jump to navigation

Watford 2 Norwich City 1 (07/07/2020) 08/07/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
trackback

1. It’s a funny old time to be an introvert.

The months of lockdown were far from easy, but they played into characteristics which I’ve much more commonly worn as flaws or carried as burdens. I’m better suited to withdrawing from the world than forcing my way out into it, in short. Seeing people is more stressful than not seeing people. (I don’t mean you, obviously. It’s always lovely to see you.) There have been points where it’s seemed as if a comparatively simple life at home, on the allotment, and out for a weekly run could be sustained for as long as finances would permit. Of course, there have been other points where trying to entertain an insatiably sociable – he doesn’t get it from us – six-year-old has seemed impossible: there is a certain pitch of madness which can only be found in the fourth hour of an uninterrupted monologue on Interesting Facts About Pokemon. That aside, we had managed to wiggle and fidget our way to making difficult circumstances into something resembling a comfort zone.

And then…out into the world, trying to remember how to put on a convincing act. Trying to weigh up how honest you’re supposed to be when people ask how you’re doing: the Honesty Index falls on a weekly basis and is available via a government hotline. Trying to make conversation from three months in which nothing conversation-worthy actually happened. “I’ve eaten all of the jam in the cupboard. Um…you?” Trying to figure out how to follow your own interpretation of the rules without seeming to decry what anyone else is doing. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of getting a haircut at this point, and yet my lack of a haircut is public evidence of that discomfort, and perhaps even implicit condemnation of those who have haircutted. I mean, Christ, with that going on in your head, who wouldn’t slightly pine for the simple life of STAY AT HOME? Sometimes it’s nice being an introvert. This is not that time.

2. And football. I love football. Is this football?

It all seems weird. This massive, pivotal fixture, something of such importance, dropped into the bustling mundanity of a weekday evening. I watch the game on The Small Telly and, really, I might as well be peering at ants through a toilet roll tube. Fred watches some of the first half with me: he’s written a magic spell for the occasion, which we need to recite in a whisper; his relentless fidgeting and chatter rather distract from the urgency of the occasion, and are very welcome for that. I eat my dinner just before half-time. The crowd noise is soporific, lulling rather than evocative. So much of football is immersion. So much of the game is detail, away from the ball. So much of relegation is acute anguish or aching despair or clenched-buttocks tension. I wish I wasn’t that person, but I’ve always tended to pay less attention to the opinion of anyone who wasn’t actually there, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever written a report from the sofa before, nor will again. (But do carry on reading.)

3. Having witnessed precisely none of the games under Javi Gracia or Quique Sanchez Flores, and now endured half a dozen under Nigel Pearson, I find myself in the awkward position of having to pass verdict on the cure while having seen none of the earlier symptoms. There is a danger of hysterically howling “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS LEGS?” when the operation might’ve saved the patient’s life. We are still outside the relegation zone at kickoff, after all.

Nevertheless, what I’ve seen has been agonising. It’s all very passive. I keep coming back to that word. All very wait and see. It’s hard to tell where the lack of ambition in the gameplan ends and the lack of confidence begins. They smudge into each other, similar shades of beige. Like half the division, it aspires – and why not? – to the coiled spring of the title-winning Leicester side, and the way they’d sit within themselves until the moment was right. Part of that is knowing when the moment is right, of course. Part of it is doing something decisive with that moment rather than clubbing another free kick into the defensive wall or drilling yet another low cross at the near post when nobody ever makes that run. And much of it is having a shell that’s sufficiently hard to withstand a beating in the meantime. We have, instead, the hardness of a raw potato, waiting to find out if it’ll be boiled, baked, mashed or (ooh!) sautéed, destined to be forgotten at the back of the cupboard, sprouting forlornly.

It’s all wasted opportunities, wasted time, wasted life. An afternoon spent waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes while the rest of the world – except Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa, mercifully – posts pictures of adventures on Instagram. I’ve also witnessed precisely nearly-all of the home form which took Hastings United to the top of the table before lockdown; none of that actually happened, officially speaking, but in the process of it not happening, I got a pretty good idea of what a confident, assertive, positive team looks like. The contrast is alarming. If your only win in a dozen games is a riotous trashing of the then-unbeaten champions, that suggests you have more than a bit of a motivation problem. You can’t just wear deodorant on your wedding day.

4. So I brace myself for another indolent pudding of a performance. And, actually, we begin by making things happen. That not all of those things are good things seems to me a secondary consideration, at least in hindsight. Will Hughes starts crashing about in midfield. Etienne Capoue bounds forward in pursuit of a hesitant goalkeeper. We push Norwich back, with a certain conviction that’s been absent hitherto. It’s energetic, urgent. It’s also further up the pitch than has become customary, affording Norwich room to get at Kiko Femenia, in particular. From the first of these breaks, Ben Foster saves a free kick bound for the top corner. From the next, Buendia finishes a tidy move with a curling shot into the other top corner. It’s at moments like these when I imagine that the players are grateful for the absence of a crowd.

In a packed Vicarage Road, this might’ve become a collective nervous breakdown. In an empty one, the goal, if anything, lends our efforts still more conviction: we cannot wait and see, cannot lapse back into passivity, cannot fail to seize the moment. Had it happened later, when our initial burst of energy was spent, we might’ve struggled to raise ourselves. But this early, with momentum still spurring us on, we surge at the visitors, press them again, dominate them for long enough, take advantage of a physical edge at set pieces. Craig Dawson dumps in a far post header.

5. The game settles after that, closes up its open spaces. It’s a moderately attractive affair, though: Norwich are inoffensively enterprising in the manner of a small bakery selling nice sausage rolls. It’d be called Roll With It or something like that. Just off the high street. They’ll be a loss to the division, partly in the sense that they play nice football with a young, keen team and mainly in the sense that whoever replaces them is likely to be harder to beat. Nothing much happens for a while, but it happens pleasantly enough. We drop too deep, naturally, then remember to push out a bit, not naturally. We appear in control, which is the bit that’s most worrying.

As my dinner arrives, and after the drinks break, we have another go. This isn’t a side which looks terribly convincing on the front foot – there’s more than an element of an Apprentice candidate making a stuttering sales pitch to a supermarket – but this is less unconvincing than the other attempts I’ve seen. Some of that is the result of Troy Deeney finding himself in a battle he can win; similarly, our set pieces meet much less stubborn resistance and look less abysmal as a consequence. Much of it is down to Danny Welbeck. Mobile, bright, intelligent, not-injured Danny Welbeck. Where Ismaïla Sarr is all energy and errors, Welbeck lends our attacks a focused edge that they’ve often lacked. He nearly scores from a corner, should score from a later cross. His time will come.

6. I do the washing up at half-time. You can sod right off if you think that’s going to become a superstition.

7. The appearance of control is maintained after half-time. It’s deceptive, though: at this level, control is less about broad landscapes and more about tiny incidents like the ones in which Pukki wastes very presentable chances with that awful combination of hastiness and sluggishness which characterises rock-bottom confidence. I hate seeing strikers in that hole. It reminds me of Danny Graham at Sunderland, and I don’t like to be reminded of Danny Graham at Sunderland. Here, though, and now, we’ll take what we can get. Danny Ings sticks those in the back of the net, but Danny Ings can’t play for Norwich because he plays for Southampton.

Norwich create the half’s first real flurry of goalmouth action, Foster saving smartly from Aarons after Hernandez has a shot blocked and before Buendia fails to recreate his earlier finish. As if to perfectly illustrate the grim well-that’s-just-bloody-typical misery of a failed relegation struggle, we break on them and score the game’s decisive goal, a hopelessly scuffed cross from Sarr looping up via a defender for Welbeck to acrobatically volley home. It’s a beautiful finish: overhead kicks are sometimes all physicality and gym-work but this has real grace and elegance, and the ball appears to respond as if caressed rather than whipped. I mean, it’s no Dennis Bailey at Peterborough but it’s a decent effort from the lad nonetheless.

8. You probably chewed your way through the rest too. There isn’t a relegation-threatened team in the history of the world which hasn’t fallen prey to over-caution with a one-goal lead and ten minutes to go, and we don’t become the first to react differently. Given how much we generally rely on it – or because of how much we generally rely on it, perhaps – our defence doesn’t half look brittle, and even an attack as mild-mannered as Norwich’s creates enough to turn the game around. Vrancic should do better with a free header at a set piece. And then, in the last minutes, Idah slides in to connect with a squirming cross in the six yard box and somehow diverts it wide. Should score, doesn’t score, season remains on the rails.

9. Of course, the point is that, many long months ago, the entire campaign became about finding three teams worse than us. Part of what makes them worse teams is having worse strikers. So much of what we’ve lacked – and what separates the bottom few from the mid-table many – is having match-winners who actually win matches on a semi-regular basis. The margin here was small, but it was decisive: one match-winner with a moment of pure, incisive magic.

Beyond that, there seems little point in drawing wider conclusions: the season is there to be survived, and this is a huge step towards that survival. What lies beyond is unknowable in so many ways.

Must do better, obviously. Can do better. But that’s for another day. For now, I’ve got a haircut to worry about.

Foster 4, Masina 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 3, Hughes 4, *Welbeck 4*, Sarr 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Cleverley (for Hughes, 59) 4, Chalobah (for Capoue, 87) NA, Mariappa, Pussetto, Pereyra, Cathcart, Gray, João Pedro, Gomes, Uncle Tom Cobley, All

Comments»

1. David - 08/07/2020

Lovely report Ian including the honesty index preamble.

We again looked as a whole worse than the sum of our parts but it was better than the previous restart efforts. I would love an expert to explain to me why a player (Doucs) who was reportedly subject to a £35M transfer bid from Everton can look so ill at ease with the ball at his feat at the moment.

2. Lincoln Hornet - 08/07/2020

Shame Tom Cobley didn’t get a run out, he looks half decent to me. Nice report as usual.

3. Mr Anderson - 08/07/2020

So nice to read another of your reports Ian – thank you!

4. Simon - 08/07/2020

Passive opposition but it was definitely better. I’d certainly be inclined to give Welbeck a go down the middle in place of Deeney, although it’s a bit difficult to tell if without Deeney we’d still play the lumped ball downfield and lose it more regularly or if he draws us into playing that way. Welbeck would certainly make the run to the near post. I’m not really sure at the moment how Deeney is going to score from the penalty box positions he’s taking up – he’s not attacking the near post but he’s somehow not quite available for the cut back and he’s not going to the far post for the ball to be stood up so it’s difficult for Sarr, in particular, to pick him out.

I’ve really not enjoyed any of our restart games so far and I’m struggling to work out if it’s the situation (no crowds etc…), our performances or if I just don’t really like watching football on TV very much. I don’t watch us on TV much at all – I tend to be at the home games and often don’t/can’t watch the away games that get televised. Somehow it never looks quite so bad when you’re in the ground and can see the whole picture. It all seems to make more sense.

5. Chris Jones - 08/07/2020

Lovely stuff, Ian. My son recommended your report and he, like me, has very high standards. I don’t even know whether he realises that you’re the man I told him about after reading your chapter in a Tales from the Vicarage.
Your writing still bears comparison with the best of the journalists I worked with over 40 years. It deserves a bigger audience.
Best wishes,
Chris Jones

Ian Grant - 08/07/2020

Thanks, Chris. Very kind!

6. crisb - 08/07/2020

Really enjoyed that (the report not particularly the game other than the overhead), thanks!

One thing that astonished me was the way Norwich moved the ball around in the final minute or so with all the incisiveness of a game of Pictionary against Vincent Van Gogh (you know the drill – the timer goes off, he’s still deciding which brown to use for the tree trunk). I mean there’s one thing sticking to your principles, but for Christ sake get it in the mixer! All much to our advantage of course but still…

7. Neil M - 08/07/2020

Thanks Ian, it’s good to be reading these reports again after such a long break in the season and, as ever, they are full of wit and insight; however I think you are doing Sarr a disservice in your reporting. If you watch Welbeck’s goal again you can see that Sarr had deliberately picked him out with a low pass to Welbeck in space for an unchallenged shot at goal, however a fast recovering defender ( who Sarr would not have been able to see) got a foot in just before the ball reached Welbeck. It was from this deflection that Welbeck scored, but there was nothing wrong with Sarr’s cross/pass.

8. Ray Knight - 08/07/2020

Another Corker of a report Matt. The Wobby should make you an offer. Luv the bit about Norwich being a comfy local shop selling sausage rolls! As for the game, we showed more urgency and grit and I am grateful for that. Norwich actually played w/o pressure knowing in their hearts they are already down. That made it harder for us than many would have thought.Pearson knew this could happen and of course the 3 points are everything. Sterner tests to come but happy that our destiny remains firmly in our own hands.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: