jump to navigation

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
Tags:
trackback

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

Comments»

1. Matt Prout - 10/04/2021

This is simply magnificent

2. Brian Goldsmith - 10/04/2021

Great review, its almost like I was there..

3. Stuart Campbell - 10/04/2021

Welcome back Ian. A great big smile of a report on a truly memorable game. I’ll never be able to watch Sanchez again without hearing his jaunty whistling!

4. Old Git - 10/04/2021

Similar to Ikechi Anya and his little motorbike. Cheers Ian!

5. G - 10/04/2021

Stupendously scrumdiddlyumptious

6. rightarmwrongfoot - 10/04/2021

Lovely, welcome back. We’ve missed you. We love Matt but variety and all that. Delightful writing.

7. Harefield Hornet - 11/04/2021

Might have been fun but could do without the type of fun that occurred in the last 20 or so minutes in the first half- looked like we were falling apart !

8. MG99 - 11/04/2021

The reports on here simply tower over anything written elsewhere. Not sure if a neutral would feel the same (or if any even visit!) but as a Hornet I love them. BSaD still lives long in the memory but delighted to have BHappy to keep continue things. Thanks gents

9. David - 12/04/2021

I’m fairly sure I first clicked on BSaD in 1995 and have returned season after season since. I suspect I am not a dissimilar age to you both, Matt and Ian, a loyal fan from a young age who cares about this football club but has been and will continue to be distant from it all. After years of silent reading, I have finally decided to comment and echo many other comments made in recent months . Thank you both for the years of writing so wonderfully and informatively about my club. It is hard to describe the value for distant fans like myself in the weird online world where sensible writing is like gold dust. Rarely anything other than balanced, thoughtful, concise, imaginative and realistic words, week in week out that has kept me connected to this ‘Watford thing’ we all share. It really has been massively appreciated, this past 12 months as much as any.


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: