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Bristol City 0 Watford 0 (12/11/2022) 13/11/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- We’d been driving for half an hour before I remembered that the tickets were still pinned to my noticeboard.

The reaction of the car’s two passengers was more sanguine than my own… patience from Paul, indifference from Daughter 2 who is getting used to such displays of incompetence.  The last time Something Like This happened it was insulin that had been forgotten prompting similar dead time as we turned around and headed home then back.  We’d only had the relatively short drive to Vicarage Road in front of us on that occasion though.  

As a consequence of that one, all diabetes-related planning for this trip had been impeccable to the extent that my wife stuck her head out of the door to needlessly check on her 49 year-old husband’s memory.  Instead, five minutes away from the parked car in Bristol I remembered that my insulin pump had been beeping at me for more than an hour and wasn’t going to last the game.  I left the same two passengers rolling their eyes at the side of the road while I trotted back and did the necessary.

Sometimes the world is trying to tell you something.

2- We arrive at the ground in good time for the football, but without the cushion that the experienced traveller builds in to an away day as a matter of course to protect it from the vagaries of what happens on the pitch.  

Ashton Gate didn’t look like this the last time I was here, for a drawn FA Cup tie under Beppe Sannino nearly nine years ago.  There was no fanzone then for starters – we don’t get to enjoy it this time either, obvs.  Two stands have been replaced, converting a ground that could previously have been described as “homely”, and then only generously, into an impressive stadium. The pies are splendid too and the vendors adopt the preferred “treat them like adults” approach to bottle tops. The only real minus is a critical lack of chocolate.

Simon’s here too, and has brought nine year-old Adam to that most significant of events, his First Game.  This is not, of course, Simon’s first game… he’s a veteran of many terrible football matches up and down the country, several of them with me and several of those on Watford visits to Oakwell in the early nineties when we were housemates in Leeds.  Simon is having trouble getting his head around the presence of Dan Gosling, bearing scars as he does of a teenage Gosling deciding a Merseyside derby in the dim and distant past so profound that I remember their existence before he mentions it.  I’m having similar issues with Andi Weimann, who made his first starts and scored his first senior goals whilst on loan at Vicarage Road several lifetimes ago but is somehow only 31 (and City’s captain to boot).

3- It’s a turd of a game.

Shorn of Sarr, João Pedro and Asprilla on top of Louza we lack any verve whatsoever and all the cracks that their presence renders ignorable are painfully exposed.  Those four aren’t… an unfair advantage of course, for all that they are each surely destined to return to playing at the top level with or without Watford.  You’re allowedto have good players. Had we sold Sarr and/or JP over the summer as we surely expected to, we’d have invested in some Polyfilla (other brands are available) to fill some of those cracks.

But without them we have a stodgy team, and this was a stodgy performance from the off.  Ugly, clunky, unable to retain possession, unable to even find a pass.  I’ve been in favour of giving Mario Gaspar time to adapt… we’ve seen glimpses of a fine right foot and of course his pedigree is exceptional.  He can have as much pedigree as he likes on this evidence, lumbering around like someone’s uncle tasked with looking after the kids but unable to keep up with them and realising that, given his duties today, going for a cheeky curry after the pub closed last night probably wasn’t a good idea.

Keinan Davis is quite tremendous though, receiving the ball, holding people off, looking for a lay off that isn’t there and getting no favours out of referee David Webb who lets quite a lot go in general.  There’s just nothing going on around him for much of the game… Samuel Kalu’s directness that has been so helpful off the bench never gets going here.  Ken plugs away but gets nowhere.  The midfield is congested… for all that Dan Gosling is nominally in JP’s place we effectively have three defensive midfielders, even if one did learn how to attack the box off Tim Cahill once upon a time.  

The big guns are brought on early in the second half… or at least the two that we have on the bench, or whatever shadows of them their ailments – be they knocks, viruses, or World Cup considerations – permit.  To disappointing effect really… we do look more fluid, the away end is briefly energised at the prospect of nicking something (an outcome that Simon says he’d be fearing were he a home fan, negating the possibility of this transpiring by doing so) but we aren’t noticeably more threatening until Vakoun Bayo’s cameo, which is conspicuous for having a bit of energy about it.  He’s responsible for our two efforts at goal, neither of which are particularly close to the target let alone troubling Max O’Leary.

4- City are much the brighter side, if only in the manner of young rabbits frolicking in a field that would be polished off pretty quickly if a bird of prey with a bit of self-respect happened past.  No birds of prey in evidence today – just fat wood pigeons, stupid bastards that they are.

City have dug up Nakhi Wells from somewhere.  Even in the days of inflated transfer fees, the fact that someone paid five million for him once baffles me.  He must be such a frustration to watch… ability evidenced by a fine early cross from the right that Tommy Conway does well to get on the end of (and having done so should have directed his header below the bar).  But then on seeing a newly relegated team (and therefore a prize, presumably) flailing around and desperately asking to be put out of its misery spends the game throwing himself around looking for penalties that only exist in his head.  The closest he comes is when Gosling injudiciously waves his boot around but Wells is ducking his head himself to get near it and no contact is made.  “You’ve seen them given”, but wrongly.

Conway and Weimann are more acute threats.  The former escapes after Davis is harshly denied a free kick following his latest “World’s Strongest Man” audition, this time dragging only one marker along with him. The young Bristol striker rolls his shot past Daniel Bachmann but wide of the far post, thus avoiding the potential for outrage in an away end still smarting at that lack of chocolate.

Weimann comes much closer… a fine cross from the left is met by the head of the Austrian provoking a tremendous save from his compatriot in the Watford goal.

5- That City’s energy, and the mood of a home crowd that must surely have smelt blood, only resulted in this one effort on target worthy of note is one of the plusses to take from the afternoon.  Certainly Hamza Choudhury and particularly Edo Kayembe continue to shield the defence, whatever the deficiencies of the pair as a unit.  Kayembe’s oblong stance makes him look clumsy and immobile, but he was one of our more dynamic and determined weapons here.

The result, too, and a fourth clean sheet in six games (though we’re going to need to go some to match Coventry’s 10 in 13 and counting, definitely a rival to be aware of coming up in the fast lane with home games in hand).  Keinan Davis getting through his first full ninety minutes without pulling any punches.  Any away point is a good one, fourth going into the break is the most that we deserve and gives us a platform.  And of course Adam survived his debut free of any expectations as regards What This Can Be Like (not like if he’d debuted with, I don’t know, a 4-0 win over Burnley a couple of seasons into the club’s golden era, for instance).

There’s a big “but” coming, and it’s painful to write about, the more so because you have to acknowledge it and yet words are moot because you all know this already.  Nonetheless…

Dan Gosling was signed two years ago as one of a number of experienced heads to bolster the squad and get us over the line.  That done, including a surely pivotal winner at Carrow Road and a bravura show at Dean Court, he stuck around whilst the likes of Carlos Sánchez and Achraf Lazaar were released.  Since then he’s been in and out of the squad, all but ostracised for a year, asked to fill in all over the place most recently and most effectively at right back.  All of this he’s done with professionalism and gritted teeth, even when things haven’t quite gone to plan.  An absolute diamond.  

So to see him go down as if he’d been shot, far from any opponent, punching the ground in pain and fury, was heartbreaking.  A ruptured achilles tendon isn’t something you’d wish on anyone, least of all a pro with six months on his contract who will be 33 when it expires.  Just so, so sad.

(As an aside, the muppets in the home stands – stronger choices of noun are available – who chose to jeer his exit on a stretcher are welcome to lock themselves in a room, preferably with the muppets in the away end – again, stronger words available – who saw fit to interrupt the Last Post, and merrily screw themselves.  We’ll let you know when you’re needed again, really we will.  A minority in the home stands admittedly, there were plenty of decent human beings responding more appropriately visible too).

And so we go into this odd month “off” in reasonable shape all things considered.  Enjoy whatever you do with it – it might be worth keeping half an eye on this blog in the meantime.  I’ll see you for the Hull game.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Mario Gaspar 1, Kamara 2, Kabasele 2, Troost-Ekong 3, Choudhury 3, Kayembe 3, Kalu 2, Gosling 3, Sema 2, *Davis 3*
Subs: João Pedro (for Mario Gaspar, 56) 2, Sarr (for Kalu, 56) 2, Bayo (for Sema, 75) 3, Cathcart (for Gosling, 83) NA, Dele-Bashiru, Sierralta, Okoye

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Watford 0 Coventry City 1 (05/11/2022) 06/11/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
28 comments

1- I love the World Cup.

I mean…. surely everyone loves the World Cup, right?  The finals tournament, I mean.  Every four years I immerse myself in it utterly, indulgently frittering holiday from work where needed to be able to fully focus on, I don’t know, Ecuador against Belgium or something.  Every tournament is special… even if my advancing years mean that I don’t remember the last one as clearly as I do the first one that I really watched – España 82.  Marco Tardelli, Schumacher and that insane semi-final, Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick against a tragically fabulous Brazil, László Kiss, Gerry Armstrong.  The France-Kuwait pitch invasions.

I can mark out my life according to World Cups.  I’d just finished my finals prior to USA 1994, and came home from Leeds to celebrate Bulgaria beating Germany (in defiance of Dad, predictably, remembering his German heritage once England had failed to qualify in the way that I kinda do today).  Daughter 1 was born during Germany 2006 – she blinked in astonishment at Oliver Neuville’s winning goal for Germany against Poland in Dortmund within a couple of hours of being born (I couldn’t believe the Polish defending, either).  Four years later and I was getting up early to watch the games from Japan and Korea, often watching with friends in Watford and with a short-lived obsession with squeezing fresh oranges for a morning juice.

There’s a certain purity, honesty and inclusiveness about it, for all the commercialism.  Everybody gets it, even if they don’t like football, even if they don’t watch it.  It’s a joy that everyone shares.

So not watching Qatar 2022 will be really difficult, and I bitterly resent the circumstances that lead me to making that decision.  Not that… anyone who decides otherwise is wrong, or should feel guilty.  But…  I found myself looking at the shamelessly corrupt awarding of the tournament, the “can we stop pretending now” acknowledgment that a tournament in the middle of the Qatari summer really wasn’t going to work after all, the grotesque inappropriateness of the venue from the medieval attitudes to LGBTQ (no, it’s not a local cultural set of beliefs it’s oppression and it’s repulsive) to the lack of facility to accommodate supporters to the flagrant sportswashing, the pitiful recruitment of rent-a-fans to be paid to Behave Appropriately and most of all the 6000 (official figures – unofficially much higher) migrant workers who died in the construction of the stadia having reportedly had their passports confiscated and been kept in slave conditions.  I found myself looking at all of this and thinking “how do the f***ers get away with this?” and realising it was because people would watch the thing anyway.

So I won’t.  Not any of it. But no worries if you think differently, it’s a tough call.

2- Before that starts we’ve got three more games and on the back of three wins on the hop are in danger of generating something called “momentum”, which I think I remember from a dim and distant past.  The return of Davis to fitness and Choudhury from suspension allows us to name the same starting eleven that demolished Luton in our last game here. Fuelled perhaps by that recent run this is officially our largest home gate of the season (though admittedly the variance in a lot of crowds of “about 20,000” isn’t huge).

Unofficially the stadium looks much more sparsely filled than that, a point which a noisy away end makes early and repeatedly.  Andrew French asked Slaven Bilić in the week about the danger of arrogance; his reply was on the lines of “a bit of arrogance is a good thing”, but there’s a thin line between arrogance and complacency and there’s some evidence of the home stands wandering over it which is ludicrous given some of the hair-pulling of the last few months but there we are.  Perhaps, rather than complacency, the fervour in the stands of two weeks ago has been doused by the persistent drizzle here.  Either way it’s inappropriately and unhelpfully quiet.

There is little evidence of complacency on the pitch, mercifully.  Coventry are setting up defensively from the off, but there’s none of the lack-of-direction-masquerading-as-patience that have characterised many of our previous experiences with this approach.  We’re purposeful and aggressive…  particularly significant is the performance of Sarr who, whilst he has his frustrations and will have more effective afternoons is at least struggling, when he does struggle, in an active, involved way.  Chasing, fighting, running at people.  Much more likeable than his more passive performances.  Davis, too, is back with a bang rolling around up front and dragging markers in his wake.  We’re not creating an awful lot but we’re dominating possession…  Coventry are coping, but barely.  Vicky’s sitting next to me – and as an aside claims not to have caught a win since the Liverpool game before the pandemic and so must bear some responsibility for what follows – and murmurs that we just need to zip the ball a little quicker.  She’s right, we’re not very far away.

3- Whilst the game’s outcome is hugely frustrating, any disappointment should by mitigated by the fact that whilst Coventry’s template is very much The Way To Play Against Watford, none have executed it as effectively as this.  We know that without Imrân Louza we are short of a lock-picker;  here Coventry are disciplined and focused in the face of what, for the first half hour or so, is a purposeful attack.  Come the second half they’ll be stretched, we could easily have come away with this with something so – annoying, but maybe a blessing in disguise.  We’re better, but not better enough to take anything for granted.

Those who remember Sean Dyche’s Watford side will be able to testify that a solid side with a little bit of magic dust is a decent recipe for success in this division.  Sean Murray was the magic dust in that team, but Cov more resemble Quque Sánchez Flores’ 2015/16 vintage that survived comfortably in the top flight based on two walls of stuff and the assumption – accurate as it turned out – that Troy and Ighalo would nick enough goals between them.

Coventry’s magic dust is Viktor Gyökeres; for all of Brighton’s reputation for wheeling and dealing you wonder quite how a side that has famously struggled to turn good possession into goals let this kid go.  He looks extraordinary…  his movement as City break for the first time is good but let down by a finish, shanked into the Rookery.  “That’s OK then” we think, relaxing a bit.  But the second break sees him cut inside William Troost-Ekong and force a tremendous reflex stop from Daniel Bachmann which the striker quietly congratulates his adversary for beneath us as the subsequent corner lines up.

The third such break also sees him cut in from the left past an errant but nonetheless seriously examined Troost-Ekong who is saved by a tremendous block by Sierralta, at his stompy, angry, shouty best.  Soon after this we manage a rare counter-break and look briefly devastating for the first time.. JP sending Sarr free on the left, Sarr setting up Davis to fire neatly past Wilson.  Celebrations are arrested by the linesman’s flag for an offside we were completely unable to judge from directly behind the play.  Replays confirm however that Davis had a handful of Kyle McFadzean’s shirt that abetted his route to goal.

It seems reasonable to hope that this development will scare Cov into tempering their attacking ambitions and certainly they seem rattled, briefly.  Sarr is brought down midway through an ambitious run and Ken Sema sees Ben Wilson push a decent curling free kick  away from his bottom right hand corner reasonably comfortably.  Ultimately though we’re grateful for half time;  we’ve looked less convincing on the whole as the half has gone on and need to regroup.

4- Any hope of a change in the narrative disappears early in the second half;  Coventry break once again and seem to have the freedom of their right flank, from where a cross is provided for and converted by Gyökeres.

The inevitability of the game’s conclusion sits miserably in front of us, though in fairness it doesn’t actually turn out to be as pathetic and hapless as what was panning out in my head as the visitors went ahead even if it amounts to much the same thing.  We pepper City for much of the second half, doing a much better job of breaking them down than in the first and the cracks begin to show;  Josh Eccles has impressed on the right flank but is finally booked after a gazillion warnings and is withdrawn from his thankless task against Sarr.  The winger fools his marker with a quick turn and tees up Ken Sema, who steers a shot narrowly wide of Ben Turner’s post.

Kenzema then sends a wicked near-post cross in from the left, Sarr’s diving header diverts the ball across the face of goal and Davis can’t quite stretch.  Asprilla replaces JP and dawdles in possession before finding Kamara’s run with a delicious pass.  Kamara squares it for Sarr to bundle over from no distance at all.  Being kind to him, the ball across his face was at knee height rather than along the ground but it’s still a tragic miss, as Sarr’s forlorn demeanour lying in the back of the net betrays.

Joe Hungbo comes off the bench, which is never a bad thing.  He’s once again immediately entrusted with set piece responsibilities and Daniel Bachmann is twice up at the death – Hungbo’s corners are on point, but we can’t get a touch.  Our best late chance comes when Hungbo cuts in from the right and fires a left foot shot low and firm.  A deflection sends it towards the bottom corner but also kills the pace on it and permits Wilson to make a decent save.  The last chance also goes to Hungbo and he provokes the frustration of the crowd with an ill-judged shot over when a crossing opportunity had presented itself – a blemish that his latest punchy cameo didn’t deserve.

5- In the context of having just won three games this is a disappointment but not a disaster.  Coventry’s long tenure at the foot of the table probably contributes to the frustration but this was always a false position borne of their inability to play home fixtures early in the season after the Commonwealth Games’ rugby sevens knackered their pitch.  City recorded their eighth clean sheet in their last eleven games here and won’t be anyone’s pushover on this evidence.

Meanwhile Bilić is suitably philosophical afterwards.  Not a disaster unless it gets into our heads.  Tellingly however he used the “tiredness” word again, and whilst every club is struggling with a busy timetable there’s no denying that there was a lack of energy about today’s performance;  JP was a shadow, Davis started strongly but faded badly, we didn’t have afterburners to push City as hard as we needed to in the first half.  The forthcoming break, however questionably conceived, might do us some favours but Bilić’s words weren’t carelessly chosen whether an appeal for squad depth or a criticism of training intensity.

See you Tuesday.

Yoorns.

*Bachmann 4*, Gosling 2, Kamara 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 4, Kayembe 3, Choudhury 3, João Pedro 2, Sarr 3, Sema 3, Davis 3
Subs: Mario Gaspar (for Gosling, 64) 3, Asprilla (for João Pedro, 64) 3, Bayo (for Sema, 72) 2, Hungbo (for Davis, 80) NA, Morris, Okoye

Wigan Athletic 0 Watford 1 (29/10/2022) 30/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1-  I had a friend from Wigan. Susan. From Tyldesley, more specifically.  For reasons unclear she possessed a cigarette card produced by Wigan Borough Council advertising the locale with the slogan:  “Wigan – The Surprising Borough”.  Reasons unclear in several ways… why she had a cigarette card, since I don’t think she smoked.  Why Wigan had decided to invest some of its budget in this rather odd format, surely the smallest of placards and targeted at what in the early nineties would already have been a shrinking audience.  Also what exactly was surprising about Wigan… not to doubt the validity of the claim, after all whilst googling “Wigan surprising Borough” nowadays gets you nothing of value it has been thirty-odd years and whatever was once surprising about Wigan is perhaps no longer so.

There’s not an awful lot that’s startling about the game’s preamble.  “Crusty the Pie”, Wigan’s moon-faced mascot, unsettles daughter 2 but the presence of a pie in this part of the country is surely unsurprising.  The stewards on the turnstile might not have been expecting my brother to ask them to detain his two over-excited herberts for a bit in the name of some peace and quiet for the rest of us but having witnessed the vigorous puddle-jumping in the exposed perimeter outside the turnstile they will surely have sympathised, if not sufficiently so to acquiesce.  The herberts are released into the empty upper reaches of the DW Stadium’s north stand instead, to expend energy to their heart’s content until it sort-of filled up immediately before kick off.

The lack of anything surprising doesn’t mean the place is disagreeable.  There’s a lot to be said for an away venue that’s close to a motorway, even if that motorway has to be the M6.  The abundance of accessible car parks, including the one that we tumble out of and into the away turnstiles, is also handy and the steep, claustrophobic design means that this remains one of the better “new” grounds at which to watch football.  We’re two thirds of the back, but directly over the goalmouth – at West Ham you’d be in a different postcode.

Altogether unsurprising is the rather forlorn, helpless feel to the place.  The Latics’ relatively rapid elevation as a football club, from being the last club to enter the Football League under the old “re-election” model when replacing Southport in 1978 (at the 35th time of asking, plus one application to join the Scottish league in 1972) to an eight-year spell in the Premier League thirty years later was never going to be matched by a commensurate increase in their fanbase, nestled where they are between Liverpool and Manchester.  The 25,000 capacity stadium is unlikely to be filled regularly outside the top flight, and despite the club’s success in winning League One last season reports of unpaid salaries on top of the cruel chaos of the preceding ownership (whereby a the club were taken over and put into admin after promised funds were withheld ultimately provoking relegation thanks to a points deduction amid talk of betting on such) surely contribute to the stadium being quiet, despondent and more than half empty.

2- As for ourselves, there’s a morbid curiosity going into the game.  Will we bounce on the springboard of last Sunday’s dramatic result – and, as much as the result, the spirit that was suddenly so very evident?  Or will this be a case of  “after the lord mayor’s show”…  would we sink back onto our haunches for a less prominent fixture and muddle our way to another disappointment of the sort that we’ve seen rather often on the road – it’s not as if there isn’t precedent for such an outcome, however far away it might have felt at 2pm last Sunday.  

The answer turned out to be a bit of both and neither.  Shorn of the irresistible presence of Davis, “injured” once more if mercifully briefly, not to mention the longer term absence of Louza’s promptings you could frame this as trying to break into a safe without a key or a mallet.  Or something.  And certainly there are echoes of our erstwhile impotence here today… periods of play when we keep possession without really getting anywhere.  There are also occasions when we ignite and look all but irresistible, if only briefly.  More significant perhaps – since we’ve known since the start of the season what our forward line in particular ought to be capable of in this division – there’s a doggedness, a single-mindedness that is new, I think.  Certainly a performance well beyond Millwall or – better comparisons – Preston or Birmingham, say in terms of application.

Wigan aren’t great, and that helps.  They’re not dreadful either…  they’re a halfway reasonable team playing without much zip.  And whilst the threat that they might nick a goal never quite disappears it is infrequent…  the danger is that we’ll forget it’s there, like a pan left sizzling inconsequentially on the hob. Will Keane has one energetic if low-threat shot from distance as Wigan start brightly;  that will be their only effort on target, but Keane comes closer still with a far post header to a McClean free kick from their right, virtually a corner, which fools the local clientele in the stand to our left who saw a net billow but not the nick to the outside of the post on its way out.

Their biggest issue is a lack of any pace at all in attacking positions, which makes a high line both pretty successful and the Obvious Thing To Do;  you imagine they see it as often as we see opposing defences sit deep and chase down possession in front of them.

3- The home side’s early impertinence is arrested as soon as we ignite for the first time;  João Pedro floats to the left and releases Sarr who cuts inside onto his right foot and plays a 1-2 with Vakoun Bayo whose deft backheel is nonetheless perhaps just a foot or so further away from Sarr than he’d have liked.  Consequently he’s reaching for it under attention rather than placing it past Jones, who makes a good instinctive save but it’s a pretty devastating move that really wasn’t very far away from being decisive.  

Vakoun Bayo, sensibly, isn’t trying to be Keinan Davis but what he offers in his place for all his willingness isn’t a whole lot.  He releases Sema on the other flank with another clever backheel – the Swede rumbles inside but drags a shot disappointingly wide – but this trademark is picked up on and two of his backheels are anticipated and intercepted during the second half.  Otherwise he’s trying to be a focal point in his own way, attacking the near post when balls are put into the box, but he obviously doesn’t have Davis’ physicality and other assets aren’t sharp enough to be relevant against a well-organised back three lead by Jack Whatmough, the game’s outstanding player for much of the afternoon.

So we end the half irrelevantly on top.  Sarr wants a penalty as he drives in again from the left but it looks soft;  replays reveal that any contact was well outside the box anyway.  Edo Kayembe surges into an inviting crevice in Wigan’s defence, but trips over the ball.  Will Keane pops up again, spinning in the penalty area after a set piece – these being the home side’s most obvious threat – but firing high and wide.  We look purposeful… but are hardly banging the door down.

4- Half time sees resumption of the herberts’ pre-match Watford quiz.  “OK, for goodness’ sake… give me five Watford players who are from Africa – think about it here while I go to the loo”.  “Is Brazil in Africa?”.  “No.”.

There is a stench of nil-nilness about the place which is commented on by more than one voice in the concourse.  Despite this, perhaps fuelled by the greater vim in the performance and particularly by last week the mood in the away end is far more positive than it has been, and never drops below gallows humour in tone.  There are, unsurprisingly, plenty references to them up the road, quite what has just happened again, and what happens to them everywhere they go.  Daughter 2 rolls her eyes but in a tolerant way, like a teacher indulging exuberant kids on the last day of school. 

Hamza Choudhury is also getting a lot of love, and quite right too as he once again stomps all over the midfield.  Nonetheless the second half is proceeding in much the same way as the first…  we’re inconsequentially the better side.  You do feel that if there’s a breakthrough, JP’s going to be involved somewhere along the line.. he pops up on the left and carves a beautiful cross onto Kenzema’s head.  “Ngonge is the decoy” mumbles my brother (one for the kids there) as Sema heads the ball straight down into the ground, a waste of a good chance.

As Bilić was later to comment the subs made all the difference.  In particular, the much maligned Samuel Kalu ignited a threat from our right flank that hadn’t really been there before, for all of Ken’s reliable industry.  His first involvement echoed most of his cameos last season… his debut, an 89th minute entrance two minutes after pulling Arsenal back to 3-2, saw him scream onto a loose ball, advance aggressively towards the penalty area as the crowd rose and then punt the ball inconsequentially into the keeper’s arms.  Here he made a bee-line for goal, surging past challenges before applying a heavy touch and seeing the ball run out to scorn from the home stands.

But his belligerence prevailed.  The next run, just as single-minded, saw the ball slipped to Sarr – now playing centrally following Bayo’s removal, whose snapshot was denied by an inhuman block from Whatmough.  Asprilla had replaced Bayo and had a more credible penalty shout having appeared to fool his marker with a step inside, this was waved away.  Then Kalu embarked on an extraordinary run, which brought to mind my co-editor’s account of Tommy Mooney’s goal against Bristol Rovers 25-odd years ago… “like the winner of an egg-and-spoon race through the Amazon jungle“.  He ducked around, over, through and under challenges and still emerged with the ball… had he smashed it top corner cult status would surely have been assured.  Instead he got a corner and collapsed holding his ankle.  We hadn’t seen a foul, perhaps his body was as fooled by his movement as everyone else had been.

5- It’s a stonking goal.  Just tremendous.  Asprilla’s corner following Kalu’s heroics is headed straight back to him meaning that his second cross from slightly further inside creates a carbon copy of Wigan’s best go in the first half;  the Colombian teenager sends in a gorgeous, arcing cross second time around,  Whatmough spoils his copybook by being beaten in the air by João Pedro at the back post and the header crashes satisfyingly in off the underside of the bar.   As an aside, it’s not impossible that we’ll score a similar goal some time soon with roles reversed – JP’s equally capable of such deliveries and Asprilla’s leap and aerial ability will surprise adversaries just as the Brazilian’s fooled Whatmough today.

There’s still time for a “for f***’s sake…” moment up the other end as we slice a clearance out for a corner, the keeper is up for it, Whatmough tries to redeem himself but crashes a header off the crossbar and that, after seven added minutes, is that.

Very far from perfect, obviously.  But you can choose your own favourite cliché here… the one about winning the scruffy matches, or winning despite not quite being on your game, or winning being a habit.  You may have your own.  Tick, tick, tick.  It’s tremendous to see not only Sierralta back in the side but Hause and TDB on the bench;  with Choudhury picking up a fifth booking, the one downer on proceedings, we may need the latter sooner (Wednesday) rather than later.

But with Davis, one hopes and presumes, back in the side also it’s not impossible that we’ll hit the World Cup break in a fortnight regretting an interruption to our momentum.  This seemed rather unlikely as recently as ten days ago.  Not dull, is it?

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Gosling 3, Kamara 3, Sierralta 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 3, *João Pedro 4*, Sarr 3, Sema 3, Bayo 2
Subs: Kalu (for Sema, 68) 4, Asprilla (for Bayo, 74) 4, Mario Gaspar (for Gosling, 79) NA, Dele-Bashiru, Hause, Morris, Okoye

Watford 4 Luton Town 0 (23/10/2022) 24/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- “Just the football today Matt.  None of your political bollocks”.

OK, Nige.

It’s been hammering it down all night.  We aquaplaned once on the way down – before we passed Luton else the overwhelming portent, strong as it already was, might have seen us turn around again.  For all the “only way is up” stuff after Wednesday, for all that our form is erratic in a way that ought to always give us a straw to cling to after a soul-sapping defeat we approached this fearing the worst, in more than one respect.

I remember this being described somewhere, many years ago, as “the sort of derby that the locals get very agitated by but nobody else gives much of a toss about”.  Harsh but fair.  Thing is…  it’s been sixteen and a half years since supporters were able to watch this fixture in the ground, and the previous a further eight years before that.  Many of the people in Vicarage Road today won’t have seen a derby game in person before;  fewer still were here the last time we won this one in front of fans with John Barnes and Worrell Sterling doing the damage in April 1987 (I kept a diary in 1987, the entry features the word “murdered”).

Which is several ways of saying that it’s been a long time, even if I am old enough to remember.  And maybe there’s a degree of having forgotten how to do it.  Does it even matter quite so much any more?  I’ve always felt that derbies in general and this in particular have an importance that’s inversely correlated to the current prospects of the perpetrators – far more vital in the years when both teams were on their uppers.  But now?  We’re supposed to hate Luton of course and vice versa but… in the absence of any meetings at all I’ve been far more exercised by competitive rivals like Bournemouth and Palace.  How is this going to work?

The potential for trouble is uncertain and unknowable for similar reasons.  Nobody who was here in September 2002 will have taken anything for granted but the provisions and club instructions seem, understandably, to have straddled the twin concerns of not wanting to leave anything to chance – there is, as promised, a police presence much heavier than usual – and not wanting to provoke a situation by stepping back thirty years to the kind of feel that probably contributed to only 14,000 being at that game in 1987.  Treat people like idiots and they’ll behave like idiots, and so on.  Those responsible will probably argue with some justification that they got the balance right but I’ve used Daughter 2’s presence as an excuse to err on the side of caution – colours hidden until inside and so on – despite the fact that she could probably flatten a visiting troglodyte with a withering glance at 30 paces.

2- As far as “how do we do this again?” is concerned, Luton appear to have gone out of their way to help matters by wearing a kit with orange sleeves (only a Thing for three seasons in the early eighties, it transpires, but at a critical formative stage in my development such that it provokes unexpected and involuntary revulsion).  They could have gone further by fielding Kirk Stephens or Steve Foster in the back four (now both in their sixties but, one is tempted to suggest, no worse than the present incumbents on this evidence, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).  It’s not orange, it turns out, but a sort of red and blue combo but then I am getting on (see above).

Cathcart, Kayembe, JP for Pollock, Louza (sigh) and Asprilla.  Fine.  Good.  Best available.  Nonetheless, we spend a long time drinking Side Pocket in the Upper GT with Dad, braving the inevitable at the last minute to the extent that Felix suggests he thought we’d been arrested.

The script is abandoned from the off.  “League form goes out the window on derby day”, I seem to remember (which I think used to mean that the two sides would bludgeon out a nervous, ugly, charmless 1-1 draw irrespective of circumstances).

But surely the script here was for Luton to be On It.  To have nervous prey in their sights, pampered Premier League wannabes who demonstrably don’t like it up ’em and to come at us like wild dogs accordingly.  That’s what I’d expected.  That’s what I’d feared.  Instead the visitors seem… woozy.  Anaesthetised.  Certainly Keinan Davis being able to receive the ball, control and turn unchallenged well inside Luton’s half in the first minute was not on my bingo card…  no more is the amount of space being afforded us in wide areas.  An attack is recycled to Sarr who, whisper it, perhaps has another chance to really flourish now that he’s once again, as on his best days with Troy and Geri, Not The Only Threat.  Luton are already standing off him;  he angles a pass out to Hassane Kamara on his first gallop.  The full back could build a housing estate on the amount of space afforded to him;  instead he flings a cross near post to which is met acrobatically and creatively by Keinan Davis in a sort of scorpion kick.  1-0 after 2 minutes, and Vicarage Road loses it’s shit.

Luton come back at us.  A shot is blocked, Alan Campbell rolls the follow-up narrowly wide of Daniel Bachmann’s right hand post from the edge of the box.  He wasn’t getting to it if it was a foot closer to him, and perhaps we’d have ended up with the traditional 1-1 after all if that had gone in.  Craig Cathcart, a pillar of magnificence all early-afternoon, comes marching out of the penalty box at this escape to berate João Pedro for dereliction of midfield duty.  The Brazilian has had a wobbly start on his return to the eleven, but within two minutes he turns on a sixpence to leave Alfie Doughty blinking stupidly and facing entirely the wrong direction. JP disappears up the right wing and Luton’s prospects disappear with him – they’ve already had their best moment of the game.

As Bilić’s post-match comments reflect, this is a master class in a fine old chestnut.  We earn the right to play.  We earn the right by working our nuts off all over the pitch… gone is the lack of energy of Wednesday night, here’s Hamza Chaudhury, who doesn’t miss a beat for 75 minutes, hammering into a challenge, here’s Edo Kayembe chasing down possession well inside the visitors’ half.  Here’s Dan Gosling being exactly the kind of canny bastard you need in a derby game. We earn the right to play, and then we play them off the park.

JP’s trick-and-spin-and-go thing is the game’s trademark.  Keinan Davis’ is a monstrous, terrifying all-round performance that will yield two assists on top of his goal – he’s the next to do a twisty spinny thing, before barrelling towards the goal leaving markers in his wake.  They might as well be trying to tackle a tank.  He slams a contemptuous shot towards the bottom corner which Horvath does well to push away.

We’re confident and assertive all over the pitch, and the fact that we’re not capitalising feels like mere detail – even when Adebayo beats the flapping Bachmann to a deep cross before heading over.  There’s an inevitability here, a lack of jeopardy.  Shortly before the break we get the second… it has some fortune about it but we’ve earned that.  João Pedro’s deep, looping cross from the left looks like a f***-up but it isn’t because JP did it.  Davis and Sarr are both hammering in on the far post waiting for it to drop – Davis it is who gets part of his head to it, somehow deflecting it back across the box onto Troost-Ekong’s toe and thence into the net.  The Watford supporting centre-back didn’t enjoy that at all.  We end the half with our foot noisily on the visitors’ throat, pushing hard for a third.

3- There are two obvious points of comparison.

The first is a game that ended with the same scoreline 25 years ago this month.  It was a hugely significant result in many ways;  most obviously at the time the fact that it ended a ten year stretch without a derby win in a period densely populated with such encounters – the same 2-0 win mentioned previously having been the last.

But more than that, it was symbolic of a parting of the ways.  This was evident at the time – I’d arranged a trip back from working abroad so as not to miss it – the more so with the benefit of hindsight.  Luton and Watford had been competitive rivals since the start of the eighties when I began watching – normally in the same division, promoted to the top flight together in 1982, relegated three years apart and then relegated again, together, in 1996.  We weren’t to know how long-term the separation would be at the time, but it was already clear that with GT at the helm, with Division Two being flattened and an injury-hit Luton struggling near the foot of the table – though relegation would take another year – the clubs were on different paths.

There was a concern that a big win for the visitors here of the sort that we’d been dreading since Wednesday at least, would represent the end of this break – a symbolic return to the clubs competing as equals.  This may yet prove to be the case – but as it is the game’s outcome has our opponents clinging to the fact that they remain above us in the League.  For the first time in twenty-five years.  How were they for you?

The other obvious comparator is Wednesday evening.  On that occasion the boot was on the other foot…  we had the bad start and then fell apart.  We looked flat, without energy, without inspiration.  Also without our little magician in midfield.  Who could have guessed that three days on we’d see Kayembe and Choudhury rampaging to such a victory.

In that second half we dominated possession but were… over-deliberate.  Tentative.  Forced.  Luton’s start to the second half here was similar…  an improvement, a bit of pressure and possession but always with an air of reluctant obligation.  Half-time substitute Gabriel Osho sent a diving header wide from a corner before looking up as if to ask “there you go, I tried.  Can I go home yet?”.

4- In a report describing (spoiler alert!) a magnificent thumping of our local rivals based on comprehensively both outfighting and outplaying them, it’s a shame to have to reflect on being let down by elements – some might say a minority, but it’s a significant minority – of our support.

Those responsible were housed in the Rookery, the home of the 1881 and so often the source of positive stuff.  But today, there was simply no excuse for the easy ride given to Ethan Horvath after our third twelve minutes in.  Others might claim mitigation in the shape of, you know, other things to sing about and celebrate.  Perhaps I’m a sadistic bastard for cherishing the evisceration of Danny Coyne with the “dodgy keeper” chant all those years ago.  Whatever.  Must do better.

The third goal was formed of the efforts of our two star performers amongst a sea of star performers.  Davis we’ve already talked about – here he contributed an assist without touching the ball, bounding after possession (at 2-0 up mind you) until he found a loose thread, Horvath nervily getting rid and finding only João Pedro.  The Brazilian was utterly mesmerising at the apex of the midfield, this is what our glittering forward line was supposed to look like.  Swaying past challenges that were too far away, holding off challenges that were too close.  Others have complained at Luton’s niggliness, but I’d have found it hard to resist kicking people after being repeatedly made to look like a tosser.  No mistakes from JP here, he took a touch and precisely as much time as he could afford before hammering the ball between the miserable Horvath and his near post.

The game was over.  Except it wasn’t, obviously, since quite how many it was going to be remained an open question.  The visitors had perfunctory shots from distance, but we always felt the more likely… Kayembe did his traditional “nearly scoring” thing, forcing a save from Horvath who had, in fairness, been largely blameless before the third goal and recovered well afterwards.  He denied Davis a second by intercepting a wicked left wing cross destined for the big striker’s forehead at the far post and pushing it over.

Shortly afterwards Davis was off after twisting painfully near the technical areas and falling like an oak tree.  It looked like a bad injury, but he jogged down the tunnel after treatment and was later seen moving easily enough around the dugout.  Vakoun Bayo was his replacement, and Daughter 2 demonstrated her accelerated development with the dogmatic prejudice of a veteran, insisting that the striker was “still rubbish” based on his poor showing at St Andrews despite since redeeming himself several times over.  Unabashed by her scepticism Bayo tees Isma up for the fourth, the Senegalese leaving three opponents on their backsides with a series of shimmies before clipping a fierce low shot past Horvath into the bottom corner.

It could and perhaps should have been more.  Yáser Asprilla must have been the last thing Luton needed off the bench… when you’re 4-0 down to your local rivals you really don’t want to be made to look stupid by someone who looks about 12.  Asprilla might have been the only man in yellow to end the match unhappy having failed to break his duck after several close calls, at least one denied by the keeper.

Meanwhile Gabriel Osho won the “which one of them is going to get sent off?” prize with a moronic lunge at Ken Sema.  Harry Cornick, a wide attacker with a stupid Scott Oakes tribute haircut, would have been my pick after an increasingly stroppy battle with the normally placid Sema.  Referee Bobby Madley had done a pretty decent job of keeping things lively but sane – there had been a few sympathetic looking decisions towards the end of the game, but churlish to protest too much.  4-0 it ended, which for historical reasons was almost preferable to a 5 or 6 that would have better reflected the game.

5- Of course it still matters.  Of course it does.

If it didn’t before the game, the longer-term psychological impact of the afternoon on both the many visiting supporters who left early and those who stuck it out to the end (and, as an aside, were mocked by some nugget behind me for acknowledging their team positively at the end as if “supporting” is somehow inferior to angrily pointing and wailing in the face of defeat like wot we do) guarantees a resumption of hostilities going forward.

They away end had made the mistake of giving airtime to “Watford get battered…” before the game;  normally the laziness of Song A by Team X at Team Y being reflected back the other way would be tedious and unimaginative but here the refrain being eagerly and tirelessly rammed back down their throats was the first track on the afternoon’s soundtrack, closely followed by the crowd-pleaser “it’s happened again, it’s happened agaaaaain….”.   If you’re not going to make a racket in such circumstances then, well, when are you really…  but good to see Vicarage Road stepping up to the mark with its noisiest performance for some time, the more so given the discombobulating midday kick-off.

And so we head into a relatively gentle looking run of games before the break in good spirits and with another opportunity to establish something resembling a run of form.  Nobody should be under any illusions that everything is “sorted”…  challenges remain, and after all we only won today because of the lurgy that decimated Luton’s options*.

But we’re all perfectly entitled to stick our fingers in our ears and LALALALANOTLISTENING, for a few days at least.  This was an utter joy in it’s own right.

See you at Wigan.

Yoorns.

* allegedly.  arf.

Bachmann 5, Gosling 5, Kamara 5, Troost-Ekong 5, Cathcart 5, Kayembe 5, Choudhury 5, *João Pedro 5*, Sarr 5, Sema 5, *Davis 5*
Subs: Bayo (for Davis, 69) 5, Mario Gaspar (for Choudhury, 75) 5, Kalu (for Sarr, 84) 5, Asprilla (for João Pedro, 84) 5, Pollock, Morris, Okoye

Millwall 3 Watford 0 (19/10/2022) 20/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- It’s an utter car crash.  Horrific.  

We’re simultaneously peering through our fingers in dread and yet wide-eyed in awe as countless chickens come noisily home to roost.  This isn’t common or garden chaos… it’s all but unprecedented, generation-defining stuff that will be picked over delicately in fascination and disgust in the days, weeks, months, years to come.  This is one of those that you’ll look back on and remember where you were.  You’ll benchmark life events by it.  Podcasts – or whatever they become – will reflect back on it decades from now, heads shaken at the foolishness of time past.

There’s more to come, one suspects.  Maybe it’ll get worse before it gets better.  Either way, the day ends with Quique Sánchez Flores as prime minister, Ignacio Pussetto as Chancellor, Steve Leo Beleck in charge of the Home Office and half of the morning’s cabinet overloading Watford’s (far) right wing.

The repulsive Suella Braverman is a significant absentee.  A missed opportunity for her, perhaps, and a possible future career (if, preferably, at some far off club.  In Rwanda maybe. “APR” might be interested.  Geddit? Stopping now).  Despite an environment where one imagines Ms Braverman’s policies have had some support, she’d be good at finding space in crowded areas.  Even Millwall’s finest would surely give her a wide berth.

2- Oh, shush.  I had to endure this, now I’m reliving it to get this out.  I get to be as self-indulgent as I like.

Millwall’s a great away trip in many ways (football, on this occasion, excepted).  Dead easy from the northern reaches of Bedfordshire – straight down the Thameslink to London Bridge, as much time as can be carved out in the environs of Borough Market before a one-stop hop down to South Bermondsey.  Station right next to the ground and you’re in-and-out.  Couldn’t be easier.

It’s a fairly glum, basic stadium of course (though nearly-neutral Paul, a veteran of visits to the old Den, confesses to still thinking of it as “new” nearly 30 years on) and the locals leave something to be desired.  Even they, however, have lost their USP…  one of Brexit’s many crimes is to legitimise being a wanker, Millwall are no longer anything unusual sadly, except perhaps in degree.  “No one likes us, we don’t care” comes the gleeful boast from our left.  “We don’t actually give a sh!t” yawns the bloke behind me.

Nonetheless.  The booing of the knee is there, from a few of our own muppets as well as from much of the home stands.  The lack of black faces in a South London team of all things kind of inevitable and a bit depressing.  Some self selection going on here on and off the pitch.

We start OK.  Yes, really.  Bright, positive.  Briefly we wonder whether, having once again demonstrated our ability to beat teams that give us space to play we’ll finally overcome a more obstructive opponent.  

Ho hum.

3- Mattie Pollock looks the part.  For all that his Dad was a stocky midfielder of (checks that there internet) 5’10”, Mattie is every inch a centre back.  He has broad shoulders and a huge forehead. His pedigree is good, he had a decent season at Cheltenham by all accounts.  And yet concern at the absence of Craig Cathcart on top of those of Sierralta, Kabasele, Hause is fed not just by the introduction of a relatively untried youngster but of the fact that his first team outings to date – 90-odd minutes spread over Franchise in the League Cup and the Swansea calamity – were characterised by anxiety on the part of the big defender and three goals conceded.

It’s a nothing ball.  A nothing ball from the back, token challenges from Millwall’s forwards but Pollock moves a long way wide to deal and it would have been his to win even if his opponents had been closer to him.  Thump, back where it came from, nothing to see here, move along now.  Except the ball slips off his head, deflected inside, Tom Bradshaw can’t quite believe his luck and bounds onto the loose ball to fire confidently past Bachmann who has no chance at all.

Everything falls apart, instantly.  Pollock’s world visibly caves in on him and he’s a frantic mess for some time; noticeably it’s a good while before anyone – Hassane Kamara as it turns out – puts a hand on his shoulder and gees him up.  But there’s chaos around him also.

Critically, Millwall are a much taller and more powerful side than us;  Pollock is our height and he’s not capable of taking on Jake Cooper.  Bachmann is glued to his line, the home side have towels around the side of the pitch and a prodigious long throw merchant whose loose interpretation of throw in laws – you know, pitch markings, feet on ground and that – is treated with generosity by the officials.  Cooper wins every header, Millwall keep playing the same card and why the hell not when we are so manifestly unable to counter it.  Bradshaw completes a hat-trick shortly after the half-hour and in both cases Cooper has been involved.  In both cases we look like a side with a back four featuring a midfielder at right-back, our fifth and sixth choice centre backs, and the indiscipline and rudderlessness of a Conservative government.

The worst has already happened though.  The manner of the defeat is crushing, the more so because Millwall should arguably have won by a greater margin but everyone has bad days.  Even allowing for the bad (particularly away) days that preceded this one, bad defeats happen and the evening might have been written off as “one of those nights”.  The developments on the quarter hour however are likely to have longer term ramifications.

Our vantage point is ideal (or not, depending) from the revised away seating in the lower tier of the Den’s North Stand.  Imrân Louza stretches to block an attempted right wing cross right in front of us; there is no foul, or contact with the player, or twist or any kind of impact other than ball on left ankle.  The bloke behind me’s repeated refrain of “the ball just hit his ankle” goes through a range of sentiments from dismissive through disbelief to despair.  And yet it’s immediately apparent that something is wrong.  Louza’s exit is prolonged and anguished, and plays out to a charmless soundtrack from the home stands, where being a knobhead is clearly a badge of honour.  Louza’s World Cup and, without being overly dramatic, our season hang in the balance.

4- Nearly-neutral Paul captures the critical detail most concisely.  

“They’re miserable.  This is an unhappy group of people.”

And, like, duh.  We’re three-down at Millwall, and floundering inconsistently in mid-table of a League we expected to do well in.

But it’s more nuanced than that.  This, remember, is a side that looked glorious at times in beating Norwich on Saturday, where did that go?  Surely, whatever our ongoing limitations, the fuel to the fire that should come from beating one of our division’s fancied sides, an opponent that humiliated us in the Premier League not nine months ago, ought to burn a bit longer than that?  It’s not just momentum after all, we know that we have some of the best attacking players in the division.  And the defence is on the creaky side of creaky and our playmaker has just been stretchered off but still.  Still.  No fight?  None at all?

Rob Edwards wasn’t The Problem, then.  At least not the only problem.  Who knew.  But on the assumption that Slav isn’t The Problem either, what is?  

My co-editor, notorious pitchfork-waver and knee-jerker that he is, is voicing his opinions with acid satire over Whatsapp.  “It’s like watching Vialli’s team, just an assortment of nice expensive players who haven’t understood a thing about the division and what it requires”.  Ouch.

I’m not sure that’s all of it either though.  For one thing, the two players removed at the break are the last two who an accusation of lack of bottle, savvy or commitment could reasonably be levelled at.  Neither Hamza Choudhury nor Ken Sema can be faulted in that regard, whatever their technical limitations.  And yet neither has been able to contribute to the first half, for good or ill and utterly uncharacteristically.  Choudhury’s withdrawl is no idle, speculative punt either since it removes the only realistic cover for Pollock in the middle of the defence.

5- In fairness to Mattie Pollock, he gets his shit together and ends the game in Millwall’s penalty box with the sort of thumping header that we could have done with ninety minutes or so earlier; the Lions’ keeper is right behind it, Pollock gets endearingly bolshy with his marker on the way back up again.  It’s way too late of course, but it’s something.

There’s never a prospect of us getting back into it, for all that we dominate the second half possession.  There’s a tentativeness and a lack of energy about our attacking play… we’re knocking the ball around but it all looks terribly hard work, particularly with the unfair contrast between a struggling Kayembe and the magic dust that left on a stretcher in the first half.  Our attacks end with a turn away, or a misplaced pass, or an overeager bad decision from Asprilla or Kalu.  The latter comes closest, hitting the post with a scuffed shot in a penalty box scramble and maybe the game would have changed if that had gone in, but only had it done so twenty minutes earlier.

We have, at least, gotten away with it as far as our immediate environs are concerned.  There is vocal despair and anger and frustration of course, but it’s all quite…. proportional.  A shared experience in misery; none of the red faced vitriol that ought be reserved for, I don’t know, those profiteering from the trashing of a country’s economy to pick a hypothetical example.  Other parts of the stand aren’t so lucky.  

We stick it out, and are rewarded by sympathetic trains on the way home.  Another good evening out marred by the football.

As for Sunday, the best it’s possible to say is that when your expectations are low you’re not going to be disappointed.

Hang in there.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 1, Gosling 1, Kamara 1, Pollock 1, Troost-Ekong 1, Choudhury 1, Louza NA, Asprilla 2, Sarr 2, Sema 1, Davis 2
Subs: Kayembe (for Louza, 18) 1, João Pedro (for Sema, 45) 2, Kalu (for Choudhury, 45) 2, Bayo (for Davis, 74) 2, Mario Gaspar, Morris, Okoye

Watford 2 Norwich City 1 (15/10/2022) 16/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

1-  It’s easy to get trapped in your own head.  To build up backstory around indisputable facts, whether fuelled by optimism if you’re in a good place or anxiety if you’re in a bad one or by your natural proclivity or (probably) by all of these things.  And by chitter chatter on social media, often by folks going through the same process.  There is a natural human aversion to uncertainty, a distrust of shades of grey… this manifests itself in countless expressions of undue absoluteness on Twitter, but also in all of our attitudes (if to varying degrees) to developments in those indisputable facts on the pitch.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I was last able to write about a game, that being the false dawn at Stoke after which we bounced back down the motorway.  In that time such developments haven’t been great – a clumsy defeat against Swansea (which I saw) and a thankless trip to Blackpool (which I didn’t) since which, for all that Slaven Bilic was grateful for a week on the training ground my own patching in of the gaps has left me wallowing in dejection over the same period.  I wasn’t looking forward to this, my mood abetted neither by our comical tumble down the extraordinarily tightly packed Championship table as Saturday progressed, or by Daughter 2’s decision to join the longer-term abstinence of her older sister by ducking out in favour of a better offer (though, in fairness, she can cite Preston, Stoke, Birmingham, Rotherham and – by intent – Wigan and Bristol City on her roster this season so is well in credit).

I wasn’t the only one to have misgivings, clearly. Others’ patching in of gaps had left plenty of patches in the stands fuelled perhaps in part by the TV option, in part by the odd kick-off time, but also by both the acute and chronic effects of watching Watford at home.  It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to watch a convincing team here in person.

2- Fortunately, and perhaps inevitably, many of those who have turned up are of the more positive persuasion;  the mood is defiantly buoyant despite the sparsity of the home stands and Slaven Bilić fuels this with his team selection and attitude.  He’s helped, of course, by circumstances;  Rob Edwards, not that any ongoing comparison is of any value at all, never had the option of fielding Imrân Louza and Yáser Asprilla in the same midfield trio.  Nonetheless, Bilić does field Imrân Louza and Yáser Asprilla in the same midfield trio which looks both fun and a little audacious as the team news breaks given the stature of the opponent.

As the game starts it’s also apparent that Ismaïla Sarr and Ken Sema have switched wings;   ostensibly the key benefit of this is to offer Kenzema’s defensive shield to stand-in right back Dan Gosling but it’s also clear that Isma is going to enjoy cutting inside on his stronger foot.  To whatever degree this is a factor in his rejuvenated performance he proceeds to put in comfortably his best 45 minutes of the season, and if his erratic flame can be aggravating there’s no justification for not enjoying his brilliance when he’s fully on his game.

We approach the game in a similarly positive and aggressive vein.  Early strikes from both sides are range finders but it’s the Hornets that are already looking more potent…  Davis and Sarr have shots saved and if they’re not really troubling Angus Gunn then we’re only really warming up.  This is as many shots on target as the visitors will record all evening.

There are (to varying degrees) nascent partnerships all over the pitch.  Gosling and Sema, our unlikely right flank.  Louza and Asprilla.  Sarr and Kamara, who spends the evening bounding forward like an excited puppy in a manner that Isma might find familiar.  Their first link up sees Kamara dink a pass over two opponents to where Sarr has skipped unnoticed;  young midfield Liam Gibbs is panicked into grabbing an arm and Sarr’s momentum does the rest.

Good to see goal machine Louza, having so gloriously if inconsequentially broken his duck at Bloomfield Road, grabbing the ball in JP’s absence.  Not so good to see Gunn save well as the Moroccan international struck the spot kick firmly yet eminently saveably to the keeper’s left but hugely heartening that we didn’t miss a beat – to the extent that City fans’ celebrations at their let-off were quickly dampened by the aggression with which we chased down and regained possession after the spot kick, albeit to no immediate benefit.

3- Given that we’ve finally got most of our attacking weapons more-or-less fit, both sensible and encouraging that we were so positive in this game – using the bits of the team that are both strongest and most completely equipped to distract from the deficiencies behind them, not to mention the sellotape holding the back four together.  Two big changes were the number of players a long way up the pitch when we gained possession, and our willingness to play longer balls from the back – something that William Troost-Ekong unsurprisingly benefitted from hugely, for all that he had navigated an early City attack by tiptoeing around a his opponent as half the stadium had palpitations.

It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, much of it was messy but it was endearingly messy through its ambition and bolshiness.  Much easier to forgive failings in that situation.  And in our best spells of the game we saw those attacking weapons hum as we have all hoped they might.   It helped, perhaps, that the opener came soon after the penalty save, not giving us a chance to disappear back into our heads and feel sorry for ourselves but we’d earned that through our alacrity.  And it was a glorious thing, Asprilla making space like no eighteen year-old ought to be able to and feeding Kamara.  The full back laid off to Sarr who needed no space at all to curl an impossible in-swinging cross to the far post from a stationary position.  Louza had done something similar at Stoke for Bayo’s goal (if unchallenged) but here it was him attacking the far post unnoticed to guide the ball back across the goal and into the side netting.  Beautiful, and given that Louza had arrived without attention, undefendable.

Briefly, the visitors pushed back.  Dowell clubbed in a shot from the right – the first of those two attempts on target – which Bachmann beat away having appeared to be troubled by it for a fraction of a second.  Max Aarons picked up the rebound and flung a low ball across the face of the goal –  a vicious delivery, it only needed a touch but didn’t get one.

Our midfield was working tremendously well, having so visibly not worked for so much of the season to date and for all the worthy efforts of those involved.  Choudhury was doing Choudhury things as well as swinging crossfield balls to aggressive wide positions.  Asprilla and Louza were both darting and digging and flicking, combining control and a willingness to receive the ball in tight positions with a tremendous level of belligerence.  Asprilla, incidentally, is progressing at such an extraordinary rate that if it continues he’ll be the best player of all time before he’s 25.  This demonstrates why extrapolation is a Silly Thing… but nonetheless my favourite moment of the evening was the young Colombian’s contribution to the second goal. This is with due deference to Sarr’s terrific run that preceded it, slippng into a space that wasn’t there between two nervous opponents in the box, wrong footing both with a turn and cutting the ball across the face of goal.  It found an uncontrolled Norwich foot, a half-clearance but Asprilla lunged at the loose ball, critically propelling it towards Keinan Davis who was sufficiently free of attention to get it out from under his feet and steer past Gunn for 2-0.

4- What we didn’t need was to concede a stupid goal just before the break after 44 minutes of being largely tremendous.  Much less for it to come from Josh Sargent, talisman of one of one of the lowest of last seasons many low points as if to add volume to the nagging voices in our head.  We gave the ball away carelessly on our left, and Norwich patiently progressed the ball diagonally across the pitch. The ball found Sargent attended to by Dan Gosling, who in one of very few lapses in a sterling evening’s work allowed the American to drive hard and low through his legs and the Watford diaspora muttered “for f***’s sake” as one.

“Near post again Bachmann” bellowed a Mr Angry repeatedly as he descended the Rookery stairs in search of half-time sustenance, whilst elegantly demonstrating how it’s possible to be both completely right and completely wrong simultaneously.  Indisputably though the development swung the half-time mood in an instant.

So the second half, for all that it was less flamboyant than the first and for all that the visitors enjoyed far more possession, was also worth celebrating.  Whatever the underlying detail, this was a side who were in the top two and who had exposed underlying anxieties by striking back when they did.  We were there to be got at in the second half but they barely laid a glove on us despite the attacking line-up, despite the paucity of defensive options. This bears comparison with the 2006 play-off semi, when erstwhile favourites Crystal Palace didn’t manage a shot here despite being three-down with nothing to lose from the first leg. We could very easily not have gotten away with it this time of course… had Grant Hanley bludgeoned his shot a few inches lower after one of the many corners that we seemed quite happy to concede this report might have had a different tone.  Instead we defended a high line resolutely that stifled City, and on a rare occasion on which they did break through they found Dan “legs have gone” Gosling completing an inhuman run on the cover to snuff out their attack.

Referee Darren England had adopted a near cavalier approach to match discipline, being reticent both with his whistle and with his cards.  There are worse ways to referee a game of course and England will probably argue justification from the fact that a match which occasionally appeared to be about to boil over never quite did so.  One of several flashpoints came as Asprilla writhed in agony after competing for the ball whilst grounded.  WhatsApp fact checking with those with the benefit of replays reported  an inadvertent but painful tread on the shin, which saw the teenager removed for the returning João Pedro.

City had been dominating possession and beginning to suggest a head of steam, but the Brazilian’s arrival changed the mood music again to the point where a more generous margin of victory would not have flattered us.  We really ought to take the lead more often just to demonstrate how very difficult we are to chase given the ability of Louza and JP in particular to spring a counter attack.  Several of these came far closer to adding to the scoreline than the more needy visitors did over the same period, JP crowning his cameo by dumping Andy Omobamidele into the hoardings as his opponent aggressively shepherded a loose ball out.  The final whistle was preceded by Sarr appearing to revel in an ovation as he was replaced by the mythical Kalu.  Positive signs indeed, if you choose to look for them.

5- Stuff that’s wrong won’t all have been sorted by a good win over a strong side.  Worth bearing in mind that we beat Sheffield United and Burnley in similar circumstances back in August;  no secret that we’re more effective against sides confident enough to let us play.  Smashing a side that denies us space will be further cause for celebration if and when, but until that point this is fine to be getting on with.  A good night all round.

Meanwhile, my first match preview for this blog’s predecessor Blind, Stupid and Desperate was written twenty-five years ago this week.  Fittingly, it was for a game against a Millwall side boasting such old faces as Nigel Spink and Paul Allen, albeit at home – we lost that one, time for redress perhaps.  The report survives, the preview (perhaps mercifully) does not.  Many thanks to those of you who are still reading.

See you on Wednesday.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Gosling 4, Kamara 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Cathcart 4, *Louza 5*, Choudhury 4, Asprilla 5, Sarr 5, Sema 4, Davis 4
Subs: João Pedro (for Asprilla, 63) 5, Kayembe (for Davis, 87) NA, Kalu (for Sarr, 95) NA, Bayo, Pollock, Morris, Okoye

Stoke City 0 Watford 4 (02/10/2022) 03/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- Look I don’t bloody know.  Let’s be clear about that from the off.  No clue what I’m supposed to think, no pithy, well-considered, rational, balanced equilibrium here.  No Sir.  No Madam.  This has been crackers, the most mentallest of all the many mental weeks supporting Watford.  Jesus, a week ago Rob Edwards was still in charge.  Seriously?  National economies have tanked in less time than it’s taken for us to get from there to here.

A few things I AM clear about.  A few bits of flotsam and jetsam to cling to amidst the torrent of stuff.  First, when I heard about Edwards’ sacking I was bloody furious.  Incredulous first, then bloody furious.  And tired, mentally exhausted.  What?

What made it worse was the assurances that followed his appointment.  If there was scepticism at what would happen if things got a bit iffy they were countered at least in part by the fact that Scott Duxbury had been unequivocal about the change in tack.  Difficult for us to dispose of Rob quickly without Duxbury’s credibility being shredded… which is perhaps the biggest question mark, the main unresolved plotline.  Giaretta going looked like evidence of backing the coach;  Giaretta returning and Edwards leaving was transparently the owner trumping his CEO.  Whither Scott Duxbury, I guess.

More generally, there’s the ongoing viability of our “model”.  It’s beyond question that it’s worked well in the past and that it has worked less well more recently (though our promotion two years ago shouldn’t be cheaply dismissed as a given).  I don’t think it automatically follows that it’s “out of date” or “old fashioned”.  A plan can be executed well or executed badly (be it appropriate or otherwise);  either we’ve been executing it badly or we’ve been appointing a succession of bad managers since Edwards’ four immediate predecessors at the very least did not find their departures mourned by the majority.  And, whisper it, for all that Edwards and Kyle were treated atrociously in the light of the summer’s assurances it’s only those assurances that render this decision a surprise.  We’ve hardly been ripping the division apart despite demonstrably having the tools to do so.  The big question, then, is what has been “executed badly”, what it is that has prevented a succession of managers from lasting in the job?  Gino’s trigger-happy habits reflect his impatient nature, not his preference.  He wouldn’t choose to get through managers quickly.  So why are they failing?

Finally… for now…  there’s been a lot of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing and frustration on social media at the week’s developments.  Which is… understandable, even without the knowledge that the echo chamber creates the illusion of consensus amongst like-minded souls and the confidence in one’s opinions that goes with it.  But… yes, understandable.  Justified, even.  Maybe. 

But protests?   Pitchforks, tar and feathers?  People who do things make mistakes.  Shouting in fury at a football match as a proxy for the things that you’re really pissed off about is also understandable, something that we all do from time to time. But protesting about the way the club is run in the context of the far more heinous shit going on in the country suggests, at the very least, a warped set of priorities. 

2- It has been a mental week, and it’s a mental day.  Someone at work suggested, on discussing plans for the weekend, that Stoke on Trent is a sort of guardian of the north;  all the harsh, grim, unpleasant bits of northern England without any of its more attractive characteristics – a deterrent to any casually curious southerner of the sort that a northerner might want to leave ignorant and keep away.

This is a gross oversimplification of course, but not so big an oversimplification that I argued with it.  So it was a huge surprise to find the advertised ten-minute-or-so walk from our car parking space to the ground taking place almost exclusively through pleasant woodland.   The sun was shining too, despite warnings to Daughter 2 that on previous evidence this is one of the coldest stadiums in the country.  Mental.

The away end boasts an extraordinary concentration of stewards, perhaps wary of it all “kicking off” in the light of recent developments. If so their precautions were attentive but unnecessary;  there’s one half-hearted “Gino out” by half a dozen or so as the game kicks off and that’s about that.  The only hooligans in the away end of note are my brother’s two young herberts, who first persuade him to shout “Goal!” incongruously at a quiet point in play and then chortle for a good five minutes when he’s defiant enough to do so.  Meanwhile the only eviction noticed was in the adjoining home stand, where a well-built youth was rather harshly chucked out for doing little more than waving his belly at the inevitable cat-calls from the away end.  

After a 4-0 away win it seems trite to say that it could all have been so different, that this result could be pivotal.  Well, duh.  But seriously.  The game starts and we look…  ragged.  Loosely strung together, like a piece of furniture whose screws are working their way out, wonky legs, ready to give way.  “I don’t want to say this but we look really ropey already…” says Will anyway over my shoulder.  How long would it have taken for a second chant to start?  How many would have joined in this time?  A sliding doors moment.

But it doesn’t happen.  Because however ragged, we also look vastly more aggressive and purposeful straight away…  assertive in the midfield, full-backs pushing forward, passes along the backline only in extremis – gone is the numbing metronome of previous games.  It leaves us exposed, sometimes – people who do things make mistakes – but it gets our attacking threats into the game and when we score twelve minutes in, it’s no surprise.  Hassane Kamara – whose performance is every inch that of the ilk that won him Player of the Season based on half a campaign last year (he’s only been with us nine months) – swings in a peach of a cross that tempts a very young looking Josef Bursik into no-mans land and a brilliant run by Sarr allows him to nod the ball past the stranded keeper.  On a single replay view it looks offside, in which case we quietly nod and chalk it up against the more easily remembered ones that go the other way.  In any event, if you don’t get into attacking positions you don’t give yourself a chance of getting a lucky call.

3- Stoke are a pretty forlorn bunch, that’s the obvious caveat.  Worth remembering that not so long ago they were a newly relegated side that were generally expected to go straight back up – as above, let’s not take the 2021 promotion for granted.  Looking back out of curiosity at the Potters side that put us out of the League Cup a year ago it’s surprising and telling that for a variety of reasons – injuries not least –  there are only two survivors from that squad to this, and those the ex-Watford faces of Ben Wilmot and sub keeper Jack Bonham.

We have, however, failed to beat similarly forlorn opponents already this season and Stoke aren’t so forlorn that they don’t put us under serious pressure either side of half time (for all that Will’s younger herbert produces 20p from her pocket and asks the world at large whether it would buy Stoke’s team).  The whatever-it’s-called ground (do Stoke fans have a familiar name for their home that transcends sponsors, I wonder) is a tinder box – you feel it would need little encouragement to be very noisy indeed and it gets a little, largely spurred by the midfield promptings and set piece threat offered by the deliveries of skipper Lewis Baker.

But as much as it’s the realisation of our attacking threat and the imposing scoreline that grab the attention, no less significant was our resilience to this assault.  Not without luck, not without wobbles but Francisco Sierralta is another to have rediscovered his best self with his most “have it!” performance since promotion eighteen months ago.  That the considerable threat of dreadnought Aden Flint attacking the back post from Baker’s set pieces was continuously repelled was frequently down to him, whilst Tariq Fosu was mercilessly dispatched into the advertising hoardings late in the half.  Sierralta, as has been discussed, hates everything bless him. 

Stand-in skipper Kabasele also has a good afternoon – yes, really – with some dogged and disciplined defending; only once is he found seriously wanting when he falls short in an attempt to outmuscle Liam Delap attacking from the left.  Delap Junior is a powerful individual – either Rory’s wife is an enormous lady or Delap Senior needs to have words with his postman.  A lunge on Bachmann leaves the goalkeeper squirming alarmingly, subsequently getting the bird from the home support.  Nonetheless, Delap is comfortably the bigger threat of Stoke’s two forwards; a poll of the away end attempting to name Delap’s strike partner would have found the names of Mame Biram Diouf, Ade Akinbiyi and Nick Hancock attracting more votes than the actual incumbent, the recognisable but invisible Dwight Gayle.

Despite all of this the chances are better and cleaner at the far end to the visiting support.  Kayembe launches another missile, its deflection would have left Bursik helpless had it been the right side of the post. Some neat footwork and another evil cross from Kamara again finds Sarr, who howls in to smack a header flush against the upright and forces Bursik into a decent save with an instant left-footed shot to the rebound.  Sarr’s industry badgers possession out of Stoke high up the pitch and the ball works its way via Keinan Davis into the path of Ken Sema, who smacks a shot that Bursik touches onto the post.

One-nil at the break, and worth the lead.

4- The game is scruffy and still in the balance;  two set pieces are a clarion call at the start of the second half, this is not a game that’s about to fizzle out.  First Sarr is clumsily fouled on the corner of the area and the perhaps under-appreciated right boot of Mario Gaspar drops a peach of a cross onto the forehead of Francisco Sierralta.  Criminally, flying in unmarked, he gets underneath it and sends the chance over.  Shortly afterwards at the other end Baker pings a free kick towards the postage stamp only for Daniel Bachmann to claw it away from danger (there’s a strike on after all).

It’s the popular and much-anticipated appearance of Imrân Louza, for his first half-hour this season after injury that changes the game irreversibly.  No secret this, no surprise – Louza is both the very type of player we’ve been missing and, frankly, the very specific player that would be the best antidote to our midfield limitations.  Yáser Asprilla is a fine thing and will be extraordinary…  but Louza comes on with a Ready Brek glow;  no touch is wasted, no opportunity passed over and we immediately mutate into something more than just vaguely threatening.  Until this point it is still perfectly possible that we drop points.  Beyond it only one outcome is possible – for all that Louza will only be directly involved in the last of the four goals; his oil to our attacking play gives Stoke too many directions to look in.

The latest in a series of thunderous Hamza Choudhury challenges provokes the second breakthrough… the ball spins up and over the defence, the considerable presence of Keinan Davis asks questions of Bursik and nobody does “scruffily effective” better than Ken Sema who shovels the scraps past a hapless Ben Wilmot for two-nil.  Davis has had a low-key game, too many balls fired at his head rather than his feet to little positive consequence as mopping up high balls that don’t require him to move very much is the other thing that Aden Flint is good at. With fifteen minutes to go however  Davis receives a pass from Sarr on the left of the area, powers through an increasingly “screw this” defence and smacks low, hard and contemptuously past the keeper.

Louza, operating in Asprilla’s position behind the forwards, hums into the box on the end of  another scything attack to drive first time, hard and low but narrowly wide.  He will later gently usher lively cameo Joe Hungbo away from a free kick wide on our right before transparently trying to beat the keeper from a silly angle and not being terribly far away.  Forgivable in the context of still needing to open his account only because by now it was four;  Louza had been left in ridiculous space on our right and flung an extraordinary, undefendable, eddying ball between keeper and defence to the far post where Bayo, who is doing this “right place right time” thing too often to be merely lucky, gobbled it up.  The final half hour has been scintillating, and very few Stoke fans have stayed to watch the entirety of it.  

5- “Lucky!”, grins an elderly Stokie with a wink on our walk back through the woods.  We’ll take any luck that’s going.  Today was only one win against a struggling side and if it wasn’t lucky then we got lucky at critical times. 

But let’s suppose this luck, or whatever it is, continues.  Does the end justify the means?

I think most of us would probably say that both are important.  Or at least… being managed by a bunch of lovely chaps and ladies that we treat honourably by respecting extended contracts would be undesirable if the team was tanking on the pitch.  Equally you wouldn’t want success on the pitch tarnished by unconscionable behaviour off it.  There’s a continuum of variously acceptable positions in between.

What’s beyond dispute is that Vicarage Road and the home support is overdue entertainment like this.  What with successive relegations in front of a crowd, even isolated extraordinary moments like the wins over Liverpool and United have soon faded into irrelevance.  There is nothing quite like letting a performance such as that of the last half hour blow all the cobwebs away and shouting “BWAAAAAAAAAAH” with your fists in the air.  I’d almost forgotten.  We need this at home.

Maybe Wednesday.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 4, Mario Gaspar 4, *Kamara 5*, Kabasele 4, Sierralta 4, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 5, Asprilla  4, Sarr 4, Sema 4, Davis 4
Subs: Louza (for Asprilla, 59) 5, Bayo (for Sarr, 81) NA, Gosling (for Davis, 87) NA, Hungbo (for Sema, 87) NA, Hause, Morris, Okoye

Watford 2 Sunderland 2 (17/09/2022) 18/09/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
5 comments

1- Being relegated is difficult.

Which is a ludicrous thing to say in one sense of course.  Getting relegated is very easy – just go out there and play like turkeys.  Hell, you or I could do it – I think I could do a good turn as the befuddled and slightly out of shape centre-back who turns around looking for someone to blame as the third goal trundles in. And for less money than, say, Patrick Blondeau was on. Even last season, when we did have to work quite hard to achieve what we achieved in the wake of stiff competition from Leeds and Everton in particular…  getting relegated didn’t require any great strategy.

Being relegated is different.  For all the complaints about yo-yo clubs from those barely paying attention there are all sorts of challenges facing teams relegated from the top flight.  Our own history betrays this truth…  1988 was my first relegation and perhaps the exception that proves the rule since I vaguely remember simply the relief at Bassett no longer being in charge as the dominant sentiment.  But… even then, finishing fourth was a little bit disappointing I think, though I was younger then than Daughter 1 is now so I forgive myself for not quite remembering.  2000/01 though was utterly miserable…  a distractingly good start rapidly collapsing in the face of miserable performances by Christmas.  2006/07  virtually a carbon copy, except that we improbably clung on to a play-off place thanks in part to the lack of consistent challenge from elsewhere.  And as many have pointed out… for all that we were promoted two years ago it was anything but easy.  It was pretty miserable for quite a lot of the season.

The challenges are manifold.  It’s rare for a happy camp to be relegated for one thing, there will always be problems in need of resolution.  Sands will shift as it becomes clear that the straws you cling to are the ones that others want to whisk away, whilst nobody wants your dead weights for some reason.  Planning with any certainty is difficult since you don’t know quite when or whether your asking prices will be met, as this summer has shown, and the cost of holding anything other than a firm negotiating position will scupper “the model” going forward, whether you still have faith in it or not.  You’re not going to get very far buying low and selling high if you make it clear that you can be bullied.

And then there’s the whole “fan expectation” thing which clearly is a thing.  But that’s not a criticism to be levelled at the support either, at least not all of them.  If you were ten years old and developing some kind of consciousness in 2012 when the Pozzos took over then you’re now 20, your world consists of six seasons in the Premier League, two promotions and one late defeat in a play-off final, a cup final, a semi-final and the insane catharsis of Troy’s penalty against Wolves.  Of course you’ve got high standards.

2- So, it’s difficult.  The margins are fine, and much as there’s loose consensus on the decision not to refresh the squad in 2019 as The Root of All The Problems it’s a mistake that many of us would have made in that position.  Signing Sarr likewise.  Subsequent badly-timed injuries, the pandemic and its consequences both on our relegation and our ability to move players on when we wanted to, all of that adds mass to the avalanche that’s outside of anyone’s control.

There’s still no justification for a situation that sees Craig Cathcart trundling out again at right back at the age of 33 on the back of one related injury of course.  It’s transparently the correct decision from Rob Edwards too, since we benefit hugely from Hassane Kamara being back on the left, rattling up and down the wing joyfully for much of the game while there are few mourning the absence of Mario Gaspar from the matchday squad (other, perhaps, than the chap who went early with the Spaniard’s name on his shirt, spotted at Blackburn).  But no excuse for us getting ourselves into this position.  With an international break looming, let alone with Xisco Muñoz loitering for selfies outside the ground after the game, you’d worry about the manager’s future but for the eye-catching Giaretta situation.  The sacking/refocusing of the sporting director suggests a change in approach.  We’ll see.

The mood music is playing loudly from the kick off;  every time the ball rolls lethargically across the backline the grumbles rise like an echo.  Vicky’s not been exposed to much of this…. “why are they moaning already?” she asks, but is chewing her knuckles with frustration before half time.

In reality though this is already much better than Blackburn.  The return of Kortney Hause and particularly the employment from the off of Keinan Davis up front give us a physical heft that we didn’t have before and the latter suggests an out-ball that, if unimaginative is nonetheless more than we’ve had to this point.  We are creating a bit more too… whether through Davis occupying opponents or through Kamara’s willingness down the left or through a little bit more imagination from our midfielders (and bearing in mind that with the best will in the world Edo Kayembe isn’t going to become Andrea Pirlo or even Almen Abdi any time soon) we suggest the possibility of a breakthrough before it actually happens.  Glimpses amongst our laboured stodge, light breaking through the clouds as JP fires at the keeper from an offside position, as Davis almost thunders his way through.  But as so often, it takes a moment of brilliance to actually get the ball into the net – an outrageous, scorching pass on the turn by Asprilla to release Kamara howling up the left flank, his perfect cross allows Davis to plant the ball into an empty net.  It’s irresistible, a Manchester City goal that is so brutally effective that it leaves the opposition wondering quite what they did wrong.  It’s a glimpse of what we might mutate into with a prevailing wind.

3- In the meantime we’re stuck with this midfield, albeit with the knowledge that any one of Cleverley, Dele-Bashiru or Louza being available could be transformative through adding either dynamism or guile, or both.

Sunderland are our inverse in some respects.  We have a potent looking forward line that is underserviced by a pedestrian midfield short on numbers and options;  our visitors have a nimble, dynamic, mobile midfield that moves the ball around well but only two senior strikers, both of whom absent today leaving diminutive midfield nearly-was Alex Pritchard to lead the line for the most part.

Their lack of physicality up front might suggest that sitting deeper to challenge them to prize us open should be productive.  Unfortunately we never look less organised than when the latest central combination of Troost-Ekong and Hause have their lack of relationship placed under a microscope.  Sunderland don’t have to do very much to provoke scruffy carnage in the box in front of the Rookery, at the height of which Alese stabs at goal and Choudhury scrapes the ball away.  It must have been a tight call but my instinct had been “oh shit” for all that the game continued, and the referee’s watch removed any doubt.  The ball had crossed the line and the visitors were level shortly before the interval.

As an aside, Sunderland were also an inversion of Watford in the attitude of their support.  If a miserable relegation (indeed, two successive relegations as far as the in-stadium support is concerned) lends itself to an overly negative take then long-awaited promotion sees Sunderland fans riding a giddy wave.  We rode the same wave all the way to a successive promotion behind Sunderland in 1999 of course…  but there was an absurd level of triumphalism on display outside the ground afterwards.  There’s nothing not to enjoy about nicking a late point away from home of course – the more so when, unlike here, it’s completely unmerited.  But exaltation of Sunderland’s large but not terribly noisy away support and citation of the visitors’ two “cast iron” penalties were fanciful – certainly the tumble in the first half was laughable, and the apparent handball in the second was matched by an identical shout in Watford’s favour at the Rookery end.

4- Watford started the second half much more aggressively with Hamza Choudhury punching into tackles and some concerted pressing for the first time.  Keinan Davis continued to be the focal point of the attack and began to link up nicely with João Pedro, who had been ploughing a slightly uncomfortable furrow on the right flank.  Twice he played the ball into Davis’s feet for him to hold it up and with a single touch allow JP to continue his run across him and open up the play.  Less productive was Davis’ relationship with Ken Sema – time might suggest whether the striker’s furious impatience when things didn’t quite come off was directed at the left winger or at himself, Vicky and I disagreed on this point.

Where the two sides did bear comparison was in defensive vulnerability. For all that in Danny Batth Sunderland boated the sort of big old unit that we’d been craving in the transfer window (until Hause’s arrival at any rate) they looked vulnerable at set pieces and there was no huge surprise when Luke O’Nien, having admirably made up his seven inch deficit on Kortney Hause to get his head to Troost-Ekong’s excellent far post headed knock-back, inadvertently sent the ball past his own keeper.  Not the return that the former Watford youngster would have chosen, one suspects.

Briefly a more comfortable win looked likely.  Sunderland looked overwhelmed for the first time as we swarmed forward;  Kayembe lurched into space and sent a fierce, curling shot narrowly wide.  João Pedro appeared on the left and flung a shot across the face of goal.  Three points, whether merited or not, would have been a valuable thing to go into the international fortnight with.

5- Instead the game ended with Sunderland banging on the door, having spurned a good chance breaking on the left and had a Jack Clarke goal ruled out for a tight offside call before Jewison Bennette snapped up the equaliser from a ridiculous amount of space on the right of the box as we defended it.

During the 25 minute interval between the two goals 8 (eight) substitutions had taken place, from which the visitors undoubtedly did the better.  Much grumbling in Rob Edwards’ direction on Occupation (for the moment) Road after the game – in truth the fault lies with the paucity of options on the bench.  Davis and Kamara were the expensive sacrifices, but the latter had been touch and go for the game and the former, about whom “as long as they can keep him fit” has been a qualifier in all informed reviews, is yet to complete 90 minutes and had a bruising hour at Blackburn on Tuesday.  Rey Manaj’s injury (remember him?) perhaps expensive here.

Sunderland meanwhile injected much more energy and dynamism into their offering with their own subs, though any envy of their young options should perhaps be tempered with the knowledge that on-loan Amad Diallo has already cost Manchester United more than we paid for Ismaïla Sarr.  Not that it matters, but “local lad come good” he isn’t.

And so we go into the international break downwardly mobile and grumbling.  Rob Edwards will probably be glad of the break – the team, as has been widely acknowledged – looks tired and the urgent need for more options in the middle of the park will hopefully help address this as much as the week’s break that many of the squad will enjoy.

As for his job security, to repeat, words are cheap.  We can’t implore the club to exercise more patience on the one hand and then turn on a young manager in a challenging position if things look a bit tricksy after ten games.  We await clarification on Giaretta with interest.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Kamara 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Hause 3, Kayembe 3, Choudhury 3, Sema 3, Asprilla 3, João Pedro 3, *Davis 4*
Subs: Bayo (for Kamara, 73) 2, Gosling (for Davis, 81) NA, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 84) NA, Kalu, Hungbo, Sierralta, Okoye

Blackburn Rovers 2 Watford 0 (13/09/2022) 14/09/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1-

Oh, it’s opening time down on Fascination Street

So let’s cut the conversation and get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling and I’m begging

To drag you down with me, to kick the last nail in.

Fascination Street, The Cure

“I can’t believe that Joe f***ing McLaughlin played for us 53 times”.

This is my first trip to Ewood Park since watching a young Alan Shearer quickly dismantle Steve Perryman’s side in front of a noisy away end in 1992.  I’m not sure why it’s been that long, it’s just how it’s happened.  Other Matt is an Ewood Park virgin, prioritising the midweek trip to tick a ground off.   Dave was last here to witness Jean-Alain Fanchone’s 74-minute Watford career in 2012; this nugget provokes a conversation that takes us most of the way from our rendez-vous at Corley services to Blackburn.  “A memorable short Watford careers” eleven, which rapidly bisects into a “Brief but beautiful Watford careers” eleven and a parallel “Brief for a reason Watford careers” eleven (euphemistically.  these may not have been the words used).

Dave polices nominations. Joe McLaughlin doesn’t qualify, having played more than ten times. Xavier Gravelaine inevitably spearheads the former eleven, while Collins John and Kerry Dixon form a fearsome forward line for the latter in the face of, as you’ll appreciate, stiff competition.

This sort of trip, stupidly long midweek drive facilitated by gratuitous use of holiday from work meaning a leisurely drive up and a late thunder back down an empty(ish) motorway, has become an annual tradition decided on fixtures day in June and fuelled by Red Bull (other revolting rocket fuel is available), snacks and “banter”.  Amanda joins us in the Fernhurst where we half-watch Tottenham lollop around against Sporting for a bit whilst eating enjoyably greasy pub fare.  

Yes, this is necessarily going to be an “enjoy the journey” report.  Without giving ages away (but see below), we’ve all been doing this for decades.  Long enough to know that sometimes a good day out can be marred by what is nominally the focal point of the trip.

2- There aren’t many here to witness this.  There was a smaller crowd at Rotherham, but that felt busier in a ground with lower capacity.  Ewood Park, as Other Matt observes, “always looked bigger on the telly”…  it’s a likeably straightforward, unmodern collection of four subbuteo stands, but it’s hardly bulging at the seams.  This goes for the away end as much as anywhere… independent of how the team is going, it’s surely to be expected that long-distance midweek support will be impacted by the relentlessness of the midweek programme in this season more than any other.  Sometimes a small away crowd can characterise the most memorable of games – those who braved the fuel blockades to travel up here in 2000 would surely agree.  This will not be one of those times.   Half a dozen gormless locals exchange the predictable chants about paying benefits, empty stands and bunches of whatevers with like-minded travelling orns, and whilst I must confess to never having heard the one about double glazing before, it’s a ritual grimly befitting of the evening.

A minute’s silence in tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth is impeccably observed, as you’d hope and expect.  A rendition of the national anthem is perhaps less unanimously engaged in, but you are nonetheless left with the impression that those wishing to pay tribute to the monarch might have had their best opportunity to do so by performing the same ritual before the Reading game rather than by doing whatever people did on Saturday afternoon instead.  Watch the cricket, perhaps.  Admittedly when faced with an unprecedented situation of such gravitas, bad decisions are going to happen and perhaps some leeway should be given but “not being bloody stupid” would seem to be a good guideline.  I suspect I’m not alone in finding that being told how I’m supposed to think and behave tends to incline me to the opposite course of action.

3- Here we go then.

It’s bloody awful.  Or at least, we’re bloody awful… Blackburn do a reasonable job of looking like a competent football team.  So we’re bloody awful.  Or rather…   we’re not completely awful, but the bits that are awful are so awful that they render the less problematic bits sort of obsolete.  For instance, I don’t really think there’s much wrong with our defence as far as actual defending goes.  Nothing that something more cohesive going forward to release the pressure wouldn’t relegate to merely something to work on in the goodness of time, for all Christian Kabasele’s generosity with possession.  Kortney Hause’s number has come up on the “who’s missing today?” spinning dial – a worryingly non-specific sprained ankle depriving us of the option of his surges out of defence and swinging crossfield balls.

So we’re back to Cathcart – Sierralta – Kabasele.  Which… as above, is kind of ok defensively.  Certainly for all that Rovers are the most up for it from the off and put Daniel Bachmann to work immediately these weren’t clear cut chances and we weren’t being played through… Brereton-Diáz, involved in a Chile-off against Francisco Sierralta, finds space for a bobbling shot from outside the area – a deflection might have caused a problem, but as it is Bachmann fields comfortably.  The lively Dolan snaps in a shot from an acute angle and does exceptionally well to direct his fierce effort on target, but Bachmann is equal to it.

The problem, the main problem, perhaps the problem that if resolved would see everything else fall into place, is the midfield.  Not so much the individuals themselves, for all that both Choudhury and Kayembe have had better games, but the inadequacy of the shape when both of them sit.  No evidence here of Kayembe trundling forwards with possession as against Boro which is something.  The lack of movement makes us horribly easy to defend against… sitting back and saying “come on then” is currently pretty much enough to watch the ball swing across the back line until someone loses it, or some individual brilliance (or perhaps some doggedness from Sema on the left touchline) fashions a chance.  You’d take those odds, and Blackburn do.  There is no pattern.  There’s little evidence of anyone carrying the ball. We don’t know how to score goals, indeed how to create chances despite our attacking riches and this demoralises team and fans alike.  We’re suffering from missing the mobility of Cleverley and Dele-Bashiru, missing Louza in a different way.  But we need to find a way to play football with the assets we have available.

JP doesn’t hide, for all that he too has had better days, days when flicks and spins have come off.  He looks ever more a leader, even at 20.  Not so Sarr, who is invisible until injury forces him off after half an hour, meaning that we get an hour of Keinan Davis…  the ball suddenly sticks, defenders with sore limbs left trailing in his wake (tho no matching the three at Rotherham, two his best tally here).  Something like a threat begins to suggest itself, but within ten minutes Blackburn finally play through us (Kabasele, for the second game running, contributing through inattention) and Hedges tucks away a Dolan cross from the right.

4- To be one down at half time was more than fair enough;  we’d scarcely threatened, for all that Davis had given us some oomph and 1-0 might have been considered “getting away with it”.

And indisputably things improved in the second half, if from a low bar.  This was abetted in part by Rob Edwards changing the shape (again)… switching out Sierralta and bringing Dan Gosling in to add a body and some snapping and sniping to that midfield.   Vakoun Bayo, who had run a willing but fruitless path skipping around chasing not very much, was surprised to find a Sema cross reach him at the far post… his header was well directed, downwards towards the bottom corner, but lacked the power to trouble Kaminski.

Davis remains our most overt threat, occupying and engaging multiple opponents at a time (if being treated less generously by the officials than he had at Rotherham).  As at Rotherham he pulls off the Sema-like trick of holding off and leaning into  a number of markers with his right shoulder and rolling around to his right in a wide arc to facilitate a shooting opportunity on his left foot, firing across the face of goal. Minutes later João Pedro clips across a corner, Davis gets his head to it and Kabasele bundles home only to be denied by the linesman’s flag.  The replay looks tight – only Davis is at risk of being offside – but we still hadn’t earned any luck, no more than we had with Ayala’s clumsy challenge on Davis in the box in the first half.

Rovers meanwhile were being pressed back, but catching us on the break.   Brereton-Diáz thundered away down the left but was forced wider than he would have liked and Bachmann blocked well.  Then a second break lead to a corner and Rovers did get the break, as the impressive Hyam hooked a flick-on home acrobatically from another borderline offside position.  If you make ten chances instead of two you can kinda expect to get these breaks with one of them.

5-  The visiting support, such as it was, flooded out.  The mood in the away end was combustible, that unhappy mix of those who want to vent their frustration and those who really would rather maintain a happy ambiance, a sense of togetherness.  Each group would have pejorative ways of describing the other’s stance and such opinions began to be shared openly as flashpoints sparkled in the stand.

One particularly agitated individual had been loudly and stridently expressing his frustration in a series of exclamations and ultimatums halfway up the left side of the stand throughout.  At the whistle he was down the front, pointing angrily at the Watford players who appeared to both recognise the efforts of those who had made their way up and their own inadequacy in rewarding it during the game.  Rob Edwards approached but didn’t engage directly, though visibly apologising to the crowd in general.  Daniel Bachmann, bravely but perhaps ill-advisedly and possibly thinking that his own faultless display might earn him a bit of restraint appeared to submit to discussion with calming gestures.  We were too far off to hear the exchange, but it was clear that no common ground was found.

As luck would have it my route down to the exit saw me arrive at the same time as the aggressor in chief, whose unbound anger was attracting more vocal criticism.  Joining in was stupid;  he was never likely to respond positively to being  told that he didn’t have to come to the games if he didn’t enjoy it as was obvious when his response was a shove of frustration that saw me topple backwards.  I fear I flattened whoever was behind me – there’s a lot of me – but any potential for deterioration doused quickly as we both seemed to recognise our own stupidity.  The surrounding supporters reacted angrily to the violent turn of events – “you’ve just hit an old man” was one shout.  It took me a few seconds to realise that the old man in question was, in fact, me, by which time the source of the shout was indiscernible and an even uglier flashpoint was avoided.  

As an aside, if there’s anything more stupid than engaging in such a conversation it’s doing so the day before your wedding.  Let’s say 20-odd years ago, arbitrarily.  Not that anyone would be that daft.

Unfortunately, Dave and Other Matt had heard the “you’ve just hit an old man” shout, the last two words of which were the focus of discussion during much of the queue to escape the car park.  Pointing out that Dave is a full three weeks older than me proved of little help (and neither of us 50 just yet… “old” indeed).

People get wound up by the oddest things.  I don’t mind disagreeing with people, or people seeing things differently in general.  I don’t really mind us being a bit rubbish – I mean I’d rather we weren’t, but, you know.  Comes with the territory.  I do hate conflict though, anything that challenges the illusion that we’re all pulling the same way.  Not very good at that.

People get cheered up by the oddest things too.  A McDonalds break in the early hours amidst the inevitable M6 lane closures was brightened up by realising that Spurs had lost after all.  We’ve just driven the length of the country and back to watch us lose and be rubbish, and Spurs losing is still capable of raising a snigger.

Later, post Corley, I undertook the solo hour-long final stretch with music at ear-bleeding volume.  Another Ewood Park curio – I bought the Cure’s “Disintegration” album the day before our trip to Blackburn for the play-off in 1989.  Astonishingly, Dad let me play it in its entirety on the drive up.  We didn’t score that day, either.  “Fascination Street” screams down the A14.  “Drag you down with me, Kick the last nail in”. 

No, I’ll be miserable as, when, if and how I choose.  Thanks anyway.

Yoooorns.

*Bachmann 3*, Ngakia 2, Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 1, Choudhury 2, Kayembe 2, João Pedro  3, Sarr 1, Bayo 2
Subs: Davis (for Sarr, 30) 3, Gosling (for Sierralta, 45) 3, Mario Gaspar (for Ngakia, 74) 2, Asprilla (for Choudhury, 74) 3, Hungbo, Troost-Ekong, Okoye

Rotherham United 1 Watford 1 (03/09/2022) 04/09/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- As every travelling fan is aware, the real litmus test of an away stadium is the approach taken to bottle top policing at kiosks.  The removal of bottle tops from purchased bottles of water or pop is aggravating, but par for the course.  If it’s done with a half-apology then it’s shrug-offable.  

The red light starts flashing when bottles are decanted into plastic pint pots, normally ultra-cheap pint pots of Jamie Moralee levels of flimsiness that look like something designed to lose liquid, something left over from “It’s a Knockout”.  This screams “we really don’t give a crap about you and would rather you’d just stayed at home.  What do you mean you’ve paid for a ticket?  You’ll be expecting leg room next…”.

So it’s reassuring to be sold, as here, bottles of water replete with lids as they were intended to be.  The trust that it implies, the hope that if you treat people like adults they’ll behave like adults may sometimes be misplaced (see below) but you’d rather that way than the other.

Not much of a litmus test on reflection really, since by the time you’ve got to this stage of proceedings you’re likely to be in a position to predict with reasonable accuracy what the outcome of the test will be.  Certainly, here, Will had already managed to bring his ample box of snacks for his young herberts through unchallenged, and a couple outside the ground who had arrived with one ticket too few for their (very young) infants were told that the babe in arms would be welcome nonetheless – but only on someone’s lap, as the end was sold out.  Not every ground is as accommodating.

Meanwhile as our circumference of the stadium was briefly obstructed by the arrival of the Watford team, a steward affably asked us if we’d seen “the exhibition”, which was available for free behind an incongruous gap in the stadium’s wall and boasted a decent number of Millers artefacts, bits, bobs and newspaper cuttings.  And a loo, for those in need.  Most significantly perhaps a timeline, or rather three timelines… one picking out significant Rotherham United events as you might expect, another in parallel picking out developments in the women’s game and a third reflecting milestones for black and asian footballers.  All very “Woke”, and hurrah for that – Luther’s hat-trick against Luxembourg and John Barnes’ Player of the year award, plus their Watford connections, all prominent.

2- Establishing that Rotherham were Good Sorts didn’t help in any way once the game started and we reprised Tuesday’s tactic of lulling our opponents into a sense of security early doors with a startlingly similar outcome.  Daniel Bachmann less obviously at fault here on review, Wes Harding’s snappy cross from the right dropping over Christian Kabasele’s head in a way that, one suspects, Francisco Sierralata wouldn’t have accommodated – as an aside, however wobbly his recent form you had to question – as Will did – the decision to withdraw the Chilean and his forehead against this opponent in particular.

Veteran Rotherham skipper Richard Wood, a 37 year-old centre-half, was loitering in a way that suggested that the Millers had been watching videos of Tuesday night’s game or something, the cads, and stuffed away his fourth goal of the season.  The afternoon threatened to go seriously downhill, not abetted by a brief and tedious confrontation in at the front of the stand.  I’m all for a liberal approach to standing at football games, but when you’ve got a bunch of folks remaining seated in the front rows of the stand,  several of whom are of Ken Furphy vintage and several of whom scarcely remember Javi Gracia, remaining stoically standing in front of them as four or five individuals in the front row chose to do really isn’t “sticking it to the man”.  A bored looking steward who presumably has this sort of conversation with visiting numbskulls every week, ambled over and suggested either moving further back where everyone was standing or sitting down if they didn’t want to be evicted.  The chief protagonist turned arms open to those behind him and declared “he’s threatening to throw me out” in apparent astonishment, to which he got an unsympathetic “you’d better sit down then”.  Undeterred, he asked one more experienced gentleman behind him whether he minded him standing, to which the reply was “well yes I do actually”.  “See!!!”, our hero declared to the still bored looking steward.  In fairness an insulin pump on his arm revealed a medical condition which I know from bitter experience can encourage you to behave like a dick in the wrong circumstances.  In any case, mercifully, everything settled down a bit.

As on Tuesday we were able to recover from our early sleepiness if less dramatically and absolutely.  A gradual improvement was signalled by a spring in the step of Vakoun Bayo, whose goal on Tuesday is fuelling a case being made for him being at least a capable deputy for the first time.  His head was on the end of our earliest forays which, if they didn’t lead anywhere at first at least signalled intent.  Rotherham meanwhile were hounding possession a long way up the pitch and threatening to counter, though in honesty for the rest of the game even their better chances were from distance.  Craig Cathcart in particular had probably his best outing of the season on the right hand side of the back three and was significant in cutting off the threat.

Eventually the equaliser came… Ken slung in a cross from the left, Bayo repositioned himself and took advantage of a half-hearted Rotherham attempt to intercept the cross by volleying expertly home.  Big jumpyaroundness in the away end, even amongst those of us who hadn’t seen it properly.

3- The other significant contributor to the first half was Kortney Hause, making his full debut on the left side of the defence in front of us… indeed, so tall and broad is Hause that he blocked our view of much of the rest of the pitch during the first half from our position three rows back in the corner. 

With the anxiety of the closing days of the window, the focus on the retention of JP and Sarr and the failure to bring in a right wing-back, it was easy to forget that we’d already done some business the effects of which were yet to be realised.  Hause looks every bit what the doctor ordered on the left side of the back three…  an absolute monster, he saw off every physical challenge with a shrug and was equally sanguine when decisions went against him, trotting back into position without argument.  Both Wes Harding and Arsenal loanee Brooke Norton-Cuffy will be nursing bruises this morning.

But Hause also looked comfortable bringing the ball forward.  The biggest problem with playing Hassane Kamara on the right is that it limits his attacking threat, and in a team that’s struggling to progress the ball from back to front that’s a significant loss, arguably a waste of a key weapon.  Imrân Louza may sort that issue when he returns (no pressure, son) but in the meantime it was heartening to see Hause lurching forward down the left in a manner that our existing centre-backs haven’t been able to do.  I was reminded of Colin Foster, although Colin Foster for all his majesty seemed perpetually on the verge of falling over, whilst you suspect Hause would still be standing after a nuclear explosion.

In the final knockings Hause even suggested a long overdue replacement for the “Neal Ardley dumping the ball on the far post for Helguson” stock move, swinging a succession of diagonal crosses from deep left to right as we pressed for a decider. 

4- Arguably for the first time in our four away games this season we looked like overwhelming our opponents in the final quarter of the game.  Paul Warne highlighted the difference between playing on a Wednesday as the Millers had and a Tuesday but if this was a factor it was only one of a number as the balance of the game shifted in our favour.

Yáser Asprilla, as Will pointed out, had barely contributed for a game and a half, but sparkled again in the second half, ferreting out possession and playing his part in attacks.  Most dramatically as a sharp counter attack ran out of space and Bayo conservatively retained possession and fed João Pedro; the Brazilian displayed a terrifying indifference to the massed ranks in front of him on the left of the box, stopped dead, cut toward the by line and clipped a ball back for Asprilla to volley fiercely at goal bringing a fine stop from Johansson diving to his left, the rebound not falling kindly for Bayo.

Later Asprilla surged forward from midfield and João Pedro (a veteran at 20, two years Asprilla’s senior), occupied his marker to pull open space for the Colombian in a very Danny Graham kinda way; Asprilla fired over in a manner that would be unforgivable of an older player.  I remain concerned that we’re having to use him too much, that Louza’s injury and injuries to forwards (Sarr – a knock – and long term absentee Manaj missing today) prohibiting fielding JP deeper are meaning that we play Yáser more than is ideal.  But my goodness, what potential.

JP is a weapon wherever you play him, but he doesn’t half look dangerous from deeper positions.  An impossibly languid swipe of the right boot from out on the left dropped a cross to the far post which seemed to brush the forheads of both Bayo and sub Mario Gaspar before hitting the woodwork and, impossibly, avoiding both protagonists on the way out.

5- Another away point then.  Two points dropped on this occasion.  But I was surprised by the dejected tones of two sage observers on the walk back into Rotherham after the game.  We missed chances.  We didn’t get the three points we should have, and in a division that remains horribly competitive we can’t let these go cheaply.

But the appearance of Keinan Davis for Asprilla midway through the half will surely have warmed the hearts of even the most cynical of Watford observers.  As with Hause, you almost forgot that we haven’t really seen him yet, this is a gift that remained unwrapped…  as an aside you also wonder quite how many other Big Old Units Villa have got on the fringes of their squad, and whether getting both out of the building was simply a necessity borne of freeing up some physical space.

Because Davis, too, is massive.  Shorter than Hause, but as broad as he is tall… he announced himself in the game by effortlessly holding off a suddenly overpowered Rotherham defence and laying off crisply with a single touch.  Later he was barrelling through opponents on the left of the box and slinging a shot goalwards requiring a fine block but leaving defenders grounded in his wake.  Later still he contested a high ball in the box and left both Johansson and Wood prostrate on the turf – no elbows, no nastiness, just sheer physical presence.  Catcalls at perceived timewasting from behind the goal as the two were sellotaped back together were ludicrously misplaced, both had tried to tackle a tank and were suffering the consequences.

That any one of Sarr, JP and Davis is spending another season in the Championship is a little ludicrous.  That all three are playing for us should be mouthwatering, whatever concerns we have elsewhere in the side.  I’m reminded of Sarr-Deeney-Deulofeu in 2019/20…. and yes I know we got relegated and I know that I use this stat too often so two years on this is the last time and then it’s officially retired:  in games when those three started we won 5, drew 5, lost 2 (Liverpool and Leicester away, the latter under caretaker stewardship).

Having too many places to look makes a side very difficult to defend against.  Each of these three is strong, quick and clever but Davis is ridiculously strong, Sarr is outrageously quick and JP audaciously clever.  Each would be double-marked if they were the only threat.  What on earth are opponents supposed to do against all three of them?

And yes, yes, injuries.  And yes, here we fielded two of the trio (if briefly) and only came away with a point.  Whatever, it’s a long season.  But given what the retention of our two headline acts is likely to be costing us financially, it would be rude not to enjoy the upside.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Kamara 3, Sema 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 2, *Hause 4*, Choudhury 3, Kayembe 3, Asprilla 3, Bayo 3, João Pedro 4
Subs: Mario Gaspar (for Kamara, 63) 3, Davis (for Asprilla, 67) 4, Hungbo (for Sema, 89) NA, Gosling, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Hamer