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

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

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

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

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

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

2- Nobody disappointed. Nobody short-changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring it on. Yoooorns.

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

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Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (03/03/2019) 03/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

1- I was tempted to begin at the end.

That’s what we’ll remember, after all. Those of us that were here today. For all that there was plenty of backstory, for all that this was a potentially significant game, for all that there was plenty to enjoy in what was a throbbing, vital, bass drum of a contest. All the detail is lost in the flailing limbs.

But I won’t start at the end. Else why would you read the rest of it?

And the beginning, strictly speaking, is Tuesday’s management announcement in Leicestershire which confirmed that for the third home game in a row we would be facing a former boss. The third of the three home games this calendar year incidentally versus nine away of which only two defeats, a figure distorted by cup draws and Spurs’ stadium nonsense… but these statistics which highlight how well the present incumbent is doing and how the identity and history of the Other Bloke only matters up to a point.

Nonetheless. Brendan Rodgers. Much-travelled since his nine months or so here, nine months that pale into a footnote versus what’s happened to both parties since. Nonetheless, we remember. And for what it’s worth, a slightly half-arsed boo to the invitation to greet our former boss, followed by some gently mocking chants when we remembered feels about right. Ten years is too long ago for the Silva treatment and anyway that was never really comparable. Rodgers did a fine job when he was here, much of the reaction on his departure was fuelled by disappointment, much of the rest by his preponderance for putting his foot in his mouth, his almost total lack of self-awareness, the David Brent/Alan Partridge thing. But we know what a basket case the club was then. It isn’t now. Neither of these things are/were down to Rodgers. For what it’s worth, his greatest crime in my book remains boasting about Tommy Smith wanting to join him at Reading despite not having permission to talk to the player; that Smith chose to leave him, and his unveiling press conference, in the lurch and join Pompey only slightly assuaged the dejection of seeing the twice Player of the Season move on. Oh, and being the first Watford manager younger than me. By ten days. Nobody should have to deal with that at the age of only 35.

2- It’s cold. And wet. On the plus side, at least it feels like March, in contrast to much of February feeling like June. Whatever other crazy shit is going down in the world and despite my lack of a scarf the weather has, at least for a moment, got back on track.

It’s tempting, of course, to read too much into the Rodgers thing… he’s only been there a matter of days. Nonetheless, thinking back ten years or so and remembering his uncompromising, ideological, some might say ambitious, others might say fundamentalist to the point of stupid attempts to turn Aidy Boothroyd’s rather spartan approach upside down overnight it’s interesting to note that he’s moved to a back three straight away. Every time Wes Morgan is wheeled out against us it feels like surely, surely the last time.

So, we don’t know how Rodgers will turn out for City. But beyond dispute that this probably isn’t a bad time to being playing them, all things considered and the potential for post-Puel bounce notwithstanding. Actually I’d half expected a more venomous single-minded early assault that we actually delivered; from the far end it looked rather as if Leicester’s defence seemed to cave in on itself under minimal pressure. By the time Troy put us ahead on five minutes, a fine header to a whipped Deulofeu cross, City were already visibly tentative. Mariappa forced Schmeichel into a block, Deulofeu’s follow-up was also deflected away as Morgan, Evans and Maguire started giving out hand-written invitations to come and have a go. Twice free kicks were conceded needlessly in threatening wide positions, the second of which yielding the goal.

3- But that’s an experienced bunch of centre-halves and however optimistic the ask of them City pulled themselves together and started stringing passes along. I was slightly disappointed at our failure to hold on to the initiative, to pin City back and not let them settle, but then again City haven’t changed enough over a week to have forgotten how to be a counterattacking side and Jamie Vardy will always, as we’ll see, love big open spaces to run into. There is, in short, a reason that Javi Gracia is Watford coach and I’m just waffling into a blog.

It says something that the three on-target efforts of the first half all came in the first five minutes. That’s a slightly misleading statistic, since both sides threatened more than this suggests; balls across the box that just needed a touch, that sort of thing. Nonetheless, City had a five man midfield against Watford’s four (which is effectively a five given the Doucouré/Capoue engine in the centre, to steal City’s N’Golo Kanté trope) and it all got rather congested. Much of City’s play was in classic death-by-football territory, passing the ball around until somebody gave the ball away (often Ben Chilwell, source of plenty of both good and bad things but often subdued by a monumental first half from Will Hughes).

However the threat was growing. If there’s an argument in favour of VAR (and I remain unconvinced on balance) it’s the existence of the likes of Jamie Vardy… so quick and so direct that he will always provoke situations which require officials to make a decision that they almost certainly aren’t in a position to make. Whether and how often Vardy exploits this to his advantage is almost moot – at that speed all it takes is a touch. The referee was fooled at their place in December, I was fooled here as Mariappa tripped Vardy. I saw no contact, I was wrong.

Harry Maguire endeared himself here by ludicrously demanding a red card of the official despite Vardy being half a mile from the goal and heading towards the corner flag when felled. Shortly afterwards Mapps redeemed himself in part by vanquishing Maguire’s threat decisively at the far post to loud cheers all round, and then propelled himself well into credit with a superhuman goal-saving defensive header, clearing a vicious left wing cross off of the forehead of Jonny Evans. With five or ten minutes to the break the visitors were threatening for perhaps the only sustained spell in the game; by the time the whistle went everything had calmed down. It being lunchtime I went and queued for food in the concourse for ten minutes, made minimal progress and returned to my seat for the second half empty handed.

4- That City only managed that one spell of sustained pressure until they briefly kitchen sinked it at the end says an awful lot for the defensive shape of our side. Many have said that Mariappa’s failings, particularly in possession, make him a position to upgrade in this team. This may be true but without doubt you’d always choose to have him around as an option, since this was a disciplined defensive team performance that wasn’t high on weak links for City to exploit. Yes, they over-elaborated. No, they rarely looked terribly like scoring despite their second half possession. But passing like that will find chinks in the end if you don’t concentrate.

The wild card in the second half was the refereeing of Jonathan Moss. It should be emphasised that the standard of refereeing in the Premier League is extremely high. We’ve been victim and beneficiary of some bizarre decisions but very few poor performances in stark contrast to, for example, the 1999-2000 season (Rob Harris, Uriah Rennie, Andy D’Urso and co. Shudder). However Moss, on repeated occasions, seems to be a bit of a throwback; the sort of overweight short-sighted buffoon cartoon depiction of a referee you used to see in Shoot! cartoons when I were a lad. Here, as previously, his tendency to tie himself to the centre-spot and linger behind the play was peppered with an absolute refusal to give Troy anything, no matter where Harry Maguire stuck his arms or what he did with them reached a crescendo in the middle of the half. Troy himself was booked for a challenge on Schmeichel that seemed, on one look, to owe rather more to Schmeichel being a goalkeeper than to the severity of the challenge, whereas both Doucouré and Deulofeu had been crudely taken out in unsuccessful attempts to curtail the attack that had broken to that point in challenges that went uncensored.

Our own attacks fizzed briefly, but with greater threat. A bewildering move down the left resulted in City’s now more resolute defence once again at sixes and sevens as Doucouré slugged a shot that Schmeichel beat away. Holebas embarked on an heroic, buccaneering charge down the left that ended with a cutback that didn’t quite have enough on it to reach Troy but earned a grinning salute from the skipper anyway.

And then, as yet another appeal from Troy as Maguire climbed all over him was waved away, it happened. The excellent Tielemans picked out a pass, Vardy was off, Mariappa was on a card but wasn’t catching him anyway. One all. Difficult to argue, much as it felt as if Moss’ officiating neutered our attempts to dominate City’s backline.

5- Even without what followed, Troy was the Man of the Match. This is his sort of thing of course, a physical contest against foes that aren’t quite as superhuman as Virgil Van Dyk. He would go on to cement his position by conducting a post-match interview, often his most testing opponent, in which he dismissed Moss as a buffoon implicitly whilst explicitly praising his performance. A work of art. He’d earlier garnished his afternoon by cheerfully acknowledging the visiting support’s predictable and perhaps understandable greeting.

But otherwise, and his lack of support from the officials notwithstanding, this was Troy in full effect. A monstrous beast of a performance. For all the “you fat bastard” chants he looks lighter this year, lither and more mobile. But he’s still unplayable on this form, his form since the start of the calendar year. A fine afternoon’s entertainment despite perhaps limited quality was afforded new lustre as Kaspar Schmeichel’s careless throw was intercepted by Doucouré who fed Deeney. With his back to the goal inside City’s half, with a marker in close attendance and without looking he played a through-ball over his shoulder to the onrushing Andre Gray. A big scrapper yes, but a delicate footballer too, deceptively so, still. Gray, who hadn’t quite tuned in up to this point, raced away and scored a Vardy goal, slipping the ball under the goalkeeper.

And there you are. There you have it. You’d watch a whole season worth of shit for moments like this, moments where the world explodes in joy and bodies fly past in happy abandon and your vision is obscured by twinkly lights and disorientation. The backstory, the context, the level of football make no difference. If you’re invested in a team there’s nothing like an injury time winner, and even in that context this explosion of everything was a belter.

And it upholds a proud tradition, of course. There are many sides I’d wish ill on above Leicester, but we don’t half enjoy a late winner against the Foxes. There’s this one, obviously. But this one was decent too. Oh and this one. And remember this one…?

Andre Gray’s name was yelled from the Rookery post-match, not before time. A huge result this, absolutely monstrous. In the context of “The Everton Cup”… our next two League games are at City and United. Any points a bonus really, going into them off two defeats – Cup Quarter Final in between or otherwise – not great. But now? We go into those games four points ahead of West Ham. Six ahead of Everton, Seven ahead of City, Nine ahead of Bournemouth, Ten ahead of Palace. And after those two games? Five of our remaining seven games at home, and plausibly winnable.

What a time to be alive.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4. Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 2, *Deeney 5*, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 69) 3, Cleverley (for Hughes, 90) 0, Masina, Kabasele, Quina, Success, Gomes

Watford 1 Everton 0 (09/02/2019) 10/02/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

1- So, the Marco Silva thing we’ll all have talked to death, I’m guessing. It happened, it’s tiresome, it doesn’t reflect well on him or on his current employers and on reflection we’ve probably done quite well out of the whole thing really.

That he left is long since not an issue of course. As time has progressed the most cynical interpretation, that his reputation is built on sand, has been afforded more traction by Everton’s iffy form but that aside I want to like my club and I want to like the head coach. That’s more important than winning really, though ideally you’d have both (thanks, Javi…). So the departure of a man who was vain enough, sufficiently without shame to want to leave Watford as early as he did for the reasons he did… we were manifestly better off out of it even before his managerial limitations became (more) evident.

Everton’s behaviour I find harder to move on from, which isn’t entirely rational. They clearly did wrong, the offer of compensation tacitly acknowledged that, the ongoing independent investigation resultant from Watford’s complaint feels right and will hold the shabby Toffees to account, one hopes. But worse things happen at sea. In the grand scheme of things… there are bigger scumbags on our TV screens every day.

What really rankles is the way the arrogance of the Toffees’ approach echoes the arrogance of the barrel-scrapings on social media. Every club’s support is a broad school of course and heaven knows that it’s painfully easy to get wound up on Twitter whether you want to or not, empty vessels make the most noise and so forth. But there’s a colour to these barrel-scrapings when it comes to bigger clubs that grates and it’s evident in the way that supporters of such clubs fall back on their bigness as a sort of surrogate currency when their team is actually a bit shit. “Yeah, but we’re a massive club”. Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Villa and, yes, Everton take note. Everton’s own presumptuousness in their approach reflected the same attitude, the basest, crassest element of their support; the difference is that Everton aren’t faceless inaccessible goons on twitter. All power to the Hornets for not letting this lie.

2- The atmosphere in the ground before kick-off was brittle. I must confess that I didn’t notice the widely-celebrated playlist, but there was no missing Emma Saunders’ pointed welcome to the visiting head coach over the tannoy. It achieved the result it was designed to, albeit that the venom directed at Silva – and certainly at Richarlíson who received a mixture of half-hearted applause and similarly half-hearted catcalls – seemed restrained. Not the bear-pit of animosity that had been heralded, not yet anyway… perhaps because of Troy’s encouragements to back the team rather than focus on the opposition, perhaps because of a nervousness at ramifications of giving it large too early. Perhaps because the passage of events, the gradual shading in of the colours on the landscape, make it clear that we can afford disdain and ridicule, less vigorous forms of hostility than outright hatred.

So… not as hostile as anticipated. But certainly boisterous, certainly noisy. The 1881’s massive hart-flag covered the Rookery pre match; the ferocious wind got underneath it and briefly you pictured supporters on the edges being lifted into the sky by a vigorous gust but the banner descending was as a curtain lifting on the spectacle and we roared in anticipation.

3- And the Watford team followed suit. An approach designed to subdue this unconvinced, unconvincing, mentally half-arsed Everton side it might have been, but the unapologetic aggression of the Watford performances was unprecedented and spectacular and fitted the mood. Jose Holebas set an early tone, which may not surprise you, slugging a ferocious clearance straight at Tom Davies to clear the lines at the first threat. Thereafter we were a thundering, intimidating juggernaut… never snide, never vicious, merely brutal. Designed to provoke an “oh f*** this” response.

And Everton didn’t like it. To their credit they never threw in the towel, and after all a back line of Zouma and Keane isn’t likely to be bullied, but this was a challenge to their mentality more than their physique. Some stood up to it better than others. Richarlíson, certainly, will not have expected any favours off Holebas on the Watford left and received none. This was the left back, increasingly a cult hero at Vicarage Road, at his single-minded best; he shoved the Brazilian deep into his pocket to grapple with the packet of fags and the loose change with a warning not to cause any trouble. And he didn’t, not really… this was a performance right out of the playbook of the tail end of last season, all flouncing and remonstration and pouting drizzled with the occasional glimpse of what he’s capable of.

By the second half the Brazilian had disappeared up his own backside, writhing around at the slightest contact in what might have been a Neymar tribute but for the lack of spaghetti on his head. In the end even his own teammates didn’t bother checking on him. This in stark contrast to Richarlíson when his pecker’s up, the Richarlíson who gives as good as he gets when he wants to, who makes you think that the £50million (or whatever, insert whichever figure you choose to believe) might have been a good deal for all parties. Not on this evidence. Subbed midway through the second half, he was jeered off.

4- Back in the first half, and if this was a huge improvement on the stupefying trip to Brighton last week and if there was no lack of vigour then it was still rather low on quality. Indeed, whilst the Hornets came close when Capoue slammed a chest-down from Deeney which Pickford somehow propelled over, the visitors had the better chances for all their apparent discomfort… Keane dropped a header into Foster’s arms, Zouma failed to get any power behind a much more presentable chance, he should have scored. The ponderous Tosun was given a chance by some inattentive passing on the edge of the box and forced a good stop from Foster. For the Hornets, the centre-backs excelled, Cathcart as ever looking like the bit that makes the whole defence work, Mariappa perpetually in the right place. Elsewhere Doucouré and Capoue resumed their heavy duty partnership in the centre to powerful effect, but we were struggling to make inroads; Ken Sema threw his weight around but didn’t create an awful lot, Gerard Deulofeu dropped too deep in search of the ball and was overwhelmed by the stronger tides in the middle of the park, sucked further into irrelevance.

5- So the half time substitution made an enormous difference. You’ve got to feel sorry for Sema, there were a number of other calls that could have been made… but Deulofeu moving back to a wide position suddenly made him vital and incisive, Andre Gray was the best version of Andre Gray, snarling and pressing and making the Danny Graham runs that pull the defence around.

The gameboard tipped decisively for the first time. We were on top now, our foot on Everton’s throat and if we were still struggling to make chances then the ball wasn’t in our half terribly often, and rarer still without our expressed consent. And the decisive play was a beautiful thing in so many ways… first in the way that we magicked the irrepressible Holebas out of a hat again on the edge of the box, then in the swaggering shot across the bows that followed.

It didn’t look as if Pickford had touched it at the time but a corner was the award, one of a catalogue of bizarre decisions from a set of officials who had an erratic afternoon. Silva would later peevishly try to argue that these errors all went one way which wasn’t strictly true – a difficult game to officiate, but Lee Probert in particular did seem keen to support the narrative suggested by Troy’s unfortunately broadcast “kick the sh*t out of them” comments”.

Either way, an underlying mentality was consistently displayed by Silva’s comments, by the miserable Zouma’s hilarious post-match dismissal, by the shattering effect of this decision on the visitors’ mentality. A fragility of mindset. Probert didn’t give us a goal, or a penalty. It was a corner. You’ve still got to defend it… and for all their notoriety in dealing with such things the goal didn’t come from the first assault on the goal. More than to the bad decision it owed a bundle to a glorious reverse-flicked pass from that manyCathcart, a centre-back mark you, which unpeeled Everton’s defence beyond salvation. Will Hughes squared firmly on the scamper, Gray was left with a deserved tap in. The irony of A.Gray deciding the game to protests from his opposing keeper will not have been lost on many of sufficient years, least of all Steve Sherwood whose half time ovation was a highlight of the afternoon. (And no I can’t take the credit for that observation but it’s inspired so I plagiarise without apology).

6- And now we were not just noisy but lording it, revelling in the moment. Everton came back at us, looking urgent for the first time; “Dominic Calvert-Lewin always bloody scores against us” an unhelpful observation in my ear as the striker appeared off the bench. Not this time though, although he had a chance, heading wide. It could have been different.

Instead the chants came thick and fast, the visiting head coach unable to make his shouts heard over the revelry suggesting what might happen to his employment the next morning, and observing which of our last two head coaches was better than which. At the final whistle the magnificent Aidy Mariappa on his 300th appearance, on the same ground where he cried as the youth cup side he captained exited the FA Youth Cup in 2005, gave his shirt to a kid in the front of the Rookery and left us with a primal scream of triumph. Harry Hornet, meanwhile, was wrestling with and ultimately subduing an inflatable snake. Childish, yes, but he’s a man in a hornet’s costume so, you know.

Everton, in summary, looked lamentable. Their graceless manager surely a busted flush, his employers’ similarly graceless conduct rendering subsequent events all the more enjoyable.

We didn’t play an awful lot better in truth, but we looked focused, together, single-minded and deserved the win. We’re now the eighth best team in the land, would you believe, with a buffer to ninth and a load of winnable home games before the end of the campaign.

What’s not to like? Yoooorns.

 

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, *Holebas 5*, Cathcart 5, Mariappa 5, Hughes 3, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Sema 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Gray (for Sema, 45) 4, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 81) 0, Chalobah (for Hughes, 90) 0, Kabasele, Masina, Peñaranda, Gomes

The List – January 2019. 19/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

Here we are again.  Don’t know about you, but I hold even the players that we were linked with but never signed in a sort of reverent awe which is probably unreasonable.  Yves Bissouma will be brilliant for Brighton at some point.  Meanwhile, here’s your list of players linked with the Hornets since the summer, a list that will be kept up to date until the end of January so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Summer 2018 List / January 2018 List / Summer 2017 List / January 2017 List / Summer 2016 List / January 2016 List / Summer 2015 List

Running Total: 40

IN

Divock Origi (Liverpool)*
Filip Stuparević (FK Voždovac)                                                           SIGNED
Chris Willock (Benfica)
Adam Lovatt (Hastings)
Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
João Pedro (Fluminense)                                                                   SIGNED
Mateo Musacchio (Milan)
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)*
Hector Herrera (Porto)*
David Bates (Hamburg)
Tom Heaton (Burnley)*
Diego Demme (RB Leipzig)
Fyodor Chalov (CSKA Moscow)
Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny)
Noah Smerdon (Gloucester City)
Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)*
Efthymios Koulouris (PAOK)
Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest)
Ibrahim Meité (Cardiff City)
Ronald Sobowale (Walton Casuals)
Youssef Msakni (Al Duhail)                                     – joined Eupen on loan
Philip Billing (Huddersfield)
Szymon Żurkowski (Górnik Zabrze)                         – joined Fiorentina
Adrien Tameze (Nice)
Dominic Solanke (Liverpool)                                       – joined Bournemouth
Grégoire Defrel (Roma)*
Stanislav Lobotka (Celta Vigo)
Denis Suarez (Barcelona)                                       – joined Arsenal on loan
Vittorio Parigini (Torino)
Ozan Kabak (Galatasaray)                                        – joined VfB Stuttgart
Declan Drysdale (Tranmere Rovers)                          – joined Coventry City
Maxwell Cornet (Lyon)*
François Kamano (Bordeaux)
Marcus Thuram (Guingamp)
Kim Min-Jae (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)                  – joined Beijing Guoan
Harry Arter (AFC Bournemouth)*
Aurélien Tchouaméni (Bordeaux)
Emerson (Atlético Mineiro)
Roberto Gagliardini (Inter)
Fabio Borini (Milan)

OUT
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Arsenal*, PSG, Tottenham*, Liverpool*, Everton*, West Ham)
Roberto Pereyra (Chelsea, Torino*)
Stefano Okaka (Fulham*, Monaco, Beşiktaş*, Udinese*)
.                                                                             – joined Udinese on loan
Dodi Lukebakio (Fortuna Düsseldorf)
Randell Williams (Brentford, Bristol City, Portsmouth, Wycombe Wanderers)
.                                                                             – joined Exeter City
Sebastian Prödl (Fenerbahçe)
Marvin Zeegelaar (Udinese)                            – joined Udinese on loan
Ryan Cassidy (Everton*, Derby County, Aston Villa, Leeds United, Southampton, Wolves)
Adalberto Peñaranda (Galatasaray)
Gerard Deulofeu (Milan, West Ham)
Nathaniel Chalobah (Aston Villa, West Brom)
Marc Navarro (Leganes)

 

Watford 0 Liverpool 3 (24/11/2018) 25/11/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- In the dark, sweaty labyrinth of online messageboards the WSC forum is a relatively intelligent, sane, consistent place to hide.  Topics for discussion are broad, the audience relatively well-informed.

One particular discussion took root in my memory and has remained there, though it may be as many as ten years old.  The instigator of the discussion was an Italian, who asked for insight about the supporters of English clubs.  He explained that whilst he was familiar with the triumphs, the colours, the squads, the detail of the Premier League he didn’t, having never lived in England, have an intuitive feel for what supporters of the clubs were like.  He couldn’t characterise them, didn’t have the same feel that he had for the Italian football landscape and asked for help.

“Liverpool fans”, he was advised, “expect you to prostrate yourself on the altar of their Liverpoolness”.  Harsh.  But, you know.  Not completely without foundation.  The Liverpool fan who repeatedly berated BSaD for lack of respect during our balloon-laden League Cup semi-final visit in 2005 on what “should have been the biggest day in your club’s history” springs to mind.  I must confess that this mantra, rather than merely reflecting a core of truth, has a tendency to form the basis of pre-judgement on meeting Liverpool fans.  That’s probably neither fair nor healthy.

Can’t be avoided, however, that whilst we weren’t regularly getting 20,000 crowds when we were in the second tier there are an awful lot of people here who were there then, and would be again should fate turn against us.  You know who they are, who you are.  Faces that you see every time you visit, they’d be here for Rotherham or (shudder) Ipswich as readily as for the likes of Liverpool.  A fact perhaps lost on whoever adorned the livery of Liverpool’s club coach, arriving after 1.30 and holding up entry to Occupation Road with its redded-out windows bearing the slogan “Liverpool FC:   This Means More”.  What? More than what? What means more?  Banal twaddle.  Another anecdote:  I’m reminded of erstwhile Reds keeper Sander Westerweld’s response to scousers stopping him in the street and telling him that being an outsider, he didn’t “understand the passion!“.   “Oh f*** off.”

2- The side’s a bit good though, in fairness.  Our approach to handling this seems, as ever, hugely sensible;  the dynamic Capoue back for Chalobah, Troy’s leadership in for Isaac Success and Adam Masina’s discipline in for Jose Holebas.

And we start well.  This is a high water mark in several respects;  the game is never less than engrossing but doesn’t quite live up to the sizzling promise of the opening five or ten minutes, and our disciplined and largely successful insistence upon playing out from the back, on playing our way out of tight corners doesn’t last much longer.  Nonetheless, there’s huge encouragement as Gerard Deulofeu is slipped through and finishes well.  He’s offside, but not by very much.  Later Roberto Pereyra finds an opening and shovels a shot at goal that Alisson propels wide.

As the half progresses though, the pattern is very much one of Watford playing a containment game – squeezing up the midfield and leaving little space for a ball through or over the top to the scuttling Salah or Mané.  Very effective it was too, for the most part, though Daughter 1’s comment that for all Liverpool’s possession and the repetitive “here we are again” of their passing hither and thither in search of an opening we’d had the better chances served to prompt a flurry from the visitors. Wijnaldum swung a boot at a clear shot on goal, Mané swivelled athletically to force a fine save from Foster, Salah ghosted in late and unattended to head a corner inside the bottom corner until Foster, impossibly, clawed it out.  A concerted effort to snatch an advantage before the break, we just about held it together.

3- Of particular interest were a couple of ongoing duels.  The first of these is a regular highlight, that of Virgil van Dijk and Troy Deeney;  Troy has been vocal about van Dijk being his toughest opponent, and the Dutchman has come out on top more often than not since our first trip to Southampton on promotion.  Here, Troy was isolated for the most part but competed well and relished the challenge.

Elsewhere, Will Hughes and Andy Robertson were at hammer and tongs up and down our right flank.  Robertson was a regular threat, more than once arriving late to supplement a reds attack but the two largely kept each other in check.  There was an element of stalemate, that we had Liverpool’s number but couldn’t afford to make a mistake and weren’t really threatening terribly much.  We needed to concentrate and trust to our luck, we needed the breaks and we didn’t get them.  A critical point came when Hughes stole a march on Robertson and drew a challenge from him inside the area.  This wasn’t a stonewall penalty like the Bertrand/Chalobah nonsense at Southampton two weeks ago, even on a replay it’s not completely clear cut but it was probably a foul and it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that fate would decide in our favour.  She didn’t.

The final confrontation came between Isaac Success, on as a bustling, positive, disruptive sub for the slightly underwhelming Deulofeu, and Jordan Henderson who often found himself isolated against the Nigerian and unable to cope with the challenge.  Booked for a foul within minutes of the Nigerian’s introduction he gave Jonathon Moss several opportunities to send him off with inexplicably stroppy, pointless fouls before finally getting his marching orders for a hack at Capoue on the halfway line.

4- All the more bizarre from Liverpool’s captain given that the Reds were two up by this stage.  The Hornets had another decision go against them in Liverpool’s right back position and from there Liverpool broke, Robertson delivering a ball that Salah snapped up, the critical decisive point in the game.  Having kept us alive in the first half Ben Foster didn’t cover himself with glory here, but the margins are fine.  The fact is we did very well for the most of the match, employing a strategy that really wasn’t very far at all from working, but that failed at the last against superior opposition.  No shame in that.

Unfortunate, however, that there’s so little difference between a 0-0 and a 3-0 defeat against a side of this quality, since the game rapidly ran away from us as we tried to regain a foothold.  Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose uncle was Watford’s club secretary not so very long ago, pinged a free kick into the top corner deceiving the goalkeeper before the Hornets were luckless again, Firmino scuttling in a third after Foster had made another fine stop to deny the initial shot.  Firmino would have been offside but for the prone Femenía, stranded on the other side of the pitch having slid in on a challenge earlier in the move.

5- So the first of two home games in ten days against ostensibly the strongest clubs in the country.  Beaten fair and square, but the scoreline doesn’t do justice to our performance which was better than that, or to the strategy selected which asked a lot of us but wasn’t a million miles from earning a result.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, it’s difficult to conceive of an approach that would have had a better chance of success.

Once again, we’re left to reflect that if we’re disappointed at losing to a top side we’ve come a long way.  Still top half, deservedly top half, we shouldn’t let this knock us out of our stride.  There’s so much to like about this team.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Masina 3, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Hughes 4, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 4, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3

Subs: Success (for Deulofeu, 57) 4, Gray (for Hughes, 75) 2, Chalobah, Navarro, Quina, Kabasele, Gomes

Watford 0 Bournemouth 4 (06/10/2018) 07/10/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
20 comments

1- Waking up to bad news is an unpleasant thing.  You feel cheated, somehow, as if the day’s shit has stolen a march on you before you’ve even brushed your teeth.  You may be able to think of a couple of examples of the not too distant past of waking up and thinking “what?  what?  but today hasn’t even started yet!”.

But if waking up to bad news is unpleasant, being woken up to bad news is worse.  Specifically, woken up an hour after you went to bed to the fraught words “there’s a rat in the house!!!”…

It’s been an atrocious week, frankly.  Our unwelcome house guest has carved out it’s own niche in my head also, never far from the front of mind whether at home, or work, whether I’ve been wondering whether that noise was the washing machine or not or whether the little bastard has been parading across our kitchen behind the glass windows that separate it from the living room in a manner befitting of a top hat and tails.  If you’ve been there, I guess you’ll know.  Anyway…  as we’ve discussed on these pages before, football serves a variety of purposes dependent on circumstances and catharsis is certainly one such.  I needed the weekend to come.  I needed something to shout at.

2- Perhaps we all did.  Despite the vicious cold and miserably persistent rain that had snuck up on early October (and indifferent to the fact that having been preoccupied with locating their coats I’d forgotten my own. Again.), daughters 1 and 2 insisted that we adopt position in the Rookery shortly after 2pm.  By kick-off Daughter 2 was standing on her chair vigorously waving an 1881 flag, giggling as the wind caught it and almost took her off her seat and pausing only to ask what had happened to Ben Watson, whilst Daughter 1 was using Siri to identify “Hard Men” by DJ Vickers off the tannoy.  This may sound mundane, but it’s a level of pre-match involvement in matters in hand which is slightly unusual.

It was also the highlight of the afternoon.  Line-ups revealed our third right-back in as many League games, Femenía now in for the injured Navarro, but an eleven otherwise unchanged since the opening day.  And the first 14 minutes were OK… Bournemouth dropped deep and invited us into congested areas, but we did an encouraging enough job having accepted said invitation.  This culminated in Andre Gray’s shot being blocked as he span away on the right hand side of the area, and shortly afterwards the cumulative attritional effect of a series of attacks peeled open a space for Will Hughes to have a go.  It was a relatively comfortable ask for Begović, who held the ball down to his right, but as an opening salvo it was perfectly acceptable.

Our complete bloody doziness in dealing with Bournemouth’s counter-attacking that saw them burst out like speedskaters and quickly overload us was less acceptable.  As an approach it’s designed to catch you on your heels, to capitalise on any sluggishness in attention but it’s as old a strategy as the game itself and it’s what Bournemouth do.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop but good God you’ve got to to do better than this.  You’ve got to be ready for it, alert to the possibility, Étienne Capoue, that Ryan Fraser might be looking to steal a march on you.  90% of Watford supporters’ pre-match analyses would have featured the sentiment, “we’ve got to watch them on the break”.  We did watch them.  We watched them scream out down the left and find a man free on the far post.  Ben Foster hurled himself across goal to make an outrageous save that was entirely lost in the fact that he could only parry the ball to David Brooks, who finished unfussily.

3- Eddie Howe would acknowledge post-match that Christian Kabasele’s red card was pivotal.  It could equally be argued that we had our backs to the wall as soon as we went behind in conditions like these against this particular opponent.  I’d further suggest that we lost this game before we conceded as soon as we got all lackadaisical in midfield.

But certainly it’s true that if there’s one thing worse than being 1-0 down at home to an expert counterattacking side it’s being 2-0 down at home to an expert counterattacking side, and if there’s anything worse than that it’s going down to ten men in the bargain.  Craig Cathcart’s missed header in the interim was perhaps another sliding door moment, a cruel glimpse at a different game but it came and went as chances have done in preceding weeks.  And suddenly Christian Kabasele, who had already picked up a stupid booking for a clumsy challenge on Begovic, found himself the wrong side of Josh King.  It was a horror show in retrospect, losing his man and then not even doing a good enough job of bringing him down outside the area – if you’re going to grab his shirt for god’s sake don’t let go again – before swinging a leg in the manner of a child who already know’s they’ve lost the game and are making a sulky pretence of playing it out.  At the time I thought he’d taken the ball; very quickly the lack of on-pitch protest revealed this to be nonsense.  Kabasele departed, King sent Foster the wrong way and we were looking down the barrel of a horrible hour of football.

4- It’s tempting to draw a veil over the rest of it.  But before we do, a word for the rather odd decision to drop Étienne Capoue into defence and maintain a two-man forward line.  Bold, certainly… but whilst pausing to acknowledge that it’s much easier to make such calls after the event, bizarre also.   Capoue showed a brief glimpse of what the idea might have been;  a rare moment of unhurried possession saw him rake an extraordinary crossfield pass to the galloping Kiko Femenía wide on the right; this, as with too many of Femenía’s gallops down the right, came to nothing.  More frequently Capoue was simply not looking like a defender; harsh to blame him for that, but the fourth goal just after the break made an already evident problem unignorable as Callum Wilson wandered into the space that Capoue should have been monitoring and almost apologetically completed the scoring.

On came Mapps and Isaac Success and the ship was steadied, albeit with the game gone and the performance so low it was perhaps less difficult to make some kind of positive impression.  There’s something to be said for the fact that we kept plugging away… I think you’d be stunned, given the character of the side this season, with anything else but perhaps not to be taken for granted.  Abdoulaye Doucouré for one seemed willing to take hold of the ball, to take responsibility for trying to make something happen.  Equally, there’s no avoiding that Bournemouth came much closer to adding to their tally than we did to opening ours in what was left of the second half.

As for the Cherries… the addition of Jefferson Lerma is significant in the midfield; he’s the heavyweight anchor that allows the likes of King, Wilson and Fraser to spin off with a degree of abandon.  Hugely effective today, albeit that the day panned out pretty much as they’d have chosen, but no more likeable than ever despite, for a change, not being faced with a tight game in which to manipulate any advantage that was going.  Adam Smith, who collapsed in prolonged paroxysms of agony after Gerard Deulofeu coughed on him in passing in the final minutes, epitomised the snide nature of Eddie Howe’s side.

5- Looking forward, it will be interesting to watch how Javi responds to what is his first major setback as manager;  his placid “we lost four-nil; forget the ref, we’ve clearly got stuff to sort” on MotD was encouraging but there have been plenty of managers – Alex Neil springs to mind – who’ve looked great when everything’s humming and dramatically less so once it’s stopped.

But today the cold rain has gone and the sun is out again.  Difficult to reconstruct quite how miserable yesterday was. And that’s the way I’m going to think about it for the next two weeks;  we’ve had a brilliant season so far – even if the cost of not winning when playing well is now all the more evident – and getting all stroppy about our first bad performance won’t do anyone any good.  It’s not stretching credibility too much to say that this was a day in which absolutely nothing went our way, from conceding on the break to two yellow cards for Kabasele either of which might have been passed over on a good day, to Jonathan Moss huffing and puffing around the centre circle.  Perhaps this is the world getting back into balance, payback for Joel Ward’s last minute miss against Palace, for Spurs and Burnley… not in terms of fortune, but in terms of good and bad has to even out and we got all of our bad out of the way in one go.  There’s stuff that needs sorting.  But a lot of stuff that doesn’t.  As for our intruder… it, too has been absent for a few days, the hope that the poison laid down by The Man has taken effect.  I may even re-enter the kitchen this afternoon.  Horrible things are always a tunnel to get through after all.

Next up Molineux, without three-quarters of our first choice backline, but with a clean slate.

Bring it on.  Yooorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 1, Holebas 2, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 1, Hughes 2, Capoue 2, *Doucouré 3*, Pereyra 1, Gray 2, Deeney 2
Subs: Success (for Gray, 55) 3, Mariappa (for Hughes, 55) 3, Deulofeu (for Pereyra, 74) 2, Masina, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 1 Manchester United 2 (15/09/2018) 17/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- May 1985.  I was twelve, the same age as Daughter 1 is now.  You were how ever old you were, perhaps you weren’t even born.  As an aside I was stopped short when talking to a colleague at work this week, having to explain the whole MK Dons thing and realising that he was young enough not to plausibly remember…

Good grief.

Anyway.  May 1985, whether it’s fresh in your mind or in the same box as Henry VIII and the dinosaurs, or whether it’s somewhere in between.  It seems remiss at this juncture not to remember it and revel in it, since there was more to that period than just  finishing second and the Cup Final and the UEFA Cup….

Saturday, May 11th.  White Hart Lane.  Spurs were on their way to their highest League finish for fifteen years, a third place under Peter Shreeves, but the Hornets would win 5-1.  Two days later United visited Vicarage Road.  The Reds had half an eye on the Cup Final six days later, but rested only Bryan Robson and Jesper Olsen in a time of smaller squads.  The scoreline was repeated;  new signing Colin West, whose arrival had sparked an end of season surge, Nigel Callaghan and Luther Blissett scored in both games, the latter also suffering an horrific injury at the hands of Gary Bailey and the cost of an impressive scar on his forehead.  Danny Thomas memorably contributed to our tally in the first game, the Spurs full-back finding the top corner from distance.

I was at both.  Even in the context of a time when taking on the big teams and beating them, in Cups and then in the League, was What We Did, this was remarkable.  More remarkable still is the progress made over the last few years.  Not since May 1985 have we gone into a game against United with anyone but us saying “Actually, I fancy Watford to win this….”.

2- A play in three acts, this.  The Hornets lined up in the now conventional eleven;  United kicking towards the Rookery in an alternative kit of nondescript colour which looked, as Cathal later observed, like it might be inside out.

This was a relatively low pressure game for the Hornets of course, low pressure in the sense that the tally already accumulated let us into the fixture without the burden of an iffy start.  United, twice defeated already, were probably in more urgent need of a result.  After an opening chorus of “One Harry Hornet” in recognition of the retirement of the mascot’s ten year incumbent an edgy opening half hour developed.  The visitors dominated possession, but were only allowed glimpses of goal;   Sánchez wriggled in down the right before thumping a drive towards the top corner which Foster repelled.  At the other end any hint of an attack sparked the crowd;  Bobby Pereyra set up Troy who put power above precision and shovelled his shot too close to de Gea, making a clawing save possible. Otherwise our attacks were trying to hit the strikers early and put United’s centrebacks under pressure – Troy has bossed Chris Smalling before, and Victor Lindelof has looked get-attable.  Troy will rarely play a game in which so many of his touches are with his chest, but for this period the two sides were keeping each other at arm’s length.

3- This changed on the half hour.  Étienne Capoue picked up his fourth booking in four home games this season for cynically curtailing Jesse Lingard’s progress on the break.  In the same fixture last season we’d regretted Tom Cleverley’s decision not to do something similar in the closing minutes.  From the passage of play resulting from the set piece United knocked us out of our defensive shape for the first time, and as we scurried and chased Ashley Young floated a cross in which Romelu Lukaku propelled into the net with his stomach.  Appeals aplenty – for offside from the stands, for handball, perhaps, from the players, but all in vain.  Difficult to see how Foster was fooled by the cross at the time and on replay, a rare blemish for the keeper.

Within three minutes it was two, Chris Smalling hooking home expertly after chesting down in the box.  You can criticise Daryl Janmaat for being on the wrong side of him but it was a fraction of an opening that still required a fine finish.

We could have caved in at this point, and looked a bit ragged for perhaps the first time this season.  United, as good teams are wont to do, tried to capitalise and surged at us;  Pogba came closest with a fine volleyed finish to a deep Lingard cross, Foster redeeming himself with a flying stop that left the French midfielder with his head in his hands. For the second home game in succession we were grateful for the interval; grateful, in this instance, to still be in it.

4- And so the second half was magnificent.  Yes, United sat back and invited it, invited us to find our feet but we showed no signs of needing that invitation.  It was a mild evening, and it’s not quite late enough in the year for half six-to-seven to be properly dark.  But there’s something special about the Vic in a late kick-off with the Hornets kicking towards the Rookery.  When United wandered forward early in the half we’d snatch possession and fly outwards… Doucouré, Pereyra, Hughes in tandem, Gray turning and twisting and chasing and getting buffeted by finally earning his reward with a composed finish.  Janmaat and Holebas both ran themselves into the ground and were replaced, Femenía and Masina providing further evidence of how far we’ve come.  These are our back up playernow, the fact that half of United’s support won’t have heard of them half the point.  If their very limited world view encompassed Kiko or Adam they would already be stars and wouldn’t be playing for Watford.  As it was they’re merely very very good players; both gave us a boost in the closing encounters.

If there’s a complaint about the second half it’s that the kitchen sink didn’t quite come out early enough.  There was always a risk of course… Anthony Martial’s pace twice launched counterattacks that first Cathcart and Kabasele had to be precise and urgent to repel – it may be that Gerard Deulofeu will soon be doing that “running off with the ball” thing for us”.  But from Gray’s goal onwards there was a sense that United really weren’t comfortable, than the game plan really hadn’t involved us scoring and yet we didn’t let it all rip until Matic, who was excellent for the most part, earned a second yellow card for a foul on the tireless Hughes.  The free kick was swung in and Kabasele’s fierce header was in…. until it wasn’t, de Gea vaulting to his left to deny it.  From the resultant corner Masina sent over a low missile that just needed a touch, de Gea ending up in the back of the net and the game was up.

5- So.  We lost to Manchester United (again).  Quite obviously the run was going to come to an end at some stage, and it goes without saying that this is quite high on the list of ways you’d chose for it to happen.  Against a top side, and giving it some, and with fire in our bellies to take to Fulham.

Best of all was watching that second half and, for all that it wasn’t quite enough in the end, watching a side that is comfortable in its skin and utterly unphased by being two down to Manchester United.  We’re a side that can be in that position at half time and yet entertain genuine hopes of retrieving the game. And have the players and the coach to do so.  “Deserved” is an odd word in the context of a football match and ultimately United deserved to win because they scored twice and we didn’t.  But I don’t think many in whatever-colour-that-was could have complained if we’d grabbed the equaliser.  We look like a Premier League team now, of all things.  A good one.

And so to Fulham and Slav and another fascinating encounter.  Interesting to note their division-high 12 goals conceded thus far (albeit heavily at the mercy of opposition faced after only 5 games) in the context of the theory that Jokanovic ultimately left Watford because it was felt that his football was too open for us to survive in the Premier League.  A huge test of our own mettle, too.  Spirited defeat is one thing… spirited defeat being two or more things might feel less comfortable.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Gray 4*, Deeney 3
Subs:  Femenía (for Janmaat, 72) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 84) 0, Success (for Cathcart, 88) 0, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Reading 0 Watford 2 (29/08/2018) 30/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

This is, by necessity, a half hour report.  Apologies for consequent scruffiness…

1- There are certain prerequisites when it comes to the early stages of the Rumbelows Cup.  Some of these are met in sunny Berkshire tonight…  a half-empty stadium (albeit a respectable enough 2500 make the short journey from Hertfordshire), much-changed starting line-ups (eleven changes for the Golden Boys in the green away kit’s first outing).  Check, check.

In other respects, Javi and the team haven’t got the memo at all.  This is, notoriously, a high-risk fixture.  For many years we postulated that the first round of the Milk Cup existed in some sort of time warp, a vortex of slow, dull, half-arsed football against interchangeable lower division opposition.  We dip into the same fixture once a year, some of us make it out alive, others lost in action.  Collateral damage, lost somewhere chewing their fists in an abandoned corner of time and space.

Should add as an aside that Reading are hardly cut from the same cloth as the stuff of our nightmares… you can dig around and find match reports from games against Cheltenham, Accrington, Cambridge, Notts County if you’re sufficiently motivated. Not to disparage such clubs or their support but… these games have been atrocious. I won’t provide hyperlinks for fear of sucking in the carelessly curious.  These are things that should only be taken on by those committed enough to live with the consequences.

Anyhow, as above, the Hornets haven’t read the brief.  This is actually rather fun.

2- I won’t dwell too long on the actual cut and thrust.  This was a painfully one sided game for the most part, as a game between the reserve side of a three-years-in Premier League club and a scratch side of a struggling Championship side ought to be, perhaps.  Only at 2-0 down, fuelled by a couple of second half subs, did the home side threaten very much ;  even then McNulty’s gentle lob over the onrushing Gomes gave the impeccable skipper Mariappa time to do a couple of stretches whilst waiting for the ball to drop and be cleared.  By that time we should really have been further ahead.  Make no mistake, this was comfortable and the margin of victory should probably have been greater.

No side is flattered when viewed through the prism of an early Worthington Cup tie of course, albeit that someone was overheard to observe that the Madejski Stadium is greatly enhanced by an absence of Reading fans.  But the place felt very flat, very tatty, and not at all upwardly mobile – an impression not enhanced by their side’s almost complete lack of cutting edge.  Never was the contrast greater than when Abdoulaye Doucouré rolled off the bench to replace the tiring Quina, a true heavyweight in the context of this game with an aura to match.  He didn’t (have to) do a lot, one thunderous run through the centre which was harshly if inconsequentially curtailed for a foul.  But his presence underlined the degree to which these two regular sparring partners have, for the moment at least, drifted apart.

3- Of particular interest was a chance to see the new boys in action, players whose introduction has been particularly cautious in the context of the strong start to the season under the old(er) guard.  It could be argued of course that both Marc Navarro and Adam Masina, both making their first appearances here, have already had an impact in that their presence has contributed to much more disciplined performances by our regular full backs.  Here, both did well enough;  Navarro perhaps the more impressive.  The young full back looked strong and athletic, growing in confidence as the game went on, you wouldn’t worry about needing him in the first team already.  On the other flank Masina contributed the cross to Success’ impudent goal, but was less of a bully than his imposing frame suggested he might be and was beaten to a far post cross by Reading skipper Liam Moore despite being 6’3″.

Perhaps most impressive of the new players was the relatively unheralded Ben Wilmot, who appeared to start at the back of midfield before dropping into the centre of a defensive trio.  He looks slight of frame but almost unnervingly composed for an eighteen year old, a thoroughly encouraging performance from the youngster.  Only during Reading’s late rally did he resort to thumping clearances out of defence, perhaps due to fatigue, but you wouldn’t question his decision making there either in the circumstances.

Ken Sema has featured off the bench, and did an adequate if less flashy job here, a tidy but less conspicuous contribution he seemed to tire early.  And then there was Quina;  conspicuous by his diminutive stature, he was full of tricks in his central role displaying tight control, tenacity, and a degree of healthy arrogance.  His decision making wasn’t always the best, he seemed to rein in a desire to do it all himself after an early touchline conference with his manager, but hell he’s 18 and he doesn’t half have some ability.  And the goal was ridiculous of course, picking up a loose clearance from a corner and shovelling it into the postage stamp with his left foot from 30 yards.  Not dull.  Not dull at all.

4- For me, the highlight however was Nathaniel Chalobah.  No mystery about this, no surprise.  Of all our missing star midfielders he’s the one that you’d still be tempted to crowbar straight into the first team despite our excellent start.  But after a year out, a year that saw an innocuous injury wipe out his season and his chances of going to the World Cup it wasn’t half good to see him on the pitch again.

And he was magnificent, albeit against limited opposition.  Twice he dropped outrageous passes over the bamboozled Reading defence, once onto the head of the industrious Femenía steaming in at the far post, another picking out a clever run from the persistent Success that Reading’s defence hadn’t seen at all.  Late in the second half a rare frustrated challenge by an opponent in a game that was relatively free of such stuff saw the unfortunate aggressor simply bounce off Chalobah, who barely seemed to have noticed.

Only as the game drew to a close was there cause for concern, as Chalobah’s slight limp became increasingly pronounced, clearly hampering his mobility to the point where he signalled to the bench to be replaced.  Our hearts were in our mouths;  cramp has been suggested, it really didn’t look like cramp.  The sight, therefore, of Chalobah making a late solo return to the pitch to acknowledge the crowd, grinning his face off and unencumbered by icepacks or the like, was the highlight of the evening.

5- Onwards and upwards then.  Confirmation of Chalobah’s fitness nothwithstanding this couldn’t really have gone any better. Decent-to-strong contributions from all of the new boys, unquestionably greater strength in depth all round;  our “second eleven” didn’t feature the injury Cleverley, Deulofeu, Britos, Kaboul, the mythical Peñaranda.

We’re in a very good place.  Someone rubbish at home in the next round of the Coca Cola Cup please (“someone rubbish away” – a club spokesman).

In the meantime, the small matter of Spurs on Sunday.  Bring them on.  Yoooooorns….

Gomes 3, Navarro 4, Masina 3, Prödl 3, Wilmot 4, Mariappa 4, Femenía 4, Quina 4, *Chalobah 5*, Sema 3, Sucess 4
Subs:  Okaka (for Sema, 65) 3, Doucouré (for Quina, 82) 0, Hughes (for Chalobah, 86) 0, Cathcart, Janmaat, Gray, Dahlberg

Watford 2 Crystal Palace 1 (26/08/2018) 27/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

1- At the top of Occupation Road there’s a steel band, a lad in a Watford shirt doing an impressive round of ball juggling and an affable gentleman on stilts.  The atmosphere would be jovial.  If it wasn’t pissing it down with rain.

It feels more like March than August bank holiday weekend.  Palace have brought the traditional Croydon microclimate with them and it dampens our quick start before it gets going.  Only the hissing, spitting hot fat of this fixture burns on unperturbed, and it hadn’t needed Roy Hodgson ambling into a Harry-shaped animal trap in the visitors’ pre-match press conference to ignite it.  Our encounters have a bad-tempered, even spiteful undercurrent all of their own.

Wilfried Zaha was receiving his traditional welcome long before kick-off (albeit Harry was keeping a sensibly low profile); within five minutes of the start the venom had spilled onto the pitch as Capoue caught Zaha’s achilles, receiving a yellow card.  It could have been red.  The consequences of this incident were manifold;  Zaha himself vaulted into an angry challenge with Holebas five minutes later and was himself carded, for recklessness rather than actual contact.  Anthony Taylor, who was excellently positioned, seemed to be angry with himself for allowing his reticence to send someone off early colour his judgement and gave us very little thereafter in an admittedly difficult game to officiate.  And every postmortem of the match was given the qualifier,  “…of course, if Capoue had been sent off it might have been different”.  True.  And, simultaneously, the dullest most valueless lack of insight.  If this player had been fit, if that decision had gone the other way, if it hadn’t been raining, if the shot had come off the other side of the post….  parallel universe theory is a long way down the list of ways in which football will be tinkered with.  Until that time arrives you play the circumstances you’re given.  Perhaps we got away with one;  we’ve been on the receiving end before.  Then as now you deal with it and get on with it.  And stop bleating.  If Capoue had gone Palace would have faced a different set of circumstances.

2- Meanwhile in this reality, Palace were having rather the better of it.  There was a school of thought that suggested that Palace might struggle this season but, disappointingly, not on this evidence.  Make no mistake, this wasn’t another case of an opponent looking poor (or being made to look poor) and us taking advantage;  the Eagles were a level above the Brighton side of two weeks ago.  We were already being moved around by the time Townsend’s cross found Benteke’s ample forehead to bring a fabulous point-blank reaction save from Ben Foster.  Shortly afterwards James McArthur was played through and Foster’s speed of response saved us again (“If Foster hadn’t been playing, we’d have been ahead at the break” – a peevish Roy afterwards, implying that a good goalkeeper was some kind of crazy voodoo shit).

In front of him, our defence were being worked but were up to the task.  Christian Kabasele gave a masterclass in unflustered defending, ushering his charges into quiet corners where their crushed momentum saw them yield possession almost apologetically.  Jose Holebas and Daryl Janmaat were both excellent…  the thundering up and down the flanks we’re used to, the defensive dependability we’re not. Holebas crowned his performance with a meticulously precise sliding challenge to deny McArthur (again).  This was the toughest half hour of the season so far, and whilst it was also the least elegant with attritional challenges going on all over the park as the two sides pressed each other to death it was perhaps our most impressive, the half hour that has taught us the most.  Brighton was great, but we’d have won that last season in the same circumstances.  Burnley impressive but, you know, the Europa League thing.  Here…  we were under pressure and we withstood it, our defence held together and whilst Foster was twice called into action that was it.  No bad misses from the visitors.  They didn’t get a chance to miss.

3- Which provided the platform for us to claw our way back into the game.  Some decent interplay on the right flank saw Janmaat released on the overlap, his cross found its way to Pereyra whose volley was deflected over the bar – it could have gone anywhere.  Shortly before the break another fine move clawed a gap open for Janmaat to hammer a shot across the face of goal and wide.

We didn’t want the interval to come but it didn’t interrupt our momentum.  Hughes was soon forcing Hennessey into a block at the near post in front of the Rookery.  Minutes later Capoue rampaged through the middle of the park battering away some flimsy attempts to knock him off the ball and drawing people to him.  He released Pereyra on the left who scored his stock, beautiful goal by curling a shot inside the far post out of Hennessey’s reach.

Palace pushed back, but we were in the ascendancy and you really, really don’t want to be forced to attack us and let us play on the break, not with this midfield.  Andre Gray, who had struggled to get into the first half, hadn’t stopped working and his movement found him through on goal only to be denied by stand-in centre back Kelly whose determination perhaps earned the fortune of his clumsy challenge taking ball but not player, he knew little about it.  Kabasele sent a header from a set piece so, so narrowly wide. We were on top now, the better side all round and were two ahead when Jose Holebas doubled the lead, dummying onto his weaker right foot and looping in a ball which dropped into the top corner.  It was a fluke, an intended cross, but tickets, raffles and so forth.  Two up on bloody Palace and one goal away from the top of the table.

4- Goodness only knows what Javi will do if and when we ever have a full armoury of midfielders fit and available.  Of the four that have started every game so far, only perhaps Doucouré would have been guaranteed a start in such circumstances at the start of the season.  He’s been perhaps the weakest of the four up to now, hampered no doubt by lack of pre-season, but the form of the other three has allowed him to play his way back to fitness.  Hughes had a quieter game today but remains magnificent, perhaps not physically resilient enough to hold down a central role in the face of such competition but plenty good enough to cause havoc from the right side of midfield.  Étienne Capoue looks reborn under Gracia;  there will be some in the stands (I could name one) who retain the doubts sown by two and a half years of hot-and-cold-and-sometimes-not-fancying-it-ness but this is the player, surely, that Spurs thought they had signed five years ago.  An absolute monster, I won’t tire of the sort of surging run that made the first goal.  And Pereyra, also, is showcasing his best bits… the quick feet, the control, the wit and the audacity that make him such a threat.

Thing is, a “second string” four would be just as strong.  Ken Sema had a hugely impressive half hour cameo today displaying confidence and belligerence as we protected our lead.  No shrinking violet, this lad.  Then you have the majesty of Chalobah, the dynamism of Cleverley and the merciless speed of Deulofeu.  My word.  The team selection at Reading on Wednesday night will be very interesting.

5- Reports have suggested that Zaha was “subdued” for much of the game, and on reflection perhaps the catcalls at misplaced passes outweighed the actual threat.  It didn’t feel like that at the time though; whatever else the gravitationally challenged one is he’s a magnificent footballer and Palace have done very well to keep him happy when more lucrative offers would surely have been made from elsewhere.  On 78 minutes he scored a perfect goal, timing his run perfectly to avoid the offside trap, cutting past hesitant challenges and slamming the ball past Foster.  This set up an extremely anxious final fifteen minutes, but a fifteen minutes that we managed superbly;  not so much by timewasting (though Taylor was quick to book Holebas at the suggestion of it) but by game management, keeping possession, making Palace run.  Isaac Success, hearteningly, was as disciplined in this respect as anyone in his brief outing.

So…  a win that in any number of parallel universes might not have gone our way.  If Capoue had got a red, if Holebas’ cross had wandered over the bar, certainly if Joel Ward’s late, late header had dropped inside the post.  And all the more enjoyable for it, for two reasons.

Firstly, cos it’s us getting the win.  That sounds obvious but…  this is the sort of win that established top flight sides have in their locker.  Teams like Palace (and us) can’t get away with not winning when they’re playing well that often.  Here Palace played well and lost and it was thanks to our bloody mindedness, that ugly half hour in the first half, as much as to the brilliance of Pereyra and the, um, opportunism of Holebas.  Looking back to 1999-2000…  one of the starkest memories of that miserable season was of our better performances being crushed regardless by sides that were just a bit smarter, just had a bit more.  We are now one of those sides.  A bit meaner, a bit crueller.  A bit more streetwise.

And the other source of joy is that it’s Palace, this putrid pile of vomit on the Premier League pavement.  We’ve a long history with Palace borne of often being at the same level at the same time, but we have a similar history with Leicester, say, without the same sort of bitter enmity (2013 notwithstanding).  And we still owe them plenty by my reckoning…  even leaving the play-off final and the cup semi aside, there’s the bitter rancour of the repulsive Saša Ćurčić, of Ian Holloway’s cynical bleating.  Of George Ndah‘s late late winner at Selhurst in 1995, of this and this and this.  The bill’s not paid, this was merely a first instalment.

On to Spurs and United then.  Winning three games is winning three games, a footnote is that we’ve “only” beaten Brighton, Burnley, Palace (ha). Not one of the big six.  On the flip side, we go into these two games, both at home by virtue of Spurs’ stadium issues, with a hell of a cushion, a lot of momentum and nothing to lose.  Tough games at any time.  But tougher still with any fewer than nine points from nine.

Bring them on.  Yooooorns.

*Foster 5*, Janmaat 4, Holebas 5, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 5, Hughes 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 3, Pereyra 4, Deeney 4, Gray 3
Subs: Sema (for Gray, 73) 4, Success (for Deeney, 94) 0, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina, Femenía, Gomes

Season Preview 2018 – Part 5 10/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: None

OUTS: Keenan Bennetts (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Undisclosed), Anthony Walkes (Portsmouth, Undisclosed), Ryan Loft (Leicester City, Free), Christian Maghoma (Arka Gdynia), Joe Pritchard (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Luke O’Reilly, Nick Tsaroulla

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes, Younès Kaboul

THEIR EX-ORNS: John McDermott (Head of Academy), Danny Rose, Perry Suckling (Head of Academy Goalkeeping)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A scruffy, irritating draw against ten men at the Vic and a mundane defeat of our own devising at Wembley under captain Mapps.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 1-1
2016-17 1-4
2015-16 1-2
2011-12 0-1
2008-09 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-4
1998-99 2-5
1994-95 3-6 / 3-2
1982-83 1-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Trippier       Sanchez           Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Son                           Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

VERDICT: The thing with Spurs this season is the move into the new stadium, slightly delayed from the summer meaning that of Spurs scheduled home games the visit of Fulham will take place at Wembley whilst the games against ourselves were reversed.  This gives us four out of our first five at home, whilst an injury-limited Spurs might have an iffy start to the season, their opening seven Premier League games being at different grounds.

The most significant aspect of Spurs’ transfer activity has been the lack of it – no significant ins or outs at the time of writing despite the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose seemingly seeking to follow Kyle Walker’s lead in escaping the Spurs’ wage structure.  The squad is plenty strong enough of course, and plenty is expected of Lucas Moura, Harry Winks and Erik Lamela who for various reasons weren’t able to impact last season as much as hoped.

Nonetheless it’s difficult to see Spurs achieving anything more than a Champions’ League place, probably, given that start.  When and whether Spurs tire of Pocchetino’s good-but-no-cigar will be the interesting narrative.  Fourth.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Felipe Anderson (Lazio, £26,500,000), Issa Diop (Toulouse, £21,900,000), Łukasz Fabiański (Swansea City, £7,000,000), Xande Silva (Vitória Guimarães, £2,000,000), Fabien Balbuena (Corinthians, Undisclosed), Andriy Yarmolenko (Borussia Dortmund, Undisclosed), Ryan Fredericks (Fulham, Free), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal, Free)

OUTS: Reece Burke (Hull City, Undisclosed), Cheikhou Kouyaté (Crystal Palace, Undisclosed), Domingos Quina (Watford, Undisclosed), Korrey Henry (Yeovil Town, Free), James Collins, Patrice Evra, Marcus Browne (Oxford United, Season Loan), Sead Haksabanovic (Malaga, Season Loan), Jordan Hugill (Middlesbrough, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Sam Howes, Hayden Mullins, Domingos Quina

THEIR EX-ORNS: Richard Collinge (Head of Medical)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A good win at Vicarage Road in defiance of Andy Carroll’s opening elbow and, if only briefly, Everton’s shenanigans, and a mundane defeat .at the London Stadium.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-0
2016-17 1-1 4-2
2015-16 2-0
2011-12 0-4 1-1
2008-09 1-0
2006-07 1-1
2004-05 1-2 2-3
2003-04 0-0 0-4
1999-00 1-2 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
Fredericks       Diop        Reid          Cresswell
Obiang           Noble

Yarmolenko              Wilshere                 Anderson
Arnautović

VERDICT: A year ago, West Ham signed a load of old players and I was daft enough to predict a comfortable top half finish.  As it turned out the Hammers would struggle early on, winning only two of fifteen games in a run which saw the end of Slaven Bilic’s Hammers career and the rather surprising recruitment of David Moyes to oversee survival.  This he did, with the Hammers slipping past us on the final day by beating Everton as we lost at Old Trafford.

The relegation that seemed at least a possibility for much of the season would have been particularly catastrophic for the Hammers and the club have responded with an unequivocal statement of intent by disposing of Moyes, hiring a high profile manager and performing a dramatic overhaul of the playing staff.  Felipe Anderson’s fee makes him the stand-out name, Jack Wilshere might stay fit, Yarmolenko has been about to move to the Premier League forever, but it’s the signings of Fredericks and Fabianski that suggest that something might have changed.  Eminently sensible.

It’s a massive influx of players, most of whom you’d expect to be first team players, and the Hammers have a tough start so things might not look great straight away but it’s surely inconceivable that the Hammers will struggle again.  Having nearly tempted fate last time by saying ninth I’ll go one better with eighth in the hope that’ll do the trick.

And the stadium is still shocking, obvs.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Adama Traoré (Middlesbrough, £18,000,000), Benik Afobe (Bournemouth, £10,000,000), Joao Moutinho (AS Monaco, £5,000,000), Leo Bonatini (Al Hilal, Undisclosed), Willy Boly (Porto, Undisclosed), Ruben Vinaigre (Monaco, Undisclosed), Paulo Alves (Liverpool, Free), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon, Free), Jonny Castro (Atlético Madrid, Season Loan), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht, Season Loan), Raúl Jiménez (Benfica, Season Loan)

OUTS: Barry Douglas (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Ben Marshall (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Duckens Nazon (Saint Truidense, Undisclosed), Prince Oniangue (Caen, Undisclosed), Jon Flatt (Scunthorpe United, Free), Hakeem Odoffin (Northampton Town, Free), Jordan Allan, Dan Armstrong, Anto Breslin, Nicolae Carnat, Ross Finnie, Conor Levingston, Tomás Nogueira, Adam Osbourne, Ryan Rainey, José Xavier, Benik Afobe (Stoke City, Six Month Loan), Harry Burgoyne (Plymouth Argyle, Season Loan), Roderick Miranda (Olympiakos, Season Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable Boxing Day defeat at Vicarage Road and an eventful 2-2 draw at Molineux which featured that encounter between Fessi and Bakary Sako.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

 

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 0-1
2012-13 2-1
2008-09 2-3
2007-08 3-0 1-4
2005-06 3-1 1-1 2-1
2004-05 1-1 0-0
2002-03 1-1 0-0
2001-02 1-1 0-1
2000-01 3-2 2-2
1998-99 0-2 0-0
1995-96 0-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Patricio
Boly         Coady       Bennett
Doherty       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
Jota          Jimenez        Costa

VERDICT: Here, almost at the end, is possibly the hardest prediction to make, if only because the side has changed beyond any recognition since we last played the Wolves.  The club has changed too… now owned by Chinese group Fosun International the influence of their advisor, super-agent Jorge Mendes is evident.  Boss Nuno Espirito Santo was his first client, and the stellar summer signings of Rui Patricio and João Moutinho are only the latest in a procession of impressive-looking arrivals that have resulted in a strong core of Portuguese players and staff at the club.

Popular wisdom from those watching the Championship regularly is that Wolves won’t struggle in the Premier League;  a haul of 99 points followed by an active summer backs that up.  It’s not quite a foregone conclusion though;  Nuno Espirito Santo has, by reputation, a very fixed idea about how his teams should play.  This is glorious when it works, but the test of any successful Premier League manager is how he reacts when it doesn’t, and Wolves will have a dodgy spell like everyone else.  Wolves’ approach was very open and offensive last season which, again, is great when it works and horribly demoralising when it doesn’t.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to see anything worse than lower mid-table for this Wolves squad.  Quite how much more than that they achieve depends on how quickly everyone adapts, the coach not least.  I’ll go for thirteenth.

WATFORD

INS: Gerard Deulofeu  (Barcelona, £11,500,000), Adam Masina (Bologna, £3,500,000), Ken Sema (Ostersunds, £900,000), Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Marc Navarro (Espanyol, Undisclosed), Domingos Quina (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Ben Wilmot (Stevenage, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Nordin Amrabat (Al Nasr, Undisclosed), Costel Pantilimon (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Richarlíson (Everton, Undisclosed), Mauro Zárate (Boca Juniors, Undisclosed), Harvey Bradbury (Oxford United, Free), Dennon Lewis (Falkirk, Free), Brandon Mason (Coventry City, Free), David Sesay (Crawley Town, Free), Conor Stevens (Wealdstone Free), Nathan Gartside, Louis Rogers, Charlie Rowan, Max Ryan, Carl Stewart, André Carrillo (Benfica, End of Loan), Didier Ndong (Sunderland, End of Loan), Orestis Karnezis (Udinese, End of Loan), Molla Wagué (Udinese, End of Loan), Daniel Bachmann (Kilmarnock, Season Loan), Kingsley Fobi (SD Ejea, Season Loan), Tommie Hoban (Aberdeen, Season Loan), Alex Jakubiak (Bristol Rovers, Season Loan), Dodi Lukebakio (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Season Loan), Jerome Sinclair (Sunderland, Season Loan), Luis Suarez (Gimnàstic, Season Loan), Randell Williams (Wycombe Wanderers, Season Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Janmaat          Cathcart          Kabasele            Masina
Chalobah      Doucouré
Deulofeu                   Cleverley                       Pereyra
Deeney

VERDICT: Football’s brilliant.

Yes I know that the summer was particularly short.  That the Premier League is a flagrant disgusting disgrace in so many ways.  That there are so many other worthier things to spend your time on.

Still.  Football’s brilliant.  Brilliant being part of something.  Brilliant identifying with a side.  Brilliant that we’re supposedly looking at a “mercenary” club that trades players freely and managers just as freely… and that nonetheless, as widely publicised earlier in the summer, now (still) boasts seven former or current Players of the Season in Cleverley, Mariappa, Deeney, Gomes, Prödl, Foster and Doucouré.  The last two are particularly significant;  Foster a tremendously popular heir to Heurelho Gomes, absolutely consistent with the hope that Pontus Dahlberg will grow into the position of first team regular.  And Doucouré.  Wow.  I can’t have been the only one who thought we’d seen the last of him, him above Richarlíson really.

Richarlíson may prove to be good value for Everton.  Maybe.  But he was mediocre for much of the season and perhaps Marco Silva was the only manager who would have paid what would have been needed.  But Doucouré is worth stupid money now.  He’s good enough for any team in the county now.  And he’s signed a new five year contract.

To most of the division we’re relegation candidates, certainly the sort of side that could go down if we have a bad season with injuries, say.  Thing is we had that season last season.  And the season before.  And we’re still here.  As well as the signings, as well as the surprise of retaining Doucs, we’ve a load of effectively new signings in players returning from injury.  We have the gem that is Nathaniel Chalobah returning to reprise that extraordinarily wonderful partnership with Doucouré, and then Tom Cleverley too.  And others… Cathcart, Kaboul, who barely had a season last term.  Troy with a pre-season. The blistering pace of Deulofeu. The mystery prize that is Adalberto Peñaranda, finally with his work permit, the unknown quantities that are Navarro, Masina, Sema.  Richarlíson was similarly anonymous last season.

It’s not all roses of course.  We need more options up front.  Cathcart/Kabasele looks a gorgeous partnership but neither is huge, would you fancy them against a bully of a centre-forward?  We’ve got that opening run at home too, no choice but to hit the ground running.

Balls to it.  It’s going to be great.  We’re going to be great.  Bring it on.

Yoorns.