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Nottingham Forest 0 Watford 1 (30/01/2016) 31/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- I’d felt confident about today.  Not just today, actually, but about the Cup…  not that we’re going to do anything as drastic as winning it,  but there can’t be many sides better placed to give it a good go.  We’re neither harbouring pretensions of Europe nor looking terribly anxiously over our shoulder; we’re competitive, we’ve got goals and we’re terrifying on the break, all of which tick boxes.  And it’s been a while, after all, since a good cup run. I’d made a point of bringing the girls to Newcastle and then to this one for that reason, just in case… these journeys, were a formative part of my upbringing too.

But I was particularly confident about today. Comments attributed to Forest’s captain for the day Dexter Blackstock had helped…  there aren’t many Premier League opponents taking us lightly any more so it was slightly surprising to see an opponent being so blasé.  Apart from which, “being used to playing Watford” hasn’t helped Dexter and friends in many recent encounters at the City Ground – the home side had won 3 in 12 here since regular encounters were resumed in 2000, and 2 in 6 since Blackstock moved to the midlands in 2009.  We’re not unbeatable, but telling yourself and the world that nothing much has changed or is changing at Vicarage Road didn’t suggest a well-drilled opponent.

2- Both sides rested players – in our case, arguably, our key men in each area of the pitch.  Pulling the main men out and replacing them with the next in line is going to be disruptive in terms of a drop in quality, but as much so in terms of there being a set of new faces not quite so used to playing together and without those leaders to run things.  Partly as a result, and with the help of a hearty, unpredictable wind, the game was a bit of a scruffy mess for the most part.  We were pretty comfortable after the first fifteen minutes or so, in which the home side pressed voraciously high up the pitch and our centre-backs dealt with pretty much everything with a hearty clout that used to be How You Do It Proper but in this era of casually bringing balls down and sliding them sideways to your man in space feels rather anxious.  We certainly enjoyed more of the possession, even if we didn’t do an awful lot with it against a Forest side who looked precisely like a team who’d discovered that being solid got them quite far and had no appetite for anything more ambitious, like a novice ice skater shuffling around the perimeter of the rink for half an hour without ever risking letting go of the rail.  Yes, me too.

For all of which, the best chance of the half came to the home side; Anya, making his first appearance on the right wing for, perhaps, years, dropped back to cover for Nyom but dithered indecisively permitting Jamie Ward to rattle through on goal.  Cathcart, terrific throughout, stood his ground and forced Ward into a decision, which saw a shot flick wide, but narrowly enough to be a concern until it drifted past the post.

3- A fairly ugly spectacle, then, which continued to rattle around energetically but fruitlessly like a bluebottle in a matchbox.  One significant benefit of this was the inexpensive grounding it gave to new signing and full debutant Nordin Amrabat.  This was in many respects untypical of the sort of game Amrabat will find himself playing in;  nonetheless, he learned very quickly quite how differently the bar is set in England vs Spain in terms of what constitutes a “foul”.  More than once in the first half he found himself on his backside as a result of aggressive but not excessive attention from the home defence, his expression one of irritation but particularly surprise at the lack of a whistle.  He’ll learn; indeed he was already learning by the second half.

He did nothing but whet our appetite for the extra options he gives our attacking armoury.  After a sighter in the first half that went straight down Dorus de Vries’ throat he took advantage of some Deeney-induced chaos to whip an extraordinary half-volley out of the air in the second.  This prompted an even better one-handed clawing save from de Vries, who was first congratulated by Deeney and then given a “how the f*** did you do that?” gesture and grin from Amrabat.  Later a foray down the right from Anya, one of the brighter attacking elements of a midfield in which Guédioura and Abdi had limited impact, saw a cross pulled back to Amrabat who flicked a wicked backheel out of the air past his marker but too close to the keeper. A lot of fun, more to come.

A word too for Costel Pantilimon.  His involvement was limited, but what he did he did perfectly competently, as bullish with crosses as you’d hope from a keeper more than two metres tall (!).  This included a terrific glove to a ball at the feet of the advancing Nelson Oliveira which was perhaps risky but perfectly executed – we had no view at all from behind the far goal, the precision of the challenge only revealed by television.  Overall, we appear to have traded up significantly in January, with the mouthwatering Mario Suárez signing confirmed later in the evening.

4- IMG_1995Being accompanied by Daughter One and in particular Daughter Two demands a certain amount of patience in terms of diverting focus from the action and addressing instead the latest pressing issue.  Daughter One’s concerns focused largely around her wobbly canine, whose agent had first started leaking stories to the press at the now traditional Bridgford Fish Bar stop pre-match and which finally agreed a mutual termination of contract in the car on the way home.  Daughter Two’s questions involved both the intricacies of the offside law, and whether I would “prefer to go to Italy, or to have some ice cream?”.

I tell myself, in such situations, that should I be inattentive to the girls’ concerns the footballing gods will punish me.  As such, when Daughter Two’s increasingly fidgety attention, standing atop her seat, finally developed into a demand for the toilet in 85th minute I did the dutiful thing and missed only Amrabat’s withdrawal in favour of Juan Carlos Paredes – who for all his doubters remains both one of the quickest, most powerful and most agile footballers in the squad and as such is a Good Thing coming off the bench in most circumstances.  I was rewarded by being back in situ by the time Paredes, now an extra man in the midfield, had released Nyom to scuff a ball into the box.  It bounced off Wilson, Ighalo was there to scruffily, instinctively, gobble up the winner.

As an aside, the only difficulties of the day surrounded the overpopulation of our section by beered-up young blokes.  It’s come to something when this is worthy of comment and those who remember Bramall Lane (2003) will know that I’m hardly in a position to criticise but I found myself apologising to German debutant Björn.  “It’s not always like this”.  Which it isn’t, any more.  Those of us shielding our kids from the flares and picking them up when knocked over by good-natured but over-exuberant celebration in a doubled-up row of seats might not miss this aspect of the Good Old Days either.

5- So here we are, then.  Passage successfully navigated, if from a game that won’t live long in the memory.  Which in itself is quite a remarkable thing… as documented above we’ve had a decent record at the City Ground, but all of those wins whatever the backdrop had felt like quite a big deal, results worthy of celebration in themselves.  We’ve progressed now to the stage where a win at Forest is quite a mundane thing… where a fairly tight game has been decided by that extra bit of quality in front of goal.  The beaten side feels hard done by, the senior side yawns and carries on.  We’ve been there plenty of times, not least against Manchester City.  But we’re a bigger beast now, with sharper claws, than when Dexter Blackstock (rightly) saw us as equals and (wrongly) expected to beat us.  The challenge for the support remains being to fully appreciate and enjoy this turn in our fortunes.



Watford 2 Newcastle United 1 (23/01/2016) 24/01/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. A Mental Health Foundation website defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” It’s tended to be portrayed as something of a mental health cure-all in the media lately, which strikes me as a little dangerous: I can’t help thinking that anyone expecting immediate results is going to be disappointed by a practice which requires patience, lack of judgement and, frankly, quite a lot of outright boredom. It isn’t about shortcuts. Quite the opposite.

Nevertheless, it’s given me the key to surviving my working days with most of my marbles intact. Perhaps not all, but most. As a programmer, you inhabit a virtual landscape that’s largely – and often mercifully – incomprehensible to anyone else. There’s almost nothing to speak of beyond the space in your own skull. Each day, you enter that space, knowing little of what awaits you; more often than not, what awaits you are problems to be solved. Endless problems, each requiring somewhere between ten seconds and ten days to resolve, a length of time only available with the benefit of hindsight. Endless problems, each needing to be resolved as soon as possible; clock’s always ticking. All of this requires a level of acute concentration incompatible with modern life…and, particularly, fundamentally incompatible with working on a machine connected to the carnival of distractions which is the modern Internet. You might as well try to balance an egg on its pointy end in a wind tunnel.

That space can become pretty bloody dark, then. Over the course of twenty-five years, the path from discovery of a problem to blind panic and frustrated fury at failure to solve it in a sensible amount of time becomes extremely well-worn. Apply enough external pressure and the two points become almost indistinguishable, merging into a single black hole, swallowing you instantly. On a good day, you take on these battles with relish and achieve a sense of accomplishment. On a bad day, it can be overwhelming. On the very worst, you’d do anything to escape that space, to get out and never have to return.

Those were the days that drove me to mindfulness. To the simple matter of pausing to check that you’re actually still breathing, that you can still feel your feet resting on the floor, that the world still exists beyond the space in your own skull. Simple things, but enough to break the cycle. Enough to see that what feels all too real in there doesn’t necessarily stand up to much scrutiny in daylight. Enough to be productive, to approach tasks with a measure of calmness and consideration that probably means they’ll get done more quickly than if attacked violently in the heat of battle. And enough to stay sane.

So I say this from personal experience: maybe, just maybe, if the sentence that’s forming itself in your mind begins with “there’s no need to panic but…”, you might be better off slamming a massive great big full stop before the “but” and sitting down for a bit of a breather before continuing. Maybe you should let the first bit sink in properly. It might turn out that it’s more important than the second bit.

2. It was hard to approach this fixture with anything but a slight sense of dread. We’ve all been around when the wheels have fallen off. We’ve all been present at the stumble from an impending but preventable crisis – because four defeats is only that, especially in context – into a proper full-on screaming tearful toddler meltdown, a moment when you can no longer see where the next draw will come from, let alone win. There are people who’ll loudly announce that moment if we’re one-nil down at half-time, of course; another well-worn path, that. But the moment when everything really does collapse in on itself is rare and all the more hideous for it. You sit – was it easier on a terrace? – and stare blankly at something you cannot control, cannot change, and yet cannot ignore.

Whenever we get close to that point, I trust the coach who sees that you should use change extremely carefully. Because first on the list of things to do is to avoid panic, to remain mindful. More often than not – far more often – the solution lies in taking a huge deep breath and doing what you’re good at with renewed concentration and confidence, not in a radical change of approach. Plan B is generally over-rated, whatever it is; it’d be Plan A if it was all that. I mean, sure…sometimes you do have to tear it all up and start again, but even that ought to be a clear, calm decision rather than one born of desperation.

Anyway, please sign up to my revolutionary “A Change Is Not As Good As A Rest, Unless You’re Bed’s Really Uncomfortable” seminars using the form at the bottom of this article. Packed lunches will be supplied.

3. A good day for measured caution, this. A very good day for Quique Sanchez Flores too, perhaps not coincidentally. Of the eyebrow-raising selections – the much-maligned Jurado retained, the even more much-maligned (perhaps outright written-off) Paredes returned, the Behrami experiment continued, the bench for Amrabat, the absence of any significant upheaval – each was utterly vindicated on an afternoon when we simply got back to doing what we do well, um, well. If you want the short version, we produced the level of performance we’ve become accustomed to expecting…and oh look, three points. More complicated than that, of course, but that’s basically the size of it.

4. The more complicated version involves noting a re-jigged midfield: Watson, as ever, the caretaker; Behrami and Capoue industrious in front; Jurado the point of the diamond only in the sense of being in front of the others for, in truth, he’s given licence to roam all across the space behind the strikers. All four have different and excellent games, but it’s the latter who really catches the eye, perhaps because he’s come in for so much criticism. Given this level of freedom, he sees huge amounts of the ball, always available, always tidy with it, always looking for a positive option. He reminds me a bit – only a bit – of Stephen McGinn, a comparison that he’d only relish if I were able to explain quite how much I liked Stephen McGinn. Ultimately, his contributions don’t directly affect the result here, but they will on another day.

That all of this appears to count as Flores’ idea of change is something I find enormously reassuring, for this is clearly a man who works in careful increments rather than in great revolutionary flourishes. This new midfield approach isn’t a solution, because the problem will keep changing. But it should give us confidence: even among the same group of players, there’s flexibility and variation, and a coach with an eye for detail. The same applies to the wide positions, where Paredes is notably aggressive in seeking out the final third in the early stages and lively throughout; we don’t lack for attacking width, but balance that against the risk of over-commitment rather adeptly. Balance is a good word, so I’ll repeat it.

5. Newcastle’s willingness to cede possession is sound in principle: we always look more dangerous when play breaks down and it all gets a bit messy than when we have the ball at our feet with time on our hands. We relish the moment – the moment when Odion Ighalo comes alive – when nobody quite knows in which direction the ball’s going to break. So, yeah, fine in principle…except that being able to push our opponents back into their own half and try to prise an opening hands us the initiative in a game where confidence is key.

By the twenty minute mark, as we really start to find our rhythm, you can see the doubt start to clear and you can see Newcastle heads begin to drop a little. The mood in the stands lifts noticeably; there’s encouragement and understanding. We don’t create much – Elliot makes a bit of a hash of a Deeney shot, then recovers to block from Capoue – but it feels like we’re on top and it feels like we’ve got our team right. Solid base, two big powerful strikers, bit of creativity in and around. That’s us. That’s got us to near-safety already. Absolutely no need to change it now.

6. At the same twenty minute mark, you become acutely aware of the need to avoid doing something daft. The teams that’ll struggle – the past Watford teams that’ve struggled – would push the boulder virtually to the crest of the hill, then stumble in a rabbit hole and watch forlornly as it rolled all the way to the bottom again. I think particularly of Adrian Boothroyd’s post-Premier League teams, whose habit of shooting themselves in the foot at key moments would’ve been heartbreaking had they been more likeable and less irritating; an absolute blizzard of good intentions thrown to the wind.

You get to the point where you’re in the ascendancy, where you can feel confidence starting to flow…and then you concede. The confidence evaporates, the mood in the stands turns, the visitors shut up shop and then score a late second and possibly even a third on the break, and nobody remembers the positives by the final whistle. Which makes Heurelho Gomes’ save from Mitrovic’s low drive after twenty-five minutes the key point in the contest, perhaps a key point in our season. He has a bit of luck, the ball bouncing over the bar after hitting his out-stretched leg, but it’s still an astonishing stop and entirely deserving of a helping hand from fortune. That goes in and…yeah, quite.

7. Instead, our patience pays off. As repeatedly, we reap the rewards of keeping the game scoreless until the front two can come up with something. As repeatedly, it comes not out of possession but the contest for it, Deeney barging an opponent out of the way to win a loose ball in midfield, then turning to release Ighalo with a lovely curling pass that takes Coloccini out of the equation for the only time in the ninety minutes. Only needs to happen once, that’s the thing. Ighalo tucks it away and when the admirable Cathcart bashes in a second shortly afterwards, we appear to have some breathing space. It suddenly looks like a four-nil kinda game.

Our worries are behind us. Newcastle quickly collapse into the farcical: we relax enough to allow substitute Perez a couple of free headers but he falls some way short of filling Alan Shearer’s boots, each attempt rebounding spectacularly off into the darkening sky after hitting him in the ear. “Ngonge with the decoy!”* He balloons another chance over the bar for good measure, and Newcastle have that happy look of opponents who have surrendered to the inevitability of a right pasting. Until Deeney over-plays where he shouldn’t, we concede a needless corner and a needless goal, and our worries are back in town and throwing a party.

8. The rest is sickeningly tense. I mean, it’s not St Andrews or anything** but my constitution is far more feeble than it used to be, and this feels absolutely agonising. You remember that five minutes of relative relaxation like an oasis. In truth, we hold out pretty well, full of determination not to let all of the good work be undone…but you can imagine the ground falling away as the ball hits the net and the away end explodes. You can’t shake that, not until the final whistle sets you free. The relief leaves you light-headed. It feels like a game we’ve had to win twice.

9. A good day, then. Breathe it in. Feel your feet on the floor. There’s no need to panic. And there’s no “but”.

* Hands up if you’ve got any idea what I’m talking about.
** Two ’99 references in two paragraphs. That’s where my old age stories – repeated ad nauseum to anyone who’ll pretend to listen – are all coming from, evidently. “Have I ever told you about Port Vale away…?” and so on, and so forth. I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry.

Southampton 2 Watford 0 (13/01/2016) 14/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

In days of recent past I used to reminisce about when we were good. I mean, really good. I don’t need to elaborate, I’m sure you’ve done the same. Last night, just ever so briefly as we navigated the congested industrial estate adjacent to St Mary’s before kick-off trying to suss where we could park legally without committing ourselves to misery getting out again afterwards, I pined for the days when it was perfectly reasonable to rock up an hour before kick-off without a ticket. Spread out over a few seats, sit with whoever had rocked up.


This was a passing breeze of a sentiment that lasted a fraction of a second, not even a fully-fledged thought. Fate was watching. however, and eager to punish that moment’s weakness. What followed was an evening’s lesson, a reminder of where we were when we were sh*t, as the song goes; every feature of every miserable away trip you’ve ever had rolled up in a soggy Ginsters wrap of sewage.

Cold, relentless rain as persistent and pervasive as overloud headphones in a train carriage. Taking shelter in the bleakest, sparsest of pubs in which the clientele sat with their backs to the wall and the gents door, unlabelled, was propped open. In the ground, a pastie with filling hotter than the sun and seats designed for people with one thigh, necessitating staggered standing throughout. After the game the inevitable, unavoidable visitor’s calamity, quite which queue to join, satnavs no help here. We’re going somewhere, but very very slowly. Then, eventually, the M3 is closed and its would-be-passengers navigate small villages instead where roundabouts are controlled by traffic lights on timers, irrespective of the fact that at getting on for midnight everyone’s going the same way. By the time we’re back in St Albans I’m several trains later than planned and, naturally, the one I’d hoped maybe I’d just about make has caught up on itself and is gone before I get to the platform. The twenty minutes’ wait for the next is not a happy one. This morning, the damp smell of my scarf evoked the previous evening’s joy all over again.

2- And as for the bloody football. Jesus. You’ll have the gist by now, whether you were there or following somehow, or doing something more profitable with your lives so there’s little value in dissecting the detail. Suffice to say that this was a complete aberration by this season’s standards, which made the shock all the more acute. We’ve lost games this season and often deserved to, but never been well beaten, and never – except arguably during a clumsy first half at Bournemouth – looked so hapless. Indeed, not having been to Preston, I’d probably argue that this is the first time I’ve seen us play badly. Certainly the first time we’ve been thrashed. The only thing that the evening lacked was a needless, petulant red card… and Troy can’t have been that far off, reacting to one of what was admittedly a series of unpunished niggly Saints fouls, this time on Ighalo, by exacting cathartic full-blooeded revenge and following up with a mouthful of frustration at the official. Fortunately, only a yellow.

3- This wasn’t all our own doing, far from it. Southampton were excellent; if Manchester City showcased their quality in a different way, by pulling out a couple of lethal moments of brilliance to smuggle away a game in which they hadn’t played terribly well, only Arsenal’s masterclass at the Vic outstripped this in terms of sheer ebullience. The much-discussed how-to-beat-two-strikers guide step 1, three centre-backs, was on show again with Virgil Van Dijk in particularly absolutely bossing anything that came near him. Combined with this was a ferociously high press that left us nowhere to go in possession but sideways, back and forth with unusual anxiety until we gave away possession (occasionally comically and precariously) or, at the very least, the home side were set and camped behind the ball. We were too slow, too deliberate, and much much too static… and with the forwards isolated and rendered largely irrelevant, Quique’s stated desire to add variety to our armoury via a genuine wing-threat has never looked more credible. Or to put it another way, if Daniel Levy was watching he’ll be feeling confident about his ability to eke out a few more quid for Andros Townsend. We needed something.

4- The Saints could and should have had more; we barely created a chance all night whilst the home side through their fast breaking and good delivery from wide found spaces all too easily. Some chances they missed, some were denied – most frequently by the faultless Gomes. However for all of that, there was one goal in it for an awfully long time. Dad argued as we left that we’d been doing fine until conceding the first… by the time we were crawling through Little Bumfluff in Surrey at stupid’o’clock that had mutated to “we’d definitely have won if…”. Certainly, the first goal was significant- we’ve gotten it first in awkward games and prevailed. Not so here. But less disputably, having gone behind we weren’t at the races, Southampton took their advantage and ran off gleefully with it, taunting us like big kids who’d nicked a little kid’s satchel. As chances came and went however I won’t have been the only one who thought “we’re might pinch something here”, not least when Jurado – one of several who just didn’t seem to fancy the whole thing – played a miserable square pass across his own penalty area to Mané, a Boruc-worthy error that saw the forward step inside a challenge and hit a sweet shot off the outside of Gomes’ right-hand post. I’ll bet a few of the home fans were thinking that too, thinking “wouldn’t it be just typical if…”. That sort of miss reeks “we’re going to stuff this up”. It wouldn’t have taken a lot – it would have been daylight robbery and all the more enjoyable for it, but it wouldn’t have taken a lot. We didn’t have anything.

5- So that’s that, then. One bad defeat in isolation, unhelpfully coming on the back of two further (League) defeats from which we emerged with infinitely more credit. It doesn’t need to be disastrous, though there’s obviously stuff that needs sorting. Above all, to reiterate, it’s the first trashing, the first stinker of a season in which it would have been very reasonable to expect this as the norm. To be fair, the boos in the away end were very few, the noise level was kept high and team and manager were lauded at the end. Slightly irksome was the speed with which the visiting crowd jumped on gallows humour, as if over-eager to revisit the songs we used to sing when we really weren’t very good a lot of the time. Thing is, “how sh*t must you be, we’re higher than you” and cheering our occasional shots with sarcasm, whilst gentle in the grand scheme of things, isn’t terribly supportive either. However atrocious the evening and the performance were, they’ve earned a little more patience than that.

Enough. I’m so tired I can barely type, and have no desire to mull over that ghastliness again. Swansea next, a fixture which both sides, in need of a win, might feel has fallen nicely. If we make sure it’s us that takes the opportunity then that’s our little wobble over and done with.

You orns.

Watford 1 Newcastle United 0 (09/01/2016) 10/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- We could win the FA Cup this year. Ha. How ridiculous is that?

Could isn’t the same as “will”. Plenty of teams could, and plenty of them have a better chance than us. Probably. But someone will, and for the first time in any number of years, Watford winning the FA Cup feels like more than a purely theoretical possibility.

This is all taking rather some getting used to. Even a year ago, the notion that we could rest four key players against a top flight side, even a struggling top flight side, not play terribly well and still muddle through would have been ludicrous. Hell, we hadn’t beaten a top flight club in the FA Cup under any circumstances since Anthony McNamee’s incongruous goal at the Boleyn Ground in 2007 (and incidentally, you have to go back to Highbury twenty years earlier for such a win by more than a single-goal margin).

And the fact that this was so very low key in the relentless rain on a heavy pitch, and so very far from being convincing, doesn’t dismiss that possibility. Rare is the cup run that doesn’t involve muddling through a poor performance somewhere along the way. In 1987 we were pretty rubbish against Maidstone United before we got as far as Highbury. The third round win at Macclesfield in 2003 did not scream, “we’re heading for the semi-finals”. Only the Indian Sign we held over Ipswich for so long got us through the fifth round in 2007. Italy won the World Cup in 1982 without winning a first round game.

We could have done without using up that duff performance as early as the third round, admittedly… the FA Cup equivalent of using your Chance in Yahtzee on the first roll. We’re going to need to do better than this…

2- Those four restings of legs saw Guédioura, Prödl, Oularé and Berghuis in for Capoue, Britos, Ighalo and Abdi respectively, the latter four all on the bench in-case-of, while José Holebas continued at left back in place of the suspended Nathan Aké. On an individual basis the outcome can only be described as mixed, of which more later, but the impact on the team was marked. We were far more confident, imposing, aggressive and effective in each of our recent Premier League defeats at Vicarage Road, and not through wont of any effort or focus. The impact of the replacement of these key men only served to emphasise the magnitude of the achievement so far this season and building up to it… in terms of recruitment, performance, and the honing of the team into such an effective unit. Take some of those key pieces out and the whole thing doesn’t work nearly so well.

Perspective is everything, of course. Viewed dispassionately without context Newcastle would feel positive about their performance, if disappointed at the outcome and manner of it. They were the better side in the central third of the pitch more or less throughout the contest, and as the first half progressed they eked out more and more chances, Heurelho Gomes called into sprightly action more than once. In context of course, we’re still mentally punching above our weight whilst Newcastle have months, years, of lack of welly to look back on glumly. Nor was their play devoid of evidence of that backdrop… their defending panicky, not that we exploited it sufficiently, their final ball anxious. Nonetheless, they had gained the upper hand before the game’s decisive moment, Wijnaldum being closed down in midfield and playing a perfect through ball for Troy Deeney, who sleepwalked effortlessly past Elliot with the help of a dummy. The cliché “shooting yourself in the foot” was made for such instances. A gift for us, not just of a lead but of control of the game which was never uncomfortable thereafter.

3- Meanwhile, as suggested, our fringe players were experiencing mixed fortunes. Debutant Oularé, juggling with the conflicting expectations of a big transfer fee, a tender age and zero first team action up to this point, looked every inch the work in progress that Flores has alluded to. He looks an absolute beast physically, but his strength didn’t appear to match his physique… I was reminded of GT’s comment in respect of a young Peter Crouch, that really tall kids sometimes need a few years for their strength to catch up with their height. He looked leggy, got the ball stuck between his feet and failed to bully his opponents as we’d hoped and half-expected… but at the same time displayed awareness of what was going on around him with decent lay offs and flicks, and on one occasion when he found the space on the right to open up his legs Newcastle were suddenly backpedalling and not quite sure what to do. The only question really is whether a player who had already played in the Champions’ League will be happy with a peripheral role (for now). This concern can more obviously be applied to Steven Berghuis, who offered fewer signs of encouragement and at 24 is hardly the grass-green youngster that Flores’ comments paint him as. The coach asserts that there’s a lot of adapting to do, there’s raw material there and he’ll “get there”; you’re inclined to trust his judgement. The question is whether the perpetually grumpy looking Berghuis shares that patience.

The two more experienced players fared rather better. Daughter 1 is increasingly engaged by the football itself as much as the event (although both daughters spent a good ten minutes giggling at the possibility that the players’ shirt numbers, as their own, reflected their ages rather than squad numbers). Her first observation was that no 17 was doing really well – who’s he? She can be forgiven; a then eight year-old missed his eye-catching highlights of last season, the clubbed goal at Cardiff, the evil pass for Ighalo at Derby, the clouted shot at Forest. Here Guédioura shirked nothing; Flores has since suggested that he needs to calm down a bit, further evidence of the perceived importance of discipline in roles in the team – “the way we want to play”. Flores, too, has been won over as we have by the Algerian’s willingness to give it a go though… we’ll see more of him, one suspects, particularly given the peculiar and decisive-feeling omission of Behrami from the squad.

4- Half time saw Oularé replaced by Anya, facilitating a switch to 4-5-1 with Jurado “in the hole” behind Deeney. The intention, presumably, was to gain some control in midfield but the success of the change was questionable… the flexibility switching formations so in evidence in the promotion season didn’t seem to be there, people looking for options and runners where they didn’t exist. Admittedly the steady dribble of Newcastle creating chances (and ever new and creative ways to fluff them up) was abated, at least temporarily. The subsequent appearances of Abdi and Ighalo increased the quality of the side without increasing our threat, but it’s only on reflection that you realise that an attack with any confidence at all would have asked us far more serious questions. As it was, the result never felt in doubt… Perez was lively for the visitors but Mitrovic and substitute Thauvin were pictures of misery, the former resorting to a leap over a tackle to land inside the area in desparation, and both all but beating the ground in anguish as half-chances came and went.

Throughout all of which Sebastian Prödl, the other newbie, was as bloody-minded and defiant as you could hope of the brick-shithouse of a defender. If Britos and Cathcart have formed an excellent partnership and if the Urguayan is definitively the undroppable member of the trio, then Prödl’s appearances since his losing his place have done nothing but emphasise that we have three very decent centre-back options… indeed, the injured Hoban and Ekstrand might yet add to those options. The Austrian’s head was unfussily on everything that came into the box, while one surgically executed clearance to an awkward cross was significantly more than just “getting in the way”. Ausgezeichnet, that man.

5- Into the pot, then, in the hope that this win proves an unspectacular but necessary footnote to successes to come. As regards our league programme, there was plenty to suggest that the Magpies’ return in a fortnight will more of a challenge. For all of their low ebb, Sissoko, Perez and Mbabu created plenty and United were some conviction in front of goal away from being a very difficult opponent. We’ll have a different side out too, of course, but it might only take a goal going in off Mitrovic’s ample backside in the meantime for United to gain that confidence.

Otherwise, Newcastle were the second opponent to switch to three at the back to counter the (anticipated in this instance) threat of Deeney and Ighalo. Like Sunderland, they lost 1-0 anyway in games which nonetheless didn’t see the most imposing performances of our season. A beleaguered Southampton on Wednesday also switched to three at the back for their cup exit to Palace – with Wanyama again suspended they don’t really have the option of dropping someone back from the midfield (as Spurs did with Eric Dier). How our, presumably, restored first choice selection copes with this will be interesting. Popular wisdom has it that opponents will now be “wise to us”, will counter the perceived threat in the return fixtures. The rumoured pursuit of Andros Townsend becomes ever easier to understand.

Not dull, is it? You Orns….

The List (January edition) 05/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

You may remember last summer’s version of The List, which extended past 100 names by the end of that transfer window.  The list below will be updated until the window closes at the beginning of February;  as previously, I’m not going to attempt to validate or vet any rumours – a credibility bar for inclusion exists, but not set terribly high.  An Asterisk indicates a player who appeared in last summer’s list, but has resurfaced.  An “outgoing rumour” list is also included.

Running Total: 41

Juan Iturbe (Roma)*                                    – Joined Bournemouth on loan
Emmanuel Adebayor (Unattached)          – Joined Crystal Palace
Simone Zaza (Juventus)
Andros Townsend (Tottenham)                – Joined Newcastle
Jonathan Edwards (Peterborough)
Idriss Carlos Kameni (Malaga)
Keita Baldé Diao (Lazio)*
Sam Byram (Leeds)                                       – Joined West Ham
Thomas Partey (Atlético Madrid)
Abdul Camara (Angers)                                – Joined Derby
Mario Suarez (Fiorentina)                           – SIGNED
Rob Green (QPR)
Juan Camilo Zuniga (Napoli)
Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa)
Zach Clough (Bolton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Rennes)*                  – SIGNED
Nigel de Jong (Milan)
Sebastian Haller (Utrecht)
Nordin Amrabat (Malaga)                            – SIGNED
Henri Saivet (Bordeaux)                               – Joined Newcastle
Rico Henry (Walsall)
Jefferson Montero (Swansea)
Seydou Doumbia (Roma)*                          – Joined Newcastle on loan
Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool)
Charlie Austin (QPR)                                     – Joined Southampton
Pablo Sarabia (Getafe)*
Haviv Ohayon (Maccabi Tel Aviv)
Khouma el Babacar (Fiorentina)
David Enogela (Young Stars, Nigeria)
Joel Osikel (Young Eleven, Nigeria)
Matt Phillips (QPR)
Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid)
Paul Bernardoni (Troyes)
Costel Pantilimon (Sunderland)                         – SIGNED
Eddy Onazi (Lazio)
Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo)
Nathan Aké (Chelsea)
Loic Remy (Chelsea)
Denis Cheryshev (Real Madrid)                     – Joined Valencia on loan
Cheikh M’Bengue (Rennes)
Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn)                            – Joined Middlesbrough

Alessandro Diamanti (Fiorentina, Udinese, Livorno, Bologna, Atalanta)
– Joined Atalanta on loan
Odion Ighalo (Atlético Madrid, Arsenal, West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester United)
Valon Behrami (Udinese)
Troy Deeney (Arsenal)
Etienne Capoue (Milan)
Victor Ibarbo (Galatasaray, Atletico Nacional)   – Joined Nacional on loan
Jose Holebas (Marseille)
Uche Ikpeazu (Blackpool, Dundee United)         – Joined Blackpool on loan
Obi Oularé (Wolves)
Diego Fabbrini (Birmingham City)                      – Joined Birmingham City
Giedrius Arlauskis (Espanyol)                               – Joined Espanyol on loan
Adlène Guedioura (Sheffield Wednesday)



Watford 1 Manchester City 2 (02/01/2016) 03/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Have you noticed how folk are much more punctual for a 3’o’clock kick off than for a kick-off at any other time of day?  Evening kick-offs, fine… people are rushing from work or whatever.  But even a delay of a couple of hours is a deviation from routine sufficient to persuade the masses that cutting it fine is the way to play it.  In fairness it’s been raining all day, switching between half-arsed drizzle and petulant rain showers in the manner of someone channel-hopping between unappealing options, giving up with a “there’s never anything good on” and then flicking back ten minutes later.  If anyone’s got their timing wrong it’s us… for tedious logistical reasons we’ve been parked up since 3:30 and are in the ground an hour before kick-off.  Nobody else is, you all arrive with five minutes to spare, none of us quite sure what to expect in the last of our Big Four Christmas fixtures.

2- Oddly, what we get is precisely what might have been expected from such a fixture before the start of a season in which all convention has, thus far, been largely disregarded.  That script is one that became all too familiar on our previous visits to the top flight, particularly early in those campaigns:  Give it a good go against exalted opposition, take a lead, not quite hold out.  Been there before, seen that one played out (too) many times.   And it ends with opponents making all usual noises about how we’re such a good side and what a good three points it is for them.  All very worthy and polite.  Give me whinging about how unfair all of our goals were any day of the week.

3- By which faint praise of course I’m doing both the game and our part in it a disservice, since both are excellent. The first half ends goalless, but almost by accident… nobody’s quite got around to scoring any goals yet.  We have a good little spell that sees Nyom clout a shot narrowly over, Troy – not quite at his terrifying best – muscled out of a chance by Kolarov and Ighalo wriggle away from Otamendi to draw an excellent save from Hart.  City shift ominously into gear around the half hour mark and threaten to slice us up several times… but the immense shift that our lot put in (and Ben Watson’s ongoing heroics in midfield are as well highlighted here as anywhere) contribute to their players never quite having the space and the time to stick the knife in. The ball to Aguëro isn’t quite perfect, it’s too far beyond him.  Sterling has a chance but it’s fleeting and involves bodies flying across his path as he shovels his shot into the back of the Rookery.  Fine margins… but our industry pushes those margins.  Meanwhile Allan Nyom has resumed acquaintances with Raheem Sterling, who he booted into the hoardings at the Etihad earlier in the season in one of the more memorable fouls of the campaign so far, and it seems reasonable to assume that all is not forgotten.  The England forward’s goal was deemed critical in that earlier game; he’s bullied out of this one, it’s no surprise when he’s pulled on the hour.

4- The second half sees more of the same, at least initially.  The timbre of the occasion changes altogether when Ben Watson whips in another of those malicious corners of the sort that required such heroics from Lloris on Monday.  Joe Hart isn’t as lucky;  he’d have had a job on anyway, I think, but as it is a nick off Aleksandr Kolarov gives him no chance, takes a romantic edge off of what had initially appeared to be that four leaved clover, a goal straight from a corner, and leaves those of us who’d called it as Watson lined the kick up only marginally less smug and annoying.  We expect a kitchen-sinking from City and it doesn’t really come… indeed, there are moments where City’s defence seems to stand still as we break towards it, little in the shape of cover from midfield retrieving a situation.  They won the game of course, so who am I to criticise but it wouldn’t have taken much… Capoue, who disgraces himself by allowing Fernandinho a free header from a corner, almost makes up for it by bundling through some distracted challenges to be foiled by Hart’s attention (the keeper having smiled politely at the Rookery’s rendition of the “no no, there’s no dandruff” song from the advert, as if it’s the first time he’s been subjected to it).  Jose Holebas has had a couple of wobbly moments, but these are far outweighed by the positives including a couple of barrel-riding rampages into the area which perhaps merited more decisive finishes.  There’s no doubt, incidentally, that he’s an excellent left back.  If he were a bit rubbish there’d be no issue and no discussion.  Will be interesting to see what happens next there.

The other thing that changes is City’s emphasis, thanks to a bold change by Pellegrini that sees Bony on for Mangala, the sort of formation change that seems so obvious in such situations until you actually have responsibility for making it work.  Pellegrini demonstrates faith in his players’ ability and, ultimately, it pays off…. Ighalo and Holebas aren’t quite attentive enough at a left wing corner.  Cathcart isn’t quite sharp enough to the threat behind  him as Sagna’s cross flies in…. and you can’t help but wonder whether Sebastian Prödl’s presence might have lead to a different outcome.  Fine margins, though… not awful mistakes, not like Fernandinho’s free header.  Just the slivers of space that make top player’s jobs slightly easier and permit those brilliant finishes.  That’s all it took.

5- Much as I’ve dressed this up as Just Another One of Those Huff and Puff Defeats in Thunk 2, the big difference is the context, the backdrop.  Those narrow, worthy defeats of yore only got tiresome because we’d had so many of them.  When they kept happening, we began to figure that it was more than just bad luck.  Here…  four points from the last four games plus two narrow defeats is certainly no worse than par; Monday’s defeat hung on an officiating mistake, this game is an example of the genre in isolation and came despite a genuinely forceful performance.  Significantly, it feels like huge progress from the defeat in Manchester in August where the well-drilled-but-not-quite-adequate defensive wall was all we had – as Quique acknowledged post match.  This time we took the game to them, and were arguably the better side for three quarters of the game.  Against Manchester City, for goodness’ sake.

Nonetheless, this little facet of the fixture list always recalled a similar feature of 1999/2000, when the previous season’s top five came at us in sequence from the beginning of September.  We got three points from those five which was just about OK if you squinted at it, the run featuring a number of defeats of the sort described in Thunk 2.  It was the next two games, bad defeats against Boro and Coventry, that blew whatever belief we had left out of the water.  We’re in a very different place now… better run, better organised, a stronger squad, a bigger threat.  And luckier, touch wood, than the side that suffered so badly through injuries that season.  We’ve given everyone a game.  We are much, much stronger.  The next few games give us a platform to prove it.