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Norwich City 1 Watford 3 (18/09/2021) 19/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1-  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

Such is the prevailing sentiment at the Redwell Brewery in the lunchtime sunshine.  Freshly made pizza and craft beer are delivered to picnic benches arranged in an open courtyard.  Trains trundle apologetically along the adjoining track.  A gentleman with an impressively long beard and a bandanna is taking photographs for the website.  The unobtrusive murmur of pre-match chatter proliferates.

There are more or less exactly the right number of tables for the clientele, and all bar ours betray home colours.  Nonetheless, as above, there is a common tone borne of two seasons of shared experience and a build up to a big game which, if in slightly different ways, is being approached with a degree of apprehension on both sides.  

This illusion of bonhomie and commonality might be easier for me to delude myself with as a visiting supporter given that all four of the encounters over the last couple of season have gone our way, three of them behind closed doors.  If the home support regard us with less goodwill it isn’t evident;  only Julian’s “you always beat us, I have no expectation of anything different” betrays the slightest hint of animosity amongst our affable hosts.  It’s all very agreeable.  Nonetheless, as we reflect on leaving, whilst you wouldn’t object to both Watford and Norwich staying up, if it comes down to us or them making the drop then let’s face it, it’s them.

2- “It’s going to be tight and nervy” is one opinion overheard on the walk to the ground in what was pleasant warmth when sitting around drinking beer but altogether less pleasant when walking up and down hills is involved.  The “nervy” bit at least reflects the position of both sides…  the Hornets have barely threatened a goal in the League since the opening day whilst the Canaries are without a point.  Admittedly their fixtures thus far haven’t been terribly accommodating, but those who remember our 1999/2000 season will remember coming out of a run of tough games to face Cov and Boro, ostensibly more realistic sources of points, and being stuffed by them, too.  This is a huge game, but probably bigger for the home side.

Our recent performances have been characterised by an ability to hold opponents off whilst ceding possession, undermined by an inability to capitalise when we break.  Today, subtle changes in team selection and attitude facilitate almost a complete inverse.  That “tight and nervy” prediction is blown out of the water immediately as both sides start positively and aggressively.  Off the pitch, in the circumstances we may benefit from being the away side;  a travelling support in general, let alone on a sunny afternoon in late summer, generally boasts less angst and more bloody-mindedness than a home support, all other things being equal.  This is only fuelled by an early assault on the City goal, adjacent to the away block in the first half, which culminates in Kucka hurling himself like a human missile at a right wing cross.  His opponent holds him off on this occasion, which takes some doing, but this is fuel to the boisterous fire kindling in the away end.  The flipside of this is that having looked generally difficult to manoeuvre through up until now we’re ceding chances a little too easily in what little foothold we afford the home side.  This will not be dull.

3- Daughter 1 has not joined us on the trip to Norfolk.  She is later to bemoan her ongoing 100% failure rate this season in attending none of the games in which we find the net and all of those in which we strike out.  “I just want to see us score” she protests plaintively to a tough crowd, her mother thoroughly unsympathetic and her father and younger sister still buzzing after a two hour trip from Norfolk.  She will learn, in time, that the only way to cope with what she would call FOMO is to attend every game but some lessons need to come from within and cannot be taught.

The reaction to the first goal is exactly what she’s talking about though.  The cathartic celebrations on the opening day were fabulous, but almost… not tainted, tainted is the wrong word because they were thoroughly enjoyable. Unusual, maybe.  Unnatural.  Fuelled by and inextricably linked to being back in the stadium at all.  This was different.  This was all about footballing context and was deafening, furious and prolonged, abetted by the goal going in in front of us and a multi-player fist waving bundle at the foot of the away stand.  There was an Emmanuel Dennis somersault in there too, but I was oblivious to that until a photo was shared during a dazed, grinning encounter with a fellow traveller in a petrol station on the way westwards after the game.

The build-up featured two of those subtle but critical team changes.  Less subtle, less obvious and presumably enforced were the unexplained absences of both Sierralta and the still unseen Tufan.  But Kiko Femenía is one of those things that you’ve been imagining, hoping, might give us a little bit more of an edge… Sarr is the threat but if he’s the only threat most teams will subdue him at this level.  Kiko bombing on gives you two speed-demons to worry about.  Slightly less straightforward.  And then there’s Cleverley… Peter Etebo hadn’t done an awful lot wrong to necessitate his dropping to the bench, but the mix wasn’t right against Wolves.  Cleverley brings experience of course, and an ability to calm everything down, but he also brings the dynamism to get into mischievous areas and the courage to play a quick one-touch pass where a more cautious second touch would give the opponent chance to get set.  More than once this courage is crucial in opening City up, and this is the case here as Sarr, Clevs and Kiko play a quick game of pinball before Kiko finds space to put in a cross.  It’s a Beckham crossing position rather than a lay-in from the byline and the full back will get one badly wrong from a similar spot five minutes later but this one is on the money.  Dennis ghosts in between two defenders to meet it with a directed header and Krul doesn’t have a chance.  It’s a magnificent goal in both its significance in the game and in the reassurance it provides about our fledgling forward line. The roof comes off the stand. 

The goal also reenforces the suspicion that whilst, as two years ago, there’s things that Norwich are good at there’s also plenty of stuff that Norwich aren’t good at and defending remains one of them.  As the game settles down a little we’re still pushing forward aggressively, and in contrast to earlier games the ball is largely in the opponent’s half.  We’re speculating that perhaps we perceive a lack of pace in Norwich’s attack, a lack of threat on the break when the silver-haired Normann drops a ball over the top for Pukki to gallop onto and finish calmly, giving a lie to that theory.  There are further chances at both ends, not least from Sarr with whom Brandon Williams is struggling manfully but to whom Kiko is affording extra freedom.  The half ends, the away end sits down collectively and Daughter 2 sums up concisely.  “That was intense!”.

4- Danny Rose is a significant protagonist in proceedings not for the first or, one suspects, the last time, and awarding him a representative mark out of five almost impossible.  On the plus side of course a formidable strength of body and will and a footballing ability, a mixture of capability and confidence that betrays his pedigree.  Case in point at the end of the first half when an insane, scorching through ball frees Sarr and Krul does exceptionally well to come out and deny what would have been a stunning, merciless strike at the end of the half.  The pass was breathtaking in its imagination and its execution, and was merely the most startling example of Rose’s positive contribution.

On the downside…  he’s unavoidably heavy and immobile.  A Danny Rose that could still thunder up and down the left flank, one supposes, wouldn’t be playing for us…   but nonetheless.  His trips up the left flank seem to require some form of self-funded period of isolation in a hotel before returning such is the time that he takes to drop back into position, perhaps a footnote in the latest convolution of the COVID travel rules.  This is accommodated for the most part by Norwich’s lack of threat from wide positions and by what can only be a pre-planned covering plan since we are rarely exploited here, but a second half penalty shout looks hairy as Rose seems to clatter his opponent from behind in the box below us.  In any event the travelling support have come down vociferously on one side of the argument as the player himself acknowledges with a thumbs up over his shoulder late in the game.  One hopes that increased game time will see his mobility improve – if it does, we have a monster on our hands.

And monsters are another dominant characteristic of the performance.  This has been discussed before, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re bullying Norwich, particularly in midfield.  Concerns about a lack of physicality given the departures of Doucouré, Capoue and now Chalobah in recent years seem a distant memory;  Norwich aren’t going to be the last relatively lightweight side that we overpower, you suspect.

A key protagonist here is Moussa Sissoko, another with an instant fanclub, who is indirectly involved in the second goal.  He airkicks in attempting to set off a counterattack to guffaws from the stands but recovers to set the play in motion anyway, its ultimate success all the more damning on City’s defending for the fact that he took time for a second go.  Kiko has limped off with what may prove to be the one negative mark against the afternoon (though he’s agile enough to come all the way over to the support at the end of the game, reassuringly) and Ngakia got his defiant head to a cross within seconds of coming on.  Now he’s galloping upfield and releases Joshua King on the right of the box.  King is an interesting focal point… not a Jamie Vardy, not an out-and-out goalscorer by any means but increasingly the glue that holds this forward line together.  He pulls back from the touchline and Sarr has dropped around Hanley to finish superbly.  We look lethal, Norwich look lead-footed.

4- The second Watford sub follows ten minutes later and sees Dennis replaced by Sema on the left flank.  We drop to what appears to be a more conservative formation…  Sema and Sarr much more withdrawn in a midfield four with Clevs now buzzing around with King.  This feels precarious, offering the home side more opportunity to do the stuff they’re quite good at and demanding less of the stuff they’ve been struggling with.  We look a little bit ragged for the first time in this period, and are more than once grateful to Ben Foster’s attentiveness. His rapid and accurate distribution, a feature of his game since his first debut for us all of 16 years ago, is another vital characteristic of the afternoon, as helpful in achieving quick turnarounds as Cleverley’s sharpness.  Bachmann has retreated to the bench in what can only have been a precautionary move if it was genuinely fuelled by a knee injury as reported, but as in the Palace tie Foster looks thoroughly on his game. The Stoke fixture falls quite nicely as one assumes he’d have been back in for that in any case but barring disaster there it’s not difficult to see him reclaiming his throne here.

Meanwhile our third goal is almost as out-of-the-blue as City’s equaliser had been an hour earlier… McLean slices a ball upwards but unlike Sissoko doesn’t get away with his misjudgement… Cleverley is onto it, King is put through, Krul again does well to deny him but Sarr finishes the rebound expertly, a much more accomplished finish than the almost apologetic roll into the net makes it appear.  We celebrate, we see the flag, we feel a bit silly. 

I’m not a big fan of VAR, I think you lose a lot more than you gain in general, but the current minimalist incarnation seems far less obtrusive and therefore objectionable to me for as long as it lasts.  The offside rule is still an issue though…  and it’s nobody’s fault really.  An idea that was introduced to discourage goalhanging has been hijacked as the basis for defensive strategy.  It was certainly never conceived to be something that cameras could adjudicate on with such arbitrary precision.  You do kind of feel that a striker that’s more-or-less level with the last defender ought to be onside, even if “more-or-less” isn’t nearly specific enough for our current reality.  At any rate…  if there’s a time that a VAR delay can be enjoyed it’s when you’re maybe going 3-1 up in a critical match away from home with ten minutes to go.  There are “ooooos” and vibrating outstretched arms in the away end before the referee delivers the verdict.  Somehow Tom Cleverley, who played the pass that was the focus of attention, is now in his own half and perfectly positioned to celebrate the end of the match as a contest in front of the now jubilant travelling Hornets alongside his goalkeeper who, like him, was a Player of the Season for us over a decade ago.

5- And it is over, indisputably; Norwich are as flat as a pancake for the last ten minutes.  Ken Sema’s One Run is as dependable a fixture of every game as the Jamie Hand Booking was twenty-odd years ago;  here his barrelling charge down the left sees him go down in the box.  From our unfavourable distance and angle it looks like a good shout, but in any case it perhaps only evens out the Danny Rose call at the other end.  Sarr threatens a hat-trick and a cherry on the icing on the ample afternoon cake, but is denied.  The game ends.

And doesn’t the world look different today.  We should be mindful of recency bias of course…  we are no more the irresistible force today than we were a blunt, hapless object 48 hours ago.  But in wreaking havoc once again at Carrow Road, and arguably more decisively than in either of the previous two meetings, we’ve shown what’s already possible, and suggested a direction of travel.  No illusion of progress this, this really is something that’s coming together at the point that we needed it to.  

Equally we’re only five games into the season, and Norwich aren’t out of this.  You wouldn’t back them though. Most of all it’s difficult to watch a Daniel Farke interview without thinking “we got rid of Jokanovic six years ago because we didn’t think he could organise a Premier League defence…”.  The Norwich support are no less affable outside the ground, but they’re not smiling. 

Enjoy the journey.  So much easier after an away win though.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 4, Rose 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Cleverley 5, *Sarr 5*, Dennis 4, King 4
Subs: Ngakia (for Femenía, 59) 3, Sema (for Dennis, 73) 3, Etebo (for Cleverley, 83) NA, Masina, Louza, Fletcher, Hernández, Kabasele, Bachmann

Watford 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (11/09/2021) 12/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- I was back in work this week.

I’m one of those desk jockeys fortunate enough to have been able to push on from home during the pandemic and various stages of lockdown, pretty much without breaking stride.  It’s been a bit rubbish, obviously, but in the grand scheme of things you’ll take “a bit rubbish”.  I’ve had a laptop, I’ve had an internet connection and Zoom-y kind of tools to talk to people through so…  fine.  Critically, I’ve still got paid.

My employer has been cautious as far as folk coming back to the “office” is concerned.  Not an office really, strictly speaking;  a research laboratory.  650-odd people are employed there, nominally, so it’s a big place.  Some folk have needed to be back more than me, some of the proper scientists need laboratories and that.  But this week, with controls and ifs and buts and with no coercion whatsoever the great unwashed were permitted in as well.  Many didn’t, but I don’t have a commute to speak of.  I was in every day.

It was kind of the same, but kind of different.  No surprise of course… buildings are still in the same place, most of them.  The site still looks brilliant in the sunshine.  It takes me the same amount of time to walk home.  But after everything that’s happened, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to have been left how it was, to be as I remember it and to work right away.  Rooms have been rearranged and refurbished for one thing, much more easily achieved when the place is empty.  Repurposed for “hybrid” working, whatever that turns out to be.  The people are different…  folk have come and gone,  some of the newbies have been back on site for months, I’m the newbie in their eyes.  It’s still very empty compared to what normal used to be.

Kind of the same, but kind of different.

2- You’ll have guessed where this is going.

We’re sort of, kind of, almost getting back into the swing now with the football.  Not really…  it’ll take longer, too much has happened… but kind of, almost, getting there.  Daughters 1 and 2 are both here today; Daughter 1 also has Kate with her, an occasional if enthusiastic visitor over the years and possibly the last person to bemoan the demise of Chimichanga on Market Street, part of the ritual she remembers.  Daughter 2 has slightly less catching up to do, but nonetheless hasn’t been here since the ghostly game against Cardiff last season, Daughter 1 not since we lasted hosted Wolves (which was only New Year’s Day last year, though it could equally be a decade ago).  Only Isma, of our starting eleven, was involved that day which tells a story.  In contrast seven of Wolves’ starters today were in that matchday squad.

This highlights again the challenge inherent in the colossal overhaul of the squad not just over the last transfer window but since supporters were last regularly in the ground.  We could do with a few more Aston Villas to build those fledgling emotional investments as much as our points tally.

3- The head coach, at least, has built a rapid connection with supporters – a ready smile and a promotion don’t hurt of course – but his request for a barrage of noise to fuel an early assault on the visitors never looks remotely like coming to pass as Wolves dominate possession for the opening ten or fifteen minutes.  Jeremy Ngakia is one of two new faces in the starting eleven…  I’ve never quite decided in my head whether he’s destined for great things or somewhat less great things, and the same conflicting evidence is on show here.  In the opening minutes Traoré, ostensibly the greatest threat (Jiménez, a shadow of his former self, is regaining fitness and confidence), twice loses Ngakia on the Wolves left before slipping a simple pass to a team-mate presumably deemed to boast more reliable end product.  It’s all very sensible but rather underwhelming, like hiring a michelin-starred chef to pour you some corn flakes.

Thereafter however Ngakia gets to grips with his opponent to such an extent that the interval will see Traoré and the rather dainty Trincão switch wings.  On the evidence presented thus far it looks as if maybe Connor Roberts was the aberration, with Zaha/Traoré suggesting that the young full-back has enough about him to bottle up challenging opponents.  His success mirrors our own, as we more or less succeed once again in keeping our opponents at arm’s length despite their almost complete possession.

When we do retaliate it’s swift, aggressive and startling…  Sarr’s poise and awareness on the right allow him to slip a ball inside to Sissoko; his effort is all power and no precision and from a wide angle at a comfortable height José Sá is never seriously troubled but it was on target, a lapse of concentration and it would have been in.  From the subsequent corner Etebo lamps the first of a couple of long shots high, wide and handsome.

We’re physically much more powerful than Wolves, and begin to bully them all over the park.  Sissoko manages to combine power with balance, and more than once wrong foots one opponent whilst holding off another.  He combines with Sarr again for the winger to roll a ball across the face of goal and narrowly beyond King’s toe.  Danny Rose, the other newcomer, is no less prominent than Ngakia.  He does the Robbo thing of not settling for a neat, clean tackle when there’s energy spare to make sure that the opponent feels it….  if he’s less of a threat hurtling up and down the flank than in his heyday and despite looking pretty fed up throughout he does more than enough to justify his selection.  Etebo once again patrols behind the midfield despite the challenge of an early card.

4- Thing is though, whilst we do well to reclaim a foothold in the first half and can make a case for being level on points as well as on goals at the interval, and whilst there are good individual things and a very enjoyable amount of bootering, we’re not nearly coherent enough in attack.  There’s some good stuff there, some good bits but there’s no whole.  No shape, no pattern, no cheap stock goals, not yet.  We’re like a lion cub with teeth and claws that we don’t quite know what to do with, needing to work it all out before the law of the jungle tears us apart.  Not that lions live in jungles…

When King (of the jungle) hobbles off shortly into the second half any sense of a focal point disappears altogether.  This is Emmanuel Dennis’ weakest game so far… he keeps running, but to little effect.  Cucho is a box of tricks and wins a couple of decent aerial balls against taller opponents but he surely needs to be the decoration on a more solid structure whilst Sarr has all the ability and acceleration but isn’t Troy Deeney, isn’t ever going to be the leader.

This lack of shape and purpose – for now at any rate – has two consequences.  Firstly, our attacking falters in the second half… not a lack of effort for me as much of a lack of conviction, a resignation to the futility of the exercise which is probably worse.  Secondly, and partly as a consequence, by not realising your threat you give your opponent no reason to moderate their attacking ambitions.  This was already evident at the end of the first half when right wing-back Semedo was put through at the death with the Hornets busy claiming for a foul on the subdued Kucka at the other end of the pitch.  Bachmann denied him on this occasion, but the same player was put through early in the second half and shot wide.  Jiménez found space in the box and headed narrowly off target.

Tickets, raffles, and we were selling too many tickets.  It’s a bit of a shame that it was Sierralta, up to that point the head on the end of any optimistic high ball that Wolves had lobbed into the box;  as two Watford bodies went up in front of him, reaching for a left wing cross, he can only have been unsighted and slightly disorientated in deflecting the ball home under minimal pressure.  It was no more than Wolves deserved by that point, and Bachmann was unable to prevent a scruffy second ten minutes later.

5- Kind of the same, kind of different.  And because it’s different, all different, it’s unreasonable to expect it all to gel straight away.  There are good bits.  Even the bits that don’t work as a collective have things about them that offer encouragement.  Thing is, we don’t have a huge amount of time to develop those patterns given the unforgiving nature of the Premier League and the circumstances of our fixture list.  We need points out of our next couple of games, on the back of not really having looked much like scoring since Villa.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back in work next week for all that it’s weird, for all that it’s kind of the same but kind of different.  I can only remember one comparable instance in what have been many years working at this place, one time when everything seemed to change and you wanted to drop to the floor to regain your balance.  That was in September 2001;  we’d just gotten back from our honeymoon in New York and Boston.  We’d been on top of the World Trade Center as England were putting five goals past Germany in Munich.   One of the best things about football, as we’ve suggested before, is how it can matter so much whilst not mattering at all.  But it doesn’t matter at all, not really.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Ngakia 4, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 2, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Hernández (for King, 53) 3, Sema (for Etebo, 77) NA, Louza, Cleverley, Masina, Cathcart, Tufan, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford’s Number 9 01/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

None of it stands up to much independent scrutiny, not really.  Investing so much into a football team, finance yes, time of course.  Emotion too.  A fickle, unreliable bedfellow with expensive habits, as we know.

But given that we do it.  Given that this particular die is cast for better or worse, an emotional bond that all football fans understand even if many outsiders struggle to empathise, given all of that it would be inconceivable not to be affected, perhaps even distraught, by yesterday’s announcement as a Watford fan.  If you’re in, you’re in.  I’m a 48 year-old man, I have teenage children, grey hair, I’m closer to the end of my mortgage than the start of it.  I’m in a right state, and I’m not apologising for it.

The profoundness of the impact reflects not just what Troy has achieved but the sort of guy he is.  It’s rare for someone to spend eleven years at any club, rarer still for them to be so conspicuous throughout that period.  For much of his eleven years at Vicarage Road, arguably since the Pozzos took over in 2012 Troy has been the public face of Watford Football Club, the most recognisable face, the most prominent voice.  Whatever the stage of his career – and we’ll get to that – he leaves a chasm unparalleled, arguably, by any other departure save Graham Taylor’s in recent memory.  His role in the team may have diminished but his influence and actions off the pitch have been just as significant and will be missed badly.

My co-editor wrote about GT’s humanity as he left the manager’s position in 2001.  Troy’s humanity has been a big part of his legend at this club.  Like Taylor he’s a real person…  he’s got things wrong – we’ll get to that, too – he gets things right.  He’s got a backstory, a real life that is painted all over his face.

And he’s been unflinchingly honest.  Honesty doesn’t mean being right all the time.  It means telling it as you see it, for better or for worse, and he’s never done otherwise.  This was evident as early as his first season with the club under Malky Mackay; signed on the first day of the campaign thanks to the financial input, it later transpired, of Sir Elton John he inherited the number 9 shirt that had been left unclaimed since Tamás Priskin’s departure a year earlier and was straight into the matchday squad that evening, half an hour in an unlikely win at Carrow Road against a Norwich side destined for promotion.

He had pursued a move from Walsall aggressively, and slacked off pre-season training. With the benefit of hindsight this may have contributed to the slow start to his Vicarage Road career; a disrupted pre-season would often impact the subsequent campaign throughout his time at the club.  In my end of season report at the end of that year I reflected on his honest appraisal of his own poor form in the middle of that season.  Another recurring trend, but more startling in a newly-signed 22 year-old than in a long-established club captain.

He ended that first season playing wide on the right of Malky Mackay’s attack;  the following year under Sean Dyche he was a regular substitute, starting only four games and coming off the bench twelve times by the start of December.  His Watford career by that point boasted an underwhelming six goals in sixteen months and for all that his performances were otherwise strong this was the first of a number of sliding door moments.  Nobody would have blinked had he moved on that January though there would have been (more) grumbles at the “wasted” outlay, the transfer fee up to half a million pounds depending on clauses (or more if you believed Walsall, who until recently must have spent every transfer window wondering if this was the time they’d get their 20% sell-on. Sorry chaps).

Instead it was Marvin Sordell that moved on, and Troy suddenly had a more regular berth in the team.  He finished the season with a forceful nine goals in 17 games…a late winner to deny Boro a play-off spot, an equaliser to earn a point against Hull when Mariappa was sent off, another late winner against Ipswich.

This was more compelling stuff and some soon-to-be-important people were watching on.  That summer brought the second sliding door of Troy’s career as he was sentenced to ten months in prison after pleading guilty to affray. Meanwhile the club was being dragged from the brink of disaster when Lord Ashcroft briefly reclaimed ownership from the catastrophic and defaulting incumbent before selling on to the Pozzo family.  The new owners could have taken a very different line with their centre-forward. So much would have turned out differently if they had, not least for Troy.

There was a lot of deliberating at that time.  For me he had deserved a second chance, but this was largely dependent on his attitude, on his contrition, on whether he recognised the degree to which he’d screwed up.  The call was that he did, that he wasn’t going to let anyone down again.  He didn’t.

His tour de force at Huddersfield in his first start after release in September, helping to secure a 3-2 win after five matches without a victory, lit a fire under the season that was to prove the exception to Troy’s rule.  No pre-season has been disrupted to quite that extent, but he ended it with 20 goals in 35 starts, including surely the most replayed goal in the club’s history.  It must surely still choke you up, even those of you that weren’t in the path of the ball as it was struck, those of you that weren’t the only person in the stadium to notice what was unfolding in the wake of the post-penalty save celebration.

The following season saw 25 from Troy including the first hat-trick by a Watford player at the Vic in over sixteen years.  This prompted the first serious interest in the now undisputed figurehead of the team and after a disappointing league campaign this was another point at which the decision could have been made to cash in.  As a public auction seemed to be taking place in the August the club announced that he wasn’t going anywhere and both this and his acquiescence spoke volumes.  Rarely does a striker stay in the Championship after 45 goals in two seasons after all.

He captained the side to promotion the following year contributing another 21 goals, the last of which a critical strike in a dizzy afternoon at Brighton crowned with the calmest of assists to Matěj Vydra which prompted the least calm of celebrations.  It took a couple of months to get off the score sheet in the Premier League at Stoke but then the goals flowed… fifteen in all competitions, three of them against relegated Aston Villa.  During this campaign he achieved the rare feat of scaring Graeme Souness;  “I thought he was just a big lump but…. he’s a really good footballer!” was his verdict on Sky,  “what are you supposed to do against that?” the unspoken subtext. Perhaps most telling of all was his performance during an appalling end of season capitulation at Norwich; Quique had mentally left the building, most of the team were on the beach, Troy wasn’t having any of it.  A one man wrecking ball, the beating heart of the side.

That summer the overtures came from no less than the League champions Leicester City;  faced with the conundrum of quite who Leicester City sign when they’re league champions the Foxes, mercifully, went for Islam Slimani instead.  Troy would later be linked with Spurs but neither of the roles understudying the strikers who watched on from Leicester’s bench as he scored his most famous goal would have suited Troy.  By now he was a man who had to be the big dog in the room.

A fractious relationship with Walter Mazzarri didn’t prevent him from reaching double figures in the sixth season in succession, including that goal at West Ham that is one of everyone’s favourites (along with so many more).

The wasted Marco Silva season was a difficult one for Troy, another disrupted pre-season and two red cards borne of frustration and only two League goals from open play in consecutive 1-0 wins in late February and early March.  By that time he had upset half of north London by commenting on Arsenal’s lack of “cojones”, their eminent get-attableness, after his penalty had contributed to a 2-1 win.  Telling it like it was again and damn the consequences, consequences that came back to bite him every time he faced the Gunners subsequently.  Nonetheless, Troy played a part in the recovery under Javí Gracia, Jonathan Lieuw in the Independent describing his performance in the 4-1 demolition of Chelsea as “…part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”.

2018/19 was his last great season at Watford.  Eleven goals as the Hornets chased Europe and the FA Cup only tells a fraction of the story.  If the arrivals of Deulofeu and Andre Gray had spread the attacking responsibility Troy was still the focal point, the leader.  His importance was never more evident than in the four games he missed through suspension (effectively, heading off minutes into a frustrating home defeat to another poor Arsenal side), but never more vibrant than in the dying seconds of regular time during the Wembley semi final against Wolves.  The Leicester goal is more famous, but this, for me, is the ultimate Troy goal.  Four minutes into injury time having just won a penalty, more of a pressure shot than the Leicester one, more time to think about it.  There was never any doubt, from the moment the penalty was awarded, no doubt how the game was going to play out.  But to hit it that hard

Both the relegation season and the promotion campaign that followed saw Troy hampered by injury early on.  Double figures once again in the relegation season nonetheless including another goal in a cruel defeat against Villa. Some more of those ferocious trademark penalties peppered the sinister post-lockdown close to the season, As the captain also recovered from hospitalisation by COVID.  On the rare occasions when Troy, Sarr and Geri were able to link up in that campaign we looked formidable.  We just didn’t get them on the field together often enough.

Meanwhile Troy, having turned 30, was lining his ducks up.  Never media shy he started a fortnightly column for the Sun and got a slot on TalkSport.  The ability to be clear-headed, eloquent, honest and direct made him a popular listen but popularity had nothing to do with it.  When Black Lives Matter was thrust into prominent view, Troy was at the forefront of the campaign encouraging taking the knee at kick off.  Telling it as he saw it, irrespective of the consequences.  Amongst the many joys of the return to stadia subsequently has been the confirmation that the voices of support dramatically outweigh the bigots and the morons who claim far too much oxygen on social media.

Last season his role was rendered more peripheral by injury… one goal from open play, plus an array of those penalties.  But off the pitch he was still the leader, the captain.  A club employee reported, during the game against Millwall that saw promotion confirmed, the skipper sitting with his young daughter up in the Upper GT surveying proceedings like a general up on a high vantage point, barking instructions at his charges.

It was always going to end at some point, and it’s good that it ends this way.  Released from a year of his contract, signing for the club he supports in the face of what must have been more lucrative offers.  Everyone gets to feel good about that. Troy believes that his last two seasons were ruined by injury, that he can reclaim past glories.  I hope he’s right.  In any event, for all that we could have done with his presence around the dressing room he was never going to take not being the Big Dog any longer.

Rooting for Birmingham City is going to be a novelty, particularly for those of us who remember combustible encounters of twenty-plus years ago, but it’s good to try new experiences as you get older. If force of personality counts for anything, the rest of the Championship doesn’t stand a chance.

Troy Deeney has been an inspiring role model.  a compelling spokesman, a ferocious leader, a deceptively clever centre-forward, an irrepressible goalscorer, taker of terrifying penalties and a leader of men.  Today he brought donuts as he said good bye to the staff at Vicarage Road, which is of course what any normal bloke would do.

It’s going to take a big personality to claim that shirt.

Best of luck Troy.

Yoooorns.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 0 (29/08/2021) 30/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- “Who’s that guy?”

“Which one?”

“Our number 31.  With the sort of bun.”

“That’s Francisco Sierralta.”

“Who?”

It’s a funny time.  Perhaps, hopefully I guess, a unique time.  Despite the fact that Daughter 2 never quite got into paying attention in any way when not able to go to games it’s startling that she doesn’t know who our mighty Chilean centre-back is.  Except of course… that despite – even when taking into account his mid-season arrival into the side last season – there are only four longer-established first team players in the eleven, this is the first League game that he’s started for us in front of full stands.

Hornet Hive was the artery that fed us that intel last season, but even Emma and Tommy will be struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of this transfer window. Indeed, given the evacuation, both planned and already realised, of established faces – for all sorts of reasons – there’s an argument for saying that our hosts are more familiar with our squad than we are.  Rarely if ever have we seen an overhaul quite like this… sometimes new money, management, ownership or circumstances mean that a whole load of new faces have come in together but not to replace popular and successful players.  Even the squad strengthening on promotion six years ago retained a core of established names.  This feels like a critical time, not just by virtue of the return of supporters to stadiums (which is obviously tremendous) but in the need to quickly establish an association between this largely new team and the stands.

Good job they look bloody great, really.

2- Whilst the ascent to Newcastle’s away end is the stuff of legend and Selhurst Park is notoriously difficult to get to (like a fungal growth down the back of a cabinet), Spurs have done a decent job of locating themselves as far as it’s possible to get from any sensible access in central-ish London.  The journey down has been rendered all the more challenging by blanket railway engineering works for the bank holiday weekend, and even our attempts to avoid them by driving across to an alternative train line at St Neots are disrupted by further late-runningness on that line.  Getting to the ground after the deceptively long slog from Seven Sisters always feels like an achievement, the more so today – the existence of open urinals at the halfway mark of that stretch betrays the wisdom or perhaps bitter experience of the local authorities as much as it appals both daughters..

It’s a fine stadium, as we’ve discussed before; the lack of low roofs hinders the atmosphere but the sight lines are good, the lean-on bars are a massive plus, the eatery options are tremendous and the stewards are amiable and efficient to a fault (excepting my niece, Sara, who is on duty at some unspecified location and didn’t tell us beforehand).  Underlying it all however is a certain snideness that’s befitting of our hosts…  the aggressive, blanket ban on food and drink coming into the stadium to compel sale of both to a captive audience for one thing.  Careful planning and selection facilitated smuggling of lucky half-time contraband into the stadium, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.  Then there’s the sharp slope that drops from just beyond each touchline, leaving the pitch on a sort of weird plateau.  At first it looks merely odd, and a little dangerous perhaps;  we’re making uneducated guesses about drainage until Dad points out how difficult a Delap-style long throw would be to achieve with no run-up.

There are a few ways to look at this fixture.  It’s difficult to judge, for one thing, quite how the HarryKaneathon affects things…  if there’s little doubt that the “one of our own” adulation from the stands rings rather hollower than it did, you kinda feel that we could have done with things still being precariously up in the air. (As an aside, daughter 2’s proclivity for concise commentary was betrayed during the Euros…. “who does Harry Kane play for, Dad?”… “Tottenham”….”Why?”). On the other hand, whilst our opening looks relatively gentle all things considered you’d almost rather get the less winnable games out of the way while we’re still getting our shit together.  Quite whether this still qualifies as One Of The Tougher Games is another question, but it spares us from some of the imperative of racking up points in our early games.

3- Any away point in the Premier League is a decent one in any case and the directive must surely have been to keep it tight early doors, stifle the atmosphere, frustrate the hosts.  So Daniel Bachmann, who was to have a mixed and slightly edgy afternoon, skewing a pass out to a Spurs boot in the opening exchange probably wasn’t part of the plan, Peter Etebo coming to the rescue by crowbarring the ball from the feet of Harry Kane in the penalty area.  The Hornets broke aggressively, Dennis starting on the left and progressing down the flank; the ball found the feet of Kucka who curled a shot to the far post where, it transpires, Eric Dier’s head deflected it clear.  And breathe.

Etebo and Kucka formed two-thirds of a newly robust trio in the middle with the surprise immediate involvement of Moussa Sissoko.  First and foremost, this is a no-bullshit midfield that surely allays any concerns about being too lightweight in the centre of the park…  Etebo is the veteran with a princely four competitive starts now,  and does a sterling job again making light of a harsh early booking,  but Kucka and Sissoko are welcome surprises on the teamsheet.  Kucka, whose hunched shoulders suggest an invisible but fully-laden supermarket trolley, reprised his performance from the opening day with barrelling runs and sharp touches.  Sissoko looked dynamic, athletic and efficient except when in shooting range, delighting the home support by clouting over the bar in the second half as is traditional.  Fellow residents of the danger zone a third of the way up the Rookery, beware.

Between them the trio allay fears of being overrun as at Brighton.  We’re facing a capable opponent, and on our left in particular we look vulnerable as Son, whose ethnicity is an immediate source of fascination for both daughters, is dong Son-like things with little impediment.  Wrong to lay all the blame at Masina’s feet;  as previously this season he is exposed by lack of defensive diligence from the man in front of him, Dennis on this occasion, but it’s a productive-looking avenue for Spurs either way.

We do a fine job of holding them off again though, a recurring theme.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession and a lot of energy and aren’t getting very far with it, whereas we’re providing every suggestion of a sucker-punch with King doing a decent job leading the line, mobile, tidy and persistent, whilst Dennis and Sarr are willing and potent.  Kieron, who remains neutral-ish despite thirty years of occasional visits and a healthy disregard for Spurs, says we’re “a bit ragged”, but we’d have taken nil-nil if a bit ragged at the break with both hands.  Instead Spurs get a free-kick on the left, Son swings it into the dangerous corridor between attackers and goalkeeper and Bachmann hesitates fatally as it bounces in front of him and in low to his left.

4- Residual anxiety about quite how this is going to shake out fuel a little apprehensiveness at the start of the second half.  This could run away from us very rapidly if we’re not careful.  We are careful, however.  A significant departure in strategy has seen us bring in more experience than usual this summer…  Kucka is 34, Sissoko 32, Josh King will turn 30 mid-season.  Jose Holebas (31) and Valon Behrami (30) were the veterans in 2015.  That composure saw us keep it steady throughout the second half.

In truth, Spurs came closer than we did to adding to the scoreline. Daniel Bachmann redressed things slightly by pushing out a deflected Højbjerg free kick and then blocking a point-blank Kane shot. Troost-Ekong, whose vast improvement since last weekend surely reflected the return of the impeccable Sierralta beside him, got a touch to Moura’s cross to steer it out of Kane’s path. I try not to rewatch highlights or to let them colour my judgement before rewriting the report, but there’s no not mentioning that piece of defending.

But we remained in touching distance, and we retained a threat.  As Spurs’ half-chances came and went you knew that if you were in the home stands you’d sense the sucker punch coming.  It didn’t, but the fact that we played ourselves into a position where it might have is reason for optimism.  Sarr persisted despite regular aggressive attention, not least from Reguilón who was embarrassed enough about being left on his arse to make ludicrously fanciful objections to the linesman in front of us after Isma rolled around him.  Cucho came off the bench for a willing but ineffective cameo, nearly crowned with a scissor kick to a deep right-wing cross.  It was a one-in-ten shot at best, you’d want him to give it a swing at those odds but this was one of the nine.  Dennis moved to the centre as King was withdrawn but to less effect, his rare lack of progress from a central role frustrating him into a needless late booking. The game ended.

5- The gents on the other side of daughter 2 in the congested lack of personal space provoked by sticking narrow seats on a bend had mortified her and her sister by identifying me through them as “the bloke who writes for From the Rookery End” (almost).  They reflected on this one as “a free hit” and in a sense they’re right…  The Other 14 would tell you that if you beat everyone but the big six at home you’ll end up with 39 points and will probably be OK.  On that basis three points from three games so far is no worse than par.

There are a fair few “free hits” in the Premier League, and there’s a frustration here in that having been within a slug of a mugging we couldn’t find that goal, deserved or otherwise, or better still kept that free kick out.  Nonetheless.  We’re at a stage where the team is virtually brand new;  to look so convincing so quickly, albeit without points today, is no bad thing.  We need to hit the ground running with an attractive looking run of games coming after the international break, but on this evidence you’d back us to add to our tally.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Etebo 4, Sissoko 3, *Kucka 4*, Sarr 4, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Ngakia (for Cathcart, 51) 3, Hernández (for King, 65) 2, Cleverley (for Sissoko, 71) 3, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sema, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford 1 Crystal Palace 0 (24/08/2021) 25/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1-  Having managed to take positives out of a startlingly thorough beating at Brighton, I found my new found state of zen challenged for the first time this season in the build up to this one.  More general than football…  I don’t remember when I was last in a traffic jam, what with One Thing And Another, but it seems that this is one thing without any nostalgia value.

I’d left Bedford at 5, which should have facilitated a leisurely drive down, a stop at Fry Days and so forth.  Instead I parked up at ten past seven, forewent fish and chips and headed to the ground past the ominous if affable queues at each of the Occupation Road turnstiles.  Good job the stadium’s only half full, really…

Fortunately, due to a combination of manpower and, I suspect, pragmatism with cantankerous e-tickets, there are no queues at the Rookery turnstiles.  Nonetheless, sitting down in an empty row and surveying the similarly empty stadium I’m underwhelmed.  Yes it’s “only” the League Cup but, jesus, it’s football ?!?  After so long?  Where is everybody?

Daughters 1 and 2 cases in point;  a week with my Mum and Dad in the holidays, a drive over to Watford with Granddad declined at the last.  So it’s a bit miserable.  Good job the chicken pie from the kiosk is decent.

2- Plus, our first game in the League Cup is always rubbish.  We’ve discussed in the past, that there is only one such game, taking place in an alternative dimension that we dip into once a year, where the wheels grind eternally and nothing ever happens.

The opponents switch shirts in the interim of course, typically bearing the livery of a game tryer from the lower divisions capable and committed enough to stop us from playing but not talented enough to hurt us themselves.  In the absence of such an opponent, Palace convey a fitting air of underwhelming grubbiness that suits the stage of the competition.  Will Hughes – and it still breaks my heart to contemplate his surely inevitable departure – would be wasted on this shower.

The certainty of defeat isn’t improving my mood.  The debris of Saturday’s midfield is still fresh in the memory, and similar personnel are named here in the absence of much in the way of plausible alternatives. Clevs gets a rest on the bench though alongside Jaime Alvarado, one of those names familiar only to completists amongst the fanbase who seemed destined for loans to Spain and probably, ultimately, a return to Colombia.  To what extent his presence was necessitated by lack of midfield alternatives versus his own rising star remains to be seen.

We make seven changes, albeit largely in the areas of the pitch that have looked kind of ok.  Palace appear to name closer to a full strength eleven, albeit some of their key protagonists start on the bench – Guaita, McArthur, Mitchell, Benteke.  Yes, yes, Chelsea and so forth… nonetheless  Patrick Vieira will be edgy until he gets his first win, hell his first goal, and can’t turn down any opportunity to seize it.

3- After a fairly even start the visitors begin to dominate possession.  Zaha is in the starting eleven, to a predictable welcome, but Jeremy Ngakia sticks close to him and repeatedly gets under his feet before he can establish control of the ball.  He’s still prominent but largely restricted, Connor Gallagher’s movement the bigger threat early on – he floats in behind the defence but is foiled by Foster’s alertness.

On the other flank there’s a welcome (second) debut for Danny Rose, though much as when Richard Jobson briefly returned to the fold it’s a different bloke of a different size in a different position and at the opposite end of his career to the youngster who briefly appeared in our midfield under Brendan Rodgers.  Concerns about his fitness after so little match action are front of mind, and Rose looks sluggish for the first five minutes or so, twice being exposed by Jordan Ayew down the right.

Any concerns were misplaced.  As the game progressed Rose warmed to the task, and looked like the pugnacious, intelligent, aggressive, dependable full back of your dreams.  There’s an argument that bringing in a quality alternative might coax greater consistency out of the incumbent, but Adam Masina has more than a theoretical threat to his place on Sunday.

In the centre, William Troost-Ekong had a nervous day at Brighton, and the signs weren’t great when the cumbersome and otherwise ineffective Mateta mugged him on the touchline early on.  Thereafter he settled down however, with his regular “fixer” alongside him in the returning Sierralta.  Midway through the half Palace came as close as they were to come to a goal but Troost-Ekong salvaged the situation by contorting himself to head out, impossibly, from underneath the crossbar.

With Peter Etebo returning to the high bar set against Villa patrolling in front of the defence (as well as suggesting a hitherto unadvertised ability to deliver a set piece) we were doing a fair job of keeping our opponents at arm’s length, much as we had Villa for much of the opening game.  Palace don’t seem to need much help looking blunt and inconsequential at the moment in any case, but we played a part in their downfall, exposing their anxieties.  They finished the half having had most of the possession but with little to show for it.

4- As on Saturday we were better after the break.  Joshua King, slightly surprisingly and presumably reflecting either lack of fitness or an injury concern, was withdrawn in favour of cat’o nine tails Emmanuel Dennis.  We saw more of the ball and looked threatening in attacking positions, but for all Etebo’s involvement the midfield, for obvious reasons, remains the bit that needs the most attention.  Louza offered an improvement on Saturday also, an ability to play a sharp pass and a willingness to get in where it’s dirty but was still both bulliable and giving the ball away too much.

Up front, Cucho had a quieter game;  referee Robinson getting his number early on after a stereotypically South American spin and roll at the feet of a bemused Jordan Ayew.  He kept plugging, but wasn’t getting very far.  On the opposite flank was Ashley Fletcher, who for all his awkward legginess looks more like a centre-forward than a winger.  He’s been brought in ostensibly as attacking cover, but that’s increasingly a specialist role requiring certain characteristics as well as a level of ability (Spurs, perennially trying to cover Kane, have ended up signing wingers who can fill in rather than a backup centre-forward).

The point is, Fletcher will see the number of senior attacking players on our books (discounting Gray and Success he’s still competing with King, João Pedro, Sarr, Dennis, Deeney, Cucho and Sema for one of three forward roles) and know that he’s primarily backup, however much faith he’s got in his own ability.  He’s got to be happy with that, or at least be ready and willing to knuckle down and take his chances when they come, a team player; assessment of that character will surely have been part of his recruitment.

On this evidence he’s good foil for that role.  If we see limited evidence of a challenge for a regular start, there’s energy, knees, elbows, power… not a lot of subtlety, but a relentless doggedness that will serve him well.

So we have more of the game.  If there’s a concern – beyond the nascent midfield – it’s that for all the fun catching-them-on-the-break stuff we’re not quite clinical enough.  That’s inevitable perhaps, players getting used to each other and so on.  But Villa demonstrated how quickly things can change;  Palace didn’t score, but they might have.  For all that there was some encouraging stuff here you wouldn’t have backed us to come from behind and too many of those breaks, hurtling towards the Rookery in the second period, fizzled out with a wrong decision.  That’ll come.

5- And to be fair, it did.  I’d resigned myself to penalties, I suspect I wasn’t the only one… gazing across the pitch and wondering who might be up for a spot kick when suddenly one of those breaks connected, like a misfiring engine that suddenly, unexpectedly, clicks into gear.  Rose fed Cucho on the left, the Colombian cut a tremendous cross through to the far post where Fletcher was hurtling in to tuck the ball home.  The vigour of the celebration testified to the popularity of the goalscorer in the dressing room – whatever his future involvement there are worse ways to debut than scoring a late winner against Palace.

The visitors seemed suddenly energised and urgent, hilariously and too late.  Jeremy Ngakia had been replaced by Kiko, a welcome return for the Spaniard who nonetheless struggled with Zaha immediately, including in this short flurry… not the easiest opponent on your return from injury, but a spell that did Ngakia’s standing no harm in contrast to what had gone before.  Palace’s flurry burned out as Cucho lunged in to make a vital interception.  The whistle went, Troost-Ekong was the last man standing applauding the support and gifting his shirt to a kid at the front of the Rookery, fully redeemed.

Winning’s always good, beating Palace always better.  More than that we have evidence of a degree of cover, good options in the squad, if not in every position just yet.  But a clean sheet against top flight opposition welcome reassurance after Saturday.  We’re in this.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 4, Louza 2, Sema 3, Fletcher 3, Hernández 3, King 3
Subs: Dennis (for King, 45) 3, Femenía (for Ngakia, 62) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 76) NA, Cathcart, Alvarado, Baah, Elliot

Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Watford 0 (21/08/2021) 22/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1-  “YES mate!  Yellllooooooooows” comes the shout from the right, where a bunch of lads are drinking on the pavement outside a pub on Queens Road as we trundle down towards the front from the station in our colours.  It’s that sort of day.  Last Saturday was the first proper game; today the first away trip is almost as significant – the first away trip for many, probably, since we were last here more than eighteen months ago.  The mood  reflects this, it’s about celebrating the event as much as supporting the team.  By this stage I’ve already been serenaded whilst availing myself of the facilities on the long Thameslink slog from Bedford by travelling ‘orns who had chosen, for reasons unclear, to locate themselves next to the loo in a half-empty carriage.  Not an experience I’d choose to repeat, but positive in spirit and intent.

Back on Queens Road, my response of “Yooooorns” is greeted with slight confusion, as if I’ve given the wrong response to the call signal, but this reaction is far less disquieting than the one behind me.  Things have progressed during the hiatus without proper football;  daughters 1 & 2 are now 15 and 12 respectively, no longer children and certainly of an age where sniggering conspiratorially at your embarrassing Dad is a done thing.  This is the first match we’ve done together  away from Vicarage Road since the Cup Final; in particular it’s the first game that Daughter 1 has been to since the win over Wolves at the start of last year so it’s particularly good to hear her singing along instinctively when such things begin a few hours later.  She has a good day; we avoid the malicious intent of the evil bastard seagulls on the front (unlike our family trip a year ago when daughter 2 lost an ice cream) and all major food groups are covered:  chocolate, ice cream, chewing gum, crisps and pie.

2- The boisterous party vibe (as daughters 1 and 2 would call it) continues at the ground.  To get to this stage we’ve had to navigate considerable security protocols outside the ground including two sniffer dogs (“am I allowed to pat them?”) but no COVID status checks.  The drizzle has stopped, the sun is out.

Having followed advice and tradition and arrived very early we’re in our seats for a long time watching Stuff Happen.  Much of the boisterousness is backstage until closer to kick off, but as the players complete their warm-up a lad is escorted past us with his arm genially around a steward’s shoulders, high fiving all comers.  It is reported over my shoulder that he skipped over the advertising hoardings, shared an exchange with a less inebriated but perhaps startled Ben Foster and then faced a couple of shots before the stewards wised up to developments.  All very naughty and so forth, but you can’t help but hope that the paperwork invoking the ban-from-all-football threatened by incursion onto the pitch is lost in the post in this instance.

But for all the bonhomie there is an air of being a friend-of-a-friend at someone else’s party.  If Brighton and the Amex, perhaps without the added detail of promotion since The Last Time, never has the volcanic exuberance of Vicarage Road a week ago there is no mistaking the mood outside the ground as we amble round to the southern end.  This is Brighton’s First Day Back, a factor that always felt like it might play a role, much as it helped us a week ago.  Friends are greeting friends with smiles on their faces, a Dad is eagerly asking his son where he’d rather get a match programme – inside the ground or out? – and the old boy in a blue and white shirt with whom we board the Falmer train from Brighton grins and says “it’s just so nice to be back, isn’t it?”.  But he’s not really talking to us, he’s staring into space.

3- A factor, then.  Fuel to the fire.  But there are bigger issues that get the fire started in the first place.  One of these is betrayed by our bench, which despite having nine names on it can’t find a proper midfielder with Kucka and, presumably, Gosling injured, contractually challenged pair Hughes and Chalobah non-grata (or “ill”), Tufan incoming and TDB and Phillips out on loan.  This means that the three out there are the last three cabs on the rank – Etebo, Cleverley, Louza – and whilst two of the three were exemplary against Villa and the other is a welcome debut, they are not going to have a good afternoon.

The other big factor is our opponent.  “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team”.  If we benefitted against Villa from the increased familiarity borne of our early recruitment activity then here we’re on the receiving end of a much more settled, effective side who Know Their Shit.  We give the ball away immediately and are steamrollered;  in particularly our midfield, outnumbered by virtue of our formation and overrun from the off, can’t get hold of the game.  Louza stands out; more to come from him no doubt, but this is an afternoon he’ll need to learn from.  He wants far, far more time on the ball than he’s going to get from Yves Bissouma and yields possession on countless occasions.

We play a major role in our own downfall, contributing to both goals; nonetheless, we’ve got away with 2-0 at the interval.  The first comes from Shane Duffy, an old-school centre half who feels like he’s been on borrowed time since Albion were promoted, a championship-style defender in a Premier League side.  However many years on and despite a year out last year he’s still borrowing time, demonstrating that a bit of brutality has a place and a role in a three-man defence flanked by the ability of Webster and Dunk.  All the more so when he rises virtually unopposed to head a popular opener in off the underside of the bar from a left wing corner.  Dad, watching on TV, reports a healthy hand of Emmanuel Dennis’ shirt on the part of the Irish centre-back to which my response would be, why wasn’t Dennis kneeing him in the balls to hamper his ascent?  That’s going to happen.  Perhaps less so if it’s a big brute of a Chilean centre-back up against Duffy;  easy to be smart after the event, but this is an opponent, given Brighton’s threat at set pieces, that had Sierralta’s name all over it.

We look kind of vaguely threatening when we do get the balls in and around the Brighton area but not in as much as we generate an attempt on target.  Dennis is chasing scraps, Sarr, as always, is a weapon but is marshalled by March.  It feels laboured.  Meanwhile the midfield, drawing a parallel with my current Netflix binge, is like the US embassy at the end of Homeland season 4.  A wasteland, the terrorists have control, it’s no longer and was never a fight.  Towards the end of the half William Troost-Ekong, whose limited distribution was voiced as a concern pre-season by some and whose vulnerability here Brighton have picked up on by leaving him unchallenged and unharried at the back throughout, plays a suicide pass to Tom Cleverley.  Bissouma gobbles him up and releases Maupay.  Half of the away end don’t see the finish, heads are in hands.

4- “Same old bloody Watford, always losing” says a disembodied voice in the queue for sustenance.  The validity of the argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny but this is an expression of frustration and probably a little out of practice.  More generally there is rueful acknowledgement that this has been a car crash of a half on all sorts of levels but the mood is pretty resilient to it.  The crowd gets up again as the second period starts and good-natured hostilities are resumed with an individual out of my eyeline in the Brighton end.  The chants range from “Your shirt’s too small for you” to “You’re just a sh*t Father Christmas” via the slightly more niche “You’re just a sh*t Uncle Albert”.  The mind boggles.  Stewards linger uncertainly like parents at a toddler’s disintegrating birthday party.

On the pitch things are better from the off.  Too little too late, perhaps, the likelihood of a fightback never progresses beyond the theoretical and it’s difficult to judge merit comprehensively when the opponent is two-nil up, ostensibly comfortable and doesn’t need to commit.  One goal, deserved or otherwise, would have changed the mood however, and the fact that at least three of Brighton’s four yellows were earned for “take-one-for-the-team” break-stifling fouls suggests that there was more to this than just Brighton being able to sit back a bit.

Each of the subs improved the situation.  Cucho didn’t announce his arrival, inevitably in place of Louza, with the same fanfare as last week but his influence was more sustained, an effervescent force for good on the left.  A more comprehensive change in the balance of play was achieved with a formation change that saw Joshua King debuting off the bench in place of Cathcart, three at the back now and more presence in midfield with Sarr dropping deeper.  King was the pick of the bunch, some control and venom at last, whilst Troy’s cameo began on a bruising collision with Dunk that ended with a handshake but brought some welcome bite to proceedings. We didn’t do any more than draw the second half on points really, but you’d probably have taken that at half time.

5- A good friend has frequently observed that if you followed a football club, Watford for sake of argument, purely for events on the pitch you’d have a pretty bloody miserable time of it.  Rarely better illustrated than today.

On the pitch… disappointing to say the least.  Not the end of the world;  this was a failure of system and of personnel against a decent opponent rather than an irredeemable catastrophe (A decent opponent who nonetheless, in the same way that the concession of two goals nagged at us last week, might reflect on their own capabilities having been so dominant and yet only managing two goals, each of them facilitated.  As someone put it afterwards, “if Connolly could finish his dinner…”).  We knew we were lightweight in midfield minus Capoue, Doucs, now Chalobah.  If we’re going to be outmanned in midfield we can’t be outgunned as well.  Those solutions are coming.

But off the pitch…  losing, however badly or frustratingly, is part of the rich tapestry that we’ve missed. The investment in whatever it is you think you believe in doesn’t count for anything if it doesn’t matter when you lose.  Besides which, beating Palace and then Spurs will feel all the better for this, no?

And in any case.  Away days are back.  Daughters 1 and 2, having previously temporarily opted out of away games (don’t like being intimidated by the majority, miss the home routine) are back, and will be at Spurs.  We trundle into Bedford just before 11, they’re knackered but still grinning.  And football’s back.  That’ll do for now.  The rest will come.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 1, Kabasele 3, Etebo 2, Cleverley 3, Louza 1, Sarr 2, Sema 3, Dennis 3
Subs: Hernández (for Louza, 45) 3, *King (for Cathcart, 65) 3*, Deeney (for Sema, 82) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Fletcher, Sierralta, Baah, Foster

Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (14/08/2021) 15/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- By half time, the sun is properly out.  Which is how opening day should be, of course.  There are 200 hospital staff circuiting the pitch to a prolonged standing ovation from all four sides of the ground.  “Song for Guy” plays as the faces of those lost over the pandemic by both club and hospital appear on the screen.  There is a deluge of specks in eyes, odd for a still afternoon.

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It’s one of a number of significant things on a memorable day.  Arguably the most memorable thing, though there are many others.  Like… just being in a full stadium again.  The noise.  The colour.  The single living entity that a football crowd becomes. Queuing for a pint.  Edging your way to your seat.  Grins and greetings shared both with friends and with familiar faces.  God, we’ve missed this so much.

Simon and I had reflected on some of this as he arrived an hour earlier.  We went as far as suggesting that the result really didn’t matter at all.  That the other stuff was so much more significant.

We quickly acknowledged that this was complete bollocks.

2- So much is governed by mindset.  Several weeks ago we had the holiday conversation at home.  Weighed up the things that everyone’s weighed up.  Cost.  Uncertainty.  Risk. Risks. All sorts of risks. COVID.  The need to navigate the labyrinthine testing requirements (what does “a PCR test is advised for those returning from Spain” actually mean?).  The possibility that sands might shift between booking our holiday and the planned date of departure or, worse, whilst we were away or, worse, that positive tests at certain required points might be catastrophic.

My wife and daughters calmly but firmly pointed out that we were going anyway.  And that was that.  As soon as my head accepted this fact as a given rather than a decision to be made everything seemed much more straightforward (excepting, possibly, the labyrinthine regulations).  We returned from Málaga yesterday.

Meanwhile on Twitter, the world is ending.  Troy Deeney’s still here for one thing and he’s, like, ancient.  And Will Hughes, that’s a disgrace.  And who’s going to get the goals?  And who’s going to make the goals?  We’re, like, so relegated (my daughters did explain to me the difference between “relegated bruv” and “relegated bro” over another eclectic buffet dinner in Spain, but I forget…).

You wouldn’t know it.  The concerns loudly voiced on social media are left at the door, or at the very least drowned out by furious bloody-mindedness.  This is not a time for balance and weighing things up and judgement, overly anxious or otherwise.  This is a time for just bloody going to Spain and everyone knows it.  The noise is relentless – given the ten-plus minute ovation at half-time it’s possible that recent records were broken, but nobody is counting.  The first hiatus late in the second half is borne of collective exhaustion.

3- The opening is a sparring match, and whilst it’s completely unreasonable to extrapolate from the first few minutes to the entire season that’s what everyone’s doing.  On the whole we look kind of OK… keeping Villa at arm’s length if offering them more glimpses that you’d really like.  A key protagonist here is Peter Etebo, who is a mobile, efficient, disciplined destructive agent.  If Jonathan Hogg had been Nigerian…  win ball, keep possession, lay off.  Win ball, hold off marker, find the pass.  Tremendous.

Alongside him is the deceptive Juraj Kucka. This, I will confess, was the one that tested my ability to reserve judgement…  a 34 year-old?  Really?  And look at him, he’s clearly another ball-winner with his hulking, square shoulders.  Thing is, he looks like a hell’s angel but moves like a ballerina and whilst others will get wise to this Villa really aren’t.  He’s simply fabulous, a big character whose deceptive touch and swagger complement Etebo and Cleverley beautifully in what looks far from the sellotaped midfield of the twitterati’s (and everyone else’s) worst fears.

It’s not too long before a less surprising weapon puts on the burners.  Ismaïla Sarr is going to give Matt Targett a miserable 45 minutes before his half-time withdrawal – Targett an odd selection by Dean Smith since established first choice left back or otherwise, Targett’s value is in the quality of his delivery rather than his turn of pace (or lack of it).  Against any normal mortal, let alone Isma. Twenty minutes in Joe is WhatsApping that Sarr is finishing Targett’s career.

By this point we’re already ahead.  The third debutant to start is Emmanuel Dennis whose first ten minutes is the lowest profile of the trio until he gets on the end of a Sarr cross to open our account for the season at the second attempt – fortunate perhaps that the rebound fell to him, although even the newly reticent VAR might have had a glance at Konsa’s block, the shape of which Martínez would have been proud of, had the striker not followed up.  Thereafter Dennis joins his fellow new-boys in enthusing his new crowd with a spiky hour or so in which he torments Villa’s back line with a repertoire of speed, sharp first touches and efficient aggression.  More than once ponderous Villa play is disrupted by Dennis dropping out of a tree like some kind of ninja and making off with the ball before anyone’s had time to shout.

We’re not dominant in terms of possession.  Villa have plenty, but don’t know quite what to do with it.  The unpopular Young is prominent, Ings looks sharp enough that you wouldn’t want to give him a view (we don’t), Buendía is all but invisible.  But whilst we’ll have tougher opponents than a Villa side in the wake of a disruptive departure and missing, in Watkins and Luiz, two key protagonists, it’s hugely encouraging that we do the “holding them off” thing around the edge of our area as effectively as we executed it for much of last season.  They don’t record an effort on target in the first half and rarely look like doing so, whereas from ten minutes on we’re sharp on the break.  We end the half well ahead on points and also on goals…  Sarr wins one of an impressive and unprecedented number of flick-ons to release Dennis, the Nigerian slips him in on the right and his shot gets a big deflection off, poetically enough, Tyrone Mings to loop past Martínez.  A bit of luck…  if these three points send Villa down at the end of the season we’ll let them off the missed red card and call it quits.

4- We’ve covered three debutants and we’ll get to Cucho.  But there are further debutants in the stadium in the shape of Aasha and Sammy.  Aasha was a school friend with whom contact has been recently re-established through the miracles of social media;  she wasn’t a football fan back then, but apparently things change in 30 years.  Having enthused over the Euros she has declared that having a club of her own was overdue.  Now living locally the Hornets were an option; Streatham was home for quite a while too so Palace declared as another.

An old school friend, as I said, but some things are less about friendship and more about common decency.  Steering Aasha onto the right path was the only reasonable thing to do.  I made the case as clearly as I could and when Aasha conceded, partially in terror I suspect, I followed up by contacting A Club Representative who facilitated a letter from Troy congratulating Aasha on the wisdom of her choice.  So here Aasha is, with 8 year-old son Sammy giving it everything next to her. I’m not sure whether it’s right to point out that it isn’t always quite this fun or let them find out in time.

Meanwhile back on the pitch Villa are out earlier after the break, and start with purpose.  Young has replaced the hapless Targett by shifting to left back after which Isma’s free rein is curtailed, and sub Jacob Ramsey is prominent in two early attacks.  These yield nearly moments rather than efforts on target, but they’re a statement of intent in a more assertive if, at least initially, scarcely more impactful second half from the visitors.

We still provide threat on the break but the difference in quality between divisions is evident as Sema does his once-a-game bundle down the left touchline but is robbed before he can pull the trigger.  He should have been given a corner, but that’s a shot on target in the Championship.  Similarly Sarr is a threat and provokes anxiety on the other flank but again Villa muddle through.  Dennis cuts inside from the left and fires in hard and low; the keeper’s right behind it, but tickets and raffles as Sarr’s goal demonstrated.  Villa haven’t had a shot on target yet.

Minutes later Dennis is hobbling off to an ovation, and on comes the mythical Cucho Hernández at least twelve months later than planned.  In truth his competitive debut is relatively low key and innocuous, except for the bit that isn’t.  There’s so much that marks Cucho out, builds up his legend… the stories from Spain, the two goals off the bench on his debut for Colombia, the bleached blonde hair and boyish grin.  So the force of personality to take that wave of expectation and ride it and score a goal of the season contender with his first involvement is quite staggering.  Kucka is bundled over in Villa’s half, Dean plays a great advantage as Cleverley scraps the ball out to Cucho on the left.  The Colombian progresses down the flank, cuts inside and flings a curling shot across the face of goal.  It’s in off the base of the far post and Vicarage Road erupts in noise.  We’re away.

5- Had we held out a little longer we might have gotten away with a flattering thrashing, set up as we were to attack on the break.  Instead John McGinn’s brilliant conversion of Leon Bailey’s cross serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with a bit of Premier League quality.  It didn’t ultimately matter much this time, but we won’t always have a 3-0 cushion;  1999/2000 was peppered with games in which we played pretty well and lost 1-0, this fixture amongst them.  The late penalty, too, was more than a footnote…  a bizarre attempt at a tackle by the otherwise exemplary Masina, but had he not attempted it Traoré was in and a second goal was likely in any case.  It was wrong to presume relegation before a ball had been kicked.  It’s no less foolish to be presumptuous on the back of one, albeit largely fabulous, victory.

But 3-2 flatters the visitors;  we were much better than that.  Villa can be expected to improve, and can take heart from hanging in there…  we can be grateful, I think, for opening at home and for catching our opponents at a weak moment, but there was no fortune in our own performance.  To reiterate, we got our players in early, players that the recruitment team know more about that we do, and it showed.  We have a team, already.  And let’s have no more leaping to “I’ve got doubts about Xisco’s tactical acumen”;  all available evidence since his first few games defy that position.  We have a team, a coach and a club to be proud of.

everyone

As for Aasha, who once got a job in Boots in Basildon just in case Dave Gahan came in for some toothpaste, the regular Depeche Mode outing over the tannoy at the final whistle sealed the deal.  The day kept dropping in highlights… Lloyd Doyley bashfully edging his way down Occupation Road against the tide was one, Nathaniel Chalobah gushing about his brother and “his” club’s win on Twitter another.  Spain was fabulous, and today was a Good Day.

Now we just need to do it again, on and off the pitch.

See you at Brighton, and welcome back.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 4, Etebo 4, Cleverley 4, *Kucka 5*, Sarr 4, Sema 3, Dennis 4
Subs: Hernández (for Dennis, 66) 4, Gosling (for Kucka, 69) 3, Deeney (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sierralta, Foster

Watford 0 West Bromwich Albion 0 (24/07/2021) 25/07/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- It’s very odd.  I think that’s the most concise and accurate summary.  Very odd.  Pre-season friendlies are always very odd of course…  my co-editor would no doubt use other words, though quite how he remembers is beyond me.

Nonetheless.  Very odd, even with a pre-season friendly filter applied.  There are 3,612 people here, we would later be advised.  It’s one year, five months and one day since I was in a crowd as large of that in a football stadium, and three weeks more than that since I was in a crowd that large here (three weeks that included an international break, a vortex that also does weird things to the passing of time). 

And simultaneously it feels both much longer than that, aeons, another lifetime… and no time at all.  I’ve been in the stadium since quarter-to-two.  I’m not really sure why. It certainly wasn’t a conscious plan to be this early…  my wife might tell you different, or at least that it’s always my unconscious plan to be early.  But my Germanic roots and all that go with them aren’t having to compete with African influences today and so here I am having navigated trains, busses and replacement busses, sitting in my seat before 2pm and watching Stuff Happen.  People wandering in, doing the “where’s my seat” thing that always comes with non-regular fixtures.  I got in fine, by the way, once I’d worked out which bit of my phone to scan.  No bother. 

Some of these people look as blissfully content as I feel just to be in the ground again.  To others it seems like an everyday thing. There’s certainly no consensus as regards mask protocol, either collectively (not that you’d expect one) or, to a very great extent, individually. Many wander blinking into the stand with their mask sort of half-attached, a compromise position capable of adapting to any new reality.

West Brom fans are dotted around like toppings on a sparsely garnished pizza (that’s you, Sainsburys) but there’s a collective at the Vicarage Road end of the Lower GT stand who are being boisterous.  Boisterous is a good thing, of course, particularly in these circumstances but you do wonder at the choice of “Watford’s a ….  I wanna go home” refrain.  Surely you’re only here because you missed football too, guys?  And you came down from the West Midlands too. You knew what to expect? Nobody forced you?

2 – Not that we have nothing to grumble about ourselves.  My co-editor, when reflecting on the point I’m building up to during the week, pondered whether the general lack of much to complain about with our current ownership/management means that when things do come along your righteous fury is all the more violent.  It’s as if…  football serves a purpose, sometimes, in channelling one’s frustrations and when there’s little to complain about it these frustrations get stored up…

Either way.  The kit.  I quite like the design.  Much as hoops don’t flatter the fuller figure, there’s something underexploited in yellow and black horizontals in the context of a club called the Hornets.  It works.  And, yes, I’m uncomfortable with having a betting firm as the sponsor (though easier to be pious when you’re not in charge of the balance sheet).  To be honest, much as its size on the shirt has attracted comment…  you can’t really see it on the players fronts on matchday.  Much smaller but clashing coloured logos have stood out much more.  Admittedly the sponsors make up for this by having their logo liberally displayed on every visible flat surface around the stadium… perhaps it was ever thus but the nature of this logo, the scrawled font, the lack of regular corporate edges make it more… in your face (when not blending into yellow and black hoops).

But it’s not the sponsor.  And it’s not the design, which is decent.  It’s the now (almost) total lack of red. 

I’m a red shorts guy but I accept that that ship has probably sailed, at least for the moment.  I’m in the minority, in as much as it’s possible to judge, fine.  But the now total lack of red?  The cheerful promo video was misleadingly reassuring, Ben Foster mucking around with a  shirt printing gag using red numbers and lettering.  This alone would have been inadequate, a token effort, but better than nothing.  But no.  Black numbers (no lettering as yet , but we fear the worst).

One can only assume that this creeping removal of red is part of a long term plan.  Do it gradually over a few seasons and maybe nobody will notice or kick up a fuss.  The motivation we can only guess at… the abandonment of a vibrant, identifying tricolore that suggests flames and energy in favour of…  Borussia Dortmund?  Hell, Cambridge United?  Someone else’s identity at any rate, when we’ve got a much brighter one of our own.  The culprit perhaps cites the George Kirby and Mike Keen eras as the real good old days.  Either way, Moosey is the last bastion of redness in the kit.  I hope that whoever is behind this decision was really pissed by the decision to retain the current crest. 

3- Meanwhile, some football was happening. I’ve no idea what our first team looks like at the moment in all honesty; I’m struggling to keep up with who we’ve got and who we haven’t, who’s injured, who’s not signing a contract, who’s going, who’s playing in the Gold Cup and who’s on Love Island and I’m someone who’s normally obsessive about keeping track of this stuff.

Just to confuse matters, there’s already been a game this morning, against Brentford at the training ground so presumably at least some of those involved in that won’t be involved in this which is why there are a load of players on the pitch and a load more on the bench and another load unaccounted for who could form an at least equally plausible starting eleven between them.

Amongst those actually present in this reality one of the most curious is the near mythical Cucho Hernández, who makes his debut at Vicarage Road four years after signing and at least a year later than planned. He does a sterling job in the space of his hour on the pitch of, given the filter of the pre-season friendly, living up to our most excitable hopes. Cucho is fuuuuuun…. quick, strong, relentless, acrobatic. Jesus, he’s got one full cap for Colombia as a teenager in which he scored twice! How many players have twice as many goals as caps?

So Cucho is rock and roll and he does both in the opening minutes, linking up well with Troy to feed Sarr at the far post. We look instantaneously devastating, and then suddenly rusty as hell as Isma, who doesn’t have a great half, gets his feet tangled up and somehow scuffs wide. He’s far from the only one who looks as if he’s working his way back into the groove; amongst a number of stray passes and miscontrols across the field in the opening minutes another newcomer, Peter Etebo, gets the ball stuck under his feet in a horribly vulnerable, almost complacent position. We aren’t made to pay, fortunately, and Etebo improves, showcasing a good line in not so much finding space as… anticipating where all the fast-moving objects are going to be in two seconds’ time and rotating into a gap that wasn’t there until the instant that he rolled into it. That, and a good line in kicking the ball very hard in the warm up means that Etebo’s report card reads “shows promise” at the very least.

The other significant early development however is the departure less than ten minutes in of Adam Masina, the straw to cling to being that he walks off rather than having to be carried. He’s replaced by an individual introduced as “A Triallist” with barely suppressed glee across the PA and to amusement in the stands. Twitter reports suggest that this is James Morris, ex of Southampton; either way, he does well and will rack up more minutes than anyone else in yellow on the day.

4- As for Albion, they’re steadfastly refusing to let the fare descend into soporific, half-paced pre-season nothingness. Valérien Ismaël’s remarkable Barnsley side turned focused aggression into an art form last season; his new charges are on the same path, but haven’t quite mastered the “focused” bit yet. There’s quite a lot of what’s simply aggression, not to say downright violence, and from the off nobody is under any illusions. Picking up two yellow cards in this sort of fixture is no small achievement, and they work hard in the face of initial lack of reward to attain this tally. Kyle Bartley is all over Troy for about fifteen minutes; the skipper has a decent game (and as an aside it’s great to hear his pre-match cheer still rising a notch above the norm, a reminder that the Twitter filter distorts your perspective) but is battered several times before he earns a free kick and his opponent a really thinking about getting a little bit cross now word.

After that early fright – and until a similarly close call in a goalmouth scramble at the conclusion of the half – the visitors are the better side. They’re a week closer to the real stuff and it shows… we’re bullied a little bit here, and if Ismaël can instil the ferocious belief into this side that he did into his perhaps less talented Tykes squad the Albion will take some stopping you suspect. Diangana, who was something of a damp squib in the Premier League after quite the build up, twice threatens here, first forcing a good save from Foster with a driven shot and then ghosting beyond our defensive line to his apparent surprise before dinking a chip gently into the relieved Foster’s arms.

5- At the break we release Ben Foster to fulfil considerable selfie duties with both sets of fans before returning to the bench some time after the second half kicks off, and give Rob Elliot his first run out. He looks more than competent, tick. More interesting though is Mebude for Clevs, a switch which sees Cucho drop back into midfield and Isma switch to the left with Mebude stepping in on the right of the front three.

The youngster looks lively, encouraging more than devastating but certainly encouraging, but it was the more established name that flamed on at the start of the second period. Ismaïla Sarr gave Darnell Furlong a miserable fifteen minutes as we ripped into the visitors at the start of the half… the Senegalese seemed to thrive when being asked to cut inside and with Cucho doing a decent job of running in from deep we were suddenly exposing Albion’s backline. Sarr cut inside two challenges before being halted by a sliding Livermore challenge… Albion’s official site report creatively interprets this as a perfectly timed tackle, but as a benchmark they also described Diangana’s earlier feeble chip as forcing Foster to backpedal in panic. Comical Ali is alive and well and working for the Baggies’ press team, it seems.

Minutes later Mebude was released on the right by Deeney only to be startled by the gravity of the moment; his shot too deliberate rather than instinctive but nonetheless narrowly wide of the far post. Twice more Sarr would find shooting chances before being denied. And then on the hour Troy, Isma and Cucho were withdrawn and Albion’s life got a whole lot easier.

On came Joshua King for his first outing in yellow, and his limited involvement was also very positive – tidy, mobile and intelligent. But as the substitutions started rolling the game inevitably broke up and once again we were overpowered. Having ended the game with a back four with an average age of 17.5 and an eleven that boast three competitive substitute appearances for the Hornets between them (albeit King and Elliot have a fair few from elsewhere), we can be quite content with having kept a once again assertive Albion at arms’ length for the remainder of the game.

As an aside, a quite extraordinary number of sons of famous fathers were named in the matchday squads – facing Darnell (son of Paul) Furlong were Maurizio son of Mauricio, George son of Matthew and Henry son of Dennis (who had scored the Hornets’ consolation against Brentford that morning but only very briefly looked like becoming a quiz question here), whilst on the bench Ryan son of Wayne and Shaq son of Fabian watched on.

But, yes, to end where we began. Odd. Very odd. But, you know, good too. Good debuts, encouraging signs from some older timers, a good number of kids getting runouts. Interesting too the degree to which Xisco clearly values playing actual games in the build up (maybe he just didn’t enjoy training). Perhaps not the last time these kids will be involved and that’s all to the good. Significant that a good number of younger trainees were also on the bench though surely unlikely to be needed (we made eleven changes after all). One squad, perhaps.

And above all, it was just… really nice to be back. You know. Home. More please.

Yoorns.

 

Foster, Ngakia, Masina, Troost-Ekong, Cathcart, Etebo, Cleverley, Gosling, Sarr, Hernández, Deeney
Subs: Morris (for Masina, 7), Mebude (for Cleverley, 45), Elliot (for Foster, 45), King (for Deeney, 60), Crichlow (for Hernández, 60), Pochettino (for Sarr, 60), Abbott (for Ngakia, 75), Langston (for Troost-Ekong, 75), Hall (for Cathcart, 75), Wise (for Etebo, 75), Smith (for Gosling, 75), Andrews, Muwonge, Hunter, Goulding, Forde

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
31 comments

1-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The game, and the season, ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone else is wrong.

See you next season.  In the Premier League.

Yooorns.

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

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

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

1-   Twitter’s great.

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

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

Twitter is also ghastly.

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

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

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

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

2- Meanwhile, anyone but Bournemouth.  Obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yooorns.

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