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Watford 2 Millwall 1 (27/09/2011) 28/09/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

No, it’s not him.  It’s me.  Tough.  He’s busy seeing a man about some pigeons.  Seriously.

1- Better.  Obviously.  Clearly.  Forget the result – we’ll come to that.  In comparison to Saturday… there was a bit of vim, a bit of life.  Some movement in front of the ball – not enough, perhaps, but better than the horrid, turgid rigidity that made a breakthrough against Forest so unlikely.  Jonathan Hogg continues to look like a decent player signed to do a job that didn’t really need doing… but last night he pushed forward to support the attack, overcoming what appears to be a natural instinct to sit alongside Eustace in front of the back four;  the effect was dramatic, like kicking your heel into an icy, frozen puddle and watching the cracks ripple out.  We had options going forward, we unsettled Millwall’s defence, made them think, made them move.  If our attacks still felt unnatural, as if we were doing something that forced us out of our comfort zone, we were at least applying a reasonable amount of pressure, and were worthy of the three points.  Most of all, if Feeney’s bizarre goal for the visitors was absolutely the last reward that our display needed or deserved, our guts in retrieving the situation and turning it around – and if our goals owed something to bad defending then we were at least applying pressure, giving the Lions the chance to make errors, and there to capitalise – once again demonstrated a resilience that hasn’t really been in question all season, despite the apparent limitations of the side.

2- And there are still limitations.  Yesterday was a step in the right direction, a more positive performance, and the result something to build on.  But there’s no avoiding that we’re desperately short of quality in wide positions, that our attacking play is nothing like incisive, inventive or interesting enough.  We’re looking solid, it’s true… many of our opponents have looked truly shocking this season, last night not least, and our ferocious determination to keep our defensive shape plays its part by making average opponents without a great deal going forward look very poor indeed.  But above and beyond that, a Millwall side shorn of all it’s forwards by injury were, with the exception of the impressive keeper Forde, a shocking mess last night and much as their goal was a fluke, we weren’t really very far from not winning the game despite the paucity of the opposition.    The greatest concern remains the obsession with defensive shape – if the dropping of Loach for Gilmartin, who looked a little nervous but was scarcely tested – demonstrated that Dyche isn’t scared of a big decision, it’s depressingly unsurprising that it was our defensive problem, rather than those at the other end of the pitch, that provoked the decision.  Forsyth has talent but is horribly raw and only occasionally effective.  Yeates, better last night, is still erratic and delivers far too little.  We know that we’re looking for loans, but we have youngsters capable of providing competition in these positions, if they’re allowed to.  Looking at the bigger picture, in nine games thus far we’ve faced seven of the eleven sides currently sharing the bottom half of the table with us and only two from the top half.  We’ve won twice, both times deservedly, but only once with any comfort.  I don’t see our current approach being more successful against more confident, potent opposition.

3- I suspect I wasn’t the only one who was a little surprised, having looked around the ground before kick-off, that the crowd came back in five figures.  Lots of factors come into this of course, not all of them dependent on the way the side is playing… but the approach being employed is hardly going to woo fans back.  It’s interesting to look back at our attendance figures to find the last time that a home crowd dipped below 10,000 for a League game.  Surprisingly, significantly, it was a game that everyone remembers vividly, that seemed to precipitate so much of what’s happened since, one way or another, in twelve years.  The chaotic, marvellous victory over Tranmere Rovers on Easter Saturday 1999, attendance 8682. The run that followed, the subsequent promotion, was utterly remarkable and helped attract supporters who’ve not (all) left us in twelve turbulent years since.  They wouldn’t be easily won back if lost though, one suspects.

(See that, Grant?  That’s a proper, fact-based thunk that is.  None of your flowery metaphor-based frippery here, no Sir!)

4- Martin Taylor’s form thus far this campaign has been perhaps less effortlessly dominant than it was last season;  nonetheless it was hugely heartening to see him take on the responsibility of a senior pro, more than once bringing the ball out of defence and throwing a challenge to an opposition who had marked up, ready to cover the inevitable lay-off or hoof that Taylor wasn’t going to oblige them with.  He evoked memories of Colin Foster, swaying out of defence like a willow tree bowing in the wind.  Splendid stuff.

5- I never met Dennis Gibbs, but it’s worth highlighting that the fact that the club sees fit to honour someone like this with a minute’s silence – a “loyal servant”, to employ a lazy but accurate cliché, not a star, not someone whose name was ever sung from the Rookery, just someone who was an important part of the fabric – is significant and special and something to love about being part of Watford Football Club.  Kudos to the travelling Millwall, who respected the tribute to someone they’d surely never heard of and shouted down the one moron who initially opted otherwise.  Dennis was part of the family;  so too Steve Brister, who passed away a year ago yesterday.  RIP both.


Watford 0 Nottingham Forest 1 (24/09/2011) 25/09/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. There are times when writing a report about a televised game feels fairly redundant, those at home having had better, repeated views of key incidents and some immediate studio analysis too. Not here, though. If you saw this on television, through a camera following the ball on its frequently directionless travels around the pitch, you saw considerably less than the full picture. You saw enough to draw some damning conclusions, I imagine. But if you were there, you saw it all: the collective, constipated horror of this new-look, old-feeling Watford side and its management team laid absolutely bare. There was nowhere to hide.

2. The first half was often so devoid of final third incident that you wouldn’t have known who was kicking in which direction had you missed the start. We let any home-side impetus – and to their credit, the Yellow Order keep trying to raise the atmosphere in the Rookery – drain away with a dull-as-dishwater half hour in which we mustered not a single half-chance. It was a performance that couldn’t have been more workmanlike if it’d turned up two hours late with a fag wedged behind its ear and its arse hanging out of some unpleasantly stained jeans.

The formation appears designed with containment in mind; containment not just of the opposition, but of our own creativity and imagination, as if getting too carried away might prove dangerous, as if risk and chance are things to be eliminated at all costs. Reinforcement of those ideas comes from the bench, with substitutions so numbingly conservative that they’re announced in the small ads of the Daily Mail rather than over the tannoy. The totality is a crumbling communist edifice, built with the thought that attacking is merely defending with the ball.

It’s as though we’ve spent the summer condemning shapelessness as the root of all evil, then defined a shape by banging six inch nails into the dressing room wall and tying them together with string. With John Eustace and Jonathan Hogg nestling in ahead of the back four, seven of our eleven players barely crossed the halfway line; the two wide players might’ve been further forward, but usually only by a matter of a few yards. Somewhere up there, Marvin Sordell ploughs a lone furrow with a coughing, spluttering tractor; in this context, ‘service’ counts as having another Watford shirt within thirty yards, let alone catching fleeting sight of the ball.

3. Only individual courage can enliven this act of collective labour. When Carl Dickinson stampedes up the wing to win a corner, or John Eustace ploughs through some tackles to drive in a shot, or Mark Yeates comes off the flank to play a quick pass and Joe Garner darts into the six yard box, we suddenly look like a football team again. We suddenly make our opponents turn around, we suddenly catch a passing whiff of some enthusiastic backing from the home fans. And then we’re back to banging long balls up to Craig Forsyth’s head, a relentless chipping away to establish a foothold, then put in supply lines to consolidate, then start a fresh bombardment of enemy positions, then push on north for tea and cakes in the oppo six yard box by Christmas. Ah, the linesman’s flag again.

There were chances to win this match, either side of half-time. Before it, the diving header from the tidy-but-indistinct Joe Garner was our first goal attempt…and very nearly our first goal, denied only by Camp’s fingertips. After it, the aforementioned dart from Garner finished with a frustrating header wide from Eustace’s chipped cross; that would’ve been a fine goal, a fresh air breeze amid the stagnation. As we finally made some runs into potentially dangerous areas, Forsyth might’ve done better when played through; there are so few hints of last season’s fluid attacking that anything mobile and fluent almost becomes an end in itself, for now.

But a side so blunt up front can’t afford to be anything other than sound at the back. And we are very much anything other. Quite how a defensive unit as well-established as ours can concede a winning goal like that is yours to decide based upon your personal preferences; I can see you drafting the comment identifying a scapegoat as I type. An instant deflation of our sails, and all our unimpressive visitors needed to take the points with little further worry, a scuffed Eustace shot late on aside.

4. Playing like this, we’ll do the same to other teams on our travels. But God knows, those of us who largely restrict ourselves to home games are in for a lot of unsweetened gruel in the coming months. The thought of enduring this once the winter nights set in is enough to make you shudder.

You know us, you know Matt and me, we don’t jump to conclusions. We don’t join in with the chorus just because we’ve lost; we’ll find a few positives, smudge the black and white into something in between, see the wider picture. But the problem here is the wider picture. It seems to me that we’re heading for the kind of impasse that Brendan Rodgers wedged himself into within a few weeks of his arrival; we’re heading for a point where the approach simply has to change, for a club cannot sustain an audience on performances this utterly charmless, whatever its league position.

Perhaps we’ve been spoilt by two seasons of remarkably bright, youthful, upbeat football. Perhaps it’ll take more time. But here’s the thing: give us something to hang onto. Give us a reason to look forward to it. It’s a job for you; it’s not a job for us. It just feels like extraordinarily hard work, and that’s not the same thing.

5. Thunk #5 is carried over for another day, there being nothing else worth saying.

Everything’s Gone Green 23/09/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

It won’t have escaped your notice that things have been getting a bit hairy down at Plymouth recently.   The imminent danger of liquidation is a daily reality at Home Park;  players have not been paid, staff being paid by the (now ex-) manager out of his own pocket, administration, debt…

You wouldn’t wish this on anyone, frankly.  Certainly not on Argyle, with whom we’ve had some memorable encounters down the years (including the Cup Semi Final in 1984, a Cup Quarter Final in 2007, and any number of splendid away trips involving pasties and cliffside walks).

Unless you’re sitting on a few million idle quid and are looking for an investment opportunity your chances of directly, positively influencing the outcome are probably limited.  However a Fans Reunited event takes place down in Plymouth as Argyle take on Macclesfield Town tomorrow (Saturday), a fantastic event, so get yourself there in a Watford shirt if you’re in the area.

Mindful of the support they received in the first, stunning Fans United event thirteen years ago (!), Brighton’s fans are going green as they entertain Leeds United in the Championship tonight; fans of other clubs are encouraged to follow suit.  With Watford’s game against Forest tomorrow live on BBC2, a temporary shift to wearing green is a small sacrifice, and shows a little bit of visible solidarity with the suffering Argyle fans, so recently in our division and now fearing for their club’s existence.

Barnsley 1 Watford 1 (17/09/2011) 17/09/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from South Yorkshire

1- The weather was quite remarkable.  We arrived in Barnsley – after a joy-sapping slog through M1 tailbacks – and trudged through cold drizzle to arrive at Oakwell just in time for kick off.  By the end of the game warm sunshine beat on our backs as we climbed back up the hill above the ground towards the town centre.  And on the way home under blue skies through the Yorkshire hills we received a call from home warning of hail back down south which preceded some serious biblical shit hurtling up the motorway towards us.  Blue sky met black cloud with the immediacy of a Tom and Jerry cartoon weather front, water flooded down the carriageway.  And then it stopped, we crossed an invisible line and it was fine again.

If you’ve got this far, well done.  You may have guessed where the anecdote’s going.  The weather was remarkable, the game was anything but;  a mundane scrap between evenly matched but limited sides.  Barnsley finished the game the stronger and had the better of the chances but a draw was about right. As the away team we should perhaps be happier with a point, but I’m not convinced that this Watford side is going to find wins easy to come by at home.  If you’ve watched football at this level for any length of time, you’ve seen countless games like this.  The weather opens the thunks because it will live much longer in the memory than the game will.

2- Defensively, we look pretty sound.  Barnsley piled everything down their right, asking a lot of former loan-Tyke Dickinson, questions to which he largely presented competent answers; if their winger got past him too often in the first half, it was in part reflective of dogged and incessant doubling-up by the full backs, and a rather insipid performance from Forsyth further forward, the weakest I’ve seen from him since his summer arrival.  Loach was at fault for the equaliser, failing to claim a cross from the right which permitted Gray to nod in at the fair post;  frustrating, but in fairness the home side had come close several times, the custodian making adroit stops to foil a couple of chances.

Going forward however, we still look cumbersome and deliberate.  A better performance from Yeates for an hour today, and Hogg was visibly pushing further forward than on his debut, albeit helping our play along rather than driving it.  A side with a solid defensive base and limited creativity, however, needs to be able to break, and when we broke it took far too long for support to arrive for either Weimann, who ran his nuts off, or Sordell, who crowned an almost completely anonymous first half with a well-taken goal.  In the second half, perhaps with a view to closing down the game, we appeared to switch to 4-5-1 with Weimann glued to the left wing and Forsyth tucked in.  Barnsley were reasonably disciplined defensively and had done their homework, double-marking Forsyth for every drop-kick or free kick from our own half.  Nonetheless, creating chances looked like very hard work.

3- Limited they may be, but there’s a lot to like about this Barnsley side.  Match sponsors are notoriously swayed by self-interest and the subsequent potential photo opportunity in their Man-of-the-Match nomination, but there was no arguing with the call of the diminutive David Perkins, the game’s outstanding player;  as our attacks foundered on smothered space (and insufficient options), Perkins frequently dealt the killer blow, nipping in to steal the ball when Yeates/Forsyth/Hogg/whoever had run out of space and getting the home side moving forward.

As mentioned above, the energy of Barnsley’s full backs in supporting their attack was phenomenal, Bobby Hassell in particular overlapping in a fashion that Dad saw fit to compare playing down the line in rugby (or something. not being a fan of minority sports, I wouldn’t know). Fortunately for us, their attacking threat was pretty limited;  if we now have options centrally but not enough loading of the gun, Barnsley’s gun comes loaded but unfired.

4- Chris Iwelumo came on for the last fifteen minutes; having missed Reading last week it was encouraging to see a greater mobility and threat from the big man’s contribution than pre-his spell out of the side – even if his most memorable contribution came from an eye-catching lay-off to nobody on the left wing.  Unfortunate for Iwelumo – he’d been entitled to expect someone there, and stock moves – of the sort that created the first goal – will take time to develop in a very new attacking set-up.

5- The sheer volume of new players is obviously a key factor – the same thing happened after the last major overhaul in 2005 – but I’m finding it very difficult to warm to this Watford side at present.  Hopefully that will come… but it appears at the moment that, unlike in 2005, the stronger characters are the older faces, by and large.  Andi Weimann is, as was observed by DM at half time, almost the archetypal Watford player in his quite lunatic “I’mnotgoingtoreachthatbutbollocksI’llchaseitanyway” approach, but he stands out simply because he’s rather unusual in this respect.  There’s no lack of professionalism, not even a lack of effort, but there’s a lack of hunger and certainly a lack of risk-taking.  An away point is always a good thing; if the match that accompanies it is bobbins then, well, that’s the risk you run in taking in away games.  I’m still, as you may have gathered, rather concerned.