Watford 0 Derby County 1 (13/08/2011) 14/08/2011Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1a. For all the excitement of the season’s first home game, and with it a bunch of new kids to pick on or befriend, it takes about ten minutes for a certain weary familiarity to set in. Derby hang around the division like one of those odd jobs – the wonky cupboard door in the kitchen, the bit of painting in the spare room, the wisteria in need of a trim – that would only take half an hour but that you never quite get around to sorting out. In the latter case, the wisteria growing up the front of our house has got so carried away by the summer’s heady blend of sunshine and rain that anyone standing on our front steps for longer than a minute or two is liable to become so entwined that they may never escape. And that’s your introductory metaphor.
1b. (And, yes, I’m fully aware that they probably feel much the same about us.)
2. Let’s peel away the layers…on the surface, a disappointing defeat to opponents who, for much of the ninety minutes, appeared too vulnerable in key areas to last the distance without conceding. Derby spent much of the contest merely dodging away from the ropes…apart from Jamie Ward, who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time playing the ginola somewhere on the lush green (for now) turf. They weren’t up to much…and then they scored a fine goal…and then they weren’t up to much again.
When you lose a game like that some time in January or February, probably on a wet Tuesday night, then you can usually shrug it off as an annoyance, an occupational hazard; you’ll do the same to someone else soon enough and chuckle knowingly. Early on, however, the desire to piece together a picture of the season means that you tend to read into it rather more than it deserves…
3. Underneath the surface, then, was a game that the result doesn’t even begin to reflect. A game in which the victors managed only one meaningful effort on goal, having been penned in for long periods by a rather laboured but nevertheless generally effective Watford performance. In which the Jenkins-Eustace midfield was both the strength (a robust, bossy underlining of our superiority) and the weakness (lack of ingenuity meaning that the superiority counted for too little). In which, if you run through the key incidents in your mind, there were at least half a dozen moments where nothing much except good fortune, perhaps aided by defensive heroism, prevented the ball ending up in the Derby net.
So, we didn’t do a lot wrong. Indeed, you can pick out some hopefully significant positives: whenever we did manage to spread play out wide, particularly to Mark Yeates on the right, you could feel the Derby defence start to wobble. The most notable difference is the extra threat from Craig Forsyth, unfortunate not to crown a couple of positive first half runs; goals will result from getting crosses into the box, of that there is no doubt. Even during a less dominant second half, there were chances – for John Eustace, for newly-arrived Gavin Massey with a free header – that we’d hope, perhaps expect, to stick away. This really wasn’t one of those one-nil defeats, best forgotten right away.
4. Another layer down, though, you can find cause for concern…even though drawing too many conclusions from a couple of games would be deeply unwise. Because there really wasn’t enough guile to go with the physical dominance; it was an attacking performance that screamed out for the angles created by a Cowie or a McGinn (or a Graham, but we’ll get to that), the bright sparks who can shape the space for others to play in. The Derby defence teetered when we spread play into wide areas, but we did so only occasionally; for the rest, we were looking for a moment of inspiration from a less than inspired but thoroughly industrious core, searching for diamonds amid the engine room coal.
That might be enough sometimes. It should’ve been enough yesterday, in all honesty. But we’re short of that extra dimension, of the bit that the opponents’ manager hasn’t thought of and the opponents’ plan can’t prevent. We’re short of what Stephen McGinn gave us in his all-too-brief spell of playing behind the strikers last season, of what Prince Buaben gives us in, so far, our imagination…even of what Marvin Sordell might give us if we can channel him into a defined role with a compatible partner. Or of what we need to be looking for from another new face.
5. Which brings us, not for the first time and perhaps not for the last either, to the inestimable Danny Graham. For it was he that we missed most of all: his restless movement, his second-sight awareness, his willingness to make unfashionable runs, his empathetic touch when playing in colleagues. Inevitable, of course…we weren’t ever not going to miss all of that, nor could we ever hope to replace it even if we’d spent every last penny received from Swansea. Chris Iwelumo has a thankless task…and a squad number that he probably should’ve passed on.
Given all of that, it’s desperately hard not to single Iwelumo out…and a little unfair until he’s fully match-fit. But there were two first half moments which made you want to drive to south Wales and bundle Danny Graham into the boot of your car. One, where Sordell retrieved possession in the centre circle and tricked his way past an opponent…and Graham is instantly on his bike (and possibly flagged offside) where Iwelumo is still standing with his back to goal. Two, where Jenkins makes a positive move from the right, plays it into the big fella and charges into the box for the return ball…which is clumsily over-hit in a way that our last number ten never clumsily over-hit anything. Or so it seems now, looking back.
For all its solid midtable-ness, last season was a high watermark that’ll be hard to reach again. It’s a lot to live up to. Yesterday’s exertions didn’t make the task look any easier. Perhaps Tuesday’s opponents – something other than last season and last season’s stars to define ourselves against – will be exactly what we need….
6. Happy birthdays, Pat and Joe.