra game-show-presenter bounce in Richard Short’s exuberance this afternoon, and you just want to punch it. ”Enjooooooooooooy the game” lasts an extra few syllables, with yer man still on the pitch looking as if he’s sizing up whether he’s got a half chance of a high five with any of the team before he finally exits the stage and lets everyone get on with the game. Profoundly irritating – like Alan Partridge, but not funny. It’s going to be that sort of afternoon. By six pm I’m at my Gran’s watching “Reflex”, the latest astonishing depth plumbed by early-evening Saturday evening TV. It’s breathtakingly inane bollocks that makes Deal or No Deal look like University Challenge. Two incidents that bookend the afternoon perfectly and not much has happened in the interim to lift the mood; it’s been a playlist of different flavours of bloody nonsense from start to finish.
2- Reading didn’t help, in all honesty. Millwall were more civil visitors, taking their shoes off in the porch, asking permission to use the lavatory, getting a centre-half sent off early… it was perhaps unreasonable to expect the Royals to follow suit. Instead they swaggered in, grabbed the TV remote and proceeded to channel hop whilst picking their nose and wiping the yield on the arm of the sofa. In our faces from the off they were closing us down well inside our own half, no chance of building anything, no chance of gently easing into a rhythm. Instead it was Reading who took an early lead, bigger and more alert than us from a set piece, not for the first or last time.
If you’re in the position of building from the back, of course, in the work in progress stage where the defensive bit is getting sorted but you’re struggling to score then what you don’t do is give away an early goal against big, robust opposition. Reading continued to hassle us in possession whilst Pogrebnyak was every inch the pressure-relieving target man, winning every ball that went anywhere near him. Our own attacking play seemed concentrated on putting pressure on Chris Gunter at right back with long balls over his head; the highlight was an imperious arcing flick of the brush from the excellent Angella which dropped onto Pudil’s foot a good forty yards away but much of the rest was gormless and without end product. Once again the front two in particular failed to suggest much of a threat, Deeney fighting a lone battle against two uncomplicated centre halves whilst Diego Fabbrini mystifyingly persisted in dropping into an already congested midfield rather than providing an option in the box.
3- Reading’s aggressive approach did at least dispel any illusions Alexander Merkel may have had regarding the sort of football games he’s going to be involved in. Nominally an attacking player he sat deep in the midfield in this one, Iriney’s decent run-out at Ashton Gate obviously not pushing him back up the pecking order. The German took a while to settle, twice giving the ball away in circumstances that suggested he’d have preferred rather more thinking time. As the game went on, particularly as we got onto the front foot on the second half, he became increasingly influential… comfortable in possession, happy to receive the ball in tight corners and find space, find the pass and as he stepped forwards Reading, looking leggy after their first-half efforts, began to creak. Slight of frame, he nonetheless demonstrated early and with some gusto that he likes a tackle… already on a yellow, his silly, reckless challenge on Nick Blackman late on was always going to see him departing early – a straight red, it turned out. Irritating. As was the smattering of applause he received. Quite what was to applaud about a needless high tackle in the centre circle was beyond me.
4- The second half did constitute an improvement though, and much of it stemmed from 55th minute replacement of Hector Bellerin with Fernando Forestieri. The Argentine did well, but it was the change in formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 with Forestieri and Fabbrini either side of Troy Deeney that stretched the visitors and made the difference. The chances started coming… Deeney perhaps missing the best of them as the marauding Doyley squared to him on the edge of the box. He had a clear shot at goal but scooped over. Deeney provided a chance for Forestieri from the right seizing on some dawdling on the Reading left to break down the wing and cross to the far post; the Argentine had hurtled in from somewhere near the halfway line and got underneath the cross. Three times Alex McCarthy was forced into a save… McGugan down the right set up a move which lead to Deeney acrobatically stabbing at goal, the keeper’s reactions pushed it over. A long throw from the left dropped over Forestieri’s shoulder, inviting him to shovel a drive inside the near post which was pushed wide, and in the last minute a McGugan free kick swerved low towards the bottom right hand corner, but was pushed round. Not enough, not convincing, much as we probably did enough to have deserved a point… we’ve seen too many games like this of late. We know how the plotline goes. What differentiated this one was a fractious atmosphere and a greasy surface; referee Keith Stroud was under pressure throughout and lost all semblance of control with an erratic final fifteen minutes, the low point perhaps booking Forestieri for a dive after he’d been crudely sandwiched on the edge of the box. Irritating.
5- If you’re the bloke who sometime last season asked us to stop wittering on about John Eustace, you’d better stop reading now. As so often over the last eighteen months you found yourself wondering what a bit of bloody-mindedness might have achieved in these circumstances. Rarely has a Watford side appeared to amount to so much less than the sum of its parts; in the likes of McGugan, Fabbrini and even the still-improving and positive Forestieri we have three players whose contribution is so much less than their natural ability suggests they ought to be capable of. Oh for someone to be driving us on from the midfield, for someone to be cajoling and encouraging and propelling the team in the right direction rather than scowling and sulking at bad decisions or bad executions. Oh for a bloody leader. The WObby tells us that the club are still after a nippy striker and a midfield destroyer, and that’s all to the good. If the latter has cold blue eyes, battle scars on his shins and an upper arm with an indentation where a captain’s armband should be, so much the better.
Bristol City 1 Watford 1 (04/01/2014) 05/01/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- When I got up this morning it was raining, as it has been forever. The complex logistics of family life with one car meant that me swanning off to Bristol involved being dropped at the railway station at 8.45 (in the rain). This, in turn necessitated getting the children in the car by 8.30 which, in turn, involved peeling one of them reluctantly out of bed and channeling the other’s haphazard energy in the vague direction of the vehicle. In the rain. The point being that sometimes you get a feeling that the world is trying to tell you something. Like, don’t bother, for example. Particularly not when it’s pissing it down with rain.
2- Actually, it wasn’t that bad. A good day out, anyway, and by the time we got to Bristol we’d left the relentless rain behind somewhere near Swindon. There were still showers, occasionally heavy showers, but as the covers came off the pitch there was barely a man with a fork in sight. And whilst what was to follow isn’t going to enter the annals of Watford’s history on the same page as Old Trafford 1978, Sofia 1983 or Wembley 1984 there’s solace to be taken in the fact that we at the very least didn’t lose the game – no small achievement in the context of a quite stunning injury list. Even a squad as extensive as ours can’t accommodate the loss of three wing-backs to injury. Plus a loan wing-back not available for cup ties despite being here for the season. The loss of Marco Cassetti at the end of the first half saw Cristian Battocchio, filling in as an awkward but wholehearted left wing-back for ninety minutes, joined by the equally out of place Connor Smith on the right. He too made a fair fist of it, but this really is pushing the limits of the available bodies. Lloyd Doyley’s relegation to the bench, where he stayed despite Cassetti’s injury, suggests that he too wasn’t fully fit, adding himself to the absences of Hoban and Belkalem in central defensive positions. And we still miss Almen Abdi, badly. And have lost George Thorne, and can’t yet feature our new men. In that context, not a bad result at all.
3- But there’s not much polishing up the game itself. The start was positive; both sides seemed intent on taking the game to the opposition… in our case, the chief protagonist was Lewis McGugan whose direct running cut straight through City’s back three. Given this, it’s a shame that our attacking play was to look like such hard as the game went on… there was hay to be made there. City built momentum more gradually, but were soon creating the better of the chances and were more effective than bottom-half-of-League-One might suggest. The home side suggested an inattentiveness to closing down in shooting range outside the area… it nearly cost them when McGugan had time to line up a curled shot which was heading for the postage stamp until Parrish clawed it two-handed around the corner of post and bar. Bobby Reid had one chance for City, slipping a low shot narrowly wide of Almunia’s right-hand post, and then fed the excellent Joe Bryan, an energetic left wing-back, whose low drive inside the same bottom corner was pushed around the post by the Spaniard.
As the game went on it got stodgier and stodgier. Our own attacking play looked particularly laboured – Sannino has warned Troy Deeney (and us) that chances might be fewer and farther between as he prioritises sorting out the defence. As it stands, we’re difficult to watch and too easy to defend against; Deeney looked particularly isolated, smothered by the deep-sitting Marlon Pack in front of the City defence, and cut an increasingly sullen figure. Diego Fabbrini continues to struggle to channel his undoubted ability; often dropping deep to pick up the ball he then doesn’t move it quickly enough. When picking up the ball on the edge of the area his ghosting-past-three-players thing is effective – this happened a couple of times, on one occasion unfortunately concluding with him treading on the ball and tumbling. There wasn’t much of an appeal, but City fans gave him the bird for the rest of the game anyway. However when picking it up deep there’s too much time afforded for an opponent to get sorted, and not enough movement behind that defence. An indicator that things aren’t really working up front is when Sean Murray starts charging around after the ball trying to force the issue. That’s all to his credit, but when this happens at the end of the first half you know things are getting a bit desperate.
4- Being positive, we do look solid enough defensively, which is no small progress. Iriney deserves some credit from this one – he’s not always looked comfortable, and made one conspicuous cock-up in the first half here when, on winning the ball with a fierce, well-timed challenge to curtail a City break, he played a square ball without looking straight to Sam Baldock, allowing the door to bounce back open so to speak. The destructive part of his role, however, he conducted pretty much flawlessly, and the back three generally stood up well to the questions asked of them.
It looked like we’d pinched a win, of course; Connor Smith cut in from the right in the 84th minute, made to cross it from the corner of the box and then squared to Murray. Marvin Elliott didn’t get close enough to him and the midfielder, probably the Hornets’ stand-out player over the ninety, picked his spot leaving Parrish unsighted. Frustrating, of course, that we didn’t hang on for the requisite five minutes but credit to City too… their quickfire equaliser was more their good work than our bad. An excellent pass spread the ball to Burns flying down the right, he pulled back from the byline and Emmanuel-Thomas finished. All things considered, fair enough.
5- In the grand scheme of things, as above, not a disaster. We assume that as a minimum, Merkel and Ranégie will be available for the replay… a wing-back or two would be helpful too. On the assumption that City won’t turn up at the Vic with their finger as firmly on self-destruct as Millwall had, the assumption that we’ll be too strong for lower division opposition at home merits at least a second glance though in the context of our recent form at the Vic.
The greatest concern perhaps is quite how patient we’re going to need to be in waiting for this rebuilding job to get as far as our attacking play. This one unusual, and not abetted by the injury situation… but it wasn’t particularly exciting. The momentum, the enthusiasm that was built by last year’s elaborate, carefree approach might not be carried particularly far by this pragmatism.
Watford 0 Queens Park Rangers 0 (29/12/2013) 30/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Nil-nil draws come in a variety of flavours. There are the ones where a draw suits at least one of the two sides down to the ground, often the away side, such that if it hasn’t quite been the aim at the outset it’s deemed a more than acceptable eventuality. There are those where a lack of quality is the dominant characteristic, a nil-nil by default. There are those much more open games which are nil-nil in name only, by virtue of neither side quite getting around to scoring. And there are, as my co-editor would wish me to recognise in his continuing absence, occasional total aberrations where even a goalless scoreline flatters an encounter so devoid of anything as to sap the collective will to live of those present – Scarborough (A, 1995) the example most frequently cited in textbooks. These classifications are not mutually exclusive of course… overlaps exist, and this, whilst always watchable, had bits of several of these characteristics. In particular, QPR’s apparent lack of a striking option with Charlie Austin injured and both Zamora and Johnson only fit enough for the bench limited their attacking threat; whether this was down to a genuine lack of options or whether, as has been suggested elsewhere, down to Redknapp peeling back the skin on his “bare bones” as a message to his board with the transfer window about to open, the effect was that an experienced, organised side played without a centre-forward leaving a nil-nil the likeliest outcome from the outset.
2- The first half was a game of kabbadi. Our own potency was limited… Diego Fabbrini was a threat when he got the ball to feet in deep positions and turned on QPR’s defence but this happened too infrequently, and on the one occasion when he gained a sight of goal he dawdled, permitting a stunning tackle from Richard Dunne. Recent Rangers reports have described a susceptibility to being harried and hassled in possession, and so the absences of Ikechi Anya and particularly Fernando Forestieri were unfortunate. This was surely a Fessi game in particular – Rangers’ disciplined midfield, marshalled by the charmless but dominant Barton, shielded a defence that looked fallible when put under pressure, Assou-Ekotto in particular having a distracted-looking first forty-five. At the other end, however, the visitors did their best to expose the vulnerability behind the wingbacks that a 3-5-2 implies. Phillips and particularly Hoilett each had their moments and a number of balls were slammed across the face of goal crying out for a striker to attack them. The louche Niko Kranjcar was nominally the front man however, and hurling himself at stuff in the box really isn’t the Croat’s thing. Nonetheless, the visitors were ahead on points at the break.
3- Second half was much more even. Encouragingly we came out on the front foot and began to drag mistakes out of Rangers’ backline, not least by mixing up our approach and looking to turn them with longer balls as well as controlled possession. Thorne was a valuable pivot in a congested midfield, Cassetti again did well at right wing-back with Doyley shielding him and Bellerin dug in well on the left. However clear cut chances were again thin on the ground… Fabbrini’s neat one-two with Deeney provided the best opportunity but the Italian finished nervously, his low shot lacking power and too close to Rob Green. Ultimately, the game petered out and whilst there were few incidents that had the crowd on their feet you have to feel that, Boxing Day notwithstanding, we’d have taken this at kick-off in the context of Sannino’s stated priority of sorting the defence out first and foremost. One iffy penalty in his first three games isn’t bad going, whatever the circumstances.
4- What an extraordinary menagerie this QPR side is. I have friends who pick their fantasy league teams according to a theme… here, life imitates, well, art, kinda, in that Redknapp has forged a side made up of last-picks of Fantasy League teams circa 2008. Yossi Benayoun? Nedum Onuoha? Bobby Zamora? You could list the entire team in this fashion and suffix, “wow, I wondered where he had gone” after each of them. Gary O’Neil? Surely he must be dead by now? A hulking graveyard of bandits and reprobates with an extraordinary array of silly haircuts. The starting eleven had an average age of 28, a full two years older than our own despite the contributions of Manuel Almunia and Marco Cassetti, and this without 30+ contributions from no fewer than TWELVE other players in their thirties elsewhere in the squad, of whom only Park Ji-Sung’s wages are being temporarily picked up elsewhere. Not a side with an eye on the future any further than May, then. God you’ve got to hope they fall on their (ample) arses.
5- So far so good. Today suggested that Sannino can both mix up his approach and influence things positively from the bench – witness the improvement of the second half over the first. Not Vicarage Road’s most rip-roaring ninety minutes of the season, but in the context of the last few months I think we’d all have traded off a bit of excitement for some defensive robustness – albeit against a team without a striker – and if we can continue to beat bad teams and get draws off half-decent ones that’ll do for the timebeing.
Watford 4 Millwall 0 (26/12/2013) 26/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- A new manager always brings with him a sense of dislocation, wonkiness. A new start necessarily means that the status quo has been dispensed with and for better or worse you return to Vicarage Road with trepidation, not knowing quite what to expect. In these circumstances it’s natural to cling to familiar things: the fresh chill of Boxing Day air, turkey sandwiches as the lunchtime game kicked off. And a good chortle as a hapless opponent capsized and set themselves up for a hiding. We needed that. We needed it almost as much as the team did.
2- And boy did Millwall play their role to a tee. Before they’d dropped to ten men in the ninth minute they had already demonstrated the qualities that had lead to one point in their previous six away from home. In contrast to the established blueprint that has earned visitors to the Vic three points so reliably, they stood off us and allowed us pretty much whatever space we needed (“and if you need more, you only have to ask. Innit.”). This enabled us to get into a rhythm, revelling in the freedom, and you kinda got the feeling that if we didn’t win this one it was going to be a long time before we ended our spartan run. Danny Shittu’s physique, as we know, seems to have precluded him from ever learning how to defend; caught wrong side, not for the first or last time in his career, pulled Deeney back, red card, penalty. Not so much gifting us the win as sitting down next to us and gently asking if we’d like them to start the unwrapping for us.
3- What’s chicken and what’s egg? Did we look more aggressive, faster, sharper because we had the lead and found our mojo again, or was that aggression, that sharpness part of the recipe that gave us the lead that has eluded us at home since September? Would we have won this game under Gianfranco, or would Millwall have stuck to the blueprint that had been serving every opponent so well? It’s difficult to believe that any opposition would have been inane enough to deviate from that most straightforward of approaches, but there was little in the Lions’ performance to inspire confidence… Lomas responded to the sending off by taking off a winger and moving striker Jermaine Easter wide, leaving Steve Morrison on his own up front. He won more than his fair share in the air… once finding space at the far post from a set piece to power a textbook header downwards and forcing Ikechi Anya into a goalline clearance. Most of the time however there was simply nobody close enough to him to pick up his knockdowns; the ball didn’t stick, we took possession and the Lions’ penalty area began to resemble a coconut shy. Indeed, I’ve seen more movement in coconut shies than in the Millwall team whose attitude was exemplified by Ikechi Anya’s impudent third goal at the start of the second half; playing down the left, his dummy cut him inside two stranded opponents who he left isolated on the flank. They didn’t chase, nobody else closed down and he picked his spot with aplomb. Ten days ago, the last game at the Vic sounded the death knell of one manager; this one felt like Glenn Roeder’s team’s trip to Crystal Palace in 1996 for Lomas. Hapless.
4- As for the Hornets… plenty impressed, for what it was worth. Deeney was aggressive and mobile again, looking for the ball. Sean Murray was a livewire, involved in everything, always moving and keeping us moving. George Thorne, tidy and disciplined. Marco Cassetti revelling in being afforded yards and yards of space on our right in the mistaken belief that without any pace he couldn’t use it; Anya indifferent to the closer attention he got down the left. If there’s a frustration, and this despite the consideration of hitting the woodwork an extra four times (the inside of the woodwork three times) and having a rampaging counterattack rounded off by a flying chest from Forestieri ruled out for offside, it’s that this wasn’t the cricket score it should have been. For this, and I don’t think it’s too harsh a criticism, you have to blame a rather casual attitude to finishing those chances off. Lewis McGugan, whose low profile during our bad run and relative resurgence today appear to validate Forest fans’ warnings, should have squared rather than taken a second half chance himself. He hit the post, but teammates were queuing up. Later, Fernando and Troy were two on one with a resigned-looking Mark Beevers in vague attendance; Forestieri had time to bring it down, or to square to his partner. Instead he turned on the ball and attempted a scissor kick, straight down David Forde’s throat. I guess if you can’t try such things in the dying minutes with a 4-0 lead when can you? Nonetheless, Troy expressed his regard for the Argentine’s judgement.
5- So what have we learned of our new man? Not an awful lot, in all honesty, beyond that his charges haven’t lost the ability to completely demolish opposition that invite them to do so. With an optimistic squint it was possible to interpret communication between our backline as improved, more attentive, but this was in the face of next to no challenge, like mastering a computer game in training mode. Certainly he made no attempt to seize the limelight, a courteous but unshowy appreciation of the crowd both before and after. Simultaneously he made no attempt to keep rein in his emotions during the game. From the first whistle he was on the balls of his feet, like a tennis player spending two hours bouncing in anticipation of a return of serve. Despite the weekend’s much publicised contretemps he paid precisely no attention to the boundaries of his technical area, beyond the three seconds or so following entreaties from both his coaching staff and the fourth official. And he skipped along the touchline, cajoling Marco Cassetti in pursuit of the ball like an over-eager parent at a school sports day. But his team? You don’t learn much from watching a team rip up a paper bag. Tougher challenges to come. Starting Sunday.