Watford 1 Huddersfield Town 4 (03/05/2014) 04/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Scarcely credible as it seems now, it started OK. We’d arrived stupid early, disorientated by perverse kick-off times and disrupted routines, looked for some red in the new kit in the Hornet Shop, bought some lunch from Critellis. By which time it was still… quiet…
The quandary was resolved by a rare trip to the V-Bar. Two pints of Guinness later the sense of obligation that tends to accompany irrelevant end-of-season stuff like this and the lingering disappointment at our limp challenge for the play-offs had both been set aside. The sun was shining, as is traditional in book-ending the season, Jonathan Hogg was afforded (and keen to acknowledge) a warm reception and the club, to their great credit, restored the traditional awarding of the Player of the Season award, Troy inevitably collecting the trophy from Oliver Phillips. Grins all round then, and in selecting Alex Jakubiak – in part through necessity given yet another injury to a striker in Ranégie – Beppe had given us a reason to pay attention as the game kicked off.
We began brightly; Jakubiak involved early and earning two quick chances… the first screwing wide from the left side of goal, then scampering onto a through-ball to fire too close to Smithies. So far so good… but that was about as good as it got for Watford, and indeed for the youngster who spent the rest of his time on the pitch looking a little lost, reacting to things rather than anticipating them. It was to prove far from the easiest game in which to make one’s debut, and with the benefit of the context of how the game was to develop I later found myself trying to remember quite how much support he’d received from those around him. Either way, he faded from that bright start as did the Hornets… as the half progressed the visitors took control, driven on by the lively Hammill, and dominated possession. There wasn’t a lot in the way of goalmouth action though… it comes to something when both a half’s highlights involve Harry the Hornet and an inflatable beach ball. Thank the stars for the play-offs, but for which so many fans would have to suffer this sort of inconsequential tosh on a far more regular basis from February onwards.
2- At half-time, Joonz bemoaned the tedium. “Even three-nil defeats are better than this. At least something happens”. I didn’t see him after the game, but it’s inconceivable that he didn’t regret those morose words. The second half wasn’t just bad, it was a monstrous heap of steaming manure, an embarrassment on an epic scale irrespective of timing or context. With the benefit of time to recover and gain some perspective, go on holiday perhaps, take out some frustration on some household chores (pity those bastard dandelions) it will enter legend alongside the greatest atrocities that recent-ish seasons have to offer. You’ll have your own “favourites” of course… for me the one that bears closest comparison was the monstrous New Year’s Day capitulation to Millwall under Gianluca Vialli.
Then, as now, the difference between the sides wasn’t ability. Huddersfield may have been our match in that regard also, but it was never relevant. Huddersfield won the game through having spirit and balls and a semblance of discipline that we thoroughly lacked. Not that they had to draw on deep reserves of character to win the game but there was at least some personality. Some effort. It was plenty good enough. The comparisons with the Vialli season don’t stop there of course… in particular it’s unavoidable that when an opponent is compliant enough to amble into our bear-pit we have had enough ability to rip them up. There have been plenty of comfortable victories, seven by three goals or more. Whenever a bit of depth of character, a bit of digging in has been required, we’ve crumbled. Not just now and again, but pretty much every time that the going’s got tough. But this rant is getting ahead of itself…
Another parallel between this and that Millwall game was that one of the four goals in the Watford net provoked a nod of empathy from the home end. In fairness, this might actually have been independent of our own lack of performance on each occasion… you’d like to think that cancer survivor Neil Harris would have got some applause for his first goal back under any circumstances in 2002. Here… it’s difficult not to empathise with a debut goal, even when it’s scored against us at the start of the second half with the game ostensibly still in the balance… Town wanted it more than us from the off, Joe Lolley took some initiative (standing out like a beacon immediately) and ran at the defence and took advantage as it flopped apart in front of him.
I like Sean Murray, and there’s surely little to dislike about Cristian Battocchio but the pair of them fielded in the same midfield has begun to resemble the “we’re short of options” flare that Johann Gudmundsson’s occasional re-emergence on the bench did at one stage under GT. This wasn’t merely ineffective though… Battocchio was invisible throughout, despite which there was little arguing with the immediate withdrawal of Murray in response to Lolley’s goal such was his hapless display. His replacement was Samba Diakité, who challenged his critics by injecting a little impetus and poise to our attack. This wasn’t a gamechanging performance but it was something, and thus more than was offered by a thoroughly disappointing Daniel Töszér who was able to ping a pass when he got the ball at his feet but rarely shifted his arse in order to engineer that opportunity. So… little in midfield. Up front, Deeney toiled, first alongside Jakubiak and later Anya with little more success and at the back we collapsed like a tower of cards at the slightest breeze, an alarmingly poor Jonathan Bond ushering in two of Danny Ward’s three goals for good measure. To rub salt into the wound, Gabrielle Angella should have been sent off for shoving an opponent in the neck which would have aptly rounded off an uncharacteristically dreadful afternoon for the Italian. Not a good day.
3- Light relief was provided by the referee, who appeared to quash our flickering signs of life by cruelly and inexplicably ruling out Marco Cassetti’s far post header which appeared to have forced its way over the line. The official appeared to indicate that the ball had earlier crossed touchline – an inverse-Attwell if you will – before realising that the linesman was indicating precisely nothing. Nothing in the laws about how to dig yourself out of such a hole of course, so he improvised with a drop ball followed by a Watford penalty for the merest suggestion of a push on Deeney. A half-hearted protester in stripes appeared to, not unreasonably, point towards the point at which Cassetti’s header had taken place, implying a level of evening up to which the referee could justifiably have answered “yes, and?”. Deeney sent Smithies the wrong way to bring up 25 for the season but any relief to the misery was instantaneous. An increasingly angry and frustrated figure throughout, Deeney clouted the rebound towards the roof of the Rookery, and celebrated his goal alone.
4- It seems utterly perverse now that we talked, after Ipswich, about winning our last four games in the context of a late play off run as something that was merely highly unlikely (NB: those four wins would have done the job, not that it matters). That the last few games would have panned out rather differently – in terms of performances if not necessarily outcome – had we got that deserved win at Loftus Road is surely beyond dispute but the contrast in terms of both attitude and the apparent security of the manager’s position between QPR less than a fortnight ago and now – speaking as someone who didn’t see either of the two defeats in the interim – is startling.
That there was nothing, strictly, to play for in the last few games shouldn’t be forgotten; it’s not irrelevant. What’s far more relevant is the contrast between the utterly commendable position taken publicly by the manager, demanding improvement from the shabby offerings at Derby and Charlton and a positive end to the campaign, and what was delivered on the pitch. You don’t need any experience of watching football at any level to spot the disconnect there, it couldn’t be starker. That’s not a team that’s on message, not a happy or united camp. Rumours elsewhere suggest a dressing room fallout, a rebellion over the cancelled day off in the week in the wake of Charlton and a boycott co-ordinated by names significantly missing from yesterday’s squad. Dangerous to comment on mere heresay… but that something had happened must have occurred to more than one onlooker as the normally ebullient Fernando Forestieri, dressed in a suit, glumly passed across the front of the Rookery early on, only reacting to his reception after much delay as if aroused from deep thought. If there’s credibility in those rumours then it’s impossible not to instinctively side with the manager… but impossible also not to wonder about how tenable his position is. Worth noting, yet again, what an extraordinary challenge managing a side in our current set-up is… whether based in fact or not, this rumour describes precisely the sort of unmotivated, half-arsed bollocks that resided in our worst nightmares when the Pozzo model was first described. This is what failure to get a disparate bunch of players playing as a unit might look like. Gianfranco’s achievement last season – much as it helps to be winning, much as his departure remains inevitable and credible even with the benefit of hindsight – should not be underestimated. The contrast with Burnley’s disciplined, focused draw with Reading couldn’t be starker.
5- The “lap of honour” at the end of the game was peculiar in the extreme. The stands were… not empty, but not thronging with acclaim as they surely would have been given any kind of performance on the day. It’s been a disappointing season, given the expectations we went in with… but it’s not been that bad for the most part. There have been good wins, good performances, and everyone wants to leave happy. As it was, those that remained were surely largely there for one man only.
This is not the way Troy would have wanted to bow out, assuming (as seems inevitable on any number of levels) that this was his last game in yellow. It could be argued that much of his astonishing form since Christmas has been in part for the benefit of those watching on who might play a role in his future but whatever, he’s been extraordinary and much as his form dipped early season when we badly needed a leader nobody has any right to feel short changed. This is a guy who has made mistakes but recovered from them, grown as a player throughout his time here and will leave as one of the most complete centre-forwards we’ve seen at Vicarage Road for some considerable time. His was the most reluctant departure from the pitch, dangling offspring upside down by the ankles, but only after boots and sundry items of clothing had been launched into the Rookery. All the best Troy.
As for our future… all bets are off. For me, the contrast of the last two seasons tells you simple things. That the model can work. That inherent are huge challenges for staff at all levels, but huge potential also. That it doesn’t come with any guarantees. What remains, despite this disappointment, is a stable structure, investment in infrastructure, a club that has a plan and is evolving. A plan can be sound but imperfectly executed, and that’s where we are. As for Beppe… I’d still like him to do well. If he stays, if he’s still here in August, the implication will be that things have been “sorted” and I won’t be unhappy. After Saturday, however, dead rubber or otherwise, I’m far from convinced that that will be the case.