Watford 1 Crystal Palace 1 (26/12/2016) 27/12/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Football on Boxing Day is always a little bit disorientating. This one isn’t helped by being shunted to lunchtime; it’s cold and sunny but the ambience of too much food and alcohol being recovered from pervades all four sides of the stadium from the Rookery, where the 1881’s flags are confined to the west end of the stand, to the away end which is full but far from the raucous wall of support that the Eagles pride themselves on.
The disorientation isn’t helped by the resuscitation of Danny Wilson’s “Mary’s Prayer” over the tannoy. In the late eighties and early nineties this was a staple in the home game playlist; someone’s brother was obviously in the band or something as it felt disproportionate even at the time. If you must play banal pop songs at least change it up a bit. However there’s less justification still to bring back a dirge associated with a fairly miserable period in the club’s history, the original single charting during the 1987/88 Bassett season. Chariots of Fire gets a proper airing too – that’s much more reasonable, even if Felix and I can’t decide whether it ever went away. A more subliminal number than Z-Cars, no less cherished. Anyway…
2- Injuries, eh? The volume this season is remarkable in itself and it’s natural to wonder about the coincidence of this with the unexpected summer revamp of the medical department. Based on, you know, a somewhat limited knowledge of physiotherapy, conditioning, the demands on the body of a professional sportsman and so on, and therefore the lack of ability to deduce cause and effect perhaps we should stop at wondering. Nonetheless, natural to wonder. More peculiar still is the systematic focus of injuries on particular areas of the team… central defence a few weeks ago, the creative end of the team now.
The first half hour or so can be summed up by the hung over growl of “FFS” that rattled around the home end throughout. The team selection didn’t inspire confidence… the evident unavailability of Okaka and Success, Deeney on the bench, it looked a cautious selection in contrast to a Palace side which was set up with Allardyce’s trademark bullishness. Things started badly and got worse… first Janmaat, after seemingly overstretching, then Behrami collapsed and were replaced. Janmaat’s replacement was a straight swap but Behrami in the absence of Watson, also injured, necessitated the clarion introduction of Deeney and a complete reshuffle.
Only to be expected that things go a bit screwy as a consequence. Almost immediately Benteke got onto the end of a cross and needed just a little more power. It felt like a portent of things to come – actually it was all but Benteke’s only positive contribution. Such was his ineffectiveness that we debated whether his seemingly impending red card in the second half would be a help or a hindrance. Instead it was Cabaye who broke the deadlock, a rapier thrust abetted by a wobbly offside trap. Nothing new here… we know that three at the back can leave you open an vulnerable. This isn’t a problem in itself… the problem is when you’re not actually providing the threat to offset this risk.
3- The penalty changed everything, obviously. It arose from the lowest point of an increasingly nervous, tentative opening by the Hornets, an appalling back pass from the otherwise exemplary Prödl sold Gomes short and he gave away a spot kick with a wild swing of the boot. Keystone cops stuff. We’d have taken a point, and gratefully, at this stage.
Instead, Benteke lined up the kick and rolled it delicately to the keeper’s left. Having waited for him to make the call Gomes all but fell on it, and with that the veneer fell from Palace’s performance, the suspicion that their lead – certainly deserved and arguably flattering the Hornets – hadn’t asked an awful lot of the visitors firmed up. Suddenly there was a bit of spirit, even if it didn’t materialise into much for the rest of the half. Sleeves were rolled up, the job was taken in hand.
4- Palace are a truly grimy lot. It’s a source of fascination that so many ostensibly talented players – Benteke and Cabaye most obviously, others too – conform to the traditional Selhurst model of conniving, barging, throwing in an elbow which Big Sam seems unlikely to disrupt. Attention post-match was drawn to Harrygate and Zaha’s late tumble… actually I’ve got some sympathy for the winger; quick feet are always going to draw nervous tackles and if you are getting booted around there has to be some temptation to make challenges visible. Britos was probably lucky in that he made a stupid challenge and another referee might have called a pen. The excellent Clattenburg called it right though – Zaha was on his way down. Less forgivable than Zaha was Cabaye’s inexcusable swallow dive in the second half as he fabricated the illusion of a sandwich challenge and curtailed a tentative Watford attack. That’s not survival, exaggerating a challenge so the ref sees it, that’s just plain cheating.
5- By that time we were level, Seb Prödl winning the pen and Troy slashing it down the centre of the goal after Wayne Hennessey made a big deal out of showing Troy how big an obstacle he was facing before helpfully vacating the centre of the goal of said obstacle. We deserved a point too, in the end, much as our attacking play continued to look like hard work. Palace were there to be beaten, their famously porous defence almost demanding to be exploited, the out of position Joel Ward at left back a particular problem. For the Hornets… Amrabat was excellent but necessarily withdrawn to wing back was further from the fun than you’d want. Guedioura was perpetually as likely a source of something as anyone whilst simultaneously demonstrating why we’re much better off using him as an impact sub at best – his ball retention shocking, the randomness of his contribution not suited to a starting role, let alone alongside a sub-par Capoue. But the back three, by and large, did well, the embers of the Deeney/Ighalo partnership glowed again.
So the disorientation lingers, really. Coming from behind, wresting control of the game from the visitors despite the injury set-backs and selection limitations, all brilliant. Not winning at home to a Palace side that is significantly less than the sum of its parts, not good. Bottom line, though, is that we’re still top half despite injuries ganging up on us, particularly in creative areas… any one of Success, Pereyra and Okaka (who I would consider creative, if in bludgeoning opportunities with a mallet rather than carving them) and today’s game would have been quite different. Bottom line, we’re much better than what Palace showed us today, concerns about relegation remain hysterical.
And having hosted one unpleasant mob it’s kinda convenient to have another turning up a few days later. Nobody bother cleaning up, clearing away the beer cans and emptying the ashtrays, the next lot really aren’t worth it.
Happy New Year all. Yoorns.
The List – January 2017. 18/12/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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As we approach the January window our stated intent to have a quiet January hadn’t prevented us from being linked to players even before our latest spate of injuries. Bookmark this page if you want to follow progress up to and throughout the January Transfer window. What does and doesn’t constitute a “rumour” is entirely at my discretion of course but generally “Watford following the progress of…” is in, whether substantiated or not, “I’d like Watford to sign…” is out.
* Indicates player linked in previous windows
Running Total: 44
Paul-Georges Ntep (Rennes) – joined VfL Wolfsburg
Pontus Jansson (Torino)
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (Aston Villa)
Danilho Doekhi (Ajax)
Wilfred Ndidi (Genk)* – joined Leicester
Ben Osborn (Nottingham Forest)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Riccardo Orsolini (Ascoli) – joined Juventus
Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal)
Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax) – joined VfL Wolfsburg
Sergi Enrich (Eibar)
Romain Thomas (Angers)
Saido Berahino (West Brom)* – joined Stoke City
Yacine Brahimi (Porto)
Henri Lansbury (Nottingham Forest) – joined Aston Villa
Molla Wague (Udinese) – joined Leicester on loan
Isaac Cofie (Genoa)
Dale Stephens (Brighton)
Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter)
Scott Hogan (Brentford) – joined Aston Villa
Vicente Iborra (Sevilla)
Keisuke Honda (Milan)
Keita Baldé Diao (Lazio)*
Tom Cleverley (Everton) – SIGNED ON LOAN
Omar Elabdellaoui (Olympiakos) – joined Hull City
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter) – joined Hull City on loan
Manolo Gabbiadini (Napoli)* – joined Southampton
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
Toby Sibbick (AFC Wimbledon)
Jake Livermore (Hull City) – joined West Brom
Marco Sportiello (Atalanta) – joined Fiorentina on loan
Morgan Sanson (Montpellier) – joined Marseille
Mauro Zárate (Fiorentina) – SIGNED
Max Gradel (Bournemouth)
Luka Milivojević (Olympiakos) – joined Crystal Palace
Robin Quaison (Palermo) – joined Mainz
Bojan Krkić (Stoke City) – Joined Mainz on loan
M’Baye Niang (Milan) – SIGNED ON LOAN
Robert Snodgrass (Hull City) – joined West Ham
Nicolas Pépé (Angers)
Tim Krul (Newcastle) – joined AZ67 on loan
Asmir Begovic (Chelsea)
Zach Clough (Bolton) – joined Nottingham Forest
Odion Ighalo (Napoli, Shanghai Shenhua, West Brom*, Changchun Yatai, Crystal Palace)
. – joined Changchun Yatai
Jerome Sinclair (Brentford, Reading, Norwich*,Cardiff, Sheff Wed, Ipswich, Derby, Nottm Forest, Birmingham)
. – joined Birmingham on loan
Juan-Carlos Paredes (Tigres, Rangers, Trabzonspor, Emelec, Olympiakos)
. – joined Olympiakos on loan
Adalberto Peñaranda (Granada, Malaga) – joined Malaga on loan
Troy Deeney (West Ham United, Hebei Chinese Fortune)
Christian Kabasele (Anderlecht)
Étienne Capoue (Everton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Nantes)
Costel Pantilimon (Derby County)
Isaac Success (Bursaspor, Beijing Guoan)
Adlène Guedioura (Aston Villa, Hull City, Middlesbrough)
. – joined Middlesbrough
Obbi Oularé (Den Haag, Sint Truidense, Besiktas, Willem II)
. – joined Willem II on loan
Watford 3 Everton 2 (10/12/2016) 11/12/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I had a friend once. I still have friends, in fact, but this particular friend isn’t a friend any more, not because we fell out or anything but because we drifted in different directions. She doesn’t seem to indulge in Social Media to permit the illusion of an ongoing relationship that is actually no more than an echo.
Anyway, she came to a few Watford games. She was at Wrexham away midweek in December 1997, so she can’t be faulted for not giving football a go but she absolutely never got it. Whilst others come along and participate, however temporarily, chanting and singing and being submerged, she just watched on nonplussed. She even went as far as deriding the very notion that football was something that could be “discussed”, when I claimed to have spent an evening with friends doing just that. Discussing football was as inconceivable as discussing a colour, a piece of paper, a stretch of tarmac. It had no nuance, it just was.
She was wrong, of course. Plenty of us spend an awful lot of time discussing football, in mind-numbing detail. The only thing that’s remarkable about this to my mind is how it continues despite how inconsequential such discussion is. Our evaluations don’t change, cannot affect reality… none of our opinions, however well formulated, influence a manager’s decisions or a game’s outcome. Where a crowd influences a game it’s a product of a groundswell of opinion, not a conversation.
There’s a point to this thread. It’s to do with the popular grumble about the distance of any youth products from our first team but I’ve spent a lot of your time not talking about the game so I’ll come back to this later…
2- It was pissing it down with rain. Rob McKenna would be able to offer a more colourful description that captured its dreary, mild, inconsequential boredom but suffice to say that it kinda suited the anxiety of the occasion, with this one against our most established bogey side potentially constituting the tipping point between an iffy run and a bit of a problem.
The game started in corresponding fashion. We had the opening chances but it was… anxious, tentative, half-hearted. As if we were waiting for an excuse to feel sorry for ourselves. It came… a looping ball dropped over our defence; Britos was asleep, Gomes came out and hesitated, Lukaku slipped the ball home and we looked forward to expanding our catalogue of ways not to beat Everton (current entries including spirited draw, low-key bore, aggravating travesty, miserable humdrum defeat, abject humiliation…).
3- So, back to that thing about youngsters. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Almost anyone. It feels wrong that we have no kids near the first team (injury crises excepted), that our closest thing to a first team youth product is on loan at Blackburn, that Sean Murray dwindled so sadly, that Michael Folivi, exciting as he may be, will be conscious that Bernard Mensah, Alex Jakubiak, Uche Ikpeazu were all in his place once.
Thing is, when the chips are down experience has its uses. This game was not so much in danger of drifting off into miserable soul-sapping defeat as halfway down the aisle with a bag of snacks checking its seat number. Everton were buoyed by their goal, and whilst Lukaku’s movement and ability to drop into space continued to be their only threat (and target) they were on top and in danger of dragging the game beneath the surface and suffocating it.
That’s where the experience comes in. The bullishness. Valon Behrami, chasing down dawdled balls as the visitors slowed the game down, setting an example. Sebastian Prödl, monstrous again, bullying Lukaku out of possession. Nordin Amrabat taking responsibility, committing people again and again. Stefano Okaka, a broad-shouldered thunderous force of nature. Troy… just, Troy. Crashing into a header to Okaka, Okaka releasing Amrabat and meeting his cross with a balletic flicked backheel and – here’s the extraordinary bit – at the near post. We have someone attacking the near post. Crazy.
4- Less crazy is the number of leaders we have in this side, in stark contrast to our visitors who looked utterly rudderless. Ashley Williams is Wales’ captain but the defence was fretful throughout; Gareth Barry has skippered his country but beyond his usual trick of more or less judging how hard and frequently he could put the boot in without attracting sanction his influence was limited. This is a side with better, more prominent youngsters than us – Barkley, Deulofeu, Lukaku, Funes Mori – and they weren’t able to hack it.
Meanwhile Prödl snarled into an immaculate challenge on Lukaku. Okaka flew in decisively on Coleman. There was only one direction this game was travelling. Perversely it was set pieces, so often our bugbear, that got us there… the comically bad-tempered Holebas swinging in a corner for Prödl to thunder home and another for Okaka to flick in with Troy there to confirm. In and around that Prödl got underneath another, Britos ghosted in to a deep cross to force an impossible save from Stekelenburg. We could have been further ahead.
5- It doesn’t pay to get carried away. This was a mighty win that spoke volumes for our character and the options in our squad but it was thrilling rather than high quality… the defence was get-attable throughout, Lukaku pulling one back having been afforded an exclusion zone in the penalty area as Koeman’s changes afforded the visitos some options.
But thrilling and seventh in the table will do, for now. As above, this was a pivotal game, defeat would have been four in five with Man City on Wednesday. Now, having come from a goal down, that’s a free punch. And we do pack a punch.
But don’t discuss it with anyone will you?
This is likely to be the last BHappy report before Christmas, so have a good one…
1- So this time we start with the “taken as read” thunk. The Jamie Hand Booking, the Lucky Chocolate. First… West Brom are great. A proper football club. Second, the Fanzone at the Hawthorns is tremendous… food and drink, a big screen showing the lunchtime game as Sergio Agüero wrote himself out of our game there next week; the generous atmosphere rendered the UB40 cover artist crooning over a microphone something of an irrelevance.
Thirdly it’s bloody cold. Seriously, why? Always? Yes, yes, the Hawthorns is the highest altitude ground in the country and so forth but… it’s next to the M5, not in the middle of the mountains, not some icy tundra. You wouldn’t know it. Jesus. Five layers. Not enough. Not nearly enough. We hide in the Fanzone’s Greggs and try to blend in with the sausage rolls, figuring – accurately as it turned out – that the staff were too busy to police the warmth of their shelter and that much of the populace of the fanzone had more scruples and/or more layers than us.
2- Once in the ground the first question was how we’d line up in the wake of myriad suspensions and injuries. A measure of quite how dramatic our absentee list is came when the news of Janmaat and Mariappa wiping each other out with a head collision in training was met with a shrug. We were already up against it, what did two more matter? Indeed, given that we’ve got a bizarre coincidence of absentees already perhaps it’s better to get all our misfortune out of the way in one go.
In any case, the absentees were largely defensive – four centre-backs, a right (wing) back, the holding midfielder with his deputy presumably half fit on the bench. Little surprise then that we saw the resumption of our hurricane start to the game, get the ball up the end of the pitch where we’re at full(er) strength; Nordin Amrabat cracked a shot that Foster tipped over within the first minute, Capoue and Deeney both had chances and the home side barely got out of their half in the first fifteen minutes.
Thing is, you need to score in such situations. Especially away from home, especially when you’re protecting a botched together defence. Especially against a team that are decent from set pieces…
3- No small frustration greeted the first Albion goal, then. The home side forced a corner, Evans crashed in to score. Gomes should have done better, we had a lot of people standing around watching and taking up space and nobody attacking the ball as aggressively as Evans (or at all, in fact). On another day Evans might have been pulled up for climbing, but if we’d defended attentively that wouldn’t have been an issue.
Of all the patchwork repairs to our side, the enforced employment of Guedioura in a central midfield role felt the most vulnerable; alongside a dependable ratter like Behrami or patroller like Watson he’d have been OK, maybe, but less so with Capoue. The Algerian has many attributes – enthusiasm, positivity, creativity – but footballing discipline is not one of them. Fifteen minutes after Albion had gone ahead he crashed into an untidy challenge giving a free kick away within shooting distance. As the set piece was teed up the Watford wall collapsed on itself, Zuñiga turned side-on to the shot. It still required luck on Albion’s part for the deflection to spin off the Colombian and into the corner, but we shouldn’t have afforded ill fortune that window.
So Albion were two up despite us having much of the play. We might have been called unlucky, but that would do a disservice to the way the hosts play. Their modus operandi doesn’t rely on having the ball very much. Indeed, the set-up is much like that of Sean Dyche’s Watford side but executed with better and much more experienced players… a rock-solid defence, an experienced and disciplined midfield and enough up front to steal breakaway chances and set pieces. They don’t need to have the ball very much. They don’t actually want to have the ball very much.
4- The second half settled into just such a pattern… Watford with the possession and territorial advantage, Albion rattling off threateningly on the break. We were facing an uphill battle, facing the constant risk that the scoreline might head off at some point in the direction of the Bob Taylor or Lee Hughes-inspired results we’ve suffered here in the past.
Nonetheless we kept at it. Nordin Amrabat was back on the front foot after his frustrated outing against Stoke and screamed down the right flank, pulling a cross impossibly back from touch for Deeney to connect with – only a stunning block prevented us from reducing the deficit. Stefano Okaka had spent much of the first half complaining about Albion’s physicality – disappointing really, that the guy who’d presumably been brought in due to his ability to deal with such attention seemed so dismayed and surprised by it. His impact overall was underwhelming, though he too kept going and got better after the break, constantly engaging Albion’s defenders if to limited effect – he bundled goalwards with Deeney and took a half-chance that his captain might have done better with.
Another teasing ball from Amrabat tempted an Albion head to intervene ahead of Deeney; the ball was dropping over Foster who was forced to tip over, a fine stop. From the corner Troy stabbed a loose ball across the face of goal for Kabasele to touch in – game on. Pereyra slalomed through but a combination of Foster’s speed and dexterity and his own tentativeness saw the chance go begging amidst optimistic calls for a penalty from the away end. More defensible appeals minutes later when Okaka was upended as we unsettled Albion’s defence again. Gripping, nailbiting stuff, and for once a pitch-level view added to the drama being performed in front of us.
5- Had the game finished here, and much as nobody likes losing, we’d probably not have been too unhappy. If there’s a way to lose this is it… narrowly, competitively in the face of a patchwork side and a confident opponent away from home. What followed was disappointing then, although it’s difficult to be too harsh on Pereyra. I had no view whatsoever of what had happened from our distance and position (although the guy over my left shoulder seemed to be able to employ the extra six inches or so of elevation to provide an accurate running commentary)… based on TV replays only you’d have to say that McClean went in aggressively and recklessly and whilst Pereyra shouldn’t have raised his hands it’s easy to sympathise. Easy to sympathise too with the view expressed by Mazzarri that McClean can think himself very fortunate to escape with a yellow, so too the likes of Rondon who piled in to no censure whilst Watford’s captain was booked for dissent. Less easy to sympathise with the manager actually articulating this opinion, albeit in the emotional window post the final whistle. I used to think that Jose Mourinho did this on purpose – blow up a smokescreen by drawing attention to his own utterings and shielding his team; now I rather fancy he’s just a bad loser. Mazzarri, certainly, had little to shield his team from after a stout performance that wasn’t quite enough, but plenty to lose by fostering a victim “everything’s against us” mentality. We don’t need that.
Matt Phillips put a full stop on the afternoon’s proceedings with a fine slaloming shot and goal; you’d perhaps have preferred the otherwise reassuringly stout Kabasele to have gotten a bit closer to him but that’s a bit churlish, a splendid goal. Allan Nyom, meanwhile, had put in a performance that was a bit like a highlights video of his Watford spell… careering boldly into attacking positions (and displaying more reliable delivery with his weaker left foot than we ever saw with his right), occasionally slicing the ball out of play and looking eminently get-attable when defending. All that was missing was a reckless booting of Amrabat or Pereyra into the stand. There were a few more catcalls from the away end than his so-so-but-no-worse Watford spell really merited, which had escalated into a relatively witty exchange with the adjacent Baggies (“He left cos you’re Sh*t” / “He left cos HE’S sh*t” / “He’s still beating you” / “He’s still f***ing sh*t”). Any sympathy for the Cameroonian rapidly evaporated as he opted to celebrate the winner in front of the away end. We had some morons in our end, as ever. It appears footballers aren’t above stupidity either.
6- If I’ve sounded critical of our performance then I’ve been unfair. This was vastly better than last week’s sloppy showing against Stoke; Prödl was monstrous again, Kabasele as above did fine alongside him. Deeney was more aggressive and mobile than of late, Amrabat sizzled up either flank, Sinclair had an encouraging cameo. We were bright and positive and if we weren’t tight enough at the back or stiff enough in midfield then we didn’t get the breaks either.
We’re a good side, and those panicking that Sunderland have started winning are being hysterical. Survival remains the primary objective but we weren’t a million miles away from grabbing a point from two-down despite a glut of missing players. We need to keep our cool and our focus. But we’re doing OK.
Watford 0 Stoke City 1 (27/11/2016) 28/11/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- If decent mid-tableness is what we aspire to for the moment, then a degree of balance is to be expected. By balance I mean… games when things go against you as well as those when they go for you, and that means losing games to fair-to-middling clubs as well as to the top sides. Sometimes. It’s no fun, but it’s going to happen. In this division, fair-to-middling sides are all capable of giving you a slap in the face.
But the degree of contrast between this weekend and last was stark. For one thing, Daughter 2 forgot her lucky teddy. For another, rather than flying into our regular car park we mistimed that one and ended up in the backup, stuck behind a minibus of lairy Stokies as it was directed around a corner that was never going to accommodate it. As an added bonus said Stokies had already stepped out of their minibus and were loafing around guffawing at their driver as those of us queued up behind it tried to find corners to reverse into. The voices were bellowing “this is going badly already”, and were difficult to ignore.
2- Things didn’t get any better once the game started. Last week we blew Leicester away and capitalised on the position that put us in; this one wasn’t quite the same. The visitors were on top from the off… big, physical, pressing us high up the pitch they knocked us out of our stride and we never regained anything halfway resembling the initiative. Initially there was some defiance… bodies on the line, Gomes scrambling to a fine save, ranks being cleared and Janmaat thundering down the middle on the break like a boulder careering downhill, bouncing off trees before smacking a shot too close to Grant. This seemed to crumble with Kaboul’s withdrawal after 15 minutes or so… the big centre-back had been doubtful, supposedly; he hadn’t been desperately significant, replacement Kabasele played no worse than anyone else (although he spent an inordinate preparation for his entrance that even Daughter 1 would baulk at) but the incident seemed to mark the end of our resistance. From there the Potters bossed it, bullying us much as Burnley had done and chasing down our possession high up the pitch. We didn’t tend to retain that possession for very long. On the half hour Charlie Adam met a set piece unmarked; Gomes blocked, the ball hit the post, then the keeper, then apologetically rolled inside the side netting. I’ve not seen it again – it transpires that Adam fouled Behrami en route but whatever. Stoke were worth the lead.
3- By this point another subplot was developing. Prödl rose to a header near the touch line, Arnautovic shoved him in the back. Nothing. Amrabat shielded the ball from his marker further up the same touchline and was pulled up. As frustration with the way the game was going grew, referee Madley channelled the anger in one direction.
Social media has changed the world. It could be argued – and has been – that twitter, which amplifies extreme opinions at the expense of moderation making it easy to filter the views that you hear to re-enforce your own has radically altered the world that we’re exposed to and affected the outcomes of recent elections. Social media’s immediacy also makes it very easy for idiots to fall victim to trigger-finger responses borne of red mist. I am one such idiot, and have had a shitty week as a result of failure to count to ten. This failure to count to ten manifests itself at games on occasion, with a tendency to let rip in a fashion that might be considered yellow-tinted.
Thing is, I’m in the stands and whilst I’d prefer to retain a degree of class (ha) and perspective this release from needing to be rational and reasoned is part of the reason I’m there. The same luxury can’t be afforded to the players on the pitch, and if our number of bookings for dissent were a cause for concern before the game this concern was exacerbated and inflated by the complete lack of discipline that characterised yellows for mouthing off, kicking the ball away… yes, some of the decisions prompting a response were cretinous, no Stoke weren’t being penalised for the same things but grow a brain. A referee having a bad day isn’t going to be reacting with moderation to stuff like that. Amrabat, for instance, was visibly cowed by his yellow for mouthing off about the free kick mentioned above and the tenacity that’s characterised his best performances disappeared as a consequence. This needs sorting.
4- If there’s a positive to be drawn it’s that we didn’t collapse. Despite being clearly second best we were still in the game throughout in the sense that a single goal would have nicked us something. There was a moderate degree of fist-waving as we rallied in the last quarter of the game but despite another encouraging cameo from the bullish Stefano Okaka and despite City visibly tiring and stepping back a bit it was never terribly likely. Nonetheless, we’d clung on sufficiently to render that a possibility.
The question the afternoon presents really is whether the tactical flexibility demonstrated by our ability – and the coach’s willingness – to switch shapes and positions and formations costs us in terms of not having enough in the way of stock moves. Things That We Can Rely On When Things Aren’t Working. Ardley to Helguson. Boom. A cost, perhaps, of that flexibility is that there’s not enough familiarity. It’s all rather hard work when we meet resistance. There’s no reliable crutch to lean on.
5- West Brom, then. Could, perhaps, be ugly. We’ve struggled against teams that have tried to strong-arm us despite Troy, Prödl, Behrami, Kaboul. Now we face them with only three – one assumes – available centre-backs, two of whom have ?one? start between them this season. And no Behrami, also suspended due to one of those witless yellow cards after he’d perhaps been one of the players to pull the performance up by its bootstraps in the second half. Over to you, Walter…
Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (19/11/2016) 20/11/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Football serves many purposes to its audience. Key amongst these is escapism, something to cling to, to hide in when your life is turning to crap. Developments elsewhere in the world since our defeat at Anfield, developments breathtakingly crass and depressing and terrifying, left a lot of us needing precisely this. Seriously, this on top of Brexit? The world’s gone absolutely crazy…
So the return of football was necessary and we were bang up for it. We flew unhindered down the M1, swung round the ring road in record time. The pedestrian crossing switched to green as we approached; we crossed without breaking stride. This was finally going to be a good day. Today we were going to win. Only the fact that ig didn’t have a pen with him to lend to Daughter 2 for ticking the starting elevens off in her programme betrayed that something in the world had changed.
2- There had been a few questions festering over the latest interminable international break. Would any of the walking wounded be available… Gomes, Prödl, Okaka, Success, Cathcart… would Iggy keep his pace, would Watson get a start? Most of all, how would the team respond to the dicking on Merseyside? The answers to most of these questions came with the now ceremonial checking of Twitter feeds over a two minute period either side of two o’clock; the answer to the final question came an hour later. We flew at Leicester from the kick-off in what’s becoming a trademark explosive start… Hull City had withstood similar a fortnight ago but City, crucially, couldn’t and didn’t. Roberto Pereyra’s performance was immediately the sort of thing we’d hoped and dreamed of; he picked up a loose pass, swivelled down the left and stole enough space to sling in a cross. Troy Deeney’s header was no less fine a thing… no vague flick-on this, cushioned into the path of Capoue who did his attacking-the-box thing and flung a bouncing volley past Zieler. There was time for a more eye-catching trick from Pereyra, receiving a pass on the left flank with his back to his marker he backheeled a nutmeg with a single touch and left him standing (Daughter 2 was to describe this to her bemused mother in some detail later in the day). Shortly afterwards he again picked up the ball on the left, seemed to make himself space to shoot by swaying in a threateningly deceptive manner, and curled a shot across Zieler’s grasp and in. Magnificent throughout, for the first quarter hour Pereyra was at a level that almost seemed unfair on the visitors, a quite unreasonable and uncontainable advantage.
3- Quite how the game would have panned out but for the penalty we’ll never know. One possibility of course is that we’d have capitalised further on this extraordinary start, or that Leicester would have come back at us and, on failing to break through, overcommitted leaving us holes to exploit. Another sufficiently plausible maybe is that at 2-0 up our concentration wouldn’t have been quite as sharp as it needed to be later in the game and as such, the goal coming when it did didn’t give us time to relax or get complacent – later on, a goal borne of pressure rather than a silly and unnecessary foul so quickly might have yielded another.
As it was, Mahrez struck the spot kick down the centre and seized the baton from Pereyra, if only briefly… the visitors had a period of good possession and pressure, but not possession and pressure that resulted in a shot on target for the rest of the half. Instead it was the Hornets who can claim to have come closest, Kaboul thumping a header narrowly wide and Deeney playing a ball across to Amrabat that he should have taken with his left but seemed to stab at with his right. The Moroccan continued to make mischief on the flank, however, and twice drew fouls that demanded further sanction but received none, the referee struggling with what was an increasingly feisty encounter towards the end of the half.
4- City had started with what Leicester Paul described as their “Champions League week” team, a “slight groin injury” to Slimani the most significant absentee both in terms of our now fabled vulnerability from crosses and also the way the game played out; City could have used a target man when their preferred counter-attacking approach quickly became a non-starter. For all that, there were only two changes to the starting eleven that we faced here in March – Zieler for Schmeichel, Amartey for Kanté – and whilst those changes made our visitors weaker there’s no doubt that we’ve progressed even over that narrow window. Deprived of any space to attack, City not unreasonably decided that their best chance of a result would come from committing people – running at them and drawing challenges, winning free kicks. Given the pace and quick feet of Vardy, Musa, Gray and the industry of Okazaki that seemed quite sensible but our defending was heroic, particularly in the final quarter of the game.
We know from experience how context affects your interpretation. We’ve just been stuffed 6-1 at Anfield; unpleasant as that was, we know that we’re in a strong position and therefore the odd embarrassment can be taken on the chin. It would have been harder to mentally recover from had we been in the bottom three. Similarly, Leicester’s almighty achievement last season was borne in part of a bloody-minded belief in what they were doing. They didn’t do much different in this one… but their play was tentative, deliberate. For all Vardy’s spinning and twisting City only achieved one shot on target from open play; Kaboul, Prödl and Britos threw themselves in front of things, snuffed out space and suffocated the waves of attacks of increasing intensity. That flying blocks yielded a couple of ball-to-hand (or elbow) close-contact penalty appeals that were noisily, desperately, hopelessly optimistic spoke volumes. Instead it was Nordin Amrabat’s relish in committing Fuchs – on a yellow and a last warning, as so many of Nordin’s markers seem to end up – that made the best chance of the half. Burrowing past the Austrian on the right flank Amrabat laid back for Janmaat to drop a cross on Pereyra’s head. Face with the choice of directing a header to his marker’s left and inside the post or to the bigger target back across goal he chose the latter, making Zieler’s acrobatic save a possibility.
5- This one was significant for a number of reasons. Our first league victory over reigning champions since John Barnes’ ludicrous goal – from the same wing to the same corner as Pereyra’s – against Liverpool 30 years ago. A tactical triumph for Mazzarri, whose early salvo and formation change that saw us play 5-4-1 when defending but had Amrabat and Pereyra supporting the tremendous Deeney – whose ongoing battle with Morgan was an entertaining sideshow – when in possession gave City nowhere to go. Most of all for the cast iron balls of the whole team, particularly the back three, in withstanding the late pressure and in dismissing that Anfield game from concern. We still have Success, Cathcart, Holebas to return for goodness’ sake, not to mention a fit-again Okaka who seems perfectly equipped to play the “pain in the arse sub off the bench” role when protecting a lead such as this.
It occurred to me this week that a marker of how far we’ve come is that we knocked Newcastle, Leeds and Forest out of the cup last season but only the Arsenal game rendered the run remarkable. Ten or fifteen years ago that would have been unthinkable. Now we sit in eighth, behind only seven sides whose resources, successes and infrastructure dwarf our own. And it doesn’t feel like a false position.
Watford 1 Hull City 0 (29/10/2016) 30/10/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Whilst this, our fourth visit to the top division, is proving vastly more successful than the last two it’s not the case that everything has improved in Hornetland since our promotion.
Some things are clearly better. The quality of the football, obviously. The dramatic improvement to the ground and facilities. The size of the crowds, the feel that every game is a big event, a drama. The security to the club and its prospects afforded by our status and the money that comes with it. You’ll maybe think of others.
Other things haven’t changed. Football is still football, your mates are still your mates. It’s still Watford, Vicarage Road, Fry Days and so on. We’re still playing Burnley, Palace, Hull, as we have been forever.
But what’s worse, what’s much worse, is the quantity of football. The accepted line, spouted by those who regard the rest of the Premier League as supporting cast to the top six and for whom anywhere lower down the pyramid barely enters consciousness, is that Premier League Clubs Play Too Much Football. Arrant nonsense.
The top teams, teams in European competition, play a lot of games. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that many of those clubs would have had input into the design of these competitions and ought to have more pride than to bitch too much about busy schedules… that aside, we reached a Cup Semi-final last season but barely played a mid-week game. This season we’ve had Turf Moor because of TV, Man City coming up in December and then Palace on Boxing Day. That’s it for the first half of the season. I resent the loss of midweek games, the loss of that looking forward to a week of work being interrupted by this nugget of excitement (or Rotherham at home, whatever) simply to accommodate Manchester United (for example) losing to some Danish team in a bloated competition that will give them plenty of second chances anyway.
2- Meanwhile, Hull City. I won’t have been alone in being a little nervous in the build up to this one, a rare occasion on which we are confronted with a game that we’re expected to win. Bournemouth, perhaps, we went into with a decent chance of three points… but that’s not the same as being solid favourites. That brings it’s own challenges.
Several of which would have been at the front of Watford minds as we hurtled into this game with a frantic urgency. We created our first noteworthy chance from the kick-off, a ball from the right drifting narrowly beyond the arriving Deeney at the far post, and continued in kind in a frenzied first ten or fifteen minutes. Pereyra, who again failed to dominate a game as we hoped he might but nonetheless sprinkled it with moments of breathtaking composed competence, curled a shot narrowly wide of the top corner. Kaboul thumped a header against the crossbar – in the Rookery we were on our feet, we thought it was in. Daughter 1, her hands gripping the barrier in front, turned to me with her eyes shining. “This is so exciting!”
3- And so it was, but unfortunately it didn’t deliver the opening goal that it probably deserved. Instead the game settled into the pattern that the opening salvo had been designed to avoid.
Hull are extremely limited; the vast majority of pundits predicted relegation at the start of the season (for what that’s worth) and wins over Leicester or otherwise there was little here to challenge the suggestion that it’ll be Sunderland and the Tigers plus one. In any circumstances they would have a challenge on, but that the away fans’ songs as the initial furore calmed down focused entirely on the understandable desire to finally see the club shot of the Allam ownership reflects a sorry backdrop. Frankly I’m surprised that they’ve amassed seven points in the circumstances.
But they’re not cannon fodder by any stretch. They’re solid and organised and difficult to play against in this mood. The 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 thing is new and seems to suit them, vast injury list notwithstanding as the possess three excellent central defenders in Dawson, Davies and Harry Maguire. As soon as they had a foothold the chances that we had created early on disappeared as the gaps in the defence closed up. Hull sat deep and broke, not an overwhelmingly original strategy but one that suited their available personnel. It nearly earned them a point. We chipped away for the rest of the half… Seb Prödl was quickly up supporting the attack, another Amrabat cross found Deeney at the far post, he should have scored. But it was hard work, and frustrating to watch. Both daughters began to read the match programme.
4- In the second half, more of the same. At least initially. Nordin Amrabat, who always looked likely to retain his place given the demands of the game above the returning Janmaat, had Sam Clucas on toast over and over again. Clucas is filling in on the left in the absence of injured duo Adubajo and Robertson and was exposed by the formation – in fairness, for all Amrabat’s success he didn’t create that crucial opening. But it was a chastening, difficult afternoon for the Hull midfielder, who was booked after one frustrated challenge and did well to stay on the pitch as the winger pushed the ball past him and flew after it to cheers and hurrahs.
Meanwhile Hull’s counters, if not exactly frightening and often ending with an overhit cross or crossfield pass, had enough about them to cause edginess in the home stands, not least when Abel Hernandez was let through on the right but failed to beat the adroit Gomes. We’ve been here before. If the opening salvo might have lead to a game in which Hull had to come out a bit and we racked up a more comfortable win, another possible eventuality was suggesting itself in main home fans’ minds.
Eventually, Daryl Janmaat came on for Kaboul, whose parting shot was a clubbed effort from about 30 yards that only briefly got any closer to the goal than it had started. Janmaat changed the dynamic immediately whilst reminding us what we had been missing, picking up the ball and barrelling towards the penalty area, our change in formation creating spaces that hadn’t been there before. Hull survived that one, just about, heroic limbs in the way as so often… that “no shots on target” stat isn’t a great one but is a little misleading, woodwork and crosses that just needed a touch and twists and turns that were snuffed out by flying blocks meant that it wasn’t that bad. No shots, but plenty of less easily defined and tabulated “nearlies”.
Frustrating, yes. But we kept plugging away, and got our reward. The explosive Janmaat and devilish Amrabat combined down the right, the Dutchman swung in a cross. Deeney and Pereyra both seemed to go for it, it spun off Dawson and dropped into the net. Harsh on the defender, you couldn’t have begrudged City a point if they’d held on. He can get his karmic balance sorted with a goal against Southampton next week.
5- The nervous tension released we played out the game; Iggy, who looked as uncertain and deliberate as he ever has, tiptoed through and clubbed a shot into the side netting. We broke on a suddenly reckless City and should maybe have extended our lead, but the whistle confirmed the win.
In isolation this is three points, always welcome no matter how they come. In context it’s an absolutely massive result. For one thing it sets the last couple of games into perspective… three tight and untidy encounters, if different in their way. Jose Holebas’ goal at Middlesbrough earned that win – no doubt that a moment of quality like that deserves to win a humdrum game. But much more significant that we’ve now ground out a narrow win from another tight encounter, whatever it says about our attacking limitations. We can grind out tight games, that says, Boro wasn’t a one off lucky punch. We now have seven points and three clean sheets from three such games.
As for our limited attacking potency, our injury list is much better populated than it ever was last season and despite this we’re in seventh with one defeat in seven. The depth and quality of our roster has never been more evident, the more so since our injuries have focused on particular areas of our squad. We have been deprived of different flavours of magic dust in Success, Okaka and Kenedy and won games anyway. Seb Prödl’s late injury combined with Cathcart’s absence might test the depth of our defensive cover. You’d be confident on this evidence, Anfield or otherwise.
So whilst the last few games won’t live long in the memory there’s no doubt that we’re in a great place. Those who lazily looked at the end of last season and presumed little Watford to be returning to their “natural level” are already looking rather silly.
Swansea City 0 Watford 0 (22/10/2016) 23/10/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I lived in Leeds between 1991 and 1994. Once a week, on a Thursday evening, there was an Indie night in the Student Union; unremarkable in itself but at the same time a splendid thing. Held in a black pit of a hall whose name I don’t even remember, it featured dry ice, sticky floors, watered down beer and a reliable set list. Either Going Underground or A Town Called Malice. Either Sheela-Na-Gig or 50 Foot Queenie. And so on.
What made it special was that everyone was there. You didn’t need to make any kind of arrangement with anybody in those pre-mobile phone pre-social media days. Nor had it ever been said, “this is something we should do”. It just grew organically… you could wander it at 9pm and see a load of people that you knew and were pleased to see, and drink beer and jump around for a few hours before buying an onion bhaji bap from the chip van outside and staggering home through the wind across Hyde Park. It was an anchor point of the week.
Back to the present day, and after all the years of doing this, of so many of us doing this, it shouldn’t need commenting on. Again. But there’s something thoroughly enjoyable about turning up on the other side of the country and knowing that you’ll run into a load of mates without any more formal arrangement than the fixture list. A four hour drive cross country with two children in the back seat isn’t a risk-free plan by any stretch, it helps that the sun has been shining, we’ve had as clear a run as we could have hoped for and that Swansea City seems such a very hospitable and well-organised club. But most of all it’s good to see Dave, Matt and Miles killing time outside a hostelry on the periphery of the ground. Saying hello to Elvis Mark in passing. Greeting Andy as he and his mates on their way up to the thin-Oxygen top row (where, presumably, he enjoys City running out to the Clash’s “White Riot”). Saying a waved hello to Alice. And all the others we met along the way. It’s a Good Thing.
2- You’ll have noticed that I haven’t, you know, mentioned the actual football yet.
Ten minutes in one of the blokes behind us announced that “this has got nil-nil written all over it”. This was irritating… partly because it felt like a spoiler, partly because he was so obviously right and the sudden realisation, much as it had been staring us in the face since kick-off, deflated enthusiasm.
It’s not that the game was awful, it wasn’t awful. But it was… humdrum, and rather predictable. Both sides were disciplined and reasonably robust defensively – Prödl at his unfussy best for the Hornets, debutant Mawson standing up well to Deeney for the home side. But going forward… there was little pace to speak of in either forward line and so for the most part the game rattled around in a confined box that didn’t involve either penalty area terribly often, or at least not in a consequential way. Such stalemates look worse at lower levels of course… with this much quality on the pitch there was always the chance of something happening, but it remained an outside possibility during the first half. The closest we came were an ambitious turn and shot from Capoue from distance that he did well to get anywhere near the target, and a late free kick teed up for Kaboul to bludgeon goalwards, a deflection taking the shot spinning, almost fortunately but narrowly wide of the post.
3- The shape of the game changed in the second half. Paul described it as a basketball match… my limited exposure to basketball has led me to believe that it involves lots of points being scored, but that aside there was something about the end-to-endness of it that suited that analogy. Modou Barrow was the source of much of the helt-peltness of it all, a strong and direct winger who is incredibly quick but seemed to rely on Holebas (twice) and Britos (once) gambling by diving in with a tackle and being caught by quick movement to give him a big hole to surge into. For all his menace there wasn’t an awful lot of end product.
The home side, nonetheless, had the best of it and Gomes was by far the busier keeper. He made a fine reflex stop to deny Van der Hoorn – we had no view of precisely what had happened from the far end, relying on replays for information – and had to be bold in coming out for a couple of dangerous crosses. The best move of the game came when Sigurdsson surged down the left before having the presence of mind to quickly alter the flow and switch the ball to the right, coming inside to hit the return ball off the outside of the far post.
Meanwhile whilst we weren’t getting shots on target there was increasing potency in our counterattacks, abetted no end by the introduction of Amrabat for Zuñiga. The Colombian had done well enough, but here was some acceleration to frighten Swansea with and several times it threatened to open them up. Odion Ighalo, meanwhile was making a good stab at reestablishing himself in the starting eleven, demonstrating the Marlon King trick of being able to kill a ball stone dead with a touch irrespective of angle and speed of arrival, holding players off, and once selling a couple of scoops to shape a shooting chance which Fabianski fielded comfortably. There were two penalty calls, one for a handball that I didn’t see but which was protested furiously, the other perhaps more credible for a scruffy challenge on Behrami after we got a lucky break in the box that unsettled the Swans defence. Could have been given, wasn’t. Sometimes you get them. Our best move, the closest we came to consecutive muggings on the road, came when Amrabat flicked narrowly over both keeper and crossbar at the end of another fluid counterattack.
4- Despite this counterattacking threat it was beyond doubt that Swansea took hold of the midfield in the second half. Mazzarri has lauded the first half performance… I guess if you acknowledge his qualifier that we need to sort the final third out then you can just about nod at that, we didn’t give them an awful lot. Overall though, the midfield isn’t quite clicking as hoped, and this despite our injury list generally attacking other areas of the pitch. Behrami, Capoue, Pereyra looks like the first choice three but whilst Behrami did his dirty-work job again effectively enough Capoue had one of his off-days and Pereyra, for all his ability, has looked a bit peripheral – ornamental? – in the last few weeks. Guedioura was brought on to bring some welcome randomness to proceedings, but Ben Watson’s ability to recycle possession and just keep us ticking alongside Behrami is being underplayed for my money. Capoue’s surges into the box that characterised the first six weeks or so of the season have all but disappeared – rarely did any of the middle three make runs ahead of the ball yesterday – given which Watson’s economy could have been a more useful tool.
5- Having said all of which it goes without saying that this was a very decent point, and may look like a better point still if Swansea get their act together, as looks quite possible. Consecutive clean sheets, let alone away from home, are not to be sniffed at either. We rolled out of Swansea as the sun set reasonably content with how the afternoon had gone. A quarter of the way through the season we have three wins, three draws and three defeats, plus a zero goal difference; lazy journalists after a headline might find this dull, but if it’s the new normal – humdrum or not – it’ll do me.
Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 2 (01/10/2016) 02/10/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. There’s something delicious about an English autumn. Something charming and old-fashioned and gently melancholic, like daydreamily eating a delicious apple on a park bench in very light drizzle. The lingering sweetness of something coming to an end. I appreciate that many people hold great affection for spring and its tiggery springiness, but if you suffer from hay fever, the promise of sunny days ahead comes with something of a catch; it’s a bit like being mugged by Floella Benjamin. As for winter and summer…well, they just tart themselves out for Daily Express click-bait – the coldest, hottest, wettest, driest on record, at least since the last one – and no-one likes an attention-seeker. You never turn on breakfast news to find Carol Kirkwood talking about the most damply orange autumn since records began. It’s a lovely time of year. I expect it’ll be sold off to Channel 4 soon or something…right, kids?
2. And this is the bit where the real football starts. No, no…I was on holiday for that bit, so it bloody well is. This is the bit where it all begins to sort itself out: where Stoke start to be Stoke, where Arsenal start to be Arsenal, and so on. The musical chairs for billionaires that is the transfer window is all done with, the league table begins to take some kind of shape, the first managers fall like yellowing leaves. Or in the case of this week’s high profile casualty, like great big thudding conkers.
3. Much of the reaction to Sam Allardyce’s departure has expressed different degrees of anger and dismay at the idea of the England manager’s salary being apparently insufficient; the word “greed” has featured prominently, as if, somehow, greed weren’t the foundation upon which the entirety of modern football were built. I’m not sure that greed is quite the right deadly sin, anyway. Hubris, perhaps, is more accurate. An essential part of a manager’s job is, at pretty much all times, to be the most important person in the room. And it turns out that being the most important person in the room might actually be a little bit addictive. Who’d have thought?
4. For a while, it was terribly fashionable to admire Eddie Howe for appearing to be someone capable of holding a conversation rather than merely delivering a lecture. And then, for a while and possibly still now, it was terribly fashionable to sneer at all of that as middle class fluff, the superficial gloss over a less flattering profile, just Aidy Boothroyd in a wig. But this week’s events ought to remind us that simple humility isn’t cheap: among managers, both past and present, there are very few who’d think that anything even slightly interesting might occur during the bit when you’re talking and they’re pretending to listen.
I’m projecting onto Eddie Howe, of course. I’ve never met him, probably never will, and might find him an insufferable pardew if I did. But he seems like a man who might not require a massive desk to lord it behind, who might speak quietly sometimes, who might enjoy a cup of tea rather than, say, a pint of wine. Perhaps the day will come when there are too many of those people in football, but it seems unlikely. I bet he’s about to pop up and say something utterly infuriating on Match of the Day now. Bastard.
5. There’s little to the mini-rivalry with Bournemouth, really. It isn’t that there’s nothing of substance. Rather, it’s that there’s nothing but substance: any proper rivalry requires an element of the patently unreasonable and flagrantly irrational to stoke its fires, it requires something to pass down to the next generation. Wash your mouth out, son. Nevertheless, games with Bournemouth have been terrific fun since their arrival in the Championship a few years ago: the pleasing openness of their football and the apparent decency of their manager don’t obscure more than an element of the irritable and irritating. There’s not no Boothroyd in their DNA.
6. Most of the first half was spent digesting a lunch consumed in great haste barely half an hour previously. The football had a certain indigestible quality itself: we began intently and earnestly in the manner of a side wishing to right some of Monday’s wrongs, bright and confident in possession and disappointed at Odion Ighalo’s failure to convert an early opportunity. Different game if that goes in. Obviously.
But gathering irritation at Mike Dean’s petty interventions culminated in a booking for Sebastian Prodl and a ticking-off for Walter Mazzarri, and it felt as if we began to lose our focus. A certain fragility was revealed by our willingness to become the victims; we needed to brush it off and get back to the football, but we fell into squabbling and quibbling, and it was one of those occasions when a home crowd doesn’t really help very much. At the umpteenth contentious free kick, Bournemouth caught us napping, and Wilson snuck ahead of Prodl to meet a deflected cross and, predictably, wind up the crowd a little further with his celebration. We needed to take a few deep breaths. We needed a bit of a break.
7. There wasn’t much sign as it kicked off, but the second half was an absolute belter. Our efforts to get Nordin Amrabat into the game – very much the key, in the absence of any real threat on the left and significant congestion in the middle – eventually paid off as excellent work in wriggling out of a challenge and cutting to the by-line was tidily converted by Troy Deeney. I’ve been frustrated by Amrabat until now, by his frequent failure to influence the game rather than merely enthusiastically participate in it, and his name would’ve been among those bearing a question mark a month ago. But he more than delivered on this occasion, quality and quantity and variety. Add consistency to that and you’d suddenly have quite a player. (Yeah, six million. Times have changed.)
8. Of the new faces – to me, at least – the most obviously eye-catching is naturally Robert Pereyra, not least for his striking resemblance to Craig Ramage on one of his bothered days. The same low-footed sway, head aloft, ball held under a spell, challenges brushed aside. I found Ramage exasperating, but I confess to a shiver of nostalgia. Something wondrous about a player so in command of his art.
But then all of that is cast into shadow by the arrival of Isaac Success, who somehow manages to get involved in virtually everything during his half hour on the pitch, as irrepressible as Eric Morecambe with a trombone. The Pozzo era has brought us no small number of very large forwards, several of whom have made no impact whatsoever. But Success looks like a different prospect altogether: he’s nigh on unplayable here, a remarkable combination of fleet-footed winger and massive centre forward, equally happy skipping past tackles out wide as hurling himself at crosses in the middle. The only flaw is that he can’t cross to himself. Bournemouth simply don’t know what to do with him.
9. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Deeney’s equaliser really starts the fun. It’s been a sensible, coherent and slightly boring game of football, the kind that’d wear matching socks from M&S. From here on, it’s a descent into joyful chaos, end-to-end bedlam, trousers hurled to the wind, shoes in a gutter, asleep in a roundabout flowerbed. It’s thrilling and splendid. As we digest the idea that we might be onto a win, Wilshere cuts inside, picks his spot and hits the base of the post. He hits pretty much exactly the same spot again later for good measure, before strolling off for a rest. (I got the memo about Wayne Rooney, but I seem to be have been out of the room when everyone decided that Jack Wilshere was a bit of a laughing stock. Still, boo and so forth.)
The order of events starts to blur; there’s too much going on at both ends. Deeney meets another cross, just a little short of the desired power, Boruc saves low. King wanders forward after Holebas misjudges a high ball and his low drive takes a deflection and careers past Gomes. Success wins a free kick and converts it to level again, gliding a beautiful near post header into the top corner. A free kick wallops against the bar with Gomes beaten. There are scrambles, scares; Deeney attempts to score with what can best be described as an overhead backheel. It’s hectic, chaotic, not a little fractious too. It deserves a winning goal, something to crown the final fifteen minutes whether for good or ill. Something to bring the house down.
10. It doesn’t get it, but still. We’d have shut up shop with ten minutes to go last season, brought on an extra holding midfielder to help the valiant Behrami, taken the point. There may come a time when that seems appealing again; there’s nothing fun about throwing a game away, after all, and much of our defending here was somewhere south of precarious. But for now, the lack of caution, and the sense of conviction, is really rather wonderful. Both dismissed as cannon fodder only recently, but neither of these sides ought to struggle, neither ought to be looking downwards in January.
11. A spectacular cloudburst floods the streets on the way back to the station. Autumn is fleeting; that’s part of its charm. Winter soon enough. Long months. But nothing to fear. Surely, nothing to fear.
Burnley 2 Watford 0 (26/09/2016) 27/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Ahhh, how to start. What to write. Those of you who were there know how it was, those of you who weren’t probably had better views of the brushwork if not the canvas, none of you will be particularly inclined to spend time reflecting on the occasion.
So let’s just get on with it and where better place to start – indeed, where better place to start anything much – than Burnley cricket club. I don’t “do” minority sports, as regular readers may know, but a cricket club in the absence of actual cricket is a fine thing. It’s perhaps unreasonable to be overly harsh about Burnley, a town which I’ve visited rarely, fleetingly and not terribly recently (Sean Dyche’s Watford bow in 2011 the last)… but one can’t help but feel that much of the pleasantness that this area of East Lancashire has to offer has been concentrated into this relatively small establishment. There are many fine ales at £1.50 a pint, a splendid pie, chips and gravy, and affable company and atmosphere. All is well with the world at 7.30.
This feeling of bonhomie extends to the ground, where stewards check tickets in a cordon ahead of the turnstiles but cordially so, and don’t go for the body searches. This is a relief, as Daughter 2’s Watford teddy – who you may remember from the West Ham report – was in my pocket and would have taken some explaining in the absence of an accompanying seven year-old. Inside the ground the kiosk staff were decked in yellow t-shirts sporting Watford badges, and the intimacy of the venue – not to mention the understandable sparsity of the nether regions of stands in the circumstances, recalled times that were less successful but enjoyable enough in their own way.
Then, the football started.
2- The concern voiced by plenty – including, encouragingly enough, players and head coach – and contemplated by all was that the success achieved in higher profile, we’re the underdog, let’s get up and at ’em games wouldn’t necessarily translate to lower profile fixtures against The Sort Of Sides We Ought To Look To Take Points From. Complacency was the concern, or rather that the adrenaline, the focus that characterised the win over United wouldn’t be visible tonight against less glamorous opposition. As Dave reflected before kick-off, there has never been and will never be a circumstance in which Burnley away is an easy game – heaven knows we’ve been dicked here often enough not to head up to Turf Moor under any illusions.
But problems were evident from the kick-off. Immediately, and for the vast majority of the 90 minutes, the home side exercised a strategy that was uncomplicated and thoroughly effective… flood the midfield, hare down possession, force us into hurried passes that our forwards never looked mobile or – yes – strong enough to make anything of, and hit lone striker Sam Vokes as often as possible to play off the scraps. It’s not a novel strategy, but Sean Dyche’s side executed it to perfection and our lot really didn’t like being on the end of it. We couldn’t get out for much of the opening half hour, and the validity of our worst fears was confirmed by the pathetic bookings of Roberto Pereyra and Jose Holebas for mouthing off to the ref at the indignity of it all.
3- Nothing was working, anywhere on the pitch. The midfield was overrun and Valon Behrami, who you’d want to be in full beast mode in such circumstances, seemed to tamely acquiesce. Defensively we were porous and unsteady, Vokes doing far better than he ought to have been able to as one striker against three centre-backs; Nordin Amrabat was targeted, and willing as he’s been to adapt to the wing-back role – now as deputy for the injured Janmaat – he was horribly exposed here, looking almost exactly like a forward trying hard to be a defender but failing.
As for Burnley, their concern will maybe that they dominated the game and deservedly won… but didn’t really create an awful lot for all their domination; it wouldn’t have taken much to change the course of the evening, and there wasn’t much to challenge the pre-season suspicion that Burnley will give it a good old go this term but struggle anyway. Nonetheless, the spine was very strong, from Ben Mee at the back who had the better of Deeney, to Hendrick and the terrific Defour in midfield to the combative Vokes. They finally took the lead from a set piece, and having gotten away with so much it was aggravating to concede so cheaply. Nonetheless there was no disputing the merit of their half-time advantage, even if we briefly flirted with the suggestion that we might steal half time parity for a second away game running after a late rally.
4- Of the few positives to emerge from the evening, one is Walter’s continuing ability to positively influence the game with his substitutions. The corollary to that is that he’s not getting it right to start with, rather in the way that a centre-back specialising in saving tackles might be a bit of a concern. Nonetheless, a happy habit to have… here he made a very deliberate change at the break by switching to a flat back four such that Amrabat pushed up on the right flank with Zuñiga now filling the space behind him. The Colombian had a decent enough half looking largely neat and tidy in possession and as forceful and deliberate as he had last weekend; the new shape seemed to work too as we looked much more aggressive, potent even. Until, of course, we took a generous-spirited approach to marking at another set piece and the Clarets were two-up.
After which, so much bluster. We did get better… Isaac Success was brought on for Amrabat and immediately added some much-needed menace to our attacking play. We’ve described him before as a heavyweight boxer who moves like an ice skater, and the weather conditions – a steady, contemplative shower lasted much of the evening – contributed further to this suggestion by creating a slick surface that he slid across effortlessly. He’s young and he’s raw but he was bright and positive again; difficult to escape the reflection, given Ighalo’s miserable and immobile evening, that for competition from the bench to have its desired impact on the squad it needs to be exercised when someone’s off his game. Iggy’s had a few too many games like this. We had a good spell after about an hour, the best of the chances falling to Deeney who was first denied by a fine saving challenge, then failed to get enough power to a header after Pereyra had swivelled into space and dropped in a peach of a cross. Burnley were still threatening further punishment, the faultless Gomes denying Defour, but when Kenedy debuted for Pereyra – who was perhaps lucky not to have received a second yellow shortly before for a bad challenge and whose removal was being urged from the away end with Saturday in mind – we were on top for the first time. Briefly, inconclusively, but with Kenedy on the right and Success on the left both slaloming through to cut inside onto their weaker feet we looked a threat at last. Not enough, not nearly enough on the night. But something.
5- The gents in the back of the stand after the match was rammed and silent, but for the contemplative hiss of urine against urinal. From somewhere against a distant wall someone offered encouragement: “At least it’s not a six and a half hour drive home or anything”, to much laughter.
We did it in closer to five, creeping in at 3:15 after taking time to escape from the claw of Manchester (thanks, Dave) and an unscheduled detour on realising that the Satnav was heading us towards Snake Pass in the pissing rain, which had returned with a vengeance. As my brother later pointed out, it could have “got all Caradhras on us”.
The trip was survived by means of recital of club-themed obscure eighties footballers (“Rob Hindmarch”…. “Gordon Chisholm”….) and by very loud music. As has often been the case, a good day out spoiled by a terrible performance. This has happened before, often at Burnley, and will happen again. Enduring this is what makes trips like West Ham special. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.
On the pitch, of course, we need a reaction. Saturday would be nice. Yooorns.