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Watford 3 Rotherham United 0 (24/02/2015) 25/02/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. I’m currently reading Jim White’s “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids”, his account of coaching an under-fourteens team which includes his own son. It’s a modest book, and its modesty comes from self-awareness, and from its self-awareness comes a certain melancholy. For every amusing anecdote about dog shit or committee meetings, there’s a moment that’ll make you wince: if you’ve ever kicked a football in a park with goalposts for goalposts, your story is echoed here somewhere, your childhood hopes momentarily re-kindled and then extinguished once more, and your father’s with them. It’s a terrific book, and it captures something essential about football.

I wonder what my own dad thought as he endured my short-lived participation in organised football, his pale, shivering, short-sighted son brought off the sidelines, with reluctance on all sides, and pitched into the action with the unspoken aim of avoiding the ball at any cost. My only surviving memory – a single mental image, quite clear – is of doing something wrong near a touchline in Cassiobury Park and being shouted at by everyone for being useless. You couldn’t really argue with them, but, equally, I’m not sure I learnt anything from the experience. I moved on, football moved on; best for all concerned.

1a. One thunk down, four to go.

2. Probably best for all concerned if we move on from this fairly quickly too. A football match whose only redeeming feature was the three point reward at the end of it, like a pat on the head for a baby that’s successfully filled its nappy. It may not have descended to my level of embarrassed incompetence, but it made up for that amply with a clear-eyed determination behind its turgid exterior. Not accidentally turgid, this, but deliberately, obstinately, resolutely so. The evening’s most apposite summary came from Pete Fincham over to my left as first half injury time began: a dismayed wail of “WHOSE F***ING IDEA WAS THIS?”

3. The answer, of course, is that it was Slav’s idea. To play four central defenders across the back, Tommie Hoban charged with duties on the left and Craig Cathcart on the right, made a certain amount of sense and effectively countered what would presumably have been a main thrust of Rotherham’s attacks: what I will always think of as “scary big diagonals” in honour of Micky Adams*, launched repeatedly onto the shiny head of Conor Sammon. We nipped that in the bud, and entirely sacrificed our own threat down the flanks in the process. To all intents and purposes, the game was played in a thin stripe of pitch down the middle and the rest could’ve been used for additional seating to house those eager to take in such a rich spectacle.

It was an act of pragmatism so bloody-minded as to verge on dogmatic. The contrary part of me quite admires its sheer miserliness; the rest of me, which had to sit through the resulting football, feels much less generous. In truth, Rotherham did precious little to justify the special treatment: they were largely toothless up front, with a penchant for self-destruction at the back; every bit a side fresh from a five-nil thumping at the weekend and out looking for another. The manager will no doubt point to the result, but I suspect that most of those present would’ve fancied our chances with a side that set its own agenda.

4. So it was a curious game, except that curious makes it sound interesting and it really wasn’t that. It was curious in the sense that we’d done almost nothing to earn our half-time lead, basically just sitting in our own half and watching the enemy through binoculars until their sentry fell asleep. Aside from a Deeney snap-shot, our openings were entirely of Rotherham’s making, a defender falling over and a clearance rebounding back into the penalty area. We were set up to be a brick wall, albeit one which still managed to allow Arnason a completely free header from a corner for what should’ve been a prompt equaliser. That might’ve changed things. If you’re going to play a formation as miserable as this one, you’d really better not screw it up. As it was, the grumbling was mainly concentrated on the inability of either of our makeshift full-backs to take a proper throw-in.

5. Half-time was subdued. There was little prospect of an improvement, simply because we were doing the job we’d been set up to do; Rotherham gave no hint that they were about to stray from the script. And so it continued, with this grey, awful brutalism, the strewn litter of errors its only humanity. The result felt inevitable even before we scrambled a second from the scraps of Tozser’s monstrous free kick, an appropriately industrial path to goal, and then an opportunist third shortly afterwards as Rotherham fell into disarray. We’d suffocated the contest mercilessly, and now we brought it to an end.

You could’ve blown the final whistle at that point, really. Let everyone go home early. The rest felt deeply unnecessary, particularly the six minutes of injury time: Rotherham were so thoroughly beaten that they appeared to be time-wasting in order to save themselves further punishment and gave the impression of being extremely eager to make their excuses and hit the motorway. For our part, we toyed with them listlessly, Abdi blazing over the bar and then hitting the post late on. Chances at both ends, but the result had already been phoned in and chalked up. Even the final minute seemed to drag out forever, impatiently waiting for us to stop faffing about and take a goal kick in order that the referee could bring proceedings to a merciful and long overdue end.

6. That we are capable of so much more is undeniable. But that there are occasions when we still seem a little green, a little vulnerable, is evident from both our league position and our results against the teams around us. It’s clear from this evening’s, um, entertainment that the manager is prepared to let the ends justify some fairly ugly means, that he isn’t in the least afraid of public opinion or terribly interested in courting popularity. That he’s perhaps treating all opponents as equal in the hope of dealing rather more effectively with the better ones, the ones we’ll have to start beating if we’re to be promoted.

He’s a brave man. A wise one? We’ll see.

7. I recall someone saying that they wouldn’t fancy paying to watch Blackburn every week. Hmmm. (Raises eyebrow.)

* There was a photo somewhere, probably in When Saturday Comes, of Micky Adams clutching his tactics notebook during a game. Or maybe it was a story someone told. Or maybe I just imagined it. Anyway, Micky’s tactical notes consisted of three scrawled, erratically spelt words: “SCARY BIG DIAGONAL”. Whenever someone bombs a long cross-field ball onto their centre-forward’s head, I think of Micky Adams and his notebook.

Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (21/02/2015) 22/02/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- I’ve been staring at a blank screen for half an hour.  I’ve even been distracted by bloody Jonathan Ross, of all things.  Not fun, this.  Not fun at all.  It doesn’t matter that there is stuff to say, this isn’t a search for inspiration or a dredging up of five thunks.  That can be difficult too… but this is just purgatory.  Reliving five goal wins is fun, joyful.  There wasn’t much to enjoy this afternoon, not much to take pleasure in.  You want to forget about this one?  Head home and think about something else?  Yeah, me too.  We’d all been looking forward to this, on the back of three unlikely wins from challenging positions this had been another chance to test ourselves against one of our fellow contenders.  Nervous tension all week, nervous tension for much of the game as the noise of the crowd was sucked inwards by the gravity of the occasion.  Now… I feel let down.  Not by the team, or the manager, or the referee.  But by myself.  Why such an emotional investment in something so brittle, so unreliable, so meaningless.  Screw this.  Bastards.

2- Much of the game was very well balanced, a tug of war between two sides carefully, cautiously restricting their trading of blows to a congested midfield.  Each side had spells in the first half, but chances were few;  early on Layún picked out Deeney with a nine iron from deep in the midfield… a difficult ask, the ball coming over Deeney for him to head out of the air but not quite low enough, over the bar.  An early encouraging move, we were keen to get behind Norwich’s high line quickly but this was to be as good as it got for the Hornets. City’s approach to defending revolved around preventing us having any possession in the final third, this largely achieved by Tettey and Johnson hounding down the space in midfield to hurry our attempts at penetration with Russell Martin and the monstrous Bassong, who looks as likely to return to the Hornets  any time soon as John Barnes, Ashley Young or Clements, sweeping up much of what came through.  On the few occasions when we did get hold of the ball in and around their box our we were able to do the things we’re good at and City looked vulnerable, get-attable.  Late in the first half some snappy passing released Abdi; Johnson was befuddled and brought him down in panic, he got a yellow and the “shield” Tettey followed him into the book for his protests.  Abdi’s free kick took a nick and went over but this was a positive way to end the half.  Neither side had been on the canvas, but we were probably ahead on points… and with everyone above us losing or already condemned to defeat, the mood was positive.

3- Much has been made of the limited number of chances that we made throughout, but our defence had looked solid and Norwich’s compact shape cost them in terms of the number of bodies they were able to commit forward. Frankly, if anyone was going to score it was us but you would have been reckless to put money on that for all of our attacking riches.  So…  the award of the penalty was both unexpected on any number of levels and absolutely fundamental to the outcome; like ourselves City had barely had any controlled possession in the final third but Hoolahan put his head down and ran, and then fell over.  The referee gave the penalty, Gomes went the right way and got down well but the kick was right in the corner.  It hadn’t looked like a penalty, and the Hornets’ frustration with an official whose control on the game had been fingertip since the first whistle nearly boiled over.  We’d nullified City’s threat, there seemed no prospect of them scoring and the decision to award the penalty changed the game; newly invigorated, the visitors had no cause to deviate from the sit-deep-and-break approach that so many have tried before, if rarely as effectively.

4- The point is, of course, that frustrating as the apparent injustice was it’s par for the course.  Not in the sense that we have any more bad decisions go against us than anyone else – much as it feels like it sometimes – but in the sense that stuff happens and you’ve got to deal with it an awful lot better than we did for the rest of the game.  If City were lucky to get the break then they didn’t half build on their luck, whereas the Hornets lost all shape and discipline.  Yes, Cameron Jerome’s follow up was a brilliant piece of opportunism and skill, dropping a shot over the stranded Gomes from outside the box but we were already far more ragged at that stage than at any earlier stage.  Subsequently we could have conceded a third before we did… Heurelho Gomes’ miraculous save to the incredulous Johnson’s thumping header low down to his left would have provoked a standing ovation in a less glum environment before City wrapped things up and compounded our misery by pulling off the move that Layún and Deeney had attempted earlier in the game, Grabban applying the finish to a ball from deep on the right.  We have spent the last few weeks digging out victories from improbable positions, watching with growing respect as Slav’s switches in tactics have made us stronger.  After going behind there was none of that… no sign of any fightback, nothing added by any of the substitutions.  We fell apart, and concluded a shapeless mess.

5- It was good to see Slav acknowledge this in his post-match comments… that the real problem lay not with a bad refereeing decision, however consequential, but with our response to it.  Slav’s dispassionate, analytical assessment of games as something that he observes rather than participates in jars a little to an English ear accustomed to observations made in an aggressive first person plural, but there’s great reassurance in him both drawing sensible conclusions and not hiding behind any bullshit.  Much earlier in the season we were complaining about our side being less than the sum of its parts, being a collection of talented individuals without a common purpose.  He’s applied corrective surgery and it’s questionable whether any of our three recent wins would have been achieved in similar circumstances in September or October.  You’ve got to trust his ability to recover from this also.  Because that’s the value today, if anything…  this was, in many respects, a Premier League defeat;  so much good work undone by one moment – of this case of bad luck, it might as well have been quality – following which things ran away from us resulting in a scoreline that was simultaneously both harsh and fully deserved.  If we do go up, that’s going to happen against better opposition than Norwich.  If we can’t cope with the fallout from that, if we’re not strong enough to recover mentally and take it out on the next mob then we need to stop kidding ourselves that we’re equipped for the top flight.  Tuesday night at home is a godsend, and will be interesting.  Today was disappointing, but needn’t be disastrous.  There’s a load of games to go.

Brentford 1 Watford 2 (10/02/15) 11/02/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Sainsbury’s Own Brand Low Calorie Ginger Beer is extraordinary.  An anachronism, a throwback to when own brands really were truly revolting (cardboard breakfast cereal, yogurt you could use to hang wallpaper etc etc) this stuff is not just a little bit weak or a little bit too sweet but a work of fiendish invention, genuinely repulsive, unforcedownable.  There’s a bit of me that finds that comforting in a way, that some truly unspeakable stuff is still on the shelves is how things should be.  Not comforting enough to ever consider drinking any of it again, naturally…  I’m still concerned about how to safely dispose of the remaining five cans in the fridge without causing an environmental catastrophe by contaminating the water course…

Other throwbacks are more unreservedly enjoyable, and Griffin Park falls into that category – at least from a Watfordcentric point of view, all too accustomed to out-of-town modern stadia’n’that.  I’m perfectly aware that claustrophobic grounds where you’re close enough to the pitch to ruffle the corner flag as you exhale with a terrace under a tin roof at each end exist perfectly happily at other echelons of the game, but not often within our consciousness of late.  And on a night like this one, where it’s chilly enough to flush your cheeks but not cold enough to be a problem, where the anticipation of a clash between two positive, competitive teams ratchets the tension, where the roof is almost low enough to touch and when the lights go out the terrace becomes less a group of people and more a single entity with many bodies, the Borg of Brentford, Griffin Park is simply fabulous.  Realisation of how challenging the journey would be had briefly seen me contemplate writing off the cost of the ticket and staying at home;  progress being complicated by signal failures at Waterloo and the consequent inhuman ramming of the train across from central London hadn’t improved my mood.  “This had better be bloody worth it”.  I needn’t have worried.  I needn’t have worried at all.

2- A play in two acts, this, either side of Jake Bidwell’s sending off shortly before half time… which, for what it’s worth, was short of a nailed-on red but some way beyond something that he could reasonably have expected to get away with a yellow for.  And thinking of the game as a piece of theatre or opera isn’t inappropriate, such was the rolling drama and evolution of the piece.  Slav strode purposefully across the pitch beforehand, inadvertently contributing to his Geography teacher image by wearing a suit jacket that was just a little bit too short.  On the pitch, he continues to make similarly bold statements and has surely built up a level of confidence in the Watford support now as a consequence.  Here he switched to what turned out to be a 4-3-1-2 with Forestieri brought in to play behind the front two, and Tözsér reintroduced for the injured Munari.  And the first half was… much as we might have expected.  Both sides had chances, Brentford starting the brighter but the Hornets exerting a degree of control prior to the sending off.  We were probably ahead on points… but not to a degree that guaranteed anything at all, this Bees side have plenty about them and whilst we were on top and had had the better chances before the sending off it was all still up in the air.

2b- A corollary here for Fernando Forestieri.  Another throwback…  we used to herald “The Jamie Hand booking” on BSaD.  Now we have the Nando Thunk, reflecting on the enigma that is our mischief maker… equal parts dizzying invention and finger-chewing decision making.  There’s not really a lot to say here that hasn’t been said before, hence a corollary to a thunk rather than a thunk all on its own… except that even in the high drama of the evening’s events there’s no overlooking the majesty of a first half incident that saw Forestieri win a free kick in the midfield after a tussle with Diagouraga, spring to his heels to take a quick free kick, disarm the former Hornet by facing “the wrong way” towards his own goal with the ball at his feet, and then impishly skip over the ball and backheel it to set in motion an attack that saw Deeney come close on the right side of the penalty area.  You forgive a lot for moments like that.

3- The red card penalised Brentford, of course, and would cost them ultimately, but in the short term they benefited from developments rather better than we did.  Having their backs to the wall rather suits the us-against-the-world siege mentality that Mark Warburton seems to have instilled after all, and the team  was well equipped to sit back, snap into challenges in the midfield, and howl out on the break.  The Hornets, meanwhile, looked confused and disrupted by developments, a pattern not helped by a predictable change in mood in the away end… from a positive “Come on, get at ‘em” to a sense of expectation…. “Faaaaccchin’ ‘ell Watford, they’ve got ten men”.   The success of Brentford’s approach was heavily reliant on André Gray, whose Bedfordshire heritage saw yet another throwback in the airing of songs about father’s guns and so forth but who played his role to an absolute tee… battling for possession, using his backside as a weapon of assault, chasing down everything , holding up sometimes and hounding goalwards on others which saw him score a stunning goal on the break, after which the Brentford team piled to a man on top of manager Warburton, the subject of some unheralded newspaper stories in the build up to the game.  This did the mood in the away end no favours of course;  less still Troy Deeney’s lame penalty after what looked a generous award for handball. As with Blackburn on Saturday, these aren’t the situations that you’d back us to get something from.

4- Which is why Jokanovic’s understated assessment of the second half so badly underplays what he and the team achieved (even if it does reinforce the Geography teacher thing still further – “see what you can do when you stop messing around and concentrate on your work?”).  Yes, we did the sensible things…  spreading the play, making Brentford run, allowing them on to us a little and then bursting forward, testing their legs.  Easy to say, much less easy to do particularly against competent, hardworking opposition backed into a corner with something to defend.  Juan Carlos Paredes attracted some stick for inconsistency of final ball (not to mention yet another bloody foul throw – detention for that, I think) but thundered up and down the right flank in inhuman fashion from right back, always an option.  Ditto Ikechi Anya, hugging the left touchline and needing to cut inside but always on the move.  Paredes it was who provided the cross for Ighalo to thump home a header to equalise; from then the patience on the pitch was largely reflected on the once-more boisterous terrace.  We were finding space now, overlapping over and over again.  Brentford’s stretched defence was increasingly cowering in its penalty box, David Button in goal excelling as the shots began to rain in.  The screw was very much being turned… which isn’t to say that that late winner was inevitable, but the patience in the approach never wavered.  Tommy Smith came off the bench for Brentford to polite (and perhaps overly restrained) applause from the away end, and soon picked up a harsh booking for blocking a Paredes charge into the penalty area.  As the one man wall blocking Tözsér’s kick he was inches away from the Borg in the away end, who reminded him quite what he was and where his loyalties lie.  Tözsér fooled the tiring defence by rolling back to a lurking Forestieri who drilled a low shot past Button but smack off the face of the post.  In the end, of course, it was our incredible indiarubber centre forward, who would surely bounce back above the crossbar if dropped from the roof of a stand, who provided an immaculate volley to sub Vydra’s clipped pass to finish the night off in injury time.  Words, of course, can’t do justice to the celebration behind the goal, so you can paint your own pictures of that.

5 – It would go without saying – even if I hadn’t already said it – that on top of Blackburn and red cards notwithstanding this is a stunning result in what could be a pivotal week for our season.  Above all, the fact that we adapted our game – eventually – to the situation so effortlessly is hugely encouraging… make no mistake, this was a huge challenge, and one that gives us every reason to be positive about the final third of the campaign.  As the division is shaping up, the top eight have pulled away and it seems inconceivable that anyone from outside will break into the top six.  As the teams involved continue to rack up points it boils down to who blinks and who doesn’t.  Brentford blinked tonight, and we poked them in the eye in that split second.

In the spirit of throwback, two old school items of memorabilia from BSaD to close.  Lucky Half-time Chocolate was Snickers, a bar that I had in my pocket thanks to the persistence of the guy in the shop at St Albans station on Saturday who patiently and affably explained that I would save a quid by adding it to my order.  That worked out rather well.  Finally, your scores:

Gomes 3, Paredes 4, Anya 4 (Hoban 0), Cathcart 4, Angella 3, Layún 3, Watson 3 (Abdi 3), Tözsér 4, Forestieri 3, Deeney 3 (Vydra 4), *Ighalo 4*

Watford 1 Blackburn Rovers 0 (07/02/2015) 08/02/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. At the time of writing, I’m just three episodes from the very, very end of Breaking Bad*. Those last three are going to get what’s coming to them on Monday evening when Andrea’s up in London, assuming that Fred doesn’t interrupt and I manage to stay awake beyond the usual nine o’clock watershed. It would be fair to say that my feelings about it as a series are more mixed than most: it’s artfully written, beautifully played and frequently breathtakingly tense, but it lacks an essential humanity that I find in my very favourite things. Spectacular as it is, it hasn’t really made me care as much as I’d want.

What is beyond question, though, is the exquisite elegance of its plotting. In particular, its use of flashbacks and flash-forwards to drop clues and hints and bits of intrigue, ensuring that no matter how dense it all gets and how unexpected some of the sharp turns are, you never, ever know nothing. At their worst (hellooo, Heroes), these shows simply avoid giving you any kind of straight answer, to the point where you stop being interested in asking any more questions; it’s like conducting a conversation with a random phrase generator via Google Translate, and it ends with shoes being thrown at the television. But this…ah, this is wondrous to behold, honest and gleeful in its manipulation, rewarding at just the right moments. You never quite know what’s going to happen, but you never entirely don’t know either. You can’t look away.

The same is very much not true of our season, in which I confess I’ve lost a certain amount of interest over the last two or three months. Basic Shearer-level punditry would highlight our inconsistency, suggesting the Heroes-style, stick-it-in-a-blender approach to plotting, each result as unpredictable as the last. That would be quite wrong, of course. In fact, my attention is drifting for precisely the opposite reason: our results appear to have become rather easily predictable, a straight line in a frequently bumpy division. We’re thoroughly consistent, when, in fact, doing really well in this division involves being able to ride the waves.

So it feels as if you could have a pretty decent stab at filling in the rest of our fixture list (lose at Brentford, win at Bolton…), our final league position (sixth), and the eventual outcome (losing to a better organised bunch in the playoff semi-finals before changing the coach again in the summer). Removed from weekly involvement, from seeing it all close up and understanding all of the nuances, it feels a bit monotonous. Yeah, all right, I’m still sore at missing Blackpool. But you get my drift….

2. And this one felt more predictable than most, even leaving aside the bit where we’d scored several hatfuls since my last visit to Vicarage Road and now I’d turned up again. You could see it a country mile away: a one-nil defeat in the bitter cold, the only goal of the game being a free header from a corner after 71 minutes. I wrote that on Facebook in the morning and, as if we’d all read it and taken it as gospel, we endured a full minute’s worth of complete pandemonium when the clock reached that point, Heurelho Gomes flapping at a cross and then recovering incredibly to scramble the resulting shot from Rhodes around the post, then tipping a ferocious drive over the bar from the corner. Living to see the clock tick over to 72 minutes, it was as if we’d somehow defeated destiny.

3. Because this was a proper win against proper opponents. Forget yer cricket scores, promotion campaigns are built on these results. It’s not about whether you’ve played well. There are too many occasions, particularly in this division, where there’s no opportunity to play well, when your opponents simply aren’t going to let that happen to them. And then what do you do?

In this case, you hope to capitalise on one of the occasions when you can break against a depleted midfield…and, indeed, we come closest by that route, Steele saving smartly from Layun’s shot early on. And then, as the game settles into a routine, you spend much of the time trying to pick a lock. The occasional mis-hit shots from long range and over-hit passes from defence are just the equivalent of booting the bolted door in frustration. It’s not that Blackburn are especially negative, merely that they’re streetwise and they’re equipped to do a job. We misplace countless passes, lose countless fifty-fifty challenges, get crowded out everywhere we turn. We push our wide men forward in an attempt to get around the sides, then find Ben Marshall rampaging into the open space behind Juan-Carlos Paredes, threatening to punish our adventure. Even when we bring on the lockpicker-in-chief, Almen Abdi, we get no closer: he barely touches the ball.

4. Blackburn dictated terms for long, long periods here, including the whole of a second half in which we barely created as much as a half-chance and, I suspect, mustered no more than one vital, decisive shot on goal. They set the agenda, they shaped the game, they’ll feel with complete justification that they should’ve won it. They were well-organised, robust and physical, and a bit charmless in a way that I find oddly charming; these kind of Championship gurners are gradually dying out, and more’s the pity. In Chris Brown, they had a proper old-fashioned villain of a centre forward, all bad-temper and elbows, whose only failure in the service of his side was to miss the couple of chances that came his way. In Jay Spearing, whose resemblance to one of the boulder-trolls from Frozen is uncanny, they had a proper midfield hatchet man, treading the kind of disciplinary tightrope that any midfielder worth his salt ought to spend his career walking. The rest aren’t exactly shrinking violets. There’s something Victorian and industrial about them, and I’ll regret the day when our legion of continental fancy-dans doesn’t have to overcome this kind of challenge. They’re a good side. Not a nice one, but a good one.

All of this is our worst nightmare. A recurring nightmare at that. We hate games like this. We lose games like this. The Bloke Behind Me spends the entire second half shouting “FAACCCHHHING HELL! WHAT’S GOING ON?” over and over again at every wrong decision and every crap pass and every single faaaacccchhhing thing, inadvertently capturing the sense of idiocy and impotence perfectly. We get to the point where we’ll appeal for anything, then howl at the referee for not giving it to us. We demand substitutions, none of which make any noticeable difference, even though our bench appeared to hold untold riches when read out before kickoff. It gets colder and colder and colder, and the game gets bleaker and bleaker and bleaker. Only one team is going to win it. It sure as hell ain’t us.

5. It is us, though. And that’s a truly marvellous thing. We win it with a proper goal too. None of your modern ways here; none of your passing and movement and that. Odion Ighalo wheels away having scored a winning goal thoroughly befitting the game: wonderfully scruffy and scuffy, in off the post via the keeper’s glove and just creeping over the line. Echoes of your favourite low-budget goal-hanger of yesteryear, echoes of vital and memorable wins secured by mis-hits and deflections in winters passed. A proper goal, a proper win.

As injury time dawns, a long cross to the far post threatens to pick out the unmarked head of Gestede. As we hold our breath, Gomes, sometimes a complete liability and sometimes a crusading green-shirted hero, back-pedals to reach the ball, flips it over the forward’s head and then gives chase beyond his area. He reaches the ball as it bounces and gleefully carts it high into the darkening sky, a great cheer of relief and joy rising from the crowd as it clears the roof of the new Elton John Stand. You half-expect him to follow it, climbing over the wall, finding the garden it’s landed in and giving it another gigantic heave-ho, then bounding onwards, a silhouetted figure, to the horizon and beyond. Get out of it.

It was his afternoon, his victory. Because what you do more than anything when faced with this kind of challenge is hang in there. Don’t concede, even if you have to ride your luck at moments. Stay in the game. Sometimes, when you’re up against it, that’s all you can do. I’m reminded of last weekend’s Murray-Djokovic Australian Open final and the point early in the third set when the eventual winner was caught in the corner, the match escaping from him at an alarming (or thrilling, depending on your point of view) rate. Sometimes you just have to hang on, to weather the storm. And then when your opponent drops their guard, you have to punish their failure to finish you off.

A fortunate win? Oh, sure. Without question. But the kind of win that can turn predictable seasons into something else entirely, the kind of win that can make you believe in things you previously questioned. We should be relishing that trip to Brentford. We should be eager for another challenge. Come on.

* Do. Not. Even. Think. About. It.

Watford 7 Blackpool 2 (24/01/2015) 25/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Superlatives are easy to wave around.  In trying to convey drama, even if you’re not trying to “sell” anything, no vested interest in pumping up a mega hyper Super Duper Sunday (or whatever) the temptation to exaggerate can be overwhelming.  “No, really, it was SO incredible”.  But there’s no overstating this.  On a day of extraordinary results this one didn’t get a mention on 5 Live in the forty-odd minutes it took us to crawl from the Girls Grammar to the Cassiobury estate, under the radar…  and yet few in the stadium will have seen anything like it.

The game started, what feels like eons ago, in much the same fashion as last week’s equally emphatic and yet ultimately more routine and vastly less interesting win over Charlton Athletic; a bright and punchy opening with the critical distinction that whilst we prodded Addicks and they fell open like a chocolate orange,  this time the visitors got the break. A shambles down our right with Paredes – who, like the otherwise impeccable Miguel Layún, occasionally seemed surprised at being closed down  – and Gomes getting into a horrible mess and presenting Orlandi with a straightforward opportunity to put the Seasiders ahead.  A calamity on several levels – not least because it gave our visitors something tangible to hold on to.  They looked limited but disciplined, and we’d acquiesced meekly to their gameplan that would involve standing up to our forwards, keeping their shape and grabbing what they could grab.  We weren’t awful in this period… we had lots of possession and made a few chances, not least when the ever-positive Ighalo found himself in space after his marker lost the ball and punched a shot that Parish clawed out of the top corner.  But we didn’t look terribly like scoring either, light in midfield, too many players looking unconvincing and unconvinced on the fringes of the action.  It was hugely reminiscent of the dying embers of Gianfranco Zola’s reign, when any team with a scout, or a brain, figured out that they could roll up, keep their shape and wait for us to screw up whilst breaking ourselves on their banks of four.  This Blackpool did competently and grabbed a second through the unpleasant Davies, his third goal on visits to Vicarage Road in recent seasons.  Exasperating, but a very real challenge for Slav and the team and therefore interesting.  How much have we learned?  Are we smart enough to counter this yet?

2- Half time was disgruntled, as you might expect.  A pigeon high in the roof of the Rookery summed up the mood by crapping on Felix’s shoulder, perhaps in response to his suggestion that the visitors would crumble as soon as we scored and that it was merely a question of how quickly we would make the breakthrough.  I was with the pigeon; I didn’t see that coming at all. Blackpool weren’t Charlton, a limited side who’d been punching above their weight, gotten unrealistic expectations and were now suffering from the twin challenges of gravity and momentum.  The Seasiders had been bouncing along the bottom all season, there’s no further down to go.  Lee Clark’s side had some shape and some grit, and much as they hadn’t won an away game they’d been scraping together points and had enough about them to make a gift-wrapped two-goal lead away at a side with pretensions something that could be defended by bloody-mindedness, bodies on the line to protect what they had.  Even if they shipped a goal they’d still have a lead.  Even if they shipped two a point would have been a decent result.  I expected us to have to scrap for every inch, I expected it to be frustrating, I wasn’t convinced we were up to it.

3- Boy was I wrong.  We struck back almost immediately, and then hit the visitors like a tidal wave.  They were complicit in their own downfall, lumbering punch drunk after the ball as the scoreline rattled away from them and very much not closing the game up, but take nothing away from the Hornets either on or off the pitch, this was something special.  Slav made a crucial tactical change in bringing off Hoban for debutant Watson, of whom more below…  suddenly we had an extra body in midfield with Vydra, who had looked uncomfortable and constrained in the Abdi position at the front of the midfield, now with more freedom.  Whether, had things not developed as they did, Blackpool would have put more pressure on our full backs we don’t know… but as it was their limited attacking threat in the face of the blistering whirlwind of yellow shirts meant that Paredes and Anya were able to attack as much as they had in the first half without glancing over their shoulders.  As for the goals…  the extraordinary deluge, the concentration of strikes that saw us turn the game around in less than 10 minutes and hit seven in a breathtaking 34 were less individual incidents worthy of distinct dissection than artifacts, bi-products of the performance itself.  Odion Ighalo grabbed four through disciplined forward play, being in the right place, making the run, being positive.  Vydra scored perhaps the best and most vital of the bunch and his play flowered with confidence immediately, linking up dynamically with Anya down the left and then playing in the wickedly delicate ball that made Ighalo’s hat-trick goal.  It could have been more, and the final scoreline once again didn’t flatter us.  All that prevented more goals as the Seasiders continued to leave us wide open spaces was that our feverish running had simply left us without legs.

4- A word for Nyron Nosworthy, so recently of this parish, and Craig Cathcart who have effectively traded places since last season… and one can only conclude that both sides have benefitted from the exchange.  In the first half Nyron was solid, leaving his former teammate Troy Deeney a peripheral figure;  in the second he was blown away with the rest of the debris into which the visitors disintegrated.  And yet the Seasiders, in their current state, will probably find his experience, physique and force of personality of greater immediate value than Craig Cathcart’s more elegant form of defending.  Whereas… it’s difficult to imagine Nyron, for all his qualities, being comfortable with bringing the ball out in the way that all three of our centre-backs were needing and able to do at different stages.  The concern with Cathcart will remain his horribly brittle-sounding injury record, but every on-pitch contribution has been positive.

5- Sitting sixth in the League it’s inappropriate to use the term “turning the corner” whether or not this match has any lasting significance.  And yet one can’t help but feel that this was hugely important in so many ways… the sort of position that we found ourselves in at half time is one that we’ve struggled lamentably to pull ourselves away from  in the past and yet today it looked effortless, even if one forgets about the dramatic margin of victory for the moment.  The scoreline, the second half performance were extraordinary… but coming from two down in such circumstances is worth celebrating on its own.  In looking forward to the closing months of the season one can only be encouraged by the latest addition to the ranks; Ben Watson is hardly a stranger, a frequent opponent over the years and yet in the second half it was encouraging how much part of the machine he looked.  A continuity player, not someone who will do the spectacular things but he’ll combine the Jonathan Hogg trick of always being there to receive a pass with a miserliness with possession.  A real asset, and a good option.  And over time, as the Pozzo squad accumulates, you have to reflect that Hogg himself, and then only arguably, is one of very few to have got away.  We’ve seen a huge turnover of players and yet we’ve retained the cream which has seen us build an extraordinary squad, perhaps unparalleled in the club’s history.  Today suggested that as well as the quality we have the personality and the tactical wit to mount a promotion bid that will be very much more than theoretical.  What comes next, starting with Friday’s trip to Bournemouth, will be fascinating.

Watford 5 Charlton Athletic 0 (17/01/2015) 18/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Today was a good day.  The sun shone, a beautiful crisp winter’s day which saw early gentle snowfalls melt away, no wind, no bite, a day to grin at the aggressively blue sky.  Vicarage Road looked fabulous in front of its biggest crowd for nearly seven years in – count them – four stands.  “Your Song” rumbled around Vicarage Road before kick-off and, whilst Charlton started quite brightly and the early exchanges suggested a punchy end-to-end encounter it didn’t take long for the game’s pattern to establish itself.  Troy Deeney played a wicked through-ball to release Anya, the Addicks’ defence fell apart like a house of cards, Chris Solly took a yellow by snatching at the escaping wing-back and that was pretty much that.  Our worst performances tend to have been followed directly by defiance like this since Slav’s arrival and Charlton were the fall guys.  This was the bit of being “inconsistent” that is to be enjoyed.  There are worse things than being inconsistent after all…

2- And Charlton were shocking, as it turned out.  Maybe this one just fell helpfully for us, our opponents at a particularly low ebb but not since Blackpool’s visit last March have we faced opposition so lamentably flimsy and short of confidence.  Early encounters had suggested that there was a threat, but that suggestion crumbled away very quickly; Tal Ben Haim and Andre Bikey are experienced defenders and neither played particularly badly but this was a horribly immobile pairing to put in a high line behind a midfield who never got close enough to their opposite numbers.  The Addicks were exposed defensively over and over again by movement in behind, and when they were back and set we had obviously identified a weakness in the air from set pieces as the ball was invariably played quickly wide for Paredes, Layún, Tözsér or Anya to send a cross in.  This route gave us the opening goal, Cathcart eventualy capitalising from Layún’s right-wing delivery.  Within ten minutes it was two, a ball over the top allowing Deeney to get a run on goal and score a second;  a personal disaster for Bikey this… if you’re a big centre-back you ought to back yourself to make your muscle count in a one-to-one that doesn’t test your pace.  The destructive job is much easier, requires much less precision than the attacking one in that situation but Deeney prevailed to go into double figures for the campaign and become the first player since John Barnes to reach double figures for us for four consecutive seasons.  Any remaining fight went out of Charlton at that point; the second half was a farce, Watford at half-pace for much of it with the gravest concern that the Addicks’ bewildered, haunted inadequacy would spill over into petulant tackles.  It never happened.

3- Dispatches from Huddersfield suggested an underwhelming debut from our new Mexican, albeit with the proviso that judging a player based on a single game and a team non-performance at that was perhaps unreasonable.  Hugely impressive in a nominally central role, Layún spent much time on the right and Paredes seemed to flourish outside him albeit against a side without much of a threat to watch over his shoulder.  Layún displayed a great touch, movement and distribution and simply looked like a fabulous footballer, a beautiful new artery for our football to flow through.  A mention too for George Byers’ popular cameo; the young midfielder was greeted onto the pitch by a strong “welcome to the grown-ups’ game” challenge , to which he responded by booting the miscreant up the arse at the earliest opportunity.  No delicate flower, this one.  Otherwise, in what became a swaggering Watford performance two individuals stood out. Odion Ighalo’s movement and hold-up play are just fabulous; combined with impudence, resilience and personality the Nigerian is becoming a cult hero at Vicarage Road as he was, by all accounts, at Granada.  Alex Geijo and Mathias Ranégie have both struggled, in different ways, to make an impression as nominally the “fourth man” in Watford’s forward armoury.  Ighalo is no longer the fourth anything.  And then there was Daniel Tözsér.  His corner provided Ighalo with his second early in the half, his marvellous party piece gave the scoreline an entirely unflattering flourish in the closing minutes, but beyond that he turned and spun and coaxed and stroked the game to his will.  Often singled out as our pivotal player by savvier opponents his contribution has been limited as a consequence.  Today Charlton gave his the freedom of Vicarage Road and he ripped them to pieces.

4- As I get older I understand the trajectory of football chants less and less. Any number of anthemic and/or witty chants have bitten the dust, for instance, over the period during which the utterly witless “we’re the riiiight side…. We’re the leeeeft side….” stupidity has prevailed.  Today, two aspects of note.  A Mexican wave rumbled around in the second half which may have been concocted in Layún’s honour, or in recognition of our stadium’s new completeness (and of which the visiting supporters were much more accommodating than anyone had any right to expect in the circumstances) but which incidentally reflected the relative non-event of the second half. Secondly, the half-hearted response to Addicks’ keeper Neil Etheridge’s early nervousness was thoroughly underwhelming.  There was a time when such behaviour would have been seized upon mercilessly, but the reaction of the Rookery was tame and Etheridge recovered his composure to keep the score down with a number of fine stops including an impossible save low to his left from a fierce Ighalo drive that might otherwise have seen the Nigerian claim the match ball.  A number of long-term Rookerites have recently decamped to the East Stand, at least one of whom citing in justification that he feels he is too old to be sitting behind the goal.  You know who you are.  This sort of lily-livered behaviour is doing us no favours.

5- This is becoming a traditional line with thunk 5, but nonetheless…  it has to be noted that whilst this afternoon was thoroughly satisfactory in every respect, it was nothing new.  We know that we can turn teams over that are ill-prepared or ill-equipped enough to allow us to play.  One hopes that 5-0 victories will never become passé…  but this was a Ferris Bueller’s Day Out kinda win.  Yes, great, yes, jolly good fun.  But we’ve seen it before, many times. We’ d much rather be stuffing teams like this than not and there’s no sense in taking such things for granted… but our promotion campaign becomes forceful rather than speculative when we start beating teams that make it difficult rather more often.  A few more Readings, in fairness, and a few less Huddersfields. Slav has taken remedial action by sidelining disruptive and unwanted members of the squad…  we can’t judge the appropriateness of individual decisions, but something has clearly been wrong with attitudes, so all power to him for doing something.  The mooted signing of Jay Spearing would be just what the doctor ordered… a bit of welly in an area of the pitch where we’re suddenly shorter of options thanks to injury, Munari joining Abdi and Murray on the injury list.  So… positive steps.  But the fact is that our performances have been inconsistent but not unpredictable.  Until we start taking on all comers in this fashion, wins like today will only count for so much.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0 (04/01/2015) 05/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Living, as I do, on the edge of a field some way from London it’s not often that I’m down in the capital and there’s a part of me that’s still coming to terms with the realisation that the city is a continuous entity, not a collection of unconnected bubbles centered on tube stations.  IMG_0756This consideration was a factor in the decision to build up to the game by walking the five and a half miles along the river from a particularly misty Blackfriars to Stamford Bridge… that, and the suspicion that things could turn sour horribly quickly once the actual football got started.  The memory of forking out an ill-rewarded £50 for a ticket for this tie five years ago  was (still) too fresh in the memory to do anything other than anticipate and savour the remote possibility of us overturning the odds.  One in a (very big number) shots do come off sometimes… but I think a straw poll before the game would have quickly come up with “making a decent fist of it and not having our league form disrupted by a dicking”, or words to that effect, as something to settle for.

2- Which I think we did, by any reasonable assessment.  Certainly the first half can be considered a triumph, I don’t think that’s overstating it. Yes, Chelsea had rested the biggest of their big guns but the faint praise implied by a reflection that we only had to overcome a weakened side rather glosses over the fact that (the excellent) Felipe Luis has a Champions (sic) League winners’ medal, that André Schürrle put in the devastating cross for the goal that won the World Cup final in July, that Didier Drogba may be past his best but, actually, was never terribly quick anyway and still has the strength, the nous, the touch and the personality.  From a Watfordcentric point of view what makes the achievement of all but nullifying their first half threat (Bond making one non-trivial stop, a superb reaction save from a near post Drogba header just in front of us) is that this destructiveness is a skill that we’re so very unpracticed at.  I’ve seen comments suggesting, in the wake of the performance that folk “begin to understand how Jokanovic wants us to play” but whilst certainly, as at Cardiff, he got it tactically spot on this was a gameplan that we’ve never seen or needed to use before. Normally it’s us with the ball and the challenge is how to make it count.  We were diligent and disciplined in a way that we’ve rarely been or had to be defensively;  certainly all of the back three, including the excellent Hoban, were outstanding.

3- Here’s the least insightful thunk of the season.  Chelsea, ultimately, had a bit too much quality for us.  There’s some credit to be taken from the fact that it took a stunning finish from Willian to break the deadlock.  The second owed a little to luck, perhaps, a deflection falling kindly for Rémy (albeit that the ref would rather harshly have awarded a spot kick in any case).  Only with the third, with the side rattled, did we really let ourselves down.  We’re not as good as Chelsea, then.  Hardly breaking news… but as a footnote, worth reflecting that while the inclusion of Doherty and Smith on the bench (the latter for the first time in twelve months) is positive opportunity for youth products, it was also suddenly borne of necessity.  We didn’t have anyone else available.


4- Another thunk that merely reflects a common perception post-match rather than adding to it…  but a hugely frustrating game for Fernando Forestieri.  He was particularly well-suited in this fixture to the ratting and ferreting job that Wayne Andrews was briefly so good at… burrowing under the pitch and emerging unheralded under the feet of his surprised opponent to scurry off with the ball leaving his blue-shirted adversary on his backside, Fessi won us as much possession as anyone.  His quick feet were frequently an outlet too, he and Ighalo attacking wide space to provide support to Deeney as our 5-4-1 broke into a 3-4-3…  and yet…  too often let down by appalling decision making, holding onto the ball for just too long.  Fessi has the mischief and the magic dust to unlock tight defences but here, attacking on the break, we really didn’t want to be giving high calibre opposition time to get set by just one more turn back inside in preference to a ball across the box, albeit with a fair chance of missing its target.  Love him to bits, but this aspect of his game needs sorting.

5- In conclusion, then, no worse than par and nothing that should capsize our recent League form.  3-0 doesn’t give enough credit to our display, but at the same time it would be wrong to suggest that Chelsea weren’t worth the margin of victory…  the credit we take is that we made them play that well, made them show their hand.  The ghost of our most recent top flight seasons, particularly 1999/00 where so often strong performances were undone by a lack of quality, is difficult to ignore… but this was a high benchmark to challenge ourselves against and plenty, Slav not least, came out comfortably in credit.  Not unreasonable to argue that, given the potential psychological impact of a humiliation, we navigated this one successfully despite the result.  On to Huddersfield on the front foot…

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Cardiff City 2 Watford 4 (28/12/2014) 29/12/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- Context, as ever, is important. Interpretation of this game and of the reaction to it cannot be divorced from the horror show on Boxing Day, nor should it be…  in the wake of that one a number of supporters will have opted against the trip to Wales (hello, Dave) and it says quite a lot that a single defeat, however depressing, had such a profound impact on the general mood on the back of three wins.  Fascination was the motivator for me, the consideration that saw me heading down the M4 in brilliant winter’s sunshine despite my original lift (hello, Dave) wussing out a day earlier amidst insistence that his own decision was nothing to do with Boxing Day.  Fascination at how Slav would send us out, at what sort of reaction we’d get from the Wolves game less than 48 hours earlier.  Nothing can or should be taken for granted in this division, and however disappointing Wolves was nobody could argue that we don’t boast an array of weapons, that we weren’t capable of changing it up.

2- I was feeling considerably less smug about my decision at around 3:40 than I am now, with the Hornets a goal down and not looking terribly like changing that situation.

IMG_0720We’d started brightly enough but Cardiff’s goal, a flick from that eternal irritant Le Fondre to a fine Whittingham free kick after a non-existent foul by Munari had knocked the air out of us like a damp fart.  We looked laboured and bereft of both leadership and ideas…  and I was nested amongst the grumpiest and least tolerant of the travelling faithful, this not improving my mood or making the trip to Wales seem any less foolish.  Juan Carlos Paredes, having been spared the broom that swept six team changes into the starting eleven, was the subject of much vitriol after giving the ball away several times early on… he looked forlorn, but in fairness was often merely the man at the end of passing moves having freed himself on the right to receive a pass but with nowhere to go and little movement in front of him.  He got better. Guedioura was the source of much of what positive inroads we had managed, and he gave us the lead out of nowhere, volleying home Munari’s cross after Forestieri had somehow  contrived to miss an easier chance.  A couple of minutes later we were ahead, Ighalo getting his head onto Pudil’s wicked cross.  Half time, a little dazed and confused, we were ahead.

3- There’s always a tendency to dwell on one’s own circumstances, to look at your team’s performance in isolation and to regard the opposition as mere props. You can take the reverse too far, of course… paying the opposition too much respect, worrying overly about  what they might try.  But it took our scoring to bring into focus that, Whittingham’s deliveries aside, Cardiff really didn’t have that much about them.  Not only that, but there was a simmering resentment in the largely silent home stands.  The red shirt thing, an embarrassment which should serve to emphasise once again quite how lucky we are to have foreign owners who nonetheless respect our club and tradition, is only the most visible facet of an football club that feels thoroughly wrong and unhappy, from the obtrusive revolving collar of electronic adverts high in the stadium to the fragile, one-dimensional team.  In individual games we’ve been in a similar position at home as sides have started off nervous and gradually worked us out and realised that we’re not all that.  Cardiff were not all that at all, and the game changed completely on our equaliser.

4-There’s a danger in reading too much into the second half.  After all, as we’ve just discussed, Cardiff are a side with their own problems and we know that we’re a good side when we’re in the lead against a side that’s letting us play, who then have to chase the ball particularly in front of demanding home support.  Bearing which in mind, it’s difficult to overstate the degree of our second-half superiority of which a 4-2 final score was a far from flattering summary.  Cardiff were punch-drunk, completely overrun in midfield and incapable of getting as much a period of possession let alone a foothold in the tie;  Guedioura remained the architect and with much more movement around him was less prone to disappearing into rabbit warrens than he had been in the first half.  He made the scoreline more comfortable by clubbing a venomous shot into the top corner from over 25 yards; David Marshall didn’t move.  The other stand-out performance was that of Odion Ighalo, who played the target-man role to the tee.  Magnificent with his back to goal, holding up play, stretching out an indiarubber leg to seize and smuggle off possession.  He sashayed his way past three challenges on the left of the box before forcing a save from Marshall, and later perhaps should have scored when sub Deeney escaped on the right and squared, Marshall denying the Nigerian again with a brave stop.  Nonetheless, a hugely charismatic and effective performance from Ighalo, which asks serious questions about team selection for next Sunday.

5- So Slav came into this game under a bit of pressure. Wolves, in case this point hasn’t been made clearly enough, was a shambles, and the head coach, appointed from nowhere in odd circumstances, has failed to make a strong impression in his TV interviews giving a convincing impression of a distracted and slightly self-conscious schoolteacher.  Nonetheless he’s not pulled any punches in his press conferences and today made what turned out to be a blinding selection decision in making such a brutal set of changes.  He might cite the need to freshen the side up as a key consideration… from the stands it looked more like a no-bullshit response to a lamentable performance.  Either way, suddenly, we have a situation where Deeney, Vydra, Anya and Tözsér, four key senior players, need to play their way back into a winning side, the end of Guedioura’s loan notwithstanding.  Competition for places, of all things, and the sort of competitive advantage that this squad ought to offer.  The Chelsea game, perhaps, slightly unfortunately timed, we could do with building on today without that distraction.  Either way, for all that today’s circumstances fell well for us the Hornets and their manager took full advantage and if both can build on this success this squad could yet fulfil its potential this season.

Watford 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 (26/12/2014) 27/12/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Some games are memorable for the drama.  The unscripted theatre, the two hours of adrenaline that knackers your calf muscles by suspending you on the edge of your seat.  Some are memorable for the context… OK, it wasn’t a great spectacle but it was significant in itself…  you often don’t remember much of these games themselves, just a few key details and probably as much about how you got to the game and how bad you felt the next morning (Burnley in the 2003 FA Cup falls into this category).  Some games will be remembered for one incident only, one detail.  How much can you remember about that win over QPR in 2009  except Lloyd’s goal?  Some games are filler.  Unremarkable.  So-so draws, humdrum wins and take-on-the-chin defeats against superior sides.

Other games are just a waste of time and effort, leaving you feeling bitterly resentful about the decision to spend/go overdrawn on brownie points particularly, say, during the Christmas break.  Often conducted in the pissing, freezing rain and cold on a day when they couldn’t even get bloody Z-cars right on the tannoy.  Like listening to nails being scraped down a blackboard.  For two hours.  (Kids… that used to be a really annoying noise).  Guess which sort of game this one was.

2- The first half was a car crash.  Wolves were bigger, faster, sharper, cleverer than us and should have been several goals up at half time.  There’s detail in there…  quite which player punched a shot narrowly wide, who belted one top corner until Heurelho Gomes clawed it over and so on and so on, but that doesn’t really add anything to your understanding of events in any interesting way and certainly doesn’t accelerate the process of me getting through the purgatory of this joyless report.  We got away with it, in short, albeit that Gomes was given a shot-stopper’s dream half in being afforded a number of snap-shots to save without having much in the way of conscious decisions to make and flourished as a consequence.  Meanwhile we made everything look awfully difficult, seeming to struggle more with the conditions insisting on that extra touch that was completely inconsistent with a snappy passing game aimed at exposing an opponent’s high defensive line.

3- Wolves weren’t anything special, but they were more than good enough to merit a win against another perfunctory effort from far too many of those in yellow.  Debates in previous years have challenged, not unreasonably, the tradition of such a high stock being placed in mere effort… but effort, or rather spirit buys such a lot of goodwill (seasonal or otherwise) and there was precious little spirit about this performance.  Contrast with the performance of Wolves’ centre-half Danny Batth, whose brutal, one-dimensional and thoroughly effective approach to the central defender’s art saw him take precisely one touch of the ball (and as much collateral damage as required) to deal with each incident that he was involved in.  Other of Wolves’ tactics, such as their taking advantage of the officials’ tolerance of timewasting, kicking the ball away and so on were altogether less charming, but a(nother) irritant rather than something that affected the course of events.

4- Actually we came out looking a lot better at the start of the second half;  Slav has tended to improve situations with the changes he’s made all things considered, so it was a bit unfortunate (if far from undeserved on the balance of the game) that the vastly more potent-looking 4-3-3 that lead to us genuinely getting on top of the game for the first time resulted in, finally, a goal for the visitors as the generally industrious Abdi let his man go past him and square for Dicko to finish. Thereafter…  we had chances, certainly, spells of possession which might have seen us grab a point.  As with the changes in formation, the introductions of Forestieri, Ighalo and Guedioura all made us more potent, we might have nicked something.  But we didn’t.  Altogether… underwhelming, as if I hadn’t made that clear enough.  The challenging Christmas schedule ought to be a period when our deep squad delivers us that competitive advantage.  Losing the first game probably wasn’t part of the plan. 

5- Meanwhile.  Twenty years ago, BSaD first took to the web in the wake of an inconsequential but less fist-chewingly awful win over Portsmouth.  In the interim we’ve reflected on a few games like this.  It doesn’t get any more fun.  But the benefit of hindsight does at least suggest that there’ll be a better game around the corner.  Let’s hope it’s Cardiff.  In the meantime, happy birthday us…

Watford 2 Wigan Athletic 1 (13/12/2014) 14/12/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Another special day at Vicarage Road, irrespective of the game itself or the result.  A bright, crisp winters afternoon and a raucous welcome for the club’s most exalted fan and ex-chairman.  He took the microphone at ten to three and gushed his appreciation from the centre-circle as the haunting “Elton John’s Taylor-Made Army”, an echo from the past, rumbled around the Rookery for the first of many airings on the afternoon. Completely fitting that the club should honour both him and GT in this way… but as my co-editor would wish me to point out it speaks rather a lot for our current owners too, of whom Elton also spoke glowingly.  Too easy to overlook the significance of this… well of course Watford should have stands named after these Graham and Elton who did so much for the club and the town.  But how many chairmen/owners would have the lack of ego to honour any of their predecessors in this way?  And how utterly sensible to make this move, during an era where the club’s links to its tradition and community are too frequently and lazily challenged.



Coming hot on the tails of the opening of the Graham Taylor stand, more facetiously, ours can’t have been the only corner of the ground to ponder what else might be renamed in honour of the heroes (or otherwise) of the past.  The Les Taylor clock, the Gerry Armstrong sub’s bench and the Trevor Senior corner flag the best we managed.

2- If we started well enough, then there was a slightly disappointing lack of going for the jugular early on.  Possession, yes, and plenty of it but… and of course a 5-0 away win is an impossibly high bar to set…  you did rather expect that whilst Fulham, a recent Premier League club on a bit of a roll might push forward and leave us gaps, Malky Mackay is rather too canny for that.  Not that Wigan were ever merely spoilers… but the pattern that the game settled into, ultimately, of us having the ball but not being able to fashion enough space to do much with it always felt a likely outcome.  Coming out like a hurricane with a view to bludgeoning an early lead was what I had anticipated.  Instead it took until the 20th minute, when Anya slipped Deeney in down the left to finish with bristling confidence.  At the Rookery end, Heurelho Gomes roared into the crowd.

3- Wigan looked like a reasonable side but for the lack of a focal point.  Or to put it another way, Wigan with a Deeney in their ranks would be a top half outfit, but that statement probably goes for most of the division…  in any case, a slightly obvious point to make about a side that took to the field without a recognised striker – winger James McClean fumbling around rather uncomfortably up front.  Defensively they were sound enough, Boyce and Barnett plenty savvy enough for most at this level.  In midfield they squashed the space of Abdi and Tözsér, both of whom misplaced a far greater number of passes than is typical- as so often recently, we had cause to be grateful for the bullying presence of Gianni Munari who made sure that the visitors didn’t have it all their own way, even if his interruptions sometimes involved little more than knocking his opponent over.  But when Wigan got as far as our penalty area… the lack of a forward, a target, was painfully evident; the only route to goal a ping-ping-ping to release a midfield runner, of which there were several.  Evidently the Hornets feared little from set pieces, such was our happiness to concede throw-ins deep into our half rather than trying to play out, so it was a little aggravating that that’s how the equaliser came, Chris McCann losing his man to crash a header past the helpless Gomes following a right wing corner.

4- The winning goal gives the whole afternoon a gloss, of course, and Slav is right to reflect on the value and the positive implications of being able to pull out a result when not at your best.  The goal, (to which we’ll devote most of the final thunk, so don’t go anywhere boys and girls) may prove hugely significant for a number of reasons, but most immediately it will dilute the memory of a rather tetchy afternoon.  Not in the conflict itself, which was never particularly antagonistic, but in the sullen mood of the Watford side.  This was eloquently reflected in the performance of a would-be cheerleader on the lower East side of the Rookery who, in apparent frustration at the failure of the majority of the stand to replicate the sterling efforts of the 1881 stage left would turn frequently to remonstrate with those around and above him… not in jest, or in encouragement but in snarling, disgusted, red-faced outrage.  That was the mood on the pitch too…  so much quality, and when given a convenient platform with all the planets in line, as at Craven Cottage, an irresistibly beautiful thing.  And yet still so much less than the sum of its parts… no lack of effort, no passengers, but a lack of drive and of a sense of shared purpose.  If anyone’s found a website knocking off bottles of team spirit whilst doing their Christmas shopping we could do with a batch or two…  Tözsér and Anya clashed in the wake of the goal, misplaced passes and misread runs were greeted with frustrated gestures and irritation.  As remedies go, an English-speaking assistant manager with long experience of the division including of getting teams promoted, a people’s person as a go-between twixt squad and manager, to cajole and encourage and polish the rough edges who also happens to be the club’s record appearance maker doesn’t feel like a bad idea.  Wonder where we might find one of those…

5- The winner was brilliant.  Malky Mackay might complain of sloppiness and viewed objectively he’s probably right but this was still a fine thing, mere sloppiness – rather than slapstick clown-shoes incompetence – has to be forced into relevance after all.  The tone of our play had changed with the introduction of Ighalo for the industrious Vydra…  in his mere enthusiasm, his willingness to show for the ball and eagerness to do something Ighalo stood out and his attitude was infectious.  Marvellous that Anya was at the heart the goal itself;  his recent contributions haven’t lived up to his new-found international profile and he’d had a bit of a stinker of a first half, albeit isolated on his weaker side until the half time withdrawal of Paredes who had appeared to pick up a knock.  But he’s so obviously a good bloke, why wouldn’t you be rooting for him, be wanting him to do well.  As Tözsér released him on the overlap down the right you were reminded of that goal against Leicester, when however many consecutive full ninety minutesworth at wing back didn’t count for a damn as he charged half the length of the pitch in the build-up to Deeney’s strike.  Don Cowie, no longer the arch-villain of his return with Cardiff, always had astonishing stamina… Anya has stamina and pace, and ripped up his marker on the overlap past Tözsér before hoiking a peach of a cross from the by-line to the far-post for Troy Deeney to crash home a headed goal (and a rare one – Birmingham away at the start of 2013 was the verdict from resident sage Jon Marks on Twitter).  Proper old school goal, anyway, Tommy Mooney would have been proud.  As Deeney acknowledged the Rookery it was Anya who was mobbed…  perhaps those concerns about team spirit had been misplaced, perhaps we just need a bit of a run to feel happy about ourselves again.  Either way, no doubting that Anya’s triumph was a popular one with his team mates, and the win keeps us up with the pack going into the Christmas fixtures.  More to do though, we earned this win but will need to be a bit cuter about similar challenges in future.

Have a good Christmas…


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