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Watford 0 Ipswich Town 1 (21/03/2015) 22/03/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. If you’ve hung around on the anti-establishment end of the football-supporting spectrum for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with the argument that the game’s unfettered capitalism inevitably leads to wealth concentrated in the hands of a few super-clubs, to predictable and repetitive pseudo-competition and, eventually, to the erosion of the spectacle and its value. (If you haven’t hung around on the anti-establishment end of the football-supporting spectrum, I saw you sneaking out halfway through that sentence.) In other words, the rich get richer, the rich beat everyone else ad infinitum, everyone gets bored and wanders off. It’s like when the inevitable winner starts putting hotels on everything in a game of Monopoly: sooner or later, someone’s going to throw the board up in the air….

Appealing as it is, that argument has always looked a bit shaky on closer inspection. At the point where two broadcasters are prepared to pay five billion pounds for the right to broadcast the Premier League, it falls apart altogether. This is, after all, a league in which the only contest consistently going to the wire in the top half is the race for fourth place rather than first; the absurdity of the equation was nicely summarised by an Arsenal fan a couple of months back, who commented that “we need to get knocked out of the Champions League in order to concentrate on qualifying for the Champions League”. Meanwhile, the standard further down can be measured by the fact that there are apparently three teams worse than Sunderland. No, seriously. Stoke City are eighth. Five billion, y’say?

Thing is, it’s a bit of a naive argument. The harsh reality is revealed, as it often is, by Richard Scudamore (boo, hiss, etc) on the relative decline of Manchester United: “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places.” Perhaps even more notable than that quote is the unmistakeable sense of regret and resignation in the following statement: “…you have to balance that off against, generally, we’re in the business of putting on a competition and competition means people can compete.” Yeah, sorry about that. Excuse us. The truth is that beyond the traditional, old-fashioned band of fans embracing their clubs life-long through thick and thin, there are millions who just want to watch their team win everything, always and forever…and they’re where the money is. It’s always been a bit like that, but never quite like now. Let’s face it, it’s so much easier to market a product with a reliable set of outcomes, with a set of Super Sunday fixtures you can plot out years in advance.

In which context, this Championship title race feels like a glorious throw-back, a last day of summer. Because rest assured that ever-increasing parachute payments will see an end to this kind of chaotic nonsense eventually. But for now, there’s this thrilling dash for the line, all flying elbows and pulled hair and fraying tempers. The adrenaline rush kicks in, opens up your senses to every detail. The tension gnaws away. It’s one of those times when the momentum of it all seems to consume everything, when the gaps between games can’t speed by quickly enough, when an international break seems like a spoken-word interlude in the middle of “Teenage Kicks”.

It’s bloody brilliant, this. It’s what football is about. I love this division.

2. But not as much as I’d love it if we won the damn thing.

3. So…here we are. The stage is set: four sides of Vicarage Road nearly full, a packed away section full of cascading inflatables and rowdy songs, home stands eager and expectant. There’s the inescapable sense that we really do have to do it this time, that this has to be the season. No excuses.

We begin with the intensity of a side brimming with confidence, looking to drive forward on the momentum of previous victories. Last time I saw us, we approached the contest as if suspicious that someone might’ve booby-trapped the halfway line; this time, we look determined, aggressive, potent. We take the initiative, shove Ipswich rudely back into their half and largely keep them there, relentless in our pressing from Deeney and Ighalo backwards. It isn’t terribly pretty, but that’s the thing: we’re not bothered any more, we can handle ourselves when the need arises, the naivety has gone. For half an hour, we actually look like a team that’s top of the league.

Oh, I know what you’re going to say. And it’s true that we had little to show for it, just a magnificent shimmy-and-drive from Guedioura and a few fleeting quarter-chances, mainly courtesy of progress made by Layun and Motta on the right-hand side. Ipswich, an industrious side built in the foothills of Daryl Murphy, were making us work for everything. But we were responding to that, stepping up to the challenge. For once, this felt like a proper, old-fashioned Championship contest – physical, tough, uncompromising, thoroughly McCarthy-ish – that we weren’t necessarily destined to lose. We lost it anyway, of course.

4. If there was a turning point – of the match, hopefully not of the season – it was the five minute break in play for a horrible injury to Joel Ekstrand. His replacement, Gabriele Angella, was almost immediately booked for an, um, assertive aerial challenge on Murphy…and suddenly it all got very tetchy and irritable, a series of inconsequential decisions going against us to disproportionate outrage in the stands. We lost our concentration amid the hullabaloo, we lost the initiative and the momentum. We didn’t get any of them back.

I’m trying to avoid turning Ipswich into a caricature, but there was no question that a scrappy and fragmented game suited them better. In the fifteen minutes to half-time, our passing game collapsed, the midfield disappeared, and our opponents took something of a stranglehold on proceedings, albeit that their threat was generally confined to set pieces. It didn’t get a lot better after the interval: tellingly, it took less than quarter of an hour for Slav to make his first move, replacing Daniel Tozser with Ikechi Anya. Tozser was one of several to disappoint here, failing to keep his head in a game where quality was scarce and the ball was precious; Guedioura was similarly inconsistent and profiligate, and thus Ben Watson’s water-carrying was often wasted by someone carelessly dropping the bucket and tipping it all into the gutter. Troy Deeney’s frustration was very evident on more than one occasion.

5. (This thunk doesn’t really fit into my little story. But it has to be put in somewhere or an injustice is being done: Tommie Hoban is wonderful. Perhaps even more wonderful at left-back than in the centre, for out wide you can see him earnestly grappling with fresh challenges, getting to grips with something new and relatively unfamiliar. Much like Lloyd Doyley, you could almost see the thought bubble over Varney’s head – “Fancy my chances against this bloke” – and chuckle at the subsequent frustration as Hoban refused to yield. It’s great to watch.)

6. As Matej Vydra replaced Miguel Layun, we began to throw caution to the winds. Increasingly, we threw the ball to the winds too, to little effect. The changes didn’t help us, in truth, even though we dominated possession: Anya was swiftly shoved into a broom cupboard, Layun, while frustrating, had been taking up useful positions looking around the corner of the Ipswich back four, Motta’s legs were too tired to make any use of the spaces ahead of him. You’re never going to beat a side like Ipswich with crosses from nearer the halfway line than the by-line. You’re unlikely to beat them with a flick-on from your big bloke to your little bloke either, although I accept that there are times when you might as well try.

Guedioura smashed a volley wide from a very tight angle, and in most games it would’ve barely registered as a chance; here, though, it was our first shot of the half and we wondered whether we might not manage a second. It was that tight, that difficult. Ipswich were perhaps more likely at the other end, Gomes producing the best save of the game – only two candidates, mind – to push wide Sears’ low drive. And then, the moment: Deeney flicking a cross towards a flying Ighalo, the ball flashing over the bar in an instant, the striker flat on his face, the chance gone. That was it. That goes in, and no-one cares what the game was like. That goes in, and we’re top of the league for a fortnight.

7. Injury time, and everyone rightly howls at Matej Vydra for taking a short free kick when, really, it’s time to launch it and hope for the best. When we get another free kick, then, we do the sensible thing and chuck it forward while completely forgetting to do the other sensible thing and leave enough cover behind to prevent Ipswich from breaking and winning it at the death. I don’t really think there’s much to say about that, except to note, perhaps unnecessarily, that a point from a rather spirit-sapping nil-nil draw might’ve come in awfully handy at the end of the season. We lost our heads, simple as that. I like the manager’s reaction an awful lot, I must say: reminiscent of one of those occasions when you’d come back hurting from a defeat and find that Ray Lewington was being reassuringly straightforward and sensible about it, that he’d seen exactly what you’d seen.

Your archetypal Championship food fight, then. Two teams pelting slop at each other until exhaustion sets in. I can hear the people saying that we should rise above it, make our quality count, all that kind of thing; it’s a fair point but, in return, I ask how often that actually happens in this division. I suggest that it doesn’t, by and large, and that’s because Ipswich weren’t rubbish, far from it. They were effective, organised, extremely difficult to play against. There were things we could’ve done better, true, but they were little things, moments that could’ve been made to count for more.

Sometimes you’ve just got to scrap it out. Sometimes nil-nil isn’t a terrible result.

Wigan Athletic 0 Watford 2 (17/03/15) 18/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.

1- In less heady times, perhaps in following a less bloody-minded body of Hornets, I might have paid greater attention to portents.  Logistical arrangements were slow to materialise.  Once made, getting out of work and then out of the house took forever…  being interrupted, then forgetting things, having to go back inside, not being able to get on with it.  On hooking up with my travelling companion in plenty of time we took a leisurely break at Kidbrook a theoretical 20 minutes from Wigan and left there at 5 to hit an M6 traffic splurge.  Comparing notes with other travellers by phone we opted to leave the motorway for a scenic route, only to sit stranded on a stationary back-road some 15 minutes later watching the free-flowing M6 fly past beneath us.  By the time we reached the “Marquee Club” much later in the evening, a well-conceived but ill-executed away fans’ bar at the ground serving Guinness-flavoured water and no food, we might have been apprehensive about what the fates were trying to tell us as regards this particular Potential Banana Skin.  Had we been following a different team, a different vintage.  Hell, last season’s vintage.  The contrast between the mardy indolence that reached its nadir against Huddersfield in May and what we’re seeing now is extraordinary.

2- Slav’s unshakable emotional detachment and his (team’s) ongoing success at pulling these things off is lending him a mystique;  it’s getting to the point where one searches for the genius in his selections rather than evaluating them anything like objectively.  “Ikechi in goal, Lloyd up front and Billy Hails in midfield you say?  Hmmm, yes, I can see that…”.  This one harked back to Rotherham in a formation that screamed “keeping it solid”;  a 3-5-2 featuring five defenders, actually, plus one sitting and one destructive midfielder.  On a horribly scruffy pitch, the set-up contributed to a stodgy first half of few chances.  As the only attacking player in the midfield Adlène Guedioura was simultaneously the man most likely to dig something out and the man most likely to give the ball away, which his responsibility for the final ball contributed to him doing frequently.  His was nonetheless a terrific contribution throughout, although our early control of the midfield was relinquished somewhat when his early booking tamed the ferocity of his harrying and chasing.  There seemed more menace about our own attacks – perhaps only when viewed with background knowledge – the best of which coming when Deeney’s diving header to a left-wing cross was pushed wide by Al Habsi, but Wigan were more than in such game as there was; Bong and Ojo threatened down the left, Kim was lively in midfield and some early free kicks from dangerous positions gave more credence to Slav’s selection decisions (behind the goal we nodded wisely).

3- They were horribly blunt though.  They didn’t look like a bad football team, certainly not a team otherwise worthy of a place in the bottom three, but there wasn’t much of a goal threat – you felt that if a goal came for the home side it would be through attrition, the crushing of the game towards our penalty area resulting in a deflection in the wrong direction rather than a deliberate, conscious act (Malky Mackay, after the game, wasn’t the first manager to identify our finishing as “the difference” between the sides, as if the art of goalscoring is somehow an aside, or an unfair advantage afforded us by our forward line rather than the point of the exercise).  The mood, in contrast to our own, was painfully gloomy – a relentless and occasionally effective drummer in the stand to our left offset this a little, but the emptiness of the wonderfully steep stands told its own story.  Meanwhile despite a goalless first half there was no suggestion of dissent in the away end, no “we should be beating these”.  The inner confidence extends beyond the pitch… there’s a trust there.

4- Another of Slav’s surgical changes was applied at half-time and we came out minus Motta, plus Forestieri and now 4-4-2 with the Argentine at the front of the midfield to wreak havoc behind the forwards.  It was designed to open up the game and in doing so it allowed us to showcase our superiority, since whilst Wigan continued to have possession and territory and whilst we perhaps wouldn’t want to rely on nervous finishing to preserve a clean sheet against a better side we were far more potent.  This was made to tell nine minutes into the half, when the immediately vital Forestieri received the ball as we broke, dragged backpedalling defenders away from the left flank whence he released Guedioura who sent in an evil cross which Deeney crashed in at the far post.  On the subject of stock goals, it was all but a tribute to a favourite stock goal of yore with Guedioura in the Neal Ardley role and Deeney as Heidar Helguson, piling ball and defender goalwards… with the exception that Guedioura’s incredible delivery had been with his weaker foot as he eagerly pointed out to the bouncing mob behind the goal.

We were immediately in our element;  Wigan had no choice but to push forward in search of an equaliser and we broke on them joyfully like schoolchildren released for break on a summer’s day.  We should have extended our lead… Joel Ekstrand came mighty close to doing so, picking up a loose ball to the right of the goal, cutting past his marker and firing narrowly wide across the face.  Forestieri and Vydra both had chances, and Boyce had to clear from under the bar after a deflected Guedioura shot wrong-footed Al Habsi.  At the other end Wigan had far from given up and our defending was fuelled by sheer willpower – Guedioura and the outstanding Hoban performing the two most dramatic of a large number of blocks achieved by throwing bodies in the path of the ball.  A degree of comfort was earned by Forestieri whose lung-bursting run to reach an escaping ball down the wing was rewarded when Boyce allowed him into the penalty area before sticking out a tired leg and bringing him down.  Boyce lay prone in dejection, Forestieri in happy exhaustion.  Deeney belted the penalty past a static Al Habsi, on which his teammates charged in from the halfway line where they’d waited to a man to guard against a potential breakaway.

5- This wasn’t the best game we’ve watched this season nor the most spectacular scoreline but the triumph was in making it look like a routine victory.  To the outsider its unremarkable, team near the top beats team at the bottom.  So what.  Anyone who’s watched the division for any length of time knows it’s not that simple… and yet we keep digging out these wins.  The car journey home was noisily exuberant, fuelled by my iPod’s shuffle function which captured the mood perfectly, spitting out Pump it Up, The Littlest Rebel, Jean Genie and The Temple of Love.

Bellowing our way through the fog our minds’ eye is a blur of images. Tommie Hoban dummying his marker on the left and cutting inside past two more markers on his right foot. That’s a centre-back, that is. Daniel Tözsér coming off the bench in another Slav masterstroke, instantly sucking control of the midfield to his feet and swinging in his vicious bending free kicks (you can all but hear the “oh f*** this” from Wigan’s backline). Those bodies flying in front of the ball at our end. And Odion Ighalo, not involved in the last few games through injury and probably deprived a cameo here by the immaculate Cathcart picking up a knock, riding to the away end on Daniel Tözsér’s back, punching the air whilst Forestieri screams his joy into the night sky. This is a team with spirit and quality and wit and menace. Anyone preventing us getting promoted will have to go some, and will have earned it. Tonight we not so much sidestepped a banana skin, as my travelling companion suggested and repeatedly demonstrated on the way back to the car, but trod on it square on and carried on in indifference.  Next?

Watford 4 Reading 1 (14/03/2005) 15/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.

1- There’s no reasonable way to describe the context without doffing our cap to happenstance.  Reflecting on the role that chance has played in our season it’s natural to feel bitter about Gabriele Angella’s sending off at Bournemouth, about Wes Hoolahan buying a penalty for Norwich, and so on, and so on.  Consistent with the “we only get s**t refs” chant, it’s easier to bring to mind instances where things have gone against us.  Indignation burns deeper, perhaps.  So let’s be clear that the perverse preciousness of Champions’ League television schedule regulations did us a huge favour.  That was evident when the implications of Reading’s draw with Bradford – that the replay would have to be this Monday – became clear, and was underlined in big fat marker pen when they announced a starting line up with nine changes, four debutants and very few senior picks.  You’d kinda hope that we’d have beaten Reading’s senior team whatever the circumstances; taking the Cup replay out of the equation you’d have been left with a side that have underwhelmed but are probably safe from relegation, the Royals were never going to be the most driven of opponents, but this one fell for us.  As if to provide further emphasis, “no we really don’t give a crap about this one”, one of those debutants was Slovenian Jure Travner whose Watford career under Malky was only memorable for his never quite making the first team.  So… yes, this fell for us.  The fact that Reading’s league season is all but done and dusted and that they could afford to do this doesn’t make the scheduling of their replay for Monday any less inappropriate.

2- For all of which, Reading’s scratch side were some way short of terrible.  Limited, sure, lacking anything like our threat in front of goal however many goals Yakubu, looking a very old 32, has scored in the top flight.  But organised and competent.  We weren’t gifted any goals, they all needed crafting and were each elegant, sculpted things.   It started after a minute, Abdi passing the ball into the net after being prised through by Troy Deeney.  Abdi, the one concern from the day, appeared to aggravate his injury in the move and departed soon after, his replacement Forestieri playing in Vydra at the end of the half and setting up Deeney after the break.  Steve Clarke identified our clinical finishing as the difference, bemoaning the harshness of the scoreline but the visitors never came as close as Motta did with his wicked dipping volley that crashed off the bar, or as Forestieri did with his scissor kick that forced Andersen into a quite brilliant low save low to his right.  Our finishing was great.  The rest of it wasn’t bad either.

3- And it was all perhaps rather too comfortable.  Abdi’s early goal averted the threat of impatience in any failure to take the lead in A Game We Ought To Win, but at three up the atmosphere became drowsy, our football slowed down and Reading weren’t ready to just lie down and see the game out.  If our squad lacks anything, as has been discussed ad nauseam, it’s a big lump in central defence.  Zat Knight, who briefly looked as if he might be that man, had little competition in the air from our lot, and fear of his threat forced a succession of corners, as if we were happy to sacrifice another set piece in preference to allowing the big defender to get a header on target.  Eventually they took advantage, Jem Karacan on his return from injury picking out the top corner  after a scruffy clearance…  and briefly there was a concern, we couldn’t seem to snap out of it and the visitors were in the ascendancy.

4- Until they weren’t.  The change in shape, Angella coming on for the fading Vydra as we switched to 3-5-2, seemed to hand us back the joystick immediately and Forestieri rounded off what had become a masterclass with a drilled left foot finish, a well-earned goal and a celebration that screamed catharsis.  Relegated to the role of fourth-choice striker Nando’s performances of late had not suggested a happy camper, petulance and laziness creeping back into his game.  After last Saturday’s incident with Bakary Sako, which was neither as violent as his reaction made it look nor as ludicrous as an unhelpful camera angle and lazy “analysis” suggested you had to fear in which direction his season was going to go.  Slav came out fighting, defending his striker’s conduct late in the week and then had the confidence to thrust him back into the fray early in the game in the mischief-making hole vacated by Abdi.  He took some time to warm up but ultimately delivered what was comfortably his best, effective and infectious performance of the season, punctuated not just with a goal but with two “assists” borne of combining his quick feet with a cool head and the right ball.  Well done Nando, and well done Slav.

5- Much of the focus off the pitch was on Nic Cruwys, who remains in hospital following the horrific, anachronistic attack in Wolverhampton last weekend.  I’ve nothing particularly new to add to the many heartfelt and appropriate things that have been said elsewhere, but it’s worth echoing those sentiments anyway.  Our thoughts are with Nic and his family.  Many references in the aftermath to the “Watford family” and the wider “football family” in the context of, in particular, the vast amount of money raised via Ollie Floyd’s online collection.  My wife snorts at the suggestion that the Watford family fosters an almost religious sense of belonging, a very real family; she disputes it.  She’s wrong, of course, not that she’ll ever admit it.  The best of that has been on show this week and to their immense credit the club and the players have reinforced that too, not to mention supporters of other clubs who have donated to the fund and shared their disgust.

I’d like to close by mentioning a departed family member, Guy Judge, a one-time BSaD contributor and very nice man who lost his battle with cancer on Saturday morning.  A significant empty seat at the family table, he’ll be sorely missed.  All the best mate.  You ‘orn.


Watford 1 Fulham 0 (03/03/2015) 04/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- One of the more remarkable aspects of our recent form has been the degree to which our performances and results have held up despite a degree of squad rotation and tactical flexibility that popular wisdom agrees is unconducive to success.  You don’t tinker, you don’t change a winning team, a “settled side” is the gold standard.  And yet here we are with 11 wins in 15 (now 12 in 16) in the League making not just selection changes every week but formation, tactical changes too, often during games themselves. Some formations and changes are effective, a few aren’t, but the process of changing, of rotating, hasn’t in itself appeared to be overly disruptive – at least not since Slav disposed of the services of the five miscreants, a few of whom might not have been as tolerant of the general approach. This isn’t supposed to work, it’s certainly been credited with upsetting more illustrious teams than ourselves.

In the spirit of which, I’ve recently abandoned adherence to any number of long-held rituals previously deemed vital to the team’s fortune.  New places to park, new places to eat, grabbing a pint in the V-Bar before the game.  I didn’t even buy any lucky chocolate for this one (albeit this was in part enforced by disgust at the stadium outlets’ stocking of only vat-sized bags of Munchies that might qualify, these being of dubious suitability and exploitative of the lucky chocolate requirement).  Ten minutes in after a bright, open start Fulham’s defence fell apart like a sodden newspaper as Almen Abdi’s corner bounced around the box and Troy Deeney took advantage to crash home. The sort of shot that would have looked good in a Roy of the Rovers freeze frame with monstrous thigh swinging, ball flying top corner, defence and goalkeeper aghast and a voice bubble proclaiming “that’s blown it!” from the away contingent behind the goal. My recklessness with tradition was vindicated.

2- The line-up for the evening featured a return to 3-5-2 and starting places for one new new boy, one old new boy and one new old boy.  The former was Marco Motta at right wing-back who looked exactly like an ex-Juventus full back called Marco Motta ought to look.  Tough, compact, bearded, industrious, took no crap from anybody whatsoever.  It wasn’t an impeccable debut… a few of his crosses were misjudged, he seemed to tire late in the game but he looked clever, a thoroughly encouraging showing all round.  The new old boy was Daniel Pudil, a popular recall if judged by the response to the first reading of the teams who provided plenty of energy on the left flank before being hoiked on the hour, five minutes after being dispatched into the hoardings by Fofana as we switched back to 4-4-2.   The old new boy was Adlène Guedioura, who started in the centre of midfield with Watson and Abdi but finished the game on the right flank.  He was positive and ambitious throughout, creating as much as anybody and being the most comfortable in running at and committing opponents.   Despite which… the midfield never quite worked.  Because a 3-5-2 in particular, with big holes to attack behind the wingbacks, rather relies on you dominating possession and with with two essentially attacking players in the central midfield three we were never permitted to do so….

3- …since Fulham clearly hadn’t read the script suggested by the speed and manner of our opening goal.  That script had us making hay as Fulham chased the game in what remained a wide open contest, taking advantage of such opportunities as the Cottagers’ defensive record – not to mention their rather passive approach to defending the opening goal – suggested were inevitable.  Instead the visitors displayed a confidence and composure that belied their league position, knocking the ball around and increasingly controlling the midfield with Fofana and McCormack prominent.  They struggled to create chances for all that…  the closest either side came to adding to the score before the break was when Guedioura wriggled between two markers on the right flank to set up Vydra who flung a shot over Bettinelli and violently back off the crossbar, but they weren’t about to roll over.  The phrase “we need a second” was made for half time intervals like this.

4- Had we got one, perhaps the scoreline might have become even more comfortable.  There was a brittleness about the visitors’ mentality that probably wouldn’t have coped very well with going two goals down having been so much in the game.  Despite being behind they were in quite a good position going into the second period having come out defiantly in response to conceding and yet they got tetchy and arsey, the game threatening to boil over a couple of times.  Referee Kettle actually got most decisions right, but Fulham’s narkiness should have cost them when, having been floored from what was no more than a robust shoulder-to-shoulder challenge from Vydra, Ashley Richards sprang up and shoved the striker over two-handed from behind.  It was petulant rather than violent;  I vaguely remember a similarly sulky performance from Richards when he came here with Ian Holloway’s Palace two years ago – in any event it looked a textbook red, Kettle’s yellow affording Richards far more leniency than someone who chooses to go by the name of “Jazz” really deserved.

As the game calmed a little Fulham re-exerted control on proceedings;  that they didn’t profit from it reflects well on the entire Watford team’s defensive performance, since whilst we clearly tired from the unaccustomed efforts of chasing the ball in the last ten minutes – normally it’s us doing that to the other lot – we hung in there with the back four but also Watson, Deeney, Vydra, Guedioura chasing and harrying and getting in the way.  Fulham threw on the monstrous Matt Smith from the bench;  always looked like an obvious threat to me, this, and perhaps we’re lucky that Kit Symons hadn’t re-introduced a striker back into the Cottagers’ fold after a productive loan at Bristol City a week or two earlier.  Had he been confident enough to start him, our job might have been all the harder – we had no competition for him in the air.  At the other end Layún came on on the left of midfield as we switched formations and was rather blown away by the frantic nature of it all;  Odion Ighalo made a welcome return too, replacing Vydra and adding a menace to our attacking play.  One of those occasional moves that resembles a choreographed dance more than a passage of football sashayed in from the left but left Ighalo with the ball just too far under his feet, unable to get the shot away to crown what would have been a special goal.  The crowed eddied between nervous tension as Gomes saved brilliantly from McCormack, Fulham’s best chance, and cathartic bellowing, but the final whistle went with Troy holding the ball in the corner.

5- It should go without saying that this was a massive win.  Much has been made of our relatively poor record against the sides up around us, but such statistics can be misleading since I don’t doubt that Fulham tonight, despite their misleading league position, were a tougher task than Brighton found a wobbling Derby side deprived of both their injured centre-forward and the loan signing who has been deputising.  Once again we demonstrated our resourcefulness in finding a way to win the game and demonstrated the value of our vaunted forward line – grabbing a goal in a game of few chances as valuable as hitting four when the other mob hit three in a bunfight – and our new-found defensive bloody-mindedness.  We found a way to win a game against a challenging opponent that the League table suggested shouldn’t have been – so, no evidence of the complacency of which we might earlier have been accused, no flimsiness when things don’t go our way.  Just bloody relentlessness.  It was marvellous and inspiring, and further emphasised that the push for automatic promotion looks very far from theoretical. Come on!

Watford 3 Rotherham United 0 (24/02/2015) 25/02/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. I’m currently reading Jim White’s “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids”, his account of coaching an under-fourteens team which includes his own son. It’s a modest book, and its modesty comes from self-awareness, and from its self-awareness comes a certain melancholy. For every amusing anecdote about dog shit or committee meetings, there’s a moment that’ll make you wince: if you’ve ever kicked a football in a park with goalposts for goalposts, your story is echoed here somewhere, your childhood hopes momentarily re-kindled and then extinguished once more, and your father’s with them. It’s a terrific book, and it captures something essential about football.

I wonder what my own dad thought as he endured my short-lived participation in organised football, his pale, shivering, short-sighted son brought off the sidelines, with reluctance on all sides, and pitched into the action with the unspoken aim of avoiding the ball at any cost. My only surviving memory – a single mental image, quite clear – is of doing something wrong near a touchline in Cassiobury Park and being shouted at by everyone for being useless. You couldn’t really argue with them, but, equally, I’m not sure I learnt anything from the experience. I moved on, football moved on; best for all concerned.

1a. One thunk down, four to go.

2. Probably best for all concerned if we move on from this fairly quickly too. A football match whose only redeeming feature was the three point reward at the end of it, like a pat on the head for a baby that’s successfully filled its nappy. It may not have descended to my level of embarrassed incompetence, but it made up for that amply with a clear-eyed determination behind its turgid exterior. Not accidentally turgid, this, but deliberately, obstinately, resolutely so. The evening’s most apposite summary came from Pete Fincham over to my left as first half injury time began: a dismayed wail of “WHOSE F***ING IDEA WAS THIS?”

3. The answer, of course, is that it was Slav’s idea. To play four central defenders across the back, Tommie Hoban charged with duties on the left and Craig Cathcart on the right, made a certain amount of sense and effectively countered what would presumably have been a main thrust of Rotherham’s attacks: what I will always think of as “scary big diagonals” in honour of Micky Adams*, launched repeatedly onto the shiny head of Conor Sammon. We nipped that in the bud, and entirely sacrificed our own threat down the flanks in the process. To all intents and purposes, the game was played in a thin stripe of pitch down the middle and the rest could’ve been used for additional seating to house those eager to take in such a rich spectacle.

It was an act of pragmatism so bloody-minded as to verge on dogmatic. The contrary part of me quite admires its sheer miserliness; the rest of me, which had to sit through the resulting football, feels much less generous. In truth, Rotherham did precious little to justify the special treatment: they were largely toothless up front, with a penchant for self-destruction at the back; every bit a side fresh from a five-nil thumping at the weekend and out looking for another. The manager will no doubt point to the result, but I suspect that most of those present would’ve fancied our chances with a side that set its own agenda.

4. So it was a curious game, except that curious makes it sound interesting and it really wasn’t that. It was curious in the sense that we’d done almost nothing to earn our half-time lead, basically just sitting in our own half and watching the enemy through binoculars until their sentry fell asleep. Aside from a Deeney snap-shot, our openings were entirely of Rotherham’s making, a defender falling over and a clearance rebounding back into the penalty area. We were set up to be a brick wall, albeit one which still managed to allow Arnason a completely free header from a corner for what should’ve been a prompt equaliser. That might’ve changed things. If you’re going to play a formation as miserable as this one, you’d really better not screw it up. As it was, the grumbling was mainly concentrated on the inability of either of our makeshift full-backs to take a proper throw-in.

5. Half-time was subdued. There was little prospect of an improvement, simply because we were doing the job we’d been set up to do; Rotherham gave no hint that they were about to stray from the script. And so it continued, with this grey, awful brutalism, the strewn litter of errors its only humanity. The result felt inevitable even before we scrambled a second from the scraps of Tozser’s monstrous free kick, an appropriately industrial path to goal, and then an opportunist third shortly afterwards as Rotherham fell into disarray. We’d suffocated the contest mercilessly, and now we brought it to an end.

You could’ve blown the final whistle at that point, really. Let everyone go home early. The rest felt deeply unnecessary, particularly the six minutes of injury time: Rotherham were so thoroughly beaten that they appeared to be time-wasting in order to save themselves further punishment and gave the impression of being extremely eager to make their excuses and hit the motorway. For our part, we toyed with them listlessly, Abdi blazing over the bar and then hitting the post late on. Chances at both ends, but the result had already been phoned in and chalked up. Even the final minute seemed to drag out forever, impatiently waiting for us to stop faffing about and take a goal kick in order that the referee could bring proceedings to a merciful and long overdue end.

6. That we are capable of so much more is undeniable. But that there are occasions when we still seem a little green, a little vulnerable, is evident from both our league position and our results against the teams around us. It’s clear from this evening’s, um, entertainment that the manager is prepared to let the ends justify some fairly ugly means, that he isn’t in the least afraid of public opinion or terribly interested in courting popularity. That he’s perhaps treating all opponents as equal in the hope of dealing rather more effectively with the better ones, the ones we’ll have to start beating if we’re to be promoted.

He’s a brave man. A wise one? We’ll see.

7. I recall someone saying that they wouldn’t fancy paying to watch Blackburn every week. Hmmm. (Raises eyebrow.)

* There was a photo somewhere, probably in When Saturday Comes, of Micky Adams clutching his tactics notebook during a game. Or maybe it was a story someone told. Or maybe I just imagined it. Anyway, Micky’s tactical notes consisted of three scrawled, erratically spelt words: “SCARY BIG DIAGONAL”. Whenever someone bombs a long cross-field ball onto their centre-forward’s head, I think of Micky Adams and his notebook.

Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (21/02/2015) 22/02/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.

1- I’ve been staring at a blank screen for half an hour.  I’ve even been distracted by bloody Jonathan Ross, of all things.  Not fun, this.  Not fun at all.  It doesn’t matter that there is stuff to say, this isn’t a search for inspiration or a dredging up of five thunks.  That can be difficult too… but this is just purgatory.  Reliving five goal wins is fun, joyful.  There wasn’t much to enjoy this afternoon, not much to take pleasure in.  You want to forget about this one?  Head home and think about something else?  Yeah, me too.  We’d all been looking forward to this, on the back of three unlikely wins from challenging positions this had been another chance to test ourselves against one of our fellow contenders.  Nervous tension all week, nervous tension for much of the game as the noise of the crowd was sucked inwards by the gravity of the occasion.  Now… I feel let down.  Not by the team, or the manager, or the referee.  But by myself.  Why such an emotional investment in something so brittle, so unreliable, so meaningless.  Screw this.  Bastards.

2- Much of the game was very well balanced, a tug of war between two sides carefully, cautiously restricting their trading of blows to a congested midfield.  Each side had spells in the first half, but chances were few;  early on Layún picked out Deeney with a nine iron from deep in the midfield… a difficult ask, the ball coming over Deeney for him to head out of the air but not quite low enough, over the bar.  An early encouraging move, we were keen to get behind Norwich’s high line quickly but this was to be as good as it got for the Hornets. City’s approach to defending revolved around preventing us having any possession in the final third, this largely achieved by Tettey and Johnson hounding down the space in midfield to hurry our attempts at penetration with Russell Martin and the monstrous Bassong, who looks as likely to return to the Hornets  any time soon as John Barnes, Ashley Young or Clements, sweeping up much of what came through.  On the few occasions when we did get hold of the ball in and around their box our we were able to do the things we’re good at and City looked vulnerable, get-attable.  Late in the first half some snappy passing released Abdi; Johnson was befuddled and brought him down in panic, he got a yellow and the “shield” Tettey followed him into the book for his protests.  Abdi’s free kick took a nick and went over but this was a positive way to end the half.  Neither side had been on the canvas, but we were probably ahead on points… and with everyone above us losing or already condemned to defeat, the mood was positive.

3- Much has been made of the limited number of chances that we made throughout, but our defence had looked solid and Norwich’s compact shape cost them in terms of the number of bodies they were able to commit forward. Frankly, if anyone was going to score it was us but you would have been reckless to put money on that for all of our attacking riches.  So…  the award of the penalty was both unexpected on any number of levels and absolutely fundamental to the outcome; like ourselves City had barely had any controlled possession in the final third but Hoolahan put his head down and ran, and then fell over.  The referee gave the penalty, Gomes went the right way and got down well but the kick was right in the corner.  It hadn’t looked like a penalty, and the Hornets’ frustration with an official whose control on the game had been fingertip since the first whistle nearly boiled over.  We’d nullified City’s threat, there seemed no prospect of them scoring and the decision to award the penalty changed the game; newly invigorated, the visitors had no cause to deviate from the sit-deep-and-break approach that so many have tried before, if rarely as effectively.

4- The point is, of course, that frustrating as the apparent injustice was it’s par for the course.  Not in the sense that we have any more bad decisions go against us than anyone else – much as it feels like it sometimes – but in the sense that stuff happens and you’ve got to deal with it an awful lot better than we did for the rest of the game.  If City were lucky to get the break then they didn’t half build on their luck, whereas the Hornets lost all shape and discipline.  Yes, Cameron Jerome’s follow up was a brilliant piece of opportunism and skill, dropping a shot over the stranded Gomes from outside the box but we were already far more ragged at that stage than at any earlier stage.  Subsequently we could have conceded a third before we did… Heurelho Gomes’ miraculous save to the incredulous Johnson’s thumping header low down to his left would have provoked a standing ovation in a less glum environment before City wrapped things up and compounded our misery by pulling off the move that Layún and Deeney had attempted earlier in the game, Grabban applying the finish to a ball from deep on the right.  We have spent the last few weeks digging out victories from improbable positions, watching with growing respect as Slav’s switches in tactics have made us stronger.  After going behind there was none of that… no sign of any fightback, nothing added by any of the substitutions.  We fell apart, and concluded a shapeless mess.

5- It was good to see Slav acknowledge this in his post-match comments… that the real problem lay not with a bad refereeing decision, however consequential, but with our response to it.  Slav’s dispassionate, analytical assessment of games as something that he observes rather than participates in jars a little to an English ear accustomed to observations made in an aggressive first person plural, but there’s great reassurance in him both drawing sensible conclusions and not hiding behind any bullshit.  Much earlier in the season we were complaining about our side being less than the sum of its parts, being a collection of talented individuals without a common purpose.  He’s applied corrective surgery and it’s questionable whether any of our three recent wins would have been achieved in similar circumstances in September or October.  You’ve got to trust his ability to recover from this also.  Because that’s the value today, if anything…  this was, in many respects, a Premier League defeat;  so much good work undone by one moment – of this case of bad luck, it might as well have been quality – following which things ran away from us resulting in a scoreline that was simultaneously both harsh and fully deserved.  If we do go up, that’s going to happen against better opposition than Norwich.  If we can’t cope with the fallout from that, if we’re not strong enough to recover mentally and take it out on the next mob then we need to stop kidding ourselves that we’re equipped for the top flight.  Tuesday night at home is a godsend, and will be interesting.  Today was disappointing, but needn’t be disastrous.  There’s a load of games to go.

Brentford 1 Watford 2 (10/02/15) 11/02/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Sainsbury’s Own Brand Low Calorie Ginger Beer is extraordinary.  An anachronism, a throwback to when own brands really were truly revolting (cardboard breakfast cereal, yogurt you could use to hang wallpaper etc etc) this stuff is not just a little bit weak or a little bit too sweet but a work of fiendish invention, genuinely repulsive, unforcedownable.  There’s a bit of me that finds that comforting in a way, that some truly unspeakable stuff is still on the shelves is how things should be.  Not comforting enough to ever consider drinking any of it again, naturally…  I’m still concerned about how to safely dispose of the remaining five cans in the fridge without causing an environmental catastrophe by contaminating the water course…

Other throwbacks are more unreservedly enjoyable, and Griffin Park falls into that category – at least from a Watfordcentric point of view, all too accustomed to out-of-town modern stadia’n’that.  I’m perfectly aware that claustrophobic grounds where you’re close enough to the pitch to ruffle the corner flag as you exhale with a terrace under a tin roof at each end exist perfectly happily at other echelons of the game, but not often within our consciousness of late.  And on a night like this one, where it’s chilly enough to flush your cheeks but not cold enough to be a problem, where the anticipation of a clash between two positive, competitive teams ratchets the tension, where the roof is almost low enough to touch and when the lights go out the terrace becomes less a group of people and more a single entity with many bodies, the Borg of Brentford, Griffin Park is simply fabulous.  Realisation of how challenging the journey would be had briefly seen me contemplate writing off the cost of the ticket and staying at home;  progress being complicated by signal failures at Waterloo and the consequent inhuman ramming of the train across from central London hadn’t improved my mood.  “This had better be bloody worth it”.  I needn’t have worried.  I needn’t have worried at all.

2- A play in two acts, this, either side of Jake Bidwell’s sending off shortly before half time… which, for what it’s worth, was short of a nailed-on red but some way beyond something that he could reasonably have expected to get away with a yellow for.  And thinking of the game as a piece of theatre or opera isn’t inappropriate, such was the rolling drama and evolution of the piece.  Slav strode purposefully across the pitch beforehand, inadvertently contributing to his Geography teacher image by wearing a suit jacket that was just a little bit too short.  On the pitch, he continues to make similarly bold statements and has surely built up a level of confidence in the Watford support now as a consequence.  Here he switched to what turned out to be a 4-3-1-2 with Forestieri brought in to play behind the front two, and Tözsér reintroduced for the injured Munari.  And the first half was… much as we might have expected.  Both sides had chances, Brentford starting the brighter but the Hornets exerting a degree of control prior to the sending off.  We were probably ahead on points… but not to a degree that guaranteed anything at all, this Bees side have plenty about them and whilst we were on top and had had the better chances before the sending off it was all still up in the air.

2b- A corollary here for Fernando Forestieri.  Another throwback…  we used to herald “The Jamie Hand booking” on BSaD.  Now we have the Nando Thunk, reflecting on the enigma that is our mischief maker… equal parts dizzying invention and finger-chewing decision making.  There’s not really a lot to say here that hasn’t been said before, hence a corollary to a thunk rather than a thunk all on its own… except that even in the high drama of the evening’s events there’s no overlooking the majesty of a first half incident that saw Forestieri win a free kick in the midfield after a tussle with Diagouraga, spring to his heels to take a quick free kick, disarm the former Hornet by facing “the wrong way” towards his own goal with the ball at his feet, and then impishly skip over the ball and backheel it to set in motion an attack that saw Deeney come close on the right side of the penalty area.  You forgive a lot for moments like that.

3- The red card penalised Brentford, of course, and would cost them ultimately, but in the short term they benefited from developments rather better than we did.  Having their backs to the wall rather suits the us-against-the-world siege mentality that Mark Warburton seems to have instilled after all, and the team  was well equipped to sit back, snap into challenges in the midfield, and howl out on the break.  The Hornets, meanwhile, looked confused and disrupted by developments, a pattern not helped by a predictable change in mood in the away end… from a positive “Come on, get at ‘em” to a sense of expectation…. “Faaaaccchin’ ‘ell Watford, they’ve got ten men”.   The success of Brentford’s approach was heavily reliant on André Gray, whose Bedfordshire heritage saw yet another throwback in the airing of songs about father’s guns and so forth but who played his role to an absolute tee… battling for possession, using his backside as a weapon of assault, chasing down everything , holding up sometimes and hounding goalwards on others which saw him score a stunning goal on the break, after which the Brentford team piled to a man on top of manager Warburton, the subject of some unheralded newspaper stories in the build up to the game.  This did the mood in the away end no favours of course;  less still Troy Deeney’s lame penalty after what looked a generous award for handball. As with Blackburn on Saturday, these aren’t the situations that you’d back us to get something from.

4- Which is why Jokanovic’s understated assessment of the second half so badly underplays what he and the team achieved (even if it does reinforce the Geography teacher thing still further – “see what you can do when you stop messing around and concentrate on your work?”).  Yes, we did the sensible things…  spreading the play, making Brentford run, allowing them on to us a little and then bursting forward, testing their legs.  Easy to say, much less easy to do particularly against competent, hardworking opposition backed into a corner with something to defend.  Juan Carlos Paredes attracted some stick for inconsistency of final ball (not to mention yet another bloody foul throw – detention for that, I think) but thundered up and down the right flank in inhuman fashion from right back, always an option.  Ditto Ikechi Anya, hugging the left touchline and needing to cut inside but always on the move.  Paredes it was who provided the cross for Ighalo to thump home a header to equalise; from then the patience on the pitch was largely reflected on the once-more boisterous terrace.  We were finding space now, overlapping over and over again.  Brentford’s stretched defence was increasingly cowering in its penalty box, David Button in goal excelling as the shots began to rain in.  The screw was very much being turned… which isn’t to say that that late winner was inevitable, but the patience in the approach never wavered.  Tommy Smith came off the bench for Brentford to polite (and perhaps overly restrained) applause from the away end, and soon picked up a harsh booking for blocking a Paredes charge into the penalty area.  As the one man wall blocking Tözsér’s kick he was inches away from the Borg in the away end, who reminded him quite what he was and where his loyalties lie.  Tözsér fooled the tiring defence by rolling back to a lurking Forestieri who drilled a low shot past Button but smack off the face of the post.  In the end, of course, it was our incredible indiarubber centre forward, who would surely bounce back above the crossbar if dropped from the roof of a stand, who provided an immaculate volley to sub Vydra’s clipped pass to finish the night off in injury time.  Words, of course, can’t do justice to the celebration behind the goal, so you can paint your own pictures of that.

5 – It would go without saying – even if I hadn’t already said it – that on top of Blackburn and red cards notwithstanding this is a stunning result in what could be a pivotal week for our season.  Above all, the fact that we adapted our game – eventually – to the situation so effortlessly is hugely encouraging… make no mistake, this was a huge challenge, and one that gives us every reason to be positive about the final third of the campaign.  As the division is shaping up, the top eight have pulled away and it seems inconceivable that anyone from outside will break into the top six.  As the teams involved continue to rack up points it boils down to who blinks and who doesn’t.  Brentford blinked tonight, and we poked them in the eye in that split second.

In the spirit of throwback, two old school items of memorabilia from BSaD to close.  Lucky Half-time Chocolate was Snickers, a bar that I had in my pocket thanks to the persistence of the guy in the shop at St Albans station on Saturday who patiently and affably explained that I would save a quid by adding it to my order.  That worked out rather well.  Finally, your scores:

Gomes 3, Paredes 4, Anya 4 (Hoban 0), Cathcart 4, Angella 3, Layún 3, Watson 3 (Abdi 3), Tözsér 4, Forestieri 3, Deeney 3 (Vydra 4), *Ighalo 4*

Watford 1 Blackburn Rovers 0 (07/02/2015) 08/02/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. At the time of writing, I’m just three episodes from the very, very end of Breaking Bad*. Those last three are going to get what’s coming to them on Monday evening when Andrea’s up in London, assuming that Fred doesn’t interrupt and I manage to stay awake beyond the usual nine o’clock watershed. It would be fair to say that my feelings about it as a series are more mixed than most: it’s artfully written, beautifully played and frequently breathtakingly tense, but it lacks an essential humanity that I find in my very favourite things. Spectacular as it is, it hasn’t really made me care as much as I’d want.

What is beyond question, though, is the exquisite elegance of its plotting. In particular, its use of flashbacks and flash-forwards to drop clues and hints and bits of intrigue, ensuring that no matter how dense it all gets and how unexpected some of the sharp turns are, you never, ever know nothing. At their worst (hellooo, Heroes), these shows simply avoid giving you any kind of straight answer, to the point where you stop being interested in asking any more questions; it’s like conducting a conversation with a random phrase generator via Google Translate, and it ends with shoes being thrown at the television. But this…ah, this is wondrous to behold, honest and gleeful in its manipulation, rewarding at just the right moments. You never quite know what’s going to happen, but you never entirely don’t know either. You can’t look away.

The same is very much not true of our season, in which I confess I’ve lost a certain amount of interest over the last two or three months. Basic Shearer-level punditry would highlight our inconsistency, suggesting the Heroes-style, stick-it-in-a-blender approach to plotting, each result as unpredictable as the last. That would be quite wrong, of course. In fact, my attention is drifting for precisely the opposite reason: our results appear to have become rather easily predictable, a straight line in a frequently bumpy division. We’re thoroughly consistent, when, in fact, doing really well in this division involves being able to ride the waves.

So it feels as if you could have a pretty decent stab at filling in the rest of our fixture list (lose at Brentford, win at Bolton…), our final league position (sixth), and the eventual outcome (losing to a better organised bunch in the playoff semi-finals before changing the coach again in the summer). Removed from weekly involvement, from seeing it all close up and understanding all of the nuances, it feels a bit monotonous. Yeah, all right, I’m still sore at missing Blackpool. But you get my drift….

2. And this one felt more predictable than most, even leaving aside the bit where we’d scored several hatfuls since my last visit to Vicarage Road and now I’d turned up again. You could see it a country mile away: a one-nil defeat in the bitter cold, the only goal of the game being a free header from a corner after 71 minutes. I wrote that on Facebook in the morning and, as if we’d all read it and taken it as gospel, we endured a full minute’s worth of complete pandemonium when the clock reached that point, Heurelho Gomes flapping at a cross and then recovering incredibly to scramble the resulting shot from Rhodes around the post, then tipping a ferocious drive over the bar from the corner. Living to see the clock tick over to 72 minutes, it was as if we’d somehow defeated destiny.

3. Because this was a proper win against proper opponents. Forget yer cricket scores, promotion campaigns are built on these results. It’s not about whether you’ve played well. There are too many occasions, particularly in this division, where there’s no opportunity to play well, when your opponents simply aren’t going to let that happen to them. And then what do you do?

In this case, you hope to capitalise on one of the occasions when you can break against a depleted midfield…and, indeed, we come closest by that route, Steele saving smartly from Layun’s shot early on. And then, as the game settles into a routine, you spend much of the time trying to pick a lock. The occasional mis-hit shots from long range and over-hit passes from defence are just the equivalent of booting the bolted door in frustration. It’s not that Blackburn are especially negative, merely that they’re streetwise and they’re equipped to do a job. We misplace countless passes, lose countless fifty-fifty challenges, get crowded out everywhere we turn. We push our wide men forward in an attempt to get around the sides, then find Ben Marshall rampaging into the open space behind Juan-Carlos Paredes, threatening to punish our adventure. Even when we bring on the lockpicker-in-chief, Almen Abdi, we get no closer: he barely touches the ball.

4. Blackburn dictated terms for long, long periods here, including the whole of a second half in which we barely created as much as a half-chance and, I suspect, mustered no more than one vital, decisive shot on goal. They set the agenda, they shaped the game, they’ll feel with complete justification that they should’ve won it. They were well-organised, robust and physical, and a bit charmless in a way that I find oddly charming; these kind of Championship gurners are gradually dying out, and more’s the pity. In Chris Brown, they had a proper old-fashioned villain of a centre forward, all bad-temper and elbows, whose only failure in the service of his side was to miss the couple of chances that came his way. In Jay Spearing, whose resemblance to one of the boulder-trolls from Frozen is uncanny, they had a proper midfield hatchet man, treading the kind of disciplinary tightrope that any midfielder worth his salt ought to spend his career walking. The rest aren’t exactly shrinking violets. There’s something Victorian and industrial about them, and I’ll regret the day when our legion of continental fancy-dans doesn’t have to overcome this kind of challenge. They’re a good side. Not a nice one, but a good one.

All of this is our worst nightmare. A recurring nightmare at that. We hate games like this. We lose games like this. The Bloke Behind Me spends the entire second half shouting “FAACCCHHHING HELL! WHAT’S GOING ON?” over and over again at every wrong decision and every crap pass and every single faaaacccchhhing thing, inadvertently capturing the sense of idiocy and impotence perfectly. We get to the point where we’ll appeal for anything, then howl at the referee for not giving it to us. We demand substitutions, none of which make any noticeable difference, even though our bench appeared to hold untold riches when read out before kickoff. It gets colder and colder and colder, and the game gets bleaker and bleaker and bleaker. Only one team is going to win it. It sure as hell ain’t us.

5. It is us, though. And that’s a truly marvellous thing. We win it with a proper goal too. None of your modern ways here; none of your passing and movement and that. Odion Ighalo wheels away having scored a winning goal thoroughly befitting the game: wonderfully scruffy and scuffy, in off the post via the keeper’s glove and just creeping over the line. Echoes of your favourite low-budget goal-hanger of yesteryear, echoes of vital and memorable wins secured by mis-hits and deflections in winters passed. A proper goal, a proper win.

As injury time dawns, a long cross to the far post threatens to pick out the unmarked head of Gestede. As we hold our breath, Gomes, sometimes a complete liability and sometimes a crusading green-shirted hero, back-pedals to reach the ball, flips it over the forward’s head and then gives chase beyond his area. He reaches the ball as it bounces and gleefully carts it high into the darkening sky, a great cheer of relief and joy rising from the crowd as it clears the roof of the new Elton John Stand. You half-expect him to follow it, climbing over the wall, finding the garden it’s landed in and giving it another gigantic heave-ho, then bounding onwards, a silhouetted figure, to the horizon and beyond. Get out of it.

It was his afternoon, his victory. Because what you do more than anything when faced with this kind of challenge is hang in there. Don’t concede, even if you have to ride your luck at moments. Stay in the game. Sometimes, when you’re up against it, that’s all you can do. I’m reminded of last weekend’s Murray-Djokovic Australian Open final and the point early in the third set when the eventual winner was caught in the corner, the match escaping from him at an alarming (or thrilling, depending on your point of view) rate. Sometimes you just have to hang on, to weather the storm. And then when your opponent drops their guard, you have to punish their failure to finish you off.

A fortunate win? Oh, sure. Without question. But the kind of win that can turn predictable seasons into something else entirely, the kind of win that can make you believe in things you previously questioned. We should be relishing that trip to Brentford. We should be eager for another challenge. Come on.

* Do. Not. Even. Think. About. It.

Watford 7 Blackpool 2 (24/01/2015) 25/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Superlatives are easy to wave around.  In trying to convey drama, even if you’re not trying to “sell” anything, no vested interest in pumping up a mega hyper Super Duper Sunday (or whatever) the temptation to exaggerate can be overwhelming.  “No, really, it was SO incredible”.  But there’s no overstating this.  On a day of extraordinary results this one didn’t get a mention on 5 Live in the forty-odd minutes it took us to crawl from the Girls Grammar to the Cassiobury estate, under the radar…  and yet few in the stadium will have seen anything like it.

The game started, what feels like eons ago, in much the same fashion as last week’s equally emphatic and yet ultimately more routine and vastly less interesting win over Charlton Athletic; a bright and punchy opening with the critical distinction that whilst we prodded Addicks and they fell open like a chocolate orange,  this time the visitors got the break. A shambles down our right with Paredes – who, like the otherwise impeccable Miguel Layún, occasionally seemed surprised at being closed down  – and Gomes getting into a horrible mess and presenting Orlandi with a straightforward opportunity to put the Seasiders ahead.  A calamity on several levels – not least because it gave our visitors something tangible to hold on to.  They looked limited but disciplined, and we’d acquiesced meekly to their gameplan that would involve standing up to our forwards, keeping their shape and grabbing what they could grab.  We weren’t awful in this period… we had lots of possession and made a few chances, not least when the ever-positive Ighalo found himself in space after his marker lost the ball and punched a shot that Parish clawed out of the top corner.  But we didn’t look terribly like scoring either, light in midfield, too many players looking unconvincing and unconvinced on the fringes of the action.  It was hugely reminiscent of the dying embers of Gianfranco Zola’s reign, when any team with a scout, or a brain, figured out that they could roll up, keep their shape and wait for us to screw up whilst breaking ourselves on their banks of four.  This Blackpool did competently and grabbed a second through the unpleasant Davies, his third goal on visits to Vicarage Road in recent seasons.  Exasperating, but a very real challenge for Slav and the team and therefore interesting.  How much have we learned?  Are we smart enough to counter this yet?

2- Half time was disgruntled, as you might expect.  A pigeon high in the roof of the Rookery summed up the mood by crapping on Felix’s shoulder, perhaps in response to his suggestion that the visitors would crumble as soon as we scored and that it was merely a question of how quickly we would make the breakthrough.  I was with the pigeon; I didn’t see that coming at all. Blackpool weren’t Charlton, a limited side who’d been punching above their weight, gotten unrealistic expectations and were now suffering from the twin challenges of gravity and momentum.  The Seasiders had been bouncing along the bottom all season, there’s no further down to go.  Lee Clark’s side had some shape and some grit, and much as they hadn’t won an away game they’d been scraping together points and had enough about them to make a gift-wrapped two-goal lead away at a side with pretensions something that could be defended by bloody-mindedness, bodies on the line to protect what they had.  Even if they shipped a goal they’d still have a lead.  Even if they shipped two a point would have been a decent result.  I expected us to have to scrap for every inch, I expected it to be frustrating, I wasn’t convinced we were up to it.

3- Boy was I wrong.  We struck back almost immediately, and then hit the visitors like a tidal wave.  They were complicit in their own downfall, lumbering punch drunk after the ball as the scoreline rattled away from them and very much not closing the game up, but take nothing away from the Hornets either on or off the pitch, this was something special.  Slav made a crucial tactical change in bringing off Hoban for debutant Watson, of whom more below…  suddenly we had an extra body in midfield with Vydra, who had looked uncomfortable and constrained in the Abdi position at the front of the midfield, now with more freedom.  Whether, had things not developed as they did, Blackpool would have put more pressure on our full backs we don’t know… but as it was their limited attacking threat in the face of the blistering whirlwind of yellow shirts meant that Paredes and Anya were able to attack as much as they had in the first half without glancing over their shoulders.  As for the goals…  the extraordinary deluge, the concentration of strikes that saw us turn the game around in less than 10 minutes and hit seven in a breathtaking 34 were less individual incidents worthy of distinct dissection than artifacts, bi-products of the performance itself.  Odion Ighalo grabbed four through disciplined forward play, being in the right place, making the run, being positive.  Vydra scored perhaps the best and most vital of the bunch and his play flowered with confidence immediately, linking up dynamically with Anya down the left and then playing in the wickedly delicate ball that made Ighalo’s hat-trick goal.  It could have been more, and the final scoreline once again didn’t flatter us.  All that prevented more goals as the Seasiders continued to leave us wide open spaces was that our feverish running had simply left us without legs.

4- A word for Nyron Nosworthy, so recently of this parish, and Craig Cathcart who have effectively traded places since last season… and one can only conclude that both sides have benefitted from the exchange.  In the first half Nyron was solid, leaving his former teammate Troy Deeney a peripheral figure;  in the second he was blown away with the rest of the debris into which the visitors disintegrated.  And yet the Seasiders, in their current state, will probably find his experience, physique and force of personality of greater immediate value than Craig Cathcart’s more elegant form of defending.  Whereas… it’s difficult to imagine Nyron, for all his qualities, being comfortable with bringing the ball out in the way that all three of our centre-backs were needing and able to do at different stages.  The concern with Cathcart will remain his horribly brittle-sounding injury record, but every on-pitch contribution has been positive.

5- Sitting sixth in the League it’s inappropriate to use the term “turning the corner” whether or not this match has any lasting significance.  And yet one can’t help but feel that this was hugely important in so many ways… the sort of position that we found ourselves in at half time is one that we’ve struggled lamentably to pull ourselves away from  in the past and yet today it looked effortless, even if one forgets about the dramatic margin of victory for the moment.  The scoreline, the second half performance were extraordinary… but coming from two down in such circumstances is worth celebrating on its own.  In looking forward to the closing months of the season one can only be encouraged by the latest addition to the ranks; Ben Watson is hardly a stranger, a frequent opponent over the years and yet in the second half it was encouraging how much part of the machine he looked.  A continuity player, not someone who will do the spectacular things but he’ll combine the Jonathan Hogg trick of always being there to receive a pass with a miserliness with possession.  A real asset, and a good option.  And over time, as the Pozzo squad accumulates, you have to reflect that Hogg himself, and then only arguably, is one of very few to have got away.  We’ve seen a huge turnover of players and yet we’ve retained the cream which has seen us build an extraordinary squad, perhaps unparalleled in the club’s history.  Today suggested that as well as the quality we have the personality and the tactical wit to mount a promotion bid that will be very much more than theoretical.  What comes next, starting with Friday’s trip to Bournemouth, will be fascinating.

Watford 5 Charlton Athletic 0 (17/01/2015) 18/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Today was a good day.  The sun shone, a beautiful crisp winter’s day which saw early gentle snowfalls melt away, no wind, no bite, a day to grin at the aggressively blue sky.  Vicarage Road looked fabulous in front of its biggest crowd for nearly seven years in – count them – four stands.  “Your Song” rumbled around Vicarage Road before kick-off and, whilst Charlton started quite brightly and the early exchanges suggested a punchy end-to-end encounter it didn’t take long for the game’s pattern to establish itself.  Troy Deeney played a wicked through-ball to release Anya, the Addicks’ defence fell apart like a house of cards, Chris Solly took a yellow by snatching at the escaping wing-back and that was pretty much that.  Our worst performances tend to have been followed directly by defiance like this since Slav’s arrival and Charlton were the fall guys.  This was the bit of being “inconsistent” that is to be enjoyed.  There are worse things than being inconsistent after all…

2- And Charlton were shocking, as it turned out.  Maybe this one just fell helpfully for us, our opponents at a particularly low ebb but not since Blackpool’s visit last March have we faced opposition so lamentably flimsy and short of confidence.  Early encounters had suggested that there was a threat, but that suggestion crumbled away very quickly; Tal Ben Haim and Andre Bikey are experienced defenders and neither played particularly badly but this was a horribly immobile pairing to put in a high line behind a midfield who never got close enough to their opposite numbers.  The Addicks were exposed defensively over and over again by movement in behind, and when they were back and set we had obviously identified a weakness in the air from set pieces as the ball was invariably played quickly wide for Paredes, Layún, Tözsér or Anya to send a cross in.  This route gave us the opening goal, Cathcart eventualy capitalising from Layún’s right-wing delivery.  Within ten minutes it was two, a ball over the top allowing Deeney to get a run on goal and score a second;  a personal disaster for Bikey this… if you’re a big centre-back you ought to back yourself to make your muscle count in a one-to-one that doesn’t test your pace.  The destructive job is much easier, requires much less precision than the attacking one in that situation but Deeney prevailed to go into double figures for the campaign and become the first player since John Barnes to reach double figures for us for four consecutive seasons.  Any remaining fight went out of Charlton at that point; the second half was a farce, Watford at half-pace for much of it with the gravest concern that the Addicks’ bewildered, haunted inadequacy would spill over into petulant tackles.  It never happened.

3- Dispatches from Huddersfield suggested an underwhelming debut from our new Mexican, albeit with the proviso that judging a player based on a single game and a team non-performance at that was perhaps unreasonable.  Hugely impressive in a nominally central role, Layún spent much time on the right and Paredes seemed to flourish outside him albeit against a side without much of a threat to watch over his shoulder.  Layún displayed a great touch, movement and distribution and simply looked like a fabulous footballer, a beautiful new artery for our football to flow through.  A mention too for George Byers’ popular cameo; the young midfielder was greeted onto the pitch by a strong “welcome to the grown-ups’ game” challenge , to which he responded by booting the miscreant up the arse at the earliest opportunity.  No delicate flower, this one.  Otherwise, in what became a swaggering Watford performance two individuals stood out. Odion Ighalo’s movement and hold-up play are just fabulous; combined with impudence, resilience and personality the Nigerian is becoming a cult hero at Vicarage Road as he was, by all accounts, at Granada.  Alex Geijo and Mathias Ranégie have both struggled, in different ways, to make an impression as nominally the “fourth man” in Watford’s forward armoury.  Ighalo is no longer the fourth anything.  And then there was Daniel Tözsér.  His corner provided Ighalo with his second early in the half, his marvellous party piece gave the scoreline an entirely unflattering flourish in the closing minutes, but beyond that he turned and spun and coaxed and stroked the game to his will.  Often singled out as our pivotal player by savvier opponents his contribution has been limited as a consequence.  Today Charlton gave his the freedom of Vicarage Road and he ripped them to pieces.

4- As I get older I understand the trajectory of football chants less and less. Any number of anthemic and/or witty chants have bitten the dust, for instance, over the period during which the utterly witless “we’re the riiiight side…. We’re the leeeeft side….” stupidity has prevailed.  Today, two aspects of note.  A Mexican wave rumbled around in the second half which may have been concocted in Layún’s honour, or in recognition of our stadium’s new completeness (and of which the visiting supporters were much more accommodating than anyone had any right to expect in the circumstances) but which incidentally reflected the relative non-event of the second half. Secondly, the half-hearted response to Addicks’ keeper Neil Etheridge’s early nervousness was thoroughly underwhelming.  There was a time when such behaviour would have been seized upon mercilessly, but the reaction of the Rookery was tame and Etheridge recovered his composure to keep the score down with a number of fine stops including an impossible save low to his left from a fierce Ighalo drive that might otherwise have seen the Nigerian claim the match ball.  A number of long-term Rookerites have recently decamped to the East Stand, at least one of whom citing in justification that he feels he is too old to be sitting behind the goal.  You know who you are.  This sort of lily-livered behaviour is doing us no favours.

5- This is becoming a traditional line with thunk 5, but nonetheless…  it has to be noted that whilst this afternoon was thoroughly satisfactory in every respect, it was nothing new.  We know that we can turn teams over that are ill-prepared or ill-equipped enough to allow us to play.  One hopes that 5-0 victories will never become passé…  but this was a Ferris Bueller’s Day Out kinda win.  Yes, great, yes, jolly good fun.  But we’ve seen it before, many times. We’ d much rather be stuffing teams like this than not and there’s no sense in taking such things for granted… but our promotion campaign becomes forceful rather than speculative when we start beating teams that make it difficult rather more often.  A few more Readings, in fairness, and a few less Huddersfields. Slav has taken remedial action by sidelining disruptive and unwanted members of the squad…  we can’t judge the appropriateness of individual decisions, but something has clearly been wrong with attitudes, so all power to him for doing something.  The mooted signing of Jay Spearing would be just what the doctor ordered… a bit of welly in an area of the pitch where we’re suddenly shorter of options thanks to injury, Munari joining Abdi and Murray on the injury list.  So… positive steps.  But the fact is that our performances have been inconsistent but not unpredictable.  Until we start taking on all comers in this fashion, wins like today will only count for so much.


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