Leicester City 1 Watford 2 (26/04/2013) 27/04/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Leicester City is an increasingly pleasant place to visit; the very necessary shelter from the bitter wind rampaging around the outside of the ground wasn’t the only welcome as we pushed our way into the concourse. The stewards and the serving staff were equally hospitable, as has been the case in each of the last couple of seasons. Unlike then, we took the points as well as the courtesy this time.
The one change from the demolition of Blackburn saw Matej Vydra trade places with Fernando Forestieri; whilst not justified by current form there’s no denying that these are slightly different tools. Forestieri is the man to pick an awkward lock, more valuable in front of an obstinate defence at Vicarage Road. Vydra is the man to exploit gaps behind an advancing defence, or to make a team think twice about throwing men forward.
And throw men forward Leicester did from the off. Indeed neither side could be faulted for attacking intent as the opening half hour rolled from end to end like a schoolboy basketball game, but what quality there was largely came from the defenders… Cassetti as arrogantly above all this nonsense as ever, Ekstrand magnificent alongside him. At the other end Troy Deeney quickly resorted to backing into the monstrous Wes Morgan in search of a generous free kick, such was his lack of progress – there have been few games this season in which he’s had such limited impact. It felt as if we were under pressure, but as was pointed out at half time, Almunia got to the break without making a save, even if one shot skimmed the outside of his right hand upright and two balls bobbled across the area needing a touch. Nonetheless although the home side had the possession their attacks were clumsy swipes with a caveman’s club, our rapier thrusts were less frequent but felt more likely to cause damage.
So it proved as with five minutes to go before the break Joel Ekstrand was free in the area from a corner and nodded down to Deeney to swipe home. Relief and euphoria in the away end.
2- Nathaniel Chalobah’s strike merits a thunk all to itself, obviously. At least a thunk. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a piledriver that’s still rising as it hits the roof of the net. Perhaps smacking it in off the underside of the crossbar constitutes a marginal improvement – work to do there, Nathaniel – but this minor failing was offset by the fact that nobody saw this coming, least of all Kasper Schmeichel. The cannonball wasn’t preceded by a telegraphed lay-off, nobody was rising in anticipation as the ball was struck – indeed we were still in the post-celebration jubilant singing bit following Deeney’s goal two minutes earlier. We were flattened as comprehensively as if the shot had caught us in the midriff, stunned… and then ecstatic with disbelief. Even at half-time in a boisterous, giddy concourse strangers were grinning at each other and shaking their heads. Last word, as on so many things, goes to Alan Partridge.
3- A word here for the home support. City had visibly been building this one up throughout the week, and understandably so; in the wake of an appalling run of form (by any standards, let alone those of a side trying to make a case for being worthy of taking on the top flight) you want to generate a do-or-die, cup-tie kind of situation, “nothing before this matters, it’s all about this one game”. If the team ended up falling short, no such criticism can reasonably be leveled at the blue sides of the stadium… they might not quite have matched this epic lunacy but outstripped anything I’ve heard since for relentless intensity. Only in the wake of the second goal (when we so nearly put the game to bed as Leicester rocked), the opening fifteen of the second half and in the dying embers of the game were we able to make ourselves heard.
4- That fifteen minute spell after half time was a joy. The Hornets strutted around the pitch in our sudden supremacy as the Foxes tried to find a foothold and Nigel Pearson fiddled with his personnel and formation. A five minute rolling rendition of “hoist up the Watford flag” was the highlight (and incidentally if there’s something slightly unsatisfying about revelling in an identikit conversion of a song that every other bugger sings too then it certainly beats the hell out of the moronic “we’re the RIGHT side….”). And then Harry Kane scored and this celebration was betrayed as mere hiatus, a breather between slabs of sapping, nervous uncertainty.
In reality it was never that close a thing. City had chances, none better than when Marshall forced a magnificent save out of Almunia after Wood was felled by a suspiciously conclusive Hogg tackle. But for all that the crowd was raised and that City enjoyed possession again we were never really under the cosh, you never felt that a goal was coming – a possibility, not a probability. Meanwhile we were doing quite a good job of running off with the ball, killing time without resorting to gamesmanship, keeping possession, keeping Leicester chasing. You’d have preferred another goal of course; Deeney was still getting absolutely nothing out of Morgan and Keane, Vydra looking anything but convincing and lasting the 90 largely by virtue of worrying knocks to Chalobah and Abdi forcing midfield substitutions. But we made it, and the celebrations shared between team and fans were as jubilant as at Hull (NB Steve Bruce, celebrating an away win isn’t a crime, live with it. Not that you were watching, natch). The vast majority of the shirts went into the stand and it was good to see Matthew Briggs, after his perhaps ill-advised goal celebration last weekend, at the vanguard with fists pumping.
5- We’ve won a lot of games this season, and however it plays out it’s been a complete joy; that this memorable evening is just one of a catalogue of fine evenings and afternoons since August speaks volumes. Some of the wins have been achieved by virtue of being comprehensively better than the opposition, outplaying them in every department. This wasn’t one of those. Others have been achieved through simply wanting it more, having more fire in our belly. This wasn’t one of those either, there was no questioning City’s application. Some have been lucky, but we weren’t lucky tonight. This one was a Premier League win, a win achieved by telling moments of quality – one moment where theirs failed, another where ours told. Thank you, and good night. That’s what playing in the top flight is like, one slip, one moment of quality, game over.
This is a Premier League team in all but name. There are strong grounds for claiming that ours is the best side in the division; of the various factors that have contributed to us not already having fixed a place in the top two the greatest remains the slow start to the season, and there are reasons for that. Nobody has gained more points that us since the start of November – we have 61 from those 32 games, four more than Cardiff and five more than Hull from a game more. If we’ve slipped up again in the meantime, it’s no more than others have done and over the last week we’ve turned a virtually done deal into something that might be tantalisingly precarious going into next weekend. The rest is out of our hands.
We’re all Barnsley fans this afternoon.
Watford 4 Blackburn Rovers 0 (20/04/2013) 21/04/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- The scoreline tells one story. The narrative of the match itself, however, is not (merely) one of us putting inadequate opponents to the sword. In fact it followed the template of several of our big wins this season; against Huddersfield in the snow in January we laboured for a bit against a side hellbent on stopping us from playing – and once we had gotten that first goal we were gone, galloping off into the sunset with the points and never looking back.
This was the same only more so, the effect amplified by both our recent tentativeness in front of goal and the immediacy of the need for points. Blackburn proved to be of limited threat when they had the ball (of which more below), but without the ball they were doing a reasonable enough job of chasing us down, closing down the space during the opening forty-five minutes. We were probably ahead on points at the interval, we’d had the better of such chances as there were and had again dominated possession, but the sense of urgency and conviction was even more muted than at Millwall – where we were genuinely unlucky, but nonetheless undone by the fact that putting the ball in the net suddenly looks so very difficult. Five minutes into the second half, with no end to the stalemate in sight, the words “nil nil written all over it” may have been uttered by one of your co-editors.
2- We pause here to consider Blackburn Rovers. The tragic Venkys soap opera has been well documented, the rapid turnover of managers bizarre and short-sighted… as far as the possibility of being without a seat when the music stops goes there’s a big part of me that thinks that whatever the failings of the club owners, this bunch of supporters have suffered quite enough. There are clubs who have achieved less down there whose supporters display a sense of entitlement that far outstrips that of Rovers fans (and Dean Saunders is a nasty little so and so too).
But there’s no doubt that whatever the management upheaval and background instability, this bunch of players ought to be capable of a lot more than they’ve delivered. Of yesterday’s squad, Dunn, Pedersen, Dann, Olsson, Givet have decent top level experience, and looked competent at worst at the highest level. Best, Rhodes, Jones, Orr, Williamson are at the very least decent Championship players. Add to that the experience of Nuno Gomes and the absent Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Kazim-Richards, DJ Campbell, Hanley… there’s no way on earth that this squad of players should be where they are.
It might be argued that we were lucky to come up against them at this point. Frankly, it might have been nice to have played them a week or two ago, for if this win does provide the fillip we need to rediscover our form then with such a boost a couple of weeks earlier we would now be talking about automatic promotion as a probability rather than a mere possibility.
3- But the extraordinary second half was only down to Rovers’ failings in part. To pretend otherwise would be to deny the huge amount of credit due to the quality of our finishing. If Rovers lost the game, rather than us winning it, it was by providing such little threat themselves – there was little suggestion of counterattack, not really, but little to blame Rovers for in either of the opening two goals, and arguably the third.
After a campaign in which there are so many strong candidates for Player of the Season it seems odd to be able to single someone out, but for me nobody has put in the consistent high levels that Troy Deeney has delivered. Cassetti, Abdi, Vydra, Forestieri, Chalobah have all been fabulous, others have been merely very good, but each have had iffy spells – either stretches of wobblier form or periods within games where they’ve simply disappeared. Troy started from a low base, but his focus and leadership have paid back the faith shown in his character, as much as his ability, in spades. If the irrepressible Forestieri was the spark that ignited the first goal, Troy Deeney’s strength, his confidence to wait for the gap and the irresistible accuracy of his shot were worthy of turning any game.
And we’re not half a good side when we’re in the lead. There’s been precious little opportunity to demonstrate that in recent weeks, but my god we showed it here as the things that have been proving so difficult suddenly came flooding back, like lyrics to a song that we hadn’t realised we’d forgotten but came to us as soon as someone played us the intro. They Juggernaut was briefly in danger of being derailed as Rovers broke on us quickly and Rhodes sent a header over, but that was it as far as Rovers were concerned. The game was gone, and it was a matter of how many we would score.
This was our sixth (sixth!) four-goal plus haul of the season, and the twelfth time we’ve scored at least three; if there’s a frustration it’s that the points we’ve let slip in between have left promotion anything other than the racing certainty that football like this ought to have long guaranteed. It would be wrong to say that this win outstripped the others in terms of aplomb… there have been so many good goals, so many well-executed dismantlings. But few have been greeted with such relief. The second goal was arguably the highlight, Forestieri with the devil in his eyes again now, with the confidence to ignore the easy, conservative ball to Pudil and delay and delay and then thread an impossible pass through to Troy Deeney, who dispatched his nineteenth of the season with now roaring confidence. If anything was missing it was the long-awaited goal for Vydra, but nonetheless the Czech continued his more energetic display from Millwall and was hurtling after everything in the closing minutes. On this evidence, it won’t be long.
4- Actually the other thing we could have done with is a marksman in the Upper Rous with an elephant gun and a tranquiliser dart. One of several violent, petulant challenges by the thoroughly indisciplined rabble that Rovers became in the wake of our twenty minute goal blitz saw Troy Deeney lose his rag altogether. Having been apparently felled by an elbow he raised himself and charged after the ball in a manner that suggested a degree of disappointment at the lack of intervention from the official. He ultimately committed the least surprising foul of the afternoon, but fortunately that was all there was to it. The last time I saw someone lose it like that was in Austria in 1997, when TSV 19860 Munich’s Ulf Bodden ran two thirds of the length of the pitch to kick the perceived Rapid Vienna miscreant up the arse. He saw red, to hilarity in the stands. Troy losing it in the same way would not have been as funny.
The nastiness came to a head in the closing minutes, when Marco Cassetti, having been similarly felled by a Leon Best elbow moments earlier, showed his Serie A pedigree by provoking a furious reaction from Best, a reaction that earned him the red he’d earlier deserved. Tut tut, and so forth.
5- Whilst Hull are still in the driving seat there’s no denying that the fixture list has been kind to us this week. City’s listless failure to beat relegated Bristol City on Friday left us with two games to play before they next take to the field, and the possibility of closing that seven point margin down to one. As far as that goes, it’s all within our control; we’ve delivered on half of the deal, and if we manage to continue the flowing irresistible stuff on into Friday Hull will go into their final two games – at backs-to-the-wall Barnsley and hosting champions Cardiff – knowing that they probably NEED to win one of them. In the meantime, we need to do our bit… which suddenly seems less daunting than it did.
Bring on the Leicester.
Millwall 1 Watford 0 (16/04/2013) 17/04/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. There are many irritating things about modern football. Among them may well be the frequency with which I use phrases like “there are many irritating things about modern football”. But they’re ever-increasing, as illustrated yesterday by the announcement of a 5.15pm kickoff for an FA Cup Final between two teams from the distant north-west, defended by the FA by describing its flagship occasion as “content”. Go and ruin someone else’s sport, you effing parasites. Um, yeah, where were we? Yes, of the many irritating things about modern football, high on the list is the competition among those with opinions on the game to be first with the definitive statement, the most black and white declaration of final and irrevocable fact.
Were it to happen again, the World Cup would be won not to “they think it’s all over…” but to Alan Green bellowing “IT’S ALL OVER!” at a volume audible on nearby planets. For once in his bloody life, Mark Lawrenson wouldn’t be able to add “NOT!” to the end of the sentence in a humourless, bored monotone, but I’m sure he’d find something tediously facetious to say anyway: “About time (sigh)” or similar. Football has lost its shades of grey, its room for uncertainty…and they were always the most interesting bits, for there’s no tension if you’ve already declared the outcome certain. Without doubt and hope and other grey areas, we might as well all stay at home, everything done and decided before it’s started.
Thus, our season was declared over and done with as vociferously as possible by a load of very clever people following Saturday’s defeat, our slide back toward the playoff pack as inevitable as our failure to win the May lottery. But, of course, that was nonsense: nobody would write us off if we were three points behind on the last day, and there was always a significant chance of Hull dropping points before then. Far from hopeless, when you look at it without rushing to judgment. Even less hopeless as the evening unfolded.
2. But for all that I’ve just said, it’s pretty difficult not to rush to judgment in the aftermath of this defeat. It’s pretty difficult not to conclude that this might’ve been the last opportunity.
We spent the evening pressing our noses against the toy shop window and staring at the lights inside until our eyes started to water. We had Millwall on the ropes and wilting under pressure, in front of a sparse home crowd comprised of the few thousand people who hadn’t spent all of their money on semi-final tickets and beer. Then news came through that Wolves had taken the lead over Hull…and it was suddenly all laid out before us, opening up in a great surge of hope and optimism and excitement.
The noise echoed around the away section, renewed belief and expectation. Here was not only the chance to narrow the gap back to a single win, but to re-gain some of our form into the bargain, for the home side afforded us significant space in midfield and struggled to contain the runs of Deeney and Vydra from the off. A goal for the latter, in particular, seemed within our grasp and might prove so vital; there were glimpses of the unplayable Vydra here, just below the nervous, anxious surface. The alternative story of this game, close enough to touch, is one that puts an extra spring into tired strides, one that picks up momentum at the perfect moment, one that puts us right back in the race. Come on and all that.
3. To lose, then, feels absolutely crushing. You’d almost prefer Hull to have won comfortably, in order to spend less time staring at what slipped through our fingers and shattered on the floor. At least there’d have been some consolation in seeing Wolves fall further towards the drop, some greater good emerging from the evening’s events. We left with absolutely nothing.
4. And it almost seems worse that there’s little comparatively to criticise. This was the performance of a team on its last legs, perhaps, but it was spirited and positive and deserving of much more. In truth, there were countless moments which we’d have expected to make more of earlier in the season, back when it all came a little easier than it does now. There were early chances for Deeney, surging into the defensive gaps left by an obviously tired Millwall side; there were shooting opportunities for the fits-and-starts Anya, cutting in from the right; there were scrambles and muddles and bits where we got in each others’ way and bits where defenders just about got in our way; there were chances that Vydra would’ve casually buried before but now, it seems, need a lucky deflection or a goalkeeping cockup to help him on his way again; there was a penalty shout for a flailing arm from Shittu that even I, with my dogmatic hatred of handball appeals, would’ve given.
We didn’t miss a load of clear-cut chances, but we’re not a side that really creates loads of those. That’s not our thing, although it’d make life easier right now. We simply didn’t score in positions and situations where we were scoring freely earlier in the campaign.
In other words, Plan A was perfectly fine. There’s no need for an extravagant tactical post-mortem: we won the game comfortably on points. Which is, I know, meaningless, particularly in the circumstances. For a side that’s scored a billion goals this season, we suddenly look frustrated and a bit frantic in that department, as if the spell has been broken and our magic boots no longer work. At times like these, you need some stock goals to fall back on: somebody who can be relied upon to thump in a header from a corner every so often, somebody who can tuck home a loose end from six yards. The Oliver Bierhoff Solution. We’ve concentrated on loftier things, admirably so. But we seem lost now, unable to force what isn’t coming naturally.
5. And inevitably, our defensive chickens are coming home to roost at the same time. For all that we were dominant here, our tendency to switch off when we sense no immediate danger meant that we afforded Millwall three clear chances to win the match. Twice, once in the first half and again in the second, we let forwards drift in to meet crosses unchallenged, and first Keogh and then Woolford wasted those opportunities. But you can’t get away with that forever. You can’t get away with that if the goals are harder to come by at the other end.
We are perhaps learning what the Championship is all about. And if this season is to end without promotion, there are lessons to take with us into the next attempt: there’s a hard edge to the most successful sides in this division, a certain amount of industrial grit to go along with the style. There are too many careless moments that’ve cost us second place, things that we should be kicking ourselves over when we look back at it all. There are moments when we’ve been daydreaming.
We should’ve saved that for the summer.
Peterborough United 3 Watford 2 (13/04/2013) 14/04/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- There is something to be said for reserved seating, admittedly. There are advantages. Knowing where you’re going to sit, for example, the security of knowing your place is where you left it whether you choose to rock up at 2:15 or 2:59.
But things being what they are, the opportunity to stand on a terrace is a rare thing and to be cherished. The Cherry Tree had been boisterous an hour earlier; cheerfully busy and dominated by yellow, the queue at the bar moving quickly enough not to be irritating whilst still permitting a few seconds of solitude amongst the hubbub. Those of us without an innate aversion to Other People enjoyed it hugely.
By 3pm, the Moys Terrace was heaving and verging on raucous. It wasn’t just the fact that it was a terrace… a big game, again, and an agreeable journey had attracted over 4000 travelling supporters. But there’s nothing quite like an agitated terrace under a low roof and whatever happens as the season closes there’s a part of me that would be perfectly happy in a lower division with terraces – is that wrong? Hell, there was even an element of nostalgic bravado in revisiting the cramped, inadequate toilet blocks of yesteryear although admittedly that attraction might wane with time… I faced the queues before kick-off for fear of having to revisit squalor and depravity on a par with Fellows Park, Walsall in 1987 as conditions worsened later on.
2- And so the football started, almost an afterthought. Bright and bubbly as anticipated, this was never going to be a game where either side was particularly fussed about keeping it tight. This ought to suit us, we had told ourselves. However, if the home side didn’t play defensively they managed the game masterfully, inviting us onto them and affording us possession, allowing them to counterattack as the away side. Simultaneously they smothered Nathaniel Chalobah in the midfield, robbing the conductor of his baton and repeatedly smacking him around the shins with it… working out exactly referee David Webb drew his line and nudging up against it as aggressively as possible.
Where Webb drew his line, as it turned out, was wherever he thought he might attract least attention and cause least offence – and so inevitably he created problems for himself. His decisions largely favoured the defending side; the Hornets were denied two penalty claims, one of which looked particularly strong and led to Troy Deeney, no longer wearing the armband but still ostensibly the leader of the side, being booked for his frustration. In front of us, Ekstrand benefited from Webb’s lenience; having been rightly booked for an unnecessary foul on Gayle early in the half he was extremely lucky to escape without further censure having felled the same player later in the half; a straight red there would have been harsh but not beyond the realms of possibility.
Gayle’s skip beyond the defensive line was only one of several such incidents in the opening 45 where Posh’s movement and pace saw us caught flat footed. From one of these Swanson had scored an excellent opener after Gayle had unpeeled us… we had the lions’ share of possession but were ever more deliberate, careful, cautious, and such chances as we were creating had fallen to Jonathan Hogg, who however hard he works to break his duck doesn’t look any more like doing so.
3- The decision to bring on Matej Vydra at the break wasn’t a huge surprise; we hadn’t looked like getting on top of the game and something needed to change. Off came the precarious Ekstrand as we switched to 4-3-3… bold, positive, unsuccessful. The flat four proved no more able to cope with Peterborough’s breaks, and when a hospital ball from Doyley put the miserable Chalobah under pressure the home side pounced and Gayle skittered away to score the second. Five minutes later Gayle was past the defence again and Cassetti committed a rare error, tangling with the escaping striker and giving the referee little alternative but to produce a red card. Tomlin converted the free kick to apparently drive the nail into the coffin. On the stunned away terrace a few sloped off towards the pub… there was only one Angry Man, but he’d been bawling and cussing at every perceived failing since kick off – otherwise it was baffled silence.
4- The mood on the pitch was as flat as it was off it. Posh decided they had the game won and felt comfortable enough to take off two key protagonists, Tomlin and Gayle, with fifteen minutes plus stoppage time still on the clock, a damning indictment. Inspiration arrived, though, and from a not entirely anticipated quarter.
Half time had seen Posh introduce ex-players in the fashion that has become part of the ritual at Vicarage Road, and here were three ex-Posh who had also spent time at the Vic. David Johnson and Alan Paris’ first team careers at Watford were brief and non-existent respectively, but Worrell Sterling got an appreciative smattering of applause from the away end. My recollection of Worrell is that he was always the best player in our worst performances, unphased by chaos around him but relatively rarely a part of a memorable success. Step forward Mark Yeates, who in a midfield perhaps a little more relaxed by this point found the time and space to start pinging balls around and oiling our attacking play.
It was his free kick that got us on the scoresheet, although inevitably the context meant that the celebration underneath the corrugated roof was nothing like as noisy as it might have been. A heavy deflection, admittedly, but deserved on Yeates’ part for simply refusing to lie down – indeed, he stood out simply by virtue of making a statement of grabbing the ball and taking responsibility. Our attacking play had been ever more careful, our breaks such as they were slowing down as a lay back invariably allowed Peterborough to organise. Give the home side some credit for this of course, but there was precious little responsibility being taken and once again Vydra, fiddling around on the edge of the game, was culpable.
Yeates’ goal, of course, woke us up altogether and cast the preceding fifteen minutes of non-event as the criminal waste of time that it was. Suddenly we were on the front foot, desperate for extra minutes. As Darren Ferguson’s post-match comments reflected, the final scoreline might have flattered us a little but we really weren’t very far from getting something out of this in the end as Posh were back on their heels for the last ten minutes. Instead we only had one more goal to show for it, a decent drive from Forestieri, who in fairness had been positive and aggressive throughout.
5- Pretty glum stuff, nonetheless, and Cassetti’s suspension is particularly unhelpful with half-an-eye on Tuesday. Injury to Briggs in the warm up had lead to his late withdrawal also (and explained why Prince Buaben was out there warming up) but if Fitz isn’t back in contention then we’re probably looking at a start for Adam Thompson (or a change of formation) at the New Den. Automatic promotion is now out of our hands of course but not completely beyond consideration… Millwall are without a home win in seven and are off the back of a semi-final defeat, whilst Hull travel to Wolves who have their backs to the wall. If those results go our way it’s game on again… and I rather hope that happens. Nobody doubts the ability or the spirit in our squad. Whether we’ve got the legs for an extra three games is open to question.
Watford 0 Cardiff City 0 (06/04/2013) 07/04/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. Before kickoff, there’s more than a whiff of the glory days, back when Matt had all his teeth and I had all my hearing. He’s been to the dentist in the morning and every word comes with a wince; I’ve been to two colossal Swans gigs in the space of a week; neither of us, if we’re being entirely honest, are the physical specimens we once were.
Anyway, the long overdue warmth of spring sunshine, the away half-end rowdily full, the rest of the ground buzzing with anticipation (for now, but sadly not forever, falling just the right side of turning into expectation). It’s a wonderful spectacle, all of that hard work in the winter bearing fruit. There’s a lot at stake, but that can be (should be) thrilling rather than daunting…and we perhaps gain in youthful joie de vivre what we lose in having been there and bought t-shirts. Following on from Tuesday night, and despite three points for Hull during the afternoon, this felt like an opportunity to make a decisive move, to lay a firm claim to that second spot. It felt like a game you needed to see.
2. And you probably did see it, whether in person or via the gogglebox, which means that you no more need to read about it than I need to write about it. Because, in truth, there ain’t an awful lot to say: some goalless draws are so tedious that they become perversely inspiring, and it can be quite fun to attempt to capture the full ghastliness of some frozen, barren midweek encounter with, say, Barnsley in which nothing at all happens and nobody at all cares and you wonder whether anyone will notice if you use that line from “Waiting for Godot” again.
But much as this encounter began, continued and ended in stalemate, it was nevertheless only a single winning goal, a single moment of brilliance or good fortune for either side, away from being a significant part of this season’s story. It was as if everyone held their breath at kickoff…and held it…and held it…and nothing happened. Nothing. No storm, no flood. The weather forecast was wrong. And we all went home, put it to one side almost instantly, and started thinking about next weekend instead. It’s already old news.
3. It’s a point which very evidently suited Cardiff, whose ambition knew bounds. In stark contrast to Sean Dyche’s Burnley, with only a single ex-Watford name alongside the manager’s, Malky Mackay seems to have assembled some kind of touring tribute act and must spend his evenings scouring eBay for a second-hand Henri Lansbury or a nearly-new Danny Graham to add to his collection. It’s actually quite a challenge to follow the correct sequence of booing, applauding and ignoring as the Cardiff team is read out; you’re almost in need of sheet music to follow….
Sod it, though…I’ve always liked Mackay a great deal. He built two seasons’ worth of teams with genuine style and energy and spirit, at a time when the club’s future was very uncertain indeed and when, frankly, we would’ve accepted survival by any means. There was the single-minded determination of a top class manager in those campaigns, a willingness to keep on the chosen path even when it seemed like time to consult the map. That stubborn streak was very apparent in a Cardiff performance which stressed discipline over flair and gave us no space whatsoever in the areas where we’re most effective. Not the performance of a side worried about putting on a show or thinking about how it might adapt to life in the top flight; a job done, nothing more and nothing less. It was dour but impressive.
4. The ninety minutes are neatly summed up by the fact that it’s fairly easy to recall moments when we nearly created chances but didn’t quite. The chances themselves are far fewer and therefore even easier to remember: two for Troy Deeney, slicing somewhat carelessly over the bar late in the first half and then denied by Marshall’s only noteworthy save after the interval, and none of consequence for anyone else in a yellow shirt. For Cardiff, in blue, Almunia blocked Mason’s low shot on the one occasion when our defensive concentration failed. (Cue a load of comments about the ones I’ve forgotten.)
A little frustrating, perhaps. The slow-slow-quick-quick-slow passing game was successfully disrupted by our opponents, and it seemed as if a hard, slightly bumpy surface wasn’t doing us any favours either, perhaps requiring a moment’s thought when we’ve previously gone on instinct alone. But we were a bit cautious and hesitant too, and, for me, we fell back on looking for a distant Deeney too much. Cardiff were pretty comfortable with our left-side of Doyley and Briggs, perhaps the one area where there was space to exploit: for all Daniel Pudil’s faults, we miss a left-sided player who’s content to bomb up and down the touchline rather than do a safe sixty-five in the middle lane.
We might regret the nearly moments – an out-of-sorts Vydra clumsily over-hitting a through-ball, Anya failing to find exactly the right cross – and we might point to a sense that we had more of those moments than Cardiff, but it’s hard to escape the overall nil-nil-ness of the occasion.
5. In which case, the main positive to take away is that one of those nils belongs to Cardiff, and another one belonged to Hull on Tuesday night. Two clean sheets against the top two perhaps – hopefully – reflects a new determination to get what we deserve from games when things are tight…and, spear-headed by the superb Ekstrand, this was a defensive performance we could be genuinely proud of.
These are tight, taut games. Small margins. No room for the sloppy, low-slung cockiness that we’ve sometimes been guilty of showing; less room for throwing caution to the wind too. Not a great game, sure, but a very good game not to have lost. And Peterborough next, which is just the thing when you’re a bit fed up of opponents who’ve spent all week on the training ground and in the video suite working out how to stop you from playing…
Hull City 0 Watford 1 (02/04/2013) 03/04/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Difficult to know how to start this one. Difficult to know how to do justice to the enormity of the spectacle. ig once wrote, with reference to that lunatic Tranmere game that it was “too huge for a football pitch” and if this one didn’t quite compare in terms of carnage there were elements of it in the epic drama that unfolded. That rare event, a much anticipated fixture that lives up to its billing – appropriately on the tails of the debut of the new season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Raucous, breathtaking, exhausting, you can’t watch, you can’t tear your eyes away, twists, turns, huge characters, heroism, villainy, adrenaline and staggering scale. The TV series looks pretty good, too.
And the goal, when it came. Deeney’s sharp turn and wicked, bending, perfect strike at the end of yet more precision flicking of passes. A thing of magnificence, of course… and greeted with a sonic boom. The ball hit the net and for the tiniest fraction of a second there was pure and beautiful silence. Then a flash of light, a wall of noise, utter bedlam, one of those goal celebrations where the nervous tension that has been accumulating for minutes, hours, days lets rip.
And at the end of the evening, despite the hour, the journey, the prospect of the trip home… buzzing. Absolutely bouncing. Never has a long trip home flown by so effortlessly. “Anyone going to bloody Hull is a fool”, said one sage a week or two ago. No, this was the kind of stuff that you tolerate the fruitless dross for.
2- It’s easy to be smart after the event, but I fancied us. Our failings, such as they have been, have been rooted in fatigue and, occasionally, complacency. Sometimes we’ve just been beaten by the better team, of course, but not often… and that’s hardly a failing, not really. After an international break with players returning from injury and regaining sharpness fatigue would be less of an issue and no chance of complacency, not tonight.
Despite which, as the game started we were on the back foot. Hull’s approach throughout was attritional rather than elegant… not overly aggressive, certainly not dirty and not without skill. But… blunt. Disciplined defending, competitive and tidy in midfield and then… an attack without an obvious focus. You got the impression of a wall moving forward, pressuring the ball vaguely but inexorably goalwards, sort of like the garbage crushers in Star Wars.
And we couldn’t get out, not for a good ten minutes. Fitz Hall was hugely significant in this period; City’s formation loosely matched our own, and their wing backs got forward and flung crosses into the box. Onesize was aggressively, definitively on the end of most of them, a merciless bully. Nonetheless, we were struggling to get any kind of control of the ball and midfield and briefly a sense of horrific inevitability clutched your gut.
Gradually we played ourself into the game. Nathaniel Chalobah was the key here (eighteen by the way, in case like me you needed reminding. Eighteen. My god he’s going to be a player)… the pendulum in the middle of the park, now keeping the ball, turning away from challenges, killing Hull’s attempts at momentum. Never has the value of simply retaining possession been more elegantly demonstrated.
And once Chalobah had turned the tide of the half, it kept turning and accelerated away from the home side. Now it was Watford with all the possession and Hull who couldn’t get out. All the darting and flicking and holding on to it in impossible positions that have characterised our best performances this season were back on show. We asked the questions… and in fairness Hull had answers to much of them, defending deep and sometimes desperately but providing the riposte, ultimately, even if occasionally with their backs to the wall having been unpicked through passing and movement. We did have chances, such as when Abdi worked his way through on the left of the area to fire over, but it was more a case of us teasing, tormenting the Hull back line, waiting for the opportunity. It would have to be something special, and it was.
In the wake of which it could still have gone badly wrong again before half time…. George Boyd found himself with what would turn out to be as clear a chance as Hull would have all evening with time to drive in from the edge of the box. Bond was slightly fortunate that the ball came through within reach; nonetheless, partially unsighted and with precious little time to react he produced a stunning stop that kept us ahead at the break.
3- Hall had exited midway through the first half – another injury, evident from his glum, resigned posture sitting on the turf despite no obvious contact. His contributions when fit have been massive but he’s just not fit often enough, and one has to suspect that his contract won’t be extended; Lloyd came on for his 400th appearance and Joel Ekstrand, who had looked nervous in the opening exchanges, moved to the centre. Despite his relative lack of inches (he’s only 6’2″) the Swede looked far more comfortable, and put in an assertive 70 minutes at the middle of the three.
He needed to. Hull, inevitably, came back at us and if there was still little focus for their attacks – crosses thrown in slightly haphazardly, little in the way of actual penetration – they were on top for much of the second half. Jonathan Bond excelled, earning his first clean sheet in Watford colours with some confident handling and a couple of decent stops… we were trying to break, but it wasn’t Matej Vydra’s night (again). Someone behind me suggested that his heart wasn’t in it… I didn’t see that, he was working hard, busting a gut, involved in build ups and closing down. But that lethal predatory weapon has been stifled by attention, and it was no surprise that he didn’t last 90 minutes.
His replacement was Prince Buaben, very much in from the cold following Hogg’s knock for his first appearance of the season. Tidy enough it was too, providing us with willing legs when players (on both sides) looked dead on their feet, and making good use of that trick he’s got of retaining possession by shuffling through a pirouette with an extended leg hooked protectively around the ball.
But the star of the second period was Cristian Battocchio. We’ve suggested on here before that the young Argentine has played well when the team has played well around him but struggled to impose himself when the team was struggling… well this was new. A fine team performance to be sure… but Cristian was at the forefront in the second half, dragging the side along. As his exhausted teammates sat back frustratingly, precariously, Battocchio didn’t stop moving from the first whistle to the last. A whirling Tasmanian Devil in the midfield, relentlessly pursuing every unchallenged opponent and lost cause, hounding a disappearing opponent, burrowing in to win the ball, turning and charging back upfield at the forefront of the next counter to increasing adulation from the boisterous away end.
4- At the final whistle the celebration was epic. Off the pitch, sure – exhausted, relieved, fist punching and delighted. But on the pitch, visibly, comprehensively. No rag-tag mob of Carlos Kickaballs this – not that this has been in question for a long time, not amongst those who are actually paying attention rather than learning things from match programmes – but a team as ferociously more than the sum of its parts as any that has gone before. Many, including the incomparable Deeney, Cassetti, Abdi, Ekstrand threw their shirts into the crowd. Fernando Forestieri, not involved beyond responding appreciatively to songs in his honour whilst warming up – was as ecstatic as anyone, clambering onto the back of Cristian Battocchio with the wild abandon that we all felt. One individual, whose energetic if alcohol-fuelled participation in events had rendered our area of the stand more… colourful, entered the playing arena in a state of undress and was escorted away – the comparison to Game of Thrones rendered complete, if inelegantly and without beauty.
We’ve seen this Watford side grow throughout the season, utterly dominating sides at the peak of our powers when the breaks have gone for us and on other occasions winning tighter games simply through having that little bit of quality. Here was something quite different… a victory that demanded blood and guts and nerve, bodies thrown in front of the ball, every last ounce of energy spent. You’d have backed Sean Dyche’s side to deliver that kind of second half, but we’ve not been that kind of animal this season whatever else we’ve achieved even if occasionally (such as at home to Bolton) we’ve needed to properly dig in. We got in in spades tonight, and it augurs well.
5- I would have no moral objection to Hull going up with us, certainly not when presented with some of the alternatives – although naturally you’d much rather we got the rather less stressful second place and were permitted to watch the tigers stamp all over Palace in the play-offs. At the end of the game, along with the inevitable if slightly subdued exchanges of opinion with the delirious away end, there were Hull fans offering us applause. Big respect to them in the circumstances.
And on the way out, trying to keep our excitement contained and inconspicuous as we made our way back to the monstrous car park amongst the doleful away fans, we overheard comment. “They were a good side weren’t they though?”, said one. “Played good football”. “Keeps it interesting as well, doesn’t it?” came the reply.
It does that. Bring on the Cardiff.