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Watford 1 Rotherham United 1 (21/01/2023) 22/01/2023

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-   As well as being a shameless footballing statto, as this week’s announcement of the rebooted Watford FC Archive might emphasise, I’m also employed as a statistician in “real life”.

Part of my role, loosely, involves assessing (or helping scientists to assess) evidence.  Does this prove that?  Can we be confident that we’ve solved a problem, improved something, found something new…  or could we just have gotten lucky/unlucky?  We think that this improves that by this much…  can we put a margin of error around that?  What’s the worst case scenario?  

The inputs to that number crunching are context dependent, but the basis for the conclusion is the same.  The clearer cut the evidence, the easier it is to draw a firm conclusion.  The more reproducible the finding, the greater the volume of evidence you have and the more consistent it is, the more likely it is that even an inherently cautious, reflective, yes-but-on-the-other-hand statistician is to put their hands up and say “OK, well that’s clear then”.

2- A week on from Blackpool and despite Sheffield United and Burnley both winning on Friday night and prising the chasm between themselves and the play-offs still wider, despite the fact that our position at the head of a hugely congested… not so much chasing pack as pack that encompasses two-thirds of the division is rather precarious, despite both of these things my head is very much in the “right, we’re chasing them down” mode.  How much would they need to stuff up, how many games do they need to lose.  Last week we played an obstinate opponent and found a way to win despite crippling absences to we’re clearly All Sorted.  Onwards and upwards, injured players coming back, an impressive array of new signings coming in with, we’re assured, more to come.  The rest of  the season will surely be an avalanche of victories – maybe it won’t be enough for automatic but it’ll be a lot of fun as teams are trampled below our irresistible advance.  That’s recency bias for you.

Nonetheless.  Hamza Choudhury is already re-installed and ready, we have been informed, for 90 minutes.  Leandro Bacuna is back on the bench and whilst you’d rather have Davis or Louza or JP, say, he’s at least an experienced body.  Hassane Kamara is both back and also restricted to being a substitute, such is deemed the balance of letting your teammates down and, maybe, being a little too sure of your position vs making the most of a four game window of opportunity on the part of James Morris.  This is a Good Thing.  João Ferreira and Matheus Martins are both given their first starts in a more aggressive starting eleven than we saw against Blackpool, and that game’s hero Adeyemo is on the bench along with Michael Adu Poku, named in the League for the first time.  Despite the injury list, it’s a feel-good selection.

3- And yet.  The outcome, or more specifically the inherent challenge in facing a side like Rotherham will have been a surprise to few, not even those of us getting a bit carried away with recent developments and certainly nobody who saw either of the Millwall games, a number which includes referee David Webb who oversaw the away fixture.

Rotherham aren’t dirty or particularly defensive, but they are strong and organised and, frankly, bigger than us.  With new, young signings and promising youngsters and that we are relatively lightweight…  Choudhury, stamping all over the midfield once again, and Sierralta stand out for their ability to give some back but Koné, whilst he has a good touch and the nous to spot and execute a long range pass isn’t nearly robust enough.  We get bullied once again, as we have far too often this season;  there’s a lack of physical presence up front in particular, where we simply don’t have a target for a direct ball and aren’t clever enough in trying to play through, but also in midfield despite Hamza’s best efforts.

The first half is uninspiring.  Mario Gaspar, despite being a full back masquerading as a midfielder, will attack the box well throughout;  his is the first effort, our only one of any quality in the first half when Sarr clips a ball through and he pirouettes onto a volley that flicks the outside of the post on it’s way out.  It’s a decent effort, but such are our opportunities without the heft or the speed of thought to pull Rotherham apart – it’s going to require precision, and a bit of luck.

The visitors however, whilst generally ceding possession and territory, hit us hard and fast when they do break.  New signing Tariqe Fosu looks lively, and there’s aggression and movement in their forward line.  One concerted push ends with Barlaser hammering a shot through a crowd for Bachmann to push away.  This is followed shortly after – and after a decent minute’s applause on the 18th  for Millers fan Henry Evans who had died aged 18 on Friday following a car accident – by the visitors taking the lead after more forceful pressure sees Shane Ferguson picking up a rebound to finish well from the right side of the box in front of the Rookery.

Your heart sinks, as going behind feels as if it pushes the game more than a goal away.  Nicking an away goal like this suits Rotherham, any away side, down to the ground.  Bayo flicks a shot from a Martins free kick, Sarr goes down in the box with a defender’s arm in his back – definitely seen them given – there’s another loud grumble regarding a challenge in the box not visible from the far end of the ground and the half ends to catcalls for the referee.  In reality though we’ve not imposed ourselves nearly enough and that’s a bigger issue than the officiating on this occasion.

4- James Morris hasn’t had a bad half – though he might have done more to deter goalscorer Ferguson – but Bilić chooses to introduce Kamara at the break.  He will hammer up and down the flank for much of the half and we look livelier for it;  Matheus Martins is on the end of a move from the left and is composed enough to take a touch before angling a shot off the bar.  Martins will disappear for much of the half, a concern given that he went very quiet for a spell last week too, and despite our greater vim we don’t look much more likely to unsettle the visitors.  

The equaliser, when it comes, is an odd one…  Ferreira looks rather callow, spindly and (that word again) lightweight, but this belies a positive and aggressive  instinct, one that sees him anticipate a loose Rotherham pass and canter towards goal from wide on the right on the halfway line.  He’s perfectly happy to eat up the space that he’s afforded and takes advantage of not being terribly attentively closed down by stroking a shot into the bottom corner whilst on the run from well outside the box. I’m reminded of Marco Cassetti’s assist for Vydra in the Leicester play-off game in 2013, executed with the finesse and brush stroke of an artist… at first viewing goalkeeper Johansson looked culpable, but the shot was inside the side netting and could scarcely have been placed better.

5- We’re buoyed by the goal, but don’t start applying proper pressure until positive substitutions tip the balance still further.  In the meantime Rotherham raise their voices again as Ogbene shoots from wide and Bachmann blocks awkwardly.  Later Fosu will have a better chance, seeming to ponder in indecision when presented with a clear shot at goal allowing Bachmann to steal the opportunity back from him.

But after the introductions of Asprilla and Adeyemo in particular we look much more convincing, the better side on the pitch for the first time in the game.  Asprilla is a reliable source of mischief, but much of the improvement comes from Adeyemo’s physicality giving Rotherham’s defence, which suddenly looks far less watertight, something else to think about.  Mario Gaspar twice comes close, on one occasion just slightly underneath a cross that dips painfully over the bar.  Sarr drives into the box from the right but the ball won’t fall to the right shirt.  Asprilla canters onto a chance – it’s bouncing and awkward, but he should have done better than to steer it at the keeper.  The game ends in a degree of frustration.

Keinan Davis is the most obvious miss.  Adeyemo’s impact, and the memory of Davis dragging opponents around the pitch in the away fixture, suggest that we’d have had a more straightforward time of it with the centre forward available.  Louza, JP, even Cleverley’s nous will be significant additions to a side short on leaders.  

Speaking of which, William Troost-Ekong emerges from the bench at the whistle to make unmistakeable wavy gestures to the stands amidst rumours of a move back to Italy.  He’s not our best defender but probably our best talker so a loss, I think. Bilić has implied that he’ll be replaced, and is also after a midfielder and a winger in a January window that has been busy, even by Pozzo standards.  If that midfielder has thighs the size of tree trunks, shoulders like medicine balls, and a look in his eyes that permits no shit from either opponents or officials, so much the better.  We’re beyond the need for further evidence of a need for ballast.

I’ll be at Middlesbrough, but won’t be able to report.  Back on the game for Reading.  Have fun in the meantime.


Bachmann 3, Ferreira 3, Morris 3, Sierralta 3, Cathcart 3, *Choudhury 4*, Mario Gaspar 3, Koné 2, Martins 2, Sarr 3, Bayo 2
Subs: Kamara (for Morris, 45) 4, Asprilla (for Koné, 65) 3, Adeyemo (for Bayo, 73) 3, Adu Poku (for Martins, 79) NA,  Bacuna,  Troost-Ekong, Okoye


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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-   So Monday’s a big day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben, one suspects, will be back.


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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  There’s something wonderfully liberating about having no expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who plays at Reading?  Who cares.


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

Watford 0 Millwall 2 (26/12/2022) 27/12/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-   First off, I hope you had a good Christmas.  Whether, however and with whoever you celebrate it, whether it’s a big deal or not but particularly if it is, I guess.  The sort of thing that’s easily taken for granted until it isn’t.

Our habits and traditions have changed over the years for a number of reasons.  There were a number of years during which we’d shoot down to London to spend Christmas Day with my wife’s family… a huge Ethiopian spread the focal point.  Late in the afternoon we’d head up to Essex to see my family, plus a big roast.  An obscene amount of food, but we got to see a thousand people and there were periods of mercifully quiet recovery in the car built into the focused, noisy chaos.

We have different routines now, but some common tropes remain that will be familiar.  The unwanted guests.  The predictable, equally undesirable gifts.  Millwall tick both boxes.

2- The afternoon starts with a round of applause for Millwall fan Lee Evans, whose son was the visitors’ mascot while Evans Sr was suffering in hospital with muscular dystrophy.  The contrast between this welcome and the Millwall stands jeering Imrân Louza off on a stretcher at the Den was stark, and as if discomfited by what must be infrequent bonhomie on the part of opposition supporters, the visiting faithful launched straight into a chorus of “no one likes us”.  As badges of honour go, “no one likes us” is distinctive and surely a useful thing in backs-to-the-wall situations.  Sometimes however a bunch of wankers are nothing more than a bunch of wankers.

Millwall bullied us comprehensively at the Den earlier in the season and having been so successful in doing so saw little reason to vary their approach.  Indeed Jake Cooper, the dominant figure in that game in South London despite Tom Bradshaw’s hat-trick, set down a marker very early on herer by almost getting on the end of a ball across the box within the first twenty seconds.

A blow-by-blow account feels redundant.  Suffice to say that whilst our defensive rigidity (or lack thereof) never quite plunged the depths observed in South London, probably due to the steadying influence of Craig Cathcart, the Lions themselves upped their game also.  Yes, they’re aggressive and yes they tread the line between what’s OK and what’s not but whilst they’re facing an opponent demonstrably incapable of either standing up to it – Jake Cooper once again won just about every set piece put into our box without breaking sweat – or getting their own game together to play through it why the hell not?  Millwall would dominate this game from the first minute to the last.

3- The first half was a one-sided farce.  Daniel Bachmann, for all that he almost gave an opening goal away with a sloppy clearance before redeeming himself by throwing himself across goal to block Bradshaw’s resultant shot, kept us in the game with a number of brave stops, none better than a reaction save to deny Voglsammer after yet another Cooper knock-down.  By that stage however we were already a goal down after a rare Cathcart error contributed to Bradshaw setting up Voglsammer to stroke past Bachmann.  “That had been coming”, said everyone in the stadium.

By the end of the half a bad defeat was turning into an utter catastrophe.  Firstly, after a rare Watford incursion into the box from our left flank from Sarr had been smothered under weight of numbers, a flashpoint that was impossible to follow from the Rookery resulted in Hassane Kamara seeing red (and thus presumably missing Swansea, Norwich and Reading).  TV pictures revealed that Kamara’s momentum had contributed to a collision between a Millwall defender and goalkeeper, probably accidentally on the full-back’s part.  McNamara’s little trip/shove as Kamara turned to run back upfield was the act of a snide coward, but that doesn’t make shoving him two-handed in the chest a forgivable thing to do.  An experienced player should have been on guard against such provocation half an hour into what was already a volatile game.

Worse was to come.  João Pedro had had a quiet start, but such sparks of life as there were tended to feature the Brazilian as you might expect.  But a tackle from behind (from which Slaven Bilić was quick to exonerate blame for what followed) saw him go down in a crumpled heap and a seemingly foolish attempt to play on to angry criticism from the stands, echoing Hamza Choudhury’s similar forlorn and potentially expensive limp around against Hull a fortnight ago, convinced nobody.  We passed him on our slow trudge back up Occupation Road after the game, his left foot encased and limping down the hill on crutches.

4- There’s something about a post-relegation season.  Maybe we’ve forgotten how to be happy after a season of misery (two seasons, arguably, since the last two campaigns in front of supporters both ended in relegation).  Maybe expectations are high, and exalted names are given less leeway than youngsters would have.  Maybe as a relegated side you’re a “scalp”, at least at first, and less celebrated names will revel in sticking one on you.  Maybe all of these things.  

In any event, we’ve been in this situation before (a number of times, depending on your vintage) and these are rarely enjoyable seasons.  So… the patchy stands, the almost total lack of atmosphere (exacerbated further by the twin blows of Boxing Day and a midday kick-off at that, not that either upset the visitors) were no great surprise, however miserable.

But, and much as one necessarily feeds symbiotically off the other, team and support, it’s difficult to explain the lack of anything much in the team’s performance.  We’re on a decent run of results, albeit interrupted by a one month World Cup break.  After a dull nothing here-we-go-again-then game against Hull we’d played ourselves back into gear against Huddersfield.  Yes, players are missing but for all that a midfield in which Bacuna struggled (after collecting an early yellow for a Britos-on-Knockaert hatchet job to stop a break) but Dele-Bashiru looked tidy again is down in numbers… there should have been enough there to show something.  

But the body language was appalling from the off.  You didn’t need to watch the detail of the ball-in-play action to read that we weren’t up for this.  Which, to repeat, I find hard to understand – albeit, again, that one of the few leaders and indisputably the best player in the team limped off before half time.  It certainly didn’t square with the manager’s pre-match sabre-rattling and suggestions of revenge for the catastrophe in October.

5- We rejigged at half time, switching to a three-man back line.  Slightly surprising that Sierralta’s strength in the air wasn’t employed, although the Chilean has struggle in a three in the past – nonetheless, the second half was a slight improvement on the first.  If there’s a straw to cling to it’s that despite their almost total domination, the visitors would need a free kick that whipped past the potential deflections of outstretched feet in the box to curl past Bachmann to seal the win.  Briefly in the second half as Millwall stepped off the gas the limitations in their game became apparent for the first time, Cooper looking cumbersome when someone was running at him.  Even a point would have been daylight robbery, but it wasn’t out of the question until the second went in for all that we scarcely threatened.

Indeed the best chances came at two-nil.  Keinan Davis had been holding the ball up well with precious little support in evidence;  Yáser Asprilla had replaced JP and skipped through with help from sub Kalu to fire wide.  Mario Gaspar was surprised to find himself unmarked as a corner reached him at the near post before demonstrating why he may have been unmarked by angling his header clumsily and unforgivably over.

A miserable day all round then, João Pedro’s injury turning it from an annoying defeat against a team we clearly struggle with into a bit of a disaster.  Beyond that…  we know that there will be faces coming in in January and bodies returning to the midfield in particular not long after.  But if we’re going to stage a credible attempt to secure a play-off place, let alone chase down the top two, we’re going to need something to rally behind and wave a fist at.  This wasn’t it.

Won’t be at Swansea, will try to crowbar in thunks from Norwich.  Have a good New Year in the meantime.


*Bachmann 4*, Ngakia 1, Kamara 1, Kabasele 2, Cathcart 3, Bacuna 2, Dele-Bashiru 3, João Pedro 3, Sarr 2, Sema 2, Davis 3
Subs: Asprilla (for João Pedro, 35) 3, Troost-Ekong (for Bacuna, 45) 2, Mario Gaspar (for Ngakia, 61) 2, Kalu (for Kabasele, 71) 2, Sierralta, Hamer

Huddersfield Town 0 Watford 2 (17/11/2022) 18/12/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- The panto was awesome, thanks for asking.  Adrenaline propelled us through the traditionally magnificent after-show party (somewhere in a theatre in north Bedfordshire there are still people dancing) but would have fizzled out by Saturday without due attention giving way to the “what do I do with the rest of my life…?” low that follows any production.

Combatting this was a key factor behind braving the lingering slush and cold to head up to Huddersfield.  Didn’t want to be kicking my heels at home.  That, and the prospect of seeing my Leeds-based brother and his herberts, swapping gifts and so forth before Christmas.  This was kyboshed by a ballet performance on the part of one of said herberts clashing in an unaccounted for manner.  You can fill in the gaps yourself.

What the other thousand-odd travelling Hornets thought that they were doing there after two soul-sapping nil-nil draws a month apart I have no idea. Guns’n’Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle”, coincidentally a mainstay of an ever expanding panto playlist, rattles around the John Smiths Stadium in the build-up to kick off but as Daughter 2 drily points out the fit is a little awkward.  The stands are sullen, quiet and half-empty, befitting a team bottom of the table.  The aesthetically pleasing arches that crown each stand and the woodland backdrop to the Kilner Bank Stand to our right are all very nice but Daughter 2 – who is in that sort of mood – suggests that she’d rather have a concourse to hide from the elements in…  and there’s certainly an element of “Blazing Saddles” to the underwhelming, damp and dripping open-air queues for albeit very fine pies.

2- Bottom of the table they may be, but the home side are the more prominent for the first half hour or so of the game.  It doesn’t amount to all that much…  Huddersfield dominate possession with an unconvincing bravado that smacks of a rousing pre-match team talk backed by very little conviction.  “Come on, we can do this lads”.  Even the guy on the tannoy can’t do any better than “let’s see if we can build on that improved performance in the second half at Bramall Lane last week…  it was like you almost couldn’t tell who was as the top of the league and who was…  erm… bottom”.

It’s all very deliberate from the home side.  Very planned out, discussed, agreed.  Tentative.  All of their attacking is focused down the flanks, every set piece – often from Sorba Thomas, the likeliest source of something genuinely threatening – dumped on the far post.  An early instance left to right as Huddersfield attack sees a header bounced into the ground and harmlessly over.  That is as good as it gets, for all that the home side had the stronger start.

So Huddersfield aren’t completely terrible but they are fatally flawed, low on confidence and very convenient opponents for a Watford side with, lest we forget, the most patchwork of patchwork midfields.  Tom Dele-Bashiru is making his second consecutive start a good two years after the one that preceded that and is alongside Leandro Bacuna, picked up as a free agent during the week.  At the apex is João Pedro, no longer masquerading as a deep lying midfielder, and he’s prominent throughout.  As Huddersfield press early on Kamara, Ngakia and Kabasele are all excitedly combative with varying degrees of success, Cathcart merely majestic.  But it’s João Pedro’s head on the end of several of those crosses before invariably leading the charge out after his own clearance, the best player in every part of the pitch.

Part of the home side’s game plan, such as it is, appears to be to needle the Brazilian.  Thomas is the first, being unnecessarily provocative at an irrelevant throw in.  Later first Hogg and then Diarra are booked for aggressive and deliberate fouls on the same player.  Mark Fotheringham’s video library is as out-of-date as its format… two years ago, when JP was a kind of Scrappy Do, keen to take on every challenger, this might have been successful.  These days its a reflection of his not-so-much-improved-as-impossible-to-keep-up-with trajectory that an irritation which initially, briefly bubbles is visibly reined back and channelled positively and irresistibly.

3- Ismaïla Sarr has had a quiet first half hour, playing like Ken Sema as an inverted winger, but he sounds a clarion call by flaming on on the half hour, after which the balance of power shifts irrevocably.  Twice he picks up the ball on the left and hares menacingly towards goal.  On the second occasion he belts a shot straight at Nicholls, but such is the vicious lack of linearity of the effort that the best Nicholls can do is to get in the way and hope for the best – the rebound is favourable to the home side.

Our defensive record of late has been impressive.  This will extend the run to eight games with only two conceded… but the flipside of that is that our exalted forward line, albeit in the context of niggles and injuries and World Cups and so on, hasn’t quite set the division alight as it should have done.  And here’s how Huddersfield are convenient…   they’re sparring partners, punchbags.  Nicholls in particular is repelling challenges; he’s not the only one, but it’s a pretty one-sided fight from here on in and we are afforded the space and time to pick up some pace and conviction.

We chisel out several good chances before the end of the half.  The first is the clearest…  a decent move speaking of growing belief sees us work the ball quickly from left to right after a surge from Davis;  Ngakia’s ball in is touched on by Sarr and João Pedro pokes it wide.  It’s a bad miss, but the poor finish conceals the quality of the run that got him there unnoticed.  Shortly afterwards sloppy defending lets Kamara in down the left, his fierce cross/shot is deflected out.  We keep coming, Davis breaks down the right but curls a shot wide.

The half-time whistle signals two-and-a-half games’ worth without a goal but there’s little grumbling in the away end, none of the red-faced hysteria that characterised away trips earlier in the season.  Perhaps the malcontents have stayed at home.  But equally, it’s clearly coming.

4- A key consideration over these next three games, starting here, is quite how we cope with the paucity of midfield options.  Ismaël Koné, one assumes, becomes an option at Norwich and thereafter; Choudhury, Louza and Cleverley some time in February from when we’re surely cooking on gas, Gosling later still, Kayembe who knows.  But for sure, this is what we’ve got for three games.

Bacuna has an unspectacular debut, but attractively so…  a gaping chasm quietly, unfussily filled in the way that Dan Gosling quickly seemed to sort the right back problem.  He is squat, robust but tidy… he creates the first good chance of the half, making his marker look foolish with a tight turn outside of an optimistic challenge before sending a wicked ball across the face from left to right.  It avoids a yellow shirt at the near post, Sarr does well to return it fiercely and on target from a tight angle beyond the far but Nicholls just about has enough to match it.

Dele-Bashiru meanwhile builds on his encouraging game last weekend.  His afternoon isn’t perfect but he’s positive, controlled, and happy to carry the ball out of midfield.  This is never better illustrated than for the opening goal; Dele-Bashiru disrupts Huddersfield’s attack himself and breaks straight back at the Terriers as they scatter in front of him.  He carries the ball half the length of the pitch, angling inside from the right before releasing João Pedro outside him.  The Brazilian takes a touch before hammering a low drive inside Nicholls’ near post and sharing his joy with the home fans to our immediate left, who have been giving him the bird since the early contretemps with Thomas.

5- Game over, already.  If there’s a concern here it’s that it wasn’t more conclusive… and perhaps that it took us 54 minutes to break the deadlock but there’s no disputing the outcome.  Huddersfield are beaten… Hogg risks a second yellow card with a couple of frustrated challenges, Watford bring in the ultimate party sub in Yáser Asprilla – encouraging, as an aside, that we can relegate the youngster to what’s surely his best role for the moment despite our injury restrictions.  The Colombian skipping and flicking and dancing around is surely the last thing the home side need, you can almost hear the “for f***’s sake” as he makes his first foray into the box from the right directly in front of us to win a corner. From Sema’s wicked delivery, Sarr forces a terrific reflex save from Nicholls down to his right with a fierce near post header.

João Pedro attracts more affection from the home stands when he goes down and stays down, and then when he returns to the pitch post-treatment surges straight onto a pass, skittles his way confrontationally around four challenges, drags the play down the left flank and contemptuously wins a corner by playing the ball off an opponent.  From this corner another great Sema cross, swinging temptingly away from Nicholls’ orbit, finds an impossible spring from man of the match (again) João Pedro who places a perfect header out of the goalkeeper’s reach and into the top corner.

Jordan Rhodes lumbers on to clout a clear chance entertainingly over the bar but the game is long since up.  We’ve played better and will need to against more competent, confident opponents but in context this is a terrific win, comfortably taking three points from the first of these three awkward games before the turn of the year.

Halfway through the season we’re a long way from getting promoted, but we’ve had seasons turn in games here before and it’s beyond dispute that promotion seasons are built off straightforward, job-done wins like this.


Bachmann 3, Ngakia 3, Kamara 4, Kabasele 3, Cathcart 4, Bacuna 3, Dele-Bashiru 4, Sarr 4, *João Pedro 5*, Sema 3, Davis 3
Subs: Asprilla (for Bacuna, 68) 4, Mario Gaspar (for Sarr, 90+2) NA, Bayo (for Davis, 90+2) NA, Morris, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Hamer

Watford 0 Hull City 0 (11/12/2022) 12/12/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-   No, I haven’t.  No, I won’t and no I wouldn’t have.  No, it’s been bloody miserable (except when we went out to dinner on Saturday evening and everywhere was empty).  Yes, I do get to feel virtuous.

2- It’s panto week.  I mention this every year, but am conscious that it’s impossible to convey quite how monumental this is and therefore the gravity of the development may be lost on some.  Pantomimes are, after all, largely shit.  A rite of passage as a parent to be filed alongside sitting through hours of other people’s children singing/being gymnastic/acting, or trying to, just so’s you can be there for your own offspring’s special 30 seconds.

This isn’t that sort of deal.  This is something we write ourselves and then put on in a local theatre, predominantly for current and former (retired) colleagues in which our employer is comprehensively in the crosshairs and yet magnanimously provides us with a comfortable budget to run the thing without the concern over breaking even with ticket sales that amdram would more conventionally wrestle have to wrestle with.  Ticket sales thus go straight to charity…  from the brainstorming (January) to the script writing (February to June), read-throughs, auditions, casting (July), rehearsal (lunchtimes twice a week, September through December, best reason to go to work), performance (next Thursday) and the best piss-up of the year (also Thursday) it’s utterly magnificent.

Missed from the above timeline are all sorts of things that need to happen in parallel from creation of costumes, hair, make-up to set design to identifying props, choreographing dances, working out lighting and sound cues, tickets, publicity and so on, and so on.  Focal point of several of these streams is set build.  We get into the theatre, we paint things, build things, nail things, rethink things that won’t work after all, make a list of things that we’ve forgotten to do, ask Gerry to show us how the stage crew radio headsets work (again).

That was today.  With a heavy heart and no small amount of guilt, albeit with what seemed like a genuine blessing from the most important members of the team, I ducked out early to get down to Watford in time. I badly needed something to shout at.

It was always going to be shit, wasn’t it?  

3- The first half is utterly joyless.  It’s insanely cold for one thing…  I think I remember being colder for that 2-1 defeat to Manchester United when Troy scored at both ends but this is still ridiculous, particularly since I am now versus then seven years closer to having to recognise that I’m approaching middle age, and have dressed accordingly.  

The atmosphere is non-existent, and nobody in the stadium objects… there’s a tacit recognition of the circumstances.  The home ends are painfully sparse until kick-off, when all those sensibly huddling in the concourses for the illusion of warmth scuttle out into the stands.  The game starts and briefly there’s the relief of stuff getting back into the groove… I’ve not half missed it because, you know.  It almost doesn’t matter what happens, it’s just football.

Very quickly it transpires that it does matter what happens because whilst it’s great to see Tom Dele-Bashiru get his first start since that expensive 37 minutes at Reading two years ago it’s also apparent that he’s got the gig in part because he’s quite literally the last man standing.  There are no central midfielders on the bench, so we’ve started Tom alongside Hamza Choudhury with JP in the more advance role in front of them.

Choudhury is obviously fundamental, so the one thing that we don’t need (apart from prolonged minutes of shivering as the game is delayed) is him getting injured before the game’s even got going.  Hull are similarly afflicted, Dimitrios Pelkas the other protagonist in a sickening thud of a challenge that ultimately curtails both individuals’ afternoons, the fact that Choudhury hobbles on for a little longer than his opponent merely reflecting our absolute need for our only remaining senior midfielder to be OK.  But he isn’t.

Everything that follows has to be viewed through that filter.  It’s an appalling afternoon’s lack of entertainment and – in case I’ve not made this sufficiently clear – it’s bloody freezing.  But any angsting over our inability to put away our chances should be mitigated by the midfield we end up employing – and no, I don’t think it’s reasonable to condemn anyone’s recruitment for this one with Louza, Cleverley, Kayembe, Gosling, now Choudhury all unavailable. Impossible to plan for realistically… though you do wonder whether training and match preparation is all that it should be.

JP it is who drops back alongside Dele-Bashiru into what earlier in the season were two midfield roles that had been criticised for being pedestrian and unadventurous.  The same player provides the best moment of a half in which Hull are largely happy to contain our threat, such as it is in the unexplained absence of World Cup returnee Sarr…  Davis holds the ball up, the Brazilian doesn’t quite get enough welly behind a shot that forces Ingram into the one non-trivial stop of the opening half as he pushes it away low to his left.  This is literally the only other thing that happens in the first half.

4- But there are plenty of positives, now that I’m warm.  For one thing, there’ll be another clean sheet to maintain a record that has seen us concede only twice in the seven games since the Millwall debacle.  Jeremy Ngakia looks excitable and isn’t infallible but comes out with more positives than negatives.  Kabasele is a doer rather than a thinker and yes he has a mistake him but alongside the exemplary Cathcart he’s more than adequate as a doer at this level.

In the midfield, such as it is… Dele-Bashiru is very solid indeed, even taking his most recent two years out of the equation as context.  He’s disciplined, bold, efficient, and sensible…  enough of each but not too much of any of them.  One bad no-look crossfield pass in the second half aside he looks more than good enough, whetting your appetite for when he’s got the psychological and physical insurance of a run of games under his belt (as he surely will now, his own fitness permitting).

And João Pedro is ridiculous of course.  When you’re this good it doesn’t really matter where you play… we’d say the same about Tommy Mooney 25 (eek) years ago because you could put him in lots of places, he had just about enough ability and intelligence and made up any shortfall in furious willpower.  JP has that steely determination, sure… but it’s his ability that sets him apart.  He’s the best player on the pitch and he’s a forward playing in a deep midfield role that occasionally sees him take on a sort of quarterback job (not that I do minority sports) from somewhere close to left back.

5- I miss the start of the second half.  Standing up at half time hasn’t warmed me up as hoped, so I join a queue for coffee which, eventually, I hold with ungloved hands in search of warmth, shivering as daughter 2 conveys lack of sympathy with a roll of the eyes.  As I return JP is punching a free kick from the left towards the top corner only for Cyrus Christie to get his head in the way.  

After one kick this is already better than the first half, and we win the third quarter of the game on points by some considerable margin (if not by, you know, actual goals).  Hull defend deep and in numbers and, as the scoreline reflects, largely effectively… but they chance their luck more than once and don’t look composed when JP and Davis, who warms up as the game progresses (unlike the rest of us) retain possession around the box.  Our best effort of the game comes when Pedro punches a low shot towards Ingram’s bottom left hand corner, threading it through a busy box…  much more venom in this one, but Ingram’s equal to it again, pushing it wide.  Asprilla, who has a quiet afternoon, gets on the end of a Sema cross to force a reaction save from the Hull keeper;  the ball spins up from the block and the Colombian just doesn’t have the physical presence to threaten Ingram who comes out of an untidy collision both successful in clearing the ball and successful in having ridden the coming together better than his opponent.  Had Davis, not Asprilla, had the chance the outcome may have been different.

Hull get back into it.  Pantomime lardarse (yes, I know, but I’m not pretending to be a professional footballer) Ozan Tufan waddles off the bench to general scorn, except from the away end, and shovels a shot over the bar.  There’s a period around the 83rd minute when the Tigers’ threat and persistence down their right is enough to make me consider that I’d suddenly take a point…  “they’re going to bloody nick one” says someone, but they don’t.  Instead Rey Manaj misses the clearest chance of the game, flicking wide…  his too will be a miserable afternoon, brought on as a sub replacing the disappointing Hungbo (who, like the Hull sub brought on after the early collision, is destined to neither start nor finish) his rustiness is evident before he appears to re-aggravate his injury and hobbles off pathetically, a surely unprecedented third subbed sub of the afternoon.

Hull are combative, and a little bit cynical… Pedro’s ability to withstand the midfield kerfuffle is tested more than once, and when two defenders come on together for two more attacking players with quarter of an hour to go the likely path of the game is clear.  The running down of the clock is tiresome, but it’s difficult to argue that the visitors don’t deserve their point.

Meanwhile, we need to patch together a midfield before Saturday, the first of what one suspects will be at least three more games before a more conventional partner for TDB presents itself.  Burnley and the Blades are streaking away in the distance, but we’ll need to find a way to take wins from some of these games if we’re going to nail down a play off place.

See you at Huddersfield (oh no you won’t, etc)


Bachmann 3, Ngakia 3, Kamara 3, Kabasele 3, Cathcart 4, Choudhury NA, Dele-Bashiru 3, *João Pedro 4*, Asprilla 2, Sema 3, Davis 3
Subs: Hungbo (for Choudhury, 15) 2, Manaj (for Hungbo, 71) 2, Bayo (for Manaj, 92) NA, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Hamer

Bristol City 0 Watford 0 (12/11/2022) 13/11/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- We’d been driving for half an hour before I remembered that the tickets were still pinned to my noticeboard.

The reaction of the car’s two passengers was more sanguine than my own… patience from Paul, indifference from Daughter 2 who is getting used to such displays of incompetence.  The last time Something Like This happened it was insulin that had been forgotten prompting similar dead time as we turned around and headed home then back.  We’d only had the relatively short drive to Vicarage Road in front of us on that occasion though.  

As a consequence of that one, all diabetes-related planning for this trip had been impeccable to the extent that my wife stuck her head out of the door to needlessly check on her 49 year-old husband’s memory.  Instead, five minutes away from the parked car in Bristol I remembered that my insulin pump had been beeping at me for more than an hour and wasn’t going to last the game.  I left the same two passengers rolling their eyes at the side of the road while I trotted back and did the necessary.

Sometimes the world is trying to tell you something.

2- We arrive at the ground in good time for the football, but without the cushion that the experienced traveller builds in to an away day as a matter of course to protect it from the vagaries of what happens on the pitch.  

Ashton Gate didn’t look like this the last time I was here, for a drawn FA Cup tie under Beppe Sannino nearly nine years ago.  There was no fanzone then for starters – we don’t get to enjoy it this time either, obvs.  Two stands have been replaced, converting a ground that could previously have been described as “homely”, and then only generously, into an impressive stadium. The pies are splendid too and the vendors adopt the preferred “treat them like adults” approach to bottle tops. The only real minus is a critical lack of chocolate.

Simon’s here too, and has brought nine year-old Adam to that most significant of events, his First Game.  This is not, of course, Simon’s first game… he’s a veteran of many terrible football matches up and down the country, several of them with me and several of those on Watford visits to Oakwell in the early nineties when we were housemates in Leeds.  Simon is having trouble getting his head around the presence of Dan Gosling, bearing scars as he does of a teenage Gosling deciding a Merseyside derby in the dim and distant past so profound that I remember their existence before he mentions it.  I’m having similar issues with Andi Weimann, who made his first starts and scored his first senior goals whilst on loan at Vicarage Road several lifetimes ago but is somehow only 31 (and City’s captain to boot).

3- It’s a turd of a game.

Shorn of Sarr, João Pedro and Asprilla on top of Louza we lack any verve whatsoever and all the cracks that their presence renders ignorable are painfully exposed.  Those four aren’t… an unfair advantage of course, for all that they are each surely destined to return to playing at the top level with or without Watford.  You’re allowedto have good players. Had we sold Sarr and/or JP over the summer as we surely expected to, we’d have invested in some Polyfilla (other brands are available) to fill some of those cracks.

But without them we have a stodgy team, and this was a stodgy performance from the off.  Ugly, clunky, unable to retain possession, unable to even find a pass.  I’ve been in favour of giving Mario Gaspar time to adapt… we’ve seen glimpses of a fine right foot and of course his pedigree is exceptional.  He can have as much pedigree as he likes on this evidence, lumbering around like someone’s uncle tasked with looking after the kids but unable to keep up with them and realising that, given his duties today, going for a cheeky curry after the pub closed last night probably wasn’t a good idea.

Keinan Davis is quite tremendous though, receiving the ball, holding people off, looking for a lay off that isn’t there and getting no favours out of referee David Webb who lets quite a lot go in general.  There’s just nothing going on around him for much of the game… Samuel Kalu’s directness that has been so helpful off the bench never gets going here.  Ken plugs away but gets nowhere.  The midfield is congested… for all that Dan Gosling is nominally in JP’s place we effectively have three defensive midfielders, even if one did learn how to attack the box off Tim Cahill once upon a time.  

The big guns are brought on early in the second half… or at least the two that we have on the bench, or whatever shadows of them their ailments – be they knocks, viruses, or World Cup considerations – permit.  To disappointing effect really… we do look more fluid, the away end is briefly energised at the prospect of nicking something (an outcome that Simon says he’d be fearing were he a home fan, negating the possibility of this transpiring by doing so) but we aren’t noticeably more threatening until Vakoun Bayo’s cameo, which is conspicuous for having a bit of energy about it.  He’s responsible for our two efforts at goal, neither of which are particularly close to the target let alone troubling Max O’Leary.

4- City are much the brighter side, if only in the manner of young rabbits frolicking in a field that would be polished off pretty quickly if a bird of prey with a bit of self-respect happened past.  No birds of prey in evidence today – just fat wood pigeons, stupid bastards that they are.

City have dug up Nakhi Wells from somewhere.  Even in the days of inflated transfer fees, the fact that someone paid five million for him once baffles me.  He must be such a frustration to watch… ability evidenced by a fine early cross from the right that Tommy Conway does well to get on the end of (and having done so should have directed his header below the bar).  But then on seeing a newly relegated team (and therefore a prize, presumably) flailing around and desperately asking to be put out of its misery spends the game throwing himself around looking for penalties that only exist in his head.  The closest he comes is when Gosling injudiciously waves his boot around but Wells is ducking his head himself to get near it and no contact is made.  “You’ve seen them given”, but wrongly.

Conway and Weimann are more acute threats.  The former escapes after Davis is harshly denied a free kick following his latest “World’s Strongest Man” audition, this time dragging only one marker along with him. The young Bristol striker rolls his shot past Daniel Bachmann but wide of the far post, thus avoiding the potential for outrage in an away end still smarting at that lack of chocolate.

Weimann comes much closer… a fine cross from the left is met by the head of the Austrian provoking a tremendous save from his compatriot in the Watford goal.

5- That City’s energy, and the mood of a home crowd that must surely have smelt blood, only resulted in this one effort on target worthy of note is one of the plusses to take from the afternoon.  Certainly Hamza Choudhury and particularly Edo Kayembe continue to shield the defence, whatever the deficiencies of the pair as a unit.  Kayembe’s oblong stance makes him look clumsy and immobile, but he was one of our more dynamic and determined weapons here.

The result, too, and a fourth clean sheet in six games (though we’re going to need to go some to match Coventry’s 10 in 13 and counting, definitely a rival to be aware of coming up in the fast lane with home games in hand).  Keinan Davis getting through his first full ninety minutes without pulling any punches.  Any away point is a good one, fourth going into the break is the most that we deserve and gives us a platform.  And of course Adam survived his debut free of any expectations as regards What This Can Be Like (not like if he’d debuted with, I don’t know, a 4-0 win over Burnley a couple of seasons into the club’s golden era, for instance).

There’s a big “but” coming, and it’s painful to write about, the more so because you have to acknowledge it and yet words are moot because you all know this already.  Nonetheless…

Dan Gosling was signed two years ago as one of a number of experienced heads to bolster the squad and get us over the line.  That done, including a surely pivotal winner at Carrow Road and a bravura show at Dean Court, he stuck around whilst the likes of Carlos Sánchez and Achraf Lazaar were released.  Since then he’s been in and out of the squad, all but ostracised for a year, asked to fill in all over the place most recently and most effectively at right back.  All of this he’s done with professionalism and gritted teeth, even when things haven’t quite gone to plan.  An absolute diamond.  

So to see him go down as if he’d been shot, far from any opponent, punching the ground in pain and fury, was heartbreaking.  A ruptured achilles tendon isn’t something you’d wish on anyone, least of all a pro with six months on his contract who will be 33 when it expires.  Just so, so sad.

(As an aside, the muppets in the home stands – stronger choices of noun are available – who chose to jeer his exit on a stretcher are welcome to lock themselves in a room, preferably with the muppets in the away end – again, stronger words available – who saw fit to interrupt the Last Post, and merrily screw themselves.  We’ll let you know when you’re needed again, really we will.  A minority in the home stands admittedly, there were plenty of decent human beings responding more appropriately visible too).

And so we go into this odd month “off” in reasonable shape all things considered.  Enjoy whatever you do with it – it might be worth keeping half an eye on this blog in the meantime.  I’ll see you for the Hull game.


Bachmann 3, Mario Gaspar 1, Kamara 2, Kabasele 2, Troost-Ekong 3, Choudhury 3, Kayembe 3, Kalu 2, Gosling 3, Sema 2, *Davis 3*
Subs: João Pedro (for Mario Gaspar, 56) 2, Sarr (for Kalu, 56) 2, Bayo (for Sema, 75) 3, Cathcart (for Gosling, 83) NA, Dele-Bashiru, Sierralta, Okoye

Watford 0 Coventry City 1 (05/11/2022) 06/11/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- I love the World Cup.

I mean…. surely everyone loves the World Cup, right?  The finals tournament, I mean.  Every four years I immerse myself in it utterly, indulgently frittering holiday from work where needed to be able to fully focus on, I don’t know, Ecuador against Belgium or something.  Every tournament is special… even if my advancing years mean that I don’t remember the last one as clearly as I do the first one that I really watched – España 82.  Marco Tardelli, Schumacher and that insane semi-final, Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick against a tragically fabulous Brazil, László Kiss, Gerry Armstrong.  The France-Kuwait pitch invasions.

I can mark out my life according to World Cups.  I’d just finished my finals prior to USA 1994, and came home from Leeds to celebrate Bulgaria beating Germany (in defiance of Dad, predictably, remembering his German heritage once England had failed to qualify in the way that I kinda do today).  Daughter 1 was born during Germany 2006 – she blinked in astonishment at Oliver Neuville’s winning goal for Germany against Poland in Dortmund within a couple of hours of being born (I couldn’t believe the Polish defending, either).  Four years later and I was getting up early to watch the games from Japan and Korea, often watching with friends in Watford and with a short-lived obsession with squeezing fresh oranges for a morning juice.

There’s a certain purity, honesty and inclusiveness about it, for all the commercialism.  Everybody gets it, even if they don’t like football, even if they don’t watch it.  It’s a joy that everyone shares.

So not watching Qatar 2022 will be really difficult, and I bitterly resent the circumstances that lead me to making that decision.  Not that… anyone who decides otherwise is wrong, or should feel guilty.  But…  I found myself looking at the shamelessly corrupt awarding of the tournament, the “can we stop pretending now” acknowledgment that a tournament in the middle of the Qatari summer really wasn’t going to work after all, the grotesque inappropriateness of the venue from the medieval attitudes to LGBTQ (no, it’s not a local cultural set of beliefs it’s oppression and it’s repulsive) to the lack of facility to accommodate supporters to the flagrant sportswashing, the pitiful recruitment of rent-a-fans to be paid to Behave Appropriately and most of all the 6000 (official figures – unofficially much higher) migrant workers who died in the construction of the stadia having reportedly had their passports confiscated and been kept in slave conditions.  I found myself looking at all of this and thinking “how do the f***ers get away with this?” and realising it was because people would watch the thing anyway.

So I won’t.  Not any of it. But no worries if you think differently, it’s a tough call.

2- Before that starts we’ve got three more games and on the back of three wins on the hop are in danger of generating something called “momentum”, which I think I remember from a dim and distant past.  The return of Davis to fitness and Choudhury from suspension allows us to name the same starting eleven that demolished Luton in our last game here. Fuelled perhaps by that recent run this is officially our largest home gate of the season (though admittedly the variance in a lot of crowds of “about 20,000” isn’t huge).

Unofficially the stadium looks much more sparsely filled than that, a point which a noisy away end makes early and repeatedly.  Andrew French asked Slaven Bilić in the week about the danger of arrogance; his reply was on the lines of “a bit of arrogance is a good thing”, but there’s a thin line between arrogance and complacency and there’s some evidence of the home stands wandering over it which is ludicrous given some of the hair-pulling of the last few months but there we are.  Perhaps, rather than complacency, the fervour in the stands of two weeks ago has been doused by the persistent drizzle here.  Either way it’s inappropriately and unhelpfully quiet.

There is little evidence of complacency on the pitch, mercifully.  Coventry are setting up defensively from the off, but there’s none of the lack-of-direction-masquerading-as-patience that have characterised many of our previous experiences with this approach.  We’re purposeful and aggressive…  particularly significant is the performance of Sarr who, whilst he has his frustrations and will have more effective afternoons is at least struggling, when he does struggle, in an active, involved way.  Chasing, fighting, running at people.  Much more likeable than his more passive performances.  Davis, too, is back with a bang rolling around up front and dragging markers in his wake.  We’re not creating an awful lot but we’re dominating possession…  Coventry are coping, but barely.  Vicky’s sitting next to me – and as an aside claims not to have caught a win since the Liverpool game before the pandemic and so must bear some responsibility for what follows – and murmurs that we just need to zip the ball a little quicker.  She’s right, we’re not very far away.

3- Whilst the game’s outcome is hugely frustrating, any disappointment should by mitigated by the fact that whilst Coventry’s template is very much The Way To Play Against Watford, none have executed it as effectively as this.  We know that without Imrân Louza we are short of a lock-picker;  here Coventry are disciplined and focused in the face of what, for the first half hour or so, is a purposeful attack.  Come the second half they’ll be stretched, we could easily have come away with this with something so – annoying, but maybe a blessing in disguise.  We’re better, but not better enough to take anything for granted.

Those who remember Sean Dyche’s Watford side will be able to testify that a solid side with a little bit of magic dust is a decent recipe for success in this division.  Sean Murray was the magic dust in that team, but Cov more resemble Quque Sánchez Flores’ 2015/16 vintage that survived comfortably in the top flight based on two walls of stuff and the assumption – accurate as it turned out – that Troy and Ighalo would nick enough goals between them.

Coventry’s magic dust is Viktor Gyökeres; for all of Brighton’s reputation for wheeling and dealing you wonder quite how a side that has famously struggled to turn good possession into goals let this kid go.  He looks extraordinary…  his movement as City break for the first time is good but let down by a finish, shanked into the Rookery.  “That’s OK then” we think, relaxing a bit.  But the second break sees him cut inside William Troost-Ekong and force a tremendous reflex stop from Daniel Bachmann which the striker quietly congratulates his adversary for beneath us as the subsequent corner lines up.

The third such break also sees him cut in from the left past an errant but nonetheless seriously examined Troost-Ekong who is saved by a tremendous block by Sierralta, at his stompy, angry, shouty best.  Soon after this we manage a rare counter-break and look briefly devastating for the first time.. JP sending Sarr free on the left, Sarr setting up Davis to fire neatly past Wilson.  Celebrations are arrested by the linesman’s flag for an offside we were completely unable to judge from directly behind the play.  Replays confirm however that Davis had a handful of Kyle McFadzean’s shirt that abetted his route to goal.

It seems reasonable to hope that this development will scare Cov into tempering their attacking ambitions and certainly they seem rattled, briefly.  Sarr is brought down midway through an ambitious run and Ken Sema sees Ben Wilson push a decent curling free kick  away from his bottom right hand corner reasonably comfortably.  Ultimately though we’re grateful for half time;  we’ve looked less convincing on the whole as the half has gone on and need to regroup.

4- Any hope of a change in the narrative disappears early in the second half;  Coventry break once again and seem to have the freedom of their right flank, from where a cross is provided for and converted by Gyökeres.

The inevitability of the game’s conclusion sits miserably in front of us, though in fairness it doesn’t actually turn out to be as pathetic and hapless as what was panning out in my head as the visitors went ahead even if it amounts to much the same thing.  We pepper City for much of the second half, doing a much better job of breaking them down than in the first and the cracks begin to show;  Josh Eccles has impressed on the right flank but is finally booked after a gazillion warnings and is withdrawn from his thankless task against Sarr.  The winger fools his marker with a quick turn and tees up Ken Sema, who steers a shot narrowly wide of Ben Turner’s post.

Kenzema then sends a wicked near-post cross in from the left, Sarr’s diving header diverts the ball across the face of goal and Davis can’t quite stretch.  Asprilla replaces JP and dawdles in possession before finding Kamara’s run with a delicious pass.  Kamara squares it for Sarr to bundle over from no distance at all.  Being kind to him, the ball across his face was at knee height rather than along the ground but it’s still a tragic miss, as Sarr’s forlorn demeanour lying in the back of the net betrays.

Joe Hungbo comes off the bench, which is never a bad thing.  He’s once again immediately entrusted with set piece responsibilities and Daniel Bachmann is twice up at the death – Hungbo’s corners are on point, but we can’t get a touch.  Our best late chance comes when Hungbo cuts in from the right and fires a left foot shot low and firm.  A deflection sends it towards the bottom corner but also kills the pace on it and permits Wilson to make a decent save.  The last chance also goes to Hungbo and he provokes the frustration of the crowd with an ill-judged shot over when a crossing opportunity had presented itself – a blemish that his latest punchy cameo didn’t deserve.

5- In the context of having just won three games this is a disappointment but not a disaster.  Coventry’s long tenure at the foot of the table probably contributes to the frustration but this was always a false position borne of their inability to play home fixtures early in the season after the Commonwealth Games’ rugby sevens knackered their pitch.  City recorded their eighth clean sheet in their last eleven games here and won’t be anyone’s pushover on this evidence.

Meanwhile Bilić is suitably philosophical afterwards.  Not a disaster unless it gets into our heads.  Tellingly however he used the “tiredness” word again, and whilst every club is struggling with a busy timetable there’s no denying that there was a lack of energy about today’s performance;  JP was a shadow, Davis started strongly but faded badly, we didn’t have afterburners to push City as hard as we needed to in the first half.  The forthcoming break, however questionably conceived, might do us some favours but Bilić’s words weren’t carelessly chosen whether an appeal for squad depth or a criticism of training intensity.

See you Tuesday.


*Bachmann 4*, Gosling 2, Kamara 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 4, Kayembe 3, Choudhury 3, João Pedro 2, Sarr 3, Sema 3, Davis 3
Subs: Mario Gaspar (for Gosling, 64) 3, Asprilla (for João Pedro, 64) 3, Bayo (for Sema, 72) 2, Hungbo (for Davis, 80) NA, Morris, Okoye

Wigan Athletic 0 Watford 1 (29/10/2022) 30/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  I had a friend from Wigan. Susan. From Tyldesley, more specifically.  For reasons unclear she possessed a cigarette card produced by Wigan Borough Council advertising the locale with the slogan:  “Wigan – The Surprising Borough”.  Reasons unclear in several ways… why she had a cigarette card, since I don’t think she smoked.  Why Wigan had decided to invest some of its budget in this rather odd format, surely the smallest of placards and targeted at what in the early nineties would already have been a shrinking audience.  Also what exactly was surprising about Wigan… not to doubt the validity of the claim, after all whilst googling “Wigan surprising Borough” nowadays gets you nothing of value it has been thirty-odd years and whatever was once surprising about Wigan is perhaps no longer so.

There’s not an awful lot that’s startling about the game’s preamble.  “Crusty the Pie”, Wigan’s moon-faced mascot, unsettles daughter 2 but the presence of a pie in this part of the country is surely unsurprising.  The stewards on the turnstile might not have been expecting my brother to ask them to detain his two over-excited herberts for a bit in the name of some peace and quiet for the rest of us but having witnessed the vigorous puddle-jumping in the exposed perimeter outside the turnstile they will surely have sympathised, if not sufficiently so to acquiesce.  The herberts are released into the empty upper reaches of the DW Stadium’s north stand instead, to expend energy to their heart’s content until it sort-of filled up immediately before kick off.

The lack of anything surprising doesn’t mean the place is disagreeable.  There’s a lot to be said for an away venue that’s close to a motorway, even if that motorway has to be the M6.  The abundance of accessible car parks, including the one that we tumble out of and into the away turnstiles, is also handy and the steep, claustrophobic design means that this remains one of the better “new” grounds at which to watch football.  We’re two thirds of the back, but directly over the goalmouth – at West Ham you’d be in a different postcode.

Altogether unsurprising is the rather forlorn, helpless feel to the place.  The Latics’ relatively rapid elevation as a football club, from being the last club to enter the Football League under the old “re-election” model when replacing Southport in 1978 (at the 35th time of asking, plus one application to join the Scottish league in 1972) to an eight-year spell in the Premier League thirty years later was never going to be matched by a commensurate increase in their fanbase, nestled where they are between Liverpool and Manchester.  The 25,000 capacity stadium is unlikely to be filled regularly outside the top flight, and despite the club’s success in winning League One last season reports of unpaid salaries on top of the cruel chaos of the preceding ownership (whereby a the club were taken over and put into admin after promised funds were withheld ultimately provoking relegation thanks to a points deduction amid talk of betting on such) surely contribute to the stadium being quiet, despondent and more than half empty.

2- As for ourselves, there’s a morbid curiosity going into the game.  Will we bounce on the springboard of last Sunday’s dramatic result – and, as much as the result, the spirit that was suddenly so very evident?  Or will this be a case of  “after the lord mayor’s show”…  would we sink back onto our haunches for a less prominent fixture and muddle our way to another disappointment of the sort that we’ve seen rather often on the road – it’s not as if there isn’t precedent for such an outcome, however far away it might have felt at 2pm last Sunday.  

The answer turned out to be a bit of both and neither.  Shorn of the irresistible presence of Davis, “injured” once more if mercifully briefly, not to mention the longer term absence of Louza’s promptings you could frame this as trying to break into a safe without a key or a mallet.  Or something.  And certainly there are echoes of our erstwhile impotence here today… periods of play when we keep possession without really getting anywhere.  There are also occasions when we ignite and look all but irresistible, if only briefly.  More significant perhaps – since we’ve known since the start of the season what our forward line in particular ought to be capable of in this division – there’s a doggedness, a single-mindedness that is new, I think.  Certainly a performance well beyond Millwall or – better comparisons – Preston or Birmingham, say in terms of application.

Wigan aren’t great, and that helps.  They’re not dreadful either…  they’re a halfway reasonable team playing without much zip.  And whilst the threat that they might nick a goal never quite disappears it is infrequent…  the danger is that we’ll forget it’s there, like a pan left sizzling inconsequentially on the hob. Will Keane has one energetic if low-threat shot from distance as Wigan start brightly;  that will be their only effort on target, but Keane comes closer still with a far post header to a McClean free kick from their right, virtually a corner, which fools the local clientele in the stand to our left who saw a net billow but not the nick to the outside of the post on its way out.

Their biggest issue is a lack of any pace at all in attacking positions, which makes a high line both pretty successful and the Obvious Thing To Do;  you imagine they see it as often as we see opposing defences sit deep and chase down possession in front of them.

3- The home side’s early impertinence is arrested as soon as we ignite for the first time;  João Pedro floats to the left and releases Sarr who cuts inside onto his right foot and plays a 1-2 with Vakoun Bayo whose deft backheel is nonetheless perhaps just a foot or so further away from Sarr than he’d have liked.  Consequently he’s reaching for it under attention rather than placing it past Jones, who makes a good instinctive save but it’s a pretty devastating move that really wasn’t very far away from being decisive.  

Vakoun Bayo, sensibly, isn’t trying to be Keinan Davis but what he offers in his place for all his willingness isn’t a whole lot.  He releases Sema on the other flank with another clever backheel – the Swede rumbles inside but drags a shot disappointingly wide – but this trademark is picked up on and two of his backheels are anticipated and intercepted during the second half.  Otherwise he’s trying to be a focal point in his own way, attacking the near post when balls are put into the box, but he obviously doesn’t have Davis’ physicality and other assets aren’t sharp enough to be relevant against a well-organised back three lead by Jack Whatmough, the game’s outstanding player for much of the afternoon.

So we end the half irrelevantly on top.  Sarr wants a penalty as he drives in again from the left but it looks soft;  replays reveal that any contact was well outside the box anyway.  Edo Kayembe surges into an inviting crevice in Wigan’s defence, but trips over the ball.  Will Keane pops up again, spinning in the penalty area after a set piece – these being the home side’s most obvious threat – but firing high and wide.  We look purposeful… but are hardly banging the door down.

4- Half time sees resumption of the herberts’ pre-match Watford quiz.  “OK, for goodness’ sake… give me five Watford players who are from Africa – think about it here while I go to the loo”.  “Is Brazil in Africa?”.  “No.”.

There is a stench of nil-nilness about the place which is commented on by more than one voice in the concourse.  Despite this, perhaps fuelled by the greater vim in the performance and particularly by last week the mood in the away end is far more positive than it has been, and never drops below gallows humour in tone.  There are, unsurprisingly, plenty references to them up the road, quite what has just happened again, and what happens to them everywhere they go.  Daughter 2 rolls her eyes but in a tolerant way, like a teacher indulging exuberant kids on the last day of school. 

Hamza Choudhury is also getting a lot of love, and quite right too as he once again stomps all over the midfield.  Nonetheless the second half is proceeding in much the same way as the first…  we’re inconsequentially the better side.  You do feel that if there’s a breakthrough, JP’s going to be involved somewhere along the line.. he pops up on the left and carves a beautiful cross onto Kenzema’s head.  “Ngonge is the decoy” mumbles my brother (one for the kids there) as Sema heads the ball straight down into the ground, a waste of a good chance.

As Bilić was later to comment the subs made all the difference.  In particular, the much maligned Samuel Kalu ignited a threat from our right flank that hadn’t really been there before, for all of Ken’s reliable industry.  His first involvement echoed most of his cameos last season… his debut, an 89th minute entrance two minutes after pulling Arsenal back to 3-2, saw him scream onto a loose ball, advance aggressively towards the penalty area as the crowd rose and then punt the ball inconsequentially into the keeper’s arms.  Here he made a bee-line for goal, surging past challenges before applying a heavy touch and seeing the ball run out to scorn from the home stands.

But his belligerence prevailed.  The next run, just as single-minded, saw the ball slipped to Sarr – now playing centrally following Bayo’s removal, whose snapshot was denied by an inhuman block from Whatmough.  Asprilla had replaced Bayo and had a more credible penalty shout having appeared to fool his marker with a step inside, this was waved away.  Then Kalu embarked on an extraordinary run, which brought to mind my co-editor’s account of Tommy Mooney’s goal against Bristol Rovers 25-odd years ago… “like the winner of an egg-and-spoon race through the Amazon jungle“.  He ducked around, over, through and under challenges and still emerged with the ball… had he smashed it top corner cult status would surely have been assured.  Instead he got a corner and collapsed holding his ankle.  We hadn’t seen a foul, perhaps his body was as fooled by his movement as everyone else had been.

5- It’s a stonking goal.  Just tremendous.  Asprilla’s corner following Kalu’s heroics is headed straight back to him meaning that his second cross from slightly further inside creates a carbon copy of Wigan’s best go in the first half;  the Colombian teenager sends in a gorgeous, arcing cross second time around,  Whatmough spoils his copybook by being beaten in the air by João Pedro at the back post and the header crashes satisfyingly in off the underside of the bar.   As an aside, it’s not impossible that we’ll score a similar goal some time soon with roles reversed – JP’s equally capable of such deliveries and Asprilla’s leap and aerial ability will surprise adversaries just as the Brazilian’s fooled Whatmough today.

There’s still time for a “for f***’s sake…” moment up the other end as we slice a clearance out for a corner, the keeper is up for it, Whatmough tries to redeem himself but crashes a header off the crossbar and that, after seven added minutes, is that.

Very far from perfect, obviously.  But you can choose your own favourite cliché here… the one about winning the scruffy matches, or winning despite not quite being on your game, or winning being a habit.  You may have your own.  Tick, tick, tick.  It’s tremendous to see not only Sierralta back in the side but Hause and TDB on the bench;  with Choudhury picking up a fifth booking, the one downer on proceedings, we may need the latter sooner (Wednesday) rather than later.

But with Davis, one hopes and presumes, back in the side also it’s not impossible that we’ll hit the World Cup break in a fortnight regretting an interruption to our momentum.  This seemed rather unlikely as recently as ten days ago.  Not dull, is it?


Bachmann 3, Gosling 3, Kamara 3, Sierralta 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 3, *João Pedro 4*, Sarr 3, Sema 3, Bayo 2
Subs: Kalu (for Sema, 68) 4, Asprilla (for Bayo, 74) 4, Mario Gaspar (for Gosling, 79) NA, Dele-Bashiru, Hause, Morris, Okoye

Watford 4 Luton Town 0 (23/10/2022) 24/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- “Just the football today Matt.  None of your political bollocks”.

OK, Nige.

It’s been hammering it down all night.  We aquaplaned once on the way down – before we passed Luton else the overwhelming portent, strong as it already was, might have seen us turn around again.  For all the “only way is up” stuff after Wednesday, for all that our form is erratic in a way that ought to always give us a straw to cling to after a soul-sapping defeat we approached this fearing the worst, in more than one respect.

I remember this being described somewhere, many years ago, as “the sort of derby that the locals get very agitated by but nobody else gives much of a toss about”.  Harsh but fair.  Thing is…  it’s been sixteen and a half years since supporters were able to watch this fixture in the ground, and the previous a further eight years before that.  Many of the people in Vicarage Road today won’t have seen a derby game in person before;  fewer still were here the last time we won this one in front of fans with John Barnes and Worrell Sterling doing the damage in April 1987 (I kept a diary in 1987, the entry features the word “murdered”).

Which is several ways of saying that it’s been a long time, even if I am old enough to remember.  And maybe there’s a degree of having forgotten how to do it.  Does it even matter quite so much any more?  I’ve always felt that derbies in general and this in particular have an importance that’s inversely correlated to the current prospects of the perpetrators – far more vital in the years when both teams were on their uppers.  But now?  We’re supposed to hate Luton of course and vice versa but… in the absence of any meetings at all I’ve been far more exercised by competitive rivals like Bournemouth and Palace.  How is this going to work?

The potential for trouble is uncertain and unknowable for similar reasons.  Nobody who was here in September 2002 will have taken anything for granted but the provisions and club instructions seem, understandably, to have straddled the twin concerns of not wanting to leave anything to chance – there is, as promised, a police presence much heavier than usual – and not wanting to provoke a situation by stepping back thirty years to the kind of feel that probably contributed to only 14,000 being at that game in 1987.  Treat people like idiots and they’ll behave like idiots, and so on.  Those responsible will probably argue with some justification that they got the balance right but I’ve used Daughter 2’s presence as an excuse to err on the side of caution – colours hidden until inside and so on – despite the fact that she could probably flatten a visiting troglodyte with a withering glance at 30 paces.

2- As far as “how do we do this again?” is concerned, Luton appear to have gone out of their way to help matters by wearing a kit with orange sleeves (only a Thing for three seasons in the early eighties, it transpires, but at a critical formative stage in my development such that it provokes unexpected and involuntary revulsion).  They could have gone further by fielding Kirk Stephens or Steve Foster in the back four (now both in their sixties but, one is tempted to suggest, no worse than the present incumbents on this evidence, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).  It’s not orange, it turns out, but a sort of red and blue combo but then I am getting on (see above).

Cathcart, Kayembe, JP for Pollock, Louza (sigh) and Asprilla.  Fine.  Good.  Best available.  Nonetheless, we spend a long time drinking Side Pocket in the Upper GT with Dad, braving the inevitable at the last minute to the extent that Felix suggests he thought we’d been arrested.

The script is abandoned from the off.  “League form goes out the window on derby day”, I seem to remember (which I think used to mean that the two sides would bludgeon out a nervous, ugly, charmless 1-1 draw irrespective of circumstances).

But surely the script here was for Luton to be On It.  To have nervous prey in their sights, pampered Premier League wannabes who demonstrably don’t like it up ’em and to come at us like wild dogs accordingly.  That’s what I’d expected.  That’s what I’d feared.  Instead the visitors seem… woozy.  Anaesthetised.  Certainly Keinan Davis being able to receive the ball, control and turn unchallenged well inside Luton’s half in the first minute was not on my bingo card…  no more is the amount of space being afforded us in wide areas.  An attack is recycled to Sarr who, whisper it, perhaps has another chance to really flourish now that he’s once again, as on his best days with Troy and Geri, Not The Only Threat.  Luton are already standing off him;  he angles a pass out to Hassane Kamara on his first gallop.  The full back could build a housing estate on the amount of space afforded to him;  instead he flings a cross near post to which is met acrobatically and creatively by Keinan Davis in a sort of scorpion kick.  1-0 after 2 minutes, and Vicarage Road loses it’s shit.

Luton come back at us.  A shot is blocked, Alan Campbell rolls the follow-up narrowly wide of Daniel Bachmann’s right hand post from the edge of the box.  He wasn’t getting to it if it was a foot closer to him, and perhaps we’d have ended up with the traditional 1-1 after all if that had gone in.  Craig Cathcart, a pillar of magnificence all early-afternoon, comes marching out of the penalty box at this escape to berate João Pedro for dereliction of midfield duty.  The Brazilian has had a wobbly start on his return to the eleven, but within two minutes he turns on a sixpence to leave Alfie Doughty blinking stupidly and facing entirely the wrong direction. JP disappears up the right wing and Luton’s prospects disappear with him – they’ve already had their best moment of the game.

As Bilić’s post-match comments reflect, this is a master class in a fine old chestnut.  We earn the right to play.  We earn the right by working our nuts off all over the pitch… gone is the lack of energy of Wednesday night, here’s Hamza Chaudhury, who doesn’t miss a beat for 75 minutes, hammering into a challenge, here’s Edo Kayembe chasing down possession well inside the visitors’ half.  Here’s Dan Gosling being exactly the kind of canny bastard you need in a derby game. We earn the right to play, and then we play them off the park.

JP’s trick-and-spin-and-go thing is the game’s trademark.  Keinan Davis’ is a monstrous, terrifying all-round performance that will yield two assists on top of his goal – he’s the next to do a twisty spinny thing, before barrelling towards the goal leaving markers in his wake.  They might as well be trying to tackle a tank.  He slams a contemptuous shot towards the bottom corner which Horvath does well to push away.

We’re confident and assertive all over the pitch, and the fact that we’re not capitalising feels like mere detail – even when Adebayo beats the flapping Bachmann to a deep cross before heading over.  There’s an inevitability here, a lack of jeopardy.  Shortly before the break we get the second… it has some fortune about it but we’ve earned that.  João Pedro’s deep, looping cross from the left looks like a f***-up but it isn’t because JP did it.  Davis and Sarr are both hammering in on the far post waiting for it to drop – Davis it is who gets part of his head to it, somehow deflecting it back across the box onto Troost-Ekong’s toe and thence into the net.  The Watford supporting centre-back didn’t enjoy that at all.  We end the half with our foot noisily on the visitors’ throat, pushing hard for a third.

3- There are two obvious points of comparison.

The first is a game that ended with the same scoreline 25 years ago this month.  It was a hugely significant result in many ways;  most obviously at the time the fact that it ended a ten year stretch without a derby win in a period densely populated with such encounters – the same 2-0 win mentioned previously having been the last.

But more than that, it was symbolic of a parting of the ways.  This was evident at the time – I’d arranged a trip back from working abroad so as not to miss it – the more so with the benefit of hindsight.  Luton and Watford had been competitive rivals since the start of the eighties when I began watching – normally in the same division, promoted to the top flight together in 1982, relegated three years apart and then relegated again, together, in 1996.  We weren’t to know how long-term the separation would be at the time, but it was already clear that with GT at the helm, with Division Two being flattened and an injury-hit Luton struggling near the foot of the table – though relegation would take another year – the clubs were on different paths.

There was a concern that a big win for the visitors here of the sort that we’d been dreading since Wednesday at least, would represent the end of this break – a symbolic return to the clubs competing as equals.  This may yet prove to be the case – but as it is the game’s outcome has our opponents clinging to the fact that they remain above us in the League.  For the first time in twenty-five years.  How were they for you?

The other obvious comparator is Wednesday evening.  On that occasion the boot was on the other foot…  we had the bad start and then fell apart.  We looked flat, without energy, without inspiration.  Also without our little magician in midfield.  Who could have guessed that three days on we’d see Kayembe and Choudhury rampaging to such a victory.

In that second half we dominated possession but were… over-deliberate.  Tentative.  Forced.  Luton’s start to the second half here was similar…  an improvement, a bit of pressure and possession but always with an air of reluctant obligation.  Half-time substitute Gabriel Osho sent a diving header wide from a corner before looking up as if to ask “there you go, I tried.  Can I go home yet?”.

4- In a report describing (spoiler alert!) a magnificent thumping of our local rivals based on comprehensively both outfighting and outplaying them, it’s a shame to have to reflect on being let down by elements – some might say a minority, but it’s a significant minority – of our support.

Those responsible were housed in the Rookery, the home of the 1881 and so often the source of positive stuff.  But today, there was simply no excuse for the easy ride given to Ethan Horvath after our third twelve minutes in.  Others might claim mitigation in the shape of, you know, other things to sing about and celebrate.  Perhaps I’m a sadistic bastard for cherishing the evisceration of Danny Coyne with the “dodgy keeper” chant all those years ago.  Whatever.  Must do better.

The third goal was formed of the efforts of our two star performers amongst a sea of star performers.  Davis we’ve already talked about – here he contributed an assist without touching the ball, bounding after possession (at 2-0 up mind you) until he found a loose thread, Horvath nervily getting rid and finding only João Pedro.  The Brazilian was utterly mesmerising at the apex of the midfield, this is what our glittering forward line was supposed to look like.  Swaying past challenges that were too far away, holding off challenges that were too close.  Others have complained at Luton’s niggliness, but I’d have found it hard to resist kicking people after being repeatedly made to look like a tosser.  No mistakes from JP here, he took a touch and precisely as much time as he could afford before hammering the ball between the miserable Horvath and his near post.

The game was over.  Except it wasn’t, obviously, since quite how many it was going to be remained an open question.  The visitors had perfunctory shots from distance, but we always felt the more likely… Kayembe did his traditional “nearly scoring” thing, forcing a save from Horvath who had, in fairness, been largely blameless before the third goal and recovered well afterwards.  He denied Davis a second by intercepting a wicked left wing cross destined for the big striker’s forehead at the far post and pushing it over.

Shortly afterwards Davis was off after twisting painfully near the technical areas and falling like an oak tree.  It looked like a bad injury, but he jogged down the tunnel after treatment and was later seen moving easily enough around the dugout.  Vakoun Bayo was his replacement, and Daughter 2 demonstrated her accelerated development with the dogmatic prejudice of a veteran, insisting that the striker was “still rubbish” based on his poor showing at St Andrews despite since redeeming himself several times over.  Unabashed by her scepticism Bayo tees Isma up for the fourth, the Senegalese leaving three opponents on their backsides with a series of shimmies before clipping a fierce low shot past Horvath into the bottom corner.

It could and perhaps should have been more.  Yáser Asprilla must have been the last thing Luton needed off the bench… when you’re 4-0 down to your local rivals you really don’t want to be made to look stupid by someone who looks about 12.  Asprilla might have been the only man in yellow to end the match unhappy having failed to break his duck after several close calls, at least one denied by the keeper.

Meanwhile Gabriel Osho won the “which one of them is going to get sent off?” prize with a moronic lunge at Ken Sema.  Harry Cornick, a wide attacker with a stupid Scott Oakes tribute haircut, would have been my pick after an increasingly stroppy battle with the normally placid Sema.  Referee Bobby Madley had done a pretty decent job of keeping things lively but sane – there had been a few sympathetic looking decisions towards the end of the game, but churlish to protest too much.  4-0 it ended, which for historical reasons was almost preferable to a 5 or 6 that would have better reflected the game.

5- Of course it still matters.  Of course it does.

If it didn’t before the game, the longer-term psychological impact of the afternoon on both the many visiting supporters who left early and those who stuck it out to the end (and, as an aside, were mocked by some nugget behind me for acknowledging their team positively at the end as if “supporting” is somehow inferior to angrily pointing and wailing in the face of defeat like wot we do) guarantees a resumption of hostilities going forward.

They away end had made the mistake of giving airtime to “Watford get battered…” before the game;  normally the laziness of Song A by Team X at Team Y being reflected back the other way would be tedious and unimaginative but here the refrain being eagerly and tirelessly rammed back down their throats was the first track on the afternoon’s soundtrack, closely followed by the crowd-pleaser “it’s happened again, it’s happened agaaaaain….”.   If you’re not going to make a racket in such circumstances then, well, when are you really…  but good to see Vicarage Road stepping up to the mark with its noisiest performance for some time, the more so given the discombobulating midday kick-off.

And so we head into a relatively gentle looking run of games before the break in good spirits and with another opportunity to establish something resembling a run of form.  Nobody should be under any illusions that everything is “sorted”…  challenges remain, and after all we only won today because of the lurgy that decimated Luton’s options*.

But we’re all perfectly entitled to stick our fingers in our ears and LALALALANOTLISTENING, for a few days at least.  This was an utter joy in it’s own right.

See you at Wigan.


* allegedly.  arf.

Bachmann 5, Gosling 5, Kamara 5, Troost-Ekong 5, Cathcart 5, Kayembe 5, Choudhury 5, *João Pedro 5*, Sarr 5, Sema 5, *Davis 5*
Subs: Bayo (for Davis, 69) 5, Mario Gaspar (for Choudhury, 75) 5, Kalu (for Sarr, 84) 5, Asprilla (for João Pedro, 84) 5, Pollock, Morris, Okoye