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Bristol City 0 Watford 0 (12/11/2022) 13/11/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- We’d been driving for half an hour before I remembered that the tickets were still pinned to my noticeboard.

The reaction of the car’s two passengers was more sanguine than my own… patience from Paul, indifference from Daughter 2 who is getting used to such displays of incompetence.  The last time Something Like This happened it was insulin that had been forgotten prompting similar dead time as we turned around and headed home then back.  We’d only had the relatively short drive to Vicarage Road in front of us on that occasion though.  

As a consequence of that one, all diabetes-related planning for this trip had been impeccable to the extent that my wife stuck her head out of the door to needlessly check on her 49 year-old husband’s memory.  Instead, five minutes away from the parked car in Bristol I remembered that my insulin pump had been beeping at me for more than an hour and wasn’t going to last the game.  I left the same two passengers rolling their eyes at the side of the road while I trotted back and did the necessary.

Sometimes the world is trying to tell you something.

2- We arrive at the ground in good time for the football, but without the cushion that the experienced traveller builds in to an away day as a matter of course to protect it from the vagaries of what happens on the pitch.  

Ashton Gate didn’t look like this the last time I was here, for a drawn FA Cup tie under Beppe Sannino nearly nine years ago.  There was no fanzone then for starters – we don’t get to enjoy it this time either, obvs.  Two stands have been replaced, converting a ground that could previously have been described as “homely”, and then only generously, into an impressive stadium. The pies are splendid too and the vendors adopt the preferred “treat them like adults” approach to bottle tops. The only real minus is a critical lack of chocolate.

Simon’s here too, and has brought nine year-old Adam to that most significant of events, his First Game.  This is not, of course, Simon’s first game… he’s a veteran of many terrible football matches up and down the country, several of them with me and several of those on Watford visits to Oakwell in the early nineties when we were housemates in Leeds.  Simon is having trouble getting his head around the presence of Dan Gosling, bearing scars as he does of a teenage Gosling deciding a Merseyside derby in the dim and distant past so profound that I remember their existence before he mentions it.  I’m having similar issues with Andi Weimann, who made his first starts and scored his first senior goals whilst on loan at Vicarage Road several lifetimes ago but is somehow only 31 (and City’s captain to boot).

3- It’s a turd of a game.

Shorn of Sarr, João Pedro and Asprilla on top of Louza we lack any verve whatsoever and all the cracks that their presence renders ignorable are painfully exposed.  Those four aren’t… an unfair advantage of course, for all that they are each surely destined to return to playing at the top level with or without Watford.  You’re allowedto have good players. Had we sold Sarr and/or JP over the summer as we surely expected to, we’d have invested in some Polyfilla (other brands are available) to fill some of those cracks.

But without them we have a stodgy team, and this was a stodgy performance from the off.  Ugly, clunky, unable to retain possession, unable to even find a pass.  I’ve been in favour of giving Mario Gaspar time to adapt… we’ve seen glimpses of a fine right foot and of course his pedigree is exceptional.  He can have as much pedigree as he likes on this evidence, lumbering around like someone’s uncle tasked with looking after the kids but unable to keep up with them and realising that, given his duties today, going for a cheeky curry after the pub closed last night probably wasn’t a good idea.

Keinan Davis is quite tremendous though, receiving the ball, holding people off, looking for a lay off that isn’t there and getting no favours out of referee David Webb who lets quite a lot go in general.  There’s just nothing going on around him for much of the game… Samuel Kalu’s directness that has been so helpful off the bench never gets going here.  Ken plugs away but gets nowhere.  The midfield is congested… for all that Dan Gosling is nominally in JP’s place we effectively have three defensive midfielders, even if one did learn how to attack the box off Tim Cahill once upon a time.  

The big guns are brought on early in the second half… or at least the two that we have on the bench, or whatever shadows of them their ailments – be they knocks, viruses, or World Cup considerations – permit.  To disappointing effect really… we do look more fluid, the away end is briefly energised at the prospect of nicking something (an outcome that Simon says he’d be fearing were he a home fan, negating the possibility of this transpiring by doing so) but we aren’t noticeably more threatening until Vakoun Bayo’s cameo, which is conspicuous for having a bit of energy about it.  He’s responsible for our two efforts at goal, neither of which are particularly close to the target let alone troubling Max O’Leary.

4- City are much the brighter side, if only in the manner of young rabbits frolicking in a field that would be polished off pretty quickly if a bird of prey with a bit of self-respect happened past.  No birds of prey in evidence today – just fat wood pigeons, stupid bastards that they are.

City have dug up Nakhi Wells from somewhere.  Even in the days of inflated transfer fees, the fact that someone paid five million for him once baffles me.  He must be such a frustration to watch… ability evidenced by a fine early cross from the right that Tommy Conway does well to get on the end of (and having done so should have directed his header below the bar).  But then on seeing a newly relegated team (and therefore a prize, presumably) flailing around and desperately asking to be put out of its misery spends the game throwing himself around looking for penalties that only exist in his head.  The closest he comes is when Gosling injudiciously waves his boot around but Wells is ducking his head himself to get near it and no contact is made.  “You’ve seen them given”, but wrongly.

Conway and Weimann are more acute threats.  The former escapes after Davis is harshly denied a free kick following his latest “World’s Strongest Man” audition, this time dragging only one marker along with him. The young Bristol striker rolls his shot past Daniel Bachmann but wide of the far post, thus avoiding the potential for outrage in an away end still smarting at that lack of chocolate.

Weimann comes much closer… a fine cross from the left is met by the head of the Austrian provoking a tremendous save from his compatriot in the Watford goal.

5- That City’s energy, and the mood of a home crowd that must surely have smelt blood, only resulted in this one effort on target worthy of note is one of the plusses to take from the afternoon.  Certainly Hamza Choudhury and particularly Edo Kayembe continue to shield the defence, whatever the deficiencies of the pair as a unit.  Kayembe’s oblong stance makes him look clumsy and immobile, but he was one of our more dynamic and determined weapons here.

The result, too, and a fourth clean sheet in six games (though we’re going to need to go some to match Coventry’s 10 in 13 and counting, definitely a rival to be aware of coming up in the fast lane with home games in hand).  Keinan Davis getting through his first full ninety minutes without pulling any punches.  Any away point is a good one, fourth going into the break is the most that we deserve and gives us a platform.  And of course Adam survived his debut free of any expectations as regards What This Can Be Like (not like if he’d debuted with, I don’t know, a 4-0 win over Burnley a couple of seasons into the club’s golden era, for instance).

There’s a big “but” coming, and it’s painful to write about, the more so because you have to acknowledge it and yet words are moot because you all know this already.  Nonetheless…

Dan Gosling was signed two years ago as one of a number of experienced heads to bolster the squad and get us over the line.  That done, including a surely pivotal winner at Carrow Road and a bravura show at Dean Court, he stuck around whilst the likes of Carlos Sánchez and Achraf Lazaar were released.  Since then he’s been in and out of the squad, all but ostracised for a year, asked to fill in all over the place most recently and most effectively at right back.  All of this he’s done with professionalism and gritted teeth, even when things haven’t quite gone to plan.  An absolute diamond.  

So to see him go down as if he’d been shot, far from any opponent, punching the ground in pain and fury, was heartbreaking.  A ruptured achilles tendon isn’t something you’d wish on anyone, least of all a pro with six months on his contract who will be 33 when it expires.  Just so, so sad.

(As an aside, the muppets in the home stands – stronger choices of noun are available – who chose to jeer his exit on a stretcher are welcome to lock themselves in a room, preferably with the muppets in the away end – again, stronger words available – who saw fit to interrupt the Last Post, and merrily screw themselves.  We’ll let you know when you’re needed again, really we will.  A minority in the home stands admittedly, there were plenty of decent human beings responding more appropriately visible too).

And so we go into this odd month “off” in reasonable shape all things considered.  Enjoy whatever you do with it – it might be worth keeping half an eye on this blog in the meantime.  I’ll see you for the Hull game.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Mario Gaspar 1, Kamara 2, Kabasele 2, Troost-Ekong 3, Choudhury 3, Kayembe 3, Kalu 2, Gosling 3, Sema 2, *Davis 3*
Subs: João Pedro (for Mario Gaspar, 56) 2, Sarr (for Kalu, 56) 2, Bayo (for Sema, 75) 3, Cathcart (for Gosling, 83) NA, Dele-Bashiru, Sierralta, Okoye

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Watford 0 Coventry City 1 (05/11/2022) 06/11/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
28 comments

1- I love the World Cup.

I mean…. surely everyone loves the World Cup, right?  The finals tournament, I mean.  Every four years I immerse myself in it utterly, indulgently frittering holiday from work where needed to be able to fully focus on, I don’t know, Ecuador against Belgium or something.  Every tournament is special… even if my advancing years mean that I don’t remember the last one as clearly as I do the first one that I really watched – España 82.  Marco Tardelli, Schumacher and that insane semi-final, Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick against a tragically fabulous Brazil, László Kiss, Gerry Armstrong.  The France-Kuwait pitch invasions.

I can mark out my life according to World Cups.  I’d just finished my finals prior to USA 1994, and came home from Leeds to celebrate Bulgaria beating Germany (in defiance of Dad, predictably, remembering his German heritage once England had failed to qualify in the way that I kinda do today).  Daughter 1 was born during Germany 2006 – she blinked in astonishment at Oliver Neuville’s winning goal for Germany against Poland in Dortmund within a couple of hours of being born (I couldn’t believe the Polish defending, either).  Four years later and I was getting up early to watch the games from Japan and Korea, often watching with friends in Watford and with a short-lived obsession with squeezing fresh oranges for a morning juice.

There’s a certain purity, honesty and inclusiveness about it, for all the commercialism.  Everybody gets it, even if they don’t like football, even if they don’t watch it.  It’s a joy that everyone shares.

So not watching Qatar 2022 will be really difficult, and I bitterly resent the circumstances that lead me to making that decision.  Not that… anyone who decides otherwise is wrong, or should feel guilty.  But…  I found myself looking at the shamelessly corrupt awarding of the tournament, the “can we stop pretending now” acknowledgment that a tournament in the middle of the Qatari summer really wasn’t going to work after all, the grotesque inappropriateness of the venue from the medieval attitudes to LGBTQ (no, it’s not a local cultural set of beliefs it’s oppression and it’s repulsive) to the lack of facility to accommodate supporters to the flagrant sportswashing, the pitiful recruitment of rent-a-fans to be paid to Behave Appropriately and most of all the 6000 (official figures – unofficially much higher) migrant workers who died in the construction of the stadia having reportedly had their passports confiscated and been kept in slave conditions.  I found myself looking at all of this and thinking “how do the f***ers get away with this?” and realising it was because people would watch the thing anyway.

So I won’t.  Not any of it. But no worries if you think differently, it’s a tough call.

2- Before that starts we’ve got three more games and on the back of three wins on the hop are in danger of generating something called “momentum”, which I think I remember from a dim and distant past.  The return of Davis to fitness and Choudhury from suspension allows us to name the same starting eleven that demolished Luton in our last game here. Fuelled perhaps by that recent run this is officially our largest home gate of the season (though admittedly the variance in a lot of crowds of “about 20,000” isn’t huge).

Unofficially the stadium looks much more sparsely filled than that, a point which a noisy away end makes early and repeatedly.  Andrew French asked Slaven Bilić in the week about the danger of arrogance; his reply was on the lines of “a bit of arrogance is a good thing”, but there’s a thin line between arrogance and complacency and there’s some evidence of the home stands wandering over it which is ludicrous given some of the hair-pulling of the last few months but there we are.  Perhaps, rather than complacency, the fervour in the stands of two weeks ago has been doused by the persistent drizzle here.  Either way it’s inappropriately and unhelpfully quiet.

There is little evidence of complacency on the pitch, mercifully.  Coventry are setting up defensively from the off, but there’s none of the lack-of-direction-masquerading-as-patience that have characterised many of our previous experiences with this approach.  We’re purposeful and aggressive…  particularly significant is the performance of Sarr who, whilst he has his frustrations and will have more effective afternoons is at least struggling, when he does struggle, in an active, involved way.  Chasing, fighting, running at people.  Much more likeable than his more passive performances.  Davis, too, is back with a bang rolling around up front and dragging markers in his wake.  We’re not creating an awful lot but we’re dominating possession…  Coventry are coping, but barely.  Vicky’s sitting next to me – and as an aside claims not to have caught a win since the Liverpool game before the pandemic and so must bear some responsibility for what follows – and murmurs that we just need to zip the ball a little quicker.  She’s right, we’re not very far away.

3- Whilst the game’s outcome is hugely frustrating, any disappointment should by mitigated by the fact that whilst Coventry’s template is very much The Way To Play Against Watford, none have executed it as effectively as this.  We know that without Imrân Louza we are short of a lock-picker;  here Coventry are disciplined and focused in the face of what, for the first half hour or so, is a purposeful attack.  Come the second half they’ll be stretched, we could easily have come away with this with something so – annoying, but maybe a blessing in disguise.  We’re better, but not better enough to take anything for granted.

Those who remember Sean Dyche’s Watford side will be able to testify that a solid side with a little bit of magic dust is a decent recipe for success in this division.  Sean Murray was the magic dust in that team, but Cov more resemble Quque Sánchez Flores’ 2015/16 vintage that survived comfortably in the top flight based on two walls of stuff and the assumption – accurate as it turned out – that Troy and Ighalo would nick enough goals between them.

Coventry’s magic dust is Viktor Gyökeres; for all of Brighton’s reputation for wheeling and dealing you wonder quite how a side that has famously struggled to turn good possession into goals let this kid go.  He looks extraordinary…  his movement as City break for the first time is good but let down by a finish, shanked into the Rookery.  “That’s OK then” we think, relaxing a bit.  But the second break sees him cut inside William Troost-Ekong and force a tremendous reflex stop from Daniel Bachmann which the striker quietly congratulates his adversary for beneath us as the subsequent corner lines up.

The third such break also sees him cut in from the left past an errant but nonetheless seriously examined Troost-Ekong who is saved by a tremendous block by Sierralta, at his stompy, angry, shouty best.  Soon after this we manage a rare counter-break and look briefly devastating for the first time.. JP sending Sarr free on the left, Sarr setting up Davis to fire neatly past Wilson.  Celebrations are arrested by the linesman’s flag for an offside we were completely unable to judge from directly behind the play.  Replays confirm however that Davis had a handful of Kyle McFadzean’s shirt that abetted his route to goal.

It seems reasonable to hope that this development will scare Cov into tempering their attacking ambitions and certainly they seem rattled, briefly.  Sarr is brought down midway through an ambitious run and Ken Sema sees Ben Wilson push a decent curling free kick  away from his bottom right hand corner reasonably comfortably.  Ultimately though we’re grateful for half time;  we’ve looked less convincing on the whole as the half has gone on and need to regroup.

4- Any hope of a change in the narrative disappears early in the second half;  Coventry break once again and seem to have the freedom of their right flank, from where a cross is provided for and converted by Gyökeres.

The inevitability of the game’s conclusion sits miserably in front of us, though in fairness it doesn’t actually turn out to be as pathetic and hapless as what was panning out in my head as the visitors went ahead even if it amounts to much the same thing.  We pepper City for much of the second half, doing a much better job of breaking them down than in the first and the cracks begin to show;  Josh Eccles has impressed on the right flank but is finally booked after a gazillion warnings and is withdrawn from his thankless task against Sarr.  The winger fools his marker with a quick turn and tees up Ken Sema, who steers a shot narrowly wide of Ben Turner’s post.

Kenzema then sends a wicked near-post cross in from the left, Sarr’s diving header diverts the ball across the face of goal and Davis can’t quite stretch.  Asprilla replaces JP and dawdles in possession before finding Kamara’s run with a delicious pass.  Kamara squares it for Sarr to bundle over from no distance at all.  Being kind to him, the ball across his face was at knee height rather than along the ground but it’s still a tragic miss, as Sarr’s forlorn demeanour lying in the back of the net betrays.

Joe Hungbo comes off the bench, which is never a bad thing.  He’s once again immediately entrusted with set piece responsibilities and Daniel Bachmann is twice up at the death – Hungbo’s corners are on point, but we can’t get a touch.  Our best late chance comes when Hungbo cuts in from the right and fires a left foot shot low and firm.  A deflection sends it towards the bottom corner but also kills the pace on it and permits Wilson to make a decent save.  The last chance also goes to Hungbo and he provokes the frustration of the crowd with an ill-judged shot over when a crossing opportunity had presented itself – a blemish that his latest punchy cameo didn’t deserve.

5- In the context of having just won three games this is a disappointment but not a disaster.  Coventry’s long tenure at the foot of the table probably contributes to the frustration but this was always a false position borne of their inability to play home fixtures early in the season after the Commonwealth Games’ rugby sevens knackered their pitch.  City recorded their eighth clean sheet in their last eleven games here and won’t be anyone’s pushover on this evidence.

Meanwhile Bilić is suitably philosophical afterwards.  Not a disaster unless it gets into our heads.  Tellingly however he used the “tiredness” word again, and whilst every club is struggling with a busy timetable there’s no denying that there was a lack of energy about today’s performance;  JP was a shadow, Davis started strongly but faded badly, we didn’t have afterburners to push City as hard as we needed to in the first half.  The forthcoming break, however questionably conceived, might do us some favours but Bilić’s words weren’t carelessly chosen whether an appeal for squad depth or a criticism of training intensity.

See you Tuesday.

Yoorns.

*Bachmann 4*, Gosling 2, Kamara 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 4, Kayembe 3, Choudhury 3, João Pedro 2, Sarr 3, Sema 3, Davis 3
Subs: Mario Gaspar (for Gosling, 64) 3, Asprilla (for João Pedro, 64) 3, Bayo (for Sema, 72) 2, Hungbo (for Davis, 80) NA, Morris, Okoye