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Watford 2 Bristol City 2 (29/11/2011) 30/11/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. I’ve recently finished reading Jonathan Wilson’s engrossing and thoroughly educational “Inverting the Pyramid”. It’s a rare book, in that it enlightens the game of football itself rather than merely (although it’s never really merely, obviously, as the minute’s silence for Gary Speed poignantly reminded us) the people involved in it. Its history of football’s tactical evolution from formless roots through countless refinements of formation and approach sheds fresh light on all manner of famous teams, matches and fundamental changes in balances of power. Whether it’s light that you want to shed on the average Championship match is another matter…sometimes these things are best left without illumination, much as the local sewers don’t smell any better if you know how they were built….

Taken as part of that ever-shifting tactical evolution, Watford v Bristol City was…well, some distance removed from the Barcelona model, shall we say. It’s like Swan Lake performed by brickies, all of that Spanish elegance and movement…and our interpretation is to pass it sideways for a bit as if we might at any moment conjure up something sublime from our collective imagination, then realise that no bugger’s bothering to make a run beyond the halfway line, knock it back to Nyron and get him to chuck it in the mixer by bouncing it off the moon.

Of course, Barcelona are already yesterday’s news. Eye-catching and memorable, certainly, but the reaction has already begun: we’ll be spending quite a lot of time next summer watching Spain laboriously trying to thread a way through some kind of gluey variation on an 8-1-1 formation. On which basis, we’re not so far behind after all, for this remains a Watford side with caution at its core, with protection of the area in front of the defence as its regimental badge of pride. I’d rather watch Peterborough, frankly.

2. And all of that hard graft? All of those training ground hours, days, weeks spent on defending as a unit, with the excellent Jonathan Hogg ahead of the back four and the wide midfielders tucked into the space in front of the full-backs? All of the rigour and cohesion and structure that Dyche has tried to bring to the party? (Are those things you bring to a party? No matter…) Hard not to wonder whether it’s all been worthwhile when you concede two goals as gormless as these, throwing away three very handy points in the process.

Oh, I know the second was a nonsense on any number of levels…but if you ask me, the first was even worse, a much more basic and just as avoidable failure of concentration at a stage in the game where all we needed to do was remain switched on until half-time. Dreadful. Given the lacklustre, patchy nature of our performance, it’s hard to put much of a case for an emphatic victory…but an emphatic victory was within our butter-fingered grasp nevertheless.

3. It came to be so because we rather gave up on the idea of getting ball-plus-people anywhere near their goal, having spent twenty stupefying minutes building moves from equal parts clumsiness and inaccuracy, Chris Iwelumo and Craig Beattie lumbering after passes – loose term – that Marvin Sordell might’ve struggled to fetch. The lack of pace up front was never clearer than when the ball occasionally landed at the feet of the compact, aggressive Michael Kightly, suddenly roaring at defenders with genuine threat and intent; it was as if time suddenly sped up in those moments, as if everything happened quicker, seconds compressed, distances bridged. And then back to someone else, illusion rudely shattered by a clanking, shuddering return to reality.

So after a while, we decided to try something different. Rather than trying to play our way through the final thirty yards of the pitch, we stopped at the threshold and just wanged the bloody thing at the goal as hard as we could. And it went in. Twice (kind of). See, who needs tactics?

4. Extraordinarily, given that we’ve signed so many players I can’t remember them all, the squad appears to have as many gaps as when we started. Different gaps, I grant you. But how on earth can it be that the second choice forward line is comprised of two players who, like chalk and chalk, complement each other only in the sense that they provide the same service twice over? How can you look down the list of options – Troy Deeney, honest and likeable and a bit more mobile and no more likely to hit the back of the net; Joe Garner, the obvious choice for someone to play off a big fella and yet falling down the pecking order by the week – and see nothing that doesn’t make you pine for Marvin Sordell (and Danny Graham)?

And while we’ve managed to create competition for places in some areas – Jonathan Hogg is rightly keeping John Eustace out of the side (and thank heavens we’ve got away from playing them together in a midfield four) – there’s none whatsoever elsewhere. Either Prince Buaben plays – and struggles, on last night’s evidence – or there’s no-one behind the strikers. Despite heavy reinforcement of the squad, thereby pushing the youngsters back into second-string football, we seem incredibly restricted; what we’re left with are unimaginative interpretations of a very odd, unconvincing assortment of players.

5. But let’s end on a vaguely upbeat note. Because for all of that, we no longer look like the forlorn relegation fodder of the early season. There is something coming together; it might not be pretty and it isn’t terribly exciting, but there’s been some character and resourcefulness and, occasionally, some skill in the recent improvement…and we deserve some credit for not allowing a resurgent City to take control of the game after that disastrous equaliser.

And indeed, we might’ve won it at the end…which is precisely the kind of delirious coming together that it feels like we need, something to start the story of this team, something that you would’ve missed if you hadn’t been there. Something to remind us that it’s about more than just survival. But survival would be a start.


Doncaster Rovers 0 Watford 0 (26/11/2011) 26/11/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a blustery Keepmoat Stadium

1- Bottom line, it’s an away point.  An away point against a limited, disjointed if unpredictable Doncaster side, but a point more than we’d accumulated from our previous four away trips.  In an open first half we fashioned plenty of chances;  Iwelumo put through to shank a shot into the stand, Kightly taking advantage of his marker backing off in the box to fire narrowly wide, Mariappa and Sordell both forcing a save from Ikeme with a sharp turn and shot, Yeates given space on the edge of the area to chest down and volley over a crowded penalty box to force another decent stop.  So… more than a little frustrating that for the fourth time in five away trips we failed to find the net.  On the other hand… whilst Loach was troubled rather less than his opposite number, El Hadji Diouf in particular found good space wide in early exchanges, whipping balls across the box that the keeper would have been helpless to repel had either Sharp or Fortuné connected.  The home side had plenty of possession, ten corners, and yet were kept at arm’s length for the most part – Dyche was right to credit a tight defensive performance, even if we rode our luck a couple of times.  A fair result, then, and if we win the massive game with Bristol City on Tuesday it’ll look like a great result.

2- A return to the side for John Eustace, who dug in well and stomped all over Rovers’ midfield as the game petered out, stifling any home attacks before they started.  An interesting selection decision for Tuesday night, then, with the return of Jonathan Hogg from suspension;  one option might be to play both – not in a two, which has comprehensively failed to work so far, but sitting behind Buaben, giving him the freedom to push up behind Iwelumo with Kightly and Yeates cutting in from wide.  Sordell’s injury – assuming it keeps him out – deprives the side of pace as well as quality, and had a big impact on our threat in this one, a loss that will be difficult to compensate for; this approach might permit us to accommodate two of our better players whilst freeing up the wide players from defensive responsibility.

3- Doncaster are a side going through a mid-life crisis.  Having for so long been the epitome of sensible management, clever buys, good kids, it’s as if they woke up one morning and decided to pack in the sensible job, start sleeping around, buy a Harley Davidson and start writing poetry.  As dramatic an about turn as can be countenanced;  in the context of a club losing money, handing over responsibility for your transfer dealings to a high-profile agent (who also represents the club’s manager) might be seen as imaginative – Rovers won’t be paying much in wages for players whose owners want shot of them and a shop window to do so.  On two counts one has to hope that it fails – firstly out of sympathy for the Rovers support who are asked to support a side full of short-term mercenaries  (what ARE you supporting in that set-up exactly?), and secondly for fear that it might begin to look like an attractive blueprint for others.

4- There’s nowt as queer as folk.  A rather unpleasant episode in the second half saw Michael Kightly’s route to an escaping ball blocked by Herita Ilunga;  Kighty bustled and dodged his way past the defender who then collapsed lamentably in a heap clutching his face.  No contact, nothing even close to contact, just embarrassing, as Iwelumo perhaps ill-advisedly was keen to point out to the stricken left-back as a Donny player played the ball out.  On resumption of play, Lee Hodson appeared to enquire hesitantly of the referee whether he should be returning the ball;  if the official advised him not to it can only be because he too recognised Ilunga’s histrionics for what they were (he hadn’t awarded a free kick for Rovers, but should have penalised the simulation), but in any case the “diplomatic channel” back to Ikeme was blocked by at least a dozen bodies.  So Hodson did not cede possession and was treated to a barrage of boos from the home stands (and a quite psychotically violent challenge from the enormous Goulon that Hodson did well to dodge a minute later) whilst Kightly, the supposed miscreant, attracted no attention at all…

5- Having seen him in action at close hand, the greatest respect to BBC 3CR’s Jon Marks;  calm and professional throughout, I know from listening in on countless occasions that one pictures Jon in a secluded environment cocooned from hubbub and distractions.  An illusion, since cocooned is the last thing we were; doing as little as stringing a coherent sentence together was challenge enough, doing so consistently in a way that in no way betrayed the intimacy of the distractions whilst sharing the drama of the occasion (such as it was), a huge achievement.  Big respec’.

Watford 2 Portsmouth 0 (19/11/2011) 19/11/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from – whisper it – a third consecutive home win…

1- …and in its own way, as remarkable as the last two.  Not the dramatic flourish of the Peterborough game, three points when three points were absolutely required, no-negotiation, no-compromise.  Nor the satisfying relief of the win over an unlikeable Brighton.  Instead, a thoroughly mundane victory.  All wins are good, of course… but the fact that this was never in doubt from the first minute, that we were never threatened, that’s significant.  The first time this season that we’ve made winning look easy, crucially, at least at home, and I must confess to having wondered whether that would quite happen, whether we’d pick up three points without being fully extended.  We’ve deserved wins before now, but none have been entirely comfortable, as this was, and if Pompey were pretty pathetic after a brief early flourish, it’s difficult to avoid an emerging pattern:  many of our opponents (with one or two significant exceptions) have looked rubbish.  Now that’s either because the division is pretty mediocre, which can only increase our chances of staying up by default,  or we’re doing rather well at making teams look limited by stifling their effectiveness.  Without, increasingly, ruining it all by giving away silly goals, and suddenly with a goal threat to boot.  Perhaps a combination of the two possibilities.  Either way, it’s all good.

2- An early goal always helps, of course, and as we’ve noted before this Watford team, increased potency or not, particularly benefits from having its nose in front.  Michael Kightly, having occasionally spluttered into life before now, suddenly looks like the top flight winger that Mick McCarthy surely hoped would re-emerge from his long injury absence; bold, aggressive, competitive, running at defenders and committing them.  Marvellous. We can only hope that his injury absence will persuade McCarthy to extend that loan.  Elsewhere…  Jonathan Hogg continues to flourish in being able to concentrate on his natural, breaking up, fetching-and-carrying role without having to pretend to be an attacking midfielder – irrespective of fitness, Eustace on the bench was the right call, and I never thought I’d be writing that.  Mark Yeates and Carl Dickinson put in more compelling performances than of late, admittedly against an opposition not offering much in terms of pace.  And Adrian Mariappa.  My word.  Player of the Season thus far by an embarrassing distance, he’s reached a plane where it just looks painfully easy for him.  Just don’t tell anyone… Swansea’s summer interest is unlikely to be the only offer we fend off for Aidy, he was simply fabulous again today.

3- Notwithstanding the trend noted in Thunk 1, one can only wonder at quite what the basis was for Forest to opt to poach Steve Cotterill.  Half of the team comprise the sort of detritus that sides are left with when they go bust in the top flight;  the sort of player on too much money, the sort that even the most desperate vultures won’t take off your hands.  Tal Ben Haim, that’s you that is.  But then…  Cotterill’s apparent preference for carrying a relatively small squad of “name” players – he might have called it quality over quantity – has left Pompey with a squad FULL of that sort of player, half of them signed since relegation.  Benjani, Dave Kitson, Luke Varney.  Uninspiring, indolent, undeserving of the remarkable, relentless support of the travelling Pompey fans.  Michael Appleton has a job on his hands.

4- I appreciate that something with nostalgia value is of no interest or value to those who weren’t around to experience it the first time around.  For those that were, though… I can’t be the only one whose spine tingles at “Chariots of Fire” as the sides warm up.  I’m on the north west terrace, it’s the early eighties, standing on a green upturned bucket.  The old scoreboard is still there, the Main Stand still has folk in it, Dad is smoking Marlboro next to me.  As with everything else, today’s experience is amplified – by the new sound system.  Not as crackly, distant and ethereal as it was across that open-topped terrace.  But my word it’s good to have it back.

5- Important, at the end of a divisive and difficult couple of weeks at Vicarage Road, to have something of a show of unity at the end there;  not universal, none of the Bassini questions have been answered.  But the extended, heartfelt celebration in which Sean Dyche made a visibly more drawn out effort to connect to each of the home stands in the post-match love-in, helps to woo us all back again, doubts and concerns or otherwise.  Much needed.

“Some dancing about architecture” or “A crayon drawing of Laurence Bassini” 16/11/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.

There’s that famous quote, attributed variously to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and sundry others: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Which is a great line…but it’s also drearily unimaginative, because trying to capture the beauty, the awfulness or even just the dismal mediocrity of something, whether it’s music or dancing or architecture, is never a waste of time. Sometimes, it’s more fun than the thing itself.

But other times, you’re faced with writing about stuff that really doesn’t merit the effort, the words, the thought. I mean, I can’t be the only person who’s stared aghast at the acres of media coverage devoted to The Carlos Tevez Saga, one man’s pathetic moment of alleged insolence picked over in the kind of forensic detail that was once reserved only for royal weddings and presidential assassinations. It’s like an episode of Inspector Morse in which yer man spends an hour earnestly investigating a large dog turd on the high street. Discussing it all in print is a nonsense, the modern equivalent of dancing about architecture; a more appropriate response would be a tatty page of crayon scribble.

But, yes, here I am, with words of wisdom about last week’s nonsense. With more words than it deserves, already; we’ll see about the wisdom….

Above all, you wonder how something like football can house so many childish, foot-stomping, IT’S-NOT-FAIR egos under its roof. It’s big business these days, apparently…but it’s big business as written by people who’ve been locked into a room with The Apprentice on repeat for the last ten years. It’s a parody of business, a theatre for self-importance, paranoia and pomp. It’s guff, no matter how many millions are involved and how expensive the suits might be.

The most extraordinary thing about the fall-out from Laurence Bassini’s no-show at last week’s fans’ forum is the apparent absence of awareness and analysis from the owner. Because we all know that Graham Taylor’s rather pointed comments merely gave voice to what we were all thinking. We were all thinking that, and more besides. That may indeed have been uncharitable, just as GT’s inferences may have been unfair and arguably ill-judged…but it was all out there, and someone with an ounce of common sense would’ve been wondering why rather than crying foul.

And they wouldn’t have had to wonder for very long. Bassini’s vague, wafty absence from proceedings, choosing to communicate in the ways that suit him rather than reaching out to supporters with any kind of vision, has been increasingly frustrating over the last few months. Frustrating, mainly because it’s so bloody stupid. The point of public relations is to fill the space that’s otherwise occupied by rumour, innuendo and whispered suggestions that the ground’s about to be bulldozed to make way for a safari park; at its best, it’s the art of understanding how things look from your audience’s point of view, of putting yourself in their shoes.

And how do things look from our point of view? Like Laurence Bassini doesn’t want to talk to us. That impression might be wrong, but that’s his own flippin’ fault. As when you’re closing down the keeper, just looking keen and enthusiastic counts for something. It’s taken wasted months to reach the point where an appearance at a fans’ forum – and that only reluctantly, added to the panel after the initial announcement – is built up out of all proportion, the first opportunity to look the new owner in the eye and ask him some demanding questions. If you make an effort, no eyebrows will be raised when you’re ill and unable to attend an event. If you don’t make an effort, if you treat public relations as a luxury, you forfeit the right to get all grumpy-wumpy when people you haven’t bothered to meet jump to their own conclusions about what you’re like. Especially if your CV doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

While I can understand the desire to chivalrously defend Graham Taylor’s honour, and I’ll happily join in with any show of affection for the great man, I can’t help feeling that’s something of a diversion. Partly because GT is surely a big enough boy to look after himself; partly because if he’s managed to get through the last thirty years without noticing that he’s held in high regard by Watford fans, the penny isn’t going to suddenly drop now. Whether GT stays or goes – and he’ll surely make up his own mind about that – Laurence Bassini owns Watford Football Club and Laurence Bassini should be the focus of attention.

If he felt uncomfortable in the spotlight before last week, the attention is likely to be even more fierce now. For all that fans’ forums can get a bit heated, there’s usually a basic level of civility involved when people are in the same room; it’s an opportunity to talk to an audience that, generally, is willing to listen, even if it wants to criticise and interrogate. One wonders whether the scheduled phone-in on Three Counties Radio (on the evening of 22nd November) will be quite such a sedate and measured affair. Which is a concern, because it’s hard to see much purpose – beyond catharsis – in slating Bassini to the point where he’s alienated altogether. This is not yet an irreparable situation, and there’s little to gain by making it so…unless you’re after a game of brinkmanship in which Lord Ashcroft is brought back to the table.

It’s not a matter of embracing him. Thus far, Laurence Bassini has shown extremely questionable judgement, not least in a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of the business he’s bought; the disregard for communication, as much as any conspiracy theory, makes me question his ability to run a football club effectively. Far from a sinister schemer, he has left an impression of impulsive incompetence…and that, of course, can be just as damaging. I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing…and neither do you, unless you’re him. And even then, I wonder. What choice, though, except to try and find out? What way of doing that, except to give him the opportunities? Nothing is gained by shouting him down, by justifying his reticence.

Since the dust settled, there have been some positive signs: I’m pleased to read, for example, that the Supporters’ Trust has been invited to some meetings of the club’s new executive committee. How on earth such a committee – sans owner – will work is another matter, but there is at least some structure to get our teeth into, something vaguely substantial to grasp at. If last week can be of any use at all, it’s in being so utterly embarrassing that it’s best left behind, clean slates and all that. Whatever happened when we went drinking last night, it’s time to wipe the lipstick off, get rid of the traffic cone in the front garden, and go back to being responsible adults again.

Over to you, Laurence. Time to start talking. And listening.

Watford 1 Brighton and Hove Albion 0 02/11/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

“Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.”
“Krapp’s Last Tape” by Samuel Beckett

23:45 London Charing Cross Station. It’s bloody late and it’s only going to get later. Somewhere ahead, two hours into the darkness at the end of the line, is Hastings, a warm, soft bed and what’ll remain of a night’s sleep. Here, there’s me and an old laptop with a fading battery and a tosser on a mobile phone talking very loudly about fancy dress costumes. Midweek games are brutal; commitment is required.

23:56: A little south of London Bridge. Commitment is required more than ever this season, it has to be said. This really isn’t a Watford side that tugs at the heartstrings; it has barely a hint of romance about it. You could fall in love with it in time, I guess, but even if it was just the two of you on a desert island, it’d require beer goggles, a consignment of oysters and a personal appearance from Barry White. You want it to win – your team, for better or worse – but you wouldn’t if you had no direct stake in it all.

00:10: Orpington. So you end up with six very valuable points from two pretty entertaining games…and you want to conjure up prose that’s at least a bit mauve, if not actually purple…and there’s not enough to draw on, not enough of a story to hang it all from. For half an hour here, faced with a makeshift Brighton defence, we were suddenly the side that we mistily remember being before we poured quick-drying cement over everything: y’know, football in the final third, with players from the other places joining in as if we meant to do more than merely persist.

Against Peterborough – who were marvellous, reckless fun – we were rather swept along as if dragged onto the dancefloor at a stranger’s wedding. Here, we actually looked as if we were having some fun: Lee Hodson trundling forwards to the point where Mark Yeates didn’t quite know where he was supposed to put himself, watching on as the young full-back delivered a series of ferocious, belting crosses; Prince Buaben occupying the hitherto-vacant space outside the penalty area to pen Albion right in; Chris Iwelumo momentarily looking as unplayable as his physique suggests that he ought to be; Marvin Sordell actually appearing slightly lost amid the sudden flurry of movement and activity all around him.

00:31 High Brooms. It’s the bit of Tunbridge Wells that emphatically isn’t Royal. That was all great, an altogether different Watford to the one we’ve had to endure…and we were genuinely unfortunate not to capitalise on our complete dominance in those early stages, Sordell and Yeates forcing early saves, Mariappa’s header bumping against the foot of the post, Forsyth’s flick from Hodson’s finest cross drifting inches over.

And the game was lively too, made more so by the arrival of the 87-year-old Mauricio Taricco as a substitute right-back-stroke-pantomime-villain, a competitive tangle ending with much face-clutching, a yellow card for Forsyth, and ten minutes of rare agitation from the Rookery. That was all made worse – or better, if you like – by a booking for Buaben for a clattering touchline challenge on Painter that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow back when football was a contact sport. It was back to being a contact sport again in the second half, evidently, as Carl Dickinson – more and more an early Robbo tribute act – got away with ploughing frustratedly through an opponent without so much as a talking-to. Games like this need referees like this, no matter how much you might want to throttle them at the time.

00:55 Stonegate. Middle of flippin’ nowhere. Not a light for miles. But amid all of that, we faded and faded and faded. A team whose natural inclination is to rock back on our heels in expectation of a punch, we stepped off Brighton and allowed them to become increasingly comfortable as time wore on. There’s tactical sense in not pressing the keeper, but it sets a tone…and that tone is thoroughly depressing, as if we’ve slightly given up on life. As if the answer to such a suggestion would inevitably be: “But what’s the point…?”

By midway through the second half, we were something of a spent force: Forsyth hapless, Yeates anonymous, Buaben knackered, Iwelumo infuriating, Sordell lost. I have sympathy for Forsyth – in a grey squad, he at least has a tale worth telling – but the failure of his earnest endeavours can be painful to watch at times; I have less sympathy for Iwelumo, whose attempts to compensate for dismal anticipation with muscular, obvious fouls are intolerable…especially as he shows good touch and awareness when he gets himself in a position to win a contest.

Anyway, the drive through the midfield had gone, the thrust up the wings had evaporated; even if the defence looked sound, the threat that we’d be made to pay for failing to make our superiority count seemed very real indeed. You could see it coming a country mile away. Fortunately, it crashed into a ditch somewhere en route.

01:10 Battle. Has a goal ever summed up a player’s Watford career more perfectly? Get yourself into the right place, mis-kick completely when presented with a sitter, then score with a blush-saving tackle. For all that it’s a transfer that really hasn’t worked out, it’s hard not to feel more than a little fond of Troy Deeney.

01:19 West St Leonards. Hardly anyone left on the train, still fewer awake, no life in the world outside the window. Two more tunnels, one more station and then Hastings. A long night, a long season. These two wins – battling, heartening, deserved, but fortunate too – have lifted the spirits, certainly. It’ll take more before we can believe in the project as a whole, before it becomes a Watford team rather than just a team in Watford colours. But it’s a start…and on Saturday morning, it was hard to see anything other than the end.

Night night.

Our thoughts are with the family of Ed Messenger, who sadly passed away at the weekend. A Hornet to the last, he’ll be deeply missed but warmly remembered by many in and around Vicarage Road.