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Watford 2 Swansea City 0 (08/05/2021) 08/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
31 comments

1-

2.3  Parsimony
Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.
2.4  Worrying Selectively

Since all models are wrong the scientist must be alert to what is importantly wrong. It is inappropriate to be concerned about mice when there are tigers abroad.

Box, G. E. P. (1976), “Science and statistics”, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71 (356): 791–799

From which is derived the aphorism “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  In other words, a statistical model which approximates to the real world is never going to be a perfect representation of the thing it describes.  I can help scientists generate data that allows me to create a model that will predict an output from certain inputs.  If I know the recipe of a product, perhaps I can predict how quickly it will melt at a given temperature, or how much consumers will like it.

My predictions will be wrong.  Most of them.  In as much as it’s possible to tell.  The point is, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is if my prediction, or more generally my model, is close enough to be useful.

2- It doesn’t feel much like the last day of the season.  It doesn’t feel much like anything really, enjoyed as it is from this season’s detached vantage point in the study, window slightly ajar, snacks and drinks in place, match on the big screen, other stuff on the smaller screen. WhatsApp is accessible but carefully hidden and muted to guard against unwanted telegraphs of what’s about to happen from folk with faster streams than mine, we’ve all gotten better at this with experience.

But of all the things that it doesn’t feel like, the last day of the season is one of the things that it feels like least.  At this stage you’re normally looking forward to summer holidays for starters;  these are a moving target at the very best in these unprecedented times.  There might well be alcohol involved on the final day but I’m not cracking open a beer on my own at 12.30pm. There’d certainly normally be some effort to cross paths with the mates that you won’t see again until the next one, the high five-cum-handshake and “see you in August, mate” with people who you’ve known for years but never seen outside of Vicarage Road.  Not this year. And of course it’s normally sweltering on such occasions, rather than pissing it down with rain.  Sunshine was surely a reasonable expectation, a minimum requirement, unaffected as it is by Stuff and Things, one assumes.  Apparently not.

At least the club are putting on an obstinately excited performance.  There was a risk that after the lord mayor’s show the season might end inappropriately blandly, the irrelevant disappointment of defeat at Brentford last week case in point.  Not that anyone’s complaining, these last two fixtures being of no consequence is a tremendous result all round, but a repeat showing wouldn’t have sent us into the close season with quite the spring in our step that we should have for all that last Saturday was far from a catastrophe.

So the fabulously over the top explosions, flares, torches as the teams emerge, let alone the overdue return of whatever it is that shoots ridiculous volumes of yellow streamers into the heavens, are a defiant clarion call.  The streamers respect tradition by fastening themselves to the roof of the Sir Elton John stand forming a theatrical curtain above the stage for all wide angle shots (and for the man himself, to whom the camera returns frequently).

This buoyancy is evident in the players as they emerge;  grins everywhere and fists bumped with Nate Chalobah, Joseph Hungbo and the others restricted to the sidelines.  Swansea boss Steve Cooper, who limited screen time has occasionally presented as peevish and joyless, seems to be readily bumping fists too, in contrast to his captain Matt Grimes who noticeably refrains from any handshakes or fist bumps as the teams greet each other.  Perhaps he’s mindful of Stuff and Things.  Perhaps he’s just a miserable bastard.  Like Ivan Toney, if for different reasons, that ship has probably sailed so it’s all the same to us one way or the other.

3- Xisco has named virtually a second pick eleven.  It would, you suspect, be an entirely second pick eleven if Joe Hungbo hadn’t done his hammy at Brentford; the steadfast Ken Sema (steadfastness a rare quality in a winger but then Ken, a winger with the build of a heavyweight boxer, is a rare specimen) the only incontrovertible first choice from a fully fit squad amongst the starters.  There are nonetheless eight full internationals in the eleven, which tells some of the story of our success this season.

Swansea, meanwhile, have gone strong with what looks like a first-choice line-up.  With last week still front of mind things look a little ominous as the visitors get in down the left in the first minute;  Navarro gets away with a slide tackle from the wrong side in the box but that’s the last cheap opening they’re going to get;  for all that we’ve bemoaned the erstwhile absence of a physical specimen like Sierralta as one of the many things that might have prevented relegation a year ago we don’t half have some smart defenders as Cathcart and Kaba remind us throughout.  Within a minute Hourihane does his side no favours with a ludicrous dive some distance from the bemused Isaac Success within the penalty area;  it screams desperation this early in proceedings, marks his side’s card and probably plays a part in the official’s interpretation of subsequent optimistic but slightly less daft City claims.

Swansea are a bit odd.  At the Liberty Stadium in Xisco’s first away game they looked a tidy side;  solid defensively with enough going forward to be productive.  Plausible shouts for automatic on that evidence.  Subsequently they’ve undergone the sort of character transformation usually reserved for soap operas that choose not to write out a popular anti-hero at the end of their story arc.  On this evidence they look both blunt and get-attable, and have still contrived to finish fourth.  Not difficult to understand why FiveThirtyEight have them fourth favourites, a one-in-eight shot for the play-offs (anyone but Bournemouth, etc).

Swansea’s positive start doesn’t last long.  The first half hour is enjoyably open for all that it doesn’t produce any goals, and Ken is a key protagonist.  Three minutes in (we’ll pick up speed I promise, my dinner’s ready…) he tricks his way down the flank and pulls a ball back slightly too deep for Zinckernagel who does well to get as much power and direction as he does on the shot, but not enough. Back at the other end Ayew wriggles outside of Cathcart and shoots optimistically from a tight angle, Ben Foster is equal to it.  Sema thunders up the left flank again.  Gosling crashes in on Ayew, not for the last time, in a manner that suggests untold previous.

It calms down a bit, but only a bit.  Swansea get bursts of conviction that fizzle out on the flood barrier that erects itself around the edge of our box.  Lazaar becomes more prominent in what will comfortably be his most convincing outing in yellow, ending the half with an outrageous one-touch lay-off to a surprised Gosling to kill the pace on a crossfield ball.  Hourihane finds the space to shoot but from outside the box, Foster pushes wide.  Sema holds off two challenges to progress down the left and then slugs his cross out for a throw.  The half ends.

4- Lucky half time chocolate is a bowl of chicken and leek soup, which curtails note taking at the start of a second half that continues in much the same vein as the first. Swansea slowly, deliberately, work themselves a half-chance which sees Cullen curl over from Lowe’s lay-off, perhaps their best move of the game;  Watford break with far more vigour but can’t find the final ball for all that Andre Gray has been charging around looking for it since kick-off.

Until we do.  We get lucky with a kind deflection off Marc Guéhi which sees the ball drop onto the unwitting head of  Gray in a manner reminiscent of the opener here against Bristol City when All This Started, but to mark it down as a fluke would be to do a disservice to Ken Sema’s first assist of the calendar year, another bomb of a cross from the left flank.

From this point on the destination of the points is never in doubt.  In part this reflects the changing of the guard on both sides;  the Swans give it ten minutes, but then make four changes with the forthcoming play-offs in mind.  Meanwhile on come a combative Will Hughes, a deft João Pedro and ultimately Troy Deeney…  looking heavy and making limited impact but a very welcome arrival whose “Troy….Deeney?” introduction by Tim Coombs  on the tannoy is well-judged.

Lazaar becomes more prominent, blossoming as the season comes to a close.  A formidable double block in the box sees him emerge with the ball and surge upfield.  Later, as the game closes, a João Pedro lay-off bounces helpfully and the winger, by now forming a Moroccan left flank with Adam Masina, clouts a shot that Woodman does well to repel.  Too little too late, probably, but he doesn’t do his chances of a contract somewhere any harm.

The same of course is true of Isaac.  With the game trundling to a close he’s released by Marc Navarro and belts home…. muscles bulging, top corner, the net protruding with its ferocity.  A Roy-of-the-Rovers goal.  “Freddie Woodman didn’t even sniff it” would have come the speech bubble from the Rookery, if it hadn’t been empty.  Isaac’s few champions have been desperate for something to go in off his not inconsiderable backside, in the absence of that This Will Do.  The inevitable damburst that would follow this development cruelly curtailed by the end of the season.  If only.

The game, and the season, ends.

5- Someone asked me this week if I’d enjoyed this season, all things considered.  And the answer is…  well, not as much as any season which involves, you know, being at games and that.  On that basis, the logic follows, this is the worst season ever.

And yet.  The imperfections have almost exclusively been down to Stuff and Things outside of our control.  No, it hasn’t been a “real” season in that sense.  It’s been an approximation, a pastiche but… “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.

And hasn’t this been useful.  However hard it’s been, the last year, imagine doing it without Watford.  On the pitch, all but flawless.  Automatic promotion with games to spare, ninety-one points, nineteen home wins in 23, equalling Reading’s record of 30 goals  conceded in a season at this level, clean sheets in half of our league games.  A team that, since the mid-season changes, has screamed unity…  it’s much easier to be unified when you’re winning every week of course but each fuels the other.

Off the pitch.  Hornet Hive has been a thing of joy;  Emma, Jon, Tommy Mooney, Robbo and the rest have been utterly magnificent.  Gifton Noel-Williams’ unexpected pre-match candour, professing that it’s enabled him to feel “part of the club again”…  remembering the sight of the awkward figure being celebrated in the back of the stand at St Andrews in 1999, the trajectory of his career already  knocked cruelly off path at the age of 20 I’m almost in tears.

The decision to dispose of Ivić.  Even if you agreed at the time, would you have been bold enough to do it in the circumstances?  If you had the responsibility of making that decision, if you knew what the consequences would be irrespective of the fact that your track record involves leading a club whose centre of gravity had previously been roughly fourteenth in he Championship (and lower still, pre GT) to promotion, a cup final and five seasons in the Premier League?  Big, bold call.  Crucial call.

Hornets at Home.  The Community Trust.  The support offered to the hospital for goodness sake, selflessness when it was absolutely needed.  The fact that there’s almost certainly significant stuff that I’ve forgotten…

Everyone thinks their club is unique, is special.  That’s how it should be.

Everyone else is wrong.

See you next season.  In the Premier League.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Navarro 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Lazaar 4, Sánchez 3, Gosling 4, Zinckernagel 2, Success 3, *Sema 4*, Gray 3
Subs:  Hughes (for Zinckernagel, 65) 3, João Pedro (for Sánchez, 65) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 72) 2, Wilmot (for Gosling, 82) NA, Masina (for Sema, 82) NA, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Perica, Bachmann

Brentford 2 Watford 0 (01/05/2021) 01/05/2021

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

1-   Twitter’s great.

I didn’t know any Watford supporters outside my family until I was eleven.  Then there was Ian at school, and later Rick (though he confirmed suspicions by switching to Spurs when GT left).  A latin teacher and a music teacher.  But… you know.  Limited chewing stuff over options.  The Hornet Hotline used to be a thing after all, a premium rate phone line I’d run up Mum and Dad’s phone bill on to discover whether we really had signed Leroy Rosenior or Terry Gibson (sometimes with Dad’s permission…).  Ceefax, page 302 (or more specifically 312), a tantalising drip feed of information.

Now I can find someone to talk to about whatever I want whenever I want, pretty much.  I can find out about stuff that’s just happened, even if it’s on the other side of the world.  I can find information, seek advice, compare and contrast opinions.  Twitter’s brilliant.

Twitter is also ghastly.

We’ve talked about the echo chamber before.  The natural tendency to pay attention to perspectives that resonate with your own, to block out those that don’t.  The logical consequence of that is that your perspective is re-enforced by the illusion of consensus.  “Look, everyone thinks this”.  Polarisation.

Add that to any number of national and international developments that have legitimised points of view that ought never have been given the oxygen of publicity and you’ve got a toxic environment where a knee-jerk response is all too easy, an unpleasant knee-jerk response no less so.  

An over-riding concern is the Wild Westness of it.  Except there isn’t much of a sheriff, so actually that’s probably a bit harsh on the Wild West.  The lack of consequence, the facility to cross the line with no comeback is abhorrent and re-enforces the suggestion that certain things that aren’t ok are actually ok, or at least get-awayable with.  

Then you’ve got the consciously malevolent.  The folk who go out to provoke, to incite, to offend, whether to fuel unspeakable insecurity or because their whole world is an echo chamber that permits such lack of judgement and conscience.  As Troy has pointed out this weekend, it’s inconceivable that social media platforms with the facility to sniff a copyright infringement at 100 paces are powerless to police this stuff.  The social media blackout might not change anything in that regard.  But it’s an awful lot better than passive disapproval, and it sends a message that might penetrate the echo chamber.  It’s not OK to be a bloody idiot.

2- Meanwhile, anyone but Bournemouth.  Obviously.

But beyond that, and looking strictly at our own on-pitch interests and not at the attractiveness of a local away trip to a new stadium as and when and so forth, and without taking anything remotely for granted you’d have to say that Swansea and Barnsley both have greater capacity to be relegation fodder in the Premier League than Brentford on the basis of this. 

For all that they’re playing a hung-over fifth-sequel pastiche of the side that has stormed the second half of the season (we’ll get to that), for all that they’ve managed to turn a nine point cushion to a(nother) play off scrap in the space of three months, for all that their ability to turn dominance of the ball into impotent defeat is laid on show in the first half like bric-a-brac at a car boot sale, Brentford look better equipped on this evidence.  This evidence being a squad that’s been a few years in the building.  A club that has the facility and the capacity to repeatedly sell on crown jewels – Konsa, Maupay, Benrahma, Watkins – and replace them with others you’d scarcely heard of and still come out punching.  To record victories in consecutive games against two of the division’s strongest sides (albeit and so on and so forth) without key personnel.  A club that has a goalscoring centre-forward of all things.  That would give them a puncher’s chance.

So anyone but Bournemouth, for reasons of civility and good taste.  And preferably not Brentford if it’s possible to be greedy, for slightly different reasons.

3- As for the Hornets, our own line-up is decimated by a series of injuries variously described as minor and niggling on the official site but which presumably wouldn’t have been niggling enough to render players unavailable if promotion were still in question.  The exception is groin-injury victim Kiko of course, but Sarr, João Pedro, Sánchez and Chalobah are also all missing from the squad that sealed the deal against Millwall.  

The result is as makeshift-looking a side as we’ve put out since the turn of the year, but circumstances being what they are (and hurrah for that, obviously, in case that wasn’t taken as read.  My hangover released me some time on Tuesday…) the take is a positive one, with the hugely likeable Joseph Hungbo given his first start. The slight concern, if there is one, is the ongoing and unmentioned absence of Jeremy Ngakia, last seen on the bench against Reading three weeks ago.  Craig Cathcart again steps in as third choice not-really-a-right-back.

The first twenty minutes or so are reasonably enjoyable.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession but don’t do an awful lot with it, almost positioning their glass jaw for a knockout punch.  We’re achieving more with far less, and Hungbo is prominent… he wins a free kick in the first minutes after a bullish run down the right;  ten minutes later he’s direct again, drawing a foul on the edge of the area that is presumably ignored by Lee Mason on the basis that the similarly energetic and waspish Dan Gosling gets a shot away;  David Raya saves low down to his left.

Tom Cleverley has already sent a wicked, inviting ball across the face of Brentford’s goal, startling in how effortlessly dangerous it was (aren’t this lot supposed to be good?).  Masina sent a dipping ball towards Gray that doesn’t quite clear Nørgaard but wasn’t far away from doing so;  Gray turned his marker with expert use of his backside but couldn’t accelerate quite quickly enough to gallop into space unattended.  It was all kind of promising in a scene-setting way, but it was as good as we were going to get.

Twenty minutes in Hungbo’s hamstring went as he thundered after possession again on the right flank.  It echoed Tom Dele-Bashiru’s injury at Reading at the start of the season…  less consequential, Hungbo’s enforced absence will be largely down to the summer break rather than an ACL, but similarly “just when we realised how good you are” frustrating.  Football matches come fewer and further between in the promised land, let alone opportunities to “go and show us what you can do, son”.  Ten minutes later Tom Cleverley followed Hungbo off; Zinc and Isaac Success entering the fray.

We were immediately weaker.  Whether Zinc was distracted by the presence of so many of his compatriots in the opposing ranks or not, his impact was minimal – he barely managed more than a simple lay-back for his first hour or so on the pitch.  As for Isaac…  I had cause to remember my tutor’s description of my work at university.  “You have moments of brilliance, mixed in with moments of…  not quite such brilliance”.  He was a nice man, he was being kind.  You suspect he’d say something similar about Isaac, whose lumbering around and woefully overhit passes occasionally blossom into something startling… like in the second half , when he receives another fine deep Masina ball, holds off his marker with impossible strength and clubs a shot goalwards in one sweeping movement.  Tommy Mooney spots a David Raya intervention on the ball’s way onto the crossbar and away – either way this stuff would be a whole lot more endearing if Isaac was still 20 and in his first year at Watford rather than 25 and in his fifth.  Time’s up, you suspect.

Brentford’s threat becomes slightly less theoretical as Toney, who is the lightning rod that Troy was for us at his best, and the busy Forss get to work.  Forss has the ball in the net with a backheel, denied for a well-spotted offside.  We’re still in the game at the break, kind of ok on balance.  But only kind of.

4- A minute into the second half it’s not kind of ok any more as Brentford unpeel us with the kind of soft goal that we haven’t conceded in forever, Forss turning in Canos’ ball across.  It was already evident that for all that WTE’s distribution is… occasionally alarming, we’re missing his “this is what we do and this is where we stand” influence on the back four.  Neither Kaba nor Sierralta have bad games – indeed the Chilean’s fine repertoire of different ways of getting in the way is given a decent airing – but it’s far less organised, far less “sorted”.  Which I guess is only fair, given that the pair had never started together in anger.  

Twelve minutes later Toney wrong-foots Sierralta in the box and goes down.  It looks soft, but Sierralta knows he’s been done and doesn’t protest;  Toney puts the pen beyond Bachmann and it’s all over.  It was already over really, the title chance…  Reading had teased us in the first half by taking the lead and holding onto it for fifteen minutes but Barnsley, whose belligerence we would have been relying on on the final day, were contriving to lose at Preston which wasn’t remotely encouraging.  In the end, Norwich cantered away with it.

We did at least manage to see out the game without further damage, both sides postulating the possibility of further goals without actually looking much like scoring one, Success’ brainstorm aside.  A clean sheet against Swansea next week will now only equal, rather than outstrip, the best Championship defensive record.  30 goals in 45 games is pretty sharp.  28 would have been sharper, obvs, but 30 is sharp.

We send on three subs, which is a bit like that bit at the end of a serialised gameshow where contestants chucked out in the early episodes that haven’t pissed everybody off in the meantime get invited back.  Ben Wilmot does an endearingly positive job of stepping in for Will Hughes and reminding us that we really do need to find a place for him.  Stipe Perica sums up his Watford career to date by running around for ten minutes, doing something encouragingly interesting and then getting booked for a silly, premeditated foul. Maurizio Pochettino (not that one) looks like a rabbit in headlights.  Then it stops.

5- Kind of annoying and kind of disappointing and kind of frustrating but only a bit. The whole “now for the title” thing was never wholly convincing, much as it’s easier to be smart in hindsight.  We’re a good enough side to have beaten Brentford despite the circumstances if the ball had rolled for us but it didn’t, and as such it’s no surprise or disgrace to be beaten in the state that we’re in by a Brentford side who are much further from the beach than we are. 

The real work has already been done.  The prize that awaits is much more tantalising than this pallid performance, more tantalising even than rubbing shoulders with the clubs at the top table.  The prize is the ongoing security of our football club – not a terribly romantic way of thinking about it, but a pandemic and relegation from the top flight were always going to be an unfortunate combination.  And with a prevailing wind we’ll all be there to see it.  All of us.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 3, Masina 3, Hughes 3, *Gosling 3*, Cleverley 3, Hungbo 3, Gray 3, Sema 2
Subs: Zinckernagel (for Hungbo, 24) 2, Success (for Cleverley, 31) 2, Wilmot (for Hughes, 85) NA, Perica (for Gray, 85) NA, Pochettino (for Gosling, 85) NA, Lazaar, Troost-Ekong, Navarro, Foster

Watford 1 Millwall 0 (24/04/2021) 25/04/2021

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
16 comments

1. Give a carton of drink to a small child and they’ll probably need some help plunging the straw into the hole, before sucking all of the juice out in under a minute. When it’s almost empty, they’ll happily sit there making loud, revolting slurping sounds for several minutes longer. Those minutes will feel like hours. May actually be hours. And when they’re finally bored, they’ll hand you back a collapsed, wrung-out shell, and they’ll ask for another one. Or some sweets.

It’s really very hard not to see football in a similar light. I can’t have been the only person who, while gleefully watching the Super League fall apart on Tuesday night, felt a familiar weariness at the prospect of having to admit those clubs back, of having to accept competition further distorted by their avarice. An initial flash of annoyance aside, I’d come to rather relish the prospect of them being banished. There’d be a financial shock, of course, but I’ve never bought the idea that domestic competitions would be greatly devalued by their absence, and I suggest, as an example, that had we won either of our two FA Cup finals, we wouldn’t be overly troubling ourselves with caveats about who we’d played en route.

The shock at the plan revealed that far too many people simply haven’t been paying attention, in certain cases out of political convenience. All of the fury would’ve been much better vented at the horse or the stable door or the stable hands or the stable managers before the bolting. UEFA’s 2024 plan, which somehow seemed to contrive to be both a trigger for the breakaway and a hasty reaction to it, pushes another wedge into existing fault-lines. It’d be nice to imagine that having revealed their loaded gun to be a browning banana, the breakaway clubs would find it much harder to press their demands on the governing body in future, but I wonder how long the break from normal service will last. I give it a fortnight.

2. But these last few days have made me look at it all differently. That annoying tendency to search out the grey in a black and white argument means that I’m uncomfortable with some of the hand-wringing: Barney Ronay wrote a rather operatic piece for the Guardian in which he claimed that the Super League “will make you hate football, but still buy football.” And I think…would it, though? Is that not just another way of allowing those clubs to dictate terms, to shape our experience of the game? You don’t have to buy your books from Amazon. The revival of actual bookshops demonstrates that it’s possible for consumers to set a different agenda, that nostalgia for something lost can translate into enjoyment of something alive.

And besides, some of this alienation – including mine – comes from a position of privilege. Were I not male, white and straight, I might never have felt at home in a football ground in the first place; even if I had, I might well have discovered that others objected to my presence, perhaps verbally, perhaps violently. You only get to cry that “the game’s gone!” if you felt as if it was yours to lose.

Because the game hasn’t gone if you’re a member of Proud Hornets or the LBGTQ+ groups springing up at other clubs. The game’s actually – finally – welcoming you into the fold, embracing diversity rather than expecting or demanding uniformity. It hasn’t gone if you’re one of the users of the Sensory Room at Vicarage Road. The club announced that it was joining forces with Hertfordshire Mind Network for this game and it struck me that these things have become routine when, once upon a time, a football club involving itself in mental health initiatives might’ve been considered remarkable. We’re the Community Club of the Year in our region and that means as much as promotion in my eyes. It means even more, I imagine, to those whose lives benefit. Marvin Sordell, who’s spoken out so eloquently about mental health and racism within the game since his retirement, was elected to the PFA Players Board this week. What if the greatest impact made by a graduate of our academy wasn’t actually on the pitch? How amazing would that be?

And proud as that all makes me, it isn’t just us. You really don’t have to search very hard for clubs with similarly positive, progressive, adventurous values, for ownership which achieves far more than self-aggrandisement. Accrington, Wimbledon, Brighton, Forest Green; I imagine there are plenty of others who don’t like to talk about it quite so much, who do a lot of work that’s unseen and uncelebrated. Much further down the pyramid, Hastings United has just started offering free coaching for youngsters of all abilities; it had nearly fifty kids on the first night of its Girls Academy during the week, and three times that for the session in progress as I drove past the ground just after 9am on Saturday morning; a mission statement aims to follow Lewes in achieving parity between the men’s and women’s teams.

And modern footballers have become significantly less insular, less self-absorbed. Whatever the quibbles with its effectiveness, it’s remarkable to see players taking collective political action at every kickoff; it’s worth noting what that is as well as what it arguably fails to be. Every time a well-known name engages with a cause, it chips away at the idea that football should be beyond politics – as if the eighties never happened, as if racist abuse is just banter, as if the soon-to-be Premier League champions aren’t funded by oil money – and makes activism seem just that little bit more acceptable and accessible. It doesn’t need every player, just enough. Not every fan, just enough. Not every club, just enough.

Maybe you don’t agree with all of that. Maybe you even object to some of it. So be it. My point is that grassroots football doesn’t have to begin in the local park, with jumpers for goalposts; grassroots football begins with people, with smiles on faces, with care for others, with space for everyone. With ideas, stories, families, friends. Small acts of kindness, generosity, rebellion, empowerment, achievement. Football can do that so well. Football often is doing that so well, and we shouldn’t lose that in the shadows cast by the arrogance and greed of venture capitalists and oligarchs, or the casual hatred of social media. My point is that every club should be a grassroots club.

3. Perhaps my view of it all has been affected by the other events of Tuesday night. It’s really difficult to be resolute in your pessimism in the face of something as utterly invigorating as our win at Norwich. (Abrupt gear change. Sorry if you spilt your tea down your front. Anyway…)

There’s often discussion about whether performances or results matter more, about whether fans merely want to see their team win…and while I don’t doubt that I’d have been a happy man if we’d defended deep and beaten the Canaries with a late deflected shot, it wouldn’t have fired the imagination in anything like the same way. I keep seeing that midfield three on the hunt, keep seeing them savaging the ball carrier like rabid seagulls spotting someone eating some chips. It was an astonishingly visceral experience, given that it came down a cable into a laptop screen.

To my mind – and again, I do appreciate that I’m a part-timer these days – it’s been a while since we’ve been able to point decisively and say, “That. That’s us. That’s what we’re about.” We were crap at Luton, but we at least have a very clear idea of what not crap is supposed to look like. Tuesday night was…definitive.

4. And this isn’t, but these occasions rarely are. Too much at stake, too much context. You spend the approaching days imagining, against all experience, the glorious release of scoring three by half-time and turning the second half into a lap of honour in the sunshine, but it’s never going to be that way. Your instinct is that you want to be in the ground, able to sing your heart out to drag them over the line, but even that’s an illusion: the reality is that all you get is simmering tension on days like these, and any noise tends to tense up into an anxious, shrill buzz, a collective tinnitus. Nerves take over. If it was easy to achieve stuff, we’d have achieved a lot more stuff, that’s the thing.

For twenty minutes or so, it does actually tend towards imagination over experience. Millwall barely touch the ball for the first five, happy to get their bearings, but that allows us to push up enough to threaten their penalty area. Ismaïla Sarr makes a first attempt at getting behind the Millwall defence, of which more imminently; Dan Gosling surges through the midfield; Adam Masina drives up the left wing; João Pedro takes the ball away from Tom Cleverley on the penalty spot. Ken Sema drifts everywhere, Will Hughes does his Jack Russell impression; we’re confident and urgent and recognisably the same team which so impressed at Carrow Road.

Recalling Kiko Femenía is very obviously the right decision, given the likely requirements of the contest, if harsh on Craig Cathcart. Femenía’s little one-two with Sarr is perfection, pure simplicity; the resulting penalty conceded by Billy Mitchell incontestable (although Phil is no doubt red-faced and livid). The spot-kick is rolled down the middle, a little mis-hit due to a last-moment movement of the ball, a long way from the thwack, crack and rustle we’ve become accustomed to hearing when Troy lines them up. It doesn’t matter. They all count, and this one more than most.

With the wind in our sails and Millwall a little flustered, we briefly suggest that we might make this a comfortable afternoon by adding a second. Dan Gosling – whose late arrival, both in the penalty area and the campaign, is a reminder of how well we’ve used the resources at our disposal – should score when afforded a free header from a Tom Cleverley free kick. Another midfield surge feeds João Pedro, who’s crowded out as he tries to get a shot away. Will Hughes slices a drive wide from outside the box; at the current rate of progress, he’ll belt one of those into the top corner at Spurs on Boxing Day, so pencil that in your diary (and wait for VAR to wipe it out after a five minute pause to review an offside invisible to the naked eye). We’re bright and confident, and the afternoon is ours.

5. If there’s a turning point, it’s possibly the injury to Kiko Femenía, sustained in chasing a lost cause on the touchline, collapsing with a pulled muscle right in front of the dugouts. Hard to argue that it’s a matter of personnel, although we find it harder to get the ball to Sarr thereafter, so perhaps it’s more about lost momentum, about time to think. That being the case, Craig Cathcart is almost a tactical replacement, perfectly suited to the game it becomes rather than the game it briefly was, and his stint at right-back once again has a thoroughly satisfying heft to it, like picking up a beautifully-made hammer and feeling its delicate balance in your hand. There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about playing people out of position, as if you can reduce football to a few hard-and-fast rules; if it was that simple, we’d have bored of it long ago.

Whatever the reason, the nerves start to cut at our control of the game. The midfield becomes busy rather than dominant, the forward line isolated beyond it. We begin to concede free kicks in our own final third, unwise against a side with a player as gigantic as Jake Cooper, Millwall’s looming captain. From one of those, Bradshaw half-volleys narrowly wide, the first of so many warnings that they stop being, you know, warnings and become an actual crisis as half-time approaches. Daniel Bachmann has to save well from a firmly-struck Wallace drive, before the ball’s returned to the danger area and Bennett’s effort is deflected onto the top of the crossbar; from the corner, Malone hides behind the referee, or something, and has acres of space at the far post, heading very wastefully wide.

That last effort aside, the theme is that little goes uncontested: we’re a disciplined, determined defensive unit, and we make things difficult for opponents, often turning chances into half-chances. That contributes to snatched shots, wasted opportunities. It wouldn’t do not to acknowledge that we had two managers this season, and that Xisco has sometimes reaped the benefit of Vladimir Ivić’s intensely tedious focus on defensive matters.  The clean sheets are earned, here as elsewhere, and we’ll need all of that fortitude as the afternoon grinds on. (We’ll need a whole lot more next season, for these are half-chances which get buried at a higher level, but we can worry about that when the hangovers have cleared.)

6. The hope voiced by Hive Live’s slightly awkward double act of the very proper Kenny Jackett and the extremely excitable Chris Stark, a relationship that you sense might fray quite quickly, is that we start the second half well. We do not start the second half well. We start the second half as if we’ve spent the interval drinking coffee with shaking hands while staring into space and contemplating a must-win final game against Swansea. Which is quite possibly what many of us actually did at half-time, I guess.

In the end, Millwall are never granted that one chance, the one which transforms this day into another day. Bradshaw turns the ball over the bar from a Wallace cross, Bennett goes on a run and shoots well wide, Bradshaw beats Francisco Sierralta but has little idea what he’s supposed to do after that point. (In passing, I just had to look up Sierralta’s first name, not having the faintest idea what it was, which suggests that it’s the first time I’ve mentioned him in a report. That is telling, really telling: he is not a central defender who makes many mistakes, not a central defender who needs to make many noteworthy interventions. He spends no time in the spotlight. The season’s highlights will be full of the match-winners, but they’ve been able to win matches because of the less celebrated contributions, because of the hard graft put in. In the absence of one outstanding candidate, the men of the match reflect that.)

7. We make changes. Those changes help. Andre Gray has had a difficult time, some of it entirely his own fault, and has a playing style which somehow serves to expose his limitations rather than highlight his strengths; he makes for an ideal hour-mark substitute, though, and our attack is visibly refreshed for a short period in which we suggest that we might manage to kill the game. Nathaniel Chalobah, such a deeply engaging player, does the same for the midfield. Almost immediately, Gray takes away a defender to allow Bachmann’s long clearance to bounce through to Sarr, who might win a penalty for a nudge on a day when he hasn’t already won another. The respite is brief, though: Mitchell’s deflected shot momentarily appears as if it’s destined to arc into an unreachable part of the goal, before Bachmann gets down well to flip away a Bradshaw header which rebounds towards the bottom corner.

The second half lasts for hours, weeks, months, years, lifetimes. It never descends into outright panic, yet never enables you to take a deep breath either. We have another spell on the front foot, and Gray very nearly gets a decisive toe onto a driven cross from Sarr, and then does well to get a volley on target from a lofted ball into the box, and then Chalobah’s flicked header from a Hughes cross goes straight at the keeper when a slightly different contact would sent it skidding beyond his reach. Ken Sema is offside as he receives and finishes a pass intended for Chalobah, the end point of an intricate passing move at the edge of a crowded penalty area; that would’ve been a goal replayed through the ages, a goal to crown the season.

But instead, the ninety-plus minutes crawls to a halt with still more defending. With William Troost-Ekong giving the ball away with a nervous, hasty pass. With increasingly wild Millwall shots, which lull your brain into thoughts that we might make it, which shock your brain into horror that you might’ve tempted fate. With Ismaïla bloody Sarr battling for all he’s worth (which is a lot, I believe) down by the corner flag to win a goal-kick deep into injury time, and if anything sums up the fighting spirit which we’ve managed to build since Christmas, it’s surely that.

This is a team with stars, of course. But it’s a team which plays as if it can’t afford that luxury; it’s a team which plays with hunger and desire, a team which plays as if it isn’t the most talented squad in the division. That’s the achievement. Not to make it seem easy, but to understand that it’s difficult, to relish that difficulty, to fling ourselves head-first into it.

8. I sink into the sofa, close my eyes for a moment, smile…and wonder what to do. On the pitch, there are hugs, grins, a few tears being wiped away. A party getting started. In the stands, there are empty seats. At home, there’s dinner to be cooked, washing up to be done, life to get on with. It’s an odd way to end an odd season, and it feels as if the meaning of it all will filter through over time, a slow dawning.

The Hive Live ‘Promotion Party’ on the club’s YouTube channel is a noble attempt at getting people to stay at home rather than come to the ground, and provides the background to an hour in the kitchen. Understandably, it has few of the people you’d really want to hear from, little of their giddy delirium, their untethered emotion. They’ve got other things to do. Ben Foster and Daniel Bachmann make an early appearance and have that weird goalkeeper camaraderie, like a little club with its own unknowable rules, which seem to include not hating the bloke who’s taken your starting place. Troy turns up for an oddly awkward interview, in which he himself seems aware that he isn’t really catching the mood; he finds his theme eventually, reminding us of the staff whose jobs are dependent on players’ performances, but still seems relieved to be able to go.

It isn’t until Chris Stark drags Scott Duxbury into the studio that someone really resoundingly captures it all. It’s a remarkably powerful, arrestingly honest five minutes, and you sense so much of the last year’s depression, despair, worry and anxiety beginning to unwind and let go as he speaks. A lot of lost sleep, a lot of difficult decisions. He talks of the prospect of financial oblivion, of the importance of staying together as a family; he describes this as being his greatest achievement. It isn’t an Adrian Boothroyd moment, if you know what I mean; there’s no sense of personal redemption, of satisfied ego. It’s just pure escape, sheer relief. We’ve done it.

And when I read what Xisco Muñoz had to say afterwards – “I have been away from my kids for six months and it is very hard sometimes to be without the family” – I’m reminded of how this year, more than anything, has been a deeply lonely one. Of how alone you must feel if you’ve just moved to a new country to take on a new challenge, of how hard it must be to go into work with a spring in your step, of how bleak the bad days must be. Of how every last grain of the beaming positivity he’s brought to the team and the club has come at a personal cost: you never get that time with your family back, you can’t buy it with your pay packet. We don’t always appreciate those sacrifices. And I’m even more grateful for that smile, for how it has shone on our mad little football club.

It may not have been an impossible task, given the squad. But if I look back over my time as a season ticket holder, I’d pick all three of the post-relegation seasons as the most miserable, without a moment’s hesitation. Not necessarily the worst, but by far the most miserable. The combination of shattered confidence, pent-up bitterness and inflated expectation can create something truly toxic, something that can take years to entirely dispel. We don’t need to try very hard to remember it: we were living that particular nightmare only a few short months ago.

And yet here we are. We’ve remembered who we are, what we can do, why we should do it. That isn’t down to just one man, of course; it’s a huge team effort. It really needed his help, though.

The history of Watford Football Club has many great people, many wonderful stories. It’s just got another one. And a Neil Diamond song.

 

Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 3, *Sierralta 4*, Masina 3, Hughes 3, Cleverley 4, Gosling 3, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3, *Sema 4*
Subs: *Cathcart (for Femenía, 31) 4*, Gray (for João Pedro, 60) 3, Chalobah (for Gosling, 60) 3, Sánchez (for Cleverley, 84) NA, Foster, Zinckernagel, Lazaar, Kabasele, Hungbo

Norwich City 0 Watford 1 (20/04/2021) 21/04/2021

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

1-    I’m a grumpy bastard.

Ask anyone.  Type I Diabetes doesn’t always help in this regard…  hypoglycaemia, low blood sugar, is effectively an excess of hormone and has the impact you’d expect on the mood at moderate levels…  weepiness and particularly, yes, snappiness.  My lifetime memories are peppered with Incidents when Stuff Happened that shouldn’t have done…  sometimes seems a wonder that I’ve retained any friends or family members willing to pass the time of day at all really.  

But I’m a grumpy bastard anyway.  Hypoglycaemia-induced grumpiness tends to disappear with the help of some quickly absorbed sugar but I can do and – here’s where the dedicated training and stamina come in – sustain grumpy without any physiological support.  And as with the rest of the footballing world – and isn’t it nice to see everyone coming together on a topic for once – I’m grumpy about the Super (and Tottenham) League.  The hows and whys don’t need repeating… you know it, you’ll have seen it lucidly argued amidst the rare consensus and in any case it looks like it might be unwinding as I type.  If it isn’t, we’ll moan about that another day…

But back to early evening, and I’m still grumpy.  What I really need is a football match to shout at.  Not just a match on a screen but a match to inhale.  In the stadium.  Noises and smells and adrenaline.  Watching outside.  But that’s not where we are.  So instead I eat up the time before Hornet Hive starts its pre-match show by stomping forcefully around the fields out back with grumpy-appropriate noise in my ears.  Jane’s Addiction.  Sonic Youth.  Nine Inch Nails.  Get back, brace myself, grab a drink, check phone on the way upstairs, turns out kick-off is 6pm, not 7pm (as it was in my head). I make it with minutes to spare.

Grumpy.

2- It’s been an edgy few days.  You don’t need telling that. The possibility, however remote, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has been in our heads… not “in your face, I’m coming for you” in our heads, but certainly “raising a hand from the back of the room and tentatively waving – yoohoo!” in our heads.  “I’m still here”.  As an aside, such an eventuality wouldn’t be typical Watford as some have suggested.  Typical Watford would be typical Gillingham, typical Liverpool, typical Rushden and Diamonds if we supported them.  No reflection on the club, it’s an anxious reaction to the threat of failure, it’s a comfort blanket and unless you support Spurs, its nonsense.

But we needed something here.  Something to calm the nerves after Saturday’s unpleasantness.  Something to make the rest of the week tolerable.  Something to reassure us that it was all going to be OK.

Boy did we get it. We deserve promotion this season.  We haven’t gotten away with anything, if and when it’s confirmed we’ll have earned it (hellooooo again Spurs).  At the start of the season we were solid… less than the sum of our parts, perhaps, frustrating at times but often effective despite that, and effective enough to hang around at the top of the table.  To be in position to capitalise if and when we found some form.  When we did find that form we looked occasionally flamboyant, often cruelly, mercilessly irresistible – twenty clean sheets before today.

But we’ve never been more impressive than here at Carrow Road.  Given the context – easier to be the chaser than the chased, the Luton defeat, players suspended, players injured, quality of opponent – the mental strength of the side was extraordinary, the ability of the head coach to craft solutions and get players’ heads in the right place phenomenal.  And on the pitch we looked every inch a top flight side.

3- The solution on the pitch, it transpired, involved Craig Cathcart at right back.  A shame that Jeremy Ngakia, forced into a supporting role by the remarkable form of Kiko Femenía, has a knock just when he’s needed, but if we don’t have a reliable right back available we have a very reliable defender.  There’s nobody you’d trust more to make a decent fist of an unfamiliar role and the Ulsterman, never quite appreciated enough to my mind, will have a stunning evening.  The solution also involves Adam Masina making a welcome return at left back, and an in-your-face midfield trio of Hughes, Gosling, Cleverley.  That’s not a midfield that asks permission.  That’s not a polite midfield.

After a brief period of early sparring, the Hornets controlled the first quarter of the game.  If there’s a word that defines the performance as a whole it’s discipline, so vital against this opponent with their ability to escape through careless gaps and skip unforgivingly over misjudged tackles.  This was a disciplined, controlled effort, and if we were fortunate to visit Carrow Road three days after the ten-man Canaries had chased Bournemouth around before celebrating their promotion we took a crowbar to that opportunity and prized it open.

Much of the threat came down the right despite the loss of the overlapping Kiko, a role which Cathcart was never going to replicate.  Slightly mystifyingly, Ismaïla Sarr was often given the freedom of the flank in the first half by second choice City left back Xavi Quintillà who, despite having not started since October, seemed to receive precious little support from his teammates.  Cathcart’s more restrained support to Sarr nonetheless reminded us – as if this should have been necessary six years to the week since his acrobatic winner against Birmingham put us top of the Championship table – that he’s anything but a clogger.  A particularly fine deep cross provided the first of a number of chances in this period, Dan Gosling seemingly surprised that it reached him and heading wastefully over.  It wasn’t the last time that a move ended with an unsuccessful Gosling effort, but as Robbo pointed out at the break none of these missed half-chances dissuaded Gosling from being on the end of the next one when it came along.  Those words were to prove prophetic.

Two deflected shots in two minutes by Todd Cantwell and Kieran Dowell announced Norwich’s arrival as an attacking threat, and a magnificent game of football broke out abetted by referee Tim Robinson’s willingness, seven yellow cards notwithstanding, to let the game run rather than blowing up for every challenge.  Norwich moved the ball mischievously and confidently, Watford’s human blanket smothered City attacks and clubbed them to within an inch of their lives.  Norwich broke down the centre through Buendía, Hughes and Sema were bypassed but resisted the temptation to foul, the ball reached Quintillà and then Cantwell before being smothered by Cleverley and out.  Often stretched – twice free kicks were surrendered on the edge of the box, the second repelled by Tom Cleverley’s draught excluder – but rarely exposed it was a defensive masterclass as the home side asked questions.

We swung back into control.  Sarr left the formidable Hanley on his ample backside with a sharp turn and drove at Tim Krul’s near post when a square ball might have been more effective.  Five minutes later Sarr moved the ball across to Gosling who fed Sema and the Swede – in his most pugnacious outing for a while – drove fiercely at the keeper.  Krul parried, Sarr followed up with a fine drive from a narrow angle, Krul equal to it again.  Sema sent in a cross from the left, João Pedro’s acrobatic volley was blocked, we failed to make anything from yet another corner.  The half ended, but the voice in your head whispering “we should have scored by now” was calmed by our bloody relentlessness.  We might not have scored, but we weren’t about to falter.

4- Lucky half time “chocolate” turned out to be my dinner.  Ethiopian injera with spinach, garlic, split peas and a beef stew.  Success level high, but with this best will in the world this is not a tradition that can be expected to continue once we’re back at the Vic.  It’s messy enough with a plate and a healthy supply of kitchen roll in your own home.

This development rather hampered the note-taking at the start of the second half, which by memory was more of the same but more so.  Even more focused control, another Todd Cantwell chance despite this, but overall a crushing intensity to our play.  Having finished my meal and dashed to the bathroom to wash my hands I returned to the study to rearrange tray, notepad, keyboard appropriately.  As so often my finger strayed to the screenlock key as I moved the keyboard, causing a frantic typing of password in time to see João Pedro slip an artful ball to a galloping Gosling who flicked a shot past Krul.   Watford supporters everywhere made undignified, very loud noises.  How inspiring that Gos got the goal having spurned so many chances in the first half.  Those misses, ultimately, mattered little.  Being there yet again to tuck it away at the fifth time of asking was everything.

Norwich lost their composure, if only briefly.  Teemu Pukki was demonstrably frustrated by the way the evening was going, Skipp was booked for an untidy foul on Hughes.  You awaited an onslaught, the onslaught tried to get itself going but we had a bunch of tough, savvy bastards blocking the way…  Clevs, Gos, Hughes, Masina, Sierralta, WTE and Craig Cathcart, who stomped on the danger when a slack Bachmann clearance dropped to Buendía.

Had you been in the stadium, had a crowd been in the stadium, it would have been one of those insanely tense ones where your fingers were embedded in your scalp.  It was edgy enough as it was…  but these things feed themselves with a crowd in attendance.  Who knows what difference collective anxiety, urgency would have made.  As it was we were gloriously assertive for much of the half.  Sarr, slightly less prominent after the break, drilled a ball towards João Pedro… the Brazilian suggested limited threat on goal, but did a great line in holding the ball up and floating off with it, retaining possession under unlikely pressure.  Here Grant Hanley (“a head on a stick” – Tommy Mooney) blocked crucially.  From the corner Will Hughes came close to emulating his goal against Fulham two years ago, crashing a goalbound volley from the edge of the area that someone got in the way of.

Norwich threw on as many forwards as they could find.  The Hornets introduced Andre Gray, who’s ratty persistence might have made rather more of the chances we’d had in the first half, and Nathaniel Chalobah whose glorious, eyecatching cameo underlined that he’s finally become the player that he always promised to be.  He slipped Andre Gray through with elegant precision only for Hanley to intervene with a monstrous block.

Max Aarons sounded a clarion call breaking down the right, but we held the home side off with breathtaking composure.  City managed two shots on target all evening… their best chances came when Buendía, Vrančić or Hernández danced across the sentinels inside the area daring a challenge, inviting a foul.  Those invitations weren’t accepted.  “Sorry lads, washing our hair.  Do one”.  Otherwise the greatest threat came to personal safety, from the violent and gormless interventions of sub Jordan Hugill.

Eight minutes of added time were brought to a close with Sema robbing Vrančić and bellowing in triumph.  The whistle went.  We made further undignified noises.

5- It’s not done yet.  Probably and definitely aren’t the same thing.  However, very probably is definitely getting there.  The three sides mathematically capable of catching us will be down to two at most by Saturday afternoon with Brentford and Bournemouth facing off at lunch time.  A win against Millwall would seal the deal, with Norwich travelling to form side QPR the same afternoon.

It doesn’t matter what they do.  It’s all about us.  We’re going to get promoted because we’re bloody brillliant, and better than everyone else.  And didn’t we show it this evening.

Not grumpy any more.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 5, Cathcart 5, Troost-Ekong 5, Sierralta 5, Masina 5, Hughes 5, Gosling 5, *Cleverley 5*, Sarr 5, João Pedro 5, Sema 5
Subs: Gray (for João Pedro, 70) 5, Chalobah (for Gosling, 70) 5, Zinckernagel (for Cleverley, 82) 5, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 82) 5, Lazaar, Sánchez, Hungbo, Success, Elliot

Luton Town 1 Watford 0 (17/04/2021) 18/04/2021

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

1-  When this is all over, whenever everything is finally back to whatever normal means now, you’d like to think that there will be things that we won’t take quite as much for granted.  Health and freedom and that, obviously…  but more mundane things too.   Going to the cinema, I really miss that.  Going to the pub.  Going to restaurants, sitting indoors rather than shivering defiantly in the drizzle over a pathetic pizza.  Nipping down to the co-op for some milk and not having to queue up outside.  Going to work.  Heavens.  By which I mean actually being at work with real people rather than isolated in my little bubble with two dimensional colleagues.  All of these things I hope I’ll appreciate so much more, as and when.  All of them I miss.

What I haven’t been missing is games against Luton.

2- There’s a digression here about what local rivalry is all about.  I was always brought up to treat Luton as a swear word and so forth, but I’m not sure I buy the bit about you have to hate Luton if you’re a Watford fan any longer.  It’s more nurture than nature for me…  I’m sure my tone would change very quickly if these fixtures become a more regular feature of our fixture list than they have been, contempt breeds contempt.  I’d probably not be writing this paragraph if we’d had the misfortune to be at today’s game, so to speak, the deed would have been done, I’d be exposed to all the things I hated about it before.  For the moment, I find Bournemouth and even Palace a bigger deal.

That aside.  There’s been some understandable reminiscing about one particular derby game in the build up to this one….  but the reality is that that day was remarkable because it was anomalous.  That’s not what derby games are like in anything other than exceptional circumstances.  This game, today’s game, was much more like it… not the result particularly, but the frantic ugly dreary annoyingness of the whole thing.  In between Luton’s 4-2 win at the Vic in September 1994, their last League victory in the fixture before today, and the 4-0 three years later there were six draws.  I was probably at all of them, but don’t ask me to distinguish one from the other.  They were all the same, and they were all shit.

The other thing about derby games is that they matter so much more when your team is terrible.  In the past Watford and Luton’s fortunes often rose and fell together and at times it very much felt as if all there was to play for was avoiding relegation and this.  This Luton incarnation isn’t terrible – they’re in pretty much exactly the League position you’d have predicted based on their solid but limited showing at the Vic at the start of the season.  Nonetheless, the Hornets have rather more to play for as it stands;  Luton’s survival was confirmed mathematically by this win, but effectively a done deal some time ago.  Knocking us off our perch a very much more tantalising objective for them than not being knocked off would be for us..

3- And having implied that we were lucky, or that I was grateful not to have been at this particular game, if only half-meaning it, the reality is that the game would have been quite different if supporters had been there.  We wouldn’t have been at this particular game at all.  

I suspect that the game that we ended up with wouldn’t have been a whole lot of fun either.  The home side started looking precisely like a side managed by someone who was pissed that their first attempt at a local derby was so vanilla back in September;  the same approach backed by a crowd would have generated its own momentum.  They rattled at us from the off and we looked rattled in return;  Troost-Ekong gave away a cheap corner in the first minute, Sonny Bradley flicked over.  Within five minutes Carlos Sánchez – one of two enforced changes to last week’s line-up – went to ground to win possession in the box.  Being Sánchez, the tackle was well-judged and precise but it didn’t settle the nerves.  Ten minutes in and it was all hands on deck;  a set piece threat was already evident but fortunately one man well suited to this sort of maelstrom was Francisco Sierralta, long since established as a fearless booterer in the finest of traditions. He got his head to pretty much everything.

And whilst we rode our luck at times, the positive to be taken from the first half – as from the entirety of the game against Reading last week – was that we held out.  That’s not all luck, much as Bradley and Dewsbury-Hall both sent efforts wide but alarmingly close to not wide. When things are going against us we’re very good at being bloody awkward anyway, at closing out space, at digging in and not giving an inch.

If we had managed to get any kind of attacking foothold the flow of the game might have changed much earlier.  There was an awful lot of space behind Luton’s press, but we couldn’t retain controlled possession far enough up the pitch to exploit it – the ball wasn’t sticking anywhere.  Only once or twice did Sarr get to stretch his legs, drawing a yellow from Bradley (“not the sharpest tool in the drawer” – T.Mooney) but too often such possession as we had was surrendered cheaply, and often by Philip Zinckernagel.  That thing, that “he’s getting better with every game” thing is dead in the water…  he’s demonstrated beyond reasonable debate that there’s a valuable player in there, but there are still giveaway signs that he’s been playing at a very different level and they all came out today.  Almost every touch killed a fledgling attack stone dead, most startlingly when Luton abandoned him in a mile of space as Will Hughes lined up a free kick and he proceeded to validate their recklessness by rolling Hughes’ disguised pass feebly, inexplicably to Sluga.

Nonetheless we ended the half level, with Tommy Mooney confidently asserting that Luton’s ferocious chasing was always going to abate.  Nil nil at half time was an achievement.

4- You learn a lot about a manager when things turn against him, as they always will sooner or later.  When we went up in 2015 Norwich followed us up crowing about the record of Alex Neil, appointed during the season to great success.  Once promoted, once the losses started coming, they didn’t stop.

Xisco hasn’t had a clear run at Vicarage Road, but his early defeats can justifiably be filed under “teething troubles”.  We’ll see how he gets on now, but the signs here were fairly positive.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and his bold decisions here deserved better reward.  Both sides were hamstrung by an awful bobbly pitch, but the Hornets were to a greater extent needing a foothold, so having a target to hit long – João Pedro is still game, but not combative in the way he was a couple of months ago – made a lot of sense.  Isaac started assertively, his foul on Pearson was provocative but not a major problem if it indicated a bit of bite to channel positively.  Within five minutes João Pedro had picked up the ball deep and fed Success.  Success released Sema whose vicious cross was headed clear.  The ball found its way back to Ken, who did his “bundle down the touchline” thing.  It came to nothing, but it was a bit of welly for the first time.  It was encouraging.

And that was that really, at least as far as Isaac was concerned.  It was an unforgivably passive performance from the Nigerian, lacking in aggression or mobility.   Out for a year or otherwise, we needed much more.  

Ten minutes later the ever-willing Hughes surged onto a João Pedro flick, but with Success, Sema and Sarr spinning away from him he was uncharacteristically indecisive and sent a wasteful ball under Success’ feet.  We were no longer under the same pressure as in the first half, but not turning any kind of screw either.  Gradually the home side began to craft some more chances – Dewsbury-Hall sent a good ball into the box, criminally shovelled over.  LuaLua won a cheap free kick off Femeníá, who picked up a harsh and consequential yellow card; Bachmann was attentive in tipping the subsequent shot over.

Eventually we allowed Luton to roll the dice once too often.  Achraf Lazaar had recovered from a pretty miserable first half as a late replacement for the unwell Masina to reclaim some brownie points at the start of the second, but there was no forgiving his complacent, underhit hospital ball towards Bachmann.  For his part, the keeper had been largely faultless to this point but betrayed a lack of composure and judgement here.  On the evidence to that point had Bachmann stayed on his line and allowed Adebayo to retrieve the ball the big striker might well have tripped over his own feet in any case but the Austrian never gave him the chance, clearing him out with an uncharacteristically excitable challenge.  He looked shaken by the whole thing and seemed to be expecting a red card rather than yellow though this was never likely.  The red card came later for a second cheap yellow picked up by a bedraggled Kiko Femenía;  by then Luton had afforded spot kicking duties to James Collins straight off the bench, a gamble that paid off.  That was all it took.

5- The thing is, the positive thing is that we so nearly got away with it in a number of respects.  Indeed, you could argue that we’ve been getting away with less convincing performances since the international break, four games have yielded seven points and could conceivably have yielded considerably more despite their limitations.  Here, Luton’s best efforts hadn’t yielded anything in the end, we gave them the goal.  Even then we might have nicked a point back when Andre Gray threw himself at what looked rather like a header from a Luton defender from a marginally offside position.  It would have been robbery, but it would have been funny and it would have been a valuable, buoyant point.

We regard the season as having pivoted in February, when we started looking like the sum of our parts, started winning games convincingly, started being fun.  If and when we do get promoted this season it will be due in just as great a part to the fact that we hung around to make such a turnaround possible when our attacking play was so staccato in the first half of the season.  Being bloody good at defending isn’t luck and it’s not something to dismiss or be bashful about. 

It wasn’t quite enough here, but as was pointed out at full time, an ostensibly likelier outcome of the traditional draw at Kenilworth Road along with home wins for Brentford and Swansea would have been more expensive for our promotion hopes than how it turned out.  We’re still looking good, and we’re still better than everyone else.  We could do with remembering this before Tuesday.  

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 2, Troost-Ekong 3, *Sierralta 4*, Lazaar 1, Sánchez 3, Hughes 3, Zinckernagel 1, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Sema 2
Subs: Success (for Zinckernagel, 45) 1, Cleverley (for Sánchez, 61) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 79) NA, Gray (for Lazaar, 82) NA, Cathcart, Kabasele, Gosling, Navarro, Foster

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
Tags:
9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feels great, doesn’t it?



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

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

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

1- Daughter 1 has become a vegetarian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yooorns.

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A massive victory.

Yooorns.

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

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We won 3-0 anyway.

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

But it will be.

Yooorns.

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

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Some days are just good days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yooorns.

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

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