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End of Term Report Part 3 21/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

9 – Troy Deeney

Two years ago, I was a little uncomfortable.  Not with the decision to give Troy a second chance, to retain him despite his time inside, fully on board with that…  but with the suggestion  that his retention was a value judgement influenced by how the Pozzos saw him as a player.  Shouldn’t have been about his ability for me, should be a principle thing.  Perhaps I’m naive, and it’s not my money of course, but a young kid on the fringes of the team would have deserved a second chance as much as the team’s figurehead.  Thing is… Troy  wasn’t a figurehead at that stage.  Sure, he had established himself as a regular but 12 goals under Sean Dyche, albeit largely in the second half of the season, was hardly the stuff of legend.  And certainly we were squinting at Troy’s contribution and seeing glimpses of Tommy Mooney, his erstwhile mentor at Walsall, a rugged wholehearted trooper who was gradually refining his game, if not his approach.  Nonetheless… and irrespective of whether his perceived potential should have influenced any decision, the judgement on Deeney was as spot on and as crucial as any with respect to players brought in.  The club accurately judged both his ability and the likelihood of him seizing the chance that was given him.  Eulogies tend to make dull reading;  you know this stuff as well as I do so I’ll keep this brief…  Troy has emerged as a leader and a figurehead worthy of a Roy of the Rovers hero.  A captain, a monster, a terrific finisher, a deft footballer, an extremely likeable man.  Our promotion was on the cards from the moment that the Pozzos took the extraordinary decision to shut the door to all offers for him in August as an auction pushed into eight figures.

Next Season:  Leading from the front. Recent history has seen a few big, physical strikers – Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert, Charlie Austin – come up from the Football League and do well in the Premier League.  Troy compares to any of them.  We could sign Messi and Ronaldo over the summer, Troy would still be the main man.

10- Lewis McGugan

For all that he’s still a Watford player at the time of writing, Lewis McGugan feels an awfully long time ago.  Which, all things considered, probably suits both parties. As this article reflected last year, he scored a lot of goals, played a lot of games and added a lot of flicks and tricks without ever getting the crowd fully onside.  This season he started five league games;  we lost three of them and Lewis only finished one.  What happened to our midfield as he left it demonstrated what his contribution had lacked… a sense of urgency, judgement and purpose.  Watson, Abdi, Guedioura, Munari, Layún all had iffy games at different times, they’re all far more convincing than Lewis was.

Next Season:  Lewis McGugan needs to be a big fish in a small pond… a star in a moderate team.  A workmanlike team in which he’s the star, the bringer of joy, cherished for what he can do more than he irritates with what he can’t.  Sheffield Wednesday may well be that side.  We don’t need a Craig Ramage right now.

11- Fernando Forestieri

If there’s someone you feel for this season, it’s Nando.  The “much-vaunted” Watford forward line that the media have talked about had three names in it, and Nando was the fall guy, the one missed off the end.  That’s the deal, unfortunately… just as those pundits who assessed Norwich, Boro, Derby’s quality in isolation and decided that they would go up automatically because of how good they were missed a crucial consideration, merely being good hasn’t been enough to keep Nando involved in the side in the face of furious competition.  Which isn’t to say that he’s had a bad season…  his five goals and a six assists came over only a dozen starts, only one of which since the turn of the year.  He’s put in performances of great vitality and impudence as ever, his goal against Leeds a thing of joy and wonder, he’s been willing to turn his hand to a number of roles – including  the Abdi job, not unsuccessfully – and got knocks at unfortunate times.  But he’s the forgotten man in the forward armoury, and given that his incorrigible effervescence hasn’t always been a force for good that was somehow inevitable.  For every game that he dominates there’s a game where he looks off the beat.  For every little piece of genius that makes a goal there’s an incident like the one at Wolves (where the much-shared camera angle does him no favours, but them’s the risks you run).  He’s still a piece of magic dust, a get-out-of-jail card to have on the bench, but his ability should demand more than that.

Next Season:  Under the radar perhaps, you’d still back Nando to be an asset in the top flight since nobody else offers that combination of magic boots and bloody-minded tenacity.  Our recruitment strategy might dictate whether he gets the chance.

12 – Lloyd Doyley

For a moment there, you had to wonder…  is this it?  After however many utterly dependable, charismatic years in the first team squad, is this it?  Our promotion season has seen Lloydinho come in at under 10 senior starts for the first time since he broke into the side in 2001, he hasn’t taken to the field in 2015. The 19 non-playing substitute appearances put a slightly different gloss on that and underline the very strong case that would be made for retaining Lloyd were we still in the second tier…  having lots of good players is one thing;  having a good player who isn’t going to kick up a stink at not being a first choice but will work hard and stay positive and be that versatile defensive option from the bench (and tick a home-grown box to boot) is something else.  But in the top flight…?  You’d like to think that there’s still a role in the squad for someone who will come in and do a job diligently and competently.  Premier League squad size restrictions may be a constraint, even if eight of the 25 need to be home grown.  The fact that Aidy Boothroyd, always an advocate of Lloyd’s, started him in fewer than half of our games the last time round, wasn’t in itself encouraging.  Me?  I’d still keep him on.  A solid defender, a Watford personality, part of the glue that holds it all together.  Others will say that Lloyd’s Time Has Finally Come.  Many of them were saying the same ten years ago;  clinging blindly to a position that will inevitably come to pass at some point is hardly prophetic…

Next Season: …but much may depend on just what Lloyd wants.  Will he be satisfied with what might be a peripheral role?  Or would he prefer to move to a club where he’ll be a dogged, charismatic regular and leave us sighing with a little regret at seeing him in another team’s shirt, whatever our own future holds?  Time will tell… but that the club are talking to him about a new contract is yet another sign that something is fundamentally right at Vicarage Road.

End of Term Report Part 2 18/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

5 (#2)- Adlène Guedioura

An oft overlooked feature of John Barnes’ fabulous ability was that he was a bully as well as a terrific footballer.  Not just able to beat people with skill, but with brawn instead should the need arise.  Guedioura isn’t in the same class as Barnes…  but he offers the same combination of weapons, a fine footballer(witness his marvellous assists against Derby, Boro and Wigan) but a beast and an athlete too.  It’s a potent mix, and one of which Slav quickly recognised the value in a Watford midfield in which the former is a prerequisite but lacking the latter.  A moderate success in a first spell crowned with a monstrous display at Cardiff; his second spell saw him establish himself as a vital component of the side that secured promotion to the extent that it’s perfectly credible to add his unavailability to the list of stuff wot done for us against Sheffield Wednesday.

Next Season:  Guedioura joined Palace as part of Ian Holloway’s scattergun recruitment policy in the summer of 2013.  He has since started three times as many games for us as he has for the Eagles;  his arrival on a permanent basis would be a huge boost over the summer.

6 – Joel Ekstrand

A difficult season for Joel who has had long spells out, first with a lower back injury and then the cruciate ligament damage sustained against Ipswich in March.  Significant that excluding those spells of enforced absence – and two briefer absences caused by suspension and a hamstring injury – Ekstrand started every league game for which he was available bar one, the draw at Ewood Park in which he came off the bench.  When he was available he did well, particularly in the first half of the season and particularly when part of a back 4 when he was arguably the pick of our centre-backs suggesting that the wobbly form and mentality of his difficult second season had been left behind him.  Not an extravagant player, not a star, but a very confident tick next to whichever box at the back you slot him into.

Next Season: ….but not for a while, alas.  Prognosis is that we won’t see Ekstrand again this side of the New Year, and whilst his mobility and comfort in possession both ought to lend themselves to the Premier League, previous top flight seasons have suggested that players injured at the wrong time don’t always get the chance to play themselves back into the side.  Fingers crossed that Joel, an automatic pick for the best part of three seasons now, bucks that trend.

7- Miguel Layún

A midfielder or wing-back with, famously, more Twitter followers than Tottenham Hotspur, it’s fair to say that we haven’t consistently seen the best of Miguel Layún just yet.  That’s not a problem in itself – we’ve had the luxury of ample midfield options, and should be grateful for the facility to allow a player of undoubted quality time to settle in after a major transition – and it’s not to say that he’s played badly.  But he’s not yet the unqualified success that we’d hoped… or consistently made the devastating contribution suggested by first couple of home games against admittedly overrun Charlton and Blackpool.  Nimble, clever and versatile, Layún has occasionally seemed to expect too much time in possession and looked lightweight and bullyable in the hurlyburliest of our encounters.  Nonetheless, his assertive outing against a physically robust Sheffield Wednesday side on the final day – critically misjudged pass aside – offered much encouragement.  More to come from Miguel, one suspects.

Next Season:  Layún has quality and senior experience;  he was bold enough to take a risky decision in moving from a top club in Mexico to the English second tier in defiance of criticism from his national coach, and comes across extremely positively.  Jury still out, but looking on expectantly…

8- Dániel Tözsér

It’s a measure of both Dániel’s ability and the strength of our midfield options to point out that as recently as the first half of the campaign it would seem inconceivable that he should be anything other than an automatic pick in the centre of midfield… and yet as the season drew to a close it was the Hungarian who was most regularly the odd man out, not starting more than two consecutive games from the end of January onwards.  It wasn’t just the competition provided by the favoured three of Watson, Guedioura and Abdi either…  Tözsér’s form did dip, and more than once – memorably against Wolves on Boxing Day – he was identified as the man to close down in possession particularly aggressively, the man who would both make us tick if left unchecked but also perhaps want half a second too long with the ball at his feet.  Nonetheless, Dániel’s ability to suck the ball to his control, to dictate the pace of a game and, on his best days, to trample all over a game like a colossus, was still evident.  He may not always have started, but he almost always played a part whether we needed to slow things down or make a breakthrough in the latter stages… only once did he fail to take the field in a League encounter.

Next Season:  In helping kill games by retaining possession he has been the Dementor of our midfield, sucking hope and belief from opponents around him, and his free kicks remain a thing of beauty.  Halfway through his two-year loan from struggling Parma, it will be a joy to see him in the Premier League.

End of Term Report Part 1 15/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

For the ninth summer running, a blow-by-blow breakdown of the ‘orns squad.  Moses Ashikodi was in the first one.  Yes, really.

1- Heurelho Gomes

When Manuel Almunia left last summer it was interesting that the club went for a similar blueprint in replacing him…. an experienced stopper with top flight pedigree who had perhaps fallen out of favour at their club and was out in the cold.  There was a degree of risk involved – the twelve months that we committed to initially more reflection of this than of his (then) 33 years.  Like Almunia, Gomes has been guilty of high-profile errors in the past;  unlike the Spaniard, Gomes’ forceful personality has appeared robust to such challenges.  Such doubts as there may have been have been blown away over the course of the season. Gomes seemed to immediately establish himself as a leader in the dressing room – lest we forget, we needed a few more of those – and his level of performance has risen throughout to the point where his contribution in the run in was as critical as anyone’s, including those of our vaunted forward line.  He’s never going to be one to hesitate in coming off his line and this might make life more… exciting than it need be on occasions but the number of occasions when he’s misjudged this has been small and we’re a much stronger side for the Brazilian’s presence.  His exuberant goal celebrations are also worthy of praise, lessening the distance to the incident when the critical development has been at the far side to an Watford away end.

Next Season:    The club have a year’s option on his contract and it seems inconceivable that we won’t exercise that clause.  Rumours suggest that a senior rival to Gomes may be brought in permitting Jonathan Bond to go out on loan – either way, you’d expect Gomes to be literally the first name on the teamsheet come August.

3- Gianni Munari

All things considered Gianni Munari can consider himself unfortunate, I think.  Signed on a year’s loan from Parma Munari quickly established himself in the first team squad, being involved in all but two of our games between our draw at Blackburn in late September and the hard-fought victory against the same side in early February.  No small statement that, in the context of our season and of our midfield options… and Munari gave us something a bit different.  6 foot 1 and built like a tank he was as close to a midfield enforcer as this current model has permitted, his physical presence invaluable in some of those winter scraps.  He’s more than that though… if not the deftest of our midfielders he nonetheless had enough about him to top our assists table at the end of the year as well as finding the net three times through knack for well-timed, bullish charges into the box.  So what did for Munari’s involvement was Ben Watson, a different type of weapon altogether.  Watson’s value in gluing our play together saw him start every game from his full debut against Bournemouth to the end of the season and Munari was the fall guy to the extent that he scarcely made it off the bench thereafter, even when it seemed that a bit of welly in the middle might be helpful.

Next Season:   Gianni’s lack of involvement in the latter half of the season doesn’t suggest that there will be moves to sign him permanently at the expiry of his one year loan.  Wouldn’t rule it out altogether, wouldn’t be upset if he did return – we still need physical presence and Munari has played 100-odd games in Serie A – but don’t think it’s very likely.  With home club Parma bankrupt, Munari’s future could lie elsewhere.

4- Gabriele Angella

A more quietly effective season for Gaby this time round.  That’s my impression anyway… perhaps I’ve just begun to take him for granted.  A regular in the side save for a two month absence with a knee injury in October/November that coincided with our run of defeats, Angella remains a reliable source of competent defending, raking long passes, set piece threat and flicks of the fringe.  He does have a mistake on him, although in suggesting as much it’s only fair to note that the formation we’ve played most often does rather lend itself to the defenders being pulled around a bit, but has coped effortlessly with switches between three- and four at the back looking equally comfortable in either set-up.  Looking back on what I’ve just written, it comes to something when  dogged competence is rewarded with mere acknowledgement rather than fulsome praise, but that’s where we are…

Next Season:   Angella’s initial reluctance to come to Watford in 2012 may have contributed to ongoing rumours about him not being happy in England, at one stage this season prompting denials from the club that he was set to return to Udinese.  It would, therefore, not be the biggest surprise in the world if he returned to the Stadio Friuli although you’d hope that having finally achieved top flight status Gaby might be tempted to hang around a while yet.  We’d be all the better for it.

5 (#1) – Keith Andrews

We should start by acknowledging that there really wasn’t an awful lot wrong with Andrews’ contribution on the pitch.  He was signed to tick a few boxes… experience of the Championship, a steadying influence in the midfield, someone to drop anchor, shield the defence and organise when such was our requirement.  All of this he did well enough, contributing a very fine assist in a rehearsed move against Millwall into the bargain.  The on the pitch stuff wasn’t really the problem and as such, being witness to only a snapshot of what happens off the pitch, it’s difficult to comment fully.  Suggestions of an abrasive character, however, are provided by Andrews’ track record.  It’s not unusual these days for a player to rack up a load of clubs but for someone with sufficient quality to have been picked for Ireland 35 times not to have managed more than 80 appearances for any of his twelve clubs suggests a problem; certainly he’d had “issues” at Wolves, West Brom and Bolton before signing for the Hornets on loan.  At times vocally proclaiming the quality of our squad, at others vocally questioning the inclusion and exclusion of players, the general “vocal” thing may have been at the core of it.  Either way, reports soon emerged of a falling out with Slav and Andrews was excluded from training as we tried to work our way out of a relatively expensive season-long loan.  Justified or not, the exclusion of Andrews and others coincided with a dramatic improvement in the team’s cohesion and spirit, so it’s impossible to criticise that call in retrospect.

Next Season:  Out of contract at Bolton, for whom he hadn’t turned out in two and a half years, Andrews has suggested that he will be joining the coaching staff at Franchise.


Helping Hands 2014/2015 10/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Good grief, the last season hasn’t even finished yet.  I went to IKEA yesterday.  In May.  My daughters and I ambled arm in arm through the warehouse bit wistfully humming favourite tunes…. “Troo-oy Deeney, Watford’s number nine….”, “Since I was young….”, “Bounce in a minute”, and so forth as Tsega rolled her eyes in our wake.  The expectation was that the emotionally demanding last few weeks, months would leave us grateful for a bit of a rest, a bit of down time.  That sentiment appears to have lasted less than a week…

So here we are again, for what appears to be the eighth annual analysis of where our goals came from, giving me an excuse to relive them all through video clips and match reports.  And yes, this article has become increasingly straightforward to compile over time, leaving me wondering whether a more detailed breakdown might be appropriate (right foot/left foot/header/other? Inside/outside area?  Set pieces?  etc etc.  Maybe next year).

One factor which might make the article easier still to compile is the proliferation of alternative sources of this information from which to plagiarise; however unlike scoring of goals and despite what some conceited sources might have you believe there is no undisputed definition of what an assist IS, which justifies defining my own rules and thus being able to summarise and interpret consistently.  And watch them all again.  So…  my definition of an assist is relatively broad and generous.  The last pass, obviously, but also the shot that was parried for a follow-up, being taken down for a penalty, both the flick-on to a cross AND the cross itself, and so on.

Consequently it’s not surprising to see Troy topping the list, a good proportion of his assists taking the same form as his last, barrelling into the Sheffield Wednesday area, sucking attention towards himself, battering a shot off Kirkland and allowing Vydra to nod home.  More surprising perhaps the margin of his supremacy over last year’s table topper Ikechi Anya who comes in second despite, once again, a few voices questioning his contribution.  Also significant perhaps that all 13 of those asssists came after Christmas, the first coming at Cardiff City at the end of December.

Noteworthy also is the very low number of individuals who have played a significant proportion of games, which tells you much about the way the team has been managed in a campaign relatively light on serious injuries.  Only Heurelho Gomes managed more than 40 starts of our 49 League and Cup games; everyone else missed at least 10 with only another half dozen missing less than 20.  Allied to that, and the fact that we’ve had such a tremendous season, is the fact that when your eye runs down that list there are really very few names you’d have reservations about, certainly relatively few about whom you’re thinking “well he’s got to go”, despite the number of players employed.

Perhaps most surprising in a campaign in which he’s managed nine goals and a much more sustained contribution than last season is that Almen Abdi only manages three assists; he managed more than that last season in one third of the number of games.

Adlene Guedioura’s contribution is demonstrated by four assists, all of them magnificent…  a vicious cross with his left foot at Wigan, an impossible pass for Ighalo at Derby, an arcing far post missile to Deeney against Middlesbrough and a thumping drive at the City Ground, gobbled up by Almen Abdi.  Fingers crossed all over Hertfordshire that his signing can be made permanent over the summer.

Finally it’s worth noting the contribution of Gianni Munari, unfortunate victim of Ben Watson’s arrival and impressive impact in January, who had managed more assists than anyone – six – by the end of the year but only started half a dozen games thereafter.  Such was his physical prowess that it was easy to overlook the flicks on and awareness that contributed to our fluency earlier in the season.

Be back soon with the End of Term report.  Enjoy the summer…

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Deeney 13 38+5 21 CAR (A), HUD (A), BLP (H), BLP (H), BLP (H), BLP (H), LEE (A), LEE (A), WLV (A), REA (H), REA (H), BRI (A), SHW (H)
Anya 7 28+8 0 MBO (A), WIG (H), WIG (H), REA (A), MIL (A), MIL (A), BIR (H)
Forestieri 6 12+14 5 LEE (H), SHW (A), BOL (A), REA (H), REA (H), WIG (A)
Munari 6 23+8 3 LEE (H), LEE (H) , NOF (H), FUL (A), FUL (A), CAR (A)
Ighalo 6 25+3 20 ROT (A), DON (H – LC), CHA (H), BOL (A), DER (A), BRI (A)
Vydra 6 32+13 16 SHW (A), MIL (H), FUL (A), FUL (A), BRE (A), LEE (A)
Angella 5 33+3 2 BOL (H), BOL (H), CHA (H), BLB (H), WLV (A)
Tözsér 5 35+11 5 BOL (H), HUD (H), HUD (H), CHA (H), BLP (H)
Guedioura 4 13+4 3 WIG (A), DER (A), MBO (H), NOF (A)
Paredes 4 33+7 0 SHW (A), CAR (A), CHA (A), BRE (A)
Abdi 3 28+5 9 HUD (H), BOL (A), NOF (A)
Dyer 2 6+10 3 BLP (A), DER (H)
Layún 2 14+3 0 BLP (H), ROT (H)
Watson 2 19+1 0 BOL (A), MBO (H)
Cathcart 2 29+1 3 BLB (A), NOF (A)
Fabbrini 1 3+1 1 STV (A – LC)
Andrews 1 6+5 1 MIL (H)
Pudil 1 21+5 0 CAR (A)
Ekstrand 1 23+2 1 ROT (H)
Hoban 1 23+7 0 ROT (A)
Byers 0 0+1 0
Mensah 0 0+1 0
Murray 0 3+6 0
Connolly 0 4+2 1
Bond 0 5+1 0
McGugan 0 6+1 0
Doyley 0 7+1 0
Motta 0 7+2 0
Tamas 0 8+1 0
Bassong 0 11 0
Gomes 0 44 0

Check out the 2013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.


Watford 1 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (02/05/2015) 03/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Almost an hour before kick-off, Vicarage Road is heaving; navigating the mass of people is difficult. There are touts on the corner of Whippendell Road; further down Vicarage Road there are weaselly looking blokes selling opportunistic clumsily constructed flags. In the ground, there are tales told of Boris Johnson being seen on the High Street in a Watford scarf. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Premier League.

The atmosphere is odd. It was always going to be… different. The furious focus was on promotion, the celebration that many heads are still recovering from recognised that and for all that Troy and the team had been vocal and clear on the objective, there’s a sense of “job done” that pervades the ground. The 1881’s excellent foil display, the flags, the confetti are tremendous but there’s no urgency to any of it. The tension, the fervour, has gone… this is a sideshow, a bonus. Personally I’d expected this to work for us… that stripped of the pressure of having to win, merely wanting to win would make it less edgy, less anxious. Either way the mood was one of expectation.

2- And that expectation really should have been rewarded by a first half that saw us dominate.  It’s not hard to see how Wednesday have managed to drop anchor in mid-table despite not scoring any goals… they’re obdurate and organised.  But they rode their luck.  Deeney crashed through before going down over a Kirkland glove, impossible to judge from our end but a fair shout from the TV pictures.  Anya fluttered in from the left and crashed a rising drive into the side netting.  Eventually, just as we were getting a bit edgy, Matej Vydra capitalised on Kirkland’s block to Deeney’s shot to head us into the lead and the pressure was relieved.  Still we pressed, and two gorgeous moves ended with Almen Abdi spurning chances… the first slightly the harder as Deeney’s pass ran across him, the second less explicable, Motta – who had enjoyed the freedom of the right flank – and Deeney combining to set up the Swiss midfielder who struck over.

Meanwhile Wednesday couldn’t secure as much as controlled possession in our half until Stuart Gray made a tactical change and brought on the massive Nuhiu up front after about half an hour.  Thereafter Wednesday did at least have something for the ball to stick to in attack, but they still ended the half without a shot on or off target.  “There’s not a cat in hell’s chance of them scoring” is what everyone was thinking, but of course nobody said it.  That would have been tempting fate.

3- You’ll have noticed that this report is rather later off the press than usual.  Such is the luxury afforded by automatic promotion of course, no play-offs looming for us later this week.  I’ve been painting daughter #1’s bedroom, but that’s not really why the report is late.  Like many, I suspect, I left the stadium feeling choked and bitter and angry at all sorts of things.   I might have benefitted from immediate catharsis, celebration in the town centre but didn’t have that luxury so I’ve been fuming and sulking. And frankly, our season deserves better… better than to conclude with that second half, better than to be concluded on these pages, for what they’re worth, by a middle aged man in a major strop.  So here’s the deal.  Thunk 4 is about the second half  and the events that surrounded it.  When I’ve finished writing and you’ve finished reading we’ll both watch the subsequent videos to get things back in perspective and never discuss this game again…

4- The second half wasn’t awful in the sense that our performance disintegrated…  certainly Wednesday put up more of a fight; they even had a shot, which was moderately exciting particularly for whoever it hit halfway up the Vicarage Road end.  We had what chances there were… Abdi with an uncharacteristically heavy touch spurning his best of the half, Deeney not quite getting above a cross and crashing his header over.  But by and large we seemed to settle for possession, the knowledge that toothless Wednesday would have to come at us and reliance on our ability on the break.  Choking, then, that having based so much of our success on clinically taking our chances in close games, that particular quality abandoned us with the title within grasp.  Choking, to a lesser extent, that our recently honed ability to keep mediocre opposition at arms length didn’t last three minutes longer.  Blame can be dished out in all sorts of directions, but not without any great justification…  incredibly harsh to blame Abdi, sculptor of so much that has been beautiful for his failure to become the fourth Hornet in double figures for the season.  Harsh to blame Layún, who otherwise put in his sharpest performance since his debut, for the awful pass that Wednesday broke from.  Less harsh to blame Lee Probert, even if his greatest crimes this season came in January in Dorset.  He perhaps should have given Deeney a penalty, his awarding of a free kick against Connolly was harsh.  As for the supporters… similarly, perhaps Watford’s best ever season in this regard (cap doffed again to the 1881) doesn’t deserve to be remembered for the cretin whose pitch invasion interrupted Wednesday’s free kick, for the vermin responsible for flares who deserve bans from the ground, for the vanity of those who decided that invading the pitch was more important that having a reason to invade the pitch.  Ed Perchard has penned a wordier assassination of these imbeciles in In the Wolf’s Mouth but in any case, choking as the narrowness of the margin was these were all irritants.  None should be used as excuses for our failure to put Wednesday away.  Far tougher challenges await.  Now then…  breathe, and…

5- There was a Derby fan on 606 on Saturday night, bemoaning the Rams’ fate. How could “comfortably the most talented squad of players in the division” (pffft) end up in such a position? Leaving aside the critical detail in that assertion and generalising a little… the point that the Derby fan missed was that it wasn’t all about Derby. This season, more than any other season, being good hasn’t been enough. You’ve got to be better than everyone else. Derby had a bad injury at the wrong time, lost momentum and never regained it because the competition was furious. The top of the table was not just competitive, but of extraordinarily high quality. As we’ve said before, any of the top eight might have reasonably expected to have gained automatic promotion in any “normal” season. Derby couldn’t afford to slip up because seven other excellent sides were clawing at the top two. I don’t remember a season like it, and I don’t remember enjoying a season so much. We’ve come through all of that with one of the two top places, a spectacular achievement.

A corollary to that is that any side that kept up with us, let alone outstripped us and however narrow and galling the margin, deserves respect. We’ve been bloody brilliant. Bournemouth, therefore, have been bloody brilliant also, so well done them. It is natural to be gutted by our inability to hold on for those last few minutes, to repel Sheffield’s one attempt on target of the entire game. But perverse, ludicrous to dwell upon it. We’re in the Premier League. We could be Derby, or Wolves (seventh). We could be Norwich, consigned to the play-offs and desperately trying to ignore the voice in the back of their heads that’s telling them that they KNOW they’re going to screw up against Ipswich. We could be Preston in the division below, also caught at the last with far graver consequences the useless bastards. We could be Sheffield Wednesday, supporting a side so fist-chewingly uninspiring that we’re forced to resort to lauding other club’s successes rater than supporting our own team (bet you did the same at Bournemouth, didn’t you? Classy. No, really).

We’re none of those things. We’re Watford. We’re owned, not by a cheap punk or an uninterested politician or an asset stripper but by a football family who know what they’re at. We have a fine head coach and an inspiring team that’s as close to the support and the community as it’s ever been. We’re heading to the top table with realistic aspirations of doing more than grabbing the money and running.

It’s going to be fun.

Enjoy the summer.





Brighton and Hove Albion 0 Watford 2 (25/04/2015) 26/04/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

0. At Lewes station afterwards, I’m approached by an Albion fan who asks, in the tone of a teacher questioning a teenager about his sub-standard homework, “So what did you think of your performance today, then?”

I stare at him blankly for a few moments, eyes bloodshot and dazed, attempting to compose an intelligent response. I come up with this:

“I don’t know. I…don’t care. I just don’t care.

1. Perhaps we should just begin at the beginning. Perhaps we should treat it like any other match. Perhaps that’s best.

2. So, yeah, football and that. Normal things. Teamsheets and formations and kickoff and…oh heavens. We clearly have designs on being the more positive side from the off, brisk and purposeful as if chairing a meeting with a train to catch. Those designs last all of thirty seconds, the time it takes for Albion to make their first incursion behind Juan-Carlos Paredes and to require flying interventions from Angella and Cathcart. So much for settling the nerves.

Although Deeney brings the game’s first save with an angled drive, it’s against the run of play and the targeting of our wing-backs quickly becomes a theme: Paredes is lucky to survive a penalty shout shortly afterwards, having been caught out by Bennett again, while Anya becomes more isolated and more vulnerable as the half goes on. We’re exposed on the flanks and painfully short in midfield. It isn’t the game we wanted it to be. It isn’t enjoyable to watch…although, as it turns out, this is the relaxing bit.

3. Twenty-five minutes, then, and that’s enough for Slav. Anya off, Tozser on; fun and games over for a while. It takes barely a couple of minutes for that to work, as Tozser takes possession deep, Abdi burrows his way through the midfield, and we begin an attacking phase which, eventually, ends with Ighalo and Deeney turning some stray scraps into a vital, vital goal. A statement about the willingness of the head coach to take decisions, certainly: that’s been a crucial factor in this run-in, and any problems have been tackled with a dry, almost blackly theatrical dismissiveness. But also a statement about the unbelievable depth in our squad and the options we have available. Once again, as at Millwall, we’re in an entirely different league to our hosts in that regard.

4. We make it through to half-time, just about. I eat a Kit-Kat and Greg Rusedski comes on to encourage me to play more tennis. The rest is a blur.

5. I’ll shortly turn forty-five years old. There still seems like a preposterous amount of time before I’m allowed to retire and go to bed for a year with a massive box of chocolate biscuits and a good book, but there we are. It’s ten whole years since Adrian Boothroyd became the first Watford manager younger than me. It’s twenty years since absolutely nothing happened worth remembering in the mid-nineties. I think I might need reading glasses soon. I wish they’d bring back Lovejoy.

Among other things, reaching this ripe age appears to bring with it the sudden and inexplicable desire to watch football matches from sideways on. For reasons that I’ve never entirely grasped, this is considered to be a more suitable angle for the mature and educated spectator, allowing greater consideration of the game’s subtleties and tactical nuances without all of the unnecessary noise.

Perhaps that desire will seize me at any day. For the time being, however, I remain utterly wedded to the idea of being in an “end”, of having the team driving towards me as the game reaches its climax. Perhaps it’s a legacy of watching Graham Taylor’s teams tip the pitch up and pound down the hill as if on horseback. Who wouldn’t want to be the movable object to that unstoppable force? But perhaps it’s days like this too.

Goals aren’t about sides. Thrown-ins are about sides. Goals are about ends. Football is about ends.

6. Of course, there is a downside. The bits where your team’s hanging on for dear life are never more painful than when viewed from a pitch-length distance, every loose bounce and random ricochet looking like they’re the moment when it’s all going to come crashing down. When the team’s far out of reach of your encouragement and the illusion of control it brings, when the thing you’ve been feverishly obsessed with all week is happening a hundred yards away and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s like being shown a live video link of an operation to save your right arm. It’s bloody awful.

There are points during the second half here, as we sink ever deeper to protect our precious lead, where it feels almost physically impossible to remain in place, peering into the middle distance as another Brighton attack stutters into life. It’s too much. Every muscle tensed, teeth grinding, mouth dry, hands clenched together, nausea rising, blood pressure off the scale.

Your attention is so tightly focused that you start to lose any perspective, any sense of before or after. Things flash in front of your eyes. Corners, crosses, blocked shots, a header that apparently only misses the bottom corner by virtue of hitting a bit of a sandy patch and spinning around the post like an off-break into the rough just evading the outside edge. Abdi wasting a shooting opportunity, Vydra wasting a shooting opportunity, Forestieri wasting a shooting opportunity. Cathcart, Angella and Deeney all booked for crude hacks on escaping players. Guedioura booked for a pointless, reckless elbow; God knows how we’d have coped with facing the last few minutes with ten men. Deeney playing as if willing to drag each and every one of his colleagues across the finishing line by their hair if he has to.

The scoreline remains the same. The clock appears to be broken. It’s bloody awful. Perhaps it’d look better from the side after all. Perhaps it’d look better from the sodding car park.

7. But football is about ends. Football is about waiting for moments that might never arrive, about playing them through in your imagination over and over, about being there to see if it happens…and then finding Matej Vydra taking what seems like an age to control the ball, threatening to let that moment slip away, and then sliding it calmly into the bottom corner before the whole world turns yellow and red and inside out and upside down. It’s always better than it was in your imagination. You want words, but I don’t really have them. There aren’t words in that moment, just the release of months of tension in ten seconds. Just a hurricane, just obliteration.

There’s a version of this game in which we scored the second some time around the sixtieth minute and cruised through the rest against tired opposition. That’s the version which didn’t involve turning everyone in the away end into an emotional wreck. It’s also the version without that moment. It probably took years off our lives; it certainly felt like it. Who wants to live forever anyway?

8. In the olden days, there’d have been nothing for it but to find a pub and toast victory until a different kind of obliteration. Instead, I’m at home by four, drinking in tea and fresh air outside the back door. For all that there are other games in progress, it feels as if the job was done earlier in the day; it feels like someone’s put the support bands on after the headline act. Let Middlesbrough and Norwich do their worst. Sod ’em. I’m wrung out, drained and buzzing. It’s done.

A brisk southerly blows thick fog in from the sea, and with it the sound of distant waves and people playing on the beach. Somebody’s hammering in the allotments beyond the garden fence. Seagulls glide around in the mist. Peacefully, contentedly, the world goes about its business.

It’s hard to believe that it really happened.

But it did.



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.


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