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Watford 3 Sheffield United 0 (12/03/2011) 13/03/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a bizarre afternoon at Vicarage Road…

1- Interpretation of the result will be distorted by the perspective introduced by two red cards in the first half (see below), but it shouldn’t be. It’s perfectly possible to make heavy weather of a numerical advantage, and on this occasion we did anything but, belying the number of kids on show (which was considerable, even if this was as experienced a line-up as we’ve been able to field of late). I’ve not seen the possession figures for the second half, but they’re likely to be dramatic; we kept the ball with admirable diligence and regularly had two or three men stretched to the opposite flank to enable the play to be switched at will. The scoreline could have been more emphatic, but job done frankly.

Nor should it be forgotten that there we were comfortably on top before the dramatic developments towards the end of the first half. The opening goal had owed something to fortune; Simonsen made a terrific save to keep his own defender’s header out, only to see the ball drop onto Danny Graham’s head. The United keeper was the one genuinely unfortunate member of the visiting side, since another fine save to a Thompson header in the second half would be unsympathetically punished by Martin Taylor. Ross Jenkins grabbed his first goal at the Vic with the goal of the game late on, a fine strong run and guided header.

But the real story of the first goal, and indeed the opening twenty minutes, was in the vulnerability of United’s centre-backs in the absence of injured Chris Morgan. We had clearly targeted this area, since every time we won possession in the first half we’d send the ball straight down their throats with lone striker Graham chasing gamely. These balls were often too rushed to be particularly precise, the emphasis clearly on exposing the defenders’ lack of alertness with a quick turnaround, but they still caused havoc. Lowry and Collins tottered around like two drunks left on the dancefloor at the end of the night after the music had stopped, occasionally colliding and seeming forever on the verge of falling over. No surprise that one of the two played such a key role in the opening goal.

Micky Adams suggested post-game that “we’ll never know whether Watford are any good or not”, a comment with some truth in it. Certainly any Ipswich scouts will have learned a limited amount. But whose fault was that, frankly? You can only beat the garbage tipped in front of you. Speaking of which…

2- No ignoring the key talking points any longer; the first half dismissals of the two ex-Orns in the United ranks. I haven’t seen Doris’ first booking again; from the far end of the pitch it looked harsh, but he’d just lost a physical coming together with Taylor, had appealed for a foul (not given), and thrown himself in his own distinctive style into the next aerial encounter in a bit of a strop.

At any rate, he can surely have no complaints. Having seen the incident again, I can believe that the exercise started out as a misjudged lunge at the ball. It proceeded via feet some way off the ground to a young full back prone on the pitch for five minutes before being stretchered off in an oxygen mask. Already on a yellow, he’s frankly fortunate that a straight red didn’t incur a longer ban. All of United’s threat departed with him; there can’t have been many visiting players sent off in such circumstances who have been applauded off by the home support. One suspects that the applause wouldn’t have been quite as generous after a replay of the challenge.

Lee Williamson was just bloody stupid. The referee had set himself an impossibly low bar with a harsh booking of Ross Jenkins after handbags with Williamson in the first five minutes; given this, and given the inflamed nature of procedings, to fly straight into a challenge leading with your forearm and poleaxe your opponent is just idiotic. He might have gotten away with a yellow, it’s true, but I can also see the argument that dangerous play is dangerous play and the fact that Doyley got up again relatively quickly was something that Williamson’s challenge hadn’t guaranteed. At any rate, a footballer completely devoid of intelligence is a danger to himself and others. Williamson made a very tall order impossible for the visiting side.

As a footnote, part of Watford’s achievement was in doing so little to give the referee the chance to even the score subsequently. Buckley got a “Van Persie booking”, that was it. Admittedly it’s easier to stay on the right side of the referee with 80% possession; nonetheless, very disciplined stuff from our boys.

3- I emailed a United-supporting friend before the game enquiring how a side who should surely be mid-table fodder at worst found themselves in such a position. His reply was grey and dispirited, a position entirely justified by the god-awful shambles that was the United side. We’ve already discussed the defence; actually the one commendable aspect of the United effort came after the dismissals, when they actually did a reasonable job of restricting Watford’s possession to the edge of the penalty area even if it did resemble a coconut shy.

But the midfield. Good god. When Lee Williamson, surely an all-rounder at best, represents all of your creativity you’re in trouble. Nick Montgomery, Mickey Doyle, Stephen Quinn and Williamson surely constitutes as close to midfield of cloned workhorses as the division has ever seen.

In the second half, with Watford about to mount yet another assault on United’s goal, Micky Adams sulkily kicked a stray ball onto the pitch to disrupt proceedings. That’s the behaviour of a (stupid) teenage substitute, not a manager. The Sheffield derby looks like returning to the calendar next season, then.

4- A(nother) word for Lee Hodson, victim of Henderson’s assault, who may have become the second young Hornet in a fortnight to have departed long term with injury. It speaks volumes that, just weeks after Hodson was amongst those attracting stick during our iffy run, he was retained at left-back whilst Lloyd Doyley initially returned on the right. And nobody was terribly surprised. His recent performances have displayed an application and depth of character that should stand him in good stead. The quicker he’s back, the better off we’ll be.

5- Our biggest stroke of luck yesterday, whatever blinkered perspective Adams might possess, was that we got the goal before the dismissals. It’s much, much easier to take advantage of a numerical superiority when you’ve already got the lead. As it was, as professional as we were in doing what had to be done, as utterly pathetic as United’s attempts to make a game of it were, there were still moans and groans in the Rookery as attacks hit the eight men that the visitors had behind the ball. I refuse to believe that quite so many Hornets had never watched a game of football before.

Fixture lists and holidays conspire to mean that I won’t be at another game before Leeds United in a month’s time. ig will hopefully thunk in the meantime; with this victory taking us over that 52 point target for safety that stopped feeling like an issue a week ago, anything from here on in is a bonus. Top half anonymity would be a great result, a pitch at the play-offs not out of the question but a long shot. Either way, a fantastic achievement for all concerned already.


Watford 1 Millwall 0 (05/03/2011) 06/03/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a most welcome win against Millwall

1- It’s all about the points, quite obviously. However theoretical the threat of relegation had been before kick-off, the winless run will have had many glancing down the table and calculating our margin of safety. Malky’s assertion that many of the dropped points can cite mitigating circumstances and stout performances wasn’t inaccurate, but with a young team and a small squad we were always at risk of building downward momentum.

In spite of which, and in spite in particular of the blows to our midfield this week (see below), this was a fine, spirited performance. Millwall contributed in no small part to a game that was far more watchable than a 1-0 home win in a mid-table encounter might suggest… they played an open game, which suits us now as much as it did at the New Den at the beginning of the season. In reality the result could easily have gone the other way but the best move of the game won it, the incomparable Graham applying yet another effortlessly ruthless finish to Cowie’s visionary pass.

2- Lots of good performances throughout the team – Loach made some vital stops, the maligned Hodson was under less pressure at left back than he has been but responded with a very positive performance, and Deeney justified his selection on the right, his additional physical presence provoking the obligatory spat with Darren Purse.

It was the midfield that was particularly impressive though, in the light of the absences of the injured Drinkwater, suspended Eustace, and most tragically Stephen McGinn who we’re seemingly not going to see again much before Christmas at best. It’s easy to look back at the selection and call it inspired; in reality we had so few options that the central pairing of Jenkins and Cowie almost selected itself.

They were magnificent, both as individuals and as a pair. Such a performance was closer to standard fare for Cowie, whose tireless, selfless contribution and range of passing has been a feature of our best runs of form. He brought a devil to the centre of midfield that we’ve not seen much of since Mutch left.

But the platform was provided by Jenkins. After his eye-catching run alongside Jack Cork in Brendan Rodgers’ season two years ago he seemed to have stalled somewhat, never recapturing that form and often struggling to impose himself positively in spasmodic runs in midfield. From the start of the following season his “problem” was fairly clear; John Eustace, who returned from loan at Derby to unexpectedly and decisively relaunch his Watford career. As much as Jenkins and Cork complemented each other, Jenkins and Eustace just didn’t work and it was inevitably the junior partner who was relegated from the side.

But this was terrific stuff. Uncomplicated, unfussy, snapping into tackles, supplying Cowie, keeping himself and the game moving. A reminder of what this lad has to offer, and why he was being cooed over two years ago.

Sorry, that was a long thunk. He deserved it tho.

3- Whilst it doesn’t make the slightest difference to my decision (or many others’, I would guess) to attend or otherwise, I am greatly enjoying the half-time parading of Watford Legends that has become a feature this season. This one was deemed “Legends’ Day”, and so Dennis Bond, Alan Mayes, Keith Mercer, Brian Pollard (who just about pre-date me), Tom Walley, Luther, Cally, Les Taylor, Neil Price, Steve Palmer and Tommy Mooney were all trotted out at the interval. Deserved as their ovation was I can’t have been the only one disappointed that the visiting manager, whose 300-odd games for us in the eighties make him more than worthy of the implied status, wasn’t acknowledged by the home crowd. It’s not as if the visiting Lions, present in good number, didn’t give us the opportunity, pointing out just how many Kenny Jacketts there are on several occasions.

4- You’ll have noticed that we don’t have a particularly wide range of targets at set pieces; as such, nobody is under any illusions as regards where to focus when we send a corner or a long throw into the box – least of all our opposition. Millwall, as is becoming traditional, double-marked Martin Taylor in such circumstances; they’d have been daft not to. It’s not unreasonable to expect the referee’s attention to be similar; if not as focused, then at least conscious of where the action’s likely to be. As such, his missing of the early foul on Taylor in front of the Rookery was extraordinary. Taylor’s assailant presumably didn’t intend to hoist his shirt quite as high as he had – virtually round his neck, if not over his head – but given that he had it was kinda hard to miss. Unless you were looking in completely the wrong direction. G.Salisbury must have been the only one who was.

5- To revisit thunk 1, the lingering memory of this game will be of a gripping, if not quite rip-roaring, afternoon of second division football. Two sides better at attacking than defending (despite the scoreline), drama at both ends, a slightly volatile subtext that didn’t quite boil over and the odd pantomime villain to boot (hello again, Darren Purse), this was thoroughly enjoyable stuff. And the last time I remember penning a thunk like that was after Leicester… a similar run in the wake of this welcome victory would do very nicely.