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Watford 2 Norwich City 1 (07/07/2020) 08/07/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
9 comments

1. It’s a funny old time to be an introvert.

The months of lockdown were far from easy, but they played into characteristics which I’ve much more commonly worn as flaws or carried as burdens. I’m better suited to withdrawing from the world than forcing my way out into it, in short. Seeing people is more stressful than not seeing people. (I don’t mean you, obviously. It’s always lovely to see you.) There have been points where it’s seemed as if a comparatively simple life at home, on the allotment, and out for a weekly run could be sustained for as long as finances would permit. Of course, there have been other points where trying to entertain an insatiably sociable – he doesn’t get it from us – six-year-old has seemed impossible: there is a certain pitch of madness which can only be found in the fourth hour of an uninterrupted monologue on Interesting Facts About Pokemon. That aside, we had managed to wiggle and fidget our way to making difficult circumstances into something resembling a comfort zone.

And then…out into the world, trying to remember how to put on a convincing act. Trying to weigh up how honest you’re supposed to be when people ask how you’re doing: the Honesty Index falls on a weekly basis and is available via a government hotline. Trying to make conversation from three months in which nothing conversation-worthy actually happened. “I’ve eaten all of the jam in the cupboard. Um…you?” Trying to figure out how to follow your own interpretation of the rules without seeming to decry what anyone else is doing. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of getting a haircut at this point, and yet my lack of a haircut is public evidence of that discomfort, and perhaps even implicit condemnation of those who have haircutted. I mean, Christ, with that going on in your head, who wouldn’t slightly pine for the simple life of STAY AT HOME? Sometimes it’s nice being an introvert. This is not that time.

2. And football. I love football. Is this football?

It all seems weird. This massive, pivotal fixture, something of such importance, dropped into the bustling mundanity of a weekday evening. I watch the game on The Small Telly and, really, I might as well be peering at ants through a toilet roll tube. Fred watches some of the first half with me: he’s written a magic spell for the occasion, which we need to recite in a whisper; his relentless fidgeting and chatter rather distract from the urgency of the occasion, and are very welcome for that. I eat my dinner just before half-time. The crowd noise is soporific, lulling rather than evocative. So much of football is immersion. So much of the game is detail, away from the ball. So much of relegation is acute anguish or aching despair or clenched-buttocks tension. I wish I wasn’t that person, but I’ve always tended to pay less attention to the opinion of anyone who wasn’t actually there, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever written a report from the sofa before, nor will again. (But do carry on reading.)

3. Having witnessed precisely none of the games under Javi Gracia or Quique Sanchez Flores, and now endured half a dozen under Nigel Pearson, I find myself in the awkward position of having to pass verdict on the cure while having seen none of the earlier symptoms. There is a danger of hysterically howling “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS LEGS?” when the operation might’ve saved the patient’s life. We are still outside the relegation zone at kickoff, after all.

Nevertheless, what I’ve seen has been agonising. It’s all very passive. I keep coming back to that word. All very wait and see. It’s hard to tell where the lack of ambition in the gameplan ends and the lack of confidence begins. They smudge into each other, similar shades of beige. Like half the division, it aspires – and why not? – to the coiled spring of the title-winning Leicester side, and the way they’d sit within themselves until the moment was right. Part of that is knowing when the moment is right, of course. Part of it is doing something decisive with that moment rather than clubbing another free kick into the defensive wall or drilling yet another low cross at the near post when nobody ever makes that run. And much of it is having a shell that’s sufficiently hard to withstand a beating in the meantime. We have, instead, the hardness of a raw potato, waiting to find out if it’ll be boiled, baked, mashed or (ooh!) sautéed, destined to be forgotten at the back of the cupboard, sprouting forlornly.

It’s all wasted opportunities, wasted time, wasted life. An afternoon spent waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes while the rest of the world – except Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa, mercifully – posts pictures of adventures on Instagram. I’ve also witnessed precisely nearly-all of the home form which took Hastings United to the top of the table before lockdown; none of that actually happened, officially speaking, but in the process of it not happening, I got a pretty good idea of what a confident, assertive, positive team looks like. The contrast is alarming. If your only win in a dozen games is a riotous trashing of the then-unbeaten champions, that suggests you have more than a bit of a motivation problem. You can’t just wear deodorant on your wedding day.

4. So I brace myself for another indolent pudding of a performance. And, actually, we begin by making things happen. That not all of those things are good things seems to me a secondary consideration, at least in hindsight. Will Hughes starts crashing about in midfield. Etienne Capoue bounds forward in pursuit of a hesitant goalkeeper. We push Norwich back, with a certain conviction that’s been absent hitherto. It’s energetic, urgent. It’s also further up the pitch than has become customary, affording Norwich room to get at Kiko Femenia, in particular. From the first of these breaks, Ben Foster saves a free kick bound for the top corner. From the next, Buendia finishes a tidy move with a curling shot into the other top corner. It’s at moments like these when I imagine that the players are grateful for the absence of a crowd.

In a packed Vicarage Road, this might’ve become a collective nervous breakdown. In an empty one, the goal, if anything, lends our efforts still more conviction: we cannot wait and see, cannot lapse back into passivity, cannot fail to seize the moment. Had it happened later, when our initial burst of energy was spent, we might’ve struggled to raise ourselves. But this early, with momentum still spurring us on, we surge at the visitors, press them again, dominate them for long enough, take advantage of a physical edge at set pieces. Craig Dawson dumps in a far post header.

5. The game settles after that, closes up its open spaces. It’s a moderately attractive affair, though: Norwich are inoffensively enterprising in the manner of a small bakery selling nice sausage rolls. It’d be called Roll With It or something like that. Just off the high street. They’ll be a loss to the division, partly in the sense that they play nice football with a young, keen team and mainly in the sense that whoever replaces them is likely to be harder to beat. Nothing much happens for a while, but it happens pleasantly enough. We drop too deep, naturally, then remember to push out a bit, not naturally. We appear in control, which is the bit that’s most worrying.

As my dinner arrives, and after the drinks break, we have another go. This isn’t a side which looks terribly convincing on the front foot – there’s more than an element of an Apprentice candidate making a stuttering sales pitch to a supermarket – but this is less unconvincing than the other attempts I’ve seen. Some of that is the result of Troy Deeney finding himself in a battle he can win; similarly, our set pieces meet much less stubborn resistance and look less abysmal as a consequence. Much of it is down to Danny Welbeck. Mobile, bright, intelligent, not-injured Danny Welbeck. Where Ismaïla Sarr is all energy and errors, Welbeck lends our attacks a focused edge that they’ve often lacked. He nearly scores from a corner, should score from a later cross. His time will come.

6. I do the washing up at half-time. You can sod right off if you think that’s going to become a superstition.

7. The appearance of control is maintained after half-time. It’s deceptive, though: at this level, control is less about broad landscapes and more about tiny incidents like the ones in which Pukki wastes very presentable chances with that awful combination of hastiness and sluggishness which characterises rock-bottom confidence. I hate seeing strikers in that hole. It reminds me of Danny Graham at Sunderland, and I don’t like to be reminded of Danny Graham at Sunderland. Here, though, and now, we’ll take what we can get. Danny Ings sticks those in the back of the net, but Danny Ings can’t play for Norwich because he plays for Southampton.

Norwich create the half’s first real flurry of goalmouth action, Foster saving smartly from Aarons after Hernandez has a shot blocked and before Buendia fails to recreate his earlier finish. As if to perfectly illustrate the grim well-that’s-just-bloody-typical misery of a failed relegation struggle, we break on them and score the game’s decisive goal, a hopelessly scuffed cross from Sarr looping up via a defender for Welbeck to acrobatically volley home. It’s a beautiful finish: overhead kicks are sometimes all physicality and gym-work but this has real grace and elegance, and the ball appears to respond as if caressed rather than whipped. I mean, it’s no Dennis Bailey at Peterborough but it’s a decent effort from the lad nonetheless.

8. You probably chewed your way through the rest too. There isn’t a relegation-threatened team in the history of the world which hasn’t fallen prey to over-caution with a one-goal lead and ten minutes to go, and we don’t become the first to react differently. Given how much we generally rely on it – or because of how much we generally rely on it, perhaps – our defence doesn’t half look brittle, and even an attack as mild-mannered as Norwich’s creates enough to turn the game around. Vrancic should do better with a free header at a set piece. And then, in the last minutes, Idah slides in to connect with a squirming cross in the six yard box and somehow diverts it wide. Should score, doesn’t score, season remains on the rails.

9. Of course, the point is that, many long months ago, the entire campaign became about finding three teams worse than us. Part of what makes them worse teams is having worse strikers. So much of what we’ve lacked – and what separates the bottom few from the mid-table many – is having match-winners who actually win matches on a semi-regular basis. The margin here was small, but it was decisive: one match-winner with a moment of pure, incisive magic.

Beyond that, there seems little point in drawing wider conclusions: the season is there to be survived, and this is a huge step towards that survival. What lies beyond is unknowable in so many ways.

Must do better, obviously. Can do better. But that’s for another day. For now, I’ve got a haircut to worry about.

Foster 4, Masina 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 3, Hughes 4, *Welbeck 4*, Sarr 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Cleverley (for Hughes, 59) 4, Chalobah (for Capoue, 87) NA, Mariappa, Pussetto, Pereyra, Cathcart, Gray, João Pedro, Gomes, Uncle Tom Cobley, All

Chelsea 3 Watford 0 (04/07/2020) 05/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  There’ll come a time where we don’t start a piece by talking about The Current Situation.  I don’t know whether to hope for that time or not, since the fear is that at that point The Current Situation will have been normalised.  And I hate The Current Situation, if that wasn’t clear.  Hate the isolation, hate the anxiety, hate what’s happening to people, hate that this would be bad enough in any circumstances but, well.  You know.  But maybe things could still be worse.  Maybe sticking for a bit is no bad thing.  Yes, I know the pubs are open.  Anyway, one day we won’t open a piece by talking about it.  This clearly isn’t that time.

“Normal”, for instance, would be attending this fixture by jumping on the Thameslink down to Blackfriars and spending an indulgent couple of hours walking the five miles or so along the Thames to Stamford Bridge.  That’s how it ought to be.  Meeting friends, family.  Grabbing a beer beforehand, or a quick Wagamama in that place above Fulham Broadway that’s somehow always empty.  You don’t buy food in Stamford Bridge of course.  Not as a policy decision, I’ve nothing particularly against Chelsea this week.  But because it’s shit.  Important local knowledge, speaking as someone with a fairly low, tolerant and accommodating crap food threshold.  I’d still walk all the way to Stamford Bridge now, at 11pm, for one of their awful shitty wrap things and all the rest of it. Right now.  Screw this.

2- For all that the games are on top of each other, there’s something painfully drawn out about this narrative.  Watching all of The Games That Matter means that we’re generally watching a lot of football matches, and a lot of football matches involving at least one terrible football team, what with lockdown and that making limited teams less fit, and less mobilisable by the presence of a crowd.  The number of teams involved and the low success rate of the protagonists so far means a lot of this is reasonably enjoyable nonetheless, what with schadenfreude and so on.  Man United toying with Bournemouth earlier was a popcorn event for all, surely, of a Watford, or Villa, or West Ham persuasion complete with mildly threatening twists and turns that briefly teased before the inevitable happy ending.

Where it falls down is where something genuinely alarming happens, like West Ham beating Chelsea.  Or, of course, when it comes to watching our own particular brand of awful.  That’s not quite so fun.  And playing Chelsea a few days (only a few days?  really?) after they got done by West Ham, the evening after United and Leicester picked up wins, was never going to be ideal.  This really didn’t  fall for us which, at the risk of repetition, is why we really ought to have taken points from the games that did.   As an aside, Frank Lampard’s appointment may still prove over-emotional and ill-judged, but he’s clearly not the idiot he might have been.  In my mind’s eye the excess optimism borne of desperation saw Sarr gobbling up the great big spaces behind Marcos Alonso and Troy beating up Christensen and Rüdiger, hardly the most robust of central defensive pairings.  As it turned out, the big open spaces behind Marcos Alonso were the empty seats higher up Stamford Bridge’s East Stand, Lampard having shunted the much more obstructive Azpilicueta into the left back slot, whilst Zouma came in for Rüdiger.  Zouma’s prone to the odd calamity himself, but he’s also a Big Old Unit, and for the second game in succession Troy was thoroughly bullied, isolated and ineffective.

3- Which isn’t to say that the whole thing was awful.  It wasn’t.  There was a plan here, and it wasn’t a bad one.  It left a fair bit to chance of course, which as already discussed had already demonstrated itself an unreliable neighbour to leave in charge of watering your pot plants.  It also didn’t work for reasons that will be discussed.  But it was a decent plan that looked like it might even deliver, until it didn’t.

4-5-1, effectively, with Sarr very deep and Troy very isolated.  That was the problem, the lack of reliable outball given Troy’s lack of mobility and lack of ability, on this occasion, to hold the ball up or bring others into play.  The pressure told on 28 minutes, and perhaps it would have done so sooner or later for all that it required precision and ingenuity on the part of Barkley and Giroud to penetrate.  We’d done well up to then though, we’d dug in and looked like we meant it.  More than going through the motions, a negative spoiling game can be an inspiring thing when it’s your lot doing it and when your against the odds.  And when it’s done with vigour like this.  Nonetheless, they were knocking on the door repeatedly.

As above, the lack of a way out was the problem.  Kiko was our most willing outlet, bombing down the left redoubtably and being a nuisance, even if the need to cut inside or backwards due to his lack of left foot meant that his bold forays tended to fizzle out.  Mapps had come in on the right, which caused a bit of discussion pre-match but a good shout for me.  He didn’t have a particularly conspicuous game, but we should stop and appreciate him from time to time.  As discussed in this piece, he’s a Watford legend, and in particular a leader in an area of the pitch that has been short of such.

4- And actually, Mapps’ presence was particularly welcome given that, as above, Troy was not just ineffective but sullen, miserable.  Quiet, even, if you can believe it.  And that another experienced player and some-time captain, Étienne Capoue, was about to do something really quite stupid.

The only defence you can make is that you’d rather someone stuffed up by doing something than by not doing something.  It was a bold run to intercept Pulisic with the best of intentions.  But it was also witless…  Capoue was on a yellow card, Mapps was well positioned, and yet he steamed in and gave away a needless penalty.  On the replay… again, perhaps we were unlucky.  Not that it wasn’t a penalty, but that the contact was unfortunate, accidental.  Clumsy rather than violent. But when you go in at speed without control like that you make it possible for such things to happen.  Willian tucked the penalty away, and a 1-0 half time deficit that you might even have taken at kick-off became something far less surmountable.

5- So for all that there were long spells in the second half when we scarcely seemed able to string two passes together, when every clearance was humped aimlessly and blindly, and in which Chelsea utterly dominated possession the fact that we got as late as we did at 2-0 is a decent thing.  A good couple of straws’ worth to cling to, I think.  Because we hadn’t given up… even Sarr, who was virtually non-existant going forward (and all the more startling when he did stretch his legs for the rarity and impact of it) was digging in defensively.  Not giving up.  If you can be murdered 2-0 then we were being murdered 2-0, but 2-0 is still only 2-0.  You can get lucky at 2-0.  You give yourself a chance.

We didn’t take that chance but we were better than lucky, I think.  The subs improved things again, and more drastically… Danny Welbeck gave perhaps his most convincing cameo of a season that has never quite got going, looking mobile and bold and combative.  A case to be made for him starting instead of Troy on Tuesday, brave as that would be and to be weighed against the captain’s need for fitness.  Tom Cleverley added some bite (and more of that authority and leadership) to the non-stop hassling of Will Hughes in midfield, Adam Masina suddenly found space on the left (and produced our first two shots on target, albeit neither really threatened to be more than a statistic).

But there were proper chances here too, none better than when Welbeck skidded down the left, cut in from the touchline and squared for Will Hughes to be denied by an excellent block from Christensen (I think).  Earlier, Welbeck had been played through and didn’t put his shot quite far enough across Kepa.  We’re running out of games for him to get it right, yes yes.  But he took the shot this time.

It was lively and positive.  Had we kept it at 2-0, let alone nicked a goal, we’d feel happier I think.  3-0 feels more like a gubbing, which in some ways it was, but a gubbing with silver linings and caveats, one of which being that Chelsea again needed to be excellent to score the third.  No gifts here.

Ultimately, we’re a side without much confidence and with limitations and this isn’t news.  Particularly the loss of Deulofeu, who however precocious is at least a distraction and at best capable of providing something to turn a game.  We don’t have that otherwise, least of all from Pereyra whose lazy, sloppy cameo was as pitiful as anything we’ve seen from him.

But there was positive stuff in this.  Whatever happens during the next instalments on Sunday we’re still in touch, and there were signs of life here.  Signs of fight, discipline and character.  All of which we’ll need in the next week in games from which gaining points always looked more realistic than from today.

Hang in there.  We only need to be less shit than Villa, Bournemouth and, most immediately, Norwich.

Yooorns.


*Foster 3*. Mariappa 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 2, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 2, Hughes 3, Sarr 2, Deeney 1
Subs: Welbeck (for Deeney, 58) 3, Cleverley (for Capoue, 64) 3, Masina (for Femenía, 64) 3, Pereyra (for Sarr, 83) NA, Cathcart, Holebas, Gray, João Pedro, Gomes

Watford 1 Southampton 3 (28/06/2020) 28/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

1 – Of the reasons that it’s good that football is back (and how you weight these up against the negatives is your business), escapism is high on the list.  The opportunity to think about something else other than the obvious.  I’ve followed the COVID news as loosely as I can get away with whilst making sure I know what I’m supposed to be doing and not doing but even if you’re following developments more assiduously than I am you haven’t come here to read more about the coronavirus.

So let’s make this brief.  We’re coming through / in the middle of / suffering a very difficult period collectively.  You all know, you don’t need me explaining it.  People have been ill.  People have died.  People have isolated and not been able to see loved ones, even say goodbye to them properly.  People haven’t been able to go to work.  People have gone to work despite huge risks, for the greater good.  The club have done a stunning job of supporting the community and the hospital in particular, as reflected a week ago.

So for Andre Gray, Domingos Quina and Nathaniel Chalobah to host/join a big party is pathetic.  Irresponsible for one thing, though they’re far from the only ones as the moron magnets along the coast have demonstrated.  Selfish and unprofessional given the potential impact on the squad of anyone contracting the virus. But stupid on another level.  These guys are professional footballers, and one of the costs of this profession at this level is a high profile.  It was only ever going to take a stray photo.  Such appalling decision-making doesn’t recommend Chalobah or Quina for a midfield slot, whilst Gray has comprehensively undone all his good work in support of BLM.  Depressing, and entirely appropriate that they were omitted from today’s squad.

2- If, like me, you’ve spent far longer than is strictly healthy in front of televised kind-of-football over the last twelve days (yes, it’s really only been twelve days) you’ll almost certainly have come to the reassuring conclusion that our “rivals” in the musical chairs mini-league at the bottom really aren’t very good. Perhaps this should be no surprise, that teams in a relegation scrap are a bit crap. No doubt it was ever thus, we’ve just never studied a relegation battle quite so forensically. Never been able to, not actually needed to for some time…. the last time we were involved in anything resembling a relegation scrap was Malky’s first season ten years ago, a season that Tom Cleverley, Aidy Mariappa and Craig Cathcart all featured in.

Anyway, reassuring that Villa, Bournemouth, West Ham, Norwich all look poor.  Brighton have pulled away to what is being treated as an insurmountable distance, rightly, by virtue of having actually won a game of football.  Personally this doesn’t upset me, I’d be quite happy to see the Seagulls stay up and it looks quite likely that if we do catch them at least three others won’t.  The thing is though, the “but”… is that we suddenly look pretty terrible too.  And this is new, at least new under Nige since whilst we’ve been aware of limitations throughout, and whilst we’ve had to suffer no end of expensive late capitulations that have cost us what look increasingly precious points we’ve not actually been playing badly for the most part.

Suddenly, we’re playing badly.

3- Southampton started off at a hundred miles an hour.  This was different, very different to the one-paced pre-season friendlies that we’ve been weaned back onto football with for at least the first quarter of each game…  talk of Watford needing to start boldly and take the game to the Saints’ flaky defence went out the window.

It takes some recalling now, but that opening spell was a mess.  It was a mess largely of Southampton’s design, but they weren’t looking any more threatening than we were, no more likely to create something from the crashing around, the hurtling bodies, the pouring rain.  Indeed it was the Hornets that showed first, Pereyra playing in Sarr before his cutback from the byline avoided the yellow shirts in the box.    The thing is though, as we’ve reflected before, being solid with a bit of magic dust is a decent recipe at any level – we thrived off such a set-up in our first season up with Iggy firing in 2015/16, and in the second half of Sean Dyche’s season during Sean Murray’s brief sparkle four years earlier.  Southampton were better than that, as it turns out, but they owed their breakthrough to Danny Ings who scored a goal of supreme confidence from nowhere just as I was scribbling “Ings looks lively” onto my notepad.  The goal is a bad one defensively, but it’s hard to pare apart where Ings’ boldness ends and our failings begin.  Dawson, Cathcart and perhaps even Foster look iffy on the replay, but Ings picked at a seam and ripped it apart before anyone had steeled themselves.

That’s a theme for the game actually.  Certainly, Southampton were excellent…  aggressive and energetic which is always great but looks all the more so when everyone else has been in training mode.  But potent too, and more resilient than we’d been led to believe.  The other side of the coin though is that we really didn’t make the most of our weaponry, didn’t do enough to test what was supposed to be the visitors’ achilles heel.  Less than the sum of our parts, less than we know that this side is capable of being.  Such threat as we had was too rarely the result of our set-up working an opening, and more often the result of individual endeavour, such as when Sarr went on a brief rampage across the edge of Saints’ box five minutes after Ings’ goal. Deeney was isolated, and looked heavy.  Doucouré was anonymous.  Sarr was willing but is young and makes a young man’s decisions; however much he cost you feel that these are immature shoulders to be loading up with such responsibility.  He’s certainly no leader, not yet anyway, and badly misses the relief of the twin threat of Deulofeu on the left flank;  along with our loss of energy levels the biggest miss versus pre-lockdown.

4- The other big miss is the support of course.  And yes, this affects everyone, yes we’ve been lamentable in front of crowds before too, yes we have a crowd that’s smaller than most in the top flight and, no, lack of fans didn’t seem to hinder Southampton.  But there is a greater cost for sides like us than for sides with better players I think.  This applies less today… but in general we have a side that has ability but also a certain venom to it on a good day that feeds off a crowd, that builds a momentum.

We were still in the game at the start of the second half and as at Burnley found a vigour and a focus that had escaped us in the first period in which Saints, once ahead, had largely kept us at arms length.  Not so after the break…  if it still felt slightly laboured, unconvinced and a little unconvincing at least we were asking questions, and a roar of a crowd would have built up a head of steam.  Many of those questions were asked by Will Hughes, who seemed to decide that our best chance of progress was to take out the visitors’ backline like coconuts at a fairground stall by thumping in a series of strikes from the edge of the congested area.  Ryan Bertrand bore the brunt of the likeliest of these to actually find the net – as an aside, “no shots on target” is a bit harsh if it neglects such a vital block.  We didn’t get the break with the deflection there, on another day it wrong-foots the keeper,  and indeed we didn’t get breaks with a “coulda” penalty call in the first half when Bertrand took an ill-judged tug at Sarr once the six-of-ones had finished, and a “shoulda” in the second half when Walker-Peters grappled with Craig Dawson.  Michael Oliver yawned. Very much not our day, in any respect.

5- The second Saints goal was horrible too, but had a nice kind of symmetry about it.  The early days of Ben Foster’s Watford career in 2005 were peppered with incidents like these, when his eagerness to hurl a ball into the escaping feet of Ashley Young or Marlon King got the better of him more than once.  Of all the things to criticise Watford for today this is low on the list, a bit of ambition that backfired.  Not great, but we have bigger fish to fry, or something.  It still required yet more bullishness from Ings and an unlucky deflection off Dawson.

That should have been that.  If there’s a silver lining to today’s horror show it’s that the Nigel Pearson’s subs, criticised in the last couple of games, all improved us (whilst accepting that this wasn’t very difficult).  Three of them combined to force our goal;  the willowy, near-mythical João Pedro produced a neat lay-off to release the galloping Holebas, who sent an evil cross into the box where Danny Welbeck was attacking the near post of all things, forcing Bednarek into an error that saw the ball in the back of the net.

I vaguely remember being stirred at this point, but the stirring didn’t last very long.  Three minutes between our goal and their third, much less than that before the jig was up.  Ward-Prowse has a habit of scoring against us of course, four of his 22 for Saints and counting;  I wouldn’t have been the only Hornet who anticipated what was about to happen as soon as the free kick was awarded and slumped back in my seat with a choice of words permitted by the fact that daughter 2 was wisely plugged into her phone next to me and oblivious.

After which we fell apart, and Saints should have scored more.  To whatever extent they won this game vs us losing it, beyond dispute is that we responded dreadfully to the blows that the afternoon landed and ended the afternoon a thoroughly beaten side.

6- In the normal way I try to avoid written accounts and opinions of the game before I write this piece.  Regurgitating other people’s thoughts doesn’t add much, after all.  I’d rather represent what I saw, even if I got it wrong.

When you’re watching on TV in isolation, daughter 1 absent and daughter 2 barely present plugged in on the sofa as described,  let alone in the current set-up where I’ve been working at home for however many months it’s harder to be disciplined.  And so I read my co-editor’s reflections, incisive as ever, and was unable to un-read them.  “Being taken apart by a better side is something that happens… and because it happens, you can’t afford oddly passive, leaden non-performances in utterly winnable games like Thursday’s.  Or Leicester.  Or Brighton.  I imagine the list goes on…”.  Indeed.

Having blown two opportunities to put some daylight between ourselves and the rest, our biggest hope of salvation remains the fact that only three teams get relegated, and the others are awful too.  You don’t need to be good to stay up, you just need to be less rubbish than three other teams.

But having been so lamentable at Burnley, you’d have really hoped for more vigour from this one.  Worrying times.  Going to be a very long month.

Yooorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 2, Masina 2, Cathcart 1, Dawson 1, Capoue 2, Doucouré 1, Hughes 2, Pereyra 2, Sarr 2, Deeney 1
Subs: Holebas (for Masina, 74) 3, João Pedro (for Pereyra, 74) 3, Welbeck (for Hughes, 74) 3, Pussetto (for Femenía, 79) NA, Peñaranda, Mariappa, Cleverley, Kabasele, Gomes

Watford 1 Leicester City 1 (20/06/2020) 20/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- I missed the last game at Vicarage Road.  I would say, “regular readers might remember”, but I scarcely remember what with one thing and another.  I’d been to Old Trafford with a friend who’d just come back from Milan.  Work advised to self-isolate, I felt iffy on the day of the game and watched it from the sofa.  So… stuff had already started.  But none of us foresaw how much more was going to change before Watford were again playing at Vicarage Road.

Again, I nearly wrote “before we were back”, distracted as I am half-watching Brighton against Arsenal (and rooting for the Gunners, which feels dirty but must be caveated with the desire that I’d quite like Brighton to stay up too if I could be greedy if not at our expense…).  We’re not back of course, not all of us, and there’s been some debate regarding the credibility of playing football without supporters.  It’s not ideal, of course… trite to say, but everyone would rather supporters were there.  But if it’s a choice between helping ensure that football “survives” as far as possible, and assuming it’s safe (I’ll take Troy’s reassurance on that) then it’s a no-brainer.  Lots of stuff isn’t ideal right now after all.

2- With crowd noise for me, incidentally.  Personal choice of course, no it’s not “real”.  But the empty, quiet stadium will always detract from the spectacle and the superimposed crowd noise, whilst illusory, is very effective for the most part.  No, not offensive, no, not sinister.  We are where we are.

Before kick-off we have a minute’s silence in remembrance of the victims of the pandemic and recognition of those who’ve continually put themselves at risk.  And then all involved take the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter tribute.  Difficult to find the right words for this… to do it justice.  If this had been something mandated by the FA, say, or the Premier League with the best of intentions it would have felt half-baked.  Tokenism, perhaps, whatever the conviction of individuals.  But it didn’t. it came from the players…  and with Troy and City captain and Troy’s mate Wes Morgan prominent in the instigation of the pre-match ritual it would have been a brave soul who didn’t comply.  There may be a question about the implied pressure applied to players with reservations, I guess…  but the concerns of morons and knobheads are pretty low on any sane list of priorities right now.  Few issues are as clear cut, right and wrong.

First observation is that Étienne Capoue is the clear winner in the “lockdown hair” competition, far less svelte than we’re used to.  Closest competition, nominated by Leicester Paul over text, is Çağlar Söyüncü who’s sporting a sort of ponytail thing.  Second observation is that we really don’t start well.  At all.  Defending the Rookery End (oh get in Nicolas Pépé) first Kiko then Kabs give the ball away sloppily.  The new pitch is perhaps a little heavy… the ball seems to stick on both these occasions, and on others.  Either way we look ragged, and this excellent City side are quickly pinning us back.  You’d probably have taken a point at kick off.  Twenty minutes in you’d grab it with both hands.

3- But the reality is that we’re probably catching City at a good time, given that the fixture was to come.  Getting going again after an unexpected break such as we’ve had is going to be difficult for everybody but for a passing side the touch isn’t quite going to be there.  We’ve got our own footballers of course, but we’re also much bigger than City and quicker.  More aggressive too… even early on Will Hughes is snapping into challenges, the start of a good scrap with Wilfrid Ndidi.  Troy is winning everything that’s pumped towards him, and Ismaïla Sarr fries Ben Chilwell.  Once we start pressurising high up the pitch we get into the game and if City are still carving out chances the ball is nonetheless bouncing around in their penalty area rather a lot.  Craig Dawson cushions a header for Pereyra to run onto but Schmeichel anticipates and collects.  An astonishing ball from Capoue in an otherwise quiet half releases Sarr, who finds a bomb of a cross having sent a few into Schmeichel’s arms and Justin – who impresses, but might have been grateful for the lack of supporters given his heritage – denies the combined and perhaps confounded attention of Pereyra and Kabasele.  We end the half on top.

4- During comms, Steve McManaman compliments the club on the colour in the stadium and the organisation of the day.  He also mentions the work done in supporting the hospital over the last few months.  We’re all aware of all of this of course, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.  We talk about Watford being a community club…  well here’s the evidence, if any were needed.  A sanctuary for hospital staff.  Washing the scrubs.  Free meals.  Meeting room space.  The sensory room adopted by the maternity unit for pre-natal checks.  Players and ex-players ringing older and vulnerable supporters, accessing further support where needed.  Matchday BT sport passes for season ticket holders. Even sorting out season ticket refunds was done considerately, professionally.  Plenty of clubs haven’t managed that, or anything near it.  Speaks volumes that where everything’s up in the air and the club (like so many other institutions) are suddenly deprived of cashflow, they’re prioritising this stuff.  A club to be proud of.  Let’s try to remember this next time we lose to someone shit.

5- The second half begins as the first ended.  Leicester pass it about, don’t get particularly close to our goal with it, whereas we’re on the front foot straight away.  Capoue releases Sarr, Schmeichel’s out quickly.  Then the same two players combine to feed Kiko, whose far post cross is almost converted by Troy, his header drops narrowly wide.  But as the half continues it tips again… Leicester have chances when Söyüncü gets onto the end of a softly awarded free kick, and when Foster flicks an Albrighton drive onto the woodwork and then responds sharply to deny Maddison’s follow-up.  The vast number of subs shift things around a bit but Chalobah and Cleverley in particular show up well.

Quite how significant the events of the last five minutes were only time will tell.  But they certainly provided the burst of adrenaline, the rattle through the emotions that so many will have been craving. In my head the game was over… I’d sort of accepted a 0-0 in a “not a bad point” kind of way, when Chilwell struck.  You can pick holes…  Sarr was clumsy in possession, but a good distance from the goal.  Mariappa wasn’t tight to the left back, but it was an extraordinary pass, take and finish.  A piece of quality worthy of winning the game.

One can only imagine the prevailing mood had that been it.  Hell, the next two or three minutes were miserable enough.  A familiar feeling, again.  “Oh yes, I remember what a last minute punch in the guts feels like”.   But we push back straight away and before you know it the ball’s bouncing in Leicester’s area again and now Kabs is flicking it up and…. oh my good God.  And I’m screaming loud and long enough to damage my throat for the rest of the afternoon and disturb the local barbecues; I only realise on calming down and paying attention again that the scissor kick wasn’t Clevs, who has a track record of late winners, but Craig Dawson of all people.  Dawson was already our man of the match following a rugged and often vital performance in the middle of the defence, but this was something very special.  BT Sport’s pundits lamented that there were no supporters in the ground to enjoy the moment;  they’re right, of course.  But there were Watford fans going mental in thousands of living rooms, offices.  Charging around like idiots looking for someone to tell about it.  What a vital, vital goal… turning the worst possible restart into one that propels us forward in the knowledge that we’ve given a potential Champions League side a hell of a game and dug out a point.

Football’s back.  Not quite as we know it, sure.  But football’s back.   The orns are still magnificent.  Arsenal are still useless wankers.  A small plank of normality back in place.

Bring on the Burnley.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 2, Masina 3, *Dawson 5*, Kabasele 3, Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 3, Sarr 3, Pereyra 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Welbeck (for Pereyra, 69) 2, Chalobah (for Capoue, 77) NA, Cleverley (for Doucouré, 77) NA, Mariappa (for Femenía, 77) NA, Holebas (for Masina, 88) NA, Cathcart, Pussetto, Gray, Gomes

The Quarantine Selection – Strikers 18/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

Strikers.  Here we go.  The top five have rotated an awful lot since making this list, and would probably be in a different order tomorrow.  Is it Saturday yet?  Quiz link at the end, as per.

10 – Gifton Noel-Williams

9 – Odion Ighalo

8 – Kevin Phillips

7 – Paul Wilkinson

6 – Paul Furlong

More than twenty years since that goal against Sunderland and that Paul Butler challenge it’s still heartbreaking.  Perhaps Gifton would never have evolved into more than the half-decent second tier target man that he returned as after his injuries… but that seems impossible. Having just turned 19 he was flying, was in the England U21 squad and would clearly have been the best player ever.  Ighalo… an awful lot of fun, if for a relatively short time.  Exploded into the side to first propel us into the side and then to keep us there, and then seemed to fizzle out just as quickly.  Superkev’s senior Watford career was even briefer, barely twelve months in effect before injury did for him, and much of that during a relegation season.  And yet… his movement, his awareness, was extraordinary.  Straight out of non-league, he already had gold dust.  Wilko…  after such a miserable goal-starved fun-starved relegation season in 1987/88 it was tremendous to have a proper goalscorer again, and one with a big personality and a big ‘tache to boot.  Less heralded than he should be.  And then Fuzzy…  merely a(nother) half-decent target man wherever else he played, at Vicarage Road he looked the complete striker.  Fast, strong, elegant and intelligent, kicked the ball bloody hard, often unplayable.  His departure to Chelsea was miserable and inevitable but his last-but-one goal to burgle three points from Oakwell in spring 1994 was a thing of beauty.

5- Danny Graham

The top five here are clear, but have rotated frequently as I’ve prepared this piece in terms of relative position.  Danny Graham was only at Vicarage Road for a couple of seasons in which we finished 16th and 14th in the Championship, but his impact was greater than this suggests.  The sides he was part of were supposed to struggle, should have struggled much more than they did…  Graham wasn’t the only reason for safe enough mid-table but he was a big part of it.  He scored a few goals, an extraordinary number in his second season, but more than that he made the whole team more effective.  His selflessness and endeavour created the gaping spaces that Tom Cleverley and Henri Lansbury galloped into with abandon in that first season.  His value to the team was a surprise, that these seasons were as fun as they were was a surprise.  As it turned out… he was one of these guys who’s too good for the Championship without being good enough for the Premier League perhaps.  Pretty good at most things without being exceptional at anything.  For the Hornets though, tremendous.

4- Tommy Mooney

Tommy Mooney there was plenty of ability, physical prowess too.  But it was his force of personality that made him exceptional… on several distinct occasions during his Watford career he went on a ludicrous burner, “Rampage” in footballer form.  Nothing could stand in his way.  This happened when he signed on loan from a chaotic Southend United late in the 1993/94 season.  He only scored twice in that run… once, bizarrely, against his parent club but his will to win invigorated the side as it was re-invented with the influx of Keith Millen, Colin Foster, Craig Ramage and Dennis Bailey, one of the most vital and successful recruitment sprees in recent history.  His bloody-mindedness was shunted around the team once he’d signed permanently… it was “how” with Tommy as much as “where”.  Left mid, left wing-back, even on the left of three at the back during the third tier title-winning season in 1997/98 (following another extraordinary rebuild of the side) in which his contribution was epitomised by a wonderfully stupid goal against Bristol Rovers.  The following season saw him drift from the team starting only twice in the four months spanning New Year, and then explode back into the side with a prolific run that motored us into and through the play-offs.  If his Premiership season was scuppered by injury it still featured a winner at Anfield and a fine return off the bench at home to Manchester United before a prolific final season after which, at the age of 30 and out of contract, he moved on.  He was a Roy of the Rovers character, a comic book hero, and a Watford legend.

3- Heidar Helguson

There’s little that endears a centre-forward more than a lunatic disregard for his own safety.  This was different to Mooney’s brand of bravado… he was tough, but a bully.  Helguson wasn’t a bully.  He just had no safety filter.  By the end of his career, helping Cardiff to promotion aged 35, he must have been held together by sellotape. But for the ‘orns… glorious.  He got better and better as he got older from excitable option to reliable goalscorer to leader and, in his final season before leaving for Fulham, clearly a level above the one he was playing at.  Then he came back on loan and didn’t disappoint… off the bench for his second debut 2-0 down to Leicester at half time.  Charged around like a lunatic, scored twice, carried off on 81 minutes.  Brilliant.

2- Troy Deeney

The only thing that separates him from top spot is that he’s still, sometimes, a bit of an idiot.  Yes, that makes him human.  No, losing your rag and getting sent off is neither helpful nor clever.

That aside.  Difficult to do justice to quite how well he’s done, quite what he’s achieved, quite how important he’s been to us.  The first point is a story increasingly widely told – by all sorts of surprising people – but it’s widely told because it is remarkable.  Perhaps the most prominent of all the points at which it could have gone wrong was when he was imprisoned in 2012.  The club could have gotten rid then, easily, and much as he’d already shown signs of what was to come his career would not have been heralded had it ended then.  It didn’t.  66 goals in the next (just under) three seasons in the Championship.  Promotion, captaining the side as it established itself in the Premier League, developing into what Jonathan Lieuw once described as “part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”. Even that doesn’t do him justice.  He’s a leader on and off the pitch, and utterly inspiring.

1- Luther Blissett

Luther wasn’t the most talented player to have played for Watford.  But he was simultaneously the best striker we’ve ever had.  Fast.  Strong.  Direct.  Critically, with an utter indifference to missing chances.  He didn’t care.  “Luther Missitt” was a sobriquet at one point.  Despite which he scored 19 goals as we earned promotion, 27 in our first season in the top flight.  Twenty seven goals.  Ludicrous.

He was a cartoon character.  A legend, even at the time.  I knew the name Luther Blissett long before I started going to games.  And he was always smiling.  And he scored goals.  Lots of goals.  So many of the strikers in this list sparkled for a couple of years and then left, normally for somewhere “better”.  Luther left too.  And then came back.  Twice.  And ended up playing more games and scoring more goals for Watford than anyone else in a Vicarage Road career that spanned sixteen years.

 

Thanks for getting this far.  The final strikers quiz is here.  Every striker to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80.

Back to the present day then.  Yooooorns.

Strikers Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Wide Midfielders/Wingers 14/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

To repeat:  my favourite wide midfielders/wingers of the past 40 years, not necessarily the best.  Definitions slightly arbitrary but there’s no “right” answer here… attacking wingbacks are wingers, defensive wingbacks are full backs.

And there’s a quiz at the end, as per.

10 Peter Kennedy

9 Roberto Pereyra

8 Don Cowie

7 Neal Ardley

6 Nigel Callaghan

Peter Kennedy was great.  Being top scorer from wing back in a title-winning season was a cool thing, doing it in the number 3 shirt even cooler, and being a decent wide man without a lot of pace a good trick if you can do it.  He signed 23 years ago, by the way.  Jesus.  Bobby P…  I know he’s had downs as well as ups, he’s not been great this season (5 in 17 starts mind).  But a statement signing when he arrived – get us, signing Argentine internationals from Juventus – and a wonderful blend over the four seasons he’s been here… deft without being flashy, gritty without being dirty, energetic without being only energetic.  And a purveyor of fine goals, Leicester, Chelsea (more than once), Brighton.  Says something that he’s not an automatic pick.  Don Cowie, the duracell bunny…  when you’re the team we were, struggling in the Championship, then a bloke you’ve never heard of from Scotland turning up and just changing the whole dynamic of the team is a fine fine thing to be cherished.  Neal Ardley… 150 top flight starts before he signed, another winger without a lot of pace but what a cross on him.  That stock goal, Ards dumping into Heidar’s orbit at the far post, Heidar propelling ball, goal, everything goalwards was undefendable.  A decent bloke too, the rancour when he left for Cardiff even less justifiable in retrospect than it was at the time.  And then Cally, another who didn’t have to beat his man.  He could put a ball wherever you wanted it, had a foot like a traction engine when given a shooting chance with just enough audacity and rough edges to make him a cult hero in any team, let alone one that successful.

5- Ismaïla Sarr

Yeah, I know.  Sue me.  In fairness there were probably times when Will Buckley, Rod Thomas or Anthony McNamee would have made this top ten, at the zenith of their potential when they were an exciting maybe with all sorts of possibilities in front of them.  Sarr is different gravy altogether though;  he should be, given the whatever-you-choose-to-believe that we paid for him.  But what is not to like about this kid.  Quite obviously shy, humble, out of his comfort zone…  but capable of almost anything.  Liverpool was the headline of course, the siren to the rest of the Premier League in case there were folk who hadn’t been paying attention.  His full debut against Coventry was the first “Good God” moment though.  Faced with an opponent on the half way line his first touch appeared awful, propelling the ball haphazardly down the line towards the Rookery and a goal kick.  Except that as you watched it the backspin on it held it up in the corner.  You shifted your gaze back towards the player with a slow realisation that echoed the “shit, we’re going to score” of the Deeney goal against Leicester.  This was no clumsy miscontrol;  Sarr was well past his man, chasing the ball that he knew would hold up.  Good god.  What a tantalising cliffhanger to pause the season at.

4- Nicky Wright

He had one season, really.  Yes, his Watford career stumbled on for another three-and-a-half years after the summer of 1999.  But he only started five more games, and didn’t finish any of them.  Injury did for his career at the age of 24.

It’s not impossible that he simply wouldn’t have been good enough for the Premier League, perhaps not have sustained that remarkable first season back in the second tier either had injury permitted him to try.  Had that been demonstrated he might not have made this shortlist.  As it is, he was a firework on the right flank from start to finish, hurtling around at speed with colour and vigour, barely seeming to break stride before fizzling out and being dragged off barely able to walk.  He was subbed 21 times in 34 starts in 1998/99.  And the big bang, of course, the big dramatic explosion was that goal at Wembley.  It was beautiful, poetic, tragic.  But not a completely accurate way to remember him.  He would, after all, have needed to be standing still briefly before executing it at all.

3- Ikechi Anya

The best bit about that goal, that Deeney goal, was Ikechi Anya.  On the back of 270 minutes against Leeds and Leicester in the preceding week he collected Marco Cassetti’s belted clearance after Almunia’s second block to Knockaert’s pen.  And he was moving at full pelt again and yet his touch was ridiculous…

Troy once described Ikechi in interview as “a special individual”.  Wasn’t that the truth?  Born in Glasgow to a Nigerian father and Romanian mother he started his Watford career at full speed and rarely slowed down for three years.  You got energy, you got willingness, you got an outlet, you got a threat.  You didn’t always get anything terribly coherent, but Ikechi was always available, always positive, always fun.  Scoring against Germany for Scotland left him exclaiming that “he couldn’t even score against Manuel Neuer on FIFA…”. Never, realistically, destined for a long Premier League career but you’d have put money on him being a success at Derby.  Sadly injury intervened;  coming to the end of his contract this month, he last last turned out for the Rams in the 2018 play-off semi-finals.  A crying shame.  A tremendous footballer.

2 Tommy Smith

A third Derby or ex-Derby man in a row, and a fifth in the top ten.  Perhaps Glyn Hodges should have gotten a mention too on that basis.

Tommy Smith’s problem at first was exactly what to do with him.  He made his first appearances in the side at seventeen but was already whispered about as something exciting.  At that age you can get away with that… a bit of willing, a bit of exciting, a local boy, that’ll do.  Everyone loves you.  Before he was twenty, Smudger was scoring against Manchester United in the Premier League.  All good.  The thing was…   he wasn’t strong enough to be a striker, didn’t kick the ball hard enough frankly.  And he wasn’t quick enough to be an out and out winger.  So he would wander around somewhere in between.  Had his Watford career ended for good in 2003 when he left, out of contract, for Sunderland having been upset by his omission from Ray Lewington’s starting eleven against Southampton in the cup semi final it would have been remembered fondly but slightly wistfully, what could have been.

At least one regular BSaD correspondent was underwhelmed when he returned from Derby in 2006.  But if there’s a secret to success it’s in navigating your deficiencies, making the most of what you’re good at (any number of young wingers in particular could be cited as negative examples here).  Smith didn’t come back quicker, or stronger.  But he was clever.  He turned being not-quite-a-striker-and-not-quite-a-winger into an art form, a thing of beauty in its own right.  Its own genre.  He was utterly magnificent for three years winning consecutive Player of the Season awards in the process.  That his last goal at Vicarage Road clinched a title for QPR feels kinda wrong, but at the same time he was a player and a person befitting of better than being just our secret.  A star.

1 John Barnes

John Barnes was almost unfair.   Tricky, yes.  Great feet, two of them.  But quick too.  Oh, and as strong as an ox.  Decent in the air.  He could cross a ball as well… 1986 World Cup Quarter Final anyone?  Twice?  And consistent… never less than 43 appearances and that his first season, aged 17/18. 14 goals in that campaign and then 13, 15, 16, 13, 14.  It was remarkable that we held on to him for six years, even then… and there were stories, no doubt some based in fact and approaches that we never heard about.  How could there not be?  Inter were mentioned at one point.  There was even a song about him not going to QPR very early on, but my finger wasn’t quite on the pulse at the age of 8.  Perhaps someone remembers?

It was entirely appropriate that his star continued to rise at Liverpool.  Would have been wrong if it hadn’t.  He was the star of an extraordinary team, even by Liverpool’s standards, from his debut at Highbury.  You couldn’t have been happier for him.  And the old thing about him not quite doing it for England is belied by 79 internatioanal caps, 11 goals including the one at the Maracana… and his startling impact on that Quarter Final against Maradona’s Argentina, both of which when a Watford player.

For those of my generation – I’m nearly ten years younger than Barnes – he was an idol from the off, from the moment I watched his debut off the bench against Oldham from the North West corner terrace in 1981.  And that leads into the other significance of Barnes’ role at Watford and more widely.  Plenty of things influence folks’ opinions on race, attitudes to race.  Barnes wasn’t the first black player to play for Watford or for England.  One of the first though.  And for me, with Luther already in the team and with the likes of Charlie Palmer and David Johnson on the fringes it was just normal.  It wasn’t even a thing.  The likes of Barnes, but Barnes in particular, were role models for black kids, sure, but for everyone they started to create a picture where race didn’t even come into it, a detail.

Not irrelevant though.  How could it be.  Liverpool as a city surely had no more or less of a racism problem than anywhere else at the time;  he wasn’t the first black player to play for Liverpool either but he was the first to be a star for either of the big Liverpool clubs.  My wife is African;  I’ve been in environments in Africa where I’ve been the only white face in a crowded black environment.  Never hostile, I didn’t have to cope with anything more challenging than curious kids or enthusiastic beggars but it was daunting anyway.  Being different, visibly different, is daunting.  It’s impossible to imagine what Barnes had to cope with throughout his career.  For being black, for being successful.  Raheem Sterling still gets it now, imagine if you were amongst the first?  We’ve all seen the picture of him backheeling the banana off the pitch, that wouldn’t have been an isolated incident.  Hell, he’s still getting it now on Twitter, fuelled by the poisonous current climate, by the cowardly, the stupid, those ignorant of or with a very selective understanding of history and incapable of empathy.  And he’s dealing with it head on, as ever.

But had he been white he’d still have been top of this list.   Not just one in a generation.  One in several lifetimes.

 

Right.  Enough of that. Will try to get strikers done before it all kicks off, and maybe managers at some point…  wingers/wide midfielders quiz is here.  Every central midfielders to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a central midfielder and who isn’t .  Central midfielders to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – some of them.

Wingers / Wide Midfielders Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Central Midfielders 09/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

Jesus.  Two weeks you say?  Better get on with these, else the appearance numbers on those bloody quizzes will be out of date.

Central midfielders, more than perhaps any other character, defy rigorous categorisation.  I’ve done one, you can like it or not.  All complaints, queries, suggestions, protests to my co-editor, or in the Comments Box if you must…  FAVOURITES.  MINE.  Not necessarily “best”.

10- Micah Hyde

9- Nathaniel Chalobah

8- Gary Porter

7- Les Taylor

6- Gavin Mahon

Micah was terrific.  And one of the better performers in the horrible 1999/2000 Premier League season… but maybe didn’t quite realise how good he was.  Not assertive enough.  But still terrific.  There’s a bit of that in Chalobah too, though he’s someone who looks made for this level rather than maybe being able to elevate himself to it.  Elegant, assertive, you so want him to crack it.  But frankly he’d be pushing this list purely on the basis of that goal at Leicester, aged 18.  Gary Porter…  unfortunate in that his first team career arguably saw the club gradually decline (from a very high starting point), and that Dave Bassett turned up to turn him into a kicking machine just as he was beginning to look like he might run a top flight midfield.  Still a tremendous servant though;  only caught that 20-minute hat-trick against Bolton via frenzied radio updates, but the goal at Carrow Road was special.   Les Taylor… distinctive, ferocious, our best player in the Cup Final in 1984.  Looked like he was on fire when he was in full flow.  Gavin Mahon.  Stood out like a sore thumb amidst the candy shop signings of 2001/02 both as a (non) name and by coming in and wanting it rather than expecting it to be easy.  Battled back from injury to being a boo-boy when played out of position and scarcely fit early on to being a promotion-winning captain.

5- Tom Cleverley

Tom Cleverley’s status at Watford reflects our evolution over the last ten years. A decade ago under Malky he was a loan signing from Old Trafford;  few had heard of him, but he was quickly, obviously, a star in the making.  He combined inventiveness with hard work and a sensibleness that suggested that he was destined for great things in a quiet and unassuming kind of way, as much of Manchester United’s kids at the time were.  Tom scored eleven League goals that season from an advanced position of responsibility that he’s rarely been afforded since;  indeed, he’s only managed fourteen further League goals in nine-and-a-half seasons, his three since re-signing including late winners against Arsenal and Palace.  He was capped 13 times by Roy Hodgson but never celebrated as an England international.  He seemed to lack the arrogance to be robust to criticism, When he came back to the Hornets from Everton he was… if not a coup then still a very positive signing, despite our more elevated status.  Three years on…  injuries haven’t helped, the strength of our midfield options clearly a factor, but Tom’s four month absence from the side with a foot injury either side of the new year barely attracted comment.

But I’d have him in the side every week.  The squad, without question.  He’s intelligent, calm, sensible…   one of the guys who makes everything else look better.

4- Steve Palmer

Steve Palmer was 27 when he joined the Hornets.  Two remarkable things here:  first that a 27 year old had only racked up 100-odd starts for Ipswich, this reflecting a professional career delayed by a degree at Cambridge.  The second remarkable thing is that Steve was ever as young as 27.  Doesn’t seem possible.

His six-and-a-bit year Watford career was conducted in the manner of an indulgent parent playing with kids.  His ability to anticipate what was going to happen when it happened lead to him generally being in the right place without appearing to move at all to achieve this feat.  This applied equally at centre half and in midfield, or wherever else we ended up playing him (including the notorious run-out in goal) but he was always more fun in midfield.  Criminally discarded by Vialli, a decision that rather summed up his salary-over-reputation-over-style-over-substance squad.

3- John Eustace

Quite a scarey bloke.  The missing Shelby brother. You certainly wouldn’t mess. Which was part of what qualified him to be exactly the captain we needed at the time he was in situ. He had a fabulously haggard look to him in full flight, like a pirate boarding a merchant ship.  He wouldn’t have looked out of place with a dagger between his teeth.

He was a tremendous leader, a great captain but a very good footballer also; in your head he’s a fundamentally destructive influence but he attacked the box well and was a decent all-round midfielder.  His early career had promised much, but he picked up bad knee injuries first at Coventry and then at Stoke, the latter seeing him miss much of the two seasons preceding his move to Watford.  Despite being nearly 30 when signing his legs had relatively few years’ worth of games in them, which contributed to him playing at high velocity well into his thirties and was perhaps a factor in him voluntarily renegotiating his contract with Malky Mackay to navigate a prohibitive appearance bonus.  He played a handful of games in Zola’s first season but left for Derby at the end of the campaign where yet another knee injury ended his career.

2- Almen Abdi

You can’t help but grin, thinking about Almen in full flow.  This was what a step up really looked like, but unlike the Vialli-era incarnation of a step up here was quality blended with energy and humility.  What was not to like.  Even in the rarefied company of Zola’s likeable side he stood out, the gem around which the rest of the side rotated.  After an injury screwed up his second season – easy to overlook that in the chaos of that campaign – he was back with a flourish in 2014/15 as we were promoted.  A slide-rule pass here, a drive into the box there, a ridiculous shot curled into the top corner.  Almen was a thing of joy.

That he didn’t have more of an impact in the Premier League was a bit surprising.  He was a reasonably regular starter, but of the 25 he started he only played out 90 minutes five times.  The last of these saw the last of his 25 goals for the ‘orns, still the most recent direct free kick scored by a Watford player in a 3-2 win over Villa.  If fitness was ultimately the issue it was one that didn’t disappear with a return to the Championship.  He managed fourteen starts in three seasons with Sheffield Wednesday, who could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss had been about.  He’s still only 33 years old.

But what a sparkling memory his Watford career was.  That goal at Fulham, even on a ridiculous evening in a ridiculous season, even in that context, was jaw dropping.  A gem.

1- Richard Johnson

See, I was all set to wax lyrical about Johnno when someone else beat me to it in the latest “Home Tied”.  I tried to resist reading it until I’d written this and failed.  That’s what you get for not getting your finger out and getting the bloody thing written.  Second to market.  At best.

Anyway.  Johnno was fabulous.  In his early days he always had something, but he was ragged… like a parcel too loosely wrapped.  That parcel was wrapped tight from 1997 when he became the metronome of a side that gained successive promotions.  So much to enjoy… the controlled aggression (“well in Johnno”), the awareness, the range of passing.  And what’s not to like about a player who can kick the ball that hard?  One goal like that is something to cherish, Johnno has a catalogue.  Wolves.  Gillingham.  Bristol City (twice).  Bristol City, wow.  Stockport.  Tremendous.

A number of players were scuppered by injury in 1999/2000.  Johnno had two, the second of which in the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United the more serious.  His career never really recovered, albeit he started another 100-odd games here and down under for nine clubs, none of which saw the magnificent midfielder that should have graced the Premier League for longer.

 

Wingers to come…  centre midfielders quiz is here.  Every central midfielders to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a central midfielder and who isn’t .  Central midfielders to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – some of them.

Central Midfielders Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Centre Backs 28/05/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
22 comments

How’s your lockdown going?  What I wouldn’t give for a game under the floodlights at the Vic.  Any game, obviously, in that it would mean that Stuff was Better.  But selfishly, flippantly, a night-time game at the Vic. Condensation on your breath. Hands deep in pockets. Bloody hell.

Centre Backs, then.  Commemorating 40 years watching the ‘orns, here my ten favourites over that period.  Not best, necessarily, though maybe that too, but Favourites.  As previously I’ve made executive decisions on who qualifies as a centre-back and who doesn’t.  Once again, there’s a quiz at the end.

10- Filippo Galli

9- Christian Kabasele

8- Tommie Hoban

7- Steve Sims

6- Neil Cox

Fashionable to have Galli higher up of course but whilst he was extraordinary, and it was extraordinary to have a player of his pedigree at the club even at the age of 97 and whilst he even managed to make Wayne Brown look good for a bit it was such an unlikable season that anything associated with it is tarred. Kabasele…  often a great defender, sometimes not but maturing with age.  And a top bloke.  Tommie Hoban… heartbreaking, but a cracking defender, better than his young injury-hit career had any right to leave him.  He looked like a veteran.  Simmo… proper centre half, proper tache, brute of a defender.  Neil Cox… defied being written off to captain the side through the toughest of times.  And a fine if rarely effective line in free kicks much beloved of this blog.

5- Craig Cathcart

You can’t put a price on just being in the right place at the right time.  Always. On making the whole defence look better, work better. You’re tempted to say “unflashy”, except that there’s a flash inside forward in there somewhere… a surprising array of flicks and tricks at the attacking end have peppered his Watford career, and his art is in leaving you surprised every time it happens.  He’s been pretty much a first choice ever since he (re)signed six years ago and yet you can see yourself walking past  him in the street without recognising him.  Brilliant.

4- Colin Foster

Difficult to describe if you weren’t there quite what a dramatic relief the emergency surgery applied to the squad by Glenn Roeder in early 1994 provided.  Tommy Mooney was the longest lived of those sticking plasters, Dennis Bailey burned brightly but briefly.  Keith Millen probably a more reliable defender, just because he stayed fit.  But Colin Foster was tremendous… like signing an oak tree and planting it on the penalty spot. Crosses and attackers were drawn to him and bounced off pointlessly.  When he lurched forward you he swayed ominously, nobody wanted to get too close.  If he’d stayed fit he’d have been a legend, but then he’d probably not have signed for us in the first place.

3- Marcus Gayle

Like Cox, an unlikely return to the fold after apparently being out of the door, but more so and with bells on.  Indeed, Gayle was played “out of position” twice over at Watford… a winger, never a target man in his successful career at Brentford and Wimbledon he was deployed as such by Gianluca Vialli on recruitment from Rangers with very moderate success.  Indeed, it’s difficult to reconcile that slightly awkward, clumsy season from Gayle with what came next.  From the point where he lined up to general surprise on the left side of Ray Lewington’s first central defence in the first competitive game at what is now the KP Stadium, he was magnificent.  Imperious, in fact, a strong, quick, elegant presence at centre half with Cox or Dyche alongside to nudge him in the right sort of direction;  so comprehensive was his transformation that he walked off with the Player of the Season award whilst becoming more of an attacking threat than he’d been as a number nine.

2- Adrian Mariappa

Mapps is a legend several times over.  Going way back, there’s the version who lead the Youth Team to the FA Youth Cup Quarters in 2005, leaving the pitch in tears after defeat to Spurs.  There’s the teenager who made his League debut off the bench, in central midfield in an absolute scrap at Elland Road (so long ago that BSaD was still going) with the Hornets down to nine men.  And then held his own in the top flight the next season.  There’s the version who played 113 consecutive League games.  The version who captained the side, who set a standard for the kids to follow, who was so demonstrably on another level to the rest of the side in 2012 that it was no surprise at all that he moved to the Premier League where he has played for eight seasons.  Or the version who came back to Vicarage Road, ostensibly as fifth or sixth cab off the rank only to re-establish himself, to captain the side, and to always be there to rely on if he does slip back to the bench.  A gem.

1- John McClelland

It’s difficult to do justice to the majesty of John McClelland if you didn’t see him play.  Looked like some kind of troll carved from granite, built like a wardrobe but moved like a gazelle.  Literally kept pace with the quickest strikers despite looking like even getting up a trot was a bit of an effort.  Had telescopic legs that would surgically extract balls they had no business reaching.  Stuck his arms up in the air before taking free kicks (and corners?  did he really take corners?).  Couldn’t drive, so walked or caught the bus everywhere.  Brought in to plug an appallingly leaky defence in 1984 and plugged it comprehensively for four and a half years before moving to Elland Road, where he’d play 18 times in a League title winning side at the age of 37.  Magnificent.

Another one done.  Different flavours of midfielder to come in a bit. Once more…  here’s a little quiz.  Every centre back to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a centre back and who isn’t .  Centre backs to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – again, can’t promise that this is exhaustive.

Centre Backs Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Full Backs 14/05/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

Episode Two in a series of Some, doing the fashionable retrospective thing in the absence of foootball now to talk about.  Commemorating 40 years watching the ‘orns, here my ten favourite full-backs over that period.  Not best, necessarily, though maybe that too, but Favourite.

As soon as you move away from goalkeepers of course you start having to classify players as being predominantly one position or another.  This I’ve made executive decisions on;  any quibbles can be addressed to my co-editor.  Once again, there’s a quiz at the end.

10- James Chambers

9- Marco Cassetti

8- Daniel Pudil

7- Daryl Janmaat

6- Jose Holebas

Chambers.  Did A Job wherever we put him;  honest, quick, likeable.  A trooper.  Cassetti… suave, classy, humble.  Compare and contrast with Patrick Blondeau, say, a full-back of similar pedigree who doesn’t make the list.  Pudil… did tend to get caught behind, did pick up a few bookings…. one of the first “mercenaries” was anything but.  A sound guy.  Janmaat…  a single-minded full-back, perhaps one of few whose form held up in the early weeks of this season before his injury. His rhino-goals, particularly against Chelsea for some reason, have been fun but always come when the chips are down.  A leader.  Holebas.  Cult hero… always on the edge of losing his rag, terrifyingly aggressive, huge fun.

5- Wilf Rostron

I went on holiday with a load of Villa fans in the early nineties.  I didn’t know half of them beforehand, but as soon as my loyalties were none one guy was waxing lyrical about Wilf.  Not for reason of any memorable goal against the Blues.  Just because Wilf was great. Thinking about it this would only have been four years after Wilf left Watford, but then time did move more slowly in those days.

Rostron joined the Hornets as a midfielder, but was famously tried out as a left back as John Barnes’ emergence made it clear that left wing chances were going to be limited.  He was tremendous, dogged at the back and a threat up front.  I remember Rochdale’s manager being quoted after a League Cup game about how they’d had to “try to sort out their Wilf Rostron problem”.  Which sums it up.  He must have been a pain in the arse for opponents at both ends of the pitch for the best part of a decade.

4- Paul Robinson

Robbo was also a pain in the arse for opponents, but in a more literal sense.  The foremost of the fearless booterers of the period (TM: Look at the Stars) he was a kid who’d always dreamt of being a left back, never wanted to be anything else than a left back, may have been genetically engineered to be a left back. His emergence coincided with my little sister’s most concerted and focused period of supporting the ‘orns, and he was always a favourite.  “He’s just so passionate….”.  Him scoring with a tackle against Wimbledon was one highlight, his charge upfield to try out being a poacher for a few minutes against Charlton was another.  When he left I was absolutely gutted.  Goalscorers, even talented midfielders, perhaps even goalkeepers you accept will one day move on to better things.  They are eye-catching.  Robbo should have stayed at Watford for ever.

3- David Bardsley

Yes, I know there’s a prevalence of mid-eighties players in here.  Sue me.  David Bardsley was bloody great.  He never smiled.  He was stupid quick. He had long hair which made him look even quicker.  He played right-back in the Cup Final aged 19 having been signed from Blackpool that season…  this is us, Watford, now a top flight club and seemingly invincible signing right backs from Blackpool.  He had to be good.  He was good.  He played elsewhere too… occasionally in midfield, often on the wing.  Ask Kenny Sansom. When Bassett came in and took a hatchet to the side… this was the one that hurt most.  Barnes was always going, Hill was a disappointment having had such a build up, Richardson was criminally stupid, dropping Coton bizarre.  But selling David Bardsley was unforgivable.  He later played for England under GT.  Still not smiling.  Probably.  And he earned his Watford debut in the same week as the next man up, which is just ludicrous.

2- Nigel Gibbs

It wasn’t half a difficult choice between the top two.  I made a call in the end, almost on the toss of a coin.  But both were magnificent, spanning well over 32 years of Watford history between them.

Gibbo was remarkable.  He debuted in the UEFA Cup in 1983, was a first team regular eighteen months later whilst still a teenager and was a major part of both the first golden spell in the top flight and the insane charge up the divisions in the late nineties.  For almost 20 years from his debut he was just there, a solid, unflappable, reliable presence at right-back.  Sometimes he played badly but he never played stupid, and the odd goal, once every hundred games or so, was lamped in from about 25 yards, an essential full-back trope that the likes of Robbo and Bardsley never quite mastered.

There’s other stuff, too.  The years spent as a coach and assistant to the excellent Ray Lewington.  The spells out of the game injured when it really looked as if his Watford career was up but after which he fought back, unfussily, unflashily.  Doing his job.

When he signed for the club, Peter Davison was Doctor Who.  When he left, criminally discarded in the vanity of the Boothroyd administration, David Tennant was manning the tardis.  Gibbo regenerated a few times in the interim too, but remains a bona fide Watford legend.

1- Lloyd Doyley

Lloydy edges it.  He wasn’t as good a footballer as Gibbo.  He didn’t play as many games, play for us for as long.  Never won the FA Youth Cup, never played for the England U21s.

But he made the most of everything he had, and then some.  He was rejected many, many times.  Written off.  But came back fighting… not angry, not sulky.  Just putting a shift in.  There were criticisms of his attacking capabilities, of his distribution… but none of his defending.  He was an absolute limpet, and when circumstances meant that he was asked to do a man-marking job he’d just throw a blanket over the guy and quietly, politely, apologetically, club him out of consideration.  Jason Roberts, that’s you that is.

And the goal.  Obviously the goal.  Never has there been a more popular goal at Vicarage Road.  Significant yes, obviously.  Popular, no.  Never one greeted with so many wide grins.  Grins, rather than exaltation, even if it was QPR.

His Watford career ended as it began.  As a bit part player, now in an increasingly talented squad.  Still doing his bit.  Still digging in.  Still setting an example.  Still a top man.  Legend.

 

That’s that, then. Once more…  here’s a little quiz.  Every full back to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a full back and who isn’t .  Full backs to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – can’t promise that this is exhaustive unfortunately.

Full Backs Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Goalkeepers 04/05/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

First, the COVID-caveat.  Yes, there is important stuff happening in the world and yes, this article is frivolous and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  Without wishing to belittle anything I make no apology for that.  Indeed, it was ever thus if rarely as starkly – there has always been more important stuff going on, but we all reach saturation and we all need Other Stuff to write or read or think about and so here we are.

I have nothing to say about COVID that isn’t expressed by more eloquent and better informed individuals elsewhere.  I’d just like to say that whilst times of crisis bring out the very best in some people and the worst in others, I’m as proud as I’m ever been to be a Watford supporter.  The club’s conduct in directly supporting their neighbours at Watford General Hospital, in co-ordinating a past-and-present player ring-around checking on elderly and vulnerable supporters, and Troy’s role at the helm of the playerstogether NHS fund, all magnificent.

Meanwhile.  Only seven weeks since the last BHaPPY report, a report from a game I didn’t go to (and boy doesn’t it feel longer…), it occurs to me that this season marks the fortieth anniversary of my following the Golden Boys.  My first match was actually the final game of the 1979-80 season, a 4-0 win over Burnley – 40 years ago yesterday as I write, this article has taken a while…, but there exists photographic evidence of me poring over match programmes much earlier in the campaign.

This is an anniversary of interest to me and of very little interest to anyone else.  Nonetheless…  herewith the first of a series of articles that will pop up as frequently as I can get around to writing them looking back at forty years supporting the orns.  Suggestions/requests gratefully received, but to kick off a run-down of my favourite goalkeepers in this time.

Note, “favourite”, not “best”;  whilst the two may overlap and whilst both are ultimately somewhat subjective the former is explicitly so and explicitly mine;  again, no apologies.  Hopefully high on anecdote and low on dull reproduction of detail.  There’s even a quiz at the end if you Like That Sort Of Thing.

10- Chris Day

9- Richard Lee

8- Manuel Almunia

7- David James

6- Kevin Miller

Daisy.  Smiled a lot.  Apologised when he tonked me with a misplaced effort in the warm-up at Gresty Road.  Richard Lee… decent keeper when we needed him to be.  Manuel Almunia… perhaps harder to warm to but a fine keeper, and that double save.  DJ…  remember him lurching around the Family Enclosure when he was in the youth team and everyone knew he was going to be a star.  And then he was.  Kevin Miller… very fine keeper, surprised that he never turned out to be quite as impressive elsewhere but was impressive for us at a time that not much was.

5- Steve Sherwood

It’s grossly unfair that Shirley is now, however many years on, principally remembered for That Cup Final Goal.  For starters, any Watford supporter will tell you that it was a heinous foul… and any Everton fan will surely concede that at the very least it was a stiff aerial challenge, coming out second best to Andy Gray in which is rather a harsh thing to damn someone with.

But beyond that, Shirley was goalkeeper in the side that was promoted to the top flight for the first time, that finished second in the League, that took on Europe and reached the Cup Final also for the first time.  Beyond that he was the only player to predate Graham Taylor’s arrival, remain for the duration of his first spell and still be around at the end.  Luther was too, but he’d had that gap year in Italy so doesn’t qualify…

And… a splendid chap.  Which matters, if we’re talking “favourite”.  Being a nice bloke counts in my book…

4- Heurelho Gomes

Heurelho Gomes, baby.  Spurs fans might mock the suggestion that Gomes is a Watford legend, but that’s because they’re Spurs fans and don’t know any better.  Half of them would probably play Glenn Hoddle in goal if they could, bloody idiots.

Gomes is no longer the Watford first choice but he’s a massive personality and deserves to be remembered fondly for his role off the pitch as well as for his heroics on it.  Being a leader.  Being the guy who looks after Richarlíson and João Pedro.  Hell, signing for us in the first place, dropping a division to join a side who’d just finished mid-table.  He’s a Brazilian international, remember.

On the pitch, tremendous anyway.  Heroic really isn’t too big a word.  At his best, capable of defying all comers – that draw at home to Chelsea in the first season up springs to mind.  Almost scoring a late equaliser with a header at West Brom, Richarlíson beat him to it.  Tremendous.

3- Alec Chamberlain

So last year my brother gets a big job with Channel 4.  Commissioning Editor of Factual Programmes in the North of England.  Big deal.  He’s a big Watford fan too, obvs, one of his earliest games was Dave Bassett’s last stand against Hull City where, turning to make sure that the kid brother under my charge was coping with the heated atmosphere, I found him standing on his seat giving Bassett the big one from the Family Enclosure.  He was seven.

Fast forward to last June, and one of his mates responded to his news with hearty WhatsApp congratulations, and as a follow-up… “And now the Channel 4 News, presented by Alec Chamberlain”.

The implication, of course, that Channel 4’s northern documentaries might have an unprecedented Watford angle going forward.  Judge that for yourself. Significant, though, that twelve years after retirement and another eleven after joining the Hornets, ostensibly as a backup keeper behind Kevin Miller, Alec was the name selected for this one-liner by a Middlesbrough fan.  Chamberlain’s arrival, ex-Luton, already 32 and following a relegation to the third tier, didn’t suggest a club legend in the making but he didn’t miss a League game in the two promotion seasons and was on the club coaching staff for many years after retirement.

Not a flash character, not a big name.  But Watford through and through.  I contacted him through the club to ask if he’d fancy shooting a spoof Channel 4 news thing on his phone, announcing Will’s new job.  I think he thought that I was a bit of an idiot – at any rate he said something about being busy moving house.  I didn’t follow up.  He’s clearly in the top five anyway.

2- Ben Foster

When Ben first arrived, a lad we’d never heard of on loan from Manchester United in the turbulent summer of 2005, I was quite resentful.  Wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the whole thing at the time… Boothroyd, the new players coming in, the players and staff leaving.  Mixed emotions then, pretty much the same looking back.  Rather irritated that Richard Lee wasn’t in goal for the opener against Preston.

That concern didn’t last long. The only criticism of Foster in those first two season was that he was rather too eager to launch an impossible throw into the feet of an escaping Marlon King… occasionally he was a couple of steps too far ahead.  He ironed that out in a couple of months.

Thereafter he looked every inch a top goalkeeper.  Confident, brave, agile… the only surprise perhaps that he didn’t play more for England, or establish himself as first choice at Old Trafford, or at a top club.

Clues as to that when he rejoined the Hornets nearly two years ago, having talked about maybe quitting the game.  His own man, not one to do what’s expected necessarily, not one to follow a well trodden path just because it’s what’s expected.  A great footballer, but clearly not just that.  You can’t see Ben Foster spending his time after playing trading off having been Ben Foster once, put it that way.

And then there’s the rest of it.  I remember during his first season there was a Horse Racing night at the Vic in honour of Alec’s testimonial.  No surprise perhaps that a fellow goalkeeper was there, but there weren’t many players there from memory, and Foster hadn’t long signed.  Impressive then, utterly unsurprising now.  Countless instances, even over the last twelve months, of Ben Foster being a thoroughly good bloke… small things, not flash things, but brilliant things.  And being a good bloke matters.

1- Tony Coton

Having said which I’m going to completely contradict myself, because Tony Coton was a complete bastard.  He came with a colourful reputation from Birmingham City, and for what was at the time no small fee for a goalkeeper, £300,000.  “A fee for an international keeper, and Coton certainly isn’t that” sneered Jimmy Greaves’ letters page in Shoot.

He scared the crap out of me, and I was some distance away in the stands.  Heaven knows what it must have been like to play in front of him, particularly as a youngster, particularly if you screwed up.

But he was brilliant.  Extraordinarily agile, completely in charge.  In my mind’s eye he never conceded a goal, and certainly never played badly.  I suspect that this might be the passage of time stretching the truth a little bit… but my word.  For the duration of his time at Watford under GT he was utterly vital and imperious, facilitating an aggressive attacking style for those three season by being such a reliable, intimidating last line of defence.  Thereafter he was briefly dropped by Dave Bassett – I’d say the final straw, but the straws had all long since packed up and gone home – and then stayed for two seasons to try to get us back up – winning an unmatched third Player of the Season award in the process – before moving on to Manchester City, where he’s held in similarly high regard, and beyond.  That he never played for England completely crackers.  Even Ben Foster doesn’t really come close.

 

Right, that’s that.  Full backs will be along in due course;  in the meantime feel free to pass comment.  And/or…  here’s a little quiz.  Every goalkeeper to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  goalkeepers to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers (I think the latter list is exhaustive).  Enjoy.

Goalkeepers Quiz