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Watford 1 Everton 0 (09/02/2019) 10/02/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

1- So, the Marco Silva thing we’ll all have talked to death, I’m guessing. It happened, it’s tiresome, it doesn’t reflect well on him or on his current employers and on reflection we’ve probably done quite well out of the whole thing really.

That he left is long since not an issue of course. As time has progressed the most cynical interpretation, that his reputation is built on sand, has been afforded more traction by Everton’s iffy form but that aside I want to like my club and I want to like the head coach. That’s more important than winning really, though ideally you’d have both (thanks, Javi…). So the departure of a man who was vain enough, sufficiently without shame to want to leave Watford as early as he did for the reasons he did… we were manifestly better off out of it even before his managerial limitations became (more) evident.

Everton’s behaviour I find harder to move on from, which isn’t entirely rational. They clearly did wrong, the offer of compensation tacitly acknowledged that, the ongoing independent investigation resultant from Watford’s complaint feels right and will hold the shabby Toffees to account, one hopes. But worse things happen at sea. In the grand scheme of things… there are bigger scumbags on our TV screens every day.

What really rankles is the way the arrogance of the Toffees’ approach echoes the arrogance of the barrel-scrapings on social media. Every club’s support is a broad school of course and heaven knows that it’s painfully easy to get wound up on Twitter whether you want to or not, empty vessels make the most noise and so forth. But there’s a colour to these barrel-scrapings when it comes to bigger clubs that grates and it’s evident in the way that supporters of such clubs fall back on their bigness as a sort of surrogate currency when their team is actually a bit shit. “Yeah, but we’re a massive club”. Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Villa and, yes, Everton take note. Everton’s own presumptuousness in their approach reflected the same attitude, the basest, crassest element of their support; the difference is that Everton aren’t faceless inaccessible goons on twitter. All power to the Hornets for not letting this lie.

2- The atmosphere in the ground before kick-off was brittle. I must confess that I didn’t notice the widely-celebrated playlist, but there was no missing Emma Saunders’ pointed welcome to the visiting head coach over the tannoy. It achieved the result it was designed to, albeit that the venom directed at Silva – and certainly at Richarlíson who received a mixture of half-hearted applause and similarly half-hearted catcalls – seemed restrained. Not the bear-pit of animosity that had been heralded, not yet anyway… perhaps because of Troy’s encouragements to back the team rather than focus on the opposition, perhaps because of a nervousness at ramifications of giving it large too early. Perhaps because the passage of events, the gradual shading in of the colours on the landscape, make it clear that we can afford disdain and ridicule, less vigorous forms of hostility than outright hatred.

So… not as hostile as anticipated. But certainly boisterous, certainly noisy. The 1881’s massive hart-flag covered the Rookery pre match; the ferocious wind got underneath it and briefly you pictured supporters on the edges being lifted into the sky by a vigorous gust but the banner descending was as a curtain lifting on the spectacle and we roared in anticipation.

3- And the Watford team followed suit. An approach designed to subdue this unconvinced, unconvincing, mentally half-arsed Everton side it might have been, but the unapologetic aggression of the Watford performances was unprecedented and spectacular and fitted the mood. Jose Holebas set an early tone, which may not surprise you, slugging a ferocious clearance straight at Tom Davies to clear the lines at the first threat. Thereafter we were a thundering, intimidating juggernaut… never snide, never vicious, merely brutal. Designed to provoke an “oh f*** this” response.

And Everton didn’t like it. To their credit they never threw in the towel, and after all a back line of Zouma and Keane isn’t likely to be bullied, but this was a challenge to their mentality more than their physique. Some stood up to it better than others. Richarlíson, certainly, will not have expected any favours off Holebas on the Watford left and received none. This was the left back, increasingly a cult hero at Vicarage Road, at his single-minded best; he shoved the Brazilian deep into his pocket to grapple with the packet of fags and the loose change with a warning not to cause any trouble. And he didn’t, not really… this was a performance right out of the playbook of the tail end of last season, all flouncing and remonstration and pouting drizzled with the occasional glimpse of what he’s capable of.

By the second half the Brazilian had disappeared up his own backside, writhing around at the slightest contact in what might have been a Neymar tribute but for the lack of spaghetti on his head. In the end even his own teammates didn’t bother checking on him. This in stark contrast to Richarlíson when his pecker’s up, the Richarlíson who gives as good as he gets when he wants to, who makes you think that the £50million (or whatever, insert whichever figure you choose to believe) might have been a good deal for all parties. Not on this evidence. Subbed midway through the second half, he was jeered off.

4- Back in the first half, and if this was a huge improvement on the stupefying trip to Brighton last week and if there was no lack of vigour then it was still rather low on quality. Indeed, whilst the Hornets came close when Capoue slammed a chest-down from Deeney which Pickford somehow propelled over, the visitors had the better chances for all their apparent discomfort… Keane dropped a header into Foster’s arms, Zouma failed to get any power behind a much more presentable chance, he should have scored. The ponderous Tosun was given a chance by some inattentive passing on the edge of the box and forced a good stop from Foster. For the Hornets, the centre-backs excelled, Cathcart as ever looking like the bit that makes the whole defence work, Mariappa perpetually in the right place. Elsewhere Doucouré and Capoue resumed their heavy duty partnership in the centre to powerful effect, but we were struggling to make inroads; Ken Sema threw his weight around but didn’t create an awful lot, Gerard Deulofeu dropped too deep in search of the ball and was overwhelmed by the stronger tides in the middle of the park, sucked further into irrelevance.

5- So the half time substitution made an enormous difference. You’ve got to feel sorry for Sema, there were a number of other calls that could have been made… but Deulofeu moving back to a wide position suddenly made him vital and incisive, Andre Gray was the best version of Andre Gray, snarling and pressing and making the Danny Graham runs that pull the defence around.

The gameboard tipped decisively for the first time. We were on top now, our foot on Everton’s throat and if we were still struggling to make chances then the ball wasn’t in our half terribly often, and rarer still without our expressed consent. And the decisive play was a beautiful thing in so many ways… first in the way that we magicked the irrepressible Holebas out of a hat again on the edge of the box, then in the swaggering shot across the bows that followed.

It didn’t look as if Pickford had touched it at the time but a corner was the award, one of a catalogue of bizarre decisions from a set of officials who had an erratic afternoon. Silva would later peevishly try to argue that these errors all went one way which wasn’t strictly true – a difficult game to officiate, but Lee Probert in particular did seem keen to support the narrative suggested by Troy’s unfortunately broadcast “kick the sh*t out of them” comments”.

Either way, an underlying mentality was consistently displayed by Silva’s comments, by the miserable Zouma’s hilarious post-match dismissal, by the shattering effect of this decision on the visitors’ mentality. A fragility of mindset. Probert didn’t give us a goal, or a penalty. It was a corner. You’ve still got to defend it… and for all their notoriety in dealing with such things the goal didn’t come from the first assault on the goal. More than to the bad decision it owed a bundle to a glorious reverse-flicked pass from that manyCathcart, a centre-back mark you, which unpeeled Everton’s defence beyond salvation. Will Hughes squared firmly on the scamper, Gray was left with a deserved tap in. The irony of A.Gray deciding the game to protests from his opposing keeper will not have been lost on many of sufficient years, least of all Steve Sherwood whose half time ovation was a highlight of the afternoon. (And no I can’t take the credit for that observation but it’s inspired so I plagiarise without apology).

6- And now we were not just noisy but lording it, revelling in the moment. Everton came back at us, looking urgent for the first time; “Dominic Calvert-Lewin always bloody scores against us” an unhelpful observation in my ear as the striker appeared off the bench. Not this time though, although he had a chance, heading wide. It could have been different.

Instead the chants came thick and fast, the visiting head coach unable to make his shouts heard over the revelry suggesting what might happen to his employment the next morning, and observing which of our last two head coaches was better than which. At the final whistle the magnificent Aidy Mariappa on his 300th appearance, on the same ground where he cried as the youth cup side he captained exited the FA Youth Cup in 2005, gave his shirt to a kid in the front of the Rookery and left us with a primal scream of triumph. Harry Hornet, meanwhile, was wrestling with and ultimately subduing an inflatable snake. Childish, yes, but he’s a man in a hornet’s costume so, you know.

Everton, in summary, looked lamentable. Their graceless manager surely a busted flush, his employers’ similarly graceless conduct rendering subsequent events all the more enjoyable.

We didn’t play an awful lot better in truth, but we looked focused, together, single-minded and deserved the win. We’re now the eighth best team in the land, would you believe, with a buffer to ninth and a load of winnable home games before the end of the campaign.

What’s not to like? Yoooorns.

 

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, *Holebas 5*, Cathcart 5, Mariappa 5, Hughes 3, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Sema 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Gray (for Sema, 45) 4, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 81) 0, Chalobah (for Hughes, 90) 0, Kabasele, Masina, Peñaranda, Gomes

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Brighton and Hove Albion 0 Watford 0 (02/02/2019) 03/02/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

1. Contentment rarely breeds good art. Happiness, perhaps; ecstasy, certainly; not contentment. I think that’s fair, but I’m open to correction. I appreciate that being open to correction isn’t very 2019, but there we are.

At any rate, I can think of no Shakespeare plays in which, for example, a king governs his kingdom with gentle kindness, dishing out to his contented subjects runny scotch eggs and frothing tankards of mead (does mead froth?) with such generosity that nobody ever bothers to challenge his position and everyone just, you know, gets on fine and that, the end. The Rolling Stones didn’t sing about getting a genteel sufficiency of satisfaction. Every half-successful hip-hop artist has had to deal with the difficult point at which they’ve entirely lost touch with their roots and life has become thoroughly comfortable; the result is an absolutely vast sub-genre of rapping about eating freshly-prepared unicorn kidneys in a diamond-encrusted palace while receiving a ‘massage’ from Miss World but, like, feeling really lonely and vulnerable and numb on the inside.

2. Contentment and football don’t mix easily either. Or perhaps it’s just that contentment supports little in the way of headlines and arguments and gambling sponsorship. There are good times, there are bad times, there are good and bad times at the same time. It’s not often, though, that you look at your football club and receive in return a sense of general well-being, of a thing that’s conceivably as good as it could be and yet not (and there’s a difference) as good as it gets.

Looking in from a distance, it appears that we’re more or less in that place right now. There’s a remarkable sense of surety about Watford Football Club, one that seems to deflect outside attention like some kind of cloaking shield. Interlocking parts, cohesive whole; nothing to see here. There seems to be a clear relationship between, for instance, the 1881 collecting for the local food bank, the sense of collective purpose shown on the pitch and the ability of the owners to make actions speak much, much louder than words. It hasn’t always been so, and you don’t have to go more than a few months back to find a good degree of acrimony and resentment and frustration. It won’t always be so either; everyone wanted to be Charlton once, if you recall.

But for now, we know who we are, where we are, what to do. We have a thoroughly charming manager who answers the media’s enquiries as if a nice aunt has just asked if he’d like a second slice of battenberg. That manager appears to have spent the summer concluding that the air around a football club is clearer if your team doesn’t stink it up, and the football no longer has that sense of instinctively shrinking onto the back foot, of only being truly happy when it’s pouring quick-drying cement all over everything. It still has the potential to be one of the great seasons. Even if it falls short of that, it’s a rare moment when any club gets quite this much right, and so modestly.

3. Our hosts are in a slightly more precarious position, and are smarting from their midweek disintegration at Fulham, but have a similar number of reasons to be thankful.

Much as you want to win, there’s always something thrilling about being in someone else’s ground when a game that’s in the balance suddenly tips and the noise starts echoing around the stands. Sets the adrenaline going, makes eventual victory all the more vivid. The noise at the Amex still seems to carry with it something of what this club nearly became, of building bonfires and Hereford and all of that. It’s still there, the knowledge that none of this might’ve existed. The pre-match build-up offers somewhat one-sidedly edited highlights of previous meetings, and the big screen malfunctions to obscure half of the picture, which seems a fitting reminder of the sightlines from both the away corner at the Goldstone and the temporary seating at Withdean. It’s thirty years since I was a student here; more than twenty since Fans United. This is a brilliant ground for a proud city. We should all count our blessings more often.

4. That said, the first half is absolutely dire. We start well enough, composed in possession, secure in defence. But it rapidly becomes apparent that having gorged themselves on Haribo and thrown up all over the living room carpet on Tuesday night, Brighton are spending some time on the naughty step, learning their lesson. There will be no repeat, no opening up, no fun and games. They are absolutely sodding impenetrable. On the very rare occasions when we find a bit of space, it’s filled with a great rush of striped bodies before we can get our heads up and take advantage. We create a half-chance for Troy Deeney, who heads wide at the end of a fine, far-ranging move, but that’s really all we have to show for a lot of earnest shuffling around.

It’d be an exaggeration to say that Brighton have no interest in the other end, although that clearly isn’t their immediate priority. On their right, March and Gross offer the main threat, doubling up on a constantly raging Jose Holebas who, having seen off one attack quite superbly, flings his gloves to the ground in disgust at the concession of a corner. You suspect that if he ever made you a cuppa, he’d smash the mug onto the table in a great explosion, snarling “TEA!” through gritted teeth; you also suspect that he’s no fun when it comes to charades on Christmas Day. He’s a lot of fun on a football pitch, though, and this is a half in which you have to take your entertainment wherever you can find it. Dunk heads wide from a corner; Ben Foster makes his first save of the afternoon to claw out a header from Locadia as half-time approaches.

5. It’s a beautifully bright, crisp winter’s day. The snow is melting away everywhere but the peaks of the Downs. The sun gradually begins to set, casting lovely shades of light orange onto the arced roof of the whatever-it-is stand. The concrete under our feet, however, seems to have stored up the cold of a thousand years; the ice of ages. It takes about fifteen minutes for your feet to feel as if they’re standing in a shin-high freezing puddle, and at no point is the game enough to fully divert your attention from the prospect of losing contact with your toes permanently. I can still feel the chill in my bones twenty-four hours later.

The second half is more engaging. A bit, anyway; let’s not oversell it. That’s partly just because the end is getting nearer; each thing that happens threatens to become the thing that happened, to be final and decisive. It’s also partly because Brighton, after forty-five minutes of reminding themselves of what they’re good at, decide to give it a bit of a go, stepping forward ten or twenty yards and increasing the tempo. They know that it’s there to be won, even if they’re not prepared to be cavalier in winning it. Respect the point, as Big Sam would say.

That ought to help us. And yes…well, a bit. There are moments when we manage to get Will Hughes into positions where he can pick up second balls from the Deeney-Dunk-Duffy scraps, and those hold some promise. But Ken Sema is too preoccupied with helping out Jose Holebas, and Gerard Deulofeu isn’t involved in the game at all. I mean, it really isn’t his kind of contest, and nobody’s asking that he turn into Tommy Mooney, but he seems to accept his irrelevance all too readily. It’s all very well having a player with the quality to win a game in a second, but a great pile of unused seconds is no good to anyone, and we cut our losses eventually.

Our last attempt at coming up with an attacking formation that can trouble Brighton sees Andre Gray in support of Deeney and is best of the iterations, even if there’s still little to show for it. Hughes fires into the side netting; Gray is foiled by Dunk collapsing onto the ball with the suggestion of a surreptitious arm outstretched. Worth a shout, but it later turns out that he’s actually used his head to make the tackle, the absolute loon. From next season, we’ll all get to freeze our tits off while someone pores over the footage, so hooray for progress.

6. A point each is about right, then. And it’s obviously considerably more about right if you’re a Watford fan. By full-time, we’ve accumulated another small hatful of reasons to be thankful to Ben Foster: these were, for the most part, saves that you’d hope he’d make, in tipping over a drifting header from Locadia and blotting out the sunlight as Andone burst through in the dying minutes. The best of them is an improvised goal-line clearance to scramble an overhead kick from Duffy around the post, not least because he’d look a complete clown if, as is perfectly possible, he only succeeded in shovelling the ball into his own net. But he doesn’t. He remains a class act, in all respects.

Brighton are theoretically the better side, then, but all of the terrific things about this game are defensive and we contribute as many as they do. Jose Holebas has already been commended, but we get similarly committed, if less furious, shifts from the rest of the back four. Aside from a free-ish header for Glenn Murray from a set piece, we concede nothing lightly; the clean sheet isn’t fortunate just because our keeper pulled off some saves. It’s a battle of a game, to watch as well as to play in, and the central defenders of both sides command it. They do more to win it, we do enough not to lose it. Everyone’s happy enough when it’s over.

7. And everyone’s happy enough, full stop. Well, maybe not everyone: the chap next to me would, at the drop of a hat, compile you a chart run-down of which players are the most shit. But mostly. I’ve often wondered how it’d feel to be in this position, with little to fear and yet also relatively little to hope for; Burnley have rather popped the European dream bubble, after all. I’d assumed that it’d be a tedious existence, a kind of footballing limbo, eventually yearning for any kind of release. Maybe it will be, eventually. But for now, it’s rather pleasant, isn’t it? Top half of the top flight, no drama. Dreadful game, minor frostbite, doesn’t matter.

Contentment. All is not well with the world. This bit, though…well, this bit is just fine.

Cup run’d be good, though, eh?

*Foster 5*, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Janmaat 4, Cleverley 3, Capoue 3, Hughes 3, Sema 2, Deulofeu 1, Deeney 2 Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 70) 3, Quina (for Sema, 81) 0, Masina, Peñaranda, Britos, Chalobah, Gomes