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Watford 1 Southampton 3 (28/06/2020) 28/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

1 – Of the reasons that it’s good that football is back (and how you weight these up against the negatives is your business), escapism is high on the list.  The opportunity to think about something else other than the obvious.  I’ve followed the COVID news as loosely as I can get away with whilst making sure I know what I’m supposed to be doing and not doing but even if you’re following developments more assiduously than I am you haven’t come here to read more about the coronavirus.

So let’s make this brief.  We’re coming through / in the middle of / suffering a very difficult period collectively.  You all know, you don’t need me explaining it.  People have been ill.  People have died.  People have isolated and not been able to see loved ones, even say goodbye to them properly.  People haven’t been able to go to work.  People have gone to work despite huge risks, for the greater good.  The club have done a stunning job of supporting the community and the hospital in particular, as reflected a week ago.

So for Andre Gray, Domingos Quina and Nathaniel Chalobah to host/join a big party is pathetic.  Irresponsible for one thing, though they’re far from the only ones as the moron magnets along the coast have demonstrated.  Selfish and unprofessional given the potential impact on the squad of anyone contracting the virus. But stupid on another level.  These guys are professional footballers, and one of the costs of this profession at this level is a high profile.  It was only ever going to take a stray photo.  Such appalling decision-making doesn’t recommend Chalobah or Quina for a midfield slot, whilst Gray has comprehensively undone all his good work in support of BLM.  Depressing, and entirely appropriate that they were omitted from today’s squad.

2- If, like me, you’ve spent far longer than is strictly healthy in front of televised kind-of-football over the last twelve days (yes, it’s really only been twelve days) you’ll almost certainly have come to the reassuring conclusion that our “rivals” in the musical chairs mini-league at the bottom really aren’t very good. Perhaps this should be no surprise, that teams in a relegation scrap are a bit crap. No doubt it was ever thus, we’ve just never studied a relegation battle quite so forensically. Never been able to, not actually needed to for some time…. the last time we were involved in anything resembling a relegation scrap was Malky’s first season ten years ago, a season that Tom Cleverley, Aidy Mariappa and Craig Cathcart all featured in.

Anyway, reassuring that Villa, Bournemouth, West Ham, Norwich all look poor.  Brighton have pulled away to what is being treated as an insurmountable distance, rightly, by virtue of having actually won a game of football.  Personally this doesn’t upset me, I’d be quite happy to see the Seagulls stay up and it looks quite likely that if we do catch them at least three others won’t.  The thing is though, the “but”… is that we suddenly look pretty terrible too.  And this is new, at least new under Nige since whilst we’ve been aware of limitations throughout, and whilst we’ve had to suffer no end of expensive late capitulations that have cost us what look increasingly precious points we’ve not actually been playing badly for the most part.

Suddenly, we’re playing badly.

3- Southampton started off at a hundred miles an hour.  This was different, very different to the one-paced pre-season friendlies that we’ve been weaned back onto football with for at least the first quarter of each game…  talk of Watford needing to start boldly and take the game to the Saints’ flaky defence went out the window.

It takes some recalling now, but that opening spell was a mess.  It was a mess largely of Southampton’s design, but they weren’t looking any more threatening than we were, no more likely to create something from the crashing around, the hurtling bodies, the pouring rain.  Indeed it was the Hornets that showed first, Pereyra playing in Sarr before his cutback from the byline avoided the yellow shirts in the box.    The thing is though, as we’ve reflected before, being solid with a bit of magic dust is a decent recipe at any level – we thrived off such a set-up in our first season up with Iggy firing in 2015/16, and in the second half of Sean Dyche’s season during Sean Murray’s brief sparkle four years earlier.  Southampton were better than that, as it turns out, but they owed their breakthrough to Danny Ings who scored a goal of supreme confidence from nowhere just as I was scribbling “Ings looks lively” onto my notepad.  The goal is a bad one defensively, but it’s hard to pare apart where Ings’ boldness ends and our failings begin.  Dawson, Cathcart and perhaps even Foster look iffy on the replay, but Ings picked at a seam and ripped it apart before anyone had steeled themselves.

That’s a theme for the game actually.  Certainly, Southampton were excellent…  aggressive and energetic which is always great but looks all the more so when everyone else has been in training mode.  But potent too, and more resilient than we’d been led to believe.  The other side of the coin though is that we really didn’t make the most of our weaponry, didn’t do enough to test what was supposed to be the visitors’ achilles heel.  Less than the sum of our parts, less than we know that this side is capable of being.  Such threat as we had was too rarely the result of our set-up working an opening, and more often the result of individual endeavour, such as when Sarr went on a brief rampage across the edge of Saints’ box five minutes after Ings’ goal. Deeney was isolated, and looked heavy.  Doucouré was anonymous.  Sarr was willing but is young and makes a young man’s decisions; however much he cost you feel that these are immature shoulders to be loading up with such responsibility.  He’s certainly no leader, not yet anyway, and badly misses the relief of the twin threat of Deulofeu on the left flank;  along with our loss of energy levels the biggest miss versus pre-lockdown.

4- The other big miss is the support of course.  And yes, this affects everyone, yes we’ve been lamentable in front of crowds before too, yes we have a crowd that’s smaller than most in the top flight and, no, lack of fans didn’t seem to hinder Southampton.  But there is a greater cost for sides like us than for sides with better players I think.  This applies less today… but in general we have a side that has ability but also a certain venom to it on a good day that feeds off a crowd, that builds a momentum.

We were still in the game at the start of the second half and as at Burnley found a vigour and a focus that had escaped us in the first period in which Saints, once ahead, had largely kept us at arms length.  Not so after the break…  if it still felt slightly laboured, unconvinced and a little unconvincing at least we were asking questions, and a roar of a crowd would have built up a head of steam.  Many of those questions were asked by Will Hughes, who seemed to decide that our best chance of progress was to take out the visitors’ backline like coconuts at a fairground stall by thumping in a series of strikes from the edge of the congested area.  Ryan Bertrand bore the brunt of the likeliest of these to actually find the net – as an aside, “no shots on target” is a bit harsh if it neglects such a vital block.  We didn’t get the break with the deflection there, on another day it wrong-foots the keeper,  and indeed we didn’t get breaks with a “coulda” penalty call in the first half when Bertrand took an ill-judged tug at Sarr once the six-of-ones had finished, and a “shoulda” in the second half when Walker-Peters grappled with Craig Dawson.  Michael Oliver yawned. Very much not our day, in any respect.

5- The second Saints goal was horrible too, but had a nice kind of symmetry about it.  The early days of Ben Foster’s Watford career in 2005 were peppered with incidents like these, when his eagerness to hurl a ball into the escaping feet of Ashley Young or Marlon King got the better of him more than once.  Of all the things to criticise Watford for today this is low on the list, a bit of ambition that backfired.  Not great, but we have bigger fish to fry, or something.  It still required yet more bullishness from Ings and an unlucky deflection off Dawson.

That should have been that.  If there’s a silver lining to today’s horror show it’s that the Nigel Pearson’s subs, criticised in the last couple of games, all improved us (whilst accepting that this wasn’t very difficult).  Three of them combined to force our goal;  the willowy, near-mythical João Pedro produced a neat lay-off to release the galloping Holebas, who sent an evil cross into the box where Danny Welbeck was attacking the near post of all things, forcing Bednarek into an error that saw the ball in the back of the net.

I vaguely remember being stirred at this point, but the stirring didn’t last very long.  Three minutes between our goal and their third, much less than that before the jig was up.  Ward-Prowse has a habit of scoring against us of course, four of his 22 for Saints and counting;  I wouldn’t have been the only Hornet who anticipated what was about to happen as soon as the free kick was awarded and slumped back in my seat with a choice of words permitted by the fact that daughter 2 was wisely plugged into her phone next to me and oblivious.

After which we fell apart, and Saints should have scored more.  To whatever extent they won this game vs us losing it, beyond dispute is that we responded dreadfully to the blows that the afternoon landed and ended the afternoon a thoroughly beaten side.

6- In the normal way I try to avoid written accounts and opinions of the game before I write this piece.  Regurgitating other people’s thoughts doesn’t add much, after all.  I’d rather represent what I saw, even if I got it wrong.

When you’re watching on TV in isolation, daughter 1 absent and daughter 2 barely present plugged in on the sofa as described,  let alone in the current set-up where I’ve been working at home for however many months it’s harder to be disciplined.  And so I read my co-editor’s reflections, incisive as ever, and was unable to un-read them.  “Being taken apart by a better side is something that happens… and because it happens, you can’t afford oddly passive, leaden non-performances in utterly winnable games like Thursday’s.  Or Leicester.  Or Brighton.  I imagine the list goes on…”.  Indeed.

Having blown two opportunities to put some daylight between ourselves and the rest, our biggest hope of salvation remains the fact that only three teams get relegated, and the others are awful too.  You don’t need to be good to stay up, you just need to be less rubbish than three other teams.

But having been so lamentable at Burnley, you’d have really hoped for more vigour from this one.  Worrying times.  Going to be a very long month.

Yooorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 2, Masina 2, Cathcart 1, Dawson 1, Capoue 2, Doucouré 1, Hughes 2, Pereyra 2, Sarr 2, Deeney 1
Subs: Holebas (for Masina, 74) 3, João Pedro (for Pereyra, 74) 3, Welbeck (for Hughes, 74) 3, Pussetto (for Femenía, 79) NA, Peñaranda, Mariappa, Cleverley, Kabasele, Gomes

Watford 1 Leicester City 1 (20/06/2020) 20/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- I missed the last game at Vicarage Road.  I would say, “regular readers might remember”, but I scarcely remember what with one thing and another.  I’d been to Old Trafford with a friend who’d just come back from Milan.  Work advised to self-isolate, I felt iffy on the day of the game and watched it from the sofa.  So… stuff had already started.  But none of us foresaw how much more was going to change before Watford were again playing at Vicarage Road.

Again, I nearly wrote “before we were back”, distracted as I am half-watching Brighton against Arsenal (and rooting for the Gunners, which feels dirty but must be caveated with the desire that I’d quite like Brighton to stay up too if I could be greedy if not at our expense…).  We’re not back of course, not all of us, and there’s been some debate regarding the credibility of playing football without supporters.  It’s not ideal, of course… trite to say, but everyone would rather supporters were there.  But if it’s a choice between helping ensure that football “survives” as far as possible, and assuming it’s safe (I’ll take Troy’s reassurance on that) then it’s a no-brainer.  Lots of stuff isn’t ideal right now after all.

2- With crowd noise for me, incidentally.  Personal choice of course, no it’s not “real”.  But the empty, quiet stadium will always detract from the spectacle and the superimposed crowd noise, whilst illusory, is very effective for the most part.  No, not offensive, no, not sinister.  We are where we are.

Before kick-off we have a minute’s silence in remembrance of the victims of the pandemic and recognition of those who’ve continually put themselves at risk.  And then all involved take the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter tribute.  Difficult to find the right words for this… to do it justice.  If this had been something mandated by the FA, say, or the Premier League with the best of intentions it would have felt half-baked.  Tokenism, perhaps, whatever the conviction of individuals.  But it didn’t. it came from the players…  and with Troy and City captain and Troy’s mate Wes Morgan prominent in the instigation of the pre-match ritual it would have been a brave soul who didn’t comply.  There may be a question about the implied pressure applied to players with reservations, I guess…  but the concerns of morons and knobheads are pretty low on any sane list of priorities right now.  Few issues are as clear cut, right and wrong.

First observation is that Étienne Capoue is the clear winner in the “lockdown hair” competition, far less svelte than we’re used to.  Closest competition, nominated by Leicester Paul over text, is Çağlar Söyüncü who’s sporting a sort of ponytail thing.  Second observation is that we really don’t start well.  At all.  Defending the Rookery End (oh get in Nicolas Pépé) first Kiko then Kabs give the ball away sloppily.  The new pitch is perhaps a little heavy… the ball seems to stick on both these occasions, and on others.  Either way we look ragged, and this excellent City side are quickly pinning us back.  You’d probably have taken a point at kick off.  Twenty minutes in you’d grab it with both hands.

3- But the reality is that we’re probably catching City at a good time, given that the fixture was to come.  Getting going again after an unexpected break such as we’ve had is going to be difficult for everybody but for a passing side the touch isn’t quite going to be there.  We’ve got our own footballers of course, but we’re also much bigger than City and quicker.  More aggressive too… even early on Will Hughes is snapping into challenges, the start of a good scrap with Wilfrid Ndidi.  Troy is winning everything that’s pumped towards him, and Ismaïla Sarr fries Ben Chilwell.  Once we start pressurising high up the pitch we get into the game and if City are still carving out chances the ball is nonetheless bouncing around in their penalty area rather a lot.  Craig Dawson cushions a header for Pereyra to run onto but Schmeichel anticipates and collects.  An astonishing ball from Capoue in an otherwise quiet half releases Sarr, who finds a bomb of a cross having sent a few into Schmeichel’s arms and Justin – who impresses, but might have been grateful for the lack of supporters given his heritage – denies the combined and perhaps confounded attention of Pereyra and Kabasele.  We end the half on top.

4- During comms, Steve McManaman compliments the club on the colour in the stadium and the organisation of the day.  He also mentions the work done in supporting the hospital over the last few months.  We’re all aware of all of this of course, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.  We talk about Watford being a community club…  well here’s the evidence, if any were needed.  A sanctuary for hospital staff.  Washing the scrubs.  Free meals.  Meeting room space.  The sensory room adopted by the maternity unit for pre-natal checks.  Players and ex-players ringing older and vulnerable supporters, accessing further support where needed.  Matchday BT sport passes for season ticket holders. Even sorting out season ticket refunds was done considerately, professionally.  Plenty of clubs haven’t managed that, or anything near it.  Speaks volumes that where everything’s up in the air and the club (like so many other institutions) are suddenly deprived of cashflow, they’re prioritising this stuff.  A club to be proud of.  Let’s try to remember this next time we lose to someone shit.

5- The second half begins as the first ended.  Leicester pass it about, don’t get particularly close to our goal with it, whereas we’re on the front foot straight away.  Capoue releases Sarr, Schmeichel’s out quickly.  Then the same two players combine to feed Kiko, whose far post cross is almost converted by Troy, his header drops narrowly wide.  But as the half continues it tips again… Leicester have chances when Söyüncü gets onto the end of a softly awarded free kick, and when Foster flicks an Albrighton drive onto the woodwork and then responds sharply to deny Maddison’s follow-up.  The vast number of subs shift things around a bit but Chalobah and Cleverley in particular show up well.

Quite how significant the events of the last five minutes were only time will tell.  But they certainly provided the burst of adrenaline, the rattle through the emotions that so many will have been craving. In my head the game was over… I’d sort of accepted a 0-0 in a “not a bad point” kind of way, when Chilwell struck.  You can pick holes…  Sarr was clumsy in possession, but a good distance from the goal.  Mariappa wasn’t tight to the left back, but it was an extraordinary pass, take and finish.  A piece of quality worthy of winning the game.

One can only imagine the prevailing mood had that been it.  Hell, the next two or three minutes were miserable enough.  A familiar feeling, again.  “Oh yes, I remember what a last minute punch in the guts feels like”.   But we push back straight away and before you know it the ball’s bouncing in Leicester’s area again and now Kabs is flicking it up and…. oh my good God.  And I’m screaming loud and long enough to damage my throat for the rest of the afternoon and disturb the local barbecues; I only realise on calming down and paying attention again that the scissor kick wasn’t Clevs, who has a track record of late winners, but Craig Dawson of all people.  Dawson was already our man of the match following a rugged and often vital performance in the middle of the defence, but this was something very special.  BT Sport’s pundits lamented that there were no supporters in the ground to enjoy the moment;  they’re right, of course.  But there were Watford fans going mental in thousands of living rooms, offices.  Charging around like idiots looking for someone to tell about it.  What a vital, vital goal… turning the worst possible restart into one that propels us forward in the knowledge that we’ve given a potential Champions League side a hell of a game and dug out a point.

Football’s back.  Not quite as we know it, sure.  But football’s back.   The orns are still magnificent.  Arsenal are still useless wankers.  A small plank of normality back in place.

Bring on the Burnley.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 2, Masina 3, *Dawson 5*, Kabasele 3, Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 3, Sarr 3, Pereyra 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Welbeck (for Pereyra, 69) 2, Chalobah (for Capoue, 77) NA, Cleverley (for Doucouré, 77) NA, Mariappa (for Femenía, 77) NA, Holebas (for Masina, 88) NA, Cathcart, Pussetto, Gray, Gomes

The Quarantine Selection – Strikers 18/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

Strikers.  Here we go.  The top five have rotated an awful lot since making this list, and would probably be in a different order tomorrow.  Is it Saturday yet?  Quiz link at the end, as per.

10 – Gifton Noel-Williams

9 – Odion Ighalo

8 – Kevin Phillips

7 – Paul Wilkinson

6 – Paul Furlong

More than twenty years since that goal against Sunderland and that Paul Butler challenge it’s still heartbreaking.  Perhaps Gifton would never have evolved into more than the half-decent second tier target man that he returned as after his injuries… but that seems impossible. Having just turned 19 he was flying, was in the England U21 squad and would clearly have been the best player ever.  Ighalo… an awful lot of fun, if for a relatively short time.  Exploded into the side to first propel us into the side and then to keep us there, and then seemed to fizzle out just as quickly.  Superkev’s senior Watford career was even briefer, barely twelve months in effect before injury did for him, and much of that during a relegation season.  And yet… his movement, his awareness, was extraordinary.  Straight out of non-league, he already had gold dust.  Wilko…  after such a miserable goal-starved fun-starved relegation season in 1987/88 it was tremendous to have a proper goalscorer again, and one with a big personality and a big ‘tache to boot.  Less heralded than he should be.  And then Fuzzy…  merely a(nother) half-decent target man wherever else he played, at Vicarage Road he looked the complete striker.  Fast, strong, elegant and intelligent, kicked the ball bloody hard, often unplayable.  His departure to Chelsea was miserable and inevitable but his last-but-one goal to burgle three points from Oakwell in spring 1994 was a thing of beauty.

5- Danny Graham

The top five here are clear, but have rotated frequently as I’ve prepared this piece in terms of relative position.  Danny Graham was only at Vicarage Road for a couple of seasons in which we finished 16th and 14th in the Championship, but his impact was greater than this suggests.  The sides he was part of were supposed to struggle, should have struggled much more than they did…  Graham wasn’t the only reason for safe enough mid-table but he was a big part of it.  He scored a few goals, an extraordinary number in his second season, but more than that he made the whole team more effective.  His selflessness and endeavour created the gaping spaces that Tom Cleverley and Henri Lansbury galloped into with abandon in that first season.  His value to the team was a surprise, that these seasons were as fun as they were was a surprise.  As it turned out… he was one of these guys who’s too good for the Championship without being good enough for the Premier League perhaps.  Pretty good at most things without being exceptional at anything.  For the Hornets though, tremendous.

4- Tommy Mooney

Tommy Mooney there was plenty of ability, physical prowess too.  But it was his force of personality that made him exceptional… on several distinct occasions during his Watford career he went on a ludicrous burner, “Rampage” in footballer form.  Nothing could stand in his way.  This happened when he signed on loan from a chaotic Southend United late in the 1993/94 season.  He only scored twice in that run… once, bizarrely, against his parent club but his will to win invigorated the side as it was re-invented with the influx of Keith Millen, Colin Foster, Craig Ramage and Dennis Bailey, one of the most vital and successful recruitment sprees in recent history.  His bloody-mindedness was shunted around the team once he’d signed permanently… it was “how” with Tommy as much as “where”.  Left mid, left wing-back, even on the left of three at the back during the third tier title-winning season in 1997/98 (following another extraordinary rebuild of the side) in which his contribution was epitomised by a wonderfully stupid goal against Bristol Rovers.  The following season saw him drift from the team starting only twice in the four months spanning New Year, and then explode back into the side with a prolific run that motored us into and through the play-offs.  If his Premiership season was scuppered by injury it still featured a winner at Anfield and a fine return off the bench at home to Manchester United before a prolific final season after which, at the age of 30 and out of contract, he moved on.  He was a Roy of the Rovers character, a comic book hero, and a Watford legend.

3- Heidar Helguson

There’s little that endears a centre-forward more than a lunatic disregard for his own safety.  This was different to Mooney’s brand of bravado… he was tough, but a bully.  Helguson wasn’t a bully.  He just had no safety filter.  By the end of his career, helping Cardiff to promotion aged 35, he must have been held together by sellotape. But for the ‘orns… glorious.  He got better and better as he got older from excitable option to reliable goalscorer to leader and, in his final season before leaving for Fulham, clearly a level above the one he was playing at.  Then he came back on loan and didn’t disappoint… off the bench for his second debut 2-0 down to Leicester at half time.  Charged around like a lunatic, scored twice, carried off on 81 minutes.  Brilliant.

2- Troy Deeney

The only thing that separates him from top spot is that he’s still, sometimes, a bit of an idiot.  Yes, that makes him human.  No, losing your rag and getting sent off is neither helpful nor clever.

That aside.  Difficult to do justice to quite how well he’s done, quite what he’s achieved, quite how important he’s been to us.  The first point is a story increasingly widely told – by all sorts of surprising people – but it’s widely told because it is remarkable.  Perhaps the most prominent of all the points at which it could have gone wrong was when he was imprisoned in 2012.  The club could have gotten rid then, easily, and much as he’d already shown signs of what was to come his career would not have been heralded had it ended then.  It didn’t.  66 goals in the next (just under) three seasons in the Championship.  Promotion, captaining the side as it established itself in the Premier League, developing into what Jonathan Lieuw once described as “part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”. Even that doesn’t do him justice.  He’s a leader on and off the pitch, and utterly inspiring.

1- Luther Blissett

Luther wasn’t the most talented player to have played for Watford.  But he was simultaneously the best striker we’ve ever had.  Fast.  Strong.  Direct.  Critically, with an utter indifference to missing chances.  He didn’t care.  “Luther Missitt” was a sobriquet at one point.  Despite which he scored 19 goals as we earned promotion, 27 in our first season in the top flight.  Twenty seven goals.  Ludicrous.

He was a cartoon character.  A legend, even at the time.  I knew the name Luther Blissett long before I started going to games.  And he was always smiling.  And he scored goals.  Lots of goals.  So many of the strikers in this list sparkled for a couple of years and then left, normally for somewhere “better”.  Luther left too.  And then came back.  Twice.  And ended up playing more games and scoring more goals for Watford than anyone else in a Vicarage Road career that spanned sixteen years.

 

Thanks for getting this far.  The final strikers quiz is here.  Every striker to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80.

Back to the present day then.  Yooooorns.

Strikers Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Wide Midfielders/Wingers 14/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

To repeat:  my favourite wide midfielders/wingers of the past 40 years, not necessarily the best.  Definitions slightly arbitrary but there’s no “right” answer here… attacking wingbacks are wingers, defensive wingbacks are full backs.

And there’s a quiz at the end, as per.

10 Peter Kennedy

9 Roberto Pereyra

8 Don Cowie

7 Neal Ardley

6 Nigel Callaghan

Peter Kennedy was great.  Being top scorer from wing back in a title-winning season was a cool thing, doing it in the number 3 shirt even cooler, and being a decent wide man without a lot of pace a good trick if you can do it.  He signed 23 years ago, by the way.  Jesus.  Bobby P…  I know he’s had downs as well as ups, he’s not been great this season (5 in 17 starts mind).  But a statement signing when he arrived – get us, signing Argentine internationals from Juventus – and a wonderful blend over the four seasons he’s been here… deft without being flashy, gritty without being dirty, energetic without being only energetic.  And a purveyor of fine goals, Leicester, Chelsea (more than once), Brighton.  Says something that he’s not an automatic pick.  Don Cowie, the duracell bunny…  when you’re the team we were, struggling in the Championship, then a bloke you’ve never heard of from Scotland turning up and just changing the whole dynamic of the team is a fine fine thing to be cherished.  Neal Ardley… 150 top flight starts before he signed, another winger without a lot of pace but what a cross on him.  That stock goal, Ards dumping into Heidar’s orbit at the far post, Heidar propelling ball, goal, everything goalwards was undefendable.  A decent bloke too, the rancour when he left for Cardiff even less justifiable in retrospect than it was at the time.  And then Cally, another who didn’t have to beat his man.  He could put a ball wherever you wanted it, had a foot like a traction engine when given a shooting chance with just enough audacity and rough edges to make him a cult hero in any team, let alone one that successful.

5- Ismaïla Sarr

Yeah, I know.  Sue me.  In fairness there were probably times when Will Buckley, Rod Thomas or Anthony McNamee would have made this top ten, at the zenith of their potential when they were an exciting maybe with all sorts of possibilities in front of them.  Sarr is different gravy altogether though;  he should be, given the whatever-you-choose-to-believe that we paid for him.  But what is not to like about this kid.  Quite obviously shy, humble, out of his comfort zone…  but capable of almost anything.  Liverpool was the headline of course, the siren to the rest of the Premier League in case there were folk who hadn’t been paying attention.  His full debut against Coventry was the first “Good God” moment though.  Faced with an opponent on the half way line his first touch appeared awful, propelling the ball haphazardly down the line towards the Rookery and a goal kick.  Except that as you watched it the backspin on it held it up in the corner.  You shifted your gaze back towards the player with a slow realisation that echoed the “shit, we’re going to score” of the Deeney goal against Leicester.  This was no clumsy miscontrol;  Sarr was well past his man, chasing the ball that he knew would hold up.  Good god.  What a tantalising cliffhanger to pause the season at.

4- Nicky Wright

He had one season, really.  Yes, his Watford career stumbled on for another three-and-a-half years after the summer of 1999.  But he only started five more games, and didn’t finish any of them.  Injury did for his career at the age of 24.

It’s not impossible that he simply wouldn’t have been good enough for the Premier League, perhaps not have sustained that remarkable first season back in the second tier either had injury permitted him to try.  Had that been demonstrated he might not have made this shortlist.  As it is, he was a firework on the right flank from start to finish, hurtling around at speed with colour and vigour, barely seeming to break stride before fizzling out and being dragged off barely able to walk.  He was subbed 21 times in 34 starts in 1998/99.  And the big bang, of course, the big dramatic explosion was that goal at Wembley.  It was beautiful, poetic, tragic.  But not a completely accurate way to remember him.  He would, after all, have needed to be standing still briefly before executing it at all.

3- Ikechi Anya

The best bit about that goal, that Deeney goal, was Ikechi Anya.  On the back of 270 minutes against Leeds and Leicester in the preceding week he collected Marco Cassetti’s belted clearance after Almunia’s second block to Knockaert’s pen.  And he was moving at full pelt again and yet his touch was ridiculous…

Troy once described Ikechi in interview as “a special individual”.  Wasn’t that the truth?  Born in Glasgow to a Nigerian father and Romanian mother he started his Watford career at full speed and rarely slowed down for three years.  You got energy, you got willingness, you got an outlet, you got a threat.  You didn’t always get anything terribly coherent, but Ikechi was always available, always positive, always fun.  Scoring against Germany for Scotland left him exclaiming that “he couldn’t even score against Manuel Neuer on FIFA…”. Never, realistically, destined for a long Premier League career but you’d have put money on him being a success at Derby.  Sadly injury intervened;  coming to the end of his contract this month, he last last turned out for the Rams in the 2018 play-off semi-finals.  A crying shame.  A tremendous footballer.

2 Tommy Smith

A third Derby or ex-Derby man in a row, and a fifth in the top ten.  Perhaps Glyn Hodges should have gotten a mention too on that basis.

Tommy Smith’s problem at first was exactly what to do with him.  He made his first appearances in the side at seventeen but was already whispered about as something exciting.  At that age you can get away with that… a bit of willing, a bit of exciting, a local boy, that’ll do.  Everyone loves you.  Before he was twenty, Smudger was scoring against Manchester United in the Premier League.  All good.  The thing was…   he wasn’t strong enough to be a striker, didn’t kick the ball hard enough frankly.  And he wasn’t quick enough to be an out and out winger.  So he would wander around somewhere in between.  Had his Watford career ended for good in 2003 when he left, out of contract, for Sunderland having been upset by his omission from Ray Lewington’s starting eleven against Southampton in the cup semi final it would have been remembered fondly but slightly wistfully, what could have been.

At least one regular BSaD correspondent was underwhelmed when he returned from Derby in 2006.  But if there’s a secret to success it’s in navigating your deficiencies, making the most of what you’re good at (any number of young wingers in particular could be cited as negative examples here).  Smith didn’t come back quicker, or stronger.  But he was clever.  He turned being not-quite-a-striker-and-not-quite-a-winger into an art form, a thing of beauty in its own right.  Its own genre.  He was utterly magnificent for three years winning consecutive Player of the Season awards in the process.  That his last goal at Vicarage Road clinched a title for QPR feels kinda wrong, but at the same time he was a player and a person befitting of better than being just our secret.  A star.

1 John Barnes

John Barnes was almost unfair.   Tricky, yes.  Great feet, two of them.  But quick too.  Oh, and as strong as an ox.  Decent in the air.  He could cross a ball as well… 1986 World Cup Quarter Final anyone?  Twice?  And consistent… never less than 43 appearances and that his first season, aged 17/18. 14 goals in that campaign and then 13, 15, 16, 13, 14.  It was remarkable that we held on to him for six years, even then… and there were stories, no doubt some based in fact and approaches that we never heard about.  How could there not be?  Inter were mentioned at one point.  There was even a song about him not going to QPR very early on, but my finger wasn’t quite on the pulse at the age of 8.  Perhaps someone remembers?

It was entirely appropriate that his star continued to rise at Liverpool.  Would have been wrong if it hadn’t.  He was the star of an extraordinary team, even by Liverpool’s standards, from his debut at Highbury.  You couldn’t have been happier for him.  And the old thing about him not quite doing it for England is belied by 79 internatioanal caps, 11 goals including the one at the Maracana… and his startling impact on that Quarter Final against Maradona’s Argentina, both of which when a Watford player.

For those of my generation – I’m nearly ten years younger than Barnes – he was an idol from the off, from the moment I watched his debut off the bench against Oldham from the North West corner terrace in 1981.  And that leads into the other significance of Barnes’ role at Watford and more widely.  Plenty of things influence folks’ opinions on race, attitudes to race.  Barnes wasn’t the first black player to play for Watford or for England.  One of the first though.  And for me, with Luther already in the team and with the likes of Charlie Palmer and David Johnson on the fringes it was just normal.  It wasn’t even a thing.  The likes of Barnes, but Barnes in particular, were role models for black kids, sure, but for everyone they started to create a picture where race didn’t even come into it, a detail.

Not irrelevant though.  How could it be.  Liverpool as a city surely had no more or less of a racism problem than anywhere else at the time;  he wasn’t the first black player to play for Liverpool either but he was the first to be a star for either of the big Liverpool clubs.  My wife is African;  I’ve been in environments in Africa where I’ve been the only white face in a crowded black environment.  Never hostile, I didn’t have to cope with anything more challenging than curious kids or enthusiastic beggars but it was daunting anyway.  Being different, visibly different, is daunting.  It’s impossible to imagine what Barnes had to cope with throughout his career.  For being black, for being successful.  Raheem Sterling still gets it now, imagine if you were amongst the first?  We’ve all seen the picture of him backheeling the banana off the pitch, that wouldn’t have been an isolated incident.  Hell, he’s still getting it now on Twitter, fuelled by the poisonous current climate, by the cowardly, the stupid, those ignorant of or with a very selective understanding of history and incapable of empathy.  And he’s dealing with it head on, as ever.

But had he been white he’d still have been top of this list.   Not just one in a generation.  One in several lifetimes.

 

Right.  Enough of that. Will try to get strikers done before it all kicks off, and maybe managers at some point…  wingers/wide midfielders quiz is here.  Every central midfielders to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a central midfielder and who isn’t .  Central midfielders to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – some of them.

Wingers / Wide Midfielders Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Central Midfielders 09/06/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

Jesus.  Two weeks you say?  Better get on with these, else the appearance numbers on those bloody quizzes will be out of date.

Central midfielders, more than perhaps any other character, defy rigorous categorisation.  I’ve done one, you can like it or not.  All complaints, queries, suggestions, protests to my co-editor, or in the Comments Box if you must…  FAVOURITES.  MINE.  Not necessarily “best”.

10- Micah Hyde

9- Nathaniel Chalobah

8- Gary Porter

7- Les Taylor

6- Gavin Mahon

Micah was terrific.  And one of the better performers in the horrible 1999/2000 Premier League season… but maybe didn’t quite realise how good he was.  Not assertive enough.  But still terrific.  There’s a bit of that in Chalobah too, though he’s someone who looks made for this level rather than maybe being able to elevate himself to it.  Elegant, assertive, you so want him to crack it.  But frankly he’d be pushing this list purely on the basis of that goal at Leicester, aged 18.  Gary Porter…  unfortunate in that his first team career arguably saw the club gradually decline (from a very high starting point), and that Dave Bassett turned up to turn him into a kicking machine just as he was beginning to look like he might run a top flight midfield.  Still a tremendous servant though;  only caught that 20-minute hat-trick against Bolton via frenzied radio updates, but the goal at Carrow Road was special.   Les Taylor… distinctive, ferocious, our best player in the Cup Final in 1984.  Looked like he was on fire when he was in full flow.  Gavin Mahon.  Stood out like a sore thumb amidst the candy shop signings of 2001/02 both as a (non) name and by coming in and wanting it rather than expecting it to be easy.  Battled back from injury to being a boo-boy when played out of position and scarcely fit early on to being a promotion-winning captain.

5- Tom Cleverley

Tom Cleverley’s status at Watford reflects our evolution over the last ten years. A decade ago under Malky he was a loan signing from Old Trafford;  few had heard of him, but he was quickly, obviously, a star in the making.  He combined inventiveness with hard work and a sensibleness that suggested that he was destined for great things in a quiet and unassuming kind of way, as much of Manchester United’s kids at the time were.  Tom scored eleven League goals that season from an advanced position of responsibility that he’s rarely been afforded since;  indeed, he’s only managed fourteen further League goals in nine-and-a-half seasons, his three since re-signing including late winners against Arsenal and Palace.  He was capped 13 times by Roy Hodgson but never celebrated as an England international.  He seemed to lack the arrogance to be robust to criticism, When he came back to the Hornets from Everton he was… if not a coup then still a very positive signing, despite our more elevated status.  Three years on…  injuries haven’t helped, the strength of our midfield options clearly a factor, but Tom’s four month absence from the side with a foot injury either side of the new year barely attracted comment.

But I’d have him in the side every week.  The squad, without question.  He’s intelligent, calm, sensible…   one of the guys who makes everything else look better.

4- Steve Palmer

Steve Palmer was 27 when he joined the Hornets.  Two remarkable things here:  first that a 27 year old had only racked up 100-odd starts for Ipswich, this reflecting a professional career delayed by a degree at Cambridge.  The second remarkable thing is that Steve was ever as young as 27.  Doesn’t seem possible.

His six-and-a-bit year Watford career was conducted in the manner of an indulgent parent playing with kids.  His ability to anticipate what was going to happen when it happened lead to him generally being in the right place without appearing to move at all to achieve this feat.  This applied equally at centre half and in midfield, or wherever else we ended up playing him (including the notorious run-out in goal) but he was always more fun in midfield.  Criminally discarded by Vialli, a decision that rather summed up his salary-over-reputation-over-style-over-substance squad.

3- John Eustace

Quite a scarey bloke.  The missing Shelby brother. You certainly wouldn’t mess. Which was part of what qualified him to be exactly the captain we needed at the time he was in situ. He had a fabulously haggard look to him in full flight, like a pirate boarding a merchant ship.  He wouldn’t have looked out of place with a dagger between his teeth.

He was a tremendous leader, a great captain but a very good footballer also; in your head he’s a fundamentally destructive influence but he attacked the box well and was a decent all-round midfielder.  His early career had promised much, but he picked up bad knee injuries first at Coventry and then at Stoke, the latter seeing him miss much of the two seasons preceding his move to Watford.  Despite being nearly 30 when signing his legs had relatively few years’ worth of games in them, which contributed to him playing at high velocity well into his thirties and was perhaps a factor in him voluntarily renegotiating his contract with Malky Mackay to navigate a prohibitive appearance bonus.  He played a handful of games in Zola’s first season but left for Derby at the end of the campaign where yet another knee injury ended his career.

2- Almen Abdi

You can’t help but grin, thinking about Almen in full flow.  This was what a step up really looked like, but unlike the Vialli-era incarnation of a step up here was quality blended with energy and humility.  What was not to like.  Even in the rarefied company of Zola’s likeable side he stood out, the gem around which the rest of the side rotated.  After an injury screwed up his second season – easy to overlook that in the chaos of that campaign – he was back with a flourish in 2014/15 as we were promoted.  A slide-rule pass here, a drive into the box there, a ridiculous shot curled into the top corner.  Almen was a thing of joy.

That he didn’t have more of an impact in the Premier League was a bit surprising.  He was a reasonably regular starter, but of the 25 he started he only played out 90 minutes five times.  The last of these saw the last of his 25 goals for the ‘orns, still the most recent direct free kick scored by a Watford player in a 3-2 win over Villa.  If fitness was ultimately the issue it was one that didn’t disappear with a return to the Championship.  He managed fourteen starts in three seasons with Sheffield Wednesday, who could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss had been about.  He’s still only 33 years old.

But what a sparkling memory his Watford career was.  That goal at Fulham, even on a ridiculous evening in a ridiculous season, even in that context, was jaw dropping.  A gem.

1- Richard Johnson

See, I was all set to wax lyrical about Johnno when someone else beat me to it in the latest “Home Tied”.  I tried to resist reading it until I’d written this and failed.  That’s what you get for not getting your finger out and getting the bloody thing written.  Second to market.  At best.

Anyway.  Johnno was fabulous.  In his early days he always had something, but he was ragged… like a parcel too loosely wrapped.  That parcel was wrapped tight from 1997 when he became the metronome of a side that gained successive promotions.  So much to enjoy… the controlled aggression (“well in Johnno”), the awareness, the range of passing.  And what’s not to like about a player who can kick the ball that hard?  One goal like that is something to cherish, Johnno has a catalogue.  Wolves.  Gillingham.  Bristol City (twice).  Bristol City, wow.  Stockport.  Tremendous.

A number of players were scuppered by injury in 1999/2000.  Johnno had two, the second of which in the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United the more serious.  His career never really recovered, albeit he started another 100-odd games here and down under for nine clubs, none of which saw the magnificent midfielder that should have graced the Premier League for longer.

 

Wingers to come…  centre midfielders quiz is here.  Every central midfielders to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a central midfielder and who isn’t .  Central midfielders to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – some of them.

Central Midfielders Quiz