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Norwich City 1 Watford 3 (18/09/2021) 19/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1-  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

Such is the prevailing sentiment at the Redwell Brewery in the lunchtime sunshine.  Freshly made pizza and craft beer are delivered to picnic benches arranged in an open courtyard.  Trains trundle apologetically along the adjoining track.  A gentleman with an impressively long beard and a bandanna is taking photographs for the website.  The unobtrusive murmur of pre-match chatter proliferates.

There are more or less exactly the right number of tables for the clientele, and all bar ours betray home colours.  Nonetheless, as above, there is a common tone borne of two seasons of shared experience and a build up to a big game which, if in slightly different ways, is being approached with a degree of apprehension on both sides.  

This illusion of bonhomie and commonality might be easier for me to delude myself with as a visiting supporter given that all four of the encounters over the last couple of season have gone our way, three of them behind closed doors.  If the home support regard us with less goodwill it isn’t evident;  only Julian’s “you always beat us, I have no expectation of anything different” betrays the slightest hint of animosity amongst our affable hosts.  It’s all very agreeable.  Nonetheless, as we reflect on leaving, whilst you wouldn’t object to both Watford and Norwich staying up, if it comes down to us or them making the drop then let’s face it, it’s them.

2- “It’s going to be tight and nervy” is one opinion overheard on the walk to the ground in what was pleasant warmth when sitting around drinking beer but altogether less pleasant when walking up and down hills is involved.  The “nervy” bit at least reflects the position of both sides…  the Hornets have barely threatened a goal in the League since the opening day whilst the Canaries are without a point.  Admittedly their fixtures thus far haven’t been terribly accommodating, but those who remember our 1999/2000 season will remember coming out of a run of tough games to face Cov and Boro, ostensibly more realistic sources of points, and being stuffed by them, too.  This is a huge game, but probably bigger for the home side.

Our recent performances have been characterised by an ability to hold opponents off whilst ceding possession, undermined by an inability to capitalise when we break.  Today, subtle changes in team selection and attitude facilitate almost a complete inverse.  That “tight and nervy” prediction is blown out of the water immediately as both sides start positively and aggressively.  Off the pitch, in the circumstances we may benefit from being the away side;  a travelling support in general, let alone on a sunny afternoon in late summer, generally boasts less angst and more bloody-mindedness than a home support, all other things being equal.  This is only fuelled by an early assault on the City goal, adjacent to the away block in the first half, which culminates in Kucka hurling himself like a human missile at a right wing cross.  His opponent holds him off on this occasion, which takes some doing, but this is fuel to the boisterous fire kindling in the away end.  The flipside of this is that having looked generally difficult to manoeuvre through up until now we’re ceding chances a little too easily in what little foothold we afford the home side.  This will not be dull.

3- Daughter 1 has not joined us on the trip to Norfolk.  She is later to bemoan her ongoing 100% failure rate this season in attending none of the games in which we find the net and all of those in which we strike out.  “I just want to see us score” she protests plaintively to a tough crowd, her mother thoroughly unsympathetic and her father and younger sister still buzzing after a two hour trip from Norfolk.  She will learn, in time, that the only way to cope with what she would call FOMO is to attend every game but some lessons need to come from within and cannot be taught.

The reaction to the first goal is exactly what she’s talking about though.  The cathartic celebrations on the opening day were fabulous, but almost… not tainted, tainted is the wrong word because they were thoroughly enjoyable. Unusual, maybe.  Unnatural.  Fuelled by and inextricably linked to being back in the stadium at all.  This was different.  This was all about footballing context and was deafening, furious and prolonged, abetted by the goal going in in front of us and a multi-player fist waving bundle at the foot of the away stand.  There was an Emmanuel Dennis somersault in there too, but I was oblivious to that until a photo was shared during a dazed, grinning encounter with a fellow traveller in a petrol station on the way westwards after the game.

The build-up featured two of those subtle but critical team changes.  Less subtle, less obvious and presumably enforced were the unexplained absences of both Sierralta and the still unseen Tufan.  But Kiko Femenía is one of those things that you’ve been imagining, hoping, might give us a little bit more of an edge… Sarr is the threat but if he’s the only threat most teams will subdue him at this level.  Kiko bombing on gives you two speed-demons to worry about.  Slightly less straightforward.  And then there’s Cleverley… Peter Etebo hadn’t done an awful lot wrong to necessitate his dropping to the bench, but the mix wasn’t right against Wolves.  Cleverley brings experience of course, and an ability to calm everything down, but he also brings the dynamism to get into mischievous areas and the courage to play a quick one-touch pass where a more cautious second touch would give the opponent chance to get set.  More than once this courage is crucial in opening City up, and this is the case here as Sarr, Clevs and Kiko play a quick game of pinball before Kiko finds space to put in a cross.  It’s a Beckham crossing position rather than a lay-in from the byline and the full back will get one badly wrong from a similar spot five minutes later but this one is on the money.  Dennis ghosts in between two defenders to meet it with a directed header and Krul doesn’t have a chance.  It’s a magnificent goal in both its significance in the game and in the reassurance it provides about our fledgling forward line. The roof comes off the stand. 

The goal also reenforces the suspicion that whilst, as two years ago, there’s things that Norwich are good at there’s also plenty of stuff that Norwich aren’t good at and defending remains one of them.  As the game settles down a little we’re still pushing forward aggressively, and in contrast to earlier games the ball is largely in the opponent’s half.  We’re speculating that perhaps we perceive a lack of pace in Norwich’s attack, a lack of threat on the break when the silver-haired Normann drops a ball over the top for Pukki to gallop onto and finish calmly, giving a lie to that theory.  There are further chances at both ends, not least from Sarr with whom Brandon Williams is struggling manfully but to whom Kiko is affording extra freedom.  The half ends, the away end sits down collectively and Daughter 2 sums up concisely.  “That was intense!”.

4- Danny Rose is a significant protagonist in proceedings not for the first or, one suspects, the last time, and awarding him a representative mark out of five almost impossible.  On the plus side of course a formidable strength of body and will and a footballing ability, a mixture of capability and confidence that betrays his pedigree.  Case in point at the end of the first half when an insane, scorching through ball frees Sarr and Krul does exceptionally well to come out and deny what would have been a stunning, merciless strike at the end of the half.  The pass was breathtaking in its imagination and its execution, and was merely the most startling example of Rose’s positive contribution.

On the downside…  he’s unavoidably heavy and immobile.  A Danny Rose that could still thunder up and down the left flank, one supposes, wouldn’t be playing for us…   but nonetheless.  His trips up the left flank seem to require some form of self-funded period of isolation in a hotel before returning such is the time that he takes to drop back into position, perhaps a footnote in the latest convolution of the COVID travel rules.  This is accommodated for the most part by Norwich’s lack of threat from wide positions and by what can only be a pre-planned covering plan since we are rarely exploited here, but a second half penalty shout looks hairy as Rose seems to clatter his opponent from behind in the box below us.  In any event the travelling support have come down vociferously on one side of the argument as the player himself acknowledges with a thumbs up over his shoulder late in the game.  One hopes that increased game time will see his mobility improve – if it does, we have a monster on our hands.

And monsters are another dominant characteristic of the performance.  This has been discussed before, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re bullying Norwich, particularly in midfield.  Concerns about a lack of physicality given the departures of Doucouré, Capoue and now Chalobah in recent years seem a distant memory;  Norwich aren’t going to be the last relatively lightweight side that we overpower, you suspect.

A key protagonist here is Moussa Sissoko, another with an instant fanclub, who is indirectly involved in the second goal.  He airkicks in attempting to set off a counterattack to guffaws from the stands but recovers to set the play in motion anyway, its ultimate success all the more damning on City’s defending for the fact that he took time for a second go.  Kiko has limped off with what may prove to be the one negative mark against the afternoon (though he’s agile enough to come all the way over to the support at the end of the game, reassuringly) and Ngakia got his defiant head to a cross within seconds of coming on.  Now he’s galloping upfield and releases Joshua King on the right of the box.  King is an interesting focal point… not a Jamie Vardy, not an out-and-out goalscorer by any means but increasingly the glue that holds this forward line together.  He pulls back from the touchline and Sarr has dropped around Hanley to finish superbly.  We look lethal, Norwich look lead-footed.

4- The second Watford sub follows ten minutes later and sees Dennis replaced by Sema on the left flank.  We drop to what appears to be a more conservative formation…  Sema and Sarr much more withdrawn in a midfield four with Clevs now buzzing around with King.  This feels precarious, offering the home side more opportunity to do the stuff they’re quite good at and demanding less of the stuff they’ve been struggling with.  We look a little bit ragged for the first time in this period, and are more than once grateful to Ben Foster’s attentiveness. His rapid and accurate distribution, a feature of his game since his first debut for us all of 16 years ago, is another vital characteristic of the afternoon, as helpful in achieving quick turnarounds as Cleverley’s sharpness.  Bachmann has retreated to the bench in what can only have been a precautionary move if it was genuinely fuelled by a knee injury as reported, but as in the Palace tie Foster looks thoroughly on his game. The Stoke fixture falls quite nicely as one assumes he’d have been back in for that in any case but barring disaster there it’s not difficult to see him reclaiming his throne here.

Meanwhile our third goal is almost as out-of-the-blue as City’s equaliser had been an hour earlier… McLean slices a ball upwards but unlike Sissoko doesn’t get away with his misjudgement… Cleverley is onto it, King is put through, Krul again does well to deny him but Sarr finishes the rebound expertly, a much more accomplished finish than the almost apologetic roll into the net makes it appear.  We celebrate, we see the flag, we feel a bit silly. 

I’m not a big fan of VAR, I think you lose a lot more than you gain in general, but the current minimalist incarnation seems far less obtrusive and therefore objectionable to me for as long as it lasts.  The offside rule is still an issue though…  and it’s nobody’s fault really.  An idea that was introduced to discourage goalhanging has been hijacked as the basis for defensive strategy.  It was certainly never conceived to be something that cameras could adjudicate on with such arbitrary precision.  You do kind of feel that a striker that’s more-or-less level with the last defender ought to be onside, even if “more-or-less” isn’t nearly specific enough for our current reality.  At any rate…  if there’s a time that a VAR delay can be enjoyed it’s when you’re maybe going 3-1 up in a critical match away from home with ten minutes to go.  There are “ooooos” and vibrating outstretched arms in the away end before the referee delivers the verdict.  Somehow Tom Cleverley, who played the pass that was the focus of attention, is now in his own half and perfectly positioned to celebrate the end of the match as a contest in front of the now jubilant travelling Hornets alongside his goalkeeper who, like him, was a Player of the Season for us over a decade ago.

5- And it is over, indisputably; Norwich are as flat as a pancake for the last ten minutes.  Ken Sema’s One Run is as dependable a fixture of every game as the Jamie Hand Booking was twenty-odd years ago;  here his barrelling charge down the left sees him go down in the box.  From our unfavourable distance and angle it looks like a good shout, but in any case it perhaps only evens out the Danny Rose call at the other end.  Sarr threatens a hat-trick and a cherry on the icing on the ample afternoon cake, but is denied.  The game ends.

And doesn’t the world look different today.  We should be mindful of recency bias of course…  we are no more the irresistible force today than we were a blunt, hapless object 48 hours ago.  But in wreaking havoc once again at Carrow Road, and arguably more decisively than in either of the previous two meetings, we’ve shown what’s already possible, and suggested a direction of travel.  No illusion of progress this, this really is something that’s coming together at the point that we needed it to.  

Equally we’re only five games into the season, and Norwich aren’t out of this.  You wouldn’t back them though. Most of all it’s difficult to watch a Daniel Farke interview without thinking “we got rid of Jokanovic six years ago because we didn’t think he could organise a Premier League defence…”.  The Norwich support are no less affable outside the ground, but they’re not smiling. 

Enjoy the journey.  So much easier after an away win though.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 4, Rose 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Cleverley 5, *Sarr 5*, Dennis 4, King 4
Subs: Ngakia (for Femenía, 59) 3, Sema (for Dennis, 73) 3, Etebo (for Cleverley, 83) NA, Masina, Louza, Fletcher, Hernández, Kabasele, Bachmann

Watford 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (11/09/2021) 12/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- I was back in work this week.

I’m one of those desk jockeys fortunate enough to have been able to push on from home during the pandemic and various stages of lockdown, pretty much without breaking stride.  It’s been a bit rubbish, obviously, but in the grand scheme of things you’ll take “a bit rubbish”.  I’ve had a laptop, I’ve had an internet connection and Zoom-y kind of tools to talk to people through so…  fine.  Critically, I’ve still got paid.

My employer has been cautious as far as folk coming back to the “office” is concerned.  Not an office really, strictly speaking;  a research laboratory.  650-odd people are employed there, nominally, so it’s a big place.  Some folk have needed to be back more than me, some of the proper scientists need laboratories and that.  But this week, with controls and ifs and buts and with no coercion whatsoever the great unwashed were permitted in as well.  Many didn’t, but I don’t have a commute to speak of.  I was in every day.

It was kind of the same, but kind of different.  No surprise of course… buildings are still in the same place, most of them.  The site still looks brilliant in the sunshine.  It takes me the same amount of time to walk home.  But after everything that’s happened, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to have been left how it was, to be as I remember it and to work right away.  Rooms have been rearranged and refurbished for one thing, much more easily achieved when the place is empty.  Repurposed for “hybrid” working, whatever that turns out to be.  The people are different…  folk have come and gone,  some of the newbies have been back on site for months, I’m the newbie in their eyes.  It’s still very empty compared to what normal used to be.

Kind of the same, but kind of different.

2- You’ll have guessed where this is going.

We’re sort of, kind of, almost getting back into the swing now with the football.  Not really…  it’ll take longer, too much has happened… but kind of, almost, getting there.  Daughters 1 and 2 are both here today; Daughter 1 also has Kate with her, an occasional if enthusiastic visitor over the years and possibly the last person to bemoan the demise of Chimichanga on Market Street, part of the ritual she remembers.  Daughter 2 has slightly less catching up to do, but nonetheless hasn’t been here since the ghostly game against Cardiff last season, Daughter 1 not since we lasted hosted Wolves (which was only New Year’s Day last year, though it could equally be a decade ago).  Only Isma, of our starting eleven, was involved that day which tells a story.  In contrast seven of Wolves’ starters today were in that matchday squad.

This highlights again the challenge inherent in the colossal overhaul of the squad not just over the last transfer window but since supporters were last regularly in the ground.  We could do with a few more Aston Villas to build those fledgling emotional investments as much as our points tally.

3- The head coach, at least, has built a rapid connection with supporters – a ready smile and a promotion don’t hurt of course – but his request for a barrage of noise to fuel an early assault on the visitors never looks remotely like coming to pass as Wolves dominate possession for the opening ten or fifteen minutes.  Jeremy Ngakia is one of two new faces in the starting eleven…  I’ve never quite decided in my head whether he’s destined for great things or somewhat less great things, and the same conflicting evidence is on show here.  In the opening minutes Traoré, ostensibly the greatest threat (Jiménez, a shadow of his former self, is regaining fitness and confidence), twice loses Ngakia on the Wolves left before slipping a simple pass to a team-mate presumably deemed to boast more reliable end product.  It’s all very sensible but rather underwhelming, like hiring a michelin-starred chef to pour you some corn flakes.

Thereafter however Ngakia gets to grips with his opponent to such an extent that the interval will see Traoré and the rather dainty Trincão switch wings.  On the evidence presented thus far it looks as if maybe Connor Roberts was the aberration, with Zaha/Traoré suggesting that the young full-back has enough about him to bottle up challenging opponents.  His success mirrors our own, as we more or less succeed once again in keeping our opponents at arm’s length despite their almost complete possession.

When we do retaliate it’s swift, aggressive and startling…  Sarr’s poise and awareness on the right allow him to slip a ball inside to Sissoko; his effort is all power and no precision and from a wide angle at a comfortable height José Sá is never seriously troubled but it was on target, a lapse of concentration and it would have been in.  From the subsequent corner Etebo lamps the first of a couple of long shots high, wide and handsome.

We’re physically much more powerful than Wolves, and begin to bully them all over the park.  Sissoko manages to combine power with balance, and more than once wrong foots one opponent whilst holding off another.  He combines with Sarr again for the winger to roll a ball across the face of goal and narrowly beyond King’s toe.  Danny Rose, the other newcomer, is no less prominent than Ngakia.  He does the Robbo thing of not settling for a neat, clean tackle when there’s energy spare to make sure that the opponent feels it….  if he’s less of a threat hurtling up and down the flank than in his heyday and despite looking pretty fed up throughout he does more than enough to justify his selection.  Etebo once again patrols behind the midfield despite the challenge of an early card.

4- Thing is though, whilst we do well to reclaim a foothold in the first half and can make a case for being level on points as well as on goals at the interval, and whilst there are good individual things and a very enjoyable amount of bootering, we’re not nearly coherent enough in attack.  There’s some good stuff there, some good bits but there’s no whole.  No shape, no pattern, no cheap stock goals, not yet.  We’re like a lion cub with teeth and claws that we don’t quite know what to do with, needing to work it all out before the law of the jungle tears us apart.  Not that lions live in jungles…

When King (of the jungle) hobbles off shortly into the second half any sense of a focal point disappears altogether.  This is Emmanuel Dennis’ weakest game so far… he keeps running, but to little effect.  Cucho is a box of tricks and wins a couple of decent aerial balls against taller opponents but he surely needs to be the decoration on a more solid structure whilst Sarr has all the ability and acceleration but isn’t Troy Deeney, isn’t ever going to be the leader.

This lack of shape and purpose – for now at any rate – has two consequences.  Firstly, our attacking falters in the second half… not a lack of effort for me as much of a lack of conviction, a resignation to the futility of the exercise which is probably worse.  Secondly, and partly as a consequence, by not realising your threat you give your opponent no reason to moderate their attacking ambitions.  This was already evident at the end of the first half when right wing-back Semedo was put through at the death with the Hornets busy claiming for a foul on the subdued Kucka at the other end of the pitch.  Bachmann denied him on this occasion, but the same player was put through early in the second half and shot wide.  Jiménez found space in the box and headed narrowly off target.

Tickets, raffles, and we were selling too many tickets.  It’s a bit of a shame that it was Sierralta, up to that point the head on the end of any optimistic high ball that Wolves had lobbed into the box;  as two Watford bodies went up in front of him, reaching for a left wing cross, he can only have been unsighted and slightly disorientated in deflecting the ball home under minimal pressure.  It was no more than Wolves deserved by that point, and Bachmann was unable to prevent a scruffy second ten minutes later.

5- Kind of the same, kind of different.  And because it’s different, all different, it’s unreasonable to expect it all to gel straight away.  There are good bits.  Even the bits that don’t work as a collective have things about them that offer encouragement.  Thing is, we don’t have a huge amount of time to develop those patterns given the unforgiving nature of the Premier League and the circumstances of our fixture list.  We need points out of our next couple of games, on the back of not really having looked much like scoring since Villa.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back in work next week for all that it’s weird, for all that it’s kind of the same but kind of different.  I can only remember one comparable instance in what have been many years working at this place, one time when everything seemed to change and you wanted to drop to the floor to regain your balance.  That was in September 2001;  we’d just gotten back from our honeymoon in New York and Boston.  We’d been on top of the World Trade Center as England were putting five goals past Germany in Munich.   One of the best things about football, as we’ve suggested before, is how it can matter so much whilst not mattering at all.  But it doesn’t matter at all, not really.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Ngakia 4, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 2, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Hernández (for King, 53) 3, Sema (for Etebo, 77) NA, Louza, Cleverley, Masina, Cathcart, Tufan, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford’s Number 9 01/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

None of it stands up to much independent scrutiny, not really.  Investing so much into a football team, finance yes, time of course.  Emotion too.  A fickle, unreliable bedfellow with expensive habits, as we know.

But given that we do it.  Given that this particular die is cast for better or worse, an emotional bond that all football fans understand even if many outsiders struggle to empathise, given all of that it would be inconceivable not to be affected, perhaps even distraught, by yesterday’s announcement as a Watford fan.  If you’re in, you’re in.  I’m a 48 year-old man, I have teenage children, grey hair, I’m closer to the end of my mortgage than the start of it.  I’m in a right state, and I’m not apologising for it.

The profoundness of the impact reflects not just what Troy has achieved but the sort of guy he is.  It’s rare for someone to spend eleven years at any club, rarer still for them to be so conspicuous throughout that period.  For much of his eleven years at Vicarage Road, arguably since the Pozzos took over in 2012 Troy has been the public face of Watford Football Club, the most recognisable face, the most prominent voice.  Whatever the stage of his career – and we’ll get to that – he leaves a chasm unparalleled, arguably, by any other departure save Graham Taylor’s in recent memory.  His role in the team may have diminished but his influence and actions off the pitch have been just as significant and will be missed badly.

My co-editor wrote about GT’s humanity as he left the manager’s position in 2001.  Troy’s humanity has been a big part of his legend at this club.  Like Taylor he’s a real person…  he’s got things wrong – we’ll get to that, too – he gets things right.  He’s got a backstory, a real life that is painted all over his face.

And he’s been unflinchingly honest.  Honesty doesn’t mean being right all the time.  It means telling it as you see it, for better or for worse, and he’s never done otherwise.  This was evident as early as his first season with the club under Malky Mackay; signed on the first day of the campaign thanks to the financial input, it later transpired, of Sir Elton John he inherited the number 9 shirt that had been left unclaimed since Tamás Priskin’s departure a year earlier and was straight into the matchday squad that evening, half an hour in an unlikely win at Carrow Road against a Norwich side destined for promotion.

He had pursued a move from Walsall aggressively, and slacked off pre-season training. With the benefit of hindsight this may have contributed to the slow start to his Vicarage Road career; a disrupted pre-season would often impact the subsequent campaign throughout his time at the club.  In my end of season report at the end of that year I reflected on his honest appraisal of his own poor form in the middle of that season.  Another recurring trend, but more startling in a newly-signed 22 year-old than in a long-established club captain.

He ended that first season playing wide on the right of Malky Mackay’s attack;  the following year under Sean Dyche he was a regular substitute, starting only four games and coming off the bench twelve times by the start of December.  His Watford career by that point boasted an underwhelming six goals in sixteen months and for all that his performances were otherwise strong this was the first of a number of sliding door moments.  Nobody would have blinked had he moved on that January though there would have been (more) grumbles at the “wasted” outlay, the transfer fee up to half a million pounds depending on clauses (or more if you believed Walsall, who until recently must have spent every transfer window wondering if this was the time they’d get their 20% sell-on. Sorry chaps).

Instead it was Marvin Sordell that moved on, and Troy suddenly had a more regular berth in the team.  He finished the season with a forceful nine goals in 17 games…a late winner to deny Boro a play-off spot, an equaliser to earn a point against Hull when Mariappa was sent off, another late winner against Ipswich.

This was more compelling stuff and some soon-to-be-important people were watching on.  That summer brought the second sliding door of Troy’s career as he was sentenced to ten months in prison after pleading guilty to affray. Meanwhile the club was being dragged from the brink of disaster when Lord Ashcroft briefly reclaimed ownership from the catastrophic and defaulting incumbent before selling on to the Pozzo family.  The new owners could have taken a very different line with their centre-forward. So much would have turned out differently if they had, not least for Troy.

There was a lot of deliberating at that time.  For me he had deserved a second chance, but this was largely dependent on his attitude, on his contrition, on whether he recognised the degree to which he’d screwed up.  The call was that he did, that he wasn’t going to let anyone down again.  He didn’t.

His tour de force at Huddersfield in his first start after release in September, helping to secure a 3-2 win after five matches without a victory, lit a fire under the season that was to prove the exception to Troy’s rule.  No pre-season has been disrupted to quite that extent, but he ended it with 20 goals in 35 starts, including surely the most replayed goal in the club’s history.  It must surely still choke you up, even those of you that weren’t in the path of the ball as it was struck, those of you that weren’t the only person in the stadium to notice what was unfolding in the wake of the post-penalty save celebration.

The following season saw 25 from Troy including the first hat-trick by a Watford player at the Vic in over sixteen years.  This prompted the first serious interest in the now undisputed figurehead of the team and after a disappointing league campaign this was another point at which the decision could have been made to cash in.  As a public auction seemed to be taking place in the August the club announced that he wasn’t going anywhere and both this and his acquiescence spoke volumes.  Rarely does a striker stay in the Championship after 45 goals in two seasons after all.

He captained the side to promotion the following year contributing another 21 goals, the last of which a critical strike in a dizzy afternoon at Brighton crowned with the calmest of assists to Matěj Vydra which prompted the least calm of celebrations.  It took a couple of months to get off the score sheet in the Premier League at Stoke but then the goals flowed… fifteen in all competitions, three of them against relegated Aston Villa.  During this campaign he achieved the rare feat of scaring Graeme Souness;  “I thought he was just a big lump but…. he’s a really good footballer!” was his verdict on Sky,  “what are you supposed to do against that?” the unspoken subtext. Perhaps most telling of all was his performance during an appalling end of season capitulation at Norwich; Quique had mentally left the building, most of the team were on the beach, Troy wasn’t having any of it.  A one man wrecking ball, the beating heart of the side.

That summer the overtures came from no less than the League champions Leicester City;  faced with the conundrum of quite who Leicester City sign when they’re league champions the Foxes, mercifully, went for Islam Slimani instead.  Troy would later be linked with Spurs but neither of the roles understudying the strikers who watched on from Leicester’s bench as he scored his most famous goal would have suited Troy.  By now he was a man who had to be the big dog in the room.

A fractious relationship with Walter Mazzarri didn’t prevent him from reaching double figures in the sixth season in succession, including that goal at West Ham that is one of everyone’s favourites (along with so many more).

The wasted Marco Silva season was a difficult one for Troy, another disrupted pre-season and two red cards borne of frustration and only two League goals from open play in consecutive 1-0 wins in late February and early March.  By that time he had upset half of north London by commenting on Arsenal’s lack of “cojones”, their eminent get-attableness, after his penalty had contributed to a 2-1 win.  Telling it like it was again and damn the consequences, consequences that came back to bite him every time he faced the Gunners subsequently.  Nonetheless, Troy played a part in the recovery under Javí Gracia, Jonathan Lieuw in the Independent describing his performance in the 4-1 demolition of Chelsea as “…part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”.

2018/19 was his last great season at Watford.  Eleven goals as the Hornets chased Europe and the FA Cup only tells a fraction of the story.  If the arrivals of Deulofeu and Andre Gray had spread the attacking responsibility Troy was still the focal point, the leader.  His importance was never more evident than in the four games he missed through suspension (effectively, heading off minutes into a frustrating home defeat to another poor Arsenal side), but never more vibrant than in the dying seconds of regular time during the Wembley semi final against Wolves.  The Leicester goal is more famous, but this, for me, is the ultimate Troy goal.  Four minutes into injury time having just won a penalty, more of a pressure shot than the Leicester one, more time to think about it.  There was never any doubt, from the moment the penalty was awarded, no doubt how the game was going to play out.  But to hit it that hard

Both the relegation season and the promotion campaign that followed saw Troy hampered by injury early on.  Double figures once again in the relegation season nonetheless including another goal in a cruel defeat against Villa. Some more of those ferocious trademark penalties peppered the sinister post-lockdown close to the season, As the captain also recovered from hospitalisation by COVID.  On the rare occasions when Troy, Sarr and Geri were able to link up in that campaign we looked formidable.  We just didn’t get them on the field together often enough.

Meanwhile Troy, having turned 30, was lining his ducks up.  Never media shy he started a fortnightly column for the Sun and got a slot on TalkSport.  The ability to be clear-headed, eloquent, honest and direct made him a popular listen but popularity had nothing to do with it.  When Black Lives Matter was thrust into prominent view, Troy was at the forefront of the campaign encouraging taking the knee at kick off.  Telling it as he saw it, irrespective of the consequences.  Amongst the many joys of the return to stadia subsequently has been the confirmation that the voices of support dramatically outweigh the bigots and the morons who claim far too much oxygen on social media.

Last season his role was rendered more peripheral by injury… one goal from open play, plus an array of those penalties.  But off the pitch he was still the leader, the captain.  A club employee reported, during the game against Millwall that saw promotion confirmed, the skipper sitting with his young daughter up in the Upper GT surveying proceedings like a general up on a high vantage point, barking instructions at his charges.

It was always going to end at some point, and it’s good that it ends this way.  Released from a year of his contract, signing for the club he supports in the face of what must have been more lucrative offers.  Everyone gets to feel good about that. Troy believes that his last two seasons were ruined by injury, that he can reclaim past glories.  I hope he’s right.  In any event, for all that we could have done with his presence around the dressing room he was never going to take not being the Big Dog any longer.

Rooting for Birmingham City is going to be a novelty, particularly for those of us who remember combustible encounters of twenty-plus years ago, but it’s good to try new experiences as you get older. If force of personality counts for anything, the rest of the Championship doesn’t stand a chance.

Troy Deeney has been an inspiring role model.  a compelling spokesman, a ferocious leader, a deceptively clever centre-forward, an irrepressible goalscorer, taker of terrifying penalties and a leader of men.  Today he brought donuts as he said good bye to the staff at Vicarage Road, which is of course what any normal bloke would do.

It’s going to take a big personality to claim that shirt.

Best of luck Troy.

Yoooorns.