End of Term Report Part 8 02/06/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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.
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 30/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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 27/05/2014Posted 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 there. Adjusting 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 24/05/2014Posted 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 21/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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 18/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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 15/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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.
End of Term Report Part 1 12/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
This is going to be done for the World Cup if it kills me… onwards…
1- Manuel Almunia
A player whose status will perhaps divide opinions. He has an error in him, certainly, and has done throughout his career. He appears to be increasingly fragile – four separate spells out this season with either injury our illness (albeit twice for a game only). Despite which, for me the case is clear. In a side lacking leaders, a side which by its very make-up might have language issues and has often fielded a formation that leaves you vulnerable down the flanks and thus demands organisation we are hugely dependent on Manuel. There’s a debate about whether you’re better off with your captain outfield which is a separate conversation – you’d need the right character before foisting the captaincy further forward for one thing, and thereby hangs the real problem. Not lack of an outfield captain, but lack of outfield leadership. The armband shouldn’t be relevant. But in any case, Manuel isn’t a presence that you want to be without as it stands.
The case for the Spaniard is made most strongly, as is often the case with underappreciated players, when he’s out of the side – with no slur on Bond intended. Just as his Vicarage Road debut, in Lloyd’s testimonial almost two years ago, was characterised by his bellow echoing off the back of the Rous Stand; the two more prolonged absences this season coincided with Zola’s last run of games and the pathetic close to the season and defensive fragility. More going on in both cases than just a change of keeper, more context, no direct cause-and-effect. But not a complete coincidence either that our two grimmest spells of the season saw Manuel out of the team. There’s one voice calling the shots back there.
Next Season: Out of contract, the future’s rather up to Manuel one suspects. I don’t believe for a minute that he won’t get another year if he wants one.
2- Reece Brown
Ah, Reece Brown. Remember him? Me too, just about. An odd signing amongst a number of odd signings in our scattergun recruitment last summer, having left trees comprehensively unpulled during a number of loan spells from Old Trafford before his release. In his pre-season outings and limited first team action he resembled his more celebrated brother both physically and in the way that, like Brown Sr in his early days in the Man United first team, he spent long spells looking commanding and every inch the part before tripping over his own feet at an inopportune moment. The corollary to that comparison of course is that Wes Brown turned out to be a solid top flight and occasionally international defender, and that Brown Jr wouldn’t need to emulate his brother to be an asset. He’s going to be lucky to get the opportunity to do so at Vicarage Road though.
Next Season: A year left on his contract, Brown is a long way down the pecking order and seemed to have been written off as a bad idea very early on.
3- Hector Bellerin
By contrast, I really don’t remember Hector Bellerin. Is that more a reflection of me getting old, or of the transient nature of much of our squad this season? Have I just lost track? Was he the anonymous defensive midfielder from this big club or the lightweight wingback from that big club? His loan spell, part of the ongoing quest to provide more cover at wing-back, spanned the two managers before being curtailed, presumably since Arsene Wenger decided that his charge would learn more back at the ranch than he would from being part of the remedial rearguard action being undertaken at Vicarage Road. Not the easiest period in which to arrive on loan by any standards… his only involvement in a victory was five minutes at the end of the mauling of Millwall, despite which he seems to have been well thought of on his departure by those upon whom he left an impression. I wasn’t one of them.
Next Season: His star on the rise at Arsenal, another loan seems most likely. Not over the fence again tho.
4- Gabriele Angella
That Gabriele Angella is a terrific defender should go without saying. Strong, quick, utterly comfortable with the ball at his feet and a threat at set pieces to boot. He’s not quite the monster that he appeared to be on his arrival though… a strong defender, good in the air but somehow not dominant, not a bully, not a leader. Not always the happiest looking camper either, although heaven knows we’ve all had enough to be grumpy about this season. As someone who by all accounts we were after a year earlier and who was relatively close to the top of the pile at Udinese Angella must haven taken some persuading in the first place and mid-table in the Championship probably wasn’t what he banked on. Nonetheless, his dips in form were far less pronounced than those going on around him and whatever problems there were at the back, Angella wouldn’t have been near the top of many people’s diagnoses. Enormous fun from attacking set pieces also… the biggest threat we’ve had from set pieces than the more brutal but no less effective Dan Shittu left WD18. Clearly one of the ones who worked, then. Just wish he looked like he was enjoying it a bit more…
Next Season: Would not be surprising to see Prem clubs sniffing around… Gaby has the air of someone who knows he’s above all this. A return to Italy not out of the question either. If he’s still in yellow in August I’ll be delighted.
Helping Hands 2013/2014 07/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
This has long-since become an annual feature of course, as much out of habit as anything else. Sometimes the table tells you precious little that you didn’t already know, or at least would have guessed.
This time however is a little different, since the table suggests a few things that are slightly surprising… as well as some that tell the story, or part of the story, of our season.
That Ikechi Anya sits some way clear at the top of the pile is case in point. In a season where a vast number of names have appeared in our midfield and few have been regular starts for any length of time for a variety of reasons, the player that has created the most goals is the one attacking player in the squad with what Alan Hansen might at one stage have described as “genuine” pace. The obvious outlet, the man with the speed to burst beyond a defence. What surprised me a little was the breakdown of those assists… true, Anya missed chunks of the early season with injury (primarily Zola’s final weeks when the wheels fell off), but nonetheless one assist (in 12+3) under Gianfranco is meagre compared to ten (in 20+4) under Beppe, a rate that far exceeds even Almen Abdi’s last term and is remarkable, even allowing for his occasional – and largely unsuccessful – forays up front. My perception had been that Ikechi had been less effective, more restricted by the discipline required by the new manager; these figures suggest otherwise.
Behind some predictable names, significant that Almen Abdi manages to roll up in fifth despite having scarcely featured and only occasionally being fully fit when he did. How different our season might have turned out with the reliable genius of Abdi more dependably available.
Beyond this it’s the low numbers that are more instructive. Albert Riera showcased quality and scored a memorable, stunning goal but didn’t provide an assist from his rather uncomfortable wing-back berth, giving a lie to the suggestion that his defensive discomfort might be compensated for by what he offers going forward. The assist table is only a limited, one-dimensional reflection of that contribution, but does rather back up the view that Riera needs to be better employed if he stays at the Vic next season.
Marco Cassetti plummets from ten assists last time to a mere two this, reflecting his retreat to the pivotal centre of the back three in contrast to his occasional wing-back and eventual side-of-the-three-with-licence-to-roam under Gianfranco. Surprising also, perhaps, to see only three assists next to Cristian Battocchio’s name, each of which in the last two months of the season.
Beyond that, most informative is the number of players to have made a handful of appearances only. There will always be a few of these, of course, and nobody’s going to complain about kids getting a run out at the end of the season. Seven players with one or fewer starts feels high though, as does 21 with single-figure starts. Last season we shipped out half of Sean Dyche’s squad a month in, brought in a large number of loans with the expressed intent of seeing who worked and who didn’t, and still only reached 20…
|Anya||11||31+7||5||Bar (A), Mwl (H), MaC – FAC (A), NoF (A), LeC (A), Bar (H), Bar (H), BlR (H), ShW (A), LeU (H), DeC (A)|
|McGugan||8||33+4||11||Bar (A), Bar (A), HuT (A), DeC (H), LeU (A), Bou (A), ShW (A), IpT (H)|
|Forestieri||7||22+10||8||BiC (A), Bou (H), Bou-LC (H), BHA (A), BiC (H), Mbo (H). DoR (A)|
|Deeney||6||47+1||25||Bou (H), DoR (H), MaC – FAC (A), LeC (A), Mwl (A), QPR (A)|
|Abdi||4||9+7||2||Bou (H), Bou (H), Rdg (A), LeU (H)|
|Fabbrini||4||11+14||1||Bou (H), Rdg (A), ChA (H), NoC – LC (H)|
|Faraoni||4||31+12||4||WgA (H), HuT (A), BrC – FAC (H), LeU (H)|
|Pudil||4||33+9||2||DeC (H), Bpl (H), ShW (A), Mwl (A)|
|Tözsér||3||20||0||Bpl (H), IpT (H), IpT (H)|
|Murray||3||27+12||6||BrR – LC (A), DoR (H), NoF (A)|
|Battocchio||3||27+14||5||Bpl (H), Bpl (H), DeC (A)|
|Angella||3||43+2||8||WgA (A), Bur (H), ChA(A)|
|Acuña||2||6+6||1||BrR – LC (A), Bou – LC (H)|
|Merkel||2||7+4||1||BHA (H), BlR (H)|
|Thorne||2||8||0||LeU (A), Mwl (H)|
|Cassetti||2||34+5||1||Mbo (A), IpT (A)|
|Smith||1||3+2||0||BrC – FAC (A)|
The annual “School Report” feature follows shortly…
Watford 1 Huddersfield Town 4 (03/05/2014) 04/05/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Scarcely credible as it seems now, it started OK. We’d arrived stupid early, disorientated by perverse kick-off times and disrupted routines, looked for some red in the new kit in the Hornet Shop, bought some lunch from Critellis. By which time it was still… quiet…
The quandary was resolved by a rare trip to the V-Bar. Two pints of Guinness later the sense of obligation that tends to accompany irrelevant end-of-season stuff like this and the lingering disappointment at our limp challenge for the play-offs had both been set aside. The sun was shining, as is traditional in book-ending the season, Jonathan Hogg was afforded (and keen to acknowledge) a warm reception and the club, to their great credit, restored the traditional awarding of the Player of the Season award, Troy inevitably collecting the trophy from Oliver Phillips. Grins all round then, and in selecting Alex Jakubiak – in part through necessity given yet another injury to a striker in Ranégie – Beppe had given us a reason to pay attention as the game kicked off.
We began brightly; Jakubiak involved early and earning two quick chances… the first screwing wide from the left side of goal, then scampering onto a through-ball to fire too close to Smithies. So far so good… but that was about as good as it got for Watford, and indeed for the youngster who spent the rest of his time on the pitch looking a little lost, reacting to things rather than anticipating them. It was to prove far from the easiest game in which to make one’s debut, and with the benefit of the context of how the game was to develop I later found myself trying to remember quite how much support he’d received from those around him. Either way, he faded from that bright start as did the Hornets… as the half progressed the visitors took control, driven on by the lively Hammill, and dominated possession. There wasn’t a lot in the way of goalmouth action though… it comes to something when both a half’s highlights involve Harry the Hornet and an inflatable beach ball. Thank the stars for the play-offs, but for which so many fans would have to suffer this sort of inconsequential tosh on a far more regular basis from February onwards.
2- At half-time, Joonz bemoaned the tedium. “Even three-nil defeats are better than this. At least something happens”. I didn’t see him after the game, but it’s inconceivable that he didn’t regret those morose words. The second half wasn’t just bad, it was a monstrous heap of steaming manure, an embarrassment on an epic scale irrespective of timing or context. With the benefit of time to recover and gain some perspective, go on holiday perhaps, take out some frustration on some household chores (pity those bastard dandelions) it will enter legend alongside the greatest atrocities that recent-ish seasons have to offer. You’ll have your own “favourites” of course… for me the one that bears closest comparison was the monstrous New Year’s Day capitulation to Millwall under Gianluca Vialli.
Then, as now, the difference between the sides wasn’t ability. Huddersfield may have been our match in that regard also, but it was never relevant. Huddersfield won the game through having spirit and balls and a semblance of discipline that we thoroughly lacked. Not that they had to draw on deep reserves of character to win the game but there was at least some personality. Some effort. It was plenty good enough. The comparisons with the Vialli season don’t stop there of course… in particular it’s unavoidable that when an opponent is compliant enough to amble into our bear-pit we have had enough ability to rip them up. There have been plenty of comfortable victories, seven by three goals or more. Whenever a bit of depth of character, a bit of digging in has been required, we’ve crumbled. Not just now and again, but pretty much every time that the going’s got tough. But this rant is getting ahead of itself…
Another parallel between this and that Millwall game was that one of the four goals in the Watford net provoked a nod of empathy from the home end. In fairness, this might actually have been independent of our own lack of performance on each occasion… you’d like to think that cancer survivor Neil Harris would have got some applause for his first goal back under any circumstances in 2002. Here… it’s difficult not to empathise with a debut goal, even when it’s scored against us at the start of the second half with the game ostensibly still in the balance… Town wanted it more than us from the off, Joe Lolley took some initiative (standing out like a beacon immediately) and ran at the defence and took advantage as it flopped apart in front of him.
I like Sean Murray, and there’s surely little to dislike about Cristian Battocchio but the pair of them fielded in the same midfield has begun to resemble the “we’re short of options” flare that Johann Gudmundsson’s occasional re-emergence on the bench did at one stage under GT. This wasn’t merely ineffective though… Battocchio was invisible throughout, despite which there was little arguing with the immediate withdrawal of Murray in response to Lolley’s goal such was his hapless display. His replacement was Samba Diakité, who challenged his critics by injecting a little impetus and poise to our attack. This wasn’t a gamechanging performance but it was something, and thus more than was offered by a thoroughly disappointing Daniel Töszér who was able to ping a pass when he got the ball at his feet but rarely shifted his arse in order to engineer that opportunity. So… little in midfield. Up front, Deeney toiled, first alongside Jakubiak and later Anya with little more success and at the back we collapsed like a tower of cards at the slightest breeze, an alarmingly poor Jonathan Bond ushering in two of Danny Ward’s three goals for good measure. To rub salt into the wound, Gabrielle Angella should have been sent off for shoving an opponent in the neck which would have aptly rounded off an uncharacteristically dreadful afternoon for the Italian. Not a good day.
3- Light relief was provided by the referee, who appeared to quash our flickering signs of life by cruelly and inexplicably ruling out Marco Cassetti’s far post header which appeared to have forced its way over the line. The official appeared to indicate that the ball had earlier crossed touchline – an inverse-Attwell if you will – before realising that the linesman was indicating precisely nothing. Nothing in the laws about how to dig yourself out of such a hole of course, so he improvised with a drop ball followed by a Watford penalty for the merest suggestion of a push on Deeney. A half-hearted protester in stripes appeared to, not unreasonably, point towards the point at which Cassetti’s header had taken place, implying a level of evening up to which the referee could justifiably have answered “yes, and?”. Deeney sent Smithies the wrong way to bring up 25 for the season but any relief to the misery was instantaneous. An increasingly angry and frustrated figure throughout, Deeney clouted the rebound towards the roof of the Rookery, and celebrated his goal alone.
4- It seems utterly perverse now that we talked, after Ipswich, about winning our last four games in the context of a late play off run as something that was merely highly unlikely (NB: those four wins would have done the job, not that it matters). That the last few games would have panned out rather differently – in terms of performances if not necessarily outcome – had we got that deserved win at Loftus Road is surely beyond dispute but the contrast in terms of both attitude and the apparent security of the manager’s position between QPR less than a fortnight ago and now – speaking as someone who didn’t see either of the two defeats in the interim – is startling.
That there was nothing, strictly, to play for in the last few games shouldn’t be forgotten; it’s not irrelevant. What’s far more relevant is the contrast between the utterly commendable position taken publicly by the manager, demanding improvement from the shabby offerings at Derby and Charlton and a positive end to the campaign, and what was delivered on the pitch. You don’t need any experience of watching football at any level to spot the disconnect there, it couldn’t be starker. That’s not a team that’s on message, not a happy or united camp. Rumours elsewhere suggest a dressing room fallout, a rebellion over the cancelled day off in the week in the wake of Charlton and a boycott co-ordinated by names significantly missing from yesterday’s squad. Dangerous to comment on mere heresay… but that something had happened must have occurred to more than one onlooker as the normally ebullient Fernando Forestieri, dressed in a suit, glumly passed across the front of the Rookery early on, only reacting to his reception after much delay as if aroused from deep thought. If there’s credibility in those rumours then it’s impossible not to instinctively side with the manager… but impossible also not to wonder about how tenable his position is. Worth noting, yet again, what an extraordinary challenge managing a side in our current set-up is… whether based in fact or not, this rumour describes precisely the sort of unmotivated, half-arsed bollocks that resided in our worst nightmares when the Pozzo model was first described. This is what failure to get a disparate bunch of players playing as a unit might look like. Gianfranco’s achievement last season – much as it helps to be winning, much as his departure remains inevitable and credible even with the benefit of hindsight – should not be underestimated. The contrast with Burnley’s disciplined, focused draw with Reading couldn’t be starker.
5- The “lap of honour” at the end of the game was peculiar in the extreme. The stands were… not empty, but not thronging with acclaim as they surely would have been given any kind of performance on the day. It’s been a disappointing season, given the expectations we went in with… but it’s not been that bad for the most part. There have been good wins, good performances, and everyone wants to leave happy. As it was, those that remained were surely largely there for one man only.
This is not the way Troy would have wanted to bow out, assuming (as seems inevitable on any number of levels) that this was his last game in yellow. It could be argued that much of his astonishing form since Christmas has been in part for the benefit of those watching on who might play a role in his future but whatever, he’s been extraordinary and much as his form dipped early season when we badly needed a leader nobody has any right to feel short changed. This is a guy who has made mistakes but recovered from them, grown as a player throughout his time here and will leave as one of the most complete centre-forwards we’ve seen at Vicarage Road for some considerable time. His was the most reluctant departure from the pitch, dangling offspring upside down by the ankles, but only after boots and sundry items of clothing had been launched into the Rookery. All the best Troy.
As for our future… all bets are off. For me, the contrast of the last two seasons tells you simple things. That the model can work. That inherent are huge challenges for staff at all levels, but huge potential also. That it doesn’t come with any guarantees. What remains, despite this disappointment, is a stable structure, investment in infrastructure, a club that has a plan and is evolving. A plan can be sound but imperfectly executed, and that’s where we are. As for Beppe… I’d still like him to do well. If he stays, if he’s still here in August, the implication will be that things have been “sorted” and I won’t be unhappy. After Saturday, however, dead rubber or otherwise, I’m far from convinced that that will be the case.