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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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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…

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1. Nick - 23/02/2011

The mention of Keith Millen reminds me of a photo taken in the old Hornet shop in the summer of 1998. Me, Keef and Dean Yates with the (old new) division 2 championship trophy. A different era in some ways, and yet the way that Will Buckley and Lloyd were mingling with supporters pregame is a reminder that some things at the club haven’t changed.

2. NickB - 23/02/2011

Thanks, Ian. perceptive as always, particularly re the equaliser and the Hodson situation.

Thought a comment about team selection, besides the oblique reference via the Whichelow position, might have been appropriate.

I’m sure the fact that I called the midfield as lightweight, lopsided and uncreative (allowing for thin squad and injuries) before kick off did not mark me out as possessive of unique insight. Too much of the water carrier, too little flair. Cannot understand why either MW or Drinkwater failed to make the cut ahead of Jenkins and/or McGinn, particularly with Buckley absent.

Cowie seemed to spend most of the game doubling up on Adomah to protect Hodson, thus Eustace was left as the sole midfield threat, such as he can fulfil that role with everything else he has to do. Mutch is a huge miss at the moment.

Such a shame that the beautifully balanced, vibrant chock full of goals side of November and December is no longer with us.

Ian Grant - 23/02/2011

Indeed. The midfield selection did indeed merit a bit more detail, but I rather ran out of (lunch)time…

As elsewhere, the problem is that the squad’s too damn thin. While there’s still time for him to slot in somewhere, Drinkwater has yet to suggest that he offers any significant improvement to our attacking options; you could’ve played him instead of Jenkins, I guess, but I’m not convinced we would’ve been talking about a different result. Matty Whichelow has, of course, very clearly demonstrated that he can make a difference…but then you’re giving him two starts in less than a week, and I can see why Malky would want to ease him in more gently than that. And then there’s…oh, nobody at all….

3. Harefield Hornet - 23/02/2011

Re thunk 10. And very nice as well to see Jamo return to the Vic. One of our “boys” who’s had a long and successful career in the top flight and at international level. A very good keeper and a likeable guy.

As for the match – I think we need to forget about it and move on. We know we’ve got a weak squad and we know there is sod-all we can do about it for the time being.

4. rousman - 23/02/2011

Sorry but you have dressed it up well but after the performance at Reading on Saturday which was good if DG scores at 1-0 we win the game, to last night which was over the ninety minutes home or away the worst I have seen this season. Hodson confidence is shot to piece’s although unlike Saturday he was still getting the fan’s behind him not on his back for ninety minutes as last night. I am a fan of Scott Loach but sorry he has to do better with there second two goal’s at this level.

Ian Grant - 23/02/2011

We’ll have to beg to differ on that one: if you’re telling me it was worse than the shambles against Preston, then you’ve completely lost me.

Jon P - 23/02/2011

You can argue as to whether Loach should have done better for the second, but it misses the point. He had just made a good save and no one at all covered the City player who was first to the ball and able to keep the attack alive. That was what was disappointing.
As for Hodson, it’s pretty tough on him having to play in an unfamiliar position when your lacking in confidence. It just emphasises how good Lloyd Doyley has been in that position. It may be good to have a left footed left back, but it’s not essential if you’re a good defender.
Yes it was bad, but that’s what we’re going to get with this team. Don’t worry as we’ll get some some damn fine games too.

5. David Wooll-Rivers - 23/02/2011

Really pleased Ian paid tribute to Keith Millen. I always enjoyed watching him play, he was a very robust defender who really played for the cause.
Although it was not very pleasant following events from the North Riding of Yorkshire, staring with some measure of disbelief into my lap-top, somehow I don’t begrudge the points too much and hope he survives his venture into management.

6. rjcb23 - 23/02/2011

I didn’t experience the bleak depression on my walk back to the car. Instead I overheard 2 guys talking whilst eating something from a bag.
Guy1 (taking from the bag and eating it): Urgh, what are these?
Guy2: Cherries.
Guy1: What?
Guy2: Cherries.
Guy1: Why don’t they taste like Haribo cherries?

Well, it made me chuckle and took my mind off the rather poor show.

7. NickW - 23/02/2011

It was far more frustrating than the shambles against Preston because I think we expected a bit more.

Hodson will come good provided this spell hasnt scarred him for life but perhaps he needs some time away from the Vic to forget recent mistakes and get his confidence back. Its a shame we havent got players in place to allow this. It seems like he’s forgotten he’s allowed to challenge for the ball.

I feel for our players having to play on that pitch during home games, I think I would rather watch us play away rather than watch that dross at home until they sort the playing surface out; shame I’ve already paid my season ticket.

8. Simmo - 23/02/2011

I think special mention is required for our pitch. Up to the New Year we were still able to play football on the ground. Last night I lost count of the number of times the City defenders won headers simply because we had to take a more direct route as a result of the underfoot conditions. It is no coincidence that we seem to play better away where the pitches allow us to play football at pace and more accustomed to our current style.

With regard to Lee Hodson, the kid needs to be cut some slack. Not only is he learning the game but he is being asked to play out of position which is not his fault. There were plenty of other poor performances last night (step forward Messrs Loach, Mariappa, Eustace and Jenkins to name a few) yet Hodson gets booed. As has already been said by others Hodson needs a rest from the first team so he can work on his game and hopefully prove his doubters wrong. I hope he still comes good and that he is not written off before his career has really begun.

The real problem is not Hodson but (as everyone knows) that we are not balanced without a left footed left back. The loss of A. Taylor is probably far more reaching than we could have imagined. However, we are where we are and we have to accept that while we cannot play with fluency because of the pitch and lack of balance we will not be as good as we were earlier in the season.

However I am already looking forward to next season assuming we can keep our squad together (with a few additions) and the egg chasers move to their wonderful new plastic pitch.

9. Rupe - 23/02/2011

Ig You cannot put a turd in a kinder surprise and call it a present. Last night was grim. Playing Ross Jenkins at home against anyone in the Championship is unacceptable – sadly the alternative Dishwater is almost as bad. Mackay deserves credit for the fantastic loan signings of Mutch and Taylor but the current crop of loanees have cancelled out all the goodwill in my book. Townsend was a waste of space hence his return to Spurs. Drinkwater ponces about as if he is a superstar but appears incapable of putting a tackle in. Weimann is decent but why is he playing ahead of Sordell and Deeney – our OWN players?

Ian Grant - 23/02/2011

Damn, Rupe, what am I going to get you for Christmas now…?

Didn’t say that it wasn’t grim. Just pointing out that it could’ve been a grim victory as easily as it ended up being a grim defeat. And a grim victory can be the start of something less grim.

Harefield Hornet - 24/02/2011

While players are on loan there is an unwritten rule they should be play at every available opportunity which is why Townsend has departed and one of the reasons Weimann is starting. The other reason is that MM is probably affording Sordell some respite. He is another very young player who needs careful management to avoid burn-out. While we have other options up front that seems sensible. As has been highlighted countless times already we don’t have the luxury to do this in Defence and Midfield, which answers your other point about Jenkins and Drinkwater.

10. Roger Smith - 23/02/2011

I admire your spirit, Ian, but this any every season has too many what might have been’s. OK, so we’ve a small, young squad – so you’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got, and I don’t think Malky did on Tuesday.

The pitch is the same for both teams, but City seemed much more at home on it. Maybe we’re not trying what would actually work if we did. What we are doing is making it easy for opposing defenders by crowding into only half the pitch. So everyone’s marked, and all we can do is to keep the ball until we lose it. If we don’t have any wingers, then someone else has to get wide and stay wide, and I don’t mean Graham or Thompson.

Ian Grant - 23/02/2011

…but assuming that you’re protecting Whichelow (and I really think we have to defer to Malky’s judgement on that), there are no players in the side who’ll take anyone on and beat them. You get limited width from Cowie and McGinn, but they’ll look inside for a pass because they don’t have the pace to go outside. Who else is there? The options are so limited. Any suggestions?

Matt Lovett - 23/02/2011

Yes:
Loach
Thompson Bennett Taylor Mariappa

Whichelow Eustace McGinn/Deeney Cowie

Graham Sordell

IG, I almost always agree with what you write, but as for Whichelow, if he’s old enough to be awarded a professional contract he should expect/want/be physically & mentally capable of playing 40+ games a season. As far as I’m concerned if Malky is trying to ‘protect’ him in some way, he shouldn’t be on a pro contract in the first place.
I wrote after Burnley that Bennett was shot, but I still think playing him in the middle would be a better bet than playing Hodson at LB. Mariappa is now one of the most senior players in the team, and he should be able to cope there until Lloyd returns.

Ian Grant - 24/02/2011

I’ve no problem with playing Mariappa at left-back: not his best position, but he looked perfectly decent there in the first half at Burnley. The problem is that the rest of it – and not only because Dale Bennett had a nightmare – was disorganised panic of the most undignified kind. If Burnley had scored the goals they should’ve scored, I’m not sure we’d even be talking about the idea of trying it again. Whatever, the key point stands: that there really isn’t an obvious solution, given the available players.

As for Whichelow…well, it doesn’t work like that, does it? The upshot of what you’re suggesting is that a) we lose potentially brilliant players because they’re not ready to play forty-odd games when they’re still kids (would you not want to sign Whichelow, then, as it stands?) and b) we ruin many of those we do decide to sign by playing them into the ground rather than giving them time to recover and, particularly, to learn on the training ground. As I’ve said before, I think we have to defer to Malky’s judgement on whether Whichelow should be playing every game. He obviously thinks he needs time away from the pitch; that’s good enough for me.

Matt Lovett - 24/02/2011

Fair enough chief – in Malky we trust (well, I do anyway!).

Ian Grant - 24/02/2011

Yeah, me too. Whatever quibbles you might have with this or that, he’s been a terrific custodian of this football club at a time when it desperately, desperately needed one. The last two seasons have far exceeded expectations; it’s to be hoped that things start looking up sooner rather than later, if only to relieve any pressure on an excellent young manager and an excellent young team.

11. SwindonDave - 23/02/2011

My thoughts on the game which lasted all the way down the M4 started with a comparison of the Burnley game which had the same end result. In both we had enough chances to win the game but if we continue to concede at the rate we do currently we give ourselves too much to do.
I am sure like others that our regular Dec back four would have coped better, are there no left footed left backs out there as ’emergency loanees’ and then Lloyd back at RB!

12. Dave Jackson - 23/02/2011

Last night was another example of a lack of creativity. Surely Wichelow was worth a start to give some much needed width? ( 81 minutes gone by the time he was allowed on!)
The pitch is crap for both sides but we can’t keep hiding behind that as other teams continue to go home with the points. And should we risk playing someone wide that is where the pitch is at its best as Stuart Slater pointed out last night.
Anyone know why Townsend was sent back? A creative left footer might be quite useful even if he’s not the finished article, and from the two occasions I saw him, he was, when given a chance, more threatening than anything seen from midfield in the last 2 or 3 home games.

13. MartinG - 23/02/2011

Blootering the ball repeatedly up the park straight down the throat of two big, and good, defenders was tedious to watch and utterly ineffective. Watch good teams and they build from the back, as did we when we were playing well. Even still we made a few good chances (Weimann, Thompson, Graham) despite a poor performance. We’ll tank somebody soon when our shooting boots return.

14. Brianmunich - 23/02/2011

Frankly, I’m just happy that IG is back doing regular match reports, that’s surely worth an extra point per season and even if it isn’t it makes it all a lot more bearable.

Happy Days!

Ian Grant - 24/02/2011

Thanks, Brian. I’ve contacted the Football League about the extra point and they’ve said they’re “looking into it”.

Hornetboy84 - 25/02/2011

So – thats only 5 points now needed for safety (and success) this season. Cool.

15. Andrew J - 24/02/2011

As I see it, our game plan between now and May should be:
1. Get the two wins we need for safety and then try to get a good run-in to give us a springboard for a top six challenge next year when the youngsters will be one year further on in their development.
2. Accept that we will not get another left back this season, rotate Doyley, Hodson and Thompson in the ‘unwanted’ position, and scour the list of those players soon to be out of contract for a left back with Premiership or Championship experience, then make him our best contract offer without bankrupting ourselves. Before Robbo, we had no decent left back for over two years, and ended up in the Second Division – anyone remember Dominic Ludden? By the way, Phil Neville is just one example of a right footer who made a career at left back – easier to do at Old Trafford perhaps, but shows that it can be done.

Ian Grant - 24/02/2011

Matt’ll remember Dominic Ludden. Oh yes. He still has the voodoo doll, I believe.

Personally, I’d have no problem with playing Lloyd Doyley at left-back, were he fit. Not a perfect solution, but comfortably the best that’s available…and Lee Hodson’s current woes emphasise how hard it can be to swap sides and how well Lloyd’s generally done when asked to do it.

16. SteveG - 24/02/2011

I’m with Ian on this – hugely disappointing of course, and while agreeing with all that’s been said about lack of creativity, the line between success and failure is mighty thin. It wasn’t that bad, and if we’d taken one other chance in the first half and the farcical goal hadn’t happened we go in 2-0 up and it might have been a very different game from then on in. Even on a night where there was a lot of hopeful hoofing which never looked as though it was likely to be successful, we still created enough chances to win.

On the Left Back Problem… switching Lloyd is the best alternative because (a) he’s a bloody good defender; (b) his distribution isn’t brilliant when he’s on the right, so we don’t lose as much when he’s on the ‘wrong foot’. Hodson is having a tough time, but he really doesn’t deserve all the abuse he’s getting at the moment.

And I wonder if Malky was maybe thinking of protecting Whichelow from the ‘fans’ as much as from muscular experienced championship professionals who might rough him up a bit. He looks a great talent to me, but he’ll make mistakes too…and while the paying punters do of course have the right to shout abuse and boo our own young players, it’s not easy to see how this will help matters improve. Let’s see if he gets more starts in away games.

17. Gerry - 24/02/2011

Nice thunks, Ig, especially the Keith Millen tribute which was bang on. Did he get a decent reception from the Rookery? Mind you, you’ve got to be the wrong side of 40 to remember him playing…

The result didn’t surprise me. WFC’s done this so often – gone on a terrific run of N wins on the trot, then one defeat and it’s a winless run of 2N matches. This happens every other season, and in this case could be down to the youth of the squad losing confidence. But wtf, had we been offered mid-table obscurity at the season start every ‘Orn would have taken it with open arms as a relegation struggle was expected.

Andrew J’s got it right: get a couple more wins for safety, then build for the future. And if any Rookeryite calls for Mackays head on a platter, as some are surely doing already (there are a f*ck of a lot of moaners at home) s/he should be strung up over a scorpion pit with cheese wire. Continuity is the key to a successful future for this club, and I sincerly hope to see Mackay here in two season’s time at least.

18. Sirhornet - 25/02/2011

Re: Left back, anyone know what Jordan Stewart’s doing these days?

Ian Grant - 25/02/2011

Shudder.

Simmo - 25/02/2011

Last I heard he was in Greece at Skoda Xanthi but dreaming of playing along side David Beckham in LA. Instead he ended up playing along side Ellington……..could someone else add a suitable punchline please?

Apperley 'Orn - 26/02/2011

I believe he was last seen orbiting the planet Jupiter, attempting to retrieve one of his spooned passes down the line…

19. Hornetboy84 - 25/02/2011

So –
We are all a little upset / frustrated? Why? – I guess its cos we all secretly have an eye on sneaking into the play-0ffs , doing a Blackpool and getting our finances sorted (and so avoiding the implausible chaos of the clealry flawed publicity seeking Bassani/Tomayto plan).

Just goes to show what a superb custodian Malky is as we are so over-achieving its untrue. Micky Adams anyone?

I have been (un)fortunate to miss last 4 games and just been reminded by the misses that I committed to going Dorothy hunting at Wizard of Oz musical with the kids next week so miss Millwall – so can keep hiding … but when i look at our run in i cant help thinking every point is a godsend on the way to 52.

Whilst missing the games I can confirm my crutch hop into the kitchen after the game on tuesday was equally forlorn and it took me 3 days to pluck up the courage to watch the “highlights” … but you can clearly see the first ball must still have been on the pitch when the throw was taken. And for that reason only the goal should not have stood.

Ps Re: Townsend. I basically think the boy was fat and unfit and there is some diplomacy in them there words from Malky as sensibly if Matty needed a rest then wouldnt Townsend have played to keep shape and width. Would question his attitude/desire if you look hard enough at his career so far.

NickB - 26/02/2011

You say Tomayto, I say tomato…

And Apperley ‘Orn, that Jordan Stewart gag is sublime

20. JohnF - 26/02/2011

I have just returned from business abroad and missed the game on Tuesday. Reading the posts is interesting after a week’s break. IG good stuff but I’m still worried about this creeping depression. Think, only 2 months to go and no Sarries. That has to be good. Only a few more points and we are safe from relegation with an amazingly young squad.

The dip in form coincides with 3 important factors; 1, the heavy rain which always was going to result in the pitch being wrecked, 2, the departure of our two excellent loanees and 3, several injuries to key players.

I notice the number of people that blame Loach for most of this when he actually contributes a great deal to keeping out the opposition, with little comment on the glaring misses from our strikers. We continue to create chances so it will change eventually but perhaps not at home.

I agree Townsend doesn’t look to be for us if he will not buckle down and play for the team. That shows real immaturity.

What gives with the hatred aimed at Jordan Stewart, he was no worse than so many of our left backs, he was a key player in the play-off final and he was one of our better players in the premier season. As for spooning passes out, one of the reasons that Lloyd manages at left back is that he can’t do what he does at right back, spooning passes out down the line.

Remember that the reason that the potential owners went public was because the word was out while they have managed to keep things quiet for 2 months. Doesn’t seem like publicity seeking to me. We need someone who will maintain stability and remember buyers are not exactly lining up.

Ian Grant - 28/02/2011

“Hatred” is a bit strong, John. It’s merely that the memory of Jordan Stewart ambling around indolently even when urgency was required contrasts rather starkly with the strong work ethic that Malky’s instilled. For all his good points – and there were quite a few – I can’t help thinking that he wouldn’t have survived very long under the Mackay-Dyche-Eustace regime…

21. Bob - 28/02/2011

apparently jordan stewart was well liked by his team mates and a leader in the dressing room! (can’t remember who was quoted saying that now). However i have to concur with Ig’s shudder, he is the only watford player to date that i have not wished well of. Could not stand the sight of him in a yellow shirt. truly awful and could not see what he bought to the team.

Not sure about rupe’s comment no.9 regarding this crop of loanees. Malky probably thought he couldnt say no to Man Utd, townsend was sent back promptly when we saw wichelow stepping up and wieman looks hungry everytime he comes on. drinkwater reminds me of early lansbury and needs to be given a good shoeing until he starts to tackle and run back.
A threat on BOTH wings (buckleys return will right this) and hodson to regain his confidence is all we lack. thereafter peace and happiness will overcome us all.


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