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Brighton and Hove Albion 1 Watford 1, 08/02/2020 09/02/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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“There is no banality within your vicinity. But nobody else will tell you.”

1. I love music which attempts to connect you with a particular place, whether real or imagined. Or real and imagined, possibly: I’ve never been to Orkney but Erland Cooper’s evocations of its landscapes and wildlife are capable of moving me to tears.

William Doyle’s “Wilderness Revisited” is a record whose evocations are less elemental: the place being revisited is Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, the quiet suburban cul-de-sacs of which Doyle moved to as a teenager following the death of his father. It might easily be nostalgic, mawkish or snooty, falling into the traps which await anyone trying to look back upon their youth; it might also be rather sombre, given the circumstances.

It isn’t any of those things, though. Instead, it becomes a rather vivid, colourful celebration of that place and others like it, and of what they hold for those willing to explore them. It suggests that adventures await anyone willing to walk around with their eyes and minds open; Robert Macfarlane for introverted loners, perhaps. There’s something gently political about that, about appreciating all that’s around you, in an age when the toll taken by our desire to see the world has become clearer. It casts fresh light on a childhood growing up in the suburbs of Watford, from which I really couldn’t wait to escape. It does all of that, plus splendid tunes and preposterous saxophone solos. It’s absolutely marvellous.

2. Banality is in the eye of the beholder, then. When we were kicking around in the Championship, we spent many years looking down our noses at the cluster of clubs scrapping to survive in the Premier League, wondering how dull it must be to harbour no aspirations beyond mid-table. It isn’t, of course. It’s a matter of incidental detail, of friendships and rivalries and jokes and arguments and scarves and hats and weather forecasts and service station sandwiches and lucky chocolate and everything else. All of those things survive, even thrive, in seasons which history will skip over.

And in adversity too. This is my first Watford game since the Cup Final, my first league game since our ten men thrashed Arsenal 0-1 last April. Because…life. Oddly, or possibly not, I’ve felt more absent as we’ve struggled than I did when it was all going rather well. I’ve spent far more time watching different degrees of failure at Vicarage Road than anything else, and have spent the last few years attempting to carve myself a little niche amid the club historians as the chronicler of the dismal and the squalid. It feels as if I ought to be there to share the anguish, as if my powerlessness ought not to be so remote. Instead, I’ve been watching Hastings, who are currently top of their league (but lose 3-0 to their nearest rivals earlier in the afternoon).

3. For a little while there, it appeared as if we might be able to aspire to mid-table banality by…well, if not now, then not too far hence. But the last two results have the unmistakable whiff of relegation about them, that feeling of being the punchline to someone else’s cruel joke. When I wrote about the 1999/2000 season for The Watford Treasury, I was surprised to discover that we didn’t, in fact, lose every game 3-2 courtesy of a last minute own goal. Bloody felt like it, though.

The nature of relegation is that, unless you’re extraordinarily rubbish, it takes a very, very long time. Everyone inches along at an average of three or four points per month, and even though the prophets of doom proclaim the inevitability of it all after every single defeat, you can still eye up the team in fifteenth well into March, possibly beyond.

Brighton are fifteenth and three points away as we kickoff, having spent their season cooing appreciatively at football which does adventurous and modern things, things that Chris Hughton would never countenance, while everyone else coos appreciatively over Sheffield United, who are adventurous and modern and rather better. There’s a dartboard with Chris Wilder’s face on it in Graham Potter’s spare room, I reckon. “Should’ve been me!” through gritted teeth as each dart hits home.

4. Let’s not stand on ceremony. This is a wretched game of football, if measured by any objective standards. We’re not here to apply objective standards, of course. Sometimes sheer desperation can lead these relegation six-pointers to disintegrate into thrilling, terrifying fragments; here, it’s all held firmly together by tension, by the nerves which keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s a game played in the slack, dead water between each team’s hopes and their worst fears. It’s so lacking in incident that I can’t even give you the righteous rant about VAR that I had planned, and I know you’re going to be very disappointed about that.

The hosts make a better start, pushing us onto the back foot. (It’ll become clear that we would’ve been on the back foot anyway, but let’s not spoil the moment.) Will Hughes blocks Burn’s bouncing half-volley, Murray meets a cross but is sufficiently impeded by Kabasele. There are a couple of corners. It’s a flurry rather than a storm, and it’s over in five minutes or so. We deal with it well, calm and diligent in defence, snappy in midfield. The game settles into a pattern from which it’ll never escape, of Brighton having great acres of possession and not really knowing how to harvest it, of Watford suffocating it all by sitting deep and gradually pushing each attack backwards, guiding a toddler out of a toy shop.

It has the dramatic intensity of someone prodding a damp sponge with an old toothbrush.

5. Thing is, you can see where Graham Potter’s trying to get to. Brighton are comfortable on the ball, and they have a few bright, lightweight players who’d frustrate a pragmatist like Hughton but would excite a coach interested in cultivating something more high-brow. What they don’t have is any kind of cutting edge. There’s the potential for goals from Murray, obviously, but he sits atop all of this like a cat on a Christmas tree; the rest of the team isn’t set up either to supply or support him. We happily force Brighton into wide areas and even when we can’t disrupt their crosses, nobody’s remotely interested in joining Uncle Glenn in the penalty area. It all goes very flat very quickly.

As for us, we’re in danger of becoming a little too reactive as the half meanders on. The best bits – the midfield three ferreting about, the centre backs dominating – are genuinely praise-worthy, but there’s a danger of concentrating on them so much that you forget to provide a challenge to your opponents. I’m chewing on this as Etienne Capoue intercepts on halfway and sets Abdoulaye Doucouré free, his loping, confident run ending with a precise finish into the far corner. It’s a fine goal which looks even better on a replay, the poise and drive of the run, the perfect timing of the shot as defenders circle around him. It’s our one moment of genuine quality.

We see out the rest of the half without great concern. Aided by an understandably restless home crowd, our job is now so much easier than theirs; we have no need to make the running, if we ever did. Mooy shoots over, Murray shoots over, March shoots over; no other players beginning with M are available to shoot over. Schelotto goes down in the box under a vague challenge from Deulofeu…and yeah, maybe, perhaps, when it’s really your day. That’s all they’ve got, though, and everyone here knows it all too well.

6. No changes at the break. No change after it.

With about fifteen minutes remaining, during treatment to Adam Masina, Matt and I have a cryptic conversation in which we try very hard not to tempt fate by remarking on the home side’s toothlessness. Well, that’s what I imagine Matt was thinking, at any rate. Neither of us actually said it. By that point, Potter was throwing on attacking substitutes with great abandon, and perhaps some desperation, but it continued to lack any kind of focal point, merely adding more of what they already had in abundance. They’re a nice side. Polite, tidy, please, thank you. But you have to think that they’re a sitting duck if anyone in the bottom three ever manages to get their shit together. (Preferably us, obviously.)

Tellingly, the most substantial spell of pressure comes midway through the half, when Ben Foster fluffs a kick and we’re caught on the hop a little bit, for a little while. We deny them that space, and that sense of having the initiative, the rest of the time. Schelotto’s driven cross is a bit beyond Murray’s far post slide. There’s not a lot else, until a fine, intricate interchange lets in Mooy and Foster saves well with his legs. We waste what little of the ball we have in the final third: Pereyra and Masina both make poor decisions in good positions, Deulofeu skates inside and then drags a tame shot wide of the post. There isn’t a lot to cheer about. It’s all very tense. At least it isn’t cold.

7. It’s all very well sitting in a bush and waiting to launch an ambush. Planning, listening, watching. Waiting, waiting. Waiting. After a while, you’re just sitting in a bush.

My point is that we don’t do enough to win this. We might’ve won it anyway, of course. The sense of frustration is not really at the nature of the equaliser – the midfield momentarily vacating its space, Mariappa panicking and smashing Jahanbakhsh’s cross into the roof of his own net – so much as our failure to be sufficiently assertive in that final half hour. Perhaps it’s understandable, given recent setbacks, but it felt as if we were passive, as if we retreated into our shells, as if we bided our time so much that our time ran out. We spent the remainder of the game caught in indecision, unsure whether to go for a winner – and if so, how the hell to go about it – or to protect the draw. That we managed the latter represents some progress, I suppose.

8. Five or six years ago, I started developing an intolerance to alcohol. These days, I can drink no more than a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Perhaps slightly more if I’m feeling foolish, but if I go any further than that, the results are unpleasant. I’ll spare you the details. I’m coming to terms with the idea that whatever I do in the rest of my life, I’ll have to do it sober. I’ll never be drunk again. Even a bit tipsy is pushing it.

And now that they’re behind me, I regret not having made more of my drinking years. Not the debauchery so much. I just wish I’d enjoyed it all a bit more. I wish I’d savoured a few more beers; I wish I’d worked my way through those fine bottles of single malt that are now gathering dust. Like anything can, it became banal, routine. I forgot to notice.

There’s a lot still to play for. A lot of football left. Let’s make something of it.

Foster 3, Mariappa 2, Masina 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, *Hughes 4*, Deulofeu 2, Pereyra 2, Deeney 3
Subs: Pussetto (for Pereyra, 82) NA, Welbeck (for Deulofeu, 86) NA, Dawson, Chalobah, Holebas, Gray, Gomes

Comments»

1. MartinG - 09/02/2020

Your report is vastly more entertaining than the game yesterday was. Poor fare from both teams.
God knows what coaching is being done on dead ball situations. On one of the very few occasions we had a decent chance Deulofeu puts in a ball behind the attackers and we nearly get caught on the counter. Woeful.

2. Roger Smith - 09/02/2020

What happened to the Masina Holebas sub? Could that have prevented the fateful cross?

3. Harefield Hornet - 09/02/2020

I said a few weeks ago Sarr’s loss would be crucial – he gives us the capacity to turn defence into attack at lightning speed and spooks defences. I honestly think his presence would have made the difference between success and failure in the last few games. We really don’t have another option like him in the squad.

Ian Grant - 09/02/2020

True, but it’s reasonable to ask for more from Deulofeu, surely? I appreciate that he’s there to provide quality rather than quantity, but he gave us neither yesterday.

4. David - 09/02/2020

I have just watched Bournemouth lose to Shef UTD so I’m not as down as I was last night but yes Ian; gosh this is exciting.

5. greywhistler - 09/02/2020

Couldn’t resist adding a Comment here, seeing that early reference to Erland Cooper. Another reason to praise the BBC, and Six Music in particular, for introducing me to his music and influences. Something the Neanderthals in charge won’t recognise. Thanks for this, Ian, and for yet another insightful report.
As for the game, it still bemuses me that a team with so much individual – and for the major part of most games collective – ability, can still fail to translate that into a comfortable victory. Perhaps, it is merely a matter of fragile confidence. The confident play we saw after Doucouré’s superb goal just wasn’t maintained after the interval. Was it tiredness or just fatalism? Let’s hope that, after three consecutive games when a lead has been sacrificed, it doesn’t become embedded in the players’ psyche.
Still the next couple of games should put matters to right, eh?

6. Buckstops - 10/02/2020

I just think that the high press comes at a price in the second half at the moment. Use of subs seems to be critical.

7. Stuart Campbell - 10/02/2020

The second half screamed out for a solidifying sub. Chalobah looked like the obvious candidate to me. Reluctant to criticise the coach, but his game management felt wrong to me.
Oh, and do visit Orkney, Ian. Wonderful part of the world and like nowhere else in UK. A bit of a trek from the south coast… and best to wait until the current draughty weather abates!

8. John Ford - 26/02/2020

Belated thanks Ian, not just for the match report, but introducing me to Erlan Cooper, I’ll be at the Barbican in June!
‘Introverted loner’ (not that you’d notice at Vicarage Road!) that I am, already a great fan of Robert Macfarlane.
PS. Good to see Hastings doing well. My uncle used to be the Castle’s Guardian, though my team was Eastbourne Utd!


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