Watford 0 Chelsea 0 (03/02/2016) 04/02/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. Fred turned two a couple of weeks before Christmas. Fred is utterly, utterly obsessed with “Frozen”. He’s fairly obsessed with various other Disney films too – “Beauty and the Beast” particularly, and “The Little Mermaid” too – but it’s “Frozen” which fills his every waking hour (and a few of the sleeping ones too, I’d wager).
Now, I realise that as a middle-aged man with vaguely left-field tastes, I’m supposed to be wearily dismissive of such things. But I won’t have any of that: I pity anyone so worn down by life that they can’t appreciate romantic candyfloss with magic and songs and jokes and princes and princesses and castles and slightly-scary-but-not-really monsters and all of that. What’s not to love? I mean, you can watch Phil sitting drunkenly in a puddle of his own piss and staring up helplessly at the perpetual drizzle as if it were his God on EastEnders instead if you really want, but it won’t make you live any longer.
What’s fascinating – to me, anyway – is how Fred’s “Frozen” fixation works as a doorway to all kinds of learning and development. His two-year-old friends have different fixations but to the same end; it’s one of the ways in which nature gently leads them by the hand. By latching onto something and examining it in minute detail over and over again, he keeps pushing forward his language, his understanding, his imagination. He uses it to fuel his endless drawing and colouring; he learns and sings the songs, complete with wonderful arm-waving crescendos; he brings the characters into his world and plays with them…and he gains an unbelievable sixth-sense for the tiniest bit of “Frozen”-related tat on a supermarket aisle that you haven’t even looked down yet. Honestly, you could fire Fred into orbit around Mars and he’d still be able to spot the “Frozen” baby wipes in Bexhill Tesco.
Most recently, he’s begun to play with the idea that there are characters he doesn’t like…and more, that there are characters he doesn’t like when they’re angry but does like when they’re not. This is a scale on which judgements are still being plotted and re-plotted on a daily basis, sometimes impulsively and sometimes with great thought. At the far end of the scale, beyond the familiar “don’t like” is a much more permanent, substantial verdict: “can’t like”. Here we find, among one or two others, the Evil Queen from Snow White: “No, can’t like Evil Queen. Can’t.” Please insert your own Diego Costa gag here.
2. In thinking ahead to this game, I’ve spent time trying to come up with something about Chelsea that I could like. As any self-respecting When Saturday Comes reader should, I despise nearly everything about the Big Four or Five or Hateful Eight or whatever they are. But it’s nigh-on impossible not to have a grudging respect for, say, Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements or Dame Arsene Wenger’s longevity. It’s also nigh-on impossible to feel anything much about Manchester City, in the same way I have no opinion at all about “Downton Abbey”. In each of these cases, like is a strong word, but I can’t can’t like either, not completely.
Chelsea, though…I mean, blimey.
I momentarily wondered if my opinion of the club might be distorted by the insufferable antics of Jose Mourinho…and it’s true that if a house guest takes a dump in the bath, it’s hard to see past it to their other virtues. But I’ve been on the case for a couple of days now and I confess that I’m really struggling. I know several Chelsea fans who I like very much and count as friends, but the club can hardly claim much credit for that. Um. I think Pat Nevin’s all right. Um.
I think of myself as a generally fair and reasonable person. On that basis, I just cannot believe that a hundred-odd years of history can have given us nothing more than a slight winger who likes Joy Division and wears spectacles…and “given” is a bit charitable even then, let’s face it. There must be more, dear reader. There simply must. Even Luton did mumble mumble cough back, um, then.
Answers on a postcard, please.
3. But that’s enough about them. Let’s talk about us. And let’s do that because for half an hour or so of this utterly captivating goalless draw, we were really, really good. Not spirited, not gutsy, just plain old really good.
In previous failed campaigns, these games have been like cup ties in which we might pull off a giant-killing, something to take with us back downstairs. Here, the announcement of the Chelsea teamsheet – him, him, him, him, him, him, him, him, him, him and him, with the other ones on the bench – might’ve led you to expect similar, whatever the league table might say. But none of that: as the game settled down into a pattern, it was our pattern, our style, that increasingly held sway.
There was no sense of a gap being bridged, no point at which you had to suspend your disbelief. No Steve Palmer and Gianfranco Zola moment. These days, we’re an adept, composed, flexible and powerful side, one that’s being coached sympathetically and one that’s subject to considerable, but considered, investment. It’s not merely that we don’t look out of place, we suddenly aren’t out of place. We’ve very much where we should be.
4. For that half hour, Ben Watson runs the show. Most of the plaudits have understandably gone elsewhere, but that’s good reason to shine the light into the grubbier corners of the midfield and seek him out. Every Chelsea move seems to stumble unwittingly into him like a drunk colliding with a policeman at two in the morning; the ball is laid off and we’re away, feeding the impish Jurado further upfield and probing away at the Chelsea backline to see where it might yield. The ball is lost, the yellow shirts funnel back, and then they bump into Watson again and we’re away again. He builds a symphony out of the most simple melodies. He does nothing of any great note and yet is the best player on the pitch by a distance.
Chelsea are forced deeper and deeper. Jurado flits around, Deeney dominates in the air, Ighalo does that ridiculous thing where he loses the ball in plain sight and yet emerges with it anyway, Paredes threatens on the right, Holebas threatens on the left, the midfield keeps driving it all forward. I’m struggling not to repeat my earlier verdict: we’re really, really good. We just don’t score. At the peak of it all, we get bloody close: a wondrous cross from Holebas that begs to be dumped into the net by Ighalo, who completely mis-times his header, followed shortly afterwards by a blast from Capoue that’s parried by Courtois. Close, but we don’t score.
5. That happens, of course. It’s why you need to make sure that you don’t get carried away. One of the very few criticisms you could level at us this season is that we’ve let our imaginations run away with us sometimes. This was an evening when the opening – possibly winning – goal was so close and so tantalising that we could’ve been forgiven for chasing after it like a kitten after a butterfly, but we needed to keep our heads. We needed them to get nil. We have to learn.
There were scares. It’s Chelsea, there are bound to be scares…although a great punt upfield isn’t the most likely source, Diego Costa nearly finding the bottom corner after fending off the attentions of two defenders. Costa is a pest, but there’s not a lot of threat from elsewhere, for all Willian’s trickery and Oscar’s Juradoish flitting. Fabregas was there, apparently. We’re watchful, but we have things under control: Prodl picks up a daft booking for a hack but is otherwise magnificent, Cathcart is diligence personified.
The half concludes with a bad-tempered kerfuffle between Paredes and Costa, thus fulfilling the latter’s contractual obligations like a weary comedian rolling out a once-popular catchphrase while opening a mini-mart. Boo, Evil Queen, boo. (It transpires that Paredes started it, if we’re going to descend to that level. So, I guess…boo, Paredes, boo. Tellingly, Costa was on his feet and demanding the ball after shoving his opponent to the deck: he’s looking for that kind of confrontation, for the situations in which he can gain an edge, and few players are better at taking advantage. We needed to keep our heads.)
6. You wouldn’t expect a side with as much quality as Chelsea, or a coach as well-travelled as Guus Hiddink, to let the second half be a repeat of the first. And it wasn’t. Our substitutions tell a story, I think: retreating ambition as the game went on, to the point where Mario Suarez’s debut didn’t actually involve touching the ball and yet still looked quite decent in context. We held our own for a bit, Deeney firing a snap-shot wide and Holebas hitting the side netting from a tight angle, but Chelsea gradually ticked off the things on their stuff-to-do list: sit on Jurado, sit on Ighalo, push Paredes back, and so on, and so on. They took control. Such a joy in the first half, Jurado was gone within fifteen minutes, disappearing like the second album by a one-hit wonder. Ighalo barely touched the ball. Holebas was exposed defensively. Capoue disintegrated. By the game’s final quarter, we were pretty much hanging on.
By the end, we had Heurelho Gomes to thank for a valuable point. What a signing he has been. He had been involved before – most notably to divert Ivanovic’s close-range effort around the post – but the game’s defining moment came late on, as Willian’s cross found Costa lurking at the far post. You sometimes get an odd view of things at the other end from the Rookery, but at other times you can see it all perfectly from that distance. One of those moments when you involuntarily mouth the word “goal” and brace yourself for the punch. You see Costa connect, you see the ball heading for the top corner, you give it up as lost. And then the empty space on that side of the goal is filled entirely by Gomes’ enormous frame and a massive stretching hand; it’s as if someone’s freeze-framed the video and edited him in. Slow-motion never does those kind of saves justice: it gives the impression that there was time, but there was no time. I made a noise that I’m not sure I’ve ever made in a football ground before, and I apologise to those in my vicinity.
7. It’s hard to be proud of faffing around by the corner flag to see out the final minutes of a goalless draw at home. But it’s even harder to care. We’re getting older and wiser, less prone to lapses in concentration and less indulgent in flights of fancy. Take the point. We damn well earnt it. It’s a draw with the champions, for heaven’s sake. More importantly, it’s another point towards safety.
Once upon a time, we would’ve had to take pride in the result, the league position being irretrievable. Now, it’s just the means to an end. And besides, it’s only Chelsea. It’s not like they’re Spurs or Leicester or anything, right?
Nottingham Forest 0 Watford 1 (30/01/2016) 31/01/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I’d felt confident about today. Not just today, actually, but about the Cup… not that we’re going to do anything as drastic as winning it, but there can’t be many sides better placed to give it a good go. We’re neither harbouring pretensions of Europe nor looking terribly anxiously over our shoulder; we’re competitive, we’ve got goals and we’re terrifying on the break, all of which tick boxes. And it’s been a while, after all, since a good cup run. I’d made a point of bringing the girls to Newcastle and then to this one for that reason, just in case… these journeys, were a formative part of my upbringing too.
But I was particularly confident about today. Comments attributed to Forest’s captain for the day Dexter Blackstock had helped… there aren’t many Premier League opponents taking us lightly any more so it was slightly surprising to see an opponent being so blasé. Apart from which, “being used to playing Watford” hasn’t helped Dexter and friends in many recent encounters at the City Ground – the home side had won 3 in 12 here since regular encounters were resumed in 2000, and 2 in 6 since Blackstock moved to the midlands in 2009. We’re not unbeatable, but telling yourself and the world that nothing much has changed or is changing at Vicarage Road didn’t suggest a well-drilled opponent.
2- Both sides rested players – in our case, arguably, our key men in each area of the pitch. Pulling the main men out and replacing them with the next in line is going to be disruptive in terms of a drop in quality, but as much so in terms of there being a set of new faces not quite so used to playing together and without those leaders to run things. Partly as a result, and with the help of a hearty, unpredictable wind, the game was a bit of a scruffy mess for the most part. We were pretty comfortable after the first fifteen minutes or so, in which the home side pressed voraciously high up the pitch and our centre-backs dealt with pretty much everything with a hearty clout that used to be How You Do It Proper but in this era of casually bringing balls down and sliding them sideways to your man in space feels rather anxious. We certainly enjoyed more of the possession, even if we didn’t do an awful lot with it against a Forest side who looked precisely like a team who’d discovered that being solid got them quite far and had no appetite for anything more ambitious, like a novice ice skater shuffling around the perimeter of the rink for half an hour without ever risking letting go of the rail. Yes, me too.
For all of which, the best chance of the half came to the home side; Anya, making his first appearance on the right wing for, perhaps, years, dropped back to cover for Nyom but dithered indecisively permitting Jamie Ward to rattle through on goal. Cathcart, terrific throughout, stood his ground and forced Ward into a decision, which saw a shot flick wide, but narrowly enough to be a concern until it drifted past the post.
3- A fairly ugly spectacle, then, which continued to rattle around energetically but fruitlessly like a bluebottle in a matchbox. One significant benefit of this was the inexpensive grounding it gave to new signing and full debutant Nordin Amrabat. This was in many respects untypical of the sort of game Amrabat will find himself playing in; nonetheless, he learned very quickly quite how differently the bar is set in England vs Spain in terms of what constitutes a “foul”. More than once in the first half he found himself on his backside as a result of aggressive but not excessive attention from the home defence, his expression one of irritation but particularly surprise at the lack of a whistle. He’ll learn; indeed he was already learning by the second half.
He did nothing but whet our appetite for the extra options he gives our attacking armoury. After a sighter in the first half that went straight down Dorus de Vries’ throat he took advantage of some Deeney-induced chaos to whip an extraordinary half-volley out of the air in the second. This prompted an even better one-handed clawing save from de Vries, who was first congratulated by Deeney and then given a “how the f*** did you do that?” gesture and grin from Amrabat. Later a foray down the right from Anya, one of the brighter attacking elements of a midfield in which Guédioura and Abdi had limited impact, saw a cross pulled back to Amrabat who flicked a wicked backheel out of the air past his marker but too close to the keeper. A lot of fun, more to come.
A word too for Costel Pantilimon. His involvement was limited, but what he did he did perfectly competently, as bullish with crosses as you’d hope from a keeper more than two metres tall (!). This included a terrific glove to a ball at the feet of the advancing Nelson Oliveira which was perhaps risky but perfectly executed – we had no view at all from behind the far goal, the precision of the challenge only revealed by television. Overall, we appear to have traded up significantly in January, with the mouthwatering Mario Suárez signing confirmed later in the evening.
4- Being accompanied by Daughter One and in particular Daughter Two demands a certain amount of patience in terms of diverting focus from the action and addressing instead the latest pressing issue. Daughter One’s concerns focused largely around her wobbly canine, whose agent had first started leaking stories to the press at the now traditional Bridgford Fish Bar stop pre-match and which finally agreed a mutual termination of contract in the car on the way home. Daughter Two’s questions involved both the intricacies of the offside law, and whether I would “prefer to go to Italy, or to have some ice cream?”.
I tell myself, in such situations, that should I be inattentive to the girls’ concerns the footballing gods will punish me. As such, when Daughter Two’s increasingly fidgety attention, standing atop her seat, finally developed into a demand for the toilet in 85th minute I did the dutiful thing and missed only Amrabat’s withdrawal in favour of Juan Carlos Paredes – who for all his doubters remains both one of the quickest, most powerful and most agile footballers in the squad and as such is a Good Thing coming off the bench in most circumstances. I was rewarded by being back in situ by the time Paredes, now an extra man in the midfield, had released Nyom to scuff a ball into the box. It bounced off Wilson, Ighalo was there to scruffily, instinctively, gobble up the winner.
As an aside, the only difficulties of the day surrounded the overpopulation of our section by beered-up young blokes. It’s come to something when this is worthy of comment and those who remember Bramall Lane (2003) will know that I’m hardly in a position to criticise but I found myself apologising to German debutant Björn. “It’s not always like this”. Which it isn’t, any more. Those of us shielding our kids from the flares and picking them up when knocked over by good-natured but over-exuberant celebration in a doubled-up row of seats might not miss this aspect of the Good Old Days either.
5- So here we are, then. Passage successfully navigated, if from a game that won’t live long in the memory. Which in itself is quite a remarkable thing… as documented above we’ve had a decent record at the City Ground, but all of those wins whatever the backdrop had felt like quite a big deal, results worthy of celebration in themselves. We’ve progressed now to the stage where a win at Forest is quite a mundane thing… where a fairly tight game has been decided by that extra bit of quality in front of goal. The beaten side feels hard done by, the senior side yawns and carries on. We’ve been there plenty of times, not least against Manchester City. But we’re a bigger beast now, with sharper claws, than when Dexter Blackstock (rightly) saw us as equals and (wrongly) expected to beat us. The challenge for the support remains being to fully appreciate and enjoy this turn in our fortunes.
Watford 2 Newcastle United 1 (23/01/2016) 24/01/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. A Mental Health Foundation website defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” It’s tended to be portrayed as something of a mental health cure-all in the media lately, which strikes me as a little dangerous: I can’t help thinking that anyone expecting immediate results is going to be disappointed by a practice which requires patience, lack of judgement and, frankly, quite a lot of outright boredom. It isn’t about shortcuts. Quite the opposite.
Nevertheless, it’s given me the key to surviving my working days with most of my marbles intact. Perhaps not all, but most. As a programmer, you inhabit a virtual landscape that’s largely – and often mercifully – incomprehensible to anyone else. There’s almost nothing to speak of beyond the space in your own skull. Each day, you enter that space, knowing little of what awaits you; more often than not, what awaits you are problems to be solved. Endless problems, each requiring somewhere between ten seconds and ten days to resolve, a length of time only available with the benefit of hindsight. Endless problems, each needing to be resolved as soon as possible; clock’s always ticking. All of this requires a level of acute concentration incompatible with modern life…and, particularly, fundamentally incompatible with working on a machine connected to the carnival of distractions which is the modern Internet. You might as well try to balance an egg on its pointy end in a wind tunnel.
That space can become pretty bloody dark, then. Over the course of twenty-five years, the path from discovery of a problem to blind panic and frustrated fury at failure to solve it in a sensible amount of time becomes extremely well-worn. Apply enough external pressure and the two points become almost indistinguishable, merging into a single black hole, swallowing you instantly. On a good day, you take on these battles with relish and achieve a sense of accomplishment. On a bad day, it can be overwhelming. On the very worst, you’d do anything to escape that space, to get out and never have to return.
Those were the days that drove me to mindfulness. To the simple matter of pausing to check that you’re actually still breathing, that you can still feel your feet resting on the floor, that the world still exists beyond the space in your own skull. Simple things, but enough to break the cycle. Enough to see that what feels all too real in there doesn’t necessarily stand up to much scrutiny in daylight. Enough to be productive, to approach tasks with a measure of calmness and consideration that probably means they’ll get done more quickly than if attacked violently in the heat of battle. And enough to stay sane.
So I say this from personal experience: maybe, just maybe, if the sentence that’s forming itself in your mind begins with “there’s no need to panic but…”, you might be better off slamming a massive great big full stop before the “but” and sitting down for a bit of a breather before continuing. Maybe you should let the first bit sink in properly. It might turn out that it’s more important than the second bit.
2. It was hard to approach this fixture with anything but a slight sense of dread. We’ve all been around when the wheels have fallen off. We’ve all been present at the stumble from an impending but preventable crisis – because four defeats is only that, especially in context – into a proper full-on screaming tearful toddler meltdown, a moment when you can no longer see where the next draw will come from, let alone win. There are people who’ll loudly announce that moment if we’re one-nil down at half-time, of course; another well-worn path, that. But the moment when everything really does collapse in on itself is rare and all the more hideous for it. You sit – was it easier on a terrace? – and stare blankly at something you cannot control, cannot change, and yet cannot ignore.
Whenever we get close to that point, I trust the coach who sees that you should use change extremely carefully. Because first on the list of things to do is to avoid panic, to remain mindful. More often than not – far more often – the solution lies in taking a huge deep breath and doing what you’re good at with renewed concentration and confidence, not in a radical change of approach. Plan B is generally over-rated, whatever it is; it’d be Plan A if it was all that. I mean, sure…sometimes you do have to tear it all up and start again, but even that ought to be a clear, calm decision rather than one born of desperation.
Anyway, please sign up to my revolutionary “A Change Is Not As Good As A Rest, Unless You’re Bed’s Really Uncomfortable” seminars using the form at the bottom of this article. Packed lunches will be supplied.
3. A good day for measured caution, this. A very good day for Quique Sanchez Flores too, perhaps not coincidentally. Of the eyebrow-raising selections – the much-maligned Jurado retained, the even more much-maligned (perhaps outright written-off) Paredes returned, the Behrami experiment continued, the bench for Amrabat, the absence of any significant upheaval – each was utterly vindicated on an afternoon when we simply got back to doing what we do well, um, well. If you want the short version, we produced the level of performance we’ve become accustomed to expecting…and oh look, three points. More complicated than that, of course, but that’s basically the size of it.
4. The more complicated version involves noting a re-jigged midfield: Watson, as ever, the caretaker; Behrami and Capoue industrious in front; Jurado the point of the diamond only in the sense of being in front of the others for, in truth, he’s given licence to roam all across the space behind the strikers. All four have different and excellent games, but it’s the latter who really catches the eye, perhaps because he’s come in for so much criticism. Given this level of freedom, he sees huge amounts of the ball, always available, always tidy with it, always looking for a positive option. He reminds me a bit – only a bit – of Stephen McGinn, a comparison that he’d only relish if I were able to explain quite how much I liked Stephen McGinn. Ultimately, his contributions don’t directly affect the result here, but they will on another day.
That all of this appears to count as Flores’ idea of change is something I find enormously reassuring, for this is clearly a man who works in careful increments rather than in great revolutionary flourishes. This new midfield approach isn’t a solution, because the problem will keep changing. But it should give us confidence: even among the same group of players, there’s flexibility and variation, and a coach with an eye for detail. The same applies to the wide positions, where Paredes is notably aggressive in seeking out the final third in the early stages and lively throughout; we don’t lack for attacking width, but balance that against the risk of over-commitment rather adeptly. Balance is a good word, so I’ll repeat it.
5. Newcastle’s willingness to cede possession is sound in principle: we always look more dangerous when play breaks down and it all gets a bit messy than when we have the ball at our feet with time on our hands. We relish the moment – the moment when Odion Ighalo comes alive – when nobody quite knows in which direction the ball’s going to break. So, yeah, fine in principle…except that being able to push our opponents back into their own half and try to prise an opening hands us the initiative in a game where confidence is key.
By the twenty minute mark, as we really start to find our rhythm, you can see the doubt start to clear and you can see Newcastle heads begin to drop a little. The mood in the stands lifts noticeably; there’s encouragement and understanding. We don’t create much – Elliot makes a bit of a hash of a Deeney shot, then recovers to block from Capoue – but it feels like we’re on top and it feels like we’ve got our team right. Solid base, two big powerful strikers, bit of creativity in and around. That’s us. That’s got us to near-safety already. Absolutely no need to change it now.
6. At the same twenty minute mark, you become acutely aware of the need to avoid doing something daft. The teams that’ll struggle – the past Watford teams that’ve struggled – would push the boulder virtually to the crest of the hill, then stumble in a rabbit hole and watch forlornly as it rolled all the way to the bottom again. I think particularly of Adrian Boothroyd’s post-Premier League teams, whose habit of shooting themselves in the foot at key moments would’ve been heartbreaking had they been more likeable and less irritating; an absolute blizzard of good intentions thrown to the wind.
You get to the point where you’re in the ascendancy, where you can feel confidence starting to flow…and then you concede. The confidence evaporates, the mood in the stands turns, the visitors shut up shop and then score a late second and possibly even a third on the break, and nobody remembers the positives by the final whistle. Which makes Heurelho Gomes’ save from Mitrovic’s low drive after twenty-five minutes the key point in the contest, perhaps a key point in our season. He has a bit of luck, the ball bouncing over the bar after hitting his out-stretched leg, but it’s still an astonishing stop and entirely deserving of a helping hand from fortune. That goes in and…yeah, quite.
7. Instead, our patience pays off. As repeatedly, we reap the rewards of keeping the game scoreless until the front two can come up with something. As repeatedly, it comes not out of possession but the contest for it, Deeney barging an opponent out of the way to win a loose ball in midfield, then turning to release Ighalo with a lovely curling pass that takes Coloccini out of the equation for the only time in the ninety minutes. Only needs to happen once, that’s the thing. Ighalo tucks it away and when the admirable Cathcart bashes in a second shortly afterwards, we appear to have some breathing space. It suddenly looks like a four-nil kinda game.
Our worries are behind us. Newcastle quickly collapse into the farcical: we relax enough to allow substitute Perez a couple of free headers but he falls some way short of filling Alan Shearer’s boots, each attempt rebounding spectacularly off into the darkening sky after hitting him in the ear. “Ngonge with the decoy!”* He balloons another chance over the bar for good measure, and Newcastle have that happy look of opponents who have surrendered to the inevitability of a right pasting. Until Deeney over-plays where he shouldn’t, we concede a needless corner and a needless goal, and our worries are back in town and throwing a party.
8. The rest is sickeningly tense. I mean, it’s not St Andrews or anything** but my constitution is far more feeble than it used to be, and this feels absolutely agonising. You remember that five minutes of relative relaxation like an oasis. In truth, we hold out pretty well, full of determination not to let all of the good work be undone…but you can imagine the ground falling away as the ball hits the net and the away end explodes. You can’t shake that, not until the final whistle sets you free. The relief leaves you light-headed. It feels like a game we’ve had to win twice.
9. A good day, then. Breathe it in. Feel your feet on the floor. There’s no need to panic. And there’s no “but”.
* Hands up if you’ve got any idea what I’m talking about.
** Two ’99 references in two paragraphs. That’s where my old age stories – repeated ad nauseum to anyone who’ll pretend to listen – are all coming from, evidently. “Have I ever told you about Port Vale away…?” and so on, and so forth. I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry.
Southampton 2 Watford 0 (13/01/2016) 14/01/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
In days of recent past I used to reminisce about when we were good. I mean, really good. I don’t need to elaborate, I’m sure you’ve done the same. Last night, just ever so briefly as we navigated the congested industrial estate adjacent to St Mary’s before kick-off trying to suss where we could park legally without committing ourselves to misery getting out again afterwards, I pined for the days when it was perfectly reasonable to rock up an hour before kick-off without a ticket. Spread out over a few seats, sit with whoever had rocked up.
This was a passing breeze of a sentiment that lasted a fraction of a second, not even a fully-fledged thought. Fate was watching. however, and eager to punish that moment’s weakness. What followed was an evening’s lesson, a reminder of where we were when we were sh*t, as the song goes; every feature of every miserable away trip you’ve ever had rolled up in a soggy Ginsters wrap of sewage.
Cold, relentless rain as persistent and pervasive as overloud headphones in a train carriage. Taking shelter in the bleakest, sparsest of pubs in which the clientele sat with their backs to the wall and the gents door, unlabelled, was propped open. In the ground, a pastie with filling hotter than the sun and seats designed for people with one thigh, necessitating staggered standing throughout. After the game the inevitable, unavoidable visitor’s calamity, quite which queue to join, satnavs no help here. We’re going somewhere, but very very slowly. Then, eventually, the M3 is closed and its would-be-passengers navigate small villages instead where roundabouts are controlled by traffic lights on timers, irrespective of the fact that at getting on for midnight everyone’s going the same way. By the time we’re back in St Albans I’m several trains later than planned and, naturally, the one I’d hoped maybe I’d just about make has caught up on itself and is gone before I get to the platform. The twenty minutes’ wait for the next is not a happy one. This morning, the damp smell of my scarf evoked the previous evening’s joy all over again.
2- And as for the bloody football. Jesus. You’ll have the gist by now, whether you were there or following somehow, or doing something more profitable with your lives so there’s little value in dissecting the detail. Suffice to say that this was a complete aberration by this season’s standards, which made the shock all the more acute. We’ve lost games this season and often deserved to, but never been well beaten, and never – except arguably during a clumsy first half at Bournemouth – looked so hapless. Indeed, not having been to Preston, I’d probably argue that this is the first time I’ve seen us play badly. Certainly the first time we’ve been thrashed. The only thing that the evening lacked was a needless, petulant red card… and Troy can’t have been that far off, reacting to one of what was admittedly a series of unpunished niggly Saints fouls, this time on Ighalo, by exacting cathartic full-blooeded revenge and following up with a mouthful of frustration at the official. Fortunately, only a yellow.
3- This wasn’t all our own doing, far from it. Southampton were excellent; if Manchester City showcased their quality in a different way, by pulling out a couple of lethal moments of brilliance to smuggle away a game in which they hadn’t played terribly well, only Arsenal’s masterclass at the Vic outstripped this in terms of sheer ebullience. The much-discussed how-to-beat-two-strikers guide step 1, three centre-backs, was on show again with Virgil Van Dijk in particularly absolutely bossing anything that came near him. Combined with this was a ferociously high press that left us nowhere to go in possession but sideways, back and forth with unusual anxiety until we gave away possession (occasionally comically and precariously) or, at the very least, the home side were set and camped behind the ball. We were too slow, too deliberate, and much much too static… and with the forwards isolated and rendered largely irrelevant, Quique’s stated desire to add variety to our armoury via a genuine wing-threat has never looked more credible. Or to put it another way, if Daniel Levy was watching he’ll be feeling confident about his ability to eke out a few more quid for Andros Townsend. We needed something.
4- The Saints could and should have had more; we barely created a chance all night whilst the home side through their fast breaking and good delivery from wide found spaces all too easily. Some chances they missed, some were denied – most frequently by the faultless Gomes. However for all of that, there was one goal in it for an awfully long time. Dad argued as we left that we’d been doing fine until conceding the first… by the time we were crawling through Little Bumfluff in Surrey at stupid’o’clock that had mutated to “we’d definitely have won if…”. Certainly, the first goal was significant- we’ve gotten it first in awkward games and prevailed. Not so here. But less disputably, having gone behind we weren’t at the races, Southampton took their advantage and ran off gleefully with it, taunting us like big kids who’d nicked a little kid’s satchel. As chances came and went however I won’t have been the only one who thought “we’re might pinch something here”, not least when Jurado – one of several who just didn’t seem to fancy the whole thing – played a miserable square pass across his own penalty area to Mané, a Boruc-worthy error that saw the forward step inside a challenge and hit a sweet shot off the outside of Gomes’ right-hand post. I’ll bet a few of the home fans were thinking that too, thinking “wouldn’t it be just typical if…”. That sort of miss reeks “we’re going to stuff this up”. It wouldn’t have taken a lot – it would have been daylight robbery and all the more enjoyable for it, but it wouldn’t have taken a lot. We didn’t have anything.
5- So that’s that, then. One bad defeat in isolation, unhelpfully coming on the back of two further (League) defeats from which we emerged with infinitely more credit. It doesn’t need to be disastrous, though there’s obviously stuff that needs sorting. Above all, to reiterate, it’s the first trashing, the first stinker of a season in which it would have been very reasonable to expect this as the norm. To be fair, the boos in the away end were very few, the noise level was kept high and team and manager were lauded at the end. Slightly irksome was the speed with which the visiting crowd jumped on gallows humour, as if over-eager to revisit the songs we used to sing when we really weren’t very good a lot of the time. Thing is, “how sh*t must you be, we’re higher than you” and cheering our occasional shots with sarcasm, whilst gentle in the grand scheme of things, isn’t terribly supportive either. However atrocious the evening and the performance were, they’ve earned a little more patience than that.
Enough. I’m so tired I can barely type, and have no desire to mull over that ghastliness again. Swansea next, a fixture which both sides, in need of a win, might feel has fallen nicely. If we make sure it’s us that takes the opportunity then that’s our little wobble over and done with.
Watford 1 Newcastle United 0 (09/01/2016) 10/01/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- We could win the FA Cup this year. Ha. How ridiculous is that?
Could isn’t the same as “will”. Plenty of teams could, and plenty of them have a better chance than us. Probably. But someone will, and for the first time in any number of years, Watford winning the FA Cup feels like more than a purely theoretical possibility.
This is all taking rather some getting used to. Even a year ago, the notion that we could rest four key players against a top flight side, even a struggling top flight side, not play terribly well and still muddle through would have been ludicrous. Hell, we hadn’t beaten a top flight club in the FA Cup under any circumstances since Anthony McNamee’s incongruous goal at the Boleyn Ground in 2007 (and incidentally, you have to go back to Highbury twenty years earlier for such a win by more than a single-goal margin).
And the fact that this was so very low key in the relentless rain on a heavy pitch, and so very far from being convincing, doesn’t dismiss that possibility. Rare is the cup run that doesn’t involve muddling through a poor performance somewhere along the way. In 1987 we were pretty rubbish against Maidstone United before we got as far as Highbury. The third round win at Macclesfield in 2003 did not scream, “we’re heading for the semi-finals”. Only the Indian Sign we held over Ipswich for so long got us through the fifth round in 2007. Italy won the World Cup in 1982 without winning a first round game.
We could have done without using up that duff performance as early as the third round, admittedly… the FA Cup equivalent of using your Chance in Yahtzee on the first roll. We’re going to need to do better than this…
2- Those four restings of legs saw Guédioura, Prödl, Oularé and Berghuis in for Capoue, Britos, Ighalo and Abdi respectively, the latter four all on the bench in-case-of, while José Holebas continued at left back in place of the suspended Nathan Aké. On an individual basis the outcome can only be described as mixed, of which more later, but the impact on the team was marked. We were far more confident, imposing, aggressive and effective in each of our recent Premier League defeats at Vicarage Road, and not through wont of any effort or focus. The impact of the replacement of these key men only served to emphasise the magnitude of the achievement so far this season and building up to it… in terms of recruitment, performance, and the honing of the team into such an effective unit. Take some of those key pieces out and the whole thing doesn’t work nearly so well.
Perspective is everything, of course. Viewed dispassionately without context Newcastle would feel positive about their performance, if disappointed at the outcome and manner of it. They were the better side in the central third of the pitch more or less throughout the contest, and as the first half progressed they eked out more and more chances, Heurelho Gomes called into sprightly action more than once. In context of course, we’re still mentally punching above our weight whilst Newcastle have months, years, of lack of welly to look back on glumly. Nor was their play devoid of evidence of that backdrop… their defending panicky, not that we exploited it sufficiently, their final ball anxious. Nonetheless, they had gained the upper hand before the game’s decisive moment, Wijnaldum being closed down in midfield and playing a perfect through ball for Troy Deeney, who sleepwalked effortlessly past Elliot with the help of a dummy. The cliché “shooting yourself in the foot” was made for such instances. A gift for us, not just of a lead but of control of the game which was never uncomfortable thereafter.
3- Meanwhile, as suggested, our fringe players were experiencing mixed fortunes. Debutant Oularé, juggling with the conflicting expectations of a big transfer fee, a tender age and zero first team action up to this point, looked every inch the work in progress that Flores has alluded to. He looks an absolute beast physically, but his strength didn’t appear to match his physique… I was reminded of GT’s comment in respect of a young Peter Crouch, that really tall kids sometimes need a few years for their strength to catch up with their height. He looked leggy, got the ball stuck between his feet and failed to bully his opponents as we’d hoped and half-expected… but at the same time displayed awareness of what was going on around him with decent lay offs and flicks, and on one occasion when he found the space on the right to open up his legs Newcastle were suddenly backpedalling and not quite sure what to do. The only question really is whether a player who had already played in the Champions’ League will be happy with a peripheral role (for now). This concern can more obviously be applied to Steven Berghuis, who offered fewer signs of encouragement and at 24 is hardly the grass-green youngster that Flores’ comments paint him as. The coach asserts that there’s a lot of adapting to do, there’s raw material there and he’ll “get there”; you’re inclined to trust his judgement. The question is whether the perpetually grumpy looking Berghuis shares that patience.
The two more experienced players fared rather better. Daughter 1 is increasingly engaged by the football itself as much as the event (although both daughters spent a good ten minutes giggling at the possibility that the players’ shirt numbers, as their own, reflected their ages rather than squad numbers). Her first observation was that no 17 was doing really well – who’s he? She can be forgiven; a then eight year-old missed his eye-catching highlights of last season, the clubbed goal at Cardiff, the evil pass for Ighalo at Derby, the clouted shot at Forest. Here Guédioura shirked nothing; Flores has since suggested that he needs to calm down a bit, further evidence of the perceived importance of discipline in roles in the team – “the way we want to play”. Flores, too, has been won over as we have by the Algerian’s willingness to give it a go though… we’ll see more of him, one suspects, particularly given the peculiar and decisive-feeling omission of Behrami from the squad.
4- Half time saw Oularé replaced by Anya, facilitating a switch to 4-5-1 with Jurado “in the hole” behind Deeney. The intention, presumably, was to gain some control in midfield but the success of the change was questionable… the flexibility switching formations so in evidence in the promotion season didn’t seem to be there, people looking for options and runners where they didn’t exist. Admittedly the steady dribble of Newcastle creating chances (and ever new and creative ways to fluff them up) was abated, at least temporarily. The subsequent appearances of Abdi and Ighalo increased the quality of the side without increasing our threat, but it’s only on reflection that you realise that an attack with any confidence at all would have asked us far more serious questions. As it was, the result never felt in doubt… Perez was lively for the visitors but Mitrovic and substitute Thauvin were pictures of misery, the former resorting to a leap over a tackle to land inside the area in desparation, and both all but beating the ground in anguish as half-chances came and went.
Throughout all of which Sebastian Prödl, the other newbie, was as bloody-minded and defiant as you could hope of the brick-shithouse of a defender. If Britos and Cathcart have formed an excellent partnership and if the Urguayan is definitively the undroppable member of the trio, then Prödl’s appearances since his losing his place have done nothing but emphasise that we have three very decent centre-back options… indeed, the injured Hoban and Ekstrand might yet add to those options. The Austrian’s head was unfussily on everything that came into the box, while one surgically executed clearance to an awkward cross was significantly more than just “getting in the way”. Ausgezeichnet, that man.
5- Into the pot, then, in the hope that this win proves an unspectacular but necessary footnote to successes to come. As regards our league programme, there was plenty to suggest that the Magpies’ return in a fortnight will more of a challenge. For all of their low ebb, Sissoko, Perez and Mbabu created plenty and United were some conviction in front of goal away from being a very difficult opponent. We’ll have a different side out too, of course, but it might only take a goal going in off Mitrovic’s ample backside in the meantime for United to gain that confidence.
Otherwise, Newcastle were the second opponent to switch to three at the back to counter the (anticipated in this instance) threat of Deeney and Ighalo. Like Sunderland, they lost 1-0 anyway in games which nonetheless didn’t see the most imposing performances of our season. A beleaguered Southampton on Wednesday also switched to three at the back for their cup exit to Palace – with Wanyama again suspended they don’t really have the option of dropping someone back from the midfield (as Spurs did with Eric Dier). How our, presumably, restored first choice selection copes with this will be interesting. Popular wisdom has it that opponents will now be “wise to us”, will counter the perceived threat in the return fixtures. The rumoured pursuit of Andros Townsend becomes ever easier to understand.
Not dull, is it? You Orns….
The List (January edition) 05/01/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
You may remember last summer’s version of The List, which extended past 100 names by the end of that transfer window. The list below will be updated until the window closes at the beginning of February; as previously, I’m not going to attempt to validate or vet any rumours – a credibility bar for inclusion exists, but not set terribly high. An Asterisk indicates a player who appeared in last summer’s list, but has resurfaced. An “outgoing rumour” list is also included.
Running Total: 41
Juan Iturbe (Roma)* – Joined Bournemouth on loan
Emmanuel Adebayor (Unattached) – Joined Crystal Palace
Simone Zaza (Juventus)
Andros Townsend (Tottenham) – Joined Newcastle
Jonathan Edwards (Peterborough)
Idriss Carlos Kameni (Malaga)
Keita Baldé Diao (Lazio)*
Sam Byram (Leeds) – Joined West Ham
Thomas Partey (Atlético Madrid)
Abdul Camara (Angers) – Joined Derby
Mario Suarez (Fiorentina) – SIGNED
Rob Green (QPR)
Juan Camilo Zuniga (Napoli)
Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa)
Zach Clough (Bolton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Rennes)* – SIGNED
Nigel de Jong (Milan)
Sebastian Haller (Utrecht)
Nordin Amrabat (Malaga) – SIGNED
Henri Saivet (Bordeaux) – Joined Newcastle
Rico Henry (Walsall)
Jefferson Montero (Swansea)
Seydou Doumbia (Roma)* – Joined Newcastle on loan
Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool)
Charlie Austin (QPR) – Joined Southampton
Pablo Sarabia (Getafe)*
Haviv Ohayon (Maccabi Tel Aviv)
Khouma el Babacar (Fiorentina)
David Enogela (Young Stars, Nigeria)
Joel Osikel (Young Eleven, Nigeria)
Matt Phillips (QPR)
Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid)
Paul Bernardoni (Troyes)
Costel Pantilimon (Sunderland) – SIGNED
Eddy Onazi (Lazio)
Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo)
Nathan Aké (Chelsea)
Loic Remy (Chelsea)
Denis Cheryshev (Real Madrid) – Joined Valencia on loan
Cheikh M’Bengue (Rennes)
Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn) – Joined Middlesbrough
Alessandro Diamanti (Fiorentina, Udinese, Livorno, Bologna, Atalanta)
– Joined Atalanta on loan
Odion Ighalo (Atlético Madrid, Arsenal, West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester United)
Valon Behrami (Udinese)
Troy Deeney (Arsenal)
Etienne Capoue (Milan)
Victor Ibarbo (Galatasaray, Atletico Nacional) – Joined Nacional on loan
Jose Holebas (Marseille)
Uche Ikpeazu (Blackpool, Dundee United) – Joined Blackpool on loan
Obi Oularé (Wolves)
Diego Fabbrini (Birmingham City) – Joined Birmingham City
Giedrius Arlauskis (Espanyol) – Joined Espanyol on loan
Adlène Guedioura (Sheffield Wednesday)
Watford 1 Manchester City 2 (02/01/2016) 03/01/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Have you noticed how folk are much more punctual for a 3’o’clock kick off than for a kick-off at any other time of day? Evening kick-offs, fine… people are rushing from work or whatever. But even a delay of a couple of hours is a deviation from routine sufficient to persuade the masses that cutting it fine is the way to play it. In fairness it’s been raining all day, switching between half-arsed drizzle and petulant rain showers in the manner of someone channel-hopping between unappealing options, giving up with a “there’s never anything good on” and then flicking back ten minutes later. If anyone’s got their timing wrong it’s us… for tedious logistical reasons we’ve been parked up since 3:30 and are in the ground an hour before kick-off. Nobody else is, you all arrive with five minutes to spare, none of us quite sure what to expect in the last of our Big Four Christmas fixtures.
2- Oddly, what we get is precisely what might have been expected from such a fixture before the start of a season in which all convention has, thus far, been largely disregarded. That script is one that became all too familiar on our previous visits to the top flight, particularly early in those campaigns: Give it a good go against exalted opposition, take a lead, not quite hold out. Been there before, seen that one played out (too) many times. And it ends with opponents making all usual noises about how we’re such a good side and what a good three points it is for them. All very worthy and polite. Give me whinging about how unfair all of our goals were any day of the week.
3- By which faint praise of course I’m doing both the game and our part in it a disservice, since both are excellent. The first half ends goalless, but almost by accident… nobody’s quite got around to scoring any goals yet. We have a good little spell that sees Nyom clout a shot narrowly over, Troy – not quite at his terrifying best – muscled out of a chance by Kolarov and Ighalo wriggle away from Otamendi to draw an excellent save from Hart. City shift ominously into gear around the half hour mark and threaten to slice us up several times… but the immense shift that our lot put in (and Ben Watson’s ongoing heroics in midfield are as well highlighted here as anywhere) contribute to their players never quite having the space and the time to stick the knife in. The ball to Aguëro isn’t quite perfect, it’s too far beyond him. Sterling has a chance but it’s fleeting and involves bodies flying across his path as he shovels his shot into the back of the Rookery. Fine margins… but our industry pushes those margins. Meanwhile Allan Nyom has resumed acquaintances with Raheem Sterling, who he booted into the hoardings at the Etihad earlier in the season in one of the more memorable fouls of the campaign so far, and it seems reasonable to assume that all is not forgotten. The England forward’s goal was deemed critical in that earlier game; he’s bullied out of this one, it’s no surprise when he’s pulled on the hour.
4- The second half sees more of the same, at least initially. The timbre of the occasion changes altogether when Ben Watson whips in another of those malicious corners of the sort that required such heroics from Lloris on Monday. Joe Hart isn’t as lucky; he’d have had a job on anyway, I think, but as it is a nick off Aleksandr Kolarov gives him no chance, takes a romantic edge off of what had initially appeared to be that four leaved clover, a goal straight from a corner, and leaves those of us who’d called it as Watson lined the kick up only marginally less smug and annoying. We expect a kitchen-sinking from City and it doesn’t really come… indeed, there are moments where City’s defence seems to stand still as we break towards it, little in the shape of cover from midfield retrieving a situation. They won the game of course, so who am I to criticise but it wouldn’t have taken much… Capoue, who disgraces himself by allowing Fernandinho a free header from a corner, almost makes up for it by bundling through some distracted challenges to be foiled by Hart’s attention (the keeper having smiled politely at the Rookery’s rendition of the “no no, there’s no dandruff” song from the advert, as if it’s the first time he’s been subjected to it). Jose Holebas has had a couple of wobbly moments, but these are far outweighed by the positives including a couple of barrel-riding rampages into the area which perhaps merited more decisive finishes. There’s no doubt, incidentally, that he’s an excellent left back. If he were a bit rubbish there’d be no issue and no discussion. Will be interesting to see what happens next there.
The other thing that changes is City’s emphasis, thanks to a bold change by Pellegrini that sees Bony on for Mangala, the sort of formation change that seems so obvious in such situations until you actually have responsibility for making it work. Pellegrini demonstrates faith in his players’ ability and, ultimately, it pays off…. Ighalo and Holebas aren’t quite attentive enough at a left wing corner. Cathcart isn’t quite sharp enough to the threat behind him as Sagna’s cross flies in…. and you can’t help but wonder whether Sebastian Prödl’s presence might have lead to a different outcome. Fine margins, though… not awful mistakes, not like Fernandinho’s free header. Just the slivers of space that make top player’s jobs slightly easier and permit those brilliant finishes. That’s all it took.
5- Much as I’ve dressed this up as Just Another One of Those Huff and Puff Defeats in Thunk 2, the big difference is the context, the backdrop. Those narrow, worthy defeats of yore only got tiresome because we’d had so many of them. When they kept happening, we began to figure that it was more than just bad luck. Here… four points from the last four games plus two narrow defeats is certainly no worse than par; Monday’s defeat hung on an officiating mistake, this game is an example of the genre in isolation and came despite a genuinely forceful performance. Significantly, it feels like huge progress from the defeat in Manchester in August where the well-drilled-but-not-quite-adequate defensive wall was all we had – as Quique acknowledged post match. This time we took the game to them, and were arguably the better side for three quarters of the game. Against Manchester City, for goodness’ sake.
Nonetheless, this little facet of the fixture list always recalled a similar feature of 1999/2000, when the previous season’s top five came at us in sequence from the beginning of September. We got three points from those five which was just about OK if you squinted at it, the run featuring a number of defeats of the sort described in Thunk 2. It was the next two games, bad defeats against Boro and Coventry, that blew whatever belief we had left out of the water. We’re in a very different place now… better run, better organised, a stronger squad, a bigger threat. And luckier, touch wood, than the side that suffered so badly through injuries that season. We’ve given everyone a game. We are much, much stronger. The next few games give us a platform to prove it.
Watford 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2 (28/12/2015) 29/12/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- “I’m worried that we could get a wake-up call today”, says ig on the way down Vicarage Road. He won’t have been the only one. Whilst we went into this on the back of a five-game unbeaten run this was the game, two days after a trip to Stamford Bridge, that perhaps looked the most ominous of our challenging four-match Christmas run. Nonetheless, if this peculiar season has served any lesson at all it’s the value of reputations, or rather what can be achieved by dismissing reputations and labels and just playing. Aidy Boothroyd, whose words of wisdom have not in general gained much credibility over the passage of time, was nonetheless conscious of this with his much publicised airy targeting of Europe last time around. You can talk yourself into a mindset, positive or negative. A number of “big clubs” are going through, um, difficult spells. There are all sorts of contributing reasons and circumstances, but beyond dispute is that the big clubs being rendered less scary, less intimidating, generates a snowball effect. People aren’t scared of Chelsea because they’re suddenly a bit crap and so give it more of a go and Chelsea’s life doesn’t get any easier. So… we were always going to lose at some point. Few teams, let alone newly promoted teams, go for a season without defeat. But it never needed to be “a wake-up call” unless we chose to interpret it as such, settling back into our boxes. “It’s been fun, but let’s stop kidding ourselves, it was never going to last”. That way lies a slide down the table, almost demands it.
2- Those concerns won’t have been eased much by a first half which, for the most part, saw us very much second best to an extent that we’ve rarely suffered in this remarkable first half-season. Our opening forays earned us nothing clearer than half-chances from distance which Étienne Capoue, with an eagerness that betrayed the significance of the match in his mind, clouted elaborately wide. Spurs, meanwhile, were doing to us what we’ve been doing to teams all season… chasing down possession a long way up the pitch, swarming, forcing errors. To blame Spurs’ first-half superiority on our inability to retain possession would be as one-eyed as reflecting that we’ve been lucky to face Stoke, Newcastle, Liverpool, West Ham on off-days. Part of the plan involved the visitors attempt what Liverpool had done far less effectively and far too late nine days earlier, having their full-backs glued to their touch lines and pushing up. Nathan Aké, unsurprisingly restored to the side after missing Chelsea due to ineligibility, wasn’t comfortable as betrayed by an uncharacteristic need to defend by reacting rather than anticipating. A brilliant and decisive block on Trippier, who was in danger of escaping inside, was only necessary because the loanee had lost his man. Eventually the pressing told; Cathcart lost the ball to Alli, perhaps hampered by a slippery pitch that had surprisingly had the sprinklers on it in the build up to kick-off, the ball broke to Lamela and he finished adroitly.
The rest of the half saw Spurs look sit back a little, and press less furiously, but we laboured in possession. We really weren’t getting anywhere… whereas without pummeling us with shots, the movement and awareness of Kane, the power of Alli and the sprightliness of Lamela looked far more likely to create an opening. We just didn’t look like scoring. Until we did. And what a bloody inspiring thing it was. A ball in from the right, Deeney had pulled wide on the left and headed it into the box. Ighalo, once again, was gloriously single-minded whilst three Spurs defenders debated whether the Nigerian was third or fourth favourite to prevail. He had no right at all to end up in possession in front of a stunned Lloris, who found the ball slipping underneath him.
3- There have been two features of previous top flight seasons that have been largely absent this time around. When you think back to the eighties you think of Luther, of Barnes, of GT. Tony Coton. Beating Arsenal. And also… at least from my gold-tinted view from the Family Enclosure, the way that teams would turn up at the Vic and kick us. Tottenham particular protagonists of this approach, a 1-0 win 30 years ago achieved in the face of astonishing violence, sticking in the memory. That’s what it was though, a memory, the worst excesses of top flight opponents not replicating this phenomenon since then. Maybe I imagined or embellished it… I was twelve, after all, and perhaps overly inclined to a Watfordcentric point of view. The other feature is being penalised by awful and seemingly one-sided refereeing… there was the odd bad decision in 2006/07, but 1999/2000 was a vintage year. Rob Harris at home to Arsenal. Uriah Rennie at home to Sunderland. Paul Alcock at Bradford. You’ll have your own favourites, if you were about.
We’ve not had to experience either this season. Indeed my Dad, never one to give referees the benefit of any doubt that’s going, recklessly observed over the Christmas turkey that we’ve not suffered any particularly bad refereeing performances thus far. Whining about referees doesn’t make particularly compelling reading, admittedly, so I’ll simply thank Anthony Taylor for restoring balance to the universe.
The sending off was odd, in that at the time with only a view from the Rookery to rely on it looked pretty innocuous, the red card not so much surprising as completely baffling. TV replays cast it in a new light of course, but it remains an odd one. Aké is not prone to either violence or to getting it so very wrong. It seems to me looking at replays that Lamela’s handball, knocking the ball upwards as Aké approaches, leaves the full-back committed to coming across his opponent but suddenly not able to clear a ball that isn’t where it might have been and messing up in his indecision. This would certainly be consistent with the oddly gentle approach which suggested neither a violent collision nor intent, and left half the ground bemused and outraged.
Either way, the Tottenham players did their forbears of 1985 proud with a display of snideness and gracelessness unparalleled by anything we’ve seen this season. From Harry Kane sprinting halfway across the pitch waving an imaginary card to get Britos booked for a perfectly clean tackle to an orchestrated hounding of the official at every contentious decision to Danny Rose’s pathetic attempt to win a free kick off Troy Deeney that was blatant enough to be aped by Harry the Hornet but not to earn a yellow card, apparently. Spurs are a young side, you could argue that with a goalkeeper as skipper there wasn’t quite the leadership on the pitch to keep the behaviour in check. Or you could reflect, as my brother did on the way back down Vicarage Road, that most of the complete scum that you’ve had the misfortune to meet have been Spurs fans, and this charmless lot are every inch fit to wear that shirt.
4- For ten minutes or so after the dismissal it was proper backs to the wall stuff; we barricaded ourselves into our penalty area and took up position for a shootout. Valuable in this period was Sebastian Prödl, making his first appearance since Arsenal, who got his head to anything that Spurs lobbed in high. Otherwise it was pass, pass, pass but little penetration from the visitors. Eventually, with the home crowd roaring on in indignation, we made some chances of our own and came closer than the visitors had… Ben Watson’s inswinging left wing corner coming within centimetres of crossing the goalline before Lloris brilliantly scooped it out. The atmosphere was furiously intense… claustrophobic. Had we held on for a draw we’d rightly have celebrated as if for a victory, a winner would have brought the house down. Instead, Spurs broke and at the second time of asking Son flicked the ball beyond Gomes.
5- A choker, obviously, but we can console ourselves with the knowledge that if you stand by the premise that good and bad luck and decisions even themselves out you’d probably choose to have the latter all at once. Given this, given the misfortune with Son’s winner being narrowly offside but missed, with Watson’s corner nearly in but not, with absurd refereeing, we can take solace in the fact that we only lost 2-1 to a very strong – if repugnant – opponent via a last minute winner. There were several other far more mundane ways to have lost this 2-1 – especially after that first half – which could have been far more damaging. Here… the circumstances, the ludicrous second half should guard against us telling ourselves that this was inevitable, that this was always going to happen. That this was a wake-up call. With Ighalo flat on the turf in frustrated exhaustion at the final whistle of greater concern is our ability to physically recover in time for Manchester City on Saturday… but as far as the result goes, choking as it is, there’s an awful lot to take pride in for this side. As there has been all season. Yooorns.
1- Those of us of a certain vintage view football in general and Watford in particular in a romantic way. Being an impressionable age during the first GT era was all that was required… if you joined the party during that spell then it was all about sticking it to the man, firstly in dramatic cup runs, then in the top flight itself. We joke that this is a curse, that the penalty for being indoctrinated during this period is a fanatical but entirely unreasonable vision of this idyll, everything judged by this high standard. We don’t mean it though. Those memories, memories of games like this one are amongst the happiest as my childhood, perfect and fantastical on a par with Star Wars. We were Luke Skywalker; for the money shot into the Death Star’s exhaust port read Les Taylor’s goal at White Hart Lane. Or beating the European Champions 4-1 in the League Cup. Or beating United and Spurs 5-1 within a week. Or putting 8 past Sunderland within our first two months in the top flight. These are landmark events from our halcyon period and our greatest achievements since haven’t reached the same heights. Until now.
2- Things went our way. We should acknowledge that, since it’s impossible to resist complaining when the boot’s on the other foot. So… two teams that prefer counterattacking, a goalkeeper making his League debut for Liverpool slipping up at a corner, a goal that could have been chalked off but wasn’t. Problems at centre-back exacerbated by an injury to Martin Skrtel later in the game too, up to a point. So we doff our cap to fortune and whilst doing so we place our foot firmly on our adversary’s throat and we apply pressure and we don’t ease up on that pressure. Every man, every single player is on point. Capoue and Watson are roaring all over the midfield. Abdi and Jurado, mobile and incisive and aggressive. The extraordinary Aké and Nyom bullying their way up and down the flanks. Britos and Cathcart, mercilessly, surgically on patrol. Gomes, a force of nature. Deeney a monster and a leader. Deeney it was who battered possession off Lucas in midfield, swung a pass over the top for Ighalo and what followed showcased his best attributes… the persistence and bloody-mindedness to chase the pass down, the physical strength to take on Skrtel and the technique and instinct to finish. Ian Wright couldn’t have done it better, a quite extraordinary goal in any context, much less this. This was, after all, the game where it was supposed to get tough. The previous three games… Villa, Norwich, Sunderland, those were the games we wanted points from. This was supposed to be a bonus, a free hit. Instead we were on our way to our biggest top-flight win since 1988. A monstrous first-half performance which saw the Reds bringing on an extra striker, stretching the play to the extremes and being allowed to get precisely nowhere, each snarling challenge roared on from three and a half sides of the ground.
3- The empty vessel makes the loudest sound. This is true from the population of Liverpool fans as much as anyone… I’ve met plenty who are balanced and reasonable. Nonetheless, I once read Liverpool fans in general described as “expecting you to prostrate yourself on the altar of their Liverpoolness”, an acerbic observation based around a core of truth. That core of truth arises from a period in which the Reds WERE the dominant force, and not very long ago. The other side of that coin is that dicking Liverpool, whilst being a fine thing by anyone’s standards, is particularly special for those of us who remember Liverpool being that thing. At which point it’s only fair to acknowledge that there’s no Hansen, Rush, Dalglish in the current side. More significantly, there’s not a Steven Gerrard either. Jürgen Klopp might get there (although his evaluation of his side will need to be more balanced than his post-match evaluation of the game) but this was not a vintage Liverpool eleven. Let’s not get picky though. Two years ago we were losing 3-0 at home to Yeovil. Jordan Henderson may be “a sh*t Steven Gerrard”, but he’s still an established England international who was made to look peripheral and inadequate for much of this. And he was probably the Reds’ most effective player.
4- I’ll confess that my first clock of the scoreboard in the second half came as early as the forty-seventh minute. Liverpool looked bullish and aggressive and much more direct at the start of the second period as the spectre of the game we’d feared began to rear its head. Instead whilst there was far greater potency in a Liverpool attack supplemented by both Benteke and Jordan Ibe, scorer of a fine goal here for Derby last season, the clearer and greater threat was in front of the Rookery. Jurado conjured a ball through for Ighalo, one-on-one; you’d have put your house on him, but Bogdan grasped a chance he shouldn’t have been given. Deeney roared beyond the defence but couldn’t quite find the pass. Ighalo sent Mamadou Sakho to the head of his ever-growing lists of people he’s left on their arse with a splendid showboat in front of the Rookery, the ball not quite finding it’s way in after the resulting scramble. Through all of which Sakho, admittedly back from a long injury, looked like an upmarket Danny Shittu… using his physical attributes to great effect but always reacting, never anticipating. The contrast at the other end of the pitch where Britos and Cathcart were malevolently efficient and the Reds were caught offside ten times, was marked. Eventually Ighalo settled the affair as we finally sliced through the big open spaces borne of Liverpool’s need to attack and inability to defend, Valon Behrami making a welcome return off the bench and supplying the final pass to Ighalo ghosting free of any marker on the penalty spot to head home. Happy bedlam.
5- The atmosphere as the game closed was odd. Exuberant, of course. But there was little exaltation… just a quiet, dazed disbelief, as if the energy had been poured into the game’s soundtrack and tension and there was nothing left to give. The shuffle up Occupation Road was peppered with hysterical laughter as strangers caught each others’ eye. But it was a shared attempt to register what we’d just witnessed. No singing. Just a series of happy, baffled grins.
So here comes the boring bit. It’s painfully dull reading blogged eulogies penned by supporters about their teams but really, if I can’t do it now….? The plot summary, then. We were brilliant. Not just have-a-go-heroes, not merely solid and worthy with a cutting edge capable of exploiting our opponent’s weaknesses. But bloody brilliant and inspiring and wonderful from front to back. Suck this up, boys and girls, enjoy it. Especially your kids. Because they’ll be wearing our gold-tinted spectacles in thirty years’ time.
Maybe, maybe, the new Star Wars film really will be as good as the first.
Watford 2 Norwich City 0 (05/12/2015) 06/12/2015Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. I’m getting older. I may have mentioned that; I can’t really remember, because I’m getting older. As I do so, I find that I become less and less certain of anything. I suspect that twenty years of problem-solving for a living have honed my instincts for sniffing out a problem but, perhaps, not done the same for the accompanying solution. As a result, I instinctively distrust any strident argument, any strongly or loudly held position; I pick at it until it frays, until black and white turn to grey. Until it submits to John Harris’s motto of political commentary: “it’s f***ing complicated”. It’s always f***ing complicated.
I’ve also been spending too much time on social media. Not as much as some, maybe, but still too much. I’m drawn irresistibly to its ceaseless clamour, even though I find no more comfort in that clamour than I would in reading the Daily Mail. Different dogma, same degree of certainty. It surrounds me with people sure of their opinions, having them enthusiastically reinforced by others equally sure of the same thing. It isn’t that I don’t share the opinions much of the time. I have doubts, though. I have questions and objections and criticisms and, above all, complications. On Twitter particularly, the sense of being in a crowd which might turn on you at any moment is palpable. I fear society might divide into two halves eventually: those who never voice their internal thoughts and those who never fail to do so. I fear that might’ve already happened.
Much of it reminds me of what Graham Taylor always used to say: that it’s easy to be a manager if none of your team selections get tested by a real football match. Anyone can pick Anthony Macnamee when their job doesn’t depend on the outcome. Of course, Football Manager now skews that equation a little; maybe someone needs to come up with a political equivalent. Or perhaps that’d just make the online world even more insufferable, even more full of people who are certain they’re right because they tried it when they were leader of Veritas.
Perhaps we need a protest, a show of…well, not strength. A show of feebleness. With placards saying things like “I’M NOT SURE BUT I THINK YOU’RE PROBABLY WRONG ON SOME POINTS EVEN IF I AGREE OVERALL” and “WHAT DO WE WANT? POLITENESS! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? WELL, WHAT KIND OF TIME SUITS YOU?”. We could go to the park or somewhere suitably non-confrontational, then mill around a bit in an inconclusive manner. We could fail as badly as everyone else at actually coming up with anything constructive, useful or realistic to solve the world’s woes…but we’d wear that as a badge of honour rather than hide it underneath polemic and vitriol. I’m proud to be uncertain.
While we’re having this little chat, I’d like to confess that I don’t really dislike Bournemouth, that I’ve forgiven Mike Williamson and Brendan Rodgers, and that I’ve never quite grasped the brilliance of Almen Abdi*. Lynch mobs to the usual address.
2. One of the interesting things about being in the top flight is that there are fewer hypothetical questions to worry about. A division down, every performance is measured against what might be required to achieve promotion and then to survive thereafter: “if we can only beat (insert name here) with a deflected free kick/ludicrous own goal/blatant handball/iffy penalty (delete as applicable), how can we expect to compete against (insert name here)?”
Suddenly, that all disappears. It’s rather pleasant. There are inquests after a defeat, of course, but any victory can be treated as if it were an achievement in its own right, a nice big fat tick next to one of the things on our stuff-to-do list. Unless we’re suddenly going to start worrying about how we’ll fare in the Champions League, a win over Aston Villa or Norwich is an end in itself. A little cup final. For once, that cliche about taking each game as it comes has some substance.
3. Having arrived in the Premier League as a team playing reasonably open football on a sensible budget with a fashionable young manager, Norwich have every right to feel a bit peeved that everyone’s fawning over Bournemouth. It’s like they’ve turned up at a fancy dress party as Olaf from Frozen, only to find that someone else had that idea first and had a mum with a fancy sewing machine; they’re now in the bathroom desperately attempting to improvise an abominable snowman costume instead.
It’s only a partial success, if I’m honest. True, they start the game with the frantic fervour of the newly converted, but that doesn’t really last for much longer than it’d take a dozen commentators to note archly that it could be mistaken for a mid-table Championship game, scrappy and edgy in a swirling, gusty wind. Thing is, while we might’ve taken a more mercenary route than Norwich by upgrading much of last season’s side, enough of it remains that we’re not going to be shoved aside without putting up a fight. Without relishing a fight.
Some of those who’ve come in aren’t exactly lightweight either: Miguel Britos appears to enjoy his ninety minutes enormously, treating himself to a couple of bicycle kick clearances high into the late afternoon sky as we defend our lines late on. The entire team receives a huge ovation towards the end of the first half for an exercise in collective pressing which leaves Norwich with nowhere to go but a slice into the stands. We win this because we’re prepared to do the ugly stuff, because we’re every bit as good at it as Norwich are, except with a load more punch in the final third. We win this, but it’s bloody hard work. I mean that in a good way. Well, mostly.
4. The tension builds minute upon minute after Troy Deeney’s opening goal. By that point, we’re not so much knocking on the door as attempting to prize it open with a crowbar; we’re not really having much joy, but we’re eventually rewarded for our persistence. Thereafter until half-time, we’re so much the better side that it suddenly feels like there’s an awful lot at stake: this is a winning position, far too good to throw away.
We fail to make the most of some very promising positions, particularly when Jurado drifts more centrally and becomes involved in the interplay around the box. He has a pleasing afternoon, justifying his selection: in a game where the ball is frequently flying around like a crisp packet in a whirlwind, he’s sometimes the only player who looks truly comfortable bringing it down and finding himself some space. Norwich waste a free header from a set piece in injury time and everyone goes a bit pale.
5. They waste an even better chance shortly after half-time, Brady driving wide when freed by a rare Cathcart lapse. The tension continues to build. You can’t fail to win games like this…except, obviously, you can, all too easily. The game becomes stretched as it enters its final half hour, which only makes our position feel more perilous: Norwich persist in banging high balls into the far post; Ake and Gomes take knocks in dealing with crosses; there’s more than one occasion when I find myself involuntarily screaming as I would if I were ever brave enough to go on a rollercoaster. They don’t actually get very close to scoring, but that’s hindsight talking.
6. These past weeks, I’ve heard too little praise for Ben Watson. One of those you imagined might not keep up with the pace of progress, he’s now among the most vital components of this side. He’s done that by taking on every dirty job going, from being the out-ball (and thereby getting stick for passing it sideways or backwards when required) to constant patrolling in the depths of midfield while others have more roaming licence to, recently, taking set pieces. The team dogsbody. I imagine he does the laundry too. An unsung hero, and a significant part of why we’re in the top half of the table. Someone give him a song, for heaven’s sake.
7. But let’s get to the point. The decisive difference between the teams was one man: Odion Ighalo. In this month’s When Saturday Comes, Harry Pearson devotes his column to the cliche of the striker who’s “unplayable on his day”. It’s difficult to avoid that phrase. Somehow, he’s managed to harness all of the energy that could sometimes lead him to be erratic and awkward. The imperfections in his all-round game now seem like ticks on a stampeding rhino.
He absolutely comes alive in the moment where the ball is played in behind defenders: there isn’t a single occasion when he doesn’t win that contest, even when faced with two or three opponents, even when he’s second or third favourite to get there. So physical, so determined, but with an instinctive sense of where the loose ball might drop, where the chink in the armour might appear, and with such quick reactions to every ricochet and rebound. He wins a soft penalty through sheer force of presence. He scores the late clincher, holding off a defender with astonishing strength before beating the keeper. He has another disallowed for a tight, probably incorrect, offside. He ought to have more.
He’s dumped onto his arse on the halfway line late on, having rolled a defender who has no option but to commit the foul before he’s done for pace yet again. That’s the only way of stopping him, that’s all they can do. Think of your favourite striker from yesteryear, someone who Graham Taylor would send out with a message to give them hell for ninety minutes, never let them get comfortable. That good.
On this day, completely unplayable. Simply unstoppable. I’m not certain of much, but I’m certain of that.
* Although there’s a moment, as the ninetieth minute approaches and the tension becomes virtually unbearable, when Abdi drives the lively Brady all the back over the halfway line by hacking at his heels and nudging him in the back, like an irritant in the school corridor. He finally gets a reaction, Brady gets a yellow card, and Almen Abdi is my hero.