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Watford 2 Reading 0 (09/04/2021) 10/04/2021

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. In my day-job – because I do have a day-job, which I squeeze into the time when I’m not being your second favourite match reporter, or devotedly clearing couch grass from the allotment, or playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game with Fred, or mercilessly hacking away at the riff from ‘Come As You Are’ on the guitar, or binge-eating Twiglets, or doing the washing up again, or fighting crime under a secret identity, or asleep – I’m half of a company which specialises in building websites for community history projects. No, it’s true. The catwalk modelling didn’t work out.

Many of the projects we’ve helped deal with stories, memories and reminiscences. The difference between historical fact and lived experience, if you like; the difference between selfie-saturated landmark and the warmth of home too. The first project we were involved in, more than twenty-five years ago but still on-going, was in Brighton, where a touchscreen exhibit was built from, among other things, photographs taken by people given disposable cameras and asked to capture their favourite places. The obvious candidates – the Royal Pavilion, the Lanes, both piers – came up comparatively rarely; by and large, those type of places aren’t where people eat their lunch, escape work stress, fall in love. The connections to the places where they actually do those things are often deeply personal, and so easily lost from whatever knowledge future generations might have of streets or buildings. A similar approach informed the ‘You Are My Watford’ book which might well be on your shelf.

2. With respect to those who partake, my co-editor included, statistics have never really done it for me. Memorabilia neither. I want those stories, memories, reminiscences. I want the bits between the lines; the litter and the limbs. We’ve all been on long car journeys to distant away games or in the pub after a few, when the laughter wraps around familiar tales in the same way that those tales wrap around results on a fixture list. Without disappearing too far up my own backside, part of what I love about what we achieved with BSaD, apart from making ourselves rich beyond our wildest dreams, is that it stands as a history of how that time felt, what it seemed to mean, where it led some of us. It’s one history, several histories; it’s nothing like a definitive history, whatever the hell that would look like. A community history, a folk memory.

I’ve recently been watching the highlights of some old seasons as research: Ray Lewington’s first for an article for The Watford Treasury and Malky Mackay’s second for a piece on Danny Graham for YBR. Some of the football played in the latter is remarkable, especially given where the club was at the time, but old footage never really comes to life until you start to remember your own personal experience of it. If you were there, I expect you can still picture your own view of our two goals at Wembley in ’99, regardless of how many times you’ve replayed the highlights from the camera gantry; it’s indelible. Some highlights of the game at London Road in ’94 cropped up on Twitter a while back; the football is proper nonsense, but the stories of what happened to people on that terrace are just glorious. I can still feel the sea breeze from that day at Brighton.

3. Which makes me wonder what this season and half of its predecessor will look like as they gradually recede into the distance. What will be their folk history, their collective memory? For the first time, we’ve experienced it all separately, alone or near enough. If we’ve gathered at all, it’s been on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom. In the past, even if you haven’t been to a game yourself, there have always been the stories of those who have, and yet those voices will have nothing much to say this time around.

It would be pushing a point to claim that there’s something therapeutic about experiencing relegation together, because the reality is very far from the kindness of a mutual support group, but it will be peculiar for that trauma not to have left more of a mark. It isn’t even as if most of us had to face the office afterwards. My mate Loz is still cross enough for the rest of us combined, mind you. As for this season, I’m reminded that most football grounds provided a very effective means of amplifying feelings of anger, resentment and betrayal long before social media was invented; I wonder what course the season would’ve taken with supporters present to let rip at the players with each minor setback.

And as things turned around, the resurgence would’ve been made vivid by communal experience. We’d never have heard the last of Adam Masina’s winner from those who’d travelled to Cardiff, and rightly so. We’d have found a song for Xisco, relished his smile. We’d be approaching this run of fixtures with the noise of the 1881, with flags waving, with that hum of nervous tension utterly distinct to these kind of occasions. We’d be trying to drag them over the line right now. Instead, I catch the team news – no changes – while Fred’s being put to bed, then scramble upstairs just in time for kickoff. I do have a flag to hand, as it happens, but I’m wary of breaking something. Instead, I eat the pud I’ve hidden from the cat while a minute’s silence is observed to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing. The silence ends not with the traditional roar from all assembled but with more silence, broken by a few echoing claps and shouts. It’s all very strange.

4. For a while back there, I harboured a largely irrational dislike of Reading, the kind of simmering mean-spirited resentment which a tabloid newspaper might harness for a front page on a quiet day. Lots of people jumped on the bandwagon after the ghost goal, but I was there first. They cheated their way out of it by employing Nigel Gibbs, which made it impossible to hold a grudge.

More recently, they’ve occupied similar territory to the landfill indie bands which clutter up festival stages, when there are festivals and stages, in the late afternoon. I contend that there isn’t a single person in the entire world, not even if I include all of the members of the band, whose favourite band is Editors, and if you want to prove me wrong, then I suggest that yours will be a Pyrrhic victory, my friend. Similarly, there isn’t a single person in the entire world, even if I include the manager and all of the players, who really cares how Reading are getting on, and…well, ditto. (This kind of harmless trolling cheered up many a match preview and report back in the BSaD days, and we largely got away with it, apart from that time when Matt made a forum-full of Burnley fans really cross.)

If they carry on like this, though, they’re in danger of becoming relevant again. They’re simply terrific here, classy and exciting, open and ambitious. Brentford do something similar, but with the kind of preening narcissism which leads to everyone lining up across the halfway line at kickoff like some kind of modern dance piece; they’re a little bit too Lady Gaga for my taste, if you know what I mean. They also do it with a great deal of squealing and whining, as is often the way with teams who play football as it’s apparently supposed to be played. We get none of that from Reading, no bitter aftertaste at all. Just the good stuff.

In the behind-the-front three of Ejaria, Olise and Meite, they have players not merely comfortable on the ball but dynamic in possession; it lacks a real focal point, but teams like this are kinda supposed to lack a real focal point because you’re like not supposed to take it too literally, man. It’s a holistic experience, yeah? Part of me doesn’t want to wish them success in making and winning the playoffs because they’d be used as target practice by the posh kids with their laser-guided air rifles in the Premier League; lovely football with erratic finishing and a very open defence tends not to work out that well. Part of me is aware that their side will be picked clean in the summer regardless.

5. I’ve seen very little of this season, just dipped in occasionally. I’ll try not to be like your gran when she used to sit in the living room while your favourite programme was on and comment on people’s clothes. My occasional dips during the tenures of the previous two head coaches were much like when you turn on the telly and find yourself part-way through an episode of Eastenders: it’s just Phil Mitchell shouting at someone in the rain, forever. It felt as I saw the same Watford performance over and over again, and the last report I wrote involved football played with a level of enthusiasm which suggested it’d been demanded by someone holding relatives at gunpoint. You wouldn’t have guessed that anyone ever actually played the game for fun.

This is a total transformation, then. You may well have reservations; they may well be justified. Me, I see an entirely different energy: it’s as if the entire side has been given a glug of whatever Will Hughes was drinking at the end of last season, and he no longer stands out from the sullen crowd. Whatever Xisco’s tactical acumen, if you can get a set of players to attack a key fixture like this, with this intent and relish, you’re doing something very right. Some may contend that we were a little fortunate here, but I’d suggest that we were nothing – well, maybe not nothing but nearly nothing – of the sort. If you approach a game like we did that Bristol City one, your opponents have the better chances in a spirit-sapping nil-nil draw. If you approach a game like this, your opponents have the better chances in a vital two-nil win.

6. We made things happen. We didn’t ‘build a platform’ and wait for the creative players to do their thing; we were aggressive and proactive and we made things happen in the final third rather than waiting and wondering. The headlines rightly go to Ismaïla Sarr, but both goals came from pressing high up the pitch, wasps around jam sandwiches as Reading tried to play their way out. We’d already given them plenty of notice: Sarr was in behind the hapless Gibson within a couple of minutes, Cabral out to claim; João Pedro fired a cross shot wide shortly afterwards.

The goals were individual perfection and team masterpiece, both at once. For the first, Nathaniel Chalobah and Kiko Femenía are all over the scraps from a long clearance, turning classic Championship debris into controlled possession in an instant, setting up Sarr while the defence is still uncertain. For the second, within two minutes, Chalobah robs Gibson, perhaps yet to get his head back into the game, and Philip Zinckernagel plays the pass. In both cases, they’re situations we weren’t even interested in, let alone involved in, under previous managers; we were too busy getting our shape, tucking in, locking up. They come with risk, as we’ll see, but so much reward.

So much reward. My phone pings: people on the WhatsApp group watching on Sky, a few seconds ahead. Sarr sets off, cuts inside, curls a left-footed pearl into the top corner as if it’s just the training ground when everyone’s knocking off for the day. The keeper might as well not be there; maybe try to stop him with an extra outfield player instead. Two minutes later, there’s no ping from my phone, so I momentarily switch off as he cuts into the right of the area, goes on the outside of a defender, and then I’m off the sofa as he suddenly rips a shot into the very same top corner, the ball bouncing out of what momentarily appears to be a Subbuteo goal. It’s a ridiculous finish. He’s always played with the air of someone who doesn’t really care, not really, and that can cut both ways: you don’t finish like that without a certain arrogance about you, a certain carelessness.

But it would be remiss of me not to mention the work-rate. Not only of Sarr, but of João Pedro and Ken Sema too. The latter two hardly see anything of the ball, but Reading see plenty of them: we carry the energy of the midfield right through to the front three, and they play with a discipline, at least up to a point, which is to be applauded. João Pedro leaves one on an opponent late on to betray his frustration, and it’s foolish, and it’s a shame because he ought to know that we can still see his contribution even if it isn’t a glamorous one. Sema is exemplary: if you can’t get on the ball, contribute in other ways. Xisco has managed to make a team out of it all.

7. Obviously, the price of a high press is space further back. Much of the fun of the first half arose from the absurd amounts of unoccupied grass in midfield, the consequence of Reading being similar keen on winning the ball high up; the whole thing would’ve been utterly unrecognisable to anyone weaned on second tier football of days gone by, twenty blokes fighting over a muddy rectangle in the middle of the pitch. When I say ‘fun’, I do, of course, mean ‘not fun’, for it gradually became clear that the game was very far from over.

Just as at the other end, warnings had already been issued. Both Troost-Ekong and Sierralta had had cross-field passes ambushed like unescorted carriages after turning off the highway on a dark winter’s day; Laurent had shot at Bachmann from outside the box, afforded far too much time to do so. We lost possession again, Laurent dragged a cross-shot wide. Quite rightly, we see these as errors because that’s our perspective; Reading fans will no doubt see the hard work involved in forcing them, as we do for our goals. Olise breaks from deep, the already-booked Zinckernagel ill-advisedly hacking at his ankles as he sways through the midfield; Meite crosses, Puscas hits the post from six yards. A slight deflection on the cross from Masina’s last-ditch slide, perhaps, but a sitter nevertheless. Gary Porter and Nigel Gibbs – who, you’ll be aware, were both renowned for the ruthlessness of their close-range finishing – are suitably scathing at half-time.

That’s the key moment in the game, perhaps. If Zinckernagel makes contact, he’s off and we’re playing with ten men for the remaining hour. If Puscas scores, the contest is alive. We nearly kill it off, Sarr nonchalantly burying a magnificent cross from Masina only to have his hat-trick celebrations cut short by the linesman’s (correct) flag. But then Laurent is allowed to carry the ball again and Bachmann has to make a smothering save at his near post, and Meite should do better than hit the side netting after a loose pass from Troost-Ekong, and Bachmann saves again from Ejaria in injury time. By the break, all agree that Reading should be level. Deserving to be level isn’t the same as actually being level, though, and a whole season of having that written in very large letters on a blackboard while teacher sighs, shakes their head and taps the words with a stick awaits them if they’re promoted.

8. It’s been a cracking game so far. Really excellent entertainment, and I can’t remember when I last said that. I suppose the game at the Emirates back in whatever-month was really excellent entertainment if you had no active involvement in it. I suppose. Shudder. Anyway, we had no need of it continuing to be a cracking game; it served us no purpose. My second half notes barely amount to half a dozen lines, most of those inconsequential.

As the half began, Sierralta ran straight into traffic, disappearing like a toddler into a ball-pit, and whatever had been said in the dressing room briefly threatened to stay in the dressing room. But whether by accident, design or a bit of both, we came to completely dominate the game as it wore on. A large part of that is down to the half-time substitution of Nathaniel Chalobah, who’d taken a knock late in the half, for Carlos Sánchez. That’s no reflection on Chalobah, but this had become a game in need of a bloody good sort-out. Thus employed, Sánchez went about spring-cleaning the midfield with a brisk cheerfulness which suggested a pitch-side microphone might pick him up whistling a merry tune to himself at any moment. Cupboards were emptied and re-organised, floors swept and washed, nooks and crannies cleared of cobwebs.

Reading’s behind-the-front three, so dangerous before the break, received the ball without options in front of them, without space to come up with ideas, and gradually became a memory rather than a present threat. In response, they threw on whatever forwards they could find – you half-expected to see Adam le Fondre warming up – but they weren’t the same side without those breaks from midfield, without that merry-go-round of possession. It takes them ages to have another shot, and even then Bachmann has everything behind Olise’s free kick.

We broke it up, shut it down, hit them on the break. That really works when you’re two-nil up. Isaac Success and Andre Gray arrive, both ideal options for this kind of position; the luxury of a large, varied squad. Success immediately contests a long ball, Zinckernagel is through but finishes wildly. Sánchez, whistling all the while, whacks a shot a few yards wide. Sarr nearly grabs his third at a corner, the ball squirting around the post via a deflection. Bachmann has to make a decent stop from Aluko late on, but it’s over by then, pretty much.

9. Look, I loved this. Absolutely bloody loved it. It felt like fun, felt like it should do. That energy, that intensity, that unity. It felt positive. Hallelujah.

The Cup Final – yeah, sorry, that one – came up on Twitter during the week, and I still feel an enormous sense of pride whenever it does. And part of that pride comes from what happened at half-time, when we could’ve tried to shut the game down at two-nil, could’ve tried to limit the damage, could’ve saved face. Could’ve stuck.

But it was the Cup Final. If you’re not going to indulge fairytales when you’re at Wembley in May, then you don’t love what I love about football. All of Javi’s successors would’ve gone for damage limitation. All of them. (Yes, Ray Lewington too, I know. Stop interrupting.) But what’s the point of football, of cup finals, of Watford, if you can’t imagine a comeback against all odds, a comeback for the ages? So we pushed up, and we played the game as if we might still win it, and we got absolutely murdered. And I’m not merely fine with that. I love that. I’m deeply proud of it.

And I’ve missed it. And we’ve found it again, that belief in possibility, that refusal to be cowed. It isn’t about throwing caution to the wind. It’s about not letting caution stop you from opening the front door.

Perhaps this promotion, should there turn out to be one, wouldn’t quite have been of the High Street pond variety, but I had wondered what would be left of it in years to come other than a list of results and a league table. We might just wake up from a particularly vivid bad dream to find ourselves exactly where we were. A grey, insipid, nervous little team relegated; a grey, insipid, nervous little team promoted. A club caught between two divisions. A season without stories, memories, communal experience. Without real meaning.

But this, at last, is not that season. You probably already knew this, so I apologise for not hearing you. I’d wandered off and I hadn’t seen it until now. But, yes, hallelujah. We’ve got our courage back.

Feels great, doesn’t it?



Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Masina 4, Hughes 4, Chalobah 3, Zinckernagel 3, *Sarr 5*, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs: Sánchez (for Chalobah, 45) 5, Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 70) 4, Success (for Sema, 77) 3, Gray (for João Pedro, 77) 3, Foster, Ngakia, Gosling, Lazaar, Hungbo

Middlesbrough 1 Watford 1 (05/04/2021) 06/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Tags: , , ,
13 comments

1- Daughter 1 has become a vegetarian.

This is of course not only her prerogative but also kind of par for the course with a teenage daughter.  She has also discovered Nirvana and socialism in recent months.

But Nirvana and socialism require less effort from me.  It’s always been true, of course, that as soon as you get used to whatever stage children are at everything changes;  whilst the early years were exciting I’m not sure I could have coped with that rate of exciting new discovery and challenge indefinitely.  So the shifts are fewer and further between…  but providing food for the girls has never been terribly challenging until now.  Now I need to stop and think about it.  I’m not a great cook… my wife can open a fridge and improvise with whatever’s inside; I need a recipe.  And now I need new recipes.

2- Very difficult not to get carried away, what with ten wins in eleven, Swansea capsizing, Brentford dropping points and so on.  Plus, as discussed, we’re brilliant and nobody else is.  Nonetheless, Michael Kurn, Tommy Mooney and Allan Smart talking promotion campaigns in Hornet Hive’s well intended but rather billy-no-mates pre-match-without-a-match show felt a little premature.

Amongst the squad there’s been no evidence of any such presumptuousness.  Xisco has spoken guardedly about securing a play-off place before we worry about anything else. William Troost-Ekong’s stock rose still further with his weekend Extra Time interview over the weekend.  Troy Deeney has made the journey to Middlesbrough to sit in an empty stadium in the cold (and, you know, in Middlesbrough) to “ensure that standards don’t drop”.  As the teams come out and Francisco Sierralta’s approach to the freezing sunshine that is cold enough to put condensation on your breath whilst watching in the warmth of your own home is to douse himself in water; you kind of feel that there’s not much wrong in terms of attitude.

3- But “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  In this case Neil Warnock, who Sky informs us has faced the Hornets more than he has any other side.  Complicated also, in this case, by the absence of supporters.  Questionable whether Boro would have gotten away with what Warnock freely admits was an away game strategy had there been edgy supporters in the stadium.

So Boro are sturdy and disciplined, if relatively unambitious for a home side.  They hold their defensive shape, and whilst Djed Spence in particular makes occasional sorties down the flanks it’s a defiant strategy unashamedly prioritising containment with a view to breaking on us if and when we start to overcommit.

It works fairly well until it doesn’t. Not very much happens for long periods;  Sarr and Hughes both start slowly, a couple of slack moments from each. Occasionally we burst into life… a move wanders across the box until it finds Zinckernagel, whose shot is deflected over.  Sarr and Kiko swap passes (no, really) allowing Kiko to pass to Ken whose shot might have been deflected wide but isn’t credited as such.

It’s laborious though.  Boro’s diligence and physical superiority mean that we can’t build pressure;  a successful attack would require a precision rapier thrust.  We’re more than capable of it, but it’s difficult and those rapier thrusts aren’t going to come very frequently, they ask a lot.  In an attempt to up the urgency of the game, captain Chalobah courts disaster with a thunderous challenge on the unfortunate Sam Morsy.  The tackle goes across the Boro midfielder rather than into him but the ferocious lack of control earns Nate an eleventh yellow of the season and the pressure of the contact through the ball does Morsy’s medial ligaments.

So when the goal comes, it’s slightly perverse that it owes a lot to defensive slackness on Boro’s part;  Sema’s shot is deflected, it drops for Zinckernagel, his shot clatters in off Sarr with Boro’s defence appealing for offside and/or handball.  Never offside since two Boro players had been criminally lazy pushing out, the handball a coulda rather than a shoulda.  Would have been harsh.  The goal stands, and maybe we’ve done the hard bit.

4- I’d have had Isaac on much earlier.  With the clarity of hindsight, given low impact performances from both Ken Sema and João Pedro, I’d have started with him.  Certainly, anyone doubtful at the wisdom of the latest last chance offered to the Nigerian in recent weeks should be clearer after his cameo seven minutes plus injury time from the end.  Within a minute he’d achieved something that we’d struggled to do in attacking positions throughout;  held off a challenge that bounced off him, two in fact, before contemptuously stepping past the debris and moving the play on.  Before the end he’d play the pass of the game, an arcing ball with the outside of his left foot to find Chalobah galloping down the left flank.  He’s something different, a different sort of weapon offering something of Troy’s physicality with an awful lot more mobility than he’s been capable of recently.  We could have done with more of that here.

As it was the first half concluded in much the same vein as it had progressed prior to our goal, save for a brief flurry of bad tempered challenges late in the half.  We defended well ourselves (95 shots on target against us before today, another Sky stat, some way clear of second place Swansea on 115), ushering Boro attacks into less threatening wide positions, no target to hit themselves.  Going forward we were still asking a lot of ourselves but came close to delivering it once or twice… Chalobah pirouetted into space to find Zinckernagel, his pass into João Pedro well cut out.  The second half proceeded in the same way… João Pedro shot over after a neat move down the left, Sarr wriggled down the goal line and laid back to the Brazilian who shot wide.

We asked questions, Boro answered them when they needed to, just about.  Meanwhile… if they were being kept at arms length more or less, Friday’s narrative was being repeated.  A single goal lead felt kinda comfortable, but it would only take a goal.  A moment.  This time, that moment came… Sema gave away a cheap free kick, McNair’s delivery was tremendous and Bolasie scored an annoying header to match his effort in the 2016 Cup Semi.

5- In any context other than the back of a stupid run of wins this was a decent point.  Actually it’s a decent point in these circumstances as well even if it doesn’t feel it, a tough away game against a wily opponent three days after the last match and the weekend after several international trips.  It’s certainly not anything to get stressed about, irrespective of Swansea and Brentford’s fortunes or lack of them (it doesn’t matter what they do).

But it will be interested to see how we proceed, how Xisco responds.  This is all about us.  If we keep our heads together and go again we’ll be ok, but Xisco might find more opponents doing what Boro did.  He doesn’t need to rip it all up, but he might need a few new recipes to add to his repertoire. He’s not really had a setback until now, not since the bedding in period (and not here either, not really).  If we go up and he ends up managing us in the Premier League setbacks are likely to happen more often, he’ll need to be able to respond as positively as he has to victories.

I calmed myself down after this one by cooking an aubergine curry.  Ending the winning run is a shame, but four points from the Easter weekend is probably fair enough.  We’re still in poll position.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 3, Masina 3, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 4*, Zinckernagel 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2, Sema 2
Subs: Gosling (for Zinckernagel, 77) NA, Success (for Sema, 83) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Cathcart, Kabasele, Sánchez, Gray Foster

Dirty Dozen : Middlesbrough 04/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Nonsense.
4 comments

“Dirty Dozen” is a feature that I write for the match programme;  mindful that the programme might be enjoying a slightly lower readership than is normal, I’m reproducing the pieces that were in the corresponding home programme prior to away games for the rest of the season (with the club’s permission).

Format is simple – twelve questions, how many do you know the answers to?

Feel free to enter your responses or scores in comments but I won’t be marking them. Answers at the top of the comments.

  1. Boro spent the 2016/17 season in the Premier League; who was the only player to find the net in the two encounters between Watford and Boro that season?
  2. Boro striker Britt Assombalonga is one of three ex-Hornets to have represented the Democratic Republic of Congo at senior level. Name the other two.
  3. The Hornets drew at the Riverside at the end of the 1999/2000 Premier League season. Can you name the only other two stadia where away points were earned in that difficult campaign?
  4. A vital win at Vicarage Road in April 2015 proved significant in progressing Watford to automatic promotion and condemning Boro to the play-offs, where they would lose the final to Norwich. But who were the two sides who lost the play-off semi-finals?
  5. Three members of Watford’s starting eleven that day were not destined to play for the Hornets in the Premier League. Name them.
  6. Boro signed Willie Falconer and Paul Wilkinson from the Hornets in 1991. Of which Football League club was Wilkinson briefly manager last season?
  7. On the last day of the 2005/06 season, Middlesbrough fielded an almost entirely local-born side against Fulham in the Premier League. 15 of the 16-man squad hailed from the Middlesbrough area – which three of them would go on to play for the Hornets later in their career?
  8. Boro were relegated from the top flight in 1981/82, the same season that saw the Hornets promoted the the highest tier for the first time. Which other two clubs were relegated with Boro, and who was promoted with the Hornets?
  9. Which two players were red carded during this fixture in February 2014?
  10. Which current Hornet scored the only goal of the game in this fixture in 2009?
  11. Watford secured their first Premier League win of the 2006/07 season against Boro at Vicarage Road in early November. Which Watford player found the net after an own goal from which Boro centre-back had opened the scoring?
  12. The only FA Cup tie between today’s teams was a 1-0 victory for the Hornets at Ayresome Park in January 1924. Which later Watford boss led the line for the visitors that day?

Watford 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0 (02/04/2021) 03/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1-  Game of Thrones did lots of things rather well.

Gratuitous nudity, yes yes.  Dragons and that, obviously.   But also a quite wonderful palette of shades of grey; no “good guys” and “bad guys”, not really, just a load of people more or less in it for themselves with varying degrees of moral compass.  This may in part have been borne of the storylines being ripped from history (including the War of the Roses) and of course who the good and the bad guys are in history largely depends on your point of view.  As with all the best fantasy work, once you suspended your disbelief and accepted the Dragons and that (see above) it was all utterly believable in the conduct of its protagonists.

There’s a satisfying consistency to it also.  As with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, you rather felt that Westeros was the point… it wasn’t that the author had a story that he wanted to tell and expanded the world he’d invented as he went along to accommodate the narrative…  the world came first.  The window you’re looking through lets you see a small proportion of the stuff that was going on anyway, or that’s the illusion.

But most of all, Game of Thrones – the TV adaptation now, rather than the novels which wander off in a different direction in the end and now seem to have been abandoned – do spectacle.  Set Pieces.  The terrifying magnificence of a battle is allowed to breathe for its own sake – the storyline, the destination is important, the journey just as much so.  You can feel the anxiety, the fear.  You can hear the mud squelching beneath your feet.  You can smell the horses.  You can sense the cold air on your face as the two armies face off before conflict is met.  The tension reaches out of the screen and grabs you around the throat.

2- That’s where we’ve been for the last fortnight or so, right there.  Waiting for it all to restart, trying to manage our nerves, eager for it to kick off again if only to relieve the tension (though if you’re smelling a horsey smell I’d suggest you assess your personal lockdown hygiene).

International breaks were a pain in the arse in what used to be the normal way.  With less to do and despite the fact that we’re not actually at the games a two week hiatus feels like an added insult, the faffing around of national teams an aggravating rotation of traffic lights.  By far the biggest focus was the fortunes of our own players with their respective national sides and we seem to have gotten away without any casualties, Ken Sema’s 90 minutes in a friendly for Sweden a frustrating two days prior to this one our biggest issue.

Against that we have the returns of Ismaïla Sarr and Philip Zinckernagel;  Sarr in particular is one of very few individuals in the squad whose absence in isolation would be significant.  As he dropped to the floor in the closing minutes at Rotherham Watford hearts were in Watford mouths;  we’d have taken him missing the Birmingham game (and a trip to Senegal) at that point I think.

But the start of the game is not altogether encouraging.  It’s fair to say that nine wins in ten has left us bullish but it’s only natural for concerns to bubble under when given time to do so.  One…  we’re going to be off the pace after a two week hiatus, we’ll have lost our momentum.  Practically from the kick-off Philip Zinckernagel, who for all his game-to-game improvement would have been high on the list of candidates for this, gives the ball away with a piece of slack play, a lack of awareness.  Two…  Ismaïla Sarr is going to be whacked.  Julian Börner does the honours with a bad foul, far from the first time that someone’s put an early reducer in on the winger and again we’re nervous as he limps mournfully away but he’s made of tough stuff, Chris Kavanagh is uncompromising with his yellow cards and in fairness this is the only nasty foul of the game.

And then, as so often of late, we take an early lead.  Sarr’s rapid recovery had already seen him play a ball in towards Isaac Success which was smuggled out of play by the attentions of two Wednesday defenders.  The goal itself will prove to be the one truly exquisite move of the game;  Adam Masina had made a pig’s ear of a crossfield ball less than a minute earlier but his second go is magnificent, a searing pass from left to right dropping into the feet of Sarr.  Sarr’s cross does Masina’s work justice, it’s completely undefendable scything between the defence and the goalkeeper;  we get a break, on another day Chris Kavanagh sympathises with Wednesday claims that Isaac Success, lurking on Tom Lees’ shoulder, is offside and interfering with play.  This time he doesn’t, Lees propels the ball past his goalkeeper and the ‘orns are ahead.

3- “Game over” comes the message from Owls fan Ade.  Slightly premature, probably, even if that proves to be the end of the goalscoring. Wednesday look like what they are – a relegation-threatened side, but a relegation-threatened side under a new manager who’ve just had an encouraging win followed by two weeks in which to be encouraged.  Less than five minutes in a certain single-mindedness had been evident as the visitors restarted sharply when given a free kick, a trait that persisted throughout whether motivated by hoping to exploit a perceived slackness of concentration on the part of the Hornets or merely to instil a positive mindset.

Our goal is followed by a period of Wednesday possession, and if it sets a tone by not ultimately resulting in very much – Daniel Bachmann once again doesn’t have a shot to save – then the possibility is always there.  Much of the mischief comes from the feet of Barry Bannan who is lively around the edge of the box, playing in Josh Windass on 24 minutes for Bachmann to charge out and smother, and is a threat with his set piece delivery.  Wednesday, perhaps conscious of their limited threat otherwise, seem keen to pursue this avenue by going down whenever the chance presents itself (Tommy Mooney at once point confusingly describes Jordan Rhodes as having gone down like a packet of biscuits) but we’re daft enough to offer them too many opportunities to do so.

Ultimately however it’s a largely theoretical threat and you fear for Wednesday, the widening gap to safety will need a steadier supply of goals to be bridged you suspect.  The closest they come is when Sierralta and (in the second half) Hughes take yellows to snuff out two of the Owls’ more threatening breaks.  The Hornets’ attacks look much more potent, at least in the opening half:  Isaac Success’s second start builds on the good bits of his display against Birmingham with some bullish hold-up play, but encapsulates his game neatly midway through the half when he sweeps a ball majestically wide to João Pedro to set up an attack but then concludes the same move with a ponderous touch after a neat pass from the bubbly Zinckernagel.  Again on the half hour he holds the ball up well to release Sarr but when it comes back via a fortunate deflection he shoots tamely wide.  We push before the interval;  Isaac (again) tees up Zinckernagel who takes a touch too many.  A minute later Isaac (again) drops a header into João Pedro’s path, the forward shoots across the face with Zinckernagel waiting for a tap-in.  On balance Success comes out well in credit, a target man option when we might need one.

4- A slightly darker shade of grey in the second half.  Kind of the same game, but with a bit less of the fun stuff and a bit more of the iffy stuff.  Our chances are fewer and further between than before the break, and if Wednesday are still largely kept at arm’s length they don’t ever get, you know, two or three arms’ lengths away and whilst neither side creates very much the visitors now look as likely as we do to add to the scoreline.  William Troost-Ekong needs to get himself between the ball and Rhodes early in the second half to block his route to a Windass cross.  Ten minutes later Sierralta’s rare slack header under pressure drops to Rhodes inside the box.  He shovels wastefully over and that’s as close as Wednesday are going to get, but we’re not to know this at the time.

As the game progresses we bring on a succession of substitutes, playing a strength-in-depth card that our visitors really can’t match.  Dan Gosling and Carlos Sánchez both jeopardise that theory by respectively giving away a free kick on the edge of the box (Bannan, fortunately, respects Vicarage Road’s traditions by thumping it into the wall) and by being slightly too composed in possession when a bit of urgency, not to say welly, was called for.

Ultimately we end the game on top again, albeit the game is tilted in our favour to a degree that would only be discernible using precision measuring equipment, like a really fancy spirit level.  Sarr holds off two fouls by Börner who injures himself in the process, sets up Sema whose shot against Wildsmith’s shins; Kavanagh halts play with Masina in space for the Wednesday defender to get treatment.  In the final knockings we look comfortable, Gosling and Gray back in the groove enough to help us see out the final minutes.

5- Ten wins in eleven, six on the trot, Tom Lees the only opposition player to score at the Vic in over two months.  This one won’t be the one that we look back on should we confirm promotion… none of the drama of Cardiff, none of the crushing dominance of Bristol City.  This win was scruffy and unspectacular and scarcely deserved beyond the detail that we scored a goal and the other lot didn’t.  But it’s an essential part of the backdrop that allows the story to play out in front of it.  Most particularly it’s three points at the start of the final chapter, three points that puts Swansea and Brentford on the back foot before they’ve even rejoined the fray (and as I write, Swansea have stumbled on their way back to the battlefield losing to – get this – a soft late penalty.  Not that they matter).

A massive victory.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Masina 4, *Hughes 4*, Chalobah 3, Zinckernagel 3, Sarr 3, Success 3, João Pedro 3
Subs:  Gray (for Success, 61) 3, Gosling (for Zinckernagel, 61) 3, Sema (for João Pedro, 71) 2, Sánchez (for Chalobah, 84) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Kabasele, Hungbo, Foster

A final thanks to the many of you who were kind enough to sponsor me for walking an awful lot during March raising money for Prostate Cancer UK. The tally currently stands at over £3,000 including Gift Aid, well over half of which appears to have come from the BHaPPY readership. You are all wonderful people.  I finished at 13,018 steps per day on average, and with hurty legs. You can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.