Watford 2 West Bromwich Albion 0 (04/04/2017) 05/04/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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!