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Watford 0 Brighton and Hove Albion 3 (10/08/2019) 11/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- Will’s tone is earnest.  There are a number of attentive pairs of eyes focused on him.

“I think, what we should do,” he says, “is to take off all the clothes we’re wearing and burn them in a pile in the garden”.

It’s a high-risk suggestion in front of a group that includes a five year-old and a four year-old, the former of whom punches the air with a “yes” at the proposal, but you can understand the sentiment.  The afternoon’s events had been extraordinary and unprecedented.  Drastic action was warranted, all possible precautions necessitated.  My Primitives t-shirt was a lucky heirloom last season.  Who knows what rules govern this.  Let’s take no chances.

Rewind a few hours and it was all looking so positive, despite unseasonal swirling high winds.  The ground, as is becoming traditional, looks ever smarter after a summer’s work – seats in the Rookery/SEJ corner now, and big screens mounted high on the roof of the stand at each end of the pitch.  New signings Sarr and “England international” Welbeck are presented to the crowd and hysterically received, the former making his way slowly across the pitch without breaking his applause to the stands.  There are new montages on the screens, and then Z-Cars chimes in back in it’s traditional place and the cheer as the teams enter is peppered with grins and high fives and a particularly guttural roar.  Fair play to the club for being honest and brave enough to reverse a bad decision.

This positive mood projected itself into the game despite (presumably) Brighton opting to switch ends.  But only briefly.  For the first ten minutes or so Watford were on top, and if we weren’t creating clear chances then we were certainly making the early inroads, Deulofeu wandering in from the left to shoot over.  There were early portents here… more than once Femenía overlapped on the right only for the play to be channelled back into a congested central area…  this seemed odd, the Seagulls’ vulnerability surely down the side of a large three man defence with the attack-minded Solly March nominally as left wing back.

The other feature throughout was frantic closing down high up the pitch.  Both sides were at this, but it was more evident from the Hornets early on as we hunted in packs and chased the ball across Albion’s back line, looking for the opportunity to mug someone or force a rushed pass.  We did this quite successfully for a bit; Shane Duffy shanked a clearance into the SEJ, mouthed off in frustration.  Everyone cheered and all was well with the world.

Then Albion started to assert themselves.  This wasn’t really a problem, since even if they were coming rather closer than we were they were hardly opening us up.  It took an atrociously complacent straight ball out of defence by Craig Dawson, who must have hoped for a more convincing debut, which Albion gobbled up, rattled at us and ultimately forced a goal off Doucouré.  We had a bit of bad luck here, perhaps, an Albion player in an offside position bypassed by Stephens’ chipped cross, not interfering but distracting.  You’ve got to deal with that but… a bit unfortunate.  Particularly as this Albion side is well equipped to defend a lead.

2- Before we start wringing our hands at our own failings, the visitors are due no small credit.    Popular wisdom as recently as this morning was that a side that had struggled last season, particularly for goals, was taking on a manager untested at this level to overhaul the club’s playing style.  A recipe for disaster and it could still go pear-shaped, three points won’t keep them up.

But the reverse side of that coin is that if a side that was always rather good at being difficult and obstructive found a way of adding a few goals to that capability they’d have a handy side.  Once they were ahead there was only one winner;  we played our part (see below) but Albion retained their obduracy marshalled by man of the match Dunk whilst capitalising on mistakes at the other end.  That’s a fine recipe for mid table.

3- Everything we did looked like terribly hard work.  The start of the second half, with a bleach-blonde Pereyra on for the presumably not-quite-fully-fit Deulofeu, was encouraging.  Femenía was finally getting some of the ball down the right, Pereyra was taking responsibility on the left but the chances weren’t coming despite this.  Whilst there were plenty of off days – Will Hughes briefly flickered but only very briefly – the failure was tactical also.  Troy’s battle with Dunk was always wholehearted and engaging but we were talking three big centre backs against our two forwards.  Against a back three you need width or mischief and we didn’t have enough of either for long enough, much of our play was shovelled high through the congested centre of the pitch.  We struggled to retain possession, in part because Brighton were making it difficult to do so in the areas in which we were trying to play and we weren’t able to play around them.

Two goals in fifteen minutes, both borne of defensive calamity and clinical response to it, changed the tone entirely.  Andone nipped in at the near post to finish a move down Brighton’s right with Watford’s defence standing and pointing at each other.  Then Dunk played a long straight pass past a statuesque Dawson;  Foster was out quickly to challenge Maupay’s strength of will but the French debutant was sharp enough to nip around him and beat the bodies on the line.  The entire Albion side joined the bundle, the away end – as gracious as it’s reasonable to expect when 3-0 up away from home on the first day of the season – sang about winning the league.  The home stands emptied quietly and disconsolately.

4- An inevitable aside about VAR.  Rewinding back to the happy innocence of 2.55 when Daughter 1 was revelling in her one hundredth Watford game saw Daughter 2 embark on an unprovoked and unprecedented anti-VAR rant.  “Whoever invented VAR is my mortal enemy”.

A bit harsh, but difficult not to sympathise. The rabid pursuit of the Right Decision is a bizarre, cultish thing…  one otherwise reputable football blog’s twitter feed asserted, in this context, during the summer that “Football is all about getting decisions right”.  Is it bollocks.  I studied Mathematics because I liked the absoluteness of it, I liked knowing that I’d got the answer right.  But if you want absoluteness, do a maths test.  There’s no argument against making the right decision in isolation but when the cost is the nature, the momentum, the pace of the game itself then… yes, that cost is too high.

Actually the disruption provoked by VAR this afternoon was minimal; reviews seemed to occur seamlessly without the need for referee Pawson to interrupt play, there was a rather incongruous “VAR complete” announcement in the rather grandstanding “Gladiators, ready” style but nobody died.  And if reviews of Roberto Pereyra’s free kick – which appeared to strike an outstretched arm in the Brighton wall to the furious indignation of the Argentine – might have yielded a penalty after more painstaking review then that’s a sacrifice I’m personally quite happy with in the name of getting the hell on with it. Heaven knows that a foothold in the game was neither merited nor a potential route to point or three.   Elsewhere, others weren’t so lucky.

5- We had laboured our way to a few more chances, Femenía badgering possession off Dan Burn on the byline and squaring only to find a tentative finish.  Another chance, our best chance, fell to Dawson who did a far better job of slugging a shot goalwards only to be denied by a body on the line.  It had been obvious that it wasn’t our day from the point at which the first two guys trying the reintroduced dizzy kicks routine at half time scored with aplomb rather than falling on their arses as intended.  This just confirmed it.  And so at 5.30 we’re at my Gran’s conducting a post mortem wide eyed at the baffling ineptitude of it all.

On the plus side.  This isn’t a head coach that we don’t know or trust.  This isn’t a team that’s been rebuilt or lost a key component or that we have any doubts about.  Today was atrocious but we’re capable of so much better than this, even without our two new star turns.  A bad day.  But maybe that’s all.

On the minus side.  Ben Foster’s candid post-match reflection that Albion “wanted it more than we did”.  What?  What?

Not that we have any divine right to the most focused, determined single-minded side.  But why should any side be lacking in determination, lacking in wantingitness in early August?  How is that possible?  Whatever our failings… how can you lose 3-0 because the other side wanted it more on the opening day of the season?  That, if anything, is the biggest concern.

Because otherwise, other than that, all we need is another game of football.  Particularly one with it’s own narrative, with blood and thunder.  A disruptive fixture.

Ahhhhh, Everton.

Bring it on.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 1, Hughes 1, Capoue 3, *Doucouré 3*, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 2, Gray 1
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Success (for Gray, 75) 3, Janmaat, Sema, Kabasele, Cleverley, Gomes

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Manchester City 6 Watford 0 (18/05/2019) 19/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
40 comments

1- Amongst the early morning deluge of excited messages, my brother’s resonated the most.  9:30 am, “I’m here!  Erm… would anyone like a drink? (Got a bit excited and left Leeds at 4)”.  The rest of us weren’t due to be at the Railway in West Hampstead for another three and a half hours.

By which time it was rammed and unlike on our previous visit a month ago spillage onto surrounding pavements was not permitted, the first sign that Things Might Not Go Well.  It was cramped and uncomfortable, consistent with the prevailing nervous anxiety borne of anticipation of what could happen and fear of what might a few hours later.

But there’s people.  Some in sky blue, most in yellow. Strangers to share a snatched conversation, familiar people, people you’ve not seen for a while, for years, looming out of the past and sharing a word, smiling and pumping fists and then disappearing again.  Wembley Way (strictly, “The Olympic Way”), when we get there, is the same but more so.

The evangelical gentleman who looks like something from the Life of Brian, is still there hanging optimistically over a railing as he was prior to the semi final.  There’s more security here too;  more safety cordons, checks of tickets and bags that hadn’t been a complication last time and are rendered problematic by both the dissipation of our party (with me still in nervous custody of many tickets) and the Cup Final Ice Creams that Daughters 1 and 2 have demanded and which are still occupying hand space as we try to turn a carrier bag full of waterproofs into something not involving a carrier bag. Also, there’s Fuzz…

…who has dressed for the occasion and made relatively slow progress in consequence with multiple requests for selfies and media intrusion.  Next time Fuzz, get an agent.

As we make our way around the right hand side of the stadium, there’s no escaping that this is becoming rather familiar.  In part down to our (still) newly elevated status, in part due to Spurs, and in very large part due to the fact that the semi was played here too…  an exploitative nonsense that has almost become accepted and slipped behind other exploitative nonsense in the grand scheme of things.  On the subject of which, and whilst recognising that it can be painfully, lazily, stupidly easy to blame the woes of the world on a remote and intangible power-wielding entity (heaven knows…), it would be remiss not to acknowledge the disgraceful ticket prices.  Shameful.  It’s the Cup Final… it’s supposed to be a big deal, fine.  Demand is high, fine.  But that the girls’ season tickets cost a comparable amount to their cup final tickets for very decent but far from top priced seats speaks volumes about the organisational body’s sense of priorities (and that of our club, fair play to them).

2-  Abide with Me.  Anthem.  We’re at the front of the top tier, at “right back” in the first half.  As an aside, I’m advised that Z-cars got a couple of airings – during which time I was attending to assorted requirements including £2.50 for a half-litre bottle of water poured into a flimsy plastic pint glass, twice – but hurrah for that (Z-cars, not the exorbitant water).

And then, the football.

We knew it was a tall order.  No, we didn’t need to be better than Manchester City (budgets, payroll, blah blah), just to beat them on the day.  Nonetheless a tall order which, were it to be realised would need the little things to go for us.  So… most obviously, Pereyra’s chance.  We’ve started 4-5-1 and we look concentrated and organised…  yes, City are coming at us like a wave from the off but their attacks are breaking on the rocks of our defence, particularly the excellent Mariappa, and they begin to look a bit stodgy and immobile.  And then suddenly we get a break and Gerry’s off, and City are scrambling and – let’s not lose sight of this in the cloud of what’s to follow – we may not be in the same league as City but we’re still a bloody good side.  This is a devastating counter-attack, supremely executed as Pereyra has found space in the middle and Deulofeu finds him superbly.  And… there’s Ederson, out like a train.  We needed him to be asleep.  Or… we needed Pereyra to somehow flick the ball over the advancing keeper – that he didn’t is no failing, not really… it was a chance denied, not wasted, but we were going to need that to go for us.  We knew it at the time, much more so later as Guardiola would candidly acknowledge.  We score that, it’s a different game.

Then the penalty shout.  No, I don’t think it was a penalty either but it could have been, VAR or no VAR.  Kompany’s turning away from the ball but it’s not quite ball to hand.  It could plausibly have been given.  It wasn’t.  That’s another one we needed to go for us.  Doucs knows and reacts accordingly, you wonder whether this train of thought is going through the players’ heads too.

And then the opening goal.  No, not offside.  Felt it, felt like it might have been, wasn’t.  Yet another example of City’s merciless timing… right on the edge, pushing it to the limit, but onside.  And there’s a little push by Silva on Kiko – who should already have done better in an aerial contest – but nonetheless, a little push.  It’s critical, Kiko’s off balance briefly and doesn’t have time to recover.  But you don’t get those, certainly not today.

3- The first possible criticism is the apparent lack of aggression.  If you’re the underdog, if you’re in this situation then you surely want to give it some welly.  To get stuck in, to win the 50/50s.  Lack of physical competitiveness has rarely been a criticism levelled at this Watford side but… it is here.  As we rock on our heels at a second goal, expertly crafted and cruelly on top of the first it’s only Gerard Deulofeu of all people who’s getting stuck in… and briefly you’d really rather he didn’t as his waspish energy is frustrated, badly directed and precarious.

In balance, however…  that criticism has to come with caveats.  There was a clear game plan for one thing, a good one.  Sit deep, keep your shape, smother.  Jumping into tackles looks good but players with feet this quick will exploit the holes you leave behind when the challenge is dodged by a quick pass or slight of foot.  Hell, look at what happens later in the game when we push on a bit.  So…  yes.  You’d have hoped for more bullying.  More doing something to upset City.  But let’s not pretend that this was a magic bullet, that but for this everything would have been different.  There was a reason for us setting up as we did – good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, least of all against this lot.  The half ends with a show of defiance from the wonderful Holebas, who is robbed when trying to play an inswinging cross from the right and briefly we’re in trouble again… until he snarls into a challenge to critically reclaim possession having hared a third of the length of the pitch.  We’re rallied by this.  In my pocket however, misplaced during the cordon complications described earlier, the lucky chocolate has all melted.

4- The other possible criticism is that we played it too open in the second period.  That by moving from 4-5-1 to, effectively, 4-3-3 we surrendered the initiative to City, that we made it too easy for them to rip us apart on the counterattack which they promptly did.

Again, I’ve got some sympathy with the decision.  Yes, it was high risk and no, it patently didn’t work.  But for fifteen minutes of the second half we were on top, the more assertive side.  Will Hughes is scurrying everywhere, Gerry is making great sweeping runs from right to left across the face of the defence who scatter like ninepins, Troy is suddenly winning every aerial challenge.  Slightly dazed, someone whispers that City’s defence really isn’t very good, is it?  You know, good at defending?  Which sounds perverse, but… frankly they don’t need to be very good.  You’ve got to get the ball first for one thing, then you’ve got to hold onto it under the manic midfield pressing.  But if you get past that lot… they’re fallible.  Genuinely fallible.  And this is why going on the front foot is the only option.  Against perhaps any other side you’d say “look, 2-0 and we’re not out of it.  Keep it tight, grab a goal, game on”.  Here, though… you rather fancy that it was a choice between losing 3-0 and the outside possibility of tipping the balance with a high risk of things going very wrong.  And we know what happened.  But I’m pretty comfortable with the decision, still…  it’s still 2-0 after an hour and we’ve made City look uncomfortable.

4- And then they score again.  And it’s de Bruyne, out of nothing, on the break.  And it’s cruel, and what follows feels kind of inevitable, so we’ll draw a curtain over it.

Except.  Except.  Except that at 5-0, something remarkable happens.  We’ve been loud, in general, and in defiance of the scoreline.  Louder than a month ago, louder than City, the grim memory of the Palace play off now surely dismissed.  Because at 5-0 the songs start to thunder and the flags start to wave  and suddenly the away end is a torrent of yellow and red as flags get frantically waved.  I destroy two, the second of which floats down to the posh seats below as it detaches from its pole. It’s breathtaking and emotional.  All clubs boast that they have “the best support”… I’ve got a Sheffield Wednesday supporting mate who genuinely believes that the Owls’ nineteen-year absence from the top flight is the result of a conspiracy borne of the establishment’s fear of the insurmountable advantage offered by the Hillsborough crowd.

But this isn’t about “best”.  This isn’t about anyone else.  This is about pride in who and what we are, pride in what the team has achieved relative to precedent and expectation, and – most of all – about the fact that the result of one game doesn’t affect that.  As per the preview piece winning is important, but it’s very far from everything.  It’s not even the most important thing.

Digressing slightly, the same goes for Manchester City.  Better informed people than me have written extensively on the questionable source of City’s largesse.  The morality of it, the cleanliness of it, the within-the-rulesness of it.  And it’s clear that many City supporters have reacted incredibly defensively to this which… is wrong, in itself.  You should at least be able to question things objectively.  But the critical detail is in what it is that you actually support.  If some malevolent psychotic took over Watford in the future… not a Bassini, someone far far worse…  you would be uncomfortable with it, you would withdraw your custom in extremis.  But…  you’d still believe in that thing, that whatever-it-is that you support which remains unsullied by association with idiots or crooks.  The same goes for City, irrespective of what you believe of their ownership.  Their fans might revel in the magnificence of the team, but independent of that they believe in a Thing, their Thing.  Quite right too.  It transpires (see below) that the defiance in the Watford end, which continues unabated throughout the sixth goal, is met with a standing ovation from the Sky Blue end.  Well done everyone, the 1881 not least.

5- It takes bloody ages to get out.  I miss our medals, and the trophy, as daughter 2 has an urgent requirement… karma has long since left the building, but nonetheless she’s pretty desperate.  A fair old slog later we’re getting on a Thameslink train at West Hampstead in need of somewhere for a quiet, brief sulk.

So being greeted by loud cheers from three beered-up fifty-something Luton fans on the adjacent table was something that we could have done without.  In the event it could have gone far worse… one of them even passed on the Cup Final programme that he’d acquired from somewhere to daughter 2, whilst awkwardly warning me to erase the expletives that adorned the yellow-and-black side of the cover.  They exited at Luton Airport Parkway, and we finally got our quiet sulk.

But really…  is there that much to sulk about?  Being Watford’s a fine thing, even if we did get humped in the Cup Final.  We’re stable, secure.  Mid-table in the top flight of all things, going into our fifth consecutive season at the top table.

And “another 35 years”?  That kind of logic only holds any water if you believe this to be a random process.  Like… the roll of a dice, the toss of a coin.  A chance event determined only by probability.  That’s not reality, our relative success, undoubted success compared to our historical peers, isn’t random… it’s based on the decisions and the actions of all sorts of very good, very competent people.  All of these things change the odds, affect the outcome.

We didn’t win this time.  Next time might be different, and it might be soon.

Enjoy the summer.

Yooorns.

Gomes 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 4, *Hughes 4*, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Success (for Pereyra, 66) 3, Gray (for Deulofeu, 66) 2, Cleverley (for Hughes, 73) 2, Janmaat, Masina, Kabasele, Foster

Chelsea 3 Watford 0 (05/05/2019) 06/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- This is going to sound absurd… but I’m beginning to wonder whether a lifetime’s worth of accumulated superstition has really got very much going for it.

I know, I know.  I’ve been turning the rational arguments over and over inside my head…  “It would have been so much worse if I hadn’t…” and so forth.  And logic dictates that this must true.  Nonetheless…  when a day’s dutiful parentage on Saturday in deliberate avoidance of football scores is rewarded by watching Wolves and bloody West Ham win on Match of the Day in an abandoned, darkened living room at midnight.  When the carefully measured decision to walk from Blackfriars to Stamford Bridge on the south bank of the Thames for the most part (the north bank walk having been unrewarded by our FA Cup defeat four years ago) is met with such a disappointing outcome.  Ditto lucky hornet socks, lucky Pretenders t-shirt.

When lucky half-time lucky chocolate, that most dependable of precautions, is rewarded by an unheralded burst of both energy and goals from our hosts at the onset of the second half…  well.  You have to begin to wonder how much influence one has on the outcome of a football match after all.

I’m sure I’ll regain some perspective by next week.

2- To be fair, and as was reflected by a venerable Chelsea panel in the tube afterwards, we started the game as unlike a side preoccupied with the Cup Final as it’s possible to imagine.  We were lively, assertive and direct, pinning the home side back with some verve and energy.

Troy helps, of course.  Troy always helps.  Pre-match speculation considered the possibility that he’d been kept in a cage for a fortnight, fed on raw meat and forced to ponder the consequences of his reckless if harshly punished forearm swing.  Either he was going to pummel Chelsea’s threadbare defence into the ground or get himself sent off (again).

Actually he did neither, but this was still a dominant 45 minutes for the centre forward.  The first chance, his flick on to Deulofeu who drove wide, was painfully easy against a flabby, dozy Chelsea and he had the beating of Christensen in the air for most of the game and certainly the half.  The footnote, as ever, is that we didn’t capitalise on our early superiority, as you’ll have noticed… a recurring theme against the top sides.  Set aside that spanking at Anfield and the win over Spurs and you have ten games (ten!) that to varying degrees has seen us compete in a close game that we’ve lost anyway.  Certainly Stamford Bridge regulars will have enjoyed our visits in recent years… everybody likes a plucky loser, this the third game on the trot here that we’ve worn that mantle.

Troy’s best attempt was the closest we came to altering that narrative, a short corner routine working the ball back to the lurking Holebas, whose near-post missile found Deeney’s forehead.  It wasn’t just top corner it was past the goalkeeper, until he athletically clawed it onto the post by, unconventionally, reaching up to it with his “furthest” left arm from underneath it.  A fine stop.

3- Meanwhile, Nathaniel Chalobah has finally engineered a start and fittingly it’s at Stamford Bridge whose denizens greet him almost as appreciatively as we do and applaud him off on his substitution an hour or so later (but see “plucky loser” note above).  It’s easy to forget that the Doucouré/Chalobah midfield partnership was the foundation of our fine start under Marco Silva last season (Caps managed only half an hour off the bench before Nate’s knee injury) and here, finally, it was resurrected.

And not quite to the same devastating effect.  Nate is more than adequate on the ball… tidy, efficient, and with an ability to take a touch and launch a quick and wrong-footing pass that only he had spotted that is unparalleled in our squad.  Off the ball however…  Capoue is a daunting benchmark to measure him against, but too often he was found chasing an escaping opponent as the home side gradually came into the match in the last fifteen minutes of the half.  Marco Silva’s early midfield had the ferreting Tom Cleverley at its apex too of course; Nate’s been out a while but the pairing looked less robust than we have of late.

Chelsea had provided threat on the break earlier in the half.  Mapps capped a strong 45 minutes with a sturdy challenge to deny the rotund Argentine, his near-post block even denying a corner.  As the home side asserted more control it was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, an early sub for the injured Kanté, who drove them on but although your heart was in your mouth whenever Hazard picked the ball up we were largely comfortable.  Only Pedro’s late sledgehammer of a shot caused palpitations;  we were buoyant at half-time after good halves from the bubbly Hughes and the assertive Femenía in particular.

4- I tempted fate at the break by tweeting about how much fun we were all having.  Five minutes in and we weren’t having fun at all;  a visibly more energised, vigorous Chelsea side engineered a couple of set pieces and suddenly the game was disappearing over the horizon.  So unwarranted and so frustrating.  Unwarranted… not because you don’t deserve to concede goals when you don’t pick people up at set pieces but more because this miserably indolent Chelsea side and similarly dozy support had done so little to earn it whilst our best efforts went unrewarded.  No, I know that’s not how it works.

Again, there’s an angle which says “so we binned it.  At 2-0 down we shrugged and let our minds drift forward a couple of weeks”.  I didn’t see that. No lack of effort anyway, no lack of commitment on or off the pitch; a couple of minutes of sulking and we were back at it.  Certainly Abdoulaye Doucouré has had better games, games that didn’t involve him being quite so slack with possession.  Certainly Will Hughes was less impactful in the second half than the first; that’s a recurring theme though, one that pre-dates the semi final and that doesn’t generally include a running spat with Marcos Alonso that a lesser referee than the excellent and unfussy Tierney might have penalised.

But no lack of effort.  Just effectiveness.  And frankly nothing we didn’t already know here… our midfield, shorn of its most effective component, still looks excellent, our full backs are tremendous, our attacking play has lots of nice things going for it but a clinical touch isn’t one of them… Deulofeu shoots narrowly wide, Jose Holebas bundles across the area before slugging over with his weaker right foot.  And certainly we could do with strengthening at centre half, where the dependable Craig Cathcart is suddenly less so for the first time this season;  giving Higuain the half-hour’s head start required to get beyond you takes some doing, his finish was exemplary and then, yes, our heads did drop.  When the mercurial Pereyra slung a cross in only for our own man to block it inadvertently on the line and subs Success and Gray contrive to get an offside call out of turning in the rebound, you knew it wasn’t our day.

5- I’m minded to think back to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s World Cup campaigns in 2002 and 2006.  Not that, in the grand scheme of things I cared all that much… I mean, give me the choice between an England World Cup win and the consequent witless nationalistic outpouring and, you know, Watford winning a throw-in in a pre-season friendly and the throw-in is in strong contention.

Nonetheless.  Both campaigns saw England knocked out in the quarter finals and thus having come somewhere between fifth and eighth in the World, and both were presented and reported as failures, at least in the immediate aftermath.  Patently nonsense.  Patently grotesequely oversimplified nonsense, as if there really is nothing but winning and (anything less than winning equals) losing.  Quarter Final defeat was not what had been hoped from a strong squad but it was no worse than par.

The same is true here.  It was already clear before today that we weren’t going to finish seventh, but seventh was merely the peak of our ambitions in the League this season and not making it doesn’t make it a failure.  Even ignoring that May 18th thing, mid-table in the Premier League and all the fun we’ve had on the way isn’t a bad place to be.

Which doesn’t mean it’s enough.  Doesn’t mean we’re bashfully appreciating our seat at the big table, still grateful for the crumbs being thrown our way. But there’s space for recognising progress.  After all, to get too het up about losing seventh place, let alone losing to Chelsea, would suggest that we believed that this was an isolated opportunity.  That our club’s presence in the top half all season is as anomalous and inexplicable as much of those commenting with their fingers up their backsides believe it to be.

That the club isn’t being run by people who will continue to build and nurture it along its current trajectory.

Ha.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, *Femenía 4*, Holebas 3, Cathcart 2, Mariappa 3, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Cleverley (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Gray (for Deeney, 83) 0, Success (for Deulofeu, 83) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Masina, Gomes

Watford 1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (27/04/2019) 28/04/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
30 comments

1- Probably best to start off by stating what should be obvious.  There is absolutely no justification in being anything but delighted with this season.   With the unflinching trajectory of the club, league position, cup final, stadium, team, head coach, and so on.  None at all.

Nonetheless.  Me writing this report is the equivalent of Charlie Austin being interviewed at the end of the game at St Mary’s earlier in the season, presumably when his press officer had nipped to the loo or something.  I could really do with a day or so to get things into perspective such that I could put some feeling into the words above, say them with my heart as well as my head.  Thing is, if I don’t write it now this one’s going to go the same way as the abandoned Huddersfield report, such is life unfortunately.

(Seeing as we lost, based on previous evidence, none of you buggers are going to be reading this anyway so it doesn’t much matter what I write I guess.  I could wander off into any number of alternative topics and see whether anyone notices.  I’ve got a new patio, how’s that?  And I’m watching Quicksand on Netflix which is great, and reading a book on the History of Germany which is better. No?)

Suffice to say I’m pissed off.  I know it’s not fair or balanced, but I’m in a sulk.  And only partly because of the knowledge that having wondered, at 2-0 down at Wembley, how my co-editor always manages to dodge the miserable ones in allocation of blogging duties.  A legendary finish (mine) and two underwhelming home games later (his), there was something karmic about this one.

2- Not that it was unexpected, in all honesty.  A more limited team than Wolves exposed our lack of a target man on Tuesday night to good effect, today was hardly going to be any different.  Amidst all the pondering about Which Team Is Equipped For Europe (media consensus: Not Watford, obviously), the fact that we have excellent cover throughout most of the side whilst Wolves have fielded the same eleven for much of the season has been missed.

Nonetheless, the player we could least afford to lose for, effectively, four games was Troy.  He’s the one.  Not the best player in the side, perhaps, but the one we are least equipped to cope without.  It was harsh, yes, the red card.  He made it possible too, undoubtedly.  Equally beyond doubt that, like Ben Foster and Craig Cathcart he’s well, well in credit.  “People who do things make mistakes”.  We’ve paid heavily for this one…  at least three points across the four games by any reasonable reckoning.

So, the welcome return of the mad Greek bastard at left back notwithstanding, there was a sense of trepidation before kick off as the vicious wind whipped around the stadium, holding up the flags and threatening to carry Daughter Two away.  We should have had the psychological edge of course… after all, we won the bloody semi final, not to mention that fine victory at Molineux earlier in the season.  Three of our five goals against Wolves before today made it into the twice-repeated reel of Goal of the Season contenders… the fourth would have been my choice, given the option.

But from the moment that a Wolves fan on Vicarage Road turned his back on the ground pre-game, stuck his arms in the air, raised his head to the skies and bellowed “Two-nil, and we f***ed it oop!” the boot was on the other foot.

And that’s before we even get to the lack of Z-cars…

3- The line being drawn between the dismissal of Z-cars as the run-out tune and our subsequent run of one point from three home games is clearly a nonsense.  Nonetheless, and irrespective of whether for you, individually,  Z-cars is a bizarre anachronism whose removal is either overdue or an irrelevance, or something that matters deeply, something that is evocative of matchday and that subconsciously sets your spine tingling, the decision to switch it now, at this stage, was a particularly witless one.

As the teams run out you want to rouse the crowd.  What you don’t want is grown men gently booing at each other, albeit with smiles on their faces, or expletives peppering the applause.  It doesn’t need to piss everyone off to be disruptive.  For those who miss it, it kicks off the game with resentment and negativity.  Not the way to inspire noisy support at a critical time of the season.

Football?  Oh, OK then.

3- It’s a very even, competitive game throughout and played to a very high standard albeit one we’ve gotten used to.  There’s a certain caginess about the first half in particular… certainly no suggestion that we’re going to pile forward and invite Wolves to counter-attack, as is their wont.  Wolves, in fact, have more possession early on but we have perhaps the best chance as Deulofeu scampers through but declines to shoot on his weaker foot and the chance goes.

The swirling wind is making life interesting at both ends;  Andre Gray does a better job of holding the ball up, opting for flick-ons and spins rather than taking on the monstrous Boly in a physical battle, whilst Mariappa marshalls our own dogged and disciplined backline.

Clear chances, shots on goal, are few and far between.  It really isn’t that sort of game at all.  Boistrous and engaging yes.  Thrill a minute, no.  Not until half an hour in was there a serious goalscoring chance, Jiménez coming close to scoring but for an insane goalline clearance from the peerless Capoue, who stomped all over the midfield for much of the game.  Rúben Neves chased referee Simon Hooper back up the pitch in remonstration and should probably have been booked for sheer stupidity.

But eventually Wolves did get the lead, and in common with the other two goals in the game it was essentially a cock-up, Pereyra failing to adequately contest a ball on the edge of the box, Jota capitalising and Jiménez tucking home.  As on Tuesday Andre Gray had the chance to equalise almost immediately and again he didn’t take it, a great first touch seeming to take him clear before he lashed a hurried shot wide when he appeared to have time to take it in on goal.  Half time, grumbling.  The girls are both exhausted and miserable.

4- So the gift at the start of the second half was most welcome.  There’s something to be read into the fact that so many were still in the bowels of the stand and missed it, both daughters included…  one minute Wolves are knocking it airily around the back line, the next Gerard Deulofeu is being presented with a red carpet to goal.  He doesn’t quite capitalise, but he does enough… Andre Gray tucks in the rebound to the Spaniard’s blocked shot.

And for a while it was all a lot of fun. Like when you were at school and a disciplinarian teacher nips off to the staff room to pick up something he’s forgotten and the class runs riot in his absence, here both sides suddenly abandoned the shackles and went for each other.  This should have suited Wolves of course, this is What They Do…. but actually we looked more of a threat on the counter than the visitors did.  For all their defensive organisation they really don’t like being run at, and we did plenty of that;  twice we had shouts for a penalty kick, the first of which provoking particularly animated protests from Will Hughes and Deulofeu after the former went down on the edge of the box.  Difficult to see from our angle.

So it felt as if fate had been kind to us.  Given us a break, and we were making the most of it.  A more open game, yes, and we were far from all over them, of course but… the better side.  In the ascendency.  In spite of grim portents and a limited first half, seventh placed was looming back into view.

5- Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Heaven knows Javi has proven his mettle with tactical surgery countless times this season.  But on any level this change was odd…   removing the energetic Hughes to bring in an extra centre back.  A conservative move, aimed at making us more solid and matching up Wolves’ formation but…  given that we were on top, an odd choice leaving Gracia open to criticism, particularly as it was followed so closely by the decisive goal.  Perhaps it played no part, perhaps the fact that Jota was afforded so much space to apply a finish after Foster flapped at Neves’ fine deep cross was nothing to do with altered formations but the wheels had visibly spun off in the brief period between the sub and the goal.  We were suddenly losing control of a game that we had previously been more than competing in.

6- A second change followed, changing the formation again.  I’ve since read suggestions that Cathcart limped off – self-evidently we could do without that.  Either way we went back to a flat back four, (or three, since Christian Kabasele spent the brief kitchen-sinky bit as a surrogate centre forward).  It never looked like happening.

As an aside, one has to ponder on the future of both Isaac Success and Nathaniel Chalobah.  The former stuffed up possession immediately after his introduction and vanished thereafter, bereft of confidence;  I would have had him front and centre rather than wide having helped turn the tide from that position after another late introduction on Tuesday simply by virtue of knocking people over.  As for Chalobah… fitness questions or no he’s not only fallen behind both Cleverley and Quina, he’s not being seen as an option when he’s on the bench and we need something, his propensity for a quick clever pass not trusted.  This strikes me as a crying shame.

7- So… from a position where seventh was in our control we are now needing snookers, and dropping into the bottom half at the expense of West Ham a likelier outcome, another crying shame.  Fortunately Javi’s post-match reflections were defiant enough to suggest that we’re not binning off the rest of the League programme just yet.  Hurrah, and so forth.  I’ll be bloody-minded and positive again by the time Stamford Bridge comes around. Promise.

As for Z-cars…  well it does matter to me, as you’ve probably gathered.  I’m in that camp.  Because… whilst it obviously matters far less than, you know, us actually being good at football I almost feel I could cope without the latter to a greater extent?  Because… the ups and downs are kind of how it’s always been and much as I love us being great, love us being as great as we are, I know I can cope with us being a bit shit too because we’ve all been there.  I don’t wish it, far from it, and I know that just like Troy and Ben and Craig the club are well in credit and have done lots more right than wrong…  but Z Cars is part of the pillar that’s a constant.  The pillar that I lean and rely on, as so many of us do.  So it feels more permanent and painful when it’s taken away.

So I’ll close with a picture that sums up another part of that constant pillar.  It would, should have been a cornerstone of that Huddersfield report but, you know, stuff happens.

See you at Chelsea.  Yoooorns.

 

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 3, Hughes 3, *Capoue 5*, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Gray 3
Subs: Kabasele (for Hughes, 74) 2, Success (for Cathcart, 82) 0, Janmaat, Sema, Chalobah, Masina, Gomes

Watford 1 Southampton 1 (23/04/2019) 24/04/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
17 comments

0. Look, we might as well be up front about it: this isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as the Arsenal report. If you want to go and read that again instead of sticking around here, I won’t blame you. Might even join you in a while. The problem with Arsenal is that they make everything else seem a bit less worthy of scorn; it becomes that much more difficult to be disdainful about other things and really mean it. (And I’m still writing about them now, you see. And that’s essentially because writing about them makes me happy in a way that, with all due deference, writing about Southampton never will. And writing about this game definitely won’t.)

1. Southampton were a thing a while back, if you recall. It’s tempting – because, hey, I’m trying, even though it’s gone midnight and there’s a really bloody irritating metallic rattle on this train carriage – to come up with some kind of mid-life crisis metaphor for their recent dalliances, for the series of bad-tempered implosions that’ve taken them from being Other Cup finalists to relegation strugglers. Except that a mid-life crisis usually involves wildness and impulse and a quest for lost youth, whereas Southampton rather went about it the other way, selling their collection of sports cars and investing in a series of grey second-hand hatchbacks, including one with rather a lot of miles on the clock and a really annoying whining noise when it goes round corners. Succession planning is so vital these days; the time when lining up a manager’s replacement was considered to be poor form has long gone. We can’t claim to have got it right every time ourselves, of course, but…Mark Hughes. I mean…Mark Hughes. You know? Mark Hughes.

It’s quite nice to see them vaguely enjoying themselves again, if I’m honest. Up to a point, anyway. Kindred spirits are pretty hard to find in the Premier League. It’s like one of those networking events where you scan the room desperately looking for a friendly face; you know that Burnley are going to be there and you don’t want to get stuck listening to them grumbling all evening. You know that someone’s going to mistake you for Bournemouth too. Again. And that Everton are going to steal your nice new coat if you don’t keep an eye on it. You can fill in the rest of the metaphor yourselves, if you wish. There’ll be a prize for the best one. (There won’t.)

It’d be pushing the point to claim any great likeness with Southampton, for our underlying approaches are very different, and our histories too, but you’d be happy enough to chat with them over a mushroom vol-au-vent if you had to. It’s hard to wish them significant ill, which is a rare quality among our competitors. They do their level best to change that situation over the course of this particular evening, but I’m a forgiving sort and I’ll let it go.

2. I spent Monday afternoon in a crowd of eight hundred or so watching Hastings take on Ashford. Third versus fourth, four goals, one red card, an outfield player in goal, a street drumming troupe, a large and rowdy away contingent with a lot of inflatables, and a five-year-old with a grievance to air about the length of the queue for chips. For a while, Ashford attacked a goal with an inflatable, um, lady perched atop its netting. It was fun, in that way Hastings has of suggesting that things might tip over into total anarchy without very much of a nudge. Vicarage Road seems rather ordered and genteel by comparison, especially as there’s barely anyone here with ten minutes to go. It gradually fills up. Everyone needs to get a move on, though, as there’s about to be a….

3. Goal. Southampton arrive having done that annoying thing of being absolute bobbins only three days ago, thereby making us the object of their “reaction”. Even they can’t have dreamt of being gifted the opener within eight seconds, Craig Cathcart too slow to control and clear the ball, Shane Long smothering, racing clear and lifting a nonchalant finish into the top corner.

There isn’t anything else to say about it. There’s nothing to analyse, no context to place it in. We find ourselves in the novel position of being a goal down without having played any football. The game remains a blank canvas. The needle has still to hit the record. The fat lady’s alarm clock hasn’t even gone off. We haven’t even put in planning permission for the stable, let alone built it, let alone put a horse in it, let alone…oh, you get the idea.

There’s the usual grumbling and grousing, of course, but we haven’t yet found out how we’re actually playing, that’s my point. We kick off again, and were it not for the jubilant away section, you might easily believe that you’d imagined the whole thing.

(And no, it isn’t a bloody record. Not a proper one, anyway. Football didn’t start in 1992. And yes, I would still be saying that if we’d scored it.)

4. For ten minutes or so, we react exactly as you’d hope. We get the ball down, seek a rhythm, pretend that it’s still goalless. We have, after all, still got eighty-nine minutes and fifty-two seconds to get ourselves level and beyond. It’s true that we’ll spend about a third of that watching Southampton fannying about over throw-ins and goal kicks, but even so, no reason to panic just yet.

We ought to be level almost immediately, as Will Hughes’ cross finds Andre Gray; his finish is unconvincing, though, and Gunn is able to save. The next step up, should we make it, involves those kind of chances going in on a more regular basis: for all our failings here, we’d have won this with more ruthless finishing. Undeservedly so, of course, but the league table doesn’t care about that. It’s like a money box; it’ll accept other kids’ lunch money without judgement. Gerard Deulofeu curls narrowly wide from the left of the area. We’re doing fine. It’ll come.

5. It doesn’t come. Gradually, steadily, we stop doing fine. It becomes Southampton’s game, one in which they sit deep and invite us to choose between playing through a clogged midfield or lobbing it long to the ghost of Troy Deeney, and then hit us on the break when whichever of those options we pick inevitably and repeatedly fails. They look a very capable side, well-organised and punchy; Ralph Hasenhüttl has them in far better shape than their league position suggests, even if he does look like someone who’d try to get a bit too familiar with your wife on a skiing holiday. (I’ve never been on a skiing holiday, but I know what goes on.)

We disintegrate somewhat. And then we disintegrate some more. Long heads wide, then Long heads over, then Ben Foster makes a full-stretch save to push away a Redmond cross-shot; those two are a menace, quick and direct, and we can’t contain them, especially on the left side of our back four where Masina and Cathcart suddenly look like giraffes on rollerskates. Masina gets the wrong side of Long and when the ball comes across to Redmond, he’s herded wide by Foster and hits the outside of the post. The same bit of woodwork is struck again by Bertrand shortly afterwards after we’re undone on that side once more, and a half that began with a bit of a mishap has really been allowed to get completely out of hand. Abdoulaye Doucouré gets beaten on the wing and simply hacks his man down.

Deulofeu twists, turns and drives narrowly wide, but the sight of Deeney making his way around the touchline towards the dressing room speaks volumes; it isn’t his leadership we lack, in truth, but his sheer physical presence. Or both. It’s probably both. Whatever, Southampton are increasingly comfortable.

6. Javi Gracia acts at half-time, matching the visitors by switching to a back three via the withdrawal of Cathcart. To be more accurate, it’s a back one: Christian Kabasele plus whoever happens to be around to help out. The result is that so many players end up ‘taking one for the team’ that it’s quite hard to keep track of whether there’s anyone left who can do a shift rugby-tackling a Southampton forward. Mike Dean doesn’t struggle to thrust himself into the spotlight, put it that way. It isn’t pretty. It’s just about effective, though, in keeping us in the contest in spite of increasing numbers being committed forward. For all the threat of a break, Foster is only called into action once, beating away a Ward-Prowse free kick.

The obvious lack of a target man remains, and impatience grows at the reluctance to introduce Isaac Success. We’re forced into the long ball much more than we’d like, with predictably indifferent results; Andre Gray is not involved at all for long periods, Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu run into dead-ends in positions too deep to be truly threatening. Southampton are on the defensive, unquestionably. Equally unquestionably, though, they remain comfortable. The difficulty is that no amount of squeezing our eyes tight shut and wishing really hard will turn Isaac Success into an effective line-leader. The substitution ought to be a no-brainer, given the pattern of the game. But it isn’t. It’s a brainer. Unwilling to sacrifice a player who’s actively involved, we wait. And we wait.

7. But sometimes, it isn’t really about what you do. Sometimes, it’s just about being there. When the substitution is finally made, Success wins little, does little. But he’s there, and the shift in gravity is subtle but tangible. We are dragged forward, Southampton are pushed further back. The ball begins to fall to Pereyra and Deulofeu in areas that spark their interest a little more. And Southampton are suddenly a little less comfortable.

And through all of this, we’ve kept our heads. We haven’t played very well. Haven’t played very well at all, lacking both fluency and intensity in comparison with our opponents. (I don’t want to get carried away here, for I’ve seen a lot worse, against a lot worse.) But we’ve stayed in the contest, just about. We’re still at the races, even if we’ve spent much of the time in the queue for the toilets. We’ve avoided turning this into the game in which we’re buried on the break; we’ve avoided turning it into the one in which we’re down to ten men too.

We waste what appears to be a key chance, Pereyra scuffing a feeble shot at the keeper with a couple of minutes left. That looked like it was the moment, gone. But then the ball drops to Andre Gray and he squeezes it into the top corner past Gunn and we have ourselves a very valuable point. Not one that you’d want to look upon with any great pride, but still. With one last effort, we avoid turning this into the game where we concede another in injury time and lose anyway.

8. It’s a funny old night, really. Funny old game, funny old night. The celebration of the imminent Elton John biopic is rather awkward and misjudged, at least in parts. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of half-time nonsense, especially with John Barnes involved and some season tickets up for grabs. It isn’t my cup of tea, but we all find our fun in different ways and we often find other people’s fun a bit cringeworthy.

The pre-match banner, though, makes me recoil. It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: what the 1881, with the club’s support, have achieved is nothing short of staggering. The atmosphere at Vicarage Road is transformed, springing from a source of genuine positivity even when things aren’t going to plan; we should take our hats off to everyone involved in making that happen. It also goes without saying that we are in eternal debt to Elton John. And last on the list of disclaimers: it also goes without saying that there are countless reasons to applaud those currently running the club.

But the Rookery is not an advertising hoarding for hire; it isn’t a giant projection screen. Something was lost last night, and it was the sense of something being built from the ground up, of a community expressing itself. We’re here because we’re Watford fans; that’s what binds us together, it’s what divides us sometimes too. Nothing else.

It isn’t like Elton needs our help with something that he’s cobbled together himself and posted up on Bandcamp. Paramount Studios are not a DIY punk collective. Let’s not kid ourselves: this is a corporate promotion campaign.

So, no. Perhaps it all comes from good intentions, but…no.

And we’ll have Z-Cars back too, please.

*Foster 4*, Masina 2, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 3, Janmaat 3, Doucouré 2, Hughes 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Femenia (for Cathcart, 45) 3, Success (for Hughes, 77) 3, Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
15 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5- Bollocks to five thunks, by the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never in doubt.

Enjoy it boys and girls.

Yoooorns.

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

 

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

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

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

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

But for some reason nobody told the team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the next one.  Yooooorns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2- Nobody disappointed. Nobody short-changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring it on. Yoooorns.

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

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cup run’d be good, though, eh?

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