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Watford 2 Southampton 2 (13/01/2018) 14/01/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- Leeds. September, 1991. Tentative steps being taken into the outside world, a world not constrained by living at home or by the accident of which school you happened to go to, who you happened to sit next to. Into this noisy, exciting, anxious world of the Old Bar in the Student Union I saw someone arrive wearing this.

Leaving aside the questionable kit design for one moment footballing loyalties were always going to forge friendships, particularly this footballing loyalty in Leeds in 1991. Over the next few years Felix’s Yugo shuttled a small but committed (in several respects) crew from Leeds to any away games vaguely within striking range. Occasionally he would persuade it to start by opening the bonnet and clouting the engine with a piece of wood. There was a chaotic trip to St James Park – an eviction, a car crash and a red card. The Baseball Ground, and an unwanted encounter with a uniformed “firm”. Oakwell, Boundary Park, Roker Park. Vicarage Road, too, once or twice, including the win over Leeds in the League Cup.

Vicky was often part of that crew. In the 25 years since lots has changed, I’ve lost touch with many friends and scarcely see others. Vicky and Felix are both in the Rookery today though, we’re sat together with scarves held aloft commemorating the anniversary of Graham’s passing. They’re connected to a common thread through all of our lives the profoundness of which doesn’t change whilst everything else churns beyond recognition. That’s why there’s such an eerie, absolute commitment to this stunning tribute to Taylor; a reflection of his extraordinary legacy, but also of everyone’s connectedness to it from those who date back 25 years or more to my kids, Felix’s kids, not old enough to remember but plenty old enough to “get it”.

Warmingly, as well as the scarves creating a stunning tableau in the home stands there are Saints scarves aloft in the away end. I’d like to think that these represented solidarity as well as a statement of pride in their own team. Being proud of what and who you are doesn’t obligate you to hate anyone that’s something different whatever the current political climate might imply.

2- “Elton John’s Taylor Made Army” thunders around the stands for a couple of minutes until the nervousness on the pitch in front of us reminds us of our current precarious situation. Both sides look nervous, actually… and there’s a collective fit of scruffiness until both sides settle down and start to attempt to land punches. Southampton’s counterattacking is evident quickly, a laser-guided Kabasele tackle robs a flying but baffled Shane Long of the ball to vociferous approval from Daughter 1. At the other end we build up a cautious head of steam; Carrillo feeds Gray but the ball surprises him, he swipes and misses; we work it out and around and find Janmaat who thunders a drive across the face of goal and narrowly over.

Better. Not convincing, not refined, but as against Leicester it was something that might conceivably have gotten us somewhere had the visitors not gone and scored. In what was to become a recurring them we were exposed down the flanks, Zeegelaar on this occasion; the resultant firefighting in the defence saw bodies flying left and right but none got sufficiently close to James Ward-Prowse who threaded a shot through and past Gomes.

Had the goal come up the other end, things might have been very different. Well… reversed, inverted. As it was the Hornets’ confidence visibly collapsed and a newly buoyant Southampton looked to take advantage. They were well set-up to do so… this could have been our game at Newcastle again, a home side blunt and lacking in confidence having to push on against a visitor very happy to counterattack. Long again found space and time to pitch a tent on the right flank but took a touch allowing Zeegelaar to block. Saints looked for Gomes wandering off his line and twice attempted to drop balls over his head, once forcing the Brazilian to tip over. It felt very difficult for us to find a way through compelled as we were to play short, whilst Southampton were finding it horribly easy to threaten. Someone over my shoulder had clearly decided that Everything was Andre Gray’s fault with the perhaps unintended consequence in hardening the support for our lone striker of everyone in earshot.

Marco Silva made an early substitution decision, ostensibly intending to bring Pereyra on for Ben Watson to introduce a little more craft but forced instead to replace the ailing Cleverley to murmurs of disquiet from the stands. Finally, inevitably, Saints scored again and again Ward-Prowse popped up on the right to convert. The stands emptied in search of half-time respite, the scoreline not flattering the visitors one bit, apt reward for our flimsy lack of resilience.

3- Coming back from two goals down in any circumstances is a Good Thing; there’s a theoretical danger in papering over the cracks by overdoing celebration of the second half performance but actually, after one League win in whatever it is that risk is perhaps minimal.

Therefore, given the desperate need for a bit of positivity why not celebrate the monumental second half performance of our captain. True, such performances have been fewer and further between this season but if there was any definitive riposte to the murmurs suggesting that maybe Troy’s time has come at Watford, that it would be better for all concerned if, you know…. well, this was it. As ever on such occasions it was the how as much as the what… but let’s dawdle on the what for a second.

Suddenly, with two up top, we looked cohesive. Saints boasted two big lumps at the back but not only could neither do much more with the ball than kick it in the direction they were facing (often into the crowd), but Troy absolutely destroyed both of them in the air. Fitting that it was against Saints, as an aside, since in the reverse fixture two years ago Troy got absolutely bossed by Virgil Van Dijk, the first time I’d seen him so comprehensively shut down since he established himself in our side. Not this time. This time they got it back in spades.

And it wasn’t just the what, as above. Here’s a leader. Here’s someone grabbing a flagging side by the balls and dragging it along and grabbing harder on any suggestion of protest. How on earth could we be better off without this?

It wasn’t a rout. Richarlíson looks a shadow of the irrepressible force earlier in the season, any suggestion that he’s merely suffering from lack of protection dispelled by the recollection of quite how aggressively he’d fight off such attention when his flame was on. But otherwise… things started buzzing around Troy, not least Andre Gray who reacted quicker than the leaden Saints defence when Deeney found Janmaat, the full back clubbed a shot against the bar and Gray snapped up the spinning rebound.

4- We got a break with the equaliser, quite obviously, though I’m far from convinced that any contact with the arm was consequential much less intentional. As we’ve reflected before on these pages we’re acutely sensitive to such breaks going against us so shouldn’t perhaps feel too guilty when fate smiles upon us, certainly in such circumstances where we’ve not gone and duped anyone. In any event, respect to Saints’ Ryan Bertrand for maintaining the ten yard defensive exclusion zone around the left side of the Rookery End penalty area that we’d so diligently upheld in the first half, allowing Doucouré to latch onto Troy’s flick unattended.

The incident inevitably provoked much screeching and demands for immediate VAR from predictable sources, including the Daily Mail of retired referees Graham Poll. What continues to baffle, as ig reflected on these pages many years ago, is the lack of any balance in assessment of merits of this or any similar system. TV and radio in particular go no further in their evaluation than “mistakes are bad, VAR will correct some mistakes, therefore VAR is good. I don’t understand why we don’t use it already, it must be them luddites what are stuck in the dark ages. Look at cricket…”. Bloody cricket.

The thing is, if your digestion of a football match is based on highlights and talking points it’s natural to focus on these incidents but such shouldn’t be the basis for evaluation of VAR. Nobody could reasonably argue that preventing mistakes isn’t a Good Thing. The downside that’s ignored is the interruption to the flow of the game… not just delay, not just the practical questions like “what happens if this happens then that happens” although they bear consideration too. But the cutting off of the adrenaline, the breaking up of the play, the depriving of those actually paying attention and digesting the spectacle of the vital unpredictable momentum of a game of football.

Anyone in any doubt as to this threat need look no further than the consequences of the absurd performance of Roger East in this one. Painfully aware of the direction the wind was blowing, Southampton were slowing the game down throughout the second half. No fingers to be pointed here really – any side in such circumstances would have attempted similar, ourselves included. But it is cheating and it does disrupt momentum and give the side with an interest in defending a lead, say, an unfair advantage by interrupting the avalanche, not just by using up time. East’s ludicrous tapping of his watch in response to increasingly hysterical protest from the stands betrayed a complete indifference to the game of football. If you don’t want to be here Roger, feel free to sod off home and see if we can’t do a better job of it without any officials at all. The addition of (only!) five minutes at the end didn’t counterbalance the disruptive effect of Southampton’s approach, unhindered as it was by any yellow cards until much too late in proceedings. A disappointment of course that the winner didn’t come, or that the late equaliser didn’t occur in the fifth minute of injury time earned by such nonsense, as at the Hawthorns earlier in the season.

5- A point, then, and a much less miserable outlook than it might have been. It is, still, pretty miserable though. Less so for the lack of signings, though they would be nice, nor for the lack of evidence of return of our many waylaid players (to which add the name of Tom Cleverley, perhaps), though these would be more welcome still – Filippo Giraldi’s assertion that we have a very strong squad is difficult to argue with. This is surely the best squad we’ve ever had – it’s just that so many of them are unfit.

The two gravest causes for concern are our continuing inability to win The Sort Of Game We Could Be Winning. If you’re going to write off games against the big six – a third of our opposition, more or less – as free punches, nothing to loses then you really have to get points from the others and our ongoing failure to do so sees us slide ever closer to the morass. Secondly, the apparent lack of harmony behind the scenes. You can place whatever trust you like in accounts such as that in the Times on Saturday suggesting disquiet both at the Silva-to-Everton thing and at his lack of people skills, credible though it sounds. But the inconsistencies in Silva’s communication vs that of the club are beyond dispute, semantics aside. You don’t respond to an experienced player getting a new contract with “it’s nothing to do with me”, whatever you think of it. “Very glad to have José tied down” surely a no brainer. The stark contrast between the vibrancy of September and October and the pathetic last twenty minutes of the first half tells its own story.

We will, of course, all continue to watch this space. For many years.

Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 2, Zeegelaar 2, Kabasele 3, Wagué 3, Watson 2, Doucouré 3, Cleverley 3, Carrillo 3, Richarlíson 2, Gray 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Cleverley, 35) 3, *Deeney (for Watson, 45) 4*, Okaka (for Gray, 73) 3, Prödl, Mariappa, Holebas, Karnezis

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Watford 3 Bristol City 0 (06/01/2018) 07/01/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

1- I was in a band when I was at school.  It’s fair to say that I wasn’t the creative engine of the enterprise…  a “functional” bassist would be the kindest description but it was tremendous fun.  Performing live, particularly;  recording stuff too, even if my role amounted to plucking the bass strings in the order that I was told to at the time that I was told to.

Recording sessions and rehearsals, from memory, rotated around parents’ homes, perhaps to informally share the burden.  One session sticks in the memory particularly,  a sunny day at my parents’ place;  they were both out, perhaps understandably, as were my siblings.  The musical creativity was interrupted for a cup of tea on the patio, and an epic discussion ensued on the subject. Ben (lead guitar, vocals) argued forcefully that the taste of tea was the taste of tea, unadulterated. Howard (drums) insisted that his cup of tea, milk, sugar, the works, was tea as he understood it.  His cup of tea.

This went on for some time.

Perhaps perversely whilst I was largely impassive in this discussion I’ve spent a reasonable proportion of the 25-plus years since working for a company that sells a lot of tea, studying and assessing consumers’ opinions of our tea.  This hasn’t resolved the argument in my mind, an argument that would doubtless have lodged in your mind as it has lodged in mine had you been there to experience it.

But the value in Howard’s point of view was laid out clearly at around 2.45pm this afternoon.  Hovering in seats that were kind of close to our season ticket seats but not actually our season ticket seats which had somehow been sold before we got there (to folk who never showed, as it turned out).  Around us… some familiar faces, waving awkwardly from similarly not-quite-the-same seats a few seats, a few rows away.  Plenty of others significant by their absence.

There are obviously obstacles to the club providing Season Ticket holders with priority booking for their seats, not least the need to offer the visiting club the entire Vicarage Road end thus displacing Family Stand season ticket holders.  Nonetheless, these challenges have always been there and the club has navigated them before.  And winning or losing, first team or reserves I would feel a little bit more valued – hell, this would be a bit more like my cup of tea if I was able to sit in my regular seat.

2- It comes to something when it’s the Premier League club that fields a virtually full-strength side – or as close to full strength as injuries permit, Richarlíson’s overdue rest aside – and the Championship upstart that makes seven changes in gives debuts to a couple of kids.  Such was the situation on this steely cold afternoon however, and with a brief sigh at the lack of our own kids in the side and a wonder if Walter Mazzarri had everything wrong after all it’s difficult to criticise either decision.  City have an injury overload of their own, are chasing promotion and have a semi-final against Manchester City on Wednesday.  However tall an order two legs against Manchester City are for anyone at the moment you don’t get to a semi final and not give it your best shot.

Meanwhile the Hornets are short of options and short of confidence, so a full-strength side both “respects the competition”, as Marco Silva has emphasised, and gives us a chance of a confidence building victory.  Since surely, surely this would be the outcome in the circumstances.  For all that City and the Hornets have been regular adversaries over the years the current state of it is that we’re a Prem club with all that entails, and our strongest(ish) available side against City’s patchwork could only end one way?

3- Lee Johnson commented afterwards, slightly peevishly, that 3-0 maybe flattered Watford.  Not knocking the decision he made, as above, but on this one he’s completely kidding himself and should really have had the courage to stand by his convictions.  This was as one-sided an affair as it ought to have been, the only disappointment being that we spurned opportunities to record a more comprehensive victory still.

That we were so comfortable owes a lot to the superiority of the weapons we had on show, but a lot also to the way that the approach that failed us against Swansea a week ago paid dividends this afternoon against less experienced, less disciplined opponents.

The emphasis in the first half was on possession;  most of the play was at the Vicarage Road end and clear openings weren’t hunted down or gambled on.  Instead the ball was swung from side to side as we patiently waited and City chased and blocked and retained their shape.   But we teased and probed and pulled the knots apart and the chances came, eventually.  Pereyra, irrepressibly on his game in the first half, teased and danced and cut inside whilst Zeegelaar thundered down the flank, unhindered by any defensive responsibility.  On the other wing Carrillo continued to fizz and with Deeney relishing a physical scrap with Aden Flint it was only a matter of time.  The striker had a header go over under challenge.  Then Capoue cut in from the left and fired a low shot for Steele to field comfortably.  Opening salvos, but it was always going to escalate and when Carrillo received a Pereyra pass and snapped a smart shot home in the penalty area to give us the lead you had the sense of us picking up speed.

4- The second half was less cagey, partly because City had to push forward and partly because their heads and legs were being tested by being given such a relentless run around.  This is what Swansea should have been like.  The gaps came and came quickly;  Pereyra, I am advised, hit the crossbar whilst I was queuing for crisps to sustain Daughter 1; I scurried back to the “oohs” and “ahhhs” of the coconut shy that followed.  “What did I miss?”.  “Nothing….”.

Ten minutes later it was 2-0; Cleverley escaped attention to gain space on the right and pulled back a terrific cross to Deeney whose diving header provided his first goal from open play of the season.

The rest was just detail, a procession of chances against an underequipped and tired opponent.  You might be concerned with the ease with which City’s hesitant forays forward created a threat but eleven shots on target to one tells its own story.  The next effort was technically off target, but not much in it… Deeney stealing in again at the near post to nod the ball into the side netting.   A left wing cross found Wagué and sub Richarlíson getting in each other’s way.  Richarlíson hared into space and didn’t clock the keeper’s position, dropping a shot into his arms rather than over him and into the net. Holebas, on at left back to give Pereyra a rest, was afforded too much space and slung a shot towards the top corner that Steele clawed out.  Finally Capoue exchanged passes with Deeney and slapped a third into the bottom corner.

5- The very definition of routine, then.  Lots of context, lots of circumstances;  City won’t and shouldn’t lose a lot of sleep about it and the game doesn’t tell us an awful lot about our ability to cope with Premier League opposition more successfully and profitably than we have been but it might contribute to our ability to do so.  This was a thoroughly professional, unfussy performance that might have reminded a few of our lot how good they are.   It might also be the kick off of a decent cup run, we’ll see.

Either way, a comfortable win with no injuries incurred is the ideal outcome.  Just our cup of tea, in fact. Now bring on the Saints.

Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 3, Zeegelaar 4, Kabasele 3, Wagué 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 4, Cleverley 4, *Carrillo 4*, Pereyra 4, Deeney 4

Subs: Richarlíson (for Carrillo, 69) 3, Holebas (for Pereyra, 69) 4, Watson (for Doucouré, 81) 0, Prödl, Gray, Okaka, Karnezis