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Queens Park Rangers 2 Watford 1 (21/04/2014) 21/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- “Best team we’ve played” was the consensus from the QPR constituency on the train back to Bedford.  Nice blokes, before you ask… civil enough to involve me in their review of events once I’d declared my interest.  Showed enough judgement to make appropriate grimaces as we stopped at Luton and orange shirts flooded in.  And, yes.  “Best team we’ve played.  Have you been doing that all season?”.  A glance at the table answers that… yes, we were a match for Rangers on the day, yes, we looked a good deal better than mid-table fodder.  Yes, we lost anyway.  But this wasn’t yet more wasted points lobbed on the bonfire, we’ll get to that, and it was far better than much of what has preceded it this season.  Too little, too late perhaps, but worth remembering, as ever, that it’s not all about the destination – my travelling companions, faced with the possibility (and only very optimistically a one in four chance, by their own admission) of promotion back to the top flight and a tranche of unwinnable games, were acutely aware of that.  You’ve got to enjoy the journey, enjoy the game for it’s own sake. And this was a belter.

2- Unlike Saturday, we started like a train.  Difficult to separate our own verve from the attitude that I’d mentally superimposed on QPR…  a bunch of has-beens and never-quite-weres, a Fantasy League team from about seven or eight years ago, and already all but sure of a play-off place and therefore less focused, less to play for.  Some of that might have been true… whatever, we certainly DID look more up for it, more hungry, more lively, and immediately swarmed all over the midfield as we would do for much of the game. Tözsér, Abdi and McGugan were everywhere, always a passing option available, overrunning the hoops for the opening half hour.  You’ll have noticed that we didn’t take advantage… McGugan culpable here, for all that he was lively and positive throughout, having one of those games where possession within shooting distance results in the same decision and is often followed by direct feedback from Troy.  As we approached the interval our inability to capitalise on our superiority looked critical… the home side had begun to push up a high line and pen us in, our lack of pace making this a viable approach even if Manuel Almunia only had one save to make – a Kevin Doyle free kick that provoked a comfortable stop.  An ovation at the whistle, but no goals on the board.

3- The atmosphere was tremendous.  Not something we can often claim at the Vic for all the fine efforts of the 1881, and Loftus Road was similarly sleepy.  Except in the away end, which was bouncing.  If you can’t create an atmosphere in these circumstances, away from home in a packed, claustrophobic upper tier in a shit-or-bust local derby then, you know, pack up and go home.  But yes, it was raucous and noisy and – largely – about us rather than them or anyone else.  If only it were possible to translate this bloody-minded noisiness to the Vic… but if I knew how to do that I’d be making a lot of money bottling and selling the trick to a PR company or something rather than writing this nonsense on a Monday night at the end of a Bank Holiday weekend.  Anyway… we got our reward as we started the second half as bullishly as we had the first culminating in Deeney nodding down to Ranégie who rolled Richard Dunne – which, one imagines, takes some doing – to find space and finish.  Game. On.

4- Having struck the vital first blow in what had been a tight game on Saturday by virtue of a little bit of quality, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that Joey Barton’s free kick was a hell of a strike, with enough bend on it to bypass our wall and leaving Manu on the wrong side of his goal looking a bit silly – although I’d like another chance to see quite how aggressively Charlie Austin bullied some space for the shot on the left side of our wall.  There were complaints about it being a soft free kick, complaints about a corner that had preceded it being given the wrong way… whatever.  You don’t take your chances, you run the risk of stuff like this being relevant.  We should have been out of sight.

Psychologically a defeat feels so much worse than a draw would have done… but actually a point probably wasn’t a lot of good to us, so I think you can forgive Beppe for lobbing bodies forward at the death.  The result was us being grotesquely outnumbered on the counter and even then nearly getting away with it as the lively Morrison initially chose the wrong option, but Austin – who had earlier been booked for a brutal challenge on the terrific Riera – finished superbly.  A sucker punch.

5- We might have saved a point had we not overcommitted, should have been further ahead to perhaps kill the game earlier. Critical, though, was the lack of options on the bench.  Not that we had any time to retrieve the situation at 2-1, but the side was screaming out for some pace on the counter at 1-0, something to make QPR look over their shoulders, to occupy the excellent Onuoha, to ease the pressure a little bit.  No striker on the bench (again) was tough on Ranégie in particular who, like Troy, played a second ninety in the space of three days.  He won the majority of his aerial duels, loped around fairly purposefully… but needed replacing midway through the second half.  As the stadium exploded in response to Austin’s winner my attention, ferociously averted from the home stands, was on Beppe who seemed to turn to his bench in agitated frustration, recognise that for all the quality cover in different positions there was nothing to retrieve the game, no new trick.  The lack of available options up front was always going to cost us at some point, it cost us this weekend.  The play-offs recede back into the distance… this was one of many missed chances, but amongst the more forgiveable.  As last season, the critical points were lost earlier in the campaign.  Come August, we go again… and on this evidence perhaps we will have the season we’d imagined next time.

Watford 3 Ipswich Town 1 (19/04/2014) 20/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There are many excellent things about having a seven year old daughter. If it’s something you’re considering I can heartily recommend it.  The BEST thing changes by the day, but the ability to vicariously relive your childhood and indulge in pastimes that a middle-aged man wouldn’t otherwise get away with will always be fairly high on the list.  Re-reading “The Northern Lights” doesn’t strictly fall into that category…  I was already a middle-aged man when I first read it and no pretext should be necessary.  But sharing it with a seven year-old, who is frankly no less able to get her head around parallel universe theory than I am gives it a whole new lustre, just as much fun the second time around.

This was a game from a parallel universe.  A parallel universe in which this season panned out as we thought it might, in which we really did rip the division up, too good for whatever the Championship could throw at us.  In which a team turning up and haring after us, closing us down up the pitch and denying us space and waiting for us to make a mistake wasn’t anything like enough.  A parallel universe in which, perversely, Beppe Sannino had replaced Gianfranco anyway.  Go figure.  I never claimed to be an expert in this stuff.

2- Which isn’t to say that we had it all our own way…  indeed we started the game much the slower, the visitors getting the pick of the scraps from a congested midfield early on.  Johnny Williams was at the heart of the threat, then and throughout the first half… the Palace loan-man, significant at Wembley last May, echoing his compatriot Craig Bellamy in both his sense of devil and mischief and in being a gobby little irritant.  He would leave the game early, a running scrap with Daniel Tözsér culminating in a bad second-half challenge from the Hungarian for which he was lucky to escape censure.  Williams had the first effort on target, a firm shot that Manuel got something behind to block as the defence were caught on their heels in an ominous opening period.  Five minutes later Tommie Hoban, who had had an edgy start, got away with a lunge on Frank Nouble in the area… there weren’t many appeals but it looked a foul.

Gradually the tide turned, we began to enjoy possession of our own.  The opening goal, when it came, was a thing of beauty and worthy of separating the teams at the interval… Hoban, out of position, swept in with a majestic, immaculate challenge to curtail an Ipswich break on the left and immediately set in motion an attack down our own left  flank.  Riera, who we had been warned was going to need a few games to play himself back to fitness, showcased the quality that once had Liverpool paying £8m for him by cutting inside  and stroking a shot diffidently inside the far post with his weaker right foot.  In the context of a tight game, devastating – and an echo of a similar goal against Leeds under Sean Dyche, where Mariappa and Kightly played the Hoban/Riera roles.

3- Ipswich, in short, were more or less what you’d expect from a Big Mick side.  Tough, tight, competitive, fairly tidy.  And unremarkable.  Paul, an Ipswich fan and school friend of my brother’s from Essex where such things - Ipswich fans - are an occupational hazard, was keeping a low profile with me in the Rookery.  If you’ve done this sort of thing before you’ll know that the hardest bit is not reacting convincingly to goals at either end, but coping with your emotions when things get a little… fractious on the pitch.  As the visitors hit us hard at the start of the second half, pulling level when Wordsworth poked in Nouble’s cross, things did boil over as a referee whose control of the game was on the slack side throughout, nearly lost control altogether.  Cue  partisan bellowing at referee and miscreants in blue decorated with tractorcentric baubles and much swearing from those around us…  and whilst, heaven knows, I’m not one to urge vocal restraint when it comes to suggesting that Ipswich are a shambolic excuse for a football club with a rather overblown sense of their own significance, full marks to the interloper for not blowing his cover.

4- If something remarkable does transpire over the next fortnight – and we’ll get to that – then the pivotal period, the Tranmere moments, surely came just after the hour mark.  Luke Hyam met a left-wing cross with a thumping header for the visitors… from the far end it looked off the bar and in, for a second or so we were mentally adjusting to being behind.  Except… it didn’t go in, a brilliant Almunia push onto the bar indiscernible from our vantage point but critical.  Within a minute Troy Deeney drew a foul in Ipswich’s half… closer to the halfway line than the penalty box and central it should have been no threat to the visitors but they fell asleep, Töszér’s evil swinging delivery found Angella’s untracked bandaged forehead and we had the lead.  A good finish, but criminal defending. Two minutes later an extraordinary crossfield ball by the Hungarian found Faraoni wide on the right.  The Italian killed the ball with his astonishing first touch, waited long enough for the Kaiser to follow his pass across the pitch and then released him to drive home our advantage;  Ipswich, rocking, were not mentally ready to have him prising open the gap between two defenders in the box neither of whom were brave enough to take responsibility. He cut back from the byline, McGugan finished expertly.  Game over.

Most impressive, more impressive than the goals, was what happened next. Ipswich were shot, done, and in no physical or mental state to reprise their energetic chasing down of the first half but we’ve made late leads look more precarious than this in the past  with fist-chewingly awful consequences and against far less capable sides.  The visitors had some inconsequential possession, Hunt had a decent effort from long range, but every time possession turned over the yellow shirts flooded forward…   Angella, Deeney, Battocchio, Murray and Tözsér – from a violently struck free kick that he and McGugan lined up to opposite corners – all came close.  No nerves here, we ended the game well on top.

5- It should be evident to all onlookers that that sixth place is going to go to a side that has not covered itself in glory for the duration of the campaign.  On any number of occasions over the past weeks and months we’ve all mentally switched the season off and chucked the dust covers over it… Bolton?  Doncaster?  Blackburn?  Burnley?  Millwall?  And yet… nobody else is making a convincing job of it either, and despite our best efforts we’re still in there.  Not favourites, not in our control by a long chalk… and that mythical game in hand is only potentially worth three points.  We’d still have to win at Charlton, and at QPR and Derby too,  a big ask under any circumstances.  Except… well, if you’re going to go to QPR and Derby then a period in which each might be focused on the next bit, the play-offs, might not be a bad time to make those trips.

And, whisper it, we’re playing rather well all of a sudden.  No weak performances out there today, just different flavours and degrees of impressive…  Hoban, ultimately, imperious.  Ekstrand, bar one early misplaced pass, as commanding as he’s been for weeks – and visibly comfortable in that central role.  Tözsér, majestic.  Faraoni, an outlet, much needed given the absences of both Anya and Forestieri.  Riera, a class apart.  Deeney, unplayable, goal or no goal.  Ranégie… again, a slow start after a few games out but ultimately awkward, a presence, a threat.  Almunia.  Angella.  McGugan.  Abdi.  Murray.   Battocchio.  Pudil.  Not a frown or a black mark amongst them.  It’s still a long shot, but winning our last four games is less of an ask than winning our last five was.  We overcame and ultimately reduced a half-decent side to rubble today.  There are only so many times it’s reasonable to politely offer around that last vol-au-vent, in this universe or any other.

Watford 3 Leeds United 0 (08/04/2014) 09/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There was an “on the cardsness” about this one.  Those dropped points on Saturday, embers of resentment and regret at the outcome of this fixture last season, United’s not-even-a-little-bit funny plummet down the table with attention diverted and management precarious all pointed in one direction.  One of those emphatic and yet routine wins borne of a superiority that you really wish we could distribute a little more evenly across the season’s fixtures, but life doesn’t work like that.

Not that this victory was the result of our artistry alone by any means – Leeds were the architects, compères and comedy sideshow of their own downfall and we’ll get to them, we did what we had to do.  We were still well worth 3-0 though.  3-0 and then some.  From the moment the returning Abdi – his first start since August – burrowed towards the left side of the area, pivoted away from the goal and swung an arcing cross to the far post for the excellent Faraoni to fire an opening shot, blocked on this occasion, we were in charge. Shortly later Abdi released Anya on the left with a ridiculous lofted pass and then bombed into the area to get on the end of the winger-cum-striker’s cross, his first goal since his fine strike against the same opponents in May.  Game over, less than ten minutes in. The visitors weren’t in any position to make a fight of it.

2- I’ve been warned not to use the phrase, “spaghetti-eating surrender monkeys” with respect to our esteemed visitors, so I won’t do that.  But by God they were a lamentable shambles, offering little beyond some energetic closing down way up the pitch in the early stages of each half, a lazy under-rehearsed cover version of the tune that visitors were profiting from so readily earlier in the season.  In so many ways they were a parody of themselves – Michael Brown in the tried and tested role of cheap, gobby bruiser in the midfield, a sixth or seventh generation Gripper Stebson.  Noel Hunt, lumbering around after nothing much remembering a time when he was famous for being someone’s brother rather than just yet another journeyman second-division plodder, following through on Faraoni who had demonstrated his intention to put the ball out so that the grounded McCormack could receive treatment.  Hunt was lucky, the ref’s attention was diverted McCormack-wards by Faraoni’s signal, he had turned his ahead away from the incident and neither assistant was well-sighted.  He took the standard cop-out option of a yellow card.  It should have been red.  You have to be quite bad to be relegated from this division;  Leeds must hope that somewhere in the tightly-packed morass between them and the bottom there are three sufficiently pathetic alternatives, because on this evidence they ain’t getting out of this under their own efforts.

3- As on Saturday, we settled into a “come on then” formation which, unlike Burnley, Leeds never looked capable of penetrating.  They had two shots in the first half… the first from the corner of a crowded penalty area was a desperate blast needing a lot of luck and didn’t get it, cannoning off a white shirt for a goal kick.  The second, a well-judged but equally optimistic lob from McCormack on the half-way line.  The role of our defensive shape and robustness needs to be acknowledged here…  as we noted towards the end of Sean Dyche’s season, part of the reason that so many of our opponents here look so thoroughly dreadful is that we don’t give them much of a window to look anything else.  Defensively we were disciplined and utterly in charge  - including Ekstrand, who had his most convincing 45 for a while before seeming to lose focus again in the second half.

Most peculiar was our uncharacteristic tendency to try to hit Troy Deeney early with long, direct balls, an approach which rarely seemed to trouble the visitors particularly but with which we persisted throughout.  Far more of a problem for them were balls coming across the box… Anya was again involved on the left after half an hour, Riera fed the ball across to the right, Faraoni sent it back and Anya was simply readier for it than anyone else.  And then it quietened down again,  a pattern summed up by Julian as “dull, then we score”.  I guess that’s what limited teams doing nothing with a fair amount of possession, breaking themselves against an organised defence, looks like.

And in the second half, much as Leeds showed brief and very limited signs of life early on, it was more of the same, the Hornets far more threatening on the break than Leeds looked at any point… twice Butland, Leeds’ one positive, was required to deny Deeney – once, bravely, down to his left, the second a stunning reflex stop after Anya had shredded the flimsy backline and squared for his strike partner.  In between those two chances however we had the third, the least we deserved as Abdi (again) challenged some sloppy Leeds possession and released Deeney who tiptoed his way through three half-hearted challenges before belting past Butland.  Propelled towards the Rookery he used the half-second to mentally accept his forthcoming yellow card and made the most of the moment.

4- A brief digression to ponder the peculiarities of the crowd.  “Other people”, the bastards.  Barracking Attwell on Saturday was perhaps inevitable…  but to my mind there’s no comparison between a cock-up like the ghost goal, albeit a massive cock-up, and Dominic Poleon’s cowardly shove on Ikechi Anya in our last meeting here.  Not that I’m in favour of a young striker being given a hard time particularly, but there’s no balance – Attwell’s crime was perverse but driven by incompetence, not malice, and was far less consequential.  If anything, Attwell’s error and our reaction to it earned us a point against Reading which had never looked likely up to that point.  And yet… Attwell gets the bird whilst Poleon gets half-hearted jeers.  Such is the role of the pantomime villain, as Paul pointed out.  No less explicable were the chants of “sacked in the morning”, also greater in volume than any stick Poleon got. These were directed not only at Leeds’ manager, who you’re entitled to your own views on but has always come across as a reasonable bloke, but also at his assistant who has a rather long and proud association with our club worthy of a bit more respect than that, whether or not you were lucky enough to see him play.

(There was also a dizzy comment from somewhere behind me about the general state of refereeing, citing that 60% of major decisions are wrong (no citation), it’s getting worse (ditto) and that there should be three experts with buzzers in the stand making calls for the officials on the pitch.  Unclear as to whether Simon Cowell or Louie Walsh should be amongst these judges.)

5- An “ooooh” and an “aaaah” to conclude.  “Ooooooh” at the tantalising prospect of a season of Abdi, Töszér and the louche Riera in midfield… far from guaranteed for next time round, but such fun just to think about.  “Aaaaah” when you look at the League table, realise that even merely holding on to the lead on Saturday would now have seen us a mere five points off with that there game in hand, and realise that you don’t really need to be very good to finish sixth this season.  OK, but not great.  And we’re much better than that.  Given that not us then Bournemouth, obviously, in preference to any of the other cheap punks and chancers up there.  But given the strength in our squad – Bond, Belkalem, Hall, Hoban, Doyley, Merkel, McGugan, Battocchio, Pudil, Ranegie, Forestieri is a more than viable eleven that didn’t start – we should really have put in a more convincing challenge this season.  Shouldn’t we?

Watford 1 Burnley 1 (05/04/2014) 06/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- I was reckless with my routine today.  Trains instead of cars.  Mexican food with Dad instead of the pub.  When to experiment if not in such circumstances, with the season all but over.  And as the match kicked off, with the spring weather equally unsure what to make of itself things began to shake themselves out rather well.  With Lewis McGugan prominent – this was as effective and dynamic a 45 minutes as I’ve seen him put in in yellow – we looked bright and positive in the early exchanges… kicking towards the Rookery with Sean Dyche presumably having advised flipping the ends.  Ten minutes in we were ahead… the irrepressible Deeney latching onto Pudil’s pass and belting us into the lead.  We got a break… a deflection off Jason Shackell’s thigh looked critical in lifting the shot over Tom Heaton;  everything Troy strikes is going in at the moment.  Minutes later… another break, what looked like a tight offside call denied Burnley a decent equaliser, Barnes attacking the near post to convert Treacy’s cross.   A deflected goal and a tight offside within minutes – perhaps it was going to be our day?

2- Burnley’s disallowed goal was greeted with a rousing rendition of “One Stuart Attwell” from the Rookery.  Coming hot on the heels of the inevitable mock-celebration in response to the first shot drifting wide of the Clarets’ goal this briefly suggested that the much-discussed first return of Attwell since the ghost goal of 2008 would be commemorated with sarcasm and wit rather than ire and red-faced barracking.  That it didn’t prove that way was in no small part down to an erratic display from the official, albeit that the only decision that had the potential to directly impact the outcome was, if failure it was, down to Attwell’s assistant.  Which sounds familiar.  That call got the visitors on his back and he was never going to get much leeway from the home end… both sets of supporters were on his back as he left the pitch at the interval.  By that time Cristian Battocchio was off the pitch – stretchered off with what looked like a serious knee injury as he fell badly after a collision.  Nothing wrong with the challenge… but criticism perhaps for the failure to allow trainers on quickly for what always looked more than just another knock.

3- Battocchio was a big miss for the rest of the game. Faced with the absence of two prolific strikers Sean Dyche had selected his only available forward - target man Ashley Barnes, who remains as respectful of the rules of engagement as Beppe is of the boundaries of his technical area – in front of a five man midfield.  This begged the question… do Burnley score a lot of goals because of Ings and Vokes, or do the forwards score a lot of goals because of the players they’re playing in front of?  The truth appeared to be somewhere in between, for whilst Burnley on the day could be summed up as “a striker or two short of a very good side” and struggled to turn their possession into clear cut chances, they didn’t look blunt and, as one would expect from a Dyche side, were utterly single-minded and focused on their task.  The significance of Battocchio’s departure was that we lost that chasing-the-ball-down thing that was proving so helpful in disrupting a heavily loaded Clarets midfield before the break.  Abdi was selected to replace him, Murray perhaps the more obvious like-for-like choice.  Great to see Almen back on the pitch, and if this really is it then nobody’s going to object to giving him time to play himself back to fitness, to test his injury.  In the context of the game however, a midfield pairing of McGugan and Abdi in front of the Kaiser suggests domination of possession, and that was never the case here despite us creating vastly the better chances.

4- And create the better chances we undoubtedly did. McGugan had a half-volley pawed round the post, Deeney drove narrowly wide, Ranégie nearly got his head to a wicked cross in a first half during which we were much the better side.  At the start of the second Burnley got hold of the ball and had us chasing them as they switched possession across the midfield, visibly attacking the gaps behind the wing backs with Michael Kightly’s direct running and tendency to force a pressured decision out of a defender evident.  There wasn’t an awful lot to show for it though… the odd set piece, some borne of a genuine foul some not although as Paul was to point out afterwards decisions against the visitors were equally arbitrary – in this respect at least Attwell couldn’t be accused of not being consistent. The Hornets, however, still had a goal in them and threatened on the break… Daniel Tözsér strode around the midfield sweeping passes around with the flourish of an artist brandishing a paintbrush.  Abdi inevitably looked a little rusty but soon reminded us what we’d been missing, not least when he dispossessed an opponent and released Anya – switched up front to chase the spaces behind the pressing Clarets – with a perfect ball that demanded intervention from Tom Heaton.  The keeper came out  to deal, was beaten to it by the Scottish/Romanian/Nigerian winger/wingback/striker who prodded the ball past him and clipped goalwards… with just a smidgeon too little power, permitting a dramatic goalline clearance from former Hornet Chris Baird.

5- My younger daughter is four.  At storytime she delights in re-hearing one of a limited number of favourites, even if we read it the previous evening.  And the evening before. (In some cases – such as that of “Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy” – the scope for silly character voices make this tolerable; in others – “Evie and her bloody Magic Ponies”, this means you – less so).  Elder daughter – seven – rolls her eyes, demanding greater variety.  I can cope with the whimsical demands of a four year old, but am less able to respond calmly to this same old story being played out in front of us at Vicarage Road.

It should be acknowledged that the visitors did play a role.  They had turned up the pressure a little, inevitably, and threatened for the first time… Brian Stock’s free kick from wide on the right was whipping inside the post until Abdi’s forehead intervened.  From a corner, Ben Mee’s header was clawed out of the top corner by an astonishing Almunia. Worth noting, too, that it’s tempting to attribute every late goal to our inability to concentrate for the full ninety-plus-whatever.  Sometimes opponents do just score late goals.  In context, however, this was a complete pain in the arse… Scott Arfield, a fringe player at Huddersfield and an odd-looking recuit by Dyche in the summer, hit his eighth in the season, turning sharply in the box and driving low past Almunia, who got a hand to it but not enough.

And so are stamped out the dying embers of our season. Before the game, as for the last few months, the margin we needed to close – eight points behind sixth with a game in hand – was not beyond the realms of possibility.  What prohibited it was our continued inability to string a run together, our inability to see leading positions out.  So it proved again – although that final realisation aside it was a fine afternoon.  Excitement, drama, some fine performances in yellow and good portents for next season albeit there’s work to do and some bloody-mindedness to find.

But no promotion. Not this time.

Watford 3 Barnsley 0 (15/03/2014) 16/03/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- The sun shone.  I even had an ice lolly, in March, of all things.  Less literally, the sun was shining too… the new stand continues to take shape, investment being made into the training ground.  In a season that’s been relatively low on such moments we all had a spring in our step.  There was naturally a concern about our forward line in the absence of the suspended Ranégie and injured Forestieri and Park, but our visitors boasted the worst away record in the division and two newly hamstrung centre-backs to offset our forward problem.  The travelling Tykes boasted a flag-to-supporter ratio unmatched in living memory, a turnout that spoke volumes for their expectations…  few in the home end can have been in any greater doubt as to the likely outcome given our home form.  And so it proved.

2- Beppe made a pointed comment post-match implying a simmering level of frustration after Tuesday night’s events and this was evident in a focused and dominant first twenty minutes or so.  In all honesty however, it didn’t look as if we needed to bring our A-game…  from the moment that the colossal Jean-Yves M’Voto, who was to have a high profile afternoon of the sort a centre-back doesn’t really need, sliced out for a corner under zero pressure Barnsley looked horribly vulnerable.  Danny Wilson has claimed that our opener knocked their game plan into the waste basket, but unless their game plan was based around giving the ball away in suicidal positions and standing off Battocchio long enough for him to take a touch before driving home expertly from outside the area it was all going wrong for the Tykes before they went behind, albeit after only five minutes.  Nor was it any great surprise to see Troy turn in a position that a self-respecting defence would never have permitted to put us two-up on the quarter hour.  As in our last game here against Blackpool the game was over very quickly with Daniel Pudil, who has evolved from an energetic, functional cog to one of the cornerstones of the team under Sannino, making hay down all sorts of space on the left hand side.

3- Dave, having taken a bet that set a three-goal-plus victory against his grumpy and not entirely heartfelt nil-nil forecast, paid up at this point.  Disappointingly, we failed to put the visitors to the sword in what descended into probably the dullest of the now twelve three-plus-goal victories over the last couple of seasons.  Ikechi Anya, doing a game job of supporting Deeney as makeshift striker, betrayed his lack of experience at such things by getting caught offside on several occasions despite often having miles of space and being the fastest player on the pitch – new tricks to learn if he’s to fulfil this role again.  It wasn’t that it fizzled out exactly, although we certainly took our foot off the pedal somewhat… more that the game was kinda over and everyone knew it.  Lewis McGugan was trying overhead kicks before the end of the first half, ,which rather summed the situation up.  At the other end, the highlight of the rest of the half came when Jacob Mellis got past Marco Cassetti (worth acknowledging in passing that he’d have been taken out in other circumstances, but the Italian evaluated the situation in context), and laid back to Liam Lawrence who demonstrated why he’s not playing in the top flight any more by firing wide when it seemed scarcely possible so to do.

4- It was that sort of afternoon for the visitors but if they shared Blackpool’s hapless lack of belief they did at least perk up in the second half.  Not in a fashion that ever seriously threatened the outcome, but enough to suggest that our increasingly astonishing home defensive record ( 1 conceded in 9 under Beppe) might be spoiled by something careless and unnecessary.  Meanwhile we were still regularly threatening to add goals ourselves, Kaiser Tözsér, dominant once more, getting on the end of one cross from the left to head narrowly wide.  That one would have been popular.  Instead, Ikechi Anya, inevitably if a little disappointingly more effective when pulling wide from his central role, danced down the left before laying back for Merkel to wrap things up.  A great half hour from Merkel today, his ninety over two games this week far more convincing that what we’d seen up to now.  He was followed off the bench by two debutants at the opposite end of their careers in Lucas Neill and Luke O’Nien, the latter of whom put in an excitable five-minute cameo up front that suggested an exciting turn of pace .

5- Extraordinary how things have flipped around.  Under Gianfranco our away form was passable, regular points away from home from perhaps stronger performances than the results suggested… but at home we were a catastrophe, increasingly without an answer to the same sucker punch.  Now… our home form is extraordinary, today’s result never in doubt.  In Blackpool and Barnsley we’ve faced two poor sides at low points in their season but we’ve put them away in style.  Our away form has been iffier, and the obstacle to a more credible play-off challenge.  Up to now, the distance to the play-offs has not been insurmountable… it’s been the fact that we haven’t been putting  together a string of results to threaten to bridge that gap that’s been the problem.  Whilst we still await another away win, the strong performance at Doncaster suggests that that win will come sooner rather than later.  Unfortunately, we may be getting it together just as the games start to run out.

Doncaster Rovers 2 Watford 1 (11/03/2014) 12/03/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- We’d expected a dull draw, I think.  There was a certain curiosity in assessing to what degree Blackpool had been that bad versus us being rather good, of course, and a feeling that perhaps our away form was overdue a bit of a boost and that bodies slowly returning to the ranks might provide it (albeit, as it turned out, bodies arrive at roughly the same rate as others were leaving it – Murray the latest absentee).  But as soon as a pre-match acquaintance took his leave with a “let’s go and enjoy another really dull draw, then” the pattern of the evening was clear.  I’ve been to a few aways this season, not enough for the inevitability of a draw away from home to be at the front of my mind but enough to recognise the eminent plausibility of the suggestion; the bubble of excitement provoked by any midweek away match was rapidly deflated.

So thunk 1 should really be “It wasn’t dull”, but you probably know that already, and in any case it took a while for things to get going.  Nonetheless, this perhaps most easily overlooked period of what was to be an eventful evening was instructive in itself.  Playing in the growing-on-everyone combo of home shirt with yellow shorts so as not to clash with Donny’s black we settled into a rhythm and whilst we hardly had the home side under the cosh we were increasingly in control of possession and comfortable.  Ranégie again looked a capable target man, providing a focal point at the far post that we really haven’t had for a very long time and Alex Merkel, whose hair seemed to have calmed down a bit, a lower-key yellow, was prominent in what was to be his best performance in yellow to date.  Gradually, the battlefront was edging towards Rovers’ goal.

And then, of course, everything changed.  There’s really very little to say about this… what looked a physical but rather innocuous tussle between Husband and Ranégie on the right wing ended with the Swede taking a swing of the boot at his opponent.  Video replay suggests that no contact was made but no matter… it was an act of idiocy from Ranégie, and changed the landscape of the game irretrievably – comparable to Samba Diakité’s red against Boro in that regard, if not in its recklessness.  Within eight minutes Rovers were ahead, an excellent deep cross from Coppinger not defended well enough, Chris Brown quicker to it with a diagonal run.  Suddenly a long evening stretched in front of us.

2- Donny had their first little spell attempting to put the game to bed and we were rocking on our heels.  It took us a while to reshape, eventually switching to four at the back with Lloyd at right back and Anya more advanced in a supporting role to Deeney, horribly isolated for five or ten minutes after Ranégie’s departure.  The greatest victim of this was Merkel, withdrawn into a more disciplined role after a sparky opening and subsequently the only plausible sacrifice in introducing Forestieri’s mischief.  Nonetheless, settle we did and were soon making light of our numerical disadvantage making inroads against a nervous (and, in-fairness, seriously patched up) Donny backline.  Troy’s flame was fully on…  if you’re restricted to playing with one out-and-out striker, make it someone who will charge things down, hold the ball up, batter people and shoot from twenty five yards with every expectation of testing the goalkeeper.  In the second half he would charge down first a tentative opponent, then a pressurised goalkeeper whose attempted clearance rattled against the onrushing number 9 and out for a goal kick.  Futile, in everything other than a statement of not-bloody-lying-down-for-you-pal intent, the small but noisy away crowd on their feet, waving fists.

Here, he chased down again forcing nervous backpass after nervous backpass, the last a hospital ball from Meité to keeper Johnstone. Deeney got his toe to that first and collided with the goalkeeper who, replays revealed, dragged him down unceremoniously.  Less clear at the time from the opposite end, reactions of players is the best guide and this left no doubt – nor, indeed, the reaction of the official who proceeded to give us a sequence of 50/50 decisions in innocuous areas of the pitch.  I’m a firm believer that, with a few exceptions – players with “reputations”, big home crowds pressuring decisions – the vagaries of refereeing errors are a random variable on a par with the weather and the mythical “rub of the green”.  No point bitching about it, in other words, you roll with the punches just as you would if a shot came off the inside of a post.  Naturally, this incident will stick in our minds longer than it will occupy the thoughts of the home fans, a sense of injustice will prevail to a greater extent than the roll of a die ought to. It was, though, a breathtaking bottle-job, a decision of outstanding incompetence and another one which, with Donny having an untried young keeper on the bench (we’ve been there…) worked significantly to the home side’s advantage.

Keeper Johnstone got the bird for the rest of the game, particularly in the second half when located in front of the away end.  A bit harsh this, however much an entertaining distraction – he’d committed a clumsy, instinctive foul that was neither malicious nor violent. There were more justifiable targets for ire, not least the official who looked nonplussed by a volley of Italian that lasted from the centre-circle as the half ended.  So too left-back James Husband, an objectionable little turd whose role in Ranégie’s sending off looks far less innocuous on replay.  Before the end of the half he collapsed clutching his face after precisely zero contact from Deeney, who dragged him to his feet, hands in armpits, with the weary air of a parent trying to drag a tantrumming infant around a supermarket; in the second he collapsed and rolled around in a futile attempt to extract another yellow card from an official who, whilst losing all semblance of control by this stage, clearly had at least one number accurately marked.

3- The third quarter of the game was ours, despite the numerical disadvantage.  An awful lot must have been taken out of those legs, and we probably benefitted through not having had a game at the weekend… but special mentions for Anya, Pudil and Battocchio in particular, none of whom stopped moving throughout their time on the pitch and all of whom made significant contributions.  Alex Merkel was the first to come close after Keegan had brought down the onrushing Kaiser Tözsér on the edge of the box… much to the Hungarian’s frustration.  Keegan, later booked, somehow escaped censure… Merkel took a magnificently evil, curling, snarling free kick around the wall and off the woodwork; Johnstone dived much too late and was stranded and fortunate when the rebound crashed into the onrushing Deeney and over, the goal gaping.  Forestieri was introduced to loud acclaim…  my brother had cited his persistent dog-with-a-bone threat as just what a nervous Donny defence didn’t need and was proved right in the 68th minute, a pass of breathaking vision and ingenuity dinked teasingly over Donny’s befuddled defence for the onrushing Anya to latch onto, open his body up and finish tidily, his goal celebration a round of applause for the away end.  The equaliser no more than the visitors deserved, and had we gotten a point it would have been worth far more than any of the nine we’ve gained from previous draws on the road this season.

4- We didn’t get it, you’ll have noticed.  Doncaster kitchen-sinked us for much of the remaining game, seemingly freed of the previously imminent threat of blowing their advantage against ten men by us actually grabbing the equaliser.  I’ve since read accounts that questioned our defensive organisation, that cited Donny’s winner as inevitable… I think that’s rather harsh.  Certainly Bond looked nervous coming out to claim balls but redeemed himself with a couple of terrific full-length stops as the home side turned the screw.  Daniel Pudil, arguably our man of the match, made another of his increasingly trademark perfectly timed bullet challenges to deny a clear Donny chance in the area.  Troy, of all people, made a goalline clearance.  Frankly, with legs visibly giving way, we had to weather a storm, but I thought we’d done so.  Until we hadn’t… the game had finished, this wasn’t the culmination of a wave of pressure, rather a last throw of the dice. Fair play to the home side, who kept plugging away.  They’re not about to pull up any trees but they were disciplined and tidy enough for the most part and looked a far more coherent, convincing unit than a Blackpool side similarly precariously positioned in the table.  On this evidence, you’d back them to cobble together enough points to stay up.

5- We’d arrived in Doncaster commenting on the warmth of the welcome in the gentle evening sunshine.  It wasn’t quite as friendly afterwards as Doncaster’s finest ran amok in the car park, breaking car windows and probably leaving a few wondering whether those experiments in cross-breeding humans with coatstands and UHT milk cartons were quite such a great idea.  The route home proved equally awkward, seeing as we’d failed to account for National Motorway Closure day, a quite extraordinary conspiracy that blocked off three alternative routes back to Bedfordshire and gave my brother a three hour jaunt back to Bradford.

Despite which grumpiness and sourness, it’s not all bad news on the face of it.  The scoreline doesn’t tell the story of the game that we would have won, perhaps handsomely, but for two moments of rare idiocy and should have gotten something out of anyway, and whilst the play-offs drift away into irrelevance the team finally looks to be putting together some consistent form that would yield away results sooner rather than later.  To what end, though?  One drawback, one unavoidable side-effect of what remains a hugely beneficial Pozzo model is that there’s kinda a slate-wiping exercise every summer, so what good a run of form now if some key cogs – for last year’s Vydra and Chalobah read perhaps Tözser? Merkel?  Deeney? Angella?  ….might not be around come August.  You’ve gotta enjoy the journey of course.  But it would be nice to know that the journey might be progressing us somewhere before next season.

Watford 4 Blackpool 0 (01/03/2014) 02/03/2014

Posted 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…

Leicester City 2 Watford 2 (08/02/2014) 09/02/2014

Posted 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.

Bye Bye Sun

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) 31/01/2014

Posted 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) 15/01/2014

Posted 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.


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