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Watford 0 Arsenal 1 (15/04/2019) 16/04/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
14 comments

1. I spent most of my student years experimenting with being a bit of a twat, as you do. Small-time stuff, no pigs’ heads. A great deal of drinking, ridiculous clothes, long hair, bad poetry, questionable personal hygiene, all very much part of the curriculum. That really toxic combination of brittle arrogance and piercing insecurity which tends to define those years.

I built much of my new life around pompous and outlandish opinions on music, only some of which I’ve since abandoned. At one point following a particularly vital evening, I remember declaring The End Of Music and entering into a kind of monastic silence, if monastic silences involved not listening to your Fall tapes for a week or so. I’m pretty certain that the cause of The End Of Music was a Heresy gig at the Fulham Greyhound, so perhaps not, with hindsight, my generation’s equivalent of the Beatles at Shea Stadium. (That said, my nineteen-year-old self absolutely insists that I point out, preferably at length, how great Heresy were in their prime. And he’s right, they really were. But we shouldn’t indulge him here: he needs to get a hair cut, a bath and a girlfriend.)

2. While it’s true that nobody has gone so far as to compare it to Heresy at the Greyhound in nineteen-eighty-whatever, our trip to Wembley last weekend was nonetheless momentous. It certainly felt like The End Of Football, even if the whole point was actually more football, another date on the end of the fixture list. A league fixture, even against Arsenal, even with the prospect of European football, seems curiously carefree after all that. Everyone’s smiling. Who could’ve imagined that watching a football match while actually breathing could seem such a pleasure.

Much is often made of teams having nothing to play for as the season winds up. A bit too much, I think. For every team that dials down the intensity – and we’ve been no strangers to the beach ourselves, obviously – there’s another that benefits from a release of pressure. There’s a sense in which victory over Wolves has made us untouchable, and yet little sense that we’ll be content to rest on our laurels from now until the final. (I’m going to type that again, just because I can: From Now Until The Final.) Places at stake, of course, but more than that: this is a team which has discovered how far hard work, with a scattering of pixie dust, can actually take you.

The majority of Graham Taylor’s most successful players, of either era, experienced the pinnacles of their careers at Watford. We all did it together, but they bought into it, at least partly, because it was a passport out of the lower divisions. That isn’t the case this time around. The real triumph of this season has been to reconnect the modern reality of the Premier League with a basic idea of Watford Football Club, of what it is in our heads and hearts, of what it once was in Graham Taylor’s imagination. It’s true that times have changed, and we’re not going to bump into Etienne Capoue in Our Price. But it feels as if this is a group of players which understands – or has been made to understand, whatever – why this football club actually matters. (A small part of why it matters is Z-Cars, incidentally. Hands off.)

3. Arsenal feel like the perfect opponents for this moment. They have, after all, won the FA Cup so often (and everything else so rarely) that they’ve grown sick of it, gorged and listless. We’ve often lived in their shadow, but that doesn’t feel like it’s the case any more; what would they understand of our joy? They sit and grumble in a puddle of their own effluence, as bored by their own irrelevant power as Boris Johnson stranded on a desert island. They’re the neighbours with the fancy cars, the expensive jewellery, the barely disguised sneers, and the bitter, piercing rows as soon as the front door closes, muffled but audible through the bespoke double-glazing. We’re separated by four places, seventeen points…and one f***ing huge sense of entitlement.

Money does not buy you happiness. It’s a great time to play Arsenal.

4. Our visitors appear not to have bothered preparing at all for what awaits them. Apart from a team selection that rests a few tired and injured legs, it isn’t as if we’ve got anything much up our sleeves; Troy Deeney is many things, but a master of subterfuge ain’t one of them. Arsenal ought to know what’s coming. If they do, it doesn’t show.

They win the toss and opt to switch ends, then spend the opening ten minutes systematically losing every single battle from the moment when Andre Gray chases down a backpass. Troy Deeney wins every header, Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue thrash around the midfield, Abdoulaye Doucouré crests the waves they create, the ball barely crosses the halfway line. The only resistance appears to be a rather desperate insistence that any contact requires the referee’s intervention, effectively an admission that nobody much fancies any of the physical stuff. Torreira enrages Deeney by taking a tumble when cornered, of which more shortly. Nobody fancies it at all.

Arsenal are there for the taking. They’re made of butter. They’re as limp as their lettuce-coloured away kit. (Yes, I know. I was pleased with that.)

I mean, it isn’t even as if we’ve got José Holebas on the pitch. Guys, you really should meet José. You’ll love him. Maybe next season, yeah?

5. The scoreline speaks for itself, of course. It’s all that anyone will remember in years to come. We’ve only ourselves to blame, quite clearly, as Ben Foster dallies over a clearance and is caught in possession by Aubameyang for the only goal. You still rather rated our chances at that point, but Troy Deeney’s dismissal for leaving a little retributory something on Torreira a minute later changed that. No need to give the referee any kind of decision to make. No need at all. I mean, I love Troy, we all love Troy, but he’s a doughnut sometimes. And suddenly – well, not that suddenly, given how long it takes Troy to depart – we’re a goal and a man down, and it’s all over.

6. Except it isn’t. It ought to be, but it isn’t. For a while, everyone takes stock: we regroup while Arsenal pass the ball around at such a pedestrian pace that you wonder if they might be trying to bore us into submission. You know how this ends, with a valiant but doomed three-nil defeat, and a lingering taste of what might’ve been.

And then as they conclude one of their interminable pass-and-move exercises by carefully stroking a sideways ball straight to Etienne Capoue who hares away on a break, we realise that even if we are a goal and a man down, one crucial thing hasn’t changed: Arsenal are still absolutely terrible. We have nothing to fear. Craig Cathcart blasts a drive that’s blocked by Leno at his near post; Capoue’s arcing free kick is turned around by a last-ditch out-stretched hand. There’s a penalty appeal. You wouldn’t be foolish enough to claim that we’re in the ascendancy, for there are long spells when we have to sit in and wait. Foster pushes a shot from Iwobi over the bar. But we’re on our feet, we’re raising our voices, and it isn’t over. We’re too hungry, too urgent, and Arsenal too meek, for it to be over.

7. A serious point, as an aside. If we continue to allow the game to move inexorably away from accepting contact as part of the contest – and VAR will accelerate that process very rapidly indeed – we will find that teams like Arsenal are all that’s left. The gulf that already exists will widen, and we will all have to stand around and watch the show ponies perform their dressage routines.

8. The second half is, in its own way, completely extraordinary. We’re prevented from touching the ball for about five minutes, presumably in the hope that we might learn to behave if our toys are taken away. All of this comes with a dismissive arrogance that might be impressive if it were allied with the merest hint of a work ethic. It still feels as if there’ll be a decisive moment at some stage, something to end it as a contest. But Arsenal don’t do decisive moments, and prove the point by lazily wasting the few chances that they do create, Mkhitaryan getting further and further away with a series of wild attempts. Balls whistle through the six yard box, Foster makes a fine stop to deny Mkhitaryan from close range.

9. I should, of course, be giving us more credit in all of this. We’re magnificent, particularly defensively. And defensively means everyone, really. Craig Cathcart has one of those games in which the ball appears magnetically drawn to his boot, clearing threats time and again; Christian Kabasele alongside is quieter but equally unyielding. Daryl Janmaat runs himself into the ground, frequently gasping for breath before rousing himself and the crowd again. Adam Masina takes a huge step up, powerful and lean and pacy. Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue are still thrashing around the midfield, Abdoulaye Doucouré still surfing their waves, Kiko Femenia tucking in and putting in a shift.

We change it, and Javi Gracia is again as bold and as positive as his team have become. Isaac Success on for Femenia, and the whole game instantly moves ten or fifteen yards away from Ben Foster’s goal. And Masina, not closed down because Arsenal can’t be arsed, sends in a screamer which clips the top of the bar. And it’s on, again. Ridiculous that we’re still in this, but it’s on. I must confess that the hilarity of it all rather gets the better of me as the first of Arsenal’s substitutes shuffles slowly off, eking out every tedious second. One of the world’s richest clubs, a goal and a man up, wasting time to hang onto their lead. They stop short of taking it to the corner flag at the end, but only just. Only just.

We can’t find the goal that our efforts deserve. The goal that the game deserves, that Arsenal deserve. Andre Gray twice fluffs his lines, control which isn’t crisp enough to allow him to pick a finish. Will Hughes heads over. Free kicks are wasted, perhaps the only real criticism. Aubemayang scuffs wide when through under challenge from, inevitably, Craig Cathcart. We lose. We win every single fifty-fifty challenge across the whole ninety minutes, we’re first to every loose ball, we’re quicker and stronger and more determined in every match-up, we make our opponents shrink and cower and whine, but we lose.

10. Me, I loved it. Bravo. A celebration of everything that we’ve become, and a long look at everything we never need to be. We were splendid last night. Absolutely splendid. We played with immense heart, with togetherness, with passion, with courage. We played like it mattered, like there was pride at stake, in ourselves and in our club. We had leaders in every area of the pitch, even after our captain had departed. We were everything, or near enough, that Arsenal were not.

We played without our brains for a minute, that’s all. We lacked a little bit of quality and composure too. That’s enough. The regret is that we didn’t humble our supposedly illustrious opponents. God knows we’ll rarely have a better opportunity. But you know what? I’d rather lose like this than win like that.

Arsenal go fourth. I challenge you to say that with a straight face.

As for us, look how far we’ve come. And look how far we might still go.

Foster 2, Masina 4, *Cathcart 5*, Kabasele 4, Janmaat 5, Hughes 5, Capoue 5, Doucoure 4, Femenia 4, Gray 3, Deeney 2 Subs: Success (for Femenia, 59) 3, Sema (for Masina, 86) 0, Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Chalobah, Navarro

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Watford 3 Wolves 2 (AET) (07/04/2019) 08/04/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1- “I’ll tell you what”, says ig.  “It doesn’t half help that it’s not bloody Palace.  I’m enjoying it more already….”

The spectre of two miserable defeats here against Palace over the last six years have been hanging over every aspect of the group’s preparations.  An executive decision has been made to relocate to the Upper Tier for one thing.  There was a brief debate about the Railway public house but pragmatism won out on that one.  The problem clearly wasn’t the pub, it wasn’t West Hampstead which is far too convenient an assembly point to be recklessly discarded (although ig draws a line at what had been the lucky chocolate emporium of choice, a decision that delays his arrival).

There’s been a bit of twaddle on social media about our failure to sell our allocation.  There are reasons, obviously, too basic and banal to spell out, unworthy of what was to become a quite magnificent occasion to sully this report.  But when we get to Wembley Park… it’s daunting, frankly.  Difficult as it is to differentiate the colours, we are being comprehensively out-noised and seemed outnumbered by lots to one.  We’d discussed that if Wolves were happy to be here, we were past that stage.  We had to win it.  But Wolves don’t sound merely happy just to be here.

Still, to return to the beginning.  It wasn’t Palace.  Further down Wembley Way there’s an optimistic gentleman addressing a largely indifferent crowd behind a placard proclaiming “Jesus is Lord”.  We briefly consider nipping over to ask him about cheesemakers but we don’t, this is not a time for frivolity. We’re feeling positive.  But that doesn’t mean we’re not bricking it.

2- In the stadium, in our seats, having paid a fortune for unpleasant hot dogs (to be avoided next time – Ha!) Wolves are no less intimidating.  Their end fills more quickly, and their anthems make a daunting racket.  Our guys are singing behind the goal, from the top tier close to the divide above the halfway line we can see them but we can’t hear them.  ALL the Wolves fans are singing.  It’s oppressive, and it has an impact.  It feels almost insurmountable.

As an aside, and this seems as good a time as any to say it, this IS a completely different thing to the Palace games.  Winning’s going to help, obviously.  But this Wolves lot are supporting their team, noisily, boisterously.  It’s about them winning, not the other lot losing.  It’s almost as if pride in what you are doesn’t automatically need to involve hating those who are something else.  Who’d have thought?

Our first small victory comes with the visual display. Wolves’ tableau is impressive, but static.  A statement.  But it doesn’t compare to the frenzied energy of the waving of 33000 plastic flags, like insects swarming over the away end.  You can hear our lot now.  We’re fighting back.  The game hasn’t even started, obviously.  But we’re in it.

3- I wouldn’t have picked Gomes over Ben Foster.  I wouldn’t have started with Andre Gray either;  Wolves are famously strong down their spine but get-attable behind their attacking wing-backs.  That’s Gerry’s thing, making mischief in difficult places, surely?  As the sides line up, with the benefit of our extraordinary altitude, it appears that we’re playing a diamond with Pereyra at the apex and Capoue sweeping up behind.  But as we’ve discussed, it’s long since past the stage where I can even pretend to second-guess Javi, much less be worthy of questioning his decisions.

It’s felt like a gorgeously well-balanced game in the build up.  Two teams credibly the “best of the rest”, both with the wind behind them, both in fine form.  Perhaps 30 year high points, at least, for both?  It might have been, should have been a classic.  And whilst it’s hardly a cautious start, it’s certainly well balanced.  A cliché, but rarely has a period of play felt more like sparring, two sides probing and prodding and sizing each other up. Wolves attack like snakes, Jiménez and Jota rippling into spaces dangerously, but we begin to boss the midfield.  The diamond doesn’t quite work, we’re never quite as effective as we’re used to being, Doucouré is uncharacteristically low key.  But… then perhaps it’s what’s needed for this game and whatever, Hughes is scurrying and winning the ball and Pereyra is popping out of rabbit holes.  We’re not making a load of chances…  but we’re doing enough to suggest that there’s scope, that we can hurt them.

And then they score, and everything changes.  It’s a cruel, callous goal, a goal worthy of ig’s account of Wembley from three years ago.  A miserably avoidable affair, something that’s scarcely dependent on the balance of play all about concentration and silly silly detail.  My word, can you imagine if that had been it?

It still requires a fine delivery, an aggressive run, an opportunist nod from Doherty (the Irish Mob in the row behind unappreciative of their countryman’s contribution) but it’s careless, sloppy.  The spectre of Games Against Crystal Palace looms again.  We’re not out of it…  Andre Gray has two decent chances either side  but neither of them go in.  On review you have to give him credit for being there, neither is a terrible miss in the circumstances but nonetheless, chances they are and an open question Gray’s start had been and if you were of a more fragile frame of mind than our bloody lot you’d wonder whether things were stacked against us.

4- And then Wolves score again and there’s no longer any question that things are stacked against us.  This is a fine, fine finish, churlish to criticise our role in it since whatever we coulda mighta shoulda done it requires precision and elegance and ruthlessness and gets it as Jiménez chests down and strikes a brutal volley underneath Gomes.  Wolves are deafeningly jubilant and we’re sinking into our seats.  Daughter One to my left looks at me anxiously, wordlessly… concerned for my own well being as much as for the goal I think.

It’s stating the obvious, lazy hyperbole to say “at this point the game is over”.  Surely you were either watching or you’ve seen the highlights, highlights that don’t, that can’t hope to convey the infinite drama of the afternoon any more than, to reprise a particularly fine ig line (oh come on, it’s been twenty years…) you can capture a hurricane in a matchbox.

The significant thing, the most impressive thing perhaps of all the impressive things is the most obvious.  On the pitch, we’re not playing as if it’s over.  If heads go down it’s instantaneous, only lasting as long as the game takes to restart.  The extraordinary Jose Holebas is at the vanguard…. is it really only fifteen months since we were split on him?  We’re used to Troy dragging the team along with him, but Jose hasn’t given up on anything at this point, demonstrably.  It should be no surprise of course, we’ve watched him, we know that he picks up a gazillion bookings not because he’s particularly dirty or violent but because he can’t always, ever, quite harness his insane will to win within legal boundaries.  Here that will to win is an uncontaminated force for good, from our point of view.  We’re not only relentless, we’re actually more focused than we were at one down.  That’s got to sow a seed if you’re in a white shirt. But we still needed a piece of magic, and it came off the bench four minutes later.

5- Bollocks to five thunks, by the way.

6- It’s an outrageous goal.  We’d earned it, I think.  Earned it by not giving up the ghost, earned it by asking questions and pushing and probing and digging in.  But it’s still ridiculous.  In terms of impudence you’d compare it to the Okocha free kick from many years ago.  How did he even…. think that, let alone execute it?  In terms of scale and significance and context of course it’s beyond compare.  From a standing position and faced with Wolves’ redoubtable back line there’s no way through until, suddenly, impossibly there is.  And we’re roaring again.

There’s no kitchen sink.  There’s method and there’s patience.  It’s so, so tempting to judge decisions purely on outcomes…  nonetheless.  We hold our nerve, we don’t panic.  And so very nearly it’s not enough since, frankly, at no point did I believe it was on.  At no point did I seriously entertain hopes, let alone expectations of a comeback.  Not until Troy makes a run across Dendoncker two minutes into injury time and the referee blows his whistle.

That’s the pivotal moment, obviously.  Except it’s not a moment, it’s two minutes.  Two minutes waiting for VAR to make it’s mind up.  For the first time, and despite the clunky miscommunication of two earlier VAR calls to a baffled upper tier, I’m thinking that despite everything VAR might not be a bad idea.  Would you want to level a game like this on a bad decision, much less a dive?  There’s plenty of time to ponder this and many other things whilst we’re fixed on the screen, fingers in scalp, hair pulled taut.  And then the decision is confirmed and there’s no longer any debate about the outcome of the game.  In the space of that two minutes it’s gone from “we’re definitely gonna lose” to “we’re definitely gonna win”.

7- Never in doubt.  No, it’s not the best placed penalty you’ve ever seen but unless John Ruddy’s right behind it it’s going in anyway such is the violence of the strike.  There’s no news here but bloody hell Troy Deeney.  Balls of absolute steel.  It appeals to his sense of theatre too, obviously, and the scream of catharsis on the side of the ground tinted in red lasts for some considerable time.

Never in doubt.  Though… I claim some small credit.  At some point, my head says at the start of extra time but… you know, details… Daughter 2 demands water.  Such bafflingly ill-timed requests have become less frequent as the girls have gotten older but mindful of the belief in karma of two or three years ago I dutifully bundle down into the concourse as the game restarts to find all of the kiosks closed.  I return with clear conscience.

Wolves were done, toast, quite obviously.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes…. but their decision to replace many of their attacking weapons in favour of resilience was now costing them, and more so the famously small, tight squad that has been such a feature of their season but which now was really really exposed.  They were dead on their feet for one thing, to so much a greater extent than our boys.  And that the confidence-shorn Cavaleiro and the numbingly one-dimensional Traoré was the best they could offer off the bench for another.  How wonderful that it was both Gray and Deulofeu. How wonderful, how outrageous that not so very long from a situation where we’d deliberate between X and Y whilst knowing that the answer is neither, suddenly the answer is either. How wonderful that it was such a fine, fine, thing.  A merciless, decisive blow, and though Cavaleiro stumbled past Gomes in the second period of injury time the outcome was – have I mentioned this? – never in doubt.

8- A number of asides, a number of details.  Étienne Capoue… it’s… an easier job to look good at, sitting at the back of a midfield.  Remember Al Bangura?  Nonetheless.  Bloody hell.  A monstrous performance.  A monstrous performance that could very easily have seen him missing the final had the referee been Roger blood Milford instead of Michael Oliver who has somehow managed to remain inconspicuous in this behemoth of a football game and, as Dave is keen to point out, opts against grandstanding with a red card after Capoue’s tired tackle in the middle of the pitch.  Kudos to the official.

Another?  The Wolves side empties, obviously.  That was very nearly us.  In our heads, it was us.  We’ve done that miserable trudge back to the tube in, well, not quite these circumstances, but you know what I mean.  And of course a lot of them have long gone by the time we stumble stupidly down Wembley Way, dazed and happy and stunned.  But only one Wolves fan, one lad on the steps up to the tube, lets his disappointment get the better of him and briefly mouths off in the face of considerable, if not pointed or deliberate, provocation.  We’ve been there. Fair play.  Fair play.

Another?  The realisation that whatever happens in mid-May, 1984 no longer carries that unique significance.  No longer appropriate to use those digits as a go-to four character code for irrelevant, trivial stuff.  We’ve matched that achievement at the very least, and we can still better it.

9 – But best of all?  No, not best of all, let’s be honest.  But still marvellous, still wonderful…

Troy, on the pitch at the end of the game, interviewed.  And already on the Arsenal game.  Head in the right place.  Game on.

Don’t expect the league season to peter out, not a bit of it, not this lot.  The reality is that uniquely amongst the four or five contestants for seventh, we know that achieving that target will guarantee European football next season, our first since 1983.  It’ll take those of us off the pitch a lot longer than Troy to regain our balance, focus, perspective.  By the time we briefly regroup back at the Railway we’re energetically discussing how we’ve got to remember everything we’ve done, everything we’ve said,  to recreate it in six weeks time but twenty four hours on I’m still dazed.

Troy isn’t.  Troy’s got his head in the right space.

Never in doubt.

Enjoy it boys and girls.

Yoooorns.

Gomes 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 3, Capoue 4, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Pereyra 3, Deeney 4, Gray 3
Subs:  *Deulofeu (for Hughes, 66) 5*, Masina (for Holebas, 98) 3, Janmaat (for Femenía, 108) 0, Sema (for Deulofeu, 112) 0, Quina, Kabasele, Foster

 

Manchester United 2 Watford 1 (30/03/2019) 31/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- I’m again undergoing the process of trying to explain the following football thing to an unbeliever. You’ve all been there I’m sure… trying to describe your pastime?  way of life? without sounding trite, or puerile, trying to do it justice.

In any formal programme of training, the subtleties of service station encounters with opposing supporters would form part of an advanced course only.  Very much “Fully Operational”, this, way beyond “Basic Awareness” or “Working Knowledge”. After all, your uninterested subject is unlikely to progress quickly to the status of “Going Away”, where this most nuanced area of expertise is likely to be required.  The art of glancing casually at an opposing Port Vale shirt in passing for identification purposes is an expert skill, the balance between stroll and swagger as you pass opposing supporters takes practice, the knowledge of when to venture a “who’ve you got today mate?” or a “how’d you boys get on?” borne of experience.

Today there’s an additional angle.  Our companions for much of the M6 are Wolves, on their way to and from Turf Moor.  There’s a complex extra fraction of a second in these encounters, a fraction of a second that encompasses excitement, tension, fear, defiance and a shared understanding in a single glance. This is the filter over the whole day.  Team selection, outcome, perspective is all about next Sunday.

But for some reason nobody told the team.

2- With that “Next Sunday” filter on, more discussion than normal went into starting eleven speculation pre-match.  Full strength today, stiffs on Tuesday was a popular call (though in these days of Cleverley, Gray, Quina, Janmaat “stiffs” hardly feels appropriate any more).  Chuck a blanket over today as we tried to do at City, pick a tough team and split the first teamers over the two games accordingly another.

Rest the back four – the whole back four mind, at Old Trafford – start everyone else and go hell for leather wasn’t high on anyone’s list but that’s why Javi’s head coach and we’re not.

We were absolutely fabulous, to a man and from the very off.  Not least the “reserves” at the back;  Janmaat, only arguably a downgrade on Kiko in any case, and the dogged, focused Adam Masina in comfortably the best I’ve seen him in a Watford shirt rampaged up the wings.  Miguel Britos has been unfairly demonised over the last twelve months, splendid that if he is to return to Uruguay in the summer as trailed it’ll be on the back of thoroughly solid, competent displays like this.  And Christian Kabasele… he’s good at the stuff he’s good at, the brainfarts are what lets him down there was none of that today.  Aggressive, disciplined defending, as aggressive in fact as any situation permitted, often quite enjoyably so.

Part of the plan quite clearly, however, was to play in a way that made us less reliant on our defence than a rearguard action would be.  How bold, at Old Trafford of all places, to hammer at the opponent from the off.  How extraordinary to conjure a performance like this from a game of which little is expected a week before Next Sunday.

3- You’ll have noted the footnote, the caveat already.  A minor inconvenience:  we didn’t win the game.  We could have done, maybe should have done.  But none in the away end, surely, are entirely reliant on a result for their enjoyment of an away day, let alone an away day as the underdog and in every other respect the afternoon was magnificent.  Gentle sunshine, a bristling, ambitious, brave performance.  If you still felt like a bit of a nuisance as an away fan, a necessary evil amongst the many, presumably lucrative, accents and languages audible around the busy stadium perimeter then at least this treatment was less thoroughly objectionable than on previous visits.

For the first twenty minutes we were very much on the front foot.  Startlingly positive and assertive in fact as Troy kicked off an epic afternoon’s confrontation with Chris Smalling and Deulofeu, Bobby and Will Hughes started to ping the ball around.  The “20 shots” thing is a little misleading – several of these were shots in name only, rarely in danger of threatening the scoreline.  Nonetheless the game was being played in United’s half for the most part and if we weren’t yet frightening the home side they nonetheless looked rather affronted at the way things were turning out.

The threat was on the break, and we were largely attentive to it.  Marcus Rashford twice went down easily in the box, evidence of early discomfort with The Way It Was Going but the notorious Stuart Atwell was generally resilient to the Old Trafford effect and wasn’t having it.  When the crucial break came it was almost perfect and needed to be… we were caught, committing men forward on the right, Luke Shaw (“he’s a really odd shape” – Will) broke and played a perfect ball into Rashford’s arcing run and that was that.

Briefly we were on our heels.  United came at us, allowing Ashley Young some time in front of our corner as an attacking right back.  This permitted Dave and Will to wander off into a debate about how justified him getting stick was in the light of his ill-judged celebration at the Vic last season;  you can predict much of that exchange, which in fairness was more intelligent, informed and reasoned than many debates you’ll have heard recently.  Meanwhile on the pitch United fashioned one clear chance from their period of pressure;  in truth Martial should have scored as the ball came to him in unacceptable space in a frantic penalty area but Foster reacted immaculately to block his stabbed shot.  One-nil at half-time a slightly harsh reflection.

4- But if we’d started the first half encouragingly, the second half was simply tremendous.  We’ve talked about our current midfield before;  comparisons and superlatives are so abstract as to be almost meaningless.  How can you possibly compare these four to, say, Callaghan-Taylor-Jackett-Barnes in any meaningful way?

Absolutes are easier.  This midfield is bloody wonderful, but they’ve only rarely reached the collective heights achieved this afternoon.  Pereyra, the quietest of the four in recent weeks, was back in full matador effect, cutting inside from the left and slinging in a low shot that De Gea clawed away from the bottom corner.  Will Hughes was at his menacing, mischievous best, snapping into challenges one minute, orchestrating neat little triangles to prize open crossing opportunities the next. Deeney cushioned down to him, again, and he curled a shot with his weaker left foot around De Gea and, cruelly, the far post. Étienne Capoue snarled around the pitch, bullishly denying United possession and effortlessly spreading the play.  And Doucouré… well.  He’s destined for an arena like this, for a club like this and he looked every bit at home.  The leggy French midfielder dictating the game wasn’t Paul Pogba… in truth it was rather odd that United afforded him as much space as they did, but for the fact that when they tried to close him down he purred into a different dimension and bent himself away from attention anyway, so why bother?

5- The Stretford End had displayed a banner welcoming the newly confirmed Solskjaer prior to kick off.  The 20LEGEND slogan being replicated on advertising hoardings betrayed this as the corporate branding that it was rather than the voice of the support.  Nonetheless, if someone has to restore United to their former glories it might as well be someone as thoroughly likeable as the Norwegian, his post-match comments gracious and candid.  If you gave the slightest damn about United you might pause to wonder what sort of reaction this sort of performance, being outplayed and counterattacking at home – might have yielded under the previous incumbent.  But we don’t.

Smalling and Jones played considerable role in repelling the green tide of flicks, spins and triangles.  As United broke with their only worthwhile attack of the second half they got the bit of luck that we’d been denied.  No view of the goal from the away end, social media suggestions of offside proved groundless by TV footage.

But still we kept at them. How easy would it have been to shrug at this point?  To say “OK, we gave it a go…”.  Femenía, on for the injured looking Janmaat shortly after the break, roared and howled down the right… in any other era he’d be one of the team’s heroes.  Gray and Success were a statement of intent;  the latter failed to do much right but crucially provided the flicked assist to Doucs’ audacious, brilliant goal as one of those ping-ping passing routines finally played us through.  There was scarcely time to locate the kitchen sink, one free kick, one goalmouth scramble which briefly suggested the impossible before play was stopped for a foul.  And that was that.

6- Incredibly, we’d all but forgotten about Next Sunday.  Only briefly, as Capoue lay prostrate, as Troy limped briefly, as Deulofeu was hacked down did we remember.  Until we got to Sandbach and compared notes with some Wolves fans, feeling their bruises after a battering from Burnley.  “Jesus.  Can you imagine what Sunday will be like if Brighton actually beat City on Saturday”.  A terrified pause.  “Naaah, won’t happen”.

Here’s the thing.  Saturday’s gone, we lost.  Fine.  But we were completely brilliant.  Nobody who watched this game should have any concerns, not about Next Sunday, not about finishing seventh. We’re that good.

Bring on the next one.  Yooooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Masina 4, Britos 4, Kabasele 5, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 5, Hughes 5, Pereyra 5, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Femenía (for Janmaat, 55) 4, Gray (for Deulofeu, 73) 3, Success (for Hughes, 0), Cathcart, Holebas, Quina, Gomes

Watford 2 Crystal Palace 1 (16/03/2019) 18/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- I was in Copenhagen this week. First time in Denmark. A conference though so a busy schedule, and most of it spent in a hotel. Nice hotel but… a shame to visit a new country and not see any of it.

So. Tuesday evening I set out to find the damned mermaid. A bloody-minded mission in defiance of a 50-minute walk each way in the cold, biting rain borne of the need to get out and walk somewhere with purpose.

I knew that the statue itself was famously underwhelming. Not big, not dramatic, not something to write home about. So my expectations weren’t high. In consequence perhaps I found the unassuming, unpretentious mermaid quite charming. No grandstanding. No ticket vendors, no tat-stalls, no queuing. Just…there, minding its own business as the world carried on quietly around it.

Which led me to wonder… if something unheralded and uncelebrated could leave me pleasantly surprised, what should, could be expected from something, contrastingly, overburdened with expectation? Would it be possible, conceivable, to be anything but disappointed?

2- Nobody disappointed. Nobody short-changed.

The tide of confidence was rolling by 11.15. That’s when “it’s bloody Palace, isn’t it?” was swept over and crushed. But in effect the build up to that wave, the little ripples, started at least a week earlier as Palace lost to Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle earned unlikely wins and the Eagles started looking over their shoulders again. So when Zaha pulled a calf muscle in training it was never going to be risked.

It may not have been significant, certainly not decisive in determining the outcome of the game. We’ve beaten Palace twice this season with the gravitationally challenged one in tow after all. But your opponent losing a key man doesn’t hurt, and the timing was significant. Nervous energy rippled through the V-Bar as confirmation of the previous evening’s rumour set grins grinning and bellows bellowing.

Out in the stands it was no less raucous. High fives were exchanged, knowing looks traded. The ferocious wind carried the multitude of flags and the tremendous 1881’s cannons fired slugs of streamers and confetti into a whirlwind of bedlam. “Is that all you take away?” was roared at an away end, some of whose members had been vocally demanding more than their ticket entitlement. Then the football started.

3- And what followed was a quite herculean first half. Made better, more impressive if anything by the fact that Palace took the early initiative, moving the ball neatly and just about retaining possession as we hurtled about after it, Étienne Capoue blown along by a wind commanded by the Gods. It didn’t last though, the penetration wasn’t there and much as Michy Batshuayi provided a focal point he was getting nothing.

Meanwhile at the Rookery end more significant headway was being made, and Gerard Deulofeu was at the heart of it. He cut through first and forced Guaita – a supposed one time target for us, but a nervous looking individual here – into a save. By the time the goal came we were hammering on the door increasingly insistently; the latest in a succession of corners was flung across by Holebas, the keeper lunged at it ambitiously before it was knocked back to Capoue and into the net before Palace’s defence, or the support behind the goal, had time to react.

Voices were hoarse and limbs being disentangled by the time focus returned to the pitch. For the rest of the half we had our foot on their throats. Deulofeu roared through on the right and hammered a drive towards Guaita’s unguarded near top corner. As so often there might have been better options… but churlish to criticise, it almost came off and was denied only by a fine stop. Kevin Friend, who has made a pig’s ear of far less challenging games but did a good job here awarded us a free kick, Deulofeu did well to get it on target, but a comfortable save for Guaita. The half ended with Palace breaking after some rare slack possession from the Hornets, and Deulofeu screaming back in pursuit of possession, eventually obstructing the attack by the corner flag. Heroic stuff. Meanwhile Andros Townsend was in a right old strop, remonstrating with officials as Holebas lay prone with a knock that would force him off at one end, then repeating the trick at the Rookery end shortly afterwards. We were all over this. There was just one problem.

4- Which lurched into view with the second half. Being worth more than a one goal lead is fine, as long as you capitalise on it. The visitors were out significantly earlier than us… I normally think of this as a good thing, time spent hanging around and so forth. Instead they took control from the start of the half, piling bodies down the flanks to bypass the surrendered centreground.

Again, they failed to convert their possession into chances. The one save that Gomes made at 1-0 was a fine one to deny a Meyer header as it bounced through the box… on review this may have been our biggest break during the game, a flick off Cheick Kouyaté might have wrong-footed the keeper. Instead he pulled out a stunning reflex save.

When the goal came and much as it felt like it had been coming, it was our own doing. Mariappa at fault, certainly, but not entirely. If we’re honest, and much as it goes against the prevailing sentiment, Gomes’ sliced clearance to Femenía created a situation that could have been avoided, much as Mariappa, who otherwise did a decent job of subduing Batshuayi, had the chance to remedy decisively. As it was the Belgian took his chance with aplomb, as he’s wont to do in games against us. Five in four games well publicised, five in 221 minutes – less than 2.5 games of active play – less so. He celebrated blowing kisses to the Rookery, no doubt in response to generous congratulations offered by the home end.

5- And here’s where Javi’s genius shone through like sunlight through a gap in the clouds. Could so easily have gone wrong here in so many ways and of course good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and vice versa. But the whole of the home end must have been willing a change in personnel, something to stiffen up a midfield that was suddenly losing the battle. For me, something that involved Tom Cleverley giving us an extra body, settling things down, scurrying around after things, perhaps in place of the still listless Pereyra.

And yet Javi, as my co-editor energetically pointed out at the final whistle, held his nerve. Instead of hooking Pereyra he withdrew the tiring Will Hughes, who continues to echo Nick Wright in his willingness to charge around for 70 minutes before leaving the pitch barely able to walk. On comes Andre Gray to add his snarling, snapping menace to the proceedings.

You know the rest. Pereyra justified his place on the pitch with the most magnificent piece of football of the second half, simultaneously bloody minded and beautiful, burrowing his way out of tight attention and then clipping a perfect pass into Gray’s stride. You can criticise the defending, but it took an awful lot for that to be relevant… between them they unpeeled the defence and Gray capitalised sharply, his third winner off the bench in consecutive home games.

6- It wasn’t done. The remaining ten minutes contained plenty of hair wringing and angst…. Deeney drove in a shot, Guaita fumbled and the excellent Wan-Bissaka beat Deulofeu to the rebound. The same player snatched at Palace’s best chance at the other end, dragging a shot across the face of goal. And that was it, the last flailings of this particularly odious opponent before they descended into irrelevance and – we can hope – a relegation scrap.

Roars, bellows at the final whistle. Then loud, long salutes to the many heroes of the hour. To Javi. To Andre Gray. To Gomes. The last two clearly emotional. By the time you read this you’ll know who we’ll face in the semi in only three weeks time… that’s to come. Whoever we’ve drawn, it’s a Cup Semi at Wembley (yes, me too) and a chance to take a step closer to something quite historic for our ever more wonderful club.

Bring it on. Yoooorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 5, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 5*, Deeney 4
Subs: Masina (for Holebas, 45) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 77) 0, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 89) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Success, Dahlberg

Brighton and Hove Albion 0 Watford 0 (02/02/2019) 03/02/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

1. Contentment rarely breeds good art. Happiness, perhaps; ecstasy, certainly; not contentment. I think that’s fair, but I’m open to correction. I appreciate that being open to correction isn’t very 2019, but there we are.

At any rate, I can think of no Shakespeare plays in which, for example, a king governs his kingdom with gentle kindness, dishing out to his contented subjects runny scotch eggs and frothing tankards of mead (does mead froth?) with such generosity that nobody ever bothers to challenge his position and everyone just, you know, gets on fine and that, the end. The Rolling Stones didn’t sing about getting a genteel sufficiency of satisfaction. Every half-successful hip-hop artist has had to deal with the difficult point at which they’ve entirely lost touch with their roots and life has become thoroughly comfortable; the result is an absolutely vast sub-genre of rapping about eating freshly-prepared unicorn kidneys in a diamond-encrusted palace while receiving a ‘massage’ from Miss World but, like, feeling really lonely and vulnerable and numb on the inside.

2. Contentment and football don’t mix easily either. Or perhaps it’s just that contentment supports little in the way of headlines and arguments and gambling sponsorship. There are good times, there are bad times, there are good and bad times at the same time. It’s not often, though, that you look at your football club and receive in return a sense of general well-being, of a thing that’s conceivably as good as it could be and yet not (and there’s a difference) as good as it gets.

Looking in from a distance, it appears that we’re more or less in that place right now. There’s a remarkable sense of surety about Watford Football Club, one that seems to deflect outside attention like some kind of cloaking shield. Interlocking parts, cohesive whole; nothing to see here. There seems to be a clear relationship between, for instance, the 1881 collecting for the local food bank, the sense of collective purpose shown on the pitch and the ability of the owners to make actions speak much, much louder than words. It hasn’t always been so, and you don’t have to go more than a few months back to find a good degree of acrimony and resentment and frustration. It won’t always be so either; everyone wanted to be Charlton once, if you recall.

But for now, we know who we are, where we are, what to do. We have a thoroughly charming manager who answers the media’s enquiries as if a nice aunt has just asked if he’d like a second slice of battenberg. That manager appears to have spent the summer concluding that the air around a football club is clearer if your team doesn’t stink it up, and the football no longer has that sense of instinctively shrinking onto the back foot, of only being truly happy when it’s pouring quick-drying cement all over everything. It still has the potential to be one of the great seasons. Even if it falls short of that, it’s a rare moment when any club gets quite this much right, and so modestly.

3. Our hosts are in a slightly more precarious position, and are smarting from their midweek disintegration at Fulham, but have a similar number of reasons to be thankful.

Much as you want to win, there’s always something thrilling about being in someone else’s ground when a game that’s in the balance suddenly tips and the noise starts echoing around the stands. Sets the adrenaline going, makes eventual victory all the more vivid. The noise at the Amex still seems to carry with it something of what this club nearly became, of building bonfires and Hereford and all of that. It’s still there, the knowledge that none of this might’ve existed. The pre-match build-up offers somewhat one-sidedly edited highlights of previous meetings, and the big screen malfunctions to obscure half of the picture, which seems a fitting reminder of the sightlines from both the away corner at the Goldstone and the temporary seating at Withdean. It’s thirty years since I was a student here; more than twenty since Fans United. This is a brilliant ground for a proud city. We should all count our blessings more often.

4. That said, the first half is absolutely dire. We start well enough, composed in possession, secure in defence. But it rapidly becomes apparent that having gorged themselves on Haribo and thrown up all over the living room carpet on Tuesday night, Brighton are spending some time on the naughty step, learning their lesson. There will be no repeat, no opening up, no fun and games. They are absolutely sodding impenetrable. On the very rare occasions when we find a bit of space, it’s filled with a great rush of striped bodies before we can get our heads up and take advantage. We create a half-chance for Troy Deeney, who heads wide at the end of a fine, far-ranging move, but that’s really all we have to show for a lot of earnest shuffling around.

It’d be an exaggeration to say that Brighton have no interest in the other end, although that clearly isn’t their immediate priority. On their right, March and Gross offer the main threat, doubling up on a constantly raging Jose Holebas who, having seen off one attack quite superbly, flings his gloves to the ground in disgust at the concession of a corner. You suspect that if he ever made you a cuppa, he’d smash the mug onto the table in a great explosion, snarling “TEA!” through gritted teeth; you also suspect that he’s no fun when it comes to charades on Christmas Day. He’s a lot of fun on a football pitch, though, and this is a half in which you have to take your entertainment wherever you can find it. Dunk heads wide from a corner; Ben Foster makes his first save of the afternoon to claw out a header from Locadia as half-time approaches.

5. It’s a beautifully bright, crisp winter’s day. The snow is melting away everywhere but the peaks of the Downs. The sun gradually begins to set, casting lovely shades of light orange onto the arced roof of the whatever-it-is stand. The concrete under our feet, however, seems to have stored up the cold of a thousand years; the ice of ages. It takes about fifteen minutes for your feet to feel as if they’re standing in a shin-high freezing puddle, and at no point is the game enough to fully divert your attention from the prospect of losing contact with your toes permanently. I can still feel the chill in my bones twenty-four hours later.

The second half is more engaging. A bit, anyway; let’s not oversell it. That’s partly just because the end is getting nearer; each thing that happens threatens to become the thing that happened, to be final and decisive. It’s also partly because Brighton, after forty-five minutes of reminding themselves of what they’re good at, decide to give it a bit of a go, stepping forward ten or twenty yards and increasing the tempo. They know that it’s there to be won, even if they’re not prepared to be cavalier in winning it. Respect the point, as Big Sam would say.

That ought to help us. And yes…well, a bit. There are moments when we manage to get Will Hughes into positions where he can pick up second balls from the Deeney-Dunk-Duffy scraps, and those hold some promise. But Ken Sema is too preoccupied with helping out Jose Holebas, and Gerard Deulofeu isn’t involved in the game at all. I mean, it really isn’t his kind of contest, and nobody’s asking that he turn into Tommy Mooney, but he seems to accept his irrelevance all too readily. It’s all very well having a player with the quality to win a game in a second, but a great pile of unused seconds is no good to anyone, and we cut our losses eventually.

Our last attempt at coming up with an attacking formation that can trouble Brighton sees Andre Gray in support of Deeney and is best of the iterations, even if there’s still little to show for it. Hughes fires into the side netting; Gray is foiled by Dunk collapsing onto the ball with the suggestion of a surreptitious arm outstretched. Worth a shout, but it later turns out that he’s actually used his head to make the tackle, the absolute loon. From next season, we’ll all get to freeze our tits off while someone pores over the footage, so hooray for progress.

6. A point each is about right, then. And it’s obviously considerably more about right if you’re a Watford fan. By full-time, we’ve accumulated another small hatful of reasons to be thankful to Ben Foster: these were, for the most part, saves that you’d hope he’d make, in tipping over a drifting header from Locadia and blotting out the sunlight as Andone burst through in the dying minutes. The best of them is an improvised goal-line clearance to scramble an overhead kick from Duffy around the post, not least because he’d look a complete clown if, as is perfectly possible, he only succeeded in shovelling the ball into his own net. But he doesn’t. He remains a class act, in all respects.

Brighton are theoretically the better side, then, but all of the terrific things about this game are defensive and we contribute as many as they do. Jose Holebas has already been commended, but we get similarly committed, if less furious, shifts from the rest of the back four. Aside from a free-ish header for Glenn Murray from a set piece, we concede nothing lightly; the clean sheet isn’t fortunate just because our keeper pulled off some saves. It’s a battle of a game, to watch as well as to play in, and the central defenders of both sides command it. They do more to win it, we do enough not to lose it. Everyone’s happy enough when it’s over.

7. And everyone’s happy enough, full stop. Well, maybe not everyone: the chap next to me would, at the drop of a hat, compile you a chart run-down of which players are the most shit. But mostly. I’ve often wondered how it’d feel to be in this position, with little to fear and yet also relatively little to hope for; Burnley have rather popped the European dream bubble, after all. I’d assumed that it’d be a tedious existence, a kind of footballing limbo, eventually yearning for any kind of release. Maybe it will be, eventually. But for now, it’s rather pleasant, isn’t it? Top half of the top flight, no drama. Dreadful game, minor frostbite, doesn’t matter.

Contentment. All is not well with the world. This bit, though…well, this bit is just fine.

Cup run’d be good, though, eh?

*Foster 5*, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Janmaat 4, Cleverley 3, Capoue 3, Hughes 3, Sema 2, Deulofeu 1, Deeney 2 Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 70) 3, Quina (for Sema, 81) 0, Masina, Peñaranda, Britos, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 0 Burnley 0 (19/01/2019) 20/01/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- The highlight of the day was the GT stuff, quite obviously. Two years on the club provides all attendees with a drinks voucher, then orchestrates another tremendous scarf display as the players enter the arena. This might have been more effective still but for the unwanted, unneeded and sadly non-negotiable twaddle that is the Premier League anthem as the players solemnly shake hands. It could have been so much more than a stunning visual spectacle. But it is a stunning visual spectacle. There are scarves aloft in the away end too – Claret and Blue stands out a little less than Southampton’s red and white of a year ago, but it’s still a fine thing.

At half time there’s a tribute to Captain Thomas Sawyer ten years after his passing in Afghanistan, the most significant aspect of which is that the club chose to acknowledge something that wasn’t recent, wasn’t prominent in everyone’s consciousness.

It goes without saying that this is a club that is proud of its community and of which its community should be proud.  More so than at any time since GT’s first tenure, a fact unconnected with relative success on the field.  It also flies in the face of quotes attributed to Burnley manager Sean Dyche this week, quotes so lazily inaccurate as to be not worth challenging.  In fairness to Dyche, his stoic attention to the GT tribute and to Duncan Welbourne’s subsequent minute’s applause have been widely reported and it’s unreasonable to on the one hand laud a manager’s rare candour and on the other to object when he talks complete bollocks.  Nobody gets it right all the time.

Nonetheless there are boos mingled with the cheers as Dyche is welcomed over the tannoy.  As team news reveals the absence of the much-speculated Abdoulaye Doucouré with an unannounced knee injury one is forced to wonder whether the afternoon’s drama and emotion has been played out before the game kicked off.

2- And it hasn’t.  Not all of it.  But my god there are meagre pickings on offer for the next two hours.  In exhorting my co-editor to increase his rather miserly attendance rate I’ve argued recently that even the poor games – Newcastle at home being case in point – have been enjoyable.

This one wasn’t.  This one was eye-bleedingly awful.  This one was sit in a traffic jam needing the loo with a broken stereo, late for a flight or something whilst kids bicker in the back seat for two hours awful.  This was the sort of thing that used to provoke a sort of gallows humour back when we were a mid-table second tier club and games like this were an occupational hazard, we had one-liners ready to go.  Here… nobody really new how to handle the mindless tedium.  Hell, there might even have been youngsters here who weren’t born the last time we had a game like this.

At some point I’m going to need to start talking about the football.

3- Actually it started off extraordinarily well.  In retrospect, this could have been a ruse by the visitors to put us off our guard but it seems unlikely that Burnley, the most oblong of opponents, would be capable of such subterfuge.  No, this was mere incompetence on our visitors’ part as they failed to start the game until a good five or ten minutes after Michael Oliver’s whistle.  By this time Troy had twice been allowed to chest the ball down in the middle of the park and turn unchallenged.  On one occasion his sublime through-ball to Deulofeu released the Spaniard through on goal.

The afternoon would, could, should have panned out entirely differently had Deulofeu’s first touch and composure not deserted him, allowing Tom Heaton to hurtle out and give himself a chance.  Given that Gerry’s finishing is, um, a growth opportunity you have to wonder why he so rarely uses his quick feet to try to bypass the keeper in such situations.  Here, Heaton blocked the shot, Deulofeu’s head was in his hands, his first touch walked out on him in disgust taking the kids, not leaving a note, and he sulked his way back towards the halfway line.  Within five minutes there were further chances;  Deulofeu fluffed a free header with a mistimed jump, Ken Sema had a similarly clear chance which didn’t quite drop for him, Troy had a header cleared off the line.  We looked good, but our visitors plain terrible.  Not so much slack as really not playing the same game at all.  The missed chances were shrugged off, the goal, goals, were clearly coming.

4- Until Burnley woke up, quietly got hold of the ball and proceeded to wrest away any semblance of control that we had on the game.  Not that they took control, particularly, though they certainly had the better of it and the better of the subsequent chances.  More that they brutally rejected the concept of control, a nihilistic, anarchic destruction of any semblance of such a thing buried under hurtling bodies and closed down possession.

There’s something admirable about Burnley, in the way that you might quietly, privately, take pride in a very large shit.  Consistent with this analogy however Burnley are a thing best admired from a distance;  you might be capable of a sort of respect but you don’t want to watch it, be close to it, invite it round to dinner. You want to flush it away and forget you ever saw it. There is no joy in it.  It’s just a very large shit.

Troy no longer has time to bring balls down in midfield.  Instead he has Jack Cork shoving him in the ribs, or two opponents double-teaming him – one blocking, one winning the header.  The cowardly thuggish Ashley Barnes is one minute backing into his marker, the next flopping forwards over the ball in anticipation of a challenge from behind to win a free kick.  Hoodwinking the hapless Michael Oliver is an art form, jabs to the ribs synchronised with the turn of his back as perfectly as if this were a dance synchronised to music.  The official increasingly resembles a frantic supply teacher, the pitch of his voice surely rising steadily as he demands respect and receives none in consequence.

5- Not that we deserve a damn thing.  It’s easy to look to the significance of our absentees – the movement of Hughes, the power and dynamism of Doucouré, even the authority of Cathcart though the defence does well enough in fairness.  But the guys left on the pitch needed to do better.  Worst of these is Deulofeu, who disappears up his own backside early on, can’t do a damn thing right and spends much of the game flouncing.  Ken Sema is in many ways his counterpoint…  equally prone to a bad decision, less able to rely on quick feet to compensate, far stronger of mentality.  He keeps going when Deulofeu would give up, shows for the next one, probably deserves better than to be hauled off for Isaac Success in the second half, much as this is the right decision.  Cleverley was a force for good at Palace but struggles here, a ferocious ball to the privates in the second half sums up his afternoon whilst the battle-hardened Phil Bardsley relentlessly forces Bobby Pereyra down the line and Pereyra relentlessly attempts to cut back onto his right foot anyway.  In such circumstances it’s slightly surprising that Pereyra and Sema didn’t swap wings to at least allow Troy the possibility of something to attack via a cutback from the byline.  It’s painful stuff.

5- So, yes, Burnley have the best chances after the first few minutes.  Troy forces Heaton into a stunning reaction stop on half time but against that the Clarets fluff two easy chances, Jeff Hendrick slips a ball agonisingly across the face of the goal in the early minutes and Ben Foster is forced into a number of decent stops.  If we’re looking for a straw to cling to it would be that “we would have lost  this last year” thing.  Except… we should have lost this one really.  Chris Wood’s late offside effort really wasn’t.

So we nod to Lady Luck and scramble off with a point trying to block out the sound of Sean Dyche bitching about referees (again).  And yet… and yet there is a positive to come from today.  Of all the head coaches we’ve gone through since 2012 the two that you’d question the departures of would be Jokanovic and Dyche, probably.  Both vindicated by this season’s developments, I’d argue.

We’re left with the point.  Oh, and that enduring pride in our club and our community.  Seventh in the Premier League and Top of the World in reverse order of importance.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Kabasele 3, Mariappa 4, Sema 2, Capoue 3, Cleverley 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 1, Deeney 3
Subs: Success (for Sema, 56) 3, Britos (for Femenía, 77) 0, Masina, Gray, Quina, Wilmot, Gomes

Crystal Palace 1 Watford 2 (12/01/2019) 13/01/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- So when I was at school, a boys’ school, football was What You Did at lunchtime, at break, before school. Hell, you caught an earlier bus than strictly necessary just to play before school, either with a tennis ball on the concrete or with a proper ball, or something resembling it, on the muddy field. Dom Ludden mocking my Watford-emblazoned contribution to the cause sticks with me for some reason.

But there was another kid.  He was an OK footballer, but not as good as he thought he was.  And he wanted to do it all himself.  Never passed to anyone, ran off with it, tried to beat everyone on his own.  Looking back on this now, I can only wonder whether he did so because he felt his chances of success were better that way (in which case he was a moron – not all the kids were as clumsy as me), or because he simply preferred to try and do it himself (in which case he was an arsehole).  Either way, he surely can’t have been surprised that all the other kids got a bit fed up with him spoiling the game and will surely have regarded him with disdain thenceforth.

2- Fast forward thirty-odd years and here we are, back at Selhurst Park.  Those of you familiar with this corner of Croydon will be unsurprised to learn that today is grey and overcast, though not so grey that it deters us from walking to the ground from East Croydon Station.  Pre-match food is somewhat bland, pre-match conversation involves someone suggesting that it’s a Good Thing that Luton appear to be on their way “back”, that what good are rivals if you never get to play them.

This is not a good start to the day, if a visit to Croydon can ever have a “good start”.  In the all too welcome absence from relevance of them up the road, Palace (and Bournemouth) are surrogate rivals but the anticipated spiteful raucousness is absent as the home stands are uncharacteristically timid.  Instead it’s the visitors making the noise, loudly commemorating the second anniversary of GT’s passing.  Fuelled by this event or otherwise, it’s as boisterous an away end as we’ve enjoyed for some time.

3- If the day has begun badly, the game’s start is almost perfect.  We’re at Palace’s throats before they’ve woken up to the fact that the match has started.  Gerard Deulofeu nutmegs Tomkins and he’s away;  his finish is too casual, beating Guaita but not the woodwork.  Impossibly, when the ball rebounds kindly into Bobby Pereyra’s path he finds the same woodwork when it seemed much easier not to.  Aggravated by his failure, Pereyra drives in from the left flank and is felled on the very edge of the area but gradually the fury recedes from our start.

Palace aren’t an easy side to play against.  They are, famously, blunt; there’s no cutting edge at all.  The side is slightly imbalanced, all the attacking threat coming down the flanks.  However they’re sound enough defensively, and with Milivojevic, Kouyaté and McArthur in the centre of midfield they’re difficult to play through.  One imagines that they’ve had a few dull games of late, it’s very easy to look stodgy and uninspired against them, the more so if you make the mistake of falling behind.

The home side have gone on to enjoy the majority of possession in the first half without doing an awful lot with it.  They’re switching the ball from flank to flank, probing, but don’t look like scoring;  nor, in all honesty, do we after the early excitement.  Will Hughes, the only survivor from the cup win at Woking, hasn’t survived for long having apparently been battered in a challenge and taken off with concussion.  Ken Sema is on to acclaim, but it’s the scampering Deulofeu who provides such threat as we offer.

When Palace score it’s almost by default, a pitiful apology for a goal that arrives via attrition.  Not unsurprisingly it’s an own goal coming after repeated failures to clear conclude with Abdoulaye Doucouré clearing against Cathcart and the ball rebounding in.  The memory of the visit here two years’ ago, won by Palace via an own goal after they registered no shots on target by their own steam, looms large.

4- The home stands wake up for the first time.  As the half ends and the second begins Palace respond and suddenly look confident and assertive.  Arron Win-Bissaka, comfortably the best player on the pitch, bombs down the right as the half closes and sends a ball across which just needs a touch but doesn’t get one.   This theme continues in the second period; it’s not that we’re hanging on, it’s not that one-sided, but we’re doing little more than holding our own.

To which end it’s worth recognising the defensive efforts of those involved. Both fullbacks are forced backwards by Palace’s wingplay but both are diligent, and Femenía in particular, and against all expectation, does a fine and comprehensive job of subduing the notorious Zaha (who will later fashion an appalling miss all of his own at the far end, and get told to get the hell up by referee Tierney to the acclaim of the away end).   Ben Foster, meanwhile, is alert when Zaha capitalises on some sloppy possession as he grows into the game, and later produces a fine stop to deny Milivojevic.

Nonetheless, we’re second best at this stage, don’t look like equalising let alone turning it around, and are anticipating yet another miserable trip back through London after yet another congested, clunky game here which we’ve again managed to lose.  We’ve been here before, let’s face it, we’ve seen this game many times.

5- Until, midway through the half, we go off script.  Jose Holebas lines up a corner;  this is not a great source of excitement, we’ve had half a dozen of these without coming terribly close to scoring although in fairness to Holebas a couple of his crosses had hit fine spaces with nobody in them rather than merely being underhit.  On this occasion however a deep, deep delivery tempts out Wayne Hennessey, introduced from the bench following an injury to Guaita, and Cathcart redeems himself with a fine, fine header at the far post.

A bubble bursts.  Everything has suddenly changed, changed irrevocably, and everyone in the stadium knows it.  Every football fan knows the dangers inherent in giving it large too early, the risks in counting your chickens, and the home stands are very, very subdued as the taunts they’d been lobbing over come back with interest.  On the pitch we’ve grabbed the match by the throat and aren’t about to let go.  This is fuelled by the equaliser, but re-enforced by the introduction of Tom Cleverley who gives us a control in midfield that we never look like relinquishing.  We’d called this substitution five minutes earlier, but to be fair there are few circumstances in which introducing Tom Cleverley off the bench wouldn’t be a sensible thing to do.

And of course, of course, there’s a crowning moment.  A glorious crescendo, a sucker punch.  It’s been coming;  Palace have been applying frantic and fairly aimless pressure, we’ve been screaming out at them.  An inhuman tackle from the covering Win-Bissaka has halted our progress on the right as we broke;  later Troy, who is back in beast mode, throwing himself at every aerial challenge, is denied by a last ditch block from the same player.  But there’s no denying Tom Cleverley.  A Holebas throw comes in, isn’t cleared, drops towards Tom on the edge of the area and is suddenly flying towards the top corner.  Cleverley, sent off in the dying minutes of this fixture last season and starting in the League for the first time since last January, heads for the corner flag followed by every one of his teammates.  In the stands, our support floods down the stairways to the detriment of anyone in their way;   the home stands have never looked more disconsolate.

6- It’s tempting to say that we would have lost this last season.  In fact we DID lose this last season.  And the season before.  And coulda, shoulda this time too.  But there’s more to us now…  good enough that our bad days aren’t that bad, good enough that when we flame on we’re irresistible, plenty enough to blow Palace, albeit a blunt, stunted Palace, right out of the sky.

The walk back to East Croydon is not unpleasant.  We grab a tea and as we arrive on the platform a delayed Bedford train is pulling in.  We don’t need to break stride as the doors open.  We’re seventh in the Premier League, in poll position for the Everton Cup, and today has been a very good day.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, *Femenía 4*, Holebas 4, Mariappa 4, Cathcart 3, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Sema (for Hughes, 19) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 67) 4, Masina (for Pereyra, 87) 0, Britos, Quina, Success, Gomes

 

Watford 1 Newcastle United 1 (29/12/2018) 30/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1 – There is a danger in preconceptions. In making assumptions, not judging things at face value. The human race wouldn’t have survived without a degree of educated guesswork of course… “that wolf/precipitous path/large drunken sweary man looks iffy, I’ll give it a swerve” and so forth. But as a general rule, you don’t broaden your perspective by presuming that you know it all. To do so would be tantamount to believing that you are blessed with perfect knowledge. That you can’t be surprised, you have nothing to learn.

Easy to say. Worthy. Harder to live by, despite the best of intentions. On Friday evening we were invited to a gathering at the home of a pastor of my better half’s church. I’m not a christian, rarely attend said church, didn’t expect to know many if any of the guests and the prospect was a little daunting. I guess socialising in a crowd of people who know each other and not you, who have something in common that you don’t share, is only something that the most confident would look forward to.

On the drive over my better half mentioned that the pastor’s daughter makes music, and did I want to listen to some? Dutifully I agreed. I don’t know what I expected… not that it should be awful necessarily. Perhaps I subconsciously, stupidly expected that people who, in my head, were “churchy people” only did churchy things, that it would be an overtly religious piece. Gospel, maybe. Not that that’s a problem – each to their own and so forth. But anyway. It wasn’t. And it was stunning.

2- In some circumstances your preconceptions are entirely reliable of course. Take, for example, our shared beliefs about the nature of a home game against a Newcastle United side, a Rafa Benitez side, stung by a 4-0 whupping at the hands of Liverpool three days earlier. A cynic, one liable to pre-judging, might anticipate a frustrating encounter against a joyless, mercilessly well-drilled outfit, a bit like trying to breathe with your head wrapped in a sodden towel weighed down with rocks. If you’re somehow ignorant of how the game turned out and wish to retain a modicum of mystery you can pretend that this isn’t (necessarily) how it turned out if you like.

Our approach to it was distinguished by a raft of team changes; one enforced by Christian Kabasele’s spectacular injury on Boxing Day (this having prompted Daughter 1 into gushing eulogy about his fortitude), five more apparently prompted by the congested, demanding schedule of this chunk of the fixture list. To which… it’s difficult not to be slightly excited. A little trepidatious, yes, but… this is us. Watford. At home to Newcastle… if not Premier League royalty then certainly a big club, whatever Bigness means. And we’re resting players. Taking advantage of what is surely the most lavish squad we’ve ever had, if still slightly imbalanced. Get us.

3- The game starts and we’re bright and positive. In charge of possession quite quickly, and if headway is hard going there’s patience to balance our zest. And there is headway. Isaac Success, ostensibly the target man with Troy on the bench, is pulling left and has DeAndre Yedlin in all sorts very quickly, committing him and drawing fouls. Not the first time that the American has looked a ropey excuse for a defender against us. Then Gerard Deulofeu’s skidding away from Newcastle’s defence and if he doesn’t capitalise, if the finish isn’t quite there, again, then at least we’re making tracks. It will come. We just need to be patient.

Except it doesn’t. Instead, Newcastle hit us with their stock goal and it’s a Neal Ardley to Heidar Helguson tribute act. Matt Ritchie swings a beast of a cross in from the left to our far post and Rondón rises to dump a header past the helpless Ben Foster. Newcastle aren’t a great side, Ray Lewington’s Watford side weren’t great either however lovable but that goal more than kept us up and it’ll keep them up too.

4- And suddenly we look a bit of a mess. Our “new guys” to a man look rusty… Will Hughes digs in but is well short, Daryl Janmaat will play himself up to his imposing full speed in the second half but doesn’t start that way at all. Domingos Quina is brave, takes responsibility but is now drowning in the midfield morass, twisting when he should stick and sticking when he should twist with the help of a good kick up the arse from Mo Diamé. Aidy Mariappa looks anxious and tentative, and Adam Masina is completely unlike the heir apparent at left back that his brief forays have encouraged us to believe hitherto.

At half time, slightly surprisingly, Daughter 1 turns to me with shining eyes and proclaims her passion for all things football. She has, in the relatively recent past, seemed to float distractedly through the most thrilling of games so this is no small triumph, unjustified as it seems by the 45 minutes that preceded it. We start the second half with a vigour to match my mood, but it’s the introduction of Troy and Doucouré ten minutes in that tips the tide. Suddenly we look potent, and slightly unexpectedly the game opens up a bit. Troy has dragged us along by our bootlaces so many times, this is no exception; fuelled by his inhuman hurtling we’re the better side now, and if the final ball is still wanting and if we’re struggling to get Deulofeu involved then there’s nonetheless renewed belief and energy in the stands from which listless half-hearted booing had emerged at half time. By the time Deulofeu finally picks a ball which Doucouré flies onto to noisy relief we just about deserve it.

5- The final ten minutes don’t quite see us pick up enough of a head of steam to convince that we’re going to win the game. Bobby Pereyra tiptoes through the area and doesn’t quite get the break. Isaac Success’ afternoon deserves to be crowned with a winning goal for sheer perseverance – never hiding, all twists and turns and muscle and determination and bad decisions and bad luck. But he doesn’t hide, he keeps at it and in a fairer world his closing shot has a bit more venom to it, we win 2-1. In this universe Dubravka fields easily and it’s a 1-1 draw.

It’s tempting to reflect that the wholesale changes cost us two points, but even if you believe that’s true then the decision’s reasonableness can only be judged on the basis of how Bournemouth, Woking and the rest of the season rolls out. Let’s not forget that the failure of Gracia’s predecessor was as much in the dearth of energy (and ideas) in his squad come this time of year as in the more publicised stuff. I’m happier with a coach who Does Stuff, all things considered.

6- Meanwhile, and as a slight aside, the event on Friday evening was perfectly fine of course. More than fine. I met Navina, the pastor’s musical daughter, and she spoke compellingly and passionately about the challenges of “making it” as a female soloist in the age of streaming, how even live gigs have limited mileage when competing against a noisy band with a fuller sound. Anyway… if you want to cheer yourself up after this stodge then watch the video below. Self-written, performed, produced. And if you don’t, listen to it anyway. Do me a favour, do Navina a favour. Enjoy it and share it. Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Masina 2, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 2, Hughes 2, Quina 2, Capoue 2, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 2, Success 3
Subs: *Deeney (for Hughes, 58) 3*, Doucouré (for Quina, 58) 3, Holebas (for Masina, 78) 0, Britos, Cleverley, Sema, Gomes

Watford 3 Cardiff City 2 (15/12/2018) 16/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- Panto week. No, not that sort of panto. Not for kids. For colleagues. In jokes, that sort of thing. Written from January to June, cast in July, rehearsed from September onward. Not for everyone. It is for me. Really. Lots of good things… from spending lunchtimes laughing solidly, an oasis of joy in the middle of the working day. Raising money for charity. Doing something creative. The most monumental and magnificent post-show piss-up. Making friends and being part of something. Especially that.

There are parallels with following a football team, I think. A bit. Particularly that last point. It’s a drum I’ve banged before, no apologies for that. It’s the answer to that question we used to ask when we were in the second tier. “What’s the point of being a mid-table Premier League side?” Of being (Fulham/Stoke/West Brom/insert your choice here). No hope of challenging, limited peril until there is, then it stops. We are now that side. The side that are the go-to name for throwaway lines about mid-table irrelevance.

Leicester answered that question in part of course. But there’s more to it. Being Watford (any team, but Watford more so, obviously) is great because it’s us.  It’s being part of something.  And being us is great wherever it is.  Being good is fun.  But it’s not all of it.

2- Meanwhile, it’s wet and it’s cold.  And here are Cardiff in the drizzle.  Being Cardiff is great too, if you’re a Cardiff fan and I’m quite comfortable with there being a bunch of bruisers in the Premier League that stick out like a sore thumb given that we have to watch them, at most, twice a season.

I was ready to say that there’s a disarming honesty about the unabashed negativity of the approach, but that doesn’t really ring true having watched the side in action.  Considerably less brutal but more cynically unpleasant than advertised, as exemplified by Callum Paterson’s early employment of the Poleon manoeuvre, a cowardly shove on Cathcart into his onrushing goalkeeper.

But bloody-mindedly destructive they were, and for all that the Hornets dominated possession the visitors retained their shape and were effective at denying space and options.  It was imperative to score early, it was likely to require something a bit clever and we got it as Deulofeu’s directness forced fatal hesitation from City’s defence.  He slipped it home, one-nil.  Defiantly, City refused to change their approach, and as they twice threatened through long throws it was clear that there was a cold logic to the negativity.

3- Which doesn’t mean that it worked.  Neil Etheridge produced a string of athletic saves to deny Bobby Pereyra in particular;  one of these came from a free kick at the tail end of the half which was going in but then didn’t, a quite remarkable save that drew applause from Etheridge’s opposite number at the far end of the pitch as the half term whistle blew moments later.

But even Etheridge couldn’t hold back the storm as the second half developed.  Gerard Deulofeu’s decision making is ropey at best, profoundly aggravating.  Thing is, if he made consistently reliable decisions he’d still be playing for Barcelona and in a game like this a Deulofeu who makes the wrong choice two times out of three will still produce a man-of-the-match display, following up his terrific opener by dragging City’s defence into a blind alley before producing Jose Holebas out of a hat on the edge of the area.  The left back’s finish was exquisite.

4- Significant again had been the retention of Sema and Quina in midfield following the qualified success of the draw-that-was-nearly-a-first-win at Everton.  It’s beyond any reasonable dispute that this is the greatest array of midfield options we’ve ever had.  The fact that Ken Sema’s tidy, efficient, occasionally boisterous but generally low key performance suggested a player capable of stepping in and doing a job but not really being anywhere near a first team eleven speaks volumes.  We’ve got steady Premier League players on the fringes of our first team squad.  Jesus.

Quina, meanwhile, looks extraordinary.  A teenager thrust into the centre of a Premier League midfield… not a winger, peripheral.  Not a cameo role as sub.  Not an encouraging performance, suggesting  that there might be something in there, which would be a result in itself.  But a gem.  Here.  Now.  Tenacious, tidy, elegant, clever, brave.  Brave enough to volley a driven pass through to Troy – too hard, not everything was perfect, but applauded for its intent in what was a clear strategy of playing straight through City rather than around them.  Tidy enough to burrow into challenges and spin away into space on any number of occasions.  Deft enough to apply an impossibly so-on-top-of-this finish to yet another terrific move.  Étienne Capoue, Player of the Season elect, is available at West Ham.  Extraordinarily, his return is not guaranteed.

5- We swarmed at City, and it really should have been the first proper thrashing that we’ve dished out since promotion.  Etheridge (again) denied us, one or two bad decisions – not least when Deulofeu attempted to chip the keeper rather than squaring to an unmarked Doucouré.  City, by now, definitely didn’t know whether to stick or twist and were caught between the two frequently scattering like rabbits in headlights as we screamed down the pitch on the counter.

So Junior Hoilett’s extraordinary finish was a bit of a blow. Not undeserved; under no circumstances would a finish like that not merit a goal.  But… a shame.  Taking the shine off a performance that deserved a shine.  When City followed that up within three minutes by scoring the goal that they’d threatened to score twice earlier – Morrison now on throw-in duties with Gunnarsson removed, someone else gets the flick on, Bobby Reid capitalises on the scruffiness – it’s simply insulting.  Offside too, apparently, though less consequentially than previous episodes in this series.

Despite the predictable and hysterical anxiety in the home stands and despite Colin’s rather optimistic post-match assessment that there was only one team in it from this stage it was never in doubt.  City didn’t have enough threat to muster a corner for the duration, the best they offered in the closing minutes was the bluntest of high balls into the box, fielded by the exemplary Foster.  Tom Cleverley made a welcome return after ten months out and looked like he’d never been away, instantly calming everything down and nearly scoring with his first touch after a great lay-off from Okaka.  Doucouré and Holebas took advantage of Andy Madley’s manifest refusal to issue a yellow card for anything short of GBH.  And then it was over.

Closer than it had any right to be.  This was a 6-0 win in the next universe along.  But plenty good enough to be going along with.  And still us.

Merry Christmas all.  Yooooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 3, Sema 3, Quina 4, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Deulofeu 4*, Deeney 4
Subs: Success (for Sema, 77) 0, Okaka (for Deeney, 81) 0, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 87) 0, Mariappa, Masina, Chalobah, Gomes

Southampton 1 Watford 1 (10/11/2018) 11/11/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- “Tell you what Matt, the next time we come here, let’s not park in Portsmouth…?”

Paul’s an affable sort of bloke, not one for unnecessary or exaggerated protest and in fairness he has a point. Our reserved parking space is actually only half a mile or so from the ground as the crow flies but with the River Itchen in the way it’s a good two miles as the Watford fan trudges. This seemed like a reasonable idea without the filter of the pissing rain, and on the way into Southampton the prospect of snarled traffic put us off from looking for something a bit closer. As it is we arrive damp and tired, and that classic football fan’s war wound, the burn on the roof of the mouth thanks to a hastily inhaled balti pie, doesn’t brighten the outlook. Loz materialises, over from gadding it in Spain, this helps, but as the teams come out it’s absolutely hammering it down.

2- Question One of course is quite how we’ll cope with the conditions. Étienne Capoue is the one you’d traditionally worry about of course, the one labelled with the same “he’s fine when the sun’s shining” reputation that Micah Hyde was once rather harshly awarded but he’s missing having picked up a fifth booking of the season in Newcastle. In comes Nathaniel Chalobah for a very welcome first League start for twelve months but eager anticipation of the resumption of his partnership with Doucouré needs to be tempered for a while. Chalobah was magnificent in the slightly less pressured environment of the League Cup win at Reading, but here does look every inch a player who’s barely played in twelve months… ragged, off the pace, trying rather too hard to rectify mistakes exacerbated by the conditions in being rather reckless in the tackle. He’ll get there, props again to Javi Gracia for giving him the full ninety minutes which will help but we looked noticeably flimsier in midfield minus Capoue, one-time Watford target Mario Lemina the dominant figure in a congested central area of the park.

That said the worst example of failing to accommodate the conditions was perpetrated by Roberto Pereyra, whose flame had dimmed overall. Saints enjoyed their first spell of pressure, winning a corner when Stuart Armstrong overlapped well then sending a header straight at Foster from the set piece. From the second corner the ball found its way to Pereyra who dawdled and tried to pick out a pass with the ball stuck under his feet. He was robbed and Saints capitalised. Particularly aggravating in the context of a game which was always going to ask a lot of a team going behind… much easier to be destructive and protect a lead than to chase a game in these conditions.

3- Southampton revelled in their advantage, catching sight of a first home win since April. Both sides were struggling to retain possession, but the Saints were having the best of it and came close twice more in the first half, Yoshida heading narrowly wide before Armstrong’s flicked shot forced an excellent reaction save from Foster. At the other end the Saints looked eminently get-attable, but Gerard Deulofeu’s bark was proving worse than his bite once more. His quick feet and scuttling menace is too often let down by bad decision making; the most eye-catching of these instances provoked accusations of selfishness from those around us but the Spaniard has been equally culpable of forgoing opportunities in favour of less well-placed colleagues.

Isaac Success however was having some, um, joy in providing a focal point for the attack, his ability to stick a brick wall in front of his marker whilst gently chesting down an aerial ball not getting old just yet. He was helped further when Troy joined the fray; at the time this was heralded as a bold early substitution, it transpires that the disappointing Hughes had been struggling with a knock. Either way, the momentum of the game changed and we were the side most likely to from then on in. As ever it’s the how as much as the what with Troy, and as so often he dragged his teammates back into the ascendancy.

4- In the grand scheme of things there are more objectionable teams in the Premier League than Southampton, bearing in mind of course that the basic rule of supporting a football team is that there’s your lot and there’s everyone else; we’re talking degrees of objectionable for the most part. Nonetheless, there are more pompous, unpleasant, snide teams around than Southampton. All that really lets them down at the moment is their odious manager, whose notoriously blinkered view of the world is widely parodied. Predictably enough, he was at the vanguard of a one-eyed version of the second half narrative that focused on the second of two eye-catching decisions from Premier League newbie Simon Hooper.

This related to Charlie Austin’s disallowed strike, a fine move down the right out of nowhere giving Austin the opportunity to finish well. We sunk into our seats, it was some time before the assistant raised his flag disallowing the goal to understandable if baffled joy in the away end. Any explanations came via friends who may or may not have been watching streams; on review, there’s no denying that the goal gets awarded nine times out of ten.

It’s not completely cut and dried though. Not ludicrous. MotD’s analysis suggested that the officials thought that the offside Yoshida had touched the ball but there’s a case for saying that the defender was active in that had he leaned towards the ball rather than away from it he would have deflected the shot into the opposite corner. That he chose not to is neither here nor there. Either way, we got away with one since the decision goes with the goalscorer most of the time. Incontrovertibly, however, we were in deficit on the decision front after Ryan Bertrand, already on a yellow, had earlier scythed Nathaniel Chalobah in the area to no penalty. What woulda shoulda coulda happened if if if is academic of course; the pen wasn’t given, Bertrand wasn’t dismissed. Austin’s goal wasn’t given either, you play the circumstances and get on with it. Southampton’s unbalanced, fanciful evaluation reflects their desperation; this is a side in serious trouble. On the evidence of our recent games against struggling sides I’d put them behind Newcastle, Palace (sigh) and even Huddersfield, who whilst blunt had a pattern of play and a togetherness. Saints were handed a lead at home against a mid-table side playing poorly and contrived to screw it up.

5- Since the second half saw us a lot more bullish, Saints struggling with the physicality of Deeney and Success. They held a high line which was effective for a while, but Andre Gray’s snappy cameo did for that. The penalty was only one of a growing number of half-chances bludgeoned out despite the weather, despite not generally playing well. Isaac Success popped up on either flank in defiance of what must have been heavy legs. Troy snapped in a near post shot to an instant Deulofeu ball for which the Spaniard was congratulated. “It was coming” might have been overstating it, but the pitch was being gently tilted our way. In the end we won through overloading and a ball finally breaking favourably, a deflection off Deulofeu giving Holebas a window to slug a shot home via a slight deflection.  The celebration, given rain, given the passage of events,  given the lateness of the hour was perhaps out of proportion with the significance of the goal.  One of Those.

We battered the hosts for the last ten minutes; only one side was going to win it, McCarthy flapping a cross against his own crossbar and Gray narrowly failing to make contact with a late cross. It would have flattered us though. This was a worthy point earned through bloody-mindedness rather than scintillating football. They’re handy too mind, particularly in circumstances such as these when the sexy stuff can’t or won’t come. It comes to something when we’re coming away from home in the Premier League and disappointed with a point, but with Liverpool, Leicester and Man City within ten days after the international break it was a valuable (if damp) one.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, *Mariappa 3*, Cathcart 3, Hughes 2, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 2, Success 3
Subs: Deeney (for Hughes, 40) 3, Gray (for Pereyra, 68) 3, Masina, Kabasele, Wilmot, Okaka, Gomes