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Watford 0 Arsenal 1 (15/04/2019) 16/04/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
14 comments

1. I spent most of my student years experimenting with being a bit of a twat, as you do. Small-time stuff, no pigs’ heads. A great deal of drinking, ridiculous clothes, long hair, bad poetry, questionable personal hygiene, all very much part of the curriculum. That really toxic combination of brittle arrogance and piercing insecurity which tends to define those years.

I built much of my new life around pompous and outlandish opinions on music, only some of which I’ve since abandoned. At one point following a particularly vital evening, I remember declaring The End Of Music and entering into a kind of monastic silence, if monastic silences involved not listening to your Fall tapes for a week or so. I’m pretty certain that the cause of The End Of Music was a Heresy gig at the Fulham Greyhound, so perhaps not, with hindsight, my generation’s equivalent of the Beatles at Shea Stadium. (That said, my nineteen-year-old self absolutely insists that I point out, preferably at length, how great Heresy were in their prime. And he’s right, they really were. But we shouldn’t indulge him here: he needs to get a hair cut, a bath and a girlfriend.)

2. While it’s true that nobody has gone so far as to compare it to Heresy at the Greyhound in nineteen-eighty-whatever, our trip to Wembley last weekend was nonetheless momentous. It certainly felt like The End Of Football, even if the whole point was actually more football, another date on the end of the fixture list. A league fixture, even against Arsenal, even with the prospect of European football, seems curiously carefree after all that. Everyone’s smiling. Who could’ve imagined that watching a football match while actually breathing could seem such a pleasure.

Much is often made of teams having nothing to play for as the season winds up. A bit too much, I think. For every team that dials down the intensity – and we’ve been no strangers to the beach ourselves, obviously – there’s another that benefits from a release of pressure. There’s a sense in which victory over Wolves has made us untouchable, and yet little sense that we’ll be content to rest on our laurels from now until the final. (I’m going to type that again, just because I can: From Now Until The Final.) Places at stake, of course, but more than that: this is a team which has discovered how far hard work, with a scattering of pixie dust, can actually take you.

The majority of Graham Taylor’s most successful players, of either era, experienced the pinnacles of their careers at Watford. We all did it together, but they bought into it, at least partly, because it was a passport out of the lower divisions. That isn’t the case this time around. The real triumph of this season has been to reconnect the modern reality of the Premier League with a basic idea of Watford Football Club, of what it is in our heads and hearts, of what it once was in Graham Taylor’s imagination. It’s true that times have changed, and we’re not going to bump into Etienne Capoue in Our Price. But it feels as if this is a group of players which understands – or has been made to understand, whatever – why this football club actually matters. (A small part of why it matters is Z-Cars, incidentally. Hands off.)

3. Arsenal feel like the perfect opponents for this moment. They have, after all, won the FA Cup so often (and everything else so rarely) that they’ve grown sick of it, gorged and listless. We’ve often lived in their shadow, but that doesn’t feel like it’s the case any more; what would they understand of our joy? They sit and grumble in a puddle of their own effluence, as bored by their own irrelevant power as Boris Johnson stranded on a desert island. They’re the neighbours with the fancy cars, the expensive jewellery, the barely disguised sneers, and the bitter, piercing rows as soon as the front door closes, muffled but audible through the bespoke double-glazing. We’re separated by four places, seventeen points…and one f***ing huge sense of entitlement.

Money does not buy you happiness. It’s a great time to play Arsenal.

4. Our visitors appear not to have bothered preparing at all for what awaits them. Apart from a team selection that rests a few tired and injured legs, it isn’t as if we’ve got anything much up our sleeves; Troy Deeney is many things, but a master of subterfuge ain’t one of them. Arsenal ought to know what’s coming. If they do, it doesn’t show.

They win the toss and opt to switch ends, then spend the opening ten minutes systematically losing every single battle from the moment when Andre Gray chases down a backpass. Troy Deeney wins every header, Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue thrash around the midfield, Abdoulaye Doucouré crests the waves they create, the ball barely crosses the halfway line. The only resistance appears to be a rather desperate insistence that any contact requires the referee’s intervention, effectively an admission that nobody much fancies any of the physical stuff. Torreira enrages Deeney by taking a tumble when cornered, of which more shortly. Nobody fancies it at all.

Arsenal are there for the taking. They’re made of butter. They’re as limp as their lettuce-coloured away kit. (Yes, I know. I was pleased with that.)

I mean, it isn’t even as if we’ve got José Holebas on the pitch. Guys, you really should meet José. You’ll love him. Maybe next season, yeah?

5. The scoreline speaks for itself, of course. It’s all that anyone will remember in years to come. We’ve only ourselves to blame, quite clearly, as Ben Foster dallies over a clearance and is caught in possession by Aubameyang for the only goal. You still rather rated our chances at that point, but Troy Deeney’s dismissal for leaving a little retributory something on Torreira a minute later changed that. No need to give the referee any kind of decision to make. No need at all. I mean, I love Troy, we all love Troy, but he’s a doughnut sometimes. And suddenly – well, not that suddenly, given how long it takes Troy to depart – we’re a goal and a man down, and it’s all over.

6. Except it isn’t. It ought to be, but it isn’t. For a while, everyone takes stock: we regroup while Arsenal pass the ball around at such a pedestrian pace that you wonder if they might be trying to bore us into submission. You know how this ends, with a valiant but doomed three-nil defeat, and a lingering taste of what might’ve been.

And then as they conclude one of their interminable pass-and-move exercises by carefully stroking a sideways ball straight to Etienne Capoue who hares away on a break, we realise that even if we are a goal and a man down, one crucial thing hasn’t changed: Arsenal are still absolutely terrible. We have nothing to fear. Craig Cathcart blasts a drive that’s blocked by Leno at his near post; Capoue’s arcing free kick is turned around by a last-ditch out-stretched hand. There’s a penalty appeal. You wouldn’t be foolish enough to claim that we’re in the ascendancy, for there are long spells when we have to sit in and wait. Foster pushes a shot from Iwobi over the bar. But we’re on our feet, we’re raising our voices, and it isn’t over. We’re too hungry, too urgent, and Arsenal too meek, for it to be over.

7. A serious point, as an aside. If we continue to allow the game to move inexorably away from accepting contact as part of the contest – and VAR will accelerate that process very rapidly indeed – we will find that teams like Arsenal are all that’s left. The gulf that already exists will widen, and we will all have to stand around and watch the show ponies perform their dressage routines.

8. The second half is, in its own way, completely extraordinary. We’re prevented from touching the ball for about five minutes, presumably in the hope that we might learn to behave if our toys are taken away. All of this comes with a dismissive arrogance that might be impressive if it were allied with the merest hint of a work ethic. It still feels as if there’ll be a decisive moment at some stage, something to end it as a contest. But Arsenal don’t do decisive moments, and prove the point by lazily wasting the few chances that they do create, Mkhitaryan getting further and further away with a series of wild attempts. Balls whistle through the six yard box, Foster makes a fine stop to deny Mkhitaryan from close range.

9. I should, of course, be giving us more credit in all of this. We’re magnificent, particularly defensively. And defensively means everyone, really. Craig Cathcart has one of those games in which the ball appears magnetically drawn to his boot, clearing threats time and again; Christian Kabasele alongside is quieter but equally unyielding. Daryl Janmaat runs himself into the ground, frequently gasping for breath before rousing himself and the crowd again. Adam Masina takes a huge step up, powerful and lean and pacy. Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue are still thrashing around the midfield, Abdoulaye Doucouré still surfing their waves, Kiko Femenia tucking in and putting in a shift.

We change it, and Javi Gracia is again as bold and as positive as his team have become. Isaac Success on for Femenia, and the whole game instantly moves ten or fifteen yards away from Ben Foster’s goal. And Masina, not closed down because Arsenal can’t be arsed, sends in a screamer which clips the top of the bar. And it’s on, again. Ridiculous that we’re still in this, but it’s on. I must confess that the hilarity of it all rather gets the better of me as the first of Arsenal’s substitutes shuffles slowly off, eking out every tedious second. One of the world’s richest clubs, a goal and a man up, wasting time to hang onto their lead. They stop short of taking it to the corner flag at the end, but only just. Only just.

We can’t find the goal that our efforts deserve. The goal that the game deserves, that Arsenal deserve. Andre Gray twice fluffs his lines, control which isn’t crisp enough to allow him to pick a finish. Will Hughes heads over. Free kicks are wasted, perhaps the only real criticism. Aubemayang scuffs wide when through under challenge from, inevitably, Craig Cathcart. We lose. We win every single fifty-fifty challenge across the whole ninety minutes, we’re first to every loose ball, we’re quicker and stronger and more determined in every match-up, we make our opponents shrink and cower and whine, but we lose.

10. Me, I loved it. Bravo. A celebration of everything that we’ve become, and a long look at everything we never need to be. We were splendid last night. Absolutely splendid. We played with immense heart, with togetherness, with passion, with courage. We played like it mattered, like there was pride at stake, in ourselves and in our club. We had leaders in every area of the pitch, even after our captain had departed. We were everything, or near enough, that Arsenal were not.

We played without our brains for a minute, that’s all. We lacked a little bit of quality and composure too. That’s enough. The regret is that we didn’t humble our supposedly illustrious opponents. God knows we’ll rarely have a better opportunity. But you know what? I’d rather lose like this than win like that.

Arsenal go fourth. I challenge you to say that with a straight face.

As for us, look how far we’ve come. And look how far we might still go.

Foster 2, Masina 4, *Cathcart 5*, Kabasele 4, Janmaat 5, Hughes 5, Capoue 5, Doucoure 4, Femenia 4, Gray 3, Deeney 2 Subs: Success (for Femenia, 59) 3, Sema (for Masina, 86) 0, Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Chalobah, Navarro

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Watford 3 Wolves 2 (AET) (07/04/2019) 08/04/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1- “I’ll tell you what”, says ig.  “It doesn’t half help that it’s not bloody Palace.  I’m enjoying it more already….”

The spectre of two miserable defeats here against Palace over the last six years have been hanging over every aspect of the group’s preparations.  An executive decision has been made to relocate to the Upper Tier for one thing.  There was a brief debate about the Railway public house but pragmatism won out on that one.  The problem clearly wasn’t the pub, it wasn’t West Hampstead which is far too convenient an assembly point to be recklessly discarded (although ig draws a line at what had been the lucky chocolate emporium of choice, a decision that delays his arrival).

There’s been a bit of twaddle on social media about our failure to sell our allocation.  There are reasons, obviously, too basic and banal to spell out, unworthy of what was to become a quite magnificent occasion to sully this report.  But when we get to Wembley Park… it’s daunting, frankly.  Difficult as it is to differentiate the colours, we are being comprehensively out-noised and seemed outnumbered by lots to one.  We’d discussed that if Wolves were happy to be here, we were past that stage.  We had to win it.  But Wolves don’t sound merely happy just to be here.

Still, to return to the beginning.  It wasn’t Palace.  Further down Wembley Way there’s an optimistic gentleman addressing a largely indifferent crowd behind a placard proclaiming “Jesus is Lord”.  We briefly consider nipping over to ask him about cheesemakers but we don’t, this is not a time for frivolity. We’re feeling positive.  But that doesn’t mean we’re not bricking it.

2- In the stadium, in our seats, having paid a fortune for unpleasant hot dogs (to be avoided next time – Ha!) Wolves are no less intimidating.  Their end fills more quickly, and their anthems make a daunting racket.  Our guys are singing behind the goal, from the top tier close to the divide above the halfway line we can see them but we can’t hear them.  ALL the Wolves fans are singing.  It’s oppressive, and it has an impact.  It feels almost insurmountable.

As an aside, and this seems as good a time as any to say it, this IS a completely different thing to the Palace games.  Winning’s going to help, obviously.  But this Wolves lot are supporting their team, noisily, boisterously.  It’s about them winning, not the other lot losing.  It’s almost as if pride in what you are doesn’t automatically need to involve hating those who are something else.  Who’d have thought?

Our first small victory comes with the visual display. Wolves’ tableau is impressive, but static.  A statement.  But it doesn’t compare to the frenzied energy of the waving of 33000 plastic flags, like insects swarming over the away end.  You can hear our lot now.  We’re fighting back.  The game hasn’t even started, obviously.  But we’re in it.

3- I wouldn’t have picked Gomes over Ben Foster.  I wouldn’t have started with Andre Gray either;  Wolves are famously strong down their spine but get-attable behind their attacking wing-backs.  That’s Gerry’s thing, making mischief in difficult places, surely?  As the sides line up, with the benefit of our extraordinary altitude, it appears that we’re playing a diamond with Pereyra at the apex and Capoue sweeping up behind.  But as we’ve discussed, it’s long since past the stage where I can even pretend to second-guess Javi, much less be worthy of questioning his decisions.

It’s felt like a gorgeously well-balanced game in the build up.  Two teams credibly the “best of the rest”, both with the wind behind them, both in fine form.  Perhaps 30 year high points, at least, for both?  It might have been, should have been a classic.  And whilst it’s hardly a cautious start, it’s certainly well balanced.  A cliché, but rarely has a period of play felt more like sparring, two sides probing and prodding and sizing each other up. Wolves attack like snakes, Jiménez and Jota rippling into spaces dangerously, but we begin to boss the midfield.  The diamond doesn’t quite work, we’re never quite as effective as we’re used to being, Doucouré is uncharacteristically low key.  But… then perhaps it’s what’s needed for this game and whatever, Hughes is scurrying and winning the ball and Pereyra is popping out of rabbit holes.  We’re not making a load of chances…  but we’re doing enough to suggest that there’s scope, that we can hurt them.

And then they score, and everything changes.  It’s a cruel, callous goal, a goal worthy of ig’s account of Wembley from three years ago.  A miserably avoidable affair, something that’s scarcely dependent on the balance of play all about concentration and silly silly detail.  My word, can you imagine if that had been it?

It still requires a fine delivery, an aggressive run, an opportunist nod from Doherty (the Irish Mob in the row behind unappreciative of their countryman’s contribution) but it’s careless, sloppy.  The spectre of Games Against Crystal Palace looms again.  We’re not out of it…  Andre Gray has two decent chances either side  but neither of them go in.  On review you have to give him credit for being there, neither is a terrible miss in the circumstances but nonetheless, chances they are and an open question Gray’s start had been and if you were of a more fragile frame of mind than our bloody lot you’d wonder whether things were stacked against us.

4- And then Wolves score again and there’s no longer any question that things are stacked against us.  This is a fine, fine finish, churlish to criticise our role in it since whatever we coulda mighta shoulda done it requires precision and elegance and ruthlessness and gets it as Jiménez chests down and strikes a brutal volley underneath Gomes.  Wolves are deafeningly jubilant and we’re sinking into our seats.  Daughter One to my left looks at me anxiously, wordlessly… concerned for my own well being as much as for the goal I think.

It’s stating the obvious, lazy hyperbole to say “at this point the game is over”.  Surely you were either watching or you’ve seen the highlights, highlights that don’t, that can’t hope to convey the infinite drama of the afternoon any more than, to reprise a particularly fine ig line (oh come on, it’s been twenty years…) you can capture a hurricane in a matchbox.

The significant thing, the most impressive thing perhaps of all the impressive things is the most obvious.  On the pitch, we’re not playing as if it’s over.  If heads go down it’s instantaneous, only lasting as long as the game takes to restart.  The extraordinary Jose Holebas is at the vanguard…. is it really only fifteen months since we were split on him?  We’re used to Troy dragging the team along with him, but Jose hasn’t given up on anything at this point, demonstrably.  It should be no surprise of course, we’ve watched him, we know that he picks up a gazillion bookings not because he’s particularly dirty or violent but because he can’t always, ever, quite harness his insane will to win within legal boundaries.  Here that will to win is an uncontaminated force for good, from our point of view.  We’re not only relentless, we’re actually more focused than we were at one down.  That’s got to sow a seed if you’re in a white shirt. But we still needed a piece of magic, and it came off the bench four minutes later.

5- Bollocks to five thunks, by the way.

6- It’s an outrageous goal.  We’d earned it, I think.  Earned it by not giving up the ghost, earned it by asking questions and pushing and probing and digging in.  But it’s still ridiculous.  In terms of impudence you’d compare it to the Okocha free kick from many years ago.  How did he even…. think that, let alone execute it?  In terms of scale and significance and context of course it’s beyond compare.  From a standing position and faced with Wolves’ redoubtable back line there’s no way through until, suddenly, impossibly there is.  And we’re roaring again.

There’s no kitchen sink.  There’s method and there’s patience.  It’s so, so tempting to judge decisions purely on outcomes…  nonetheless.  We hold our nerve, we don’t panic.  And so very nearly it’s not enough since, frankly, at no point did I believe it was on.  At no point did I seriously entertain hopes, let alone expectations of a comeback.  Not until Troy makes a run across Dendoncker two minutes into injury time and the referee blows his whistle.

That’s the pivotal moment, obviously.  Except it’s not a moment, it’s two minutes.  Two minutes waiting for VAR to make it’s mind up.  For the first time, and despite the clunky miscommunication of two earlier VAR calls to a baffled upper tier, I’m thinking that despite everything VAR might not be a bad idea.  Would you want to level a game like this on a bad decision, much less a dive?  There’s plenty of time to ponder this and many other things whilst we’re fixed on the screen, fingers in scalp, hair pulled taut.  And then the decision is confirmed and there’s no longer any debate about the outcome of the game.  In the space of that two minutes it’s gone from “we’re definitely gonna lose” to “we’re definitely gonna win”.

7- Never in doubt.  No, it’s not the best placed penalty you’ve ever seen but unless John Ruddy’s right behind it it’s going in anyway such is the violence of the strike.  There’s no news here but bloody hell Troy Deeney.  Balls of absolute steel.  It appeals to his sense of theatre too, obviously, and the scream of catharsis on the side of the ground tinted in red lasts for some considerable time.

Never in doubt.  Though… I claim some small credit.  At some point, my head says at the start of extra time but… you know, details… Daughter 2 demands water.  Such bafflingly ill-timed requests have become less frequent as the girls have gotten older but mindful of the belief in karma of two or three years ago I dutifully bundle down into the concourse as the game restarts to find all of the kiosks closed.  I return with clear conscience.

Wolves were done, toast, quite obviously.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes…. but their decision to replace many of their attacking weapons in favour of resilience was now costing them, and more so the famously small, tight squad that has been such a feature of their season but which now was really really exposed.  They were dead on their feet for one thing, to so much a greater extent than our boys.  And that the confidence-shorn Cavaleiro and the numbingly one-dimensional Traoré was the best they could offer off the bench for another.  How wonderful that it was both Gray and Deulofeu. How wonderful, how outrageous that not so very long from a situation where we’d deliberate between X and Y whilst knowing that the answer is neither, suddenly the answer is either. How wonderful that it was such a fine, fine, thing.  A merciless, decisive blow, and though Cavaleiro stumbled past Gomes in the second period of injury time the outcome was – have I mentioned this? – never in doubt.

8- A number of asides, a number of details.  Étienne Capoue… it’s… an easier job to look good at, sitting at the back of a midfield.  Remember Al Bangura?  Nonetheless.  Bloody hell.  A monstrous performance.  A monstrous performance that could very easily have seen him missing the final had the referee been Roger blood Milford instead of Michael Oliver who has somehow managed to remain inconspicuous in this behemoth of a football game and, as Dave is keen to point out, opts against grandstanding with a red card after Capoue’s tired tackle in the middle of the pitch.  Kudos to the official.

Another?  The Wolves side empties, obviously.  That was very nearly us.  In our heads, it was us.  We’ve done that miserable trudge back to the tube in, well, not quite these circumstances, but you know what I mean.  And of course a lot of them have long gone by the time we stumble stupidly down Wembley Way, dazed and happy and stunned.  But only one Wolves fan, one lad on the steps up to the tube, lets his disappointment get the better of him and briefly mouths off in the face of considerable, if not pointed or deliberate, provocation.  We’ve been there. Fair play.  Fair play.

Another?  The realisation that whatever happens in mid-May, 1984 no longer carries that unique significance.  No longer appropriate to use those digits as a go-to four character code for irrelevant, trivial stuff.  We’ve matched that achievement at the very least, and we can still better it.

9 – But best of all?  No, not best of all, let’s be honest.  But still marvellous, still wonderful…

Troy, on the pitch at the end of the game, interviewed.  And already on the Arsenal game.  Head in the right place.  Game on.

Don’t expect the league season to peter out, not a bit of it, not this lot.  The reality is that uniquely amongst the four or five contestants for seventh, we know that achieving that target will guarantee European football next season, our first since 1983.  It’ll take those of us off the pitch a lot longer than Troy to regain our balance, focus, perspective.  By the time we briefly regroup back at the Railway we’re energetically discussing how we’ve got to remember everything we’ve done, everything we’ve said,  to recreate it in six weeks time but twenty four hours on I’m still dazed.

Troy isn’t.  Troy’s got his head in the right space.

Never in doubt.

Enjoy it boys and girls.

Yoooorns.

Gomes 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 3, Capoue 4, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Pereyra 3, Deeney 4, Gray 3
Subs:  *Deulofeu (for Hughes, 66) 5*, Masina (for Holebas, 98) 3, Janmaat (for Femenía, 108) 0, Sema (for Deulofeu, 112) 0, Quina, Kabasele, Foster