Watford 0 Queens Park Rangers 0 (29/12/2013) 30/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Nil-nil draws come in a variety of flavours. There are the ones where a draw suits at least one of the two sides down to the ground, often the away side, such that if it hasn’t quite been the aim at the outset it’s deemed a more than acceptable eventuality. There are those where a lack of quality is the dominant characteristic, a nil-nil by default. There are those much more open games which are nil-nil in name only, by virtue of neither side quite getting around to scoring. And there are, as my co-editor would wish me to recognise in his continuing absence, occasional total aberrations where even a goalless scoreline flatters an encounter so devoid of anything as to sap the collective will to live of those present – Scarborough (A, 1995) the example most frequently cited in textbooks. These classifications are not mutually exclusive of course… overlaps exist, and this, whilst always watchable, had bits of several of these characteristics. In particular, QPR’s apparent lack of a striking option with Charlie Austin injured and both Zamora and Johnson only fit enough for the bench limited their attacking threat; whether this was down to a genuine lack of options or whether, as has been suggested elsewhere, down to Redknapp peeling back the skin on his “bare bones” as a message to his board with the transfer window about to open, the effect was that an experienced, organised side played without a centre-forward leaving a nil-nil the likeliest outcome from the outset.
2- The first half was a game of kabbadi. Our own potency was limited… Diego Fabbrini was a threat when he got the ball to feet in deep positions and turned on QPR’s defence but this happened too infrequently, and on the one occasion when he gained a sight of goal he dawdled, permitting a stunning tackle from Richard Dunne. Recent Rangers reports have described a susceptibility to being harried and hassled in possession, and so the absences of Ikechi Anya and particularly Fernando Forestieri were unfortunate. This was surely a Fessi game in particular – Rangers’ disciplined midfield, marshalled by the charmless but dominant Barton, shielded a defence that looked fallible when put under pressure, Assou-Ekotto in particular having a distracted-looking first forty-five. At the other end, however, the visitors did their best to expose the vulnerability behind the wingbacks that a 3-5-2 implies. Phillips and particularly Hoilett each had their moments and a number of balls were slammed across the face of goal crying out for a striker to attack them. The louche Niko Kranjcar was nominally the front man however, and hurling himself at stuff in the box really isn’t the Croat’s thing. Nonetheless, the visitors were ahead on points at the break.
3- Second half was much more even. Encouragingly we came out on the front foot and began to drag mistakes out of Rangers’ backline, not least by mixing up our approach and looking to turn them with longer balls as well as controlled possession. Thorne was a valuable pivot in a congested midfield, Cassetti again did well at right wing-back with Doyley shielding him and Bellerin dug in well on the left. However clear cut chances were again thin on the ground… Fabbrini’s neat one-two with Deeney provided the best opportunity but the Italian finished nervously, his low shot lacking power and too close to Rob Green. Ultimately, the game petered out and whilst there were few incidents that had the crowd on their feet you have to feel that, Boxing Day notwithstanding, we’d have taken this at kick-off in the context of Sannino’s stated priority of sorting the defence out first and foremost. One iffy penalty in his first three games isn’t bad going, whatever the circumstances.
4- What an extraordinary menagerie this QPR side is. I have friends who pick their fantasy league teams according to a theme… here, life imitates, well, art, kinda, in that Redknapp has forged a side made up of last-picks of Fantasy League teams circa 2008. Yossi Benayoun? Nedum Onuoha? Bobby Zamora? You could list the entire team in this fashion and suffix, “wow, I wondered where he had gone” after each of them. Gary O’Neil? Surely he must be dead by now? A hulking graveyard of bandits and reprobates with an extraordinary array of silly haircuts. The starting eleven had an average age of 28, a full two years older than our own despite the contributions of Manuel Almunia and Marco Cassetti, and this without 30+ contributions from no fewer than TWELVE other players in their thirties elsewhere in the squad, of whom only Park Ji-Sung’s wages are being temporarily picked up elsewhere. Not a side with an eye on the future any further than May, then. God you’ve got to hope they fall on their (ample) arses.
5- So far so good. Today suggested that Sannino can both mix up his approach and influence things positively from the bench – witness the improvement of the second half over the first. Not Vicarage Road’s most rip-roaring ninety minutes of the season, but in the context of the last few months I think we’d all have traded off a bit of excitement for some defensive robustness – albeit against a team without a striker – and if we can continue to beat bad teams and get draws off half-decent ones that’ll do for the timebeing.
Watford 4 Millwall 0 (26/12/2013) 26/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- A new manager always brings with him a sense of dislocation, wonkiness. A new start necessarily means that the status quo has been dispensed with and for better or worse you return to Vicarage Road with trepidation, not knowing quite what to expect. In these circumstances it’s natural to cling to familiar things: the fresh chill of Boxing Day air, turkey sandwiches as the lunchtime game kicked off. And a good chortle as a hapless opponent capsized and set themselves up for a hiding. We needed that. We needed it almost as much as the team did.
2- And boy did Millwall play their role to a tee. Before they’d dropped to ten men in the ninth minute they had already demonstrated the qualities that had lead to one point in their previous six away from home. In contrast to the established blueprint that has earned visitors to the Vic three points so reliably, they stood off us and allowed us pretty much whatever space we needed (“and if you need more, you only have to ask. Innit.”). This enabled us to get into a rhythm, revelling in the freedom, and you kinda got the feeling that if we didn’t win this one it was going to be a long time before we ended our spartan run. Danny Shittu’s physique, as we know, seems to have precluded him from ever learning how to defend; caught wrong side, not for the first or last time in his career, pulled Deeney back, red card, penalty. Not so much gifting us the win as sitting down next to us and gently asking if we’d like them to start the unwrapping for us.
3- What’s chicken and what’s egg? Did we look more aggressive, faster, sharper because we had the lead and found our mojo again, or was that aggression, that sharpness part of the recipe that gave us the lead that has eluded us at home since September? Would we have won this game under Gianfranco, or would Millwall have stuck to the blueprint that had been serving every opponent so well? It’s difficult to believe that any opposition would have been inane enough to deviate from that most straightforward of approaches, but there was little in the Lions’ performance to inspire confidence… Lomas responded to the sending off by taking off a winger and moving striker Jermaine Easter wide, leaving Steve Morrison on his own up front. He won more than his fair share in the air… once finding space at the far post from a set piece to power a textbook header downwards and forcing Ikechi Anya into a goalline clearance. Most of the time however there was simply nobody close enough to him to pick up his knockdowns; the ball didn’t stick, we took possession and the Lions’ penalty area began to resemble a coconut shy. Indeed, I’ve seen more movement in coconut shies than in the Millwall team whose attitude was exemplified by Ikechi Anya’s impudent third goal at the start of the second half; playing down the left, his dummy cut him inside two stranded opponents who he left isolated on the flank. They didn’t chase, nobody else closed down and he picked his spot with aplomb. Ten days ago, the last game at the Vic sounded the death knell of one manager; this one felt like Glenn Roeder’s team’s trip to Crystal Palace in 1996 for Lomas. Hapless.
4- As for the Hornets… plenty impressed, for what it was worth. Deeney was aggressive and mobile again, looking for the ball. Sean Murray was a livewire, involved in everything, always moving and keeping us moving. George Thorne, tidy and disciplined. Marco Cassetti revelling in being afforded yards and yards of space on our right in the mistaken belief that without any pace he couldn’t use it; Anya indifferent to the closer attention he got down the left. If there’s a frustration, and this despite the consideration of hitting the woodwork an extra four times (the inside of the woodwork three times) and having a rampaging counterattack rounded off by a flying chest from Forestieri ruled out for offside, it’s that this wasn’t the cricket score it should have been. For this, and I don’t think it’s too harsh a criticism, you have to blame a rather casual attitude to finishing those chances off. Lewis McGugan, whose low profile during our bad run and relative resurgence today appear to validate Forest fans’ warnings, should have squared rather than taken a second half chance himself. He hit the post, but teammates were queuing up. Later, Fernando and Troy were two on one with a resigned-looking Mark Beevers in vague attendance; Forestieri had time to bring it down, or to square to his partner. Instead he turned on the ball and attempted a scissor kick, straight down David Forde’s throat. I guess if you can’t try such things in the dying minutes with a 4-0 lead when can you? Nonetheless, Troy expressed his regard for the Argentine’s judgement.
5- So what have we learned of our new man? Not an awful lot, in all honesty, beyond that his charges haven’t lost the ability to completely demolish opposition that invite them to do so. With an optimistic squint it was possible to interpret communication between our backline as improved, more attentive, but this was in the face of next to no challenge, like mastering a computer game in training mode. Certainly he made no attempt to seize the limelight, a courteous but unshowy appreciation of the crowd both before and after. Simultaneously he made no attempt to keep rein in his emotions during the game. From the first whistle he was on the balls of his feet, like a tennis player spending two hours bouncing in anticipation of a return of serve. Despite the weekend’s much publicised contretemps he paid precisely no attention to the boundaries of his technical area, beyond the three seconds or so following entreaties from both his coaching staff and the fourth official. And he skipped along the touchline, cajoling Marco Cassetti in pursuit of the ball like an over-eager parent at a school sports day. But his team? You don’t learn much from watching a team rip up a paper bag. Tougher challenges to come. Starting Sunday.
Savile Rogue Scarf Competition Results 22/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Nonsense.
Many thanks to all those who entered our competition to win a Savile Rogue Watford scarf. The objective was to name a Watford player past or present who had played for each of the clubs in the Premier League and each of the other clubs in the Championship. Beyond that, the winning entry would be the one whose 43 named players had scored the largest number of Southern League, Football League and Premier League goals for Watford between them.
No player’s name could be used against more than one club, and each player used must have appeared in at least one competitive game both for Watford and for the team in question.
35 entries were received, of which 16 successfully put a name to each of the 43 slots. Of these, the most prolific entry in terms of Watford goals was received from Anders Flatas whose nominations racked up 1962 goals between them; Anders wins the scarf… I’ll be in touch, sir. Commiserations to Paul Baxter, an honorable second, and third place Jem Whiteley, last year’s winner, who put in another strong showing.
See below for a link to the full results table. Luther (WBA or Bournemouth), Ross (Palace) and Cliff (Arsenal or Charlton given that Ross takes Palace) should have been straight in, and then it was a matter of rotating Wilko, Danny Graham, Marlon, Heidar, Mooney, Tommy Smith and the others in many different permutations.
After much fiddling around with spreadsheets I didn’t take any pleasure at all in beating Anders’ score by one goal, the composition of which is also detailed below. However this is only one possible avenue to this score… the insertion of Tommy Jones for Wilf Rostron appears to be the critical non-rotational difference, although Anders could reasonably claim a moral victory by dint of including Wilf in his selection (with due respect to the late Mr.Jones). Many congrats if you can improve on the optimum claimed… rest assured that I’m past caring.
The subtlest of errors in nominations was the naming of a player who was once signed, or had a trial with the club in question but never made the stipulated competitive appearance. This invalidates nominations for Nathaniel Chalobah at Chelsea, Len Dunderdale at Sheffield Wednesday, Alan Mayes at Q.P.R. and Stewart Scullion at Charlton Athletic.
Other errors can loosely be categorised as either:
- Putting a player’s name against two clubs (the second of which, arbitrarily, is invalidated)
- Leaving a team blank
- In very few cases, putting a player down with no association with the club in question.
Been as generous as I can be re spelling… happy to discuss or explain any queries, but please be polite… 🙂
So for those with an insatiable appetite for such data, enjoy:
Note that both the Club-by-Club summary and the full Club listing are a little distorted by the occasions on which a player was nominated next to two clubs – since only valid entries are counted, the discarded lower entry in the team list is arbitrarily missing.
You will now be returned to your normal program…
“Tales from the Vicarage, Volume II” 19/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far
The best read amongst you will already be in possession of “Tales from the Vicarage, Volume I” which was a highlight of last Christmas for many.
Twelve months on, “Tales from the Vicarage, Volume II” is a second compendium of writing on the Hornets in a variety of styles from a variety of authors. This list of authors includes both of this blog’s co-editors, which makes a glowing testimony kinda delicate from a socially acceptable self-promotion point of view.
On which basis the only reasonable thing to add is that on the basis that last year’s book was a stonker, this one’s bound to have something going for it…
You can order the book, or read further details, at the book’s website here, or order from Amazon.
Alternatively the book is on sale from the magnificent Watford Museum, and at Waterstones in Hemel Hempstead.
That is all.
Ciao, ‘franco 19/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
When a manager leaves, there’s usually a prevailing emotion that summarises the mood. In my case…. Lewington: anger. Boothroyd: relief. Rodgers: irritation. Mackay: disappointment. Dyche: bemusement. That mood is rarely shared universally; after all, to coin a cliché, any group of football supporters will contain at least as many opinions as there are individuals.
But in the case of Gianfranco Zola it’s sadness, and whilst I don’t doubt there’ll be strident denials popping up in the comments section I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that that’s a sentiment shared by almost everyone associated with the club. Irrespective of the appropriateness or otherwise of the decision, whether or not it’s time for a change, it’s a thoroughly upsetting development.
Slightly bewildering, too. Sorry if I’m repeating myself… my co-editor would do a much better job of this, but he’s up to his elbows in nappies (welcome to the other side of the fence, Grant…)… it’s been a dizzyingly odd trajectory that’s still difficult to fully comprehend.
Last season was dramatic and thrilling. Zola had arrived at Vicarage Road in July 2012, an appointment that had been rumoured, and amidst the frantic activity of that summer – the takeover, the ousting of Bassini, the raft of arrivals on the playing staff – that we had (again) appointed such a high profile figure was just one of many new ideas to get your head round. The team took time to come together; many of the new arrivals hadn’t played much football over the last season or two and were slowly introduced to the starting eleven, experimented with as a potent recipe was sought.
That recipe came together at Huddersfield in September. A change in formation to 3-5-2, the return of Troy Deeney and the introduction of Fitz Hall and Tommie Hoban heralded a gutsy, scruffy, dramatic win. For most of the next few months the story was of gradual improvement. It was evident over the course of time, the side growing in confidence and potency to the point where a glorious thirteen-pass move sealed a demolition of the same, initially obstructive opposition in January. It was evident over the course of so many individual games, when Zola’s careful tweaking and shuffling from the bench invariably sent us out more effective in the second forty-five minutes. It was evident in the performances of so many players. Lloyd Doyley, adapting as ever. Mark Yeates, from a virtual outcast on the wing to a a gutsy box-to-box midfielder back in the first team squad. Ikechi Anya, from a precocious stereotypical winger, all pace and no end product to a real, potent threat and a full international call-up. Troy Deeney, suddenly the iconic talisman, the leader. Ekstrand, Abdi, Vydra, Cassetti all emerged from period of virtual inactivity for one reason or another to play significant roles.
It wasn’t perfect, quite obviously. Matej Vydra’s head was turned in January, and that combined with a greater attention afforded the Czech striker limited his effectiveness. There was a suggestion that lower profile opposition weren’t afforded enough respect; only one point was gained from trips to the three teams destined for relegation in the second half of the campaign, and there was feeling that the team was running out of legs.
But in a sense, this didn’t matter. As Ian described in his Yeovil thunks, the casual nature of the side was almost part of its charm, and whilst there were hiccups the general trajectory was upwards. The second half of the campaign also featured glorious wins at Leicester and Hull, and the wonderfully loopy play-off semi-final. All of which against a backdrop of this all being somehow a bonus… there was no panicky urgency, no desperation. We hadn’t expected things to go as well as they did, we were ahead of schedule. So whilst the horrific bad luck of the Leeds game and the let-down at Wembley were disappointing any dejection was short lived. This was just the start of the story under Zola, and we were all gasping for the second installment.
Which is where the sense of bewilderment comes in. It’s as if an author had written the first book of a glorious trilogy, a masterpiece, and then binned it a few pages into the second book, given up and gone off and done something else. There’s a sense of feeling cheated…
This season had started well enough. Repeated exhortations from every quarter to keep guard on our expectations helped ensure that such failings as there were in the light of the departures of Vydra and Chalobah, the early loss of Abdi and the gradual bedding in of another raft of signings were more than tolerated, almost rejoiced in. Look at us being all measured and sensible, and quite right too. Whilst we continued to ship goals we weren’t having any trouble scoring them for the most part and if we were maybe drawing games we could have been winning we weren’t being beaten. It’s worth remembering that prior to the visit of Derby we’d only lost twice over ninety minutes in fourteen league and cup games, and those both single-goal defeats away from home. Hardly disastrous.
And that helps explain the bewilderment too. It just turned so quickly, and absolutely. A careless, sloppy defeat to Derby rapidly morphed into a situation where you just couldn’t see us getting any points at home. Whilst our ability on the break was keeping us in away draws, visitors to Vicarage Road quickly learned that turning up and being disciplined and waiting for an opportunity was probably going to be enough. For all the quality in the squad our forward line lacked pace, our midfield – minus Abdi – lacked guile and our defence was always there to be got at. Several very limited sides have done just that.
Ultimately, as the Sheffield Wednesday thunks reflect, it was difficult to envisage any other outcome after Saturday. None whatsoever for anyone who’d heard Zola’s utterly defeated, hapless post-match comments. The belief, the spark, the fight had gone and Zola left with them, the echoes of his exit from Upton Park under similar circumstances almost deafening.
And yet if there’s any justice, he’ll be remembered extremely fondly. Ultimately, being a football fan means being part of something. Winning helps, but enjoying the ride is more important and there have been few more enjoyable rides than last season whatever the disappointing denouement.
My co-editor would want me to point out that the situation has changed. That the job required at Watford is different to the one Gianfranco was hired to do, and requires a different man to do it. That man might be Giuseppe Sannino, let’s see… in fairness, and contrary to what some blinkered, dogmatic, lazy, cheap and downright pitiful reporting would have you believe, the Pozzo/Nani/Duxbury team really hasn’t gotten a lot wrong so far.
But that’s what comes next, and this piece has been retrospective. We all need to snap out of this and get focused pretty damn quickly; I don’t doubt that Sannino’s already working on that one.
In the meantime, ciao Gianfranco. Molte grazie.
Watford 0 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (14/12/2013) 15/12/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- You really have to wonder how we got here. Even those who didn’t expect this season to be a cakewalk, who anticipated difficult games at home as attitudes towards us changed and we had to adapt to new circumstances and a different squad, can’t have anticipated this. It stands to reason, of course, that last season’s flamboyant style was never something that was going to succeed in moderation; we’re not equipped to grind out results when the going is rough, less so given the summer departures. The viability of playing open, confident football is kinda dependent on the “confident” bit. Otherwise you’re just “open”, with the inevitable consequence that you’re rather easy to score against without the verve to overturn a side with something to cling on to. Nonetheless the chasm between the performances that yielded so many goals last season, goals that didn’t entirely desert us as we were finding our feet again early this, and performances that have yielded no goals in the last four at Vicarage Road is vast and would have been all but inconceivable even in the wake of the Wembley disappointment six months ago, a result that arguably did neither manager any favours at all.
2- Wednesday, who like Bolton were more impressive in losing this fixture last season than they were winning this, joined the list of moderate sides who’ve turned up and gotten a result without having to do any more than organise themselves defensively and wait for an opportunity. They didn’t even park the bus, particularly, much as they got bodies behind the ball when out of possession; this wasn’t a smash and grab raid. Indeed, the Owls started particularly tentatively and looked anxious in the opening ten minutes as the Vicarage Road crowd, craning our necks in a desperate attempt to peer round the corner we hoped we were turning, seized gratefully upon these suggestions of vulnerability. You’ve got to capitalise on such situations though and we failed to do so, Cassetti – on a particularly ropey afternoon for the veteran – the most culpable sending a free header from a corner high of the bar. A mid-half hiatus brought the dawning realisation that our supremacy hadn’t yielded an awful lot, with Deeney ploughing a lone furrow up front and a clear strategy of hitting him early with longer balls than we’re used to making us feel unusually impatient and edgy. When Wednesday scored – from a well-struck free kick from Connor Wickham, who was giving Nosworthy an uncomfortable afternoon, the script for the rest of the game unravelled as joylessly as a dropped loo-roll.
3- That sense of inevitability was evident on and off the pitch. The performance was listless, and the characteristic availability of a pass that defined our play last season was absent – it’s not just a destructive, hard edge than Jonathan Hogg took with him to Huddersfield. In such circumstances you need a break and we didn’t get one… Anya’s on-side goal mistakenly ruled out by the linesman’s flag, although any assessment of decisions going against us would need to weigh that one up against a generous judgement that Nosworthy had got something of the ball in making a last-ditch saving tackle on the escaping Jacques Maghoma five minutes earlier. Another characteristic of last season was Zola’s knack of positively influencing the course of a game through positive substitutions and tactical switches, spotting a problem, addressing it, sorting it. Perhaps the scale of the problem is overwhelming… but that sense of clarity has gone too. The second half, kicking towards the Rookery, yielded not a single effort on target and only one brief spell of fist waving and rabble rousing from behind the goal which died all too quickly. The introductions of first Fabbrini, forced in part by an injury to Faraoni, and then McGugan and Forestieri didn’t lack in positivity… but they were “let’s see if this works” punts rather than changes introduced to address a problem. And yet… in the dying minutes up popped the ghost of Christmas past, Fabbrini dancing in from the left and releasing Forestieri. The Argentine had been roughed up on his introduction by a Wednesday side perhaps mindful of his impact from the bench last season but he was clean through and it was elegant and devastating, a slight of hand and a rapier thrust that Wednesday hadn’t seen coming. This is what we do! This is what it’s supposed to look like. We’d probably have deserved a point, despite everything. The shot went wide.
4- In context, the booing at the final whistle was pretty tame. After five defeats at home, defeats which have rarely looked like yielding and scarcely merited any more than no points between them, we might have expected worse. That such relative restraint is being shown is down to two considerations, principally. First, the spectre of the glorious, devastating performances of last season. We know what’s possible and the memories are still fresh whatever’s changed since. Second, everyone wants him to do well. Zola has done nothing but endear himself – whatever mistakes he’d made – and even those convinced that it’s time for a change don’t adopt that position with malice. All would gratefully change their mind if they were told that Zola would turn it around – such unanimous support on a personal level is far from common in such circumstances. What do I think? I think it rather hangs on whether he thinks he can sort it out. Because recent performances and decisions smack of floundering, fiddling with things hoping that the right set-up will be chanced upon or for the undoubted quality in the side to win us a break. If he still has that conviction, I think he’s earned more time. For all the resources at his disposal, forming a team as coherently and quickly as he did last season was an immense achievement too often taken for granted.
5- But I’m far from convinced that that’s the case. His 3CR interview with Jon Marks after the game showed no sign of fight, just helplessness. Chekhov once observed that once a gun appears in a book, someone has to fire it at some stage else there’s no point it being there. Similar inevitability exists between a manager “considering his position” – as Zola effectively confirmed during that interview – and what follows. I don’t recall an instance of a manager taking time to reflect and then coming out fighting. I hope I’m wrong.
Once again, Savile Rogue have very kindly offered BHaPPY readers the chance to win one of the world’s finest cashmere football scarves in Watford colours.
Savile Rogue scarves (it says here…) give a nod to football terraces of yesteryear, shunning in-your-face logos and cheap nylon in favour of a traditional bar design and the comfort, quality and warmth of top grade wool.
To get your hands on a Watford scarf, here’s the deal…
Listed below the are the names of all the (other) clubs in the top two divisions in England.
You need to copy and paste these lists into the comments column below, and next to each enter the name of a Watford player past or present who has also turned out for the team in question in at least one competitive match.
- No player can be used more than once
- The winner is the entrant who fills the most slots – in the event of a tie, the winner will be the entrant whose listed players have SCORED THE MOST GOALS in Premier League, Football League or Southern League games for Watford (prior to this Saturday’s game with Sheffield Wednesday). If there is still a tie, the earlier entrant wins.
- Please enter player names in the format J.Barnes .
- Loans at Watford or at other club are fine, as long as the players concerned featured in at least one competitive game for each.
Entries close at midnight on Saturday December 21st.
Note that Savile Rogue are only able to dispatch the prize to a UK address.
Entries will not be published until the closing date.
That is all.
Watford 0 Yeovil Town 3 (30/11/2013) 01/12/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. As you do, I spend Friday night in Bexhill – whose sleepiness is measured by the fact that Hastings residents can be witheringly sarcastic about it without fear of contradiction – watching Napalm Death attempting to destroy a sound system made from ceramic tiles.
There’s something pleasingly symmetrical about this, a last adolescent hurrah in the face of responsible adulthood. No other band could be so appropriate for this moment: Napalm Death were a formative influence on my adolescence, a rebellious left-turn in mine and many others’ lives. Forced upon us by John Peel, they and their ilk – but they more than anyone – were met with initial incredulity and mirth, before the inherent logic of what they were doing and how they were doing it became utterly irresistible. At the point when all any self-respecting teenager wants is righteous noise to call their own, they were the answer to my prayers. They were my Sex Pistols, my Public Enemy. They defined what music could be, should be; they defined what it could and should say. That definition still stands, I think, even if the radicalism they inspired in my eighteen-year-old self has given way to mortgaged middle age and its inevitable compromises.
Like many good ideas, the evening doesn’t quite work in practice: Keith Harrison’s sculpture proves pretty much unshakeable and unbreakable in the face of the aural assault. A few tiles fall and shatter, the rest stands proud even as the volume increases and the bass vibrates our internal organs. And thus, like many good ideas, it gradually turns into something else, almost as fascinating: rather than watching Napalm Death destroy a sound system, we’re watching a sound system destroy Napalm Death. This isn’t music that’s designed to be played at full pelt for an hour and a half; they don’t really go in for acoustic interludes to have a breather. An unstoppable force is meeting an immovable object. After forty-odd songs, the immovable object eventually wins, and our heroes leave the stage, more shattered and broken by their efforts than most of the tiles.
It’s a noble effort, far more noble than anything I have to describe in the remainder of this report. Our days of being an unstoppable force are over, clearly. We are eminently stoppable; it’s becoming our overriding characteristic. It’d be hard to describe Yeovil as an immovable object, but the effect is much the same: there’s only one winner, only one outcome. The script is as predictable as a sub-standard rom-com, join the dots and roll credits. All we need is to play Jennifer Aniston up front and it’d all be complete. (I’m side-stepping a quip about Diego Fabbrini there, just so’s you know.)
2. The scoreline speaks for itself. It does more than speak: it shouts loudly, peremptory and pompous, like Brian Blessed at a dinner party. The game probably speaks for itself as well, and the performance. But they’re quiet and polite, y’see, and you can’t hear them over Brian bloody Blessed, banging the table and murdering a speech from Shakespeare (“NOW is the WIN-TEEERRRR of our DIScontent”) or somesuch. You don’t want to hear him, but he drowns everything out regardless. A great foghorn of opinions you didn’t ask for. You end the evening feeling browbeaten and bored.
Because if you’ve just lost three-nil at home to the team that’s bottom of the table, nothing else matters. You can’t quibble with that. It’s just there, an uninvited guest, refusing to leave. You can’t house-train it, you can’t grow fond of it, you can’t find its good side; it has no redeeming features whatsoever. Whatever else I say, it matters not a jot next to this: if every game is decided by half a dozen or so moments, those moments all belonged to Yeovil. Every single one, at both ends. That’s it, in a nutshell. The scoreline doesn’t lie.
3. You can pick whichever high-expectation season you like as a comparison: Graham Taylor’s last, Vialli’s one, Boothroyd’s post-Premiership shambles. They’re all the same, in essence: teams without confidence gradually disintegrating in the face of bitter, resentful disappointment. It becomes a vicious circle, if you’re not careful…and we’re never careful.
Halfway through the first half, as we’re gradually growing into the game after an understandably nervous start, you reflect that the first goal has rarely been so important. We just need to keep a clean sheet until we can get ourselves that goal…as we will, given time and patience. We’re doing all right, slowly remembering ourselves. There’s a win here; it’s a game that a more confident, assertive, disciplined side would just about edge before moving forward. Maybe a one-nil win, maybe even two or three once that first has gone in. It’s nothing to do with winning while playing badly; it’s making those decisive moments count.
But, of course, we can’t keep that clean sheet, just as those other expectation-laden teams couldn’t: the style of football might be different, but we don’t half resemble that Boothroyd team, every bit of tentative progress undermined by laughable defensive mishaps. A dismal set piece goal here, forgetting to concentrate on the basics in injury time yet again. We can’t avoid the avoidable, it seems. As if to emphasise the point – as if we bloody need it emphasising, Brian – we do it again after the break, conceding cackhandedly after a right-then-deep-breath start during which you briefly, naively, thought that we might not follow the script after all.
Opponents need do no more than stick around and wait for the inevitable. We’re not capable of forty-five minutes without significant error, and we no longer have last season’s firepower to compensate. It’s a pitiful spectacle. Tidy and concise, Yeovil did nothing wrong…and yet they needed to do very little right either.
4. I almost feel ashamed to bring up the positives. It’s like cracking a rude joke at a funeral; I expect disapproving looks. Thing is, much of this was absolutely fine: the air of utter desperation may have made it seem otherwise, but our passing and movement had more purpose and intent than of late, and much more width too. We continue to lack last season’s cutting edge, and we continue to construct rather than create, and we are sometimes guilty of over-elaborating, and the options on the bench are far too limited for such an extravagantly-assembled squad. None of those flaws need be fatal, if we allow ourselves some time, some room to breathe.
There are still goals here. Even with ten minutes to go, you can’t entirely write off the possibility of a comeback: the floodgates are being held together by bits of string, Yeovil’s defence frequently stretched to the point of relying on desperate blocks and plain luck. That’s our fault for giving them a lead to hang onto, clearly; you can’t play with four forwards all of the time either. Nevertheless, the attractive, expansive passing football we relished so recently hasn’t gone altogether, not yet. Amazing what a bit of confidence can do, what difference a couple of decent results can make. As much difference as a couple of bad ones, as we’ve just found out.
Vicarage Road echoes to the sound of irritated middle-aged blokes. It’s like a haemorrhoid support group without any cushions. Sometimes, that irritation is justified, even if it’s never actively helpful. Much of the time, it merely demands something – anything – other than what we have, principally that we have a facking shot, even if there’s no facking shot to have. This will get us nowhere, obviously. It offers nothing constructive at all; it’s football by numbers. Early in the second half, George Thorne intercepts, moves forward and fluffs a through-pass into Troy Deeney, and the ground erupts in indignation. Have a facking shot. From twenty-five yards, with our centre forward making a perfect, inviting run into the penalty area. We’ve lost our minds, it seems.
5. Which means that the manager must keep his. Having passed one managerial test with flying colours, assembling a squad of strangers into a successful team last time out, Gianfranco Zola faces an even stiffer challenge here. His future depends not on what he’s already done, but on what he can yet do; if he’s the right man to turn this around, he needs to start proving it quickly. The injury list is a fault line through everything; the flaws in the squad (for that injury list doesn’t extend to the forward line) are being revealed too. There are things that he can’t control, but that only makes the things he can more vital. Promises to work hard aren’t enough. It needs to be something more tangible than that.
And I wonder, I have to say. I hope I’m wrong, but I wonder. What we’ve had under Zola has been a team full of loose-limbed, low-slung attitude, built on fabulous attacking intent rather than defensive resolve. It’s always had a rather sloppy quality to it; that’s sometimes been part of its charm, sometimes been utterly infuriating. It’s been great fun to watch and support. But it won’t do now, not if – as we evidently are – we’re defining success or failure on a sustained promotion challenge.
For me, you get back to the basics. You resist the temptation to chop and change more than absolutely necessary, you shut out the incessant din of criticism. You pick the best side available and set it up as it’s most accustomed to playing. That’s where real leadership lies: not in change, but in establishing certainty. More than anything, you start with some clean sheets, for we’re going nowhere but downwards if we continue to concede as we have been: stop that goal from a corner in first half injury time and the whole game looks completely different, looks like ours to win. And then you work on your own set plays to get them beyond the stupefying predictability on show here, for some easy goals would be awfully helpful right now. The rest – about which we’re getting so hot and bothered – can pretty much take care of itself.
All around Vicarage Road, muttered comments starting with “if we can’t beat this lot…” attempted to sum up the game. That logic doesn’t hold water, obviously: performances vary, results vary with them. If we can’t beat this lot, let’s beat another lot. Or, at least, let’s start by not letting them beat us. That’d be good enough to be going on with. Over to you, Gianfranco.