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Rotherham United 1 Watford 4 (16/03/2021) 17/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Some days are just good days.

Some days the sunshine is just that little bit warmer.  Some days you’re perpetually humming along to whichever tune is in your head.  Some days the words just come and everything flows without stress, without those bits where you stare blankly at the screen, or keep going back and deleting and rewording and prevaricating. Some days little things going wrong are precisely as irrelevant as they ought to be. Some days your daughter knocks on your study door and comes in and gives you a hug, just because.  Some days things are rolling for you.

It feels as if we haven’t had enough of them recently.  Today was one of those days.

2- It speaks volumes that we’re not going into this little run of fixtures looking for banana skins.  Three games, two of which at home, against three of the bottom four…  from the outside it’s an opportunity, from the inside you might imagine that we’d be saying, “I bet we stuff this up”.  But none of us believe that.  It’s just not on the cards.

Least of all here, against a Rotherham side emerging from the challenges of  a period in which the players and staff have been isolating following a COVID outbreak, prohibiting training and the rehabilitation of those returning from injury.  Forget the fact that the Millers are at the wrong end of the table, we’ve seen the sluggish returns of our own players returning from individual periods of isolation following positive tests.  This would have been a big ask for Rotherham at the best of times.  This wasn’t the best of times.

This was Rotherham’s second outbreak of the season, and you have to wonder whether their safety protocols have been quite all they should have been.  Nonetheless, it was impossible not to sympathise with the very balanced, honest, compelling words of manager Paul Warne as he reflected on the challenges his side faced going into the game.  Their outstanding fixtures will see them having to play twice in the same midweek at least once before the season closes.  In that time they’ve got to get players fit and energised en masse.  Not easy.  The Football League, Warne acknowledged, were never going to give them the leeway they needed in order to clear the decks.

3- If spirit, single-mindedness and giving it a good old go is worth anything you’d give Rotherham a chance on this evidence.  On the other hand – and not being familiar enough with the Millers’ squad to assess missing numbers – if this is the best defending they’re going to manage between now and the end of the campaign you’d fear for them.  No room for mercy here, nor sympathy, nor not just getting the job done.  We didn’t need any.

That said, Rotherham got off the the sharper start.  Thinking about it in retrospect, based on what is now 12 months of working away from the office, I guess that if there’s one aspect of a footballer’s training that works over Zoom it’s planning set pieces.  Shouldn’t have been a surprise, perhaps, to see a couple of innovative efforts from the home side, the first to a corner in the opening exchanges.  A couple of minutes later Francisco Sierralta got an important header in to clear a right wing cross.

But if Rotherham asked questions of us as they attacked they had no answer whatsoever to our attacking play, tumbling like skittles as we flew forwards. The opening goal on nine minutes was painfully straightforward, and we flooded into every open crevice for the rest of the half.

At the centre of much of it, and critical to all three of the first half goals, was Philip Zinckernagel.  The Dane’s startling record in Norway came with the caveat that, you know, it was in Norway;  a slight concern that he’d left Denmark at the age of 24 without having pulling up any trees.  He’s shown flashes of quality before now, but this was a startling performance… for the first, he cut back onto his right foot and dropped a cross onto Sierralta’s head.  The Chilean held off his marker to dump the ball past Blackman, stranded on his line, spent a couple of seconds recovering his senses and then rose with what is becoming a trademark two-fisted bellow.

Fifteen minutes later, Zinckernagel escaped his marker to cut inside again and dip a lower ball into the box.  We had a vast number of bodies in the danger zone but dodged the offside, Chalobah flicked a neat shot which Blackman did well to parry but Sarr artfully nicked the ball into the top corner. Five minutes before the break, the Dane sent an arcing, precise right wing corner directly into the orbit of Ken Sema in the penalty area who flicked and juggled and mercilessly slung his shot past the keeper.  I compared Zinc’s assist for Gray against Wycombe to an Almen Abdi pass.  Still early days, and a different sort of player for sure, but he’s already offering us similar devilment in the final third.  Long may that continue.

4-  The rest of the first half, after and between, was a coconut shy.  Any scoreline was feasible from this point;  the Millers continued to suggest unshakable resolve when attacking but were eminently shakeable defending and this forward line will rattle every defence in the division.  One fast break saw João Pedro turn neatly and release Kiko for an outrageous sprint to the touchline.  He screamed onto the ball and pulled back, a desperate lunge conceded a corner.  Hughes, always in space, found Sema on the right, he cut inside, another corner.  Every attack looked dangerous;  Sema, back on the left, pulled back for Chalobah to carve a shot towards the top corner.  It would have been a worthy partner to his strike at Cardiff, but Blackman pulled out a terrific stop.  Masina tried a scissor kick, Femenía flung in another wicked cross, another corner.  Chalobah played João Pedro through, Blackman got a crucial toe in first to prevent a fourth.  We were rampant.

5- The second half didn’t quite continue in the same vein, partly because we removed key protagonists with the game ostensibly won – Zinckernagel and Chalobah had both received heavy knocks, Ismaïla Sarr most concerningly had pre-empted his replacement by sitting down on the pitch but was at least able to walk off.  Fingers crossed.

The other impediment to the continuation of the flood after the break was Rotherham’s bloody minded attacking, perhaps pursued in the awareness that falling back would have been no good at all in the absence of much of a defence.  The BBC correspondent who suggested that “on another day Rotherham might have got something from this” on their website feed was presumably either referring to a day next week when Rotherham weren’t playing Watford, or was on hallucinogenic drugs.

Nonetheless, the Millers were still throwing punches.  We had started the half with the irrepressible Sarr roaring down the centre of the pitch with options either side, opting for João Pedro with a precise pass, the Brazilian’s good touch negated by a thunderous last-ditch tackle from Wood.  There was briefly a suggestion of sloppiness as Troost-Ekong conceded a penalty.  It was unlucky, perhaps, but definitely a pen as the Nigerian kicked the underside of Smith’s foot… a good call from the referee in a decent performance that saw him offer some slack to Shaun McDonald rather than booking him early on for kicking the ball away, but refuse to give free kicks simply for Rotherham players falling over.  Smith took the penalty fairly weakly, Bachmann did his thing and the scraps were eventually cleared.

Eight minutes later Ladapo capitalised upon Carlos Sánchez’s poor first touch of the game – his only poor touch of the game – to swipe an arrogant shot beyond Bachmann’s reach to give the Miller’s a foothold.  Infuriatingly for the home side he started to pull out the tricks rather than apply himself to recovering the situation but by then the jig was up in any case.  As on Saturday we responded brilliantly to a set-back, Troost-Ekong’s screaming pass through the centre of the pitch touched on brilliantly by Gray to Sema, Sema back to Gray, Gray’s shot blocked but Dan Gosling was galloping on to turn the ball into an empty net.

There could, should have been more.  Sierralta, oddly, and Gray were both guilty of not finishing off chances more than once, the latter late on after some welcome and effective barging around from another Isaac Success cameo, but this is a much sprightlier more positive Andre Gray, a force for good this evening.

Job done.  Results elsewhere mean we pull clear for the first time…  today, as discussed, was a good day.  As also discussed, Swansea, Brentford, are mere detail.  This is all about us, and anyone who tries standing in our way won’t be standing for very long.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 5, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 5, Masina 5, Hughes 5, Chalobah 5, *Zinckernagel 5*, Sarr 5, João Pedro 4, Sema 5
Subs: Gray (for Sarr, 53) 4, Ngakia (for Femenía, 53) 4, Gosling (for Chalobah, 67) 4, Sánchez (for Zinckernagel) 4, Success (for Hughes, 80) NA, Lazaar, Cathcart, Hungbo, Foster

Yet more thanks to those who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK over the last couple of weeks, a bit of a rush in the happy afterglow of Saturday’s win.  The donations list is dominated by ‘orns, and our tally is past £1500 plus Gift Aid, utterly brilliant. You can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Cardiff City 1 Watford 2 (13/03/2021) 14/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- I liked Ray Lewington.

In some ways, despite the manifold challenges that peppered his time in charge I enjoyed it more than Aidy Boothroyd’s ostensibly more successful spell that followed.  These things always look different from a distance of course and in hindsight there was plenty – albeit largely different things – to enjoy about both.  Certainly the sense of everyone pulling together in the wake of the challenges presented by the particularly badly timed and badly judged investments in Gianluca Vialli’s squad followed by the collapse of ITV Digital was something good to be part of.  I find conflict amongst ‘orns particularly difficult.

But I liked Ray Lewington.  Honest, trustable.  Inspiring, too. Before we played Portsmouth in the quarter finals of the League Cup in late 2004, an intimate fans forum was held in the old Hornet Shop in the back of the Rookery Stand.  No grumbling or nit-picking at this one, the tone was one of edgy excitement at the prospect of taking another top-flight scalp.

My question to Ray was on the subject of the opposition.  Yakubu, it had been reported, was injured.  Did Ray think that this, combined with a lack of pace elsewhere in Pompey’s forward line, would limit their attacking potential?

He paused for dramatic effect but then looked straight at me with half a twinkle in his eye as he growled “it doesn’t matter what they do…”.  I grinned sheepishly.  Inside I was standing on the table bellowing and beating my chest.  We won the tie 3-0.

2- It doesn’t matter what they do.  Nonetheless, this was a daunting prospect even before Brentford and Swansea held onto single-goal victories to shove us back down into fourth as the game kicked off.

Cardiff was the game I managed to get a ticket for back in that little window when such things were allowed a bit.  They strong-armed us that day but Neil Harris was gone eight weeks later.  Since Mick McCarthy arrived the Bluebirds have been undefeated in eleven and to their abrasive aggression has been added a conscientious discipline which, along with the confidence of a long unbeaten run, makes them a formidable opponent.

Nothing that happened in the first ten minutes or so here allayed those concerns.  City’s first corner was awarded twenty seconds in;  a minute later Sarr gave away a left wing free kick as the hosts gave every impression of being masters of their art… closing down high up the pitch, asking questions of goalkeeper and centre-backs with corners, free-kicks, long throws into a crowded box full of tall blokes with ponytails, headbands and other various lockdown hair constructions.  It felt as if it was going to be a long afternoon as the ferocious, swirling wind contributed to the air of a chaotic battlefield.

Sean Morrison, one of those whose unruly mop at Vicarage Road had developed into a ponytail here, was called to the referee with Francisco Sierralta after some early scuffles in the Watford box.  Close in attendance was Nate Chalobah, the “(cap)” after his name having been the most striking detail of a positive team selection.  He took his responsibilities seriously, a more proactive captain than any other than Troy, and rather than this development detracting from his performance he seemed to flourish with the responsibility.

Just as striking, ten minutes in, was that as soon as we navigated the aggressive press and found ourselves in stiller waters in City’s half we caused no end of problems.  Zinckernagel’s performance was again to combine moments of breathtaking deftness with moments of breathtaking daftness but the balance is more favourable game by game;  he danced towards the penalty area and caused havoc.  Kiko and Sarr combined down the right (no, really…), Kiko pulled a cross back, City defenders fell over.

City broke again as an intensely watchable contest developed its rhythm.  William Troost-Ekong, who looked unnerved by both the conditions and by Cardiff’s directness, slipped to let in Murphy who skated down Cardiff’s left with Will Hughes trailing in his wake.  Daniel Bachmann hurtled out, Murphy took a heavy touch and we were spared but only for a minute; once again Murphy was free on the left and he put an undefendable ball across the face of goal.  Sierralta stuck out a boot with Kieffer Moore hovering behind him and propelled the ball into his own net.

3- So, so significant that we struck back straight away.  A bit of luck that the opportunity presented itself but we forced our own luck, not for the last time.  With the wind behind them, a lead to defend and their tails up Cardiff could have taken the game in a different direction altogether.  We never gave them the chance.  Kiko burst down the right, the ball rattled around the penalty area, Zinckernagel forced a ricochet that found Chalobah.

There were references to the mythical “pre-injury” Chalobah on social media within minutes.  The pre-injury Chalobah who straddled Marco Silva’s midfield magnificently after returning permanently from Chelsea, only lasted five games – your memory does strange things with time.  But this was the match of anything we’ve seen from him since, dancing from one foot to the other like a matador before slicing a shot through the gap he’d created and definitively reclaiming control of the game.  “Stay cool”, he’d shouted as we’d kicked off again thirty seconds earlier, before walking the walk, ice in his veins. Quite, quite magnificent.

We never looked back. What followed was far from one way traffic… until the very end, the nature of Cardiff’s threat was such that there was always a risk. But whilst doubt had been dismissed from Watford minds before it had had the chance to take root it infected and upset the home side, whose conviction dissipated throughout the game.  Within ten minutes Sema headed a Sarr delivery down at the far post for João Pedro to athletically scissor an overhead shot straight at City keeper Phillips.  Sema drove into the box and laid the ball towards the Brazilian who flicked over.

We looked deft and intricate and confident.  Sema burrowed down the left wing but having seen his route blocked was assured enough to turn back down the flank, retain possession, find Masina and see his bold low cross reach Sarr who forced a fine save from Phillips. We were well on top… Chalobah was fouled and Cardiff arms were flung in Kevin-and-Perry frustration (one for the kids there…).  Bachmann came hurtling out to take out Kieffer Moore – a yellow card but a blow struck for the goalkeeper’s union, the boot so often on the other foot (or elbow).  Zinckernagel almost slipped Sarr in as the half time whistle blew with the only concern being that we weren’t already ahead.

4- The second half was never quite as flamboyant.  The home side occasionally asked questions, Watford provided answers; on the hour Kieffer Moore emerged from Sierralta’s pocket for long enough to get on the end of an Aden Flint knockdown to smash the ball over but these were the dying embers of the threat that Cardiff had suggested at the start of the game.

They’d tightened up though, and whilst we were on top our chances were limited, more peripheral.  Sema popped up on the right and sent a cross in for Sarr to head too close and too gently to threaten Phillips.  Sierralta flicked on a Zinckernagel free kick, it wouldn’t fall for João Pedro. Kiko flew down the right, Chalobah knocked down his cross, Sarr sliced wide.  It started to hail.

5- As the game entered its final ten minutes, as you were reflecting that a point away at Cardiff wasn’t a bad result all things considered, things got a bit tetchy for the first time;  up to this point it had been aggressive but not snide or narky.

Aden Flint was at the centre of much of it.  Not beloved of Tommy Mooney on comms (“he’s brilliant in the air, but my postman’s better than him on the deck”) he nonetheless fashioned a scissor kick of sorts on 82 minutes before drawing a reaction and a booking from Sierralta by pulling his topknot out of sight of the officials.  On 88 minutes Will Vaulks drove in a firm low shot forcing a competent but straightforward save from Daniel Bachmann, significant because this was the first shot on target managed by an opponent against us since Arnaut Danjuma scored for Bournemouth over a fortnight and more than three ninety minutes ago.  Which is ridiculous.  Kiko fed Sarr in the box, Sarr went down but it was a “you’ve seen them given” rather than a clear pen.

So… yes.  I was in “a draw’s not bad” space. Ismaïla Sarr could have been forgiven, perhaps, for being in the same place after a difficult game in which he’d been buffeted around for ninety minutes to limited effect.  Never has his transformation from sulky kid to force of nature over the course of the season been more starkly illustrated than here, his bullishness in taking on two markers, cutting between them and drawing a free kick, the free kick fundamental in how the game ended, as vital as Chalobah’s artful finish earlier or… as what happened next.

Heaven knows we’ve come not to expect too much from free kicks. Five years and so on and so forth.  There have been likelier candidates to break our duck in the interim than Adam Masina.  Roberto Pereyra perhaps.  Tom Cleverley.  Zinckernagel. Troy, even.  As he lined it up I was hoping for a touch off the bodies flying across the face of the goal.  As he ran up it occurred to me that if this went in we were definitely going up.  Masina absolutely smacked it straight at the keeper but Phillips was distracted with bodies running at and past him.  The shot went straight through…

6- A superficial, highlights assessment might conclude that we were lucky.  Lucky that the goalkeeper screwed up, gifting us the game.  Not a bit of it.  There’s nothing “lucky” about winning a game because an opponent screwed up.  Daniel Bachmann didn’t screw up when more severe questions had been asked of him.  Having a good goalkeeper isn’t “luck”.

But more than that, we’d earned that luck.  Earned the right for it to matter by clawing back an equaliser, by taking control of the game, by the sapping of our opponents’ belief and by Sarr having the self-confidence to turn and run at two defenders in the dying minutes.

Everything exploded.  Everywhere.  Seven hours on my throat is still raw.  Bellows were bellowed in living rooms and offices of a Watford persuasion across the country.  Limbs were flung with wild and graceless abandon. On the pitch, briefly, it threatened to kick off as Francisco Sierralta exacted revenge with a tug on Aden Flint’s top knot; Adam Masina did his best bit of blocking off of the afternoon to curtail any further unpleasantness (João Pedro quickly on the scene, shock).

But the explosion of joy at the win was about more than just a dramatic late winner.  It was every inch a team, a squad, that’s in it together.  Achraf Lazaar, a Hornet for less than a month and on the pitch for less than half an hour in total, was going nuts like it was the best thing that’s ever happened ever.  There was a ferocious bundle of players, subs, staff, and a beaming Xisco in the middle of it.  This was massive.

Elsewhere Brentford, Swansea will have been disappointed by the news.  On the south coast, Bournemouth were losing at home to Barnsley (perhaps we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the goings on at mid-table sides any longer?).  But all of that’s irrelevant.  This is all about us.  Nobody’s stopping this lot.

It doesn’t matter what they do.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 5, Masina 4, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 5*, Zinckernagel 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs: Success (for Sema, 77) NA, Gray (for Zinckernagel, 86) NA, Sánchez (for Chalobah, 86) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Wilmot, Cathcart, Hungbo, Foster

Many many thanks to those who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK following my post last week.  I’m averaging 12.5k steps per day and I’m dead on my feet… you can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Watford 1 Nottingham Forest 0 (06/03/2021) 07/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1- I’m walking a lot at the moment.  “March the Month“, raising money for Prostate Cancer UK with colleagues.  Sponsor us if you have some spare pennies.

The commitment, formally, is 11,000 steps per day between us, but given the size of the crew we’d probably manage on a day’s trips to the fridge.  So it’s 11,000 a day for me.  This has brought into sharp relief the fact that in contrast to being “at work” on a campus site when a normal day would see you rack up a few thousand steps without thinking about it, when you work at home, as many folk have been doing for a year, you do absolutely bugger all.

My approach has been an early rise at 6 in order to get serious steps in before work.  I had visions of crisp, bright mornings and walks in the sunshine, it hasn’t really worked out like that. Damp, grey and muddy so far.  And I’m completely shattered.

2- Fatigue is sharply in focus at this stage of the season given the unusually compressed timetable and the extent to which games are tumbling over each other.  This is, amongst other things, why Liverpool have fallen off the edge of a cliff – their pressing game is unsustainable in this climate apparently (though nobody told Barnsley).

For the Hornets, deep squad or otherwise, this was a high risk fixture in the circumstances coming at the end of a sapping run of games against a side good enough to nick something if we weren’t careful but far enough down the table to run the risk of being taken lightly.  Not only that, but they boasted not one but two players, in James Garner and Glenn Murray, whose loan spells at the Vic had been curtailed by lack of action barely a month ago.  No risk of heightened focus and potential embarrassment there at all.  And Anthony Knockaert, whose visits to the Vic are rarely dull one way or another.  I won’t have been the only one feeling slightly anxious at the outset, the more so with the bold call to field João Pedro in midfield.

We needn’t have worried.  This wasn’t the most entertaining game we’ve watched this season, nor the most comfortable victory.  But it was an absolutely tremendous achievement in context which should leave us bullish about our prospects for the rest of the campaign.

3- The whistle saw the two sides grappling for the first passage of possession, as if desperate for the opportunity to set the agenda for the opening exchanges.  A good touch from Gray saw the Hornets win that initial confrontation and rattle downfield for Ken Sema, who was to have his most vibrant 90 minutes for a while, sling a cross to the far post necessitating early rearguard action from Forest.  Two minutes later a fine Kiko delivery found Gray rising between two markers to head firmly straight at Samba.  Nearly excellent.

Knockaert’s first contribution was to attempt to nobble Philip Zinckernagel, who might quite reasonably have been assumed to be a vulnerability in that midfield three but whose robustness seems to gradually increase week by week – he was buffeted on this occasion, but exacted revenge later in the half.  The French winger would supply much of the ammunition for Forest’s second half resurgence, such as it was, but this was not to be an afternoon remembered for his positive contributions.

Garner and Murray, similarly, failed to deliver performances that challenged their slide out of contention at Vicarage Road.  Garner, sporting a lockdown haircut worthy of comparison to Étienne Capoue’s voluminous efforts, might become a very good footballer at the top level but isn’t that at the moment.  He looks like a kid cautiously feeling his way, and Forest is the sandpit that Vicarage Road wasn’t going to be.  As Tommy Mooney noted on comms, for all that we’ve moved to a three man midfield since his departure you couldn’t see him being more than a bit part player at best.  Murray, meanwhile, looks a few years off it at the other end of the scale and provided a couple of decent touches but minimal threat.

Knockaert meanwhile was going to cede dominance of Forest’s right hand side to Adam Masina, who had his best outing since returning to the side and arguably of his Watford career.  A tone was set on ten minutes when the left back poached the ball precisely and dismissively from his adversary, and then fooled him with a dummy that left him chasing shadows to cheers and laughter from Watford supporters everywhere.

The next five minutes were ominous for Forest… Sarr flew at Bong and appeared to be fouled, his marker already bedraggled.  A fine break concluded with a Sarr header to another tremendous Kiko cross.  Sarr nicked possession – Forest look eminently muggable early on – demanding urgent recovery from Worrall.  A fine Hughes crossfield ball found Masina on the gallop, his cross found Sarr but his acrobatic effort lacked power.

Finally it told.  Sarr flayed Bong on the right, Samba beat Gray to his cross but the deflection fell to Masina who slammed a shot between the recovering Samba’s legs and in from the edge of the area.  The left back had been abandoned by his marker…  I was watching Hive with Jon Marks’ comms, but reports described Sky’s commentator exclaiming “Where’s Knockaert?”, for pundit Keith Andrews to reply “He’s cheating!”, two words which elevated his popularity in Hertfordshire to levels he didn’t achieve during his brief loan six or seven years ago.

4- We weren’t lucky here.  We were the better side, and deserved the win.  But we did have a couple of things roll for us.  Samba was clearly worse off for his collision with Gray but hadn’t been fouled and was on his feet when he was beaten.  Later in the game, as against Wycombe on Wednesday, we “conceded” an offside goal that could easily not have been.  And as things got a bit iffy late on and Daniel Bachmann came flying excitedly out to punch the danger clear he was close enough to the edge of his area to have courted disaster.

We got away with all of it though, and deserved to.  We dominated the remainder of the half, our attacking play occasionally flowing beautifully if to limited consequence as Forest pulled together what was ultimately an impressive defensive performance.  Going forward however their first half efforts felt rushed and ragged, as if the ball was always running away from them.  Knockaert’s chief contribution was to bizarrely refuse to retreat at a corner, an odd choice of hill to die on.

5- Our second half performance was less dominant.  Forest asserted themselves in the game and had more of the chances, even if the threat was theoretical and implied for the most part rather than, you know, resulting in chances and shots and that.  The pace slowed dramatically, Chris Hughton’s modus operandi of suffocating a game until everyone’s so bored that they lose concentration fully in evidence. Daniel Bachmann had reacted well to a ball under his bar late in the first half but we continue to look vulnerable to aerial assault – Sierralta less dominant than he has been today, it was William Troost-Ekong and the omnipresent Masina who were more prominent in repelling our opponents.

Xisco takes a lot of credit for the victory, I think.  Not that he’s got much to prove after a sixth win in seven, but today’s challenge asked new things of him and he provided answers that were as creative as they were effective.  I’d had doubts about Zinc in midfield on Wednesday, we just about got away with it again with the good stuff just about outweighing the occasional loose control.  Will Hughes patrolled the back of the midfield masterfully every inch the captain on his first full ninety with the armband, one minute breaking things up and the next slinging balls forward like a quarterback.  The genius, however, was the left-field call to accommodate Gray and João Pedro not by dropping Sema into the three but by playing the Brazilian there.  If he wasn’t perfect – occasionally overplaying, and on one occasion being given a stark reminder that a slack pass in the midfield is likely to be more consequential than one in the final third – then the immediacy of his control, the silkiness of his movement and his deceptive physical strength made him thoroughly effective, a joy, in his deeper role.  Chapeau to the head coach, hugely impressive that we can lose two thirds of our engine room and complete a second home game without conceding a shot on target.  Chalobah and Gosling return for Cardiff where the squad will look formidable despite a number of ongoing absentees.

Formidable given three very decent cameos off the bench here.  That Carlos Sánchez is a tidy player should be no surprise – 88 caps for Colombia and so forth. West Ham fans have been scornful, but then if they had any judgement at all they wouldn’t support West Ham.  Sánchez’s debut began with a couple of overhit short passes putting teammates under pressure but he soon warmed to the task, assertive and influential without moving very far from the centre of the pitch or doing much more than holding and protecting possession.  A player, and the latest in a theme of experienced low-risk signings who will provide cover in the event of cruelly coincident injuries.  Eventualities being covered.  We have at least two sides that would be competitive in this division.

Briefer cameos were afforded to Joseph Hungbo and Isaac Success, but each was as encouraging as the Colombian’s.  Hungbo has definitively elevated himself above the status of bench-filled with some punchy, confident contributions.  “A game little soul” WhatsApped Dave, once again demonstrating that thing about stopped clocks. Meanwhile I have outrageously high hopes for Isaac in the Championship, but he hasn’t shattered my dreams yet with his five minutes here, holding the ball up, then faking to the corner flag before flicking a pass that saw Hungbo fly in on goal in the dying seconds.

It’s all good.  Swansea spawned another win, Norwich continue to gallop onwards, but that’s the thing about the top of the table.  Teams are good, and will win more games than they lose – much easier to cede ground at this end of the table than to gain it.

It’ll come, though.  There are plenty of games to go, and we’re good for the long haul.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 3, *Masina 5*, Hughes 4, Zinckernagel 3, João Pedro 4, Sarr 4, Gray 3, Sema 4
Subs:  Sánchez (for Gray, 66) 4, Hungbo (for Zinckernagel, 80) NA, Success (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Ngakia, Wilmot, Cathcart, Perica, Navarro, Elliot

Watford 2 Wycombe Wanderers 0 (03/03/2021) 04/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and is football mad.  All (English) Premier League games are available on pan-African satellite channels, bars are busy (were busy…) whenever the games are on.  I’ve never been surrounded by a more fervent TV crowd than when watching Man United play Barcelona in a Champions League game in Addis Ababa.

Unfortunately, the national team is a bit rubbish.  Ranked 42nd in Africa, never made the World Cup finals, only one African Cup of Nations qualification since 1982 when, in 2013, they finished bottom of their group in South Africa with a single point to their name.

Opportunities to watch the national side are naturally a bit thin on the ground here in the UK, but at around the same time as their South African adventure, the Ethiopian side got within a play-off of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil having topped their qualification group ahead of South Africa.

A two-legged tie against Nigeria ensued.  Ethiopia would lose both legs, but their team was fascinating, unlike any African team I’d ever seen.  They were much smaller, physically, than their West African opponents but they flowed around them like water.  Elegant, fluid, athletic and nimble, they were occasionally breathtaking.

Unfortunately their defending was clueless.

2- Philip Zinckernagel would have a job on passing as Ethiopian in any other respect, but his cameos to date have suggested that he wouldn’t have looked out of place in that side.  Deftness of foot, mouthwatering crosses and a dynamism that oils attacks has been offset by a lack of robustness and a startling lack of defensive awareness and intelligence.  Bad, often expensive decisions.

This was his first League start, a development probably accelerated by Nathaniel Chalobah’s suspension, Dan Gosling’s injury and Daniel Phillips’ disappearance from consideration, but you’d rather have had him further forward (as far away from our goal as possible) and probably in place of the visibly fatigued Ken Sema.

His opening few minutes were erratic…  some nice touches in early moves, then a minute later ploughing needlessly through the back of Uche Ikpeazu to concede a free kick on the edge of the box.  On the upside you wouldn’t have predicted that he had it in him to take down the massive Wycombe target man, fairly or otherwise.  On the downside he was going to need to go some to convince that he was worth the risks he was presenting to the team.

And in fairness, it did get better.  There was more welcome evidence of a greater degree of toughness and doggedness than has been suggested hitherto.  Occasionally beautiful touches that oiled a fledgling move. A sweeping crossfield pass to release Sarr late in the half.  We’ll come to the assist, obviously.  Still peppered with some ropey old decision making from time to time… but personally for all his deficiencies I came out of this one much more positive about the value of our January recruit.

3- The other eye-catching addition to the eleven was Andre Gray, starting his first game for almost a month in the absence of the suspended João Pedro.  Not a given that he’d get the nod I don’t think, but fourteen minutes in he made a mockery of his meagre form this season by clinically finishing off a move that, like so many, rolled down the right wing via Kiko and the irrepressible Sarr.  No surprise, I guess, that a striker should enjoy playing in a confident attacking side creating plenty of chances more than he does the constipated Watford team that he struggled in front of for much of the season, but nonetheless.  Surprising how easy he made it look, suddenly.  In common with our best moves at the moment, particularly down that flank, we looked mercilessly precise.

The visitors had begun as advertised – honest, dogged and robust, ceding the midfield almost entirely and dropping numbers deep.  After the goal however their defensive discipline seemed to desert them entirely and the biggest stain on our performance is that we didn’t make more of the gaping chasms that we were permitted to wander through.

Two minutes after the goal Cleverley’s shot was deflected wide after he found an obscene amount of abandoned ground just outside the box.  A few minutes later Cleverley fed Sarr, Jacobson denying him with a hooked last-ditch challenge.  Zinckernagel broke through on the left but overran.  Bachmann sent a jaw-dropping ball through to Sarr, Jacobson got away with a desperate grab that Sarr tried to exaggerate.  All within ten minutes of the goal.

Having not capitalised, it was slightly alarming that without coming terribly close to scoring the visitors were causing anxiety in our box just by looking at it curiously.  The 23rd minute saw an aimless ball being negligently allowed to bounce around in the penalty area. Horgan began to outmuscle Masina.  Sierralta had his hands full – sometimes literally – with Uche Ikpeazu.  The half ended with Zinckernagel releasing Sarr, Stockdale denying Gray a second by intercepting a cross.  We were comfortably the better side, but not comfortably ahead.

4- Wycombe were still in it, somehow, and clearly had a rocket up them at the break since they came at us more aggressively and forcefully at the start of the second period.  At the back of your mind was the knowledge that we weren’t half going to feel silly if the visitors clawed their way back into it given the imbalance of the first half chances.  We were a tight offside call from being in exactly that place as Wheeler’s sharp finish to Tafazolli’s flick-on was denied.

We looked ponderous and laborious.  Ripe for the mugging, perhaps, until we scored again and put all doubt to bed.  And here’s the moment that really earns Zinc his positive write-up.  There’s plenty of mitigation in place already…  he’s come from a very different League into a well-established team in an unusual environment, he’s allowed to take time to settle. But all of that aside, this assist buys him an awful lot of rope.  On two separate occasions, one in the first half and one later in the second, he’d find himself space for a potshot without managing to put it anywhere near the goal.  Here he seemed to be after the same, before with a conjuror’s slight-of-movement, a slight-of-movement that echoed Almen Abdi’s finest moments, he slipped the ball past a Wycombe defence that had been watching the wrong hand.  Once again, having been successfully smuggled beyond enemy lines, Gray dispatched with a startling lack of fuss.  Quite, quite brilliant.

5- There were still Moments at each end.  Hughes fed Sema who slammed a ball across the face.  Zinckernagel thumped a shot at Stockdale, Gray overhead-kicked the rebond towards Sarr who fired over.  Ikpeazu barrelled his way towards the byline in a manner that echoed Tommy Mooney against Bristol Rovers, but at a quarter of the speed. The hugely effective Jacobson sent in a couple of set pieces.  It never felt in doubt though.

A solid, uncomplicated win that was much needed following Saturday’s bump in the road.  The only real negative – beyond irritating developments in Stoke and Bristol where Swansea and Bournemouth would both go behind and enjoy some fortune in recovering three points – was an injury to Tom Cleverley that saw him limp off after apparently trying to play on after twisting his leg.  With Nate – and Dan, presumably – still missing on Saturday we have a bit of a personnel issue in the middle of the pitch.  Carlos Sánchez’s negotiating position just got a bit stronger, one suspects.

There’s a long way to go still in what looks to be a race every bit as tight as the one in 2015.  The way the fixtures fall, however, puts great emphasis on the forthcoming, relatively gentle set of fixtures.  Pick up some speed and we head into the big games after Easter with momentum.  Fail to deliver and we’ll be needing to make up points from a run that will look a lot more daunting.

With a fifth win in six, we’re doing OK.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Masina 3, Hughes 4, Cleverley 3, Zinckernagel 4, *Sarr 4*, Gray 4, Sema 3
Subs:  Ngakia (for Femenía, 75) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 84) NA, Perica (for Gray, 84) NA, Wilmot (for Cleverley, 86) NA, Cathcart, Barrett, Success, Pochettino, Elliot

AFC Bournemouth 1 Watford 0 (27/02/2021) 28/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- The thing about the last twelve months is that there’s nobody to blame.

There have been idiots, sure.  All manner of idiots, all manner of selfishness. But even there…  you’ve got to allow for circumstances.  What’s going on at home?  What’s she having to cope with?  Maybe he’s just lost his job?  Perhaps they’ve lost someone.  And even the true, dyed-in-the-wool idiots…  you know, them…  it’s not their fault is it?  Everything? Even if they’re handling it badly.

They’re just convenient targets as we’ve raged in our impotence.  Part of the frustration is having nowhere to point.  Even the government, to whatever degree you believe them to have messed things up or not are, at worst, making things worse rather than being the source of the situation.  What we could all do with is an incontrovertible bad guy.  A common enemy to unite against.  Someone to vent our collective spleens at in catharsis without reservation or qualification.

Hello, Bournemouth.

2- We started boldly.  We started like the side consciously in better form and intent on imposing ourselves on our nervous hosts.  Three minutes in and Sarr released Kiko down the right, his cross found its way to Masina who’s header dropped the wrong side of the post.  Even as the hosts steadied themselves and the game settled into a sparring match, the Hornets were the most likely.  The side asking the questions;  Bournemouth provided answers, but often as time was running out.  It wasn’t going to take much.

Kiko overlapped again, João Pedro headed wide at the near post.  The Brazilian linked up with Cleverley to send Chalobah through only for Pearson to snuff the danger.  João Pedro turned Pearson and smacked a shot against Cameron Carter-Vickers.  The centre-back was facing the Hornets for the third time in six months with a third different club; he would later manage to foul both João Pedro and Cleverley in the same move, quite creatively, but for all that this was requiring some last ditch stuff, the last ditch stuff kept coming and clear cut chances were thin on the ground.

There was no avoiding that, by the break, the home side were punching their weight.  On the half hour horrible echoes were offered by the sight of Kiko struggling at the far post to an Adam Smith cross.  Kelly thumped a shot that Bachmann pushed over. The half ended with Sarr shooting over after a snappy passing move, but with the game still very much all square.

3- The frustration of course, not for the first time, is that we didn’t rise above it.  Worse, there was evidence of us trying to beat them at their own game…  provocative holding onto the ball to slow the game down, little niggles to try to upset the hosts.  We were never going to out-Bournemouth Bournemouth, and should have stuck to the stuff we’ve been good at.

Because there’s still no out-Bournemouthing Bournemouth.  You did wonder if the antipathy would fade now that Tindall has followed Howe out of the door, but it seems that if that’s a significant change of tone it’ll take a while to coach the new tune.  Lewis Cook started the second half by reacting to a harsh foul call by kicking the ball in frustration at the linesman.  A generous yellow.  Then, as the Hornets broke, the vagaries of microphones in an empty stadium picked up a shout of “foul! foul! foul!” from the Bournemouth bench. And, yes, perhaps such things are commonplace if only we could hear them in the normal way but… so on brand.

The Chalobah and Lerma thing had been bubbling up throughout, and boiled over just before the hour.  The Colombian climbed on Chalobah, Chalobah grappled, Lerma grappled, as they came down Chalobah flicked a hand at Lerma’s face;  he collapsed as if he’d been shot.

We can’t control what Bournemouth do.  We can control how we react to it, and it’s not like we’ve not been warned.  After all, Tindall shrieking at Marc Pugh to go down in the box here was seven years ago.  Chalobah’s gesture wasn’t a forearm smash, but it opened the possibility for Lerma to do what he did.  Stupid.

4- Arnaut Danjuma had had a quiet first half, but was the game’s most potent threat in the second.  Shortly before the Lerma incident he’d sliced in from the left and put the ball past Bachmann only for Sierralta to intervene.  As Lerma returned to his feet and brushed himself down our concentration had gone, Danjuma was beyond the defence and that was all it took.

We threatened, and could still have nicked a point.  Sarr flew past James for the first time but shot wide at the near post.  An extraordinary leap from Sema saw the ball knocked down, Begovic prevailed against Sarr who only needed a touch.   Sarr sizzled a cross in from the right, sub Perica was smothered at the near post.   Narrow margins.

But the closing fifteen minutes or so were a sort of Bournemouth greatest hits tour.  All the classics came out…  Lerma rolling around again, trying to draw another card from a now flustered referee.  Significant that Dan Gosling, his teammate a month ago, was at the front of the protagonists expressing their disgust.  Jack Wilshere came off the bench for an extraordinary cameo that saw him booked for timewasting and finally dismissed for his part in the final melee having escaped censure for a brutally cynical off the ball hack on João Pedro, for bellowing at the referee to “f*** off” and for applauding his first booking.  Whether Wilshere is merely an idiot, or whether there’s some in-joke going on at Dean Court, a bet based on dodging cards following Kelly and Billing’s efforts at Vicarage Road, we can only speculate.

Meanwhile João Pedro looks ever more convincing leading the line, but manages to get into a barney on a twice-weekly basis and in games much less combustible than this one. He will have a target on his back, and needs to calm the hell down and not reward, much less react to the provocation because it’s going to keep happening. His dismissal means that we still haven’t lost at Bournemouth with eleven men since 1976… his second booking was avoidable, presuming that the referee saw the flick of the boot at Lerma and didn’t penalise the strong but fair challenge that immediately preceded it.

5- As it all kicked off in the dying minutes, a rolling brawl that ebbed and flowed and faded and reignited even in the tunnel on the way out  Philip Zinckernagel, who hadn’t on the pitch to calm João Pedro down this time, was at least able to protect Sarr from more than a yellow as it all kicked off.  Little chance of the Dane making it onto the pitch for this one, he’d have been blown away like a crisp packet in a gale.

As for Bournemouth, I spent my stompy failing-to-calm-down walk this afternoon pondering whether I’d rather punch Adam Smith in the face or knee Jefferson Lerma in the balls given the choice, finally deciding that the right thing to do would be to chuck whoever was imposing such a restriction down a deep hole and do both.  Perhaps not entirely a bad thing from my point of view that fans weren’t allowed on this occasion.  I suspect I wasn’t the only one who found it hard to calm down.

Fortunately, a reminder that there’s a long way to go and that points will be dropped along the way came before the end of the afternoon as Swansea contrived to lose at home to Nigel Pearson’s Bristol City.  Losing away at Bournemouth, the first home win in these fixtures since the two sides were promoted in 2015, is a pain in the arse but doesn’t need to be terminal.

We’re a better side than Bournemouth, we have a better coach than Bournemouth, and we were a lapse of concentration away from a decent away point.  “Stay on target”.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 3, Cathcart 3, *Sierralta 4, Masina 3, Hughes 3, Cleverley 3, Chalobah 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs:  Gosling (for Chalobah, 76) NA, Lazaar (for Masina, 76) NA, Perica (for Sema, 84) NA, Ngakia, Gray, Cathcart, Troost-Ekong, Zinckernagel, Elliot

Blackburn Rovers 2 Watford 3 (24/02/2021) 25/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1976.  Friday 13th as it goes, three days after Dennis Bond’s goal got us a 1-0 win at Scunthorpe.

A bit before my time as regards following the Hornets.  Mum and Dad bore the emotional brunt, I don’t remember not being diabetic, not having to worry about it.  I do remember syringes the size of polaris missiles. The rules have changed over the years… not how diabetes works, but what I’m supposed to do about it.  As I’ve grown up, as understanding of diabetes and treatments have improved.

Today I was fitted with an insulin pump.  Virtually, of course…  or rather I fitted it myself under remote guidance.  I control the dose via a remote, it ought to better replicate what my pancreas would be doing if it hadn’t packed in halfway through the 1975/76 season.  Tomorrow (Thursday) will be the first day since then that I haven’t had an insulin injection.  Conservatively, 50 thousand or so in the interim.  I feel superpowered.  A cyborg.  This is a step-change.

2- Watford have undergone a similar step-change in recent weeks, the new formation making the most of our assets at last.  The midfield is body armour, the forward trio mounted automatic weapons.  We are brutally too good for most of the division playing like this.

The evening was pretty brutal all round.  It was hammering down with rain on a heavy, tatty-looking pitch.  Blackburn were on the back of a four-match losing streak and missing players.  We, of course, are also missing players… Foster, Kabasele, Chalobah, Deeney is at the very least a respectable spine for a Championship side.  This is the point in the season where the depth of our squad ought to tell.

At Vicarage Road at the start of the season Rovers looked aggressive and potent in attack but startlingly wide-open at the back.  They carried this reckless combination with no little panache, creating a positive impression despite the 3-1 scoreline.  In the first half today the same characteristics were in evidence, but in a side bereft of confidence.  We got at Rovers early, and should have been more comfortably ahead at the break, such was their palpable vulnerability.

From the outset Rovers looked sulky, protesting decisions forlornly, hands on hips.  Sarr screamed down the right early on as we started boldly, surprised to find such little resistance.  In fairness Barry Douglas was a dogged if not always successful opponent from then on, but this was almost too easy.  Both sides struggled for control in the conditions, but for all that Rovers offered a threat there was only one end that the goals were coming.  Sarr was released again on 12 minutes, the excitable Kaminski flapped unnecessarily at his deflected cross.   Douglas let Sarr in with a slack pass, Kaminski recovered the ball but then rolled out suicidally, Gosling pounced, Hughes drove in a shot, the ball ricocheted around.  The already imperious Hughes released Sarr in the centre of the box, a fine run, his shot too close to Kaminski who was allowed to make a decent fingertip save.  “Finally”, if only midway through the half, Cleverley’s lofted ball found João Pedro wandering in unnoticed to artfully flick the ball over the exposed Kaminski.

Blackburn threatened again, a portent of what was to come, Armstrong firing a shot across Bachmann, too close.  Rothwell curled a shot towards Bachmann that was comfortable, but wouldn’t have been with the slightest nick.  This wasn’t done.  And yet… when we broke it looked so ominous.  Cleverley mugged Travis and again Rovers were exposed, 4 on 3… but Tom’s ball to Sarr was untidy, Sarr drove near post and forced a save.  From the corner Gosling attacked a loose ball well but drove over.  Finally (again) given the number of chances and the pathetic flailing of Rovers’ defence, we got the second… Kiko surged down the right, his cross reached João Pedro via Sema, his shot was blocked but Sarr tucked in.

3- That could have, should have been that.  Even at our weakest points this season our defending has been resolute, solid.  You’d back us to protect a two-goal lead away from home against anyone, particularly with hay to be made on the break.  These were difficult conditions however, against a belligerent attack spearheaded by the forceful Armstrong.  There was no room for the collective hesitation – it was truthfully no worse than that – that ended with Masina getting mugged as we ran out of space to play out, Elliott finding the net to change the tone of the half-time team talk.

Rovers came out looking purposeful and single-minded at the start of the second half.  To reiterate, they’d forced the issue as much as us stuffing up, so credit’s due for the strength of character that kept them going at 2 down.  It gave us a problem, and changed the mood – Rovers had a free punch now, nothing to lose.  Hearts in mouths as Armstrong raced Will Hughes, who is many fine things but no speed-merchant…  Bachmann, rebounding after some iffy moments against Derby, flew out to snuff out the chance.  Troost-Ekong spooned a loose ball high, Sierralta and Masina managed to smuggle the ball out for a corner but it all felt rather more precarious than it had done in the first half.

We couldn’t get hold of the ball, suddenly.  The game was ridiculously open, and midfield superiority is of limited value if the midfield has become obsolete.  Nonetheless, we had the best footballer on the pitch in Will Hughes who sent an insane ball through for Sarr who cut his cross across the face of goal, João Pedro not quite alert to it.  Downing came on for Rovers, 78 years old now but a great player to trundle out in such circumstances.  Again, ominous… until we nabbed another goal on the break, Sema shuffling the ball onto his left foot and across the face of the keeper.

4- The game remained far too open for our liking, even with the two-goal lead restored.  Chances at both ends… Masina diving in to deny the potent Nyambe one minute, Rovers clearing off the line after Sierralta’s header was propelled goalwards by a Blackburn head the next.  With Downing providing quality at set pieces, the thuggish but effective Branthwaite was at the centre of some disruptive bolshiness at a corner which was cleared with Sierralta grounded.  That takes some doing.  It was a proper battle.

I opened the app, checking on the other scores.  Blackburn had pulled a second goal back, it transpired to dismay.  I had the joy of watching Downing’s corner with the grim knowledge of what was about to happen, Wilmot exposed by Brereton’s forcefulness at the far post.

5- The last ten minutes feel profoundly significant in our season’s trajectory.  The difference between the recriminations that would have followed twice surrendering a two-goal lead, and the chest-beating and fist-bumping following an utterly gutsy, inspiring performance.

Never gutsier or more inspiring than in those closing minutes.  Zinckernagel and Gray, like Wilmot, had joined the fray and all put a shift in, Gray’s energetic combativeness just what was needed in the circumstances.  Rovers were chasing an unlikely point – Brereton bullied Kiko, Kiko stayed on his feet and prevailed.  Hughes got his head behind a Rovers clearance to stifle another attack.  Sarr’s defensive work was diligent, chasing, getting a foot in.  Gray bundled the ball into the corner flag.  Bachmann blocked a shot as another Downing cross got too far.  The whistle blew.

This wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t perfect but we won the game anyway.  The top four are pulling away, and if none of the others dropped points this time around then we have the consolation of knowing that the other three haven’t made the ground they could have done.  Four wins on the hop, none of the preceding three required this depth of character.

Meanwhile, back in 1976 Watford’s first game after my formal diagnosis was a 4-1 defeat at Bournemouth.  We’ve been owing them for a long time.  A tantalising fixture on Saturday lunchtime.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Masina 3, *Hughes 5*, Cleverley 4, Gosling 3, Sarr 4, João Pedro 4, Sema 3
Subs:  Zinckernagel (for Gosling, 62) 3, Gray (for João Pedro, 76) 4, Wilmot (for Sema, 76) 3, Ngakia, Perica, Cathcart, Lazaar, Hungbo, Elliot

Watford 2 Derby County 1(19/02/2021) 20/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  I went out this morning, without a coat.  There’s a development.  First time this year and… it’s still February, we could still get another bout of cold and ice but this felt significant.  A landmark moment… pleasantly cool, bit of a breeze but you feel more alive without a coat.  Feels as if something’s changed.  Feels as if we’re starting something new.

On the pitch, too.  Like a jigsaw where all the pieces have suddenly fallen into place the question is no longer, “can we find some form” or “can we hang on to a play-off place until we find some form” or “can we hang on to a play off place” or even “how the hell do we still have a play-off place” but, “right, who next?”. It’s a mindset change, an attitude change, it’s a whole load more fun all of a sudden but it brings its own challenges, Derby the latest.

It’s early days, too early for such reckless comparisons really, but there are parallels with 1999 here.  I suspect that most of you are at least old enough to remember, but in case…  those of us who had been impressionable youngsters as GT’s Hornets first assaulted the top flight in the eighties found ourselves at a later but no less vulnerable stage, mid-twenties with disposable income, limited extended responsibilities and a distorted sense of perspective as the newly promoted Hornets tapped a vein of form at a critical point to bundle into the play-offs and earn promotion to the Premier League.  For a couple of months, you didn’t think about anything else. Genuinely obsessed.

Then, as now, a change in personnel (if not shape at that late stage) was pivotal in propelling us onwards.  The success was not quite immediate; Tommy Mooney had made his first start as number 9 (in our last season without squad numbers) a couple of weeks before things clicked after a season and a bit in a back three and then four months of cameos off the bench.  But then as now, a change was transformative and everything fell into place around it.

Then as now the falling-into-place had been preceded with some miserable 0-0 draws and a couple of hapless defeats.  Then as now there was a startling, eye-catching match when everything dramatically clicked.  Then as now, you went into games feeling invincible.

2- Derby have been slumming it at the lower end of the division all season, but came into this on a very decent run of form.  Matt Clarke’s injury left them short in defence in particular but nonetheless… five wins in six, which is exactly the momentum you need going into a game away to a high flying side.  They will have wanted to lay down a marker, to confirm that their new found form represented a more permanent state of affairs and they started, and played most of the game, in that vein;  focused, intense, confident and aggressive.

The Hornets, with Sierralta apparently rotated out, his turn for a rest, counter-punched early as the first of many good overlapping breaks down the right culminated in Chalobah backheeling inside for a galloping Femeníá; minutes later the right-back dinked a ball over Sarr whose violent cross was headed clear.

From here Derby broke themselves through Knight and enjoyed a prolonged period of possession around the Watford box.  They retained the energy and urgency but didn’t penetrate, which became a bit of a theme.  An offside call felt symbolic, we’d weathered that little storm. Sure enough, within a minute Jason Knight went  down squealing like a stuck pig, not for the first time, was ignored by the officials and the Hornets broke down the right to open the scoring.

We got a big dose of luck, again, with the ricochet for the finish, but had earned it with that move down the right side.  You have to feel for nineteen year-old Lee Buchanan, or indeed for any left back facing Sarr and Kiko in this division (not you, Bournemouth).  The young winger’s brutal pace is one thing, but having Kiko overlapping him, providing an option or loading the bullets isn’t really fair.  The Spaniard was at his irrepressible best this evening, but the kudos for the goal goes to Sarr whose explosion of acceleration as he switched from running shoulder to shoulder with his opponent to screaming past him onto Kiko’s ball inside was ridiculous, as if a “burst” button had been pressed on a 20 year-old console game.  His terrific cross deflected first off a defender, then off the unwitting João Pedro to give the Hornets the lead.  Two minutes later with the Rams reeling for the first time a Hughes corner looked likely to result in a Derby break until Cleverley thundered in, another Chalobah backheel freed Hughes into too much space and he finished surgically and decisively.

3- Derby were rocking, we could have perhaps put it to bed at this stage and weren’t far away from doing so…  Kiko swung a pass across the face of goal, no touch at the far post.  Nate dinked a ball over the top, just too long for João Pedro.  The Brazilian was almost played through again, a saving tackle preventing a clean run on goal.

Derby regained a grip however, and re-exerted some pressure.  Having failed to make headway otherwise they caused problems for the first time with a series of well-delivered set pieces, a theme that they would sensibly pursue in the second half.  Bachmann looked exposed, possibly fouled, in punching one cross over his bar.  From the resultant corner the veteran Colin Kazim-Richards headed powerfully home.

Not difficult to sympathise with referee Tim Robinson.  From at least one angle in a crowded penalty area it looked as if Bachmann had been impeded by Andre Wisdom.  He clearly wasn’t, however; one to bear in mind next time one goes against us.  We got away with one there. Worth reflecting also that you’d fancy that neither this one nor the cross that lead to the corner would have caused as many problems with Francisco Sierralta underneath them.  Good that we got away with resting him here, just about, but he’s gone from 0 to 60 startlingly quickly, our key centre-back now having started the season fifth in line.

4- With Hughes and Cleverley both picking up bookings in the first half many Hornets will have been speculating as to which would make way for Dan Gosling at the break.  Hughes in particular looked to be sailing close to the wind and committed another foul at the start of the second half.  As it was Gosling had to wait until the hour to replace not Hughes or Cleverley, but Nathaniel Chalobah, one booking away from a two match ban if a tenth arrives between now and the Rotherham game in a month’s time.

The midfield trio were once again tremendous;  Hughes hugely influential, pulling the strings, Cleverley busy, Chalobah enjoying perhaps his best hour of the season, sure-footed and confident as the occasionally frenetic game flowed around him.  Gosling already looks a fine signing, once more stepping in for one of the leading trio at no obvious cost to the team. A concern iremains quite how limited the cover is in central midfield with a three, but to this end Ben Wilmot plays in Will Hughes’ role at the base to very great effect for 15 minutes, a rare senior opportunity to play in the role which, it has been speculated, is his ultimate destination.  No evidence against that here.

On with Wilmot came Philip Zinckernagel, who was exposed not doing very basic defending once again as Byrne was allowed to send in the cross that Willam Troost-Ekong, who also looked edgy, propelled past the helpless Bachmann.  Both here, with Kazim-Richards in an offside position, and when Sema was prevented from meeting Kiko’s evil cross across the box minutes earlier, the imbalance in refereeing decisions was evened out a little.  Of more consequence is that Zinckernagel, for all the deft attacking threat he suggests, doesn’t look like he can be trusted with any defensive responsibility just at the moment.  That’s restrictive.

5- Derby kitchen-sink it in the closing minutes.  Bachmann reacts well to claw Byrne’s vicious corner away from the top corner of the net,  David Marshall comes up for two late corners and the visitors make us look a bit nervous for the first time.  Our threat has been more spasmodic in the second half – we have one late chance when some magnificent keep ball culminates with Sarr breaking into the box and teeing up Zinckernagel for an underwhelming left foot shot. The game to great relief with us manning the barricades.

Wayne Rooney will claim post-match that his side deserved something from the game.  The lack of full stop to many of their attacks counts against that, but you’d fancy we’d be feeling similarly hard done by in his position.  Derby looked a good side and made us work.  We beat them anyway.

Saturday’s startlingly helpful results will have buoyed Hornets’ hearts still further;  Brentford’s recent collapse in particular having looked irresistible a couple of weeks ago perhaps a warning against getting too carried but we look formidable, and at this point of the season with shallower squads than ours suffering badly we have a real opportunity.  Of our first choice eleven only perhaps Hughes and Sarr would be critical misses in isolation.  The momentum is building, the conviction and the energy that we’ve been so badly missing is there, we have the squad and we’re strong all over the pitch.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, *Femenía 5*, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Masina 3, Hughes 5, Cleverley 4, Chalobah 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 4, Sema 2
Subs:  Gosling (for Chalobah, 60) 4, Wilmot (for Hughes, 76) NA, Zinckernagel (for Sema, 76) NA, Sierralta, Lazaar, Ngakia, Perica, Gray, Elliot

Preston North End 0 Watford 1 (16/02/2021) 17/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- One of the biproducts of lockdown(s) has been the scope to vastly expand what one watches and what one listens to.  After all, it stands to reason that if all you can do is watch telly and go for walks, you watch a lot of telly and if, like me, your bubble isn’t that into walking you spend a lot of time in fields with stuff in your ears.

TV then.  They’re not strictly box sets any more, are they?  Being digital and that?  But anyway.  Peaky Blinders (all 5 series), The Bridge (4), The Good Place (I can’t remember), The Bureau (2, before discovering I needed yet another subscription to watch the rest), Ozark (3), others I’ve forgotten probably.  And podcasts…  all sorts.  History…  a good story well told is a fine thing and Hardcore History does that in spades.  The story of the Great War told in six four hour episodes was extraordinary.  Ear Hustle, recorded and (normally) broadcast from San Quentin prison.  The Listening Project, diverse opinions but in an affable format.  The anti-Twitter.

And Football.  Obviously.  Relegation saw me pointed towards “Not the Top 20”, whose presenters have made a niche for themselves by being intelligent, well-informed and eloquent and pop up increasingly on TV coverage of the Football League also.  They’ve not been big on Watford this season and whilst it’s not been hard to see why, an “outsider” telling you hard truths about your own team does tend to get the heckles up, even when you were saying the same thing to your mate (who is one of us and therefore entitled to criticise) the previous afternoon.  Ask Troy.  Ask Arsenal.

Their take on Watford – Bristol City was case in point.  My post 6-0 bubble was burst by their observation that City were really terrible and contributed hugely to their downfall (which irked despite being patently true and me having written much the same on Saturday).  They also cited, not inaccurately, the other time we played well.  Preston at home, a 4-1 win, the first time that we thought we’d got our sh*t together.  Before drawing at Forest and losing at home to Cardiff.

2- So I was less buoyant than I had been as I settled down with a bowl of very spicy Click-and-Collect Wagamamas stuff to watch this one. Nervous, even.  What if this wasn’t the corner being turned?

Preston.  Where we never win.  In the cold, in the wet.  You can bet your life that if there had been fans there, more specifically if I’d gone up to Deepdale we wouldn’t have bloody won.

At least the team was relatively unchanged, the slightly curious decision to bring Craig Cathcart in for WTE the only change.  And we start… positively, cutting through in the first minute and pressurising keeper Iversen into a nervous clearance with his left foot and into touch. Sierralta strides out of defence and slides a ball through for Sema down the left, slightly overhit.  Cleverley surges diagonally right to left, finds Sema whose first time ball finds Chalobah, a corner results.

We get an early warning not to take anything for granted when Whiteman sends a wicked ball over the head of the dozy Sierralta to where Evans has snuck in, he fires criminally over as Bachmann comes out.  Both sides continue to look nervous in possession defensively on a bobbly pitch, but that’s the best Preston are going to manage and, indeed, the closest either side gets in the first half.

3- Superficially nothing has changed.  We’ve still got lots of possession, we’re still not scoring.  In reality everything’s changed.  There’s a purpose here, a conviction.  Whilst the mobile forward line is a big part of this, here it’s very much the three-man midfield that provides that surety.  We’re dominant in the centre of the pitch, both better with the ball and more robust physically than our opponents.  Cleverley stands out, operating at full throttle for the full ninety for the second time in four days.

We only manage half-chances.  Sarr, Chalo and Kiko combine down the right, a corner results.  We flood the penalty area but the best we’re going to get here is picking up the scraps on the edge of the box such is Preston’s height advantage.  Sarr and Hughes both try their luck without recording an effort on target.  Nonetheless.  There’s a sense of all-hands-on-deck in the Preston back line.  This is coming.

4- Preston present a challenge much more typical of the division than that presented by Bristol City’s car crash at the weekend.  Tough, strong, determined, without huge quality but with enough about them to trip you up if you’re off your game.

All things considered they’re doing well to be as obstructive as they are.  What looks like a negligent contract situation saw some key assets – Ben Pearson to Bournemouth, Ben Davies to Liverpool, Darnell Fisher to Middlesbrough – departing, presumably cheaply, within three days at the end of the transfer window rather than for nothing at the end of the season.  In their place have come Whiteman, who looks bedraggledly useful, and a load of loanees.

But we’re going to win this,  and we’re going to deserve to win it.  We’re noticeably sharper at the start of the second half, one touch passing where two might have been taken in the first.  Very quickly Adam Masina pops up on the left of the box and strokes a ball through for Sema to pull back.  Barkhuizen is careless and inattentive, João Pedro is quicker and cleverer and cool as ice when he converts the penalty.  He has to work hard for precious little throughout, but the Brazilian’s last couple of performances have been more mature than his nineteen years.

5- Briefly there’s a furious battle for the initiative, manifesting itself in a frantic scramble devoid of controlled possession.  The home side have their best spell here and carve out a couple of chances but never look composed enough to get as much as a shot on target.  And now there’s space for us to flow into, which is a thing of great joy even if we don’t get another goal out of it.  A tremendous break from left to right sees Chalobah feed Femenía; he takes a heavy touch, he’s still not far away.

Sarr was involved in that break, and has been wandering away from the right flank.  Like João Pedro he suddenly looks mature and confident rather than the slightly nervous, sulky, lost kid that we’ve seen throwing his arms around like Kevin the teenager at the lowest points of the season.  Much of his best work here is defensive…. assertive, aggressive, getting stuck in.  Imagine being up against him?  Bastard quick is one thing.  But he tackles back too…..

Ken has had a relatively quiet game but weebles his way down the left one more time, defiantly refusing to cede possession until he’s unbalanced before being replaced by Philip Zinckernagel.  Once again, Zinc looks dangerous in both halves, and we’d much rather he spent time on the edge of their box than ours, where he invites unnecessary risk with too flamboyant a touch.  Late in the game he shows his value at the other end, linking up with Gosling after a quick Cleverley free kick, his deft rapier thrust of a pass creates a chance for Gosling that’s as close as we come to a second.

Instead we settle for one, and an edgy fingers-in-scalp last five minutes in which the threat is largely hypothetical but, you know.  One-nil is only an unlucky deflection away from two points dropped.  Preston’s threat is all from set pieces by now, as revealed by Cleverley’s frustration at conceding what will be their last chance to nick a point.  They don’t take it, Sierralta making up for a first half in which Evans exposed him more than once by getting his head to everything that needs a head gotten to.

Less spectacular than Saturday.  Less dramatic.  Just as exciting in its own way.  A confident, assertive, mature away performance.  A 1-0 forced by force of personality, rather than a piece of quality in a sea of sludge.

We look convincing.

Bring on everyone.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Cathcart 3, Sierralta 4, Masina 4, Hughes 3, *Cleverley 4*, Chalobah 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 4, Sema 3
Subs:  Gosling (for Chalobah, 73) 3, Perica (for João Pedro, 81) NA, Zinckernagel (for Sema, 81) NA, Troost-Ekong, Lazaar, Wilmot, Hungbo, Gray, Elliot

Watford 6 Bristol City 0 (13/02/2021) 14/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- I promise you, I’d been determined to be a bit more cheerful, whatever happened.

The thing about everything being shit is that you’ve really only got one way to go.  In such circumstances, as long as you cling on, keep putting one foot in front of the other, something will have to come along to improve things sooner or later.  A bit of sunshine for goodness’ sake, even if it’s still bloody freezing, had already lifted the spirits.

And once that pebble started rolling all sorts of other stuff rumbled along too to the point where you almost wished that the good news could have been spread out a little bit rather than overwhelming you all at once.  I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 45 years ago today;  turns out there was a silver lining to that particular development even if I had to wait a long time for it.  In that intervening period I’ve had well over 50,000 injections of insulin but I’ll be getting another injection, a different one, on Wednesday it transpires so hurrah for that.

Then there was the team news.  Your first thought was “brilliant!”, your second “crap, what if this doesn’t work either?”.  But really, so much to like.  Firstly, least controversially, the addition of new arrivals Gosling and Lazaar to the bench which now looks strong and competitive even with nine berths on it to the point where it’s conceivable that Jeremy Ngakia was actually squeezed out (even if three strikers plus Zinc felt a little bit cavalier).

But on top of that…. Kiko’s back on the right.  Will Hughes is in in midfield.  João Pedro starts in what looks like a 4-3-3.  We will go on to record our fourteenth clean sheet in 29 this season, our sixth in nine under Xisco.  Assuming Lazaar is halfway competent we have a perfectly serviceable back five (or six) not starting today, defence really isn’t and has rarely been an issue.  Finding a shape that works going forwards has been the problem.  This felt right.  As long as it worked.

2- Everything did fall for us though.  I mean, yes, brilliant, wonderful.  6-0, biggest league win since that day in September 1982 when my sister and I spent the evening using up our felt tips on posters depicting the boat sinking on the old Sunderland badge to greet Dad when he got home (Paolo’s first game, he never had a chance….).  But, you know.  If you’re not going to record a comfortable win in these circumstances…

Bristol were terrible, obviously, ultimately.  Terrible in the context of, like many others, serious injury depletion not helped by Alfie Mawson’s red card at Bramall Lane on Wednesday, their fifth defeat on the hop, rookie manager in charge of a losing dressing room for the first time and so on.  What they didn’t need was to go behind in the opening minutes courtesy of a kind deflection to an Ismaïla Sarr cross that looped over any defensive attention and dropped off the crossbar into the lap of Ken Sema either before or after it crossed the line.

We’d earned a bit of a break though, already.  Two minutes in and we already looked vastly more mobile for the change in personnel.  I remember describing the terrifying movement of Jota and Jiménez at Wembley as akin to sandsnakes; we were a bit like that and very quickly.  Chalobah’s deft ball down the right hand side of the defence saw Sarr put the burners on, this was no aimless ball that got a fluky break.  He was away, the Robins were panicking, and Ken was where he should have been.

Blows were being traded in those opening minutes.  City didn’t just roll over, not at first.  William Troost-Ekong made a thunderous challenge to stop a Robins attack dead, Hughes scythed a pass to Sarr on the right flank who drew a yellow card from an already frazzled Moore.  Had we been in the ground we’d have been on our feet making “rarrrrr” noises.

3- Other than the mobility of the forward line the other big plus was the extra oomph of the three man midfield.  There have been two classics of the type in recent Watford history;  the Abdi/Hogg/Chalobah under Zola, each component precision engineered to suit that system, and then briefly Cleverley/Doucouré/Chalobah under Marco Silva.

Clear then that Nate likes playing in a three, and he has a strong 45 minutes here before being withdrawn to protect him from the consequences of a  “you’d have gotten away with that 20 years ago” yellow card, ferociously robbing Semenyo of the ball and cleaning him out with his trailing leg.

Tom Cleverley revels in the freedom to charge around like a lunatic with the security of two men covering him.  He doesn’t have the guile and the craft of Abdi, but he doesn’t need it when he’s capable of hurtling after the ball with a relentless vigour, awareness and discipline that is directly responsible for a second goal at Vicarage Road within the space of a month. Bristol look merely slightly tentative as they attempt to tidy up possession at the back following a good Watford break down the left; then Tom is snarling onto the first slack touch and in a single movement twisting, adjusting his balance and squaring for Sarr to touch the ball past the onrushing Bentley.  Your mate at work who used to say “I don’t rate Tom Cleverley, he doesn’t do anything” based on watching Match of the Day highlights with his finger up his backside was an idiot then and he’s an idiot now.  No apologies for getting this one out again…

animated-tasmanian-devil-image-0012

Will Hughes meanwhile is having the game that he’s been having in our heads every week that he’s missed since the start of the season.  Silk and steel, a ninja’s sidestep and turn one minute, a snarling challenge the next.  His goal gets a big dose of luck too with a deflection off Moore whose thirty minute tally now reads two own goals, probably, and a yellow card…  but it feels right that if anyone’s going to profit from a massive deflection that sends a wayward shot ballooning over a wrong-footed goalkeeper it should be Will. As an aside, Daniel Bentley may deserve a degree of sympathy for getting precious little protection, for being very unlucky with at least two big deflections and having to sport that monstrosity.  Against this, I’m pretty sure I remember him being an idiot in goal for Southend in a play-off final penalty shoot-out.  I don’t care enough to check, perhaps I’m being unfair, but in any case our need is too great to waste time with opposition goalkeepers.

Ten seconds before Will’s strike my cup runs over as Daughter 2, who as previously reported has shown no interest in watching televised football in lockdown, enters the room to be earnestly enthusiastic about the latest chapter of The Hunger Games but is distracted, pulls up a chair and stays for the duration.  “What are you doing?” is her considered verdict on City’s high defensive line, “You can’t do that!” her protest at Jack Hunt’s foul on Sema.

4- The star of the show is Sarr.  For all that everything clicks, for all that Bristol are having a very bad day, for all that João Pedro dances and spins and chases, and Sema bundles his way relentlessly down the left.  That guy, the guy who doesn’t rate Tom Cleverley, he’ll tell you that Sarr is brilliant because, you know, Liverpool and that.  This is the game that happens in his head.  Sarr is absolutely uncontainable, quick, aggressive, direct.  In the second half he’s up against Aidy Mariappa, who will be hoping that his long playing career at Vicarage Road doesn’t end on this ignominious note.  Sarr howls at City’s defence, every inch the cheat card that we’ve all wanted him to be.  Before the break he bullies his way down the byline and pulls back to set up Sema for a tidy fourth, ten minutes into the second he’s whistling in for a precise fifth, rolled into the bottom corner.

All of the subs are sensible too.  Gosling’s signing seems far more vital in the context of a three man midfield and he slots in just fine, smuggling the ball off a surprised Semenyo five minutes into his debut.  Zinckernagel still needs to find a home but delivers a wicked corner and once again saves a team-mate, João Pedro, from worse than a yellow card after a late confrontation.  Gray is brought in to get that goal against a bedraggled opponent… it doesn’t happen, good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Finally we wrap our full backs in cotton wool by bringing on Ben Wilmot and Achraf Lazaar, almost certainly the first time one Moroccan-born left back has replaced another at Vicarage Road.

There’s still time for the game’s crowning moment, a wonderful, brutal, merciless arrogant sixth that is valuable simply through turning a well-yes-but-the-second-half-was-a-bit-you-know into a thrashing.  It comes from Bristol’s attack, Wilmot wins a header and the second ball finds its way via Lazaar to Sarr, Sarr finds Gray, Gray turns well and returns to Sarr who is on a hat-trick and through on goal but rolls Zinckernagel in instead with the effortless cool of a master of his art.  The days when we couldn’t beat an offside trap despite all that pace (last weekend, right?) seem a long time ago.  It’s close to being offside but Zinc is behind the ball, and we’re getting all the tight decisions today.

5-  I’m prepared to accept us not winning every game between now and the end of the season 6-0 as a theoretical possibility.  But my word what a difference one 6-0 win makes.  We won’t be playing teams as accommodating and as vulnerable as today’s Robins every week.  But tell me that you’re not looking forward to Preston like you’ve not looked forward to a game in you can’t remember how long and I’ll call you a liar.

Heaven help the division now we’ve got our shit together.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Masina 4, Troost-Ekong 5, Sierralta 4, Cleverley 5, Chalobah 4, Hughes 5, *Sarr 5*, João Pedro 4, Sema 4
Subs:  Gosling (for Chalobah, 45) 4, Zinckernagel (for Cleverley, 60) 3, Gray (for Sema, 60) 3, Wimot (for Femenía, 76) NA, Lazaar (for Masina, 76) NA, Cathcart, Deeney, Perica, Elliot

Coventry City 0 Watford 0 (06/02/2021) 07/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- I went to Bedford this evening.  To post a parcel, overdue Christmas presents for a nephew and niece who we were going to see but then didn’t.

Bedford’s our nearest town.  It’s OK as small towns go, but the most accessible post office that’s open this late is near the bus station.  Bus stations, in my wide experience of such establishments, are rarely in a salubrious part of town and Bedford’s is no exception.

It’s pissing it down.  It’s cold, it’s dark.  Most of the many interchangeable and ever-changing low-end takeaway restaurants are open, but  staff and proprietors vastly outnumber customers.  It’s miserable.  Nonetheless, having dispatched the parcel, I do a ten minute circuit.  It comes to something when a loop of the bus station in the rain is undertaken to cheer yourself up but that’s where we are.  It’s good to see people, any people and after this lunchtime’s fare the bar for entertainment has been set at an all time low.

I really really can’t face writing about this tedious bollocks again.  It’s painful enough to bloody watch it.  And yes there’s mitigation and no it’s not all bad, whatever social media warriors would have you believe (and incidentally, baselessly claiming to speak for the masses – “all supporters can see that” – “we all know that” – isn’t a good look.  Either your opinion stands on its own merits or it’s best left in the box).

But it’s so boring.  Reflections henceforth will be staccato and to the point, and interspersed with discussion of my favourite films.  This is purely self-serving, I need to do something enjoyable today.  Don’t feel obliged to read it, much less agree.  This is purely therapeutic.  I get to be self-indulgent, I’m writing the blog…

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Fantasy can be very effective when it’s so couched in believable, often mundane detail that suspending your disbelief really isn’t that hard at all.  Both the leads are tremendous; Jim Carrey is infuriating in his gurning comedy persona but is absolutely wonderful as a straight man here, and whilst I don’t have a thing for Kate Winslet at all this film is very much the “except”.  That’s acting, that is.

2- It all looked very wrong before the game even started.  In all sorts of ways and despite some good intentions.  Andre Gray’s protracted interview, released by the club late this week was a very good idea.  Tackle the issues head on, front up, build understanding at a time when we’re so distant in so many ways.  It was a good thing.  Until you actually watched it, and listened to him.  Despite all the encouragement, both overt in the setting up of the interview and in the open goals set up by the interviewer (insert gag here) Gray came across as surly, defiant and unrepentant rather than conciliatory, let alone apologetic. The team was announced with Gray in it and Zinckernagel and particularly Hughes not and you felt… as much as “oh god what’s he doing” – the team, it is argued pre-kick off, does look more plausible with an albeit misfiring Gray in it – you felt “this is going to be a bloodbath if it doesn’t go well”.  Xisco taking it on the chin for QPR… again, brave, taking the flak away from the players.  Too readily, perhaps, for me.  Too keen to protect his charges when they hadn’t merited it.  The admissions of failings completely lacking in detail or substance.  The promise of urgency, energy, change the most straightforwardly positive take from the post-match quotes.  We didn’t get that urgency though.  We weren’t going to get it.  This much – this little? – looked clear from the early shots of the players lining up quietly, edgily, waiting to enter the empty arena pre-kick off.  Chest-beating and back-slapping it wasn’t.  Bear in mind that the game hasn’t even kicked off yet.

The Usual Suspects
Am I still allowed to like a movie with Kevin Spacey in it?  Does he stain everything he’s ever appeared in?  I watched this three times when it came out, in Bedford, Le Mans and Düsseldorf. Tremendous in every language, a marvellous slight of hand with characters that are big and bold enough to be compelling in their own right whilst stopping just short of being cartoon characters.  Keyser Söze one of cinemas greatest villains.  Not watched it since the 2017 revelations though.  Ho hum.

3- Coventry aren’t very good.  “The Football Factory” puts that slightly less delicately.  My old school mate Howard, not a football fan traditionally despite having made occasional visits to the Vic since 1986, would repeat the less polite version at the drop of a hat.

In fairness, they’ve been promoted twice in three years and most recently in an abridged season.  There are clubs whose supporters are less deserving of a break, certainly.  They are also without their two leading strikers.

Good job really.  Despite their limitations they create a load of chances.  Only one of them ends up asking anything more than a straightforward save out of Daniel Bachmann who, other than one excited flap at a Coventry corner does a perfectly reasonable job all told, which is where our fortune at the absence of Godden and Walker comes in.  But they look vulnerable, excitable, get-attable.  We just don’t get at them very much at all.

Trainspotting
Trainpotting only came out a couple of years ago, and yet somehow I’m working with people who weren’t born at the time.  Ho hum.  Funny, Sad, Exciting, Chilling, Inspiring, Depressing.  Some of the best characters in any movie ever, including the terrifying Francis Begbie, another brilliant villain because he’s so real.  Everyone’s worst nightmare on a night out.  Iffy language warning below…

4- It’s soporific.  We are soporific.  We’re outnumbered in midfield where Chalobah is energetic but sulky, a rush of blood away from a straight red you suspect.  Cleverley is running around to little effect.  Our forwards are doing very little with very little.  Gray is far from the biggest culprit on this occasion, his charge upfield as we break, providing an option ahead of the ball, is a minimum requirement but nonetheless he’s the one doing it.  But even when we show a bit of life in the second half – post the introduction of Hughes, perhaps not coincidentally – the lack of conviction is punitive.  We don’t know how we’re going to score goals, and our most potent weapon, Sarr, is contributing least of all.

STAR WARS (“A NEW HOPE”)
No apologies here.  We lived in Germany in the early eighties when I was 11ish.  We had a VHS and whatever videos my dutiful grandparents dispatched from Watford along with the sports pages of the Watford Observer and X-Ray slips autographed by whichever player was in for treatment at Watford General where my Gran worked.  The VHS meant episodes of “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider”.  And Star Wars, which I must have seen at least 50 times.  “Stay on target”.

5- Trying to be positive.  It’s a point.  Not a defeat.  No away point is a bad point, in any division.  It’s another clean sheet, Xisco’s fifth in eight league games for all that the billing was a more enterprising style of play. In the current perverse environment with the dearth of entertainment and the responsibility football carries in that regard there’s surely an argument for deciding the league table on goals scored rather than points but until that happens clean sheets are very welcome.
And we’re still fifth.  We’ve not played terribly well terribly often, but we’re fifth.  Heaven help the rest of the division as and when we get our shit together.
Hang in there.
I need a drink.
Yooorns.

*Bachmann 3*, Ngakía 2, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 2, Sierralta 2, Sarr 1, Cleverley 2, Chalobah 2, Sema 2, Deeney 2, Gray 2
Subs:  João Pedro (for Gray , 67) 2, Hughes (for Chalobah, 73) 3, Perica (for Ngakia, 85) NA, Cathcart, Navarro, Wilmot, Zinckernagel, Hungbo, Elliot