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Watford 1 Millwall 0 (24/04/2021) 25/04/2021

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. Give a carton of drink to a small child and they’ll probably need some help plunging the straw into the hole, before sucking all of the juice out in under a minute. When it’s almost empty, they’ll happily sit there making loud, revolting slurping sounds for several minutes longer. Those minutes will feel like hours. May actually be hours. And when they’re finally bored, they’ll hand you back a collapsed, wrung-out shell, and they’ll ask for another one. Or some sweets.

It’s really very hard not to see football in a similar light. I can’t have been the only person who, while gleefully watching the Super League fall apart on Tuesday night, felt a familiar weariness at the prospect of having to admit those clubs back, of having to accept competition further distorted by their avarice. An initial flash of annoyance aside, I’d come to rather relish the prospect of them being banished. There’d be a financial shock, of course, but I’ve never bought the idea that domestic competitions would be greatly devalued by their absence, and I suggest, as an example, that had we won either of our two FA Cup finals, we wouldn’t be overly troubling ourselves with caveats about who we’d played en route.

The shock at the plan revealed that far too many people simply haven’t been paying attention, in certain cases out of political convenience. All of the fury would’ve been much better vented at the horse or the stable door or the stable hands or the stable managers before the bolting. UEFA’s 2024 plan, which somehow seemed to contrive to be both a trigger for the breakaway and a hasty reaction to it, pushes another wedge into existing fault-lines. It’d be nice to imagine that having revealed their loaded gun to be a browning banana, the breakaway clubs would find it much harder to press their demands on the governing body in future, but I wonder how long the break from normal service will last. I give it a fortnight.

2. But these last few days have made me look at it all differently. That annoying tendency to search out the grey in a black and white argument means that I’m uncomfortable with some of the hand-wringing: Barney Ronay wrote a rather operatic piece for the Guardian in which he claimed that the Super League “will make you hate football, but still buy football.” And I think…would it, though? Is that not just another way of allowing those clubs to dictate terms, to shape our experience of the game? You don’t have to buy your books from Amazon. The revival of actual bookshops demonstrates that it’s possible for consumers to set a different agenda, that nostalgia for something lost can translate into enjoyment of something alive.

And besides, some of this alienation – including mine – comes from a position of privilege. Were I not male, white and straight, I might never have felt at home in a football ground in the first place; even if I had, I might well have discovered that others objected to my presence, perhaps verbally, perhaps violently. You only get to cry that “the game’s gone!” if you felt as if it was yours to lose.

Because the game hasn’t gone if you’re a member of Proud Hornets or the LBGTQ+ groups springing up at other clubs. The game’s actually – finally – welcoming you into the fold, embracing diversity rather than expecting or demanding uniformity. It hasn’t gone if you’re one of the users of the Sensory Room at Vicarage Road. The club announced that it was joining forces with Hertfordshire Mind Network for this game and it struck me that these things have become routine when, once upon a time, a football club involving itself in mental health initiatives might’ve been considered remarkable. We’re the Community Club of the Year in our region and that means as much as promotion in my eyes. It means even more, I imagine, to those whose lives benefit. Marvin Sordell, who’s spoken out so eloquently about mental health and racism within the game since his retirement, was elected to the PFA Players Board this week. What if the greatest impact made by a graduate of our academy wasn’t actually on the pitch? How amazing would that be?

And proud as that all makes me, it isn’t just us. You really don’t have to search very hard for clubs with similarly positive, progressive, adventurous values, for ownership which achieves far more than self-aggrandisement. Accrington, Wimbledon, Brighton, Forest Green; I imagine there are plenty of others who don’t like to talk about it quite so much, who do a lot of work that’s unseen and uncelebrated. Much further down the pyramid, Hastings United has just started offering free coaching for youngsters of all abilities; it had nearly fifty kids on the first night of its Girls Academy during the week, and three times that for the session in progress as I drove past the ground just after 9am on Saturday morning; a mission statement aims to follow Lewes in achieving parity between the men’s and women’s teams.

And modern footballers have become significantly less insular, less self-absorbed. Whatever the quibbles with its effectiveness, it’s remarkable to see players taking collective political action at every kickoff; it’s worth noting what that is as well as what it arguably fails to be. Every time a well-known name engages with a cause, it chips away at the idea that football should be beyond politics – as if the eighties never happened, as if racist abuse is just banter, as if the soon-to-be Premier League champions aren’t funded by oil money – and makes activism seem just that little bit more acceptable and accessible. It doesn’t need every player, just enough. Not every fan, just enough. Not every club, just enough.

Maybe you don’t agree with all of that. Maybe you even object to some of it. So be it. My point is that grassroots football doesn’t have to begin in the local park, with jumpers for goalposts; grassroots football begins with people, with smiles on faces, with care for others, with space for everyone. With ideas, stories, families, friends. Small acts of kindness, generosity, rebellion, empowerment, achievement. Football can do that so well. Football often is doing that so well, and we shouldn’t lose that in the shadows cast by the arrogance and greed of venture capitalists and oligarchs, or the casual hatred of social media. My point is that every club should be a grassroots club.

3. Perhaps my view of it all has been affected by the other events of Tuesday night. It’s really difficult to be resolute in your pessimism in the face of something as utterly invigorating as our win at Norwich. (Abrupt gear change. Sorry if you spilt your tea down your front. Anyway…)

There’s often discussion about whether performances or results matter more, about whether fans merely want to see their team win…and while I don’t doubt that I’d have been a happy man if we’d defended deep and beaten the Canaries with a late deflected shot, it wouldn’t have fired the imagination in anything like the same way. I keep seeing that midfield three on the hunt, keep seeing them savaging the ball carrier like rabid seagulls spotting someone eating some chips. It was an astonishingly visceral experience, given that it came down a cable into a laptop screen.

To my mind – and again, I do appreciate that I’m a part-timer these days – it’s been a while since we’ve been able to point decisively and say, “That. That’s us. That’s what we’re about.” We were crap at Luton, but we at least have a very clear idea of what not crap is supposed to look like. Tuesday night was…definitive.

4. And this isn’t, but these occasions rarely are. Too much at stake, too much context. You spend the approaching days imagining, against all experience, the glorious release of scoring three by half-time and turning the second half into a lap of honour in the sunshine, but it’s never going to be that way. Your instinct is that you want to be in the ground, able to sing your heart out to drag them over the line, but even that’s an illusion: the reality is that all you get is simmering tension on days like these, and any noise tends to tense up into an anxious, shrill buzz, a collective tinnitus. Nerves take over. If it was easy to achieve stuff, we’d have achieved a lot more stuff, that’s the thing.

For twenty minutes or so, it does actually tend towards imagination over experience. Millwall barely touch the ball for the first five, happy to get their bearings, but that allows us to push up enough to threaten their penalty area. Ismaïla Sarr makes a first attempt at getting behind the Millwall defence, of which more imminently; Dan Gosling surges through the midfield; Adam Masina drives up the left wing; João Pedro takes the ball away from Tom Cleverley on the penalty spot. Ken Sema drifts everywhere, Will Hughes does his Jack Russell impression; we’re confident and urgent and recognisably the same team which so impressed at Carrow Road.

Recalling Kiko Femenía is very obviously the right decision, given the likely requirements of the contest, if harsh on Craig Cathcart. Femenía’s little one-two with Sarr is perfection, pure simplicity; the resulting penalty conceded by Billy Mitchell incontestable (although Phil is no doubt red-faced and livid). The spot-kick is rolled down the middle, a little mis-hit due to a last-moment movement of the ball, a long way from the thwack, crack and rustle we’ve become accustomed to hearing when Troy lines them up. It doesn’t matter. They all count, and this one more than most.

With the wind in our sails and Millwall a little flustered, we briefly suggest that we might make this a comfortable afternoon by adding a second. Dan Gosling – whose late arrival, both in the penalty area and the campaign, is a reminder of how well we’ve used the resources at our disposal – should score when afforded a free header from a Tom Cleverley free kick. Another midfield surge feeds João Pedro, who’s crowded out as he tries to get a shot away. Will Hughes slices a drive wide from outside the box; at the current rate of progress, he’ll belt one of those into the top corner at Spurs on Boxing Day, so pencil that in your diary (and wait for VAR to wipe it out after a five minute pause to review an offside invisible to the naked eye). We’re bright and confident, and the afternoon is ours.

5. If there’s a turning point, it’s possibly the injury to Kiko Femenía, sustained in chasing a lost cause on the touchline, collapsing with a pulled muscle right in front of the dugouts. Hard to argue that it’s a matter of personnel, although we find it harder to get the ball to Sarr thereafter, so perhaps it’s more about lost momentum, about time to think. That being the case, Craig Cathcart is almost a tactical replacement, perfectly suited to the game it becomes rather than the game it briefly was, and his stint at right-back once again has a thoroughly satisfying heft to it, like picking up a beautifully-made hammer and feeling its delicate balance in your hand. There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about playing people out of position, as if you can reduce football to a few hard-and-fast rules; if it was that simple, we’d have bored of it long ago.

Whatever the reason, the nerves start to cut at our control of the game. The midfield becomes busy rather than dominant, the forward line isolated beyond it. We begin to concede free kicks in our own final third, unwise against a side with a player as gigantic as Jake Cooper, Millwall’s looming captain. From one of those, Bradshaw half-volleys narrowly wide, the first of so many warnings that they stop being, you know, warnings and become an actual crisis as half-time approaches. Daniel Bachmann has to save well from a firmly-struck Wallace drive, before the ball’s returned to the danger area and Bennett’s effort is deflected onto the top of the crossbar; from the corner, Malone hides behind the referee, or something, and has acres of space at the far post, heading very wastefully wide.

That last effort aside, the theme is that little goes uncontested: we’re a disciplined, determined defensive unit, and we make things difficult for opponents, often turning chances into half-chances. That contributes to snatched shots, wasted opportunities. It wouldn’t do not to acknowledge that we had two managers this season, and that Xisco has sometimes reaped the benefit of Vladimir Ivić’s intensely tedious focus on defensive matters.  The clean sheets are earned, here as elsewhere, and we’ll need all of that fortitude as the afternoon grinds on. (We’ll need a whole lot more next season, for these are half-chances which get buried at a higher level, but we can worry about that when the hangovers have cleared.)

6. The hope voiced by Hive Live’s slightly awkward double act of the very proper Kenny Jackett and the extremely excitable Chris Stark, a relationship that you sense might fray quite quickly, is that we start the second half well. We do not start the second half well. We start the second half as if we’ve spent the interval drinking coffee with shaking hands while staring into space and contemplating a must-win final game against Swansea. Which is quite possibly what many of us actually did at half-time, I guess.

In the end, Millwall are never granted that one chance, the one which transforms this day into another day. Bradshaw turns the ball over the bar from a Wallace cross, Bennett goes on a run and shoots well wide, Bradshaw beats Francisco Sierralta but has little idea what he’s supposed to do after that point. (In passing, I just had to look up Sierralta’s first name, not having the faintest idea what it was, which suggests that it’s the first time I’ve mentioned him in a report. That is telling, really telling: he is not a central defender who makes many mistakes, not a central defender who needs to make many noteworthy interventions. He spends no time in the spotlight. The season’s highlights will be full of the match-winners, but they’ve been able to win matches because of the less celebrated contributions, because of the hard graft put in. In the absence of one outstanding candidate, the men of the match reflect that.)

7. We make changes. Those changes help. Andre Gray has had a difficult time, some of it entirely his own fault, and has a playing style which somehow serves to expose his limitations rather than highlight his strengths; he makes for an ideal hour-mark substitute, though, and our attack is visibly refreshed for a short period in which we suggest that we might manage to kill the game. Nathaniel Chalobah, such a deeply engaging player, does the same for the midfield. Almost immediately, Gray takes away a defender to allow Bachmann’s long clearance to bounce through to Sarr, who might win a penalty for a nudge on a day when he hasn’t already won another. The respite is brief, though: Mitchell’s deflected shot momentarily appears as if it’s destined to arc into an unreachable part of the goal, before Bachmann gets down well to flip away a Bradshaw header which rebounds towards the bottom corner.

The second half lasts for hours, weeks, months, years, lifetimes. It never descends into outright panic, yet never enables you to take a deep breath either. We have another spell on the front foot, and Gray very nearly gets a decisive toe onto a driven cross from Sarr, and then does well to get a volley on target from a lofted ball into the box, and then Chalobah’s flicked header from a Hughes cross goes straight at the keeper when a slightly different contact would sent it skidding beyond his reach. Ken Sema is offside as he receives and finishes a pass intended for Chalobah, the end point of an intricate passing move at the edge of a crowded penalty area; that would’ve been a goal replayed through the ages, a goal to crown the season.

But instead, the ninety-plus minutes crawls to a halt with still more defending. With William Troost-Ekong giving the ball away with a nervous, hasty pass. With increasingly wild Millwall shots, which lull your brain into thoughts that we might make it, which shock your brain into horror that you might’ve tempted fate. With Ismaïla bloody Sarr battling for all he’s worth (which is a lot, I believe) down by the corner flag to win a goal-kick deep into injury time, and if anything sums up the fighting spirit which we’ve managed to build since Christmas, it’s surely that.

This is a team with stars, of course. But it’s a team which plays as if it can’t afford that luxury; it’s a team which plays with hunger and desire, a team which plays as if it isn’t the most talented squad in the division. That’s the achievement. Not to make it seem easy, but to understand that it’s difficult, to relish that difficulty, to fling ourselves head-first into it.

8. I sink into the sofa, close my eyes for a moment, smile…and wonder what to do. On the pitch, there are hugs, grins, a few tears being wiped away. A party getting started. In the stands, there are empty seats. At home, there’s dinner to be cooked, washing up to be done, life to get on with. It’s an odd way to end an odd season, and it feels as if the meaning of it all will filter through over time, a slow dawning.

The Hive Live ‘Promotion Party’ on the club’s YouTube channel is a noble attempt at getting people to stay at home rather than come to the ground, and provides the background to an hour in the kitchen. Understandably, it has few of the people you’d really want to hear from, little of their giddy delirium, their untethered emotion. They’ve got other things to do. Ben Foster and Daniel Bachmann make an early appearance and have that weird goalkeeper camaraderie, like a little club with its own unknowable rules, which seem to include not hating the bloke who’s taken your starting place. Troy turns up for an oddly awkward interview, in which he himself seems aware that he isn’t really catching the mood; he finds his theme eventually, reminding us of the staff whose jobs are dependent on players’ performances, but still seems relieved to be able to go.

It isn’t until Chris Stark drags Scott Duxbury into the studio that someone really resoundingly captures it all. It’s a remarkably powerful, arrestingly honest five minutes, and you sense so much of the last year’s depression, despair, worry and anxiety beginning to unwind and let go as he speaks. A lot of lost sleep, a lot of difficult decisions. He talks of the prospect of financial oblivion, of the importance of staying together as a family; he describes this as being his greatest achievement. It isn’t an Adrian Boothroyd moment, if you know what I mean; there’s no sense of personal redemption, of satisfied ego. It’s just pure escape, sheer relief. We’ve done it.

And when I read what Xisco Muñoz had to say afterwards – “I have been away from my kids for six months and it is very hard sometimes to be without the family” – I’m reminded of how this year, more than anything, has been a deeply lonely one. Of how alone you must feel if you’ve just moved to a new country to take on a new challenge, of how hard it must be to go into work with a spring in your step, of how bleak the bad days must be. Of how every last grain of the beaming positivity he’s brought to the team and the club has come at a personal cost: you never get that time with your family back, you can’t buy it with your pay packet. We don’t always appreciate those sacrifices. And I’m even more grateful for that smile, for how it has shone on our mad little football club.

It may not have been an impossible task, given the squad. But if I look back over my time as a season ticket holder, I’d pick all three of the post-relegation seasons as the most miserable, without a moment’s hesitation. Not necessarily the worst, but by far the most miserable. The combination of shattered confidence, pent-up bitterness and inflated expectation can create something truly toxic, something that can take years to entirely dispel. We don’t need to try very hard to remember it: we were living that particular nightmare only a few short months ago.

And yet here we are. We’ve remembered who we are, what we can do, why we should do it. That isn’t down to just one man, of course; it’s a huge team effort. It really needed his help, though.

The history of Watford Football Club has many great people, many wonderful stories. It’s just got another one. And a Neil Diamond song.

 

Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 3, *Sierralta 4*, Masina 3, Hughes 3, Cleverley 4, Gosling 3, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3, *Sema 4*
Subs: *Cathcart (for Femenía, 31) 4*, Gray (for João Pedro, 60) 3, Chalobah (for Gosling, 60) 3, Sánchez (for Cleverley, 84) NA, Foster, Zinckernagel, Lazaar, Kabasele, Hungbo

Comments»

1. Adam Segal - 25/04/2021

Wonderful piece Ian. Sums everything up
perfectly.

2. Harefield Hornet - 25/04/2021

Agreed. Let’s hope Xisco is rewarded with a decent contract and they stick with him
for a while! He’s certainly put a lot of smiles on faces and after the last year or so that’s more than welcome.

3. Old Git - 25/04/2021

Pivotal Moment of the Season for me was Sierralta’s own goal at Cardiff. We knew it was going to be a really tough match with the Bluebirds on a roll. Remember what it felt like when we conceded? A punch in the gut. But an unfazed Captain Nate could distinctly be heard leading from the front and commanding everyone to ‘stay cool’. That was leadership at its best. And we did stay cool.
Second Pivotal Moment of the Season…Hughsie telling Masina to just hit it as hard as he could. Which he did.
And a Special Off-field Moment of the Season Award goes to William Troost Ekong.

4. jtbodbo - 25/04/2021

I suggest you send it to the Guardian – they appreciate writing as good as this.

5. Ray Knight - 25/04/2021

Thanks Ian, especially your critique of the events of this week where football – politics – and greed undeniably collided. Makes me proud to support a club for the last 40 plus years that has always been in the vanguard of positive change at the heart of the local community. We have not won loads of trophies admittedly and despised in some quarters of the media for our operating model. We will never be fashionable far outside our locality. But do I care? Don’t want to be a fan of a bloated, avaricious mega club, awash with money and egos. I have rather enjoyed the Hive Live experience, the fast turnover of games and the absence of VAR. It is wonderful to gain promotion again but that success alone does not define our great club. As for the gang of 6, fine them half their EPL share and positional money and re-distribute it to the lower leagues, grassroots and football charities. They are destroying the seed corn by hoovering up young talent, whilst money is lost to the game through agents etc. All the riches of the top clubs has to be re-balanced as it is fundamentally anti-competitive. Otherwise we will never have another Leicester win the league and less ‘smaller clubs like Watford coming through. Let’s enjoy things as our time is now. COYHs and all loyal supporters.

6. Agostino Di Falco - 25/04/2021

Thanks Ian. It’s funny, as promotions to the top league go, it was probably low key. That is the feeling I had once the whistle had blown and reality sank in.

However, the turnaround that Xisco masterminded was just wonderful to watch. I really like our team. As in, I like their attitude, youthfulness (mixed with experience) and teamwork. Thank you Xisco. And Scott please give him and this squad a chance in the Prem. It’s what they deserve.

7. Noel Tillyard - 25/04/2021

You do feel, watching Duxbury, there was tough decisions made, big gambles even, which in the end paid off. Replacing Ivic with an unknown Xisco, to see whether more could be extracted from the team, to bounce back first time.

Remembering the abuse the owners got at the time when initial results were no better, and the owners again questioned. Also, us who remember the previous attempts to bounce back to the premier league first time and fail dismally. The dwindling resources, loss of quality and changing of owners.

This result is one of our best I believe. The owners should be praised and thanked. The thought of another few years, like the previous campaigns would not have been good. The standard in this league is not good, and as we have seen, with the passing years, more difficult to go up.

Be interesting to see what recruitment is made.

8. Hopemole - 25/04/2021

Amen and a superb piece of journalism,Ian. Pity the Wobby can’t afford someone as perceptive and articulate as you!

9. paullbaxter - 26/04/2021

Watching Duxbury after the game reminds me why I am happy to be retired from business! The relief of stress he was feeling was palpable. It seemed clear to me that had we not gone up this year things would have been bad going forward and there is a lesson there for the club to manage the downside better. You can’t afford to have long contracts for players on high wages who you can’t offload on relegation because they have lost form or who haven’t a clause to take a wage cut.

10. Ray Knight - 26/04/2021

The Wobby couldn’t afford Matt or Ian! Their reports are better than any I read elsewhere. As or the Wobby, they haven’t been a proper local paper for years,mostly part of a syndicated outfit trawling the web from other sources. They don’t even seem to use a spell checker or proof read articles. After A’levels I went along with another boy from my year to be interviewed for sports reporter. Malcolm got the job working for Oliver Phillips and I went on to Uni in the end taking a different path. Malcolm did well moving to Fleet Street several years later becoming a sub-editor I believe on a national. I reckon he learnt a lot from OP who was probably quite demanding. In those days back in the 80s you had no word processors and had to learn pitman shorthand. A great era to cover WFC games though.

Ian Grant - 26/04/2021

To be fair, local newspapers across the land are in an absolutely desperate financial state. I can’t imagine that the WO is any exception; the local paper in Hastings is exactly the same.

11. Fez - 26/04/2021

Everything is there: superbly captured the moment; the emotion; the sense of achievement in adversity. I was arguably too emotional to celebrate properly, I didn’t even manage to get a bit tipsy let alone the planned (and wholly warranted) ****faced… maybe this Saturday?

12. MartinG - 27/04/2021

Really looking forward to getting back to games but as Watford fans with the very professional Hive Live, Ben Foster’s Cycling GK, and the exuberance of Jacob Culshaw and the WD18 lads (18 -24 year olds not interested in football Sr. Perez?), amongst others, we’ve been well served by enthusiasts this season.

And this report yet another of the consistent stream of top quality writing from Ian and Matt.

13. Ian (Royston ROF) Dell - 27/04/2021

They say less is more, not in this case IG…

Maybe in years to come 20/21 will be erased from all our minds and we wont realise that we were ever relegated in the firrs
t place…coyh,s

14. St.John Gould - 29/04/2021

A question that has been on my mind since the weekend, but which requires the minds of those with more regular attendance and a longer perspective. How does this promotion-winning team compare to the previous Watford teams that have won promotion to the “top flight”. In a composite team of promotion winners, how much of this current lot would deserve a place in the 11?

Sequel - 30/04/2021

Barnes, Callaghan, Blissett, and the 2006 version of Foster are pretty much nailed on. Rostron at left back, for me: good defender who chipped in with 2 or 3 goals per season. As for the rest, I couldn’t pick fewer than 15!


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