And another thing… 25/04/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. I hate Wembley. The new one, that is. The old one was fine; it had faults but everything’s got faults, although it’s true that not everything’s faults smell quite so pungently of wee.
2. Anyway. I hate Wembley. I hate everything about Wembley. If you take away the stadium, you’re left with a bleak, remorselessly grey corner of north London devoted to concrete and car parks; you’d no more come here for a day trip than you’d wear a “Kiss Me Quick” hat to South Bermondsey. But someone did put the stadium back, and decorated it with a big arch because, y’know, there used to be towers so, um, now there’s a big arch, and you have to come for a day trip because there’s a football match that you want to see, somewhere over there, somewhere underneath the big arch, somewhere behind all the people taking selfies. No, I don’t want my face painted.
3. For fifty quid, you get a ticket so large that it can’t possibly fit into any of your pockets and that threatens at any second to blow away and be lost forever on one of the many gusts that swirl around this desolate hellhole. As always with football, money and size are everything; presumably the tickets for the final are A3 and laminated in frozen unicorn tears. As always with football, what might once have had some romance – walking down “Wembley Way” and all that – has been turned into commercial circus. I’ve got a thunderous headache. I feel as if I may not be getting into the spirit of it all.
4. You buy a bottle of water on your way up to London. On entry to the ground, you’re forced to empty that bottle of water into a plastic pint glass. You place that pint glass under your seat, propping it carefully so that it doesn’t spill. The teams come out, yellow, red and black confetti everywhere. Several bits of crepe paper land in your pint glass. They slowly disintegrate, turning your water pink or grey. Or, if you’re particularly unlucky, yellow.
5. Oh, you miserable sod. Yes, I know. But here’s the thing: I’ve got all of my joy and tears and disbelief stored up for the moment when we win, for the moment when we’re going to a Cup Final again. I just want that bit, only that bit. And then I want to win that too. Give me that and I’ll be drunk on it until the day I die. If not, bollocks to it all.
6. This vast, plastic, airless stadium renders you powerless. It’s like watching a dream unfold: you know what’s going to happen but you can do nothing to intervene. Your voice is muffled, suffocated, silenced. As in 2013, you’re watching ninety minutes of football that you’ve spent weeks thinking about, chewing over, preparing for…and it’s drifting by in the exhausted, dulled haze of a Sunday morning hangover. People fidget listlessly like they’re at the back of a Bryan Adams concert; chit-chat and popcorn and spilled drinks and slowly deflating balloons.
7. One of the most important football matches of your entire life is about to end. You spend its last ten minutes trying to work out how best to get back to civilisation. You wish it away and it meekly obeys.
8. I don’t often hate my football club. Not actively, not really. But here, the level of satisfaction at the season’s undoubted achievements makes me furious, the sense of turning up for the occasion but not for the match makes me despair. Right now, I don’t care what expectations were in August; I know, I understand and I don’t bloody care. All that matters is the opportunity spurned. Palace, below us in the league, demanded that the day bend to their will; we mumbled something about how it’d be quite nice but, you know, all a bit of a bonus and so on and so forth. Who knows when we’ll have a chance like that again…
9. You delete the highlights, unwatched. You make other plans for the 21st. You vent your frustration to anyone who’ll listen and eventually get most of it out of your system. But something’s changed, irreversibly changed. A distance that wasn’t there before. A sense of difference, of separation.
10. There’ll be people who make lots and lots of money out of Premier League survival. They should be careful it doesn’t blind them to the importance of making history too.
Crystal Palace 2 Watford 1 (24/04/2016) 25/04/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Sometimes these reports are enjoyable to write. Winning helps, of course, but it’s not a perfect correlation… there are interesting defeats too, defeats that don’t quite feel like being slapped in the face. This isn’t one of those times. This is the sort of occasion when you kinda suspect that everyone wants to forget it as much as you do. You have to force yourself to put fingers to keyboard. Because if you’re going to reflect on the reality of supporting the club… well this is part of it. It would be a shallow soul who chose to report only on the good bits, discarding the difficult bits that make the good all the more satisfying.
Lewy had set the tone earlier in the week. In the email discussion that had organised tickets and pubs he’d referred to “Sunday’s inevitable heartbreak”, which irritated me. It irritated me because I felt it too… something intangible, a wrongness. I countered with bloody-minded defiance. I’m normally circumspect with predictions but no, this time We Were Going To Win. It had to be so. But then things like Man United beating Everton, a possibility for Palace to avenge 1990 rather than us to avenge 1984, kept chipping away…
2- Equally cheerfully, the Hornets on the adjacent table on the train down from Bedford to West Hampstead had nailed it… a very nice day out (was to be) spoiled by a game of football. Our 2013 experiences had honed our planning, a big meeting of friends and family in jocular mood. Pubs and trains full of grins, ambles down Wembley Way featuring team photos and chance meetings. And inside the ground… colour and balloons and confetti and bouncing and noise. Daughter 1 diligently scampered around the gangway below our seats retrieving the balloons that were sucked bafflingly and unerringly into it, dispatching them into the crowd and watching their passage with approval. It was a good day.
Then the football started. Watford began slowly, lethargically. Palace started as if it was a Cup semi-final. Aggressively, energetically. Only five minutes in, yet it was no great surprise when they scored… and it was pathetic. Or rather, it was the sort of simple, unimaginative goal that a team scores to nose ahead of a complacent opposition. It was as much as it needed to be… a near post flick-on, a far post header. Hardly requiring of much imagination or skill. Just competence and focus on their part, and a lack of the same on ours. And suddenly, we were back in 2013 again. Grim. Silent. There were straws to grasp at… Nyom got down the right and put in a cross that was deflected narrowly wide. Capoue powered through the midfield leaving bodies trailing in his wake… and then later bust his knee. “That looks awful,” said Will. Capoue defied him by getting to his feet and trying to play on, before collapsing again. “That looks awful,”, said Will.
3- Suárez was the selection from the bench. He did OK for me, without pulling up any trees, but the lack of consensus – and volume of shrugging – amongst our group in discussing potential replacements as Capoue writhed on the Wembley turf spoke volumes about the state of our midfield. Comprehensively less than the sum of its parts for some time it is shapeless and without clear roles or responsibilities – with the exception of Ben Watson, overrun on this occasion. Almen Abdi has put the effort in to “adapt” where Matej Vydra didn’t; his reward has been to fade into an inadequate wide role whilst the players signed to do what used to be his job flail ineffectively in turn. Part of me thinks that this sort of circumstance is an inevitable consequence (occasionally) of the Pozzo approach, the rough to be accepted with the (very) smooth. You bring in good players, players that are available and who have potential to grow but haven’t necessarily been signed to do a particular job here, now, and you end up with twenty seven central midfielders and no width. Maybe. So sometimes you end up with Jurado and Abdi wide because why would you choose not to have two such players in your squad and the wide players you really wanted didn’t come and so you make do. And in all honesty, this midfield has got us to mid-table and a Cup Semi final, and so on, and so on. It still looks rubbish today though.
4- Half time is glum. The girls dutifully munch their sandwiches. Only at the start of the second half does the flaw in my logistical planning reveal itself… half-time, with the match finishing at 6 (maybe) and then the queue and the tube and the train, half-time was the best time for dinner. But if the girls are having their food at half-time, there’s something else that they’re not doing. A regular half-time activity. Daughter 1 is bouncing up and down within five minutes, as children do in such circumstances. An inward sigh, and I ask whether we ought to descend into the massive concourse and address the situation. “No, I might miss something”. I’m unspeakably proud. Within minutes she’s rewarded, Deeney’s thunderous header putting us back on terms.
Things are better. Straight away, things are better. The noise explodes from the Watford end and briefly, too briefly, the tide has turned in our favour. Palace are back on their heels and we’re taking the game to them. The yellow masses roar encouragement. This will not be another let down, Palace had their chances, they’d bossed the first half but it had only been a one goal deficit. We’d held them off, now we had our reward. Downhill from here on in.
The cross was from nothing. Palace had been on the back foot. And again, too easy. The cross, the header, too easy. Yes it was in the corner, but Costel seemed to react late, to chase it into the net. And that was it, really. Much as our second half was better, much as Guedioura added much-needed energy, it was never happening. Even when we let rip in desperation in the final ten minutes or so, I was thinking “surely, surely you get salvation from these situations sometimes, surely it doesn’t always have to be a countdown to the grim finality of the final whistle”…. rather than perching on the edge of the seat in anticipation. It wasn’t quite game over in fairness. I thought Guedioura had scored, when he shot narrowly wide. Ighalo had a chance too… I missed that, as nature finally caught up with daughter 1. But the grim finality came anyway.
5- In the build-up to the game, with criminally inappropriate timing, the possibility of Quique being replaced in the summer had reared it’s head. National commentators, putting the club’s achievements this year alongside expectations, have guffawed at the mere suggestion. And they’re right, of course. Seventeenth or higher was the target, whatever the circumstances. Job done and then some. Talk of replacing him perverse. And yet… I find myself not as appalled by the possibility as perhaps I ought to be. Here’s the thing. Our form has dwindled since Christmas, but the pattern of results isn’t consistent with a drop in confidence, psychological exhaustion. Had that been the case then the victories, when they’ve come, would have been seized upon with glee, capitalised on, romped off with. They haven’t. They’ve been achieved – earned – and then… as you were. Ighalo, most visibly, has tailed off and his attitude reeks of complacency. The hard work’s done, the foot’s off the pedal. As we’ve discussed, he badly needs some competition – for a break where needed, for a bit of pressure on his position. But he’s only the most visible and most problematic for that reason, our team plan falls down without him. A solid defence with a goal threat is a whole different thing to a solid defence with limited goal threat. He’s not the only one though, as Lewy pointed out trudging glumly back down Wembley Way. When we beat Liverpool in December we swarmed over their midfield. How often have we seen that sort of energy since?
Watford’s administration have defined themselves by looking forward at what’s coming and making decisions accordingly ,rather than being purely reactive… most famously in making the change last summer – whatever the contractual wrangling or lack of it, it seems clear that they saw Slav as the man to get us promoted, not to keep us up. Perhaps they were right, we’ve done alright by the decision. It would be altogether out of character if, at the very least, serious discussions about the team’s attitude have not been had. This is something that needs sorting.
1- We always lose at the Hawthorns. Actually… it had been a long time since we’d beaten Albion at all, and that had been an away game but it was so long ago that there wasn’t even a BSaD report. My memories of coming here involve being absolutely tonked on any number of occasions, with the likes of Bob Taylor and Lee Hughes making hay. Even the relatively good days didn’t involve winning as such.
I like Albion – in as much as you ever actually like another team. A good honest club, the sort of place where you’re not surprised to find an excellent fanzone featuring Norwich (“best team in the Championship”) being tonked by Sunderland on a big screen, plenty of space, loos, drinks, eats and live music (note to self for next season – ha! – this beats the cramped interior of the Smethwick End hollow).
Nonetheless, my expectations were non-existent, and as we added our own predictions to those of the local mascots on the stage my “scruffy 1-0” was borne less of prescience than of a sense of obligation.
2- It really was scruffy though, particularly the first half. There was something vaguely reassuring about that, as if it demonstrated that in this rarified football environment there’s still a place for a bobbins game of football high on endeavour and boisterousness, low on smooth edges. It was the sort of game that only the supporter of either side could enjoy – and I suspect we’d have enjoyed it a whole lot less if we’d lost. Either way… it’s comforting that games like this are still allowed, games in which crossfield passes fly into the stand, in which the referee has to make any number of decisions about fouls that could have been climbing or could have been backing in and were probably both. Between two sides who will be in the Premier League next season no less (ha!).
And reassuring, most of all, that we won it. Because success this season was never going to be achieved solely by humiliating Liverpool, flattening West Ham. It needed the brushing aside of inferior sides too – Newcastle, Villa, Sunderland, Swansea. And it needed the winning of games like this, games where we didn’t necessarily play better than the other lot, didn’t deserve to win. But won anyway.
3- Which isn’t to say that we didn’t play well, or that there weren’t good things about our performance. Étienne Capoue looks infinitely more comfortable and confident back in the centre. José Jurado danced and skipped and dazzled on the left; it would be nice to have a variation on the “cutting inside” trick, but knowing what he’s going to do and stopping him from doing it are quite different things. Miguel Britos and Nathan Aké both threw themselves in front of things to good effect, as West Brom’s periods of dominance were largely confined to being territorial rather than creating a glut of clear chances.
Nonetheless we rode our luck too. Albion looked most menacing when James McClean (“why are we booing him?”. “because he’s an idiot”) and Stephane Sessegnon got possession wide and it wouldn’t have taken much for one of those crosses to become something not saveable. Meanwhile Ighalo still looked ineffective, perhaps half-interested, perhaps low on confidence, definitely in the need of some pressure from the bench. Nyom and Guedioura were far less effective on the right than Jurado and Aké on the left – for all that his enthusiasm and bullishness is a Good Thing, the excitable Algerian lost possession too often and the booing of his substitution was perverse. And as the game increasingly veered towards rugby union with it’s physicality, sideways passing, punts into touch and shots clouted over the bar, we were in danger of creating a problem for ourselves with turnovers. Some untidy play saw Rondon put through, Gomes came out and took him out. He got a yellow. It probably was a yellow. You would want to rely on any referee agreeing however, least of all Michael Oliver.
4- By the second half we were one up, the tremendous Ben Watson flicking Guedioura’s corner kick in and putting us in pole position. It could have been Albion in that position, it probably wouldn’t have been any easier for us to recover than it was for Albion. But it wasn’t so we didn’t have to. That our clean sheet survived owed pretty much everything to Heurelho Gomes, who athletically tipped over McAuley’s header and then twice denied Berahino from the spot. From our pretty dismal vantage point – low in the shallow stand at the far end – we were in no position to assess either penalty call but there was certainly more energy about the protests the second time around. The first penalty had been weak, but I fully expected the net to bulge in the 87th minute, you don’t get that lucky twice.
Thing is, it’s only about “luck” up to a point. Lucky is when the other guy bottles it, puts it over, wide, doesn’t give it enough welly. But Berahino’s second penalty was excellent, low and hard and in the corner. And Gomes got to it anyway. It was our afternoon. It had been our afternoon since Watson scored. The home stands emptied, and we celebrated, none more than Gomes who was already the Player of the Season elect but sealed the deal with this record-breaking achievements this afternoon. He’s a tremendous goalkeeper, but a massive personality too, a leader, and that’s been just as valuable.
5- And so. Safe. Finally. As acknowledged by the travelling Hornets, in glee. And maybe you were already there in your head, but I wasn’t, I hadn’t relaxed at all. Today wasn’t elegant and it wasn’t perfect, the side’s performances have felt laboured since Christmas, the points rather forced and things need sorting. But bollocks to that, it can wait. Today’s result means two things. First: that the rest of the season is there to be enjoyed without reservation from the Cup semi-final next Sunday (and whatever follows) to the significance (albeit for others – ha!) of the last two games.
And second that 1999/2000 and 2006/07 finally descend into irrelevance. Part of our history, but no longer benchmarks. This is new territory, a top flight stay for the first time since the eighties, a completely different environment. And a massive, massive achievement that shouldn’t be diminished by taking slightly longer to be confirmed than we might have hoped. Yooorns.
Watford 1 Everton 1 (09/04/2016) 10/04/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. Bookmakers stopped taking bets on The Best Fact Ever on Wednesday as pop music’s Pete Fij, with a little help from Radio 3, revealed that the 1932 Olympic Games awarded medals for various categories of artistic endeavour, such as music, painting, literature and architecture. In fact, art competitions formed part of the Games from 1912 until they were scrapped in 1948.
(I can already feel you wearily typing “Yes, we already knew that. Everyone knows that. Where the hell have you been?” in the comments box down the bottom. Stop it. Stop it now. Leave me to my dreams.)
Anyway, the list of medalists hints delightfully at so many stories. Since the judges weren’t obliged to find a winner for every medal, there are several occasions when a silver or bronze is awarded but no gold; you can sense the impotent fury of Italy’s Gabriele Bianchi, for example, at only winning the bronze for Vocal Music in 1948 when there was apparently nothing better to take the silver or gold. In 1936, the gold medal for Statues goes to something apparently entitled “Sulky Driver” which beats the altogether more Olympic-sounding “Decathlon Athlete” and “Wrestling Youths” into second and third place. There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing Germany beaten in the Epic Works category in 1936…and something thoroughly chilling about its triumph at Town Planning. There’s a short-lived “Dramatic works” category which I like to imagine involved each piece being performed on stage in front of a panel, an early attempt at Olympics Got Talent. There are medals awarded for making medals. No, seriously.
I can’t tell you how much joy all of this brings me. There is a school of thought which regards it as absurd to apply an order of merit to something as subjective as music or painting; as someone for whom Eurovision is one of the cultural highlights of the year, I don’t belong to that school of thought. Or I do – because it is absurd, clearly – but I’ve been kicked out of school for not giving a toss. Because the absurdity is partly the point, much of the fun; absurdity can be wonderful. It makes me think of Terry Wogan railing hopelessly – and a little xenophobically – against tactical voting and, by proxy, the changes he didn’t understand in the distant corners of Europe. There’s something about asking nations to compete over, frankly, froth and nonsense which gets right to the heart of it all.
I wish there was still a gold medal for “Lyric and speculative works”. It’s better than sodding golf.
2. Evaluating the aesthetic merits of sporting endeavour – rather than vice versa – seems to me to be much more of a problem. Which isn’t to say that beauty has no place in sport, merely that it’s very much second place.
The idea that you’d rather lose elegantly than scratch out an ugly win is born of the kind of naivety that’s never set foot in a football ground on matchday. In the same way as every poll indicates that negative campaigning is deeply unpopular, but is contradicted by every election result, so we’d all advocate an attractive, positive passing game with proper wingers and overlapping full-backs and so forth. Because we all like to think we’re better people than we actually are, and we all like to imagine that we’ll react to defeat with dignity and perspective and understanding until it actually happens.
Clearly, there are circumstances when defeat is taken with pride: if you lose a narrow game in which you’re the underdog, say, or nearly manage an improbable comeback, or fight hard with ten men. None of those have anything to do with aesthetics, though. There are further exceptions, the occasional really dazzling performance that’s cursed with genuine bad luck. But I’d wager that if you took a survey at the final whistle of two crowds that’ve just seen their teams beaten two-nil at home, one set up with defensive midfielders and an emphasis on counter-attacking and the other with a more positive outlook, you’d find pretty much exactly the same set of emotions.
Reading a lot of recent discussion around this labouring Watford side, you get the sense that everyone just wants to feel a bit better about it all. But defeat feels much the same, whatever. Playing a couple of wingers won’t make getting beaten any more palatable…and besides, the coach’s job is surely to put out a side with the best chance of winning, not to make losing look attractive. (Quizzical look at Roberto Martinez.)
At which point, you’ll argue that we wouldn’t necessarily lose. That’s true, obviously. But I question the wisdom of changing a basic formula that’s got us so far this season – hands bitten off, and so on – in favour of one that’s apparently reliant on Will Hosk…sorry, Steven Berghuis. And even if it isn’t reliant on Steven Berghuis, as would seem sensible, I wonder whether the coach is sitting on quite the wealth of attacking riches that is often implied; rather than simply being too frugal to spend those riches, it may be that he’s wise enough to know that our opponents will usually enjoy an open game, and its likely outcome, more than we will. I hear Adlene Guedioura’s name mentioned often, but I don’t quite have the faith the others do. I hear Almen Abdi’s name mentioned often too…and yet it seems to me that Abdi is a far more effective and useful player than he was twelve months ago, even if he’s less likely to win a medal for lyric and speculative works.
3. The season gets older. The introductory waffle gets longer. The match report gets shorter.
4. The mood around Vicarage Road is actually rather brighter than I’d imagined it to be. One should never take too much notice of what’s said on forums and messageboards, perhaps. (Or blogs.) For now, expectations continue to be outweighed by achievements, the complaints are held in check by the league table, and it’s the away fans who unfurl a banner requesting their manager’s removal before kickoff. The Rookery manages to combine flag-waving fervour and idle chit-chat in equal measure; it’s all very Home Counties, all very polite. It doesn’t take long for the most successful season in many fans’ lifetimes to drift into mundanity. It needs something – deserves something – to remember it by.
5. You can take your pick of the halves. You can have the sensible one, in which there are no goals (I’m not counting injury time) and only occasional suggestions of goals; it’s built carefully around line-ups, formations and drills that’ve been subject to the coaches’ deliberations all week and possibly longer. Or you can have the increasingly deranged one, in which all of that is furiously slung out of the window like a cheating husband’s clothes onto the front lawn. Me, I preferred the first, but part of me wishes I was more fun.
6. It isn’t a very good game, but it’s strangely absorbing and the time flies. Everton are evidently vulnerable to a well-deployed long ball, but we can’t quite capitalise on Deeney’s dominance in the air. Referee Kevin Friend’s frequent interruptions serve both to irritate, like the remote control falling into the clutches of an eccentric aunt with a fondness for gameshows, and to draw you into the detail of the contest as you concentrate more intently on the plot when you do get to watch some football between the whistles. An early free kick against Ben Watson in a fifty-fifty contest is the kind of thing that will ruin our beautiful game, reducing it to mere deferential shuffling about. I hate him in a way that I pretend to hate politicians.
7. We undeniably lack a few degrees of confidence, but we’re very far from a hopeless cause. On the right, Valon Behrami’s selection might be a largely negative one, but he plays Juan Carlos Paredes’ straight man to rather good effect. I’ve yet to see Etienne Capoue have the kind of game of which he’s clearly capable, and now doesn’t seem a likely time, but his surges from deep still seem a reliable way of dragging us forward, even if it’d be great if he played in boots rather than rollerskates. Ben Watson is my player of the season and I don’t care what you think, unless you agree. And Jose Manuel Jurado…ah, now, there’s the thing.
Those long balls aside, whatever threat we carry in the first half is by virtue of getting Jurado on the ball, drifting in from the left into the kind of positions where he can pick a pass, drag out some space or, early on, damn nearly smack in a “Goal of the Season” contender. When he drops back to the halfway line to collect the ball from Holebas behind him, it all seems rather a waste of a player and a position; you can see the validity of some of the criticisms levelled at the coach. But when he darts down those little alleyways like a Dickensian pickpocket, it all makes sense. He’s quite a player, I think: so comfortable on the ball, so bright with it. It doesn’t feel as if we’ve really made the most of him. He bears no small responsibility for that, but represents as close to An Answer as I can see from here.
8. We finish the half on the front foot. Everton have had their moments – Barkley drifting about, Lukaku all sulk and menace, Gomes parrying well when called upon – but we quickly regain our defensive obstinacy after last week’s capitulation. We’ve got this far by making our opponents work really hard for their goals; that immediately makes the rest of the game seem a little bit easier. Capoue comes close on the half-volley after a Jurado free-kick hits the wall, then Holebas heads over from the resulting corner. The home stands applaud the effort and the intent.
9. A minute of injury time. The obligatory minute. Much of the Rookery heads off to beat the refreshment queues, while Britos dallies, slips and allows McCarthy to give Everton the lead. Scratch out part of the preceding paragraph. We suddenly look despondent, heads down and shoulders slumped; the second half looms, unbearable and endless. The Rookery empties further. Odion Ighalo has to find someone to help him take the kickoff; too many of his teammates are already at the half-time inquest. We punt it upfield without much care; Ighalo chases willingly, Stones and Robles contrive to concede a ridiculous corner, and we’re instantly level.
You can see why Everton fans would be so frustrated. The mark of under-achievement: to carelessly chuck away what others would use to build a winning position. If they’d seen out thirty seconds of injury time, I don’t doubt that they’d have won this game. But they couldn’t and they didn’t. You’d get very tired of that, very quickly.
10. That sets the tone for the second half. It begins with the introduction of Guedioura on the right, an attacking move which is perhaps as close as we’ll get to Quique letting his hair down. As ever, Guedioura brings with him tremendous energy and questionable focus; his arrival briefly sees us pushing hard for a second goal and yet also heralds a gradual disintegration in the shape of the game. By the end of it, the play is so frenetic that it sometimes seems as if there are two balls in play, one in either penalty area. There’s a sense of it becoming a sudden death tie, as if the teams are being required to remove players one by one until a winner is scored. It’s all highly entertaining, and a little bizarre.
In between, the football isn’t very good. But it isn’t very good in a cultured way. These errors belong to a different class: when Stones clatters passes into the lower GT twice in the first half, he looks up first, calmly picks his spot. Good players have time on the ball, even if they then wang it full-pelt into the stands. When Paredes lets a pass roll under his foot in the second, he does so while thinking several moves ahead in the sequence of passes; no simple mis-control. We’re very familiar with Championship mistakes, with lower class stumble and muddle. These are very much offshore mistakes, if you know what I mean. (“Hello. Mock the Week? Yes, I’m available…”)
11. Jurado is replaced and, unhappy at the decision with some justification, takes about as long to leave the pitch as he would if it were one-nil in the World Cup final with two minutes left and the team down to nine men. Everton have an air of frailty and vulnerability about them, and it feels like a game we ought to win. I refer you to the comment about an open game suiting our opponents more than us, however. So instead, it’s Gomes who’s called into action, saving low to his right from Lennon and then clawing the ball away from Lukaku, then diverting another Lennon shot around the post.
He gets his moment of luck late on, as Lukaku strikes the bar rather than turning another rebound into an empty net; as often, however, it’s a moment of luck that we earn, forcing the striker to hurry and snatch at the chance. We make it as difficult as we possibly can, and in that we’ve been pretty relentless throughout the campaign. It’s worked.
12. By the end, everyone’s lost their heads and everything’s complete chaos. Nobody wants to settle for a point and somehow that gets lost in translation: anything but a point, anything. Attacks swirl around, players drop with Wembley-threatening injuries, there appears to be infinite space but absolutely no time. Robles saves superbly from Watson’s deflected curler; that’s as close as we get. It’s thrilling, but mainly in the way that kicking a sandcastle into the wind is thrilling. It’s a bit of a mess, a bit childish and it doesn’t really achieve much. It’s not as fun as winning.
13. This is much more like it, though. Not actually it, but like it. Particularly in the first half, we’re recognisable as the rather obstinate, rather tough side that’s earnt a lot of its points simply by refusing to get out of the way. We could do with a lift, but it doesn’t have to come in the form of a radical change of approach; a bit more belief in what we’re doing and a small revival in fortunes would do the job just as well. What we need is something to send us into next season with a spring in our step, something to remind us what we’ve actually achieved this season.
We’ll be all right. We’ll be fine. But the opportunity remains to make this a season for the record books, for the historians, for the grandchildren. We’d have taken this at the start of the season, but who wants it now, eh? Who’d settle for fifteenth and a semi-final now? Bollocks to that. That’s like asking Gabriele Bianchi to be content with his bronze.
There’s a line about going for gold here, but it’s too corny to write with a straight face. You know what I mean, though.