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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.


1. Harefield Hornet - 16/02/2011

The first half was so terribly bad it almost became funny at times. The only positive we can take from the second half, apart from the two goals from the subs and the performance of Matt Whichelow, is that it probably can’t get any worse than this! – or can it? The much maligned pitch will be even more interesting next Tuesday after the egg-chasers have been on it again this weekend. Anyone got a steamroller?

2. JohnF - 16/02/2011

Blimey Ian, this one really depressed you, great thunks though. What is most worrying is the very poor performance from some of the senior players. Not least is actually starting at the same time as the opposition. However, dips in form such as Graham’s dip in finishing, are to be expected. One problem is that Mariappa’s confidence which is always fragile, visibly evaporated over the game. It is also clear that when they try and play their way into the game the pitch is a major barrier. Adapting to the pitch is a requirement but we can’t go long ball because we only win one in ten high balls. I’m sure that Eustace will get over it and Cowie will get sharper after their lay-offs. Still the last run of wins started with a come back and we only need another 8 points for safety. The new youngsters might yet deliver the spark?

Ian Grant - 16/02/2011

Didn’t mean to come across as particularly depressed, to be honest; we could be having a dip in form from a much more precarious position, after all. It was a tough evening…but we did that to ourselves by conceding that daft early goal. If you don’t concede that goal, then you have time to play yourselves into the game.

3. Playing crap teams into form. - 16/02/2011

I know it is an old chestnut but at times when we were 2-0 or 2-1 down PNE had a couple of corners but kept up to 5 players on the halfway line but we drew everyone back to the penalty area. Why?

4. Matt Rowson - 16/02/2011

I read John O’Groats in the context of the comparison with Boothroyd’s team and my brain received “John-Joe O’Toole”.

I’m not sure what this means, but I don’t doubt that it’s Stephen McGinn’s fault.

5. Graham - 16/02/2011

Re Thunk 3:
There were too many people having a go at Lee Hodson, a 19 year old who is approaching 50 games, he needs to work on his game – yes – but also shortcomings have been exposed and the opposition have identified this out before the game and targeted this – something most 19 year old players will not get exposed to as they are not playing this ofter in the first team. Hodson has been targeted by the same tactics, switching sides did not change this – put the ball in his area and then put him under immidiate pressue – push up when he has the ball, physically dominate him. To try and cope he has tried to back off a little – but this has left too large a gap to be attacked. Last night Preston (just as Burnley did on Saturday) switched their emphasis from one side to the other rather than putting Thompson under the same pressure.
When players first come through especially defenders (such as Thompson) these weaknesses are not known so some tactics wont work and he will look like he copes and is a great player – however as a defender there is nowhere to hide – you cannot have a ‘quiet’ game. Attacking players make their names from their great games, a couple of good games followed by 10 poor ones, if/when he is dropped it does not take mutch for calls to bring him on in case he has a good game. A defender 10 good games followed by a couple of bad ones – he should never play for the club again and there wont be calls for him to return.
What will make (or not) the careers of our young players is if they work on their flaws and learn to ‘cope’ better then eventually be comfortable in what to do, even if to begin with it is a ‘hoof’ upfield or an automatic kick out for a throw, the opposition will then not get the same joy and in turn will take some pressure off – because they have to change the tactic (even if it is not nice to watch and as frustrating for fans it is better than what has been happening). We also need to be able to counter this as a team, too many times he seemed exposed without the team backing him up. What would be great is to be able to take then out of the firing line – work on this before putting them back in. However we dont have those options, we need faith that this is being worked on in training and there will be improvement over time and be patient.

6. Stephen Hoffman - 16/02/2011

I was surprised with Eustace, who I am a big fan of. Normally even if Eustace is having a bad game, he will be shouting on the pitch, geeing up the rest of the pitch and generally rallying the team, as a captain should. For the first time ever with Eustace, I saw none of that. I am at a loss to know why.

7. Sequel - 16/02/2011

Malky’s been reading the stats which show that fewer goals are conceded from corners if you defend with 11 players back. That’s all very well, as long as you don’t commit the cardinal sin of not-pushing-out when the ball is played deep first.

8. DM - 16/02/2011

Rowson, these are ig’s thunks and are fine without your intervention…

For all the gnashing of teeth about Hodson, he is still a fine prospect. Plenty of youngsters who impress early in their career then level out. It’s at that point they drop back into the reserves, build on the experience gained and come back stronger and better players. Our issue is that we have no choice but to keep them in the team given the lack of depth in our squad, when a spell out of the firing line would do wonders. As much as the academy keeps churning out some excellent prospects, we would all do well to remember that they are just that, and should not be expected to perform wonders every week… Time to cut a bit of slack, especially given our league position is still a lot more healthy than we expected it to be…

9. Esp - 17/02/2011

The other bloke you called Jeff on Masterchef is in fact John Terrode whose restaurant Smiths of Smithfields I used to frequent when I worked in ths City.
His portions are so big that the meat on your plate would weigh more than the combined weight of our midfield on Tuesday (who I now have a permanent vision of in my brain balancing on a see saw in Cassiobury Park thanks to your match report ig!)

10. Dave Jackson - 17/02/2011

Agree that people are being too critical of Hodson, especially as he had the non-tackling McGinn playing in front of him. However, on current form, perhaps Thompson looks the better bet.
In the absence of Buckley, didn’t anyone else find it strange that there was no place in the starting line up for either Wichelow or Townsend (preferably one on each side of Cowie and Eustace)? This isn’t being wise after the event as those within earshot at the time will testify. Anyone else think we needed more width to take the game to Preston?

11. Hornetboy84 - 17/02/2011

After the Derby game MR advised that the current team should not be taken for granted. Sadly thats just what too many individuals are doing.

I have had the poorest of timing for a planned op that meant I missed the last 2 games and will miss Reading & Bristol City also – so maybe I am little blinkered …. but its still about getting 52 points, then having fun and seeing what happens?

Isnt it?

HB 84

12. Lesley-Anne - 17/02/2011

Agree with Graham’s comments; some of the things being said about Lee Hodson are shameful especially considering his age. Malky did make the point that he is being asked to play out of position and even Mariappa, who is much more experienced, struggles with that. As Graham says, we do not have the option of not playing Hodson at the moment so the fans must get behind him and try and get his confidence back. Interestingly he looked more assured playing for the full Northern Ireland squad last week, possibly not being targetted in the way Graham mentioned but probably not being attacked by the fans either.

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