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Watford 1 Crystal Palace 3 (30/03/2010) 31/03/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a numbing evening against Crystal Palace

1- Oh shit.
2- Oh shit.
3- Oh shit.
4- Oh shit.
5- Oh shit.

You want more? Oh I suppose so.

1b- Quite the most depressing ninety minutes I can remember watching at Vicarage Road, for all sorts of reasons. My co-editor disputed the suggestion, whilst conceding that he was nonetheless too fed up to debate the point at any length. The flatter-than-Belgium second half showing will linger helplessly in the memory for the suffocating lack of belief, on the pitch or off it, that we were going to come back from two down let alone three. No less dispiriting, in its own way, had been the first half, where a vivacious, aggressive, purposeful performance to bear comparison with some of the best we saw earlier in the season nonetheless failed to yield a goal (albeit thanks in part to some cruel luck)… whilst yet again, the flimsiest of excuses for an attack from the visitors saw us collapse upon ourselves and concede far too cheaply. One joyless but unusually insightful soul grumbled at half time that he wanted to go home, because he knew how this would turn out having seen this game several times before. Ho hum. Over the whole piece the persistent themes were how tantalisingly vulnerable Palace looked whenever we put them under pressure, how incapable we were to capitalise and how willing we were to offer goals at the other end. Not a great recipe whatever level you’re playing at.

2b- The relative lack of ire emanating from the stands suggested a rare sympathy for the circumstances that the manager has had to work under. Nonetheless the reluctance to make changes at the start of the second half was difficult to understand; not switching things at the break was fair enough, we’d been much the better side before the break. But the early second goal knocked the stuffing out of us, and a bold statement of intent was needed earlier than it was delivered. Whilst trying to resist the temptation to treat the untried newby as “the answer”, the failure to give Ryan Noble’s pace and confidence a run out against a largely veteran back line was disappointing.

3b- A silver lining? Will Buckley. Both of your co-editors missed Saturday (the first time in a LONG time that we’ve both missed a game at Vicarage Road, hence no thunks; we’re trying to work out when the last time was, as it’s more tolerable than thinking about our current predicament…) so this was the first we’d seen of him. Bright, willing, clever, mobile, quick…. he pulled Palace’s defence all over the place and gave our forward line much of its early vim. He could do with being stronger in possession, and occasionally ran into blind alleys but having someone confident enough to run at people constituted a very welcome something different. Honorable mention too for the incendiary John Eustace, without whom one suspects we’d already be considerably worse off.

4b- It just had to be Palace didn’t it? I mean, if you’d been given the scenario, the context, the bare facts without identifying the protagonists you’d have known. And, partly as a nod to their erstwhile manager’s favoured menagerie, the side featured any number of gnarled old boots that our side, in its early season pomp, would have played around for fun. Shaun Derry is old enough to be my grandfather. Claude Davis is a blathering old woman. And Stern John. Do you remember the time, when GT tried to bring him in from America, when we were pondering whether he even existed? Yes, he exists, he’s still lumping around and he’s still scoring against us, despite having failed to find the net for Palace previously since he joined them in the summer.

Prefix 1 to Thunk 5b

At the start of the 2000/01 season your two co-editors travelled up to Huddersfield to watch a particularly fortunate victory. On the way up we stopped in the August sunshine at a service station, as one does. On the way back to the car we were accosted by an oily, smartly dressed man next to what looked like a salesman’s car who seemed desperate to engage us in conversation about the game we were on our way to see and football in general. As if unable to help himself he informed us that he was a professional referee, beaming with pride at the revelation. I can’t remember our response, but Loz was with us so I doubt it was as nonplussed as I now imagine it. So, I’m predisposed to think of Paul Taylor as a pompous twit.

Prefix 2 to Thunk 5b

For the reasons that we lost the game, see Thunk 1b.

5b- Paul Taylor is a preening, fawning ineffectual excuse for a referee. Playing advantage rather than awarding a penalty? Not noticing a defender palming the ball out of play? Booking John Eustace for headbutting his marker’s forearm (presumably) ? Last night was miserable enough without his help…


Watford 2 Ipswich Town 1 (16/03/2010) 17/03/2010

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Well, that’s a blessed relief. A blink of the eyes, a shake of the head, a gulp of fresh air…and whatever else this season might hold, it feels like something we might at least be able to face without flinching. In any normal circumstances, it would be easy to oversell the brilliance of this performance, but not three days after losing at home to Peterborough and suddenly coming within touching distance of the bottom three. In those circumstances, it was pretty bloody terrific.

Then, we seemed afraid to ask questions in case the answers contained things we didn’t want to hear. Last night, we rewarded the bravery of the manager’s team selection – because not making sweeping changes can be brave too – with a much higher tempo from the start, pulsing out from the centre of midfield to all parts and pressing Ipswich into oppressively tight corners. It was far from flawless, but that’s the point: a result is never far away in this division, as long as you play with just a little bit of confidence in your own strengths.

2. Of course, it very much helped that Ipswich were a pleasantly fragrant waft of a football team in the first half, bland and nondescript in precisely the way that doesn’t get you anywhere at our level. We were perhaps fortunate to escape relatively lightly from the second half backlash, but fortunate will do nicely between now and May. It still feels as if we won’t have much to spare by then.

Ipswich will stay up, I imagine. Woohoo. Somewhere along the line, they’ve become hugely expensive and hugely dull, like one of those modern art sculptures that gets the Daily Mail all cross: a piece involving two breezeblocks, a tin of sardines, one old shoe and a broken egg-whisk, accompanied by improvised performance art from a bellowing Irishman in a raincoat. If I were them, I suspect I’d just want it to stop.

3. Yes, yes, Will Hoskins. We’ll come to him in a moment, for we must first pause to salute Lord Doyley. The bravura pirouette in the first half, followed by splendid left-footed cross onto the head of Heidar Helguson at the far post, was the stuff of ten minute standing ovations. But the defending often deserved a similar response: one early Ipswich attack bounded eagerly over the halfway line, discovered Jay Demerit too far forward, threatened to burst dangerously into the penalty area…and then found itself quietly shepherded to somewhere near the corner flag, any spark of danger suffocated by a gigantic, inescapable wet blanket. He must be utterly miserable to play against, ninety minutes of having your bright ideas tied up in red tape by the local health and safety officer.

4. Yes, yes, Will Hoskins. There’s something of Lee Nogan about him, for me: the suggestion that he might just have a run of goals in him at some point, probably somewhere around the time that his contract expires. The best kid in the playground, he remains the most frustrating of players, abundant talent without any sense of focus or application…but we know all of that already, and so we should confine ourselves to some simple facts: a) he’s scored more goals than anyone else lately, b) we’re not in a position to be fussy and c) the combination with Danny Graham, much of a muchness on paper, looked surprisingly incisive. Oh, and d) that was a very tidy little finish. Now, do it next week as well.

Watford 0 Peterborough United 1 (13/03/2010) 14/03/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a ghastly afternoon against Peterborough

1 – Worth remembering, first of all, that this is what this season was supposed to be like from the start. Or from the end of August, at any rate. Having sold off our most sellable assets in August the real surprise is not that we stumble to a clumsy defeat against Peterborough but that this season has lifted expectation levels to an extent that made this look like a home banker beforehand, even given our recent form.

2 – All of which makes the manner of the defeat and the gradual, desperate erosion of the side’s belief all the more galling. We know that they’re better than this. We know that much as talk of the play-offs was always fanciful, we really shouldn’t be troubling the relegation places either – to Malky’s great credit (see 1). But the recent home fixtures have served to accentuate our limitations, to bring them into focus. Today for the first time we looked lifeless rather than merely a bit limited.

3 – The greatest limitation is the lack of options. We’ve done well to fashion a Plan A that has delivered excitement and a reasonable amount of success for much of the season, but have very little to throw in from the bench (the first person to mention Will Hoskins in dispatches gets three minutes on the naughty spot…) and critically neither brawn nor pace with which to vary our approach. If there is any scope to bring in some such options on loan then one hopes we’ll be exploiting it.

4 – Peterborough, for all our failings, look somewhat better than a side cast adrift at the foot of the table. That said, the sight of Exodus Geohaghan thundering into view as a sort of special-team expert, lumbering around midfield and doing what he could in between the monstrous throws that were his one reason for being was one of several factors grimly reminiscent of much of Kenny Jackett’s season. We flailed haplessly along, unable to make much of our strengths or overcome our limitations during that campaign, too.

5 – One wonders, in the circumstances, how many of our painfully small squad are fully fit. Mariappa and Demerit were two reported to have picked up and subsequently overcome knocks at Derby, and both have struggled since (albeit Mariappa’s relentless positiveness is to be cherished for as long as those who’ve singled him out as the next boo boy allow him to retain it). With the games still coming thick and fast, such considerations may be put more sharply into focus.

Watford 0 Swansea City 1 (09/03/2010) 10/03/2010

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Yes, yes. All of that, if it makes you feel better. The kind of game that causes message-boards and phone-ins to explode in indignant condemnation, simply because it’s the kind of game that looks worse and worse as the clock ticks towards ninety minutes; the only memory is of misplaced passing and aimless hoofery and general desperation, whatever might’ve preceded it at more pivotal moments of the game. It’s like judging the Ramones on the endless fall-outs, departures, comebacks and misjudged solo ventures during the eighties and nineties rather than the really important stuff. (A bit, anyway. Don’t linger on that for too long.)

2. And that’s a shame: before Swansea shut us down completely in the latter stages of the second half, this was very far from hopeless. The reality was that a great deal of blood, sweat and tears went into the creation of any chances, whereas our opponents appeared able to glide effortlessly over the halfway line whenever they could be bothered and absent-mindedly missed a whole bunch of absolute sitters (apart from one, sadly) in the early minutes. Nevertheless, the response to going behind was terrific, a clear sign for those of an optimistic leaning that we’re not just going to slump into abject self-pity.

We remain frustratingly short of ruthlessness in front of goal…but we could justifiably claim to have been unfortunate by half-time, a genuine team effort having pushed Swansea right back onto their goalline. We will be fine if we can summon up more of that. Although it’d be nice to do it without the windswept open spaces in the defence….

3. It’d be such a disappointment if a bright, positive season were to end with a frantic scrap for survival. We’ve managed to build a team from bits and pieces…and it’s a team with deficiencies that grow more obvious as pressure is applied. But it’s also a team that’s delivered a whole load of really rather splendid football, played with wonderful spirit: that I seem to have spent a large part of my time at Vicarage Road this term worrying about whether we’ll score a third to secure the points speaks volumes.

The mood seems to have soured significantly in the last couple of weeks, perhaps understandably…but narrow-ish defeats to Newcastle and Swansea do not mean that our home form has gone the way of our results on the road. The next two fixtures are critical, obviously. To my mind, we keep faith with a settled side rather than wasting energy on pointless re-shuffling; we keep our heads, above all.

4. And we try to avoid a situation where our right-back is hounded from the pitch by a tetchy crowd for the heinous crime of shinning a couple of passes into the East Stand, despite the fact that he’s the only player prepared to pick up the ball and run at pace at the massed defences, an approach that yields what appears to be a very reasonable penalty claim at a stage when everyone else has completely run out of ideas. That’s just daft.

5. Finally, the pitch. Lordy. Earlier in the season, constructing a side to play neat, incisive pass-and-move football seemed like a pleasantly pragmatic, innovative approach; now, when every attempt at a first time pass results in injured spectators or an opposition counter, it seems just a little unwise. There is, of course, nothing that can be done about it now. Perhaps a little patience, though, when passes go astray and first touches come multiplied by the half dozen; perhaps a little understanding too when we’re tempted to belt the ball through the smooth, undivoted air rather than try to coax it through the ragged wasteland. That’s our opponents’ twelfth man, that is…