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Watford 1 Birmingham City 0 (18/04/2015) 19/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- We’ve not half had some games against this lot.  Some will remember victory in the Cup in 1960…  Cliff Holton helping the fourth division newly-christened Hornets to knock top-flight Blues out in front of 31,000 at the Vic.  In 1984 perhaps the most impressive single result of our run to the Cup Final came at St Andrews; Ron Saunders’ aggressive side came into the game on the back of a twelve-match unbeaten run in the top flight and had the majority of a 40,000 crowd behind them.  John Barnes ripped them to bits.  In 1999 a play-off semi-final concluded with an epic penalty shoot out that resulted in our second trip to Wembley.

That night at St Andrews was extraordinarily tense, a ferocious night of football.  We’d lost our one-goal first leg advantage within two minutes and battled against the tide from then on. The presence of Loz alongside me that evening achieved the impossible in making an already frantic evening all the more anxious… he articulated all of our fears and radiated them back at us, exaggerating them through reinforcement with clenched fists and terrified eyes.  A more occasional visitor to the Vic these days, Loz was behind me in the Rookery again this afternoon…  as the Vic drifted frequently into simmering spells of anxiety in the sunshine Loz was once again giving a voice to the gremlins in everyone’s head…  “ohhhhh god”, “not there….”, “we need to score”, “so tense…..”, “Nooooo….”, “Aaaaaaaaaaargh…..”.

2- That tension was briefly evident on the pitch too, at least initially, and never more clearly than when Cathcart clouted into touch a speculative cross that Gomes had come to claim.  Ultimately, the greatest impact of such incidents was on the mood off the pitch which, as already described, became edgy  as soon as the clarion call of the magnificent flag display had died down.  It was only after the final whistle in the way towards the concourse that it was pointed out that Blues offered very little threat throughout…  it hadn’t felt like that.  Certainly, however they set up to contain and obstruct and grab what they could on the break and if, ultimately, that threat was theoretical in practice they certainly did the destructive part of their job well enough.  It wasn’t until midway through the half when Guedioura, off beam in the opening spell, settled down a bit and Birmingham were increasingly penned back and resorting to clubbing clearances towards Donaldson that we began to look the better side.  Matej Vydra crashed a shot against the bar… from the Rookery it looked for all the world as if that had gone in, replays of the volley rebounding smack back off the woodwork incompatible with what had happened in our mind’s eye, the celebrations took a while to be abridged and bemusement reigned thereafter.  There are several templates for these games against midtable sides… on Wednesday we saw “nothing to lose, something to prove”.  Here we saw a side with no reason to do anything but make life difficult for us.  At half time they’d done just that.

3- Ten minutes into the second half Slav made a couple of changes and instigated a change in shape… that flexibility in formation that we now almost take for granted is serving us so well.  How many times in years past have you looked at a game and not been able to see a way out, not been able to see a way to change things?  Our squad gives us options of course, rich options, but that ability to change our shape almost – not quite – effortlessly is a huge benefit.  Layún on the left of midfield had again looked nimble and willing and elegant and not quite worked.  Anya as wing back made hay for his first ten minutes on the pitch, a new weapon in a different role.  His brilliantly assertive run in behind demanded a pass from Deeney, he dinked a gorgeous cross into a crowded box from the left and Craig Cathcart, surely an outside bet for Player of the Season, executed a quite brilliant scissor kick that won the game.  Just as Chris Holland’s failure from the penalty spot in 1999 instantly released waves of pent-up tension, the celebration of this goal was inflamed by relief as much as by the brilliance of the finish (that’s a centre half , that is).  In reality we hardly pummeled Blues for the rest of the game but we remained in control and made a few chances… Angela met Abdi’s cross almost immediately but couldn’t get high enough over it, Guedioura screamed in down the right but shot when he should have squared.  Off the pitch, everything had changed.  The furrowed brows and anxiety were replaced by songs and fists in the air and a few of those flags again and kids standing on chairs and screaming.

4- Through all of which, one figure dragged us onwards.  During the iffy nervy bits he was back in the box at set pieces and getting stuck in.  On the attack he was extraordinary, taking on all comers and tanking across the pitch often hauling woebegone markers in his wake.  Troy has failed to score against his boyhood club this season but has tormented them nonetheless… we dismissed Birmingham’s attacking threat earlier on in the report, but his inhuman ability to hold the ball up buys the defence time and relieves pressure.  He remains the most vital component of the team and was utterly unplayable today.  Let’s never take him for granted.

5- The whistle blew to great relief, much as we’d spent the four minutes of added time playing a comfortable game of keep-ball down by the corner flag.  News that Bournemouth had come from behind to take the lead late in the game against Sheffield Wednesday was treated philosophically; they’ll do what they’ll do and it doesn’t really matter.  We win our last two games we go up, it’s that simple. Still in our control, job done today, on to the next one.  The acknowledgement of the team was long and noisy, but gradually we detached ourselves from the Hornets collective and resumed our individual consciousness.  There’s a point at which this happens… probably when you move from your seat and edge down the stairways towards the concourses and thither back to the rest of your life.  Your mind enters contemplative mode, reflecting on the new reality given the day’s results and then towards your plans for the rest of the day.  Loz had hot-footed it towards Watford Junction at the final whistle.  My mind was on meeting Dad at the top of Occupation Road.

So the epilogue to the afternoon was its highlight, outstripping the bravado before the game and the crazy celebration to Cathcart’s goal.  In the busy concourses it became clear that the game at Bournemouth hadn’t finished,  crowds were dawdling beneath the Sky screens for final confirmation.  Then news of Sheffield Wednesday’s penalty award sucked everyone in.  Suddenly nobody was moving, nobody at all, and we were sucked together once again into a collective consciouness.  Not for over 25 years has reading Paul Walsh’s body language been of any interest, but here we were trying to judge how the penalty had transpired.  For a second the collective consciousness was fooled, surely the celebration in the stands behind Walsh indicated a missed opportunity, Cherries celebrating.  Until someone, somewhere, with an alternative source of information breaks the tension.  “They scored!”.  Then, this.

The philosophical angle went out the window pretty sharpish as you might imagine. Eyes were glowing, strangers were slapping each other on the back. Here’s the deal, then. If this team, this team that has risen above the anxiety in the stands in indifference to pull out yet another result having solved yet another conundrum and pulled out another stunning goal to do so, if this team wins at Brighton next Saturday we will be four points clear and disappearing over the horizon by the time any of our rivals take the field. It’s in our hands, in our control.

Bring it on.

Nottingham Forest 1 Watford 3 (15/04/2015) 16/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- A professional in the field – and not a football fan – once told me that attending a football match is one of the most “mindful” things you can do.  “Mindfulness”, in this sense, denoting the focusing of one’s attentions entirely on something real and current – something you can feel, see, hear, thus not allowing space for stressing about stuff.  This is supposed to be healthy, a Good Thing, and I don’t doubt that football serves and has served that purpose for many.

Any broader suggestion that watching football is good for your mental health might not have found great support in the aftermath of this victory, however.  Once the boisterous celebration, exploding with relief at Almen Abdi’s late third goal and extending for many minutes after the final whistle, had died down all that was left was a sort of human detritus, a zombie band of 2000-odd Hornets  drawn and battered by the events of the previous two hours on top of the days, weeks and games that preceded them.  Elated, certainly.  Back slapping and grinning in the concourse.  But always with a slightly unhinged look in the eyes.  Much talk about which of the four clubs will hold their nerve, who will be the first to blink when none shows a sign of blinking.  Forget the players, I wonder if the Canaries, Boro and Cherries fans are going through this glorious torment too?

2- Fortune had shone on us as we arrived in Nottingham.  The small private car park where we’d stopped a year ago was empty with its barrier up on the first pass but having done a loop we saw the proprietor opening up in time to duck in, less than an Heurelho Gomes throw from the away end and in plenty of time to beat what was soon to be an epic queue outside the Bridgford Fish Bar that would have made Fry Days’ equivalent look tame and half-hearted.

Luck played its part on the pitch, too, but only up to a point.  There’s nothing lucky about a clinical forward line, as we’ve discussed several times recently.  Nothing lucky about taking your chances.  Nothing lucky, either, about having a goalkeeper who has quietly – as quietly as a gregarious goateed Brazilian is capable of doing anything quietly – developed from being an athletic but excitable custodian to being a cornerstone of the side’s success, a leader and a daunting opponent.  He earned his corn this evening, as he has done more often than not recently… the first of what was to develop into a formidable string of vital and non-trivial stops came in the opening exchanges when Chris Burke found himself in space on the right of the area with the ball at his feet.  He should have scored, and would have done but for the massive keeper who hurled himself into Burke’s shooting window blocking out the light and deflecting the shot wide for good measure.

No luck there.  The luck, perhaps, was in our ability to engineer an opportunity to take the lead so quickly, before the anxiety inflated by that early exchange had a chance to fester.  As it transpired I completely missed it… from the back row of the lower tier of the Bridgford Stand at the far end of the pitch I had a pillar box view anyway, but Almen Abdi’s early corner coincided with the emergence of a group of Hornets emerging from behind the back row of seats which they’d attempted to use as a thoroughfare… I saw Ighalo reeling away as the away end, underneath a low roof, exploded.

3- Beyond that, I would contest, luck played little part.  The Hornets had the better of the half on balance but it was never anything other than an end-to-end battle in which both sides had plenty of both possession and opportunity.  For the Hornets, Cathcart headed over, Abdi was played clean  through but prodded wide, Guedioura drove over.  At the other end Gomes was forced into two or three sprawling saves, typically shots from distance  but struck with accuracy and purpose and through legs.  Buoyed by their advantage the away end was relentless, and just as nervous gaps started to wedge themselves between songs we went further ahead.

And what a fine thing it was.  Defensively we’re still making up our minds about Matt Connolly… he’s a big brute of a defender such as we’ve needed for a while, but has been caught once or twice more than you’d like, even allowing for settling in rustiness.  This goal, however, was a thing of chest-thumping magnificence…  he surged into an interception to snuff out a ball to Akpom on the edge of our box and didn’t break stride, charging comfortably half the length of the pitch in front of scattering opponents who too slowly realised that they ought to be closing him down rather than covering passing options,  before he fed Ighalo.  In truth his pass was slightly overhit, Ighalo made light of the issue and battered the ball goalwards.  Connolly, who had slowed up but not stopped moving, was there to pick up the pieces and provoked comparisons with Moses parting the Red Sea and “what rugby would be like if it wasn’t crap” in half time reflections.

4- At two-up it really should have been about quite how much we might win by.  Clear water between ourselves and a Forest side with nothing to play for, what can we do to our goal difference?  But hereby the inherent flimsiness in the assumption that games against such opponents at this stage will be easy that might be worth bearing in mind in terms of what may or may not or “will definitely” happen over the next few weeks.  Forest were reduced to ten men early in the second half, a skirmish that from our distant and very limited view could plausibly have been adjudicated either way for all that Dougie Freedman acknowledged the veracity of the decision… and yet the home side didn’t lie down as we seemed to struggle, suddenly, to capitalise on what should have been an unplayable two-goal and one-man advantage.  The home side pulled a goal back… Cathcart conceded a free kick on the edge of the box, Gardner curled the ball over the wall and under the bar, an admirable feat… and yet perhaps, on the replay, close enough to Gomes that you’d hope that he’d get a finger to it. We had no sense of this at the time, our heads were in our hands.

5- So this was a massive result on several levels.  Bottom line, of course, the three points, sure, given.  But beyond that proof of the unshakable single-mindedness of this squad.  A huge challenge laid down by Bournemouth, Norwich and Boro on Tuesday night as we all stamped grumpily around our kitchens lamenting the collective failings of Leeds, Reading and Wolves.  All the pressure, all the focus was on us and Forest played the role of a fair-to-middling side with something to prove but nothing to lose to a tee.  And the squad came through it, came through the game and came through that iffy second half spell when Forest smelled blood bullish and defiant and roaring.  It shouldn’t have been in doubt, we’ve demonstrated our spirit in coming from behind so many times, but still hugely inspiring to see them not give a stuff about what had happened the night before.  Alex Neil had been unable to resist the temptation to put further pressure on Watford with a “let’s see if they’re up to this” kinda quote on Tuesday night.  Right back atcha Alex.  Yooooooooooorns.  Next?

Millwall 0 Watford 2 (11/04/2015) 12/04/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. “So, what are you reading at the moment, Ian?”

Well, it’s kind of you to ask, I must say. As it happens, I’m reading “The Nowhere Men” by Michael Calvin. It’s a book about football scouts and, as such, it spends much of its time deep in slightly impenetrable conversations with middle-aged blokes whose cars are probably full of empty pasty wrappers, who won’t get home until 4am after checking out a teenage left back at the other end of the country in exchange for an hourly rate far south of the minimum wage, and whose encyclopaedic knowledge and instinctive insight are no insurance against finding themselves out on their ear if the manager gets fired. Who, in essence, should be doing something else but can’t let it go.

It’s a tremendously rich and engrossing book. A book about people, fundamentally. I’ve often struggled to put it down. It’s fair to say that Calvin’s rather overwrought writing style can be hard work – yes, glass houses, yes – but the reward for some patience-testing descriptive passages comes in the form of vivid, memorable and sometimes affectionate portraits of many of the book’s subjects. Their opinions are often voiced candidly and relayed by Calvin with no small amount of respect and deference; they raise many complex issues in the process, and a few good stories too. Among them are several names of various vintages familiar to Watford fans: Jimmy Gilligan, Gary Penrice, Dean Austin; others with links to the club briefly flit into view and then disappear, testament to the ever-shifting landscape of modern football, and its accompanying lack of job security.

There’s another, more direct connection with today’s game, of course. Calvin was once a Watford fan but is no longer, having found himself drawn towards Kenny Jackett’s Millwall in the process of writing a fly-on-the-wall account of their 2009-10 campaign. In his words, “The club I grew up with at Watford has changed. It has lost the family spirit Graham Taylor did so much to nurture.” There are more holes in that argument than words in those two sentences, clearly, but I have some sympathy with it nevertheless: who among us hasn’t, at some point, looked at our club and wondered what the hell happened to Graham Taylor’s singular vision? Who could’ve made it through the Petchey years without a certain amount of soul-searching, for example, or continued to clap happily along as Nigel Gibbs was shoved out of the emergency exit without a parachute?

And now…? Well, I wonder. The club has undeniably changed – every club in orbit of the Premier League has, irrevocably – but much as Calvin justifiably decries the ruthless clear-out of an established scouting network, the Pozzo takeover strikes me as being a watershed of an altogether different kind. The team might be unrecognisable, the infrastructure entirely re-built, but the club feels stable and secure and, crucially, is being allowed to breathe and evolve. It isn’t the club that I grew up with either. Neither, however, has it become the soulless shell that its owners’ strongest critics had predicted; in simple terms, this is the most Watford-y Watford I’ve known without GT at the helm, the most in touch with a sense of community and history. Perhaps Millwall is indeed closer to the Watford of yesteryear, but if so, I fear those days are numbered: as Charlton fans have discovered, you need either to be further outside the top flight or further outside the M25 to avoid becoming someone’s pet project. Millwall are working on the first bit, I suppose.

2. That’s a bit of a shame, really. There’s no danger of me switching allegiance, but I’m fond of Millwall, in the kind of patronising, rose-tinted way that’s rarely welcomed by the objects of such affection. Today’s experience does nothing to change that: I like coming here. It’d be pushing the point to say that the New Den sparkles in the spring sunshine, but it feels like a much more comfortable, lived-in place than it did twenty years ago. The sparsely populated home stands are less than it deserves, but, perhaps, an accurate reflection of a team with neither confidence from which to build momentum nor quality with which to conjure up undeserved miracles. I bet this place must absolutely hum when it’s full. It barely murmurs today.

3. There’s a tension as we squint into the light. The unmistakeable tension of a season drawing to an end, of decisive moments to come. Suddenly, defeat seems unthinkable; a draw scarcely less of a setback. Suddenly, it really matters. Mistakes matter, goals matter; mistakes seem to matter more, somehow. We could be forgiven for being a bit tight and apprehensive, a bit lost in our thoughts; it certainly feels that way in the stands. We’re nothing of the sort, mercifully: the afternoon may have been considerably easier had Troy Deeney netted when clean through in the first minute but even so, we quickly banished any sense of being overwhelmed by the importance of the occasion.

4. Indeed, that was the first of a number of moments in which the game might’ve tipped decisively one way or another. Had we made more ruthless use of any number of breakaway opportunities, the scoreline might’ve properly reflected our technical superiority. Equally, had Millwall taken advantage of an ever-increasing number of half-chances, particularly once they’d gone two behind and taken a more direct approach, you sensed there might still have been something for them, even if a point was as little use to them as us. Neither of these things happened. Instead, the result feels like something of a compromise, a bit of a cop-out.

We’ve no reason to care about that, of course. As before, we back ourselves to make our quality count, to be more clinical than our opponents, to stick the ball in the net often enough to win. It makes for frustrating viewing sometimes: this particular ninety minutes was full to overflowing with moments where you felt that we might’ve done more, where we didn’t quite nail it, where we could’ve put the game beyond doubt and had some fun. We were sloppy and careless at potentially key moments too, most notably switching off at a free-kick just before half-time and relying on the first of an uncomfortable number of comfortable stops from Gomes. Were it not such an important fixture, you’d say that being punished for those lapses might teach us a valuable lesson. As it is, we’ll have ample opportunity for learning next term, if all goes well.

5. So it didn’t entirely satisfy, even if complaint seems churlish. And complaint seems particularly churlish given the two goals scored, each a pixel-perfect pass-and-move breakaway, each a superb example of the growing gulf in class between the top and bottom of this division. Such riches. Just look at that substitutes’ bench, for pity’s sake.

We were celebrating the first almost before it had connected with Matej Vydra’s boot: the ball from Iketchi Anya was just so, Vydra’s body shape left nothing to accident, the keeper was beaten already. Wallop. The second was a pure joy, a moment where it all slots together into place, just like it does on the training ground. Here to there, inside, across, and there we go. Both goals where you don’t even see the opposition shirts, rendered irrelevant by the precision of it all. You don’t have to be that good very often to win games at this level; once or twice will do it, provided you don’t self-destruct at the other end. We could’ve had more, probably should’ve had more, but the margin of victory seems about right. There isn’t a lot else to say.

6. For me, it’s telling that the assists for both goals came from Anya. I’ve commented before on Slav’s pragmatism, on his willingness to sacrifice style and entertainment for the hard currency of results. This, on the other hand, demonstrated his flexibility – an overtly positive selection in a game where he could’ve been forgiven for being a little more guarded – and he was rewarded with an ever-present and twice-realised threat on that flank.

But look deeper, look at the space Anya leaves behind him on his forward sorties, space that opponents have often exploited in the past. There, you find a thoroughly Doyley-esque performance from Tommie Hoban, refusing to yield to persistent Millwall pressure, targeted as a weak point throughout, spoiling and scrapping for all he’s worth, clouting the ball into the stands without ceremony; untidy and awkward and highly effective. He becomes a left-back when Anya makes way, and continues to make life difficult for his opponents until the last kick. We’ve been a silky, fluent attacking side before, one that missed out on promotion by not-very-much-but-enough. I wonder whether this silky, fluent attacking side has a bit more courage, a bit more fight in it. A bit more under the bonnet.

7. A job done, then. All the grown-up satisfaction of having tidied the shed without treading on a rake. A big fat tick in red marker pen next to the fixture list. A ten-second entry in the end-of-season highlights. A few curses uttered as Norwich score a late winner. And then thoughts turn to Wednesday already….

Watford 2 Middlesbrough 0 (06/04/2015) 07/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- In all honesty we were still sitting under tables recovering from the aftershocks of Friday’s drama.  We neither anticipated nor even dared hope for more of the same… and yet this was the perfect complement to the game at Derby, the ying to Friday’s yang.  Whereas that evening was wet and windy and dark and malevolent, the sun blazed down on Hertfordshire this Easter Monday lunchtime fooling a significant proportion of the overclad crowd in the process.  On the pitch, if Derby was a shootout between big guns today was a different challenge altogether, snipers dug in and ready for a siege.

Where the events were comparable, against expectation, was in the dizzying atmosphere.  Friday night was ear-ringing, thunderous, overwhelming…  but that was an away fixture in an evening kick off in front of 30,000 people.  Away crowds are supposed to make a lot of noise, that’s how it works (if not always quite to that degree)… the extra financial and emotional investment invokes a determination to enjoy yourself.  IMG_0945Home crowds aren’t the same, and Vicarage Road in particular is has struggled to match that atmosphere in recent years.

But today was different, and the 1881 deserve endless credit.  Not just for today actually, not just for the barricade of flags that made a roaring statement of support that made Boro’s “we believe” banner look a half-hearted cop-out, but for reinvigorating the club’s support and over the course of the season giving Vicarage Road its most boisterous away “end” since we switched to the Rookery in 1999 and unreserved seats were fixed in place.  The twenty-somethings that took the vanguard of the chorus line then are forty-somethings now…  and yet the 1881 have created something magnificent that’s transcended the middle-age spread.  Today was an event in itself, and a glorious thing to be part of.

2- The latest spin of the wheel saw Paredes in for the suspended Motta, Anya and Tözsér in for Vydra and Layún with no sign of Fernando Forestieri and the much-hoped for return of Almen Abdi restricted to the subs bench.  The first fifteen minutes were carnage… we’ve seen sides come to hound down our possession before, but few as aggressively or assiduously as in this opening period.  In an extremely congested midfield anything resembling possession was dragged off into a sidealley and clubbed mercilessly to death as Michael Jones, a referee whose sanctimonious “don’t you dare talk to me” posturing was matched only by his knack for looking in the wrong direction, looked in the wrong direction.  Boro were edging it, Ikechi Anya looking a vulnerability early on…. before sorting himself out and putting in a masterclass in “defending high balls as a small guy”.  Anya was involved in our own early forays, overlapping to chase a masterful throughball from Troy Deeney and only narrowly beaten to the ball by the alert keeper… but generally it was frantic, scruffy stuff.

3- In the context of which, the first goal was absolutely crucial.  Had Boro got it then for all our resilience and track record of clawing points back from losing positions you’d have had… concerns about how this would turn out.  But Boro didn’t get it.  Both sides had spells on top, Boro’s following a brief period where we reacted negatively to a dubious decision… Ben Watson appeared to be cleaned out when on his way through, the ref disagreed and we seemed to lose our focus a little, echoing the costly collapse against Norwich.  This time it wasn’t expensive, this time we regained our balance and pushed on.  Once again it was Adlène Guedioura, accurately described as “a machine” in post-match discussion, who provided the opening… the crowning moment of another performance that combined power and energy and determination and a quality that’s frankly far beyond what might the likes of Crystal Palace have any right to expect to find flattering Selhurst Park.  His wicked, arcing missile of a cross found Troy Deeney at the far post who dispatched expertly from a narrow angle to cataclysmic celebration.

Aitor Karanka was later to join the ranks of managers complaining about our strike threat as if it’s some kind of unfair advantage, like a twelfth player or a bribed referee.  Beyond dispute, however, was the inherent risk in Boro’s strategy…  if you’re going to try to close out a game and feed off the scraps you’d better have a Plan B to cope with the eventuality that one of the individuals providing that threat gobbles up a rare chance with trademark efficiency.  Deeney’s goal was quite brilliant, and it blew Boro out of the water.

4- With the benefit of hindsight the game ended at that point, it never felt like a fair contest thereafter.  The visitors came out fighting at the start of the second half but the suggestion of threat lasted a matter of minutes… our defensive shape was immaculate, with credit due to all of our defenders including the monstrous Connolly, introduced for Cathcart, and the peerless Tommie Hoban.  On the break we were always a threat with Anya and Guedioura tireless on the flanks and the rampaging Paredes as impressive as he’s been since the opening day of the season… the edge, the theoretical possibility of an equaliser was only dispelled midway through the second half when Odion Ighalo carved another brilliant goal out of a half-chance, taking out two defenders with a dummy before clubbing a shot into the top corner through the keeper’s fingertips.  It was rising as it hit the roof of the net, and the roof of the stadium raised with it.  What was left of the game was largely celebration…  Guedioura came close to grabbing the goal his performance deserved, improvising a devious volley over a crowded penalty area and demanding a brilliant stop off the unsighted Konstantopoulos, his fingers strong enough on this occasion.  In the dying minutes our defensive work lapsed for the first time, Kike breaking a suddenly flimsy offside trap but Gomes was equal to the striker’s effort, a terrific piece of goalkeeping – again, contrast to Friday when he was so involved… less so here, but he made the stop when he was needed.

5- A quite monstrous performance in all, on and off the pitch, that made the lazy line about how we have struggled against the better sides look like the load of old tosh that it always was.  Looking at the ridiculous state of the top of this division, an outsider might be fooled into believing that there’s a lack of quality… no outstanding teams, just a load of so-so sides competing to finish top of an unimpressive bunch.  How else do you justify the number of sides going hammer and tongs at the top?

But the remarkable thing about the division is that the quality is there.  Any of the top eight…  including Mick McCarthy’s drifting Ipswich, let alone Boro, might justifiably have expected to gain promotion in any “normal” season, certainly each of the eight appears a match for sides that have gone up automatically in the past.  The standard is extraordinarily high, and whilst we’re not top of the league we’re matching what anyone can offer.  We’ve come through The Weekend That Would Test Our Promotion Credentials with four points having come from behind with ten men away from home and then beaten the table-topping side comprehensively less than three days later.  There’s a terrifying ferocity about this Watford side now.  Any side wanting to stop our progress is going to have to go some.  Boro simply weren’t up to it, and a reprise of their disappointing showings at Bournemouth and here when they visit Norwich in ten days time is likely to simplify the automatic promotion race to two from three.  On the evidence of this weekend, we have absolutely nothing to fear.  Bring it on.

Derby County 2 Watford 2 (03/04/2015) 04/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- As dramatic set pieces go, this was hugely impressive. For the Hornets, a weekend that’s approach has long been monitored. For the Rams, on the back of an awful recent run but reinforced by the returns of George Thorne at the back of the midfield, Chris Martin on the bench, perhaps a last chance to reclaim involvement in the automatic promotion shake up. For both, a match that has been given almost a fortnight’s clear run up. For once, television added to the drama by invoking an evening kick off and so the darkness was falling and all light and focus sucking into the Stadium Formerly Known as Pride Park like a spotlight. From inside, a vast distance up but not back from the pitch in the hugely steep stand, it was as if the world’s attention was on this and this alone. Certainly, for the 30-odd thousand inside the ground, the rest of the world might as well not have existed for a couple of hours.IMG_0929 This is part of the attraction of attending football matches of course. The wresting of every millimetre of attention from the rest of the annoying, distracting, preoccupying bullshit that clutters your consciousness and drains your energy. Clearing your mind, just for a few hours. We were in the ground long before kick-off and the suffocating tension was thick enough to smell, visible on every face, in every pair of shoulders, deep in each pair of eyes. Afterwards, after the drama that captivated and battered every soul in the stadium into submission and lived up to every inch of its billing, supporters on both sides will have been utterly drained whether high on adrenaline or otherwise, put through the wringer. If you can’t be captivated by spectacles like this you really ought to give up and go home. From start to finish this was absolutely breathtaking.

2- As ever, particular attention on which combination of players Slav has deemed best suited to the task in hand. Guffaws of nervous pleasure throughout the concourse as the news rippled through at around 7pm… all three of our headline strikers selected, so much for “keeping it tight for 20 minutes and quietening the crowd down”, balls to that. Behind the gusto there were concerns about a three-man midfield that featured the rather lightweight and as yet not thoroughly convincing Miguel Layún… and the underlying concern in the fact that the selection of all three forwards was rather necessitated by the absences of both Abdi and Forestieri, the availability of at least one of whom from Monday would be a huge boost. As an aside, that the starting eleven featured only two of the eleven that started the reverse fixture in November – Deeney and Ighalo – speaks a lot for our season and for the stunning job that Slav has done to fashion a team of such overwhelming spirit in the meantime.
Concerns about that midfield were exacerbated when Ben Watson started what wasn’t destined to be the best of his thus far positive Watford career by getting himself booked for a stupid late lunge in the middle of midfield. Our one plausibly defensive midfield option immediately restricted wasn’t the start we’d have wished for, but in mitigation it had been preceded by an opening five minutes in which the visitors, ominously, barely got a touch… Derby hadn’t penetrated but had held on to the ball and, immediately on the front foot, probed and pushed and when met with resistance smuggled the ball off again and reshaped to try again. Utter concentration was required from the off and it’s to our credit that the rams obtained scant benefit from this period although Gomes pulled off the first of a number of vital saves to deny Darren Bent with his foot. At the other end, when we did clutch possession, the rams looked get-attable and gradually control of the game was wrested away from the home side. Derby were always potent, Bent leading the line and Ince in particular an uncontainable threat on the flank, but we increasingly gained territorial advantage and an energetic opening by the front three was rewarded when Ighalo and Vydra hounded down nervous Derby possession on the left of their box and the ball broke for Vydra to drive the opener first time under Grant. The thunderous noise that had been rolling around the stadium since before kick-off was now focused in one corner.

3- We were on top and revelling in it, on and off the pitch. Derby will take solace, despite extending their winless run to seven in the fashion that transpired, from the fact that they barged themselves back into the game before half time by forcing an incident that was to prove pivotal. Watson lost the ball attempting an impossible pass deep in midfield and Marco Motta, who had appeared slow to react, flat on his heels, once or twice earlier in the half was caught on the wrong side of the the excellent Russell who roared into the box. Motta fouled the forward inside the area and the ref pointed to the spot, crushing all the air out of the away end. More controversially he followed this up with a red card for Motta… for me this was harsh rather than ludicrous, something that Motta could reasonably expect to have gotten away with a yellow for with Russell appearing to have lost control of the ball and Cathcart covering. Whatever, the real blame lies with the errors of Watson and Motta, albeit pressured by the home side’s considerable probing threat; without those mistakes the referee doesn’t have to make a decision.
The game and the mood changed instantly, and the home stands were rejuvenated over the break. Two half-time subs set the tone… Tözsér for the unfortunate Vydra, who had harried and hustled but appeared to overstretch in trying to reach a slack Craig Forsyth pass across the face of the Derby back line ,with Layún appearing to move initially to a left wing-back position. Derby brought on a forward for a full-back, their intent perfectly clear. Our worst fears were realised twelve minutes in when Thomas Ince went on The Run He Always Goes On Against Us and curled a shot inside the far post. He remains the sort of cocky, unlikeable git that you want to smack in the mouth, but this was quite brilliant. The rest of the game loomed in front of us like a chasm… as McClaren was later to comment Derby should have gone for the jugular and in previous seasons – at the risk of repetition – we would have folded but it’s not as if we’ve not demonstrated our indifference to going behind once or twice already of late…

4- There’s something about celebrating a goal in a packed stadium, particularly when high up in the gods underneath a low roof.  My cod science explanation is that a simultaneous bellow from a few thousand people in an effectively confined space releases a whole load of carbon dioxide which causes the dizzy headiness that follows and has been curtailing my own celebrations… at any rate, the same phenomenon doesn’t occur when I’m jumping around the kitchen to Jon Marks-relayed commentary.  Either way, there was no suppressing the bellow that greeted our equaliser.  It had been preceded by the crowning achievement of a quite inhuman performance from Adlène Guedioura who received a slightly overhit pass wide on the right flank and was therefore chasing it off the pitch before hooking his foot round it and sending an impossible pass across the runs of two retreating defenders and into the path of Odion Ighalo, at his indiarubber best all evening, who finished exquisitely by rolling calmly, precisely into the side netting.  The world was invented for goal celebrations like this.

5- This was the longest match ever.  That had been evident in the first half, when we glanced at the clock in the dying minutes of the half and found that only 19 minutes had been played.  The final quarter hour was insane;  Derby brought on Chris Martin and kitchen-sinked us.  We brought on debutant Matthew Connolly for the heroic Ighalo and he endeared himself straight away by taking a yellow with a foul that curtailed a run into the box.  Ince found a mystifying amount of space in the centre of the penalty area but got underneath the ball and was smothered before he could get a shot on target… otherwise it was a combination of pure guts, bodies on the line, and a strategic masterclass which saw Deeney, dead on his feet but still fighting, as our lone striker but the fresher Tözsér and Anya howling out after the ball whenever the pressure relented.  Heurelho Gomes, in one of his most important performances for the Hornets, made any number of important stops, the last and most dramatic in pawing Keogh’s header over the bar as the ref put the whistle to his lips.  The away end celebrated this like a win, and in a sense perhaps Motta’s card worked in our favour.  One-one at that stage, eleven men might have had a better shot of securing three points in the second half but might well have drawn the game anyway.  A point here, even in the context of a ludicrously unrelenting and unforgiving chase for the top two, was always going to be a good result but given the loss of a man and coming from behind with ten it’s an absolute triumph worthy of the judgement of the away end that saw all the songs ringing around the stadium long after the players and home fans had vacated the arena.  The real cost of the victory may be the amount taken out of the legs of the players before Monday’s game – perhaps here is the value of our squad, even in a game that the weekend’s results have rendered all the more significant.  Derby’s failure to secure the win here means that, barring some unheralded collapses of form, automatic looks like two from four now.  Derby and Brentford might catch any of the top four, they’re unlikely to catch three of them.  With Boro and Norwich still to face each other, getting our noses ahead of Boro on Monday gives us a strong grip on our destiny.  We fought our way out of the toughest of corners here and have nothing to fear.  Bring it on.

Watford 0 Ipswich Town 1 (21/03/2015) 22/03/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. If you’ve hung around on the anti-establishment end of the football-supporting spectrum for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with the argument that the game’s unfettered capitalism inevitably leads to wealth concentrated in the hands of a few super-clubs, to predictable and repetitive pseudo-competition and, eventually, to the erosion of the spectacle and its value. (If you haven’t hung around on the anti-establishment end of the football-supporting spectrum, I saw you sneaking out halfway through that sentence.) In other words, the rich get richer, the rich beat everyone else ad infinitum, everyone gets bored and wanders off. It’s like when the inevitable winner starts putting hotels on everything in a game of Monopoly: sooner or later, someone’s going to throw the board up in the air….

Appealing as it is, that argument has always looked a bit shaky on closer inspection. At the point where two broadcasters are prepared to pay five billion pounds for the right to broadcast the Premier League, it falls apart altogether. This is, after all, a league in which the only contest consistently going to the wire in the top half is the race for fourth place rather than first; the absurdity of the equation was nicely summarised by an Arsenal fan a couple of months back, who commented that “we need to get knocked out of the Champions League in order to concentrate on qualifying for the Champions League”. Meanwhile, the standard further down can be measured by the fact that there are apparently three teams worse than Sunderland. No, seriously. Stoke City are eighth. Five billion, y’say?

Thing is, it’s a bit of a naive argument. The harsh reality is revealed, as it often is, by Richard Scudamore (boo, hiss, etc) on the relative decline of Manchester United: “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places.” Perhaps even more notable than that quote is the unmistakeable sense of regret and resignation in the following statement: “…you have to balance that off against, generally, we’re in the business of putting on a competition and competition means people can compete.” Yeah, sorry about that. Excuse us. The truth is that beyond the traditional, old-fashioned band of fans embracing their clubs life-long through thick and thin, there are millions who just want to watch their team win everything, always and forever…and they’re where the money is. It’s always been a bit like that, but never quite like now. Let’s face it, it’s so much easier to market a product with a reliable set of outcomes, with a set of Super Sunday fixtures you can plot out years in advance.

In which context, this Championship title race feels like a glorious throw-back, a last day of summer. Because rest assured that ever-increasing parachute payments will see an end to this kind of chaotic nonsense eventually. But for now, there’s this thrilling dash for the line, all flying elbows and pulled hair and fraying tempers. The adrenaline rush kicks in, opens up your senses to every detail. The tension gnaws away. It’s one of those times when the momentum of it all seems to consume everything, when the gaps between games can’t speed by quickly enough, when an international break seems like a spoken-word interlude in the middle of “Teenage Kicks”.

It’s bloody brilliant, this. It’s what football is about. I love this division.

2. But not as much as I’d love it if we won the damn thing.

3. So…here we are. The stage is set: four sides of Vicarage Road nearly full, a packed away section full of cascading inflatables and rowdy songs, home stands eager and expectant. There’s the inescapable sense that we really do have to do it this time, that this has to be the season. No excuses.

We begin with the intensity of a side brimming with confidence, looking to drive forward on the momentum of previous victories. Last time I saw us, we approached the contest as if suspicious that someone might’ve booby-trapped the halfway line; this time, we look determined, aggressive, potent. We take the initiative, shove Ipswich rudely back into their half and largely keep them there, relentless in our pressing from Deeney and Ighalo backwards. It isn’t terribly pretty, but that’s the thing: we’re not bothered any more, we can handle ourselves when the need arises, the naivety has gone. For half an hour, we actually look like a team that’s top of the league.

Oh, I know what you’re going to say. And it’s true that we had little to show for it, just a magnificent shimmy-and-drive from Guedioura and a few fleeting quarter-chances, mainly courtesy of progress made by Layun and Motta on the right-hand side. Ipswich, an industrious side built in the foothills of Daryl Murphy, were making us work for everything. But we were responding to that, stepping up to the challenge. For once, this felt like a proper, old-fashioned Championship contest – physical, tough, uncompromising, thoroughly McCarthy-ish – that we weren’t necessarily destined to lose. We lost it anyway, of course.

4. If there was a turning point – of the match, hopefully not of the season – it was the five minute break in play for a horrible injury to Joel Ekstrand. His replacement, Gabriele Angella, was almost immediately booked for an, um, assertive aerial challenge on Murphy…and suddenly it all got very tetchy and irritable, a series of inconsequential decisions going against us to disproportionate outrage in the stands. We lost our concentration amid the hullabaloo, we lost the initiative and the momentum. We didn’t get any of them back.

I’m trying to avoid turning Ipswich into a caricature, but there was no question that a scrappy and fragmented game suited them better. In the fifteen minutes to half-time, our passing game collapsed, the midfield disappeared, and our opponents took something of a stranglehold on proceedings, albeit that their threat was generally confined to set pieces. It didn’t get a lot better after the interval: tellingly, it took less than quarter of an hour for Slav to make his first move, replacing Daniel Tozser with Ikechi Anya. Tozser was one of several to disappoint here, failing to keep his head in a game where quality was scarce and the ball was precious; Guedioura was similarly inconsistent and profiligate, and thus Ben Watson’s water-carrying was often wasted by someone carelessly dropping the bucket and tipping it all into the gutter. Troy Deeney’s frustration was very evident on more than one occasion.

5. (This thunk doesn’t really fit into my little story. But it has to be put in somewhere or an injustice is being done: Tommie Hoban is wonderful. Perhaps even more wonderful at left-back than in the centre, for out wide you can see him earnestly grappling with fresh challenges, getting to grips with something new and relatively unfamiliar. Much like Lloyd Doyley, you could almost see the thought bubble over Varney’s head – “Fancy my chances against this bloke” – and chuckle at the subsequent frustration as Hoban refused to yield. It’s great to watch.)

6. As Matej Vydra replaced Miguel Layun, we began to throw caution to the winds. Increasingly, we threw the ball to the winds too, to little effect. The changes didn’t help us, in truth, even though we dominated possession: Anya was swiftly shoved into a broom cupboard, Layun, while frustrating, had been taking up useful positions looking around the corner of the Ipswich back four, Motta’s legs were too tired to make any use of the spaces ahead of him. You’re never going to beat a side like Ipswich with crosses from nearer the halfway line than the by-line. You’re unlikely to beat them with a flick-on from your big bloke to your little bloke either, although I accept that there are times when you might as well try.

Guedioura smashed a volley wide from a very tight angle, and in most games it would’ve barely registered as a chance; here, though, it was our first shot of the half and we wondered whether we might not manage a second. It was that tight, that difficult. Ipswich were perhaps more likely at the other end, Gomes producing the best save of the game – only two candidates, mind – to push wide Sears’ low drive. And then, the moment: Deeney flicking a cross towards a flying Ighalo, the ball flashing over the bar in an instant, the striker flat on his face, the chance gone. That was it. That goes in, and no-one cares what the game was like. That goes in, and we’re top of the league for a fortnight.

7. Injury time, and everyone rightly howls at Matej Vydra for taking a short free kick when, really, it’s time to launch it and hope for the best. When we get another free kick, then, we do the sensible thing and chuck it forward while completely forgetting to do the other sensible thing and leave enough cover behind to prevent Ipswich from breaking and winning it at the death. I don’t really think there’s much to say about that, except to note, perhaps unnecessarily, that a point from a rather spirit-sapping nil-nil draw might’ve come in awfully handy at the end of the season. We lost our heads, simple as that. I like the manager’s reaction an awful lot, I must say: reminiscent of one of those occasions when you’d come back hurting from a defeat and find that Ray Lewington was being reassuringly straightforward and sensible about it, that he’d seen exactly what you’d seen.

Your archetypal Championship food fight, then. Two teams pelting slop at each other until exhaustion sets in. I can hear the people saying that we should rise above it, make our quality count, all that kind of thing; it’s a fair point but, in return, I ask how often that actually happens in this division. I suggest that it doesn’t, by and large, and that’s because Ipswich weren’t rubbish, far from it. They were effective, organised, extremely difficult to play against. There were things we could’ve done better, true, but they were little things, moments that could’ve been made to count for more.

Sometimes you’ve just got to scrap it out. Sometimes nil-nil isn’t a terrible result.

Wigan Athletic 0 Watford 2 (17/03/15) 18/03/2015

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

1- In less heady times, perhaps in following a less bloody-minded body of Hornets, I might have paid greater attention to portents.  Logistical arrangements were slow to materialise.  Once made, getting out of work and then out of the house took forever…  being interrupted, then forgetting things, having to go back inside, not being able to get on with it.  On hooking up with my travelling companion in plenty of time we took a leisurely break at Kidbrook a theoretical 20 minutes from Wigan and left there at 5 to hit an M6 traffic splurge.  Comparing notes with other travellers by phone we opted to leave the motorway for a scenic route, only to sit stranded on a stationary back-road some 15 minutes later watching the free-flowing M6 fly past beneath us.  By the time we reached the “Marquee Club” much later in the evening, a well-conceived but ill-executed away fans’ bar at the ground serving Guinness-flavoured water and no food, we might have been apprehensive about what the fates were trying to tell us as regards this particular Potential Banana Skin.  Had we been following a different team, a different vintage.  Hell, last season’s vintage.  The contrast between the mardy indolence that reached its nadir against Huddersfield in May and what we’re seeing now is extraordinary.

2- Slav’s unshakable emotional detachment and his (team’s) ongoing success at pulling these things off is lending him a mystique;  it’s getting to the point where one searches for the genius in his selections rather than evaluating them anything like objectively.  “Ikechi in goal, Lloyd up front and Billy Hails in midfield you say?  Hmmm, yes, I can see that…”.  This one harked back to Rotherham in a formation that screamed “keeping it solid”;  a 3-5-2 featuring five defenders, actually, plus one sitting and one destructive midfielder.  On a horribly scruffy pitch, the set-up contributed to a stodgy first half of few chances.  As the only attacking player in the midfield Adlène Guedioura was simultaneously the man most likely to dig something out and the man most likely to give the ball away, which his responsibility for the final ball contributed to him doing frequently.  His was nonetheless a terrific contribution throughout, although our early control of the midfield was relinquished somewhat when his early booking tamed the ferocity of his harrying and chasing.  There seemed more menace about our own attacks – perhaps only when viewed with background knowledge – the best of which coming when Deeney’s diving header to a left-wing cross was pushed wide by Al Habsi, but Wigan were more than in such game as there was; Bong and Ojo threatened down the left, Kim was lively in midfield and some early free kicks from dangerous positions gave more credence to Slav’s selection decisions (behind the goal we nodded wisely).

3- They were horribly blunt though.  They didn’t look like a bad football team, certainly not a team otherwise worthy of a place in the bottom three, but there wasn’t much of a goal threat – you felt that if a goal came for the home side it would be through attrition, the crushing of the game towards our penalty area resulting in a deflection in the wrong direction rather than a deliberate, conscious act (Malky Mackay, after the game, wasn’t the first manager to identify our finishing as “the difference” between the sides, as if the art of goalscoring is somehow an aside, or an unfair advantage afforded us by our forward line rather than the point of the exercise).  The mood, in contrast to our own, was painfully gloomy – a relentless and occasionally effective drummer in the stand to our left offset this a little, but the emptiness of the wonderfully steep stands told its own story.  Meanwhile despite a goalless first half there was no suggestion of dissent in the away end, no “we should be beating these”.  The inner confidence extends beyond the pitch… there’s a trust there.

4- Another of Slav’s surgical changes was applied at half-time and we came out minus Motta, plus Forestieri and now 4-4-2 with the Argentine at the front of the midfield to wreak havoc behind the forwards.  It was designed to open up the game and in doing so it allowed us to showcase our superiority, since whilst Wigan continued to have possession and territory and whilst we perhaps wouldn’t want to rely on nervous finishing to preserve a clean sheet against a better side we were far more potent.  This was made to tell nine minutes into the half, when the immediately vital Forestieri received the ball as we broke, dragged backpedalling defenders away from the left flank whence he released Guedioura who sent in an evil cross which Deeney crashed in at the far post.  On the subject of stock goals, it was all but a tribute to a favourite stock goal of yore with Guedioura in the Neal Ardley role and Deeney as Heidar Helguson, piling ball and defender goalwards… with the exception that Guedioura’s incredible delivery had been with his weaker foot as he eagerly pointed out to the bouncing mob behind the goal.

We were immediately in our element;  Wigan had no choice but to push forward in search of an equaliser and we broke on them joyfully like schoolchildren released for break on a summer’s day.  We should have extended our lead… Joel Ekstrand came mighty close to doing so, picking up a loose ball to the right of the goal, cutting past his marker and firing narrowly wide across the face.  Forestieri and Vydra both had chances, and Boyce had to clear from under the bar after a deflected Guedioura shot wrong-footed Al Habsi.  At the other end Wigan had far from given up and our defending was fuelled by sheer willpower – Guedioura and the outstanding Hoban performing the two most dramatic of a large number of blocks achieved by throwing bodies in the path of the ball.  A degree of comfort was earned by Forestieri whose lung-bursting run to reach an escaping ball down the wing was rewarded when Boyce allowed him into the penalty area before sticking out a tired leg and bringing him down.  Boyce lay prone in dejection, Forestieri in happy exhaustion.  Deeney belted the penalty past a static Al Habsi, on which his teammates charged in from the halfway line where they’d waited to a man to guard against a potential breakaway.

5- This wasn’t the best game we’ve watched this season nor the most spectacular scoreline but the triumph was in making it look like a routine victory.  To the outsider its unremarkable, team near the top beats team at the bottom.  So what.  Anyone who’s watched the division for any length of time knows it’s not that simple… and yet we keep digging out these wins.  The car journey home was noisily exuberant, fuelled by my iPod’s shuffle function which captured the mood perfectly, spitting out Pump it Up, The Littlest Rebel, Jean Genie and The Temple of Love.

Bellowing our way through the fog our minds’ eye is a blur of images. Tommie Hoban dummying his marker on the left and cutting inside past two more markers on his right foot. That’s a centre-back, that is. Daniel Tözsér coming off the bench in another Slav masterstroke, instantly sucking control of the midfield to his feet and swinging in his vicious bending free kicks (you can all but hear the “oh f*** this” from Wigan’s backline). Those bodies flying in front of the ball at our end. And Odion Ighalo, not involved in the last few games through injury and probably deprived a cameo here by the immaculate Cathcart picking up a knock, riding to the away end on Daniel Tözsér’s back, punching the air whilst Forestieri screams his joy into the night sky. This is a team with spirit and quality and wit and menace. Anyone preventing us getting promoted will have to go some, and will have earned it. Tonight we not so much sidestepped a banana skin, as my travelling companion suggested and repeatedly demonstrated on the way back to the car, but trod on it square on and carried on in indifference.  Next?

Watford 4 Reading 1 (14/03/2005) 15/03/2015

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

1- There’s no reasonable way to describe the context without doffing our cap to happenstance.  Reflecting on the role that chance has played in our season it’s natural to feel bitter about Gabriele Angella’s sending off at Bournemouth, about Wes Hoolahan buying a penalty for Norwich, and so on, and so on.  Consistent with the “we only get s**t refs” chant, it’s easier to bring to mind instances where things have gone against us.  Indignation burns deeper, perhaps.  So let’s be clear that the perverse preciousness of Champions’ League television schedule regulations did us a huge favour.  That was evident when the implications of Reading’s draw with Bradford – that the replay would have to be this Monday – became clear, and was underlined in big fat marker pen when they announced a starting line up with nine changes, four debutants and very few senior picks.  You’d kinda hope that we’d have beaten Reading’s senior team whatever the circumstances; taking the Cup replay out of the equation you’d have been left with a side that have underwhelmed but are probably safe from relegation, the Royals were never going to be the most driven of opponents, but this one fell for us.  As if to provide further emphasis, “no we really don’t give a crap about this one”, one of those debutants was Slovenian Jure Travner whose Watford career under Malky was only memorable for his never quite making the first team.  So… yes, this fell for us.  The fact that Reading’s league season is all but done and dusted and that they could afford to do this doesn’t make the scheduling of their replay for Monday any less inappropriate.

2- For all of which, Reading’s scratch side were some way short of terrible.  Limited, sure, lacking anything like our threat in front of goal however many goals Yakubu, looking a very old 32, has scored in the top flight.  But organised and competent.  We weren’t gifted any goals, they all needed crafting and were each elegant, sculpted things.   It started after a minute, Abdi passing the ball into the net after being prised through by Troy Deeney.  Abdi, the one concern from the day, appeared to aggravate his injury in the move and departed soon after, his replacement Forestieri playing in Vydra at the end of the half and setting up Deeney after the break.  Steve Clarke identified our clinical finishing as the difference, bemoaning the harshness of the scoreline but the visitors never came as close as Motta did with his wicked dipping volley that crashed off the bar, or as Forestieri did with his scissor kick that forced Andersen into a quite brilliant low save low to his right.  Our finishing was great.  The rest of it wasn’t bad either.

3- And it was all perhaps rather too comfortable.  Abdi’s early goal averted the threat of impatience in any failure to take the lead in A Game We Ought To Win, but at three up the atmosphere became drowsy, our football slowed down and Reading weren’t ready to just lie down and see the game out.  If our squad lacks anything, as has been discussed ad nauseam, it’s a big lump in central defence.  Zat Knight, who briefly looked as if he might be that man, had little competition in the air from our lot, and fear of his threat forced a succession of corners, as if we were happy to sacrifice another set piece in preference to allowing the big defender to get a header on target.  Eventually they took advantage, Jem Karacan on his return from injury picking out the top corner  after a scruffy clearance…  and briefly there was a concern, we couldn’t seem to snap out of it and the visitors were in the ascendancy.

4- Until they weren’t.  The change in shape, Angella coming on for the fading Vydra as we switched to 3-5-2, seemed to hand us back the joystick immediately and Forestieri rounded off what had become a masterclass with a drilled left foot finish, a well-earned goal and a celebration that screamed catharsis.  Relegated to the role of fourth-choice striker Nando’s performances of late had not suggested a happy camper, petulance and laziness creeping back into his game.  After last Saturday’s incident with Bakary Sako, which was neither as violent as his reaction made it look nor as ludicrous as an unhelpful camera angle and lazy “analysis” suggested you had to fear in which direction his season was going to go.  Slav came out fighting, defending his striker’s conduct late in the week and then had the confidence to thrust him back into the fray early in the game in the mischief-making hole vacated by Abdi.  He took some time to warm up but ultimately delivered what was comfortably his best, effective and infectious performance of the season, punctuated not just with a goal but with two “assists” borne of combining his quick feet with a cool head and the right ball.  Well done Nando, and well done Slav.

5- Much of the focus off the pitch was on Nic Cruwys, who remains in hospital following the horrific, anachronistic attack in Wolverhampton last weekend.  I’ve nothing particularly new to add to the many heartfelt and appropriate things that have been said elsewhere, but it’s worth echoing those sentiments anyway.  Our thoughts are with Nic and his family.  Many references in the aftermath to the “Watford family” and the wider “football family” in the context of, in particular, the vast amount of money raised via Ollie Floyd’s online collection.  My wife snorts at the suggestion that the Watford family fosters an almost religious sense of belonging, a very real family; she disputes it.  She’s wrong, of course, not that she’ll ever admit it.  The best of that has been on show this week and to their immense credit the club and the players have reinforced that too, not to mention supporters of other clubs who have donated to the fund and shared their disgust.

I’d like to close by mentioning a departed family member, Guy Judge, a one-time BSaD contributor and very nice man who lost his battle with cancer on Saturday morning.  A significant empty seat at the family table, he’ll be sorely missed.  All the best mate.  You ‘orn.


Watford 1 Fulham 0 (03/03/2015) 04/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- One of the more remarkable aspects of our recent form has been the degree to which our performances and results have held up despite a degree of squad rotation and tactical flexibility that popular wisdom agrees is unconducive to success.  You don’t tinker, you don’t change a winning team, a “settled side” is the gold standard.  And yet here we are with 11 wins in 15 (now 12 in 16) in the League making not just selection changes every week but formation, tactical changes too, often during games themselves. Some formations and changes are effective, a few aren’t, but the process of changing, of rotating, hasn’t in itself appeared to be overly disruptive – at least not since Slav disposed of the services of the five miscreants, a few of whom might not have been as tolerant of the general approach. This isn’t supposed to work, it’s certainly been credited with upsetting more illustrious teams than ourselves.

In the spirit of which, I’ve recently abandoned adherence to any number of long-held rituals previously deemed vital to the team’s fortune.  New places to park, new places to eat, grabbing a pint in the V-Bar before the game.  I didn’t even buy any lucky chocolate for this one (albeit this was in part enforced by disgust at the stadium outlets’ stocking of only vat-sized bags of Munchies that might qualify, these being of dubious suitability and exploitative of the lucky chocolate requirement).  Ten minutes in after a bright, open start Fulham’s defence fell apart like a sodden newspaper as Almen Abdi’s corner bounced around the box and Troy Deeney took advantage to crash home. The sort of shot that would have looked good in a Roy of the Rovers freeze frame with monstrous thigh swinging, ball flying top corner, defence and goalkeeper aghast and a voice bubble proclaiming “that’s blown it!” from the away contingent behind the goal. My recklessness with tradition was vindicated.

2- The line-up for the evening featured a return to 3-5-2 and starting places for one new new boy, one old new boy and one new old boy.  The former was Marco Motta at right wing-back who looked exactly like an ex-Juventus full back called Marco Motta ought to look.  Tough, compact, bearded, industrious, took no crap from anybody whatsoever.  It wasn’t an impeccable debut… a few of his crosses were misjudged, he seemed to tire late in the game but he looked clever, a thoroughly encouraging showing all round.  The new old boy was Daniel Pudil, a popular recall if judged by the response to the first reading of the teams who provided plenty of energy on the left flank before being hoiked on the hour, five minutes after being dispatched into the hoardings by Fofana as we switched back to 4-4-2.   The old new boy was Adlène Guedioura, who started in the centre of midfield with Watson and Abdi but finished the game on the right flank.  He was positive and ambitious throughout, creating as much as anybody and being the most comfortable in running at and committing opponents.   Despite which… the midfield never quite worked.  Because a 3-5-2 in particular, with big holes to attack behind the wingbacks, rather relies on you dominating possession and with with two essentially attacking players in the central midfield three we were never permitted to do so….

3- …since Fulham clearly hadn’t read the script suggested by the speed and manner of our opening goal.  That script had us making hay as Fulham chased the game in what remained a wide open contest, taking advantage of such opportunities as the Cottagers’ defensive record – not to mention their rather passive approach to defending the opening goal – suggested were inevitable.  Instead the visitors displayed a confidence and composure that belied their league position, knocking the ball around and increasingly controlling the midfield with Fofana and McCormack prominent.  They struggled to create chances for all that…  the closest either side came to adding to the score before the break was when Guedioura wriggled between two markers on the right flank to set up Vydra who flung a shot over Bettinelli and violently back off the crossbar, but they weren’t about to roll over.  The phrase “we need a second” was made for half time intervals like this.

4- Had we got one, perhaps the scoreline might have become even more comfortable.  There was a brittleness about the visitors’ mentality that probably wouldn’t have coped very well with going two goals down having been so much in the game.  Despite being behind they were in quite a good position going into the second period having come out defiantly in response to conceding and yet they got tetchy and arsey, the game threatening to boil over a couple of times.  Referee Kettle actually got most decisions right, but Fulham’s narkiness should have cost them when, having been floored from what was no more than a robust shoulder-to-shoulder challenge from Vydra, Ashley Richards sprang up and shoved the striker over two-handed from behind.  It was petulant rather than violent;  I vaguely remember a similarly sulky performance from Richards when he came here with Ian Holloway’s Palace two years ago – in any event it looked a textbook red, Kettle’s yellow affording Richards far more leniency than someone who chooses to go by the name of “Jazz” really deserved.

As the game calmed a little Fulham re-exerted control on proceedings;  that they didn’t profit from it reflects well on the entire Watford team’s defensive performance, since whilst we clearly tired from the unaccustomed efforts of chasing the ball in the last ten minutes – normally it’s us doing that to the other lot – we hung in there with the back four but also Watson, Deeney, Vydra, Guedioura chasing and harrying and getting in the way.  Fulham threw on the monstrous Matt Smith from the bench;  always looked like an obvious threat to me, this, and perhaps we’re lucky that Kit Symons hadn’t re-introduced a striker back into the Cottagers’ fold after a productive loan at Bristol City a week or two earlier.  Had he been confident enough to start him, our job might have been all the harder – we had no competition for him in the air.  At the other end Layún came on on the left of midfield as we switched formations and was rather blown away by the frantic nature of it all;  Odion Ighalo made a welcome return too, replacing Vydra and adding a menace to our attacking play.  One of those occasional moves that resembles a choreographed dance more than a passage of football sashayed in from the left but left Ighalo with the ball just too far under his feet, unable to get the shot away to crown what would have been a special goal.  The crowed eddied between nervous tension as Gomes saved brilliantly from McCormack, Fulham’s best chance, and cathartic bellowing, but the final whistle went with Troy holding the ball in the corner.

5- It should go without saying that this was a massive win.  Much has been made of our relatively poor record against the sides up around us, but such statistics can be misleading since I don’t doubt that Fulham tonight, despite their misleading league position, were a tougher task than Brighton found a wobbling Derby side deprived of both their injured centre-forward and the loan signing who has been deputising.  Once again we demonstrated our resourcefulness in finding a way to win the game and demonstrated the value of our vaunted forward line – grabbing a goal in a game of few chances as valuable as hitting four when the other mob hit three in a bunfight – and our new-found defensive bloody-mindedness.  We found a way to win a game against a challenging opponent that the League table suggested shouldn’t have been – so, no evidence of the complacency of which we might earlier have been accused, no flimsiness when things don’t go our way.  Just bloody relentlessness.  It was marvellous and inspiring, and further emphasised that the push for automatic promotion looks very far from theoretical. Come on!

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

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

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

1a. One thunk down, four to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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