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Watford 1 Doncaster Rovers 1 (29/11/2008) 29/11/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Five Thunks from the draw with Donny Rovers

1- I want to get my counterbalance out of the way quickly.  First game of a new regime, unreasonable to expect to see the finished article.  Every educated account cites Rodgers as a great coach, but the best coach in the world isn’t going to get it all dancing to his tune in between press conferences in the space of three days…

2 -…but I think we have a right to expect better than that.  After a week in which we’ve pulled in four points and two decent performances from two awkward looking games under Mackay’s caretakership, what’s the sense behind making SEVEN (count them) personnel or positional changes to your starting eleven, only one of which (Ward) enforced?  Having a clear idea of how you want your team to play is one thing.  Turning it all upside down within the space of three days such that the good bits – and there were clearly good bits – of the side inherited were chucked out with the bathwater smacks of blind arrogance.

3 – Liam Bridcutt.  Clearly a cut above anyone else on the pitch.  But didn’t he know it, though?  And here again, the new man’s hand has to be questioned.  If you’re going to rebuild a team in three days, why rebuild it around a guy signed for a month on loan?  Who’s only going to last an hour anyway?  You’re not managing Chelsea’s reserves any more, Rodgers.

4- The result was a team painfully uncomfortable with how it was being asked to play.  If there weren’t problems with the side we wouldn’t be near the bottom of the table, and wouldn’t have needed to replace our manager.  But gone was any semblance of the attacking verve and energy that have characterised much of the season’s performance.  Gone was Ross Jenkins’ steadying role in midfield in place of a nervy shift at right back.  Gone was Lee Williamson’s stamping all over the middle of the park.  In fact the only relic of the side we’ve watched all season was the still shambolic defending in the second half. 

5- Had the purposeful Steve Brooker been on the pitch for the entire 90, Donny would have won the game.  They almost deserved the three points on the basis of the second half anyway – and yet they weren’t great themselves, very much there for the taking.  And tellingly, an opponent that wasn’t set up to chase and harry still made one hark back to the worst of the Vialli days, lazy though the comparison is – nobody around at the time can fail to shudder at the sight of the side passing it around until the weakest footballer is finally closed down and hoofs it into touch.  If we play the same way against a side that actually denies us space, and has a forward line worth speaking of, heaven help us.

Watford 3 Queens Park Rangers 0 (22/11/2008) 23/11/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Five thunks from a much needed win over QPR

1- Not that our on-pitch problems have gone away, naturally (see point 2).  But how’s that for a bit of perspective.  For all that watching our team in recent weeks has been a bit like building a house of cards on a draughty window sill, we’ve never looked as utterly lamentable as QPR did this afternoon.  Great big holes in the defence?  Check.  Fanny football, no penetration?  Check (no need for that Vialli appointment after all, then).  Prima donnas flouncing around not wanting to be there?  Check.  Suspicion that whoever’s picking the signings from Italy isn’t quite the spotter that he fancies himself to be?  Check. Suggestion of deeper problems that you wouldn’t even wish on the likes of QPR ?  Check, check, check.  You’re well out of that lot, Heidar.

2- …but for all that Scott Loach dealt with what he had to deal with welcome assuredness, particularly in the second half, our defence’s performance in the first half suggested that there are pratfalls still there waiting to happen.  Fortunately today they proved utterly academic. 

3- Lee Williamson.  Terrific again;  if Jenkins can last the pace we have a central midfield that suddenly looks quite convincing. 

4- Within minutes in the first half, the somewhat redundant “Simpson out” chants, and the identification of a play-off winning captain as a “Watford reject”.  Wonder how many perpetrators were common to both insights… perhaps you could all wear clown outfits in future?

5-  Fitz Hall.  After two soft red cards and a punch-up in a play-off exit on his last three visits with three different clubs, Vicarage Road doesn’t seem like a lucky venue for “One Size”.  Hey ho.

Barnsley 2 Watford 1 (15/11/2008) 16/11/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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“So Pete shouts out ‘Sean Dyche, you’re the least gay footballer in history’. And Dyche turns around and says ‘I dunno, your mate’s quite good looking….'”.

Meldrew is clearly proud of the implied compliment.  Dave’s Mum’s car bounces happily onwards towards Barnsley.  The intention of all four of the car’s passengers is to have a good day out, and not to permit any goings on on the pitch to obstruct this objective as far as is possible.  To the same end, certain topics upon which the car’s passengers differ in opinion somewhat have been banned from the agenda.  The subject, instead, is the formulation of a team of Watford players past and present based on recitable anecdotes.

The relaxed atmosphere persists all the way to Yorkshire, and by the time a hostelry has been relieved of several pintsworth of Guinness (me, Meldrew and Dave), a couple of vodka and oranges (Anna) and a red bull and vodka (Meldrew again) it is cemented in place.  “If we see Michael Parkinson interviewing Dickie Bird…” promises Meldrew, “we’ll come back here and I’ll buy you all a pint before we go back”.

Malky had named the same starting eleven that had seen off Swansea in the week.  Having conjured up that most elusive of targets, a clean sheet, in that game it was of particular interest to see whether our defensive play had improved significantly.  Within minutes it became evident that no steel wall had been erected, no leadership conjured up, as a ball whipped across from the lively Jamal Campbell-Ryce found its way across the box with the minimum of attempted interference.  A more concerted Barnsley attack to the cross, and we’d have been behind very quickly.  So the pattern was set for the opening exchanges.

That’s not to say that teenager Ross Jenkins, touted as the much-needed shield to the defence on the Official Site, didn’t do his part.  His first half was hugely impressive, retaining the ball well and on more than one occasion snapping into a challenge that neither left the opponent with the ball nor threatened to take the opponent’s leg off at the knee.   Nor, of course, has our attacking threat dissipated, and its worth noting here that whoever comes in to sort this lot out does have stuff to work with.  There’s not a lot wrong with our attacking play really… you wouldn’t say that we’d be challenging for promotion again with a bit of leadership in defence, but comfortably mid-table wouldn’t be beyond us. 

So after another another worryingly easy-looking Barnsley attack ended up with Lee blocking with his legs, we were up the other end and both Williamson and then Harley had fierce looking shots blocked by a massed Barnsley rearguard.  Back towards us again, and Campbell-Ryce, nominally playing on the right flank but actually wandering around all over the place and bringing problems with him, found Jon Macken in space; the former Preston striker’s shot beat Lee but rebounded at the crossbar.

So whilst we possessed some attacking threat, the start of the first half was Barnsley’s and as so often recently, far from deflating the home side’s attacking intent with a show of resilience our defending continued to look nervous and tentative.  Doyley, for the most part, coped surprisingly well on the left;  always hard for a wide player to operate on the “wrong” flank of course, but with Doyley’s attacking impact kinda limited anyway you could see the thinking here and but for one lovably embarrassing moment when the weight of touch on a well-intended cut inside offerred the ball to his opponent, Lloydy did OK.  So too Leigh Bromby, so often at the centre of any defensive calamities but not today, for the most part reliable and competitive.

But alas Jay Demerit.  Reports from Swansea had spoken of reawakened leadership in the team captain, and good performances in both games.  Today he had one of those matches where every decision he makes seems in error, a determination to do something outweighing the need to do the right thing.  “Get your chequebook out Mackay”, bawled Meldrew, in a final attempt to suppress frustration with humour.

As the half wore on, however, and having rode our luck a little we began to punch our weight.  Williamson, ably abetted by Jenkins, took hold in midfield and suddenly we were pushing Barnsley back.  Priskin, as ever an unsummarisable tombola of diffidence, indolence and elegance, was already getting stick behind us for not looking awake enough on the halfway line as we defended a corner, which seemed a little harsh.  From the corner, a good break from Smith found Harley on the gallop.  His pass inside found Williamson who, having failed to get the shot onto his right foot, came respectably close with a low drive with his left.  Shortly afterwards McAnuff slipped a ball inside to Priskin who turned his defender and slammed a fierce shot towards the near post which Muller did well to get down to.

As we gained in belief and purpose Jenkins was twice involved, once getting on the end of a far post corner to head over, and then feeding Harley to crack in a drive which appeared to come off the woodwork.  We were on top now, but should have expected what came next.

Fortunately the chance came to Kayode Odejayi, a striker who, goals against us and Chelsea last season  notwithstanding, positively reeks of lack of confidence.   Demerit’s error and Odejayi is clean through, running straight at Lee down the centre of the pitch from the halfway line. Discussing previous encounters at Oakwell on the way up we fondly remembered Paul Furlong dragging Gerry Taggart the same distance to score an unmerited but badly needed last minute winner in 1994.  Furlong never missed one-on-ones.  Odejayi isn’t Paul Furlong though, and Lee did well to stick out a glove and paw away his dinked chip.

Nil-nil at the break, and though we’d ridden our luck at the start of the half we were now very much in the game.  Indeed, the Tykes were there for the taking.

And take them we did at the start of the second.  The ferreting Smith sent an ambitious ball out to the right flank; McAnuff did well to cushion a header back to Mariappa from the touch-line, before receiving the ball back and advancing on Malky’s old mate Rob Kozluk.  Smith ghosted into the near post, and directed McAnuff’s accurate low ball into the inside netting of the far post with a neat touch off the inside of his heel.  A lovely goal all round.

We could have done with shutting the game down at this point, but instead it opened up completely.  Lee made another fine save at his near post, before good work from Smith saw Harley take a shot with his weaker right foot that flew narrowly wide.  Malky brought on Rasiak for Priskin.  And then it all went to pot…

By this point, albeit the game was open, we were on top.  The better side.  In the ascendancy.   But you can’t legislate for defensive stupidity.  Fittingly, the ubiquitous Campbell-Ryce was involved in the move down the right that saw a ball work its way across the box to unmarked sub Miguel Mostto.  Without pausing to ponder where his defence had gone, Lee came charging out and made the Peruvian striker’s decision for him. 

Immediately, it seemed, the game had been turned on its head.  A corner led to a scrap in the box and Barnsley, sniffing blood, hit our defence, reeling, shellshocked, and badly in need of five minutes’ respite but not getting it, with a second, Foster prodding past a hapless Lee.

On the pitch, we rarely looked like recovering the game.  From a winning position we’d given Barnsley the initiative and they weren’t about to relinquish it, barely giving us a sniff for the last twenty minutes.  Hoskins came on for Harley and buzzed around enthusiastically, our best chance of grabbing a point back coming to him after a carefully worked move across the box but he fired narrowly over.  O’Toole came on for an exhausted Jenkins, who hadn’t as much tired in the second half as gone to bed and hidden under the duvet.  A fine, fine prospect, beyond doubt, but still a prospect.

Off the pitch, the mood in the away end had turned predictably.  Meldrew unleashed his hysteria at Richard Lee and later remonstrated at the “hateful” McAnuff for apparently accepting the team’s fate.  With startling idiocy, a “Simpson out” chant emerges from the back of the stand.  The club’s up for sale lads, don’t you read the papers?

And that was that.  The afternoon had one more shock in store… a light shower on the motorway on the way up had caused Dave to employ his headlights; bright sunshine on the way into Barnsley meant that he had neglected to turn them off.  No jump leads in evidence, so once the crowd had cleared, with some help from the local constabulary, we bump-started the car on the sloping track down the centre of the visitors’ car park towards the ground.  As Dave bounced away in second gear into darkness, rolling away from our push, it was difficult not to fear for an ugly conclusion against the brick walls of Oakwell below.  Instead, the engine kicked in, Dave rolled the car around and we jumped into our seats.  By the time we were out of Yorkshire, with further precautions having been enforced so as not to keep the mood low, we were in better spirits.  By the time Meldrew was bemoaning the state of his love life (“it’s like going out with bloody Ian St. John”) on the way back into Watford the rest of us were in stitches and the stupid five minutes that had threatened to ruin a perfectly enjoyable day left long behind.

And there’s a crude analogy there of course.  Much as it was hugely frustrating to have a perfectly accessible three points chucked away by more asinine defending, much as there’s plenty for the new guy to do when he comes in, this isn’t beyond salvation by any stretch.  We’re not a car crash yet.  Whilst it’s natural to focus on the problems that are costing us point after point, that will continue to do so and may well relegate us unless they are sorted, there’s an awful lot that remains right with the team.  The problems aren’t a mystery, nor are the solutions.  Getting there might require painful decisions to be taken, but there’s a long way to go yet.

 Lee 2, Mariappa 3, Demerit 2, Bromby 3, Doyley 3,  McAnuff 3, *Williamson 4*, Jenkins 3 (O’Toole NA), Harley 3 (Hoskins 3), Smith 3, Priskin 3 (Rasiak 2)

Anecdote eleven:  Coton, Doyley, Harrison, Dyche, Terry, Thomas, Spring, Johnson, Holden, Ngonge, King

Book Review: “Golden Daze” by Nick Corble 11/11/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Because I want to, OK?

Author Nick Corble is a Watford fan, and both a reader of these pages and erstwhile reliable contributor to our “Five a Day Awaydays” initiative of two seasons ago (see category links to your right).  He was generous enough to send me a free copy of his first novel, and so it seemed only fair to review it.

As the title – and the review’s presence on these pages – suggest, the story is played out to a Watford backdrop being both largely set in the town, and incidentally tracking the progress of the 1983/84 season in general and the Uefa Cup and FA Cup campaigns in particular.  Central character Colin is a Watford fan, and there’s much to remember, enjoy and vicariously relive through Colin’s exploits for those of a suitable vintage.

If the truth be told, much of the Watford detail grates a little bit.  Knowing who scored against Birmingham City in the quarter-finals doesn’t really contribute to the narrative in hand, for example, and there’s rather too much of that even for a Watford anorak like me.  Occasional statistical inaccuracies irritate too, even if I’m likely to be in a minority of readers who either know or care that the League Cup wasn’t sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board when the Hornets reached the semi-finals in 1979.

That said, some of the football-related stuff is hugely evocative, not least the passages that take place on the terraces at Vicarage Road stadium, and the build up to the 1984 Cup Final is well described.

And, having been slightly disappointed by the handling of the stuff that I read the book for, I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the narrative of which Watford’s fortunes run in the background.  The main character is instantly likeable, as he stumbles out of University and tries to work out what happens next, and his friends, family and myriad of work colleagues at a string of part-time jobs are skilfully and affectionately drawn.  By the time I was a quarter of the way into the book I was genuinely hooked, and consumed it in under a week.

“Golden Daze” is strongly recommended by this reader, whether or not you have any affiliation with the Hornets.  For Watford fans, particularly those of a suitable age, it’s a stocking filler that shouldn’t be passed up.  Nick is publishing the book privately; you can order a copy at http://www.nickcorble.co.uk. If you quote the promotional code BHAPPY you can obtain a £1 discount on the offer price.

And then he was gone… 04/11/2008

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
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The shocking thing, in many ways, is that it is a shock. Back in May, amid the strewn wreckage of a failed promotion fling, Adrian Boothroyd was a dead man walking. Some might’ve bought into the guff about a radical change in style…but, really, it was exactly the same guff as the previous summer, a desperately see-through attempt at demonstrating that he hadn’t yet run out of ideas. Gone at the start of November as the team drops towards the bottom three? Hardly a radical departure from the script….

The odd thing, then, is that the script has gone sufficiently awry between then and now for it to feel like a genuine surprise. Of course, a managerial departure requires a context…and so, inevitably, we must read about our dismal results and our precarious state. Having been there for most of it, however, it feels as if the context is being placed around the event rather than vice versa: this has been a campaign of inevitable struggle, but tackled with a determination and a spirit that was sorely lacking when the Premiership beckoned not so long ago.

While the media may be trying to dig up revelations and explanations (the former more important than the latter, natch), we’ve discovered absolutely nothing that we didn’t know already. We’ve got no money. The squad lacks leaders. The defence is thoroughly and endlessly self-destructive. And so on. We knew all of that before we started. The genuine discoveries have all been positive, remarkably. The manager still has ways of motivating a squad of players decimated by fire-sales and an extraordinary succession of injuries. There are goals where we figured there’d be drought. There are fewer excuses: we haven’t had “a wake-up call” every week, mercifully. There’s an atmosphere around Vicarage Road generated by a combination of lowered expectation, reduced wages and battling performance that makes it worth travelling for three hours to get to the game. Hell, even the disastrous three-game week that formed the build-up to last night’s news began with a tremendously valiant, bloody-minded performance against Wolves….

The problem is that if you can’t sort out the defence, it all ends up counting for nothing. Which is fine every once in a while, but not every week. There’s a certain irony here, for it could be argued – indeed, I would do so – that Adrian Boothroyd’s first success as Watford manager, keeping a side in free-fall narrowly clear of relegation back in 2005, was in part down to Ray Lewington’s last, parting gift. Boothroyd inherited a side with precisely the same problem as he leaves behind, a problem that eventually leads to a team taking the field in the certain knowledge of defeat. He also inherited the solution, something that has evaded him over the last year. Oh, for a Danny Cullip now….

So if it feels distinctly odd, that’s because nothing’s changed. And everything’s changed. If we were going to agree to a parting of ways based upon last season’s mistakes and failures, there was a time to do that. If we had decided to put all of that behind us and fight on, to battle on against the challenges ahead, there was surely plenty of fight and battle left to draw upon. For a manager with so much bravado, for a manager who achieved so much against the odds and spoke so loudly of achieving so much more, Adrian Boothroyd’s departure is surprisingly meek, surprisingly fatalistic.

Somehow, it feels as if someone’s mislaid the final part of a six-episode serial. It really wasn’t supposed to end like this, of course…but in many ways, it hasn’t ended at all, a whimper rather than a bang. He’ll be remembered for entirely re-defining the club’s ambition (even if the new definition sat uneasily with some) and, just for a while, proving himself thoroughly and gloriously right. He leaves behind a very different definition of success, a very tough set of challenges. For a moment there, it seemed as if he’d meet them noisily head-on, as he’d met pretty much everything else, for better or worse.

And then he was gone.

Watford 3 Blackpool 4 (01/11/2008) 01/11/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
29 comments

Five thunks from the mayhem against the Seasiders

1- Of all the decent players that have left the club over the past few years, the one you’d have back quickest – with the possible exception of Ben Foster – and with a few fewer miles on the clock, would be Malky Mackay.  Which begs the question… how can a defence that is being “coached” by Mackay look as utterly, comprehensively, incapable of doing the job?

2- The passage of goals makes the result seem a triumph of guts and belief for the visitors.  In truth, whilst we will host inferior teams this season, Blackpool merely needed to be competent and competitive in defence and persistent in attack.  Indeed, had they wisened up to our defensive inadequacies sooner, they might have secured the result earlier than the last minute. 

3- Have I mentioned our defence yet?  Richard Lee, having displayed all his greatest assets against Southampton and Cardiff, has displayed his worst in the last two games.  Ward, as Dave pointed out during the game, looks exactly as he did when he first broke into the Watford side nearly a decade ago, and still heads the ball straight upwards.  Demerit had an absolute shocker.  And not a leader amongst them.

4- So much for entertainment.  The novelty is wearing off a little… I’d take an ugly point at Swansea with both hands.

5- Final word to Will Hoskins, the jewel in the crown of what was nonetheless a vibrant attacking performance.  Back in from the cold and no mistake.