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Watford 0 Ipswich Town 1 (21/03/2015) 22/03/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. If you’ve hung around on the anti-establishment end of the football-supporting spectrum for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with the argument that the game’s unfettered capitalism inevitably leads to wealth concentrated in the hands of a few super-clubs, to predictable and repetitive pseudo-competition and, eventually, to the erosion of the spectacle and its value. (If you haven’t hung around on the anti-establishment end of the football-supporting spectrum, I saw you sneaking out halfway through that sentence.) In other words, the rich get richer, the rich beat everyone else ad infinitum, everyone gets bored and wanders off. It’s like when the inevitable winner starts putting hotels on everything in a game of Monopoly: sooner or later, someone’s going to throw the board up in the air….

Appealing as it is, that argument has always looked a bit shaky on closer inspection. At the point where two broadcasters are prepared to pay five billion pounds for the right to broadcast the Premier League, it falls apart altogether. This is, after all, a league in which the only contest consistently going to the wire in the top half is the race for fourth place rather than first; the absurdity of the equation was nicely summarised by an Arsenal fan a couple of months back, who commented that “we need to get knocked out of the Champions League in order to concentrate on qualifying for the Champions League”. Meanwhile, the standard further down can be measured by the fact that there are apparently three teams worse than Sunderland. No, seriously. Stoke City are eighth. Five billion, y’say?

Thing is, it’s a bit of a naive argument. The harsh reality is revealed, as it often is, by Richard Scudamore (boo, hiss, etc) on the relative decline of Manchester United: “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places.” Perhaps even more notable than that quote is the unmistakeable sense of regret and resignation in the following statement: “…you have to balance that off against, generally, we’re in the business of putting on a competition and competition means people can compete.” Yeah, sorry about that. Excuse us. The truth is that beyond the traditional, old-fashioned band of fans embracing their clubs life-long through thick and thin, there are millions who just want to watch their team win everything, always and forever…and they’re where the money is. It’s always been a bit like that, but never quite like now. Let’s face it, it’s so much easier to market a product with a reliable set of outcomes, with a set of Super Sunday fixtures you can plot out years in advance.

In which context, this Championship title race feels like a glorious throw-back, a last day of summer. Because rest assured that ever-increasing parachute payments will see an end to this kind of chaotic nonsense eventually. But for now, there’s this thrilling dash for the line, all flying elbows and pulled hair and fraying tempers. The adrenaline rush kicks in, opens up your senses to every detail. The tension gnaws away. It’s one of those times when the momentum of it all seems to consume everything, when the gaps between games can’t speed by quickly enough, when an international break seems like a spoken-word interlude in the middle of “Teenage Kicks”.

It’s bloody brilliant, this. It’s what football is about. I love this division.

2. But not as much as I’d love it if we won the damn thing.

3. So…here we are. The stage is set: four sides of Vicarage Road nearly full, a packed away section full of cascading inflatables and rowdy songs, home stands eager and expectant. There’s the inescapable sense that we really do have to do it this time, that this has to be the season. No excuses.

We begin with the intensity of a side brimming with confidence, looking to drive forward on the momentum of previous victories. Last time I saw us, we approached the contest as if suspicious that someone might’ve booby-trapped the halfway line; this time, we look determined, aggressive, potent. We take the initiative, shove Ipswich rudely back into their half and largely keep them there, relentless in our pressing from Deeney and Ighalo backwards. It isn’t terribly pretty, but that’s the thing: we’re not bothered any more, we can handle ourselves when the need arises, the naivety has gone. For half an hour, we actually look like a team that’s top of the league.

Oh, I know what you’re going to say. And it’s true that we had little to show for it, just a magnificent shimmy-and-drive from Guedioura and a few fleeting quarter-chances, mainly courtesy of progress made by Layun and Motta on the right-hand side. Ipswich, an industrious side built in the foothills of Daryl Murphy, were making us work for everything. But we were responding to that, stepping up to the challenge. For once, this felt like a proper, old-fashioned Championship contest – physical, tough, uncompromising, thoroughly McCarthy-ish – that we weren’t necessarily destined to lose. We lost it anyway, of course.

4. If there was a turning point – of the match, hopefully not of the season – it was the five minute break in play for a horrible injury to Joel Ekstrand. His replacement, Gabriele Angella, was almost immediately booked for an, um, assertive aerial challenge on Murphy…and suddenly it all got very tetchy and irritable, a series of inconsequential decisions going against us to disproportionate outrage in the stands. We lost our concentration amid the hullabaloo, we lost the initiative and the momentum. We didn’t get any of them back.

I’m trying to avoid turning Ipswich into a caricature, but there was no question that a scrappy and fragmented game suited them better. In the fifteen minutes to half-time, our passing game collapsed, the midfield disappeared, and our opponents took something of a stranglehold on proceedings, albeit that their threat was generally confined to set pieces. It didn’t get a lot better after the interval: tellingly, it took less than quarter of an hour for Slav to make his first move, replacing Daniel Tozser with Ikechi Anya. Tozser was one of several to disappoint here, failing to keep his head in a game where quality was scarce and the ball was precious; Guedioura was similarly inconsistent and profiligate, and thus Ben Watson’s water-carrying was often wasted by someone carelessly dropping the bucket and tipping it all into the gutter. Troy Deeney’s frustration was very evident on more than one occasion.

5. (This thunk doesn’t really fit into my little story. But it has to be put in somewhere or an injustice is being done: Tommie Hoban is wonderful. Perhaps even more wonderful at left-back than in the centre, for out wide you can see him earnestly grappling with fresh challenges, getting to grips with something new and relatively unfamiliar. Much like Lloyd Doyley, you could almost see the thought bubble over Varney’s head – “Fancy my chances against this bloke” – and chuckle at the subsequent frustration as Hoban refused to yield. It’s great to watch.)

6. As Matej Vydra replaced Miguel Layun, we began to throw caution to the winds. Increasingly, we threw the ball to the winds too, to little effect. The changes didn’t help us, in truth, even though we dominated possession: Anya was swiftly shoved into a broom cupboard, Layun, while frustrating, had been taking up useful positions looking around the corner of the Ipswich back four, Motta’s legs were too tired to make any use of the spaces ahead of him. You’re never going to beat a side like Ipswich with crosses from nearer the halfway line than the by-line. You’re unlikely to beat them with a flick-on from your big bloke to your little bloke either, although I accept that there are times when you might as well try.

Guedioura smashed a volley wide from a very tight angle, and in most games it would’ve barely registered as a chance; here, though, it was our first shot of the half and we wondered whether we might not manage a second. It was that tight, that difficult. Ipswich were perhaps more likely at the other end, Gomes producing the best save of the game – only two candidates, mind – to push wide Sears’ low drive. And then, the moment: Deeney flicking a cross towards a flying Ighalo, the ball flashing over the bar in an instant, the striker flat on his face, the chance gone. That was it. That goes in, and no-one cares what the game was like. That goes in, and we’re top of the league for a fortnight.

7. Injury time, and everyone rightly howls at Matej Vydra for taking a short free kick when, really, it’s time to launch it and hope for the best. When we get another free kick, then, we do the sensible thing and chuck it forward while completely forgetting to do the other sensible thing and leave enough cover behind to prevent Ipswich from breaking and winning it at the death. I don’t really think there’s much to say about that, except to note, perhaps unnecessarily, that a point from a rather spirit-sapping nil-nil draw might’ve come in awfully handy at the end of the season. We lost our heads, simple as that. I like the manager’s reaction an awful lot, I must say: reminiscent of one of those occasions when you’d come back hurting from a defeat and find that Ray Lewington was being reassuringly straightforward and sensible about it, that he’d seen exactly what you’d seen.

Your archetypal Championship food fight, then. Two teams pelting slop at each other until exhaustion sets in. I can hear the people saying that we should rise above it, make our quality count, all that kind of thing; it’s a fair point but, in return, I ask how often that actually happens in this division. I suggest that it doesn’t, by and large, and that’s because Ipswich weren’t rubbish, far from it. They were effective, organised, extremely difficult to play against. There were things we could’ve done better, true, but they were little things, moments that could’ve been made to count for more.

Sometimes you’ve just got to scrap it out. Sometimes nil-nil isn’t a terrible result.


1. Marc - 22/03/2015

Watching the game i felt that we were desperately needing a Fernando or an Abdi, someone who could play make and keep the ball on the ground. As it was, without either, we played their long ball game – hoofing up and hoping for the best.

It was such a shame as there were moments of brilliance, but Ekstrand’s injury really did, to use a cliché, take the wind out of our sails.

Ultimately though, it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts.

Ian Grant - 23/03/2015

Yes, I had the same thought…and then I remembered how effectively Blackburn managed to shut out Abdi and figured that Ipswich would’ve found a way to do the same. One of those games when you need something special, a moment of good fortune or a soft goal from a set piece to break the stalemate. (Or your opponents getting carried away in the last minute.)

2. Goldenboy60 - 22/03/2015

I have to say that Mick McCarthy from their point of view got this brilliantly right. They stopped us playing, plugged the holes and stopped the service into our front 2. When we did have a chance to play them in, Ipswich rallied and harried us further up the field. They also kept the ball quite well at times amongst the huff and puff and physical intensity.

Of course we absolutely blew it at the end. NO words of comfort there, but then we don’t draw much anyway. I believe there will be so many twists and turns yet and it is important we just stay with the pack over Easter. EVERY POINT IS VITAL. I am very pleased with the signing of Matthew Connolly who seems to know the knack of getting promoted recently, and talking to people in the game is very well thought of. He could just be the difference in the end.

My ultimate concern is that if we don’t make it this year then I would imagine there will be a massive turn over of players this coming summer, and then picking up after another huge expectation and disappointment may be VERY VERY difficult.

But in the meantime I wonder how the Derby fans feel?

Whilst Eddie Howe undoubtedly has done marvels at Bournemouth, I do feel that he and Alex Neil are very arrogant. Would be nice to topple them. As for Mick, and having worked with him during his Millwall days, there is a man of intense honesty, integrity (remember him helping Bepe in his first match), and experience. He is as tough as old boots. Now can we be…..

Harefield Hornet - 23/03/2015

Howe has certainly schooled his team well on the art of winning penalties – I believe they’re into double figures!

3. Lincoln Hornet - 22/03/2015

Great read as always Matt and a much more balanced review than much of what was written in the Observer comments I read last night. Its amazing how each and every player can receive a score of between 1 and 10 out of 10 from different people ie. Many comments saying Hoban had a poor game!!
My question to you is a simple one, can you tell me if we are going up or not as I don’t think I can stand another 7 games of this sort of thing. I decided to abandon Geoff Stelling yesterday as I just couldn’t stand the pain of it all and when I returned at the death I was just in time to be told of the late winner!!
I’m going to Derby and Forest and will be at Sheff Wed last game come hell or high water but this sort of thing does nothing for wrinkles or high blood pressure. If we are eventually finishing in the top two give me a shout and I’ll just sit back and wait for the Champagne to chill but please let me know now if not and I can just climb into a box and come out again in August when we have our chance again. Looking forward to hearing from you. U ‘Orns

Ian Grant - 23/03/2015

Matt might be able to answer that one. He usually knows the answers to questions.

4. Wimborne Hornet - 22/03/2015

Great summary, proper football. I did start to get frustrated with our man Motta; for all his good running his final delivery was very poor, possibly on as many as 8 occaisions in the second half. He should have been given more options by his team mates but nevertheless he wasted a number of opportunities. Cathcart I felt had a fantastic game and was my m.o.t.m.

5. Roger Smith - 22/03/2015

What a fabulous report! The only thing you missed (as did the Football League Show) was when we broke four on three only to be undone by Guedioura holding onto the ball and being caught in possession.

The top sides seem to have our measure, so I hope we get automatic promotion, as I don’t fancy the play-offs.

6. sirhornet - 22/03/2015

Let’s take a lead from Slav. Accept the defeat and move on. 2nd with seven games to go is not a bad position.

7. SwindonDave - 22/03/2015

Rather spoilt my birthday celebrations in the Elton John Suite but we are still second, a 19,000 crowd and I’d much rather watch us play every week rather than a very pragmatic Ipswich.
We went for the win and we’ve got away with it recently, not this time.

8. James - 22/03/2015

“an industrious side built in the foothills of Daryl Murphy” – brilliant!

It’s reassuring to see Slav take responsibility. Hopefully he won’t fall into the Boothroyd trap of always gambling everything on the win. He’s gotten away win a few odd, shape-changing substitutions in the last few weeks, but they clearly didn’t work here.

9. HB84 - 23/03/2015

In re-considering the game I thought our manager made some strange decisions – but then again – he’s been doing that a lot with huge success. So here I just hope he doesn’t over-think sometimes.
And also we have got to where we are by NOT settling for a draw in games. A win or bust approach that was only let down by a small sense of precaution that as you say we can now and should now afford when at the top.
I guess Derby will tell us what this all means !

Ian Grant - 23/03/2015

Yes, fair point about not settling for a draw. I didn’t have a problem with the changes Slav made, even if they didn’t work. It was good to see us still being positive with fifteen minutes to go, still trying to win the thing. That doesn’t have to translate into outright desperation in injury time.

10. Wimbledonhorn - 23/03/2015

It’s our inability to beat any of the Top 8 sides (with the exception of Brentford) which greatly concerns me. We need to change that starting with the fixtures over Easter or our season will quickly unravel…

Ethelhorn - 23/03/2015

I agree it would be great to occasionally beat one or two of the teams around us but conversely doesn’t that mean they must be losing against weaker teams or we wouldn’t still be in the race ? also agree that it could well be an issue if we don’t go up automatically as we’ll definitely have to beat two of them to get promoted.

Can I also say what a ridiculous time to have an international break ? what am I supposed to do for the next two weeks without real football ?

11. Harefield Hornet - 23/03/2015

I take back what I said after the Wigan game about the intenational break coming at the wrong time. We need Abdi and Fessi back fit before we start the rest of the run-in. Strange how the irony of Ekstrands injury was lost on the Ipswich fans after their fury at Portman Road when he took out Williams. They didn’t appear to realise who it was until his name was read out during the substitution. Too busy playing with their inflatables I suppose?

12. Lloyd Arkill - 23/03/2015

I accept that with Abdi and Forest missing our choices were restricted, but can’t help thinking that Slav’s team selection set out to snuff out Ipswich’s threat and, as a result, we ended up playing the game on their terms.
Also re Layun, isn’t he supposed to be an attack-minded left back? When will we see him in this role?

13. Harefield Hornet - 23/03/2015

Agree – There’s a decent player in there somewhere trying to get out but at the moment in whatever position he plays he just seems to get closed down far too quickly as he adjusts to the chaos of the Championship. Hopefully better things will follow but at this crucial stage of what is a very sigtnificant season I wouldn’t play him at all.

14. Tony O - 25/03/2015

(Town fan, here)

Bravo, Grant – this is one of the best-written match reports I have seen in a very long time. Your generosity in identifying the areas in which Ipswich brought something to this game (rather than just the usual opposition-slagging) is praiseworthy.

This was one of the great knuckle-biting games of this season (although we’ve had quite a few!). Most Town fans would have settled for a point before the match. And, near the death, it seemed that Watford would (some might say should have) actually take all the points. You convey the excitement, frustration, adrenoline-rushes and exhaustion of watching such a game in marvellous fashion.

I sincerely wish you good luck with your remaining campaign. And thank-you, again, for such a good read.

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