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Watford 1 Everton 0 (24/02/2018) 25/02/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- This was supposed to be a grudge match. Borne of the fact that five months ago we had a manager that Everton wanted and pursued rather gracelessly. Following which he was betrayed to be as precious and narcissistic as his compatriot at Old Trafford, our form disintegrated and unexpectedly Marco Silva was on neither touchline which, for all his evident coaching ability, both sides might have cause to be grateful for.

Any sense of blood and thunder and scores to be settled was short lived. The teams arrived to a particularly densely packed wall of flags in the Rookery and an unexpected cannonfire of yellow and black streamers from the base of the stand. Briefly this had the desired effect as the crowd roared the Hornets on, until it became clear that said streamers had been fired with sufficient welly to reach and entangle themselves into the hooks and anchors in the ceiling of the stand which has never received more attention during a game as the tendrils of streamers blowing in the wind provided an unusual frame to the action, a garish new Instagram filter for the rest of the evening. Occasionally one would detach itself and float serenely down into the stand, distracting from the action on the pitch.

2- Which in all honestly didn’t take a lot of distracting from. Further tension was sucked from the event by a few seconds waiting in the merciless cold, presumably for a BT Sport commercial break; when the game was finally permitted to commence a casual glance at the pitch (or, indeed, a TV screen) might not have revealed that much had changed. Everton employed a pressing game, congesting the centre of the pitch and allowing our centre backs to patrol with the ball without yielding space or avenues for them to attack. Adrian Mariappa in particular twice fell foul of the need to switch play quickly to beat Everton’s covering by placing hurried balls into touch. It was a pressing game of sorts from Everton, if only executed from a certain point, but never has a pressing game been so soporific. No better summary of the half can be provided than an early Toffees free kick, from memory the only one yielded in a threatening position by a disciplined defensive display. As Sigurdsson’s ball came over en route to somewhere inconsequential Wayne Rooney shoved Jose Holebas two handed in the back. The ball drifted off somewhere. Not to suggest that Rooney in particular or Everton in general were particularly dirty – although Doucouré was taken out by one vicious tackle later in the half – but that was the motif of the first forty-five minutes. Lumpy, shovey, lack of quality.

The principal exception to which was Gerard Deulofeu who flew at Cuco Martina relentlessly and was our best hope of Something Happening, of upsetting the ugly, stable nature of the half but it didn’t happen. The game was balanced in the way that a skip full of dung is balanced. A skip full of dung with “nil nil” spray painted grumpily all over it.

3- On the subject of faeces, this Everton incarnation is a fetid turd of a football team. Yes, yes… you can read too much into one game, an Evertonian who knows only yesterday evening of Watford might level similar accusations. However we don’t have a squad half-filled with, to use a well-worn but appropriate analogy, Fantasy Football picks from five years ago (and a manager from longer ago than that). Even that rarest of things, a home grown kid or two, doesn’t relieve the stench. What a joyless thing to be an Everton fan with aspirations of being one of the big six (seven?) but with a team as lumpy and leaden and wonky as any we’ve seen this season. Not awful… just, in common with much of the division, not very good. Burnley, eleven games without a win and stillseventh, tell a story.

Gueye was an exception, a fine little metronome ticking away at the back of the midfield. Niasse too charged around endearingly, propelling himself between the path of the ball and the incumbent Watford defender but the rest was ghoulish, and even Niasse as the spearhead betrayed the side’s limitations. A bloke that charges around a lot is a fun thing in a bad side, but that’s all. Meanwhile in Theo Walcott you’ve got another vital component of a bad team, a quick inconsequential winger, and Cenk Tosun’s second half cameo was hilarious. Jonathan Wilson’s take on the advisedness or otherwise of big strikers coming to the Prem from places where Big Blokes are a rarer thing and thus less capably defended against seems prescient – Tosun looked bemused by proceedings, crumbling under challenge, giving up on the escaping Capoue… that’s what £27 million gets you in the current market it seems.

4- Mercifully, we improved in the second half. It didn’t happen straight away, and Everton had the best chance of the game to that point when Keane’s header drifted wide… but after a bit we noticed that Everton hadn’t crossed the halfway line for a while. Then, the subs happened.

When in the grips of an injury crisis it’s tempting to imbue the missing players with superhuman qualities that would undoubtedly propel the team upwards if only, if only… then said player comes back, runs into someone, falls onto their backside and gets sucked into the morass. Heartening then to see Kiko Femenía’s flame on so quickly after the best part of three months out. His rusty, “getting back into it” spell lasted a matter of minutes rather than games and he provided us with a real outlet down the right. No less impactful was Stefano Okaka, on like Femenía after barely ten minutes of the half and re-introduced to the fold after his failed attempts to secure a move and more gametime in the window. This was the Okaka suggested by his cameo debut at West Ham eighteen months ago and glimpsed occasionally since… combative, abrasive, direct, irrepressible, a wrecking ball of a performance that Everton couldn’t cope with.

Sadly, we only got to see seven minutes of the vaunted link-up between Femenía and Deulofeu before the latter limped off, ominously, providing the biggest downer of the evening. We cross our fingers and wait… in the meantime, a bleach-blond Andre Carrillo entered the fray and gave a decent account of himself. Now, for the first time, we were demonstrably the better side… Janmaat tried to reprise his Chelsea goal by bludgeoning his way through Everton’s defence but found slightly stiffer resistance than the Champions had offered. Pickford cleared carelessly and Femenía screamed onto it and down the flank, opting to shoot instead of squaring to his unimpressed skipper. A minute later Femenía was involved again as he and Okaka combined to find Deeney who took a touch around a defender, span on the ball and slugged a violent shot past a partly unsighted keeper. Everton’s fightback was pathetic, non-existent. Game over.

5- A massive win. Really, really important. We all know how tight it is down at the bottom, much as we’ve not dropped any lower than twelfth, and the Chelsea result showcased what this team is capable of. Nonetheless… our fixture list for the rest of the season is peculiarly unbalanced and picking up the points we need at home takes any pressure from the challenging away fixtures. If Javi Gracia manages to secure his third home win on the hop against Albion next Saturday we’ll be on 36 points going into trips to Arsenal and Liverpool. Not safe, not quite… but you’d fancy us to do what’s necessary in our remaining home games, rendering those two trips a free punch to be cherished.

An ugly, horrible, forgettable game. But you’ve got to win those too, and we did.

Yoorns.

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Mariappa 3, Prödl 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 4*, Richarlíson 2, Deeney 3
Subs: Okaka (for Pereyra, 56) 4, Femenía (for Richarlíson, 56) 4, Carrillo (for Deulofeu, 63) 3, Zeegelaar, Gray, Britos, Gomes

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Watford 4 Chelsea 1 (05/02/2018) 06/02/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1.

9. Chelsea next. That might be fun.

Ian Grant, BHaPPY Stoke Report

I went down on the train. Sally (#notafootballfan) had dropped me off at the station. Her track record’s pretty good, Arsenal (A) last season was her previous drop-off. She left me with a promise to put money on Troy as first goalscorer as I grabbed the clockwork shuttle across from Bedford to Bletchley.

The route home was slightly easier; Dad dropped me at St Albans, I made the train waiting at the platform, grabbed the only cab on the rank at Bedford, home at not-quite-silly’o’clock.

And then lay in bed, staring upwards in the dark. For hours.  Completely wired.

2- A long time ago, Ian compared trying to describe the last 20 minutes of a particular game as being akin to trying to trap a hurricane a matchbox. 19 years on, another game that defies description, defies all attempts at meaningful summary. Appropriate, perhaps, that it was under the lights… Vicarage Road takes on a different feel at night, the dark seems to suck itself into the old quarry, claustrophobic in the way that sunlit games just aren’t.

There will have been intakes of breath at 7pm when the teams came up. No evidence of Tom Cleverley despite optimistic portents. No Christian Kabasele either, another hamstring victim. A 3-4-3 it seemed, with Holebas as a left-sided centre-back… but much as it’s easy to be smart after the event there was a lot to like about what Gracia had patched together. Janmaat and Zeegelaar as wing backs, for one thing. Following Bournemouth’s successful lead in matching Chelsea’s shape was another. As Chelsea launched an early attack and Janmaat was exposed on our right requiring Mariappa to sweep up I was briefly reminded of Sam Allardyce’s graceless deflection of blame onto his own team for their failure to follow Swansea’s blueprint for beating Arsenal. Would we suffer from aping someone else’s successful plan? No. This was very much not to be the tone of the evening.

Because we were brilliant. Have I not mentioned this yet? And of all the things to reflect on with glee, all the things and people to praise, surely the new head coach is at the top of the list. What a way to make an entrance. Not only did he cobble together a side, a team of all things, capable of thrashing the League champions, he injected a vim and vigour such as hadn’t been seen since, arguably, November. Gone was the nervous, hesitant, unconvinced shambles of recent weeks. Gone was the rigid adherence to a certain way of playing – we’ve played three different formations in three games. And throughout the first half – Christ, there were no goals until the 41st minute – we were on the front foot. Deeney sliced a chance wide as it came quickly across him, Richarlíson committed people, Deulofeu slammed a shot into the side netting. Chelsea didn’t have a shot on target in the first half.
They were nowhere.

3- It would be wrong to pretend that this was all down to Watford. The visitors looked as unlike defending League champions as its possible to look. Blunt, yes, without a focal point, this accentuated by our flooding of the midfield and forcing Chelsea into wide positions for the first half hour from which they couldn’t hurt us. But limp, too. Uncommitted, unconvincing and unconvinced. Eyes down, negative body language. Not unfamiliar, in other words, but if we’re honest it was latter day Silva Watford turned up to eleven by expectation and the nothing-to-loseness of their opponents’ circumstances.

Tiemoué Bakayoko’s hapless half hour is prominent in assassinations of Chelsea’s performance; from the Rookery, where even Chelsea are just a collection of Their Lot (plus David Luiz) it was less straightforward to highlight his culpability but certainly we stomped all over the midfield. Twice his loose control necessitated recovering challenges, twice he was penalised. You boss the midfield like that and you force such situations, impose them. At least one of those was soft, it turns out. Fine. We thank Lady Luck and maybe remember this next time an Eric Dier handball is missed. Nonetheless, as exhaling faces emerged from the concourse at half time reporting the generous decision you could help but worry that Mike Dean might seek to even the score in the second half.

He didn’t. Perhaps he would have penalised David Luiz more harshly for his kick at Doucouré in other circumstances but Dean had an excellent game and we never gave him the opportunity to even the score. By then, in any case, we were a goal up… Janmaat released Deulofeu, Courtois came bundling out and took out the winger. As an aside, if I could have wished for an extra cherry it would have been a red card for the odious Fabregas, not that he did anything to earn one beyond existing. But Thibault Courtois’ plaintive bleating about the penalty was a decent next best, and Jamie Carragher calling him out in uncompromising terms for having utterly messed up and taken Deulofeu out was an enjoyable part of the denouement. Troy smashed home the penalty, of course, the fallout from which was recorded on Sally (#notafootballfan)’s voicemail but in vain. She hadn’t placed the bet.

4- It would, equally, be wrong to pretend that this was all down to Chelsea. Of particular note is the number of individuals whose contributions were simultaneously ramped up significantly on recent showings. Least surprisingly perhaps Sebastian Prödl looked infinitely more comfortable in a three, more akin to his imperious best than the nervous giraffe of as recently as Stoke on Wednesday night. Daryl Janmaat, also in a more suitable position, was a rampaging rhinoceros on the flank rather than the rather clumsy, sedate animal of recent weeks. Abdoulaye Doucouré’s form had dipped to merely adequate levels but here he was again best at everything… passing, movement, awareness, tackling, driving the team on, big thumping twonks towards the top corner (we’ll come to that). Richarlíson was to be withdrawn in the second half as the visitors succeeded in prickling him but his flame was back on too, direct and uncontainable. Étienne Capoue… we’ve seen this before of course, but we thought this version of Capoue had left the building for good. Not so. A storming performance from the Frenchman worthy of pairing his compatriot in the middle. And Troy. Obviously Troy. For the first time in all the transfer windows where he’s been the subject of attention it felt as if he might actually be on his way this time. That the draw with Southampton was his sign-off, a reminder of what we were losing. Here he was magnificent, every inch the focal point that our forward line has been screaming out for all season even when he’s been in it. He murdered David Luiz, and led the line superbly… Jonathan Lieuw in the Independent summed up his contribution most appropriately:

“Troy Deeney scored a first half penalty and performed an essential role up front, part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”

Jonathan Lieuw, The Independent

5- The second half, and more of the same. Except… from the moment when Chelsea went down to ten we were doing The Stuff That You’re Supposed To Do in such circumstances. Suddenly it was us getting it wide, switching it, making our opponents move. And as they were forced to push on bluntly we galloped back on the break… Deulofeu shot narrowly wide, Doucouré seized possession and hammered down the centre of the pitch before twonking it towards the top corner. Courtois, a better goalkeeper than he is interviewee, adjudicator or analyst, flung himself at it to paw it away. Chelsea still hadn’t had a shot on target.

The balance shifted when Giroud came on. This was preceded by some more fine refereeing by Dean, playing advantage despite Fabregas’ characteristically sulky, disruptive foul, ignoring Pedro collapsing in a heap under no challenge and then when Janmaat screwed the resultant effort wide booking the former and allowing treatment and ultimately replacement of the latter. And suddenly Chelsea had a focal point. Even the most exalted teams benefit now and again from a big lad up front and Chelsea’s threat was no longer theoretical. Perhaps conscious of it we looked a little deliberate for the first time. Sitting back, smothering the space. In fairness whilst we looked nervous there was still limited evidence of a threat… it was going to take either a rare lapse of concentration or something unprecedented and brilliant. Ultimately it took both… Janmaat afforded Hazard too much space, Hazard gobbled it up and slung an extraordinary shot past the blameless Karnezis. We’d have gotten away with that against anyone else. Olivier Giroud hared after the ball to retrieve it and the memory of late defeats to the Blues in each of our last three encounters loomed large.

6- The last ten minutes were ridiculous. They were what kept me awake last night such that I’m too tired to type as I write now, why this didn’t get written at lunchtime as a parade of visitors to the office wanted to discuss them.

But the turning point wasn’t Janmaat’s goal, magnificent and significant as it was. The critical moment, as called out by my brother watching dazed and exalted and frustrated in the distant northern wastes was slightly earlier… as Hazard was rudely dispossessed as he edged Chelsea towards their inevitable winner and Capoue, who we’ve so often screamed at to impose himself like this, changed the script again. He surged upfield leaving Chelsea defenders reeling in shock… memories of Arsenal’s hapless Tony Adams chasing Luther in 1987. This wasn’t the script. Capoue released Deulofeu’s brilliant run, the Spaniard clipped the ball over Courtois and wide but… we were still in this, boys and girls. No rolling over here.

And in our next attack Janmaat is careering into the Chelsea area, reminiscent of his pinball goal at Stamford Bridge last season but with the added bonus of an exquisite 1-2 with Roberto Pereyra (another who suddenly looked like the player in our heads) around the Chelsea bollards. A fabulous finish and the roof came off because now it was definitively All Going To Be OK. Not just this game, but the rest of the season, the rest of our lives, all sorted. All concerns blown away… the game, your job, your money concerns, whatever’s in your head tattered and blowing in the wind. In the Rookery, absolute carnage. On the pitch, Richarlíson has bombed down the wing from the bench to pile into the celebrations.

Then Doucouré’s doing this delicate dance around Chelsea tackles in the middle of the park and gets the ball out and somehow, who knows how, finds Deulofeu escaping down the right. His number’s up and he knows it, Andre Carrillo is stripped off and ready. So he keeps running, and keeps running, pointing either to Deeney or merely to confuse his marker who doesn’t need any help in that department. Troy’s run drags the defence apart, ties their shoelaces together and Deulofeu keeps going and again we get a break, a scuff of Cahill’s boot and Courtois looks a pratt as it rolls past him which is a shame but our luck is IN and you almost feel sorry for our opponents except it’s Chelsea. Deulofeu stands in exalted exhaustion, his last touch to roll the ball into the net.

And we’re not finished, because in the sixth minute of injury time Bobby Pereyra turns Azpilicueta inside out. That’s César Azpilicueta, not Jack Hobbs or Liam Fontaine or Darren bloody Purse. And Azpilicueta having been turned inside out he slams a ridiculous shot past Courtois and it really is all over. “We want five” shouts the Rookery. “Barcelona, we’re coming for you” replies what’s left of the away end.

7- Hugely significant, obviously. Changes the outlook, changes the mood… no, screws the mood up and drop kicks it into the nearest bin with a click of the heels. But in isolation, out of context, this is why you watch football. Nights like this, which are completely brilliant and really don’t come along that often. Not like this. Bring on the rest of the season. Bring on the returns of Kaboul, Femenia, Chalobah, Hughes and the rest. Bring on, suddenly, improbably anything

Yoorns.

Karnezis 5, Mariappa 5, Prödl 5, Holebas 5, Janmaat 5, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 5, Zeegelaar 5, Deulofeu 5, Richarlíson 5, Deeney 5
Subs: Pereyra (for Richarlíson, 65) 5, Carrillo (for Deulofeu, 89) 5, Gray (for Deeney, 93) 5, Ndong, Lukebakio, Bachmann, Mukena

Stoke City 0 Watford 0 (31/01/2018) 01/02/2018

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

1. The last time I saw The Fall was in April 2015. They played in Hastings; next to nobody plays in Hastings. I bought a ticket and I went…and I wondered why I had. It was one of those evenings when middle-aged parenting catches up with you, when you can’t escape the grey fog of the cold with which you’ve had an on-off affair for about two months, when fatigue is all you’ve got to offer. I took a seat in the balcony, bought a beer that immediately made me feel worse. The support band were irritating, and not in a good way. I hadn’t been a really proper Fall fan since they changed my life at the age of sixteen; I’d seen them more than once since then and left feeling largely indifferent, happy that they still existed, happy that I didn’t need to worry. I looked forward to enduring an hour or more of their incorrigible riffola with, at best, a sense of duty.

And – you knew this was coming, but I didn’t – they were effing brilliant. Urgent, concise, vital. Mark E Smith stumbled in from the dressing room after a song or two, then spent a while to-and-froing like someone cooking a meal in the kitchen while keeping an eye on a football match in the living room; eventually, he decided that the evening was worthy of his presence and committed to it more fully, if no more coherently. The balance was perfect. Left to their own devices, no set of proficient musicians would be able to steer so far clear of complacency, to keep it all so compact, so devoid of frills; they’d become an unremarkable bar band within a week. Left to himself, or in charge of a less resilient group, Smith would’ve been a tragicomic sideshow. They needed each other: despite that ‘granny on bongos’ line, The Fall was at the meeting point of those two trajectories, the two things shackled together, wired and ramshackle, loose and furious. All and nothing.

When I started writing that, I was going to work it into a metaphor somehow. But Mark E Smith resists all of that nonsense, won’t be wrestled into anyone’s game. The idea of taking The Fall, holding them in the palm of your hand and then grasping for something comparable with the other hand…it doesn’t work. They won’t have it.

Rest in peace, you old curmudgeon.

“F*** off, pal.”

We’ll have to start again.

2. Reading an article in the Guardian about Grimsby last week, it struck me how much football has shaped my view of the world. I haven’t travelled very much; maybe I ought to, but I’ve no appetite for it, no bucket list to speak of. Most of the towns and cities I’ve visited over the years have involved a game; most of them aren’t seen at best advantage on a freezing Saturday afternoon in December. Grimsby, particularly. Perhaps you’re one of those who travel to away fixtures simply to join with others in singing about wanting to go home again, but I appear to have absorbed a certain amount of each of these places, a few mental images, a certain fondness that’s outlasted the result. A nearly-forgotten holiday, just fading echoes. I imagine many of its inhabitants would quite rightly and robustly spurn such advances from an affluent middle-class Guardian-reading metropolitan liberal Southern tosser, but I’ve an inexplicable soft spot for Grimsby.

I’ve never been to Stoke before, so they’ve no spot, soft or otherwise. I’m here as the result of a phonecall from fellow former fanzine editors at Stephen Todd’s funeral back in October, suggesting that we take on the season’s least inviting midweek away trip in his honour. Toddy knew how to do football supporting better than pretty much anyone I’ve ever met; I’ve lost the knack, but something in the idea has remained sufficiently appealing that I haven’t wheedled my way out in the meantime. We arrive in Stoke at not long after four o’clock, settle into the local Harvester, avail ourselves of the salad cart, try to build a list of every goalscorer from the Pozzo era. Shenanigans and indeed misdemeanours from away trips of yore are mentioned; Dave keeps that flame alive by ordering gammon with egg and pineapple.

3. My first game of the season, then. It’s all very well pootling down the road for a bit of crumbly-terraced non-league action of a Saturday afternoon and being back home before the end of Grandstand, but can he cut it on a cold Wednesday night in Stoke? I realise how long it’s been since I’ve entered a Premier League ground when I empty my pockets in preparation for the journey and find a small collection of interesting pebbles from the beach that I’ve been carrying around with me since the summer. I haven’t checked but suspect that you’re not supposed to take stones into grounds these days, even if they are pretty, even if they do have holes in them.

4. By curious coincidence, it’s a curtain-raiser (of sorts, in the League, go with me) for the Javi Gracia…well, they’re not really ‘eras’ as such, are they?  The Javi Gracia sojourn, perhaps? He’s a new bloke to replace the old bloke who didn’t want to be our bloke any more, or something. That’s roughly the gist, I think.

I have the broad outline of the season, little more. Speaking of broad outlines – and no, please don’t tell him I said that – there’s Troy Deeney wearing the captain’s armband rather than, for example, a West Brom shirt. The signing of Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona signals the owners’ continued desire to look upwards rather than downwards; those more inclined towards panic might’ve been trying to find themselves a Danny Cullip at this point. Even with that injury list, a glance through the teamsheet suggests that there ought to be cause for optimism, although not having sat through a thumping home defeat to Huddersfield probably helps.

(A doff of the cap to the departing Ben Watson while we’re here. There have been many more spectacular signings in recent years; there have not been that many better. Good luck to you, sir.)

5. It isn’t a very good game. Returning to the top flight after spending time in the depths of non-league, it’s startling how theatrical it all is; the pitch is neatly, cleanly edged as if it were a stage rather than an expanse of grass. So many people too: in the crowd, obviously, but in the supporting cast of coaches, medics, stewards, officials, in the spaces created to accommodate them all. It’s slightly mad. And quite fun. But it does tend to throw something as, well, unrefined as this particular contest into sharp relief. I’ve seen better games this season, put it that way.

6. It’s hard to say who has the best of the first half. It’s one of those, one that either manager might reasonably claim. Indeed, it’s one of those games overall: you’d have little cause for complaint at a one-nil defeat, you’d find enough to justify a one-nil win. Nil-nil it is, then.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Stoke are energetic early on, with Paul Lambert jumping around on the touchline in violently nylon sportswear like the kind of PE teacher who’d want to you to call him by his nickname. Diouf wastes their best chance with a glancing header across goal, before a break is initially foiled by a superb block from Adrian Mariappa, the first of at least half a dozen such interventions, and ended by Choupa-Moting curling very narrowly wide. Sebastian Prodl looks a terrified shadow of the player I remember, visibly shrinking away from the ball on occasions; you wouldn’t say that a goal is ever imminent but neither would you be confident enough to dismiss the idea.

But while those nerves never fully disappear, the game begins to form in our favour. The midfield gradually takes shape and takes hold, with Etienne Capoue playing a notably more disciplined, less loose-limbed role than I associate him with (at least until it all starts to unravel in the last ten minutes), Tom Cleverley biting in, Abdoulaye Doucoure rumbling about threateningly, Gerard Deulofeu flitting in and out. Only very occasionally can you look at it with genuine admiration – a fine move ends with Cleverley shooting over – but it has purpose and it has influence.

By half-time, then, we’re a little unfortunate not to have stolen a goal. First, Doucoure’s drifting header from a Holebas free kick is cleared off the line; later, Deulofeu scampers down the right and delivers a low cross that Richarlison ought to smack past Butland at the near post rather than blasting over the bar. None of it requires a thesaurus-full of extravagent adjectives, but it’s decent, it’s workmanlike. We have reason enough to be encouraged.

7. The second half begins with a protracted spell of low level, childish tetchiness that’ll rapidly test the patience of all present, particularly those who haven’t paid to watch over-grown men cry to teacher about someone pulling their hair. I oppose the introduction of VAR so fervently that it sometimes keeps me awake at night but I have to say that if it brought an end to players pretending to have been elbowed in the face, with the inevitable five minute break for pushing, pointing and tale-telling, it wouldn’t be entirely bad. You half expect to find that someone’s drawn a willy in chalk on the referee’s back when he’s been distracted. Football breaks out in between, fitfully and briefly, like a badly scratched Napalm Death record.

While it never settles down entirely – Doucoure and Crouch have a playground tussle late on, for instance – the ratio of football to not-football does improve as the half settles down. Neither side makes much headway, both rather willing an error of the type which lets in Shaqiri to blast straight at Orestis Karnezis. For our part, Troy Deeney is swamped by a combination of Shawcross and Zouma in every aerial challenge, like Father Jack being mobbed by angry crows; it isn’t his finest game, but he does at least keep his rag intact.

He’s helped by the arrival of Andre Gray for the rather sullen, subdued Richarlison. Given that both of the opposition’s central defenders are concentrating on piling on top of our centre forward, there really ought to be space to exploit elsewhere and Gray’s aggressive runs in behind begin to do just that. But at all of its outward edges, if not at its centre, this is a nervous, hesitant performance and that applies to the finishing as much as anything else. The best chance falls to Roberto Pereyra, on for a depressingly crocked Cleverley, who scuffs his shot sufficiently for Butland to make an easy save.

8. Thing is, and perhaps I can see this more clearly than those of you who’ve been more closely involved in the season’s ups and downs…but there’s very little wrong here that a good, bracing blast of confidence wouldn’t fix. You look through that side and you see a really significant number of players – Holebas, Prodl, Capoue, Richarlison, Pereyra, Deeney, Gray – who have proven themselves to have plenty to offer at this level and yet are desperately out of sorts, out of form, short of fitness or various combinations thereof. When you think of some of the precarious positions we’ve found ourselves in the past – hell, some of the flat-out hopeless positions – this doesn’t even begin to compare. Not even close.

In a perfect world, you’d sign Tommy Mooney and get him to lead the charge, everyone falling in behind, no option but to join the ride. Maybe it doesn’t work like that any more. Maybe it never did at this level. Whatever, the only way forward for this group is to chip away at it. Adrian Mariappa shows the way here, relishing a new role on the right, clearing his head of nagging doubts and digging in. A clean sheet, a point away from home, something to build on. It needn’t matter that it was a bit scratchy, that it could’ve been more (or less); all that matters is what you do with it, how you build upon it. This still looks like a bloody good side to me, just a bloody good side that needs to believe in itself again.

9. Chelsea next. That might be fun.

Karnezis 3, Holebas 3, Prodl 2, Kabasele 3, *Mariappa 4*, Doucouré 3, Cleverley 3, Capoue 3, Richarlíson 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Gray (for Richarlison, 67) 3, Pereyra (for Cleverley, 72) 3, Carrillo (for Deulofeu, 87) 0, Bachmann, Janmaat, Zeegelaar, Jordan Stewart (not really)