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Watford 2 Blackpool 0 (14/01/2023) 15/01/2023

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1-   So Monday’s a big day.

Well not really.  Not in the grand scheme of things.  But sort of significant, to me.  Or it should be.  A milestone, a big one, an Important one.

I remember Dad telling me on my fifteenth birthday, “The first fifteen are the longest.  The next are half as long.  The next half as long as that.”.   Difficult to hear at 15 but ain’t that the truth?  I remember being seventeen, it was only a couple of years ago surely.   Not, at any rate, 33 years.

But 50 doesn’t bother me any more than 40 did.  The difference is that whilst 40 went relatively undercelebrated (Cristian Battocchio’s goal against Huddersfield that week notwithstanding), 50 has already seen a quite splendid party.  A week ago, shared with similarly aged but much older in body and spirit Dave and hosted at Horizons beneath the GT Stand a week ago.  Fine thing it was too;  if you were there you know, thank you again.  If you weren’t we’d have liked to have invited you but there was a capacity limit and this was worse than planning my wedding.  At least with weddings everybody KNOWS it’s a nightmare. 

Anyway.  It was great.  Sarah and John bought us each “You’re 100!” cards on the basis that we’d celebrated together.  Worlds were colliding all over the place…  friends from work (an easy filter here, panto aficionados only), friends from acting, friends from Watford, family.  Dave’s friends, Dave’s family.  Probably a few people who neither of us knew but who followed the unusual stream of partygoers in from Vicarage Road  on a Friday night and took their chances.  Plus… a respectable number of people who I shared the age of seventeen with, and all that it entails.

Ben was one of these.  He was partly responsible for the biggest of those what?  what? world colliding things by not just getting up for the Cassiobury park run the morning after the night before, but doing the run with Chloe from work (and panto), who belongs to a different window of life altogether.  It was his first time in a football stadium.  Today he’s back for a first actual football game.

2-  Watford’s the thread that connects everything of course and there’s no shortage of backstory to share.  We were in the band at school, Ben the lead singer and guitarist, me the bassist.  Drummer Howard, still a mutual friend and also at the party, was here for the last game in front of the Shrodells, we discuss.

Whether Ben comes again depends rather on the level of fare that’s served up to him, one suspects.  We haven’t been friends for 35+ years without discussing football of course but it’s not a topic that Ben’s ever been preoccupied with or particularly interested in. So this is important…  not about being proven right, more about adequately conveying the point.  The annual celebration of GT and the acknowledgement of the passing of Luca Vialli probably don’t hurt in that regard.

As for Watford on the pitch, these two home games against vulnerable and beatable looking opponents should be a springboard for the rest of the season;  unfortunately our injury list is still preposterous, which means that today is about muddling through, again, and finding a way to win the game.  We do have numbers though, suddenly, in the shape of three new signings with Koné starting, Martins and Ferreira on the bench for the first time whilst Hamza Choudhury is a welcome first man back in action.

There’s inevitably going to be a bit of apprehension about Choudhury’s return;  given the context of our injury list, given accusations of injuries being worsened by playing people who shouldn’t be playing. Hamza, however, betrays no such concerns;  he does his thing from the off, stomping on any semblance of Blackpool possession with an audible crunch.  “….his hair’s f***ing massive…” chant the 1881 appreciatively.

The first half has started well enough;  we look bright and purposeful and the game is condensed at the Vicarage Road end of the pitch.  Ismaïla Sarr slaps an early shot against the bar, the visitors can’t get out of their half.  It proves a false dawn, however.  The Seasiders are a bit like us only less so in that they have a bit of an injury list and a a couple of shiny new toys to play with, but buoyed by a big win over Forest in the cup they’re resolute and dropping deep at every opportunity.

They don’t look like scoring, but we’re not making a lot of progress either.  There’s no space to exploit and we have neither the guile to play through the massed ranks nor the heft to cleave apart an opening through brute force.  The first half descends into a soggy mess.  There’s limited suggestion of the impatience that this might normally provoke – everyone knows the score as far as player availability is concerned.  Nonetheless, a lot of frustration is being redirected at referee Gavin Ward.  His performance is pathetically reluctant, like someone who has broken wind and is looking around for someone else to take responsibility… when Arsenal loanee Charlie Patino commits a cynical foul the decibels of irritation increase with every second of Ward’s “I don’t want to be here any more than you do” lecture, at which the floppy-fringed Patino nods earnestly as soon as it’s clear he’s not going to get booked.

3- So for all the assorted heroics of the second half, which we’re getting to, perhaps the biggest gold star of the afternoon goes to Slaven Bilić.  Neither William Troost-Ekong nor Jeremy Ngakia had done anything particularly wrong in the first half, but their replacement at the break was bold and decisive.  Something Needed To Be Done, and Slav did it by decongesting the middle of the park and giving us a greater attacking emphasis as new boys Ferreira and Martins entered the fray.

This was to pay off handsomely.  There was an obvious risk inherent, no cost-free easy play this.  Blackpool suddenly had more space to play into and with the onus being on the Hornets to attack, conceding on the counter became more than a remote possibility.  Supposed summer target Josh Bowler, back from his odd sojourn in Greece and sporting his “I’m the star, me” headband was suddenly prominent after a quiet first half in which his free kick down Bachmann’s throat had been the only effort on target.

But blows were being traded, as if the first half had seen two boxers forced into a clinch and the interval change prized them apart again.  The home side were to have much the more powerful punch.  The second half saw a gripping contest…  Stuff was happening all over the pitch.  Prominent in this was Sarr, whose performance throughout was tenacious and dogged, betraying a leadership that hasn’t always been part of his make up.  Similarly impressive was James Morris, who has steadily grown in confidence throughout his little run in the side in Kamara’s absence.  Tirelessly up and down the flanks, bold and aggressive in getting to the byline but making sensible decisions he looked like he was having a whale of a time.  The shout of “well done Wilf” from over my shoulder after yet another good overlap might have been a little excitable – no pressure, son – but he keeps his place when Kamara’s back in contention next Saturday for my money.

The two combine well early in the second half, Morris making light of close attention to play Sarr through with a terrifically weighted pass.  Sarr squares to the near post where Bayo guides a shot towards the bottom corner.  Chris Maxwell’s dive had anticipated a flick across goal, but the keeper does extremely well to block the effort with a dragging heel.

4- The thing about Bayo, however, is that he’s supporting cast.  A backing singer.  He’s not made to be the main man, for all his decent record of key goals off the bench.  Midway through the half Bilić rolls the dice again and replaces Bayo with seventeen year-old Tobi Adeyemo, a development which sees Bayo slouch grumpily off the pitch to the increasing disquiet of the home stands.  Being replaced by a teenager wasn’t a great look, but Bayo hadn’t done enough with his 67 minutes.  Yáser Asprilla, still looking about 12 himself, is also introduced for Choudhury in another offensive move.

The goal, which would have been a thing of joy and wonder as the cherry on the cake of a much bigger win, let alone in breaking the deadlock here, comes four minutes later but by this stage Adeyemo has already put himself about.  Rangy rather than powerful (but, you know, seventeen…) he is providing a combative presence that we’ve been missing.

The impetus for the goal comes from Sarr, of all people, snapping into a gritty midfield challenge to win possession before releasing Asprilla.  The Colombian teenager has been playing like a character in a computer game with a special move, repeatedly pressing the “angled through ball” button in his own four-minute build up.  But as at Norwich he executes a perfect pass to unpeel the defence.  Matheus Martins had started well, his bleached blonde hair making him stand out in the drizzly gloom.  He had looked quick, direct and clever but had had a quiet ten minutes or so building up to this.  He explodes onto Asprilla’s pass as if released from a cage and slams a shot at Maxwell that lacks in precision but almost beats the keeper through sheer violence.  Maxwell blocks and the ball spins past Adeyemo…  any young striker would welcome an open goal minutes into their debut but this isn’t a tap in, there’s admirable and surprising composure in how the youngster alters his body position and allows the ball to bounce in defiance of approaching attention before hooking it fiercely back inside the post.

His celebration is magnificent, and mirrors the response in the stands – pure joy to start with, he has the armspan of an albatross.  Then giddy disbelief as he clutches his fingers to his scalp before being mobbed, youth team colleague Jack Grieves first on the scene from his touchline warm-up.  The youngster’s popularity is evident from the reaction of his teammates, who make a bee-line for the mob in the corner.

Blackpool will have half-chances, there’s fight in them and their quest for survival doesn’t look hopeless but this is only going to end one way.  Martins slides in Sarr who cuts inside and draws a clumsy challenge.  He’s looking for a penalty and it’s a good shout, not given.  There’s real joy in our football at the turn of events, and the win gets a gloss that it probably deserves a quarter of an hour after the first.  Koné hasn’t been quite what I expected…  less of a tank, slight, too easily knocked off balance (tho… only 20, so younger for instance than JP, Pollock or Morris for all his World Cup pedigree).  What he does offer is agility, wit and the ability to move with the ball.  And, in the 86th minute, a quarterback pass as he picks up the ball deep in our half, turns and howls a missile towards Martins that invites the Brazilian teenager to hare onto it past nervous defenders.  Goalkeeper Maxwell, who’s done OK to this point, is equally nervous as the game finally gambols away from Blackpool and takes the forward out clumsily.  He gets a booking, as does James Husband for a misplaced observation to the surprise of nobody who’s seen the gobby little idiot play before (Patino will finally get his yellow card too to round things off).  Sarr sends Maxwell the wrong way to seal the win and Ben nods appreciatively as Joy Division get an airing, “Sarr…. Sarr will tear you apart.  Again.”.

5- The ongoing involvement of Jack Grieves (great great grandson of Skilly and so on) had been telegraphed by a BBC article on Friday.  He’s brought on as Sarr leaves to a deserved ovation, and kicks an opponent up the arse within 20 seconds.  “Well in Jack” murmurs everyone…. he’s already “Jack”, not “Grieves” or even “lad” or “son”.  As we trundle up Occupation Road someone points out that we ended the game with seven players on the pitch aged 21 or younger, which is probably a good thing in the context of having won it.  By this point Tobi Adeyemo has already bashfully, awkwardly done the high-five run along the front of the Rookery, the enduring image of the afternoon.

A huge difference here between the impact of winning and not doing so.  In the latter case… we glumly wave goodbye to more points lost in a winnable home fixture and the returning players are desperately needed to halt a slide down the congested league table.  But a win, in the circumstances, with the kids and the new boys shining (Ferreira, too, has looked bold and positive) and suddenly we’re only building momentum as the likes of Louza, JP, Davis and so on re-enter the fray as extra weapons.

The cost of us farting around for too much of the season has not, as it might have deserved, been the abandonment of our promotion hopes.  But it has seen the top two gallop off into the sunset.  Sheffield United are a long way ahead and can afford to lose a couple of games and still be comfortable.  We will need them to implode, but can contribute to that possibility by pushing on from here in a way that seems quite achievable.

Ben, one suspects, will be back.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Ngakia 3, Morris 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Cathcart 4, Choudhury 4, Mario Gaspar 3, Koné 4, *Sarr 4*, Bayo 2
Subs: Ferreira (for Ngakia, 45) 3, Martins (for Troost-Ekong, 45) 4, Asprilla (for Choudhury, 68) 3, Adeyemo (for Bayo, 68) 4, Grieves (for Sarr, 94) NA,  Pollock, Okoye

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Comments»

1. Tim Turner - 15/01/2023

Great report, as ever.

It’s worth adding that maybe we’ve finally broken the curse of the GT Matchday – I haven’t got the stats, but in my memory they’ve invariably been turgid, win-free games, as if the mood of sombre remembrance has been transmitted to the players. But a goal created by two 19-year-olds and scored by a 17-year-old is the perfect way to celebrate GT’s legacy. My favourite goal (and goal celebration) of the season so far. I’ve only just got my voice back.

Matt Rowson - 15/01/2023

Indeed. And in the 72nd minute to boot.

2. Graham French - 15/01/2023

Terrific report as usual, Matt. My first game since QPR back in August. And undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable (2nd half anyway) of many a year. 2nd year academy scholar gets dream goal, youngsters (some home grown) all over the pitch, Ismaila playing like it really mattered to him (I actually think it always does, but he doesn’t always give that impression), & some slick, positive , attacking football. Hopefully the younger players will give Slav a selection headache when some of the more experienced return.

Graham French - 15/01/2023

And Happy Birthday!

Matt Rowson - 15/01/2023

Thank you Sir

3. James - 15/01/2023

The shear quantity of bad or non-decisions made it reminiscent of a Uriah Rennie game. It had that same threat of descending into farce at any moment.
Had either side been slightly less disciplined then it probably would have.
A credit to our lads that they kept their focus and ground out the win.

Matt Rowson - 15/01/2023

Yeah agree. Would have been a bigger deal if we hadn’t won. Tennis is a good reference point since I think 99/00 was an exceptional year for bad refereeing. Not been close since. Rob Harris…

4. David Wheatley - 15/01/2023

Happy birthday Matt, remember that getting older is better than the alternative.

Cathcart was my MoM by some distance and that is after accepting that Sar was great yesterday.

Matt Rowson - 15/01/2023

Cathcart was tremendous in the second half, but made a couple of cheap mistakes under limited pressure first half. Morris closer for me but Sarr a clear winner.

5. Dr Rob - 15/01/2023

Hi Matt, Congrats on reaching a birthday milestone and another great report that captures everything perfectly. Yesterday was the fifth match I have taken my kids to and having seen Watford lose badly with them on four previous occassions (0-3 Norwich last season a particular low) we extensivly altered the pre match routine: change of eatery to the Smash Shack in the market, then crossed the bridge over the fountains from South to North in the parade, both son number 1 and daughter number 1 touching yellow flowers on the bridge. Took different route to the ground: churchyard, underpass, Vic road. And different seats in the Ann Swanson. You’re welcome! Couple of obs 1) The Blackpool support were generally excellent – 100% behind their team, clapped for Luther, most of their ire was directed at PNE 2) Ironically half of their travel coaches were from Preston 3) More camaraderie between both teams at full time than normal I thought. Or maybe just the elation of winning made everything seem to have the tint of human goodness??

Matt Rowson - 15/01/2023

Good work on the rituals. These things are vital. No lucky half time chocolate tho I notice? Snickers worked for me yesterday. Blackpool… there was a bit of “you’re so quiet”? But agree on the end of game stuff, I noticed that too.

Graham French - 15/01/2023

Snickers for me too. But we’re screwed if lucky chocolate is neither snickers nor twix

6. Ben - 15/01/2023

The Asprilla weighted through ball is a thing of beauty.

7. Harefield Hornet - 15/01/2023

Happy 50th ! Having watched my first youth team match for years the previous Monday – Grieves scored a worldy but young Tobi battled valiantly against the Everton defence – so it was so heartwarming to see him come off the bench and score that crucial opener . You could see what it meant to them all at the final whistle as they celebrated with the fans and for a moment there it felt like the club had rediscovered its soul with the great man looking down on us ! What a wonderful afternoon.

8. Jeff - 15/01/2023

My first live game (my accompanying son is now at Uni is the North West) for some time due to the largesse of a lovely WFC friend who was indisposed so feel able to comment from a position of higher ground than usual 🙂

My matchday companion, usually a QPR fan, had his WFC head for the day and is a good student of the game too. We both felt that Hamza C was the shoo-in for MOTM if he’d not gone off after 65 mins. Sarr a non-controversial choice though.

Morris looks excellent although I’d be hard-pressed to say he keeps his place ahead of Kamara, but if he does I’m OK with it.

Cathcart’s reading of the game is a thing of beauty. It’s the defensive equivalent of those yards in his head that Teddy Sheringham was said to have.

Only you, Matt, have mentioned in all the match reports I have read, the ‘disquiet’ as you tactfully put it over Bayo’s miserable trudge off the pitch. If you told me you’d heard a rumour that he doesn’t quite ‘get’ the offside rule I’d totally buy it. His inability to stay onside became boring.And he’s SLOW. I mean painfully slow. He’d beat me a foot race but I’m 55 and overweight so it’s not a great match up (I quietly fancy my chances though). Adeyemo (as well as being an ENORMOUS unit) showed more in the 5 mins before his goal than VB had in 65. I imagine he wasn’t best pleased as he sat in a sulk in the dressing room (he appeared to go straight down the tunnel?) and hear who’d just scored. The ‘disquiet’ round me was a full on cacophany of ‘get off’ and ‘hurry up’ with added expletives.

Was so good to be back for a game and the Ebb Tide still does great fish & chips.

Matt Rowson - 15/01/2023

welcome back, Sir

9. David Fisher - 16/01/2023

Thank you Matt. I have enjoyed you reports over the years. For this game, however, I was able to fully appreciate how you are able to convey the essence of a game. I went to this one. It was my first game live since a turgid 0-0 draw with them up the road in 1993, about a week before I moved to New Zealand. After the first half I thought that this could go the same way.

My first observation was how much bigger the players seemed compared to the last century. I’m not surprised that they get injured easily. Their bodies have been developed right to the edge of viability. One mishap and they stop working properly.
The second was that the speed of thought seemed faster, though not always successfully executed well, especially in the first half.
Finally, the Vic has changed. It isn’t the same as the place I left. It is a proper football stadium. I make no judgement on whether that is good or bad. It is just different.
The refs are the same, though.

Seeing a match live is so different from watching it on television or, now, on a computer. The smell of emotion from the crowd, whether that is fear, anticipation, or sheer joy when a fairly tale happens, is something a screen can never provide. This game was a wonderful and a very emotional experience for me. It is unlikely I will ever come back to this country so that was my last visit to my home of football.
However, I have more understanding to add to games I will watch at 4 in the morning when I get home.
And you reports will be even more vibrant so a heartfelt thank you for them.

Matt Rowson - 16/01/2023

Thank you David. Glad we won on your trip back, and that you enjoyed your experience. Completely agree about the “smell of emotion”, you can’t convey that on a screen.

10. robpayne79 - 16/01/2023

Great Report as always, and Happy Birthday! I totally agree that Morris should keep his place, I thought he was superb on Saturday. He just seems to play the game in a vey simple way, he doesn’t try anything too tricky, and just make sure he makes the right pass, with the right weight, and doesn’t over commit defensively, he stands up, and reads the game really well. He’s been patient and has earned this chance, and I think we look a better team with him playing. Saturday was the most I’ve enjoyed a performance in a while, what a great moment that first goal was!


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