Watford 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 (25/10/2008) 25/10/2008Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
Not for the first time since August, it’s tempting to look at the stark contrasts between this season and last. Expectations dramatically lower, certainly. Sixth from bottom after this game, as opposed to sixth from top in May. By and large, playing our better stuff – and certainly picking up more points – at home; our away record was a proud thing last season, but merely loitered in the back of the mind of those who didn’t get to many away games.
There was no way this game loitered in the back of anything. No awkward youth this one, leaning with his back against the wall sipping a can of Kestrel as the party meandered on in front of him. This was the guy off his face by ten’o'clock, getting everyone dancing before snogging some girl’s face off in the kitchen, climbing onto the garden shed and falling through the roof before falling asleep on top of a couple of bags of compost. So… ugly and disgraceful in many ways but impossible to ignore. And very very far from dull.
That’s not to say that ig’s sideways “that was straight out of last season” comment a minute or so in was in any way inappropriate; at that stage a very long and uncomfortable afternoon seemed in prospect. Such had been the fear before the match had even kicked off, in fact, with Darren Ward’s enforced absence and Jay Demerit’s worryingly persistent injury leaving us with four defenders who’ve hardly been models of consistency this term. And, crucially, not a six footer in the back five. Quite who this big rugged Watford side that I keep reading about in the national press are I struggle to imagine.
It was slightly surprising to see Lloyd Doyley line up in the centre initially, with Mariappa at right back; for ten minutes following the farcical opening goal, he demonstrated what the thinking had obviously been, sticking closer to Sylvan Ebanks-Blake than a pair of cycling shorts. The damage was already done though… an aimless hump down the centre had found Ebanks-Blake springing higher than his marker, the ball had flicked on for Iwelumo to apply the most innocuous of touches as Richard Lee came flailing out at him. The ball bounced pathetically, apologetically into the net. From our point of view, there wasn’t a lot that wasn’t wrong with that goal.
Vicarage Road was very quiet. Actually, considering their massive following (appropriate, given that they’re such a massive club), even Wolves weren’t exactly giving it large only getting vocal when a linesman made the mistake of flagging them offside direct from a throw-in. An incidental error as it turned out, Wolves had contrived to waste the chance before the flag was noted.
We were grappling for a foothold, just trying to stay in the game. The thankless task of competing with Iwelumo for high balls was given to Leigh Bromby – who probably came off second best overall, but competed furiously despite the odds being stacked against him by a much larger opponent. Not unreasonably in the circumstances Wolves seemed to identify a big lump down the middle towards Iwelumo’s head as being a fruitful strategy, and it wasn’t long before Mariappa and Doyley were switched, the slightly taller Mariappa supporting Bromby in the face of the onslaught. Another ball came in, Stephen Ward’s header across the face really didn’t go very far wide at all…
But I’m going to skip to the point now, the conclusion of the narrative. Because whatever this Watford side’s problems, and there are obviously a few, a lack of character and guts really isn’t one of them. Another contrast to last season – maybe even the largest – what a thoroughly loveable team we’re currently watching.
Twenty minutes in and we’ve equalised. It’s not quite true that it came out of nowhere, this was an open game from the start and such forays as we’d managed had provided encouragement. Some furious industry from Smith and relentless pulling and teasing and ferreting from Hoskins – who must be a complete pain in the arse to mark – had suggested a weak underbelly and in particular a lack of confidence in dealing with crosses either on the part of keeper Ikeme, whose knees visibly trembled every time a ball came over, or on the part of his defence in his capacity in this respect. As with so much, Smith on the right was the instigator, a ball in knocked loose in the box and big Greg is Johnny-on-the-spot to tap in an improbable equaliser.
Game on, and no mistake. Shortly afterwards Rasiak released Hoskins, who is developing a pleasing knack of looking like he might forge a decent partnership with whoever he plays alongside, on the left of the box and the young striker displayed some new-found confidence by opening his body up and attempting to chip Ikeme who had wandered off his line. Hoskins’ touch was much too heavy and the lob went well over to scorn from behind the goal, but we’ll take missed chances like that any day of the week if he keeps getting in positions to miss them.
Wolves came back at us… Iwelumo – again – met a cross from the left and sent his header narrowly wide. On the break, though, we put together the move of the half – some neat play from O’Toole saw him make space to feed John Eustace in the centre circle; the skipper advanced on a retreating Wolves before sending an astonishing ball into the path of the charging Harley with the outside of his boot. Harley hit his cross first time and it looked as if the gamble hadn’t paid off – the ball went very deep and we were about to bemoan the lack of a touch when time was available. How quickly one forgets the value of a big target in the box – Priskin has his qualities, but he wouldn’t have risen as Rasiak did to crash a header off the underside of the bar. It looked unfortunate from our distance; Hoskins seemed primed to snap up the rebound but his shot deflected over.
Implausibly we were in this, but our gusto hadn’t solved the rather large problems at the other end. The largest of our rather large problems was Chris Iwelumo, whose ongoing scrap with Leigh Bromby, each trading arms around shoulders, nudges and tugs of shirts, frequently presented situations that were impossible to officiate. On one occasion, Iwelumo bundled his way into the box after committing and receiving any number of dubious challenges, his tumble into a heap once past the white line worthy of twice the derision that it received.
Five minutes later however Iwelumo was treated more generously, again exchanging arm locks with the persistent Bromby and being given the verdict, this time ten yards outside the box. A wide wall was lined up and Richard Lee’s view was obscured as David Jones sent an extraordinary left footed shot curling around the outside of the wall and inside the wrong-footed keeper’s near post via a late glove.
The half ended with a frank exchange of views on the merits or otherwise of John Eustace, Waldorf behind us lamenting the captain’s contribution in defiance of the pass of the half and the only real leadership in a yellow shirt. Joons, to my right, reacting rather sensitively in defence of a player for whom he has confessed unnatural feelings – albeit he had called the impending moaning before it actually transpired.
And such was the general mood, despite a decent round of applause at the break for a stout attempt to make a fist of it. It felt like we’d again let in a goal at a crucial time, and that a procession awaited in the second half.
Ha. As at Southampton, when David McGoldrick’s weak penalty gave us a kick-start, it helped that we got an early free kick on the left about ten yards further back from the spot where Jones had hit his goal from twenty minutes or so earlier. Mick McCarthy’s head almost exploded in incredulous remonstration and a coffee cup appeared to go flying as Neal Collins was penalised for his latest exchange with Rasiak. Tommy Smith curled in a decent inswinger and Wolves completely failed to defend it, John-Joe O’Toole the first of several yellow shirts waiting in line at the far post to bundle home. Bedlam in the stands; in the dugout, the Wolves staff start to sweep up the widely spread fragments of McCarthy’s head and shove them back onto the stump of his neck like play dough onto a lollipop stick.
An aside about John Joe here. It will have been evident to many as early as the trip to Coventry a year ago this week that this was a midfielder who attacks the box as well as Tim Cahill. His goals, in the absence of pretty much every striker we fielded last season, have been a blessing, but they may cost us too. For the goals alone will attract the scouts… but for the goals, it might have taken them a little longer to spot a potentially outstanding midfielder.
Often his all round game doesn’t quite come together. His lofted passes can appear aimless, his energy rather randomly distributed. On other occasions, as today, he’s simply fabulous, his composure, touch and awareness in tight situations enabling us to retain possession far better than we have done for ages. And as I say, we might have gotten away with him for a bit… if it weren’t for those pesky goals.
Game on. Again. And if the first half was a matter of us battling our way back into the game, now we were giving as good as we got. Rasiak was continuously involved, and though Boothroyd had warned of lack of sharpness and match fitness after his long absence there was little sign of it here. The first of several chances to go begging came via the Pole but Ikeme snatched his ball from the head of Harley.
The next was altogether more dramatic. Yet another penalty – in our favour this time, and in fairness a bit of a soft one. As we’ve seen and discussed, however, you can’t afford to knock back the breaks that fate gives you… except we did. There was a distinct lack of clamour for the ball, Will Hoskins briefly discussing with Tommy Smith and Jon Harley, with form from the spot at previous clubs, noticable by his absence. Smith’s run up was greeted with a slightly nervous bellow of encouragement from the Rookery, whose cheers disappeared into their navels as Smith’s shot flew straight down the centre and several feet clear of the bar.
And ten minutes later the gravity of the miss was rammed home. The ferociously irrepressible Kightly was at the centre of it, both Bromby with a slack pass and Mariappa with a bizarre loose touch could have done more to prevent it; Michael Gray whose previous incursions from the left had been stymied by his lack of right foot made no mistake this time and grabbed the crucial third.
Aidy Boothroyd made a double substitution immediately, already planned in search of a winner and now designed to chase a point. Off came the industrious Harley – our only defensive cover – for McAnuff, to muted grumbles, but much more aggressive dissatisfaction greeted the removal of Hoskins in favour of Lionel Ainsworth.
Hoskins had been terrific, and grows more likeable with every game despite the relative lack of goals. But he’s been doing the thankless chasing, ferrying and pressurising job for several weeks, often twice a week and sometimes in the absence of any attacking alternatives or relief. Twenty minutes’ rest was perhaps overdue.
And a little surprisingly, with McAnuff on one side and Ainsworth on the other we began to look menacing (and I never thought I’d find myself saying that about Lionel Ainsworth) and enjoyed our only spell of dominance of the match. McAnuff cut inside from the left to fire in an evil cross that Neal Collins threw himself at to head wide. On the other flank, Ainsworth got clear of two markers and found O’Toole on the edge of the box who killed the ball’s momentum with his first touch and, still in the air, poked it goalwards with his second. Great stuff, only Kevin Foley on the line to head clear prevented the roof coming off the Rookery. We couldn’t have afforded to replace it anyway…
Minutes later some fine composure from Smith saw him beat two markers to make space for a shot… alas, if he’d been able to kick the ball hard he’d have spent his career as a Premiership striker. The blocked shot fell to McAnuff who must have thought he’d scored but that man Foley flew in from nowhere again to block. Genuinely breathless stuff.
Midfield was a complete scrap by now, and we were grateful for Eustace’s more belligerent supporting act to O’Toole’s endeavour. Not that this spared him from another volley of nonsense from Waldorf behind us, Joons controlling himself just long enough to witness the captain, with comic timing, lift another extraordinary pass into Ainsworth’s path on the right flank. His wicked cross nonetheless managed to wander across the penalty area evading the onrushing targets it was aimed at.
I’m making it sound like the alamo – it wasn’t, not really. Wolves countered, and at least once looked to have scored a fourth but for some good fortune and some bloody-minded defending. The ref, meanwhile, having courted occasional displeasure from each set of supporters but generally having made a decent fist of the whole thing (as far as it’s possible to placate and give order to a raging hurricane) finally began to lose it a bit; one particular altercation that ended with Collins shoving Rasiak two-handed onto his backside after the ball was dead right infront of the ref (but was left uncommented on) was particularly perplexing. And then we all went home.
Preposterous stuff all round really. In the end we were probably a bit unlucky not to get something; even that crumb of comfort in defeat seemed a long way away in the second minute. In the end, our lack of physical presence – and leadership – at the back probably did for us again. Wolves, meanwhile, look a strong side, but far more fallible defensively than Cardiff did on Tuesday, albeit to the same end.
And back to the conclusion which was wedged somewhere in the middle of the first half. How much fun. Again. Seven home league games in, we’ve already enjoyed several times the excitement that the whole of last season served up. And frankly at the start of the campaign, most of us would have taken that, nineteenth or otherwise.
Lee 3, Doyley 2 (Henderson NA), Bromby 3, Mariappa 2, Sadler 3, Smith 4, Eustace 4, *O’Toole 4*, Harley 3 (McAnuff 3), Rasiak 4, Hoskins 4 (Ainsworth 3)