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Watford 2 Middlesbrough 1 (28/04/2012) 29/04/2012

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Who invited February along? Without sunburn and beer gardens and shirt sleeves and shades, the last day of the season strikes a very odd note, like an unseasonal heatwave at Christmas. A day of relentless drizzle, ominous cloud and cold to catch out any wardrobe optimists leaves you wondering who we’ve got on Tuesday night rather than bidding everyone a good summer; it doesn’t quite feel like closure, somehow.

And it certainly adds to the sense that we’ve stumbled through one of those cracks in space and time that underpin every Doctor Who plot, from the bit in January where we looked every inch relegation fodder to a final table in which we sit two points behind Brighton and Leicester. No, seriously. Back in late October, the Peterborough game kicked off in an atmosphere so sour and vengeful and charged with intent that you couldn’t rule out a lynch-mob by the end…and yet here we are, warmly applauding them all as they set off on their holidays. All we needed was the sunshine. There’s a woman on the train reading a guidebook about Hawaii. Bit of that wouldn’t have gone amiss.

2. The story of the afternoon, of course, is the story of Middlesbrough’s seventh place finish. They gave it absolutely everything they had for sixty-odd minutes, with Cardiff losing at Selhurst (and it’s good to see that misinformation is alive and well even in the smartphone age, an unfounded second wave of celebration starting in the fancy dress section in the bottom corner and spreading quickly through the rest of the away end).

The first half was a hectic and competitive affair in conditions suited to such things. It ended goalless thanks mainly to the efforts of the returning Scott Loach, who pulled off three very decent saves and one absolutely outstanding one, deflecting Emnes’ bottom-corner-bound shot around the post with his fingertips. The absence of Player of the Season Adrian Mariappa is especially keenly felt in these circumstances, for we lack a certain nimbleness afoot when faced with an attack of Boro’s relative quality. And, obviously, we lack a comparable attacking threat ourselves, much as we try to make up for it in hard work and mileage covered. We were grateful to be level at the break and utterly under siege immediately after it.

3. But then it all went quiet rather quickly. Cardiff scored and then scored again; a double substitution at the very moment when a Boro goal seemed completely inevitable raised eyebrows and lost them vital momentum. What had previously been a furious hunger turned into a rather unseemly, undisciplined desperation…and suddenly, they were over-committed and shapeless and wide open whenever we gained possession. Suddenly, they were there for the taking.

Which we did in some style, a standing ovation for an epic Sean Murray cross-field onto Troy Deeney’s chest as we started to enjoy ourselves. Nine months on, Chris Iwelumo’s first goal at Vicarage Road was a thing of joy, deftly flicking the ball across the line after some characteristic Troy Deeney hustle. The visitors thumped in an equaliser without celebration, but we wouldn’t be denied: another Deeney surge, Craig Forsyth’s careful pull-back, Deeney’s very deliberate side-foot past Steele. The Boro keeper lay face down in the penalty area mud as the celebrations headed for the corner flag. Never a day when you want to be relying on others’ results, this. In particular, never a day when you want to be relying on Crystal Palace.

4. As you always do on the final day, you look around the pitch for signs of what next season might bring, for the points that need addressing, for the players who need tying down lest they fly away. One last look before a summer of idle discussion and speculation…and we’ll mostly leave all of that for the footie-less weeks.

But one thing struck me here, overwhelmingly. That you could lose any of these players and, much as it might be an extremely painful blow in some cases and much as you wouldn’t want to undervalue their contributions to the whole, you’d still have that recognisable whole, the basic entity that you’ve stood and applauded.

Any of these players, bar one: John Eustace. I wonder what these last three years would’ve brought without him. I wonder what we’d be.

5. Anyone who wants to turn their nose up at a lap of honour for finishing eleventh is welcome to do so. For anyone with an ounce of understanding of the context in which that finish takes place, it’s entirely appropriate: whatever doubts we might have about the details, because it does still look very much like a sow’s ear on occasions, it’s a quite extraordinary achievement. At some point, we’ll inevitably find out what struggle really feels like and we’ll realise how much of a pinnacle these last three seasons represent, in their own way.

Befitting a manager who used to be down the tunnel and into the changing rooms within thirty seconds of the final whistle, job done and already moving on, the end-of-season bow was a much less prolonged, much more brisk affair than in previous seasons. Work to do, challenges to face, throat lozenges to buy. Well done, all. See you in August.


Brighton and Hove Albion 2 Watford 2 (17/04/2012) 18/04/2012

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. The Goldstone Ground – corrugated iron, barbed wire, concrete and faded plastic – seems like a very distant memory. As distant as my university days, when a long-haired skinny youth in a Napalm Death t-shirt trod the very same path that takes us to the Amex, dropped into my nostalgia like a spaceship into a suburban back garden, super-imposed like a double-exposure.

Brighton was a very different place twenty years ago…that’s true of most towns, of course, but Brighton more so, transformed for better and worse by an exodus from London towards its seaside cosmopolitanism. Much of the seediness has been washed away, much of the shabbiness painted over and tidied up. Comparatively speaking, anyway. I left for Hastings – same county, different air – nearly four years ago; returning to lovely old Brighton now feels like being launched headlong into the future. There’s money everywhere, fashionable people crammed into every square yard. Leave, and you can never afford to come back.

The Amex, then, is a stadium which reflects an affluent and aspirational city. In any other hands, I suspect that this would be an impressive, vaguely stylish but ultimately vacuous ground, another out-of-town fibreglass sponsordome. The choice of lucky chocolate gives it away: a Marks and Spencers Mint Truffle, for pity’s sake, bought at the station because you know there’s not a corner shop (or even a corner) within a country mile of the ground…

But there’s been so much energy, so much heartache and struggle, invested in this place. Finally, they’re here; finally, this is a club that’s no longer held back by the weight of bitter history, as much a righting-of-wrongs in its own way as Wimbledon’s regained League status. The Amex is rather more than the sum of its parts…and the noise that rolls around the sweeping, sculpted roof is pretty bloody heart-warming, if you’re at all inclined towards empathy. It’s a wonderful place, frankly.

2. That’s as far as it goes on the goodwill front, I’m afraid. If this Watford side reflects the industrial heft and occasional brutality of its manager, so Albion are every inch the product of the Poyet-Tarrico coaching team, the latter proving the point with a turn that verged on self-parody in the return fixture. They could turn the teddy bears’ picnic into bickering, scratching, kicking, he-hit-me-and-I-think-I-might-be-bl-bl-blinded chaos. They’d nick your Easter eggs, scoff the lot, then tell mum that you ate them and you shouldn’t get any tea. Their injury of choice would be a Chinese burn. You get the picture.

3. But it has to be said, it makes for absolutely terrific entertainment. This was a riveting contest from beginning to end, the bad-temper and ill-feeling adding just the right amount of seasoning to a mix that might otherwise have been a little lacking in stuff-at-stake (from our point of view, at least). To my mind, there’s simply no place for cushioned seats at football grounds: the rest of you might be frantically screaming “COME ON!!!”, but total commitment to the team is impossible if your bottom, nestling into padded comfort, is achieving a state of zen-like calm. Even with that handicap, however, an intensely enjoyable evening.

After fluffing the kickoff and being given another chance, we attacked the game with such confidence and assurance that the response from the home stands appeared to be stunned silence. Sean Murray’s free kick, beautifully struck but aided by a couple of initial steps in the wrong direction by the debutant keeper, topped an opening spell of quite extraordinary dominance, all swagger from Eustace and bustle from Hogg in support of an attack that appeared to have the run of the place. If it turned on anything, it was the first of the confrontations, the Watford captain booked with an Albion player writhing on the floor and the stands baying for red. Suddenly, we weren’t in control any more.

4. And my, how it turned. The half-time scoreline might’ve said otherwise, but we were repeatedly in desperate trouble against opponents who’ve mastered pass-and-move football worthy of a higher level without, mercifully, finding anyone to apply a consistent finish. The outstanding Kuszczak – looking every inch a top-flight keeper in all departments – kept out two or three where he’d have been forgiven for being beaten, other chances flashed past the target, Buckley glanced a header against the inside of the post and into the keeper’s grateful gloves.

We hung on doggedly; we’ll always do that. The much-maligned Carl Dickinson, terrorised by Buckley for half an hour, deserves particular credit for continuing to stick to the task even when on a yellow card. Occasionally, we’d string a few passes together and catch our breath; once, we did that, won a penalty and scored an improbable second. But we couldn’t cope with them: not enough pace in the Taylor-Nosworthy pairing to deal with the movement, pulled out of shape to leave space for Mackail-Smith and co in behind. When Lloyd Doyley, so much of whose game is based on standing up and getting something in the way, goes into the book for a scything, late challenge on an escaping opponent, you know that things are rather stretched.

5. So you’d be wrong to think that the second half could be characterised as either their revival or our collapse. It was just more of the same, only with goals. If anything, we were marginally tighter at the back, fewer chances for the home side than before…but still enough, aided by a frustrating failure to clear in the build-up to the crucial first. It would’ve been a miracle if we’d held out for ninety minutes under such pressure. While hoping for more, you’d have settled for a point long, long before the equaliser went in.

And even then, we could’ve won it, finishing on the front foot as desperation for three points overwhelmed our hosts. A game that was somehow never beyond us, even as we chased shadows under the floodlights. We’re a determined, disciplined bunch. One wonders what we might achieve with just a little more of the Seagulls’ flair…

Watford 1 Hull City 1 (14/04/2012) 15/04/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from the official start of the end of the season…

1- In the build-up to this one, Sean Dyche had been making all the right noises.  Dodging the suggestion that the season was over he was bullish about our intent in the final games – finishing positively, getting as high up the table as possible, doing the “right thing” with respect to other clubs.  Quite right too, of course, what would you expect him to say in any case but no doubt he meant it.  No such declaration of intent from the stands though.  No pretence either.  Vicarage Road hardly has a reputation as seething cauldron of noise at the best of times (although the best of times is typically midweek under lights which is… different);  today, as my co-editor and I arrived at twenty to three the stands were still empty, a two o’clock smattering that the Red Lion could surely claim limited responsibility for.  The game progressed to an almost entirely end-of-season feel – all that was missing was a bit of warmth for that full deckchair effect.  The Yellow Order gave it a bit of a go up to our right, but our group enjoyed a five minute Grand National-inspired diversion trying to remember the horses from the near-20 year old The Day Today spoof bulletin (“Onion Terror”… “Two headed sex beast”….).  My co-editor was asked a question about the game in the second half and confessed that he hadn’t been paying attention, thinking about what colour to paint his kitchen.  On the pitch, as the ball was miscontrolled in midfield, someone tutted.

2- On the way out of the stadium, my co-editor suggested that you could make a case for us having deserved to win the game.  If, he qualified, you ignored the “set pieces thing”.

Unfortunately, the set pieces thing cost us a goal early on – James Chester attacking Andy Dawson’s delivery and, criminally, being allowed to convert at the near post – and could have seen us several down by the interval.  A reflection of two factors that combined to make our lives increasingly uncomfortable as the half progressed:  Dawson and Robert Koren provided precise, consistent, threatening deliveries from either flank (Mark Yeates – that’s what a set piece expert looks like…) and our defence played as if they had been introduced to each other five minutes before the game and had their mouths taped together throughout.  Such was the lack of communication and organisation that we were reliant on individual brilliance to dig us out of situations.  Principally this came from Kuszczak – who produced two top drawer saves – and Nosworthy, whose thunderous, immaculate penalty area challenge on Garcia left the Hull winger nonplussed on his backside and whose backheel-at-speed when heading towards his own goal under pressure again evoked Keith Dublin’s special brand of cavalier defending.  Deeney’s close-range finish to Eustace’s shot gave us a rather flattering parity at the interval.

3- Having played 4-5-1 at Cardiff, Sean Dyche had explained his aspiration to a tactical flexibility that would leave us comfortable switching between a number of formations.  Now is undoubtedly the time to try new things of course, but despite that it it has now seen us take points from consecutive games against teams above us in the table there was little sign of 4-5-1 proving terribly effective. Nor is it obviously a formation that one would expect to suit our current personnel since once non-negotiable requirement – players who to drive on from midfield and wide in support of the tireless Deeney – are rather absent.  Buaben was deft and tidy but as the most obviously attacking member of the central three was way too far behind the striker;  out wide, Murray was peripheral and Garner a parody of himself, almost all of his involvement concluding with him sitting on his backside.  Deeney was thus isolated for the most part which was a shame… Hull’s defence creaked badly when we started to put pressure on it…

4- Which started to happen, perversely, when we were down to ten men, albeit not as a direct result of that development.  Mariappa had come on for the under par Taylor at half time, a change that the lack of communication in our defence had perhaps demanded, but was rightly dismissed for two clumsy challenges; Phil Dowd was in full “look at me, I’m in charge and very important” mode but there was no arguing with either decision.  Both tackles, so uncharacteristic of this now polished defender, smacked of rustiness, but Mariappa wasn’t the only one off form – John Eustace, for instance, appeared to have his boots on the wrong feet, such was the frequency and often peculiar trajectory of his misplaced passes.

With no further defensive options on the bench, the reshuffle saw Lloyd Doyley move to the centre with Buaben filling in at right back.  A decent job of it he did too; if we weren’t already overburdened with right backs – Lee Hodson’s ongoing omission remains a complete mystery – he might have proved an interesting option.  Critically however, Dyche took the bold move of countering Hull’s renewed if rather aimless vigour by bringing on Iwelumo for Garner and switching to 4-3-2.  As has been the case a number of times recently, Iwelumo’s presence altered the balance of the game entirely.  Still outnumbered and sitting quite deep, we nonetheless made City’s defence look very uncomfortable indeed for the last ten minutes or so with Big Chris the unsettler-in-chief.  This culminated in us concluding the game well on the front foot; Dawson’s diving block into the path of Iwelumo’s drive from the right after good interplay with Deeney will have left him seeing stars.  Deeney’s drive forced a decent save from Mannone, and City were forced to clear off the line after another bobbling effort from Deeney.  More tactical experimentation may be on the cards for Tuesday, but if winning the game is a priority it would be a huge surprise if Big Chris didn’t start.

5- Diverting our attention elsewhere briefly, it’s good to be able to say farewell to one of this season’s hobbyhorses with the confirmation of Doncaster’s relegation.  Rovers were a popular second-favourite side in the division, until they abandoned bringing through youngsters and polishing lower league diamonds in favour of a cynical strategy of acting as a shop window for out of favour players under the control of agent Willie McKay, who also represents manager Dean Saunders.  A visit to the Keepmoat earlier in the season and circumstances resulting in hanging around the press box for a while after the game did nothing to persuade of the merits of the strategy or protagonists involved. Had this approach succeeded it would have undoubtedly been used as a blueprint for others, with the consequence of teams of mercenaries effectively playing for the opportunity to leave for richer pastures.  Remember Lee Nogan suddenly putting some effort in when he was chasing a move?  Imagine a team full of that.  Bye bye Doncaster.  Hope you get a proper team to support again some time soon.

Watford 0 Blackpool 2 (06/04/2012) 06/04/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a disappointing Good Friday at Vicarage Road.

1- Oh.

Palpable disappointment.  Obviously.  And that’s the fault of nobody bar those of us who’d allowed ourselves to get a bit carried away with things.  There are mitigating circumstances, there’s context, there’s stuff that didn’t quite fall our way (see below).  But there’s no two ways of interpreting your visitors being able to take off two key attacking players in the closing twenty minutes or so, for a bit of a rest.  Blackpool may have had a couple of things go for them but they played their hand perfectly and attacked us with pace, mobility and composure.  You can read too much into an afternoon like this;  for me, the post-match suggestion that the game confirmed the realistic limits of our ambitions rather smacked of letting one’s latent suspicions shape interpretation.  I don’t think you need to be particularly better than we have been of late to make the play-offs; indeed our results this year had been almost automatic promotion form.  Whatever.  We were ultimately well beaten in this one.

2- For all of which, the big break that the Seasiders got was that opening goal.  Until then, punches had been traded liberally and rather evenly;  Deeney’s header on the left of the box wasn’t a million miles away from finding Iwelumo.  Ince forced a(nother) terrific double save from Kuszczak who appeared – in as much as it’s possible to judge from the far end – to kill the pace on a shot with one save and then bounce up to claw the spinning rebound away from the line.  Murray was forced to take a dropping ball slightly too early and drove over after a good build-up.  Big Chris got on the end of a deep, wicked Murray cross and didn’t quite get his angles right.  It didn’t feel as if that miss mattered too much at the time, we were building something and there was appreciation for the approach.  Actually it proved pivotal, or rather the visitors’ subsequent goal was allowed to be pivotal.  Dobbie seemed to run an awfully long way;  ironically (see thunk 3), we could probably have done with someone, cynically, making a challenge early on that if it didn’t win the ball would at least interrupt the run.  We didn’t, Dobbie was positive and took advantage.  I said “break” before, perhaps the wrong word… nothing lucky about scoring a great goal.

But although it’s a cliché, a painfully obvious thing to say, the first goal was so crucial.  Had we got it we’d have been asked to do the things we’re rather good at… keeping our shape, being solid, not allowing Blackpool a sniff back in.  For the most part we did continue to look quite solid, for all that Blackpool tested our resolve.  But perhaps then they, rather than us, would have lost a little belief, begun to look ragged.  Instead they were able to do the things that they‘re rather good at, hitting us on the break with pace and verve.  The penalty award nonetheless punctured a spell of convincing Watford pressure, and required what must have been a perfectly timed run from Ince to beat the offside.  Nonetheless, it was something that had been rather easy to see coming.

3- It’s natural, unavoidable, to compare Sean Dyche to his predecessor;  a second opportunity for a direct confrontation awaits on Monday.  But whilst perhaps a minor consideration, one department in which Sean indisputably knocks spots off Malky Mackay is in his handling of referees.  However perverse and galling some of the decisions against us last year were, you rather felt that Mackay’s protestations and lamentations at refereeing worked against us rather than for us in the longer term.  Hell, I tired of his complaints and I was on his side and sharing many of his frustrations, one can only imagine how officials might react.

So Sean’s greater reticence in commenting on officials is to his great credit and presents him in a more graceful light;  here, he reportedly commented on the officials’ performance only in response to a direct question, and then briefly and in acknowledgement of the visitors’ deserved victory.  He again resisted the temptation to whinge about the refereeing performance.

Which doesn’t of course mean that I have to. From very early on, Blackpool adopted a shabby, cynical policy of exaggerating every physical contact; sprawling, bouncing off any challenge, remonstrating.  Manager Holloway played his part, dramatically protesting at Iwelumo’s early challenge, the effects of which were greatly exaggerated by Angel whose rolling around appeared to earn the striker a booking.  And referee Linington gave them no reason whatsoever to abandon this approach, effectively negating our physical superiority.  Only late in the half when Angel (again) rolled around in apparent agony in midfield and was completely ignored by everyone including the officials before giving up and getting on with it was there any suggestion that Linington wasn’t going to indulge every appeal – and even then, no card was forthcoming.  Angel got the bird, briefly, but he’d only been the least successful of a string of similar perpetrators, the one who hadn’t gotten away with it (on one occasion).  At the start of the second half there were ironic cheers as Murray went down easily under challenge on the left to “earn” a free kick; frankly if Dyche can be criticised for anything it’s for not taking advantage of one of those rare occasions when Joe Garner’s jelly-ankles might have proven useful.  In truth, however, the decisions hadn’t felt even-handed.

4- It’s been discussed that a reasonable formula for promotion from this division is to find a bit of magic dust to add to an otherwise solid unit.  In recent months Sean Murray, with significant, balancing help from Alex Kacaniklic, has been that added something. The consequence has been that the team suddenly “worked”;  the midfield pairing of Eustace and Hogg became more than viable given quality, reasonably reliable outlets on either flank and we looked both solid and potent as a consequence.

Kacaniklic, of course, has been recalled by Fulham which was always going to affect us.  Murray’s flame has been dimming; frankly, whilst he has been giving us moments of quality in every game and making or scoring in most he looks exhausted.  Not a coincidence that this was the first defeat in which he’s featured since the Spurs cup tie.  I’m hardly going to complain or criticise anyone for Murray’s tiredness, having banged on about the kids needing match time all season – this is an almost inevitable consequence.  What the impact on the team demonstrates, as if it weren’t painfully obvious, is that wide areas need strengthening over the summer.  Murray has undoubted quality and will get stronger, but may not end up playing wide in any case.  Forsyth has something, but is horribly raw.  Yeates, poor yet again, is involved through lack of alternatives although Assombalonga’s bullish cameo was a highlight.  Our loan dealings this season, with the temporary recruitment of Kightly and Kacaniklic, suggests that Sean recognises this as an issue.

5- A disappointing afternoon on the pitch, then.  Off the pitch, reaffirmation of why we’re all here.  There aren’t many gloryhunters in the Watford crowd after all, save perhaps a few that are horribly misguided or have managed to dine out for longer than might be considered reasonable on the Division Two title in 1998 (but good luck to them if so).

Watford is about community and family.  Not alone in that respect, but anyone who does this as well as us deserves hearty praise as well.  Hearty praise, but in a rather detached and incidental way because it matters an awful lot more that it’s at our club that we’ve seen the likes of Luther Blissett wandering along the front of the Rookery signing autographs, countless kids with yellow, red, black balloons, Harry the Hornet banging his drum.  Of course we want Watford to win, but I like that it’s till possible to enjoy a defeat thanks to just being part of something.  The memory that will stick with me the longest from today will be the chaotic two minutes during which Watford High Street was obstructed by an only semi-orchestrated coming together of eleven members of four generations of my family… grandmothers, children, parents, second cousins, first cousins once removed and half a dozen bemused hangers-on, most of them headed to Vicarage Road.  Brilliant.  That sort of stuff is bullet-proof, result-proof, referee-proof.  People will have already asserted that we’re always rubbish on family day but my daughter’s still more or less hooked thanks to the last one, the 3-2 win over Peterborough that deviated from this form. A combination of good planning and happy coincidence that saw a full(ish) house coincide with the reopening of the Red Lion with Allan Smart behind the bar, and an appropriately pitched launch of next term’s Season Tickets.  Remarkably, intelligently, commendably, at uninflated prices.  Well done Watford.  You ‘orns.