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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?


1. Robin - 04/02/2016

Never forgiven Nevin for the late winner at Prenton Park in May 93. So there isn’t even that.

2. Nick Corble - 04/02/2016

Due to late ticket purchase I was in the Lower GT for a change and the eyeline view of that save was worth the ticket price on its own.

Will there be Doyley-esque ‘I was there when Capoue scored’ T-shirts when it eventually happens?

3. Harefield Hornet - 04/02/2016

Had a discussion with a very grumpy Chelsea suporter in the pub after the match who accused us of parking the bus! Even if there was any truth in this – what goes around.etc……..! .

Onward to the Lane to annoy the next lot! COYH

4. Stuart Campbell - 04/02/2016

The last time I made a comment here was, I think, in BSad days. Maybe. My memory can be pretty duff. I have seven grandchildren for heaven’s sake… the youngest being precisely the same age as Fred. So don’t you dare feel old, Mr Grant!

I live in Newark these days, meaning a pretty epic journey to home games at the Vic. And putting evening games beyond reasonable reach. (It was, however, a doddle getting to the City Ground last Saturday!).

So, reading BHaPPY reports have become even more essential. And even more of a pleasure. Must say Ian, you’ve surpassed yourself with this one. Brilliant stuff, young man!

Your description of this Watford team… you know, that Premier League outfit… is exactly what we’re all experiencing. I’d suggest that opposition fans are experiencing similar, but mirror-image, feelings. To twist your short paragraph…

Watford, though… I mean, blimey.

(With apologies for the lack of italics on “blimey”. Can’t figure out how to do that on an iPad.)

Ian Grant - 04/02/2016

Thanks for the kind words, Stuart. I do feel old, though. Or tired. Or old and tired. I can’t really decide, possibly due to oldness and tiredness. I did go to bed at 2am, though, so maybe that has something to do with it…

5. Pete in the GT - 04/02/2016

“Every Chelsea move seems to stumble unwittingly into him (Ben Watson) like a drunk colliding with a policeman at two in the morning” -brilliant.

Worth the admission like that bit where Ighalo smuggled the ball away to set off up the pitch trying to beat five players on his own.

6. Mark Turner - 05/02/2016

Ian, this report was sublime. I couldn’t help myself smile about Fred and ‘Frozen’, a film I haven’t seen yet.

As a Chelsea fan first (1970s) and then Watford (1980s) can I suggest David Webb’s goal in the 1971 Cup Final vs the hated Leeds or Peter Osgood or Peter Bonetti or Chopper Harris or John Hollins or Charlie Cook or Peter Houseman (my favourite cos he played on the left wing as I did for my primary school) as a reason to “like” Chelsea?

7. thehornet35 - 05/02/2016

It’s funny how we get protective over our players, I felt affronted by Guus Hiddinks comments about Parades (rightly or wrongly), but to be honest, I don’t care what they’re going to say, let the storm rage on, that clod never bothered me anyway.

Ian Grant - 05/02/2016

Gold star to you. Very good.

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