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Watford 2 Swansea City 3 (29/09/2010) 29/09/2010

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. As so often with Brendan Rodgers, the reality was greyer than the eye-catching press release. If Vicarage Road was ever able to summon up a tabloid-friendly “hate mob”, then someone’s evidently mislaid the pitchforks and flaming torches in the years since; the lurid pre-match hype conjured up some exciting images – heads on spikes for goalposts, that kind of thing – but it’s remarkably hard to get genuinely angry about a dull, stumpy man in a raincoat. He’s not got a career in pantomime to fall back on, put it that way.

Besides, does anyone really wish that Rodgers hadn’t upped and left? Under Malky Mackay, we’ve played some splendidly attractive attacking football built upon a wonderful team spirit, seen young players brought through the ranks, signed well from the lower leagues and elsewhere…and we’ve done it all without the inescapable waft of smugness that comes with teams who claim to play “the right way”. At football’s party, Brendan Rodgers is the bloke who corners you in the kitchen for an hour while everyone else is having a night to remember (“And then Jose said…”) and we’ve no reason to regret the moment he got his coat.

2. Having said that, he stitched us up good and proper here. Of all the clubs in all the leagues – except Reading, possibly – we should’ve seen this coming, yet we seemed curiously unprepared for opponents able and willing to pass the ball for days on end without getting bored. All right if you’re playing them in a March downpour on a wrecked pitch, but the fixture list wasn’t that kind, the conditions were perfect, and we needed to stake more of a claim.

Despite plenty of moaning and groaning, we got some of it right: rather than chasing around frantically, you need to pick a moment to press and then do it together. But as a strategy, that becomes far less effective if there are enormous open spaces on the rare occasions that the ball goes forward rather than sideways: Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair tore us to shreds whenever their colleagues bothered to involve them (which was about every five minutes or so), and Swansea should’ve helped themselves to more.

3. There is a positive, though: as at this stage last season, we react to setbacks remarkably bullishly. For the vast majority of this match, we were completely outwitted, unable to figure out the answer to the puzzle, and it was impossible to see a result other than a comprehensive away win. Vicarage Road was so silent that John Eustace’s pained cry as he tumbled theatrically in the penalty area echoed eerily around the stands; we didn’t just look desperate, we sounded it too.

And yet our heads didn’t drop. We responded to the first goal by pinning Swansea back into the final third…not much clue how to prize them open after that, but an impressive display of determination nevertheless. We responded to the second in the same way, and Danny Graham’s close range drive was denied by De Vries’ out-stretched foot on the verge of half-time; easy to see that as a pivotal moment, but easy to forget that Millwall had their moments at two-nil down too. When we finally figured out how to oust our opponents from their comfort zone, we went at it with fantastic gusto. Winning runs have come to much more timid, feeble ends than this.

4. But you can’t help feeling that we spent far too long playing Swansea at their own game, at their preferred tempo. Rolling the ball out to Adrian Mariappa and then passing it sideways, for example, is exactly what they want you to do. Likewise, trying to thread neat passes into the forwards. In a contest that was crying out for a more direct, robust approach, it took sixty-six minutes to introduce Troy Deeney while Marvin Sordell learnt that playing with your back to goal isn’t as easy as Danny Graham often makes it look. And then we scored with a whack up-field, a timely flick and a rare sight of open grass to run into.

5. And only then were Swansea made to look like another Championship team with a ropey away record. In truth, we rather overdid it, raining punts towards their eighteen yard line like shells ahead of an advance…but Martin Taylor’s second set up a dramatic climax that seemed somehow inevitable. When the linesman’s flag ruled out the last-kick equaliser, you felt cheated out of the final, vital page of the story, as if someone had recorded the snooker over the end of The Sixth Sense. Bah.


Watford 3 Middlesbrough 1 (25/09/2010) 25/09/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from another win. “Crikey”, would be the first, take that as read.

1- As anyone’s who’s supported us at home this season will surely testify, if the devastatingly clinical first twenty minutes was tremendous in itself, the seventy that followed were all the more pleasing. After twice losing winning positions late in the day at home (and a couple further home games, Leeds and Notts County, that were just as worrying in their own way), we faced a side that far outstripped our own in terms of experience and who gradually gained in composure as the game progressed. But if the visitors enjoyed vastly more possession in the second half… we didn’t let them do a lot with it. One rather unfortunate goal and one more clear cut chance isn’t a lot to show for Boro’s travails, for which the entire Watford side from front to back takes credit. Aidy Mariappa though… he da man in defence this season and no mistake. Rather inappropriate that his was the own goal, an heroic performance.

2- As for Boro… what an unlikeable rabble. Kris Boyd, Barry Robson and, in particular, Scott McDonald appeared to believe that they were still playing for the Old Firm in the SPL; we’ve all watched our own side, shorn of confidence and ideas, resort to taking a tumble in search of a set piece and a foothold on occasions, but this lot seemed to expect that falling over was the only necessary requirement in earning a free kick. Unfortunately they frequently were indulged by a criminally lazy refereeing performance that might have been more consequential and aggravating for it on another day. Fortunately they proved completely rubbish at taking advantage of several questionable set piece opportunities.

3- Julio Arca at left back. And you’ve just loaned us Andrew Taylor? Ha ha ha ha ha. Tell us another joke Gordon. What, punting the ball high to two tiny strikers for thirty minutes, when we’ve got Martin Taylor at centre back? No, stop, you’re killing me.

4- Danny Graham started last season like a train too. This time, I don’t find myself doubting how long his form might hold out. For starters, if the goals dried up for a spell last time, his performances nonetheless justified his selection. This season he’s on a whole new level in terms of confidence, fitness, contribution. He’s a leader up front, the attacking component of a suddenly imposing spine, and was absolutely tremendous today (and rather disappointed to be removed, it would appear, and with two goals against the side where you started you career and who then let you go, who can blame him). He benefits also from Sordell’s liveliness – a different threat to Helguson, more obviously a compatible foil. And Troy Deeney’s cameo shouldn’t be overlooked… if he’s yet to impose himself on the side, his attributes and value are gradually becoming evident. He came on today, held up the ball, bullied Boro’s forlorn back line and gave them a new problem.

5- As my co-editor observed, players will and have played much better than Will Buckley did today, and get booed off rather than applauded. I think Swash is tremendous…. and I noticed this week that he’s not even 21 for goodness’ sake, the same age as Michael Bryan essentially. And I’m all for encouraging youngsters. But he had a bit of a stinker today.

Millwall 1 Watford 6 (18/09/2010) 19/09/2010

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Honestly, where to start…? I’ve been catching up on a backlog of Danny Baker podcasts during the last week, dating back to the end of last season and running through the (doesn’t it seem like a long time ago already?) World Cup. Among them was a show broadcast on the morning after the goalless draw between England and Algeria, a howling wasteland of a football match that, as eloquently put by Baker, exposed something truly rotten at the heart of that team. Well, this was its inverse: a performance that absolutely hummed with vigour and vitality, an electric buzz running through the entire thing. We didn’t just beat Millwall; for much of the ninety minutes, it seemed that we could just tilt the pitch up, roll down the slope towards their goal, then do some high fives on the way back….

2. Our breathtaking superiority was such that we had cause to worry about not having wrapped the result up within the first half hour, a spell of football as impressive as anything produced by a Watford team in the last pick-your-period years. If anything, the two bits – ten minutes after the half hour mark, another five after scoring in the second half – in which the home team threatened to make a game of it and the home fans echoed their encouragement around the stands only served to remind us of the epic gulf between the match we’d expected to see and the one unfolding before us. Whether home or away, whether playing the league leaders or the relegation stragglers, it doesn’t come together like this very often. It doesn’t come together like this for seasons on end.

3. An afternoon deserving of old-fashioned BSaD ratings, then: fives all round reflecting both the unified discipline of the performance and the many individual triumphs within it. Of those triumphs, you want to salute those who’ve had a bit of stick lately, justified or not: Jordon Mutch, Don Cowie, Stephen McGinn. But it’s difficult to get beyond one stark fact: that John Eustace bossed this game like Mr Bronson with a loudhailer. From the moment he shinned in the first and strolled regally along the goalline in celebration, the occasion was his to conduct as he wished; the central, vital rectangle was so much his domain that you half-expected the referee to ask permission to enter. To go back to the first point, there’s something very, very right at the heart of this team; that something is a relentless, selfless work ethic coupled with ebullient personality. That something is John Flaming Eustace.

4. Something else, though: for all that midfield dominance, we resisted the temptation to keep the ball in that area for any length of time. The first half hour wasn’t built upon sustained possession, it was built upon sustained attacking. We hit the strikers fast and early…and that only works if those strikers can make themselves a threat without needing perfect service. No time for standing and waiting. The (relatively) unsung stars of the show, therefore, were Danny Graham and Marvin Sordell, who combined to put the Millwall defence under relentless pressure and pulled it apart with restless movement; barely a ball went forward that didn’t result in Watford possession of some kind, even if only a throw-in. A perfectly complementary pairing, especially away from home.

5. It’s been a time for reflecting on past glories, these last couple of weeks. In memory, those glory days are drenched in warm, nourishing sunshine; the pubs echo with stories, banter, laughter; the seats around you are filled with familiar faces, good friends; the celebrations are, frankly, a bit misty-eyed. The team becomes more than the sum of its parts, full of pride in itself, in the hard work, the friendships, the shared intent. A football club becomes a living, breathing, dreaming whole. Those days aren’t gone.

Here’s to you. And here’s to the ‘Orns.

Steve Brister’s Yellow Army! 17/09/2010

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
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To say that the Norfolk Hornets are held in great esteem around these parts – and those parts too – is a bit of an understatement. To say that we’re quite fond of the group’s twin peaks, Steves Todd and Brister, doesn’t quite cover it either.

You meet many people when you follow a football club and even more when you write a fanzine. You get to know some of them well, while others remain nodding acquaintances; you vaguely lose touch with many of them over the years. But those people shape the memories that you hold dearest, the moments that sum up what makes your team so precious: their reactions mirror yours, their opinions, ideas, habits and quirks define your own, that comradeship stands alongside the team’s. Summon up a few of those memories – it’s never a chore – and I’ll bet that what happened on the pitch is only a part. If not, you’re doing it wrong.

So, my – our, if I may be so bold – relationship with Watford Football Club has been more funny, generous, warm, kind, loud, proud, daft, drunken, innocent, incomprehensible, rich, sunny, yellow and just damn wonderful for sharing various bits of it with the two Steves. They are, to put it bluntly, a bloody inspiration, now, then and always.

Sadly, Steve Brister is currently fighting a desperate battle against cancer. After his cancer had spread to his brain, Steve found an organisation called BT Buddies and was keen to get to speak to others going through a similar journey as him. He quickly became a moderator of their weekly online support group and helped BT Buddies enormously when he got Watford FC to help raise awareness of the disease.

A Just Giving page has been set up for all those supporting Steve, his wife Jackie and all the family. Over the past few days the yellow wristband (above) has appeared on Facebook profiles across the country (and the world!), so the page is where anyone wishing to purchase a wristband can make a small donation to Steve’s chosen charity. If you’ve got a spare quid or two, a donation would mean an awful lot.

Altogether now…Steve Brister’s Yellow Army!

Bristol City 0 Watford 2 (14/09/2010) 15/09/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from an away game! Midweek! Woo hoo! And a win to boot!

1- Overriding conclusion has to be that there are sides out there with much bigger problems than us. A much bigger, more illustrious squad, albeit with a new forward line… but City were a spiritless, shapeless, shambles for much of the evening. Nonetheless, “you can only beat what’s in front of you” and we did so utterly competently. Best of all, we closed the game out at two-nil up… after a crazy and far too open ten minutes, we started keeping possession, making City run. The result was never in doubt. Really!

2- Don Cowie. My giddy aunt. Whilst I haven’t shared the reservations of some, it’s fair to say that we haven’t seen too many performances of quite this level of lunatic energy recently. In the first half, as Albert Adomah tried his wiggly legs thing in front of Andrew Taylor (and of us), Cowie simply strode in and took the ball. “Enough of this nonsense, man”. That set the tone, and Cowie didn’t stop moving all evening… one minute snuffing out City attacks, the next snarling in in midfield to win possession, the next overlapping and providing an option. Good work, that man.

3- Jordon Mutch. Whisper it, but he played rather well. Admittedly, the fact that City had so utterly given up the ghost in the second half that he wasn’t closed down, particularly, and profited. But even in the first, he snapped into tackles (once leaving the sorry Adomah on his backside), and his well-weighted chipped pass made the second goal at the start of the second while City still had something of a head of steam.

4- Swash Buckley is Rick Holden. Discuss. (credit to Rupe for this one). Much more convincing from Buckley, although if there was ever a game when a winger who will defiantly and repeatedly just run off with the ball is an asset, it was this one.

5- Watford fans don’t sing about Luton any more, I’ve noticed. The reasons for this are obvious, but it’s still kinda remarkable given that they dominated the repertoire as recently as three or four years ago.

Watford 2 Doncaster Rovers 2 (11/09/2010) 11/09/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a see-saw match against Donny

1- Very difficult, in such particularly draining and familiar circumstances, to take a detached view that doesn’t focus on the last thirty seconds or so and their consequences. Nonetheless, the galling defensive fragility that saw us ship yet another late goal (and one shouldn’t be using “yet another” in September…), and the two points dropped as a consequence shouldn’t mask the fact that a draw was the very most we deserved from this one. For the first half and a fair chunk of the second we looked pedestrian and limited in possession, lacking the wit to beat Donny’s offside trap or the brute force to bully the game into another shape. Add to this an unhelpful susceptibility to Donny’s counterattack and you are left looking at a pretty soft touch… a game quite different to Leeds and yet horribly similar loomed into view at that point.

2- The change in script owed everything to Marvin Sordell, whose contribution and its implications set the afternoon aside from the joyless misery that was the Leeds defeat. Here is a genuine reason to be cheerful… because to my mind, this afternoon tips the balance as far as young Marvin’s concerned. He’s got lots of potential, even those of us who don’t see the stiffs or the junior teams in action will have heard of him before we’d seen him play. And yet…. well, here’s the old fart coming out in me again, perhaps. This week I was asked to list my favourite twenty albums; nineteen of them are bloody old. I’m no longer young, I no longer have my finger any near any kind of pulse (not that I ever did), and I no longer get stupidly carried away by young strikers with bags of potential before they’ve shown that they’re going to exploit it. I remember Wayne Andrews, Theo Robinson, any number of others. But now, now, finally, I intend to get excited about Marvin Sordell. We knew he had pace, we knew he could strike a ball. Now we know he has so much more. He came off the bench and changed the game, his two goals displaying strength, awareness, confidence, an ability to get the ball out from beneath his feet. Good call, Malky.

3- I wasn’t convinced by the widely accepted view that we needed to recruit a left back. Lloydy’s got his faults, but you wouldn’t have a Watford team without him, I certainly wouldn’t. But Andrew Taylor showed us what we’ve been missing… a thoroughly solid, competent, left-back display from a player who immediately looks as nailed on in his preferred position for the rest of his loan as the number on his back suggests he should. On this evidence, Lloyd will be in at right back when he recovers, young Hodson needs a break.

4- There’s nothing more tedious than whining about a refereeing performance, and as above I wouldn’t argue that we merited any more that we got. But three plausible looking penalty shouts waved away in the first half alone? The first two for me were clear cut… McGinn had knocked the ball clear and was tripped, the tackle perhaps so late as to have fooled the referee completely. Martin Taylor’s marker had more yellow shirt in his hand than Taylor was left wearing shortly afterwards… and if the third would have been harsh – I’m not convinced that O’Connor wasn’t fooled by the path of the ball, he had no reason to handle it – you’ve certainly seen them given. My father argued that a second half free kick awarded on the edge of the area was well inside – any better views than ours from the Rookery appreciated. The point was… even at this early stage it felt unlikely that we were destined to win. (My co-editor would also want me to mention, on the subject of officials, that whilst female officials aren’t a problem at all, twelve year old female officials probably are, even on family day)

5- Ten years ago, one wouldn’t have put money on John Oster reinventing himself as a ball-playing central midfielder. Disappearing up his own backside in the conference with Wrexham or someone was my punt… “in prison” was a marginally less charitable suggestion. Nonetheless, there he was… and impressive with it in a tidy looking Donny side.