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Watford 2 Huddersfield Town 0 (16/01/2021) 17/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- Daughter 2 does incredulous very well.   Something enhanced by secondary school I think, such as her experience of it has been allowed to be, but it was always in her armoury.

Her dalliance with League Ladders in around 2015 corresponded with Leicester being bottom of the Premier League… no City fan has told the story of their transformation the following year with such wide-eyed, open-palmed, head-cocked disbelief, or as frequently.  This tendency surfaced again this week.

“Four years?  Seriously?“.

Well, yes.  And spirited as Hornet Hive’s efforts to do justice to the anniversary are, here’s the latest example of something that really needs the stands full.  The annual heartfelt, uncomplicated acknowledgement of the great man is a fine thing, the scarf display emotional and spectacular and as an aside permitting the more wised-up elements of whichever visiting support to join in whilst the empty vessels’ noise is drowned out.  Every club thinks that their club is special, different.  Graham Taylor is a big part of why we’re the ones that are right.

2- Meanwhile, the fixture that represented perhaps the low point of GT’s final season as manager.  More than 20 years on (yes…) it feels like an opportunity for Xisco’s new dawn to get going after a three match intro that was both unforgiving in the stiffness of the challenge and kind in that dropped points might be more obviously forgivable.

Three points and honourable exit from the FA Cup with some encouraging signs represented no worse than par for that little run, but after three weeks without midweek games we kick off a run of five fixtures in 15 days where a decent haul of points will be required.

All sorts of talking points in the starting line-up as the new man starts to settle on things and both new and returning faces get shuffled around.  Daniel Bachmann retains his place for now and the foreseeable as Ben Foster has broken a finger, it transpires.  Kiko and Masina would seem to end the season’s game of musical chairs in the full back positions for the moment, WTE and Sierralta are paired in what immediately looks sensible at centre-back (though we have plenty of combinations that qualify for that label).  No Will Hughes – migraines late this week it is later suggested – but no Zinckernagel in the starting eleven either, dampening the unreasonable expectation that he’s the guy who’ll come in and change everything rather than, for instance, the guy who might actually change things by not coming in and providing competitive threat to the incumbent attacking players.  The net total of all of this is that for the first time in ages we have a bench full of senior options.

3- The suggestion that we’re nudging in a favourable direction is backed up by a vigorous first half in which hurlyburly closing down limits the capacity of either side to create very much simply because by the time any player of either side has the ball under control there’s someone flying at them at high speed and evasive action needs to be taken.

It has to be said that our own attacking threat survives this frenzy better than Huddersfield’s – Daniel Bachmann might have spent the first half in my seat a third of the way up the Rookery for all I know – but we’re not exactly flowing either and it’s the destructive players that get themselves most brownie points from the first half.  Nate Chalobah is prominent here, stomping on things that need stomping on and kicking things that need kicking.

We do spark into life occasionally though.  Ten minutes in, Sarr receives an awkward ball from João Pedro and puts in a cross. Sema competes well and cushions back to the Brazilian whose snap-shot forces Schofield into a decent stop low to his left.  Midway through the half Chalobah slips Kiko in with a lovely through ball, he wastes the opportunity.  As the half closes an assertive run by Cleverley ends with him finding Sarr in a central position, cutting inside and curling a shot that demands another intervention from Schofield.  No goals is no goals, but there’s positive intent and sparks of life here.  Upbeat at the break.

4- Having said which, and before we get to the damburst in the second half, up front is clearly where the biggest problems are.  Deeney is more mobile and assertive here than he has been in a while – indeed too assertive half an hour in when his frustrated challenge on Bacuna, late and unnecessary, might have earned him a red and indeed probably merited a yellow each for thuggery and stupidity. Losing your rag like that is exasperating in a young kid, much more than that in your 32 year-old captain who, given his willingness to pass judgement on others on a variety of platforms is fair game for such criticism here.

But despite his otherwise good work and despite a lively outing from João Pedro there isn’t the connection up front that was suggested by a promising open exchange.  Our attack is still good bits that do their own thing rather than a machine that has a way of playing and functions as a collective.  For the moment, anyway.

The other wonky cog is Ismaïla Sarr who is also far more aggressive here than he has been and yet still isn’t as effective as you want him to be.  Nonetheless, he’s being wielded with some creativity with Xisco, swapping wings with Sema and later Zinckernagel more than once and often popping up in a central position where he displays a bullishness that hasn’t always been evident.  There’s an argument for deploying him alongside Deeney given his aptitude for attacking the ball in the box and questionable decision making when he has time to think about it.

More frustrating is his rather sulky tendency to whine and bleat about the treatment he receives.  The first grumble in the direction of the officials comes about three minutes in, doing himself no favours by both alienating said officials early on and (therefore) affording licence to his markers to keep bullying him.  There’s a bit of Wilfried Zaha about Sarr, but if he’s less nimble than Zaha he’s physically better able to withstand such treatment and needs to get his head around battering his way through this stuff sooner rather than later.

5- Nonetheless.  The trajectory is positive, even up front, and we’re too good here for a Huddersfield side that, albeit with a stronger eleven themselves and the help of us shooting ourselves in the foot twice, beat us comfortably only a month ago.  Only four surivivors from our starting eleven that day incidentally.

Energy aside, Huddersfield offer little.  Particularly hapless is left winger Rolando cousin of Max Aarons, who marks his full debut for the Terriers after signing ten days ago by mis-controlling into touch at least half a dozen times, whilst on the right Aaron Rowe is a sneering ball of attitude but little else.

The first time I saw Watford lose was on my ninth birthday, a 3-2 defeat to Newcastle 39 years ago today.  Huddersfield are more generous with their birthday gifts, but Tom Cleverley is forceful in his encouragement – hurtling first at midfield possession and then, without breaking stride or needing to deviate, pursuing Álex Vallejo into an underhit backpass towards his goalkeeper.  Schofield has proven himself an excellent shot-stopper over the two fixtures but freezes here long enough for Cleverley to thunder onto the loose ball with ferocious glee.  All that was missing was the roar of the Rookery to flatten what was left of Huddersfield’s resolve.

But it didn’t take much flattening.  By the time João Pedro got onto the end of Kiko’s terrific, precision cross to seal the deal Ismaïla Sarr had spurned a chance to capitalise on more nervous goalkeeping, unaware of Schofield’s suicidal and completely futile charge off his line as Troost-Ekong’s fine through-ball arrived until the moment had passed.

At two down the visitors put some kids on and started to push on a bit.  They immediately looked more convincing, Scott High sending in a low drive to force the most stretching save of the afternoon out of the nonetheless impressively assertive Bachmann.  What threat they offered however crumbled on the twin barriers of Troost-Ekong and Sierralta, who have the making of a “leader/doer” combination the match of a Galli/Brown, a Roeder/Holdsworth or a Cox/Demerit.  Will Hughes comes off the bench and is immediately the best player on the pitch.  Zinckernagel, Garner, Navarro all suggest options and even Andre Gray is less worrying as an impact sub than a starter.

“I can take Luton winning if it’s at Bournemouth” is Daughter 2’s final thoughtful footnote to proceedings, quite reasonably.  And all in all it’s been a quite reasonable day.  We’re not there yet.  But we’re heading in the right direction.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Sarr 4, Cleverley 4, *Chalobah 4*, Sema 3, João Pedro 4, Deeney 3
Subs:  Hughes (for Chalobah, 68) 4, Gray (for Deeney, 68) 2, Zinckernagel (for Sema, 80) NA, Garner (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Navarro (for Femeníá, 85) NA, Cathcart, Wilmot, Ngakia, Parkes

Manchester United 1 Watford 0 (09/01/2021) 10/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- As I get older, my recollections of my first Watford games are increasingly restricted to isolated sensations, memories, and often freeze-frames.

The Cup Final.  The first one.  Younger than Daughter 2 is now.  Yellow and blue aeroplanes duelling over the Wembley pitch (I think we lost that one too).  April 1986, slightly arbitrarily.  Newcastle United at home.  Watching from the family enclosure as a 20 year-old Nigel Gibbs lies face down in the turf in front of me.  Behind him the slightly perverse image of Gary Porter, all 5ft 5 of him, squaring up to perpetrator Billy Whitehurst, a brick shithouse of a centre-forward.  Manchester United at home, May 1985.  Luther has been carried off with a fractured skull, it turned out, after a knee in the head from Gary Bailey.  Physio Billy Hails returning to the bench and wringing his sponge out into a bucket in front of the family enclosure.  “Oh my God, that’s blood!” exclaims my aunt.

Whatever freeze frames we retain from the last twelve months or so of football will be almost exclusively two dimensional at best.  Limited to what the TV cameras are able, choose to reveal, moulded by the opinions of the pundits.  These are probably more informed than the opinion of The Bloke Behind You in fairness but…  you lose the ability to take it all in.  To use all your senses to immerse yourself in the spectacle.  To look where you want to look, to allow yourself to find a perspective that others aren’t paying attention to (as an aside, I maintain that I was the only person in the Rookery who saw our counterattack thunder towards us in the 2013 Leicester game in the wake of already raucous penalty save celebration, but that’s by the by).  You don’t get to feel the prickle of cold on the back of your neck, to submerge yourself into the collective anxiety and excitement of the stands.  Second rate freeze-frames at best, however sharp the image, however revealing the camera angle.

2- What few of us will have is a freeze frame of a victory at Old Trafford.  There’s only been one, of course…  Luther again, 1978.  Before my time, just about.  Instead we have memories of an array of creative different flavours of defeat.  There’s the run-of-the-mill variety, like in 1987.  There was a lot to like about Worrell Sterling, but him being our man-of-the-match always flagged a bad team performance.  There’s been unlucky ones, comprehensive ones (BBC), frustrating ones. This never looked likely to do anything other than add to that catalogue;  had it done otherwise this report would have been rattled together in a fit of excitement by first thing Sunday morning rather than… well, whenever I get it done.

Which doesn’t therefore imply any besmirching of Xisco’s fledgling record necessarily. With the comparative luxury of three whole weeks without a midweek fixture of all things, now was instead a time to study his playing of his cards, to draw what conclusions we can about the new man from the decisions he makes.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of our rapid turnover of head coaches, we shouldn’t deny ourselves such pleasures as the circumstance offers.

And there was plenty to chew over in team selections, substitutions, set-up today.  Omissions of Deeney, Femenía and Cleverley from the travelling squad was not, ostensibly, down to COVID since the club confirmed that no positive tests had arisen from the increased testing last week.  No mention of injury either…  if the absentees were selectively rested, that’s a bold call in itself with the proportion of senior pros on an ever-more injury restricted bench dropping further.

Beyond that there was interest in the deployment of players on their “weaker foot”, seemingly encouraging players to come inside.  Debutant Zinckernagel, we are told, can play anywhere across the front line but is right-footed and was deployed primarily on the right by Bodø/Glimt.  He’s fielded on the left throughout.  Later on Ken Sema is brought off the bench and spends a diligent but awkward fifteen minutes on the right flank before Zinckernagel’s removal sees him switch back to the left.  Simultaneously Jeremy Ngakia came on for Adam Masina for another uncomfortable shift at left back – more out of necessity than choice perhaps in the absence of Kiko.

3- With Zinckernagel making his debut – albeit only three weeks after the end of the Norwegian season – as well as first starts of the season for Hughes and Masina, a second start for Navarro, a first start for over a month for João Pedro and for three weeks for Troost-Ekong it’s little surprise perhaps that we started slowly.

But we did start slowly.  Two minutes in Marc Navarro was ushering Dan James into the box to force a save out of Daniel Bachmann.  A couple of minutes later a corner was allowed to reach Scott McTominay, comfortably the dominant player on the pitch, who headed down into the ground and got a bit of luck as the ball rebounded upwards and beyond Bachmann’s reach into the top corner.  Felt like it was going to be a long evening at that stage.

So the most obvious positive from the encounter was that we didn’t crumble.  Ten minutes into the anticipated onslaught with United looking lively and positive, you noticed that the collapse hadn’t actually happened, that we were holding our shape and holding our own.  Philip Zinckernagel started the game ambling around like the kid on the playground who’s splitting his time between participating in the game and discussing last night’s episode of Red Dwarf with his mate but he picked the pace up and every touch was bullish and purposeful.  Quarter of an hour in Will Hughes – who if not back at full throttle nonetheless snapped and rattled around the midfield encouragingly – sent in a free kick which João Pedro flicked on to Masina beating the offside trap for Henderson to block his shot.

We looked a threat at set pieces, would you believe, Sierralta’s obvious physical threat a problem.  Navarro looked nervous defensively but demonstrated an ability to put a decent curling ball into the box.  Sarr threatened to escape a couple of times, João Pedro had some nice touches.  Much was made by Glenn Hoddle on comms of the danger of being exposed in the middle, Chalobah and Hughes overwhelmed by weight of numbers, but it didn’t really happen.  Half time snuck up on everyone with the Hornets more than hanging on.

4-  Except.  Except.  If we weren’t being overrun, if our discipline and shape was containing a now stuttering United and Bachmann tested (and meeting those tests) only rarely, if we were demonstrating the suggestion of a threat then the concern is that suggesting was all we were doing.  For all that Andre Gray was lively and energetic, for all that Nathaniel Chalobah was able to lash a couple of drives wide of goal the suggestion of a threat never developed into actual threat.  Harsh, perhaps…  we’d have taken an honourable 1-0 defeat with both hands five minutes in and there’s immense encouragement to be taken from what followed in terms of both attitude and organisation.

But not in end product.  Not in actual goal threat.  And yes, this was “only” the Cup against an experienced and capable Premier League side, further strengthened throughout the second half as Solskjær followed the introduction of Maguire before the break with Martial, Rashford, Matic.  But it’s the overriding challenge.  Sarr and João Pedro in particular ooze with the suggestion of a threat, from which we’re not moulding actual threat nearly often enough.

It’s the nagging concern as the second half progresses, much as keeping the scoreline at 1-0 whilst getting minutes into some of those returning legs is an achievement in itself, much as there’s an awful lot more to like about the character of the side than not.  Xisco has limited options on the bench but isn’t afraid to use them, dipping into the benchwarmers when Joseph Hungbo, recently recalled from loan, is brought on for a likably energetic if largely impotent fifteen minutes in place of Zinckernagel.  The second “but” of the evening arrives when Chalobah grabs his hamstring and is replaced by Phillips.  You won’t find me complaining about Dan Phillips seeing some action at any stage in any game, but we’re thin enough on the ground in midfield without losing Chalobah too.

5- The game ends with Hornets heads held high and yet no real suggestion that the course of the evening was about to change at any point beyond the fifth minute.  A cynic might say that, in the circumstances, honourable defeat which doesn’t mash our confidence but doesn’t add fixtures to an already congested January and February is a very decent outcome.  There’s truth in this, but we wouldn’t have had any reservations had we pulled it out of the bag.

And as for Xisco… so far so good.  Still saying the right things.  His team is work in progress but looks punchier and more assertive than it has done for most of the season despite limited manpower.  Watch this space.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Navarro 3, Masina 3, Sierralta 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sarr 3, Chalobah 3, *Hughes 3*, Zinckernagel 3, João Pedro 3, Gray 3
Subs:  Sema (for Sarr, 58) 3, Ngakia (for Masina, 58) 2, Wilmot (for Troost-Ekong, 76) NA, Hungbo (for Zinckernagel, 76) NA, Phillips (for Chalobah, 84) NA, Dalby, Crichlow, Barrett, Foster

Swansea City 2 Watford 1 (02/01/2021) 03/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
26 comments

1-  There’s a difference between boring and mundane.

Boring is always a Bad Thing.  It’s an active state, something which achieves disengagement, leaves you worse off than you were before.  Mundane is passive.  Everyday.  “Failing to excite”, I suppose.  Not the same thing, it depends on context.  It can be positive.

Marko Kloos does mundane very well.  His series of sci-fi novels are entertaining fantasies, but their brilliance is in the layer upon layer of mundane detail.  That’s what allows you to lift the veil of disbelief.  Yes, OK, it’s 2120 and I’m in a distant point in space fighting 30-foot aliens.  But the food’s shit, my feet hurt and this guy’s being a bit of an idiot.  Not plot devices beyond creating a world that you can lower yourself into, however extraordinary the critical detail.  Tolkien was very good at that too.

Nobody’s missing boring, there’s plenty of boring.  But there’s not enough mundane.  Not enough variety in the mundane.  Not enough of the incidental stuff that you take for granted.   Someone cycled past me on my walk yesterday morning and saluted my loyalties, betrayed by my hat.  Rare to see another Watford supporter at the northern tip of Bedfordshire.  Quite rare to see anyone at all on the muddy walks between the local villages.  It was a nice thing.  It shouldn’t have been the highlight of my day.  Particularly not when there’s a game on in the afternoon.

2- There are some things that, it could be argued, the club ownership can be criticised for.  You’ll have your own opinions, I think it’s beyond reasonable dispute that they’re well in credit over the eight years whatever the debate in the detail.

But there are some things that they, we, are indisputably outstanding at.  Philip Zinckernagel might not work out.  He might struggle to step up, not be able to adapt, whatever.   Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  But what a triumph of smoke and mirrors in any case.  I’ve been keeping a list of every name that comes up in The List  postings over the last few years, plausible well-sourced or otherwise.  Not a sniff.  And whilst there are no guarantees that his extraordinary record in Norway will translate, it seems that plenty of others were willing to take that gamble.  For us to be so on top of the game that we can line him up on a free transfer and have him purchase a house in the UK three months ago to help navigate the new reality is tremendous.

Ken Sema, whose unprecedented success with Östersunds in Sweden mirrors that of Zinckernagel with traditionally unremarkable Bodø/Glimt in Norway, is another example.  His first season with us no better or worse than OK.  His second on loan at Udinese saw him get enough football to suggest that we’d not seen the best of him.  This season, whilst he didn’t have his best game in Swansea, he’s arguably been our most reliable performer.  The Pozzos, Duxbury, can pick a player and can get them in.  Not every one’s a success, but we’re not half bad.

Étienne Capoue is another.  He wasn’t an obvious signing five-and-a-half years ago.  Not obvious that he’d want to slum it with the likes of Watford, not obvious that he’d be effective if he did so having been kind of so so at Spurs as part of their post-Bale splurge.  And yet he gave us many years of increasingly dependable service, simultaneously a tremendous defensive midfielder (interceptions, tackles higher than anyone in the top leagues in Europe whenever and whatever and so on) and an attacking weapon, pinging balls from side to side of the pitch, steering patterns of attack from mission control.  One of the best players to play for the club in recent years, perhaps ever in as much as it’s possible to judge.

Not a hero though.  Not a “legend”, not for me.   The “how” is as important as the what in that regard.  Even at his best, his weaker performances betrayed an arrogance and a laziness;  the arrogance is a great thing when channelled positively, not when it generates bad performances in itself.  Dad has often pointed out his tendency to dangle a leg limply at a tackle he can’t really be bothered with;  that’s faded a little over the years but the personality  that generated it is still there, cast into stark relief with his contribution this season.  He’s allowed not to want to play in the Championship, heaven knows he’s good enough to do better.  What he’s not allowed to do is to take a salary whilst clearly not giving a damn.  That’s not how a club legend behaves.  Tommy Mooney’s not terribly veiled references to Capoue’s departure improving the mood of the dressing room impossible to miss on Hornet Hive.

3- Compare and contrast with Kiko Femenía.  Not the same calibre of player as Capoue at all, but nonetheless perfectly able to hold his own in the top division, here, Spain, anywhere.  Another player who, it was widely reported, wanted to head out in the summer for professional and personal reasons.

But you wouldn’t know it.  One of our stars against Norwich, he’s again impressive from the off here.  Against a side who are organised, who keep the ball well and on a newly laid pitch that’s impossibly slippery and treacherous the ability to thunder forward with possession is invaluable and Kiko’s at it again at the start of a hugely engaging first half in which blows are traded freely, both metaphorically and literally as tackles rattle in with increasing aggression.

Kiko’s surge ends with a threaded through ball that doesn’t quite find Sarr but the intent and the threat is clear.  A minute later however and Swansea embark on their crusade to isolate and expose Jeremy Ngakia at left back;  they do so repeatedly and painfully easily, Christian Roberts sending a wicked ball across the face of goal that Korey Smith is an inch away from converting.

Then we’re back at them, Ben Wilmot doggedly chasing down possession after a free kick is cleared towards the corner flag, bullying Jamal Lowe out of position and flinging in an instant cross with his left foot.  Gray attacks the near post well but both defender and goalkeeper are alert and he can’t smuggle the ball in.  Tremendous bullishness and urgency from Wilmot, no coincidence that the speed of action and thought creates one of our better openings of the afternoon.

We begin to edge it.  Only edge it, and only briefly.  Swansea suggest a susceptibility at set pieces when Nathaniel Chalobah is permitted a standing header from a corner;  this vulnerability is evident later in the game when Sierralta repeatedly threatens from near post corners and we pick up cheap possession in and around the box but don’t do enough to expose or exploit this.

But almost immediately we’re ahead, and it’s a fine, fine strike from Cleverley from just outside the area, fizzing low and straight at a height that will take the very tips of the newly sown blades of grass and into the bottom corner.

Blows continue to be traded, and a rapid warning to stay on our guard comes when Roberts goes down under challenge from Ngakia within minutes.  Certainly not a deliberate foul but the befuddled Ngakia clipped him – the extent to which created by Roberts himself not clear – and “you’ve seen them given”.  We retaliate, a super touch from Gray releases Sarr who had sprung just too early.  Swansea build concerted pressure, Foster saves well from Ayew’s clubbed drive that shouldn’t have given him a chance, too close to the keeper.

It’s increasingly harum scarum stuff, all the players losing their footing now adding to the ragged urgency of the spectacle.  Sarr is back defending, diligently, his covering with a far post header prevents Manning from getting in.  Manning was widely tipped as one of our left back targets in the summer;  he’s a gobby pain in the arse here, he could have been our pain in the arse.  A minute later Chalobah clobbers Matt Grimes, another supposed summer target who is the focus of much of our attention.  Smith forces another save from Foster.  And then the pressure tells, another fine finish from Jamal Lowe whose curling left footer ends up right in the far bottom corner, agonisingly pulling out of Foster’s reach.

4- Conceding before half time never good, but a fair reflection of the half and we’d have taken a draw from this one happily, particularly on the back of the win against Norwich.

We’re after more of the same in the second half and we get it, but not in a good way.  Swansea continue to look assertive and don’t give us a sniff for fifteen minutes. Jake Bidwell heads in ten minutes in, it’s rightly chalked off for Lowe being offside, but that’s more luck than judgement on our part.  Chalobah does some more stout defensive work, blocking Korey Smith’s effort but is then replaced on the hour by a tentative James Garner before he completes his widely advertised journey to a red card.

We start to get back into it, Kiko twice releasing Sarr, the ball bobbling around the box.  It’s something to claw our way back in on, but then Swansea get a delivery spot on, we’re exposed defensively as Foster is stranded and the charmlessly effective Lowe heads in at the far post.  It’s been coming.

Which is more than can be said for our attacking threat for the rest of the game.  No lack of attitude here, no lack of effort, but a lack of effectiveness.  All of our threat is down the flanks, principally through Sarr and Kiko though Sema does feed Troy late in the game, the captain shoots over.  Our centre forwards and central midfield aren’t nearly threatening enough;  Deeney has a few good touches but looks immobile and never looks like bullying a young an inexperienced backline deprived of it’s senior figure in Ryan Bennett and of his deputy in the warm up.  Gray is lively and industrious, but largely to little effect.  In the midfield Cleverley does well in the first half but fades, and is more destructive than creative for the most part, Chalobah sturdy enough until replaced but he’s also become a destroyer, no longer the metronome that ticked away at the back of Gianfranco Zola’s midfield.  It’s tempting to suggest that we’re missing Capoue’s ability to change the play but we’ve been missing that for most of the season in truth.

We bang on the door wholeheartedly enough in the final minutes, but without ever threatening to overwhelm our hosts who deserve the win and look a tidy side.  The returning Morgan Gibbs-White gives them something extra in the final minutes as they effectively kill the game, Grimes coming closer to extending the scoring than we do with a low drive that Foster just about holds on to.  Masina, who has a decent second half off the bench, blots his record slightly with a stupid, if understandably frustrated, late booking.  The last word I write on my notepad is “Arse”.

5- This isn’t a disaster.  It’s hugely frustrating, the illusory suggestion that Xisco would arrive with his smiles and energy and we’d suddenly canter away the biggest casualty of the afternoon.  But losing a fairly tight game away to one of our principal rivals is not the same as chucking points away through carelessness, or by not being brave or bold enough.  We suffered today really through not being good enough on the day;  in Hughes, João Pedro, Quina, potentially Zinckernagel and in the longer term Dele-Bashiru we have creativity in our squad.   There were very few options for Xisco on the bench in that regard, young Sam Dalby being added to the list of benchwarmers.  In Perica, Success, Kabasele, Cathcart we have plenty of experience to come back.

It does need to be better.  Perhaps it will be, against less accomplished opponents.  But it’s the accomplished ones that we have to catch.

Not boring, is it?

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femeníá 3, Ngakia 2, Sierralta 3, *Wilmot 4*, Sarr 3, Chalobah 3, Cleverley 3, Sema 2, Deeney 2, Gray 2
Subs:  Masina (for Ngakia, 45) 3, Garner (for Chalobah, 60) 2, Hughes (for Cleverley, 90) NA, Navarro, Troost-Ekong, Hungbo, Crichlow, Dalby, Bachmann

Watford 1 Norwich City 0 (26/12/2020) 27/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- Last weekend, the day after the Huddersfield horror show, I went for a walk.  This is not in itself either unusual or interesting, heaven knows  there’s little else to do for entertainment at the moment.

I was at a low ebb.. things being what they are , Christmas restrictions, the world falling apart and so forth,  The sun was shining, kind of, but there was a lot of water on the ground (a situation which, as you may have heard, has contributed to more dramatic developments later in the week here in the northern tip of Bedfordshire).

Unless you’re going to stay on tarmac – which is a bit dull – there’s no avoiding a bit of mud in these circumstances, but the route chosen was largely navigable without major inconvenience.  The one iffy stretch is on the way past one of the entrances to a local farm, a cattle path that traverses the public footpath and is often particularly boggy.  On this occasion straw had been put down over the offending stretch, which I expected to facilitate access.  My right leg went through and in to halfway up the shin.  Frantically trying to push myself clear I put down my left leg further on which also sunk to halfway up the shin.

I can only have been stuck there for half a second, it was long enough.  What might have been just water and mud really didn’t smell like water and mud.  I was a mile from home by the most direct route on the wrong side of the… whatever it was.  Two miles via a route that avoided it.  It must have looked like something out of a seventies sitcom, but what with everything I was finding it hard to be philosophical, let alone laugh.  It was a low point.

Yesterday evening, at around 10.30, I jumped around the kitchen emptying the dishwasher to the backdrop of the Jam’s “A Town called Malice”.  The world was a good place again.

2- Fascinating this, obviously, for any number of reasons.  The latest new page, the latest new dawn, but unlike the last one and almost perversely given our far from catastrophic league position very little dispute that a page needed to be turned.  It’s oft said about the likes of Tony Pulis that a nihilistic but effective formula loses it’s charm the moment that it stops being effective.  Turns out that Ivic’s suffocating fare didn’t actually need to be that ineffective to lose its audience.

It depends how you judge success, I suppose, and what your benchmarks are.  Taking the most straightforward measure of success – points and that – we’ve been performing, at worst, slightly below our aspirations, maybe even our expectations. Hovering around the top table, if not booking our place at it.  Thing is…  it’s not quite shit or bust this season, but we can’t expect the riches of our current squad to hang around indefinitely.  Ismaïla Sarr in particular, much as he might have flattered to deceive as often as not, is a devastating weapon that we can’t expect to retain beyond next summer at best if we’re still in the second tier.

So having the attacking riches and making scant use of them is slightly ludicrous, particularly when one employs entertainment as an end in itself on days such as these when we’re all in such dire need of distraction.  That, in such circumstances, Watford supporters are opting not to spend £10 on watching the game is a stark reflection on how things were going.  If you’re going to retain your fanbase in the wake of relegation, pandemic, no supporters in the stadium, other priorities, then keeping people engaged has to be worth something in and of itself.  Heaven knows there’s already enough dull TV to be bored by.

So Xisco Muñoz hits the right notes straight away, even if he does come across a bit Joey Tribbiani.  Positive, energetic. likeable.  Watford supporters should long since be immune to What Other People Think, in particular that sort of guffawing sub-pub bore nonsense churned out by Chris Sutton on 5 Live.  There are concerns in his lack of managerial experience of course, but then the likes of Boothroyd and Rodgers came in with comparable experience and both did alright for themselves with us and elsewhere, in different ways.  It’s unlikely that the Pozzos picked his name out of a hat after all.

So we wait and see.  And on the evidence so far… so very good.

3- Clubs are often accused of replacing a perceived struggling incumbent with someone with the opposite characteristics.  You can’t defend, bring in a defensive coach and so forth, often at apparent odds with the nature of the squad being assembled to suit the outgoing guy’s blueprint.  I guess an advantage of our rapid churn is that things are never settled in one mindset anyway (joke) but in any case, an about-face is exactly what everyone, players and supporters is after.  And that’s exactly what we get.

The attacking emphasis is easy to highlight of course, though in the course of this one the visitors dominate possession for the most part.  A bigger immediate contrast to what’s gone before is in attitude.  Muñoz telegraphs what is to come by promising that his team have been “fighting like animals” in training and that, rather than the placid and sometimes bored looking performances thus far is what we get on the pitch. We employ a level of aggression that’s just the right side of outright violent.  Tom Cleverley is at the forefront here, howling around like, well…

 

animated-tasmanian-devil-image-0012

But he’s not the only one.  All over the pitch there is energy and in-your-faceness that’s been largely missing all season.  Étienne Capoue oversteps the mark with an unpleasant challenge on Buendía; on another day with a more excitable referee (John Brooks, of whom more, later, is tremendous) that’s a red but it looks clumsy more than nasty whatever Capoue’s track record with precocious opponents and we and he get away with a yellow.  His appalling non-performance at Huddersfield is mercifully the stuff of memory – he’s still rusty, but we see much more of the midfield rolls royce that we should be seeing, an outrageous pass into Sarr’s feet on 12 minutes is cut back towards Sema and then Gray who shoots wide.  A stupendous Bobby Moore challenge stamps out the embers of another Norwich attack.

And Norwich are attacking.  Always likely to be front runners this season for all sorts of reasons they are confident and clever in possession, move the ball really well and will overwhelm lesser sides and/or performances than this.  Aarons, a right back, sets a tone in the second minute by cutting inside Sema, who has a cumbersome, ragged start, and testing Foster with his left foot.  That’s a right back, second minute, weaker foot.  That’s a side with five wins on the hop for you and they will continue to ask questions.

We continue to provide answers.  It’s soon evident that whilst the Canaries have plenty of possession and move the ball well they’re not actually getting terribly close to the goal.  With far less possession we’re providing a much greater threat and if it’s not quite there in the final third – cut backs not quite falling right, shots not quite connecting – then it’s nonetheless much more venomous, the shot count that Daniel Farke quotes post-match thoroughly misleading.  City aren’t getting close enough, their efforts largely and harmlessly from distance.

Norwich’s defence isn’t as comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces as their attacking players, and we’re getting a lot of mileage out of this.  We’re putting them under pressure quickly, turning them with balls over the top, often from Deeney to Gray, which have a positive effect on our outlook and theirs even if they’re not quite coming off.  Finally we break through…  as so often it’s smoke and mirrors with Sarr screaming down the right and providing a focus for attention but Sema needs one chance to put a ball in and one only.  His ball is magnificent, Sarr flies in at the far post.  It’s murderous in its efficiency.  “Vamooooos” bellows Muñoz from the dugout.  We threaten to overrun City for the last five minutes of the half.

4- Troy sets the tone for the second period, first by dumping a beleaguered Jacob Sørensen into the hoardings in front of the Rookery within seconds, and then by releasing Jeremy Ngakia, swapped to the left by the new coach with Kiko now screaming down the right, with a perfectly weighted ball that demands a lung-busting run by the young full back.

The opening twenty minutes or so of the second half is our most dominant spell of the game, and again we threaten to overwhelm the visitors.  Sarr and Sema are prominent, Troy is clearly enjoying playing with Andre Gray again Tom Cleverley is still offering a health warning to anyone who contemplates dwelling on the ball, Todd Cantwell on more than one occasion with the Watford midfielder picking up a well-earned yellow as Cantwell crumples into the turf.  We’re bullying City into submission and running roughshod over the debris, culminating in a series of five corners on the hop.  Corners are statistically overstated in their importance – very few result in goals despite the excitement, when there are fans and so forth, that they provoke.  But there’s threat here, at last.

We deserve this win, but the result was never inevitable.  Having gone behind, the suggestion at this point was that Norwich didn’t have much else to offer, no plan B.  Plan B arrived from the bench in the shape of a triple change which allowed City to change formation and take back the initiative.  Ben Gibson, often linked with the Hornets before his move to Norfolk, was one of the three and did the Ben Wilmot thing of surging forward from the left of the trio.  City now on the front foot.

But we still had the actual Ben Wilmot, who put in perhaps his most impressive performance in yellow with a quite magnificent display.  He is calm, controlled and in charge whilst alongside him, League debutant Francisco Sierralta is the brawn of the pair, the Jay Demerit kicking and heading everything in his path in whichever direction he happens to be heading, a fearless booterer from the moment that he dispatches Pukki into the technical area midway through the first half.  My brother sends an image via WhatsApp in response.

Norwich spread the play, and now have more physicality in the box.  It’s not comfortable, but nor are we clinging on even if we are reliant on the precision of our defenders and the alertness of the officials.  Ben Wilmot thunders into a tremendous challenge on Pukki which made you gasp until you saw the replay and saw the forward’s foot hook itself around a perfect tackle to achieve the tumble.  Brooks only got one look.  If you give Pukki the benefit of the doubt on that one there was more cynicism about his reaction to Adam Masina, on for Ngakia for his second cameo of the season after injury, flying in with similarly merciless precision just as City appeared to have carved a clear cut opening to toe the ball away from the striker whose thought process and subsequent swallow dive was again more evident on replay.  A sign of desperation this from City, this, who reach peak Ćurčić shortly before the 90 when Gibson hooks his leg around Troy Deeney and throws himself to the ground as a corner comes in.  Nobody notices, or cares.  A minute later Masina, unbowed by the pressure as any Norwich possession on the edge of the box is immediately jumped on by four yellow shirts, snaps in once again on Buendía.  We have a left back at last, mercifully.

5- The whistle blows, and the reaction is tremendous.

In some ways this was the perfect game for Muñoz to come in on…  an opponent who are going to attack, going to leave gaps, who aren’t going to be as physical as us.  Nonetheless, a defeat here and the gap between us and top would have opened up into double figures with us missing a fixture in midweek and a trip to Swansea on Saturday… we could have been out of it before he had his feet under the table.

Instead, everything suddenly looks very bright indeed.  The Millwall postponement gives Muñoz three clear midweeks preceding our next three weekend fixtures, time to work with the squad of all things, with momentum to take to Wales on the back of our biggest win and best performance since that night against Liverpool just before all this stuff started.  That we were able to forget about this stuff for two hours during the game, as I have again whilst reliving it, that’s tremendous.

But most of all, the partnership of Wilmot and Sierralta – probably our fourth and fifth choice centre-backs respectively in the absence of Cathcart, Troost-Ekong and Kabasele.  Beyond doubt an area of strength for the squad, but that we can generate such a performance in such circumstances, that Muñoz seems prepared to use this strength as a strong base to attack from rather than the definition of the side in itself is hugely, hugely encouraging.

More please.  Bring on, well, everyone.  Vamos!

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 5, Ngakia 3, Sierralta 4, *Wilmot 5*, Sarr 4, Cleverley 5, Capoue 4, Sema 3, Deeney 4, Gray 4
Subs:  Masina (for Ngakia, 69) 5, Perica (for Gray, 74) 4, Hughes (for Cleverley, 74) 3, Navarro (for Femenía, 85) NA, Chalobah (for Capoue, 85) NA, Crichlow, Hungbo, Garner, Bachmann

Huddersfield Town 2 Watford 0 (19/12/2020) 20/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-

Sheriff of Nottingham : Just a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That’s it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.

No mention of Huddersfield, but then they were after a PG certificate.

This should, of course, have been no surprise.  Whilst we’ve beaten the Terriers plenty of times over the years, they’ve also provided the opposition… indeed, been incidental bystanders benefitting from some of our most miserable performances.  There was this one, that was pretty grim.  This one, the nadir of GT’s final season.  And this one, of which today was a chilling echo in many ways.  We should, at the very least, exercise caution as and when this fixture trundles around.

Meanwhile.  I went for a walk this morning.  The walking is the highlight of the week, the more so with the pub in the next village serving bacon rolls and coffee.  I’d done the weekly shop, unpacked, emptied the bins, then stepped out with my earpods in just as the first drops started to fall. Bloody minded and determined to get that walk I marched off anyway.  By the time I ordered my bacon roll I was soaked through, squelching shoes, damp socks.

This was never going to be a good day.

2- It’s startling how quickly things change.  We’re only three months into the season after all, and for much of that time Ivić has been rightly afforded leeway on the back of the vagaries of dealing with a bloated, relegated squad with all sorts of folk wanting in and out to the backdrop of the unprecedented circumstances that everyone is dealing with.

But it’s like that walk this morning.  One minute the sky was blue, the next it was pissing down.  And make no mistake, this is pissing down.  The baffling teamsheet made that perfectly clear before we were within sight of kick-off, and in any number of ways.  This is beyond a(nother) surprising, conservative team selection.  Four days after the releasing of the shackles (abetted by a red card) produced a dramatically improved second half performance against Brentford we’re all about containment again.   Nominally there are two forwards, but Ismaïla Sarr has never looked happy centrally and moving him from the flank just means there’s one less attacking option wide.  Troy Deeney is conspicuous by his absence just as his growing fitness was permitting him to remind us what a force of nature he was capable of being.  Ivić later asserts a combination of match overload and disciplinary reasons for his lack of employment and in the absence of full disclosure we have to reserve judgement, but quite what nature of offence permits selection on the bench but not the starting eleven whilst serial offender Andre Gray starts is difficult to fathom.  Indeed, Andre Gray is difficult to fathom in his own right, Stipe Perica’s likeably charismatic cameos also overlooked.  Meanwhile the presumption that Francisco Sierralta and Will Hughes were the latest two positive test subjects was challenged by Sierralta’s appearance on the bench whilst the badly needed Hughes is still absent.

It’s the sort of sulky, obstinate team selection that precedes a managerial departure.  We were puffing our cheeks before the game kicked off.

3- And as you’ll have noticed, things didn’t get any better once the game started.

The two goals were ridiculous of course.  The first came on nine minutes by which time right-back Pipa had already wandered through our defence, stopping a coffee and a selfie on the way.  Ben Foster’s error minutes later was arguably the more tolerable of the two;  Foster, after all, has a stock of brownie points well within their use-by date and will have been mindful that he didn’t have Troy to slug the ball at.  Nonetheless, as was pointed out at the time, Ben has gotten away with similar silliness already this season.  Today we get away with nothing, and Fraizer Campbell tucks the ball away.

The Capoue effort twenty minutes later was unforgivable.  Under no pressure, the Frenchman gave the lazy swipe of a limb that has betrayed all his most indolent performances over the last five years at a ball that you or I could have headed clear – no, really – and watched it fly past the helpless Foster.  As a concise summary of the underlying issues that the next guy (news just confirmed as I type) will have to cope with it was perfect.  Arrogant, lazy, negligent.

4- The filler was just as miserable.  Huddersfield did precisely what they needed to to earn the three points, which wasn’t an awful lot.  Indeed, in introducing the undisciplined Alex Pritchard they contributed more to our cause than half of our own team.  Our own attacking efforts were so desperately frustrating;  our hosts gave every impression of a side that were get-attable, that would crumble at the slightest provocation.  Instead we slugged at shots from ridiculous distances despite the encouragement offered by occasional forgetful attacks that saw us play through with surprising ease only to fall foul either of Andre Gray’s astonishing club-feet or, on one occasion, of a stunning one-handed save from Schofield.

It was miserable.  It was a team dying on it’s arse, constricted by team selection but wallowing in self pity.  The exceptions stood out in terms of attitude if not end product – Garner ineffectively energetic, Wilmot assertive and positive without quite achieving anything.  But before now we’ve talked about the side being less than the sum of its parts.  This was beyond that.  There was no collective.  We could have played until, well, Christmas and not gotten anywhere.  Fittingly, since, well, you know.

5- And then he was gone.

The rain stopped as I waited for my coffee and bacon roll.  As I walked back across the fields the sun was shining, and I was dry by the time I got home.  Except, of course, for my feet.

And things will get better.  At some point.  But there’s shit to be sorted out first.  Whatever mistakes Ivić made, however enjoyable it will be to see us playing with a bit of freedom and – whisper it – joy, even failing that way, he’s far from being the only problem.  Many of the players that got us relegated haven’t been doing enough to address the situation.  This isn’t irretrievable.

But it does need to be retrieved.

Have a good, well, you know.  Thing.  As much as this is possible.

Things will get better.

Yooorns.

Foster 2, Ngakia 3, Kabasele 3,  Troost-Ekong 2, *Wilmot 3*, Sema 2, Garner 3, Capoue 1, Cleverley 2, Sarr 2, Gray 1
Subs:  Sierralta (for Troost-Ekong, 31) 3, Perica (for Capoue, 67) 2, Navarro (for Ngakia, 77) NA, Masina (for Wilmot, 77) NA, Phillips, Crichlow, Chalobah, Deeney, Bachmann

Birmingham City 0 Watford 1 (12/12/2020) 13/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- I managed to extract myself over fifteen years ago.

I waited until bin collection day, steeled my will as the collection van appeared at the end of the cul-de-sac then slipped on my shoes, ran outside, stuck the disk in the wheelie bin and dashed back.  The deed was done before I could change my mind and I’ve been on the wagon ever since.

Until this week.  And now it’s so much worse…  there are no disks any more for one thing.  So giving up will be harder.  For another, lockdown or not, so much of normal life is still so distant.  There are far more evenings at home than there really ought to be and so there’s no escape at all.  As if to seal the deal, the clincher was my Watford team beating Bournemouth 4-0 in the play-off final at around 2am this morning.  Football Manager is back.

So I’m not in the sprightliest of moods come 3pm, having forced myself up and out and through a list of chores.  Sitting down when you’re shattered and having been forcing yourself through the motions is always high risk.  In the circumstances, I could do with a lively game.

2- That I was never likely to get one isn’t entirely Watford’s fault.  Aitor Karanka’s sides aren’t known for attacking with reckless abandon at the best of times, and our own pitiful away record hasn’t induced the Spaniard to come out all guns blazing; indeed, most of Birmingham’s firepower seems to be on the bench.

It’s a stultifying game of football.  All the more so in contrast with that most epic of awaydays which it’s impossible to navigate this fixture without reflecting on.  I’ve only been to St Andrews once in the 21 and a half years since… but this one could scarcely be in sharper contrast to that encounter.  Most obviously where the was rabid, deafening noise coming from the stands in 1999 here there’s silence, punctuated only by what must have been a consciously noisy Blues entourage.  Where there were intimidating walls of Bluenoses there are now plastic cut-outs, statically swaying down one side of the pitch.  I was hoping that Watford would instigate something similar but I was wrong – the sight is melancholy, a silent parody of how it ought to be.  And on the pitch…  in 1999 it was furious intensity, no quarter asked or given by either side.  Drama and epic conflict.  Nothing epic about this.  It’s blancmange.  Nathaniel Chalobah and Lukas Jutkiewicz appear to shake hands as the game kicks off for pity’s sake.

Actually that’s a slight exaggeration. There are a couple of figures in a largely, five years on, unfamiliar Blues line-up that aspired at least to the ethos of that 1999 side.  Maikel Kieftenbeld is no Darren Purse, Kristian Pedersen a pastiche of Martin Grainger, but there’s a grittiness about them that kind of works.  Nonetheless.  A lot of this is wrong.

3- Including the Watford matchday squad.  We have a huge squad of course and are becoming conscious of and grateful for it.  We missed a load of strikers at the start of the season (Troy, Andre, Isaac, briefly Sarr and then Perica), a load of midfielders more recently and are now stymied at centre-back.  Few other Championship squads could accommodate the simultaneous losses of hamstrung Cathcart, knee-injury victim Kabasele and Francisco Sierralta who, one assumes, is one of the two announced positive tests in the lead-up to the game.  Ben Wilmot does an OK job and William Troost-Ekong is one of few to rise above the mediocre with a forceful, commanding display.  We’ve now conceded two goals in six games, so painfully dull has some things going for it.

But this latest turn of events – affecting, one further assumes, Will Hughes as well as Sierralta – leaves the bench with a lopsided look about it; no cover in central defence and two goalkeepers, albeit on a bench of nine which ought to accommodate one spot being raffled off to the highest bidder every week should the finances get too desperate (but for the need for squad registration of course.  And only in Tiers 1-2, obvs.  I may be over-thinking this).

And up front there’s almost nothing.  The midfield is, as ever, ferociously congested;  only James Garner displays an ability to move the ball quickly and calmly but too often to little effect.  Troy is a theoretical threat… there’s a nervousness to the way in which Neil Etheridge comes out of his box to head clear, almost wincing in anticipation as he does so (albeit successfully).  But Dom Quina and Ken Sema are enthusiastically ineffective… Quina in particular isn’t nearly robust enough for this and whilst Sema still only needs half an inch of space in order to get a decent ball in there’s not nearly enough support to Troy anything like often enough.  He’s isolated, and we’re impotent.

As are our hosts for the most part.  Aggressive early on, their chances born of attrition (and an early apparent focus on forcing Kiko wide and exploiting his wrong-sidedness which they mystifyingly seem to abandon as a strategy after about twenty minutes).  We’re solid enough, but it’s a hard watch.  At half time I go to sort some laundry to wake myself up.

4- The start of the second half is more urgent, but initially no more effective.  Quina is asleep when Blues offer us a rare inroad down the right.  Five minutes later Ngakia makes an awful mess of a through ball.  We’re not doing a lot wrong, but we’re not doing nearly enough right.

And yet midway through the half there are signs of an end to the stalemate.  Troy is played through and seems to be startled by suddenly having a clear route to goal, he makes an awful hash of it.  Stipe Perica is brought off the bench and although the formation doesn’t change – the Croat surprisingly sticking to Quina’s position on the right hand side – and he doesn’t touch the ball very often he’s a willing nuisance, and there’s a bit of belief about our attacking for the first time.  Etheridge claws a corner away under pressure – that’s his preference it transpires, but it doesn’t look comfortable.  The willing Garner stumbles in the box, doesn’t go down.  Maybe not a shoulda, definitely a coulda. Sema sends in a deep cross, Deeney heads wide.  It’s not much, but it’s something.

And then the moment that decided the game.  Perica’s last touch was to head clear from a right-back position… he then thunders up the flank in time to meet Troy’s perfect through-ball.  He’s on Pedersen’s blind side, the left-back is flat footed and makes a tired, stupid challenge.  It’s not much of a foul but it’s definitely a foul, he’s been done and he knows it.  He trudges off feeling stupid as the skipper bladders the ball past Etheridge.  Tim Coombs will later ask Deeney to explain his penalty technique, not because it needs explanation but just to hear him say it.

There’s still time for Étienne Capoue to trundle off the bench and needlessly give away a free kick with a witless lunge ten yards outside the box.  Ben Foster retrieves the situation by touching Gardner’s kick around the post, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.  Hard to judge a player who comes on late in a game, particularly one who hasn’t played much football recently and will be rusty…  but the opinion posited earlier in the season still stands.  Getting relegated was negligent but not unforgivable.  Unforgivable is not doing whatever’s in your power to get us back, giving it your best shot whilst you’re still on the payroll and earning a big wedge.  Capoue needs to get his finger out.

5- I played tennis this week.  It was brilliant.  Being outside and real people and that.  I can only make the ball go in the direction I want it to sometimes (insert Michel Ngonge gag here) but I enjoyed it.  Tennis coach Dave is a West Ham fan, sympathetic to the Hornets relegation (there but for the grace of whatever and so on);  he suggested this week that “consistency” in the Championship means only losing now and again.  That’s as good as you’re going to get, such is the nature of the beast.

He’s right of course.  And that being the end we’re still effective and, yes, consistent.  This game is an exemplar… since in the second half we do just enough to rise above the dross.  Just enough to be better than our hosts.  We could easily have drawn the game of course but we didn’t, and as long as we continue to be just a bit better than most of our opponents and winning sometimes, drawing sometimes we’ll do OK.

It is crushingly boring though, and scant use of our attacking talent.  Yes, you can only play the game that your opponents allow you to play, but nonetheless.  Not unreasonable to expect a bit more than this.  As Tony Pulis would tell you, an infinite number of dull wins won’t last you long when you start being dull and losing.  Were there supporters in the stadium, opinions would have been voiced and perhaps influenced things before now.

Nonetheless, we won the game.  Scruffy, boring, but an important win on a day when everyone else won. It’s a slog.

Big game Tuesday.  Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 2, Femenía 3,  *Troost-Ekong 4*, Wilmot 3, Cleverley 2, Garner 3, Chalobah 2, Quina 2, Sema 3, Deeney 3
Subs:  Perica (for Quina, 69) 3, Capoue (for Garner, 90) NA, Navarro, Phillips, Crichlow, Gray, João Pedro, Bachmann, Parkes

Watford 0 Cardiff City 1 (05/12/2020) 06/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- “You’ve got cash ?!?  But we’ve got a new card machine, and nobody is letting us use it!”

It’s a day for taking things carefully.  There’s a lot of retreading of familiar steps for the first time since February but some of the normal routines aren’t going to be feasible and nobody wants to take any risks.  The mobile phone, carrying the precious tickets on the club app, has had its battery charged to within an inch of its life on the way down and a comfortable time cushion has been allowed to accommodate the possibilities that either the ring road is snarled up by Christmas shoppers finally released from lockdown (it isn’t) or that the Girls Grammar isn’t open for football parking (it is).  Given which, little surprise that the girls on duty at the gate have had no chance to use their new toy; folk are thinking ahead.  We stopped en route to grab the necessary £10 from a cashpoint, the first time I’ve used a cashpoint since forever.  We won’t have been the only ones.

The thing about lockdown though is that everyone’s had to develop their own code.  Their own normal, their own definition of what is or isn’t acceptable.  To what extent you blame the inevitable uncertainties of a (relatively) New Problem and to what extent you blame the coherence or otherwise of official guidelines, it’s difficult to know exactly what The Right Thing (or least wrong thing) to do is with any great certainty.  Circumstances have dictated these behaviours to an extent;  my rules are very different to my parents’, and different again to my in-laws.  I’m relatively lucky though – I live rurally, I’ve not had to go into work since March, it’s boring as hell but I CAN work anywhere with a WiFi connection. So that’s what I’ve done.  I’ve not seen many people in the same place in eight or nine months.

So Watford town centre is a bit of a shock to the system.  There are queues outside all of the restaurants, and evidence again of rules and norms in operation that are very different from mine.  We retreat, startled, towards the stadium and after pausing in Fry Days quickly agree where we’ll eat our lunch.

2- Getting in takes a while.  Our bags are checked and tagged, we queue up for orderly access to turnstiles.  There’s a one-way system marked out in the Rookery concourse but with all the vendors closed up and at well before 2 it’s mostly empty.  Food is consumed in our Rookery seats.

Other things have changed since we were last sitting in the Rookery for that debacle against Everton in February.  Daughter 2, for instance, has started secondary school as betrayed by her ripped jeans, a reckless fashion choice for early December, and her declaration of “mad respect” for whoever’s job it was to paint the pitch markings.

These pitch markings are more prominent from our temporary position, further right than our regular seats and only ten or so rows back from the pitch.  We watch the Rookery… if not fill up around us then at least become less empty, small groups dotted on diagonals, socially distanced.  Confusingly we’re asked to don our masks by an amiable enough steward despite the club’s own Code of Behaviour suggesting this not being necessary in seats.  I sit there feeling a bit awkward for five minutes in my mask, until it becomes evident that the vast majority around me are maskless and unchallenged and I slightly self-consciously de-mask, allowing my specs to demist again.

Unfortunately this means I can see the match, which we’ll get to when we have to.  As for the steward… his norms were more severe than mine, and of the majority of his colleagues.  Like everyone else, he’s running to catch up with changing circumstances;  the club have done as good a job of this as anyone, reacting to the lifting of the supporter ban at short notice, undertaking the thankless task of determining who the lucky 2000 might be and overcoming the challenges presented by systems that really weren’t supposed to be relied upon this quickly and this absolutely.

Jesus.  I’m going to have to talk about the football now.

3- With the benefit of hindsight there’s an inevitability about a miserable 1-0 defeat on the day on which supporters are first let back in.  Our home form has held steady up to now despite variable performances, but the torpor of our away games finally infected Vicarage Road rather – as one might have hoped – than our admirable home form radiating into our away performances.

As ever, this wasn’t dreadful.  There was a semblance of a decent football team out there…  resilient enough defensively, even if Ben Foster was a little too casual disposing of the ball early on.  Reasonably successful at retaining possession, of which we had a fair bit.

But it’s all.  So.

Slow.

There’s no urgency to get behind Cardiff’s defence before it’s set, and not nearly enough ingenuity to penetrate it once its in place.  We look impotent, suddenly incapable of generating any stock goals, no “Ardley dumps it far post onto Helguson’s head” goals in stark contrast to the fluid fun of the Preston game only a week ago.

Cardiff didn’t let us get our noses in front though.  The visitors are a rugged, physical side which has Neil Warnock’s fingerprints all over it even before Sol Bamba trundles off the bench in the second half.  They’re confident and aggressive, but largely unremarkable and that’s the big concern;  making life difficult for us by dropping back and watching us pass our way politely around the edge of the box isn’t much of an ask for a halfway competent Championship side, as several have demonstrated.

Where Cardiff excel is in their threat from set pieces.  Sean Morrison has been attacking the far post at Cardiff City corners since glacial movement formed the Brecon Beacons, and in Kieffer Moore they have a startling centre forward.  He’s 6’5″, but there’s nothing either lanky or lumbering about him.  He looks like a normal bloke, but bigger, as if someone’s ordered an XXL by mistake for a kid who’s collecting the regular-sized models.  And we can’t cope with him at all.  The balance is tipping towards the end of the half well before the visitors take the lead;  a fearless diving header by William Troost-Ekong to block a goalbound shot, of which we have a close-quarters view, is the wide-eyed open-mouthed highlight of Daughter 2’s afternoon.  Only a few minutes later City’s thirty-seventh corner isn’t cleared and Moore takes advantage of some negligent scruffiness in the box to finish neatly.

For half a second we expect the delayed cheer from the away fans in the Vicarage Road End before remembering that the distant blobs of individuals are as pissed off as we are.  They don’t have to suffer Moore and friends briefly giving it large though – to daughter 2’s prolonged disdain – before the half ends with a grand total of one effort on target.

4- The third quarter of the game isn’t much better.  Kiko is on for Ngakia at the break and a need for urgency and for a bit of improvisation has clearly been communicated but it doesn’t last terribly long.  James Garner isn’t having a great afternoon and is the focus of The Bloke Behind Me’s irritation throughout, not entirely unreasonably although the relentless complaint of lack of variety from the same source, delivered at intervals of no more than two minutes for the first hour of the contest, appears to be entirely free of irony.

The introduction of Quina and particularly Hughes midway through the half, however, gives us a bit of oomph.  Suddenly Hughes is forcing the ball forwards rather than sideways and Cardiff’s defenders are having to turn around and don’t like it.  On the left Quina’s success rate is more variable but at least it’s positive, something, if in a sort of “agent of chaos” kinda way.  Suddenly there’s a bit of movement and we look dangerous, Sarr is pulling people around, João Pedro is alive again.  The Brazilian records our only on target effort, a decent flicked header from a corner, but we’re threatening beyond that… Hughes firing wide at the far post, Perica getting underneath Sarr’s chipped cross to head over at the death.  The Croat is also booked for diving in the box, one of a series of odd decisions by a pompously insipid referee;  Perica was never getting a pen, but there was more physical contact in the challenge he suffered than in more obvious dives by both Mark Roberts and Moore in the first half, the latter altering the course of his run to fall over whilst traversing the corner of the box.  The whistle goes, there are grumbles.  Nobody really wants to be booing on today of all days.  Disappointingly, it’s only the usual suspects – plus Perica, significantly – who take the opportunity to acknowledge the supporters that they’ve been denied since March.

5- Obviously though, it’s brilliant.  It’s football after all, and miserable, frustrating 1-0 defeats are as much part of the tapestry as free-flowing eviscerations.  2000 supporters (1973, officially) can make quite a racket, it turns out, even when only afforded fare like this.  A goal would have made all the difference, the chance to release some of the stresses of 2020 with a good old bellow would have made us feel a lot better.  But it was still brilliant.

Neil Harris was widely quoted as protesting the unfairness of the current situation which sees supporters at some ground and not at others.  He’s right, of course.  He’d probably also concede – given that the context of his comment wasn’t as peevish as the headlining made it sound – that there’s quite a lot about football and the world that’s not fair at the moment.  In the grand scheme of things this is fairly small potatoes and in any case The Right Thing To Do.  As many supporters who can safely be admitted to football matches should be safely admitted to football matches.  This, and the unfairness thing, can both be true.  They’re not mutually exclusive.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Rotherham ticket, enjoy.  Give it some welly.  And don’t worry about having cash ready if you’re parking at the Grammar school.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 2, Wilmot 3,  Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Sarr 3, Garner 2, Cleverley 3, Sema 2, João Pedro 2, Deeney 2
Subs:  Femenía (for Ngakia, 45) 3, *Hughes (for Cleverley, 66) 3*, Quina (for Sema, 66) 3, Perica (for Wilmot, 81) NA, Capoue, Navarro, Sierralta, Phillips, Bachmann

Nottingham Forest 0 Watford 0 (02/12/2020) 02/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

Sorry.  No.  Just no.  Not that we were dreadful.  Not that an away point at Forest is a disastrous, not that we deserved any more (even against a ragbag bunch of whinging ghosts of Championship past – Arter, Knockaert even more objectionable with a silly little beard, Lolley less objectionable and admirably gutsy but an echo of a miserable afternoon).

Just…  there’s not much to say that you don’t already know.  We had a lot of the ball, but didn’t do enough with it.  Again.  We probably didn’t deserve to win.  Again.  We probably didn’t deserve to lose.  Again.  We still need to find ways to break down solid opponents that don’t cave in on us…  that way was often Fernando Forestieri in 2015 and it’s difficult not to be rueful about that bit in the summer when he looked like he might be coming back.  But with a squad the size of ours I guess that’s being greedy.

No.  Stop.  It’s quarter to eleven on a school night and I’m knackered.  Stop already.  There’s nothing new to say.

There will be on Saturday.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, *Femenía 3*,  Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Sarr 3, Garner 3, Chalobah 2, Quina 3, João Pedro 3, Deeney 3
Subs:  Perica (for Quina, 74) 3, Wilmot (for Cathcart, 90) NA, Cleverley, Sierralta, Phillips, Crichlow, Bachmann

Watford 4 Preston North End 1 (28/11/2020) 29/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1-  Good day today.  Foggy, but don’t mind a bit of fog.  Hassle-free drive down, podcast on the radio, both girls plugged in happily on the back seat.  Met up with Dad and Paul at Wagamamas on Market Street, lurid glass of juice, pile of stuff and noodles.  Pre match chat, tumbling things around, contemplating team selection and fiddling with the phone as 2pm approaches.  Not long after we were heading towards the ground, pairing up as the narrow pavements and growing throng demanded.  On Vicarage Road we ducked into the newsagent on the corner, temporarily clogging it up by deliberating over lucky chocolate, grabbing drinks from the fridges and back out.  Colin’s on the street selling the latest Treasury; there’s a queue outside Fry Days a cluster outside the Red Lion, people waiting for meet-ups.  We split at the top of Occupation Road and the Rookeryites head down the slope ducking around the Preston team coach parked at the top, once again wondering where the Ancient Turnstile is, dodging the lottery sellers and the folk coming up from Cardiff Road.

Inside the ground it’s cold enough for the girls to demand a hot chocolate and then we’re into the Rookery and despite the fact that everywhere else is rammed the stand is still largely empty and again I can hear my wife saying “why do you have to get there so early again?”.  But as the girls warm their hands on their paper cups I’m able to enjoy the place filling up, watch the warm up, keep custody of the 1881 flag until Daughter 2 is ready to wave it.  Greetings are exchanged as folk arrive. As Z-Cars kicks in Daughters 1 and 2 jump up, and Daughter 2 takes the flag.   Sam bustles up at this stage, briefly queries where I want her to sit to accommodate Daughters 1 & 2.  Dave isn’t far behind, and he’ll always stop; no words exchanged as ever just a firm handshake with eye-contact conveying the gravity of the forthcoming encounter which is never less than profound.

Felix and his crew rock up as the teams are in huddle, Ben Foster claps the Rookery as he takes his place and then everyone’s focus is on the kick-off and following the ball for the next forty five minutes, not noticing the cold chill.

Not really, obviously.  Not next week either, not yet, not quite.  But soon.  And closer next week.  Maybe.

2- If we’re edging closer towards what things Ought To Be off the pitch, we’re suddenly ahead of the game on it.  Today’s shuffling of the deck saw the fielding of the same 20 names that muddled their way to a point at Ashton Gate on Wednesday but with a critical switch bringing Troy in for his first start of the season in place of João Pedro.

The suspicion that this would be a move to that most unfashionable, sneered at formation, the 4-4-2, was quickly confirmed as Deeney provided the first of many cushioned passes to Gray who crashed a shot that deflected wide.  And much as it’s years since we’ve regularly played this flavour of 4-4-2, a wide 4-4-2 with at least one winger hugging the touchline suddenly everything looked… if not fluent, then unforced and instinctive.  There was something that felt right about it.  GT hardly invented the attacking 4-4-2 of course, but it’s a tune that’s been played on this pitch plenty of times before and everyone knows the words.  As Domingos Quina “trapped the back post” on ten minutes after Sarr had swung a deep cross in from the right you could almost squint and see Nigel Callaghan doing the same.  Except, you know.  On the right, not the left.  And squinting really hard.

Preston are severely depleted, and look like a depleted half-decent side.  There are embers of something useful here, smart individuals in different places on the pitch but it’s not nearly cohesive enough to be impactful without a heavy dose of fortune.  Maguire fired a shot across our bows early on, Foster tipped over.  Scott Sinclair made his twelfth senior start against Aidy Boothroyd’s Watford side in an FA Cup Quarter Final a thousand years ago but is still only 31, relatively low-scale weirdness in our troubled times but still unsettling.  He unsettles us further with some direct running, forcing Garner into a heavy tackle on the edge of the box but there’s not enough of it to be a problem.  Indeed, Preston are so depleted that they’re fielding comedian Joe Wilkinson in midfield, presumably wearing Ben Pearson’s shirt because they didn’t have time to get one printed up.

Andre Gray is prominent for half an hour.  His Watford career has been a pretty joyless thing over the past eighteen months or so, but whatever his limitations there are things he’s very good at that circumstances have limited over that time.  Playing alongside a target man in general and Troy in particular is one of them, and with more freedom to charge around he does exactly that, rattling after Preston possession high up the pitch, harrying his way into the penalty area on the left hand side,   He also makes an arse of himself with an ill-judged backheel flick on the edge of the area of all things, nearly undoing the steadfast Kabasele’s good defensive work defending a free kick, but gets away with it.  It all looks very promising, doing nothing to dispel their suggestion that they’d rip this division up if allowed to play together but Gray’s hammy goes again after half an hour and that’s that for now.  João Pedro comes on in his place.

The remainder of the half sees us menacing without adding to our total, and the threat is coming from wide.  Kiko releases João Pedro down the left, his slightly ahead of Deeney.  Potts handles in the box after Deeney has clouted the ball in his direction;  no chance of a penalty but it’s pressure.  Kiko sends in a left footed cross and Sarr attacks it at the back post.  Deeney finds space in the box to plant a fierce header goalwards from a corner, João Pedro tucks home from an offside position.  Kiko is released yet again down the left and again finds Sarr on the far side of the box who volleys over.  It’s all a bit ominous for the visitors, you’d just rather be more than a goal up at the break.

3- Troy is forging a media career out of a straight-talking brand of punditry. His candour, you suspect, is less a performance for dramatic effect than it is just Troy being Troy and not really caring who he offends.

That’s fine, up to a point.  It’s not fine if you’re on the receiving end, it’s rather irritating when that happens…  Troy might be simply telling it as he sees it, but someone gaining traction with uninvited, undiplomatic comment on any aspect of people’s lives or careers is going to piss those people off however honest the input and however much people are paid to do the high profile job which is being criticised.  He’s at it in the pre-match interview too, dismissing “little divs” on Twitter for suggesting he only scores penalties these days, it’s as if he can’t help himself or is developing a habit.  Twitter is full of little divs and worse, he should have the cojones to realise that he doesn’t need to be wrong to be stupid for saying it.  Meanwhile writing for the S*n and commenting on Talksport would become less than charming if he wasn’t doing it himself on the pitch, ten years of leading from the front or otherwise.

Fortunately, “do it on the pitch” is exactly what he does.  This isn’t a spectacular performance from Deeney but it’s a vital and significant one.  Most valuable is the less obvious bit, the being there to be the focal point of an attack which hasn’t had much heft or glue to it until now.   Throughout, but particularly in the second half, the ball is sticking where it never stuck, we’ve got possession in and around the box rather than fifteen yards further back in front of massed ranks.  Passes are being found, Preston’s defence is being upset, we are swarming as the best attacks swarm and it feels as natural and easy as much of our attacking this season has felt laboured and deliberate.

It’s not, self-evidently, all down to Troy.  But Troy is the catalyst.  He’s the one occupying defenders but with the strength and the awareness and the touch to receive a ball in the area and to lay it off with a cushioned header or chest or touch and split Preston’s defence in two, if just for a moment.

Inevitably, given the comment in the pre-match interview, his goal comes from the spot after he cushions down (again) for Sarr, lively and positive and bloody dogged defensively to boot, to go down in the box.  We’re fortunate here, the defender is daft for waggling his leg in front of Sarr but withdraws it, Sarr anticipates the non-existent contact and goes down and the otherwise excellent Jarred Gillet gives us a generous decision.  In some ways it’s the most Troy of penalties, clouted dismissively at Declan Rudd’s right ear, the Preston keeper as helpless as if it had been planted in the top corner such was the violence of the strike.

Our progress is challenged by Preston’s goal, which is a bit unfortunate.  Yes, Barkhuizen should have been closed down quicker and no, James Garner shouldn’t have turned sideways to the shot but it still required the most unfavourable of deflections to tuck it inside Ben Foster’s right hand post and out of his reach.  For about ten seconds it looked as if we might wobble, as if maybe things weren’t as sorted as they’d seemed.

And then we were off again, carving out our best team goal of the season to date culminating in Chalobah laying off to Deeney with a touch and the skipper dinking an outrageously delicate ball over the defence and back into Chalobah’s thundering path for the midfielder to scythe a volley in off his shin from the left hand side of the area.  A tremendous finish to cap a confident and – get this – assertive performance from Chalobah; his skipper meanwhile, having talked the talk, was walking the walk.

4- From here on in it’s a coconut shy, a question of how many we’ll score.  In my head the morning after it’s been elevated to Brazil 1970 levels of fluency which is a grotesque exaggeration, but borne of the contrast with our attacking play up to now which has looked so hard work, requiring a bit of brilliance or a bad mistake to carve something despite a system which doesn’t have a natural load of goals to it.

But we look merciless and overwhelm an opposition, as described, for the first time this season.  My notes are an excited page of half-legible scrawl but the word POTENT Is there in capitals…  Riis is sandwiched in our area, a penalty shout but Preston aren’t getting those today and are buried under a deluge of chances.   Wins in the Premier League aren’t like this… many were impressive, but only rarely have we been so dominant in games since 2015. Rudd saves from Deeney after good work from João Pedro.  An evil, deep cross from Ngakia who has craft to match his energy and loves a game where he doesn’t have to defend finds his skipper at the far post, Deeney heads wastefully over.  Occasionally it looks like a rugby forward line, howling forward, running onwards and slipping sideways along the line just as the challenge comes in. Quina scuttles through but is blocked.  Garner shoots across the face of goal, deflected wide.  Quina finds Sarr who volleys over, Ngakia shovels a shot at goal, also deflected over, Sarr curls a shot wide after tiptoeing around the box.  It should and could have been more than four, the final goal telegraphed to me by a mischievous and deliberate “Woooooooooopooooooo!!!” texted from a club representative at the ground, designed to beat the time lag of the broadcast.  As such, given the lack of peril in the match at this stage, Cathcart’s flick to Garner’s corner and João Pedro, tucking in are all the more enjoyable for the fact that I know they’re coming.

5- The 4-4-2 will have stiffer tests than a severely weakened Preston side;  heaven knows we can empathise with having a glut of injuries that at least partly focus on players in the same position, the full backs in this case.  That said we’ve looked far less convincing against similarly limited sides before now this season, and are hardly at full strength ourselves.  Few Championship squads can boast a midfield of the quality of Étienne Capoue, Will Hughes, Tom Cleverley, Tom Dele-Bashiru and Ken Sema.  Fewer still would expect to pull off a thunderous three-goal victory against anyone in the division in the absence of such a midfield.

And of course there’s the lack of a left-back, that most prominent squad deficiency of recent years.  The lack, indeed, of any left footed player in the side beyond goalkeeper Foster.  It hampered us here, too often Quina, Femenía or Garner were forced to slow down a counter by cutting back onto their right foot.

For the first time this season, we overwhelmed our opponents anyway.

We’re in a good place.  That’s what football used to be like.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 4, Femenía 4,  Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Sarr 4, Garner 4, Chalobah 4, Quina 4, Gray 3, *Deeney 4*
Subs:  João Pedro (for Gray, 31) 4, Perica (for Deeney, 71) 3, Wilmot (for Femenía, 71) 3, Sierralta (for Cathcart, 87) NA, Phillips (for Garner, 87) NA, Crichlow, Bachmann

Bristol City 0 Watford 0 (25/11/2020) 26/11/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
14 comments

There’s a point a minute or so into Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” when it becomes clear that it’s less of a pop song and more of a collective attempt at levitation. Each of the dozen or so members, even those who could easily get away with slouching at the back and holding down the groove, are up on the balls of their feet. Every beat is lifted up into the air, raised skywards in an attempt at take-off. Every moment ascends another step on some kind of cosmic stairway, and you can put an ironic “man” on the end of that sentence if you like, but don’t feel obliged. Sometimes it glides and soars as if it’s hit a thermal. Always, it ascends, ascends; upward, upward. Hedonism and spirituality collide. The entire thing is an act of devotion, of pure ecstatic belief.

Dance.

(No, I haven’t been getting out much. You?)

There’s a point in a perfect football match when it becomes clear that it’s less of a sporting contest and more of a collective attempt at – look, I’m going to say “transcendence” here, so brace yourself – transcendence. Or it might, if you were standing aloof from it all, if you weren’t screaming yourself hoarse, lost in the moment. Evening kickoff, difficult opponents, vital points at stake, seesawing scoreline. The way that the sound seems to become liquid, thicker and slower than the night air; the way that it seems to cascade in waves down the stands towards the pitch. The way that the game and the crowd’s reaction to it become locked in a spiralling dance, ascending, ascending. The way that the goal which has been promised for ten or fifteen or more minutes finally arrives, and the way that nothing else matters in those precious, flammable seconds.

(And very much not the way that those precious, flammable seconds are undermined by the possibility of having to stand around in the cold for five minutes while someone stares at a monitor and draws lines to decide that your centre forward’s nose was ahead of the last defender’s arse.)

Clearly, most football isn’t like that. Most football isn’t like that at all. Most football involves sitting in dampish cold while a bloke three rows behind bellows “LINO! WHERE’S HE GOING? WHERE’S HE GOING?” as the opposition left-back takes a throw in his own half. But the possibility is always there, latent, imagined. (Of course, sometimes that’s the bloody worst of it: there’s a version of hell in which our attempted, imagined comeback at the Emirates in the last half of the last game of last season stretches on into eternity, always just out of reach. Descending, descending. We get the third in about a millennium’s time, fail to get the fourth in ever more torturous ways.) But the possibility…sometimes that’s nearly enough on its own. Just the thought of burying a week’s worth of cares in celebration of a last-minute winner. What a wonderful thing it can be.

All of which is a long-winded and pretentious – cosmic stairway, for pity’s sake! – way of saying that football in front of empty stands really doesn’t float my boat. It made a certain amount of sense last season, when it was a way of finishing what’d been started, which unfortunately, in our case, turned out to be the production of a massive steaming pile of poo. But starting afresh with no identifiable end point has seemed very odd to me, and especially jarring contrasted with the boisterous atmosphere at the Pilot Field, and I must admit that I lost interest some time ago.

I’m not a “Football Without Fans…” fundamentalist. As a very, very occasional attendee nowadays, I think I forfeit the right to be too opinionated (and that’s obviously a rule which is respected by everyone right across everywhere, especially social media, so that’s excellent). I salute my co-editor for covering it all so well when there’s been nothing away from the pitch in which to dress it up. (I also salute him for letting me continue with the title of “co-editor” when I only write one piece a year, and that of a generally grumblish quality, and never actually edit anything.) And I applaud the club for making all of this seem in any way fun, when it might so easily be as enjoyable as eating raw spaghetti with a plastic teaspoon at the birthday party of someone you had a bit of an unresolved argument with a few months ago. But I haven’t seen us play since the Luton game, which was like watching a grindcore band play an acoustic set, disconcertingly pleasant. I have no idea whatsoever where Bristol City are in the table until someone tells me. I couldn’t pick Billy Troost-Ekong out of a line-up unless the rest of that line-up comprised Derek Payne, Andy Hessenthaler and Worrell Sterling. I’ll be your host tonight.

There’s an obvious gag here: this was football which deserved to be played behind closed doors. That old Shankly quip about closing the curtains if Everton were playing down the bottom of the garden. But there’s something lurking underneath that too, a sense of how football re-shapes itself when it isn’t so conscious of the public gaze. It’s hard to believe that Bristol City could be quite this cautious in front of a stadium full of their own supporters; unless the opposition is particularly illustrious, and sometimes even then, home fans tend to want to see their team do more than line up in defensive banks. They don’t touch the ball for the first two minutes, content to get their shape and sit tight. In real life, you just can’t do that without a rising restlessness in the stands.

And for us, well, there’s more than a whiff of the training ground, of football played in theory, of diagrams and flip-charts. That stuff has its place, of course, but there’s a curious lack of a nervous edge which doesn’t appear entirely healthy, and hasn’t since Nigel Pearson had us all getting in touch with our inner chi. Again, supporters generate a restlessness which tends to raise the pace of it all, and perhaps to prompt someone to do something a little more daring. Tellingly, Hornet Hive pairs the ever-excellent Jon Marks with Tommy Mooney, and you can sense his own restlessness through the wires, and you can see the glint in his eye even though he never appears on screen. Oh, for a bit of that.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though, and we wouldn’t want to miss any of the excitement. We begin with an awful lot of the ball and a light simmer of attacking, Jeremy Ngakia and Domingos Quina combining brightly on the right; the sum total of it is ‘mildly promising’ and ‘mildly promising’ is fine for now. As will become the pattern, however, City use thin fragments of possession to much greater effect, and Ngakia’s defensive weaknesses are quickly exposed by a break down his flank which ends with Semenyo shooting over when he ought to do better. There is to be much carping at the home side’s conservatism, but let’s be clear about one thing from the off: this is a game they should’ve won. They executed their gameplan with a compact intensity; we executed ours as if it was just one of several options on the table, a browsed buffet.

More football happened. I try to resist the urge to do some light pottering; my office is in desperate need of a tidy. I notice that Daniel Bentley, City’s flamboyantly-clad keeper, has a beard and try to think of other keepers with beards. It’s not a very beardy position, really, is it? Is there a reason for that, I wonder? While I’m chewing this over, the advertising hoardings flash up “BEARD” along the length of the pitch and I momentarily have a really unnerving sense of Truman syndrome.

We probably should be ahead by half-time, but we don’t do nearly enough to make that actually happen. I feel as if I’ve written that sentence before. Quina darts onto a stray cross-field throw and is denied by a saving tackle; he later flashes a shot over after a sharp turn, and comfortably wins the ‘man of the match’ award simply for doing more to make things happen than anyone else. There are moderately good things going on in various areas of the pitch: Nathaniel Chalobah is reasonably authoritative in front of the back four; Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele win their battles comfortably; James Garner is positive with the ball and supplies the half’s one moment of potentially decisive quality, drilling a pass into Andre Gray, before Ismaila Sarr’s shot is deflected over. We end the half with Cathcart only just failing to direct a header inside the post from a free kick, and a feeling that we can and must do more.

Half-time lucky hot chocolate. Distracted, I fail to stir it sufficiently; it has unpalatable powdery lumps in it as a consequence. Metaphor klaxon.

We can and must do more, and we don’t, by and large. I have yet to type João Pedro’s name and only typed those of Gray and Sarr a moment ago; the involvement of the front three is fitful at best, non-existent at worst. Of them, Gray tries more and fails more; he thoroughly fills the grid squares for well executed bad ideas, badly executed good ideas and badly executed bad ideas, leaving the fourth square untouched. I’ve no doubt that there will be those who’d like me to be more critical of that, and it’s true that he has the first touch of a mountain goat, but I’d prefer to shine the spotlight on the anonymity elsewhere: Sarr, in particular, coasts blankly through the game as if a bit bored by it all. You’re not the only one, sunshine. It isn’t a matter of expecting more from him especially; it isn’t anything to do with reputations or price tags. You need much more from those positions, whoever’s filling them. Without it, you’re effectively playing one up front, with no width.

In fact, it’s Sarr who has the half’s first threatening moment, racing onto a long ball from Ngakia, being forced slightly wide and seeing his cross-shot blocked. Part of this is about service, of course, and we really ought to have been able to supply more of those inviting balls down the side of City’s three-man defence. It’s true that we need the game to stretch in order to do that, but it does, and we don’t. The home side much more effectively exploit our weak points, with Semenyo targeting Ngakia and twice nearly creating the opening goal: the first of these, in which Ben Foster’s toe diverts a low-cross through the legs of the sliding Diedhiou in the six yard box, is perhaps the closest that the deadlock comes to being broken. Another shot slips past the far post, a header drifts onto the roof of the net.

We have one moment: Quina’s lovely, driven cross-field pass finding Sarr in space, his low cross half-cleared to the move’s originator on the penalty spot, only Bentley’s fingertips keeping out a fiercely-struck shot. It would’ve still been a poor return on possession, but it would’ve been a terrific and possibly match-winning goal nevertheless. We throw on Troy Deeney for the luckless Gray. We throw on Stipe Perica to join him for the last five minutes and have a brief holiday in the land of hitting it up to the big fellas; it wouldn’t last, but it momentarily feels as refreshing as stretching your legs after a long car journey. City force corners in injury time, Foster clawing out a sliced volley from Rowe as it threatens to loop over him. It ends. Back in the studio, everyone tries to think of something constructive to say, and largely succeeds. It’s an away point against a potential rival, after all. It looks like the club shop’s got some nice new mugs.

I’d expected to have little to say about it all, having been so detached. Oddly, though, it’s all rather familiar: Hastings United have been using more or less this formation for nearly three seasons under Chris Agutter, and I’ve watched its trials, tribulations and, ultimately, triumphs over that time. The first full season was characterised by something very similar to what we saw last night: a tendency to gather and hoard possession without making opponents uncomfortable. Good football, constructive football, but not enough penetration of the penalty area, not enough presence in the box just to take a chance and sling it in. We reached and lost in the playoffs that season, and that felt about right.

The transition from that to potential champions was made, in no small part, through the recruitment of Ben Pope, a forward who thrives in the role of target man, who can hold the ball up, bring others into play. The kind of centre forward who earns his place even without his goal tally. Suddenly, we could hit it long, build play in the final third before our opponents had a chance to set themselves. Suddenly, he could drag defenders out of position, flick something into the path of a teammate running into that space. Suddenly, it was actually worth putting a cross into the box every now and again. And I say all of that not to make Andre Gray into a scapegoat, but merely to suggest that a formation which looks something of a lost cause currently, with a number of players disappearing into its cracks, can be made to work with some perseverance. It isn’t as if there aren’t players in the squad who could play that role, if fit, although it’d probably be nice for all concerned if there were some point in the rest of Troy’s life when we weren’t relying on him to hold the ball up. But still…drag it all up the pitch a bit, get the young bucks into danger areas, hit the final third faster and more decisively enough times to make your opponents nerves fray, and suddenly, it might all look less forlorn.

It needs that. Not because we’re entitled to anything this season. Mainly because this seems like an especially bad moment for football not to be fun. It’s supposed to elevate our lives, to lift our spirits, to make us smile. Ascending, ascending. If it just echoes the worries and insecurities we have rattling around our heads during the week, putting caution before courage, putting pragmatism before idealism, then it fails us all, just a bit. And there might even be fans there to feed on it, to feed back in turn. A new beginning. A few thousand can make plenty of noise, if they give it some socially-distanced welly. Especially if you give them something to shout about.

Foster 4, Femenia 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Ngakia 2, Chalobah 3, Garner 3, *Quina 4*, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Gray 2
Subs: Deeney (for Gray, 66) 3, Troost-Ekong (for Ngakia, 82) NA, Perica (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Wilmot, Bachmann, Sierralta, Navarro, Crichlow, Phillips