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Watford 1 Bristol City 3 (22/02/2011) 23/02/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Sigh.

2. Huff.

3. Pffft.

4. […]

5. Sigh.

6. One of those games. Hurrying to the station after the final whistle usually affords you an interesting cross-section of opinion, small snippets of conversations as you rush past. Last night, it was like a bad dream in which every radio station has turned into Talksport and no amount of frantic tuning will find a more palatable, less judgemental alternative; every voice was torrential in its furious damnation of all that’d taken place, seething anger fed off seething anger, head-shaking disgust required the affirmation of yet more head-shaking disgust. Attempts to lighten the mood went down like whoopee cushions at a funeral. It was bleak. Man, it was bleak.

You can go somewhere else for all of that, though. You can find a place for your grief if you need to, you can find people to hear your pain. Here, we’re made of sterner stuff. But not so stern that we won’t whisper this, in case one of the cross people hears and gets even crosser…it really wasn’t that bad. Oh, sure, it wasn’t that good either…but as a combative, tight Championship game between two compact teams scratching for form on an atrocious pitch, it represented anything but a lost cause.

Discount City’s irrelevant third, scored as the game disintegrated deep into injury time, and you have something that was decided by extremely slim margins: a shameful piece of officiating, a single successful attack, a couple of missed chances. Until the visitors went ahead, we looked marginally the more likely side, never fluent but sporadically effective; once they did go ahead, we rapidly ran out of ideas and were thoroughly forlorn by the end…but that’s a third of the game, not the whole of it. We were frustratingly close to winning this. At which point the despair and the gloom would evaporate almost instantly, regardless of the fact that the majority of the game had been precisely the same.

7. Sometimes, matches are merely decorated by the goals that determine the scoreline. Sometimes, as here, that’s pretty much all there is. For our part, Don Cowie’s opener was the unquestionable high point, mainly for Danny Graham’s astonishing assist: the connection between John Eustace’s optimistic lob in the striker’s general direction and his exquisite touch, strong turn and fierce cross was so remote that you wondered whether you might’ve fallen asleep for a moment in between. Indeed, with an incredibly narrow midfield, it was frequently Graham who supplied our attacking width, a task at which he applies himself and excels as with everything else. Rather out of nothing, it must be said…but as we discussed after the Preston game, if you don’t concede, you buy yourself some time to conjure up something and build from there.

8. Which we were doing quite well before the officials intervened. Personally, I’ll accept genuine mistakes, especially in an era when attempting to con the referee has become perfectly acceptable; the relentless criticism of officials for failing to distinguish between a foul and a simulated foul is one of the worst by-products of television’s technological mastery of the sport, its obsessive micro-coverage of every incident. They’re entitled to get it wrong sometimes.

But we’re entitled to expect much, much better than the pathetic shambles that opened the door for City’s equaliser. Anyone who’s ever kicked a football in anger knows that you play to the whistle, trusting that the owner of that whistle will use it with some measure of competence. So when Stephen McGinn appeared to take the ball out of play, we hesitated…and when no decision was forthcoming from either referee or linesman, we played to the (lack of) whistle and began an attack. What we should’ve done, of course, was to stand, whistle a happy tune and wait until the men in black made their flippin’ minds up…because when a throw was finally awarded, both McGinn and Adam Thompson were in advance of where the ball had gone out, leaving a gigantic space where the right side of our team used to be. Quick throw, low cross, goal. Appalling.

9. Poor old Lee Hodson. Well, I say “old” but he’s nineteen. I was nineteen once, but I was fortunate enough to spend that formative, awkward time away from the furious glare of ten thousand people and their criticism of my every youthful mistake. And I’ve burned as many of the photographs as I can lay my hands on. Thirty-ish appearances ago, Hodson was almost precisely as good as Adam Thompson has been lately, albeit less bullishly assertive; he was officially the answer to a number of questions. Now, his lack of confidence stands exposed and frail, contrasting so strongly with the new arrival in his preferred position. If you’re capable of empathy – and you do wonder sometimes about people who demand the right to bitterly castigate kids in exchange for a twenty quid ticket; you wonder what kind of punishment they might want to mete out if the price were higher – it’s fairly painful to watch.

I’m repeating myself, I appreciate. But not much has changed since last week: Hodson remains a forlorn figure, Thompson remains athletic and ambitious, there’s rather less to separate them than all of the body language, rhetoric and opinion might suggest. No matter how stretched the squad – and my, it’s stretched – Malky Mackay is right to try and protect these youngsters as much as he can, for their and our long-term interests. We’d all be playing Matty Whichelow from the start, given the choice. That’s a heavy burden on young shoulders.

10. A round of applause, if you will, for Keith Millen. A player reliable and dependable enough that he drifted out of our history, out of its most pungent drama, almost while it was still happening; he was one of those players who command respect and affection, but are almost too professional to capture the imagination of those in the stands. Nevertheless, he served the club well and was a significant (and, typically, an almost forgotten) part of its Championship-winning resurgence under Graham Taylor. A few more Keith Millens would never do football any harm, but the one and only Keith Millen is, I hope, always welcome at Vicarage Road…


Watford 2 Preston North End 2 (15/02/2011) 16/02/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Every series of Masterchef – mmm, topical – has an awful lot of contestants. That being the case, a helping hand is provided in the shape of a short, simple label for us to remember each one by, a three-words-or-less summary of their entire existence prior to having their life changed by cooking scallops with a minted pea puree for Greg and Jeff. (I know it’s not Jeff, but I can’t be bothered to look it up.)

Most commonly, this takes the form of “Father of two Tony”, “Mother of triplets Sharon” and so on. For those who haven’t offsprung, it’s a little more difficult: we’re not quite reduced to “Owner of a lawnmower Dave” or “Scrabble wizard Colin” but we’re not far off on occasion; “Experimental chef Lizzie” is always guaranteed to be heading for an early exit. All of this reached a particularly low ebb in the last series, during which the nation’s stupidity was indulged to an absurd degree as a paediatrician was belittled with the label “Children’s doctor Tim”, which made him sound as if he lived in a Wendy house and used Smarties as pretend medicine. Less a slippery slope than a sheer cliff-edge, this idiocy was presumably based upon the idea that people who might get their paed-prefixed words confused and act rashly amid that confusion should be indulged…and, presumably, that those people might imagine someone would write “paedophile” among their pastimes on a Masterchef application form….

Anyway, these labels can be somewhat misleading. And so it is with football, another thing with lots of contestants and very little time for detail: “Watford, without a win in five” and all of that. A convenient label which lumps a fairly tawdry home defeat to Brighton along with trips to Cardiff and Forest, simplifying everything for those who are just tuning in and reducing hours of football to the most basic statistical level. The depressing thing, of course, is how quickly the label starts to look accurate: for forty-five minutes, and despite some pre-match optimism generated by the welcome returns of Doyley and Cowie, we were “Watford, without a win in five” to an absolute tee. We were as much that as we were “Watford, six straight wins” as we stuffed Derby. It was horrid.

2. In many ways, it was disturbingly reminiscent of the worst of Aidy Boothroyd’s post-Premiership hangover, in which absurdly tentative, nervous defending rendered everything else that was happening on the pitch rather redundant. Of course, everything else is what gets people all cross and irritated, every aimless path howled at in overwrought despair…but, particularly against a side happy to counter-attack, conceding sloppy goals at regular intervals is the underlying problem to be solved. Here, we gave ourselves no foundation to build upon: within a minute, a daft corner crossed back in to find three or four Preston players unmarked at the far post, huddled against the elements like office workers out for a smoke.

As with those Boothroyd games, anything positive was so thoroughly undermined as to be irrelevant, as if you’ve set out on a sponsored bike ride to John O’Groats and crashed into the garden gate. All you’ll remember is the terrible stuff. For what it’s worth, after a great deal of dreadful fumbling and stumbling – Danny Drinkwater out of sorts, John Eustace off the pace – we did eventually start to summon up some kind of rhythm around the half hour mark, mainly through Don Cowie’s more considered probing down the left. The chance to equalise came and went, via a fine interchange between Danny Graham and Andreas Weimann, the former striking his shot against Turner’s legs.

Tighten up at the back, keep it goalless, and all of that seems fairly tolerable, unless you’re the kind of person who expects bottom-of-the-table teams to be imperiously thrashed and sent on their way. Concede a second – Stephen McGinn and Lee Hodson brushed aside, a half-fit Lloyd Doyley beaten at the far post – and threaten to concede a third and a fourth, and see how quickly all patience, tolerance and goodwill evaporates. Defending might not excite people, most of the time. But it’s the platform for football which does excite people. And for winning, more importantly.

3. Much has been made of our youth policy in recent months, of the bright young stars of a bright young side. Watching Dale Bennett and Lee Hodson struggle desperately over the last couple of games, you realise that there is a flipside to all of this: the first team experience can seem as if it’s nothing but brilliant, shining opportunity when you first arrive as a fearless kid, as Adam Thompson and Matt Whichelow have just done, but that’s far from the end of the story.

Rewind a year or so, and Lee Hodson was being touted as the new Nigel Gibbs. You wouldn’t have had to look very hard to find someone willing to write off his entire career at Vicarage Road last night. The truth, obviously, is that there is no definitive answer yet, no clear sense of where he’ll be in five years’ time, any more than there is with Adam Thompson and Matt Whichelow. If you want to invest time and effort in developing youngsters – and I’m delighted that we do – you have to accept that the process is possibly at its most trying and testing at this stage, the transition between promising youngster and established pro. You don’t “make it” in football until you retire at the end of a decent career.

4. Which doesn’t mean that it’s not terribly tempting to laud young Matt Whichelow for being the bright spark behind our second half revival. Even though the goal – curled elegantly from an angle after a timely burst and a neat one-two with McGinn – took a while to arrive, he was immediately energetic and direct in a central role, twisting nimbly past two challenges before Gray earned himself a booking so box-tickingly comprehensive that Jamie Hand would’ve been proud. Supported by McGinn’s endless whirring, Whichelow set a more urgent but less desperate tempo, precisely the kind of ball-carrying creativity that we’ve presumably hoped for (and have yet to see, by and large) from Andros Townsend. That acceleration would ultimately be enough to bring us level through Thompson’s debut goal, the window dressing for a rather chaotic outing for the young full-back. Even then, a third for Preston remained as likely as anything else.

5. Towards the end, we appeared to have a three-man midfield: Don Cowie, Stephen McGinn, Matt Whichelow. I have a mental image of them on a seesaw, with Jon Parkin on the other end. I’ll leave you with that thought.

Watford 1 Burnley 3 (12/02/2011) 13/02/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from what is becoming an annoyingly dependable defeat to Burnley…

1- Well that was very odd. Like a match that had been cut into pieces and put together in a random order to inappropriate bits of soundtrack. Danny Drinkwater being effortlessly put through on goal in the opening seconds surprised everyone, not least him… like a cliffhanger in the opening minutes of a TV episode. He did a reasonable job with it, steering the ball wide of Grant, a significant obstacle all afternoon, if narrowly past the post. Then the frankly ridiculous own goal, which looped back into the net over Loach’s head painfully slowly as if time was bending to allow it to drop in whilst presenting the illusion, observed by my neighbour, that any of us had time to trot down to the front of the Rookery, step over the barrier, and amble around to block it on the line. Dale Bennett’s nerve seemed to rather decimate at this turn of events, perhaps contributing to a an extremely nervous first half which saw our defence creak and rattle and yet somehow not concede any more goals despite Burnley flinging bodies at any number of crosses… we got away with 1-1 at half time. The second half… from my vantage point we tightened up an awful lot. And yet lost two goals. One of these, just as the home crowd was up and riled and behind the team in voice for the first time following Danny Fox’s crude hack on Buckley. Fox’s last game for Coventry saw him dismissed at the Ricoh against us for a similarly violent challenge, from memory. Justice would have him red carded and Burnley caving in under our indignation. Instead, Burnley took the lead and cantered off. If there’s any consolation, it’s that Danny Fox presumably lives near Burnley.

2- My first view of several of the new faces. Drinkwater’s horror show at Forest was widely reported and commented upon, and he had a number of dodgy moments in the first half but for me settled down well and was a force for good in the second. We’ve seen enough of young midfielders coming in on loan and needing a couple of games to bed in, and enough encouragement here, not to pass judgment just yet. Townsend, off the bench, was pretty much as advertised, a talented unpredictable whirligig without quite enough at the end of his twists and turns, albeit in challenging circumstances. Weimann looks decent; sharp, deft, hardworking and clever. We could probably have done with his 1-on-1 going in, if not with a view to salvaging this game then in maintaining his confidence. We’ll see how he moves on from that. And Thompson looked anything but tentative, a bold League debut for the youngster, plenty of encouragement here.

3- Chris Eagles’ first half showing illustrated why he’s still in the Championship. Whatever destabilising impact Mariappa’s shift to left back had on the rest of the back for, he was never in trouble in his new position as he anticipated each of Eagles’ twists and turns, winning any number of “Bobby Moore tackles” without making any contact with his frustrated opponent. In the second, Eagles showed why he’s nonetheless still spoken of in Premiership terms, taking the game by the scruff and winning it for his side. It’s lazy to blame the newly installed left back Hodson, switched in a half-time reshuffle, for developments; Eagles upped his game, and deserved the ovation he received from all sides on his substitution.

4- Danny Graham currently looks like Watford’s best player in every position on the pitch. Dropping back into midfield frequently, even clearing from the edge of his own area more than once, he was nonetheless on the end of everything at the right end of the pitch and merited being on the scoresheet. A gem.

5- Something of an aside, but the frustration of having lost three (three!) hats this winter was compounded by the pathetic lack of stock in the Hornets Shop as I searched for something to protect my head from the icy rain. Those who know me will recognise that I don’t set the fashion bar terribly high; my standards aren’t challenging on the whole, and I was well prepared to spend over the odds on tat to keep my head warm. But there are limits…

Watford 1 Crystal Palace 1 (01/02/2011) 02/02/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. At this level – well, at any level, but especially at this level – the transfer window is an utter absurdity, one of those momentary brainwaves that backfire spectacularly when confronted with the real world, like introducing locusts to keep the lawn trimmed. Rather than bringing stability, it cleaves the season in two: build a team for August, build another team for February. A frantic game of musical chairs: replace the loan players handed back with new ones needing to be bedded in, weigh up potential offers from Premiership clubs with cash flapping around, hope that some of whatever you had before the upheaval might survive.

Aside from Sky Sports News, tabloid newspapers and players’ agents – the cornerstones of the modern game, of course – it’s hard to see who gains. Hell, the cost to the country’s economy of people checking Twitter for deadline day news when they should be working could probably cover Fernando Torres’ wages for at least an hour….

And so, as the second act begins, this feels very much like a new team. It isn’t, not really…but there are two new loan players to figure out, plus another on the bench. Even some of the familiar faces are seen slightly differently in the light of a rumour or two, relief that they’re still here mixed with knowledge that they won’t be forever. You’ve had a pretty good idea of what you’re getting from this Watford team over the last few months; suddenly, you’re not so sure…

2. And then there’s John Eustace, bringing a dropping ball into that majestic chest trap in the centre circle, turning away to look for a pass, drifting a chip into the channel for someone younger to chase…and you know where you are again, like catching sight of the first landmark on the outskirts of your home town…

3. Briefly, as Andros Townsend wriggled through on the left and Andreas Weimann swivelled to score, this promised to be rather fun. But Palace are nothing if not a damp squib: that was as much space and time as they were prepared to afford us, and our attacking efforts were increasingly frustrated by the two holding midfielders wedged in front of the defence like a chair under a door handle. That’s the way to play us, no question. It’s dull as a muddy puddle, but it works.

This was a very different Palace to the nervous, patchy wreck that somehow beat us at Selhurst. Nothing we were allowed to do played to our strengths, leaving Danny Graham contesting high balls that he couldn’t win and Will Buckley without a meaningful kick for much of the second half. It was a long evening’s toil for all.

Of the loan players, Weimann impressed most immediately: he was hungry and aggressive from the off, although lack of service ultimately meant that he was just plain hungry. Townsend…well, I feel as if I’m being asked to judge a Best Steak Pie contest after twenty years as a vegetarian. All silk and sass and flash and panache, he appears so emphatically not my cup of tea that I’m wary of passing comment at all; suffice to say that those of us who rather miss the days when flair players had to earn the right against full-backs who could clout them into the surrounding streets without fear of punishment might have their patience tested. That said, I’d have forgiven Stephen McGinn for the error that set the equaliser in motion; it’s only fair that I do the same here. He’ll learn.

4. All of this, of course, refers to the opening forty-five minutes. Thereafter, it was very much a game of two halves: the half of the pitch you could see and the half that was completely obscured by fog. Once the ball went over the halfway line, it simply disappeared; you could get a vague sense of where it might be as the indistinct silhouettes moved to pursue it, but nothing more. And then it would appear again, sailing back into view through the blank curtain of mist.

A rather surreal half of football, then. It’s remarkable how completely the dynamics of the game change when you can only see one team’s attacks, when everything else is imaginary. I could comment on our nearly moments – Martin Taylor’s header scraped around the post via a goalline deflection, Stephen McGinn’s desperate stretch at a cross – but I’d be doing so in the knowledge that I have no idea whatsoever what might’ve happened at the other end. For all I know, Scott Loach saved a last minute penalty, they had three goals disallowed, and there was an unusual incident with a badger. Shrug.

5. At the end of it all, you can’t help feeling that we owe Palace a bit of a hiding. But then, I suspect that the whole of football feels as if it owes Palace a bit of a hiding. Inevitably, as every season, they’ll somehow escape relegation and be around to haunt us – or is just me? – again next time around. They will not go away. I have a metaphor about flushing toilets all ready and prepared, but it’s lunchtime and I won’t do that to you.

For us, you rather wish that the fixture list was a bit more forgiving. We could do with some time on the training ground to fit it all together, to forge the new team for the second half of the campaign. Once more, we’re a work-in-progress. One wonders – and with anticipation as well as trepidation, which is an achievement in itself – what’ll emerge at the other end of February…