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The List – January 2021. 28/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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The List.  Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the summer window about half an hour ago.  Bit different now for all sorts of reasons, many of them contributing to a far lower rumour count this time around one suspects.  The List will be kept up to date until the closure of the window so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total:    14

IN

Sami Khedira (Juventus)
Max Watters (Crawley Town)                                 – joined Cardiff
Jonathan Panzo (Dijon)
Mattéo Ahlinvi (Nimes)
Philip Zinckernagel (Bodø/Glimt)                                      SIGNED
Josh Windass (Sheffield Wednesday)
Rabbi Matondo (Schalke 04)                               – joined Stoke on loan
Duncan Watmore (Middlesbrough)                    signed new contract
Amos Youga (CSKA Sofia)
Siriki Dembélé (Peterborough United)
Ben Whiteman (Doncaster Rovers)                       – joined Preston
Marcos Paulo (Fluminense)
Ilias Chair (Queens Park Rangers)
Rachid Kouda (Folgore Caratese)

OUT

Étienne Capoue (Valencia*, Villarreal)                        – joined Villarreal
Ismaïla Sarr (Liverpool*, Crystal Palace*, Manchester United*, West Ham United)

 

2020 Summer January
2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer

Watford 1 Norwich City 0 (26/12/2020) 27/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- Last weekend, the day after the Huddersfield horror show, I went for a walk.  This is not in itself either unusual or interesting, heaven knows  there’s little else to do for entertainment at the moment.

I was at a low ebb.. things being what they are , Christmas restrictions, the world falling apart and so forth,  The sun was shining, kind of, but there was a lot of water on the ground (a situation which, as you may have heard, has contributed to more dramatic developments later in the week here in the northern tip of Bedfordshire).

Unless you’re going to stay on tarmac – which is a bit dull – there’s no avoiding a bit of mud in these circumstances, but the route chosen was largely navigable without major inconvenience.  The one iffy stretch is on the way past one of the entrances to a local farm, a cattle path that traverses the public footpath and is often particularly boggy.  On this occasion straw had been put down over the offending stretch, which I expected to facilitate access.  My right leg went through and in to halfway up the shin.  Frantically trying to push myself clear I put down my left leg further on which also sunk to halfway up the shin.

I can only have been stuck there for half a second, it was long enough.  What might have been just water and mud really didn’t smell like water and mud.  I was a mile from home by the most direct route on the wrong side of the… whatever it was.  Two miles via a route that avoided it.  It must have looked like something out of a seventies sitcom, but what with everything I was finding it hard to be philosophical, let alone laugh.  It was a low point.

Yesterday evening, at around 10.30, I jumped around the kitchen emptying the dishwasher to the backdrop of the Jam’s “A Town called Malice”.  The world was a good place again.

2- Fascinating this, obviously, for any number of reasons.  The latest new page, the latest new dawn, but unlike the last one and almost perversely given our far from catastrophic league position very little dispute that a page needed to be turned.  It’s oft said about the likes of Tony Pulis that a nihilistic but effective formula loses it’s charm the moment that it stops being effective.  Turns out that Ivic’s suffocating fare didn’t actually need to be that ineffective to lose its audience.

It depends how you judge success, I suppose, and what your benchmarks are.  Taking the most straightforward measure of success – points and that – we’ve been performing, at worst, slightly below our aspirations, maybe even our expectations. Hovering around the top table, if not booking our place at it.  Thing is…  it’s not quite shit or bust this season, but we can’t expect the riches of our current squad to hang around indefinitely.  Ismaïla Sarr in particular, much as he might have flattered to deceive as often as not, is a devastating weapon that we can’t expect to retain beyond next summer at best if we’re still in the second tier.

So having the attacking riches and making scant use of them is slightly ludicrous, particularly when one employs entertainment as an end in itself on days such as these when we’re all in such dire need of distraction.  That, in such circumstances, Watford supporters are opting not to spend £10 on watching the game is a stark reflection on how things were going.  If you’re going to retain your fanbase in the wake of relegation, pandemic, no supporters in the stadium, other priorities, then keeping people engaged has to be worth something in and of itself.  Heaven knows there’s already enough dull TV to be bored by.

So Xisco Muñoz hits the right notes straight away, even if he does come across a bit Joey Tribbiani.  Positive, energetic. likeable.  Watford supporters should long since be immune to What Other People Think, in particular that sort of guffawing sub-pub bore nonsense churned out by Chris Sutton on 5 Live.  There are concerns in his lack of managerial experience of course, but then the likes of Boothroyd and Rodgers came in with comparable experience and both did alright for themselves with us and elsewhere, in different ways.  It’s unlikely that the Pozzos picked his name out of a hat after all.

So we wait and see.  And on the evidence so far… so very good.

3- Clubs are often accused of replacing a perceived struggling incumbent with someone with the opposite characteristics.  You can’t defend, bring in a defensive coach and so forth, often at apparent odds with the nature of the squad being assembled to suit the outgoing guy’s blueprint.  I guess an advantage of our rapid churn is that things are never settled in one mindset anyway (joke) but in any case, an about-face is exactly what everyone, players and supporters is after.  And that’s exactly what we get.

The attacking emphasis is easy to highlight of course, though in the course of this one the visitors dominate possession for the most part.  A bigger immediate contrast to what’s gone before is in attitude.  Muñoz telegraphs what is to come by promising that his team have been “fighting like animals” in training and that, rather than the placid and sometimes bored looking performances thus far is what we get on the pitch. We employ a level of aggression that’s just the right side of outright violent.  Tom Cleverley is at the forefront here, howling around like, well…

 

animated-tasmanian-devil-image-0012

But he’s not the only one.  All over the pitch there is energy and in-your-faceness that’s been largely missing all season.  Étienne Capoue oversteps the mark with an unpleasant challenge on Buendía; on another day with a more excitable referee (John Brooks, of whom more, later, is tremendous) that’s a red but it looks clumsy more than nasty whatever Capoue’s track record with precocious opponents and we and he get away with a yellow.  His appalling non-performance at Huddersfield is mercifully the stuff of memory – he’s still rusty, but we see much more of the midfield rolls royce that we should be seeing, an outrageous pass into Sarr’s feet on 12 minutes is cut back towards Sema and then Gray who shoots wide.  A stupendous Bobby Moore challenge stamps out the embers of another Norwich attack.

And Norwich are attacking.  Always likely to be front runners this season for all sorts of reasons they are confident and clever in possession, move the ball really well and will overwhelm lesser sides and/or performances than this.  Aarons, a right back, sets a tone in the second minute by cutting inside Sema, who has a cumbersome, ragged start, and testing Foster with his left foot.  That’s a right back, second minute, weaker foot.  That’s a side with five wins on the hop for you and they will continue to ask questions.

We continue to provide answers.  It’s soon evident that whilst the Canaries have plenty of possession and move the ball well they’re not actually getting terribly close to the goal.  With far less possession we’re providing a much greater threat and if it’s not quite there in the final third – cut backs not quite falling right, shots not quite connecting – then it’s nonetheless much more venomous, the shot count that Daniel Farke quotes post-match thoroughly misleading.  City aren’t getting close enough, their efforts largely and harmlessly from distance.

Norwich’s defence isn’t as comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces as their attacking players, and we’re getting a lot of mileage out of this.  We’re putting them under pressure quickly, turning them with balls over the top, often from Deeney to Gray, which have a positive effect on our outlook and theirs even if they’re not quite coming off.  Finally we break through…  as so often it’s smoke and mirrors with Sarr screaming down the right and providing a focus for attention but Sema needs one chance to put a ball in and one only.  His ball is magnificent, Sarr flies in at the far post.  It’s murderous in its efficiency.  “Vamooooos” bellows Muñoz from the dugout.  We threaten to overrun City for the last five minutes of the half.

4- Troy sets the tone for the second period, first by dumping a beleaguered Jacob Sørensen into the hoardings in front of the Rookery within seconds, and then by releasing Jeremy Ngakia, swapped to the left by the new coach with Kiko now screaming down the right, with a perfectly weighted ball that demands a lung-busting run by the young full back.

The opening twenty minutes or so of the second half is our most dominant spell of the game, and again we threaten to overwhelm the visitors.  Sarr and Sema are prominent, Troy is clearly enjoying playing with Andre Gray again Tom Cleverley is still offering a health warning to anyone who contemplates dwelling on the ball, Todd Cantwell on more than one occasion with the Watford midfielder picking up a well-earned yellow as Cantwell crumples into the turf.  We’re bullying City into submission and running roughshod over the debris, culminating in a series of five corners on the hop.  Corners are statistically overstated in their importance – very few result in goals despite the excitement, when there are fans and so forth, that they provoke.  But there’s threat here, at last.

We deserve this win, but the result was never inevitable.  Having gone behind, the suggestion at this point was that Norwich didn’t have much else to offer, no plan B.  Plan B arrived from the bench in the shape of a triple change which allowed City to change formation and take back the initiative.  Ben Gibson, often linked with the Hornets before his move to Norfolk, was one of the three and did the Ben Wilmot thing of surging forward from the left of the trio.  City now on the front foot.

But we still had the actual Ben Wilmot, who put in perhaps his most impressive performance in yellow with a quite magnificent display.  He is calm, controlled and in charge whilst alongside him, League debutant Francisco Sierralta is the brawn of the pair, the Jay Demerit kicking and heading everything in his path in whichever direction he happens to be heading, a fearless booterer from the moment that he dispatches Pukki into the technical area midway through the first half.  My brother sends an image via WhatsApp in response.

Norwich spread the play, and now have more physicality in the box.  It’s not comfortable, but nor are we clinging on even if we are reliant on the precision of our defenders and the alertness of the officials.  Ben Wilmot thunders into a tremendous challenge on Pukki which made you gasp until you saw the replay and saw the forward’s foot hook itself around a perfect tackle to achieve the tumble.  Brooks only got one look.  If you give Pukki the benefit of the doubt on that one there was more cynicism about his reaction to Adam Masina, on for Ngakia for his second cameo of the season after injury, flying in with similarly merciless precision just as City appeared to have carved a clear cut opening to toe the ball away from the striker whose thought process and subsequent swallow dive was again more evident on replay.  A sign of desperation this from City, this, who reach peak Ćurčić shortly before the 90 when Gibson hooks his leg around Troy Deeney and throws himself to the ground as a corner comes in.  Nobody notices, or cares.  A minute later Masina, unbowed by the pressure as any Norwich possession on the edge of the box is immediately jumped on by four yellow shirts, snaps in once again on Buendía.  We have a left back at last, mercifully.

5- The whistle blows, and the reaction is tremendous.

In some ways this was the perfect game for Muñoz to come in on…  an opponent who are going to attack, going to leave gaps, who aren’t going to be as physical as us.  Nonetheless, a defeat here and the gap between us and top would have opened up into double figures with us missing a fixture in midweek and a trip to Swansea on Saturday… we could have been out of it before he had his feet under the table.

Instead, everything suddenly looks very bright indeed.  The Millwall postponement gives Muñoz three clear midweeks preceding our next three weekend fixtures, time to work with the squad of all things, with momentum to take to Wales on the back of our biggest win and best performance since that night against Liverpool just before all this stuff started.  That we were able to forget about this stuff for two hours during the game, as I have again whilst reliving it, that’s tremendous.

But most of all, the partnership of Wilmot and Sierralta – probably our fourth and fifth choice centre-backs respectively in the absence of Cathcart, Troost-Ekong and Kabasele.  Beyond doubt an area of strength for the squad, but that we can generate such a performance in such circumstances, that Muñoz seems prepared to use this strength as a strong base to attack from rather than the definition of the side in itself is hugely, hugely encouraging.

More please.  Bring on, well, everyone.  Vamos!

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 5, Ngakia 3, Sierralta 4, *Wilmot 5*, Sarr 4, Cleverley 5, Capoue 4, Sema 3, Deeney 4, Gray 4
Subs:  Masina (for Ngakia, 69) 5, Perica (for Gray, 74) 4, Hughes (for Cleverley, 74) 3, Navarro (for Femenía, 85) NA, Chalobah (for Capoue, 85) NA, Crichlow, Hungbo, Garner, Bachmann

Huddersfield Town 2 Watford 0 (19/12/2020) 20/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-

Sheriff of Nottingham : Just a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That’s it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.

No mention of Huddersfield, but then they were after a PG certificate.

This should, of course, have been no surprise.  Whilst we’ve beaten the Terriers plenty of times over the years, they’ve also provided the opposition… indeed, been incidental bystanders benefitting from some of our most miserable performances.  There was this one, that was pretty grim.  This one, the nadir of GT’s final season.  And this one, of which today was a chilling echo in many ways.  We should, at the very least, exercise caution as and when this fixture trundles around.

Meanwhile.  I went for a walk this morning.  The walking is the highlight of the week, the more so with the pub in the next village serving bacon rolls and coffee.  I’d done the weekly shop, unpacked, emptied the bins, then stepped out with my earpods in just as the first drops started to fall. Bloody minded and determined to get that walk I marched off anyway.  By the time I ordered my bacon roll I was soaked through, squelching shoes, damp socks.

This was never going to be a good day.

2- It’s startling how quickly things change.  We’re only three months into the season after all, and for much of that time Ivić has been rightly afforded leeway on the back of the vagaries of dealing with a bloated, relegated squad with all sorts of folk wanting in and out to the backdrop of the unprecedented circumstances that everyone is dealing with.

But it’s like that walk this morning.  One minute the sky was blue, the next it was pissing down.  And make no mistake, this is pissing down.  The baffling teamsheet made that perfectly clear before we were within sight of kick-off, and in any number of ways.  This is beyond a(nother) surprising, conservative team selection.  Four days after the releasing of the shackles (abetted by a red card) produced a dramatically improved second half performance against Brentford we’re all about containment again.   Nominally there are two forwards, but Ismaïla Sarr has never looked happy centrally and moving him from the flank just means there’s one less attacking option wide.  Troy Deeney is conspicuous by his absence just as his growing fitness was permitting him to remind us what a force of nature he was capable of being.  Ivić later asserts a combination of match overload and disciplinary reasons for his lack of employment and in the absence of full disclosure we have to reserve judgement, but quite what nature of offence permits selection on the bench but not the starting eleven whilst serial offender Andre Gray starts is difficult to fathom.  Indeed, Andre Gray is difficult to fathom in his own right, Stipe Perica’s likeably charismatic cameos also overlooked.  Meanwhile the presumption that Francisco Sierralta and Will Hughes were the latest two positive test subjects was challenged by Sierralta’s appearance on the bench whilst the badly needed Hughes is still absent.

It’s the sort of sulky, obstinate team selection that precedes a managerial departure.  We were puffing our cheeks before the game kicked off.

3- And as you’ll have noticed, things didn’t get any better once the game started.

The two goals were ridiculous of course.  The first came on nine minutes by which time right-back Pipa had already wandered through our defence, stopping a coffee and a selfie on the way.  Ben Foster’s error minutes later was arguably the more tolerable of the two;  Foster, after all, has a stock of brownie points well within their use-by date and will have been mindful that he didn’t have Troy to slug the ball at.  Nonetheless, as was pointed out at the time, Ben has gotten away with similar silliness already this season.  Today we get away with nothing, and Fraizer Campbell tucks the ball away.

The Capoue effort twenty minutes later was unforgivable.  Under no pressure, the Frenchman gave the lazy swipe of a limb that has betrayed all his most indolent performances over the last five years at a ball that you or I could have headed clear – no, really – and watched it fly past the helpless Foster.  As a concise summary of the underlying issues that the next guy (news just confirmed as I type) will have to cope with it was perfect.  Arrogant, lazy, negligent.

4- The filler was just as miserable.  Huddersfield did precisely what they needed to to earn the three points, which wasn’t an awful lot.  Indeed, in introducing the undisciplined Alex Pritchard they contributed more to our cause than half of our own team.  Our own attacking efforts were so desperately frustrating;  our hosts gave every impression of a side that were get-attable, that would crumble at the slightest provocation.  Instead we slugged at shots from ridiculous distances despite the encouragement offered by occasional forgetful attacks that saw us play through with surprising ease only to fall foul either of Andre Gray’s astonishing club-feet or, on one occasion, of a stunning one-handed save from Schofield.

It was miserable.  It was a team dying on it’s arse, constricted by team selection but wallowing in self pity.  The exceptions stood out in terms of attitude if not end product – Garner ineffectively energetic, Wilmot assertive and positive without quite achieving anything.  But before now we’ve talked about the side being less than the sum of its parts.  This was beyond that.  There was no collective.  We could have played until, well, Christmas and not gotten anywhere.  Fittingly, since, well, you know.

5- And then he was gone.

The rain stopped as I waited for my coffee and bacon roll.  As I walked back across the fields the sun was shining, and I was dry by the time I got home.  Except, of course, for my feet.

And things will get better.  At some point.  But there’s shit to be sorted out first.  Whatever mistakes Ivić made, however enjoyable it will be to see us playing with a bit of freedom and – whisper it – joy, even failing that way, he’s far from being the only problem.  Many of the players that got us relegated haven’t been doing enough to address the situation.  This isn’t irretrievable.

But it does need to be retrieved.

Have a good, well, you know.  Thing.  As much as this is possible.

Things will get better.

Yooorns.

Foster 2, Ngakia 3, Kabasele 3,  Troost-Ekong 2, *Wilmot 3*, Sema 2, Garner 3, Capoue 1, Cleverley 2, Sarr 2, Gray 1
Subs:  Sierralta (for Troost-Ekong, 31) 3, Perica (for Capoue, 67) 2, Navarro (for Ngakia, 77) NA, Masina (for Wilmot, 77) NA, Phillips, Crichlow, Chalobah, Deeney, Bachmann

Birmingham City 0 Watford 1 (12/12/2020) 13/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- I managed to extract myself over fifteen years ago.

I waited until bin collection day, steeled my will as the collection van appeared at the end of the cul-de-sac then slipped on my shoes, ran outside, stuck the disk in the wheelie bin and dashed back.  The deed was done before I could change my mind and I’ve been on the wagon ever since.

Until this week.  And now it’s so much worse…  there are no disks any more for one thing.  So giving up will be harder.  For another, lockdown or not, so much of normal life is still so distant.  There are far more evenings at home than there really ought to be and so there’s no escape at all.  As if to seal the deal, the clincher was my Watford team beating Bournemouth 4-0 in the play-off final at around 2am this morning.  Football Manager is back.

So I’m not in the sprightliest of moods come 3pm, having forced myself up and out and through a list of chores.  Sitting down when you’re shattered and having been forcing yourself through the motions is always high risk.  In the circumstances, I could do with a lively game.

2- That I was never likely to get one isn’t entirely Watford’s fault.  Aitor Karanka’s sides aren’t known for attacking with reckless abandon at the best of times, and our own pitiful away record hasn’t induced the Spaniard to come out all guns blazing; indeed, most of Birmingham’s firepower seems to be on the bench.

It’s a stultifying game of football.  All the more so in contrast with that most epic of awaydays which it’s impossible to navigate this fixture without reflecting on.  I’ve only been to St Andrews once in the 21 and a half years since… but this one could scarcely be in sharper contrast to that encounter.  Most obviously where the was rabid, deafening noise coming from the stands in 1999 here there’s silence, punctuated only by what must have been a consciously noisy Blues entourage.  Where there were intimidating walls of Bluenoses there are now plastic cut-outs, statically swaying down one side of the pitch.  I was hoping that Watford would instigate something similar but I was wrong – the sight is melancholy, a silent parody of how it ought to be.  And on the pitch…  in 1999 it was furious intensity, no quarter asked or given by either side.  Drama and epic conflict.  Nothing epic about this.  It’s blancmange.  Nathaniel Chalobah and Lukas Jutkiewicz appear to shake hands as the game kicks off for pity’s sake.

Actually that’s a slight exaggeration. There are a couple of figures in a largely, five years on, unfamiliar Blues line-up that aspired at least to the ethos of that 1999 side.  Maikel Kieftenbeld is no Darren Purse, Kristian Pedersen a pastiche of Martin Grainger, but there’s a grittiness about them that kind of works.  Nonetheless.  A lot of this is wrong.

3- Including the Watford matchday squad.  We have a huge squad of course and are becoming conscious of and grateful for it.  We missed a load of strikers at the start of the season (Troy, Andre, Isaac, briefly Sarr and then Perica), a load of midfielders more recently and are now stymied at centre-back.  Few other Championship squads could accommodate the simultaneous losses of hamstrung Cathcart, knee-injury victim Kabasele and Francisco Sierralta who, one assumes, is one of the two announced positive tests in the lead-up to the game.  Ben Wilmot does an OK job and William Troost-Ekong is one of few to rise above the mediocre with a forceful, commanding display.  We’ve now conceded two goals in six games, so painfully dull has some things going for it.

But this latest turn of events – affecting, one further assumes, Will Hughes as well as Sierralta – leaves the bench with a lopsided look about it; no cover in central defence and two goalkeepers, albeit on a bench of nine which ought to accommodate one spot being raffled off to the highest bidder every week should the finances get too desperate (but for the need for squad registration of course.  And only in Tiers 1-2, obvs.  I may be over-thinking this).

And up front there’s almost nothing.  The midfield is, as ever, ferociously congested;  only James Garner displays an ability to move the ball quickly and calmly but too often to little effect.  Troy is a theoretical threat… there’s a nervousness to the way in which Neil Etheridge comes out of his box to head clear, almost wincing in anticipation as he does so (albeit successfully).  But Dom Quina and Ken Sema are enthusiastically ineffective… Quina in particular isn’t nearly robust enough for this and whilst Sema still only needs half an inch of space in order to get a decent ball in there’s not nearly enough support to Troy anything like often enough.  He’s isolated, and we’re impotent.

As are our hosts for the most part.  Aggressive early on, their chances born of attrition (and an early apparent focus on forcing Kiko wide and exploiting his wrong-sidedness which they mystifyingly seem to abandon as a strategy after about twenty minutes).  We’re solid enough, but it’s a hard watch.  At half time I go to sort some laundry to wake myself up.

4- The start of the second half is more urgent, but initially no more effective.  Quina is asleep when Blues offer us a rare inroad down the right.  Five minutes later Ngakia makes an awful mess of a through ball.  We’re not doing a lot wrong, but we’re not doing nearly enough right.

And yet midway through the half there are signs of an end to the stalemate.  Troy is played through and seems to be startled by suddenly having a clear route to goal, he makes an awful hash of it.  Stipe Perica is brought off the bench and although the formation doesn’t change – the Croat surprisingly sticking to Quina’s position on the right hand side – and he doesn’t touch the ball very often he’s a willing nuisance, and there’s a bit of belief about our attacking for the first time.  Etheridge claws a corner away under pressure – that’s his preference it transpires, but it doesn’t look comfortable.  The willing Garner stumbles in the box, doesn’t go down.  Maybe not a shoulda, definitely a coulda. Sema sends in a deep cross, Deeney heads wide.  It’s not much, but it’s something.

And then the moment that decided the game.  Perica’s last touch was to head clear from a right-back position… he then thunders up the flank in time to meet Troy’s perfect through-ball.  He’s on Pedersen’s blind side, the left-back is flat footed and makes a tired, stupid challenge.  It’s not much of a foul but it’s definitely a foul, he’s been done and he knows it.  He trudges off feeling stupid as the skipper bladders the ball past Etheridge.  Tim Coombs will later ask Deeney to explain his penalty technique, not because it needs explanation but just to hear him say it.

There’s still time for Étienne Capoue to trundle off the bench and needlessly give away a free kick with a witless lunge ten yards outside the box.  Ben Foster retrieves the situation by touching Gardner’s kick around the post, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.  Hard to judge a player who comes on late in a game, particularly one who hasn’t played much football recently and will be rusty…  but the opinion posited earlier in the season still stands.  Getting relegated was negligent but not unforgivable.  Unforgivable is not doing whatever’s in your power to get us back, giving it your best shot whilst you’re still on the payroll and earning a big wedge.  Capoue needs to get his finger out.

5- I played tennis this week.  It was brilliant.  Being outside and real people and that.  I can only make the ball go in the direction I want it to sometimes (insert Michel Ngonge gag here) but I enjoyed it.  Tennis coach Dave is a West Ham fan, sympathetic to the Hornets relegation (there but for the grace of whatever and so on);  he suggested this week that “consistency” in the Championship means only losing now and again.  That’s as good as you’re going to get, such is the nature of the beast.

He’s right of course.  And that being the end we’re still effective and, yes, consistent.  This game is an exemplar… since in the second half we do just enough to rise above the dross.  Just enough to be better than our hosts.  We could easily have drawn the game of course but we didn’t, and as long as we continue to be just a bit better than most of our opponents and winning sometimes, drawing sometimes we’ll do OK.

It is crushingly boring though, and scant use of our attacking talent.  Yes, you can only play the game that your opponents allow you to play, but nonetheless.  Not unreasonable to expect a bit more than this.  As Tony Pulis would tell you, an infinite number of dull wins won’t last you long when you start being dull and losing.  Were there supporters in the stadium, opinions would have been voiced and perhaps influenced things before now.

Nonetheless, we won the game.  Scruffy, boring, but an important win on a day when everyone else won. It’s a slog.

Big game Tuesday.  Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 2, Femenía 3,  *Troost-Ekong 4*, Wilmot 3, Cleverley 2, Garner 3, Chalobah 2, Quina 2, Sema 3, Deeney 3
Subs:  Perica (for Quina, 69) 3, Capoue (for Garner, 90) NA, Navarro, Phillips, Crichlow, Gray, João Pedro, Bachmann, Parkes

Watford 0 Cardiff City 1 (05/12/2020) 06/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- “You’ve got cash ?!?  But we’ve got a new card machine, and nobody is letting us use it!”

It’s a day for taking things carefully.  There’s a lot of retreading of familiar steps for the first time since February but some of the normal routines aren’t going to be feasible and nobody wants to take any risks.  The mobile phone, carrying the precious tickets on the club app, has had its battery charged to within an inch of its life on the way down and a comfortable time cushion has been allowed to accommodate the possibilities that either the ring road is snarled up by Christmas shoppers finally released from lockdown (it isn’t) or that the Girls Grammar isn’t open for football parking (it is).  Given which, little surprise that the girls on duty at the gate have had no chance to use their new toy; folk are thinking ahead.  We stopped en route to grab the necessary £10 from a cashpoint, the first time I’ve used a cashpoint since forever.  We won’t have been the only ones.

The thing about lockdown though is that everyone’s had to develop their own code.  Their own normal, their own definition of what is or isn’t acceptable.  To what extent you blame the inevitable uncertainties of a (relatively) New Problem and to what extent you blame the coherence or otherwise of official guidelines, it’s difficult to know exactly what The Right Thing (or least wrong thing) to do is with any great certainty.  Circumstances have dictated these behaviours to an extent;  my rules are very different to my parents’, and different again to my in-laws.  I’m relatively lucky though – I live rurally, I’ve not had to go into work since March, it’s boring as hell but I CAN work anywhere with a WiFi connection. So that’s what I’ve done.  I’ve not seen many people in the same place in eight or nine months.

So Watford town centre is a bit of a shock to the system.  There are queues outside all of the restaurants, and evidence again of rules and norms in operation that are very different from mine.  We retreat, startled, towards the stadium and after pausing in Fry Days quickly agree where we’ll eat our lunch.

2- Getting in takes a while.  Our bags are checked and tagged, we queue up for orderly access to turnstiles.  There’s a one-way system marked out in the Rookery concourse but with all the vendors closed up and at well before 2 it’s mostly empty.  Food is consumed in our Rookery seats.

Other things have changed since we were last sitting in the Rookery for that debacle against Everton in February.  Daughter 2, for instance, has started secondary school as betrayed by her ripped jeans, a reckless fashion choice for early December, and her declaration of “mad respect” for whoever’s job it was to paint the pitch markings.

These pitch markings are more prominent from our temporary position, further right than our regular seats and only ten or so rows back from the pitch.  We watch the Rookery… if not fill up around us then at least become less empty, small groups dotted on diagonals, socially distanced.  Confusingly we’re asked to don our masks by an amiable enough steward despite the club’s own Code of Behaviour suggesting this not being necessary in seats.  I sit there feeling a bit awkward for five minutes in my mask, until it becomes evident that the vast majority around me are maskless and unchallenged and I slightly self-consciously de-mask, allowing my specs to demist again.

Unfortunately this means I can see the match, which we’ll get to when we have to.  As for the steward… his norms were more severe than mine, and of the majority of his colleagues.  Like everyone else, he’s running to catch up with changing circumstances;  the club have done as good a job of this as anyone, reacting to the lifting of the supporter ban at short notice, undertaking the thankless task of determining who the lucky 2000 might be and overcoming the challenges presented by systems that really weren’t supposed to be relied upon this quickly and this absolutely.

Jesus.  I’m going to have to talk about the football now.

3- With the benefit of hindsight there’s an inevitability about a miserable 1-0 defeat on the day on which supporters are first let back in.  Our home form has held steady up to now despite variable performances, but the torpor of our away games finally infected Vicarage Road rather – as one might have hoped – than our admirable home form radiating into our away performances.

As ever, this wasn’t dreadful.  There was a semblance of a decent football team out there…  resilient enough defensively, even if Ben Foster was a little too casual disposing of the ball early on.  Reasonably successful at retaining possession, of which we had a fair bit.

But it’s all.  So.

Slow.

There’s no urgency to get behind Cardiff’s defence before it’s set, and not nearly enough ingenuity to penetrate it once its in place.  We look impotent, suddenly incapable of generating any stock goals, no “Ardley dumps it far post onto Helguson’s head” goals in stark contrast to the fluid fun of the Preston game only a week ago.

Cardiff didn’t let us get our noses in front though.  The visitors are a rugged, physical side which has Neil Warnock’s fingerprints all over it even before Sol Bamba trundles off the bench in the second half.  They’re confident and aggressive, but largely unremarkable and that’s the big concern;  making life difficult for us by dropping back and watching us pass our way politely around the edge of the box isn’t much of an ask for a halfway competent Championship side, as several have demonstrated.

Where Cardiff excel is in their threat from set pieces.  Sean Morrison has been attacking the far post at Cardiff City corners since glacial movement formed the Brecon Beacons, and in Kieffer Moore they have a startling centre forward.  He’s 6’5″, but there’s nothing either lanky or lumbering about him.  He looks like a normal bloke, but bigger, as if someone’s ordered an XXL by mistake for a kid who’s collecting the regular-sized models.  And we can’t cope with him at all.  The balance is tipping towards the end of the half well before the visitors take the lead;  a fearless diving header by William Troost-Ekong to block a goalbound shot, of which we have a close-quarters view, is the wide-eyed open-mouthed highlight of Daughter 2’s afternoon.  Only a few minutes later City’s thirty-seventh corner isn’t cleared and Moore takes advantage of some negligent scruffiness in the box to finish neatly.

For half a second we expect the delayed cheer from the away fans in the Vicarage Road End before remembering that the distant blobs of individuals are as pissed off as we are.  They don’t have to suffer Moore and friends briefly giving it large though – to daughter 2’s prolonged disdain – before the half ends with a grand total of one effort on target.

4- The third quarter of the game isn’t much better.  Kiko is on for Ngakia at the break and a need for urgency and for a bit of improvisation has clearly been communicated but it doesn’t last terribly long.  James Garner isn’t having a great afternoon and is the focus of The Bloke Behind Me’s irritation throughout, not entirely unreasonably although the relentless complaint of lack of variety from the same source, delivered at intervals of no more than two minutes for the first hour of the contest, appears to be entirely free of irony.

The introduction of Quina and particularly Hughes midway through the half, however, gives us a bit of oomph.  Suddenly Hughes is forcing the ball forwards rather than sideways and Cardiff’s defenders are having to turn around and don’t like it.  On the left Quina’s success rate is more variable but at least it’s positive, something, if in a sort of “agent of chaos” kinda way.  Suddenly there’s a bit of movement and we look dangerous, Sarr is pulling people around, João Pedro is alive again.  The Brazilian records our only on target effort, a decent flicked header from a corner, but we’re threatening beyond that… Hughes firing wide at the far post, Perica getting underneath Sarr’s chipped cross to head over at the death.  The Croat is also booked for diving in the box, one of a series of odd decisions by a pompously insipid referee;  Perica was never getting a pen, but there was more physical contact in the challenge he suffered than in more obvious dives by both Mark Roberts and Moore in the first half, the latter altering the course of his run to fall over whilst traversing the corner of the box.  The whistle goes, there are grumbles.  Nobody really wants to be booing on today of all days.  Disappointingly, it’s only the usual suspects – plus Perica, significantly – who take the opportunity to acknowledge the supporters that they’ve been denied since March.

5- Obviously though, it’s brilliant.  It’s football after all, and miserable, frustrating 1-0 defeats are as much part of the tapestry as free-flowing eviscerations.  2000 supporters (1973, officially) can make quite a racket, it turns out, even when only afforded fare like this.  A goal would have made all the difference, the chance to release some of the stresses of 2020 with a good old bellow would have made us feel a lot better.  But it was still brilliant.

Neil Harris was widely quoted as protesting the unfairness of the current situation which sees supporters at some ground and not at others.  He’s right, of course.  He’d probably also concede – given that the context of his comment wasn’t as peevish as the headlining made it sound – that there’s quite a lot about football and the world that’s not fair at the moment.  In the grand scheme of things this is fairly small potatoes and in any case The Right Thing To Do.  As many supporters who can safely be admitted to football matches should be safely admitted to football matches.  This, and the unfairness thing, can both be true.  They’re not mutually exclusive.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Rotherham ticket, enjoy.  Give it some welly.  And don’t worry about having cash ready if you’re parking at the Grammar school.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 2, Wilmot 3,  Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Sarr 3, Garner 2, Cleverley 3, Sema 2, João Pedro 2, Deeney 2
Subs:  Femenía (for Ngakia, 45) 3, *Hughes (for Cleverley, 66) 3*, Quina (for Sema, 66) 3, Perica (for Wilmot, 81) NA, Capoue, Navarro, Sierralta, Phillips, Bachmann

Nottingham Forest 0 Watford 0 (02/12/2020) 02/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

Sorry.  No.  Just no.  Not that we were dreadful.  Not that an away point at Forest is a disastrous, not that we deserved any more (even against a ragbag bunch of whinging ghosts of Championship past – Arter, Knockaert even more objectionable with a silly little beard, Lolley less objectionable and admirably gutsy but an echo of a miserable afternoon).

Just…  there’s not much to say that you don’t already know.  We had a lot of the ball, but didn’t do enough with it.  Again.  We probably didn’t deserve to win.  Again.  We probably didn’t deserve to lose.  Again.  We still need to find ways to break down solid opponents that don’t cave in on us…  that way was often Fernando Forestieri in 2015 and it’s difficult not to be rueful about that bit in the summer when he looked like he might be coming back.  But with a squad the size of ours I guess that’s being greedy.

No.  Stop.  It’s quarter to eleven on a school night and I’m knackered.  Stop already.  There’s nothing new to say.

There will be on Saturday.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, *Femenía 3*,  Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Sarr 3, Garner 3, Chalobah 2, Quina 3, João Pedro 3, Deeney 3
Subs:  Perica (for Quina, 74) 3, Wilmot (for Cathcart, 90) NA, Cleverley, Sierralta, Phillips, Crichlow, Bachmann