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Watford 2 Reading 0 (09/04/2021) 10/04/2021

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. In my day-job – because I do have a day-job, which I squeeze into the time when I’m not being your second favourite match reporter, or devotedly clearing couch grass from the allotment, or playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game with Fred, or mercilessly hacking away at the riff from ‘Come As You Are’ on the guitar, or binge-eating Twiglets, or doing the washing up again, or fighting crime under a secret identity, or asleep – I’m half of a company which specialises in building websites for community history projects. No, it’s true. The catwalk modelling didn’t work out.

Many of the projects we’ve helped deal with stories, memories and reminiscences. The difference between historical fact and lived experience, if you like; the difference between selfie-saturated landmark and the warmth of home too. The first project we were involved in, more than twenty-five years ago but still on-going, was in Brighton, where a touchscreen exhibit was built from, among other things, photographs taken by people given disposable cameras and asked to capture their favourite places. The obvious candidates – the Royal Pavilion, the Lanes, both piers – came up comparatively rarely; by and large, those type of places aren’t where people eat their lunch, escape work stress, fall in love. The connections to the places where they actually do those things are often deeply personal, and so easily lost from whatever knowledge future generations might have of streets or buildings. A similar approach informed the ‘You Are My Watford’ book which might well be on your shelf.

2. With respect to those who partake, my co-editor included, statistics have never really done it for me. Memorabilia neither. I want those stories, memories, reminiscences. I want the bits between the lines; the litter and the limbs. We’ve all been on long car journeys to distant away games or in the pub after a few, when the laughter wraps around familiar tales in the same way that those tales wrap around results on a fixture list. Without disappearing too far up my own backside, part of what I love about what we achieved with BSaD, apart from making ourselves rich beyond our wildest dreams, is that it stands as a history of how that time felt, what it seemed to mean, where it led some of us. It’s one history, several histories; it’s nothing like a definitive history, whatever the hell that would look like. A community history, a folk memory.

I’ve recently been watching the highlights of some old seasons as research: Ray Lewington’s first for an article for The Watford Treasury and Malky Mackay’s second for a piece on Danny Graham for YBR. Some of the football played in the latter is remarkable, especially given where the club was at the time, but old footage never really comes to life until you start to remember your own personal experience of it. If you were there, I expect you can still picture your own view of our two goals at Wembley in ’99, regardless of how many times you’ve replayed the highlights from the camera gantry; it’s indelible. Some highlights of the game at London Road in ’94 cropped up on Twitter a while back; the football is proper nonsense, but the stories of what happened to people on that terrace are just glorious. I can still feel the sea breeze from that day at Brighton.

3. Which makes me wonder what this season and half of its predecessor will look like as they gradually recede into the distance. What will be their folk history, their collective memory? For the first time, we’ve experienced it all separately, alone or near enough. If we’ve gathered at all, it’s been on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom. In the past, even if you haven’t been to a game yourself, there have always been the stories of those who have, and yet those voices will have nothing much to say this time around.

It would be pushing a point to claim that there’s something therapeutic about experiencing relegation together, because the reality is very far from the kindness of a mutual support group, but it will be peculiar for that trauma not to have left more of a mark. It isn’t even as if most of us had to face the office afterwards. My mate Loz is still cross enough for the rest of us combined, mind you. As for this season, I’m reminded that most football grounds provided a very effective means of amplifying feelings of anger, resentment and betrayal long before social media was invented; I wonder what course the season would’ve taken with supporters present to let rip at the players with each minor setback.

And as things turned around, the resurgence would’ve been made vivid by communal experience. We’d never have heard the last of Adam Masina’s winner from those who’d travelled to Cardiff, and rightly so. We’d have found a song for Xisco, relished his smile. We’d be approaching this run of fixtures with the noise of the 1881, with flags waving, with that hum of nervous tension utterly distinct to these kind of occasions. We’d be trying to drag them over the line right now. Instead, I catch the team news – no changes – while Fred’s being put to bed, then scramble upstairs just in time for kickoff. I do have a flag to hand, as it happens, but I’m wary of breaking something. Instead, I eat the pud I’ve hidden from the cat while a minute’s silence is observed to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing. The silence ends not with the traditional roar from all assembled but with more silence, broken by a few echoing claps and shouts. It’s all very strange.

4. For a while back there, I harboured a largely irrational dislike of Reading, the kind of simmering mean-spirited resentment which a tabloid newspaper might harness for a front page on a quiet day. Lots of people jumped on the bandwagon after the ghost goal, but I was there first. They cheated their way out of it by employing Nigel Gibbs, which made it impossible to hold a grudge.

More recently, they’ve occupied similar territory to the landfill indie bands which clutter up festival stages, when there are festivals and stages, in the late afternoon. I contend that there isn’t a single person in the entire world, not even if I include all of the members of the band, whose favourite band is Editors, and if you want to prove me wrong, then I suggest that yours will be a Pyrrhic victory, my friend. Similarly, there isn’t a single person in the entire world, even if I include the manager and all of the players, who really cares how Reading are getting on, and…well, ditto. (This kind of harmless trolling cheered up many a match preview and report back in the BSaD days, and we largely got away with it, apart from that time when Matt made a forum-full of Burnley fans really cross.)

If they carry on like this, though, they’re in danger of becoming relevant again. They’re simply terrific here, classy and exciting, open and ambitious. Brentford do something similar, but with the kind of preening narcissism which leads to everyone lining up across the halfway line at kickoff like some kind of modern dance piece; they’re a little bit too Lady Gaga for my taste, if you know what I mean. They also do it with a great deal of squealing and whining, as is often the way with teams who play football as it’s apparently supposed to be played. We get none of that from Reading, no bitter aftertaste at all. Just the good stuff.

In the behind-the-front three of Ejaria, Olise and Meite, they have players not merely comfortable on the ball but dynamic in possession; it lacks a real focal point, but teams like this are kinda supposed to lack a real focal point because you’re like not supposed to take it too literally, man. It’s a holistic experience, yeah? Part of me doesn’t want to wish them success in making and winning the playoffs because they’d be used as target practice by the posh kids with their laser-guided air rifles in the Premier League; lovely football with erratic finishing and a very open defence tends not to work out that well. Part of me is aware that their side will be picked clean in the summer regardless.

5. I’ve seen very little of this season, just dipped in occasionally. I’ll try not to be like your gran when she used to sit in the living room while your favourite programme was on and comment on people’s clothes. My occasional dips during the tenures of the previous two head coaches were much like when you turn on the telly and find yourself part-way through an episode of Eastenders: it’s just Phil Mitchell shouting at someone in the rain, forever. It felt as I saw the same Watford performance over and over again, and the last report I wrote involved football played with a level of enthusiasm which suggested it’d been demanded by someone holding relatives at gunpoint. You wouldn’t have guessed that anyone ever actually played the game for fun.

This is a total transformation, then. You may well have reservations; they may well be justified. Me, I see an entirely different energy: it’s as if the entire side has been given a glug of whatever Will Hughes was drinking at the end of last season, and he no longer stands out from the sullen crowd. Whatever Xisco’s tactical acumen, if you can get a set of players to attack a key fixture like this, with this intent and relish, you’re doing something very right. Some may contend that we were a little fortunate here, but I’d suggest that we were nothing – well, maybe not nothing but nearly nothing – of the sort. If you approach a game like we did that Bristol City one, your opponents have the better chances in a spirit-sapping nil-nil draw. If you approach a game like this, your opponents have the better chances in a vital two-nil win.

6. We made things happen. We didn’t ‘build a platform’ and wait for the creative players to do their thing; we were aggressive and proactive and we made things happen in the final third rather than waiting and wondering. The headlines rightly go to Ismaïla Sarr, but both goals came from pressing high up the pitch, wasps around jam sandwiches as Reading tried to play their way out. We’d already given them plenty of notice: Sarr was in behind the hapless Gibson within a couple of minutes, Cabral out to claim; João Pedro fired a cross shot wide shortly afterwards.

The goals were individual perfection and team masterpiece, both at once. For the first, Nathaniel Chalobah and Kiko Femenía are all over the scraps from a long clearance, turning classic Championship debris into controlled possession in an instant, setting up Sarr while the defence is still uncertain. For the second, within two minutes, Chalobah robs Gibson, perhaps yet to get his head back into the game, and Philip Zinckernagel plays the pass. In both cases, they’re situations we weren’t even interested in, let alone involved in, under previous managers; we were too busy getting our shape, tucking in, locking up. They come with risk, as we’ll see, but so much reward.

So much reward. My phone pings: people on the WhatsApp group watching on Sky, a few seconds ahead. Sarr sets off, cuts inside, curls a left-footed pearl into the top corner as if it’s just the training ground when everyone’s knocking off for the day. The keeper might as well not be there; maybe try to stop him with an extra outfield player instead. Two minutes later, there’s no ping from my phone, so I momentarily switch off as he cuts into the right of the area, goes on the outside of a defender, and then I’m off the sofa as he suddenly rips a shot into the very same top corner, the ball bouncing out of what momentarily appears to be a Subbuteo goal. It’s a ridiculous finish. He’s always played with the air of someone who doesn’t really care, not really, and that can cut both ways: you don’t finish like that without a certain arrogance about you, a certain carelessness.

But it would be remiss of me not to mention the work-rate. Not only of Sarr, but of João Pedro and Ken Sema too. The latter two hardly see anything of the ball, but Reading see plenty of them: we carry the energy of the midfield right through to the front three, and they play with a discipline, at least up to a point, which is to be applauded. João Pedro leaves one on an opponent late on to betray his frustration, and it’s foolish, and it’s a shame because he ought to know that we can still see his contribution even if it isn’t a glamorous one. Sema is exemplary: if you can’t get on the ball, contribute in other ways. Xisco has managed to make a team out of it all.

7. Obviously, the price of a high press is space further back. Much of the fun of the first half arose from the absurd amounts of unoccupied grass in midfield, the consequence of Reading being similar keen on winning the ball high up; the whole thing would’ve been utterly unrecognisable to anyone weaned on second tier football of days gone by, twenty blokes fighting over a muddy rectangle in the middle of the pitch. When I say ‘fun’, I do, of course, mean ‘not fun’, for it gradually became clear that the game was very far from over.

Just as at the other end, warnings had already been issued. Both Troost-Ekong and Sierralta had had cross-field passes ambushed like unescorted carriages after turning off the highway on a dark winter’s day; Laurent had shot at Bachmann from outside the box, afforded far too much time to do so. We lost possession again, Laurent dragged a cross-shot wide. Quite rightly, we see these as errors because that’s our perspective; Reading fans will no doubt see the hard work involved in forcing them, as we do for our goals. Olise breaks from deep, the already-booked Zinckernagel ill-advisedly hacking at his ankles as he sways through the midfield; Meite crosses, Puscas hits the post from six yards. A slight deflection on the cross from Masina’s last-ditch slide, perhaps, but a sitter nevertheless. Gary Porter and Nigel Gibbs – who, you’ll be aware, were both renowned for the ruthlessness of their close-range finishing – are suitably scathing at half-time.

That’s the key moment in the game, perhaps. If Zinckernagel makes contact, he’s off and we’re playing with ten men for the remaining hour. If Puscas scores, the contest is alive. We nearly kill it off, Sarr nonchalantly burying a magnificent cross from Masina only to have his hat-trick celebrations cut short by the linesman’s (correct) flag. But then Laurent is allowed to carry the ball again and Bachmann has to make a smothering save at his near post, and Meite should do better than hit the side netting after a loose pass from Troost-Ekong, and Bachmann saves again from Ejaria in injury time. By the break, all agree that Reading should be level. Deserving to be level isn’t the same as actually being level, though, and a whole season of having that written in very large letters on a blackboard while teacher sighs, shakes their head and taps the words with a stick awaits them if they’re promoted.

8. It’s been a cracking game so far. Really excellent entertainment, and I can’t remember when I last said that. I suppose the game at the Emirates back in whatever-month was really excellent entertainment if you had no active involvement in it. I suppose. Shudder. Anyway, we had no need of it continuing to be a cracking game; it served us no purpose. My second half notes barely amount to half a dozen lines, most of those inconsequential.

As the half began, Sierralta ran straight into traffic, disappearing like a toddler into a ball-pit, and whatever had been said in the dressing room briefly threatened to stay in the dressing room. But whether by accident, design or a bit of both, we came to completely dominate the game as it wore on. A large part of that is down to the half-time substitution of Nathaniel Chalobah, who’d taken a knock late in the half, for Carlos Sánchez. That’s no reflection on Chalobah, but this had become a game in need of a bloody good sort-out. Thus employed, Sánchez went about spring-cleaning the midfield with a brisk cheerfulness which suggested a pitch-side microphone might pick him up whistling a merry tune to himself at any moment. Cupboards were emptied and re-organised, floors swept and washed, nooks and crannies cleared of cobwebs.

Reading’s behind-the-front three, so dangerous before the break, received the ball without options in front of them, without space to come up with ideas, and gradually became a memory rather than a present threat. In response, they threw on whatever forwards they could find – you half-expected to see Adam le Fondre warming up – but they weren’t the same side without those breaks from midfield, without that merry-go-round of possession. It takes them ages to have another shot, and even then Bachmann has everything behind Olise’s free kick.

We broke it up, shut it down, hit them on the break. That really works when you’re two-nil up. Isaac Success and Andre Gray arrive, both ideal options for this kind of position; the luxury of a large, varied squad. Success immediately contests a long ball, Zinckernagel is through but finishes wildly. Sánchez, whistling all the while, whacks a shot a few yards wide. Sarr nearly grabs his third at a corner, the ball squirting around the post via a deflection. Bachmann has to make a decent stop from Aluko late on, but it’s over by then, pretty much.

9. Look, I loved this. Absolutely bloody loved it. It felt like fun, felt like it should do. That energy, that intensity, that unity. It felt positive. Hallelujah.

The Cup Final – yeah, sorry, that one – came up on Twitter during the week, and I still feel an enormous sense of pride whenever it does. And part of that pride comes from what happened at half-time, when we could’ve tried to shut the game down at two-nil, could’ve tried to limit the damage, could’ve saved face. Could’ve stuck.

But it was the Cup Final. If you’re not going to indulge fairytales when you’re at Wembley in May, then you don’t love what I love about football. All of Javi’s successors would’ve gone for damage limitation. All of them. (Yes, Ray Lewington too, I know. Stop interrupting.) But what’s the point of football, of cup finals, of Watford, if you can’t imagine a comeback against all odds, a comeback for the ages? So we pushed up, and we played the game as if we might still win it, and we got absolutely murdered. And I’m not merely fine with that. I love that. I’m deeply proud of it.

And I’ve missed it. And we’ve found it again, that belief in possibility, that refusal to be cowed. It isn’t about throwing caution to the wind. It’s about not letting caution stop you from opening the front door.

Perhaps this promotion, should there turn out to be one, wouldn’t quite have been of the High Street pond variety, but I had wondered what would be left of it in years to come other than a list of results and a league table. We might just wake up from a particularly vivid bad dream to find ourselves exactly where we were. A grey, insipid, nervous little team relegated; a grey, insipid, nervous little team promoted. A club caught between two divisions. A season without stories, memories, communal experience. Without real meaning.

But this, at last, is not that season. You probably already knew this, so I apologise for not hearing you. I’d wandered off and I hadn’t seen it until now. But, yes, hallelujah. We’ve got our courage back.

Feels great, doesn’t it?



Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Masina 4, Hughes 4, Chalobah 3, Zinckernagel 3, *Sarr 5*, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs: Sánchez (for Chalobah, 45) 5, Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 70) 4, Success (for Sema, 77) 3, Gray (for João Pedro, 77) 3, Foster, Ngakia, Gosling, Lazaar, Hungbo

Middlesbrough 1 Watford 1 (05/04/2021) 06/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Tags: , , ,
13 comments

1- Daughter 1 has become a vegetarian.

This is of course not only her prerogative but also kind of par for the course with a teenage daughter.  She has also discovered Nirvana and socialism in recent months.

But Nirvana and socialism require less effort from me.  It’s always been true, of course, that as soon as you get used to whatever stage children are at everything changes;  whilst the early years were exciting I’m not sure I could have coped with that rate of exciting new discovery and challenge indefinitely.  So the shifts are fewer and further between…  but providing food for the girls has never been terribly challenging until now.  Now I need to stop and think about it.  I’m not a great cook… my wife can open a fridge and improvise with whatever’s inside; I need a recipe.  And now I need new recipes.

2- Very difficult not to get carried away, what with ten wins in eleven, Swansea capsizing, Brentford dropping points and so on.  Plus, as discussed, we’re brilliant and nobody else is.  Nonetheless, Michael Kurn, Tommy Mooney and Allan Smart talking promotion campaigns in Hornet Hive’s well intended but rather billy-no-mates pre-match-without-a-match show felt a little premature.

Amongst the squad there’s been no evidence of any such presumptuousness.  Xisco has spoken guardedly about securing a play-off place before we worry about anything else. William Troost-Ekong’s stock rose still further with his weekend Extra Time interview over the weekend.  Troy Deeney has made the journey to Middlesbrough to sit in an empty stadium in the cold (and, you know, in Middlesbrough) to “ensure that standards don’t drop”.  As the teams come out and Francisco Sierralta’s approach to the freezing sunshine that is cold enough to put condensation on your breath whilst watching in the warmth of your own home is to douse himself in water; you kind of feel that there’s not much wrong in terms of attitude.

3- But “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  In this case Neil Warnock, who Sky informs us has faced the Hornets more than he has any other side.  Complicated also, in this case, by the absence of supporters.  Questionable whether Boro would have gotten away with what Warnock freely admits was an away game strategy had there been edgy supporters in the stadium.

So Boro are sturdy and disciplined, if relatively unambitious for a home side.  They hold their defensive shape, and whilst Djed Spence in particular makes occasional sorties down the flanks it’s a defiant strategy unashamedly prioritising containment with a view to breaking on us if and when we start to overcommit.

It works fairly well until it doesn’t. Not very much happens for long periods;  Sarr and Hughes both start slowly, a couple of slack moments from each. Occasionally we burst into life… a move wanders across the box until it finds Zinckernagel, whose shot is deflected over.  Sarr and Kiko swap passes (no, really) allowing Kiko to pass to Ken whose shot might have been deflected wide but isn’t credited as such.

It’s laborious though.  Boro’s diligence and physical superiority mean that we can’t build pressure;  a successful attack would require a precision rapier thrust.  We’re more than capable of it, but it’s difficult and those rapier thrusts aren’t going to come very frequently, they ask a lot.  In an attempt to up the urgency of the game, captain Chalobah courts disaster with a thunderous challenge on the unfortunate Sam Morsy.  The tackle goes across the Boro midfielder rather than into him but the ferocious lack of control earns Nate an eleventh yellow of the season and the pressure of the contact through the ball does Morsy’s medial ligaments.

So when the goal comes, it’s slightly perverse that it owes a lot to defensive slackness on Boro’s part;  Sema’s shot is deflected, it drops for Zinckernagel, his shot clatters in off Sarr with Boro’s defence appealing for offside and/or handball.  Never offside since two Boro players had been criminally lazy pushing out, the handball a coulda rather than a shoulda.  Would have been harsh.  The goal stands, and maybe we’ve done the hard bit.

4- I’d have had Isaac on much earlier.  With the clarity of hindsight, given low impact performances from both Ken Sema and João Pedro, I’d have started with him.  Certainly, anyone doubtful at the wisdom of the latest last chance offered to the Nigerian in recent weeks should be clearer after his cameo seven minutes plus injury time from the end.  Within a minute he’d achieved something that we’d struggled to do in attacking positions throughout;  held off a challenge that bounced off him, two in fact, before contemptuously stepping past the debris and moving the play on.  Before the end he’d play the pass of the game, an arcing ball with the outside of his left foot to find Chalobah galloping down the left flank.  He’s something different, a different sort of weapon offering something of Troy’s physicality with an awful lot more mobility than he’s been capable of recently.  We could have done with more of that here.

As it was the first half concluded in much the same vein as it had progressed prior to our goal, save for a brief flurry of bad tempered challenges late in the half.  We defended well ourselves (95 shots on target against us before today, another Sky stat, some way clear of second place Swansea on 115), ushering Boro attacks into less threatening wide positions, no target to hit themselves.  Going forward we were still asking a lot of ourselves but came close to delivering it once or twice… Chalobah pirouetted into space to find Zinckernagel, his pass into João Pedro well cut out.  The second half proceeded in the same way… João Pedro shot over after a neat move down the left, Sarr wriggled down the goal line and laid back to the Brazilian who shot wide.

We asked questions, Boro answered them when they needed to, just about.  Meanwhile… if they were being kept at arms length more or less, Friday’s narrative was being repeated.  A single goal lead felt kinda comfortable, but it would only take a goal.  A moment.  This time, that moment came… Sema gave away a cheap free kick, McNair’s delivery was tremendous and Bolasie scored an annoying header to match his effort in the 2016 Cup Semi.

5- In any context other than the back of a stupid run of wins this was a decent point.  Actually it’s a decent point in these circumstances as well even if it doesn’t feel it, a tough away game against a wily opponent three days after the last match and the weekend after several international trips.  It’s certainly not anything to get stressed about, irrespective of Swansea and Brentford’s fortunes or lack of them (it doesn’t matter what they do).

But it will be interested to see how we proceed, how Xisco responds.  This is all about us.  If we keep our heads together and go again we’ll be ok, but Xisco might find more opponents doing what Boro did.  He doesn’t need to rip it all up, but he might need a few new recipes to add to his repertoire. He’s not really had a setback until now, not since the bedding in period (and not here either, not really).  If we go up and he ends up managing us in the Premier League setbacks are likely to happen more often, he’ll need to be able to respond as positively as he has to victories.

I calmed myself down after this one by cooking an aubergine curry.  Ending the winning run is a shame, but four points from the Easter weekend is probably fair enough.  We’re still in poll position.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 3, Masina 3, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 4*, Zinckernagel 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2, Sema 2
Subs: Gosling (for Zinckernagel, 77) NA, Success (for Sema, 83) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Cathcart, Kabasele, Sánchez, Gray Foster

Watford 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0 (02/04/2021) 03/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1-  Game of Thrones did lots of things rather well.

Gratuitous nudity, yes yes.  Dragons and that, obviously.   But also a quite wonderful palette of shades of grey; no “good guys” and “bad guys”, not really, just a load of people more or less in it for themselves with varying degrees of moral compass.  This may in part have been borne of the storylines being ripped from history (including the War of the Roses) and of course who the good and the bad guys are in history largely depends on your point of view.  As with all the best fantasy work, once you suspended your disbelief and accepted the Dragons and that (see above) it was all utterly believable in the conduct of its protagonists.

There’s a satisfying consistency to it also.  As with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, you rather felt that Westeros was the point… it wasn’t that the author had a story that he wanted to tell and expanded the world he’d invented as he went along to accommodate the narrative…  the world came first.  The window you’re looking through lets you see a small proportion of the stuff that was going on anyway, or that’s the illusion.

But most of all, Game of Thrones – the TV adaptation now, rather than the novels which wander off in a different direction in the end and now seem to have been abandoned – do spectacle.  Set Pieces.  The terrifying magnificence of a battle is allowed to breathe for its own sake – the storyline, the destination is important, the journey just as much so.  You can feel the anxiety, the fear.  You can hear the mud squelching beneath your feet.  You can smell the horses.  You can sense the cold air on your face as the two armies face off before conflict is met.  The tension reaches out of the screen and grabs you around the throat.

2- That’s where we’ve been for the last fortnight or so, right there.  Waiting for it all to restart, trying to manage our nerves, eager for it to kick off again if only to relieve the tension (though if you’re smelling a horsey smell I’d suggest you assess your personal lockdown hygiene).

International breaks were a pain in the arse in what used to be the normal way.  With less to do and despite the fact that we’re not actually at the games a two week hiatus feels like an added insult, the faffing around of national teams an aggravating rotation of traffic lights.  By far the biggest focus was the fortunes of our own players with their respective national sides and we seem to have gotten away without any casualties, Ken Sema’s 90 minutes in a friendly for Sweden a frustrating two days prior to this one our biggest issue.

Against that we have the returns of Ismaïla Sarr and Philip Zinckernagel;  Sarr in particular is one of very few individuals in the squad whose absence in isolation would be significant.  As he dropped to the floor in the closing minutes at Rotherham Watford hearts were in Watford mouths;  we’d have taken him missing the Birmingham game (and a trip to Senegal) at that point I think.

But the start of the game is not altogether encouraging.  It’s fair to say that nine wins in ten has left us bullish but it’s only natural for concerns to bubble under when given time to do so.  One…  we’re going to be off the pace after a two week hiatus, we’ll have lost our momentum.  Practically from the kick-off Philip Zinckernagel, who for all his game-to-game improvement would have been high on the list of candidates for this, gives the ball away with a piece of slack play, a lack of awareness.  Two…  Ismaïla Sarr is going to be whacked.  Julian Börner does the honours with a bad foul, far from the first time that someone’s put an early reducer in on the winger and again we’re nervous as he limps mournfully away but he’s made of tough stuff, Chris Kavanagh is uncompromising with his yellow cards and in fairness this is the only nasty foul of the game.

And then, as so often of late, we take an early lead.  Sarr’s rapid recovery had already seen him play a ball in towards Isaac Success which was smuggled out of play by the attentions of two Wednesday defenders.  The goal itself will prove to be the one truly exquisite move of the game;  Adam Masina had made a pig’s ear of a crossfield ball less than a minute earlier but his second go is magnificent, a searing pass from left to right dropping into the feet of Sarr.  Sarr’s cross does Masina’s work justice, it’s completely undefendable scything between the defence and the goalkeeper;  we get a break, on another day Chris Kavanagh sympathises with Wednesday claims that Isaac Success, lurking on Tom Lees’ shoulder, is offside and interfering with play.  This time he doesn’t, Lees propels the ball past his goalkeeper and the ‘orns are ahead.

3- “Game over” comes the message from Owls fan Ade.  Slightly premature, probably, even if that proves to be the end of the goalscoring. Wednesday look like what they are – a relegation-threatened side, but a relegation-threatened side under a new manager who’ve just had an encouraging win followed by two weeks in which to be encouraged.  Less than five minutes in a certain single-mindedness had been evident as the visitors restarted sharply when given a free kick, a trait that persisted throughout whether motivated by hoping to exploit a perceived slackness of concentration on the part of the Hornets or merely to instil a positive mindset.

Our goal is followed by a period of Wednesday possession, and if it sets a tone by not ultimately resulting in very much – Daniel Bachmann once again doesn’t have a shot to save – then the possibility is always there.  Much of the mischief comes from the feet of Barry Bannan who is lively around the edge of the box, playing in Josh Windass on 24 minutes for Bachmann to charge out and smother, and is a threat with his set piece delivery.  Wednesday, perhaps conscious of their limited threat otherwise, seem keen to pursue this avenue by going down whenever the chance presents itself (Tommy Mooney at once point confusingly describes Jordan Rhodes as having gone down like a packet of biscuits) but we’re daft enough to offer them too many opportunities to do so.

Ultimately however it’s a largely theoretical threat and you fear for Wednesday, the widening gap to safety will need a steadier supply of goals to be bridged you suspect.  The closest they come is when Sierralta and (in the second half) Hughes take yellows to snuff out two of the Owls’ more threatening breaks.  The Hornets’ attacks look much more potent, at least in the opening half:  Isaac Success’s second start builds on the good bits of his display against Birmingham with some bullish hold-up play, but encapsulates his game neatly midway through the half when he sweeps a ball majestically wide to João Pedro to set up an attack but then concludes the same move with a ponderous touch after a neat pass from the bubbly Zinckernagel.  Again on the half hour he holds the ball up well to release Sarr but when it comes back via a fortunate deflection he shoots tamely wide.  We push before the interval;  Isaac (again) tees up Zinckernagel who takes a touch too many.  A minute later Isaac (again) drops a header into João Pedro’s path, the forward shoots across the face with Zinckernagel waiting for a tap-in.  On balance Success comes out well in credit, a target man option when we might need one.

4- A slightly darker shade of grey in the second half.  Kind of the same game, but with a bit less of the fun stuff and a bit more of the iffy stuff.  Our chances are fewer and further between than before the break, and if Wednesday are still largely kept at arm’s length they don’t ever get, you know, two or three arms’ lengths away and whilst neither side creates very much the visitors now look as likely as we do to add to the scoreline.  William Troost-Ekong needs to get himself between the ball and Rhodes early in the second half to block his route to a Windass cross.  Ten minutes later Sierralta’s rare slack header under pressure drops to Rhodes inside the box.  He shovels wastefully over and that’s as close as Wednesday are going to get, but we’re not to know this at the time.

As the game progresses we bring on a succession of substitutes, playing a strength-in-depth card that our visitors really can’t match.  Dan Gosling and Carlos Sánchez both jeopardise that theory by respectively giving away a free kick on the edge of the box (Bannan, fortunately, respects Vicarage Road’s traditions by thumping it into the wall) and by being slightly too composed in possession when a bit of urgency, not to say welly, was called for.

Ultimately we end the game on top again, albeit the game is tilted in our favour to a degree that would only be discernible using precision measuring equipment, like a really fancy spirit level.  Sarr holds off two fouls by Börner who injures himself in the process, sets up Sema whose shot against Wildsmith’s shins; Kavanagh halts play with Masina in space for the Wednesday defender to get treatment.  In the final knockings we look comfortable, Gosling and Gray back in the groove enough to help us see out the final minutes.

5- Ten wins in eleven, six on the trot, Tom Lees the only opposition player to score at the Vic in over two months.  This one won’t be the one that we look back on should we confirm promotion… none of the drama of Cardiff, none of the crushing dominance of Bristol City.  This win was scruffy and unspectacular and scarcely deserved beyond the detail that we scored a goal and the other lot didn’t.  But it’s an essential part of the backdrop that allows the story to play out in front of it.  Most particularly it’s three points at the start of the final chapter, three points that puts Swansea and Brentford on the back foot before they’ve even rejoined the fray (and as I write, Swansea have stumbled on their way back to the battlefield losing to – get this – a soft late penalty.  Not that they matter).

A massive victory.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Masina 4, *Hughes 4*, Chalobah 3, Zinckernagel 3, Sarr 3, Success 3, João Pedro 3
Subs:  Gray (for Success, 61) 3, Gosling (for Zinckernagel, 61) 3, Sema (for João Pedro, 71) 2, Sánchez (for Chalobah, 84) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Kabasele, Hungbo, Foster

A final thanks to the many of you who were kind enough to sponsor me for walking an awful lot during March raising money for Prostate Cancer UK. The tally currently stands at over £3,000 including Gift Aid, well over half of which appears to have come from the BHaPPY readership. You are all wonderful people.  I finished at 13,018 steps per day on average, and with hurty legs. You can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Watford 3 Birmingham City 0 (20/03/2021) 21/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
28 comments

1- Every football fan will be able to relate to the concepts of Confirmation Bias and Motivated Reasoning.

In my day job I’m a statistician.  All about… quantifying evidence.  Assessing strengths of relationship.  At its essence, objectivity.

Confirmation Bias and Motivated Reasoning work against this.   The former is giving more credibility to evidence that supports your world view. It’s things like…  “we never get the big decisions – remember that time when….” (ignoring the many times when not).  “We’re going to bottle it.  We always bloody bottle it – remember when…” (if that were true, you’d be bottom with no points).  “We’re so unlucky with injuries – we’ve not had him, or him, or him” (other teams are losing players too).

Motivated Reasoning is a similar idea – but almost the other side of the coin.  Readily accepting evidence that supports your belief, disproportionately challenging stuff that doesn’t. “So and so is awful”.  “What about that time when….”, “Lucky.  Lucky.  I’m telling you, he’s rubbish”. Tim Harford describes it well in a recent episode of his Cautionary Tales podcast.

Both biases are profound, innate and difficult to counteract.  Both, of course, bedevil any assessment of a team’s prospects by supporters of said team.

Except, of course, when it comes to any assessment of this Watford side.  We’re going up because a) we’re bloody great and b) nobody else is.  That’s it.

2- The headlines coming into this one related to the non-availability not only of Ismaïla Sarr but also of Philip Zinckernagel, both of whom picked up knocks at Rotherham in midweek.  Sarr’s absence ahead of a two week break no great surprise – a “minor” hamstring problem we’re advised.  Stepping back and considering the various options and realising that they were all pretty good limited any anxiety about the absence of perhaps our least replaceable weapon in Sarr, but it was still a bit of a surprise to see Isaac getting the nod.  Two years since his last League start which is remarkable in itself, perhaps only as remarkable as the fact that he’s clearly not out of last chances just yet.  As previously, I’m pleased about that… if he can mobilise his quality and physicality, pull the strings around the parcel a little tighter then we suddenly have a new £12million signing, as my brother pointed out at the outset.

His first touch was loose from a throw in on two minutes.  His second, not so much as the opening exchanges set the tone for the game.  Birmingham were physical… not violent, not cynical, but intimidating and aggressive, using the tools that they had.  Gardner battered Hughes.  Pedersen grappled with João Pedro on the touchline.  Dean went in hard on Success.  The first of a large number of long throws went into our box, was flicked on to Dean in an unpenalised offside position, he headed back to Hogan who got it all wrong, the ball bouncing off his shoulder.  This was not going to be a cakewalk by any stretch.

But by then we were a goal to the good. The strike echoed Dan Gosling’s closing effort on Tuesday…  some neat work from Success freed João Pedro, his cross shot bought a decent save from Etheridge and Kenzema was sharpest to the rebound. Which was the theme of the afternoon.  Birmingham threw their weight around, asked questions, made us a bit uncomfortable.  Then we scored.

3- Which is underplaying the visitors a bit, probably. Lee Bowyer would later suggest that the scoreline didn’t accurately reflect the balance of the game and it’s difficult to argue with that.  Birmingham’s approach was relatively uncomplicated, Mark Roberts’ long throws, crosses swung in by Bela or Halilović, but it was a simple tune played well and we needed to be on it throughout.

That we were is the bit that’s easy to overlook.  But Daniel Bachmann, whilst he tended to stay on his line, wasn’t made to look anything like as uncomfortable as he has done when faced with similar challenges in recent weeks.  Sierralta, obviously, stood up to everything that was thrown at him.  Thrived on it.  And if William Troost-Ekong’s distribution continues to be a bit of an issue he was rarely exposed defensively.  When a ball was allowed to drop there was a body in the way, most dramatically when Chalobah swung into to provide a thunderous block to defy Bela.

But every time we hauled our way away from our penalty area we looked confident and potent, almost effortlessly.  Sema, utterly back on his game now with batteries recharged, dropped a right wing corner onto Masina’s foot at the far post, narrowly wide under challenge.  João Pedro dinked a ball onto Gosling’s forehead, his header went over.  João Pedro nutmegged Pedersen on the edge of the box and drew a foul and a yellow card.  Success exchanged passes with Sema but couldn’t quite get it from under his feet, Dean blocked. Sema found João Pedro in space but a poor first touch stifled the chance.  We’ve been on the receiving end of this so often against better teams.  You huff and puff and claw encouragement.  And then they score.  We’re on the other side of the relationship now, dealing the cruel blows.

4- There will be a degree of confirmation bias in your interpretation of Isaac’s first half I suspect, one way or another. For me…  some good things, some good touches, some signs of rustiness too.  Not liking having Sarr up there, obviously… that would be an unreasonable expectation even if he hadn’t been out as long as he had.

But there was less scope for interpretation with the Nigerian’s start to the second half.  A conspicuous, clumsy ball stood out since such slackness is a rarity in the Watford ranks of late. Minutes later he was played into a mile of space, a neat first touch but a club of a second.  Even then he almost beat Etheridge to it, a goal would have been splendid;  instead Gosling got to the rebound and fed Chalobah whose shot deflected wide. The same two players combined from the set piece, the skipper losing his marker to meet Gosling’s deep corner at the far post and dump a header past Etheridge.  Game over.

On came the subs – no surprise to see the tiring Isaac withdrawn.  On came Sánchez – once again his first touch of the day was almost catastrophic, every touch thereafter efficient and well-judged.  Hungbo rattled around excitably first on the right and later on the left flank.  Masina was withdrawn holding his back, one hopes his first international call-up isn’t affected;  Achraf Lazaar was the least convincing of the substitutes.  With twelve minutes to go Gray and Ngakia were introduced;  the latter looked bulkier, less frail – maybe he’s been on the weights.  Within a minute he’d bullied possession on the right flank and released Gray who hared onto the ball and slid it matter-of-factly past the onrushing keeper.  Three-nil, simultaneously flattering and absolutely deserved.  The game finished with Birmingham looking punch-drunk for the first time;  Hungbo escaped twice down the left, first sending in a shot and then setting up Gray, blocked by Etheridge in the last exchange of the afternoon.

5- It would have been difficult to script a more satisfactory way to go into the international break.  Norwich and Brentford dropping points to modest opposition, Swansea losing, Bournemouth being trodden into the dirt into the Cup, all entertaining for all that, as discussed, what other teams do doesn’t really matter.

And it really doesn’t matter.  Because here we faced a limited but dogged opponent with a new manager bounce, a new manager who clearly has something about him and whose team had dug out a significant win over Reading in his opening game.

We were missing our two most potent attacking weapons of recent weeks, perhaps the quickest and cleverest of our offensive players with the strongest already on the sidelines along with Cleverley, Kabasele, Dele-Bashiru and so on and so forth.  We didn’t, in all honesty, play terribly well by our own standards.

We won 3-0 anyway.

There are eight games to go, and some fun looking fixtures in there.  This isn’t finished.  It isn’t done.

But it will be.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 5, Masina 4, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 5*, Gosling 3, João Pedro 4, Success 2, Sema 4
Subs:  Sánchez (for Gosling, 56) 4, Hungbo (for Success, 56) 3, Lazaar (for Masina, 67) 2, Ngakia (for João Pedro, 80) NA, Gray (for Sema, 80) NA, Wilmot, Cathcart, Perica, Foster

Meanwhile, I’m still embarking on daily early morning walks and averaging around 12.5k steps a day as part of a team raising money for Prostate Cancer UK. Hugely gratifying to have raised a decent sum of money from donations, more than half of which appears to have come from the BHaPPY readership. Many many thanks again to those who’ve donated, it’s massively appreciated. You can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Rotherham United 1 Watford 4 (16/03/2021) 17/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Some days are just good days.

Some days the sunshine is just that little bit warmer.  Some days you’re perpetually humming along to whichever tune is in your head.  Some days the words just come and everything flows without stress, without those bits where you stare blankly at the screen, or keep going back and deleting and rewording and prevaricating. Some days little things going wrong are precisely as irrelevant as they ought to be. Some days your daughter knocks on your study door and comes in and gives you a hug, just because.  Some days things are rolling for you.

It feels as if we haven’t had enough of them recently.  Today was one of those days.

2- It speaks volumes that we’re not going into this little run of fixtures looking for banana skins.  Three games, two of which at home, against three of the bottom four…  from the outside it’s an opportunity, from the inside you might imagine that we’d be saying, “I bet we stuff this up”.  But none of us believe that.  It’s just not on the cards.

Least of all here, against a Rotherham side emerging from the challenges of  a period in which the players and staff have been isolating following a COVID outbreak, prohibiting training and the rehabilitation of those returning from injury.  Forget the fact that the Millers are at the wrong end of the table, we’ve seen the sluggish returns of our own players returning from individual periods of isolation following positive tests.  This would have been a big ask for Rotherham at the best of times.  This wasn’t the best of times.

This was Rotherham’s second outbreak of the season, and you have to wonder whether their safety protocols have been quite all they should have been.  Nonetheless, it was impossible not to sympathise with the very balanced, honest, compelling words of manager Paul Warne as he reflected on the challenges his side faced going into the game.  Their outstanding fixtures will see them having to play twice in the same midweek at least once before the season closes.  In that time they’ve got to get players fit and energised en masse.  Not easy.  The Football League, Warne acknowledged, were never going to give them the leeway they needed in order to clear the decks.

3- If spirit, single-mindedness and giving it a good old go is worth anything you’d give Rotherham a chance on this evidence.  On the other hand – and not being familiar enough with the Millers’ squad to assess missing numbers – if this is the best defending they’re going to manage between now and the end of the campaign you’d fear for them.  No room for mercy here, nor sympathy, nor not just getting the job done.  We didn’t need any.

That said, Rotherham got off the the sharper start.  Thinking about it in retrospect, based on what is now 12 months of working away from the office, I guess that if there’s one aspect of a footballer’s training that works over Zoom it’s planning set pieces.  Shouldn’t have been a surprise, perhaps, to see a couple of innovative efforts from the home side, the first to a corner in the opening exchanges.  A couple of minutes later Francisco Sierralta got an important header in to clear a right wing cross.

But if Rotherham asked questions of us as they attacked they had no answer whatsoever to our attacking play, tumbling like skittles as we flew forwards. The opening goal on nine minutes was painfully straightforward, and we flooded into every open crevice for the rest of the half.

At the centre of much of it, and critical to all three of the first half goals, was Philip Zinckernagel.  The Dane’s startling record in Norway came with the caveat that, you know, it was in Norway;  a slight concern that he’d left Denmark at the age of 24 without having pulling up any trees.  He’s shown flashes of quality before now, but this was a startling performance… for the first, he cut back onto his right foot and dropped a cross onto Sierralta’s head.  The Chilean held off his marker to dump the ball past Blackman, stranded on his line, spent a couple of seconds recovering his senses and then rose with what is becoming a trademark two-fisted bellow.

Fifteen minutes later, Zinckernagel escaped his marker to cut inside again and dip a lower ball into the box.  We had a vast number of bodies in the danger zone but dodged the offside, Chalobah flicked a neat shot which Blackman did well to parry but Sarr artfully nicked the ball into the top corner. Five minutes before the break, the Dane sent an arcing, precise right wing corner directly into the orbit of Ken Sema in the penalty area who flicked and juggled and mercilessly slung his shot past the keeper.  I compared Zinc’s assist for Gray against Wycombe to an Almen Abdi pass.  Still early days, and a different sort of player for sure, but he’s already offering us similar devilment in the final third.  Long may that continue.

4-  The rest of the first half, after and between, was a coconut shy.  Any scoreline was feasible from this point;  the Millers continued to suggest unshakable resolve when attacking but were eminently shakeable defending and this forward line will rattle every defence in the division.  One fast break saw João Pedro turn neatly and release Kiko for an outrageous sprint to the touchline.  He screamed onto the ball and pulled back, a desperate lunge conceded a corner.  Hughes, always in space, found Sema on the right, he cut inside, another corner.  Every attack looked dangerous;  Sema, back on the left, pulled back for Chalobah to carve a shot towards the top corner.  It would have been a worthy partner to his strike at Cardiff, but Blackman pulled out a terrific stop.  Masina tried a scissor kick, Femenía flung in another wicked cross, another corner.  Chalobah played João Pedro through, Blackman got a crucial toe in first to prevent a fourth.  We were rampant.

5- The second half didn’t quite continue in the same vein, partly because we removed key protagonists with the game ostensibly won – Zinckernagel and Chalobah had both received heavy knocks, Ismaïla Sarr most concerningly had pre-empted his replacement by sitting down on the pitch but was at least able to walk off.  Fingers crossed.

The other impediment to the continuation of the flood after the break was Rotherham’s bloody minded attacking, perhaps pursued in the awareness that falling back would have been no good at all in the absence of much of a defence.  The BBC correspondent who suggested that “on another day Rotherham might have got something from this” on their website feed was presumably either referring to a day next week when Rotherham weren’t playing Watford, or was on hallucinogenic drugs.

Nonetheless, the Millers were still throwing punches.  We had started the half with the irrepressible Sarr roaring down the centre of the pitch with options either side, opting for João Pedro with a precise pass, the Brazilian’s good touch negated by a thunderous last-ditch tackle from Wood.  There was briefly a suggestion of sloppiness as Troost-Ekong conceded a penalty.  It was unlucky, perhaps, but definitely a pen as the Nigerian kicked the underside of Smith’s foot… a good call from the referee in a decent performance that saw him offer some slack to Shaun McDonald rather than booking him early on for kicking the ball away, but refuse to give free kicks simply for Rotherham players falling over.  Smith took the penalty fairly weakly, Bachmann did his thing and the scraps were eventually cleared.

Eight minutes later Ladapo capitalised upon Carlos Sánchez’s poor first touch of the game – his only poor touch of the game – to swipe an arrogant shot beyond Bachmann’s reach to give the Miller’s a foothold.  Infuriatingly for the home side he started to pull out the tricks rather than apply himself to recovering the situation but by then the jig was up in any case.  As on Saturday we responded brilliantly to a set-back, Troost-Ekong’s screaming pass through the centre of the pitch touched on brilliantly by Gray to Sema, Sema back to Gray, Gray’s shot blocked but Dan Gosling was galloping on to turn the ball into an empty net.

There could, should have been more.  Sierralta, oddly, and Gray were both guilty of not finishing off chances more than once, the latter late on after some welcome and effective barging around from another Isaac Success cameo, but this is a much sprightlier more positive Andre Gray, a force for good this evening.

Job done.  Results elsewhere mean we pull clear for the first time…  today, as discussed, was a good day.  As also discussed, Swansea, Brentford, are mere detail.  This is all about us, and anyone who tries standing in our way won’t be standing for very long.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 5, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 5, Masina 5, Hughes 5, Chalobah 5, *Zinckernagel 5*, Sarr 5, João Pedro 4, Sema 5
Subs: Gray (for Sarr, 53) 4, Ngakia (for Femenía, 53) 4, Gosling (for Chalobah, 67) 4, Sánchez (for Zinckernagel) 4, Success (for Hughes, 80) NA, Lazaar, Cathcart, Hungbo, Foster

Yet more thanks to those who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK over the last couple of weeks, a bit of a rush in the happy afterglow of Saturday’s win.  The donations list is dominated by ‘orns, and our tally is past £1500 plus Gift Aid, utterly brilliant. You can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Cardiff City 1 Watford 2 (13/03/2021) 14/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- I liked Ray Lewington.

In some ways, despite the manifold challenges that peppered his time in charge I enjoyed it more than Aidy Boothroyd’s ostensibly more successful spell that followed.  These things always look different from a distance of course and in hindsight there was plenty – albeit largely different things – to enjoy about both.  Certainly the sense of everyone pulling together in the wake of the challenges presented by the particularly badly timed and badly judged investments in Gianluca Vialli’s squad followed by the collapse of ITV Digital was something good to be part of.  I find conflict amongst ‘orns particularly difficult.

But I liked Ray Lewington.  Honest, trustable.  Inspiring, too. Before we played Portsmouth in the quarter finals of the League Cup in late 2004, an intimate fans forum was held in the old Hornet Shop in the back of the Rookery Stand.  No grumbling or nit-picking at this one, the tone was one of edgy excitement at the prospect of taking another top-flight scalp.

My question to Ray was on the subject of the opposition.  Yakubu, it had been reported, was injured.  Did Ray think that this, combined with a lack of pace elsewhere in Pompey’s forward line, would limit their attacking potential?

He paused for dramatic effect but then looked straight at me with half a twinkle in his eye as he growled “it doesn’t matter what they do…”.  I grinned sheepishly.  Inside I was standing on the table bellowing and beating my chest.  We won the tie 3-0.

2- It doesn’t matter what they do.  Nonetheless, this was a daunting prospect even before Brentford and Swansea held onto single-goal victories to shove us back down into fourth as the game kicked off.

Cardiff was the game I managed to get a ticket for back in that little window when such things were allowed a bit.  They strong-armed us that day but Neil Harris was gone eight weeks later.  Since Mick McCarthy arrived the Bluebirds have been undefeated in eleven and to their abrasive aggression has been added a conscientious discipline which, along with the confidence of a long unbeaten run, makes them a formidable opponent.

Nothing that happened in the first ten minutes or so here allayed those concerns.  City’s first corner was awarded twenty seconds in;  a minute later Sarr gave away a left wing free kick as the hosts gave every impression of being masters of their art… closing down high up the pitch, asking questions of goalkeeper and centre-backs with corners, free-kicks, long throws into a crowded box full of tall blokes with ponytails, headbands and other various lockdown hair constructions.  It felt as if it was going to be a long afternoon as the ferocious, swirling wind contributed to the air of a chaotic battlefield.

Sean Morrison, one of those whose unruly mop at Vicarage Road had developed into a ponytail here, was called to the referee with Francisco Sierralta after some early scuffles in the Watford box.  Close in attendance was Nate Chalobah, the “(cap)” after his name having been the most striking detail of a positive team selection.  He took his responsibilities seriously, a more proactive captain than any other than Troy, and rather than this development detracting from his performance he seemed to flourish with the responsibility.

Just as striking, ten minutes in, was that as soon as we navigated the aggressive press and found ourselves in stiller waters in City’s half we caused no end of problems.  Zinckernagel’s performance was again to combine moments of breathtaking deftness with moments of breathtaking daftness but the balance is more favourable game by game;  he danced towards the penalty area and caused havoc.  Kiko and Sarr combined down the right (no, really…), Kiko pulled a cross back, City defenders fell over.

City broke again as an intensely watchable contest developed its rhythm.  William Troost-Ekong, who looked unnerved by both the conditions and by Cardiff’s directness, slipped to let in Murphy who skated down Cardiff’s left with Will Hughes trailing in his wake.  Daniel Bachmann hurtled out, Murphy took a heavy touch and we were spared but only for a minute; once again Murphy was free on the left and he put an undefendable ball across the face of goal.  Sierralta stuck out a boot with Kieffer Moore hovering behind him and propelled the ball into his own net.

3- So, so significant that we struck back straight away.  A bit of luck that the opportunity presented itself but we forced our own luck, not for the last time.  With the wind behind them, a lead to defend and their tails up Cardiff could have taken the game in a different direction altogether.  We never gave them the chance.  Kiko burst down the right, the ball rattled around the penalty area, Zinckernagel forced a ricochet that found Chalobah.

There were references to the mythical “pre-injury” Chalobah on social media within minutes.  The pre-injury Chalobah who straddled Marco Silva’s midfield magnificently after returning permanently from Chelsea, only lasted five games – your memory does strange things with time.  But this was the match of anything we’ve seen from him since, dancing from one foot to the other like a matador before slicing a shot through the gap he’d created and definitively reclaiming control of the game.  “Stay cool”, he’d shouted as we’d kicked off again thirty seconds earlier, before walking the walk, ice in his veins. Quite, quite magnificent.

We never looked back. What followed was far from one way traffic… until the very end, the nature of Cardiff’s threat was such that there was always a risk. But whilst doubt had been dismissed from Watford minds before it had had the chance to take root it infected and upset the home side, whose conviction dissipated throughout the game.  Within ten minutes Sema headed a Sarr delivery down at the far post for João Pedro to athletically scissor an overhead shot straight at City keeper Phillips.  Sema drove into the box and laid the ball towards the Brazilian who flicked over.

We looked deft and intricate and confident.  Sema burrowed down the left wing but having seen his route blocked was assured enough to turn back down the flank, retain possession, find Masina and see his bold low cross reach Sarr who forced a fine save from Phillips. We were well on top… Chalobah was fouled and Cardiff arms were flung in Kevin-and-Perry frustration (one for the kids there…).  Bachmann came hurtling out to take out Kieffer Moore – a yellow card but a blow struck for the goalkeeper’s union, the boot so often on the other foot (or elbow).  Zinckernagel almost slipped Sarr in as the half time whistle blew with the only concern being that we weren’t already ahead.

4- The second half was never quite as flamboyant.  The home side occasionally asked questions, Watford provided answers; on the hour Kieffer Moore emerged from Sierralta’s pocket for long enough to get on the end of an Aden Flint knockdown to smash the ball over but these were the dying embers of the threat that Cardiff had suggested at the start of the game.

They’d tightened up though, and whilst we were on top our chances were limited, more peripheral.  Sema popped up on the right and sent a cross in for Sarr to head too close and too gently to threaten Phillips.  Sierralta flicked on a Zinckernagel free kick, it wouldn’t fall for João Pedro. Kiko flew down the right, Chalobah knocked down his cross, Sarr sliced wide.  It started to hail.

5- As the game entered its final ten minutes, as you were reflecting that a point away at Cardiff wasn’t a bad result all things considered, things got a bit tetchy for the first time;  up to this point it had been aggressive but not snide or narky.

Aden Flint was at the centre of much of it.  Not beloved of Tommy Mooney on comms (“he’s brilliant in the air, but my postman’s better than him on the deck”) he nonetheless fashioned a scissor kick of sorts on 82 minutes before drawing a reaction and a booking from Sierralta by pulling his topknot out of sight of the officials.  On 88 minutes Will Vaulks drove in a firm low shot forcing a competent but straightforward save from Daniel Bachmann, significant because this was the first shot on target managed by an opponent against us since Arnaut Danjuma scored for Bournemouth over a fortnight and more than three ninety minutes ago.  Which is ridiculous.  Kiko fed Sarr in the box, Sarr went down but it was a “you’ve seen them given” rather than a clear pen.

So… yes.  I was in “a draw’s not bad” space. Ismaïla Sarr could have been forgiven, perhaps, for being in the same place after a difficult game in which he’d been buffeted around for ninety minutes to limited effect.  Never has his transformation from sulky kid to force of nature over the course of the season been more starkly illustrated than here, his bullishness in taking on two markers, cutting between them and drawing a free kick, the free kick fundamental in how the game ended, as vital as Chalobah’s artful finish earlier or… as what happened next.

Heaven knows we’ve come not to expect too much from free kicks. Five years and so on and so forth.  There have been likelier candidates to break our duck in the interim than Adam Masina.  Roberto Pereyra perhaps.  Tom Cleverley.  Zinckernagel. Troy, even.  As he lined it up I was hoping for a touch off the bodies flying across the face of the goal.  As he ran up it occurred to me that if this went in we were definitely going up.  Masina absolutely smacked it straight at the keeper but Phillips was distracted with bodies running at and past him.  The shot went straight through…

6- A superficial, highlights assessment might conclude that we were lucky.  Lucky that the goalkeeper screwed up, gifting us the game.  Not a bit of it.  There’s nothing “lucky” about winning a game because an opponent screwed up.  Daniel Bachmann didn’t screw up when more severe questions had been asked of him.  Having a good goalkeeper isn’t “luck”.

But more than that, we’d earned that luck.  Earned the right for it to matter by clawing back an equaliser, by taking control of the game, by the sapping of our opponents’ belief and by Sarr having the self-confidence to turn and run at two defenders in the dying minutes.

Everything exploded.  Everywhere.  Seven hours on my throat is still raw.  Bellows were bellowed in living rooms and offices of a Watford persuasion across the country.  Limbs were flung with wild and graceless abandon. On the pitch, briefly, it threatened to kick off as Francisco Sierralta exacted revenge with a tug on Aden Flint’s top knot; Adam Masina did his best bit of blocking off of the afternoon to curtail any further unpleasantness (João Pedro quickly on the scene, shock).

But the explosion of joy at the win was about more than just a dramatic late winner.  It was every inch a team, a squad, that’s in it together.  Achraf Lazaar, a Hornet for less than a month and on the pitch for less than half an hour in total, was going nuts like it was the best thing that’s ever happened ever.  There was a ferocious bundle of players, subs, staff, and a beaming Xisco in the middle of it.  This was massive.

Elsewhere Brentford, Swansea will have been disappointed by the news.  On the south coast, Bournemouth were losing at home to Barnsley (perhaps we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the goings on at mid-table sides any longer?).  But all of that’s irrelevant.  This is all about us.  Nobody’s stopping this lot.

It doesn’t matter what they do.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 5, Masina 4, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 5*, Zinckernagel 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs: Success (for Sema, 77) NA, Gray (for Zinckernagel, 86) NA, Sánchez (for Chalobah, 86) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Wilmot, Cathcart, Hungbo, Foster

Many many thanks to those who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK following my post last week.  I’m averaging 12.5k steps per day and I’m dead on my feet… you can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Watford 1 Nottingham Forest 0 (06/03/2021) 07/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1- I’m walking a lot at the moment.  “March the Month“, raising money for Prostate Cancer UK with colleagues.  Sponsor us if you have some spare pennies.

The commitment, formally, is 11,000 steps per day between us, but given the size of the crew we’d probably manage on a day’s trips to the fridge.  So it’s 11,000 a day for me.  This has brought into sharp relief the fact that in contrast to being “at work” on a campus site when a normal day would see you rack up a few thousand steps without thinking about it, when you work at home, as many folk have been doing for a year, you do absolutely bugger all.

My approach has been an early rise at 6 in order to get serious steps in before work.  I had visions of crisp, bright mornings and walks in the sunshine, it hasn’t really worked out like that. Damp, grey and muddy so far.  And I’m completely shattered.

2- Fatigue is sharply in focus at this stage of the season given the unusually compressed timetable and the extent to which games are tumbling over each other.  This is, amongst other things, why Liverpool have fallen off the edge of a cliff – their pressing game is unsustainable in this climate apparently (though nobody told Barnsley).

For the Hornets, deep squad or otherwise, this was a high risk fixture in the circumstances coming at the end of a sapping run of games against a side good enough to nick something if we weren’t careful but far enough down the table to run the risk of being taken lightly.  Not only that, but they boasted not one but two players, in James Garner and Glenn Murray, whose loan spells at the Vic had been curtailed by lack of action barely a month ago.  No risk of heightened focus and potential embarrassment there at all.  And Anthony Knockaert, whose visits to the Vic are rarely dull one way or another.  I won’t have been the only one feeling slightly anxious at the outset, the more so with the bold call to field João Pedro in midfield.

We needn’t have worried.  This wasn’t the most entertaining game we’ve watched this season, nor the most comfortable victory.  But it was an absolutely tremendous achievement in context which should leave us bullish about our prospects for the rest of the campaign.

3- The whistle saw the two sides grappling for the first passage of possession, as if desperate for the opportunity to set the agenda for the opening exchanges.  A good touch from Gray saw the Hornets win that initial confrontation and rattle downfield for Ken Sema, who was to have his most vibrant 90 minutes for a while, sling a cross to the far post necessitating early rearguard action from Forest.  Two minutes later a fine Kiko delivery found Gray rising between two markers to head firmly straight at Samba.  Nearly excellent.

Knockaert’s first contribution was to attempt to nobble Philip Zinckernagel, who might quite reasonably have been assumed to be a vulnerability in that midfield three but whose robustness seems to gradually increase week by week – he was buffeted on this occasion, but exacted revenge later in the half.  The French winger would supply much of the ammunition for Forest’s second half resurgence, such as it was, but this was not to be an afternoon remembered for his positive contributions.

Garner and Murray, similarly, failed to deliver performances that challenged their slide out of contention at Vicarage Road.  Garner, sporting a lockdown haircut worthy of comparison to Étienne Capoue’s voluminous efforts, might become a very good footballer at the top level but isn’t that at the moment.  He looks like a kid cautiously feeling his way, and Forest is the sandpit that Vicarage Road wasn’t going to be.  As Tommy Mooney noted on comms, for all that we’ve moved to a three man midfield since his departure you couldn’t see him being more than a bit part player at best.  Murray, meanwhile, looks a few years off it at the other end of the scale and provided a couple of decent touches but minimal threat.

Knockaert meanwhile was going to cede dominance of Forest’s right hand side to Adam Masina, who had his best outing since returning to the side and arguably of his Watford career.  A tone was set on ten minutes when the left back poached the ball precisely and dismissively from his adversary, and then fooled him with a dummy that left him chasing shadows to cheers and laughter from Watford supporters everywhere.

The next five minutes were ominous for Forest… Sarr flew at Bong and appeared to be fouled, his marker already bedraggled.  A fine break concluded with a Sarr header to another tremendous Kiko cross.  Sarr nicked possession – Forest look eminently muggable early on – demanding urgent recovery from Worrall.  A fine Hughes crossfield ball found Masina on the gallop, his cross found Sarr but his acrobatic effort lacked power.

Finally it told.  Sarr flayed Bong on the right, Samba beat Gray to his cross but the deflection fell to Masina who slammed a shot between the recovering Samba’s legs and in from the edge of the area.  The left back had been abandoned by his marker…  I was watching Hive with Jon Marks’ comms, but reports described Sky’s commentator exclaiming “Where’s Knockaert?”, for pundit Keith Andrews to reply “He’s cheating!”, two words which elevated his popularity in Hertfordshire to levels he didn’t achieve during his brief loan six or seven years ago.

4- We weren’t lucky here.  We were the better side, and deserved the win.  But we did have a couple of things roll for us.  Samba was clearly worse off for his collision with Gray but hadn’t been fouled and was on his feet when he was beaten.  Later in the game, as against Wycombe on Wednesday, we “conceded” an offside goal that could easily not have been.  And as things got a bit iffy late on and Daniel Bachmann came flying excitedly out to punch the danger clear he was close enough to the edge of his area to have courted disaster.

We got away with all of it though, and deserved to.  We dominated the remainder of the half, our attacking play occasionally flowing beautifully if to limited consequence as Forest pulled together what was ultimately an impressive defensive performance.  Going forward however their first half efforts felt rushed and ragged, as if the ball was always running away from them.  Knockaert’s chief contribution was to bizarrely refuse to retreat at a corner, an odd choice of hill to die on.

5- Our second half performance was less dominant.  Forest asserted themselves in the game and had more of the chances, even if the threat was theoretical and implied for the most part rather than, you know, resulting in chances and shots and that.  The pace slowed dramatically, Chris Hughton’s modus operandi of suffocating a game until everyone’s so bored that they lose concentration fully in evidence. Daniel Bachmann had reacted well to a ball under his bar late in the first half but we continue to look vulnerable to aerial assault – Sierralta less dominant than he has been today, it was William Troost-Ekong and the omnipresent Masina who were more prominent in repelling our opponents.

Xisco takes a lot of credit for the victory, I think.  Not that he’s got much to prove after a sixth win in seven, but today’s challenge asked new things of him and he provided answers that were as creative as they were effective.  I’d had doubts about Zinc in midfield on Wednesday, we just about got away with it again with the good stuff just about outweighing the occasional loose control.  Will Hughes patrolled the back of the midfield masterfully every inch the captain on his first full ninety with the armband, one minute breaking things up and the next slinging balls forward like a quarterback.  The genius, however, was the left-field call to accommodate Gray and João Pedro not by dropping Sema into the three but by playing the Brazilian there.  If he wasn’t perfect – occasionally overplaying, and on one occasion being given a stark reminder that a slack pass in the midfield is likely to be more consequential than one in the final third – then the immediacy of his control, the silkiness of his movement and his deceptive physical strength made him thoroughly effective, a joy, in his deeper role.  Chapeau to the head coach, hugely impressive that we can lose two thirds of our engine room and complete a second home game without conceding a shot on target.  Chalobah and Gosling return for Cardiff where the squad will look formidable despite a number of ongoing absentees.

Formidable given three very decent cameos off the bench here.  That Carlos Sánchez is a tidy player should be no surprise – 88 caps for Colombia and so forth. West Ham fans have been scornful, but then if they had any judgement at all they wouldn’t support West Ham.  Sánchez’s debut began with a couple of overhit short passes putting teammates under pressure but he soon warmed to the task, assertive and influential without moving very far from the centre of the pitch or doing much more than holding and protecting possession.  A player, and the latest in a theme of experienced low-risk signings who will provide cover in the event of cruelly coincident injuries.  Eventualities being covered.  We have at least two sides that would be competitive in this division.

Briefer cameos were afforded to Joseph Hungbo and Isaac Success, but each was as encouraging as the Colombian’s.  Hungbo has definitively elevated himself above the status of bench-filled with some punchy, confident contributions.  “A game little soul” WhatsApped Dave, once again demonstrating that thing about stopped clocks. Meanwhile I have outrageously high hopes for Isaac in the Championship, but he hasn’t shattered my dreams yet with his five minutes here, holding the ball up, then faking to the corner flag before flicking a pass that saw Hungbo fly in on goal in the dying seconds.

It’s all good.  Swansea spawned another win, Norwich continue to gallop onwards, but that’s the thing about the top of the table.  Teams are good, and will win more games than they lose – much easier to cede ground at this end of the table than to gain it.

It’ll come, though.  There are plenty of games to go, and we’re good for the long haul.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 3, *Masina 5*, Hughes 4, Zinckernagel 3, João Pedro 4, Sarr 4, Gray 3, Sema 4
Subs:  Sánchez (for Gray, 66) 4, Hungbo (for Zinckernagel, 80) NA, Success (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Ngakia, Wilmot, Cathcart, Perica, Navarro, Elliot

Watford 2 Wycombe Wanderers 0 (03/03/2021) 04/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and is football mad.  All (English) Premier League games are available on pan-African satellite channels, bars are busy (were busy…) whenever the games are on.  I’ve never been surrounded by a more fervent TV crowd than when watching Man United play Barcelona in a Champions League game in Addis Ababa.

Unfortunately, the national team is a bit rubbish.  Ranked 42nd in Africa, never made the World Cup finals, only one African Cup of Nations qualification since 1982 when, in 2013, they finished bottom of their group in South Africa with a single point to their name.

Opportunities to watch the national side are naturally a bit thin on the ground here in the UK, but at around the same time as their South African adventure, the Ethiopian side got within a play-off of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil having topped their qualification group ahead of South Africa.

A two-legged tie against Nigeria ensued.  Ethiopia would lose both legs, but their team was fascinating, unlike any African team I’d ever seen.  They were much smaller, physically, than their West African opponents but they flowed around them like water.  Elegant, fluid, athletic and nimble, they were occasionally breathtaking.

Unfortunately their defending was clueless.

2- Philip Zinckernagel would have a job on passing as Ethiopian in any other respect, but his cameos to date have suggested that he wouldn’t have looked out of place in that side.  Deftness of foot, mouthwatering crosses and a dynamism that oils attacks has been offset by a lack of robustness and a startling lack of defensive awareness and intelligence.  Bad, often expensive decisions.

This was his first League start, a development probably accelerated by Nathaniel Chalobah’s suspension, Dan Gosling’s injury and Daniel Phillips’ disappearance from consideration, but you’d rather have had him further forward (as far away from our goal as possible) and probably in place of the visibly fatigued Ken Sema.

His opening few minutes were erratic…  some nice touches in early moves, then a minute later ploughing needlessly through the back of Uche Ikpeazu to concede a free kick on the edge of the box.  On the upside you wouldn’t have predicted that he had it in him to take down the massive Wycombe target man, fairly or otherwise.  On the downside he was going to need to go some to convince that he was worth the risks he was presenting to the team.

And in fairness, it did get better.  There was more welcome evidence of a greater degree of toughness and doggedness than has been suggested hitherto.  Occasionally beautiful touches that oiled a fledgling move. A sweeping crossfield pass to release Sarr late in the half.  We’ll come to the assist, obviously.  Still peppered with some ropey old decision making from time to time… but personally for all his deficiencies I came out of this one much more positive about the value of our January recruit.

3- The other eye-catching addition to the eleven was Andre Gray, starting his first game for almost a month in the absence of the suspended João Pedro.  Not a given that he’d get the nod I don’t think, but fourteen minutes in he made a mockery of his meagre form this season by clinically finishing off a move that, like so many, rolled down the right wing via Kiko and the irrepressible Sarr.  No surprise, I guess, that a striker should enjoy playing in a confident attacking side creating plenty of chances more than he does the constipated Watford team that he struggled in front of for much of the season, but nonetheless.  Surprising how easy he made it look, suddenly.  In common with our best moves at the moment, particularly down that flank, we looked mercilessly precise.

The visitors had begun as advertised – honest, dogged and robust, ceding the midfield almost entirely and dropping numbers deep.  After the goal however their defensive discipline seemed to desert them entirely and the biggest stain on our performance is that we didn’t make more of the gaping chasms that we were permitted to wander through.

Two minutes after the goal Cleverley’s shot was deflected wide after he found an obscene amount of abandoned ground just outside the box.  A few minutes later Cleverley fed Sarr, Jacobson denying him with a hooked last-ditch challenge.  Zinckernagel broke through on the left but overran.  Bachmann sent a jaw-dropping ball through to Sarr, Jacobson got away with a desperate grab that Sarr tried to exaggerate.  All within ten minutes of the goal.

Having not capitalised, it was slightly alarming that without coming terribly close to scoring the visitors were causing anxiety in our box just by looking at it curiously.  The 23rd minute saw an aimless ball being negligently allowed to bounce around in the penalty area. Horgan began to outmuscle Masina.  Sierralta had his hands full – sometimes literally – with Uche Ikpeazu.  The half ended with Zinckernagel releasing Sarr, Stockdale denying Gray a second by intercepting a cross.  We were comfortably the better side, but not comfortably ahead.

4- Wycombe were still in it, somehow, and clearly had a rocket up them at the break since they came at us more aggressively and forcefully at the start of the second period.  At the back of your mind was the knowledge that we weren’t half going to feel silly if the visitors clawed their way back into it given the imbalance of the first half chances.  We were a tight offside call from being in exactly that place as Wheeler’s sharp finish to Tafazolli’s flick-on was denied.

We looked ponderous and laborious.  Ripe for the mugging, perhaps, until we scored again and put all doubt to bed.  And here’s the moment that really earns Zinc his positive write-up.  There’s plenty of mitigation in place already…  he’s come from a very different League into a well-established team in an unusual environment, he’s allowed to take time to settle. But all of that aside, this assist buys him an awful lot of rope.  On two separate occasions, one in the first half and one later in the second, he’d find himself space for a potshot without managing to put it anywhere near the goal.  Here he seemed to be after the same, before with a conjuror’s slight-of-movement, a slight-of-movement that echoed Almen Abdi’s finest moments, he slipped the ball past a Wycombe defence that had been watching the wrong hand.  Once again, having been successfully smuggled beyond enemy lines, Gray dispatched with a startling lack of fuss.  Quite, quite brilliant.

5- There were still Moments at each end.  Hughes fed Sema who slammed a ball across the face.  Zinckernagel thumped a shot at Stockdale, Gray overhead-kicked the rebond towards Sarr who fired over.  Ikpeazu barrelled his way towards the byline in a manner that echoed Tommy Mooney against Bristol Rovers, but at a quarter of the speed. The hugely effective Jacobson sent in a couple of set pieces.  It never felt in doubt though.

A solid, uncomplicated win that was much needed following Saturday’s bump in the road.  The only real negative – beyond irritating developments in Stoke and Bristol where Swansea and Bournemouth would both go behind and enjoy some fortune in recovering three points – was an injury to Tom Cleverley that saw him limp off after apparently trying to play on after twisting his leg.  With Nate – and Dan, presumably – still missing on Saturday we have a bit of a personnel issue in the middle of the pitch.  Carlos Sánchez’s negotiating position just got a bit stronger, one suspects.

There’s a long way to go still in what looks to be a race every bit as tight as the one in 2015.  The way the fixtures fall, however, puts great emphasis on the forthcoming, relatively gentle set of fixtures.  Pick up some speed and we head into the big games after Easter with momentum.  Fail to deliver and we’ll be needing to make up points from a run that will look a lot more daunting.

With a fifth win in six, we’re doing OK.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Masina 3, Hughes 4, Cleverley 3, Zinckernagel 4, *Sarr 4*, Gray 4, Sema 3
Subs:  Ngakia (for Femenía, 75) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 84) NA, Perica (for Gray, 84) NA, Wilmot (for Cleverley, 86) NA, Cathcart, Barrett, Success, Pochettino, Elliot

AFC Bournemouth 1 Watford 0 (27/02/2021) 28/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- The thing about the last twelve months is that there’s nobody to blame.

There have been idiots, sure.  All manner of idiots, all manner of selfishness. But even there…  you’ve got to allow for circumstances.  What’s going on at home?  What’s she having to cope with?  Maybe he’s just lost his job?  Perhaps they’ve lost someone.  And even the true, dyed-in-the-wool idiots…  you know, them…  it’s not their fault is it?  Everything? Even if they’re handling it badly.

They’re just convenient targets as we’ve raged in our impotence.  Part of the frustration is having nowhere to point.  Even the government, to whatever degree you believe them to have messed things up or not are, at worst, making things worse rather than being the source of the situation.  What we could all do with is an incontrovertible bad guy.  A common enemy to unite against.  Someone to vent our collective spleens at in catharsis without reservation or qualification.

Hello, Bournemouth.

2- We started boldly.  We started like the side consciously in better form and intent on imposing ourselves on our nervous hosts.  Three minutes in and Sarr released Kiko down the right, his cross found its way to Masina who’s header dropped the wrong side of the post.  Even as the hosts steadied themselves and the game settled into a sparring match, the Hornets were the most likely.  The side asking the questions;  Bournemouth provided answers, but often as time was running out.  It wasn’t going to take much.

Kiko overlapped again, João Pedro headed wide at the near post.  The Brazilian linked up with Cleverley to send Chalobah through only for Pearson to snuff the danger.  João Pedro turned Pearson and smacked a shot against Cameron Carter-Vickers.  The centre-back was facing the Hornets for the third time in six months with a third different club; he would later manage to foul both João Pedro and Cleverley in the same move, quite creatively, but for all that this was requiring some last ditch stuff, the last ditch stuff kept coming and clear cut chances were thin on the ground.

There was no avoiding that, by the break, the home side were punching their weight.  On the half hour horrible echoes were offered by the sight of Kiko struggling at the far post to an Adam Smith cross.  Kelly thumped a shot that Bachmann pushed over. The half ended with Sarr shooting over after a snappy passing move, but with the game still very much all square.

3- The frustration of course, not for the first time, is that we didn’t rise above it.  Worse, there was evidence of us trying to beat them at their own game…  provocative holding onto the ball to slow the game down, little niggles to try to upset the hosts.  We were never going to out-Bournemouth Bournemouth, and should have stuck to the stuff we’ve been good at.

Because there’s still no out-Bournemouthing Bournemouth.  You did wonder if the antipathy would fade now that Tindall has followed Howe out of the door, but it seems that if that’s a significant change of tone it’ll take a while to coach the new tune.  Lewis Cook started the second half by reacting to a harsh foul call by kicking the ball in frustration at the linesman.  A generous yellow.  Then, as the Hornets broke, the vagaries of microphones in an empty stadium picked up a shout of “foul! foul! foul!” from the Bournemouth bench. And, yes, perhaps such things are commonplace if only we could hear them in the normal way but… so on brand.

The Chalobah and Lerma thing had been bubbling up throughout, and boiled over just before the hour.  The Colombian climbed on Chalobah, Chalobah grappled, Lerma grappled, as they came down Chalobah flicked a hand at Lerma’s face;  he collapsed as if he’d been shot.

We can’t control what Bournemouth do.  We can control how we react to it, and it’s not like we’ve not been warned.  After all, Tindall shrieking at Marc Pugh to go down in the box here was seven years ago.  Chalobah’s gesture wasn’t a forearm smash, but it opened the possibility for Lerma to do what he did.  Stupid.

4- Arnaut Danjuma had had a quiet first half, but was the game’s most potent threat in the second.  Shortly before the Lerma incident he’d sliced in from the left and put the ball past Bachmann only for Sierralta to intervene.  As Lerma returned to his feet and brushed himself down our concentration had gone, Danjuma was beyond the defence and that was all it took.

We threatened, and could still have nicked a point.  Sarr flew past James for the first time but shot wide at the near post.  An extraordinary leap from Sema saw the ball knocked down, Begovic prevailed against Sarr who only needed a touch.   Sarr sizzled a cross in from the right, sub Perica was smothered at the near post.   Narrow margins.

But the closing fifteen minutes or so were a sort of Bournemouth greatest hits tour.  All the classics came out…  Lerma rolling around again, trying to draw another card from a now flustered referee.  Significant that Dan Gosling, his teammate a month ago, was at the front of the protagonists expressing their disgust.  Jack Wilshere came off the bench for an extraordinary cameo that saw him booked for timewasting and finally dismissed for his part in the final melee having escaped censure for a brutally cynical off the ball hack on João Pedro, for bellowing at the referee to “f*** off” and for applauding his first booking.  Whether Wilshere is merely an idiot, or whether there’s some in-joke going on at Dean Court, a bet based on dodging cards following Kelly and Billing’s efforts at Vicarage Road, we can only speculate.

Meanwhile João Pedro looks ever more convincing leading the line, but manages to get into a barney on a twice-weekly basis and in games much less combustible than this one. He will have a target on his back, and needs to calm the hell down and not reward, much less react to the provocation because it’s going to keep happening. His dismissal means that we still haven’t lost at Bournemouth with eleven men since 1976… his second booking was avoidable, presuming that the referee saw the flick of the boot at Lerma and didn’t penalise the strong but fair challenge that immediately preceded it.

5- As it all kicked off in the dying minutes, a rolling brawl that ebbed and flowed and faded and reignited even in the tunnel on the way out  Philip Zinckernagel, who hadn’t on the pitch to calm João Pedro down this time, was at least able to protect Sarr from more than a yellow as it all kicked off.  Little chance of the Dane making it onto the pitch for this one, he’d have been blown away like a crisp packet in a gale.

As for Bournemouth, I spent my stompy failing-to-calm-down walk this afternoon pondering whether I’d rather punch Adam Smith in the face or knee Jefferson Lerma in the balls given the choice, finally deciding that the right thing to do would be to chuck whoever was imposing such a restriction down a deep hole and do both.  Perhaps not entirely a bad thing from my point of view that fans weren’t allowed on this occasion.  I suspect I wasn’t the only one who found it hard to calm down.

Fortunately, a reminder that there’s a long way to go and that points will be dropped along the way came before the end of the afternoon as Swansea contrived to lose at home to Nigel Pearson’s Bristol City.  Losing away at Bournemouth, the first home win in these fixtures since the two sides were promoted in 2015, is a pain in the arse but doesn’t need to be terminal.

We’re a better side than Bournemouth, we have a better coach than Bournemouth, and we were a lapse of concentration away from a decent away point.  “Stay on target”.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 3, Cathcart 3, *Sierralta 4, Masina 3, Hughes 3, Cleverley 3, Chalobah 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs:  Gosling (for Chalobah, 76) NA, Lazaar (for Masina, 76) NA, Perica (for Sema, 84) NA, Ngakia, Gray, Cathcart, Troost-Ekong, Zinckernagel, Elliot

Blackburn Rovers 2 Watford 3 (24/02/2021) 25/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1976.  Friday 13th as it goes, three days after Dennis Bond’s goal got us a 1-0 win at Scunthorpe.

A bit before my time as regards following the Hornets.  Mum and Dad bore the emotional brunt, I don’t remember not being diabetic, not having to worry about it.  I do remember syringes the size of polaris missiles. The rules have changed over the years… not how diabetes works, but what I’m supposed to do about it.  As I’ve grown up, as understanding of diabetes and treatments have improved.

Today I was fitted with an insulin pump.  Virtually, of course…  or rather I fitted it myself under remote guidance.  I control the dose via a remote, it ought to better replicate what my pancreas would be doing if it hadn’t packed in halfway through the 1975/76 season.  Tomorrow (Thursday) will be the first day since then that I haven’t had an insulin injection.  Conservatively, 50 thousand or so in the interim.  I feel superpowered.  A cyborg.  This is a step-change.

2- Watford have undergone a similar step-change in recent weeks, the new formation making the most of our assets at last.  The midfield is body armour, the forward trio mounted automatic weapons.  We are brutally too good for most of the division playing like this.

The evening was pretty brutal all round.  It was hammering down with rain on a heavy, tatty-looking pitch.  Blackburn were on the back of a four-match losing streak and missing players.  We, of course, are also missing players… Foster, Kabasele, Chalobah, Deeney is at the very least a respectable spine for a Championship side.  This is the point in the season where the depth of our squad ought to tell.

At Vicarage Road at the start of the season Rovers looked aggressive and potent in attack but startlingly wide-open at the back.  They carried this reckless combination with no little panache, creating a positive impression despite the 3-1 scoreline.  In the first half today the same characteristics were in evidence, but in a side bereft of confidence.  We got at Rovers early, and should have been more comfortably ahead at the break, such was their palpable vulnerability.

From the outset Rovers looked sulky, protesting decisions forlornly, hands on hips.  Sarr screamed down the right early on as we started boldly, surprised to find such little resistance.  In fairness Barry Douglas was a dogged if not always successful opponent from then on, but this was almost too easy.  Both sides struggled for control in the conditions, but for all that Rovers offered a threat there was only one end that the goals were coming.  Sarr was released again on 12 minutes, the excitable Kaminski flapped unnecessarily at his deflected cross.   Douglas let Sarr in with a slack pass, Kaminski recovered the ball but then rolled out suicidally, Gosling pounced, Hughes drove in a shot, the ball ricocheted around.  The already imperious Hughes released Sarr in the centre of the box, a fine run, his shot too close to Kaminski who was allowed to make a decent fingertip save.  “Finally”, if only midway through the half, Cleverley’s lofted ball found João Pedro wandering in unnoticed to artfully flick the ball over the exposed Kaminski.

Blackburn threatened again, a portent of what was to come, Armstrong firing a shot across Bachmann, too close.  Rothwell curled a shot towards Bachmann that was comfortable, but wouldn’t have been with the slightest nick.  This wasn’t done.  And yet… when we broke it looked so ominous.  Cleverley mugged Travis and again Rovers were exposed, 4 on 3… but Tom’s ball to Sarr was untidy, Sarr drove near post and forced a save.  From the corner Gosling attacked a loose ball well but drove over.  Finally (again) given the number of chances and the pathetic flailing of Rovers’ defence, we got the second… Kiko surged down the right, his cross reached João Pedro via Sema, his shot was blocked but Sarr tucked in.

3- That could have, should have been that.  Even at our weakest points this season our defending has been resolute, solid.  You’d back us to protect a two-goal lead away from home against anyone, particularly with hay to be made on the break.  These were difficult conditions however, against a belligerent attack spearheaded by the forceful Armstrong.  There was no room for the collective hesitation – it was truthfully no worse than that – that ended with Masina getting mugged as we ran out of space to play out, Elliott finding the net to change the tone of the half-time team talk.

Rovers came out looking purposeful and single-minded at the start of the second half.  To reiterate, they’d forced the issue as much as us stuffing up, so credit’s due for the strength of character that kept them going at 2 down.  It gave us a problem, and changed the mood – Rovers had a free punch now, nothing to lose.  Hearts in mouths as Armstrong raced Will Hughes, who is many fine things but no speed-merchant…  Bachmann, rebounding after some iffy moments against Derby, flew out to snuff out the chance.  Troost-Ekong spooned a loose ball high, Sierralta and Masina managed to smuggle the ball out for a corner but it all felt rather more precarious than it had done in the first half.

We couldn’t get hold of the ball, suddenly.  The game was ridiculously open, and midfield superiority is of limited value if the midfield has become obsolete.  Nonetheless, we had the best footballer on the pitch in Will Hughes who sent an insane ball through for Sarr who cut his cross across the face of goal, João Pedro not quite alert to it.  Downing came on for Rovers, 78 years old now but a great player to trundle out in such circumstances.  Again, ominous… until we nabbed another goal on the break, Sema shuffling the ball onto his left foot and across the face of the keeper.

4- The game remained far too open for our liking, even with the two-goal lead restored.  Chances at both ends… Masina diving in to deny the potent Nyambe one minute, Rovers clearing off the line after Sierralta’s header was propelled goalwards by a Blackburn head the next.  With Downing providing quality at set pieces, the thuggish but effective Branthwaite was at the centre of some disruptive bolshiness at a corner which was cleared with Sierralta grounded.  That takes some doing.  It was a proper battle.

I opened the app, checking on the other scores.  Blackburn had pulled a second goal back, it transpired to dismay.  I had the joy of watching Downing’s corner with the grim knowledge of what was about to happen, Wilmot exposed by Brereton’s forcefulness at the far post.

5- The last ten minutes feel profoundly significant in our season’s trajectory.  The difference between the recriminations that would have followed twice surrendering a two-goal lead, and the chest-beating and fist-bumping following an utterly gutsy, inspiring performance.

Never gutsier or more inspiring than in those closing minutes.  Zinckernagel and Gray, like Wilmot, had joined the fray and all put a shift in, Gray’s energetic combativeness just what was needed in the circumstances.  Rovers were chasing an unlikely point – Brereton bullied Kiko, Kiko stayed on his feet and prevailed.  Hughes got his head behind a Rovers clearance to stifle another attack.  Sarr’s defensive work was diligent, chasing, getting a foot in.  Gray bundled the ball into the corner flag.  Bachmann blocked a shot as another Downing cross got too far.  The whistle blew.

This wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t perfect but we won the game anyway.  The top four are pulling away, and if none of the others dropped points this time around then we have the consolation of knowing that the other three haven’t made the ground they could have done.  Four wins on the hop, none of the preceding three required this depth of character.

Meanwhile, back in 1976 Watford’s first game after my formal diagnosis was a 4-1 defeat at Bournemouth.  We’ve been owing them for a long time.  A tantalising fixture on Saturday lunchtime.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Masina 3, *Hughes 5*, Cleverley 4, Gosling 3, Sarr 4, João Pedro 4, Sema 3
Subs:  Zinckernagel (for Gosling, 62) 3, Gray (for João Pedro, 76) 4, Wilmot (for Sema, 76) 3, Ngakia, Perica, Cathcart, Lazaar, Hungbo, Elliot