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End of Term Report Part 1 15/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

For the ninth summer running, a blow-by-blow breakdown of the ‘orns squad.  Moses Ashikodi was in the first one.  Yes, really.

1- Heurelho Gomes

When Manuel Almunia left last summer it was interesting that the club went for a similar blueprint in replacing him…. an experienced stopper with top flight pedigree who had perhaps fallen out of favour at their club and was out in the cold.  There was a degree of risk involved – the twelve months that we committed to initially more reflection of this than of his (then) 33 years.  Like Almunia, Gomes has been guilty of high-profile errors in the past;  unlike the Spaniard, Gomes’ forceful personality has appeared robust to such challenges.  Such doubts as there may have been have been blown away over the course of the season. Gomes seemed to immediately establish himself as a leader in the dressing room – lest we forget, we needed a few more of those – and his level of performance has risen throughout to the point where his contribution in the run in was as critical as anyone’s, including those of our vaunted forward line.  He’s never going to be one to hesitate in coming off his line and this might make life more… exciting than it need be on occasions but the number of occasions when he’s misjudged this has been small and we’re a much stronger side for the Brazilian’s presence.  His exuberant goal celebrations are also worthy of praise, lessening the distance to the incident when the critical development has been at the far side to an Watford away end.

Next Season:    The club have a year’s option on his contract and it seems inconceivable that we won’t exercise that clause.  Rumours suggest that a senior rival to Gomes may be brought in permitting Jonathan Bond to go out on loan – either way, you’d expect Gomes to be literally the first name on the teamsheet come August.

3- Gianni Munari

All things considered Gianni Munari can consider himself unfortunate, I think.  Signed on a year’s loan from Parma Munari quickly established himself in the first team squad, being involved in all but two of our games between our draw at Blackburn in late September and the hard-fought victory against the same side in early February.  No small statement that, in the context of our season and of our midfield options… and Munari gave us something a bit different.  6 foot 1 and built like a tank he was as close to a midfield enforcer as this current model has permitted, his physical presence invaluable in some of those winter scraps.  He’s more than that though… if not the deftest of our midfielders he nonetheless had enough about him to top our assists table at the end of the year as well as finding the net three times through knack for well-timed, bullish charges into the box.  So what did for Munari’s involvement was Ben Watson, a different type of weapon altogether.  Watson’s value in gluing our play together saw him start every game from his full debut against Bournemouth to the end of the season and Munari was the fall guy to the extent that he scarcely made it off the bench thereafter, even when it seemed that a bit of welly in the middle might be helpful.

Next Season:   Gianni’s lack of involvement in the latter half of the season doesn’t suggest that there will be moves to sign him permanently at the expiry of his one year loan.  Wouldn’t rule it out altogether, wouldn’t be upset if he did return – we still need physical presence and Munari has played 100-odd games in Serie A – but don’t think it’s very likely.  With home club Parma bankrupt, Munari’s future could lie elsewhere.

4- Gabriele Angella

A more quietly effective season for Gaby this time round.  That’s my impression anyway… perhaps I’ve just begun to take him for granted.  A regular in the side save for a two month absence with a knee injury in October/November that coincided with our run of defeats, Angella remains a reliable source of competent defending, raking long passes, set piece threat and flicks of the fringe.  He does have a mistake on him, although in suggesting as much it’s only fair to note that the formation we’ve played most often does rather lend itself to the defenders being pulled around a bit, but has coped effortlessly with switches between three- and four at the back looking equally comfortable in either set-up.  Looking back on what I’ve just written, it comes to something when  dogged competence is rewarded with mere acknowledgement rather than fulsome praise, but that’s where we are…

Next Season:   Angella’s initial reluctance to come to Watford in 2012 may have contributed to ongoing rumours about him not being happy in England, at one stage this season prompting denials from the club that he was set to return to Udinese.  It would, therefore, not be the biggest surprise in the world if he returned to the Stadio Friuli although you’d hope that having finally achieved top flight status Gaby might be tempted to hang around a while yet.  We’d be all the better for it.

5 (#1) – Keith Andrews

We should start by acknowledging that there really wasn’t an awful lot wrong with Andrews’ contribution on the pitch.  He was signed to tick a few boxes… experience of the Championship, a steadying influence in the midfield, someone to drop anchor, shield the defence and organise when such was our requirement.  All of this he did well enough, contributing a very fine assist in a rehearsed move against Millwall into the bargain.  The on the pitch stuff wasn’t really the problem and as such, being witness to only a snapshot of what happens off the pitch, it’s difficult to comment fully.  Suggestions of an abrasive character, however, are provided by Andrews’ track record.  It’s not unusual these days for a player to rack up a load of clubs but for someone with sufficient quality to have been picked for Ireland 35 times not to have managed more than 80 appearances for any of his twelve clubs suggests a problem; certainly he’d had “issues” at Wolves, West Brom and Bolton before signing for the Hornets on loan.  At times vocally proclaiming the quality of our squad, at others vocally questioning the inclusion and exclusion of players, the general “vocal” thing may have been at the core of it.  Either way, reports soon emerged of a falling out with Slav and Andrews was excluded from training as we tried to work our way out of a relatively expensive season-long loan.  Justified or not, the exclusion of Andrews and others coincided with a dramatic improvement in the team’s cohesion and spirit, so it’s impossible to criticise that call in retrospect.

Next Season:  Out of contract at Bolton, for whom he hadn’t turned out in two and a half years, Andrews has suggested that he will be joining the coaching staff at Franchise.

 

Helping Hands 2014/2015 10/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

Good grief, the last season hasn’t even finished yet.  I went to IKEA yesterday.  In May.  My daughters and I ambled arm in arm through the warehouse bit wistfully humming favourite tunes…. “Troo-oy Deeney, Watford’s number nine….”, “Since I was young….”, “Bounce in a minute”, and so forth as Tsega rolled her eyes in our wake.  The expectation was that the emotionally demanding last few weeks, months would leave us grateful for a bit of a rest, a bit of down time.  That sentiment appears to have lasted less than a week…

So here we are again, for what appears to be the eighth annual analysis of where our goals came from, giving me an excuse to relive them all through video clips and match reports.  And yes, this article has become increasingly straightforward to compile over time, leaving me wondering whether a more detailed breakdown might be appropriate (right foot/left foot/header/other? Inside/outside area?  Set pieces?  etc etc.  Maybe next year).

One factor which might make the article easier still to compile is the proliferation of alternative sources of this information from which to plagiarise; however unlike scoring of goals and despite what some conceited sources might have you believe there is no undisputed definition of what an assist IS, which justifies defining my own rules and thus being able to summarise and interpret consistently.  And watch them all again.  So…  my definition of an assist is relatively broad and generous.  The last pass, obviously, but also the shot that was parried for a follow-up, being taken down for a penalty, both the flick-on to a cross AND the cross itself, and so on.

Consequently it’s not surprising to see Troy topping the list, a good proportion of his assists taking the same form as his last, barrelling into the Sheffield Wednesday area, sucking attention towards himself, battering a shot off Kirkland and allowing Vydra to nod home.  More surprising perhaps the margin of his supremacy over last year’s table topper Ikechi Anya who comes in second despite, once again, a few voices questioning his contribution.  Also significant perhaps that all 13 of those asssists came after Christmas, the first coming at Cardiff City at the end of December.

Noteworthy also is the very low number of individuals who have played a significant proportion of games, which tells you much about the way the team has been managed in a campaign relatively light on serious injuries.  Only Heurelho Gomes managed more than 40 starts of our 49 League and Cup games; everyone else missed at least 10 with only another half dozen missing less than 20.  Allied to that, and the fact that we’ve had such a tremendous season, is the fact that when your eye runs down that list there are really very few names you’d have reservations about, certainly relatively few about whom you’re thinking “well he’s got to go”, despite the number of players employed.

Perhaps most surprising in a campaign in which he’s managed nine goals and a much more sustained contribution than last season is that Almen Abdi only manages three assists; he managed more than that last season in one third of the number of games.

Adlene Guedioura’s contribution is demonstrated by four assists, all of them magnificent…  a vicious cross with his left foot at Wigan, an impossible pass for Ighalo at Derby, an arcing far post missile to Deeney against Middlesbrough and a thumping drive at the City Ground, gobbled up by Almen Abdi.  Fingers crossed all over Hertfordshire that his signing can be made permanent over the summer.

Finally it’s worth noting the contribution of Gianni Munari, unfortunate victim of Ben Watson’s arrival and impressive impact in January, who had managed more assists than anyone – six – by the end of the year but only started half a dozen games thereafter.  Such was his physical prowess that it was easy to overlook the flicks on and awareness that contributed to our fluency earlier in the season.

Be back soon with the End of Term report.  Enjoy the summer…

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Deeney 13 38+5 21 CAR (A), HUD (A), BLP (H), BLP (H), BLP (H), BLP (H), LEE (A), LEE (A), WLV (A), REA (H), REA (H), BRI (A), SHW (H)
Anya 7 28+8 0 MBO (A), WIG (H), WIG (H), REA (A), MIL (A), MIL (A), BIR (H)
Forestieri 6 12+14 5 LEE (H), SHW (A), BOL (A), REA (H), REA (H), WIG (A)
Munari 6 23+8 3 LEE (H), LEE (H) , NOF (H), FUL (A), FUL (A), CAR (A)
Ighalo 6 25+3 20 ROT (A), DON (H – LC), CHA (H), BOL (A), DER (A), BRI (A)
Vydra 6 32+13 16 SHW (A), MIL (H), FUL (A), FUL (A), BRE (A), LEE (A)
Angella 5 33+3 2 BOL (H), BOL (H), CHA (H), BLB (H), WLV (A)
Tözsér 5 35+11 5 BOL (H), HUD (H), HUD (H), CHA (H), BLP (H)
Guedioura 4 13+4 3 WIG (A), DER (A), MBO (H), NOF (A)
Paredes 4 33+7 0 SHW (A), CAR (A), CHA (A), BRE (A)
Abdi 3 28+5 9 HUD (H), BOL (A), NOF (A)
Dyer 2 6+10 3 BLP (A), DER (H)
Layún 2 14+3 0 BLP (H), ROT (H)
Watson 2 19+1 0 BOL (A), MBO (H)
Cathcart 2 29+1 3 BLB (A), NOF (A)
Fabbrini 1 3+1 1 STV (A – LC)
Andrews 1 6+5 1 MIL (H)
Pudil 1 21+5 0 CAR (A)
Ekstrand 1 23+2 1 ROT (H)
Hoban 1 23+7 0 ROT (A)
Byers 0 0+1 0
Mensah 0 0+1 0
Murray 0 3+6 0
Connolly 0 4+2 1
Bond 0 5+1 0
McGugan 0 6+1 0
Doyley 0 7+1 0
Motta 0 7+2 0
Tamas 0 8+1 0
Bassong 0 11 0
Gomes 0 44 0

Check out the 2013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.

 

Watford 1 Birmingham City 0 (18/04/2015) 19/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- We’ve not half had some games against this lot.  Some will remember victory in the Cup in 1960…  Cliff Holton helping the fourth division newly-christened Hornets to knock top-flight Blues out in front of 31,000 at the Vic.  In 1984 perhaps the most impressive single result of our run to the Cup Final came at St Andrews; Ron Saunders’ aggressive side came into the game on the back of a twelve-match unbeaten run in the top flight and had the majority of a 40,000 crowd behind them.  John Barnes ripped them to bits.  In 1999 a play-off semi-final concluded with an epic penalty shoot out that resulted in our second trip to Wembley.

That night at St Andrews was extraordinarily tense, a ferocious night of football.  We’d lost our one-goal first leg advantage within two minutes and battled against the tide from then on. The presence of Loz alongside me that evening achieved the impossible in making an already frantic evening all the more anxious… he articulated all of our fears and radiated them back at us, exaggerating them through reinforcement with clenched fists and terrified eyes.  A more occasional visitor to the Vic these days, Loz was behind me in the Rookery again this afternoon…  as the Vic drifted frequently into simmering spells of anxiety in the sunshine Loz was once again giving a voice to the gremlins in everyone’s head…  “ohhhhh god”, “not there….”, “we need to score”, “so tense…..”, “Nooooo….”, “Aaaaaaaaaaargh…..”.

2- That tension was briefly evident on the pitch too, at least initially, and never more clearly than when Cathcart clouted into touch a speculative cross that Gomes had come to claim.  Ultimately, the greatest impact of such incidents was on the mood off the pitch which, as already described, became edgy  as soon as the clarion call of the magnificent flag display had died down.  It was only after the final whistle in the way towards the concourse that it was pointed out that Blues offered very little threat throughout…  it hadn’t felt like that.  Certainly, however they set up to contain and obstruct and grab what they could on the break and if, ultimately, that threat was theoretical in practice they certainly did the destructive part of their job well enough.  It wasn’t until midway through the half when Guedioura, off beam in the opening spell, settled down a bit and Birmingham were increasingly penned back and resorting to clubbing clearances towards Donaldson that we began to look the better side.  Matej Vydra crashed a shot against the bar… from the Rookery it looked for all the world as if that had gone in, replays of the volley rebounding smack back off the woodwork incompatible with what had happened in our mind’s eye, the celebrations took a while to be abridged and bemusement reigned thereafter.  There are several templates for these games against midtable sides… on Wednesday we saw “nothing to lose, something to prove”.  Here we saw a side with no reason to do anything but make life difficult for us.  At half time they’d done just that.

3- Ten minutes into the second half Slav made a couple of changes and instigated a change in shape… that flexibility in formation that we now almost take for granted is serving us so well.  How many times in years past have you looked at a game and not been able to see a way out, not been able to see a way to change things?  Our squad gives us options of course, rich options, but that ability to change our shape almost – not quite – effortlessly is a huge benefit.  Layún on the left of midfield had again looked nimble and willing and elegant and not quite worked.  Anya as wing back made hay for his first ten minutes on the pitch, a new weapon in a different role.  His brilliantly assertive run in behind demanded a pass from Deeney, he dinked a gorgeous cross into a crowded box from the left and Craig Cathcart, surely an outside bet for Player of the Season, executed a quite brilliant scissor kick that won the game.  Just as Chris Holland’s failure from the penalty spot in 1999 instantly released waves of pent-up tension, the celebration of this goal was inflamed by relief as much as by the brilliance of the finish (that’s a centre half , that is).  In reality we hardly pummeled Blues for the rest of the game but we remained in control and made a few chances… Angela met Abdi’s cross almost immediately but couldn’t get high enough over it, Guedioura screamed in down the right but shot when he should have squared.  Off the pitch, everything had changed.  The furrowed brows and anxiety were replaced by songs and fists in the air and a few of those flags again and kids standing on chairs and screaming.

4- Through all of which, one figure dragged us onwards.  During the iffy nervy bits he was back in the box at set pieces and getting stuck in.  On the attack he was extraordinary, taking on all comers and tanking across the pitch often hauling woebegone markers in his wake.  Troy has failed to score against his boyhood club this season but has tormented them nonetheless… we dismissed Birmingham’s attacking threat earlier on in the report, but his inhuman ability to hold the ball up buys the defence time and relieves pressure.  He remains the most vital component of the team and was utterly unplayable today.  Let’s never take him for granted.

5- The whistle blew to great relief, much as we’d spent the four minutes of added time playing a comfortable game of keep-ball down by the corner flag.  News that Bournemouth had come from behind to take the lead late in the game against Sheffield Wednesday was treated philosophically; they’ll do what they’ll do and it doesn’t really matter.  We win our last two games we go up, it’s that simple. Still in our control, job done today, on to the next one.  The acknowledgement of the team was long and noisy, but gradually we detached ourselves from the Hornets collective and resumed our individual consciousness.  There’s a point at which this happens… probably when you move from your seat and edge down the stairways towards the concourses and thither back to the rest of your life.  Your mind enters contemplative mode, reflecting on the new reality given the day’s results and then towards your plans for the rest of the day.  Loz had hot-footed it towards Watford Junction at the final whistle.  My mind was on meeting Dad at the top of Occupation Road.

So the epilogue to the afternoon was its highlight, outstripping the bravado before the game and the crazy celebration to Cathcart’s goal.  In the busy concourses it became clear that the game at Bournemouth hadn’t finished,  crowds were dawdling beneath the Sky screens for final confirmation.  Then news of Sheffield Wednesday’s penalty award sucked everyone in.  Suddenly nobody was moving, nobody at all, and we were sucked together once again into a collective consciouness.  Not for over 25 years has reading Paul Walsh’s body language been of any interest, but here we were trying to judge how the penalty had transpired.  For a second the collective consciousness was fooled, surely the celebration in the stands behind Walsh indicated a missed opportunity, Cherries celebrating.  Until someone, somewhere, with an alternative source of information breaks the tension.  “They scored!”.  Then, this.

The philosophical angle went out the window pretty sharpish as you might imagine. Eyes were glowing, strangers were slapping each other on the back. Here’s the deal, then. If this team, this team that has risen above the anxiety in the stands in indifference to pull out yet another result having solved yet another conundrum and pulled out another stunning goal to do so, if this team wins at Brighton next Saturday we will be four points clear and disappearing over the horizon by the time any of our rivals take the field. It’s in our hands, in our control.

Bring it on.

Wigan Athletic 0 Watford 2 (17/03/15) 18/03/2015

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

1- In less heady times, perhaps in following a less bloody-minded body of Hornets, I might have paid greater attention to portents.  Logistical arrangements were slow to materialise.  Once made, getting out of work and then out of the house took forever…  being interrupted, then forgetting things, having to go back inside, not being able to get on with it.  On hooking up with my travelling companion in plenty of time we took a leisurely break at Kidbrook a theoretical 20 minutes from Wigan and left there at 5 to hit an M6 traffic splurge.  Comparing notes with other travellers by phone we opted to leave the motorway for a scenic route, only to sit stranded on a stationary back-road some 15 minutes later watching the free-flowing M6 fly past beneath us.  By the time we reached the “Marquee Club” much later in the evening, a well-conceived but ill-executed away fans’ bar at the ground serving Guinness-flavoured water and no food, we might have been apprehensive about what the fates were trying to tell us as regards this particular Potential Banana Skin.  Had we been following a different team, a different vintage.  Hell, last season’s vintage.  The contrast between the mardy indolence that reached its nadir against Huddersfield in May and what we’re seeing now is extraordinary.

2- Slav’s unshakable emotional detachment and his (team’s) ongoing success at pulling these things off is lending him a mystique;  it’s getting to the point where one searches for the genius in his selections rather than evaluating them anything like objectively.  “Ikechi in goal, Lloyd up front and Billy Hails in midfield you say?  Hmmm, yes, I can see that…”.  This one harked back to Rotherham in a formation that screamed “keeping it solid”;  a 3-5-2 featuring five defenders, actually, plus one sitting and one destructive midfielder.  On a horribly scruffy pitch, the set-up contributed to a stodgy first half of few chances.  As the only attacking player in the midfield Adlène Guedioura was simultaneously the man most likely to dig something out and the man most likely to give the ball away, which his responsibility for the final ball contributed to him doing frequently.  His was nonetheless a terrific contribution throughout, although our early control of the midfield was relinquished somewhat when his early booking tamed the ferocity of his harrying and chasing.  There seemed more menace about our own attacks – perhaps only when viewed with background knowledge – the best of which coming when Deeney’s diving header to a left-wing cross was pushed wide by Al Habsi, but Wigan were more than in such game as there was; Bong and Ojo threatened down the left, Kim was lively in midfield and some early free kicks from dangerous positions gave more credence to Slav’s selection decisions (behind the goal we nodded wisely).

3- They were horribly blunt though.  They didn’t look like a bad football team, certainly not a team otherwise worthy of a place in the bottom three, but there wasn’t much of a goal threat – you felt that if a goal came for the home side it would be through attrition, the crushing of the game towards our penalty area resulting in a deflection in the wrong direction rather than a deliberate, conscious act (Malky Mackay, after the game, wasn’t the first manager to identify our finishing as “the difference” between the sides, as if the art of goalscoring is somehow an aside, or an unfair advantage afforded us by our forward line rather than the point of the exercise).  The mood, in contrast to our own, was painfully gloomy – a relentless and occasionally effective drummer in the stand to our left offset this a little, but the emptiness of the wonderfully steep stands told its own story.  Meanwhile despite a goalless first half there was no suggestion of dissent in the away end, no “we should be beating these”.  The inner confidence extends beyond the pitch… there’s a trust there.

4- Another of Slav’s surgical changes was applied at half-time and we came out minus Motta, plus Forestieri and now 4-4-2 with the Argentine at the front of the midfield to wreak havoc behind the forwards.  It was designed to open up the game and in doing so it allowed us to showcase our superiority, since whilst Wigan continued to have possession and territory and whilst we perhaps wouldn’t want to rely on nervous finishing to preserve a clean sheet against a better side we were far more potent.  This was made to tell nine minutes into the half, when the immediately vital Forestieri received the ball as we broke, dragged backpedalling defenders away from the left flank whence he released Guedioura who sent in an evil cross which Deeney crashed in at the far post.  On the subject of stock goals, it was all but a tribute to a favourite stock goal of yore with Guedioura in the Neal Ardley role and Deeney as Heidar Helguson, piling ball and defender goalwards… with the exception that Guedioura’s incredible delivery had been with his weaker foot as he eagerly pointed out to the bouncing mob behind the goal.

We were immediately in our element;  Wigan had no choice but to push forward in search of an equaliser and we broke on them joyfully like schoolchildren released for break on a summer’s day.  We should have extended our lead… Joel Ekstrand came mighty close to doing so, picking up a loose ball to the right of the goal, cutting past his marker and firing narrowly wide across the face.  Forestieri and Vydra both had chances, and Boyce had to clear from under the bar after a deflected Guedioura shot wrong-footed Al Habsi.  At the other end Wigan had far from given up and our defending was fuelled by sheer willpower – Guedioura and the outstanding Hoban performing the two most dramatic of a large number of blocks achieved by throwing bodies in the path of the ball.  A degree of comfort was earned by Forestieri whose lung-bursting run to reach an escaping ball down the wing was rewarded when Boyce allowed him into the penalty area before sticking out a tired leg and bringing him down.  Boyce lay prone in dejection, Forestieri in happy exhaustion.  Deeney belted the penalty past a static Al Habsi, on which his teammates charged in from the halfway line where they’d waited to a man to guard against a potential breakaway.

5- This wasn’t the best game we’ve watched this season nor the most spectacular scoreline but the triumph was in making it look like a routine victory.  To the outsider its unremarkable, team near the top beats team at the bottom.  So what.  Anyone who’s watched the division for any length of time knows it’s not that simple… and yet we keep digging out these wins.  The car journey home was noisily exuberant, fuelled by my iPod’s shuffle function which captured the mood perfectly, spitting out Pump it Up, The Littlest Rebel, Jean Genie and The Temple of Love.

Bellowing our way through the fog our minds’ eye is a blur of images. Tommie Hoban dummying his marker on the left and cutting inside past two more markers on his right foot. That’s a centre-back, that is. Daniel Tözsér coming off the bench in another Slav masterstroke, instantly sucking control of the midfield to his feet and swinging in his vicious bending free kicks (you can all but hear the “oh f*** this” from Wigan’s backline). Those bodies flying in front of the ball at our end. And Odion Ighalo, not involved in the last few games through injury and probably deprived a cameo here by the immaculate Cathcart picking up a knock, riding to the away end on Daniel Tözsér’s back, punching the air whilst Forestieri screams his joy into the night sky. This is a team with spirit and quality and wit and menace. Anyone preventing us getting promoted will have to go some, and will have earned it. Tonight we not so much sidestepped a banana skin, as my travelling companion suggested and repeatedly demonstrated on the way back to the car, but trod on it square on and carried on in indifference.  Next?

Watford 4 Reading 1 (14/03/2005) 15/03/2015

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

1- There’s no reasonable way to describe the context without doffing our cap to happenstance.  Reflecting on the role that chance has played in our season it’s natural to feel bitter about Gabriele Angella’s sending off at Bournemouth, about Wes Hoolahan buying a penalty for Norwich, and so on, and so on.  Consistent with the “we only get s**t refs” chant, it’s easier to bring to mind instances where things have gone against us.  Indignation burns deeper, perhaps.  So let’s be clear that the perverse preciousness of Champions’ League television schedule regulations did us a huge favour.  That was evident when the implications of Reading’s draw with Bradford – that the replay would have to be this Monday – became clear, and was underlined in big fat marker pen when they announced a starting line up with nine changes, four debutants and very few senior picks.  You’d kinda hope that we’d have beaten Reading’s senior team whatever the circumstances; taking the Cup replay out of the equation you’d have been left with a side that have underwhelmed but are probably safe from relegation, the Royals were never going to be the most driven of opponents, but this one fell for us.  As if to provide further emphasis, “no we really don’t give a crap about this one”, one of those debutants was Slovenian Jure Travner whose Watford career under Malky was only memorable for his never quite making the first team.  So… yes, this fell for us.  The fact that Reading’s league season is all but done and dusted and that they could afford to do this doesn’t make the scheduling of their replay for Monday any less inappropriate.

2- For all of which, Reading’s scratch side were some way short of terrible.  Limited, sure, lacking anything like our threat in front of goal however many goals Yakubu, looking a very old 32, has scored in the top flight.  But organised and competent.  We weren’t gifted any goals, they all needed crafting and were each elegant, sculpted things.   It started after a minute, Abdi passing the ball into the net after being prised through by Troy Deeney.  Abdi, the one concern from the day, appeared to aggravate his injury in the move and departed soon after, his replacement Forestieri playing in Vydra at the end of the half and setting up Deeney after the break.  Steve Clarke identified our clinical finishing as the difference, bemoaning the harshness of the scoreline but the visitors never came as close as Motta did with his wicked dipping volley that crashed off the bar, or as Forestieri did with his scissor kick that forced Andersen into a quite brilliant low save low to his right.  Our finishing was great.  The rest of it wasn’t bad either.

3- And it was all perhaps rather too comfortable.  Abdi’s early goal averted the threat of impatience in any failure to take the lead in A Game We Ought To Win, but at three up the atmosphere became drowsy, our football slowed down and Reading weren’t ready to just lie down and see the game out.  If our squad lacks anything, as has been discussed ad nauseam, it’s a big lump in central defence.  Zat Knight, who briefly looked as if he might be that man, had little competition in the air from our lot, and fear of his threat forced a succession of corners, as if we were happy to sacrifice another set piece in preference to allowing the big defender to get a header on target.  Eventually they took advantage, Jem Karacan on his return from injury picking out the top corner  after a scruffy clearance…  and briefly there was a concern, we couldn’t seem to snap out of it and the visitors were in the ascendancy.

4- Until they weren’t.  The change in shape, Angella coming on for the fading Vydra as we switched to 3-5-2, seemed to hand us back the joystick immediately and Forestieri rounded off what had become a masterclass with a drilled left foot finish, a well-earned goal and a celebration that screamed catharsis.  Relegated to the role of fourth-choice striker Nando’s performances of late had not suggested a happy camper, petulance and laziness creeping back into his game.  After last Saturday’s incident with Bakary Sako, which was neither as violent as his reaction made it look nor as ludicrous as an unhelpful camera angle and lazy “analysis” suggested you had to fear in which direction his season was going to go.  Slav came out fighting, defending his striker’s conduct late in the week and then had the confidence to thrust him back into the fray early in the game in the mischief-making hole vacated by Abdi.  He took some time to warm up but ultimately delivered what was comfortably his best, effective and infectious performance of the season, punctuated not just with a goal but with two “assists” borne of combining his quick feet with a cool head and the right ball.  Well done Nando, and well done Slav.

5- Much of the focus off the pitch was on Nic Cruwys, who remains in hospital following the horrific, anachronistic attack in Wolverhampton last weekend.  I’ve nothing particularly new to add to the many heartfelt and appropriate things that have been said elsewhere, but it’s worth echoing those sentiments anyway.  Our thoughts are with Nic and his family.  Many references in the aftermath to the “Watford family” and the wider “football family” in the context of, in particular, the vast amount of money raised via Ollie Floyd’s online collection.  My wife snorts at the suggestion that the Watford family fosters an almost religious sense of belonging, a very real family; she disputes it.  She’s wrong, of course, not that she’ll ever admit it.  The best of that has been on show this week and to their immense credit the club and the players have reinforced that too, not to mention supporters of other clubs who have donated to the fund and shared their disgust.

I’d like to close by mentioning a departed family member, Guy Judge, a one-time BSaD contributor and very nice man who lost his battle with cancer on Saturday morning.  A significant empty seat at the family table, he’ll be sorely missed.  All the best mate.  You ‘orn.

 

Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (21/02/2015) 22/02/2015

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

1- I’ve been staring at a blank screen for half an hour.  I’ve even been distracted by bloody Jonathan Ross, of all things.  Not fun, this.  Not fun at all.  It doesn’t matter that there is stuff to say, this isn’t a search for inspiration or a dredging up of five thunks.  That can be difficult too… but this is just purgatory.  Reliving five goal wins is fun, joyful.  There wasn’t much to enjoy this afternoon, not much to take pleasure in.  You want to forget about this one?  Head home and think about something else?  Yeah, me too.  We’d all been looking forward to this, on the back of three unlikely wins from challenging positions this had been another chance to test ourselves against one of our fellow contenders.  Nervous tension all week, nervous tension for much of the game as the noise of the crowd was sucked inwards by the gravity of the occasion.  Now… I feel let down.  Not by the team, or the manager, or the referee.  But by myself.  Why such an emotional investment in something so brittle, so unreliable, so meaningless.  Screw this.  Bastards.

2- Much of the game was very well balanced, a tug of war between two sides carefully, cautiously restricting their trading of blows to a congested midfield.  Each side had spells in the first half, but chances were few;  early on Layún picked out Deeney with a nine iron from deep in the midfield… a difficult ask, the ball coming over Deeney for him to head out of the air but not quite low enough, over the bar.  An early encouraging move, we were keen to get behind Norwich’s high line quickly but this was to be as good as it got for the Hornets. City’s approach to defending revolved around preventing us having any possession in the final third, this largely achieved by Tettey and Johnson hounding down the space in midfield to hurry our attempts at penetration with Russell Martin and the monstrous Bassong, who looks as likely to return to the Hornets  any time soon as John Barnes, Ashley Young or Clements, sweeping up much of what came through.  On the few occasions when we did get hold of the ball in and around their box our we were able to do the things we’re good at and City looked vulnerable, get-attable.  Late in the first half some snappy passing released Abdi; Johnson was befuddled and brought him down in panic, he got a yellow and the “shield” Tettey followed him into the book for his protests.  Abdi’s free kick took a nick and went over but this was a positive way to end the half.  Neither side had been on the canvas, but we were probably ahead on points… and with everyone above us losing or already condemned to defeat, the mood was positive.

3- Much has been made of the limited number of chances that we made throughout, but our defence had looked solid and Norwich’s compact shape cost them in terms of the number of bodies they were able to commit forward. Frankly, if anyone was going to score it was us but you would have been reckless to put money on that for all of our attacking riches.  So…  the award of the penalty was both unexpected on any number of levels and absolutely fundamental to the outcome; like ourselves City had barely had any controlled possession in the final third but Hoolahan put his head down and ran, and then fell over.  The referee gave the penalty, Gomes went the right way and got down well but the kick was right in the corner.  It hadn’t looked like a penalty, and the Hornets’ frustration with an official whose control on the game had been fingertip since the first whistle nearly boiled over.  We’d nullified City’s threat, there seemed no prospect of them scoring and the decision to award the penalty changed the game; newly invigorated, the visitors had no cause to deviate from the sit-deep-and-break approach that so many have tried before, if rarely as effectively.

4- The point is, of course, that frustrating as the apparent injustice was it’s par for the course.  Not in the sense that we have any more bad decisions go against us than anyone else – much as it feels like it sometimes – but in the sense that stuff happens and you’ve got to deal with it an awful lot better than we did for the rest of the game.  If City were lucky to get the break then they didn’t half build on their luck, whereas the Hornets lost all shape and discipline.  Yes, Cameron Jerome’s follow up was a brilliant piece of opportunism and skill, dropping a shot over the stranded Gomes from outside the box but we were already far more ragged at that stage than at any earlier stage.  Subsequently we could have conceded a third before we did… Heurelho Gomes’ miraculous save to the incredulous Johnson’s thumping header low down to his left would have provoked a standing ovation in a less glum environment before City wrapped things up and compounded our misery by pulling off the move that Layún and Deeney had attempted earlier in the game, Grabban applying the finish to a ball from deep on the right.  We have spent the last few weeks digging out victories from improbable positions, watching with growing respect as Slav’s switches in tactics have made us stronger.  After going behind there was none of that… no sign of any fightback, nothing added by any of the substitutions.  We fell apart, and concluded a shapeless mess.

5- It was good to see Slav acknowledge this in his post-match comments… that the real problem lay not with a bad refereeing decision, however consequential, but with our response to it.  Slav’s dispassionate, analytical assessment of games as something that he observes rather than participates in jars a little to an English ear accustomed to observations made in an aggressive first person plural, but there’s great reassurance in him both drawing sensible conclusions and not hiding behind any bullshit.  Much earlier in the season we were complaining about our side being less than the sum of its parts, being a collection of talented individuals without a common purpose.  He’s applied corrective surgery and it’s questionable whether any of our three recent wins would have been achieved in similar circumstances in September or October.  You’ve got to trust his ability to recover from this also.  Because that’s the value today, if anything…  this was, in many respects, a Premier League defeat;  so much good work undone by one moment – of this case of bad luck, it might as well have been quality – following which things ran away from us resulting in a scoreline that was simultaneously both harsh and fully deserved.  If we do go up, that’s going to happen against better opposition than Norwich.  If we can’t cope with the fallout from that, if we’re not strong enough to recover mentally and take it out on the next mob then we need to stop kidding ourselves that we’re equipped for the top flight.  Tuesday night at home is a godsend, and will be interesting.  Today was disappointing, but needn’t be disastrous.  There’s a load of games to go.

Cardiff City 2 Watford 4 (28/12/2014) 29/12/2014

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

1- Context, as ever, is important. Interpretation of this game and of the reaction to it cannot be divorced from the horror show on Boxing Day, nor should it be…  in the wake of that one a number of supporters will have opted against the trip to Wales (hello, Dave) and it says quite a lot that a single defeat, however depressing, had such a profound impact on the general mood on the back of three wins.  Fascination was the motivator for me, the consideration that saw me heading down the M4 in brilliant winter’s sunshine despite my original lift (hello, Dave) wussing out a day earlier amidst insistence that his own decision was nothing to do with Boxing Day.  Fascination at how Slav would send us out, at what sort of reaction we’d get from the Wolves game less than 48 hours earlier.  Nothing can or should be taken for granted in this division, and however disappointing Wolves was nobody could argue that we don’t boast an array of weapons, that we weren’t capable of changing it up.

2- I was feeling considerably less smug about my decision at around 3:40 than I am now, with the Hornets a goal down and not looking terribly like changing that situation.

IMG_0720We’d started brightly enough but Cardiff’s goal, a flick from that eternal irritant Le Fondre to a fine Whittingham free kick after a non-existent foul by Munari had knocked the air out of us like a damp fart.  We looked laboured and bereft of both leadership and ideas…  and I was nested amongst the grumpiest and least tolerant of the travelling faithful, this not improving my mood or making the trip to Wales seem any less foolish.  Juan Carlos Paredes, having been spared the broom that swept six team changes into the starting eleven, was the subject of much vitriol after giving the ball away several times early on… he looked forlorn, but in fairness was often merely the man at the end of passing moves having freed himself on the right to receive a pass but with nowhere to go and little movement in front of him.  He got better. Guedioura was the source of much of what positive inroads we had managed, and he gave us the lead out of nowhere, volleying home Munari’s cross after Forestieri had somehow  contrived to miss an easier chance.  A couple of minutes later we were ahead, Ighalo getting his head onto Pudil’s wicked cross.  Half time, a little dazed and confused, we were ahead.

3- There’s always a tendency to dwell on one’s own circumstances, to look at your team’s performance in isolation and to regard the opposition as mere props. You can take the reverse too far, of course… paying the opposition too much respect, worrying overly about  what they might try.  But it took our scoring to bring into focus that, Whittingham’s deliveries aside, Cardiff really didn’t have that much about them.  Not only that, but there was a simmering resentment in the largely silent home stands.  The red shirt thing, an embarrassment which should serve to emphasise once again quite how lucky we are to have foreign owners who nonetheless respect our club and tradition, is only the most visible facet of an football club that feels thoroughly wrong and unhappy, from the obtrusive revolving collar of electronic adverts high in the stadium to the fragile, one-dimensional team.  In individual games we’ve been in a similar position at home as sides have started off nervous and gradually worked us out and realised that we’re not all that.  Cardiff were not all that at all, and the game changed completely on our equaliser.

4-There’s a danger in reading too much into the second half.  After all, as we’ve just discussed, Cardiff are a side with their own problems and we know that we’re a good side when we’re in the lead against a side that’s letting us play, who then have to chase the ball particularly in front of demanding home support.  Bearing which in mind, it’s difficult to overstate the degree of our second-half superiority of which a 4-2 final score was a far from flattering summary.  Cardiff were punch-drunk, completely overrun in midfield and incapable of getting as much a period of possession let alone a foothold in the tie;  Guedioura remained the architect and with much more movement around him was less prone to disappearing into rabbit warrens than he had been in the first half.  He made the scoreline more comfortable by clubbing a venomous shot into the top corner from over 25 yards; David Marshall didn’t move.  The other stand-out performance was that of Odion Ighalo, who played the target-man role to the tee.  Magnificent with his back to goal, holding up play, stretching out an indiarubber leg to seize and smuggle off possession.  He sashayed his way past three challenges on the left of the box before forcing a save from Marshall, and later perhaps should have scored when sub Deeney escaped on the right and squared, Marshall denying the Nigerian again with a brave stop.  Nonetheless, a hugely charismatic and effective performance from Ighalo, which asks serious questions about team selection for next Sunday.

5- So Slav came into this game under a bit of pressure. Wolves, in case this point hasn’t been made clearly enough, was a shambles, and the head coach, appointed from nowhere in odd circumstances, has failed to make a strong impression in his TV interviews giving a convincing impression of a distracted and slightly self-conscious schoolteacher.  Nonetheless he’s not pulled any punches in his press conferences and today made what turned out to be a blinding selection decision in making such a brutal set of changes.  He might cite the need to freshen the side up as a key consideration… from the stands it looked more like a no-bullshit response to a lamentable performance.  Either way, suddenly, we have a situation where Deeney, Vydra, Anya and Tözsér, four key senior players, need to play their way back into a winning side, the end of Guedioura’s loan notwithstanding.  Competition for places, of all things, and the sort of competitive advantage that this squad ought to offer.  The Chelsea game, perhaps, slightly unfortunately timed, we could do with building on today without that distraction.  Either way, for all that today’s circumstances fell well for us the Hornets and their manager took full advantage and if both can build on this success this squad could yet fulfil its potential this season.

Watford 4 Huddersfield Town 2 (30/08/2014) 31/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- It’s half past eight in the evening.  Sofia, five, has made her “competitive debut” today.  Now, with Watford shirt pulled over her Princess Sophia top and left hand on hip she is swinging her yellow/red/black garland vigorously around her head with her right hand, marching around the living room and leading her sister in a rousing rendition of “Tro-oy Dee-ney, Watford’s number nine!” as their mother rolls her eyes from the sofa.  Three and a half hours or so earlier Sofia was gazing open mouthed in happy bewilderment at the jubilation in the Rookery in the wake of Almen Abdi’s glorious clincher.  There had been questions before the game, more were raised during the ninety-plus minutes and we’ll get to those, I suppose.  But for the moment revel again in that fabulous final half hour or so, which in the manner of a cup-tie blew away all concerns, quibbles, tactics, formations.  Primal, ferocious and utterly captivating entertainment.  Who could fail to be carried away by it?

2- The visitors took the game to Watford from the off, persistent and aggressive in attacking positions.  Whilst they had their own failings – often the same failings as ours and within the space of minutes as we’ll discuss – their application won’t have done caretaker Mark Lillis’ case for the permanent position any harm, irrespective of the result.  Debutant Jack Robinson briefly looked like a threat with a series of monstrous throw ins that reached the far post – time will tell whether he’s a Dave Challinor or a Leigh Bromby, the trajectory didn’t look flat enough to me whatever the power.  In any case when we broke, as we are wont to do, we looked capable of making hay with the Terriers defence being peeled apart relative easily.  Hardly a resilient rearguard then, much less so in the face of a perfect through ball from Daniel Töszér, a perfect run and touch from Troy and a cool finish to give the Hornets the lead.  Better defences than this would have been shredded by that, almost a waste of a brilliant goal – save them for tougher challenges to come.  The half was more open than the half-time scoreline suggests – each side had a goal ruled out for a marginal call – and if the bedlam of the second half was hardly heralded it never felt done and dusted.  The other detail worth mentioning is ref Neil Swarbrick making it clear that he wasn’t going to be afraid to issue cards, you rather felt that in a game that was frantic (if never dirty) we wouldn’t end with 11 v 11 and so it proved.  As it turned out, we finished the first half slightly the better off in this regard as Munari and Vaughan picked up similarly harsh bookings for aggressive aerial challenges.  Vaughan’s caution is always going to limit his physical impact… Munari, however, limped off before the break.  The Italian was terrific during the opening period in which the Hornets were ultimately the better side, his loss perhaps a factor in the turning of the tide thereafter.

3- A pause to mention Troy since before today each game has felt a bit like a bonus, to varying degrees.  Perhaps the last time we’ll see him in yellow, enjoy it while it lasts.  He was always going to be lauded from the rafters and rightly so, but it’s a landmark moment in so many ways.  I don’t remember a recent instance of a talisman, a key player attracting serious attention, being retained.  Arguably not since John Barnes was attracting enquiries in the mid-eighties has such interest in the main man not concluded with the player’s departure.  And yes, I know he went in the end and maybe Troy will too but not now.  A big statement, both from the club and the player, and demonstration of the Pozzos refusal to be pushed around, to give ground.  Since the announcement, just a few days, Troy has visibly taken on the mantle of captain with relish…  Beppe has suggested that he was always a leader, always a de facto captain in the dressing room but there have been periods, games, where we’ve needed Troy and he’s faded in the past.  His tremendous interview in the Watford Observer screams of attitude, a new skipper wanting to talk his charges into a robustness that wasn’t always evident last season.  All power to him.

4- The second half was crackers.  Sean Scannell – whose version of the current fashion for big beards makes him look like a drummer from an early nineties grebo band – sent in a wicked low cross which provoked the confusion between goalkeeper and defender that it was designed to, this capitalised upon by Bunn.  Building on the theme of the consecutive events reflecting each other at either end of the pitch Town conspired to present Almen Abdi, vivacious and mischievous, the opportunity to regain the lead within minutes.  Reports from Yorkshire complain of a foul on Bunn in the build-up but replays suggest that this is fanciful… a collision that would only have been awarded to conservatively protect the defending team and no excuse for the inept defending that followed.  Inability to mark from set pieces was the next theme, James Vaughan pulling clear for a free header at the far post about ten yards out completely unmarked. A textbook attempt back across the goal but without the power was the result, Gomes tipped it round expertly but shouldn’t have had a chance.  From the corner Wallace was similarly vaguely marked and took advantage.   Breathless stuff now, you couldn’t take your eyes off it and Sofia certainly didn’t even if the relentless questions kept coming.  After Munari’s depature (“will he be ok?  How do you know he’s ok?”) the subject of most fascination was Tamas’ departure (“why was he naughty?”).  I like Gabriel Tamas, but there’s something incorrigible about his brand of defending that doesn’t involve holding back on consideration of minor details like being in the penalty area, or having just been booked.  We then had our own go at implausible excuses by arguing that the ball was out of play before the Romanian clobbered Bunn, as if that made it OK, before Huddersfield generously did their own bit of leaving a man free at a set piece, Keith Andrews having time to perform his Ice Bucket challenge before Almen Abdi’s arcing corner reached his forehead at the far post.

5- The rest was all about attitude and very little to do with ability.  That’s encouraging in it’s own way, we know we’ve got the ability, that’s not news.  We know we can turn over opponents who give us space or make stupid decisions (hello, Leeds), that’s not news either, give us an inch we’ll take 1.609 kilometres and molte grazie.  But this was a backs-to-the-wall situation against an opponent who were very much more competent and threatening than their league position suggests, the very definition of The Sort Of Game We Would Have Lost Last Season and so to come through it with such flying colours is hugely positive.  The crowd played its part, a frantic, furious atmosphere that was part chicken and part egg but well done to the 1881 in any case for their part.  As for detail… significant that whilst we rode our luck on occasions Huddersfield’s screw only tended to get them as far as the edge of the penalty area, many of those shots on target optimistic long-range efforts perhaps aimed at assessing quite how safe Gomes’ handling was.  All three substitutes played big roles here;  Andrews a less mobile, less intimidating option than Munari but an organiser and leader, calling the shots as we faced the alamo.  Tommie Hoban, slightly harshly the fall guy as Joel Ekstrand came back in to the starting line-up, slotted in comfortably at first right back and then on the right of a three as we shuffled formation, one stunning interception a psychological body blow to the visitors as a rare clear chance was denied.  Finally, Juan Carlos Paredes came on at right-wing back and telegraphed the final goal before it happened, a warning for Huddersfield but as in our game at Loftus Road last season the visitors could do nothing but continue to chase a crucial goal and Paredes played a part in the move which Abdi finished expertly.  In terms of attitude, then, this couldn’t have presented a clearer contrast to Tuesday night.  Whether it’s a case of omitted players being “disgruntled” or merely the first team being too good, too professional to let their frustrations affect their performance this one goes on the shelf with Rotherham as a hugely valuable and unlikely three points. And, naturally, Sofia wants to come again.  I haven’t the heart to tell her that they’re not all like this…

Season Preview – Part 6 08/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

Final instalment… currently on my way AWAY from Watford on holiday…  the existence of Bolton reflections depends on whether the other bloke gets up from Hastings or not…

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

INS: Tom Lees (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Ryan Croasdale (Preston North End, Free), Sam Hutchinson (Chelsea, Free), Paul McElroy (Hull City, Free), Dejan Kelhar (Red Star Belgrade, Free), Keiren Westwood (Sunderland, Free)

OUTS: Michail Antonio (Nottingham Forest, £1,500,000), Danny Mayor (Bury, Undisclosed), Adam Davies (Barnsley, Free), Reda Johnson (Coventry City, Free), Miguel Llera (Scunthorpe United, Free), Taylor McKenzie (Notts County, Free), Anthony Gardner, Arron Jameson, Jermaine Johnson, David Prutton, Martin Taylor, Benik Afobe (Arsenal, End of Loan), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Damien Martinez (Arsenal, End of Loan), Adedeji Oshilaja (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Andelko Savic (Sampdoria, End of Loan)

OUR EX-OWLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-0 home defeat in December, Gianfranco’s last game in charge, and a 4-1 win for the second successive season at Hillsborough which featured that Deeney dink.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Westwood
Palmer           Loovens         Lees             Mattock
Lee              Hutchinson
Maghoma            Maguire             Helan
Nuhiu

VERDICT: Another club who have been hanging on for a mooted foreign takeover and have been somewhat in limbo for much of the summer.  I’m advised that there are plenty of exciting signings lined up for whenever Hafiz Mammadov does take the reins and releases a much vaunted transfer budget (and prompts an influx of players from his other club RC Lens).  If that does happen, and even if the signings ARE impressive, Wednesday will be late to the party and that’s difficult to claw back even if, as under Gianfranco two years ago, all the pieces fall into place as quickly as can be hoped for.  If it doesn’t, then despite the sharp recruitment of Westwood and Hutchinson, who should form a sound midfield pairing with Kieran Lee, the Owls are in a precarious position as it stands.  Too reliant on the slowly improving Nuhiu up front, far from watertight at the back, the midfield is more than adequate and Wednesday far from the worst side, or even the worst three sides in the division.  But not so far that injuries to the wrong players wouldn’t be a serious problem.  I think the safest thing to say here is that Wednesday won’t go up and probably won’t go down…  but if Mammedov’s takeover doesn’t come through, it could be a tight thing.

WIGAN ATHLETIC

INS: Oriol Riera (Osasuna, £2,000,000), James Tavernier (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Don Cowie (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor-Sinclair (Partick Thistle, Free), Emyr Hughes (Manchester City, Six Months Loan)

OUTS: Adam Buxton (Accrington Stanley, Free), Jean Beausejour (Colo Colo, Free), Stephen Crainey (Fleetwood Town, Free), Jordi Gomez (Sunderland, Free), Danny Redmond (Hamilton Academical, Free), Markus Holgersson, Jordan Mustoe, Jack Collison (End of Loan), Nicky Maynard (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Josh McEachran (Chelsea, End of Loan), Nick Powell (Manchester United, End of Loan), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Fulham, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LATICS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Don Cowie, Rob Kiernan, Andrew Taylor

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A slightly fortunate 1-0 win in September courtesy of a Cristian Battocchio strike and a 2-1 defeat in March

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Carson
Perch      Ramis         Boyce       Taylor
Watson
Cowie                  McArthut            Maloney
McManaman
Riera

VERDICT: Remarkable club, Wigan.  Eight largely solid years in the top flight and a remarkable cup win into the bargain and yet persistently under the radar.  Unsurprising in some ways, perhaps… Wigan is famously the smallest town to have hosted Premier League football, the Latics were a non-league club as recently as 1978 and hardly have the sort of fanbase that is going to focus a media broadcaster’s mind.  Nonetheless, they were more than just chancers passing through the top flight… eight years is a long time. Even last season, newly relegated, they slipped quietly into the play-offs on the back of a strong second half to the campaign, once again made the semi-finals of the Cup and enjoyed their first European campaign to boot.  Coming into the new campaign, Wigan are one of a number of clubs with strong, deep squads.  At the time of writing the eleven above can be backed up with a perfectly credible eleven of Al Habsi, Tavernier, Barnett, Rogne, Espinoza, McCann, Fyvie, Huws, McClean, Fortuné, Waghorn.  In defence and midfield they’re as strong as anyone… only up front are they perhaps more limited, although target man Oriol Riera has shown up well pre-season.  If Grant Holt can be shifted off the pay roll – a three year deal always looked a bit daft for a chunky then-32 year old – there may be strengthening in that department too.  But what sets the Latics apart from many of their rivals – perhaps ourselves included – is that they have a manager whose quality and knowledge of English football is beyond reasonable dispute, having shaped the Brentford side that was promoted last year and turned Wigan’s slow start to the season around.  Nothing is certain – the Latics already have a grotesque injury list to contend with for one thing – but they did OK in the top flight without ever having a striker top 12 goals for a season.  No stand-out contender for the title, but Wigan are my bet.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Connor Hunte (Chelsea, Free), Tommy Rowe (Peterborough United, Free), Rajiv van la Parra (Heerenveen, Free)

OUTS: Michael Ihiekwe (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Cieron Keane (Notts County, Free), Jordan Cranston, George Elokobi, Tim Jakobsson, Kristian Kostrna, David Moli, Robbie Parry, Jamie Reckord, Jamie Tank, Sam Whittall, Jake Cassidy (Notts County, Six Month Loan), Kortney Hause (Gillingham, Six Month Loan), Zeli Ismail (Notts County, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tony Daley (Head of First Team Athletic Performance), Joe Gallen (Assistant Head Coach), Kenny Jackett (Head Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 victory at the Vic featuring a Christophe Berra red card, and an expensive 1-1 draw at Molineux courtesy of a late Bakary Sako equaliser.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ikeme
Ricketts           Batth         Stearman       Golbourne
McDonald        Price
Henry                  Jacobs                  Sako
Dicko

VERDICT: Ironic, really, that after a turbulent few years that saw two relegations, countless bad signings and any number of managers, the man who steadied the ship at Molineux is Kenny Jackett, one-time protégé of the man hounded out of Wolves eighteen years ago to our ultimate benefit.  Perhaps time to let bygones be bygones on that score… I found myself feeling sorry for Wolves when the odious Dean Saunders took over as manager at the start of last year, so I think I must be getting there.  Anyway.  Always rather difficult to make judgements about teams coming up… how they’ll fare, what sort of side they are but no great surprise to see the stats behind Wolves’ promotion.  Scored more goals than anyone else in League One last season, racking up over 100 points and seventeen points clear of third place, but the stand-out stat for me is the 31 goals conceded in 46 games which is frankly silly, but entirely in keeping with what you’d expect from a Kenny Jackett side.  With that sort of momentum and confidence you’ve got to expect Wolves to start well, beyond which they’ll be trusting to luck to a certain extent… Kevin McDonald bosses the midfield but Wolves are heavily dependent on him, and for all of last season’s goals you’d be slightly worried about the striking options.  You wouldn’t bet against Jackett making a success of his first opportunity with this sort of platform though;  it takes some doing to sideline the number of senior players that Jackett has excluded (including Kevin Doyle, Jamie O’Hara, Roger Johnson and Stephen Ward) and to maintain the sort of success that he has. Certainly play-off contenders with a prevailing wind.

WATFORD

INS: Essaïd Belkalem (Granada, Free), Craig Cathcart (Blackpool, Free), Lloyd Dyer (Leicester City, Free), Heurelho Gomes (Tottenham Hotspur), Juan Carlos Paredes (Granada, Free), Gabriel Tamas (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Odion Ighalo (Udinese, Season Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, Season Loan), Daniel Tözsér (Parma, Two Season Loan), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Season Loan)

OUTS: Javier Acuña (Olimpia, Undisclosed), Reece Brown (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Bobson Bawling (Crawley Town, Free), Kurtis Cumberbatch (Charlton Athletic, Free), Marco Davide Faraoni (Udinese, Free), Albert Riera (Udinese, Free), Daniel Wilks (St Mirren, Free), Gary Woods (Leyton Orient, Free), Manuel Almunia, Marco Cassetti, Fitz Hall, Ross Jenkins, Lucas Neill, Nyron Nosworthy, Essaïd Belkalem (Trabzonspor, Season Loan), Samba Diakité (QPR, End of Loan), Alexander Merkel (Udinese, End of Loan), Park Chu-Young (Arsenal, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Angella          Tamas          Hoban
Paredes                          Tözsér                             Dyer
Abdi            McGugan
Deeney           Vydra

VERDICT: Well we’re not short of options, are we? We’re not the only team in the division where you can name a second eleven that would more or less hold it’s own… but my word.  In terms of depth and cover – if not necessarily the strongest eleven –  there’s probably never been a stronger Watford squad.  You get the impression that the Pozzos have decided that this is the year;   the options we have are outrageous and in the addition of pace (Dyer, Vydra, Ighalo), that sitting midfielder role (Tözsér, Andrews) and second tier experience (Dyer again, Andrews again, Cathcart, Tamas) some of last season’s key deficiencies have been addressed.  The Deeney saga feels far from over of course… you have to suspect that whatever current attitudes to our asking price are (and you can piss right off Redknapp with your “he’s a player we like….. no, nothing happening there” routine you cheap punk), two or three games without a goal before the end of August for any of the multitude of top flight clubs linked with Troy might alter their stance somewhat.  Either way, the Pozzos and the club have played a blinder… the auction for Deeney’s services has been going on all summer, Watford have maintained a firm stance whilst keeping Troy himself – and credit to him too – on side and positive.  If he goes – and I fear he probably will – it’ll be for a shedload of cash and good luck to him.  We’ll be left, as it stands, with Vydra, Ranégie, Ighalo, Forestieri and Fabbrini as attacking options with supporting roles, perhaps, for the likes of Jakubiak.  Even without a(nother) replacement for Deeney, that’s a hell of a forward line.  And if Deeney DOES stay… the mere possibility of a fit-again Abdi, Deeney and Vydra in tandem again is terrifying on it’s own.

The biggest question, perhaps, as with so many of the more fancied clubs in the division this year, is over the manager and his ability to cultivate a successful team out of these extraordinary riches.  Everyone at Watford would want him to do well, I think… he’s got us all on side, says the right things, commands trust and affection.   The end of last season still dawdles in the memory though, like a nasty stain on the carpet that still glares at you through whatever you position above or around it to conceal it.  Beppe said all the right things throughout, and particularly in the wake of our harsh defeat at Loftus Road.  The miserable performances that followed were not those of a side singing from the same hymn sheet and the Huddersfield performance on the final day reeked of deep chasms within the dressing room.  Not a team playing for their manager.  Not a team playing at all, really.

Faces have changed since, hopefully we’re better off for it but the nature of any season is that things won’t always run smoothly, and Sannino might need to convince the audience that he’ll be the one calling the shots and righting the ship if and when we have a wobble.  If he does so, it could be a hell of a season.  And either way, as ever, it won’t be dull.  You orns….

Season Preview – Part 5 07/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

Yeah, thanks Forest.  The evening before your preview bit goes up.  Nice.  What’s wrong with waiting a couple of days, honestly?  (That sell-on for Britt worked a treat tho, didn’t it?)

NORWICH CITY

INS: Lewis Grabban (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), Kyle Lafferty (Palermo, Free), Gary O’Neil (QPR, Free)

OUTS: Robert Snodgrass (Hull City, £7,000,000), Carlton Morris (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Ricky van Wolfswinkel (St.Etienne, Season Loan), Johan Elmander (Galatasaray, End of Loan), Jonas Gutierrez (Newcastle United, End of Loan), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Mark Robson (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: 15 of the last 17 games between the two sides have featured 3 or more goals, most recently the extra-time League Cup defeat last season.  Prior to that our most recent League encounters were a vibrant 2-2 at Vicarage Road in April 2011 and a televised 3-2 on the first day of the same season which saw Troy Deeney debut from the bench.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Ruddy
Martin     Turner      Bennett      Olsson
Bennett        Howson       Hoolahan      Redmond
Grabban     Hooper

VERDICT: Some clear parallels between here and Cardiff really…  a squad not strong enough for the top flight but looking plenty well equipped for the Championship, question marks about quite who they’ll be able to hang on to and who will get a more attractive offer from somewhere else and further question marks over the ability of a manager – the inexperienced Neil Adams in this case – to pull it all together and reverse the club’s downward momentum. Unlike Cardiff, the Canaries have been relatively restrained in the summer transfer market to date;  Grabban comes in for a reportedly large fee… City won’t have been the only takers for a striker who nearly went to Brighton this time last year, but a player with one albeit very successful season at this level is hardly a rock-solid bet.  Kyle Lafferty meanwhile returns to the Championship after six years spent with Rangers, Sion and Palermo.  Two forwards who won’t have come cheap, then, not to mention an awfully optimistic sniff at Troy Deeney… but hardly a statement of intent from a side who have lost arguably their most reliable creative spark over the summer.  Could go either way then…  a good start and the large Carrow Road crowd could propel City straight back up.  A wobbly opening and it could all unravel.  I’ll split the difference and say fourth.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Britt Assombalonga (Peterborough United, £5,500,000), Michail Antonio (Sheffield Wednesday, £1,500,000), Michael Mancienne (SV Hamburg, £1,000,000), Lars Veldwijk (Excelsior, Undisclosed), Danny Fox (Southampton, Undisclosed), Matty Fryatt (Hull City, Undisclosed), Louis Laing (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Roger Riera (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Chris Burke (Birmingham City, Free), David Vaughan (Sunderland, Free), Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Jack Hunt (Crystal Palace, Season Loan), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Matt Derbyshire (Rotherham United, Free), Darius Henderson (Leyton Orient, Free), Gonzalo Jara (Mainz 05, Free), Marcus Tudgay (Coventry City, Free), Rafik Djebbour, Simon Gillett, Jonathan Greening, Ishmael Miller, Guy Moussi, Radoslaw Majewski (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Kévin Gomis (Nice, End of Loan), Lee Peltier (Leeds United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOREST: Lewis McGugan

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Britt Assombalonga, Jimmy Gilligan (U21 Coach), Henri Lansbury

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-1 draw early last season featuring a Lewis McGugan free kick, and a collapse at the City Ground leading to a 4-2 defeat despite Gabriele Angella’s extraordinary Goal of the Season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Darlow
Lichaj      Lascelles       Hobbs         Fox
Burke       Lansbury          Vaughan          Paterson
Fryatt        Assombalonga

VERDICT: Will you miss Billy Davies?  Nope, me neither.  Enough already.  In comes Stuart Pearce, a figure as guaranteed to unite the Trent End behind him as is possible to conceive seventeen years after a thankless six-month spell in charge in which he presided over relegation from the top flight.  Meanwhile an odd winding-up order case over an unpaid tax bill – disputed by Forest – is plodding through the courts and may be resolved and dismissed to no further concern by the time you read this… but isn’t the only whisper of financial disquiet, with stories earlier in the summer suggesting that bonuses hadn’t been settled.  So it was odd to see the Lascelles/Darlow deal, two crown jewels around whom vultures had been circling, sold and then loaned back by Forest with the proceeds apparently reinvested in Britt (not that we should be complaining too much, “rising to £8m” would see our cut “rising to £3.4m”) and Antonio.  Echoes of Ian Holloway’s trick of selling Zaha to United, except that here there appears to be a straight line between the sales and the purchases.  Feels a bit shit-or-bust from Forest, but that’s not to say it won’t work.  Then there’s Pearce himself tho, and the lingering concern over to what extent his appointment is emotional and to what extent justified by his managerial ability.  Time will tell on all counts.  Finally there’s a chronic injury list to cope with – not really what you want going into a season…  the back four looks badly hit.  I’m going for a wobbly start and a strong finish but in any event, with so many unknowns a big margin of error needs slapping across any predictions.  Play-offs, but watch this space.

READING

INS: None

OUTS: Adam le Fondre (Cardiff City, £2,500,000), Daniel Carrico (Sevilla, £1,500,000), Jobi McAnuff (Leyton Orient, Free), Matt Partridge (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Stuart Taylor (Leeds United, Free), Kaspars Gorkss, Mikele Leigertwood, Wayne Bridge (retired)

OUR EX-RS: Uche Ikpeazu

THEIR EX-ORNS: Stephen Kelly

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw at the Madejski in August featuring a late equaliser – ours on this occasion – and a 1-0 defeat at the Vic in January that featured the only goal conceded in Beppe’s first nine home games.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  McCarthy
Gunter        Morrison        Pearce        Obita
Karacan            Williams
McCleary          Guthrie       Robson-Kanu
Pogrebnyak

VERDICT: There’s a rather telling feature of that little summary above as I write this.  Chances are, Nigel Adkins suggests, that this odd characteristic won’t have changed all that radically between now and you reading it in a week or so’s time.  You’d be forgiven for not having noticed… after all, nothing happening is by definition not as eye-catching as something happening, be it a painfully drawn-out transfer saga or the dismantling of an entire squad.  I hadn’t noticed either, and I’ve been keeping track of this stuff.  But that Reading haven’t signed anyone is no coincidence of timing with deals poised to go through, no indication of satisfaction with a squad that has lost considerable experience since May (including Adam Le Fondre, to pay off the tax man if the local paper is to be believed).  Reading have been in financial limbo due to an ominously protracted takeover that appears to have stalled at the stage of the assessment of whether the Thai billionaire concerned is a a “fit and proper” person.  That Reading’s first signing under him is claimed to be that of Anton Ferdinand from his Thai club calls that into question straight away. Until that situation is cleared up Adkins has no funds with which to build up a squad that fell short last time and look far from strong candidates this.  A test of the manager’s abilities for sure, not a gamble I’d be happy taking in all honesty…  he has been quoted as conceding that automatic promotion might be a bit optimistic as it stands, but frankly even without taking into account yet another chronic August injury list he’ll be doing well to get his side to a top half finish as it stands.  And to last the season, perhaps, unless those making the decisions have more faith in him than I have.  There are plenty of good kids coming through, by all accounts, and too much quality for the Royals to struggle, but it’ll be a rare dull season for the Berkshire side.  Fourteenth.

ROTHERHAM UNITED

INS: Jordan Bowery (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Ryan Hall (Franchise FC, Undisclosed), Richard Wood (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Febian Brandy (Sheffield United, Free), Kirk Broadfoot (Blackpool, Free), Matt Derbyshire (Nottingham Forest, Free), Paul Green (Leeds United, Free), Scott Loach (Ipswich Town, Free), Frazer Richardson (Middlesbrough, Free), Mat Sadler (Crawley Town, Free), John Swift (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Nicky Adams (Bury, Undisclosed), Lionel Ainsworth (Motherwell, Free), Danny Hylton (Oxford United, Free), Michael O’Connor (Port Vale, Free), Kayode Odejayi (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Scott Shearer (Crewe Alexandra, Free), Wes Thomas (Birmingham City, Free), David Worrall (Southend United, Free), Claude Davis, David Noble, Danny Schofield, Mitch Rose (Crawley Town, Three Month Loan), Dan Rowe (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Nicky Walker (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-MILLERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Scott Loach, Mat Sadler

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 0-0 draw at the Vic nearly ten years ago and a 1-0 victory at Millmoor later the same season courtesy of a Heidar Helguson goal against the already relegated Millers that proved vital in preserving our own divisional status.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Collin
Richardson   Wood          Arnason      Skarz
Agard            Green        Frecklington    Pringle
Revell        Derbyshire

VERDICT: After nine years outside the second tier the Millers are back with a new stadium, a different manager and a different ethos altogether.  Tempting to write them off altogether on the back of being the third team promoted behind Big Club Wolves and persistent door-knockers Brentford and sinking anchor after consecutive promotions is a big ask.  Nor has their prolific recruitment drive over the summer been entirely convincing… a lot of bodies, a lot of second tier experience but largely fringe players- a bunch of players previously short of the mark.  There are exceptions… Paul Green stands out as providing some grit and experience, record signing Bowery is about potential rather than know-how.  But it’s not an intimidating roster.  However many of these players are squad members;  the existing squad has the quality that got it promoted in Revell, Pringle and Arnason, and a bit of bloody-mindedness.  That bloody-mindedness is only enough if matched with quality… if you start losing games and go under that spirit disappears and you have nothing.  But if Rotherham get off to a good start they could stay up comfortably.  No more than that, but it’s a possibility.  Sixteenth.

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