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Watford 1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (27/04/2019) 28/04/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
30 comments

1- Probably best to start off by stating what should be obvious.  There is absolutely no justification in being anything but delighted with this season.   With the unflinching trajectory of the club, league position, cup final, stadium, team, head coach, and so on.  None at all.

Nonetheless.  Me writing this report is the equivalent of Charlie Austin being interviewed at the end of the game at St Mary’s earlier in the season, presumably when his press officer had nipped to the loo or something.  I could really do with a day or so to get things into perspective such that I could put some feeling into the words above, say them with my heart as well as my head.  Thing is, if I don’t write it now this one’s going to go the same way as the abandoned Huddersfield report, such is life unfortunately.

(Seeing as we lost, based on previous evidence, none of you buggers are going to be reading this anyway so it doesn’t much matter what I write I guess.  I could wander off into any number of alternative topics and see whether anyone notices.  I’ve got a new patio, how’s that?  And I’m watching Quicksand on Netflix which is great, and reading a book on the History of Germany which is better. No?)

Suffice to say I’m pissed off.  I know it’s not fair or balanced, but I’m in a sulk.  And only partly because of the knowledge that having wondered, at 2-0 down at Wembley, how my co-editor always manages to dodge the miserable ones in allocation of blogging duties.  A legendary finish (mine) and two underwhelming home games later (his), there was something karmic about this one.

2- Not that it was unexpected, in all honesty.  A more limited team than Wolves exposed our lack of a target man on Tuesday night to good effect, today was hardly going to be any different.  Amidst all the pondering about Which Team Is Equipped For Europe (media consensus: Not Watford, obviously), the fact that we have excellent cover throughout most of the side whilst Wolves have fielded the same eleven for much of the season has been missed.

Nonetheless, the player we could least afford to lose for, effectively, four games was Troy.  He’s the one.  Not the best player in the side, perhaps, but the one we are least equipped to cope without.  It was harsh, yes, the red card.  He made it possible too, undoubtedly.  Equally beyond doubt that, like Ben Foster and Craig Cathcart he’s well, well in credit.  “People who do things make mistakes”.  We’ve paid heavily for this one…  at least three points across the four games by any reasonable reckoning.

So, the welcome return of the mad Greek bastard at left back notwithstanding, there was a sense of trepidation before kick off as the vicious wind whipped around the stadium, holding up the flags and threatening to carry Daughter Two away.  We should have had the psychological edge of course… after all, we won the bloody semi final, not to mention that fine victory at Molineux earlier in the season.  Three of our five goals against Wolves before today made it into the twice-repeated reel of Goal of the Season contenders… the fourth would have been my choice, given the option.

But from the moment that a Wolves fan on Vicarage Road turned his back on the ground pre-game, stuck his arms in the air, raised his head to the skies and bellowed “Two-nil, and we f***ed it oop!” the boot was on the other foot.

And that’s before we even get to the lack of Z-cars…

3- The line being drawn between the dismissal of Z-cars as the run-out tune and our subsequent run of one point from three home games is clearly a nonsense.  Nonetheless, and irrespective of whether for you, individually,  Z-cars is a bizarre anachronism whose removal is either overdue or an irrelevance, or something that matters deeply, something that is evocative of matchday and that subconsciously sets your spine tingling, the decision to switch it now, at this stage, was a particularly witless one.

As the teams run out you want to rouse the crowd.  What you don’t want is grown men gently booing at each other, albeit with smiles on their faces, or expletives peppering the applause.  It doesn’t need to piss everyone off to be disruptive.  For those who miss it, it kicks off the game with resentment and negativity.  Not the way to inspire noisy support at a critical time of the season.

Football?  Oh, OK then.

3- It’s a very even, competitive game throughout and played to a very high standard albeit one we’ve gotten used to.  There’s a certain caginess about the first half in particular… certainly no suggestion that we’re going to pile forward and invite Wolves to counter-attack, as is their wont.  Wolves, in fact, have more possession early on but we have perhaps the best chance as Deulofeu scampers through but declines to shoot on his weaker foot and the chance goes.

The swirling wind is making life interesting at both ends;  Andre Gray does a better job of holding the ball up, opting for flick-ons and spins rather than taking on the monstrous Boly in a physical battle, whilst Mariappa marshalls our own dogged and disciplined backline.

Clear chances, shots on goal, are few and far between.  It really isn’t that sort of game at all.  Boistrous and engaging yes.  Thrill a minute, no.  Not until half an hour in was there a serious goalscoring chance, Jiménez coming close to scoring but for an insane goalline clearance from the peerless Capoue, who stomped all over the midfield for much of the game.  Rúben Neves chased referee Simon Hooper back up the pitch in remonstration and should probably have been booked for sheer stupidity.

But eventually Wolves did get the lead, and in common with the other two goals in the game it was essentially a cock-up, Pereyra failing to adequately contest a ball on the edge of the box, Jota capitalising and Jiménez tucking home.  As on Tuesday Andre Gray had the chance to equalise almost immediately and again he didn’t take it, a great first touch seeming to take him clear before he lashed a hurried shot wide when he appeared to have time to take it in on goal.  Half time, grumbling.  The girls are both exhausted and miserable.

4- So the gift at the start of the second half was most welcome.  There’s something to be read into the fact that so many were still in the bowels of the stand and missed it, both daughters included…  one minute Wolves are knocking it airily around the back line, the next Gerard Deulofeu is being presented with a red carpet to goal.  He doesn’t quite capitalise, but he does enough… Andre Gray tucks in the rebound to the Spaniard’s blocked shot.

And for a while it was all a lot of fun. Like when you were at school and a disciplinarian teacher nips off to the staff room to pick up something he’s forgotten and the class runs riot in his absence, here both sides suddenly abandoned the shackles and went for each other.  This should have suited Wolves of course, this is What They Do…. but actually we looked more of a threat on the counter than the visitors did.  For all their defensive organisation they really don’t like being run at, and we did plenty of that;  twice we had shouts for a penalty kick, the first of which provoking particularly animated protests from Will Hughes and Deulofeu after the former went down on the edge of the box.  Difficult to see from our angle.

So it felt as if fate had been kind to us.  Given us a break, and we were making the most of it.  A more open game, yes, and we were far from all over them, of course but… the better side.  In the ascendency.  In spite of grim portents and a limited first half, seventh placed was looming back into view.

5- Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Heaven knows Javi has proven his mettle with tactical surgery countless times this season.  But on any level this change was odd…   removing the energetic Hughes to bring in an extra centre back.  A conservative move, aimed at making us more solid and matching up Wolves’ formation but…  given that we were on top, an odd choice leaving Gracia open to criticism, particularly as it was followed so closely by the decisive goal.  Perhaps it played no part, perhaps the fact that Jota was afforded so much space to apply a finish after Foster flapped at Neves’ fine deep cross was nothing to do with altered formations but the wheels had visibly spun off in the brief period between the sub and the goal.  We were suddenly losing control of a game that we had previously been more than competing in.

6- A second change followed, changing the formation again.  I’ve since read suggestions that Cathcart limped off – self-evidently we could do without that.  Either way we went back to a flat back four, (or three, since Christian Kabasele spent the brief kitchen-sinky bit as a surrogate centre forward).  It never looked like happening.

As an aside, one has to ponder on the future of both Isaac Success and Nathaniel Chalobah.  The former stuffed up possession immediately after his introduction and vanished thereafter, bereft of confidence;  I would have had him front and centre rather than wide having helped turn the tide from that position after another late introduction on Tuesday simply by virtue of knocking people over.  As for Chalobah… fitness questions or no he’s not only fallen behind both Cleverley and Quina, he’s not being seen as an option when he’s on the bench and we need something, his propensity for a quick clever pass not trusted.  This strikes me as a crying shame.

7- So… from a position where seventh was in our control we are now needing snookers, and dropping into the bottom half at the expense of West Ham a likelier outcome, another crying shame.  Fortunately Javi’s post-match reflections were defiant enough to suggest that we’re not binning off the rest of the League programme just yet.  Hurrah, and so forth.  I’ll be bloody-minded and positive again by the time Stamford Bridge comes around. Promise.

As for Z-cars…  well it does matter to me, as you’ve probably gathered.  I’m in that camp.  Because… whilst it obviously matters far less than, you know, us actually being good at football I almost feel I could cope without the latter to a greater extent?  Because… the ups and downs are kind of how it’s always been and much as I love us being great, love us being as great as we are, I know I can cope with us being a bit shit too because we’ve all been there.  I don’t wish it, far from it, and I know that just like Troy and Ben and Craig the club are well in credit and have done lots more right than wrong…  but Z Cars is part of the pillar that’s a constant.  The pillar that I lean and rely on, as so many of us do.  So it feels more permanent and painful when it’s taken away.

So I’ll close with a picture that sums up another part of that constant pillar.  It would, should have been a cornerstone of that Huddersfield report but, you know, stuff happens.

See you at Chelsea.  Yoooorns.

 

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 3, Hughes 3, *Capoue 5*, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Gray 3
Subs: Kabasele (for Hughes, 74) 2, Success (for Cathcart, 82) 0, Janmaat, Sema, Chalobah, Masina, Gomes

Watford 1 Southampton 1 (23/04/2019) 24/04/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
17 comments

0. Look, we might as well be up front about it: this isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as the Arsenal report. If you want to go and read that again instead of sticking around here, I won’t blame you. Might even join you in a while. The problem with Arsenal is that they make everything else seem a bit less worthy of scorn; it becomes that much more difficult to be disdainful about other things and really mean it. (And I’m still writing about them now, you see. And that’s essentially because writing about them makes me happy in a way that, with all due deference, writing about Southampton never will. And writing about this game definitely won’t.)

1. Southampton were a thing a while back, if you recall. It’s tempting – because, hey, I’m trying, even though it’s gone midnight and there’s a really bloody irritating metallic rattle on this train carriage – to come up with some kind of mid-life crisis metaphor for their recent dalliances, for the series of bad-tempered implosions that’ve taken them from being Other Cup finalists to relegation strugglers. Except that a mid-life crisis usually involves wildness and impulse and a quest for lost youth, whereas Southampton rather went about it the other way, selling their collection of sports cars and investing in a series of grey second-hand hatchbacks, including one with rather a lot of miles on the clock and a really annoying whining noise when it goes round corners. Succession planning is so vital these days; the time when lining up a manager’s replacement was considered to be poor form has long gone. We can’t claim to have got it right every time ourselves, of course, but…Mark Hughes. I mean…Mark Hughes. You know? Mark Hughes.

It’s quite nice to see them vaguely enjoying themselves again, if I’m honest. Up to a point, anyway. Kindred spirits are pretty hard to find in the Premier League. It’s like one of those networking events where you scan the room desperately looking for a friendly face; you know that Burnley are going to be there and you don’t want to get stuck listening to them grumbling all evening. You know that someone’s going to mistake you for Bournemouth too. Again. And that Everton are going to steal your nice new coat if you don’t keep an eye on it. You can fill in the rest of the metaphor yourselves, if you wish. There’ll be a prize for the best one. (There won’t.)

It’d be pushing the point to claim any great likeness with Southampton, for our underlying approaches are very different, and our histories too, but you’d be happy enough to chat with them over a mushroom vol-au-vent if you had to. It’s hard to wish them significant ill, which is a rare quality among our competitors. They do their level best to change that situation over the course of this particular evening, but I’m a forgiving sort and I’ll let it go.

2. I spent Monday afternoon in a crowd of eight hundred or so watching Hastings take on Ashford. Third versus fourth, four goals, one red card, an outfield player in goal, a street drumming troupe, a large and rowdy away contingent with a lot of inflatables, and a five-year-old with a grievance to air about the length of the queue for chips. For a while, Ashford attacked a goal with an inflatable, um, lady perched atop its netting. It was fun, in that way Hastings has of suggesting that things might tip over into total anarchy without very much of a nudge. Vicarage Road seems rather ordered and genteel by comparison, especially as there’s barely anyone here with ten minutes to go. It gradually fills up. Everyone needs to get a move on, though, as there’s about to be a….

3. Goal. Southampton arrive having done that annoying thing of being absolute bobbins only three days ago, thereby making us the object of their “reaction”. Even they can’t have dreamt of being gifted the opener within eight seconds, Craig Cathcart too slow to control and clear the ball, Shane Long smothering, racing clear and lifting a nonchalant finish into the top corner.

There isn’t anything else to say about it. There’s nothing to analyse, no context to place it in. We find ourselves in the novel position of being a goal down without having played any football. The game remains a blank canvas. The needle has still to hit the record. The fat lady’s alarm clock hasn’t even gone off. We haven’t even put in planning permission for the stable, let alone built it, let alone put a horse in it, let alone…oh, you get the idea.

There’s the usual grumbling and grousing, of course, but we haven’t yet found out how we’re actually playing, that’s my point. We kick off again, and were it not for the jubilant away section, you might easily believe that you’d imagined the whole thing.

(And no, it isn’t a bloody record. Not a proper one, anyway. Football didn’t start in 1992. And yes, I would still be saying that if we’d scored it.)

4. For ten minutes or so, we react exactly as you’d hope. We get the ball down, seek a rhythm, pretend that it’s still goalless. We have, after all, still got eighty-nine minutes and fifty-two seconds to get ourselves level and beyond. It’s true that we’ll spend about a third of that watching Southampton fannying about over throw-ins and goal kicks, but even so, no reason to panic just yet.

We ought to be level almost immediately, as Will Hughes’ cross finds Andre Gray; his finish is unconvincing, though, and Gunn is able to save. The next step up, should we make it, involves those kind of chances going in on a more regular basis: for all our failings here, we’d have won this with more ruthless finishing. Undeservedly so, of course, but the league table doesn’t care about that. It’s like a money box; it’ll accept other kids’ lunch money without judgement. Gerard Deulofeu curls narrowly wide from the left of the area. We’re doing fine. It’ll come.

5. It doesn’t come. Gradually, steadily, we stop doing fine. It becomes Southampton’s game, one in which they sit deep and invite us to choose between playing through a clogged midfield or lobbing it long to the ghost of Troy Deeney, and then hit us on the break when whichever of those options we pick inevitably and repeatedly fails. They look a very capable side, well-organised and punchy; Ralph Hasenhüttl has them in far better shape than their league position suggests, even if he does look like someone who’d try to get a bit too familiar with your wife on a skiing holiday. (I’ve never been on a skiing holiday, but I know what goes on.)

We disintegrate somewhat. And then we disintegrate some more. Long heads wide, then Long heads over, then Ben Foster makes a full-stretch save to push away a Redmond cross-shot; those two are a menace, quick and direct, and we can’t contain them, especially on the left side of our back four where Masina and Cathcart suddenly look like giraffes on rollerskates. Masina gets the wrong side of Long and when the ball comes across to Redmond, he’s herded wide by Foster and hits the outside of the post. The same bit of woodwork is struck again by Bertrand shortly afterwards after we’re undone on that side once more, and a half that began with a bit of a mishap has really been allowed to get completely out of hand. Abdoulaye Doucouré gets beaten on the wing and simply hacks his man down.

Deulofeu twists, turns and drives narrowly wide, but the sight of Deeney making his way around the touchline towards the dressing room speaks volumes; it isn’t his leadership we lack, in truth, but his sheer physical presence. Or both. It’s probably both. Whatever, Southampton are increasingly comfortable.

6. Javi Gracia acts at half-time, matching the visitors by switching to a back three via the withdrawal of Cathcart. To be more accurate, it’s a back one: Christian Kabasele plus whoever happens to be around to help out. The result is that so many players end up ‘taking one for the team’ that it’s quite hard to keep track of whether there’s anyone left who can do a shift rugby-tackling a Southampton forward. Mike Dean doesn’t struggle to thrust himself into the spotlight, put it that way. It isn’t pretty. It’s just about effective, though, in keeping us in the contest in spite of increasing numbers being committed forward. For all the threat of a break, Foster is only called into action once, beating away a Ward-Prowse free kick.

The obvious lack of a target man remains, and impatience grows at the reluctance to introduce Isaac Success. We’re forced into the long ball much more than we’d like, with predictably indifferent results; Andre Gray is not involved at all for long periods, Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu run into dead-ends in positions too deep to be truly threatening. Southampton are on the defensive, unquestionably. Equally unquestionably, though, they remain comfortable. The difficulty is that no amount of squeezing our eyes tight shut and wishing really hard will turn Isaac Success into an effective line-leader. The substitution ought to be a no-brainer, given the pattern of the game. But it isn’t. It’s a brainer. Unwilling to sacrifice a player who’s actively involved, we wait. And we wait.

7. But sometimes, it isn’t really about what you do. Sometimes, it’s just about being there. When the substitution is finally made, Success wins little, does little. But he’s there, and the shift in gravity is subtle but tangible. We are dragged forward, Southampton are pushed further back. The ball begins to fall to Pereyra and Deulofeu in areas that spark their interest a little more. And Southampton are suddenly a little less comfortable.

And through all of this, we’ve kept our heads. We haven’t played very well. Haven’t played very well at all, lacking both fluency and intensity in comparison with our opponents. (I don’t want to get carried away here, for I’ve seen a lot worse, against a lot worse.) But we’ve stayed in the contest, just about. We’re still at the races, even if we’ve spent much of the time in the queue for the toilets. We’ve avoided turning this into the game in which we’re buried on the break; we’ve avoided turning it into the one in which we’re down to ten men too.

We waste what appears to be a key chance, Pereyra scuffing a feeble shot at the keeper with a couple of minutes left. That looked like it was the moment, gone. But then the ball drops to Andre Gray and he squeezes it into the top corner past Gunn and we have ourselves a very valuable point. Not one that you’d want to look upon with any great pride, but still. With one last effort, we avoid turning this into the game where we concede another in injury time and lose anyway.

8. It’s a funny old night, really. Funny old game, funny old night. The celebration of the imminent Elton John biopic is rather awkward and misjudged, at least in parts. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of half-time nonsense, especially with John Barnes involved and some season tickets up for grabs. It isn’t my cup of tea, but we all find our fun in different ways and we often find other people’s fun a bit cringeworthy.

The pre-match banner, though, makes me recoil. It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: what the 1881, with the club’s support, have achieved is nothing short of staggering. The atmosphere at Vicarage Road is transformed, springing from a source of genuine positivity even when things aren’t going to plan; we should take our hats off to everyone involved in making that happen. It also goes without saying that we are in eternal debt to Elton John. And last on the list of disclaimers: it also goes without saying that there are countless reasons to applaud those currently running the club.

But the Rookery is not an advertising hoarding for hire; it isn’t a giant projection screen. Something was lost last night, and it was the sense of something being built from the ground up, of a community expressing itself. We’re here because we’re Watford fans; that’s what binds us together, it’s what divides us sometimes too. Nothing else.

It isn’t like Elton needs our help with something that he’s cobbled together himself and posted up on Bandcamp. Paramount Studios are not a DIY punk collective. Let’s not kid ourselves: this is a corporate promotion campaign.

So, no. Perhaps it all comes from good intentions, but…no.

And we’ll have Z-Cars back too, please.

*Foster 4*, Masina 2, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 3, Janmaat 3, Doucouré 2, Hughes 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Femenia (for Cathcart, 45) 3, Success (for Hughes, 77) 3, Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
15 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

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