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Queens Park Rangers 2 Watford 1 (21/04/2014) 21/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- “Best team we’ve played” was the consensus from the QPR constituency on the train back to Bedford.  Nice blokes, before you ask… civil enough to involve me in their review of events once I’d declared my interest.  Showed enough judgement to make appropriate grimaces as we stopped at Luton and orange shirts flooded in.  And, yes.  “Best team we’ve played.  Have you been doing that all season?”.  A glance at the table answers that… yes, we were a match for Rangers on the day, yes, we looked a good deal better than mid-table fodder.  Yes, we lost anyway.  But this wasn’t yet more wasted points lobbed on the bonfire, we’ll get to that, and it was far better than much of what has preceded it this season.  Too little, too late perhaps, but worth remembering, as ever, that it’s not all about the destination – my travelling companions, faced with the possibility (and only very optimistically a one in four chance, by their own admission) of promotion back to the top flight and a tranche of unwinnable games, were acutely aware of that.  You’ve got to enjoy the journey, enjoy the game for it’s own sake. And this was a belter.

2- Unlike Saturday, we started like a train.  Difficult to separate our own verve from the attitude that I’d mentally superimposed on QPR…  a bunch of has-beens and never-quite-weres, a Fantasy League team from about seven or eight years ago, and already all but sure of a play-off place and therefore less focused, less to play for.  Some of that might have been true… whatever, we certainly DID look more up for it, more hungry, more lively, and immediately swarmed all over the midfield as we would do for much of the game. Tözsér, Abdi and McGugan were everywhere, always a passing option available, overrunning the hoops for the opening half hour.  You’ll have noticed that we didn’t take advantage… McGugan culpable here, for all that he was lively and positive throughout, having one of those games where possession within shooting distance results in the same decision and is often followed by direct feedback from Troy.  As we approached the interval our inability to capitalise on our superiority looked critical… the home side had begun to push up a high line and pen us in, our lack of pace making this a viable approach even if Manuel Almunia only had one save to make – a Kevin Doyle free kick that provoked a comfortable stop.  An ovation at the whistle, but no goals on the board.

3- The atmosphere was tremendous.  Not something we can often claim at the Vic for all the fine efforts of the 1881, and Loftus Road was similarly sleepy.  Except in the away end, which was bouncing.  If you can’t create an atmosphere in these circumstances, away from home in a packed, claustrophobic upper tier in a shit-or-bust local derby then, you know, pack up and go home.  But yes, it was raucous and noisy and – largely – about us rather than them or anyone else.  If only it were possible to translate this bloody-minded noisiness to the Vic… but if I knew how to do that I’d be making a lot of money bottling and selling the trick to a PR company or something rather than writing this nonsense on a Monday night at the end of a Bank Holiday weekend.  Anyway… we got our reward as we started the second half as bullishly as we had the first culminating in Deeney nodding down to Ranégie who rolled Richard Dunne – which, one imagines, takes some doing – to find space and finish.  Game. On.

4- Having struck the vital first blow in what had been a tight game on Saturday by virtue of a little bit of quality, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that Joey Barton’s free kick was a hell of a strike, with enough bend on it to bypass our wall and leaving Manu on the wrong side of his goal looking a bit silly – although I’d like another chance to see quite how aggressively Charlie Austin bullied some space for the shot on the left side of our wall.  There were complaints about it being a soft free kick, complaints about a corner that had preceded it being given the wrong way… whatever.  You don’t take your chances, you run the risk of stuff like this being relevant.  We should have been out of sight.

Psychologically a defeat feels so much worse than a draw would have done… but actually a point probably wasn’t a lot of good to us, so I think you can forgive Beppe for lobbing bodies forward at the death.  The result was us being grotesquely outnumbered on the counter and even then nearly getting away with it as the lively Morrison initially chose the wrong option, but Austin – who had earlier been booked for a brutal challenge on the terrific Riera – finished superbly.  A sucker punch.

5- We might have saved a point had we not overcommitted, should have been further ahead to perhaps kill the game earlier. Critical, though, was the lack of options on the bench.  Not that we had any time to retrieve the situation at 2-1, but the side was screaming out for some pace on the counter at 1-0, something to make QPR look over their shoulders, to occupy the excellent Onuoha, to ease the pressure a little bit.  No striker on the bench (again) was tough on Ranégie in particular who, like Troy, played a second ninety in the space of three days.  He won the majority of his aerial duels, loped around fairly purposefully… but needed replacing midway through the second half.  As the stadium exploded in response to Austin’s winner my attention, ferociously averted from the home stands, was on Beppe who seemed to turn to his bench in agitated frustration, recognise that for all the quality cover in different positions there was nothing to retrieve the game, no new trick.  The lack of available options up front was always going to cost us at some point, it cost us this weekend.  The play-offs recede back into the distance… this was one of many missed chances, but amongst the more forgiveable.  As last season, the critical points were lost earlier in the campaign.  Come August, we go again… and on this evidence perhaps we will have the season we’d imagined next time.


Watford 3 Ipswich Town 1 (19/04/2014) 20/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There are many excellent things about having a seven year old daughter. If it’s something you’re considering I can heartily recommend it.  The BEST thing changes by the day, but the ability to vicariously relive your childhood and indulge in pastimes that a middle-aged man wouldn’t otherwise get away with will always be fairly high on the list.  Re-reading “The Northern Lights” doesn’t strictly fall into that category…  I was already a middle-aged man when I first read it and no pretext should be necessary.  But sharing it with a seven year-old, who is frankly no less able to get her head around parallel universe theory than I am gives it a whole new lustre, just as much fun the second time around.

This was a game from a parallel universe.  A parallel universe in which this season panned out as we thought it might, in which we really did rip the division up, too good for whatever the Championship could throw at us.  In which a team turning up and haring after us, closing us down up the pitch and denying us space and waiting for us to make a mistake wasn’t anything like enough.  A parallel universe in which, perversely, Beppe Sannino had replaced Gianfranco anyway.  Go figure.  I never claimed to be an expert in this stuff.

2- Which isn’t to say that we had it all our own way…  indeed we started the game much the slower, the visitors getting the pick of the scraps from a congested midfield early on.  Johnny Williams was at the heart of the threat, then and throughout the first half… the Palace loan-man, significant at Wembley last May, echoing his compatriot Craig Bellamy in both his sense of devil and mischief and in being a gobby little irritant.  He would leave the game early, a running scrap with Daniel Tözsér culminating in a bad second-half challenge from the Hungarian for which he was lucky to escape censure.  Williams had the first effort on target, a firm shot that Manuel got something behind to block as the defence were caught on their heels in an ominous opening period.  Five minutes later Tommie Hoban, who had had an edgy start, got away with a lunge on Frank Nouble in the area… there weren’t many appeals but it looked a foul.

Gradually the tide turned, we began to enjoy possession of our own.  The opening goal, when it came, was a thing of beauty and worthy of separating the teams at the interval… Hoban, out of position, swept in with a majestic, immaculate challenge to curtail an Ipswich break on the left and immediately set in motion an attack down our own left  flank.  Riera, who we had been warned was going to need a few games to play himself back to fitness, showcased the quality that once had Liverpool paying £8m for him by cutting inside  and stroking a shot diffidently inside the far post with his weaker right foot.  In the context of a tight game, devastating – and an echo of a similar goal against Leeds under Sean Dyche, where Mariappa and Kightly played the Hoban/Riera roles.

3- Ipswich, in short, were more or less what you’d expect from a Big Mick side.  Tough, tight, competitive, fairly tidy.  And unremarkable.  Paul, an Ipswich fan and school friend of my brother’s from Essex where such things – Ipswich fans – are an occupational hazard, was keeping a low profile with me in the Rookery.  If you’ve done this sort of thing before you’ll know that the hardest bit is not reacting convincingly to goals at either end, but coping with your emotions when things get a little… fractious on the pitch.  As the visitors hit us hard at the start of the second half, pulling level when Wordsworth poked in Nouble’s cross, things did boil over as a referee whose control of the game was on the slack side throughout, nearly lost control altogether.  Cue  partisan bellowing at referee and miscreants in blue decorated with tractorcentric baubles and much swearing from those around us…  and whilst, heaven knows, I’m not one to urge vocal restraint when it comes to suggesting that Ipswich are a shambolic excuse for a football club with a rather overblown sense of their own significance, full marks to the interloper for not blowing his cover.

4- If something remarkable does transpire over the next fortnight – and we’ll get to that – then the pivotal period, the Tranmere moments, surely came just after the hour mark.  Luke Hyam met a left-wing cross with a thumping header for the visitors… from the far end it looked off the bar and in, for a second or so we were mentally adjusting to being behind.  Except… it didn’t go in, a brilliant Almunia push onto the bar indiscernible from our vantage point but critical.  Within a minute Troy Deeney drew a foul in Ipswich’s half… closer to the halfway line than the penalty box and central it should have been no threat to the visitors but they fell asleep, Töszér’s evil swinging delivery found Angella’s untracked bandaged forehead and we had the lead.  A good finish, but criminal defending. Two minutes later an extraordinary crossfield ball by the Hungarian found Faraoni wide on the right.  The Italian killed the ball with his astonishing first touch, waited long enough for the Kaiser to follow his pass across the pitch and then released him to drive home our advantage;  Ipswich, rocking, were not mentally ready to have him prising open the gap between two defenders in the box neither of whom were brave enough to take responsibility. He cut back from the byline, McGugan finished expertly.  Game over.

Most impressive, more impressive than the goals, was what happened next. Ipswich were shot, done, and in no physical or mental state to reprise their energetic chasing down of the first half but we’ve made late leads look more precarious than this in the past  with fist-chewingly awful consequences and against far less capable sides.  The visitors had some inconsequential possession, Hunt had a decent effort from long range, but every time possession turned over the yellow shirts flooded forward…   Angella, Deeney, Battocchio, Murray and Tözsér – from a violently struck free kick that he and McGugan lined up to opposite corners – all came close.  No nerves here, we ended the game well on top.

5- It should be evident to all onlookers that that sixth place is going to go to a side that has not covered itself in glory for the duration of the campaign.  On any number of occasions over the past weeks and months we’ve all mentally switched the season off and chucked the dust covers over it… Bolton?  Doncaster?  Blackburn?  Burnley?  Millwall?  And yet… nobody else is making a convincing job of it either, and despite our best efforts we’re still in there.  Not favourites, not in our control by a long chalk… and that mythical game in hand is only potentially worth three points.  We’d still have to win at Charlton, and at QPR and Derby too,  a big ask under any circumstances.  Except… well, if you’re going to go to QPR and Derby then a period in which each might be focused on the next bit, the play-offs, might not be a bad time to make those trips.

And, whisper it, we’re playing rather well all of a sudden.  No weak performances out there today, just different flavours and degrees of impressive…  Hoban, ultimately, imperious.  Ekstrand, bar one early misplaced pass, as commanding as he’s been for weeks – and visibly comfortable in that central role.  Tözsér, majestic.  Faraoni, an outlet, much needed given the absences of both Anya and Forestieri.  Riera, a class apart.  Deeney, unplayable, goal or no goal.  Ranégie… again, a slow start after a few games out but ultimately awkward, a presence, a threat.  Almunia.  Angella.  McGugan.  Abdi.  Murray.   Battocchio.  Pudil.  Not a frown or a black mark amongst them.  It’s still a long shot, but winning our last four games is less of an ask than winning our last five was.  We overcame and ultimately reduced a half-decent side to rubble today.  There are only so many times it’s reasonable to politely offer around that last vol-au-vent, in this universe or any other.

Watford 3 Leeds United 0 (08/04/2014) 09/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There was an “on the cardsness” about this one.  Those dropped points on Saturday, embers of resentment and regret at the outcome of this fixture last season, United’s not-even-a-little-bit funny plummet down the table with attention diverted and management precarious all pointed in one direction.  One of those emphatic and yet routine wins borne of a superiority that you really wish we could distribute a little more evenly across the season’s fixtures, but life doesn’t work like that.

Not that this victory was the result of our artistry alone by any means – Leeds were the architects, compères and comedy sideshow of their own downfall and we’ll get to them, we did what we had to do.  We were still well worth 3-0 though.  3-0 and then some.  From the moment the returning Abdi – his first start since August – burrowed towards the left side of the area, pivoted away from the goal and swung an arcing cross to the far post for the excellent Faraoni to fire an opening shot, blocked on this occasion, we were in charge. Shortly later Abdi released Anya on the left with a ridiculous lofted pass and then bombed into the area to get on the end of the winger-cum-striker’s cross, his first goal since his fine strike against the same opponents in May.  Game over, less than ten minutes in. The visitors weren’t in any position to make a fight of it.

2- I’ve been warned not to use the phrase, “spaghetti-eating surrender monkeys” with respect to our esteemed visitors, so I won’t do that.  But by God they were a lamentable shambles, offering little beyond some energetic closing down way up the pitch in the early stages of each half, a lazy under-rehearsed cover version of the tune that visitors were profiting from so readily earlier in the season.  In so many ways they were a parody of themselves – Michael Brown in the tried and tested role of cheap, gobby bruiser in the midfield, a sixth or seventh generation Gripper Stebson.  Noel Hunt, lumbering around after nothing much remembering a time when he was famous for being someone’s brother rather than just yet another journeyman second-division plodder, following through on Faraoni who had demonstrated his intention to put the ball out so that the grounded McCormack could receive treatment.  Hunt was lucky, the ref’s attention was diverted McCormack-wards by Faraoni’s signal, he had turned his ahead away from the incident and neither assistant was well-sighted.  He took the standard cop-out option of a yellow card.  It should have been red.  You have to be quite bad to be relegated from this division;  Leeds must hope that somewhere in the tightly-packed morass between them and the bottom there are three sufficiently pathetic alternatives, because on this evidence they ain’t getting out of this under their own efforts.

3- As on Saturday, we settled into a “come on then” formation which, unlike Burnley, Leeds never looked capable of penetrating.  They had two shots in the first half… the first from the corner of a crowded penalty area was a desperate blast needing a lot of luck and didn’t get it, cannoning off a white shirt for a goal kick.  The second, a well-judged but equally optimistic lob from McCormack on the half-way line.  The role of our defensive shape and robustness needs to be acknowledged here…  as we noted towards the end of Sean Dyche’s season, part of the reason that so many of our opponents here look so thoroughly dreadful is that we don’t give them much of a window to look anything else.  Defensively we were disciplined and utterly in charge  – including Ekstrand, who had his most convincing 45 for a while before seeming to lose focus again in the second half.

Most peculiar was our uncharacteristic tendency to try to hit Troy Deeney early with long, direct balls, an approach which rarely seemed to trouble the visitors particularly but with which we persisted throughout.  Far more of a problem for them were balls coming across the box… Anya was again involved on the left after half an hour, Riera fed the ball across to the right, Faraoni sent it back and Anya was simply readier for it than anyone else.  And then it quietened down again,  a pattern summed up by Julian as “dull, then we score”.  I guess that’s what limited teams doing nothing with a fair amount of possession, breaking themselves against an organised defence, looks like.

And in the second half, much as Leeds showed brief and very limited signs of life early on, it was more of the same, the Hornets far more threatening on the break than Leeds looked at any point… twice Butland, Leeds’ one positive, was required to deny Deeney – once, bravely, down to his left, the second a stunning reflex stop after Anya had shredded the flimsy backline and squared for his strike partner.  In between those two chances however we had the third, the least we deserved as Abdi (again) challenged some sloppy Leeds possession and released Deeney who tiptoed his way through three half-hearted challenges before belting past Butland.  Propelled towards the Rookery he used the half-second to mentally accept his forthcoming yellow card and made the most of the moment.

4- A brief digression to ponder the peculiarities of the crowd.  “Other people”, the bastards.  Barracking Attwell on Saturday was perhaps inevitable…  but to my mind there’s no comparison between a cock-up like the ghost goal, albeit a massive cock-up, and Dominic Poleon’s cowardly shove on Ikechi Anya in our last meeting here.  Not that I’m in favour of a young striker being given a hard time particularly, but there’s no balance – Attwell’s crime was perverse but driven by incompetence, not malice, and was far less consequential.  If anything, Attwell’s error and our reaction to it earned us a point against Reading which had never looked likely up to that point.  And yet… Attwell gets the bird whilst Poleon gets half-hearted jeers.  Such is the role of the pantomime villain, as Paul pointed out.  No less explicable were the chants of “sacked in the morning”, also greater in volume than any stick Poleon got. These were directed not only at Leeds’ manager, who you’re entitled to your own views on but has always come across as a reasonable bloke, but also at his assistant who has a rather long and proud association with our club worthy of a bit more respect than that, whether or not you were lucky enough to see him play.

(There was also a dizzy comment from somewhere behind me about the general state of refereeing, citing that 60% of major decisions are wrong (no citation), it’s getting worse (ditto) and that there should be three experts with buzzers in the stand making calls for the officials on the pitch.  Unclear as to whether Simon Cowell or Louie Walsh should be amongst these judges.)

5- An “ooooh” and an “aaaah” to conclude.  “Ooooooh” at the tantalising prospect of a season of Abdi, Töszér and the louche Riera in midfield… far from guaranteed for next time round, but such fun just to think about.  “Aaaaah” when you look at the League table, realise that even merely holding on to the lead on Saturday would now have seen us a mere five points off with that there game in hand, and realise that you don’t really need to be very good to finish sixth this season.  OK, but not great.  And we’re much better than that.  Given that not us then Bournemouth, obviously, in preference to any of the other cheap punks and chancers up there.  But given the strength in our squad – Bond, Belkalem, Hall, Hoban, Doyley, Merkel, McGugan, Battocchio, Pudil, Ranegie, Forestieri is a more than viable eleven that didn’t start – we should really have put in a more convincing challenge this season.  Shouldn’t we?

Watford 1 Burnley 1 (05/04/2014) 06/04/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- I was reckless with my routine today.  Trains instead of cars.  Mexican food with Dad instead of the pub.  When to experiment if not in such circumstances, with the season all but over.  And as the match kicked off, with the spring weather equally unsure what to make of itself things began to shake themselves out rather well.  With Lewis McGugan prominent – this was as effective and dynamic a 45 minutes as I’ve seen him put in in yellow – we looked bright and positive in the early exchanges… kicking towards the Rookery with Sean Dyche presumably having advised flipping the ends.  Ten minutes in we were ahead… the irrepressible Deeney latching onto Pudil’s pass and belting us into the lead.  We got a break… a deflection off Jason Shackell’s thigh looked critical in lifting the shot over Tom Heaton;  everything Troy strikes is going in at the moment.  Minutes later… another break, what looked like a tight offside call denied Burnley a decent equaliser, Barnes attacking the near post to convert Treacy’s cross.   A deflected goal and a tight offside within minutes – perhaps it was going to be our day?

2- Burnley’s disallowed goal was greeted with a rousing rendition of “One Stuart Attwell” from the Rookery.  Coming hot on the heels of the inevitable mock-celebration in response to the first shot drifting wide of the Clarets’ goal this briefly suggested that the much-discussed first return of Attwell since the ghost goal of 2008 would be commemorated with sarcasm and wit rather than ire and red-faced barracking.  That it didn’t prove that way was in no small part down to an erratic display from the official, albeit that the only decision that had the potential to directly impact the outcome was, if failure it was, down to Attwell’s assistant.  Which sounds familiar.  That call got the visitors on his back and he was never going to get much leeway from the home end… both sets of supporters were on his back as he left the pitch at the interval.  By that time Cristian Battocchio was off the pitch – stretchered off with what looked like a serious knee injury as he fell badly after a collision.  Nothing wrong with the challenge… but criticism perhaps for the failure to allow trainers on quickly for what always looked more than just another knock.

3- Battocchio was a big miss for the rest of the game. Faced with the absence of two prolific strikers Sean Dyche had selected his only available forward – target man Ashley Barnes, who remains as respectful of the rules of engagement as Beppe is of the boundaries of his technical area – in front of a five man midfield.  This begged the question… do Burnley score a lot of goals because of Ings and Vokes, or do the forwards score a lot of goals because of the players they’re playing in front of?  The truth appeared to be somewhere in between, for whilst Burnley on the day could be summed up as “a striker or two short of a very good side” and struggled to turn their possession into clear cut chances, they didn’t look blunt and, as one would expect from a Dyche side, were utterly single-minded and focused on their task.  The significance of Battocchio’s departure was that we lost that chasing-the-ball-down thing that was proving so helpful in disrupting a heavily loaded Clarets midfield before the break.  Abdi was selected to replace him, Murray perhaps the more obvious like-for-like choice.  Great to see Almen back on the pitch, and if this really is it then nobody’s going to object to giving him time to play himself back to fitness, to test his injury.  In the context of the game however, a midfield pairing of McGugan and Abdi in front of the Kaiser suggests domination of possession, and that was never the case here despite us creating vastly the better chances.

4- And create the better chances we undoubtedly did. McGugan had a half-volley pawed round the post, Deeney drove narrowly wide, Ranégie nearly got his head to a wicked cross in a first half during which we were much the better side.  At the start of the second Burnley got hold of the ball and had us chasing them as they switched possession across the midfield, visibly attacking the gaps behind the wing backs with Michael Kightly’s direct running and tendency to force a pressured decision out of a defender evident.  There wasn’t an awful lot to show for it though… the odd set piece, some borne of a genuine foul some not although as Paul was to point out afterwards decisions against the visitors were equally arbitrary – in this respect at least Attwell couldn’t be accused of not being consistent. The Hornets, however, still had a goal in them and threatened on the break… Daniel Tözsér strode around the midfield sweeping passes around with the flourish of an artist brandishing a paintbrush.  Abdi inevitably looked a little rusty but soon reminded us what we’d been missing, not least when he dispossessed an opponent and released Anya – switched up front to chase the spaces behind the pressing Clarets – with a perfect ball that demanded intervention from Tom Heaton.  The keeper came out  to deal, was beaten to it by the Scottish/Romanian/Nigerian winger/wingback/striker who prodded the ball past him and clipped goalwards… with just a smidgeon too little power, permitting a dramatic goalline clearance from former Hornet Chris Baird.

5- My younger daughter is four.  At storytime she delights in re-hearing one of a limited number of favourites, even if we read it the previous evening.  And the evening before. (In some cases – such as that of “Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy” – the scope for silly character voices make this tolerable; in others – “Evie and her bloody Magic Ponies”, this means you – less so).  Elder daughter – seven – rolls her eyes, demanding greater variety.  I can cope with the whimsical demands of a four year old, but am less able to respond calmly to this same old story being played out in front of us at Vicarage Road.

It should be acknowledged that the visitors did play a role.  They had turned up the pressure a little, inevitably, and threatened for the first time… Brian Stock’s free kick from wide on the right was whipping inside the post until Abdi’s forehead intervened.  From a corner, Ben Mee’s header was clawed out of the top corner by an astonishing Almunia. Worth noting, too, that it’s tempting to attribute every late goal to our inability to concentrate for the full ninety-plus-whatever.  Sometimes opponents do just score late goals.  In context, however, this was a complete pain in the arse… Scott Arfield, a fringe player at Huddersfield and an odd-looking recuit by Dyche in the summer, hit his eighth in the season, turning sharply in the box and driving low past Almunia, who got a hand to it but not enough.

And so are stamped out the dying embers of our season. Before the game, as for the last few months, the margin we needed to close – eight points behind sixth with a game in hand – was not beyond the realms of possibility.  What prohibited it was our continued inability to string a run together, our inability to see leading positions out.  So it proved again – although that final realisation aside it was a fine afternoon.  Excitement, drama, some fine performances in yellow and good portents for next season albeit there’s work to do and some bloody-mindedness to find.

But no promotion. Not this time.