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Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (30/04/2016) 01/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

1- Well it’s been a bloody awful week.  Sunday, it turned out, wasn’t going to get any more enjoyable in retrospect, not going to be shrugged off and life just got on with. Not yet, anyway.  I’ve been a scowling grumpy argument waiting to happen.

Much as it’s been tempting to regard the existence of a home game, any game with Villa as a banker three points, the scheduling of this one the week after the semi-final always felt a little unfortunate…  ominous, even.  It’s a sad indictment of Villa’s season that even for a (still) newly promoted side, a defeat to this once mainstay top flight club would be an awful blemish, an embarrassment.  Worse, but for that vital win at the Hawthorns it could have capsized us back into the relegation picture.  Whichever way last Sunday had gone – a win would have been as difficult to refocus from – this game was going to be trickier than it might otherwise have been and a defeat at Hawthorns would have seen us going in on 38 points.  Defeat to Villa, to the team that everyone beats and who had lost their last ten, would have left us extremely uncomfortable.

As it is we DID win at the Hawthorns and were already effectively safe before kick off.  It was still an awkward fixture for Quique to have to contend with though given the speculation and suggestions of the past week.  An awkward fixture, or an opportunity…  a pliant opponent, exactly who you’d want to be playing if you were to follow through on your commitment to play more expansively once our status was secure.  His team selection, we thought, would reveal which… and whilst the full back selections of Paredes and Anya suggested positive intent, the retention of Jurado and Abdi in their much-maligned wide roles was far from encouraging.

2- It all started rather well though.  Seems like a long time ago now…  but the sun was shining and we were on the front foot.  Villa looked as hapless as advertised, Ciaran Clark passing the ball obediently to Suárez under no pressure, Cissokho slicing a clearance into the GT stand.  The Hornets pushed forward without quite executing that final pass, converting the chance.  Ben Watson responded to the Rookery’s invitation by clouting a dropping ball against the crossbar from well outside the box.  Ighalo and Deeney went for the same ball and got in each other’s way.  It was coming.  Meanwhile Daughter 2, particularly distraught by last weekend’s result, was happily clarifying how the desire to synchronise the weekend’s final fixtures would accommodate differing amounts of injury time across fixtures.  Jordan Ayew clouted a shot into the Vicarage Road end.  The Villa support, their gallows humour well-practiced and extravagant, celebrated as if they’d scored.

Then they did.  A set piece, Cathcart lost his man but… well executed really, not a criminal offence, Clark’s movement snuck him the narrowest of openings and he exploited it.  Instantly the mood changed,  the sky clouded over and the cold rain returned.  This was a psychological battle as much as a footballing one, our worst fears for the afternoon in danger of being realised.  As we reeled on the pitch Jordan Ayew clouted a shot past Gomes and off the upright.  Straws to cling to for Villa here, I thought…  they weren’t great, but with a foothold in the game they were no longer awful either.  It’s rare that they’ve been in the position of having much to defend for a while and they’ll need more than merely holding it together next season but…  there was a spine there.  Evidence of some kind of spirit.  Mercifully we scored on half time, or the afternoon could have descended much more quickly.  Abdi – livelier, and swopping with Suárez to cut inside on occasions – went down and pinged the free kick himself, right into the bottom corner.  The mood lifted, “game on”.

3- So Villa scoring again before the stands had re-filled after the break wasn’t great.  At the time the great chasm that Ayew was able to exploit made it look like awful defending, on reflection that reaction did the attacking team insufficient credit, it was a terrific finish… but still, too many defenders not doing enough.  And of course it’s as you were, with even Villa, woebegone Villa, coping pretty easily thanks with our four midfielders in a row.  Sit back, get people behind the ball, the very definition of “come on, then!”. We dominated possession but it was the visitors who were closer to scoring on the break, Gestede lamping into the Rookery when he should have hit the target.  Ponderous, cautious, impotent… Jurado had briefly caused mischief on the left when the scores were level but was ineffective against Hutton and Bacuna – whose berating from the visiting support, “Champions League – you’re having a laugh”, faded as the game developed.  Deeney kept plugging, but he and Ighalo had little to feed off.  The turning of the crowd wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, but it was happening. Twelve minutes into the half, the woeful Paredes was withdrawn to pathetic cheering from the home stands, and on came Steven Berghuis.

4- In Flores’ position, whether his future is already decided or not, Berghuis suddenly becomes a very significant figure.  Before the turn of the year, as we were flying, Flores’ judgement that Berghuis, then 23 not 17, in the full Dutch squad, £4.5m, “wasn’t ready” seemed merely a bit odd, but something most were prepared to accept on trust.  In the last few weeks that position has changed – Berghuis is now “ready”.  And in fairness, little of what little we have seen on the pitch contradicts Flores’ narrative – Berghuis didn’t pull up any trees in the few opportunities he had, and has looked more potent in his recent outings.  But what’s beyond dispute is that the side has been screaming out for something like Berghuis, this Berghuis, in recent months.  Something different, something direct, a different kind of weapon.  Flores’ caution may have been well-founded, but circumstances have done him no favours.

It would be wrong to paint his introduction as the only turning point, it clearly wasn’t.  But suddenly we had someone picking up the ball on the right and attacking Villa.  Going left, going right, whipping in crosses.  It wasn’t totally effective but it was something and it was positive and it stood out a bloody mile.  Villa were looking uncomfortable again.  Amrabat appeared on the left flank and added to the threat. The second significant incident came in the 73rd minute… and it was a throwback to nearly 20 years ago in Kenny Jackett’s season in the third tier.  We’d have one chance per game to unleash Wayne Andrews’ brutal pace – which was all it was – before the opponent wised up and treated him accordingly.  And here, as if we’d spent the whole game lulling Villa into a false sense of security, Ben Watson – under par again – dropped a pass behind their defence and there was Ikechi Anya, breaking beyond the strikers of all things.  How it would have ended we’ll never know, Aly Cissokho sliding across in a reckless fashion not entirely at odds with the rest of his performance.  He won the ball, but took the man as well.  Red card.

It still wasn’t quite backs to the wall for Villa.  It would be nice to be able to report that those two late goals were the inevitable consequence of late pressure, it wasn’t quite like that.  Instead it was a missile of a cross from Berghuis, perfect, undefendable.  Deeney’s header equally accomplished, a goal of beauty.  Relief all round.  Minutes later, Villa now rocking, Troy was there again.  A good day for him, a victory for persistence.

5- It wasn’t great though, as you’ll have gathered.  In the end, in the end we won the game; two late goals suggest “luck”, I don’t think it was a lucky win.  It was a case of us taking too long to find a way to demonstrate our superiority, “sign of a good team is…” and so forth and so forth.  But that miserable twenty minutes or so at the start of the second half demonstrated what has been painfully evident for weeks – that unless Iggy is on his game, which he hasn’t been for a while, our offensive set-up is horribly easy to defend against.  How Quique sets his team out in the remaining games – not to mention what happens afterwards – will be fascinating.

And another thing… 25/04/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
36 comments

1. I hate Wembley. The new one, that is. The old one was fine; it had faults but everything’s got faults, although it’s true that not everything’s faults smell quite so pungently of wee.

2. Anyway. I hate Wembley. I hate everything about Wembley. If you take away the stadium, you’re left with a bleak, remorselessly grey corner of north London devoted to concrete and car parks; you’d no more come here for a day trip than you’d wear a “Kiss Me Quick” hat to South Bermondsey. But someone did put the stadium back, and decorated it with a big arch because, y’know, there used to be towers so, um, now there’s a big arch, and you have to come for a day trip because there’s a football match that you want to see, somewhere over there, somewhere underneath the big arch, somewhere behind all the people taking selfies. No, I don’t want my face painted.

3. For fifty quid, you get a ticket so large that it can’t possibly fit into any of your pockets and that threatens at any second to blow away and be lost forever on one of the many gusts that swirl around this desolate hellhole. As always with football, money and size are everything; presumably the tickets for the final are A3 and laminated in frozen unicorn tears. As always with football, what might once have had some romance – walking down “Wembley Way” and all that – has been turned into commercial circus. I’ve got a thunderous headache. I feel as if I may not be getting into the spirit of it all.

4. You buy a bottle of water on your way up to London. On entry to the ground, you’re forced to empty that bottle of water into a plastic pint glass. You place that pint glass under your seat, propping it carefully so that it doesn’t spill. The teams come out, yellow, red and black confetti everywhere. Several bits of crepe paper land in your pint glass. They slowly disintegrate, turning your water pink or grey. Or, if you’re particularly unlucky, yellow.

5. Oh, you miserable sod. Yes, I know. But here’s the thing: I’ve got all of my joy and tears and disbelief stored up for the moment when we win, for the moment when we’re going to a Cup Final again. I just want that bit, only that bit. And then I want to win that too. Give me that and I’ll be drunk on it until the day I die. If not, bollocks to it all.

6. This vast, plastic, airless stadium renders you powerless. It’s like watching a dream unfold: you know what’s going to happen but you can do nothing to intervene. Your voice is muffled, suffocated, silenced. As in 2013, you’re watching ninety minutes of football that you’ve spent weeks thinking about, chewing over, preparing for…and it’s drifting by in the exhausted, dulled haze of a Sunday morning hangover. People fidget listlessly like they’re at the back of a Bryan Adams concert; chit-chat and popcorn and spilled drinks and slowly deflating balloons.

7. One of the most important football matches of your entire life is about to end. You spend its last ten minutes trying to work out how best to get back to civilisation. You wish it away and it meekly obeys.

8. I don’t often hate my football club. Not actively, not really. But here, the level of satisfaction at the season’s undoubted achievements makes me furious, the sense of turning up for the occasion but not for the match makes me despair. Right now, I don’t care what expectations were in August; I know, I understand and I don’t bloody care. All that matters is the opportunity spurned. Palace, below us in the league, demanded that the day bend to their will; we mumbled something about how it’d be quite nice but, you know, all a bit of a bonus and so on and so forth. Who knows when we’ll have a chance like that again…

9. You delete the highlights, unwatched. You make other plans for the 21st. You vent your frustration to anyone who’ll listen and eventually get most of it out of your system. But something’s changed, irreversibly changed. A distance that wasn’t there before. A sense of difference, of separation.

10. There’ll be people who make lots and lots of money out of Premier League survival. They should be careful it doesn’t blind them to the importance of making history too.

Crystal Palace 2 Watford 1 (24/04/2016) 25/04/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- Sometimes these reports are enjoyable to write. Winning helps, of course, but it’s not a perfect correlation… there are interesting defeats too, defeats that don’t quite feel like being slapped in the face. This isn’t one of those times. This is the sort of occasion when you kinda suspect that everyone wants to forget it as much as you do. You have to force yourself to put fingers to keyboard. Because if you’re going to reflect on the reality of supporting the club… well this is part of it. It would be a shallow soul who chose to report only on the good bits, discarding the difficult bits that make the good all the more satisfying.

Lewy had set the tone earlier in the week. In the email discussion that had organised tickets and pubs he’d referred to “Sunday’s inevitable heartbreak”, which irritated me. It irritated me because I felt it too… something intangible, a wrongness. I countered with bloody-minded defiance. I’m normally circumspect with predictions but no, this time We Were Going To Win. It had to be so. But then things like Man United beating Everton, a possibility for Palace to avenge 1990 rather than us to avenge 1984, kept chipping away…

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2- Equally cheerfully, the Hornets on the adjacent table on the train down from Bedford to West Hampstead had nailed it…  a very nice day out (was to be) spoiled by a game of football.  Our 2013 experiences had honed our planning, a big meeting of friends and family in jocular mood.  Pubs and trains full of grins, ambles down Wembley Way featuring team photos and chance meetings.  And inside the ground… colour and balloons and confetti and bouncing and noise.  Daughter 1 diligently scampered around the gangway below our seats retrieving the balloons that were sucked bafflingly and unerringly into it, dispatching them into the crowd and watching their passage with approval.  It was a good day.

Then the football started.  Watford began slowly, lethargically.  Palace started as if it was a Cup semi-final.  Aggressively, energetically.  Only five minutes in, yet it was no great surprise when they scored… and it was pathetic.  Or rather, it was the sort of simple, unimaginative goal that a team scores to nose ahead of a complacent opposition.  It was as much as it needed to be… a near post flick-on, a far post header.  Hardly requiring of much imagination or skill.  Just competence and focus on their part, and a lack of the same on ours.  And suddenly, we were back in 2013 again.  Grim.  Silent.  There were straws to grasp at…  Nyom got down the right and put in a cross that was deflected narrowly wide.  Capoue powered through the midfield leaving bodies trailing in his wake… and then later bust his knee.  “That looks awful,” said Will.  Capoue defied him by getting to his feet and trying to play on, before collapsing again.  “That looks awful,”, said Will.

3- Suárez was the selection from the bench.  He did OK for me, without pulling up any trees, but the lack of consensus – and volume of shrugging – amongst our group in discussing potential replacements as Capoue writhed on the Wembley turf spoke volumes about the state of our midfield.  Comprehensively less than the sum of its parts for some time it is shapeless and without clear roles or responsibilities – with the exception of Ben Watson, overrun on this occasion.  Almen Abdi has put the effort in to “adapt” where Matej Vydra didn’t; his reward has been to fade into an inadequate wide role whilst the players signed to do what used to be his job flail ineffectively in turn.  Part of me thinks that this sort of circumstance is an inevitable consequence (occasionally) of the Pozzo approach, the rough to be accepted with the (very) smooth.  You bring in good players, players that are available and who have potential to grow but haven’t necessarily been signed to do a particular job here, now, and you end up with twenty seven central midfielders and no width.  Maybe.  So sometimes you end up with Jurado and Abdi wide because why would you choose not to have two such players in your squad and the wide players you really wanted didn’t come and so you make do.  And in all honesty, this midfield has got us to mid-table and a Cup Semi final, and so on, and so on.  It still looks rubbish today though.

4- Half time is glum.  The girls dutifully munch their sandwiches.  Only at the start of the second half does the flaw in my logistical planning reveal itself…  half-time, with the match finishing at 6 (maybe) and then the queue and the tube and the train, half-time was the best time for dinner.  But if the girls are having their food at half-time, there’s something else that they’re not doing.  A regular half-time activity.  Daughter 1 is bouncing up and down within five minutes, as children do in such circumstances.  An inward sigh, and I ask whether we ought to descend into the massive concourse and address the situation.  “No, I might miss something”.  I’m unspeakably proud.  Within minutes she’s rewarded, Deeney’s thunderous header putting us back on terms.

Things are better.  Straight away, things are better.  The noise explodes from the Watford end and briefly, too briefly, the tide has turned in our favour.  Palace are back on their heels and we’re taking the game to them.  The yellow masses roar encouragement.  This will not be another let down, Palace had their chances, they’d bossed the first half but it had only been a one goal deficit.  We’d held them off, now we had our reward.  Downhill from here on in.

The cross was from nothing.  Palace had been on the back foot.  And again, too easy.  The cross, the header, too easy.  Yes it was in the corner, but Costel seemed to react late, to chase it into the net.  And that was it, really.  Much as our second half was better, much as Guedioura added much-needed energy, it was never happening.  Even when we let rip in desperation in the final ten minutes or so, I was thinking “surely, surely you get salvation from these situations sometimes, surely it doesn’t always have to be a countdown to the grim finality of the final whistle”…. rather than perching on the edge of the seat in anticipation.  It wasn’t quite game over in fairness.  I thought Guedioura had scored, when he shot narrowly wide.  Ighalo had a chance too… I missed that, as nature finally caught up with daughter 1.  But the grim finality came anyway.

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5- In the build-up to the game, with criminally inappropriate timing, the possibility of Quique being replaced in the summer had reared it’s head.  National commentators, putting the club’s achievements this year alongside expectations, have guffawed at the mere suggestion.  And they’re right, of course.  Seventeenth or higher was the target, whatever the circumstances.  Job done and then some.  Talk of replacing him perverse.  And yet… I find myself not as appalled by the possibility as perhaps I ought to be.  Here’s the thing.  Our form has dwindled since Christmas, but the pattern of results isn’t consistent with a drop in confidence, psychological exhaustion.  Had that been the case then the victories, when they’ve come, would have been seized upon with glee, capitalised on, romped off with.  They haven’t.  They’ve been achieved – earned – and then… as you were.  Ighalo, most visibly, has tailed off and his attitude reeks of complacency. The hard work’s done, the foot’s off the pedal.  As we’ve discussed, he badly needs some competition – for a break where needed, for a bit of pressure on his position.  But he’s only the most visible and most problematic for that reason, our team  plan falls down without him.  A solid defence with a goal threat is a whole different thing to a solid defence with limited goal threat.  He’s not the only one though, as Lewy pointed out trudging glumly back down Wembley Way.  When we beat Liverpool in December we swarmed over their midfield.  How often have we seen that sort of energy since?

Watford’s administration have defined themselves by looking forward at what’s coming and making decisions accordingly ,rather than being purely reactive… most famously in making the change last summer – whatever the contractual wrangling or lack of it, it seems clear that they saw Slav as the man to get us promoted, not to keep us up.  Perhaps they were right, we’ve done alright by the decision.  It would be altogether out of character if, at the very least, serious discussions about the team’s attitude have not been had.  This is something that needs sorting.

Yoorns.

 

West Bromwich Albion 0 Watford 1 (16/04/2016) 17/04/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- We always lose at the Hawthorns. Actually… it had been a long time since we’d beaten Albion at all, and that had been an away game but it was so long ago that there wasn’t even a BSaD report. My memories of coming here involve being absolutely tonked on any number of occasions, with the likes of Bob Taylor and Lee Hughes making hay. Even the relatively good days didn’t involve winning as such.

I like Albion – in as much as you ever actually like another team.  A good honest club, the sort of place where you’re not surprised to find an excellent fanzone featuring Norwich (“best team in the Championship”) being tonked by Sunderland on a big screen, plenty of space, loos, drinks, eats and live music (note to self for next season – ha! – this beats the cramped interior of the Smethwick End hollow).

Nonetheless, my expectations were non-existent, and as we added our own predictions to those of the local mascots on the stage my “scruffy 1-0” was borne less of prescience than of a sense of obligation.

2- It really was scruffy though, particularly the first half.  There was something vaguely reassuring about that, as if it demonstrated that in this rarified football environment there’s still a place for a bobbins game of football high on endeavour and boisterousness, low on smooth edges.  It was the sort of game that only the supporter of either side could enjoy – and I suspect we’d have enjoyed it a whole lot less if we’d lost.  Either way… it’s comforting that games like this are still allowed, games in which crossfield passes fly into the stand, in which the referee has to make any number of decisions about fouls that could have been climbing or could have been backing in and were probably both.  Between two sides who will be in the Premier League next season no less (ha!).

And reassuring, most of all, that we won it.  Because success this season was never going to be achieved solely by humiliating Liverpool, flattening West Ham.  It needed the brushing aside of inferior sides too – Newcastle, Villa, Sunderland, Swansea.  And it needed the winning of games like this, games where we didn’t necessarily play better than the other lot, didn’t deserve to win.  But won anyway.

3- Which isn’t to say that we didn’t play well, or that there weren’t good things about our performance.  Étienne Capoue looks infinitely more comfortable and confident back in the centre.  José Jurado danced and skipped and dazzled on the left; it would be nice to have a variation on the “cutting inside” trick, but knowing what he’s going to do and stopping him from doing it are quite different things.  Miguel Britos and Nathan Aké both threw themselves in front of things to good effect,  as West Brom’s periods of dominance were largely confined to being territorial rather than creating a glut of clear chances.

Nonetheless we rode our luck too.  Albion looked most menacing when James McClean (“why are we booing him?”. “because he’s an idiot”) and Stephane Sessegnon got possession wide and it wouldn’t have taken much for one of those crosses to become something not saveable.  Meanwhile Ighalo still looked ineffective, perhaps half-interested, perhaps low on confidence, definitely in the need of some pressure from the bench.  Nyom and Guedioura were far less effective on the right than Jurado and Aké on the left – for all that his enthusiasm and bullishness is a Good Thing, the excitable Algerian lost possession too often and the booing of his substitution was perverse. And as the game increasingly veered towards rugby union with it’s physicality, sideways passing, punts into touch and shots clouted over the bar, we were in danger of creating a problem for ourselves with turnovers. Some untidy play saw Rondon put through, Gomes came out and took him out.  He got a yellow.  It probably was a yellow.  You would want to rely on any referee agreeing however, least of all Michael Oliver.

4- By the second half we were one up, the tremendous Ben Watson flicking Guedioura’s corner kick in and putting us in pole position.  It could have been Albion in that position, it probably wouldn’t have been any easier for us to recover than it was for Albion.  But it wasn’t so we didn’t have to.  That our clean sheet survived owed pretty much everything to Heurelho Gomes, who athletically tipped over McAuley’s header and then twice denied Berahino from the spot.  From our pretty dismal vantage point – low in the shallow stand at the far end – we were in no position to assess either penalty call but there was certainly more energy about the protests the second time around.  The first penalty had been weak, but I fully expected the net to bulge in the 87th minute, you don’t get that lucky twice.

Thing is, it’s only about “luck” up to a point.  Lucky is when the other guy bottles it, puts it over, wide, doesn’t give it enough welly.  But Berahino’s second penalty was excellent, low and hard and in the corner.  And Gomes got to it anyway.  It was our afternoon.  It had been our afternoon since Watson scored.  The home stands emptied, and we celebrated, none more than Gomes who was already the Player of the Season elect but sealed the deal with this record-breaking achievements this afternoon.  He’s a tremendous goalkeeper, but a massive personality too, a leader, and that’s been just as valuable.

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5- And so.  Safe.  Finally.  As acknowledged by the travelling Hornets, in glee.  And maybe you were already there in your head, but I wasn’t, I hadn’t relaxed at all.  Today wasn’t elegant and it wasn’t perfect, the side’s performances have felt laboured since Christmas, the points rather forced and things need sorting.  But bollocks to that, it can wait.  Today’s result means two things.  First:  that the rest of the season is there to be enjoyed without reservation from the Cup semi-final next Sunday (and whatever follows) to the significance (albeit for others – ha!) of the last two games.

And second that 1999/2000 and 2006/07 finally descend into irrelevance.  Part of our history, but no longer benchmarks.  This is new territory, a top flight stay for the first time since the eighties, a completely different environment.  And a massive, massive achievement that shouldn’t be diminished by taking slightly longer to be confirmed than we might have hoped.  Yooorns.

Watford 1 Everton 1 (09/04/2016) 10/04/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
11 comments

1. Bookmakers stopped taking bets on The Best Fact Ever on Wednesday as pop music’s Pete Fij, with a little help from Radio 3, revealed that the 1932 Olympic Games awarded medals for various categories of artistic endeavour, such as music, painting, literature and architecture. In fact, art competitions formed part of the Games from 1912 until they were scrapped in 1948.

(I can already feel you wearily typing “Yes, we already knew that. Everyone knows that. Where the hell have you been?” in the comments box down the bottom. Stop it. Stop it now. Leave me to my dreams.)

Anyway, the list of medalists hints delightfully at so many stories. Since the judges weren’t obliged to find a winner for every medal, there are several occasions when a silver or bronze is awarded but no gold; you can sense the impotent fury of Italy’s Gabriele Bianchi, for example, at only winning the bronze for Vocal Music in 1948 when there was apparently nothing better to take the silver or gold. In 1936, the gold medal for Statues goes to something apparently entitled “Sulky Driver” which beats the altogether more Olympic-sounding “Decathlon Athlete” and “Wrestling Youths” into second and third place. There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing Germany beaten in the Epic Works category in 1936…and something thoroughly chilling about its triumph at Town Planning. There’s a short-lived “Dramatic works” category which I like to imagine involved each piece being performed on stage in front of a panel, an early attempt at Olympics Got Talent. There are medals awarded for making medals. No, seriously.

I can’t tell you how much joy all of this brings me. There is a school of thought which regards it as absurd to apply an order of merit to something as subjective as music or painting; as someone for whom Eurovision is one of the cultural highlights of the year, I don’t belong to that school of thought. Or I do – because it is absurd, clearly – but I’ve been kicked out of school for not giving a toss. Because the absurdity is partly the point, much of the fun; absurdity can be wonderful. It makes me think of Terry Wogan railing hopelessly – and a little xenophobically – against tactical voting and, by proxy, the changes he didn’t understand in the distant corners of Europe. There’s something about asking nations to compete over, frankly, froth and nonsense which gets right to the heart of it all.

I wish there was still a gold medal for “Lyric and speculative works”. It’s better than sodding golf.

2. Evaluating the aesthetic merits of sporting endeavour – rather than vice versa – seems to me to be much more of a problem. Which isn’t to say that beauty has no place in sport, merely that it’s very much second place.

The idea that you’d rather lose elegantly than scratch out an ugly win is born of the kind of naivety that’s never set foot in a football ground on matchday. In the same way as every poll indicates that negative campaigning is deeply unpopular, but is contradicted by every election result, so we’d all advocate an attractive, positive passing game with proper wingers and overlapping full-backs and so forth. Because we all like to think we’re better people than we actually are, and we all like to imagine that we’ll react to defeat with dignity and perspective and understanding until it actually happens.

Clearly, there are circumstances when defeat is taken with pride: if you lose a narrow game in which you’re the underdog, say, or nearly manage an improbable comeback, or fight hard with ten men. None of those have anything to do with aesthetics, though. There are further exceptions, the occasional really dazzling performance that’s cursed with genuine bad luck. But I’d wager that if you took a survey at the final whistle of two crowds that’ve just seen their teams beaten two-nil at home, one set up with defensive midfielders and an emphasis on counter-attacking and the other with a more positive outlook, you’d find pretty much exactly the same set of emotions.

Reading a lot of recent discussion around this labouring Watford side, you get the sense that everyone just wants to feel a bit better about it all. But defeat feels much the same, whatever. Playing a couple of wingers won’t make getting beaten any more palatable…and besides, the coach’s job is surely to put out a side with the best chance of winning, not to make losing look attractive. (Quizzical look at Roberto Martinez.)

At which point, you’ll argue that we wouldn’t necessarily lose. That’s true, obviously. But I question the wisdom of changing a basic formula that’s got us so far this season – hands bitten off, and so on – in favour of one that’s apparently reliant on Will Hosk…sorry, Steven Berghuis. And even if it isn’t reliant on Steven Berghuis, as would seem sensible, I wonder whether the coach is sitting on quite the wealth of attacking riches that is often implied; rather than simply being too frugal to spend those riches, it may be that he’s wise enough to know that our opponents will usually enjoy an open game, and its likely outcome, more than we will. I hear Adlene Guedioura’s name mentioned often, but I don’t quite have the faith the others do. I hear Almen Abdi’s name mentioned often too…and yet it seems to me that Abdi is a far more effective and useful player than he was twelve months ago, even if he’s less likely to win a medal for lyric and speculative works.

3. The season gets older. The introductory waffle gets longer. The match report gets shorter.

4. The mood around Vicarage Road is actually rather brighter than I’d imagined it to be. One should never take too much notice of what’s said on forums and messageboards, perhaps. (Or blogs.) For now, expectations continue to be outweighed by achievements, the complaints are held in check by the league table, and it’s the away fans who unfurl a banner requesting their manager’s removal before kickoff. The Rookery manages to combine flag-waving fervour and idle chit-chat in equal measure; it’s all very Home Counties, all very polite. It doesn’t take long for the most successful season in many fans’ lifetimes to drift into mundanity. It needs something – deserves something – to remember it by.

5. You can take your pick of the halves. You can have the sensible one, in which there are no goals (I’m not counting injury time) and only occasional suggestions of goals; it’s built carefully around line-ups, formations and drills that’ve been subject to the coaches’ deliberations all week and possibly longer. Or you can have the increasingly deranged one, in which all of that is furiously slung out of the window like a cheating husband’s clothes onto the front lawn. Me, I preferred the first, but part of me wishes I was more fun.

6. It isn’t a very good game, but it’s strangely absorbing and the time flies. Everton are evidently vulnerable to a well-deployed long ball, but we can’t quite capitalise on Deeney’s dominance in the air. Referee Kevin Friend’s frequent interruptions serve both to irritate, like the remote control falling into the clutches of an eccentric aunt with a fondness for gameshows, and to draw you into the detail of the contest as you concentrate more intently on the plot when you do get to watch some football between the whistles. An early free kick against Ben Watson in a fifty-fifty contest is the kind of thing that will ruin our beautiful game, reducing it to mere deferential shuffling about. I hate him in a way that I pretend to hate politicians.

7. We undeniably lack a few degrees of confidence, but we’re very far from a hopeless cause. On the right, Valon Behrami’s selection might be a largely negative one, but he plays Juan Carlos Paredes’ straight man to rather good effect. I’ve yet to see Etienne Capoue have the kind of game of which he’s clearly capable, and now doesn’t seem a likely time, but his surges from deep still seem a reliable way of dragging us forward, even if it’d be great if he played in boots rather than rollerskates. Ben Watson is my player of the season and I don’t care what you think, unless you agree. And Jose Manuel Jurado…ah, now, there’s the thing.

Those long balls aside, whatever threat we carry in the first half is by virtue of getting Jurado on the ball, drifting in from the left into the kind of positions where he can pick a pass, drag out some space or, early on, damn nearly smack in a “Goal of the Season” contender. When he drops back to the halfway line to collect the ball from Holebas behind him, it all seems rather a waste of a player and a position; you can see the validity of some of the criticisms levelled at the coach. But when he darts down those little alleyways like a Dickensian pickpocket, it all makes sense. He’s quite a player, I think: so comfortable on the ball, so bright with it. It doesn’t feel as if we’ve really made the most of him. He bears no small responsibility for that, but represents as close to An Answer as I can see from here.

8. We finish the half on the front foot. Everton have had their moments – Barkley drifting about, Lukaku all sulk and menace, Gomes parrying well when called upon – but we quickly regain our defensive obstinacy after last week’s capitulation. We’ve got this far by making our opponents work really hard for their goals; that immediately makes the rest of the game seem a little bit easier. Capoue comes close on the half-volley after a Jurado free-kick hits the wall, then Holebas heads over from the resulting corner. The home stands applaud the effort and the intent.

9. A minute of injury time. The obligatory minute. Much of the Rookery heads off to beat the refreshment queues, while Britos dallies, slips and allows McCarthy to give Everton the lead. Scratch out part of the preceding paragraph. We suddenly look despondent, heads down and shoulders slumped; the second half looms, unbearable and endless. The Rookery empties further. Odion Ighalo has to find someone to help him take the kickoff; too many of his teammates are already at the half-time inquest. We punt it upfield without much care; Ighalo chases willingly, Stones and Robles contrive to concede a ridiculous corner, and we’re instantly level.

You can see why Everton fans would be so frustrated. The mark of under-achievement: to carelessly chuck away what others would use to build a winning position. If they’d seen out thirty seconds of injury time, I don’t doubt that they’d have won this game. But they couldn’t and they didn’t. You’d get very tired of that, very quickly.

10. That sets the tone for the second half. It begins with the introduction of Guedioura on the right, an attacking move which is perhaps as close as we’ll get to Quique letting his hair down. As ever, Guedioura brings with him tremendous energy and questionable focus; his arrival briefly sees us pushing hard for a second goal and yet also heralds a gradual disintegration in the shape of the game. By the end of it, the play is so frenetic that it sometimes seems as if there are two balls in play, one in either penalty area. There’s a sense of it becoming a sudden death tie, as if the teams are being required to remove players one by one until a winner is scored. It’s all highly entertaining, and a little bizarre.

In between, the football isn’t very good. But it isn’t very good in a cultured way. These errors belong to a different class: when Stones clatters passes into the lower GT twice in the first half, he looks up first, calmly picks his spot. Good players have time on the ball, even if they then wang it full-pelt into the stands. When Paredes lets a pass roll under his foot in the second, he does so while thinking several moves ahead in the sequence of passes; no simple mis-control. We’re very familiar with Championship mistakes, with lower class stumble and muddle. These are very much offshore mistakes, if you know what I mean. (“Hello. Mock the Week? Yes, I’m available…”)

11. Jurado is replaced and, unhappy at the decision with some justification, takes about as long to leave the pitch as he would if it were one-nil in the World Cup final with two minutes left and the team down to nine men. Everton have an air of frailty and vulnerability about them, and it feels like a game we ought to win. I refer you to the comment about an open game suiting our opponents more than us, however. So instead, it’s Gomes who’s called into action, saving low to his right from Lennon and then clawing the ball away from Lukaku, then diverting another Lennon shot around the post.

He gets his moment of luck late on, as Lukaku strikes the bar rather than turning another rebound into an empty net; as often, however, it’s a moment of luck that we earn, forcing the striker to hurry and snatch at the chance. We make it as difficult as we possibly can, and in that we’ve been pretty relentless throughout the campaign. It’s worked.

12. By the end, everyone’s lost their heads and everything’s complete chaos. Nobody wants to settle for a point and somehow that gets lost in translation: anything but a point, anything. Attacks swirl around, players drop with Wembley-threatening injuries, there appears to be infinite space but absolutely no time. Robles saves superbly from Watson’s deflected curler; that’s as close as we get. It’s thrilling, but mainly in the way that kicking a sandcastle into the wind is thrilling. It’s a bit of a mess, a bit childish and it doesn’t really achieve much. It’s not as fun as winning.

13. This is much more like it, though. Not actually it, but like it. Particularly in the first half, we’re recognisable as the rather obstinate, rather tough side that’s earnt a lot of its points simply by refusing to get out of the way. We could do with a lift, but it doesn’t have to come in the form of a radical change of approach; a bit more belief in what we’re doing and a small revival in fortunes would do the job just as well. What we need is something to send us into next season with a spring in our step, something to remind us what we’ve actually achieved this season.

We’ll be all right. We’ll be fine. But the opportunity remains to make this a season for the record books, for the historians, for the grandchildren. We’d have taken this at the start of the season, but who wants it now, eh? Who’d settle for fifteenth and a semi-final now? Bollocks to that. That’s like asking Gabriele Bianchi to be content with his bronze.

There’s a line about going for gold here, but it’s too corny to write with a straight face. You know what I mean, though.

Come on.

Watford 1 Stoke City 2 (19/03/2016) 20/03/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
27 comments

1- Everyone’s got little jobs that need doing. Things that are kind of ignorable, for now, but need sorting at some point. When they’re got round to. I have bloody loads of them, from not-quite-tidied up DIY jobs to trips to the recycling centre to things that need sorting through. And the longer they hang around the more annoying, the more of a big deal they become. That crack that needs polyfilling sneers at you every time you pass it after a while, as if it knows that your vague intentions are little more than empty threats. Before too long it’s sniggering about you with its mates. Then it just doesn’t bother to acknowledge you at all. The bastard.

We really could do with getting those three points. Sooner, rather than later. This conversation is had around our lunch table, and again with passing friends outside.  And again, several times over, by a significant proportion of the home support in the lead up to the game one suspects.  37 points is probably OK.  37 points with 9 games to go, including Villa at home, bound to be OK.  Bound to.  No worries.  Be nice to put the conversation to bed, though.  Then we get the team news and purr.  Look at the strength of that team.  Look at that midfield.  Behrami, Capoue, Jurado, Suárez.  The midfield looks wonderful.

2- The midfield is bloody awful.

Actually it doesn’t start too badly.  The match fizzes from the off, both sides keen to seize the initiative.  Our visitors look comfortable in possession but nervous and tentative at the back;  Troy is winning everything in the air, Jurado is buzzing around on the left flank.  Iggy bursts through on the right and gets a little nudge from Wollscheid as he latches onto a ball… just enough to affect his balance without risking a penalty.  It’s not quite there but we’re not far away.  And then Jonathan Walters scores, and any semblance of an even scrap disappears.

It’s worth emphasising from the off that we’re not the sole architects of our own downfall.  Stoke are excellent… tough and streetwise but clever and deft too.  Walters’ goal is comfortably the move of the game to that point – even if there’s rather too much standing off going on – and thereafter the visitors settle down and the much lauded Imbula begins to boss the midfield in which the names we’d cooed over fail to click at all.  Capoue’s name rings from the stands, but the performances that earned that adulation are fewer and further between;  this wasn’t one of them.  Suárez still looks sluggish, and with Jurado and Britos also looking rusty after spells out we’re simply off the pace.  Most visibly Ben Watson isn’t there at the back of the midfield, ferrying everything along and tidying up things that go wrong and neither Behrami nor Suárez seem to be delegated to do his job.  We look flimsy, and City nearly capitalise again before half time – Arnautovic may be offside (replays suggest not), but we couldn’t have complained in any case.

3- It’s tempting to look at this – and Palace and Everton’s results – and draw a straight line with a big fat marker back to last weekend.  Whether or not the energies spent and the focus devoted to beating Arsenal are impacting our performance today is open to debate – although the flatness of the display and indiscipline of the defending are certainly in stark contrast with Sunday’s heroics.  More clear-cut still, however, is the contrast in the attitude of the support – not so much of those in the stadium, although there’s a predictable enough lack of tolerance of the dreadful first half suggesting that the credit earned from one of the landmark victories and performances of recent years doesn’t even last a week – but of those who weren’t.

20,700 odd, officially.  Unofficially, bunkum… this official number includes all STs and therefore is a reflection of tickets sold rather than seats occupied.  Having admittedly missed the Southampton and West Brom games which would have been vulnerable to summer holidays (including my own), this was the first time this League season that pockets of empty seats were visible in all home areas of the ground. It’s very difficult not to think back to GT’s reflections on his decision to leave in 1987, that the Hertfordshire support had dropped to an average of only around 15000 after a few years in the top flight.  Yes yes, only one game, no our recent home record hasn’t been great… but really?  I’d like to know what the actual crowd was.

4- Any suggestion that Stoke’s fading reputation as ultra-pragmatic cloggers was a justification for the (seemingly) low turnout was dispelled by the second goal. It looks shabby from our point of view… but only, really, because Walters and Joselu both responded astonishingly well to what was no better than a glimpse of a chance from the outset.  Yes, perhaps our defenders could have been quicker to respond to Walters’ return ball over the top, no Gomes didn’t help himself by neither backtracking nor charging out to close Joselu’s angle… but it was the merciless execution that made it look awful, Gomes’ weak kick was very far from the worst defensive crime of the afternoon.

After which the game changed somewhat.  Stoke still threatened more than we did, but gradually sat back in recognition that we really hadn’t been hurting them very much.  Arnautovic and Afellay being withdrawn was a bit of a statement, it was difficult to argue with the logic.  Jack Butland began to slow the game down, referee Pawson spending much of the half with his hand in the air waving play on without actually doing anything to follow up on his empty threats or even actually looking at who he was gesturing at…  you wanted to summon the spirit of John Eustace to start badgering in his ear about the number of times Stoke were leaving a boot in, the length of time Butland was taking on drop kicks.  Pawson, who was also officiating at what remains our worst show of the season at St Mary’s, didn’t leave the centre circle if he could help it and Troy was perhaps a little far away to do that job.

Bright sparks appeared in the form of Amrabat and Guedioura, which gave us a much more offensive looking 4-4-2 than the flatter shape we’d had previously.  Most of it was ineffectual, but at least we had a knife, something to threaten with if only theoretically.  Stoke stepping onto the back foot helped… but when third sub Anya combined with the other two replacements, beat Bardsley in the area and dinked a cross for Deeney to thump home the visitors suddenly looked very fragile again.  The crowd suddenly rallied, the team were on the front foot and if we didn’t really come terribly clear to burgling a point from the visitors you were rather left wondering why it took so long to capitalise on what looked a very get-attable central defence.

5- So what, then.  The next few games will tell, I think.  It’s easy to look at the selection and read it is a strategic one – not with a view to sacrificing this fixture, but more a recognition that certain things needed to happen to maximise our chances of success in the rest of the season.  In other words, with a two week break to come, the introduction of Suárez, Jurado and Britos was more about getting minutes into legs than giving the likes of Watson and Prödl a rest.  But to end where we began, that awkward almost-thereness of 37 points will jeopardise our enjoyment of the rest of the season for as long as it fails to tick up to 40.  The mood of the whole place changes when we get that win, and we’ll look forward to games as opportunities to bloody more noses… rather than looking at three games left at home and thinking Everton – capable of being excellent, Sunderland – could be playing for their lives and Villa – yes yes, but less than a week after the semi-final?  Based on this performance?

I’m polyfillaing that crack this afternoon…

Arsenal 1 Watford 2 (13/03/2016) 14/03/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- It’s 4pm.  We’ve opted against the scrum for the tube in favour of a leisurely walk in the sunshine back to Kings Cross.  There’s a workman painting a doorway on Caledonian Road, the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” rumbles out of his radio.  It’s a perfect soundtrack for what is a necessary but overlooked feature of stunning days like this one… the dazed post-match taking-it-all-in thing.  Sometimes alcohol interrupts, distorts, blurs – not today, I’ve just opened a token first can at 9pm – but there’s always a point where you sit or walk or stand in reflection and your head goes “Wow!”. Our reverie is only interrupted by occasional discussion, fist-waving and encouragement from “neutrals” (presumed Spurs) and one affable group of Gooners who, it seems, were amongst the earlier departures and have been making good use of their time since.

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If the post-match hiatus is a constant there’s much which has changed over the years… specifically since 1987 which is a natural reference point for all who were there, who are old enough to remember that last glittering landmark of GT’s first spell. Slightly less celebrated than that Bardsley-fuelled afternoon at Highbury is the bedlam of the previous round’s three games with Walsall; the first of these, at Fellows Park, featured the rare privilege of wading in urine several centimetres deep in the gents. Today, in the facilities at the Emirates high up in the Gods, people are actually queuing to wash their hands. That’s the gentrification of football, right there. I mention this contrast to ig before kick-off, who reflects that not all things have improved for the better, have they? Actually I do kinda prefer the toilet facilities at the Emirates, cramped as they are, to the more demanding offering at Fellows Park but I let the comment pass. This, after all, is a day for single-mindedness and defiance, not for frivolous debate.

2- That single-mindedness comes to the fore in a first half in which the home side dominate possession and throughout much of which there seems an awful sense of inevitability about proceedings, the suggestion of a point from which the afternoon might spiral downwards as such big games at big grounds have done in the recent past. A tone is set from the off as Arsenal try to get a rhythm going, passing it around at the back and our midfielders and forwards hare after the ball in rotation, as if to formally share and thus minimise impact of chasing-down duties on energy levels. Amidst talk of the home side’s injury concerns it’s been easy to overlook our own defensive precariousness… but Craig Cathcart, like Gabriel and Mertesacker in the home ranks, is fit enough to start and plays his part in a hugely impressive defensive display. Seb Prödl looks ill-suited to the Britos role of playing the ball out from the back, and Nathan Aké is uncharacteristically exposed once or twice as Arsenal focus their energies down their right, but in the face of Arsenal’s nimble passing and flicking and the boldness with which they seek and find forward passes in offensive areas we’re being thoroughly examined and these are minor transgressions. Despite all their movement and ability and despite Elneny ticking away like a clock in the centre of midfield, the home side don’t create an awful lot and such chances as there are are never clean… there’s always someone closing, hassling, harrying, no time for Arsenal to gather their thoughts. They will need to be excellent to play through us and they nearly are, nearly. But not quite. Allan Nyom has a stonking afternoon amongst many stonking afternoons, Alexis Sanchez the first amongst the home ranks to shrug and stamp and look a bit less than happy.

3- The recent problem has of course been at the other end of the pitch, since there’s a considerable difference in effectiveness between a very solid side that nicks a few goals to boot and a very solid side whose main source of goals is going through something of a crisis of confidence. To chastise that source of goals for his difficulties is rather short-sighted, not that this stops Mr Angry in the rows behind us as Ighalo scampers onto the end of the first of a large number of potent looking breaks, only to deliberate and try to squeeze a ball across to his strike partner. As ig observes, the problem with Ighalo being encouraged to pass more is that passing has never really been his thing and as such these entreaties are kinda imploring him to do more of the thing that he’s not very good at at the cost of his best party trick. His lack of confidence manifests itself in these very painful attempts to weave balls through, deliberate and careful enough to be visible to us several staircases up and considerable distance behind the far touchline in this most beautiful and sterile of stadia some weeks in advance, let alone to those detailed to deny our chances.

Little surprise, then, that when the goal comes it involves Iggy having no time to think at all and acting on instinct. It’s pure catharsis, his grin dizzy with relief as much as exaltation. It’s also criminal defending… a long throw, a battling flick from Troy, Iggy doing what he does by turning Gabriel and feeding hungrily off scraps in the box. We have seen Arsenal in full effect this afternoon… elegant and bold and clever and nimble and utterly gutless. Gabriel’s appalling challenge on Deeney is as cowardly as they come – Troy appeared to wave a mischievous red rag in the Brazilian’s excitable direction by suggesting that he (Troy) likes to “let his marker know he’s there” early doors. Having successfully duped his opponent he was entitled to expect a card being waved in the miscreant’s face. Either way… Deeney is precisely what Arsenal haven’t got. There are a number of leaders on the pitch, and none of them are in red… Troy, as ever is at the vanguard. Yet another monstrous performance from a man who has four goals from open play this season, and yet remains the most vital member of the team.

4- Quickly on the back of that one came another one. We’ve talked in a recent report about the satisfying nature of a ball being twatted really hard… well it turns out that a ball being twatted really hard into the top corner is more satisfying still.

That shot from almost exactly our angle…

Words can’t do it justice, so I won’t try… but a joyous thing on so many levels, from it falling to a player so relentlessly positive in everything he’s done despite his limited opportunity to the way ig shouts “Biff!” as the Algerian makes contact to the enormous, jaw-dropping significance of the moment. Two-up at Arsenal, and about to knock the holders out of the Cup.

5- At which point the longest half-hour in any of our lives begins. Whatever the limitations of Arsenal’s performance, they didn’t just roll over and we needed what luck was going. With the benefit of hindsight you look at Iwobi hitting the post and another shot deflecting ferociously and wrong footing Pantilimon but away from the goal when it might have been in and Welbeck, having reduced arrears with a lethal strike that had the remaining Arsenal fans making almost as much noise as they had when whistling Costel’s goal kicks, spurning an open goal… you look at that lot and you think, this was supposed to happen. This was our day. There was of course no such certainty in the upper tier at the time.

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Such moments are special. When you’re going through extremes of emotion that don’t need communicating with those around you because they’re going through exactly the same thing. After more stoppages extended injury time beyond the advertised four minutes, after we’d persuaded ourselves twice, three, four times that this one had to be the last attack we’d have to withstand, tunnel vision… we were going through an extreme together again. Us, the players on the pitch, as the rest of the stadium emptied. What a bloody achievement.

The special games, the special days feature a number of moments that you’ll remember looking back. Think about St Andrews 99 and you remember the noise as you entered the stadium, the gut-wrenching awfulness of Adebola’s early goal, the bloody-mindedness of Johnno diving at people’s feet, the penalties and so on and so on. Well the last of today’s moments came on Caledonian Road, with those affable Arsenal fans. As we walked off, having posed in a daze for selfies, one of these lads grabbed my shoulder and said “win it now. bloody win it”.

We’ll see. Yoooooorns.

Watford 0 Leicester City 1 (05/03/2016) 06/03/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
16 comments

1. By nature, I’m someone who cries rather easily. Although I’m not ashamed of that, it does mean I need to steel myself against disproportionately strong displays of emotion in some situations. It’s not the done thing to disintegrate into a howling wreck at the funeral of someone you barely knew, for example, nor do your fellow cinema-goers really need to hear you sobbing your little heart out at the end of “Toy Story 3”.

Similarly, nobody wants to be the fan who’s loudly blowing their nose on their scarf during the end-of-season lap of honour, especially if the “honour” involved is of the mid-table-in-the-Championship-could-do-better variety. As far as I can recall, I’ve only openly wept at one football match – that Allan Smart goal, so I was hardly alone – but I’ve been just a kindly word away from full-on waterworks countless times, most commonly at moments of triumph rather than disaster, and often when the triumph involved is so paltry that it’d barely merit a firm handshake or a hefty pat on the back. Swallow hard, look for something in your bag, stare at the pigeons in the Rookery roof, hold it all in. Sniff.

First thing in the morning, all bleary-eyed and semi-conscious with Fred sitting on my lap drinking his wake-up milk, I’ve found that I’m increasingly incapable of showing sensible emotional restraint when faced with whatever breakfast telly might throw at me. I’ve misted over at all manner of things: the maiden journey of the Flying Scotsman, little Harry’s antics, a Davis Cup victory I didn’t care enough about to actually watch at the time, the episode of “Hey Duggee” where the Squirrels got their Teddy Bear badges, and so on, and so forth.

Oh, and the bit where Jamie Vardy scored that goal against Liverpool.

2. Perhaps the defining moment of the season, that. So far, at least. At that second, slumped on the sofa watching the previous night’s “Match of the Day” without having seen the scores, I suddenly realised quite how badly I wanted Leicester to win the league. A goal by Jamie Vardy, who’s essentially the product of a laboratory experiment involving Andy Johnson and a sewer rat, brought me to the verge of tears. Bloody get in.

So vivid is our recent history with Leicester, it’s difficult not to see them as somehow ours, an old flame that’s still smouldering. An ex from a somewhat tetchy affair who’s suddenly shown up as a Best Actress nominee at the Oscars, still wearing an outfit bought in the Top Shop sale. They’re just like us. You can take the team out of the Championship, and all that. If you’ve got any imagination at all, you know how they must feel at this moment, how many sleepless nights there must be. Promotion in ’99 seemed to occupy every waking thought, every last nerve-end, seemed to sharpen every sense. That, and then some.

3. Thing is, we’re meant to be satisfied with meagre crumbs from the top table: the possibility of doing something in the cups, perhaps even qualifying for the Europa League if we push hard enough. If we dream, it’s supposed to be of somehow finishing in the top four, of qualifying for the competition they invented for themselves. That’ll never happen, of course, but it’s something to waft at us like a wad of notes out of a limousine window when we need some encouragement. And that’s it. Know your place.

Know your enemy. We aren’t exactly the grubby, dispossessed under-classes ourselves, quite clearly. But as the money-spinning elite continues to explore ways to close off entry to its little club, nothing could say a louder “f*** you” than Leicester winning the title. Not qualifying for the Champions League; that’s their world, in which money matters far more than trophies, in which a couple of those wafted notes might be caught by the wind and carried into the street to be fought over. No. Big fat bollocks to that.

Win the title. Make proper old-fashioned history, on your own terms. They can never, ever take that away.

4. So at the risk of being condemned as a cry-baby turncoat, there have been games of football I’ve wanted us to win more than this one. If we’re being flippant, we could say the same for the team, for Leicester’s newly-minted set of household names were that little bit hungrier for every ball from first to last. It’s easy to say that the other lot wanted it more, but Leicester play like they’ve considerably more at stake. “Hungrier” as in more aggressive, then…but also “hungrier” as in keener, sharper, more alert. The difference is marginal, but marginal is enough.

Spurs were supposed to be three points ahead by this point, with a better goal difference; Leicester start like condemned men given a reprieve and let loose in the pub at happy hour. We have some excuse: Britos is injured in the warm-up and Ake* takes his place in the centre, something we can’t have done that much preparation for. Our first proper injury crisis of the campaign, I guess, but there’s something throughly willing about Ake* and, to his great credit, he’s very much a fish in water here. Nevertheless, we’re thoroughly exposed early on, Vardy careering away from a lumbering Prodl* with extraordinary ease on a couple of occasions before Ake*’s last-ditch tackle saves us as Gomes’ save leaves a potential tap-in. For a bit, and not for the last time, they’re absolutely all over us.

5. And then, also not for the last time, they retreat into their shell. But let’s be clear about this: there are parts of the contest which are more even than others, but there are none – simply none – which aren’t played almost entirely on Leicester’s terms. It’s their game throughout. They’re not the kind of side to make a grand show of their dominance: possession is conceded willingly, and we spend large periods of time staring at the ball and wondering what we should do with it as if someone’s handed us a lost puppy and some feeding instructions before scarpering round the corner. Unlike the puppy, however, we find it easy enough to give the ball back.

Our opponents are obstinate, organised and extremely adept at picking us off. We haven’t built an especially creative side for this campaign, by choice. It’s an approach which has served us well and which we have no reason to regret, but it can look bloody horrible in these circumstances, as we forlornly search for inspiration against a team confident in its ability to pick us off on the break. It’s not even as if we’re that bad, and it’s certainly not that losing to the league leaders is cause for a finger-pointing inquest. We merely fall short, with a grim inevitability matched by the creeping cold of the early evening.

6. For quite a bit of the game, it’s like watching someone bang two stones together until one of them cracks. There’s a period at the start of the second half when both teams invent a version of Battleships, powering long balls upfield in the hope of hitting something. “Vardy, behind Prodl.” “Miss. Deeney, against Morgan.” “Miss.” None of it suits us, all of it suits Leicester. We fail to take our very few chances – Ake drifting a header onto the roof of the net, Deeney unlucky to find a placed shot deflected straight to Schmeichel – in the way that you always fail to take your chances in these kind of defeats. Leicester waste some too – Vardy prods the best one wide of the near post after picking Prodl’s pocket – but carry a confidence in their ability to create more and finish one that we can only envy.

They’re happy to retreat for long periods, but tellingly, they’re also happy to push on when the time seems right, and the only goal is the culmination of a concerned spell of prodding and probing before Fuchs’ searching cross is only half-cleared by Holebas and Mahrez curls home an unstoppable finish. They briefly threaten to smash our faces into the canvas: Huth heads wide, Gomes claws another header away, Ake clears a ball squared by Vardy across the six yard box with King awaiting an open goal. Their midfield is everywhere, Drinkwater ubiquitous. And then they settle back again and leave us to it.

7. If the game had previously been frustrating, it becomes fairly unbearable from here. We have no answer. None at all. Nordin Amrabat provides some much-needed energy and attacking intent, which, even if it doesn’t amount to an awful lot, is enough to make his the stand-out attacking contribution in a field of one. We need some goals from elsewhere, badly.

Our set pieces are terrible, almost without exception. Ighalo finishes an unhappy week by heading the only chance of note straight at Schmeichel from six yards; he barely touches the ball otherwise. Abdi and Anya replace more defensive-minded starters, to little effect. We’re reduced to lumping the ball into a crowded box by the end, our lack of conviction betrayed by a strangely lethargic pace; it feels as if any urgency is more likely to bring about a second Leicester goal on the break than an equaliser. We know how it ends. Leicester stifle our screams with a pillow.

8. Far from a disaster, but you can sense the growing impatience with this style of football. We’re hard to beat and we’re really very resilient; neither of those things seems to mean very much if you end up losing anyway, with ‘nil’ to your name yet again. You can see the temptation to aim for something more expansive and luxurious next season. You can see the dangers in that too, the perils of raised expectations for the difficult second season. You don’t have to look hard for examples of that going spectacularly pear-shaped.

And you don’t have to look hard for an example of how far an essentially conservative approach can take you, if everything slots into place. Leicester’s own difficult second season seems to be going quite well, all things considered. Same basic template – hard to beat, extremely resilient – except with a well-oiled counter-attacking operation welded on top; they look like quite a side here, powerful and lean and intelligent. We’d do well not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Conventional wisdom has it that Leicester, built for defending and breaking as they are, are likely to struggle in a run of fixtures that’ll see them up against teams unwilling to come out to play. Me, I’m not so sure. They might not find it easy, but there’s something unbelievably determined about this side. Something that was forged in the fires of a relegation battle, of six-pointers with entire careers at stake. Something tough and streetwise. Something of the grubby, dispossessed under-classes.

9. Come on, Leicester. Come on, Leicester.

10. (We’ll just settle for winning the FA Cup, shall we?)

* Look, it’s half seven on Sunday night and I’d like to have my tea. I’m not doing the accents. Fill them in yourselves.

Manchester United 1 Watford 0 (02/03/2016) 03/03/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- I’ve done three trips to the North West this season and the journeys have, without exception, been rubbish.  It doesn’t matter how much of a buffer you leave for the M6, it always bites you in the arse…  this occasion, as the previous two, featured what ought to have been comfortable buffers whittled away in traffic jams, swearing at the SatNav’s helpful updates and trying not to think about how much we needed the loo.  I’m sure Altrincham’s got a lot going for it, but if the purpose of the trip had been to spend an hour crawling through the town in the rain I wouldn’t have forked out £46 for the match ticket.

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We arrived.  We parked – mercifully, a pre-booked slot close to the ground, in time if barely so.  And we joined the swarm of people, a dark amorphous mass heading towards Old Trafford, cathedral-like in the dampness.  And we queued through several cordons of stewards, all perfectly affable and of course you understand the justification…  I’m even reasonable and polite when a steward confiscates my pocket torch – a present from my Mum to help me navigate the unlit walk home from walk in the winter months and resident in my coat pocket – because it probably was on the list of prohibited items that I should have given a bit more thought to.  It was only on the way up the steep staircase to the congested gangways and overpriced kiosks selling creatively terrible pies that it occurred to me that slogging all the way up here and paying through the nose for a ticket is questionable enough behaviour without having to put up with being treated like an idiot also.

2- And then we step out into the magnificent arena and everything changes.  There’s a vigorous wind with none of the icy malice that characterised the return fixture earlier in the season; this bluster adds to the sense of wild expectation, the dark sucking in and creating a bubble,of insulation against whatever’s going on in the rest of the world.  The away end, as away ends tend to be, is buoyant and loud and defiant.  And it’s like a drug, the whole thing… as the teams come out, it’s a hit… and all the stress and irritation disappears to be replaced by anticipation and utter focus on what’s about to transpire.  You don’t want to be anywhere else.

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It helps that we’re great, of course.   This is not the Manchester United if yore in many respects, but this line-up in particular is full of kids, necessitated by injuries.  Shame.  And, talented kids, sure, but kids nonetheless.  Tim Fosu-Mensah, as Dave points out, could have wished for an easier opponent on his full debut than Troy Deeney; he picks up a booking early and though he stands up to the challenge he’s second best throughout.  We are not going to be humiliated here as we have been on recent visits. Indeed, with United’s attack looking lightweight and samey the home side look getattable.  And we get at them.

3- Consensus seems to be that we bossed the first half.  I didn’t see it that way… certainly we had the better of the chances, we’ll come to that, but although Memphis Depay made himself look an idiot twice by entertainingly skewing shots that were designed for the top corner but got badly misdirected en route there was no escaping that United were creating things too.  Many of our own chances in that opening period fell to Iggy, desperate to do well and suffering from a lean spell that’s reach the stage where every snatched chance, every bad decision provokes someone within view to lean to their mate and say “he really needs one to go in off his arse or something”.  Which he does.  He gallops into a free shot on goal… and snatches at it weakly with his left foot, de Gea fields easily.  He hares clear on the right and shoots when he should have squared.  And so on.  And the stewards behind us are openingly questioning whether their interest in him – such as it is, seemingly generated by his own reported support of United – is such a good thing.  Such thoughts are going on in many United heads, one suspects, perhaps Iggy’s too.

Thing is he’s doing most of it right.  He’s working bloody hard, and in both halves he’s getting himself into positions.   It’s just not going in for him at the moment.  Lest we forget, whilst his electric form in the first half of the season was wonderful I don’t imagine that many of us really expected that level of impact.  His reliability has been a bonus, but more than that it’s meant that Quique’s defensive emphasis has worked, since there’s been a reliable source of (a few) goals to capitalise on that defensive solidity.  Very well it’s done us…  but now, with Iggy in a lean spell, the lack of goals from elsewhere, the lack of attacking emphasis – Almen Abdi, for all his diligence, has scarcely been permitted to bomb on to support an attack all season – it’s more visible.  That’s not Iggy’s fault, something that escapes a critic behind us who bellows his impatience at the striker.  On a night of retro chants in which EJTMA gets a good airing, I like to think that this bloke was shouting “Get your chequebook out Tayla!” back in the day.  Maybe.

4- Ighalo’s current limitations are visible, but equally so are the gusto and welly that the whole team are giving it, him included.  Valon Behrami couldn’t look more menacing with a cutlass between his teeth (“Ray Train with no morals” was Dad’s view, one for the older supporters to critique…).  Allan Nyom is back with vigour and has his best outing for months, Holebas and Britos are on top of their games, Troy batters anyone who makes the mistake of getting in the way.  Ben Watson is just tremendous, his set pieces defying the swirling wind and causing havoc in a penalty area where we have the physical advantage… Sebastian Prödl, whose bulk is unmatched by anything United can offer, thumps in a near-post header that’s blocked on the line, and then has a strong penalty call as he bundles a far post cross wide with a marker hanging round his neck.

But the star is Étienne Capoue.  As obviously off his game as Iggy over the last few months, it was widely speculated that this game might see him given a rest with Mario Suárez, whose sumptuous late through ball bounces off Iggy’s heels, taking his place.  Instead he lines up on the left of midfield and puts in a virtuoso performance combining skill, aggression and a lot of balls.  The first half sees him have a penalty appeal which the BBC describe as “a good shout” but which we couldn’t really see – in any case since, you know, nobody died, he’s not going to get a penalty in front of the Stretford End from any ref let alone Mike Jones this evening. Capoue is our creator in chief, tormenting Varela… the away crowd sing his name and whilst I’m still kinda uncomfortable with taking other team’s songs and inserting-name-of-choice-here, it works this time and “We’ve got Étienne Capoue…” is the loudest bellow of an evening in which many players get their own chorus.  He responds by thundering a second half shot narrowly over from 30 yards.  Flame on.

5- So Mata’s exquisite free kick, as the Watford pressure was ramping up after United’s spell in the second half was repelled, was a choker.  Simultaneously worthy of winning a game and yet delivering three points that the home side hadn’t merited… we’d been on our feet, anticipating the mental when we finally claimed a big scalp.  It didn’t happen.  I didn’t leave feeling downcast though, as many others seemed to.  Losing is never good, but there are many worse ways to do so than this.  We were mugged by United (for the second time this season)… which feels crap, but, you know.  We were mugged by United.  They had to be lucky. We went up there, took the game to them, remained tight, created a load of chances.  We lost the game; trivially, if you don’t take your chances at any level blah blah blah.  But this was perhaps our best performance since at least the similarly choking defeat to Man City at the start of the year.  United got away with one.  Every right to be proud of our team… I was still humming “I just don’t think you understand…” as we pulled in at 1.30 this morning.  You ‘orns…

Watford 0 AFC Bournemouth 0 (27/02/2016) 29/02/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1-   This is later than normal.  Normally the thunks, when it’s me and not him, are botched together on Saturday night in the living room, competing with whatever other family members are watching on the telly.  This time the process has had to wait until Sunday evening, delayed by a night with my parents in Essex and a school reunion today featuring some much older faces 25 year on and a number of much younger ones, of varying lack of age.  It was huge fun, and much needed.  I’m not going to rake over the Upper GT seating thing again – you know what I think, and you know what you think.  Just an aside… that when you’ve had a supremely difficult week, the thing that you normally lean on or escape to in such circumstances being a source of angst and frustration rather than pleasure in itself really doesn’t make things any easier.  So…  today’s event was welcome, even if the guys with guitars surely didn’t envisage that they’d be playing “She’ll be coming round the mountain…” at Feering community centre when we were, um, rocking Danbury village hall in 1990.  Keep it real, chaps.

2- If you’re looking for thunks heavy on detail, you’ve come to the wrong place.  This week, anyway.   More than ever, this is going to (have to) be a mood piece,  so how’s this for starters:  It’s been suggested that in Luton’s ongoing absence from relevance, recent encounters have rendered Bournemouth our new “rivals”.  I kinda get this…  we were a rubbish Wednesday goal apart in the chase for the title, there have been contentious meetings and so on and so forth.  I think I probably dislike Norwich, this Norwich, more… all the “best team in the Championship” nonsense,  the odious Hoolahan and their graceless victory at the Vic last season.  But I get it, I can see how it might be Bournemouth if we were forced to pick someone now.  What’s more questionable is whether a new rival is at all desirable.  I don’t miss Luton, and I don’t miss the derby games… the vacuous hostility, the banal hysteria.  Plus, I don’t miss rubbish games of football…

3- Actually this wasn’t that bad.  It certainly promised a lot as it opened… Bournemouth bounded forward like an overexcited puppy bundling through a crack in an open door, we almost caught them cold as Iggy surged straight back on the break and Boruc pawed his shot wide.  Briefly it looked like being a classic, but although Ighalo and Amrabat slipped neat shots narrowly wide our game was ultimately stifled by the visitors’ energy, whilst they weren’t able to do an awful lot with their own first-half possession.  Disappointingly, Ighalo’s game dwindled from a bright start, and Troy failed to capitalise on the presence of the England manager with one of his least convincing performances of the season.  The star turn in our attacking trio was Amrabat, fielded behind Ighalo with Troy and reveling in being able to break wide rather than being the focus of the attack.  Flores described him as a “knife” this week, and you could see that… he was a musketeer, his flourish, exuberance and ready grin matched by the ability to judge his cut and thrust.  Absolutely marvellous.

4- This section has been left deliberately blank for you to insert your own thunk, reflecting on Valon Behrami getting away with what should probably have been a penalty handball in the context of recent encounters with Bournemouth.

5- So the theory at half time was that our slightly sluggish first half was no disaster… that we’d come the closer despite that, and that the visitors had expended a lot of energy and we’d take advantage after the break.  We had a chance, perhaps the best chance of the game when Paredes and Amrabat combined down the right and the winger found Igahlo unmarked – unmarked, mind you – in the penalty box.  The cross bounced off his head and over, a silver lining provided by the Amrabat’s rapid encouragement of his team-mate.  But by the end of the game we were more than happy with a point, Gomes producing some fabulous stops to deny first Arter and then the impressive Gradel, protecting a point just as he had in our last home league game against Chelsea.  Anthony Taylor, meanwhile, had refereed in the manner of a distracted schoolmaster navigating boisterous corridors whose early indulgences chipped away at his temper until Watson, Cathcart and Behrami mistimed their late sprint down a corridor as the bell went and were yellow carded for offences earlier ignored.  It was all a bit annoying and unsatisfactory, but that this is a bad day says everything about our season.  Another point towards 40 but, let’s be honest, we’re not going down and go to Old Trafford hunting our first really big game of the season.  Bournemouth, on this evidence, won’t be going down either.

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