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Watford 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 (25/10/2008) 25/10/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Not for the first time since August, it’s tempting to look at the stark contrasts between this season and last. Expectations dramatically lower, certainly. Sixth from bottom after this game, as opposed to sixth from top in May. By and large, playing our better stuff – and certainly picking up more points – at home; our away record was a proud thing last season, but merely loitered in the back of the mind of those who didn’t get to many away games.

There was no way this game loitered in the back of anything. No awkward youth this one, leaning with his back against the wall sipping a can of Kestrel as the party meandered on in front of him. This was the guy off his face by ten’o’clock, getting everyone dancing before snogging some girl’s face off in the kitchen, climbing onto the garden shed and falling through the roof before falling asleep on top of a couple of bags of compost. So… ugly and disgraceful in many ways but impossible to ignore. And very very far from dull.

That’s not to say that ig’s sideways “that was straight out of last season” comment a minute or so in was in any way inappropriate; at that stage a very long and uncomfortable afternoon seemed in prospect. Such had been the fear before the match had even kicked off, in fact, with Darren Ward’s enforced absence and Jay Demerit’s worryingly persistent injury leaving us with four defenders who’ve hardly been models of consistency this term. And, crucially, not a six footer in the back five. Quite who this big rugged Watford side that I keep reading about in the national press are I struggle to imagine.

It was slightly surprising to see Lloyd Doyley line up in the centre initially, with Mariappa at right back; for ten minutes following the farcical opening goal, he demonstrated what the thinking had obviously been, sticking closer to Sylvan Ebanks-Blake than a pair of cycling shorts. The damage was already done though… an aimless hump down the centre had found Ebanks-Blake springing higher than his marker, the ball had flicked on for Iwelumo to apply the most innocuous of touches as Richard Lee came flailing out at him. The ball bounced pathetically, apologetically into the net. From our point of view, there wasn’t a lot that wasn’t wrong with that goal.

Vicarage Road was very quiet. Actually, considering their massive following (appropriate, given that they’re such a massive club), even Wolves weren’t exactly giving it large only getting vocal when a linesman made the mistake of flagging them offside direct from a throw-in. An incidental error as it turned out, Wolves had contrived to waste the chance before the flag was noted.

We were grappling for a foothold, just trying to stay in the game. The thankless task of competing with Iwelumo for high balls was given to Leigh Bromby – who probably came off second best overall, but competed furiously despite the odds being stacked against him by a much larger opponent. Not unreasonably in the circumstances Wolves seemed to identify a big lump down the middle towards Iwelumo’s head as being a fruitful strategy, and it wasn’t long before Mariappa and Doyley were switched, the slightly taller Mariappa supporting Bromby in the face of the onslaught. Another ball came in, Stephen Ward’s header across the face really didn’t go very far wide at all…

But I’m going to skip to the point now, the conclusion of the narrative. Because whatever this Watford side’s problems, and there are obviously a few, a lack of character and guts really isn’t one of them. Another contrast to last season – maybe even the largest – what a thoroughly loveable team we’re currently watching.

Twenty minutes in and we’ve equalised. It’s not quite true that it came out of nowhere, this was an open game from the start and such forays as we’d managed had provided encouragement. Some furious industry from Smith and relentless pulling and teasing and ferreting from Hoskins – who must be a complete pain in the arse to mark – had suggested a weak underbelly and in particular a lack of confidence in dealing with crosses either on the part of keeper Ikeme, whose knees visibly trembled every time a ball came over, or on the part of his defence in his capacity in this respect. As with so much, Smith on the right was the instigator, a ball in knocked loose in the box and big Greg is Johnny-on-the-spot to tap in an improbable equaliser.

Game on, and no mistake. Shortly afterwards  Rasiak released Hoskins, who is developing a pleasing knack of looking like he might forge a decent partnership with whoever he plays alongside, on the left of the box and the young striker displayed some new-found confidence by opening his body up and attempting to chip Ikeme who had wandered off his line. Hoskins’ touch was much too heavy and the lob went well over to scorn from behind the goal, but we’ll take missed chances like that any day of the week if he keeps getting in positions to miss them.

Wolves came back at us… Iwelumo – again – met a cross from the left and sent his header narrowly wide. On the break, though, we put together the move of the half – some neat play from O’Toole saw him make space to feed John Eustace in the centre circle; the skipper advanced on a retreating Wolves before sending an astonishing ball into the path of the charging Harley with the outside of his boot. Harley hit his cross first time and it looked as if the gamble hadn’t paid off – the ball went very deep and we were about to bemoan the lack of a touch when time was available. How quickly one forgets the value of a big target in the box – Priskin has his qualities, but he wouldn’t have risen as Rasiak did to crash a header off the underside of the bar. It looked unfortunate from our distance; Hoskins seemed primed to snap up the rebound but his shot deflected over.

Implausibly we were in this, but our gusto hadn’t solved the rather large problems at the other end. The largest of our rather large problems was Chris Iwelumo, whose ongoing scrap with Leigh Bromby, each trading arms around shoulders, nudges and tugs of shirts, frequently presented situations that were impossible to officiate. On one occasion, Iwelumo bundled his way into the box after committing and receiving any number of dubious challenges, his tumble into a heap once past the white line worthy of twice the derision that it received.

Five minutes later however Iwelumo was treated more generously, again exchanging arm locks with the persistent Bromby and being given the verdict, this time ten yards outside the box. A wide wall was lined up and Richard Lee’s view was obscured as David Jones sent an extraordinary left footed shot curling around the outside of the wall and inside the wrong-footed keeper’s near post via a late glove.

The half ended with a frank exchange of views on the merits or otherwise of John Eustace, Waldorf behind us lamenting the captain’s contribution in defiance of the pass of the half and the only real leadership in a yellow shirt. Joons, to my right, reacting rather sensitively in defence of a player for whom he has confessed unnatural feelings – albeit he had called the impending moaning before it actually transpired.

And such was the general mood, despite a decent round of applause at the break for a stout attempt to make a fist of it. It felt like we’d again let in a goal at a crucial time, and that a procession awaited in the second half.

Ha. As at Southampton, when David McGoldrick’s weak penalty gave us a kick-start, it helped that we got an early free kick on the left about ten yards further back from the spot where Jones had hit his goal from twenty minutes or so earlier. Mick McCarthy’s head almost exploded in incredulous remonstration and a coffee cup appeared to go flying as Neal Collins was penalised for his latest exchange with Rasiak. Tommy Smith curled in a decent inswinger and Wolves completely failed to defend it, John-Joe O’Toole the first of several yellow shirts waiting in line at the far post to bundle home. Bedlam in the stands; in the dugout, the Wolves staff start to sweep up the widely spread fragments of McCarthy’s head and shove them back onto the stump of his neck like play dough onto a lollipop stick.

An aside about John Joe here. It will have been evident to many as early as the trip to Coventry a year ago this week that this was a midfielder who attacks the box as well as Tim Cahill. His goals, in the absence of pretty much every striker we fielded last season, have been a blessing, but they may cost us too. For the goals alone will attract the scouts… but for the goals, it might have taken them a little longer to spot a potentially outstanding midfielder.

Often his all round game doesn’t quite come together. His lofted passes can appear aimless, his energy rather randomly distributed. On other occasions, as today, he’s simply fabulous, his composure, touch and awareness in tight situations enabling us to retain possession far better than we have done for ages. And as I say, we might have gotten away with him for a bit… if it weren’t for those pesky goals.

Game on. Again. And if the first half was a matter of us battling our way back into the game, now we were giving as good as we got. Rasiak was continuously involved, and though Boothroyd had warned of lack of sharpness and match fitness after his long absence there was little sign of it here. The first of several chances to go begging came via the Pole but Ikeme snatched his ball from the head of Harley.

The next was altogether more dramatic. Yet another penalty – in our favour this time, and in fairness a bit of a soft one. As we’ve seen and discussed, however, you can’t afford to knock back the breaks that fate gives you… except we did. There was a distinct lack of clamour for the ball, Will Hoskins briefly discussing with Tommy Smith and Jon Harley, with form from the spot at previous clubs, noticable by his absence. Smith’s run up was greeted with a slightly nervous bellow of encouragement from the Rookery, whose cheers disappeared into their navels as Smith’s shot flew straight down the centre and several feet clear of the bar.

And ten minutes later the gravity of the miss was rammed home. The ferociously irrepressible Kightly was at the centre of it, both Bromby with a slack pass and Mariappa with a bizarre loose touch could have done more to prevent it; Michael Gray whose previous incursions from the left had been stymied by his lack of right foot made no mistake this time and grabbed the crucial third.

Aidy Boothroyd made a double substitution immediately, already planned in search of a winner and now designed to chase a point. Off came the industrious Harley – our only defensive cover – for McAnuff, to muted grumbles, but much more aggressive dissatisfaction greeted the removal of Hoskins in favour of Lionel Ainsworth.

Hoskins had been terrific, and grows more likeable with every game despite the relative lack of goals. But he’s been doing the thankless chasing, ferrying and pressurising job for several weeks, often twice a week and sometimes in the absence of any attacking alternatives or relief. Twenty minutes’ rest was perhaps overdue.

And a little surprisingly, with McAnuff on one side and Ainsworth on the other we began to look menacing (and I never thought I’d find myself saying that about Lionel Ainsworth) and enjoyed our only spell of dominance of the match. McAnuff cut inside from the left to fire in an evil cross that Neal Collins threw himself at to head wide. On the other flank, Ainsworth got clear of two markers and found O’Toole on the edge of the box who killed the ball’s momentum with his first touch and, still in the air, poked it goalwards with his second. Great stuff, only Kevin Foley on the line to head clear prevented the roof coming off the Rookery. We couldn’t have afforded to replace it anyway…

Minutes later some fine composure from Smith saw him beat two markers to make space for a shot… alas, if he’d been able to kick the ball hard he’d have spent his career as a Premiership striker. The blocked shot fell to McAnuff who must have thought he’d scored but that man Foley flew in from nowhere again to block. Genuinely breathless stuff.

Midfield was a complete scrap by now, and we were grateful for Eustace’s more belligerent supporting act to O’Toole’s endeavour. Not that this spared him from another volley of nonsense from Waldorf behind us, Joons controlling himself just long enough to witness the captain, with comic timing, lift another extraordinary pass into Ainsworth’s path on the right flank. His wicked cross nonetheless managed to wander across the penalty area evading the onrushing targets it was aimed at.

I’m making it sound like the alamo – it wasn’t, not really. Wolves countered, and at least once looked to have scored a fourth but for some good fortune and some bloody-minded defending. The ref, meanwhile, having courted occasional displeasure from each set of supporters but generally having made a decent fist of the whole thing (as far as it’s possible to placate and give order to a raging hurricane) finally began to lose it a bit; one particular altercation that ended with Collins shoving Rasiak two-handed onto his backside after the ball was dead right infront of the ref (but  was left uncommented on) was particularly perplexing. And then we all went home.

Preposterous stuff all round really. In the end we were probably a bit unlucky not to get something; even that crumb of comfort in defeat seemed a long way away in the second minute. In the end, our lack of physical presence – and leadership – at the back probably did for us again. Wolves, meanwhile, look a strong side, but far more fallible defensively than Cardiff did on Tuesday, albeit to the same end.

And back to the conclusion which was wedged somewhere in the middle of the first half. How much fun. Again. Seven home league games in, we’ve already enjoyed several times the excitement that the whole of last season served up. And frankly at the start of the campaign, most of us would have taken that, nineteenth or otherwise.

Lee 3, Doyley 2 (Henderson NA), Bromby 3, Mariappa 2, Sadler 3, Smith 4, Eustace 4, *O’Toole 4*, Harley 3 (McAnuff 3), Rasiak 4, Hoskins 4 (Ainsworth 3)


Watford 2 Cardiff City 2 (21/10/2008) 22/10/2008

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Let’s get it out of the way, then: Tamas, you’re a blithering idiot. Just at the point where you’d started to think that, with Will Hoskins guiding the midfield into the opposition’s vulnerable areas quite brilliantly, we could really do some damage on the break as Cardiff pressed forward. Just at the point where you’ve scored a couple of goals and given your Watford career some desperately-needed momentum. Just at the point where your rival is returning from injury. You have blancmange for brains, sir.

2. Which isn’t to suggest that we were thoroughly superior prior to that turning point. On the contrary…and that only makes the dismissal seem more criminal, in many ways. We look lightweight with just two in that central midfield area, and while it’s reassuring to see a subs’ bench strengthened by returning first-teamers, there are nevertheless quite a number of octagonal pegs for round holes. Two-nil didn’t even vaguely reflect the balance of play, something that mattered not a jot until we suddenly found ourselves valiantly defending that lead for an hour without any kind of outlet.

3. Against Cardiff, who looked an extremely tidy side. For most at this level, randomly crashing the ball hither and thither is so much a part of everyday life that a numerical advantage makes barely a difference. This lot, on the other hand, knew what they were about. In truth, we should be happy to have held onto a point: we might easily have gone under entirely in the second half, such was the composure, poise and precision of our opponents’ attacking.

4. It would be untrue to say that Richard Lee was entirely responsible for keeping our heads above water. There were brave performances elsewhere, not least from a central defensive pairing dealing with an endless barrage of crosses from overrun flanks. A third penalty stop in two games grabs the headlines, of course…but, really, it was the save in the first half that merited the ovation. In all the way, until it wasn’t.

5. After last season’s repeated self-destruction, another home game that makes five thunks seem a little inadequate. They’ve been eventful, certainly…but, crucially, they’ve also been full of fight and guts and character, a team that’s suddenly very easy indeed to like and to support. Tellingly, nobody seems to be going on about the quality of the football any more. That never mattered. What mattered – matters – is that it comes with a sense of purpose, that it has some substance once the whistle’s blown, that it makes us feel something.

Southampton 0 Watford 3 (18/10/2008) 18/10/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Just for a change, here’s a match report…

It’s not quite the case that this was my first experience of an executive box. I vaguely remember a similar set-up at Old Trafford in 1987 (and one of those occasions when Worrell Sterling played well – he only ever did so as a straw to cling to in a defeat) although I can’t remember why or what justified the exalted environment on that occasion.

But certainly my first visit for 20 years or so, and much as it would take some getting used to there’s something about free food and an assistant to bring you free drinks from the bar that tends to win one over.

Thanks are due to Joons and his employers for access to this box. This thought was bubbling around somewhere near the front of my mind as we shuffled out to our padded seats at around 2.45 – it doesn’t take much alcohol to affect my sensibilities these days, and I was conscious of not wanting to embarrass or cause ructions for my host as I took my pew above the Southampton directors’ box. Any celebration, berating of officials and general raucousness to be kept to a minimum.

The deceptive chill that defied the bright sunshine helped me retain a degree of self-awareness. So too the discovery that the “Lawrie” who had given his name to the adjacent executive box was indeed Southampton’s celebrated ex-manager (and one time GT-sidekick). His schoolmasterly demeanour, even at the age of 72, demanded a straightening of seating position and attentiveness to matters in hand.

Not that there wasn’t quickly enough going on to grasp the attention, as a chaotic forty-five minutes ensued. Form and a glance at the teamsheet suggested that a painfully young Southampton side might cause us a few problems going forward, but a back four with an average age of nineteen was there to be pressured and bullied. Heaven knows what Doris will do to them on Tuesday…. both suggestions were proven accurate beyond dispute within the first half.

And the home side started on the front foot, making us look very clunky indeed at the back as we endured our now customary stupid first five minutes. We’d been put under pressure – and looked far from comfortable – even before the second minute, but the first pivot of the game came when a ball from deep towards the lively McGoldrick saw the Saints’ youngster, Ward and Lee collide on the edge of the area.

It’s beyond dispute that McGoldrick was fouled. It wasn’t obvious to me who had committed the foul or even – based on an admittedly addled memory alone – whether it had been in the area. But a penalty having been given, and our keeper having been held responsible, we can probably consider ourselves fortunate to have retained his services. Not a clear cut decision – Darren Ward clearly in attendance – but we’d have been looking for red had the roles been reversed. A long thirty seconds was endured before the yellow card appeared.

Thing is, as the Reading game illustrated, sometimes it bounces for you, and sometimes against you. Wittering about refereeing inadequacies or otherwise continues to miss the point. What differentiates a strong mentality from a weak one is the ability to deal with the situation. And both in the Reading game and here we overcame the impact of a refereeing decision – against us a month ago, for us today – to push on regardless and get a result.

Although admittedly we were helped by both a weak penalty from McGoldrick and a confident stop by our goalkeeper. Not for the last time we jumped around in isolation in our pocket of the main stand under a particularly stern glare from our right.

The game remained open, and we were under pressure again as a wicked ball in from the right found McGoldrick attacking the far post and only a fine block from Mariappa prevented us from going behind. It was hairy, and it might have got hairier still but for the sudden discovery that Southampton couldn’t defend to save their lives.

Darren Ward on the scene or otherwise, it won’t have escaped your notice that we’re hardly a threat from set pieces any more in these post-Shittu and post-Doris days. That didn’t prevent an almost complete failure to deal with a ball into the box as Harley received Williamson’s short corner from the right, flicked it rather aimlessly into the middle where it cannoned around for a bit before finding Hoskins and Priskin playing scissors-paper-stone at the far post for the right to drive the loose ball past the unprotected Kelvin Davis. The Hungarian won, and delivered emphatically.

Good job, because whatever story the final score tells we were under pressure again quickly. John Eustace put himself under unnecessary but increasingly traditional pressure by picking up a yellow for executing a Southampton midfielder on the halfway line. And then the home side won another penalty.

At the risk of “The Championship” making me look silly tomorrow morning, no doubt about this one for me. A shove in the back, only questionable because it was so unnecessary (he can’t have bloody pushed him, can he?). Paul Wotton, one of only two of Saints’ starting eleven able to ride a bicycle without stabilisers, grabbed the ball early and took responsibility, but several of our number called the outcome before it transpired. A long run up heralded a smack down the centre of the goal where the ball met Richard’s legs and cannoned away to more celebration and another stern glare from our right.

More hurly-burly followed… we seemed to be under instruction to bully Southampton’s youngsters and deny them the space on the ball which had already hurt us. Referee Kettle wasn’t having any of it, pulling up anything approaching a physical challenge. This isn’t basketball you tart. Lee Williamson, however, is paid not to lose his cool in the face of a stupid refereeing decision, so his yellow for dissent was somewhat irritating, the non-foul that he’d just been penalised for notwithstanding. Jon Harley’s own yellow minutes later was slightly harder to understand, and perhaps prevented him from picking up a booking by the traditional means of a petulant hack on his marker later in the game.

You’ll notice that our attacking forays aren’t featuring much here. The truth is that there weren’t many of them, with those that we did carve out coming the way of an increasingly purposeful and aggressive Priskin, who won a corner with a bullish drive down the left that probably ought to have resulted in a clear shot on target but for his customary hesitation.

At which point I must confess to availing myself of the facilities… such are the perils of a free bar before a football game. As I returned into our suite an “oooooh” from the noisy Watford contingent to our right caused me to rush to the window in time to see John Eustace nod home. Given the chaos that preceded our first goal, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how the second had come about.

Particularly as a similarly preventable third followed ten minutes later. Southampton displayed the twin vices that would cost them the game – the inability to finish off a couple of bright breaks followed by utter refusal to deal with a ball bouncing aorund the box, Tamas Priskin grabbing his second with a smart backheel of all things.

The mood in the box at half time was one of cheerful bemusement. We hadn’t played particularly well, and had the bases loaded against us in the number of yellow cards already assembled. We had in fact defended like idiots for much of the half, hadn’t attacked particularly expansively, and were 3-0 up.

It’s tempting to dismiss the second half as a non-event. Compared to the first half of course, very little wouldn’t have been a come down and it’s fair to say that the slow down in the passage of events suited us rather better than it suited our hosts.

But they gave it a good go, and we had both our goalkeeper and no small fortune to thank for our clean sheet.

This was Richard’s sort of game, of course. No big strikers to compete for high balls with, little in the way of crosses from the touchline into the box, and no real demands on his sometimes wayward distribution given how easily we’d picked up a convincing lead… but plenty of shot-stopping and handling which he managed pretty much immaculately. There were chances in the first fifteen minutes of the half that, had an outstretched leg connected, Lee wouldn’t have been able to do anything about – and the Bromby/Ward pairing, on this evidence, isn’t one you’d want to test again against more bullish opposition.

As it was Southampton’s failure to break the deadlock resulted in the rest of the half being more comfortable than it might have been. We had a few more chances of our own – Priskin twice chasing and harrying (yes really) to generate a couple of chances to complete his hat-trick, one of which resulting in a snap shot that Davis did well to stop, the second in an astonshing shank wide that would have attracted derision but for the sterling display and two goals that had preceded it. Rasiak is supposedly back in contention on Tuesday. Improbably, he’s far from a shoe-in on this evidence.

Will Hoskins, after a disappointingly incidental first half, was much more significant in the second, working hard to occupy Southampton’s young defenders with little reward. As the game petered out, Saints fans stirred themselves to sing about how quiet the Watford support was, which probably passes for irony on the south coast. Our subs wandered on… a feisty cameo from the likeable Henderson and a less eyecatching ten minutes from John-Joe O’Toole, followed by a welcome return for Lloyd Doyley, giving us proper options at the back for the first time in a while.

We won’t always have it as easy as this. And it was easy, however much of the rub of the green we got. Southampton’s plight serves as a warning of the perils of NOT living within your budget. Here but for the grace of God go we. If you can’t deal with the most inoccuous of balls into your box, you’ve got a serious problem.

Watford move up the table, but there are tougher challenges to come. Starting Tuesday.

*Lee 4*, Mariappa 3 (Doyley NA), Sadler 3, Ward 2, Bromby 2, Smith 3, Eustace 3, Williamson 4, Harley 3, Hoskins 3 (Henderson NA), Priskin 4 (O’Toole NA)

Watford 2 Preston North End 1 (04/10/2008) 04/10/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from our much needed win over Preston…

1- A quite ridiculously open game of football that looked like delivering many more goals at each end. Due in no small part to our formation – going 4-4-2 without John Eustace in midfield was always going to be a high risk strategy. We had enough to make it pay off; all six of our “attacking” players had good afternoons.

2- On the evidence of the season so far it’s difficult to understand how Jon Harley has ever been preferred at left back to left midfield. Chalk and cheese – a gutsy, committed display this, devoid of the rather alarming red mists that look like earning him a suspension before too long. Him or Smudger for MotM for me.

3- No great surprise to see Leigh Bromby dropped from the starting line-up. On the evidence of the first half hour, Lloydy is surely a shoe-in at right back after the international break too.

4- Nervy stuff for the most part from Richard Lee, who suddenly looks like a third choice keeper. But for the sudden presence of some aerial power in central defence we might have rued his tendency to stay on his line.

5- I like Preston. We don’t have a great recent record against them, but I don’t remember any particularly narky fixtures. Today, they were beaten inoffensively having given a decent account of themselves. Good show.