Watford 2 Derby County 1 (23/02/2013) 24/02/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. We seem to be serious. We don’t seem to be flinching. For the first time in my adult life, I’m watching a Watford side on the surge towards automatic promotion to the top flight at the decisive end of the season…and it’s quite difficult to make much of a case for realism, pragmatism or caution, there being very little of any of those in the DNA of this remarkable creature.
It’s been said plenty, but as we hit second place after a couple of near misses, you can suddenly feel it: the playoffs would be a massive disappointment now. Yeah, I know…August…hand bitten off…all of that. But for a team that exudes a playful, arrogant superiority which sometimes verges on the infuriating, there’s a need for something decisive and unarguable and tangible to silence sceptics like me; there needs to be more than style and ambition, like the tricksy winger who beats his opponent seven times but then justifies it all by dropping a perfect cross onto the centre forward’s head. Every team needs its own defining moment, its St Andrews, its Selhurst Park. Every team needs to set its own standards. This lot are setting the bar awfully high.
2. But each passing week seems to fill in more of the gap between theory and reality. In particular, we’re acquiring an obstinacy to back up our cosmopolitan flair: when things aren’t going for us, as they very much weren’t in the latter stages of this game, we are no longer anything like a soft touch. Once upon a time, care-free and a little careless, we’d attempt to open up the game so much that defending seemed a bit of an after-thought…and, if I’m honest, I found that rather annoying. Do the washing-up. These days, we seem much more grown-up, much more responsible and substantial. We look like a side with balance, capable of weathering a storm rather than merely whipping one up to see what happens.
Lloyd Doyley was simply born to play in that role on the right of a three, Nyron Nosworthy retains the happy habit of belting the ball into outer space when the need arises, Joel Ekstrand has evidently decided that he wants to be like them more than he wants to be like Neuton, which is the right choice. It is not an impassable barrier, but we are at least making opponents earn their goals…and the ‘goals against’ column since the Charlton debacle reads like that of a hard-working, grittily competitive outfit. Quietly, while everyone’s watching that Vydra bloke and arguing with Ian Holloway, we’re building some of Sean Dyche’s Watford back into the foundations.
3. So you might want to question why we were hanging on for dear life for the final twenty minutes, against a Derby side which appeared the very image of dour Championship functionality. The very same image, in fact, that we constructed under Dyche last season, a team that nobody apart from committed fans would bother to pay to watch…and no shame in that, as long as it gets the job done. Somehow, with a lot of uncharacteristic frittering of several-on-not-many counter-attacking opportunities and a bit of assistance from a referee whose pointing and shouting seemed only occasionally to come into sync with the game itself as if he’d filmed his performance earlier and then been superimposed, we got ourselves into a bit of a pickle.
When the answer from Gianfranco Zola is to reduce our striking options in favour of reinforcements elsewhere – Jonathan Hogg, in this case – you know that all is not well. That attempt at securing the result was only partially successful, leaving Vydra all on his own to the point where, eventually presented with the chance to put the game beyond doubt, he fluffed his first touch as if genuinely startled to find the white round thing at his feet. But we fought for it: we were fortunate on occasions, and you’re always waiting for someone to pick out the top corner from thirty yards or something, but the bottom line is that Jonathan Bond (on for Manuel Almunia, applauded like a gallant war hero for pulling a bit of a muscle) had only one moment of potential glory and that was trying to save a soft penalty. We didn’t let them through.
4. For the rest of it…well, we would’ve kicked ourselves. We have kicked ourselves, often, in the past. This is different, apparently. By the opening goal, we’d managed to waste three sitters: Ekstrand the least culpable for getting excited and clearing the bar from six yards, simply because he’s not accustomed to such things. But Alex Geijo shoveled clumsily wide of an open goal after Vydra had caused enough blind panic to take two defenders and the goalkeeper out of the game in pursuit of a through-ball; Iketchi Anya scuffed into the side netting in similar circumstances later on, and you started to wonder whether this was a script entitled “One of Those Days”, ending with tripping over a kerbstone and dropping your chips in a puddle.
5. Nope. Vydra’s opener will be entirely familiar to anyone who’s played a football game on a friend’s computer-console-Atari-box (all the jargon, me). The one that they’ve played for hours, days, weeks, months, until the various moves have become more natural than eating. The one where they waltz gleefully through your ‘defence’ with neat one-twos and shots that ping in off the post while you try to remember which button you need to press to hack them down, the only move you’ve even slightly worked out and one that’s resulted in you playing with seven men due to some disciplinary issues. Later in the half, Derby resort to precisely the same tactic, leaving everyone to ponder at what point Vydra+ball+space doesn’t equate to a clear goalscoring opportunity…