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Season Preview – Part 2 04/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Mondays, eh?  Four more, four more tomorrow.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Callum Wilson (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Dan Gosling (Newcastle United, Free), Junior Stanislas (Burnley, Free)

OUTSLewis Grabban (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Shwan Jilal (Bury, Free), Ryan Allsopp (Coventry City, Six Month Loan), Mohamed Coulibaly (Coventry City, Season Loan), Matt Tubbs (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Andrew Surman (Norwich City, End of Loan), Richard Hughes (retired)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A deceptively comprehensive 6-1 mauling last August in which Troy Deeney scored the first WFC hat-trick at Vicarage Road since 1996/97, a routine League Cup win a couple of weeks later and a 1-1 draw at Dean Court that saw Gabriele Angella dismissed.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Camp
Francis             Elphick          Cook         Daniels
Ritchie            Gosling        O’Kane           Pugh
Wilson     Kermorgant

VERDICT: After a bit of a wobble towards the end of 2013 the Cherries finished the season strongly, landing up in an encouraging tenth spot.  Another strong season then for a side that, from the outside, looks upwardly mobile.  Hereby hangs the challenge perhaps… after two seasons of success and optimism, how will the Cherries cope if their progress stalls a little?  There are challenges there…  the loss of Lewis Grabban was perhaps inevitable, in Callum Wilson Eddie Howe seems to have procured a sensible replacement but the newcomer will be doing well if he matches Grabban’s contribution and as such tenth might be an upper bar on the team’s aspirations this season.  That and second season syndrome, with teams no longer as surprised by the stiffness of the challenge from Dean Court (or whatever), might test the character as much as the ability of the Dorset side.  Little doubt about the former though, and if the Cherries might find themselves a rung or two further down the table than last season they’re far too good to be involved in any nonsense down the bottom.  Twelfth.

BRENTFORD

INS: Scott Hogan (Rochdale, £750,000), Andre Gray (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Alan Judge (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Moses Odubajo (Leyton Orient, Undisclosed), Daniel O’Shaughnessy (Metz, Free), Marcos Tébar Ramiro (Almeria, Free), Alex Pritchard (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTSClayton Donaldson (Birmingham City, Free), Farid El Alagui (Hibernian, Free), Shaleum Logan (Aberdeen, Free), Luke Norris (Gillingham, Free), Liam O’Brien (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Scott Barron, Will Grigg (Franchise FC, Season Loan), Martin Fillo (Vikoria Plzen, End of Loan), George Saville (Chelsea, End of Loan), Marcello Trotta (Fulham, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Bonham, Toumani Diagouraga, Richard Lee, Bob Oteng (kit man), Mark Warburton (manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A brace of victories in our successful 1997/98 season comprising a 3-1 victory at Vicarage Road in which Lars Melvang scored, and a noisy, dramatic 2-1 triumph at Griffin Park that featured one of those Johnno goals.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Button
O’Connor             Tarkowski          Craig          Bidwell
Odubajo       Douglas         Forshaw           Judge
Hogan       Gray

VERDICT: It’s been a while since we’ve faced Brentford competitively, albeit plenty of ex-Orns have passed through Griffin Park in recent years.  It seems unlikely that many of the Bees’ current crop of former Hornets will be regular first choices next season however, and as ever with newly promoted sides it’s difficult to judge quite how well they’ll do – both based on lack of familiarity with the players, and on not knowing how they’ll make the step up.  There’s a lot to be said for a club that responds as positively as the Bees did to what must have been choking disappointment eighteen months ago as one of those ex-Hornets, Marcello Trotta, hit what would have been a title-winning penalty against the crossbar in the dying seconds of the regular season only to see Doncaster escape downfield, claim the title and condemn Brentford to the play-offs (in which they lost).  We had a similar disappointment and saw at first hand the impact that it can have.  So… the Bees aren’t to be taken lightly;  consensus is that there’s a lot of pace about the side and a few gems in the likes of Bidwell, Tarkowski and Forshaw (should the Bees resist former manager Rösler’s advances).  There’s not an awful lot of higher level experience however, and that might cost the Bees, particularly up front where the loss of Donaldson means upheaval.  Brentford should stay up, but not much more.  That would do, one suspects.  Nineteenth.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Chris O’Grady (Barnsley, Undisclosed), David Stockdale (Fulham, Undisclosed), Aaron Hughes (QPR, Free), Nzuki Toko (Grasshoppers, Free)

OUTS: Leonardo Ulloa (Leicester City, £7,000,000), Matthew Upson (Leicester City, Free), Peter Brezovan, Will Hoskins, Tomasz Kuszczak, David Lopez, Andreas Orlandi, David Rodriguez, Jeffrey Monakana (Aberdeen, Six Month Loan), Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan), Jesse Lingaard (Manchester United, End of Loan), Stephen Ward (Wolverhampton Wanderers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Will Buckley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A televised draw at the Amex in October, and a 2-0 victory at Vicarage Road which saw the debuts of Park Chu Young and Samba Diakité…

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stockdale
Bruno            Greer           Dunk         Chicksen
Toko       Crofts
Lua Lua            Ince           Buckley
O’Grady

VERDICT: Brighton made the play-offs last season.  Easily forgotten, since it was purely a function of being closest to the last chair when the music stopped – in stark contrast to a year earlier when Albion had indisputably been one of the top six sides in the division.  This time they were merely the best of a bunch of very similar sides, deserving sixth place by virtue of the accrual of more points than all but five others in the division, but interloping fifth formers at a sixth form party and soon heading home with their tails suitably between their legs, pissed on half a can of supermarket lager.  Out goes Oscar Garcia, in comes Sami Hyypia.  Out go Leo Ulloa and Matthew Upson, both to Leicester, Tomasz Kuszczak, and Gus Poyet’s army of Spaniards.  In came… to date, Chris O’Grady and Aaron Hughes (edit… and David Stockdale.  Still trading down tho for me…).  You can see where this is heading.  For all that Albion made the play-offs they didn’t score a lot of goals – only six in the division scored fewer and nobody above 17th. Now minus Ulloa Albion’s goal threat looks very limited.  Nor, for all Hyypia’s pedigree as an on-pitch leader for Liverpool and Finland does the new boss have  a great track record to fall back on – initially the unqualified partner in a two-man management team at Leverkusen, he was sacked within twelve months of taking over as sole boss.  There’s still quality in the Albion side, and at the time of writing still time to invest some of that Ulloa fee, but they’re going to need to strengthen in several positions.  As it stands, a relegation scrap looks far more likely than another tilt at the play-offs.

CARDIFF CITY

INS: Guido Burgstaller (Rapid Vienna, Undisclosed), Adam le Fondre (Reading, Undisclosed), Kagisho Dikagcoi (Crystal Palace, Free), Javi Guerra (Real Valladolid, Free), Federico Macheda (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Fraizer Campbell (Crystal Palace, £800,000), Steven Caulker (QPR, Undisclosed), Don Cowie (Wigan Athletic, Free), Andrew Taylor (Wigan Athletic, Free), Simon Lappin, Tommy Smith, Jo Inge Berget (Celtic, Six Month Loan), Kevin McNaughton (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Ben Nugent (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United, End of Loan), Craig Bellamy (retired)

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: David Hughes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Martin Hodge (Opposition Analyst), Jordon Mutch

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 defeat in Cardiff in October 2012 which saw the home side grab a last minute winner against nine men after Nathaniel Chalobah and Daniel Pudil had been dismissed, and an inconsequential 0-0 draw the following April.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Marshall
John               Hudson             Cala                Fabio
Noone               Mutch            Whittingham               Daehli
Guerra          Le Fondre

VERDICT: For all that Malky’s departure upset some at Vicarage Road, there can surely have been few who didn’t sympathise with the manner of his departure from Cardiff.  Who your boss is make such a huge difference to how palatable any job is;  Mackay had to endure Bassini at Watford (and who can blame him for factoring that consideration into his decision to move on) only to find himself working under an increasingly erratic, hands-on Vincent Tan at Cardiff.  Few tears shed in West Herts – or anywhere – when City had their relegation confirmed.  Moving into 2014/15, it’s not unusual to look at a relegated squad and see an intimidating depth that just isn’t present in most squads in the Championship.  Despite high profile departures – those already undertaken and those mooted – this is certainly the case with City, particularly in attacking positions where Kenwyne Jones, Federico Macheda, Joe Mason andNicky Maynard are competing with the two named above.  If there’s a concern it’s further back… Solskjaer’s first six months in charge were characterised by a gung-ho attacking approach and a soft underbelly that saw him concede 42 goals in 18 League games;  his midfield is narrow and the full-backs push up asking an awful lot of the centre backs, an area where City aren’t strong.  We know from painful experience how galling it is to bash your head repeatedly against a limited but organised rearguard action only to be undone on the break…  and there’s some scepticism as to how well equipped Solskjaer and team are to correct this failing.  In the top flight his personality, attacking instinct and the context of the Premier League got him a lot of slack, he won’t get such slack this time around. Given the quality in the squad it’s inconceivable that City won’t challenge, but my money’s on a wobbly start, a departure for Solskjaer with City off the pace in October and a resurgence under a new boss towards the end of the season.  Could end any number of ways, then.  Play-offs my bet.

Watford 2 Udinese 2 (02/08/2014) 03/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Five thunks from the visit of our friends from Udinese

1- The identity of the visitors, the fact that the match was at Vicarage Road and the pricing strategy that accompanied it made this the clear stand-out amongst the pre-season games.  Those aside, the game had been eagerly anticipated for a whole different reason.  Daughter Number 2 has been wanting to come to football ever since her big sister first started watching two and a half years ago.  She has only had a vague idea of what football entails, but this never affected her enthusiasm.  The long-standing commitment that she could come along after she turned five became relevant less than a fortnight ago.  Today was the day.

Consequently my own view of the game was somewhat patchy; please take what follows in that context.  Like one of those World Cup games half-watched whilst doing the ironing/reading Twitter/out at the pub with non-football friends I enjoyed an extended highlights package haphazardly put together with only vague attention to the key moments, such as they were.  For instance, the telegraphing of our first equaliser with a free-kick award on the edge of the area was insufficient warning to enable me to catch anything but a freeze-frame of the ball nestled in the top corner, before returning my attention to my left where daughter number one had vaulted onto the barrier in wild celebration and daughter number two was keen to follow suit.  All things considered, a good day for number two – she did at least fix the game with her attention for much of the time and didn’t request an early departure even if she struggled to get past our summer Panini collection, repeatedly referring to Watford as Germany and at one point asking which one was André Schürrle.

More generally of course this was the last chance to gauge where we were before the big kick off.  To weigh up our new signings, to judge which formation we’re going to run with, to cast an eye over a putative starting line-up.  Suitably enough, black clouds and summer sunshine competed indecisively as kick off approached.

2- Half-expecting us to play 4-3-3, it appeared initially that with Gabriel Tamas playing very wide, we were lining up with four at the back.  Whether due to an early change in strategy or whether the early set-up was merely deceptive (competing as it was with demands for hula hoops) we soon settled into a familiar 3-5-2 with Ekstrand in the middle of the three and Keith Andrews doing a tidy fetching-and-carrying job at the back of the midfield. Needs to be borne in mind of course that Udinese are a mid-table Serie A side and therefore, fielding a full-strength line-up, stiff opposition.  Nonetheless, and given that the Zebrette are three weeks further from the start of their season than we are from ours, the first half was a little disappointing…  ours were the touches that looked a little heavy, the runs that weren’t quite read.  Matěj Vydra was culpable here… every now and again he would sparkle, like a lost contact lens catching the sunlight, before disappearing back into the morass. Along with a low key acknowledgement of his noisy welcome at kick-off it was hardly a trailblazing return for the Czech.

Udinese, meanwhile, were finding us a little easier to slice through;  Tamas looked supremely confident in possession but this once or twice strayed into overconfidence, giving the ball away by overambitious decisions bringing the ball out.  He just about got away with that in a pre-season friendly butwon’t once the real stuff starts.  We had a warning when Fernandes found space to crash the returning Riera’s deep cross against the bar… shortly afterwards Widmer pulled away at the far post, timed his run well and nodded home unchallenged from behind a static back three.  Not great that, not even in a pre-season game;  Udinese worth their lead at half time.  It was very far from awful… but certainly underwhelming.

3- And whilst we’re on the subject of Widmer’s goal… I’m all for hospitable welcoming applause to the opposition keeper.  In the unusual context of this particular game, applause for Udinese substitutions and a welcome for the legendary Alessandro Di Natale, both fine too.  But a round of encouraging applause for Widmer’s albeit tidy header (and similar for Théréau’s neat second half finish) were a step too far for me.  Yes, yes, friends and partners, fine. but let’s retain at least a veil of competitiveness.  There’s a good deal of ground worth exploring between applauding the opposition goals and bawling at their every touch.

Generally, however, the game was played in good spirit as you might expect, with none of the tetchy, snappy feel of last year’s visit from Granada.  If Udinese’s players (with one or two exceptions including  Riera, mystifyingly persisted with in a left wing-back role sporting the number 3 shirt) generally failed to acknowledge their warm reception (possibly through not appreciating that they were the subjects of it), there was at any rate no grumpiness, no bad feeling, and indeed a comedy highlight when the prone Luis Muriel found himself unceremoniously dragged into touch by the arms as two of his teammates,  rather than await the stretcher (let alone try to slow things down) decided to hurry things along a little bit.

4- Second half was brighter from the off.  Perhaps an element of our greater fitness telling… whatever.  There was an oomph and a pazzazz evident immediately, the visitors now on the back foot;  an early move saw Anya scream down the right and scatter his opponents… perhaps a shot should have come earlier in the move before Pudil’s clip was deflected wide, but this was a clarion call.  Troy Deeney began to impose himself…  Tamas played a high ball into the area and Deeney crashed onto it to cushion a header to the onrushing McGugan who drove narrowly wide.  Deeney’s involvement here a perfect marriage of brawn and subtlety that left Thomas Heurtaux appealing to the official in polite but outraged disbelief (not for the last time), as if Deeney had produced a cricket bat from somewhere and taken a swing at the cross with that.  Within minutes we were level, but as already discussed I can tell you little about that.

What was most pleasing about the second half was that so many of the replacements  introduced had a positive impact on the performance (the possible exception being Hoban, on for Tamas in the wake of the visitors’ second and scarcely called into action thereafter).  Most obviously Odion Ighalo who in my head, being a Nigerian striker, was big and physical but in reality was quick, sharp, dextrous and energetic, running the channels, keeping possession with a box of tricks and endearing himself to everyone in the stadium (except, perhaps Mathias Ranégie who slightly overhit a pull back in a promising position as Ighalo saw a debut goal looming and copped the Nigerian’s frustration). Lloyds Dyer and Doyley came on in the wing-back positions, the latter as indifferent to the scale of the challenge as ever, the former’s pace and discipline a real threat down the left. Diego Fabbrini reminded everyone why we were so excited at this stage twelve months ago, an outrageous piece of skill taking him to the left byline where he dug out a left footed dinked cross to Pudil whose header was turned in by Ranégie. As Beppe has said since, if he sorts out the weaker aspects of his game he’s a real asset.  As for the big Swede, whilst he continues to look as if he’s present purely out of a sense of obligation and would rather be enjoying his own company, a glass of wine and a box set, that’s a rather useful tally of goals he’s racked up over recent friendly and competitive games.

5- As we ambled up Occupation Road (and allow plenty of time for that whilst the artery is narrowed by the building work, incidentally) the sun broke through decisively, and appropriately enough for this was an encouraging afternoon on balance.  A stout performance against a very capable side that showcased the quite remarkable depth of the squad as it stands.  There’s plenty of time before the window closes of course – to be honest I never expected to see either Deeney or Fabbrini in a yellow shirt again – but as it stands and without wishing to pre-empt the Watford bit of the season preview that will follow on Friday, the fact that we fielded 18 players and got the result against strong oppositoin without calling on Paredes, Tözsér, Cathcart, Murray or Forestieri is very positive.  Not even finding the entrance to the girls’ school on Wiggenhall Road locked (for £7 parking direct access isn’t an unreasonable expectation) dampened our spirits.  Daughters number one and two were both thoroughly enthused and if there are still question marks going into the season there are more reasons to be cheerful than not.  Even without André Schürrle.

Season Preview – Part 1 03/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Is everybody ready?  Tough. Four today, four tomorrow.  You get the idea.  Enjoy.

BIRMINGHAM CITY

INS: Denny Johnstone (Celtic, Undisclosed), David Cotterill (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Clayton Donaldson (Brentford, Free), Marc Duffy (Doncaster Rovers, Free), David Edgar (Burnley, Free), Stephen Gleeson (Franchise FC, Free), Jonathan Grounds (Oldham Athletic, Free), Gavin Gunning (Dundee United, Free), Navid Nasseri (Bury, Free), Wes Thomas (Rotherham United, Free), Grant Hall (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTS: Chris Burke (Nottingham Forest, Free), Wade Elliott (Bristol City, Free), Aaron Martin (Yeovil Town, Free), Hayden Mullins (Notts County, Free), Darren Ambrose, Brian Howard, Peter Lovenkrands, Nikola Zigic, Koby Arthur (Cheltenham Town, Six Month Loan), Amari’i Bell (Mansfield Town, Season Loan), Scott Allan (West Bromwich Albion, End of Loan), Tyler Blackett (Manchester United, End of Loan), Shane Ferguson (Newcastle United, End of Loan), Emyr Hughes (Manchester City, End of Loan), Jordan Ibe (Liverpool, End of Loan), Federico Macheda (Manchester United, End of Loan), Albert Rusnak (Manchester City, End of Loan), Tom Thorpe (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Paul Robinson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two one-goal victories making it four wins on the hop against the Blues, and three in which Bluenose Troy Deeney has found the net.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Randolph
Eardley               Hall                 Edgar             Robinson
Duffy           Gleeson              Adeyemi       Cotterill
Donaldson          Thomas

VERDICT: I thought Blues would go down last season, frankly.  Picking up one point from their final six games they almost did as well, their last victory of the season at Doncaster perhaps proving crucial for both sides as Blues stayed up and Donny went down on goal difference.  Over the summer Birmingham have shed the last of their big earners (Burke, Zigic, Mullins) and embarked upon another huge overhaul of their squad which is now large and packed with game triers… no stars, but plenty of energy and effort.  Their recruitment looks pretty good to me… signing out of contract Cotterill and Duffy rubs the salt into Donny’s wounds, Gleeson comes from Franchise with a good reputation.  At this point in time you worry about goalscoring options, although in Clayton Donaldson Lee Clark has made what looks like a good gamble given his limited budget.  Meanwhile City fans are still desperate for a takeover to go through and condemn the miserable Carson Yeung era to history…  in that context, staying up again would probably do.  There’s no prospect of City finishing above halfway, but you’d fancy them to survive a little more comfortably this time around.


BLACKBURN ROVERS

INS: Chris Brown (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Luke Varney (Leeds United, Free), Alex Baptiste (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan)

OUTS: Alan Judge (Brentford, Undisclosed), Ryan Edwards (Morecambe, Free), David Goodwillie (Aberdeen, Free), Alex Marrow (Carlisle United, Free), William Beesley, DJ Campbell, Robbie Cotton, Dickson Etuhu, Hugo Fernandez Molina, Tomothy Payne, Deniz Pero, Aaron Tumwa, Matthew Urwin, Josh Lewis (Fleetwood Town, Six Month Loan), Bryan Dabo (Montpelier, End of Loan), Liam Feeney (Millwall, End of Loan), Michael Keane (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ROVERS: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Lee Williamson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Another Jordan Rhodes 1-0 defeat at Ewood Park and a ding-dong 3-3 at Vicarage Road which saw Marco Cassetti’s only goal for the Hornets.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Robinson
Baptiste            Hanley         Kilgallon        Spurr
Marshall           Evans           Cairney        Conway
Gestede       Rhodes

VERDICT: Ironic, really, that having been a basket case for so long, Venkys-led Blackburn have halted what looked like it might be a relentless downward slide by being so utterly sensible.  There’s nothing… radically innovative about the team above.  Nothing flash, nothing daft.  A solid 4-4-2 with wingers, a target man, a poacher and a solid back four.  The free transfer signing of Chris Brown rather says it all – unpretentious, pragmatic, sensible, and as a backup target man adding to the considerable amount of cover that Rovers have in most positions.  They’re rather dependent on Rhodes for goals perhaps – Gestede, Brown and Varney will do a job, but not score buckets of goals if Rhodes picks up a knock.  Nonetheless, this is a squad that will finish above halfway and may do a more convincing job of challenging for the play-offs than the rather theoretical pursuit of sixth place of last season.

BLACKPOOL

INS: Peter Clarke (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), José Miguel Cubero (Herediano, Undisclosed), Tomasz Cywka (Barnsley, Free), Nathan Delfounesco (Aston Villa, Free), Jacob Mellis (Barnsley, Free), Sergey Zenyov (Karpaty Lviv, Free)

OUTS: Tom Ince (Hull City, Undisclosed), Harrison McGahey (Sheffield United, Tribunal), Chris Basham (Sheffield United, Free), Neal Bishop (Scunthorpe United, Free), Kirk Broadfoot (Rotherham United, Free), Craig Cathcart (Watford, Free), James Caton (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Barry Ferguson (Clyde, Free), Ricardo Fuller (Millwall, Free), Matt Gilks (Burnley, Free), Chris Kettings (Crystal Palace, Free), Liam Tomsett (AFC Fylde, Free), Nathan Tyson (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Louis Atkinson, Anderson Banvo, Jake Caprice, Michael Chopra, Adam Dodd, Rob Earnshaw, Nathan Eccleston, Elliot Grandin, Faris Haroun, Isaiah Osbourne, Tony Warner

OUR EX-SEASIDERS: Craig Cathcart

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A late and painful single-goal defeat to a Tom Ince strike at Bloomfield Road that saw Almen Abdi’s involvement in the season curtailed, and a 4-0 thumping in March that saw Mathias Ranégie score twice on his home debut.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

?
McMahon    MacKenzie         Clarke          Dunne
Mellis        Cubero       Perkins        Cywka
Delfounesco    Zenyov

VERDICT: It’s a fair bit of work putting these previews together.  I know it probably reads like every other pile of half-arsed tosh that’s clogging up the internet this week, but a comprehensive pile of tosh takes time to cultivate.  The transfer activity list starts first, as soon as the season ends really… you don’t want to be buggering around in late July trying to identify which Brighton players left quietly as their contracts expired early in the close season.  Then the skeleton starts to form… start compiling the blog posts, fill in the factual and easily rattled off stuff.  Finally, work your way through the teams scouring blogs and messageboards for insights and putative line-ups.  Some flexibility in there of course… not strictly necessary to work from Birmingham through to Wolves in order.  Up to a point.  Can you see where this is heading?  I’ve been holding off here for stuff to develop, and in fairness they’ve signed five players this week and counting.  Nonetheless…

Some of the Blackpool bit is easy, some of it much more difficult.  The line-up, for example, still rather needs to take shape with the goalkeeping position, for which Ben Alnwick appeared to be lined up before giving up and heading off to be second choice at Peterborough, is a rather critical vacancy.  And, christ, if I’m running out of time to put this piece together (writing at 11.30 on Friday night with this piece up on Sunday and a Udinese report to do tomorrow) then it kinda follows that Blackpool are running out of time too.  So here’s the easy bit.  I really thought that Blackpool would go down last season.  Instead, they won five of their first six and only lost twice before the end of November.  Good job too, since they only won three more games from that point, losing 20 and staying up by 2 points thanks to an unlikely win at Wigan at the end of April.  Since then the Seasiders have shipped off caretake Barry Ferguson and brought in Jose Riga as manager; anyone who could leave has done so, several of the eight in contract during the summer would have followed if they possibly could by all accounts.  The club’s chairman Karl Oyston, meanwhile, has publicly fallen out with both his new manager (silent pre- and post-Saturday’s friendly with Burnley) and President and shareholder Latvian Valeri Belokon, who has criticised the owners’ prioritising their own profit over the club’s success.  A populist statement, but it’s difficult not to sympathise; the Seasiders’ financially disciplined year in the top flight should have been the basis for building the infrastructure of the club but instead there IS no infrastructure, and very few players.  “Where’s the money gone” has never been more apt. It’s not something you’d wish on any club, and post-Holloway and post-Ince there are certainly no axes to be ground with Blackpool.  But let’s return to the easy bit. I remember from the years when we were looking over our shoulders in this division that you had to be pretty bad to get relegated.  There are normally one or two basket cases, so you’re trying not to be the worst of the rest.  And there has surely never been a basket case quite like this.  Very bottom.  And then some.

BOLTON WANDERERS

INS: Neil Danns (Leicester City, Free), Dorian Dervite (Charlton Athletic, Free), Liam Feeney (Millwall, Free), Andy Hughes (Charlton Athletic, Fre), Dean Moxey (Crystal Palace, Free), Liam Trotter (Millwall, Free), Andy Robinson (Southampton, Free), Quade Taylor (Crystal Palace, Free), Kevin McNaughton (Cardiff City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Marvin Sordell (Burnley, Undisclosed), Chris Eagles, Zat Knight, Arran Lee-Barrett, Jay Lynch, Tyrone Mears, Andre Moritz, Andy Robinson, Keith Andrews (Watford, Season Loan), Alex Baptiste (Blackburn, Season Loan), Joe Riley (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Alan Hutton (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Lukasz Jutkiewicz (Middlesbrough, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TROTTERS: Keith Andrews (kinda)

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two of the most painful performances of the season… a 1-0 defeat as Zola’s Watford career began to hurtle downhill and a lamentable 2-0 reverse at the Reebok (or whatever) in February.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lonergan
McNaughton    Mills         Ream         Moxey
Feeney       Spearing       Medo       Danns
Davies      Beckford

VERDICT: About to start their third season back in the Championship, it seems a while now since Bolton were established in the top flight.  Still lumbered with eye-watering debts, the impressive surge that almost carried Wanderers into the play-offs in 2013 wasn’t replicated last season as Wanderers ended the season a point behind us in mid-table.  Since then, Dougie Freedman has missed out on his no 1 target Lukas Jutkiewicz who, along with another former Wanderer Marvin Sordell, has joined Sean Dyche’s Burnley in the top flight.  A significant success in a loan from January until the end of last season, Jutkiewicz leaves a hole in the side that Bolton will find it hard to fill.  The rest of the side looks fairly solid and there is good cover in midfield in particular, but with only the haphazard Beckford providing much of a goal threat as it stands.  With an adequate replacement for Jutkiewicz and a prevailing wind Wanderers might nudge into the top half, but given the churning nature of the Championship it seems quite possible that Wanderers will find themselves in a precarious league position at some point during the season.  Quite how far Bolton’s nerve holds and quite how high Dougie Freedman’s still reasonable stock holds out will be interesting to watch.  Fifteenth.

End of Term Report Part 8 02/06/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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29 (#1) – George Thorne

George Thorne’s loan spell could have gone better on a number of levels.  He was with us for eight games and started all of them – a contrast, then, to the loan that overlapped his, Josh McEachran, who never looked quite settled.  Those eight games were a testing time for the club and a difficult period in which for Thorne to establish himself, encompassing two managers, three of those home defeats under Zola and only one victory.  Despite which when January 2nd and the end of his loan arrived the hope and expectation was that the loan would be extended.  Pronouncements of optimism on this score became increasingly guarded as the month went on and at the end of the window Thorne moved to Derby for the remainder of the season.  So…  the biggest disappointment of Thorne’s loan was perhaps in its unfortunate timing.  If his contribution wasn’t sufficiently hurculean to right a sinking ship he nonetheless showed enough in those games to suggest that there’s a top flight player emerging there.  Perhaps the turbulent situation at the Vic wasn’t a factor at all… but it can’t have helped, and so he moved on to a more settled ship at Derby who reaped the benefits.

Next Season; Derby talking about trying to secure him permanently.  West Brom would be daft to let him go.

30 – Jonathan Bond

Jonathan’s second season as undisputed second choice saw him tot up double-figure starts.  A platform for him to make a claim, to announce his presence as a future first choice.  For all that there have been occasional, muted calls for Almunia to be replaced it hasn’t happened, and whilst it feels sacrilegious to criticise “one of our own”… Bond hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory.  There are mitigating circumstances of course, harder for a keeper to get away with an error and so on.  It’s more than the odd howler, though, memorable and consequential as the errors against Manchester City and Huddersfield were, for example.  There haven’t been many games where Bond has looked assertive or comfortable, much as he’s capable of pulling good stops out of the bag.  The commanding the area, the communication, that’s stuff that keeper’s can learn…but the strength of character needs to be there.  I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced.

Next Season: Heurelho Gomes’ signing confirms that Bond is still not viewed as a first choice.  He’ll need to convince with whatever opportunities he has.

31- Tommie Hoban

Having Tommie back at all was the main thing.  I can’t have been the only one who was worried, whose mind the thought had crossed despite all attempts to repress it that Tommie’s few months as a hugely promising first team player in 2012/13 might have been as good as it got. As this season progressed Tommie was often a footnote at the bottom of a long list, alongside Almen Abdi as long-term injured, missing in action.  Almost virtual squad members, a footnote.  Until that crazy second half against Middlesbrough…  we remember Diakité’s lunacy, the silly penalty, the crazy Boro red card, but more significant than all of that as it turned out was Tommie Hoban finally making his from injury as a half-time sub for Lloyd.  And stamping all over the game, as if eager to demonstrate that this wasn’t going  to be a limp, forlorn comeback, a shadow of the prospect we thought we remembered (Nick Wright?  Johnno?).

He didn’t maintain that high level for the rest of the season, it’s true, but then nobody covered themselves in glory in those last few games and Tommie, aged 21 and having already overcome an injury that kept him out of the first team picture for over twelve months, has way more leeway than most.

Next Season: A regular starter, nailed on with great big nine-inch buggers.  Hurrah.

33- Nyron Nosworthy

If we’re talking footnotes, then kinda fitting that the last of these player profiles covers Nyron Nosworthy.  His contribution this season was the very definition of a footnote… five starts in an injury crisis, none of which resulting in victories, but during which he nevertheless reminded us what a tough bastard he was – like a re-released hit record that everyone buys again because they remember liking it.  In the days when there were records.  You know what I mean.

It’s not often that players get an encore.  Too often, like Marco Cassetti and any number before him, they’re there and then they’re not.  Nosworthy’s key contributions to this club came in previous campaigns but they were significant and he deserves to be remembered fondly.

Next Season: Nos’ last Watford appearance was against Bristol City, where he ended up spending the rest of the season.  It wouldn’t be a great surprise to see him get a year at Ashton Gate.  Steve Cotterill isn’t an idiot.

Beppe Sannino

Lest we forget, Beppe came into a situation where the club was nosediving…  nobody who was at any of those final home games under Gianfranco can have been in any doubt as to there being A Problem, the formula was all too predictable.  We were beaten by some good teams.  We were beaten by mediocre teams in identical fashion.  Now… perhaps all that was required was a new face, something different, someone different to shake things up a bit. Anyone. That’s an awfully harsh stance to take, though.  From the situation he inherited, Sannino gave the side a backbone and it yielded dramatic, immediate results, particularly at Vicarage Road where a side that had lost five on the hop went on an immediate run conceding one goal in the new man’s first nine home games.

It wasn’t perfect, quite obviously.  We didn’t remember how to be world beaters again, he didn’t turn us back into a promotion side .  Too easy to underplay the significance of the major surgery he conducted early on though simply by virtue of him achieving what he did so effortlessly.  Too easy to take that for granted. Sorting out the defence was never going to be “exciting”, but it was absolutely necessary and subsequent gripes about aspects of Sannino’s approach, particulary where this harked back to a supposed golden age under Gianfranco, tended to gloss over the ghastly mess that we’d become.

I don’t quite buy the suggestion that the belated play-off push was never going to happen either.  We rarely looked convincing, true, and it’s beyond dispute that we didn’t look like a promotion side.  You don’t need to be to finish sixth though, as Brighton demonstrated.  We blew any number of good situations and yet at one point, leading against QPR, we were three points off with a game in hand.

And it’s what happened next that constitutes the greatest concern.  QPR was gallant failure… we should have had all three points and would have had one had we not boldly decided that an honourable draw was no bloody good to us and chased the winner.  No shame there.  But the disconnect between Beppe’s clear and spirited statement about the approach to the last few games and what actually happened doesn’t suggest a coach in touch with or control of the dressing room.  The players were at fault… the performances were pathetic and we’re entitled to expect an awful lot more.  OK, the games were dead rubbers but we’ve spent most of our history not getting promoted and still turn up and expect some spirit, some effort.  But the manager, whilst saying the right things publicly, clearly wasn’t speaking for the players.

Nonetheless, next season is when we judge Beppe.  Last season he inherited someone else’s mess and made the best of it. Whatever the head coach’s role in recruitment, next season it’s his team prepared his way.  Let’s see…

In the meantime, enjoy the World Cup.  I’m going to have a lie down…

End of Term Report Part 7 30/05/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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23 (#1)- Iriney

Like Fabbrini, Iriney looked terrific in the misleadingly accommodating environment of the pre-season friendly against his old side Granada.  Tough and disciplined, miserly in possession he looked part-enforcer part water-carrier, and if he lacked Jonathan Hogg’s energy he had the gravitas that the side needed.  He looked majestic and in control, a leader.  Unfortunately that veil slipped quite quickly when the serious business started.  It wasn’t really that he couldn’t handle the pace of the game, a tempting explanation to fall back on… he was certainly caught in possession too often, seemingly wanting more time than was available, but just as frequently his errors and misjudgements were unpressured, square balls into space to set up an opposition attack when a quick look would have provoked a more sensible decision.

He wasn’t a disaster.  Iriney likes a tackle, and has the rather haggard wild-man-of-the-hills look made him a brutal, intimidating obstacle at the back of the midfield.  He wasn’t the reliable metronome we needed though, and whilst he started the season as a first choice he drifted from the picture after a couple of months, before the wheels came off Zola’s team.  A brief return to the picture in January brought tighter, more disciplined performances and the suggestion that Iriney had adjusted as required.  At which point he disappeared to Mallorca and that was that.

Next Season:  Wouldn’t object to him being part of the squad again, but remaining in Spain on loan for the last year of his Watford contract seems more likely.

23 (#2) – Samba Diakité

Let’s get Middlesbrough out of the way first, shall we?  This was to be Diakité’s only start for the Hornets, a tight uneventful game until the 50 minute mark during which Diakité’s contribution and effectiveness had been limited.  A rush of blood by a Boro defender earned us a penalty and the lead which, given the visitors’ inability to turn possession into chances, put us in a strong position.  Until Diakité jumped into a 50/50 (40/60 against, strictly speaking) with unwarranted zeal and earned himself a red card.  We won anyway, but it was a monstrously stupid act.

But that’s all it was.  He didn’t kill anybody.  Didn’t urinate on anyone grave.  As such, the hostility he faced when coming off the bench against Blackburn bordered on the ridiculous.  If we’re going to boo people for being a bit stupid then we’re going to need some lozenges as the events of the past week or two suggest there’s a lot of booing to get through.  Diakité never justified the concerted effort we appeared to have devoted to securing his signature but, to employ a much-worn cliché, he never really got a run did he.  And he had something, something that was enough to perk up a thoroughly miserable final day against Huddersfield.  He needed rather more time to get into any kind of groove and start justifying his presence though… time he was never going to get.

Next Season:  With QPR back in the top flight – and two years left on Diakité’s QPR contract – your guess is as good as mine.

27- Marco Cassetti

You want your team to do well, of course you do.  Bottom line, every time you turn up at the Vic you’re hoping we turn the other lot over (with varying degrees of expectation)… you might tell yourself that you don’t want us to get promoted, it might even be true… but that’s at an aggregate, distanced level over the course of the season.  When it comes to any game, any particular game, you’re never going to be rooting for the other lot.

But that’s not to say that that’s all that matters.  We want to win, yes, yes, but if that’s all there was there wouldn’t be as many folk following unsuccessful teams as there are.  Enjoying the ride is important, enjoying moments of brilliance or incompetence or humour even if they don’t add up to anything terribly consequential in terms of trophies or league tables.  “You don’t get the time back”, after all. And there’s been plenty to enjoy about Marco Cassetti over the last two seasons… the legs may have been ageing, but the been-there-done-that swagger of a very good footballer capable of putting a cross on a sixpence, playing a pass through the eye of a needle and shovelling an opponent into the hoardings as the need arose has been a joy in its own right.  This season, Marco’s effectiveness was elevated greatly when he was shifted from one of the more energetic defensive positions on the outside of the three to the central, pivotal role.  His departure was ultimately determined by the need to return to his family in Italy, and this renders the question of quite how much he’d have been able to contribute next season obsolete.  Instead it’s sufficient to look back and doff our caps, and try to suppress the concern that a side short of leaders has just lost another one.

Next Season: Marco turned 37 yesterday, so although I’ve not read a statement of his future intentions one would guess that might be it.  Arrivederci et grazie mille, Marco.

28 (#1)- Connor Smith

One of the youngsters signed on a long-term deal on the Pozzos’ arrival nearly two years ago, Connor is still in roughly the same place as he was then.  He looks… promising.  Tidy, encouraging.  But not assertive enough to play the pivot role at the back of the midfield as it stands, the role which would appear to suit him best in the formation most keenly favoured over the last two years and beyond that… it’s not obvious where he’s going to fit, beyond as a capable, positive, versatile bloke to have on the bench.  His loan at Gillingham during the second half of the season must have been slightly disappointing, since whilst he undoubtedly got more gametime than he would have done at the Vic, his six starts plus four off the bench in addition to the handful of games for us earlier in the season  hardly extended his senior experience.

Next Season:  With two years left, another loan – at least for the first half of the campaign – looks likely.

28 (#2)- Daniel Tözsér

Kaiser.  Nothing to do with Beckenbauer (I wouldn’t know, before my time.  Yes, really…).  “The Usual Suspects”.  Yes?  If “no”, what have you been doing with your life? Perhaps Kayser Sözé doesn’t rhyme perfectly with Daniel Tözsér, but it’s close enough, especially when it’s a Hungarian sailor saying it. Clear?  Good.

Tözsér arrived from Genoa in January on the back of no gametime since the previous May and immediately took our midfield by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shake.  He had something of Chalobah’s awareness, range of passing and ability to turn into space, but rather than the cockiness of Chalobah’s tender years he displayed a diligence and an attentiveness that was more reminiscent of Steve Palmer.  A fixture from the off, he also took over set piece duties, particularly when they suited his left foot, and suddenly we looked potent again.  My favourite moment came against Ipswich when, having swung a ridiculous cross-field pass onto the toe of Faraoni he crossed the distance almost as quickly as the ball did to receive a lay off from the Italian, charge between two hesitant markers and pull back from the touchline for McGugan to score.  Marvellous.

His level of performance dipped towards the end of the season; the club have put this down to fitness and it’s difficult not to be excited about the influence he might have with a full pre-season behind him.  Let’s hope we get the chance to find out.

Next Season:  No secret, or surprise, that we are negotiating with Genoa where he has two years left of a top flight contract.  Fingers crossed.

End of Term Report Part 6 27/05/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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15 (#2 – addendum) – Albert Riera

OK, so I forgot Albert Riera.  You can read into that what you will…

Riera was an unexpected recruit at the end of March. Having been released by Galatasaray in the January the Spaniard was signed up by Udinese with a view to joining them on July 1st and in the meantime came to Vicarage Road accompanied by the vague suggestion that this might be a precursor to another loan next season.  He immediately took up residence in the left wing-back position, and whilst there was no doubting his sumptuous ability, witness 16 caps for Spain and showcased by that remarkable goal against Ipswich, there was certainly doubt regarding how effectively we were able to use him.  The left wing-back position wasn’t alien to him, certainly… he’d apparently been playing in the same position in Turkey (before having his contract terminated by mutual consent) – but he looked singularly uncomfortable with the defensive aspects of the role to the extent that you’d probably have wanted a stout full back behind him when fielded as an out-and-out winger, let alone as a wing-back.  Too often he was caught on the wrong side of the player he was supposed to be covering, giving away silly free-kicks and earning sulky yellow cards by tackling from an impossible position or mouthing off in frustration afterwards, a phenomenon that climaxed with a red card at the Valley.  Also worth mentioning in passing that he looked like a bloke who’d be far happier dressed in scruffy denim slouched on a pavement chair outside a café smoking roll-ups and drinking strong coffee than doing anything energetic like playing football.  No doubting his louche, effortless ability…  plenty of doubt over whether and where we could productively employ it.

Next Season:  Lloyd Dyer’s arrival would seem to preclude his return;  Granada doesn’t sound like a bad bet.

20 (#2) – Park Chu Young

Signed on loan in January to provide the “quick bloke” option that we’d been crying out for up front all season, Park managed 62 minutes of football for the Hornets, 61 of them in an utterly miserable day at Bolton.  I witnessed neither that one nor his cameo at home to Brighton and as such there’s precious little to comment on… except to note, a footnote, that this was yet another of this season’s signings that for whatever reason – fitness, injury, luck, attitude? – didn’t work out.  Perversely, arguably the least successful Hornet of the season will be heading to Brazil for the World Cup and naturally it’s difficult to feel anything other than indifferent.  Except to comment that it’s a shame that that Specials-inspired song never really had a chance…

Next Season: At the end of his Arsenal contract it would seem unlikely that Park’s future lies in this country.

21- Ikechi Anya

As previously discussed on BHaPPY, my perception was that Ikechi perhaps suffered under Beppe’s more disciplined system, less of a free reign to cause havoc in attacking positions, the need for defensive discipline restricting his effectiveness.  The stats don’t bear that impression out though…  one assist and one goal under Gianfranco (in the same game, the romp at Oakwell) versus four goals and ten assists under Beppe tell their own story.  Towards the end of the season Anya spent a fair amount of time in more central attacking role supporting Troy, an experiment that if it didn’t convert Ikechi into a goal machine wasn’t a complete disaster… it gave our attack some zip that it was desperate for, gave defences something else to think about and restricted opponents’ ability to push up a high line on us.  The problem for Ikechi this season was of course our complete reliance on him for that burst of speed, a responsibility that meant that he was both fielded necessarily in perhaps unnatural positions and that he was the focus of more attention from opponents than he might have been.

Next Season: The recruitment of Lloyd Dyer should help Anya no end.  Either way heremains a joy and one of the most valuable and likeable members of the team.

22- Almen Abdi

I work in scientific research.  That’s my day job.  I’m a statistician; a big part of it is ensuring that the conclusions that are drawn are accurate, appropriate.  Often these conclusions are based on comparison… comparing how well this approach works to how well THAT approach works, perhaps.  To make that “fair”, you need to make sure that things that you’re comparing are as similar as possible in every practical respect.  If you’re comparing two medicines, for example, it’s hardly sensible to give one medicine to relatively healthy patients and another to severely ill patients and compare based on recovery rates.  Some complicating factors you can control, some you can’t control but you can measure.  Some things are just thereAdjusting for them, planning for them, weighing things up, quantifying. All necessary for an accurate judgement.

Sometimes, however, you don’t need a statistician.  Sometimes the existence of an effect, a genuine impact, just screams at you from the spreadsheet.  Page.  Pitch.  What had been remarkable last year was quite how consistently magnificent Almen Abdi was.  You don’t normally get that sort of consistency from that sort of player, not in the second tier at any rate. This year what was remarkable was the impact that Abdi immediately had on our performances.  Like a sprinkle of magic dust that suddenly knitted everything together, gave it a focus and an engine and a brilliance that made it so much more effective.  Of the sixteen games he was involved in inbetween injuries and false starts, often half-fit or cautious, we lost four… two unfortunate defeats at Blackpool and QPR, the cup game at Man City and Forest away when he came on at 2-2 and was off injured within a minute of us going behind.  The rest were characterised by that verve. Solid gold.

Next Season:  The consensus is that we weren’t that good this season, that we didn’t deserve to make the play-offs, were never going to make it.  I don’t buy all of that.  Certainly we weren’t that good, but being in the play-offs merely requires you getting more points than all but five of the others.  Brighton weren’t that good either.  With a fit Almen all season it’s inconceivable that we wouldn’t have made it.  Cross everything for a clear passage next season.

End of Term Report Part 5 24/05/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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17- Fitz Hall

Twelve months on in one respect, at least, little has changed.  Last summer we reflected that whilst a reliably fit Fitz Hall was an asset – indeed, arguably, an asset worthy of a higher level – the Fitz Hall that we had unfortunately wasn’t available frequently or consistently enough to be worth a new contract.  Watford evidently came to the same conclusion, since in late November, with Hall having not been offered a contract but having trained with the club to maintain his fitness as he sought a new club in the south of England, we re-signed Hall on a one-month deal.  Easy to see why…  this monstrous bully of a defender with plenty of savvy of the English leagues was just what we needed.  Beppe Sannino came in and immediately gushed about Hall, calling him one of the most important players in the squad.  On January 31st the WO reported that Hall had signed a contract to the end of the season.  He was to start just one more game… two days later, as the Hornets beat Brighton at Vicarage Road, before an achilles injury curtailed his involvement.

Next Season:  A fit Fitz would be tremendous.  Inconceivable that we’ll be taking that gamble again though on a player who turns 34 before Christmas.

18- Daniel Pudil

The reservation I always had with Pudil was his not quite being up to the extraordinary demands of the wing-back role as Gianfranco defined it.  The stamina thing has never been an issue – Pudil might not be as ridiculously quick as Ikechi Anya but he rarely flagged despite the responsibility at either end of the pitch.  What he seemed to struggle with was positional discipline… too often in his first season he was caught out of position by an attacker exploiting the space behind him, too often he’d lunge in with a tackle that shouldn’t have been required and which he was in no position to execute cleanly.  This season however, and particularly in the more defensively disciplined approach under Beppe, Daniel has been exposed far less often.  His commitment and attitude are superb – and if you’d still rather he cut back yet further on the occasional histrionics his proclivity for gut-busting last-ditch penalty-area blocks and tackles more than compensate.  A gutsy, cast-iron trooper, then, as reflected by a worthy third-place in the WO Player of the Season poll… so whilst a lack of cover in wing-back positions, particularly on the left, had long been an area for concern it didn’t feel entirely equitable that Pudil lost his place to new-boy Riera towards the end of the campaign;  whatever the Spaniard’s ability, Pudil’s performances hadn’t demanded that.

Next Season:  Given the much-trailed recruitment of Lloyd Dyer, Pudil will face stiffer competition on the left hand side.

19- Marco Faraoni

Something of a vote-splitter this one. Another with pedigree, Faraoni grew up at Lazio and began his professional career with Inter, a respectable upbringing but one afforded perhaps undue lustre by the exotic foreign-ness of the clubs involved.  After all, the Championship is awash with players who made a dozen or so appearances for Manchester United in their younger days, and few are judged particularly harshly as a consequence.  Faraoni’s tender years are also easily overlooked – 22, the same age as Reece Brown and only a year older than the likes of Hoban and Bond he has come to a foreign country to play in a different style of football in a particularly challenging position.

Not difficult to see why there ARE reservations, mind.  Marco hasn’t tended to look terribly comfortable with the challenging wing back role, seemingly lacking an instinct as to when he should be attacking and when he should be shifting his arse to get back.  His decision making can leave something to be desired and he has a short fuse.  On the other hand… the component parts of a fabulous footballer are all there struggling to find shape and form.  When in attacking positions his delivery is sound, he is positive and assertive and not since Marlon King have we had a player capable of killing a ball stone dead with such effortless ease, irrespective of from what distance or at what angle he receives it, like a Jedi Knight toying with lobbed rocks with a flick of the finger.  One that could go one way or t’other, then…  question is really whether it’s us that gets to watch him develop.

Next Season:  Persistent rumours of a return to Italy don’t augur enormously positively.

20 (#1) – Diego Fabbrini

I liked this one, too.  That pre-season game against Granada…  Fabbrini danced and skipped and dragged the game hither and thither at will, like a chef caressing a rich sauce.  How we drooled at the prospect of the damage he might cause, even after replays betrayed that what had looked like an effortless zero-backlift top-corner screamer owed rather a lot to an unnoticed deflection.  What a weapon this guy would be, how much fun, just as soon as he got the hang of his new environment…

Ah.  My Dad still insists that Diego Fabbrini was about to rip the division to shreds.  Or rather, that he was already doing so but his genius was unappreciated by the majority.  No doubt that the waif-like Italian has ability, of course.  You don’t get a full Italian cap in a raffle, not even for a pre-season friendly.  You don’t end up playing second tier football a year or so later in the normal way either though; something clearly wasn’t quite right and given that Fabbrini spent the second half of the season not back in Serie A with Udinese but flattering to deceive with Siena in Serie B it was more than just homesickness.  From the word go Fabbrini’s ability was his and his alone, scarcely a suggestion of him blending with his teammates, of him finding away to employ that ability to surf past a marker to good effect.  His 25 appearances, borne of a hope that his appearances would blossom, that something would connect, yielded a tap-in at the Madejski Stadium.  Not good enough, not even for a “forward” rather than an out-and-out striker, particularly one hardly doing donkey-work for the cause when he wasn’t scoring goals.

Next Season: Would be a huge surprise to see him back at Vicarage Road.

End of Term Report Part 4 21/05/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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12- Lloyd Doyley

After thirteen years in the first team squad, there’s little to say about Lloyd that you don’t already know.  Quick, diligent, competent, adaptable, focused, professional.  And a complete bloody star.  Not infallible, not above the odd stinker here or there – and there were one or two of those this season if we’re honest – and never likely to stride arrogantly out of defence and swipe a crossfield pass onto the toe of an escaping wingback in the style of Gabrielle Angella.  But solid gold, a must for the bench whenever he’s not in the starting eleven… whether Beppe’s comments lauding the value of home-grown types like Lloyd and Luke O’Nien was merely window dressing or straight down the line they were entirely accurate.  Lloyd will unpretentiously come in and do a job and if he fails to do it thoroughly it won’t be down to attitude .  A sporadic starter throughout the season but a fixture in the matchday squad (but for a hamstring injury in the autumn), also worth noting that we won half the games that Lloyd was involved in, and fewer than 20% of those that he wasn’t…

Next Season:  More of the same.  Obviously.

13- Mathias Ranégie

The thing here is that a player who looks perpetually grumpy has extra work to do.  You can get away with it – indeed, it’s practically an asset – if you’re the all-action type, a destructive midfielder say, or a brutal target man.  Perhaps even a moody but brilliant goalkeeper.  Otherwise, you’re going to need to work that little bit harder to compensate.  This is what Mathias Ranégie is battling with, since for all that he looks strong and clever, uses his body well and wins an awful lot in the air there’s an air of diffidence about the Swede that isn’t a crowd-pleaser…  the inverse of that stereotypically British thing about loving a trier, someone who saunters around expending energy selectively isn’t going to win friends, particularly if he looks so thoroughly pissed off and resentful while doing so.

There’s little doubt that he looks a useful acquisition, mind.  The presence of a genuine, flick-ons, running-battles and nods down at the far post target man took immediate pressure off Troy and will be a useful weapon next season whether or not Troy is around to benefit from the increased freedom it affords the strike partner.  Mathias’ silly reaction to provocation from that horrible little gobshite James Husband (bye then, Doncaster) at the Keepmoat was only one of several instances suggesting that the big striker has a short fuse to match his sulky demeanour, but if he contributes consistently on the pitch we’ll let him off that.

Next Season:  One of several cases where it will be interesting to see what effect a proper pre-season can have on fitness and consistency.

15- Javier Acuña

I really liked the idea of Javier Acuña. Signed, apparently, in the face of stiff competition with an impressive goalscoring record at Castilla he was one of the new weapons that was going to offset the loss of Vydra.  The one, bluntly, who was going to get the goals.

And if that never really looked likely there was nonetheless something endearing about Acuña’s lack of regard for his own safety in the way he hurtled into challenges – sometimes with excessive exuberance but certainly better that way than the other.  In this regard he resembled a fabled Watford centre-forward, but there the resemblance ended.  Whilst H was misemployed by one manager in his Watford career he was never discarded, always demanded involvement. Acuña started three League games for Watford, as well as a handful in the League Cup but never consecutive games.  One of those cup games featured his only goal for the Hornets, a fine bullish strike against Norwich borne of just the sort of bloody mindedness that his spasmodic involvement had already suggested.  He had never really looked like that the goalscorer though… dropping deep or wide more naturally than attacking the box.  In reality we had enough of those sorts of options all ready.

Next Season:  For whatever reason, Javier never settled at Watford.  A return to England seems unlikely.

16- Sean Murray

Having disappeared from the picture last season Sean won hearts and minds by booking himself into a fitness camp over the summer break, a statement of intent and of determination, a professional and mature call seeking to right a perceived wrong from twelve months earlier.  His reward was involvement from the outset, ostensibly as part of a tag team with Cristian Battocchio with whom he ended the season with a virtually identical playing record.

Truth be told, he’s rarely looked entirely comfortable.  The swagger of his early performances has gone, even if he’s still finding the back of the net with reasonable regularity.  The first thing to note here, however, is that Sean Murray is only 20.  Three years since his debut, true, and feels longer – he’s played under four managers in that time – but nonetheless, still 20 and at an age where many would be making their first tentative steps into the team.  Sean has 50 senior starts, and half as many off the bench.  And he will grow, and he’ll get better – his determination no longer in doubt.  Perhaps it’s a matter of finding his role… finding his niche.  Perhaps no coincidence that he looked comfortable in Sean Dyche’s 4-4-2.  But players who break through very young often don’t end up being quite the sort of player that their earliest performances suggested they might be.  Gary Porter springs to mind here. Sean has plenty of ability.  Club and player have just got to work out how best to use it…

Next Season:  Still here for the long term, and hurrah for that, Sean needs to find his place.

End of Term Report Part 3 18/05/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

8 (#2)- Alexander Merkel

Alex Merkel’s name had been mentioned frequently in dispatches long before his eventual arrival in January, ostensibly as cover for the still-not-quite-recovered Almen Abdi.  Having joined Milan at the age of 16 he had no small pedigree, and if he blotted his copybook early on with a needless, stroppy red card at the end of his debut defeat to Reading it was only after he’d shown tantalising glimpses of his ability from an unnatural-looking berth, pre-Tözsér, at the back of the midfield.  Thing is… he never really got any further than that.  There was no doubting his ability;  at times, such as at Doncaster in March and off the bench against Barnsley the following weekend, there was a suggestion that the Kazakh-German, who looked like he might have belonged in an eighties boy-band, was beginning to establish himself.  Instead as the season draw to a close he was involved less rather than more, making only one further start and drifting away from the picture despite options in midfield being further limited by injuries.  You were left with the impression of someone whose heart perhaps was never really in the thing to start with.

Next Season:  Apparent indictment in the end-of-season fall-out would seem to preclude further involvement at Vicarage Road, which on the basis of the unrealised status of his talent is no great loss.  A philosophical question:  does a stradivarius, kept in its box under the bed, make any noise?  In a forest or anywhere else?

9- Troy Deeney

There’s a reason that players don’t often score 20 goals in consecutive seasons, after all.  More than one reason, strictly speaking…  the first being that 20 goals a season tends to be enough to attract interest, the second being that those that hang around are either playing at a higher level having propelled their club upwards, or lack the ability to repeat the feat – the first twenty an outlier,a flash in the pan – or that they fail to motivate themselves in quite the same way given no change in status.  Been there, done that, already got that t-shirt.  So… sure, Troy’s Player of the Season campaign was not without its criticisms.  As we flailed, rudderless and leaderless, in Zola’s last days Deeney was as culpable as anyone, a dip in form and influence that he’s since acknowledged.  And as he surged back into view in the New Year you did have to wonder quite whose benefit that was for…  were these colossal performances simply a consequence of rediscovered mojo or did Troy realise that his chances of a big move would be greatly enhanced by a show of force.  Either way, he was magnificent during the second half of the season, almost without exception or hiccup.  Strong and yet mobile, aggressive and yet controlled, ability matched with personality, he stood out like a beacon in the same way that Adrian Mariappa did during his final season at Vicarage Road.  Just too good for this level of football any longer – those debates about whether he was worth whatever we paid Walsall for him now seem an awfully long time ago.

Next Season:  The Pozzo model would suggest that this would be the time.  Two years to go on his contract, peak of his powers, two massive seasons under his belt… this is the time to sell, and it’s inconceivable that there won’t be offers.  If he does stay, you suspect it would be for the longer term…  here for keeps, here to finish what we’ve started.  If he goes… the rationale would be that you sell now because you don’t need to sell now, so you only sell if the right money comes in.  And that would need to be an awful lot…

10- Lewis McGugan

When we signed Lewis McGugan it felt like a bit of a coup. One of the most eye-catching players in the Championship, scorer of belting long rage goals and audacious free-kicks, a highlights show staple, his signing something of a statement of intent.  Fast forward, and Lewis has ended the season with eleven goals, an impressive haul from midfield by any standards, and a respectable enough eight assists.  So why is there any debate?  Scores goals, often eye-catching goals.  Makes goals.  What’s not to like?

The answer was suggested by the shrug with which McGugan’s departure was met by many on the Forest messageboards, a response that knocked our triumphalism at poaching him somewhat. It’s reflected in the fact that after an underwhelming campaign for the team Lewis didn’t make the top ten in Player of the Season despite those impressive stats. McGugan isn’t lazy.  He’s not merely a showman, a highlights player, a show pony.  If he were there would, again, be no debate and he wouldn’t have been the most regular pick in the midfield three over the course of the season.  Not lazy.  But perhaps… indisciplined.  Not in the losing temper, picking up cards sense but rather…  disappearing when things get tough.  Making bad decisions far too often…  the defining image of McGugan’s season isn’t of him reeling away from another triumphant free kick, it’s of Troy Deeney giving him the look (and sometimes more than a look) after, once again, Lewis chose to take his chance with a long-range drive into the back of the stand rather than looking for the pass.

To return to one of BHaPPY’s favourite topics, you rather wonder what Lewis would look like playing alongside a John Eustace character…  someone to keep in his ear, remind him what the hell he’s supposed to be doing and kick him up the arse when required.  As it is, he’s obviously an asset but for all the positive contributions his potential remains unrealised.

Next Season:  More of the same, one suspects.  Which will be good, but, you know…

11- Fernando Forestieri

Really, what’s not to like?  In a side that’s struggled for… personality for much of the season, Nando provides it in bucketloads.  He’s still a young player and whilst he’s progressed immeasurably in his two seasons at Vicarage Road there are still rough edges.  He could have probably done without being a de facto first choice for as much of the season but at the same time his name on the teamsheet is never anything but a Good Thing.

His expressive nature has also made him a barometer of the team’s mood.  Early in the season a brief return to the more testing histrionics, going down too easily, remonstrating with the officials or into space as he stomped slowly back onside provided due warning of the brick wall that ‘franco’s side was careering into.  His devilish goal at Manchester City served notice on a renewed exuberance that would see us lose only four of the next seventeen games… and his doleful trudge across the front of the Rookery early in the Huddersfield game telegraphed that something was amiss before events on the pitch underlined the concern.

He hadn’t started a game since mid-February, incidentally, and much as Mathias Ranégie and Ikechi Anya between them provided reasonable service to Troy in the meantime we hadn’t half missed his fairy dust.  He’s the guy at drama club who doesn’t learn his lines but turns up and improvises genius…  a group full of Nandos would be a disaster.  You do rather need at least one though.

Next Season:  He’s a weapon and still improving, but we’d get so much more out of him if as last season he was merely one of a number of different options.

End of Term Report Part 2 15/05/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

5- Essaïd Belkalem

On the face of it, the poster boy for our pretty disastrous recruitment last summer, or something,  and beyond dispute that he’s failed to impress in his outings in yellow.  A lot of mitigating circumstances though, before dismissing the Algerian altogether.  More than any of our cosmopolitan recruits it was immediately evident that communication was an issue… multi-lingual or otherwise, Belkalem was clearly not on the same wavelength as his teammates a lot of the time – the defining image of his time at Watford will have been of him out of position on the wrong side of an escaping opponent lunging in to remedy the situation and earning a yellow card into the bargain.  That’s not a facet that sits comfortably with trying to adapt to playing in a back three, let alone to settling into a new country, a new environment.  Physically, Belkalem looks a brute…  a monstrous, powerful stopper in the Fitz Hall mould, you do rather suspect that we’d have seen better of him in a back four, and given some time to adapt.  Instead his involvement was sporadic – none of his seven starts were consecutive – and by the time he had overcome a mid-season ankle injury Tommie Hoban had nudged him back down the queue.

Next Season:  Post World-Cup, of course, where he’s as close as we’ll have to a representative, the Algerian’s future is unclear. One can’t imagine that either club or player will be desperate to extend this season’s arrangement, and yet dependent on Granada’s status you wouldn’t rule out a return quite yet.  We’ve not seen the best of him.

6- Joel Ekstrand

Here’s a really odd one.  One that you didn’t see coming.  In the wake of Joel’s hugely impressive opening season at Vicarage Road a year ago we eulogised him, suggesting that “Mentally, a “that bit’s sorted” label was pasted over whichever corner of the defence Joel occupied”.  Twelve months on that assessment doesn’t seem to apply…  consensus amongst football supporters is rare, but such has emerged with the judgement that Ekstrand really hasn’t had a very happy time of it this term for all that he’s been as much a regular as anyone – only Almunia, Angella and Deeney started more games.  Whilst last year he looked confident and unflappable, this season he’s looked far from confident on too many occasions, struggling with his distribution, picking up plenty of needless, often sulky bookings (eleven in total) and looking like part of the problem rather than a trooper swimming against the tide.  In fairness he looked a lot happier when fielded in the centre of the three where better able to concentrate on the purely defensive work;  you kinda feel you want a physically more dominant figure there in the long term though.

Next Season:  Bottom line, it’s not as simple as these imports either working out or not.  Joel was splendid in his first year, less than splendid this time;  to what extent he has changed and to what extent circumstances have made him less effective is moot.  What’s clear is that here’s someone who has demonstrated that he’s capable of being a terrific asset to the team and if he comes back next season with his head in the right place we’ll all be better off for it.

7- Cristian Battocchio

There was a point in January when things were slightly in flux following Beppe’s arrival and Battocchio’s future at the Hornets was cast into doubt with loan moves back to Italy seemingly on the cards.  Quite what the motivation for this was was never altogether clear…  the likeliest explanation, that the new coach didn’t rate the young Argentine/Italian, was swiftly dispelled when plans for a loan were quickly scotched with the general understanding being that Sannino, in fact, had insisted that he be retained.  Battocchio seemed perfectly happy with this development and contributed well for the rest of the season… the main upshot of the episode being that Beppe got an early tick in the “plus” box for both asserting is authority and for good judgement.  Cristian is far from the finished article, as reflected by a season that has seen him tagging in and out of the side with Sean Murray, eighteen months his junior.  Last year we suggested that he was a good cog in a successful side but too infrequently affects the course of a game that’s getting away from us… that still holds I think, although I’d argue that alongside the trademark relentless energy and Hanna Barbera whirring legs there has been a growing influence, a willingness to take responsibility even if he has nonetheless disappeared into the mire of some of our worst outings along with everyone else.  Clearly a popular bloke and very far from the most negative mercenary stereotype that lingers in the back of the mind in considering the Pozzo model – witness his Community award – Cristian has ability, personality and potential.  That’ll do us just fine for the moment.

Next Season:  More of the same, one hopes, and a growing influence in our midfield.

8 (#1) – Josh McEachran

There’s a wider backstory to Josh McEachran, in which his spell at Watford is little more than a footnote.  For several years he’s been tipped as a strong maybe from Chelsea’s youth system, evidence that the huge investment in foreign talent doesn’t prohibit the best English youngsters coming through.  Whilst we’re digressing onto the topic, in as much as I care about the national team at all my concern certainly doesn’t extend to justifying pissing around with the lower divisions in its name, much less in doing so whilst using the national team as a veil to thinly conceal the Premier elite’s very selfish priorities.  That’s by the by.  McEachran, as it turns out, appears to have fallen below the anticipated trajectory…  but that doesn’t disprove the viability of emerging English talent either.  The fact is – and thank the stars for this, frankly, in this post-EPPP world – that development of youngsters from a starting point of high potential, has never been a given.  McEachran looked a potential star at 16 or so but there’s not  a straight line between that and a World Cup place at the age of 19 or 20 because kids develop in different ways that are as dependent on mentality and physique as they are on environment.

Actually I don’t think McEachran’s a bad player, and I didn’t think that his loan at Watford was the unmitigated disaster that many perceived it as at the time.  Or at least, if he wasn’t what we were looking for he nonetheless did his fetching, carrying, keeping-things-moving job well enough, showing a positive intent that wasn’t always evident around him.  What we needed, actually, was a bit more authority and some physical presence, both of which George Thorne proved slightly more capable of providing.

Next Season:  Sporadic involvement on loan at Wigan in the second half of the season suggests that the first team Stamford Bridge career once envisaged remains unlikely.  Them’s the breaks.  But for the fanfare that preceded it, Josh’s career trajectory would have been far less worthy of comment.

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