End of Term Report Part 6 27/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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15 (#2 – addendum) – Albert Riera
OK, so I forgot Albert Riera. You can read into that what you will…
Riera was an unexpected recruit at the end of March. Having been released by Galatasaray in the January the Spaniard was signed up by Udinese with a view to joining them on July 1st and in the meantime came to Vicarage Road accompanied by the vague suggestion that this might be a precursor to another loan next season. He immediately took up residence in the left wing-back position, and whilst there was no doubting his sumptuous ability, witness 16 caps for Spain and showcased by that remarkable goal against Ipswich, there was certainly doubt regarding how effectively we were able to use him. The left wing-back position wasn’t alien to him, certainly… he’d apparently been playing in the same position in Turkey (before having his contract terminated by mutual consent) – but he looked singularly uncomfortable with the defensive aspects of the role to the extent that you’d probably have wanted a stout full back behind him when fielded as an out-and-out winger, let alone as a wing-back. Too often he was caught on the wrong side of the player he was supposed to be covering, giving away silly free-kicks and earning sulky yellow cards by tackling from an impossible position or mouthing off in frustration afterwards, a phenomenon that climaxed with a red card at the Valley. Also worth mentioning in passing that he looked like a bloke who’d be far happier dressed in scruffy denim slouched on a pavement chair outside a café smoking roll-ups and drinking strong coffee than doing anything energetic like playing football. No doubting his louche, effortless ability… plenty of doubt over whether and where we could productively employ it.
Next Season: Lloyd Dyer’s arrival would seem to preclude his return; Granada doesn’t sound like a bad bet.
20 (#2) – Park Chu Young
Signed on loan in January to provide the “quick bloke” option that we’d been crying out for up front all season, Park managed 62 minutes of football for the Hornets, 61 of them in an utterly miserable day at Bolton. I witnessed neither that one nor his cameo at home to Brighton and as such there’s precious little to comment on… except to note, a footnote, that this was yet another of this season’s signings that for whatever reason – fitness, injury, luck, attitude? – didn’t work out. Perversely, arguably the least successful Hornet of the season will be heading to Brazil for the World Cup and naturally it’s difficult to feel anything other than indifferent. Except to comment that it’s a shame that that Specials-inspired song never really had a chance…
Next Season: At the end of his Arsenal contract it would seem unlikely that Park’s future lies in this country.
21- Ikechi Anya
As previously discussed on BHaPPY, my perception was that Ikechi perhaps suffered under Beppe’s more disciplined system, less of a free reign to cause havoc in attacking positions, the need for defensive discipline restricting his effectiveness. The stats don’t bear that impression out though… one assist and one goal under Gianfranco (in the same game, the romp at Oakwell) versus four goals and ten assists under Beppe tell their own story. Towards the end of the season Anya spent a fair amount of time in more central attacking role supporting Troy, an experiment that if it didn’t convert Ikechi into a goal machine wasn’t a complete disaster… it gave our attack some zip that it was desperate for, gave defences something else to think about and restricted opponents’ ability to push up a high line on us. The problem for Ikechi this season was of course our complete reliance on him for that burst of speed, a responsibility that meant that he was both fielded necessarily in perhaps unnatural positions and that he was the focus of more attention from opponents than he might have been.
Next Season: The recruitment of Lloyd Dyer should help Anya no end. Either way heremains a joy and one of the most valuable and likeable members of the team.
22- Almen Abdi
I work in scientific research. That’s my day job. I’m a statistician; a big part of it is ensuring that the conclusions that are drawn are accurate, appropriate. Often these conclusions are based on comparison… comparing how well this approach works to how well THAT approach works, perhaps. To make that “fair”, you need to make sure that things that you’re comparing are as similar as possible in every practical respect. If you’re comparing two medicines, for example, it’s hardly sensible to give one medicine to relatively healthy patients and another to severely ill patients and compare based on recovery rates. Some complicating factors you can control, some you can’t control but you can measure. Some things are just there. Adjusting for them, planning for them, weighing things up, quantifying. All necessary for an accurate judgement.
Sometimes, however, you don’t need a statistician. Sometimes the existence of an effect, a genuine impact, just screams at you from the spreadsheet. Page. Pitch. What had been remarkable last year was quite how consistently magnificent Almen Abdi was. You don’t normally get that sort of consistency from that sort of player, not in the second tier at any rate. This year what was remarkable was the impact that Abdi immediately had on our performances. Like a sprinkle of magic dust that suddenly knitted everything together, gave it a focus and an engine and a brilliance that made it so much more effective. Of the sixteen games he was involved in inbetween injuries and false starts, often half-fit or cautious, we lost four… two unfortunate defeats at Blackpool and QPR, the cup game at Man City and Forest away when he came on at 2-2 and was off injured within a minute of us going behind. The rest were characterised by that verve. Solid gold.
Next Season: The consensus is that we weren’t that good this season, that we didn’t deserve to make the play-offs, were never going to make it. I don’t buy all of that. Certainly we weren’t that good, but being in the play-offs merely requires you getting more points than all but five of the others. Brighton weren’t that good either. With a fit Almen all season it’s inconceivable that we wouldn’t have made it. Cross everything for a clear passage next season.
End of Term Report Part 5 24/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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17- Fitz Hall
Twelve months on in one respect, at least, little has changed. Last summer we reflected that whilst a reliably fit Fitz Hall was an asset – indeed, arguably, an asset worthy of a higher level – the Fitz Hall that we had unfortunately wasn’t available frequently or consistently enough to be worth a new contract. Watford evidently came to the same conclusion, since in late November, with Hall having not been offered a contract but having trained with the club to maintain his fitness as he sought a new club in the south of England, we re-signed Hall on a one-month deal. Easy to see why… this monstrous bully of a defender with plenty of savvy of the English leagues was just what we needed. Beppe Sannino came in and immediately gushed about Hall, calling him one of the most important players in the squad. On January 31st the WO reported that Hall had signed a contract to the end of the season. He was to start just one more game… two days later, as the Hornets beat Brighton at Vicarage Road, before an achilles injury curtailed his involvement.
Next Season: A fit Fitz would be tremendous. Inconceivable that we’ll be taking that gamble again though on a player who turns 34 before Christmas.
18- Daniel Pudil
The reservation I always had with Pudil was his not quite being up to the extraordinary demands of the wing-back role as Gianfranco defined it. The stamina thing has never been an issue – Pudil might not be as ridiculously quick as Ikechi Anya but he rarely flagged despite the responsibility at either end of the pitch. What he seemed to struggle with was positional discipline… too often in his first season he was caught out of position by an attacker exploiting the space behind him, too often he’d lunge in with a tackle that shouldn’t have been required and which he was in no position to execute cleanly. This season however, and particularly in the more defensively disciplined approach under Beppe, Daniel has been exposed far less often. His commitment and attitude are superb – and if you’d still rather he cut back yet further on the occasional histrionics his proclivity for gut-busting last-ditch penalty-area blocks and tackles more than compensate. A gutsy, cast-iron trooper, then, as reflected by a worthy third-place in the WO Player of the Season poll… so whilst a lack of cover in wing-back positions, particularly on the left, had long been an area for concern it didn’t feel entirely equitable that Pudil lost his place to new-boy Riera towards the end of the campaign; whatever the Spaniard’s ability, Pudil’s performances hadn’t demanded that.
Next Season: Given the much-trailed recruitment of Lloyd Dyer, Pudil will face stiffer competition on the left hand side.
19- Marco Faraoni
Something of a vote-splitter this one. Another with pedigree, Faraoni grew up at Lazio and began his professional career with Inter, a respectable upbringing but one afforded perhaps undue lustre by the exotic foreign-ness of the clubs involved. After all, the Championship is awash with players who made a dozen or so appearances for Manchester United in their younger days, and few are judged particularly harshly as a consequence. Faraoni’s tender years are also easily overlooked – 22, the same age as Reece Brown and only a year older than the likes of Hoban and Bond he has come to a foreign country to play in a different style of football in a particularly challenging position.
Not difficult to see why there ARE reservations, mind. Marco hasn’t tended to look terribly comfortable with the challenging wing back role, seemingly lacking an instinct as to when he should be attacking and when he should be shifting his arse to get back. His decision making can leave something to be desired and he has a short fuse. On the other hand… the component parts of a fabulous footballer are all there struggling to find shape and form. When in attacking positions his delivery is sound, he is positive and assertive and not since Marlon King have we had a player capable of killing a ball stone dead with such effortless ease, irrespective of from what distance or at what angle he receives it, like a Jedi Knight toying with lobbed rocks with a flick of the finger. One that could go one way or t’other, then… question is really whether it’s us that gets to watch him develop.
Next Season: Persistent rumours of a return to Italy don’t augur enormously positively.
20 (#1) – Diego Fabbrini
I liked this one, too. That pre-season game against Granada… Fabbrini danced and skipped and dragged the game hither and thither at will, like a chef caressing a rich sauce. How we drooled at the prospect of the damage he might cause, even after replays betrayed that what had looked like an effortless zero-backlift top-corner screamer owed rather a lot to an unnoticed deflection. What a weapon this guy would be, how much fun, just as soon as he got the hang of his new environment…
Ah. My Dad still insists that Diego Fabbrini was about to rip the division to shreds. Or rather, that he was already doing so but his genius was unappreciated by the majority. No doubt that the waif-like Italian has ability, of course. You don’t get a full Italian cap in a raffle, not even for a pre-season friendly. You don’t end up playing second tier football a year or so later in the normal way either though; something clearly wasn’t quite right and given that Fabbrini spent the second half of the season not back in Serie A with Udinese but flattering to deceive with Siena in Serie B it was more than just homesickness. From the word go Fabbrini’s ability was his and his alone, scarcely a suggestion of him blending with his teammates, of him finding away to employ that ability to surf past a marker to good effect. His 25 appearances, borne of a hope that his appearances would blossom, that something would connect, yielded a tap-in at the Madejski Stadium. Not good enough, not even for a “forward” rather than an out-and-out striker, particularly one hardly doing donkey-work for the cause when he wasn’t scoring goals.
Next Season: Would be a huge surprise to see him back at Vicarage Road.
End of Term Report Part 4 21/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12- Lloyd Doyley
After thirteen years in the first team squad, there’s little to say about Lloyd that you don’t already know. Quick, diligent, competent, adaptable, focused, professional. And a complete bloody star. Not infallible, not above the odd stinker here or there – and there were one or two of those this season if we’re honest – and never likely to stride arrogantly out of defence and swipe a crossfield pass onto the toe of an escaping wingback in the style of Gabrielle Angella. But solid gold, a must for the bench whenever he’s not in the starting eleven… whether Beppe’s comments lauding the value of home-grown types like Lloyd and Luke O’Nien was merely window dressing or straight down the line they were entirely accurate. Lloyd will unpretentiously come in and do a job and if he fails to do it thoroughly it won’t be down to attitude . A sporadic starter throughout the season but a fixture in the matchday squad (but for a hamstring injury in the autumn), also worth noting that we won half the games that Lloyd was involved in, and fewer than 20% of those that he wasn’t…
Next Season: More of the same. Obviously.
13- Mathias Ranégie
The thing here is that a player who looks perpetually grumpy has extra work to do. You can get away with it – indeed, it’s practically an asset – if you’re the all-action type, a destructive midfielder say, or a brutal target man. Perhaps even a moody but brilliant goalkeeper. Otherwise, you’re going to need to work that little bit harder to compensate. This is what Mathias Ranégie is battling with, since for all that he looks strong and clever, uses his body well and wins an awful lot in the air there’s an air of diffidence about the Swede that isn’t a crowd-pleaser… the inverse of that stereotypically British thing about loving a trier, someone who saunters around expending energy selectively isn’t going to win friends, particularly if he looks so thoroughly pissed off and resentful while doing so.
There’s little doubt that he looks a useful acquisition, mind. The presence of a genuine, flick-ons, running-battles and nods down at the far post target man took immediate pressure off Troy and will be a useful weapon next season whether or not Troy is around to benefit from the increased freedom it affords the strike partner. Mathias’ silly reaction to provocation from that horrible little gobshite James Husband (bye then, Doncaster) at the Keepmoat was only one of several instances suggesting that the big striker has a short fuse to match his sulky demeanour, but if he contributes consistently on the pitch we’ll let him off that.
Next Season: One of several cases where it will be interesting to see what effect a proper pre-season can have on fitness and consistency.
15- Javier Acuña
I really liked the idea of Javier Acuña. Signed, apparently, in the face of stiff competition with an impressive goalscoring record at Castilla he was one of the new weapons that was going to offset the loss of Vydra. The one, bluntly, who was going to get the goals.
And if that never really looked likely there was nonetheless something endearing about Acuña’s lack of regard for his own safety in the way he hurtled into challenges – sometimes with excessive exuberance but certainly better that way than the other. In this regard he resembled a fabled Watford centre-forward, but there the resemblance ended. Whilst H was misemployed by one manager in his Watford career he was never discarded, always demanded involvement. Acuña started three League games for Watford, as well as a handful in the League Cup but never consecutive games. One of those cup games featured his only goal for the Hornets, a fine bullish strike against Norwich borne of just the sort of bloody mindedness that his spasmodic involvement had already suggested. He had never really looked like that the goalscorer though… dropping deep or wide more naturally than attacking the box. In reality we had enough of those sorts of options all ready.
Next Season: For whatever reason, Javier never settled at Watford. A return to England seems unlikely.
16- Sean Murray
Having disappeared from the picture last season Sean won hearts and minds by booking himself into a fitness camp over the summer break, a statement of intent and of determination, a professional and mature call seeking to right a perceived wrong from twelve months earlier. His reward was involvement from the outset, ostensibly as part of a tag team with Cristian Battocchio with whom he ended the season with a virtually identical playing record.
Truth be told, he’s rarely looked entirely comfortable. The swagger of his early performances has gone, even if he’s still finding the back of the net with reasonable regularity. The first thing to note here, however, is that Sean Murray is only 20. Three years since his debut, true, and feels longer – he’s played under four managers in that time – but nonetheless, still 20 and at an age where many would be making their first tentative steps into the team. Sean has 50 senior starts, and half as many off the bench. And he will grow, and he’ll get better – his determination no longer in doubt. Perhaps it’s a matter of finding his role… finding his niche. Perhaps no coincidence that he looked comfortable in Sean Dyche’s 4-4-2. But players who break through very young often don’t end up being quite the sort of player that their earliest performances suggested they might be. Gary Porter springs to mind here. Sean has plenty of ability. Club and player have just got to work out how best to use it…
Next Season: Still here for the long term, and hurrah for that, Sean needs to find his place.
End of Term Report Part 3 18/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 (#2)- Alexander Merkel
Alex Merkel’s name had been mentioned frequently in dispatches long before his eventual arrival in January, ostensibly as cover for the still-not-quite-recovered Almen Abdi. Having joined Milan at the age of 16 he had no small pedigree, and if he blotted his copybook early on with a needless, stroppy red card at the end of his debut defeat to Reading it was only after he’d shown tantalising glimpses of his ability from an unnatural-looking berth, pre-Tözsér, at the back of the midfield. Thing is… he never really got any further than that. There was no doubting his ability; at times, such as at Doncaster in March and off the bench against Barnsley the following weekend, there was a suggestion that the Kazakh-German, who looked like he might have belonged in an eighties boy-band, was beginning to establish himself. Instead as the season draw to a close he was involved less rather than more, making only one further start and drifting away from the picture despite options in midfield being further limited by injuries. You were left with the impression of someone whose heart perhaps was never really in the thing to start with.
Next Season: Apparent indictment in the end-of-season fall-out would seem to preclude further involvement at Vicarage Road, which on the basis of the unrealised status of his talent is no great loss. A philosophical question: does a stradivarius, kept in its box under the bed, make any noise? In a forest or anywhere else?
9- Troy Deeney
There’s a reason that players don’t often score 20 goals in consecutive seasons, after all. More than one reason, strictly speaking… the first being that 20 goals a season tends to be enough to attract interest, the second being that those that hang around are either playing at a higher level having propelled their club upwards, or lack the ability to repeat the feat – the first twenty an outlier,a flash in the pan – or that they fail to motivate themselves in quite the same way given no change in status. Been there, done that, already got that t-shirt. So… sure, Troy’s Player of the Season campaign was not without its criticisms. As we flailed, rudderless and leaderless, in Zola’s last days Deeney was as culpable as anyone, a dip in form and influence that he’s since acknowledged. And as he surged back into view in the New Year you did have to wonder quite whose benefit that was for… were these colossal performances simply a consequence of rediscovered mojo or did Troy realise that his chances of a big move would be greatly enhanced by a show of force. Either way, he was magnificent during the second half of the season, almost without exception or hiccup. Strong and yet mobile, aggressive and yet controlled, ability matched with personality, he stood out like a beacon in the same way that Adrian Mariappa did during his final season at Vicarage Road. Just too good for this level of football any longer – those debates about whether he was worth whatever we paid Walsall for him now seem an awfully long time ago.
Next Season: The Pozzo model would suggest that this would be the time. Two years to go on his contract, peak of his powers, two massive seasons under his belt… this is the time to sell, and it’s inconceivable that there won’t be offers. If he does stay, you suspect it would be for the longer term… here for keeps, here to finish what we’ve started. If he goes… the rationale would be that you sell now because you don’t need to sell now, so you only sell if the right money comes in. And that would need to be an awful lot…
10- Lewis McGugan
When we signed Lewis McGugan it felt like a bit of a coup. One of the most eye-catching players in the Championship, scorer of belting long rage goals and audacious free-kicks, a highlights show staple, his signing something of a statement of intent. Fast forward, and Lewis has ended the season with eleven goals, an impressive haul from midfield by any standards, and a respectable enough eight assists. So why is there any debate? Scores goals, often eye-catching goals. Makes goals. What’s not to like?
The answer was suggested by the shrug with which McGugan’s departure was met by many on the Forest messageboards, a response that knocked our triumphalism at poaching him somewhat. It’s reflected in the fact that after an underwhelming campaign for the team Lewis didn’t make the top ten in Player of the Season despite those impressive stats. McGugan isn’t lazy. He’s not merely a showman, a highlights player, a show pony. If he were there would, again, be no debate and he wouldn’t have been the most regular pick in the midfield three over the course of the season. Not lazy. But perhaps… indisciplined. Not in the losing temper, picking up cards sense but rather… disappearing when things get tough. Making bad decisions far too often… the defining image of McGugan’s season isn’t of him reeling away from another triumphant free kick, it’s of Troy Deeney giving him the look (and sometimes more than a look) after, once again, Lewis chose to take his chance with a long-range drive into the back of the stand rather than looking for the pass.
To return to one of BHaPPY’s favourite topics, you rather wonder what Lewis would look like playing alongside a John Eustace character… someone to keep in his ear, remind him what the hell he’s supposed to be doing and kick him up the arse when required. As it is, he’s obviously an asset but for all the positive contributions his potential remains unrealised.
Next Season: More of the same, one suspects. Which will be good, but, you know…
11- Fernando Forestieri
Really, what’s not to like? In a side that’s struggled for… personality for much of the season, Nando provides it in bucketloads. He’s still a young player and whilst he’s progressed immeasurably in his two seasons at Vicarage Road there are still rough edges. He could have probably done without being a de facto first choice for as much of the season but at the same time his name on the teamsheet is never anything but a Good Thing.
His expressive nature has also made him a barometer of the team’s mood. Early in the season a brief return to the more testing histrionics, going down too easily, remonstrating with the officials or into space as he stomped slowly back onside provided due warning of the brick wall that ‘franco’s side was careering into. His devilish goal at Manchester City served notice on a renewed exuberance that would see us lose only four of the next seventeen games… and his doleful trudge across the front of the Rookery early in the Huddersfield game telegraphed that something was amiss before events on the pitch underlined the concern.
He hadn’t started a game since mid-February, incidentally, and much as Mathias Ranégie and Ikechi Anya between them provided reasonable service to Troy in the meantime we hadn’t half missed his fairy dust. He’s the guy at drama club who doesn’t learn his lines but turns up and improvises genius… a group full of Nandos would be a disaster. You do rather need at least one though.
Next Season: He’s a weapon and still improving, but we’d get so much more out of him if as last season he was merely one of a number of different options.
End of Term Report Part 2 15/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5- Essaïd Belkalem
On the face of it, the poster boy for our pretty disastrous recruitment last summer, or something, and beyond dispute that he’s failed to impress in his outings in yellow. A lot of mitigating circumstances though, before dismissing the Algerian altogether. More than any of our cosmopolitan recruits it was immediately evident that communication was an issue… multi-lingual or otherwise, Belkalem was clearly not on the same wavelength as his teammates a lot of the time – the defining image of his time at Watford will have been of him out of position on the wrong side of an escaping opponent lunging in to remedy the situation and earning a yellow card into the bargain. That’s not a facet that sits comfortably with trying to adapt to playing in a back three, let alone to settling into a new country, a new environment. Physically, Belkalem looks a brute… a monstrous, powerful stopper in the Fitz Hall mould, you do rather suspect that we’d have seen better of him in a back four, and given some time to adapt. Instead his involvement was sporadic – none of his seven starts were consecutive – and by the time he had overcome a mid-season ankle injury Tommie Hoban had nudged him back down the queue.
Next Season: Post World-Cup, of course, where he’s as close as we’ll have to a representative, the Algerian’s future is unclear. One can’t imagine that either club or player will be desperate to extend this season’s arrangement, and yet dependent on Granada’s status you wouldn’t rule out a return quite yet. We’ve not seen the best of him.
6- Joel Ekstrand
Here’s a really odd one. One that you didn’t see coming. In the wake of Joel’s hugely impressive opening season at Vicarage Road a year ago we eulogised him, suggesting that “Mentally, a “that bit’s sorted” label was pasted over whichever corner of the defence Joel occupied”. Twelve months on that assessment doesn’t seem to apply… consensus amongst football supporters is rare, but such has emerged with the judgement that Ekstrand really hasn’t had a very happy time of it this term for all that he’s been as much a regular as anyone – only Almunia, Angella and Deeney started more games. Whilst last year he looked confident and unflappable, this season he’s looked far from confident on too many occasions, struggling with his distribution, picking up plenty of needless, often sulky bookings (eleven in total) and looking like part of the problem rather than a trooper swimming against the tide. In fairness he looked a lot happier when fielded in the centre of the three where better able to concentrate on the purely defensive work; you kinda feel you want a physically more dominant figure there in the long term though.
Next Season: Bottom line, it’s not as simple as these imports either working out or not. Joel was splendid in his first year, less than splendid this time; to what extent he has changed and to what extent circumstances have made him less effective is moot. What’s clear is that here’s someone who has demonstrated that he’s capable of being a terrific asset to the team and if he comes back next season with his head in the right place we’ll all be better off for it.
7- Cristian Battocchio
There was a point in January when things were slightly in flux following Beppe’s arrival and Battocchio’s future at the Hornets was cast into doubt with loan moves back to Italy seemingly on the cards. Quite what the motivation for this was was never altogether clear… the likeliest explanation, that the new coach didn’t rate the young Argentine/Italian, was swiftly dispelled when plans for a loan were quickly scotched with the general understanding being that Sannino, in fact, had insisted that he be retained. Battocchio seemed perfectly happy with this development and contributed well for the rest of the season… the main upshot of the episode being that Beppe got an early tick in the “plus” box for both asserting is authority and for good judgement. Cristian is far from the finished article, as reflected by a season that has seen him tagging in and out of the side with Sean Murray, eighteen months his junior. Last year we suggested that he was a good cog in a successful side but too infrequently affects the course of a game that’s getting away from us… that still holds I think, although I’d argue that alongside the trademark relentless energy and Hanna Barbera whirring legs there has been a growing influence, a willingness to take responsibility even if he has nonetheless disappeared into the mire of some of our worst outings along with everyone else. Clearly a popular bloke and very far from the most negative mercenary stereotype that lingers in the back of the mind in considering the Pozzo model – witness his Community award – Cristian has ability, personality and potential. That’ll do us just fine for the moment.
Next Season: More of the same, one hopes, and a growing influence in our midfield.
8 (#1) – Josh McEachran
There’s a wider backstory to Josh McEachran, in which his spell at Watford is little more than a footnote. For several years he’s been tipped as a strong maybe from Chelsea’s youth system, evidence that the huge investment in foreign talent doesn’t prohibit the best English youngsters coming through. Whilst we’re digressing onto the topic, in as much as I care about the national team at all my concern certainly doesn’t extend to justifying pissing around with the lower divisions in its name, much less in doing so whilst using the national team as a veil to thinly conceal the Premier elite’s very selfish priorities. That’s by the by. McEachran, as it turns out, appears to have fallen below the anticipated trajectory… but that doesn’t disprove the viability of emerging English talent either. The fact is – and thank the stars for this, frankly, in this post-EPPP world – that development of youngsters from a starting point of high potential, has never been a given. McEachran looked a potential star at 16 or so but there’s not a straight line between that and a World Cup place at the age of 19 or 20 because kids develop in different ways that are as dependent on mentality and physique as they are on environment.
Actually I don’t think McEachran’s a bad player, and I didn’t think that his loan at Watford was the unmitigated disaster that many perceived it as at the time. Or at least, if he wasn’t what we were looking for he nonetheless did his fetching, carrying, keeping-things-moving job well enough, showing a positive intent that wasn’t always evident around him. What we needed, actually, was a bit more authority and some physical presence, both of which George Thorne proved slightly more capable of providing.
Next Season: Sporadic involvement on loan at Wigan in the second half of the season suggests that the first team Stamford Bridge career once envisaged remains unlikely. Them’s the breaks. But for the fanfare that preceded it, Josh’s career trajectory would have been far less worthy of comment.
End of Term Report Part 1 12/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
This is going to be done for the World Cup if it kills me… onwards…
1- Manuel Almunia
A player whose status will perhaps divide opinions. He has an error in him, certainly, and has done throughout his career. He appears to be increasingly fragile – four separate spells out this season with either injury our illness (albeit twice for a game only). Despite which, for me the case is clear. In a side lacking leaders, a side which by its very make-up might have language issues and has often fielded a formation that leaves you vulnerable down the flanks and thus demands organisation we are hugely dependent on Manuel. There’s a debate about whether you’re better off with your captain outfield which is a separate conversation – you’d need the right character before foisting the captaincy further forward for one thing, and thereby hangs the real problem. Not lack of an outfield captain, but lack of outfield leadership. The armband shouldn’t be relevant. But in any case, Manuel isn’t a presence that you want to be without as it stands.
The case for the Spaniard is made most strongly, as is often the case with underappreciated players, when he’s out of the side – with no slur on Bond intended. Just as his Vicarage Road debut, in Lloyd’s testimonial almost two years ago, was characterised by his bellow echoing off the back of the Rous Stand; the two more prolonged absences this season coincided with Zola’s last run of games and the pathetic close to the season and defensive fragility. More going on in both cases than just a change of keeper, more context, no direct cause-and-effect. But not a complete coincidence either that our two grimmest spells of the season saw Manuel out of the team. There’s one voice calling the shots back there.
Next Season: Out of contract, the future’s rather up to Manuel one suspects. I don’t believe for a minute that he won’t get another year if he wants one.
2- Reece Brown
Ah, Reece Brown. Remember him? Me too, just about. An odd signing amongst a number of odd signings in our scattergun recruitment last summer, having left trees comprehensively unpulled during a number of loan spells from Old Trafford before his release. In his pre-season outings and limited first team action he resembled his more celebrated brother both physically and in the way that, like Brown Sr in his early days in the Man United first team, he spent long spells looking commanding and every inch the part before tripping over his own feet at an inopportune moment. The corollary to that comparison of course is that Wes Brown turned out to be a solid top flight and occasionally international defender, and that Brown Jr wouldn’t need to emulate his brother to be an asset. He’s going to be lucky to get the opportunity to do so at Vicarage Road though.
Next Season: A year left on his contract, Brown is a long way down the pecking order and seemed to have been written off as a bad idea very early on.
3- Hector Bellerin
By contrast, I really don’t remember Hector Bellerin. Is that more a reflection of me getting old, or of the transient nature of much of our squad this season? Have I just lost track? Was he the anonymous defensive midfielder from this big club or the lightweight wingback from that big club? His loan spell, part of the ongoing quest to provide more cover at wing-back, spanned the two managers before being curtailed, presumably since Arsene Wenger decided that his charge would learn more back at the ranch than he would from being part of the remedial rearguard action being undertaken at Vicarage Road. Not the easiest period in which to arrive on loan by any standards… his only involvement in a victory was five minutes at the end of the mauling of Millwall, despite which he seems to have been well thought of on his departure by those upon whom he left an impression. I wasn’t one of them.
Next Season: His star on the rise at Arsenal, another loan seems most likely. Not over the fence again tho.
4- Gabriele Angella
That Gabriele Angella is a terrific defender should go without saying. Strong, quick, utterly comfortable with the ball at his feet and a threat at set pieces to boot. He’s not quite the monster that he appeared to be on his arrival though… a strong defender, good in the air but somehow not dominant, not a bully, not a leader. Not always the happiest looking camper either, although heaven knows we’ve all had enough to be grumpy about this season. As someone who by all accounts we were after a year earlier and who was relatively close to the top of the pile at Udinese Angella must haven taken some persuading in the first place and mid-table in the Championship probably wasn’t what he banked on. Nonetheless, his dips in form were far less pronounced than those going on around him and whatever problems there were at the back, Angella wouldn’t have been near the top of many people’s diagnoses. Enormous fun from attacking set pieces also… the biggest threat we’ve had from set pieces than the more brutal but no less effective Dan Shittu left WD18. Clearly one of the ones who worked, then. Just wish he looked like he was enjoying it a bit more…
Next Season: Would not be surprising to see Prem clubs sniffing around… Gaby has the air of someone who knows he’s above all this. A return to Italy not out of the question either. If he’s still in yellow in August I’ll be delighted.
Helping Hands 2013/2014 07/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
This has long-since become an annual feature of course, as much out of habit as anything else. Sometimes the table tells you precious little that you didn’t already know, or at least would have guessed.
This time however is a little different, since the table suggests a few things that are slightly surprising… as well as some that tell the story, or part of the story, of our season.
That Ikechi Anya sits some way clear at the top of the pile is case in point. In a season where a vast number of names have appeared in our midfield and few have been regular starts for any length of time for a variety of reasons, the player that has created the most goals is the one attacking player in the squad with what Alan Hansen might at one stage have described as “genuine” pace. The obvious outlet, the man with the speed to burst beyond a defence. What surprised me a little was the breakdown of those assists… true, Anya missed chunks of the early season with injury (primarily Zola’s final weeks when the wheels fell off), but nonetheless one assist (in 12+3) under Gianfranco is meagre compared to ten (in 20+4) under Beppe, a rate that far exceeds even Almen Abdi’s last term and is remarkable, even allowing for his occasional – and largely unsuccessful – forays up front. My perception had been that Ikechi had been less effective, more restricted by the discipline required by the new manager; these figures suggest otherwise.
Behind some predictable names, significant that Almen Abdi manages to roll up in fifth despite having scarcely featured and only occasionally being fully fit when he did. How different our season might have turned out with the reliable genius of Abdi more dependably available.
Beyond this it’s the low numbers that are more instructive. Albert Riera showcased quality and scored a memorable, stunning goal but didn’t provide an assist from his rather uncomfortable wing-back berth, giving a lie to the suggestion that his defensive discomfort might be compensated for by what he offers going forward. The assist table is only a limited, one-dimensional reflection of that contribution, but does rather back up the view that Riera needs to be better employed if he stays at the Vic next season.
Marco Cassetti plummets from ten assists last time to a mere two this, reflecting his retreat to the pivotal centre of the back three in contrast to his occasional wing-back and eventual side-of-the-three-with-licence-to-roam under Gianfranco. Surprising also, perhaps, to see only three assists next to Cristian Battocchio’s name, each of which in the last two months of the season.
Beyond that, most informative is the number of players to have made a handful of appearances only. There will always be a few of these, of course, and nobody’s going to complain about kids getting a run out at the end of the season. Seven players with one or fewer starts feels high though, as does 21 with single-figure starts. Last season we shipped out half of Sean Dyche’s squad a month in, brought in a large number of loans with the expressed intent of seeing who worked and who didn’t, and still only reached 20…
|Anya||11||31+7||5||Bar (A), Mwl (H), MaC – FAC (A), NoF (A), LeC (A), Bar (H), Bar (H), BlR (H), ShW (A), LeU (H), DeC (A)|
|McGugan||8||33+4||11||Bar (A), Bar (A), HuT (A), DeC (H), LeU (A), Bou (A), ShW (A), IpT (H)|
|Forestieri||7||22+10||8||BiC (A), Bou (H), Bou-LC (H), BHA (A), BiC (H), Mbo (H). DoR (A)|
|Deeney||6||47+1||25||Bou (H), DoR (H), MaC – FAC (A), LeC (A), Mwl (A), QPR (A)|
|Abdi||4||9+7||2||Bou (H), Bou (H), Rdg (A), LeU (H)|
|Fabbrini||4||11+14||1||Bou (H), Rdg (A), ChA (H), NoC – LC (H)|
|Faraoni||4||31+12||4||WgA (H), HuT (A), BrC – FAC (H), LeU (H)|
|Pudil||4||33+9||2||DeC (H), Bpl (H), ShW (A), Mwl (A)|
|Tözsér||3||20||0||Bpl (H), IpT (H), IpT (H)|
|Murray||3||27+12||6||BrR – LC (A), DoR (H), NoF (A)|
|Battocchio||3||27+14||5||Bpl (H), Bpl (H), DeC (A)|
|Angella||3||43+2||8||WgA (A), Bur (H), ChA(A)|
|Acuña||2||6+6||1||BrR – LC (A), Bou – LC (H)|
|Merkel||2||7+4||1||BHA (H), BlR (H)|
|Thorne||2||8||0||LeU (A), Mwl (H)|
|Cassetti||2||34+5||1||Mbo (A), IpT (A)|
|Smith||1||3+2||0||BrC – FAC (A)|
The annual “School Report” feature follows shortly…
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.
Queens Park Rangers 2 Watford 1 (21/04/2014) 21/04/2014Posted 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) 20/04/2014Posted 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.