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Brighton and Hove Albion 0 Watford 2 (25/04/2015) 26/04/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

0. At Lewes station afterwards, I’m approached by an Albion fan who asks, in the tone of a teacher questioning a teenager about his sub-standard homework, “So what did you think of your performance today, then?”

I stare at him blankly for a few moments, eyes bloodshot and dazed, attempting to compose an intelligent response. I come up with this:

“I don’t know. I…don’t care. I just don’t care.

1. Perhaps we should just begin at the beginning. Perhaps we should treat it like any other match. Perhaps that’s best.

2. So, yeah, football and that. Normal things. Teamsheets and formations and kickoff and…oh heavens. We clearly have designs on being the more positive side from the off, brisk and purposeful as if chairing a meeting with a train to catch. Those designs last all of thirty seconds, the time it takes for Albion to make their first incursion behind Juan-Carlos Paredes and to require flying interventions from Angella and Cathcart. So much for settling the nerves.

Although Deeney brings the game’s first save with an angled drive, it’s against the run of play and the targeting of our wing-backs quickly becomes a theme: Paredes is lucky to survive a penalty shout shortly afterwards, having been caught out by Bennett again, while Anya becomes more isolated and more vulnerable as the half goes on. We’re exposed on the flanks and painfully short in midfield. It isn’t the game we wanted it to be. It isn’t enjoyable to watch…although, as it turns out, this is the relaxing bit.

3. Twenty-five minutes, then, and that’s enough for Slav. Anya off, Tozser on; fun and games over for a while. It takes barely a couple of minutes for that to work, as Tozser takes possession deep, Abdi burrows his way through the midfield, and we begin an attacking phase which, eventually, ends with Ighalo and Deeney turning some stray scraps into a vital, vital goal. A statement about the willingness of the head coach to take decisions, certainly: that’s been a crucial factor in this run-in, and any problems have been tackled with a dry, almost blackly theatrical dismissiveness. But also a statement about the unbelievable depth in our squad and the options we have available. Once again, as at Millwall, we’re in an entirely different league to our hosts in that regard.

4. We make it through to half-time, just about. I eat a Kit-Kat and Greg Rusedski comes on to encourage me to play more tennis. The rest is a blur.

5. I’ll shortly turn forty-five years old. There still seems like a preposterous amount of time before I’m allowed to retire and go to bed for a year with a massive box of chocolate biscuits and a good book, but there we are. It’s ten whole years since Adrian Boothroyd became the first Watford manager younger than me. It’s twenty years since absolutely nothing happened worth remembering in the mid-nineties. I think I might need reading glasses soon. I wish they’d bring back Lovejoy.

Among other things, reaching this ripe age appears to bring with it the sudden and inexplicable desire to watch football matches from sideways on. For reasons that I’ve never entirely grasped, this is considered to be a more suitable angle for the mature and educated spectator, allowing greater consideration of the game’s subtleties and tactical nuances without all of the unnecessary noise.

Perhaps that desire will seize me at any day. For the time being, however, I remain utterly wedded to the idea of being in an “end”, of having the team driving towards me as the game reaches its climax. Perhaps it’s a legacy of watching Graham Taylor’s teams tip the pitch up and pound down the hill as if on horseback. Who wouldn’t want to be the movable object to that unstoppable force? But perhaps it’s days like this too.

Goals aren’t about sides. Thrown-ins are about sides. Goals are about ends. Football is about ends.

6. Of course, there is a downside. The bits where your team’s hanging on for dear life are never more painful than when viewed from a pitch-length distance, every loose bounce and random ricochet looking like they’re the moment when it’s all going to come crashing down. When the team’s far out of reach of your encouragement and the illusion of control it brings, when the thing you’ve been feverishly obsessed with all week is happening a hundred yards away and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s like being shown a live video link of an operation to save your right arm. It’s bloody awful.

There are points during the second half here, as we sink ever deeper to protect our precious lead, where it feels almost physically impossible to remain in place, peering into the middle distance as another Brighton attack stutters into life. It’s too much. Every muscle tensed, teeth grinding, mouth dry, hands clenched together, nausea rising, blood pressure off the scale.

Your attention is so tightly focused that you start to lose any perspective, any sense of before or after. Things flash in front of your eyes. Corners, crosses, blocked shots, a header that apparently only misses the bottom corner by virtue of hitting a bit of a sandy patch and spinning around the post like an off-break into the rough just evading the outside edge. Abdi wasting a shooting opportunity, Vydra wasting a shooting opportunity, Forestieri wasting a shooting opportunity. Cathcart, Angella and Deeney all booked for crude hacks on escaping players. Guedioura booked for a pointless, reckless elbow; God knows how we’d have coped with facing the last few minutes with ten men. Deeney playing as if willing to drag each and every one of his colleagues across the finishing line by their hair if he has to.

The scoreline remains the same. The clock appears to be broken. It’s bloody awful. Perhaps it’d look better from the side after all. Perhaps it’d look better from the sodding car park.

7. But football is about ends. Football is about waiting for moments that might never arrive, about playing them through in your imagination over and over, about being there to see if it happens…and then finding Matej Vydra taking what seems like an age to control the ball, threatening to let that moment slip away, and then sliding it calmly into the bottom corner before the whole world turns yellow and red and inside out and upside down. It’s always better than it was in your imagination. You want words, but I don’t really have them. There aren’t words in that moment, just the release of months of tension in ten seconds. Just a hurricane, just obliteration.

There’s a version of this game in which we scored the second some time around the sixtieth minute and cruised through the rest against tired opposition. That’s the version which didn’t involve turning everyone in the away end into an emotional wreck. It’s also the version without that moment. It probably took years off our lives; it certainly felt like it. Who wants to live forever anyway?

8. In the olden days, there’d have been nothing for it but to find a pub and toast victory until a different kind of obliteration. Instead, I’m at home by four, drinking in tea and fresh air outside the back door. For all that there are other games in progress, it feels as if the job was done earlier in the day; it feels like someone’s put the support bands on after the headline act. Let Middlesbrough and Norwich do their worst. Sod ’em. I’m wrung out, drained and buzzing. It’s done.

A brisk southerly blows thick fog in from the sea, and with it the sound of distant waves and people playing on the beach. Somebody’s hammering in the allotments beyond the garden fence. Seagulls glide around in the mist. Peacefully, contentedly, the world goes about its business.

It’s hard to believe that it really happened.

But it did.




Watford 1 Birmingham City 0 (18/04/2015) 19/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- We’ve not half had some games against this lot.  Some will remember victory in the Cup in 1960…  Cliff Holton helping the fourth division newly-christened Hornets to knock top-flight Blues out in front of 31,000 at the Vic.  In 1984 perhaps the most impressive single result of our run to the Cup Final came at St Andrews; Ron Saunders’ aggressive side came into the game on the back of a twelve-match unbeaten run in the top flight and had the majority of a 40,000 crowd behind them.  John Barnes ripped them to bits.  In 1999 a play-off semi-final concluded with an epic penalty shoot out that resulted in our second trip to Wembley.

That night at St Andrews was extraordinarily tense, a ferocious night of football.  We’d lost our one-goal first leg advantage within two minutes and battled against the tide from then on. The presence of Loz alongside me that evening achieved the impossible in making an already frantic evening all the more anxious… he articulated all of our fears and radiated them back at us, exaggerating them through reinforcement with clenched fists and terrified eyes.  A more occasional visitor to the Vic these days, Loz was behind me in the Rookery again this afternoon…  as the Vic drifted frequently into simmering spells of anxiety in the sunshine Loz was once again giving a voice to the gremlins in everyone’s head…  “ohhhhh god”, “not there….”, “we need to score”, “so tense…..”, “Nooooo….”, “Aaaaaaaaaaargh…..”.

2- That tension was briefly evident on the pitch too, at least initially, and never more clearly than when Cathcart clouted into touch a speculative cross that Gomes had come to claim.  Ultimately, the greatest impact of such incidents was on the mood off the pitch which, as already described, became edgy  as soon as the clarion call of the magnificent flag display had died down.  It was only after the final whistle in the way towards the concourse that it was pointed out that Blues offered very little threat throughout…  it hadn’t felt like that.  Certainly, however they set up to contain and obstruct and grab what they could on the break and if, ultimately, that threat was theoretical in practice they certainly did the destructive part of their job well enough.  It wasn’t until midway through the half when Guedioura, off beam in the opening spell, settled down a bit and Birmingham were increasingly penned back and resorting to clubbing clearances towards Donaldson that we began to look the better side.  Matej Vydra crashed a shot against the bar… from the Rookery it looked for all the world as if that had gone in, replays of the volley rebounding smack back off the woodwork incompatible with what had happened in our mind’s eye, the celebrations took a while to be abridged and bemusement reigned thereafter.  There are several templates for these games against midtable sides… on Wednesday we saw “nothing to lose, something to prove”.  Here we saw a side with no reason to do anything but make life difficult for us.  At half time they’d done just that.

3- Ten minutes into the second half Slav made a couple of changes and instigated a change in shape… that flexibility in formation that we now almost take for granted is serving us so well.  How many times in years past have you looked at a game and not been able to see a way out, not been able to see a way to change things?  Our squad gives us options of course, rich options, but that ability to change our shape almost – not quite – effortlessly is a huge benefit.  Layún on the left of midfield had again looked nimble and willing and elegant and not quite worked.  Anya as wing back made hay for his first ten minutes on the pitch, a new weapon in a different role.  His brilliantly assertive run in behind demanded a pass from Deeney, he dinked a gorgeous cross into a crowded box from the left and Craig Cathcart, surely an outside bet for Player of the Season, executed a quite brilliant scissor kick that won the game.  Just as Chris Holland’s failure from the penalty spot in 1999 instantly released waves of pent-up tension, the celebration of this goal was inflamed by relief as much as by the brilliance of the finish (that’s a centre half , that is).  In reality we hardly pummeled Blues for the rest of the game but we remained in control and made a few chances… Angela met Abdi’s cross almost immediately but couldn’t get high enough over it, Guedioura screamed in down the right but shot when he should have squared.  Off the pitch, everything had changed.  The furrowed brows and anxiety were replaced by songs and fists in the air and a few of those flags again and kids standing on chairs and screaming.

4- Through all of which, one figure dragged us onwards.  During the iffy nervy bits he was back in the box at set pieces and getting stuck in.  On the attack he was extraordinary, taking on all comers and tanking across the pitch often hauling woebegone markers in his wake.  Troy has failed to score against his boyhood club this season but has tormented them nonetheless… we dismissed Birmingham’s attacking threat earlier on in the report, but his inhuman ability to hold the ball up buys the defence time and relieves pressure.  He remains the most vital component of the team and was utterly unplayable today.  Let’s never take him for granted.

5- The whistle blew to great relief, much as we’d spent the four minutes of added time playing a comfortable game of keep-ball down by the corner flag.  News that Bournemouth had come from behind to take the lead late in the game against Sheffield Wednesday was treated philosophically; they’ll do what they’ll do and it doesn’t really matter.  We win our last two games we go up, it’s that simple. Still in our control, job done today, on to the next one.  The acknowledgement of the team was long and noisy, but gradually we detached ourselves from the Hornets collective and resumed our individual consciousness.  There’s a point at which this happens… probably when you move from your seat and edge down the stairways towards the concourses and thither back to the rest of your life.  Your mind enters contemplative mode, reflecting on the new reality given the day’s results and then towards your plans for the rest of the day.  Loz had hot-footed it towards Watford Junction at the final whistle.  My mind was on meeting Dad at the top of Occupation Road.

So the epilogue to the afternoon was its highlight, outstripping the bravado before the game and the crazy celebration to Cathcart’s goal.  In the busy concourses it became clear that the game at Bournemouth hadn’t finished,  crowds were dawdling beneath the Sky screens for final confirmation.  Then news of Sheffield Wednesday’s penalty award sucked everyone in.  Suddenly nobody was moving, nobody at all, and we were sucked together once again into a collective consciouness.  Not for over 25 years has reading Paul Walsh’s body language been of any interest, but here we were trying to judge how the penalty had transpired.  For a second the collective consciousness was fooled, surely the celebration in the stands behind Walsh indicated a missed opportunity, Cherries celebrating.  Until someone, somewhere, with an alternative source of information breaks the tension.  “They scored!”.  Then, this.

The philosophical angle went out the window pretty sharpish as you might imagine. Eyes were glowing, strangers were slapping each other on the back. Here’s the deal, then. If this team, this team that has risen above the anxiety in the stands in indifference to pull out yet another result having solved yet another conundrum and pulled out another stunning goal to do so, if this team wins at Brighton next Saturday we will be four points clear and disappearing over the horizon by the time any of our rivals take the field. It’s in our hands, in our control.

Bring it on.

Nottingham Forest 1 Watford 3 (15/04/2015) 16/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- A professional in the field – and not a football fan – once told me that attending a football match is one of the most “mindful” things you can do.  “Mindfulness”, in this sense, denoting the focusing of one’s attentions entirely on something real and current – something you can feel, see, hear, thus not allowing space for stressing about stuff.  This is supposed to be healthy, a Good Thing, and I don’t doubt that football serves and has served that purpose for many.

Any broader suggestion that watching football is good for your mental health might not have found great support in the aftermath of this victory, however.  Once the boisterous celebration, exploding with relief at Almen Abdi’s late third goal and extending for many minutes after the final whistle, had died down all that was left was a sort of human detritus, a zombie band of 2000-odd Hornets  drawn and battered by the events of the previous two hours on top of the days, weeks and games that preceded them.  Elated, certainly.  Back slapping and grinning in the concourse.  But always with a slightly unhinged look in the eyes.  Much talk about which of the four clubs will hold their nerve, who will be the first to blink when none shows a sign of blinking.  Forget the players, I wonder if the Canaries, Boro and Cherries fans are going through this glorious torment too?

2- Fortune had shone on us as we arrived in Nottingham.  The small private car park where we’d stopped a year ago was empty with its barrier up on the first pass but having done a loop we saw the proprietor opening up in time to duck in, less than an Heurelho Gomes throw from the away end and in plenty of time to beat what was soon to be an epic queue outside the Bridgford Fish Bar that would have made Fry Days’ equivalent look tame and half-hearted.

Luck played its part on the pitch, too, but only up to a point.  There’s nothing lucky about a clinical forward line, as we’ve discussed several times recently.  Nothing lucky about taking your chances.  Nothing lucky, either, about having a goalkeeper who has quietly – as quietly as a gregarious goateed Brazilian is capable of doing anything quietly – developed from being an athletic but excitable custodian to being a cornerstone of the side’s success, a leader and a daunting opponent.  He earned his corn this evening, as he has done more often than not recently… the first of what was to develop into a formidable string of vital and non-trivial stops came in the opening exchanges when Chris Burke found himself in space on the right of the area with the ball at his feet.  He should have scored, and would have done but for the massive keeper who hurled himself into Burke’s shooting window blocking out the light and deflecting the shot wide for good measure.

No luck there.  The luck, perhaps, was in our ability to engineer an opportunity to take the lead so quickly, before the anxiety inflated by that early exchange had a chance to fester.  As it transpired I completely missed it… from the back row of the lower tier of the Bridgford Stand at the far end of the pitch I had a pillar box view anyway, but Almen Abdi’s early corner coincided with the emergence of a group of Hornets emerging from behind the back row of seats which they’d attempted to use as a thoroughfare… I saw Ighalo reeling away as the away end, underneath a low roof, exploded.

3- Beyond that, I would contest, luck played little part.  The Hornets had the better of the half on balance but it was never anything other than an end-to-end battle in which both sides had plenty of both possession and opportunity.  For the Hornets, Cathcart headed over, Abdi was played clean  through but prodded wide, Guedioura drove over.  At the other end Gomes was forced into two or three sprawling saves, typically shots from distance  but struck with accuracy and purpose and through legs.  Buoyed by their advantage the away end was relentless, and just as nervous gaps started to wedge themselves between songs we went further ahead.

And what a fine thing it was.  Defensively we’re still making up our minds about Matt Connolly… he’s a big brute of a defender such as we’ve needed for a while, but has been caught once or twice more than you’d like, even allowing for settling in rustiness.  This goal, however, was a thing of chest-thumping magnificence…  he surged into an interception to snuff out a ball to Akpom on the edge of our box and didn’t break stride, charging comfortably half the length of the pitch in front of scattering opponents who too slowly realised that they ought to be closing him down rather than covering passing options,  before he fed Ighalo.  In truth his pass was slightly overhit, Ighalo made light of the issue and battered the ball goalwards.  Connolly, who had slowed up but not stopped moving, was there to pick up the pieces and provoked comparisons with Moses parting the Red Sea and “what rugby would be like if it wasn’t crap” in half time reflections.

4- At two-up it really should have been about quite how much we might win by.  Clear water between ourselves and a Forest side with nothing to play for, what can we do to our goal difference?  But hereby the inherent flimsiness in the assumption that games against such opponents at this stage will be easy that might be worth bearing in mind in terms of what may or may not or “will definitely” happen over the next few weeks.  Forest were reduced to ten men early in the second half, a skirmish that from our distant and very limited view could plausibly have been adjudicated either way for all that Dougie Freedman acknowledged the veracity of the decision… and yet the home side didn’t lie down as we seemed to struggle, suddenly, to capitalise on what should have been an unplayable two-goal and one-man advantage.  The home side pulled a goal back… Cathcart conceded a free kick on the edge of the box, Gardner curled the ball over the wall and under the bar, an admirable feat… and yet perhaps, on the replay, close enough to Gomes that you’d hope that he’d get a finger to it. We had no sense of this at the time, our heads were in our hands.

5- So this was a massive result on several levels.  Bottom line, of course, the three points, sure, given.  But beyond that proof of the unshakable single-mindedness of this squad.  A huge challenge laid down by Bournemouth, Norwich and Boro on Tuesday night as we all stamped grumpily around our kitchens lamenting the collective failings of Leeds, Reading and Wolves.  All the pressure, all the focus was on us and Forest played the role of a fair-to-middling side with something to prove but nothing to lose to a tee.  And the squad came through it, came through the game and came through that iffy second half spell when Forest smelled blood bullish and defiant and roaring.  It shouldn’t have been in doubt, we’ve demonstrated our spirit in coming from behind so many times, but still hugely inspiring to see them not give a stuff about what had happened the night before.  Alex Neil had been unable to resist the temptation to put further pressure on Watford with a “let’s see if they’re up to this” kinda quote on Tuesday night.  Right back atcha Alex.  Yooooooooooorns.  Next?

Millwall 0 Watford 2 (11/04/2015) 12/04/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. “So, what are you reading at the moment, Ian?”

Well, it’s kind of you to ask, I must say. As it happens, I’m reading “The Nowhere Men” by Michael Calvin. It’s a book about football scouts and, as such, it spends much of its time deep in slightly impenetrable conversations with middle-aged blokes whose cars are probably full of empty pasty wrappers, who won’t get home until 4am after checking out a teenage left back at the other end of the country in exchange for an hourly rate far south of the minimum wage, and whose encyclopaedic knowledge and instinctive insight are no insurance against finding themselves out on their ear if the manager gets fired. Who, in essence, should be doing something else but can’t let it go.

It’s a tremendously rich and engrossing book. A book about people, fundamentally. I’ve often struggled to put it down. It’s fair to say that Calvin’s rather overwrought writing style can be hard work – yes, glass houses, yes – but the reward for some patience-testing descriptive passages comes in the form of vivid, memorable and sometimes affectionate portraits of many of the book’s subjects. Their opinions are often voiced candidly and relayed by Calvin with no small amount of respect and deference; they raise many complex issues in the process, and a few good stories too. Among them are several names of various vintages familiar to Watford fans: Jimmy Gilligan, Gary Penrice, Dean Austin; others with links to the club briefly flit into view and then disappear, testament to the ever-shifting landscape of modern football, and its accompanying lack of job security.

There’s another, more direct connection with today’s game, of course. Calvin was once a Watford fan but is no longer, having found himself drawn towards Kenny Jackett’s Millwall in the process of writing a fly-on-the-wall account of their 2009-10 campaign. In his words, “The club I grew up with at Watford has changed. It has lost the family spirit Graham Taylor did so much to nurture.” There are more holes in that argument than words in those two sentences, clearly, but I have some sympathy with it nevertheless: who among us hasn’t, at some point, looked at our club and wondered what the hell happened to Graham Taylor’s singular vision? Who could’ve made it through the Petchey years without a certain amount of soul-searching, for example, or continued to clap happily along as Nigel Gibbs was shoved out of the emergency exit without a parachute?

And now…? Well, I wonder. The club has undeniably changed – every club in orbit of the Premier League has, irrevocably – but much as Calvin justifiably decries the ruthless clear-out of an established scouting network, the Pozzo takeover strikes me as being a watershed of an altogether different kind. The team might be unrecognisable, the infrastructure entirely re-built, but the club feels stable and secure and, crucially, is being allowed to breathe and evolve. It isn’t the club that I grew up with either. Neither, however, has it become the soulless shell that its owners’ strongest critics had predicted; in simple terms, this is the most Watford-y Watford I’ve known without GT at the helm, the most in touch with a sense of community and history. Perhaps Millwall is indeed closer to the Watford of yesteryear, but if so, I fear those days are numbered: as Charlton fans have discovered, you need either to be further outside the top flight or further outside the M25 to avoid becoming someone’s pet project. Millwall are working on the first bit, I suppose.

2. That’s a bit of a shame, really. There’s no danger of me switching allegiance, but I’m fond of Millwall, in the kind of patronising, rose-tinted way that’s rarely welcomed by the objects of such affection. Today’s experience does nothing to change that: I like coming here. It’d be pushing the point to say that the New Den sparkles in the spring sunshine, but it feels like a much more comfortable, lived-in place than it did twenty years ago. The sparsely populated home stands are less than it deserves, but, perhaps, an accurate reflection of a team with neither confidence from which to build momentum nor quality with which to conjure up undeserved miracles. I bet this place must absolutely hum when it’s full. It barely murmurs today.

3. There’s a tension as we squint into the light. The unmistakeable tension of a season drawing to an end, of decisive moments to come. Suddenly, defeat seems unthinkable; a draw scarcely less of a setback. Suddenly, it really matters. Mistakes matter, goals matter; mistakes seem to matter more, somehow. We could be forgiven for being a bit tight and apprehensive, a bit lost in our thoughts; it certainly feels that way in the stands. We’re nothing of the sort, mercifully: the afternoon may have been considerably easier had Troy Deeney netted when clean through in the first minute but even so, we quickly banished any sense of being overwhelmed by the importance of the occasion.

4. Indeed, that was the first of a number of moments in which the game might’ve tipped decisively one way or another. Had we made more ruthless use of any number of breakaway opportunities, the scoreline might’ve properly reflected our technical superiority. Equally, had Millwall taken advantage of an ever-increasing number of half-chances, particularly once they’d gone two behind and taken a more direct approach, you sensed there might still have been something for them, even if a point was as little use to them as us. Neither of these things happened. Instead, the result feels like something of a compromise, a bit of a cop-out.

We’ve no reason to care about that, of course. As before, we back ourselves to make our quality count, to be more clinical than our opponents, to stick the ball in the net often enough to win. It makes for frustrating viewing sometimes: this particular ninety minutes was full to overflowing with moments where you felt that we might’ve done more, where we didn’t quite nail it, where we could’ve put the game beyond doubt and had some fun. We were sloppy and careless at potentially key moments too, most notably switching off at a free-kick just before half-time and relying on the first of an uncomfortable number of comfortable stops from Gomes. Were it not such an important fixture, you’d say that being punished for those lapses might teach us a valuable lesson. As it is, we’ll have ample opportunity for learning next term, if all goes well.

5. So it didn’t entirely satisfy, even if complaint seems churlish. And complaint seems particularly churlish given the two goals scored, each a pixel-perfect pass-and-move breakaway, each a superb example of the growing gulf in class between the top and bottom of this division. Such riches. Just look at that substitutes’ bench, for pity’s sake.

We were celebrating the first almost before it had connected with Matej Vydra’s boot: the ball from Iketchi Anya was just so, Vydra’s body shape left nothing to accident, the keeper was beaten already. Wallop. The second was a pure joy, a moment where it all slots together into place, just like it does on the training ground. Here to there, inside, across, and there we go. Both goals where you don’t even see the opposition shirts, rendered irrelevant by the precision of it all. You don’t have to be that good very often to win games at this level; once or twice will do it, provided you don’t self-destruct at the other end. We could’ve had more, probably should’ve had more, but the margin of victory seems about right. There isn’t a lot else to say.

6. For me, it’s telling that the assists for both goals came from Anya. I’ve commented before on Slav’s pragmatism, on his willingness to sacrifice style and entertainment for the hard currency of results. This, on the other hand, demonstrated his flexibility – an overtly positive selection in a game where he could’ve been forgiven for being a little more guarded – and he was rewarded with an ever-present and twice-realised threat on that flank.

But look deeper, look at the space Anya leaves behind him on his forward sorties, space that opponents have often exploited in the past. There, you find a thoroughly Doyley-esque performance from Tommie Hoban, refusing to yield to persistent Millwall pressure, targeted as a weak point throughout, spoiling and scrapping for all he’s worth, clouting the ball into the stands without ceremony; untidy and awkward and highly effective. He becomes a left-back when Anya makes way, and continues to make life difficult for his opponents until the last kick. We’ve been a silky, fluent attacking side before, one that missed out on promotion by not-very-much-but-enough. I wonder whether this silky, fluent attacking side has a bit more courage, a bit more fight in it. A bit more under the bonnet.

7. A job done, then. All the grown-up satisfaction of having tidied the shed without treading on a rake. A big fat tick in red marker pen next to the fixture list. A ten-second entry in the end-of-season highlights. A few curses uttered as Norwich score a late winner. And then thoughts turn to Wednesday already….

Watford 2 Middlesbrough 0 (06/04/2015) 07/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- In all honesty we were still sitting under tables recovering from the aftershocks of Friday’s drama.  We neither anticipated nor even dared hope for more of the same… and yet this was the perfect complement to the game at Derby, the ying to Friday’s yang.  Whereas that evening was wet and windy and dark and malevolent, the sun blazed down on Hertfordshire this Easter Monday lunchtime fooling a significant proportion of the overclad crowd in the process.  On the pitch, if Derby was a shootout between big guns today was a different challenge altogether, snipers dug in and ready for a siege.

Where the events were comparable, against expectation, was in the dizzying atmosphere.  Friday night was ear-ringing, thunderous, overwhelming…  but that was an away fixture in an evening kick off in front of 30,000 people.  Away crowds are supposed to make a lot of noise, that’s how it works (if not always quite to that degree)… the extra financial and emotional investment invokes a determination to enjoy yourself.  IMG_0945Home crowds aren’t the same, and Vicarage Road in particular is has struggled to match that atmosphere in recent years.

But today was different, and the 1881 deserve endless credit.  Not just for today actually, not just for the barricade of flags that made a roaring statement of support that made Boro’s “we believe” banner look a half-hearted cop-out, but for reinvigorating the club’s support and over the course of the season giving Vicarage Road its most boisterous away “end” since we switched to the Rookery in 1999 and unreserved seats were fixed in place.  The twenty-somethings that took the vanguard of the chorus line then are forty-somethings now…  and yet the 1881 have created something magnificent that’s transcended the middle-age spread.  Today was an event in itself, and a glorious thing to be part of.

2- The latest spin of the wheel saw Paredes in for the suspended Motta, Anya and Tözsér in for Vydra and Layún with no sign of Fernando Forestieri and the much-hoped for return of Almen Abdi restricted to the subs bench.  The first fifteen minutes were carnage… we’ve seen sides come to hound down our possession before, but few as aggressively or assiduously as in this opening period.  In an extremely congested midfield anything resembling possession was dragged off into a sidealley and clubbed mercilessly to death as Michael Jones, a referee whose sanctimonious “don’t you dare talk to me” posturing was matched only by his knack for looking in the wrong direction, looked in the wrong direction.  Boro were edging it, Ikechi Anya looking a vulnerability early on…. before sorting himself out and putting in a masterclass in “defending high balls as a small guy”.  Anya was involved in our own early forays, overlapping to chase a masterful throughball from Troy Deeney and only narrowly beaten to the ball by the alert keeper… but generally it was frantic, scruffy stuff.

3- In the context of which, the first goal was absolutely crucial.  Had Boro got it then for all our resilience and track record of clawing points back from losing positions you’d have had… concerns about how this would turn out.  But Boro didn’t get it.  Both sides had spells on top, Boro’s following a brief period where we reacted negatively to a dubious decision… Ben Watson appeared to be cleaned out when on his way through, the ref disagreed and we seemed to lose our focus a little, echoing the costly collapse against Norwich.  This time it wasn’t expensive, this time we regained our balance and pushed on.  Once again it was Adlène Guedioura, accurately described as “a machine” in post-match discussion, who provided the opening… the crowning moment of another performance that combined power and energy and determination and a quality that’s frankly far beyond what might the likes of Crystal Palace have any right to expect to find flattering Selhurst Park.  His wicked, arcing missile of a cross found Troy Deeney at the far post who dispatched expertly from a narrow angle to cataclysmic celebration.

Aitor Karanka was later to join the ranks of managers complaining about our strike threat as if it’s some kind of unfair advantage, like a twelfth player or a bribed referee.  Beyond dispute, however, was the inherent risk in Boro’s strategy…  if you’re going to try to close out a game and feed off the scraps you’d better have a Plan B to cope with the eventuality that one of the individuals providing that threat gobbles up a rare chance with trademark efficiency.  Deeney’s goal was quite brilliant, and it blew Boro out of the water.

4- With the benefit of hindsight the game ended at that point, it never felt like a fair contest thereafter.  The visitors came out fighting at the start of the second half but the suggestion of threat lasted a matter of minutes… our defensive shape was immaculate, with credit due to all of our defenders including the monstrous Connolly, introduced for Cathcart, and the peerless Tommie Hoban.  On the break we were always a threat with Anya and Guedioura tireless on the flanks and the rampaging Paredes as impressive as he’s been since the opening day of the season… the edge, the theoretical possibility of an equaliser was only dispelled midway through the second half when Odion Ighalo carved another brilliant goal out of a half-chance, taking out two defenders with a dummy before clubbing a shot into the top corner through the keeper’s fingertips.  It was rising as it hit the roof of the net, and the roof of the stadium raised with it.  What was left of the game was largely celebration…  Guedioura came close to grabbing the goal his performance deserved, improvising a devious volley over a crowded penalty area and demanding a brilliant stop off the unsighted Konstantopoulos, his fingers strong enough on this occasion.  In the dying minutes our defensive work lapsed for the first time, Kike breaking a suddenly flimsy offside trap but Gomes was equal to the striker’s effort, a terrific piece of goalkeeping – again, contrast to Friday when he was so involved… less so here, but he made the stop when he was needed.

5- A quite monstrous performance in all, on and off the pitch, that made the lazy line about how we have struggled against the better sides look like the load of old tosh that it always was.  Looking at the ridiculous state of the top of this division, an outsider might be fooled into believing that there’s a lack of quality… no outstanding teams, just a load of so-so sides competing to finish top of an unimpressive bunch.  How else do you justify the number of sides going hammer and tongs at the top?

But the remarkable thing about the division is that the quality is there.  Any of the top eight…  including Mick McCarthy’s drifting Ipswich, let alone Boro, might justifiably have expected to gain promotion in any “normal” season, certainly each of the eight appears a match for sides that have gone up automatically in the past.  The standard is extraordinarily high, and whilst we’re not top of the league we’re matching what anyone can offer.  We’ve come through The Weekend That Would Test Our Promotion Credentials with four points having come from behind with ten men away from home and then beaten the table-topping side comprehensively less than three days later.  There’s a terrifying ferocity about this Watford side now.  Any side wanting to stop our progress is going to have to go some.  Boro simply weren’t up to it, and a reprise of their disappointing showings at Bournemouth and here when they visit Norwich in ten days time is likely to simplify the automatic promotion race to two from three.  On the evidence of this weekend, we have absolutely nothing to fear.  Bring it on.

Derby County 2 Watford 2 (03/04/2015) 04/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- As dramatic set pieces go, this was hugely impressive. For the Hornets, a weekend that’s approach has long been monitored. For the Rams, on the back of an awful recent run but reinforced by the returns of George Thorne at the back of the midfield, Chris Martin on the bench, perhaps a last chance to reclaim involvement in the automatic promotion shake up. For both, a match that has been given almost a fortnight’s clear run up. For once, television added to the drama by invoking an evening kick off and so the darkness was falling and all light and focus sucking into the Stadium Formerly Known as Pride Park like a spotlight. From inside, a vast distance up but not back from the pitch in the hugely steep stand, it was as if the world’s attention was on this and this alone. Certainly, for the 30-odd thousand inside the ground, the rest of the world might as well not have existed for a couple of hours.IMG_0929 This is part of the attraction of attending football matches of course. The wresting of every millimetre of attention from the rest of the annoying, distracting, preoccupying bullshit that clutters your consciousness and drains your energy. Clearing your mind, just for a few hours. We were in the ground long before kick-off and the suffocating tension was thick enough to smell, visible on every face, in every pair of shoulders, deep in each pair of eyes. Afterwards, after the drama that captivated and battered every soul in the stadium into submission and lived up to every inch of its billing, supporters on both sides will have been utterly drained whether high on adrenaline or otherwise, put through the wringer. If you can’t be captivated by spectacles like this you really ought to give up and go home. From start to finish this was absolutely breathtaking.

2- As ever, particular attention on which combination of players Slav has deemed best suited to the task in hand. Guffaws of nervous pleasure throughout the concourse as the news rippled through at around 7pm… all three of our headline strikers selected, so much for “keeping it tight for 20 minutes and quietening the crowd down”, balls to that. Behind the gusto there were concerns about a three-man midfield that featured the rather lightweight and as yet not thoroughly convincing Miguel Layún… and the underlying concern in the fact that the selection of all three forwards was rather necessitated by the absences of both Abdi and Forestieri, the availability of at least one of whom from Monday would be a huge boost. As an aside, that the starting eleven featured only two of the eleven that started the reverse fixture in November – Deeney and Ighalo – speaks a lot for our season and for the stunning job that Slav has done to fashion a team of such overwhelming spirit in the meantime.
Concerns about that midfield were exacerbated when Ben Watson started what wasn’t destined to be the best of his thus far positive Watford career by getting himself booked for a stupid late lunge in the middle of midfield. Our one plausibly defensive midfield option immediately restricted wasn’t the start we’d have wished for, but in mitigation it had been preceded by an opening five minutes in which the visitors, ominously, barely got a touch… Derby hadn’t penetrated but had held on to the ball and, immediately on the front foot, probed and pushed and when met with resistance smuggled the ball off again and reshaped to try again. Utter concentration was required from the off and it’s to our credit that the rams obtained scant benefit from this period although Gomes pulled off the first of a number of vital saves to deny Darren Bent with his foot. At the other end, when we did clutch possession, the rams looked get-attable and gradually control of the game was wrested away from the home side. Derby were always potent, Bent leading the line and Ince in particular an uncontainable threat on the flank, but we increasingly gained territorial advantage and an energetic opening by the front three was rewarded when Ighalo and Vydra hounded down nervous Derby possession on the left of their box and the ball broke for Vydra to drive the opener first time under Grant. The thunderous noise that had been rolling around the stadium since before kick-off was now focused in one corner.

3- We were on top and revelling in it, on and off the pitch. Derby will take solace, despite extending their winless run to seven in the fashion that transpired, from the fact that they barged themselves back into the game before half time by forcing an incident that was to prove pivotal. Watson lost the ball attempting an impossible pass deep in midfield and Marco Motta, who had appeared slow to react, flat on his heels, once or twice earlier in the half was caught on the wrong side of the the excellent Russell who roared into the box. Motta fouled the forward inside the area and the ref pointed to the spot, crushing all the air out of the away end. More controversially he followed this up with a red card for Motta… for me this was harsh rather than ludicrous, something that Motta could reasonably expect to have gotten away with a yellow for with Russell appearing to have lost control of the ball and Cathcart covering. Whatever, the real blame lies with the errors of Watson and Motta, albeit pressured by the home side’s considerable probing threat; without those mistakes the referee doesn’t have to make a decision.
The game and the mood changed instantly, and the home stands were rejuvenated over the break. Two half-time subs set the tone… Tözsér for the unfortunate Vydra, who had harried and hustled but appeared to overstretch in trying to reach a slack Craig Forsyth pass across the face of the Derby back line ,with Layún appearing to move initially to a left wing-back position. Derby brought on a forward for a full-back, their intent perfectly clear. Our worst fears were realised twelve minutes in when Thomas Ince went on The Run He Always Goes On Against Us and curled a shot inside the far post. He remains the sort of cocky, unlikeable git that you want to smack in the mouth, but this was quite brilliant. The rest of the game loomed in front of us like a chasm… as McClaren was later to comment Derby should have gone for the jugular and in previous seasons – at the risk of repetition – we would have folded but it’s not as if we’ve not demonstrated our indifference to going behind once or twice already of late…

4- There’s something about celebrating a goal in a packed stadium, particularly when high up in the gods underneath a low roof.  My cod science explanation is that a simultaneous bellow from a few thousand people in an effectively confined space releases a whole load of carbon dioxide which causes the dizzy headiness that follows and has been curtailing my own celebrations… at any rate, the same phenomenon doesn’t occur when I’m jumping around the kitchen to Jon Marks-relayed commentary.  Either way, there was no suppressing the bellow that greeted our equaliser.  It had been preceded by the crowning achievement of a quite inhuman performance from Adlène Guedioura who received a slightly overhit pass wide on the right flank and was therefore chasing it off the pitch before hooking his foot round it and sending an impossible pass across the runs of two retreating defenders and into the path of Odion Ighalo, at his indiarubber best all evening, who finished exquisitely by rolling calmly, precisely into the side netting.  The world was invented for goal celebrations like this.

5- This was the longest match ever.  That had been evident in the first half, when we glanced at the clock in the dying minutes of the half and found that only 19 minutes had been played.  The final quarter hour was insane;  Derby brought on Chris Martin and kitchen-sinked us.  We brought on debutant Matthew Connolly for the heroic Ighalo and he endeared himself straight away by taking a yellow with a foul that curtailed a run into the box.  Ince found a mystifying amount of space in the centre of the penalty area but got underneath the ball and was smothered before he could get a shot on target… otherwise it was a combination of pure guts, bodies on the line, and a strategic masterclass which saw Deeney, dead on his feet but still fighting, as our lone striker but the fresher Tözsér and Anya howling out after the ball whenever the pressure relented.  Heurelho Gomes, in one of his most important performances for the Hornets, made any number of important stops, the last and most dramatic in pawing Keogh’s header over the bar as the ref put the whistle to his lips.  The away end celebrated this like a win, and in a sense perhaps Motta’s card worked in our favour.  One-one at that stage, eleven men might have had a better shot of securing three points in the second half but might well have drawn the game anyway.  A point here, even in the context of a ludicrously unrelenting and unforgiving chase for the top two, was always going to be a good result but given the loss of a man and coming from behind with ten it’s an absolute triumph worthy of the judgement of the away end that saw all the songs ringing around the stadium long after the players and home fans had vacated the arena.  The real cost of the victory may be the amount taken out of the legs of the players before Monday’s game – perhaps here is the value of our squad, even in a game that the weekend’s results have rendered all the more significant.  Derby’s failure to secure the win here means that, barring some unheralded collapses of form, automatic looks like two from four now.  Derby and Brentford might catch any of the top four, they’re unlikely to catch three of them.  With Boro and Norwich still to face each other, getting our noses ahead of Boro on Monday gives us a strong grip on our destiny.  We fought our way out of the toughest of corners here and have nothing to fear.  Bring it on.