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Brighton and Hove Albion 1 Watford 1 (28/10/2013) 29/10/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Things I’ve learnt in the last two or three days:

a. There’s no sleepless night quite like the sleepless night in a tall house on a big hill next to the sea during a gale. Especially if you’re in the process of replacing the roof and there’s nothing but a layer of felt between you and the raging elements.

b. If you put scaffolding all around your tall house on a big hill next to the sea, the aforementioned gale makes it vibrate like a giant tuning fork.

c. The trees you’d like to blow down are rarely the ones that do. I can do you a poster with that on if you want.

d. The apples borne by our rather ancient apple tree were the last, for it’s now resting its head gently on our lawn.

e. Nobody tells rail passengers anything. It’s only a matter of time before train companies simply hand us pieces of paper with “P.T.O.” written on both sides.

f. Expectations were always likely to drown this Watford squad at some point. That point is right now, that line has been crossed. Time to start swimming, boys…

2. You saw the game, you already know what you think. There are times when writing these pieces requires no more than an attempt to echo the general feeling, to try to capture an essence of what everyone felt. There are other times when, frankly, there’s no point at all if we’re not poking and prodding at some lazy assumptions and half-baked certainties, if we’re not risking pissing people off a little bit. Guess which one this is…

There’s an inevitability to all of this, has been from the moment when that Palace penalty went in at Wembley…but it’s depressing and tedious nevertheless. There’s a bit during the second half when we’re surrounded by blokes bellowing at various players about…well, about what? There’s a lack of specific detail but plenty of fackin’ and cantin’, quite a bit of spittle and sputum. It involves quite a lot of anger management issues, but I bite my lip rather than suggest some kind of therapy group with weak tea and cheap biscuits. I know people who’d have a psychological field day here.

And above all, it involves English football’s solutions to absolutely bloody everything: show some fackin’ passion. Everyone on this island ought to be force-fed Jonathan Wilson’s “The Anatomy of England” with its piercing dissection of our national obsession with effort and commitment and urgency. It changes your landscape, that book. Football is a simple game, perhaps, but mercifully not so simple that the only means of attacking is to get numbers in the fackin’ box for fack’s sake. Halfway through the second half, the ancient chant of “fack ’em up, get into ’em” goes up and its disconnection with modern football – hell, with modern life – is so vast that it might as well be a crackly music hall recording played on a wonky gramophone. We’ve got some catching up to do, evidently. I include myself in this: I am unable to look at Diego Fabbrini without telling him to get up, even when he hasn’t yet fallen down.

3. Don’t misunderstand: there are indeed things that aren’t yet quite right with this Watford side. But the memory plays tricks if it isn’t watched carefully: you can instantly conjure up Matej Vydra’s superlative goal in last season’s ruthless drive-by, I imagine. Something of a turning point for the season, that…and in late December, pertinently. We didn’t ever look back. But there was no shortage of flaws in that performance, rough edges and work-in-progress and all of that. For example, we were, again pertinently, persisting with Iketchi Anya as a rather frail, vulnerable wing-back in the face of what appeared to be common sense and better options. These things don’t always work out, of course, but there are times when that kind of persistence pays off several times over. There are times when it’s necessary. A team is never finished, and especially not in October.

The quick-quick in our slow-slow-quick-quick-slow was particularly quick that New Year night. We lack that, obviously, and it got us out of plenty of trouble that we’ve probably forgotten about now. We’re trying to push on from last season, but it isn’t as simple as merely turning it up a notch: opponents are wiser and more cautious, our options are different, the second album is always more difficult than the first. We’re developing a more patient, slower style of play to cope with what we’re expecting to come up against; it isn’t as immediately satisfying and it may not even turn out to be as successful, but the process is necessary.

The bloke behind us has a voice as soothing as someone scratching their name on a piece of glass with a rusty nail, amplified over a faulty PA system to a relentless, ear-splitting scree of sound. He has opinions to match. Among them, towards the end of the second half, is the suggestion that Josh McEachran should show for the fackin’ ball. Josh McEachran has done almost nothing but show for the fackin’ ball, an ever-present option for a give-and-go in a way that immediately moves our work-in-progress on a couple of steps. While Fernando Forestieri is nearly the match-winner, it’s McEachran who points the way forward: unless teams happen to defend as badly as Barnsley, we’re going to be trying to shade games, edge them with a bit of carefully-applied quality. We’re going to have to keep probing away, then make the key moments count.

We should’ve won this, y’know. And contrary to inflated expectations, it would’ve been a very good result.

4. I’m a bit bored of the over-the-line discussion already. Thing is, the introduction of video technology changes that incident from something which is judged by the human eye to something which is judged by computer. As in tennis, it becomes a matter of millimetres, the margin of error reduced to nearly nothing. What looks in isn’t necessarily in: whole of the ball, whole of the line. Seeing a bit of grass between the line and the ball isn’t enough; unreliable testimony, your honour.

In other words, I remain completely unconvinced that technology would necessarily have found in our favour. I remain fairly convinced, however, that I would’ve missed my train. That’s progress for you.

4 1/2. Note, reader, how I’m managing to capture the rather disjointed and puzzling nature of the game with a set of thunks that are similarly disjointed and puzzling. Oh yes.

5. I do have two complaints. Sorry, two fackin’ complaints. Firstly, if we’re working on the basis of shading tight games, we ought to be making more of set pieces than this: Gabriele Angella’s two-goal haul against Bournemouth seems very distant, as does the time when Lewis McGugan made up for his sometimes over-casual midfield play with consistently lethal delivery. We currently give the impression that scoring from corners is a bit working class.

Secondly, there are spells – and moments – when we do drop our attention level. It cost us against Derby, a sloppy and avoidable defeat, sublime goals undermined. It should’ve cost us more dearly here too, really: Brighton were guilty of wasting far more opportunities than we managed to create and Manuel Almunia made the key saves of the game. We can’t afford that. We can’t be as defensively slack as last season’s attack-minded team while not being as free-scoring; that doesn’t work at all. We can’t have spells like first half injury time, when we wandered off the pitch before the game had actually stopped, brains in the dressing room three minutes before our bodies.

6. But we can be a team that’s still growing, still developing. We can afford that. And as fans, we can give that a chance rather than writing it off because QPR have got fifty-seven points, or something, already.

Hell, I’d argue that we should want it. It can be good fun, that. If we’re not careful, this isn’t going to be fun at all.


Watford 2 Derby County 3 (19/10/2013) 20/10/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- I’m in a play in two weeks’ time.  A Whodunnit, kinda.  I know amdram isn’t for everyone – either watching or participating – but I’m having a whale of a time… the cast learned our lines early, which helped, and now rehearsals are a joy, we’re flying.  The characters, so long just names on a script, have come to life.

Ahhhh, so many opportunities for a cheap metaphor – where to start?  Well how’s about with the fact that when you rehearse a certain scene again after having concentrated on other things for a while it tends to be a bit… rusty and deliberate.  People remembering quite where they were supposed to be standing; vacant, absent expressions as lines are dragged from the recesses of memory.  And so it was here, an impression perhaps exacerbated by Gianfranco Zola’s preference for fielding players not involved in recent internationals after a break (albeit this position was enforced in part by a few knocks picked up by those in question).  The result is a team who’ve not been playing competitively for at least a fortnight and it looked rusty and sloppy, as if the cast knew the general idea, knew what they were trying to do but couldn’t quite make it click.  Unlike the play there’s no mystery to how we ended up losing  this one… far too careless with possession, far too many opportunities ceded to a team with enough attacking nous to take advantage.

All of which has to be assessed in the context of a cruel injury situation that deprived us of a number of key players… critically perhaps, our two most dependable outlets in Deeney and Anya and the genius of Abdi who so often creates an outlet where noone else saw one.  For a side that scores so many goals we have surprisingly few stock moves… Lewis McGugan’s set pieces perhaps, but there’s certainly no “Ardley dumps the ball far post, Heidar throws himself at it” goals in this team.  Coping with those absences in that context was always going to be challenging.

Anya’s absence was exacerbated by Davide Faraoni’s suspension, meaning that Marco Cassetti was restored to a wing-back position having apparently settled into the back three.  It didn’t work… Cassetti’s intelligence and masterful delivery are no longer enough to compensate for his limited mobility.  Ikechi Anya might have given Craig Forsyth, who had a couple of “rabbit in headlights” moments without Anya’s help, a tougher game,one suspects.

2- The best aspect of this season thus far from our point of view has been the entertainment value.  Twelve league games in, plus three in the League Cup… how many have been anything less than gripping?  (Even if, admittedly, some of that excitement has been our own doing in situations where you’d prefer dull defensive competence).  The opening fifteen minutes or so here were suitably mundane…  Derby’s notorious vulnerability at corners was manifest and Essaid Belkalem ghosted in (or as close as a monstrous Algerian can get to “ghosting”) at the far post.  He should have scored.  Two minutes later and Jamie Ward, half Belkalem’s size and with what looked a tougher heading chance, outjumped his marker to put the Rams ahead from Bryson’s brilliant cross.  Another five minutes and Fernando’s levelled it again with a gorgeous dink.  Same old, same old.  From thereon both sides’ limitations were exposed – both keen on attacking with defending a tedious half-hearted chore performed with the attentiveness with which one might clean out the oven prior to, not your parents or in-laws visiting but perhaps a fleeting visit from an old school mate.

3- In the context of which Derby’s pressing game, in which John Eustace again belied the “his legs have gone” bollocks, always looked like it had potential.  Funny how effective a player can look once he’s given a few games.  As it was it was Iriney who was caught flat footed just before the break as the visitors capitalized efficiently.  This capped a disappointing first half for the Brazilian, who had been perhaps harshly booked for handball early on by referee James Linington when he appeared to control the ball with his chest.  Iriney proceeded to exercise no restraint whatsoever for the remainder of the half, not so much pushing his luck as giving it a right good kicking and making a pitch for joining the catalogue of ex-players in bloke-behind-you japery  (Danny Shittu one popular option) who might be employed to flatten what’s left of the Main Stand.  For every challenge in which Iriney roared in and won the ball there was another where the opponent’s leg came first;  perhaps perceiving that he’d unduly penalised the midfielder early on Linington let a couple ride that might normally have earned a second yellow.

Contrast Iriney’s performance with that of Eustace.. all controlled aggression, a driving force.  Not that Zola was necessarily wrong to conclude that Eustace’s time on the playing staff was up – a separate discussion.  But beyond dispute that his influence hasn’t been replaced, and in particular his on-pitch leadership.  In the absence of Deeney, the de facto outfield spokesman for the side, it wasn’t until Almunia confronted the officials at half time that anyone had more than a whinge in the referee’s ear.  Eustace, not County’s skipper, was on Linington’s shoulder throughout, although fat lot of help that can have been, admittedly, if the official’s hearing was on the par with the rest of his faculties.

4- The second half was far more positive;  Forestieri and Fabbrini never looked like a terribly… varied forward line – even our twists and turns had understudies, gloriously intricate icing but no cake – but such failings as there were were largely not of their own doing.  Whilst the strength of the squad is manifest, whether our first eleven is as strong as last year’s is very much open to question;  without Vydra’s pace OR Deeney’s presence we’re undoubtedly more limited.  Diego and Fernando both put a shift in though, and if Fabbrini in particular still needs to toughen up this was a more robust performance than we’ve been used to.

But ultimately it was the removal of Iriney and the introduction of Murray that heaved the game back in our favour.  Impish, mobile, assertive and imaginative, Murray was the injection of life that our midfield sorely needed.  McGugan hadn’t been having the best game either so McEachran was fetching and carrying nobody’s water…  now, Murray grabbed hold and started to make things happen.  We looked confident, suddenly, swinging Derby backwards and forwards.  Two last ditch challenges on the edge of the box yielded free kicks, each given too much elevation by McGugan to catcalls from the away end, mindful of his Forest history.  Lewis, as we’ve said, has played much better… but it says an awful lot for him that he can be playing badly, shunt two free kicks into the stand, and then pull out something as perfect as the second equaliser.  Quality like that in the absence of a performance will win us points, even if it didn’t today.

5- And then… yes, we blew it.  Again.  I’d been thinking that we looked in control, that we were chasing a win with the point safe when Sammon was allowed to break away but was hesitant on his weaker side and Almunia rescued the situation.  Five minutes later, with less time to think at the end of a similar break with it’s foundation in, yes, our sloppiness in possession he made no mistake.  Our heads dropped, and for the remainder of the game we misfired as badly as the machine-gunning tannoy.

Gutting and demoralising.   Despite which, care should be taken to assess the result in the context of the players missing.  Difficult circumstances today, this wasn’t merely a disappointing performance.  We need to defend an awful lot better… but that bad defending is less of an issue if you’ve got a target to hit or a winger whose pace and stamina makes an opponent wary of pressing too high up the pitch.  Attention will be paid to whatever information we get on the injury list over the next week, then.  Things will look an awful lot more positive if the senior cast return before the curtain goes up at Brighton a week Monday.