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Watford 3 Burnley 3 (29/03/2013) 30/03/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Much earlier in the season, before all of the water went under the bridge, I’d prepared a rather pointed and yet, hopefully, vaguely amusing analogy for a report on our home game with Brighton. It rode a favourite hobby horse, of the type you can use to test how much your partner really loves you: the tendency of restaurants to serve panna cotta, that most gently, kindly delectable of puddings, with some kind of fruit compote, rhubarb or blackcurrant or something similarly sharp. And really, why would anyone who actually likes panna cotta enough to pick it from a menu want that? It’s like writing a piece for string quartet and amplified foghorn. I blame Masterchef.

I quickly realised that the analogy, an attempt at drawing a comparison with the drowning of an essentially mild and likeable Championship side by a new regime and its vast quantity of randomly-imported rhubarb, had a serious flaw. That flaw, of course, was that nobody compares Sean Dyche to a milk pudding and escapes without a thick ear. And besides, the game itself didn’t fit the mould I’d prepared for it.

The analogy fits even less well now. The most tiresome aspect of the recent glib, misinformed controversy is that we went through all of that stuff months ago: there’s an implicit suggestion in much of the criticism that Watford supporters have blindly followed a winning team, oblivious to the wider issues and ignorant of the facts. The reality is that many of the supporters I know wouldn’t blindly follow anything; some of them, and me too, would obstinately and proudly run in the opposite direction at the very suggestion. In short, if this didn’t still feel like Watford, if it just felt like someone else’s kindergarten team or a theoretical exercise, the league table wouldn’t shut many of us up.

But it does feel like Watford. In many ways, it feels more like Watford than anything for many years: this is a club whose identity has been enhanced, not obscured or replaced. A new version, undoubtedly, with much to get used to. But the remarkable achievement of this season, however it ends, has been to pull this club closer together, to turn it into something coherent and comprehensible. The point of vintage Watford – Graham Taylor’s Watford, to be clear – was always to be more than a team on a pitch; the club had ends other than merely producing three points on a Saturday. That, of course, made the three points on a Saturday all the more sweet. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting a lot of things right again.

And so we welcomed Sean Dyche back to a very different club. We applauded him warmly, and quite rightly; he applauded us, which was typically decent of him. And he stood on the touchline with Ian Woan, pointing and shouting and looking as if he’d never left. And then we went our separate ways again. And now we’re here, you wouldn’t change it, would you?

2. Oh, and he took a point with him. A point from the kind of tetchy, irritable, much-interrupted match that ends some time after Grandstand or whatever it is now has been through the reading of the final scores. The kind of match that Adrian Boothroyd briefly turned into a bit of an artform, “managing the game” as if it were some kind of viral outbreak to be contained for the sake of public safety; you’re fooling yourself if you think that last season’s Dyche-built Watford side was any less aggravating than Burnley were here. (Exhibit A: Joe Garner.)

The suspicion all along has been that we might eventually be undone by a lack of streetwise survival skills, that there might be one or two occasions too many when we’d miss John Eustace. We were comfortable winners of the beauty contest, but there were physical and mental challenge to be met too, inevitably, and we definitely weren’t winners in either of those. Instead, we were too easily distracted by irrelevant fussing around minor decisions, by things that we didn’t need or want to get involved in. By whether the ball was exactly in the corner quadrant, for pity’s sake. We didn’t play to our strengths nearly enough. Adrian Boothroyd would’ve been appalled.

3. The end result is that a vital game in which we scored three rather exquisite goals of a very un-Boothroyd class finished with a stunned, desolate silence hanging around Vicarage Road and a hole below the waterline of HMS Automatic Promotion. All of that stuff about scoring one more than the other lot is fine as long as you do. If you don’t, it just looks careless and a bit silly, like you’ve bought the Lamborghini and the mock-Tudor mansion before checking that you put the winning lottery ticket somewhere safe.

It’s true that we’ve built our free-flowing football on a defence that isn’t afraid of the ball, which, by necessity, has a trade-off in terms of security and control. You have to compromise somewhere. But this was a bit much, even so: two desperate goals resulting from people blazing past Marco Cassetti in the first half, then following reorganisation and reinforcement to solve the problem, the bitter blow of seeing the same thing happen to Matthew Briggs when we thought the game was won. As with Neuton, it has to be said that Briggs is the point at which Zola’s cavalier approach to defending starts to descend into self-parody. In truth, I don’t know that I want us to change the compromise, now that it’s been struck…but it shouldn’t become an excuse. This isn’t really the time for excuses.

4. Which leaves us with a well-deserved thunk for the forwards, some positivity to balance out the frustration. It being a team game – a squad game, really – having the best player in the division doesn’t really count for anything on its own; besides, Matej Vydra’s impact has been sporadic, if spectacular, through the course of the season and his last days in the Championship might echo those of Danny Graham, such an evident threat that he almost becomes a decoy. We’ve needed others to step up.

Never any doubt about Troy Deeney, of course. Not since his return to action, so clearly the missing ingredient, have we had cause to think of him as anything other than our first choice centre forward, our line leader…and he was massive here, one of too few who really could claim to have matched finesse with an appetite for the physical battle. Splendid goal, and a mere couple of inches from an almost equally splendid second, just lifting his lob ever so slightly too high and onto the crossbar in first half injury time. For all the focus on our loanees and ex-loanees, it’s Deeney, I’d suggest, who has lit the way for this team, much as John Eustace did for the two previous campaigns.

But if you want cause for optimism – aside from the marvellous Palace scoreline that came in as I was writing this – then you should find it in the rejuvenation of Fernando Forestieri. Another brace of sublime goals…particularly the first, in which Fitz Hall borrowed Almen Abdi’s sliderule and a crowd of defenders wasn’t enough to prevent the little magician from tricking his way into position for an instant, unstoppable finish. An exuberant, glittery party popper of a goal; that’s the football we’ve been playing this season and that should, for better or worse, see us through to the end.

5. At some point in the second half, an errant throw from Jonathan Bond gifted Burnley their clearest opening of the game, which they duly fluffed…and for the next ten minutes, every opportunity to distribute from the back was greeted with insistent howls to avoid a repeat and clout it forward out of harm’s way. But that’s an admission of defeat: we’ve built from the back all season, we’ve accepted that risk, we’ve made it our strength. It’s what we do.

Sometime during April, perhaps even in May, we’ll find out how all of this ends. Modern football is full of people rushing to be first with a definitive conclusion: the must-win game, the title decider, the point of no return. But you’re in the wrong place if you want that: Burnley’s late goal felt like a punch in the stomach, but that’s all it was. It hurt, but we’ll live. Nothing’s decided yet.



1. stu partridge - 30/03/2013

There is no doubt we struggle against teams that defend high and press us in midfield (Bristol, Barnsley, Burnley). The risk for the opposition is that they will be prone to tiring at some point in the second half; which is what happened yesterday and consequently we looked relatively comfortable for most of the second half despite below par performances from Abdi and Chalaboah.
It would be fair to say that all 3 conceded goals were made possible by poor defending.
However it was encouraging to see some of our old swagger return in the second half as this had been missing for a few games now.
So to take positives from the game
1) We can realistically hope that Abdi and Chalaboah will perform better for the rest of the season, thereby facilitating our passing game.
2)Ironing out defensive errors is easier than attending to fundamental defensive problems .Yesterday showed that the former is our problem rather than the latter
3)All of our remaining games are against teams whose style is less suited to the pressing game, which will hopefully allows us to reinforce our quick passing game.

Finally I believe Battochio deserves a special mention for his tremendous ‘chasing a dead cause’ style crossfield run into open space for our 3rd goal.

Fran - 30/03/2013

Bristol didn’t defend high. Anything but.

stu partridge - 01/04/2013

they pressed; and although the weather made football difficult their tactic was to upset our rhythm which they acheived

2. Fran - 30/03/2013

On entering the ground, I stopped to talk to the programme seller who had balloons and bunting on her stand announcing her 50th birthday. She told me that the stand had been decorated for her and she’d been invited to visit the dressing room and had her photo taken with Zola. That is the Watford that I love off the pitch.

3. Roger Smith - 30/03/2013

“The end result is that a vital game…finished with…a hole below the waterline of HMS Automatic Promotion. Burnley’s late goal felt like a punch in the stomach, but that’s all it was. It hurt, but we’ll live. Nothing’s decided yet”.

Thunk 5 is still closer to the truth than thunk 3 – though maybe not come Tuesday evening.

Much better balance to the side in the second half, but if we’re going to play FF wide left, he needs a full back behind him. Main problem was that we played it much too tight in midfield, and were crowded out. Vydra found space, but the ball rarely found him.

4. BH - 31/03/2013

I admire your calmness and continuing belief as much as your writing IG.

I travelled on Friday worrying about our having a teenage keeper and a back three who had not played together as a unit before. It turns out I should have been even more worried about Cassetti. Has he played a poorer game for us? I doubt it.

We now face most of the last seven games with an uncertain defence similar to Friday’s – and that is with the hope that Hall stays fit. When did he last play eight games in a row?

To deepen my gloom, last night’s result means that both Hull & Cardiff will be happy with draws against us. We are better when others are chasing the game but there we go.

This is all written by a natural optimist. Since I saw our first 15/20 minutes at home to Brighton at the start of the season I felt we were in for a thrilling time as well as a real chance of promotion. As the season unfolded, I felt we were certainties to go up. However, five points from our last five games against Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday Barnsley, Blackpool & Burnley does not inspire great confidence.

I have loved this season and hope that if we can’t make the automatic places that our often exhilarating brand of football is justly rewarded in the play-offs. It will only take an excruciating amount of time to tell!

One last thought: I too have missed Eustace’s presence & leadership on the pitch. He strikes me as a born leader and future manager. Maybe it is because I am on the other side of the ground that I just don’t see him on the bench. If he is not, then I think a trick is being missed. We could use his presence & particularly his voice on the front row of the bench with the other coaches. It would be great experience for him and incredibly beneficial for us.

5. straightnochaser - 31/03/2013

I only wish Burnley could’ve fielded ‘Exhibit A’ in place of Charlie Austin, who turned out to be a far better footballer than I’d previously given him credit for. Not only his clinical finishing (some sublime examples in the warm up in addition to the more perfunctory ones that actually counted) but his clever running off the ball bamboozled more than just Briggs. Though how he escaped a yellow card all afternoon after kicking the ball away and following through on Bond remains something of a mystery..

Derek - 01/04/2013

It’s no mystery how he escaped a yellow card. The ref was yet another poor one! I don’t really like complaining about officials when we haven’t won as it always sounds like sour grapes, but I thought that both the ref and lino on the Rous side were sub-standard. Besides Austin, I thought it was strange that Lafferty was only booked for laying out Anya. Is it just me, or is the standard of officials so much worse this year?

Roger Smith - 01/04/2013

I suggest that referees are coming to Watford games with a preconception that continental players are more inclined to dive and feign injury.

Ian Grant - 01/04/2013

I would suggest that you’re probably right. And I would also suggest that they’re probably right too.

Ian Grant - 01/04/2013

The referee was an absolute arse, I agree, but the fuss over Austin’s “challenge” was a total nonsense. Surely we don’t want the game to reach the point where every vaguely physical challenge – especially with poor old goalkeepers, who for reasons unknown are more frail than normal people and thus need to be protected like elderly aunts in a rowdy pub – has to end with a tedious brouhaha of indignation and recrimination. If we’d spent less time on all of that on Friday and more time playing football, we’d have won the game; it was exactly what Burnley wanted.

6. Stephen Hoffman - 02/04/2013

I don’t think its true that Continental players are more likely to dive then British players, I really hate this hoary misconception. Unfortunately, players like Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale and even Phil Neville, Rob Kozluk and many more are in to feigning injury and diving. Also, as my Mum a lifelong Man City fan reminds me this isn’t a new phenomenon reminding us that Franny Lee was nicknamed by City fans Lee Won Pen. The conclusion from this is that the ref was rubbish. As I wasn’t there I was with family in Israel, could anyone let me know apart from the goals how much difference not having Nosworthy in defence made and how did Fitz Hall play on his return?

Ian Grant - 02/04/2013

On the diving thing…well, yes, it’s absolutely everywhere now, one of those things that we’re supposed to accept as being part of the game. Quite why we have to accept that, I’m not sure: it’s cheating and, arguably worse, it turns games into tedious, petulant squabbles that involve the physios more than the goalkeepers.

My point was really that if referees take charge of our games with the impression that we have a number of players who’ll take a tumble at the first opportunity, we’re unlikely to disappoint. If that informs their decisions, I’d argue that’s our fault more than theirs.

7. Stephen Hoffman - 02/04/2013

I’d agree there Ian. Especially towards the beginning of the season, Forrestieri didn’t help himself, although I do think he’s improved there. Its true we still don’t help ourselves though. Going off the referees point: could anyone let me know apart from the goals how much difference not having Nosworthy in defence made and how did Fitz Hall play on his return?

Ian Grant - 03/04/2013

That wasn’t the problem, I don’t think: Fitz Hall looked a bit rusty, sure, but Burnley made their first half breakthroughs by targeting and exposing Cassetti, and the late equaliser was really down to Briggs falling asleep at the vital moment. After the last night, of course, the question is really how we’ll cope without either Hall or Nosworthy…

8. Stephen Hoffman - 02/04/2013

On the diving totally agree, I absolutely hate it and was embarassed by some of the swan dives of Joe Garner last year.

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