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End of Term Report 2020 – Part 3 10/08/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

11- Adam Masina

Adam Masina is a decent left back.  He’s an athlete.  He’s diligent.  He doesn’t hide.  He’s a tidy footballer.

But…  I don’t know.  Perhaps I’m too wedded to a particular, probably out-of-date stereotype.  I just want a bit more welly in my left back.  A bit more oomph.  Masina is a tentative footballer, a tentative individual.  At 6’2″ he should be a more intimidating opponent than he is.

And yet his background, his upbringing demonstrate his strength of character.  I just wish there was a bit more evidence of it on the pitch.  Masina established himself in the side at the start of 2020 but was carried along with the side’s problems rather than ever looking like the solution to them.  At best he’s looked decent.  At worst he’s looked frightened.

Next Season:  With Holebas departed he’s the only senior left back at the time of writing.  There’s a decent player there, but he needs some competition.

14- Nathaniel Chalobah

So easy to forget about Nathaniel Chalobah.  For all that he featured in more than half of our league games he was too often a placeholder, visibly holding the fort until Caps, or Doucs, or whoever got back.  Since returning from his heartbreaking knee injury he’s too rarely resembled the force of nature that we enjoyed all too briefly after he first signed.

It’s a lack of assertiveness in part, but also a lack of joy.  There was an effortless swagger about Chalobah at his best that hasn’t been seen enough recently.  He’s mobile now, he’s fit – he was in every Premier League squad bar one from August onwards.  He’s physically much stronger than the spindly boy who played for us in the Zola season. He now needs to get some of that joy back.

Next Season:  With midfield departures surely likely over the summer, now is Nathaniel’s time.  He needs to start dragging games along again, not merely riding the waves.

15- Craig Cathcart

It’s generally recognised that our defence needs surgery.  That being the case, some defenders will need to move on…   they might be decent players, but the wrong age, the wrong sort of player, in need of a change of scene.  Not good enough, even.  None of these statements applies to Craig Cathcart.

Without a shadow of a doubt our most accomplished defender.  His form had its first big wobble in the past season (whose didn’t), but he remains the master of being in the right place at the right time.  Unfussy, unflashy, merely very competent, and increasingly adept and deft at the other end of the pitch also.  The only caveat is that, oddly, Nigel Pearson barely used him after the lockdown when he’d played ever League game up to that point barring his thigh injury in September.  If it was merely a selection decision it was an odd one.  Otherwise, one of the bits that ain’t broken, and don’t need fixing.

Next Season:  Of the three centre backs (Dawson, Kabasele) of similar age and stature, Cathcart’s the one least likely to be poached and likeliest to stay – assuming he wants to stay.

16- Abdoulaye Doucouré

One of my other hats involves me donning the rather grandiose title of Assistant Researcher (Watford) for a well known football management computer game.  This exercise involves a thoroughly nourishing management of statistical records within the manufacturer’s database, and ongoing assessment of the capabilities of the playing squad in particular from the most established players through to the scholars.

A big reset happens every summer where I have to calibrate these ratings according to the Head Researchers’ assessment of the squad’s relative strength.  This, before you ask, the only reason why Watford aren’t up there competing with Barcelona and Bayern in your simulations.  But a central question in performing this exercise is how to distinguish form from class.

Case in point.  We know that Abdoulaye Doucouré is a brilliant footballer.  Amongst the neatest of the Pozzo purchases for Watford, he’s an absolute powerhouse, an all-rounder who would not look out of place in almost any Premier League midfield.  And yet…  last season was pretty miserable.  There were odd performances, sure…  Liverpool was one, you remember Sarr and Troy but Doucs was extraordinary.  That goal at Brighton.  And.  Ummm.

After the lockdown in particular, when we needed our big players to dig in, our stars to shine, he was one of those who we needed more from.  He’s capable of dominating a game, has done so many times for us over previous seasons, but was too often a bystander in these final fixtures.  An outstanding footballer.  Just not quite often enough.

Next Season:  His move, with the benefit of hindsight, is at least a year overdue.  We’ll probably pay for that financially, but it’s not hard to see that thought dominating his conduct in the final weeks.  If he wanted to stay and was committed, brilliant – he can dominate a Premier League game and would stamp all over the Championship.  Can’t see it though.  Shame if it ends this way.


End of Term Report 2020 – Part 2 06/08/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

7- Gerard Deulofeu

Things being as close as they turned out to be, there are any number of “if only” moments.  Moments which, had the wind been blowing in a different direction might have changed, you know, how it ended.  You’ll have your own favourites, we could drive ourselves crazy thinking along those lines;  Bournemouth will no doubt have a similar list.

But Geri collapsing in pain in the Liverpool game was a big one.  For all that the game exploded beyond our most ambitious hopes thereafter, the loss of Deulofeu lingered at the back of your mind as a “yes, but…”, the knowledge that this could be quite expensive ever so slightly tarnishing the enjoyment of the evening.  So it proved.  We were startlingly more effective with the twin threats of Sarr and Deulofeu either side of Deeney, so much harder to defend against.

He’d joined Watford to play regular football, displaying a degree of humility and self-awareness that not all young graduates of the Barcelona school might possess.  “Why on earth is Gerard Deulofeu playing for Watford” was a mantra borne of highlights reels, but over his two years in the first team at Vicarage Road that regular start saw him become more disciplined, more dependable, more of a leader.  We needed him to stand up at the start of the season when, for much of the time, he was our forward line and he did a better job of it than you’d have credited a year or two earlier.

And if he still has good days and bad days then the former more than fund the latter.  At his best he’s a gem, quick and clever and brave.  You’re not trying hard enough to enjoy the journey if you can’t appreciate the good bits.

Next Season:  But if “Why on earth is Gerard Deulofeu playing for Watford” didn’t stand up to scrutiny, “Why on earth is Gerard Deulofeu playing in the Championship” is not credible.  There are few players less obviously suited to that challenge.  Sadly, that aborted evening against Liverpool seems likely to be his last in a Watford shirt.

8- Tom Cleverley

Tom Cleverley is tremendous.  Honest bloke, honest footballer.  Does simple things well, can play in a number of positions, invariably improves the mentality of any team that he features for.  Calms things down.  At his best, for me, in an attacking central position that he’s been afforded too rarely in his career… he attacks the box really well, he makes things happen, and he’s a leader.

He’s also injured a lot.  No escaping this.  Three and a half seasons back at Vicarage Road now and only in his first half-season on loan under Walter Mazzarri has he had a clear run.  That he’s almost always involved, either from the start or off the bench, says a lot but nonetheless.  Three full seasons, all capsized by injury one way or another.

This might go either way.  His injury record means he’s less likely to be attractive to scavengers (though quite how this will all work in the panicked frenzy that must surely be coming is anyone’s guess at the moment) and with Doucs  and Caps amongst the candidates to be picked off that’s a good thing.  If he can stay fit.

Next Season:  You fancy he might stick around.  Good Thing.

9- Troy Deeney

Few indeed are the players who spend ten years at a club “nowadays”.  Fewer still those who hadn’t been associated with the club as a youth, brought up and based locally.  Fewer still whose ten years have been quite as eventful.

Troy has done the lot, really.  He started off as a bit-part back-up, was fielded on the right wing for a bit, evolved as a central striker, spent time inside (in more than one respect), was given a chance and took it.  Came back more focused, more professional, a force of nature.  No coincidence that the first Pozzo team clicked into gear almost as soon as he rejoined the fray at Huddersfield.  He then became a prolific goalscorer with 66 in all comps over the next three seasons, captained us into the Premier League and decamped there to become almost a household name, a celebrity.

And than celebrity status has put a few off, I think.  I don’t think he’s courted controversy particularly, he’s just been frank and direct and a bit less guarded than he should have been once or twice… but he certainly has an eye on a future in the media and his willingness to give an engaging and entertaining opinion feeds those opportunities.

So this season, when he’s struggled for fitness it’s come back to bite him and the notoriously short memories of football supporters have come to the fore. Not that he’s gotten stick from Watford particularly… but when watching a man struggling to return from injury in a fumbling side, when clearly struggling physically but putting himself through it because – frankly – we had no alternative, he deserved more slack than he got.  His force of personality was achingly visible when he wasn’t in the team, particularly at the start of the season when any kind of leadership was lacking, and as discussed further up he was a full-throttle part of our better performances.

Next Season:  But with one season on his contract, clearly falling into the “higher earner” bracket it’s not hard to see Troy leaving this summer.  I’d fancy him more at a West Brom rather than a Spurs, Troy likes being the man and wouldn’t be so under Mourinho.  But if I’m wrong and he stays I’d be delighted.  Against the odds, he’s become incontrovertibly a Premier League star.  Another, however, for whom fitness has to be a concern.

10- Danny Welbeck

Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.

I was so excited when we signed Danny Welbeck.  Proven quality.  An added weapon, albeit adding to a forward line low in numbers.  A worker, a grifter, a likeable guy.  Tom Cleverley’s best mate.  The sort of guy you include in a World Cup Squad because you know he won’t sulk about not starting, he’ll put in a shift, he’ll support the squad.  What a great signing.  Assuming he stays fit.

Ah.  That was the gamble, of course.  And as it turns out we haven’t quite seen the best of Danny Welbeck.   What we’ve seen has been ok, occasionally pretty good… but a tentative individual has had to twice come back from injury this season, the first time an injury sustained many months earlier at Arsenal.  Both times he’s gradually picked up speed, picked up sharpness.  But not quite gotten there the first time, and only for a handful of games looked the real deal as the season ended.

He’s clearly a top forward.  Assuming he can stay fit.

Next Season:  A fit (!) Danny Welbeck would rip up the Championship.  His profile, and the annual panic about lack of striking options in the bottom half of the Premier League mean that someone will take a punt, one suspects.

End of Term Report 2020 – Part 1 03/08/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- Heurelho Gomes

Heurelho Gomes, baby.

Here’s the thing.  Heurelho Gomes has played in one Premier League game since January 2018. In 2018/19 he was a prominent figure in our FA Cup run, but this season his on-pitch role was restricted to the League Cup.  In a way his role has been a bit like Steve Sherwood’s under Tony Coton in the eighties, a relic of a previous era.

And yet.  And yet.  When it was all finished.  After the frustration of the post-lockdown performances, the unwanted and bitter spotlight offered by Pearson’s sacking, the hand-wringing and outrage as we fumbled our fate  and left it in others’ hands, after the final whistle at Arsenal, after all of that there was Gomes in tears.  And suddenly, for me, perspective changed.  The performances were no less awful, our relegation no less miserable.  But I was no longer looking at the team in frustration, with anger at having been let down.

Certainly we could have, should have been better.  But these were the same guys who a year ago were celebrating surely the most successful Watford season in thirty years, being heralded as perhaps the best Watford squad of all time.  Seven of those that played at Arsenal played in the Cup Semi Final against Wolves.  Things haven’t gone well since, the lustre has tarnished, plenty have underperformed, the team has underperformed.  But these are still our guys.  Don’t look at those pics of Gomes in tears and tell me they’re all a disgrace, that they’ve all let us down.  I’ve had days, weeks, at work when I’ve been a bit shit too, frankly.  Fortunately those who govern my fortunes aren’t as fickle and merciless as football supporters.

Heurelho Gomes was once a very good goalkeeper.  With the passing of years he’s probably not at that level any more (though it’s hard to judge…).  He remains a tremendous bloke, quite obviously a credit to the club and a guy who everyone benefits from being around.  One of us.

Next Season:  Seems that it’s really it this time, although there had been rumour of a further extension being offered.  If that had happened the club would have been all the better for it.   As it is Gomes deserves to leave with overflowing credit in the bank.  Obrigado, Heurelho.

2- Daryl Janmaat

I think we missed Daryl Janmaat this season.  His Watford career has been relatively low key really – rarely singled out for praise or criticism particularly.  But whilst he’s been fallible at right-back – like Kiko, he tends to prefer going forwards than backwards – he’s a solid option and a strong character.

In the first half of the season, before picking up the injury at Norwich that would ultimately curtail his campaign, he was one of the few players to perform at a consistently high level.  Of the nine games he featured in only two – Wolves away and Chelsea at home – ended in defeat.  There’s a bloody-mindedness in him that was painfully lacking in the squad elsewhere in the season, that would have been useful, and his fine cross to set up Doucs at Spurs was one of precious few from the full-back positions.

Next Season:  With Kiko seemingly looking to head back to Spain and some doubts over his fitness following injury there are reasons to believe Janmaat might stick around.  He was notoriously less than enamoured at dropping to the Championship with Newcastle in 2016 however, has often been quoted as hankering after a return to the Netherlands and as an older and slightly injury-prone option might be another that gets shipped quietly out.  I think that would be a shame.

4- Craig Dawson

It concerns me when defenders are conspicuous.  This isn’t entirely rational…  a defender can be both outstanding and conspicuous, or can be conspicuous for if not positive then certainly entertaining reasons (hello José).  But a defender who is conspicuous on both his good days and his bad days feels like a risk, and Dawson falls into that category.

Where any assessment of Dawson is harsh is that he suffers from having only been associated with the club for one bad season without it being reasonable to hold him accountable for it.  He’s not drastically inferior to Cathcart or Kabs overall, but he’s never been associated with a successful Watford side and therefore doesn’t have the brownie points to trade off.  This isn’t necessarily insurmountable in itself…  in 1987 Mark Morris was brought in by Dave Bassett, asked to lumber around midfield for a bit and bore the brunt, along with Trevor Senior and his manager, for the realisation that we weren’t good any more but ended up finishing second behind McClelland in the player of the season ranking having switched back to his natural central defensive role.

Dawson comes across as a decent bloke and is certainly a potent and intimidating attacking weapon at set pieces.  He occasionally looks ponderous in defence however, as if his concentration goes every now and then, and that’s not a winning attribute.

Next Season:  Like Cathcart and Kabs he’s signed to a long-term deal, but is probably the likeliest of the three to move on after a difficult first year.

5- Sebastian Prödl

Yes, I know.  But it seemed wrong to forget about Seb’s departure and not book-end his Watford career which ended formally in January more than eighteen months after he’d last managed a full ninety minutes in the Premier League.  There’s your issue, really.  There’s no question that a reliable Seb would have been a useful thing this season, a season when leadership at the back has been so lacking.  Indeed his Premier League involvement this year told the same story, brought into the first team by Quique having been largely unused by Javí he looked terrific at the heart of a three-man back line in a formation that neutralised Sheffield United, and then hobbled off injured just before the hour mark.  His last appearance was in the League Cup defeat at Goodison three weeks later.  This time he lasted 65 minutes.

So, a fit and reliable Seb would have been an asset.  He hasn’t seemed to be able to stay fit, though, and he’s the sort of bloke who needed to be playing to stay match sharp in any case.  He was never going to be the sort of bloke who’d be handy off the bench.

Next Season:  Seb signed an eighteen month contract with Udinese within a week of leaving Vicarage Road.  He’s yet to feature for their first team.

6- Adrian Mariappa

I don’t really get that there’s any debate about Adrian Mariappa.  Had we remained in the Premier League… there might have been an argument that he’s no longer of the required standard.  But only might have been.  The issue with Mapps has never really been Mapps, it’s been that the paucity of options has left him more prominent and more involved than might have been ideal.  Even then, what’s not to like about a player who is home grown, has been involved in however many promotions, however many cup runs, lead by example, captained the side at however many levels and – here’s the clincher – re-signed for the Hornets four years ago expecting to play a back up role.

Someone prepared to play a back-up role who is versatile, home grown, a great influence and utterly competent is an asset.  The more so after what is likely to be a turbulent summer, you need some kind of constant.  It’s eight years since Mapps played in the Championship and he was 25 then not 33, but looked a class above the rest of the side in Sean Dyche’s season.  I’d keep him, no question.

Next Season: Given that Mapps’ contract extension expired on Friday we’re likely to learn about the lay of the land here sooner rather than later.  What happens here might depend on the futures of other defenders, several of whom as above have long contracts but Mapps is a leader, and an asset.


Helping Hands 2019/2020 30/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

The annual review of where the goals came from reveals, first of all, that there really weren’t very many of them were there?

Second thing is quite how many of them came from Deulofeu and Sarr.  Painfully obvious when looking back at the path of our season that we were vastly more effective with the two of them and Troy in tandem.  This only happened ten times from the start, all Premier League games of which we won 5 (Man United, Wolves, the tonkings of Villa and Bournemouth, and, you know, the famous one) and lost only 2 (the creditable performance at Anfield and Mullins’ first game at Leicester).  We only won three other League games of the remaining 28… both games against Norwich and the fightback against Newcastle.

Sarr, visibly, took some time to warm up, used cautiously as he settled in his first assist didn’t arrive until December.  Also significant that we won almost all of the games he assisted in, Arsenal on the final day being the exception reflecting the degree to which his form fluctuated and the team’s reflected it.

Elsewhere, rare to see a centre-back in joint third, Kabs doing a good line in flick ons but the other real message is the lack of threat from elsewhere in the team in stark contrast to last season.  José Holebas was the top assister then and we missed his contribution;  his one assist this season came in his final game for the ‘orns, five minutes after his introductin against Southampton.  His replacement, Adam Masina, didn’t manage an assist all season but this lack of supply reflects the team’s limitations as much as his own; Kiko also managed only one and that from a penalty earned by aggressive running against Newcastle rather than a cross.  The regular midfield trio of Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes managed only six between them compared to fourteen last season, if from a slightly larger number of games.

All of which is a different way of telling us what we already knew, I guess.  That the crown jewels, if they go, take a lot of the goal threat with them, and that we’re going to need to have slightly more variety about us if we’re going to thrive next season.  For comparison, in our promotion season ten players earned more than three assists compared to two this time (from six more games over league and cup).

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Deulofeu 7 25+5 4 ARS (H), SWA (H – LC), CHE (H), NOR (A), WOL (H), AST (A), EVE(H)
Sarr 6 23+7 6 MAU (H), WOL (H), BOU (A), LIV (H), NEW (H), ARS (A)
Deeney 3 26+1 10 AST (H), EVE (H), LIV (H)
Kabasele 3 29+2 0 COV (H – LC), MAU (H), LEI (H)
Doucouré 3 37+2 4 AST (H), BOU (A), LIV (H)
Success 2 2+5 0 COV (H – LC), COV (H – LC)
Chalobah 2 14+12 1 SHU (A), TRA (H – FAC)
Pereyra 2 21+11 5 ARS (H), SWA (H – LC)
Capoue 2 30 0 AST (H), NOR (H)
Janmaat 1 9+1 1 TOT (A)
Welbeck 1 10+10 3 ARS (A)
Gray 1 11+16 2 TRA (H – FAC)
Holebas 1 12+3 1 SOT (H)
Femenía 1 27+2 0 NEW (H)
Hughes 1 28+3 1 WHU (H)
Bennetts 0 0+1 0
Dalby 0 0+1 0
Hinds 0 0+1 1
Peñaranda 0 0+1 1
Wise 0 0+1 0
Pussetto 0 0+7 0
Hungbo 0 1 0
Barrett 0 1+1 0
Whelan 0 1+1 0
João Pedro 0 1+4 0
Bachmann 0 2 0
Spencer-Adams 0 2 0
Dele-Bashiru 0 2+1 1
Gomes 0 3 0
Prödl 0 3 0
Foulquier 0 3+2 0
Quina 0 5+4 0
Cleverley 0 11+8 1
Mariappa 0 18+5 0
Masina 0 22+6 1
Dawson 0 27+3 2
Cathcart 0 29+1 0
Foster 0 38 0

Check out the 2018-19, 2017-18, 2016-172015-162014-152013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.

The List 2020. 27/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

The List.  Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the January window, a list that will be kept up to date throughout the summer 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.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.  Which are signings for the top flight, which are signings for the Championship and which are complete red herrings?  You decide…

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 34


Emmanuel Dennis (Club Brugge)
Luka Reischl (RB Salzburg)
Bastos (Lazio)*
Durukhan Toköz (Beşiktaş)
Marash Kumbulla (Hellas Verona)
Samuel Bastien (Standard Liège)
Omar Elabdellaoui (Olympiacos)*
Krépin Diatta (Club Brugge)
Rodrigo de Paul (Udinese)
Hassane Kamara (Reims)*                                      – joined Nice
Pape Gueye (Le Havre)*                              – signed, then sold to Marseille
Kwadwo Asamoah (Inter)
Mbaye Diagne (Galatasaray)
Hamari Traoré (Rennes)
Mohammed Salisu (Real Valladolid)                     – joined Southampton
Matty Longstaff (Newcastle)
Jeremy Ngakia (West Ham)
Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth)
Yacine Gourari-Tebaa (Metz)
Tiemoué Bakayoko (Chelsea)
Cédric Kipré (Wigan Athletic)
Ivan Toney (Peterborough)
Branimir Kalaica (Benfica)
Lucas Verissimo (Santos)
Wu Lei (Espanyol)
Bruno Viana (Braga)
Ryan Manning (QPR)*
Juan Agustin Musso (Udinese)
Sebastian Andersson (Union Berlin)
Chey Dunkley (Wigan Athletic)
Kevin Danso (Augsburg)
Kim Min-Jae (Beijing Gouan)*
Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic)
Selim Amallah (Standard Liège)


Pervis Estupiñán (Atletico, Manchester United, Barcelona, Spurs, Osasuna, Liverpool, Chelsea)
Luis Suárez (Getafe, Valencia, Lazio, Napoli, Villarreal, Real Betis, Real Sociedad)
Ben Foster (Spurs, Napoli, Real Betis, Celtic)
Isaac Success (Huddersfield)
Jaime Alvarado (Athletico Paranaense)     – joined Ath Paranaense on loan
Daniel Bachmann (Kilmarnock*)
Ismaïla Sarr (Liverpool, Wolves, Crystal Palace)
Kiko Femenía (Valencia)
Danny Welbeck (Beşiktaş, Crystal Palace)
Gerard Deulofeu (Milan*, Valencia, Crystal Palace, Celta Vigo)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Arsenal*, Everton*)
Troy Deeney (Tottenham*)
Cucho Hernández (Osasuna, Granada, SD Huesca)
Ken Sema (Udinese*)
Pontus Dahlberg (BK Häcken)
Roberto Pereyra (Udinese, River Plate)

2020 January
2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer

Arsenal 3 Watford 2 (26/07/2020) 26/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- My mate Kieron has on several occasions voiced the opinion that Watford are an exciting team to support in the grand scheme of things.  Not in the sense of the style of football being exciting, a consideration which as with every side ebbs and flows with the passing of time, but with simply by virtue of the amount of Stuff.  Even if we begin history after GT’s first reign (which is a pretty big “if”, those times being what they were) you’ve got 33 years that cover four promotions including two play-off wins and a League One (new money) title, five (now) relegations, three further failed play-off campaigns, a cup final, four further semi-finals, any number of brushes with financial calamity, eight seasons in the top flight, only two in the third tier, a Copa de Ibiza and Dominic Foley.  That’s not bad going by the standards of an average sized small-town team;  plenty of clubs of comparable size have had far less fun over the same period.  Kieron, a Bristol Rovers fan, would expand on this at length given half a chance.

But it’s been a while since we had something like this, a final day with relegation still in the balance.  We have a habit of doing relegation properly when we do it at all and our greatest escapes (1991, 1994) haven’t gone to the final day.  Only 1996 bears comparison and then… not really.  Then we were on thunderous form, trying to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.  Here, the reverse was true.  Then there was a massive sense of anticlimax as the first 20,000+ home crowd since relegation sat sullenly as results elsewhere relegated us anyway and Chelsea loanee Muzzy Izzet propelled Leicester into the play offs and towards promotion.  Here?  Here we gave ourselves a huge mountain to climb, did a reasonable job of climbing it anyway and then didn’t, leaving us in the ignominious position of finishing behind Bournemouth for good measure. In 1996 we dared to believe, propelled by GT’s explosive mini-series (nestled between his two epic screen plays).  In 2020 we had all but given up before kick-off.

2- All but given up.  Not quite.  Beyond doubt our relegation is down to our own failings, we’ll get to that.  But the dismay was borne of the last, miserable week;  you can rank the capitulation to West Ham, the departure of Pearson and the inevitable humbling by Man City as Villa beat Arsenal in whatever order you choose in terms of severity. By the time we got to kick off I’d looked at the league table again, and realised that it wouldn’t take much.  That Villa were perfectly capable of stuffing up.  Graeme Souness’ pre-match assessment made me almost bullish.

Ismaïla Sarr kicking off at the first whistle, forgetting the BLM kneeling ritual, was surely borne of a focus on the job in hand but wasn’t the best of portents.  Less still was a penalty conceded two minutes in when Craig Dawson jumped clumsily with Lacazette.  As an aside, the fact that there is all manner of other horrible and stupid nonsense going on in the world outside football doesn’t make VAR any less atrocious – as a concept, let alone in execution.  The hysterical demands for “accuracy” as the sole measure of adequacy remain a witlessly inappropriate guiding light.  Last season that wouldn’t have been a penalty or even an appeal.  Last season there wouldn’t have been a five minute interruption to the momentum of the game (admittedly limited two minutes in) as the officials understandably strove to make the right decision.  Football is a vibrant, high energy, high paced game fuelled by adrenaline.  It isn’t bloody cricket.

But VAR wasn’t responsible for the extraordinary defending that turned a one-goal deficit into a three-goal deficit after we’d initially done a credible job of responding to the opener.  Plenty to discuss here.  Plenty of factors.  Arsenal had a bit of luck, sure, and Aubameyang finished the third brilliantly but luck happens, and the ball shouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Arsenal skipper.  Hayden Mullins’ bold team selection backfired a little here…  by effectively playing Pereyra in midfield instead of Cleverley (let alone the expensively hamstrung  Capoue) you gain things, maybe, and you lose things.  A bit of cover is one of the things you lose.  Also significant and scarcely mentioned is the ongoing absence of Daryl Janmaat, who started the season as well as anyone amidst the chaotic opening months.  Injured since November, Janmaat is hardly a bastion of defensive solidity himself but he is robust and he is bullish and he is less prone to being done at the right post as Kiko has been so often of late.  He’s also one who tends to roll his sleeves up when things get tough.

More generally though, the failure to adequately resource the defence is one of the criticisms being flung at the club management that I have more sympathy with.  We know they tried – Dawson was transparently the best we were able to get, but the best we were able to get over several years of kinda making do at the back whilst more lavish signings have been made further forward.  Critically, whilst Dawson, Kabasele and Cathcart are demonstrably all capable of playing in Premier League defences (16 seasons as first-choice top flight defenders between them) none of them is a leader, an organiser.  They’re each David Holdsworth to your Glenn Roeder, Jay Demerit to your Neil Cox.  Wayne Brown to your Filippo Galli (shudder).  The best organiser we have is Mapps, who is a Watford legend but should really not have been as high up the options list as he was.

3- Dawson has been one of our more convincing individuals since lockdown but he isn’t your 7/10 every week kinda defender.  There are games where he is tremendous, the Burnley home game where they had to nobble him to navigate him springs to mind.  There are also games when he’s plain awful, and this was one of those.  Even when firmly in the front foot in the second half and Arsenal’s attacks, so effortlessly threatening in the first half, had dwindled to a half-arsed dribble Dawson looked precarious and awkward, once presenting the Gunners with a run on goal that they weren’t particularly looking for, on several other occasions being caught out of position.  Keith Dublin was an endearing distraction in an otherwise beige second-tier team.  Less fun in the Premier League.

As for Arsenal…  well as above, our relegation is all our own fault.  Indeed, it owes a lot to what has seemed a concerted effort to out-rubbish both Bournemouth and Villa (yay us!).  But we’ve been unlucky too.  Having our forward options fit and available for such a narrow window was cruel – Deeney, Sarr, Welbeck all injured early on,  Deulofeu towards the end.  The big wins, the famous wins all started with Sarr on the right, Deulofeu on the left and Troy down the middle; Pearson deserves credit for those of course, but surely no coincidence that our form has been so miserable when one of those cogs has been missing.   We’ve also had more than our fair share of bizarre and expensive VAR decisions (Deulofeu’s non-pen and Alli’s goal at Spurs, Newcastle’s equaliser at St James’ Park, Southampton’s bizarre goal at St Mary’s).  And sometimes the fixtures have not quite fallen for us…  how different would things have been had we played a pudgy Arsenal just after their semi-final instead of an irritated Man City leaving Villa to play them on the final day.

I won’t have been the only Hornet irritated by Arteta’s slightly pious assertion that he had a responsibility to field his strongest side, having demonstrably not done so against Villa a few days earlier.  In fairness to the Spaniard the Gunners were equally terrible here;  amidst all the hair pulling late in the first half as Bournemouth lead at Goodison (cheers for that Everton, nice one) it was unavoidable that even at 3-0 we were still kind of in it.  The thing wasn’t done, simply because Arsenal weren’t so much on the beach as lying in bed asleep not even arsed with the beach, eating Crunchy Nut Cornflakes out of the packet and binge watching “The Good Place” off Netflix (arbitrary example). That we were still in it was all the more evident when the lively Welbeck won a penalty and Troy drove it home.  From that point on I watched most of the game on my hands and knees bellowing at the screen.

4- And whilst the outcome is miserable, it would be wrong not to credit the side’s attacking zeal.  The fightback wins over Norwich and Newcastle showed character but none of this panache. Arsenal were accommodating, sure, but with Sarr, Deeney and Welbeck humming together for perhaps the first time since lockdown we could and perhaps should have made things a bit more anxious for Villa over in East London.  Sarr, clearly having been briefed to both run at players and to send his balls over to the far post, gave comfortably his most venomous performance since lockdown.  Troy was the fulcrum on the pitch that he is in our mind’s eye.  Welbeck now looks lean and hungry…  we’ll get onto “what happens next” to these players over the next few weeks, but given the brevity of the close season and the fact that he’s barely played for two years, you wonder if we’ll be able to hang on to him and quite what damage he might do in the Championship.

Welbeck’s goal was fabulous, Sarr free on the right again, firm low cross, brilliant attacking run from the former Gunner.  He almost scored another, a great backheel forcing an inspired save from Martinez.  Masina got underneath one, not as bad a miss as it looked but still a chance.  Deeney’s violent header took out Holding full in the face without getting a helpful deflection.  Another good chance he headed over.  We tripped and tiptoed our way around their penalty area and… yes, a quarter-arsed Arsenal but still Arsenal and we’re still more than giving them a game, deserving a point despite giving them a three goal head start of all things so how on earth are we getting relegated?

The game ended, almost cruelly, with João Pedro skating down the left against a startled Arsenal defence.  Cruel, because maybe this is all we’ll get to see of him on the left with Sarr on the right.  Wow.  And, no, we haven’t seen much of him and yes, some of those cameos (plus correspondence elsewhere from those who’ve watched his junior games) have suggested that he’s not quite robust enough yet.  But still.  Wow.

5- The Man City game was done as soon as they scored, and you’d have taken the current scoreline at any point as at the Etihad earlier in the season.  Not this one though.  Even with a minute to go a goal would have given us a chance, ignited belief, panicked an already accommodating Arsenal.  It didn’t happen.  And so we go down, despite and because of our best efforts.

What happens next?  We’ll see.  Actually we’ll see pretty quickly, since the new season starts in under seven weeks’ time.  I wonder who this suits.  Much has been said about the need for a major overhaul, but a major overhaul in a regular summer is a tall order let alone over an abbreviated close season with everyone playing wink murder.  I suspect that several of those whose names are on Twitter exit lists will still be with us come September 12th, and whilst we need some new stuff I suspect that might be a good thing.  Will Deulofeu pass a medical?  Will the Pozzo’s be able to hold out for what they deem Sarr to be worth?  Will anyone gamble on Welbeck?  We’ll find out very quickly.

Meanwhile, 2020 has been the worst year in many people’s memories for obvious reasons.  Certainly mine.  I could really have done with a shot in the arm from this, from being able to bellow in abandon at the TV screen at 17.45 for purely cathartic reasons.  But relegated or otherwise, this is still our club.  The club that looked after the hospital and the community during lockdown.  The place where you used to go with your family and your mates to feel part of something, and hopefully will soon go again.  The place that provides joy and anger and excitement and frustration and sadness and life for so many of us.

The club that’s the best club in the world, whatever division we’re in.

See you next season.  Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, Masina 3, Dawson 1, Kabasele 2, Hughes 3, Doucouré 2, Pereyra 2, *Sarr 4*, Welbeck 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Mariappa (for Femenía, 47) 3, Chalobah (for Hughes, 81) NA, Cleverley (for Doucouré, 81) NA, João Pedro (for Pereyra, 88) NA, Cathcart, Quina, Pussetto, Gray, Gomes

Watford 0 Manchester City 4 (21/07/2020) 22/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- So.  First things first.

The one thing the Pearson situation isn’t is “simple”.  Not sensibly, usefully reducible to a pithy, one-dimensional verdict even if much of the execrable coverage might suggest otherwise.  Pearson’s record over the piece was far from awful.  Under his guidance we played with belief for the first time this season and recorded some startling wins, none more so than that Liverpool game.  We even managed to get results when playing badly over the last couple of weeks, always an encouraging sign.

But we did play badly.  There’s not been a decent performance since lockdown really, not a convincing performance.  Notoriously we’ve been largely appalling in the opening halves of games, and utterly appalling against West Ham.  Not just…  making mistakes, or low in confidence, or wrongly set up now and then but playing without any drive or energy in these most urgent of times.  That defies belief, really.  West Ham wasn’t the performance of a team playing for its manager.  The players, without doubt, carry a lot of the blame.

But you can’t really blame the owner for making this observation to the manager.  “Can’t help but notice we’ve not been turning up until half time, Nige”, or words to that effect. Pearson has a reputation for keeping teams up, it’s true.  He also has previous for not communicating upwards very effectively, to put it mildly.

So it’s not simple.  But that Pearson did well to drag us up by our bootlaces and that Pearson is not the right person to be in charge of this club longer term are not mutually exclusive.  I’ve got some sympathy with the view that, if Pearson was going at the end of the season anyway, given the awfulness of much of our football and of West Ham in particular and if he’s been stupid enough to mouth off to his boss, perhaps this wasn’t quite the crass stupidity that kneejerk assessments have painted it.

2- Either way,  it matters little what anyone else thinks… phrases like “we’re a laughing stock” I find a little confusing, really.  The problems are on the pitch, at the club, in the League table not on Twitter.  Nor is it possible to look at this match in particular and pretend that the man in charge makes a huge amount of difference; after all, our last three encounters, including today, have been heavy defeats and each under a different boss.

Hayden Mullins’ team selection sprung one surprise in the recalling of Bobby Pereyra for Danny Welbeck.  Whilst Welbeck hasn’t quite ignited his recent form has been encouraging and his mobility clearly an asset, so Pereyra’s return suggested a change of shape.

This didn’t really materialise (and in fairness Mullins and Stack hardly had much time to come up with a tactical masterstroke), but the wide men were very withdrawn early on and Pereyra did well enough in a belligerent opening period.  It was a simple plan, but a good one.  Park the bus.  Get bodies in the way.  Deny space.  Fall back.  Suffocate.  It worked quite well for half an hour.

3-  Aaaaand then it didn’t.  It took one lapse of concentration, that’s all, and it was mercilessly exploited.  Which doesn’t mean that it was the wrong plan, that there was something better that we should have been doing with a half fit forward line, missing our midfield engine and with zero confidence.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good results.

But once it was done, it was done.  One down at half time wouldn’t have been a disaster but another lapse, another brutal exploitation…  the faultless Foster made a terrific save to stop Sterling’s penalty but couldn’t get enough on it to clear it and then the game was gone.  Perhaps we didn’t get a break on the pen, he might have gotten away with it but we got a kind decision at the other end with a Mariappa handball in the second half, so no complaints.

4- It’s easy to complain that there was no threat, but the plan was designed to exploit City having the ball, soaking up pressure and then breaking.  It’s worked for other opponents of City recently but didn’t work here, and once they were ahead and the onus was on us the nature of the encounter psychologically was completely different.

You can’t land a meaningful punch without the ball, and City in this form weren’t going to give us much of it.  They were utterly professional, relentless, and we couldn’t live with them.  There’s no great shame in that;  we were clearly inadequate but inadequate by the standards of a great side on one of their good days.  There was energy and discipline here, far more so than against West Ham at the weekend;  that we didn’t capitulate is some small achievement in itself.

5- Where this leaves us, we’ll have to see.  As I write Villa are a goal up against Arsenal, which is a bit grim.  If we do go down it’ll be down to our own failings, but luck hasn’t always gone for us this season.  We could have done with facing Arsenal the Tuesday after their triumphant cup semi final rather than a City side smarting from their failure.  Didn’t help, though as above we’ve found plenty of ways to lose to City in other circumstances.

What it doesn’t reflect, to my mind, is a problem with the “Watford approach” that others are keen to deride.  A Watford approach that has seen us spend a prolonged spell in the top flight for only the second time in our history, punching well above our traditional weight.  Not that things don’t need changing, not that mistakes haven’t been made… a good plan can be badly executed.

But for Watford supporters to criticise the approach in itself, to hanker after a more conventional structure I find surprising.  To question whether the leadership remains a desirable leadership, baffling.  Even if one discounts the perilous position that they inherited, disregards the sustained investment that saw us promoted two years after coming close, if one writes off the five years of top flight football you’ve got to ask yourself how a club like Watford is supposed to sustain such a level without significant external investment.  The approach is defined by the scouting model, which has sustained Udinese and Watford for many years now. Ultimately it’s buy low and sell high, at scale.  It’s how every smaller club has to play it and we’re blessed with the inheritance of the infrastructure to make it work.  This has implications with regard to team management/coaching.  If you’re sustaining your existence with that model, the head coach has to work within it to an extent.

It’s inevitable that as and when it doesn’t work those without the attention span or wit to consider context will point and say “see?  see?”.  Beyond dispute however is that abandoning the approach is far likelier to see us return to our previous centre of gravity in the bottom half of the Championship than to be outperforming history and expectation at our current level.


*Foster 4*, Mariappa 3, Femenía 2, Kabasele 3, Dawson 3, Hughes 4, Cleverley 3, Doucouré 2, Sarr 2, Pereyra 2, Deeney 2

West Ham United 3 Watford 1 (17/07/2020) 18/07/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. When him and me started this thing, as opposed to that thing, it was with the idea that we’d frisbee out short-and-pithy reports, aiming both to offer a passing whiff of what’d happened and, crucially, to give ourselves much less to do. We began with one-word reports and thus our Sundays were reclaimed from the tyranny of deciphering notes, thinking up elaborate metaphors, being indecisive about player ratings, and all of the rest.

You know how that went: my Norwich report was nearly two thousand words long. That’s an awful lot of words for what’s essentially Man Watches Telly While Grumbling. The numbers are a relic of the point at which we abandoned one-word reports in favour of ‘thunks’, slightly less short-and-pithy but only marginally so. One short observation per number, up to five. Go. Done.

But then the thunks grew, because we like words and we like football and so we really like words-about-football. The short observations became less short observations became not-at-all-short observations became, well, this sort of nonsense. The observations grew together, tangled like brambles, until deciding where to put the numbers became really rather

2. arbitrary. We broke the five-thunk rule and expanded to six, seven, eight and beyond. Expectations returned; yours, ours. The player ratings returned too, although they’re mercifully no longer the subject of quite as much contention as they were back in the day.

It’s still nowhere near as much work as BSaD used to be: that was like having a part-time job, hiding, like the innards of a Russian doll, within the outer shell of whatever I actually being paid to be doing. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel a sense of weariness and nervousness when approaching the blank screen that’s supposed to become a report. What if I haven’t got it any more? What if there’s nothing in the mysterious well in my brain from which all of this stuff comes, just the sound of the bucket clunking on the bottom? (And I’d also be lying if I said that I don’t re-read them with a sense of wonder and surprise over the subsequent days, delighted that someone’s managed to capture my thoughts so perfectly, unable to entirely reconcile the idea that that person was me.)

3. The sound of a bucket clunking on the bottom of an empty well seems pretty appropriate, on this occasion. Early on this Saturday morning, the morning after, the sun is shining. Blue sky, bluer sea, fresh breeze. Tea, but not yet breakfast. I can hear Fred in the living room, cooing at a programme about puppies. Andrea’s having a lie-in. It isn’t a day to be wasted on inquests. What would that achieve?

4. So, back to basics. One-word match report. All yours. No need for more than four letters, I wouldn’t have thought.

Watford 2 Newcastle United 1 (11/07/2020) 12/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- It’s eighteen years since the financial calamities that provoked the formation of the Supporters’ Trust.  Eighteen years.  That’s the same amount of time as passed between winning the Fourth Division title in 1978 and GT’s second return as manager…  which demonstrates the long-established fact that time moves faster as you get older.

What that perilous period underlined was the extent to which simply having Watford matters.  Winning matters, of course, not being rubbish matters.  But both dwindle into insignificance compared with the prospect of the club not being there at all.  That’s a different level of matters altogether.  If you’re reading this then the chances are that you won’t need that explaining.  If you support a club, if you follow a club it’s part of who you are and the prospect of that part disappearing is horrific, like losing a limb.

The proposed takeover of United by the Saudi Public Investment Fund seems to be up in the air as I write;  at any rate, dragging on suspiciously.  Being taken over by this body, should it come to pass, will provoke mixed feelings amongst at least some supporters.  On the plus side you’ve got, finally, the departure of the odious, contemptuous Mike Ashley, and the promise of riches to invest in a revamp of the squad.  On the down…  all manner of reservations concerning your side being owned by a foreign government body, any foreign government body.  That this should be happening to Newcastle, a side relatively rare in the top flight in the strength of its local identity, makes this particularly troublesome.  Beyond that…. this foreign government body with all the moral quandaries that implies (for example this and this).  It’s not quite the prospect of losing your club, no.  But it’s the prospect of your club being something quite different, something that you weren’t asked permission about, something you never chose and something that will change the identity of the club irrevocably.

Some Mags will worry about this, not all.  But you don’t envy them.  You don’t envy any suggestion that the club you invest so much in is anything other than a force for good.  You can hold on to  what it is you support of course.  The place, the people, the community.  But still… a reminder of how lucky we are.

2- One story that sticks in my mind from eighteen years ago comes from my Dad, who would often be amongst those shaking buckets raising money for the Trust at the top of Occupation Road, or on Vicarage Road itself.  He reported that the attitude of supporters, both in their generosity of pocket in chucking coins or notes into buckets and their generosity of spirit in their attitude towards collectors was heavily dependent on the afternoon’s events on the pitch.  Win the game and the money and the smiles flow.  Lose the game and the buckets are sparse, and folk channel their frustration at the collectors.

Perverse behaviour.  But the extremes of emotion all too easy to sympathise with after this one.  A first half, a performance limp, passive and inadequate, not reflecting a situation which, despite three very welcome points against Norwich remains urgent.  Football was rubbish, pathetic.  To hell with this rubbish, why bother. Then a second in stark contrast in which the vigour, spark, verve, dynamism of the side inspired for the first time since lockdown.  Football was brilliant.  Obviously.

3- It was an underwhelming first half though.  Newcastle have been a curiosity this season…  I’d had them nailed on for relegation, not nearly enough in the squad, very short on goals.  They continued to play according to this assessment, dreary and limited, for most of the campaign but picked up points anyway, confusingly.  Since lockdown they’ve looked bright and exciting too, and had the decency to beat Bournemouth and take points off Villa and West Ham.

The hope was that after a chasing by Manchester City in the week they’d get all self-conscious and remember that they weren’t actually very good but there was little evidence of this in a first half in which we were very much second best.  Newcastle played pretty much exactly like a side on a decent run with the pressure of necessity of points removed.  Saint-Maximin and Almirón had been rested for the Man City game which was both completely understandable and thoroughly irritating; Saint-Maximin in particular would have a relatively quiet game, quickly smothered when he gained possession but he did well early on, sending a wicked cross across the face of goal that just needed a touch. Almirón had the first attempt on target, getting on the end of a left wing cross to drive at Foster who had done well to get across to his near post.

We’d actually started to get back into it when United scored, pushing back at United with Will Hughes at the vanguard snapping into things in midfield but we fell asleep at a set piece and Dwight Gayle gobbled up a tap-in.

I went and hung out the washing in a very grumpy, sulky fashion. Definitely no coins going into collection pots at half-time. There had been the odd sign of life… Kiko got a ball in from the right, Danny Welbeck scuffed an effort that almost snuck over the line, but the visitors looked fluent and confident, and could have been further ahead.

4- So the second half was a joy. We looked like Watford again, for the first time since lockdown. The good Watford, the Watford that rattles and hums and finds great big spaces to gallop into, too fast and too strong to be contained.  This is what we’d missed, both on the pitch and off it, taking the game to a Newcastle United who suddenly looked like a side on a decent run with the pressure of necessity of points removed but who really can’t be arsed with this.  Not with Troy charging around knocking things over, not with Craig Dawson thumping into challenges, not with Adam Masina bottling up Saint-Maximin.  Most of all, they really couldn’t cope with Ismaïla Sarr who seemed to have been unshackled from the right wing and ran amok across the forward line.  I’ve given him 3 out of 5 as a rating but this was never apt at any point, not in the first half when he couldn’t do a thing right, not in the second when he caused no end of havoc in the United half.  Like the man who sticks his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer and feels fine “on average”.

Sarr was involved in the build up to both penalties, first freeing the galloping Kiko Femenía who dodged one lunge in the penalty area but was caught by the second from Ritchie, knee to knee.  The second Sarr made himself, Manquillo getting in tight and allowing him to do that wonderful, unstoppable bar-of-soap thing, rolling around the defender with enough physicality to hold him off but not quite enough to commit a foul and forcing his marker, compelling his marker to hold him back.  Steve Bruce, entertainingly, dismissed both as “very harsh” post match with a knowing look to the interviewer that might of swayed the opinion of anyone who hadn’t actually seen either incident, or heard notorious geordie-basher Alan Shearer’s endorsement of both decisions.

And then Troy.  Much discussion of his role and performance since the restart, spanning his need to play himself back into fitness, how easy it is for a lone striker to do a job without bodies around him, how many defenders he occupies and so on and so on.  Beyond dispute as that he’s been relatively ineffective up to now, heavy and immobile.  Also beyond dispute that there’s nobody you’d rather have taking a pressure penalty.  His all-round play had been better in any case, more effective in this second half… what’s chicken and what’s egg, as ever, but the increased movement around him fuelled and was fuelled by him getting his body in the way, repeatedly ramming in a crampon to turn a ball forward into sustained possession high up the pitch.

The build up to both penalties was agonising.  Not having showered yet as I write this on Sunday morning my hair is still bent in the twisted contortions my fingers forced it into in the interminable build up, exacerbated by the TV director’s fondness for dramatic close-ups at the expense of following what and when was happening on the pitch.   Both penalties were dispatched with exactly the bloody-mindedness, venom and decisiveness that you’d been praying for, that you’d seen in your mind’s eye, like something out of a Marvel movie.  The first bang down the middle, the second high to the keeper’s right, both were pressure shots.  Taking a kick like that in front of a full stadium is one thing, taking it in front of an empty stadium with the responsibility undiminished but without the will of the crowd behind you something else.  Goes without saying, this took cojones (thanks Pete).  Dubravka would have needed to be right behind either to stand a chance.  He wasn’t.

5- Probably and Definitely aren’t the same thing, as has been discussed previously.  A neutral looking on would probably call us “safe”, given what needs to happen to overturn our buffer and given the form, fixtures and capabilities of the protagonists.  A neutral doesn’t require the same level of absoluteness demanded by those of us with a vested interest however so let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s done quite yet.

I’ve been keeping a perhaps unhealthily close eye on this site over the past few weeks.  No tool is perfect (all models are wrong but some are useful etc), there are all sorts of wriggles that such an approach can’t hope to accommodate but in terms of the way it comes up and presents its predictions it’s as good as I’ve seen.  It has our probability of relegation down at 7%, which is a small number but isn’t zero.  1 in 14, more or less (and a more reliable guide than bookies’ odds incidentally, these being driven in part by what gamblers do and think and bearing in mind that gamblers are people and therefore mostly idiots).  Anyway,  “Probably”, not “Definitely”.

Nonetheless.  We have momentum.  We have guts and character, as demonstrated by coming from behind twice over the last week…  once can be put down to the ball bouncing your way, twice not so much.  We also have ability, ability that really shouldn’t have seen us down with the dead men in the first place but which was reawakened and given oxygen in a second half for which the management must take no small credit.

Bournemouth and Villa play twice before we play again.  For now the pressure is all on them. By next Friday we’ll know what we have to do.


Foster 4, Femenía 4, Masina 4, Kabasele 3, Dawson 4, *Hughes 4*, Capoue 3, Doucouré 3, Sarr 3, Welbeck 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Cleverley (for Deeney, 85) NA, Gray (for Welbeck, 92) NA, Cathcart, Mariappa, Chalobah, Pereyra, Pussetto, João Pedro, Gomes

Watford 2 Norwich City 1 (07/07/2020) 08/07/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. It’s a funny old time to be an introvert.

The months of lockdown were far from easy, but they played into characteristics which I’ve much more commonly worn as flaws or carried as burdens. I’m better suited to withdrawing from the world than forcing my way out into it, in short. Seeing people is more stressful than not seeing people. (I don’t mean you, obviously. It’s always lovely to see you.) There have been points where it’s seemed as if a comparatively simple life at home, on the allotment, and out for a weekly run could be sustained for as long as finances would permit. Of course, there have been other points where trying to entertain an insatiably sociable – he doesn’t get it from us – six-year-old has seemed impossible: there is a certain pitch of madness which can only be found in the fourth hour of an uninterrupted monologue on Interesting Facts About Pokemon. That aside, we had managed to wiggle and fidget our way to making difficult circumstances into something resembling a comfort zone.

And then…out into the world, trying to remember how to put on a convincing act. Trying to weigh up how honest you’re supposed to be when people ask how you’re doing: the Honesty Index falls on a weekly basis and is available via a government hotline. Trying to make conversation from three months in which nothing conversation-worthy actually happened. “I’ve eaten all of the jam in the cupboard. Um…you?” Trying to figure out how to follow your own interpretation of the rules without seeming to decry what anyone else is doing. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of getting a haircut at this point, and yet my lack of a haircut is public evidence of that discomfort, and perhaps even implicit condemnation of those who have haircutted. I mean, Christ, with that going on in your head, who wouldn’t slightly pine for the simple life of STAY AT HOME? Sometimes it’s nice being an introvert. This is not that time.

2. And football. I love football. Is this football?

It all seems weird. This massive, pivotal fixture, something of such importance, dropped into the bustling mundanity of a weekday evening. I watch the game on The Small Telly and, really, I might as well be peering at ants through a toilet roll tube. Fred watches some of the first half with me: he’s written a magic spell for the occasion, which we need to recite in a whisper; his relentless fidgeting and chatter rather distract from the urgency of the occasion, and are very welcome for that. I eat my dinner just before half-time. The crowd noise is soporific, lulling rather than evocative. So much of football is immersion. So much of the game is detail, away from the ball. So much of relegation is acute anguish or aching despair or clenched-buttocks tension. I wish I wasn’t that person, but I’ve always tended to pay less attention to the opinion of anyone who wasn’t actually there, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever written a report from the sofa before, nor will again. (But do carry on reading.)

3. Having witnessed precisely none of the games under Javi Gracia or Quique Sanchez Flores, and now endured half a dozen under Nigel Pearson, I find myself in the awkward position of having to pass verdict on the cure while having seen none of the earlier symptoms. There is a danger of hysterically howling “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS LEGS?” when the operation might’ve saved the patient’s life. We are still outside the relegation zone at kickoff, after all.

Nevertheless, what I’ve seen has been agonising. It’s all very passive. I keep coming back to that word. All very wait and see. It’s hard to tell where the lack of ambition in the gameplan ends and the lack of confidence begins. They smudge into each other, similar shades of beige. Like half the division, it aspires – and why not? – to the coiled spring of the title-winning Leicester side, and the way they’d sit within themselves until the moment was right. Part of that is knowing when the moment is right, of course. Part of it is doing something decisive with that moment rather than clubbing another free kick into the defensive wall or drilling yet another low cross at the near post when nobody ever makes that run. And much of it is having a shell that’s sufficiently hard to withstand a beating in the meantime. We have, instead, the hardness of a raw potato, waiting to find out if it’ll be boiled, baked, mashed or (ooh!) sautéed, destined to be forgotten at the back of the cupboard, sprouting forlornly.

It’s all wasted opportunities, wasted time, wasted life. An afternoon spent waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes while the rest of the world – except Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa, mercifully – posts pictures of adventures on Instagram. I’ve also witnessed precisely nearly-all of the home form which took Hastings United to the top of the table before lockdown; none of that actually happened, officially speaking, but in the process of it not happening, I got a pretty good idea of what a confident, assertive, positive team looks like. The contrast is alarming. If your only win in a dozen games is a riotous trashing of the then-unbeaten champions, that suggests you have more than a bit of a motivation problem. You can’t just wear deodorant on your wedding day.

4. So I brace myself for another indolent pudding of a performance. And, actually, we begin by making things happen. That not all of those things are good things seems to me a secondary consideration, at least in hindsight. Will Hughes starts crashing about in midfield. Etienne Capoue bounds forward in pursuit of a hesitant goalkeeper. We push Norwich back, with a certain conviction that’s been absent hitherto. It’s energetic, urgent. It’s also further up the pitch than has become customary, affording Norwich room to get at Kiko Femenia, in particular. From the first of these breaks, Ben Foster saves a free kick bound for the top corner. From the next, Buendia finishes a tidy move with a curling shot into the other top corner. It’s at moments like these when I imagine that the players are grateful for the absence of a crowd.

In a packed Vicarage Road, this might’ve become a collective nervous breakdown. In an empty one, the goal, if anything, lends our efforts still more conviction: we cannot wait and see, cannot lapse back into passivity, cannot fail to seize the moment. Had it happened later, when our initial burst of energy was spent, we might’ve struggled to raise ourselves. But this early, with momentum still spurring us on, we surge at the visitors, press them again, dominate them for long enough, take advantage of a physical edge at set pieces. Craig Dawson dumps in a far post header.

5. The game settles after that, closes up its open spaces. It’s a moderately attractive affair, though: Norwich are inoffensively enterprising in the manner of a small bakery selling nice sausage rolls. It’d be called Roll With It or something like that. Just off the high street. They’ll be a loss to the division, partly in the sense that they play nice football with a young, keen team and mainly in the sense that whoever replaces them is likely to be harder to beat. Nothing much happens for a while, but it happens pleasantly enough. We drop too deep, naturally, then remember to push out a bit, not naturally. We appear in control, which is the bit that’s most worrying.

As my dinner arrives, and after the drinks break, we have another go. This isn’t a side which looks terribly convincing on the front foot – there’s more than an element of an Apprentice candidate making a stuttering sales pitch to a supermarket – but this is less unconvincing than the other attempts I’ve seen. Some of that is the result of Troy Deeney finding himself in a battle he can win; similarly, our set pieces meet much less stubborn resistance and look less abysmal as a consequence. Much of it is down to Danny Welbeck. Mobile, bright, intelligent, not-injured Danny Welbeck. Where Ismaïla Sarr is all energy and errors, Welbeck lends our attacks a focused edge that they’ve often lacked. He nearly scores from a corner, should score from a later cross. His time will come.

6. I do the washing up at half-time. You can sod right off if you think that’s going to become a superstition.

7. The appearance of control is maintained after half-time. It’s deceptive, though: at this level, control is less about broad landscapes and more about tiny incidents like the ones in which Pukki wastes very presentable chances with that awful combination of hastiness and sluggishness which characterises rock-bottom confidence. I hate seeing strikers in that hole. It reminds me of Danny Graham at Sunderland, and I don’t like to be reminded of Danny Graham at Sunderland. Here, though, and now, we’ll take what we can get. Danny Ings sticks those in the back of the net, but Danny Ings can’t play for Norwich because he plays for Southampton.

Norwich create the half’s first real flurry of goalmouth action, Foster saving smartly from Aarons after Hernandez has a shot blocked and before Buendia fails to recreate his earlier finish. As if to perfectly illustrate the grim well-that’s-just-bloody-typical misery of a failed relegation struggle, we break on them and score the game’s decisive goal, a hopelessly scuffed cross from Sarr looping up via a defender for Welbeck to acrobatically volley home. It’s a beautiful finish: overhead kicks are sometimes all physicality and gym-work but this has real grace and elegance, and the ball appears to respond as if caressed rather than whipped. I mean, it’s no Dennis Bailey at Peterborough but it’s a decent effort from the lad nonetheless.

8. You probably chewed your way through the rest too. There isn’t a relegation-threatened team in the history of the world which hasn’t fallen prey to over-caution with a one-goal lead and ten minutes to go, and we don’t become the first to react differently. Given how much we generally rely on it – or because of how much we generally rely on it, perhaps – our defence doesn’t half look brittle, and even an attack as mild-mannered as Norwich’s creates enough to turn the game around. Vrancic should do better with a free header at a set piece. And then, in the last minutes, Idah slides in to connect with a squirming cross in the six yard box and somehow diverts it wide. Should score, doesn’t score, season remains on the rails.

9. Of course, the point is that, many long months ago, the entire campaign became about finding three teams worse than us. Part of what makes them worse teams is having worse strikers. So much of what we’ve lacked – and what separates the bottom few from the mid-table many – is having match-winners who actually win matches on a semi-regular basis. The margin here was small, but it was decisive: one match-winner with a moment of pure, incisive magic.

Beyond that, there seems little point in drawing wider conclusions: the season is there to be survived, and this is a huge step towards that survival. What lies beyond is unknowable in so many ways.

Must do better, obviously. Can do better. But that’s for another day. For now, I’ve got a haircut to worry about.

Foster 4, Masina 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 3, Hughes 4, *Welbeck 4*, Sarr 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Cleverley (for Hughes, 59) 4, Chalobah (for Capoue, 87) NA, Mariappa, Pussetto, Pereyra, Cathcart, Gray, João Pedro, Gomes, Uncle Tom Cobley, All