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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoorns.

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And beating them.

And deserving it.

Bring on United.

Yooorns…………

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

 

Watford 2 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 (11/08/2018) 12/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- Twitter is a fine thing in many respects.  The immediacy of information in easily digestible chunks, the accessibility of opinion.  The availability of independent points of view, not merely a government line or that of a particular newspaper or broadcaster.

But it has its downsides also.  The “echo chamber” is by far the most pernicious… the natural tendency to follow the feeds and to listen to the voices that you agree with whilst screening out any opposing point of view.  The BBC are often criticised (not always unreasonably) for their insistence on balance without judgement, but here’s an alternative at the other extreme:  the only voices you hear are those that reflect your opinion, and therefore your opinion is polarised and reinforced by the illusion of consensus.  Added to this is the fact that the only dissenting voices you do hear are the extreme ones, the ones retweeted and argued with:  “have you heard this idiot?”.  No moderation.  No balance.

In a football context, nobody who has wandered into Twitter’s feral wasteland should be under any illusions about the tendency for extreme positions to gain traction.  A tiresome shoutiness seems to be the default, and our limited transfer activity despite plenty of rumour in the dying days of the window were enough to upset some.  You’d think that Scott Duxbury and the Pozzos were somehow untried chancers, that they hadn’t earned a degree of trust with this sort of stuff.

The revelation that our starting eleven today would feature the same ten outfielders as the last day of last season – the wonderfully, hysterically welcomed Ben Foster for Karnezis the only change – was greeted with further derision. The untested attractions of Marc Navarro and Adam Masina deemed instantly and scoffably preferable to Daryl Janmaat and Jose Holebas. Reminding me of how I explained to my mate Joe in early 1988 how Stuart Rimmer was going to score the goals to save us from relegation. The Law of Other. Joe was scornful too, but I was only fifteen in my defence…

Meanwhile our visitors had also refrained from drafting in many of their summer recruits – only one, in fact, the full back Bernardo, beyond who only one further change was made to the starting eleven fielded by the Seagulls in this fixture almost a year ago last season.  Their biggest buys waited on an impressive looking bench.

2- Let’s not piss about with this.  We were really, really good.  Dynamic, energetic, organised and motivated.  Pressing high, working together, very quickly and obviously with the number of our visitors (of whom more later).  Early in the game Albion were suggesting a threat – we had the more possession, but a left wing cross floated too close to Glenn Murray’s head, and Dale Stephens sent a volley narrowly wide.

But the action was at the other end of the pitch where Troy and Andre Gray revelled in the forgotten attractions of a 4-4-2.  Whilst neither got on the scoresheet both looked thoroughly at ease with the other’s presence;  Gray it was who recorded the first shot on target, haring after a ball over the top and impressively holding off a tentative defender to snap a shot that Ryan did well to parry.    Later Troy had perhaps a better chance but the ball got stuck under his feet, he forced Ryan into another good stop but should maybe not have given him that chance.

Our ever-increasing dominance however was based in our midfield, from which the prodigious talents of Chalobah, Cleverley and Deulofeu remain absent.  Doucouré too looked ring-rusty, understandably – but what a joy to still see him in a Hornets’ shirt.  Capoue continued where he left off last season with the sort of focused performance that Gracia seems to have coaxed more regularly than his predecessors.

But it was the wide men who stole the show.  Will Hughes remains an absolute joy, simultaneously quick-footed, quick-minded and tenacious;  he’s as likely to tiptoe through Albion’s forest of space-denying legs as he is to scythe into it and whistle away with the ball.  And Pereyra, of course.  He was the out-ball throughout, prominent before Bruno’s removal through injury and all over Bernardo, tying him in knots from a position often close to the touchline.  There remains a doubt, a concern that we are well manned in midfield, that we have 18 senior non-home grown players, that Pereyra has been linked with a return to Italy all summer.  You desperately hope that he’s still here come September, for his ability to conjure something up as much as for, say, the technique and power evident in the opening goal which he clubbed through Ryan’s outstretched palm.

3- In many respects the question on Brighton is quite how bad they were, versus how bad we made them look.  The goal is an example…  someone should have been keeping an eye on Pereyra but he arrived late to fill the space on the edge of the box vacated by decoy runs to the near post.  Yes, Albion were dozy but we forced the issue.  Similarly in midfield, Albion were overrun and perhaps even complacent but it was in the face of our relentless and disciplined pressing that it crumpled.  When we broke, particularly in the first half having regained possession deep we hurtled through the midfield;  there’s maybe a concern that we didn’t capitalise but with Deulofeu’s pace and Chalobah’s awareness to return you’ve got to fancy us away from home.

Albion’s two second half subs, Yves Bissouma and Alireza Jahanbakhsh had both been linked to the Hornets in previous windows;  both suggested better things to come for the visitors.  Bissouma’s squirrelling run resulted in a shot that squeezed outside the post; he looked terrific, if immature and easily riled;  Jahanbakhsh had less of an impact but made a couple of aggressive runs down the right flank.

High on the of Albion’s culprits was Anthony Knockaert. His limited charm not enhanced by a bizarre metallic bleached haircut, he was a parody of himself.  Careless with possession throughout, he reprised his most notorious dive of five years ago with a very similar flop in a very similar position;  only the most blinkered in the away end appealed, most – including the rest of the Albion side – turned away in disdain.  Knockaert, again, was complicit in the second Watford goal which saw Holebas win the confrontation that released Pereyra to score his stock goal by cutting inside ad curling a shot around Ryan.

4- Perhaps the most telling contrast between the two sides was in the defending.  Albion’s central duo are rightly lauded, but it’s all about crowding and smothering, getting a block in, getting a head to something.  They’re very good at it, but it has an air of desperation and lack of control about it.  This is starkly different to the utter composure of Cathcart and Kabasele;  the latter had to make one forty yard dash to snuff out a threat but otherwise it was a masterclass of being-in-the-right-place defending.  Tougher challenges to come, but this again looks as strong a centre-back pairing as we’ve had for many years.  The one concern remains their ability to manage a physical confrontation since neither is massive for a player in their position, but Glenn Murray got precisely nowhere today.

5- So there we are.  Having managed the end of the game with absolute comfort the whistle went and our first opening day win in the top flight since football was invented in 1992 was secured.  One game, obviously, against a team that were terrible away from home last season.  It wasn’t perfect…  we could have, should have scored more.  But no Hornets will have left Vicarage Road concerned or disappointed.

And quite aside from that, from the mere detail of an inspiring and gutsy home win, football’s back.  Hurrah for that.  Hurrah for all the Other Bits… the pre-match meal.  The saying hello to everyone (“Do you realise this is our twentieth season in these seats” – yeah, thanks a bunch Pete), the gorgeous addition to the pre-match montage in which Rita Taylor turns towards the statue of her late, great husband.  The good-natured crowd sharing moments as a stream of folk took their turn for a pic next to the statue.  Four year-old nephew Jacob, witnessing his second home game and first win, gently singing “Abdoulaye Doucouré’s egg” at his great-grandma’s house as the excitement of the game segues into his dinner.  All brilliant.

Winning helps, obvs.  But football’s back, and it’s great.  Bring it on.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Hughes 5, Doucouré 3, Capoue 4, *Pereyra 5*, Gray 4, Deeney 3

Subs: Success (for Gray, 75) 3, Sema (for Hughes, 81) 0, Femenía (for Pereyra, 87) 0, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina, Gomes

Watford 2 Newcastle United 1 (05/05/2018) 06/05/2018

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
13 comments

1. On the walk down to my office, there’s an old lamppost. It’s at the bottom of one of Hastings’ many steep hills, as a footpath meets a busy road. So many people have used it to stop their descent before they reach the road that its black paint has worn away to the silver metal at hand-height. All those hands reaching out over all those years. It gives me a sense of contentment in the same way as the small wooden step into our kitchen, which has been worn to a gentle, undulating curve by a hundred years of footsteps. Things that don’t change much. Things that have no need of much change. Things with their own quiet stories.

It’s tempting to say that so much has changed at Vicarage Road since I first visited it as a seven-year-old that I wouldn’t recognise it, but I’m not quite sure that’s true. Part of the wonder of football grounds is how much they and their environs can change to keep pace with the times while retaining the same essential shape and familiarity. The same roads, the same pavements, the same street corners; the same journey home, literally and metaphorically. Different buildings in the same spaces, filling in tightly between the pitch and the surrounding roads. I could still hazard a guess at the spot somewhere near the top of Occupation Road where I stood on that first visit, completely transfixed by the photograph on the programme cover, my first real memory of going to football. I don’t imagine I’d be far out.

2. I haven’t been here since July. Even then, that was over there, in the Graham Taylor stand, not in what is still technically my seat. I haven’t been here since I-could-look-it-up-but-I-can’t-actually-remember. Whenever it was, it didn’t feel like this. It’s a beautiful blue-skied day, t-shirts and shorts weather, and Vicarage Road seems so much more vibrant and vivid than I remember it. Perhaps it’s the contrast with the rest of the season spent in relatively rustic non-league surroundings, but this suddenly feels like a wonderfully compact, enclosed, energetic space for a football match, a stadium truly transformed by the work done by the Pozzos. The atmosphere is upbeat, perhaps aided by the imminent end of a long, hard season. Not worn down by it, at least. Summer’s here. Football’s coming home. And so on.

3. There’s a danger, having been absent for so long, that any opinions I offer come from a position of such detachment that they’re completely inane, in much the same way as when I lent a Sepultura album to someone and the best response they could manage was that all the songs sounded the same, as if they ought to have chucked in an ABBA tribute halfway through for the sake of variety. If you’re closer to it all, I imagine it’s been a season of vibrant highs and awful lows, just as I could’ve named every track on that album from its intro. From further away…well, not so much.

From my far-away place, it seems to me that the relative ease with which relegation has been avoided in each of the last three seasons is both a tremendous achievement and a bit of a curse, for mid-season safety makes for a much less compelling story than late-season heroism. It’s hard to avoid a sense of anticlimax. You hear people ranting about what’s holding us back or what’s standing in our way, as if each defeat nudges us a little further away from our rightful place. It’s the kind of huffy uppitiness which pops up on your Facebook feed amid the photos of other people’s pets and children, a bit like when you’re stood in a hotel lobby, becalmed by pot pourri and muzak, and the lift doors ping open to reveal a red-faced man swearing angrily at a wasp.

Perhaps, though, the price of the achievement is exactly that anticlimax. Perhaps the effort is such that it simply can’t be sustained over a full season, or at least not by a squad of players we can actually afford, and perhaps the kind of effort which could be sustained for so long would bring merely endless narrow defeats and the kind of spirit-sapping relegation you’re probably old enough to remember too. From my far-away place, it seems undeniable that what these seasons have lacked are stories of the kind we’ll hand down to the next generation, but they nevertheless rank among the most successful in our history. You could argue that mediocrity is spreading through the Premier League like a sneaky wee in a particularly expensive hot-tub, but the achievement still stands, testament as much as anything else to the staggering competence and clarity of our owners. The point where West Brom sacked Tony Pulis and got straight on the phone to Slaven Bilic, who’d spent his season until then as a ghostly, tormented presence on the London Stadium touchline, guiding West Ham to a position below West Brom in the table before himself getting fired, showed how much we have to be grateful for. It oughtn’t to be that unusual to have some money, a coherent plan and a well-filled contacts book, rather than just the first of the three, but it evidently still is.

4. So, Newcastle arrive as the tenth best team in the country…which, well, yes. Competence and clarity on the playing side, if not elsewhere. This season feels like it’ll be the subject of pub quiz questions in years to come: name the seventeen teams which didn’t get relegated from the Premier League in 2017/18. Nobody’ll remember either of us. (Yes, I know you will.) That’s both good and bad. This is one of those games which really needs to be a seven-goal thriller to stand any chance of getting any higher than next-to-last on Match of the Day. We’ve blended into the background, them and us. Or, perhaps, we’ve sort of made ourselves at home.

It isn’t a seven-goal thriller, but it does its best. With the 1881 bashing away raucously to our left, we begin with a sunny energy that yields the opener within three minutes, a fine move starting with the inventive Will Hughes on the right, benefiting from a lucky break in the box and finishing with Abdoulaye Doucoure teeing up  Roberto Pereyra to the ball tidily home. We look a real force, solid at the back and urgent in the middle, aggressive in attack. Etienne Capoue is imperious, Will Hughes is impish, Roberto Pereyra is pure mischief. Pereyra gets in and is foiled by the keeper, Capoue has his follow-up deflected narrowly wide; Andre Gray is denied after sneaking down the side of a static defence.

Newcastle simply haven’t turned up. The only threat of any significance comes from Shelvey’s raking passes from deep, ambitious attempts to pick out runners that keep Cathcart and Kabasele on their toes. We’re thoroughly on top as Pereyra twists and turns before lofting a cross to the far post for Gray to add the second while defenders stand and gawp like tourists on Go Jetters. Some Newcastle fans leave at that point; you can’t blame them preferring a pint in a sunny beer garden to sitting through a complete capitulation.

If the penalty goes in, the rest is surely plain sailing. The penalty doesn’t go in. The offence – an ill-advised and rather clumsy attempt to win the ball from Gray – and the award both seem to happen in slow motion, and Troy Deeney’s kick is similarly lame. Momentarily, he appears certain to score on the rebound but that’s smothered too…and suddenly, there’s at least the prospect of it being a different game than the one we thought we had.

5. The second half is absolutely ridiculous. Like the health warning on a packet of fags, a reminder that this football lark isn’t all fun and frolics; by the end, we’re all gaunt and wrung out, and most of the players have collapsed onto the turf like the losing team in a Cup Final. That Newcastle are less terrible, less absent, is to be expected. Our reaction is a defensive rearguard so resolutely negative that we barely register a goal attempt in the entire forty-five minutes. The one attempt I can recall comes from Pereyra, lazily slicing a half-volley high and wide, and he’s immediately substituted for such impertinence and ill-discipline. Well, not quite immediately, for Newcastle pull one back in between, Perez sliding in at the far post to convert with perfect precision.

6. That substitution is followed by another, switching to three at the back and one up front, the ineffective Deeney withdrawn for Adrian Mariappa to low-level disgruntlement from the stands. It strikes me as being the kind of decision that you have to make as a manager, and for which you either get copious blame or next-to-no credit, depending on whether or not your team holds out for victory. That said, it also strikes me that you need to tread a little carefully, for paying punters are much more forgiving of mistakes stemming from positive intent than the other way around.

And I mean, bloody hell…you’ve got to keep some sort of perspective. At the point where you’re taking off both strikers to defend an end-of-season lead at home, you’re at risk of losing people altogether. Hell, maybe you’ve already lost quite a few of them. On such a beautiful day, it feels almost anti-social, like lighting a massive bonfire without warning the neighbours to take in their washing; it’s football dragged from the freezing wastelands of January. Richarlison replaces Gray, who for all his faults is simply built for the task of chasing down lost causes and still appears to have some running left in him, while Hughes is so exhausted he’s practically unable to stand. The Brazilian makes a fleeting pretence of going up front before tucking in to reinforce the midfield…and, yes, we do indeed seem to be playing 5-5-0 at home against Newcastle. Jesus. I double-check to make sure that we haven’t had a player sent off while I wasn’t paying attention. Nope.

The remainder is about as much fun as you’d expect 5-5-0 to be. We wait, tensed and lost in thought, for the announcement of injury time and the inevitable Newcastle equaliser in its final minute. It would be very easy to lose the detail amid condemnation of the tactics, but we shouldn’t, for Cathcart and Kabasele are truly magnificent and Mariappa isn’t far behind; Cathcart, in particular, appears drawn by an invisible force to the precise square yard where he needs to be, snuffing out danger as it flickers into life on countless occasions. The equaliser doesn’t come. In fact, Newcastle are denied at every turn. It’s a genuinely heroic effort, albeit one perhaps suited to another, more momentous occasion.

7. So it’s an odd conclusion, really. Even beyond Doucoure’s rather ill-judged pre-match farewell message and Javi Gracia’s apparent uncertainty over what the summer will hold, it feels emphatically like an end to something. Whatever the circumstances, I’m not sure that you can be so utterly negative in front of your home fans and expect them to forget about it. It’s a taste that lingers, it’s a debt that you’ll have to pay eventually. The Pozzos aren’t the sort to be swayed very much by public opinion, but a reinvention of some sort is required before July, a fresh start, a new vision. More of this won’t do…he said loftily, as if he had a divine right to turn up at the last minute and tell you lot what to think about it all.

And more of this shouldn’t really have to do. As Leicester’s title win fades into history, replaced by extravagantly (in all senses) attacking football with little care for defensive detail, there’s surely a vacancy for another side that picks a small handful of essential things and does them exceptionally well, does them with an intensity and a consistency that others can’t match. Does them to the point of being an art-form, as Leicester did. Does them to the point of being an absolute menace, as Watford once did.

It’s time to write some stories, isn’t it?

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 3, *Cathcart 4*, Kabasele 4, Holebas 3, Hughes 3, Doucoure 3, Capoue 4, Pereyra 4, Deeney 2, Gray 3; Deulofeu 2, Mariappa 4, Richarlison 2

Watford 1 Everton 0 (24/02/2018) 25/02/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- This was supposed to be a grudge match. Borne of the fact that five months ago we had a manager that Everton wanted and pursued rather gracelessly. Following which he was betrayed to be as precious and narcissistic as his compatriot at Old Trafford, our form disintegrated and unexpectedly Marco Silva was on neither touchline which, for all his evident coaching ability, both sides might have cause to be grateful for.

Any sense of blood and thunder and scores to be settled was short lived. The teams arrived to a particularly densely packed wall of flags in the Rookery and an unexpected cannonfire of yellow and black streamers from the base of the stand. Briefly this had the desired effect as the crowd roared the Hornets on, until it became clear that said streamers had been fired with sufficient welly to reach and entangle themselves into the hooks and anchors in the ceiling of the stand which has never received more attention during a game as the tendrils of streamers blowing in the wind provided an unusual frame to the action, a garish new Instagram filter for the rest of the evening. Occasionally one would detach itself and float serenely down into the stand, distracting from the action on the pitch.

2- Which in all honestly didn’t take a lot of distracting from. Further tension was sucked from the event by a few seconds waiting in the merciless cold, presumably for a BT Sport commercial break; when the game was finally permitted to commence a casual glance at the pitch (or, indeed, a TV screen) might not have revealed that much had changed. Everton employed a pressing game, congesting the centre of the pitch and allowing our centre backs to patrol with the ball without yielding space or avenues for them to attack. Adrian Mariappa in particular twice fell foul of the need to switch play quickly to beat Everton’s covering by placing hurried balls into touch. It was a pressing game of sorts from Everton, if only executed from a certain point, but never has a pressing game been so soporific. No better summary of the half can be provided than an early Toffees free kick, from memory the only one yielded in a threatening position by a disciplined defensive display. As Sigurdsson’s ball came over en route to somewhere inconsequential Wayne Rooney shoved Jose Holebas two handed in the back. The ball drifted off somewhere. Not to suggest that Rooney in particular or Everton in general were particularly dirty – although Doucouré was taken out by one vicious tackle later in the half – but that was the motif of the first forty-five minutes. Lumpy, shovey, lack of quality.

The principal exception to which was Gerard Deulofeu who flew at Cuco Martina relentlessly and was our best hope of Something Happening, of upsetting the ugly, stable nature of the half but it didn’t happen. The game was balanced in the way that a skip full of dung is balanced. A skip full of dung with “nil nil” spray painted grumpily all over it.

3- On the subject of faeces, this Everton incarnation is a fetid turd of a football team. Yes, yes… you can read too much into one game, an Evertonian who knows only yesterday evening of Watford might level similar accusations. However we don’t have a squad half-filled with, to use a well-worn but appropriate analogy, Fantasy Football picks from five years ago (and a manager from longer ago than that). Even that rarest of things, a home grown kid or two, doesn’t relieve the stench. What a joyless thing to be an Everton fan with aspirations of being one of the big six (seven?) but with a team as lumpy and leaden and wonky as any we’ve seen this season. Not awful… just, in common with much of the division, not very good. Burnley, eleven games without a win and stillseventh, tell a story.

Gueye was an exception, a fine little metronome ticking away at the back of the midfield. Niasse too charged around endearingly, propelling himself between the path of the ball and the incumbent Watford defender but the rest was ghoulish, and even Niasse as the spearhead betrayed the side’s limitations. A bloke that charges around a lot is a fun thing in a bad side, but that’s all. Meanwhile in Theo Walcott you’ve got another vital component of a bad team, a quick inconsequential winger, and Cenk Tosun’s second half cameo was hilarious. Jonathan Wilson’s take on the advisedness or otherwise of big strikers coming to the Prem from places where Big Blokes are a rarer thing and thus less capably defended against seems prescient – Tosun looked bemused by proceedings, crumbling under challenge, giving up on the escaping Capoue… that’s what £27 million gets you in the current market it seems.

4- Mercifully, we improved in the second half. It didn’t happen straight away, and Everton had the best chance of the game to that point when Keane’s header drifted wide… but after a bit we noticed that Everton hadn’t crossed the halfway line for a while. Then, the subs happened.

When in the grips of an injury crisis it’s tempting to imbue the missing players with superhuman qualities that would undoubtedly propel the team upwards if only, if only… then said player comes back, runs into someone, falls onto their backside and gets sucked into the morass. Heartening then to see Kiko Femenía’s flame on so quickly after the best part of three months out. His rusty, “getting back into it” spell lasted a matter of minutes rather than games and he provided us with a real outlet down the right. No less impactful was Stefano Okaka, on like Femenía after barely ten minutes of the half and re-introduced to the fold after his failed attempts to secure a move and more gametime in the window. This was the Okaka suggested by his cameo debut at West Ham eighteen months ago and glimpsed occasionally since… combative, abrasive, direct, irrepressible, a wrecking ball of a performance that Everton couldn’t cope with.

Sadly, we only got to see seven minutes of the vaunted link-up between Femenía and Deulofeu before the latter limped off, ominously, providing the biggest downer of the evening. We cross our fingers and wait… in the meantime, a bleach-blond Andre Carrillo entered the fray and gave a decent account of himself. Now, for the first time, we were demonstrably the better side… Janmaat tried to reprise his Chelsea goal by bludgeoning his way through Everton’s defence but found slightly stiffer resistance than the Champions had offered. Pickford cleared carelessly and Femenía screamed onto it and down the flank, opting to shoot instead of squaring to his unimpressed skipper. A minute later Femenía was involved again as he and Okaka combined to find Deeney who took a touch around a defender, span on the ball and slugged a violent shot past a partly unsighted keeper. Everton’s fightback was pathetic, non-existent. Game over.

5- A massive win. Really, really important. We all know how tight it is down at the bottom, much as we’ve not dropped any lower than twelfth, and the Chelsea result showcased what this team is capable of. Nonetheless… our fixture list for the rest of the season is peculiarly unbalanced and picking up the points we need at home takes any pressure from the challenging away fixtures. If Javi Gracia manages to secure his third home win on the hop against Albion next Saturday we’ll be on 36 points going into trips to Arsenal and Liverpool. Not safe, not quite… but you’d fancy us to do what’s necessary in our remaining home games, rendering those two trips a free punch to be cherished.

An ugly, horrible, forgettable game. But you’ve got to win those too, and we did.

Yoorns.

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Mariappa 3, Prödl 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 4*, Richarlíson 2, Deeney 3
Subs: Okaka (for Pereyra, 56) 4, Femenía (for Richarlíson, 56) 4, Carrillo (for Deulofeu, 63) 3, Zeegelaar, Gray, Britos, Gomes

Stoke City 0 Watford 0 (31/01/2018) 01/02/2018

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

1. The last time I saw The Fall was in April 2015. They played in Hastings; next to nobody plays in Hastings. I bought a ticket and I went…and I wondered why I had. It was one of those evenings when middle-aged parenting catches up with you, when you can’t escape the grey fog of the cold with which you’ve had an on-off affair for about two months, when fatigue is all you’ve got to offer. I took a seat in the balcony, bought a beer that immediately made me feel worse. The support band were irritating, and not in a good way. I hadn’t been a really proper Fall fan since they changed my life at the age of sixteen; I’d seen them more than once since then and left feeling largely indifferent, happy that they still existed, happy that I didn’t need to worry. I looked forward to enduring an hour or more of their incorrigible riffola with, at best, a sense of duty.

And – you knew this was coming, but I didn’t – they were effing brilliant. Urgent, concise, vital. Mark E Smith stumbled in from the dressing room after a song or two, then spent a while to-and-froing like someone cooking a meal in the kitchen while keeping an eye on a football match in the living room; eventually, he decided that the evening was worthy of his presence and committed to it more fully, if no more coherently. The balance was perfect. Left to their own devices, no set of proficient musicians would be able to steer so far clear of complacency, to keep it all so compact, so devoid of frills; they’d become an unremarkable bar band within a week. Left to himself, or in charge of a less resilient group, Smith would’ve been a tragicomic sideshow. They needed each other: despite that ‘granny on bongos’ line, The Fall was at the meeting point of those two trajectories, the two things shackled together, wired and ramshackle, loose and furious. All and nothing.

When I started writing that, I was going to work it into a metaphor somehow. But Mark E Smith resists all of that nonsense, won’t be wrestled into anyone’s game. The idea of taking The Fall, holding them in the palm of your hand and then grasping for something comparable with the other hand…it doesn’t work. They won’t have it.

Rest in peace, you old curmudgeon.

“F*** off, pal.”

We’ll have to start again.

2. Reading an article in the Guardian about Grimsby last week, it struck me how much football has shaped my view of the world. I haven’t travelled very much; maybe I ought to, but I’ve no appetite for it, no bucket list to speak of. Most of the towns and cities I’ve visited over the years have involved a game; most of them aren’t seen at best advantage on a freezing Saturday afternoon in December. Grimsby, particularly. Perhaps you’re one of those who travel to away fixtures simply to join with others in singing about wanting to go home again, but I appear to have absorbed a certain amount of each of these places, a few mental images, a certain fondness that’s outlasted the result. A nearly-forgotten holiday, just fading echoes. I imagine many of its inhabitants would quite rightly and robustly spurn such advances from an affluent middle-class Guardian-reading metropolitan liberal Southern tosser, but I’ve an inexplicable soft spot for Grimsby.

I’ve never been to Stoke before, so they’ve no spot, soft or otherwise. I’m here as the result of a phonecall from fellow former fanzine editors at Stephen Todd’s funeral back in October, suggesting that we take on the season’s least inviting midweek away trip in his honour. Toddy knew how to do football supporting better than pretty much anyone I’ve ever met; I’ve lost the knack, but something in the idea has remained sufficiently appealing that I haven’t wheedled my way out in the meantime. We arrive in Stoke at not long after four o’clock, settle into the local Harvester, avail ourselves of the salad cart, try to build a list of every goalscorer from the Pozzo era. Shenanigans and indeed misdemeanours from away trips of yore are mentioned; Dave keeps that flame alive by ordering gammon with egg and pineapple.

3. My first game of the season, then. It’s all very well pootling down the road for a bit of crumbly-terraced non-league action of a Saturday afternoon and being back home before the end of Grandstand, but can he cut it on a cold Wednesday night in Stoke? I realise how long it’s been since I’ve entered a Premier League ground when I empty my pockets in preparation for the journey and find a small collection of interesting pebbles from the beach that I’ve been carrying around with me since the summer. I haven’t checked but suspect that you’re not supposed to take stones into grounds these days, even if they are pretty, even if they do have holes in them.

4. By curious coincidence, it’s a curtain-raiser (of sorts, in the League, go with me) for the Javi Gracia…well, they’re not really ‘eras’ as such, are they?  The Javi Gracia sojourn, perhaps? He’s a new bloke to replace the old bloke who didn’t want to be our bloke any more, or something. That’s roughly the gist, I think.

I have the broad outline of the season, little more. Speaking of broad outlines – and no, please don’t tell him I said that – there’s Troy Deeney wearing the captain’s armband rather than, for example, a West Brom shirt. The signing of Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona signals the owners’ continued desire to look upwards rather than downwards; those more inclined towards panic might’ve been trying to find themselves a Danny Cullip at this point. Even with that injury list, a glance through the teamsheet suggests that there ought to be cause for optimism, although not having sat through a thumping home defeat to Huddersfield probably helps.

(A doff of the cap to the departing Ben Watson while we’re here. There have been many more spectacular signings in recent years; there have not been that many better. Good luck to you, sir.)

5. It isn’t a very good game. Returning to the top flight after spending time in the depths of non-league, it’s startling how theatrical it all is; the pitch is neatly, cleanly edged as if it were a stage rather than an expanse of grass. So many people too: in the crowd, obviously, but in the supporting cast of coaches, medics, stewards, officials, in the spaces created to accommodate them all. It’s slightly mad. And quite fun. But it does tend to throw something as, well, unrefined as this particular contest into sharp relief. I’ve seen better games this season, put it that way.

6. It’s hard to say who has the best of the first half. It’s one of those, one that either manager might reasonably claim. Indeed, it’s one of those games overall: you’d have little cause for complaint at a one-nil defeat, you’d find enough to justify a one-nil win. Nil-nil it is, then.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Stoke are energetic early on, with Paul Lambert jumping around on the touchline in violently nylon sportswear like the kind of PE teacher who’d want to you to call him by his nickname. Diouf wastes their best chance with a glancing header across goal, before a break is initially foiled by a superb block from Adrian Mariappa, the first of at least half a dozen such interventions, and ended by Choupa-Moting curling very narrowly wide. Sebastian Prodl looks a terrified shadow of the player I remember, visibly shrinking away from the ball on occasions; you wouldn’t say that a goal is ever imminent but neither would you be confident enough to dismiss the idea.

But while those nerves never fully disappear, the game begins to form in our favour. The midfield gradually takes shape and takes hold, with Etienne Capoue playing a notably more disciplined, less loose-limbed role than I associate him with (at least until it all starts to unravel in the last ten minutes), Tom Cleverley biting in, Abdoulaye Doucoure rumbling about threateningly, Gerard Deulofeu flitting in and out. Only very occasionally can you look at it with genuine admiration – a fine move ends with Cleverley shooting over – but it has purpose and it has influence.

By half-time, then, we’re a little unfortunate not to have stolen a goal. First, Doucoure’s drifting header from a Holebas free kick is cleared off the line; later, Deulofeu scampers down the right and delivers a low cross that Richarlison ought to smack past Butland at the near post rather than blasting over the bar. None of it requires a thesaurus-full of extravagent adjectives, but it’s decent, it’s workmanlike. We have reason enough to be encouraged.

7. The second half begins with a protracted spell of low level, childish tetchiness that’ll rapidly test the patience of all present, particularly those who haven’t paid to watch over-grown men cry to teacher about someone pulling their hair. I oppose the introduction of VAR so fervently that it sometimes keeps me awake at night but I have to say that if it brought an end to players pretending to have been elbowed in the face, with the inevitable five minute break for pushing, pointing and tale-telling, it wouldn’t be entirely bad. You half expect to find that someone’s drawn a willy in chalk on the referee’s back when he’s been distracted. Football breaks out in between, fitfully and briefly, like a badly scratched Napalm Death record.

While it never settles down entirely – Doucoure and Crouch have a playground tussle late on, for instance – the ratio of football to not-football does improve as the half settles down. Neither side makes much headway, both rather willing an error of the type which lets in Shaqiri to blast straight at Orestis Karnezis. For our part, Troy Deeney is swamped by a combination of Shawcross and Zouma in every aerial challenge, like Father Jack being mobbed by angry crows; it isn’t his finest game, but he does at least keep his rag intact.

He’s helped by the arrival of Andre Gray for the rather sullen, subdued Richarlison. Given that both of the opposition’s central defenders are concentrating on piling on top of our centre forward, there really ought to be space to exploit elsewhere and Gray’s aggressive runs in behind begin to do just that. But at all of its outward edges, if not at its centre, this is a nervous, hesitant performance and that applies to the finishing as much as anything else. The best chance falls to Roberto Pereyra, on for a depressingly crocked Cleverley, who scuffs his shot sufficiently for Butland to make an easy save.

8. Thing is, and perhaps I can see this more clearly than those of you who’ve been more closely involved in the season’s ups and downs…but there’s very little wrong here that a good, bracing blast of confidence wouldn’t fix. You look through that side and you see a really significant number of players – Holebas, Prodl, Capoue, Richarlison, Pereyra, Deeney, Gray – who have proven themselves to have plenty to offer at this level and yet are desperately out of sorts, out of form, short of fitness or various combinations thereof. When you think of some of the precarious positions we’ve found ourselves in the past – hell, some of the flat-out hopeless positions – this doesn’t even begin to compare. Not even close.

In a perfect world, you’d sign Tommy Mooney and get him to lead the charge, everyone falling in behind, no option but to join the ride. Maybe it doesn’t work like that any more. Maybe it never did at this level. Whatever, the only way forward for this group is to chip away at it. Adrian Mariappa shows the way here, relishing a new role on the right, clearing his head of nagging doubts and digging in. A clean sheet, a point away from home, something to build on. It needn’t matter that it was a bit scratchy, that it could’ve been more (or less); all that matters is what you do with it, how you build upon it. This still looks like a bloody good side to me, just a bloody good side that needs to believe in itself again.

9. Chelsea next. That might be fun.

Karnezis 3, Holebas 3, Prodl 2, Kabasele 3, *Mariappa 4*, Doucouré 3, Cleverley 3, Capoue 3, Richarlíson 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Gray (for Richarlison, 67) 3, Pereyra (for Cleverley, 72) 3, Carrillo (for Deulofeu, 87) 0, Bachmann, Janmaat, Zeegelaar, Jordan Stewart (not really)

Watford 2 Arsenal 1 (14/10/2017) 15/10/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  The 1980s, then.  You’ll have a position, no doubt.  Mine tends to depend on what mood I’m in and who’s asking.  Dad’s rather dismissive attitude towards anything since the mid-seventies tends to rather force me into a defensive stance citing the icons of my childhood but there’s little reasonable argument in support of Thatcher, big hair bands or velour tracksuits.

This evening featured some 80s flashbacks of its own, some welcome and some less so.  In the latter category, the outbreak of fighting in the Rookery as some witless Arsenal incursion was met aggressively. This was far enough away from us not to be an immediate issue, but close enough for the always anxious Daughter 2 to dwell upon it despite all that happened after. Slightly depressing that the incursion of away fans in home ends that happens in all grounds at most games, mates sitting with mates and so on, is still necessarily low key because of idiots like these.

On the upside.  Well.  The 1980s was by and large a spectacular time to support Watford, as those of us fortunate enough (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) to be impressionable during this period could testify.  We took on all comers.  We had guts, and style, and bravado.  We won games like this.

There’s another eighties nostalgia detail of course, but we’ll get to that…

2-  We’ve noted this before, but if you were to list the things you missed about the Second Division, floodlit matches at the Vic would be up there.  And no, this wasn’t strictly an evening game but the sun was on its way home for “Strictly” and beans on toast by kick-off and the marvellous focused intensity of such occasions was thick in the air.  The 1881’s latest magnificent flag shrouded the Rookery as the teams came out and then rattled back down the stand like an opening curtain on the spectacle.

Team news had revealed Andre Gray back in for Troy, Pereyra for the jet-lagged Carrillo and a switch to a back three with Miguel Britos returning to the fold.  As an aside, telling that already we look at such a change from Silva and trust it instinctively.  Mazzarri never earned that confidence.

The first half was absorbing, if not thrilling.  With Doucouré loping around the pitch and dictating our play we enjoyed more of the possession and territory…  but the visitors’ attacks had more menace about them.  This arose in part because the Gunners pressurised us high up the pitch and forced us to either move backwards or to resort to longer passes that didn’t suit Gray, once again willing and industrious but limited in his effectiveness.  Much of our penetration came through Richarlíson, Pereyra twisting to try to divert a cross goalwards, but we weren’t getting very far.  At the other end the three/five-man defence generally kept Arsenal at arm’s length, resisting the visitors’ efforts to stretch the play by switching flanks, but as the half went on they were getting closer than we were.  Elneny clouted narrowly over, Bellerín flicked a shot wide.  Five minutes before the break when we’d have gratefully taken all square at half time, Per Mertesacker crashed in Xhaka’s corner.  Aggravating…  we’d done enough, only to stuff up on a set piece.  Half time arrived to a backdrop of grumbles about about zonal marking.

3- In such circumstances, going behind avoidably shortly before half time to one of the big sides, you expect the match to pan out a certain way.  That it didn’t reflects upon both sides.  Our lot we’ll get to, though tales of guts and spirit and ability to hurt teams should already be a surprise to nobody.

But as for Arsenal…  it’s no mystery, and no great insight, but this side is completely gutless.  As ever, Troy put it best…

Ability, yes, even allowing for rested stars and injured defenders.  But no spirit, and no leaders.  No leaders for a long time, actually.  Not even the utterly likeable “BFG” Mertesacker, who showed class by treating Richarlíson’s cramp late on in the midst of what had built gradually to an onslaught in the second half.  Mertesacker is an experienced, respected player but he’s not a warrior.  Arsenal haven’t had one of them for an age.  And we have them in spades…

4- Not least the man who came off the bench on the hour for a tour de force.  Critically, Arsenal’s pressing game that had so disrupted our attempts to build an attack had dissipated instantly on their taking the lead.  Throughout the second period we had loads of space… but had still been struggling to make the ball stick.  Richarlíson, the one dependable source of penetration, did a sterling job in the wake of concerted attention, but the arrival of Deeney with that look in his eyes changed the game entirely.

Mertesacker’s first league start for eighteen months has been cited as a silver lining for the visitors, but he was completely unable to cope with Deeney despite his six inch advantage, and very quickly looked like a player who was out of practice.  Troy was in full battle mode, relishing every confrontation, setting down a challenge and finding no takers.  He added glue to our attacking play and those around him thrived on it.

Arsenal weren’t out of it.  Özil came off the bench and was soon significant in counter-attacks that could have seen us put to bed by Iwobi, denied by Gomes, or by the German himself who fluffed a good chance on his weaker foot. But we were on the front foot by midway through the half, to the extent that even a 1-0 defeat would likely have been met with an ovation.  We didn’t roll over, we gave it some.

But we didn’t lose 1-0.  Because from Özil’s miss, we broke…

5- Whether you think it was a penalty depends rather on who you support, I suspect.  Certainly, the definitive condemnation of Richarlíson that accompanies even the more even handed of Arsenal reports already up on the web are ludicrous, since TV replays don’t reveal the extent of the contact, the extent to which he was tripped or exaggerated.

What’s beyond doubt is that tickets win raffles, and so forth.  Richarlíson had been running at Bellerín all night – that doesn’t earn him the right to a penalty if no contact was made, but it does increase the chances of his marker getting his timing wrong just once.  The Brazilian’s treatment this evening was less brutal than it has been in other games where, equally, he has gotten up again and kept going but nonetheless, his irrepressible refusal to take or give his marker a breather means stuff like this will happen.

Arsène Wenger would have done well to remember the penalty Alexis Sanchez earned in generous circumstances in this fixture last season before bleating too much about this one, but I don’t begrudge him his moan.  Indeed, he contributed to what could hardly have been a more comprehensive eighties tribute had he brought Kenny Sansom on to sit on his arse at left back whilst David Bardsley was jetted in from the US to sprint past him.  Again.  The other thing about the eighties, of course, is that We Always Beat The Arsenal….  P14 W9 D1 L4, if you’re counting, that including an FA Cup Quarter Final in our first season up in the second tier, and a relegation season.  This is now our third win in four.

6- Only one team was going to win this.  That’s not to say that it was always coming… indeed when Étienne Capoue’s drive thudded off Mertesacker’s chest and onto a post we’d clocked that this probably wasn’t going to happen, and when Carrillo rushed a good opening to fire over we’d resigned ourselves to a very respectable point.

So the winner was a thing of beauty in it’s scruffiness, exactly the sort of goal that Arsenal would never have scored.  There was finesse in there too, the unstoppable Deeney with the presence of mind to pull back from wide… but mostly it was pinball and determination and bloody-mindedness.  What a joy it was that it was Cleverley, so meriting and so needing a goal, who clouted the decisive strike through the debris of Arsenal’s defence in a manner that recalled his captain against Leicester four years earlier.  The roof came off;  I had a rush of blood and almost fainted.  Daughters one and two screamed uncontrollably.

7- The mood post-match was special, reflecting the value in this win above “mere” three points.  Hands were shaken in the concourse, embraces were shared.  Grins and salutes, no need to articulate this.  Bloody come on.

We go to Stamford Bridge now knowing that even a defeat is likely to leave us in the top six a quarter of the way through the season.  No flash in the pan, this.  Enjoy…

Yoorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 3, Holebas 5, Mariappa 4, Kabasele 4, Britos 3, Doucouré 5, Cleverley 5, Pereyra 4, Richarlíson 4, Gray 3

Subs:  *Deeney (for Gray, 63) 5*, Carrillo (for Mariappa, 63) 3, Capoue (for Pereyra, 81) 0, Janmaat, Wagué, Watson, Karnezis

West Bromwich Albion 2 Watford 2 (30/09/2017) 01/10/2017

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

1- Losing your voice.  That’s the one.  That’s when you know that it’s been a belter, that it’s been worthwhile.  Lots of components make up an away day on and off the pitch…  result, performance, excitement.  Journey, company, food.  Some of which might be more important to you and some less, but losing your voice, as a marker, trumps everything.  Doesn’t matter that it was wet, doesn’t matter that I scraped the bloody car again.  It occurred to me as I noticed the rawness in my throat on the way home that this hasn’t happened a lot recently – it used to be a regular thing.  Maybe I shouted more when we were crap, but I’ve never been a ranter and raver.  Maybe I’m getting old; maybe kids demand a degree of decorum.

As for them… they’d been less attentive than usual.  Daughter 2 in particular seems to have fallen out of love with standing on her seat, and so huddled sombrely in the shadows for the most part.  Daughter 1 seemed distracted too, though she was paying enough attention to ask how it was possible to enjoy so much possession and still be behind midway through the second half.  When it happened though… when it happened they were rapt and then as utterly caught up in the explosion of noise and disbelief as the rest of us.  The first proper mental I’ve had this season (I missed Swansea, perhaps that was similar).  Prolonged yelling, bodies flying around, trying to do justice to the beauty of the moment.  Gomes, up for the corner, able to join in the celebration for once. Come on.  Come on!!!

2- All of which seemed very unlikely ninety minutes earlier.  After a strong opening quarter of an hour or so, a quarter of an hour that had seen us dominate possession without, admittedly, getting terribly close to opening the scoring, Albion had taken the lead.  There had been portents of what was to come, long balls out of that resolute defence designed to catch us on our heels…  and one did.  Kabasele, who had had a wobbly start to the game, got into a horrible mess with Mariappa; Rondón, who was otherwise quiet, bundled through regardless, resisted Kabasele’s feeble attempt to batter him out of his stride and finished from a narrow angle.  Three minutes later we were still coming to terms with the shift in the balance of power when Albion’s trademark set piece involving bodies flying into the box saw them extend their lead.

It could have gone badly in so many ways from here.  In fact it has done, many many times.  I like coming to the Hawthorns but our record here over the years has been rubbish. We’ve been in this position before and seen Bob Taylor or Lee Hughes propel Albion into unassailable leads from just such situations.  We looked briefly woebegone and beaten and, with Man City still fresh in our minds, we feared this could get ugly.  Heurelho Gomes bawled at some slack marking from another set piece.  Tom Cleverley bellowed André Carrillo into shambling vaguely towards his charge at a corner.  We waited for the game that tends to follow in such situations to unravel, our hope that it would be over quickly.

3- So that it didn’t turn out that way speaks volumes about our character.  Quality too, obviously;  we regained the initiative and had a ridiculous amount of the ball thereafter, ridiculous enough for a half-attentive eleven year old to remark upon it.  But Albion’s resolute wall of bodies, a wall which executed an impossible number of blocks as we cranked it up in the second half, doesn’t tolerate or permit much quality.  No, it was our character that was tested, our determination, belief, focus.  No half-arsedness here (after that five minute slump…) whatever our limitations and whatever the frustration of yet another attack foundering on an Albion forehead.  It was ferociously bloody-minded and a point was the least that it deserved.

So it started gently… Deeney’s inclusion over Gray reflected the physical demands of the game, not least in defending set pieces given the relative lack of height that our centre back options afforded us, but as highlighted by the closing minutes at Swansea the “partnership” between him and Richarlison looks a natural one.  The first real opening came from them; Troy releasing the Brazilian into the box and his square ball presenting Carrillo with an opportunity that deserved better than being headed over.  Two minutes later Doucouré, our playmaker throughout the afternoon, surged into space to benefit from more good link-up between Deeney and Richarlison to narrow the deficit, a fine finish with his weaker foot.  The noise in the Albion stands, which had briefly reprised the Nyom nonsense that was already tedious by half time last season, died completely and didn’t return until the 85th minute.  The balance of power had changed again, and we were applauded in at the interval.

4- It would be wrong to describe the second half as one way traffic, but the Hornets dominated possession once again.  Pereyra was introduced for Capoue, which proved critical;  the Frenchman had a decent enough hour and had seen one drive deflected narrowly wide but he looks heavy and our ability – once again – to last the full ninety was to be decisive.  Pereyra danced onto the pitch, quickly executed his “wrong footing the stadium” thing and was crucial to our ball retention thereafter. If we weren’t knocking the door down with a sledgehammer then we were rapping repeatedly and annoyingly…

Our midfield misses Chalobah, but I’m surprised and pleased by the fact that it still functions well without him – less dependent on him than suspected.  If a Prödl or a Kaboul might have rendered either of Albion’s goals less likely, then our midfield at least still works… Cleverley a dynamo, Doucouré at the heart of everything, tremendous support from the wings.  José Holebas executed an heroic block to deny McClean in injury time…

5- …preceding the defining instant of the game.  One can only assume that Tony Pulis isn’t a Sheldon fan since his post-match comments were pitiful, borne of a mind aggravated beyond the capacity for rational thought.  I like Albion, and I like the fact that Pulis exists (managing someone else, natch).  I admire the unashamedly uncompromising approach, sucking the life out of a game and trampling on its carcass.  Yes, we dominated possession but got relatively little out of it…  whilst Albion broke once and converted a set piece and were two nil up.  No accident.

But you can’t reasonably complain about timekeeping when your side have been wasting time since the hour mark and had quickly been warned about such behaviour by ref Michael Oliver.  Leave aside the fact that the board is a minimum, not a stick to beat the ref with, leave aside the fact that you’ve still got to defend (as Pulis, in fairness, conceded).  You live by the sword, you die by the sword.  And the smug, cowardly belittling of the official’s decision to award the free kick at all just made Pulis look like an idiot.  McClean telegraphed his intent with a Britos-esque approach and if he stopped short of taking Richarlíson out and went for the ball then he nonetheless scissored him with both leading and trailing legs.  If there’s anything more gratifying than a late equaliser it’s a late equaliser in injury time provoked by timewasting at the hands of a petulant little thug of a winger.  Lovely.

6- So if Pulis is the muppet of the hour, Richarlíson is surely the hero.  As is increasingly the case, Albion attempted to bully the young Brazilian out of the game; Craig Dawson, all trailing arms and late tackles, the prime culprit. As ever, the youngster didn’t give a damn.  Since coming off the bench on the opening day, Richarlíson has missed ten minutes of football – despite being frequently targeted, despite being four months out of his teens. He’s quick and clever but tough and brave too.  Good in the air, yes, what a perfect header but we knew that too.  What today demonstrated was his resilience since he didn’t get it right every time, he did look silly once or twice.  This is a kid in a new country who doesn’t speak the language, if he’d retreated into his shell you’d have forgiven him.  Instead, he provoked this.

The remarkable thing, perhaps the most remarkable thing, the thing that perhaps defines our opening to the season as we head into an international break is that underlying the euphoria and the defiance is a tinge of disappointment.  We went to West Brom, a tough place to go where we’ve such a miserable record.  We went two goals down in traditional circumstances.  We came from behind to salvage a point with a glorious injury time header.  And yet…  and yet.  We should have won.  We know we should have won.

Enjoy the break.  Bring on the Arsenal…

Gomes 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 4, Mariappa 3, Kabasele 2, Doucouré 4, Capoue 3, Carrillo 3, Cleverley 4, *Richarlison 4*, Deeney 3

Subs: Pereyra (for Capoue, 62) 4, Gray (for Carrillo, 75) 3, Karnezis, Janmaat, Britos, Hughes, Watson

 

Watford 2 Bristol City 3 (22/08/2017) 23/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- You have to ask yourself, at what point does an odd pattern stop being an odd pattern and start becoming accepted as “the new normal”, to adopt a horrible phrase.  When does it stop being surprising?  I suppose it depends on the circumstances…  Britain’s naval supremacy was unchallenged until the advent of the submarine, which changed the game entirely but at least there was an event.  Something to point at and say “this has changed because of that”.  Difficult to accept, difficult to reconcile to, but nonetheless cause and effect.  Easy to understand.

At what point does our recent inability to compete in the League Cup stop being worthy of comment?  For avoidance of doubt, and whilst you’ve no doubt been made painfully familiar with these stats since 10pm or so last night, that’s nine seasons in eleven that we’ve gone out to lower league opposition (for the record, City, Gillingham, Preston, Doncaster, Bradford, Bristol Rovers, Notts County, Leeds and Southend). Only once, Brendan Rodgers’ side’s run to the Quarter Finals before defeat to Spurs nine years ago, have we put together a “run”, and that felt as much of an aberration then as it does now.

2- Nontheless…  at kick-off there was a positive vibe.  There’s no denying it.  By half-time my brother, with a masochistic gleam in his eye perhaps prompted by the fact that he really doesn’t get here very often and resents this being one of the rare occasions, was proclaiming that he would henceforth only turn up for the League Cup second round.  But at kick off, we were buoyant.  We’d put one over on Bournemouth, and looked exciting and positive and vibrant in the two League games so far.

Further, squint at that Watford side and – despite the whole “we only made six changes to their nine” thing – if one puts the most ambitious spin on how the rest of our transfer window will go that’s not too far from a second string eleven.  Of the “first choice” players in the eleven Gomes, Holebas and Amrabat are all at risk of being ousted if the players we’re linked to are any guide, Deeney and Prödl might already be second choice (I maintain that Kaboul/Britos is our likeliest pair in a four) and whilst Richarlison is wonderful  you do fancy that Pereyra/Cleverley/Carillo might be the first choice three for the moment should the latter come off.  So… that’s a reserve side, and quite a fine one.

3- It wasn’t a fine performance tho.  You know that, you don’t need me to tell you that.  A couple of qualifiers, though.  Firstly, for all that this was a “lower division side” it was in some ways the most exacting test so far of our new system, our new zip.  Bristol City are “a lower division side” in that they’re lower than us but they’re a decent enough Championship team, no Cheltenham or Cambridge this (from other nightmares of League Cup past).  Yes, they made changes too and yes, we should still have expected to beat them on our own patch but nonetheless… no mugs.  More to the point there’s a world of difference between executing a zippy passing game against a Liverpool or a Bournemouth that are going to offer you space to do so, and against a side putting banks behind the ball, and with a monstrous centre-half in the coveted Aden Flint (one of the many “team changes”) who seemed to have a magnet on his head.  Not that we shouldn’t have done better, but let’s not pretend that this was easy for a side with limited competitive action between them thus far.

As it was, the first half offered warnings of what was to come.  We dominated possession, but didn’t get terribly far with it.  Aidy Mariappa crashed a joyful shot well wide early on, very much in the spirit of  “we’re going to enjoy this”.  And then… and then…  faced with a solid and disciplined barrier, faced with a lack of sharpness, it all became too deliberate, too cautious, too slow.  Richarlison stood up well to being given a couple of understandable “trick your way out of this, son” kicks up the backside and was our likeliest weapon throughout but was often double marked and unable to turn his ability into a reliable supply of crosses.  Meanwhile whilst City barely threatened either they did expose our defence more than once, Kabasele too easily pulled out of position, Prödl too easily turned, Holebas expensively booked for a rather sulky lunge.  Had Diedhiou reacted more sharply to being given a glimpse of a run at goal we might have been made to pay earlier.

4- As it was we were level at half time.  Silva has criticised his team for lack of professionalism, lack of taking City seriously, expecting to win being the unspoken addendum.  I think the crowd were guilty of that too…  there was no fretting at the interval, a rueful nod to the reliably unsatisfying stage of this competition but no panic. It was going to happen.  As Isaac Success prepared to make an entrance my brother and I pondered whether the unproductive Amrabat or the joyful but vulnerable Richarlison would be withdrawn…. the former, as it turned out.  “Tricks and Chaos” we exclaimed, and daughter 2 was in no confusion as to which was which, screaming “Chaos” gleefully at Success as he made his first slaloming run.  (As an aside, both daughters making their evening debuts, both of their enjoyment continuing to be unrelated to events on the pitch – daughter 2 spilling her fish and chips more of an issue than the football).

And it would be wrong to paint this as a thoroughly miserable evening because it wasn’t.  Our opening goal was a fine, fine thing… Hughes and Success combining to send Capoue through.  No failing on City’s part, just an excellent piece of lock-picking.  And again… if the team relaxed then so did we.  I certainly thought “job done” at that stage, since City hadn’t threatened much.  And so whilst a lot of what we saw was inadequate we nearly got away with it.  The decisive moment was former Luton teenager Freddy Hinds picking up the ball in the centre circle and galloping off with it.  At that stage, Ben Watson might have kicked him over, he didn’t.  Perhaps that’s a good thing, we can comfort ourselves with his integrity in considering the cost of Holebas executing two similar fouls.  Nonetheless… off Hinds scampered before placing a fine shot low to Gomes’ right which, nonetheless, you rather feel he should have done better with.

5 – And then it all ran away from us.  True, we made a few more chances – as above, not an evening without any merit.  The best came when Richarlison struck an evil cross-field ball with the outside of his right foot to find Success galloping in from the left.  Success sent the ball to the far post where the Brazilian somehow teleported himself to crash a header, neck muscles stretched, against the foot of the post.  A thing of beauty, so nearly magnificent.

But City had the bit between their teeth.  A nothing to lose game for them in which it was clear that their set-up and personnel combated our limitations very effectively.  Two more goals on the break, the second of which prompted a mass exodus.  This was the highlight of daughter 1’s account later, largely because we stayed and we got to see Adrian Mariappa’s goal.  Cold comfort for most but, as above, at least the girls enjoyed the evening which got significantly worse on the toss of another coin;  Holebas must have had visions of pulling us level with a fine volley at 2-1 down but air-kicked, and within seconds was slouching off having hacked down the escaping red shirt in frustration.

6- So what do we learn?  Firstly that it’s not going to be a cakewalk, and much as we knew that already it’s maybe good that the bubble was burst in the League Cup rather than the Premier League given that we’re always rubbish in it anyway.  Two, that whilst Aidy Mariappa is a decent centre-back the days when we could pretend he was a right back are probably behind us.  Three…. well.  Troy.  What have we learned?  Heavy and immobile he is certainly short of fitness and so 90 plus mins here was a Good Thing.  But you wonder whether he has the mobility to operate effectively in that central role.  Best judged when fit, perhaps.  Beyond that… harsh to judge individuals based on this, the team didn’t work and you wouldn’t rule many of these out of doing a job in a first team that already looks much more proficient under Silva than this lot.  But then, you wouldn’t suggest that anyone really made a case either.

And so to Saturday, when Brighton come calling with a new winger and a freshly fit old chum in Anthony Knockaert, whilst we have one available full back.  Another test.  Yooorns….

Gomes 2, Mariappa 2, Holebas 2, Prödl 2, Kabasele 2, Watson 3, Capoue 2, Amrabat 2, Hughes 3, *Richarlison 3*, Deeney 2

Subs: Success (for Amrabat, 45) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 70) 3, Cleverley (for Capoue, 79) 0, Britos, Chalobah, Cathcart, Pantilimon

Watford 0 Manchester City 5 (21/05/2017) 22/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- “Bit quiet, isn’t it?” noted Daz as we ambled down Occupation Road in the sunshine, daughter 1 polishing off the Magnum that she’d negotiated. And so it was, but there had been little surprise in the observation… nobody was under any illusions and a goodly number had clearly opted out. Those of us in attendance approached the game with a mixture of apprehension, obligation and morbid fascination… Manchester City are a tough opponent at the best of times, in other circumstances this might have been an exciting game, an opportunity to bloody a nose in a nothing-to-lose encounter. Nobody harboured such expectations today. That we had little material to play for that City (as it turned out) needed a result to confirm Champions (sic) League qualification, that we’d lost all semblance of form whilst City had rediscovered theirs were challenges in themselves.

But our perverse injury problems turned the contest into a farce from the off. It has become increasingly difficult to sympathise with Walter Mazzarri’s bizarre prognoses as time has gone on, but there can be no disputing the gist of his parting shot. Nobody survives against Man City with their six (six!) senior central defenders unavailable. A thankless task for Mazzarri, whose meagre stock has dropped so low in the last fortnight that it was difficult for any to look at the back four of Janmaat and full Prem debutant Mason either side of midfielder Behrami and full-back-cum-powderkeg Holebas and acknowledge that this was probably as good as he could manage.

Which, as so often, was partly his own fault. If you could look at that defensive “solution” and say “yes, OK” there was no defending his bench. In such circumstances, when backs are likely to be not so much up against the wall as pummelled halfway through it, you need your leaders, you need senior players to cajole and organise and pull the side along. Our leader, in a final peevish move by his manager, was on the bench (and it’s arguable that in the admittedly ring-rusty Ben Watson, another to have been discarded cheaply by Mazzarri, we had another wise head underemployed). And, of course, we named two goalkeepers… much as we all love Rene Gilmartin this was no tribute to a departing hero (notably, no fawning 26th minute intro/outro for Rene who isn’t nearly a vain enough peacock to have suggested one) but a pathetically self-indulgent sulky statement by the outgoing coach. “Look what I’m left with”. A Charlie Rowan, a Carl Stewart or an Ogo Obi could have filled that space and garnered Mazzarri more sympathy and options.

2- If nobody expected a result then I think we hoped for a bit of defiance before the inevitable, a bit of “hey, we’re still in this, come on lads”. Alas. Indeed, all plans seemed to go astray on a day that confirmed the suspicion that we’re better off with this season ending and never being mentioned again. I’d gone as far as to order a mixed grill at Middletons with the intent of extracting what pleasure there was to be extracted from the afternoon, only to delay everyone else’s food as a result to quite reasonable scowls and sarcasm from friends and family young and old. So much for that. So much for our show of defiance also; four minutes in and Vincent Kompany was afforded space to pitch a tent, time to heat a barbecue in our penalty area and directed a corner inside the postage stamp. Worst fears realised, and not for the first time this season we progressed down a slope at any stage of which we’d have taken the scoreline and no questions asked. Whilst reflecting, again, on our complete inability to defend corners (no height and no defenders didn’t actually make that failing any more complete).

3- Actually there was some defiance.  There was a contrast between the play at the two ends of the pitch;  City were dominant in each, but at least as we attacked it looked less of an unfair contest.  M’Baye Niang nearly scored that goal he scores, cutting in from the left on his right foot but shovelling the shot narrowly over.  Doucouré and Capoue moved the ball quickly and fiercely, Nordin Amrabat found space on the right. And then, inevitably, City broke on us like water and it was men against boys.  Brandon Mason dug in and stuck his chin out, piling Gabriel Jesus into the advertising hoardings.  Valon Behrami, bless his snarling fangs, dived in to deny Agüero but it was all last ditch and desperate.  It wasn’t, in short, a fair fight… City spun and swung and sliced through us, a match for anyone on this form let alone our botched together defence.  And so we draw a veil over the detail of the rest of the half, except to mention that we lost Daryl Janmaat to the three hundred and seventy sixth hamstring strain of the season (nothing to do with our training methods though, naturally) allowing Andrew Eleftheriou to make the debut he probably wouldn’t have chosen.  And that some chose to boo at the half time whistle as if these circumstances compared to Hull or Palace, because “me sad, me boo” is as close to reason as some get.  Oh, and that City scored three more goals.

4- After more brief defiance – principally from Stefano Okaka, who provided much of what was left in that department for the rest of the half and opened the second period by barging himself a space and forcing a fine save from Caballero – City scored again.  And then more or less stopped, for which we could only be grateful.  There was some muted gallows humour, some attempts to recruit both Thierry Henry, pitchside for Sky Sports, and fifties centre-back Bill Shipwright who performed the half-time draw.  The most attention afforded to Mazzarri came when Jon Moss spoke to him on the touchline and the ground exhorted him to send the coach to the stands, but in vain.

The real question for me is why Mazzarri was in the ground at all.  By all accounts his departure was a mutual decision rather than “yet another” Pozzo sacking (the second, I make it?) and so perhaps the end of the season felt more natural… but this has never felt like a respectful, best-thing-for-everyone, no-hard-feelings kind of deal.  There’s bitterness and discomfort on both sides, and the line-up itself betrayed the questionable nature of the decision to retain him for the final game.

5- And so the season ends on six defeats with the Hornets one place above relegated Hull City and as intimated we’re probably best of all round to put the season behind us.  Despite the poor form, despite the miserable low on which we finish, despite the portents of the witless Pleat on 5 Live, and others, who refused to make allowances for the unprecedented circumstances of this game… it really isn’t that bad.  The reality is that we’re in the morass in the middle of the division between which there’s little to choose;  despite our recent tumble we’re as close to eighth place Saints as we are to Hull.  The summer will see a new coach, a new training regime, and undoubtedly another turnover of players… Nordin Amrabat, like Seb Prödl on Monday, seemed to be saying goodbye when he approached the Rookery before the lap of honour.  He’s looked nervous and been thoroughly ineffective since returning to the side… but he’s a trier, and it was good that the waiting crowd responded to his efforts and his own acknowledgement of them warmly.  For all the team’s struggles, the club is still in a good place and we shouldn’t need Daily Express headlines to remind us how lucky we are.

The List, Helping Hands and the Squad Review will follow in the next few weeks.  In the meantime, have a good summer.

Yoorns….