Hull City 2 Watford 0 (22/04/2017) 23/04/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Ten days ago we went on a road trip. Only 100 miles or so, so not a vast distance, but the drive from Addis Ababa to Ziway is not to be undertaken lightly. There’s tarmac in Ethiopia now… this is a proper road but it’s still not quite the same as a motorway drive in the UK. Swerving columns of vehicles anticipate the worst of the potholes. Occasionally we pass long-abandoned carcasses of trucks at the side of the road, trucks that have fallen victim to either potholes, poor visibility, tired drivers or khat, perhaps a combination of the four. Roadworks are complicated by single lanes, no lane discipline anyway and nothing to divert onto (there is only one road…)… so diversions head into the bumpy savannah and kick up dust clouds which occasionally conceal hidden surprises.
The drive to Hull is altogether less exciting, which is probably a good thing. It also ends at a working mens’ club in which beer is almost as cheap as it is in Ethiopia. Given that I’m not the driver, this is also a good thing.
2- There’s a possible outcome which is to be dreaded here, borne of the knowledge that not only do the home side have a rather more pressing set of circumstances than we do but also that they’ve been doing rather well at home. At the front of our minds also is the sort of deckchairs-and-flipflops performance that was horribly prevalent at the end of last season (Norwich the best example). We’re braced for such an embarrassment.
But actually, we start OK. Miguel Britos, slightly disappointingly, is straight back in for local hero Mariappa but otherwise it’s the same side and though the Tigers are reputed to have been starting strongly the Hornets are the side who take early charge. This is not limp and passive, it’s assertive and determined and if Hull’s plan is to steam forward from the off they’re never allowed to. In the stands we allow ourselves to drop our mental guard.
3- The more so as Hull go down to ten men. You’ll have seen the challenge by now… over the ball and studs up so careless and silly, foul aside it was an utterly pointless attempt at a tackle that invited the possibility of censure and no possibility of winning the ball. Nonetheless incredibly harsh, obviously, not a stamp and with little force behind the challenge. From our point of view… we nod to fortune and carry on, surely. What else can you do? We’ve been on the receiving end of bad decisions, indeed from the same referee this season. That dose of bad luck is out of your control and you have to deal with the consequences, so when the boot’s on the other foot you have to take advantage. Nothing to feel guilty about (not even in the case of Niang who, for all the home fans’ hysterical and increasingly ludicrous bleating was largely blameless – he was clearly caught, and even a scrape across the shin at that speed would have been painful).
And we did capitalise, up to a point. The rest of the half was largely a coconut shy; the Hornets dominated possession and territory as, significantly, Marco Silva opted not to replace his loan/lone striker initially. Janmaat crashed a violent drive goalwards but into a crowd of bodies. Prödl sent one header over, then a second under the bar only to be clawed out by Jakupovic. Britos met another cross at the far post but failed to get it on target. Capoue danced in the midfield and swung the ball around. There was a patience and a rhythm to us… we weren’t laying siege to the City goal or forcing many chances from a still disciplined defence but we were thoroughly in control and if the Tigers had looked blunt before Niasse’s departure they were utterly without threat thereafter. Only as the players left the pitch at half time did it occur to us that Silva’s apparent conservatism had got the home side to the break level.
4- The interval saw Hull make that switch, reintroducing a spearhead in the shape of Abel Hernandez but initially at least little changed. We were perhaps not quite so overwhelmingly in control but we still had the lion’s share of possession and created another good chance when Capoue bullied himself a shooting opportunity but, falling away from the ball under challenge, stabbed too close to the keeper.
It’s not really as if City were threatening either, not even on the counter. Until, obviously, they did… and removed from the huge frustration of going behind in such circumstances away from home and all that entails, it’s hard not to reflect on the goal as a masterfully executed ambush. It was as if City, rather than throwing bodies forward in inefficient pursuit of a breakaway that would have been costly with ten men, waited for us to overcommit. The very first time that we did they howled out of the back in great numbers and swamped us, unaccustomed as we had become to facing such a threat… Markovic got on the end of Grosicki’s cross and got the break his side’s bloody-mindedness deserved when he received the rebound off the crossbar to prod home. From the away “end” it looked like keystones cops stuff, heads were in hands.
5- For all the subsequent wailing we’d not done an awful lot wrong up to this point. Our performance had been adequate, no worse (if, admittedly, no more). What was utterly lamentable, however, was our lack of reaction to going a goal down. No urgency, no fight, no waving of fists either literally or metaphorically which set what might have been interpreted as our earlier patience in a new light. Our reaction was passive, limp and lazy… reverting to the cautious, measured, possession-based build up that hadn’t quite delivered a goal against a nervous opponent at 0-0 and was never going to wash at 1-0 down against a City side with the bit between its teeth. Harry Maguire, City’s wonderfully “Have It!” bootery centre-back, was on the end of everything, whilst Sam Clucas was unrecognisable from his horror show at left back at Vicarage Road, a monstrous presence in midfield. His was the second goal, an arcing dipping half-volley from outside the area… Gomes blameless, but the midfielder had too much time to line up his exquisite shot.
Success, Okaka and (in the dying minutes) Zuñiga were thrown on in an attempt to change things; of the trio only Okaka had a positive impact, giving us some glue and some welly around the penalty area that Deeney’s unusually low key presence to that point hadn’t achieved. It wasn’t enough. The final whistle brought a howl of boos from the away end.
6- It’s perverse that there’s so much disquiet in the face of what will be, in terms of final position, one of our most successful seasons. It’s something that’s quite hard to rationalise… the two most popular extremes, that we are an ungrateful lot with unreasonable expectations on the one hand versus Walter is a clown who doesn’t know what he’s doing on the other are both trite, lazy, inadequate explanations.
Perhaps a fundamental point is that Watford supporters, whatever the team’s strengths or failings over recentish years, have been accustomed to seeing a bit of effort. Or rather, we’re used to seeing teams built on relatively limited resources thriving or at least overachieving on the basis of spirit, drive, organisation, determination. It would be overstepping the mark to describe the current team as disorganised… but certainly the lack of effort, the being the team that doesn’t always fancy it, is alien and difficult to reconcile. Much less so when you’ve spent a day travelling to Hull (camels or no camels). Not difficult to see why we’ve not shifted many tickets for what should be an attractive away fixture at Leicester, the last away Saturday of the season. Hard to see queues forming for potential gubbings at Everton and Chelsea. As we’ve said before, and much as part of the problem is safety having been achieved, it isn’t half a good job that we won those more winnable games.
As for Mazzarri, he’s clearly not an idiot. He’s guided the team to mid-table (albeit 10th feels like a high water mark) in the face of malevolent injuries with some impressive wins along the way. However as much as he’s failed to build any kind of relationship with the support, you have to question the extent to which the team are on side either. This was not a side inspired by their leader’s comments, fighting for a common cause. You can point the finger at the players too, of course… but significant that our man-by-man squad appraisal on the way up the M1 didn’t identify anyone who we’d willingly throw out on his ear.
7- The journey back was similarly relaxed, if slightly grumpier, enlivened by that Saturday evening classic of a service station stop at Leicester Forest East where myriad football shirts congregated on their way homewards to and from all directions. Sheffield United, York City, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Wimbledon, Watford and others ruminated on the days’ events whilst sucking through straws and chewing on cardboard fries. You don’t get this in Ethiopia, much less on the motorways, even if the food is better… Arsenal shirts proliferate. Why a mid-table club should garner such fervent following is beyond me, but I did spy a Palace shirt too. Takes all types, I suppose.
Meanwhile, Troy’s response to this capitulation was appropriate – and gracious, given the unjustifiable booing of the he and Gomes’ the team’s leaders, as they approached the away support. It’s not unreasonable to expect more against Liverpool, a high profile game in front of the cameras. Whether this would dispel concerns of a more general problem is open to question.
Watford 1 Swansea City 0 (15/04/2017) 16/04/2017Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. I’ll just come right out with it. I’ve been seeing someone else.
2. On Wednesday night, I’m at South Park versus Hastings United. Ryman League Division One South, the eighth tier. It’s my first Hastings away game, one of several landmarks along this road, some passed and others still to come: I’ve yet to don the colours, I’ve yet to refer to “them” as “us” without a twinge of conscience, but it’s only a matter of time. I haven’t bothered to count, but I know I’ve seen more Hastings games this season than Watford games, and I only started going in December. This is me, now.
3. Lost somewhere in a suburb of Reigate, South Park’s ground places the emphasis firmly on “park”: a crowd that only just reaches triple figures and is almost certainly comprised of more away fans than home stretches around the barrier, barely a couple of yards from the touchline. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a properly competitive football match; the pace is relentless, the swearing likewise. Amid all of the urgent clamour, you can even hear what the referee’s saying if you concentrate hard enough. Familiar faces. Chips in polystyrene, served by a nice lady maintaining cheerfulness in the face of absent help and a large queue. A barrier to lean on. A gorgeous sunset.
4. I’d always rather imagined that when I walked away from Vicarage Road, it’d be in a great flouncy sulk about something. Perhaps ever-increasing ticket prices. Perhaps being shunted to one side in favour of more lucrative commercial opportunities. Perhaps some act of vandalism by ego-hungry owners: a change of colours, a change of name. The London Hornets. Perhaps the vapid soullessness of it all, the paucity of openings for young players, those bastard electronic hoardings, the inconsiderate kickoff times, the imminent insertion of video technology into the spontaneously combustible joy of scoring a goal, Robbie Savage. Any number of other things.
And it’s true that many of those do nag away on my now-occasional visits. Transparently, this is not the game that I fell in love with at seven-years-old. That’s hardly a relevation: the world isn’t the same in most other respects either. And it’s also true that something died – well, let’s not be dramatic, it sighed and slouched and grumbled a bit – in me as I watched our football club apparently be content with a day out at Wembley last April when we could’ve had so much more; I’m not in it for the glory, clearly, but I deeply resent an age where glory doesn’t have sufficient value on the balance sheet in comparison to finishing fifteenth or whatever. What a waste of a beautiful game.
But it won’t do to condemn it all, any more than it’ll do to blindly romanticise everything about the lower levels of non-league. There is good and bad at every club, at every level; the balance is different for every supporter. That isn’t it. Instead, I’ve simply realised that the role I need football to play in my life is one of a steady, defining rhythm. What I love about it is its monotony, the sense of continuity and familiarity; the knowledge that we’ll all be back here in a fortnight or less, complaining about the same things, hoping for the same things. That’s at odds with the hysteria of the Premier League, at odds with the marketing of every fixture as an event.
But more than anything, it’s at odds with a busy family life a hundred miles away. Those now-occasional visits don’t really satisfy because they have none of that rhythm, none of that continuity. They’re a slice of cake in place of a three-course meal, a Christmas special in place of a box-set. I’ve found happiness elsewhere and I’ve found it sipping a cup of tea on a shallow terrace, knowing that I’m ten minutes from home, from family life, from where I belong. Knowing that I’ll be back for the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that. Seasons coming and going; players and managers coming and going. Being part of something. That’s all.
5. I know, I know, you’re here for a Watford report. Sorry. Forgive me.
6. So, yeah, I’m back. Has it always been this loud?
7. I haven’t been here since that Middlesbrough game and I must admit that I’ve come prepared with a hatchet for, you know, a job. So it rather takes me by surprise when we begin by setting a rather brisk passing tempo, Amrabat and Niang spreading wide, Capoue and Cleverley pushing through the middle; I see more constructive football in the first five minutes than I did in ninety last time around.
But we lose our way quite quickly, like when you enter the supermarket with a shopping list in your head only to find yourself staring blankly at shelves of soup. Swansea are set up to pick us off in midfield and duly do so; Capoue will intervene decisively before the half’s done, but barely touches the ball otherwise and frequently cuts a particularly exasperated figure. We have creativity, which is a step up from last time, but a series of wildly inaccurate cross-field passes betrays the difficulty of bringing it into play; both of the wide players are guilty of squandering what they do receive.
8. Swansea, meanwhile, need to be scored against before they’ll look like proper relegation fodder. Llorente towers above all and needs careful marshalling by the excellent Prodl; Narsingh is quick and impish and draws out a terrifically aggressive ninety minutes from Holebas, disrespectfully and deliciously dismissive of his opponent, stopping just short of clipping him round the ear for his insolence. The real threat, obviously, comes from Sigurdsson, who draws a sharp save from Gomes with an instinctive flash at the top corner; Gomes unredeems himself with a skewed punch shortly afterwards and Fernandes wastes the opportunity. Ki Sung-Yueng shoots at the keeper when released by a swift break. They really aren’t bad. Yet.
You wouldn’t have said that the visitors were on top, exactly, merely that the game was turning out to look more like their gameplan than ours. Maybe that’s the same thing. Never one to stand around and discuss these things, Deeney nearly opens the scoring by meeting a Janmaat cross and requiring a flying save from Fabianski; we’ve created very little otherwise, in truth, and the intensity of the contest has dropped considerably as it’s gone on. It’s become a flabby, vague game; my attention is drawn to the uncanny colour of Ki Sung-Yueng’s hair. The winning goal is a defensive mess, Mawson’s hesitation capitalised upon at the second time of asking by Capoue. A relegation season kinda goal. We know what those look like.
9. We begin the second half well enough, Fabianski clawing out a ferocious, rather Guedioura-ish drive from Janmaat before it breaks the net. We don’t continue it well enough, however, and we don’t have much else besides a disallowed Okaka goal to show for it by the end. Indeed, much of it is spent in gradual, and yet very definite, retreat: as it becomes more and more evident that this will be the lead we have to defend, we withdraw first a visibly irritated Amrabat, then Niang and then Cleverley, which is the equivalent of giving up on your supermarket shopping list and just grabbing milk of various colours because, well, that’s always on the list.
On the one occasion that we let Llorente drift away from Prodl and win an unchallenged header, Sigurdsson whistles a shot wide from twenty yards; he scores two of those every week on Match of the Day. With about twenty minutes to go, you wonder quite how long it’ll be before one of a seemingly endless succession of crosses finds the giant Spaniard’s head rather than going out for a throw-in. The answer is long enough for him to no longer be on the field, presumably withdrawn with a crick in his neck; when Swansea finally deliver a ball worth attacking, it’s Sigurdsson who stretches and heads wide in injury time. He wastes another opening of his own creation immediately afterwards, scuffing a shot at Gomes, and the game is gone. Swansea ought to be kicking themselves. But they’d…yes, ha ha.
10. Immediate thought: a better side would’ve beaten us here. Less immediate thought: it doesn’t matter. You can afford to lose to a better side if you’re consistently beating the ones below you; you can play those percentages. It’s a depressing thought, perhaps, but we need do no more than this. Perhaps this is it, forever. Or at least until something goes wrong and we get relegated and we wonder whether we might’ve used our time rather better.
We’ve attempted much more with much, much less in the past. True, there wasn’t so much to lose. True, injuries. True, West Brom sounded like a lot of fun. True, it seems unbelievably Arsenalish to be turning your nose up at tenth. Even so, I can’t help but feel that there’s a very real danger of television’s billions becoming the only prize at stake, the only ambition to hold. A place at the trough for the feeding frenzy. It isn’t much of a dream. This was an increasingly conservative, cautious and yet oddly casual performance, and while I admit that I haven’t been here very often, I’ve seen nothing else from us this term, nothing to indicate that we have hidden depths.
It isn’t wrong to hope for more. It isn’t ungrateful, it isn’t forgetful. It might – might – be unrealistic. But personally, I’d rather fail trying. I imagine that the next few weeks will tell us whether the owners feel the same.
11. Back in Reigate, Hastings run out comfortable 5-1 winners. The claim for the division’s last playoff place is looking increasingly convincing. The evening is crowned by Simon Johnson’s spectacular thirty-yard strike into the top corner. No instant replays, quite possibly no replays at all; football at this level sharpens your mind’s eye. The crowd drifts into the darkness of the car park and evaporates into headlights and radio static. Everyone’s gone within five minutes. This is no more ‘real’ than anything else, perhaps.
There may yet be glory before the season’s out, though. Don’t tell me that doesn’t raise a tingle at the back of your neck. Don’t let that become a distant memory.
1- When I’m not working, sleeping, chasing children or watching football I enjoy am-dram. A week or two ago, in a restaurant before a show, I tried to argue to some football-sceptic acting friends that football could be thoroughly dramatic, exciting, inspiring, as much so as anything that takes place on a stage. It was a tumbleweed moment; I don’t think I convinced any that weren’t already sold.
Such a shame that they didn’t see Vicarage Road last night during that rarest of treats, a midweek home game under floodlights. I’ve always felt that the stadium transforms when the sun goes down, even when the stands are empty the darkness drapes over the stadium like a blanket. It’s claustrophobic and intense in a way that daytime matches rarely are and tonight, fuelled by Fry Days and a pint of Hornets Ale at the V-Bar, it’s absolutely magnificent.
2- A spirit that’s helped by two sides freed from the immediate shackles of relegation or prize-chasing concerns. This can be an appalling recipe of course, sometimes such games are anaemic and listless… “on the beach” is a favourite analogy of daughter 2, the first phrase perfected from her football lingo phrasebook two years ago it can so often apply in such circumstances. Not here. Not when we’ve got a fire lit under us by that win on Saturday – however it came – not when we’re playing a side as combative and bolshy and confident as Albion. It’s immediately one of those games in which nobody gives an inch, that’s a saucepan often at the very brink of boiling over but never quite descending into all-out warfare. I’m with Pete, Nav and Lawrence; Pete’s debut was at Millwall and he was completely sold by that monstrosity; there’s to be no going back for him after this.
3- So that win against Sunderland had taken the pressure off this a little bit, which was always a good thing. The more so since, perhaps unsurprisingly, Albion didn’t treat us any differently to the Arsenal and United sides they’ve taken points off recently. Everyone behind the ball, banks of bodies for all but the deftest of attacks to crash off, so well organised that inevitably, before long, a home side is going to get impatient and take a risk or lose its concentration. We’re nearly undone very early, a ball neglectfully through to Chadli who has a difficult angle and an awkward bounce but still should have scored. He didn’t, and that was the theme of the evening… this isn’t going to be a linear narrative, it was too much of a blistering tornado of an evening for that, suffice to say that we deserved every inch of this but it wouldn’t have taken much. Wouldn’t have taken much for this to be a very different outcome altogether.
Instead, we set about them. Sharp and neat and positive… we approached those banks of bodies with swift, snappy, one-touch passing. Ping ping ping ping. If it didn’t always go forwards very far it wasn’t a problem… this wasn’t easy for Albion, they had to be on their game to keep us at bay but there was an inherent confidence in our approach. No, we can’t play through you this time but we’ll keep going and keep moving and keep you moving and we’ll get there. Once again Abdoulaye Doucouré was the playmaker, picking up the ball deep and orchestrating events, pulling the strings, switching first with Cleverley, then Capoue, then Britos, but always the man with his head up looking for an opening. His transformation from misfit to surely one of the first names on the teamsheet has been remarkable.
4- Nonetheless, Albion kept us at arm’s length. We had more of the ball, but we weren’t getting very far with it. Albion’s resilience made a clear statement: If you want to score, you’re going to have to do something a bit special. So that’s what we did. And it was special in any number of ways… Craig Cathcart having the confidence to mix it up by playing a fine long ball forwards, Troy Deeney launched into a terrifying, impossible header that was both brutal and delicate. Niang picking up the cushioned headed pass on the left, cutting inside Dawson and hitting a wailing, arcing drive inside Ben Foster’s left hand post.
Pandemonium. And now West Brom’s game plan, so heavily reliant on not needing to force the issue, began to come apart at the seams. It’s easy and lazy to look at the visitors’ performance and the manager’s identity and fall back on stereotypes but really, it’s so very hard not to when the team turns up parodying their manager’s reputation. Big and solid and brutal, and towards the end of the half they put the boot in. Craig Dawson somehow escaped censure for a nasty foul on Niang, a point not lost on Miguel Britos when he was expensively yellow carded minutes later for hauling down Robson-Kanu. The resultant free kick, central and thirty yards out, was executed in front of a wall comprised of every player on both sides plus Harry the Hornet, half the ball boys and Tony Pulis’ gran. Nonetheless Nacer Chadli arced his shot over and around and off the outside of the post – not as nearly in as it looked, but not very far away either. The game ended with James McClean earning a generous yellow for a characteristically charmless kick out at Holebas, who reacted with the level of restraint we’ve come to expect from the left back. We all needed a good sit down.
5- Because the second half was mental. A tone was set by Troy’s second goal, so very immediately that I was still in the middle of furtively giving myself some half-time insulin which curtailed my celebration to one flailing fist instead of two. Niang sent in the same impossible dipping deep cross that he executed against Burnley – special, but so rare that you feel he must be saving up pocket money for them. It bisected Evans and Foster in indecision and Troy, bullying his way into pole position, prodded it past the keeper and over the line.
And that should have been that, since impressive as Albion had been in amongst the bare-faced brutality there appeared no prospect of them fashioning enough of an attacking threat to recover a two goal deficit. Matt Phillips, returning from injury, was immediately a threat but it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, and we were very much in charge.
Until we weren’t. There were a lot of cards flying around, and this wasn’t a fussy refereeing performance by Paul Tierney by any means. There was always the risk that a careless challenge could earn a second yellow and Albion, as befits all successfully thuggish sides, knew how to share responsibilities around. Rondón escaped from Britos… I haven’t seen it again, I dunno. Consensus seems to be a bit soft, a bit unlucky, Rondón as involved and a bit of a dick for falling over but just a bit silly from Britos, inviting the possibility of a second yellow. In the circumstances, given the atmosphere, given how it turned out, given that he’s still in my good books for that photo with the girls at the pre-season event, we’ll let him off…
6- With the now traditional Cathcart-switch-to-centre trick already executed in response to what looked like a rib injury to Seb Prödl in the first half, on came Aidy Mariappa some five years after his last League game for us. I don’t know why we were anxious… he’s not played a lot, of course, but he left us in 2012 because he was simply too good for the Championship, a Premier League defender in all but name. That he’s sixth cab off the rank is deceptive, and he made a mockery of his status and our apprehension with a bloody-minded cameo that saw off whatever Albion could lob at us. Tremendous. I won’t have been the only one do-do-dooing (we’ve got Mari-appa) their way away from the ground at the end of a very fine evening.
7- Because some games are just splendid things in their own right. Forget context, forget points, forget where we are in the League, this was a self-contained maelstrom that was a drama, a theatrical piece in its own right. But the context is, of course, that we’re all but safe, and suddenly that difficult run in has the look of a load of free punches, of noses waiting to bloodied. Suddenly it bears looking forward to instead of dreading.
I’ll be watching Spurs from a long way away; Ian will be reporting on Swansea. I’ll see you in Hull. Until then… yooooooorns!
Watford 1 Sunderland 0 (01/04/2017) 02/04/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- The thing about losing a rubbish game before an international break is that you have two weeks of fidgeting before getting back to it. A period in which you can afford, or pretend, to forget about bloody football for a bit for, what, half an hour or so? Before focusing intently on the forthcoming game. For two weeks. Minus the five minutes or so for which internationals distracted you.
The more so this time. The ominous-looking running stretched out before of us, front-heavy with more obviously winnable games meaning that we can either get it sorted quickly with points in the bag or be left teetering needing to get points from games that didn’t look like yielding many. Our recent form meant that this one, home to the Worst Team In The League, could perhaps have fallen more helpfully. Added to which Troy is poorly, the traditional pre-match restaurant has buggered around with its menu (“refreshing” its offering by, you know, giving you less food for the same money) and there is a tangible edginess on Vicarage Road.
2- Nervous on the pitch too, no sign of the flying start that has become traditional. Sunderland pressed very high, very early… befitting of a side with a predatory Jermain Defoe as a threat and not much else. Five minutes in Januzaj slung a ball in from the left, it was nervously watched by defenders and attackers alike and Gomes fell to his right to push it around the post.
Worst fears were in danger of being realised, but this wasn’t to be the constipated performance of recent weeks. In part this reflected the paucity of the opposition, but either way within five minutes M’Baye Niang was running at the Sunderland defence and we were making chances. Holebas, Doucouré (twice) and Niang all tested Pickford, Okaka got on the end of a cross and sent a header over. It was still awkward and lumpy, a little bit deliberate, but it was positive. At the other end the mythical threat offered by Defoe focused attention; Miguel Britos and Younès Kaboul both flew in to deny the striker a glimpse of goal. It was still anxious, it wasn’t terribly convincing. But we were on top.
3- Sunderland are a particularly odd side. Poor, obviously, but in a wonky sort of way. Defoe, as above, is a menace albeit kept at arm’s length. Pickford is pretty extraordinary… alert to the shots that rattled in on his goal, commanding and authoritative and dropping missiles with laser accuracy deep in the Watford half, some thrown, some kicked.
And the rest of it was bobbins. Adnan Januzaj tripped around aimlessly. Billy Jones looked for someone to have a fight with. Bryan Oviedo spent much of the game watching an unchecked overlap disappearing over his shoulder. It seems inconceivable that Sunderland will be in the top flight next season. It’s similarly unlikely that either Defoe or Pickford will make the drop with them, which really doesn’t leave them with very much. Lots of sides in the Championship have a couple of solid centre backs and a scrapping midfield. There are plenty of clubs knocking around worthier of disdain than Sunderland, but this lot will disappear without trace.
4- The Hornets, meanwhile, took advantage of the situation. Easy to say with hindsight, easy given the result… but perhaps this game didn’t fall too badly for us after all. We weren’t great. This performance wouldn’t have beaten many opponents in this division. But we did win, and we gain confidence and belief… and we were visibly doing so as the game progressed. Cathcart, first at right back and then in the centre after the afternoon’s obligatory injury forced Younès Kaboul off, was absolutely terrific, Miguel Britos similarly assured alongside him. M’baye Niang floated in and out of the game… but when he’s running at defenders he’s a menace, this was a dramatic improvement on recent weeks. Most impressive of all was Abdoulaye Doucouré, the team’s metronome at the back of the midfield. we’re now seeing the imposing midfielder that we thought we’d signed, our man of the match for the second week running.
The scoreline, the scruffy nature of the goal might make this look like a less comprehensive, less accomplished win than it was. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t a blessed relief when it came, Britos finally doing what he’s threatened to do at regular intervals over the last couple of seasons and getting on the end of something in the box… the release of tension was evident all over the ground. It was brief, however… Isaac Success, afforded a relatively long cameo, was sent skidding through by the utterly functional Okaka but was foiled by the onrushing Pickford. Later he tiptoed through legs in the penalty area before thumping a low shot goalwards that Pickford again repelled. Okaka attacked Niang’s cross from the left but was denied by O’Shea whose anticipation was a fraction better. Lee Probert, who has had worse days officiating Hornets games, nonetheless missed a penalty shout as Okaka had his shirt dragged round his midriff in full view of an unimpressed Rookery. A one-goal lead never feels secure, whatever the circumstances.
5- As the final whistle neared Sunderland inevitably chased the result. Borini fired in a shot that forced Gomes into an adroit stop; that he was alert to it after such a long time doing nothing is itself worthy of praise. Wahib Khazri, who had given the visitors a bit of much needed welly off the bench, lined up a free kick. It was a microcosm of the game itself, a game the result of which might effectively represent a fork in the road between a relatively comfortable end of the season and a relegation scrap. So too here, almost the last kick of the game… perhaps the most important free kick we’d face this season. If it had flown top corner we were royally screwed. Instead, the most welcome of Neil Cox tributes, it went straight into the wall. Game over. Ridiculously, if briefly, we were in the top half.
Which doesn’t mean that everything’s OK, but our recent travails were thrown into stark relief today. This is what a truly awful side, rather that a side struggling for shape and form, looks like. Even at our low ebb we were plenty good enough for this challenge. There are still things that need sorting, we still have a load of useful looking bits that aren’t quite coming together in a humming machine. But we look a lot better than a relegation side nonetheless. One more win ought to confirm this… would be nice if it was earned on an (all too rare and much missed) night under the lights at the Vic on Tuesday.