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Watford 2 West Ham United 0 (19/11/2017) 20/11/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

1-  I love the Park Run.  I’ve never been a runner, not my thing at all but it’s become a weekly ritual nonetheless.  A thing we do.  Aching limbs I can do without, but getting your heart rate up is good, being outside early in the morning is good.  Even being humiliated by Daughter 1 as she tolerates my sedate pace throughout and then sprints, sniggering away from her wheezing father as the finishing line at the end of the 5km approaches, that’s good too.  Best of all, the everymanness of it…  all sorts of people are out.  Proper runners, big lumps like me.  Old people, young people, fit people, unfit people, people with dogs, people pushing kids in push chairs.  All manner of football shirts.  This weekend, a gentleman in a checked shirt and business trousers who’d come to stay with friends for the weekend, not planning to run.  It’s the common purpose, the shared intent.  It’s magic.

…and is something that’s common to the football experience, the Watford experience.  Sharing something with a load of people.  Not knowing them individually, not all of them, but having the same purpose.  Wanting the same thing.  I value that too.  And so… anything that threatens that, any strong discord amongst the support, spoils the thing for me.  Perhaps more than the worst possible outcome of the thing causing the discord itself.  This was a concern today, as someone pointed out beforehand.  Given the week we’ve had, the speculation and – in some quarters – mistrust of Marco, what happens if the game goes against us?

2- There was a Sunday afternoon feel about it all, to start with.  A sort of simmering sleepiness.  That lasted a matter of seconds, long enough for Andy Carroll to launch into his typical aggressive, aerial, flailing challenge and take out Marvin Zeegelaar, surprisingly given a debut in preference to Holebas.  Welcome to the Premier League.  Carroll avoided a card, somehow, perhaps by getting his assault in so early that if the “too early to book someone” line ever had any credibility to it he had to get away with it.

The game stopped immediately for prolonged treatment, not for the last time.  A nervous, chill stillness took hold again, edgy shuffling in seats. When the game resumed it was scruffy and shapeless.  There was an ominous purpose about West Ham;  no great quality, but an in-your-faceness that didn’t bode well.  We needed a goal, badly, and with our first proper attack we got one…  more scruffiness in the West Ham area, Will Hughes was alert and finished adroitly.  Perhaps the game would have always ended up the way it did but… this change in tone felt definitive.  We settled, straight away, and looked composed and confident from that point on.

3- Whereas West Ham were a shambles.  It was noted later that this must all have seemed pretty familiar to David Moyes… time will tell whether West Ham go the way of Sunderland, but they’ve certainly got big, smelly problems.  A lingering smell of damp, evidence of knotweed in the flowerbeds.  That early show of determination dissolved with Hughes’ goal and never returned;  there was no energy and little discipline to the Hammers’ play and one, single focus.

Andy Carroll was a parody of himself from the off, a bad tempered flying limb waiting to connect with the back of someone’s head.  Following his early assault on Zeegelaar he picked up a yellow for an off the ball clash with Richarlíson as West Ham adopted the radical and almost novel strategy of testing whether the winger could be bullied into submission.  Later he provoked further ire from the front of the Rookery by seeming to lash out at Adrian Mariappa in pretending to lever himself off the ground.  By this point, West Ham’s discipline had gone, the Hornets well on top… Femenía’s deflected shot snuck past the post, Richarlíson seemed to be able to dance through the Hammers’ defence at will and was twice denied.

And yet we didn’t score, and the Hammers continued to rely on their blunt instrument up front.  We’ve seen this before ourselves, last season more than once… a team low on confidence opting for the easy option to their target man too often.  Carroll, in fairness, is a formidable weapon and if he was too isolated to cause havoc – excepting smacks to the head, punches to the kidneys and so forth – then he was still a threat.  Shortly after our goal his knock down was inches away from a tap-in conversion; later in the half first Kouyaté and then Arnautovic were denied by Gomes’ astonishing reflexes, and a little luck.

4- If there’s a lesson from the last couple of games it’s that for the moment, we’re far from watertight enough to be able to take our foot off the pedal.  Even with a two goal margin.  We miss Chalobah badly, that rock-solid midfield partnership with Doucouré that looked so wonderful early on.  For now… we have to make do with triangles from Doucouré, Hughes and Cleverley whilst wondering how we found ourselves with such a marvellous squad and trying desperately to enjoy it as much as it deserves.

After an interval in which the legendary Ann Swanson made an overdue return to centre stage the second half was ours.  In charge, in control, sometimes toying patiently with the ball in front of opposition that was physically, mentally, emotionally shot, sometimes ripping into them with abandon.  Such was the second goal in which Hughes, who was dynamic and bright and sharp throughout, hurtled onto a loose ball, survived a handball appeal and played in the irrepressible Richarlíson, who the beleaguered Zabaleta got no closer to all night than he did to the better days of his career when he could actually run.  The Brazilian’s finish wasn’t convincing but we’ll take that all day long, heaven knows he’d deserved a goal.  Gray, who ran tirelessly all afternoon, came close twice.  Mariappa had a header pushed away by Hart.  At the other end an acrobatic clearance from Kabasele denied the Hammers, but such threat as they had departed with Carroll midway through the half.

5- As for Marco… well.  It seems clear that we won’t release him from his contract irrespective of the money offered.  The Pozzos, as so often, making the right call… if we’re really aiming to establish ourselves in the top half of the Premier League then we should expect to be at a level where the top clubs want to pinch our best players and, maybe, our coach.  If we capitulate now then game over;  agents, players, clubs will know that a deal will always be done with enough pressure.  Our model could never survive that way.  If Silva wants to leave now he’ll need to break his contract, and can’t expect to walk into Goodison as a consequence.

But that aside, you’d have to say that for all you can understand Silva being tempted by the dramatically increased salary that’s suggested and by a bigger club, if he’s stupid enough to want to go then we might be better off out of it.  He has an awful lot to lose if he forces the issue;  after brief spells at Hull and Watford he’s in danger of accelerating the Peter Principle. If he reaches his level of incompetence at Everton, having walked out on Watford, what then?  If he’s sacked after eighteen months at Goodison, say, will another Watford or Hull be keen to hire damaged goods who have demonstrated a propensity to stray whenever a better offer flutters their eyelashes? On the back of what suddenly looks like fleeting success a couple of years earlier?

It’s not as if Everton is a stable environment, a well-run club in which Silva can expect to flourish.  This is a club who’ve just spunked an extraordinary amount of money on players who play in the same position, a position in which a precocious incumbent already has them pretty well covered.  Your average Football Manager enthusiast doesn’t make that sort of mistake.  Compare and contrast with Watford’s environment under the Pozzos.  Consider the fact that other, bigger clubs than Everton will be looking for a new boss themselves over the next year or so.  To repeat, if he’s stupid enough to force the issue perhaps Everton are welcome to him… though I rather hope and suspect that the worst we’ll suffer from this episode is another load of mind-numbingly fuckwitted commentary, of which the BBC’s Steve Wilson was a surprisingly vacuous case in point.

6- A vital, vital win, obviously.  Yes we’ve played OK for much of those three defeats, but they’re still three defeats and we still had three fixtures on the other side of this one that we wouldn’t have wanted to rely on to break a losing run.  Now, the perspective changes and we look forward to those games in a new light.

Yoorns.

*Gomes 5*, Femenía 4, Zeegelaar 4, Kabasele 4, Mariappa 4, Britos 3, Doucouré 5, Cleverley 4, Hughes 5, Richarlíson 5, Gray 4

Subs: Pereyra (for Hughes, 84) 0, Holebas (for Femenía, 86) 0, Carrillo (for Gray, 90+7) 0, Capoue, Prödl, Okaka, Karnezis

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Watford 0 Stoke City 1 (28/10/2017) 29/10/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
28 comments

1- This was always going to be a different sort of challenge.

After a couple of marquee games from which three points and plenty of kudos was a very reasonable return, the first of three matches against sides who have been a bit rubbish and who have suffered through none of the promoted sides being completely terrible thus far and have consequently been getting edgy.

And much as we tried to convince ourselves that this was going to be a case of New Watford putting a struggling side to the sword, the day hadn’t felt right.  Wonky. Our reserved table set for the wrong number of places at the restaurant.  Harry the Hornet heading resignedly into the Red Lion pre-match.  Empty seats in the stadium.  Lots of them, despite what was officially a 20k+ gate.   And a confused pre-match process involving a bagpipe recital and a minute’s silence in recognition of Remembrance Day in which nobody seemed quite sure what was happening.  Wrong.  Wrong.

2- Two further things went wrong from the off, the one compounding the other.  First, as you’ll have noted, we conceded; on the back of an opening 15 minutes in which we’d utterly dominated possession without getting particularly close to the goal, Darren Fletcher’s strike following the first corner of the game felt like a sucker punch.  Didn’t look great on Gomes however composed the finish and deflection or not; “oh for f***’s sake”, said everyone.  For the sake of your sanity as a spectator you don’t want to be giving this Stoke side a head start.  And if they’re going to get a winner you’d almost rather it came late to spare you what was to follow.

The second thing that had gone wrong had actually gone wrong an hour short of a week earlier.  Given the above, given the very real  possibility of the sort of game that actually transpired, Roberto Pereyra’s lock-picking skills were the last weapon you’d choose to be without.  Étienne Capoue’s inclusion as an extra body in midfield was interpreted by just about everyone in the ground as yet another (last?) chance for the Frenchman to demonstrate that increased competition would coax more urgent, reliable brilliance.  Instead he was particularly culpable in a ponderous first half display that was too easy for the visitors to defend against.  The last thing you need against a side minded to defend deep and strongly and to slow the game down is a midfielder whose instinct is to take an extra touch.

3- Stoke executed an away day mugging thoroughly effectively.  We’ve been on the right end of this sort of thing before and there’s little credibility in begrudging it or criticising it as Marco Silva, slightly disappointingly, did after the game.

But that doesn’t mean you have to like them. There was briefly a suggestion that, post Tony Pulis, Stoke would be pursuing a more refined blueprint.  Instead, this more exalted set of names is utterly callous and brutal and with manager Hughes at the forefront there’s a snide arrogance about it.  At least there’s a humility of sorts, a brazen honesty about Pulis.  There are few redeeming features about this menagerie of trolls and mutants.

The performance began early, as after Kurt Zouma had afforded Richarlíson the Brazilian’s traditional welcome to a game Xherdan Shaqiri followed up with an altogether nastier, sulkier assault.  The young winger has stood up to all such intimidation up until now, but had the poorest game of his fledgling Watford career to date.  He can be forgiven an off-day, but we could really do with a proper winger to provide respite from the bench.  Jack Butland, meanwhile, was wasting time as soon as City took the lead while both Mame Biram Diouf and man of the match Ryan Shawcross belied their tough reputations by inventing assaults and reacting to them accordingly.  Joe Allen was the poster boy for Sexy New Stoke when recruited last summer, evidence of a new ethos at whatever-the-stadium-is-called-now.  Instead he’s gone thoroughly native, a horrible little goblin who spent the game mouthing off at officials and opponents alike whilst making cheap, cowardly tackles in the midfield.  Stoke’s fans will be revelling in an away mugging.  Rightly so, there’s a certain profound joy in such a thing.  But I can’t imagine that this side is one that they’ll look back on fondly – Aidy Boothroyd’s 2007/08 team an obvious comparator.

4- None of which excuses what happened at the end of the game.  Troy Deeney won’t have been the only Hornet in the stadium minded to take the little scrote by the throat, but he’s the captain.  A captain with a colourful past to boot, he’s the last person who could afford to be succumbing to that temptation.  Whilst our record of yellows and reds might not reflect it, one of the less highlighted areas of improvement this season is the side’s discipline but this was a weak and disgraceful reaction from the captain.  I don’t share the confidence expressed elsewhere that the referee having seen and adjudged the incident will prohibit further sanction.

Not that anyone comes out of that little episode well, Mark Hughes least of all.  His typically pious post-match interview reflected in mock outrage at Deeney’s failure to return the ball after Stoke had put it out for a throw-in as befits “the spirit of the game”.  This would be the same spirit that his own side had trampled, spat and grunted over with callous disregard for the previous hour or so, not least when Erik Pieters had collapsed with “cramp” in the incident provoking the conflict only to recover quickly when referee Oliver motioned to call on a trainer.   Oliver himself  did a reasonable job of handling a game that was always volatile, but should have clamped down much quicker on City’s timewasting – blame City’s attitude to “the spirit of the game” rather than the official, but the combination of the two – and our captain’s nerve finally snapping – led to him losing control in the final moments.

5- The second half had been an improvement.  Jack Butland may not have been called to make a save, we were never quite laying siege to the visitors’ goal for all of our 70% possession, but the keeper did make some crucial punched clearances, and other goalbound efforts were denied by defensive blocks some of which – Shawcross a key protagonist here  – reflecting outstanding awareness and some merely volume of big blokes in the area.  Kiko Femenía, not for the first time, was a potent threat frequently overlapping on the right where Carrillo developed a good line in slick through-balls.  Andre Gray came on for Capoue and was lively – he was twice denied by flying blocks.  Richarlíson, for the second week running however, was found wanting in front of goal; he made a bad decision in trying to convert Carrillo’s brave header from too wide, and must have shut his eyes in failing to head in Britos’ cross unchallenged.  Ultimately I think we were worth a point, but taking something from such a position requires wit and/or luck, and we didn’t have enough of either although admittedly Stoke twice broke and could have extended their lead but for a fine save from Gomes – missed by the officials – to deny Berahino and a comical miss by Charlie Adam.

6- A defeat, then and arguably – given the context of Britos’ red card against Brighton and the strength of the opposition against City – our first truly disappointing result of the League season.  We’ll learn much about our already coveted head coach in the fallout… more than one managerial tenure – Alex Neil at Norwich springs to mind – has foundered on an inability to cope with failure once results start going awry.  Silva’s public calling out of Tom Cleverley for failing to close down Darren Fletcher – the same Tom Cleverley so often at the heart of marshalling a defensive set-up against a set piece – doesn’t entirely augur well.

On the plus side, losing to Stoke in miserable fashion has become something of a tradition and as such we’re still ahead of the game – no worse off in comparative terms than we were on Saturday morning.  Getting something from Goodison Park, traditionally a similarly unprofitable fixture, would be most welcome.

Yooorns.

Gomes 3, *Femenía 4*, Holebas 3, Kabasele 3, Britos 3, Carrillo 3, Doucouré 3, Cleverley 4, Capoue 2, Richarlíson 2, Deeney 2

Subs: Gray (for Capoue, 58) 3, Hughes (for Carrillo, 80) 0, Janmaat, Mariappa, Zeegelaar, Watson, Karnezis

Chelsea 4 Watford 2 (21/10/2017) 22/10/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

1- “It’s a Saturday building up to Christmas, remember” warned Dad, as his agitation at the vague nature of my travel plans – and his ticket’s travel plans – bubbled.

So much wrong with this statement.  Firstly it’s not bloody building up to Christmas as anyone older than, generously, nine ought to be in no doubt about.  Secondly, even if it were building up to Christmas why on earth would you be thinking about in anticipation of a big game?  Voluntarily?

Seeing as he brought it up we’ll dwell on Christmas very briefly before getting on with the plenty of other stuff that there is to discuss.  This comes in the form of a public service announcement for those of you considering shopping for your necessaries on line during the festive period.  John Lewis has a reputation for excellent customer service.  Don’t believe a bloody word of it.  Lies, lies, lies.  For the second time in the space of twelve months we’ve fallen victim to an aggravating, grotesque combination of  practised incompetence and supercilious dismissiveness.  Seriously.  You’ve been warned.

2- If there’s a way in which the Chelsea matchday experience resembles the Watford matchday experience it’s in the Fulham Road beforehand, a seething artery that channels the masses towards the stadium transforming it into something quite unrecognisable to those who see it on a “normal” day, in much the way as Vicarage Road always feels odd if you chance down it during the week.

Today the October spinning dial that promised sunshine and rain and wind and made preparation next to impossible settled on sunshine, fitting for a rare trip to the Bridge that didn’t  come with the knowledge that we were likely to get stuffed.

We’d made a bright start, Pereyra’s gorgeous flick releasing the flying Femenía for the first of many screaming runs down the right.  This reassured those of us convinced that a game against a talented but emotionally brittle Chelsea would surely be won or lost on the first goal.  Score it, and you could see the anxiety in the host’s stands and team ratchet up.  Concede it and you risk getting overwhelmed by a side needing something to rally behind.

3- We were wrong, as it turned out, but not necessarily entirely so.  Chelsea got that goal but didn’t run away with it…  we’ll never know what would have happened had we scored it.  There’s more to the opener than referee Moss’ inexplicable failure to award a goal kick as Eden Hazard shuttled the ball off…  there’s our brief lapse in concentration, ruthlessly exploited by a quick corner, there’s Pedro’s exquisite finish damn his eyes.  Nonetheless, as the Hornets briefly lost their rag in frustration and the referee briefly lost control, flinging cards around with a flamboyant lack of authority I was thinking about John Lewis Customer Service again;  not much to choose between them and a weak homer of a ref in terms of the sense of impotent vexation that they provoke.

“Cojones” has undoubtedly been the word of the week.  Troy’s interview last Saturday was typically entertaining, his manager’s lukewarm reaction completely understandable, the outraged response of (some) Arsenal supporters simultaneously utterly baffling and not.  Whatever social media’s plusses, giving a megaphone to the witless isn’t one of them.  Whatever…  plenty of cojones in evidence for the rest of the half.  Succumbing either quickly or obstinately is the default in these circumstances but instead, having ridden our luck when the charmless Fabregas was put through, we wrested control of the game back from the home side with the composed patience of those annoying parents who know how to deal with tantrumming children calmly.  Bastards.  The half ended with the peerless Doucouré, top of a strong class in keeping cool under pressure himself, slinging a half-cleared ball inside Courtois’ near post.  The Frenchman sprinted the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the air-punching, bellowing yellow corner.

4- The opening twenty minutes or so of the second half saw us showcase the most spectacularly incisive football we’ve played this season.  We barrelled at Chelsea whose defence, exposed by an overrun midfield, backpedalled in panic.  Femenía howled down the right and put in an outrageous cross that Richarlíson should have converted.  A minute later the lower-key but still brutally combative Deeney fed the Brazilian and he found Pereyra who had floated into space at the far post and finished brilliantly, fooling Courtois with his eyes and clipping it over the keeper.  The away end took  a little while to calm down.

We remained on the front foot.  Richarlíson met a perfect Britos cross too strongly and sent a free header wide.  Kabasele had another free header, this time beyond the far post but he didn’t put enough on it to trouble the keeper and would have done better to nod it back across goal.  “We might regret these”, thought everyone.

5- “He lost it with the substitutions,” was the popular insight expressed at the final whistle, by experts both in the stadium and elsewhere.  Quite a lot wrong with this statement too, not least the rather accusative tone towards a manager who is so far in credit that his tab doesn’t even merit checking.  Plenty contributed to this…  principally our failure to make the most of our period of utter superiority in the second half; another goal would surely have precluded any resistance.  Add to that the ongoing absences of Kaboul and Prödl – it could be argued that we’re still missing our best three central defenders, either of these two in particular might have been expected to be able to cope more effectively with the robust threat of sub Batshuayi.  Referee Moss’ hand in the first goal – yes, it’s a long time ago by now but a different game might have followed – and his failure to send of Antonio Rüdiger, already on a yellow, when he aimed a petulant kick at his tormentor Richarlíson’s achilles after the ball had gone are also frustrations.  A final factor, the machinations of the other team so often overlooked in post mortems – the changes they made from the bench created a threat were none had existed prior to their equaliser.

But there’s little doubt that our subs didn’t work.  Watson-for-Deeney is the major bone of contention, although Chelsea were level by the time that switch was made, Batshuayi’s run surprising Britos who was caught flat and beaten to a cross that again stemmed from a quickly taken set piece that we hadn’t anticipated.  Before then Pereyra had limped off to be replaced by Carrillo who, as the hosts began to get desperate, was forced backwards into an unnaturally defensive role.  This factor adds credibility to the Watson substitution – by sticking in a proper defensive midfielder and pushing Richarlíson up you free Carrillo to use his speed to keep the visitors on the back foot.  That it didn’t work doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea…  but as it was Carrillo failed to get involved and Watson looked horribly rusty, in part reflecting his own lack of game time and in part the absurdly high standard being set in our engine room this season in which anything less than outrageously good will stand out like a sore thumb.

6- That we lost to the League Champions is horribly frustrating;  personally I sulked most of the way home.  But, you know, there you have it.  That we lost, away at the League Champions having been a goal down despite this, despite that, is a disappointing and that in itself is a marker of our progress.  Marco Silva argues that we deserved to win;  I tend to disagree.  To deserve to win you need to match what your opponent throws at you, and we really didn’t in the last few minutes.

But that doesn’t mean that we weren’t, for the most part, brilliant.  That this isn’t a completely wonderful, loveable, inspiring Watford side.  That we shouldn’t be relishing the next challenge, that of getting the disappointment out of our system in time to lock horns with a capsizing Stoke next Saturday.  That’ll take cojones too.

Yooorns.

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

Subs: Carrillo (for Pereyra, 65) 2, Watson (for Deeney, 80) 0, Gray (for Mariappa, 90) 0, Janmaat, Wagué, Capoue, Karnezis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the break.  Bring on the Arsenal…

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

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

 

Toddy 25/09/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

We don’t make a habit of sharing writing responsibilities on these pages, as you’ll know.  Special circumstances demand an exception.  We’ll miss you, Toddy.

As Richarlison burst through Alfie Mawson’s wet lettuce of a tackle and delivered the coup de grace on Saturday, you couldn’t help but wonder what Steve Todd would have made of it all.. Toddy set sail for whatever awaits last week and we’re all going to miss him terribly.

Back in the first Premiership (not, not etc) season a thriving regional supporters group community had built up around the Watford team, specifically on the away days. The Norfolk Hornets, with Toddy and the equally much-missed Steve Brister at the helm, were in the vanguard and The Yellow Experience fanzine regularly reported on the various adventures of Toddy and his crew over the following few seasons.

Later, with Look at the Stars in its pomp, Toddy also bought his unique humour and love of sailing to its pages as part of our ‘Since We Last Wrote’ match reporting. With the focus often on anything other than what actually happened on the pitch, Toddy’s whimsical genius was a perfect ingredient for those pages.

As far as words of tribute go, we could have filled Matt and Ig’s blog with glowing reference and stories of one of our best writers and much-loved shipmate. Instead, we present two of his best articles in his memory and hope his many friends enjoy the memories they invoke. If you’re reading and never met or knew him, take our word for it. You’d have loved him, too.

Sleep well, Cap’n,
Your bitchmaster and flooze
TYE, LATS editors/co-editors 1991-2004

 

Watford 0 Manchester City 6 (16/09/2017) 17/09/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
25 comments

1- So.  Fourth in the League.  Early days, yes, but still.  Fourth in the league.  Cool, huh?

It’s got to the point that analysts have to at least acknowledge us.  This lack of such until now bothers me more than it should… I mean, we obviously get more attention than we used to in the second tier where you sort of tacitly accept that nobody (except those directly affected) gives a stuff.  Being a small fish in the Premier League is aggravating since you’ve gotten to the top table and you expect a degree of focus and recognition and then you have to reconcile this with the fact that, still, nobody gives a stuff. Our role is as straight guys for the big clubs.  Incidental necessities, supporting cast.

But being fourth is different.  It might only earn a “they look good, Watford”, or a “I really like the look of their midfield” from someone who’s at least done ten minutes of research, but it’s something.  And people at work, People Who Don’t Really Like Football and must therefore be treated with a degree of caution, will say “hey, I see Watford are doing well”.  And you try to humour them, knowing that there’s no scope for a proper conversation on the subject, by saying something inane and conversation-ending like “yes, and if we beat Manchester City on Saturday we’ll be top, ho ho”.

The title push might need to wait for another season…

2- This had the air of a free punch given our strong start to the season, the edge taken off our bravado slightly by the paucity of centre-back options with Marco Silva, interestingly, picking out that absence of Kaboul as particularly unfortunate.

City started at high speed and with an immediate intensity, clearly hoping to put us to the sword quickly and perhaps influenced by their midweek fixture – best put this to bed early to save their legs.  We withstood this, owing a little to luck when Agüero fired narrowly wide, a little to Raheem Sterling air-kicking spectacularly, but more to our own resilience.  Christian Kabasele executed a fine, precise tackle in the box to rob Sterling, released by de Bruyne (“a Steve Palmer tackle” said Loz, high praise). Daryl Janmaat’s bravery denied Nicolás Otamendi a far post opener at the expense of a painful looking clash of heads. The rain came down ferociously, but we’d weathered the early storm and ventured upfield ourselves, Richarlison getting on the end of a wicked Holebas free kick but directing his header narrowly wide.  This was a game, and we were very much in it.

3- Until we weren’t.  Three goals in eleven minutes and it’s over. It’s tempting to dwell on refereeing mistakes…  the first and third goals offside, the penalty bizarrely denied to Chalobah after a clumsy challenge by Walker that left no room for misinterpretation, the prevalent suspicion that Taylor and his assistant in front of the GT stand rather steeled themselves against the Hornets in indignation at protest against their errors and were far from even-handed in their dealing with marginal calls.  All irrelevant really.

What’s significant about today’s game is the narrow margins between an unremarkable and even competitive outcome and the mauling that the scoreline suggests.  Goal 3 was clearly offside, Goal 1 less obviously so but both are only revealed by replays;  it pains me to say it, but you have to sympathise with Taylor and co, and say “OK, I can see how they missed that”.  So what you take from that is that City’s timing and movement was absolutely precise, that whatever failings we might have contributed to the two goals the fact that the movement was timed perfectly in balancing advantage with what might be gotten away with, that Agüero’s header was absolutely perfect… combined with the fact that the energy and movement was relentless, maybe they weren’t perfect every time but they were close enough to keep us perpetually on edge.  This was never better illustrated than by the fifth goal; you can argue that someone should have put a more aggressive tackle in, maybe taken Agüero down but the obstacles in his way still required a ridiculous shot to curl towards the goal and bounce in off the inside of the post with just about enough oomph to beat the attentions of Kabasele on the line.  Absolutely merciless precision.

4- It would be wrong to suggest that this was all out of our hands.   Daryl Janmaat, in the build up to the second goal, attempted to reprise Brendon Mason’s achievement of shovelling Gabriel Jesus into the hoardings but the young Brazilian has been in the gym over the summer and dispatched his opponent instead.  Then, instead of charging into the space created and mishitting the cross, or seeing his delivery cleared or a header saved as happens nine times out of ten, City capitalised mercilessly exposing Gomes’ only real error of the game in the process.   So… we made mistakes, we contributed to our downfall but City ruthlessly exploited our failings, teased apart the slightest flaws and poured relentlessly through them.

Superlatives are dull, but I struggle to remember a more impressive team performance.  You’re tempted to say “attacking performance” since we weren’t completely shut out, we did have a few chances particularly early in the second half when Carrillo upped a gear.  But if you can’t get the ball and the opposition attack is so formidable defensive limitations don’t matter so much.  Only the Liverpool side of Barnes and Beardsley stands comparison to my mind, and my only first hand experience of that was against Steve Harrison’s beleaguered side – Harrison, like Elton, present yesterday – which hardly acts as a benchmark.  The movement, the precision, the speed and above all the relentless intensity was quite breathtaking.

5- So if we didn’t do a lot wrong, if the opposition were extraordinary and if (some of) the officiating can be forgiven and certainly wasn’t a determining factor – bad decisions, like bad bounces, need to be accommodated – then we should perhaps be grateful for something to vent our spleen at without reservation.

Regular readers will know that I like a good stat as much as the next man and more than most.  The contribution of StatZone, however, does nothing to add to my match-going experience on the best of days and today certainly wasn’t one of them.  A ticker-tape message bar along the back of the electric ad-boards pointed directly at the stands as if it’s occurred to some marketing guru that making the live experience more like television is easier than the more traditional reverse.  Pre-match and at half time this monstrosity declared:

THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT WATFORD HAVE FOUND THEMSELVES INSIDE THE TOP FOUR OF THE ENGLISH TOP-FLIGHT

So much wrong with this sentence. Firstly, trivially, factually incorrect as anyone who remembers as far back as 1983 could tell you.  Secondly, the implicit presumption that football before 1992 doesn’t matter… “OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE” would have been similarly irritating but at least it would have been accurate.  The language… “found themselves” implies an accident, something that’s happened to Watford rather than an achievement, temporary or otherwise.  It comes from the same lexicon as “shrewd signing by” and “share your view” popular in clickbait football websites.  Impersonal, indifferent, banal.  “They look good, Watford”.  You’re talking to supporters, for goodness sake, not the lowest common denominator.

Most of all, if a particular website is rubbish I can choose not to view it, if punditry descends too far into pub-bore twaddle I can turn it off.  I resent this imposition on my match day.  A repulsive development.

6- So we got dicked by City.  Plenty of teams will get dicked by City and whilst the margin of defeat negatively effects our goal difference (early days but a 1-0 defeat would have seen us five places better off) this game doesn’t have to be a disaster.

Our reaction is all important, and will be fascinating as well as potentially determining how our season pans out.  Swansea and West Brom away preceded an international break, followed by Arsenal and Chelsea.  Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 2, Mariappa 2, Kabasele 3, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 3, *Carrillo 3*, Richarlison 3, Gray 2

Subs: Pereyra (for Cleverley, 64) 3, Capoue (for Chalobah, 70) 2, Deeney (for Gray, 74) 2, Wagué, Zeegelaar, Success, Karnezis

Southampton 0 Watford 2 (09/08/2017) 10/09/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- On Friday night the Palace Theatre played host to the latest Tales from the Vicarage event.  The latest of several, the first I’ve been able to get to.  Adam Leventhal is the host and John Barnes is the guest;  it’s a fine evening for a number of reasons.  Barnes is a relaxed and convivial interviewee if a little too rehearsed, as befits someone practised in talking about his career at such events.  These stock stories are occasionally engaging but impersonal;  only when Leventhal leads him onto less routine ground does Barnes become intimate, earnest and genuinely likeable.  When he talks about the influence Graham Taylor had on his career, something presumably less well covered on the Liverpool circuit, the slick laddish wisecracks disappear and he’s plaintively appealing to his interviewer and the audience, desperate to convey the gravity of his sentiment.

The evening features a recital from the voice(s) of Hornet Heaven  Colin Mace, and the recreation of some photos from back in the day, some of whose subjects have been treated more gently by the passing of time than others.  Most of all though, it’s another opportunity to spend time with Like Minded People.  One of the best things about match day itself, of course.  Diverse opinions on most subjects are to be welcomed, even football, especially football.  But sometimes it’s good to be with people who Understand.  The highlight of the evening is Leventhal orchestrating a series of chorusses of “Yooooorns” before the main man even appears.

2- So to matchday.  And bearing in mind what’s gone immediately before it’s tempting to compare and contrast, this team with that.  A thankless task, a fool’s errand.  Scale of achievement versus shift in standard, a top division now drawing talent from a much wider pool.  The best footage of Barnes is timeless, he would have been a star whatever the era but, more generally, how do you compare?  You can’t penalise the current side for playing in a faster league with better players but you can’t penalise the 1982/83 side, say, for playing when they did either.

Actually, if you spend any more time than it took you to read that paragraph thinking about this nonsense you need another hobby.  Learn a language, take up cookery or something.  Whatever.  Such comparisons are moot, this team needs to compete with the Premier League teams of today not the Watford teams of thirty-five years ago.

But there are some absolutes.  Barnes, as above, is one. A performance like this is another.  An absolute that is what it is irrespective of time.  We’ve played well at times since we’ve been promoted.  We’ve won impressively and deservedly against intimidating opponents.  But we’ve not won like this.  It’s not that we merited the win; that’s beyond dispute but not unique.  It was the way we crushed Southampton between our jaws.  The way that, more than merely deserving to win the game we were much, much better than our opponents.  Play this game a hundred times, we win ninety nine times.  Away to Southampton, a side who it could be argued are a reasonable target for our ambition in some ways. The victory is absolute, awesome, magnificent and magnificently straightforward.

3- The game starts as it’s going to continue.  We’re absolutely in charge and it’s that extraordinary midfield that’s crucial, the rock on which everything else is based.  There’s another historical comparator here;  that Boothroyd team that got promoted in 2006 when, even if we didn’t have the best players man-for-man we had a way of playing and individuals who had been expertly picked to make that system work.  So you had a solid defence and a hard working midfield that could soak up pressure, Foster’s distribution, King’s pace and aggression and so on.  Here, it’s the midfield.  It’s Doucouré striding across the pitch like he owns it (because he does), with adulation thundering from the away end.  It’s Chalobah one moment sashaying into space the next mincing an opponent and emerging with possession and a diffident shrug.  More than once he’s taken down off the ball as the move that he engineered escapes, they can’t live with him.  It’s Cleverley the dynamo, the duracell bunny, he’s fetching and probing and ferrying and providing an option.  This is the bedrock that will continue to provide Richarlison and Carrillo and Pereyra the licence to do whatever the damn they please.

If there’s a problem it’s that we’re on top but not actually creating much.  The 22nd minute’s applause in honour of a Saints fan who recently passed away risked being punctuated by a Richarlison goal as he wriggled into space but otherwise we’d not tested Forster.  Southampton, it should be noted, create nothing either but are holding us at arm’s length and with Femenía twice being caught flat footed by overlaps that went nowhere we don’t look invulnerable early on. Having missed Bournemouth the last win I saw was the West Brom victory and this was reminiscent of that in that we were going to need something special.  So we generated something special.  Half a second before which, Daughter 2 demanded my attention;  I’ve long trained myself to respond to such enquiries as patiently as possible irrespective of timing, for karma purposes.  You’re welcome.  For what it’s worth, she wanted to know whether Emma Watson was an adult or not.

4- We cut and thrust for the rest of the half, trying to capitalise on the spectacular development which had provoked a ferocious reprise of that chant, as if any excuse were necessary.  Chalobah drove at Forster, Doucouré got on the end of another fine move and did the Darren Bazeley thing of trying to recreate his fine strike but this time crashing a volley over the bar.

The second half started, predictably, with a bluster of pressure from the home side.  A bluster of pressure high on energy but short on conviction, the greatest injury we suffered was, predictably enough, injuries to personnel as Kaboul’s hamstring clocked off again and Femenía went off simultaneously.  Aidy Mariappa and Daryl “made of biscuits” (© Mike Parkin, FTRE) Janmaat came on to replace half of our defence and we caught our breath for the first time.

Here, for perhaps the only time in the game, we relied on a little fortune.  The timing of this goal was crucial and in that sense we curtailed any impending kitchen-sinking that the home side might have mustered in response to this development.  As it was, Daryl Janmaat galloped to the edge of the box and clouted a drive beyond Forster.  Game Over;  we stomped all over the rest of the game with Mariappa looking comfortable alongside the majestic Kabasele, who has surely nailed down a starting place over the last couple of fixtures.  If there was going to be another goal it would have been ours; André Gray, who had worked tirelessly and thanklessly throughout, scampered onto a through ball and outmuscled one chaser-back before being outdone by the second.  Carrillo screamed down the right making up a quarter of the pitch outside the touchline such was his momentum before cutting inside, leaving Bertrand on his backside and curling a shot wide.  Troy came on to an ovation and looked more mobile and combative in ten minutes than he has all season so far.  If a Southampton midfielder stuck a nervous head above the parapet, Nathaniel Chalobah stamped on it. It was a full back that finally registered a shot for the home side, Gomes fielded comfortably.

5- Returning to John Barnes, then.  It’s been clear for a long time that kids like mine who have gotten into it over the last few years will be cursed in the same way that those of my generation were.  By the time they realise that Watford Doing Well, scoring goals, winning games, isn’t the default state of affairs it’ll be too late.  There will be no going back.  For all of us…  this suddenly looks like a very special team, and whilst maintaining a Champions’ League position might be a little overambitious there can be no dispute that these are the new good old days.  Enjoy it.  This side looks really rather special.

Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Femenía 3, Holebas 4, Kaboul 4, Kabasele 5, *Chalobah 5*, Doucouré 5, Carrillo 4, Cleverley 5, Richarlison 4, Gray 4

Subs: Mariappa (for Kaboul, 61) 4, Janmaat (for Femenía, 62) 4, Deeney (for Gray, 84) 0, Success, Watson, Capoue, Karnezis

Watford 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 (26/08/2017) 27/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
25 comments

1- So.  August Bank Holiday, then.  End of the first bit of the season prior to the first international break, first chance to take stock.  End of the transfer window approaches too, a transfer window during which we’ve been linked to well over 100 players and have revised the squad significantly.

Little wonder that my co-editor struggles to keep up, feels less connected on the odd occasion that he makes it to Vicarage Road these days;  there are long-serving members of the squad but the turnover is extraordinary and unprecedented, and in this window in particular we appear to have made a conscious decision to up the ante, to start trading at a higher table.  You won’t need reminding that times have changed somewhat, that not so long ago we were grateful for Paul Mayo and Mark Yeates.  Some of us were.

Does it matter?  The high turnover affects Ian’s ability to keep up but does it make it harder for those of us attending more regularly to feel a connection?  Or is Ian’s detachment a consequence more of his occasional participation than of the ever-changing make-up of the team?

The happy bedlam of our pre-match meal offered no doubt.  A table for sixteen including eleven Rowsons of three generations, laughter, discussion and plenty of yellow shirts (my better half excluded, her first visit for over a decade sufficient sacrifice).  This is what it’s all about.  This is why it matters little who’s on the pitch really.  The Watford we support is more than a badge or a multinational list of names.  It’s us.

2- After a positive start to the season one of the questions posed by Tuesday’s defeat was to what extent our early optimism was enabled by our two League opponents to date both coming onto us and giving us some space to play.  Bristol hadn’t done that, and Brighton’s early reports could be summarised as “little up front, hard to break down”.  And “got broken down anyway”, I guess.

Our initial approach to this was hugely positive, the opening ten minutes or so purposeful and aggressive. For the most part Brighton’s defence held up fine, although Mat Ryan flapped excitedly at a cross and Nordin Amrabat found himself in a position where aggression was all that was needed, mugging Suttner on the right and bundling free.  He put across a decent ball that wasn’t converted;  it should have been. Meanwhile Brighton’s armoury had been strengthened by the return to the side of pantomime villain Anthony Knockaert, who proved largely indifferent to the crowd’s booing (as my brother pointed out, surely laughter would have been more appropriate) and provided the visitors’ most consistent threat.  He cut in from the right and fired a shot against the post which seemed to alarm us sufficiently for the game to settle back into some kind of equilibrium.  And then that equilibrium was irreversibly altered.

3- I say irreversibly, but their remained until half time the possibility that Bruno, already booked for hacking down Richarlison, would even the score.  His withdrawal for Liam Rosenior was only rivalled in predictability by his being booked in the first place.

But the big event was the Britos thing, of course.  This was a telegraphed weak point, telegraphed by Marco Silva having publicly decried our lack of cover at left back in the days prior to José Holebas removing himself from consideration in this fixture.  Before kick-off a discussion point was whether Britos, Brandon Mason or perhaps Brice Dja Djédjé would be asked to fill in.  Silva went with the Uruguayan, and much as his afternoon couldn’t really have gone much worse in this respect and much as the reluctance to field a youngster is in itself perhaps regrettable you can understand why he did it.  Mason has looked decent, but the most decent bits have not been the bits that would give you confidence in facing him off against the likes of Knockaert.  Not unreasonable to suggest that an experienced defender who has played left back in the past might be expected to do a better job.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Nor does Britos’ performance condemn him to exile or demonstrate his inadequacy, as some of the more excitable social media postings have suggested.  There are reasons for him being a more or less automatic pick since we got promoted (suspensions permitting…).

Nonetheless, and for avoidance of doubt, this was the most ridiculous, disgraceful challenge on any number of levels.  Accounts differ only in their choice of adjective, insert your own if you have an alternative preference. To give him the most generous benefit of the doubt, you could imagine as Knockaert put the burners on down the right that Britos approached the challenge intending and expecting to be able to win the ball.  Within the space of a fraction of a second, a fraction of a second exaggerated by slow motion replays, it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen and Britos made the decision to execute the challenge anyway and, by the way, much higher than the ball was ever likely to have been.  No decision for Graham Scott to make (else, on the evidence of his rather hands-off approach to the rest of the game, he might not have made one).  As an aside, something of a shame that Nordin Amrabat’s Watford career should surely be brought to an end in such a fashion as he was sacrificed.  His performance had dipped since that early high water mark but whatever his recent ineffectiveness his time at the Vic has been characterised by effort if not belief or end product, and deserved a little better of a denouement.

4- So the tone of the game changed, and if it didn’t suit us then, perversely, it didn’t really suit Brighton either since despite having the better of the rest of the game on the whole and creating more and better chances, they threatened relatively little.  Nothing in their performance – not even the lively irritation of Knockaert – challenged the suggestion that they will go the same way as Middlesbrough, tough and organised but with a hugely conservative outlook and without a cutting edge.  That lack of penetration will get them down after a while, indeed there was already evidence of it in Chris Hughton’s rueful post-match acknowledgement that they will rarely have a better chance to score a goal (let alone win a game) in the Premier League.  Many better teams would have penalised us, so in that sense we got away with it.

But that we did so owes loads to two things that were sadly lacking last year and have been evident so far in this.  The spirit of a side that buckled down and battled and battled and battled for the remaining three quarters of the game.  And the midfield.  That midfield that has never quite worked since our promotion despite the quality that it contained now looks absolutely magnificent.  The bedrock of Chalobah and Doucouré is extraordinary, already a thing of pure joy.  Chalobah edges the Man of the Match thing for me purely on the basis of that impossible headed clearance on the run off the goal-line, the closest Albion came to breaking the deadlock.  There’s been some tediously ignorant wittering about how unreasonable his England call-up is by people who’ve never seen him play and would rather call up someone plainly inadequate than blood a youngster who very clearly will be.  Both were tremendous.

Meanwhile as tantalising as the possibility of Richarlison, showing his physical strength and hold-up play more than tricks here, Pereyra and Carrillo, whose immaculate tackle and charge upfield was a late highlight, is across the front three of the midfield, it would be a brave man to drop Tom Cleverley at the moment.  He’s not stopped moving all season, and his dynamism here was employed ultimately at right-back in the end as yet another injury forced another re-jig; two unplanned disruptions to the team, albeit one of which self-inflicted, accommodated much more successfully than we managed last season.

5- If there’s a concern it’s the lone striker position; André Gray’s ask was thankless from 20 minutes onwards, he ran around a lot but was unsuited to the job he had to do.  He couldn’t get hold of it, he couldn’t hold up the play and provide relief and, more concerningly, there’s a fatalism about the way he responds to missing a chance already.  This isn’t Luther missing a sitter, not caring and being there to score the next two, this is eyes to the heavens “how did I miss that”.  Some complained that he was left to be ineffective for so long, but with ten men in the heat you can understand Silva wanting to conserve his one unenforced change in case of tiring legs in the engine room.

Meanwhile Troy looks combative but heavy and continues to be linked to any sub-top six club that needs a big stiker whilst Stefano Okaka, so effective against Liverpool, is significant by his absence.  His hold-up play would have been invaluable today in a game that you fancy we’d have won had it stayed eleven against eleven, even if we weren’t quite able to answer that “how will we do against this sort of team” question.  Brighton’s best tricks were inadequate against ten men, albeit new signing Izquierdo only got a cameo;  our attacking shape was limited by Britos’ dismissal.  We’ll see what the squad looks like in a week’s time.

But in any event, whatever the names, it’s still Watford, the things that are important won’t have changed.  Amongst the many Rowsons were nephews Toby and Jacob making their competitive debuts, two of our latest new signings.  Their enthusiasm, exercised down the front of the Sir Elton John stand, was undiminished by a goalless draw against Brighton that won’t look any better on paper by the end of the season but was a great, inspiring point in context.

Yoorns.

 

Gomes 3, Femenía 3, Britos 1, Prödl 3, Kabasele 4, *Chalobah 4*, Doucouré 4, Amrabat 3, Cleverley 4, Richarlison 4, Gray 2

Subs: Cathcart (for Amrabat, 28) 3, Carrillo (for Cathcart, 47) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 83) 0, Success, Watson, Capoue, Pantilimon

Book review: A Natural by Ross Raisin 24/08/2017

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
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Aside from the obvious fact that you really couldn’t make some of it up, there are myriad problems with making football the subject of fiction. Sitting at the top of the myriad – if myriads have tops – is that football in many respects already exists in the realms of the fictional. We daydream about it, we romanticise it even as it remorselessly exploits us in return; it lives and breathes very happily in our imaginations without any help from a well-meaning author or screenwriter. The advent of elaborately realistic video games, or whatever the kids call them nowadays, means that you can easily act out your fantasies of scoring a last-minute winner at Wembley in the comfort of your living room. So, really, what’s the point?

Ross Raisin’s recently published novel “A Natural” has a truly dreadful title. It also has a point. In telling the story of Tom Pearman, graduate of a Premier League academy rebuilding his career at a small League Two club in a nondescript town while coming to terms with a homosexuality so private that he hardly dare confess it to himself, it clearly has issues to tackle. Perhaps Raisin’s most remarkable achievement is to turn this into a worthwhile literary endeavour rather than merely an idea or a discussion point: a less restrained author would’ve created something more openly confrontational, or perhaps more bitterly cynical, and lost the novel in the process.

It helps enormously that Raisin has a keen eye for detail. There is no room in a fictional description of something as familiar and as beloved as football for anything to be misplaced, for anything to jar you awake; it must all be just right. Bar a very few occasions when, as nearly always happens, the narrative requires fans to chant things that fans wouldn’t chant, this feels like football. Indeed, some of it is outright beautiful: the build-up to a new season, with all of its hope and its energy and its freshly-mown grass, is made to sing really quite exquisitely.

More, you get the impression that Raisin has done his research. Much of the novel is set at the training ground, in the dressing room and on the team coach, and has a sense of sending messages back from a private, closed world. It’s hard to draw a firm line between what the author has been told off the record and what he’s made up; I don’t doubt that some of the more, um, exuberant bits fall into the former category. Again, there is some fine writing here, particularly in capturing the desperate fragility of a football career, the brusque horror of the announcement that you’ve been cast aside and that there might be nowhere to fall except into part-time obscurity. It’s over. Shut the door on your way out. The bitter isolation of the long-term injured is also drawn vividly, painfully.

But the novel’s foundation is Raisin’s skill in making us live in the space between someone else’s ears, and particularly in capturing loneliness and insecurity in a crowded, boisterous room. He writes simply and economically, and with considerable empathy; his best prose has a stillness and a silence that’s uneasy and powerful, and that’s well-suited to the blank walls of unconfessed depression. Even without its central thread, without its protaganist’s homosexuality, that would make it a fine read. It will make you think about the people you watch on a Saturday afternoon, about their private lives, about their inner lives. About their well-being.

In truth, the central romance is less satisfactory. In choosing the club groundsman as the other half of the illicit affair, Raisin appears to deliberately echo Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and he’s clearly intent on there being an awkward hesitancy to their encounters; the problem is that it becomes difficult to separate the echoes from cliche and the characters’ awkward hesitancy from that of the author’s prose. It isn’t his strong suit, and one wonders whether there might’ve been a less easily defined but potentially truly great novel lurking in the background, one which sacrificed or perhaps marginalised the affair in favour of a quieter reverie. The same is true for the final twenty or thirty pages, which start to feel a bit like a narrative stuff-to-do list, lacking the courage simply to drift into contemplation. It deserves better.

Despite all of that, “A Natural” is a rare thing indeed: a fictional rendering of the game we all love, its innards falling out before us, its soul laid bare. It has much to say, but it says it gently, with restraint and with a good deal of love. It isn’t always comfortable, but neither does it fall prey to the temptation of being relentlessly uncomfortable. It shines light into some extremely dark places. And no, it doesn’t make you believe that a footballer with an active career will come out any time soon…

Watford 3 Liverpool 3 (12/08/2017) 13/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
21 comments

1- Football, eh?  Blimey.

It’s a classic First Day of the Season.  Sunshine on your face walking down Vicarage Road.  Touts after tickets, programme vendors, charity buckets.  50/50 scarves on sale for a tenner (“who buys them?”).  Friends rock up, you’ve not seen them for three months…  “how was your summer?”.  Albert is here for the first time in even longer, it’s good to see him.  He’s stunned by how tall the girls are, they are nonplussed but grin anyway.  There are flags, and noise, a tremendous montage on the big screens.  And then, then the football.  As has been said many times if you rely solely on the sport itself for your enjoyment you’re going to be disappointed more often than not but still, football.  And it’s just brilliant…

2- There’s a caveat of course.  Pete, slightly tiresomely, called it almost perfectly… “I’m giving Janmaat twelve minutes…”, he’d said, in anticipating the season’s first injury.  Actually Janmaat lasts closer to 14 minutes but it’s still an extraordinary echo of last season’s bizarre injury track record when he limps off after a brief period of lumbering forlornly around on the right of the attack with Amrabat covering behind him.  By the end of the game Roberto Pereyra, alarmingly, has also been replaced and Younès Kaboul has gingerly re-entered the pitch with three subs already used.  New Performance Director Gavin Benjafield will hopefully be taking notes…

3- But that aside it’s a splendid afternoon, and is already going well when Pete’s call is proved accurate.  An early, visible statement of intent has been executed by Janmaat who hounds Sadio Mané towards his own corner flag with a disciplined bit of belligerence that typifies our approach.  This is one performance, one game, and lots can happen between now and May;  the preceding two seasons both had, to varying extents, high points before crumbling in the dying stages.  But if this is a template for how we’re going to be then there’s an awful lot to like…  we’re tough and aggressive but disciplined with it, keeping the Reds at arms length by hassling them out of space – wasn’t this supposed to be their thing?  Key in this is a fine performance by a midfield that suddenly has a convincing shape…  whilst it’s great to have Ben Watson back in the fold, there’s no doubt that Chalobah and the majestic Doucouré are going to take some shifting on this evidence, whilst Tom Cleverley puts in an impossibly dynamic display “in the hole”.  Roberto Pereyra has slalomed in from the left, his crisp shot deflected wide. In front of him Stefano Okaka looks mobile and brutal and gets little protection but keeps coming back for more.  He’s also there to convert José Holebas cross on eight minutes.  Helps if Liverpool can’t defend for toffee of course, but we’ve missed open goals before…

4- I mentioned after the Sociedad game that we looked as if we’d learned the verse of Marco Silva’s song but were struggling with the chorus.  Here there was clear evidence of further intensive rehearsal since, significantly, we had kept the Reds at arm’s length until they prised the space for the irrepressible Mané to equalise.  It was a patient unpicking on Liverpool’s part, a sliding around of tiles on a child’s puzzle until the picture revealed itself and the Senegalese was through on goal.  Too deliberate, our defending, a method being recited line by line rather than instinctive but that will come.

Impressively, we bit back straight away.  Ringleader Doucouré began the move, releasing Amrabat on the right.  The ball found its way to Cleverley bundling towards the touchline, his square ball found Doucouré who unfussily tucked it away, restoring our lead almost before we noticed we’d lost it.

4- If there was an annoyance it was Nordin Amrabat.  Increasingly a target for frustration at the end of last season, an olive branch was offered with a rendition of the na-na-na-na-na… song early in the first half.  Some characteristic hesitancy lost him the crowd’s goodwill in the second half, but the greater crime for me was his inability or unwillingness to challenge for the ball without giving away a foul – a tug on the shirt here, a shove there.  Further evidence of a lack of confidence in his own ability, but also a laziness… it’s the first day of the season for goodness’ sake, give it a bloody go man.

Greater annoyance still was offered by our visitors, who seemed determined to scorn me for suggesting that they’d become halfway likeable in our season preview. You can forgive Jürgen Klopp for being narked at losing a lead at the death, less so for bleating about his side’s rough treatment (check this Jürgen, we didn’t even pick up a booking, unlike Sadio Mané who might not have got away with a yellow) and for two “offside” goals that were optimistic and very marginal calls respectively.  The offside law is there to prevent goalhanging not for use as a defensive weapon;  if you rely on it for the latter then you’re going to get burned sometimes.  Live with it.

Alberto Moreno meanwhile left onlookers in yellow comfortable with the outcome of our reported attempts to sign him, a narky little gobshite who responded to periods in which the game went against Liverpool with petulant and occasionally nasty confrontation.

5- So the second half starts, and here’s the evidence that we’ve still got some lines to learn.  Actually, in fairness, the first blow is the loss of Pereyra in his first competitive game since limping out of his last one in Manchester six months ago.  The home stands swore in unison and the players can be forgiven for being deflated by the development momentarily.

That’s all it took.  Liverpool may have looked ponderous defensively but going forward they were quick and mobile. They got themselves level when Salah, who had a little run in the first half of getting himself onto the end of a move and finding new ways to miss the target, first drew a foul from Gomes to win a penalty converted efficiently by Firmino, and shortly afterwards bundled in a looping ball to give the visitors the lead for the first time.  We looked rattled, we lost our focus and surrendered the initiative – but as an aside, yet another positive from the game was Marco Silva’s blunt assessment of our failings.  Not wishing to rake over old ground, a candid and accurate account inspires more confidence than the alternative.  Whatever,  in truth Liverpool could have had more once released from their mental funk

6- So it’s to our huge credit that they didn’t run away with it and the three subs, all new boys, all played a role.  Kiko Femenía was as advertised… quick and positive going forward but exposed defensively – two of the three goals against originated from his position, and Alberto Moreno shouldn’t have been allowed to take a pot shot that Gomes pushed over at 3-2… nonetheless, he got stuck in.  Richarlison, on for Pereyra, looked hugely exciting… clever and quick but strong  and physical also, more to come from him. And Andre Gray, on to give Liverpool’s defence something else to think about after a bruising hour from Okaka, demonstrated what we’ve got with aggression and mobility.

The theme of the afternoon however was character.  This is a bunch of scrappers and no mistake, a big tough team capable of bullying opponents but with a sharp and deft knife to stick in as well, no blunt instrument.  That we were still in the game in the dying minutes meant that this would have been a positive match report whatever, but the fact that Miguel Britos’ swivel and shot won a corner and that the same player was able to capitalise from Richarlison’s bullishness in the box reflected hugely well on the team’s effort.  It was a goal that echoed Nathan Aké’s opener in this fixture two seasons ago…  a goalkeeper exposed and flapping and fumbling at the ball, a scruffy conversion, an explosion of noise from an already boisterous home crowd.  Everyone deserved it.

It’s only a point, obviously, albeit against a strong side.  But the personality of the team and the manner of the performance matter more at this stage as an indicator of what is to come.  There were empty seats in the Family Stand, in part another annual feature of the first day of the season and holiday time.  Those seats won’t be empty for long on this evidence.

Yoorns…

 

Gomes 4, Janmaat 0, Holebas 3, Kaboul 4, Britos 3, Chalobah 3, *Doucouré 4*, Amrabat 2, Cleverley 4, Pereyra 4, Okaka 4

Subs: Femenía (for Janmaat, 18) 3, Richarlison (for Pereyra, 49) 3, Gray (for Okaka, 63) 3, Prödl, Watson, Capoue, Pantilimon