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Watford 2 Middlesbrough 1 (30/08/2022) 31/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  The thing is, it isn’t like anywhere else.  Other places…  homes, schools, where you work… might have similar long standing but nowhere has this permanence in significance and role.  None of it looks like it did when I first came in 1980, not even the now-more-green-than-brown stuff in the middle.  There are no longer busses visible trundling along the top of the northern end of the ground.  There’s no longer a hotchpotch of bits of stand and terracing down the east side, nor is there any longer a place where you can swap panini stickers (is there?). The Shrodells Stand has long gone, as has the Watford Observer Clock (though – spoiler alert – only as far as the Museum’s excellent commemorative exhibition).

But it still serves the same purpose, a century on.  It still has what my daughters might call the same “vibe”, though vibe is a grossly inadequate word.  And for all that you’ll have been through a full gamut of emotions in your time here from boredom to irritation to anguish to exuberant joy if you’ve been to Vicarage Road as often as once, the constancy is provided by the fact that it’s a place of safety, a home from home.  A happy place.

I’m invited into Horizons in the GT stand as part of the celebrations;  Daughter 2 is my plus one, eyes popping at the food and the drink and the people not to mention the local royalty from Luther Blissett to Ann Swanson doing the rounds.  We’re later seated, unusually, at the front of the Upper GT from where we see the fireworks, the smoke, the flags, the yellow red and black. The first of the many local heroes re-introduced to the crowd – the legendary Lloyd Doyley and the significant return of Aidy Mariappa.  “Chariots of Fire” serenades the final warm up, a perfect echo of yesteryear for those old enough to remember.

Most supporters think that their club is the most special.  Everyone else is wrong.

2- So of course we’re absolutely pathetic as the game begins.  Just miserable.  Like we’d just been at an all-nighter, stumbling around with our head in a fog, shaking lager cans in the hope of half an inch of tepid Kestrel as Middlesbrough bundled down our right and Ryan Giles – that’ll be Ryan Giles with a “watch me, I’m trouble” sticker on his forehead – is in a crossing position from where Hassane Kamara should be except that he’s still asleep under the pile of coats on the bed upstairs and so Francisco Sierralta lurches over.  Consequently his head isn’t on the end of Giles’ cross where you’d expect it to be, Daniel Bachmann (6 foot 3 and an arm’s length) is still raving silently to the beats behind his hooded eyes and his flail is beaten to the ball by 5 foot 10 Rodrigo Muniz, who admittedly has something of Yáser Asprilla’s bounce about him.  Asprilla, of course, is sipping Ribena through a straw whilst watching Spongebob Squarepants on the TV, nestled in between the loaded ashtrays.  Boro don’t care, they’re one-up and their sizeable support – who sang throughout Mapps’ interview but were decent enough to respect the minutes’ applause for Vince McNeice, Sammy Chung and Tommy Carpenter – are making a racket.

3- Not so the home stands, who are quickly deflated.  But this Watford team is frustrating, not rubbish.  Like a machine with loose connections that will sometimes clunk and groan but when everything whirrs and the cogs align it suddenly looks fearsome.  Impressive.  The trigger for what evolves into a quite dramatic improvement is first Hamza Choudhury and then, and more persistently, Edo Kayembe surging out of midfield with the ball.  We look vastly more threatening with one of the two driving the ball forward rather than both sitting static… one of the duo will surely take a step back when Imrân Louza returns but here, suddenly, they look a pairing that can see us on the front foot rather than “only” protecting whatever’s behind them.

It’s one of these surges from Kayembe that sparks the equaliser, which is devastating and fabulous.  His ball finds João Pedro down the left who looks less like a precocious kid and more like an experienced pro with every game;  here he cuts in between two defenders and feeds Sarr with a crisp pass on the penalty spot.  Sarr sidesteps a challenge to open the goal up in front of him and rolls the ball past the helpless goalkeeper.  In contrast to our hapless start, suddenly we look effortlessly, matter-of-factly much much better than our opponents.  In a flash, both the main men have shown their Premier League quality and you kinda hope that nobody’s watching.

But JP is pretty relentless for the rest of the half.  The move that sees him wander from left to right, exchange a couple of one-twos, play through Sarr under pressure and then show for a pass that would have seen us take the lead had his strike partner seen it is Maradona-like…  absolutely in charge and running the game.  Kayembe’s enjoying his sudden liberation also, one turn on the run to flummox an opponent is almost balletic from the least balletic figure on the pitch.  As on Saturday, pulling level sees us revelling in the expectation of a gallop off into the sunset but it doesn’t happen before half time, at which we’re level despite another late lash at goal from JP.

4- The interval sees a parade of stars of varying vintages, including Peter Walker, Walter Lees, a remarkably trim looking Stewart Scullion and Kenny Jackett amongst others.  Also a rather awkward huddle of geeks and stattos  being recognised for various contributions to the club’s heritage work, none more awkward than Daughter 2 who, having been exhorted to join the crew, flicks second by second between blushing embarrassment at her out-of-placeness and wide-eyed giddy excitement.

Half time also sees Boro make a change, with the more defensive Dijksteel introduced for Jonny Howson, and the game changes once more.  Whilst never quite plumbing the depths of the first half we again look stodgy, unable to feed our most potent weapons.  The visitors meanwhile look like the promotion contenders heralded pre-season rather than a side floundering near the bottom of the table;  they own a ridiculous number of centre-backs, one of whom – new arrival Matt Clarke – was seemingly on our list of candidates for the left-side slot.  His header gives Bachmann the opportunity to salvage his own evening with a terrific point black save – though a better directed header would have given him no chance.  Muniz tries to beat Bachmann from the halfway line and briefly it looks worrying but only briefly – he’s OK, he’s no Sarr.

But Boro are undeniably the better side again, if never quite banging on the door.  Asprilla’s outing in black and white stripes hasn’t had quite the impact hoped – as an aside we have to be careful not to overuse the teenager in our occasional desperation for some zip from midfield – and Vakoun Bayo is brought on as the spearhead but he looks desperately flimsy, low on confidence.  He gets a chance with a header, a cross from the left it’s a carbon copy of Boro’s opener except for the last bit, from our considerable distance it seems to come off his shoulder.  First the redoubtable Kenzema and then Craig Cathcart go down with injuries and are replaced by Mario Gaspar and debutant Kortney Hause, who looks reassuringly big and steady.  Less so Gaspar, who is doing little to allay anyone’s concerns.  Four minutes of injury time.  Boro fans roar their team on.

5- It’s difficult to quibble with much of Chris Wilder’s post-match assessment.  Boro played well.  They deserved something from the game.  And maybe there was a sense of destiny about it.  Maybe the long ball from the back that saw JP, yet again, execute some extraordinarily controlled acrobatics to lay off was preceded by Tommy Carpenter collecting a cross, rolling out to Vince McNeice who played the ball out wide.  And maybe as Mario Gaspar burrowed infield in defiance of his wobbly start and scuffed the ball goalwards… perhaps it wasn’t a shot, it wasn’t a pass, it wasn’t deflected off Matt Clarke’s attempted block, it was Sammy Chung with a little lay-off to Vakoun Bayo who nimbly flicked the ball past Liam Roberts as George Camsell, Wilf Mannion and the rest watched on helplessly.

If there’s one thing that’s better than an injury time winner it’s a scarcely deserved injury time winner, let alone one that involves two struggling new boys igniting their Watford careers.  Mario’s “assist” may have been clumsy,  awkward, lucky…  but tickets, raffles, the veteran was there to execute it.  We take Ilias Chair’s opener from Saturday and we raise it.  And Bayo’s finish revealed a hitherto unsuspected dexterity.  He celebrated as you hoped he might, buried under a pile of team-mates.

As “Crocodile Rock” rang around the ground, as the Boro fans sloped out, quiet for the first time all evening and as daughter two bounced around the Upper GT with a big grin on her face we were able to reflect on the first great night of the second hundred years.  And that seven games in… it’s far from perfect, there’s things to sort out and we really could do with getting past Thursday night with a full complement… but we’ve faced four of the five teams projected to be our fiercest competition and dropped two points in those games despite our obvious limitations.

A special night.  Again.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Kamara 4, Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 3, Kayembe 4, Choudhury 3, Asprilla 3, *João Pedro 5*, Sarr 3
Subs: Bayo (for Asprilla, 73) 3, Mario Gaspar (for Sema, 79) NA, Hause (for Cathcart, 80) NA, Gosling, Hungbo, Troost-Ekong, Okoye

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Watford 2 Queens Park Rangers 3 (27/08/2022) 28/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Hassane Kamara, then.  Whoever he is.  Sold by Watford to Udinese for £16 million, loaned back for the season.  That’s, like, a fiddle isn’t it?  “How do they keep getting away with this?”.

We’re getting away with whatever we’re getting away with because we’re not breaking any rules, self-evidently.  Else, given the brazen chutzpah of the exercise, the flare that it sends up to alert the readily outraged, we wouldn’t be getting away with it.

You’d sympathise, nonetheless.  Because it does feel…  wrong.  Odd.  Uncomfortable that it’s needed, maybe, perhaps, but that aside uncomfortable that we are getting away with it, or even trying to.

But you don’t sympathise, because fairness and moral rectitude is the last thing that such complaints are actually about.  If such was the focus, the priority, then you wouldn’t be hearing about our convoluted accounting practices at all…  we’d be far back in the queue behind the fact that nation states and oligarchs own (some of) our football clubs. Behind the colossal fiddle that is the Champions (sic) League for all that this battle has long since been lost. Hell, we’d be a long way behind the day’s events in any regular week at the hand of this disgusting government.

What this is actually about is Watford’s ongoing failure to know our place. To get back in our box.  A small club is allowed success, perhaps, for a time, if they qualify as “plucky”.  But not if they struggle against the tide, not if they dig their heels in and certainly not if they try creative means of navigating the odds stacked against them.  Such failure to respect one’s centre of gravity is depriving some properly deserving big city club with, like, a big stadium more deserving success.

2- Though admittedly a quiet, inconspicuous box somewhere seems quite attractive as a prospect now and then, not that you’d admit it.  The wake of an aggravating defeat against Queens Park Rangers being one such occasion.  Losing’s fine of course… well, not fine but certainly part of the tapestry, and a part that we’ve been all too familiar with over the past couple of years that we’ve been able to “enjoy” at Vicarage Road.

This is different though, a different flavour of defeat to last season’s regular diet of inadequacy and helplessness.  This is stomp around scowling and looking for someone to argue with, nobody talk to me for a month frustration.  This is outrage at the unjustness and the AAAAARRRRGHHHH of it all.

Because we are unlucky.  Somewhere in the back of your consciousness there’s a voice saying “yes, but, well we’ve done rather better out of things so far than we’ve deserved, in general, haven’t we?  Gotten a few more points than our performances have merited?  And, you know, if things even themselves out over a season then you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth….”.

Needless to say that if this voice had had a mouth, face and body attached to it as Ilias Chair’s speculative shot took a helpful deflection to take it beyond a wrong-footed (but maybe shoulda, coulda done better anyway if we’re honest?) Daniel Bachmann, it would’ve gotten a punch in the head.   Actually that’s not quite true, first it would have been asked what the hell had happened – so theoretical and abstract was the threat that I was checking out the early scores elsewhere on my phone and needed things explaining to me by suitably glum debutant Ryan – and then it would have been punched in the head.

More misfortune was to follow.  João Pedro was back in the eleven – as was fellow will-he-wont-he soap opera star Ismaïla Sarr – and in a deeper midfield role in an adventurous-looking team selection. Despite the setback he was floating and flitting to marvellous effect early on…  trying a little too hard occasionally, perhaps, but certainly not hiding, certainly not sulking.  His acrobatic response to goalkeeper Dieng’s excitable headed clearance was magnificent, a reflex volley under pressure that cleared the stopper from some distance out and landed between the posts but bounced unfavourably onto the crossbar.

An injury to Manaj had already pushed JP further forward by this stage to accommodate substitute Asprilla;  the Colombian was lively again but we look less effective, our most dominant period of the game stifled.  Manaj’s combative lumpiness had looked a lot more effective with more acute threats dotted around him to profit from it. Later still as we were chasing the game at 3-2 Kayembe’s thunderous equaliser was denied by the cruellest of offside calls – not inaccurate, as was only revealed by later TV replays, but (that word again) unlucky since Sarr had only strayed briefly and irrelevantly offside at precisely the moment that the ball was sent in from the left.  A pedantically good spot from the lino – Sarr can’t not be interfering when standing in front of the keeper.  Minutes later the officials deserved less sympathy as Kamara threw himself at another cross only to be blocked off and bounce onto the turf.  It looked a penalty all day long but all appeals were rejected.

3- So we were unlucky;  for the first time this season significant things went against us leaving us feeling short-changed from a game that we deserved more from.  But it’s not all about luck, nor should we be needing to rely on it.  The visitors were excellent, particularly up front where Ilias Chair, for all his fortune with the opener, was a constant irritant.  QPR’s set-up, one suspects, is one that we’ll face from visitors for as long as we struggle to overcome it:  sit deep, stay in the game, counter-attack.  The first bit is the more challenging, certainly with JP conducting goings on from deep.  By the time Manaj went off two ridiculous passes from the Brazilian had peeled Rangers’ defence apart, first to release the Albanian who belted a shot too close to Dieng, and secondly to find the indefatigable Sema who bundled into space before turning and passing the ball across the face of goal and in at the far post to equalise.

Asprilla caused problems too, and heaven knows the 18 year-old’s trajectory at this early stage looks extraordinary.  But for all that, and for all that QPR’s defence had an excitable element to it – the chaos that preceded the scruffy second equaliser was inelegant, the protests at what can only have been the slightest of contact in Rob Dickie’s back before he fell (and briefly attempted to claw the ball away) embarrassed and desperate – we’re making attacking look rather more difficult than it should.  There is evidence of development – the passing the ball deliberately and carefully across the back was here often interrupted by swinging back the way the ball had come… so, left to middle and a turn and back to left again where players were waiting rather than the endless predictable pendulum from side to side of previous games.  Nonetheless, we look easier to play against than we really should – and watching Ethan Laird gallop forwards on the overlap for the visitors, you rather wonder what the plan is that he was deemed inferior to.  Mario Gaspar surely has many qualities borne of his long experience, but a like-for-like replacement for Kiko he is not.

Meanwhile we looked eminently vulnerable to Rangers’ counter-attack, sharp and incisive as it was.  It wasn’t simply a case of us falling apart – Chair, Willock and the others asked the questions that we weren’t alert enough, disciplined enough to respond to and for all and for all that we didn’t get the rub of the green (see above), Rangers “only” squeezed a one-goal win.  But our promotion two years ago owed a lot to us batting away most of what came at us meaning that our relatively dull goalscoring threat was just about enough.  At the moment we don’t look reliable enough at either end of the pitch.

4- Which doesn’t mean that everything is wrong either.  We have a coach building a side on shifting sands, a number of new signings and bits that don’t quite fit together yet.  We’re missing a key forward, a key midfield and what is likely to be a key defender, all of whom surely close to being available, and if this defeat leaves us in a position that’s more reflective of our performances this season we’re nonetheless only three points off the summit.

Daniel Bachmann has exceeded all expectations so far.  Kayembe and Choudhury might not be the long term midfield but the Leicester man is clearly a ferocious asset whilst Kayembe has shown himself capable as a continuity player.  Not a high bar, but one that we’d have questioned last season – he was decent today, robust and willing to spread the ball around.  For the moment we have JP and Sarr – if either leaves it’ll be for good money with, one presumes, replacements lined up if needed.  It’s not as if we won’t have seen these losses coming.

It would have been nice to go top and nice to thump someone, it’s been a while.  It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility here – on both equalisers we expected to run away with the game.  That we didn’t achieve either merely reflects that there’s work to do.  But a rebuild demands patience, so throwing toys out of prams at the first defeat – however galling – isn’t a terribly productive way forward.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Mario Gaspar 2, Kamara 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 4, Choudhury 3, *João Pedro 4*, Sarr 2, Sema 4, Manaj 3
Subs: Asprilla (for Manaj, 31) 3, Bayo (for  Mario Gaspar, 82) NA, Gosling, Hungbo, Hause, Cathcart, Hamer

Preston North End 0 Watford 0 (20/08/2022) 21/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1-  It often strikes me curious that “what the fans think” is treated as something that can be concisely summed up, or even represented as is too often implied both by interviewers and interviewees.  One glance at social media confirms that there are almost as many distinct opinions as there are supporters, any suggestion of consensus is illusory in all but the most straightforward circumstances.

But I think we can agree that last season was pretty horrible.  Not fun at all, even by the standards of relegation from the Premier League at which we, at least those of us of a certain age, are practised.  As for the “why”…  there were lots of factors of course.  Some of which outwith the control of anyone at Vicarage Road;  the environment is ever less forgiving for a less monied club… not impossible, no, Brentford and so forth.  But the fact that there are Brentfords with the temerity to do the job well despite relatively limited resources  AS WELL AS a growing number of opponents with funds that vastly outstrip our own makes it even harder to sustain yourself in the top flight.

The trick, then, might have been not to have gotten relegated in the first place back in 2020.  Again, a rare point of consensus perhaps except… nobody did it on purpose and the criticism of the decisions that contributed to that outcome are simplistic and unforgiving.  The reality is that people who do things make mistakes and – with the exception of the Mogi Bayat story which makes me uncomfortable despite my lack of experience or insight to understand that world – I’ve not seen much evidence that the motivation of the decision makers is somehow inappropriate or undesirable.

That doesn’t make the hierarchy exempt from criticism of course, we wouldn’t be comfortable with a bunch of well-meaning incompetents in charge of the club. Not much evidence of that though really; player recruitment never comes with a 100% success rate and the number of players sold on at a healthy profit suggests that something’s going OK.  The managerial appointments have been less successful, but nobody was complaining about the high turnover when we were doing OK by it. Ten years under the Pozzos has seen six years in the Premier League, two promotions and a late play-off final defeat.  “Above par”.

A lot of the criticism on social media from those without the pressure of having to follow through on decisions that are presented as obvious alternatives to “the same old mistakes”, is profoundly tedious.  Particularly from those whose instinctive, relentless cynicism of many years is suddenly earning them a misplaced celebrity, negativity misconstrued as insight.  I’m conscious that I have a (deliberate) preference for a positive interpretation, glass half full, a “happy clapper”, and will sometimes look daft as a consequence.  But rather that way than the other. 

pne

2- Deepdale is bright and breezy.  The “how to dress” dilemma is normally reserved for the changing of seasons, there shouldn’t be any mystery in August (or February) but the vague portents of heavy rainfall had lead to careful provision for such an outcome.  Totally unnecessary… a relentless sun seemed to hover directly above the centre circle like a drone, pouring itself into every stand and certainly offering little mercy to those sat four rows from the front of the Bill Shankly Kop.  We are grateful for the occasional incursions of the picture book clouds that skitter across the fiercely blue sky.

The team selection betrays a dilemma that would have been difficult to anticipate at the start of last season when, after promotion on the back of a solid defensive record we attempted to re-arm the attack.  Things didn’t go well for Ashley Fletcher, whose recruitment was surely with half an eye on the possibility that we wouldn’t get promoted in 2021, but if he’s the sixth cab off the rank for a newly promoted side (and without the benefit of “less than the sum of our parts” hindsight) you’re surely doing OK.

But all six are unavailable for today’s game.  So too Keinan Davis, deemed “not ready” despite his cameo on Tuesday night and the relative paucity of options.  Cucho, Joshua King, Dennis have all gone, Fletcher’s out on loan and Sarr and João Pedro both injured/”injured”.  It later becomes clear that Sarr is, despite vague hopes that we might hang on until January in the absence of an acceptable offer, definitely on his way and probably to Villa.  Difficult to begrudge him that given his lack of tantrums and significant role two years ago, a fee comparable to what we paid is disappointing given the buy low/sell high model but no more than could be expected in the circumstances.  JP…  we’ll see how that shakes out, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if, having already brought in a good £60-70m in player sales including Sarr but not including clauses and with the Brazilian having five years on his contract we settled for anything less than an extraordinary offer – far north of the figures mentioned – and to hell with what the player wants.  Whatever your thoughts on “the model”, it falls apart completely if we allow gems to bully their way out of long contracts.

So instead we have Rey Manaj and his 1970s banker hair parting making a full debut alongside Vakoun Bayo with Yáser Asprilla dancing around behind them.  Daughter 2, who in fairness has a better idea than me of what a twelve year old actually looks like, rolls her eyes at my suggestion…  but physically intimidating he is not.

3- Preston seem to do a decent line in genial gentlemen of a certain age.  Several are employed on the stewarding staff, several more seem to be having a dry run with a stretcher with another cheerfully strapped to said stretcher.  Preston are the definition of a Proper Club with Proper Supporters, but any bonhomie disappears with the note that they boast a few Proper Idiots, as do everyone else, singing the same songs as everyone else does at the travelling support sizzling in the sun.  “Our support is what you say, my good man?  Why, that’s a new one.  Well done you!”.

“You’re just a sh!t Ben Foster” gets another airing too – maybe it’s a Lancashire thing.  Either way it has the same effect on Daniel Bachmann as it did against Burnley;  the keeper is exemplary from the moment his quick reactions keep out Alan Browne’s alarming early chance.  If the midfielder’s impressive acrobatics had extended to putting his shot either side of the keeper it might have had a different outcome;  Browne is also the source of Bachmann’s most testing moment in the second half, another point blank save which asked rather more of the keeper.  Otherwise the saves that he has to make tend to be from efforts from further out as the home side are kept at arm’s length.

One of those genial gentleman of a certain age has the referee’s whistle, and is at pains to avoid booking anyone for much of the game despite considerable provocation.  Quite how Brad Potts stays uncensored is a bit of a mystery – Ken Sema comes out on top in a scuffle on the halfway line but referee Bond blows for a foul on him as he emerges with the ball.  Potts dives in and takes the Swede out after the whistle has gone but escapes without censure – as does Sema, who despite being the most mild-mannered of the men in yellow blue bounces furiously off the turf and confronts his assailant with a hard stare.  Meanwhile Francisco Sierralta twice kicks Troy Parrott up the arse in the centre circle to similar finger-wagging…  the much vaunted Parrott will have a quiet game, there’s something there about Sierralta looking like a pirate and Parrott disappearing into his pocket/onto his shoulder but I can’t quite get the words right.  Meanwhile I read something on Twitter this week about anger being a secondary emotion;  you’re never just angry, anger is a reaction to something else.  The proponent of this argument has never watched Francisco Sierralta play football.

4- Both sides are better at defending than attacking.  That the game will end without a goal is a racing certainty from the moment I notice that Pete has made that assertion on Twitter early in the first half (thanks Pete) but it’s no worse than a 6 or 7 out of 10 for entertainment as nil-nil draws go.  The limitations of our centre-backs within the desired system has been much discussed but it’s less of an issue here than it might be at home when teams sit deep – Preston aren’t a defensive side, they’re just good at defending.  Cathcart, Kabasele and Sierralta are the equal of most of what’s chucked at them though, and with the relentlessly boisterous Choudhury and the enigmatic Kayembe, who edges closer to the Good Thing side of the line with every pendulum-like game, sitting in front of them we look very solid indeed.

Indeed, for all that the trio that combined so mercilessly for the winning goal against Sheffield United on the opening day are at various stages of being on their way out of the building we look well set up to hit teams on the break, particularly away from home.  The 18 year-old Asprilla – providing yet more evidence of that broken transfer policy – is blossoming before our eyes, spinning like a top through the midfield and pausing only to flick a cross-field pass or to play a one-two.  Preston resort to kicking him up in the air less quickly than others will – the sooner we get him onto João Pedro’s diet the better.

Louza will load bullets as soon as he’s back, and our wingbacks are decent again.  Ken Sema, who has been involved in two of our four goals to date after all, continues to be a perfectly decent option at this level despite his vocal detractors behind us in the stand, but I’m not as convinced as Rob Edwards sounds that playing Hassane Kamara on the right is a viable solution to what looks like a two-from-three problem.  We still get his tenacity, his energy, his saving tackles and his telescopic legs on the right but as he rattles into the box in front of us and is unable to get a cross in with his weaker foot his look of frustration as the jeers ring out is telling.  His positivity is the biggest of his many assets, we should be a little careful with it.

5- So the “problem” is clearly the forwards, suddenly.  It’s not that neither Bayo nor Manaj offer anything – both are good at certain things, but being a reliable finisher isn’t one of them in either instance.  We have no view of our first half attacks from pitch level at the opposite end, but TV replays confirm that Bayo is at least getting into good positions – he’s lively and mobile, and determined enough to bully himself a late chance which he fires into the side netting from an unforgiving angle.  A lot of the time though he’s skipping around rather ineffectually… late to whatever party is going on after the drinks have finished.  Meanwhile Manaj is a decent weapon to have, a good foil perhaps for a more reliable goalscorer with his strength and awareness…  but he should have won the game when an extraordinary Asprilla pass from the left put him through in the second half, to lean back and miss the target altogether when one-on-one unforgivable. 

Both are new, both trying to lay foundations in shifting sands and both will have a role to play but we’ll need more than is on offer here come the end of the window, one way or another.  It’s good to see the likes of Pollock and Forde on the bench, but you’d feel more comfortable if they were there purely on merit rather than out of necessity.  Neither makes an appearance; instead Joe Hungbo gets another cameo.  I love everything I’ve seen of Joe, including incredibly level-headed interviews, but he responds to my gushing enthusiasm to Daughter 2 at his introduction with a pretty forlorn few minutes.  These are salvaged to a degree when, having lost the ball once more he chases back down our right, retrieves possession tigerishly, snaps a quick one-two that will release him into space only for Greg Cunningham to, sensibly enough, take a yellow for his team.

Stuff to do, clearly, on and off the pitch.  For the moment though we’re doing OK…  in a league in which everyone takes points off each other as a rule of engagement unbeaten after five games, three of which away from home and three of which against the division’s more fancied teams, is a very decent place to be.  Any away point is decent, and there’s something to be said for having made (and missed) a couple of clear-cut chances against a side yet to concede a goal.

But maybe I’m just being overly positive.

Yoooorns.

*Bachmann 4*, Kamara 4, Sema 3, Kabasele 3, Sierralta 3, Cathcart 3, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 3, Asprilla 4, Bayo 2, Manaj 2
Subs: Gosling (for Asprilla, 80) NA, Hungbo (for Manaj, 84) NA, Forde, Pollock, Troost-Ekong, Mario Gaspar, Okoye

Birmingham City 1 Watford 1 (16/08/2022) 17/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
4 comments

1- As we’ve discussed before, it doesn’t necessarily pay to think about things too much.  Any Norwich fan would be forgiven for wondering what they’re striving for, what with their last four top flight seasons ending in relegation and the margins for error for promoted clubs getting narrower with every heavily monied takeover in the top flight.  If it’s all about the results, if it’s all about success in the Premier League why bother when this feels such a distant dream?

It’s not all about Premier League success of course.  Far from it.  You’ve got to enjoy the journey and plenty do, else nobody would be watching football outside the top flight.  There are clearly advantages to being away from the top table if you choose to look for them and one of these is a preponderance of midweek fixtures (albeit exaggerated this season by the nonsense of the December World Cup).  

And so here we are, three days after returning from holiday with the opportunity to take in another game.  And if it doesn’t have the sense of occasion that every Premier League game had it’s still a fine, wholesome thing in it’s own right.

2- It really doesn’t feel like the Premier League, though.  I’ve somehow not been to St.Andrews for 20 years but it’s still the extraordinary play-off semi in 1999 several years further back still that is front of mind.  I doubt that Blues fans remember it is crisply (let alone fondly) but it’s as vivid as anything in my head as I gaze down at the Tilton Stand at the far end where it all came to a head.

There’s nothing like the same fervour tonight.  The lower tiers of both the Tilton Stand and the Kop Stand to our right are out of action for safety reasons, further dampening an atmosphere subdued by the club’s plight.  With precarious ownership and finances City have been hovering above the drop zone for an eternity – six finishes between 17th and 20th on the hop will dull even the most blindly optimistic.  St Andrews is quiet and slightly forlorn… though I’m caught off guard by the tatty caravan just inside the turnstile;  we join the queue in the absence of any other source of refreshment just as Nigel from the Rookery passes with a cheery “Hello”.  By the time I realise that this oddity is only serving beer and that City’s plight doesn’t quite stretch to an inability to provide broader sustenance (and very decent sustenance at that) a couple of stairwells upwards Nigel is some way ahead of us in the queue.  I choose to keep a low profile.

3- We’re ten rows from the front in a shallow stand, left wondering whether the occasional raindrops peppering us represent occasional rain, or occasional gusts blowing rain in our direction located as we are just underneath a roof many miles above us.  If you watched the live feed you’ll have had a vastly superior view to us, so this is will necessarily be a mood piece, a mood set by Daughter 2 whose response to kick off is to ask with some urgency why Draco Malfoy is on the left wing for City.  It’s a theme to which she returns repeatedly in astonishment at Norwich loanee Placheta’s super-gelled blonde mop.  “He’s running but… it doesn’t move….“.

City’s team is a classic of the genre.  Old blokes (5 members of the matchday squad aged between 32 and 34), young blokes (five teenagers, three of whom starting) and loanees.  Amongst the old blokes is Troy, of course, and if he’s no longer quite the fearsome warrior of old it’s nonetheless very odd to see him in someone else’s shirt.  He gets a brief, rousing reception from the away end before the Zulu pensioners to our immediate right pipe up with “He left cos you’re sh!t”.  Ironically of course the reverse is true… he left because City are sh!t, but pointing out that your club has become a charity case probably constitutes rubbing it in so we keep our counsel.  “Is this a library?” comes out instead as the mob to our right re-focus on their Horlicks.

None of us would have minded at all had John Eustace rocked up at Vicarage Road in the summer.  We’ll be very happy to learn that Rob Edwards was a better choice and so far so good on that score;  nonetheless, it’s no surprise to see the home side playing their limited hand effectively.  Shamelessly sitting deep and demanding inspiration from a team missing the departed Dennis and the injured/”injured” Sarr, it’s The Sort Of Thing we’re going to need to get used to (and find a more compelling answer to), one suspects.

Actually we don’t do a bad job of countering it in the circumstances.  João Pedro and our own teenage (full) debutant Yáser Asprilla are full of tricks and spins, and Edwards’ reputation for using his wing-backs as predominantly attacking weapons is very evident.  Gaspar and Sema both hold very aggressive positions, and both are excellent throughout (despite a voice behind us, clearly commentating on the game going on in his mind’s eye rather than the game taking place before his actual eyes, twice responds to Ken’s belligerence with a misattributed “well done Yáser!” before berating Sema himself for a perceived failing minutes later).

Pedro fashions the first opening, clipping a cross in from the left that Bayo should have headed on target – indeed, that Bayo should have converted – rather than sending wide.  The first of a number of slightly forlorn feeling moments by our other full debutant, though he is involved again minutes later as one of a large number of deep and useful Ken Sema corners finds Cathcart’s forehead beyond the far post, Bayo flicks on but it’s back off the inside of the post. As an aside, Sema’s good line in corners isn’t matched by his throw-ins which look rather like the chest-passes we were taught during basketball at school, but he’s not penalised. 

We’re far from irrepressible, but we’re doing OK until we’re not.  Here’s City’s big card, and they play it… a quick break down their right, Sierralta’s caught flat footed by Hogan and our side isn’t defending as urgently as City have supported the counter.  Hogan picks out teenager Hall from the byline who tucks the chance away neatly from the edge of the box.  “One-nil to the Library”, celebrate City in a rare outbreak of wit from either set of fans.  They’ll return to type with the traditional inane “WHO?”-ing of subs that was already a thing in 1999 in the second half.

4- Despite being a goal down at the break there’s barely suppressed joy at the unexpected appearance of Ricky Otto as the touchline guest.  My co-editor on WhatsApp is particularly animated:

“Amazing.  He disappeared after embarking on a particularly elaborate dribble against Barnsley in 1998 and hasn’t been seen since.  Delighted that he’s been found safe and well, and wonder if he’s still got the ball….”

Our much discussed need for centre-backs capable of bringing the ball out (has anyone got Ricky’s number?) has been evidenced for much of the game thus far.  Blues are now pursuing their gameplan with understandably increased vigour but we spend rather a lot of time passing it around at the back.  None of the individuals are at fault… Sierralta as a wrecking ball is much needed in this division.  Cathcart and Kabasele are both far more solid than their Twitter assassinations would have you believe but the three together don’t possess the forward momentum that we’re going to need to penetrate a determined rearguard action.

Nonetheless, we’re still much better than City.  Mario Gaspar’s increasingly buccaneering performance nearly resulted in a goal at the end of the first half as he steadfastly refused to backpedal and was consequently involved in a move at three stages increasingly close to City’s goal before prodding a shot, Tommy Smith style, beyond the advancing John Ruddy only to see it cleared off the line.  TV pics reveal that it really was a very close thing but we had no view on this from the far end of the pitch and of course there’s no such thing as “a bit of a goal”.

In the second half however Gaspar is on the rampage again, sharing a neat 1-2 with Asprilla before slamming across a ball that is deflected to the redoubtable Ken Sema.  Sema appears to smash a shot back across the face of goal and into the bottom corner, though kung-fu wardrobe Rey Manaj, on as a well-judged, brutal change of approach to Vakoun Bayo, appears to have gotten (and certainly claims) a decisive touch.

Troy comes off before the end, and the away end relaxes at what had felt a horribly possible denouement disappearing out of view.  Instead it’s Blues’ butt-cheeks clenched for the final minutes as the prospect of Villa loanee Keinan Davis claiming a winner on debut loomed.  It doesn’t happen – more to come from Keinan, instead it’s the relentlessly positive Joe Hungbo that catches the eye, not least with a vicious free kick that Cathcart flicks over at the near post.  Squeezing more minutes in for him feels like something that ought to happen.

5- The game ends.  Troy treads a fine line in walking halfway to the away end and applauding, acknowledging the Watford acclaim without going full Roy Hodgson.   Rob Edwards meanwhile leads his team to the front of the stand, where Kenzema makes sure that his shirt goes to the couple brandishing a Sweden flag in the second row.  

Edwards’ take is about right.  Any away point is a good one, particularly when coming from behind but… coulda.  Maybe shoulda.  Definitely coulda.  It will come, pieces are still shifting in and out. It will come.

The walk back to the car in the drizzle is long, extended by stewards blocking certain routes and by the warren of increasingly congested roads around St Andrews.  We trudge in silence as we approach the post-match analysis in the car, before Daughter 2 pipes up.  “I actually like the rain.  Sun is too hot to walk in”.

That’s my girl. 

See you at Deepdale.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, *Gaspar 4*, Sema 4, Kabasele 3, Sierralta 2, Cathcart 3, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 3, Asprilla 3, Bayo 2, João Pedro 3
Subs: Menaj (for Bayo, 55) 4, Gosling (for Asprilla, 76) NA, Davis (for Kayembe, 88) NA, Hungbo (for Sema, 88) NA, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia, Okoye

Watford 1 Sheffield United 0 (01/08/2022) 02/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- I was in a band at school.

There were many bands…  an ever-evolving morass of entities with rotating membership and varying levels of competence, musicianship and ambition.  The Rosslyns were lead by Kieron, who wrote the lyrics, sang the songs and played guitar, abetted by Howard’s musical genius.  I played bass guitar, functionally, dutifully.  We recorded stuff mostly in Kieron’s bedroom on the best equipment we could afford aged 16, which wasn’t much.  I remember it as being both tremendously intense, and intensely tremendous.  (Both Howard and Kieron wrote for BSaD occasionally, incidentally, sometimes together).

Some 32 years later, we got a record deal.

2- It feels like longer than 32 years since Watford won at home.  Actually it’s only been eight months or so, but there’s clearly something in the warm, sticky air this evening, discernible above the familiar and welcome hubbub of  Vicarage Road on match day.  There’s so much that’s normal and gladly so…  the queue snaking out of Fry Days, groups of both denominations stopping and chatting in this odd social environment, like a local that stretches the length of the street, all the foot-traffic gently rolling in the same direction.

And yet. Like an episode of Doctor Who when something passes quickly in front of the camera to distort an otherwise tranquil scene to let you know that Something’s Up… we emerge from Wiggenhall Road and cross towards the newsagent for the first lucky chocolate of the season.  Emerging around the corner from Fearnley Street, shrew-like, awkward, nervous and stilted in his movement is Dave Bassett, the ghost of Christmas past… he shuffles past unnoticed and ostensibly unharassed.  Weird.  Then there’s the clamminess of the evening… yes it’s the first day of the season and sunshine is traditional but this is sticky.  This doesn’t feel right at all.

Rob Edwards’ first competitive team selection is confirmed before we’re in the ground, and there’s no mistaking the oddness now.  Both Sarr and Dennis in the starting eleven is…  certainly unexpected.  We didn’t think they’d both still be here by this stage, let alone starting together.  And the subsequent thought process is slow and careful…  we know that high on our long list of failings last season was not realising, not capitalising upon the strengths of our forwards.  We know that both want to leave and that the club probably need/want to sell even if they won’t scupper their long term business model by accepting less than they’ve deemed appropriate and thus appearing bulliable.  We also know that this is a forward line that should have been strong in the Premier League but that Rob Edwards would be insane to contaminate the start of his tenure by fielding uncommitted players with all the repercussions that would have on and off the pitch.  He doesn’t come across as insane.

Jesus, we might actually win this…

3- An albeit understrength United side represent the first of three strong challenges at the start of the season, all to be faced on Sky and under floodlights.  (This one, incidentally, will be the only one BHaPPY reports on, since West Brom and Burnley will be viewed, with any luck, from a bar in Greece).  There’s plenty of experience in the side, and whilst their attacking threat is largely contained they will end the first half level in score and in merit having fashioned three attempts on target…  a low drive from Berge whose deflection could have caused a bigger problem for Bachmann than it did on a less favourable day, a cute shot from Jebbison that Bachmann, if never really troubled by, has to push over and a weak shot from Ndiaye after he was played through on the left. “In the Premier League that would have been a goal”, murmurs a voice behind me.  He’s right, but we’re not in Kansas any more. (As an aside, I’m disappointed to find no evidence of Ndiaye being related to one-time Southend forward Sada Ndiaye, who the Roots Hall announcer awarded man of the match to in the 3-0 win in 1997 in which Peter Kennedy scored a hat-trick).

At the other end… there are occasional whispers of last seasons concerns.  Sarr’s diffidence, Dennis’ selfishness.  More evident however are the tricks and flicks that contributed to that ridiculous “most nutmegs in the world ever” statistic, a stain on our miserable season but far more acceptable in an effective side.  And here we are effective, since for however long it lasts a front three of Sarr, Dennis and João Pedro is completely unreasonable in the Championship. An early clarion call is sounded as Dennis humiliates his marker on our left, spinning onto the escaping ball and leaving his opponent for dead before releasing Sarr to drive into the side netting under attention from a United defender.  From then on the trio attack like sand snakes and if we only manage one on-target attempt ourselves in the first half, a header low into the corner from João Pedro after some good work on the left from Ken Sema which Foderingham makes look easier than it probably was, then it’s clear that United are very aware of the threat and taking precautions.  Paul Heckingbottom will later complain of his side’s lack of risk-taking, but you can understand that tendency faced with this forward line.

4- If the first half wasn’t high on goalmouth action it throbbed with energy and commitment.  No half-hearted feel-your-way-into-the-season, a point’s probably ok fannying from either side.  There was a bubbling volatility throughout, which spilled over when a Cleverley foul provoked some handbags in the United half after which Sierralta and John Fleck were both booked.  Referee Josh Smith has been waving yellow cards around freely and inconsistently without ever being terribly in control of anything, and seemed to have agreed a peculiar throw-in amnesty on the east side of the ground where both Enda Stevens (in the first half) and Ken Sema (in the second) get away with a series of very iffy looking throw-ins.

We start the second half assertively, and United are properly rocking for the first time.  In what appears to be a deliberate strategy in being out of kilter with the rest of the game, the visitors up the shithousery significantly…  balls are being kicked away, niggly provocative little fouls are suddenly in order.  Ndiaye stands on Daniel Bachmann’s toes as a corner lines up, referee Smith delays the kick to warn him and when he proceeds in kind anyway the official shrugs, blows, and runs upfield without feeling the need to explain further.

United’s approach is justified by the tipping of the balance of the game, and by the perfectly accurate suspicion that João Pedro in particular is prone to reacting to such provocation – indeed he’s already on a yellow having foolishly exacted revenge on Enda Stevens for an unpunished hack a minute earlier.  But he’s also United’s tormentor in chief, fuelling the expectation that he’s our likeliest difference maker this season in the long run.  Simultaneously balletic, bold, delicate and hard as nails, he’s the best player on the pitch by some distance.

The Blades’ strategy backfires badly.  Their niggling aggravates the crowd and lights a fire under the Watford team who are now attacking with fervour.  When the goal comes it is nonetheless, almost inevitably, a break at speed as a United attack breaks down – Heckingbottom will fatuously get booked for protesting that referee Smith didn’t anticipate their set play and facilitate it by getting out of the way.  Instead we rattle towards the Rookery;  Kamara has been toiling away on his weaker side but seems to have a freer role in the second half and here pops up left of centre.  He holds off a challenge which leads to his crossfield ball dropping behind Dennis, but the Nigerian reignites the attack and both his pass to Sarr and Sarr’s measured pass into the path of João Pedro are perfect.  The Brazilian slams the ball underneath the advancing goalkeeper and the stadium erupts in relief.

5- Sheffield briefly lose their heads after the goal.  You’d rather have seen a foot on the neck and a second goal than the slick showboating and hurrahing since the visitors are never sufficiently out of it to render this a done deal, coming closest when an Egan header from a set piece is neither fish nor fowl, passing between perhaps inattentive attackers and the far post.  They outnumber us in midfield, effectively, leaving Cleverley and Kayembe, who has perhaps his best game to date in a yellow shirt, to firefight manfully against Norwood, Fleck and Berge – never quite overrun, though the threat is there.  Meanwhile Rey Manaj comes on for an entertaining cameo… built like a building site foreman, he combines a good touch and awareness with an endearing brutality – one box quickly ticked in the quest to be a credible custodian of the number 9 shirt at any rate.

After six largely untroubled added minutes the game ends.  Not without concerns… this is surely the dying embers of last year’s model, what could have been, and yet we only managed one goal for all that.  But a first win for Rob Edwards, getting that monkey off our backs at the earliest opportunity, was priceless and a jammy one-nil would have been just fine.  This wasn’t jammy; we fully deserved it, even if we might not have gotten away with it with an unfavourable wind.

Adding weight to the suggestion of wiser men than me that everything will be alright in the end.  And if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Kamara 3, Sema 3, Kabasele 4, Sierralta 3, Cathcart 3, Kayembe 4, Cleverley 4, *João Pedro 4*, Sarr 3, Dennis 4
Subs: Manaj (for Sarr, 81) NA, Gosling (for  João Pedro, 87) NA, Bayo, Asprilla, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia, Hamer