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The Quarantine Selection – Centre Backs 28/05/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
14 comments

How’s your lockdown going?  What I wouldn’t give for a game under the floodlights at the Vic.  Any game, obviously, in that it would mean that Stuff was Better.  But selfishly, flippantly, a night-time game at the Vic. Condensation on your breath. Hands deep in pockets. Bloody hell.

Centre Backs, then.  Commemorating 40 years watching the ‘orns, here my ten favourites over that period.  Not best, necessarily, though maybe that too, but Favourites.  As previously I’ve made executive decisions on who qualifies as a centre-back and who doesn’t.  Once again, there’s a quiz at the end.

10- Filippo Galli

9- Christian Kabasele

8- Tommie Hoban

7- Steve Sims

6- Neil Cox

Fashionable to have Galli higher up of course but whilst he was extraordinary, and it was extraordinary to have a player of his pedigree at the club even at the age of 97 and whilst he even managed to make Wayne Brown look good for a bit it was such an unlikable season that anything associated with it is tarred. Kabasele…  often a great defender, sometimes not but maturing with age.  And a top bloke.  Tommie Hoban… heartbreaking, but a cracking defender, better than his young injury-hit career had any right to leave him.  He looked like a veteran.  Simmo… proper centre half, proper tache, brute of a defender.  Neil Cox… defied being written off to captain the side through the toughest of times.  And a fine if rarely effective line in free kicks much beloved of this blog.

5- Craig Cathcart

You can’t put a price on just being in the right place at the right time.  Always. On making the whole defence look better, work better. You’re tempted to say “unflashy”, except that there’s a flash inside forward in there somewhere… a surprising array of flicks and tricks at the attacking end have peppered his Watford career, and his art is in leaving you surprised every time it happens.  He’s been pretty much a first choice ever since he (re)signed six years ago and yet you can see yourself walking past  him in the street without recognising him.  Brilliant.

4- Colin Foster

Difficult to describe if you weren’t there quite what a dramatic relief the emergency surgery applied to the squad by Glenn Roeder in early 1994 provided.  Tommy Mooney was the longest lived of those sticking plasters, Dennis Bailey burned brightly but briefly.  Keith Millen probably a more reliable defender, just because he stayed fit.  But Colin Foster was tremendous… like signing an oak tree and planting it on the penalty spot. Crosses and attackers were drawn to him and bounced off pointlessly.  When he lurched forward you he swayed ominously, nobody wanted to get too close.  If he’d stayed fit he’d have been a legend, but then he’d probably not have signed for us in the first place.

3- Marcus Gayle

Like Cox, an unlikely return to the fold after apparently being out of the door, but more so and with bells on.  Indeed, Gayle was played “out of position” twice over at Watford… a winger, never a target man in his successful career at Brentford and Wimbledon he was deployed as such by Gianluca Vialli on recruitment from Rangers with very moderate success.  Indeed, it’s difficult to reconcile that slightly awkward, clumsy season from Gayle with what came next.  From the point where he lined up to general surprise on the left side of Ray Lewington’s first central defence in the first competitive game at what is now the KP Stadium, he was magnificent.  Imperious, in fact, a strong, quick, elegant presence at centre half with Cox or Dyche alongside to nudge him in the right sort of direction;  so comprehensive was his transformation that he walked off with the Player of the Season award whilst becoming more of an attacking threat than he’d been as a number nine.

2- Adrian Mariappa

Mapps is a legend several times over.  Going way back, there’s the version who lead the Youth Team to the FA Youth Cup Quarters in 2005, leaving the pitch in tears after defeat to Spurs.  There’s the teenager who made his League debut off the bench, in central midfield in an absolute scrap at Elland Road (so long ago that BSaD was still going) with the Hornets down to nine men.  And then held his own in the top flight the next season.  There’s the version who played 113 consecutive League games.  The version who captained the side, who set a standard for the kids to follow, who was so demonstrably on another level to the rest of the side in 2012 that it was no surprise at all that he moved to the Premier League where he has played for eight seasons.  Or the version who came back to Vicarage Road, ostensibly as fifth or sixth cab off the rank only to re-establish himself, to captain the side, and to always be there to rely on if he does slip back to the bench.  A gem.

1- John McClelland

It’s difficult to do justice to the majesty of John McClelland if you didn’t see him play.  Looked like some kind of troll carved from granite, built like a wardrobe but moved like a gazelle.  Literally kept pace with the quickest strikers despite looking like even getting up a trot was a bit of an effort.  Had telescopic legs that would surgically extract balls they had no business reaching.  Stuck his arms up in the air before taking free kicks (and corners?  did he really take corners?).  Couldn’t drive, so walked or caught the bus everywhere.  Brought in to plug an appallingly leaky defence in 1984 and plugged it comprehensively for four and a half years before moving to Elland Road, where he’d play 18 times in a League title winning side at the age of 37.  Magnificent.

Another one done.  Different flavours of midfielder to come in a bit. Once more…  here’s a little quiz.  Every centre back to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a centre back and who isn’t .  Centre backs to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – again, can’t promise that this is exhaustive.

Centre Backs Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Full Backs 14/05/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

Episode Two in a series of Some, doing the fashionable retrospective thing in the absence of foootball now to talk about.  Commemorating 40 years watching the ‘orns, here my ten favourite full-backs over that period.  Not best, necessarily, though maybe that too, but Favourite.

As soon as you move away from goalkeepers of course you start having to classify players as being predominantly one position or another.  This I’ve made executive decisions on;  any quibbles can be addressed to my co-editor.  Once again, there’s a quiz at the end.

10- James Chambers

9- Marco Cassetti

8- Daniel Pudil

7- Daryl Janmaat

6- Jose Holebas

Chambers.  Did A Job wherever we put him;  honest, quick, likeable.  A trooper.  Cassetti… suave, classy, humble.  Compare and contrast with Patrick Blondeau, say, a full-back of similar pedigree who doesn’t make the list.  Pudil… did tend to get caught behind, did pick up a few bookings…. one of the first “mercenaries” was anything but.  A sound guy.  Janmaat…  a single-minded full-back, perhaps one of few whose form held up in the early weeks of this season before his injury. His rhino-goals, particularly against Chelsea for some reason, have been fun but always come when the chips are down.  A leader.  Holebas.  Cult hero… always on the edge of losing his rag, terrifyingly aggressive, huge fun.

5- Wilf Rostron

I went on holiday with a load of Villa fans in the early nineties.  I didn’t know half of them beforehand, but as soon as my loyalties were none one guy was waxing lyrical about Wilf.  Not for reason of any memorable goal against the Blues.  Just because Wilf was great. Thinking about it this would only have been four years after Wilf left Watford, but then time did move more slowly in those days.

Rostron joined the Hornets as a midfielder, but was famously tried out as a left back as John Barnes’ emergence made it clear that left wing chances were going to be limited.  He was tremendous, dogged at the back and a threat up front.  I remember Rochdale’s manager being quoted after a League Cup game about how they’d had to “try to sort out their Wilf Rostron problem”.  Which sums it up.  He must have been a pain in the arse for opponents at both ends of the pitch for the best part of a decade.

4- Paul Robinson

Robbo was also a pain in the arse for opponents, but in a more literal sense.  The foremost of the fearless booterers of the period (TM: Look at the Stars) he was a kid who’d always dreamt of being a left back, never wanted to be anything else than a left back, may have been genetically engineered to be a left back. His emergence coincided with my little sister’s most concerted and focused period of supporting the ‘orns, and he was always a favourite.  “He’s just so passionate….”.  Him scoring with a tackle against Wimbledon was one highlight, his charge upfield to try out being a poacher for a few minutes against Charlton was another.  When he left I was absolutely gutted.  Goalscorers, even talented midfielders, perhaps even goalkeepers you accept will one day move on to better things.  They are eye-catching.  Robbo should have stayed at Watford for ever.

3- David Bardsley

Yes, I know there’s a prevalence of mid-eighties players in here.  Sue me.  David Bardsley was bloody great.  He never smiled.  He was stupid quick. He had long hair which made him look even quicker.  He played right-back in the Cup Final aged 19 having been signed from Blackpool that season…  this is us, Watford, now a top flight club and seemingly invincible signing right backs from Blackpool.  He had to be good.  He was good.  He played elsewhere too… occasionally in midfield, often on the wing.  Ask Kenny Sansom. When Bassett came in and took a hatchet to the side… this was the one that hurt most.  Barnes was always going, Hill was a disappointment having had such a build up, Richardson was criminally stupid, dropping Coton bizarre.  But selling David Bardsley was unforgivable.  He later played for England under GT.  Still not smiling.  Probably.  And he earned his Watford debut in the same week as the next man up, which is just ludicrous.

2- Nigel Gibbs

It wasn’t half a difficult choice between the top two.  I made a call in the end, almost on the toss of a coin.  But both were magnificent, spanning well over 32 years of Watford history between them.

Gibbo was remarkable.  He debuted in the UEFA Cup in 1983, was a first team regular eighteen months later whilst still a teenager and was a major part of both the first golden spell in the top flight and the insane charge up the divisions in the late nineties.  For almost 20 years from his debut he was just there, a solid, unflappable, reliable presence at right-back.  Sometimes he played badly but he never played stupid, and the odd goal, once every hundred games or so, was lamped in from about 25 yards, an essential full-back trope that the likes of Robbo and Bardsley never quite mastered.

There’s other stuff, too.  The years spent as a coach and assistant to the excellent Ray Lewington.  The spells out of the game injured when it really looked as if his Watford career was up but after which he fought back, unfussily, unflashily.  Doing his job.

When he signed for the club, Peter Davison was Doctor Who.  When he left, criminally discarded in the vanity of the Boothroyd administration, David Tennant was manning the tardis.  Gibbo regenerated a few times in the interim too, but remains a bona fide Watford legend.

1- Lloyd Doyley

Lloydy edges it.  He wasn’t as good a footballer as Gibbo.  He didn’t play as many games, play for us for as long.  Never won the FA Youth Cup, never played for the England U21s.

But he made the most of everything he had, and then some.  He was rejected many, many times.  Written off.  But came back fighting… not angry, not sulky.  Just putting a shift in.  There were criticisms of his attacking capabilities, of his distribution… but none of his defending.  He was an absolute limpet, and when circumstances meant that he was asked to do a man-marking job he’d just throw a blanket over the guy and quietly, politely, apologetically, club him out of consideration.  Jason Roberts, that’s you that is.

And the goal.  Obviously the goal.  Never has there been a more popular goal at Vicarage Road.  Significant yes, obviously.  Popular, no.  Never one greeted with so many wide grins.  Grins, rather than exaltation, even if it was QPR.

His Watford career ended as it began.  As a bit part player, now in an increasingly talented squad.  Still doing his bit.  Still digging in.  Still setting an example.  Still a top man.  Legend.

 

That’s that, then. Once more…  here’s a little quiz.  Every full back to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a full back and who isn’t .  Full backs to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – can’t promise that this is exhaustive unfortunately.

Full Backs Quiz

The Quarantine Selection – Goalkeepers 04/05/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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First, the COVID-caveat.  Yes, there is important stuff happening in the world and yes, this article is frivolous and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  Without wishing to belittle anything I make no apology for that.  Indeed, it was ever thus if rarely as starkly – there has always been more important stuff going on, but we all reach saturation and we all need Other Stuff to write or read or think about and so here we are.

I have nothing to say about COVID that isn’t expressed by more eloquent and better informed individuals elsewhere.  I’d just like to say that whilst times of crisis bring out the very best in some people and the worst in others, I’m as proud as I’m ever been to be a Watford supporter.  The club’s conduct in directly supporting their neighbours at Watford General Hospital, in co-ordinating a past-and-present player ring-around checking on elderly and vulnerable supporters, and Troy’s role at the helm of the playerstogether NHS fund, all magnificent.

Meanwhile.  Only seven weeks since the last BHaPPY report, a report from a game I didn’t go to (and boy doesn’t it feel longer…), it occurs to me that this season marks the fortieth anniversary of my following the Golden Boys.  My first match was actually the final game of the 1979-80 season, a 4-0 win over Burnley – 40 years ago yesterday as I write, this article has taken a while…, but there exists photographic evidence of me poring over match programmes much earlier in the campaign.

This is an anniversary of interest to me and of very little interest to anyone else.  Nonetheless…  herewith the first of a series of articles that will pop up as frequently as I can get around to writing them looking back at forty years supporting the orns.  Suggestions/requests gratefully received, but to kick off a run-down of my favourite goalkeepers in this time.

Note, “favourite”, not “best”;  whilst the two may overlap and whilst both are ultimately somewhat subjective the former is explicitly so and explicitly mine;  again, no apologies.  Hopefully high on anecdote and low on dull reproduction of detail.  There’s even a quiz at the end if you Like That Sort Of Thing.

10- Chris Day

9- Richard Lee

8- Manuel Almunia

7- David James

6- Kevin Miller

Daisy.  Smiled a lot.  Apologised when he tonked me with a misplaced effort in the warm-up at Gresty Road.  Richard Lee… decent keeper when we needed him to be.  Manuel Almunia… perhaps harder to warm to but a fine keeper, and that double save.  DJ…  remember him lurching around the Family Enclosure when he was in the youth team and everyone knew he was going to be a star.  And then he was.  Kevin Miller… very fine keeper, surprised that he never turned out to be quite as impressive elsewhere but was impressive for us at a time that not much was.

5- Steve Sherwood

It’s grossly unfair that Shirley is now, however many years on, principally remembered for That Cup Final Goal.  For starters, any Watford supporter will tell you that it was a heinous foul… and any Everton fan will surely concede that at the very least it was a stiff aerial challenge, coming out second best to Andy Gray in which is rather a harsh thing to damn someone with.

But beyond that, Shirley was goalkeeper in the side that was promoted to the top flight for the first time, that finished second in the League, that took on Europe and reached the Cup Final also for the first time.  Beyond that he was the only player to predate Graham Taylor’s arrival, remain for the duration of his first spell and still be around at the end.  Luther was too, but he’d had that gap year in Italy so doesn’t qualify…

And… a splendid chap.  Which matters, if we’re talking “favourite”.  Being a nice bloke counts in my book…

4- Heurelho Gomes

Heurelho Gomes, baby.  Spurs fans might mock the suggestion that Gomes is a Watford legend, but that’s because they’re Spurs fans and don’t know any better.  Half of them would probably play Glenn Hoddle in goal if they could, bloody idiots.

Gomes is no longer the Watford first choice but he’s a massive personality and deserves to be remembered fondly for his role off the pitch as well as for his heroics on it.  Being a leader.  Being the guy who looks after Richarlíson and João Pedro.  Hell, signing for us in the first place, dropping a division to join a side who’d just finished mid-table.  He’s a Brazilian international, remember.

On the pitch, tremendous anyway.  Heroic really isn’t too big a word.  At his best, capable of defying all comers – that draw at home to Chelsea in the first season up springs to mind.  Almost scoring a late equaliser with a header at West Brom, Richarlíson beat him to it.  Tremendous.

3- Alec Chamberlain

So last year my brother gets a big job with Channel 4.  Commissioning Editor of Factual Programmes in the North of England.  Big deal.  He’s a big Watford fan too, obvs, one of his earliest games was Dave Bassett’s last stand against Hull City where, turning to make sure that the kid brother under my charge was coping with the heated atmosphere, I found him standing on his seat giving Bassett the big one from the Family Enclosure.  He was seven.

Fast forward to last June, and one of his mates responded to his news with hearty WhatsApp congratulations, and as a follow-up… “And now the Channel 4 News, presented by Alec Chamberlain”.

The implication, of course, that Channel 4’s northern documentaries might have an unprecedented Watford angle going forward.  Judge that for yourself. Significant, though, that twelve years after retirement and another eleven after joining the Hornets, ostensibly as a backup keeper behind Kevin Miller, Alec was the name selected for this one-liner by a Middlesbrough fan.  Chamberlain’s arrival, ex-Luton, already 32 and following a relegation to the third tier, didn’t suggest a club legend in the making but he didn’t miss a League game in the two promotion seasons and was on the club coaching staff for many years after retirement.

Not a flash character, not a big name.  But Watford through and through.  I contacted him through the club to ask if he’d fancy shooting a spoof Channel 4 news thing on his phone, announcing Will’s new job.  I think he thought that I was a bit of an idiot – at any rate he said something about being busy moving house.  I didn’t follow up.  He’s clearly in the top five anyway.

2- Ben Foster

When Ben first arrived, a lad we’d never heard of on loan from Manchester United in the turbulent summer of 2005, I was quite resentful.  Wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the whole thing at the time… Boothroyd, the new players coming in, the players and staff leaving.  Mixed emotions then, pretty much the same looking back.  Rather irritated that Richard Lee wasn’t in goal for the opener against Preston.

That concern didn’t last long. The only criticism of Foster in those first two season was that he was rather too eager to launch an impossible throw into the feet of an escaping Marlon King… occasionally he was a couple of steps too far ahead.  He ironed that out in a couple of months.

Thereafter he looked every inch a top goalkeeper.  Confident, brave, agile… the only surprise perhaps that he didn’t play more for England, or establish himself as first choice at Old Trafford, or at a top club.

Clues as to that when he rejoined the Hornets nearly two years ago, having talked about maybe quitting the game.  His own man, not one to do what’s expected necessarily, not one to follow a well trodden path just because it’s what’s expected.  A great footballer, but clearly not just that.  You can’t see Ben Foster spending his time after playing trading off having been Ben Foster once, put it that way.

And then there’s the rest of it.  I remember during his first season there was a Horse Racing night at the Vic in honour of Alec’s testimonial.  No surprise perhaps that a fellow goalkeeper was there, but there weren’t many players there from memory, and Foster hadn’t long signed.  Impressive then, utterly unsurprising now.  Countless instances, even over the last twelve months, of Ben Foster being a thoroughly good bloke… small things, not flash things, but brilliant things.  And being a good bloke matters.

1- Tony Coton

Having said which I’m going to completely contradict myself, because Tony Coton was a complete bastard.  He came with a colourful reputation from Birmingham City, and for what was at the time no small fee for a goalkeeper, £300,000.  “A fee for an international keeper, and Coton certainly isn’t that” sneered Jimmy Greaves’ letters page in Shoot.

He scared the crap out of me, and I was some distance away in the stands.  Heaven knows what it must have been like to play in front of him, particularly as a youngster, particularly if you screwed up.

But he was brilliant.  Extraordinarily agile, completely in charge.  In my mind’s eye he never conceded a goal, and certainly never played badly.  I suspect that this might be the passage of time stretching the truth a little bit… but my word.  For the duration of his time at Watford under GT he was utterly vital and imperious, facilitating an aggressive attacking style for those three season by being such a reliable, intimidating last line of defence.  Thereafter he was briefly dropped by Dave Bassett – I’d say the final straw, but the straws had all long since packed up and gone home – and then stayed for two seasons to try to get us back up – winning an unmatched third Player of the Season award in the process – before moving on to Manchester City, where he’s held in similarly high regard, and beyond.  That he never played for England completely crackers.  Even Ben Foster doesn’t really come close.

 

Right, that’s that.  Full backs will be along in due course;  in the meantime feel free to pass comment.  And/or…  here’s a little quiz.  Every goalkeeper to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  goalkeepers to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers (I think the latter list is exhaustive).  Enjoy.

Goalkeepers Quiz

Andy Barnard 24/01/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
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We were saddened to hear that Andy Barnard lost his fight with cancer earlier this week.

From his outpost in Tbilisi, among other places, Andy was a valued contributor to Blind, Stupid and Desperate and was one of those who helped it to find its distinctive voice in the mid-to-late nineties. He carried his immense intelligence lightly, and it’s easy, even so many years after our paths last crossed, to hear him quietly, gently, precisely picking holes in whatever half-arsed theory I might’ve put forward, always with a smile. He was delightful company.

We wanted to reproduce a bit of his writing in his honour. Much of it – such as his missive from Georgia, linked above – can still be found on BSaD and is well worth rummaging through. The piece below, however, was written for the Supporters’ Trust to commemorate the tenth birthday of the site.

Enjoy. And thanks, Andy.

HAPPY TENTH BIRTHDAY, BSaD
from Andy Barnard

My wife’s 92-year-old grandfather Ike is a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. Until this autumn the Red Sox were renowned as the second-most unlucky team in American baseball, having failed to win a World Series since 1918 despite being the world’s second-richest baseball team. For the uninitiated, the baseball World Series is a bit like the European Champions League in football, except that only American (and one or two Canadian) teams can take part. And the Canadian ones, like the Welsh clubs in the competition formerly known as the Football League, are only really there to make up the numbers.

Eight-six years is, of course, a long time for any sports fan to wait for his team to live up to expectations. Some say that the Red Sox were cursed by their sale in 1920 of Babe Ruth (the bambino ) to their rivals the New York Yankees, the world’s richest and most hated baseball team who have since won the World Series twenty-zillion times. My own feeling is that it served the Red Sox owners damn well right for
their refusal to sign any black players until 1959, but that’s another story.

Grandfather Ike never gave up hope, and in autumn this year was rewarded both with the birth of a great-grandson and a World Series victory. Younger great-grandparents than him had lived out their lives before dying without seeing Boston crowned champions. Yet Ike’s great-grandson Heidar Superdan had a mere six weeks to wait before witnessing what we hope will be but the first of many Red Sox titles. Perhaps even more impressively, his birth coincided almost precisely with two Watford goals in the space of 10 minutes that gave the Golden Boys a splendid victory at the New Den.

Heidar Superdan is now four-and-a-half months old and is just starting on solids. Which brings me, in what seems a suitably roundabout way, to BSaD’s 10th birthday. The connection is that ten years ago solids and Watford Football Club had a lot more in common than you’d ideally want. Indeed, there’s a powerful case that the moniker Blind, Stupid and Desperate credits the Watford performances of the time with
considerably more spirit than was in evidence. Two months without a win, culminating in an abject 4-0 defeat to Palarse, would finally see off manager Glenn Roeder. By then it was more like Blind, Stupid and Despondent and even under Graham Taylor it would be another five games before they mustered a victory at home to Oldham.

The Oldham game sparked a recovery of sorts (five wins and only two defeats in 13 games) but in the end it was too little too late, the only crumbs of comfort being that we finished above Luton and that Millwall were relegated into the bargain. The following season, with GT taking a back seat, we finished in the bottom half of the division formerly known as Division Three. Then Elton John helped a consortium buy out Jack Petchey, GT took over the reigns of management, and two years later we were in the top flight.

The good times didn’t last forever, of course. We were relegated, GT retired to manage Aston Villa, and perhaps the less said about the litigious Gianluca Vialli the better. But hey, what the heck. Aesthetically, I’d argue that Vialli did a better job on Watford than Peter Mandelson did on the Millennium Dome and on a marginally tighter budget. On the other hand, New Labour haven’t yet been forced to go cap in hand to the IMF.

In the meantime BSaD has gone from strength to strength, eventually quitting its original www.display.co.uk/bsad home to occupy its very own berth on the information superhighway at www.bsad.org.  As recently as six years ago, it was still enough to be on the Watford mailing list for an ex-pat like me to snag a much-sought-after play-off final ticket at cost price. But in recent years, with hundreds if not thousands of people on the mailing list, the only hope us old hands have of picking up a cup semi-final ticket when needed is to fling together some old tosh for BSaD to upload.

And so, over time, BSaD has become a mine of obscure and often educational information. Can you believe, for example, that the hapless rabble thrashed at Smellhurst back in February 1995 featured such stars as Kevin Miller, Nigel Gibbs, Tommy Mooney, Sir Colin
Foster, Kevin Millen, Steve Palmer, Andy Hessenthaler, Gary Porter and Kevin Phillips?(http://www.bsad.org/9596/reports/palacea.html)
Or that, until this year’s loans of Paul Jones and Johnnie Jackson, the past ten years featured only five Watford players whose surnames began with J?(http://www.bsad.org/gone/gone.html#J) Or that four of those five were called Johnson and came through the youth team? Or that Jean-Jacques Dessalines was an ex-slave who became one of the generals who ousted Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops to win Haiti independence from France in 1803?(http://www.bsad.org/0001/reports/forest/phtext.html)

Which, stylistically rather than logically, brings me back to my preamble about baseball. (And just in case you’re interested it’s the Chicago Cubs who are the unluckiest baseball team, their curse having been brought by their refusal to let a local tavern owner bring his pet billy-goat into their stadium to watch a game. Maybe there’s a lesson for Wolves in that…) On signing yet another superstar this close-season a New York Yankees executive apparently retorted to accusations of overkill, Don’t you realise, there are four-year-old Yankees fans in this fine city who’ve yet to see their team win a World Series? To the Yankees and, in another vein, to BSaD my dearest hope is: Eighty-two more years!

The List – January 2020. 30/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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The List.  Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the summer window, a list that will be kept up to date throughout 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.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 35

IN

Karlan Grant (Huddersfield Town)
Ryan Manning (Queens Park Rangers)
Tobias Pachonik (VVV Venlo)*
Milot Rashica (Werder Bremen)
Haissem Hassan (Châteauroux)*
Ronald Sobowale (Whyteleafe)*
Aurélio Buta (Antwerp)
Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona)*                          – joined Schalke on loan
Oğuzhan Özyakup (Beşiktaş)                            – joined Feyenoord on loan
Conor Wickham (Crystal Palace)
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Los Angeles Galaxy)                                   – joined Milan
Ignacio Pussetto (Udinese)                                                  – SIGNED
Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş)*
Daniel Opare (Antwerp)
Unai Núñez (Athletic Bilbao)
Ricardo Rodríguez (Milan)                                       – joined PSV on loan
Cheikh Niasse (Lille)
Loris Benito (Bordeaux)
Jarrad Branthwaite (Carlisle United)                                  – joined Everton
Faouzi Ghoulam (Napoli)
Mohamed Simakan (Strasbourg)
Sebastián Vegas (Monarcas Morelia)
Prince Gouano (Amiens)
Joe Bryan (Fulham)
Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth)
Lucas Biglia (Milan)
Hassane Kamara (Reims)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)                                         – joined Inter
Kacper Radkowski (Zaglebie Sosnowiec)
Ben Gibson (Burnley)
Kostas Tsimikas (Olympiakos)
Danny Rose (Tottenham)*                                       – joined Newcastle on loan
Youssouf Fofana (Strasbourg)                                               – joined Monaco
Kristian Pedersen (Birmingham City)
David Selke (Hertha BSC Berlin)                    – joined Werder Bremen on loan
Ted Perkins (Burnley)                                                              – SIGNED

OUT

Gerard Deulofeu (Milan*)
Ben Foster (Sheffield United)
Dmitri Foulquier (Nantes, Granada)                           – joined Granada on loan
Étienne Capoue (Lyon)
Luis Suárez (Getafe)
Marvin Zeegelaar (Udinese*)                                 – joined Udinese
Tom Dele-Bashiru (Zulte Waregem, Charlton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (West Ham*)
Adam Masina (Milan)
Christian Kabasele (Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, West Ham, Tottenham)
Isaac Success (Nantes, Espanyol, CSKA Moscow, Cardiff City, Anderlecht, Huddersfield)
Andre Gray (Leeds United, Nottingham Forest)
Filip Stuparević (Udinese)
Sebastian Prödl (Udinese)                                            – RELEASED
Jorge Segura (Millionarios)
Domingos Quina (West Brom, Fulham)

2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer

Turn it off and turn it on again. 01/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

Well, that went well.

Less than three months ago we were reconciling ourselves to the typically decisive decision to remove Javí Gracia and replace him with a returning Quique Sánchez Flores only four games into the season.  It’s practically ancient history now, but for what it’s worth I was comfortable with the first decision and wary of the second.

What I didn’t expect, what surely none of us expected – least of all Scott Duxbury and the club’s ownership – is quite how quickly we’ve spiralled from a position of apparent security in mid-table to being bottom of the pile and odds-on to be relegated before Christmas.  We didn’t lose anybody of desperate significance in the summer, we’ve brought in some seemingly useful players.  Hysterical catterwauling on social media doesn’t alter the fact that in the summer most of us were thinking “well, a bit more in central defence would have been useful” rather than “we’re going down”.  The margin between success (meaning mid-table) and failure has never been thinner, least of all in this season where so many teams have been sucked into the mid-table morass, traditional big guns misfiring, nobody truly terrible.  Not terrible enough for us, at any rate.  Complacency has been mentioned.  Amongst the players, amongst the ownership.  Amongst the support too… hard to criticise when I certainly didn’t see this coming.

There was logic in Quique’s appointment, and that logic was based in a proven ability to organise a defence.  This was Javí’s failing in the end, to my mind.  Not sufficiently clinical yes, but that is only a major problem when you have no defensive structure to fall back on whatsoever, and such was the problem at the start of the season.  Quique, we hoped, would sort that.

And to an extent he did.  Or rather… he made the defensive structure of the side more solid.  Three clean sheets, Craig Dawson looking increasingly bullish at the centre of a three-man back line.  Quique was unlucky in many respects too, I think…  Dawson’s failure to steal a winner in the last minute against Sheffield United felt crucial at the time, a performance that deserved more at Spurs stymied by bizarre VAR decisions.  Having that Man City game when he had it, a monstrous blow to our confidence before he’d got going.  Injuries, of course.  I have a friend who tuts whenever I roll this excuse out, “every team gets injuries”.  Yes.  But they matter more when the margins are so fine, when the level is so high, let alone losing a player in the first half of six consecutive games. And, yes, when there’s a vulnerable area of the squad – whether or not we needed better central defenders to come in in the summer we were manifestly ill-equipped to play with three centre-backs.  With five in the squad you have very little wriggle room, as we’ve discovered.

So Quique was unlucky in many respects.  Or rather, things haven’t gone favourably for him.  But chief amongst his crimes I think has been the almost total abandonment of attacking threat.  We have perhaps the best array of midfielders that a Watford squad has ever had, but have sacrificed our creativity at the altar of defensive shape.  Shape we needed, but our midfield weapons are wasted on a strategy which has amounted to little more than keeping it tight and snaffling what we can on the break.  A team low on confidence was unlikely to rediscover its mojo when employed in a way that, for all that the likes of Dawson and Kabasele have flourished, misused or wasted its attacking players.  Injuries have played a part, forced a hand, but one doubts that Sarr or Gray in particular are too unhappy at the latest development.

The games since the international break, Burnley and Saints, sealed the deal.  A win at Norwich – Quique’s only league win in his second spell, in the fixture that represented the nadir of his first time in charge with a perverse kind of symmetry – offered the suggestion of a corner turned.  Against Burnley , again, things went against Quique… reliant on Dawson in the absence of Seb Prödl we looked horribly vulnerable as soon as Dawson went off and Burnley demonstrated just how fragile our confidence was.  And yesterday…  I watched on TV, delayed having opted for “Charlie’s Angels” with Daughter 2.  Insert your own punchlines.  But the laziness, the lack of courage or wit in the decision making both on and off the pitch in a game that had to be won and was there to be won was criminal.  No sign of any growing resilience for one thing.  Not bringing on Troy when any semblance of direct play had Saints’ defenders collectively bricking it was another.

And so the trigger is pulled again.  The usual accusations and “jokes” will be forthcoming, largely from those without the attention span or breadth of perspective to recognise that despite (because of ?) the high turnover of head coaches, Watford are in their fifth season in the Premier League and our first relegation battle in that spell.  Hardly precedented.  Hardly worthy of ridicule.  Good decisions or bad (and there will be relatively few criticisms of this one from amongst supporters one suspects – unsuccessful defensive football really leaves you with nowhere to go) the fact that Duxbury and Pozzo are so reassuringly indifferent to the likely media outcome of their decisions is a very fine thing.  Oh that our politicians had such courage.

The decisiveness reflects the facts both that we really don’t want to get relegated (!) and that staying up is likely to be easier than being promoted again.  Because the fact remains that, as above and whatever relative deficiencies we have a very very good squad of players (injuries notwithstanding), the team significantly less than the sum of its parts thus far.  Surely an attraction for any potential head coach – a low base to start from but plenty of tools to build with.

Perhaps we’ve appointed someone by the time you read this and so all speculation is moot and (by now) irrelevant.  But for what it’s worth…  much as the dinosaurs dominating the speculation are terrifying, only perhaps Pardew and Hughes would I find it difficult to reconcile myself to given a few days to calm down.  Hughton, early favourite but dismissed by at least one report, I could live with, but this model of old school English manager seems at odds with The Way We Do Stuff.  One can only hope that the speculation is dominated by journalists’ mates in the absence of any actual insight.  On that basis, ‘arry Redknapp’s name appearing would probably be reassuring.

As ever, it will be fascinating.

Hang in there, and see you at Leicester.

Yoorns.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (02/11/2019) 03/11/2019

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

1- Tick tock, tick tock.

Ten now then, ten now and limited prospect of it not being eleven despite Dave’s bravado in the concourse where we take early refuge from the deluge, in as soon as the stadium opens to share a beer at the back of the GT stand. A bit of space in the concourse really does make a difference by the way, the back of the GT is quite a nice place to be, unlike the claustrophobic Rookery or (shudder) the Vic Road rat run remembered from 20 years ago.

Tick tock. The girls have opted out… the attractions of hanging out with their mates watching fireworks up here in Bedfordshire too great. Suspect the fact that they’ve each seen us score once this season might have subconsciously weighed in also. Not that us being rubbish would stop them coming per se, not that it would put them off entirely but, you know, when there’s fireworks. Hard to blame them really.

Tick tock.

2- The longer this goes on the greater the pressure of course. There’s a pressure in each game and the fact that it’s Chelsea and it’s a game that we’d never quite expect to win at the best of times doesn’t make the pressure any less.

So when we give away a stupid goal after five reasonably positive minutes, albeit a goal carved by a remarkable through ball you can feel the stadium deflate. “Well, that’s that then”, which it sort of was and sort of wasn’t. But what a half-witted way to concede, no wonder Ben Foster screamed with frustration. When you can’t score goals keeping it tight, particularly against an opponent like this one, one that revels in playing away from home, is everything.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes it didn’t feel tight at all. Chelsea had an embarrassment of space to wander into and if the rearguard, marshalled by Craig Dawson’s most authoritative outing in yellow-and-black halves or whatever we’re calling it, gradually regained shape and denied many options in the final third simply by marshalling the space we were nonetheless in our goalkeeper’s debt on more than one occasion. Craig Cathcart limping off didn’t improve the mood.

3- So the first of the positives to be taken from this is that it didn’t go south from there. We didn’t collapse, the Blues didn’t run away with it. We hung in there. And gradually we lifted our chin from our chests to note that it was still only 1-0. That if we were still looking blunt and aimless we were at least getting the ball up the pitch often enough to register the bluntness and aimlessness. Before we knew it there was even a dash of bravado, some challenges going in and some defiance from the stands and it makes a world of difference to the mood if not to our forward line, ultimately.

But it takes some character, that. To stand up against a buoyant, confident opponent in a situation like ours and not simply shrug and let it slip away. It’s not enough, wasn’t enough, sure. But it wasn’t nothing.

4- Second half, Chelsea score again. It’s pretty dreadful from our point of view albeit the only time that this vibrant, inappropriately likeable Chelsea side cut through us. And this time we sink properly and the defiance disappears altogether. The whining inane voices emerge like meerkats around us and the crowd’s restlessness, kept at bay to this point by the single-mindedness of the 1881, begins to find a voice.

Nathaniel Chalobah was significant in our more assertive spell at the end of the first half, snappy first time passes that were at least brave enough to carry the possibility of turning Chelsea around rather than “merely” retaining possession. But now he loses his composure altogether and from snapping one touch balls to Watford feet he’s anxiously, tentatively giving the ball away too often. Minus Tom Cleverley, even Étienne Capoue we are short a bit of bloody-mindedness in that part of the pitch and it shows. Elsewhere Adam Masina is more resilient of character but lacks the brains to take advantage; assertive and aggressive he’s nonetheless painfully unaware of what’s going on around him, simultaneously significant in our winning and giving away possession.

5- Throughout all of this the patent lack of threat is unmissable. There’s no kitchen-sinking here, no bombardment of the Chelsea goal, not even a spell of the game where you think we might nick something. It’s thoroughly demoralising to watch.

But against that you’ve got to hold the fact that we’re playing one of the most effective attacking sides in the division. A side who have won all four of their previous away league games this season against, you know, teams higher up in the League than us scoring 16 goals in aggregate and at least three in each of these four games. We rode our luck a bit, but Chelsea were excellent and we kept them down to two without being exposed terribly often. You can argue that this reflected in part our approach; Chelsea didn’t score more than two partly because we denied them the opportunity but also because in focusing on shape and defence as Quique is always going to do Chelsea were unlikely to need more than two.

The carping about the approach, let alone the championing of the messainic virtues of assorted young strikers who their proponents have never seen play, is cowardly and unhelpful. Quique wasn’t brought in to turn us into the Harlem Globetrotters. He came in because his predecessor’s more liberated Watford side had regressed to a point where even the most freewheeling of performances was effortlessly subdued by the rate at which we were giving chances away to even the most mundane opponents. Watch the West Ham highlights or read the report again if you need reminding.

Quique was brought in to tighten things up and that he is done so is beyond dispute. It is far easier to generate wins, points, from a mean but goal-shy team than from a side that can’t stop shipping goals long enough for its potency to matter. Thing is, there’s little joy to be gleaned from a side playing this way unsuccessfully. But while it’s impossible to disentangle cause from effect in our extraordinary injury list it’s surely the case that this team with a Troy Deeney in it, or even an Isaac Success, is orders of magnitude more potent than what we’re watching at the moment. This is hard to watch, but it isn’t nothing.

6- Which isn’t to say that the 75th minute substitution of Daryl Janmaat in favour of Kiko Femenía was easy to digest. Dispassionately, Janmaat has been one of few players to put in a solid shift today and previously; on a yellow card against Pulisic with a wing-back’s miles in his legs and with opportunities to win games more obvious than this from two down coming up, there’s a logic to the change.

But my god, with Andre Gray being asked to do a very un-Andre Gray job, with a target man finally available on the bench, a like-for-like swap was never going to be popular. Perhaps most damagingly the substitution lead to the fragile Femenía being greeted with boos as he entered the fray… directed at the substitution rather than the substitute for the most part, but nonetheless. Not good.

The thing about having very good players on the pitch though, even very good players playing ineffectively, is that there’s always the chance of something. And something came in the shape of Gerard Deulofeu, the fizzing firework who you can never quite be sure isn’t still harbouring a spark somewhere and so you stand well back from just in case. And so he’s cutting into the area and going down under a challenge.

VAR is very like Brexit in that everyone has a strong opinion that is of very little interest to anyone else by virtue of overexposure. Whatever. It took a long time. It was a foul. It was a foul that we might not have gotten something for but we did and heaven knows we’re due the rub of the green. Of far greater controversy was Deulofeu’s decision to hang onto the ball in the face of accomplished and appointed penalty taker Roberto Pereyra’s enquiry. Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, the reverse is true also. We’re grateful that Deulofeu’s “twenty million shots without scoring” monkey is off his back, but more that Pereyra’s judgement in not taking too much issue with his childish colleague proved sound. This could have been a disaster.

7- And so there is a bit of gentle kitchen sinking, and when there’s only one goal in it there’s always the possibility, all the more tantalising in the mugging it would represent, of an equaliser. In the event it’s Ben Foster of all people that comes closest, up for Deulofeu’s late free kick and spearing a header bottom corner that Kepa excels to keep out. This, too, is being used as a stick to beat the side with, that the closest we came to a point was by virtue of our goalkeeper rather than a striker. Nobody was complaining when Foster tried a scissor kick in identical circumstances in last season’s fixture on Boxing Day.

Not enough, obviously, and no points is no points whether you’re playing Chelsea, Norwich or Manchester City. We need to turn this around sooner rather than later since however close the nearest flounderers are – and had we won this game we’d have been a point and a place from safety – we will need to sustain good form for longer to pull clear the longer we leave it.

But we’re not done yet. Norwich away next, then home to Burnley (no wins away) and away at Saints (no wins at home).

Now or never, one suspects. Tick tock.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 3, Masina 3, Cathcart NA, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Mariappa (for Cathcart, 13) 3, Hughes (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Femenía (for Janmaat, 75) 2, Holebas, Foulquier, Success, Gomes

Watford 0 AFC Bournemouth 0 (26/10/2019) 27/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- It’s not a cold day. No need for layers, not yet. But it’s wet and windy. And it’s wild. I love weather like this. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”… and this is ferocious and invigorating. This is the weather in which heroes are made, the weather in which great deeds are done. The weather in which we claim our first three points of the season, reverse continental shift, put the enemy to the sword. Do stuff worthy of being put to a song, stuff worthy of “do you remember when…” stories in 20, 30 years time.

Or. Or it could be a bit shit and underwhelming. That’s always an option, obviously.

2- The Deulofeu/Pereyra forward line was surprisingly effective a week ago, but always looked likely to be less so against a side that weren’t pushing ponderously forward at every opportunity, lumbering under the weight of expectation. Here the lack of physical presence in attack was more of an issue than it had been at Spurs (and even there it tended to invite pressure in the final minutes due to the fussiness it demanded of any out-ball). We found an effective route out for a while, Adam Masina revelling in his extra inches and bullying Ryan Fraser and Adam Smith in an aerial assault down our left until an overdue Cherries decision to drift the colossal Billing over to that side to stem the tide.

But in general when we fizzed and buzzed we found ourselves wandering down blind alleys borne of the sorry combination of a lack of focal point and a lack of belief. Bournemouth aren’t terrible by any means but they were get-attable here, more get-attable than we exposed.

It might have been very different had Doucouré kept his composure in the opening minutes. Daryl Janmaat – still a force for good if not quite boasting the doggedness that seems to characterise his outings against the loftiest opposition – fed Deulofeu down the right, the Spaniard’s cross was pushed by Ramsdale to the Frenchman who should have scored. That goes in it’s a different game, that goes in and you can see us making hay, actually, much better suited with our newly mean defence to defending a lead and waiting for an opponent to over-commit, as they will surely need to. It didn’t happen.

3- Instead, Bournemouth grew into the game and had by far the better chances in the rest of the half. Jefferson Lerma had the first, wandering in from the right and curling a shot that was carelessly close to the far post and would have been a criminally negligent goal to concede. Later in the half Ben Foster came into his own with a fine low stop to keep out Rico’s drive from distance (the Spaniard taking a break from a succession of foul throws down the left flank, only one of which punished by the arbitrarily fussy Dean), and then again to deny Danjuma with a brave, alert close-range stop. Add Steve Cook twonking a header against the bar from one of a succession of right-wing corners, Masina rather more exposed without the ball than with it, and we were probably a little lucky to be level at the break. The illusion of an upward trajectory based on the last few games was dwindling quickly in the drizzle.

4- In fairness we had the better of the first half hour or so of the second period, our best spell in the game. Gerard Deulofeu bundled his way between two defenders and then left another on his backside before Ramsdale got out well to deny him with a stray limb. Later Will Hughes, who had a pretty miserable time after coming on for Tom Cleverley, another apparent victim of our recent hamstring epidemic, managed to pull out a fine shot with his weaker left foot. As if we’d saved up all our bloody-mindedness and decisiveness for this one moment, so uncharacteristic was this of our attacking play but Ramsdale denied us again, a fine stop extending to his left. Andre Gray, on for Nathaniel Chalobah in the bolder of the two second half changes (unless Adam Masina had a knock it’s not clear what the willing Dmitri Foulquier was going to achieve), did a sturdy job of going toe to toe with the much larger Steve Cook but his lack of confidence was betrayed by slack passes and poor decisions when in possession – nonetheless he was inches away from converting Deulofeu’s right wing cross, and sent a sharp ball across the face that didn’t get a touch after Bournemouth’s defence did one of their occasional jelly things that made you realise that we really ought to be capitalising on this.

5- The game had been peppered with boos for any suggestion of simulation from our spring-heeled friends from the South Coast (and with the odd chorus of “Championes” from the three-man Dorset choir). As so often you’d just got to the stage where you were wondering whether, actually, this was all a bit unfair and that maybe the Cherries’ reputation was causing us to focus unduly on what were marginal calls no worse than happens in any game when they decided to decisively reclaim their mantle. Josh King was clearly winded by Ben Foster’s decisive clearance on our left flank, but quite why he was rolling around holding his face was difficult to understand. Philip Billing was the first of several to collapse on the ground whilst the game continued around him in indifference; this happened to Callum Wilson too, with the exception that Christian Kabasele’s indifference didn’t stretch far enough for him to resist telling him quite what he thought of his cheap lack of professionalism in passing. Wilson seemed to take badly to this, chasing the Belgian back down the pitch and barging him from behind at the cost of a rather stupid yellow card.

In fairness we earned two of our yellow cards for cynical hacks to curtail a break – “good fouls” if there is such a thing, certainly valuable fouls, Dawson and Hughes the culprits. Wilson was the victim of the first, and as above whilst kicking an opponent is never to be applauded, he’d be near the top of your list were it otherwise.

6- The Wilson/Kabasele thing briefly spilled over before the morass of bodies and limbs seemed to think better of it and relocate itself to the penalty area for the wasted corner that ensued. The Rookery was briefly roused by the suggestion of conflict, but what little fizz we had was drowned out by an increase in the deluge which, wind assisted, made the previously uncharted territory of Row SS in the Rookery. Our attacking threat, such as it was, fizzled out but for an optimistic penalty call from a crowded out Will Hughes – the late chances were the visitors’.

Altogether underwhelming to carry so little threat at home but with the absences of Sarr and Welbeck now added to Deeney and Success, any of whom would have made us a much more potent weapon, Quique’s options were very limited. His 2015/16 vintage was a solid base plus enough mischief up front to earn wins. He doesn’t have that mischief up front now, not really, but we shouldn’t start taking that solid base for granted. This fixture last season serves as a reminder of how much worse than a fairly forgettable 0-0 it can get when you’ve got problems at both ends of the pitch.

But a scruffy, lucky win could do with coming along sooner rather than later.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 4, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 3, Cleverley NA, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Hughes (for Cleverley, 10) 2, Gray (for Chalobah, 57) 3, Foulquier (for Masina 73) 3, Prödl, Mariappa, Quina, Gomes

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 1 (19/10/2019) 20/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- The thing about things is that they change. Important things, significant things, and mundane incidental things. For instance, I first moved to Bedford 25 years ago; the stumble from the main concourse at Kings Cross down Pentonville Road to the Thameslink station was quickly a familiar one.

Since the station closed and the Thameslink rerouted to St Pancras I don’t need to step outside to connect to the tube and on to wherever. Today, with a bit of time to kill, I did so for the first time in years and years. And didn’t recognise it. The Google office, for goodness’ sake, looks like it’s been dropped into Kings Cross from outer space, and all the swish boutiques and cafes that surround it have spewed from either side of it like a bacterial growth. This isn’t what Kings Cross looks like!

An hour later we’re walking in the sunshine from Seven Sisters towards the venue, which Kieron labels “one of the new Death Star stadiums”, not inaccurately.

It’s pretty smart, as Death Stars go. Well designed to accommodate cordons of stewards manning access to the “turnstiles”, vast numbers of eateries with minimal queuing in the concourse. The stands are pleasingly steep, and if the seats are narrow it becomes clear that they’re not going to be in use very much. There are lean bars – presumably with an eye on safe standing – across the front of each seat and these are a fine, fine thing. Too good for Tottenham this, quite obviously.

2- No football supporter should need reminding that Things Change, Watford supporters less than most. A couple of months ago we had a different head coach, a different means of playing, a different shape. A couple of personnel changes today but… it’s clear enough that this is The Plan for the moment, not merely a solution for last week’s problem. Three at the back, wing-backs, two sitting midfielders. Sitting deep, ceding possession but looking for opportunities to mug the opposition and scramble into the empty spaces behind them.

And frankly there are few more suitable test cases for this approach than this opponent at this time. Spurs away, yes yes. I was at White Hart Lane the last time, the 5-1 win in 1985, “one Danny Thomas” and so on. Not a point in a league tie at Spurs in 34 years. But we were better off playing this Spurs today than a perhaps more limited but single-minded opponent like Burnley. Spurs are precarious, uncertain, suddenly introspective. Badly needing to win this but unable to prioritise with a Champions League game in the week and Liverpool next weekend. Get-attable, flaky in defence, tentative in attack. Perversely given the League table, we have a shout here.

3- Although Danny Welbeck collapsing with a hamstring strain after a couple of minutes we could probably have done without. He’d already been getting the bird for his Arsenal connections; “Danny Welbeck, he’s won more than you…” was the retort. On comes Gerard Deulofeu to form a diminutive false-forward line with Bobby Pereyra, perhaps the player least obviously suited to the QSF approach.

And within five minutes we’re ahead. We’d already tried this trick once and weren’t to try it again, either because the imperative wasn’t there or because Spurs were wise to it… Kabasele’s raking ball from right to left had already dropped over Aurier’s head but the move was curtailed. This time it was Cathcart isolating Danny Rose to find Daryl Janmaat rampaging down the right. His perfect ball was tucked neatly in at the far post by Abdoulaye Doucouré, incongruously clinical in this least clinical of seasons. Celebrations were tempered by surprise, and by trying to remember what this was like.

4- The remainder of the game followed a steady pattern of largely impotent Tottenham possession in front of our disciplined and aggressive rearguard. To our left came frantic, anxious shouts of “keep your shape, keep your shape”, but in stark contrast to our defensive calamities of earlier in the season there was little evidence of us doing otherwise. All three centrebacks put their bodies on the line, Holebas and the inhuman Janmaat were focused as Spurs shuffled the ball awkwardly from side to side, unconvinced and unconvincing.

And when we broke we broke with purpose and no less discipline. This was much more incisive than the scruffier breaks carved out against the Blades, this was spinning and turning and attacking the space but not compromising possession and it formed the basis for the best team performance since the Cup Semi Final. Deulofeu and Pereyra aren’t the most obvious forward line but they spun and twisted and found their men and frustrated Spurs at every turn (geddit?). The impatience in the home end took 20 minutes to surface, the half ended with the home side recording only one shot on target and booed off the pitch. All going very well so far.

5- The second half started with a bang that suited the home side rather better than it suited us; Spurs abandoned their three at the back and brought on Son who crashed a shot against the bar via Ben Foster’s probably irrelevant fingertips in an ominous clarion call. From the rebound we rattled forward; Pereyra released Deulofeu, the Spaniard produced a perfectly weighted cut back of all things and an excellent block from Aurier denied Pereyra’s finish. It wasn’t the last breakaway chance we were to enjoy – the otherwise magnificent Doucouré should have punished some extraordinarily pedestrian defending but sliced wide. Janmaat had one good chance on his weaker foot but opted to retain possession, an inevitable choice under QSF. Janmaat again, revelling in his freer wingback role, lead a charge down Spurs throat but dallied and was crowded out; his shot hit Alderweireld’s hand, but that’s not a penalty on moral grounds whatever version of the handball rule we’re using this week.

Spurs’ best chance of an equaliser seemed to be through attrition and persistence, so lacking in cutting edge was their forward line despite Kane, Moura, Son. A succession of home corners came to nothing (the observation that only 2% of corners result in goals takes the edge off the pre-corner “oooooh” at either end), the lively Winks went off to be replaced by the monstrous Ndombele. We defended incredibly well, but maintaining that level of concentration is difficult and the equaliser came, cruelly, harshly. Not harsh in that Spurs didn’t deserve a point, but harsh in its timing, in not rewarding a performance that so deserved a three point reward. Harsh, too, in taunting the away end with an apparently favourable VAR review – such was the verdict suggested by the live screens, denied by the referee.

And here’s the VAR bit. Two big calls. A penalty shout for Deulofeu in the first half, not given. Alli’s goal, not denied despite a handball in the build-up and a shove on Christian Kabasele. No view of either at the time, both at the far end… Deulofeu’s penalty looks nailed on, Alli’s “handball” at least plausibly interpretable as shoulder rather than arm. We didn’t get either decision, it was ever thus away at a big club, these things matter more because we’re so desperate for the points. On balance wringing our hands too much about the equaliser is misguided; Ben Foster should have cleaned it out, Kiko could have been more decisive, and however inspiring our performance and well-judged the strategy if you spend most of the game defending your penalty area you increase the opportunity for such a decision to go against you.

The question isn’t really whether VAR got them wrong, got them right, whatever. Teething problems, yes yes, time to learn, yes yes. Wrong or right, difficult to imagine that in a world without VAR anything other would have happened than both going against us, we lose nothing. Except… except. The momentum. The pace. The intensity of a game that now doesn’t rumble on with a head of steam but slows down and waits, and watches. A game already distorted beyond recognition by television now becomes a parody of itself… from the point where people watched football on TV with cameras positioned to capture the crowd atmosphere, we now watch a game in the stadium ruled by television assessment that in itself destroys the thing that it purports to police. Ludicrous. I can cope with bad refereeing calls, but not this.

6- Extraordinary that a point at Spurs can feel like anything other than a great result. That’s what conceding a late equaliser will do for you. It IS a great result. But it doesn’t feel like one at the final whistle, less still the morning after.

Some problems that were problems are still there. Maybe they will change it time but… we had the better chances, despite only 30% possession and we were profligate – cautious perhaps, and imbalanced to praise our use of the ball and then complain when we choose to keep possession over going for goal. You can’t have it both ways. Nonetheless… we have a finisher, we win the game.

What has changed is that for the first time this season we have belief. This was a million miles from the listless nothing at Wolves. This was orders of magnitude better than the doughty draw against the Blades, more disciplined, more organised, more potent.

Not there yet. But we’re not half getting there. This was tremendous.

Things are changing.

Yoorns.

 

Foster 3, Janmaat 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Dawson 4, Kabasele 4, Chalobah 4, *Doucouré 5*, Cleverley 4, Pereyra 4, Welbeck NA
Subs: Deulofeu (for Welbeck, 4) 4, Femenía (for Janmaat, 71) 3, Hughes (for Pereyra, 84) NA, Masina, Sarr, Gray, Gomes

Wolves 2 Watford 0 (28/09/2019) 29/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Forgive me if this doesn’t go on too long. Not in the mood, frankly. Not in the mood at all.

Last week was bad. Profound insight, of course… that’s what you’re here for after all. OK, very bad. A maelstrom of circumstances conspired and we were nothing like robust or confident enough to deal with them. If there was a straw to clutch at it was that Man City away isn’t an expensive place to have a bad day, not in terms of the league table and so forth. That’s not a fixture you’re banking on after all so… even an 8-0 defeat need not be disastrous if you can consign it to history, convince yourself that a bad day against City is always going to look a very bad day. And shuffle along first to a tentative but adequate League Cup win over Swansea and then onwards to the next two League fixtures. League fixtures that could define the rest of the season.

2- The team news that reached us as we received long awaited pub food in a hostelry in the town centre looked great. Despite everything, bottom of the league with no wins and so forth, it’s difficult not to look at our squad and wonder at the depth of talent. And yes, yes, the defence, we’ll get to that. But for today… Janmaat in at right back was probably overdue, Craig Cathart’s return in the centre more than welcome and Sarr and Welbeck up front had been anticipated all season. So why didn’t it work? More generally, why isn’t it working?

It’s natural to blame the defence, heaven knows many have. Harsh, I think, to blame Craig Dawson for not being the commanding defender that we’d been hoping for, or to single him out by virtue of being the new component that has no credit in the bank. He was solid enough in this one, as he has been since those first few games. Much as I wouldn’t venture this opinion to the hysterical young man a couple of rows in front who was vocally challenging everyone in earshot to oppose his particular views on the subject. Digressing further, how easy would it be to construct a skit like the one below based on the regular voices behind you in a football crowd? An entertaining diversion if you haven’t seen it, goodness knows we need one.

So. We could do with better defenders, yes. But the defenders aren’t the problem – and haven’t been all season – as much as, you know, the actual defending. A subtle difference but a significant one. Wolves threatened before they took the lead, and invariably did so by doubling up on a full back. That’s not Janmaat and Holebas’ fault. And when the goal came… defenders were culpable, but the whole team was culpable – Tom Cleverley not least – for not being attentive, not doing their jobs.

3- And so we are once again stuck in an unfortunate maelstrom of coincidental circumstance. Wolves have the away goal, and so are even more at liberty to sit back and break on us. Much easier to do that at home when you’ve got a lead, obvs. Which means we need to play through them, somehow… the lack of Troy as a more direct option painfully evident; even Isaac Success (yes, really) who was extremely effective in this encounter last year, would have helped us navigate this – much more effective as a lone forward than a wide man for me.

Competing with this was an evident instruction to be careful with possession, part of the “defending comes first” mantra. And this we were, hence our very high possession stats, but the combination of the circumstances – Wolves sitting deep with a lead, us with nobody to hit, careful with possession – meant passing it around on the halfway line as much as not. Add to this an understandable tentativeness… understandable, but hugely frustrating… and little wonder that we found it so hard to create (decent) chances.

4- Wolves, truth be told, were little better. More effective, certainly, and deserving of the win but… also tentative, also fallible. Precarious. There are similarities between the two clubs’ situations in that both performed to a very high level last season and both, for different reasons perhaps and in different ways, haven’t been able to sustain that level. There can be an awful lot of air, as we’re seeing, between a half-decent side and a half-decent side off the boil, borne not least of the psychological impact of suddenly not winning football matches any more.

Missing throughout was a bit of bloody-mindedness. A bit of fight. There was more of that at the start of the second half of course, and if José Holebas connecting well with Roberto Pereyra’s cross (albeit he headed it into the ground taking the pace off it) was scant to show in the way of decent chances at least it was something. In Troy’s absence what little belligerence there was on show came from Daryl Janmaat, who does a good line in bloody-minded rampages when such are needed. Of the two right-backs, neither of which stands dramatically over the other in general, you’d rather have the Dutchman’s strength of character when the chips are down. Unfortunate that it was his forehead that deflected the second in, not his fault – perhaps he’s more robust to these things than others might have been. That’s the sort of goal that goes in when things are going badly.

5- Elsewhere, the fortunes of those introduced contrasted somewhat. Cathcart, like Dawson, didn’t do an awful lot wrong – Wolves’ threat came down the flanks rather than the centre and the previously formidable Jiménez was quiet. Welbeck worked hard and showed well – still rusty, but a good line in runs down the outside of the outer of Wolves three defenders in the second half and a decent shot carved out that was pushed wide by Patricio. More positive than not. Sadly, the same not true of Sarr who only opened his legs occasionally and was frequently at fault for not putting his foot in where needed. A 21 year-old winger not speaking the language needs time and a bit of patience, but a £30m price tag denies him much of that, unfairly or otherwise.

Wolves’ second took any fight out of us, and there was no praying for minutes as the board goes up, no suggestion of a fightback. Maybe all it would have taken was a goal, home fans suddenly nervous in the closing minutes, we’ll never know. In the same way there are several ways to interpret this game… given this vantage point, given last week, given no wins and such little fight it’s difficult not to be negative. On the other hand… a defeat away at Wolves, even this Wolves, isn’t an embarrassment out of context. Nobody likes to lose but… it’s a tough fixture, albeit one we won last year. Maybe the cautious possession will build towards a greater solidity – arguably only a perhaps four point deficit across Brighton and West Ham is below a moderate “par” so far. As has been mentioned elsewhere, this game buried in the middle of last season might not have raised an eyebrow. If we beat Sheffield United we’re likely to be up with the struggling pack again, it really isn’t very far gone yet and only two weeks since an utterly convincing and convinced draw with Arsenal after which recovery seemed a probability.

That win really needs to come soon though.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Janmaat 3*, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 2, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 2, Sarr 2, Deulofeu 2, Welbeck 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Gray (for Sarr, 71) 2, Kabasele, Femenía, Chalobah, Quina, Gomes