jump to navigation

Watford 2 Crystal Palace 1 (16/03/2019) 18/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- I was in Copenhagen this week. First time in Denmark. A conference though so a busy schedule, and most of it spent in a hotel. Nice hotel but… a shame to visit a new country and not see any of it.

So. Tuesday evening I set out to find the damned mermaid. A bloody-minded mission in defiance of a 50-minute walk each way in the cold, biting rain borne of the need to get out and walk somewhere with purpose.

I knew that the statue itself was famously underwhelming. Not big, not dramatic, not something to write home about. So my expectations weren’t high. In consequence perhaps I found the unassuming, unpretentious mermaid quite charming. No grandstanding. No ticket vendors, no tat-stalls, no queuing. Just…there, minding its own business as the world carried on quietly around it.

Which led me to wonder… if something unheralded and uncelebrated could leave me pleasantly surprised, what should, could be expected from something, contrastingly, overburdened with expectation? Would it be possible, conceivable, to be anything but disappointed?

2- Nobody disappointed. Nobody short-changed.

The tide of confidence was rolling by 11.15. That’s when “it’s bloody Palace, isn’t it?” was swept over and crushed. But in effect the build up to that wave, the little ripples, started at least a week earlier as Palace lost to Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle earned unlikely wins and the Eagles started looking over their shoulders again. So when Zaha pulled a calf muscle in training it was never going to be risked.

It may not have been significant, certainly not decisive in determining the outcome of the game. We’ve beaten Palace twice this season with the gravitationally challenged one in tow after all. But your opponent losing a key man doesn’t hurt, and the timing was significant. Nervous energy rippled through the V-Bar as confirmation of the previous evening’s rumour set grins grinning and bellows bellowing.

Out in the stands it was no less raucous. High fives were exchanged, knowing looks traded. The ferocious wind carried the multitude of flags and the tremendous 1881’s cannons fired slugs of streamers and confetti into a whirlwind of bedlam. “Is that all you take away?” was roared at an away end, some of whose members had been vocally demanding more than their ticket entitlement. Then the football started.

3- And what followed was a quite herculean first half. Made better, more impressive if anything by the fact that Palace took the early initiative, moving the ball neatly and just about retaining possession as we hurtled about after it, Étienne Capoue blown along by a wind commanded by the Gods. It didn’t last though, the penetration wasn’t there and much as Michy Batshuayi provided a focal point he was getting nothing.

Meanwhile at the Rookery end more significant headway was being made, and Gerard Deulofeu was at the heart of it. He cut through first and forced Guaita – a supposed one time target for us, but a nervous looking individual here – into a save. By the time the goal came we were hammering on the door increasingly insistently; the latest in a succession of corners was flung across by Holebas, the keeper lunged at it ambitiously before it was knocked back to Capoue and into the net before Palace’s defence, or the support behind the goal, had time to react.

Voices were hoarse and limbs being disentangled by the time focus returned to the pitch. For the rest of the half we had our foot on their throats. Deulofeu roared through on the right and hammered a drive towards Guaita’s unguarded near top corner. As so often there might have been better options… but churlish to criticise, it almost came off and was denied only by a fine stop. Kevin Friend, who has made a pig’s ear of far less challenging games but did a good job here awarded us a free kick, Deulofeu did well to get it on target, but a comfortable save for Guaita. The half ended with Palace breaking after some rare slack possession from the Hornets, and Deulofeu screaming back in pursuit of possession, eventually obstructing the attack by the corner flag. Heroic stuff. Meanwhile Andros Townsend was in a right old strop, remonstrating with officials as Holebas lay prone with a knock that would force him off at one end, then repeating the trick at the Rookery end shortly afterwards. We were all over this. There was just one problem.

4- Which lurched into view with the second half. Being worth more than a one goal lead is fine, as long as you capitalise on it. The visitors were out significantly earlier than us… I normally think of this as a good thing, time spent hanging around and so forth. Instead they took control from the start of the half, piling bodies down the flanks to bypass the surrendered centreground.

Again, they failed to convert their possession into chances. The one save that Gomes made at 1-0 was a fine one to deny a Meyer header as it bounced through the box… on review this may have been our biggest break during the game, a flick off Cheick Kouyaté might have wrong-footed the keeper. Instead he pulled out a stunning reflex save.

When the goal came and much as it felt like it had been coming, it was our own doing. Mariappa at fault, certainly, but not entirely. If we’re honest, and much as it goes against the prevailing sentiment, Gomes’ sliced clearance to Femenía created a situation that could have been avoided, much as Mariappa, who otherwise did a decent job of subduing Batshuayi, had the chance to remedy decisively. As it was the Belgian took his chance with aplomb, as he’s wont to do in games against us. Five in four games well publicised, five in 221 minutes – less than 2.5 games of active play – less so. He celebrated blowing kisses to the Rookery, no doubt in response to generous congratulations offered by the home end.

5- And here’s where Javi’s genius shone through like sunlight through a gap in the clouds. Could so easily have gone wrong here in so many ways and of course good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and vice versa. But the whole of the home end must have been willing a change in personnel, something to stiffen up a midfield that was suddenly losing the battle. For me, something that involved Tom Cleverley giving us an extra body, settling things down, scurrying around after things, perhaps in place of the still listless Pereyra.

And yet Javi, as my co-editor energetically pointed out at the final whistle, held his nerve. Instead of hooking Pereyra he withdrew the tiring Will Hughes, who continues to echo Nick Wright in his willingness to charge around for 70 minutes before leaving the pitch barely able to walk. On comes Andre Gray to add his snarling, snapping menace to the proceedings.

You know the rest. Pereyra justified his place on the pitch with the most magnificent piece of football of the second half, simultaneously bloody minded and beautiful, burrowing his way out of tight attention and then clipping a perfect pass into Gray’s stride. You can criticise the defending, but it took an awful lot for that to be relevant… between them they unpeeled the defence and Gray capitalised sharply, his third winner off the bench in consecutive home games.

6- It wasn’t done. The remaining ten minutes contained plenty of hair wringing and angst…. Deeney drove in a shot, Guaita fumbled and the excellent Wan-Bissaka beat Deulofeu to the rebound. The same player snatched at Palace’s best chance at the other end, dragging a shot across the face of goal. And that was it, the last flailings of this particularly odious opponent before they descended into irrelevance and – we can hope – a relegation scrap.

Roars, bellows at the final whistle. Then loud, long salutes to the many heroes of the hour. To Javi. To Andre Gray. To Gomes. The last two clearly emotional. By the time you read this you’ll know who we’ll face in the semi in only three weeks time… that’s to come. Whoever we’ve drawn, it’s a Cup Semi at Wembley (yes, me too) and a chance to take a step closer to something quite historic for our ever more wonderful club.

Bring it on. Yoooorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 5, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 5*, Deeney 4
Subs: Masina (for Holebas, 45) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 77) 0, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 89) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Success, Dahlberg

Advertisements

Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (03/03/2019) 03/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

1- I was tempted to begin at the end.

That’s what we’ll remember, after all. Those of us that were here today. For all that there was plenty of backstory, for all that this was a potentially significant game, for all that there was plenty to enjoy in what was a throbbing, vital, bass drum of a contest. All the detail is lost in the flailing limbs.

But I won’t start at the end. Else why would you read the rest of it?

And the beginning, strictly speaking, is Tuesday’s management announcement in Leicestershire which confirmed that for the third home game in a row we would be facing a former boss. The third of the three home games this calendar year incidentally versus nine away of which only two defeats, a figure distorted by cup draws and Spurs’ stadium nonsense… but these statistics which highlight how well the present incumbent is doing and how the identity and history of the Other Bloke only matters up to a point.

Nonetheless. Brendan Rodgers. Much-travelled since his nine months or so here, nine months that pale into a footnote versus what’s happened to both parties since. Nonetheless, we remember. And for what it’s worth, a slightly half-arsed boo to the invitation to greet our former boss, followed by some gently mocking chants when we remembered feels about right. Ten years is too long ago for the Silva treatment and anyway that was never really comparable. Rodgers did a fine job when he was here, much of the reaction on his departure was fuelled by disappointment, much of the rest by his preponderance for putting his foot in his mouth, his almost total lack of self-awareness, the David Brent/Alan Partridge thing. But we know what a basket case the club was then. It isn’t now. Neither of these things are/were down to Rodgers. For what it’s worth, his greatest crime in my book remains boasting about Tommy Smith wanting to join him at Reading despite not having permission to talk to the player; that Smith chose to leave him, and his unveiling press conference, in the lurch and join Pompey only slightly assuaged the dejection of seeing the twice Player of the Season move on. Oh, and being the first Watford manager younger than me. By ten days. Nobody should have to deal with that at the age of only 35.

2- It’s cold. And wet. On the plus side, at least it feels like March, in contrast to much of February feeling like June. Whatever other crazy shit is going down in the world and despite my lack of a scarf the weather has, at least for a moment, got back on track.

It’s tempting, of course, to read too much into the Rodgers thing… he’s only been there a matter of days. Nonetheless, thinking back ten years or so and remembering his uncompromising, ideological, some might say ambitious, others might say fundamentalist to the point of stupid attempts to turn Aidy Boothroyd’s rather spartan approach upside down overnight it’s interesting to note that he’s moved to a back three straight away. Every time Wes Morgan is wheeled out against us it feels like surely, surely the last time.

So, we don’t know how Rodgers will turn out for City. But beyond dispute that this probably isn’t a bad time to being playing them, all things considered and the potential for post-Puel bounce notwithstanding. Actually I’d half expected a more venomous single-minded early assault that we actually delivered; from the far end it looked rather as if Leicester’s defence seemed to cave in on itself under minimal pressure. By the time Troy put us ahead on five minutes, a fine header to a whipped Deulofeu cross, City were already visibly tentative. Mariappa forced Schmeichel into a block, Deulofeu’s follow-up was also deflected away as Morgan, Evans and Maguire started giving out hand-written invitations to come and have a go. Twice free kicks were conceded needlessly in threatening wide positions, the second of which yielding the goal.

3- But that’s an experienced bunch of centre-halves and however optimistic the ask of them City pulled themselves together and started stringing passes along. I was slightly disappointed at our failure to hold on to the initiative, to pin City back and not let them settle, but then again City haven’t changed enough over a week to have forgotten how to be a counterattacking side and Jamie Vardy will always, as we’ll see, love big open spaces to run into. There is, in short, a reason that Javi Gracia is Watford coach and I’m just waffling into a blog.

It says something that the three on-target efforts of the first half all came in the first five minutes. That’s a slightly misleading statistic, since both sides threatened more than this suggests; balls across the box that just needed a touch, that sort of thing. Nonetheless, City had a five man midfield against Watford’s four (which is effectively a five given the Doucouré/Capoue engine in the centre, to steal City’s N’Golo Kanté trope) and it all got rather congested. Much of City’s play was in classic death-by-football territory, passing the ball around until somebody gave the ball away (often Ben Chilwell, source of plenty of both good and bad things but often subdued by a monumental first half from Will Hughes).

However the threat was growing. If there’s an argument in favour of VAR (and I remain unconvinced on balance) it’s the existence of the likes of Jamie Vardy… so quick and so direct that he will always provoke situations which require officials to make a decision that they almost certainly aren’t in a position to make. Whether and how often Vardy exploits this to his advantage is almost moot – at that speed all it takes is a touch. The referee was fooled at their place in December, I was fooled here as Mariappa tripped Vardy. I saw no contact, I was wrong.

Harry Maguire endeared himself here by ludicrously demanding a red card of the official despite Vardy being half a mile from the goal and heading towards the corner flag when felled. Shortly afterwards Mapps redeemed himself in part by vanquishing Maguire’s threat decisively at the far post to loud cheers all round, and then propelled himself well into credit with a superhuman goal-saving defensive header, clearing a vicious left wing cross off of the forehead of Jonny Evans. With five or ten minutes to the break the visitors were threatening for perhaps the only sustained spell in the game; by the time the whistle went everything had calmed down. It being lunchtime I went and queued for food in the concourse for ten minutes, made minimal progress and returned to my seat for the second half empty handed.

4- That City only managed that one spell of sustained pressure until they briefly kitchen sinked it at the end says an awful lot for the defensive shape of our side. Many have said that Mariappa’s failings, particularly in possession, make him a position to upgrade in this team. This may be true but without doubt you’d always choose to have him around as an option, since this was a disciplined defensive team performance that wasn’t high on weak links for City to exploit. Yes, they over-elaborated. No, they rarely looked terribly like scoring despite their second half possession. But passing like that will find chinks in the end if you don’t concentrate.

The wild card in the second half was the refereeing of Jonathan Moss. It should be emphasised that the standard of refereeing in the Premier League is extremely high. We’ve been victim and beneficiary of some bizarre decisions but very few poor performances in stark contrast to, for example, the 1999-2000 season (Rob Harris, Uriah Rennie, Andy D’Urso and co. Shudder). However Moss, on repeated occasions, seems to be a bit of a throwback; the sort of overweight short-sighted buffoon cartoon depiction of a referee you used to see in Shoot! cartoons when I were a lad. Here, as previously, his tendency to tie himself to the centre-spot and linger behind the play was peppered with an absolute refusal to give Troy anything, no matter where Harry Maguire stuck his arms or what he did with them reached a crescendo in the middle of the half. Troy himself was booked for a challenge on Schmeichel that seemed, on one look, to owe rather more to Schmeichel being a goalkeeper than to the severity of the challenge, whereas both Doucouré and Deulofeu had been crudely taken out in unsuccessful attempts to curtail the attack that had broken to that point in challenges that went uncensored.

Our own attacks fizzed briefly, but with greater threat. A bewildering move down the left resulted in City’s now more resolute defence once again at sixes and sevens as Doucouré slugged a shot that Schmeichel beat away. Holebas embarked on an heroic, buccaneering charge down the left that ended with a cutback that didn’t quite have enough on it to reach Troy but earned a grinning salute from the skipper anyway.

And then, as yet another appeal from Troy as Maguire climbed all over him was waved away, it happened. The excellent Tielemans picked out a pass, Vardy was off, Mariappa was on a card but wasn’t catching him anyway. One all. Difficult to argue, much as it felt as if Moss’ officiating neutered our attempts to dominate City’s backline.

5- Even without what followed, Troy was the Man of the Match. This is his sort of thing of course, a physical contest against foes that aren’t quite as superhuman as Virgil Van Dyk. He would go on to cement his position by conducting a post-match interview, often his most testing opponent, in which he dismissed Moss as a buffoon implicitly whilst explicitly praising his performance. A work of art. He’d earlier garnished his afternoon by cheerfully acknowledging the visiting support’s predictable and perhaps understandable greeting.

But otherwise, and his lack of support from the officials notwithstanding, this was Troy in full effect. A monstrous beast of a performance. For all the “you fat bastard” chants he looks lighter this year, lither and more mobile. But he’s still unplayable on this form, his form since the start of the calendar year. A fine afternoon’s entertainment despite perhaps limited quality was afforded new lustre as Kaspar Schmeichel’s careless throw was intercepted by Doucouré who fed Deeney. With his back to the goal inside City’s half, with a marker in close attendance and without looking he played a through-ball over his shoulder to the onrushing Andre Gray. A big scrapper yes, but a delicate footballer too, deceptively so, still. Gray, who hadn’t quite tuned in up to this point, raced away and scored a Vardy goal, slipping the ball under the goalkeeper.

And there you are. There you have it. You’d watch a whole season worth of shit for moments like this, moments where the world explodes in joy and bodies fly past in happy abandon and your vision is obscured by twinkly lights and disorientation. The backstory, the context, the level of football make no difference. If you’re invested in a team there’s nothing like an injury time winner, and even in that context this explosion of everything was a belter.

And it upholds a proud tradition, of course. There are many sides I’d wish ill on above Leicester, but we don’t half enjoy a late winner against the Foxes. There’s this one, obviously. But this one was decent too. Oh and this one. And remember this one…?

Andre Gray’s name was yelled from the Rookery post-match, not before time. A huge result this, absolutely monstrous. In the context of “The Everton Cup”… our next two League games are at City and United. Any points a bonus really, going into them off two defeats – Cup Quarter Final in between or otherwise – not great. But now? We go into those games four points ahead of West Ham. Six ahead of Everton, Seven ahead of City, Nine ahead of Bournemouth, Ten ahead of Palace. And after those two games? Five of our remaining seven games at home, and plausibly winnable.

What a time to be alive.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4. Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 2, *Deeney 5*, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 69) 3, Cleverley (for Hughes, 90) 0, Masina, Kabasele, Quina, Success, Gomes

Watford 1 Everton 0 (09/02/2019) 10/02/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

1- So, the Marco Silva thing we’ll all have talked to death, I’m guessing. It happened, it’s tiresome, it doesn’t reflect well on him or on his current employers and on reflection we’ve probably done quite well out of the whole thing really.

That he left is long since not an issue of course. As time has progressed the most cynical interpretation, that his reputation is built on sand, has been afforded more traction by Everton’s iffy form but that aside I want to like my club and I want to like the head coach. That’s more important than winning really, though ideally you’d have both (thanks, Javi…). So the departure of a man who was vain enough, sufficiently without shame to want to leave Watford as early as he did for the reasons he did… we were manifestly better off out of it even before his managerial limitations became (more) evident.

Everton’s behaviour I find harder to move on from, which isn’t entirely rational. They clearly did wrong, the offer of compensation tacitly acknowledged that, the ongoing independent investigation resultant from Watford’s complaint feels right and will hold the shabby Toffees to account, one hopes. But worse things happen at sea. In the grand scheme of things… there are bigger scumbags on our TV screens every day.

What really rankles is the way the arrogance of the Toffees’ approach echoes the arrogance of the barrel-scrapings on social media. Every club’s support is a broad school of course and heaven knows that it’s painfully easy to get wound up on Twitter whether you want to or not, empty vessels make the most noise and so forth. But there’s a colour to these barrel-scrapings when it comes to bigger clubs that grates and it’s evident in the way that supporters of such clubs fall back on their bigness as a sort of surrogate currency when their team is actually a bit shit. “Yeah, but we’re a massive club”. Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Villa and, yes, Everton take note. Everton’s own presumptuousness in their approach reflected the same attitude, the basest, crassest element of their support; the difference is that Everton aren’t faceless inaccessible goons on twitter. All power to the Hornets for not letting this lie.

2- The atmosphere in the ground before kick-off was brittle. I must confess that I didn’t notice the widely-celebrated playlist, but there was no missing Emma Saunders’ pointed welcome to the visiting head coach over the tannoy. It achieved the result it was designed to, albeit that the venom directed at Silva – and certainly at Richarlíson who received a mixture of half-hearted applause and similarly half-hearted catcalls – seemed restrained. Not the bear-pit of animosity that had been heralded, not yet anyway… perhaps because of Troy’s encouragements to back the team rather than focus on the opposition, perhaps because of a nervousness at ramifications of giving it large too early. Perhaps because the passage of events, the gradual shading in of the colours on the landscape, make it clear that we can afford disdain and ridicule, less vigorous forms of hostility than outright hatred.

So… not as hostile as anticipated. But certainly boisterous, certainly noisy. The 1881’s massive hart-flag covered the Rookery pre match; the ferocious wind got underneath it and briefly you pictured supporters on the edges being lifted into the sky by a vigorous gust but the banner descending was as a curtain lifting on the spectacle and we roared in anticipation.

3- And the Watford team followed suit. An approach designed to subdue this unconvinced, unconvincing, mentally half-arsed Everton side it might have been, but the unapologetic aggression of the Watford performances was unprecedented and spectacular and fitted the mood. Jose Holebas set an early tone, which may not surprise you, slugging a ferocious clearance straight at Tom Davies to clear the lines at the first threat. Thereafter we were a thundering, intimidating juggernaut… never snide, never vicious, merely brutal. Designed to provoke an “oh f*** this” response.

And Everton didn’t like it. To their credit they never threw in the towel, and after all a back line of Zouma and Keane isn’t likely to be bullied, but this was a challenge to their mentality more than their physique. Some stood up to it better than others. Richarlíson, certainly, will not have expected any favours off Holebas on the Watford left and received none. This was the left back, increasingly a cult hero at Vicarage Road, at his single-minded best; he shoved the Brazilian deep into his pocket to grapple with the packet of fags and the loose change with a warning not to cause any trouble. And he didn’t, not really… this was a performance right out of the playbook of the tail end of last season, all flouncing and remonstration and pouting drizzled with the occasional glimpse of what he’s capable of.

By the second half the Brazilian had disappeared up his own backside, writhing around at the slightest contact in what might have been a Neymar tribute but for the lack of spaghetti on his head. In the end even his own teammates didn’t bother checking on him. This in stark contrast to Richarlíson when his pecker’s up, the Richarlíson who gives as good as he gets when he wants to, who makes you think that the £50million (or whatever, insert whichever figure you choose to believe) might have been a good deal for all parties. Not on this evidence. Subbed midway through the second half, he was jeered off.

4- Back in the first half, and if this was a huge improvement on the stupefying trip to Brighton last week and if there was no lack of vigour then it was still rather low on quality. Indeed, whilst the Hornets came close when Capoue slammed a chest-down from Deeney which Pickford somehow propelled over, the visitors had the better chances for all their apparent discomfort… Keane dropped a header into Foster’s arms, Zouma failed to get any power behind a much more presentable chance, he should have scored. The ponderous Tosun was given a chance by some inattentive passing on the edge of the box and forced a good stop from Foster. For the Hornets, the centre-backs excelled, Cathcart as ever looking like the bit that makes the whole defence work, Mariappa perpetually in the right place. Elsewhere Doucouré and Capoue resumed their heavy duty partnership in the centre to powerful effect, but we were struggling to make inroads; Ken Sema threw his weight around but didn’t create an awful lot, Gerard Deulofeu dropped too deep in search of the ball and was overwhelmed by the stronger tides in the middle of the park, sucked further into irrelevance.

5- So the half time substitution made an enormous difference. You’ve got to feel sorry for Sema, there were a number of other calls that could have been made… but Deulofeu moving back to a wide position suddenly made him vital and incisive, Andre Gray was the best version of Andre Gray, snarling and pressing and making the Danny Graham runs that pull the defence around.

The gameboard tipped decisively for the first time. We were on top now, our foot on Everton’s throat and if we were still struggling to make chances then the ball wasn’t in our half terribly often, and rarer still without our expressed consent. And the decisive play was a beautiful thing in so many ways… first in the way that we magicked the irrepressible Holebas out of a hat again on the edge of the box, then in the swaggering shot across the bows that followed.

It didn’t look as if Pickford had touched it at the time but a corner was the award, one of a catalogue of bizarre decisions from a set of officials who had an erratic afternoon. Silva would later peevishly try to argue that these errors all went one way which wasn’t strictly true – a difficult game to officiate, but Lee Probert in particular did seem keen to support the narrative suggested by Troy’s unfortunately broadcast “kick the sh*t out of them” comments”.

Either way, an underlying mentality was consistently displayed by Silva’s comments, by the miserable Zouma’s hilarious post-match dismissal, by the shattering effect of this decision on the visitors’ mentality. A fragility of mindset. Probert didn’t give us a goal, or a penalty. It was a corner. You’ve still got to defend it… and for all their notoriety in dealing with such things the goal didn’t come from the first assault on the goal. More than to the bad decision it owed a bundle to a glorious reverse-flicked pass from that manyCathcart, a centre-back mark you, which unpeeled Everton’s defence beyond salvation. Will Hughes squared firmly on the scamper, Gray was left with a deserved tap in. The irony of A.Gray deciding the game to protests from his opposing keeper will not have been lost on many of sufficient years, least of all Steve Sherwood whose half time ovation was a highlight of the afternoon. (And no I can’t take the credit for that observation but it’s inspired so I plagiarise without apology).

6- And now we were not just noisy but lording it, revelling in the moment. Everton came back at us, looking urgent for the first time; “Dominic Calvert-Lewin always bloody scores against us” an unhelpful observation in my ear as the striker appeared off the bench. Not this time though, although he had a chance, heading wide. It could have been different.

Instead the chants came thick and fast, the visiting head coach unable to make his shouts heard over the revelry suggesting what might happen to his employment the next morning, and observing which of our last two head coaches was better than which. At the final whistle the magnificent Aidy Mariappa on his 300th appearance, on the same ground where he cried as the youth cup side he captained exited the FA Youth Cup in 2005, gave his shirt to a kid in the front of the Rookery and left us with a primal scream of triumph. Harry Hornet, meanwhile, was wrestling with and ultimately subduing an inflatable snake. Childish, yes, but he’s a man in a hornet’s costume so, you know.

Everton, in summary, looked lamentable. Their graceless manager surely a busted flush, his employers’ similarly graceless conduct rendering subsequent events all the more enjoyable.

We didn’t play an awful lot better in truth, but we looked focused, together, single-minded and deserved the win. We’re now the eighth best team in the land, would you believe, with a buffer to ninth and a load of winnable home games before the end of the campaign.

What’s not to like? Yoooorns.

 

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, *Holebas 5*, Cathcart 5, Mariappa 5, Hughes 3, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Sema 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Gray (for Sema, 45) 4, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 81) 0, Chalobah (for Hughes, 90) 0, Kabasele, Masina, Peñaranda, Gomes

Brighton and Hove Albion 0 Watford 0 (02/02/2019) 03/02/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

1. Contentment rarely breeds good art. Happiness, perhaps; ecstasy, certainly; not contentment. I think that’s fair, but I’m open to correction. I appreciate that being open to correction isn’t very 2019, but there we are.

At any rate, I can think of no Shakespeare plays in which, for example, a king governs his kingdom with gentle kindness, dishing out to his contented subjects runny scotch eggs and frothing tankards of mead (does mead froth?) with such generosity that nobody ever bothers to challenge his position and everyone just, you know, gets on fine and that, the end. The Rolling Stones didn’t sing about getting a genteel sufficiency of satisfaction. Every half-successful hip-hop artist has had to deal with the difficult point at which they’ve entirely lost touch with their roots and life has become thoroughly comfortable; the result is an absolutely vast sub-genre of rapping about eating freshly-prepared unicorn kidneys in a diamond-encrusted palace while receiving a ‘massage’ from Miss World but, like, feeling really lonely and vulnerable and numb on the inside.

2. Contentment and football don’t mix easily either. Or perhaps it’s just that contentment supports little in the way of headlines and arguments and gambling sponsorship. There are good times, there are bad times, there are good and bad times at the same time. It’s not often, though, that you look at your football club and receive in return a sense of general well-being, of a thing that’s conceivably as good as it could be and yet not (and there’s a difference) as good as it gets.

Looking in from a distance, it appears that we’re more or less in that place right now. There’s a remarkable sense of surety about Watford Football Club, one that seems to deflect outside attention like some kind of cloaking shield. Interlocking parts, cohesive whole; nothing to see here. There seems to be a clear relationship between, for instance, the 1881 collecting for the local food bank, the sense of collective purpose shown on the pitch and the ability of the owners to make actions speak much, much louder than words. It hasn’t always been so, and you don’t have to go more than a few months back to find a good degree of acrimony and resentment and frustration. It won’t always be so either; everyone wanted to be Charlton once, if you recall.

But for now, we know who we are, where we are, what to do. We have a thoroughly charming manager who answers the media’s enquiries as if a nice aunt has just asked if he’d like a second slice of battenberg. That manager appears to have spent the summer concluding that the air around a football club is clearer if your team doesn’t stink it up, and the football no longer has that sense of instinctively shrinking onto the back foot, of only being truly happy when it’s pouring quick-drying cement all over everything. It still has the potential to be one of the great seasons. Even if it falls short of that, it’s a rare moment when any club gets quite this much right, and so modestly.

3. Our hosts are in a slightly more precarious position, and are smarting from their midweek disintegration at Fulham, but have a similar number of reasons to be thankful.

Much as you want to win, there’s always something thrilling about being in someone else’s ground when a game that’s in the balance suddenly tips and the noise starts echoing around the stands. Sets the adrenaline going, makes eventual victory all the more vivid. The noise at the Amex still seems to carry with it something of what this club nearly became, of building bonfires and Hereford and all of that. It’s still there, the knowledge that none of this might’ve existed. The pre-match build-up offers somewhat one-sidedly edited highlights of previous meetings, and the big screen malfunctions to obscure half of the picture, which seems a fitting reminder of the sightlines from both the away corner at the Goldstone and the temporary seating at Withdean. It’s thirty years since I was a student here; more than twenty since Fans United. This is a brilliant ground for a proud city. We should all count our blessings more often.

4. That said, the first half is absolutely dire. We start well enough, composed in possession, secure in defence. But it rapidly becomes apparent that having gorged themselves on Haribo and thrown up all over the living room carpet on Tuesday night, Brighton are spending some time on the naughty step, learning their lesson. There will be no repeat, no opening up, no fun and games. They are absolutely sodding impenetrable. On the very rare occasions when we find a bit of space, it’s filled with a great rush of striped bodies before we can get our heads up and take advantage. We create a half-chance for Troy Deeney, who heads wide at the end of a fine, far-ranging move, but that’s really all we have to show for a lot of earnest shuffling around.

It’d be an exaggeration to say that Brighton have no interest in the other end, although that clearly isn’t their immediate priority. On their right, March and Gross offer the main threat, doubling up on a constantly raging Jose Holebas who, having seen off one attack quite superbly, flings his gloves to the ground in disgust at the concession of a corner. You suspect that if he ever made you a cuppa, he’d smash the mug onto the table in a great explosion, snarling “TEA!” through gritted teeth; you also suspect that he’s no fun when it comes to charades on Christmas Day. He’s a lot of fun on a football pitch, though, and this is a half in which you have to take your entertainment wherever you can find it. Dunk heads wide from a corner; Ben Foster makes his first save of the afternoon to claw out a header from Locadia as half-time approaches.

5. It’s a beautifully bright, crisp winter’s day. The snow is melting away everywhere but the peaks of the Downs. The sun gradually begins to set, casting lovely shades of light orange onto the arced roof of the whatever-it-is stand. The concrete under our feet, however, seems to have stored up the cold of a thousand years; the ice of ages. It takes about fifteen minutes for your feet to feel as if they’re standing in a shin-high freezing puddle, and at no point is the game enough to fully divert your attention from the prospect of losing contact with your toes permanently. I can still feel the chill in my bones twenty-four hours later.

The second half is more engaging. A bit, anyway; let’s not oversell it. That’s partly just because the end is getting nearer; each thing that happens threatens to become the thing that happened, to be final and decisive. It’s also partly because Brighton, after forty-five minutes of reminding themselves of what they’re good at, decide to give it a bit of a go, stepping forward ten or twenty yards and increasing the tempo. They know that it’s there to be won, even if they’re not prepared to be cavalier in winning it. Respect the point, as Big Sam would say.

That ought to help us. And yes…well, a bit. There are moments when we manage to get Will Hughes into positions where he can pick up second balls from the Deeney-Dunk-Duffy scraps, and those hold some promise. But Ken Sema is too preoccupied with helping out Jose Holebas, and Gerard Deulofeu isn’t involved in the game at all. I mean, it really isn’t his kind of contest, and nobody’s asking that he turn into Tommy Mooney, but he seems to accept his irrelevance all too readily. It’s all very well having a player with the quality to win a game in a second, but a great pile of unused seconds is no good to anyone, and we cut our losses eventually.

Our last attempt at coming up with an attacking formation that can trouble Brighton sees Andre Gray in support of Deeney and is best of the iterations, even if there’s still little to show for it. Hughes fires into the side netting; Gray is foiled by Dunk collapsing onto the ball with the suggestion of a surreptitious arm outstretched. Worth a shout, but it later turns out that he’s actually used his head to make the tackle, the absolute loon. From next season, we’ll all get to freeze our tits off while someone pores over the footage, so hooray for progress.

6. A point each is about right, then. And it’s obviously considerably more about right if you’re a Watford fan. By full-time, we’ve accumulated another small hatful of reasons to be thankful to Ben Foster: these were, for the most part, saves that you’d hope he’d make, in tipping over a drifting header from Locadia and blotting out the sunlight as Andone burst through in the dying minutes. The best of them is an improvised goal-line clearance to scramble an overhead kick from Duffy around the post, not least because he’d look a complete clown if, as is perfectly possible, he only succeeded in shovelling the ball into his own net. But he doesn’t. He remains a class act, in all respects.

Brighton are theoretically the better side, then, but all of the terrific things about this game are defensive and we contribute as many as they do. Jose Holebas has already been commended, but we get similarly committed, if less furious, shifts from the rest of the back four. Aside from a free-ish header for Glenn Murray from a set piece, we concede nothing lightly; the clean sheet isn’t fortunate just because our keeper pulled off some saves. It’s a battle of a game, to watch as well as to play in, and the central defenders of both sides command it. They do more to win it, we do enough not to lose it. Everyone’s happy enough when it’s over.

7. And everyone’s happy enough, full stop. Well, maybe not everyone: the chap next to me would, at the drop of a hat, compile you a chart run-down of which players are the most shit. But mostly. I’ve often wondered how it’d feel to be in this position, with little to fear and yet also relatively little to hope for; Burnley have rather popped the European dream bubble, after all. I’d assumed that it’d be a tedious existence, a kind of footballing limbo, eventually yearning for any kind of release. Maybe it will be, eventually. But for now, it’s rather pleasant, isn’t it? Top half of the top flight, no drama. Dreadful game, minor frostbite, doesn’t matter.

Contentment. All is not well with the world. This bit, though…well, this bit is just fine.

Cup run’d be good, though, eh?

*Foster 5*, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Janmaat 4, Cleverley 3, Capoue 3, Hughes 3, Sema 2, Deulofeu 1, Deeney 2 Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 70) 3, Quina (for Sema, 81) 0, Masina, Peñaranda, Britos, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 0 Burnley 0 (19/01/2019) 20/01/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- The highlight of the day was the GT stuff, quite obviously. Two years on the club provides all attendees with a drinks voucher, then orchestrates another tremendous scarf display as the players enter the arena. This might have been more effective still but for the unwanted, unneeded and sadly non-negotiable twaddle that is the Premier League anthem as the players solemnly shake hands. It could have been so much more than a stunning visual spectacle. But it is a stunning visual spectacle. There are scarves aloft in the away end too – Claret and Blue stands out a little less than Southampton’s red and white of a year ago, but it’s still a fine thing.

At half time there’s a tribute to Captain Thomas Sawyer ten years after his passing in Afghanistan, the most significant aspect of which is that the club chose to acknowledge something that wasn’t recent, wasn’t prominent in everyone’s consciousness.

It goes without saying that this is a club that is proud of its community and of which its community should be proud.  More so than at any time since GT’s first tenure, a fact unconnected with relative success on the field.  It also flies in the face of quotes attributed to Burnley manager Sean Dyche this week, quotes so lazily inaccurate as to be not worth challenging.  In fairness to Dyche, his stoic attention to the GT tribute and to Duncan Welbourne’s subsequent minute’s applause have been widely reported and it’s unreasonable to on the one hand laud a manager’s rare candour and on the other to object when he talks complete bollocks.  Nobody gets it right all the time.

Nonetheless there are boos mingled with the cheers as Dyche is welcomed over the tannoy.  As team news reveals the absence of the much-speculated Abdoulaye Doucouré with an unannounced knee injury one is forced to wonder whether the afternoon’s drama and emotion has been played out before the game kicked off.

2- And it hasn’t.  Not all of it.  But my god there are meagre pickings on offer for the next two hours.  In exhorting my co-editor to increase his rather miserly attendance rate I’ve argued recently that even the poor games – Newcastle at home being case in point – have been enjoyable.

This one wasn’t.  This one was eye-bleedingly awful.  This one was sit in a traffic jam needing the loo with a broken stereo, late for a flight or something whilst kids bicker in the back seat for two hours awful.  This was the sort of thing that used to provoke a sort of gallows humour back when we were a mid-table second tier club and games like this were an occupational hazard, we had one-liners ready to go.  Here… nobody really new how to handle the mindless tedium.  Hell, there might even have been youngsters here who weren’t born the last time we had a game like this.

At some point I’m going to need to start talking about the football.

3- Actually it started off extraordinarily well.  In retrospect, this could have been a ruse by the visitors to put us off our guard but it seems unlikely that Burnley, the most oblong of opponents, would be capable of such subterfuge.  No, this was mere incompetence on our visitors’ part as they failed to start the game until a good five or ten minutes after Michael Oliver’s whistle.  By this time Troy had twice been allowed to chest the ball down in the middle of the park and turn unchallenged.  On one occasion his sublime through-ball to Deulofeu released the Spaniard through on goal.

The afternoon would, could, should have panned out entirely differently had Deulofeu’s first touch and composure not deserted him, allowing Tom Heaton to hurtle out and give himself a chance.  Given that Gerry’s finishing is, um, a growth opportunity you have to wonder why he so rarely uses his quick feet to try to bypass the keeper in such situations.  Here, Heaton blocked the shot, Deulofeu’s head was in his hands, his first touch walked out on him in disgust taking the kids, not leaving a note, and he sulked his way back towards the halfway line.  Within five minutes there were further chances;  Deulofeu fluffed a free header with a mistimed jump, Ken Sema had a similarly clear chance which didn’t quite drop for him, Troy had a header cleared off the line.  We looked good, but our visitors plain terrible.  Not so much slack as really not playing the same game at all.  The missed chances were shrugged off, the goal, goals, were clearly coming.

4- Until Burnley woke up, quietly got hold of the ball and proceeded to wrest away any semblance of control that we had on the game.  Not that they took control, particularly, though they certainly had the better of it and the better of the subsequent chances.  More that they brutally rejected the concept of control, a nihilistic, anarchic destruction of any semblance of such a thing buried under hurtling bodies and closed down possession.

There’s something admirable about Burnley, in the way that you might quietly, privately, take pride in a very large shit.  Consistent with this analogy however Burnley are a thing best admired from a distance;  you might be capable of a sort of respect but you don’t want to watch it, be close to it, invite it round to dinner. You want to flush it away and forget you ever saw it. There is no joy in it.  It’s just a very large shit.

Troy no longer has time to bring balls down in midfield.  Instead he has Jack Cork shoving him in the ribs, or two opponents double-teaming him – one blocking, one winning the header.  The cowardly thuggish Ashley Barnes is one minute backing into his marker, the next flopping forwards over the ball in anticipation of a challenge from behind to win a free kick.  Hoodwinking the hapless Michael Oliver is an art form, jabs to the ribs synchronised with the turn of his back as perfectly as if this were a dance synchronised to music.  The official increasingly resembles a frantic supply teacher, the pitch of his voice surely rising steadily as he demands respect and receives none in consequence.

5- Not that we deserve a damn thing.  It’s easy to look to the significance of our absentees – the movement of Hughes, the power and dynamism of Doucouré, even the authority of Cathcart though the defence does well enough in fairness.  But the guys left on the pitch needed to do better.  Worst of these is Deulofeu, who disappears up his own backside early on, can’t do a damn thing right and spends much of the game flouncing.  Ken Sema is in many ways his counterpoint…  equally prone to a bad decision, less able to rely on quick feet to compensate, far stronger of mentality.  He keeps going when Deulofeu would give up, shows for the next one, probably deserves better than to be hauled off for Isaac Success in the second half, much as this is the right decision.  Cleverley was a force for good at Palace but struggles here, a ferocious ball to the privates in the second half sums up his afternoon whilst the battle-hardened Phil Bardsley relentlessly forces Bobby Pereyra down the line and Pereyra relentlessly attempts to cut back onto his right foot anyway.  In such circumstances it’s slightly surprising that Pereyra and Sema didn’t swap wings to at least allow Troy the possibility of something to attack via a cutback from the byline.  It’s painful stuff.

5- So, yes, Burnley have the best chances after the first few minutes.  Troy forces Heaton into a stunning reaction stop on half time but against that the Clarets fluff two easy chances, Jeff Hendrick slips a ball agonisingly across the face of the goal in the early minutes and Ben Foster is forced into a number of decent stops.  If we’re looking for a straw to cling to it would be that “we would have lost  this last year” thing.  Except… we should have lost this one really.  Chris Wood’s late offside effort really wasn’t.

So we nod to Lady Luck and scramble off with a point trying to block out the sound of Sean Dyche bitching about referees (again).  And yet… and yet there is a positive to come from today.  Of all the head coaches we’ve gone through since 2012 the two that you’d question the departures of would be Jokanovic and Dyche, probably.  Both vindicated by this season’s developments, I’d argue.

We’re left with the point.  Oh, and that enduring pride in our club and our community.  Seventh in the Premier League and Top of the World in reverse order of importance.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Kabasele 3, Mariappa 4, Sema 2, Capoue 3, Cleverley 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 1, Deeney 3
Subs: Success (for Sema, 56) 3, Britos (for Femenía, 77) 0, Masina, Gray, Quina, Wilmot, Gomes

Crystal Palace 1 Watford 2 (12/01/2019) 13/01/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- So when I was at school, a boys’ school, football was What You Did at lunchtime, at break, before school. Hell, you caught an earlier bus than strictly necessary just to play before school, either with a tennis ball on the concrete or with a proper ball, or something resembling it, on the muddy field. Dom Ludden mocking my Watford-emblazoned contribution to the cause sticks with me for some reason.

But there was another kid.  He was an OK footballer, but not as good as he thought he was.  And he wanted to do it all himself.  Never passed to anyone, ran off with it, tried to beat everyone on his own.  Looking back on this now, I can only wonder whether he did so because he felt his chances of success were better that way (in which case he was a moron – not all the kids were as clumsy as me), or because he simply preferred to try and do it himself (in which case he was an arsehole).  Either way, he surely can’t have been surprised that all the other kids got a bit fed up with him spoiling the game and will surely have regarded him with disdain thenceforth.

2- Fast forward thirty-odd years and here we are, back at Selhurst Park.  Those of you familiar with this corner of Croydon will be unsurprised to learn that today is grey and overcast, though not so grey that it deters us from walking to the ground from East Croydon Station.  Pre-match food is somewhat bland, pre-match conversation involves someone suggesting that it’s a Good Thing that Luton appear to be on their way “back”, that what good are rivals if you never get to play them.

This is not a good start to the day, if a visit to Croydon can ever have a “good start”.  In the all too welcome absence from relevance of them up the road, Palace (and Bournemouth) are surrogate rivals but the anticipated spiteful raucousness is absent as the home stands are uncharacteristically timid.  Instead it’s the visitors making the noise, loudly commemorating the second anniversary of GT’s passing.  Fuelled by this event or otherwise, it’s as boisterous an away end as we’ve enjoyed for some time.

3- If the day has begun badly, the game’s start is almost perfect.  We’re at Palace’s throats before they’ve woken up to the fact that the match has started.  Gerard Deulofeu nutmegs Tomkins and he’s away;  his finish is too casual, beating Guaita but not the woodwork.  Impossibly, when the ball rebounds kindly into Bobby Pereyra’s path he finds the same woodwork when it seemed much easier not to.  Aggravated by his failure, Pereyra drives in from the left flank and is felled on the very edge of the area but gradually the fury recedes from our start.

Palace aren’t an easy side to play against.  They are, famously, blunt; there’s no cutting edge at all.  The side is slightly imbalanced, all the attacking threat coming down the flanks.  However they’re sound enough defensively, and with Milivojevic, Kouyaté and McArthur in the centre of midfield they’re difficult to play through.  One imagines that they’ve had a few dull games of late, it’s very easy to look stodgy and uninspired against them, the more so if you make the mistake of falling behind.

The home side have gone on to enjoy the majority of possession in the first half without doing an awful lot with it.  They’re switching the ball from flank to flank, probing, but don’t look like scoring;  nor, in all honesty, do we after the early excitement.  Will Hughes, the only survivor from the cup win at Woking, hasn’t survived for long having apparently been battered in a challenge and taken off with concussion.  Ken Sema is on to acclaim, but it’s the scampering Deulofeu who provides such threat as we offer.

When Palace score it’s almost by default, a pitiful apology for a goal that arrives via attrition.  Not unsurprisingly it’s an own goal coming after repeated failures to clear conclude with Abdoulaye Doucouré clearing against Cathcart and the ball rebounding in.  The memory of the visit here two years’ ago, won by Palace via an own goal after they registered no shots on target by their own steam, looms large.

4- The home stands wake up for the first time.  As the half ends and the second begins Palace respond and suddenly look confident and assertive.  Arron Win-Bissaka, comfortably the best player on the pitch, bombs down the right as the half closes and sends a ball across which just needs a touch but doesn’t get one.   This theme continues in the second period; it’s not that we’re hanging on, it’s not that one-sided, but we’re doing little more than holding our own.

To which end it’s worth recognising the defensive efforts of those involved. Both fullbacks are forced backwards by Palace’s wingplay but both are diligent, and Femenía in particular, and against all expectation, does a fine and comprehensive job of subduing the notorious Zaha (who will later fashion an appalling miss all of his own at the far end, and get told to get the hell up by referee Tierney to the acclaim of the away end).   Ben Foster, meanwhile, is alert when Zaha capitalises on some sloppy possession as he grows into the game, and later produces a fine stop to deny Milivojevic.

Nonetheless, we’re second best at this stage, don’t look like equalising let alone turning it around, and are anticipating yet another miserable trip back through London after yet another congested, clunky game here which we’ve again managed to lose.  We’ve been here before, let’s face it, we’ve seen this game many times.

5- Until, midway through the half, we go off script.  Jose Holebas lines up a corner;  this is not a great source of excitement, we’ve had half a dozen of these without coming terribly close to scoring although in fairness to Holebas a couple of his crosses had hit fine spaces with nobody in them rather than merely being underhit.  On this occasion however a deep, deep delivery tempts out Wayne Hennessey, introduced from the bench following an injury to Guaita, and Cathcart redeems himself with a fine, fine header at the far post.

A bubble bursts.  Everything has suddenly changed, changed irrevocably, and everyone in the stadium knows it.  Every football fan knows the dangers inherent in giving it large too early, the risks in counting your chickens, and the home stands are very, very subdued as the taunts they’d been lobbing over come back with interest.  On the pitch we’ve grabbed the match by the throat and aren’t about to let go.  This is fuelled by the equaliser, but re-enforced by the introduction of Tom Cleverley who gives us a control in midfield that we never look like relinquishing.  We’d called this substitution five minutes earlier, but to be fair there are few circumstances in which introducing Tom Cleverley off the bench wouldn’t be a sensible thing to do.

And of course, of course, there’s a crowning moment.  A glorious crescendo, a sucker punch.  It’s been coming;  Palace have been applying frantic and fairly aimless pressure, we’ve been screaming out at them.  An inhuman tackle from the covering Win-Bissaka has halted our progress on the right as we broke;  later Troy, who is back in beast mode, throwing himself at every aerial challenge, is denied by a last ditch block from the same player.  But there’s no denying Tom Cleverley.  A Holebas throw comes in, isn’t cleared, drops towards Tom on the edge of the area and is suddenly flying towards the top corner.  Cleverley, sent off in the dying minutes of this fixture last season and starting in the League for the first time since last January, heads for the corner flag followed by every one of his teammates.  In the stands, our support floods down the stairways to the detriment of anyone in their way;   the home stands have never looked more disconsolate.

6- It’s tempting to say that we would have lost this last season.  In fact we DID lose this last season.  And the season before.  And coulda, shoulda this time too.  But there’s more to us now…  good enough that our bad days aren’t that bad, good enough that when we flame on we’re irresistible, plenty enough to blow Palace, albeit a blunt, stunted Palace, right out of the sky.

The walk back to East Croydon is not unpleasant.  We grab a tea and as we arrive on the platform a delayed Bedford train is pulling in.  We don’t need to break stride as the doors open.  We’re seventh in the Premier League, in poll position for the Everton Cup, and today has been a very good day.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, *Femenía 4*, Holebas 4, Mariappa 4, Cathcart 3, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Sema (for Hughes, 19) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 67) 4, Masina (for Pereyra, 87) 0, Britos, Quina, Success, Gomes

 

Watford 1 Newcastle United 1 (29/12/2018) 30/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1 – There is a danger in preconceptions. In making assumptions, not judging things at face value. The human race wouldn’t have survived without a degree of educated guesswork of course… “that wolf/precipitous path/large drunken sweary man looks iffy, I’ll give it a swerve” and so forth. But as a general rule, you don’t broaden your perspective by presuming that you know it all. To do so would be tantamount to believing that you are blessed with perfect knowledge. That you can’t be surprised, you have nothing to learn.

Easy to say. Worthy. Harder to live by, despite the best of intentions. On Friday evening we were invited to a gathering at the home of a pastor of my better half’s church. I’m not a christian, rarely attend said church, didn’t expect to know many if any of the guests and the prospect was a little daunting. I guess socialising in a crowd of people who know each other and not you, who have something in common that you don’t share, is only something that the most confident would look forward to.

On the drive over my better half mentioned that the pastor’s daughter makes music, and did I want to listen to some? Dutifully I agreed. I don’t know what I expected… not that it should be awful necessarily. Perhaps I subconsciously, stupidly expected that people who, in my head, were “churchy people” only did churchy things, that it would be an overtly religious piece. Gospel, maybe. Not that that’s a problem – each to their own and so forth. But anyway. It wasn’t. And it was stunning.

2- In some circumstances your preconceptions are entirely reliable of course. Take, for example, our shared beliefs about the nature of a home game against a Newcastle United side, a Rafa Benitez side, stung by a 4-0 whupping at the hands of Liverpool three days earlier. A cynic, one liable to pre-judging, might anticipate a frustrating encounter against a joyless, mercilessly well-drilled outfit, a bit like trying to breathe with your head wrapped in a sodden towel weighed down with rocks. If you’re somehow ignorant of how the game turned out and wish to retain a modicum of mystery you can pretend that this isn’t (necessarily) how it turned out if you like.

Our approach to it was distinguished by a raft of team changes; one enforced by Christian Kabasele’s spectacular injury on Boxing Day (this having prompted Daughter 1 into gushing eulogy about his fortitude), five more apparently prompted by the congested, demanding schedule of this chunk of the fixture list. To which… it’s difficult not to be slightly excited. A little trepidatious, yes, but… this is us. Watford. At home to Newcastle… if not Premier League royalty then certainly a big club, whatever Bigness means. And we’re resting players. Taking advantage of what is surely the most lavish squad we’ve ever had, if still slightly imbalanced. Get us.

3- The game starts and we’re bright and positive. In charge of possession quite quickly, and if headway is hard going there’s patience to balance our zest. And there is headway. Isaac Success, ostensibly the target man with Troy on the bench, is pulling left and has DeAndre Yedlin in all sorts very quickly, committing him and drawing fouls. Not the first time that the American has looked a ropey excuse for a defender against us. Then Gerard Deulofeu’s skidding away from Newcastle’s defence and if he doesn’t capitalise, if the finish isn’t quite there, again, then at least we’re making tracks. It will come. We just need to be patient.

Except it doesn’t. Instead, Newcastle hit us with their stock goal and it’s a Neal Ardley to Heidar Helguson tribute act. Matt Ritchie swings a beast of a cross in from the left to our far post and Rondón rises to dump a header past the helpless Ben Foster. Newcastle aren’t a great side, Ray Lewington’s Watford side weren’t great either however lovable but that goal more than kept us up and it’ll keep them up too.

4- And suddenly we look a bit of a mess. Our “new guys” to a man look rusty… Will Hughes digs in but is well short, Daryl Janmaat will play himself up to his imposing full speed in the second half but doesn’t start that way at all. Domingos Quina is brave, takes responsibility but is now drowning in the midfield morass, twisting when he should stick and sticking when he should twist with the help of a good kick up the arse from Mo Diamé. Aidy Mariappa looks anxious and tentative, and Adam Masina is completely unlike the heir apparent at left back that his brief forays have encouraged us to believe hitherto.

At half time, slightly surprisingly, Daughter 1 turns to me with shining eyes and proclaims her passion for all things football. She has, in the relatively recent past, seemed to float distractedly through the most thrilling of games so this is no small triumph, unjustified as it seems by the 45 minutes that preceded it. We start the second half with a vigour to match my mood, but it’s the introduction of Troy and Doucouré ten minutes in that tips the tide. Suddenly we look potent, and slightly unexpectedly the game opens up a bit. Troy has dragged us along by our bootlaces so many times, this is no exception; fuelled by his inhuman hurtling we’re the better side now, and if the final ball is still wanting and if we’re struggling to get Deulofeu involved then there’s nonetheless renewed belief and energy in the stands from which listless half-hearted booing had emerged at half time. By the time Deulofeu finally picks a ball which Doucouré flies onto to noisy relief we just about deserve it.

5- The final ten minutes don’t quite see us pick up enough of a head of steam to convince that we’re going to win the game. Bobby Pereyra tiptoes through the area and doesn’t quite get the break. Isaac Success’ afternoon deserves to be crowned with a winning goal for sheer perseverance – never hiding, all twists and turns and muscle and determination and bad decisions and bad luck. But he doesn’t hide, he keeps at it and in a fairer world his closing shot has a bit more venom to it, we win 2-1. In this universe Dubravka fields easily and it’s a 1-1 draw.

It’s tempting to reflect that the wholesale changes cost us two points, but even if you believe that’s true then the decision’s reasonableness can only be judged on the basis of how Bournemouth, Woking and the rest of the season rolls out. Let’s not forget that the failure of Gracia’s predecessor was as much in the dearth of energy (and ideas) in his squad come this time of year as in the more publicised stuff. I’m happier with a coach who Does Stuff, all things considered.

6- Meanwhile, and as a slight aside, the event on Friday evening was perfectly fine of course. More than fine. I met Navina, the pastor’s musical daughter, and she spoke compellingly and passionately about the challenges of “making it” as a female soloist in the age of streaming, how even live gigs have limited mileage when competing against a noisy band with a fuller sound. Anyway… if you want to cheer yourself up after this stodge then watch the video below. Self-written, performed, produced. And if you don’t, listen to it anyway. Do me a favour, do Navina a favour. Enjoy it and share it. Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Masina 2, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 2, Hughes 2, Quina 2, Capoue 2, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 2, Success 3
Subs: *Deeney (for Hughes, 58) 3*, Doucouré (for Quina, 58) 3, Holebas (for Masina, 78) 0, Britos, Cleverley, Sema, Gomes

The List – January 2019. 19/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

Here we are again.  Don’t know about you, but I hold even the players that we were linked with but never signed in a sort of reverent awe which is probably unreasonable.  Yves Bissouma will be brilliant for Brighton at some point.  Meanwhile, here’s your list of players linked with the Hornets since the summer, a list that will be kept up to date until the end of January so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Summer 2018 List / January 2018 List / Summer 2017 List / January 2017 List / Summer 2016 List / January 2016 List / Summer 2015 List

Running Total: 40

IN

Divock Origi (Liverpool)*
Filip Stuparević (FK Voždovac)                                                           SIGNED
Chris Willock (Benfica)
Adam Lovatt (Hastings)
Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
João Pedro (Fluminense)                                                                   SIGNED
Mateo Musacchio (Milan)
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)*
Hector Herrera (Porto)*
David Bates (Hamburg)
Tom Heaton (Burnley)*
Diego Demme (RB Leipzig)
Fyodor Chalov (CSKA Moscow)
Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny)
Noah Smerdon (Gloucester City)
Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)*
Efthymios Koulouris (PAOK)
Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest)
Ibrahim Meité (Cardiff City)
Ronald Sobowale (Walton Casuals)
Youssef Msakni (Al Duhail)                                     – joined Eupen on loan
Philip Billing (Huddersfield)
Szymon Żurkowski (Górnik Zabrze)                         – joined Fiorentina
Adrien Tameze (Nice)
Dominic Solanke (Liverpool)                                       – joined Bournemouth
Grégoire Defrel (Roma)*
Stanislav Lobotka (Celta Vigo)
Denis Suarez (Barcelona)                                       – joined Arsenal on loan
Vittorio Parigini (Torino)
Ozan Kabak (Galatasaray)                                        – joined VfB Stuttgart
Declan Drysdale (Tranmere Rovers)                          – joined Coventry City
Maxwell Cornet (Lyon)*
François Kamano (Bordeaux)
Marcus Thuram (Guingamp)
Kim Min-Jae (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)                  – joined Beijing Guoan
Harry Arter (AFC Bournemouth)*
Aurélien Tchouaméni (Bordeaux)
Emerson (Atlético Mineiro)
Roberto Gagliardini (Inter)
Fabio Borini (Milan)

OUT
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Arsenal*, PSG, Tottenham*, Liverpool*, Everton*, West Ham)
Roberto Pereyra (Chelsea, Torino*)
Stefano Okaka (Fulham*, Monaco, Beşiktaş*, Udinese*)
.                                                                             – joined Udinese on loan
Dodi Lukebakio (Fortuna Düsseldorf)
Randell Williams (Brentford, Bristol City, Portsmouth, Wycombe Wanderers)
.                                                                             – joined Exeter City
Sebastian Prödl (Fenerbahçe)
Marvin Zeegelaar (Udinese)                            – joined Udinese on loan
Ryan Cassidy (Everton*, Derby County, Aston Villa, Leeds United, Southampton, Wolves)
Adalberto Peñaranda (Galatasaray)
Gerard Deulofeu (Milan, West Ham)
Nathaniel Chalobah (Aston Villa, West Brom)
Marc Navarro (Leganes)

 

Watford 3 Cardiff City 2 (15/12/2018) 16/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- Panto week. No, not that sort of panto. Not for kids. For colleagues. In jokes, that sort of thing. Written from January to June, cast in July, rehearsed from September onward. Not for everyone. It is for me. Really. Lots of good things… from spending lunchtimes laughing solidly, an oasis of joy in the middle of the working day. Raising money for charity. Doing something creative. The most monumental and magnificent post-show piss-up. Making friends and being part of something. Especially that.

There are parallels with following a football team, I think. A bit. Particularly that last point. It’s a drum I’ve banged before, no apologies for that. It’s the answer to that question we used to ask when we were in the second tier. “What’s the point of being a mid-table Premier League side?” Of being (Fulham/Stoke/West Brom/insert your choice here). No hope of challenging, limited peril until there is, then it stops. We are now that side. The side that are the go-to name for throwaway lines about mid-table irrelevance.

Leicester answered that question in part of course. But there’s more to it. Being Watford (any team, but Watford more so, obviously) is great because it’s us.  It’s being part of something.  And being us is great wherever it is.  Being good is fun.  But it’s not all of it.

2- Meanwhile, it’s wet and it’s cold.  And here are Cardiff in the drizzle.  Being Cardiff is great too, if you’re a Cardiff fan and I’m quite comfortable with there being a bunch of bruisers in the Premier League that stick out like a sore thumb given that we have to watch them, at most, twice a season.

I was ready to say that there’s a disarming honesty about the unabashed negativity of the approach, but that doesn’t really ring true having watched the side in action.  Considerably less brutal but more cynically unpleasant than advertised, as exemplified by Callum Paterson’s early employment of the Poleon manoeuvre, a cowardly shove on Cathcart into his onrushing goalkeeper.

But bloody-mindedly destructive they were, and for all that the Hornets dominated possession the visitors retained their shape and were effective at denying space and options.  It was imperative to score early, it was likely to require something a bit clever and we got it as Deulofeu’s directness forced fatal hesitation from City’s defence.  He slipped it home, one-nil.  Defiantly, City refused to change their approach, and as they twice threatened through long throws it was clear that there was a cold logic to the negativity.

3- Which doesn’t mean that it worked.  Neil Etheridge produced a string of athletic saves to deny Bobby Pereyra in particular;  one of these came from a free kick at the tail end of the half which was going in but then didn’t, a quite remarkable save that drew applause from Etheridge’s opposite number at the far end of the pitch as the half term whistle blew moments later.

But even Etheridge couldn’t hold back the storm as the second half developed.  Gerard Deulofeu’s decision making is ropey at best, profoundly aggravating.  Thing is, if he made consistently reliable decisions he’d still be playing for Barcelona and in a game like this a Deulofeu who makes the wrong choice two times out of three will still produce a man-of-the-match display, following up his terrific opener by dragging City’s defence into a blind alley before producing Jose Holebas out of a hat on the edge of the area.  The left back’s finish was exquisite.

4- Significant again had been the retention of Sema and Quina in midfield following the qualified success of the draw-that-was-nearly-a-first-win at Everton.  It’s beyond any reasonable dispute that this is the greatest array of midfield options we’ve ever had.  The fact that Ken Sema’s tidy, efficient, occasionally boisterous but generally low key performance suggested a player capable of stepping in and doing a job but not really being anywhere near a first team eleven speaks volumes.  We’ve got steady Premier League players on the fringes of our first team squad.  Jesus.

Quina, meanwhile, looks extraordinary.  A teenager thrust into the centre of a Premier League midfield… not a winger, peripheral.  Not a cameo role as sub.  Not an encouraging performance, suggesting  that there might be something in there, which would be a result in itself.  But a gem.  Here.  Now.  Tenacious, tidy, elegant, clever, brave.  Brave enough to volley a driven pass through to Troy – too hard, not everything was perfect, but applauded for its intent in what was a clear strategy of playing straight through City rather than around them.  Tidy enough to burrow into challenges and spin away into space on any number of occasions.  Deft enough to apply an impossibly so-on-top-of-this finish to yet another terrific move.  Étienne Capoue, Player of the Season elect, is available at West Ham.  Extraordinarily, his return is not guaranteed.

5- We swarmed at City, and it really should have been the first proper thrashing that we’ve dished out since promotion.  Etheridge (again) denied us, one or two bad decisions – not least when Deulofeu attempted to chip the keeper rather than squaring to an unmarked Doucouré.  City, by now, definitely didn’t know whether to stick or twist and were caught between the two frequently scattering like rabbits in headlights as we screamed down the pitch on the counter.

So Junior Hoilett’s extraordinary finish was a bit of a blow. Not undeserved; under no circumstances would a finish like that not merit a goal.  But… a shame.  Taking the shine off a performance that deserved a shine.  When City followed that up within three minutes by scoring the goal that they’d threatened to score twice earlier – Morrison now on throw-in duties with Gunnarsson removed, someone else gets the flick on, Bobby Reid capitalises on the scruffiness – it’s simply insulting.  Offside too, apparently, though less consequentially than previous episodes in this series.

Despite the predictable and hysterical anxiety in the home stands and despite Colin’s rather optimistic post-match assessment that there was only one team in it from this stage it was never in doubt.  City didn’t have enough threat to muster a corner for the duration, the best they offered in the closing minutes was the bluntest of high balls into the box, fielded by the exemplary Foster.  Tom Cleverley made a welcome return after ten months out and looked like he’d never been away, instantly calming everything down and nearly scoring with his first touch after a great lay-off from Okaka.  Doucouré and Holebas took advantage of Andy Madley’s manifest refusal to issue a yellow card for anything short of GBH.  And then it was over.

Closer than it had any right to be.  This was a 6-0 win in the next universe along.  But plenty good enough to be going along with.  And still us.

Merry Christmas all.  Yooooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 3, Sema 3, Quina 4, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Deulofeu 4*, Deeney 4
Subs: Success (for Sema, 77) 0, Okaka (for Deeney, 81) 0, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 87) 0, Mariappa, Masina, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 0 Liverpool 3 (24/11/2018) 25/11/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- In the dark, sweaty labyrinth of online messageboards the WSC forum is a relatively intelligent, sane, consistent place to hide.  Topics for discussion are broad, the audience relatively well-informed.

One particular discussion took root in my memory and has remained there, though it may be as many as ten years old.  The instigator of the discussion was an Italian, who asked for insight about the supporters of English clubs.  He explained that whilst he was familiar with the triumphs, the colours, the squads, the detail of the Premier League he didn’t, having never lived in England, have an intuitive feel for what supporters of the clubs were like.  He couldn’t characterise them, didn’t have the same feel that he had for the Italian football landscape and asked for help.

“Liverpool fans”, he was advised, “expect you to prostrate yourself on the altar of their Liverpoolness”.  Harsh.  But, you know.  Not completely without foundation.  The Liverpool fan who repeatedly berated BSaD for lack of respect during our balloon-laden League Cup semi-final visit in 2005 on what “should have been the biggest day in your club’s history” springs to mind.  I must confess that this mantra, rather than merely reflecting a core of truth, has a tendency to form the basis of pre-judgement on meeting Liverpool fans.  That’s probably neither fair nor healthy.

Can’t be avoided, however, that whilst we weren’t regularly getting 20,000 crowds when we were in the second tier there are an awful lot of people here who were there then, and would be again should fate turn against us.  You know who they are, who you are.  Faces that you see every time you visit, they’d be here for Rotherham or (shudder) Ipswich as readily as for the likes of Liverpool.  A fact perhaps lost on whoever adorned the livery of Liverpool’s club coach, arriving after 1.30 and holding up entry to Occupation Road with its redded-out windows bearing the slogan “Liverpool FC:   This Means More”.  What? More than what? What means more?  Banal twaddle.  Another anecdote:  I’m reminded of erstwhile Reds keeper Sander Westerweld’s response to scousers stopping him in the street and telling him that being an outsider, he didn’t “understand the passion!“.   “Oh f*** off.”

2- The side’s a bit good though, in fairness.  Our approach to handling this seems, as ever, hugely sensible;  the dynamic Capoue back for Chalobah, Troy’s leadership in for Isaac Success and Adam Masina’s discipline in for Jose Holebas.

And we start well.  This is a high water mark in several respects;  the game is never less than engrossing but doesn’t quite live up to the sizzling promise of the opening five or ten minutes, and our disciplined and largely successful insistence upon playing out from the back, on playing our way out of tight corners doesn’t last much longer.  Nonetheless, there’s huge encouragement as Gerard Deulofeu is slipped through and finishes well.  He’s offside, but not by very much.  Later Roberto Pereyra finds an opening and shovels a shot at goal that Alisson propels wide.

As the half progresses though, the pattern is very much one of Watford playing a containment game – squeezing up the midfield and leaving little space for a ball through or over the top to the scuttling Salah or Mané.  Very effective it was too, for the most part, though Daughter 1’s comment that for all Liverpool’s possession and the repetitive “here we are again” of their passing hither and thither in search of an opening we’d had the better chances served to prompt a flurry from the visitors. Wijnaldum swung a boot at a clear shot on goal, Mané swivelled athletically to force a fine save from Foster, Salah ghosted in late and unattended to head a corner inside the bottom corner until Foster, impossibly, clawed it out.  A concerted effort to snatch an advantage before the break, we just about held it together.

3- Of particular interest were a couple of ongoing duels.  The first of these is a regular highlight, that of Virgil van Dijk and Troy Deeney;  Troy has been vocal about van Dijk being his toughest opponent, and the Dutchman has come out on top more often than not since our first trip to Southampton on promotion.  Here, Troy was isolated for the most part but competed well and relished the challenge.

Elsewhere, Will Hughes and Andy Robertson were at hammer and tongs up and down our right flank.  Robertson was a regular threat, more than once arriving late to supplement a reds attack but the two largely kept each other in check.  There was an element of stalemate, that we had Liverpool’s number but couldn’t afford to make a mistake and weren’t really threatening terribly much.  We needed to concentrate and trust to our luck, we needed the breaks and we didn’t get them.  A critical point came when Hughes stole a march on Robertson and drew a challenge from him inside the area.  This wasn’t a stonewall penalty like the Bertrand/Chalobah nonsense at Southampton two weeks ago, even on a replay it’s not completely clear cut but it was probably a foul and it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that fate would decide in our favour.  She didn’t.

The final confrontation came between Isaac Success, on as a bustling, positive, disruptive sub for the slightly underwhelming Deulofeu, and Jordan Henderson who often found himself isolated against the Nigerian and unable to cope with the challenge.  Booked for a foul within minutes of the Nigerian’s introduction he gave Jonathon Moss several opportunities to send him off with inexplicably stroppy, pointless fouls before finally getting his marching orders for a hack at Capoue on the halfway line.

4- All the more bizarre from Liverpool’s captain given that the Reds were two up by this stage.  The Hornets had another decision go against them in Liverpool’s right back position and from there Liverpool broke, Robertson delivering a ball that Salah snapped up, the critical decisive point in the game.  Having kept us alive in the first half Ben Foster didn’t cover himself with glory here, but the margins are fine.  The fact is we did very well for the most of the match, employing a strategy that really wasn’t very far at all from working, but that failed at the last against superior opposition.  No shame in that.

Unfortunate, however, that there’s so little difference between a 0-0 and a 3-0 defeat against a side of this quality, since the game rapidly ran away from us as we tried to regain a foothold.  Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose uncle was Watford’s club secretary not so very long ago, pinged a free kick into the top corner deceiving the goalkeeper before the Hornets were luckless again, Firmino scuttling in a third after Foster had made another fine stop to deny the initial shot.  Firmino would have been offside but for the prone Femenía, stranded on the other side of the pitch having slid in on a challenge earlier in the move.

5- So the first of two home games in ten days against ostensibly the strongest clubs in the country.  Beaten fair and square, but the scoreline doesn’t do justice to our performance which was better than that, or to the strategy selected which asked a lot of us but wasn’t a million miles from earning a result.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, it’s difficult to conceive of an approach that would have had a better chance of success.

Once again, we’re left to reflect that if we’re disappointed at losing to a top side we’ve come a long way.  Still top half, deservedly top half, we shouldn’t let this knock us out of our stride.  There’s so much to like about this team.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Masina 3, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Hughes 4, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 4, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3

Subs: Success (for Deulofeu, 57) 4, Gray (for Hughes, 75) 2, Chalobah, Navarro, Quina, Kabasele, Gomes