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Watford 0 AFC Bournemouth 0 (27/02/2016) 29/02/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-   This is later than normal.  Normally the thunks, when it’s me and not him, are botched together on Saturday night in the living room, competing with whatever other family members are watching on the telly.  This time the process has had to wait until Sunday evening, delayed by a night with my parents in Essex and a school reunion today featuring some much older faces 25 year on and a number of much younger ones, of varying lack of age.  It was huge fun, and much needed.  I’m not going to rake over the Upper GT seating thing again – you know what I think, and you know what you think.  Just an aside… that when you’ve had a supremely difficult week, the thing that you normally lean on or escape to in such circumstances being a source of angst and frustration rather than pleasure in itself really doesn’t make things any easier.  So…  today’s event was welcome, even if the guys with guitars surely didn’t envisage that they’d be playing “She’ll be coming round the mountain…” at Feering community centre when we were, um, rocking Danbury village hall in 1990.  Keep it real, chaps.

2- If you’re looking for thunks heavy on detail, you’ve come to the wrong place.  This week, anyway.   More than ever, this is going to (have to) be a mood piece,  so how’s this for starters:  It’s been suggested that in Luton’s ongoing absence from relevance, recent encounters have rendered Bournemouth our new “rivals”.  I kinda get this…  we were a rubbish Wednesday goal apart in the chase for the title, there have been contentious meetings and so on and so forth.  I think I probably dislike Norwich, this Norwich, more… all the “best team in the Championship” nonsense,  the odious Hoolahan and their graceless victory at the Vic last season.  But I get it, I can see how it might be Bournemouth if we were forced to pick someone now.  What’s more questionable is whether a new rival is at all desirable.  I don’t miss Luton, and I don’t miss the derby games… the vacuous hostility, the banal hysteria.  Plus, I don’t miss rubbish games of football…

3- Actually this wasn’t that bad.  It certainly promised a lot as it opened… Bournemouth bounded forward like an overexcited puppy bundling through a crack in an open door, we almost caught them cold as Iggy surged straight back on the break and Boruc pawed his shot wide.  Briefly it looked like being a classic, but although Ighalo and Amrabat slipped neat shots narrowly wide our game was ultimately stifled by the visitors’ energy, whilst they weren’t able to do an awful lot with their own first-half possession.  Disappointingly, Ighalo’s game dwindled from a bright start, and Troy failed to capitalise on the presence of the England manager with one of his least convincing performances of the season.  The star turn in our attacking trio was Amrabat, fielded behind Ighalo with Troy and reveling in being able to break wide rather than being the focus of the attack.  Flores described him as a “knife” this week, and you could see that… he was a musketeer, his flourish, exuberance and ready grin matched by the ability to judge his cut and thrust.  Absolutely marvellous.

4- This section has been left deliberately blank for you to insert your own thunk, reflecting on Valon Behrami getting away with what should probably have been a penalty handball in the context of recent encounters with Bournemouth.

5- So the theory at half time was that our slightly sluggish first half was no disaster… that we’d come the closer despite that, and that the visitors had expended a lot of energy and we’d take advantage after the break.  We had a chance, perhaps the best chance of the game when Paredes and Amrabat combined down the right and the winger found Igahlo unmarked – unmarked, mind you – in the penalty box.  The cross bounced off his head and over, a silver lining provided by the Amrabat’s rapid encouragement of his team-mate.  But by the end of the game we were more than happy with a point, Gomes producing some fabulous stops to deny first Arter and then the impressive Gradel, protecting a point just as he had in our last home league game against Chelsea.  Anthony Taylor, meanwhile, had refereed in the manner of a distracted schoolmaster navigating boisterous corridors whose early indulgences chipped away at his temper until Watson, Cathcart and Behrami mistimed their late sprint down a corridor as the bell went and were yellow carded for offences earlier ignored.  It was all a bit annoying and unsatisfactory, but that this is a bad day says everything about our season.  Another point towards 40 but, let’s be honest, we’re not going down and go to Old Trafford hunting our first really big game of the season.  Bournemouth, on this evidence, won’t be going down either.


Watford 1 Leeds United 0 (20/02/2016) 21/02/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There’s been a lot of guff about the FA Cup this week.  The cup’s dying.  Replays should be scrapped.  The cup should move to midweek.  And so forth.  And I can’t help but feel that we’re talking ourselves out of it somewhat.  Because much as the money has inflated everything and made top flight status and Champions League qualification so much more consequential financially, there was never a point where the League didn’t matter.  Where anyone would have chosen the possibility of Cup glory over preserving their top flight status.  The next TV deal, when the Premier League sells itself to Mars or Atlantis or whatever and the numbers roll upwards again, doesn’t make the pot now any smaller.  And yet the FA Cup was still a big thing, once.  What has changed is the Champions’ League.   The number of games means that fixture lists are grotesquely overloaded… but only for the senior clubs involved.  As for the likes of us… I haven’t noticed our fixture list being overloaded.  Indeed, we’ve not had as few fixtures since… well, last time we were in the top flight, I expect.

It’s about slicing yet more of the pie for the elite clubs, one effect being denying sometimes hugely consequential replays to smaller sides; this endless quest was betrayed by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s quotes in conjunction with the perverse suggestions that the Champions League should guarantee places for the “big brand” clubs – “There’s a limit to how much more money can be made”.  It’s depressing that lower league club’s futures can be secured by the privilege of playing Manchester United or whoever, but more depressing that the disposal of replays is being discussed at all.  Ditto rendering the FA Cup a midweek tournament and rendering the big cup away day facilitated by big away allocations a thing of the past. My view:  if you want to stuff your snout in the Champions’ League trough then your squad ought to be strong enough to cope with the FA Cup.  If you’re that fussed about replays, you could maybe pick a strong side in the first place.

2- There’s a distinct lack of Cup fever at Vicarage Road for this one, it has to be said, where the more gormless of Watford’s support betray their long-standing desire to be Premier League wankers by trotting out the “One-nil on your big day out” chant, and gurning “who?” at Leeds subs, including Alex Mowatt who anyone paying any level of attention will have heard of.  That trick was moronic when Birmingham City were doing it to us 15 years ago, it’s now both moronic and old.

On the pitch there’s a strong Hornets side out with only Gomes and Ighalo plus, more debatably, Behrami, Aké and Jurado missing from whatever our strongest eleven is.  We start convincingly and dominate possession, threatening from set pieces of which we have a fair few… but Leeds are no pushover.  They’re sort of half-flashback half-tribute act; the former in the sense that they’re every inch a mid-table second tier side, the sort that we’ve played for ever.  Good enough at some things… defensively solid, switch from defence to attack pretty effectively… but with limitations that mean that they’re in the bottom half of the championship…. minimal attacking threat, and critically no pace at all with which to capitalise on those breaks.  The tribute act in the sense that… well, they’re Dirty Leeds.  Daughter Two has been using this monicker all week, as innocently as if she were saying “Leeds United”… I explained the basis, she’s not disappointed.  Leeds aren’t violent but they’re cheap, clumsy thugs.  By the end of the half the game is more even, our superiority somewhat lost in an increasingly sludgy match, but Leeds are an ogre with frostbite trying to thread a needle.  We’re never in danger.

3- Of particular interest are new boys Nordin Amrabat and Mario Suárez, both of whom making a first home start. The Moroccan reiterated this week that he sees the wing as his natural position… here he was deployed as the most advanced striker.  He worked hard and made some decent runs, but it’s not quite clicking yet…  early days of course, but whilst he looked mobile and willing this was a less effective, less impressive outing than his full debut in the previous round at the City Ground.  Suárez however lasted the full ninety, and looked very tidy.  Not flawless,  caught in possession once or twice, but elegant, aware, pinging accurate passes… but hard as nails as well, not afraid of a challenge.  A highlight that will no doubt delight my absent co-editor was an upgraded reprise of a Vicarage Road classic, the “Coxy into the wall” free kick..  Suárez’s late tribute, strictly speaking a shot following a lay-off from a free-kick, was fierce enough to provide assurance that even if it doesn’t reach the target it will render whichever opponent is in the way collateral damage for the remainder of the attack.

4- We’re much, much brighter and punchier in the second half.  More aggressive, more determined. Our superiority is realised within ten minutes;  the magnificent Ben Watson whips a Beckham cross in as the ball breaks from a corner and Troy scores the goal without touching it, Wootton turning the ball neatly into the net in fear of the buccaneering centre-forward coming in behind him.  As it happens Troy wasn’t there at all, largely because Bridcutt – who had just gone into the book for a nasty stamping challenge on Capoue – had hauled him over.  Instant karma for Dirty Leeds.

We briefly threaten to run riot.  Almen Abdi, a force for good throughout, scythes straight through the middle of Leeds’ defence before shovelling his shot into the Rookery.  Capoue does find the net, converting neatly only to be denied by, ostensibly, a harsh call against Troy by Michael Oliver whose bizarre afternoon would we worthy of more lines were it of any consequence. Ultimately the score stays as it is, and it’s due in part to us getting irritatingly ahead of ourselves, Capoue and the rampaging Holebas both chasing debut goals with better options open, the sort of indulgence that would have been forgivable at 3-0 but would have been far less so had Leeds accidentally scored to level the tie.  They didn’t; we recorded a relatively inconspicuous victory, no bad thing, which despite Steve Evans’ rather bizarre appraisal was never less than comfortable.

5- There’s a line the gets trotted out on the radio occasionally, a non-statement used to lazily summarise supporters into one glib cliché.  “Supporters just want to watch their team win “.  Winds me up every time.  You’re being paid for this, right?  If it were true, it would be of no value in helping this listener appreciate any situation (in other news, bear shits in wood).  But I’m not sure this is all supporters want.  It’s not even the most important thing.

Over recent weeks the club have gently started to publicise plans to expand the corporate seating facility in the upper tier of the Graham Taylor stand.  This will have the consequence of 220 supporters in the two blocks either side of the black seats up to the entrance to the concourse being “relocated”.  Many of those supporters have been there for decades… some since the stand was built.  All are owed more by the club than this sort of treatment, so utterly out of keeping with the considered and well-judged decisions of this administration.  Put simply, an increase in corporate seating is only likely to be considered whilst we remain in the top flight… given which the TV monies incoming render a moderate increase in corporate sales an irrelevance, certainly not justifying alienating even a small element of the support.  And their friends.  And their friends.  Are these supporters supposed to move elsewhere and continue to rock up without bitterness as the prawn sandwich brigade shuffle into their old seats ten minutes after half time?

When you support a football club actively you’re not buying a product, you’re buying belonging… even as top flight club (if that’s what we’re to be).  It is hugely surprising and disappointing that the club have made such an uncharacteristically insensitive decision.  The most important thing to supporters is not to “watch their team win”.  More important even than that, is to simply watch their team.

Watford 0 Chelsea 0 (03/02/2016) 04/02/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Fred turned two a couple of weeks before Christmas. Fred is utterly, utterly obsessed with “Frozen”. He’s fairly obsessed with various other Disney films too – “Beauty and the Beast” particularly, and “The Little Mermaid” too – but it’s “Frozen” which fills his every waking hour (and a few of the sleeping ones too, I’d wager).

Now, I realise that as a middle-aged man with vaguely left-field tastes, I’m supposed to be wearily dismissive of such things. But I won’t have any of that: I pity anyone so worn down by life that they can’t appreciate romantic candyfloss with magic and songs and jokes and princes and princesses and castles and slightly-scary-but-not-really monsters and all of that. What’s not to love? I mean, you can watch Phil sitting drunkenly in a puddle of his own piss and staring up helplessly at the perpetual drizzle as if it were his God on EastEnders instead if you really want, but it won’t make you live any longer.

What’s fascinating – to me, anyway – is how Fred’s “Frozen” fixation works as a doorway to all kinds of learning and development. His two-year-old friends have different fixations but to the same end; it’s one of the ways in which nature gently leads them by the hand. By latching onto something and examining it in minute detail over and over again, he keeps pushing forward his language, his understanding, his imagination. He uses it to fuel his endless drawing and colouring; he learns and sings the songs, complete with wonderful arm-waving crescendos; he brings the characters into his world and plays with them…and he gains an unbelievable sixth-sense for the tiniest bit of “Frozen”-related tat on a supermarket aisle that you haven’t even looked down yet. Honestly, you could fire Fred into orbit around Mars and he’d still be able to spot the “Frozen” baby wipes in Bexhill Tesco.

Most recently, he’s begun to play with the idea that there are characters he doesn’t like…and more, that there are characters he doesn’t like when they’re angry but does like when they’re not. This is a scale on which judgements are still being plotted and re-plotted on a daily basis, sometimes impulsively and sometimes with great thought. At the far end of the scale, beyond the familiar “don’t like” is a much more permanent, substantial verdict: “can’t like”. Here we find, among one or two others, the Evil Queen from Snow White: “No, can’t like Evil Queen. Can’t.” Please insert your own Diego Costa gag here.

2. In thinking ahead to this game, I’ve spent time trying to come up with something about Chelsea that I could like. As any self-respecting When Saturday Comes reader should, I despise nearly everything about the Big Four or Five or Hateful Eight or whatever they are. But it’s nigh-on impossible not to have a grudging respect for, say, Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements or Dame Arsene Wenger’s longevity. It’s also nigh-on impossible to feel anything much about Manchester City, in the same way I have no opinion at all about “Downton Abbey”. In each of these cases, like is a strong word, but I can’t can’t like either, not completely.

Chelsea, though…I mean, blimey.

I momentarily wondered if my opinion of the club might be distorted by the insufferable antics of Jose Mourinho…and it’s true that if a house guest takes a dump in the bath, it’s hard to see past it to their other virtues. But I’ve been on the case for a couple of days now and I confess that I’m really struggling. I know several Chelsea fans who I like very much and count as friends, but the club can hardly claim much credit for that. Um. I think Pat Nevin’s all right. Um.

I think of myself as a generally fair and reasonable person. On that basis, I just cannot believe that a hundred-odd years of history can have given us nothing more than a slight winger who likes Joy Division and wears spectacles…and “given” is a bit charitable even then, let’s face it. There must be more, dear reader. There simply must. Even Luton did mumble mumble cough back, um, then.

Answers on a postcard, please.

3. But that’s enough about them. Let’s talk about us. And let’s do that because for half an hour or so of this utterly captivating goalless draw, we were really, really good. Not spirited, not gutsy, just plain old really good.

In previous failed campaigns, these games have been like cup ties in which we might pull off a giant-killing, something to take with us back downstairs. Here, the announcement of the Chelsea teamsheet – him, him, him, him, him, him, him, him, him, him and him, with the other ones on the bench – might’ve led you to expect similar, whatever the league table might say. But none of that: as the game settled down into a pattern, it was our pattern, our style, that increasingly held sway.

There was no sense of a gap being bridged, no point at which you had to suspend your disbelief. No Steve Palmer and Gianfranco Zola moment. These days, we’re an adept, composed, flexible and powerful side, one that’s being coached sympathetically and one that’s subject to considerable, but considered, investment. It’s not merely that we don’t look out of place, we suddenly aren’t out of place. We’ve very much where we should be.

4. For that half hour, Ben Watson runs the show. Most of the plaudits have understandably gone elsewhere, but that’s good reason to shine the light into the grubbier corners of the midfield and seek him out. Every Chelsea move seems to stumble unwittingly into him like a drunk colliding with a policeman at two in the morning; the ball is laid off and we’re away, feeding the impish Jurado further upfield and probing away at the Chelsea backline to see where it might yield. The ball is lost, the yellow shirts funnel back, and then they bump into Watson again and we’re away again. He builds a symphony out of the most simple melodies. He does nothing of any great note and yet is the best player on the pitch by a distance.

Chelsea are forced deeper and deeper. Jurado flits around, Deeney dominates in the air, Ighalo does that ridiculous thing where he loses the ball in plain sight and yet emerges with it anyway, Paredes threatens on the right, Holebas threatens on the left, the midfield keeps driving it all forward. I’m struggling not to repeat my earlier verdict: we’re really, really good. We just don’t score. At the peak of it all, we get bloody close: a wondrous cross from Holebas that begs to be dumped into the net by Ighalo, who completely mis-times his header, followed shortly afterwards by a blast from Capoue that’s parried by Courtois. Close, but we don’t score.

5. That happens, of course. It’s why you need to make sure that you don’t get carried away. One of the very few criticisms you could level at us this season is that we’ve let our imaginations run away with us sometimes. This was an evening when the opening – possibly winning – goal was so close and so tantalising that we could’ve been forgiven for chasing after it like a kitten after a butterfly, but we needed to keep our heads. We needed them to get nil. We have to learn.

There were scares. It’s Chelsea, there are bound to be scares…although a great punt upfield isn’t the most likely source, Diego Costa nearly finding the bottom corner after fending off the attentions of two defenders. Costa is a pest, but there’s not a lot of threat from elsewhere, for all Willian’s trickery and Oscar’s Juradoish flitting. Fabregas was there, apparently. We’re watchful, but we have things under control: Prodl picks up a daft booking for a hack but is otherwise magnificent, Cathcart is diligence personified.

The half concludes with a bad-tempered kerfuffle between Paredes and Costa, thus fulfilling the latter’s contractual obligations like a weary comedian rolling out a once-popular catchphrase while opening a mini-mart. Boo, Evil Queen, boo. (It transpires that Paredes started it, if we’re going to descend to that level. So, I guess…boo, Paredes, boo. Tellingly, Costa was on his feet and demanding the ball after shoving his opponent to the deck: he’s looking for that kind of confrontation, for the situations in which he can gain an edge, and few players are better at taking advantage. We needed to keep our heads.)

6. You wouldn’t expect a side with as much quality as Chelsea, or a coach as well-travelled as Guus Hiddink, to let the second half be a repeat of the first. And it wasn’t. Our substitutions tell a story, I think: retreating ambition as the game went on, to the point where Mario Suarez’s debut didn’t actually involve touching the ball and yet still looked quite decent in context. We held our own for a bit, Deeney firing a snap-shot wide and Holebas hitting the side netting from a tight angle, but Chelsea gradually ticked off the things on their stuff-to-do list: sit on Jurado, sit on Ighalo, push Paredes back, and so on, and so on. They took control. Such a joy in the first half, Jurado was gone within fifteen minutes, disappearing like the second album by a one-hit wonder. Ighalo barely touched the ball. Holebas was exposed defensively. Capoue disintegrated. By the game’s final quarter, we were pretty much hanging on.

By the end, we had Heurelho Gomes to thank for a valuable point. What a signing he has been. He had been involved before – most notably to divert Ivanovic’s close-range effort around the post – but the game’s defining moment came late on, as Willian’s cross found Costa lurking at the far post. You sometimes get an odd view of things at the other end from the Rookery, but at other times you can see it all perfectly from that distance. One of those moments when you involuntarily mouth the word “goal” and brace yourself for the punch. You see Costa connect, you see the ball heading for the top corner, you give it up as lost. And then the empty space on that side of the goal is filled entirely by Gomes’ enormous frame and a massive stretching hand; it’s as if someone’s freeze-framed the video and edited him in. Slow-motion never does those kind of saves justice: it gives the impression that there was time, but there was no time. I made a noise that I’m not sure I’ve ever made in a football ground before, and I apologise to those in my vicinity.

7. It’s hard to be proud of faffing around by the corner flag to see out the final minutes of a goalless draw at home. But it’s even harder to care. We’re getting older and wiser, less prone to lapses in concentration and less indulgent in flights of fancy. Take the point. We damn well earnt it. It’s a draw with the champions, for heaven’s sake. More importantly, it’s another point towards safety.

Once upon a time, we would’ve had to take pride in the result, the league position being irretrievable. Now, it’s just the means to an end. And besides, it’s only Chelsea. It’s not like they’re Spurs or Leicester or anything, right?