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Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 0 (28/09/2013) 29/08/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
16 comments

1. On close inspection, it turns out that the feeling I haven’t quite been able to pin down throughout the day is one of anticipation. That’s not right on all kinds of levels: whatever the division, the early rounds of the League Cup have always been a reliable touchstone, as everyday as puddles and socks and farts and equally unlikely to inspire anticipation. And yet, here we are. Anticipation. That’ll teach me.

Thing is, it’s not merely that recent games have been terrifically entertaining. They’ve been that, but they’ve had a chess-like fascination too: the need to stop us from playing in key areas is now a given, the ability to do so is very much up for discussion. The result is an engrossing cut and thrust, contests in which attempts at controlling us have met with varying degrees of success, our attempts at slipping free likewise. Contests which have ended without really feeling as if they’ve been settled.

And so the prospect of a second game against the same opponents in such a short space of time is unusually appealing, somewhat intriguing. Bournemouth took a kicking in the latter stages of the league game, but their approach was pretty successful until then, and they might well have squeaked out a lead to defend with more decisive finishing. No need to dig out Plan B just yet. As for us, even with a second-string line-up, there’s enough here to expect some artistry and adventure….

2. We don’t get much artistry and adventure, in truth. We don’t really get that cut-and-thrust contest either, in any comprehensible sense. Instead, we discover that we accidentally recorded whatever was on the other side: the end of a documentary about hippos and some adverts for shoes and holidays and washing powder and a bit of a new sit-com with that bloke with the beard from that panel show and then ten minutes of the test-card. It’s not simply that the scoreline doesn’t accurately reflect the game. Rather, it doesn’t seem to belong to it at all. Someone stuck a label saying “TWO-NIL WATFORD WIN” on it, but they’ll spot the mistake when we take it to the counter to pay.

There were momentary flashes, of course. You don’t put Fernando Forestieri on a pitch without momentary flashes, and his acrobatic cross-field pass to launch a first half attack was worth the effort alone. Early on, this was a tidy, patient game between two tidy, patient teams, but there was never any question which side was the more potent. We began to throw a few live rounds into the training exercise; we scored an elegantly worked, if comically finished, goal; we waited for the fun to start.

2b. Why do players only “put through” their own net, by the way? Why don’t they put through the opposition net too? Why’s that, then? There you go, I can do quizzes too.

3. To make a mistake once is forgivable. Twice, blah blah blah. We took the lead against Bournemouth in the league too, then squandered it by bunking off to the pub when there was hard work still to be done. Much the same here, really. That we weren’t level or worse by half-time had precious little to do with us, beyond one fine Jonathan Bond save to divert a low free kick onto the inside of the post. It had rather more to do with the visitors’ lack of conviction in front of goal, the one thing which stands between them and being a very decent outfit indeed.

It’d be easy to fall into the trap of putting the result down to a certain amount of quality at vital moments. As if to sell that con, we scored the most exquisite counter-attacking second: Acuna’s ripe peach of a through-ball, Battocchio’s dainty chip back-spinning its way in off the underside of the bar, game over. But we produced little else of note, our midfield disappearing into cloudy nothingness with two in-and-in strikers, playing in holes but not in a good way. We didn’t do much to soothe worries about losing Troy Deeney, to be frank; all perfectly pleasant, but not a lot of goals here, not a lot that actually threatened the penalty area. I’d be interested to know how many times we were caught offside; my guess is not more than a couple, which perhaps reflects where our forward line wasn’t playing.

4. Meanwhile our goal led a charmed life at the other end, Bond again outstanding and again grateful for the absence of a confident striker as a succession of chances came and went. We know all about Joel Ekstrand, but his positioning between Reece Brown and Essaid Belkalem led to some awkward moments, none more than when MacDonald was allowed to wander onto an uncharacteristically direct through-ball and was prevented from equalising only by Bond’s athleticism. As clean sheets go, this one had rather a lot of suspicious-looking stains on it.

When people say “we’ll play worse than that and win”, they mean this one.  Walking away from the ground amid the contented chatter of victorious fans, you couldn’t help but chuckle at the fickleness of it all: we were a post’s width away from this being a bit of a fiasco, from that contented chatter becoming angry inquest. On another day, on Bournemouth’s day, our two moments of quality wouldn’t have been enough. I hope they have that day, I have to say. They must be sick of the bloody sight of us.

5. As unsatisfying as it was, the evening demonstrates the value of the cup, and the gradual transformation of this particular tournament from an inconsequential distraction to something useful and interesting in its own right. With a squad large enough to produce a reserve team of real substance, and with a number of players either settling in or pressing a case for a step-up, this isn’t a waste of anyone’s time. These players need football; we’ll be calling on them at some point between now and May, and we’ll hope for something more substantial than this.

Beyond that, a bit of a cup run would do us no harm at all. And it’d be jolly good fun.

Watford 1 Nottingham Forest 1 (25/08/2013) 25/08/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
31 comments

1- In my head, we always draw one-all with Forest.  It’s kind of an unwritten rule.  Not strictly true in reality of course; nonetheless a glimpse at the record books reveals ten such outcomes in the last 30 league encounters spanning almost 30 years. It feels as if I’ve seen at least that many.

Not unreasonable then that we should be looking for new and creative ways to draw one-all with Forest whilst keeping the punters interested, and this was surely as engrossing a one-all draw as any that went before it.  Faced with the challenge of making something old hat seem interesting and exciting again, you have a couple of choices of course.  One of those is a sort of “best of”, bringing back the stars of all previous 1-1 draws between the sides… thing is, the only remarkable thing about 1-1 draws is their mundanity, and whilst Big Brother might get away with wheeling out past victors for yet another series, trotting out the most mundane contributors to the most mundane outcome was never really on the cards here. (“At left back for Forest today, Gregor Robertson! Give him a big hand Forest fans!  And in midfield for the Hornets, welcome back Paolo….”  VERNAZZA!).  Incidentally whilst Richard Short is guilty of many crimes – such as not knowing how to pronounce our own players’ names, but don’t let’s digress too far – the “shout the surnames” thing is not one of them.  Like cheap tickets and denim jackets with AC/DC badges stitched to them this trend comes from the Bundesliga and is therefore sehr cool.

Another option in terms of making something mundane seem exciting is to create the illusion of novelty by adding bells and whistles, like David Blaine making Harry Houdini’s escape stunts seem superficially all the more remarkable by repeating them whilst humming Depeche Mode’s back-catalogue through a kazoo, for example.  This was the path we followed – not with kazoos, sadly, but with Marco Cassetti twice offering Forest cheap possession with careless hospital passes across the face of our box.  “The same lessons as Reading” might be a recurring theme…  the slow start here was, in fairness to Cassetti, evidenced in particular by the failure of Iriney to take a couple of steps away from his marker and offer any kind of easy pass for the Italian.  Nonetheless, faced with the lack of a simple pass there are better alternatives than presenting possession to the opposition, much less opposition as obdurate, well-organised and equipped to defend a one-goal lead as Forest.  Marco was a joy last year, but has been caught a number of times this season already;  with Belkalem entering consideration and Ekstrand and Hoban both to return to full fitness, his position might be under pressure sooner rather than later.

2- Having started slowly and yielded that soft goal,  it should be acknowledged that we made a better fist of the first half than we had done at the Madejski a week ago. A different sort of game, of course, and an opponent that was always going to be much better at defending a one goal lead, and away from home… consequently they offered far less of a goalscoring threat than Reading had.  Nonetheless, we got into the game and got some passing going, and if we hadn’t really looked desperately like pulling that goal back we reached half time with some brownie points.

It was always going to take something special to penetrate that rearguard, and that something came from the boot of Lewis McGugan who curled a perfect, unstoppable, impossible free kick around the Forest wall, bending into the top corner having been heading wide of the target.  Marvellous.  Forest fans will no doubt be citing the old adage about ex-players scoring against you; significantly, Henri Lansbury didn’t score for Forest but then he’d only been on loan at the Vic – perhaps that’s why he only hit the post having been the beneficiary of Marco Cassetti’s second Depeche Mode moment.  “Former loanees always hit the post against you” – worth investigating.  Forest fans might not be the most reliable guide as to The Way Things Are in any case… “you used to play for a big club”, they sang at Lewis McGugan, evidently not realising that he only ever featured in a trial game for Chelsea – he never actually played for them competitively.

3- And whilst we’re discussing Forest, no great surprise to see them every inch a reflection of their abrasive, obnoxious and utterly charmless manager.  Worth remembering that Forest were a right narky bunch last season, so this isn’t all Billy Davies’ work, but my word…  niggly fouls, leaving-ins of the boot and treading of fine lines taken to an art form, aided and abetted by a perverse refereeing perfomance from Oliver Langford who was absolutely determined to keep his cards in his pocket for as long as possible.  There’s an argument for saying that if he’d booked Chris Cohen for taking an in-flight Ikechi Anya out in the first thirty seconds as he probably should have done, Forest might not ended up with as many as five bookings.  Not much of an argument though, however superficially logical – this was too systematic, too much part of Forest’s game plan, and a chronic under-representation of the number of cautions their play could have earned from another official.

As an aside, it’s interesting how many clubs are currently operating against their historical “type”…  you could probably count Watford playing sexy tippy-tappy football in that list, certainly Billy Davies’ inherent dishonesty doesn’t feel like a natural fit at Forest much as this is his second stint.  West Ham fans being subjected to Allardyce is of course hilarious, but might lose its charm if we actually had to  play them.

4- As at Reading, we were considerably more effective in the second half.  To what extent the manager takes credit and to what extent Forest legs tired from quite frantic closing down in the opening period is open to debate.  Perhaps, as my brother argued, the visitors were so comfortable with a Plan A that was serving them demonstrably well both earlier in the game and in the opening weeks of the season that they hadn’t bothered learning a Plan B… certainly the defensive solidness that characterised their opening forty-five minutes was gone.  Fabbrini twisted and turned and defied attempts to steal possession;  Murray, on for the tiring McGugan, looked every inch as comfortably-fitting a cog as you’d hope – albeit he missed perhaps our clearest chance, firing straight at Darlow after Deeney’s dummy had bought him a chance; Pudil, perhaps a surprise selection but thoroughly effective in the absence of any wingers to worry about, roared down the left.  Deeney, again… subdued.  Cumbersome, even.  As at Reading, a bit of a concern – transfer window or otherwise.

Which isn’t to suggest that Forest were under the cosh.  Indeed, theirs were the better chances and Almunia’s claim to the Man of the Match award as strong as anyone’s – his performance crowned by what TV replays revealed to be a stunning save to deny Ishmael Miller, pushing the big striker’s shot on the break onto the inside of the post.  From the far end of the stadium, that was in all the way.

5- But again… as at Reading…  our attacking play has an irresistible feel to it already, and this will only improve as the forwards in particular get used to playing together.  Yes, the defence needs to sort itself out but this was better… silly passes are easier to sort than general chaos, and there wasn’t much evidence of that, albeit Forest had no need to commit forward for much of the game.  As Zola has stated….  and in the context of having given a goal start to a very confident and solid side, in the context of that quite bizarre lack of protection from the officials… not a bad point at all.

As 1-1 draws with Forest go.

Reading 3 Watford 3 (17/08/2013) 18/08/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
29 comments

1- I don’t like Reading.  It’s something that’s difficult to explain or put a finger on, but the place riles me and always has.  I make limited attempt to justify this position with good reason – football is full of such accidental or arbitrary prejudices, if you don’t have any and claim to be purely objective you’re missing out. But for what it’s worth… too many narky games, too many overlapping histories.  A fairly innocuous league cup tie twenty years ago (where Reading fielded one “Neil” Hislop in goal) lead to a snipy conversation with a Reading fan which might be the basis of my position – since then, Lee Nogan getting Gibbo sent off at Elm Park.  The Rodgers/Tommy Smith thing.  The Attwell goal.  Any number of annoying defeats here, although it’s been a reasonably successful away trip in recent years.  And a sense of entitlement, a lack of humility from supporters of a side who’ve been built up from a much lower historical base.  Our character may be tested in the same way before too long of course, we’ll probably fall short too.  Nobody said I had to be even-handed.

This dislike of Reading remains unwavering and untarnished after this one, despite a charm offensive in the concourse echoing those recently observed at Brighton and Leicester.  The catering staff are in yellow with “Vicarage Road, WD18” road signs on their shirts and there’s at least one prominent TV screen showing our cup quarter-final win at Highbury in 1987.  I’m not fooled, though.  This is Reading, after all.  It’s like the bloke next door who plays his music too loud, blocks your drive and dumps his gardening rubbish over your fence offering you a burger from his barbecue.  You’d sniff it first.

2- Last week’s bizarre win over Bournemouth left us much to chew over, and the concerns suggested by the first half there were given more weight at the Madejski Stadium.  A key distinction was that Reading got an early break – no luck involved here, Almunia’s punch under pressure falling to Le Fondre on the edge of the area whose perfect volley left the stranded keeper helpless.  From there the gameplan was clear for Reading – sit back, deny us space to play in, hit us on the break.  The loss of Vydra of no great significance here, then… against Bournemouth the lack of searing pace in our attack meant that they were confident enough to defend a high line.  Here, Vydra would have been suffocated with everyone else. Possession wasn’t a problem, we had plenty of that and some of it in the final third.  We didn’t look terribly like scoring though, whilst Reading when they broke were quick and sharp and looked like hurting us.  The second came from a good set-piece… with Drenthe lining up to shoot Guthrie clipped a ball to Pearce at the far post, the big centre half nodding down to the excellent Karacan who converted at the second attempt.  Suggestion of handball, appeals from our defenders but whatever… Reading were well worth a two goal lead.

We looked laboured and impotent.  Easy to look that way against a team that’s basically stopping you from playing…  but bad-tempered too.  More sniping between defenders, Angella again a protagonist.  Nobody likes being outplayed of course and perhaps we just hadn’t seen this group of players in that position very much… but not a happy camp anyway.  Iriney was having little impact on the game, and Deeney in particular was uncharacteristically subdued.  Tempting to read things into that which might not be fair or accurate, of course, but still…

3- It’s easy to paint the game as being of two halves.  Actually, for the first fifteen minutes or so of the second period we looked perhaps even less likely to get back into the game…  possession was suddenly being ceded cheaply as we struggled to up the pace and looked for ambitious passes.  A recurring theme under Gianfranco Zola however has been that of continuous improvement; we saw it through much of last season, and within a game he’s proven himself capable of changing the lie of the land to our benefit.  It helps to have such quality on the bench of course, and we’ll get to that.  But no small credit is due to the manager here for a bold substitution that changed our shape subtly and gave Reading something else to think about.  Reading fans will naturally focus on the contrast in their own team’s performance vs earlier in the game, but the R’s didn’t just “lose it”.  Much of the game is psychological of course and as things started to run for us belief grew in our camp whilst doubts entered Reading minds on and off the pitch.  Everyone who’s watched a football match has seen that before.  But something had to start that ball rolling, something had to change the game and give us an edge.  Sometimes it’s a lucky break, or a piece of individual skill…

4- …but on this occasion that something was the balletic Diego Fabbrini.  Introduced for Iriney he played a floating role… pretty much wherever he wanted to be, but nominally at least just pushing up behind the front two with Abdi and McGugan a little more withdrawn.  He took control of the game and got it playing to his tune… but whilst Nathaniel Chalobah would often achieve this last season as a conductor, waving his baton from the back of the midfield, Fabbrini was the Pied Piper, skipping and tripping along in perfect control of where he was and what was going on around him with the Reading rats trailing in his wake.  He wasn’t involved in the moves that announced the change in tempo, Anya bursting down the left and clipping in a cross which Deeney got his head to, forcing a stunning reflex save from McCarthy… shortly afterwards, an Abdi corner from the left and another set piece, Faraoni bombing into the near post from a starting position close to the penalty spot to get us back in it.  Reading bit back immediately, restoring their two goal margin with twenty minutes to go… but we were beginning to flow like a river around Reading’s increasingly desperate rearguard.

Even at 3-1 the notion that the game was over lasted about 30 seconds… the tremendous Faraoni’s wicked cross nearly found Fabbrini at the far post, poised for a scissor kick until Morrison crashed in to head over his own bar.  Fabbrini then won a penalty, an elaborate tumble that had the away end looking sheepish and the home fans apoplectic but to Danny Guthrie’s credit he was to acknowledge the decision as correct later.  Deeney pulls it back again.  Then Acuña, on for Forestieri and a hurtly fearless thing – if still perhaps a yard off the pace – was clean through.  Then he wasn’t, battered by the last man… referee Mike Jones had an erratic afternoon and bottled this one, perhaps influenced by doubt over the previous call.  Eventually we got a lucky break that we probably deserved, a deflection falling for both Fabbrini and Doyley, the latter a force for good throughout, as so often… perhaps fortunately the Italian got the crucial, delicate touch.

5- Riproaring stuff again – there’s only been one, albeit crucial game in recent memory that a neutral could describe as “dull”, but as against Bournemouth, the outcome and the finish shouldn’t disguise our shortcomings.  As the manager has highlighted, we need to be a lot quicker off the mark… peculiar that we should be starting so slowly when so many games, particularly early last season were characterised by us flying at the opposition like wild dogs.  We need to be cuter against teams that can afford to just stop us from playing  – albeit the set piece threat was manifest again, and that helps.  And we need to either tighten up at the back or have a more obvious threat that scares opponents from committing forward.

Nonetheless…  having been dominated for an hour away from home by one of the strongest sides in the division, and having completely failed to click in that period, we came back and earned a point.  Guts and single-mindedness then… and when we hum my goodness we are beautiful.  Bring on the Forest.

Watford 6 AFC Bournemouth 1 11/08/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
17 comments

1. Even for world-weary types like your correspondent, who prefer their battles hard-fought and their victories without any sense of entitlement, this is terribly hard to resist. It almost feels as if the anticlimax at Wembley didn’t happen; perhaps it was such a non-event, swimming in the spring heat haze, that any memories have simply evaporated and left little trace. What might’ve been a watershed moment just passed quietly into history, and here we are: the old gang, back together for another shot at the big time. Even for world-weary types, it’s a tantalising prospect.

One of the curious aspects of our ownership model is that it’s impossible, rather than merely difficult, to accurately gauge the level of investment being made. Perhaps it’s not particularly relevant any more. But even with three sides, Vicarage Road at the start of the Pozzos’ second season is a noticeably different place: there’s an attention to detail, a creative energy at play and a sense of clarity and purpose, from redesigned graphics to a properly working big screen to a new singing section. It says much about football that a well-run business is worthy of comment, but there we are: Watford Football Club feels like it’s being run by people who might actually know what they’re doing and who might be doing it for something other than to stoke their own egos. Heaven help us.

(Cue a load of comments about intolerable queues for pies or something. You can’t always get it right. But you can at least try.)

2. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but it has to be said: the scoreline might give you the wrong impression altogether. It’s not that we were flattered by six goals, not really; we were every inch that good, and that ruthless, for a spell. But any suggestion that this was easy is misleading. The argument, tempting as it is, that our class told in the end isn’t quite right either.

If you want to find the really important lessons, then, as so often, you need to look at the periods when the result was still in question. Because it was very much in question until we scored second and third goals in quick succession, almost without warning. If you want to be encouraged by something, it should be a new facet to our game: a real threat from set pieces. A source of ugly, functional, cheap goals, stacked up high like bog rolls at Poundland. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve gone a bit Stoke over the summer.

Without Angella’s two goals – particularly the majestic second, leaping high above all to meet a free kick cleanly and nod into an empty net – we wouldn’t have been in a position to add the remaining four. The plain fact is that we were not winning the game in open play; it was nervous and a bit tetchy and our opponents had a good measure of control. That goal, remote from our sexy football, changed the entire game. A free kick won by chasing a lost cause into the space behind the Bournemouth defence, a free header by a central defender from the set piece. Note the word “free”.

We were a terrific side last season, full of attacking verve and creative flair, but sometimes you need something else too. It’s not a Plan B, just a more all-encompassing Plan A. Sometimes you just need a goal from a big bloke at a corner, some manual labour to pull open the floodgates. Sometimes you just need a goal.

3. The Bournemouth supporters were absolutely right to give their team an ovation at the final whistle: they were excellent, in truth, for all that we picked them off once they had to chase the game. Through the central phase, the last half hour of the first half and the opening nearly-ten minutes of the second, they were as neat and efficient and quietly confident as anyone we’ll face, thoroughly deserving of their equaliser and promising more.

The gameplan is one we’ll grow over-familiar with, especially if we find no replacement for Vydra’s searing pace. Push up, squeeze the midfield, compress the space. Force key players into positions that don’t suit them: Forestieri on the shoulder of the last defender, the “hole” having been filled with rubble and clutter; Abdi picking the ball up where Chalobah once did, harmless so far from the final third; Anya on the back foot, defensive failings exposed; Deeney chasing through-balls that he can’t hope to reach. If I’m implying that Bournemouth were mere spoilers, then I’m doing them a disservice: they were constructive and positive in possession, of which they had plenty. But they weren’t daft either, and only when the game finally opened up did our superiority tell.

4. Of course, when it did tell, we were every bit as devastating as you’ve come to expect. Rarely, perhaps never, has a Watford side made a particular area of the pitch so dangerous: if you let us have the ball in the ten or twenty yards ahead of the penalty area, and especially if you let us have it with a yard of space, you might as well call to the bench for the white flag. In the likes of Abdi and Forestieri, with some added hustle and bustle from Deeney, we have too much craft and cunning to be allowed to play there. Thing is, it’s very hard to prevent us from doing so if you’re also trying to push forward. Don’t let us take the lead, whatever you do.

Bournemouth got away with it once, recovering their composure after a difficult opening fifteen minutes in which Angella blasted home from a corner. Then, we stepped back enough to allow them off the ropes; perhaps we took them a little lightly and were nearly made to regret it. Second time around, there was no mistake: Deeney’s first to clinch the victory before our opponents could draw breath, then all the way home in pure luxury and style, training-ground flair and flamboyance. We know it already, but it’ll never tire: we’re capable of being a brilliant, brilliant football team.

5. For a moment there, you wondered whether the first home hat-trick by a Watford player since whichever-date-you-choose would be scored by a central defender. Instead, appropriately, it was scored by Deeney, without whose physical presence everything would look so much less substantial and so much more fragile. Take anyone else out of this Watford side and, while poorer, it’s still essentially the same beast. Take Deeney away and it loses focus altogether.

It’s a telling sign of the revolution our club has undergone, and the security and certainty now underpinning it, that we’ve worried little about losing such a vital player to richer suitors.  We have everything in place. But this is where the hard work really starts. Don’t let the scoreline fool you: Bournemouth took some beating.

Season Preview Part 6 02/08/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

Final instalment… been in Africa since Monday etc, sorry if this is already out of date….

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

INS: Jeremy Helan (Manchester City, Undisclosed), Atdhe Nuhiu (Rapid Vienna, Free), Jacques Maghoma (Burton Albion, Free)

OUTS: Chris O’Grady (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Stephen Bywater (Millwall, Free), Bastien Hery (Rochdale, Free), Chris Lines (Port Vale, Free), Nejc Pecnik (Red Star Belgrade, Free), Nicky Weaver (Aberdeen, Free), Hayden White (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Julian Bennett, Matthew Fletcher, Harry Grant, Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan), Steve Howard (Hartlepool United, End of Loan), Leroy Lita (Swansea City, End of Loan), Seyi Olofinjana (Hull City*, End of Loan), Danny Pugh (Leeds United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-OWLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Martin Taylor, Paul Wilkinson (Assistant Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-1 win at Hillsborough in which Wednesday collapsed in the second half, and a Forestieri-fuelled fightback to win a tight game at Vicarage Road.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Kirkland
Buxton                 Llera         Gardner          R.Johnson
McCabe              Coke
Antonio               Maghoma                Helan
Nuhiu

VERDICT: As we left Hillsborough in November you’d have confidently predicted relegation for the Owls.  A strong first half performance had nonetheless only just about kept us at bay, but a woeful second half collapse devoid of spirit or a straw to cling to can’t have left many Wednesday fans optimistic.  This was in the middle of what turned out to be a run of seven consecutive defeats, and Dave Jones on the radio flitted between defensive sulkiness and gloomy depression.  Somehow they pulled themselves back from that, and though they were beaten again at Vicarage Road a few months later it was at least a side with a bit of fight about it, a much tougher proposition if still limited.  There’s been no great revolution over the summer – Jeremy Helan’s loan move has been made permanent, Jacques Maghoma could be a useful weapon, relieving Mikel Antonio from some of the creative responsibility.  But Wednesday still look flimsy in the middle of midfield, and haven’t got much up front – Leroy Lita on a permanent return would be a popular recruit, but talk of a gamble on Michael Chopra revealed the paucity of Jones’ hand.  Bottom half again; it would take bad luck with injuries for Wednesday to go down, but not that much bad luck.

WIGAN ATHLETIC

INS: Scott Carson (Bursaspor, Undisclosed), Grant Holt (Norwich City, Undisclosed), James Perch (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Stephen Crainey (Blackpool, Free), Marc-Antoine Fortuné (West Bromwich Albion, Free), Juan Carlos Garcia (Olimpia, Free), Chris McCann (Burnley, Free), Thomas Rogne (Celtic, Free)

OUTS: Aroune Koné (Everton, £6,000,000), Mauro Boselli (Club León, Undisclosed), Antolin Alcaraz (Everton, Free), Maynor Figueroa (Hull City, Free), Roman Golobart (Cologne, Free), Ronnie Stam (Standard Liège, Free), Peter Aylmer, Albert Crusat, Franco di Santo, David Jones, Adrian Lopez, Callum Morris, Filip Orsula, Josh Sumner, Ryan Watson, Joel Robles (Atlético Madrid*, End of Loan), Paul Scharner (SV Hamburg, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LATICS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Rob Kiernan

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two underwhelming 1-1 draws during Aidy Boothroyd’s Premiership season, the second of which rearranged after a rain-induced abandonment saw Fitz Hall harshly dismissed.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Carson
Boyce         Perch        Caldwell       Crainey
Watson
McCann                  McCarthy            Maloney
McManaman
Holt

VERDICT: Magnificent as Wigan’s cup win was on so many levels, there was a horrible inevitability about what followed just three days later. Inevitable, but despite the Latics’ notorious defensive vulnerability – nobody in the top flight conceded more last season – it was impossible to reconcile the team that were so impressive and vibrant in the Cup Final with relegation.  Since then, much has changed… Owen Coyle has replaced the Goodison-bound Martinez, slightly damaged goods after his unsuccessful spell at Bolton but with experience of getting out of this division.  Many players have left, a lot of them out of contract, but those that Coyle has brought in are largely Championship stalwarts, cherry picking the best players from clubs at this level unable to compete on wages.  Chris McCann, a former charge at Burnley.  Stephen Crainey, utterly dependable replacement for Figueroa at left back.  Grant Holt, a warhorse but more than good enough in this division. Carson, also damaged goods but a former England keeper.  And this on top of a very talented bunch of players who, much like Villa, really just needed to survive for another year in order to push on.  McManaman, Maloney, McCarthy might not all stay – and I’m writing this out of necessity a good week before you will read it – but there’s strength in depth in midfield and attack, with Coyle still keen to bolster his defence.  I made the mistake last year of overestimating the potential for the relegated teams to dominate the division, but it’s difficult to predict anything other than automatic for this Wigan squad.  Potential champions.

YEOVIL TOWN

INS: Kieffer Moore (Dorchester, Undisclosed), Joel Grant (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Sam Hoskins (Southampton, Free), Joe Jones (Leicester City, Free), Dan Seaborne (Southampton, Free), Billy Clifford (Chelsea, Six Month Loan), Michael Ngoo (Liverpool, Season Loan), Alan Tate (Swansea City, Six Month Loan)

OUTS: Dominic Blizzard (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Richard Hinds (Bury, Free), Gavin Williams (Woking, Free), Reuben Reid (Plymouth Argyle, Season Loan), Matthew Dolan (Middlesbrough, End of Loan), Vitalijs Maksimenko (Brighton & Hove Albion, End of Loan)

OUR EX-GLOVERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Joel Grant, Gary Johnson (Manager), Lewis Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: None – two sides have never met

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stech
Edwards          Tate        Webster       McAllister
Grant           Clifford        Upson             Foley
Hayter          Madden

VERDICT: I’m not going to pretend to have any special insight here.  We’ve never played Yeovil before, I’ve not seen them play recently…  so all that follows has to be taken in that context.  On the face of it, based on such limited information it’s hard to view the season as anything but a struggle for the Glovers.  Promoted to this level for the first time in their history, they are only the third club to reach this tier having been promoted from the Conference since automatic ups and downs were introduced in 1986/87 – Colchester and Doncaster the previous, and both had earlier been relegated out of the Football League.  Having earned promotion in the face of much more established competition on the back of an average home gate of barely 4,000 it’s hard to pitch Yeovil as anything other than having overreached themselves.  Such Championship experience as exists in the squad is either at the veteran stage – Jamie McAllister and James Hayter both dropped out of the division for a reason – or, as with ex-‘orns Joel Grant and Lewis Young players that needed to drop a level or two to get games as youngsters.

That said, Yeovil have a goalscorer in Madden and a decent keeper in Stech, which gives them a puncher’s chance, and in moving early to secure good kids on loan from the top clubs, presumably with the promise of games rather than the more peripheral involvement they might get with bigger sides in the division they’re adopting a sensible strategy.  One hopes it’s enough, I have my doubts.  But what do I know?

WATFORD

INS: Almen Abdi  (Udinese, Undisclosed), Javier Acuña (Udinese, Undisclosed), Gabriele Angella (Udinese, Undisclosed), Ikechi Anya (Granada, Undisclosed), Cristian Battocchio  (Udinese, Undisclosed), Marco Cassetti  (Udinese, Undisclosed), Joel Ekstrand (Udinese, Undisclosed), Diego Fabbrini (Udinese, Undisclosed), Davide Faraoni (Udinese, Undisclosed), Iriney (Granada, Undisclosed), Daniel Pudil (Granada, Undisclosed), Uche Ikpeazu (Reading, Free), Reece Brown (Manchester United, Free), Lewis McGugan (Nottingham Forest, Free)

OUTS: Craig Forsyth (Derby County, Undisclosed), Matt Bevans (Oxford United, Free), Jack Bonham (Brentford, Free), Carl Dickinson (Port Vale, Free), John Eustace (Derby County, Free), Lee Hodson (Franchise FC, Free), Chris Iwelumo (Scunthorpe United, Free), Stephen McGinn (Sheffield United, Free), Mark Yeates (Bradford City, Free), Prince Buaben, Fitz Hall, Stephen Hamilton-Forbes, Piero Mingoia, Aaron Tumwa, Steve Leo Beleck (Udinese, End of Loan), Matthew Briggs (Fulham, End of Loan), Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea, End of Loan), Alex Geijo (Udinese, End of Loan), Geoffrey Mujangi Bia (Standard Liége, End of Loan), Neuton (Udinese, End of Loan),  Matěj Vydra (Udinese, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Almunia
Doyley          Angella        Ekstrand
Faraoni                          Iriney                             Pudil
Abdi            McGugan
Deeney           Fabbrini

VERDICT: Well this is new.

Not since 1997 has a Watford side gone into a season expecting to do quite this well.  Even then… another division, another era, but not the same, not like this.  With expectation comes a different kind of pressure of course, and a different atmosphere…  yes, yes, we were quiet and subdued at Wembley, but that’s not how I’ll remember last season.  On the pitch it was joyous and exuberant, as much of the time as we’ve any right to expect anyway, and off the pitch was much the same… the atmosphere in the semi-final games against Leicester (and in the earlier league meeting) was anything but subdued, the trip to Hull was raucous.  Expecting to win games, especially at home, can turn an atmosphere poisonous though and to this end the 1881 initiative is incredibly well timed.  A corner of relentless positiveness, and how I hope that’s how it turns out, for others to cling to and follow in the wake of could make a huge difference at Vicarage Road.

Our new status changes others’ opinions of us too, of course, as we’re all too aware.  On the pitch teams will come prepared, or at least less likely to be surprised.  We’re a team that others will want to stop playing first and foremost, a point with the chance of a goal on the break will be as much as most aspire to at Vicarage Road.  In the stands, in the media box there’s been plenty of negativity from elsewhere and it’s tedious to turn  it over again… some of it is based in jealousy, some of it is based in ignorance or fuelled by misinformation.  Some of it is just downright, witless, incompetent, irresponsible,willful bloody stupidity.  Either way, we’re not just another second tier club any more, whoever you support.  In the boardrooms, much of the resentment is surely based in the knowledge that this is ultimately not something that Watford did but something that was done to us, for better or for worse (and so much the better so far). And so it’s not something that any other club can copy unilaterally, however well resourced or determined.  Swapping pennants with Juventus isn’t quite the same.

Whatever. On the pitch it should go without saying that the squad looks significantly stronger even than last year.  The benefit of having most of those that did so well back again and on secure, largely long-term contracts is huge;  the new guys that are coming in are less of a known quantity, less of a banker, but the quality “on paper” is extraordinary and judged by last season’s hit rate we should do very well out of them.  If there’s a vulnerability it’s perhaps up front… we only have three strong out-and-out senior strikers.  Plus Fabbrini as an “off the striker” option.  Plus at least three very promising youngsters.  Which much of the division would be grateful for of course… ours is the only squad in the league that compares to those of the relegated Prem clubs in terms of depth.

Last season was a huge achievement in itself;  the danger in setting it as a benchmark is that you overlook the magnitude of that achievement.  That you assume that, given what we perceive as improvements to the squad, third is the least we should expect.  Well… no, third was a great result last year, it would be an achievement this year, not to be taken for granted – that sells short how well last year’s team did.  Nonetheless, I think we aspire to more than that this time.  But even that isn’t the point.

On the way back from Middlesbrough in January in the wake of another heartening victory as we started to seriously chase down the leaders there was a conversation in the car.  Would we prefer to go up this (last) season, or to stay down and win lots of games* in 2013/14.  There was a lot of umming and ahhing, not a clear decision.  A spurious, silly conversation of course, you don’t get to pick these things.  Nonetheless we do expect to win lots of games this season.  And it won’t be dull. It’ll be fun.  That’s the point.

* these may not have been the precise words used

Season Preview Part 5 01/08/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

Part Five. Still in Addis Ababa.  Expecting the climate to be far more agreeable than back home…  a more civililsed twenty degrees, with a bit of rain.  Yes, really.  No, any dramatic developments at QPR over the last few days aren’t covered, sorry…

MILLWALL

INS: Nick Bailey (Middlesbrough, Free), Stephen Bywater (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Richard Chaplow (Southampton, Free), Jermaine Easter (Crystal Palace, Free), Lee Martin (Ipswich Town, Free), Scott McDonald (Middlesbrough, Free), Steve Morison (Leeds United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Shaun Batt (Leyton Orient, Undisclosed), Connor Wilkinson (Bolton Wanderers, Undisclosed), Steve Mildenhall (Bristol Rovers, Free), Tamira Mkandwire (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Chris Taylor (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Therry Racon, Maik Taylor, Sean St.Ledger (Leicester City, End of Loan), Adam Smith (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Nathan Tyson (Derby County, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LIONS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Glenn Roeder (scout), Danny Shittu, Jack Smith

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The only team we failed to score against last season; a 0-0 draw at Vicarage Road has to be set in the context of a month in which the Lions won their other five games.  Far more disappointing was defeat at the New Den in April, the Lions’ only victory in their last ten games, which features high in any post-season list of if-onlys.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Forde
Dunne     Beevers      Shittu      Lowry
Henry        Chaplow       Trotter      Martin
McDonald     Morison

VERDICT: Millwall really weren’t very far from going down last season.  After a strongish start their form tailed off, and nobody who saw us contrive to lose at the New Den in April would have been terribly surprised to see the Lions drop into League One.  Shaun Batt’s late goal in that game, securing the only victory of Kenny Jackett’s last ten games in charge, proved to be the difference between the Lions staying up and not – and was of course one of any number of such incidents that one could point to in lamenting our third place finish, should one be minded to do so.  Since then, Millwall have brought in former West Ham stalwart Steve Lomas to replace Molineux-bound Jackett, an appointment that hasn’t been greeted with unanimous acclaim anywhere other than West Ham messageboards, but have also brought back Steve Morison and Richard Chaplow to give the Lions’ first team, at the very least, a more credible look.  The more recent additions of Nicky Bailey and Scott McDonald, ostensibly too expensive for Middlesbrough, have raised more eyebrows.  The Lions still look too short on cover and quality to do any better than mid-table… none of their signings played a significant role for a successful side last season.  But mid-table and a comfier time of it should be doable.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Djamel Abdoun (Olympiakos, £1,700,000), Jamie Mackie (Queens Park Rangers, £1,500,000), Jamie Paterson (Walsall, Undisclosed), Dorus de Vries (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Free), Gonzalo Jara Reyes (West Bromwich Albion, Free), Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa, Free), Jack Hobbs (Hull City, Season Loan)

OUTS:  David McGoldrick (Ipswich Town, Free), Lewis McGugan (Watford, Free),Matt Regan (Tamworth, Free), Dimitar Evtimov (Nuneaton Town, Three Month Loan), Billy Sharp (Southampton, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOREST: Lewis McGugan

THEIR EX-ORNS: Bobby Downes (Head of Recruitment), Darius Henderson, Henri Lansbury

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two comprehensive victories either side of Christmas in which Vydra scored four of our five goals to none against.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Darlow
Lichaj      Halford       Hobbs         Cohen
Guedioura
Paterson         Lansbury          Abdoun
Cox           Henderson

VERDICT: Maybe it’s a sign of getting old, but I don’t hate teams any more.  Not like I used to.  Or maybe it’s just the mellowness of the close season, for all the excitement of our incoming players.  There was a time when I used to hate everybody.  Even us, a lot of the time.  Do you remember what a dirty bunch of bastards the mid-eighties Spurs team were, Glenda and all?  An extraordinary distance between the media portrayal and reality from my low vantage point in the Family Enclosure, watching Lee Sinnott being taken out by a flying kick to the back from Paul Allen…  then at different times and perhaps to varying extents Luton, Palace, QPR, Burnley, Birmingham, Sheffield United…  now… meh.

I still hate people though.  And the teams I want to lose the most are increasingly defined by who’s in charge of them.  That means you, Pardew.  And the charming Billy Davies of course… peevish, aggressive, he’s the nutter in the pub with a chip on his shoulder who wants to start a fight.  He’s Francis Begbie.

He’s also done a fair job of making teams competitive in this division of course, and Forest should certainly be that after we caught them at a good time, twice within a month and the penultimate games in charge of first Sean O’Driscoll and then Alex McLeish.  Forest’s run from Davies’ take over to the end of the season was a revelation… but not quite  the cake-walk that your mind’s eye remembers.  Six wins on the hop were followed by an expensive run of one win from eight games.  Lots of draws in there too, and that could be the story this season… difficult to beat, but not enough goals in the team to challenge for automatic.  Chance of the play-offs, no better.  And don’t worry, that “not hating other teams” thing will last about twelve minutes into the season…

QUEENS PARK RANGERS

INS: Karl Henry (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Undisclosed), Richard Dunne (Aston Villa, Free), Danny Simpson (Newcastle United, Free)

OUTS: Christopher Samba (Anzhi Makhachkala, £12,000,000), Jamie Mackie (Nottingham Forest, £1,500,000), Tal Ben Haim (Standard Liége, Free), DJ Campbell (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Djibril Cissé (Kuban Krasnodar, Free), Troy Hewitt (Walsall, Free), José Bosingwa, Jay Bothroyd, Radek Cerny, Frederick Champion, Adam Francis, Rob Hulse, Taylor Parmenter, Tomasso Trani, Ryan Nelsen (retired)

OUR EX-RANGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Kevin Hitchcock (Goalkeeping Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The high point of Malky Mackay’s tenure, a glorious 3-1 victory at Loftus Road which was Rangers’ first league defeat of the season in early December… and a less fondly remembered defeat at Vicarage Road at the end of the same season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Green
Simpson       Onuoha      Dunne          Yun
Park         Henry       Jenas     Hoilett
Zamora     Johnson

VERDICT: I’m a statistician.  That’s my job.  Part of that job involves quantifying the uncertainty in things… not just how big we think something is, but how accurate that estimate is likely to be.  Like the margin of error in an election poll, for example, the plus-or-minus three percent.

And the margin of error, speaking as a professional, in any estimate of how QPR are going to do this season is the size of Richard Dunne’s arse.  The magnitude of the estimation challenge is summed up in the contrast between the bookies making Rangers pre-season favourites and the prevailing mood on QPR messageboards still shivering at the memory of the shapeless spiritless shambles that got relegated. Conscious that the most high profile names on the squad roster will either be off before they get a chance to get involved or, worse, still be around but not contributing.

Rangers fans will also have read the reports of Adel Taarabt, ace in the pack in the promoted side three years ago, being sent home from the summer camp for being persistently late for training and linked with a loan move to former boss Mark Hughes at Stoke.  Loïc Rémy, talked of in terms of a move to Newcastle but also under investigation in conjunction with a gang rape, having been arrested in May.  Jamie Mackie, one of few honest-to-goodness triers in the squad whatever his limitations, demanding a transfer, and seeing his request granted.

Harry Redknapp clearly recognises some of his team’s deficiencies…  a lack of bite in midfield, so in comes Karl Henry.  An organiser at the back, in comes Richard Dunne.  A pair of injury-prone strikers, hence the doomed attempts to recruit Gary Hooper (stop sniggering at the back). But it’s still short-termism, it’s still just looking at the immediate objective of getting the team promoted. There’s no plan. Karl Henry is 30, Richard Dunne nearly 34.  The squad is huge but many of the players are, frankly, old and on high wages – the average age of the side above is 30. Rangers clearly can’t afford to fail… but what would they do if they did get promoted?

They might do that, of course.  A season or two’s worth of panic buying in the Premier League does buy you quality, whatever else it does.  But equally, the prospect of “doing a Wolves” is not beyond the realms of possibility, as recognised on those messageboards and tacitly by Robert Green in a cautious interview last week. The toughest job of Redknapp’s career, either way….  my bet would be a ghastly start until he finds a formula that works, and then roaring up the table to finish in the play-offs.  But as previously stated, all predictions at this time to be treated with caution…

READING

INS: Danny Williams (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Wayne Bridge (Brighton & Hove Albion, Free), Royston Drenthe (Alania Vladikavkaz, Free)

OUTS: Ian Harte (AFC Bournemouth, Free), Jay Tabb (Ipswich Town, Free), Noel Hunt (Leeds United, Free), Uche Ikpeazu (Watford, Free), Nick Bignall, Simon Church, Charlie Losasso, Alex MacDonald, Nick Shorey, Joshua Webb, Brett Williams, Nick Arnold (Wycombe Wanderers, Season Loan), Daniel Carrico (Sevilla, Season Loan), Ryan Edwards (Perth Glory, Season Loan), Mikkel Andersen (Randers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-RS: Uche Ikpeazu

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brynjar Gunnarsson, Adrian Mariappa, Jobi McAnuff

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An innocuous win at the Madejski early in Sean Dyche’s season, and a defeat at Vicarage Road when the visitors came from behind to take the points through Adam le Fondre’s late winner.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  McCarthy
Gunter        Mariappa       Pearce        Bridge
Karacan            Williams
Kébé                 Robson-Kanu            Drenthe
Le Fondre

VERDICT: The most striking contrast between the relegated top flight clubs and (most of) the rest is simply the depth of their squads.  That’s what parachute payments and Premier League money buys you of course… better players, sure, up to a point, but you’ve still got to persuade great players to drop a division, or to join you at all if you’re in the Hull or Palace boat of needing to convince people that you’re a good punt before you even get going.  The star players, the players that a Reading or a Wigan can attract or retain are either the very good Championship players (Holt) or the damaged goods (Royston Drenthe).  But in the depth of the squad, the contrast is much starker.  Scan through Reading’s squad list and you can come up with a side almost as plausible as the one above from omitted players.

Since the perhaps surprising decision to sack Brian McDermott last season (and not forgetting his heroic sidekick), Nigel Adkins has won friends by switching to a less direct brand of football. He was onto a reasonably good thing, it seemed… the R’s were already seven points adrift when he arrived in March, and if his eight games in charge yielded fewer points-per-game than McDermott had accrued earlier in the season (and a single win, at Fulham) then Adkins was still very much in a honeymoon period. Time to get his feet under the table.

It’ll be different this season, there’ll be expectation.  He’s dealt with that before in getting Southampton out of the third tier… but I wonder whether he’ll cope when results go against him, which they surely will at times in a competitive division.  Reading will be challenging, but with Pogrebnyak looking to be on his way out they appear reliant on Adam le Fondre for goals, albeit supported by an excellent array of midfield options.  Play-offs for me.