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Watford 2 Sunderland 2 (17/09/2022) 18/09/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
5 comments

1- Being relegated is difficult.

Which is a ludicrous thing to say in one sense of course.  Getting relegated is very easy – just go out there and play like turkeys.  Hell, you or I could do it – I think I could do a good turn as the befuddled and slightly out of shape centre-back who turns around looking for someone to blame as the third goal trundles in. And for less money than, say, Patrick Blondeau was on. Even last season, when we did have to work quite hard to achieve what we achieved in the wake of stiff competition from Leeds and Everton in particular…  getting relegated didn’t require any great strategy.

Being relegated is different.  For all the complaints about yo-yo clubs from those barely paying attention there are all sorts of challenges facing teams relegated from the top flight.  Our own history betrays this truth…  1988 was my first relegation and perhaps the exception that proves the rule since I vaguely remember simply the relief at Bassett no longer being in charge as the dominant sentiment.  But… even then, finishing fourth was a little bit disappointing I think, though I was younger then than Daughter 1 is now so I forgive myself for not quite remembering.  2000/01 though was utterly miserable…  a distractingly good start rapidly collapsing in the face of miserable performances by Christmas.  2006/07  virtually a carbon copy, except that we improbably clung on to a play-off place thanks in part to the lack of consistent challenge from elsewhere.  And as many have pointed out… for all that we were promoted two years ago it was anything but easy.  It was pretty miserable for quite a lot of the season.

The challenges are manifold.  It’s rare for a happy camp to be relegated for one thing, there will always be problems in need of resolution.  Sands will shift as it becomes clear that the straws you cling to are the ones that others want to whisk away, whilst nobody wants your dead weights for some reason.  Planning with any certainty is difficult since you don’t know quite when or whether your asking prices will be met, as this summer has shown, and the cost of holding anything other than a firm negotiating position will scupper “the model” going forward, whether you still have faith in it or not.  You’re not going to get very far buying low and selling high if you make it clear that you can be bullied.

And then there’s the whole “fan expectation” thing which clearly is a thing.  But that’s not a criticism to be levelled at the support either, at least not all of them.  If you were ten years old and developing some kind of consciousness in 2012 when the Pozzos took over then you’re now 20, your world consists of six seasons in the Premier League, two promotions and one late defeat in a play-off final, a cup final, a semi-final and the insane catharsis of Troy’s penalty against Wolves.  Of course you’ve got high standards.

2- So, it’s difficult.  The margins are fine, and much as there’s loose consensus on the decision not to refresh the squad in 2019 as The Root of All The Problems it’s a mistake that many of us would have made in that position.  Signing Sarr likewise.  Subsequent badly-timed injuries, the pandemic and its consequences both on our relegation and our ability to move players on when we wanted to, all of that adds mass to the avalanche that’s outside of anyone’s control.

There’s still no justification for a situation that sees Craig Cathcart trundling out again at right back at the age of 33 on the back of one related injury of course.  It’s transparently the correct decision from Rob Edwards too, since we benefit hugely from Hassane Kamara being back on the left, rattling up and down the wing joyfully for much of the game while there are few mourning the absence of Mario Gaspar from the matchday squad (other, perhaps, than the chap who went early with the Spaniard’s name on his shirt, spotted at Blackburn).  But no excuse for us getting ourselves into this position.  With an international break looming, let alone with Xisco Muñoz loitering for selfies outside the ground after the game, you’d worry about the manager’s future but for the eye-catching Giaretta situation.  The sacking/refocusing of the sporting director suggests a change in approach.  We’ll see.

The mood music is playing loudly from the kick off;  every time the ball rolls lethargically across the backline the grumbles rise like an echo.  Vicky’s not been exposed to much of this…. “why are they moaning already?” she asks, but is chewing her knuckles with frustration before half time.

In reality though this is already much better than Blackburn.  The return of Kortney Hause and particularly the employment from the off of Keinan Davis up front give us a physical heft that we didn’t have before and the latter suggests an out-ball that, if unimaginative is nonetheless more than we’ve had to this point.  We are creating a bit more too… whether through Davis occupying opponents or through Kamara’s willingness down the left or through a little bit more imagination from our midfielders (and bearing in mind that with the best will in the world Edo Kayembe isn’t going to become Andrea Pirlo or even Almen Abdi any time soon) we suggest the possibility of a breakthrough before it actually happens.  Glimpses amongst our laboured stodge, light breaking through the clouds as JP fires at the keeper from an offside position, as Davis almost thunders his way through.  But as so often, it takes a moment of brilliance to actually get the ball into the net – an outrageous, scorching pass on the turn by Asprilla to release Kamara howling up the left flank, his perfect cross allows Davis to plant the ball into an empty net.  It’s irresistible, a Manchester City goal that is so brutally effective that it leaves the opposition wondering quite what they did wrong.  It’s a glimpse of what we might mutate into with a prevailing wind.

3- In the meantime we’re stuck with this midfield, albeit with the knowledge that any one of Cleverley, Dele-Bashiru or Louza being available could be transformative through adding either dynamism or guile, or both.

Sunderland are our inverse in some respects.  We have a potent looking forward line that is underserviced by a pedestrian midfield short on numbers and options;  our visitors have a nimble, dynamic, mobile midfield that moves the ball around well but only two senior strikers, both of whom absent today leaving diminutive midfield nearly-was Alex Pritchard to lead the line for the most part.

Their lack of physicality up front might suggest that sitting deeper to challenge them to prize us open should be productive.  Unfortunately we never look less organised than when the latest central combination of Troost-Ekong and Hause have their lack of relationship placed under a microscope.  Sunderland don’t have to do very much to provoke scruffy carnage in the box in front of the Rookery, at the height of which Alese stabs at goal and Choudhury scrapes the ball away.  It must have been a tight call but my instinct had been “oh shit” for all that the game continued, and the referee’s watch removed any doubt.  The ball had crossed the line and the visitors were level shortly before the interval.

As an aside, Sunderland were also an inversion of Watford in the attitude of their support.  If a miserable relegation (indeed, two successive relegations as far as the in-stadium support is concerned) lends itself to an overly negative take then long-awaited promotion sees Sunderland fans riding a giddy wave.  We rode the same wave all the way to a successive promotion behind Sunderland in 1999 of course…  but there was an absurd level of triumphalism on display outside the ground afterwards.  There’s nothing not to enjoy about nicking a late point away from home of course – the more so when, unlike here, it’s completely unmerited.  But exaltation of Sunderland’s large but not terribly noisy away support and citation of the visitors’ two “cast iron” penalties were fanciful – certainly the tumble in the first half was laughable, and the apparent handball in the second was matched by an identical shout in Watford’s favour at the Rookery end.

4- Watford started the second half much more aggressively with Hamza Choudhury punching into tackles and some concerted pressing for the first time.  Keinan Davis continued to be the focal point of the attack and began to link up nicely with João Pedro, who had been ploughing a slightly uncomfortable furrow on the right flank.  Twice he played the ball into Davis’s feet for him to hold it up and with a single touch allow JP to continue his run across him and open up the play.  Less productive was Davis’ relationship with Ken Sema – time might suggest whether the striker’s furious impatience when things didn’t quite come off was directed at the left winger or at himself, Vicky and I disagreed on this point.

Where the two sides did bear comparison was in defensive vulnerability. For all that in Danny Batth Sunderland boated the sort of big old unit that we’d been craving in the transfer window (until Hause’s arrival at any rate) they looked vulnerable at set pieces and there was no huge surprise when Luke O’Nien, having admirably made up his seven inch deficit on Kortney Hause to get his head to Troost-Ekong’s excellent far post headed knock-back, inadvertently sent the ball past his own keeper.  Not the return that the former Watford youngster would have chosen, one suspects.

Briefly a more comfortable win looked likely.  Sunderland looked overwhelmed for the first time as we swarmed forward;  Kayembe lurched into space and sent a fierce, curling shot narrowly wide.  João Pedro appeared on the left and flung a shot across the face of goal.  Three points, whether merited or not, would have been a valuable thing to go into the international fortnight with.

5- Instead the game ended with Sunderland banging on the door, having spurned a good chance breaking on the left and had a Jack Clarke goal ruled out for a tight offside call before Jewison Bennette snapped up the equaliser from a ridiculous amount of space on the right of the box as we defended it.

During the 25 minute interval between the two goals 8 (eight) substitutions had taken place, from which the visitors undoubtedly did the better.  Much grumbling in Rob Edwards’ direction on Occupation (for the moment) Road after the game – in truth the fault lies with the paucity of options on the bench.  Davis and Kamara were the expensive sacrifices, but the latter had been touch and go for the game and the former, about whom “as long as they can keep him fit” has been a qualifier in all informed reviews, is yet to complete 90 minutes and had a bruising hour at Blackburn on Tuesday.  Rey Manaj’s injury (remember him?) perhaps expensive here.

Sunderland meanwhile injected much more energy and dynamism into their offering with their own subs, though any envy of their young options should perhaps be tempered with the knowledge that on-loan Amad Diallo has already cost Manchester United more than we paid for Ismaïla Sarr.  Not that it matters, but “local lad come good” he isn’t.

And so we go into the international break downwardly mobile and grumbling.  Rob Edwards will probably be glad of the break – the team, as has been widely acknowledged – looks tired and the urgent need for more options in the middle of the park will hopefully help address this as much as the week’s break that many of the squad will enjoy.

As for his job security, to repeat, words are cheap.  We can’t implore the club to exercise more patience on the one hand and then turn on a young manager in a challenging position if things look a bit tricksy after ten games.  We await clarification on Giaretta with interest.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Kamara 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Hause 3, Kayembe 3, Choudhury 3, Sema 3, Asprilla 3, João Pedro 3, *Davis 4*
Subs: Bayo (for Kamara, 73) 2, Gosling (for Davis, 81) NA, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 84) NA, Kalu, Hungbo, Sierralta, Okoye

Blackburn Rovers 2 Watford 0 (13/09/2022) 14/09/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1-

Oh, it’s opening time down on Fascination Street

So let’s cut the conversation and get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling and I’m begging

To drag you down with me, to kick the last nail in.

Fascination Street, The Cure

“I can’t believe that Joe f***ing McLaughlin played for us 53 times”.

This is my first trip to Ewood Park since watching a young Alan Shearer quickly dismantle Steve Perryman’s side in front of a noisy away end in 1992.  I’m not sure why it’s been that long, it’s just how it’s happened.  Other Matt is an Ewood Park virgin, prioritising the midweek trip to tick a ground off.   Dave was last here to witness Jean-Alain Fanchone’s 74-minute Watford career in 2012; this nugget provokes a conversation that takes us most of the way from our rendez-vous at Corley services to Blackburn.  “A memorable short Watford careers” eleven, which rapidly bisects into a “Brief but beautiful Watford careers” eleven and a parallel “Brief for a reason Watford careers” eleven (euphemistically.  these may not have been the words used).

Dave polices nominations. Joe McLaughlin doesn’t qualify, having played more than ten times. Xavier Gravelaine inevitably spearheads the former eleven, while Collins John and Kerry Dixon form a fearsome forward line for the latter in the face of, as you’ll appreciate, stiff competition.

This sort of trip, stupidly long midweek drive facilitated by gratuitous use of holiday from work meaning a leisurely drive up and a late thunder back down an empty(ish) motorway, has become an annual tradition decided on fixtures day in June and fuelled by Red Bull (other revolting rocket fuel is available), snacks and “banter”.  Amanda joins us in the Fernhurst where we half-watch Tottenham lollop around against Sporting for a bit whilst eating enjoyably greasy pub fare.  

Yes, this is necessarily going to be an “enjoy the journey” report.  Without giving ages away (but see below), we’ve all been doing this for decades.  Long enough to know that sometimes a good day out can be marred by what is nominally the focal point of the trip.

2- There aren’t many here to witness this.  There was a smaller crowd at Rotherham, but that felt busier in a ground with lower capacity.  Ewood Park, as Other Matt observes, “always looked bigger on the telly”…  it’s a likeably straightforward, unmodern collection of four subbuteo stands, but it’s hardly bulging at the seams.  This goes for the away end as much as anywhere… independent of how the team is going, it’s surely to be expected that long-distance midweek support will be impacted by the relentlessness of the midweek programme in this season more than any other.  Sometimes a small away crowd can characterise the most memorable of games – those who braved the fuel blockades to travel up here in 2000 would surely agree.  This will not be one of those times.   Half a dozen gormless locals exchange the predictable chants about paying benefits, empty stands and bunches of whatevers with like-minded travelling orns, and whilst I must confess to never having heard the one about double glazing before, it’s a ritual grimly befitting of the evening.

A minute’s silence in tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth is impeccably observed, as you’d hope and expect.  A rendition of the national anthem is perhaps less unanimously engaged in, but you are nonetheless left with the impression that those wishing to pay tribute to the monarch might have had their best opportunity to do so by performing the same ritual before the Reading game rather than by doing whatever people did on Saturday afternoon instead.  Watch the cricket, perhaps.  Admittedly when faced with an unprecedented situation of such gravitas, bad decisions are going to happen and perhaps some leeway should be given but “not being bloody stupid” would seem to be a good guideline.  I suspect I’m not alone in finding that being told how I’m supposed to think and behave tends to incline me to the opposite course of action.

3- Here we go then.

It’s bloody awful.  Or at least, we’re bloody awful… Blackburn do a reasonable job of looking like a competent football team.  So we’re bloody awful.  Or rather…   we’re not completely awful, but the bits that are awful are so awful that they render the less problematic bits sort of obsolete.  For instance, I don’t really think there’s much wrong with our defence as far as actual defending goes.  Nothing that something more cohesive going forward to release the pressure wouldn’t relegate to merely something to work on in the goodness of time, for all Christian Kabasele’s generosity with possession.  Kortney Hause’s number has come up on the “who’s missing today?” spinning dial – a worryingly non-specific sprained ankle depriving us of the option of his surges out of defence and swinging crossfield balls.

So we’re back to Cathcart – Sierralta – Kabasele.  Which… as above, is kind of ok defensively.  Certainly for all that Rovers are the most up for it from the off and put Daniel Bachmann to work immediately these weren’t clear cut chances and we weren’t being played through… Brereton-Diáz, involved in a Chile-off against Francisco Sierralta, finds space for a bobbling shot from outside the area – a deflection might have caused a problem, but as it is Bachmann fields comfortably.  The lively Dolan snaps in a shot from an acute angle and does exceptionally well to direct his fierce effort on target, but Bachmann is equal to it.

The problem, the main problem, perhaps the problem that if resolved would see everything else fall into place, is the midfield.  Not so much the individuals themselves, for all that both Choudhury and Kayembe have had better games, but the inadequacy of the shape when both of them sit.  No evidence here of Kayembe trundling forwards with possession as against Boro which is something.  The lack of movement makes us horribly easy to defend against… sitting back and saying “come on then” is currently pretty much enough to watch the ball swing across the back line until someone loses it, or some individual brilliance (or perhaps some doggedness from Sema on the left touchline) fashions a chance.  You’d take those odds, and Blackburn do.  There is no pattern.  There’s little evidence of anyone carrying the ball. We don’t know how to score goals, indeed how to create chances despite our attacking riches and this demoralises team and fans alike.  We’re suffering from missing the mobility of Cleverley and Dele-Bashiru, missing Louza in a different way.  But we need to find a way to play football with the assets we have available.

JP doesn’t hide, for all that he too has had better days, days when flicks and spins have come off.  He looks ever more a leader, even at 20.  Not so Sarr, who is invisible until injury forces him off after half an hour, meaning that we get an hour of Keinan Davis…  the ball suddenly sticks, defenders with sore limbs left trailing in his wake (tho no matching the three at Rotherham, two his best tally here).  Something like a threat begins to suggest itself, but within ten minutes Blackburn finally play through us (Kabasele, for the second game running, contributing through inattention) and Hedges tucks away a Dolan cross from the right.

4- To be one down at half time was more than fair enough;  we’d scarcely threatened, for all that Davis had given us some oomph and 1-0 might have been considered “getting away with it”.

And indisputably things improved in the second half, if from a low bar.  This was abetted in part by Rob Edwards changing the shape (again)… switching out Sierralta and bringing Dan Gosling in to add a body and some snapping and sniping to that midfield.   Vakoun Bayo, who had run a willing but fruitless path skipping around chasing not very much, was surprised to find a Sema cross reach him at the far post… his header was well directed, downwards towards the bottom corner, but lacked the power to trouble Kaminski.

Davis remains our most overt threat, occupying and engaging multiple opponents at a time (if being treated less generously by the officials than he had at Rotherham).  As at Rotherham he pulls off the Sema-like trick of holding off and leaning into  a number of markers with his right shoulder and rolling around to his right in a wide arc to facilitate a shooting opportunity on his left foot, firing across the face of goal. Minutes later João Pedro clips across a corner, Davis gets his head to it and Kabasele bundles home only to be denied by the linesman’s flag.  The replay looks tight – only Davis is at risk of being offside – but we still hadn’t earned any luck, no more than we had with Ayala’s clumsy challenge on Davis in the box in the first half.

Rovers meanwhile were being pressed back, but catching us on the break.   Brereton-Diáz thundered away down the left but was forced wider than he would have liked and Bachmann blocked well.  Then a second break lead to a corner and Rovers did get the break, as the impressive Hyam hooked a flick-on home acrobatically from another borderline offside position.  If you make ten chances instead of two you can kinda expect to get these breaks with one of them.

5-  The visiting support, such as it was, flooded out.  The mood in the away end was combustible, that unhappy mix of those who want to vent their frustration and those who really would rather maintain a happy ambiance, a sense of togetherness.  Each group would have pejorative ways of describing the other’s stance and such opinions began to be shared openly as flashpoints sparkled in the stand.

One particularly agitated individual had been loudly and stridently expressing his frustration in a series of exclamations and ultimatums halfway up the left side of the stand throughout.  At the whistle he was down the front, pointing angrily at the Watford players who appeared to both recognise the efforts of those who had made their way up and their own inadequacy in rewarding it during the game.  Rob Edwards approached but didn’t engage directly, though visibly apologising to the crowd in general.  Daniel Bachmann, bravely but perhaps ill-advisedly and possibly thinking that his own faultless display might earn him a bit of restraint appeared to submit to discussion with calming gestures.  We were too far off to hear the exchange, but it was clear that no common ground was found.

As luck would have it my route down to the exit saw me arrive at the same time as the aggressor in chief, whose unbound anger was attracting more vocal criticism.  Joining in was stupid;  he was never likely to respond positively to being  told that he didn’t have to come to the games if he didn’t enjoy it as was obvious when his response was a shove of frustration that saw me topple backwards.  I fear I flattened whoever was behind me – there’s a lot of me – but any potential for deterioration doused quickly as we both seemed to recognise our own stupidity.  The surrounding supporters reacted angrily to the violent turn of events – “you’ve just hit an old man” was one shout.  It took me a few seconds to realise that the old man in question was, in fact, me, by which time the source of the shout was indiscernible and an even uglier flashpoint was avoided.  

As an aside, if there’s anything more stupid than engaging in such a conversation it’s doing so the day before your wedding.  Let’s say 20-odd years ago, arbitrarily.  Not that anyone would be that daft.

Unfortunately, Dave and Other Matt had heard the “you’ve just hit an old man” shout, the last two words of which were the focus of discussion during much of the queue to escape the car park.  Pointing out that Dave is a full three weeks older than me proved of little help (and neither of us 50 just yet… “old” indeed).

People get wound up by the oddest things.  I don’t mind disagreeing with people, or people seeing things differently in general.  I don’t really mind us being a bit rubbish – I mean I’d rather we weren’t, but, you know.  Comes with the territory.  I do hate conflict though, anything that challenges the illusion that we’re all pulling the same way.  Not very good at that.

People get cheered up by the oddest things too.  A McDonalds break in the early hours amidst the inevitable M6 lane closures was brightened up by realising that Spurs had lost after all.  We’ve just driven the length of the country and back to watch us lose and be rubbish, and Spurs losing is still capable of raising a snigger.

Later, post Corley, I undertook the solo hour-long final stretch with music at ear-bleeding volume.  Another Ewood Park curio – I bought the Cure’s “Disintegration” album the day before our trip to Blackburn for the play-off in 1989.  Astonishingly, Dad let me play it in its entirety on the drive up.  We didn’t score that day, either.  “Fascination Street” screams down the A14.  “Drag you down with me, Kick the last nail in”. 

No, I’ll be miserable as, when, if and how I choose.  Thanks anyway.

Yoooorns.

*Bachmann 3*, Ngakia 2, Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 1, Choudhury 2, Kayembe 2, João Pedro  3, Sarr 1, Bayo 2
Subs: Davis (for Sarr, 30) 3, Gosling (for Sierralta, 45) 3, Mario Gaspar (for Ngakia, 74) 2, Asprilla (for Choudhury, 74) 3, Hungbo, Troost-Ekong, Okoye

Rotherham United 1 Watford 1 (03/09/2022) 04/09/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- As every travelling fan is aware, the real litmus test of an away stadium is the approach taken to bottle top policing at kiosks.  The removal of bottle tops from purchased bottles of water or pop is aggravating, but par for the course.  If it’s done with a half-apology then it’s shrug-offable.  

The red light starts flashing when bottles are decanted into plastic pint pots, normally ultra-cheap pint pots of Jamie Moralee levels of flimsiness that look like something designed to lose liquid, something left over from “It’s a Knockout”.  This screams “we really don’t give a crap about you and would rather you’d just stayed at home.  What do you mean you’ve paid for a ticket?  You’ll be expecting leg room next…”.

So it’s reassuring to be sold, as here, bottles of water replete with lids as they were intended to be.  The trust that it implies, the hope that if you treat people like adults they’ll behave like adults may sometimes be misplaced (see below) but you’d rather that way than the other.

Not much of a litmus test on reflection really, since by the time you’ve got to this stage of proceedings you’re likely to be in a position to predict with reasonable accuracy what the outcome of the test will be.  Certainly, here, Will had already managed to bring his ample box of snacks for his young herberts through unchallenged, and a couple outside the ground who had arrived with one ticket too few for their (very young) infants were told that the babe in arms would be welcome nonetheless – but only on someone’s lap, as the end was sold out.  Not every ground is as accommodating.

Meanwhile as our circumference of the stadium was briefly obstructed by the arrival of the Watford team, a steward affably asked us if we’d seen “the exhibition”, which was available for free behind an incongruous gap in the stadium’s wall and boasted a decent number of Millers artefacts, bits, bobs and newspaper cuttings.  And a loo, for those in need.  Most significantly perhaps a timeline, or rather three timelines… one picking out significant Rotherham United events as you might expect, another in parallel picking out developments in the women’s game and a third reflecting milestones for black and asian footballers.  All very “Woke”, and hurrah for that – Luther’s hat-trick against Luxembourg and John Barnes’ Player of the year award, plus their Watford connections, all prominent.

2- Establishing that Rotherham were Good Sorts didn’t help in any way once the game started and we reprised Tuesday’s tactic of lulling our opponents into a sense of security early doors with a startlingly similar outcome.  Daniel Bachmann less obviously at fault here on review, Wes Harding’s snappy cross from the right dropping over Christian Kabasele’s head in a way that, one suspects, Francisco Sierralata wouldn’t have accommodated – as an aside, however wobbly his recent form you had to question – as Will did – the decision to withdraw the Chilean and his forehead against this opponent in particular.

Veteran Rotherham skipper Richard Wood, a 37 year-old centre-half, was loitering in a way that suggested that the Millers had been watching videos of Tuesday night’s game or something, the cads, and stuffed away his fourth goal of the season.  The afternoon threatened to go seriously downhill, not abetted by a brief and tedious confrontation in at the front of the stand.  I’m all for a liberal approach to standing at football games, but when you’ve got a bunch of folks remaining seated in the front rows of the stand,  several of whom are of Ken Furphy vintage and several of whom scarcely remember Javi Gracia, remaining stoically standing in front of them as four or five individuals in the front row chose to do really isn’t “sticking it to the man”.  A bored looking steward who presumably has this sort of conversation with visiting numbskulls every week, ambled over and suggested either moving further back where everyone was standing or sitting down if they didn’t want to be evicted.  The chief protagonist turned arms open to those behind him and declared “he’s threatening to throw me out” in apparent astonishment, to which he got an unsympathetic “you’d better sit down then”.  Undeterred, he asked one more experienced gentleman behind him whether he minded him standing, to which the reply was “well yes I do actually”.  “See!!!”, our hero declared to the still bored looking steward.  In fairness an insulin pump on his arm revealed a medical condition which I know from bitter experience can encourage you to behave like a dick in the wrong circumstances.  In any case, mercifully, everything settled down a bit.

As on Tuesday we were able to recover from our early sleepiness if less dramatically and absolutely.  A gradual improvement was signalled by a spring in the step of Vakoun Bayo, whose goal on Tuesday is fuelling a case being made for him being at least a capable deputy for the first time.  His head was on the end of our earliest forays which, if they didn’t lead anywhere at first at least signalled intent.  Rotherham meanwhile were hounding possession a long way up the pitch and threatening to counter, though in honesty for the rest of the game even their better chances were from distance.  Craig Cathcart in particular had probably his best outing of the season on the right hand side of the back three and was significant in cutting off the threat.

Eventually the equaliser came… Ken slung in a cross from the left, Bayo repositioned himself and took advantage of a half-hearted Rotherham attempt to intercept the cross by volleying expertly home.  Big jumpyaroundness in the away end, even amongst those of us who hadn’t seen it properly.

3- The other significant contributor to the first half was Kortney Hause, making his full debut on the left side of the defence in front of us… indeed, so tall and broad is Hause that he blocked our view of much of the rest of the pitch during the first half from our position three rows back in the corner. 

With the anxiety of the closing days of the window, the focus on the retention of JP and Sarr and the failure to bring in a right wing-back, it was easy to forget that we’d already done some business the effects of which were yet to be realised.  Hause looks every bit what the doctor ordered on the left side of the back three…  an absolute monster, he saw off every physical challenge with a shrug and was equally sanguine when decisions went against him, trotting back into position without argument.  Both Wes Harding and Arsenal loanee Brooke Norton-Cuffy will be nursing bruises this morning.

But Hause also looked comfortable bringing the ball forward.  The biggest problem with playing Hassane Kamara on the right is that it limits his attacking threat, and in a team that’s struggling to progress the ball from back to front that’s a significant loss, arguably a waste of a key weapon.  Imrân Louza may sort that issue when he returns (no pressure, son) but in the meantime it was heartening to see Hause lurching forward down the left in a manner that our existing centre-backs haven’t been able to do.  I was reminded of Colin Foster, although Colin Foster for all his majesty seemed perpetually on the verge of falling over, whilst you suspect Hause would still be standing after a nuclear explosion.

In the final knockings Hause even suggested a long overdue replacement for the “Neal Ardley dumping the ball on the far post for Helguson” stock move, swinging a succession of diagonal crosses from deep left to right as we pressed for a decider. 

4- Arguably for the first time in our four away games this season we looked like overwhelming our opponents in the final quarter of the game.  Paul Warne highlighted the difference between playing on a Wednesday as the Millers had and a Tuesday but if this was a factor it was only one of a number as the balance of the game shifted in our favour.

Yáser Asprilla, as Will pointed out, had barely contributed for a game and a half, but sparkled again in the second half, ferreting out possession and playing his part in attacks.  Most dramatically as a sharp counter attack ran out of space and Bayo conservatively retained possession and fed João Pedro; the Brazilian displayed a terrifying indifference to the massed ranks in front of him on the left of the box, stopped dead, cut toward the by line and clipped a ball back for Asprilla to volley fiercely at goal bringing a fine stop from Johansson diving to his left, the rebound not falling kindly for Bayo.

Later Asprilla surged forward from midfield and João Pedro (a veteran at 20, two years Asprilla’s senior), occupied his marker to pull open space for the Colombian in a very Danny Graham kinda way; Asprilla fired over in a manner that would be unforgivable of an older player.  I remain concerned that we’re having to use him too much, that Louza’s injury and injuries to forwards (Sarr – a knock – and long term absentee Manaj missing today) prohibiting fielding JP deeper are meaning that we play Yáser more than is ideal.  But my goodness, what potential.

JP is a weapon wherever you play him, but he doesn’t half look dangerous from deeper positions.  An impossibly languid swipe of the right boot from out on the left dropped a cross to the far post which seemed to brush the forheads of both Bayo and sub Mario Gaspar before hitting the woodwork and, impossibly, avoiding both protagonists on the way out.

5- Another away point then.  Two points dropped on this occasion.  But I was surprised by the dejected tones of two sage observers on the walk back into Rotherham after the game.  We missed chances.  We didn’t get the three points we should have, and in a division that remains horribly competitive we can’t let these go cheaply.

But the appearance of Keinan Davis for Asprilla midway through the half will surely have warmed the hearts of even the most cynical of Watford observers.  As with Hause, you almost forgot that we haven’t really seen him yet, this is a gift that remained unwrapped…  as an aside you also wonder quite how many other Big Old Units Villa have got on the fringes of their squad, and whether getting both out of the building was simply a necessity borne of freeing up some physical space.

Because Davis, too, is massive.  Shorter than Hause, but as broad as he is tall… he announced himself in the game by effortlessly holding off a suddenly overpowered Rotherham defence and laying off crisply with a single touch.  Later he was barrelling through opponents on the left of the box and slinging a shot goalwards requiring a fine block but leaving defenders grounded in his wake.  Later still he contested a high ball in the box and left both Johansson and Wood prostrate on the turf – no elbows, no nastiness, just sheer physical presence.  Catcalls at perceived timewasting from behind the goal as the two were sellotaped back together were ludicrously misplaced, both had tried to tackle a tank and were suffering the consequences.

That any one of Sarr, JP and Davis is spending another season in the Championship is a little ludicrous.  That all three are playing for us should be mouthwatering, whatever concerns we have elsewhere in the side.  I’m reminded of Sarr-Deeney-Deulofeu in 2019/20…. and yes I know we got relegated and I know that I use this stat too often so two years on this is the last time and then it’s officially retired:  in games when those three started we won 5, drew 5, lost 2 (Liverpool and Leicester away, the latter under caretaker stewardship).

Having too many places to look makes a side very difficult to defend against.  Each of these three is strong, quick and clever but Davis is ridiculously strong, Sarr is outrageously quick and JP audaciously clever.  Each would be double-marked if they were the only threat.  What on earth are opponents supposed to do against all three of them?

And yes, yes, injuries.  And yes, here we fielded two of the trio (if briefly) and only came away with a point.  Whatever, it’s a long season.  But given what the retention of our two headline acts is likely to be costing us financially, it would be rude not to enjoy the upside.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Kamara 3, Sema 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 2, *Hause 4*, Choudhury 3, Kayembe 3, Asprilla 3, Bayo 3, João Pedro 4
Subs: Mario Gaspar (for Kamara, 63) 3, Davis (for Asprilla, 67) 4, Hungbo (for Sema, 89) NA, Gosling, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Hamer

Watford 2 Middlesbrough 1 (30/08/2022) 31/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  The thing is, it isn’t like anywhere else.  Other places…  homes, schools, where you work… might have similar long standing but nowhere has this permanence in significance and role.  None of it looks like it did when I first came in 1980, not even the now-more-green-than-brown stuff in the middle.  There are no longer busses visible trundling along the top of the northern end of the ground.  There’s no longer a hotchpotch of bits of stand and terracing down the east side, nor is there any longer a place where you can swap panini stickers (is there?). The Shrodells Stand has long gone, as has the Watford Observer Clock (though – spoiler alert – only as far as the Museum’s excellent commemorative exhibition).

But it still serves the same purpose, a century on.  It still has what my daughters might call the same “vibe”, though vibe is a grossly inadequate word.  And for all that you’ll have been through a full gamut of emotions in your time here from boredom to irritation to anguish to exuberant joy if you’ve been to Vicarage Road as often as once, the constancy is provided by the fact that it’s a place of safety, a home from home.  A happy place.

I’m invited into Horizons in the GT stand as part of the celebrations;  Daughter 2 is my plus one, eyes popping at the food and the drink and the people not to mention the local royalty from Luther Blissett to Ann Swanson doing the rounds.  We’re later seated, unusually, at the front of the Upper GT from where we see the fireworks, the smoke, the flags, the yellow red and black. The first of the many local heroes re-introduced to the crowd – the legendary Lloyd Doyley and the significant return of Aidy Mariappa.  “Chariots of Fire” serenades the final warm up, a perfect echo of yesteryear for those old enough to remember.

Most supporters think that their club is the most special.  Everyone else is wrong.

2- So of course we’re absolutely pathetic as the game begins.  Just miserable.  Like we’d just been at an all-nighter, stumbling around with our head in a fog, shaking lager cans in the hope of half an inch of tepid Kestrel as Middlesbrough bundled down our right and Ryan Giles – that’ll be Ryan Giles with a “watch me, I’m trouble” sticker on his forehead – is in a crossing position from where Hassane Kamara should be except that he’s still asleep under the pile of coats on the bed upstairs and so Francisco Sierralta lurches over.  Consequently his head isn’t on the end of Giles’ cross where you’d expect it to be, Daniel Bachmann (6 foot 3 and an arm’s length) is still raving silently to the beats behind his hooded eyes and his flail is beaten to the ball by 5 foot 10 Rodrigo Muniz, who admittedly has something of Yáser Asprilla’s bounce about him.  Asprilla, of course, is sipping Ribena through a straw whilst watching Spongebob Squarepants on the TV, nestled in between the loaded ashtrays.  Boro don’t care, they’re one-up and their sizeable support – who sang throughout Mapps’ interview but were decent enough to respect the minutes’ applause for Vince McNeice, Sammy Chung and Tommy Carpenter – are making a racket.

3- Not so the home stands, who are quickly deflated.  But this Watford team is frustrating, not rubbish.  Like a machine with loose connections that will sometimes clunk and groan but when everything whirrs and the cogs align it suddenly looks fearsome.  Impressive.  The trigger for what evolves into a quite dramatic improvement is first Hamza Choudhury and then, and more persistently, Edo Kayembe surging out of midfield with the ball.  We look vastly more threatening with one of the two driving the ball forward rather than both sitting static… one of the duo will surely take a step back when Imrân Louza returns but here, suddenly, they look a pairing that can see us on the front foot rather than “only” protecting whatever’s behind them.

It’s one of these surges from Kayembe that sparks the equaliser, which is devastating and fabulous.  His ball finds João Pedro down the left who looks less like a precocious kid and more like an experienced pro with every game;  here he cuts in between two defenders and feeds Sarr with a crisp pass on the penalty spot.  Sarr sidesteps a challenge to open the goal up in front of him and rolls the ball past the helpless goalkeeper.  In contrast to our hapless start, suddenly we look effortlessly, matter-of-factly much much better than our opponents.  In a flash, both the main men have shown their Premier League quality and you kinda hope that nobody’s watching.

But JP is pretty relentless for the rest of the half.  The move that sees him wander from left to right, exchange a couple of one-twos, play through Sarr under pressure and then show for a pass that would have seen us take the lead had his strike partner seen it is Maradona-like…  absolutely in charge and running the game.  Kayembe’s enjoying his sudden liberation also, one turn on the run to flummox an opponent is almost balletic from the least balletic figure on the pitch.  As on Saturday, pulling level sees us revelling in the expectation of a gallop off into the sunset but it doesn’t happen before half time, at which we’re level despite another late lash at goal from JP.

4- The interval sees a parade of stars of varying vintages, including Peter Walker, Walter Lees, a remarkably trim looking Stewart Scullion and Kenny Jackett amongst others.  Also a rather awkward huddle of geeks and stattos  being recognised for various contributions to the club’s heritage work, none more awkward than Daughter 2 who, having been exhorted to join the crew, flicks second by second between blushing embarrassment at her out-of-placeness and wide-eyed giddy excitement.

Half time also sees Boro make a change, with the more defensive Dijksteel introduced for Jonny Howson, and the game changes once more.  Whilst never quite plumbing the depths of the first half we again look stodgy, unable to feed our most potent weapons.  The visitors meanwhile look like the promotion contenders heralded pre-season rather than a side floundering near the bottom of the table;  they own a ridiculous number of centre-backs, one of whom – new arrival Matt Clarke – was seemingly on our list of candidates for the left-side slot.  His header gives Bachmann the opportunity to salvage his own evening with a terrific point black save – though a better directed header would have given him no chance.  Muniz tries to beat Bachmann from the halfway line and briefly it looks worrying but only briefly – he’s OK, he’s no Sarr.

But Boro are undeniably the better side again, if never quite banging on the door.  Asprilla’s outing in black and white stripes hasn’t had quite the impact hoped – as an aside we have to be careful not to overuse the teenager in our occasional desperation for some zip from midfield – and Vakoun Bayo is brought on as the spearhead but he looks desperately flimsy, low on confidence.  He gets a chance with a header, a cross from the left it’s a carbon copy of Boro’s opener except for the last bit, from our considerable distance it seems to come off his shoulder.  First the redoubtable Kenzema and then Craig Cathcart go down with injuries and are replaced by Mario Gaspar and debutant Kortney Hause, who looks reassuringly big and steady.  Less so Gaspar, who is doing little to allay anyone’s concerns.  Four minutes of injury time.  Boro fans roar their team on.

5- It’s difficult to quibble with much of Chris Wilder’s post-match assessment.  Boro played well.  They deserved something from the game.  And maybe there was a sense of destiny about it.  Maybe the long ball from the back that saw JP, yet again, execute some extraordinarily controlled acrobatics to lay off was preceded by Tommy Carpenter collecting a cross, rolling out to Vince McNeice who played the ball out wide.  And maybe as Mario Gaspar burrowed infield in defiance of his wobbly start and scuffed the ball goalwards… perhaps it wasn’t a shot, it wasn’t a pass, it wasn’t deflected off Matt Clarke’s attempted block, it was Sammy Chung with a little lay-off to Vakoun Bayo who nimbly flicked the ball past Liam Roberts as George Camsell, Wilf Mannion and the rest watched on helplessly.

If there’s one thing that’s better than an injury time winner it’s a scarcely deserved injury time winner, let alone one that involves two struggling new boys igniting their Watford careers.  Mario’s “assist” may have been clumsy,  awkward, lucky…  but tickets, raffles, the veteran was there to execute it.  We take Ilias Chair’s opener from Saturday and we raise it.  And Bayo’s finish revealed a hitherto unsuspected dexterity.  He celebrated as you hoped he might, buried under a pile of team-mates.

As “Crocodile Rock” rang around the ground, as the Boro fans sloped out, quiet for the first time all evening and as daughter two bounced around the Upper GT with a big grin on her face we were able to reflect on the first great night of the second hundred years.  And that seven games in… it’s far from perfect, there’s things to sort out and we really could do with getting past Thursday night with a full complement… but we’ve faced four of the five teams projected to be our fiercest competition and dropped two points in those games despite our obvious limitations.

A special night.  Again.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Kamara 4, Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 3, Kayembe 4, Choudhury 3, Asprilla 3, *João Pedro 5*, Sarr 3
Subs: Bayo (for Asprilla, 73) 3, Mario Gaspar (for Sema, 79) NA, Hause (for Cathcart, 80) NA, Gosling, Hungbo, Troost-Ekong, Okoye

Watford 2 Queens Park Rangers 3 (27/08/2022) 28/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Hassane Kamara, then.  Whoever he is.  Sold by Watford to Udinese for £16 million, loaned back for the season.  That’s, like, a fiddle isn’t it?  “How do they keep getting away with this?”.

We’re getting away with whatever we’re getting away with because we’re not breaking any rules, self-evidently.  Else, given the brazen chutzpah of the exercise, the flare that it sends up to alert the readily outraged, we wouldn’t be getting away with it.

You’d sympathise, nonetheless.  Because it does feel…  wrong.  Odd.  Uncomfortable that it’s needed, maybe, perhaps, but that aside uncomfortable that we are getting away with it, or even trying to.

But you don’t sympathise, because fairness and moral rectitude is the last thing that such complaints are actually about.  If such was the focus, the priority, then you wouldn’t be hearing about our convoluted accounting practices at all…  we’d be far back in the queue behind the fact that nation states and oligarchs own (some of) our football clubs. Behind the colossal fiddle that is the Champions (sic) League for all that this battle has long since been lost. Hell, we’d be a long way behind the day’s events in any regular week at the hand of this disgusting government.

What this is actually about is Watford’s ongoing failure to know our place. To get back in our box.  A small club is allowed success, perhaps, for a time, if they qualify as “plucky”.  But not if they struggle against the tide, not if they dig their heels in and certainly not if they try creative means of navigating the odds stacked against them.  Such failure to respect one’s centre of gravity is depriving some properly deserving big city club with, like, a big stadium more deserving success.

2- Though admittedly a quiet, inconspicuous box somewhere seems quite attractive as a prospect now and then, not that you’d admit it.  The wake of an aggravating defeat against Queens Park Rangers being one such occasion.  Losing’s fine of course… well, not fine but certainly part of the tapestry, and a part that we’ve been all too familiar with over the past couple of years that we’ve been able to “enjoy” at Vicarage Road.

This is different though, a different flavour of defeat to last season’s regular diet of inadequacy and helplessness.  This is stomp around scowling and looking for someone to argue with, nobody talk to me for a month frustration.  This is outrage at the unjustness and the AAAAARRRRGHHHH of it all.

Because we are unlucky.  Somewhere in the back of your consciousness there’s a voice saying “yes, but, well we’ve done rather better out of things so far than we’ve deserved, in general, haven’t we?  Gotten a few more points than our performances have merited?  And, you know, if things even themselves out over a season then you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth….”.

Needless to say that if this voice had had a mouth, face and body attached to it as Ilias Chair’s speculative shot took a helpful deflection to take it beyond a wrong-footed (but maybe shoulda, coulda done better anyway if we’re honest?) Daniel Bachmann, it would’ve gotten a punch in the head.   Actually that’s not quite true, first it would have been asked what the hell had happened – so theoretical and abstract was the threat that I was checking out the early scores elsewhere on my phone and needed things explaining to me by suitably glum debutant Ryan – and then it would have been punched in the head.

More misfortune was to follow.  João Pedro was back in the eleven – as was fellow will-he-wont-he soap opera star Ismaïla Sarr – and in a deeper midfield role in an adventurous-looking team selection. Despite the setback he was floating and flitting to marvellous effect early on…  trying a little too hard occasionally, perhaps, but certainly not hiding, certainly not sulking.  His acrobatic response to goalkeeper Dieng’s excitable headed clearance was magnificent, a reflex volley under pressure that cleared the stopper from some distance out and landed between the posts but bounced unfavourably onto the crossbar.

An injury to Manaj had already pushed JP further forward by this stage to accommodate substitute Asprilla;  the Colombian was lively again but we look less effective, our most dominant period of the game stifled.  Manaj’s combative lumpiness had looked a lot more effective with more acute threats dotted around him to profit from it. Later still as we were chasing the game at 3-2 Kayembe’s thunderous equaliser was denied by the cruellest of offside calls – not inaccurate, as was only revealed by later TV replays, but (that word again) unlucky since Sarr had only strayed briefly and irrelevantly offside at precisely the moment that the ball was sent in from the left.  A pedantically good spot from the lino – Sarr can’t not be interfering when standing in front of the keeper.  Minutes later the officials deserved less sympathy as Kamara threw himself at another cross only to be blocked off and bounce onto the turf.  It looked a penalty all day long but all appeals were rejected.

3- So we were unlucky;  for the first time this season significant things went against us leaving us feeling short-changed from a game that we deserved more from.  But it’s not all about luck, nor should we be needing to rely on it.  The visitors were excellent, particularly up front where Ilias Chair, for all his fortune with the opener, was a constant irritant.  QPR’s set-up, one suspects, is one that we’ll face from visitors for as long as we struggle to overcome it:  sit deep, stay in the game, counter-attack.  The first bit is the more challenging, certainly with JP conducting goings on from deep.  By the time Manaj went off two ridiculous passes from the Brazilian had peeled Rangers’ defence apart, first to release the Albanian who belted a shot too close to Dieng, and secondly to find the indefatigable Sema who bundled into space before turning and passing the ball across the face of goal and in at the far post to equalise.

Asprilla caused problems too, and heaven knows the 18 year-old’s trajectory at this early stage looks extraordinary.  But for all that, and for all that QPR’s defence had an excitable element to it – the chaos that preceded the scruffy second equaliser was inelegant, the protests at what can only have been the slightest of contact in Rob Dickie’s back before he fell (and briefly attempted to claw the ball away) embarrassed and desperate – we’re making attacking look rather more difficult than it should.  There is evidence of development – the passing the ball deliberately and carefully across the back was here often interrupted by swinging back the way the ball had come… so, left to middle and a turn and back to left again where players were waiting rather than the endless predictable pendulum from side to side of previous games.  Nonetheless, we look easier to play against than we really should – and watching Ethan Laird gallop forwards on the overlap for the visitors, you rather wonder what the plan is that he was deemed inferior to.  Mario Gaspar surely has many qualities borne of his long experience, but a like-for-like replacement for Kiko he is not.

Meanwhile we looked eminently vulnerable to Rangers’ counter-attack, sharp and incisive as it was.  It wasn’t simply a case of us falling apart – Chair, Willock and the others asked the questions that we weren’t alert enough, disciplined enough to respond to and for all and for all that we didn’t get the rub of the green (see above), Rangers “only” squeezed a one-goal win.  But our promotion two years ago owed a lot to us batting away most of what came at us meaning that our relatively dull goalscoring threat was just about enough.  At the moment we don’t look reliable enough at either end of the pitch.

4- Which doesn’t mean that everything is wrong either.  We have a coach building a side on shifting sands, a number of new signings and bits that don’t quite fit together yet.  We’re missing a key forward, a key midfield and what is likely to be a key defender, all of whom surely close to being available, and if this defeat leaves us in a position that’s more reflective of our performances this season we’re nonetheless only three points off the summit.

Daniel Bachmann has exceeded all expectations so far.  Kayembe and Choudhury might not be the long term midfield but the Leicester man is clearly a ferocious asset whilst Kayembe has shown himself capable as a continuity player.  Not a high bar, but one that we’d have questioned last season – he was decent today, robust and willing to spread the ball around.  For the moment we have JP and Sarr – if either leaves it’ll be for good money with, one presumes, replacements lined up if needed.  It’s not as if we won’t have seen these losses coming.

It would have been nice to go top and nice to thump someone, it’s been a while.  It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility here – on both equalisers we expected to run away with the game.  That we didn’t achieve either merely reflects that there’s work to do.  But a rebuild demands patience, so throwing toys out of prams at the first defeat – however galling – isn’t a terribly productive way forward.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Mario Gaspar 2, Kamara 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 4, Choudhury 3, *João Pedro 4*, Sarr 2, Sema 4, Manaj 3
Subs: Asprilla (for Manaj, 31) 3, Bayo (for  Mario Gaspar, 82) NA, Gosling, Hungbo, Hause, Cathcart, Hamer

Preston North End 0 Watford 0 (20/08/2022) 21/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1-  It often strikes me curious that “what the fans think” is treated as something that can be concisely summed up, or even represented as is too often implied both by interviewers and interviewees.  One glance at social media confirms that there are almost as many distinct opinions as there are supporters, any suggestion of consensus is illusory in all but the most straightforward circumstances.

But I think we can agree that last season was pretty horrible.  Not fun at all, even by the standards of relegation from the Premier League at which we, at least those of us of a certain age, are practised.  As for the “why”…  there were lots of factors of course.  Some of which outwith the control of anyone at Vicarage Road;  the environment is ever less forgiving for a less monied club… not impossible, no, Brentford and so forth.  But the fact that there are Brentfords with the temerity to do the job well despite relatively limited resources  AS WELL AS a growing number of opponents with funds that vastly outstrip our own makes it even harder to sustain yourself in the top flight.

The trick, then, might have been not to have gotten relegated in the first place back in 2020.  Again, a rare point of consensus perhaps except… nobody did it on purpose and the criticism of the decisions that contributed to that outcome are simplistic and unforgiving.  The reality is that people who do things make mistakes and – with the exception of the Mogi Bayat story which makes me uncomfortable despite my lack of experience or insight to understand that world – I’ve not seen much evidence that the motivation of the decision makers is somehow inappropriate or undesirable.

That doesn’t make the hierarchy exempt from criticism of course, we wouldn’t be comfortable with a bunch of well-meaning incompetents in charge of the club. Not much evidence of that though really; player recruitment never comes with a 100% success rate and the number of players sold on at a healthy profit suggests that something’s going OK.  The managerial appointments have been less successful, but nobody was complaining about the high turnover when we were doing OK by it. Ten years under the Pozzos has seen six years in the Premier League, two promotions and a late play-off final defeat.  “Above par”.

A lot of the criticism on social media from those without the pressure of having to follow through on decisions that are presented as obvious alternatives to “the same old mistakes”, is profoundly tedious.  Particularly from those whose instinctive, relentless cynicism of many years is suddenly earning them a misplaced celebrity, negativity misconstrued as insight.  I’m conscious that I have a (deliberate) preference for a positive interpretation, glass half full, a “happy clapper”, and will sometimes look daft as a consequence.  But rather that way than the other. 

pne

2- Deepdale is bright and breezy.  The “how to dress” dilemma is normally reserved for the changing of seasons, there shouldn’t be any mystery in August (or February) but the vague portents of heavy rainfall had lead to careful provision for such an outcome.  Totally unnecessary… a relentless sun seemed to hover directly above the centre circle like a drone, pouring itself into every stand and certainly offering little mercy to those sat four rows from the front of the Bill Shankly Kop.  We are grateful for the occasional incursions of the picture book clouds that skitter across the fiercely blue sky.

The team selection betrays a dilemma that would have been difficult to anticipate at the start of last season when, after promotion on the back of a solid defensive record we attempted to re-arm the attack.  Things didn’t go well for Ashley Fletcher, whose recruitment was surely with half an eye on the possibility that we wouldn’t get promoted in 2021, but if he’s the sixth cab off the rank for a newly promoted side (and without the benefit of “less than the sum of our parts” hindsight) you’re surely doing OK.

But all six are unavailable for today’s game.  So too Keinan Davis, deemed “not ready” despite his cameo on Tuesday night and the relative paucity of options.  Cucho, Joshua King, Dennis have all gone, Fletcher’s out on loan and Sarr and João Pedro both injured/”injured”.  It later becomes clear that Sarr is, despite vague hopes that we might hang on until January in the absence of an acceptable offer, definitely on his way and probably to Villa.  Difficult to begrudge him that given his lack of tantrums and significant role two years ago, a fee comparable to what we paid is disappointing given the buy low/sell high model but no more than could be expected in the circumstances.  JP…  we’ll see how that shakes out, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if, having already brought in a good £60-70m in player sales including Sarr but not including clauses and with the Brazilian having five years on his contract we settled for anything less than an extraordinary offer – far north of the figures mentioned – and to hell with what the player wants.  Whatever your thoughts on “the model”, it falls apart completely if we allow gems to bully their way out of long contracts.

So instead we have Rey Manaj and his 1970s banker hair parting making a full debut alongside Vakoun Bayo with Yáser Asprilla dancing around behind them.  Daughter 2, who in fairness has a better idea than me of what a twelve year old actually looks like, rolls her eyes at my suggestion…  but physically intimidating he is not.

3- Preston seem to do a decent line in genial gentlemen of a certain age.  Several are employed on the stewarding staff, several more seem to be having a dry run with a stretcher with another cheerfully strapped to said stretcher.  Preston are the definition of a Proper Club with Proper Supporters, but any bonhomie disappears with the note that they boast a few Proper Idiots, as do everyone else, singing the same songs as everyone else does at the travelling support sizzling in the sun.  “Our support is what you say, my good man?  Why, that’s a new one.  Well done you!”.

“You’re just a sh!t Ben Foster” gets another airing too – maybe it’s a Lancashire thing.  Either way it has the same effect on Daniel Bachmann as it did against Burnley;  the keeper is exemplary from the moment his quick reactions keep out Alan Browne’s alarming early chance.  If the midfielder’s impressive acrobatics had extended to putting his shot either side of the keeper it might have had a different outcome;  Browne is also the source of Bachmann’s most testing moment in the second half, another point blank save which asked rather more of the keeper.  Otherwise the saves that he has to make tend to be from efforts from further out as the home side are kept at arm’s length.

One of those genial gentleman of a certain age has the referee’s whistle, and is at pains to avoid booking anyone for much of the game despite considerable provocation.  Quite how Brad Potts stays uncensored is a bit of a mystery – Ken Sema comes out on top in a scuffle on the halfway line but referee Bond blows for a foul on him as he emerges with the ball.  Potts dives in and takes the Swede out after the whistle has gone but escapes without censure – as does Sema, who despite being the most mild-mannered of the men in yellow blue bounces furiously off the turf and confronts his assailant with a hard stare.  Meanwhile Francisco Sierralta twice kicks Troy Parrott up the arse in the centre circle to similar finger-wagging…  the much vaunted Parrott will have a quiet game, there’s something there about Sierralta looking like a pirate and Parrott disappearing into his pocket/onto his shoulder but I can’t quite get the words right.  Meanwhile I read something on Twitter this week about anger being a secondary emotion;  you’re never just angry, anger is a reaction to something else.  The proponent of this argument has never watched Francisco Sierralta play football.

4- Both sides are better at defending than attacking.  That the game will end without a goal is a racing certainty from the moment I notice that Pete has made that assertion on Twitter early in the first half (thanks Pete) but it’s no worse than a 6 or 7 out of 10 for entertainment as nil-nil draws go.  The limitations of our centre-backs within the desired system has been much discussed but it’s less of an issue here than it might be at home when teams sit deep – Preston aren’t a defensive side, they’re just good at defending.  Cathcart, Kabasele and Sierralta are the equal of most of what’s chucked at them though, and with the relentlessly boisterous Choudhury and the enigmatic Kayembe, who edges closer to the Good Thing side of the line with every pendulum-like game, sitting in front of them we look very solid indeed.

Indeed, for all that the trio that combined so mercilessly for the winning goal against Sheffield United on the opening day are at various stages of being on their way out of the building we look well set up to hit teams on the break, particularly away from home.  The 18 year-old Asprilla – providing yet more evidence of that broken transfer policy – is blossoming before our eyes, spinning like a top through the midfield and pausing only to flick a cross-field pass or to play a one-two.  Preston resort to kicking him up in the air less quickly than others will – the sooner we get him onto João Pedro’s diet the better.

Louza will load bullets as soon as he’s back, and our wingbacks are decent again.  Ken Sema, who has been involved in two of our four goals to date after all, continues to be a perfectly decent option at this level despite his vocal detractors behind us in the stand, but I’m not as convinced as Rob Edwards sounds that playing Hassane Kamara on the right is a viable solution to what looks like a two-from-three problem.  We still get his tenacity, his energy, his saving tackles and his telescopic legs on the right but as he rattles into the box in front of us and is unable to get a cross in with his weaker foot his look of frustration as the jeers ring out is telling.  His positivity is the biggest of his many assets, we should be a little careful with it.

5- So the “problem” is clearly the forwards, suddenly.  It’s not that neither Bayo nor Manaj offer anything – both are good at certain things, but being a reliable finisher isn’t one of them in either instance.  We have no view of our first half attacks from pitch level at the opposite end, but TV replays confirm that Bayo is at least getting into good positions – he’s lively and mobile, and determined enough to bully himself a late chance which he fires into the side netting from an unforgiving angle.  A lot of the time though he’s skipping around rather ineffectually… late to whatever party is going on after the drinks have finished.  Meanwhile Manaj is a decent weapon to have, a good foil perhaps for a more reliable goalscorer with his strength and awareness…  but he should have won the game when an extraordinary Asprilla pass from the left put him through in the second half, to lean back and miss the target altogether when one-on-one unforgivable. 

Both are new, both trying to lay foundations in shifting sands and both will have a role to play but we’ll need more than is on offer here come the end of the window, one way or another.  It’s good to see the likes of Pollock and Forde on the bench, but you’d feel more comfortable if they were there purely on merit rather than out of necessity.  Neither makes an appearance; instead Joe Hungbo gets another cameo.  I love everything I’ve seen of Joe, including incredibly level-headed interviews, but he responds to my gushing enthusiasm to Daughter 2 at his introduction with a pretty forlorn few minutes.  These are salvaged to a degree when, having lost the ball once more he chases back down our right, retrieves possession tigerishly, snaps a quick one-two that will release him into space only for Greg Cunningham to, sensibly enough, take a yellow for his team.

Stuff to do, clearly, on and off the pitch.  For the moment though we’re doing OK…  in a league in which everyone takes points off each other as a rule of engagement unbeaten after five games, three of which away from home and three of which against the division’s more fancied teams, is a very decent place to be.  Any away point is decent, and there’s something to be said for having made (and missed) a couple of clear-cut chances against a side yet to concede a goal.

But maybe I’m just being overly positive.

Yoooorns.

*Bachmann 4*, Kamara 4, Sema 3, Kabasele 3, Sierralta 3, Cathcart 3, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 3, Asprilla 4, Bayo 2, Manaj 2
Subs: Gosling (for Asprilla, 80) NA, Hungbo (for Manaj, 84) NA, Forde, Pollock, Troost-Ekong, Mario Gaspar, Okoye

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
4 comments

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

Watford 1 Leicester City 5 (15/05/2022) 16/05/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
39 comments

1-  Pigeons are rubbish.

“Rats with wings”, but more stupid.  Our old place in Woodside had an uncapped chimney, a pigeon was stupid enough to fall down it at one point as we discovered when the living room filled with bluebottles an unknowable time later.  I was at Vicarage Road when I got the “I’m going to stay with my sister…” message.  The bloke who came round to check out the chimney said he’d happily charge me for capping it but he recommended not to bother, I’d been very unlucky the first time.  He was wrong.

I live more rurally now.  No chimney though, critically.  There are still pigeons – wood pigeons, two huge bastards that nest out the back.  The main difference that I’ve been able to discern between wood pigeons and feral pigeons is their size, and thus critically the capacity of their backsides.  This was capably demonstrated at some point this morning prior to our 11am departure with sizeable deposits all over the car and, critically, decorating the passenger side window.  Daughter 2 approached said door, gave me a look, and nestled into the back seat with her ears plugged in.

This may have been a sign.

2- The portents continue at the ground, which is emptier even than it was on Wednesday,  great swathes of empty seats stain the stands.  Dave is here, to glumly observe that even the weather isn’t right… it should be sunny for the final home game of the season.  Kick-off is preceded by the awarding of Player of the Season to an enthusiastic but error-prone full back who arrived in January.   I voted for Hassane Kamara too, but that his award was so widely expected is an indictment in itself.  The victor, confined to the bench on this occasion, looked suitably awkward.

This was followed by the introduction of Rob Edwards, presenting the Supporter of the Season award to Shay Murray.  So far so good…  if waving at the crowd and looking pleased to be here was all there was to it he’d be smashing it already.

But he’ll need to blow a gale through the corridors of Vicarage Road. This was the game that we’d feared on Wednesday.  A scratch side, made up of the scattered debris of a squad that has proven incapable of staying in the Premier League when at full strength…  fringe players, along with the few senior players neither injured nor “injured”.  We were lucky to get away with it once, but a second time against a side both luxuriating in mid-table gentleness and with the sharpness on the break to expose our (many) anxious slips and tumbles was not going to be as accommodating.

3- The one positive from a miserable afternoon was João Pedro, who led the line with a single-mindedness and maturity that was all the more impressive for the paucity of leadership around him and (particularly) further afield.  He was at the heart of a decent enough opening to the game which featured one effort off the bar, a decent save from Danny Ward and an opening goal after Leicester did their panicky bumbling around at the back thing in response to Samuel Kalu’s first corner and the Brazilian drove home via a deflection.

For a while, all was well.  Indeed, Leicester’s defence looked accommodating whenever presented with a problem too complex for Wesley Fofana to sweep up one-on-one but we didn’t capitalise… whereas every Leicester attack caused us palpitations.  Despite having the better of the opening ten minutes or so we’d already looked vulnerable and we ushered in the rest of the game with the opening goal.  Felix would later wonder what the results of the week said about Everton, but the Toffees were never gifted opportunities like this.

The first was the worst, Adam Masina inexplicably charging across the penalty area to contest a ball that wasn’t his with Craig Cathcart, taking his teammate out in the process without clearing the ball and leaving City three on one with the inevitable conclusion.  James Maddison tapped into an empty net completing a full house having also netted in our other similarly inglorious encounters this season.

Within five minutes we were behind.  Edo Kayembe was to dig in later in the game but endured a cumbersome start to the game, culminating in passing straight to James Maddison when trying to release Sema down the left.  Maddison dropped a ball to the edge of the box which Foster came charging out to completely miss as Vardy headed the ball miserably over him and into an empty net.

Having held out adequately on Wednesday, here we had handed the visitors a lead from a winning position.

4- And City, fuelled with the confidence gleaned from putting the ball in the net, were much more impressive in the second half, mercilessly converting the chances we offered them on the break.  This – attacking on the break – is something we might have been good at…. witness the pace of Sarr and Dennis, witness also the big wins over United and Everton.  We’ve not been ahead often enough, not demanded enough concerted pressure of opponents over the course of the season to exploit that hypothetical but irrelevant strength.

We switched to 3-5-2 at the start of the second half with Kamara replacing Dan Gosling in a midfield that had been galloped through too often in the first, Gosling himself only interrupting City’s progress with a series of fouls that should have earned him a card.  The shift should have put more bodies in the middle of the park with Ngakia and Kamara pushing up as wing backs.

Before that theory could be tested, City were further ahead  as Barnes converted a sweeping pass from half time sub Marc Albrighton.  The game was over.  We made some nice attacking moves later in the game, João Pedro again at the centre of things and Sissoko plugging away providing threat from the flanks.

Not enough.  Not nearly enough.  There followed two further sharply taken goals from City as the Vicarage Road campaign concluded with a fitting lack of anything enjoyable whatsoever.

5- “Part of the ups and downs” consoled Dave and Rob sagely as Daughter 2’s face betrayed the afternoon’s ordeal on the way up Occupation Road.  That logic holding, we’re owed a hell of an “up” at some point soon.  It’s questionable whether we’ve had a more miserable season in the 40+ that I’ve been following the club, certainly none as ungrateful to the home support, a home support that have been treated to one point and nine goals (with 34 against) in 13 games since that United win.

There are few of the consolations of previous bad relegations;  in 2000 and 2007 we had teams punching above their weight who ran out of luck.  1988 was awful, but the bitterest pills had been the previous summer and a rebuild was already suggested.  1996 was miserable, but offset by a tragically magnificent late charge and the promise of what was to come.

This season has been charmless and shambolic.  The challenge of being promoted out of a pandemic shouldn’t be discounted… we were always up against it, a newly promoted Watford (rather than a Villa or a Newcastle) is always going to be running uphill.  But a challenge can be steep and the response utterly miserable.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

As we returned to the car we found the drizzle had begun to sort the pigeons’ gifts out, their memory slowly washing away.  That’s the best hope for this season, as neither it nor the wilfully charmless manager who presided over it’s conclusion will be missed.

If you’re braving Chelsea, good luck – I’ll be at a wedding in Snowdonia, but will be back for all the usual summer stuff.  Enjoy the break, we’ve all earned one.

Yoorns.

Foster 1, Ngakia 2, Masina 1, Cathcart 1, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 3, Gosling 1, Kalu 1, Sema 2, *João Pedro 4*
Subs: Kamara (for Gosling, 45) 2, Etebo (for Sema, 81) NA, Cukur, Baah, Morris, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Bachmann

Watford 0 Everton 0 (12/05/2022) 12/05/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1-  There aren’t many things that I genuinely hate about following Watford.

Even the rubbish things are OK really, much as you wouldn’t always choose them outright.  The Cup Final becomes part of the rich and varied landscape as it disappears ever further behind us in the rear-view mirror (and in common with everything pre-pandemic, might as well have been 20 years ago).  The grimness of of the catering in the away end at Stamford Bridge has to be suffered once a season at worst.  The crime against humanity that was the gents toilets at Fellows Park, Walsall is now the stuff of legend.

Ditto Scarborough away, and countless other stupid trips to watch ridiculously bad football.  If you’re in it just for the football itself you’re going to have a very miserable existence, as others have observed.  Don’t like some of these things, wouldn’t choose these things, fine.  But “hate” is a strong word.

I hate moments of conflict within Watford’s support.  Not… dispute about a particular player.  Or Paul getting all silly about black shorts again.  That’s fine, that’s normal.  But I don’t like conflict, I’m not very good at it… and at times when the sentiment towards the club is hostile, justified or otherwise and whether or not there’s confrontation between supporters…   it shatters the illusion that we’re in this together.  That for two hours on a Saturday afternoon we’re all the same, we are the club as much as anything is.  I like that illusion, it’s a big part of why I’m here.  To be part of a tribe of like-minded well-raised people.

2- I wasn’t looking forward to this evening.  This is rare, for any game whatever the circumstances; my seat in the Rookery has been My Seat for 23 years now and is a happy place, even if Daughter 2 thinks that she owns it now (she’s wrong).

But whatever your position on where we are and whose fault it is…  surely nobody was looking forward to this one.  The confirmation of our relegation at Selhurst Park was followed immediately by Roy Hodgson’s unusual behaviour post-match, and then the revelation of our sudden and suspicious injury list.

For all of it there’s mitigation if you want to look for it.  Gino/Scott… yes, another terrible season but, you know, ten years of which six in the top flight plus two promotions plus one more play-off final, a cup final, a semi-final.  Not bad is it?  Sheffield Wednesday were relegated with us in 2000, much bigger City, much bigger fanbase, not been to the top flight since, they’d kill for that.  I don’t doubt Roy’s assertion that he believes he’s here to manage the team not to perform for supporters – and after all, he left Palace during a pandemic, natural that he’d want to take an opportunity to say his farewells.  Far classier than coming back during Patrick Vieira’s opening months and watching on, passing judgement like a lingering houseguest.  And the team availability…  I don’t want to see Sarr and Dennis ambling around again if their heads aren’t in the game.  I don’t want them to get injured either if our financial stability is reliant on getting the best we can for them.  I can quite believe that Kucka, Cleverley, Kiko have been playing whilst held together with sellotape, a sacrifice no longer justifiable.

The above isn’t quite fair, either.  Gino and Scott HAVE presided over a miserable failure.  Roy’s conduct might have seemed quaint if he’d been doing it as someone else’s manager but was crass, arrogant and insensitive as ours.  Sarr and Dennis owe us something, they’re being well played by Watford (yes, “us”) to play football when we say so not when they can get themselves up for it.

But there’s got to be some balance.  Based on social media before the game I’d expected pitchforks, banners, and angry mobs. I don’t want that.  Mere incompetence doesn’t deserve that, there’s all sorts going on elsewhere that does.  The fear was that this was only going one way, and all it would take would be for us to fall behind.

3- Which, mercifully, doesn’t happen.  There are occasional gentle suggestions that some folk are ready to spring into action at the first set-back, but on a pleasant, warm evening with the mid-May sun catching the Rookery in a manner that the football calendar rarely permits it to do it’s a pleasant surprise to find that five minutes in we’re not three goals behind and nobody has been tarred or feathered.  Erica from New Mexico is here – no Daughters 1 or 2 on a school night – and feels rather short changed after my glum build-up.  There’s not even any evidence of the Mr Angry who was a source of fascination on her previous away trips.

It’s a patched-up team with back-ups in at full-back, in midfield and in the wide attacking positions.  The bench features three centre-backs and three academy forwards all making their debuts in a matchday squads.  (“Those guys are the seat-warmers, right?”.  “Bench warmers, Erica”).  Burnley and Leeds might feel justified in being peeved, but only for as long as it takes them to remember our supine collapses against both here with our first team.

Everton feature both Richarlíson and Abdoulaye Doucouré, who receive contrasting receptions, as well as Fabian Delph, sent off here on the Toffees’ last visit shortly before the pandemic lockdown in what felt like a critically expensive defeat.  They are roared on by an impossibly boisterous following who seem, from this distance, to have done an extraordinary job of mobilising behind their team in an hour of urgency (you know, “supporting” and such like – it’ll never catch on).

There’s a stoicism about our play.  Not much more than stoicism, admittedly, but let’s be realistic… we’ve been falling quickly and any kind of foothold, anything to stay the momentum is welcome. On WhatsApp, my co-editor asks why the League Cup first round is being played in May – and there’s something of that annual landmark’s curiosity about the return to view of some fringe players.  Former Evertonian Dan Gosling – whose ability to time runs into the box must surely owe something to having spent two years playing with Tim Cahill – does an inconspicuously disciplined job… scrapping, scraping, getting a foot in.  For someone who’s not played all season he’s straight back on his game.  So too is Jeremy Ngakia, who is bold and assertive while Samuel Kalu is far more convincing than during his most recent cameo at Molineux.  The world doesn’t collapse.  We’re doing OK.

4- It is, however, a monumentally terrible game.  Quite epically banal stuff, the 1970s supermarket own brand corn flakes of Premier League football. If you’re here for entertainment you’re going to be sorely disappointed;  the visitors stir themselves occasionally, Richarlíson brings a fabulous save from Foster, Demarai Gray’s game flickers in keeping with his entire career – rolling a ball so nearly , nearly… but wide across the face of goal before he completely disappears again.  Watford don’t manage a shot on target, and don’t even pretend to get a shot on target.

Fortunately, nobody’s here for entertainment.  Everton’s need is purely practical, and if there’s an edge to their anxiety it’s abated by Leeds capsizing once again elsewhere.  The Toffees could still go down, but they’ll need to try harder than this to achieve that goal in the face of some pretty stiff competition.  Watford, meanwhile, have progressed beyond the cheap, commercial sphere dictated by points and goal difference and now operate on a purely spiritual level.  Those who haven’t achieved this state of zen won’t have been quite as enamoured with what might, on the face of it and to the untrained eye, appear to be nothing more than eleven blokes passing the ball around reasonably competently, not terribly progressively but at least putting on a show of giving a shit.  To those in the know it’s a stark, nihilistic art exhibit.  Even Erica, who still doesn’t know quite what to expect, declares herself happy with a cod and chips from Fry Days and a brief, furious and wonderfully irrational tirade at the linesman on the nearside who she threatens with physical violence.  A born football (soccer) fan.

That Watford’s lack of ambition is shamelessly straight out of Roy Hodgson’s playbook evades nobody.  He was brought in to keep us up and has failed to do so… but he has made us more robust and more organised, our away form since he arrived would have been good enough to keep us up if paired with a halfway sensible home record; this was the fourth clean sheet of his tenure when none proceeded it (and the first of the season at home).  Our attack has been increasingly non-existent though, and as Will later grins as we rendezvous outside the Hornet Shop, the late replacement of Kalu with Cathcart is pure trolling on Roy’s behalf for all that it was undertaken to surgically maintain the kicking up the arse of Richarlíson, hitherto undertaken by Samir and Kabasele before his move to the left.  It’s designed to protect a point and does so.

5- That this perversely on-brand substitution provokes barely a clenched fist is symbolic of the transition that the support has made during the final quarter.  The beautifully inane “we’ve got the ball / we’ve lost the ball / we’ll win it back” commentary is a cult-like mantra that lasts twenty minutes solid and stifles even the away end who now know that their side are a short distance from utter humiliation, however theoretical.  The chant will become dull very very quickly on a par with “we’re the right side / we’re the left side” if overused, but it suits the evening down to the ground.  The lesser of two monkeys is off our back as a nil-nil draw against a relegation-threatened side at home is greeted with joy.

The relatively painless transition from looking backwards to looking forwards has been helped by the announcement of Rob Edwards’ appointment earlier in the day, the timing of which transparently with a view to precisely this objective.  Personally… I’m gutted that it wasn’t John Eustace but that’s a sentimental judgement.  Both appear to be the sort of young, positive, British coach that everybody seems to agree is needed with a view to defining a future that isn’t purely reactive and I’ve got no more profound insight than that to offer.  John Eustace is also John Eustace, which is a fine thing in itself but being Rob Edwards might turn out to be pretty cool too.

Let’s see.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Ngakia 3*, Masina 3, Samir 3, Kabasele 3, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 3, Gosling 3, Kalu 3, Sema 2, João Pedro 3
Subs: Cathcart (for Kalu, 86) NA, Etebo (for Kayembe, 89) NA, Cukur, Blake, Grieves, Morris, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Bachmann