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Watford 4 Cardiff City 1 (28/12/2010) 29/12/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a foggy, dazed Vicarage Road.

1- Our most recent game – which feels like months ago, not merely 18 days – saw us beat the league leaders. Utterly. Definitively. Superlatives flowed as effortlessly as, um, wine, in describing a performance that humbled a previously unbeaten side.

This one, if anything, was better. Better, because we overcame not only a formidable opponent, but also the blow of seeing our first penalty since I don’t know when saved, before going behind. Cardiff had kicked off in the sleepy mood often displayed by both sides in Boxing Day games, despite the fact that they had had Saturday’s win over Coventry to get that out of their system. We began like the puppy you got for Christmas; excitable, bouncy, not quite able to focus our energy productively but very much up for it after a long time without a game and very much on top. And then, the penalty chance having been squandered, Cardiff eased themselves upfield, stretched, yawned, and picked us effortlessly apart to fashion a one-goal lead.

It felt like it might be a long afternoon at that point, however briefly. So to overcome this against another very experienced side, to not only engineer a comprehensive victory but to squash the game so thoroughly in the second half… words fail me, frankly. This is the side that couldn’t hold a lead at the start of the season, right? And yet here we are with twenty minutes, twenty minutes to go, passing the ball around at 3-1 up to cheers from the crowd as a forlorn Cardiff chased like idiots. Having said that superlatives came easily after QPR, it’s difficult to find the words to do justice to this performance. I wanted to write a proper match report, but without the benefit of notes that would be like trying to pick up the Atlantic Ocean in your cupped hands. Breathtaking stuff.

2 – It seems unfair to pick out an individual performance, since there wasn’t a single one in the starting eleven that was less than outstanding. At the back Scott Loach, helpless for the goal, was decisive and confident with what little he had to deal with. If our defending still looks more deliberate than our attacking, less instinctive understanding than a script learned parrot fashion, then Taylor (M) and Mariappa still dominated their charges comprehensively. Bothroyd, who destroyed us here last season, and Bellamy would have been a more formidable forward line, but Chopra and Keogh isn’t shabby by Div 2 standards.

Doyley and Taylor (A) bombed backwards and forwards down each touchline, Lloyd’s crowning moment a wonderfully dismissive dispossession of Chris Burke in the first half. In midfield, John Eustace was… John Eustace. Jordon Mutch looks ever increasingly a Premiership midfielder, and Don Cowie only stopped moving to line up the corner that Eustace headed in for 3-1. Danny Graham was almost unplayable, workrate coupled with intelligence, the selflessness of the team player with the ruthlessness of a goalscorer. Marvin Sordell, his first goal for a while, did a tremendous job in a slightly different role… more a target man today than hanging on his marker’s shoulder.

But the stand-out, most remarkable, most noteworthy performance was that of Will Buckley. “Swash”, like Watford, will always benefit from being given space (see Thunk 4). But there’s taking advantage, and there’s taking advantage. The comedy highlight of the season so far was the utterly vanquished Lee Naylor’s substitution after only half an hour, half an hour that saw him concede a penalty, pick up a yellow card, and enjoy repeated views of the back of Will Buckley’s heels, often from pitch level. Buckley’s twelve months at the club have been erratic, but this was by some distance his most convincing performance… he’ll always run at people, but here there was purpose, direction, and for all his raggedy scruffiness, no small discipline. And Cardiff couldn’t handle it, as two penalties and the genius behind our tremendous equaliser testify. The extra decibels of enthusiasm as Buckley was withdrawn were well merited.

3- The fog, of course, was the greatest concern. Long before the end we genuinely weren’t able to see just how many of the legions of Bluebirds ferried over from Wales in a fleet of coaches that blocked Vicarage Road had sneaked out… Miles, sitting behind us, had called a 5-1 lead and abandonment due to the fog at half time, and was jumping around in nervous, grinning apprehension long before the end. It was never quite bad enough for Mark Haywood to call off proceedings though, and ultimately contributed to the drama unfolding in front of us.

4- Much as it’s tempting to bathe in the reflected glory of the last two performances – and frankly, when else are you going to enjoy supporting your team if not after the demolition of the league’s best two sides – we can expect our card to be well marked by these two eye-catching performances. It’s no coincidence that these spectacular wins came against sides who set out to out-play us and gave us space to exploit accordingly. We could do with working on breaking down sides that stick men behind the ball and keep it tight, as one suspects that anyone with any sense will be giving that a go before too long.

5- With the year coming to an end, the transfer market’s rumblings will be more nervously studied than usual. Andrew Taylor and Jordon Mutch are on loans that expire imminently, unless we are successful in extending them. Scott Loach continues to attract comment linking him with Premiership clubs, whilst Don Cowie’s aggravatingly precarious contract position saw him linked with a January move to Blackpool last week. And as my co-editor pointed out during the game, it’s inconceivable that we won’t be fielding offers for Danny Graham. In the latter regard above all, Ashley Young’s career path will be of particular interest. 15% of anything above £9.6m might only amount to about half a million if the mooted £13m move to Old Trafford comes off, but that £500k might be crucial in rendering all but the most generous offers for our leading striker resistable…


Erstwhile undefeated QPR 1 Leading scorers in the division (again) 3 (10/12/2010) 10/12/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from in front of my TV, armed with a bottle of chianti.

1- Oh yes. I mean, bloody hell. My word. For all the lovable attributes of our squad, I never saw that coming… QPR started with a vim and a purpose and we creaked and wobbled and just about stuck with it. And then we scored, and never looked back. How many goals could we, should we have scored this evening? If you’re going to miss chances, do it at 3-0 up I suppose but… that was marvellous. And no, top flight scouts, Danny Graham, Stephen McGinn, Martin Taylor, Don Cowie, Scott Loach aren’t that good every week, far from it. And McLeish and Mowbray… no, you needn’t recall your lads just yet. They’re not ready, not nearly ready. Not ready for the bottom of Division Two anyway Mowbray. Snigger.

2- Adel Taarabt. What a silly arse.

3- We got a couple of decisions. As vs Leicester, we nod our respects to lady luck and carry on taking the piss out of the league leaders. It hurts like hell when decisions go against you, all you can do is take advantage when you get the breaks. For the record, QPR should have had at least one pen early doors, but you roll with the punches and QPR just rolled over. Danny Graham’s second… onside enough for me. Bothered, anyway. Three one against the league leaders. Did I mention that already?

4- Our star turn this season is that bottle of chianti, which so far has a 100% record in tricky looking away ties on the telly. Might start trying to sneak one in to home games. Kinda difficult to be inconspicuous about a bottle of red wine though….

5- Lee Dixon. “Comfortable” home win. How are you still in a job? Nigel Gibbs was always better than you anyway. Do one. Three one. Yee-effing-ha. That’s my weekend sorted.

Book Review: “Enjoy the Game”, by Lionel Birnie 07/12/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

"Enjoy the Game"There will, it should be acknowledged, be harder things to write about than the most exciting, dramatic period in our club’s history; indeed, a period that for pure screenworthiness compares favourably to what most clubs can boast. The script is almost written for you, complete with heroes and villains, triumphs over insurmountable odds, a rock star and an audience more than ready to hear the story again.

However a story can be easy to tell, and still be told badly. Another trot through the events, however breathtaking these events and however comprehensive the description, would have served no purpose; that’s been done before and done well, not least in the club’s Centenary Book. Where this book really triumphs is in identifying a new angle, a compelling angle, and pursuing it doggedly. Whilst Lionel provides a skeleton of detail that would permit those unfamiliar with the narrative to follow what’s going on, the joy is in the reflections, anecdotes and memories provided by the key players. So comprehensive is this coverage indeed that, other than Elton John, the most significant names not to have interviewed are the likes of Iwan Roberts, Worrell Sterling and Rick Holden. Everyone else is there, including occasional glances from the other side of the fence – Cup Final opponent Derek Mountfield, the notorious Jeff Powell and a reassuringly unlikeable Roger Milford also share their perspectives at appropriate moments.

The approach manages to reflect the “vibe” of various episodes magnificently. The giddy disbelief of the 1980 League Cup run, the desperate disappointment, bordering on anger, of the 1987 FA Cup Semi-Final, the sense of being cast adrift the following summer turning to horror as the subsequent season unfolded are all mirrored here in a way that no purely factual account could hope to. It’s gratifying that the accounts of those involved reflect the way I remember feeling at the time in each case; the consequence is that this is an awesome nostaligia trip for those of us who lived through it, recapturing emotions as adequately as black print on a page can hope to. For those that weren’t there, an impression not just of what happened but what it felt like to live through. I’m even considering buying a copy for an aggravating ex-boss who never quite got why Graham Taylor is held in such regard in Hertfordshire. It’s all here.

Stylistically, Lionel knows that he’s playing to the gallery and some sections are unashamedly and magnificently indulgent. John Barnes is introduced by a glorious flourish that would befit the writer of a soap opera planning a cliffhanger, and one is never in any doubt who the good guys are, and therefore who the target audience for the book is. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the start and end of the story aren’t terribly well defined… the “story of the eighties” obviously begins earlier than that, and the book effectively starts in the mid-seventies. It’s the story of Graham Taylor’s first spell in all but name, the last two seasons of the eighties covered, one feels, out of a sense of obligation to the stated timeframe. That’s not a complaint… it would be nonsensical to pretend that any chosen period wasn’t part of a story that had been going on before and would continue after. The memories of the Bassett chaos are amongst the most fascinating but… the book doesn’t quite end, it just drifts off much as Watford did.

But in case you were in any doubt, it’s a blinding read. The richness of the anecdotes, the candour of the interviewees, and the author’s skill at hanging the reflections around the dramatic storyline make this a compelling, vital read for all Watford supporters whatever their vintage. My ex-boss could do worse, too.

“Enjoy the Game” is available from www.lionelbirnie.com, and in the club shop.

Watford 3 Leicester City 2 (04/12/2010) 05/12/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a chilly but snow-free Vicarage Road.

1- With due apologies to my co-editor, stranded on the South Coast by the weather and consequent train disruption, this is what you bloody go to watch a football match for. You know it’s been a good one when you’re left drained by the adrenaline, when you’ve been up and down and cheering and relaxed and apprehensive and nervous and terrified and exaltant all within the space of a couple of hours. That, and a big gash on my calf indicating the point at which the celebration of Danny Graham’s marvellous winner got a little too raucous in the Rookery (I think it was the frame of my seat wot dunnit, either that or someone took a bite out of my leg in delirium. Either way, I’m treating it has having taken one for the team). It felt as if something fundamentally changed at that point, like air flooding into a vacuum… a first win in eight, and the first Watford goal at the Rookery End since August. The only concern is that it might start snowing in Watford now, but I’ll take that sacrifice.

2- Full marks to Malky today, on any number of levels. The shape in the first half, with Buckley wide and McGinn pushing up behind Danny Graham, was inspired – McGinn looked thoroughly comfortable in the role, and the entire midfield looked tremendous throughout the first half. Both of the unenforced substitutions were effective – the replaced Buckley and McGinn had had decent games, but changing the shape by again shoving Deeney out on the right to provide a different kind of threat, and then taking the initiative by bringing on an extra striker to chase a game that at one point looked in danger of running away from us altogether, was bold and justly rewarded with three points.

3- No small respect is due to Leicester; having looked a little bit feeble in the first half, they came out like wild dogs in the second half. If the penalty award was generous, it was earned by a bullish determination to get back into the game which persisted beyond the equaliser, buoyed by a noisy following that filled the away end (either that or it was half full, with each visitor disposing of redundant extra layers on the adjacent seat – difficult to tell from our end…). Key in keeping the back door shut was Jack Hobbs, who on two or three occasions threw himself in the path of a critical pass as we broke (albeit, as my temporary neighbour pointed out, looking a little less comfortable with the more routine, less last-ditch requirements of his role, recalling Jay DeMerit).

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the rapid rebuilding has a touch of the Viallis about it… as if Eriksson has come in and dismissed what was a half-decent squad in favour of a load of more expensive signings who come from the top flight and must therefore be better. A little harsh, perhaps – you’d have Kyle Naughton over Patrick Blondeau every day of the week – but it doesn’t feel like a particularly organic revolution. Perversely, Steve Howard prevails, if only in a comedy cameo that saw him give away countless fouls, knock people over and get booked in the process.

4- Not quite sure what’s provoked the more aggressive stewarding in the Rookery, but can’t help but feel that telling a steward to “get a proper job” is hardly going to diffuse a situation. This is pathetic enough when perpetrated by a half-witted smirking teenager; the forty-something moron that trotted out the line during the second half confrontations really ought to have known better.

5- It goes without saying that a first win in eight is a Good Thing, but this could prove to be a pivotal victory… with QPR away next week, and Preston suddenly not looking like cannon fodder, another defeat could have left things looking very iffy indeed. Instead, we’re back in the top half of the table. Those raucous celebrations were fully justified.