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Watford 2 Newcastle United 1 (05/05/2018) 06/05/2018

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. On the walk down to my office, there’s an old lamppost. It’s at the bottom of one of Hastings’ many steep hills, as a footpath meets a busy road. So many people have used it to stop their descent before they reach the road that its black paint has worn away to the silver metal at hand-height. All those hands reaching out over all those years. It gives me a sense of contentment in the same way as the small wooden step into our kitchen, which has been worn to a gentle, undulating curve by a hundred years of footsteps. Things that don’t change much. Things that have no need of much change. Things with their own quiet stories.

It’s tempting to say that so much has changed at Vicarage Road since I first visited it as a seven-year-old that I wouldn’t recognise it, but I’m not quite sure that’s true. Part of the wonder of football grounds is how much they and their environs can change to keep pace with the times while retaining the same essential shape and familiarity. The same roads, the same pavements, the same street corners; the same journey home, literally and metaphorically. Different buildings in the same spaces, filling in tightly between the pitch and the surrounding roads. I could still hazard a guess at the spot somewhere near the top of Occupation Road where I stood on that first visit, completely transfixed by the photograph on the programme cover, my first real memory of going to football. I don’t imagine I’d be far out.

2. I haven’t been here since July. Even then, that was over there, in the Graham Taylor stand, not in what is still technically my seat. I haven’t been here since I-could-look-it-up-but-I-can’t-actually-remember. Whenever it was, it didn’t feel like this. It’s a beautiful blue-skied day, t-shirts and shorts weather, and Vicarage Road seems so much more vibrant and vivid than I remember it. Perhaps it’s the contrast with the rest of the season spent in relatively rustic non-league surroundings, but this suddenly feels like a wonderfully compact, enclosed, energetic space for a football match, a stadium truly transformed by the work done by the Pozzos. The atmosphere is upbeat, perhaps aided by the imminent end of a long, hard season. Not worn down by it, at least. Summer’s here. Football’s coming home. And so on.

3. There’s a danger, having been absent for so long, that any opinions I offer come from a position of such detachment that they’re completely inane, in much the same way as when I lent a Sepultura album to someone and the best response they could manage was that all the songs sounded the same, as if they ought to have chucked in an ABBA tribute halfway through for the sake of variety. If you’re closer to it all, I imagine it’s been a season of vibrant highs and awful lows, just as I could’ve named every track on that album from its intro. From further away…well, not so much.

From my far-away place, it seems to me that the relative ease with which relegation has been avoided in each of the last three seasons is both a tremendous achievement and a bit of a curse, for mid-season safety makes for a much less compelling story than late-season heroism. It’s hard to avoid a sense of anticlimax. You hear people ranting about what’s holding us back or what’s standing in our way, as if each defeat nudges us a little further away from our rightful place. It’s the kind of huffy uppitiness which pops up on your Facebook feed amid the photos of other people’s pets and children, a bit like when you’re stood in a hotel lobby, becalmed by pot pourri and muzak, and the lift doors ping open to reveal a red-faced man swearing angrily at a wasp.

Perhaps, though, the price of the achievement is exactly that anticlimax. Perhaps the effort is such that it simply can’t be sustained over a full season, or at least not by a squad of players we can actually afford, and perhaps the kind of effort which could be sustained for so long would bring merely endless narrow defeats and the kind of spirit-sapping relegation you’re probably old enough to remember too. From my far-away place, it seems undeniable that what these seasons have lacked are stories of the kind we’ll hand down to the next generation, but they nevertheless rank among the most successful in our history. You could argue that mediocrity is spreading through the Premier League like a sneaky wee in a particularly expensive hot-tub, but the achievement still stands, testament as much as anything else to the staggering competence and clarity of our owners. The point where West Brom sacked Tony Pulis and got straight on the phone to Slaven Bilic, who’d spent his season until then as a ghostly, tormented presence on the London Stadium touchline, guiding West Ham to a position below West Brom in the table before himself getting fired, showed how much we have to be grateful for. It oughtn’t to be that unusual to have some money, a coherent plan and a well-filled contacts book, rather than just the first of the three, but it evidently still is.

4. So, Newcastle arrive as the tenth best team in the country…which, well, yes. Competence and clarity on the playing side, if not elsewhere. This season feels like it’ll be the subject of pub quiz questions in years to come: name the seventeen teams which didn’t get relegated from the Premier League in 2017/18. Nobody’ll remember either of us. (Yes, I know you will.) That’s both good and bad. This is one of those games which really needs to be a seven-goal thriller to stand any chance of getting any higher than next-to-last on Match of the Day. We’ve blended into the background, them and us. Or, perhaps, we’ve sort of made ourselves at home.

It isn’t a seven-goal thriller, but it does its best. With the 1881 bashing away raucously to our left, we begin with a sunny energy that yields the opener within three minutes, a fine move starting with the inventive Will Hughes on the right, benefiting from a lucky break in the box and finishing with Abdoulaye Doucoure teeing up  Roberto Pereyra to the ball tidily home. We look a real force, solid at the back and urgent in the middle, aggressive in attack. Etienne Capoue is imperious, Will Hughes is impish, Roberto Pereyra is pure mischief. Pereyra gets in and is foiled by the keeper, Capoue has his follow-up deflected narrowly wide; Andre Gray is denied after sneaking down the side of a static defence.

Newcastle simply haven’t turned up. The only threat of any significance comes from Shelvey’s raking passes from deep, ambitious attempts to pick out runners that keep Cathcart and Kabasele on their toes. We’re thoroughly on top as Pereyra twists and turns before lofting a cross to the far post for Gray to add the second while defenders stand and gawp like tourists on Go Jetters. Some Newcastle fans leave at that point; you can’t blame them preferring a pint in a sunny beer garden to sitting through a complete capitulation.

If the penalty goes in, the rest is surely plain sailing. The penalty doesn’t go in. The offence – an ill-advised and rather clumsy attempt to win the ball from Gray – and the award both seem to happen in slow motion, and Troy Deeney’s kick is similarly lame. Momentarily, he appears certain to score on the rebound but that’s smothered too…and suddenly, there’s at least the prospect of it being a different game than the one we thought we had.

5. The second half is absolutely ridiculous. Like the health warning on a packet of fags, a reminder that this football lark isn’t all fun and frolics; by the end, we’re all gaunt and wrung out, and most of the players have collapsed onto the turf like the losing team in a Cup Final. That Newcastle are less terrible, less absent, is to be expected. Our reaction is a defensive rearguard so resolutely negative that we barely register a goal attempt in the entire forty-five minutes. The one attempt I can recall comes from Pereyra, lazily slicing a half-volley high and wide, and he’s immediately substituted for such impertinence and ill-discipline. Well, not quite immediately, for Newcastle pull one back in between, Perez sliding in at the far post to convert with perfect precision.

6. That substitution is followed by another, switching to three at the back and one up front, the ineffective Deeney withdrawn for Adrian Mariappa to low-level disgruntlement from the stands. It strikes me as being the kind of decision that you have to make as a manager, and for which you either get copious blame or next-to-no credit, depending on whether or not your team holds out for victory. That said, it also strikes me that you need to tread a little carefully, for paying punters are much more forgiving of mistakes stemming from positive intent than the other way around.

And I mean, bloody hell…you’ve got to keep some sort of perspective. At the point where you’re taking off both strikers to defend an end-of-season lead at home, you’re at risk of losing people altogether. Hell, maybe you’ve already lost quite a few of them. On such a beautiful day, it feels almost anti-social, like lighting a massive bonfire without warning the neighbours to take in their washing; it’s football dragged from the freezing wastelands of January. Richarlison replaces Gray, who for all his faults is simply built for the task of chasing down lost causes and still appears to have some running left in him, while Hughes is so exhausted he’s practically unable to stand. The Brazilian makes a fleeting pretence of going up front before tucking in to reinforce the midfield…and, yes, we do indeed seem to be playing 5-5-0 at home against Newcastle. Jesus. I double-check to make sure that we haven’t had a player sent off while I wasn’t paying attention. Nope.

The remainder is about as much fun as you’d expect 5-5-0 to be. We wait, tensed and lost in thought, for the announcement of injury time and the inevitable Newcastle equaliser in its final minute. It would be very easy to lose the detail amid condemnation of the tactics, but we shouldn’t, for Cathcart and Kabasele are truly magnificent and Mariappa isn’t far behind; Cathcart, in particular, appears drawn by an invisible force to the precise square yard where he needs to be, snuffing out danger as it flickers into life on countless occasions. The equaliser doesn’t come. In fact, Newcastle are denied at every turn. It’s a genuinely heroic effort, albeit one perhaps suited to another, more momentous occasion.

7. So it’s an odd conclusion, really. Even beyond Doucoure’s rather ill-judged pre-match farewell message and Javi Gracia’s apparent uncertainty over what the summer will hold, it feels emphatically like an end to something. Whatever the circumstances, I’m not sure that you can be so utterly negative in front of your home fans and expect them to forget about it. It’s a taste that lingers, it’s a debt that you’ll have to pay eventually. The Pozzos aren’t the sort to be swayed very much by public opinion, but a reinvention of some sort is required before July, a fresh start, a new vision. More of this won’t do…he said loftily, as if he had a divine right to turn up at the last minute and tell you lot what to think about it all.

And more of this shouldn’t really have to do. As Leicester’s title win fades into history, replaced by extravagantly (in all senses) attacking football with little care for defensive detail, there’s surely a vacancy for another side that picks a small handful of essential things and does them exceptionally well, does them with an intensity and a consistency that others can’t match. Does them to the point of being an art-form, as Leicester did. Does them to the point of being an absolute menace, as Watford once did.

It’s time to write some stories, isn’t it?

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 3, *Cathcart 4*, Kabasele 4, Holebas 3, Hughes 3, Doucoure 3, Capoue 4, Pereyra 4, Deeney 2, Gray 3; Deulofeu 2, Mariappa 4, Richarlison 2

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Comments»

1. Roger Smith - 06/05/2018

…and the same pot holes.

5-5-0 it may have been, but we had two 2-on-1 breakaways, and failed to convert either.

I would give Gracia another chance. We may lose Doucoure, but with Cleverley ahead of Chalobah and Capoue, and the return of solidity in defence, I think we could achieve something next season aka Burnley. Where would Watford be if we hadn’t conceded any points from winning positions?

2. Graham Cooper - 06/05/2018

Pray tell, what was that programme cover image that so transfixed you?

Ian Grant - 06/05/2018

I wish I could enlighten you (and me) on that one, but I’ve genuinely no idea. Perhaps I’d know it if I saw it, perhaps not. My co-editor has a database containing details of every game he’s been to, but I’ve never been very good at keeping track of my supporting history.

3. David wheatley - 06/05/2018

Deeney’s legs may have gone but I still think he has a role at No.10 especially when matched with the pace of a younger man. On a similar note, I hope Gracia is given a shot. We were painfully open at Liverpool and Arsenal and it would be an error on his part not to have learned from that even though the 5-5-0 was a step to far.

4. Vaughan Smith - 07/05/2018

Wow – that’s about as harsh as I’ve heard from you IG in 20 years of BSAD/BHAPPY. Well spoken I have to say though. In my 40 years of season ticketness I’ve never seen such a disgraceful act as taking off a striker for a defender with 30 mins to go in a meaningless game whilst winning. Mr Gracia seems to me to be a ‘decent’ bloke, but has no tactical sense other than the desire to get in front then shut up shop. Over the past 3 seasons the flying starts as ‘unknown quantities’ under new managers has ensured comfortable safety. I can see us being on 2 points after 9 games next time around if he carries on into next season,

5. John Parslow - 07/05/2018

Ian – you have been missed.
I love thunk 1 – its just simply what it is really all about.

I still attend with my dad who is 83 now and our journey into the ground is the ritual walk round the stadium and down Occupation road that on some days and all nights is that bustle of bodies and expectation.
We take our place in the Rookery – centre behind the goal and half way up which are the seats we chose when the stand was built.
Our departure sees us exit left and then sneak down across the lower Graham Taylor which means we complete our 360 tour of the ground.

As we climb the steps up between the GT and “Vicarage road end” stands (refuse to call it North) – when there is a crowd we sometimes have the opportunity to pause and about halfway up look back and reflect on those days when he brought me to my first game some 41 years ago (Mike Keens last) and this is about the spot we used to watch all that history for so many years – from Div 4 and DIv 3 promotion to Southampton & Kasiserslauten and beating Liverpool 2-1 on the final day. But generally getting pissed on by both the weather and many a team on some not so glorious days.

Unlike you – im still in love with the history and the present. Because we have the history.

You will be back. You know you will.

Ian Grant - 07/05/2018

Yes, I’m sure I will. I’d never have imagined that I’d become so remote from my club…but equally, I’d never have imagined the wonderful changes in my life that have caused my priorities to change.

6. Paul - 07/05/2018

Bravo maestro – always look forward to a bhappy report, cuts through the miasma like a good Yorkshire tea after fish and chips. Can’t fault the analysis again so thank you both for another Sterling season for those who don’t get to many games from afar. ‘It’s a taste that lingers’, quite so, hope the changes start with Mr Gray being shown the door to the allotments, goal returns like Trevor Senior are bad enough, but good lord don’t chide the Family Enclosure with a cupped ear

Matt Rowson - 08/05/2018

Yorkshire tea. pfffft

7. reg - 07/05/2018

It’s been a turbulent season, disrupted by the departure of Marco Silva in January, but after throwing away leads against Bournemouth and Burnley and failing to beat Palace in our previous 3 home games the timing and manner of this victory were most welcome. Ok the players couldn’t replicate in the second half a superb first half performance and it was good for us that Newcastle didn’t desperately need the points and that they couldn’t make the most of an excellent performance by Shelvey. We had the game’s most influential player in Pereyra and without him and Deeney in the second half we lost our attacking potency. Also without Deeney and Gomes we had no vocal leader on the pitch and had to kind of muddle through. What I really liked and what warmed my heart was the way the crowd got solidly behind a bunch of very tired players who were giving everything and dragged them over the line. There was a wonderful synergy between players and supporters which will hopefully flow into next season. A season is a bit like a jigsaw and the pieces fell into place neatly on Saturday and with one game to go we supporters can relax and enjoy the prospect of at least one more season taking part in the greatest show on earth, and to finding out when the fixtures are released in June when our club will be playing Manchester United, City, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and the rest. I was kidding myself a couple of months ago that we could finish seventh, to be honest the main priority is to stay up and go again the following season.
You could argue that Javi Gracia has saved our season because he came in after a run of one win in 11 games and I would like to see him given the chance to prepare a squad with suitable additions (for a start keep our 3 current strikers and add one more) for next season.

Harefield Hornet - 08/05/2018

Terrific 100 perecent agree. Sick of the doom merchants!

Mark S - 09/05/2018

reg : “Keep our 3 current strikers” ? Are you sure ? I would happily get rid of all 3. By and large they have all been dreadful this season!

8. Sequel - 07/05/2018

This year is the 50th anniversary of my first ever live game: Man Utd 6 Newcastle 0 (G. Best 3), May 1968.
At 2-0, and with the ball on the penalty spot, I was dreaming of another 6-0 game, which have perfectly bookended half a century of watching football. Didn’t quite go to plan, clearly, but then football rarely does.
But some things never change: City won the league in ’68, with United in second place.
Watford were on the charge in the late ’60s as well….


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