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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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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

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Comments»

1. PEDantic - 24/04/2019

Thanks Ian, a good read. I particularly enjoyed your imagery for the early goal: “The needle has still to hit the record.” Time was when I would have pulled you up on that and told you it’s a stylus, but those days are long gone.
I wonder if they’re long gone for Z Cars too? It will be interesting how the debate pans out this time, given the Pozzos’ general respect for WFC tradition. Personally I’m torn: tradition versus something that really says ‘Watford’. I’m still a fan of Elton’s early work but the current choice is just an 80s pop tune. I doubt that fans much younger than me see it as an ideal replacement.
I couldn’t agree more about the Rookery flag by the way. I’m sorry the 1881 seem to have allowed themselves to be hijacked in that way.

Ian Grant - 24/04/2019

Re: Z-Cars. I just don’t see what’s to be gained, given that the reaction is entirely predictable. Doubt very much the players care, as long as they’re not coming out to Baby Shark or something…

2. Adam Cummings - 24/04/2019

Best….ever…last….four…paragraphs. You sum up perfectly what I felt last night as we took the mighty Paramount dollar for what end? We should be better than that.

3. C J - 24/04/2019

Another great piece, Ian. Your ability to turn into magnificent prose, the imperfectly-formed jumble of thoughts and emotions swimming through my head post-match, is nothing short of genius – and I don’t use that word lightly. Keep doing what you’re doing, sir – reading your musings is one of life’s pleasures.

4. ramsgatehorn - 24/04/2019

Excellent report , i will be coming on Saturday but saw this one on ,the sky highlights prog .predictably for me a tough game. They had the better of most of it but in keeping with this fine season we fought back. how far can it take us, i fervently hope to lifting our first major trophy
re the corporate thing i guess it will always happen. it doesnt sit well with me either but money talks i guess

5. BH - 24/04/2019

Thankfully, being under the banner, I didn’t see what it was all about. Sounds like a most un-Pozzo like move.

On the match itself, I think big praise should go to Javi Gracia for making such a bold substitution at half-time, and again when Success came on. I had no idea at all what formation he’d play with that second switch. It turned out to be one that helped secure a point.

Gracia reminds me of Jokanovic in the way he makes early and really attacking substitutions, and changes formation to try to change our fortunes. (Unfortunately, he increasingly has a Jokanoic team that fails to ever keep a clean sheet too…)

One small and admittedly picky point, I thought Masina deserved more than a 2 last night. I left thinking he’s a great example of someone who looked poor in his first outing but given a run in the team has grown into it. He was certainly more on the front-foot than the increasingly nervous Kabesle by the end.

Onwards to Saturday for what promises to be a third tense and raucous home game in less than two weeks. Good fun this football lark.

Ian Grant - 24/04/2019

Re: Masina. Yes, fair enough. I’m out of practice with scoring these things…!

BH - 24/04/2019

Just like we appear to be out of practice at defending!

6. Roger Smith - 24/04/2019

“Southampton were a thing a while back, if you recall.”

Indeed, under one Kevin Keegan. So Watford 7 Soton 2 (aet) after being 4-0 down after the first leg was all the more satisfying. I was there.

Ian Grant - 25/04/2019

You’ve given them an extra goal, though….

7. heftiehornet - 24/04/2019

Ian, thanks for your excellent summary of such disjointed and frustrating game from a Hornets perspective (my Saints friends seem to have had a great time). I got home to see the highlights and felt very uncomfortable about being conned into participating in the banner – I hope the excellent 1881 learn their lesson!

8. Vaughan Smith - 24/04/2019

Yes – the nonsense of hoisting something over the home end – where was the roar for the team when they came out? it was virtually silent. I’m sure this has an effect on the team – they want to hear from us – they couldn’t give a monkey’s about a corporate marketing exercise. Hopefully the club monitor this blog and take note…

9. Simoninoz - 24/04/2019

I also miss “Z Cars.”
So, “Rocket Man” for this one.
“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time….”
It wasn’t.
It was 7 seconds.

10. NickB - 25/04/2019

It’s a shame the phrase ‘laugh out loud’ has become so debased, as that’s precisely what I just did. Repeatedly. Especially at the Hasenhuttl reference (no umlauts here). You have an uncanny knack of identifying those things we’ve all seen, but only registered subliminally.

I grew up with the myth of the four-second goal by that living embodiment of the Victorian Rake, Jim Fryatt. Kids my age went through a stage of thinking of little else. More here:-
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2019/04/24/shane-longs-quickfire-goal-reawakens-myth-ofjim-pancho-fryatt/

11. Old Git - 25/04/2019

Regarding the 7-1 match, at that time my season ticket was in the ‘new’ bit of the old Main Stand and I was sitting amongst a random group of families and friends, including a young curly-haired lad who used to sit slurping sugary drinks through a straw, sitting with his mum and dad.
That night he wasn’t sitting with us though and I had quite a shock seeing him sitting on the bench, and an even bigger shock when he came on for extra-time and whacked in the sixth goal from about 12 yards out. The one and only Nigel Callaghan. What a night….

12. Old Git - 25/04/2019

And welcome back, Ian! Does this meamean your lapse is over?

Ian Grant - 25/04/2019

It’s a side-effect of the cup run, really. Midweek games are easier to get to (even if they’re harder to get back from) as they have less of an impact on family life than disappearing for the whole of a Saturday or Sunday. There just aren’t very many of them in the Premier League…and I do have a frustrating tendency to be ill for the few that there are. It’s been nice to be back.


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