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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.


1. Craig Burley - 24/01/2016

It was immediately after I began finally feeling able to say, to others, that we are really quite good, that the defeats started. Thankfully I kept saying it during the losses. No, I didn’t watch the Saints game.

And, yes, we are really quite good. Really!

2. Red - 24/01/2016

Any thoughts on the state of the pitch?

Ian Grant - 25/01/2016

Well, not really. It looked dreadful prior to kickoff and a couple of players were taking an extra touch early on, but it didn’t seem like too much of a factor thereafter. You’d hope that it’d bed down, obviously, otherwise it’ll have been a bit of a waste of time and money.

3. Luke - 24/01/2016

…”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”

Yep, that about nails it.


4. Roger Smith - 24/01/2016

I once had a soundbite on 3CR: “you can always tell a Watford supporter – he spends more time looking at his watch than he does the game.”

That said, I was fairly comfortable until Capoue fired over when he had no fewer than three other forwards queueing up to put the game to bed, including Iggy unmarked at the far post. Then I didn’t have to go as far back as you to foresee the equaliser or worse.

But credit where it’s due: like you, I approached this game with trepidation. But QF flummoxed not only me with his tactical change, but an ex-England manager.

5. Andi - 24/01/2016

* Classic Mike Vince right there! Always used to make me giggle that one.

Ian Grant - 25/01/2016

Well done.

6. Goldenboy60 - 24/01/2016

This game was a real worry for me. Having beaten them twice, and with Newcastle apparently in ascendency and unlikely that in the Premier League we could beat the same side 3 times in one season. And with their new expensive signings, and with games against Chelsea and Spurs coming up, i’m thinking, 7 losses on the trot could kill confidence throughout the club, and the terraces.

But no. Delighted to say that we really stood up to be counted on Saturday, and we passed the test. This was a massive 3 points taking us into the 30’s and within spitting distance of safety. If we can get over the 40 point line, perhaps we can play more freely, and us on the terraces will enjoy it a little more!

If that day comes it will be a real joy to hold on to, and no mean achievement even in this topsy turvy Premier League season.

And Leicester for Champions?

7. dandjwray - 25/01/2016

Missed this game as enjoying some sunshine in NZ
Your report though Ian has brought me to a state of mindfulness and I didn’t have to suffer the agony as I was asleep!

JohnM - 25/01/2016

You too? Reading this sunburnt in Taupo

8. Sequel - 25/01/2016

Great report Ian, especially your point about Plan B.
I’m starting to like Jurado; he’s been threatening to come out of his shell for a few games now, so let’s hope he stays out of it. He reminds me a lot of Nigel Callaghan: he dropped his shoulders a couple of times on Saturday and ran at the defence the way Cally used to. He also polarises opinion in much the same way too…

Robin - 27/01/2016

Like Callaghan, except without any end product. HBow many assists this season? For all the time he had the ball at his feet, was there ever a moment he looked like he might actually do something useful with it, rather than try to pass straight through a black and white shirt?
Conversely, Capoue can pretty much be guaranteed to create a chance out of nothing, before messing up the finish. Perhaps he should be on standing orders never ever to even attempt to go for goal?

Ian Grant - 28/01/2016

Yes, the anti-Johnno. Dooooon’tshooooooot.

Re: Jurado. Sorry, really don’t agree with regard to the game in question. Thought he was extremely good in possession and always looking to keep the ball moving positively; the ball stuck for long periods in the final third, and his free role meant that we kept dragging the Newcastle defence around for the ultimate benefit of Deeney and Ighalo. It won’t always work, but it worked very well on Saturday.

9. Old Git - 25/01/2016

The last two goals conceded have both come from corners when an opposing player has been first to the ball and has simply nodded it in, just inside the post and way beyond the keeper’s reach. Whatever happened to the idea of having a defender on each post when a corner is conceded? With a defender on each post, Swansea’s goal last week and Newcastle’s on Saturday would have been easily headed away. When Lascelles scored there must have been at least eight yellow shirts in the box, yet none in any of the right places. Then, in stoppage time on Saturday we conceded a late corner and again, left each post unguarded.
This comment is prompted by seeing Charlie Austin’s goal against United on MotD… nodded straight in from a corner, exactly into that part of the goal that could easily have been guarded by a defender on the post. This practice used to be pretty much an essential part of the game.
Any ideas as to when it stopped? And why? It seems so simple.

Ian Grant - 25/01/2016

Simple answer: no. But I seem to recall that Ray Lew was against it too. It seems simple, but I guess you’re surrendering two defenders from those detailed to mark opponents or cover zones. I imagine that’s the case against.

simmos - 26/01/2016

I seem to recall Ray Lewington as well as each of our successive managers saying something along the lines that if you need players on the posts then the other players in the team aren’t doing their jobs

10. Mark T - 25/01/2016

Brilliant…put into words exactly how I was feeling…

11. James - 25/01/2016

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the formation. We spent a lot of time looking for a out-ball in the first half and a big gap opened up between our front three and the rest of the team.
Jurado has certainly improved but this formation relies a great deal on him to link defence and attack. It also reduces the impact of Capoue because he’s generally only able to pick the ball up on the right-hand side.
Obviously this formation looks like it does the job, because we won. But we only just won, against a poor side who had more than enough chances to bury us. I’d argue that Capoue is a better player, overall, than Jurado, so we should build the side around him and get him in the position where he can have the most influence, which is central. That doesn’t necessarily mean losing Jurado, but it probably means taking Behrami out and bringing in someone a little more attacking.

12. Daniel - 26/01/2016

And to be more precise re ‘Ngonge’s decoy’…believe it came from hilarious commentary in our pivotal 2-1 victory vs Tranmere which started the classic ’99 run. If only Ngonge had the ability to deliberately do that kinda thing !!!

Ian Grant - 26/01/2016

Nearly, but not quite. It was the second goal in this game: http://www.bsad.org/9899/reports/palaceh.html. I had a great deal of admiration for Michel Ngonge, I must say: he may not have been all of the things we’d have wished him to be, but I’ve rarely seen a player try harder against the odds than he tried during that Premiership season. Injuries and loss of form elsewhere meant that he needed to be about four different players rolled into one; my God, he did his best.

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