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Watford 0 Cardiff City 1 (29/11/2014) 30/11/2014

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. I quite like Steve Claridge. I quite liked him as a player, the impression he gave of a Sunday League huffer and puffer who’d stumbled through the wrong door, the slight air of Pig-Pen from Peanuts. I quite like him as a pundit too: I’m genuinely interested in what follows his oft-used intro of “Listen, if you’re in that dressing room….” I like his insistence on sticking with an argument – his indignant tone reaching a fever pitch at which he comes to resemble Mark Kermode’s impression of Danny Dyer – long after those around him have got bored and started being facetious and contrary. I like the idea that grown-up people with actual money once looked at Steve Claridge and thought, “Yup, that’s my manager! He’s my man!” They really did, you know. For a bit.

More than anything, though, I find joy in his tactical analysis, I find comfort in its simplicity. For Claridge, the root of all footballing woe is a team that’s not “set up right”. Faced with such a spectacle, he manages to convey a sense of genuine despair at the wrongheadness of it all; he appears to take it all a little too personally, to the point where you wonder if you’ll one day see him fronting a charity ad for the victims of teams that weren’t set up right. (“This is Jamie Moralee. Jamie was once a happy young footballer with his future ahead of him…”) There was one rant about Middlesbrough during last season’s Football League Show that I suspect would still be going on, probably with tears and wringing of hands and direct eye contact with the viewers, if Manish hadn’t stepped in to intervene.

Not for Claridge the diagrams and dissections, then. Not for Claridge the detail and the specifics. Instead, I like to think of him as a missionary on a boat off the coast of an unexplored continent, gazing in wonder at what it might hold, ready to land and spread the good word. And one day, maybe, all teams will be set up right and there will be no more winners and no more losers.

Imagine. You may say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. And so on.

2. Except, of course, that it doesn’t really work like that. Even teams which are emphatically, decisively, definitely set up right can lose.

Allow me to demonstrate.

3. Because, aside from some quibbling about the selection of wide players, it’s pretty hard to argue with that line-up. That’s an extremely strong eleven, arguably the strongest pick of a strong squad, laid out as you’d naturally lay them out, three at the back and all. Reading through it as we walked up Vicarage Road, the statement of intent was clear: no more messing about. You asked for it, here it is.

We lost anyway. Funny old game, eh, Steve?

4. On a practical level – you know, facts and that – you can chalk our defeat up to a handful of factors.

For a start, if you can watch the goal without wanting to cover your eyes for shame, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. One of those for which the only sensible response is to stare blankly ahead and hope it goes away soon, like when there are drunk people on the Underground. One of those which isn’t really worthy of winning a game: a more appropriate outcome would be a stiff fine for bringing the game into disrepute and then we all move on. Even allowing for the fact that we didn’t win a single header against Kenwyne Jones all afternoon, it was an absolute nonsense.

You don’t get promoted if you concede goals like that. You lose games like this, and then you don’t get anywhere. Seventh sounds about right.

5. So, yeah, that bit. And the bit where we opened up the Cardiff defence decisively enough and just about frequently enough to have won two or three games. If you manage to smuggle Matej Vydra behind your opponents’ defence a couple of times, you don’t expect to end up with ‘nil’ against your name. There’s a long list of nearly moments, starting with Marshall’s save from Tözsér’s shot and the goal-line clearance from Deeney’s follow-up in the first five minutes, and ultimately ending with Forestieri hammering a drive wide after conjuring a rare gap late on.

In truth, we created plenty, particularly during a flurry of pressure early in the second half during which it seemed inconceivable – and yet, at the same time, increasingly conceivable – that we wouldn’t manage to score eventually. At the point when a defender sliced a Vydra cross against the inside of his own post, you started to feel that it might never happen. It didn’t ever happen. Not a lot of luck to blame in that, in all honesty: we didn’t make it happen, we missed the chances we made. Or perhaps ‘missed’ is the wrong word; we just didn’t make them count. We didn’t do enough.

6. So, yeah, that bit too. And the bit where nobody – really, nobody – played particularly well. If we were using the old BSaD scoring system, there’s nothing above a three, quite a lot below that…and picking a ‘man of the match’ is just a matter of finding the least worst of those available, or not bothering at all. Which, in a way, demonstrates the vast talent within this squad, since I’ve already pointed out that we should be frustrated not to have won. And now we’re getting to the point…

7. Away from the facts and that, you find the real cause for concern. Because for all that we should be kicking ourselves for dropping any points here, let alone all three, this was not the performance of a team about to seize its destiny, claim its place in history, or even (let’s not set our sights too high) dig deep and do better next week. It lacked – Matt’s word, and he’s right – conviction.

We began both halves brightly enough, so there’s clearly something coming from the dressing room. But that impetus gradually and inexorably fell away: in the first half, you could blame the goal for derailing us; in the second, we just faded as Cardiff revived having weathered the storm. In both cases, the visitors were the likelier scorers on the counter by the end of the forty-five minutes; the final half hour was especially bleak. More than anything, there’s no sense that we can bounce off the ropes. There’s no resilience, no real steel to reinforce us.

Don’t get me wrong: our football remains tidy and largely competent and occasionally rather pleasing. We continued to pass the ball until the very end…which, while irritating to those who’d like to see it knocked into the penalty spot at the first opportunity, is our way and plays to our strengths. No point in abandoning that just because we’re behind; I’ve no problem with the patient approach, no problem with a sideways pass while we look for an opening. That’s all fine.

But someone has to take the initiative, someone has to be more than just another cog in the wheel. And you look around, first to Troy Deeney, who looks terribly subdued. Then to Matej Vydra, who looks frustrated and tired. Then to Daniel Tözsér, who thumps another speculative drive into the middle of the Rookery as if that’s all he’s got. And so on, and so on. This is a team packed with players who can turn a game in an instant, but sometimes that takes a certain force of will as much as a cute pass.

8. We haven’t mentioned Graham Taylor yet, have we? The club’s ceremony for the great man and his newly-named stand is beautifully concise and perfectly judged: a guard of honour made of former players and staff, a presentation, a short speech, and that’s enough to cause most of us of a certain age to get a little misty-eyed. For much of the club’s history, that kind of pre-match build-up would’ve been hugely unfair on the current team, which probably would’ve been struggling against constraints that Taylor himself never had to deal with. Here, now, that simply isn’t the case: this is a team built for promotion, and more. It has nowhere to hide. 

What strikes me is that, much as we rightly celebrate GT himself, that guard of honour was full of players who wouldn’t have waited to get back into the dressing room to hear it from the manager. Wouldn’t have needed to, wouldn’t have wanted to. Players who’d have stood up and resisted when that was necessary. Players who’d have stood up and made something happen rather than let a game drift to a conclusion. Players who changed the course of games, one at a time, and wrote themselves into history in the process.

And that’s the benchmark, more now than ever. Nowhere to hide.

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Comments»

1. Simoninoz - 30/11/2014

Please can we skip November next year? 1 point from a possible 12 in 13/14 and 3 from 15 this time. The only person to do worse in November was Guy Fawkes.

2. Red - 01/12/2014

Not much to add, but I feel the next few games will be very interesting-either we will see a total surrender as against the game against Huddersfield last season, when the players demonstrated exactly how they felt with the manager and we gave an awful performance OR we will score four or five (we will of course concede at least one) and completely trash the opposition. Fulham?

3. Harefield Hornet - 01/12/2014

I hope it’s the latter! The odd thing is that we would have continued to paper over the cracks with better finishing. With the obvious exception of the the game at St Andrew we could have won 3 of the last 4 just as easily as we lost them.

4. Vaughn Smith - 01/12/2014

it all fels very reminiscent of this time last year. The current manager is even saying all the same things that GFZ said at the time…

When's it my turn to be gaffer? - 01/12/2014

But without his charm and all-round good blokeishness

5. JohnM - 02/12/2014

Ian’s last paragraph in the review says it all for me.
What worried me was not the missed chances (another day they would count), not the football (which, on occasions was quite decent) and not the individual performances (which, on other days, may have been enough). It was lack of conviction, the feeling of ‘ah, we’re not going to win this, we’ll just play out the last twenty minutes and go home.’ If the players had been spectators, they would have been wandering out of the ground ten minutes before the final whistle.


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