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Watford 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2 (28/12/2015) 29/12/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1- “I’m worried that we could get a wake-up call today”, says ig on the way down Vicarage Road.  He won’t have been the only one.  Whilst we went into this on the back of a five-game unbeaten run this was the game, two days after a trip to Stamford Bridge, that perhaps looked the most ominous of our challenging four-match Christmas run.  Nonetheless, if this peculiar season has served any lesson at all it’s the value of reputations, or rather what can be achieved by dismissing reputations and labels and just playing.  Aidy Boothroyd, whose words of wisdom have not in general gained much credibility over the passage of time, was nonetheless conscious of this with his much publicised airy targeting of Europe last time around.  You can talk yourself into a mindset, positive or negative. A number of “big clubs” are going through, um, difficult spells.  There are all sorts of contributing reasons and circumstances, but beyond dispute is that the big clubs being rendered less scary, less intimidating, generates a snowball effect.  People aren’t scared of Chelsea because they’re suddenly a bit crap and so give it more of a go and Chelsea’s life doesn’t get any easier.  So…  we were always going to lose at some point.  Few teams, let alone newly promoted teams, go for a season without defeat.  But it never needed to be “a wake-up call” unless we chose to interpret it as such, settling back into our boxes.  “It’s been fun, but let’s stop kidding ourselves, it was never going to last”.  That way lies a slide down the table, almost demands it.

2- Those concerns won’t have been eased much by a first half which, for the most part, saw us very much second best to an extent that we’ve rarely suffered in this remarkable first half-season.  Our opening forays earned us nothing clearer than half-chances from distance which Étienne Capoue,  with an eagerness that betrayed the significance of the match in his mind, clouted elaborately wide. Spurs, meanwhile, were doing to us what we’ve been doing to teams all season… chasing down possession a long way up the pitch, swarming, forcing errors.  To blame Spurs’ first-half superiority on our inability to retain possession would be as one-eyed as reflecting that we’ve been lucky to face Stoke, Newcastle, Liverpool, West Ham on off-days.  Part of the plan involved the visitors attempt what Liverpool had done far less effectively and far too late nine days earlier, having their full-backs glued to their touch lines and pushing up. Nathan Aké, unsurprisingly restored to the side after missing Chelsea due to ineligibility, wasn’t comfortable as betrayed by an uncharacteristic need to defend by reacting rather than anticipating.  A brilliant and decisive block on Trippier, who was in danger of escaping inside, was only necessary because the loanee had lost his man.  Eventually the pressing told;  Cathcart lost the ball to Alli, perhaps hampered by a slippery pitch that had surprisingly had the sprinklers on it in the build up to kick-off, the ball broke to Lamela and he finished adroitly.

The rest of the half saw Spurs look sit back a little, and press less furiously, but we laboured in possession.  We really weren’t getting anywhere… whereas without pummeling us with shots, the movement and awareness of Kane, the power of Alli and the sprightliness of Lamela looked far more likely to create an opening.  We just didn’t look like scoring.  Until we did.  And what a bloody inspiring thing it was.  A ball in from the right, Deeney had pulled wide on the left and headed it into the box.  Ighalo, once again, was gloriously single-minded whilst three Spurs defenders debated whether the Nigerian was third or fourth favourite to prevail.  He had no right at all to end up in possession in front of a stunned Lloris, who found the ball slipping underneath him.

3- There have been two features of previous top flight seasons that have been largely absent this time around.  When you think back to the eighties you think of Luther, of Barnes, of GT.  Tony Coton.  Beating Arsenal.  And also… at least from my gold-tinted view from the Family Enclosure, the way that teams would turn up at the Vic and kick us.  Tottenham particular protagonists of this approach, a 1-0 win 30 years ago achieved in the face of astonishing violence, sticking in the memory.  That’s what it was though, a memory,  the worst excesses of top flight opponents not replicating this phenomenon since then.  Maybe I imagined or embellished it… I was twelve, after all, and perhaps overly inclined to a Watfordcentric point of view.  The other feature is being penalised by awful and seemingly one-sided refereeing… there was the odd bad decision in 2006/07, but 1999/2000 was a vintage year.  Rob Harris at home to Arsenal. Uriah Rennie at home to Sunderland. Paul Alcock at Bradford. You’ll have your own favourites, if you were about.

We’ve not had to experience either this season.  Indeed my Dad, never one to give referees the benefit of any doubt that’s going, recklessly observed over the Christmas turkey that we’ve not suffered any particularly bad refereeing performances thus far.  Whining about referees doesn’t make particularly compelling reading, admittedly, so I’ll simply thank Anthony Taylor for restoring balance to the universe.

The sending off was odd, in that at the time with only a view from the Rookery to rely on it looked pretty innocuous, the red card not so much surprising as completely baffling.  TV replays cast it in a new light of course, but it remains an odd one.  Aké is not prone to either violence or to getting it so very wrong.  It seems to me looking at replays that Lamela’s handball, knocking the ball upwards as Aké approaches, leaves the full-back committed to coming across his opponent but suddenly not able to clear a ball that isn’t where it might have been and messing up in his indecision. This would certainly be consistent with the oddly gentle approach which suggested neither a violent collision nor intent, and left half the ground bemused and outraged. 

Either way, the Tottenham players did their forbears of 1985 proud with a display of snideness and gracelessness unparalleled by anything we’ve seen this season.  From Harry Kane sprinting halfway across the pitch waving an imaginary card to get Britos booked for a perfectly clean tackle to an orchestrated hounding of the official at every contentious decision to Danny Rose’s pathetic attempt to win a free kick off Troy Deeney that was blatant enough to be aped by Harry the Hornet but not to earn a yellow card, apparently.  Spurs are a young side, you could argue that with a goalkeeper as skipper there wasn’t quite the leadership on the pitch to keep the behaviour in check.  Or you could reflect, as my brother did on the way back down Vicarage Road, that most of the complete scum that you’ve had the misfortune to meet have been Spurs fans, and this charmless lot are every inch fit to wear that shirt.

4- For ten minutes or so after the dismissal it was proper backs to the wall stuff;  we barricaded ourselves into our penalty area and took up position for a shootout.  Valuable in this period was Sebastian Prödl, making his first appearance since Arsenal, who got his head to anything that Spurs lobbed in high.  Otherwise it was pass, pass, pass but little penetration from the visitors.  Eventually, with the home crowd roaring on in indignation, we made some chances of our own and came closer than the visitors had… Ben Watson’s inswinging left wing corner coming within centimetres of crossing the goalline before Lloris brilliantly scooped it out.  The atmosphere was furiously intense… claustrophobic.  Had we held on for a draw we’d rightly have celebrated as if for a victory, a winner would have brought the house down.  Instead, Spurs broke and at the second time of asking Son flicked the ball beyond Gomes.

5- A choker, obviously, but we can console ourselves with the knowledge that if you stand by the premise that good and bad luck and decisions even themselves out you’d probably choose to have the latter all at once.  Given this, given the misfortune with Son’s winner being narrowly offside but missed, with Watson’s corner nearly in but not, with absurd refereeing, we can take solace in the fact that we only lost 2-1 to a very strong – if repugnant – opponent via a last minute winner.  There were several other far more mundane ways to have lost this 2-1 – especially after that first half – which could have been far more damaging.  Here… the circumstances, the ludicrous second half should guard against us telling ourselves that this was inevitable, that this was always going to happen.  That this was a wake-up call.  With Ighalo flat on the turf in frustrated exhaustion at the final whistle of greater concern is our ability to physically recover in time for Manchester City on Saturday…  but as far as the result goes, choking as it is, there’s an awful lot to take pride in for this side.  As there has been all season.  Yooorns.

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Watford 3 Liverpool 0. Yes, really. (20/12/2015) 21/12/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1- Those of us of a certain vintage view football in general and Watford in particular in a romantic way.  Being an impressionable age during the first GT era was all that was required… if you joined the party during that spell then it was all about sticking it to the man,  firstly in dramatic cup runs, then in the top flight itself.  We joke that this is a curse, that the penalty for being indoctrinated during this period is a fanatical but entirely unreasonable vision of this idyll, everything judged by this high standard.  We don’t mean it though.  Those memories, memories of games like this one are amongst the happiest as my childhood, perfect and fantastical on a par with Star Wars. We were Luke Skywalker; for the money shot into the Death Star’s exhaust port read Les Taylor’s goal at White Hart Lane.  Or beating the European Champions 4-1 in the League Cup.  Or beating United and Spurs 5-1 within a week. Or putting 8 past Sunderland within our first two months in the top flight. These are landmark events from our halcyon period and our greatest achievements since haven’t reached the same heights.  Until now.

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2- Things went our way.  We should acknowledge that, since it’s impossible to resist complaining when the boot’s on the other foot.  So… two teams that prefer counterattacking, a goalkeeper making his League debut for Liverpool slipping up at a corner, a goal that could have been chalked off but wasn’t.  Problems at centre-back exacerbated by an injury to Martin Skrtel later in the game too, up to a point.  So we doff our cap to fortune and whilst doing so we place our foot firmly on our adversary’s throat and we apply pressure and we don’t ease up on that pressure.  Every man, every single player is on point.  Capoue and Watson are roaring all over the midfield.  Abdi and Jurado, mobile and incisive and aggressive.  The extraordinary Aké and Nyom bullying their way up and down the flanks.  Britos and Cathcart, mercilessly, surgically on patrol.  Gomes, a force of nature.  Deeney a monster and a leader.  Deeney it was who battered possession off Lucas in midfield, swung a pass over the top for Ighalo and what followed showcased his best attributes… the persistence and bloody-mindedness  to chase the pass down, the physical strength to take on Skrtel and the technique and instinct to finish.  Ian Wright couldn’t have done it better, a quite extraordinary goal in any context, much less this.  This was, after all, the game where it was supposed to get tough.  The previous three games… Villa, Norwich, Sunderland, those were the games we wanted points from. This was supposed to be a bonus, a free hit.  Instead we were on our way to our biggest top-flight win since 1988.  A monstrous first-half performance which saw the Reds bringing on an extra striker, stretching the play to the extremes and being allowed to get precisely nowhere, each snarling challenge roared on from three and a half sides of the ground.

3- The empty vessel makes the loudest sound.  This is true from the population of Liverpool fans as much as anyone… I’ve met plenty who are balanced and reasonable. Nonetheless, I once read Liverpool fans in general described as “expecting you to prostrate yourself on the altar of their Liverpoolness”, an acerbic observation based around a core of truth.  That core of truth arises from a period in which the Reds WERE the dominant force, and not very long ago.  The other side of that coin is that dicking Liverpool, whilst being a fine thing by anyone’s standards, is particularly special for those of us who remember Liverpool being that thing.  At which point it’s only fair to acknowledge that there’s no Hansen, Rush, Dalglish in the current side.  More significantly, there’s not a Steven Gerrard either.  Jürgen Klopp might get there (although his evaluation of his side will need to be more balanced than his post-match evaluation of the game) but this was not a vintage Liverpool eleven.  Let’s not get picky though.  Two years ago we were losing 3-0 at home to Yeovil.  Jordan Henderson may be “a sh*t Steven Gerrard”, but he’s still an established England international who was made to look peripheral and inadequate for much of this.  And he was probably the Reds’ most effective player.

4- I’ll confess that my first clock of the scoreboard in the second half came as early as the forty-seventh minute.  Liverpool looked bullish and aggressive and much more direct at the start of the second period as the spectre of the game we’d feared began to rear its head.  Instead whilst there was far greater potency in a Liverpool attack supplemented by both Benteke and Jordan Ibe, scorer of a fine goal here for Derby last season, the clearer and greater threat was in front of the Rookery.  Jurado conjured a ball through for Ighalo, one-on-one;  you’d have put your house on him, but Bogdan grasped a chance he shouldn’t have been given.  Deeney roared beyond the defence but couldn’t quite find the pass.  Ighalo sent Mamadou Sakho to the head of his ever-growing lists of people he’s left on their arse with a splendid showboat in front of the Rookery, the ball not quite finding it’s way in after the resulting scramble.  Through all of which Sakho, admittedly back from a long injury, looked like an upmarket Danny Shittu… using his physical attributes to great effect but always reacting, never anticipating.  The contrast at the other end of the pitch where Britos and Cathcart were malevolently efficient and the Reds were caught offside ten times, was marked.  Eventually Ighalo settled the affair as we finally sliced through the big open spaces borne of Liverpool’s need to attack and inability to defend, Valon Behrami making a welcome return off the bench and supplying the final pass to Ighalo ghosting free of any marker on the penalty spot to head home.  Happy bedlam.

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5- The atmosphere as the game closed was odd.  Exuberant, of course.  But there was little exaltation… just a quiet, dazed disbelief, as if the energy had been poured into the game’s soundtrack and tension and there was nothing left to give.  The shuffle up Occupation Road was peppered with hysterical laughter as strangers caught each others’ eye.  But it was a shared attempt to register what we’d just witnessed.  No singing.  Just a series of happy, baffled grins.

So here comes the boring bit.  It’s painfully dull reading blogged eulogies penned by supporters about their teams but really, if I can’t do it now….?   The plot summary, then.  We were brilliant.  Not just have-a-go-heroes, not merely solid and worthy with a cutting edge capable of exploiting our opponent’s weaknesses.  But bloody brilliant and inspiring and wonderful from front to back.  Suck this up, boys and girls, enjoy it.  Especially your kids.  Because they’ll be wearing our gold-tinted spectacles in thirty years’ time.

Maybe, maybe, the new Star Wars film really will be as good as the first.

Watford 2 Norwich City 0 (05/12/2015) 06/12/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
30 comments

1. I’m getting older. I may have mentioned that; I can’t really remember, because I’m getting older. As I do so, I find that I become less and less certain of anything. I suspect that twenty years of problem-solving for a living have honed my instincts for sniffing out a problem but, perhaps, not done the same for the accompanying solution. As a result, I instinctively distrust any strident argument, any strongly or loudly held position; I pick at it until it frays, until black and white turn to grey. Until it submits to John Harris’s motto of political commentary: “it’s f***ing complicated”. It’s always f***ing complicated.

I’ve also been spending too much time on social media. Not as much as some, maybe, but still too much. I’m drawn irresistibly to its ceaseless clamour, even though I find no more comfort in that clamour than I would in reading the Daily Mail. Different dogma, same degree of certainty. It surrounds me with people sure of their opinions, having them enthusiastically reinforced by others equally sure of the same thing. It isn’t that I don’t share the opinions much of the time. I have doubts, though. I have questions and objections and criticisms and, above all, complications. On Twitter particularly, the sense of being in a crowd which might turn on you at any moment is palpable. I fear society might divide into two halves eventually: those who never voice their internal thoughts and those who never fail to do so. I fear that might’ve already happened.

Much of it reminds me of what Graham Taylor always used to say: that it’s easy to be a manager if none of your team selections get tested by a real football match. Anyone can pick Anthony Macnamee when their job doesn’t depend on the outcome. Of course, Football Manager now skews that equation a little; maybe someone needs to come up with a political equivalent. Or perhaps that’d just make the online world even more insufferable, even more full of people who are certain they’re right because they tried it when they were leader of Veritas.

Perhaps we need a protest, a show of…well, not strength. A show of feebleness. With placards saying things like “I’M NOT SURE BUT I THINK YOU’RE PROBABLY WRONG ON SOME POINTS EVEN IF I AGREE OVERALL” and “WHAT DO WE WANT? POLITENESS! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? WELL, WHAT KIND OF TIME SUITS YOU?”. We could go to the park or somewhere suitably non-confrontational, then mill around a bit in an inconclusive manner. We could fail as badly as everyone else at actually coming up with anything constructive, useful or realistic to solve the world’s woes…but we’d wear that as a badge of honour rather than hide it underneath polemic and vitriol. I’m proud to be uncertain.

While we’re having this little chat, I’d like to confess that I don’t really dislike Bournemouth, that I’ve forgiven Mike Williamson and Brendan Rodgers, and that I’ve never quite grasped the brilliance of Almen Abdi*. Lynch mobs to the usual address.

2. One of the interesting things about being in the top flight is that there are fewer hypothetical questions to worry about. A division down, every performance is measured against what might be required to achieve promotion and then to survive thereafter: “if we can only beat (insert name here) with a deflected free kick/ludicrous own goal/blatant handball/iffy penalty (delete as applicable), how can we expect to compete against (insert name here)?”

Suddenly, that all disappears. It’s rather pleasant. There are inquests after a defeat, of course, but any victory can be treated as if it were an achievement in its own right, a nice big fat tick next to one of the things on our stuff-to-do list. Unless we’re suddenly going to start worrying about how we’ll fare in the Champions League, a win over Aston Villa or Norwich is an end in itself. A little cup final. For once, that cliche about taking each game as it comes has some substance.

3. Having arrived in the Premier League as a team playing reasonably open football on a sensible budget with a fashionable young manager, Norwich have every right to feel a bit peeved that everyone’s fawning over Bournemouth. It’s like they’ve turned up at a fancy dress party as Olaf from Frozen, only to find that someone else had that idea first and had a mum with a fancy sewing machine; they’re now in the bathroom desperately attempting to improvise an abominable snowman costume instead.

It’s only a partial success, if I’m honest. True, they start the game with the frantic fervour of the newly converted, but that doesn’t really last for much longer than it’d take a dozen commentators to note archly that it could be mistaken for a mid-table Championship game, scrappy and edgy in a swirling, gusty wind. Thing is, while we might’ve taken a more mercenary route than Norwich by upgrading much of last season’s side, enough of it remains that we’re not going to be shoved aside without putting up a fight. Without relishing a fight.

Some of those who’ve come in aren’t exactly lightweight either: Miguel Britos appears to enjoy his ninety minutes enormously, treating himself to a couple of bicycle kick clearances high into the late afternoon sky as we defend our lines late on. The entire team receives a huge ovation towards the end of the first half for an exercise in collective pressing which leaves Norwich with nowhere to go but a slice into the stands. We win this because we’re prepared to do the ugly stuff, because we’re every bit as good at it as Norwich are, except with a load more punch in the final third. We win this, but it’s bloody hard work. I mean that in a good way. Well, mostly.

4. The tension builds minute upon minute after Troy Deeney’s opening goal. By that point, we’re not so much knocking on the door as attempting to prize it open with a crowbar; we’re not really having much joy, but we’re eventually rewarded for our persistence. Thereafter until half-time, we’re so much the better side that it suddenly feels like there’s an awful lot at stake: this is a winning position, far too good to throw away.

We fail to make the most of some very promising positions, particularly when Jurado drifts more centrally and becomes involved in the interplay around the box. He has a pleasing afternoon, justifying his selection: in a game where the ball is frequently flying around like a crisp packet in a whirlwind, he’s sometimes the only player who looks truly comfortable bringing it down and finding himself some space. Norwich waste a free header from a set piece in injury time and everyone goes a bit pale.

5. They waste an even better chance shortly after half-time, Brady driving wide when freed by a rare Cathcart lapse. The tension continues to build. You can’t fail to win games like this…except, obviously, you can, all too easily. The game becomes stretched as it enters its final half hour, which only makes our position feel more perilous: Norwich persist in banging high balls into the far post; Ake and Gomes take knocks in dealing with crosses; there’s more than one occasion when I find myself involuntarily screaming as I would if I were ever brave enough to go on a rollercoaster. They don’t actually get very close to scoring, but that’s hindsight talking.

6. These past weeks, I’ve heard too little praise for Ben Watson. One of those you imagined might not keep up with the pace of progress, he’s now among the most vital components of this side. He’s done that by taking on every dirty job going, from being the out-ball (and thereby getting stick for passing it sideways or backwards when required) to constant patrolling in the depths of midfield while others have more roaming licence to, recently, taking set pieces. The team dogsbody. I imagine he does the laundry too. An unsung hero, and a significant part of why we’re in the top half of the table. Someone give him a song, for heaven’s sake.

7. But let’s get to the point. The decisive difference between the teams was one man: Odion Ighalo. In this month’s When Saturday Comes, Harry Pearson devotes his column to the cliche of the striker who’s “unplayable on his day”. It’s difficult to avoid that phrase. Somehow, he’s managed to harness all of the energy that could sometimes lead him to be erratic and awkward. The imperfections in his all-round game now seem like ticks on a stampeding rhino.

He absolutely comes alive in the moment where the ball is played in behind defenders: there isn’t a single occasion when he doesn’t win that contest, even when faced with two or three opponents, even when he’s second or third favourite to get there. So physical, so determined, but with an instinctive sense of where the loose ball might drop, where the chink in the armour might appear, and with such quick reactions to every ricochet and rebound. He wins a soft penalty through sheer force of presence. He scores the late clincher, holding off a defender with astonishing strength before beating the keeper. He has another disallowed for a tight, probably incorrect, offside. He ought to have more.

He’s dumped onto his arse on the halfway line late on, having rolled a defender who has no option but to commit the foul before he’s done for pace yet again. That’s the only way of stopping him, that’s all they can do. Think of your favourite striker from yesteryear, someone who Graham Taylor would send out with a message to give them hell for ninety minutes, never let them get comfortable. That good.

On this day, completely unplayable. Simply unstoppable. I’m not certain of much, but I’m certain of that.

* Although there’s a moment, as the ninetieth minute approaches and the tension becomes virtually unbearable, when Abdi drives the lively Brady all the back over the halfway line by hacking at his heels and nudging him in the back, like an irritant in the school corridor. He finally gets a reaction, Brady gets a yellow card, and Almen Abdi is my hero.