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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1 comment so far

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