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Norwich City 0 Watford 1 (02/01/2023) 03/01/2023

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1-  There’s something wonderfully liberating about having no expectations.

Which doesn’t mean that you’d willingly suffer a mauling by Millwall followed by embarrassment at Swansea coupled with a ridiculous injury list to get yourself to that point.  But once you’re there…  there’s a sort of zen state that you lower yourself into like a warm bath.  It doesn’t matter what happens today.  Anything is a bonus.

The trip to Swansea hadn’t taken much resisting, truth be told, even allowing for the fact that such plans are generally made some time in advance and thus the Millwall game hadn’t been a factor.  Essex for New Year with Mum & Dad was the alternative; Dad and I shared a descent into slightly sweary gloom as the evening progressed whilst Daughter 2 rolled her eyes, half watching on over the top of her paperback from the sofa.  The result was bad, the humiliation was worse, the addition of yet another name to our impressive list of injured midfielders baffling and frustrating.  And yet another ankle injury to boot, surely just extraordinary bad luck. 

An unfortunate aside had been that things had kind of been going OK until they didn’t.  Flat, yes.  Unthreatening, of course.  But more credible than a patchwork team with one free pickup and one kid with a handful of games and a lot of injuries behind him as your midfield pair ought to suggest.  Now that kid with a lot of injuries had another injury and heaven only knows who was going to play in the midfield.  The lack of a youth team midfielder bench-warming at Swansea suggested that there are no plausible next-cabs-off-the-rank in that department that aren’t out on loan somewhere.  To rub salt in the wound the anticipated debuts of new signings Martins and particularly midfielder Koné were also necessarily delayed until another time.

So expectations, as above, were non-existent.  The day had started with the discovery that bingeable chewing-gum drama “Spiral” had been withdrawn from both iPlayer and other platforms without explanation at what was for my own personal binge an inconveniently precipitous mid-season point.  It was already a bloody bad day.  I’d have taken an inconspicuous defeat, one- or two-nil, no problem.  Just get us through this fixture without humiliation.  “Enjoy the journey,” murmured kinda-neutral-but-not-really Paul, a traditional companion on the agreeable trundle cross-country from Bedfordshire to Norfolk in the sunshine.  And freed from the pressures of worrying about the game, enjoying the journey wasn’t hard.

2- Mario Gaspar, it transpired, was filling the gap in midfield to nobody’s excitement.  A veteran full-back who’s never quite looked up to the pace of the game, either because it was faster than he was used to or because he was slower than he once was, perhaps both, was never going to dominate the middle of the park.  No rabbits to pull out of hats, then. No creative attempts at a nihilistic long-ball approach either…  I’d fancied Kaba kicking things in front of a back three, Davis and Bayo charging around after long balls into the channels and sacrifice the midfield entirely seeing as we don’t have anyone to play there anyway in the absence of Louza, Choudhury, Cleverley, Kayembe, Gosling, Dele-Bashiru, Koné and plausible fringe candidates like JP and Sema.  

Nor does the game start well.  Ngakia sells himself within the first five minutes and picks up a booking for grabbing his opponent as he skipped past.  It’s a bit harsh as bookings go, but is close enough to the lingering nightmares of Friday night to make those of us who haven’t yet reached this zen state of acceptance a bit fidgety.

Referee James Linnington isn’t destined to cope terribly well with what will turn out to be a chaotic, high energy, slightly random game of football and early on is giving some quite perverse decisions against the Hornets. The low point is a double whammy; Leandro Bacuna has received moderate reviews at best since, after all, being picked up from the “unwanted” pile a month ago but he is our only remaining central midfielder so there was some sensitivity to him, having dropped a decent ball over Norwich’s defence for Keinan Davis to run onto, being absolutely butchered by the late follow-up challenge.  Davis, meanwhile, was quite clearly dragged back by one of his discombobulated opponents as he dragged Bacuna’s ball into his orbit, a view backed up angrily by those watching TV feeds back home, and yet peculiarly saw a free kick given against him.

Nonetheless.  The attentive amongst you will have noticed the suggestion of an attack in the above, which is more than many of us had bargained for, let alone in the first half and let alone being preceded as it had been with the single-minded Davis picking up an angled through-ball from, yes, Mario Gaspar to sting the gloves of Angus Gunn with a near post drive.  

This wasn’t what we expected at all.  The flaw in our logic of course was, as so often, introspection.  Failure to consider the presence of the opponent, a significant protagonist in any game after all.  Norwich, it turns out, are miserable.  Managerless, yes, but no bounce to speak of either.  No zest, no belief and very little discipline… you’d think, having gotten Ngakia booked without trying after five minutes that shovelling attacks down the left might be an idea but he was never exposed.

City have talented players, but they are morose and rudderless without the sort of injury crisis that might provoke, for instance, a zen state of acceptance relieving pressure and expectation.  In other words, they’re pretty much exactly what we need.

3- This is far from a perfect performance.  But by god it’s inspiring stuff, as if we’ve saved up three games’ worth of bloody-mindedness and spent all our chips on a big blow out in Norfolk.  The game itself is wide open, frantic and breathless;  as such it suits down to the ground certain players who might have been exposed in a tighter encounter where one mistake might make the difference.

Top of this list is Christian Kabasele.  What this game requires is things to be chased and kicked and whacked and booted and fronted up to and this is Christian all over.  He is magnificent, and Francisco Sierralta not far behind him… defiantly, ferociously, on the end of every high ball that comes into the box and emulating his best performances from the last promotion season.  For once Cathcart is the junior member of the party, but for all that there’s very little zip about Norwich’s attack Pukki, Idah and frequent irritant Sargent have enough about them and all come close – if not close enough.

Behind them Daniel Bachmann is brave and aggressive, receiving prolonged treatment after collision with Sargent in the second half;  we might be grateful for lack of VAR in that instance for all that the Austrian came off worse, but have nothing to feel guilty about.  These points will be well won and well earned.

In the wing back positions, Ngakia has the most Ngakia game possible.  His booking won’t be his final aberration, but his performance is dominated by the sort of head-down rhinoceros run that Daryl Janmaat used to be so good at.  I’m still unconvinced by Ngakia, and the reportedly imminent signing of João Ferreira suggests the club are equally so, but this was huge fun.  Meanwhile on the left James Morris is making his full League debut and comes across as nervous and tentative… cocky he isn’t, at any rate.  And yet there’s an awful lot to like here… he doesn’t hide, and there’s evidence of a quickly implemented strategy of finding the wingbacks, but Morris in particular, pushing up high with crossfield balls.  His willingness serves us and him well, and if his final ball is variable it is at least variable and not “rubbish” – there are some peaches in there with the misjudged ones, and plenty of both.  Significant also that Slaven Bilić chose to single him out for praise post-game.

In midfield Bacuna and Mario Gaspar are far from the disaster anticipated.  We’ll field midfields that are both more combative and more creative and yet the pair do fine… Bacuna has what is probably his best outing yet and will fully earn his little dance in front of the travelling support in the post-match revelry.  And Mario Gaspar uses his know-how.  He doesn’t jump in, he doesn’t try silly or over-ambitious things, he’s just utterly sensible and in the way.  And somehow, whilst Dan Gosling looked incapable of keeping up in midfield but would willingly fly up and down the flank from right back, the Spaniard achieves precisely the reverse.

Up front, Kalu is bold and positive before becoming the first to be withdrawn.  Keinan Davis is a trojan, picking up the ball and turning and dragging opponents along in his wake whether in the centre circle or on the edge of City’s area.  Vakoun Bayo, on for Kalu, looks wonky as ever, failing to convert our best early chance of the second period, wastefully, and Sarr seems to be playing slightly within himself… not wanting to risk injury, not wanting to extend himself.   Or at least that’s an easy, maybe lazy interpretation (one that’s aggressively pursued by a gentleman several rows back over my right shoulder).  But we’ll get to him.

4- There’s a downside to the afternoon of course, in the shape of three apparent hamstring injuries taking out Kalu, Davis and Kabasele and extending our list of unavailable senior players to 14.  Which is ludicrous, of course, but probably more than that.  These aren’t unlucky, these are to do with physical preparation… and maybe it is just a function of having to play too many games in too short a period of time, but Kalu for one hasn’t been a regular starter before or since the World Cup.  If there is a failing that is contributing to this perverse situation, be it preparation or training, the one silver lining of our predicament is that the evidence is too stark to be shrugged off or ignored.

These aren’t the only three to require treatment.  Mario Gaspar is another to fall victim to a nasty, unpunished challenge, Bachmann receives prolonged treatment as Ben Hamer’s arrival is anticipated and James Morris will collapse with cramp – in the end seven minutes are added to the first period and nine to the second.  A couple of isolated Norwich voices on the bounce back to County Hall seem to blame our timewasting for their defeat, presumably dismissing the removal of three injured players as part of the charade, but theirs is a lonely furrow, most Canaries fans seem rightly preoccupied with their team’s own failings.

The Davis injury is the killer, for all that Kabasele is the stand out performer.  Without Davis the ball isn’t going to stick, the ball’s only going to be travelling one way.  We play over half an hour without him, it’s a long half hour.  Having had the edge in terms of chances throughout, we’re now only going to score via a breakaway.  We are… quite good at those though…

5-  It’s wonderful, obviously.  I mean, the goal, yes.  Asprilla does what’s becoming his trademark thing, not just seeing a ridiculous pass in the blink of an eye but executing it flawlessly to return the ball to Sarr who is in a matter of seconds a good distance up the pitch, his marker close enough only to make a doomed grasping challenge.  And this is where Sarr’s value shines through because nobody’s catching him, and nobody doubts the outcome because not only is Sarr obviously going to look up and pick the pass but Bayo is doing the one thing that he can be relied upon to do really really well, he’s attacking the space in the box, this time at the far post.  The finish is neat, the away end less so.

It’s utter bedlam.  Bodies flying everywhere, backs slapped, fists punched, limbs thrown around, voices lost, zen acceptance long since forgotten.  Those who went to Swansea but not here have my sympathy but…  this is why.  This is why you do it.  You’ll get it all paid back the next time that you get to enjoy a late winner away from home, and it’ll be all the better for the payback being condensed into a matter of seconds.  Because that’s all it is.  The subsequent celebration, certainly from the point where you can start singing, is simply bathing in the happy afterglow. The ecstasy is all but instantaneous. There is nothing to beat a late winner excepting, perhaps, a thoroughly undeserved one… and even that argument is debatable.

The game’s not done. Despite Bayo’s goal coming on 86 minutes we still have a quarter of an hour to survive and we do, just about, though Sara and Pukki both shoot wide and someone else has a shot that skims the crossbar.  But by now every booted clearance is being cheered and the Barclay stand behind Daniel Bachmann’s goal, which has done a decent job of keeping up the volume in defiance of their team’s lack of progress, is silent.  

The whistle goes, and it’s done.  Whether it’s a significant three points in the grand scheme of things time will tell;  certainly it feels like a huge triumph for the manager and should up the stock of all of those involved in terms of simply putting it all out there.  Most of all, if you are going to enjoy the journey you’ve got to just soak this up.

Who plays at Reading?  Who cares.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 4, Ngakia 4, Morris 4, *Kabasele 5*, Sierralta 5, Cathcart 4, Bacuna 4, Mario Gaspar 4, Kalu 4, Sarr 4, Davis 5
Subs: Bayo (for Kalu, 29) 4, Asprilla (for Davis, 64) 4, Troost-Ekong (for Kabasele, 83) NA, Blake, Hungbo, Pollock, Hamer

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Comments»

1. Kevin Shanahan - 03/01/2023

Winning at Norwich, Watford’s safe seat in General Election terms helped.

The attitude was excellent. Determination to tough it out. Bachmann determined to getting a bruised chest, or limb behind the ball. Wince a minute.

2. Harefield Hornet - 03/01/2023

Down to the bare bones and fearing the worst – in the context of the injuries and previous two outings this was THE performance of the season so far ! Bilic and the players deserve massive credit and if that kind of spirit can be found for the remaining games this season I couldn’t care less where we finish (bottom 3 excepted of course) as long as commitment to the shirt is demonstrated as it was here . As Bilic said after – teams normally play the B team in the FA cup but we only have one team! – Davies and Kabs though ?? – who for goodness sake is going to replace them short term?

3. Leggatts 'orn - 03/01/2023

Well that tuned out to be a lot of fun. Tks for the excellent words Matt, caught the mood spot on. “Who plays at Reading?” was a good final think. I was 68 at Christmas, used to be fairly handy on the wings in a sort of ran around and occasionally kicked the ball way, def got a pair of boots in the loft and an old “Solvite” strip. Should I WhatsApp Slavin and tell him I am available for the game? Maybe we should field a BHappy team?

Matt Rowson - 03/01/2023

Go for it Leggatts, you get my vote.

4. iamthesunking - 03/01/2023

Funny you should mention expectations. We were talking the other day about being someone like City or Liverpool and how much joy one can possibly get from winning absolutely everything, without the highs and lows that make football so interesting. A bit like a spoilt kid who gets everything they want.

Matt Rowson - 03/01/2023

I dunno. I’d give that a go. Rather that than, say, Spurs. In which case you have nowhere to go and are Spurs.

iamthesunking - 03/01/2023

Spurs. Bless ‘em. They have some amazing players and yet something just isn’t working.

Matt Rowson - 03/01/2023

Too Spursy. And they deserve none of your implied sympathy.

5. John Smith - 03/01/2023

Thanks Matt, I’m afraid that after Millwall & Swansea I did not know what to expect. Your report’s always appear spot on with regard to our beloved club once again you captured it wonderfully well 👌

Matt Rowson - 03/01/2023

Thanks John 🙂

6. Harefield Hornet - 04/01/2023

Bilic “Are we on Candid Camera?” – Brilliant !


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