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Watford 0 West Bromwich Albion 0 (24/07/2021) 25/07/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- It’s very odd.  I think that’s the most concise and accurate summary.  Very odd.  Pre-season friendlies are always very odd of course…  my co-editor would no doubt use other words, though quite how he remembers is beyond me.

Nonetheless.  Very odd, even with a pre-season friendly filter applied.  There are 3,612 people here, we would later be advised.  It’s one year, five months and one day since I was in a crowd as large of that in a football stadium, and three weeks more than that since I was in a crowd that large here (three weeks that included an international break, a vortex that also does weird things to the passing of time). 

And simultaneously it feels both much longer than that, aeons, another lifetime… and no time at all.  I’ve been in the stadium since quarter-to-two.  I’m not really sure why. It certainly wasn’t a conscious plan to be this early…  my wife might tell you different, or at least that it’s always my unconscious plan to be early.  But my Germanic roots and all that go with them aren’t having to compete with African influences today and so here I am having navigated trains, busses and replacement busses, sitting in my seat before 2pm and watching Stuff Happen.  People wandering in, doing the “where’s my seat” thing that always comes with non-regular fixtures.  I got in fine, by the way, once I’d worked out which bit of my phone to scan.  No bother. 

Some of these people look as blissfully content as I feel just to be in the ground again.  To others it seems like an everyday thing. There’s certainly no consensus as regards mask protocol, either collectively (not that you’d expect one) or, to a very great extent, individually. Many wander blinking into the stand with their mask sort of half-attached, a compromise position capable of adapting to any new reality.

West Brom fans are dotted around like toppings on a sparsely garnished pizza (that’s you, Sainsburys) but there’s a collective at the Vicarage Road end of the Lower GT stand who are being boisterous.  Boisterous is a good thing, of course, particularly in these circumstances but you do wonder at the choice of “Watford’s a ….  I wanna go home” refrain.  Surely you’re only here because you missed football too, guys?  And you came down from the West Midlands too. You knew what to expect? Nobody forced you?

2 – Not that we have nothing to grumble about ourselves.  My co-editor, when reflecting on the point I’m building up to during the week, pondered whether the general lack of much to complain about with our current ownership/management means that when things do come along your righteous fury is all the more violent.  It’s as if…  football serves a purpose, sometimes, in channelling one’s frustrations and when there’s little to complain about it these frustrations get stored up…

Either way.  The kit.  I quite like the design.  Much as hoops don’t flatter the fuller figure, there’s something underexploited in yellow and black horizontals in the context of a club called the Hornets.  It works.  And, yes, I’m uncomfortable with having a betting firm as the sponsor (though easier to be pious when you’re not in charge of the balance sheet).  To be honest, much as its size on the shirt has attracted comment…  you can’t really see it on the players fronts on matchday.  Much smaller but clashing coloured logos have stood out much more.  Admittedly the sponsors make up for this by having their logo liberally displayed on every visible flat surface around the stadium… perhaps it was ever thus but the nature of this logo, the scrawled font, the lack of regular corporate edges make it more… in your face (when not blending into yellow and black hoops).

But it’s not the sponsor.  And it’s not the design, which is decent.  It’s the now (almost) total lack of red. 

I’m a red shorts guy but I accept that that ship has probably sailed, at least for the moment.  I’m in the minority, in as much as it’s possible to judge, fine.  But the now total lack of red?  The cheerful promo video was misleadingly reassuring, Ben Foster mucking around with a  shirt printing gag using red numbers and lettering.  This alone would have been inadequate, a token effort, but better than nothing.  But no.  Black numbers (no lettering as yet , but we fear the worst).

One can only assume that this creeping removal of red is part of a long term plan.  Do it gradually over a few seasons and maybe nobody will notice or kick up a fuss.  The motivation we can only guess at… the abandonment of a vibrant, identifying tricolore that suggests flames and energy in favour of…  Borussia Dortmund?  Hell, Cambridge United?  Someone else’s identity at any rate, when we’ve got a much brighter one of our own.  The culprit perhaps cites the George Kirby and Mike Keen eras as the real good old days.  Either way, Moosey is the last bastion of redness in the kit.  I hope that whoever is behind this decision was really pissed by the decision to retain the current crest. 

3- Meanwhile, some football was happening. I’ve no idea what our first team looks like at the moment in all honesty; I’m struggling to keep up with who we’ve got and who we haven’t, who’s injured, who’s not signing a contract, who’s going, who’s playing in the Gold Cup and who’s on Love Island and I’m someone who’s normally obsessive about keeping track of this stuff.

Just to confuse matters, there’s already been a game this morning, against Brentford at the training ground so presumably at least some of those involved in that won’t be involved in this which is why there are a load of players on the pitch and a load more on the bench and another load unaccounted for who could form an at least equally plausible starting eleven between them.

Amongst those actually present in this reality one of the most curious is the near mythical Cucho Hernández, who makes his debut at Vicarage Road four years after signing and at least a year later than planned. He does a sterling job in the space of his hour on the pitch of, given the filter of the pre-season friendly, living up to our most excitable hopes. Cucho is fuuuuuun…. quick, strong, relentless, acrobatic. Jesus, he’s got one full cap for Colombia as a teenager in which he scored twice! How many players have twice as many goals as caps?

So Cucho is rock and roll and he does both in the opening minutes, linking up well with Troy to feed Sarr at the far post. We look instantaneously devastating, and then suddenly rusty as hell as Isma, who doesn’t have a great half, gets his feet tangled up and somehow scuffs wide. He’s far from the only one who looks as if he’s working his way back into the groove; amongst a number of stray passes and miscontrols across the field in the opening minutes another newcomer, Peter Etebo, gets the ball stuck under his feet in a horribly vulnerable, almost complacent position. We aren’t made to pay, fortunately, and Etebo improves, showcasing a good line in not so much finding space as… anticipating where all the fast-moving objects are going to be in two seconds’ time and rotating into a gap that wasn’t there until the instant that he rolled into it. That, and a good line in kicking the ball very hard in the warm up means that Etebo’s report card reads “shows promise” at the very least.

The other significant early development however is the departure less than ten minutes in of Adam Masina, the straw to cling to being that he walks off rather than having to be carried. He’s replaced by an individual introduced as “A Triallist” with barely suppressed glee across the PA and to amusement in the stands. Twitter reports suggest that this is James Morris, ex of Southampton; either way, he does well and will rack up more minutes than anyone else in yellow on the day.

4- As for Albion, they’re steadfastly refusing to let the fare descend into soporific, half-paced pre-season nothingness. Valérien Ismaël’s remarkable Barnsley side turned focused aggression into an art form last season; his new charges are on the same path, but haven’t quite mastered the “focused” bit yet. There’s quite a lot of what’s simply aggression, not to say downright violence, and from the off nobody is under any illusions. Picking up two yellow cards in this sort of fixture is no small achievement, and they work hard in the face of initial lack of reward to attain this tally. Kyle Bartley is all over Troy for about fifteen minutes; the skipper has a decent game (and as an aside it’s great to hear his pre-match cheer still rising a notch above the norm, a reminder that the Twitter filter distorts your perspective) but is battered several times before he earns a free kick and his opponent a really thinking about getting a little bit cross now word.

After that early fright – and until a similarly close call in a goalmouth scramble at the conclusion of the half – the visitors are the better side. They’re a week closer to the real stuff and it shows… we’re bullied a little bit here, and if Ismaël can instil the ferocious belief into this side that he did into his perhaps less talented Tykes squad the Albion will take some stopping you suspect. Diangana, who was something of a damp squib in the Premier League after quite the build up, twice threatens here, first forcing a good save from Foster with a driven shot and then ghosting beyond our defensive line to his apparent surprise before dinking a chip gently into the relieved Foster’s arms.

5- At the break we release Ben Foster to fulfil considerable selfie duties with both sets of fans before returning to the bench some time after the second half kicks off, and give Rob Elliot his first run out. He looks more than competent, tick. More interesting though is Mebude for Clevs, a switch which sees Cucho drop back into midfield and Isma switch to the left with Mebude stepping in on the right of the front three.

The youngster looks lively, encouraging more than devastating but certainly encouraging, but it was the more established name that flamed on at the start of the second period. Ismaïla Sarr gave Darnell Furlong a miserable fifteen minutes as we ripped into the visitors at the start of the half… the Senegalese seemed to thrive when being asked to cut inside and with Cucho doing a decent job of running in from deep we were suddenly exposing Albion’s backline. Sarr cut inside two challenges before being halted by a sliding Livermore challenge… Albion’s official site report creatively interprets this as a perfectly timed tackle, but as a benchmark they also described Diangana’s earlier feeble chip as forcing Foster to backpedal in panic. Comical Ali is alive and well and working for the Baggies’ press team, it seems.

Minutes later Mebude was released on the right by Deeney only to be startled by the gravity of the moment; his shot too deliberate rather than instinctive but nonetheless narrowly wide of the far post. Twice more Sarr would find shooting chances before being denied. And then on the hour Troy, Isma and Cucho were withdrawn and Albion’s life got a whole lot easier.

On came Joshua King for his first outing in yellow, and his limited involvement was also very positive – tidy, mobile and intelligent. But as the substitutions started rolling the game inevitably broke up and once again we were overpowered. Having ended the game with a back four with an average age of 17.5 and an eleven that boast three competitive substitute appearances for the Hornets between them (albeit King and Elliot have a fair few from elsewhere), we can be quite content with having kept a once again assertive Albion at arms’ length for the remainder of the game.

As an aside, a quite extraordinary number of sons of famous fathers were named in the matchday squads – facing Darnell (son of Paul) Furlong were Maurizio son of Mauricio, George son of Matthew and Henry son of Dennis (who had scored the Hornets’ consolation against Brentford that morning but only very briefly looked like becoming a quiz question here), whilst on the bench Ryan son of Wayne and Shaq son of Fabian watched on.

But, yes, to end where we began. Odd. Very odd. But, you know, good too. Good debuts, encouraging signs from some older timers, a good number of kids getting runouts. Interesting too the degree to which Xisco clearly values playing actual games in the build up (maybe he just didn’t enjoy training). Perhaps not the last time these kids will be involved and that’s all to the good. Significant that a good number of younger trainees were also on the bench though surely unlikely to be needed (we made eleven changes after all). One squad, perhaps.

And above all, it was just… really nice to be back. You know. Home. More please.



Foster, Ngakia, Masina, Troost-Ekong, Cathcart, Etebo, Cleverley, Gosling, Sarr, Hernández, Deeney
Subs: Morris (for Masina, 7), Mebude (for Cleverley, 45), Elliot (for Foster, 45), King (for Deeney, 60), Crichlow (for Hernández, 60), Pochettino (for Sarr, 60), Abbott (for Ngakia, 75), Langston (for Troost-Ekong, 75), Hall (for Cathcart, 75), Wise (for Etebo, 75), Smith (for Gosling, 75), Andrews, Muwonge, Hunter, Goulding, Forde