Watford 3 Rotherham United 0 (24/02/2015) 25/02/2015Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. I’m currently reading Jim White’s “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids”, his account of coaching an under-fourteens team which includes his own son. It’s a modest book, and its modesty comes from self-awareness, and from its self-awareness comes a certain melancholy. For every amusing anecdote about dog shit or committee meetings, there’s a moment that’ll make you wince: if you’ve ever kicked a football in a park with goalposts for goalposts, your story is echoed here somewhere, your childhood hopes momentarily re-kindled and then extinguished once more, and your father’s with them. It’s a terrific book, and it captures something essential about football.
I wonder what my own dad thought as he endured my short-lived participation in organised football, his pale, shivering, short-sighted son brought off the sidelines, with reluctance on all sides, and pitched into the action with the unspoken aim of avoiding the ball at any cost. My only surviving memory – a single mental image, quite clear – is of doing something wrong near a touchline in Cassiobury Park and being shouted at by everyone for being useless. You couldn’t really argue with them, but, equally, I’m not sure I learnt anything from the experience. I moved on, football moved on; best for all concerned.
1a. One thunk down, four to go.
2. Probably best for all concerned if we move on from this fairly quickly too. A football match whose only redeeming feature was the three point reward at the end of it, like a pat on the head for a baby that’s successfully filled its nappy. It may not have descended to my level of embarrassed incompetence, but it made up for that amply with a clear-eyed determination behind its turgid exterior. Not accidentally turgid, this, but deliberately, obstinately, resolutely so. The evening’s most apposite summary came from Pete Fincham over to my left as first half injury time began: a dismayed wail of “WHOSE F***ING IDEA WAS THIS?”
3. The answer, of course, is that it was Slav’s idea. To play four central defenders across the back, Tommie Hoban charged with duties on the left and Craig Cathcart on the right, made a certain amount of sense and effectively countered what would presumably have been a main thrust of Rotherham’s attacks: what I will always think of as “scary big diagonals” in honour of Micky Adams*, launched repeatedly onto the shiny head of Conor Sammon. We nipped that in the bud, and entirely sacrificed our own threat down the flanks in the process. To all intents and purposes, the game was played in a thin stripe of pitch down the middle and the rest could’ve been used for additional seating to house those eager to take in such a rich spectacle.
It was an act of pragmatism so bloody-minded as to verge on dogmatic. The contrary part of me quite admires its sheer miserliness; the rest of me, which had to sit through the resulting football, feels much less generous. In truth, Rotherham did precious little to justify the special treatment: they were largely toothless up front, with a penchant for self-destruction at the back; every bit a side fresh from a five-nil thumping at the weekend and out looking for another. The manager will no doubt point to the result, but I suspect that most of those present would’ve fancied our chances with a side that set its own agenda.
4. So it was a curious game, except that curious makes it sound interesting and it really wasn’t that. It was curious in the sense that we’d done almost nothing to earn our half-time lead, basically just sitting in our own half and watching the enemy through binoculars until their sentry fell asleep. Aside from a Deeney snap-shot, our openings were entirely of Rotherham’s making, a defender falling over and a clearance rebounding back into the penalty area. We were set up to be a brick wall, albeit one which still managed to allow Arnason a completely free header from a corner for what should’ve been a prompt equaliser. That might’ve changed things. If you’re going to play a formation as miserable as this one, you’d really better not screw it up. As it was, the grumbling was mainly concentrated on the inability of either of our makeshift full-backs to take a proper throw-in.
5. Half-time was subdued. There was little prospect of an improvement, simply because we were doing the job we’d been set up to do; Rotherham gave no hint that they were about to stray from the script. And so it continued, with this grey, awful brutalism, the strewn litter of errors its only humanity. The result felt inevitable even before we scrambled a second from the scraps of Tozser’s monstrous free kick, an appropriately industrial path to goal, and then an opportunist third shortly afterwards as Rotherham fell into disarray. We’d suffocated the contest mercilessly, and now we brought it to an end.
You could’ve blown the final whistle at that point, really. Let everyone go home early. The rest felt deeply unnecessary, particularly the six minutes of injury time: Rotherham were so thoroughly beaten that they appeared to be time-wasting in order to save themselves further punishment and gave the impression of being extremely eager to make their excuses and hit the motorway. For our part, we toyed with them listlessly, Abdi blazing over the bar and then hitting the post late on. Chances at both ends, but the result had already been phoned in and chalked up. Even the final minute seemed to drag out forever, impatiently waiting for us to stop faffing about and take a goal kick in order that the referee could bring proceedings to a merciful and long overdue end.
6. That we are capable of so much more is undeniable. But that there are occasions when we still seem a little green, a little vulnerable, is evident from both our league position and our results against the teams around us. It’s clear from this evening’s, um, entertainment that the manager is prepared to let the ends justify some fairly ugly means, that he isn’t in the least afraid of public opinion or terribly interested in courting popularity. That he’s perhaps treating all opponents as equal in the hope of dealing rather more effectively with the better ones, the ones we’ll have to start beating if we’re to be promoted.
He’s a brave man. A wise one? We’ll see.
7. I recall someone saying that they wouldn’t fancy paying to watch Blackburn every week. Hmmm. (Raises eyebrow.)
* There was a photo somewhere, probably in When Saturday Comes, of Micky Adams clutching his tactics notebook during a game. Or maybe it was a story someone told. Or maybe I just imagined it. Anyway, Micky’s tactical notes consisted of three scrawled, erratically spelt words: “SCARY BIG DIAGONAL”. Whenever someone bombs a long cross-field ball onto their centre-forward’s head, I think of Micky Adams and his notebook.