Watford 2 Crystal Palace 2 (08/02/2013) 09/02/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. These are the games, my friends. Bursting with possibility…for disaster, for triumph, for all of the stuff in between. For finding out what you’re really made of. A clash between two cresting waves, unstoppable and inevitable; no time for caution or reserve, just a head-on collision at full pelt. For a club like ours, you only really get them when promotion is on the horizon: cup or league encounters with higher forces lack the same balance, relegation six-pointers lack the surging ambition. Not a game that was ever going to end goalless and sterile, this.
2. Quite what Palace were doing in the first twenty minutes is anyone’s guess, although I imagine Ian Holloway might be more willing than most to have a stab at an answer. Something hilarious, no doubt, involving a comedy metaphor about ferrets. (Yeah, I know, glass houses.) What they weren’t doing, without question, is paying much attention to Almen Abdi, who was allowed to walk through the open front door while everyone was nailing boards over the windows in preparation for the coming Vydra-Deeney storm. A storm which turned out to be the one Michael Fish had in mind on that fateful night, a bit of minor dampness and meteorological flatulence; they’ve both had better games.
It’s not as if Palace didn’t have time to sort themselves out, Abdi having had an almost identical sighter to his opener within a couple of minutes. They were slow and sloppy and slack and other things that you simply can’t afford to be against us these days…you almost want to take teams to one side and give them a friendly warning. By the time Nathaniel Chalobah had headed home a second, a rare (sort of) set piece goal from a side that’s almost come to regard such things as a bit gauche, the whole evening threatened to end in glorious anticlimax, like turning up for the clash of the titans to find someone prodding a sleeping dormouse with a pencil. You wouldn’t have minded, naturally, but I must confess that I find some relish in watching this impudent young side tested properly, some pride in the division we’ve all been part of for so long biting back a little; it won’t do them any harm at all.
3. And bloody hell, it bit back here. At around the midway point of the first half, we sucked the Palace midfield towards us, bypassed it with an absolutely glorious, almost casual forward pass from Tommie Hoban, and set in motion a break so expansive and sweeping that it appeared to belong on a prairie more than a football pitch. It ended with Matej Vydra stretching to head wide, pretty much his only sight of goal during the entire match. And we lavished it all with our applause, two-nil up and putting on a show. And for a minute or so, we followed that with some extravagant flicks and tricks, fluttering our eyelashes and blowing kisses at ourselves in the mirror and imagining admirers swooning in our wake as we entered the ballroom. We woke up with a terrible headache.
Well, that’s not quite fair: we should take quite a bit of pride in certain aspects of the remaining ninety minutes, to my reckoning. If you want grumbling, you can find it elsewhere, I’m sure. (I’m writing this on the train and I’ve just found some stray chocolate coins from Christmas in my bag, so I’m in the mood for looking on the bright side.) Anyway, thing is…when we began all of this back in August, and for quite a while beyond that, and possibly until quite recently, we were often guilty of a frivolous, carefree and sometimes rather silly attitude to defending. That whole you-score-five-we’ll-score-six thing seemed like terrific fun when we were sticking it to the toffs under GT, but it smacks of a certain dismissive arrogance now that our side is populated with imported talent, riches we couldn’t have dreamt of before the takeover. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it properly. Let’s break a sweat. Let’s earn it.
So, you might not think that throwing away a two-goal lead is anything to be proud of. But I suggest that little was thrown away here: on the contrary, only conceding two goals, and comparatively few other chances beyond that, and emerging with a draw in the face of such a sustained onslaught represents something of a triumph in its own way. It’s not merely that lesser teams would’ve lost; lesser teams would’ve been pulled apart altogether. For the absolute entirety of the second half, a Palace tidal wave swamped our midfield and pushed on towards our back three and beyond; it was relentless and undeniable and there was nothing for it but to cling on. A side built on possession, we couldn’t retain the ball for long enough to get over the halfway line without punting hopefully in the direction of a largely irrelevant Deeney. Chalobah, our outlet and playmaker, was surrounded, dragged into a dark alley and unceremoniously mugged as soon as he ventured into the areas he’s used to strutting around like he owns; Hogg fought hard against the odds but could supply nothing constructive; Abdi was typically immaculate once every ten minutes and utterly lost otherwise. There must’ve been space somewhere, bits of the pitch that were safe from the marauding hordes, but we seemed too exhausted to find them, and wasted our rare moments of respite with rash choices and over-eagerness, particularly once the frustrating Forestieri had replaced Vydra.
We didn’t hold firm, obviously. But we didn’t collapse either. Tellingly, we conceded the best chances, including the equaliser, when we followed our attacking instincts and pushed Pudil up into the final third; that was the space Palace needed and they exploited it ruthlessly. For the most part, though, our defence was immense, following Lloyd Doyley’s lead in a way that, frankly, it’s never needed to before. We didn’t pass the test, perhaps, but this was no failure.
4. Nevertheless, one or two regrets. Given that we spent the second half not so much on the back foot as flat on our backs with a pillow over our faces, and given that we particularly couldn’t match our opponents’ furious aggression in midfield, it seems absolutely extraordinary that we only used one substitute in normal time. It was as if Gianfranco turned round as the fourth official prepared his injury time board, saw Christian Battocchio sat in his coat on the bench and exclaimed, “Oh shit! Haven’t we done that yet?”
And more to the point, I simply have no idea why you’d finish a match of such intensity without putting John Eustace into the fray. No bloody idea. Forty-five minutes that screamed out for leadership and courage and strength…and the club captain, a man who embodies those things to a slightly terrifying degree, is watching it all from the sidelines. I appreciate and applaud our commitment to these honourable new principles, but you can take the unarmed missionary act too far…
5. These are the games, then. But it feels as if Vicarage Road no longer responds to them as it once did…it’s never been a ground with any inherent atmosphere, perhaps, but special nights under lights have always brought something out, the importance of the occasion or the surge in the performance echoed in the crowd. Here, the Rookery mustered as close to fervour as now seems possible, but was thoroughly drowned out by a ninety minute sing-song from the visitors in red and blue. In truth, it’s nothing like fervour. It’s not even anything like the noise that we know can cascade from the stands when the time is right, when the moment catches us all.
If not now, then when? And how? Silence is not golden.