End of Term Report Part 2 23/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5- Sebastian Prödl
Now that’s wat a centre-back is supposed to look like. Tall. Broad-shouldered. Could easily work as a panel beater, or a night-club bouncer. Seb was convincing from the moment he took to the field, and if he occasionally slipped up – the losing of Glenn Murray, drifting off his shoulder at Dean Court, provoked his losing his place at Stoke – then that only added to the air of authenticity. That’s what centre-backs are supposed to do.
He’s also the most Austrian looking man in the world. The centre-parting. The hairband. The goatee-thing. Put him in a denim jacket with soft-rock badges stitched on, or names scraped on in biro and he’d blend into the background on the Maria Hilfer Straße, no problem at all. That’s Seb all over. What you see is what you get. Sorted.
Next Season: More, please.
6- Joel Ekstrand
Yes, I know. But if nobody – not us, not the club – is going to commemorate departures when they happen then we take these opportunities when they arise.
There’s been no formal confirmation of Ekstrand’s departure… Quique had always sounded quite positive on the subject, reportedly keen to retain the Swede whose comfort on the ball was deemed well suited to the Premier League. But quotes attributed to Ekstrand himself sounded less convinced about his future being here, and with his contract expiring at the end of June you kinda feel that if he was going to stay a new deal would have been announced by now.
Joel’s form had it’s wobbles, particularly during his second season – “The Sannino season” – where he often looked nervous and hesitant and attracted some stick. Worth bearing in mind, though, that in a position where there’s often been serious competition for places (Hall, Cassetti, Hoban, Neuton, Angella, Doyley, Tamas, Bassong) Ekstrand was an all but automatic pick when fit. There were reasons for that… tough, mobile, elegant and confident with the ball at his feet, Joel was an asset, a fixed point around which much of the Pozzo turnover flowed. His Watford career probably won’t be remembered as one of the defining ones of the Pozzo regime, but it deserves better than being jeered off on a stretcher by bloody Ipswich.
Next Season: Having not played first team football for eighteen months, the chief hope is that Ekstrand is able to return to the level he left us at. Beyond that, you’d hope that he pitches up at a club where he can get some games and reignite his career. Best of luck Joel.
7- José Manuel Jurado
It should be borne in mind that Jurado’s task was not an easy one. The expensive signing. The midfield maestro, the creative spark. The one that Quique wanted. All roles, mantles, that added expectation. And all of that aside… he was established at this level. He knew how to do this. Not one of last year’s crew, not someone who had to adjust to a higher level. He was the higher level. He was the one who was going to come in and make the difference, help us bridge the gap.
And in a way, he’s looked capable of doing so. Persistently. His control is flawless. He rarely gives the ball away. He finds space in an instinctive, effortless way, as if drawn by gravity. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would describe Jurado’s first season in England as successful. He got a shock early on, without doubt… at Everton he looked bewildered by the force and the pace of what was going on around him. By his own admission he needed to toughen up and did so, visibly, but his impact never lived up to our lofty expectations.
One could argue that Jurado’s impact in terms of those key metrics, Goals Scored and Assists (statistics, pah) was no worse than that of Almen Abdi’s, say, often fielded in a comparable position on the other side of the pitch. Difference was, Abdi had credit in the bank… we’d seen him do what he can do, and we’d seen him dig in and work to adapt his game to the role he was being asked to play. Crucially, he got stuck in too… you don’t judge an attacking midfielder’s contribution predominantly on whether you track back or not but if you’re not doing the defensive job, you’d better be doing the attacking one bloody well. Jurado rarely ticked either box.
Next Season: Difficult to see Jurado remaining at the club.
8- Valon Behrami
If Jurado looked surprised by the opening day draw with Everton, Valon Behrami went at it like an uncaged lion. Snarling and combative, his experience had clearly taught him where the line was and for the most part he was disciplined and stayed on the right side of it. Except when he didn’t… and that red card against Swansea determined the trajectory of his season as Ben Watson seized his chance and never looked back. From being a nailed-on starter, even a coup, Behrami became something of a bit-part player – five of his fourteen league starts came before mid-September – and whilst he rarely put a foot wrong when called upon he clearly wasn’t getting the game time he expected. Nobody would have been surprised to see him move on in January – he didn’t start another game until the reverse against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium.
I’m glad he didn’t leave. It was commented on early on that it was good to have a bearded warrior charging around at number eight again. That feels right. And the cold, slightly detached glaze of his eyes would scare the hell out of you if you were lined up against him. Like… this is someone a little bit disconnected who can’t be relied upon to behave in a predictable way.
Something, one suspects, went wrong beyond Valon simply losing his place in the side. He’s an experienced enough player to know the score – you get sent off, the guy who comes in plays a blinder, you have to work your way back in whoever you are. Instead of a central role, once 4-4-2 had been established, Valon was often fielded in a wide position – but it was back in the centre, at the Emirates, that he had his best game of the season. Whatever… it was clear that Behrami was an unhappy bunny by the end of the season. And an unhappy Behrami, one suspects, is not to be treated lightly.
Next Season: Mazzarri signed Behrami for Napoli, and the Swiss midfielder was virtually ever-present in a second-place finish in the season they spent together at the Stadio San Paolo. Behrami, one suspects, has cancelled the removal vans.
End of Term Report Part 1 20/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
Ten of these, I’ve done now. Ten. From Junior Osborne and Dominic Blizzard through Will Buckley and Gavin Massey to José Manuel Jurado and Obbi Oularé, you can dip into them typically in the May entries to your right. This one is significant in being the first not to feature Lloydy, and as an aside it does feel rather odd and inappropriate that he was permitted to slip quietly out of a side door in the autumn, much as his departure was no great surprise. Anyway… four today, four more on Monday and so on. With a bit of luck we’ll be done by the Euros…
1 – Heurelho Gomes
My favourite Watford goalkeeper is Tony Coton. I remember Sherwood and Eric Steele, just about, but Coton was between the sticks by the time I got my first season ticket on returning to the country in 1985. In my mind’s eye, TC was unbeatable… agile, defiant, capable of impossible acrobatics, confident and dominant on crosses with a personality the size of an articulated truck. Over the years since Watford have had many goalkeepers, some of them very good goalkeepers and significant in the club’s history. None, however, has borne comparison with Coton, and over time I’ve begun to wonder whether my recollection is coloured by the golden tint of that halcyon eighties team. Can he really have been that good, or am I setting an unreasonable benchmark with which to harshly judge all subsequent pretenders?
Heurelho Gomes’ season in 2015-16 has reassured me that the heights that I associate with Coton are not fanciful. He has been every bit as reliable and imposing this season as last but at this more exalted level and with the team both geared around being difficult to penetrate and in greater need of his experience we have been far more reliant on Gomes than we were last year. We had many, many more goals in us last term, and plenty of knowledge of our environment. The extent to which Gomes was up to the task will, by the time you read this, surely have been reflect in him claiming the Player of the Season award. The Brazilian has been almost as good as the version of Coton that exists within my head, and there can be no greater praise.
Next Season: A cornerstone of the side.
2- Allan Nyom
Extending the theme of treating bygone icons as a reference, three decades of the right back slot being dominated by Nigel Gibbs and Lloyd Doyley have meant that it’s a long time since the position has been a concern. A little odd, then, during a successful season for us to have such issues at right back. It’s tempting to suggest that Allan Nyom’s dip in form towards the end of the campaign merely mirrored that of many of his teammates, but in reality there were some iffy performances earlier on as well; for all that Nyom is tough and physical, it’s been sides that have put him under defensive pressure with quick, direct running on the flanks that have caused him particular problems. There have been some decent outings – he started the season with a tour de force at Goodison Park, and his booting of Raheem Sterling into the advertising hoardings at the Etihad was a highlight of an afternoon in which there were few others. Increasingly there were more difficult days than good ones, however, and his outing at Carrow Road was so spectacularly poor that Craig Cathcart was restored to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable right back slot for the final day.
Next Season: Should the new man persist with four at the back, right back will surely be a priority for recruitment.
3- Miguel Britos
When Miguel was signed, a Uruguayan centre-back already suspended for nutting someone in his last game to Napoli, it was quite natural that a picture began to form in the minds of supporters. When he followed this up with a 75th minute red card at Deepdale during his August debut the deal was sealed. He was regarded with something between disdain and awe, an anti-hero after less than ninety minutes of action.
What nobody expected was for our reckless South American thug to be introduced to the side for the October trip to Stoke, unprompted by any injury or suspension, to disrupt the hitherto encouraging partnership forming between Craig Cathcart and Sebastian Prödl. Instantly he impressed and immediately the cartoon character in our heads dissolved, never to return. In contrast to the wild caricature we’d imagined, Britos has been utterly controlled – hard, yes, you wouldn’t mess. But he’s been, yes, disciplined in everything that he’s done and for much of the season he was the pick of the defenders, authoritative and in charge in a way that the best of his recent predecessors in the middle of the defence have looked… but at a higher level altogether.
Next Season: Britos’ form dipped as the season finished, but with his former bossWalter Mazzarri – who signed Britos for Bologna for €9 million and integrated him into his Napoli side – ostensibly lined up, Miguel should be nailed on to be a mainstay again next term.
4- Mario Suárez
Here’s a conundrum. A player who, apparently, we signed in the face of hot competition really hasn’t lived up to his exciting billing as yet. At times he’s looked majestic… executing passes that haven’t even occurred to us watching on in the stands. “There’s clearly a magnificent player in there somewhere”. However to say that he hasn’t got to grips with the British game is an understatement… he looks leggy and laboured, too often a passenger in an area where you really can’t carry passengers, an area we’d expected him to dominate. He comes across really well… there’s no hint of slyness or dishonesty about him, you want him to come good for his own sake as well as for ours. Will be one of the more fascinating ones to watch at the start of next term.
Next Season: It’s been said that he needs to be in a midfield three to be effective, with others doing his fetching and carrying. If Mazzarri is appointed he may well get that opportunity. Jury’s out, but you wouldn’t want to call which way this will go.
Helping Hands 2015/2016 18/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
So here we are. In a ritual that may not serve any other purpose than mentally drawing a line under the season for me, I’ve again gone through match reports and video clips and compiled a table depicting where exactly our goals came from in the campaign jus gone. As ever, unlike scoring of goals and despite any suggestions to the contrary there is no undisputed definition of what an assist IS. I’ve applied the same definition as in previous years, and it’s 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.
It’s a detail too frequently overlooked that the fixture list congestion thing only really affects the clubs in European competition in what is, in my head, still a “new” bloated and self-serving format. Being on BT Sport has rendered the Champions League even less relevant… it gets mentioned on the radio occasionally, but gets filed with rugby and cricket and other irrelevance in terms of the attention I can offer it. Anyway… cup run or no, we played only 44 games this season as compared to 49 last and against significantly stronger opposition with an altogether more frugal – however successful – approach. As such… fewer goals, and a less exciting table.
A table that, nonetheless, tells a few stories particularly well. The most striking detail is how the names dominating the assists table in the same way that they dominated the goals scored column reflects our attacking approach – a solid midfield, very little pace or width, everything going through the front two – almost entirely. Only Ben Watson’s two goals, Seb Prodl’s two goals and Almen Abdi’s free kick against Villa – four of the five set pieces – involved neither an assist nor a finishing touch from Ighalo or Deeney.
The same story is told by the paucity of contributions from other sources. José Manuel Jurado’s lack of contribution in this regard has often, not unreasonably, been used as a stick to beat him with, but the penalty he earned against Sunderland – soft or otherwise, he had at least attacked the box to draw the foul – was his third. That’s three more than the traditionally reliable Almen Abdi, like Jurado fielded in an awkward and unflattering wide position, but worth remembering that he only got three last season, too. Mario Suárez is another who failed to register, whilst Etienne Capoue’s unreliably excellent contributions only earned him a single tick at St James’ Park.
Otherwise, the most startling detail probably results from a somewhat anomalous game in the League Cup at Deepdale that saw five names make their only starts of the season. Amongst these were Matej Vydra, Gabriele Angella and Fernando Forestieri, who jump out of the list as if left over from a bygone age. But also Connor Smith, whose 55 minutes represent the only on-pitch contribution from an Academy graduate in 2015-16.
Will return soon with the End of Term Report. Enjoy the summer…
|Deeney||11||41+2||15||Eve (A), Swa (H), New (A), AsV (A), Nor (H), Liv (H), Tot (H), New (H), Ars (A – FAC), Ars (A – FAC), Nor (A)|
|Ighalo||7||38+4||17||Sto (A), Sto (A), MaU (H), AsV (A), Nor (H), New (H), AsV (H)|
|Jurado||3||29+1||0||Che (A), CrP (FAC), Sun (H)|
|Berghuis||2||1+10||0||WHU (A), AsV (H)|
|Guedioura||2||6+17||1||WBA (A), Sun (H)|
|Anya||2||18+15||0||WHU (H), Sto (H)|
|Watson||2||37+4||2||AsV (A), Lee (H – FAC)|
The List 2016. 16/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far
Here we are again. The season ends, the rumours begin. They’ve been going for a while, actually, so there’s a goodly number already listed; the list will be updated throughout the summer.
* Indicates player linked in previous windows
Running Total: 29
Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool)*
Nathan Aké (Chelsea)*
Isaac Success (Granada)
Aly Malle (Black Stars)
Takuma Asano (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
Uche Agbo (Granada)
Zouhair Feddal (Levante)
Josip Ilicic (Fiorentina)
Daniel Bentley (Southend United)
Joe Allen (Liverpool)
Jordan Ibe (Liverpool)
Albert Rusnak (Groningen)
Davide Santon (Inter)*
Anthony Knockaert (Brighton)
Jefferson Murillo (Cúcuta Deportivo)
Lee Jae Sung (Keonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Allan Saint-Maximin (Monaco)
Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading)
Saido Berahino (West Bromwich Albion)
Jordan Lukaku (Oostende)
Djibril Sidibe (Lille)
Marco Andreolli (Inter)
Juan Jesus (Inter)
Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo)*
Sergi Canos (Liverpool)
Adem Ljajić (Roma)
Emanuele Giaccherini (Sunderland)
Ernest Ohemeng (Morierense)
José Holebas (Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, Besiktas, Konyaspor, Basaksehir)
Heurelho Gomes (Everton)
Miguel Layún (Real Madrid, Porto*)
Odion Ighalo (West Ham, Everton, West Brom)
Gabriele Angella (Swansea)
Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord)
Troy Deeney (Leicester City)
Essaid Belkalem (Trabzonspor)
Adalberto Peñaranda (Tottenham, West Ham)
Watford 2 Sunderland 2 (15/05/2016) 16/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- In the end, there’s not an awful lot left to say. This final day – but for Spurs’ hilarious ineptitude in Newcastle – was a dead rubber all round, and at Vicarage Road no less than anywhere. The club had even taken the step of confirming what we had kinda known was coming by making the end-of-season announcement as if this fixture had been forgotten about, someone left in the pub as it was locked up and shut down since everyone had forgotten that it had gone to use the loo. It was clearly the right thing to do, providing the platform for a noisy send-off rather than, as might have transpired, a bitter end-of-season catastrophe to add to the growing catalogue of the Pozzo era… but either way, Sunderland had done their thing and were similarly inconvenienced to the extent that they made nine changes and afforded two debuts. The Hornets’ line-up contained few surprises, prompting a brief cheer from ig who argued that anything other than the bloody-minded defiance that has characterised the end of Flores’ spell in charge would be wholly unfitting. Cathcart at right-back again? Of course he is.
2- It’s a good job that the result didn’t matter, since what was on offer wouldn’t have offered a great deal to be optimistic about. For all that we started bright and lively and showed positive intent throughout, we were held by the second string of a Sunderland side who have just escaped from relegation and who had two “goals” disallowed for narrow-looking (pre-MotD) offside calls. Yes, we should have won the game anyway but for careless finishing, but for all that Flores has persisted in setting up his side to be “solid” the last few performances have been anything but. Here, the slipping and sliding that had peppered the early “action” in front of the Rookery reached its apex as a calamity of errors let Rodwell in to open the scoring. The visitors looked bright but limited and should probably have had four goals. It was an end-of-season non-event and in the context of such fixtures it didn’t stand out – in many respects it was seguing into the pre-season friendly amble around at times. Viewing the on-pitch fare, instead, in the context of the last few months paints it in a very different light. It’s odd… at the start of the season being glad that the thing would be over was one possible eventuality. But not like this.
3- Worth adding, as a brief aside, that I’m perfectly happy with Kevin Friend being assigned games that don’t matter, since whilst all referees can provoke the anger of the crowd either through mistakes or perceived mistakes, Friend’s tendency to respond to such occasions with a “ha, you’re not getting to me” smile is rather trying and would be all the more irritating if his influence had any consequence. In fairness, he’s got a few thousand idiots – me included – bellowing at him so chastising him for smiling is a bit harsh, I speak purely from the point of view of self-preservation…. my head is likely to explode if he does it in front of the Rookery again. This was the latest in an extensive series of provocative visits to the Vic from Friend, whose dismissal of John Eustace in the play-offs eight years ago – later rescinded on appeal – was typical of what we’ve had to endure since.
4- Which isn’t to say that the afternoon wasn’t enjoyable. As at Norwich there was plenty to take pleasure in… the arrival of summer, the bright positive stuff that we tried to play for the most part. Troy – again – following an errant warm-up shot into the Rookery to console the child who had the misfortune to halt its progress. Tottenham – have I mentioned that? Sunderland’s excellent supporters singing “Leicester, we’re coming for you”… rehearsed and probably not novel but worth a chuckle anyway. Several Watford players putting in performances that captured their seasons like a highlights reel… Paredes thundering down the flank before dropping a cross into Pickford’s arms, Jurado prompting gasps with his adroit, clever footwork without generating an awful lot (although in fairness his boldness did at least yield a shot or two on target and draw a penalty), Guedioura surging enthusiastically past opponents before losing control, or clumping a volley into the Rookery. Seb Prödl’s goal was just great, exactly the sort of goal that a centre-back built like a brick outhouse ought to be scoring. And young Sunderland sub Honeyman one minute being bullied off the ball in a grossly unfair confrontation with Troy, the next hacking the ball into the stand in terror in the mistaken expectation that his adversary was closing in…
5- …and, of course, the send-off. Which was a fine, noisy, emotional thing. The wider response to Flores’ departure has been predictably banal and incurious, revealing a depressing proportion of media commentary to be little more than pub-bore monologue… I’ve got a Wednesday-supporting mate who craves the media attention for his side that promotion might bring but he’s in for a shock if he expects “analysis” beyond a groupthink consensus. For all that, there’s been a surprising degree of acceptance and support for the decision from the people who’ve been watching this stuff. If not consensus then a majority view that Quique did great, but that his departure feels like the right thing – whether or not the wider world chooses to even inquire about it. In this spirit there was genuine bonhomie in the prolonged goodbye.
6- And so the season ends on the week of, for me, a personal highlight. Explaining the managerial machinations to daughters 1 and 2 I reported that Mazzarri had been rumoured to be Quique’s replacement. “And he used to manage Napoli, some of our players used to play for him there”.
“Yes, like Miguel Britos,” says daughter 2 (aged 6).
My work here is done. Have a good summer.
Norwich City 4 Watford 2 (11/05/2016) 12/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- On the face of it, this had the potential to be fascinating. At least, that was the situation when we booked tickets, before Sunderland beat Chelsea to rather diffuse the anticipation. A spoiler on Twitter betraying an upcoming plot, “Ohhhh, that’s how it finishes”. Nonetheless, having opted for East Anglia on a Wednesday night ahead of Merseyside on a Sunday afternoon, there were plenty of considerations to factor in. How would the home side approach it – nervously? Bloody-mindedly? How aggressive and professional would we be? How would the narrative of the evening, inevitably influenced by events on Wearside, change the mood as the ground suffered hope, anxiety, frustration, despair?
It’s been ten years since I was last at Carrow Road. Admittedly there may have been reasons for recollection of that trip being less than crystal clear… but I’m sure there were decent pies, commensurate with the profile and reputation of the club’s now joint-majority shareholder. So it was something of a disappointment to see Pukka Pies on offer, one of several respects in which Norwich’s offering felt a little bit unconvincing… the pre-match kerfuffle was a bundle of ideas pinched from other clubs, the home crowd shifting around uncomfortably unconvinced and unrallied by an excitable announcer. The (welcome) vogue for welcoming visiting supporters by customising the away end with appropriately coloured decor or posters of the visitors’ heroes of yore, was pursued… but in the most token, half-arsed of ways.
2- But even half an arse was more than Watford could muster. It’s not unreasonable to argue that, our situation and form being what it is, travelling supporters kinda ought to have known that a non-performance like this was a strong possibility. It’s also true that Norwich had an awful lot more riding on this than we had. To be expected, perhaps, that they’d be the more focused, the more motivated. But even accounting for both factors and to whatever degree you sympathise with the position that Quique Flores is in – of which more later – there was no excusing this pathetic shambles. The club, the team, the manager do still have a responsibility to uphold… to their supporters, those daft enough to come have nonetheless spent time and money, and so on and so on. A well-worn argument. As importantly, but for the way the evening transpired in Sunderland, fans of both north-east clubs who may have been depending on this outcome would have had every right to look at this and ask “what the bloody hell was that all about?”. We’re not the only ones to take our foot off, sure. That doesn’t make it acceptable, whatever the magnitude of achievement that has or hasn’t gone before it. Lack of ability you can forgive. Lack of effort, less so.
And the lack of effort started from the top. So much for taking the shackles off when safety was secured; the line-up was as uninspiring as it was predictable. No question that the “difficult to beat” thing was a valid and successful means to an end, but having achieved that end we were entitled to look forward to more than this perfunctory twaddle. The ever-willing Ikechi Anya’s retention at full-back, occasionally a worthwhile selection but not against an opponent like Nathan Redmond on an evening like this, rang alarm bells straight away and not just because of the story it suggested about Flores’ relationship with his four professional full-backs one of whom – the admittedly appalling Allan Nyom – appeared to have been selected purely out of necessity. The concern rose not from the selection now and on Sunday, but from the implication that the other four, all of whom having impressed at least intermittently, were inferior options. Flores’ impotence in correcting this tallies with the most galling betrayal, for me, the public concession that his team was effectively ready for the beach. As if that was outside of his control. Whatever your beliefs about Flores’ future, he’s not making it very difficult to say goodbye.
3- And so we are dragged, kicking and screaming, to the football itself. The first ten minutes or so weren’t too bad… we started the more positive as the competing emotions around the stadium took a while to settle. We looked reasonably bright in attacking positions all evening in fairness, where the front two – including the extraordinary Deeney, again more later – didn’t stop plugging away. The goal came, a bit of a gift – not the only instance of uncertain handling from John Ruddy – but 1-0 and we’re away and singing the predictable songs about the goal’s implications.
And then Norwich come back at us, and immediately things looked very much less than comfortable. Gone is the solid, well-drilled, obstinate block that was the bedrock of much of our early success in the season… Norwich ran at us with pace and purpose and, with the obstinate exception of Ben Watson, we ushered them through. Not so much losing the battle in midfield as denying it’s existence altogether. Runners weren’t tracked, City frequently overloaded, and at the back we were all over the place as City’s breaks frequently saw Nyom shuffling back from a central position and Cathcart forced wide to cover, or Pinto and Redmond doubling up, or the massive Mbokani pullig wide to bully Anya. Watson spent much of the first half shouting impotently at Jose Jurado; in the admittedly less catastrophic second, as we pondered the potential for a red card, the suggestion was made that the already booked and increasingly impotent Watson probably didn’t fancy another 90 minutes of this on Sunday. At which point he got the hook from the bench as Guedioura’s reliable energy was finally introduced. Alongside him, Suárez looks magnificent with the ball at his feet and the time and the space to pick a pass – one instant arcing ball from the centre of the pitch to the left flank was breathtaking. Anything involves running, however, is altogether less satisfactory and we’re yet to see any evidence to decry the unwelcome suggestion that there was a reason that Fiorentina weren’t picking him – that his legs have, as the label goes, gone. Certainly little evidence of them this evening, despite his bafflingly being afforded a full 90 minutes.
4- It would be wrong to suggest that this was an entirely unenjoyable evening. The sunshine was warm, the fare on the pitch was dramatic, however incompetent, and the neutral in our party confirmed the value of the entertainment. Wes Hoolahan lining up a free kick from a dangerous position in the first half before chipping it delicately into the wall was hilarious; City fans probably enjoyed the creative inadequacy of the defending for their third goal in particular. In the second half, Troy was propelled beyond the goal into the noisy Barclay Stand where he appeared to shake hands with the City fan he landed on, introduce himself and quickly return to the action to apparent hilarity in the vicinity. And throughout there was the distracting mystery of an army of stewards and policemen congregated between the Barclay Stand and the Hornets in the Jarrold Stand. Such are the lavish extravagances of the Premier League, I suppose, although you had to wonder whether they couldn’t have spared a couple of redundant yellow jackets in favour of enough hands to open the second kiosk in the away end.
5- The crowd were buoyed into a noisy frenzy as City equalised, took and extended the lead through a series of goals that were increasingly – that word again – pathetic from our point of view. As the relegation situation was being confirmed elsewhere the crowd, inevitably, settled but roused themselves again for a defiant finish.
City were vastly the superior side, and should have won the game by a more comprehensive margin. Their predicament, however, the reasons that they’re relegated were suggested by the fact that they weren’t able to do so. Indeed, even late in the game and certainly for long after Miguel Britos had waved Dieumerci Mbokani through for a fourth, helpfully carrying his luggage for him as he wandered through to poke a shot over Gomes before heading back to Kiev or wherever he pitches up next, you wouldn’t have completely ruled out us stealing some utterly undeserved points from the game such was City’s vulnerability to our limited counter-attacks and their inability to kill us off.
It may well be that they do come back again next season, but the replacement of two or three of the competitive clubs at the top of the Championship with the carcasses of Newcastle and Villa is unlikely to render the division less frantic. As the City fans sung Alex Neil’s name during the second half it was difficult not to share the sentiment implied by the question, “I wonder if they’ll still be singing that when they’re eleventh in November?”.
It’s hard to sympathise with Norwich. There’s was easily the most graceless of the approaches to the epic promotion chase last season – although at least they’ll be able to re-establish their claim to being “The Best Side in the Championship” next year I suppose. Wes Hoolahan’s swallow dive at Vicarage Road remain’s hard to forgive, as does the City player’s fondness for celebrating in front of rival fans rather than their own. Similarly Alex Neil’s peevish assessment of the Hornets’ “very basic” approach before this game. The fact that he flattered the performance that was to come doesn’t change the reality – that the Hornets have been able, basic or otherwise, to do what City did not and comfortably stay in the division.
6- As for Flores, whilst his achievement in dropping our anchor this season has been huge, his viability in the role hinges upon how well-suited he is to what comes next, not whether he has enough brownie points in the bank, and if any of us were to dispassionately look at the formative Premier League line-up for next season in the context of each club’s trajectory over this campaign you’d have to be very concerned. The collapse in form since Christmas is real, and reflecting, “yes, but we lost to good teams” is no consolation. This is the Premier League, good teams are the norm. The stuff that we can see, the performances and team selection, the frequent ostracising of players, would be cause for concern on their own. We don’t see what goes on at the training ground, the mood in the camp. Pozzo, Duxbury et al have much greater visibility of that and for all that they’ve made bold calls in the past, they’ve not often got it wrong. The departure of Jokanovic, for all the smokescreen about contract demands, would appear to me to have been a far more brutal one at the time, in context… yes, he was operating at a different level but it doesn’t follow that his job was any easier. The maelstrom that we navigated to gain promotion is too easily dismissed… but that decision appeared well-founded. Personally, I’m happy to trust the club management’s call.
More of a concern for me that Flores, or the seemingly inevitable and perhaps necessary departure of Ighalo, is the position of the captain. Troy’s performance, as so often since Christmas, stood out an absolute mile this evening. The contrast in his application to that of so many of his team mates was palpable and vast, our second goal which saw him bully Martin and defiantly, delicately tee up he onrushing Ighalo, just reward for his refusal to be dragged down by the apathy of much of his team. Now, as for the last three years at least, he’s the beating heart of the side, the club. Since we were promoted I’ve not been concerned about losing him… there’s little incentive for him to move to a similar sized club now that we’re in the top flight, and a move to a bit-part role at a bigger club might not attract a man who so clearly revels in being the focal point, the main man. So Leicester’s position, remarkable and tremendous as it is, seemed like a threat to me before the rumours of their (rekindled) interest in Troy surfaced this week. Faced with a need to strengthen their squad in the light of their Champions’ League campaign to come, what sort of player are they going to sign? More N’golo Kantés and Riyad Mahrezs (Mahrezzes?) if they can find them, sure. But not an Anthony Martial, an Alexis Sanchez or a Sergio Aguero. An oft-voiced sentiment since the final whistle blew at Carrow Road is that folk can suddenly not wait for the season to end. Me, I’m apprehensive. If Troy’s still with us at the end of August I’ll be absolutely delighted but you have to be concerned. Was this performance just another example of his indefatigable bloody-mindedness? Or is he determined to go out on a high?
Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (30/04/2016) 01/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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… 25/04/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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) 25/04/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.