jump to navigation

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cup run’d be good, though, eh?

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

Advertisements

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoorns.

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoorns.

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

 

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas all.  Yooooorns.

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yooorns.

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

Newcastle United 1 Watford 0 (03/11/2018) 04/11/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1 – The big challenge when attending games at this time of year is the bloody weather, and thus judging clothing requirements.  I appreciate that this is becoming a recurring theme, perhaps I’m getting old…  but you know what I’m talking about, right?  Is it going to be cold (like Bournemouth) or sunny?  How much effect will the wind have, how many layers do I need?  Travelling by car you can hedge your bets by loading up the boot to cover all angles.  On the train it’s harder, the more so if you have to weigh up the climate on the other side of the country.

By the time seats were reached, having navigated a stifling carriage, a long breezy walk to a pub by the marina, the interior of this and then another pub, the marvellous flood of humanity upwards towards the ground, the fourteen-staircase ascent to the gods at St James Park (base camp, thermos and Sherpas not provided) and exposure to the elements at altitude only one conclusion was possible.  There was no good decision.

2- It comes to something when you’re coming to St James’ Park in the Premier League expecting to win.  This perverse state of affairs reflects United’s reality as well as ours; nonetheless, it’s odd enough to make us uneasy in itself.  Alice confesses to having a bad feeling about the game in pub 1;  great start, unparalleled squad or otherwise it’ll take a while to adjust to where we find ourselves.

After a minute’s silence in memory of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha which segues hesitantly into a minute’s applause the game kicks off.  Newcastle’s downtrodden support are generally quiet but any suggestion of progress however tentative is encouraged with a wordless bellow.  This very quickly feels like a game of “first goal wins” since the home crowd would clearly rally behind as unprecedented a fillip as going ahead, but their side is so toothless that even a one goal lead (surely leading to two or three) would be decisive.

And such looked the likely outcome after a first half in which Newcastle occasionally threaten but only theoretically, nervous and hesitant when a shooting opportunity materialised.  The Hornets however enjoyed much the greater possession and occasionally snapped into life, passing the ball around in hypnotically comfortable rhythm at the back and probing, probing, before rattling into a much higher gear and slicing into the penalty area.  It was far from the best football we’ve played this season but it nonetheless should have seen us comfortably in the lead at the break… Deulofeu, a constant irritant, repeated his trick of rounding the keeper and missing the target, more forgivably than against Huddersfield, and later stabs a first time effortwide.  Mariappa does well with a far post header that’s blocked on the line, less well when snatching at a good chance that results from the subsequent, scruffy penalty area scramble, Success drove across the face of Dubravka forcing a smart stop (which I make at least two efforts on target, incidentally, not the publicised one?), several sorties provoked nervous, “just get it out” clearances.  Crucially, we didn’t get the goal.

3- Part of the issue was Newcastle’s unashamedly pragmatic set-up.  This was an away performance from the home side, determinedly destructive sitting players behind the ball and breaking.  It’s difficult to look fluid in the face of such an approach, and we did well enough for a while but wilted.  Having reached half time ahead on points if glancing slightly anxiously at the lack of chances taken we were confident that quality would out, that ultimately one of those crackling, overlapping, double-teaming attacks would pay off if we persisted.  We didn’t, so it didn’t.

It was a limp, underwhelming second half performance.  We looked heavy and deliberate before going behind – not complacent I don’t think, but perhaps our relatively comfortable league position lost us a degree of urgency.  Newcastle offered minimal threat before going ahead and next to nothing afterwards but all it took was Ayoze Perez – one of three substitutes necessitated by injury for the home side before the hour – being abandoned at a corner.  The choking inevitability of this miserable development enveloped the away end.

4- Even then, we had chances.  Good chances.   The best of these came to sub Stefano Okaka, who had a reasonable cameo as a battering ram and aerial target but  slung a shot at close range over a gaping goal, the ball across slightly behind him.  Earlier Success had artfully manufactured space for Roberto Pereyra to thump against the crossbar before the Nigerian was withdrawn for a welcome if spiky reappearance from Nathaniel Chalobah.

After a reasonable first half  in which he’d again displayed his expertise at controlling the ball with his chest and head and at occasionally spotting and executing a wicked through-ball, Success had struggled in the second in common with most of the team.  His failings were particularly visible, as he seemed to tire and was bullied by Newcastle’s defenders, suddenly unable to hold the ball up and give our attack a focus.  Pre-match discussion had suggested that Troy might struggle to win his place back;  evidence here of the value of Troy’s forcefulness of personality, his strength of character.  Isaac might get there, but isn’t there yet.

Nonetheless, the young striker is well in credit for the season having scored three and contributed plenty in four starts before today, three of which wins plus the draw with Spurs.  So the cheering of his substitution, of the substitution of a 22 year old who had continued to plug away, peppered the mistakes with good stuff and refused to hide despite the direction his afternoon was taking, was fuckwittery of the highest order comfortably eclipsing in terms of banal stupidity anything that happened on the pitch.

5- Yeah.  Defeat, then.  A bloody long way to come for an underwhelming outcome.  If there was a consolation it was that there are worse places to visit than Newcastle with its admirable carpet of proper pubs.  We visited a third before braving the train journey home.

As for getting used to being This Good?  Well here’s the answer:  we’re not that good, yet.  Not good enough that we can come to somewhere like this and fail to take chances and not expect to get a bloody nose.  It’s not black and white though, (not even in Newcastle).  Not just “good” (win) and “bad” (lose).  We’re still a good side and this is still remarkable.  Even the shitty away defeats are to be cherished.

Just… not too often.  Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, *Cathcart 3*, Mariappa 3, Hughes 2, Doucouré 3, Capoue 2, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Success 2
Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 66) 2, Okaka (for Hughes, 76) 0, Chalobah (for Success, 85) 0, Kabasele, Sema, Masina, Gomes

Watford 3 Huddersfield Town 0 (27/10/2018) 28/10/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- “Well I’d like to think we can get a point but… I can’t really see it”.

Such was the glum prognosis of the Huddersfield fan accompanying us for navigation purposes pre-match.  He was taking his lad to as many away games as possible, he explained.  The unspoken subtext was that such an opportunity perhaps best not be taken for granted.  Difficult to argue.

Nonetheless, here was a challenge we’ve rarely experienced before, certainly since the 1980s.  That of being the side… not just favourites but comprehensive favourites, odds-on favourites, expected to win in a top flight game.  As with all unfamiliar things it doesn’t feel altogether comfortable, as positive an indicator as it may be of the status to which we’ve elevated ourselves.  You’re much less open to disappointment – and pressure – as the underdog.  Nor had this edginess been improved by finding ourselves placed at exactly the same spot in Wagamama as we had been pre-Bournemouth.  Or by discovering, now as then, that it was much bloody colder than anticipated necessitating hat purchase for the second home game on the trot.  (Or, as an aside, that the hat was too small.  The costume fitters of the Adhoc theatre group will roll their eyes, full of complaints at the the prohibitive size of my head.  Nonetheless…  a one size fits all hat shouldn’t be too small…).

Only in the ground, at our seats, were nerves assuaged.  Pre-match pondering over selection was answered decisively.  Same team.  Holebas and Kabasele return from suspension to a place on the bench.  You get yourselves suspended, you’ll have to win your places back.  As soon as we heard we knew it was the right call, too damn right. And the 4-2-3-1 retained, despite suggestions that this was specifically to counter Wolves’ midfield.  Our own midfield riches need to be accommodated, it seems.

2-  The start of the game certainly didn’t suggest that a comfortable win was on the cards.  After Bobby Pereyra made brief early inroads the visitors came right back at us with World Cup winner Erik Durm twice finding aggressive space on the flank stretching us wide and Aaron Mooy warming Ben Foster’s gloves.  This looked in danger of becoming the game we’d feared as Huddersfield appeared aggressive, purposeful and together in the way that a team without a win in late October really shouldn’t have;  grumbles reflecting as much began to echo around the Rookery.  Not for the first or last time, this game could have headed off in another direction altogether.

That it didn’t was due, essentially, to the quality with which this squad is liberally sprinkled (and some tentative defending).  Pereyra, the source of magic as on so many occasions this season, uncovered Huddersfield’s greatest failing by simply running at them.  This was a strategy that was to pay off repeatedly, since for all their character and discipline the visitors simply couldn’t cope with being committed in this way.  From the Rookery it became impossible to follow his scampering beyond the bodies left in his wake, the outcome clear as the ball hit the net with the full detail of what preceded it only revealed by the replay.  My brother’s vantage point in the Upper GT gave him a better view, his description citing Pele’s tactical input to “Escape to Victory” as below.

Within ten minutes it was two, and this time there was no mystery about the passage of events, Deulofeu skinning one Huddersfield defender to his right, another to his left before cruelly slugging a shot through Jonas Lössl.  As at Molineux a week earlier we’d put ourselves into complete control with two goals of the highest quality.

3- The thing is, Huddersfield weren’t that bad.  Blunt, certainly;  short of goals but critically also short of a source of goals.  I know that I over-rely on this comparison but…  Neal Ardley dumping a cross to the far post for Heidar to propel in somehow, anyhow, was a stock goal that was there for a fairly limited side to fall back on.  Huddersfield have nothing like that, and not nearly enough angel dust to generate enough special goals like the Bobby Pereyra one, or even halfway to it, to sustain them.

That said they came closer and threatened more frequently than the scoreline suggests.  Chris Löwe nearly pulled a goal back straight away, his fierce drive nicked onto the bar by Ben Foster.  Philip Billing clubbed a shot towards the top corner, clawed away.  Less spectacular but dealt with in wonderfully unfussy fashion were a number of low drives that all required concentration and the awareness not to spill the ball to an opponent.  A magnificent performance from Foster.

As for Huddersfield, for all that Javi Gracia’s warnings that they were better than their results suggested were backed up and despite strong competition it’s difficult to see them staying up.  This was a side playing to the limits of its ability;  admirably single-minded despite their poor results, defensively capable (fragility when committed notwithstanding), competitive in the midfield but beaten 3-0.  They won’t always play this well.  As above, they just don’t have any goals…  when you see that there’s a long throw expert you think maybe that’s an option, except that the long throw expert and the 6’6″ target are the same bloke.  They’re screwed.

4- Into the second half and the game continued to toe a line between several possible outcomes.  Certainly a series of bad decisions at the last moment – and a couple of bad finishes – were all that was between us and a more decisive win.  Often we screamed out from the back with the last pass agonisingly lacking as Huddersfield scrambled back.  On one such occasion Deulofeu hared beyond the defensive line and touched the ball around Lössl only to find Schindler a sufficiently large and patient obstacle, the Spaniard’s attempt to curl the ball into the empty net not quite good enough.  An elegant move concluded with Pereyra darting across the ball to apply a masterful flick with his heel to leave Hughes in front of goal.  He couldn’t have been more dramatic with a wand and a puff of green smoke, but Hughes too seemed surprise and his stabbed left foot shot was much too comfortable for the Terriers’ keeper. Ken Sema, desperate to make a positive impression, bundled joyously into the box only to slug a shot wide.

Another possible outcome remained a much tighter, nervier finish and as Huddersfield gained in confidence again the third goal appeared increasingly to be a necessity rather than a cherry on the cake.  I was about to suggest that “fortunately it arrived”, but fortune had nothing to do with it.  This was a set piece as exquisitely borne of discipline and teamwork as the first two were of individual brilliance and owed nothing to tentative defending.  The moved concluded with Étienne Capoue arcing a looping ball to find Kiko Femenía barrelling down the right; his scuffed ball across the box fell perfectly to Isaac Success; Huddersfield’s defence completely blindsided.  The big Nigerian had been as guilty as anyone of bad decision making but his performance was nonetheless a tour de force;  impossibly powerful but deft and clever and aware too.  Uniquely suited to the lone striking role, his goal was well earned.

5- Game over, then.  And get us, we can play moderately well against limited but spirited and competitive opposition and make it look easy.  So much for struggling when expected to do well.  And because it’s fun, because it emphasises quite how stunning a job the club management have been doing, let’s roll off some of the names not involved today: Deeney, Chalobah, Cleverley, Holebas, Janmaat, Prödl, Gomes, Navarro.  The youngsters, Quina, Wilmot.  Goodness me.

Two away games to come next, different challenges in their own way but both against sides struggling to score goals but in front of home crowds who will expect a result against The Likes Of Watford despite what the League table suggests.  With our dizzy, spinning brilliance on the break – and one or two more sensible decisions – that ought to suit us.  Let’s see.

Yooorns.

*Foster 5*, Femenía 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 5, Mariappa 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 4, Pereyra 4, Success 4
Subs: Sema (for Deulofeu, 65) 3, Gray (for Success, 83) 0, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 85) 0, Wilmot, Holebas, Okaka, Gomes

Arsenal 2 Watford 0 (29/08/2018) 30/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- It’s an indicator of how far our feet are under the table that this is all so familiar now.  Four of the five visits to the Emirates since promotion and the environs are now as familiar as Borough Market pre-Millwall, as the cricket club at Turf Moor, as the discarded bin bags spewing their contents all over the pavements between Norwood Junction and Selhurst Park.

The forecourt of Highbury and Islington tube station has become a regular rendez-vous point, sun-bathed today, the walk down Holloway Road frequent enough to be able to recognise the invasion of cafes, coffee shops and student accommodation that local resident Kieron describes.

Familiar, too, are the bowels of a stadium built to comfortably accommodate its capacity.  Plenty of space to hang around pre-match, no need to queue for anything much with contactless-only refreshment trolleys.

Familiar, finally, is the bloody terrible view from the cinema seats nine rows back from the corner flag in the shallow bowl.  It all looks lovely.  Unless you actually want to watch the football.

2- What we do get a decent view of is Marc Navarro first Premier League 45 at right-back, the first change to the side this season thanks to Daryl Janmaat’s knee problem.  He does a decent enough job, though as the Hornets dominate territory in the opening fifteen minutes he appears to be taken by surprise by Arsenal’s pressure, a couple of balls back towards Ben Foster asking slightly more of the keeper than might have been ideal.  Defensively however he’s solid, and more than once he makes a significant intervention in denying the home side – on one occasion alive to the lurking threat of Aubameyang as he cuts out a far post cross.

It’s an intense, compelling, boisterous game of football.  Both sides are pressing hard and high, both are holding a high defensive line, both want to win.  Much as we force the home side onto the back foot early on they twice threaten through Alexandre Lacazette;  on the first occasion he is caught in the penalty area by Kabasele, stumbles, thinks about it, and goes down unconvincingly late.  We get away with it.  Shortly afterwards Lacazette robs Craig Cathcart but dinks his effort wide over the onrushing Foster. We get away with it again but… Arsenal are getting away with stuff too. Troy gets on the end of a deep cross and cushions a header back to Will Hughes who drives wide. Kabasele thumps a header that’s blocked on the line. Nil nil at the break is just fine, we’re giving it some.

3- As, incidentally, are Arsenal. The now notorious “cojones” comment of a year or so ago was questionable in terms of whether candidly sharing such opinions was altogether helpful given that we would be playing the same side later in the season but beyond reasonable dispute in terms of veracity. Arsenal had a soft centre, and had had such for a long time. Not our problem of course, but signs here that the Gunners are no longer so overawed by physical confrontation. Whatever the undercurrent of “we should be beating the likes of Watford”, the reality beyond such unhelpful preconceptions is that we came at Arsenal with verve and power and they may have rode their luck once or twice but they held us off and got the break in the end. Not a traditionally Arsenal performance, and the combative Lucas Torreira was at the heart of the change; like Troy, he was slightly harshly booked in the opening period, Troy for stretching for a loose ball in a challenge with Cech, Torreira for a foul that stymied a breakaway.

Troy, meanwhile, has been grabbing headlines once again this week with comments regarding Watford’s management of the gravitationally challenged one. Once again, the real question is not the reasonableness of what he was saying. Any team with any intelligence would pay close attention to Zaha, particularly given his propensity for reacting so favourably to it, and whilst purity of spirit simply oozes from those bin bags en route to Selhurst Park (witness: Ian Holloway, Saša Ćurčić etc) any other club would give some thought to whether there’s an alternative to the same player bootering him over and over again for sustainability reasons.

The question, of course, is whether it’s really helpful for Troy to be saying those things publicly. The answer is no.

4- The Gunners had grown stronger as the first half had progressed, and the start of the second saw more pressure from the home side. It may be a case, again, of perception warping in line with a suspected narrative but we looked tired during this spell, ragged even, and you feared for how long we could keep Arsenal at arm’s length.

So the fact that we came back so strongly was as impressive as it was unexpected. Arsenal’s sub keeper Bernd Leno, on shortly before the break for the injured Cech, could probably have hoped for gentler introductions to the Premier League and looked anxious initially in the second period. Our first chance came from one of a number of wicked deliveries from Jose Holebas, this from a set piece in which Troy ghosted in to attack the ball at the near side of the penalty area and with the delicate touch with which those who never watch him play wouldn’t associate him flicked a shot inside Leno’s left hand post. The German was equal to it, pushing it wide for the corner; from the set piece Nacho Monreal, who had lost his rag late in the first half and not found it again, had a wrestling match with Andre Gray before Leno punched away unconvincingly. This seemed to spur us on.

Andre Gray was keen to profit from Arsenal’s high line and was popped through it by Troy Deeney only to see his effort smothered by Leno. He was removed two minutes later and replaced by Isaac Success, increasingly the player we thought we’d signed after his debut here two years ago, replaced him and he too was put through by Deeney, burning away from his marker but taking an ever so slightly too heavy a touch forcing him slightly wide. His dinked chip was far more convincing than Lacazette’s at the same end in the first half, but still only skimmed the outside of the post on its way out.  As the energy ramped up Torreira and Deeney, both on yellows, clashed after a late Torreira tackle.  A less sensible ref than Anthony Taylor could have sent either off.

5- So, yeah. Then Arsenal scored, twice. A bit of luck for their first perhaps, but Cathcart wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been under pressure. So Arsenal win the game and we record our second defeat, each of which against a traditionally “top six” side.

Naturally there’s a tendency to say “well, we should have taken our chances”. Certainly this is true. Thing is, until such a time as we’re winning every week there will always be something that isn’t quite right. Very much first world problems these. Facts are that we’ve played nine games this season now across the League and the League Cup. Each game has been thoroughly enjoyable, and in each game – if with varying consistency across ninety minutes and to varying degrees – we’ve played well.

I’d maintain that Cathcart and Kabasele is the best central defensive partnership we’ve had in the 35+ years that I’ve been watching, and that midfield isn’t far off a comparable accolade, particularly when one considers strength in depth.

So really, defeat or otherwise, there’s very little to be upset about. The fact is that Spurs and Arsenal have crowed over the last week over a penalty shoot-out win against a reserve side wrongly reduced to ten men, and a helter-skelter league game that would have skidded off in another direction had we grabbed the first goal. There’s plenty of relief mixed up in that.

Now we need to turn good performances back in to wins. And there are few teams you’d wish defeat on more than next Saturday’s visitors. Bring it on.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Navarro 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra, 4, Gray 3, *Deeney 4*
Subs: Success (for Gray, 72) 3, Femenía (for Navarro, 84) 0, Mariappa, Masina, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (02/09/2018) 03/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- So it’s been a fun week.  Fun to be patted on the head like the child allowed to stay up late when the adults have had a glass of wine or two.  “So Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and… oh yes, surprisingly, Watford have a 100% record….”.

This mutated as the days passed.  “Actually I still fancy Watford to be relegated,” suggested a bookmaker’s rep on a podcast this week, confusing a radical, roguish, controversial opinion with stupidity.  “In a couple of month’s time everyone will have forgotten about Roberto Pereyra” was another sage observation on the same podcast.

I suspect the tone of this week’s observations might be slightly different.

2- It’s summer again.  Proper hot.  Necessary precautions have been taken to navigate the traffic snarl up heading to the Krishna festival at Aldenham (thanks Paul) and we’re parked up early, giving me time to deliberate over whether I’m sufficiently certain that my lucky Primitives t-shirt is at the heart of our good run to go with an extra layer under the club shirt (I am, I did, you’re welcome).

Vicarage Road is navigated at the cost of an Ice Cream spillage and many tears from Daughter 2, finally assuaged by face painting and tattoos outside the club shop.  We’ve mentioned this before but the party atmosphere being cultivated on this corner is a fine thing, the more so in the sunshine, and is noted by Daughter 1 who sometimes gives the impression of the world, our world, passing her by but not here.  By the time we head down Occupation Road Daughter 2 is busy looking for the ancient turnstile and once in the ground she, like the rest of us, is fully focused on the matter in hand.  And after three (and a half) wins, the arrival of a proper big gun is a fascinating prospect rendered low risk by the nine point cushion.

3- The first half is deemed “intense” by Daughter 2, not inaccurately.  Others elsewhere, others not emotionally involved, called it dull, “lacking in incident” or similar.  And I suppose if you weren’t emotionally involved then that would be true but we were, all of us, and it wasn’t.

Spurs had the best of it, indisputably.  We had the occasional foray forward and looked vibrant, the crowd sparking at the slightest provocation and came closest when Deeney met a deep Janmaat cross and headed over.

But most of the action was at our end and for the second weekend running we demonstrated our new-found defensive resilience.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a better central defensive pairing for Watford than Cathcart and Kabasele, certainly not since John McClelland left, and both were in full effect here.  But Janmaat and Holebas are suddenly solid and reliable, and the gang of four between them repelled Spurs’ albeit slightly hesitant probing.  Most spectacular was Janmaat’s diving header (“like a superhero” – Daughter 1) to cut out a cross pass beyond the far post;  most fortunate Alli’s point-blank miss when (mistakenly) flagged. Closest, a header from the same player which didn’t drop quickly enough.

“Not much in it” was occasional visitor Ian’s verdict at the break.  Me, I was glad to have gotten to the interval.

4-  Having had to man the barricades at the end of the first half, Spurs’ goal came from nothing eight minutes into the second.  A loose clearance, an aimless low cutback from Moura and a freak deflection off Doucouré that wrong-footed Foster. The sort of goal that would normally be a hammer blow.  “You don’t give away goals like that against teams like this.  It can’t be our day.  They haven’t had to do much to earn that…”.

So it speaks volumes that we fought our way back.  Not propelled by the crowd, the crowd responded ferociously to the performance but the performance came first.  Not the easy, the smart, the lucky way – coming straight back at Spurs and grabbing a goal before they’d reset themselves.  The equaliser was fifteen minutes in coming, and arrived on the back of a display that was the match of any Watford performance I’ve seen for single-mindedness, for strength of personality, and for sheer ability in the face not of a top class opponent having an off day but of a top class opponent having the initiative wrested unwillingly from their hands as they were clubbed over the head and left writhing in a ditch.  My God, we were magnificent.

We could so easily have rolled over.  So easily have… if not given up, you’d not have believed that of this side, but allowed doubts to colour our positivity.  Not for one minute.  The defence held strong and persisted in playing the ball out, allowing us to break.  The midfield were asked to chase as much as to control possession, but they won a close battle on points, whilst Troy and Andre had maybe their best twenty minutes in tandem, belligerent and tireless.  Spurs had moved us around in the first half, but it was the visitors that seemed to wilt in the sun.

Troy was an absolute monster.  Let nobody be in any doubt that we’ve got our centre forward back, all those suggestions that he’d run his race have long since been forgotten by the briefly faithless.  He chased down Davínson Sánchez on the right wing and left him on his backside.  He smacked a low, hard cross into the box, Alderweireld stuck his head out and deflected it past Vorm and off the inside of the post and crossbar.  Shortly afterwards he met Holebas’ delicious free kick and flicked a header home.

The place erupted, and we went for the kill.  Spurs were reeling, and didn’t have much of an answer.  As we lined up a corner Troy, in full beast mode now and playing off the intensity of the crowd, emptied a bottle of water over his head before returning, shoulders hunched, to the fray.  A statement, but a theatrical decoy.  Cathcart it was who leaned through unnoticed to win the game.

5- Impossibly, there were still around 15 minutes of regular play to go.  The magnitude of the spectacle had seemed to fill hours and in the insane heat with Spurs having to push on nobody was taking anything for granted.  More than one “Oh I can’t watch this” was overheard from various voices behind me.

But again, evidence of how much this team has matured, of how much more in control of this we are than the lucky chancers that many accounts have painted us.  Spurs did come at us;  Harry Winks came on (to a few witless “who”s from local intellectuals incapable of recognising a Hemel Hempstead boy and England international) and he provided a scampering, thrusting urgency.  More entertaining to Ian was the introduction of Llorente, “throwing the big lad on up front” not beyond the elite either, it seems.

But we retained control.  We held possession in the corner, we held out not merely by setting our backs squarely against the wall (tho that was needed, particularly when Kane’s header skimmed over) but by smuggling the ball off and hiding it, by not giving Spurs the chance to hurt us, by cutting off the threat at source, sub Success in another strong cameo as significant as anyone.

And then the final whistle went and we bellowed.  We screamed at the sky.  This isn’t another trophy win, a shiny adornment to a mid-table season, fine though that would be.  This was us going up against a side who, like us, had a 100% record but who, unlike us, were expected to have one.

And beating them.

And deserving it.

Bring on United.

Yooorns…………

Foster 4, Janmaat 5, Holebas 5, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 5, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra 5, Gray 4, *Deeney 5*
Subs:  Success (for Gray, 70) 4, Chalobah (for Hughes, 86), Mariappa (for Pereyra, 90), Sema, Femenía, Masina, Gomes