jump to navigation

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

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
add a comment

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.

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.



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

Season Preview 2017 – Part 5 11/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.


INS: None

OUTS: Kyle Walker (Manchester City, £45,000,000), Federico Fazio (AS Roma, Undisclosed), Clinton N’Jie (Marseille, Undisclosed), Connor Ogilvie (Gillingham, Season Loan), Josh Onomah (Aston Villa, Season Loan), Pau (Espanyol, End of Loan)

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


RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two maulings, the first with the emphasis on us being bad and the second rather more a function of Spurs being good.  Painful as that is to say.


2016-17  1-4
2015-16  1-2
2011-12 0-1
2008-09 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-4
1998-99 2-5
1994-95 3-6 / 3-2
1982-83 1-0


Trippier       Alderweireld      Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Son                           Alli                     Eriksen

VERDICT: So.  Bridesmaids again, then.  Shame.

The headline this summer has been the lack of headlines, or rather the lack of incoming transfer activity.  You can look on this a couple of ways;  one, that Spurs already have one of the best sides in the country and whilst they’ve lost Kyle Walker they have a perfectly adequate replacement in Kieran Trippier.  Good kids coming through, a young and vibrant team, kudos to Spurs for being bold enough to say “we’re happy, we’re sticking with what we’ve got”.

The other way to look at is is that Walker has gone to a direct rival prepared to pay him much more money.  That’s got potential to be disruptive all on its own (EDIT: Helloooo Danny Rose), and Kieran Trippier’s pre-season injury, however serious or not it turns out to be, underlines why its not quite as simple as having a ready-made replacement for Walker.  There still isn’t proper cover for Harry Kane either, unless Vincent Janssen’s second season is significantly more impressive than his first.  And then there’s a new stadium to pay for, and a season at Wembley which will be… weird, surely, at best.  It’s soulless to visit, it’s not going to develop character and closeness by virtue of Spurs playing there every other week.

Spurs will be top six, obviously.  You can’t see them chasing the title again though.


INS: Jay Rodriguez (Southampton, £12,000,000), Yuning Zhang (Vitesse Arnhem, Undisclosed), Ahmed Hegazy (Al Ahli, Season Loan)

OUTS: Darren Fletcher (Stoke City, Free), Craig Gardner (Birmingham City, Free), Stéphan Pocognoli (Standard Liège, Free), Jack Rose, Jack Fitzwater (Forest Green, Season Loan), Yuning Zhang (Werder Bremen, Two Season Loan),  Brendan Galloway (Everton, End of Loan), Marc Wilson (AFC Bournemouth, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: Jerome Sinclair (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster, Allan Nyom

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A stout performance undone by set piece calamities at the Hawthorns and a magnificent win under the lights at Vicarage Road.


2016-17 2-0 1-3
2015-16 1-0
2009-10 1-1
2007-08 0-3 1-1
2003-04 0-1 1-3
2002-03 1-0
2001-02 1-2 1-1
2000-01 3-3 0-3
1998-99 0-2 1-4
1995-96 4-4


Dawson         Evans       McAuley           Brunt
Phillips       Livermore         Morrison     Rodriguez

VERDICT: So this is familiar.  Another team from the bottom-half morass.  Another team who haven’t been able to strengthen much yet.  Another team who finished the season in stinking form (two points from the last nine games of the season), another team fretting about relegation.

You can kind of see the concern.  There are a lot of maybes at the attacking end of the pitch… Rondon’s great, maybe, if he recaptures the form of the first half of last season.  Chadli’s great, maybe, if he turns up. Rodriguez if he can recapture his pre-injury Saints form.  Not much in the way of bankers.  A solid defence is more Tony Pulis’ thing, but that failsafe has been called into question by that end of season run.  Albion’s answer has been to bring Gary Megson back to the club onto the coaching staff;  he still appears to be revered at the Hawthorns, though from the outside it looks a bit liking having Pulis twice.

The thing about Pulis is that, wherever he is, the football his sides play means he’s not going to have a huge amount of credit in the bank when results go against his side.  There would appear to be teams worse off than the Baggies, which is a good thing cos it’s a great away trip, but yet another side who could struggle if the odd thing goes against them.


INS: Marko Arnautović (Stoke City, £24,000,000), Javier Hernández (Bayer Leverkusen, £16,000,000), Sead Hakšabanović (Halmstads, £3,000,000), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City, Free), Joe Hart (Manchester City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough, £6,500,000), Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough, £5,000,000), George Dobson (Sparta Rotterdam, Undisclosed), Sam Howes (Watford, Undisclosed), Håvard Nordtveit (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Enner Valencia (Tigres UANL, Undisclosed), Kevin Knoyle (Swindon Town, Free), Alvaro Arbeloa, Reece Burke (Bolton Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Reece Oxford (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Season Loan), Jonathan Calleri (Deportivo Maldonado, End of Loan), Josh Cullen (Bolton Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Gökhan Töre (Beşiktaş, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Valon Behrami, Sam Howes, Hayden Mullins, Mauro Zárate


RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A gloriously scripted overturning of a prematurely celebrated West Ham lead at their chilling new ground, and a less memorable 1-1 draw at the Vic that interrupted Mauro Zárate’s fledgling Watford career.


2016-17 1-1 4-2
2015-16 2-0
2011-12 0-4 1-1
2008-09 1-0
2006-07 1-1
2004-05 1-2 2-3
2003-04 0-0 0-4
1999-00 1-2 0-1


Zabaleta       Ogbonna        Reid          Cresswell
Obiang           Noble

Antonio                 Lanzini            Arnautović

VERDICT: A rare thing in this pre-season, a mid-table side with no real danger of going down.  West Ham have recruited ambitiously and, given the age and experience of their signings, probably expensively in wages as well as fees, but that ballast ought to given them the security of residence in the Premier League that ostensibly similar sized clubs can’t quite rely on.   Spending that much money on older players – Arnautović is 28, Hernandez 29 – feels a bit short-termist and you’d be worried perhaps about the robustness of that midfield but that’s being picky.  West Ham will be fine and look a reasonable bet for an inconsequential top half place.

The stadium is shit though.  Just dreadful.  Take all the most negative misgivings about modern stadia, add a questionable backstory and stands so far from the pitch that they’re in a different postcode and you’ve got something that many of those who Did It Once last season won’t be prioritising a second time.  Ninth.


INS: André Gray (Burnley, £11, 500,000 rising to £18,000,000), Richarlison (Fluminense, £11,200,000), Tom Cleverley (Everton, £8,000,000), Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea, £5,000,000), Will Hughes (Derby County, £4,500,000), Daniel Bachmann (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Harvey Bradbury (Portsmouth, Undisclosed), Sam Howes (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Kiko Femenía (Alavés, Free)

OUTS: Uche Agbo (Standard Liège, £2,000,000), Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord, Undisclosed), Sven Kums (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Aly Mallé (Udinese, Undisclosed), Mario Suárez (Guizhou Zhicheng, Undisclosed), Rene Gilmartin (Colchester United, Free), Juan Carlos Paredes (Emelec, Free), Mathias Ranégie, Pervis Estupiñán (UD Almería, Season Loan), Juan Camilo Hernández (Huesca, Season Loan), Dennon Lewis (Crawley Town, Six Month Loan), Sulayman Marreh (Real Valladolid, Season Loan), Obbi Oularé (Royal Antwerp, Season Loan), M’baye Niang (Milan, End of Loan), Juan Camilo Zúñiga (Napoli, End of Loan)


Janmaat          Kaboul          Britos            Holebas
Chalobah      Doucouré
Pereyra                         Deeney                   Richarlison

VERDICT: Let’s begin by acknowledging that this would have been a very different piece if written a few days ago.  The Arsenal bit must have been composed at the beginning of last week, a long time at this time of the pre-season, a long time when you make two startling signings in the interim that make significant steps towards addressing the most striking limitations of the side in warm up games.

Such has been the theme of the summer’s recruitment.  We don’t know if they’ll work, of course… good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Hell none of us had heard of Richarlison a fortnight ago (A young Brazilian attacker who looks like an olympic sprinter though – what’s not to like?). But it’s been almost surgical attention to the side’s deficiencies…  defensive midfielder, check.  Creativity, check.  Width, check.  Speed in attack. Check.

More than that.  Reducing the age of the squad, check.  Building a core of good young English players, check check check.  This seeks to address a popular criticism of the transient nature of the squad, that there’s little that defines  Watford, little to associate with… my co-editor turns up a few times a season now and has to be talked through the team.  I think this issue is slightly overstated… plenty of players in more stable eras have become icons very quickly, and/or only lasted a year or so and revelled despite brief Watford careers.  But there’s no question that a stable group will be of benefit to the club on the pitch, on the training ground and in maintaining an identity and relationship with the support, two things tarnished by last season’s experiences.  These English players might not work out, or might not hang around…  but on the face of it we’ve not half done well.  Just read this Nathaniel Chalobah interview if you have any doubts about the character of a pampered midfielder who’s grown up in the comfy surroundings of Stamford Bridge.

So what’s changed in a few days?  Rather than looking at the players brought in and thinking “so far so good” we’re now looking at the side and thinking “actually this looks rather good doesn’t it?”.  Comparing our side, the business we’ve done, with that of some of the apparent rivals that we’ve talked through this week, knowing that the club will be looking to bring in more signings from a strong position, augmenting a squad that already looks strong rather than desperately needing to bring in bodies, all feels rather good.

If there’s a question mark it’s about figures.  André Gray, in particular, seems to have cost us a big wedge, even if the details of quite how much for what will, as ever, remain hidden rendering the detail of “record signing” an ever vaguer notion.  The thing is, in the current climate, all notion of how much a player is “worth” is up in the air.  Is André Gray, a young English striker with a decent season in the top flight in a somewhat frugal team, “worth” £18m?  Or whatever?  Is he bollocks.  Is he worth a million?  These numbers don’t mean anything, if they ever did.

What matters is two things.  One, can we afford it.  Two, is he an asset.  The second, we’ll see.  The first… we have to trust those running the club and heaven knows that they’ve given us precious little reason not to.  Good decisions, almost every step of the way.

The exception, maybe, and only maybe, is in our appointment of head coaches.  The most generous interpretation is that each coach has been signed to do a job and by and large, with a couple of circumstantial exceptions, they’ve done them.  As I said, the generous interpretation.  Flores and Mazzarri both kept us up – you can argue about how much their role in each was, how much you credit the players, the recruitment vs their melding into a team.  In both cases their seasons tailed off and big chunks of the squad were alienated by the end of the season. Flores leaves, Holebas is back in the fold.  Mazzarri leaves and Ben Watson is suddenly a vice-captain. Even if your only aspiration is survival that pattern can’t be healthy.

And so the fact that this is Marco Silva inspires further confidence.  Anyone who was at Hull in April will be in no doubt about his ability to instil a common purpose amongst squad and support.  He’s a young manager, with limited experience in this country… but it wasn’t just us that was interested in him.  Like Chalobah, like Gray, like Hughes, like Ricarlison the fact that he chose us tells you something.

So, back to the beginning.  Timing is everything.  A week or so ago this would have been more cautious, less excited.  This is the honeymoon period between bringing in new stars and, you know, actually seeing them play when anything is possible.  A wonderful and essential part of being a fan but not best suited to objective preview pieces.

Screw it.  We’re going to be great.  Yoooorns…..

Season Preview 2017 – Part 4 10/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.


INS: Jacob Murphy (Norwich City, £12,000,000), Florian Lejeune (Eibar, £8,700,000), Christian Atsu (Chelsea, £6,200,000), Javier Manquillo (Atlético Madrid, Undisclosed), Mikel Merino (Borussia Dortmund, Season Loan), Stefan O’Connor (Arsenal, Free), Josef Yarney (Everton, Free)

OUTS: Daryl Murphy (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Sammy Ameobi (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Vurnon Anita (Leeds United, Free), Yoann Gouffran (Göztepe S.K., Free), Ľubomír Šatka (DAC1904, Free), Haris Vučkić (Twente, Free), Adam Armstrong (Bolton Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Sean Longstaff (Blackpool, Six Months Loan), Matz Sels (Anderlecht, Season Loan), Ivan Toney (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Callum Williams (Gateshead, Six Months Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Daryl Janmaat

THEIR EX-ORNS: Kevin Richardson (U17s coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two efficient, Iggy-fuelled wins in the League and a muddling through in the FA Cup in The Obbi Oularé Game two seasons ago.


2015-16 2-1  1-0
2009-10 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1


Yedlin                 Lejeune           Lascelles            Dummett
Ritchie                Shelvey         Diamé           Murphy
Gayle        Perez

VERDICT: The thing about writing previews at this stage, a week before you’re going to read it, is that so much is still to happen.  In theory, anyway.  The transfer market is seriously constipated and Newcastle are just one club professing to be hoping  to get a large number of transfers over the line between now and the end of the month.

But if they don’t, you fancy Newcastle could be in some trouble.  Pre-season predictions might place Brighton and Huddersfield in the relegation crosshairs ahead of United (I’ve lazily done the same…) but the whilst the United squad is marginally more experienced than those of their fellow promoted sides it’s their name and tradition that gives them an apparent edge.  The team looks less convincing…  Shelvey and Ritchie have quality but only showed it spasmodically in the top flight previously, Gayle is prolific but fragile, Perez inconsistent.  Lejeune has attracted favourable reports, but a side that likes to follow their coach’s modus operandi of sitting deep and tight has neither  a tough enough midfield nor a reliable enough goal on the break to make that work.

Benitez himself is a huge plus, of course.  But you rather fancy how long he’ll be minded to hang around if United aren’t able to strengthen.  Best bet would be a narrow squeak, but the Magpies are less mentally prepared for a scrap than either Brighton or Huddersfield.  Could easily go back down.


INS: Mario Lemina (Juventus, £16,000,000), Jan Bednarek (Lech Poznan, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Jay Rodriguez (West Bromwich Albion, £12,000,000), Jason McCarthy (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Martin Cáceres (Hellas Verona, Free), Lloyd Isgrove (Barnsley, Free), Cuco Martina (Everton, Free), Harrison Reed (Norwich City, Season Loan), Ryan Seager (Franchise, Season Loan), Mouez Hassan (Nice, End of Loan)


THEIR EX-ORNS: Ross Wilson (Head of Recruitment)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An encouraging opening day draw at St Marys and a 4-3 home defeat that was less exciting than it sounds.


2016-17  3-4
2015-16  0-2
2011-12 0-3
2008-09 2-2 3-0
2007-08 3-2
2005-06 3-0 3-1
2004-05 5-2
2002-03 1-2
1999-00 3-2 0-2
1982-83 4-1
1980-81 7-1


Cédric          Yoshida        Stephens     Bertrand
Lemina       Romeu
Redmond             Boufal                    Tadić

VERDICT: So the classic Southampton summer template is…  sell star player(s), probably to Liverpool.  Patch together a squad that can’t possibly do as well as the previous season.  Defy all expectations by hanging around the best-of-the-rest region of the table anyway.

Slightly over-simplifying.  Southampton were nine places but only six points clear of us at the end of last season, so they were in the morass really whatever the league positioning suggests.  Hence, in part, the departure of Claude Puel for achieving what Southampton might have hoped to achieve but in a thoroughly underwhelming and uninspiring way that didn’t foster any sense of momentum.  We know how that feels.

So this summer is following the traditional template so far, but the transfer market situation – where nobody’s quite sure what anyone’s worth any more and so aren’t risking letting players go unless they have to – means that Virgil Van Dijk is still at St Mary’s in body, as I write, if not in spirit.  This leaves a big hole in the middle of the defence that Augsburg drove a truck through in last week’s friendly, and it’s the defence that you’d worry about with Bertrand and Cédric also linked with moves and Fraser Forster not in form.  Saints should be OK, but with a protracted suggestion of a takeover hanging around in the background messageboard suggestions that they’ll improve on last season’s eighth seem hugely fanciful.   Bottom half.


INS: Joe Bursik (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed), Josh Tymon (Hull City, Compensation TBC), Maxim Choupo-Moting (Schalke, Free), Darren Fletcher (West Bromwich Albion, Free), Tre Pemberton (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Kurt Zouma (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Marko Arnautovic (West Ham United, £24,000,000), Phil Bardsley (Burnley, Undisclosed), Jonathan Walters (Burnley, Undisclosed), Glenn Whelan (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Daniel Bachmann (Watford, Free), Harry Istead (Luton Town, Free), George Waring (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Ryan Sweeney (Bristol Rovers, Season Loan), Dominic Telford (Bristol Rovers, Season Loan), Liam Edwards, Shay Given, Joel Taylor

OUR EX-POTTERS: Daniel Bachmann

THEIR EX-ORNS: Glyn Hodges (U21 Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A thoroughly miserable home defeat and a reverse in the Potteries that I have no recollection of whatsoever.


2016-17 0-1
2015-16 1-2
2007-08 0-0 0-0
2005-06 1-0 3-0
2004-05 0-1 1-0
2003-04 1-3 1-3
2001-02 1-2 2-1
1995-96 3-0


Johnson     Shawcross      Zouma          Muniesa         Pieters
Allen             Fletcher           Choupo-Moting

VERDICT: If a stagnant market is a challenge when trying to replace a star who’s forcing his way out, it’s an absolute pigging disaster when you are needing to seriously overhaul your squad.  That’s where Stoke are, with Arnautovic having exited for West Ham, Shawcross not the player he was and both full-backs struggling and unsuited to the wing-back system that Mark Hughes seems keen to implement.

There’s still quality in the Stoke side, but nothing like so much quality that they’re beyond the risk of a relegation scrap.  They’re blunt up front and no longer have the relentless defensive reliability of the Pulis era.  Joe Allen’s great, but if there’s not much in front of him and a swinging door behind then he’s only going to be so much use.  With a tough start that includes an opening home run of Arsenal, Man United, Chelsea  Mark Hughes’ position looks precarious to me.  Relegation candidates.


INS: Roque Mesa (Las Palmas, £11,000,000), Cian Harries (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Erwin Muller (Heerenveen, Free), Tammy Abraham (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jack Cork (Burnley, up to £10,000,000), Modou Barrow (Reading, £1,500,000), Alex Samuel (Stevenage, Undisclosed), Liam Shepherd (Peterborough United, Free), Franck Tabanou (Guingamp, Free), Josh Vickers (Lincoln City, Free), Tom Dyson, Marvin Emnes, Tom Holland, Owain Jones, Gerhard Tremmel, Jordi Amat (Real Betis, Season Loan), Borja Baston (Malaga, Season Loan), Daniel James (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Connor Roberts (Middlesbrough, Season Loan)


THEIR EX-ORNS: George Byers, Nigel Gibbs (Assistant Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A forgettable 0-0 draw on a sunny afternoon in Wales, and what proved to be a vital win in a scarcely more memorable game at Vicarage Road.


2016-17 1-0 0-0
2015-16 1-0
2010-11 2-3
2009-10 0-1
2008-09 2-0


Naughton     Fernandez        Mawson         Olsson

Fer                   Carroll  
      Llorente         Abraham   

VERDICT: So, anyone fretting about our activity this summer, about the state of our side going into the new season, ought to have had that tempered a bit by today’s selection.  Four sides all of which, in different ways and to varying degrees, looking a bit iffy going into the new season.

Swansea at least have some upward momentum, having finished last season well.  If Sigurdsson does go (and it may be that he’s gone by the time you read this in four days’ time) then it will be for a big wedge (surely £50m is still a big wedge?  As long as it’s spent in the next year or so before the next TV deal) and whilst yes, everyone will see them coming and, yes, they’ll have to pay over the odds and yes, he’s kind of important to the side you’ve still got to fancy that they’ll get someone in and their recent track record – Mawson, Carroll, Llorente – isn’t at all bad.

Swansea are very much in the pack that could struggle.  But you fancy they’ll be OK.

Season Preview 2017 – Part 3 09/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.


INS: Kelechi Iheanacho (Manchester City, £25,000,000), Harry Maguire (Hull City, £17,000,000), George Thomas (Coventry City, £500,000), Sam Hughes (Chester City, Undisclosed), Vicente Iborra (Sevilla, Undisclosed), Eldin Jakupović (Hull City, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Ron-Robert Zieler (VfB Stuttgart, £4,000,000), Marcin Wasilewski, Callum Elder (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Bartosz Kapustka (SC Freiburg, Season Loan), Molla Wagué (Udinese, End of Loan)


THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A startling win at the Vic, our first over reigning Champions for 30-odd years, and a miserable, bad-tempered defeat at the KP in the run-in.


2016-17 2-1 0-3
2015-16 0-1 1-2
2013-14 0-3 2-2
2012-13 2-1 2-1 3-1 / 0-1
2011-12 3-2 0-2
2010-11 3-2 2-4
2009-10 3-3
2005-06 1-2 2-2
2004-05 2-2 1-0
2002-03 1-2 0-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1
1995-96 0-1


Simpson       Maguire            Huth             Fuchs
Mahrez                 Ndidi               Iborra              Albrighton
Vardy            Iheanacho

VERDICT: I wonder whether there’s a small part of your average Leicester fan that’s secretly happy about slipping back into the pack.  Not that winning the title wasn’t marvellous and extraordinary but… it’s a bit like going on a lavish holiday and eating great food and seeing wonderful places and actually quite enjoying being back on your sofa with a cup of tea.  I guess.

So what happens this season.  Very much after the Lord Mayor’s Show is the danger of course… no longer Champions, no longer in the Champions’ League, now having to cope with a set of circumstances for which there is no blueprint.  How does a fair to middling club cope with the backdraft of an unexpected and, probably, isolated burst of real success? Harry Maguire looks a good start if I’m any judge, absolutely in the template of big, solid central defenders that Leicester have fielded in recent years.  But you can’t help but worry about Craig Shakespeare…  the story of a popular and highly competent coach replacing an unpopular manager and getting a bounce before dropping like a stone isn’t a new one.  And with Leicester, whilst there should be no danger of them struggling particularly given the impressive capture of Iheanacho, you’d have to worry about how the team, the club would cope with a bad start borne of injuries, bad luck, whatever.  Being cool about no longer contesting the title and sitting in mid-table is one thing.  Being cool about a relegation scrap something else.  Eleventh.  Probably.


INS: Mohamed Salah (Roma, £34,000,000), Andy Robertson (Hull City, Undislcosed), Dominic Solanke (Chelsea, Tribunal)

OUTS: Lucas Leiva (Lazio, £5,000,000), Ryan Fulton (Hamilton, Undisclosed), Kevin Stewart (Hull City, Undisclosed), Andre Wisdom (Derby County, Undisclosed), Tom Brewitt (Middlesbrough, Free), Madger Gomes (Leeds United, Free), Pedro Chirivella (Willem II, Season Loan), Shamal George (Carlisle, Six Month Loan), Connor Randall (Hearts, Season Loan), Alex Manninger

OUR EX-REDS: Jerome Sinclair


RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A humbling at Anfield and a more mundane defeat at Vicarage Road including some odd acrobatics from Emre Can.


2016-17 0-1
2015-16 3-0
2004-05 0-1 / 0-1
1999-00 2-3 1-0
1984-85 3-4
1969-70 1-0
1966-67 1-3


Clyne         Matip       Lovren    Robertson
Henderson              Wijnaldum
Mané                      Coutinho               Lallana

VERDICT: I don’t know whether Jürgen Klopp will ever win the Premier League with Liverpool but he’s already made them halfway likeable so you wouldn’t put anything past him.  The Gegenpressing thing is great of course (unless it’s being done to you in which case nothing is terribly attractive) and in the recruitment of Mo Salah there will be at least one more option with focused pace, meaning that not quite so much relies on Sadio Mané.

But it’s the signing of Andy Robertson that tickles me.  A concentrated review would probably reveal that, actually, Big Clubs make more signings of this ilk than you’d credit but it certainly feels like an anachronism.  Not since the eighties have Liverpool gone shopping in the second tier (OK, recently relegated) for left backs called Andy.  Something is right with the world.

As for Liverpool, the return of the Champions (sic) League might put pressure on a squad that’s reliant on kids in places; they’ll do well to match last season’s finish but might have some fun getting wherever they get to.


INS: Benjamin Mendy (AS Monaco, £49,200,000), Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur, £45,000,000), Bernardo Silva (AS Monaco, £43,000,000), Éderson (Benfica, £34,700,000), Danilo (Real Madrid, £26,900,000), Douglas Luiz (Vasco da Gama, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, £25,000,000), Enes Unal (Villarreal, £12,000,000), Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town, Up to £10,000,000), Nolito (Sevilla, £7,900,000), Aleksandr Kolarov (AS Roma, £4,400,000), Fernando (Galatasaray, Undisclosed), Oliver Ntcham (Celtic, Undisclosed), Rubén Sobrino (Alavés, Undisclosed), Bruno Zucolini (Hellas Verona, Undisclosed), Willy Caballero (Chelsea, Free), Jesús Navas (Sevilla, Free), Pablo Zabaleta (West Ham United, Free), Gaël Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Aleix Garcia (Girona, Season Loan), Angus Gunn (Norwich City, Season Loan), Joe Hart (West Ham United, Season Loan), Rodney Kongolo (Doncaster Rovers, Six Months Loan), Douglas Luiz (Girona, Season Loan), Marlos Moreno (Girona, Season Loan), Ashley Smith-Brown (Hearts, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Costel Pantilimon




2016-17 0-5
2015-16 1-2 0-2
2001-02 1-2 0-3
1996-97 1-3


Kompany      Stones     Otamendi
Walker                  Fernandinho                 Mendy
Silva                           de Bruyne
Agüero             Jesus

VERDICT: You remember how, when you were a kid, old people always complained about how it was all about money “nowadays”, that money was ruining the game?  Wind forward however many years and Man City are spending £120 million on three full-backs.  And there will be kids going, “yeah, whatever”.

The speed of acceleration of transfer fees has got to the point that it’s not remotely possible to evaluate what a player is “worth”.  Not that evaluating a player’s value ever had any meaning when things were a bit more stable but… it’s like what my Gran tells me about queuing for bread in Germany after the war.  You got to the front of the queue, the price had doubled.

City finished third without a goalkeeper, and have bought a very good one AND just spent £120 million on three full-backs.  City will win the League.


INS: Romelu Lukaku (Everton, £75,000,000), Victor Lindelof (Benfica, £31,000,000), Nemanja Matić (Chelsea, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad, £9,800,000), Josh Harrop (Preston North End, Free), Wayne Rooney (Everton, Free), Zlatan Ibrahimović, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson (Leeds United, Season Loan), Dean Henderson (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Sam Johnstone (Aston Villa, Season Loan), Regan Poole (Northampton Town, Season Loan), Devonte Redmond (Scunthorpe United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A stonking, dramatic win early in the season crowned by Troy bootering a penalty decisively past de Gea, and an unremarkable defeat at Old Trafford.


20016-17 3-1
20015-16 1-2  0-1
2006-07 1-2
2001-02 0-3
1999-00 2-3 1-4
1984-85 5-1
1978-79 2-1
1968-69 0-2


De Gea
Valencia      Lindelof       Bailly              Blind
Matić             Herrera
Mkhitaryan               Pogba                          Mata

VERDICT: I don’t know what it is about United that makes me think “oh sod this” every time I get to this stage of the preview.  It’s not that it’s United in particular, not any more…  the time when United were The dominant club is fading in the same direction as Liverpool’s golden era in the eighties.  Perhaps it’s just being halfway through this slog and recognising that there’s not a lot I can tell you that you’ve not read a million times elsewhere.  Lukaku, strength and mobility, check.  Matić letting Pogba play a bit further forward, check.  Back in the Champions League, check.

I quite liked the fact that Mourinho prioritised the UEFA Cup (or whatever it’s called) over the Premier League, even if it was simply as the likeliest avenue to the Champions’ League.  Prioritising, you know, winning a trophy over jostling for position. United have a big enough squad to carry that.  Won’t win the League though.  Third.

Season Preview 2017 – Part 2 08/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.


INS: Alvaro Morata (Real Madrid, £70,000,000), Tiemoué Bakayoko (AS Monaco, £40,000,000), Antonio Rüdiger (AS Roma, £34,000,000), Ethan Ampadu (Exeter City, TBC), Willy Caballero (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Nathan Aké (AFC Bournemouth, £20,000,000), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus, £17,300,000), Asmir Begović (AFC Bournemouth, £10,000,000), Bertrand Traore (Lyon, £8,800,000), Christian Atsu (Newcastle United, £6,200,000), Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford, £5,000,000), Dominic Solanke (Liverpool, Tribunal), Mukhtar Ali (Vitesse Arnhem, Undisclosed), Nemanja Matić (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Alex Kiwomya (Doncaster Rovers, Free), John Terry (Aston Villa, Free), Tammy Abraham (Swansea City, Season Loan), Ike Agbo (Barnsley, Season Loan), Ola Aina (Hull City, Season Loan), Jamal Blackman (Sheffield United, Season Loan), Izzy Brown (Brighton, Season Loan), Fankaty Dabo (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Jay da Silva (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Marco van Ginkel (PSV Eindhoven, Season Loan), Michael Hector (Hull City, Season Loan), Tomáš Kalas (Fulham, Season Loan), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace, Season Loan), Mason Mount (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Huddersfield, Season Loan), Lucas Piazon (Fulham, Season Loan), Kurt Zouma (Stoke City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah


RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two late, late defeats at either end of the season that left us higher on brownie points than the more valuable variety.


2016-17 1-2 3-4
2015-16 0-0
2014-15 0-3
2009-10 0-5
2008-09 1-3
2003-04 2-2 / 0-4
1999-00 1-0 1-2
1981-82 3-0
1969-70 1-5


Cahill                 Luiz             Azpilicueta
Moses      Bakayoko      Kanté         Alonso
Pedro                     Morata                  Hazard

VERDICT: So Chelsea are supposed to be likeable now, goes the theory. Don’t think I’d go quite that far.  There’s still something wrong with the length of that loanee list, albeit it’s something that reflects where football’s at in general rather than a crime perpetrated by Chelsea alone (heaven knows we’d hardly be in a position to criticise anyway).  The State of Chelsea has been thrown into particularly sharp relief by the Chalobah transfer which precipitated a degree of hand-wringing and navel-gazing from Chelsea faithful that was easy to sympathise with.  When you’ve got talent like Chalobah that can’t get in the side… OK, you’re spending vast sums on top young players, great.  But a club wants an identity and at least the illusion of a local grounding, and with Terry, whatever you think of him, out of the door the ongoing failure to bring youngsters through is going to niggle, League Champions or not.

As for this season, the Champions’ League will place a big demand on the squad and in Bakayoko and Morata you have players in key positions who need to work.  They might well do, but it’s a source of uncertainty.  Second for me.


INS: Jairo Riedewald (Ajax, £8,000,000), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Steve Mandanda (Marseille, Undisclosed), Kwesi Appiah (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Fraizer Campbell (Hull City, Free), Zeki Fryers (Barnsley, Free), Mathieu Flamini, Joe Ledley, Randell Williams, Loïc Rémy (Chelsea, End of Loan), Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Adrian Mariappa, Hayden Mullins, Ben Watson

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jordon Mutch, Andros Townsend

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A grimy point on Boxing Day given some lustre by Harry’s post-match performance, and yet another miserable trip to Selhurst.


2016-17 1-1  0-1
2015-16 0-1  1-2
2012-13 2-2 0-1
2011-12 0-2 0-4
2010-11 1-1 2-3
2009-10 1-3
2008-09 2-0 0-0 4-3
2007-08 0-2 2-0 2-0
2005-06 1-2 1-3 0-0 / 3-0
2003-04 1-5 0-1
2002-03 3-3 1-0
2001-02 1-0 2-0
2000-01 2-2 0-1
1998-99 2-1 2-2
1995-96 0-4
1993-94 2-0


Tomkins              Dann            Riedewald
Ward                 Milivojević           Puncheon          Van Aanholt
Zaha                           Benteke                  Townsend

VERDICT: It must have been on the way up to Turf Moor for GT’s last game in 2001.  I don’t remember that, but checking the records it must have been.  “You can’t rely on bloody Portsmouth for anything”, said ig, which was obviously true.  The particular relevance was the preceding Wednesday’s 4-2 defeat to Palace at Fratton Park that had stolen from the world the prospect of Palace dropping into the third tier.

Similarly, last season in which Palace spent a month or so at the beginning of the year in the bottom three feels like a missed opportunity.  Four wins on the hop, including our miserable visit to Selhurst, put pay to that tantalising prospect.  The team always looked far better on paper than a relegation side, which was obviously half the fun… now, Frank de Boer is the wild card and a change in formation and emphasis is an unknown and a risk although, again, we’re not in a position to criticise and have survived such summer revamps before.  The squad looks thin and vulnerable to injuries in particular places, but who knows, in this constipated transfer market perhaps they’ll sign half a dozen players before the end of August.  In the meantime, a prediction of fifteenth with a big margin of error.


INS: Jordan Pickford (Sunderland, £30,000,000), Davy Klaassen (Ajax, £23,500,000), Josh Bowler (Q.P.R., £1,500,000), Nathangelo Markelo (Volendam, Undisclosed), Boris Mathis (Metz, Undisclosed), Henry Onyekuru (Eupen, Undisclosed), Sandro Ramírez (Málaga, Undisclosed), Cuco Martina (Southampton, Free), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United, £75,000,000), Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona, £10,600,000), Tom Cleverley (Watford, £8,000,000), Courtney Duffus (Oldham Athletic, Undisclosed), Aiden McGeady (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Arouna Koné (Sivassspor, Free), Connor McAleney (Fleetwood Town, Free), Josef Yarney (Newcastle United, Free), Jack Bainbridge,  Delial Brewster,  Michael Donohue, Tyrone Duffus, Russell Griffiths, Connor Hunt, James Yates, Tyias Browning (Sunderland, Season Loan), Kieran Dowell (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan), Brendan Galloway (Sunderland, Season Loan), Matthew Pennington (Leeds United, Season Loan), Joe Williams (Barnsley, Season Loan), Enner Valencia (West Ham United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: Tom Cleverley


RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A bullish Okaka-fuelled win at Vicarage Road in December, and an inconspicuous defeat at Goodison in the miserable run-in.


2016-17  3-2
2015-16  1-1 2-2
2006-07 1-2
2000-01 1-2
1999-00 1-3 2-4
1983-84 0-2


Coleman        Williams        Keane            Baines
Gueye          Schneiderlin
Davies                      Rooney                    Mirallas

VERDICT: The thing about Everton this season is a subtle change in lighting.  Seventh last season, very comfortably better than the morass behind them but ultimately eight points short of United in sixth, further than we were from Saints in eighth.  In a League of their own then, quite literally, very much the best of the rest after Leicester’s insubordination of 2015/16.

So in the meantime a few things have happened.  Romelu Lukaku has gone…  a huge loss, a reliable source of goals and the fulcrum of the attacking play.  On the flipside a huge amount of money has been spent on players very early in the window.  Keane and the extraordinary Pickford look good signings, Klaassen and Sandro less known quantities, Rooney could be brilliant or not, plausibly.  A revamp that was needed with an ageing senior squad, albeit there are a number of good kids pushing on too.

The thing is.  The thing is you look at it, and it’s still a team that you’d put odds-on to finish seventh.  And maybe that’s reasonable, maybe you say “you’ve lost your main man, your squad’s getting older, you’ve traded well and broken even, you’re still where you were”.  But the lighting’s different.  The loss of Lukaku will more readily be forgotten than the fact that £30m was spent on a talented but emerging goalkeeper.  Seventh, but the pressure will be on.


INS: Steve Mounié (Montpellier, £11,000,000), Aaron Mooy (Manchester City, up to £10,000,000), Laurent Depoitre (Porto, Undisclosed), Tom Ince (Derby County, Undisclosed), Mathias Jørgensen (Copenhagen, Undisclosed), Scott Malone (Fulham Undisclosed), Danny Williams (Reading, Free), Jonas Lössl (Mainz 05, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Harry Bunn (Bury, Undisclosed), Tareiq Holmes-Dennis (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Jack Payne (Oxford United, Season Loan), Isaiah Brown (Chelsea, End of Loan), Danny Ward (Liverpool, End of Loan)


THEIR EX-ORNS: Leigh Bromby (U18 manager), Jonathan Hogg, Julian Winter (CEO)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-2 win at the Vic in Beppe Sannino’s last game in charge, and a rare off day in the burn-in towards promotion as the Terriers won 3-1 in Yorkshire.


2014-15 4-2
2013-14 1-4
2012-13 4-0 3-2
2000-01 1-2 2-1
1998-99 1-1 0-2


Smith               Hefele         Schindler          Löwe
Hogg          Billing
Ince                             Palmer                  van la Parra

VERDICT: What’s not to like, really?  An unglamorous side propelled into the top flight on the back of a work-your-nuts-off pressing style epitomised by Jonathan Hogg in the middle of the park.  Four years since he left Vicarage Road his departure remains something of an anomaly… he didn’t exactly move on to better things, a bigger club, but nor was he jettisoned because he wasn’t good enough.  Indeed, leaving as he did when he did on the back of an easy-to-sympathise-with desire to move closer to his family left him with that unusual veneer in an ex-player, neither discarding us nor being discarded.

His role in That goal against Leicester, an expertly judged far-post cushioned header cements his place in our history but really there was lots more than that.  An inexhaustible energy and a miserliness with possession, especially in tight corners, endeared him for two years and his tag team with Chalobah and Almen Abdi was the most convincing, well-balanced midfield three we’ve seen at Vicarage Road in fielding that formation.  If, as is argued on Huddersfield messageboards, he’s the defining member of the team there’s going to be lots to like.

But how well they do is kinda hard to judge;  a defence made in Germany got them promoted, but not having seen much of them it’s difficult to assess how well equipped they are for the top flight.  By default you’d be concerned about a side that didn’t perhaps expect to get promoted coming up in the play-offs, and Tom Ince is hardly a talisman for successful Premier League sides, a signing that shrieks of scraping the barrel before the season’s started.  Nonetheless, Town have acted decisively and quickly in revamping their squad which gives them a chance, and a club that has honoured a commitment to charge long-term season ticket holders a mere £100 for their Season Ticket this term is one you’d hope will do well.

Season Preview 2017 – Part 1 07/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
add a comment

Four today.  Four tomorrow.  And so on…


INS: Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon, £52,000,000), Sead Kolašinac (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Kaylen Hinds (VfL Wolfsburg, Undisclosed), Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus, Undisclosed), Chris Willock (Benfica, Undisclosed), Stefan O’Connor (Newcastle United, Free), Yaya Sanogo (Toulouse, Free), Kristopher da Graca, Kostas Pileas, Takuma Asano (VfB Stuttgart, Season Loan), Mark Bola (Bristol Rovers, Season Loan), Steve Mavididi (Preston North End, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A humbling first half in August given ample silver lining by Roberto Pereyra’s second half debut, and a stonking win at the Emirates in January that secured our final away points of the season.


2016-17 1-3 2-1
2015-16 0-3 2-1
2001-02 2-4
1999-00 2-3 0-1
1986-87 3-1


Koscielny        Holding        Mustafi
Bellerín              Xhaka           Ramsey                 Monreal
Özil                     Lacazette                 Sanchez

VERDICT: It must be bloody pergatory to be an Arsenal fan at the moment.

And I’m not talking about the hand-wringing, the sense of entitlement and so forth.  Fans of most clubs are guilty of that in the right circumstances and as entertaining as it is from the outside you also have to pity the silent element of the Arsenal support who have to tolerate the nonsense that emerges from empty vessels and the easy target it makes their side.

You could take solace in the siege mentality that such things tends to invoke, except that if there’s precious little evidence of Arsenal fans being “as one”.  The Wenger thing, whatever your views and however little of a damn you give as an outsider is horribly divisive.  Such cursory “research” as I do for these pieces, flicking through forums and so on, evidences deeply entrenched and extreme positions.  I hate such situations as a Watford fan, things that split the support and have people turning on each other.  The illusion of harmony, of all being in it together on the same side, is one of the things I cherish about being at football.

And then there’s the Sanchez thing.  Good grief.  If I have to read one more piece about PSGorManCityorBayern… Sanchez expected to stay!  Sanchez expected to leave!  500k a week!…  and I don’t even give a damn.  Imagine if you did.

It occurred to me that Arsenal have emerged into almost the mirror image of George Graham’s notorious side.  That side was rugged, brutally pragmatic, solid, successful.  This side is flamboyant, flimsy, rudderless…  they’ll still be fine, obvs, although as United have found Not Being In The Champions League doesn’t provide big sides with a passport back automatically.  My guess would be a similar season on the edge of the Champions League places.


INS: Nathan Aké (Chelsea, £20,000,000), Asmir Begović (Chelsea, £10,000,000), Connor Mahoney (Blackburn Rovers, Compensation TBC), Jermain Defoe (Sunderland, Free)

OUTS: Ryan Allsop (Blackpool, Season Loan), Callum Buckley, Jake McCarthy, Matt Neale, Lewis Grabban (Sunderland, Season Loan), Jordan Lee (Torquay United, Season Loan), Ben Whitfield (Port Vale, Six Month Loan)


THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Carl Fletcher (Youth Team Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of two all draws in both of which the home side twice came from behind. And no red cards.


2016-17 2-2
2015-16 1-1  1-1
2014-15 1-1
2013-14 6-1 2-0
2003-04 1-0
1997-98 2-1 1-0
1996-97 0-1 2-1
1995-96 1-1


Francis            Cook               Aké            Daniels
Fraser               Arter                    Surman          Stanislas
King             Afobe

VERDICT: Two years on, that game against Sheffield Wednesday is still going to take some getting over.  It’s a scar.  Bournemouth weren’t even playing.  So… as we intimated last year it’s difficult to consider the Cherries without twitching.  We’re the ones with the problem, it’s not a rational thing. It’s just there.

So.  The Premier League now boasts Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Burnley, Brighton, Swansea, Watford.  In 1992/93, the first season of the Premier League, we finished the highest of the sixth, an unspectacular sixteenth in the second tier.  The other five were in the third, as were the then perhaps underperforming Stoke and West Brom and seven other sides to have since played in the top flight.  As we’ve discussed often, whilst part of the supposed premise of the Premier League was to benefit the national team a big part of the incentive was conservatism;  hiving off a bigger share of the money was an obvious attraction in the short term but an “anti-competitive” barrier to entry in the longer term.  Harder for oiks like Watford, Wimbledon, Swansea to muscle in if they’ve a big salary gap to make up on promotion.  The same goes for the Champions League.  Gratifying that whatever good and bad has come out of the development the wholly undesirable casting adrift of the Football League hasn’t happened.

Bournemouth, then.  Ninth place last season might be… if not flattering then a little deceptive.  As we know six points separated eighth from seventeenth, the Cherries were one of very many kinda samey kinda decent on a good day of which there were just about enough sides in the bottom half of the table.  Nonetheless, a half-decent side that has supplemented itself with a strong spine over the summer in Begović, Aké and Defoe.  It will be tough for Eddie Howe to maintain his record of improving on the side’s position in every season since his return to the club in 2012, but safely in the morass again is the worst they should expect.  Twelfth.


INS: Pascal Gross (Ingolstadt, Undisclosed), Josh Kerr (Celtic, Undisclosed), Aleš Matějů (Viktoria Plzeň, Undisclosed),  Mathias Normann (FK Bodø/Glimt, Undisclosed), Mathew Ryan (Valencia, Undisclosed), Markus Suttner (Ingolstadt, Undisclosed), Izzy Brown (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Rob Hunt (Oldham Athletic, Undisclosed), Elvis Manu (Gençlerbirliği, Free), Vegard Forren, Tom Dallison (Accrington Stanley, Six Month Loan), Tyler Forbes (Accrington Stanley, Six Month Loan), Oliver Norwood (Fulham, Season Loan), Christian Walton (Wigam Athletic, Season Loan), Sam Adekugbe (Vancouver Whitecaps, End of Loan), Chuba Akpom (Arsenal, End of Loan), Sebastian Pocognoli (West Bromwich Albion, End of Loan), Fikayo Tomori (Chelsea, End of Loan)



RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A mundane draw at Vicarage Road and a rather less mundane afternoon in Sussex that launched several thousand hangovers.


2014-15 1-1 2-0
2012-13 0-1
2011-12 1-0 2-2
2010-11 0-1
2005-06 1-1 1-0
2004-05 1-1 1-2
2002-03 1-0 0-4


Bruno              Dunk         Duffy             Suttner
Knockaert      Stephens         Gross        March

VERDICT: Brighton getting up, finally, is brilliant.  That’s the first thing.  Not just how close they came to oblivion, there but for the grace of, you know… not just that they survived exploitative owners, playing bloody miles away in Gillingham, playing at an athletics stadium.  That’s all great.

But then as they’ve come back up…  every club has idiots of course, and in any game a tackle, a decision, can cause friction.  But generally going to the Amex has been a joy, an absolute pleasure.  Watford-coloured lightbulbs, welcoming stewards and posters in the away end “before that was a thing”, as the current parlance goes.  Some good games and results there haven’t hurt of course, two wins and two draws in four visits… crowned by that game two years ago.  The last game against Wednesday was an anticlimax, but the Brighton game was the zenith of the season crowned by Vydra’s “we’ve only gone and bloody done it” goal that echoed Allan Smart’s 1999 goal at Wembley in all but that it took a few hours for stuff to be confirmed.   Bit of a shame that they come to us on the August Bank Holiday and we go to them just before Christmas rather than vice versa.

As for this season…  always difficult to assess how well a promoted side might do without having seen much of them, or paid as much attention as we might traditionally have done. However whilst the forums are pragmatic and “look where we’ve come from” prevails the most optimistic aren’t saying more than “we’ll be competitive and have a chance”.  The concern for me looks to be that whilst defensively they might be sound – though keeper Ryan, reputation or otherwise, must be a bit of a risk – and they’ll be competitive in midfield they will struggle for goals.  There’s more verve in this side than in Middlesbrough’s last season, say, but they might suffer from the same problems ultimately.  Got to be relegation candidates, though it’s a fairly open field.


INS: Jack Cork (Swansea City, up to £10,000,000), Phil Bardsley (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Charlie Taylor (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Jonathan Walters (Stoke City, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Michael Keane (Everton, up to £30,000,000), Tendayi Darikwa (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), George Boyd (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Rouwen Hennings (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Free), Michael Kightly (Southend United, Free), Joey Barton, Paul Robinson, Brad Jackson (Southport, Season Loan), Aiden O’Neill (Fleetwood Town, Season Loan), Alex Whitmore (Bury, Six Month Loan), Jon Flanagan (End of Loan)

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Cork, Sean Dyche (Manager), Tony Loughlan (First Team Coach), Ian Woan (Assistant Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A demoralising capitulation at Turf Moor that stopped anyone getting too carried away with preceding wins over West Ham and Manchester United, and an important home win in which M’baye Niang’s flame was set to “on”.


2016-17 2-1 0-2
2013-14 1-1
2012-13 3-3
2011-12 3-2 2-2
2010-11 1-3
2008-09 3-0 0-4
2007-08 1-2
2005-06 3-1 1-4
2004-05 0-1 1-3
2003-04 1-1 3-2
2002-03 2-1 7-4  2-0
2001-02 1-2 0-1
2000-01 0-1 0-2
1997-98 1-0 0-2
1996-97 2-2 1-4


Lowton            Tarkowski                Mee                  Ward
Gudmundsson    Cork             Hendrick             Brady
Vokes            Gray

VERDICT: The Sean Dyche season feels like a lifetime ago.  Actually it was six years ago which sort of seems oddly distant at the same time.  The recipe then, in the end, when it got going, was tough-as-old-boots experience – Nosworthy, Taylor, Iwelumo, John Eustace – supplemented by a bit of magic dust.  My brother missed the second half of that season and has never accepted my version of quite how good Sean Murray was, how he grabbed the plaform he was given and danced all over it.  He’s seen the wistful, not-quite-fittingness that followed and, not having seen what went before, has been irritated rather than disappointed by it.

So anyway.  Tough as old boots.  Incoming: Jon Walters, Phil Bardsley… check, check.  Burnley must be a lot of fun to support, in a backs to the wall, all in it together kind of way.  Magic dust…  not so much, maybe, but enough.  Probably.  At the time of writing the squad is deeper than last season, and has more experience but there’s a Michael Keane-sized hole in the middle of the defence and the wide options in particular look flaky.

Not top of your list of Clubs To Get Relegated.  But certainly in the frame if the breaks go against them.

Watford 0 Real Sociedad 0 (05/08/2017) 06/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
add a comment

1- First and foremost, we’re here for GT. There’s yellow everywhere, including in the Rookery where, if the donated tributes get a bit lost the sentiment is evident and a mighty GT banner dominates. And that’s the theme really… what’s important is not the substance, not the what, but the motivation behind it.  Everyone… club, supporters, guests… want to do this justice.  So there’s all sorts of entertainment going on behind the Rookery by all accounts – and whilst I grouchily resent not being allowed to sit in my seat, let alone my stand for any fixture on this occasion allowances must be made.

Motty’s on the pitch before the game giving a very Motty tribute, heartfelt and verbose.  At half time there’s a fine parade of those who played under or worked with GT, plus Rod Thomas, a little perplexingly, who signed as a trainee the summer that GT left and was long gone by the time he came back.  An injury means that his circuit of the pitch is by far the longest…. the highlight of the parade is the appearance of Jan Lohman, looking exactly like Jan Lohman ought to look at 58, wild hair and all.

Hell, even ig is here to join in with the manifold rounds of ovation and applause.  He stands up until kick off, of course, in the rather claustrophobic Upper GT stand… when challenged about whether good luck rituals have any place in pre-season friendlies he mutters something about injuries.

2- There’s a debutant, too, blessed with all the enthusiasm and lack of cynicism you’d hope an expect from a younger member of the squad. Discussions regarding his potential inclusion during the week covered his stamina, his ability to cope with the big occasion, the risk of a premature debut ruining a burgeoning career.  The selectors are all old enough to remember Gary Fitzgerald.  In the end the head of the selection panel, my brother and Jacob’s father, adopts the strategy of shovelling chocolate down him regularly in a shameless attempt to foster association between being at the football and having fun.  Not four until November, Jacob makes a hugely encouraging debut the highlight of which being several second half bellows of “Yoooorns” from the front row of the upper tier in defiance of pre-season friendly protocol and the lack of justification for such exuberance emanatig from the pitch.  You’ll notice that, two thunks in, I haven’t mentioned the actual football yet.

3- Because it’s rubbish.  Or rather…  it’s rubbish in many respects, entertainment value being high on the list of said respects.  Sociedad may not have been the most obvious opponent for this GT-themed encounter but they’re a tidy side (and, it should be noted with thanks, played a low key, patient and accommodating role in the afternoon’s commemorations including skipper Xabi Prieto warmly greeting Rita Taylor during the post match trophy presentation.  We all wanted to go home by that point so I don’t doubt he did).  Reassuringly, it’s Dad who makes the mistake of asking where exactly Sociedad is…  they’re much the stronger side in this first half in which our defence, three-quarters rebuilt since Villa Park, holds out rather well.  Miguel Britos in particular looks more composed than he has done in competitive action for a while and behind them Heurelho Gomes is mostly alert and defiant, one exception being a bouncing ball catching him out before a linesman’s flag came to the rescue.

But it feels like a song to which we’ve learned the verse but have yet to master the chorus (and for which precious few sympathy points will be awarded for “giving it a go”, to extend the metaphor).  In the final third we have no conviction and no cutting edge;  as is Marco Silva’s trademark the wide men get a lot of the ball but next to nothing makes its way to Sinclair, who for all his energy isn’t much of a target anyway.  Roberto Pereyra is by some distance our best hope of making something happen, aggressive as well as deft and furiously purposeful in possession and with license to wander around but there’s not enough going on around him to disrupt a disciplined Sociedad rearguard and he’s visibly wound up before half an hour has passed.  Those much vaunted attacking options that are supposed to be incoming will be welcomed by the Argentine as much as anyone.

4- The second half is better in that we at least register a couple of shots.  Roberto Pereyra executes the first, a trademark cut inside and curling, dipping effort that skims the far post.  Later, the frustratingly tentative Nordin Amrabat breaks mould and clubs an optimistic but venomous drive straight at Rulli from 25 yards.  Tom Cleverley, who rather falls between two stools in this formation and doesn’t flourish “in the hole” on this occasion, is on the end of a good early move that sees him through on goal but seems to let the ball run away from him.  It’s not a lot, but it’s something which is progress.

We make nine replacements during the course of the half; Stefano Okaka’s position on the bench, as reported elsewhere, is to protect him from risk of injury as we build up to Liverpool.  He seems quite well suited to this formation to me given his ability to hold the ball up, his willingness to chase down defenders, and particularly his adeptness at attacking the near post.  This he does as another sub, Femenía, makes a break to the touchline and slips a ball across.  It’s the closest we come, if not to scoring then certainly to raising blood pressure a little. The closest to scoring comes when Okaka puts a header into the net from an Amrabat cross; the diffusion of celebration caused by the offside flag less noticeable in the more restrained pre-season atmosphere meaning that some of us, um, don’t realise for a while that it has been disallowed.

Elsewhere Doucouré, who’s been the better of the double-act at the back of midfield on this occasion, makes way for Capoue and we lose something straight away, Doucouré perhaps better suited to this job.  Ben Watson comes on for Chalobah – we joke that you half feel he’d be less out of place in the half-time parade, so remote does his Watford career seem, but it’s good to have him back involved and he puts in a peach of a cross for Success, who’s had a stinker of a cameo, to shovel over the bar from close range.

5- So a game to be viewed through two lenses.  As preparation for Liverpool the kindest thing you can say is that some of it looks alright but you wouldn’t expect Joël Matip et al to be quaking in their boots.  This doesn’t look like a humming machine, not yet, but let’s see what competitive action does.

The other aspect is as a celebration, a tribute to a truly special man.  There’s no value in repeating words that we’ve written many times on this site and the other one.  You all know the score, and nothing should need further explanation.

Thank you GT.


Aston Villa 0 Watford 0 (29/07/2017) 30/07/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- At ten to two we’re waiting outside the Trinity Road Stand.  The girls are radiating Watfordness in their luminous new home shirts, our allegiances visible from a distance of a hundred metres.  We’re waiting for Andy.  Andy, Andy’s wife, Andy’s kids, Andy’s sister’s kids.

I haven’t seen Andy for eighteen years.  We were at Uni together in the early nineties, at a time when his Villa side threatened to win the League.  It was also a time when GT was England boss, and Andy and I represented the two camps staunchly, reliably behind the main man.  Many a word was exchanged in the pubs of Leeds with the less well-informed of his calibre;  it’s good to see him and seems fitting that we’re meeting up again today.  As we wait another Villa fan approaches, shakes my hand;  “Nice day for it mate.  He’s up there, smiling down on us”.  Off the pitch, at any rate, and whatever the unfortunate dilution of the tribute by virtue of the necessary shifting of the game to the West Midlands and running a second GT game next week, off the pitch this is a friendly game in every respect.

2- Pre-season friendlies, then.  An opportunity to get back into the swing, and a time to examine every aspect of the afternoon for clues, indications, suggestions of what’s to come.  Particularly this summer with the transfer market so constipated, what’s to be read into the selection?

There are plenty of names missing, for one thing.  Étienne Capoue is a significant absentee given reports of a bust up with Silva.  Also missing are Britos, Janmaat, Holebas, Behrami…  Berghuis too, least surprisingly.  And Troy, although the skipper makes a conspicuous entrance to the away “end” shortly before half-time to raucous acknowledgement and runs the gauntlet of autographs and selfies to the top of the stand.  Also – perhaps – significant is that whilst squad numbers appear to be informally enforced – Chalobah at 14, Will Hughes at 18 – Brandon Mason runs out in 6, begging a question of another absentee, Adrian Mariappa.

3- We’re absolutely bloody dreadful for at least fifteen minutes.  Villa run at us and Gabby Agbonlahor almost stops to check that he hasn’t missed a flag as he skates through unattended demanding rearguard action from Heurelho Gomes.  That’s the story of this opening period, the Hornets amble around walking into each other, the home side get plenty of the ball and Elmohamady, Green and Grealish are sending balls across the box.  We’re reliant on inviduals to dig us out, and often it’s Younès Kaboul doing the digging – visibly more comfortable in a back four than a three last year it would be no surprise to see the Frenchman a nailed down starter this time.

Meanwhile Roberto Pereyra is starting a game for the first time since before Christmas, and if there’s the occasional touch that’s just slightly heavy, the odd pass slightly overhit he’s still an absolute joy for the most part, that blend of awareness and guile and verve and belligerence that we’ve missed.  We briefly thought we’d be missing it all over again; he’s down after a heavy tackle early on and within ten minutes there’s a board up.  Colin, over my shoulder, and I exchange dark glances both having seen 37 and feared the worst… no offence to Christian Kabasele, 27, but Seb Prödl running on to form a no-messing centre-back pairing with Kaboul was something of a relief.

4- Villa have been a train wreck for about five years.  Andy is very clear on the subject.  There’s no mistaking the strategy for this season though: In have come Glenn Whelan, Ahmed Elmohamady and Chris Samba to supplement an experienced squad already boasting Alan Hutton, Neil Taylor, Gabby Agbonlahor, Mile Jedinak.

And then there’s Terry. Whilst neutral fans will be quite comfortable with not having John Terry in their side it’s not difficult to understand how Villa fans have quickly reconciled themselves to the situation. He’s a bastard, but he’s their bastard and it’s quickly evident that, albeit in this pre-season friendly, he’s bringing a leadership and an authority to the Villa backline.

Villa’s strategy is not a long-term plan, it’s kind of shit-or-bust but you do fancy that a large support desperate for their side to be anything but bloody awful will quickly mobilise behind any suggestion of a promotion push and propel it onwards. You wouldn’t bet against it.

5- Daughter one has expressed disappointment that we don’t get to see Troy against John Terry; instead, the lone striker role goes to Jerome Sinclair. He doesn’t seem obviously suited to the task but you can understand Silva’s desire to not overrun our one fit striker and to look at alternatives, albeit we assume another striker is on the shopping list.

Sinclair struggles; his pace is an asset and gets him into a couple of good positions but he spoons an effort when through on goal in the first half and looks far too tentative when half-chances present themselves. He’s much happier when second half changes see him pull out to the right flank; by then he’s had an entertaining encounter with Terry which has seen him pile into his adversary in going for a high ball just after the break. One assumes that this was in response to entreaties to “put himself about”; it’s probably a foul but Terry wins the header anyway. As both land Sinclair nervously extends a hand of apology to Terry only to notice that the defender gives not even a little bit of a damn about the challenge and is already getting on with the game.

6- The second half is much better than the first from our point of view. Indeed the first half is better than previously related as soon as we calm down a bit and start putting our foot on the ball. Doucouré and Chalobah seem nailed on for the two at the back of the midfield, assuming Silva goes with that formation. Both increase their influence as the half progresses and by the second half Chalobah is in charge, swaying into space and wrong footing the stadium more than once. Significant in the changes from half time onwards are the introductions of Hughes, Femenia and Success. Will Hughes looks great, clever and impish and composed. The full-back’s defensive qualities aren’t examined but there’s no question he’s an attacking weapon, overlapping at pace and getting good balls in from the by-line.

Success, replacing Pereyra on the left flank at the break, is more erratic once reacting angrily to a heavy challenge, sometimes making bad decisions but also responsible for our two best moves of the half. He pulls centrally to the edge of the box and holds off aggressive attention whilst retaining the awareness and composure to spot and execute a brilliant pass to the overlapping Femenia. Femenia puts the ball across and Success meets it, forcing Jed Steer into his most significant stop of the game. Later, from a similar position and again under pressure Success dinks a lovely pass through for Sinclair but just gives it slightly too much. There’s an outstanding player in there somewhere trying to break out.

7- Which isn’t to say that everything’s hunky dory. Villa have also threatened; Kaboul gives away a penalty which Gomes saves diving to his left; opinions differ on this, Dad reporting from Youtube that it’s a decent pen and a good stop, Andy sending grumbles from the Holte suggesting not quite as much credit to taker or keeper. Later, sub Jordan Amavi really ought to seal the game attacking a cross at the left hand post but bizarrely the left back opts for his right foot and slices wide. The denouement to the game sees a heavyweight confrontation between subs Samba and Okaka; Samba has the height, Okaka the girth and they end up bruised but on even par.

There’s stuff to be positive about; encouraging outings from the newbies and some verve and flow to our play once we got going. Kaboul and Prödl look sound and Gomes does great with what he has to do. There are holes too, and unanswered questions. The next few weeks could be quite revealing. Watch this space.


End of Term Report Part 7 19/06/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

33 – Stefano Okaka

There’s something wonderfully uncomplicated about Stefano.  Whilst the cult status suggested by his marvellous cameo debut at West Ham was never quite fulfilled thereafter we’ve nonetheless been able to rely on him for bullying and battering duties throughout.

If he’s not yet convinced everybody, it’s worth bearing in mind that he’s a victim of circumstances to an extent.  We look at Troy’s season and allow for the lack of creativity and supply for much of the campaign;  Stefano was feeding off the same scraps.  Similarly, whilst he began the season as one of a number of attacking weapons the sale of Ighalo left us with few options – and little variety – up front.

Next Season: Okaka is strong with his back to goal and attacks the near post well;  as one of a range of options – or given a more reliable supply – he’ll be an asset.

37 – Roberto Pereyra

That was the “oh for f***’s sake” moment of the season.  There were lots of them, obviously… any number of injuries, goals conceded and flimsy defeats in the tail of the season.  But this was the one, on any number of levels.  You can look at it from the point of view of him being increasingly the component of the midfield that allowed everything to flow.  Or you can look at it from the point of view of, as a supporter of a club with short-term aspirations of mid-table at best, one of the reasons to get excited about coming to the game.  Either way the innocuous but costly injury at Man City in December was a downer.

He’s tougher than I expected.  You sign an midfielder from Juventus (Juventus!) for a record or close-to-record fee and you kind of expect the silky touch and the awareness.  They’re great, but they’re a given or should be.  The industry, the willingness to get a foot in were an attractive bonus… even if it was the loss of that touch and awareness that penalised the rest of our season.

Next Season: Omitting him from the squad despite his anticipated fitness in April was a no-brainer, but we can expect to see him ready to go on August 12th.  Like a new signing, as the saying goes.

Walter Mazzarri

I’m sure you’ve all had the jokes.  I try to get in first now… “well, it was about time.  I’m scheduled in for a turn in March I think…”.

But it was the right decision.  I don’t think those – the majority? – who thought that way are being blasé, educated to be callous about changes in head coach by the last few seasons.  Or rather… perhaps we are, but this isn’t evidence of it.  Mazzarri leaving was the right thing for the club anyway.

The connection with the supporters is one obvious thing.  It’s not enough on its own, clearly, nobody would have been complaining if his detached manner had been paired with exciting football and good results.  I’d argue that Slaviša Jokanović wasn’t significantly stronger in this department.  The difference was that firstly, he tried… this shows that unlike Mazzarri he either saw it as important and/or was sensible enough to be taking advice from those inside the club who would surely have been emphasising that this was a good idea. Neither was true of Mazzarri.  Secondly, Jokanović didn’t come out with complete bollocks after a defeat;  it helped that there weren’t many of them, obviously… but when we were poor he said we were poor.  Mazzarri was credited with all sorts of fanciful nonsense after a defeat and in doing so, inadvertently, echoed Gianluca Vialli. Not a good thing.

You can look at the fact that we stayed up and say “well that ought to be enough for Watford”.  Even if you accept that, however, retaining a head coach isn’t about what’s just happened, it’s about where it’s going.  The most telling damnation of Mazzarri’s management was the utter lack of buy in on the pitch from players who looked, to varying degrees, demoralised, unconvinced and frustrated.  Staying up last season didn’t come with a good feeling about how the next was going to go.

There were good results, obviously.  Moments that suggested that he had something… I don’t think he lost the majority until well after Christmas.  The thing is, those results… Manchester United, Leicester, West Ham, Arsenal…. betrayed something else, something that the vacuous, lazy commentary of pundits paid for unresearched opinions rarely acknowledged or suggested awareness of.  That this was the best squad Watford have ever had.  Yes, the benchmark has changed, it’s a competitive division and we’ve only rarely been in the top flight during the era when large multi-national squads have been the thing… nonetheless.  This was a squad that shouldn’t have been looking over its shoulder in April.

The injuries didn’t help, obviously.  We’ll never know quite what he might have achieved with a more reasonable hand – not just fewer injuries, but a less systematic targeting of areas of the squad simultaneously, culminating in the ludicrous Manchester City fiasco when six centre-backs were unavailable.  The flipside of that of course is the frequent suggestion that Mazzarri’s training regime was a root cause of these problems, and certainly the long list of strains and pulls are the sort of thing that are famously “preventable”.

One mark in Walter’s favour, as we’ve already highlighted in this series, was his willingness to involve young players, and not just when forced to pitch them into the first team but throughout the season.  Some welcome long-termness there, nobody’s going to argue against that as a strategy.  Ultimately however there was just much too much in the “against” column and not nearly enough reasons to believe.  Having seen the common purpose which Marco Silva had instilled into what ought to have been a basket case of a club when we went up to the KC Stadium in April, it’s difficult not to be positive about the coming season.  This wouldn’t have been the case had the change of management not happened.

Next Season: Mazzarri, it has been reported, wants to stay in England.  One can only hope that his interpreter has good interview style, for his sake.