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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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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)

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Comments»

1. Roger Smith - 01/02/2018

If ever there was “just a bloody good side that needs to believe in itself again” – it’s Chelsea. Bring it on!

2. Simoninoz - 01/02/2018

I wish I could write like you, Ian. Your pieces are now like a Doyley goal; rare but wonderful.

3. Tadcaster Hornet - 01/02/2018

Welcome back! A fine summation. Paul Lambert comments totally spot-on.
Nice that Karnezis (sp.) kept his shirt sleeves rolled up throughout. Well done to all 22 on the pitch for getting healthily and unhealthily stuck in. And we’ll done the rainsleetsnow for holding off for the entire period between leaving the car and getting back in it again. Otherwise the evening may not live long in the memory, sadly…

4. watf0rdfc - 01/02/2018

Reasons for optimism then…my favourite Fall track is football related…Kicker Conspiracy…

5. Stuart Campbell - 02/02/2018

Aah… grand to see you back, IG. Not simply for the pure enjoyment of reading your piece, but also for recharging my own fading enthusiasm. As a septuagenarian Guardian-reading, liberal tosser now living in the East Midlands I’ve been finding it difficult to keep making the case to attend home games. The sheer effort and cost have hardly been rewarded lately.
I listened to the match on the club website/3CR link through my fingers. Stoke away in January meant low expectations. But we matched them for grit and bloody-mindedness. Just what the doctor ordered. Media match reports were predictable, yours a delightful surprise and perfect antidote. Virgin East Coast tickets are now being ordered online.
Youoooorns.

6. Graham - 04/02/2018

The mention of Grimsby prompted me to remember the following…
We went up to blundell park for a Cup tie – freezing day (natch). My Uni friend – involved with grimsby youth – had got the tickets. Oddly, instead of sitting in the magnificent Ross stand – huge, impressive, great view – we were huddled in a woodshed opposite in which one could fail the breathalyser test simply by inhaling everybody else’s breaths out. Why I asked dear friend, were we huddled up with a poor view et ?.
Well , as he explained, the searingly cold air that arises in the Steppes, whistles through the N German plain, flies over Denmark, getting colder all the time, accelerates over the North sea until it hits, full in the face, the highest structure west of the German/Russian border. Yes, the Ross stand facing directly out over The north sea.

There’s barely any connection with last Wednesday, except to say Stoke’s football was uglier than anything I’ve ever seen at Grimsby, and the temperature wasn’t much different from the afore-mentioned Cup tie.


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