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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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

Comments»

1. Ben - 17/08/2022

Appreciate the simultaneously doesn’t actually work in what I’ve said ..lol…😬

2. MartinG - 18/08/2022

‘Twitter assassinations’ – spot on. You get the ‘we are such a great support’ comments immediately followed by corrosive assessments of all and sundry.
I enjoyed watching Asprilla in particular, and thought he combined well with both Pedro and Gaspar. Be interesting to see what the forward line is when the transfer window closes.

3. Ijaz - 18/08/2022

Good right up. Despite losing that 1999 playoff game it still ranks as one of the best ever games Ive been to. I have a lot of time for Hornet fans. They are real fans and not plastic glory seekers.

Matt Rowson - 18/08/2022

Cheers Ijaz. Strictly speaking City won that game (but lost the tie). So similarly… odd that’s it’s so high up many Hornets’ lists (top three of mine) when we lost on the night.


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