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Everton 2 Watford 5 (23/10/2021) 24/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- Sometimes you wake up and the world feels different.

I love this time of year anyway.  You can step outside in the morning and the air is surprisingly cold without being cold.  You feel alive.  But the more so on this particular morning, there’s an unnatural silence as we leave the house, a stillness.  Like we’ve stepped out in between days and everything else is frozen.

Daughter 1 was deterred by the prospect of a 9am start – which, given how her previously documented choices have gone this season should have been encouragement in itself.  But Daughter 2, isn’t letting me get past “do you fancy going to…” at the moment and is briskly purposeful as we set off.  She’s not missed an away trip yet and this is a significant milestone – at twelve years and three months, her one hundredth game.

9am because as any seasoned veteran knows, the M6 is not to be trusted.  Today is relatively benign, the hold-ups frequent but tame.  We float through them all in a eerily serene bubble.  This will not be a normal day.

This will be the day that we cash in all of our Goodison chips.  This is for Chris Powell, and the ultimately decisive penalty given against him for having the ball smashed into his face in 2005.  This is for Lucas Digne’s 96th-minute free kick three years ago.  For Alice breaking down on the M6, for me taking out the side of the Qashqai in a hurried attempt to park in 2015.  For Felix’s puncture in 2000, the insane jacking up on the side of the motorway before rushing to Goodison to see us get effortlessly dicked.  Again.  For Gomes’ injury and Cleverley’s missed penalty.  For Steve Terry in 1983, one of six defeats in six visits in our first top flight spell.

You wouldn’t have chosen to cash in all those chips at once.  But given that we were to go whole hog, it would have been rude not to enjoy it.

2- Any instinct to rub the outcome of the afternoon into the noses of the watching (or reading) Toffees is severely tempered by a thoroughly agreeable pre-match pint of Guinness at the Abbey on the edge of Stanley Park.  Pubs very close to away grounds are best avoided as a general rule, but this place comes recommended by Tony who drops in for a swift pint and for comparison of pre-match notes before we head to opposite “ends”.  The Abbey and its patrons are good natured and likeable, despite the very obvious threat posed by my brother’s young herberts as they march in in full colours.  One local apologises earnestly for unwittingly stepping ahead of me at the bar, another offers to dance as we try to negotiate passage down a narrow corridor.  Tony assures Daughter 2 that her latest discovery and new obsession, the Chicken Balti pie, is on the menu at the ground.  He’s wrong, as it turns out… they’re down to Steak and Ale or Scouse as the noisy concourse rattles through a back catalogue championing Almen Abdi and Fernando Forestieri amongst others.  In the context of the afternoon Daughter 2 agrees to let him off.

Which isn’t to suggest that the afternoon passed without mishap or mis-step.  Far from it.  Three minutes in and our early punchiness was undermined by a bold but criminally under-bootered Everton attack down the Watford right.  The sprightly Anthony Gordon was at the centre of this…  our viewpoint is low-ish and looking down the goalline as Demarai Gray made the most of a fortunate bounce in front of us to get past William Troost-Ekong and square for Tom Davies to shovel home despite Masina, Cathcart and Foster being in the vicinity.  All much, much too easy.

That air of serenity descended again.  The back of my neck felt suddenly cold as the development sunk home, the futility of another trip to Goodison, memories of last week’s misfortunes which I’d followed on a phone screen extrapolated to what seemed to be beginning in front of us, the prospect of Daughter 2 finally deciding that this is all a bit of a pain in the backside.  “It’s going to be a long season” said the bloke behind me;  I was more focused on a long afternoon, reflecting that the forlorn possibility of a positive outcome could have lasted a little longer.

The only thing that could realistically have made the situation more miserable was the Doughnut Chorus chirping up from their infiltrated positions above and behind us.  Gleefully leaping at the possibility of gallows humour, “How sh*t must you be, it’s only one-nil” descending into songs about Gylfi Sigurdsson and, if in admittedly tamer numbers, telling Ben Foster where to stick his go-Pro.  That’ll be Ben Foster who, still Watford’s top keeper or otherwise, ill-judged sharer of tickets or otherwise, has been part of some of our best days over 16 years, 200-odd games, ex-Player of the Season.  We’ve not reached the tenth minute yet. Pitiful.

3- So the next development was hugely significant both in its timing and outcome.  I was reminded of that VAR decision at Wembley in 2019 , the VAR decision upon which the outcome of the semi-final against Wolves seemed to hang.  The last minute penalty is denied and surely the gig is up… but it was given, Troy was never missing that penalty, the inevitability of ultimate victory was sown in that moment.

The VAR delay to the confirmation of Josh King’s equaliser after he gobbled up a knock-down from a right wing cross wasn’t perhaps quite as decisive, but it felt pivotal.  We went through the charade of celebrating, then being derided by the home stands for celebrating, then the home stands simmering down as the ongoing precariousness of the situation became apparent.  Then the verdict,,, the veracity of which, the likely outcome of which, we had no basis to judge beyond increasing confidence in a favourable outcome as it dragged on.  The direction of travel of the game, for all that we’d reacted positively to going behind, was dramatically arrested, the negative sentiment in the away end quelled (although the Sigurdsson chants would resurface, inexplicably, in the closing celebrations).  Game on.

It was 1-1 for quite a long time, on reflection; the crazy denouement would distort any subsequent recollection of time and space.  The remainder of the first half was one of those periods with mood phases, like a piece of classical music.  I’m guessing.  Buoyed by the equaliser, we continued to play on the front foot and here’s the biggest contrast from last week.  We could easily have lost this game, in many other universes we do lose this game, but the aggressive, pushy, bolshy in-your-faceness of our defiance was a world away not just from the Liverpool performance but from those that immediately preceded it.  There’s been much criticism of our defending, but the midfield has been the bigger issue for me, the bit that we’ve spent so much time trying to get right since promotion in 2015, the bit that’s helped us look so convincing once it’s been sorted.  A midfield that can be relied upon to either protect the defence or fuel a threat in the other direction takes the pressure off of that defence;  too often ours has been doing neither.

But here we’re getting a boot in and had we lost this game 2-1, say, then this would have been the very large consolation to take from the performance.  We look like a team.  We’re fighting for each other, we’re moving the ball around.  It’s not perfect, it’s not finished, and it’s not entirely consistent – Ozan Tufan occasionally needs encouragement to track back – but there’s a plan.  Sissoko punched in a low shot that flew wide but might have felled the goalpost had it connected. Cucho cut in from the left and slung a ball in with his right foot;  it’s deflected but not kindly enough for the onrushing red shirts.  

Everton reasserted themselves.  This is a flimsy and understrength Toffees side… two goalkeepers on an eight-man bench, a manifestly unfit Allan trundling around in midfield in the absence of Doucs, Rondón toiling on like an ageing seventies rocker churning out the old hits to keep himself in beer money.  We’re not Brazil 1970 ourselves though, and in passing should probably acknowledge the contribution of referee Graham Scott.  Having oft cursed Peter Walton for his appalling misjudgement here that got Aidy Boothroyd’s Prem season off to the worst of starts it’s only fair to acknowledge the hard line which Scott took with Everton’s increasingly desperate attempts to win themselves a penalty.  Anthony Gordon was the first, a foolish challenge in the box gave him a leg to throw himself over and this he did but Scott, mercifully, told him to get up and stop being so silly.  In the second half Allan would be booked for similar optimism at the far end; an increasingly sassy Daughter 2 meeting this with the derision it deserved – “I could see that was a dive from here”.  This ranks just below “Why is there an Everton player playing for England?” and “Why isn’t he (Gordon) doing his GCSEs?” as her most acidic of the afternoon.

So Everton finished the half on top, but the character of the reaction to going behind and the vastly more credible performance earned the Watford team and staff a suitably persistent ovation as they paraded off into the corner in front of us at the break.

4- The hat-trick and the backdrop to it gets the plaudits of course, but there was far more to like about Joshua King’s performance than these details, a five star showing even without the goals.  The start to his Watford career has been in fits and bursts;  this was only his third full ninety minutes, niggles and fitness have interrupted his progress.  Nonetheless, we’ve looked far more credible as an attacking unit with him in the side, the glue that holds it all together.  

At Goodison Park, whether fuelled by indignation at his treatment here last season or otherwise, all those encouraging signs came together in a magnificent centre-forward’s performance.  He battled for the ball, He held it up, he held people off.  He orchestrated our attacking play. He brought players into the game.  Oh yes, and he scored a hat-trick.

He could have scored more.  Early in the second half Sarr wriggled away down the right and sent a low, firm ball into the centre; King attacked it well but shouldn’t have given the unwitting Pickford, who benefitted from the speed of his reactions but didn’t know much about the save, a chance.

Instead it was the home side that took the lead, following the first of a number of significant substitutions.  Transparently Benítez is on a hiding to nothing at Goodison.  His successes will be celebrated, but he has a very steep and possibly endless hill to climb before he can get away with anythingThe simmering anxiety at his charges’ failure to roll us over culminated in booing at his replacement of livewire Gordon with the returning Richarlíson;  Rondón would have been a more popular exit.  From our point of view Gordon’s early vim had faded, and Benítez does like to retain a big man up top – Digne, Townsend and Gray loading bullets from the flanks provides at least a theoretical threat.  In any case, it was a significant change in tone from the very flat atmosphere that Tony had warned us of pre-game.  

And of course Richarlíson scored three minutes later as his movement surprised Cathcart and he met Keane’s fine cross to leave Foster stranded and helpless.  Tempting to mock the hypocrisy of the Everton celebrations, were it not for the Doughnut Chorus’s own comparable volt-face earlier on.  Every support has its idiots.

5- There was an inevitability about Richarlíson doing us again from a Watford perspective, but this never felt like the death-knell that Davies’ opener had.  The tone of the game, the fragility of both sides, was long evident.  This wasn’t over until it was over, and it wasn’t yet.

The next substitutions were equally striking, however.  João Pedro is indisputably a force for good, and knowing quite where and how to use him the only issue.  Expectation was that either a tiring King or a willing but volatile and erratic Cucho would be pulled.  Instead, Sarr was removed along with Tufan, with Emmanuel Dennis moving into the attack and the Brazilian at the apex of the midfield.   Risky stuff – Ranieri wouldn’t have gotten credit for his bravery had it backfired.

It didn’t, though the breakthrough wasn’t immediate.  You’ll have seen the stats by now, so no need to emphasise them….  but the corner that provided the pebble that set off the avalanche didn’t arrive until the 78th minute.  Our vantage point – as previously, low and looking down the goalline – afforded us a perfect view… Cucho’s bomb of a corner swung over the masses at near post and dropped for Juraj Kucka.  The Slovak had had one of his more assertive, irresistible days – in my mind’s eye he rises in front of us with the sun behind him, leaping impossibly, hovering high and craning every neck muscle to power a header past Pickford.  A bit like the Pele scissor-kick in Escape to Victory, a theatrical moment.  Match of the Day suggests it was a bit more prosaic than that but a fine header nonetheless and the point at which the destination of the game was definitively determined.  Kucka thundered towards us with a delirious, fist-clenched roar and the rest of the team followed. 

This was to be a recurring theme.  Emmanuel Dennis, fitfully effective in recent weeks, enjoyed a brutal cameo; two minutes later he combined with João Pedro down the right and fed King, alone in the centre.  A gorgeous left foot touch set up a right foot shot, giving us the lead for the first time.  In the away end the response was restrained, dignified and contemplative.

everton

In reflecting upon what followed, it’s tempting – natural even – to focus on Everton’s defensive collapse which was both striking and comprehensive.  Nonetheless.  As noted previously, “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  We were pretty terrible last week.  But we were playing an exceptional side, who played a significant role in us looking terrible.  Comparable themes here.  Everton fell apart; obsessed with the outcome that was generally anticipated they overcommitted forwards in panic and seemed incapable of defending…  but only in the face of a counter-attack executed with merciless precision.  I was later reminded of the 3-0 win at Newcastle four years ago – few more accommodating challenges for a side in need of a win than a trip to a blunt opponent burdened by the pressure of expectation of an easy victory.  

Dennis’ sharp turn and shot forced a fine save from Pickford low to his left.  Minutes later Cucho’s surge down the left concluded in a clumsy lay-off that Everton proved comically incapable of dealing with.  The ball broke to Dennis who fed King, criminally onside and growing in composure with every goal, like progressing to higher levels on a computer game.  An icily controlled touch wrong-footed Pickford and sealed the hat-trick.  In the dying minutes of a dizzy denouement Emmanuel Dennis added to his two assists by rounding off the scoring in a touching tribute to his compatriot Odion Ighalo, reprising Iggy’s goal here in 2015 with Seamus Coleman in John Stones’ “hapless sliding idiot” role.  

6- It was a glorious drive home, punctuated with more service station stops than strictly necessary and exchanges with the plentiful shirts of other clubs travelling up and down the country.  Dave left Sandbach in a state of some disquiet, civil – even friendly – exchanges with not one but two Wolves fans confirming that football was broken, there was something very weird about the whole day.  We got in at 10pm, Daughter 2 declaring herself more than satisfied with her 100th game.

We weren’t a lost cause after Liverpool a week ago.  We’re not world beaters, or even a solid mid-table side, after this one.  But we have proven ourselves capable of smashing down the doors of a a so-so team on a bad day.  That might be enough.  It’ll certainly do for now. 

But today wasn’t about the wider context.  Today, for all its scruffy imperfections, was a gem in it’s own right.  A day on, I’m still grinning my stupid face off.

“And one day we will win here.  We’ll cash in the debt of luck we’re owed at this ground (a very small extension of Everton’s credit here today courtesy of that deflection) and we’ll absolutely dick them.  And we’ll be there to see it.”

BHaPPY report, Everton 1 Watford 0, August 2019

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 4, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 3, Kucka 4, Tufan 3, Sarr 3, Hernández 3, *King 5*
Subs: Dennis (for Sarr, 64) 5, João Pedro (for Tufan, 64) 4, Nkoulou (for Ngakia, 76) NA, Sema, Cleverley, Fletcher, Gosling, Louza, Bachmann

Leeds United 1 Watford 0 (02/10/2021) 03/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- I studied in Leeds for three years.

It was a great place to learn and to live and I made a lot of friends there.  These include the guy who I sit next to at Vicarage Road who I first ran into in the Old Bar while he was making the questionable fashion choice of wearing the old chessboard Bukta away kit in public, and another friend who I met on an early Otley Run (before new pubs expanded the traditional pub crawl from Headingley to life-threatening dimensions) – she was on a three-legged crawl, roped to a friend in yellow, red and black scarves.

You live an odd life as a student, resident in the city but not really part of it a lot of the time, in your own little bubble.  Nor was there any great affinity with United for all that I could see Elland Road’s huge main stand below me in the far distance from my attic room in Headingley (no double glazing, no central heating, coldest room in the world).  Nethermoor Guiseley, Leeds Road Huddersfield and Oakwell were all ticked off before we headed to United’s ground out of a sense of obligation in our final year.

But for all of Leeds’ hard edges, for all that the wind has a brutal relentlessness about it for much of the year, it’s a fine city home to many warm people.  These include Will, with whom we stay on Friday night, passing my old street en route (“I used to…”, “YES DAD, WE KNOW!”) as well as a more recent addition, Jon Moss’ “The Vinyl Whistle” record store on Otley Road.  

This warmth is reflected in the chatter overheard both before and after the game on the route between the ground and our lofty parking spot in Beeston.  Families, or groups of mates, or an older Dad and adult son chewing the fat.  Reflecting on the prospects, on injury lists, on what transpired and how much it means.  It’s all civil, likeable, normal.

It’s not remotely reflected by the populace of the Norman Hunter stand behind the goal to the right of the away “end”, tucked away as we are as an afterthought in the upper tier of the adjoining stand in seats that cramp anyone above 5’10”.  Plenty of clubs retain “an element”, heaven knows some of our lot have their moments, but very few if any others have this bizarre menagerie of gormless, banal aggression, as much an anachronism as the “Champions of Europe” chant that gets an occasional airing between the droning repeats of “Marching on Together” (“you’ve DONE that one!”).  Daughters 1 and 2, veterans by now of countless away trips, watch on with mild curiosity.  Will’s kids, younger primary school age with faces covered in Nutella pre-match thanks to wise application of the “you can’t bring on too many snacks” rule, stare on in slightly anxious wonderment, as they would at a furious wasp stuck under an overturned pint glass.

2- Yes, I’m trying to avoid discussing the football.

Any kit lives or dies in the annals of history by virtue of the things achieved in it.  Any third kit (and I’m not really convinced there’s any moral argument in favour of third kits really, aesthetically pleasing green and gold numbers or otherwise) is going to have relatively few chances to stake its case (less still, you’d have hoped, with a primarily yellow and therefore non-clashing first kit).  On the basis of which, this one’s going to need to go some in whatever opportunities it gets in the future.

Because this was pretty dreadful all told.  For all that there were nods of approval in the extensive queues for sustenance as the team news broke pre-match, Sierralta making a welcome return and Tufan’s first League start the most sensible looking solution to our midfield challenges, we never looked remotely equipped to cope with Leeds’ aggressive press, tamer versions of which we’ve struggled with already this season at Brighton and last week most obviously.

Danny Rose continued his steady upward trajectory with an early, encouraging show of defiance, dumping Raphinha on his backside in front of the visiting fans’ corner but, as advertised, the white wave kept coming.  Defensively, for the most part, we looked okay…  bodies were put on the line, last ditches were barricaded, but we were doing the jobs we needed to do.  Sierralta extended a long leg precisely to scoop a left wing cross away from the waiting Rodrigo.  Rose continued to face down all comers.  Foster was brave and decisive in coming for things.  

The problem was further forward with a midfield that has rarely looked right this season.  Peter Etebo’s injury is expensive and unfortunate, but we’ve looked at best wonkily making do before the Nigerian’s absence and on this occasion were neither obstructive enough interrupt Leeds’ progress nor deft enough to capitalise upon the gaping holes they left behind them.

And the problem with that set-up is that if you can’t stem the flow then at some point you’re going to get a misjudgement or a mistake or an unlucky bounce that no amount of resolute defending or ponderous finishing is going to save you from.  In the 18th minute we got two of those in the same exchange as Foster came out for a cross that swung away from him, Kucka misjudged his header in a manner eerily reminiscent of Sierralta’s error against Wolves and Llorente was more alert than either in turning the ball home.  Elland Road errupted, the chorus of grunting from behind the goal was deafening.

3- The goal was rapidly followed by a noisy penalty call as James went down in the box.  Here, as with a call at the other end that infuriated Josh King (though it might have been outside the box anyway) and with our “equaliser” in the second half VAR appeared to be scantly employed by referee Simon Hooper.  It’s possible of course that a season’s practice has simply made the checking process much more seamless, less obvious than the long standing around deliberating.  In any event, if making quicker less disruptive decisions comes with a greater proportion of “mistakes” I’m all for it.  You therefore have to take the rough with the smooth – not very fair to complain that VAR slows everything down and object when things go against you once the technology’s on a less forgiving leash.  Give me good old-fashioned refereeing incompetence over dawdling over replays any day of the week.

Meanwhile as Leeds continued to dominate without adding to the scoreline, our attempts to clamber back into the game were pretty feeble.  Will, over my shoulder, suggested after half an hour that we should probably bring Tufan on; at this point the Turkish midfielder broke the surface and swung a majestic pass wide to Sarr.  Minutes later he was the beneficiary of some slack defending, charged into the box and fired excitedly over the bar.  This was much more the idea, in as much as there was one, but for the most part Tufan was woefully ineffectual.

So too Ismaïla Sarr, who as against Newcastle struggled to have any impact on the game despite wandering away from the right on occasions and even swapping wings briefly in the second half.  Joshua King was toiling away manfully, his value most evident after his departure with injury on half time when our attacks lost any semblance of cohesion in the second half.  Sema replaced King with Dennis moving to the centre, but the Nigerian is an irritant rather than a line leader.  If Sema had any pace at all he’d be a top player;  as it was he put in a sturdy and workmanlike shift on the left, where alongside the relentless Rose he was our biggest threat in the second half.

4- Earlier in the day a high energy training session had taken place elsewhere in the city.  Head coach-cum-herder of cats Will instigated an imaginative exercise that involved the twenty-odd six-to-eight year olds divided into three teams in coned corners of an astroturfed pitch.  The exercise began with an ostensibly similar number of balls clustered in the centre circle;  on the maestro’s whistle the three teams of “pirates” charged, shouting in piratey voces, the winning team being the one that salvaged the largest number of balls into their corner via legitimate footballing means.  By the head coach’s own admission the tactical value of the exercise was questionable, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.

There are parallels to be drawn with the home side’s approach which, in the absence of any cutting edge at all and for all that they were by some distance the better side and worthy winners, didn’t amount to much more than running around and shouting.  For all the triumphalism that interrupted the posturing of the trolls in the stand to our right (not to mention that barracking of local boy Rose as stewards, presumably used to this, yawned and waited for it all to stop) Leeds didn’t have an awful lot to show for their dominance.  Only when Sierralta cleared off the line and Roberts followed up with an acrobatic shot against the bar was the scoreline threatened; the other two shots on target yielded routine saves.  This was the tone of the reflection in the chat around us as we clambered back up to Beeston after the game.  Leeds will be fine, you suspect, but not so fine that there aren’t issues to be addressed, or that couldn’t leave them in trouble if the wrong players – not least the prominent Raphinha – pick up injuries.

They nearly got the come-uppance that our play hadn’t remotely deserved.  For much of the second half as we’d floundered around not looking as if we knew quite what we were supposed to be doing we looked sullen and listless but, perhaps fuelled by Leeds’ nervous awareness of the scoreline and propelled by a suddenly furiously driven Juraj Kucka, we applied something resembling pressure late on.  From a corner – the build up to which had seen a full bottle hurled at Danny Rose from, well, you know – there was, from our angle, an almighty scramble which resulted in the ball trickling apologetically into the net.

The celebration was brief, curtailed by a very quick whistle.  Highlights review suggest that it’s a harsh call, Kabasele’s tangle with Cooper was fifty-fifty at worst and plausibly a straight foul by the Leeds skipper.  We didn’t get the call.  We hadn’t remotely deserved the call of course, but it would have been very funny.  As it was the most distraught person in the stadium was daughter 1, whose unfortunate record is maintained – she’s still watched every minute of every game in which we’ve failed to score, but none of the games in which we’ve (definitively, permanently) found the net.  She won’t be at Liverpool – indeed, none of us will – and I’m sure you’ll agree that such superstition carries far more weight than the knowledge that we’re facing a team who are quite good at the pressing that we seem so unable to cope with and have a bit of a cutting edge also.

5- We’re not the only ones who won’t be at the Liverpool game, of course, the not entirely unexpected news that Xisco has been made to walk the plank breaking somewhere during the composition of thunk 2. This has at least meant that I had to spend even less time discussing a match which now descends into history as part of the life experience of all the youngsters in the away end and nothing more.

“Not entirely unexpected” because this is what we do.  What our ownership does.  Not so much overreact to a few bad results as appoint someone to do a job and replace them with someone else when you need a different job doing.  The argument has been made – including by my co-editor – that this being the case perhaps the change should have been made in the summer, as bold and startling as the same decision six years earlier.  Personally, I think there was enough about our persistent defensive resilience last season to suggest that Xisco was worth a spin, that his tactical capabilities might be up to what turned out to be his key task – that of reshaping our midfield.

He wasn’t up to it.  Someone else gets that job, we might know their name by the time you’re reading this.  Never dull, is it?  Meanwhile, I’ve not dived into the general response to the announcement but can guess the tone of much of it.  I would further suspect that there’s precious little acknowledgement of the fact that six years of the last seven in the top flight is almost unprecedented, and would certainly be something that a load of traditionally much more established clubs (including Leeds not so long ago) would have jumped at.  It’s not like it isn’t working, for all that the wisdom of the approach and the wisdom of specific appointments aren’t quite the same thing.

This will be a less boring international break than many.  Hang in there in the meantime, “what other people think” is of course very low on any reasonable list of priorities, or things that are interesting.

See you at Goodison.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 2, Sierralta 3, Sissoko 2, Kucka 3, Tufan 1, Sarr 1, Dennis 2, King 3
Subs: Sema (for King, 45) 3, João Pedro (for Tufan, 59) 2, Kabasele (for Sierralta, 68) 3, Masina, Cleverley, Ngakia, Gosling, Hernández, Bachmann

Watford 1 Newcastle United 1 (25/09/2021) 26/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1-  Everything’s going to pot.

I’m accused, whilst innocently making my way to my seat pre-kick off, minding my own business and that, of becoming “very political”.  It’s difficult to be otherwise I think?  Despite reasonable, if not best efforts on my part.  Nonetheless, on the assumption that you’re here to read about a football match and its periphery we’ll steer clear of the how and why and whose fault it is and reflect instead upon the absolute carnage on the nation’s forecourts.

Our journey down avoids the chaos at the Sainsburys roundabout in Bedford, where access to the supermarket is blocked by people queuing for fuel and everything’s snarling up around it.  On the M1 there are queues tailing back onto the motorway from Toddington Services…  perhaps it’s a rush on falafel balls at the M&S but I have my doubts.  Someone is overheard on the radio breathlessly explaining that they’ve been driving around for four hours looking for fuel as they’re running out. Yes. The witless selfishness of people is beyond all reason.  You kind of suspect that if there was one sapling left in the country, it would get trampled in the stampede of idiots wanting to get a selfie taken with it.

2- This sense of not being in control, of things kind of running away from you, of trying to make sense of unprecedented carnage is kind of appropriate to a football match that has the chaotic air of a game being played during an earthquake.  I should acknowledge from the start that I’ve long since abandoned the practice of taking notes during matches…  you can get the blow-by-blow factual account in any number of more reliable places and if I aspire to do this too you get the match experience of a bloke scribbling illegibly into a notebook and missing out on the very experience he’s trying to describe.  For the most part the chosen approach has few drawbacks, but on a day like this on which loads of stuff just happens it’s difficult to keep track of what, when and by whom so apologies for factual errors, wouldn’t be the first time.

There are a number of agents of this particular chaos and one of them, to get this more or less out of the way early, is the referee.  To be clear, it’s almost inevitable that officials will become a focus when your opponent employs a provocative, spoiling, frustrating, approach, all the more so when they do so successfully.  It is also easy to superimpose a narrative over the convenient detail that said official is one of them there foreigners, “not used to our football” in the same way that foreign players and managers once weren’t when it was convenient.  Australian Jared Gillett is, if you believe the popular narrative, “the first overseas person to referee a Premier League game”, which as has been pointed out elsewhere was presumably news to Dermot Gallagher.  But Gillett is no novice, and has refereed nearly 40 senior games in this country including three at the Vic last season.

However. Both of these things can be true – a provocative approach makes life hard for a ref, the novelty of his foreignness is a convenient stick to beat him with – and yet, after allowing for them, he still makes a pig’s ear of things anyway.  This begins very early on when Matt Ritchie puts his boot through Sarr in the Newcastle left-back position, leaving the winger’s ankles wrapped around his ears.  The die is cast from the moment that the official fails to card the protagonist.  Most transparently, when Sarr puts the burners on around half an hour later and the same player hauls him down unceremoniously he “takes one for the team” that would have been nothing like as straightforward a decision had he already been on a yellow.  Most likely outcome there is that he opts against the cynical foul and Isma is away.  More generally a marker has been put down, the referee is there for the taking.

Jarred Gillett, then, doesn’t have a good day.  This cuts for us as well as against us…  Joshua King will escape reprimand for removing his shirt after he “scores”, Craig Cathcart will go unpunished when, as Alain Saint-Maximin threatens yet another of the alarming number of runs through on goal that the visitors engineer through a combination of aggressive high press and a lack of options for defenders to hit, the centre-back takes him out with an elegant two-handed shove in the centre-circle.

Ultimately Gillett’s performance is an extremely nervous one.  His performance is nowhere near brave enough for a fixture like this in which every Newcastle corner threatens to descend into a brawl.  This antagonises because we’re behind for half of the game but ultimately, he’s an agent of chaos, a source of variance.  He’s refereeing a game taking place in an earthquake.

3- Because our bigger problem is our initial inability to cope with Newcastle’s game plan.  We start brightly, Emmanuel Dennis rabbiting in on the left of the box and forcing a smart double save from Darlow, but very quickly Newcastle have us squashed into places that we don’t want to be with nowhere to go and little time to think about it.  Logic dictates that the out-balls must be there, and one of them is provided by Moussa Sissoko who frequently drops into an accessible hole behind whoever is closing a centre-back down at the base of the midfield to relieve pressure and drive the play back where we want it to be.  Otherwise it’s ambitious balls over the top to Danny Rose attacking the right full-back position who is perhaps more mobile than Newcastle had counted on or remembered.  Rose, like his fellow ex-Mag Sissoko, is given the bird by the visiting fans throughout much as Daryl Janmaat always was, though in Rose’s case the references to a season spent at Sunderland nine years ago are slightly baffling.  In any case, if one of your two out-balls is an ambitious pass to a galloping full-back you’ve got a problem.

If there’s a positive to take from the first half it’s that we fashion chances despite being swamped, Kucka swinging a free kick past the Newcastle wall to force Darlow to push away, Sarr – seemingly subdued by his battering – getting himself going and cutting into the middle to send a low, firm shot close enough for the keeper to block but not so close that we wouldn’t have profited from having someone alert to the rebound.  No bad thing to still have a threat while being overwhelmed.

But we are overwhelmed, and the threats come from several directions.  Fernández in the first half and Clark in the second will both threaten with headers, just the sort of chance that you’d expect a big ugly Chilean centre-back to mop up in what one hopes is still the normal way.  The ongoing omission of Francisco Sierralta is slightly baffling; some revisionist stuff on Twitter about how he was never that good anyway doesn’t begin to answer the question, particularly against an opponent who, deprived of their main goalscorer, were always going to try to exploit high deliveries from set pieces.  That he plays against Stoke but doesn’t make the bench again here suggests Stuff and Things about which we can only speculate.  A secret agreement with the Chilean FA?  Undiscussed fall-out from what looked on the face of it a clumsy but forgivable own goal against Wolves?  One can only hope that whatever it is gets Sorted, because there’s quite enough chaos going on without us imposing even more on ourselves with silly decisions.  In danger of getting political again.

Newcastle also enjoy too many unchallenged shots from outside the box where Sean Longstaff gets two sighters before pinging one past Ben Foster.  It ends up in the top corner but only with the help of the goalkeeper’s fingers…  it’s slightly beyond his reach rather than, as the initial audio clue suggested, squeezing between his hands but his reaction betrays that he should have had it.

The other Newcastle threat, as already suggested, comes from a porous high line, exposed for the first time when Cathcart gets himself into trouble on our left flank and plays a weak backpass into the feet of Saint-Maximin.  The winger gallops away, but not for the last time a Newcastle break is curtailed by Ben Foster reacting quickly and not panicking.  Saint-Maximin dithers slightly when presented with a big obstacle and a decision to make and is forced to lay off untidily to Longstaff as Cathcart tries to redeem himself, the shot scooped over.  Foster will arrest similar breaks from Willock and Murphy in the second half, and you do wonder whether our decision to go with a high line against a pressing side with a lot of pace in it is borne of a recognition that their finishing, minus Wilson, minus the confidence borne of a win this season, isn’t great.  Either way we get away with being one down at the break.

4- Whilst this game, for as long as it’s reflected on at all, will not be looked back on terribly positively there’s an awful lot to like about the fact that we were second best for at least three-quarters of the game but finished much the stronger, much the likelier side to break the deadlock.  We got away with stuff, sure, but we engineered solutions and many of them came from the bench, all four substitutes improving our lot.

Tom Cleverley had had a frustrating first half, unable to instigate as much as he had at Carrow Road against a more pliable opponent.  He survived the first half without being booked, somehow, but was removed at the break via a “concussion substitution” having collided heavily with Karl Darlow towards the end of the half.  In his place came Ozan Tufan, looking every inch the Rolls Royce that our midfield needed.  Suddenly we had someone capable of conducting and shaping what was going on in front of him and our attack had something to glue itself to.  This was Gandalf arriving with Erkenbrand at Helm’s Deep, a game changer.

Whilst we’re still ceding chances, we suddenly look potent and controlled in attack.  We add to our armoury with the welcome return of João Pedro, whose deftness and deceptive strength will surely find a home in this starting eleven.  Jeremy Ngakia is introduced for an apparently ailing Kiko Femenía;  the Spaniard has been a shadow of the irresistible force on show at Norwich, but as the balance of the game starts to tip towards our favour Ngakia is in his element…  a situation which demands character, bullishness, and not terribly much looking over your shoulder against a team playing a narrow attack suits him down to the ground and this is a fine cameo.

We’re still fighting for a foothold, we haven’t turned the tables quite yet but again display the resourcefulness to fashion a chance – and a goal this time – from a planned set piece…  Rose’s delivery from the corner is excellent, the industrious Joshua King executes his flick-on perfectly and Sarr is exercising his neck muscles at the back post where the visitors on the line don’t stand a chance.  Amidst the celebrations King, significantly, grabs the ball from the net and exhorts his teammates towards a renewed assault.

Within minutes Peter Etebo is on for Emmanuel Dennis, and suddenly having been so much second best in the first half, we look a far, far better side than Newcastle.  Etebo patrols the back of the midfield contemptuously, Tufan is restored to the apex having briefly dropped back to accommodate João Pedro who now moves to the left.  This, you suspect, may be the shape of things to come in the front six for all that the pieces are still shifting around.  We look more than ready for the final fifteen minutes or so.

5- If there’s anything more enjoyable than scratching and fighting and shithousing your way to an away win it’s depriving an opponent of doing so.  The few seconds between Joshua King tucking away the loose ball after João Pedro’s tidy lay-off had set up Sissoko to drive at Darlow were a wonderful thing but  it wasn’t to be.  Referee Gillett rubbed salt into the wound unnecessarily by getting his handpointing all wrong and invoking a second abortive goal celebration, but VAR confirmed that Newcastle’s offside trap was in better working order than ours had been and King had stepped beyond it.

Nonetheless.  This report, written in its entirety on Sunday, has turned out far more cheerful than it probably would have done last night.  We obviously need to be able to cope better with a high press but we did so, in the end, and got ourselves into a position where we could really have won the game at the death.  Dead losses don’t do that.  Not winning a winnable home game is disappointing, but four points from the last two no worse than par. Even Peter Etebo limping off with a hamstring injury having galloped after Jacob Murphy may not prove to be a disaster if it means that he rests up during the forthcoming international break and is back for Liverpool.

As for everything else…  ongoing lack of fuel would prohibit a match report from Elland Road next weekend but in the grand scheme of things that’s fairly small potatoes.  The sky is blue, and worrying about things outside your control is never terribly productive.  Watford rode their luck in this one, but took advantage of having done so and looked a far more compelling outfit at the end of the game than we had at the beginning.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, Rose 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 2, *Sissoko 4*, Kucka 2, Cleverley 3, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Tufan (for Cleverley, 45) 4, João Pedro (for Etebo, 64) 3, Ngakia (for Femenía, 67) 3, Etebo (for Dennis, 75) NA, Masina, Sema, Hernández, Kabasele, Elliot

Norwich City 1 Watford 3 (18/09/2021) 19/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1-  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

Such is the prevailing sentiment at the Redwell Brewery in the lunchtime sunshine.  Freshly made pizza and craft beer are delivered to picnic benches arranged in an open courtyard.  Trains trundle apologetically along the adjoining track.  A gentleman with an impressively long beard and a bandanna is taking photographs for the website.  The unobtrusive murmur of pre-match chatter proliferates.

There are more or less exactly the right number of tables for the clientele, and all bar ours betray home colours.  Nonetheless, as above, there is a common tone borne of two seasons of shared experience and a build up to a big game which, if in slightly different ways, is being approached with a degree of apprehension on both sides.  

This illusion of bonhomie and commonality might be easier for me to delude myself with as a visiting supporter given that all four of the encounters over the last couple of season have gone our way, three of them behind closed doors.  If the home support regard us with less goodwill it isn’t evident;  only Julian’s “you always beat us, I have no expectation of anything different” betrays the slightest hint of animosity amongst our affable hosts.  It’s all very agreeable.  Nonetheless, as we reflect on leaving, whilst you wouldn’t object to both Watford and Norwich staying up, if it comes down to us or them making the drop then let’s face it, it’s them.

2- “It’s going to be tight and nervy” is one opinion overheard on the walk to the ground in what was pleasant warmth when sitting around drinking beer but altogether less pleasant when walking up and down hills is involved.  The “nervy” bit at least reflects the position of both sides…  the Hornets have barely threatened a goal in the League since the opening day whilst the Canaries are without a point.  Admittedly their fixtures thus far haven’t been terribly accommodating, but those who remember our 1999/2000 season will remember coming out of a run of tough games to face Cov and Boro, ostensibly more realistic sources of points, and being stuffed by them, too.  This is a huge game, but probably bigger for the home side.

Our recent performances have been characterised by an ability to hold opponents off whilst ceding possession, undermined by an inability to capitalise when we break.  Today, subtle changes in team selection and attitude facilitate almost a complete inverse.  That “tight and nervy” prediction is blown out of the water immediately as both sides start positively and aggressively.  Off the pitch, in the circumstances we may benefit from being the away side;  a travelling support in general, let alone on a sunny afternoon in late summer, generally boasts less angst and more bloody-mindedness than a home support, all other things being equal.  This is only fuelled by an early assault on the City goal, adjacent to the away block in the first half, which culminates in Kucka hurling himself like a human missile at a right wing cross.  His opponent holds him off on this occasion, which takes some doing, but this is fuel to the boisterous fire kindling in the away end.  The flipside of this is that having looked generally difficult to manoeuvre through up until now we’re ceding chances a little too easily in what little foothold we afford the home side.  This will not be dull.

3- Daughter 1 has not joined us on the trip to Norfolk.  She is later to bemoan her ongoing 100% failure rate this season in attending none of the games in which we find the net and all of those in which we strike out.  “I just want to see us score” she protests plaintively to a tough crowd, her mother thoroughly unsympathetic and her father and younger sister still buzzing after a two hour trip from Norfolk.  She will learn, in time, that the only way to cope with what she would call FOMO is to attend every game but some lessons need to come from within and cannot be taught.

The reaction to the first goal is exactly what she’s talking about though.  The cathartic celebrations on the opening day were fabulous, but almost… not tainted, tainted is the wrong word because they were thoroughly enjoyable. Unusual, maybe.  Unnatural.  Fuelled by and inextricably linked to being back in the stadium at all.  This was different.  This was all about footballing context and was deafening, furious and prolonged, abetted by the goal going in in front of us and a multi-player fist waving bundle at the foot of the away stand.  There was an Emmanuel Dennis somersault in there too, but I was oblivious to that until a photo was shared during a dazed, grinning encounter with a fellow traveller in a petrol station on the way westwards after the game.

The build-up featured two of those subtle but critical team changes.  Less subtle, less obvious and presumably enforced were the unexplained absences of both Sierralta and the still unseen Tufan.  But Kiko Femenía is one of those things that you’ve been imagining, hoping, might give us a little bit more of an edge… Sarr is the threat but if he’s the only threat most teams will subdue him at this level.  Kiko bombing on gives you two speed-demons to worry about.  Slightly less straightforward.  And then there’s Cleverley… Peter Etebo hadn’t done an awful lot wrong to necessitate his dropping to the bench, but the mix wasn’t right against Wolves.  Cleverley brings experience of course, and an ability to calm everything down, but he also brings the dynamism to get into mischievous areas and the courage to play a quick one-touch pass where a more cautious second touch would give the opponent chance to get set.  More than once this courage is crucial in opening City up, and this is the case here as Sarr, Clevs and Kiko play a quick game of pinball before Kiko finds space to put in a cross.  It’s a Beckham crossing position rather than a lay-in from the byline and the full back will get one badly wrong from a similar spot five minutes later but this one is on the money.  Dennis ghosts in between two defenders to meet it with a directed header and Krul doesn’t have a chance.  It’s a magnificent goal in both its significance in the game and in the reassurance it provides about our fledgling forward line. The roof comes off the stand. 

The goal also reenforces the suspicion that whilst, as two years ago, there’s things that Norwich are good at there’s also plenty of stuff that Norwich aren’t good at and defending remains one of them.  As the game settles down a little we’re still pushing forward aggressively, and in contrast to earlier games the ball is largely in the opponent’s half.  We’re speculating that perhaps we perceive a lack of pace in Norwich’s attack, a lack of threat on the break when the silver-haired Normann drops a ball over the top for Pukki to gallop onto and finish calmly, giving a lie to that theory.  There are further chances at both ends, not least from Sarr with whom Brandon Williams is struggling manfully but to whom Kiko is affording extra freedom.  The half ends, the away end sits down collectively and Daughter 2 sums up concisely.  “That was intense!”.

4- Danny Rose is a significant protagonist in proceedings not for the first or, one suspects, the last time, and awarding him a representative mark out of five almost impossible.  On the plus side of course a formidable strength of body and will and a footballing ability, a mixture of capability and confidence that betrays his pedigree.  Case in point at the end of the first half when an insane, scorching through ball frees Sarr and Krul does exceptionally well to come out and deny what would have been a stunning, merciless strike at the end of the half.  The pass was breathtaking in its imagination and its execution, and was merely the most startling example of Rose’s positive contribution.

On the downside…  he’s unavoidably heavy and immobile.  A Danny Rose that could still thunder up and down the left flank, one supposes, wouldn’t be playing for us…   but nonetheless.  His trips up the left flank seem to require some form of self-funded period of isolation in a hotel before returning such is the time that he takes to drop back into position, perhaps a footnote in the latest convolution of the COVID travel rules.  This is accommodated for the most part by Norwich’s lack of threat from wide positions and by what can only be a pre-planned covering plan since we are rarely exploited here, but a second half penalty shout looks hairy as Rose seems to clatter his opponent from behind in the box below us.  In any event the travelling support have come down vociferously on one side of the argument as the player himself acknowledges with a thumbs up over his shoulder late in the game.  One hopes that increased game time will see his mobility improve – if it does, we have a monster on our hands.

And monsters are another dominant characteristic of the performance.  This has been discussed before, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re bullying Norwich, particularly in midfield.  Concerns about a lack of physicality given the departures of Doucouré, Capoue and now Chalobah in recent years seem a distant memory;  Norwich aren’t going to be the last relatively lightweight side that we overpower, you suspect.

A key protagonist here is Moussa Sissoko, another with an instant fanclub, who is indirectly involved in the second goal.  He airkicks in attempting to set off a counterattack to guffaws from the stands but recovers to set the play in motion anyway, its ultimate success all the more damning on City’s defending for the fact that he took time for a second go.  Kiko has limped off with what may prove to be the one negative mark against the afternoon (though he’s agile enough to come all the way over to the support at the end of the game, reassuringly) and Ngakia got his defiant head to a cross within seconds of coming on.  Now he’s galloping upfield and releases Joshua King on the right of the box.  King is an interesting focal point… not a Jamie Vardy, not an out-and-out goalscorer by any means but increasingly the glue that holds this forward line together.  He pulls back from the touchline and Sarr has dropped around Hanley to finish superbly.  We look lethal, Norwich look lead-footed.

4- The second Watford sub follows ten minutes later and sees Dennis replaced by Sema on the left flank.  We drop to what appears to be a more conservative formation…  Sema and Sarr much more withdrawn in a midfield four with Clevs now buzzing around with King.  This feels precarious, offering the home side more opportunity to do the stuff they’re quite good at and demanding less of the stuff they’ve been struggling with.  We look a little bit ragged for the first time in this period, and are more than once grateful to Ben Foster’s attentiveness. His rapid and accurate distribution, a feature of his game since his first debut for us all of 16 years ago, is another vital characteristic of the afternoon, as helpful in achieving quick turnarounds as Cleverley’s sharpness.  Bachmann has retreated to the bench in what can only have been a precautionary move if it was genuinely fuelled by a knee injury as reported, but as in the Palace tie Foster looks thoroughly on his game. The Stoke fixture falls quite nicely as one assumes he’d have been back in for that in any case but barring disaster there it’s not difficult to see him reclaiming his throne here.

Meanwhile our third goal is almost as out-of-the-blue as City’s equaliser had been an hour earlier… McLean slices a ball upwards but unlike Sissoko doesn’t get away with his misjudgement… Cleverley is onto it, King is put through, Krul again does well to deny him but Sarr finishes the rebound expertly, a much more accomplished finish than the almost apologetic roll into the net makes it appear.  We celebrate, we see the flag, we feel a bit silly. 

I’m not a big fan of VAR, I think you lose a lot more than you gain in general, but the current minimalist incarnation seems far less obtrusive and therefore objectionable to me for as long as it lasts.  The offside rule is still an issue though…  and it’s nobody’s fault really.  An idea that was introduced to discourage goalhanging has been hijacked as the basis for defensive strategy.  It was certainly never conceived to be something that cameras could adjudicate on with such arbitrary precision.  You do kind of feel that a striker that’s more-or-less level with the last defender ought to be onside, even if “more-or-less” isn’t nearly specific enough for our current reality.  At any rate…  if there’s a time that a VAR delay can be enjoyed it’s when you’re maybe going 3-1 up in a critical match away from home with ten minutes to go.  There are “ooooos” and vibrating outstretched arms in the away end before the referee delivers the verdict.  Somehow Tom Cleverley, who played the pass that was the focus of attention, is now in his own half and perfectly positioned to celebrate the end of the match as a contest in front of the now jubilant travelling Hornets alongside his goalkeeper who, like him, was a Player of the Season for us over a decade ago.

5- And it is over, indisputably; Norwich are as flat as a pancake for the last ten minutes.  Ken Sema’s One Run is as dependable a fixture of every game as the Jamie Hand Booking was twenty-odd years ago;  here his barrelling charge down the left sees him go down in the box.  From our unfavourable distance and angle it looks like a good shout, but in any case it perhaps only evens out the Danny Rose call at the other end.  Sarr threatens a hat-trick and a cherry on the icing on the ample afternoon cake, but is denied.  The game ends.

And doesn’t the world look different today.  We should be mindful of recency bias of course…  we are no more the irresistible force today than we were a blunt, hapless object 48 hours ago.  But in wreaking havoc once again at Carrow Road, and arguably more decisively than in either of the previous two meetings, we’ve shown what’s already possible, and suggested a direction of travel.  No illusion of progress this, this really is something that’s coming together at the point that we needed it to.  

Equally we’re only five games into the season, and Norwich aren’t out of this.  You wouldn’t back them though. Most of all it’s difficult to watch a Daniel Farke interview without thinking “we got rid of Jokanovic six years ago because we didn’t think he could organise a Premier League defence…”.  The Norwich support are no less affable outside the ground, but they’re not smiling. 

Enjoy the journey.  So much easier after an away win though.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 4, Rose 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Cleverley 5, *Sarr 5*, Dennis 4, King 4
Subs: Ngakia (for Femenía, 59) 3, Sema (for Dennis, 73) 3, Etebo (for Cleverley, 83) NA, Masina, Louza, Fletcher, Hernández, Kabasele, Bachmann

Watford 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (11/09/2021) 12/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- I was back in work this week.

I’m one of those desk jockeys fortunate enough to have been able to push on from home during the pandemic and various stages of lockdown, pretty much without breaking stride.  It’s been a bit rubbish, obviously, but in the grand scheme of things you’ll take “a bit rubbish”.  I’ve had a laptop, I’ve had an internet connection and Zoom-y kind of tools to talk to people through so…  fine.  Critically, I’ve still got paid.

My employer has been cautious as far as folk coming back to the “office” is concerned.  Not an office really, strictly speaking;  a research laboratory.  650-odd people are employed there, nominally, so it’s a big place.  Some folk have needed to be back more than me, some of the proper scientists need laboratories and that.  But this week, with controls and ifs and buts and with no coercion whatsoever the great unwashed were permitted in as well.  Many didn’t, but I don’t have a commute to speak of.  I was in every day.

It was kind of the same, but kind of different.  No surprise of course… buildings are still in the same place, most of them.  The site still looks brilliant in the sunshine.  It takes me the same amount of time to walk home.  But after everything that’s happened, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to have been left how it was, to be as I remember it and to work right away.  Rooms have been rearranged and refurbished for one thing, much more easily achieved when the place is empty.  Repurposed for “hybrid” working, whatever that turns out to be.  The people are different…  folk have come and gone,  some of the newbies have been back on site for months, I’m the newbie in their eyes.  It’s still very empty compared to what normal used to be.

Kind of the same, but kind of different.

2- You’ll have guessed where this is going.

We’re sort of, kind of, almost getting back into the swing now with the football.  Not really…  it’ll take longer, too much has happened… but kind of, almost, getting there.  Daughters 1 and 2 are both here today; Daughter 1 also has Kate with her, an occasional if enthusiastic visitor over the years and possibly the last person to bemoan the demise of Chimichanga on Market Street, part of the ritual she remembers.  Daughter 2 has slightly less catching up to do, but nonetheless hasn’t been here since the ghostly game against Cardiff last season, Daughter 1 not since we lasted hosted Wolves (which was only New Year’s Day last year, though it could equally be a decade ago).  Only Isma, of our starting eleven, was involved that day which tells a story.  In contrast seven of Wolves’ starters today were in that matchday squad.

This highlights again the challenge inherent in the colossal overhaul of the squad not just over the last transfer window but since supporters were last regularly in the ground.  We could do with a few more Aston Villas to build those fledgling emotional investments as much as our points tally.

3- The head coach, at least, has built a rapid connection with supporters – a ready smile and a promotion don’t hurt of course – but his request for a barrage of noise to fuel an early assault on the visitors never looks remotely like coming to pass as Wolves dominate possession for the opening ten or fifteen minutes.  Jeremy Ngakia is one of two new faces in the starting eleven…  I’ve never quite decided in my head whether he’s destined for great things or somewhat less great things, and the same conflicting evidence is on show here.  In the opening minutes Traoré, ostensibly the greatest threat (Jiménez, a shadow of his former self, is regaining fitness and confidence), twice loses Ngakia on the Wolves left before slipping a simple pass to a team-mate presumably deemed to boast more reliable end product.  It’s all very sensible but rather underwhelming, like hiring a michelin-starred chef to pour you some corn flakes.

Thereafter however Ngakia gets to grips with his opponent to such an extent that the interval will see Traoré and the rather dainty Trincão switch wings.  On the evidence presented thus far it looks as if maybe Connor Roberts was the aberration, with Zaha/Traoré suggesting that the young full-back has enough about him to bottle up challenging opponents.  His success mirrors our own, as we more or less succeed once again in keeping our opponents at arm’s length despite their almost complete possession.

When we do retaliate it’s swift, aggressive and startling…  Sarr’s poise and awareness on the right allow him to slip a ball inside to Sissoko; his effort is all power and no precision and from a wide angle at a comfortable height José Sá is never seriously troubled but it was on target, a lapse of concentration and it would have been in.  From the subsequent corner Etebo lamps the first of a couple of long shots high, wide and handsome.

We’re physically much more powerful than Wolves, and begin to bully them all over the park.  Sissoko manages to combine power with balance, and more than once wrong foots one opponent whilst holding off another.  He combines with Sarr again for the winger to roll a ball across the face of goal and narrowly beyond King’s toe.  Danny Rose, the other newcomer, is no less prominent than Ngakia.  He does the Robbo thing of not settling for a neat, clean tackle when there’s energy spare to make sure that the opponent feels it….  if he’s less of a threat hurtling up and down the flank than in his heyday and despite looking pretty fed up throughout he does more than enough to justify his selection.  Etebo once again patrols behind the midfield despite the challenge of an early card.

4- Thing is though, whilst we do well to reclaim a foothold in the first half and can make a case for being level on points as well as on goals at the interval, and whilst there are good individual things and a very enjoyable amount of bootering, we’re not nearly coherent enough in attack.  There’s some good stuff there, some good bits but there’s no whole.  No shape, no pattern, no cheap stock goals, not yet.  We’re like a lion cub with teeth and claws that we don’t quite know what to do with, needing to work it all out before the law of the jungle tears us apart.  Not that lions live in jungles…

When King (of the jungle) hobbles off shortly into the second half any sense of a focal point disappears altogether.  This is Emmanuel Dennis’ weakest game so far… he keeps running, but to little effect.  Cucho is a box of tricks and wins a couple of decent aerial balls against taller opponents but he surely needs to be the decoration on a more solid structure whilst Sarr has all the ability and acceleration but isn’t Troy Deeney, isn’t ever going to be the leader.

This lack of shape and purpose – for now at any rate – has two consequences.  Firstly, our attacking falters in the second half… not a lack of effort for me as much of a lack of conviction, a resignation to the futility of the exercise which is probably worse.  Secondly, and partly as a consequence, by not realising your threat you give your opponent no reason to moderate their attacking ambitions.  This was already evident at the end of the first half when right wing-back Semedo was put through at the death with the Hornets busy claiming for a foul on the subdued Kucka at the other end of the pitch.  Bachmann denied him on this occasion, but the same player was put through early in the second half and shot wide.  Jiménez found space in the box and headed narrowly off target.

Tickets, raffles, and we were selling too many tickets.  It’s a bit of a shame that it was Sierralta, up to that point the head on the end of any optimistic high ball that Wolves had lobbed into the box;  as two Watford bodies went up in front of him, reaching for a left wing cross, he can only have been unsighted and slightly disorientated in deflecting the ball home under minimal pressure.  It was no more than Wolves deserved by that point, and Bachmann was unable to prevent a scruffy second ten minutes later.

5- Kind of the same, kind of different.  And because it’s different, all different, it’s unreasonable to expect it all to gel straight away.  There are good bits.  Even the bits that don’t work as a collective have things about them that offer encouragement.  Thing is, we don’t have a huge amount of time to develop those patterns given the unforgiving nature of the Premier League and the circumstances of our fixture list.  We need points out of our next couple of games, on the back of not really having looked much like scoring since Villa.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back in work next week for all that it’s weird, for all that it’s kind of the same but kind of different.  I can only remember one comparable instance in what have been many years working at this place, one time when everything seemed to change and you wanted to drop to the floor to regain your balance.  That was in September 2001;  we’d just gotten back from our honeymoon in New York and Boston.  We’d been on top of the World Trade Center as England were putting five goals past Germany in Munich.   One of the best things about football, as we’ve suggested before, is how it can matter so much whilst not mattering at all.  But it doesn’t matter at all, not really.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Ngakia 4, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 2, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Hernández (for King, 53) 3, Sema (for Etebo, 77) NA, Louza, Cleverley, Masina, Cathcart, Tufan, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford’s Number 9 01/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

None of it stands up to much independent scrutiny, not really.  Investing so much into a football team, finance yes, time of course.  Emotion too.  A fickle, unreliable bedfellow with expensive habits, as we know.

But given that we do it.  Given that this particular die is cast for better or worse, an emotional bond that all football fans understand even if many outsiders struggle to empathise, given all of that it would be inconceivable not to be affected, perhaps even distraught, by yesterday’s announcement as a Watford fan.  If you’re in, you’re in.  I’m a 48 year-old man, I have teenage children, grey hair, I’m closer to the end of my mortgage than the start of it.  I’m in a right state, and I’m not apologising for it.

The profoundness of the impact reflects not just what Troy has achieved but the sort of guy he is.  It’s rare for someone to spend eleven years at any club, rarer still for them to be so conspicuous throughout that period.  For much of his eleven years at Vicarage Road, arguably since the Pozzos took over in 2012 Troy has been the public face of Watford Football Club, the most recognisable face, the most prominent voice.  Whatever the stage of his career – and we’ll get to that – he leaves a chasm unparalleled, arguably, by any other departure save Graham Taylor’s in recent memory.  His role in the team may have diminished but his influence and actions off the pitch have been just as significant and will be missed badly.

My co-editor wrote about GT’s humanity as he left the manager’s position in 2001.  Troy’s humanity has been a big part of his legend at this club.  Like Taylor he’s a real person…  he’s got things wrong – we’ll get to that, too – he gets things right.  He’s got a backstory, a real life that is painted all over his face.

And he’s been unflinchingly honest.  Honesty doesn’t mean being right all the time.  It means telling it as you see it, for better or for worse, and he’s never done otherwise.  This was evident as early as his first season with the club under Malky Mackay; signed on the first day of the campaign thanks to the financial input, it later transpired, of Sir Elton John he inherited the number 9 shirt that had been left unclaimed since Tamás Priskin’s departure a year earlier and was straight into the matchday squad that evening, half an hour in an unlikely win at Carrow Road against a Norwich side destined for promotion.

He had pursued a move from Walsall aggressively, and slacked off pre-season training. With the benefit of hindsight this may have contributed to the slow start to his Vicarage Road career; a disrupted pre-season would often impact the subsequent campaign throughout his time at the club.  In my end of season report at the end of that year I reflected on his honest appraisal of his own poor form in the middle of that season.  Another recurring trend, but more startling in a newly-signed 22 year-old than in a long-established club captain.

He ended that first season playing wide on the right of Malky Mackay’s attack;  the following year under Sean Dyche he was a regular substitute, starting only four games and coming off the bench twelve times by the start of December.  His Watford career by that point boasted an underwhelming six goals in sixteen months and for all that his performances were otherwise strong this was the first of a number of sliding door moments.  Nobody would have blinked had he moved on that January though there would have been (more) grumbles at the “wasted” outlay, the transfer fee up to half a million pounds depending on clauses (or more if you believed Walsall, who until recently must have spent every transfer window wondering if this was the time they’d get their 20% sell-on. Sorry chaps).

Instead it was Marvin Sordell that moved on, and Troy suddenly had a more regular berth in the team.  He finished the season with a forceful nine goals in 17 games…a late winner to deny Boro a play-off spot, an equaliser to earn a point against Hull when Mariappa was sent off, another late winner against Ipswich.

This was more compelling stuff and some soon-to-be-important people were watching on.  That summer brought the second sliding door of Troy’s career as he was sentenced to ten months in prison after pleading guilty to affray. Meanwhile the club was being dragged from the brink of disaster when Lord Ashcroft briefly reclaimed ownership from the catastrophic and defaulting incumbent before selling on to the Pozzo family.  The new owners could have taken a very different line with their centre-forward. So much would have turned out differently if they had, not least for Troy.

There was a lot of deliberating at that time.  For me he had deserved a second chance, but this was largely dependent on his attitude, on his contrition, on whether he recognised the degree to which he’d screwed up.  The call was that he did, that he wasn’t going to let anyone down again.  He didn’t.

His tour de force at Huddersfield in his first start after release in September, helping to secure a 3-2 win after five matches without a victory, lit a fire under the season that was to prove the exception to Troy’s rule.  No pre-season has been disrupted to quite that extent, but he ended it with 20 goals in 35 starts, including surely the most replayed goal in the club’s history.  It must surely still choke you up, even those of you that weren’t in the path of the ball as it was struck, those of you that weren’t the only person in the stadium to notice what was unfolding in the wake of the post-penalty save celebration.

The following season saw 25 from Troy including the first hat-trick by a Watford player at the Vic in over sixteen years.  This prompted the first serious interest in the now undisputed figurehead of the team and after a disappointing league campaign this was another point at which the decision could have been made to cash in.  As a public auction seemed to be taking place in the August the club announced that he wasn’t going anywhere and both this and his acquiescence spoke volumes.  Rarely does a striker stay in the Championship after 45 goals in two seasons after all.

He captained the side to promotion the following year contributing another 21 goals, the last of which a critical strike in a dizzy afternoon at Brighton crowned with the calmest of assists to Matěj Vydra which prompted the least calm of celebrations.  It took a couple of months to get off the score sheet in the Premier League at Stoke but then the goals flowed… fifteen in all competitions, three of them against relegated Aston Villa.  During this campaign he achieved the rare feat of scaring Graeme Souness;  “I thought he was just a big lump but…. he’s a really good footballer!” was his verdict on Sky,  “what are you supposed to do against that?” the unspoken subtext. Perhaps most telling of all was his performance during an appalling end of season capitulation at Norwich; Quique had mentally left the building, most of the team were on the beach, Troy wasn’t having any of it.  A one man wrecking ball, the beating heart of the side.

That summer the overtures came from no less than the League champions Leicester City;  faced with the conundrum of quite who Leicester City sign when they’re league champions the Foxes, mercifully, went for Islam Slimani instead.  Troy would later be linked with Spurs but neither of the roles understudying the strikers who watched on from Leicester’s bench as he scored his most famous goal would have suited Troy.  By now he was a man who had to be the big dog in the room.

A fractious relationship with Walter Mazzarri didn’t prevent him from reaching double figures in the sixth season in succession, including that goal at West Ham that is one of everyone’s favourites (along with so many more).

The wasted Marco Silva season was a difficult one for Troy, another disrupted pre-season and two red cards borne of frustration and only two League goals from open play in consecutive 1-0 wins in late February and early March.  By that time he had upset half of north London by commenting on Arsenal’s lack of “cojones”, their eminent get-attableness, after his penalty had contributed to a 2-1 win.  Telling it like it was again and damn the consequences, consequences that came back to bite him every time he faced the Gunners subsequently.  Nonetheless, Troy played a part in the recovery under Javí Gracia, Jonathan Lieuw in the Independent describing his performance in the 4-1 demolition of Chelsea as “…part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”.

2018/19 was his last great season at Watford.  Eleven goals as the Hornets chased Europe and the FA Cup only tells a fraction of the story.  If the arrivals of Deulofeu and Andre Gray had spread the attacking responsibility Troy was still the focal point, the leader.  His importance was never more evident than in the four games he missed through suspension (effectively, heading off minutes into a frustrating home defeat to another poor Arsenal side), but never more vibrant than in the dying seconds of regular time during the Wembley semi final against Wolves.  The Leicester goal is more famous, but this, for me, is the ultimate Troy goal.  Four minutes into injury time having just won a penalty, more of a pressure shot than the Leicester one, more time to think about it.  There was never any doubt, from the moment the penalty was awarded, no doubt how the game was going to play out.  But to hit it that hard

Both the relegation season and the promotion campaign that followed saw Troy hampered by injury early on.  Double figures once again in the relegation season nonetheless including another goal in a cruel defeat against Villa. Some more of those ferocious trademark penalties peppered the sinister post-lockdown close to the season, As the captain also recovered from hospitalisation by COVID.  On the rare occasions when Troy, Sarr and Geri were able to link up in that campaign we looked formidable.  We just didn’t get them on the field together often enough.

Meanwhile Troy, having turned 30, was lining his ducks up.  Never media shy he started a fortnightly column for the Sun and got a slot on TalkSport.  The ability to be clear-headed, eloquent, honest and direct made him a popular listen but popularity had nothing to do with it.  When Black Lives Matter was thrust into prominent view, Troy was at the forefront of the campaign encouraging taking the knee at kick off.  Telling it as he saw it, irrespective of the consequences.  Amongst the many joys of the return to stadia subsequently has been the confirmation that the voices of support dramatically outweigh the bigots and the morons who claim far too much oxygen on social media.

Last season his role was rendered more peripheral by injury… one goal from open play, plus an array of those penalties.  But off the pitch he was still the leader, the captain.  A club employee reported, during the game against Millwall that saw promotion confirmed, the skipper sitting with his young daughter up in the Upper GT surveying proceedings like a general up on a high vantage point, barking instructions at his charges.

It was always going to end at some point, and it’s good that it ends this way.  Released from a year of his contract, signing for the club he supports in the face of what must have been more lucrative offers.  Everyone gets to feel good about that. Troy believes that his last two seasons were ruined by injury, that he can reclaim past glories.  I hope he’s right.  In any event, for all that we could have done with his presence around the dressing room he was never going to take not being the Big Dog any longer.

Rooting for Birmingham City is going to be a novelty, particularly for those of us who remember combustible encounters of twenty-plus years ago, but it’s good to try new experiences as you get older. If force of personality counts for anything, the rest of the Championship doesn’t stand a chance.

Troy Deeney has been an inspiring role model.  a compelling spokesman, a ferocious leader, a deceptively clever centre-forward, an irrepressible goalscorer, taker of terrifying penalties and a leader of men.  Today he brought donuts as he said good bye to the staff at Vicarage Road, which is of course what any normal bloke would do.

It’s going to take a big personality to claim that shirt.

Best of luck Troy.

Yoooorns.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 0 (29/08/2021) 30/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- “Who’s that guy?”

“Which one?”

“Our number 31.  With the sort of bun.”

“That’s Francisco Sierralta.”

“Who?”

It’s a funny time.  Perhaps, hopefully I guess, a unique time.  Despite the fact that Daughter 2 never quite got into paying attention in any way when not able to go to games it’s startling that she doesn’t know who our mighty Chilean centre-back is.  Except of course… that despite – even when taking into account his mid-season arrival into the side last season – there are only four longer-established first team players in the eleven, this is the first League game that he’s started for us in front of full stands.

Hornet Hive was the artery that fed us that intel last season, but even Emma and Tommy will be struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of this transfer window. Indeed, given the evacuation, both planned and already realised, of established faces – for all sorts of reasons – there’s an argument for saying that our hosts are more familiar with our squad than we are.  Rarely if ever have we seen an overhaul quite like this… sometimes new money, management, ownership or circumstances mean that a whole load of new faces have come in together but not to replace popular and successful players.  Even the squad strengthening on promotion six years ago retained a core of established names.  This feels like a critical time, not just by virtue of the return of supporters to stadiums (which is obviously tremendous) but in the need to quickly establish an association between this largely new team and the stands.

Good job they look bloody great, really.

2- Whilst the ascent to Newcastle’s away end is the stuff of legend and Selhurst Park is notoriously difficult to get to (like a fungal growth down the back of a cabinet), Spurs have done a decent job of locating themselves as far as it’s possible to get from any sensible access in central-ish London.  The journey down has been rendered all the more challenging by blanket railway engineering works for the bank holiday weekend, and even our attempts to avoid them by driving across to an alternative train line at St Neots are disrupted by further late-runningness on that line.  Getting to the ground after the deceptively long slog from Seven Sisters always feels like an achievement, the more so today – the existence of open urinals at the halfway mark of that stretch betrays the wisdom or perhaps bitter experience of the local authorities as much as it appals both daughters..

It’s a fine stadium, as we’ve discussed before; the lack of low roofs hinders the atmosphere but the sight lines are good, the lean-on bars are a massive plus, the eatery options are tremendous and the stewards are amiable and efficient to a fault (excepting my niece, Sara, who is on duty at some unspecified location and didn’t tell us beforehand).  Underlying it all however is a certain snideness that’s befitting of our hosts…  the aggressive, blanket ban on food and drink coming into the stadium to compel sale of both to a captive audience for one thing.  Careful planning and selection facilitated smuggling of lucky half-time contraband into the stadium, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.  Then there’s the sharp slope that drops from just beyond each touchline, leaving the pitch on a sort of weird plateau.  At first it looks merely odd, and a little dangerous perhaps;  we’re making uneducated guesses about drainage until Dad points out how difficult a Delap-style long throw would be to achieve with no run-up.

There are a few ways to look at this fixture.  It’s difficult to judge, for one thing, quite how the HarryKaneathon affects things…  if there’s little doubt that the “one of our own” adulation from the stands rings rather hollower than it did, you kinda feel that we could have done with things still being precariously up in the air. (As an aside, daughter 2’s proclivity for concise commentary was betrayed during the Euros…. “who does Harry Kane play for, Dad?”… “Tottenham”….”Why?”). On the other hand, whilst our opening looks relatively gentle all things considered you’d almost rather get the less winnable games out of the way while we’re still getting our shit together.  Quite whether this still qualifies as One Of The Tougher Games is another question, but it spares us from some of the imperative of racking up points in our early games.

3- Any away point in the Premier League is a decent one in any case and the directive must surely have been to keep it tight early doors, stifle the atmosphere, frustrate the hosts.  So Daniel Bachmann, who was to have a mixed and slightly edgy afternoon, skewing a pass out to a Spurs boot in the opening exchange probably wasn’t part of the plan, Peter Etebo coming to the rescue by crowbarring the ball from the feet of Harry Kane in the penalty area.  The Hornets broke aggressively, Dennis starting on the left and progressing down the flank; the ball found the feet of Kucka who curled a shot to the far post where, it transpires, Eric Dier’s head deflected it clear.  And breathe.

Etebo and Kucka formed two-thirds of a newly robust trio in the middle with the surprise immediate involvement of Moussa Sissoko.  First and foremost, this is a no-bullshit midfield that surely allays any concerns about being too lightweight in the centre of the park…  Etebo is the veteran with a princely four competitive starts now,  and does a sterling job again making light of a harsh early booking,  but Kucka and Sissoko are welcome surprises on the teamsheet.  Kucka, whose hunched shoulders suggest an invisible but fully-laden supermarket trolley, reprised his performance from the opening day with barrelling runs and sharp touches.  Sissoko looked dynamic, athletic and efficient except when in shooting range, delighting the home support by clouting over the bar in the second half as is traditional.  Fellow residents of the danger zone a third of the way up the Rookery, beware.

Between them the trio allay fears of being overrun as at Brighton.  We’re facing a capable opponent, and on our left in particular we look vulnerable as Son, whose ethnicity is an immediate source of fascination for both daughters, is dong Son-like things with little impediment.  Wrong to lay all the blame at Masina’s feet;  as previously this season he is exposed by lack of defensive diligence from the man in front of him, Dennis on this occasion, but it’s a productive-looking avenue for Spurs either way.

We do a fine job of holding them off again though, a recurring theme.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession and a lot of energy and aren’t getting very far with it, whereas we’re providing every suggestion of a sucker-punch with King doing a decent job leading the line, mobile, tidy and persistent, whilst Dennis and Sarr are willing and potent.  Kieron, who remains neutral-ish despite thirty years of occasional visits and a healthy disregard for Spurs, says we’re “a bit ragged”, but we’d have taken nil-nil if a bit ragged at the break with both hands.  Instead Spurs get a free-kick on the left, Son swings it into the dangerous corridor between attackers and goalkeeper and Bachmann hesitates fatally as it bounces in front of him and in low to his left.

4- Residual anxiety about quite how this is going to shake out fuel a little apprehensiveness at the start of the second half.  This could run away from us very rapidly if we’re not careful.  We are careful, however.  A significant departure in strategy has seen us bring in more experience than usual this summer…  Kucka is 34, Sissoko 32, Josh King will turn 30 mid-season.  Jose Holebas (31) and Valon Behrami (30) were the veterans in 2015.  That composure saw us keep it steady throughout the second half.

In truth, Spurs came closer than we did to adding to the scoreline. Daniel Bachmann redressed things slightly by pushing out a deflected Højbjerg free kick and then blocking a point-blank Kane shot. Troost-Ekong, whose vast improvement since last weekend surely reflected the return of the impeccable Sierralta beside him, got a touch to Moura’s cross to steer it out of Kane’s path. I try not to rewatch highlights or to let them colour my judgement before rewriting the report, but there’s no not mentioning that piece of defending.

But we remained in touching distance, and we retained a threat.  As Spurs’ half-chances came and went you knew that if you were in the home stands you’d sense the sucker punch coming.  It didn’t, but the fact that we played ourselves into a position where it might have is reason for optimism.  Sarr persisted despite regular aggressive attention, not least from Reguilón who was embarrassed enough about being left on his arse to make ludicrously fanciful objections to the linesman in front of us after Isma rolled around him.  Cucho came off the bench for a willing but ineffective cameo, nearly crowned with a scissor kick to a deep right-wing cross.  It was a one-in-ten shot at best, you’d want him to give it a swing at those odds but this was one of the nine.  Dennis moved to the centre as King was withdrawn but to less effect, his rare lack of progress from a central role frustrating him into a needless late booking. The game ended.

5- The gents on the other side of daughter 2 in the congested lack of personal space provoked by sticking narrow seats on a bend had mortified her and her sister by identifying me through them as “the bloke who writes for From the Rookery End” (almost).  They reflected on this one as “a free hit” and in a sense they’re right…  The Other 14 would tell you that if you beat everyone but the big six at home you’ll end up with 39 points and will probably be OK.  On that basis three points from three games so far is no worse than par.

There are a fair few “free hits” in the Premier League, and there’s a frustration here in that having been within a slug of a mugging we couldn’t find that goal, deserved or otherwise, or better still kept that free kick out.  Nonetheless.  We’re at a stage where the team is virtually brand new;  to look so convincing so quickly, albeit without points today, is no bad thing.  We need to hit the ground running with an attractive looking run of games coming after the international break, but on this evidence you’d back us to add to our tally.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Etebo 4, Sissoko 3, *Kucka 4*, Sarr 4, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Ngakia (for Cathcart, 51) 3, Hernández (for King, 65) 2, Cleverley (for Sissoko, 71) 3, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sema, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford 1 Crystal Palace 0 (24/08/2021) 25/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1-  Having managed to take positives out of a startlingly thorough beating at Brighton, I found my new found state of zen challenged for the first time this season in the build up to this one.  More general than football…  I don’t remember when I was last in a traffic jam, what with One Thing And Another, but it seems that this is one thing without any nostalgia value.

I’d left Bedford at 5, which should have facilitated a leisurely drive down, a stop at Fry Days and so forth.  Instead I parked up at ten past seven, forewent fish and chips and headed to the ground past the ominous if affable queues at each of the Occupation Road turnstiles.  Good job the stadium’s only half full, really…

Fortunately, due to a combination of manpower and, I suspect, pragmatism with cantankerous e-tickets, there are no queues at the Rookery turnstiles.  Nonetheless, sitting down in an empty row and surveying the similarly empty stadium I’m underwhelmed.  Yes it’s “only” the League Cup but, jesus, it’s football ?!?  After so long?  Where is everybody?

Daughters 1 and 2 cases in point;  a week with my Mum and Dad in the holidays, a drive over to Watford with Granddad declined at the last.  So it’s a bit miserable.  Good job the chicken pie from the kiosk is decent.

2- Plus, our first game in the League Cup is always rubbish.  We’ve discussed in the past, that there is only one such game, taking place in an alternative dimension that we dip into once a year, where the wheels grind eternally and nothing ever happens.

The opponents switch shirts in the interim of course, typically bearing the livery of a game tryer from the lower divisions capable and committed enough to stop us from playing but not talented enough to hurt us themselves.  In the absence of such an opponent, Palace convey a fitting air of underwhelming grubbiness that suits the stage of the competition.  Will Hughes – and it still breaks my heart to contemplate his surely inevitable departure – would be wasted on this shower.

The certainty of defeat isn’t improving my mood.  The debris of Saturday’s midfield is still fresh in the memory, and similar personnel are named here in the absence of much in the way of plausible alternatives. Clevs gets a rest on the bench though alongside Jaime Alvarado, one of those names familiar only to completists amongst the fanbase who seemed destined for loans to Spain and probably, ultimately, a return to Colombia.  To what extent his presence was necessitated by lack of midfield alternatives versus his own rising star remains to be seen.

We make seven changes, albeit largely in the areas of the pitch that have looked kind of ok.  Palace appear to name closer to a full strength eleven, albeit some of their key protagonists start on the bench – Guaita, McArthur, Mitchell, Benteke.  Yes, yes, Chelsea and so forth… nonetheless  Patrick Vieira will be edgy until he gets his first win, hell his first goal, and can’t turn down any opportunity to seize it.

3- After a fairly even start the visitors begin to dominate possession.  Zaha is in the starting eleven, to a predictable welcome, but Jeremy Ngakia sticks close to him and repeatedly gets under his feet before he can establish control of the ball.  He’s still prominent but largely restricted, Connor Gallagher’s movement the bigger threat early on – he floats in behind the defence but is foiled by Foster’s alertness.

On the other flank there’s a welcome (second) debut for Danny Rose, though much as when Richard Jobson briefly returned to the fold it’s a different bloke of a different size in a different position and at the opposite end of his career to the youngster who briefly appeared in our midfield under Brendan Rodgers.  Concerns about his fitness after so little match action are front of mind, and Rose looks sluggish for the first five minutes or so, twice being exposed by Jordan Ayew down the right.

Any concerns were misplaced.  As the game progressed Rose warmed to the task, and looked like the pugnacious, intelligent, aggressive, dependable full back of your dreams.  There’s an argument that bringing in a quality alternative might coax greater consistency out of the incumbent, but Adam Masina has more than a theoretical threat to his place on Sunday.

In the centre, William Troost-Ekong had a nervous day at Brighton, and the signs weren’t great when the cumbersome and otherwise ineffective Mateta mugged him on the touchline early on.  Thereafter he settled down however, with his regular “fixer” alongside him in the returning Sierralta.  Midway through the half Palace came as close as they were to come to a goal but Troost-Ekong salvaged the situation by contorting himself to head out, impossibly, from underneath the crossbar.

With Peter Etebo returning to the high bar set against Villa patrolling in front of the defence (as well as suggesting a hitherto unadvertised ability to deliver a set piece) we were doing a fair job of keeping our opponents at arm’s length, much as we had Villa for much of the opening game.  Palace don’t seem to need much help looking blunt and inconsequential at the moment in any case, but we played a part in their downfall, exposing their anxieties.  They finished the half having had most of the possession but with little to show for it.

4- As on Saturday we were better after the break.  Joshua King, slightly surprisingly and presumably reflecting either lack of fitness or an injury concern, was withdrawn in favour of cat’o nine tails Emmanuel Dennis.  We saw more of the ball and looked threatening in attacking positions, but for all Etebo’s involvement the midfield, for obvious reasons, remains the bit that needs the most attention.  Louza offered an improvement on Saturday also, an ability to play a sharp pass and a willingness to get in where it’s dirty but was still both bulliable and giving the ball away too much.

Up front, Cucho had a quieter game;  referee Robinson getting his number early on after a stereotypically South American spin and roll at the feet of a bemused Jordan Ayew.  He kept plugging, but wasn’t getting very far.  On the opposite flank was Ashley Fletcher, who for all his awkward legginess looks more like a centre-forward than a winger.  He’s been brought in ostensibly as attacking cover, but that’s increasingly a specialist role requiring certain characteristics as well as a level of ability (Spurs, perennially trying to cover Kane, have ended up signing wingers who can fill in rather than a backup centre-forward).

The point is, Fletcher will see the number of senior attacking players on our books (discounting Gray and Success he’s still competing with King, João Pedro, Sarr, Dennis, Deeney, Cucho and Sema for one of three forward roles) and know that he’s primarily backup, however much faith he’s got in his own ability.  He’s got to be happy with that, or at least be ready and willing to knuckle down and take his chances when they come, a team player; assessment of that character will surely have been part of his recruitment.

On this evidence he’s good foil for that role.  If we see limited evidence of a challenge for a regular start, there’s energy, knees, elbows, power… not a lot of subtlety, but a relentless doggedness that will serve him well.

So we have more of the game.  If there’s a concern – beyond the nascent midfield – it’s that for all the fun catching-them-on-the-break stuff we’re not quite clinical enough.  That’s inevitable perhaps, players getting used to each other and so on.  But Villa demonstrated how quickly things can change;  Palace didn’t score, but they might have.  For all that there was some encouraging stuff here you wouldn’t have backed us to come from behind and too many of those breaks, hurtling towards the Rookery in the second period, fizzled out with a wrong decision.  That’ll come.

5- And to be fair, it did.  I’d resigned myself to penalties, I suspect I wasn’t the only one… gazing across the pitch and wondering who might be up for a spot kick when suddenly one of those breaks connected, like a misfiring engine that suddenly, unexpectedly, clicks into gear.  Rose fed Cucho on the left, the Colombian cut a tremendous cross through to the far post where Fletcher was hurtling in to tuck the ball home.  The vigour of the celebration testified to the popularity of the goalscorer in the dressing room – whatever his future involvement there are worse ways to debut than scoring a late winner against Palace.

The visitors seemed suddenly energised and urgent, hilariously and too late.  Jeremy Ngakia had been replaced by Kiko, a welcome return for the Spaniard who nonetheless struggled with Zaha immediately, including in this short flurry… not the easiest opponent on your return from injury, but a spell that did Ngakia’s standing no harm in contrast to what had gone before.  Palace’s flurry burned out as Cucho lunged in to make a vital interception.  The whistle went, Troost-Ekong was the last man standing applauding the support and gifting his shirt to a kid at the front of the Rookery, fully redeemed.

Winning’s always good, beating Palace always better.  More than that we have evidence of a degree of cover, good options in the squad, if not in every position just yet.  But a clean sheet against top flight opposition welcome reassurance after Saturday.  We’re in this.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 4, Louza 2, Sema 3, Fletcher 3, Hernández 3, King 3
Subs: Dennis (for King, 45) 3, Femenía (for Ngakia, 62) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 76) NA, Cathcart, Alvarado, Baah, Elliot

Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Watford 0 (21/08/2021) 22/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1-  “YES mate!  Yellllooooooooows” comes the shout from the right, where a bunch of lads are drinking on the pavement outside a pub on Queens Road as we trundle down towards the front from the station in our colours.  It’s that sort of day.  Last Saturday was the first proper game; today the first away trip is almost as significant – the first away trip for many, probably, since we were last here more than eighteen months ago.  The mood  reflects this, it’s about celebrating the event as much as supporting the team.  By this stage I’ve already been serenaded whilst availing myself of the facilities on the long Thameslink slog from Bedford by travelling ‘orns who had chosen, for reasons unclear, to locate themselves next to the loo in a half-empty carriage.  Not an experience I’d choose to repeat, but positive in spirit and intent.

Back on Queens Road, my response of “Yooooorns” is greeted with slight confusion, as if I’ve given the wrong response to the call signal, but this reaction is far less disquieting than the one behind me.  Things have progressed during the hiatus without proper football;  daughters 1 & 2 are now 15 and 12 respectively, no longer children and certainly of an age where sniggering conspiratorially at your embarrassing Dad is a done thing.  This is the first match we’ve done together  away from Vicarage Road since the Cup Final; in particular it’s the first game that Daughter 1 has been to since the win over Wolves at the start of last year so it’s particularly good to hear her singing along instinctively when such things begin a few hours later.  She has a good day; we avoid the malicious intent of the evil bastard seagulls on the front (unlike our family trip a year ago when daughter 2 lost an ice cream) and all major food groups are covered:  chocolate, ice cream, chewing gum, crisps and pie.

2- The boisterous party vibe (as daughters 1 and 2 would call it) continues at the ground.  To get to this stage we’ve had to navigate considerable security protocols outside the ground including two sniffer dogs (“am I allowed to pat them?”) but no COVID status checks.  The drizzle has stopped, the sun is out.

Having followed advice and tradition and arrived very early we’re in our seats for a long time watching Stuff Happen.  Much of the boisterousness is backstage until closer to kick off, but as the players complete their warm-up a lad is escorted past us with his arm genially around a steward’s shoulders, high fiving all comers.  It is reported over my shoulder that he skipped over the advertising hoardings, shared an exchange with a less inebriated but perhaps startled Ben Foster and then faced a couple of shots before the stewards wised up to developments.  All very naughty and so forth, but you can’t help but hope that the paperwork invoking the ban-from-all-football threatened by incursion onto the pitch is lost in the post in this instance.

But for all the bonhomie there is an air of being a friend-of-a-friend at someone else’s party.  If Brighton and the Amex, perhaps without the added detail of promotion since The Last Time, never has the volcanic exuberance of Vicarage Road a week ago there is no mistaking the mood outside the ground as we amble round to the southern end.  This is Brighton’s First Day Back, a factor that always felt like it might play a role, much as it helped us a week ago.  Friends are greeting friends with smiles on their faces, a Dad is eagerly asking his son where he’d rather get a match programme – inside the ground or out? – and the old boy in a blue and white shirt with whom we board the Falmer train from Brighton grins and says “it’s just so nice to be back, isn’t it?”.  But he’s not really talking to us, he’s staring into space.

3- A factor, then.  Fuel to the fire.  But there are bigger issues that get the fire started in the first place.  One of these is betrayed by our bench, which despite having nine names on it can’t find a proper midfielder with Kucka and, presumably, Gosling injured, contractually challenged pair Hughes and Chalobah non-grata (or “ill”), Tufan incoming and TDB and Phillips out on loan.  This means that the three out there are the last three cabs on the rank – Etebo, Cleverley, Louza – and whilst two of the three were exemplary against Villa and the other is a welcome debut, they are not going to have a good afternoon.

The other big factor is our opponent.  “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team”.  If we benefitted against Villa from the increased familiarity borne of our early recruitment activity then here we’re on the receiving end of a much more settled, effective side who Know Their Shit.  We give the ball away immediately and are steamrollered;  in particularly our midfield, outnumbered by virtue of our formation and overrun from the off, can’t get hold of the game.  Louza stands out; more to come from him no doubt, but this is an afternoon he’ll need to learn from.  He wants far, far more time on the ball than he’s going to get from Yves Bissouma and yields possession on countless occasions.

We play a major role in our own downfall, contributing to both goals; nonetheless, we’ve got away with 2-0 at the interval.  The first comes from Shane Duffy, an old-school centre half who feels like he’s been on borrowed time since Albion were promoted, a championship-style defender in a Premier League side.  However many years on and despite a year out last year he’s still borrowing time, demonstrating that a bit of brutality has a place and a role in a three-man defence flanked by the ability of Webster and Dunk.  All the more so when he rises virtually unopposed to head a popular opener in off the underside of the bar from a left wing corner.  Dad, watching on TV, reports a healthy hand of Emmanuel Dennis’ shirt on the part of the Irish centre-back to which my response would be, why wasn’t Dennis kneeing him in the balls to hamper his ascent?  That’s going to happen.  Perhaps less so if it’s a big brute of a Chilean centre-back up against Duffy;  easy to be smart after the event, but this is an opponent, given Brighton’s threat at set pieces, that had Sierralta’s name all over it.

We look kind of vaguely threatening when we do get the balls in and around the Brighton area but not in as much as we generate an attempt on target.  Dennis is chasing scraps, Sarr, as always, is a weapon but is marshalled by March.  It feels laboured.  Meanwhile the midfield, drawing a parallel with my current Netflix binge, is like the US embassy at the end of Homeland season 4.  A wasteland, the terrorists have control, it’s no longer and was never a fight.  Towards the end of the half William Troost-Ekong, whose limited distribution was voiced as a concern pre-season by some and whose vulnerability here Brighton have picked up on by leaving him unchallenged and unharried at the back throughout, plays a suicide pass to Tom Cleverley.  Bissouma gobbles him up and releases Maupay.  Half of the away end don’t see the finish, heads are in hands.

4- “Same old bloody Watford, always losing” says a disembodied voice in the queue for sustenance.  The validity of the argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny but this is an expression of frustration and probably a little out of practice.  More generally there is rueful acknowledgement that this has been a car crash of a half on all sorts of levels but the mood is pretty resilient to it.  The crowd gets up again as the second period starts and good-natured hostilities are resumed with an individual out of my eyeline in the Brighton end.  The chants range from “Your shirt’s too small for you” to “You’re just a sh*t Father Christmas” via the slightly more niche “You’re just a sh*t Uncle Albert”.  The mind boggles.  Stewards linger uncertainly like parents at a toddler’s disintegrating birthday party.

On the pitch things are better from the off.  Too little too late, perhaps, the likelihood of a fightback never progresses beyond the theoretical and it’s difficult to judge merit comprehensively when the opponent is two-nil up, ostensibly comfortable and doesn’t need to commit.  One goal, deserved or otherwise, would have changed the mood however, and the fact that at least three of Brighton’s four yellows were earned for “take-one-for-the-team” break-stifling fouls suggests that there was more to this than just Brighton being able to sit back a bit.

Each of the subs improved the situation.  Cucho didn’t announce his arrival, inevitably in place of Louza, with the same fanfare as last week but his influence was more sustained, an effervescent force for good on the left.  A more comprehensive change in the balance of play was achieved with a formation change that saw Joshua King debuting off the bench in place of Cathcart, three at the back now and more presence in midfield with Sarr dropping deeper.  King was the pick of the bunch, some control and venom at last, whilst Troy’s cameo began on a bruising collision with Dunk that ended with a handshake but brought some welcome bite to proceedings. We didn’t do any more than draw the second half on points really, but you’d probably have taken that at half time.

5- A good friend has frequently observed that if you followed a football club, Watford for sake of argument, purely for events on the pitch you’d have a pretty bloody miserable time of it.  Rarely better illustrated than today.

On the pitch… disappointing to say the least.  Not the end of the world;  this was a failure of system and of personnel against a decent opponent rather than an irredeemable catastrophe (A decent opponent who nonetheless, in the same way that the concession of two goals nagged at us last week, might reflect on their own capabilities having been so dominant and yet only managing two goals, each of them facilitated.  As someone put it afterwards, “if Connolly could finish his dinner…”).  We knew we were lightweight in midfield minus Capoue, Doucs, now Chalobah.  If we’re going to be outmanned in midfield we can’t be outgunned as well.  Those solutions are coming.

But off the pitch…  losing, however badly or frustratingly, is part of the rich tapestry that we’ve missed. The investment in whatever it is you think you believe in doesn’t count for anything if it doesn’t matter when you lose.  Besides which, beating Palace and then Spurs will feel all the better for this, no?

And in any case.  Away days are back.  Daughters 1 and 2, having previously temporarily opted out of away games (don’t like being intimidated by the majority, miss the home routine) are back, and will be at Spurs.  We trundle into Bedford just before 11, they’re knackered but still grinning.  And football’s back.  That’ll do for now.  The rest will come.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 1, Kabasele 3, Etebo 2, Cleverley 3, Louza 1, Sarr 2, Sema 3, Dennis 3
Subs: Hernández (for Louza, 45) 3, *King (for Cathcart, 65) 3*, Deeney (for Sema, 82) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Fletcher, Sierralta, Baah, Foster

Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (14/08/2021) 15/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- By half time, the sun is properly out.  Which is how opening day should be, of course.  There are 200 hospital staff circuiting the pitch to a prolonged standing ovation from all four sides of the ground.  “Song for Guy” plays as the faces of those lost over the pandemic by both club and hospital appear on the screen.  There is a deluge of specks in eyes, odd for a still afternoon.

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It’s one of a number of significant things on a memorable day.  Arguably the most memorable thing, though there are many others.  Like… just being in a full stadium again.  The noise.  The colour.  The single living entity that a football crowd becomes. Queuing for a pint.  Edging your way to your seat.  Grins and greetings shared both with friends and with familiar faces.  God, we’ve missed this so much.

Simon and I had reflected on some of this as he arrived an hour earlier.  We went as far as suggesting that the result really didn’t matter at all.  That the other stuff was so much more significant.

We quickly acknowledged that this was complete bollocks.

2- So much is governed by mindset.  Several weeks ago we had the holiday conversation at home.  Weighed up the things that everyone’s weighed up.  Cost.  Uncertainty.  Risk. Risks. All sorts of risks. COVID.  The need to navigate the labyrinthine testing requirements (what does “a PCR test is advised for those returning from Spain” actually mean?).  The possibility that sands might shift between booking our holiday and the planned date of departure or, worse, whilst we were away or, worse, that positive tests at certain required points might be catastrophic.

My wife and daughters calmly but firmly pointed out that we were going anyway.  And that was that.  As soon as my head accepted this fact as a given rather than a decision to be made everything seemed much more straightforward (excepting, possibly, the labyrinthine regulations).  We returned from Málaga yesterday.

Meanwhile on Twitter, the world is ending.  Troy Deeney’s still here for one thing and he’s, like, ancient.  And Will Hughes, that’s a disgrace.  And who’s going to get the goals?  And who’s going to make the goals?  We’re, like, so relegated (my daughters did explain to me the difference between “relegated bruv” and “relegated bro” over another eclectic buffet dinner in Spain, but I forget…).

You wouldn’t know it.  The concerns loudly voiced on social media are left at the door, or at the very least drowned out by furious bloody-mindedness.  This is not a time for balance and weighing things up and judgement, overly anxious or otherwise.  This is a time for just bloody going to Spain and everyone knows it.  The noise is relentless – given the ten-plus minute ovation at half-time it’s possible that recent records were broken, but nobody is counting.  The first hiatus late in the second half is borne of collective exhaustion.

3- The opening is a sparring match, and whilst it’s completely unreasonable to extrapolate from the first few minutes to the entire season that’s what everyone’s doing.  On the whole we look kind of OK… keeping Villa at arm’s length if offering them more glimpses that you’d really like.  A key protagonist here is Peter Etebo, who is a mobile, efficient, disciplined destructive agent.  If Jonathan Hogg had been Nigerian…  win ball, keep possession, lay off.  Win ball, hold off marker, find the pass.  Tremendous.

Alongside him is the deceptive Juraj Kucka. This, I will confess, was the one that tested my ability to reserve judgement…  a 34 year-old?  Really?  And look at him, he’s clearly another ball-winner with his hulking, square shoulders.  Thing is, he looks like a hell’s angel but moves like a ballerina and whilst others will get wise to this Villa really aren’t.  He’s simply fabulous, a big character whose deceptive touch and swagger complement Etebo and Cleverley beautifully in what looks far from the sellotaped midfield of the twitterati’s (and everyone else’s) worst fears.

It’s not too long before a less surprising weapon puts on the burners.  Ismaïla Sarr is going to give Matt Targett a miserable 45 minutes before his half-time withdrawal – Targett an odd selection by Dean Smith since established first choice left back or otherwise, Targett’s value is in the quality of his delivery rather than his turn of pace (or lack of it).  Against any normal mortal, let alone Isma. Twenty minutes in Joe is WhatsApping that Sarr is finishing Targett’s career.

By this point we’re already ahead.  The third debutant to start is Emmanuel Dennis whose first ten minutes is the lowest profile of the trio until he gets on the end of a Sarr cross to open our account for the season at the second attempt – fortunate perhaps that the rebound fell to him, although even the newly reticent VAR might have had a glance at Konsa’s block, the shape of which Martínez would have been proud of, had the striker not followed up.  Thereafter Dennis joins his fellow new-boys in enthusing his new crowd with a spiky hour or so in which he torments Villa’s back line with a repertoire of speed, sharp first touches and efficient aggression.  More than once ponderous Villa play is disrupted by Dennis dropping out of a tree like some kind of ninja and making off with the ball before anyone’s had time to shout.

We’re not dominant in terms of possession.  Villa have plenty, but don’t know quite what to do with it.  The unpopular Young is prominent, Ings looks sharp enough that you wouldn’t want to give him a view (we don’t), Buendía is all but invisible.  But whilst we’ll have tougher opponents than a Villa side in the wake of a disruptive departure and missing, in Watkins and Luiz, two key protagonists, it’s hugely encouraging that we do the “holding them off” thing around the edge of our area as effectively as we executed it for much of last season.  They don’t record an effort on target in the first half and rarely look like doing so, whereas from ten minutes on we’re sharp on the break.  We end the half well ahead on points and also on goals…  Sarr wins one of an impressive and unprecedented number of flick-ons to release Dennis, the Nigerian slips him in on the right and his shot gets a big deflection off, poetically enough, Tyrone Mings to loop past Martínez.  A bit of luck…  if these three points send Villa down at the end of the season we’ll let them off the missed red card and call it quits.

4- We’ve covered three debutants and we’ll get to Cucho.  But there are further debutants in the stadium in the shape of Aasha and Sammy.  Aasha was a school friend with whom contact has been recently re-established through the miracles of social media;  she wasn’t a football fan back then, but apparently things change in 30 years.  Having enthused over the Euros she has declared that having a club of her own was overdue.  Now living locally the Hornets were an option; Streatham was home for quite a while too so Palace declared as another.

An old school friend, as I said, but some things are less about friendship and more about common decency.  Steering Aasha onto the right path was the only reasonable thing to do.  I made the case as clearly as I could and when Aasha conceded, partially in terror I suspect, I followed up by contacting A Club Representative who facilitated a letter from Troy congratulating Aasha on the wisdom of her choice.  So here Aasha is, with 8 year-old son Sammy giving it everything next to her. I’m not sure whether it’s right to point out that it isn’t always quite this fun or let them find out in time.

Meanwhile back on the pitch Villa are out earlier after the break, and start with purpose.  Young has replaced the hapless Targett by shifting to left back after which Isma’s free rein is curtailed, and sub Jacob Ramsey is prominent in two early attacks.  These yield nearly moments rather than efforts on target, but they’re a statement of intent in a more assertive if, at least initially, scarcely more impactful second half from the visitors.

We still provide threat on the break but the difference in quality between divisions is evident as Sema does his once-a-game bundle down the left touchline but is robbed before he can pull the trigger.  He should have been given a corner, but that’s a shot on target in the Championship.  Similarly Sarr is a threat and provokes anxiety on the other flank but again Villa muddle through.  Dennis cuts inside from the left and fires in hard and low; the keeper’s right behind it, but tickets and raffles as Sarr’s goal demonstrated.  Villa haven’t had a shot on target yet.

Minutes later Dennis is hobbling off to an ovation, and on comes the mythical Cucho Hernández at least twelve months later than planned.  In truth his competitive debut is relatively low key and innocuous, except for the bit that isn’t.  There’s so much that marks Cucho out, builds up his legend… the stories from Spain, the two goals off the bench on his debut for Colombia, the bleached blonde hair and boyish grin.  So the force of personality to take that wave of expectation and ride it and score a goal of the season contender with his first involvement is quite staggering.  Kucka is bundled over in Villa’s half, Dean plays a great advantage as Cleverley scraps the ball out to Cucho on the left.  The Colombian progresses down the flank, cuts inside and flings a curling shot across the face of goal.  It’s in off the base of the far post and Vicarage Road erupts in noise.  We’re away.

5- Had we held out a little longer we might have gotten away with a flattering thrashing, set up as we were to attack on the break.  Instead John McGinn’s brilliant conversion of Leon Bailey’s cross serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with a bit of Premier League quality.  It didn’t ultimately matter much this time, but we won’t always have a 3-0 cushion;  1999/2000 was peppered with games in which we played pretty well and lost 1-0, this fixture amongst them.  The late penalty, too, was more than a footnote…  a bizarre attempt at a tackle by the otherwise exemplary Masina, but had he not attempted it Traoré was in and a second goal was likely in any case.  It was wrong to presume relegation before a ball had been kicked.  It’s no less foolish to be presumptuous on the back of one, albeit largely fabulous, victory.

But 3-2 flatters the visitors;  we were much better than that.  Villa can be expected to improve, and can take heart from hanging in there…  we can be grateful, I think, for opening at home and for catching our opponents at a weak moment, but there was no fortune in our own performance.  To reiterate, we got our players in early, players that the recruitment team know more about that we do, and it showed.  We have a team, already.  And let’s have no more leaping to “I’ve got doubts about Xisco’s tactical acumen”;  all available evidence since his first few games defy that position.  We have a team, a coach and a club to be proud of.

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As for Aasha, who once got a job in Boots in Basildon just in case Dave Gahan came in for some toothpaste, the regular Depeche Mode outing over the tannoy at the final whistle sealed the deal.  The day kept dropping in highlights… Lloyd Doyley bashfully edging his way down Occupation Road against the tide was one, Nathaniel Chalobah gushing about his brother and “his” club’s win on Twitter another.  Spain was fabulous, and today was a Good Day.

Now we just need to do it again, on and off the pitch.

See you at Brighton, and welcome back.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 4, Etebo 4, Cleverley 4, *Kucka 5*, Sarr 4, Sema 3, Dennis 4
Subs: Hernández (for Dennis, 66) 4, Gosling (for Kucka, 69) 3, Deeney (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sierralta, Foster