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.